Author's Note: It's not your imagination. This one is IS connected by my previous Immortal Rain fanfic "Carpe Diem" only this one takes place about 6 years BEFORE that story. A prequel, if you will. (I've gone back and numbered the oneshots in the series.)
Warning: Character Death.
Eury had endured more than his fair share of pain, panic, death and near death in his life; but nothing, nothing had prepared him for this.
They stood together – a strange little family - at the edge of a field of white flowers, the untouched beauty of a sky filled with snowy petals marred only by standing gray slabs of stone etched in lacquer filigree. The wind was high and warm against the stifling heat of summer, but he didn't mind the sweat rolling down his back beneath the breathless suit and tie combination. He was too preoccupied by the statue at his side.
"Ayla? Sweetie, please let me in." Pearl's voice was deceptively calm, low, soothing; but her body language said she was getting ready to break down the door – barehanded if necessary.
Somewhere behind him, the Doctor shifted in his seat, playing chess with a clearly worried Amy. They still wore their Sunday best, but Eury's shirt was riddled with odd red stains near the neck. Blood stains.
A hand reached out to clasp his as Pearl leaned against his side, her head turning to peer at the motionless blonde girl standing opposite. The study didn't last long and soon his older sister was reaching up to whisper in his ear. "She's dying inside."
What he heard was, "If we don't do something soon, we'll be burying her too."
When Machika had returned as promised, though without her precious Rain, they had believed it was all over. Calvaria fell, Sharem disappeared off the face of the Earth, and though there was a new worldly weariness about her, Machika had been happy to report that Yuca would never terrorize anyone ever again.
Their (mostly) reluctant motley crew had parted ways, scattered to the four winds to resettle their lives – Eury returning to the capital to meek out a living, the Evans siblings going back to their desert operations, and Machika following Ayla and Cello to the south to build a new clan and settlement.
Surprisingly, Eury had received a post card from Machika a week after their final parting. More amazingly, Ayla called a few days after that. He found that it was no great chore to keep in touch, though it was always contact by phone or letter. Everyone was too busy finding their way in this new Methuselah-free world to visit.
It was months . . . almost a year later, that Pearl paged him in the midst of a rather sensitive job with the message, "COME HOME NOW." And when he did reach home, he found himself in the company of those he had left behind and – as the day waned and news was shared – a mind full of concern.
"So you're sick?" Eury wanted clarification even as his sharp eyes took in the lackluster hair, gaunt face, and sunken eyes.
Machika's smile was tight but no less tender, the look in her eyes no less committed. "I'm dying, actually; but aren't we all?"
"You shouldn't say things like that." Ayla had not met anyone's eyes throughout the visit, and her hands were constantly fussing with something, now with Machika's dinner napkin, then with a throw pillow . .
Shaking her head with a good-natured chuckle, green eyes met, meshed, and held with cerulean as Eury and Machika shared a knowing look.
"How long?" Pearl asked quietly, her good eye dry and steady, eyelid lowered, mouth drooping in a sad frown.
Eury couldn't help but notice Ayla pause mid-fold as she tidied the laundry for his sisters, her entire body simply stopping, long hair hiding her face from his view as they both waited for Machika's answer.
"Two weeks. Apparently, to make up for all the trouble he caused, Yuca left me a small gift."
Cello paced until the carpet under him seemed to buckle under the strain. "This is ridiculous. She could be – She might . . . and we're just WAITING here."
"It won't do any good to charge in there. She's not in a stable frame of mind. Any sort of shock might just push her over the edge." The Doctor stroked his chin and stole Amy's second rook.
"The crazy dude is right. I knew this guy once – he probably wouldn'ta jumped if the cops hadn't run up there. 'Sides, the Lady's pretty smart. She'll come back." Jett's voice broke through the eerie quiet, drawing Eury's eyes to where his brothers sat near the door behind which Ayla had barricaded herself.
She faded faster than any of them could have imagined, and Eury found himself unwillingly taking off work to tend Machika alongside Ayla and Cello. She held on, fighting tooth and nail, never losing that indomitable spirit no matter how many times she spent the night vomiting blood or how many days she had to be held down against the pain.
Through it all Cello remained cool and rational, Eury did his best to bring laughter with every visit; Kiki was a mess; and Ayla was a disaster.
Then one day, he had danced into her room in Ayla's house to find her sitting unsteadily on the edge of the bed, entire body shaking with the effort of holding herself upright. She was crying.
"I'm going to die tonight, Eury."
He had no reason to doubt her, so he simply sat next to her and wrapped an arm about her thin shoulders to take her weight. "What can I do?"
Machika merely nuzzled into him a little farther, her breathing coming a little easier, her body relaxing just a bit. "Look after Ayla. She feels everything so deeply."
"She's overemotional, you mean."
"No." She shook her head, and her eyes seemed to laugh and cry without a sound or tear. "Anyone can be overemotional, but it's rare to find such a tender soul. She's used up all of her strength to protect me. When I'm gone, she'll be vulnerable. She might even break . . . Protect her heart, Eury. Just until she can breathe again."
He couldn't remember if it had been hours or days since she had locked herself in her room, couldn't recall when the muffled sobs and screams had stopped. The silence was suffocating, and Eury realized that Machika had been right.
Ayla was broken, and he didn't know how he was going to put her back together again.
The day before her death, they picnicked under the low branches of an ancient oak. The sun was high and bright and the air smelled of orchids in full bloom. Machika looked almost healthy, cheeks pinked and eyes alight with her hearty smile, the atmosphere swelling with her full laughter and girlish giggling.
Eury remained close to Ayla through the day, watching and touching and caring because she looked so little and lost. She moved as if in physical pain, spoke as if every syllable was a tear she was holding back; but there was a softness in her face, a subtle steady strength in her eyes.
He wanted to believe she would be all right, needed her to be; because the truth was, essential parts of him were splintering too.
"Do something." Pearl was in his face and angry as he'd ever seen her. Under normal circumstances he would have blamed it on the pregnancy hormones, but these weren't normal circumstances, and he knew Pearl and Ayla had become rather close in the past year.
He ran a hand through his hair and began to loosen the tie around his scratched neck – a souvenir from Ayla's sharp nails. "What do you want me to do?"
His sister gave him one of her patented searching looks. "You're a criminal by trade, brother. You should be accustomed to thinking on your feet."
"This isn't a heist, dear sister." A plan was already forming as he flicked the offending tie from his shoulders and shrugged off his jacket. He just needed to get to the roof . . .
Pearl smiled sadly, her arms coming up to hug the fast growing bump of lower abdomen. "I think, little brother . . . that is exactly what it is."
"She gone." Cello's voice was thick but level, still and piercing in the dark. Eury handed the other man his half drunk beer as they stared out at the night together.
"Ayla's with her, I suppose." The chirp, whir, and croak of night sounds were deafening, the bare whisper of Eury's voice a quiet scream.
Next to him, Cello threw back his head to chug the offered alcohol. "Yeah. I don't think she can deal with this."
"She'll have to."
"We all do."
Eury wondered bitterly why Ayla insisted on living on the second floor in a bedroom with only two exits – the door and a window. Breathing heavily (and silently swearing on his own life to give up smoking after this), he pulled himself up from the upstairs parlor balcony to the roof.
It was a hot day and sweat had broken out on his forehead, falling into his eyes; but the burn was a small thing. The dull ache in his chest was much more prominent and in need of attention. He spanned the area with long, careful strides, ever mindful of the drop to ground level and the cement awaiting him there.
The window was a mere seven – possibly eight - feet below though without a solid foot hold or ledge, he knew this was going to be difficult, probably painful, but completely necessary.
"The things I do for that woman . . .," he muttered as he began to plan out his next course of action. Climbing down there was going to be a b*tch, particularly since he had no gear, the fall would kill him, and he was wearing dress shoes which were not made for scaling walls.
But, he sighed, it had never been easy where she was concerned – from the first time he saw her, cradling a dismembered head, the second when she entered the Calvaria men's restroom while he was quite literally using it, to the true beginning of their sordid friendship at Siren's Castle.
He sincerely doubted things would EVER be easy between them . . . . . He didn't particularly WANT things to be easy between them.
The first time she smiled at him, he was bleeding out on a cold floor at the top of Calvaria's main offices. Her hand was on his stomach, trying desperately to stop the bleeding, her hands coated in the stuff.
"Just . . a scratch . . . had . . . worse –" The croak of his voice and the soft sniffling of her above him seemed to echo in the eerie stillness, but she held just a little tighter to his hand, waiting for help to arrive.
"Don't leave me, Eury." She whispered, and the look in her eyes was so broken, he managed the strength to push himself up despite her protests.
There was shouting and a hundred running footsteps echoing closer and closer and all he wanted was to keep her tucked into him, bruised, blood-stained, and beautiful. "Haven't gotten rid of me yet. "
He coughed and she braced against him. The pale hospital gown that bastard Folk had put her in was wet with his own blood – blood that he tasted in his mouth, that seemed as if it painted the floor beneath them.
Hands, gentle and insistent, pulled at his shoulders, but she wouldn't let go until the Doctor murmured something in her ear. She glanced to the side a moment, and though her hair was stringy and coated red, her eyes were wet and swollen and bruised, her skin waxen and pale against the dark crimson stains of her gown, she was just as lovely as the first time he laid eyes on her.
She let go, stepping back; but her hands kept touching him – caressing his face, falling to hold his hand. "You'll be okay. The Doctor says that . . . you'll be okay." Then she smiled and it was like the sun coming up, because even though he had no idea what that psychopathic asshole had done to her, he knew that she was okay.
"Just in time . . . to save . . . your sweet . . . behind again, Princess."
Somehow, Eury managed to jack her window and slide inside without making a sound – a testament to the considerable skill he had acquired as a cat burglar in his youth; and though he had seen it before, the lack of decoration or color in Ayla's bedroom still struck him as wholly odd. He had fully expected the room to be exploding with pastels and girly, fluffy things.
It was quiet. Too quiet; and for a split second his mind conjured the idea that Folk or Yuca had risen from the dead to come for her again. He stepped lightly, the plush carpet absorbing the sound.
She lay asleep on her bed, curled up like a child with her hands pulled into fists and tear tracks shining on her cheeks. Her dress – layered white chiffon with a low back and modest neckline – had ridden up her thighs and her shoes remained on her feet.
Silent and inscrutable, he took up one shoe and the other, setting them on the floor before setting himself on the edge of the bed, cradling her bare feet in his lap and reaching to smooth her hair.
The night was warm and humid and Eury felt restless knowing there was a dead girl in the next room. He could hear someone rustling about and followed, knowing it wasn't Cello – the tread was too light and quick.
He took a seat across from her at the kitchen table and waited, staring her down. Ayla was the most open person he knew – possibly even more expressive than Machika, and to see her so frozen and numb was a bit horrifying.
Where was the girl who screamed in his face, cried at almost anything, and laughed with abandon so complete he wanted to escape to that place with her?
"Thank you, Eury." Her voice was cold and brittle, her eyes glazed as they looked up at him. It was oddly comforting that – even in such a state – she still recognized him. "You've been so good . . . Thank you for caring enough to stay for this."
He wanted to say he didn't care, that he was simply here because he had nothing better to do; but he knew enough about life and death to understand that telling lies when everything and nothing was on the table only cheapened the loss and further hollowed the emptiness.
"Don't thank me. I want to be here." Because he hadn't been there for Methuselah, because Machika was . . . had been . . .
"Eury?" Ayla's voice was hoarse and gritty, so unlike the sweet soprano he was accustomed to. Her hand found his resting against her stomach, the fingers trailing up to his wrist as she relaxed a little into him where he lay, spooned behind her.
He shushed her and pressed closer. There was a lump in his throat and a need that spread from his chest to his arms to his hands that held her more securely.
She quieted and he believed her asleep again until her foot urged itself between his calves and the hand resting on his wrist moved up to touch his face. He felt her shoulders tense, her breath whisper a gasp, then she was twisting in his arms and her palms were cupping his face.
"You're . . . crying?" She breathed, her eyes sad but not surprised.
They stood together – a strange little family - at the edge of a field of white flowers, the untouched beauty of a sky filled with snowy petals marred only by standing gray slabs of stone etched in laquer filigree. The wind was high and warm against the stifling heat of summer, but he didn't mind the sweat rolling down his back beneath the breathless suit and tie combination. He was too preoccupied by the statue at his side.
Ayla was angelic as always in white, her ash blonde hair pulled neatly into a simple knot at the back of her head; but she wouldn't cry, hadn't shed a single tear. Her stare was blank and her mouth seemed a bland inconsequential line of . . . nothing; and her hands were limp at her sides.
Pale, still, lifeless . . . as if she was trying to emulate the corpses below them.
He felt cold watching her. Cold . . . and afraid.
They held each other, not speaking, only muted sobs and whispered nonsense between them. Her hands were warm with sleep as they smeared his tears from cheek to temple before her damp fingertips were pressed to her lips.
"I'm with you, Eury." She spoke with a brief, trembling breath.
"I know." He whispered back as he thought about how far they had gone and how far they had come. "I miss them."
She smiled through the tears and, for the first time in what seemed like a small eternity, it reached her eyes. "I know."
The pulse beneath his hand quickened as he bent his head slightly to kiss her forehead, but the smile remained and the tears still fell and he suddenly realized that it was just the two of them now. He pulled her closer, her face pressed into the hollow of his neck, her body flush against his; and he wondered if he would ever be warm again.
"Don't leave me." It was a mere suggestion of a murmur, but he knew she had heard him when she wrapped her arms around his torso, resting her splayed hands across his shoulder blades. He imagined there was no space between them now, and he wished to keep it that way for a little longer.
Her fingers played over the scratch marks along his neck and chin, gentling the wounds with a silent apology. "Haven't gotten rid of me yet." She echoed his words from that horrible time when there was his blood between them and danger looming close. "And . . . you won't ever. Machika made me promise to live for her, and I fully intend to keep that promise for as long as possible." Her breath was warm against his skin, soothing his fears and calming his muted panic.
"She made me promise something similar." It was strange, this tenderness now. Their interactions were usually brambly and characterized by teasing, snide asides, yelling, and crying.
Ayla closed her eyes and he did the same, sure that she was going to sleep again; but then he felt the dry press of her lips against his cheek then the glide of her fingers in his hair until the movement slowed and her breath evened. He smiled a little, peeking through his lashes to see her eyelids flutter in response to a dream. She wasn't crying or whimpering; and for the first time in weeks, his chest felt light and full rather than tight and empty.
Gentling his hold on her while nestling her more firmly into his side, he drifted into sleep himself; and his last thought following a mental note that he probably should have told the others Ayla was still alive and that he would have to thank Machika soon, was the self-assurance that Ayla would eventually heal and that as long as the future held that promise, he would too.