Fandom: Damned. (Mainly Supernatural, Persona 3, Loveless, Naruto, and Xenosaga.)
Warnings: Damned rating?
Word Count: 10,286.
Character(s): Castiel, Aigis, Ritsuka, Nigredo. Also Gaara, Albedo, Martin Landel, Leon. Unnamed characters being Temari, Shikamaru, Naruto. RL unnamed characters being random newsrunner, Minato, Seimei, Soubi, Citrine, Yuriev, CC!Sakura, Rika, and Hanyuu. And a surprise character.
Notes: This mainly came out of a desire to see people my characters bonded with in a way (that aren't canonmates) interacting. One of mine, however, lacks friends, so that didn't work. =| I also cannot keep Albedo out of fic I write obviously. >_>;; And I stole an idea from last year to use for him, as a note of explanation of behavior.
I also thought present tense third-person omniscient was a good style to write in. Fffffff. Lesson learned.
Summary: Four strangers roam the institute at night--this, of course, involves S-C funtimes, basement shenanigans, mindfucking, and being dropped into a RL scenario before the night is up, and questions are answered.
Fate pulls and pushes, never the same. It can expatiate in the most detailed of ways and never say a word. This is how connections move. This is how reality blurs. This is how they move.
"Again, I must apologize for my actions the other night."
To the words, the man shifts his head, regarding the girl. "As I've said. It's understood. Being controlled by the enemy is a common occurrence."
The girl's expression creases. "Still! I must apologize for putting you in harm's way! With my capabilities accented like that, I really could have hurt you."
"...It is fine."
And so the conversation went. Eventually, Aigis would decide the man was magnanimous and continue to follow him in case she could help him on his goal tonight, and Castiel would wonder, with a glance at her again, why he was not able to spend a single night alone. And how the small female might be of use without her extra...abilities seemed to be the question. Still he is interested in learning more about the space underneath, and Aigis is only too glad to have the chance at more knowledge.
The pair had made it to the center hall without any trouble, only to see two boys supporting each other leaning against the sun room doors. Aigis moves forward without a thought, calling out to ask what assistance they needed. Castiel moves more slowly, more interested in the feline ears perched atop one's head. The man's head tilts. Aigis is helping that one lower the other to the ground, and Castiel reaches out, frowning, to press his fingers to the velvety appendage.
The boy jumps back. "H-hey! What's wrong with you?" Real, then. It didn't just come off with a light tug. Near the boy's knees, a tail lashes angrily. Castiel watches it. How interesting. There were so many different kinds of species here that he had not heard of.
The other boy on the floor coughs, and Aigis presses her hand to the blood trickling from his temple in concern. The boy flinches at the touch, if not the pain. She is more careful, and smiles warmly at him. "My name is Aigis. We can assist you. What do you need?"
Nothing would be the simple answer. Others only have the habit of complicating matters, and he had no wanting to pull others into his business. But her smile is almost familiar--less joking than another he knows, but warm all the same. His eyes drop and politeness overrides wants. "I'm Nigredo." The boy shifts to sit, then winces, a hand at his ribs. Despite this, he continues. "And I'm fine. It's nothing dire." A light concussion, bruised or fractured ribs--siblings had given him worse, after all.
The girl tuts, and the cat-eared boy looks over at the pair, attention from the moment pulling from the strange man in front of him. The resemblance is uncanny, a negative image of his strange friend, but this boy doesn't have the extremes that his sibling has. Because they had to be, right? So was this the one that had killed, or...? Ah, that wasn't so important now. Medical attention was forefront, personal curiosity could come later.
He crouches down next to Aigis, nodding at her. "I'm Ritsuka. I was heading that way," the boy points down the hall, "when I heard a scream. Luckily he was close enough to the doors that I was able to drag him out without trouble." Close enough after being thrown there, it seemed.
Castiel, who had been staring at the doors as if he could see through them, glances down. "What kind of creature?"
Ritsuka's expression sets. "Human." Then he winces. "Well, as close to human as anyone here is. They were probably taken for special counseling."
Nigredo coughs again, allowing Aigis's hand on his back as he sits up fully. "They were. They had access to abilities that should be restrained with that much power behind them." The boy focuses on the older man, and Castiel is interested to see a kind of age between bright green eyes. War and its effects, were not new to this one.
Nigredo's eyes slide to the door. He didn't want to go back through there, but the waveform was clear. His sibling was below, and the only way was through the room in front of them. His expression tightens, and Castiel considers it. "What's down there?"
Both Ritsuka and Aigis look in surprise at the man, but Nigredo only frowns. "Tests. Games. Riddles." His brother's dramatics bleed into his words and he continues dryly. "Hell."
The reply is immediate. "Doubtful."
The boy doesn't reply, merely moves to get to his feet. Ritsuka backs up to give him space and Aigis tucks her hand under his arm. He doesn't protest and she continues to support him. Maybe it wasn't hell, but Nigredo knows what hell is. He had been there before he had stepped foot in this place--he had took part in making it that way. He places a hand against the door, listening quietly.
Nothing. No sound from within the room or from the boy. Still Castiel wonders at the shut off when he refuted the boy's words. The angel knew hell--below and on earth--and he wonders what could possibly make Nigredo think he knew it as well. The man moves to ask and instead Aigis cuts him off. "Do you still want to go down there?"
Ritsuka starts, eyes wide. "No way! He just got out of there; there's no way we're going in there again."
Aigis's countenance shifts to concern. But before any reply is made, Nigredo speaks. "...My brother's through there."
This gives mixed impressions to the group. Ritsuka stops speaking abruptly, thoughts of his own sibling being mangled with memories gained in this place. Castiel recalls a conversation with Dean on the subject of family and following your heart, and waits. Aigis cannot yet relate, but she does understand following the person most precious to you. And she is the first one who nods, smiling as she did moments before. Ritsuka is unsure but nods shortly after--Castiel only waits for the other three to decide. He had intentions to travel that way from the beginning.
The door is opened, of which did so it matters naught. The four move as one for different reasons, and the night truly starts with a regular ordeal.
Fighting against other patients had become almost normal. Each in turn had their own experiences--Aigis and Castiel's the most recent, Aigis's attacks burning bright in her own mind like actions unable to be taken back. Nigredo only remembers his brother, glaringly bright in his madness and standing over him and a bleeding third to call questions Nigredo couldn't answer. Ritsuka was the lone exception. The thought of fighting others working for the same outcome made him sick, especially since the people had no control over their actions. But like the others, he steps through, only to encounter darkness and silence. He shifts nervously.
Aigis and Nigredo scan the dark, but Castiel frowns. There's a presence there, human in nature, but strangely muted, as if the person in question is somehow hiding their presence....
There's a rustling, almost too low to be heard, but Ritsuka's ears twitch nervously, tracing the sound upward and to the right, and the sound intensifies, like something speeding up, and a shape presses itself from the dark to slam into the largest of them, knocking Castiel into the wall roughly. Aigis peers upwards, tracing the path. There's an outline of someone seemingly standing on the ceiling windows of the sun room, arms crossed. Humanoid in form, but there are strange contours to them that....
"I will warn you once to leave." The voice is calm, detached; sure and confident in its stance.
"No." The answer belongs to the man with them as he pushes off the wall. "We need to continue this way."
Nigredo's eyes flick backwards. "There's no point talking to them."
"They're still people," Ritsuka insists.
Nigredo looks at the other boy for a moment, emotionless. "Not right now."
They were different, Ritsuka thinks then. Nigredo and his brother. They were truly different in their methods.
While the communication is going on, the one on the ceiling drops, taking a step off a wall to slow their descent. Aigis shifts in front automatically. "Watch out." Attention shifts forward to the person unfolding from their crouch on the floor to reveal... Someone shorter than was assumed. And the strange contours only being some kind of case or baggage on his back, as large as the person himself.
Red hair, Nigredo thinks idly. It was always the ones with red hair that cause so many problems.
The sun room's guard speaks. "You were warned." Around him something rises, making the same rustling noise from before. It is Aigis who realizes first, the robot turned human who places it in her memory. A beach. And miles of sand.
She is given that moment to realize before the sand picks her up, slamming her against the wall like the other, but holding her there. She is thankful, then, for her missing parts. No doubt the sand would have stuck and jammed her machinery, locked her joints. Instead it slams the air from her lungs, pressing tightly against her ribs. She cries out softly before she realizes.
He is holding them, the angel concludes. With control like that it was possible he could have crushed the girl but instead he is simply holding her there. And for what purpose? Surely she was not seen as the highest threat. Pale green eyes shift to Castiel as the angel moves forward and the sand around Aigis tightens. The girl makes a sound of discomfort.
Nigredo realizes as the other two do. Aigis is simply insurance. Motivation for them to move backwards and leave. The path of least resistance is always a hostage--it's a method well-used. And would be successful if he had any attachment to the girl. She is a civilian, she was kind, but the waveform he feels from below is erratic, and Nigredo is only anxious to move forward. As if sensing this himself, Ritsuka shifts where he is, drawing attention to himself. Still trying the path of logic, the boy speaks. "What if part of us leave? Can the rest continue?"
There is a beat. "No. No one can pass."
Nigredo's jaw tightens. He is not quicker than the sand--speed is not his element as things stand--but he is willing to risk it. He was caught off guard before. Now, possibly, he might be able to flee to the door beyond. The older man's eyes flick to Nigredo, but he ignores the glance. There is nothing here that should concern any of them.
Ritsuka is too slow to grab Nigredo as the boy darts forward, a belated protest fleeing from his throat. And yet he sees, in the light of the moon breaking through the darkened glass how the sand rises, faster than he thought, to chase after Nigredo. To grab the boy's lower arm and squeeze. There's a sound, possibly mistaken for a cry of pain swallowed down, and then Nigredo is flung backwards to slam against the wall next to the door to the halls. He slides down in a crumbled heap, and Ritsuka rushes over to him, barely noticing Castiel as he steps in front of them.
There is blood. Ritsuka smells it rather than sees it, and then it's clear in the way that Nigredo is cradling his arm, clear in the way that parts of it no longer look like an arm, but rather just mangled flesh, and Ritsuka thinks to bandage it, to wrap it, even as his mind rejects the sight of the ruined arm.
Nigredo is only breathing, because breathing is simple and requires concentration at this point. There is irony here--both in the fact of again being slammed into this wall, and at the damage done to his arm. His roommate's ministrations were nothing compared to this, and there's some nonsensical smugness in that, that that one could be outdone.
There is pain, but it is possible to ignore. His body is numbing itself off as well as Nigredo beginning to not care. His actions were restricted; his choices were becoming null.
The two behind Castiel are quiet, murmured words from one to be ignored by the other, and in that, they are not drawing attention to themselves, and in that, in this moment, they remain safe as they can be. The girl has not made a sound since she cried out--she is still aware, is watching and retaining information to use when she can, but she is restricted and will remain so until she can be freed. The angel sees little they can do. As a group and powerless, their weaknesses are too great. But he is not yet willing to give up. Or to leave the female that attacked him recently behind.
The angel shifts forward, and next to the two boys, the door slams open. "Gaara!"
A blond female rushes in, eyes only for the brainwashed patient. He blinks once, but gives no other regard. Behind her, two others move carefully into the room, flocking her on either side, watching. The woman's mouth tightens and blades appear between her fingers. The redhead's head shifts, as if interested, and the sand around Aigis loosens to drop her to the floor. The blond woman glances at the group, then hisses at Castiel. "Get out of here! Now!"
The three newcomers are warriors. This is obvious from stance and movements. And the angel does not argue, only nods. Ritsuka helps Nigredo to his feet, and Aigis cautiously moves to Castiel's side, rotating her joints to work out the soreness. They move warily towards the cafeteria, but it seems they've been forgotten with the woman taking center stage. None complain. Some retain regrets.
And so the confrontation ends as they sometimes do--no climax, just a shift of attentions. The four move quietly along their way.
There is a pause in the kitchens, to grab towels to wrap Nigredo's arm, and even though it is Ritsuka and Aigis and not his brothers, the boy feels something grow more numb inside. There are too many similarities in this night; too much mirroring a night he'd prefer to leave untouched. He grows quieter, speaks less, and that fills the space between until the group reaches the freezer. Then there is a pause. A nod that this is correct. And they continue.
Aigis will notice lights, Castiel the architecture, and Ritsuka the differences in appearance between the upper levels and the basement. The silence that has smothered them slips away gradually, Aigis and Ritsuka making commentary with Castiel murmuring a reply every now and again.
Here, it matters which stepped down first. Where before whose hand reached to open a door was meaningless, now the first foot to touch earth meant everything. Things had been worsening in these past nights. Secret wars hinted over technology and mocking voices calling out to their opponent. The patients were only pawns, many and able to be replaced, but the games continued. Moved forward. And here, in the basement, the first person who stepped down was the one who was in possession of the two treasures of either wing. Nigredo stepped down and reality fell away.
Castiel is aware of the vastness of space stretching out before him. He is aware of perfection--the sense of justice and belonging; a perfect plan set into motion, and all the doubts he has gathered slides away at that sensation. There is nothing lost and nothing gained. Things remain as they were, and always had been. And there is peace.
Aigis recognizes this sensation as a larger expression of the first time she understood who Minato was. A clear plan, a precise action. Simplicity, without the difficult choices that had been gained. She was made for a purpose, and she served that. And she would complete her goal, because that was what she did. All things would come together as they should, and in that, her function would be completed.
Ritsuka's doubts flit through him at the memory pulling. Too often has his brother's presence played with him for the boy to trust this sensation. But there is knowledge, clear and distinct, that Seimei is waiting for him. Perfect and wonderful like Ritsuka remembers. And Soubi is there, too. And Kio, Yuiko, Yayoi, the Zeros.... They are all there. They all are waiting for him. Him, and not the other Ritsuka. They remember him.
Nigredo's doubt is more severe. One cannot give someone who hates themselves what they want and expect them to accept it. But it is not only sensation, but a violation of the URTV's link that fortifies the process--because he can feel his brothers, feel his sister, and know that they are all as they should be--from the time they should be. And even Albedo. His brother has the same mentality as he had the past few days but fortified as he was that one night. The three of the send the impression clearly-- We want you. We love you. You belong with us.
And in each’s perfect moment, in the second each of them closed their eyes in darkness and sighed in something close to peace, touching on perfection, and in that instant of letting go, there was nothing keeping them from the influence set on them. Unlike other happenings, this one was not fought against, not rejected. It was taken in full with their energies aligning to resonate and accept, and thus it continued, the passage of time.
“It isn’t real, you know.”
The voice is blatant, annoying and arrogant. Nigredo doesn’t want to listen to it.
“Fine, don’t listen to me. It’s not like you ever have before.”
This seems like a lie somewhere. And contrasts with the view he had held the moment before.
There is a murmur, an older male seeming to mock the younger voice quietly. The first voice explodes. “Shut up! I’m not speaking to you!”
The murmur continues, closer and more audible. Now there is something familiar in the tones, something like one heard every day to every night. “If you make him wake from this dream, he’ll only fall into another.”
There is a pause, and Nigredo senses something fading. The first voice is quiet. “He might wake up.”
And then there is nothing, and the interlude is forgotten.
There is a day that each know, and some have only heard of. Where part of the population accepted their fate, remembered memories that had never taken place, and did their best to play their part, keep to themselves, and keep themselves healthy. This was close, but not precise. Because there was no institute, and no blurred dreams of monsters and experimentation. Only each’s life playing out in bits and pieces, skipped periods to certain events. Things that could never happen, but kept to all the same. It is a dream, and it is reality, and it consumes each one.
There hadn’t been any new cases in a while. Part of him should be thankful for this--because it was something to be thankful for, when there wasn’t reports of murders and stabbings every day, but work kept Michael busy. And without anything to occupy his time…He was reduced to making paper footballs and flicking them off his desk. The man’s lips thin as he again glances to the door in vain. There hasn’t been anyone to approach him for assistance in weeks now. So why did he expect….
There is a perfunctorily knock, and then the door slams open, a courier standing there breathless with an envelope to sign for. The man grins, knowing far too well how much Michael has wanted something to do these past few weeks, despite his protests. The detective stands a bit too fast, too obvious in his excitement--he stops, clearing his throat, his expression neutral as he reaches out a hand. “What’s the case?”
The other man continues to grin as he loosely shrugs. “Nothing too fun. Just a missing persons.”
Fun or not, it was a case.
She moves quietly, too used to being unnoticed to call attention. Books to her chest, fingers clutching fiercely, knuckles white, she hurries home, hoping that this time she wasn’t late.
Yet, there is a boy up ahead, and her mind places hair color and stance automatically before she has time to think. Her shoe catches on pavement and the noise causes the other to turn towards her. There is a moment, and then his face softens. “Angela.”
Her father would be angry again. Still, she takes the hand offered shyly, and slows her hurried pace as he walks her home.
"I'd like to ask you a few questions."
Jordan watches carefully, a photographer's eye on the current happenings--the trench-coated man who had stopped his brother and his friend as the three had wandered through the park. The boy's head tilts, though his brother only smiles genially, the man's friend blowing cigarette smoke out in annoyance. "Of course; what would you like?"
Instead of the ease most gained when a request was granted, this man continues to remain severe. "I am Detective Collins. I've been investigating a missing persons case around here, and I was wondering if you heard anything."
A lie. Jordan knows that suddenly, and when he looks to the other two, he can tell they know it, too. The lie is too blatant, the words too clipped. The detective had came straight to them, and there was a reason why. The eyes of his brother's friend narrows, but Jordan's brother only continues to smile, a bit more thin. "Afraid not. I'm deeply sorry. Is there a way to contact you if we hear anything?"
There is a beat, a pause and a promise, before the detective hands over his card. The man's eyes are unfathomable, and Jordan shivers. There is something in that gaze that says that he will be back again soon.
When the man walks away, his brother neatly and precisely tears the card into pieces, and drops the fragments on the ground. Jordan watches them, quiet, as they blow away.
There is an aspect of Nigel that hates himself, dress, ribbon, and bow, but there's only self-preservation in the act, only the knowledge of his sister's actions to keep him still. She's murmuring something happily about having a little sister, and his mind starts to dull around the edges. He is caught between wishing for his father to save him, and the remnants of pride hoping to anything that is listening that the man didn't return home before his sister had finished with him.
The dress is straightened around his thin frame and his sister frowns at her work, presumably considering what was missing. Then the expression shifts to a shark-like grin and she rummages behind herself, orange hair flipping as she moves--giving a cheery, "Aha!" when she finds the plastic containers of paints and powders.
Yes, it is better to leave the body in times like this. Nigel excels at mediation, and his sister's ministrations are a great reason why.
She is perfect, quiet and small and delicately formed. She matches the others, set and key, and against the two shades of purple, light and dark, her short brunette tresses stand out. He folds her limbs across her chest, places her between the others, a perfect little doll. She is--
Not enough. Not near enough. Close but without the missing factor, nothing. Brown hair, green eyes, but it's not the same and it's not the same. He smoothes down her hair with a shaking hand, then slaps her, once, twice, and breaks into tears.
No, it's not enough. It's not enough.
There is a notice out. Something general and not well listened to. Young girls were supposed to be careful when out--stay in a group, be home before dark--but there was no reason for Angela to listen. She was a teenager for one, surely it didn't apply. And now, when her father works his night shifts, is the only time she could be with the boy for longer than a walk home; stolen moments gracing sensation. No, there is no reason to listen. Things like that never happen to people you know, after all.
There was a notice out. Something general and not well listened to. Young girls were supposed to be careful when out--stay in a group, be home before dark--and Nigel wishes with all his boyish might that his sister would go for a walk tonight.
Yes, there had been a third. If he matches the pieces, it's simple and a pattern often used. General, actually; young girls are too simple to slide away and keep silent. To do worse to without much effort. Michael rubs the bridge of his nose, sprawls the pictures before him. Two cousins, hair dyed violet for a festival, and a girl streets away without any connection. The most recent has a brother; an angry one who demands results, and Michael doesn't have the energy to tell him that she is probably already dead.
There must be a pattern. He looks for it, searches, and does not see.
His brother is languid, he sprawls on Jordan's bed and smiles at the younger without saying a word. He gestures, and Jordan moves instantly to his side without a thought. His sibling reaches to run a hand through his hair, and Jordan closes his eyes. There is no need for words between them.
Yet, still, there is a noise at the window. His brother's friend is there, and they have something to do. A party, a dinner; he doesn't keep track. Jordan may hate his brother's friend, for all of his seeming kindness. His brother slips away from him, more and more, as time continues on. Jordan blames the friend, even as he knows it isn't fair.
His brother breathes a goodbye, and Jordan shivers--refuses to respond.
She is late and she knows it. Late to meet him, instead of coming home. Her blouse is new, hair is glossy, despite the fact that they are only studying. She hurries in the dim, shadows from streetlights casting tall illusions of men in dark coats and she wonders if there was any truth to those warnings. Common sense would say no, she knows no one that had vanished, but still the growing dark moves her feet quicker. Her friend's house is in sight, and she smiles to herself, relief pressing into her body. And then there is a muffled sound.
In the movies, there is always a scream, she thinks. So it cannot be anything like that. This is fabric rustling, grass shifting under a burden dragged, and then nothing. It could be something imagined for all that she heard. It could be nothing at all. There is a yard next to her, bushes blocking the view, and against her own will, she hesitates, wondering at the sound. There is the briefest echo.
She parts the bushes without thinking, some strange instinct pressing her to motion. At first there are only shadows. And then she sees the shock of short orange hair across the lawn, the girl unconscious or asleep. (Surely only one of those two, right?) And Angela thinks it is strange for the half second before she sees the body crouched over the girl. She thinks to scream before hands come down on her; darkness easing in.
They are in the park again, and Jordan is content. His brother's friend is sketching something, and his brother and himself are tossing a frisbee back and forth. He is fine with this. This is fine. And perfect moments do not exist.
The man, the detective, is approaching again, and Jordan clutches the frisbee, eyes narrowing. His brother follows his gaze, and steps in front of him in almost a natural motion. It is a kind of unneeded protection, and Jordan loves his brother all the more for it. The friend remains perched on a bench, blows out smoke, and watches blandly.
"Do you know either one of these girls?" There is no prelude this time, no polite poetics, just a hand holding out pictures. Jordan's brother's voice breaks in annoyance.
"Are you going to keep up this harassment? Don't think that we won't move to file a lawsuit if you continue to bother us."
The detective--what had been his name, Colbert, Conrad, Collins--was unaffected, eyes staring straight at them. "It's just a question. One lives down the street. It's possible you've seen them."
Jordan peers around his brother. One looks his age but he doesn't know her. The other, older, only in passing, because she walked past his window each morning probably to school. He says as much, as if to quicken the man‘s leaving, and the detective nods grimly. "But you haven't seen her recently?"
Jordan thinks, and can't remember. It's possible that the blond had been gone recently, but she could have been sick. This, he says as well. The detective turns without further questions. "She's not sick. Neither are." And then, he is gone.
He watches from the hall as his father speaks with the detective. Watches as his father's normally smiling face is serious and lined. It is his fault, he knows. He had wished it, hadn't he. He had wished it, and his sister had gone away. And now he is alone.
"It was two blocks from our house. Normally, I pick her up from cheer-leading practice, but I had a late meeting at work. She said--" Nigel's father stops talking, stares at the wall for a moment, then continues with no change in tone. "She told me that it was fine. She didn't want to trouble me. She has always been such a good daughter."
The detective offers no soft words of condolence. "So you don't think she left on her own?"
His father breathes out something like a laugh. "Never. She was happy here. She was such a good child."
The detective looks to Nigel suddenly, despite the child's belief in his own invisibility. "What do you think?"
Words come without thought, and he looks at the man blankly. "She didn't run away. It's my fault. I wished her away." Lower now, a revelation. "It's my fault."
There is a boy in Jordan's class--honor student, always nice--and now he is quiet, emotionless, stoic. He does not speak, but to answer any questions the teacher directs at him. There is a rumor his sister had vanished, and Jordan thinks about that. Thinks about his brother going away and can’t consider it. It seems without sense to imagine--a world to live in without his brother.
He watches the boy leave that day--his father is waiting outside for him, no longer willing to call chance into play. The man holds out his arms and Jordan's classmate buries into them. The man touches his head gently, something broken in the expression. Jordan feels sick watching, doesn’t want to imagine their pain.
She wakes slowly, noise and impressions blurring in sensation. Her first thought is that she is late to meeting him. And then she remembers. Remembers the noise, and the girl in the grass, and the shadowed figure. Remembers darkness. It is still dark. She can’t feel her shoulders. Her arms are bound behind her, tied to something solid.
And there is whimpering in the dark.
Angela’s breathing speeds, and there is a scuffle as if something hears. There is a click of a lighter, and then an old lamp is lit. Angela’s eyes draw to the light, and perhaps that is mercy. In the other direction, there is a thicker click, wet around the edges; a quiet sound that one wouldn’t think of for anything. But like before, she is horrifyingly drawn to the sound, and her head turns; sees the dark figure again, sees the orange haired girl with her head at a strange angle.
Angela thinks, she is dead, and her breath stops. But in the light given, she sees the girl’s eyes roll once, see her chest rise and fall, and understands again that the movies aren’t always true. Part of her understands. The girl will die, but now she will die slowly. Not instantly or mercifully, like what happens in the films when people‘s necks were broken. Angela’s gut twists; her lunch, home cooked and happily made, spills onto the floor. The smell is harsh, and her eyes water. Her blouse is ruined. Her mind cannot focus on the body feet away.
She registers the pain in her cheek, dull and far away, before she realizes she was slapped. There are words above her head and she tries to focus. It doesn’t make sense.
“You had to involve yourself. And now, you’re a part of it. You don’t fit--” He cuts off--voice male, young, a teen or in his twenties, she can’t think. He mutters to himself, the rise and fall frantic. But when he continues the tone is even, charismatic. “No, you don’t really have what the others did.” At this, he glances at the dead girl. “Neither did she really, but she was a means to an end.” He moves back to the dead girl, hefts her onto his shoulder and walks to the side. “But now you can be next. It won’t work that way, but there’s not much choice really, is there?”
She watches his feet move, watches them stop by a pile of large dolls. Watches him place the dead girl into the group and realizes that they were actual people. Are dead now. Are all dead. Shadows threaten her vision. He turns, smiles at her. Something. “I’m deeply sorry about all this. But I can’t change it now.”
His brother is going out again tonight, and Jordan wants to go with.
At the window they use to leave, his brother and the friend pause, strange expressions on their face. “Are you sure?” His brother asks, something final in the question.
It is just a party, or a dinner, right? A… rave or something. Jordan asks this, and his brother laughs. His eyes sparkle when he quiets, something secretive in the smile he offers.
“Come with, Jordan. I’ll show you something.”
And Jordan moves to follow without a word, allowing the friend to help him through the window and onto the ground.
He is not allowed outside. He is not allowed to walk home. He is not allowed to leave.
But his sister is out there. His sister, who Nigel cursed into nonexistence. It’s his fault. All of it. So he has to look for her. He has to find her.
It is far too easy to sneak past his father now. He is sad and drinking, and Nigel kisses his sleeping head on the way back with a silent promise to bring her home. He moves quietly out the door, and then to the sidewalk, unknowing where to start. There is a streetlight on the corner, and under it, a pair in black move purposefully.
With no other place to start, Nigel follows.
He has waited in the area for hours. And now it is paying off.
There is something strange about the ones he spoke with in the park. He was told that the younger boy volunteered to photograph the festival the first two victims went to. And the man who smoked constantly was pointed out as the part-time art teacher at the third girl’s school. And the reactions that Michael got when he questioned them were strange--not defensive as much as dismissive. As if it didn’t matter. There was a group mentality with those ones; people that only spend time with each other and refuse all others. So tonight, a week after the last disappearance, he waited in an area in-between the two houses.
Each disappearance and possible murder took place a week apart, each on a Sunday night, as dusk turned into true night. Other than aesthetics, he couldn’t determine the meaning behind the timeline. And even so, the pattern had continued. The ones from the park were walking across the street, moving steadily to somewhere.
He waits a moment, then gets out of his car and follows.
It is cold and she is hungry and she doesn’t know how long she has been here. She is fed bread once a day, water the same, and is given a pat on the head and a smile and a promise that it won’t be long now. Part of her is glad of that. Her arms do not exist. Her eyes have dulled and dimmed, and she can see little. Her heart is heavy. She misses her father. She misses the boy.
But she believes she will escape. That she will be rescued. That was how it happened in everything. She would be saved at the last minute; her father bursting in with the cops, the boy fighting her assailant and whisking her away. And everything will be fine. They will bury the girls with their ice, ice eyes staring at her, always staring and--
The door creaks open, a fraction of light burning her eyes and falling across the dead girls. All of their eyes are closed. Each and every one.
They stop at a warehouse. Just as I thought, Jordan thinks. But no music pounds from the building, no florescent lights creep under the door. There is a strange still silence, and Jordan is wary. His brother smiles at his friend. “Wait out here.”
His friend shrugs, nods--“Like always.”--then leans against the building and cups his hands around a cigarette to light it. His brother smiles at him and moves to unlock the door. There is a streetlight behind them, and Jordan thinks for a moment that the room is very, very dark inside. Then his brother steps inside, and he follows him instantly. There are posts in the ground nearby, and a high pile of trash against one.
Then his brother moves closer to it, and the pile shifts and screams once before falling silent, and Jordan realizes that it is a girl.
They’ve stopped at a building. One is still outside, and Nigel can hear sounds inside. Conversation? Or something else. The man outside isn’t very broad, but he is tall, older, and Nigel retains no thoughts of fighting him to get inside. He’ll have to sneak then, slip by, and--
From the darkness, a form bursts, and as it tackles the man against the building, Nigel recognizes the figure as the detective that came to their house. The detective’s arm closes across the other’s windpipe, cutting off a scream of warning, and the two wrestle in the dirt.
Nigel hesitates for a moment, then uses the disturbance to ran past, and dart into the building.
Jordan can’t breathe. The bedraggled girl is the one that walked past his window, the quiet blond a few years older than himself. She is whimpering and silent in even intervals, and his eyes cannot move from her. His brother’s steps are heard walking away, and shaken, Jordan moves to look. Looks to see his brother standing before the pile of girls dressed as dolls and cuddled together. The other one from the picture. Two girls from a festival Jordan had photographed for a few dollars. Another one he didn’t know. And his brother is smiling. And Jordan can’t say a word.
His brother walks back to him slowly, claps his hand down on Jordan’s shoulder, and leans in to smile at him gently.
“It’s all your fault, you know.”
The other’s knee swings up to dig into Michael’s stomach, and he clenches his teeth against it, holding fast to the one in his arms. The other man’s glasses had already fell and cracked beneath them--the bits of broken wire and glass were digging into the detective’s arm. Again the other man swings back, elbow cracking into Michael’s cheekbone this time, and he lets go without thinking.
Hit a man in his face, and he will be so preoccupied with what’s in front of him to protect his vitals.
It was a lesson long since taught and even as he recoils from the blow, he curls, timed well to block the knee aiming at his midsection as the other rises. Michael grabs the leg and twists, the other falling harshly into the earth.
There is effortless silence. He is not noticed, he knows this somehow, but he is frozen still. There is nothing but what is still in front of him, past the quietly crying girl and onto the group past her. The group dressed like dolls. Dresses, ribbons, and bows, paints and powders, and his sister. And his sister.
There is an aspect of Nigel that hates himself, and only his sister keeps him still. Only her actions and caring keeps him still, and his sister is dressed in ribbons and bows.
He excels at mediation. He forgets the reason why. But it’s better to leave the body in times like this. Yes, it’s better to leave the body. And his sister. His reason why.
His brother’s soft gaze lifts over Jordan’s shoulder, and his smiles widens. “You have a guest.”
He turns without understanding the meaning. And sees his classmate. The sad one who now remains silent. Looking past him. Looking at the girls. And Jordan doesn’t understand.
And again, there is a disturbance, the door cracking open as the detective from the park comes in, dragging his brother’s friend behind him, arms manacled. There is a noise behind him, and when he turns, his brother is holding a knife.
First it was only the one who had kept her. And then others came, one by one until they filled the room, and one of them, surely, one of them, would see her, save her, take her away, and all of this, all of it, would be gone, a memory long since forgotten, and Angela’s heart hopes, rises from the dust, and falls just as quickly as her face reflects in a promise of steel.
She knows this somehow. Calculations worked out in an instant. Distance. Speed. And she knows then, again, that movies are not always right.
For the knife can slit her throat before anyone else could move.
The detective calls out, but his brother stares at Jordan, and the words become useless. There is no sense in this situation, and his brother is smiling, and his brother is leaning forward to the girl, and Jordan jumps in-between them without a thought. His brother smiles gently.
“You were always so kind.”
His brother’s arms enfold him, reaching around him, and Jordan relaxes in the familiarity, in the fact that everything will be all right, and there is a gurgle--
And when he whips around the girl is bleeding, her neck a grotesque bleeding mimicry of a grin, and Jordan lets out a cry, goes to move to her, but his brother reaches to touch Jordan’s chin and turn his head to face him.
“So delicate. Easily broken. That’s why you created me.”
Jordan is holding the knife.
Angela bleeds and there is no air and there is just a sticky moisture down her front and again, she has ruined her blouse, and how will she ever get this out--
“I.R.I.S. program, 98% loaded. Please stand by.”
There is only a flash--not light but a kind of bright darkness--and Angela Cassidy slowly loses consciousness. The girl dies without a word. And Aigis stands where her other had just died for nothing, the smiley face on her shirt a mockery of the drama that had just played out.
“Username and password recognized. Loading character: Alec Doyle.
“Character loading… … … …Load has failed. Retry, y/n?
“Load canceled. Loading character: Leon Geeste.
“Character loading… … … …”
The warehouse faded, details dulling around the edges, faraway shapes becoming two-dimensional and flat, the character called Soubi vanishing entirely along with the girls. In contrast, the center of the room darkened momentarily, a figure fading out of it slowly. Small, blue-haired, with animal-like brown ears. The apparent boy stood there for a moment, eyes closed. No one moved. The details of the boy came into clarity and his eyes opened. He smiled. “Hello.”
A second later, he shook his head. “Of course they deleted my avatar, bastards.” He glanced up at the group, rolling his eyes. “Do you know that this little guy is one of about the only two left that have ever met me? Y’know how sad that is? A couple more people gone, and I’m just a rumor.” The boy smiled. “A ghost in the machine.”
He stretched, fingers reaching up. “And then I’ll be a lot less useful in some ways. Without borrowing this little guy, I wouldn’t be able to get you out so easy. But we all had some help in that, huh? You guys have your own ghost in the machine, don’t you?”
In the digitalized world that had been created, it was too easy to read the group’s emotions. The girl was shell-shocked--and hell, she was a robot, right? She damn well be in shock after physically dying like that. Plus all of the human breakdown before that. And the shorter boy. His thoughts ran in two directions, and both ways were equally traumatic. His sister’s dead body was the first one (there was something about a brother’s statement in that, but Doyle didn’t catch it), and the other was… Snapshots of affection between a father and son. Kid had daddy issues, this he knew, but kid was obsessing a bit much over some kindness. The man only thought that he had failed to save someone again, and fuck if Alec knew what again meant. This guy was after his time, and his files were outdated. He’d have to find a way to hack the more recent ones.
The last one was far too easy. Doyle almost felt bad for the kid. Ritsuka was staring at the knife, blood still dripping onto the dirt, and with a thought Doyle shifted the blade out of existence. Ritsuka blinked, as if waking up, and staring blindly at him. “…Leon?”
He smiled, not unkindly. “Nope. Just borrowing him for awhile. I’m Doyle.” The group shifted at that, the only adult’s eyes narrowing in thought, and Ritsuka stated blandly, “Mr. Radio.”
“The very one,” he answered, rolling a shoulder. New avatars were always a little hard to get used to at first. “Just ignore the whole death thing, huh? You guys got more important things right now.”
Castiel interrupted anyway. “How did you cheat death?”
Doyle sighed. “I didn’t. Trust me, I died. And then… Shit’s complicated. But this,” he spread his arms. “What you’re in is a program created. And everyone here is just avatars to represent your form. Which is why she--” He pointed at Aigis. “Came back when hers died. Which also helped me get in. Following this?”
Castiel remained unchanged. “And how are you here?”
Alec shook his head. “I’m just an NPC, man. All the big names have uploaded their data once or twice into the system--lucky for me, a certain thing allowed me to upload after I died--but seriously, we’re not talking about me right now, okay?”
He sat in the fading dust, a leg bent to his chest to lean an arm on. “So, as this is a program, what’s the point? C’mon, you, in the audience.”
“To distract us,” the angel answered.
“True and false, but let’s try another player. What about you, sweets?”
Aigis raised her head slowly, something shattered in the depths of her eyes. Still she tried to focus, and he gave her that. “To give us our perfect world.”
“Ding, ding, we have a winner. What do you guys think?”
Castiel contemplated. “Possibly. It fits with the life I was told I had.”
However Nigredo only murmured, “It wasn’t perfect.”
Alec shook his head, amused. “It wasn’t perfect now. You were happy at the time. But here’s the million dollar question.” He looked over at Rituska, the boy still stagnant and silent. “What was wrong with your life?”
The other three moved their gaze to the boy, Aigis’s more hesitant, a beat behind. He didn’t answer. Then, rolled up a sleeve. Deep bruises coated his forearm and a bandage dotted his wrist. “My mother isn’t supposed to be cruel.”
Doyle nodded. “Right. In your life file, she is. Both lives actually. So your perfect life would have her kind. But what does her cruelty give you?”
Ritsuka’s voice was a whisper, as if he was talking to himself. “My brother.”
Nigredo watched him carefully, as Castiel asked, “Brother?”
“You all didn’t see it,” Alec explained. “But Ritsuka did. Along with the guy you wrestled, Jordan Becker spent his days with his older brother. Who took care of him, deflected conflict and confrontations away from him, and loved him more than anyone else. Everything that happened here tonight, and the products of what happened before, were the results of Jordan’s second personality overtaking him--his own brother.”
There was silence only in response to this, but Ritsuka spoke up quietly. “What happened? Why wasn’t… my life perfect, too?”
The man in boy’s clothing cocked his head, an ear lifting comically. “Would it be perfect without your brother?” There was no response and Alec straightened. “Well, to answer you, there was a virus installed in the program.”
Castiel stared at him. “You.”
A burst of laughter came from the blue-haired youth. “Hell, no. I’m not a virus. Those things live, replicate, do their function, and die, and I would like to get some things done myself. If I was a virus, I’d be useless.”
“Then, how?” Nigredo wondered.
“Ahh, now, you should know part of that.” Again, Alec tipped his head, raising an eyebrow. “What do you remember before this?”
“Before….” He could watch the boy think, watch as Nigredo moved backward carefully, memories crystal-like and perfect. Alec bet that gave that kid no small amount of trouble, remembering everything so detailed like that. Nigredo remembered the kitchen and being bandaged, the stairs and… And a feeling of perfect love. This was quickly denied and he moved on to the next thing-- The kid glanced up, startled. “My brother’s voice.”
Doyle nodded. “Yep. And you should know that one’s always going to muck things up. He canceled the first program you guys were in, so Landel installed a firewall in you so he couldn’t get in again. But…. You’re not the only one he cares about in this group. Right?”
Nigredo’s eyes widened, but from in front of him, Ritsuka slowly nodded to Alec, then turned to Nigredo. “Your brother’s Albedo, right?”
Nigredo nodded. Ritsuka gave a sad expression, like he already knew. “We’re friends.”
The burst of strange disbelief from Nigredo was interesting, and Doyle had half a mind to look into it if they weren’t running on borrowed time. “Right, so. He used you to get in by planting a virus. With the way you guys’ uh, what do you call it, energy pattern?“
“Waveform.” Nigredo provided.
“Right, waveform. With the way that works, it’s half digital as it is. Almost simple with the training you guys have had and the virus used. Probably thought if he could fuck up your perfect world, you all would eventually wake up. And for twenty points, Nigredo, what’s the virus?”
The boy was quiet. “U-DO.”
“Correct. So giving Ritsuka a part of his consciousness made him susceptible to the same things. Madness, murder, and all the rest. A penchant for little girls--to each his own, whatever. But point being, it did work. One of you got killed, the program had to reset, and I got in while it was doing that, and halted the process.” Doyle smiled, spreading his arms. “End of story, right?”
“So how do we get out?”
“So on point, Cas. You are a boon to your fellow ma--well, friends, at least. This is the simple part. You just wake up.”
Aigis’s voice still remained quiet. “I am awake. I can remember a clear dream. But I know which is reality. I am awake.” It was said like a mantra, and Doyle wondered if she believed it.
“Okay, so that’s not all it is. You have to let go of what keeps you in here. Each of your wants given to you. Right now, you’re choosing to stay in the dream. You have to choose to wake up.” Alec made a motion with his hand. “Red pill, blue pill, that whole deal.”
The group is silent, and unsurprisingly, Castiel vanishes first. Doyle’s borrowed ears perk. “Now, that is a man with a plan.”
A moment later, and Nigredo disappears. Aigis a minute after. And Ritsuka remained.
“It wasn’t real.” His voice was quiet.
Alec’s voice softened. “Nope. Not real. Just your emotions.”
And Alec knew the kid’s emotions. Knew the mix of confusing shit attributed to the kid’s brother, and knew the mess that was the friend, and everything else. But Ritsuka continued, surprising Doyle when he doesn’t mention any of that. “But I killed her. I killed them.”
Doyle nodded solemnly. “But she’s alive now.”
There was a beat. “Yeah,” Ritsuka gave. “But she wasn’t.”
The boy vanished after that phrase, and Doyle leaned back in his borrowed body. “Complicated bunch, that.” He glanced over the surroundings and reached up to tug a furred ear. “Thanks for the save, kid. I owe you one.”
“Program terminating. I.R.I.S. shutting down.” Alec hummed a tune idly, and waited for an absence of existence.
There is sand and benches rising away from them. Aigis and Ritsuka are staring at each other, feet apart, and Nigredo and Castiel find themselves above the pair, in the stands. And none can imagine how they found themselves there. The moments before they stood where they are, the apparent days they had spent--all things remain clear. All facts. Everything that had tore them to pieces and placed them back together in different ways.
They may have remained like that, staring at each other and their surroundings, one or two of them casting their gaze around the environment in details, but for a slow clapping that starts, loud and clear, above their heads. Each move in tandem to look, and find an indistinguishable brunette man grinning down at them. None place him.
“Nice show,” the man calls, and then all of them instantly place the voice as the one heard every day and every night, something that each had come to place as a constant despite how unwanted it was. And Nigredo remembers. The second voice from before they had experienced the lives none had lived. It was this man as well.
“Clever, clever, I would normally say, but I’m guessing you didn’t do all this on your own.” Landel shrugs lazily, seemingly more amused than concerned. “But rules are rules, as they say. Despite how you left your dream. Or got to this area at all.” The man’s gaze rises above their heads, and there’s a giggling heard, a sound familiar to one of the group.
Above Castiel and Nigredo, there is a white haired duplicate of the dark haired boy--resting on the highest bench and leaning casually against the wall. “Don’t look at me,” the voice comes, melodic and amused. “I was just pulled here as an observer.”
Any verbal sparring that may or may not have occurred is cut short by Nigredo darting up the steps to stop in front of his brother, staring down angrily. Albedo meets the look with ease, smiling. Nigredo could slap him. “You were here before us,” the dark haired boy accuses. “I felt you before we even came down here.” Other accusations are caught in his throat; he can’t voice them in this place, in front of these people.
His mirror only tilts his head. “Can you prove it, darling? I believe I just arrived here, hmm?” Things remain unsaid and their connection buzzes between them but neither of them move to breach it.
Nigredo hates him. Nigredo loves him. Nigredo says nothing and his expression closes.
While the interlude plays out, Castiel looks over the man on the platform across from them. He will memorize the features, and move on that when he can. For now, however, there are no needless questions, no demands of freeing them. Aigis moves to open her mouth, and to reverse their actions from earlier, weeks ago and only hours, Castiel speaks instead. “What is the point of this place?”
Martin smiles. “This place is just a private arena of mine. You can’t get here unless you have two artifacts--two particular items that can only be gained by separate trials. Only one of you actually possesses both.”
Nigredo ceases staring at his sibling to look at the head doctor. “Yes.”
“But we didn’t even finish coming into the basement,” Ritsuka questions, an ear flicking in agitation.
“Right,” the man answers. “You didn’t. Like everyone else tonight, you should have been still sleeping away in your happy little dream world--But that--”And again, he looks above their heads, at Albedo. “Didn’t turn out as it should. These trials are getting… Difficult to maintain. I’d like to not have to concern myself that much in them right now. I have other things I need to attend to. So most that have gained those artifacts have been… released.” Landel smiles. Aigis wishes for the weapons she had nights prior. Her hands move into fists.
“And all of you,” he went on, making Castiel only think more that the man enjoys the sound of his own voice. “Were supposed to accept your lives, and stay there. But I think you had more help than I know.”
Landel’s eyes harden in a way that speaks of secrets kept and methods yet unrevealed. “Yes, from the access, it was as if….” The man murmurs, then catches himself, gaze turning cold. “But there’s nothing to do about that, is there? You escaped that, somehow, and you came here. Conveniently, might I add, since you fulfilled the requirements.” He smiles down at Ritsuka. “You killed her quite nicely. It lacked finesse, but it made its point.”
The boy freezes. He can’t look at the girl feet away.
Martin sighs. “Though, she’s alive now… If I was the judge, I would say it doesn’t count like that. But the sacrifice was bled out and all. Congratulations. You’ve all passed. The next level of the institute is now open to you.” Landel’s eyes sharpen, not unlike a predator’s gaze. “Now let’s see what you do with it.”
Morning comes to pass in something like relief. There are more questions now, for the few answers they’ve received, and none are fully detached from the situation that drew them in so deeply. It is perhaps examples that speak the most of it. One brooding and placing theories to facts, formulating plans for motion, while carefully attempting not to dwell on things that cannot be changed. Cannot be retried. Another will be silent, moreso than her days before of her own apparent sin. There is a different reason for silence, one that has everything to do with this place, and more to do with the body she is in. Permanence is not a guarantee, even for what she is, but now it has been explained, in steel and reasonless words, how easy it is, for her to be thrown away. Another ignores a sibling’s words at reconcile, the latter pouting in dismay as the former focuses on his tray instead of a brother. Some things come too close to sacrilege; some things touch too close to fears.
And the fourth of their party is sitting. He does not see the tray in front of him or hear the low murmur of voices in the cafeteria. A body drops down across from him. “Hey,” comes a cheery voice.
Ritsuka lifts his head to see the same as he did the night before. Minus ears. Much like himself.
He is silent a beat too long without realizing. The other boy frowns. “Hey, you okay?”
Idly, Ritsuka wonders if it was just Leon’s appearance that Doyle took. If there is something else in the boy that is necessary. When there was no one left that had met him, Doyle would just become a memory, the man had said. Ritsuka wonders what that means, if it is literal or something more detailed, and he wonders if Leon knows anything about what had happened. Or what could happen.
He had killed her. His hands were stained with her blood. Something he had never wanted.
He nods slowly. “Just a long night.”
The other nods whole-heartedly in agreement. Experiences that could be summed as that are far too regular, becoming too normal, and one could get away saying that when they meant something entirely else. The murmur around the two crests to a roar of meaningless words and senseless noise and time moves on. A sea of echoing motions. Each only there to play their part.
There is more to be told. But fate has had its hand for now. There is nothing left to say.