Chris edges onto the packed train car past someone grown into the seat by the door.
They’re gnarled and weathered and beetle-iridescent around the eyes, watching through a waterfall of thin brown rootlets as Chris elbows enough space for himself and his bag. They shift with the sway of the train and Chris nods to them affably when he realizes they’re going to stare until he acknowledges them.
The train starts moving with a lurch and Chris gets his elbow around the pole and rests his temple against the cool steel. The train lurches again and Chris's bag shifts, glass tinkling against itself, musical, a climbing scale he silences with a hum and a tap to his bag.
The tree in the seat by the door is still watching him. Their roots have twined with the struts braced against the wall of the train, shifting in nearly imperceptible motion. They smile when Chris blinks at them and nod slowly, rootlets shifting, eyes closing and opening in a gesture of respect.
Chris looks back at his feet.
The storefront he rents now is modest, a deep recessed window warded six layers deep to keep the graffiti and unwelcome stares away. Charms on strings to anchor luck and good will, any conceivable advertisement of their services crowded out by the leaves of the riotous jungle Kevin refuses to trim or arrange in any marketable way other than ‘the way the plants like to be’.
Chris finds it difficult to argue when Kevin brings up how partnering with one half of the saviors of the world doesn't leave the business with a shortage of clients. He likes the plants anyway, the cheerful vines sending sneaking inquisitive tendrils under the sink in the break room, the viciously alive bromeliads that nearly crowd out their front display window, the dour little cactus Kevin had snuck into the corner of Chris's office because he insists it likes him.
Chris doesn't speak to plants. He has a feeling the cactus prefers it that way. Their bond is a silent one.
Kevin hasn't left any folders on his desk and so he spends a little while spinning in his chair, pushing himself back and forth with the toe of his shoe. Back and forth, staring at nothing, bored and a little anxious with it. It's been a little while since their last job.
Kevin is singing to the vines in the hallway as he passes, voice wordless and throaty and comforting in its familiarity.
He doesn't precisely mean to when he reaches into his bag, pulls the first bottle out. He mostly means to just unpack. It really is an accident that his hand grabs the quicksilver first.
It's something he tries not to do most of the time. He's really good at respecting boundaries these days. No more playing with fire. No more pushing the limits just to see which of them gives first, headlong and reckless and so fated it had hurt to look away.
It still hurts down in the scarred over places he doesn't go so much, though it's better now. He's healed, and still healing. He's healthy.
He just misses Sajeeb.
The quicksilver pools in the bottle, humming and receptive.
He doesn't need to pour it into a dish, never really has. He does for form's sake sometimes, something to make other people comfortable, but alone in his office all he does is tilt the bottle and watch it swirl. Like a puppy it obeys, clumsy and eager to show him what he wants to see, a rush of vertigo motion and then glow spilling out over his fingers.
He leans in close.
“Chris!” Kevin calls as he opens the door and the quicksilver nearly breaks the glass of its bottle with how fast Chris yanks himself free. He nearly drops it all over the floor in trying to shove it into the side drawer of his desk.
He forgets, sometimes. He forgets how bright Sajeeb is. He's blinking spots from his vision as he finally gets the bottle tucked away. Kevin is watching him reproachfully but he doesn't say anything about it and Chris is thankful.
Instead he throws a folder at Chris's head.
He trusts Chris to be able to catch it in flight, and Chris can, but he can't pretend there isn't more of that reproach in the force of Kevin’s throw as he gathers the papers hovering in the air into his hands.
Kevin hadn't understood much about Sajeeb and what had happened and how Chris had just forgiven him. Chris has never been able to find the words to explain how there hadn't been anything to forgive, and so it had gone. Kevin resents Sajeeb. Resents him because he believes Chris can't. Chris tires himself out just thinking about it and so he doesn't argue.
“Found a good case,” Kevin says instead of mentioning the bottle in Chris's side drawer. “I'll make coffee.”
It's a really good case. A bad curse because that's what Chris is good at these days. Saving the world doesn't pay the rent, but breaking curses does.
The coven hiring them gives them directions to a little house in the suburbs. Half an hour's drive when they're late enough to avoid the morning traffic, Kevin behind the wheel juggling coffee and the steering wheel and batting the papers Chris shuffles at him out of his line of sight until they nearly swerve into the opposite lane and Chris subsides with a grin.
The suburbs just bore him. The suburbs have always bored him, compared to the way cities always pulse like a heartbeat, so close to alive that the shade of difference doesn't matter at all. They like him, cities. They welcome him in and fold him up tight in secrets and history and runes coded into the patterns of the bus lines.
There isn't as much life in the suburbs. Nothing like it. They drive past gardens and lawns and pastel houses that blur together until Chris is nearly asleep. Monotony, lulling him into a doze. So he doesn't feel the curse until they're turning into the street the house must be on and he wakes up a little, opens his mouth and looks over to Kevin because there's something there niggling at the corner of his vision.
Kevin’s mouth is moving like he's trying to say something but Chris can't hear him because
grabbing him by the back of the throat with a grin full of needles in his veins and in his eyes and slicing in towards his bones, surgical tools so cold it hurts and he's drowning in it water in his lungs until it burns because it is ice on fire
it is not fire
you wanna play with fire, he thinks with anger roaring through him a hurricane, you don't know shit about fire
gripping the cold digging into mouth and nose and eyes and it hurts, hooked into him as needles trying to sew itself under his skin but it isn't stronger than him and it isn't fire and he doesn't have the patience to untangle it so he yanks it free never mind the pain of hooks ripping from
he's back in the car in the deserted suburban street again and they're pulled to a totally illegal stop and Kevin is leaning across the dashboard with a hand on his shoulder, his mouth open like he'd just been yelling.
“What, shit,” he says belatedly and realizes his voice is hoarse. His throat hurts like he'd been shouting, though he has no idea if he had been or not. He isn't sure of anything that happened outside of the curse. It had felt like an instant but he thinks it must have been more like thirty seconds.
“You convulsed,” Kevin says. He's calm in the way that means in no way is he actually calm. Chris can see the whites all the way around his eyes. “You were making this noise, like…”
He trails off. Chris works to swallow down the ache in his throat. It stings and reminds him unpleasantly of needles. He carefully doesn't look down the street at where the bastard thing is crouched over the innocuous house. It's beaten back, for now, as much as a thing like that can be beaten into submission.
“Don't make that noise again,” Kevin finishes at last and laughs hollowly.
Chris nods. Puts his hand on Kevin’s where it's resting on his shoulder until Kevin's breathing slows.
“Just the curse catching me off guard,” he says quietly. “Won't let it happen again, dude.”
Kevin nods, shakes himself, gets his hand back and belatedly puts the car in gear and starts it moving back down the road towards the house and the curse. Chris peers out of the car, watches the noon sun glint off dusty windows and feels the malignant purpose bend their way.
“This one's a fucking hell of a curse,” he murmurs and Kevin snorts breathless agreement.
The woman that answers the door is tall and has eyes that look like they had been knives once upon a time. She stares at them impassively, blocking the threshold, and in the interminable moment where they stare at each other Chris feels her reach out across the distance between them and pluck immaterial fingers at his wards. Nothing threatening, only watchful and testing the mettle of them.
He shrugs her away and smiles at her apologetically when her eyes sharpen on him. She nods and moves aside to let them in.
Kevin mutters something about witches as they go that Chris doesn't entirely catch and the woman feigns deafness to with a smile playing at the corners of her mouth in a way that means Kevin hasn't really caused any offense yet. Chris elbows him just to be sure.
“Come,” she murmurs and spins in a fan of dark hair. They dutifully follow her into the house.
It's easier to feel the passive weight of the curse here, the dark hollowness of the building above them pressing down onto them with psychic weight. It's strong, and subtle, and Chris spends a few steps tightening his wards until he can barely feel it. Precautionary; he wants to make a good impression on their clients before he gets a reputation for having seizures in the middle of conversations.
The hallways are clean and cheerfully pastel and absolutely bare, and Chris doesn’t have much time to take it in before the woman whose name he still doesn’t know is gesturing them into an open, airy living room.
There’s a couch against one wall, obtrusively dusty. A crooked rug on the floor. A kitchen through the opposite doorway, as bare as the hallway had been. It looks barely lived in, or as if the tenants had vacated.
Two woman watch them enter from the corner by the couch, violently pink and impeccable blonde, gathered together defensively. For a moment they’re only studying each other across the room, and so Chris can see the instant recognition breaks across the face of the woman in pink.
“You brought the dude that saved the world to lift our curse?” the woman with the pink hair asks, incredulous.
“Harmony!” the blonde snaps. Chris tries and he suspects fails to swallow a grin.
“I go by Chris,” he puts in mildly.
“I'm Kevin,” Kevin volunteers.
There's a moment, precarious, where Harmony and the blonde woman are looking at them with distrust that isn't unfamiliar when afflicted by a curse but wounds Chris's professional pride nonetheless. Chris is just steeling himself to step forward and plead their case when the woman who had greeted them at the door steps forward.
“You call me Momiji,” she says, regal in extending a hand as if it isn't a strategic olive branch. Chris takes it and shakes it once, firmly. Momiji turns to the other two in another swirl of dark hair and power that tingles like a reproach.
“I got the best,” she says flatly. They're all abruptly ignoring Chris and Kevin, something crackling between them fast and tense and impossible to catch a good look at. “And cheap.”
“Hey,” Chris says, wondering if he should be offended. Their fees are reasonable, he'd thought. They ignore him as if he hadn't even spoken, that crackling current of something half magic and half passive aggression still running a circuit between them.
“They're good cursebreakers?” Harmony asks at last. It seems to break whatever tension there had been because the blonde smiles and Momiji nods once.
They look at Chris at last.
“I did save the world one time,” Chris says modestly, and that ends up being that.
The outer layer of the curse is a maze.
It takes them the better part of the day to glean a good look at it, Kevin laid out face down on the front lawn to better hear the whisper of the roots in the soil and Chris walking sunwise circles spiraling in from the borders of the property towards the walls of the house.
They go back to the office with the sunset blazing into the rear view mirrors and the radio on down low enough that it's only white noise and the murmur of voices in the background filling the car. The maze is building itself behind Chris's eyes, reluctant and thorny, and he has to work to tease it free of the scattered hints he'd gleaned.
They haven't seen to the center of the maze yet but they lay out big sheets of butcher paper in the candlelight and start scribbling in the details they had managed to snatch with sticks of chalk. It's definitely a maze of some kind, maybe a labyrinth.
“This thing makes exactly no sense,” Kevin says and sets down his chalk.
“It didn't feel classical,” Chris agrees thoughtfully, jabs a finger at a snarl of tangled corners Kevin had been sketching. “But this layer, this maze, do you think whoever cast it bound in a guardian?”
Kevin hums and wipes at his mouth with the back of his wrist. There's a smear of yellow chalk dust across his cheek.
“Depends,” he says at last. “How many layers do you think this thing has?”
It's a good question. Chris thinks about it, casts his gaze across the maze they're drawing in across their office floor. There's something off about the shape of it, humps and sharp corners jutting out unexpectedly, curving arcs where by a classical tradition there should be angles and straight lines.
He thinks about the moment in the car, needles digging into him, cold like someone had bound an arctic winter into his bones and the earth beneath his feet. The grin of something almost alive plunging itself towards his heart.
“At least five,” he says at last, ignores Kevin’s noise of shock. “If this layer doesn't have some kind of guardian we're gonna hit one at some point.”
“Jesus,” Kevin says faintly.
Chris falls asleep as soon as his head hits his pillows and he’s managed to drag his blanket up over himself. He dreams of dark hallways filing off into eternity, of grit shifting under his feet as he walks, of a ball of glowing thread in his hand.
The drive to the house the next day is uneventful. Boring, the curse quiet even as they pull up in the driveway.
Chris isn't fooled. He stays watchful as Momiji lets them in and then bows out with quiet words and a pale tightness around her eyes that has Chris bundling her out as fast as he can and promising to lock up behind them.
Some people are just sensitive. Chris wonders how she'd managed the week she said they'd all lived here before deciding they couldn't handle the curse without outside intervention. There is some suggestion in the brittleness of her posture.
“Thank you,” she says as she goes and ducks her head, oddly formal. They lock the door shut behind her and start their circles again.
Without spectators the work is easier and more grim. The lines just aren't making sense. He follows them in circles that end and then loop back on themselves to end again, pathways to and from nowhere. Tangles of corners that don't make sense, a shape too irregular to support such a solid spell. The geometries don't make sense and it bothers him.
He stands to the north of the house facing back towards it and looks, turning his bottle of quicksilver over and over in his hands.
It follows him into his dreams. He's still wandering old hallways, labyrinthine and dim and absolutely empty, a ball of glowing thread in hand unwinding as he goes.
He wakes up almost exasperated with the heaviness of the metaphor and tries not to think about minotaurs.
Kevin has a smudge of graphite on his forehead and green chalk dusted like snow through his beard. It would be funny except he's scowling and running chalk-dusted hands through his wild hair like it'll calm him down and anyway Chris is in no mood to find anything funny right now.
They've been arguing for an hour over the patternless hallways at the center of the map, at the way they twist like every other section of the maze and absolutely nothing like a geometric center. It just doesn't make sense, the maze isn't stable enough to support itself without an anchor and neither of them had been able to find the signs of one.
“It just doesn't make sense,” Kevin argues, redundant, exactly what both of them have been saying to each other for hours. Chris shrugs and rubs the bridge of his nose.
“None of it makes sense,” he snaps back. “I don't know what the fuck I'm supposed to do about that.”
Kevin glares at him through the wild tangle of his hair.
“Sorry,” Chris says when the silence goes on long enough to be damning. He isn't very sorry at all and Kevin probably knows that but he shrugs acceptance anyway.
“Maybe we should head home for the night,” he says instead of calling Chris's bullshit, reaching out and swiping the chalk out of Chris's hand. Chris lets him, watches him rattle all the chalk into its box and start bundling up their drawings to be piled into a neat little ward to keep outside influences away.
The little ache through the bridge of his nose is making thinking slow and fuzzy.
He looks down at his hands, empty. Thinks of the dream, the halls that he can never seem to make sense of.
The ball of thread in his hand, glowing.
“It's not a maze,” Chris realizes and then he's on his feet, whirling and yanking the pile of papers out of Kevin’s hands and gesturing them out to settle across the floor in their rightful places. For a moment he's the eye of a hurricane of white paper, directing them in vast sweeps of his arms. He can almost see it already, a realization settling in at the loose curves, improbable corners of what they'd stupidly just assumed to be a maze.
“What the shit,” Kevin says, faux-pleasant, and Chris beckons him over to point wildly at the snarl they'd been trying to figure out.
“It's not a maze,” he repeats and he's aware there's a grin slashing across his face that's a little bit manic but the rush of beating this fucker at their own game is powerful. “It's a knot.”
They walk more circles, Kevin with his eyes out toward the trees and Chris with his gaze towards the house and his hands loose at his side. The shape of the knot is becoming clearer with every pass, now that they know what they're looking at.
The curse isn't fighting back yet and it kind of worries Chris. He hadn't expected much trouble, not for the first layer. It's the clever equivalent of a garden gate keeping out the idly curious.
Still. There should be something. Some reaction as they wear a circle into the witch's lawn. In Chris's experience, curses don't like to be looked at.
“It's oriented north,” Kevin tells him quietly. Kevin knows things about cardinal directions, the swing of the sun, the shape of things that are known by plants. Knows them inherently, by instinct, where Chris would have to study the knot design for hours to glean the fact.
He nods and keeps circling.
It kind of feels like the curse is watching them, sometimes. He does his best to ignore it. It's not possible and anyway it's all his imagination. Ascribing too much to a magical construct with intelligence by only the loosest of definitions; he won’t cede ground to the thing, not yet.
He keeps his hand close to where his knife sits in his pocket, though. When he glances up at the shine of the windows his throat still hurts with the impression of needles and cold.
He doesn’t want to underestimate it, either.
They set themselves up on the front porch because it's the northernmost point of the house and where Chris can see the knot most clearly. It takes them a little while, laying down a salt circle and arranging the pads Chris had bought to sit on after not noticing his legs falling asleep a few jobs ago had nearly cost him the ability to walk for a few days. He sets out the things Chris uses to focus, things he doesn't necessarily need but that free up more of him to deal with whatever may come.
The bottle of quicksilver in front of him to improve his sight. His obsidian knife at his knee, just in case. A clover, for the luck and just because Kevin likes them.
He cheerfully bundles up until he's almost unbearably warm and laughs at Kevin, just a nose and a tuft of beard sticking out of the faux fur of the jacket. He's giddy with something, nerves and the task ahead of him and the fact that he is about to affect real change. Strike something back at the fucking curse.
He forces himself to settle, once he's got himself situated. Kevin facing him, excavated enough from his jacket to see, Chris's necessary tether back to reality. It's getting cold already, autumn afternoon giving way to an evening with teeth to it, the jackets and gloves needed to keep his body safe while he wanders.
The reverie is as easy as breathing. As easy as closing his eyes and stepping gently outside himself, standing and leaving his body behind. All he's left as is a bundle of thoughts and the faintest impression of his body, a wet weight he's shed except for the faintest of nostalgias.
Kevin is staring right at him and that never stops being freaky as shit, the way Kevin’s eyes follow him even though he can't see the way Chris can.
He turns his back, walks to the door and looks down.
At the familiar ball of glowing thread in his hands. It's cold and feels sharp when he teases at a loop of it.
Of course, he thinks, because of course, and gets to work.
There's no guardian here. Nothing to stop him but the grueling tedium of unraveling this knotted tangle.
It’s cleverly done, every loop purposefully designed to snarl around the questing fingers of his thoughts, a noose latching around any part of himself Chris lets stray. It hurts, he can feel that much. Ache building ghostlike in the hands of the body at the other end of the tether Kevin maintains for him. Stinging through his fingers, up his arms, a pounding throb in his head that would distract him if he weren’t so far down.
Here, in the greying darkness, a ball of glowing thread unraveling under his attention, there is no concept of pain. There is only patiently tugging on the threads.
The undoing of it is its own form. The necessity of adhering to something enough like logic to pass as a maze. It’s almost like solving a maze in the end.
He finishes what had been to him a small eternity later but when he tugs exhaustedly on his tether to Kevin and is gently eased back into his body the sun is barely peeking up over the horizon again. Pale morning light, cleansing and soothing to his sore eyes when he blinks blearily into it. Kevin looks terrible, eyes red-rimmed and hands a little shaky when Chris lifts a limp fist to be bumped.
The outer layer of the curse; the weakest and easiest, the one that fought him the least. Still his hands hurt like he's been submerging them in ice water, his body aching with exertion. He'll take wins as they come but there's something about how hard it had been on him that makes him nervous.
“Fuck you,” Chris declares hoarsely to the silent house behind them and lets himself slump over onto his side. His back fucking hurts.
They take a day, which Chris doesn't love but both of them need. He aches to dig his nails into the curse layer by layer, to rip it away like an old, rotten bandaid, but they both need rest.
He putters around the apartment instead of thinking about the curse. Puts a record in his record player and does the dishes piling up in the sink, dutifully waters the plants Kevin’s loaded him down with over the years. Instead of ordering out he makes food for himself. Stir fry, heavy spices, delicious and warming the kitchen until he's humming to himself and dancing while eating over the sink. It feels good.
When he falls into bed he can still feel the bite of thread into the tips of his fingers.
Harmony answers the door this time and Chris grins at her winningly.
She smiles in return, a grudging turn at the corner of her mouth and then stepping aside to let them in.
“You look,” she says as she ushers them down the hall and then pauses. “Less tired,” she settles on. Kevin laughs and elbows Chris until she glances back at him and he subsides nervously.
“We're not staying here while the curse is still here,” she explains, handing over a key. “It just…” she shudders, an involuntary shiver of motion and then a glance deeper into the house.
There's silence for a moment.
“It's bad for our craft,” she says at last, which isn't untrue but isn't the whole truth either. Chris lets it be. It's not really his job, talking to the clients about their issues. He's the savior of the world, not a therapist.
“We'll deal with it,” he promises reassuringly anyway, and smiles his sunniest smile when Harmony looks at him. The stiffness goes right out of her after a moment, shoulders softening.
“If I were you,” she says quietly, “I wouldn't stay the night here.”
Her makeup is flawless and warm but Chris suddenly wonders if it hides bruises of sleep deprivation. It's common, in curses. He wonders if they know that. He wonders if it would be rude to leave an unobtrusive pamphlet on cleansing curse taints with her.
“Thanks, but don’t worry about it. I like my own bed,” he says and Harmony smiles at him with more real warmth than politeness for the first time.
“I’ll leave you to it,” is all she says, still polite but with good humor this time, and then she’s gone and her car is moving away down the street.
He can't really pay it too much attention. He’s already feeling out the edges of this new layer of the curse, not paying enough attention to what his hands are doing. In the end Kevin has to take the stacks of note paper from his hands, appropriate the box of chalk before Chris drops it and breaks all of it. Chris lets him. He barely notices.
When Kevin is finished fussing he settles with his back to the front door facing down the hall, presses his palms to the floor and closes his eyes.
It's motion, that's what he feels first. Endless motion meant to echo a tide ebbing in and out and wearing down the spirit of anyone inside the property like beach glass. It's clever, malicious and clever and like the tides tied to some kind of cycle.
He just can't figure out what.
It's late afternoon when he finally surfaces, heavy with nausea and vertigo, Kevin staring down at him with equal parts curiosity and reproach.
“I'm fine,” Chris promises preemptively. It would be more convincing if he could get himself to his feet but somehow all he can do is list sideways and stare up at the disapproving moue of Kevin’s mouth. Kevin rolls his eyes.
“What did you find?” he prompts, bending and getting his hands under Chris's armpits to heave him to his feet. Chris is a little steadier there, swaying and bracing himself against Kevin’s shoulder but staying upright.
“It's anchored somewhere in the house,” Chris mumbles and gestures down the hall. “Most likely here or in the basement, but I can't, I couldn't fucking pinpoint-”
Kevin shakes him, a gentle settling motion. His mouth snaps shut and he lifts a shaky hand to knuckle under an eye.
“We'll figure it out,” he tells Chris and it shouldn't calm him down but he feels his shoulders drop from around his ears anyway. He sighs and Kevin shakes him again companionably.
“It's anchored but the effects are tied to some kind of cycle, I was thinking lunar but it's not? I can't figure out where the anchor would be without the right cycle,” he says slowly. The motion is still there at the corners of his vision, an empty tide pulling out and out and out and threatening to fall back in on them at any moment.
“There's no other way,” Kevin questions, nudging him into motion heading down the hall. Chris bobbles for a moment, loose in his joints because he still doesn't fit under his own skin quite right. His sense for the curse is receding as he builds his wards back up, layers between himself and how much it hurts to look at.
“We could just like, tear out the wallpaper and drywall and floorboards and shit and maybe, maybe find the anchor but I don't think Momiji would love that,” he says dryly.
“No, let's not piss her off,” Kevin agrees, genuinely nervous, and Chris feels the last of the curse slipping from the edges of himself as he laughs.
He goes home after they've spent so long paging through reference books and old stacks of notes that typeface has started to blur into a kind of abstract art. All they've found is the same shit he already knows, that most magic tied to cyclical time relies on the solar or lunar cycle. It's not exactly helpful.
He sways home on the train and rubs at a temple against the headache. The motion of it is nauseating, reminds him too much of the tidal shift of the curse.
There's something missing. It's a feeling he doesn't like very much, the feeling that something’s been gotten over on him. The caster of this ugly curse laughing at him for missing something obvious.
He doesn't want to think about Sajeeb as he curls up on the couch and stares down into the mug of tea he doesn't have any particular desire to drink, but there's something about way the tea smells and the exhaustion tugging him down and down. It's a certain kind of hurting that he can't stop poking at like a missing tooth. He thinks about Sajeeb laughing, embers on his tongue, burning bright and hot and beautiful in Chris's veins.
He wakes to thin, unfriendly early morning sun through his front window and a crick in his neck from sleeping sideways against the arm of the couch. There's cold tea drying tacky into the threads of the carpet.
“It's just too long to be the lunar cycle,” he repeats, and Kevin growls and throws the book he's holding back onto the table.
“Everything uses the lunar cycle,” he snaps back. “I don’t know what the fuck else it could be, you said it was shorter than a year round?”
Chris hauls in a breath through his nose and lays his hands carefully on the cool granite of the table top. Pushes his frustration down and out through his palms because it’s petulant and destructive and not Kevin’s fault anyway. He still isn’t fully settled in himself, still feeling the swirl of motion in his chest that's so familiar and yet hadn't matched up to anything quite right.
“Yeah,” he says and the shrugs. “It’s not even by season, it’s just…”
He pauses, shrugs again and finally lets himself pull his hands away from the table. The granite where they had been is a little scorched but he feels better.
“Doesn’t fit. It’s sitting counter to it by what felt like... maybe a few days? I’ll need to go look again to see more.”
Kevin reaches past him to thumb at the soot in the shape of Chris’s hands and makes a disapproving noise as it wipes off.
“Show off,” he mumbles and then sighs and wipes his thumb on the corner of Chris's jacket. Chris nobly lets him, reasons that he'll need to scrub away the soot and magical influence anyway and besides, if it makes Kevin feel better. The tension has bled from the room as easily as it had risen.
“We’re gonna have to go back to the house anyway,” he reasons. “We’ll figure out something.”
“You're cleaning that up first,” Kevin says, pointing at Chris's blackened handprints. He sighs and goes to get the paper towels and sea salt.
Harmony and the blonde - Victoria, she'd finally introduced herself as - arrive halfway through Chris’s second dive into the curse of the day.
He’s peripherally aware of them in the way he’s aware of everything on the other side of his eyelids; he’s moving among it but apart from it, wading through the curse and sliding over the walls, hoping something about them strikes his attention. Harmony and Victoria are pillars of metal and crystal and wreathing incense, when he’s seeing like this, different from but not unlike the oaky strength of Kevin’s presence tethering him down.
He moves farther into the house, ignoring them as they watch him. There are currents here, currents moving and shifting as time passes. He can’t distill them down into patterns yet, not without the right time signature, but he thinks he’s certain the anchor isn’t in the top floor.
He’s coughing when he comes up. His lungs don’t like it when he’s gone so long, protesting shallow sips of air for hours at a time. He lets it pass, coughs until his lungs have settled and his skin feels less like a theoretical boundary and more like his reality.
Victoria extends a mug of tea to him and he jumps.
“Hello,” she says wryly when he takes it and nods his thanks. “It’s just earl grey.”
“Thank you,” he croaks politely and takes a sip. It’s warm but not too hot and steeped perfectly, which doesn’t surprise him at all. Victoria seems to be the kind of person that would take pride in her perfect tea. She watches him carefully until he smiles up at her and then she nods decisively.
Harmony isn’t nearby and neither is Kevin, but he can hear dishes rattling and muffled conversation from the kitchen and he assumes Kevin’s gotten over his nerves at the witches.
“How is the progress?” she asks and he waves a hand vaguely from the floor. She hasn’t offered to help him stand up yet and he’s kind of grateful; his skin might have settled back into being real, but his legs are still a somewhat shaky proposition.
“Slower than I like, but going,” he admits easily. “It’s a bad curse.”
“Thank you,” she says at last, a moment gone that should verge into the awkward but doesn’t. “For doing this.”
Chris shrugs. It makes him uncomfortable sometimes, this part. The gratitude. He never knows what to do with it.
“It’s my job,” he says. She nods.
“Still,” she says, and she’s looking away now, deeper into the house. In the direction of the noises in the kitchen. “This curse, it hits Momiji really hard. So. Thank you.”
He nods back when she looks back at him and sips his tea. It really is excellent tea.
“So what's this layer of the curse?” Victoria asks. He breathes out through his nose and tries to grope after the words to describe what the curse’s magic had felt like pressing up against his own.
“It's like, time-based,” he settles on. “Definitely cyclical with a physical anchor. I'm having trouble triangulating without the right cycle though.”
Victoria looks at him shrewdly.
“You've checked for lunar or a year-round,” she starts and then laughs as Chris rolls his eyes over the rim of his mug.
“We checked every reference book we have but, you know.” he shrugs. Makes a vague gesture with his shoulders meant to convey his opinion of the authors of reference books. “No one's bothered to compile an easy list of cycles by length.”
There's a beat and then-
“Have you considered, just like, googling it?” Harmony asks from the doorway to the kitchen.
Chris stares at her, at Kevin avoiding his gaze right behind her, and there is a very long silence.
Kevin pulls out his phone.
“Temporal cycles,” he reads out after some furtive tapping, obviously trying to pretend all their eyes aren’t on him. “Ranked by length.”
“Well,” Chris says. “Shit.”
It's Mercury's orbit.
As soon as Chris sees its sigil reflected back at him from Kevin’s cracked, grainy phone screen the sense of rightness settles something ticking anxiously in his chest. Another layer understood, not yet peeled away but still defined enough that unlocking it will be easy.
Easier than it could be.
He doesn’t know why he didn’t realize sooner. He has enough affinity for quicksilver - mercury, he’s such a stupid idiot, mercury.
He doesn't let himself wallow for long. It's useless when they've finally figured it out, when they're all set to banish another layer. He spends a minute muttering at himself and kicking the baseboard and moves on.
He doesn't have it in him to do a full immersion, not without a full night's rest, but he dips back in for a little while. If he hadn't been sure before then the way he can dance in the currents now convinces him, sure of his footing in a way that isn't trust so much as knowledge. He knows the patterns now.
He's grinning when he pulls back out. Kevin grins back happily.
He draws Mercury's sigil on his left palm and puts his bottle of quicksilver in his right pocket, and he feels the gravity of the planet's orbit drawing at him before he's even stepped outside himself. It's difficult to wait for Kevin to be ready but he forces himself to, tapping impatient fingers against his leg.
Harmony is here again today, doing something in the front yard that Chris suspects she thinks is a better cover for watching them than it really is. He doesn't really mind. She's out of the way and when he puts his back to the front door and steps halfway out of himself he can't even really see her.
It's difficult, seeing like this. Bridging the gap between what he can feel pressing against his spirit and making his body move. It's ponderous and slow but he forces himself into motion because it's the best way.
Moving through the house is dreamy, trancelike, a dance of Kevin steering him carefully away from the walls and then stepping back again to let him keep going. It's Chris fording the motion of the curse, the tide washing back and forth between the walls like real water, seeking the source of the strongest currents.
It's difficult though to keep his balance, difficult to press on through the waves of it as it tries to push him back. Dumb and uncomprehending force, heavy and wearing on him by the fact of its nature. He pushes on anyway, closes his eyes sometimes just to feel the direction the flow of it is coming from.
He almost falls down the stairs to the basement before Kevin gets a hand around his arm and yanks him back. Chris looks back at him blearily and then back down the stairs into the dark maw of the basement.
The curse is bubbling up from there, flowing out over his feet and pressing against his legs in what he can almost see from the corner of his eye, a rush of dirty frothing water.
“It's down there,” he says muzzily and Kevin just nods.
They go down the steps carefully, the footing more treacherous than it should be. It's the water of the curse, and Chris can see the purpose of this layer more clearly than ever. A wearing down of emotions and strength, sapping the warmth from anyone inside the house in bad luck and little accidents and ugly frustrations. Subtle and awful.
They make it to the bottom without slipping and as soon as he gets a foot on the concrete floor he knows.
“There,” he mumbles and points vaguely at the wall directly opposite the stairs. Without any interfering walls, Mercury’s pull exacting and distant in his bones, he can feel the curse pushing at him from that direction.
Kevin sits him down on the bottom step and goes to work.
There's drywall but no carpeting, nothing but bare cement and a little dusty rug right at the foot of the stairs. Chris shoves at it with a toe and works at easing himself back under his skin as he watches Kevin work.
It's a little fascinating. He lays his fingertips carefully against the drywall here and there in no pattern Chris can fathom. His face is screwed up like he's listening to someone talk from far away, pained and silent, and Chris tries to quiet his breathing even though he knows it won't make any real difference.
Kevin stops at last and points to a spot absolutely indistinguishable from every other spot of drywall in the wall.
“I can hear, just, the weirdest shit here,” he says and shrugs. “I think the anchor’s, uh… Wax?”
Chris grins tiredly and starts trying to haul himself to his feet.
“Time to get out the sledgehammers,” he says happily. Demolition has always secretly been his favorite part. “Harmony is not going to like this.”
Harmony doesn't like it but when Chris shows her the little waxen figure bound up in thread she doesn't do more than sigh tragically through her nose at the piles of dust and drywall fragments scattered across the basement cement. Chris grins back as winningly as he can when it's getting a little difficult to stay on his feet.
He likes her. He likes all of them. He's fond of prickly people.
Kevin and Harmony argue for almost twenty minutes about how to dispose of the anchor before Chris steps in tiredly and points out that neither of them want the curse anchor in their cars and anyway there's a lovely brick-lined firepit in the backyard. They both look chastised. Chris laughs at them.
They build the fire up hot and quick and ferocious. Kevin tends it carefully, pushing it as hot as it can go, sticky sap on his fingers. Chris watches, walking a clockwise circle every now and then to keep the energy right. He throws up the wards as a precaution, a wide bowl over them to keep in anything the effigy lets off when it burns.
He undoes the knots with lazy focus, picking at the wax sticking under his nails to cast into the fire, more banishing rituals gone by than he can remember. It's easy to him now, the motions of it, leaving the thread looped around the effigy. The wax is old, years old. It crumbles under his nails and leaves his hands feeling dirty, but he ignores it. There's time later to cleanse himself of any lingering influences.
There's very little ceremony in holding the effigy over the fire for a moment and then casting it in. For a beat the effigy is whole, back-lit by the glowing coals and then it starts to melt with a soft noise and the smell of burning wax.
A moment of satisfaction, the prelude to celebration, and then the wave of backlash hits him like a train.
He's toppling, a tree felled. Kevin shouts his name, and on his other side Harmony is being noisily sick all over the grass, but Chris can't hear it very well. He can barely hear anything but the rush of his heartbeat speeding like a panicking rabbit.
Misery, compounded over years and years into a bitter poison rising up like bile. Fear and anger twining up through his veins and it's cold and alien and it burns where it tries to make Chris like itself. The pressurized curse spending itself against him and all he can do is push it back and get control of his body again.
A starlike nova of pain where he's bitten a hole in his tongue. His mouth is filling slowly with blood and there is something almost but not entirely like frost sealing his jaw shut. He writhes on the ground, jerky and panicked, blood trickling sour and salty down the back of his throat and he can't fucking breathe around it.
The wave recedes, rolls back out weaker and weaker as the effigy burns. It's crackling merrily. Chris stares at it glassily and sets his shoulder against the magic freezing him still and pushes it off.
He rolls himself over, forces his jaw open so the blood has somewhere to go and breathes heavily into the grass.
“That fucking thucked,” he slurs at last, voice thick around his hurting tongue. Harmony makes a weak sound of agreement. Kevin just snorts.
When he jerks awake in the middle of the night, wet with sweat and panting for breath because all he can feel is the infinite pressure of water dragging him down and down and down, he's hardly surprised.
The third layer is a maze.
They spend a long time being sure, checking every iteration of what else it could be before conceding that it is a straightforward if complex circle maze.
It takes Kevin all of ten minutes to come up with a cardinal direction, too. “East,” is all he says, gestures towards the side of the house with the least windows. This time there’s no hint of trickery, no sign that the caster has hidden their intentions.
It’s a cruel maze anyway. Every corner designed to draw down bad luck and isolation like a lightning rod, amplifying pain and misery, greedily swallowing down every hint of joy and celebration. The construction is almost runic, something so close to a summoning circle that it makes Chris nervous just having it in his head.
“There’s so a guardian on this thing,” he mumbles, because he hasn’t seen to the center of the construction yet but if there isn’t some kind of sigil holding a spirit in place then he’ll eat a shoe. Kevin shrugs his agreement, glances at where Chris is holding his stone knife in a gentle grip - just in case, he’s pretty sure nothing can reach outside the maze, but just in case - and nods.
“We’ll be careful,” he says, which is kind of useless. Chris appreciates the sentiment anyway.
They go back to the office, ward up the workroom three layers deep and start to draw in what they know. It’s a lot, between the two of them. The maze hadn’t fought to hide itself, which makes Chris even more nervous. They still haven’t seen to the center but he doesn’t really need to, not to solve a maze.
They'll have to salt down the whole room when they're done with this layer, just in case. A maze like this, drawing it in detail invites things in. It's dangerous enough to draw just parts of it. Chris can feel it tugging uselessly at the wards he’s thrown down over the paper as it is, jagged ends of corners and long hallways drawing down bad luck and ill will like a television aerial.
It worries him not to know what he’ll be fighting.
“We're gonna have to solve this one widdershins,” Kevin says softly, nervously. Chris swears, shoving himself back from the worktable in frustration.
He stares down at the fragments laid out between them on the table.
The caster had put themselves into this, this curse that's no little thing. So many layers, so much work. Cleverness, anger, malice. A command of spellwork that makes Chris nervous. It doesn't make sense, such a strong and bitter curse tied into a house in the ass end of a suburban road.
“We should do some research,” he mumbles at last and reaches for his cup of tea. It's gone cold and bitter but he sips it anyway. The space they haven't seen into yet bothers him, a void in their collective sketches that could be filled with anything.
“Yeah, I feel it too,” Kevin agrees. His hand intrudes into Chris's field of vision and tugs the mug gently away. It takes Chris a sluggish moment to look up.
Kevin isn't looking at him. He's running careful fingertips over the gnarled curl of a vine, its leaves shifting and swaying to brush against his wrist. Chris wonders what it's saying, what it's murmuring to Kevin that Chris just isn't able to hear.
There are circles under his eyes, faint blue bruises of sleep deprivation, and it occurs to Chris to worry about him. They are both too absorbed in the work for their own good.
“Like, why this house,” Kevin continues and glances back to Chris. “I doubt it's the coven, y’know.”
“Curse is too old,” Chris agrees and rocks back on his heels, running his fingers through the greasy tangle of his hair. He’s been backsliding a little bit on sleep, nothing he can’t handle but not exactly good for him either. The way he’s always been about really thorny problems, except this problem is thornier than most and there’s no one bundling him into bed or confiscating the piles of notes he sneaks home in his bag.
He sighs and shrugs and starts sweeping their pile of papers into a loose stack.
“Grab me some of the grey ribbon and then head home,” he tells Kevin as he works. “Sleep on it.”
He leaves the stack of drawings bound up and circled in salt and hopefully harmless. Tries to put it from his mind as he throws leftover stir fry into the microwave and leaves the dishes undone before stumbling to bed.
Useless effort. He falls asleep with the maze running over and over in his head.
He takes another day to replenish himself. He’s going to be fighting a guardian more likely than not and he doesn’t relish the idea of doing it running on empty.
He probably could but he doesn’t like the face Kevin makes when he tells him so. It reminds him a little too much of a mom. Anyway, he appreciates the time to examine the maps they’ve assembled piecemeal and incomplete.
In the maze he won’t have a map in hand, only logic and what he's painstakingly memorized to guide him.
They set up in the middle of the afternoon the next day, an empty room with the biggest window looking out east. Pads to sit on, his quicksilver in front of him. They bundle up a little bit because it’s still cold inside.
There’s no giddiness this time, not like the first time. Just determination. Readiness. He keeps his knife in his hand instead of at his knee because he will need it.
Kevin settles opposite him and reaches out to tap the back of his hand three times. It makes Chris grin and Kevin grins back, confident in a way that’s a little bit fake but something Chris needs. Kevin will be with him every step that he can, will throw himself into the fray for Chris like he has every time before. A fucking amazing friend.
He can handle this. He can.
Stepping outside himself is as easy as it’s always been, standing up and out of his body into the refracted space beyond. It's empty like this which doesn't surprise him; he’d settled down facing North, a nod to the beginning of the curse and a way to limit how this layer can reach back to touch his body. He steels himself.
He turns to the East and-
He’s at the mouth of the maze.
To his vision it’s old stone, cold, steeped in damp and misery and suffocated of light. It isn’t real - he can feel Kevin at his back, tethered to him umbilical and warm and necessary, and when he tilts his head he can see the house beyond the illusion of the walls of the maze. It’s all a trick of magic and light, but necessary.
He pauses a last moment. Takes his knife in hand and steps into the maze.
For a long time he’s just following the map of the maze he’s built in his head, careful and methodical. He can afford to take the time to be slow, needs to even. Losing himself to the maze might mean not being able to get out, even with Kevin. His body starving to death as he wanders and wanders and loses his sanity.
Or until he’s eaten by the guardian. He’s expecting it, which is the only reason that the thing doesn’t overwhelm him when it strikes.
He turns a corner and almost steps into it, stumbles back at the last second, screams and somehow forgets the knife in his hand.
It’s big, a mass of bone and mouths and needles in his vision, terror that claws at his senses because it doesn’t make any sense, no creature should look like that. Nothing could live like that, and the horror of it makes him sick, so he nearly doesn’t throw up the ward in time.
It slams into the wall of Chris’s magic and howls, a sound like a psychic blender. The noise grates against Chris’s senses and he shoves back instinctively, ward expanding out and sending the thing rolling away back down the dim hallway.
He gets a good look at it before it’s around a corner and out of sight.
A famine spirit. Something built of starvation and wanting and misery. He’s not surprised; it’s a good match for this maze, a guardian easy to fuel on the scraps siphoned from the inhabitants of the house. He throws a little more power into his wards and keeps going.
Chasing the guardian is a trap, meant to turn him around and confuse him until he can’t find his way back out. His best chance is finding the center of this maze, the place the spirit is bound to, and destroying that.
His only warning the next time is a creeping tingle at where the back of Chris’s neck would be if he had a definable physical form like this.
He whirls to find it looming right beyond his wards and ready to crash down on them with all of its weight.
Chris strikes out with his knife, clumsy and panicked and all reflexive reaction. He gets it in one of the mouths, and the thing screams again and bolts away down the hall into the darkness Chris would go mad trying to see into.
Spirits don’t bleed but there’s a trail of residue where it had been, a fading trace of foul magic that Chris shudders at and turns away from. He can smell how it would burn if he touched it, corrosive like battery acid, radiating weakness and hunger and pain. It's not worth thinking about.
The map in his head gets shakier the deeper in he gets, the details fading into broad impressions of the way the maze should go. Hypotheses only. He runs into a dead end, backtracks and runs into another before finding the right way.
It helps that he knows he’s going widdershins, inviting in evil and bad luck. He doesn’t like being stuck in the dead ends, though. He can sense the way the guardian is trailing him, stalking him through the narrow hallways and waiting for its chance to strike again. It would be too easy to get caught between dim walls and it. He hurries out of the dead ends.
It strikes a final time as he’s reaching spitting distance from the center of the maze.
The walls are so tightly curved now that he can barely see five feet in any direction, the branching hallways sudden and tight and paranoia-inducing. The instinct is to run, to make a mad dash for the center because it’s so close he can taste it in the tight pressure building against him. He forces himself to go slow instead. He can’t afford mistakes.
It comes at him quick and from the front, rushing at him so fast that it’s only a split second he gets to react.
He can’t strike back, doesn’t have the time. He braces himself, drops low and puts everything he can into his ward and watches the thing slide over it, a bare inch overhead. It screams as it goes and it’s clawing at his wards, biting at them, tearing out handfuls of Chris’s power-
Now he runs.
The center’s close enough that mistakes are almost impossible and the guardian is behind him instead of ahead and anyway he’s seen the last of the maze, he knows where he’s going. The logical center. He runs and runs, the guardian howling right behind him, clawing at the tail of his wards as they go.
He doesn’t make a mistake. The entrance to the circular little room that makes up the center of the maze glows in his vision and he throws himself through it, puts the last of himself into a ward over it and snarls a reply to the guardian’s frustrated scream when it rebounds off of it.
It’s a plain little room and he doesn’t bother looking at the details of it, staggers over to the squat, round little altar that makes up the epicenter of this layer. There’s a clay tablet right in the middle, wet as if it’s just been formed, a sigil carved into it that burns in Chris’s vision. It’s evil, and tugging at Chris, daring him to try to decipher it. It wants him to, wants him to look at it, to understand it so it can let itself into him-
He stabs his knife through the center of the sigil, impatient and disinterested in the traditional banishment.
The maze shatters around him with the shriek of breaking stone. The spirit screams, the buzzsaw of its blender voice as it dies, and Chris grins vacantly into the unnatural human-made light suddenly streaming around him. He’s back in the house. He’s exhausted beyond comprehension, but still.
He loves to win.
He doesn't even need to signal; Kevin feels the tug of the layer dying and eases him back into himself at a limping pace. Chris appreciates it.
His whole body hurts, he discovers with absent disinterest. A diffuse ache, centered around his head and his spine. It takes him a long time to open his eyes. He's just exhausted. Kevin is watching him when he finally manages and he doesn't exactly look so much better but he can get to his feet without stumbling and when Chris tries to lift a hand it trembles.
Kevin has to haul him to his feet and he's not unfamiliar with it, with this kind of exhaustion. Strung out on unreality and emptied of everything he has to burn. His body feels entirely unreal, the air against his skin too much, enough that when Kevin half-carries him to the car and settles him against the cold pleather of the seat he makes a wounded little noise.
He wants to sleep. He's already mostly asleep as Kevin buckles him into the seat.
“You can't keep doing this,” he thinks he hears Kevin say, and he goes into the darkness of unconsciousness thinking that that's entirely silly, because Chris isn't dead yet. Of course he can keep doing this.
He sleeps until nearly noon. He still has a headache when he finally opens his eyes, there’s still pain threaded through his whole body in leftover swells, but it’s lesser and the exhaustion has abated a little.
He still wants to sleep for a week but whatever. Whatever, whatever, he has work to do and even if he’s too tired to really do any diving there’s still blueprints to check, measurements to take. There’s something up with this curse.
There’s nothing pointing specifically to someone trying to hide a body in the walls but Chris has seen CSI. He knows what’s up.
“You’re insane,” Kevin tells him pleasantly when he makes his way to the office, but when Chris promises him three times and swears on the cactus that he won’t try to project when they’re there he agrees to drive them over.
“One of these days we’re gonna knock down a wall and a body’s gonna fall out,” Chris replies. He’s holding his biggest travel mug full of shitty gas station coffee and feeling extremely good about it. “And I’ll have fucking told you so.”
He can’t find any suspicious gaps in the blueprints or unexpectedly thick walls. Not that he was really expecting there to be. It’s more of an excuse to get moving, to get out of his apartment and his own head than anything.
He’s pretty sure that’s why Kevin had caved so quickly. He tires himself out pretty quickly anyway, not really ready to call it quits so much as running out of his ability to climb the stairs without getting winded. Kevin leaves him by the car to go pack up their stuff and Chris finds himself with his phone in his hand with a certain sense of inevitability.
He’s been laughing all day but he isn’t sure he’s meant any of it. None of it feels quite right.
He tries not to let himself call too often, because he knows Sajeeb will pick up and he knows it isn't good for him, for either of them. Only times like now, when the world isn't enough to keep him grounded and everything is starting to float just out of his reach. When he needs to.
Sajeeb doesn't call him. Chris has made his peace with that.
“Chris,” Sajeeb says. “Hey.”
It's been so long since he's last seen Sajeeb, he realizes. Almost two years.
Two years since he'd let Sajeeb lace their fingers together one last time and then leave. Two years, and he's barely heard Sajeeb’s voice. He really, truly does understand why Sajeeb left. He agrees, even.
Sajeeb’s voice cracks him right down the middle.
“Hey, hi,” he says, words stumbling over each other to come out casually and he suspects coming out not casual at all. “What's up? Where are you?”
“I'm in New York right now,” and Chris closes his eyes and can hear the city unfolding out through the speaker of his phone. Sajeeb must be on the street because he can hear traffic, voices he can't quite make into words. “Just left the airport.”
“Where'd you come from?” he asks, eyes still closed. Sajeeb hums distractedly and it's familiar even through the crackle of the poor connection.
“I was in Italy for a while,” Sajeeb says, and then he's telling Chris about the pillars and tattered remnant magics of ancient Greek ruins and the shiny imposing wards of the museums. He's excited and a little breathless with it, Chris can hear him move down the street in the change of the traffic and street hawkers offering things Chris can't make out. He leans back against the warm metal of the car door and listens.
“Where are you?” Sajeeb asks at last. “How have you been?”
Chris pauses, sighs through his nose. His voice is dry in his throat, a tickle like he's about to cry but his eyes are too dry.
“Same as always. Good,” he murmurs at last. “I'm on a case right now.”
Sajeeb makes a questioning noise.
I need you, he almost says, but that is the wrong thing to say and he bites it back, swallows down the bitter truth of it and looks for the right words.
“It's a bad curse,” he says at last. “I don't know that I can handle it.”
Sajeeb is quiet. Breathing on the other end of the line, a rush of static, the connection decaying. Chris squeezes his eyes tighter shut, as tightly as he can, and lets starbursts of blindness go off behind his eyelids until it's almost like Sajeeb is breathing in his ear.
“Chris,” Sajeeb says at last and Chris's heart doesn't break but it aches a little.
“Yeah, I know,” he says, for something to say, and then opens his eyes. The house stares back at him. “Not about to let some bastard curse get the better of me.”
Sajeeb laughs at that, warm and a little surprised and quiet. it makes Chris smile even as his heart aches a little bit more.
“I'll be sending thoughts,” Sajeeb promises and it doesn't heal the hurt dripping bitter and sad down the back of his throat but he does know it's true. He knows Sajeeb will be thinking of him, worrying, hoping he's alright.
It's good. It's enough.
“Make sure you eat something,” Sajeeb continues, warm and private.
“I've eaten!” Chris insists and ignores the hollow rumble in his gut that makes him a liar. He can hear the smile on Sajeeb’s face even through the phone.
“Eat again,” Sajeeb insists easily. “I have to catch a train, but be careful, Gavino.”
“I will,” Chris says and then the line is clicking over to dead air and his heart still isn't broken, hasn't cracked or faltered, but his chest feels raw anyway. “I miss you.”
He orders out because he can't fathom the energy to make food, but he does eat. It helps. He sleeps like the dead from the moment his head hits the pillow and if he dreams he doesn't remember it.
He’s rested when he gets to the office, but the burnout still lingers in the back of his head. It doesn’t worry him as much as it could. They’re not going to do any work with the curse, not really. Just test the waters of this layer, quick reconnaissance. Nothing serious.
He just kind of wishes he had more sleep.
He always remembers before, when he’s like this. He misses the rush of it sometimes. The roar of godhood settling around his shoulders, though he can only remember it in the way he remembers dreams; indistinct, imprecise, impossible and lovely. He could have broken this curse with a thought.
The thoughts always turn to Sajeeb. They don't hurt anymore, not much, only in the way nostalgia hurts. In the way missing Sajeeb always hurts.
Chris shakes it away and turns to the pile of notes in front of him. He can feel the cactus behind him in its special place on the windowsill, judging him. He flips it off without looking and immerses himself in the notes because cursing is still very extremely illegal and he doesn't think punching the caster will break the curse faster but it'll make him feel better.
He remembers the tightness of Momiji’s eyes, the way Harmony had spoken of sleeping, and he usually doesn't think there's much use for anger but he's been known to make exceptions.
He's pretty sure he's got the orientation of the curse now, understands the metamagical design of it. Four cardinal directions and three floors, seven layers in total to tie the curse into the building and the location so intrinsically that he kind of suspects that trying to demolish the building would be like setting off a small bomb. The next layer will have an anchor in the ground floor, he's pretty sure. Maybe something elemental, though Chris doesn't really think so.
No one is home when they pull up in the driveway. No one but the curse, brooding at the very edge of Chris's senses.
“I don't like this,” Kevin says preemptively and Chris sighs through his nose and flicks the lock on his door back and forth until Kevin reaches across and slaps at his arm.
“Well I don't know what other choices we have,” he says reasonably and slaps Kevin’s hand away to keep clicking the lock.
“I don't have to like it,” Kevin says darkly and gets out of the car.
When he steps outside of himself the water of the second layer is gone, the pressing darkness of it absent from the corners of his eyes. Instead there is only stillness and a certain stifling kind of muffled silence as he steps outside of himself and looks around.
The halls are lit with the sun and the emptiness of them is only emphasized by the way no sound seems to be able to penetrate it. All Chris can really feel is the tether between him and Kevin.
It's foreboding. He ventures deeper anyway.
It takes him longer than he likes to realize that the silence isn't as complete as he'd thought. There's a certain buzzing to it that comes and goes as he ventures deeper into the house. It fades when he nears the stairs at the center of the house, rattles loudest in the living room in front to of the big bay window. He circles the room a few times, chasing the volume of the hum.
He realizes it’s the glass of the window on the third circuit, leaning in close enough to see that the light refracts through it just a little bit wrong. A little too diffuse, filtered prismatic and hitting the ground in rainbows that it shouldn’t, not through normal glass.
The isn’t normal glass. It hums, low and a little unpleasant when he’s so close to it. A little oily-looking, like if he touched it his finger would slip across too easily.
He reaches out to test the theory, to check the hum of glass, thoughtless and stupid. He's so tired, he hadn't let himself recharge long enough and it's making him reckless, the cloudy pulse of his thoughts ringing out a warning too late.
A moment to cry out as it shatters out around him and pulls him in, tornado of glass like teeth and needles, a vanishing point he falls into-
It is a vast white space he falls into that he can't breathe in, heavy with silence and the smell of hot glass, he chokes trying to drag air into lungs he shouldn't logically have. He is still tied to Kevin, the connection stretching violently, tenuous at best but still echoing with Chris's scream.
He realizes he is not alone.
There is something vast and stark and blending perfectly with this white void, circling and circling him as he falls. There is a moment before it strikes that he realizes how deeply, deeply stupid of him it had been to touch that glass without precautions or at least looking a little while longer.
It catches him in a grip like a python, clinching tighter and tighter and he doesn't really need to breathe in this space but it doesn't stop him from panicking. It's so constricting and this thing sits counter to his ability to see, too big and too immaterial, but there's the sensation of something either sharp or so cold that it burns where it's pressed against him.
He thinks he's screaming, might be screaming through his body, but can't tell. The thing, the guardian, only presses closer.
For a bare second he's about to yank on the cord in a panicked scramble to bring himself out, out of this thing's needle fingers and winter mouth. But it's moving still, not a slow constriction, something purposeful. Chris realizes, sluggish with pain and incipient numbness that it's reaching down the thin tether of thought that's tying Chris to Kevin, to reality, to a way out.
Chris can't get out without bringing this thing with him.
He can feel it trying to reach for Kevin too, shifting as it moves from a vast thing to something that can weasel in under Kevin's wards. Clinging vine. Something brutal, something with roots and strong stalks meant to insinuate and infiltrate and break foundations. It's growing for Kevin, reaching out to him and Chris-
It shouldn't be able to do this, he thinks, but it's a useless thought because this thing is doing it anyway.
Chris snaps the connection to Kevin.
In the reverberating moment of the connection breaking he can feel Kevin crying out, trying to reach back to him, confusion and fear and determination before it all whites out and is gone.
Like a wave the curse turns again, heavy and bending over him in absolute implacability.
He realizes slowly, losing ground in his own head, that he is most likely going to die.
He's lost the memory of his body already, giving up to the cold like poison, eating him away like acid. He has no fingers, no feet, no body or lungs except in the hollow impression of the pain that had torn him apart a moment ago. Everything is far away and awful and hopeless, if he could find his mouth he would scream with it but there's nothing left but the cold expanse of whiteness he falls into.
It is awful, and impossible, and every part of him left rebels against it.
He thinks of fire.
Brilliant and beautiful and warm like every definition of home. He thinks of fire, of hearth fire and wild fire and the little spit of flame Sajeeb conjured in the cradle of a palm. He thinks of burning himself away in one last attempt to stop the curse. One last fuck you. One last glorious stand. Something to leave a mark.
And then he thinks no and he throws everything he has left into a ward that rings with defiance and Sajeeb’s name.
The guardian recoils from the ward and the white space is gone as quickly as Chris had fallen into it. As he sinks down into the blessed dark the ward leaves him in he is still thinking Sajeeb’s name.
There is a warm hand in his when he swims far enough to the surface of the inner wall of his ward to feel the body beyond it.
He is wounded, still. Diminished and hurting in a way that has nothing to do with his body and everything to do with the gouges like frostbite in the soft underbelly of his spirit. He is dumb with it, and frightened, but the hand in his is warm and familiar and he wants to open his eyes when he realizes he has eyes.
Sajeeb is staring anxiously down at him, when he reaches a careful tendril beyond the dam of his ward to open his eyes.
The ward breaks with the peal of a bell, the amniotic darkness beyond spilling back into his body so fast he wakes into something verging into a panic attack. Too fast, too soon, he hadn't eased back into his body right and-
Sajeeb’s arms are around him, he discovers when he finally pries his eyes back open. His nose is pressing to the side of Chris's neck and his breath is hot and fast and damp through the shoulder of his shirt. He realizes he's clinging to the back of Sajeeb’s shirt and his fingers hurt when he forces them to uncurl to press his palms flat to his back.
He's warm. God, but he's so warm.
“How did you,” he murmurs, delirious, voice a slurring wreck.
Sajeeb is shaking, he discovers. Trembling under his hands. His own fingers are digging into the ridge of Chris's spine.
“You called,” Sajeeb tells him, mouth moving against Chris's collar bone. “I heard my name.”
Chris remembers it. Remembers crying out for Sajeeb, a defiant war cry against the onslaught of something vast and awful and empty. He remembers that it had felt like a futile defence, he remembers that all he could hold onto had been fire and Sajeeb’s name. Synonymous, always. He remembers falling into the dark.
He forces himself to drag air into his battered lungs. The air smells of Sajeeb: smoke and soap and clean man.
“Romantic,” he croaks and Sajeeb chokes on a laugh that shakes them. “I think I need to sleep, like, right now maybe.”
“I'll be here,” he hears as he passes out. “I'll be here.”