To be honest, I have no idea where this came from. I watched Urban Jungle, got four hours of sleep, went through a rigorous day at school, and, poof, instant story. Don't ask me. I just write the things down.
"I'm just really glad you're okay."
It rang in her ears, louder than the shallow rush of her own breathing, louder than the leaves rustling in the night wind, louder even than the bursts of green fire and the battlecries that echoed down to her from the velvet sky. Too loud, that persistent memory, far too loud; she ran down the empty streets, her boots crashing on the pavement, with all the rustling noise of a sleeping city around her. None of it was loud enough to drown out the whisper in her head.
"I'm really glad you're okay."
It pulsed hot with shame and dread, it throbbed with guilt and she ran faster, faster, gaze flickering from side to side with a hunger, a violent need to focus on something, anything. She needed something to anchor her, to ground her. No use. Her eyes were drawn inexorably away from the solid and comforting earth, up into the pair of bright green lights that swirled and crashed against each other and diverged and sparked, up there among the wisps of clouds and stars. She could not keep staring up into the sky. She could not bear to follow that distant green flicker, for its glow lit too many memories she could not bear to face. Yet she ran, always ran, lungs clenching in a vain effort to keep the ghostly fires in her sight. She wanted to be directly below the battle, she wanted to be as close as she could. The wind blew the combatants sideways above shingled roofs, and she ran.
Skidding around a corner, desperate to not be left behind, she caught the faint echo of sound waves radiating from the point in the sky above her where two beams of green energy met. The words had been snatched and scattered by wind and distance, but she still recognized Danny's voice.
The very sound made her sick, physically sick, clutching her stomach as a liquid hot burst of shame flowered to life in the depths of her soul. Shame, crippling shame, hot tears pricking her eyelids as another proof of her hopelessness, helplessness. She swore to herself that if ever there had been a Hell on earth, this was it; to be running, always running down below while he fought for his life up there, far away but still in sight, where she couldn't reach.
The moon burst into blazing light between the slanted roofs of the residential district, and shadows suddenly sprang from the ground without warning, geysers bursting, inkwells erupting and bleeding over the ground. She dashed through the puddle of darkness cast by looming house and almost expected it to splash up around her boots. She broke back out into the moonlight with a gasp as though breaking water, breathing heavily now, lungs clenched from running.
A tree sprang up out of the darkness ahead of her, its leaves rustling like some nightmare bird ruffling its feathers, branches outstretched and clawing. Motion made it startling, memory made it terrible. She ran beneath its canopy, plunged through its shadow, and felt a surge of ice in her stomach that had nothing to do with the cool spring breeze or the frigid moon.
How long had it been? A week? Time had no meaning anymore. Her world was divided into a before and an after. She lived now in the after, a curious realm in which her crime seemed always an eternity behind her, yet never further away than an arrested breath, a misplaced word, an unsteady step. Was she always to be reminded, never forgiven? Was she to be her own tormentor until she met with a dark fate she had concocted for herself and brought down upon her own head?
Dear God, what had she done?
She didn't know. She couldn't remember. And that, more than anything else, lurked in her nightmares and stalked her waking thoughts; she couldn't remember.
That ice crystal had surely started it all, that bewitched conglomeration of crystals that didn't melt, wouldn't break. She knew. She had tried to destroy it, those first few days, crushed in the grip of hysterical suspicion, superstition. She had had dreams, many nights in a row, always different scenes but the same motifs, the same repeating themes; her own head heavy with the weight of horns, sticky floral perfume and sap on her fingers, sap that turned to blood. Thorns growing out of her skin, a growing frustration and a desperate thirst to protect, to obey.
This desperate tableau wrapped her in its tangles when she slept, and her waking life had been no more coherent or clear. There had been sideways suspicious glances, full of hidden and half-certain malice. And this was no punishment for social deviance, no high-handed verdict passed down by the popular kids that glimmered with the light of angels. No. The sly, shaky hatred came from everyone; adults, teacher, her own parents, once-friends who seemed as though they knew they should hate her without being entirely certain why.
The other residents of Amity Park had been having dreams, too. She had heard the kids whispering about it in the halls, the adults talking quietly and solemnly in the streets. Radio talk shows overflowed with pleas from the insomniac and the suffering. Self-help books and quack dream-altering cures sold in amazing numbers. And always this slight pervasion of discontent, resentment, directed at her and her alone.
She wasn't paranoid. Danny and Tucker even treated her differently, a slight nervous gentleness, almost, as though they were afraid she had suddenly been encased in glass and grown so fragile that, if touched or angered, she would crumble or snap with explosive force.
She wasn't paranoid. She had such confidence in her own mental stability that she had confronted Danny, demanded and explanation, stared directly into his calm blue eyes with as much anger and indignation as she could muster. He had flatly refused to answer, returning her stare with a steely determination, told her that he would not, could not tell her anything more. And he had remained determinedly silent. No matter how she pestered him, pleaded with him, reminded him of their long years and friendship and then swore at him in a towering rage, threatened to reveal all of his deepest secrets, he had not spoken a word.
Danny had refused to answer her questions, but by his refusal, he had only confirmed her suspicion that answers existed, and were locked somewhere behind his icy eyes, his sealed lips. Danny had been taciturn, but Tucker much less so. When she had approached him, later in the day and flushed with the frustration of dealing with Danny, he had listened to her demands, nodded, promised to return, and stalked off into the crowded halls. He reappeared minutes later almost dragging Danny behind him and walked right past Sam, motioning for her to follow, towards the front lobby and then out of the school entirely.
They had stood there, the three of them, under the still-considerable glare of the midday sun, not even blinking as the bell shrieked its siren wail behind them, signaling that they were officially cutting class. Tucker had waited for the bell to silence itself and then begun to speak. Told Sam that her questions had answers, valid ones, that he knew them but was not the one to tell her the story. Told Danny that he was being mulish, pigheaded, ridiculous and thoughtless. Had asked, Isn't telling the truth better than lying to her, no matter how difficult the truth may be? Tucker had told Danny, You can't protect her forever.
Danny had stood in the hot sun and considered this – she remembered the way it glistened on his hair and in his eyes – and then he turned to her and, without a word of introduction, recounted a story that filled in the gap in her memory, from the time that Overgrowth had so disastrously appeared through to the time when he had been resigned to the roaring viciousness of Tucker's weedwhacker.
And she had felt the seeds of this sick shame, this loathsome dread, taking root in her mind. Danny had never once stopped in his monotone recitation, but several times his eyes had gleamed with worry as she grew pale and turned cold, several times he had started to reach out his hand as though to steady her, and then though better of it.
She had been controlled. She had been controlled, been a puppet at the end of a vine-leash, and under that insidious control she had enslaved her friends, her family, her fellow human beings. She had almost been an unwilling murderer. So close, she had been so close to killing thousands under the sweet sleep of that seductive spell. And she didn't remember.
She had fought against Danny. She would have hurt him. She would have killed him!
Danny had told her so many times that what had happened was not her fault, she had not been the master of her own mind, she had not planned her own actions. She had been used, she had been played with, she was in no way at fault. But she could not rid herself of the dizzying sense of shame, of having failed Danny, of having betrayed him. Yes, she had been controlled; but she had not even fought the control! Had she struggled, in some small uncrushed corner of her mind, to regain control of herself? Had she managed to show Danny, underneath the blanketing green, some flash in her eyes to prove to him that he was not fighting alone?
She didn't know. She couldn't remember.
They haunted her at night, the things she called herself. The things Danny should have called her. Liar. Murderer. Traitor.
She was used to being helpless, used to standing frozen to the ground while Danny raged in battle up above, wounded, weary, failing. She had grown accustomed to living a life of utter uselessness, of coming with Danny on his nightly crusades not because she could provide any real help, but because she could not bear to have him facing danger without her. As though she hoped her very presence would have some magical charm that would make up for her lack of superpowers, her complete and utter ordinariness.
She had resigned herself to a life of watching Danny fight without really being able to offer help. But never, never in her wildest nightmares or most twisted self-torturing terrors from her subconscious, never had she pictured herself fighting against him.
It was impossible. It was inconceivable it rebelled against the very fabric of her soul.
And yet, she had committed the unspeakable act, the unthinkable crime, apparently in some sort of anesthetic mental trance. She remembered nothing. Yet now, running underneath his glistening trail in the warm darkness of a summer night, Sam felt a throttling rage come bursting from that blank place in her mind where the memory should have been, she felt the wild heat flush her face and she ran faster, putting on a spurt of speed. Long deaf to the ring of her own feet on the pavement, she could entertain the illusion that she was flying, gliding through the night to come miraculously to Danny's aid.
She clung to that desperate thought for as long as she could, until the moon fixed her with its bright gaze and she saw her own shadow flung out beside her, running. She could not fly. She could not fight. She could not save Danny if he was wounded, support him when he sank in the air from sheer exhaustion. She could not even keep herself from being used as a puppet in some diabolical plan for his destruction.
She could do nothing.
She rounded a corner, chest burning now as she gasped for air between sobs she had allowed unknowingly to escape between her lips. The houses ended abruptly, the city cut off as though by a blade, and the crackling green blood had come seeping up out of the earth from the wound, solidifying into the forest that rose suddenly before her, inexplicably threatening. She could go no farther. She could do less than nothing, now; she could not even follow him into battle, could not even watch his glowing aura for bursts of light. She stumbled to a halt, chest heaving, gasping for breath. Hands hanging limply at her sides, she stared into the dark sky above the forest, the stars blurring together as tears welled up in her eyes. She didn't notice, or she didn't care. She only breathed.
A blindingly brilliant flash of blue and white lit the forest canopy from underneath, on the opposite side of the sky from the glaring moon.
Then silence and darkness fell again. Sam waited, wishing, hoping with a vicious strength, despite how the fact that she felt suddenly limp, almost faint.
A speck of silver approached her through the trees. She fixed her gaze on it in a sort of helpless wonder, and as the faraway shape grew larger and picked up speed, lighting the forest around it with a familiar silver glow, she began to cry even harder. When Danny broke through the last encumbering vegetation, barely skimming the grass, and knelt before her on the ground with his hands planted in the dust, she knelt down beside him, reaching out a hand to touch his shoulder, to feel his solid presence against her skin.
"S-stay away," he grunted, and she noticed for the first time his entire body shaking, almost convulsively, his shoulders spasming so alarmingly that she obeyed his order, drawing her hand back with a frightened jerk. He looked up, searching for her face in the darkness, and she saw that his skin was ashen and pulled tight over his face, his eyes sported deep circles and his teeth chattered. Perhaps it was a trick of the moonlight, but she thought his lips were blue.
"Danny?" her own voice was surprising, as was the degree of utter panic she could hear quite pronounced underneath the words. "Danny, what's wrong?"
"Cold," he grunted, and indeed she imagined she could feel frigid air radiating from him, withering the grass where his hands and knees touched the ground. "D-damn p-power residue. F-froze Skulker. Used t-too much p-power to let out another b-blast, b-but not enough to get rid of this d-damn icy feeling." With a monumental effort, he pushed himself into a more upright position, and from there heaved himself unsteadily to his feet, careful not to touch anything that he could avoid touching. His fingers left delicate traceries of ice where they had lain in the grass.
As he stood, upright but unsteady and swaying slightly, Sam could almost feel her heart cracking at the utter pain in his eyes, the sheer exhaustion written across his face, every line in his body pulled taut with tension, now wracked with cold. And she thought, she could not fight alongside him, she could not protect him, she could not save him from having his best friend used as a weapon against him, but she could do this. She could keep him warm.
Of course, there was always the risk that touching him would turn her skin to pleated ice, her blood to liquid nitrogen. But she had taken much greater risks for him the past, and she would take greater risks for him in the future. As he stood there, thin and pale and trembling in the moonlight, she threw her arms around him and gritted her teeth against the sudden blast of cold that invaded her upon contact with his skin.
He flinched, his first instinct to throw her off, to save her; but when she remained warm and breathing and alive, he allowed himself to relax, almost collapsed into her embrace. If he sensed that she was trying to atone for unremembered sins, he made no comment. He wrapped his arms around her waist and buried his face in her hair, leeching the warmth from her body.
Then, when she drew back slightly and kissed his lips tinged blue with cold, he smiled against his mouth and tightened his grip around her waist. She wasn't sure if real, solid heat could dissipate the supernatural cold that plagued him, but she was tired of being useless, and she would for once do what she could.
Whether it was the physical heat of another human body that warmed him or the wild throb of passion she had tried to convey in the kiss, he was soon steady enough to fly, and as he gathered her up in his arms and launched himself in the sky, Sam thought that perhaps she was not quite so useless as she had believed. Maybe Danny really did need her, despite her powerlessness, her vulnerability. Maybe it was something more than a shared battle against evil, even more than friendship, the nameless thing that held them together.
Snow fell in the arc of Danny's flight as he streaked away under the glare of the ever-jealous moon, Sam held tightly in his arms, the summer night below resounding with his utterly joyous laugh.
The End. Feedback makes me a happy turtle.