Julia couldn't believe it.
Peyton was alive.
She hadn't almost wanted to believe it.
After all of this time, she, thinking he had been dead, he had come back to her. She was almost mad at him, angry that he hadn't came to her sooner, but she was so happy to have him back she didn't want to stay mad at him, afraid he would be taken from her again.
It all seemed almost too good to be true.
Yet, he had called out to her while she had been in the graveyard, sitting crouched in front of his grave, and she had swerved around to the sound of his voice, even though she hadn't recognized it at first, hoping and fearing, at the same time, it belonged to who she thought had spoken, despite the staggering odds against such an unimaginable possibility. The doctors had told her they had found nothing left of him but one little piece of ear. Even if a person had survived all of that, they would've been in so much pain, for the rest of their meaningless existence, that such a life wouldn't be worth living, and she didn't want that for Peyton. She didn't want it for anybody.
Julia, however, knew she wanted all of it to be true. The way she had held him in her arms that day in the graveyard, falling into his deep, warm embrace…She wanted it all to be real. She wanted Peyton to be real.
The fire, much to her relief, hadn't changed him much. Wonder of all wonders, he was still the same old Peyton. The only thing that seemed to have changed was his usual deep, soothing voice, which was now raspy and hoarse, but still, somehow, beautiful. He also seemed stronger, somehow. Julia could sense a quiet, yet intimating strength about him that she hadn't been able to before, Peyton being the nerd that he had been. When she hugged him now, however, he felt bigger-built in the waist and arms, but he was still just as caring and loving as he ever was, her gentle giant, as always.
She should've known something had been wrong.
No one came out of a fire like that without a few burns and scars, not even Peyton, who, at the time they had been dating, had seemed so perfect and invincible to her.
Oh, how young and naïve she had been.
Sighing, Julia stood in front of the door to Louis Strack, Jr.'s office, tugging at her hair in frustration. She loved Peyton. She really did, but she couldn't go back to him the way he was now. She couldn't stand to see him like that. He had been so vulnerable and helpless, almost like a child. She never wanted to see him like that again.
Taking a deep breath, Julia braced herself and stepped into Louis Strack's office.
Louis Strack was, as usual, sitting behind his desk. He looked up and stood to his feet when she walked in, looking pleased to see her. "Oh, hello, Julia," he said, motioning her to sit down in the seat in front of his desk. "Make yourself comfortable." He sat back down himself, following her every movement with his eyes, which, for Julia, was more than a little unnerving.
Julia forced herself to smile at him. "Thank you, Louis," she said, sitting down on the chair he had indicated, relieved to get off her sore feet.
After Julia had sit down, Louis leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers underneath his chin. "How are things going?"
Julia was touched by his concern. "I'm fine, thank you," she said, smiling at him.
Louis nodded, strands of his shortly-cropped, russet hair falling over his forehead. "That's good to hear," he said, a slow smile spreading across his handsome, angular face. "Haven't had any interesting offers here lately, have you?"
Furious, Julia fumed, unable to believe he could be so forward. "I'm not seeing anybody, if that's what you mean," she said, hoping Louis wouldn't question the matter further, and thought back on the last couple of times she had went out with Peyton.
The first few dates they had gone on after he had 'come back from the dead' had gone great. She hadn't noticed anything strange about him on either one of them. They went to the movies, ate at restaurants, all of the normal things people did when they were dating. Nothing had went wrong and everything seemed right with the world. Things were going great until he had stayed over her at her apartment one night and she had mentioned the candles. The fucking candles. She wished she had never said anything about them. She had taken them out of the house afterwards. Anything that caused such a heartbreaking reaction in Peyton didn't need to be in her house.
Julia couldn't tell Louis all of that, though. Peyton would be humiliated. Plus, Louis would be furious with her for not telling him Peyton was still alive sooner.
Louis held his hands up in surrender. "Relax, babe, I'm just messing with you," he said, laughing. "Can't you take a joke?"
Julia turned away from Louis, lowering her gaze. "I guess I can't," she said, frowning.
Louis turned her around to look at him. "What's wrong?" he asked, and grabbed her by the arms, shaking her.
Julia snapped her head up, trying to focus her gaze on Louis. "Huh, what?" she asked, when her eyes landed on Louis at last.
Louis raised a disbelieving eyebrow at her. "I asked you what was wrong," he said, repeating himself.
Julia pinched her nose between her fingers, feeling a headache coming on. "Nothing," she said, knowing Peyton would be embarrassed if she told Louis the story about the candles, not to mention angry at her for letting Louis have one on him.
Louis leaned over his desk, placing his hands over the top of it. "Bullshit, it's nothing," he said, grasping her hands in his. "Something's bothering you." He bore his gaze into hers, making her feel uneasy. "I can see it written all over your face."
Julia pursed her lips. "I said it was nothing, okay?" She was getting annoyed. "Just drop it."
Letting go of her hands, Louis slammed his fist down on the table, making her jump. "Damn it, Julia," he said, spittle flying out of his mouth. "Why won't you tell me?"
Julia stared him down, refusing to give in. "For no particular reason, really," she said, watching Louis stomp back and forth across the room with fascination. She was getting a nasty sense of satisfaction of seeing Louis rant and rave about the room. Sure, she and Louis had been going out long enough to be on first name basis now, and the two of them had agreed not to have any secrets between them, but that didn't mean she had tell him everything she had done that day.
Louis banged his fist against the wall. "Then why won't you tell me what's wrong?" he asked, swirling around to glare at her.
Almost overcome by an overwhelming wave of dizziness, Julia gripped the armrests of the chair, everything seeming to fade around her. "Oh, don't worry," she said, hearing the tone of her voice growing distant. "It's nothing personal." She felt like she was traveling to a different time and place, her mind going back to the night she had asked Peyton about the candles.
On the night she had mentioned the candles, the two of them were sitting on the couch together, watching TV, much like the way they had used to do before the accident. The lights were on down low, Peyton's large, six-foot four frame was stretched out across the couch, his long, dangly legs hanging off the edge of the sofa, and she was laying across him with her head resting on his chest, her slender, narrow form nestled in the crook of one of his bulging arms.
Peyton ran his big, awkward fingers through her golden hair, burying his face in her thick, fair curls. "You don't know how lonely I've been," he said, pulling a lock of her out of her face. "I've missed you so much." He kissed her on the cheek.
Julia looked up at Peyton, giving him a grateful smile. "I've missed you, too, Peyton," she said, reaching her hand up to rub his cheek. "I love you so much."
Peyton grabbed her hand, squeezing it. "I love you, too," he said, kissing her hand.
Julia looked around herself, in a daze, unable to believe her luck. After everything that had happened, she had never thought she would feel such happiness again. She felt like she was in a dream. She had Peyton back. He was alive and well. He had his health and she had hers. She had everything she had ever wanted. Still, she felt like something was missing, and she hated herself for it, knowing she should've been more grateful. She knew there were people, after all, who had been through fires and hadn't come out as lucky as Peyton, but she didn't know what it was she was missing until she leaned her head against Peyton's chest and roved her eyes around the room, her gaze landing on the candles she had set on the table next to the bed for just such an occasion.
Peyton sensed something was bothering her. "What's wrong?" he asked, peering down into her face.
Julia shook her head. "Oh, nothing," she said, dismissing his concern with a wave of her hand.
Peyton prodded her, giving her a playful nudge on the shoulder. "Oh, come on, you can tell me," he said, and lowered his head, biting her neck. "I won't tell anybody."
Julia giggled, pushing him away. "Oh, Peyton, stop it," she said, feeling her face blush a deep crimson. "You're such a tease."
Peyton grinned. "I know," he said, sounding pleased with himself.
Julia groaned. "You're awful," she said, putting her hand over her eyes.
Peyton pulled her hand away from her face, forcing her to look at him. "Aw, now you've hurt my feelings," he said, his warm, blue eyes gleaming with a mischievous glint. "In all seriousness, though, if it's something you're going to be embarrassed by, I promise I won't laugh," He gave her a sly wink, his gaze twinkling with mirth.
"Oh, it's nothing like that," Julia said, feeling guilty for making such a big deal over something so silly. "You will probably laugh at me, though."
Peyton continued to urge her on. "Come on, then, tell me," he said, acting very much like a school boy.
Julia looked away from Peyton, rolling her eyes. "Oh, all right, then, but it's nothing," she said, her voice a low mutter. "I just thought we could use some candles in here, is all."
Peyton flinched, jerking awake from her. "No, no candles," he said, his face turning white. "Please, no candles." Much to Julia's horror, his lips started trembling, and tears started pouring down his pale face.
Julia, started by Peyton's sudden, unexpected reaction, backed away from him. "Peyton, honey, what's wrong?" she asked.
Peyton swallowed. "Oh, nothing, Julia, it's just…" he said, beginning to stammer. "Ever since the fire…I just…I just can't stand the thought of candles, okay?"
Julia scooted back over to him, returning to his lap. "Okay, no candles, then," she said, feeling sorry for him. "I never should've mentioned them." She hated herself even more now, feeing like the lowest scum on the earth. "I'm sorry."
Peyton enfolded her in a warm, bone-crushing bear hug, his massive arms dwarfing her tiny waist. "No, don't be sorry," he said, and pulled her away from him, giving her shoulders a gentle squeeze. "It wasn't your fault."
Turning sideways, Julia folded her arms under her breasts, leaning against Peyton's stomach. "I should've known, though," she said, laying her hand on his heaving chest. "I should've known that fire would've done something to you…changed you." She rubbed her hand down Peyton's chest, feeling for his heartbeat, just to reassure herself he was still alive. "I think I did...but deep down, a part of me didn't want to accept it, you know?" When she felt the rapid beating of his heart under her palm, she patted his stomach, a flood of relief washing over her. "And I'm sorry for that, Peyton." Feeling disgusted with herself, she squeezed her hand into a fist. "I really am."
Peyton kissed her on the forehead. "Don't be," he said, cupping her face in his hands. "It wasn't your fault, all right?" He rubbed her cheeks with his hands, narrowing his stern brow at her. "You didn't know." He pulled his face away from hers, lowering his hands. "It's my fault for not telling you before." He wrung his auburn hair through his fingers, a sure sign of nervousness if there ever was one. "I'm the one who should be apologizing, not you." He lowered his hand, his arm shaking. "I'm sorry."
Julia still didn't feel reassured. She knew Peyton would say anything to make her feel better, but she didn't voice her doubts out loud. Instead, she closed her eyes, and, despite all of her troubling thoughts, somehow managed to fall asleep in Peyton's larger-than-life, yet comforting presence.
Julia blinked, and shook her head, trying to clear the unwanted, but not altogether unpleasant memory from her mind. She was back in Louis' office, now, sitting in front of the man himself. She wondered where Peyton had gone after that accident. She knew he didn't have a home to go to, not after his apartment had burned down. She had offered to let him stay in her apartment on several occasions, but he had refused every time. Whether it was out of modesty or because of something else bothering him, she had no clue, but his behavior irked her.
Louis' voice jerked her by the present. "Now, where we?" he asked, sounding as if he had calmed down some. "Remind me, why did you come here today?"
Julia gave him a skeptical look. "I have a job here to do, remember?" she asked, unable to believe he had forgotten. "I work here now."
Louis pressed his hand against his forehead. "Right," he said, sitting back down. "Let's get back to business then, shall we?"
Julia, relived Louis was going to let it go, just nodded. She only wanted Peyton to be safe. Wherever he is, I just hope he's okay, and that he's in a good place, she thought, closing her eyes. Please, Peyton, just be safe.
Coming back to his lab, on his way home from Julia's apartment, Peyton hung his head down, holding his face in his hands. Oh, you really fucked that one up, Westlake, he thought, cursing himself under his breath. Julia's never going to want to see you again. Not after that. She's going to think you're nothing but a big pussy now. He shook his head, looking back up to see where he was going. That was Darkman coming out, not Westlake. He ignored the strange looks he was getting from passerby. He had been getting used to them by now.
When Peyton got to the lab, he staggered down the steps leading into the libratory, collapsing into a nearby chair. By the time he had gotten to the lab, the rest of Peyton Westlake's face had peeled off, revealing Darkman's bloodied, ravaged visage. The strips from his face hung down in tatters, falling down into his hands in jagged strips.
Darkman snarled, glaring down at his hands. They aren't hands anymore, he thought, contorting his face into an expression of disgust. Now they're nothing but twigs for firewood. He winced and lowered his hands, turning away from them, an unanticipated, but not too shocking realization dawning on him.
He knew he hadn't been afraid of the fire from Julia's candles. No, he had been afraid that, if she had lit them, and he had somehow managed to put one of his fingers through the fire by some freak accident, she would've seen the fire wouldn't have hurt him. He wouldn't have showed any signs of pain, and she would've thought he was some sort of freak. Hell, she probably already thought he was freak, after the way he had acted. Darkman wasn't afraid to admit that Peyton's skills as an actor were…lacking, to say the least, and they hadn't gotten any better. He thought his former shelf had put on the helpless schoolboy act a little too thick, but deep down he knew part of it hadn't been an act.
Darkman snorted. He had found one thing Peyton still couldn't do, even with his newfound superhuman strength. Looked like all of the great powers he had just gained hadn't approved his acting abilities any.
From a dark corner somewhere in the room, he heard a timid meow.
"Hello, kitty," Darkman said, relieved to see a familiar face this night. "Come here, kitty." Turning around in his chair to face the direction from which he had heard the cat meow, he patted his ruined hands on his knees, coaching the cat to come from out of the darkness.
The cat meowed, and slunk out of the shadows, approaching him with a tentative caution that broke his heart. Someone had hurt this cat, hurt it bad. Someone had beaten it and left it here in the lab to rot. For how long, Darkman didn't know. The cat had been in the lab when he had found it. He didn't know how the cat had gotten here, or what had happened to his previous owner. He didn't even know if its owner had given it a name, and he hadn't taken the time to give it one, but it had been one of the many things he had been meaning to do ever since he had gotten the lab. He was just glad to have another companion in the room he could talk to, even if that companion was a cat with hostile tendencies, a ferocious feral creature that hissed at him every now and then.
Darkman grunted in surprise when, stopping at his feet, the cat leaped into his lap. "Ah, hello, kitty," he said, trying to get his breath back. "What have you been up to while I was gone?"
The cat just turned his head sideways to look at him, gave another meow, and curled up into his lap. The cat was asleep within seconds.
Darkman chuckled. "Good kitty," he said, calmed in an instant by the cat's contented purrs. "Just don't get too comfortable." He scanned his weary, yet still unwavering gaze across the room. "We've got work to do."