Notes and Such: no need for more excuses. although i do find myself recently engaged. so yay! :D other than that, i have no excuse and hope this chapter finds you all well!

Thank Yous and Shout Outs: hlee0890: thank you for your encouragement and patient hopefulness. i promise real snow soon! the person kind, not the precipitation sort. cmb897: so glad the confusion is gone! hope this chap doesn't make a step backward... :/ guest: *reels you in* ha ha! Lenalove95: synopsis in inbox... hope it helps. apologies for the confusion! Amasayda: welcome! here's another! :D His Singer1: oooh! thank you! sulou and ktikat13: update! hope you like! :D


world collapsing

He didn't hear her return.

"What a mess," Janice said, jerking Eric out of thought and disbelief. His eyes ripped upward from the paper to see her striding into the room, a small broom and dust pan in her hands. He stared at her as she bent to sweep up the shattered glass.

"Don't mind me," she continued with a forced laugh, her frustration with her earlier clumsiness straining the tone of her voice.

Eric didn't. His mind was miles away, remembering now with sharp clarity the motel, the dark night, the apple pie. His mouth watered: that homemade taste.

But it was impossible. He hadn't been in Four Lakes; he hadn't met a head-strong young girl, or narrowly missed hitting a white stag. He'd stayed home with his cat, drowned his sorrows… and ended up here, hooked to machines, feeling the sharp ache of mortality in his bones.

Hadn't he?

Eric was no fool. He did not hold to fancy tales and jokes. But a doubt nonetheless slid into his mind as he tried to work out the true from the untrue. The paper was solid in his hands. The edges were sharp and bit at his tender fingertips. He traced the image: it was unnerving but yet real, the likeness uncanny. Mikey, with her golden curls and no nonsense attitude, and eyes as deep as the heavens. Remembrance, she'd said, and he saw them now, her eyes, saw right down to the agelessness of them. It was almost as if she'd known…

But no, he pushed back on the wild thought, he was here, in this drab pale room; a patient. A suicide attempt. A surly survivor. He was Eric Huntsman, cut up and left to dry from his loss. This was real: the bed was hard beneath him, the IV itchy in his hand, and the sound of Janice sweeping glass into the dust pan was…

There was no sound. Eric looked up quickly, expecting his rumination to have lasted long enough for Janice to finish her clean up and slip quickly from his room. But she hadn't. She was standing before him, the hand broom frozen in the air, the dust pan likewise tilted in her tight grip. She was rigid, her chest rising and falling with force, and her eyes were focused intently on the drawing in his hands.

"Janice?" He said her name softly. She blinked, many times and rapidly; she jerked, like a machine freshly-wound.

"What is that?" she asked, her voice suddenly hollow, void of anything he recognized.

Eric had the sudden impulse to hide the drawing, get it out of her sight. He didn't. "Its nothing," he lied, "just something I found."

"Found?" The word was a hiss of doubt.

Eric shuddered as though a chill wind had sprung up. Nonsense, he chided himself. Yet, he couldn't understand this sudden change in his friend and coworker, nor did he like the way she stood before him, like a puppet hanging from invisible strings. The bristled plastic broom took on the shape of something more menacing; the glass shards glinted under the fluorescent lights.

"Yes," he confirmed, his voice a bit stronger, "found." He folded up the paper then, and tucked it beside him. Janice's gaze followed it, and when it was out of sight, her eyes narrowed in on his face. Her gaze was sharper than he'd ever known it, darker and furrowed. She stared at him, unblinking.

Eric reached out to her. "Janice, are you okay?"

He didn't touch her; she snapped out of it before he could. Janice straightened -he realized know how she'd been bent, crouched toward him, like a hunched feline, readying as if to pounce- and her demeanor turned less strange, shifted to something softer, normal. She cracked a smile; a familiar sight breaking forth from the canvas of frightening blankness. But it looked off, stretched. False. Eric could feel his skin crawl as she pressed a reassuring hand to his arm.

"Sorry, darling. Must have zoned out there for a moment," she reasoned without conviction, her voice returning to the twangy melody he remembered. She looked to her dust pan and chuckled. "Well, the housework's done. I'll just get back to my station."

She moved from the room quickly, without another word. She passed beneath the arch of the door and disappeared to the right. Eric released a small burst of air between his teeth and relaxed his tightened muscles. He hadn't realized how deeply the bizarre moment had effected him. Eric shook his head, trying to force some of the strangeness from it. He looked down to the folded drawing, sticking at an odd angle under the ruffle of white sheets, and then to the skin of his forearm where Janice had rested her hand. His fingers moved toward it and paused.

The feeling that overcame him was familiar, haunting. He tried to remember its origin: a sweet sickness, a desperate terror.

A black memory lunged at him. The motel… the diner… the graveyard! Urgency burned him; anger and fear as well. With sudden conviction he knew: he needed to get out of the hospital. Eric flung aside the sheets and stood. This time however, his stance was sure. His heart sang a roaring tune inside the cage of his ribs; determination set his course, fueled his limbs.

Eric pulled the needle from his hand and tossed it aside. Already he felt stronger, the aches and pains shrugging off his shoulders like a discarded cloak, feeling distant as though a faraway dream. He closed his hand around the drawing, its message thumping deep inside his chest.

Red for remembrance.

And he did remember. He remembered it all. It strung out before his eyes. The pull of whim to an old haunt, and the haunting of his own soul. His recurring dreams of the girl with the braid of black hair, tender lips, and soft skin.

Snow. His heart leapt at the taste of her name.

He didn't know then why he sought her so desperately and even now he was not sure. The answer felt only a heartbeat away, like a raindrop on the other side of a windowpane. He could almost see it, shimmering in its lovely creation. He felt the truth was near, but so many other questions lay just before it. Understanding was of the greatest importance now. He needed to find Dr. Muir. Eric was sure an apology would feature in his future; he was more than ready to listen now.

At the door, Eric felt the familiar pull to the nurses' station. He stayed his feet however. The episode only moments prior gave his heart pause. Something wasn't right and he wasn't sure now if Janice was the friend he needed in this moment. Eric strode straight out of his room, making for the elevators at the end of the hall.

As he walked he noted the strange quiet of the hall. The rooms he passed were empty and dark; he heard neither the chatter of machines, nor the sound of staff. It was as if the entire floor was abandoned. Unrest settled between his heaving lungs but he pressed on.

Eric reached the end of the hall and turned toward the elevators. A small pop! reached his ears then and Eric glanced behind at the following sound. The way he had only just walked was darkening, each bright fluorescent rectangle of light going out with a soft noise. It was just like a horror movie. Only this was happening for real. One by one the lights clicked off with a static buzz, as though someone was simply flicking a switch. Eric jammed the down button on the wall, calling the elevator, and turned round to face the approaching darkness. Naively he wondered if it was only an electrical malfunction; deep in his heart, he knew it's true cause. The hall plunged into growing darkness, a darkness that was reaching out to envelope him. Coming for him. Distantly he thought he could hear the mechanical clank and whir of the lift beginning it's climb through the shaft, although it could have been the stuttered rush of blood through his veins, his mind chirping frantically. He hoped for the elevator.

The lights faded out until finally only the light of the elevator square remained. He waited in its bright glow, his heart pounding in his ears. The lights above him flickered. There was a soft press of air around him, caressing him, like a gentle intake through cold lips. The lights dimmed terribly. But they did not go out. A darkness beyond compare faced him, gaping like an endless hole, a black wound in the world. Eric waited.

From the darkness stepped the figure from before: the man from the graveyard that was not to have existed. Eric felt a familiar prick of rage and terror. He fought them both down; he needed to keep a level head.

"You've… changed," Eric said, and truly, the figure had. It was not the hastily composed shadowed being from before. The size and shape were similar: the outline of his frame was drawn the same, but there was a wholeness to it now. Gone was the illusion barely holding itself together. A solid man stood now beneath the lights instead of the creature he'd faced in the dark of his hotel, and the pale light of the graveyard. This man was tall. Tight muscles hid themselves in his thin frame. He wore a suit of black and his skin glared pale in contrast. His face was split into a smile, something Eric felt he knew all too well. His hair was white.

The man seemed to regard his appearance with a look of pleasant surprise. "Yes," he said. His voice had lost none of it's grating quality. "It appears I have. For the better I think."

Eric felt a bristle of opposition. He crossed his arms. "Not from what I see," he argued.

The man tilted his head, his lips forming a quick tight line. Then the smile returned in sharp respite. He took a step forward; the darkness moved behind him, like him: slow and slithering.

"Ah," he said, in a voice amused, "the bull snorts. But look how fragile-" he drew out the word on his lips, savoring it like something rare and delicious "-he is inside." He laughed. It was terrible. "You think we can't see what you hide, Huntsman, but we know you. All of you. All your sticky red bits."

Eric didn't back down. He couldn't. "Is that so?" he challenged.

"Yes," hissed the man, his grin now razor sharp. "We are stronger now," he formed a fist, his knuckles going white. "We are not bound to mere shadows and trickery."

He thought of the terror in his apartment, the hospital room, Janice: all of it, an illusion. "Is that was this is then, some parlor trick?" Eric remembered the same words leaving his mouth before, and the consequence.

The man passed on the small insult with a wave of his pale hand. "We learned long ago how easy it is to play with your mind, Huntsman."

The walls around Eric shuddered for a moment and then, as easily as the flip of a leaf on the wind, the silver elevator doors disappeared and became one with the deep brown paneling. Eric bit back a rumble of frustration and turned instead a steady gaze at the man-creature before him.

"Granted," it continued, "you have learned some tricks of your own. That drawing was clever. Very clever."

Eric felt a surge of pleasure at these words. The man was put off, annoyed. And Eric liked that.

"So what now," he challenged, feeling a bit of strength rolling back into his shoulders, "are you gonna hocus-pocus me somewhere else next? Make me believe I'm some traveling salesman; drop me to the bottom of the ocean? Because I think that act has passed its prime." There was a tremor to his voice that could not be denied and a spark flamed up inside him. This time Eric took the step forward.

"See, I'm remembering those dreams," he continued. "You know about those right? All those recurring imaginings. Coming to me, haunting me…?"

His mind moved to a fleeting image: Snow, dipping into the lake, her dress clinging to her skin, water lingering on her lips. He felt a heat pass through him and smiled.

"And I've been thinking that they weren't really dreams. I mean, they were, but they were more, you see. Or maybe you don't. So let me spell it out for you: they were memories. Sweet, beautiful memories. Clues about me, for me. Maybe she left them, maybe I clung to them with my dying breath all those other times you say we've encountered each other. Regardless, I know what they are now."

The smile slipped off the man's face as though it had been cut. His pale features turned furrowed and fierce.

"Ha!" Eric laughed, taking another step closer, "I guess you didn't know that. Well, those memories are telling me something. And do you want to know what it is?" Eric remembered the gingham dress, her face before the golden sunset, the smell of earth and sun. He remembered the touch of her hand, the press of her body against his, the feel of her lips… he did not wait for the man to answer. "That there's a chance, a chance I do save her. A chance for me to find her again, to make the right choice now, whatever that may be. I win, and you lose."

Eric felt the rumble of his words course through him, the sparks flaming bright and bold. Bits and pieces of his lives, he supposed, came back to him. Each tender almost to every terrible never. He felt a hatred for himself but a greater desire for her; he longed to undo his past, all his pasts, break the cycle, the curse, whatever. He wanted only her. He needed her. He needed to tip the scales, for once and always. With a grin, he recalled the doctor's words from earlier and found his answer had suddenly become something different and sure.

Maybe he believed in fate and maybe he didn't. But he believed in her. Perhaps that was enough.

The man's eyes narrowed. The pupils danced like an oiled ocean on fire. He curled up a lip and his porcelain face cracked; fissures like scars appeared in his cheeks, clawing through his eye sockets. The darkness behind him boiled. It churned and howled the voices of years long dead.

"Silly little man. You try so hard. You bark and bite. But we are ever victorious. We keep the way. From the beginning until the end. We will ever stand over your broken pieces. We lap your blood in the streets. We gnaw on your bones!" The man's voice had become a creature's shriek. The darkness gathered and roiled and howled behind him, moving forward. The light in the last of the hall had dimmed so low it was now near impossible to see. The man was coming apart, shredding into pieces. His face twisted in anger and fury. He hovered over Eric and Eric trembled. He had faced this before, he had trembled and feared and cried out as he was ended. He clutched at his chest in recollection of panic and pain and bit back the screams from long ago.

"You cannot defeat us! You cannot escape us!"

The darkness wound around him, grabbing at his arms and legs, pulling and scratching. It caught at his face and his hair, dug into the corner of his mouth. It howled and screamed. It cut into him and did not stop until it hit bone and then continued on.

Eric struggled. He fought and growled. He felt the strength in his arms, the fight of his spirit and he did not waver. He tore at the darkness, looking for a weakness. Any open spot. But the dark felt only like an endless pool; it sucked in his punches, absorbed the blow of his kicks, slithered out between his teeth. He cried out: murmurs against the vast and endless.

The sounds of the dark rose to that of a mighty wind, roaring in the small and now blackened enclosure. Only a small bit of white remained: the slit of an eye, the tip of a razor smile. The darkness laughed at him.

"We keep the way, Huntsman. You fail yet again. We bring your end. We, the curse of your own guilt, made strong and evermore." It gathered itself in a ebony cloud and drew itself high and towering over him. Erick looked up. And he dismayed. For the briefest moment, he wondered if this death would be as all the others: merciless. Then, did he deserve anything else? Failure had come again. It was his curse.

Words sparked from his memory.

"Curses are strong," he said, his voice a whisper amid the torrent. "Love is stronger still."

Eric closed his eyes and remembered her. His Snow.

She is caught in the brambles, her dress twisted in the fingers of branches, grasping still though they were long dead. She looks like a caught rabbit, frightening and huffing. Her pale skin and her dark hair; her fearful eyes as he moves toward her, some giant gruff cut of a man. Or a man he once might have been. She holds back her cry as he brandishes his knife and puts it to the hem of her dress.

The cloth rips and falls to the bog.

For a moment decorum is remembered and then abandoned. She pulls her arms up from attempting to cover her legs. Fear has been replaced with something else.

It staggers his stature. It stirs the dust layering his tired heart. She does not look to him with contempt, nor revulsion. Not even sadness rings her green eyes. No, she harbors there only belief, deeper than the trust she will come to have of him. A spark only, but it will grow.

Belief. In him.

"Snow," he called, desperately, hopefully, tenderly. "I won't forget you."

The darkness took him.

. . .

Eric felt himself slip away, slip apart. Arms, legs, bone, muscle, feeling, hope...

The dark tore him slowly apart. And he tried, he tried terribly to hold on. His lips formed her name and the wind took it from him.

He held his eyes shut as the world and the after world and everything in between fled by him. Rushed by him. Rushed through him.

Snow. He said to the screaming air, the blinding dark.

Snow. He prayed.

Snow.

How easy it would be to give up. How simple to turn away.

No.

Eric fought back. He dug in. He held on. He clawed with fists and heels and fought back. Climbing, lifting one heavy limb over the other. Crawling, up and up. The darkness screamed. It ripped at him but found no purchase. It tried to bite and swallow and push. But Eric pushed past it, through it, beyond it. He cursed it at: beautiful words of love; of ages and lifetimes once lost now regained, all the words he longed to have spoken, all the desires he wished he could have made his own. It fought him, but was growing feeble. It ripped apart beneath his fists. As though it hadn't a chance. Eric fought with determination, with purpose. He wouldn't allow this to be his fate. Not again. Not ever. He climbed and felt renewed, hopeful for the first time. He slipped and started again. Eric climbed and crawled and reached...

Come find me, she said.

I will, he answered.