Jude McGregor leans down and scratches his calf. How did that saying go, the one that he'd seen quoted at the start of too many movies, too many books to ever properly forget?
This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang, but a whimper.
Some nameless Cross poet swimming about in the back of his head provides it. A remnant of the time (once upon) that he'd been blissfully ignorant of prejudice and hatred and everything had been so much simpler for it.
Perhaps he should be wondering where he is, but although this place is strange and unfamiliar, he knows, without a doubt, where he is. It's home. He can tell by the smell and the soft, comfortable feeling in the bottom of his stomach.
He stretches languidly in the chair, and leans down to scratch at his calf.
"There's no need to do that here," she says, and his chin snaps up so fast he thinks he might be close to breaking his neck. He hadn't expected this, the hotel room swimming fuzzily into view. His head feels thick – but it's not from smoke, he's not lying scattered in pieces in rubble.
"Couldn't do it, then?" he sneers down the slope of his nose, but the dagger bitch smiles whimsically and he sees that she's wearing an old fashioned dress, lemon yellow and trimmed in white lace. He notices that her hair is darker, her skin smoother, her eyes brighter.
"Oh, Jude," she says, and laughs.
He looks down at his hands and they are bloody. He looks over at her and she is holding of bouquet of flowers, daisies.
"I see," he spits, bitter, "that's how it works up here, too."
But oh, there is his brother with the softest of smiles curling carefully across his lips, and his sister with her arm looped through a tall boy's – a tall Cross boy's, he should say. It's getting harder and harder to think here. It's like swimming through custard, trying to search for clarity.
"Let go of it," Lynette's dark eyelashes brush demurely against the deathly pale white of her cheekbones, and suddenly he cannot tell where she ends and where Jed begins. It should be easy; they are multitudes apart from one another.
Callum says nothing, though Jude begins to wish that he would.
"Do you hate me?" Jude asks his little brother, and his shoulders slump in defeat.
Jasmine scatters her daisies by his feet, laughing like a little girl at play, and she twirls away, petals falling like sand through her fingertips. It is a trail of white and yellow that she leaves, arcing a line to Cara, all smooth and sweet.
"There is no hatred here," she says, though she does not press closer. She stands, stoic, with his siblings and Jed and extends a hand. "Let go, winner."
He wants to stand, but he is glued to the chair. He has hated for so very long. He doubts that he can let go of it, although God knows he wants to.
Who is he?
He tries to remember.
Why is he here?
"Who are you?" he asks, as another man comes forward to stand with the ragtag bunch assembled like weary toy soldiers in front of him.
His mouth is filled with something dry, and the words tumble out strangely. They sound foreign to him, soft and gentle and wonders if he had been cruel, before.
"Welcome home, Jude," his father says, and opens his arms.