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Wilder Things

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It's going to be a bad day. Connor can already tell the moment he wakes up. It's four thirty in the morning, and the pre-dawn light is filtering in through his bedroom curtains, weak and dishwater-grey in the darkness. It hits his desk weird, cutting out a shadow by the trash can that looks like some kind of crouching animal, and for a moment he thinks a raccoon must have snuck in or something. He's halfway out of the bed before his brain catches up with him, one foot on the carpet and a hand reaching for the table lamp by his bed.

Then he's just standing alone in his bedroom like a total fucking idiot.

Not having to deal with wild animal at four thirty in the morning should probably not feel like a disappointment.

He can't get back to sleep, after, staring at the wall and the desk and the trash can, shaky and strange from adrenaline and waking up too early. Thinks, fuck it. Rolls a joint and sits crosslegged on the bed, smokes with his elbows leaning on the windowsill. It's quiet outside, and the cold air feels good on his face. A bird is rooting around for worms on the lawn. In the horizon, hidden behind the other houses of this suburban hellscape, the sun is starting to rise, smudging out the colours of the sky from purple to pink to pale blue.

Connor's starting to feel pretty smudged out himself, soft and mellow and blurred at the edges. A bit less Connor Murphy, that guy who threw a printer at a teacher once, a bit more someone else. Something else. Some unseen, unfathomable phenomenon; some strange cryptid living in Connor Murphy's skin, just kind of hanging out and enjoying the view from Connor Murphy's room.

It's enough to make him giggle, quiet and stupid, into his elbow.

Yeah, okay, Murphy. Maybe one day you'll find out that Bigfoot is your real dad.

-

So it's good for a while, and then it's back to being fucking awful. Connor slouches through breakfast, picking at his cereal. He tries to get out of going to school, tries to not let the pretend Happy Families bullshit grate on him, and fails pretty miserably at both. Zoe gives him a dirty look when he gets in the car, but doesn't say anything. Connor grins lazily back at her and puts his boots on the dashboard, fuelling the fire. It's stupid, it's so fucking stupid, but it's like a scab he can't keep himself from picking at.

“Stop it,” Zoe says, still glaring, and starts up the car.

Connor keeps his feet where they are.

“You're such a fucking asshole,” Zoe hisses. She turns on the radio. It's jazz, all instrumental, vaguely familiar. Connor doesn't want to ask. Listening to it leaves him kind of breathless and stressed out. Zoe passive aggressively taps out the time on the steering wheel, 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4 like she's daring him to comment, like maybe he'll snap and slap her hands away and then the car will crash into the guardrail and kill them both instantly.

Which would probably still be preferable to going to school, honestly.

They pull into the school parking lot. Zoe kills the engine, but doesn't move for the door. She tips her head back, staring at the ceiling like it's got answers. Connor doesn't want to be here, but he doesn't really want to be outside, either – the parking lot is fucking overflowing with cars and people – so he doesn't move, either.

He wonders what she's thinking.

He doesn't ask.

They sit there in silence until the parking lot is almost empty of people. Connor picks at his nail polish, pushes down at his cuticles.

Zoe turns her face towards him, neck angled awkwardly. She looks tired.

“Connor,” she says, and Connor doesn't know why he didn't think she'd be bitchy, because she is always bitchy, and it's not like he's given her any reason not to be today, but it still makes him tense up, “please try to act like a normal person today.”

Connor scowls at her. “Fuck you.”

Like he isn't fucking trying? Like he wants people to whisper about the school psycho like they think he can't hear him? Does she think he fucking likes it?

Zoe sighs angrily. “Whatever.”

She's reaching for her bag. Connor grabs his own, suddenly too aware of his own body, of how small the space in the car is, of how hard his heart is beating. He throws the car door open.

“What the fuck ever,” he mutters, slamming the door shut behind him.

-

High school is a hellpit.

People glare and whisper about him in the hallways, and he hates it, he hates them, he hates everything about this place, but like, what else is new. It's just more of the same, more people waiting for him to fuck up or drop out or snap and kill someone, over and over and over ad nauseam. Just walking into the building makes him angry; his skin feels too tight, his breathing too loud. He isn't high enough for this.

Jared fucking Kleinman tells him he looks like a school shooter, and Connor isn't high enough for that, either. Somehow he manages not to punch the guy in the face.

He sleeps through Math. He picks away at his nail polish through Spanish.

More of the same. More of the same.

Alana Beck corners him outside of Bio, which he guesses is different. She's wearing a red cardigan and a nervous smile, and she's holding a thick stack of papers.

“Hey, Connor,” she says, like they know each other. Like they've even spoken outside of class.

“What,” he says. Why is she talking to him?

“I'm just handing these out,” she says. She pushes a sheet of paper at him, not quite meeting his eyes. “A kid in our year went missing a week ago, his name is Evan Hansen?”

She says it like Connor should know him. He gives her a blank look.

“He was in Chemistry with Mr G last semester, you remember, right?” she says, hopefully. When Connor doesn't reply, she takes a deep breath, and forges on. “Anyway, his backpack was found in Ellison State Park, but the police haven't been able to find any more clues about what happened to him or where he could have gone, which is why I'm leading a student initiative that aims to –”

Connor tunes her out, staring at the paper. It reads MISSING in big, red letters at the top, and there's a photo underneath. Evan Hansen stares back up at him with a small, awkward smile. He's got short, dark blond hair and freckles, and he is wearing a light blue polo shirt. He looks painfully strait-laced, a grandma's wet dream.

Connor doesn't remember him, but then again, why would he remember a guy like this?

-

Dinner is a disaster.

-

He's in the bathroom, after, and his head is full of static. He's scowling at himself in the mirror, scratching at his forearms, picking himself apart at the seams; everything hurts, loud and angry and jagged like a stab wound, and it's all he can do to keep his shit together.

There are painkillers in the medicine cabinet.

The thought comes without warning, and then it's all he can think about.

They're from last winter, when Cynthia fucked up her ankle on another one of her yoga retreats; they're prescription, but he doesn't think she ended up taking even one of them, going for breathing exercises and whatever herbal remedies she'd been into at the time instead.

She'll have forgotten about them by now. She won't notice if they go missing. She won't notice if he goes missing. No-one will miss him.

Connor stuffs the pill bottle into the pocket of his hoodie.

It doesn't feel like a choice.

-

He stops by the 7/11 on the way to the park. Buys a bottle of water. Buys breath mints and a pack of cards, too, because he thinks it's funny. Why not? Why the fuck not?

Then he walks to the park. It's small, with a murky, fish-less pond and a children's play area made to look like a pirate ship. The paint is flaking off the sides of the ship. No-one ever comes here anymore, which is why he chose it.

He sits down on a park bench, stretches his legs. Would have liked to smoke a joint before doing this, but the one he had this morning was his last one, and he doesn't want to deal with the hassle of getting more. Doesn't want to give his brain too much time to catch up, doesn't want to waver on this.

Wonders if he should make some kind of elaborate suicide note with the deck of cards. Maybe set up a game of solitaire. He wouldn't be in AP Lit if he didn't like shitty symbolism.

He reaches into his hoodie for the deck.

Instead, his fingers brush a crumpled piece of paper.

For a second, he's confused, but when he pulls it out, it's the missing-poster Alana gave him earlier. Connor thought he'd thrown it away. He squints at it.

Evan Hansen stares back. In the darkness of the park, his expression looks almost knowing, like he can see right through Connor's shit, like he knows what Connor's going to do. Like he's got some secrets himself.

Connor smooths out the paper, and folds it carefully back up, slides it back into his hoodie.

Puts his headphones on, puts on a playlist. Doesn't stop to check which one it is. It doesn't matter.

Uncaps the water bottle.

Uncaps the pill bottle.

Gets to work.

-

Evan's shift is over, but he doesn't want to go home, so instead he's climbing a tree.

He's been thinking about climbing it for a while. It's a white oak, the tallest one for miles. It's probably at least a century old. It makes Evan feel tiny and insignificant in comparison, but in a comforting way? People are going to live and die and turn to dust and this tree is just going to keep being here, growing. Solid. Stable.

Evan is none of those things.

He doesn't think he's ever going to be.

Which is fine.

He reaches for a branch and pulls himself up, feet bracing against the trunk of the tree. Then another branch, and another. The real world kind of fades away, and everything goes quiet, narrows down, until it's just him, just Evan, climbing a tree. Methodical. Slow. The bark is rough against his hands.

He's been thinking about climbing this tree for weeks.

He's kind of really glad he's finally doing it.

He loses track of time, doesn't know how long he's been climbing for when he gets to a break in the leaves. He thinks he's about halfway up. The late afternoon sun filters in lazily, warming his face. The light is golden orange and tinted green at the edges. He can see so much of the forest from here, and it looks so technicolor-bright, so larger-than-life, so beautiful that Evan thinks his heart is going to burst in his chest. He hoists himself up and sits down on the branch, leans against the trunk. Closes his eyes.

He wants to stay here forever.

Which is stupid, of course. He knows he is going to have to climb down eventually. If he isn't home when mom gets home, she is going to be worried. And he doesn't want to make her worried, but there are only two more days left of his internship, so he won't be able to do this again any time soon, because it's not like he's ever able to get out of the house and on the bus to go anywhere when no-one is going to be mad at him for not going, and anyway school is starting soon, and it will be a lot less climbing oak trees and a lot more pretending that Jared is actually friends with him, and it's not like he's been able to make any friends at the internship, either, because –

The bark is rough against his hands.

This is stupid.

So so so so stupid.

Evan sucks in a breath. It is difficult to get the air into his lungs, suddenly, like he is breathing through a straw or hyperventilating or having a stroke.

One of those.

Probably.

He tries to center himself, clinging to the branch beneath him, tries to think the white oak is a keystone species that can grow up to a hundred feet tall and its acorns are a major food source for local fauna and it's used for a wide variety of things like, but the facts get all jumbled up in his head, and all he can see is himself alone with a crumpled twenty in the living room; himself, eating lunch alone in the library; himself, alone in class and in the hallways and on the bus to school, walking around like some kind of, some kind of really shitty mime, trapped in an imaginary glass box and unable to break out, slowly losing oxygen, suffocating on the quiet quiet quiet.

Everything is too hot. His hands are really sweaty. His entire body is sweaty, prickling queasily.

Evan takes deep breaths.

Having a panic attack in a tree would probably be a bad idea.

Just. Keep steady.

Steady steady steady.

 

He thinks he kind of has it under control when the branch under him creaks ominously.

 

Then

 

without any more warning

 

it breaks.

 

 

Chapter Text

He hits the ground hard. There is a loud crack and his arm goes numb, and he is trying to catch his breath, but all the air has been knocked out of him and he is just lying there, staring at the bright blue sky and gasping.

“Holy shit,” someone says. They lean over him. “Are you okay?”

“I,” Evan says, weakly. Swallows. “Yeah, I, uh.”

He moves his arm to push himself up, which is a mistake. Pain stabs through him, ice cold and burning hot at the same time, like his body can't measure it finely enough to tell what is really going on, like all his nerves can do for him is scream. His field of vision is bursting with stars, tiny red and white explosions, and he swallows hard, trying not to vomit.

“Jesus Christ,” the other guy says, and reaches out like he wants to put his hand on Evan's shoulder, like he wants to steady him. “You don't look okay.”

Evan laughs, or bursts into tears, or both, because his arm really hurts and it's not letting up and he doesn't know what to do, trapped in his stupid brain and his stupid body like a caged animal and he's scared of looking down to see what the damage looks like.

“Y-yeah,” he says, unable to keep the sarcasm out of his voice, “no. No shit.”

The other guy raises his eyebrows, and Evan instantly feels bad.

Feels worse.

“Sorry,” Evan says. “Sorry, I didn't. I didn't mean that. Sorry.”

“Why are you – you don't have to apologise,” the guy says. He looks kind of freaked out. “What's the damage?”

“I think my arm is, um, Ithinkit'sbroken?” His voice twists weirdly, comes out in a high-pitched, desperate rush, but everything is bright with pain pain pain and Evan can grit his teeth or be coherent or worry about how pathetic he is right now, but he doesn't think he can do all of those things at once.

“Shit,” says the other guy.

“Yeah,” Evan agrees. He tries to steady his breathing (inhale, hold, exhale, rinse and repeat). He looks down at his arm.

It looks. It looks fine, or at least there are no breaks in the skin, no harsh, unnatural angle to his forearm, which is pretty good. Evan's mom has told him horror stories from the ICU about bone breaking through skin, about bone shards and compound fractures and infection risks.

So. That's. There doesn't seem to be any of that.

Evan brushes his fingers over the skin, gingerly, trying to feel for – for anything, for breaks and bumps that shouldn't be there. Instead, he gets more pain, bright like molten steel, and he was expecting it, but it still makes him suck in a breath, sharp and jagged in his throat. He thinks he might pass out.

“Hey, uh,” the other guy says, sounding kind of unsure. “I've got some painkillers?”

Evan blinks at him. There is something vaguely familiar about the guy that Evan can't place. He has long, brown hair and a pale, drawn face, and he is wearing a black hoodie that's stained with what looks like drying vomit down the front. He looks terrible and smells worse, but the offer of painkillers makes him the most beautiful person in the world.

“Please,” Evan says. The guy pulls a pill bottle out of his pocket and unscrews the lid. He squints into it and shakes out a pill, hands it to Evan along with a half-empty water bottle.

“Here,” he says. He doesn't look Evan in the face, eyes firmly on the ground.

“Thank you,” Evan says, and takes the pill. The water is lukewarm and kind of stale.

“Alright?”

“Yeah.” Evan scrubs at his face with his uninjured hand, doing his best to keep his breathing steady. “You know you've got, um – ?” He gestures towards the stained hoodie. The guy looks down and makes a face.

“Gross,” he mutters, and takes it off, throwing it to the side. His arms are pale and long and thin.

They sit in silence while waiting for the painkiller to kick in, and as things start to feel a bit more distant, Evan realises he has no idea where they are. This isn't a part of Ellison State Park he's ever seen, much less the place where he fell; they are in the middle of a yellow field, surrounded by tall, dry grass, and in the distance on all sides he can see – there are trees. He can't tell what kind they are from here. They don't look familiar. They're deciduous, though, the leaves red and yellow and orange and brown like the beginning of fall.

Which is.

Weird. That's really weird.

“Where are we?” Evan asks.

“Don't know,” the other guy says. “I was … hanging out in the park, and then I was here? I thought...” He pauses, and picks at his nails. He's wearing nail polish, Evan realises, so dark blue it is almost black. “... For a second there I thought I'd died.”

He says it like it's a joke, but it doesn't sound right.

Evan has to stop himself from holding his breath. “And – andthenwhat?”

“And then you fell out of the sky,” the guy says. “Which, I'm not gonna lie, is kind of fucking with my ideas about basic natural science.”

Evan stares at the trees, and then at his shoes. They're off-brand hiking shoes, sides lightly scuffed, and the laces on the left one has come undone.

“We could still be dead,” he says.

The other guy laughs darkly. “You'd think being dead would hurt less.”

Evan gives an awkward half-shrug. He doesn't know how to have this conversation. Everything feels too real and unreal at the same time, like he is seeing double. He doesn't feel dead, exactly, but he isn't sure if he would be able to tell if he was, if this is some kind of weird afterlife.

Thinking about it is kind of freaking him out.

He changes the subject.

“What's your, uh, what's your name?”

“Connor,” says the guy, and then adds, after a pause, “Murphy.”

“Like – like Zoe Murphy?” Evan asks, staring at him.

“She's my sister,” Connor Murphy says, and scowls, and – and that's something Evan remembers, suddenly, this angry background presence, people whispering about Zoe Murphy's psycho brother in the hallways at school. The slope of Connor Murphy's shoulders, hunched over in class.

“C-cool,” Evan says without really deciding to, which is stupid, because it is clearly not cool, and now Connor is pissed, and he can probably tell that Evan has a crush on his sister, and he is going to beat the shit out of him –

“How do you know her?” Connor asks, face still thunderous, eyes fixed on Evan's face.

Oh God.

“I, I, wegotothesameschool, you, and. Anyway she's in jazz band and I've been to some of their concerts, so...” He trails off. Connor looks less furious and more confused, frowning at Evan like he is a math problem he is trying to solve.

“You're...” Connor says slowly.

Evan makes himself keep breathing. He tries to be casual about it. “Hm?”

“You're … Evan Hansen?”

Evan stares at him, realises his mouth is open, closes it. “... I – I'm, yeah,” he says. “That's, that's me.”

“We had Chem together last year,” Connor says, like that explains it, but it doesn't; it doesn't make sense that Connor freaking Murphy remembers his name. There is just no reason for it, and Evan is, is invisible. People don't remember him.

Not even barely. Not even in the squinty vague recollection way. Evan Hansen is a ghost, a smudge, an absence of substance, and the only people who even know his name are Jared and Alana Beck, who don't count, because Jared is a family friend and Evan is pretty sure Alana memorises yearbooks with the same scary intensity she does all their textbooks.

Connor is not a family friend. Connor doesn't seem like the kind of person who has any friends, and it's probably mean to think that, but it's true; this is probably the first time Evan has seen him with an expression that isn't a scowl. He doesn't seem like the kind of person who would care enough to remember anyone at school, let alone Evan.

“Y-you remember me?” Evan asks, and regrets it immediately.

Connor shrugs. He digs out a folded sheet of paper from his pocket and hands it to Evan. The creases are uneven. When Evan unfolds it, it's his own face staring back up at him. MISSING, the paper screams, and underneath the photo, LAST SEEN IN ELLISON STATE PARK. There is a date.

It's today.

“Wh-what's – ?” He can't finish the sentence, mouth too dry, gut churning.

“You tell me,” Connor says drily. He sits hunched over with his legs up against his chest, folded up like an emo deck chair. Evan swallows, desperately trying to kick his saliva production back into gear, trying to not freak out.

“Right, so, okay,” he says, looking down at his arm, his probably definitely broken arm, and they should do something about that soon, should get to a hospital before the painkiller wears off, but nothing feels too real right now and he doesn't know what is going on, and he doesn't know what Connor was doing in whatever park he was in, but “we died and this is some kind of weird purgatory” is starting to seem kind of likely. Or maybe they're stuck in a Twilight Zone episode or something.

“You gonna finish that thought?”

“Sorry, sorry,” Evan says, and Connor rolls his eyes. “Sorry.”

Connor snorts, a weird little half-laugh that almost makes Evan forget about freaking out for a second.

“This,” Evan says, pointing at the date, “is today. For me, I mean. I was climbing a tree in Ellison State Park and then I fell, and somewhere between then and hitting the ground I ended up here.”

“First day of school for me,” Connor says. “This is really fucking weird.”

Evan laughs. His hands are shaking. “I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.”

“No kidding,” Connor says. He looks exhausted, cheekbones sharp and shadows clinging to the hollows of his cheeks, his temples, the bags under his eyes. He looks at Evan's arm. “We should try to find a trail or a road or something.”

“Yeah,” Evan says. “Yeah, you're right.”

He gets up awkwardly, one-handed, and his arm twinges but in a distant sort of way, which is fine for now but not ideal.

Connor frowns at him. “You okay?”

“... Actually, um,” Evan says. He looks at Connor, or at least at the forest a couple of inches to the left of Connor's face. “I think we really need to, I need you to help me splint this. Sorry.”

“Yeah, how dare you break your arm and not want it to get more fucked up,” Connor says, rolling his eyes. “I told you, stop saying sorry.”

“Sorry,” Evan says, and grins at him. “Do you, uh, know how to make a splint?”

Connor shrugs. “Kind of dropped out of the boy scouts before we got that far.” It sounds like a joke and it doesn't.

“Ok, well, I'll show you,” Evan says.

-

While Connor looks for sticks in the treeline, Evan checks his phone. The top left corner of the screen is covered with a spiderweb of fine cracks – he sucks in a breath and doesn't think about the cost of buying a new one – but it still works okay, still greets him with the default lock screen when he hits the home button. Cool. Okay. Good.

There's no reception.

He doesn't know why he'd expected there to be.

“There's no reception,” he says when Connor comes back. Connor puts down the handful of straight-ish sticks he's found and checks his own phone. The cover is plain black and covered with band stickers.

“Fuck.” He says it under his breath, shoulders a tight line of tension, mouth twisting sharply downward.

“Yeah,” Evan says, because that sounds about right.

Fuck,” Connor says again, loud and getting louder, “what the fuck is this place?”

Evan doesn't know what to say, so he says nothing, looking and trying not to look at the way Connor's fingers are bloodless and cramping against the edges of the phone cover, the way his eyebrows furrow and his teeth grind together. With a yell, Connor lifts his arm up and chucks the phone full force. It goes sailing in a perfect, smooth arc and hits close to the treeline, shattering loudly on impact.

Then he slumps like his strings have been cut, breathing shakily with his eyes closed.

“... wow,” Evan says.

“Shut up,” Connor says, not looking at him.

“That was a really expensive throw.” The words come out before Evan can stop himself, bubbling up like marsh water and leaving a bitter aftertaste. He wonders if he's going to get punched for saying it.

Well.

Well.

He doesn't really think he will, and it takes him by surprise.

“G-good form, though,” he adds anyway, awkwardly.

Connor snorts. “Little league,” he mutters.

“Really?” asks Evan, whose experience with team sports for the most part starts and ends with being picked last in gym class and trying to stay out of the way of whoever has the ball at any given moment.

“Didn't last long,” Connor says with a shrug. He pushes his hair back with a long-fingered hand, and the bones of his wrist stand out sharp and delicate under his skin as he does it. It makes Evan nervous.

“Mm,” he says, swallowing. Connor looks at the sticks on the ground and sighs.

“Okay, so,” he says, “I guess you should talk me through this.”

-

They splint Evan's arm with Evan's windbreaker jacket, two sticks, a length of twine from Evan's back pocket, and a thin black hairband from Connor's.

“That's probably going to snap,” Connor says, leaned in close and twisting the elastic over Evan's wrist. His breath is warm and kind of sour.

“Okay, well,” Evan says, half grinning without really meaning to, “thank you for your sacrifice.”

“Fuck off,” Connor says, half laughing. He looks up at Evan and pauses, eyes intent. They're blue, except for the outer half of his right one, which is brown in the way a forest pond is when the sun hits it, so bright it's almost golden. Evan's palms are sweating.

“W-what?” he asks, sweatily. Connor frowns at him and reaches out a hand.

“You've got like the entire forest in your hair, dude,” he says, pulling something out of Evan's hair and giving it to him. It's a sprig of oak, with two flat, wave-edged leaves and three acorns. Evan closes his hand around it reflexively. The leaves are cool and waxy under his fingers. It must have broken off a branch when he fell, a small reminder that what happened earlier happened, that it was real, and he can't work out if he feels good or bad about that.

Maybe both.

Maybe, for the first time since he landed, he feels grounded.

Chapter Text

The phone is fucked up beyond repair. Connor nudges it with the tip of his boot, like that's going to help. Shards of iPhone screen catch the sun and glint painfully on the ground around it.

Shit.

He keeps doing this, reacting too hard and too fast and doing things he can't take back afterwards, and it sucks. It sucks, and he doesn't know how how to stop himself from throwing printers and chairs and death threats at people and then regretting it afterwards, no matter how much he hates them. Lashing out feels good in the moment, or at least it feels better, and then it's over and he's standing there with a broken phone and vomit all over his hoodie, like a kid pissing himself to keep warm in the middle of winter.

“A-are you okay?” Evan asks, frowning at Connor from where he's standing in the treeline.

“Yeah,” Connor says. “It's whatever.”

He turns away from the sad remains. Rest in pieces, etc.

Evan is still frowning when Connor reaches him, but now it's at the trees.

“What's up?” Connor asks.

“Nothing,” Evan says, a bit too quickly, and then stops, biting his lip. “Actually, no, it's. The trees are wrong?”

And they are; the leaves are the fiery red and yellow of the middle of fall.

“This is so weird,” Connor mutters, staring up into the canopy. Light filters through, casting bright orange shadows on the ground. He kind of wants to get angry all over again, but instead he just feels … empty. Empty and tired and kind of ashamed.

“Just – look at this,” Evan says, like he didn't hear him. He presses a palm against the tree, fingers spread. The bark beneath is a dusty, silvery grey, and it shivers when Evan touches it, ripples radiating out from under his fingertips like it's made from liquid.

“What the fuck,” Connor says.

“Yeah,” Evan says, with a brightness that is one step removed from hysteria.

“You should probably stop touching that,” Connor says.

“Yeah,” Evan says again. He slides his hand away from the trunk in a way that looks almost deliberately gentle.

Weird.

Evan must catch him looking, because he bristles, picking at the edge of his polo shirt. “What? Is – look, it's not weird, I just like trees?”

“Oh my god,” Connor says. “I don't think that helps, dude.”

Evan turns bright red. “I – I mean not like, like like trees,” he says, with a nervous laugh. “Like I don't want to, to fuck a tree, you know, I'm not – uh – Ijustthinkthey'renice?”

“Chill,” Connor says. He grins at him. “Own it.”

“I'll, yeah, I'll own my totally platonic interest in one of the nerdiest topics on the planet,” Evan mutters.

“Could be nerdier,” Connor says. “Like, I don't know, adjective phrases. String theory.”

“Okay, but like, string theory is also pretty cool.”

“Shit, yeah, you're right,” Connor says. Evan gives him a small smile. Connor shoves his hands in his pockets. “... So how come you like trees so much, anyway?”

-

They find a path. It slopes gently downward, bracketed by the trees and bushes with waxy, dark green leaves. They look like holly without the berries.

So what do you think?” Connor asks Evan, because he's clearly the one with the most forest expertise. Connor's family used to go on hiking trips when they were younger, but all he's got from those is awkward, shitty memories and a scar on his knee that looks like a lightning bolt.

“Well, I mean,” Evan says, biting his lip, “it looks like our best shot? If there's a path, it means there've been people here to walk it, and it goes downward, so … yeah.”

“Cool,” Connor says.

“It's kind of dumb,” Evan says, as they start walking, “but I'm just kind of wondering who made this path? It doesn't look like an animal track or anything, but...”

“This place,” Connor finishes. “Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe it's a cryptid or something,” Connor says. “Like Bigfoot.”

Evan laughs. “Like the abominable snowman.”

Like Mothman.

Like Goatman.”

Way too many animal men running around in the area,” Connor says. Evan laughs.

The path stretches ahead of them, wide enough for them to walk side by side.

-

They get to the river as the sun begins to dip out of sight behind the trees. The river curves up against the path and follows it for a while before it disappears back into the deeper parts of the forest. The air is getting colder, and it tastes like a bonfire, like the death of summer. Connor wishes he had a clean jacket or something. His hoodie seems to burn in his hand as he thinks it. Next to him, Evan awkwardly crosses and uncrosses his arms.

Connor steps off the path.

“Wh –” Evan cuts himself off, staring at him. His eyes are brown and very large.

“It's getting colder,” Connor says, “and we don't know when we'll find water again, so … I'm going to try to get some of this stuff off.” He shakes the hoodie awkwardly.

“With cold water?”

Connor shrugs. “It'll dry.”

“Y-yeah,” Evan says. The fingers of his unbroken hand twist in the fabric of his shirt. “I guess we should probably try to find a place to sleep soon, too.”

Neither of them says anything about how they haven't found any sign of people outside of the path itself. Connor wonders if they're both thinking it.

“How's the arm?” Connor asks instead. He empties out the pockets of the hoodie, stuffs the contents into the pockets of his skinny jeans. It probably looks pretty fucking stupid. Connor really doesn't have the energy to give a shit.

Evan runs a careful hand over his cast. “It's weird,” he says. “I think the painkiller is still working?”

It shouldn't be. Connor is pretty sure about that, but Evan doesn't look like he's lying or anything.

Like Connor would know if he was lying.

“Okay, well.” He throws Evan the pill bottle. It hits him square in the chest and then bounces onto the path.

“Thanks?” Evan says. He crouches down to pick it up.

“Just in case,” Connor says.

Evan looks up at him and grins. His teeth are very white. “Thanks,” he says again.

“I'll just,” Connor says, and gestures awkwardly toward the river.

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

Jesus Christ.

Connor goes down to the river.

The water isn't deep. His hands brush against the smooth, rounded rocks on the bottom when he soaks the hoodie in it. The cold water seeps into the fabric and makes it heavy, numbs his hands and fingers.

“So,” Evan says, from where he is sitting by the edge of the path, “what's your weird nerd thing?”

“Uh,” Connor says. “I used to be really into space?”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Connor says. “Really wanted to be an astronaut when I was like seven.” He rubs at the stains in the fabric. They don't seem to be going anywhere. “Don't have the head for STEM, though, so.” He shrugs.

“Space is cool,” Evan says. “You don't have to be good at STEM to appreciate that.”

“Yeah, yeah, you don't have to like. Soften the blow,” Connor says.

“I'm just saying,” Evan says, with a lightness Connor hadn't thought he'd be capable of. “People have been out there being really into space since way before we knew what was going on up there.”

No-one says anything for a while.

“So,” Connor says, breaking the silence after what feels like five years of scrubbing. “Best cryptid?”

“Jersey Devil,” Evan says.

“Holy shit,” Connor says, laughing. He turns back to look at him. “I wouldn't have pegged you for the type, dude.”

Evan gives him a small smirk. “Surprise? Jared had a phase in fourth grade where he would like. Talk about it constantly. I guess it was kind of a Stockholm syndrome situation.”

“You're friends with Jared Kleinman?”

“Family friends,” Evan says. He rubs at a worn spot on his shoe.

“He's an asshole,” Connor can't stop himself from saying.

“He hangs out with me so his mom will pay his car insurance,” Evan says, and grins, but it looks weird and bitter on his face. He still isn't looking up. Connor kind of wants to punch Jared Kleinman.

“That sucks,” he says instead. “What a dick.”

Evan shrugs. “At least he talks to me.”

“Okay, that is probably the saddest thing I've heard you say,” Connor says.

“Mm,” Evan says noncommittally, and kind of curls up on himself. It's hard to look at. Connor is pretty sure he's fucked this up somehow.

He turns back to the water.

A pair of eyes stare at him from below the surface.

What the fuck?!” he yells, jerking back.

“What?” Evan says, alarmed, getting to his feet.

“For a second there I thought – ” Connor cuts himself off. The water is clear. The river is just a river.

“Thought what?” Evan asks. He is pale under his freckles.

“It looked like there was someone in the river,” Connor says, and it sounds pretty dumb when he says it, but his heart is still pounding.

“Do you think,” Evan says. He pauses, like he's trying to find the words. “We probably shouldn't stay here too long.”

“Yeah,” Connor says. “I'll just – ” Gingerly, he lowers the hoodie back into the water. Evan stays standing behind him, hovering in a way that should feel awkward but instead is weirdly reassuring. There are no eyes in the water. Evan isn't quiet and hunched over like Connor broke something.

After a moment, Evan breaks the silence with a self-conscious cough. “So, uh, what's the best cryptid?”

Connor grins down at the fabric in his hands. “Well, I – ”

The water surges up over his forearms. He tries to pull back, shouting, but the liquid won't give. A shape bubbles up in front of him, growing into something that looks almost human, almost –

“Oh my god,” Connor manages. Evan makes a wordless sound behind him.

The shape in the river shifts, resolving itself into something like a woman. Her skin is light blue and has a shifting, translucent quality to it – Connor can see her skull beneath, shining like mother-of-pearl, can count her strange, pointed teeth even when her mouth is closed. Her long hair is adorned with silver filigree; a gold brand shines on her forehead. Her eyes meet Connor's. He tries to tear himself away from the water.

“Connor Murphy,” the woman says. Water trickles from her mouth in streams as she talks. “You will come with us.”

It hits him deep in the gut, sings through him deep and dark and so sweet it hurts, like honey, like toothache, and he opens his mouth to tell her to fuck off

but his mouth isn't opening, and the water sloughs off his arm but when his body gets up it starts to move in the wrong direction.

Behind him, Evan is saying something.

He can't make out what he's saying.

He can't make himself stop moving.

He can't even turn his head.

And then Evan's hand is on his arm, Evan is in his face, Evan is yelling. This time, it comes through.

“Connor Murphy,” and it sounds like an invocation, “you're coming with me.”

The cloying heaviness dissolves a tiny bit, like someone's opened a window, and then his body is mostly his own again. Connor takes a shuddering breath, knees buckling. He catches himself on Evan's shoulders. Evan stares back at him, wide-eyed.

“What,” Connor chokes out.

NO,” the woman in the river shouts. The water bubbles and seethes around her.

“W-we should,” Evan says. The river swells and swells and wells over, a lick and a wave and a flood.

Run,” Connor agrees. He grabs Evan's hand, and then they are running, hurtling down the forest path as fast as they can, shoes slamming on the ground so hard he can feel it in his teeth.

The roar of the river is so loud it drowns out everything else.

His chest is aching. Stars are sparking across his vision. He regrets every stolen cigarette and skipped gym class.

The path ahead narrows and turns sharply to the side. Branches slap against their arms and shoulders and legs. Evan's hand is sweaty in his. The water rushes up behind them, slamming up against the trees, threatening to cut their feet out from under them, to pull them under –

And then they make the turn.

And then the forest gives way to the highway.

Connor slows without meaning to.

Water slams into his back.

Then it's all over him, ripping him off the ground and pushing him forward. The force rips Evan's hand out of his. His body spins madly like he's in zero g, hair in his eyes and water in his ears, his nose, his mouth, and he can't tell where the ground is anymore, even as he's scrambling for it.

Then he is tumbling through air.

He hits the asphalt of the highway with a wet smack . Connor gasps, and then retches, coughing up water. The rush of the river is still behind him. He pushes the hair out of his eyes and awkwardly drags himself up into a crouch, turning around without wanting to.

The water rises high above him like a wall, stopping at the edge of the highway.

It isn't coming closer.

It just … stays there, like it's pushing against an invisible barrier. Connor frowns at it.

What is this place?

There is a groan from somewhere over to his left. “L-let's not do that again.”

“Oh shit,” Connor says. “Are you okay?”

Evan gets to his feet. His clothes are drenched and sticking to his skin. “I'm good. I don't know what was in those pills, but – ”

“Probably not enough for that,” Connor says.

“Yeah,” Evan says. “I mean, I was kidding when I said we weren't in Kansas anymore, but. Wow.”

“Yeah.”

How are you?” Evan asks. His eyelashes are all clumped together from the water.

Stupid.

“I'm fine,” Connor says. The river is still there, but there isn't any sign of the woman, and if it isn't moving, then it isn't getting closer, either.

“What happened back there...” Evan trails off. He looks at the water, biting the inside of his cheek.

Yeah,” Connor says. His mouth tastes like mud and silt and river water, but in the back of his brain he can still feel that sick, sharp sweetness. “I don't want to talk about it.”

Evan looks at him again. The sun has disappeared completely, but some of the light still lingers, and the shadows makes him look very serious. It's – uncomfortable to meet his eyes. Connor picks at his nail polish and doesn't.

“Okay,” Evan says.

Then they start walking.

 

Chapter Text

It gets dark. Evan's clothes are wet and cold and stick uncomfortably to his skin. Connor isn't doing much better; his shirt is clinging to his back so tightly that Evan can count the knobs of his spine. His hoodie is still somewhere back by the river.

The highway stretches out endlessly ahead. Trees grow thick on either side. There is more variety now; in addition to the leafy ones with the weird silver trunks, there are thin, needle-leaved conifers. They look like spruce or fir, but it's too dark to be sure. Evan thinks they probably aren't. He thinks if he was less on edge, if he was less cold and wet, if it was less in the middle of the night and he didn't have a probably broken arm, he'd like to get a closer look. Maybe take some notes.

There are no cars on the road. There's no sound of any animals, either. Not that he wants there to be animals, exactly, and there's no sidewalk, so cars would make the walk a good way to get run over, but. But.

He can't even hear insects.

It's kind of unsettling.

Next to him, Connor sneezes. Evan startles so badly he almost falls over. They stare at each other. Evan's heart jackhammers against his ribcage, and he's frozen into an awkward hunch, hands half-curled into fists. It's dark, but the moon reflects in Connor's eyes, carves his face into something ghostly, something far away and strange.

After what feels like years, Evan opens his mouth. He isn't sure what he is going to say. He thinks it might be something about cryptids.

Connor blinks at him and starts laughing.

“What – ?” Evan says.

“I just,” Connor says, snorting. He puts a hand on Evan's shoulder to steady himself. He is very close, and very bright, and neither of them are dead. “Your face - ”

His heart is still beating pretty hard, but now it's … different. Warmer. His hands uncurl. Connor's body shakes against him, and Evan reaches out with an arm to help steady him. Connor's thumb digs into the hollow under Evan's collarbone. The laugh turns into something closer to a cackle, and Evan can't quite help himself, and then he is laughing, too.

-

And then there is light. It spills out onto the road ahead of them, by turns greenish yellow and red on the asphalt. As they get closer, the trees give way to a small parking lot, and, behind it, a low building.

It's a diner. The sign above the entrance reads THE FALLING LEAF DINER, letters large and red like tail lights, and underneath, in a slightly smaller font, “FRIES – SHAKES – CONSULTATIONS”. All the lights are on, but it doesn't look like there is anyone inside. The small strip of parking spaces is almost entirely empty, too, except for a single, black horse at the corner of the building, standing completely still. Its coat is so dark it seems to almost absorb the light around it into itself. It's difficult to look at it; his brain keeps trying to convince him that his eyes must be getting it wrong somehow.

“Okay,” Connor says next to him. “I know I've been saying this a lot today, but seriously. What the fuck.”

“The diner or the horse?” Evan asks.

“Uh, both, I guess?”

“I mean. I think what the fuck covers it pretty well?”

“Yeah,” Connor says.

The horse is watching them. Its eyes are bright green. Evan is pretty sure that's not like. A normal horse thing.

“That horse has Harry Potter eyes,” he says.

Connor squints at it. “Okay, yeah, you're not wrong.”

There's a sheet of paper pinned to the door. It reads OPEN in plain, capital letters, and underneath the word, someone has drawn a jack-o'-lantern.

“We should probably go inside,” Evan says, eyeing the note, “but also I kind of feel like we're going to get murdered?”

“Kind of already did the “attempted murder” thing today,” Connor says, tapping his fingers against his thighs. “If we're gonna die anyway, we may as well die inside.”

“Better than hanging out here, probably. I definitely don't trust that horse,” Evan says, and it comes out mostly as a joke.

“Fair,” Connor says, smirking. “It looks like it means business.”

“Yeah,” Evan says. He shifts, adjusts his splint a little. One of the sticks brushes awkwardly against the inside his upper arm. By some miracle, the knots holding it together are still mostly in place. And he still can't really feel it; his entire body still feels slightly to the left of itself, and he's pretty sure at least some of that is the anxiety, but some of it … isn't. He doesn't know if he should be grateful or terrified, so he's trying his best to compartmentalize. Like, okay, if he's still standing up and walking around, it's probably something he can deal with later. Hopefully. Maybe.

He sighs. Either way, there isn't much he can do about it right now, so it's just kind of curled up in his gut like badly insulated electrical wiring, making background noise.

And then there's everything else, which isn't really any less terrifying, but at least they can run away from most of them. Probably.

“Okay,” he says, because he isn't sure they have much of a choice, and at least the diner lights are on. Maybe it will even be warm enough for their clothes to dry a little. “Let's go inside.”

-

The inside of the diner looks like it's been hit by a small hurricane. Broken condiment bottles are bleeding out on the chequered floors. Some of the tables have been toppled over, ketchup smeared across their grey formica table tops, and there are dirty dishes piled high on the ones that are still standing. The place smells like milkshake and stale fries. In the corner, a neon-edged jukebox is playing something upbeat and old-fashioned that Evan can't place.

“Um,” Evan says.

Connor runs a hand through his hair. “This is like the Silent Hill version of Grease,” he says flatly.

“Yeah,” Evan says. His throat is dry. “A – at least there aren't any dead people.”

“Yet,” Connor says, eyeing a particularly vicious-looking smear of hot sauce.

A door at the end of the diner slams open, hard enough to make the glass in the windows rattle.

A large woman in overalls and a leather jacket is standing in the doorway, holding a mop in one hand and a bucket in the other. Her skin is brown like cherry wood; her hair is bright red and pulled back into a braid. There are leaves in it. Evan can't tell if that's on purpose.

“W O N D E R F U L!” she says, in a voice like torrential rain, loud and overwhelming. “I  W A S  W O N D E R I N G  W H E N  Y O U  W O U L D  S H O W  U P!”

They stare at her. She catches it and grins.

“O H,” she says, and then continues, in a slightly lower tone of voice, “NOT YOU SPECIFICALLY. BUT THE WORLD PROVIDES.”

Evan glances at Connor, who opens his mouth to say something. The woman doesn't seem to notice.

“NOW,” she says, “THE WILD HUNT CAME THROUGH EARLIER AND FUCKED THIS PLACE UP PRETTY BADLY. WOULD YOU BE SO KIND AS TO LEND ME A HAND AND CLEAN UP THE MESS?”

Connor frowns. The look on his face says he's about to say something terrible, and they can't afford that. They can't afford to get on this lady's bad side. It's late; they have no food or shelter; they don't know where they are or how far it is until the nearest town. One way or another, she's their best shot.

Evan makes an executive decision.

“Yeah, for sure, definitely,” he says, quickly enough that the words tangle together in his mouth, yefosuredefinitely. The woman is still grinning. “Ma'am,” he adds, self-consciously.

“EXCELLENT,” she says, and foists the mop on him, pushing it into his chest with a force that almost knocks the breath out of him. He fumbles with the handle and narrowly avoids dropping it.

“Hey – !” Connor starts to say, but the woman cuts him off.

“DON'T WORRY,” she says, and hands him the bucket. Soapy water splashes over the edge and hits his boots. “THERE'S WORK ENOUGH FOR THE BOTH OF YOU.” She glances out at the parking lot, and sighs, rubbing her temple with a thumb. “NOW, YOU MUST EXCUSE ME, IT LOOKS LIKE SOME ASSHOLE LEFT HIS HORSE BEHIND, SO I WILL GO DEAL WITH THAT, AND YOU DO YOUR BEST TO DEAL WITH THIS.”

She brushes past them out of the door, and then it's just the two of them and the mess and the jukebox.

“What the hell, Hansen?” Connor hisses.

“S-sorry,” Evan manages, “I panicked?”

Connor glares at him, like he can't believe that Evan would be stupid enough to volunteer them to clean some stranger's bombed out roadside diner for free. His knuckles are white on the bucket handle. It looks kind of painful.

Weneedhertolikeus,” Evan says in a rush, like maybe if he gets it out fast enough, Connor will stop looking at him like that. “And I didn't want to, to cause a scene, and, I mean, if you hate it, I can probably do most of the cleaning – ”

“Stop,” Connor says, rolling his eyes. He puts the bucket down, crosses his arms. “Your arm is broken, asshole, did you fucking forget?”

Oh.

Evan hasn't forgotten, but he didn't expect Connor to be so upset about it, either. He didn't expect Connor to think about it at all, even though he probably should have, because Connor has been – been nice about it, really, has checked up on him more than once.

Evan is an idiot.

“It's, it's fine,” he says, and then backtracks. “I mean, it's not great, but if this is what it takes, then – ”

“Okay,” Connor says, “first of all, there's no way you're using that right now – ” he gestures at the mop, “ – so if we're doing this, you're on table wiping duty. You can do that one-handed, right?”

“I – okay,” Evan says. He hands Connor the mop. “If you're sure?”

“Yeah,” Connor says, taking it. “I'm sure.”

-

The woman sweeps back into the diner seconds after they finish cleaning, like she's been waiting outside for the right moment to return. She slams the door open, bringing with her a cold burst of air that smells like rot and bonfires and cold mud. Evan startles so badly he almost rips a stack of plates off of the bench behind the counter. The woman doesn't notice. She inspects the room, running a careful hand over tabletops and vinyl seating as she walks.

The only sound in the room is the jukebox and her heavy footsteps.

Evan tries not to fidget. He is fidgeting.

When she is done, the woman turns towards them, smiling. “WELL DONE, BOYS,” she says. “WHY DON'T YOU SIT DOWN?”

Her tone doesn't leave a lot of room for argument; they sit down in one of the booths. Connor picks at his nail polish and frowns. Evan looks at him, and then at the space behind the counter where the woman is rummaging around, and then out of the window at the empty parking lot, back and forth like a human pinball machine.

It probably looks shady, like he's trying to hide something, and now he's self-conscious about it. He probably looks like a serial killer.

Maybe she'll think they're like. A pair of serial killers.

Connor catches him looking. “What?” he mouths.

Evan shrugs helplessly. He doesn't know how to tell him he's worried the woman will think they're pulling a Thelma and Louise.

The woman comes over with a tray of drinks. She places a mug in front of each of them and then sits down with her own. Whatever is in it smells kind of like a pumpkin spice latte, but there is an undertone to it that Evan can't quite place.

“NOW, DARLINGS,” the woman says, and she sounds friendly, but her eyes are serious. “BEFORE YOU TOUCH THOSE, I AM OBLIGED TO TELL YOU THAT THEY ARE PART OF THE PAYMENT FOR YOUR SERVICES HERE, AND DRINKING THE CONTENTS WILL NOT HURT OR BIND YOU IN ANY WAY.”

She says it like she is reading a disclaimer. Evan and Connor exchange a glance.

“What,” Connor says.

“Is that, uh, not normal?” Evan asks. The woman laughs.

“THAT DEPENDS ON WHAT YOU ARE, LOVE,” she tells him, but she is looking at Connor. “BUT FOR YOU? I WOULD SAY FOOD AND DRINK THAT WON'T FUCK WITH YOU IS QUITE UNUSUAL AROUND THESE PARTS.”

Evan glances at the mug in front of him. Steam rises lazily from the liquid inside. He thinks about the woman in the river earlier; how she knew who Connor was, and how Connor seemed content to follow her into the water until Evan said his name and told him to come with him.

“Where are we?” Connor asks.

“HMM,” the woman says, sounding almost amused. “THAT IS THE QUESTION, ISN'T IT?”

“Stop fucking around,” Connor snaps, glaring at the mug in front of him. “What is this place?”

“SO IMPATIENT!” the woman says. “THAT WON'T SERVE YOU WELL HERE, DEAR.” She takes a long sip of her own mug. Her hands are rough and calloused against the dark brown ceramic. There are half-moons of dirt under her fingernails.

Connor bristles. Evan wonders if she is taking a long time to answer just to fuck with him.

She puts the mug down. When she does, her demeanor has changed; her eyes are deep and dark and grave, and she looks somehow incredibly old. Old as time and infinitely tired. “THIS PLACE IS A TEST.”

“W-what does that mean?” Evan asks.

“IT MEANS, SWEETHEART,” she says, tapping the mug handle with her thumb like she is spelling something out in Morse code, “YOU'RE IN FAIRYLAND NOW.”

 

Chapter Text

She says it like it makes sense.

“What,” Connor grits out. He's getting kind of tired of sounding like a broken record. “What does that mean?”

“WHAT DO YOU THINK IT MEANS?” the woman says. She puts the cup down and leans forward, resting her chin in her palm, like she's interested. Like she wants to hear his theory, or whatever the fuck. He looks away, glaring at the table top. There is something fucked up about her eyes; they're the color of burnt umber, and the shape of her pupils is … wrong. He can't put his finger on it. He doesn't want to look up at her again, because she'll still be looking at him, because she's been looking at him for most of this conversation. It's freaking him out.

Pretty much everything about this is freaking him out.

“It's – that's,” Evan says, cutting through the silence, voice thready with anxiety, “that explains the trees.” He pauses, and then frowns, adding, “And, uh, the name thing.”

The woman turns her head to stare at Evan. “NAME THING?”

Evan looks at her and then at Connor. “Um,” he manages, but nothing else comes out.

“This bitch attacked us earlier,” Connor says. “She knew who I was.”

“Sh-she used his name and told him to come with her,” Evan says, hunching in on himself.

“What the fuck does it matter,” Connor snaps. Evan gives him a look that's half apologetic and half defiant.

The woman tuts. Connor digs his fingernails hard into his thighs, tastes honey at the back of his throat.

“AND YET HERE YOU ARE,” the woman says, like it means something.

He doesn't want it to mean something.

“Fucking whoop,” he says, like it's whatever.

“I – I used your name,” Evan says, very quietly. Somehow it still manages to be the loudest sound in the room. “I don't. I don't know why I did that.”

“DARLING, ALL THAT MATTERS IS THAT IT WORKS,” the woman says. She reaches over gently pats Evan's closest hand. It's his injured one, and he visibly flinches when she touches him. Connor is pretty sure he'd be flinching even if it wasn't. The woman either ignores it or doesn't notice. Instead, she bites the inside of her lower lip, and then taps the handle of her mug a few times in rapid succession. Connor thinks about Zoe in the car, tapping out syncopated jazz against the steering wheel. “THIS MIGHT GET … TROUBLESOME.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Connor says, unable to stop himself. The woman stares at him, steady and assessing like she is measuring him, like this is some kind of test. The weight of her eyes on him makes his skin prickle unpleasantly.

“NORMAL RULES DON'T APPLY HERE,” she tells him. She takes a sip of her drink, sets it carefully down again. In the background, the music coming from the jukebox switches from something cheerful and up-tempo and full of bright, energetic brass to a ballad, slow and melancholy. “I DON'T KNOW IF ANY OF YOU ARE FAMILIAR WITH THE CONCEPT OF IN-BETWEEN PLACES?”

“What, like a Denny's parking lot at four a.m.?” Connor asks, rolling his eyes.

“WHO THE FUCK IS DENNY?” the woman asks.

“It's – ” Connor stops, huffs out a frustrated breath. “You know what? It doesn't fucking matter. We've heard about, you know, that.” He makes a vague gesture in the air.

“RIGHT,” the woman says. She sighs. “THIS WORLD EXISTS … SLIGHTLY TO THE LEFT OF YOURS, SHALL WE SAY? OVERLAPPING BUT NOT OVERLAPPING. TOUCHING BUT NOT TOUCHING.”

“Okay,” Connor says. “Sure.”

The woman turns to Evan, like she thinks he'll be a better audience. He's watching her unblinkingly, mouth pressed into a thin line, fingers twitching against the fabric edge of his splint. Connor wants to take him by the elbow and get the fuck out of here, or maybe get into a fist fight.

“PEOPLE OF YOUR KIND COME THROUGH EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE,” the woman says. “I ALWAYS TELL THEM, THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS IS FOLLOWING THE RULES.”

“Wh-what rules?” Evan asks. The woman gives him a short smile, and then the look on her face shifts into something more businesslike.

“THE FIRST THING YOU NEED TO KNOW,” she says, like she's reading the words off of the back of a label, “IS THAT EVERYTHING HERE IS A TRADE, AND EVERYTHING CAN BE TRADED.”

Connor scoffs. “Everything?”

“A FAVOR, A MEMORY, A YEAR OF YOUR LIFE...” There is a molten metal gleam in her eyes. “DON'T BARTER ANYTHING YOU AREN'T PREPARED TO LOSE. AND DON'T LIE, EITHER. PEOPLE WILL KNOW.”

Fairyland, right. His head is full of half-remembered fairy tales and folk stories his parents used to read at bedtime when he and Zoe were kids, and none of them are useful, but –

“And you're not supposed to eat the food here, right? Or drink anything?” he asks.

Or maybe that's just the Ancient Greek underworld.

The woman adjusts the collar of her jacket, straightening it. “WELL, THAT'S THE SECOND RULE, YEAH,” she says. “DON'T EAT OR DRINK ANYTHING YOU HAVEN'T EARNED, OR THAT YOU AREN'T FREELY OFFERED. AND EVEN THEN, I WOULD BE … CAUTIOUS.”

Connor eyes his drink. It's still steaming, smelling faintly of cinnamon and dark, wet earth.

“OH, HONEY, DON'T BE SILLY,” the woman says, airy and bright, but her mouth is tight. “YOU BOYS DID ME A FAVOR. THE DRINK AND THE INFORMATION IS PAYMENT.” She pauses, and grins. “BESIDES, YOU WOULDN'T WANT TO BE RUDE, WOULD YOU? THAT'S ANOTHER RULE, BY THE WAY.”

“What, don't be rude? Is it not cool if I swear?” Connor asks sarcastically.

“THAT'S NOT WHAT POLITENESS IS ABOUT.”

“Yeah?” Connor says. He feels like a worn-out rubber band, twisted up and ready to snap, and tries not to imagine punching the woman in the face with too much visceral satisfaction. “What is it about?”

“OH, IT'S EASY ENOUGH, MY DEAR,” she says, “JUST DON'T BE A DICK. MAYBE FOLLOW YOUR FRIEND'S EXAMPLE.”

Evan turns bright red and starts stammering.

Jesus Christ.

Connor nudges his shin with the heel of his boot. Evan's mouth shuts with an audible snap, and he glances at Connor from the corner of his eye, like he's trying to be subtle about it. Connor's stomach rolls uneasily.

“S-sorry,” Evan says, and then gets a panicked look on his face again. “I mean, uh. I'm. It's.”

“What's the deal with my name?” Connor asks, cutting him off, and regrets it instantly.

“... RIGHT,” the woman says. “WELL.” She readjusts her jacket, drums her fingers against her shoulder. “NAMES HAVE POWER.”

“Yeah, okay, Rumplestiltskin,” Connor says. He's got a bad feeling pressing up against the back of his teeth like a tangible thing. “What's it to us?”

“KNOWING THE NAME OF THE THING GIVES YOU POWER OVER THE THING. GIVING YOUR FULL NAME TO SOMEONE ELSE, WELL…” she says, and pauses for a second to let it sink in before continuing. “I'M SURE YOU CAN SEE WHY YOU'RE IN TROUBLE.”

“But I didn't tell anyone,” he says, forcing himself to keep his voice down, to not start yelling, to remember how to breathe steady and ignore the way his vision is swimming. “So how – ?”

The woman leans over and puts a heavy hand on his shoulder. “YOU CAN'T UNDO THE DAMAGE THAT'S ALREADY BEEN DONE, BUT YOU MIGHT BE ABLE TO MITIGATE IT,” she says.

“Yeah?” Connor snaps. “How?

“NAMES CAN SOMETIMES BE … FLEXIBLE,” she says thoughtfully, “SO YOU COULD TRY GIVING YOURSELF A MIDDLE ONE.”

“What, and that will work?”

The woman shrugs. “IT CAN'T HURT,” she says, and pauses for a second before continuing, “BUT YOU HAVE TO MAKE IT YOURS. IF YOU CAN OWN IT, ANYONE TRYING TO … COMPEL YOU SHOULD BE LESS EFFECTIVE.”

“How do I – ?”

“NOT FOR ME TO SAY.” The woman gets up from the booth and brushes imaginary dust from her thighs. “NOW, DARLINGS,” she says, “I HAVE THINGS THAT NEED DOING. ARE YOU TIRED?”

Connor and Evan share a glance.

“Y-yeah?” Evan says, like it's a question.

“HM, YES,” the woman says, smiling like it's funny, like she's sharing a joke at their expense. “THAT'S YOUR BODY LYING TO YOU. TIME WORKS DIFFERENTLY HERE.” She picks up her mug, carries it over to the kitchen sink, runs the tap. “STILL. FEEL FREE TO … NAP, OR WHATEVER, IF YOU FEEL LIKE IT. VISITORS FROM YOUR WORLD OFTEN DO.”

Connor rolls his eyes.

“Who are you?” Evan blurts out, and then looks away from both of them, staring out of the window like maybe they won't notice he said anything.

The woman turns her head around and stares at him for long enough that his face turns bright red. “... I SUPPOSE YOU MIGHT AS WELL KNOW SOONER RATHER THAN LATER,” she says, rinsing out her cup without looking at it. “I'M AUTUMN, DEAR.”

“L-like the season?” Evan asks. Autumn gives him another sunny smile.

EXACTLY LIKE THE SEASON,” she says, and puts the mug down on the counter. “I'LL BE BACK IN A BIT, AND THEN WE CAN … DISCUSS FURTHER FAVOURS, YEAH?”

Connor bites his cheek. He feels sick. Evan nudges his thigh with his knee

“Y-yeah,” Evan says. “Yeah, we'll wait.”

“EXCELLENT,” the woman says, smiling widely, striding towards the exit. “I'LL SEE YOU SOON. DON'T FORGET TO DRINK YOUR TEA!”

Then, with a burst of cold, damp air from outside, she's gone again.

-

They don't take a nap, or drink the tea.

Instead, Connor paces the floor, clenching and unclenching his fists, trying not to punch something. Frustration licks hotly up against his diaphragm, curling tight in all of his bones, simmering under his skin. The jukebox is still playing. Evan is huddled up in a booth, staring out of the window. Connor keeps looking at him without meaning to, at the way Evan's eyes are glazed and his mouth is an unhappily slanting line and his fingers are shaking, just a little, and it mixes in with all the other shit, too, making them even shittier.

Connor wishes he had some weed.

Or like. A baseball bat.

“This fucking sucks,” he says, glaring viciously at the jukebox, which is playing the third jazz ballad in fifteen minutes. He hasn't been able to make out the lyrics to any of them; whenever he tries, the words warp and blur like he's listening from the bottom of a swimming pool.

“Yeah,” Evan says. His mouth quirks up a little. “Who even likes jazz band?”

Connor rolls his eyes. “Not me, that's for fucking sure,” he says, and then stops. “Wait, I thought you said you went to jazz band concerts?”

Evan shrugs. His face turns pink. It's kind of cute. “Uh, yeah, I did. I. I like jazz band.”

“Wow, Hansen,” Connor deadpans. “This is really gonna ruin that bad boy image you've got going. Next thing, you'll be telling me you, like, like trees or something.”

“Here's a shocking secret for you, Murphy,” Evan says. “I love trees. Platonically.”

“Hold the presses,” Connor says. “Evan Hansen Reveals Shocking Truth About His Love Life.”

The jukebox changes songs again. It's another jazz ballad.

“Oh my God,” Connor groans. “Who queued these?”

“Someone who's really into jazz band?” Evan says drily. He uncurls from his seat by the window, leans both elbows on the table. “For some reason I never thought fairies would be jazz fans.”

“Yeah,” Connor says. He stretches his legs out under the table. “Or American diner fans. What the fuck.”

“Yeah,” Evan says. He grins at him. “And even after all that, we still don't know if Bigfoot is real.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Eventually, the talk peters out. Time turns strange, stretching out like taffy; minutes pass, or hours, or days. It stays dark outside. Evan leans against the window and stares out at the empty parking lot. He runs his fingers over a groove in the windowsill. It's cool with condensation and kind of unsettlingly tacky to the touch, but in that terrible way that still feels kind of good; a reminder that even if they've been dropped into an entirely different world, things are still real enough to have sticky windowsills.

Above the parking lot, the moon disappears behind a thick cover of clouds and then reappears again, still hanging in the same place in the sky. It stays dark outside.

Connor sits next to him for a while. They don't really talk, but it's … nice. Then he goes over to look at the jukebox, the counter, the condiment bottles, making more noise than he has to, stopping once in a while to give sarcastic commentary.

It stays dark outside.

Autumn comes back.

She's grinning, carrying a box with both hands. The wood it's made of is so dark it looks almost black, and it's tied shut with a bright orange ribbon. It looks like the sort of thing you might find at a fancy department store, maybe, or at least in Evan's idea of a fancy department store. It's not like he's ever really been in one before.

“I HAVE A QUEST FOR YOU,” Autumn says, without preamble. She puts the box down on the table.

“Q-quest?” Evan manages. Connor comes over. He rolls his eyes, but there's something in his expression that looks just a little bit interested. Like he thinks it's stupid, but also secretly kind of wants to know more.

At least Evan thinks that's what he's thinking.

“YES, DARLING,” Autumn says, sitting down next to Evan. She smells overwhelmingly of wet mud and burning tinder. There are flowers in her hair, now, tiny bursts of coltsfoot yellow among the leaves. Out of season, Evan thinks, but it's not like time has been super consistent since they got here. Autumn's arm brushes up against his side as she shifts into a more comfortable position, and he suppresses a shudder. She turns to look at him, and her grin gentles into something more sympathetic. “THIS IS ANOTHER ONE OF THOSE PESKY RULES.”

“That's convenient,” Connor deadpans.

“OH, YES,” Autumn says. “BUT MANY THINGS ARE CONVENIENT HERE, IF YOU KNOW HOW TO, AS THEY SAY, “WORK THE SYSTEM”.”

She does the finger quotes.

She seems really excited about the finger quotes.

“So what's – ?” Evan begins, but she's already talking.

“THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE WAY TO GET OUT OF FAIRYLAND FOR PEOPLE LIKE YOU,” she says, patting Evan on the arm. Her fingers are so cold they feel almost wet, like condensation gathering in the groove beneath a diner window. “YOU MUST DO A FAVOUR FOR SOMEONE POWERFUL ENOUGH TO OPEN THE WAY OUT FOR YOU. UNDERTAKE A LITTLE QUEST, IF YOU SEE WHAT I MEAN?” She pauses, and gives them both a meaningful look. “LUCKILY FOR YOU,” Autumn says, and smiles, “MY SISTERS AND I ARE VERY POWERFUL.”

Which is. Either reassuring or terrifying or both.

“What do you want us to do?” Evan asks, trying not to think too hard about just how angry Autumn and her sisters will be if they fuck up whatever quest this is. If he fucks it up.

When he fucks it up.

“FOR NOW,” Autumn says, brushing imaginary lint from the arms of her jacket, “THE ONLY THING I WILL ASK YOU TO DO IS DELIVER THIS BOX TO THE NEAREST OF MY SISTERS. AFTER THAT, WELL … WE'LL SEE WHERE WE GO FROM THERE.”

It's not a question. Not really. Evan glances at Connor. Connor meets his eyes, combines half an eyeroll with a jerky shrug, like, well okay whatever.

Which is fair.

It's not like they have a choice here. Not really.

“How are we supposed to find this girl?” Connor asks. Evan bites the inside of his cheek.

Autumn grins, reaching out for Connor's hand before he can move it out of the way, twisting it upward and spreading his fingers open. He winces.

“EASY,” Autumn says, and drops something in his palm. It's a thick bone sewing needle, smooth and yellow like old paper.

Connor glares down at it. “Is this a joke?”

Autumn tuts. “SO SUSPICIOUS,” she says. “IT'S A COMPASS NEEDLE, HONEY. HOLD IT IN YOUR PALM LIKE THIS,” she squeezes Connor's open hand for emphasis. Evan flinches in sympathy. “AND THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU NEED TO FIND. IT WILL POINT THE WAY.”

She lets go of Connor's hand.

“NOW,” she says, and glances at the mugs that are still sitting, steaming, on the table. “YOU WILL DRINK YOUR TEA. YOU MUST TRUST ME ON THIS; I HAVE ALREADY GIVEN YOU ENOUGH ASSURANCES THAT IT WILL NOT HURT YOU.”

-

Reluctantly, they drink the tea. It tastes like cinnamon, and leaves the inside of Evan's mouth gritty, like he's been eating sand. As he drinks, a slow, steady warmth spreads out from his stomach, radiating outward. It's a hot-chocolate-on-a-cold-day kind of warmth; a warm-socks-and-blankets kind of feeling.

“I TOLD YOU,” Autumn says. “IT WILL KEEP YOU WARM.”

You could just have said that at the beginning, Evan thinks, but doesn't say. Connor makes a face at him like he knows what Evan is thinking, and agrees.

They take the box and the bone needle, and then they leave. Autumn watches them go from a diner window.

Evan tries not to look back.

-

The sky lightens as they walk, turning grey by degrees, flat and pale like the inside of a shoebox. The trees cut sharp silhouettes against the clouds, red and black and dirty yellow. He doesn't recognize the shape of any of them, but at this point, he isn't really expecting to. The air turns rawer and wetter, clinging to their skin. They should probably be feeling it more, but the drinks Autumn gave them are still keeping them warm somehow, a layer of heat under the skin.

Evan shifts his one-armed grip on Autumn's box. The grain of the wood is smooth and soap-like under his fingers, and it's warm to the touch, like it's alive. It's disconcerting, but not in a bad way, exactly. Mostly it just makes him think about fairy tree biology. He wonders what kind of tree the wood of the box came from. He wonders what it's called, what its leaves look like. He wonders if he'll ever find out.

It starts to rain.

They get off the road and stand just beyond the treeline, watching the rain pelt the asphalt, coming down in sheets. Some of it filters through the branches of the tree they're standing under, dripping down on Evan's neck. Rainwater soaks into his shirt and his shoes and the windbreaker stuffing of his splint.

“This sucks,” Connor mutters.

“N-not really the fantasy adventure I was expecting,” Evan says.

“Ha,” Connor says. He's holding the compass needle in his open palm; its surface has a splotchy mother-of-pearl sheen where the rain has hit it. “Where's Gandalf when you need him.”

“Okay, Gandalf did pretty much nothing but send people on weird adventures,” Evan says. “So this isn't that different, I guess?”

Connor shrugs, sends him a sly grin. “Could probably hook us up with some choice weed, though.”

Evan sputter-laughs. He thinks he'd be embarrassed about it, but it's not like there's anyone here to hear it but Connor, and anyway, the rain would be loud enough to drown him out even if there were people around. Connor grins back, eyes bright. He looks half-drowned, hair sticking to the sides of his face like seaweed, but even like this, his face is still really –

Connor turns away, and the moment is over. He stares at the road. “Doesn't look like the rain's gonna stop any time soon,” he says, fingers tapping the needle. “Let's give this thing a go.”

He lays it on the flat of his palm, mouth twisting expectantly.

They stare at it.

It doesn't move.

“Maybe you need to say it out loud?” Evan says.

“Fuck, that's awkward,” Connor says. He takes a deep breath. “Okay. Sure. Point me to somewhere that's warm and dry.”

Slowly, the needle starts to spin. It does a couple of jittery circles, and then it stops. It points farther into the forest, where the undergrowth swells up and threatens to tangle with the branches of sharp-leaved trees.

“Oh,” Evan says. He doesn't know what he expected.

“Right,” Connor says. “Time to check this shit out.”

-

The needle points them to a cave in the side of a moss-covered hill. The milky grey daylight reaches a few feet into it; beyond that, it quickly drops into darkness.

“Y-you know,” Evan says, squinting into the cave. He can't make out how deep it goes. “I'm fine out here.”

“Seriously, Hansen?” Connor says, smirking. He puts away the needle and digs into his pockets, fishes out a lighter. The casing is see-through, purple plastic. “This is clearly the fantasy adventure you've been waiting for.”

Evan rolls his eyes. “Is it too late to ask for my money back?”

“Yep,” says Connor, popping the p. He puts his free hand over Evan's shoulder. His arm is kind of heavy for how skinny it is. He smells like cinnamon and sweat, mostly, and just a little bit of what Evan thinks is probably weed. “No refunds.”

He clicks the lighter on.

-

The walls of the cave are uneven and wet, even when they get farther in, and after the first few feet, the cave narrows dramatically, until it's more tunnel than cave. The rock presses in on them as they walk. Wayward roots have pushed their way through the cave ceiling, and they cling to the rock like fat, dark earthworms; in the dim light of Connor's lighter, they look like they're moving, their shadows writhing like living things.

It feels like they've been walking for days, but for once it's probably less about time being weird and more about the increasingly tight feeling in Evan's chest.

Probably.

The lighter flame flickers and dies. Connor tries to relight it, swearing. The lighter sparks once, twice, and then it doesn't. He curses quietly.

The darkness is like a physical weight. Evan blinks a couple of times, hard, but it makes no difference if his eyes are open or closed.

It's really, really quiet.

All Evan can hear is the sound of his own breathing; it shifts in his chest and magnifies, mutates into something ragged and raspy and wild. He can't see, he can't move; he tries to measure out his breaths, slow and even, but his body won't listen, and then it's all he can think about, all he can feel; he thinks his hands might be shaking, one arm holding on to Autumn's box with a claw-like grip and the other reaching desperately for the cave wall, but he's miles away from any of it, at the cottony static-white edge of passing out; he is a skinless pulsating animal thing, ripping out of his own throat and scrabbling up his own ribcage, trying to break –

“Hey,” Connor says.

“What,” Evan manages. The word feels weird in his mouth, cold and hard like plastic.His mouth is very dry. He thinks he might be crying.

“Are you okay?” Connor asks. “Should we – do you want us to go back outside?”

Evan breathes and breathes and breathes a bit quieter, trying to keep steady.

Steady steady steady.

“Evan,” Connor says, low and intent. “Can you – it's cool, we'll go back outside, okay?”

His hand is on Evan's shoulder. When did that happen?

“Just – hang on,” Connor says. He moves in close, and for a second Evan thinks he's going to hug him, but instead he says, “your phone's in your pocket, right?”

Evan makes himself nod. “Left pocket.”

“Okay,” Connor says. He hesitates. “Uh, sorry about this, I guess.”

His other hand finds Evan's hip, and then he kind of awkwardly paws at him for a bit. His breath is warm on Evan's cheek. Evan swallows. His throat is sore. Connor fishes the phone out of Evan's pocket. He turns on the flashlight. The cold white light sharpens the angles of his face. It makes him look like a ghost.

“Let's turn around,” he says, voice soft like he's trying to calm a frightened animal.

Which is.

Evan guesses that's fair.

“Y-yeah,” he says. He wipes at his face with his splinted hand, and now that there's light and he isn't actively hyperventilating anymore, he mostly feels just stupid. Stupid and worn out and scared, and still the cave walls are pressing down on them and if he doesn't focus on keeping his breathing even he'll probably fall right back into panicking, stupidly.

They start walking back. Connor still has a hand on Evan's shoulder. Evan wonders if he should tell him he doesn't have to do that, but a part of him is pathetically grateful for the point of contact; it feels safer to stay close.

The tunnel twists, and where it should be continuing, there's nothing but rock.

“Wh-” Evan manages. This isn't –

“What the fuck,” Connor says.

“Y-yeah,” Evan says. They're going to die here. They're going to die here, and it's going to be slow; the phone battery will run out and then they'll starve in the dark if the air doesn't run out first.

“Garbage piece of shit needle,” Connor hisses, letting go of Evan to pull it out again. In the almost-dark, the loss of contact feels like losing one of his senses.

The needle shines faintly in the darkness, that same soft, pearlescent glow as it had in the rain outside. “I said warm and dry, you asshole.”

It starts to spin again, a lazy half-circle, and slows to point further into the darkness behind them. Evan shifts the box under his arm. He wants to throw up.

Instead, he turns around. He starts walking.

-

They walk for a while. Evan spends most of it breathing very carefully. Connor walks in front of him, holding the needle and Evan's phone. Every once in a while he'll stop and glance back at Evan, frowning, and Evan thinks about Greek myths and getting dragged back into the darkness and wishes that Connor would stop stopping to do that.

Then there's light at the end of the literal tunnel, shining in the distance.

He doesn't know who of them starts running, but they are running, stumbling over stones on the cave floor –

and then they're outside, slowing to an awkward halt, staring at the scenery in front of them.

Beyond a neat line of low bushes, there are rows and rows of apple trees, spaced evenly apart and stretching far into the distance. Real ones, with waxy leaves and bright red apples, shining in the golden afternoon light.

The air is warm. The ground is dry. He guesses that counts as good enough for a magical sewing needle

Someone has put up a sign in front of the trees. It reads,

WELCOME TO

AUTUMN SMILES

APPLE ORCHARD

“Holy shit,” Evan manages. Out in the daylight, most of the tension of the cave drains out of him, leaving him shaky and threadbare and relieved enough to almost tear up again.

“Holy shit,” Connor says, staring at the sign. “My family used to go there every year when we were kids.”

“The Autumn Smiles Apple Orchard?” It sounds weird to say it out loud.

They stare down the perfect lines of apple trees.

“It didn't look like this,” Connor says, finally.

“Yeah?” Evan asks. He walks towards the trees. It feels like someone changed out his joints with pudding.

Connor follows him. “Where did this even come from?” he says. “Did I bring this here or something? She didn't say the needle would bring things in here. What the fuck.”

Evan stops in front of one of the trees. It's pretty tall, and the branches look sturdy enough that climbing it would be pretty easy. He puts the box down in the grass, and then runs his fingers over the bark of the trunk. It feels like any other apple tree.

Weird.

And kind of nice.

“You know,” he says, studying the branches. “Most orchards don't really let the apple trees grow normally?”

“Okay?”

“They aren't very consistent,” Evan says, “so if you grow them from seeds, the apples end up really different from their parents?” He glances back at Connor. “If you're growing apples to sell them, you just graft on branches that will give you the right kind of apples.”

“So like Frankenstein?” Connor asks, shooting Evan a small smile, sharing a joke.

“Pretty much, yeah,” Evan says, grinning back. “All the apples here look like the same kind, but if they're anything like this one, none of them are going to have any grafts. This place is so – ”

“Fucked up?”

“Yeah.” Evan runs his thumb over an indent in the bark. “But sometimes it's kind of cool?”

Connor gives him a look. It's not the “please shut up about trees, Hansen” look he would have expected, though to be fair, Connor hasn't told him to do that yet, either. Instead, it's warmer, softer, and Evan doesn't know what to do with it.

There is a rustle in one of the bushes outside of the orchard, and then someone bursts out of them, sprinting. They are short and skinny and fast enough that that's all Evan can make out before they grab Autumn's box from the ground and keep running.

“W-wait!” Evan yells.

The runner stops for a split second. They make a face at him, a half-grin, half-sneer with way too many teeth, and then start running again, box cradled tightly under an arm that looks too long for the rest of their body.

Evan runs after them without making a conscious decision. His legs wobble disconcertingly as he goes, but the sheer force of momentum keeps him going.

With their free hand, the runner throws a handful of knives at one of the nearest apple trees. They hit the trunk, sinking into the bark in a diagonal line, like a makeshift staircase.

The runner hurls themself at the tree. They land on the flat of the lowest knife. Even from a distance, Evan can still see the bark around it start to splinter. Something like a groan shudders through the air.

It sounds like it's coming from the tree.

HEY!” Evan yells. The runner scampers up the side of the tree. “Get down from there!”

He throws himself after them, fingers closing around a bony, paper-skinned ankle. The force sends them both flying; they tumble across the grass until they hit the trunk of another tree. The runner kicks and spits and claws at him, trying to get away. Evan hesitates and gets a foot to the face for it; stars burst across his field of vision.

This is the worst.

This is the worst.

He doesn't know how to handle this, so he does the only thing he can think of, and leans down until he's half sitting on them, effectively pinning them in what has to be in the running for some kind of World's Most Awkward Body Contact prize.

The runner finally stops moving. Their catlike eyes flick from Evan's face and away. Their pupils are thin, dark slits, bracketed by greenish yellow irises; their skin is pale green and rough like lichen. Their ears, like their arms, seem out of proportion with the rest of their body – large and triangular and covered in short, brown fur.

Goblin , Evan thinks, but doesn't say.

“That – that wasn't yours,” he manages instead, and no shit, Evan.

“Okay, okay, okay,” the runner says. They lick their lips nervously, and flatten their hands, palms up, in something like surrender. “Sorry. That's what you want to hear, right?”

“Why,” Evan says, but he doesn't know how to finish the sentence.

“Well, you seemed pretty upset about me taking that box, so...” the runner says. It's so transparent Evan has to stop himself from rolling his eyes.

“That's not what I – you know what I meant.”

They look away. “Look,” they say, “you can't really blame me for taking it? You just left it lying out in the open like that, that's either fair game or entrapment right there.”

“Wow,” Connor says, from out of nowhere. He looks down at them. He's holding the box. The box, which looks completely unharmed. Evan takes a shaky breath, and then lets it out, slowly.

“Why did you want it in the first place?” he asks. “What's in it?”

The runner rolls heir eyes. “Look, kid, you're obviously new around here,” they say. “What's in it doesn't matter. What matters is who sent it, and who it's for.”

“W-well, why does it matter who sent it?” Evan asks.

The runner opens their mouth and then closes it again with an audible snap.

“Did you – were you watching the diner?”

They squirm in his grip. When that doesn't work, they turn their face away. “Can't talk about that.”

Which is a weird thing to say, unless –

“Are you working for someone?”

The runner says nothing. They don't have to, because the second Evan asks, they freeze like they've been caught doing something they shouldn't.

“Who – who are you working for?”

“I didn't say I was!” they say. “I didn't say anything about that!”

Thenwhycan'tyoutalkaboutit?

The runner frowns at him. “What?”

Slow down. Breathe. Rewind. “Why can't you talk about it?”

“How about instead of us having this parody of a conversation, you let me go, and I don't take your box, and then we all just forget this ever happened?”

Connor snorts. “You don't exactly have a lot of leverage here, dude.”

“Shut up, scarecrow, nobody asked you,” the runner snaps. Connor scowls at them.

Evan thinks about Autumn in the diner, listing terms and conditions over drinks, grinning as she laid out the rules. “If you, um, answer our questions honestly, we'll let you go,” he says. “A favor for a favor, r-right?”

Shit,” the runner mutters, and then frowns up at him. “Okay, fine, you get three questions, how about that? I'm being real generous here.”

“Sure,” Connor drawls.

“Not you, thistlefuck,” the runner says, baring their teeth at him. They have more teeth than they should have, Evan thinks. They all look distressingly sharp.

“Three questions is fine,” Evan says.

Great,” the runner says, with forced cheer. “Let's get this over with.”

They say it like they're gearing up for a dentist appointment. Evan tries not to feel bad about it.

“Okay,” he says instead. “What's your name?”

The runner goes pale. “Hey, now, that's – ”

“You said three questions,” Connor says. "That's the deal, asshole. You don't want to break a promise, right?” He grins like a shark. “Maybe we'll just take you with us back to the diner instead, have a little talk with Autumn.”

Fuck. Fine. Fine!” the runner says. They look sick; sweat (or something like sweat) beads on their forehead. Their pupils are blown, so dilated their eyes are almost entirely black, and they are breathing fast. “My name is – ”

“Fake names are fine,” Evan says. His stomach churns uncomfortably.

“What?” Connor says.

“What?” the runner says.

“Fake names are fine,” Evan repeats.

“Well,” the runner says, and then stops. “Are you sure about that?”

“Yeah,” Evan says. Which isn't true, but he can't – he thinks about the woman in the river telling Connor to come with her, and it's. No. He won't do that to someone else.

Connor bristles next to him, but says nothing.

“Let's go with Wick, then,” the goblin says, with a smirk that somehow manages to be both wary and sarcastic at the same time. “You're too soft, kid. This place is gonna eat you alive.”

“Y-yeah, probably,” Evan says. “Who do you work for?”

“And there, too, see,” Wick says. “Ambiguity. No appreciation for the chain of command. No nuance.”

“We're not asking about your fucking manager,” Connor bites out.

“Again, beanpole,” Wick says, “you're not asking shit.”

“What C – what he said,” Evan says.

“Okay, fine,” Wick says. They sigh. “I work for the Queen.”

Connor raises an eyebrow. “The Queen?”

“Who's – ” Evan cuts himself off before he can ask. He takes a second, and then another, trying to find the right question. “Why does the Queen want you to spy on Autumn?”

“Ha! That's a complicated question, Sunshine,” Wick says. “Let's just say the Queen likes to keep an eye out for potential rivals.”

“Y-yeah?”

“Oh, yes.” Wick grins without humor. “Always on the lookout for any possibility of a rebellion. Between you and me?” they say, and cranes their neck upward, face so close to Evan's that their noses almost touch, still grinning.“I don't think she's ever happier than when she gets to crush one.”