Disclaimer: Catherine belongs to Atlus. All ACMSES personnel belong to their respective creators.
This story does not constitute a proper mission, so current and prospective Agents are still free to claim Catherine! The first half is set just after Insert Assassins in Italy Here; the remainder is set just before Insert Complicated Plot Twist Here.
At first Charis thought that Pete was going to propose to her.
The reaction to their first holiday together had been favourable, and so – ever since the infamous Kittens escapade – they had taken the time to get away from the Library, for small periods of time, more and more often. They had started off simply by lunching at a cafe in America; then, each successive time they'd diversified, indulging Charis' fondness for travel.
New York, London, Paris, Athens, Vatican City, Barcelona. They had crossed a variety of fandoms but, as they were both characters, could not venture into the Real World without the assistance of one of their Authors.
Currently they were experiencing a more-or-less modern Venice courtesy of the James Bond series of movies. Casino Royale afforded them a snapshot of Venice as recent as 2006. They had no desire to visit any landmarks in particular, because of the tourists everywhere, but with only the barest prick of guilty conscience they had stolen a gondola in which to drift along the canals by themselves. Charis lay reclined against the bow of the boat while Pete propelled them onwards with deft strokes of a long oar.
The reasons she suspected a proposal were as follows:
Firstly, Pete seemed extremely ill at ease today. His palms were sweaty, and his hands holding the oar would occasionally spasm. At these times they would launch sharply to the left or right, although their overall progress forward through the water remained constant. They'd been travelling in zigzag for nearly half an hour now – coming quite close to the walls of the canal several times – but she had refrained from commenting on the fact, and he seemed determined to refuse the fact altogether.
Secondly, there was a suspicious bulge in Pete's left pocket that made a distinctive snapping sound whenever one hand went to check on its presence, which was often. When her touch had intruded upon the lump earlier, he'd fairly recoiled from her, and almost upset the boat. Thankfully the craft had still been tied up at the time, and in truth all it did was rock threateningly in a warning to make no such sudden movements again.
Lastly, there was no other explanation that she could think of for the blindfold around her head. Pete had insisted upon it, and eventually his persistence overrode her embarrassment at what she would look like to bypassers. The cloth strip covering her eyes was not uncomfortable – nor was it very effective, to be honest – but it told her enough that Pete was trying to conceal something from her.
"Are we there yet?" she asked half-heartedly. Pete had been silent for a while. That had accommodated her own period of silence, which had been necessary for her thinking, but now decidedly she wanted to reach their destination...and its outcome...at once. Charis believed in delivering bad news as quickly as possible, and she was afraid that she had a less than desirable answer to give to her lover.
She simply wasn't ready to marry.
Pete was 22 years old, and she was only 20. If she were in the figurative shoes of her Author then she would not even have graduated university yet; she'd likely not be financially dependent; and she'd probably still be emotionally dependent on her parents, if there really were such legendary figures that could take the place of her relationship with Cay. Charis knew that she was not like her Author, but nonetheless she did not feel like a complete adult at all times. Marriage could create enormous normative or legal obligations between the individuals involved, and it remained that she did not feel ready for the responsibility.
So she would have to break her lover's heart.
Finally, Pete did speak up. "Yes, we're here. Let me attach a line to one of the mooring poles, and then I'll even help you to take your blindfold off."
Charis waited, sightless, as she heard the sounds of wood against wood and rope against wood in a confusing disorder. She did not at first react when she felt Pete reach towards her face, but she did sit up straighter when he began working to undo the knot at the back of her head. In only a minute she had recovered her sense of vision but, unfortunately, visuals added nothing to her knowledge of where they were.
"Look up," he breathed in her ear. He must have sensed her confusion.
Charis did as she was told, and then gasped. "Oh!"
Pete had parked their gondola under the Bridge of Sighs. The fancifully named bridge was arguably one of the most famous in Venice; some would say that it was second to the Rialto Bridge that spanned the Grand Canal, and others would argue that reputations stood the other way around. Venetian legend stated that lovers would be granted eternal happiness if they kissed on a gondola at sunset under the bridge. It was hardly the hour for the sun to set, yet Charis fully grasped the meaning that Pete intended.
He got down on knee before her, as gracefully as a shaky boat would allow, and then he pulled out the jewellery box that had been preoccupying her for the better part of an hour. "Charis, would you–" he began.
She burst into tears. "Pete, I'm so sorry, but I can't marry you!"
The ensuing pause could be said – dramatically – to spread from its epicentre, and carry, until all other sound across the water was deafened. In reality, however, the laws of physics concerning sound break for no one. The usual manmade chatter, and that of a more natural kind, continued around them. The Agents were not alone in this part of the city. They were far enough from spectators that the exact details of their conversation could not be overheard, but they were in obvious view. Charis could see strangers on both ends of the bridge beginning to point at them, mouthing excitedly. She willed herself to look away from the witnesses to her shame, and back to the man in front of her; him who must be devastated.
Surprisingly, Pete was staring at her with a peculiar smile gracing his face. "Was I being that obvious with the rings?" he asked good-naturedly. "You didn't even let me get all my words out before you rejected my proposal."
"I'm no Sherlock, but–"
"You're brilliant," he said, and he meant it in so many more ways than one. "I wonder, though, if you would allow me the courtesy of completing my sentence before you feel obliged to reply to me."
Charis hesitated – she could not understand why he was not angrier at her – but it was impossible for her to ponder refusing his request. Truly, how could she?
Upon her nod, Pete began speaking almost immediately. He rushed out, "Thank you," and had to take a short breath before following with, "Charis, I love you."
"The past year and a half has been wonderful for me, ever since I stumbled into you while looking for Doug in his lab. I enjoy spending time with you, and I delight in discovering what passions you hold for things in the various worlds. I admire your strength of conviction – and, of course, your actual physical strength." Pete spared a rueful smile for remembrance of the slaps that he and Joe had received when they'd once suggested a double date with Charis and her sister Karissa.
At this point he cracked open the jewellery box to reveal the rings that he had purchased in the Rome of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. Twin round rubies set in platinum dully winked at Charis like a pair of small, earnest eyes. Pete met her gaze with no less sincerity, and reached out with his free hand to take both his beloved's own. "I find that I can no longer imagine being without you, but when I look into my future, I can't help but hope that then we will have different relations than we do now. I'd like you to accept this ring as a promise of my faithfulness to you for as long as our relationship might last...but if you'll consent, I'd also like this ring to be a sign of our later engagement."
Charis was at a loss for words. "Y-you're not asking for us to be engaged now."
"No, I'm not," Pete responded firmly. "When – and if – you feel ready for an engagement, I will accompany you to trade in this promise ring for a proper diamond." He smirked slightly at the last word, but only at seeing Charis' gratifying blush.
"If you're honest about the subject of marriage being left far into the future...then I suppose that I can accept your proposal." She spoke carefully, growing redder by the second.
"Is that so?" Pete grinned. He removed one of the rings from the box – the smaller of the two.
"I'm so glad–" He leaned in close to Charis. In a deliberate motion, he coordinated the placement of the ring on her left pinkie with a forceful kiss. "–to hear you say that. Mmmhmmmm."
A month later...
For the third time in as many nights, Pete awoke with sweat dripping down his face and the same beading on his neck. His expression was frantic; although he could not see it for himself, he could feel the tight clamp of his jaw, and – when taken in conjunction with wide-open eyes – he recognized enough of the symptoms that were particular to his personal manner of articulating fear.
"What was I dreaming about? Did I have a nightmare?" he murmured. Running a hand across his face, he sought to clean it, but his palms were damp as well, and so neither part of his body was rendered considerably drier in the end.
Some hard object scraped against his clammy skin as he attempted to wipe himself down, and abruptly Pete stopped to stare at it. A ring. A ring on his left pinkie finger. It was...his and Charis' ring. That was right. The arrangement of the red stone against a background of interwoven platinum had an almost hypnotic effect, now that he looked at it. He shuddered.
He'd seen such a red in the sky before. Death. Red skies meant death.
He'd been talking to a sheep. There had been others there. Sheep wearing ties; sheep wearing hats; even sheep smoking.
He continued his examination of the ring. Of course Pete knew better, but to an untrained eye, platinum might look to be essentially the same colour as all other metals. It wasn't proper to group different metals together. Not every type could be used for the same purposes. Past humans had struggled especially to prove the best metal for forging into a sword.
Swords fell downwards in an arc. Swords felled men, they killed men. The sheep ran, and climbed; and then they fell down, and died.
Pete shook his head furiously and flung his arm to the side; he looked as if he'd like to hurl the ring away from him, but it was firmly installed on his hand. In executing his action, he hit the wall beside his bed with an unexpectedly loud whack. The pain was prompt, but welcome, for it caused his thoughts to become less nebulous and to focus narrowly on the hurtful sensation.
He didn't think he could go back to sleep this night. He repeated this thought to himself ceaselessly, as if saying it would make it a reality. All night he only said one other thing: "I'm glad Charis isn't here."
A week later...
"Phoenixia, I need your help!"
The ex-hologram turned in her seat to eye the person who had addressed her so impassionedly, and she was slightly surprised to see that it was the Society technician Charis. The girl was without the usual company of her sister – and neither was she escorted by her not-so-secret boyfriend. She and Charis had never conversed one-to-one before, and up until now she would have described her relationship with the techie as one of polite acquaintances. However, Charis appeared quite upset about something. Her eyes stared determinedly ahead at the same time that her hands would not stop worrying at the hem of her shirt. If she was in trouble, and had indeed just asked for help, the least Phoenixia could do was hear her out.
"What's the matter, Charis?" she inquired gently.
"I think that there's something wrong with Pete."
Phoenixia gave Charis a keen look, and then she twisted around to grab hold of her papers and other assorted paraphernalia. She'd been in the middle of writing her latest romance novel, but she set her efforts upon the floor without a second thought. Since there were no free chairs at hand, she simply pointed at the newly cleared tabletop and commanded, "Sit."
As Charis lowered herself carefully onto the solid surface, Phoenixia did not miss that her limbs were shaking, albeit imperceptibly.
"Now tell me about what you believe has happened."
"Where do I start?" For a heartbeat, Charis' gaze went sideways. She wouldn't meet the eyes of the woman across from her, but just as suddenly as she'd averted her sight, she resumed eye contact of her own accord. "It started...approximately a week and a half ago. I was passing through one of the residence corridors. Few doors were open. The hallway was quiet. I could hear little noise around me, because it was an awkward time of night, but there were strange sounds coming from one room...Pete's room. It sounded like he was having a nightmare."
Phoenixia arched an eyebrow, but merely gestured for her to continue.
Charis felt uncomfortable about fudging the details of her own confession, but as far as she knew, none of the Library's residents knew exactly how involved she and Pete were. She just couldn't bring herself to tell Phoenixia that she hadn't been outside Pete's room – she'd been inside it, and more. Moving on, she said, "I stuck my head past the door to ask Pete if he was alright. He looked at me as if he didn't know me. Then–" She made a slashing motion. "You know about Himuro, don't you? He took over from Pete on the spot. He said, 'Pete is unavailable at this time. Please attempt to reach him later.' Even Himuro didn't sound like himself, and he seemed confused as to why Pete had gone."
"That's not all, is it? Was it only the one time that something like this happened?"
"No, it's been reoccurring every day since then. We don't always meet under the same circumstances, but whenever I run into Pete he gets a panicked look upon his face, and then I'm met with Himuro. The two of them began to avoid me altogether, yesterday."
Phoenixia sported a pensive expression. "I agree with you that Pete's behaviour appears to be a cause for concern, but what would you like me to do about it?"
"Louise told me that, after the Basement incident, you offered to hook her up to a computer in order to look at her thoughts and her memories. I suppose that I was wondering if you would do the same thing for Pete." Charis was poised to skirt the subject once again, but unexpectedly she added, "It would mean a lot to me if you could help bring him back."
"It doesn't sound like he's gone, per se. It sounds like Pete disappears only when he's confronted with you. Perhaps it's a Pavlovian response," Phoenixia stated uncertainly. "I'm at a loss as to what could be his unconditioned stimulus, though. If it's the nightmares themselves, well, as you are his conditioned stimulus, then he must be dreaming of you." Seeing Charis' reaction, she hurriedly said, "I'm sorry! I didn't mean it like that."
"I'm fine," Charis tried to reassure her. She wiped away a tear before Phoenixia could be sure that it was there.
Phoenixia's mouth thinned. "You will be fine," she promised, "Because I will help you. I'll bring all the necessary equipment to Pete's room tonight. I'll see you there."
Phoenixia plugged one last wire into the computer screen before turning to face Charis. "It's time," she said. "He's entered the stage of REM sleep."
Charis examined Pete's prone form nervously. He still lay on the bed in which he'd fallen asleep, but around him Phoenixia had managed to construct a complete functional magnetic resonance imaging machine. His head was deep inside the body of a tube – the bore – and just inches above his face were layers of a superconducting magnet, gradient coils, a radio frequency coil, and a scanner. She'd never liked full-body scans much herself, but at least she'd always been conscious when subjected to them.
"Louise said that you would need permission to enter someone's mind, so that they won't unconsciously put up mental barriers against you. Will that be a problem in this case?"
"No, it won't be. I've altered this set-up to take into account the fact that Pete is sleeping. Rather than interacting with the contents of Pete's mind, the brain analysis technology will reconstruct the images he sees and display them on this computer monitor. We will only be passive observers."
Charis nodded. "I'm going to rely on your judgement, because I'm no expert in this area. I find medical science to be far less intuitive than computer science. Whenever you're ready...?"
Phoenixia powered on the machine, and within seconds various components were already at work. A less advanced machine would have required significantly more time to monitor the changes in brain activity, while the computer crunched data and learned to associate various changes in brain activity with different image designs. This machine, however, was of her own design. Over the course of many decades she had programmed the computer with nearly all the data it could possibly need, and feedback from Pete's brain was supplied to them almost instantly.
The image on the LED display swiftly resolved itself into a blur of bright pink fog.
"Damn it!" Phoenixia glared at the computer incredulously. "This can't be what's inspiring Pete's night terrors. Fog? Pink fog? Pink is Tyler's pet peeve!" She circled around the back of the machine to check that all the proper connections remained in place. "I don't know what went wrong, Charis."
"The fog is clearing up," she heard mumbled in reply. Thankfully, she was quick enough to save Charis from the floor when the girl abruptly slumped forward and fell off her chair. Phoenixia tested her pulse with two sure fingers. She too was asleep.
"How did Alice phrase it? 'Curiouser and curiouser!'" Phoenixia muttered. She settled the sleeper on the floor to which she had been destined; the high stool would be too precarious to return her to. "I'm involved in something impossible."
Recalling Charis' last words, Phoenixia double checked the computer monitor. "What do you know? It is clearing up..."
Almost as soon as she regained consciousness, he was what she focused on. He was looking at her with the same horror that he always wore in her presence nowadays, but now that look wasn't followed by the flicker of personalities changing behind his eyes. She interpreted that as a good sign.
"Charis, you shouldn't be here," he said, practically pleading with her. Or was he talking to her? He raised his voice to the skies and shouted again, "She shouldn't be here! This isn't fair!"
She thought that muffled thunder obscured the last of his words, but realized with a start that it was deep-throated laughter.
"Welcome to the Cathedral. This final stage requires you and your lover to reach the final goal together. Call your companion to guide her and escape this challenge!"
"Pete, what's happening?"
"Run!" he yelled.
The next brontide came from below them. The ground began to shudder, and Charis dashed after Pete with no further compunction.
"Hurry! Charis, over here!"
The gradual slope in front of them ceased to exist with a few more steps. Forward, and above, was a blocky tower made up of thousands of stacked cubes.
"Charis, c'mon! Stop staring!"
Pete had swung atop of the first row of boxes, and with deft movements he pulled out two blocks on the second row – creating a stair to the third row that hadn't previously been there.
"I'm coming!" She was scared, but she continued to trust Pete, despite everything. If it was imperative that they get to the top of the tower, she wouldn't allow herself to be a dead weight. She would become the damsel in distress who rescued herself!
They had been climbing for a while before she heard the sharp crack beneath them. Fractures radiated from a crater at the base of the tower; from it, a long emaciated hand also reached up towards them. Harsh whistling filled her ears as air rushed downwards into the hole, but oddly their pursuer sent no cry of challenge back at them. Soon enough, Charis saw why.
The skeletal figure of the woman who clawed herself up from belowground wore a gauzy veil over dead eyes, and her grey lips were sewn shut with a pattern of large ragged X's. Other than that, she wore not a stitch upon her body. Her feet seemed almost out of sight, they were so far off. Maybe her feet were deformed, because she appeared to drag herself up the tower by the strength of her hands alone. Unfortunately, said strength had been sufficient for her to recover half the distance between them and certain death, thus far.
"Charis, wait! You're too close behind me. Let me drag these steps out so that you can pass safely."
"I don't think anything about this situation is safe!" she called back.
"Just do as I say!"
Watching him, Charis had to acknowledge that it was easier for Pete to handle the heavy blocks than it was for her. So much for her ideal of gender equality. When she checked their progress, she saw that the monster was getting closer and closer.
"Okay, this way!"
A clock began to chime as they neared the tower's pinnacle – yes, the area of this level was only a few cubes squared! At the top of one last flight of stairs, an illuminated archway glowed with promising brightness.
"We made it," Pete panted heavily. "Charis! We're gonna be all right! We can make it back through here!"
"Make it back...?"
"Back to where we were! Let's go together!"
The words had a curious effect upon her. The creature was a dozen rows behind them – surely she had time to...!
"Pete, I came here to ask you about your behaviour of the last week and half. Why have you been showing such distressing reactions to me? Is it something that I did?"
"Something that you did?" He seemed baffled. "What are you talking about? You've done nothing wrong! I don't know why I ended up here, but I've persevered only because a voice promised me that I could return to you if I completed his challenge! Freedom, and a wish of my choice. I've wanted nothing more but to get back to you!"
"But you've been so distant lately," Charis choked back a sob. "You've been pawning Himuro off on me. You won't let me see your face!"
"Honestly, I've been feeling dead tired. I haven't been able to get any sleep in the conventional way, since these nightmares have started. I didn't notice that Himuro was taking over for whole days on my behalf, but now that you mention it, maybe it was his way of trying to let me rest."
"And how would you explain your jumpiness around me?"
Pete fidgeted. "I won't deny that I felt foreboding at your approaches. But if they say 'train your mind and your body will follow', it's a lot more difficult than it sounds. I knew up here–" He pointed to his head, "And down here–" He pointed to his heart, "That I will always love you, no matter what. Whatever you saw – whatever I did to hurt your feelings – was the result of a residual, primitive fear response in a dumb ape that hadn't yet known love."
"Wait a second, wait a second!" The low voice that had laughed at them prior, now sounded out again. "You don't love this woman."
"What would you know about that?" Pete said defiantly.
"You can't love her! Or else you wouldn't be tying her down!"
"Excuse me, could you expand on that answer a little more?" Charis was annoyed, and now she finally had a disembodied voice to which she could attribute all her anger.
"When there are people like him who spend a long amount of time with a partner, without commitment, it impedes the population model. The rate of population growth is less than optimal. So, I have these hesitant gentlemen climb this very tower. Wasting a woman's time of greatest fertility is a hindrance to the future of the species. We separate these non-fruitful couples and redistribute the women to men who can follow the natural order, you see."
"What a load of crap!" Pete complained loudly.
"Listen, mister, we've known each other for less than two years. Yes, we've been taking it slow. But all the same, we're advancing around the bases! W-we just got engaged!" Charis squeezed Pete's left hand and felt his ring there, secure on his littlest finger. "Looks like you'll be buying me that diamond sooner, rather than later," she whispered.
"You're lying! There's no way you've known each other for less than two years. According to my records, he's been neglecting you for half a decade!"
Charis facepalmed. "Of course! There's a temporal distortion inside the Library! Two months in there can be the equivalent of a year in the Real World. Who knows what the time difference is between each fandom in the multiverse, on top of that."
"You're saying I've been tricked?"
"I'm saying that you're stupid," Pete confirmed rudely.
"If you were innocent, then your fears would not have manifested a physical form. Look below you! She pursues you still!"
Peering particularly hard at the woman's silenced lips, Pete admitted, "I am afraid of something. But it's nothing that I should be ashamed of. The secrecy of our relationship has been eating away at me, I think. I'm sorry, Charis. I promise you that I've been trying to zip my mouth, and I'd guess she's proof," he waved at the monstrosity below them.
Charis felt chagrin at once. This was all her fault, then? She had been unfair in pressuring Pete to keep silent, and he'd suffered as a result.
"There's nothing to apologize about. I forgive you," she said, although she had no right to offer him absolution.
Pete seemed to pick up on her unspoken thoughts, as he was oft to do. "You will not bear the blame for The Great Trials alone. Either we're both at fault, or neither of us is. You forgave me, so–" He repeated her words fervently, "I forgive you too."
Charis laughed in delight, and this was the last straw for the fertility god who observed them.
"I was Thomas Mutton! I am the consort of Ishtar! Your petty reconciliations do not interest me! I was the last man to climb this tower successfully, and I shall be the last! As long as I have you here, I will finish you! I am Dumuzid!"
"This is Sparta!" Charis gasped, and she dissolved into another fit of giggles.
"I'm sorry to disappoint you, Dumuzid," Pete said laconically, "But there's nothing left for us to climb. So we're out of here." The door of light was no more than four paces away, and he threw himself head-first through it, tugging Charis along.
Pete tried to sit up and hit his forehead on one very tough fMRI.
"Ahem! Attention everyone!"
It was more than 24 hours later that Pete and Charis presented themselves before the rest of the Society, because the first thing Pete had wanted to do was sleep, and he had insisted that Charis stay by his side.
"We have an announcement to make! Charis and I are engaged."
Although spontaneous and enthusiastic applause greeted the happy couple, more than a few people exchanged covert eye rolls among the audience. When Phoenixia had lost Charis to the dream, she'd called immediately for Tash and Adrian. The 12" computer screen connected to the fMRI was too diminutive to make out much detail, so Tash had patched the video through to the monitor room using her Plot Device. Pete and Charis' ordeal was worrisome to watch in the beginning, but by the time they began to stand up to Dumuzid, everyone in the room had been cheering. A hush had fallen when Charis revealed their engagement the first time around. Many were touched that with this public reveal, the couple was resolving to dispel all traces of secrecy completely, but the surprise was already lost.
The only surprise left to come was sprung on Charis.
"Charis! What can I cook to bring to your engagement party?" Rhia caught up to Charis just as the edges of the crowd began to disperse.
"My what what?"
"Your engagement party! Karissa is planning it together with Joe."
"Oh, Rhia, it's not necessary for you to make anything! In fact, I'll tell Joe that he doesn't have to go to any trouble. As for my sister–" Charis' protests were cut short when Pete slipped an arm around her waist. Very. Conspicuously.
"Let Karissa have her fun," he said reasonably. "And Joe too. If you're that embarrassed by a party, I'll make it up to you." Pete smiled, and then he kissed her full on the lips.
It might be said that Charis deflated and turned red from head-to-toe, all at once.
A/N: The order of scenes from the game is not exactly accurate, I know. And a lot of the in-game dialogue remained the same, but I did change a few words here and there. Ah, research for this fic has sated me on Catherine, so that I'll never have to play the puzzle horror game myself. I'm the type that jumps at loud noises and sudden movement in movies – and the same applies to video games too – so it's probably in my best interests not to.
I love Atlus, though. If I can ever catch up with my backlog of Society fics, I hope one day to write a Persona 3 story. If anyone's looking for good games to play, I recommend Persona 3, Persona 4 and/or Catherine, depending on which game system(s) they own.