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nobody cares for me

Chapter Text

You're born into this world a comet: birthed by the cosmos, baptized in destruction, a star fallen across the black canvas of the sky and an infant home tucked neatly into the hills of Colorado. It is the inevitable give and take of things, your own personal spin on the karmic balance that defines the universe and its tragedy of a play. Your mother marries the one she loves, and for it, loses the support of the parents who came before her. Your sister is welcomed into life, as bloody and fierce as the day she will go down in fire, and for it, your father gives up hope of his dream. And you, oh comet, offspring of stardust and starlight –

You are born, and for it, your mother wilts.

A crime with a victim but no culprit, and one, of course, you can't be blamed for. In the eyes of fate, however, your life was equal to that of the woman who birthed you. Your price for life was her own. Your existence was built on the foundation of death – indebted to it, perhaps, penance you would pay for at the time of your own departure from this world.

Lorelei never begrudges you for this, placing the weight of her blame, instead, on a ghost. ("Why did you leave, Mom, why did you go?")

Your infancy passes like a dream, but still, your father looks at you and weeps. ("A murderer gone unpunished.")

 


 

A childhood, framed in Polaroids, dreamed of in flashes:

The green of the grass in your hands and the rush of the wind through your hair, mountain air breathing into you life like a clay mound made man. Your sister's hand in your own, her words in your ear: Frieda, precious, darling Frieda.

The candy store on the street corner – the creases in corners of library books worn with age – ghost stories over campfires and the truth, out there, waiting to be found.

Blanket forts at midnight.

(Hiding – hiding from men who speak to your father in explosions, who stare you down with switch blades for eyes. You're safe in your fort, Lorelei promises, stay there 'til morning and no one will ever come.)

Tickets to the baseball game, you've always wanted to go –

( – but where is the money from? Just last week, you went to bed hungry, your father's wallet coughing up dust.)

Snap a picture, smile for the cameras. A decade from now, they'll see you with cheer in your teeth and constellations in your eyes. (Backroom meetings, traded deals, scraping at Hell for a glimpse of Heaven; they wouldn't show up on film, even if you pointed the lens their way.)

 


 

Karmic balance. Lorelei graduates with honors, and your father dies in a “work accident”.

You don't tell anyone he'd been fired two weeks ago.

 


 

Money means everything in a world addicted to the dollar. You're flippant, tossing coins into machines and reveling in your gumball prize, but your sister faces a titan when freed from the school system, and – mortified – you watch her crumple at its feet. (Lorelei's never crumpled for anything.)

She works harder than any man or woman you've ever seen in your life, because in her eyes, there is no option but to conquer or die. You'll slip through her fingers, comet dust in the wind if she does not provide more than your father ever did – ever would, ever could. It can't happen. ("It won't happen.") The apartment she buys you with shifts that stir at dawn and only settle at dusk is filth-ridden. Cockroaches in the cupboards. Mice in your walls. But you love it: because it was done for you, all for you, and that is what makes a place home. And when you turn eighteen, you merely have to tell her a name, tell her a city ("Seattle University, duh!"), and she presents to you the moving van with a quirk of the lips and bandages on her hands.

But you're frightened of her gifts. More than that are you frightened of her and the gluttonous hole that stretches all the wider when she turns away. All things are give and take; losses for gain, sacrifices in the name of improvement; you know this because you were traded in before your name was Frieda Marlene.

This isn't worth it, though. Why can't you ever tell her your future isn't worth her own?

Chapter Text

His funeral is in the fall, and through it all, you stand hard as a stone. A testament to your strength, perhaps, bred in bone and unleashed for the world to see even at such a tender, young age. That's what your mother says to the others in the aftermath, anyway. Manipulate and redirect. It's better they think you strong than unfeeling so early in life, for even with an ending so similar, one is a “blessing” and the other a “curse”. What child, after all, feels nothing at the loss of their beloved father?

You don't remember him. Not really. There's a silhouette of a man where you believe he must have been, a whisper of words too quiet to make out, too nondescript to pinpoint on any one person. There are always stories of how he would hold you in his arms or bounce you on his knee or curl up around you like a fortress of stone to keep out night terrors of gargantuan spiders and bullies with ten thousand arms – but they're words, not images. He's an idea to you, not a person. You cannot love the idea of someone. You cannot miss them when they're gone.

“Dragons did this,” your mother's spindly uncle tries to console you. (What is there to console when you do not grieve?) “Your old man went down fighting. You should be proud of him.”

Hatred infects their eyes as they speak of them, all razor-fanged, bleeding-eyed, innocent malice. Understanding, as with most things, fails you, but you nod your head because you're a “smart” girl, “good” girl, and maybe, someday, you'll take his place in the fight for “liberation”.

(But you can't love an idea of a human. And you can't hate the idea of a monster who has never done you any harm.)



 

A well-behaved child is achieved through very simple criteria. It's easy, once you understand the formula. Simply:

Smile with mother, but never without. Thank her for her kindness, but never beg for more. (Your father brought in money through his work, his spoils of war. You don't ask for more because there is nothing to afford more; you want as every child does, but you hold your tongue still, and they wrongly think you selfless for it.)

Work harder than all of your peers, in school, in chores, in life. Two adults, one living, one dead, brought you the greatest gift of all, and as their spawn, you must pay them back with every ounce of your effort for bringing you to life. (Perhaps it's not duty, however, but necessity. Has Mother the strength to cook your meals, wash your clothes? Maybe she did, back in those days when Father was more than the hollow space at your table, in your home. These days, you think it takes all she has to look you in the eye.)

Speak only when spoken to. Say nothing that would wound your late father's pride, nothing that would draw unnecessary attention, nothing that does not improve on silence.

The last of these is the most important. It must be, for it is the one you are reminded of the most. Never kiss and tell, the other children chant to each other on the playground, skin blotted purple, skirts pulled up high, hickies on necks, all imitations of the world outside the schoolyard. They're always in such a hurry to grow up – I want to be a doctor, I want to be an actor, I want to be someone – and they think they know everything about the adult world, the ins and the outs, that they'd meld right in if only they stood just five inches taller. They don't, of course. You've seen it with your own eyes: what alcohol does to a man, the primal urges of the human race. Willing or not, you've been dragged into it, and it has swallowed you whole.

He touches you first when you are only twelve. A child – a child, tight-lipped, never wishing to be a nuisance. There is reverence in the way his hands (twice the size of your own, enough to engulf, enough to devour) glide across first the skin of your arms, then of that which he reveals, inch by inch, from beneath your prettiest Sunday dress. Untouched by age. By war. You hadn't thought twice in following him, because he was your father's best friend, strongest ally, right-hand man; what would your “old man” think if he saw the both of you now?

“So you can cry after all.”

Lips pressed to tear-stained cheeks. Your sobs are silent; your body is numb. You pinky promise not to tell a soul – for your mother, your poor, poor mother, how would she handle the news? – and he leaves you, broken like a discarded doll in the storage closet.



 

You count the days – then the weeks – then the months – then the years.

Maybe he'll tire of you, you think helplessly. Maybe the mental scars he leaves in his wake will bubble on your skin, and he'll see the battlefield carved across the canvas of your back and remember his world, remember his place, stop yearning for a city that does not fight tooth and nail for its survival and the pristine children it would breed. Sometimes, you speak of the atrocities, praying that reality will snap back to him just long enough for him to tear himself away. There's always something marring his body, multiplying like rabbits, each one a mark that sketches him ever closer to his grave.

“Did it hurt?” you whisper, hoarse, fingers pressed to a healing gouge still red and raw and real.

“Didn't feel a thing,” he deigns to reply.

I wish you did, you want to say, scream. I wish the dragon would've split you in two.

But you don't. The way the world views you both is decidedly very warped: you, iron-willed, unshakable, and the man who tells you he “loves” you, a brother-in-arms, a hero, a saint. In reality, you're nothing but a scared little girl – and only good men die young in the field.

Summer nights pass to fall, and something in you changes. You've been playing a part for so long (dutiful daughter, stoic and unbothered, innocent and untouched) that the line between visage and act begins to blur. No longer is Karva the Lionheart a character you find yourself slipping into; she becomes your skin, and you wear her to bed at night just as you wake up in her, animatronic machine in faux fur of an animal in the morning. And in these same days, something else changes beneath that skin, right to your core: a sickness in the morning, a lump in your stomach, double lines on a pregnancy test you bought with shaking hands and the entirety of your allowance at a convenience store. You're only fourteen years old.

It's better your mother doesn't know, and for once, you are grateful for her characteristic ignorance. If she'd asked, you would have had to construct a lie. Curiosity killed the cat, sullied the lion, shattered the image of a perfect little daughter who always did as she was told. The reality: two years spent in that awful, awful closet. Even if you told the truth, who would believe you now?

You'll kill it, you think, this leech you've contracted from a man you wish would rot, before any other can dare to question or doubt – and yet you hesitate, just for a moment, and a single moment proves to be your undoing. Where would you go? Who would help you? Would it hurt? ...What would it be like to be a mother?

(You go back to the closet – you struggle through it alone – it hurts, so much, so much, you think death has come for you before the father, and it's all just so unfair –

(And you hold her in your arms for the first time, brush crimson-soaked blonde hair from a face contorted in sobs, and think that maybe, just maybe, it's possible to love the idea of a person after all.)

You never tell him of his daughter, just as you never tell the others of all the things he does to you in this room that has become the setting of all your nightmares. Most certainly, he would take her from you. Worse, still, he could take her from the world in its entirety. Perhaps he would run out of use for you if he knew, mark you as damaged, throw you away. If it is to protect the little girl you keep hidden away from the rest of humanity, however, you will sit in that closet in silence and take it as you have a hundred times before. You can forget it all, forget him when you sit at her bedside. Reality slips away from you as you sing to her songs your mother had once sung to you; the only pendant the woman had ever had the money to give to you becomes the infant's birthright.

In a perfect world, you would have been able to keep her. Cherish her. Lead her hand-in-hand into the future.

The tears you did not cry for your father spill in a torrent, then, when you're forced to leave her behind.



 

Every day, you pray to the gods. You ask them for health, for happiness. You ask them for forgiveness of wrongdoings. More than anything, however, you ask them for the death of that man. For five years, they ignore your pleas for help, just as the rest of your filth-ridden city turns its constant blind eye to the dullness in your eye, the lethargy in your step. For five years, your prayers go unheard. And in the end, it is not the gods that finally grant your wish. No, no.

It's the dragons.

How valiantly he fell in battle, they say, fighting until his last breath for the preservation of a city that can barely stand. When they had spoken of such similar things in your youth about your father, you hadn't been able to conjure up so much as an image. Now, you can see it so clearly: sunlight glittering on scales as starlight, holy claws ripping waste parading a saint right down his center.

His comrades follow him, first in a trickle, then in droves. Like dominos, they fall, and perhaps it is cruel, and perhaps it is petty, but you welcome their deaths as penance for what they let happen to you and for the daughter they gave you only to steal away. Beyond that, however, you see the ruination of your city before it ever begins. Every fighter becomes prey, and with no barrier to keep the armies of the dead and the holy judgment of the manakete's kin at bay, it is only a matter of time before the city is raided in full and its occupants left, stripped of their protection and armor, to be picked and eaten live. You mean to take your mother and flee this place – but she is adamant, fixated on the idea of resting in her ever-nearing afterlife with the man you cannot remember, the man that she had loved. She will go, then, as he did. Into the maw of the only “gods” who answered your cries for help.

It may be so that you, not the dragons, were the innocent malice all along. Stoic. Unshaken. Somewhere in the collapsing city, your parent struggles and suffocates – and you watch it crumple from the distance without so much as a quiver of the lips.


 

Nadir is bigger than your old home: in height, in girth, in population. Its streets are suffocating in their density, with crowds that threaten to trample, beggars that remain perpetually starved, disease that infects only the poor, not the rich. Many others like you have forced your way into its walls with the promise of a safe haven, but even a sanctuary can only serve so many before its walls threaten to split at the seam.

“Dragons did this,” you hear from nearly every mouth in a crowd, every fire-eyed stranger who slams their fists to the rhythm of a deteriorating city. The beasts forced humanity inward, gorged on your food supplies, razed entire towns and cities who could not afford a barrier like Nadir's. Who else could possibly be to blame?

Yet you look upon the tragedy they speak of – thirsty mouths, lifeless eyes, hands that steal and hands that break. Dragons stole from you the afterimage of a man you can scarce remember. Dragons freed you from another man, still, who held you prisoner in that closet five years of your life. You cannot hate them for “crimes” you never saw committed. What you can hate are the ones who stand inside these walls, cowering, pointing their fingers everywhere but at their own selves; the ones who sit by as mouths go thirsty, eyes stay lifeless, hands steal and break, a little girl too young to be a mother loses the one love of her life. You can hate them, oh, how you can.

Hate, though, not dragons, is what really sullied these streets. It will take more than a single girl standing against it to change things for the better – but if change starts not with the individual, then where?

Chapter Text

From the very start of your youth, you're what the world likes to call a “trouble magnet”. Bullies flock to you like birds to bread crumbs (fists colliding with a face, knees into stomachs, and your pockets brutally emptied), strangers take advantage of your naivety (another verbal barrage from the teacher over your slipping grades today, another week's worth of your allowance gone tomorrow), your own blunders put yourself into danger more times than you can count (that scenario where the character knocks over a whole line of motorcycles is only supposed to happen in movies, but apparently you're the single exception). And you're the perfect target for all of this misfortune: shy beyond definition, incapable of telling the difference between someone telling you to “man up” and someone antagonizing you for the sake of their own entertainment. It doesn't help that you and your mother room with your “creepy” grandfather in a house sitting on top of his game shop, your father all over the world on business and your mother afraid to raise you, a child who is constantly on the receiving end of a pummeling nearly every other day, alone. It's a lifestyle that long ago set you on the path to loving games more than loving company. It's also likely the lifestyle that set you on the path to having a giant flashing sign above your head inviting anyone and everyone to take out their pent up aggressions on you. Not that you'll ever stop them – after all, you hate violence.

If you were to summarize your existence from the time you fled elementary to approximately a third of your way through high school, the best you could think of to do so in a single word would be lonely. In the earliest days of a child's youth, friends are plentiful, found here and there in just about anyone sharing the same age or interests – but when all the little boys and girls grew up, each one of them growing to be a head or so taller than you'll ever be, you started to notice them drifting further and further away. There was, of course, Anzu. Truthfully, you think there will always be Anzu, a girl with a tongue as sharp as her heart is kind. She's stood by your side for almost as long as you remember living in the little building above Sugoroku's beloved game store, and your heart beats wildly at the thought that maybe someday, she'll feel for you the same way you feel for her. That doesn't mean, though, that you've never had your doubts. They rear their ugly heads just about every time you've ever really looked at your reflection standing side-by-side, a “babysitter” and the “child forced upon her” staring back at you. (Neither one of you have very much in common – you don't even tell her about your treasure until you're both sixteen despite being in her company longer than the eight years you've owned it.) The thought that she's only sticking around to cheer for the underdog is as common as it is unpleasant. She's your friends, yes – but she doesn't always feel like your friend. (It's very confusing, sometimes.)

You were eight years old when you found it hidden in the darkest, dustiest corner of the storage room, tucked away beneath broken furniture and old board games that had cost more money than they earned. And it had struck you as odd then. From the look and feel of it, it couldn't have been made of anything short of solid gold (or, at the very least, a very impressive imitation), something that would've fetched a hefty price as much with collectors as gamers of old. You can still remember the way the Eye of Horus stared at you, unblinking, from the shadows, glinting with what little hallway light managed to filter in past your silhouette. (Staring, you'd foolishly thought, not at you, but straight into your soul.) Grandpa's face tightened at the sight of it in your hands when you rescued it from that dirty old room, a look you childishly mistook for pride, and even through his pleas to return it to where it had come from – “That puzzle's just too hard for you, Yugi. Put it back where you found it.” – you decided to make it your future memento of him. These things, these little insignificant fragments of your life (dice, bed sheets, the scattered pieces of a puzzle found in the ancient tombs of Egypt) all hold meaning to you, each one attached with memories of the uses they've had and the loved ones who brought them to you, but this, you think, the Millenium Puzzle – you'll like especially well.

Time passes. The solution eludes you ever still, but still, the Puzzle sits dutifully on the corner of your desk, waiting patiently for the day when your mind can overcome what no one else has over the span of three thousand years.

Waiting for the day that Ushio arrives.

It's a day that starts as any other: The entirety of your class floods out of the room with the bell, intent on the courts outside, the bathrooms to gossip, the hallways to wander; and you, afraid to be the causation for your team's loss in basketball, sit alone in the classroom with your bag full of games, your sparkling, golden puzzle box, and the antagonizing grit of Jonouchi's ever voluminous voice. There's always something you've done wrong on any particular day in the blond's eyes (“What's with your hair? Ever heard of a hairbrush?”; “C'mon, knock it off with the pessimistic crap already!”; “Grow a pair for once and fight me, Yugi!”), so it comes as little surprise to you when your greatest treasure is suddenly out of your hands and into a game of hot potato between he and his teammate, Honda. “Sheesh! Only a girl would care about a box!” he tells you, bouncing it from the palm of his hand without even catching your eye. “Watching you makes me sick.

“I'm gonna teach you how to be a man!”

Salvation comes in the form of Anzu's timely arrival, biting words stronger than any of the punches Jonouchi asks you to throw at him and enough to run the two troublemakers (but not without a peek at the box's prized contents) out of the room. You've never told her, or anyone, really, about the Puzzle before, too caught up in your own embarrassment over your affection for a “girlish box” and the wish you made on it years ago, but you suppose that showing it off to her now is the least you can do to repay her for saving your hide from another verbal barrage. You're not mad, though, is what strikes you as funny; when it comes to Jonouchi, you almost never are. Anzu tells you that you need to stand up for yourself time and time again – but isn't that exactly what he's telling you, as well? Truthfully, you could do without him snatching your games, but he did, in the end, give it back, and he's never once subjected you to a blow that so many other before him have. It's because of this that you don't understand her frustration with them, with your lack of action. That you don't understand why the monster of a hall monitor, a beast that the staff and student body call Ushio under terrified breaths, pulls you aside to promise you protection from the “bullies” that have been “harassing” you. When you turn him down, you think that will be the end of it. You should have known from the dark glint in his eye that things are never quite that easy.

Come the next morning, you don't see Jonouchi at all in class, nor does a quick scan of the classroom and hallways show any sign of Honda lurking around the corner to poke fun at you in his place. It's an inconsistency that's easily overlooked in the face of math problems too complicated for your less-than-miraculous brain to solve and the prospect of playing a new game your grandfather loaned you from the shop just that morning over your break, as well as one that's completely slipped your mind come noon. A yawn tears itself from the back of your throat as the same old stream of students abandon you to your empty classroom and your solitary games, a night of trying and failing once more to make progress on your supposedly “cursed” Puzzle robbing you of some much needed sleep – but the routine breaks itself when the familiar face of a man with eyebrows much too large for a high school student comes poking his head around the door asking for your company. Breaks further when he leads you outside to see the beaten and bloodied forms of two missing students leaning helplessly against the wall and against each other. “I told you, Yugi! I'm your bodyguard!” Ushio says with a plastic smile, a party mask that fails to properly veil the swarm of twisted emotions swirling just beneath it. Your own face has contorted into shock and horror; how could he do such a thing? “I decided to teach these bullies a lesson! One that they'll never forget!” You bend over them, foolishly searching for signs of life (of course they're alive, you're not classmates with a murderer), and the words that tumble from your most loyal antagonizer's mouth drive straight through your heart – because he thinks that you asked for this to happen. He thinks this is your fault.

When Ushio moves to resume where he'd left off, you're quicker to standing between them than he is to putting his foot in a gut – because he doesn't understand, none of them understand, you don't wish this on anyone, and you especially don't wish this upon your friends. They were just teaching me how to be a man... Instead, you take the beating in their place. You can take it, you think, memory calling on countless pummelings that have come before. But they've never been quite like this before. A punch from a lanky teen with a bark worse than his bite doesn't compare to the blows that strike so hard, they leave your lungs without air, doesn't compare to the strikes that have you seeing stars and tasting copper on the tip of your tongue. He beats you and beats you and beats you until you're lying there on the concrete, unmoving, unthinking – and he leaves letting you know that he's charging you two hundred thousand yen for his services, a fee he'll make sure to get whether or not he has to use his knife to coax it out of you. It's impossible, you think, to collect that much money in one night. Impossible, you think again, for you to collect that much money at all. Ushio is going to carve into you like a jack-o-lantern, and there isn't a single thing in the world you can do to stop him.

So you work on the Puzzle instead.

It's a silly thing to do, and the moment you notice your fingers absentmindedly working away at the bizarre artifact, you tell yourself as much. In the periphery of your vision, you see all one thousand six hundred some yen you've managed to scrape up from your savings, and if you need to be working on something, it's finding the remaining one hundred ninety-nine yen you'll need to very well save your life, but the feeling of gold pieces beneath your fingertips is oddly soothing, the sound of the pieces finally, finally clicking into their designated places chasing off your worries. (You aren't so much solving the Millennium Puzzle, you don't realize, as the Millennium Puzzle is solving itself.) Another piece goes in. And another. You think of your wish, eight years old and festering, a desire that you've held in your little treasure box and refused to let go of. Twist the three-legged piece here and add the plus-shaped one there – another perfect fit. You treasure Anzu's company, but at the end of the day, you wonder if you'll only ever be a burden to her. You can see the shape: a pyramid, an upside pyramid! What you want more than anything – three more pieces, you're doing it, it's been eight years and you're finally doing it – more than anything in the world, really – just one more, the one with the Eye of Horus gazing at you as always on it, and it's done – is to finally have just one

It's gone.

The final piece is gone.

(All you've ever really wanted was someone to rely on, someone who could rely just as much on you. All you've ever really wanted was a real friend. And now that hope, too, is gone.)

Your grandfather walks into the room to find you, a wet, sobbing mess, and the Millennium Puzzle, solved to near completion despite his constant “reminders” that it was a thing beyond your mortal understanding. His congratulations turn your heart sour, bitter words that stir up something foreign and dark in the pits of your soul. A voice in the back of your mind is whispering horrible, terrible things in the periphery of your understanding, an alien negativity taking root where you've never felt anything but sadness, and your tongue burns when you tell him that no, no matter how close you may have gotten, you'll never be able to solve it after all. But he smiles at you, that same old smile, comforting and warm, and he tells you as he presses something cold and metal into your hands: “You should have more faith!” The missing puzzle piece.

The faint sound of echoed laughter rings softly in your ears – quiet enough you can almost convince yourself that you'd heard nothing at all – as Grandpa slips out of your room and the final piece of the Puzzle slips into it's place. And then you feel it: hatred, burning hatred, brighter and hotter than the sun in the sky, an inferno that laps at your heart and swallows you whole, and Ushio must pay the pri-

You black out.

 


 

 

You must have been terribly tired, you think come morning, to have fallen asleep so suddenly at your desk. Bizarre, too, that you hadn't noticed yourself growing tired until it was already too late. The lethargy stays with you through the morning, a thick haze that hangs over your mind as you prepare for the school day and walk through those doors (not once noticing the wild-eyed student rolling in filth in courtyard, shouts of “Money, money, all mine, all mine!” shattering what would have been the morning's peaceful air), and it isn't until you're already halfway down the main hallway that you come to a realization. You've done it. It's been eight long years in the making, but you've finally accomplished what the world around you was so certain was impossible. It hangs around your neck on an unfamiliar rope, ancient gold shimmering beneath the fluorescent lighting of the school's interior: the Millenium Puzzle in its completed form. The knowledge alone is enough to distract you from the whispering of students about Ushio's strange behavior out front, as well as the predicament you'd found yourself in the previous night. (The one you've, unknowingly, already solved.) It isn't until Jonouchi calls your name from his spot leaned up against the wall that last night's pummeling comes to mind, but even that is mostly forgotten in favor of trying to wrap your mind around the fact that he's gone three whole sentences without complaining about this or that or whatever it may be that you've done this time. In fact, he asks you if you're okay, despite looking worse for wear himself – and then he asks you if you'd like to see the treasure that he, himself, has started keeping.

“It's something you can show, but can't see.” You recognize the words as being similar to ones you've spoken yourself, 'something you can see, but have never seen before' being a reference to your Puzzle and its incompleteness, but you'd be lying if you said you could discern any real meaning from what he's saying to you now. Your confusion must show on your face, though, because it's not long before he tosses you a lifeline. “Give up? C'mon – it's friendship! Thanks for showing me that we're friends.”

Jonouchi Katsuya smiles at you in a way that you've never seen before: close lipped as opposed to the feral grins you've seen time and time again, eyes softer than the fur of a well groomed kitten. He's said a lot of things to you, few of them kind, but you know deep in your heart that he means this. It rings in his words, echoes in the way he seems to grow flustered as they play back in his own mind, and when he takes off in an embarrassed rush toward his next class, the sting of tears in the corner of your eyes is unmistakable. They aren't painful, though, or sad or bitter or anything that they usually are. They're happy. You're happy. Happier than you were when your grandpa handed you that final piece, happier than you were when you woke from your dreamy haze to find a Puzzle hanging from around your neck, happier than you can ever remember being in that exact moment. You made a wish eight years ago in that dusty old storage room, whispered in secret to yourself and kept shut away with the contents of your puzzle box –

And today, you know with certainty, that wish has most definitely come true.

 


 

Change meets you after years of living in a cycle of isolation, violence, and monotony, and you welcome it, both positive and negative, with open arms. It's long overdue, after all. Jonouchi's occasional pesterings become daily morning greetings and well received company over what used to be lonely lunch breaks. Together, you share stories – you bring him games he's never heard of, and he slips you videos that would make your mother blush when no one's looking. He's as aggressive and loud as you've always known him to be, but you've never been scared of him before, and his presence only has you beaming now. This is, you keep telling yourself in awe, exactly what you've been asking for since childhood. But the blond brings with him more change than just the injection of his goofballish ways into your life; they're things you don't notice at first, eclipsed as they are in the joy of having someone around who always has your back, but as time passes, your attention finally catches on. For one thing, Jonouchi isn't the only one who deigns to poke his head into your personal bubble between classes – Anzu leaves to play sports less than usual, sticking around in the classroom more and more to berate your friend for his crudeness and participate in whatever game it is that you've brought from home today. Nothing has changed between the two of you, you can't help but think, but all the same, you see more of her after the incident with Ushio than you have since you were inseparable in elementary. Just two weeks ago, you would have been hard pressed to utter a single breath of complaint about your oldest and your newest friends taking new found interests in you, and even now, you try to look solely at the positives, numerous as they are. Pretend that there are only positives, however, all you like, but it doesn't change the fact that the three of you aren't exactly a merry trio of tranquility. A mutual friend does not erase years of a sexist and pride-driven feud, and even if they're both all smiles and laughs around you, you're not so much of an idiot as to not realize the dirty looks they shoot each other when your back is turned. Worse than that, however, is that with your hot blooded friend comes Hiroto Honda as well. You learn very quickly through his hard stares and harder words that your act of selflessness only won one ruffian over on that infamous day.

Where change finds you next, however, is in the occasional reemergence of the blackouts. When the first had struck, a freshly completed puzzle in hand and fear racing laps around your mind, you'd easily written it off as a result of a lack of sleep and an increase in anxiety and left it in the back of your thoughts to whither away. Unnecessary. Left behind where it could no longer affect you. Time, though, moved – and a single blackout became many, striking you in times of emotional distress and leaving you waking up in confusion and wonder. A film director gets away with beating Jonouchi to a pulp by threatening to humiliate him with the media; you black out with your friend in your arms, and you never hear of him again. Sozoji abuses both your's and your poor classmate Hanasaki's timid natures and takes his aggression out on the latter; you black out over Hanasaki's bruised and bloody face, and he never subjects another student to his horrendous singing again. Kokurano wraps the school around his “psychic” finger with a string of lies; you black out just before you are burried under a mountain of books, and he's being treated for chloroform poisoning at the hospital the next day. Upperclassmen steal your festival spot – black out – and their leader sets a bomb off on himself. A store owner sells and steals back a pair of shoes from your friend – black out – and ends up hospitalized over a scorpion sting come night. Your classmate Kaiba makes off with your grandfather's Blue Eyes White Dragon trading card, and – surprise, surprise, your consciousness leaves you when he strikes you in the head with his briefcase. Never mind the fact that he never shows up to school again. You're finally making your peace with Honda by helping to confess to the girl of his dreams when your witch of a teacher tries to intervene, and when the world falls dark around you just at the most pivotal moment, you think in your last seconds of control -

(“Let's, you and I, play a little game. That is, if you've got any guts.”)

Maybe you're suffering quite the severe case of narcolepsy.

 


 

Eccentricity is no stranger to you. It comes with living in the city, really, as well as living under the same roof as an old man who dabbles in his fair share of it. Your hair, in fact, natural as it may be, tends to label you as rather eccentric, yourself. For all of the bizarre hair styles and personalities you've run across on the street, in the arcade, and at the game shop, however, you've never met anyone quite as odd as the crying man at the mummy exhibit, clothed in cloudy white robes and toting a set of scales that look as though they'd fit right in with the other Egyptian artifacts at the day's premier exhibit. The whole gang is here – Jonouchi, Anzu, you, and your grandfather – roped in because of Sugoroku's connections and your own interest in ancient Egypt (you'd be a liar, though, if you said it stemmed from anything but the mysterious puzzle that usually hangs from your own neck, currently hanging from a display rack at the request of of a pot bellied man who made the exhibit and the archeological dig that lead it possible), but you're the only one who seems to see him, and his image only haunts you as you all make move to part ways. Grief of a mummy channeled into the living and drawing out tears; you've heard some pretty strange stuff, but nothing quite that strange.

Things only take a turn for the more odd when you see him again some five or so hours later. What you have is an excuse: The Millennium Puzzle was only meant to hang on display for a day, and you'd waited until well after closing hours to make your way back in and claim what was your's from the imposing Mr. Kanekura. What he, the Egyptian man, no longer shedding tears from the dead has is exactly what you've come to retrieve: the very same Millennium Puzzle. You're so surprised to see it in his possession that you don't even think to wonder what he was doing here after hours, himself, and he doesn't even allow you time to let the thought occur to you before he's staring, blank eyed, out into space. How long does he stand like that, your Puzzle in hand and his eyes locked on the polished floor? You call and you call, but he doesn't answer – until he does, maybe five minutes later, shocked to awareness and blinking against the fluorescent lighting. He mutters out something about owing you some debt (unnecessary; it's not like you did anything other than try to shake him to the waking world), and then he utters words that pierce you to your core: “It was the other you.” Laughter bubbles in your throat, first genuine and then confused, but the words resonate in your head like an echo in a long, dark chamber. The other you. As if there were anyone else up there than yourself; as if! You part ways thinking him crazier than ever, but all the while something stirs uncomfortably in the pit of your stomach. Vaguely, you think of nights where you've blacked out in sadness (anger), only to wake up somewhere else, confused (sated). But it doesn't matter. You have your puzzle, the one whose only purpose was to grant the wish you most wanted to make, and all is right in your own personal world.

(“Let's play a game.”)

Mr. Kanekura died that afternoon.

It takes you and your grandfather by a surprise when you find out what's happened, one that strikes you both into silence... and one that has your thoughts miserably back tracking to that second time you crossed paths with the mysterious man who called himself “Shadi”. The last time you had seen the dead man was when you'd handed over your puzzle in the first place, which meant that sometime between then and the time a fatal heart attack struck him, Shadi had been one of the last people, if not the last person to see him. He had to have been; the Puzzle couldn't have just fallen into his hands. You think of what the others must be saying about this now. Anzu always feels the hurt of others as if it were her own – it's what drew you to her in the first place – and Jonouchi – well, Jonouchi was probably going on about that Pharaoh's Curse he'd been panicking about at the exhibit. For a teenager who could sent grown men to their knees with a single punch, he really was quite the “'fraidy cat” when it came to the superstitious. And Kanekura... Kanekura wasn't exactly the healthiest individual, so, loathe as he was to admit, it didn't come as much of a surprise that he went the way he did, even if the rest of the world prattled on and on about divine retribution and the deaths of all those who worked on prior excavations. Either way, your grandfather announces that he's going to meet his friend, Yoshimori, the one who lead that dig and the one you met just the day prior. The death of a friend, or at least an acquaintance, is never easy to shoulder alone, and with the media's ever “helpful” attention, the poor archeologist shouldn't be left alone. So you volunteer to go with, even if you don't know kindly Mr. Yoshimori that well, and so, too, do your friends. It doesn't seem to matter that you've only just met; the man seems like he'd take all the company he can get.

Only when you get there, things aren't what you'd expected of them. You've only known him a day, certainly, but even you recognize that something isn't entirely right. It makes itself known in the way he laughs over the death of his partner, eyes as lifeless as the man he so carelessly speaks of, and your party's only just started to inquire as to what the matter is when he moves – directly for Jonouchi's throat.

It's a death grip that Yoshimori (or his body, at least, out of the control of the sweet professor that usually inhabited it) uses to try to choke your best friend with, and it's one that not a single one of your can stop. Your fingers are like feathers against a brick wall, a useless force that can try and try to stop the inevitable, but never succeed. The thought that this might be it, the end of Jonouchi Katsuya when you see him – Shadi – lurking in the shadows, eyes trained not on the attempted murder happening right before his eyes, but rather on you. It chills you to your bone, miraculously more than the sight of clenched fingers around a vulnerable throat. Does no one else see him? How on Earth had they missed the man in white watching them from the very start?

Anzu, mightier than anyone you've ever met despite appearances, takes a globe of the planet in her hands and does what neither you nor your grandpa would have in you: breaks it over the zombie's head and sends him flying across the room. She grimaces at the sight of teeth flying out at the contact, but it's a small price to pay for the air that floods the taller teen's lungs, and for fifteen tense seconds of silence, you all gather your bearings. Panting as he may be, Jonouchi's still alive, and while she's fretting over the supposedly unconscious body she's sent crumpling to the floor, Anzu's unhurt as well. Unconscious might not be the ideal state of being, you think, but it's better than being animate and with the intent to kill; not that you can focus too much on that in favor of the Egyptian's presence in the corner of the room. This whole thing reeks of something straight out of a movie – like suggestion, or... or mind control. You've played games until your thumbs ached, but never in real life have you seen experienced something so unnatural. Brainwashing? You'd have thought it impossible before. Now, having witnessed it first hand, you're not so sure. (The globe smashing was a temporary escape. The controlled gets to his feet, unshaken, and knocks your grandfather out with a single uppercut. This is how you know for certain that this is not the man you'd met at the museum.)

Valiant Jonouchi, ever brave and selfless, leads the unthinking body out into the halls and away from where the rest of you try and fail to gather your wits. Normally, you'd give chase – this isn't his fight alone, and you won't stand to see him get himself killed for your sake – but once again, you find your attention grabbed away from the zombie in the room by the elephant in the room. You'd only looked away for a minute, just a minute to make sure your grandpa wasn't dead, and when you look back to face ho can only be the culprit of this heinous crime, you see that he's taken another mind prisoner. A hand rests on your longest crush's shoulder, and brown eyes once so full of passion and life stare at you emptily from across the room. It's her body, but she's not there. Shadi has taken Anzu, too.

“Let your blood boil with anger,” he tells you with words that shake your gentle spirit to its core. “Let your body shake with sorrow. Call him forth.

It's the same as he's been telling you this whole time, words spoken that were only heard by your own ears. Whoever this stranger is, he's asking for someone who doesn't exist, some fictional “other you” that he's deluded himself into thinking he can draw out by choking and brainwashing your friends. You are you – the only Yugi Mutou in the world, you know it. (And yet your blood boils, your body shakes, and darkness closes in already on the corners of your vision. You are not alone in your mind.) “Listen well, little Yugi.” Foreign anger licks at your tongue, and you hold back the urge to bite that you are listening, that you've been listening, that he can't do this to the people you love - “Let this be the final trigger. If I were to order this girl to die...

She would die.

 


 

You don't recall what it was you were doing when you wake. The last thing you can recall was meeting up with your two closest friends on your way to meet with that archeologist you'd been the other day and continuing on your way there without a hitch. There's been a lot on your mind since then – enough that it's pulled you from your reality and into a world of thought – but now that you've been woken from your self-induced stupor, you can't seem to recall what, exactly, that was. It pales in comparison to the worry your friends must be feeling over you; the only reason you'd been pulled from your stupor at all was because they stopped to see if you were okay. Everything's fine, of course. Whatever it was that was bothering you is gone now. (They fret, anyway, concerned by something you won't remember. Concerned by the other you.) Idly, you wonder what became of that crying man you'd met at the exhibit and the punishment he'd promised to deal out, the “other you” he'd spoken of meeting.

Whoever he was, you doubt you'll see him again.

 


 

It's business as usual in the days that follow: cruel teachers, bad grades, and games up to your eyeballs. You raise a Tomogachi from life to death at the same time that a school bully goes around deleting the data off of other's, the younger brother of Kaiba Seto you never knew existed comes at you with his gang of knife-wielding elementary schoolers, and Hanasaki plays hero (complete in his full-body Zombire suit) against a couple of spray-painting thugs that take things just a step too far if only for the pursuit of money. Domino City never changes. It's always been a melting pot of those who simply wish to live out their days and those who would choose to use those people to make a bit of extra cash. Anzu gets another job, Jonouchi beats up of a mugger, Honda babysits his cousin. And you – you don't know what you're doing. Not anymore. Your days are spent in a half blur, your memory unreliable, your schedule in tatters. Where have you been? What have you been doing? It's impossible to tell. All your left with is spray paint on your fingers and the smell of burnt cloth (burnt flesh) clinging stubbornly to your school uniform. Sometimes, you wonder if that man at the museum knew what he was talking about; if it weren't a matter of lost memory or sudden narcolepsy, but rather bodily possession by someone with your face, but not your mind. It's so quixotic to think about, too unreal to imagine being the truth – but then again, this is Domino City. Maybe, you think, watched by the unblinking stare of your Millennium Puzzle, if there were one place in the world where that could happen, it would be right here. In this city. In this very bedroom.

What would Jonouchi, Honda, and Anzu think of you then?

(At night, you dream of that same restaurant as always – the one where she used to work, dolled up in that pretty waitress uniform of her's. Maybe you're there alone, or maybe there are others with you, all crowded into the freshly built booths of the esteemed Burger World. It doesn't matter; everything comes into place when he walks through the door, pistol in hand, curses on his tongue. You don't hear the words, but you see how they bring the frightened people to their knees. No, no, you can't hear them because you're too focused on the gun pressed to her head and the hand over her mouth, and you're scared, so, so scared when he calls out to you out of everyone in the trembling crowd on the floor, demands that you fetch him what he's come for -

(Until you're not scared anymore. Maybe you never were. You seat yourself across from him and, madly, impossibly, you challenge him to a game. It's almost like there isn't a weapon pointed at your heart – but then again, you seem to acknowledge that whoever loses is going to die, so you must see it's there. How casually you speak of it. It's almost like you've stared death in its face a thousand times before. In times like these, you think that maybe, just maybe, you really have.

(“All I need to kill you,” you say so smugly, grin pulled loose, eyes like knives, “is my thumb.” And you're right. You always are. It's only a matter of seconds before the building goes up in flame and the convict screams his last words – gun forgotten, skin eaten away by fire and smoke – but it doesn't faze you in the slightest. You're used to the acrid smell of death; the scent of a kidnapper's chlorine; the sounds of a man gone insane. Your Puzzle, your prison was a door to something primal, something dark –

(– and the door to darkness has been opened wide.)

Chapter Text

You are young, but even your youth cannot save you from the sharp sting of raw, uncut hatred.

In the city, between rotting brick walls, in homes with ceilings splatter-painted with holes that leak and mold that sprawls, children your age suffer fates worse than your own. Even you, always foolish, even for your age, can see this. The private school you are enlisted in does not blind you toward the uneven shape of your peers – the lens the media would pull over your view of the social structure can only distort, never fully cover. People starve. People struggle. People die. The Strauss name comes with money, though, with prestige, power. You have no reason to want – no reason to starve, to struggle, to strangle. You have no reason to hate. Selfish boy, you hear a thousand times, stupid, heartless, selfish boy. I give you everything, and this is what I get in turn?

You are young, and you're given everything a person your age could hope for: education (you drop out when you are sixteen, your report cards drowning in the letter “f”, your own attitude toward it apathetic), money (you steal it from your parents, slip it to shady figures you know only by an alias, trade it for liquid in needles that sends you high above the clouds), and a family (and you leave them, your politician father and your doormat mother, never once looking back toward the man who curses your name and strips you of your right to be his successor).

But maybe you are selfish. Schooling, funding, parental “love” - you've tasted it all, and returned it with contempt. You want something more out of life. More than what you've been given; more than what even your drugs can afford you. For years, you struggle between hits, coasting through jobs, wondering what exactly it is that you want -

And you find it, in the same moment that you find the one man who can give it to you.

 



Hindsight affords you a laughable image: you, dumbstruck, caught as a thief in the eyes of a pig on the outskirts of the park, and he, fists raised high, voice raised high preaching to a crowd of banshees. You stare at him as though he is something otherworldly – even now, you believe he must be, a gift from the gods, the karmic balance to the hellfire that rages on around the world – and he defines all you know, all you feel in words that you have never thought to string together so and words that have never graced your ears.

He speaks of a revolution calling –

you hear it, you hear it so loudly –

and in that moment, you know what it means to feel love at first sight.

 


 

Metal against flesh, bullet to the brain – you've never met a man so dedicated to his work that he would die so needlessly for it, but the sight before you has your heart racing faster than you can ever remember, and it's not just because you may very well bear witness to a living person's self-inflicted death. “I swear to give my life for you – ” he'd said to you, “– if you would swear to give yours for mine.” Verbal oaths would have done just fine anywhere else, Cross My Hearts and pinky promises to fealty and dedication. This, however, the gun in his hand and the single bullet in its revolver, reminds you that you are not just anywhere. You're in the presence of a god: unyielding, undying. You know his life won't end here, not at this desk, not in this building he has lead you to (it doesn't; he pulls the trigger and the gun clicks out its refusal), so you will make sure yours doesn't, either. The weapon glides across the table and into your waiting hand, its weight unfamiliar in your grip and the single bullet reloaded into its slot, and you swear in this moment, this limbo, teetering between your life and death that you will give everything you have and more to this deity and his cause.

You point the revolver at your first ever victim and, unshakable, pull the trigger.

(Empty air brands you: You are property of Doctor X.)

 


 

From that point on, it goes like this: a ring of the phone, a voice through the line, and suffocating static through your mind. What happens in the in between, from the point of the call to the time you return to the apartment he lets you live in, is an afterthought at best. Hazy. Half-remembered, as if it were nothing more than a dream. What things slip through, however, resemble nightmares more than daydreams: honey-sweet orders filtered through the receiver, victims begging to their last breath, blood on your hands, on your coat, where does it all go when you “wake”? The “you” you view through time wields an array of firearms you don't even know the names of. Shoot the head clean off. It's no wonder they never show the photos postmortem.

It's (terrifying) liberating.

You're changing the world. (He's changing you.)

But you aren't satisfied with vague victories; you want to taste their breath as they go, feel their bones beneath your fingers as they snap. Everything is stripped bare in those final moments. You want to see it for your own eyes – see what marked them dead men to begin with.

Another man in your shoes would have been mocked, you know, scorned for posing any such request. Selfish, selfish, selfish. Is doing the deed not enough? How easily the words slip back into place, echoes of a time you'd thought abandoned, cruelties ricocheting back to you across space and time, strong enough to batter, harsh enough to break. For all your preparing, though, they never come. Your existence, until this point, has been contained entirely within an echo chamber: actions driven by past contamination, ideals regurgitated from that which you have been preached. He smiles at you then, and you feel it shatter around you like glass.

Of course,” he says, instead, “if that is truly what you want.

You've been smitten with him since that day in the park, but it isn't until now that you begin to see why the others say that your unequivocal love runs in more ways than just one.

 


 

Mankind and all its terrors instill no fear in you now, for all their brimstone and fire. The dead could roll in and claw out from their graves all they please, so far as you are concerned. You know it better than they, after all: death. You wear it as a coat, drown yourself in its scarlet, swallow it whole as if it were ambrosia served from the deity who has saved you from ruin. What have you, death incarnate, to fear from any of these things? Time and time again, now, you have stared true evil down to its core, and you have stripped it, layer by layer, of its power over you and the innocent lives of the world. If your hands are stained for glory, you will wear red with pride. Even if all others think you worse than the demons in hell, you will bear the weight of their hatred in your crusade against hate in its very essence. For if not you, who will?

Dawn settles over Seattle in monochrome; tonight, as every night before, you vow to paint it crimson.

Chapter Text

Your history. My history? Yes, your history. Recite it. Oh, I don't know about that... Why the refusal? Well, it's just that... I remember it backwards...

then start from the end.

( ANESKA SZOMBATHY )



Your fifth life begins in a panic.

The clothing you wear – flesh, eyes, hair, and limbs included in the overcoat you have sewed for yourself in so short a time – is equal parts memory as it is imagined, retention of detail and the state in which you'd found the body leaving holes as literal as they are physical in the appearance you are being forced to don. Your life begins in a panic because this is not good. This is not good because your psychic abilities of mimicry can only take you so far, and the more hindered your powers go, the weaker the guise. This is not good because there's an awfully horrid chance that you will not be able to fool anyone upon arrival at your new, borrowed home because of how one leg juts out farther than the other and because her pauldrons might have been pink when you wear them as red. This is not good, most of all, because no one can know. No one can know what you have seen today and what you have done today and why you have begun another life anew. Your fifth life. They can never know why you have lived to five. And if you cannot fool them, they will know.

Aneska Szombathy was a teacher. Her military-like attire, while you did not recognize it as such before hand, rang quite a different story than that of a humble instructor, you mused upon your first studies of the alias and background you are being forced to adopt. Sanctum, however, despite your time spent inside its ever climbing walls still functioned as quite the fresh concept in your infantile mind. The Institute in which she worked at had never even come across the forefront of your thoughts, despite how prevalent of a building it was, and it was not until you'd taken your first steps toward your new job that you began to realize how well the elegant, yet commanding attire fit into the place in which she made her income. It, like the city it spat freshly brainwashed children into, was run by nothing short of dictators, cruel abusers of position and power who belittled the children at every step of the way, pounding their susceptible forms into liquid doormats that they could pour into molds meant to harden their content into the overlords' images. This was not a place for learning – it was a factory, plucking the raw materials (youth; students) from the streets, slapping them onto the conveyor belt (classes; courses), and circulating the product (soldiers; vanguards; mislead politicians) into society for profit (another generation build to think just like them). It was disgusting. Aneska, your predecessor, was anything but, but the place she had been so hopelessly trying to improve was made no better by the small rays of hope she offered. And yes, for as disgusting as it was -

- it was just the place you needed to be.

I just... I just don't know what to do, Ms. Szombathy! It feels like everything thinks I'd be better off dead...!

Wouldn't you be better off dead?

Student suicides escalate pleasantly in your time spent in her shoes. You teach the general courses, and as such, few a student passes through the system without having you as their instructor; you learn so many faces, but learn that she had known so many more before you – had won over so many more before you. It's as wonderful as it is a burden. You hate these pitiful creatures, little bags of angst and selfishness. You hate them, and they push you beyond your physical and mental limits with each day that passes you by. The way so many of them, however, scramble after you in a small chorus of “Ms. Szombathy! Ms. Szombathy!,” the way the ones who miss home or the ones who get bullied in the breaks between classes beg for your aid... Perhaps it is a burden you can bear. You tell them to find release of their sorrows in their end, and when their bodies drops like flies, the administration shake their agitated heads, the student body mourn for their lost comrades, and you – you flash your usual broken grin, lips pulled just a little wider and teeth glinting just a little bit brighter than usual. You are saving them, you know. You are saving them from their pain.

Perhaps, someday, you will save them all.

( ROXANNE ADKINS )



Your fourth life begins quaintly.

Long since have you given up on the brazen idea of using your abilities solely for self preservation and gain; no longer do you have your abhorrent mother, much less the rest of your disappointed pack breathing down your neck to shake their heads at your failures, and no longer must you conform to their methods more so out of a need to belong than for honest profit. Stealing one's money by offing and carefully replacing them was simply never what you were cut out for, nor what you ever wanted for yourself. There was no... no liberation in that sort of demise. Theirs' was a painless life, hours lived in the lap of luxary, and such was a needless death if it did not free the one dying from pain they would be forever tortured by if they were not snipped from existence. You do not wish to waste your efforts being an unnecessary harbinger of equally unnecessary doom. And, if you were being quite honest with yourself, you never much cared for the jewels or the clothing or the statuses; what you cared for was the freedom and the time to think idle thoughts. These are the treasures your fourth life brings, and you need not even rain blood upon your chalk white, monstrous hands to achieve it.

Your fourth life takes place in the body of a girl you'd seen on a missing poster. You steal the voice straight out of someone else's lips, a passerby out on the streets you'd had no interest in, and with features borrowed from a slip of paper asking for aid in search of a young woman most likely already dead, clothes imitated from the nearest convenience store, and tone borrowed from someone you will likely never meet again, you're quite certain you have formulated a plan that will best use the unique abilities you were born with. The days go by leisurely, after all. Your kind, stowing away as humans or other bipedal gifted, have a smaller need for food or drink, and where your acquaintances must have three meals a day, you require perhaps one every seven. Sleep? Unnecessary. You dream when you walk, dream when you bump into someone, and dream through your absent minded apology. The apocalypse begins, and you don't even quite notice, the blue eyes of your forth frame focused less on the demons and more on the cumulus clouds above. Or maybe they aren't cumulus – are they? To you, every cloud will be cumulus. You are cumulus; a cloud. Careless and free to roam.

Until someone recognizes you.

Roxanne!

No, no, no.

Your fourth life was to be lead with no strings attached, but this human, this... this boy thinks you are this supposed “Roxanne.” You are not Roxanne, you want to tell him. You are d̶͏̸a̵͝͠t̷̢͜͠ą̴̸̛ ̡͡e̶͝x̴͢͜҉̧p̴̷̡͢͢u҉͢n̷̶̕͢͡g͘҉e̶͡d͢ , and you will never be the girl he imagines you to be. No matter what you say, though, he won't leave you alone, trailing you through the city and through the buildings; he thinks you have amnesia, that “your kidnapper” hit you on the head, and now you can't remember him. You do remember, though. You remember cumulus, cumulus, cumulus, cumulus. You remember Mama. You remember lives one, two, and three – and you remember deciding that life four is over. You abandon your jumble of faces and voices and clothes in favor of who you really are: bony and white and grotesque. Sometimes, you hate what you look like. You are white like the cumulus, but you will never be soft like them, too covered in angles and sharpened edges. What would it take to be beautiful like the clouds?

She thinks you are beautiful. You think, too, that you are beautiful when compared to her. The monsters had gotten in, a creature of the taint slipping passed Sanctum walls, and while the officials had since dealt with the break in, the causalities were not nonexistent. She lays on the ground, all pink-haired and bloodied and half alive, and she tells you that she thinks you are beautiful. (You had been speaking your depressing thoughts aloud again, you suppose.) She tells you that she wished she could have lived a little longer, made a few more friends; the children loved her, and she'd had lovely chemistry – whatever that is – with a fine young man she'd come across, but no bonds strong enough to preserve her memory in the city remained. She tells you, though, most of all, that she wants to die. That the pain is too much, and that she'd rather you put her out of her misery than watch her bleed out. Liberation can be found in death, as well, she informs, and when you impale her with nothing but your bony fingernails, you can't help but play the words in your mind over and over and over and over and over and -

( N͞EFERŢARI RA̶H̨O̷T͡E͢P҉ )



Your third life begins with a weight on your shoulders.

You have failed once already, Mama's hot glare having left a burn scar in the flesh of your right shoulder from your previous slip up, and you know, absolutely know that if you do not succeed where you could not before, she will have you outed from the pack. It's simply in a doppelganger's nature to know how to pull off such heists as the thief and homicide combination that they are known for, and if a doppelganger cannot preform their instinctual functions, they are to be left to rot and die. Nothing personal. Your brothers and your sisters whisper of the horrors of being a lone wolf, how society will eat your kind like chicken breasts if you do not have another to rely upon, and you feed into each lie and exaggeration with the frightened enthusiasm of a child. Bone chilling stories, however, are not what shake you to your core: Instead, it is the prospect of earning your mother's distrust and distaste. You have only ever lived with the purpose of pleasing her, and it breaks you more and more with the passing hours that you fail to do so. That is why, when you and your siblings decide to take over a party as a whole with the promise of the great wealth they've got store away, you swear to yourself – swear to yourself and every possible deity out there – that you will do your maternal figure proud. You will walk away with the most riches, and you will be heralded a hero.

Things appeared to be going fine at first. Your brothers and your sisters send you off for the first replacement – the hardest replacement – and what should have been the part of the mission that would make or break your fortune, your position in the pack goes by surprisingly easy. Clearly, Ms. N͟efer͜t͝a̵r̵i ̡R͞a̕hotep͞ was not as well known (or liked) amongst the group despite all of her riches and wealth, and not one of the group expects your ninety-percent mimicking of her, nor her corpse you'd thrown against the furthest building wall, not even buried out of respect. Five days, five replacements – by the fourth, your youngest brother is to be taking over his role in the party. The fourth is, admittedly, perhaps the trickiest past the first, since suspicions have undoubtedly risen in the party since, and the remaining survivors are known to curl in on themselves to prevent anything bizarre from happening to them, too; for someone as seasoned as he, however, the second-to-last position should have come quite easily. He'd done it before, correct? Countless times, yes. You'd heard the stories and watched the celebrations and admired all of his gold bars and silver coins – so why does he fail? Why does he let the man slip, snatching their precious metals and jewelry away and disappearing into the night with everything the skeletal monsters had hoped of stealing so soundlessly from them?

And why do they pin the blame on you?

Mama buries claws into the golden scalp of your borrowed body, N͟efer͜t͝a̵r̵i's blood spilling out from the wounds and falling in N͟efer͜t͝a̵r̵i's beautiful blue eyes.

Failure, she screams, Failure!

Yes, yes, failure!

You cry, tears and mucus dribbling down your face, mixing with crimson as the three race to the base of your jaw. You lose your pretty features somewhere along the way, and by the time she's had her fill beating the vision out of your beady red eyes, you're nothing more than your usual grotesque you. They leave you there, Mama and your brothers and your sisters – they leave you there bleeding in the dirt, nothing more than a pile of dishonor and blood and tears, and you can't help but hate yourself.

( M̶̴͏A͝͝T͘͢͢T̵̨̕ḨE̢W̡̕ ҉̷͜BU͘͢R̸K̨E̵͘ )



Your second life begins, and just as quickly, your second life ends.

They recognize you are an impostor immediately. You'd taken on the face of a wealthy entrepreneur, having assumed the the rich boasted no close friends, much less acquaintances, but his lack of meaningful relationships is not the only thing you had assumed. His photos and your reflections in the mirror look nothing alike, and when someone's holding a gun to your head and demanding what on Earth you have done with him, you realize that your first mission – the pivotal mission, the one that determines whether or not you are fit to remain with the maternal figure that taught your and the honorary “brothers” and “sisters” that have taken you into the pack – has not only failed, but failed so terribly, it is beyond repair. You have failed so terribly. You are beyond repair.

Where is he?

I don't know! I don't know!

You do know, though. He's out there at the bottom of his own dock, weighted down by the cinder blocks your bony frame had been nearly incapable of lifting, and you don't claim ignorance because you don't what him to know what you have done; you claim ignorance because you're too scared to form the sentences right. When you go home with his face still attached to your's, blood oozing from a wound caused by the friend who'd noticed, you can only say the same thing to Mama when she demands why you've returned so soon, and why you've returned with nothing to show for your efforts. You don't know. You don't know why you assumed or why you failed or why you're beyond repair – you don't know.

Perhaps you will stick with females to replace from now on.

( D̴̛A̧͢T҉̷͘͜A͏̧̢͡͡ ̴̡E̸͞X̧͞P҉̧̛͡U̕͞͠͏͜N̡͘G̵̵̕͘E̶̸͡͡D̷̵̡ )



You are always s͏om̢eo̕ne̡ e̛lse ̧befo҉re yo͠u ̨a̵re your̶self.

͠ ̧Do͏p̵pe͠lg͞ang̵e͠rs ar͠e̡ ̶n̡ot broug̵h͝t̕ in̢t҉o th̡e̵ w͠or͢ld b̶y ҉hųma͟n ̢mean̵s͢, ̕y͡ou͜r ̛ki̡nd̴'s̕ ̵s҉e̵n͏s̶e ǫf ͜f̧ami̷ly ̛a̕n͜d ̷su҉c͏h̸ fa̴mi͜l͝i̶al͠ ̵b̧on̕d̡s ͜sk̸ew҉ȩd͢ ̡to ͟a̕ deg̡ree̸ t͘ha͢t͡ y̧ǫu'͠re n҉ot ̡e̶ven q͟ui̸te sur̕e ͟who͠ ͏you͟ sho͜u̢ld b̷e t͠ru̵s͠t̢ing a̶nd ҉wh͘o ̴you̵ ̡s͡hould ̷b͡e ̨stayi̷ng away f͏ro͏m.͢ Thi̢s̡ on͝e̕,̧ ̧thoug͏h, the͡ ͡bi̛ggęst o͞f t̴h͢e̵ ̕l͜ittle ͘gr̨ou͏p̨ on̡ ͜the f̸ar̢ ̧wi̕ng̴ t͜el͢lş ̸y̷ou͜ ͡to ca͘ll͏ her͟ Mama҉̢;̛ ̕s̡he ̵s̷a̡ys͝ yo̡u'̵r̡e a͞ l͡it͏t͏l̨e l͟ǫs͏t soul iņ ne͟ed͠ ͏of̶ g̸ui͠da̵nce, an͟d ͟t̴h̢eir p͝a͜rt͟y can̸ ̷alw͝a̕y͞s ͏u͞se͜ ͏a͟no͡ţher m͘a͟lev̶oļent͞ s̛h̛ape-͏s͞hif̧te҉r̶ to̕ ̕kill ͢and̶ st̛e̢a̷l ͏a͘n͡d ̨ruin̢ ̢an͘d ̨lib̧e̸ra͢ţe̡̕ ̧–̷ ̢So y̷ou ̵ca͡l̨l̸ ͝h͞er͞ ̡Mama͝, ͝a̶nd she̶ ta̕k͏e̕s҉ y͠ou ̵un͡d͞er ḩer͜ ̸wi̴ng.̛ T͢he ̕rest͜ o͠f the ͞pack b҉ec͢om͢e̶ ͜y̴our̶ ͡“br͘o̸t̛h̨er̨s”͜ ͢an̛d ͞y͞o̕ur ҉“͞s͡i̧st͜er҉s”̶;̧ h̵oller̡ ͏f̷or̛ ̛them͏, M͟a̡ma ̨s̸ays,̡ a̷nd͢ ̕t̶h̶ey wil͘l̷ aid y͝ou r̵e̶gardles͞s̢ o͢f ̶t͘he co҉st̨s. She ̴teache̴s ̡y̧o͞u ̶h҉o̸w͡ ̷to͘ s̨h̵ift̢; p̴içk a̵ ͢fac̕e,̕ ͞Mam̴a says̢, and̡ you ͟wo͘ņ't͠ ͜nee͞d̶ ͞to ̸c̡ḩa͟ng̷e u͠ntil ͢the͢ m͢is͢si͡o̕n̸ is com҉p̴let̴e. T̸h͜e̸y̴ ̕tr̡y ̢t͢o͏ ͏tell you͢ ̡that the ͝on̢ly wonde̷r͘s i̶n͢ l͝i̕fȩ ̷a̷re ķno҉w͢l̡e̡dge a͝n͡d͟ w̕e҉a̛l̴th̷;͠ you'̶ve go̢t k͏now͝le̡d̸ge, Ma̴ma͟ ̡s̷a̶ys,̷ ͝i͡n̕ s͡pades̛ ̷– ͘all y̕o͝u h̢ave͟ to ͏d͜ǫ is st͡e͝al th̶e ̕w͜eal͟th ҉f͟rom͞ ̵s̷omeo͟n̸e ̕e̕ls͝e.͡

Ma̷m͠a͢, ̛yo͝u͘ ̕l̕ear͏n earl͝y҉ ҉on̡,͞ i͝s a҉ liar̨.

Y͜o͟͡u̷͞r ̵͟f̢͜i̴r̴̢͠s̸̛t҉ ̷l̵i̷̡f͘e ̵͝be͢͡g҉̢͏i͢n͡s̶͜,̸͏͞ ̛̛͘and̵͠ al͜͡r̷e̷a҉d̷̨y y̸o̡u̸̡҉ ̢͝͞w͠a̕͞n̕̕t̷ t͏͡o ͜d͡͏ie̵͟͡.̡͟͜

Chapter Text

He has lived here since he was a child, yet every year spent has led him no closer to figuring out what it is that draws him to the town square.

Buildings that have been there for years longer than any living man or woman has walked the Earth tower from each corner, constructed in a time the young man cannot even hope to wrap his mind around. Brilliant work by ancient architects, however, has never been a subject of much interest to him, and while the other residents of Sarajevo may only come and go to see structures offered nowhere else within the city bounds, he's almost certain that his case is not the same. Could it be the smell in the air? No – it certainly is distinct from the rest of the city, but he isn't so much of a freak to idolize his sense of smell and the things that come about from it. Perhaps it's the crowds themselves, familiar faces or so-called “tourists” from further East who were foolish enough to chose a city such as this in a country such as this? … Of course not. The numbers make him sick, some of the people they harbor even more so, and if he ever pays a voluntary visit to the place, it's only ever in the night-time when the people have faded and seemingly the only sound that can be heard for miles around is the pitter patter of water drops cascading from the square's central fountain. It's funny how the city, even the people outside it seem to have come to a silent agreement that automobiles were never meant to drive the streets in this part of their home, industrial pollutants as far from its old carvings and statues as they could manage. He can see a heaven full of stars reflected into the shattering surface of the water of that fountain, a thousand constellations he's always meant to learn but could never bring himself to do displayed for any mortal who dare to come view it in the dark of night. They're beautiful – light in a world that has been shrouded under the darkness of what he thinks has been accurately called the Evil Empire – and, without fail, each time his mind wanders and his feet carry him here to a place untouched for decades, scores, maybe even centuries, he finds himself lost in the way they break in the ripples and are reborn anew, perfectly still. For years, he has wished the same could be said for the land he loves; they have been broken, and their time for rebirth has been long, long overdue.

Gargoyles – no, that's wrong; a gargoyle, maybe the only one in the whole city – is treated to a hunched position on the belfry, forever looking out over the reflective fountain, and even further beyond to the city that lies beyond. An aesthetic he has never been able to fully understand, seeing as the little demons look to be more unsettling than protective, but, like the bizarre familiarity and lull of the square in its entirety, there's something about this particular one that he feels oddly comfortable with. What with the way its crouched over the ledge, it certainly looks as though it could spring down at any moment to do away with anyone who dare to defile the wonders this place has to hold; given how he cannot see so much as a scratch caused by human interference has him applauding the stone for its job well done. How long, he can't help but wonder, though, has it been like that? How long has it held that torturous position? How long has it watched over the water and the buildings, over the entirety of Sarajevo? Does it suffer like the rest of its people, knowing full well that the land they love is nothing but a puppet, a soulless doll for cruel men thousands of miles away? Does it wish, like the rest of its people, to see freedom – true freedom – before it takes its final breath? These questions, however, flitting through his mind quickly and fading as soon as they arrive, are all such foolish ideas. Stone cannot see their plight, nor can it empathize with their struggles, and to wonder what it thinks of another problem that they can never solve is as foolish as... well, perhaps the aforementioned plight as a whole. There is solace to be found in the stars, the same celestial bodies viewed by those who have never known the grief caused by being nothing more than a dog for a distant master, but there is nothing to be found from a statue carved into a building that has long lost its purpose. Nothing at all.

Serdjan watches a single star shoot across the surface of the fountain, streaking, too, across the heavens above he dare not look at. How odd: As a child, perhaps he might have made a wish on it.

Now, he knows that wishes never come true the way they're wanted to.

 


 

 

They tear it down the day he turns twenty, decades of tyranny finally collapsing in on itself and leaving those it had enslaved to do as they so pleased, and Serdjan doesn't mind sharing his birthday celebration with the whole of Sarajevo – of Yugoslavia, of every country that had been hidden away by the Iron Curtain that is now no more. With the fall of the Soviet Union, they can celebrate their independence for the first time since the days of the Roman Empire, something that generations that had come before him had wished their whole lives to be able to see, to enjoy. He, himself, can't believe his fortune; he's alive and he's young and he's free, and as his friends, his family, the neighbor down the street he found abhorrent but now can't get enough of stream into the streets to celebrate the destruction of a wall that had once split Berlin in two, he imagines that he will enjoy the feeling of independence, true independence until the day he dies. And even if he can't, while he quite doubts that, the looks on the faces that surround him, the cheers of laughter and joy and emotions too deep, too strong, too unfamiliar to ever accurately pinpoint would be worth it all, even if their Russian “allies” chose to rebuild and reconquer over the night. They don't, of course. They don't strike in the dark like a thief, because there is no dark to strike in; not with the lights that illuminate the night sky, dying it golden and lighting the whole city in a way he has never once in all twenty years of his life borne witness to. He doesn't even mind the way they invade the square, decorating the fountain with small lanterns and swinging from the old structures with little regard for the stone that they hang from. It is a celebration that has no need for sleep, beginning in the morning and carrying on strong throughout the earliest hours of the next – and he, himself, feels as though he never wants this to end, that he could do this for an eternity. They drink, they eat, they tell stories, they mock an empire that is no more and will never again be and scoff at the idea of being a satellite country. This is the time. This is the place. Every sign that has led up to this is one they will honor in their memories – of that, he can be sure.

“That girl down there is definitely looking at you, Serdjan.”

His group shuffles inside when the air outside turns too chilly, taking up residency in one of the few establishments that find themselves unlucky enough to have to work through the festivity outside, and while he, too, has had more to drink than he has in months (years), he's absolutely certain that his friend has had twice as much as he points to a pale-haired girl down the way, looking almost as though she's trying to look anywhere but at him. She's pretty, though, he'll admit, as well as having a familiar face that he struggles to put a name to – what was it, Katarina? Kristina? Kornelija? Despite this, though, he can't exactly appreciate the way the other male elbows him all too roughly in the ribs, enough that it leaves an ache in its wake, and tells him that he should go over and buy her a drink.

“I can't do that. Come on, I barely even know the girl.”

“Of course you can: You're a free man, now, Aleskovic! You can do anything you want!”

A free man. Such a funny concept; he'd never particularly felt enslaved or oppressed as an individual, although his whole life he had felt it alongside the rest of his country as a group, and to think, now, of himself as someone independent from anyone and anything was... something he hadn't exactly entertained in his mind, really. Something that filled his heart with a new kind of happiness he couldn't quite explain. He could go over there and offer that girl a drink. Goodness, he could dip her to the ground and kiss her on the spot. Not that he would, but the only one who could stop him was himself, right? And everyone here, from the man in the corner to the woman behind the bar to the children catching fireflies outside in the streets: Each and every one of them was just the same. Free.

“The moment's now in all history,” the drunk tells him, failing to press the subject any further beyond that before moving onto what must be a more interesting topic of focus, but the raven-haired man can't help but grin to himself all the same. This is truly the one place to be.

 


 

 

He hears the rumors before he ever sees them face to face, and there's something concerning in the way he doesn't hate them as much as he feels he should.

Jubilation can only last so long, celebratory times fading into a pleasant lull to a world very much mirroring the one they'd lived in before the fall of their Soviet suppressors, and while Serdjan can still always spare a moment to marvel at how his people no longer have to follow anyone else's orders ever again, most of his time is spent in a way that very much seems like nothing has ever changed. Sarajevo is still Sarajevo, the fountain in the square still reflecting the same old stars and that gargoyle still on its perch. And, as he has come to realize, the problems never really go away. They simply take form in new ways, often times hardly noticeable in the beginning until they are ruining anyone and everyone's lives, like stars broken in the fountain and given new life in the moments that follow. No longer do the reds pose a threat to his home, his life, his freedom, but that doesn't stop the negative talk he overhears when strolling through the city, and too many times does he hear of those who, perhaps reveling a bit too much in their new found freedom, are simply not pleased what they have. Will not be pleased until they have more. It starts with the man who lives downtown, threatening his neighbors with a gun in his hand until they offer half their land if only to appease him. But then it's the woman who works at the pharmacy, running the family at the street corner out of their larger home in order to upscale from her own run down trash heap. Threatening innocent people with guns makes him sick, the idea that people he knows the names of, the faces of making it all the worse, but it isn't until someone starts peppering the term “Muslim” into their retelling of the same old story that things take a shift for the... different. Not the worse, and maybe not the better, but definitely something he had not considered, and should have known better than to ever consider. Because suddenly it's not a matter of greed – it's a matter of rights. The family who lost half their land were Serbs, and that land clearly belonged to the Muslims. But, oh, the ones run out of their home were Muslim, as well, so the place they left must have belonged to the Serbs.

The trouble makers meet justice in being run out of the city soon after, law punishing them for thievery, threats, and a whole list of crimes that he couldn't care to remember, but the seeds they have sown in their wake are enough to start causing troubles. Without warning, the pale-haired girl he'd seen on that day is no longer “the pale-haired girl” to his friends, but “the pale-haired Muslim girl,” and the sweet old lady who frequents the place he works at starts mumbling things to herself – all “Well, I don't hate them, per say” and “I'd feel more comfortable if it wasn't a Serbian family next door” - that could make a man want to claw at his eyes. Should make him want to claw at his eyes. And yet, for some reason, it doesn't. He listens too intently when those who share his ethnicity speak of ill-will toward those who don't, speak of “This is our country, not theirs” slowly forming into a mantra that lulls him to sleep at night and wakes him in the morning. He keeps his head down as they pass, up when his supposed allies do the same, and even if he never consciously made the switch to such horrible thoughts, within the year's time, he, too, finds himself insulting “their kind” with his friends, head tucked low as they speak of how low they are, how unfeeling and unintelligent they are. It was all talk, though, right? Nothing wrong with disliking a person so long as nothing comes of it, right? Excuses like these fuel his mind, warding away the guilt that tries to eat at the back of his thoughts when the rowdiest of his little crew points and laughs at small children if only because they aren't Serbs, but even they can't save him when the house fires begin. Arson, ethnicity versus ethnicity. And then it isn't house fires that people can run from – it's guns pressed to foreheads, triggers pulled.

They're monsters, half the city feeds him. Every Muslim is a monster, and if you don't kill them first, who's to say they won't turn around and kill you?

And the scariest thing is that Serdjan believes them.

 


 

 

A rifle isn't enough.

On nights like this, he thinks, he would stargaze, captured by the beauty of the heavens reflected on the water or staring upward at the sky itself and beholding its glory in unbroken stillness. The stars look different through a sight, however, the city below him more so, and there's something underwhelming with the way the third bullet he fires tears through his target silently – painlessly. Maybe there's something morbid about wanting to watch one's enemies suffer before death, a bullet through the heart or a bullet through the skull not enough (never enough) to sate his desire to make these monsters in human flesh pay. So many allies he has lost, friends he had known since they were small children slaughtered before his eyes, and while part of him knows that all of them would still be alive had it not been for their involvement with the Serbian Militia that formed in the wake of ethnic tensions some time ago, he can't blame his own kind for crimes they allowed, but did not first-hand commit. By the time he'd watched his best friend go, the one who'd pointed out that girl in the restaurant and started sowing the first seeds of hatred in his heart what might have already been a year ago, he swears that he will end at least one Muslim for every finger on that man's hands, and, if that alone doesn't soften the vengeful blood lust taking over his mind, he might go on to kill one for every pore across that man's flesh. That's all it is out here on the rooftops, really; everyone below is a hateful enemy or a hateful ally, and even those who stay clear of the fighting are all too quick to prove support, moral or otherwise, to the side with whom they think deserves to win the most. At this point, the blue-eyed male doesn't even know if he wants his side to win. All he wants is to make the other side suffer for the loses they have caused and the hundreds of more they would cause in the near future. They can't possibly remorse during a painless death; he needs either a slow process (too risky), or a more painful one. A more painful on that he finds just up the hills surrounding the city he has loved since he was no more than a child.

The stars were supposed to be brighter up here than in the bustling streets below, clearer, still, than they were in the town square that he had failed to visit in some great amount of time, but the lights of their mortar shells drowns out any white specks in the navy blue canvas above their heads. But that's quite alright; long gone are the days of such frivolous things as watching the skies, and the near-blinding explosives remind him of the bright lights of the celebrations they'd held just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Better, still, is the sight of blackened earth and stone below, caused by the shells they launch from above, and while the accuracy is anything but desirable, the destruction each one leaves in its wake is just the sort he needed after watching one too many a familiar face die by his side.

There's talk outside of the city, of course. No, no, that's not right. Outside of the country. It's been so long since this was nothing more than a squabble between the Muslims and the Serbs, acid comments and the occasional thrown stone having exploded into a country-wide civil war in such a short amount of time, and like every civil war that has come in all of the world, in all of history, no one is too quick to approve of it. None of them can understand what it's like to look upon the fiery destruction of a city once so pristine every night, can understand what it's like to bury a brother one day and your lover the next, and yet they still have the audacity to speak of the atrocities carried out by the people within Yugoslavia's borders. Such a cause of bother at first, really, although the pain had since numbed to nothing but a buzzing in the back of his ears after much reassuring from the people he fought to protect, who fought to protect him. They don't understand what it's like to live with scum just next door, to be under someone's foot for so long only to be given the idea of freedom while still having your sworn enemy taking what rightfully belongs to you no more than a block away. To them, everyone involved is heartless, unfeeling toward the enemy's plight; but as someone here, someone who has lived this since the day it began, he knows it's more than that. He cares not for them because they care not for him, and the things he does are for the people he has loved and has lost. Goodness, if he must bomb his city from the hills every night until the day he dies to avenge them, he thinks that's perfectly fine.

There's nothing to fear from the night up there on the hills. Even if they drown out the real stars, they bring a light all of their own, and with it, they will truly set Sarajevo, then the rest of Yugoslavia free.

 


 

 

Serdjan isn't entirely sure why he decided to watch her. He's never been the terribly social sort, but nor has he ever been a “people watcher,” and the idea of silently following a face wherever they go within eyesight would normally seem bizarre and... admittedly, creepy to him. He doesn't even really know her, outside of her vaguely familiar face, the name that he is so sure started with the letter “K,” and the fact that she is one of the enemy, although one who's yet to take up arms. Of course, casually watching one of the few passive faces in the city he's helped to destroy seems hardly like a stretch compared to his nightly ritual of raining fire on them all over again, something that he would have never imagined himself doing before the war came about, so he doesn't fight the curiosity that tickles him as he watches her go about her business. And that's all it is at first: curiosity. She hasn't done anything nefarious, and despite the fact that he's never spoken to her, and more importantly that she's one of them, he almost feels as though there's some sort of connection between them. They look to be about the same age, and she has an uncanny way of happening into each of his more memorable moments – like the party over a year ago. For a moment, he wonders what would happen if he was ever in a situation where he'd be forced to hurt her, or even kill her, but even as someone who finds a bit of joy in watching the blood of their lot spill, he still has moral codes, and he and the rest of his militia have sworn to not raise a hand against someone who has not first raised a hand against them. This, however, only serves to comfort him for a few short moments, God perhaps mocking him in the way that, almost in the same moment that he's thought her to not be any sort of threat, he realizes where, exactly, it is that she's going. An arm's dealer. At this point in time, the city's found itself in shambles so terrible that not even they have to hide their shady businesses, AK-47s, Tomcats, F-11s, Claymore land mines, and anything else they can offer about as common to see on the streets these days as a cart selling fresh fruit. Realizing that she was approaching the stand should have given him some amount of triumph when he noticed that this was the same dealer who had sold to the militia he was a part of, claiming to have come in from the North upon hearing of the Serbian battle and hoping to help in what little ways he could. Instead, there's something sick that floods the pit of his stomach at the though of him turning her away for her roots, potentially even killing her for trying to arm herself as an enemy. He doesn't turn away, though, not out of morbid curiosity or even because he wants to see if she will, in fact die, but simply out of an inability to turn his head; and a good thing he hadn't.

He deals to her, anyway, taking her bills and handing her, in turn, three snipers of varying sizes and models. The man who'd sworn to be a Serb sympathizer selling to a Muslim girl? Had she fooled him into thinking that she was one of them? Some part of him wants to give chase to her, but another demands he stay still at his perch, watching the stand as to make sure that such an incident does not happen again. Much to his horror, it does. Repeatedly, in fact. By the time he'd slowly inched his way closer toward the stand, far enough to be kept hidden, but close enough to just barely catch the words being exchanged between Muslim and businessman, he was able to hear enough of their conversation to come to a terrifying realization: This was the same story that he had been told, only this time, it was not the Serbs he had come South to aid. They'd been tricked. All of them, each and every person from both sides, fooled into handing over their money to a stand that worked to profit from both sides suffering. How could he have not noticed sooner?

He goes to his comrades in a rage, barking of how the ones supposed to be helping them were feeding the same lies to the ones they were still firing their nightly mortar shells at, but each and every nameless face seems to have come to an agreement without him: So long as they're getting the things they need to win this war, what does it matter who they're getting it from? No one even bothers to think that all of them, all of them are being played for fools, each ethnicity lowered to the same level of dirt by those slimy enough to exploit them both -

- and for the first time since he'd had to part ways with his best friend, Serdjan thinks that maybe each side isn't quite as different as he'd been starting to believe.

 


 

 

It begins in November.

For almost three years now, the routine has all been the same. Snipe, bomb, set ablaze – anything to be rid of the opposing side in battle. The weapons have found themselves more precise, but the people have found themselves more weary, and the blood that is spilled nightly is as much as every night that has come before it. The methods, the numbers, the people: all of them, melding together into one continuous cycle that has caused a man once so young and full of life, only twenty-four years old, to go numb to most everything that goes on around him. There are no longer people being fired at with his hillside shells. There's no longer anything being fired at with his hillside shells. They find the usual spots and then bomb and bomb and bomb until the sun's lights finally overpower that of their war machines, and he can't even remember what it was that made him want to fight so badly, so bloodily so long before. So much time spent tugging around the same ball and chain has drained him of most everything, his mind as lifeless as the bodies he's sometimes able to leave, and it doesn't come back to him until it begins in November. Crisp and clear and strong, its source from the heart of the city in the untouched town square that used to give him so, so much joy, the noise breaks through the gun powder and the canon fire, the whole world pausing for a moment alone to listen to what has broke through the violence. It's bizarre, quixotic, too impossible to be anything but a trick on a tired mind. However, looks passed between his comrades prove that they're all as baffled as the next, each hearing what has broken through a night air that was anything but silent and none of them understanding why. It isn't until he pauses his gawking, using the sights he hasn't touched in months in order to get a closer look to the distant square that he can assure himself that this is all very real, and only just begin to realize what it means.

Mozart.

Someone is playing Mozart.

His fellow soldiers flash him questioning looks, begging in silence to know what it was that he managed to see, but even the blue-eyed man can't properly explain what it was. The best way he can describe it is suicidal. The square has been left undamaged for quite some time, but it still falls directly into the No Man's Land of gun fire, perhaps safe from the mortars on the hill, but not from a stray bullet coming from the city alleys. If the man wanted to play his cello, there are one hundred places he can think of off the top of his head that would be a better spot to do just that, and none of them come even close to the city, much less the rest of the country that surrounds it. However, the music alone breaks the fighting for the better part of an hour, hundreds of people all over pausing and trying to understand what a person plagued by civil war for four years simply cannot. Things revert back to the way they were in time, yes, the sound of a sub-machine gun being fired in the heart of Sarajevo coming in to accompany the classical music and quickly followed by the nightly symphony of death, but no one cannot deny the short reprieve that the sound had brought and the awe that they had felt during it. The next night, as well, the music begins again, another look down his sights showing that same man with that same cello playing on the stone around the fountain, watched over by the gargoyle on the belfry.

He doesn't understand right away. He won't pretend he does. But in time, as days turn to weeks and that first snowfall accompanying Mozart amidst madness becomes a blanket of white over the land, he realizes what that meant. He realizes what that man was trying to tell them all. (If only he could make the rest understand, as well.)

 


 

 

They learn in the month to come that that moment, the one where the whole world stopped to hold its breath at the sound of the cello man's music, was a calm before the storm. He has known death for four years of bloody civil war, and for quite some time, he'd believe that it simply did not get worse than what it had already been. At night, he prays that he could have been right, that the war around him did not escalate to the level that it did. The snow falls fresh nightly, the night beginning with a thin layer of untainted white, but come morning, it's stained crimson with the blood of the city's people.

They had asked for change for years – change from the tyranny they'd suffered under, change from their directionless future, change from their every day lives – but, as he stares across the wreckage, wondering how he could have ever thought that any of this was justifiable, he thinks that this was not at all what they had meant.

 


 

 

It is one thing to put a shell in a mortar and another to see where it lands.

They don't assign him patrol of the city often, his aim with a gun far less impressive than what he can do up on that hillside, but rotational policy ensures that, even if rarely, he's still forced to move through the wreckage of the city he'd once loved by his lonesome, reporting back to his superiors any notable changes in the streets and, more importantly, in the enemy formations. In the years that preceded this, this would have been a monotonous job that had him groaning under his breath, poking at fallen rocks with the barrel of his pistol, and paying little attention to what all was going on around him; he was never very good at noticing the blatantly obvious, anyway, and it often took what he was to be seeing to hit him in the face before he truly realized what was going on. The winter of 1994, however, has been proving to be the worst, bloodier than each winter before it and more dangerous in the streets than he could have ever remembered it being. Needless to say, he was on a higher alert than he'd possibly ever been, gun consistently at the ready in case he was ambushed by one of the Muslims and eyes taking in absolutely everything there was to see. On the one hand, returning back with nothing to report would probably have done him well, considering that finding results put him at a higher risk of being sent out to gather information sooner than he would have otherwise, but he'd come to realized quite early on that he wasn't paying attention so closely for their sake; he was honestly terrified that this broken night was to be his last. Terror, in fact, flooded his head when his footing failed him, leg caught beneath what he immediately thought to be an exposed tree root and leaving him to face plant into the cracked concrete before him. The damage to his jaw, however, seemed like a minuscule worry to him when he realized that there were no trees around, so an exposed root would have made very little sense to explain the tumble that he had just taken. Curious and terrified all at once, the black-haired male slowly turned his head in the direction from which he'd come, blue eyes turned down to the ground to bare witness to the atrocity that he'd just stumbled over: a severed limb.

A child's severed limb.

Horror flooded his being at the sight, eyes widened to the size of saucers as he scrambled as far away as possible from the detached body part. It had to have been a child's – no grown adult's was that small, but that didn't answer the question of why. They only fired a few shells during the day, and never in locations like this area, so it couldn't have been caused by the hillside firing, could it have? A glance to his right, however, had more color draining from his face still, the sight of a schoolyard he'd seen in one peace just weeks prior now reduced to nothing more than a bloodied rubble. The bodies of teachers and students alike littered the scene, some whole and most in pieces, and while he could no longer say that there was any pride to be taken in watching a human being fall to their knees, dead, there was something absolutely disgusting about seeing the bodies of innocent children piled up on one another, forgotten by the rest of the city in their petty little war and left to rot amongst the rubble of what could have only been a misfired shell from the hill he dared to walk nightly. Each one of these... these corpses had a name, had a future. They were supposed to be free. Where was the freedom in losing their lives to another person's war? Serdjan chokes back a sob, fist pressing to his mouth to stop the tears streaming from his eyes from being accompanied by any sound that could have him caught. If he had known that his militia would have brought about this, he would have beaten them all to a bloody (alive) pulp before they ever even so much as looked at a mortar, and the fact that there is nothing he can do, nothing at all makes the agony flooding his heart all the more worse. He hasn't even the right to give them a proper burial, his hands bloodied in the same manner as the people who directly caused this. To leave them here to rot is a crime, yes, but to dare to move them from where they have fallen is a crime greater still, and he honors them instead by running. Running as fast as he can, pushing his legs passed limits he hadn't pressed since his days in school. Forget the rest of the patrol, forget the information he was to gather – forget the faces of dozens of souls who would never live to see the free world they had celebrated together in the streets all those years ago.

His whole world moves in a blur after that, a scolding from the higher ups making as little sense to him as a novel read aloud in a language he could not speak. They send him off, thinking him exhausted and incapable of proper comprehension, but even as he lays down to close his eyes, each rest of the eyelids flashes the images of severed heads, flattened torsos in his mind. How many hours does he lie awake, replaying the event in his mind? He imagines what their final moments must have been like – everything from the sound to the light to the heat to the... to the nothing. And then he thinks: This war isn't nation building. It isn't, and Serdjan cannot believe it has taken him so long realize it. For four years, he has fought his fight in hopes of avenging the fallen, of building the perfect Yugoslavia that could not exist under the rule of the Soviet Union, could not exist when “soiled” by its Muslim population. What is a country, though, that is build on corpses? There's nothing “perfect” about a place that relies on the death of innocents, of children, of people who look and talk and feel just like him, and this war they all so desperately wage can never really give them what they seek. The only end is mutual oblivion – and he refuses to be a part of it any longer.

 


 

 

Four years ago, Serdjan would not have imagined himself spending his Christmas Eve hidden away in a bunker, face pressed against metal once cold and ears desperately listening to the sound of Christmas carols played on a cello out there amidst the sound of savage warfare. Four years ago, though, he muses, he would not have been able to predict any of the horrors he had borne witness to, nor any of the horrors that he, himself, had caused. So desperately does he want to flee from this miserable life, surrounded by blood and the sound of bombshells colliding with a city full of innocent lives that spend their nights praying that they will live to see the next, but it's impossible to simply walk away. There is too much that he has here: His money, his clothes, his job in the militia. No doubt, they will label him a traitor and seek him out should he attempt to leave, and if he ever wants to be free from Yugoslavia and it's Bosnian War, he needs to wait for the proper moment to do so. A moment, though, he is afraid, that is simply too far away from him to wait for. His only lifelines are the idea of what his life might be like outside the country's borders, away from a place that calls itself free while oppressing the people that lives inside it to places that have never known what it was like to be cut off by that Iron Curtain, and the sound of the ever brave cello player playing in the bloodied snow. Every night he has gone out to that square, standing firm on that fountain as he pours his heart into songs that he must pray will somehow reach the hearts of the people who hear it. That man – does he know that he has already touched one person's heart? Does he carry on every night wondering if his struggle is worth it at all, never knowing how much he has moved a single no-where man by standing in a place where no one else would and doing something that no one else could. And maybe – maybe he won't flee entirely. Maybe he'll abandon his station and stand by that man in the snow, in the middle of the gun fire, protesting with nothing but the sound of music against a war that will never have a winner. He – he can't play an instrument, and he's never been very good at singing, but he hopes that the cello man can accept what he has to offer all the same.

Small windows, pressed against the top of the walls are the only way to see out into the world beyond, and the Serb presses himself against the wall, tip toed and struggling to see if he can see that square from where he is. It's a futile feet, and deep down, he knows it, but just one look at that fountain, one look at that gargoyle, one look at that man is all he needs to be able to make it through this Christmas's harsh night, and he certainly won't be able to see any of those things if he doesn't try. Sure enough, the view from the small opening does not include what he so desperately needs to see (he should have known), but the effort does not find itself wasted. Just as a sigh manages to burst passed his lips, the clouds break away, snowfall that had been plaguing the city for most of the night having slowly ceased before and the dark clouds that had been hanging in the sky for weeks, now, finally choosing to separate just enough for him catch a glimpse of the stars beyond. He lied; the light of mortars could never compare to real starlight, and the sight of the small patch of black sky sprinkled with silver alone is enough to have him thinking back to days in that square by himself, watching those same brilliant lights in that fountain that a man he adores now stands on. He'd like to do that again. More than anything, though, he'd like to – It stops, though. The thought. His mind freezes, the entire bunker solidifying and time pausing for one heart stopping second, and even the sounds of war from outside seem to slow if only for a moment; because they're not the only things that have stopped.

They're not the only things that have stopped.

Serdjan yanks the handle of the door down and pries it open in a frenzy, tearing up the stairs beyond at a speed that almost has him tripping upward more than once and has him up and out of the building as a whole in no more than two minutes alone. Throwing the main entrance doors has a burst of frigid air biting at his face, but even if he hadn't the winter coat shrugged over his shoulders, he doesn't think he would have stopped for the cold alone, anyway. Disorienting, though, is the sudden chill, and it takes him a moment longer to figure out where he is and, more importantly, where he needs to be going. There. Someone from deeper inside barks his name, demands he tell them where he is going, but his mind is in a state of hysteria, and he doesn't imagine he could form proper words long enough to give them a response if he tried. Alley ways pass him by, nothing more than black ticks in the periphery of his vision as he tears down snowy, bloodied, broken streets to the one place in this whole blasted town that has ever really mattered. He can't hear it anymore: the music. It's gone. Every explanation that dares to rush through his mind is cast out immediately, each and every one too gruesome for him to possibly entertain unless he knows for absolute certain that the man is not okay, and he won't let the stray Muslims or his own Serbian militia hold him back from seeing what has happened with his own eyes. Unfortunately for him, God seems to have another plan for him entirely.

He skids to a haphazard halt, barely avoiding a collision, and immediately, the pale-haired Muslim girl is preparing to retrieve what can only be a firearm, expression (while considerably watered down compared to what must be coloring his own features) showing that she is just as shocked to see him as he is her... and that she knows all too well what group in this war he has sided with. She doesn't, however, he notices, completely pull the weapon from its holster, instead seeming to be frozen with her hand at its hilt and her eyes narrowed dangerously as if daring him to move from his equally stone-like spot. Despite the fact that she could easily end him now, and from the looks of it may be contemplating doing just that, the raven-haired man can't help but think of the day he'd seen her and the arms dealer, years ago or no, and the dread he'd felt at the idea of her perishing at the dealer's hands. Thinking about it, that had been the first sign of empathy for the other side that he'd felt since being wrapped up into all of the nonsense, although he still couldn't exactly put a finger on why he cared so much then and why he was remembering such a trivial thing now. More baffling was what he finally managed to remember next.

“... Katrina?”

The girl – no, no, Katrina, he's finally remembered – seems to stiffen even more at the sound of her name, if that was even possible, but it's soon followed by a slackening of the shoulders. To assure her that he means her no harm, as well, he lifts his arms into a surrendering gesture without skipping so much as a beat, and while she's certainly slow to relaxing, there's no denying the gradual way she straightens, hand removing itself from her weapon without so much as another word. He's tempted to ask her what she's doing here, or more likely ask that she let him go, but the sound of a shell exploding not far away (in the direction of the town square, no less) rips them both from their thoughts and has two pairs of eyes snapping in that direction. A pause, a locking of their gazes, and something about the look he sees there in her passive hues tells him that she's come here for the same reason as he has: to figure out what has happened to the cello man. As such, both go tearing off in the direction of the most recent explosion rather than away, Muslim and Serb staying close together as they plunge deeper into the heart of No Man's Land in pursuit of something possibly only they can understand. What they find, however, may be what they'd already known they would be seeing, but neither one wanted to admit to themselves that this was the most likely reality. The most recent shell had been further off into the distance, but the square had not gone unscathed, water from the fountain spilling across the stone walkways and tinted red from the blood seeping from the corpse not far off. The cello man, broken and bleeding with his equally broken instrument, strings and base snapped in two and splayed across the corpse of the man who had so bravely wielded it in a war fought with weapons, not music. And to think – he had just been thinking of joining this man on this very same broken fountain, fighting along side him in a war fought with music, not weapons. If he had only gone sooner, he wondered, could he have saved this man? Or, perhaps, he would have had the honor of accompanying another nameless martyr in his death.

Water. A drop of water. Blood had been splattered on the poor man's face in death, cast from the hole in his chest, but a single drop of liquid falling from the heavens onto his features wipes a trail of it away. Holding out a hand into the air in search of some sort of precipitation turns up nothing, and when the soldier lifts his head to the sky, the only thing he can see are the clouds, the stars, and the gargoyle on his belfry. Katrina sucks in a pained breath behind him, hand brought up to her mouth as she stares at the bloody spectacle before her, but Serdjan can only scoff at the situation that has played out before them; how pathetic that, outside of their mismatched duo, all the pity the world has to offer this hero is a stone statue forever watching from above, teary eyed over the passing of the only man in the city with the courage to speak out against what they should have all known in their hearts was wrong.

“... Leave with me.”

 


 

 

Katrina stares at him, hollow eyes ghosting of what can only be described as disbelief, and he can't find it in himself to blame her; honestly, he hadn't truly thought the words over before letting them tumble passed his lips. A second thought, though, doesn't make him regret the words, and running them over in his head only goes to further convince him of their meaning and the conviction behind it. He needs to leave, to be free of this war and everything that it entails. Too many innocents have fallen dead at the hands of his people for him to affiliate with them any long, and if the cello man's death has shown anything, it's that this misery can only end in the way it began: through violence. All the same, though, he owes it to this girl – no, this woman's family, friends, comrades who he has wronged either on his own or through the militia he was a part of, and if he can save one person from sitting through another day of this misery, he will do everything in his power to do just that. Four years ago, she wasn't the pale-haired Muslim girl. She was just the pale-haired girl. She – she has only ever been just the pale-haired girl; how could he have ever thought that this foolish ethnic division ever had any real meaning? It doesn't quite show as much on her face, but she had felt enough to leave the safety of her side and brave the most dangerous part of the city just to see if a man who she must have listened to every night was dead or alive, just like him, and the reaction playing on her face is exactly what his own would have been had the roles been reversed. She was broken up over his death, perplexed over the liquid from the sky, is shocked at his proposal, and everything that had colored her face and everything that would can only make him wonder how he could have ever thought she and the people she fought alongside were monsters, unfeeling, less than the stone beneath his feet. He has to save her, because she is the only one he can save; it is all a matter of convincing her to say yes. A feat, he quickly learns, that is easier said than done.

“You're one of them,” she says, tone hushed and devoid of true malice, but the underlying message is still there: He is a Serb, the people who made her own suffer, the people who suffered because of her own, and their momentary time of truce to confirm the life or death of a neutral party does not mean she's going to be so quick as to trust him, especially enough to do something as drastic as flee the city with him. He can see it in her eyes, too. She desperately wants to ask him why she should leave at all, but they both already know the answer to that question, and he won't confirm it for her even if she does voice the question aloud. He stares at her for a long while after that, knowing that he has to convince her but struggling to think up the right words to do just that, and she seems to have just about given up on him before he begins. To her, he's nothing but the uniform and a solider inside it. He knows she can see further down – he just has to open her eyes a little wider.

“One of what? A human?” Incredulity dances across her countenance, and he realizes that this was not as strong as a start as he would have liked. So he begins again. He begins where one should: the beginning, in this very same square and in that restaurant where he so desperately wanted to buy her that drink, but never brought himself to do it. He tells her how he fed out of the greedy's palms, drank up their lies like water after days of traveling through a desert and let it corrupt him. Dead friends, mortar shells, a need for vengeance; disloyal drug dealers, comrades who did nothing, the girl he didn't want to see die for reasons he couldn't explain. Bodies of children piled up on top of one another and the cello man at their feet who made the world pause and listen, who made the heavens part its clouds and made him remember what it was like to wish for freedom, not to be a slave to it. He knows that they are the same because they came here for the same reason. They could have killed one another, but they didn't, and when that man died, they were both so moved as to risk their own lives just to see him in death. No life's so short it can't turn around – no life's so short that it never learns. Someday, everyone in this country will learn. The city will crumble, the families will crumble, and finally the war that they waged on themselves will crumble, and only once they have seen the destruction for themselves will they finally be able to understand. There is nothing they can do for this country they love but leave it, and if they really do hold any love for it, that is what they must do. She doesn't hate the Serbs. She hates the gunfire, the shells, the greedy dealers and the ones who sit back and watch as the world burns around them without so much as offering a bat of the eye. And that's not him.

“I can't save them. But I can save you,” Serjdan breathes, taking her hands in his own and praying with all his might that she understands. “Please: let me save you.”

The world pauses and listens for a cello song that is not there, her own eyes betraying that she seems to be looking for answer that cannot be found within her own mind, and he holds his own breath in fear that she'll turn him down yet. Her hands are so small, so limp in his own – and it isn't until they tighten around his fingers that he finds the strength to breathe again. “Okay,” she whispers, staring down at their held hands.

“Okay.”

 


 

 

Everything that holds any shred of meaning to him is clutched to his chest, meager possessions he'd kept over the years buried in a mound of clothing, food, and currency held close to help keep warm from the unforgiving winter air. In his right hand, he clutches the cello man's bow, untouched by the wreckage and dropped just inches from his limp hand, and he thinks that he will keep this for as long as he can in memory of the man who had used it. Perhaps it would impart in him the strength that it had taken to stand on that fountain ledge and play through ruined night after ruined night; goodness only knew that he would need it to get he and his new partner out of the country, and hopefully to places beyond that still. The sound of crunching snow, however, tears him from his thoughts, blue eyes ripping themselves away from the bow in his hand and lifting to the figure before him, now towing a pack of similar size and content of her own. He would have liked to have left right then, and he likely would have if she hadn't advised him how dangerous it would be to go on with nothing but the clothes clinging to their backs, and as such, both had visited to their homes to gather what they could before returning to the place where they had first properly met where they would begin their journey from the city (their country, their home). By now, the sounds of battle had petered off into almost nothing, the sun beginning to peak its way over the horizon on the far side, and he allowed himself only a moment to wonder if anyone would miss him once they were gone. Instead, he drowned the thought out with a question that required no answer, what with the way she was standing before him. “Are you ready to go?” Still, she answered with a small nod, not moving at all from the spot where she stood still before one of the many buildings of old, and he couldn't help but grin at her. “Well, then, we'd better get going.”

He lifted himself from his spot sat on what was left of the old spring, both his bag and bow in one hand, and before he'd even the chance to fully turn around, he felt her small hand slip into his own once again, distance between them silently closed in the time it had taken him to rise. He would be lying if he said such a feeling was familiar to him, but he'd be lying even more so if he said that he did not enjoy the feeling of it. And, well, considering all of the new things that would await them outside the city he had known since he was a small child, he supposed he would simply have to grow more accustomed to what he wasn't accustomed to. Still, despite all of the horrors that the country had offered him in the years that had passed, something tugged in his heart at the idea of leaving it all behind for good, and it was against his own will that he turned to look at the stone statue on the belfry behind them, the last stars of night disappearing behind it. If only it was as easy for the poor creature to leave as it was for them, he couldn't help but think even if he knew that a being of stone could not think or feel long enough to want to leave this place at all. Although, the liquid from earlier...

“Serdjan?”

Katrina's voice grabs him once again from a stupor, mind snapping away from something he couldn't quite understand to a world he should have been saying his goodbyes to. He flashes her a grin to assure her he was quite alright, giving her hand a squeeze just to make sure and feeling his heart warm as the gesture is returned after a moment's hesitance. To the gargoyle, he mouths his parting words, and with a turn of his heel, the two – a Serb and a Muslim, Serdjan Aleskovic and Katrina Brasic, the two who had cared – say their goodbyes to the town of Sarajevo and it's old medieval square.

“Take care of them. All of them.”

Chapter Text

Step out on the stage of life, smothered by spotlight and weighted by the judgment of watching eyes. You're a dead man marching off to the gallows where concrete fantasy and intangible reality can be knotted together in a noose. Armies have gathered to herald your fall from grace, thundering in anticipation, shaking the courtroom to its bedrock.

This is the pedestal you have been waiting for? This is the culmination of all your work? Your achievements? Your life? Your neck in their rope – the hate in their eyes.

Tell them what brought you here. Tell them that you took a stroll through the valley of death and thought to yourself that you never quite wanted to leave – plant your feet down, dig your roots in, make it yours, yours, yours. Tell them that you hid behind walls built up out of glass and ice, safe guarded and visible, untouchable and scorned. Tell them that the world gasped and sputtered and choked around you while you spared it not a glance. Tell them of the blood-stained sunrise, the endless expanse of day, the finality of twilight, the hollowness it all rang.

Tell them where it all went wrong.

Again and again and again. )

 


 

It goes something like this:

Morning, half-light, half-remembered. You're only four-five-six with infant fists and infant aspirations (or maybe you're older than that, seven-eight-nine, budding into nothing, a rose wilted before maturity). Morning – mourning – the rabbit your classroom had fostered through sickness and health collapsed one final time to the bedding beneath. All around you is the cacophony of anguish, children no older or younger than yourself sobbing and wailing over some dead-eyed thing that will never stand to once more play the part of their living, breathing toy. And then there is you, perhaps just as dead-eyed. It's just a rabbit. You never quite cared for it before, so why do they expect it from you now?

Is it wrong to not be moved to tears? Is it wrong to not feel anything in the face of death?

' We all handle grief in different ways, ' your instructor, infinitely wise, infinitely patient says.
' It's okay if you don't feel like crying, or if you don't feel sad. Some things only come with time. '

A promise. An assurance. You're still holding out for it decades later, and it's never quite come to you. )

To the others, you have shifted, metamorphosed, bones breaking and skin stretching into the ugly-faced black sheep of your peers. Robot, they call you. Faux-faced, hollow-bodied. Robot. Can't think, can't feel.

It's better, you'll learn in time, to feel angerragehate than nothing at all.

 


 

But then, it might be this:

Elder of two, first born, favored by time if not by family. You have your advantages ( your height, your build, the way you pummeled a boy for throwing his fist first and the fear it instilled in the others who would dare try to come after ), and your younger brother has his own ( art, songs of ice and fire, the 'good looks' from your father that must have passed right over you ). What he has, you lack, and when the narrative is flipped on its head, the story rings all the truer.

Watch them beat him down with sticks and stones and words that brutalize more than a clenched hand ever could. He's reaching out to you with dirty hands and begging lips, ' Heinie, help me, help me, ' but it's four against one, and you don't like the odds. Heroism tastes like blood on the teeth. Sins of omission are preferable to those premeditated. It's not as though you ever asked for a sibling, anyway.

You don't realize it, but this is what he comes to detest you for: just one thing among many. Your brutality. Your calculations. Your selfishness. Your apathy. Every time you turn your back, something terrible festers in him, too, and for as dissimilar as you are at the very surface, it's only the ugliest things that tie you together beneath. )

' Fight your own battles, ' you tell him. Leave him to drown.

Isolation and damnation make even the greatest men turn foul, cruel. He stills smiles as he used to; still laughs as always; careful with his feet and his actions and his words. You've only got yourself to blame for what festers beneath the facade.

 


 

And back then, you used to dream:

Dream, as all people do, of the future and what it may hold in store for you. Of what you may hold in store for it.

You don't want to be cruel, truly; you do not want to be brittle and bristling and broken. It's simply all you know how to do. All you've ever known how to do. )

Fall in love with the men and women you see on television: hard like you, sharp like you, careless and biting with their words, but capable of a kindness you cannot wrap your mind around. It is glorification of reality, of course, brilliant white to represent a gray, gray, gray world, but you are held rapt and fascinated by an empire of crime and the machinations that combat it. Crumple it. Tear it down to its knees.

You wonder, in that way that has long since been lost to time, if that could, perhaps, be you –

A savior in what must be the only way you could ever really be.

Noticed. Thanked. Wanted. Loved. )

 


 

Until they told you:

That's what you want to do? Someone like you? '
' Play to your strengths, Heinrich. You won't go anywhere like that. '
' There's special kinds of work for people with brains like yours, and they aren't nearly so stellar. '

Because you don't 'get' people – not in the way you must. Intent and ability have never been mutually exclusive. A gander only at your own sibling can tell you as much, carved raw into eyes that have witnessed personal failure after personal failure after personal failure. What it is that you 'get', however, is fact. Reason. Things that can be read within textbooks, things that can be proven through thought and test. If it isn't to be, then it isn't to be. There's nothing to feel about that.

Nature and nurture. Within the calm of gentle hands, your mother holds your shards of aspirations together in a facsimile of one cohesive whole. ' You want to help people, don't you, Heinie? I think that's a wonderful thing. '

Is it? Is that what you want? They have taken your words and crushed them, molded them, reshaped them in their ideal visage; you scarcely remember what it was that you first uttered, never mind the want singeing your tongue behind that. )

' Have you ever thought about medicine? '

 


 

There are things that you do not regret:

So you think – and your thoughts become fixations – and your fixations become actions – and your actions become wholes, until you are tearing down your boundaries, submerging yourself in a world foreign, digging a hole in your brain and filling it back up with everything that makes up the human beings you have estranged yourself from. Graduate early; claim a full ride to one of the nation's best schools; claim top of your class again and again; apple of your professors' eyes, a stunning beacon of your generation of youth. We have nothing but the highest hopes for Mr. Mann's future, heard a dozen times, each statement ringing more worthlessly in your ears than the last. He will certainly be a pioneer in his field, regarded highly by the medical world as a whole.

And your brother, as always – who had first sought out the life of a surgeon – who had first wanted to mend and fix and heal – trailing ten steps behind, working twice as hard as anyone for the things that fall so easily into your lap. This is what he resents you for most. )

On paper, you are perfection.

Pin point precise. Deft in a way that others do not believe until they bare witness. Subservient to your superiors. You obey every command without thought and without question, and every operation you carry out is preformed to its very textbook definition. Miracle worker, they start to call you after your first-second-third success against all odds. You are without error in your work, and for it, you are rewarded lavishly: in position, in favor, in the hand of your wife-to-be.

In person, you are anything but. Phlegmatic. Callous.

The same you that you've always been.

Deadpan at those who would thank you; snap at those who would give you aid; cut with tooth and nail and word until everyone around you is bleeding out raw – but that's fine, because stitching things back up is all you're good for, anyway, isn't it? This is your ultimatum, presented with arms stretched wide, ta-da! Take you, nimble-handed, swift-brained, biting, gnawing your way through life, chewing through anyone who dare stand too close, or leave you.

Can they afford to? )

Not wanted, not loved – needed. )

 


 

But you're laying your mistakes bare, raw:

Like clockwork, or a record caught on its table, skipping, stuttering, repetitive; day is swallowed by dusk is swallowed by night, and you lay together side-by-side beneath a blanket of darkness and the suffocation of silence. You're a lead sail accompanied by paper anchors, weighted, waiting. All the grief you'd be spared if only you knew your way with sleep.

' Is there something wrong with me? '

This is how love is supposed to start: man, woman, nothing to lose, everything to gain. And you've tried, tried beyond anything you've ever tried for in your life to love her – really, really love her, but you ought to know better than most that a mind cannot be made to feel in any one way. When she speaks, there is no flutter of nerves or gentle warmth of companionship. When she kisses you, you're as reactive as a dead fish roasting on land. You do not unravel at touch – do not pine in absence – do not feel, all metal muscle, electric blood. Inhuman. Incapable.

Why? Why? She's beautiful by every conventional standard ( even if you have never once thought, in your own terms, that she is 'pretty'), and she's powerful in a way that most anyone else would envy. How many men would give anything to stand in your position? Take from you which you cannot help taking for granted? And here, bathed in shadow, she wonders aloud:

Is there something wrong with me?

' No. ' A lie, bald-faced. You can think of a dozen things wrong with her. The mole beneath her eye. The scar on her pinky finger. Her overuse of the word 'literally' in contexts that do not call for it. But you're working on it, being a better conversationalist, and moles and scars and misused words cannot rob a man of the capacity for love. ' Nothing. '

But there is something wrong. Something, caught in predormitum, hanging between the two of you, and if it lies not with her, then process of elimination dictates that it can only lie with you.

Robotic, you remember – or perhaps simply defective. Human-skinned. Rotting out from the inside. You lie awake for hours, a hole between you and your entire life laid out in the shape of woman beside you, and that is all you can think:

Defective.

 


 

And the worst of all of them:

Incredibly, across the seven years you have clawed your way up the rungs of the ladder – the seven years you have cut and carved and stitched and healed – the number of major medical errors you've made has been a measly one.

One, you learn, is all it takes.

There is nothing special about the operation. The odds were not favorable, but you've done more with lesser numbers; the timing was not splendid, but you've woven insomnia into your personal equation. By all means, nothing should have gone wrong. But something does. Then everything else follows suit. There's blood ( everywhere, everywhere, has there ever been this much of it? have you ever even realized? ) where it should not be, and her monitors are screeching out their failure, and panic slaps you behind the eyes for the very first and very last time. The damage, as it turns out, is irreparable. Every attempt at resuscitation is met with nothing at all.

She was only eight years old.

'Was', not 'is'. Past tense. Because of you. )

Tell them how it goes: the difficulty of any surgery of its type, the ever-present possibility of failure. Tell them that even success would have only added a bit more time to a life already doomed to ephemerality. Tell them that their only daughter is dead, without a shred of doubt, and you are the murderer. Tell them, tell them, tell them anything –

The words, dead weight on the lip, don't leave you. That's fine, though.

Your silence rings louder than any excuse.

Is it wrong to feel anything now? Is it wrong to be moved? You never paid her any heed before – just another face, another job, another paycheck – so why is it that you feel so strongly now? )

Thirty years too late. You crumple over yourself – bury your being in your hands – and cry. )

 


 

It's just what you deserve, what happens after:

The free-fall. The landslide. The descent.

Your spotless record is stained in the blood of a dead girl. Her silhouette haunts you in morning fog – in dreary twilight – over dinner tables and coffee tables and operation tables. You smell her decay in the flowers on your walk home. You hear the laughter she could not make in the music you use to drown her out. Heroism, like blood on the teeth: your own failed attempt at it, copper in the back of your throat, red, welting, sickly.

You botch another not long after. No reaper to be found, but the damage is unquestionable. Once was permissive, if only for your position, your prestige. Twice is a warning, flashing, blaring. The world falls apart slowly in pieces around you three days later, again in the same room as always, watched by rotting eyes in a rotting corpse that isn't there, isn't there, and they won't even give you the chance to try.

Baseball, you think numbly, staring at your hands in the waiting room. Three strikes. You were 'out' before it had even began.

For you, it's ruination. Failure was never something you expected, and as such, failure was never something you prepared for. Faced with its towering presence, you flail – flounder – forfeit.

For your brother ( conniving, waiting in shadows for a decade, burning with want and jealousy), it's an opening. He slips his fingers in and tears, ripping you apart limb by stubborn limb. You've made it so easy.

First comes your credibility: called into question, fueled in the fire of your scathing tongue, heartless soul. Don't pretend you were ever here for the good of the patient. This hospital is what offered you the highest bid; your own fiance, daughter of the dean, taken on in a political gesture, an assurance of future rank; the endless work, the sleepless nights, always with your own personal agenda in mind. How easily you brushed off gratitude. How carelessly you brushed off dissent.

Next comes your skill: called into question, because if there is no credibility, then how can there be faith in anything that follows? Your recent failures are fresher in the mind than any past success. Any bridge that may have come to your aid now is already burned. How easily a selfish, greedy man can claim credit and spotlight from his subordinates – how easily that same man can ruin and waste on the table when truly taking the reigns for himself.

And what comes after: the accusations, the heresy, the lies. There is corruption here, vile and reeking beneath the linoleum you walk on. You played no part – were none the wiser of it – but they, even your own flesh and blood need a scapegoat, and if you're not useful with your scalpel, they'll pin you to cork board where they can.

' Where were you on the evening of August twenty-eight of last year? '
' How the hell should I know? '

It all works quite nicely in their favor. The 'evidence' he has fabricated in your name and image isn't damning enough to lock you away, but it steals from you whatever it is he can manage: your position, your would-have-been-wife, your future in the medical field. Who would take you in now? You're a plague cocooned in human flesh, netted in by bone and sinew. Pestilence, he calls you the last time you see him, mocking. The same name he's called you since the day he learned the world.

Pestilence.

 


 

It's just what you deserve.

Old haunts come back to have their way with your present; fires you left smoldering blazing suddenly beyond your control. He has played you for a fool – and yet, he has played harder than you have for anything in your life, pushed to desperation by personal shortcoming and the shadow you cast on him simply by existing. You never asked for a sibling –

– but then, neither did he.

You relent this to him, your position, your empty love life, the aspirations you lived half-heartedly. If you were half as wise as the world heralded you, you would have seen it from a distance: the asteroid made man come hurdling down to the surface of your world.

 


 

Step down from the stage, out of smothering spotlight and the weight of glacier gazes. Slip out from their nooses and their judgment; the guillotines will not fall today, and they will not have your head. The verdict falls in your favor – lack of evidence, so they claim, though many have been convinced of your supposed foul play with or without it – and the courtroom unravels from around you.

All they have left of you is the doubt. The pitfall. The isolation. Pestilence. You stand at a dead end sign and beg it for answers: If not here, then where? Where do I go? Where is left?

And no matter the verdict without, the verdict within, echoing:

' Guilty, guilty, guilty. '