Santiago was awake.
He was awake and cold and… didn’t remember much past the fact that maybe he wasn’t supposed to be here. Or maybe that he wasn’t supposed to be awake at all.
But Santiago was awake, despite it all. Santiago was awake and he was shivering as icy fog rolled at his feet, which were protected only by a pair of regular white socks. The room was dark, but he had sense enough that it was vast. He couldn’t quite focus his eyes…
Not eyes, he corrected as he reached up and pressed a hard palm against his right eye socket. Eye, singular. Only one.
The most disconcerting part, Santi realized later, was that he didn’t remember how he’d lost it. He just had the vague idea that he had lost it, and that he hadn’t been born with only one eye. This did not occur to him in the present because soft blue light was starting to glow all around him.
He staggered forward a few steps, turning in a circle. Faces, closed off and shrouded by crystals of ice. They surrounded Santiago. Tens, dozens… hundreds. Santi blinked at a face he might’ve recalled in some other world, but it didn’t ring any particularly loud alarm bells. Maybe thirty paces away was a vast wall that stretched into areas out of Santi’s vision.
A door creaked open into a hall of white, but Santiago was more scared of the dark than he was of that cold isolated impersonal world ahead.
He inched forward. It took a while but, eventually, Santi’s limbs became loose. There was a pair of ankle-high black boots next to the open doors.
Santiago sat on the ground, pulling the boots toward himself. Upon pulling one over his left foot, he realized they were his exact size. He pulled the other one on and tied them with an expertise that came with years of doing exactly this. He used the doorframe to pull himself up and peeked out into the hall.
Empty. Santi stepped out, turned instinctively to his right, and started walking. He had to pause at the sudden onslaught of vertigo this gave him.
What had made him turn right? Why not left? Why did this decision ail him?
“Hey!” The soft pad of socks as someone hurried down the hall. “Hey, you! Hey!”
Santiago turned around. The person running toward him was wearing the same exact outfit as he except without shoes. Their head was shaved down to maybe half an inch of course brown hair. Their eyes were hazel and hazed. Their face was sprinkled with light freckles and scars alike. This person, unlike the faces that didn’t quite cut into Santi’s missing memory, was recognizable.
They stopped, too, eyes going wide. They held a manila folder tightly to their chest. They seemed to recognize him too.
“I’m… sorry,” they said. There was a small gap between their front teeth. “Where are you going?”
“Don’t know yet,” Santi answered, taking a few short steps toward them. “Why? How do I know you?”
“Don’t recall,” they said. “Figured I’d ask ya, though, since you’re wearing, ya know… shoes.” They made a vague gesture toward Santi’s feet and closed the ten-pace gap between them, holding out their right hand. The left hand still held the folder unhindered to their chest. “Valentine Wright. I use they/them pronouns.”
Santi nodded, taking their hand in a firm grip returned just as firmly. “Santiago Torres-Martínez. He/him. You wanna walk together?”
Valentine tilted their head at him but nodded. They walked just to Santi’s right, putting themself out of his line of vision. He and Valentine walked right for a while in silence. Santiago turned left at the next junction. There were reinforced steel doors everywhere. He went straight at a three-way junction.
“Where did you get shoes?” Valentine asked suddenly.
Santi turned to glance at them. “They were waiting for me by the door,” he replied smoothly.
“How did you know they were for you?”
The question left a sense of foreboding in the air between them.
“In my size,” Santi said simply. “Where’d you get the folder?”
Valentine hummed, pausing in the hall. Santiago paused too. They turned to face each other instinctively, like second nature. Whoever they’d been before, they must’ve held one another in high respect and regard. He waited as Val pressed through the folder. It was averagely sized, which is to say it wasn’t quite thin but it wasn’t overly large either. Satisfactory information.
“I was the only one in the room awake,” they said. “It explains who Agent Young and Advisor Wright are. Coincidentally, Advisor Wright happens to be Sebastian Wright. That’s my little brother. Don’t know who Martin Young is, but…”
Something shivered down Santi’s spine. Something about that name.
“Young’s face is familiar. Here.” They pulled a printed piece of paper with data about one Agent Martin Young.
In the top left corner was a picture of a young man, skin fair, eyes a faded green, hair black and shorn short to his head. He was smiling, but there was something missing from his eyes, something pleading and begging and wailing for someone to pay attention. Santiago wanted to smother Young in piles of soft blankets and just leave him tucked safe and tight somewhere familiar but just out of reach.
“Hey,” Val interrupted his train of thought. “You recognize him?”
“I do,” Santiago confirmed. “Don’t know how or from where. He must’ve been important to me.”
Valentine looked up at him abruptly. They wet their lips quickly, just a darting of their tongue before it disappeared into their mouth. Their lips parted. They looked like they wanted to say something, and there was that flash of a gap between their front teeth, and—
…and why the hell was Santiago paying so much attention to Valentine’s mouth? He was being weird. Stop being weird, he admonished himself.
“You have that look on your face,” they said softly, like they’d been doing it forever, and maybe they had. “What’s it for?”
“Don’t know,” he answered, shrugging. He blinked. The picture seemed to shift before him. Martin Young—eyes less vacant, squinting with the sheer force of his smile, hair so long it had to be tied back, a red, irritated scar stretching from the right corner of his mouth—became a different person. The faded, too-white of a long scar stretched from the right corner of Young’s lips. The strain did not leave his eyes.
A paper slid from the file. He and Val watched it as it floated in slow-motion to the ground. Valentine bent at the waist to pick it up and, fuck, wasn’t that a sight. They bent fully over their own waist, knees stiff and unbending, hand fully able to press against the too-bright linoleum. They sprung back up neatly. Santiago frowned.
“It’s a note… from my brother,” they said. They tilted their head. “Oh, hell. You’re gonna wanna see this, Santiago.”
It was Saturday. Not a busy day, typically.
Martin was sitting more loosely than Sebastian had seen him in a long while. He leaned the chair back, using his feet to brace himself against the desk. He had… something in his hands, which he kept firmly in his lap. Sebastian paced the length of the room and back again. He couldn’t stop wringing his hands.
“Nobody’s caught on,” Martin assured. He was decidedly not smiling, because he wasn’t who BLi thought he was. Fun Ghoul was grinning, mouth stretched too wide with a scar he’d gotten in better days. “They’re getting out. I left Pois with the file you wanted to give them, and Jetty got a pair of good boots.”
Sebastian threw his hands up frustratedly. Ghoul wasn’t seeing the real problem, as in Problem with a capital P. “Happy Christmas, then, right? I… fuck. There’s a big problem here! If they don’t get caught—” He held up a finger when Martin opened his mouth to speak, silencing his clandestine lover. “—if, because we actually don’t know for sure whether they’ll make it out with the instructions I gave Val, then… Then what? Leave them to wander an abandoned Underground? You know they vacated Juvie Hall when BL got us, Ghoul.”
“I took care of security in the lower levels,” Martin said coolly. He lifted a hand-rolled cigarette. “This look alright to you?”
Sebastian stared at his boyfriend for a while. Even here, perfect and too-clean and under the stress of keeping up appearances, Martin Young was not. Fun Ghoul had dust and sulfur on the tread of his boots, his hair brushing, even now, lower than was proper for an employee of Better Living Industries. Ghoul held up a hand-rolled cigarette—which he’d rolled out of sight, professionally, because he made some of the best damn cigarettes this side of Zone 3—like he’d done so many times before.
Sebastian sighed harshly. “One, you don’t have a lighter, and two, we can’t smoke in here. That’d be the biggest giveaway ever told. Madam Director would have our heads the moment she took back to her office.”
“Mm,” Martin hummed. “How about… I leave now, and we meet… let’s say basement levels, shall we, Advisor? I have to restock on ammunition.” He paused thoughtfully. “I don’t think, though, that I have access, given my rank. I’d much appreciate the help.”
Sebastian slipped into the role with a practiced ease and a vague smile. “Of course, Agent Young. I’d be happy to help. Shall we meet within the hour?”
“I’d say so, yes,” Martin confirmed. Code for we’ll go late into the night, because everyone will be asleep. “I’ll be off, then. Thank you for lunch, Sir.”
“You’re welcome, Agent.” Sebastian smiled and opened the door for what passersby would witness as a visitor. “Have a nice day, and don’t forget to smile.”
Later, much later, Kobra was standing in the dimmed hall of the basement levels. He was holding Ghoul’s left hand adamantly, because Ghoul had made a frankly stupid comment about it being his more dangerous hand. Kobra had argued that the hand was only dangerous if its user wanted it to be, and then intertwined the fingers of his right hand with those of Ghoul’s prosthetic lefty.
“We don’t know whether they made it,” Ghoul warned, “so don’t expect them to be exactly where we told them to—”
Val and Santiago looked up at them from the floor, where they’d been pouring over the gifted files shoulder-to-shoulder. It was strange to see them in white like this; it was typically the type of thing you’d see in a wedding, directly before the betrothed were covered with their opposing colors. Another strange thing, though…
“Damn,” Kobra murmured, taking in every ounce of his sibling and his best friend. “I mean, I knew they’d cut you guys’ hair and all, but seeing it in person is—”
“What do you mean you knew their hair had been cut?!” Ghoul cut in frantically. “You said nothing about their hair being cut!”
“You don’t have access to their files,” Kobra Kid recalled absently.
“I don’t have access to their files,” Fun Ghoul confirmed emphatically.
Valentine and Santiago were still staring. Santi was slowly lifting his hand toward his head.
“My hair was… longer?” he queried, unsure. There was a hyper-aware look on his face, and Kobra knew, then, what’d happened.
“What do you remember?” he asked.
“Vague things,” Valentine answered. They smoothed their short, dark hair away from their forehead, frowning. “Like you’re my brother Sebastian, and I know I knew Santi and Martin, but I don’t know how or from where. Didn’t know my hair had been long, too. Doesn’t really seem like… me.”
“It was shaved close on all sides except the top,” Kobra explained. He was becoming desperate, and he knew it showed. “Is that all you remember?”
“For some reason I remember… roller-skates?” Santiago shrugged, pressing a hand to his empty eye socket and leaving it there. His shoulders relaxed a little. “Driving. Fixing. I don’t know, maybe beads? It’s cloudy, like there’s a wall or something or maybe a bridge, but I’m not getting across.”
Kobra looked to Ghoul, but the poor guy was frozen in the face of something like this. He reached out and grabbed his lover’s hand again, slow and easy, giving physical warning with a triple-tap of I love you before he fully grasped Ghoul’s still-warmed hand. Santiago scooted two inches apart from Valentine as though he’d just realized how close to them he’d been. He stopped suddenly, bringing his fallen hand back up to press against his eye socket again.
“A rosary,” he muttered. He looked to Ghoul. “Did I have a rosary? Why did I have a rosary? Am I religious?”
“It was your mother’s,” Fun Ghoul replied, sounding more than a little dazed. “You’re definitely religious. Pretty sure you gave it to a pal of ours before…”
Santiago swallowed at the ominous trail of Ghoul’s voice and made to stand. He held a hand out reflexively and Val took it just as easily. Kobra felt a lump of longing well in his throat at the sight. From what he’d just been told, they vaguely knew that they knew each other, but… fuck. Party had been preparing to propose. They’d been courting Jet Star for only two weeks when they’d had to tear the Girl from BLi’s sticky fingers, and Everything happened. Even Kobra Kid’s highly adept mind couldn’t comprehend, process, and compartmentalize the memory of that day. Fun Ghoul wasn’t much better, to his knowledge.
He squeezed Ghoulie’s hand. The hand was metal, but Ghoul had said once that the sensors picked up changes in pressure.
“We need to take you somewhere,” he stated firmly, shaking himself bodily at once. He needed to abandon his advisor persona. Get this part over with. “It’s going to be tricky and honestly grueling, but Martin and I have to lead you somewhere safe.”
Val gave him a proud sort of smile. “I trust you, Bas. Lead the way.”
“Right.” Kobra squeezed Ghoul’s hand once more and pulled the folded map out of his pocket. He turned about face. “Onward and downward we go.”
The Underground was what was generally known as the abandoned underground subway station. Better Living Industries had never seemed to be able to find it no matter how hard they searched. Not a single agent had been spotted Below, and no Juvie Halls had been spotted by someone Above.
This fact did not stop the sudden flow of Juvies from the Underground out into the Zones. This meant many platforms had been deserted, which left plenty of room for the Wright siblings, an anti-assassin, and a religious sand pup when they turned up down there by sunrise.
Ghoul was staring down at the digital watch on his right wrist. “Three… two… one…” A loud, blaring alarm rang out from the door in the far corner of the Basement of the BLi base, Basement with a capital B because there were so many sub-levels of the Basement, and this was the lowest one. Frankly untouched, as well. Fun Ghoul slammed the Basement door shut behind him and turned the wheel that locked it airtight.
“Fuck, I hate that sound,” Val growled through gritted, grinding teeth. “Have I always hated alarms that much?”
“You have a condition,” Kobra said casually, as if reminding them to grab the mail. “Sensory something-something. It was somewhere in your file, but I forgot.”
“We should, uh…” Santiago frowned, as if remembering that he wasn’t the leader in this case. His shoulders hunched involuntarily. “I mean,” he said, softer this time. “W-we should get moving, um, right?”
“You were right to assume that, man,” Ghoul said, patting Santiago gently on the arm. “Speak your thoughts. Come on.”
From his utility belt, Fun Ghoul produced three things: a penlight, which he placed gingerly sideways between his teeth, a hand-rolled cigarette, which he held pinched between his index finger and his thumb, and a lighter. He lit up the cigarette, replaced the lighter, and grabbed the flashlight. He flicked it on with a simple movement in the same second that he set the cigarette between his lips.
Ghoul hummed, flicked the ash, and said, “I did pretty well on this one.” He offered it back to Kobra.
Kobra took a long drag, coughing on smoke Tears sprung to his eyes, but not because of the slight choking. “Damn,” he groaned. “It’s been so long. That’s good.”
“How long have you been smoking again?” Valentine murmured beside him, brows furrowed.
The Kobra Kid offered Val the hand-rolled cigarette. “Not as long as you. Hit it, it’ll make you feel better, probably.”
Val took the cigarette the same way they’d been doing it for forever and took a drag. They released the smoke, sucked it back in, and breathed out long. “Holy shit,” they hissed. “Wow. Okay. Yeah, I see where the party’s at now. Fuck.”
Kobra grinned. Ghoul breathed a chuckle. Santiago looked faintly amused, the face Kobra had labelled classic Party, but otherwise didn’t reach for the cigarette. Valentine handed it back up to Ghoul.
They shared the cigarette, just the three of them. Kobra was glad Santi wouldn’t want in on any of the fun even if any of them offered the cigarette. He wouldn’t want to start Jet on a smoker’s life while he wasn’t in his right frame of mind.
The tunnel didn’t open up for a long time. Ghoul stopped once so he could take a leak against the wall—I have to drink lots of water! The Director had ordered it because she didn’t want me dehydrating when I went on missions, cue Ghoulie’s cute pouty face, which Kobra promptly kissed—and then they kept going. Val picked up a random pair of cracked reflector sunglasses left on the ground and put them on, and then immediately took off and folded them over the collar of their plain white button-up.
“Still haven’t got any goddamn shoes,” they muttered once during the trek, then yawned directly following. “Shit, fuck. Bored. Sebastian. Sebastian. I’m goddamn bored. How are you still alive, I’m dying of boredom!” They draped an arm over their face and dropped into Santiago’s arms—which had sprung up instinctually—in all their dramatics.
Kobra couldn’t help but to laugh. “I’m just as bored, trust me, Val. Ghoulie, how much longer do we have until we hit a platform, do you know?”
Fun Ghoul glanced up (from his beeper, which had been returned to him on his last mission by Show Pony and Cherri Cola) and stopped. He was thirty paces ahead, seeing as Valentine had stopped just before they’d started complaining. Ghoul hadn’t noticed—too caught up in his head, always caught up in his head nowadays—but now he stared forward. His flashlight dropped. He paled quickly and suddenly, staggering back.
“What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck,” he breathed in a mantra, scrambling back until Kobra went up and met him halfway.
Valentine now stood rim-rod straight, their feet shoulder-width apart, their eyes wide and milky. Their hands twitched at their sides. Kobra Kid had two armfuls of Fun Ghoul right now, so he couldn’t be there when his sibling did drop, but it was buried deep into Santiago’s muscle memory to catch his SO, whether he knew they were that or not.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, okay, that’s…” Valentine was draped in Santi’s arms again, body losing all tension and then regaining it as they lifted halfway out of the other’s arms and then dropped face-first into his chest. “Okay, okay. Okayokayokayokayokay, right, uh…”
Santiago wrapped them tight in his arms. “Calm down. You’re here with the three of us, calm down, breathe.”
“Okay,” they agreed, shifting and dropping again exactly where they’d been before. “Alright. Breathing, I’m…” They took a deep, exaggerated breath and let it all out in one big huff. “…breathing. Okay. Calm now, let go.”
Santiago released them with not a single verbal protest. Kobra, from where he was cradling Ghoul’s head against his chest, saw Santi’s lips move to say something to the contrary, but the memories were far enough away that he didn’t quite now why he’d be arguing.
Valentine had just had their first vision in this mental state, though, and Fun Ghoul was freaking out about what he’d just seen, and the Kobra Kid had determined that the reason was the same for both things happening.
“Val?” he said softly over Ghoul’s head. His boyfriend quivered still. “You be safe. Santiago, go with them.”
Valentine’s mouth set into a thin line. Santiago nodded determinedly. He led the way, picking up Fun Ghoul’s forgotten penlight. He looked back to them and Val swallowed but moved ahead, into the thin beam of the light.
Kobra Kid stayed back and held his lover tight and safe. His sibling led the charge into an abandoned platform where the Phoenix Witch stood, alone.
The vision had freaked the shit out of them.
Valentine reached back upon entering the platform. Santiago grabbed their hand with an ease of lifetimes. A woman in a cloak of midnight-dark feathers, wrapped in bandages and sun-bleached plastic beads, hovering just off the ground, was in the center of the room. A full mask covered her face. Santiago’s shoulders sagged, face become stagnantly peaceful, but Valentine couldn’t help the judged feeling running wildly through themself and the quaking of their hunched shoulders.
The Phoenix Witch stared with dead eyes at the both of them. Val didn’t know how they knew her name.
It’s been a long time, she whispered. He’s making the right decision.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Val breathed, still trembling even though no chill settled in the air. They broke out in a cold sweat. Santi was still at peace, but he was a little confused looking now. Valentine didn’t know why they wanted to cup Santiago’s face between both palms.
The ghost, the Witch insisted. He’s choosing correctly.
“Is she… speaking to you?” Santi asked, looked straight down at Val now.
“Yes,” Val confirmed in a low, shaking tone. To the Witch, they said, “Still don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I know you don’t, she said. You’ll know when you remember.
“But I haven’t remembered, so I don’t know,” they snapped petulantly. “You know you’re scaring my brother’s boyfriend out there, right?”
He does not believe he’s made the right decision, the Witch explained, tilting her head slowly. Plastic bleads clinked. He fears judgement for what he’s done and what he’s doing. He believes he should’ve left at the first opportunity. He’s making the right decision, though. The desert and all of Creation will not be razed.
“C…” Val reached up to their lips in shock as the image of grass so green, it looked neon sprung before their eyes. A sun brighter than fluorescents. Soft sand. Salty sea. Stars. Star, Star, Star, why do I—? “Creation. Creation. Why am I seeing stars?”
You’ve always seen Star, she murmured playfully, as though she knew something they didn’t, which she probably did. He’s always in your sight, no matter how distant the memory. Hand in hand and hearts entwined. Go, Prophet. Go and, once you return, I’ll be gone. But come over, to me. I need you to give this to your Star whenever you two next meet.
Valentine broke away from Santiago, walked to the Witch. She pressed a something into their hand. When Val looked down at it, they saw that it was what must’ve been a rosary: a long, colorfully beaded string. A few darker beads sat close to the epicenter of the necklace, where a black feather was strung on. They swallowed hard and stuffed it into their pocket.
“Come on, Santi,” they urged, turning back. Santiago hesitantly turned too and walked with them back into the tunnel. Sebastian was sat with Martin on the floor now.
“Figure we all should take a nap or something,” their brother said smartly. Martin was already hunched over on his lap, pressed against his shoulder. “I’ll keep watch, alright? I have energy to spare.”
Val yawned, shrugging. Santiago sat against the parallel wall of the tunnel to Bas and Martin. Valentine, too tired to argue with their brother right now and too cold to just sit there alone and try to restlessly sleep, ducked beneath Santiago’s arm when the elder went to yawn as well. Santi took it in stride, tucking them beneath his arm sweetly. Val didn’t miss the sad look Sebastian was giving them both.
It was easy, from there, to fall asleep. All too easy, then, to slip into dreams.
Valentine was holding hands with someone. They opened their eyes. They were wearing a black-and-white plaid skirt.
“You good, Val?” Sebastian asked.
They examined their surroundings. Small, square bedroom painted in white. Dark grey carpeting. Twin-sized bed pushed up against the left wall. Sebastian, small and hunched and deeply unstill, was squeezing their hand in rapid-fire movements. A desk directly in front of them advertised for jobs working for Better Living, but it wasn’t a job pamphlet. Val didn’t know how they knew it wasn’t, but it wasn’t, so that was beside the fact.
“Valentine,” Bas repeated. “Valley, answer the question.”
“I’m…” They blinked, eyelashes fluttering as they came back to themself. “I’m good, yeah. What were we talkin’ about?”
Sebastian looked sidelong at them. “Where’s your head at right now? You seem out of it.”
Valentine cleared their throat, aiming to pitch their voice lower but it came out the same. “Don’t know where my head’s at, Bas. This is my room, right? My bedroom?”
“Yeah, Val.” Sebastian let go of their hand, bringing it up to hold their shoulder and press his free hand to their forehead. “Are you feeling okay, Valley? I think you might need to lay down.”
“Sebastian,” a gently accented woman’s voice called. “Valentine. What are you doing here?”
Bas whipped around, shocked. Val was surprised to realize, then, how late it was. The window was black. The digital clock on their desk was displaying a number too early to truly be late.
“Mom, uh,” Sebastian stammered. He was quaking, a hand now gripping Val’s wrist. “I was just…”
Mom entered their room. She was softer here, now, than in the vague cloudiness of Val’s memory. Her soft, dark hair was not in a severe bun like it usually was but let down to fall crisply around her shoulders. She wore what was typical of this time of night (morning, whatever), the plain sanctioned white pajamas. She seemed… sad.
“I love you both so much,” Mom said, rushing forward just to hold Val and Bas for an instant. “I love you. Wherever you’ve gone, both of you, just remember I love you so much.”
The room started to drain. Sebastian gripped at Val’s arm. Mom began to fade out.
In a moment of pure, unadulterated panic, Valentine ripped open the void.
“NO!” they screeched, grabbing the shredded threads of reality and pulling them tight, keeping them together. Mom’s face caved a little with age. Val got taller and their arms filled out. Sebastian shot up like a beanstalk. Outside the window, day and night passed in a blur. Val’s voice, a strange, otherworldly, backwards NO! echoed back to them. The digital clock exploded.
The three of them fell forward when reality settled. Mom sobbed softly. She gathered them both up again, pressing them close. Val clenched a fist into her nightshirt. Sebastian’s back still quivered.
“You left,” Mom managed. “You left, and I knew you would eventually, but I-I’d kick myself for believing we had more time. How stupid I could’ve been. But I don’t blame you, never, because I would’ve—” She wept into their shoulders, came back up to plant soft kisses on both their cheeks. “I would’ve gone, too, given the chance.”
“Love you too, Mom,” Sebastian said sweetly. He was half hunched to hug her back.
“I’m sorry this society never wanted people like you,” Mom breathed, hard, now, determined. Rock solid. More real than she’d ever been in the fog of Val’s memory. “This society was wrong for it; they just hadn’t seen what you two ever could’ve done yet. They’ve seen, now. They’ve heard. They know, my children. They know how strong you are, so very strong, so brave.”
“Mom,” Sebastian called. “Mom?”
Mom pulled away. One hand remained on Val’s cheek and the other was left on Bas’s. Valentine couldn’t help themself, even after all this time. The sense that Mom had misgendered them more than a few times. The distant fix your skirt from the kitchen. Val reached up and held Mom’s hand against their cheek. Reality was falling apart at the seems.
“Mom,” they said. Grey was crumbling, dissolving into red and orange and gold. They were crying. “Wait, please. Please, Mom, don’t leave, I can’t, I—”
“It’s alright,” Mom assured. “You are so strong, Valentine. You keep standing, you understand? I’m so sorry I didn’t truly see you sooner. You were never your father’s daughter. You’re my child, however far from a daughter you may be. You too, Sebastian. My children. My children.”
She was gone, and so was Sebastian.
Valentine stood, staring and broken, in a warzone. It was overbearingly warm, here, and everything was aflame. Women and elderly and children ran from the fray. Val was among a line of fighters dressed in black. They didn’t fit in here with the white uniform of a Better Living patient. A woman was crouched forward a few feet ahead. She held a raygun tight. The backpack she had on was squirming.
“Come on,” she called over her shoulder. Val was still as stone. The woman frowned, looking them directly in the eyes. Her accent was something foreign, sharp. “You, come over here.”
Valentine staggered forward. They collapsed in the wet dirt. The woman flashed them a sharp grin, and it pulled at her face in a way that made them shudder. Beneath ash and dirt, her raygun was painted neon green.
“My name is Sandra,” she said. “Sandra Dalca. The bag on my back contains a very important package, do you understand?”
Val swallowed. “My name—”
“Does not matter,” Sandra barked. She began to carefully remove her backpack. “His name matters, do you understand? You must remember. He will not, when you awake. He’s not known for many years.”
In the backpack, wrapped in a swaddle of soft blankets, was a baby—a newborn. Midnight-haired, eyes flashing dark green through heavy-lidded eyes, cheeks flushed. Valentine wasn’t much of a caregiver at all, not that they’d particularly remember if they were, but fuck. Sandra pressed the baby in their arms, and they adjusted reflexively. Which meant Val knew how to hold a baby.
Holy shit. Were they a parent? Had they been a parent? Fuck.
“Pay attention,” Sandra snapped, but she didn’t sound scolding so much as desperate. She was terrified. “His name is Aleksander Dalca of the Freedom-Fighters Unity of Romania. He will decide the fate of—”
Valentine rose. Aleksander hiccupped in their arms. They rocked him. Everything around was dark and empty.
“Where am I?” they asked. It echoed for miles.
“Welcome,” said a familiar voice behind them. She sent shivers down their spine. Aleksander began wailing.
Valentine turned. The Phoenix Witch, devested of her mask and cloak, was only a regular person. She could’ve been anyone, her brown hair pulled back in a bun that might’ve been done millennia ago, it was so messy. Grains of sand stuck to her cheeks. Her eyes were too pale a shade of blue. Her skin was tanned, riddled with deep, red scars and patched across with rows of burns, disgusting and oozing. Aleksander’s wails became louder.
“Please,” they said, their breath a cloud of vapor in the air. “What’s going on?”
“Welcome,” the Witch said again, “to the end of times. You’ll be waking up rather soon, but I need you to see this before you do. You won’t be a very good you otherwise.”
The question wormed its way into Valentine’s brain like a poison, sprouting up infectiously like a field of mint, and they could not stand in the face of this question unresponsively any longer.
Aleksander gasped wetly and sobbed again. Val was beginning a downward spiral. They looked up, but the Witch was not there. The black around them flared white as though a light had been switched on. The Phoenix Witch laughed, and Valentine fell to their knees. They joined the baby in his crying and cradled him close to their chest.
“Please,” they breathed. “Please, I— Who was I?”