One of Edward's ears flicked just slightly as he heard a sound behind him. Usually, nothing moved in the small cell he called his space within the Astral Plane. He refused to call it home. Home was a place he hadn't seen in, well, centuries. It certainly wasn't this squalid place with the bed he refused to use and its lone table.
The sound had been the door opening, it seemed. The voice belonged to one of his jailers, the Reaper called Barry Bluejeans, one of the two who galled him far more than did their supervisor. Kravitz was understandable. Some sort of servant of the Raven Queen who had died in her service and earned an eternity at her hand, no doubt. These two were liches, just the same as him. And yet, somehow they had gotten a forgiveness he was never offered.
"What do you want?"
He didn't turn, didn't even open his eyes. Why bother? All he really wanted was to be left alone.
"I just wanted to talk. Maybe play a little chess, if you're up for it."
Chess. Edward could have laughed. He did finally turn at that, turning bright eyes on Barry and looking him over from bottom to top. Did the man even realize what he was saying? Did he remember what he and his sister had done to his friend with the staff? Edward leaned back, half lounging so he could look up at Barry with his head tilted to the side and legs crossed.
"Fascinating. The last time I played chess with one of your little bunch, it didn't end so well for her."
He expected the Reaper to get angry, to tense up, to react somehow. Anything. They were the good guys, the ones who constantly talked about bullshit like compassion and friendship. Shouldn't he be the one to care about hurt to a friend? Instead, he held out a chessboard and grinned.
"I think you'll find I'm a lot better at the game than Luce is."
That got a mirroring grin from Edward and he gestured expansively at the floor.
"Well then, Reaper Bluejeans, why don't you pull up a piece of the delightful stone floor you have here and we'll see if you're as good as you think you are."
Laughing, Barry dropped to sit opposite Edward and began laying the pieces out. None of this made any sense. Eyes slightly narrowed, Edward watched Barry in silence. Somewhere here, there was an explanation if he just dug deep enough. Maybe this was Lydia's latest trick? Was the man being compelled or possessed? Not as far as he could tell. Then Barry glanced up at him and raised an eyebrow.
"Can I help you?"
Edward chuckled quietly, almost surprised Barry had even noticed him watching.
"Just trying to decide what your long game is. After all, why else would you be in here? You must have a game."
Barry didn't even flinch.
"Only game I've got is chess. And you've got the first move."
They had been playing like this for a few months, with Edward trying to poke and pry to get a clue to what was happening and Barry managing to stay just one step ahead of him somehow . It was frustrating, really. If someone had told him a year before that he would be spending his days trying and failing to sort out the inner workings of a middle-aged human, he would have laughed himself silly. Now he was just shy of grinding his teeth in frustration while trying his level best to outwardly appear calm and comfortable and in control of himself.
Then out of the blue, Barry leaned forward with curiosity on his face. Edward noticed but ignored him, instead refilling his glass from the pitcher of fruit juice sitting beside them and taking a sip. Then Barry took a breath and spoke.
"I don't understand. I mean... I know what you and your sister did, I saw it first hand. But here's the thing that doesn't make any sense. Why? You had each other and... and your bonds. Even if that wasn't enough, you had memories right?" Edward's ears pinned back as annoyance and something uncomfortably like guilt shot through him, but Barry plowed right on. "Unless... was your lich ceremony that different from mine?"
Edward shook his head, looking down at the chessboard. He could just not answer. That was entirely within his rights and it would serve Barry right for all these damn questions. Except then he looked up again and saw the way Barry was looking at him, eyebrows knit with concern. That was ridiculous but... Edward answered, his voice soft.
"It was Lydia's idea, if I'm being perfectly honest." He moved one of his pieces and examined the board again. "We had thought that between our bonds to each other and... and our love for our brother, that we would be alright. We discovered that other emotions would work by accident just when things were looking bad for us. You saw for yourself just how powerful suffering can be."
His voice pitched up despite himself towards the end of what he was saying. Dammit, he was supposed to have control. But just as he started to look down to exert control over himself again, he realized that Barry had reached over and put a hand on his arm.
"Hey, it's okay. You made a mistake. And it was a pretty shitty one, but that's in the past. It's not like you don't have the chance now to move past it."
Edward stared meaningfully at Barry's hand until he pulled back. Then he shrugged.
"I suppose, but really, one sideshow event full of torture and one very near apocalypse doesn't usually lead to a path of forgiveness. Particularly not when you're stuck in death prison."
For a long moment, silence hung between them and Edward thought that would be that. Barry would give up whatever he was trying to do and they could just go back to the game. Edward didn't need any sort of forgiveness or validation from Barry Bluejeans, that was for certain.
"Then what do you think I'm doing, Edward?"
Edward opened and closed his mouth several times. What the hell was that supposed to mean?
"You- you think- You're trying to-"
Each time, he cut himself off again, his ears flicked up in surprise and confusion. And then Barry had the gall to give him a smile. A smile . As though they were friends or something.
"I mean... yeah. At bottom, you did what you did for... for a lot of the same reasons I did. For your family, you know? And I figure, if you'd risk your soul for them, you can't be all bad, right?"
Edward's jaw tightened. Not all bad? Not all bad? Did Barry even remember who he was? Did he even remember what Wonderland was? And anyway, if they really were anything alike then Keats would have-
He picked up one of his bishops and moved it across the board, setting it down with a decisive tap.
"Check and mate. So I suppose that's it for today, isn't it? You'd best be going, Reaper Bluejeans."
He shoved the board towards Barry and stood, heading back towards his usual meditation spot and the blankets he'd folded there as a mat. He could hear Barry moving around behind him, gathering the scattered pieces up, no doubt. Well, fine. Let him.
One of Edward's ears flicked and he responded without turning.
"You'll be back again tomorrow, won't you, darling? Delightful. But until then ."
His voice turned icy and a moment later he heard the door open and close. Once it was closed, his shoulders slumped and his ears drooped. What the hell was he doing?
Edward Elmenda sat alone in his cell once some days later, ears resting at a comfortable neutral while he closed his eyes and settled into a trance. He was trying to work through a puzzle. It was patently obvious that there was more going on here than there appeared to be on the surface. He was as sure of that as he was of his sister. The real question was, what was going on? Sure, on the surface it seemed like Barry was just being friendly, but he was a Reaper. Reapers were not kind and friendly fellows who came and visited their death criminal prisoners to play chess. That just wasn't how things worked. Which meant that if it was happening, then Reaper Bluejeans was up to something.
He kept having to remind himself to think of the man only as Reaper Bluejeans. Despite several weeks of socializing, they absolutely were not friends. This was... was... fantasy stockholm syndrome. That was it. That was the only reason he was even remotely willing to be charitable towards his captor . As if they had anything in common.
But the twins had heard and the Story and Song just the same as everyone else, even if they had taken that opportunity to escape from the Astral Plane. And he knew perfectly well that Bar- Reaper Bluejeans had become a lich as he'd said. And he'd done it for his wife, for his family. Edward's throat felt tight and he squeezed his eyes together more tightly. Could they even really say they'd done this for Keats any more? They had discovered their affinity for necromancy trying to save him, certainly, but they hadn't become liches until... until after. No, he was nothing like Reaper Bluejeans who had somehow subverted this dark ritual and powered himself on love. Edward and Lydia Elmenda had only fought against death because they had seen mortality firsthand and found their fear.
The door pushed open slightly and he grimaced, one ear flicking slightly as he tried to decide which of the Reapers it was today. Had one of the others come to take him to task for upsetting Reaper Bluejeans? No. No, those steps were too heavy to be either an elf or a half-elf. Which meant Bar- Reaper Bluejeans, dammit. Which meant that Reaper Bluejeans was back.
"Uh... hey. Edward. I... I don't know if you're up for playing again today but I thought... uh... I brought some leftovers if you wanted some chili and I wanted to... to apologize."
Edward did turn at that, ears suddenly flicking up. Barry stood in the doorway, not in his uniform suit and cloak but in jeans and a battered old IPRE t-shirt of bright red. Held in his hands was a small container of chili with just a bit of steam rising from the surface. It smelled delicious. Raising an eyebrow, Edward got to his feet.
"In case you've forgotten, Reaper Bluejeans, we're both dead. Do you even eat?"
Barry shrugged a little, an almost boyish expression on his face.
"I mean, I'm alive...ish? It's complicated and involves a cloning tank. But uh... You can eat here. I asked first so it wouldn't be like... insensitive to bring you food, you know?"
A noncommittal hum of acknowledgment was the only response Edward gave him. Barry's shoulders slumped and he set the little container on the table by the bed before retreating towards the door.
"Well, if you want it, it's there. I'll just... go, I guess." He paused in the doorway for a moment. "I mean it, though. I don't know exactly what I did wrong, but... but I know something I said bothered you, and I'm sorry for that." His hand was on the door, pulling it closed behind him as he stepped out into the corridor. "I'll come back later to grab the dish."
Edward waited for a moment, watching Barry retreat from the room. Then he went to pick up the small clay bowl. It was pleasantly warm to the touch and a spoon had been left beside it. Inside was a thick and hearty chili, dark brown and aromatic. Sitting on the floor with his back against the heavy wooden door, he tentatively tasted it. It was rich with flavors, each spice blending with the others in brilliant ways. Had Barry made this? Then he remembered another bit of the Story and chuckled. No, of course not. Not the man who had managed to boil water wrong. Probably Lup then. Which implied that Lup was also involved in this so-called apology.
He took another taste, savoring the way it warmed him up from inside. Being warm was such a novel concept after so long as a lich. The undead simply were not warm. His mind briefly went back to Barry's hand resting on his arm and Edward's jaw tightened. Just because he was cold didn't mean he needed to chase someone else for their warmth. He would eat this and then nothing else. He didn't need Reaper Bluejeans coming here and pitying him. He had ruled Wonderland with his sister for centuries. This human lich was nothing compared to him. And he certainly didn't need anything the man had to offer.
When he'd finished, he set the bowl and spoon back on the table and went back to his corner to meditate. Maybe this time, he would find a solution to his Reaper problem.
He hadn't come back. Well, alright, he had come back to grab the bowl just like he'd said, but he hadn't even said anything to break Edward out of his trance and that was just rude. Who comes into your room and doesn't even say hi ? Honestly, the nerve. And it had been over a week since then, near as Edward could tell. It was, admittedly, hard to gauge the exact time in this eternal twilight world where the sky never changed. Not, of course, to imply that his suite in the fantasy Ritz here afforded him an actual view of the sky. That would be a luxury that clearly he no longer deserved.
No, he'd been counting the hours, going through his meditation routines until he had them clocked perfectly. It had been at least ten days, he was certain of that. And he hadn't seen hide nor hair of the Reaper known as Barry Bluejeans. It would've been annoying if it wasn't unnerving. Which lead him to the next question, which was why this was bothering him so damn much.
Edward stopped in his pacing and turned to face the door. His ears were pinned back in anger and frustration and he grabbed the little table beside his bed. With a growl, he flung it at the opposite wall as hard as he could, taking some brief glee in the sound as it shattered to pieces. And then, only a moment later, it reformed beside his still unused bed. He dropped to his knees, just staring at the place where those shards of wood had been.
Once, he had been the lord and master of Wonderland, the architect of the suffering of hundreds, thousands even. Now? He couldn't even reshape his own bedroom. He hadn't had freedom since Keats had died, but at least he had control. Now he had neither.
And then the door opened.
Barry stood there in his dark suit, just a few shades off from black enough to be a deep blue, and his raven feather mantle with the dark cape falling beneath it. He looked like a hero from a tale in that moment with the light behind him. Or at least, he would've if he wasn't a middle-aged human who was more than a bit pudgy around the middle and clearly graying.
"Ed? Is everything okay?"
Was it a slip? The concern in his voice, the use of a nickname. Was it a slip? Was it calculated? What did it mean?
He wished he could talk to Lydia. Not just about this. About so many things, really. How long since he last saw his twin? They were never meant to be apart, had never been apart before they had been brought to the Astral Plane the first time.
Barry closed the distance, leaving the door open behind him as he walked up to Edward. He put his hand on Edward's shoulder, worry in his eyes.
That was about when Edward realized he hadn't responded. He couldn't respond. His throat was choked and he didn't know what to say. What was he supposed to say? How did you say everything was alright when you were alone when you were supposed to be half of a set? How did you say it was fine when you were trapped, lost in the darkness of your own creation and of the prison they'd thrown you in.
"Reaper Bluejeans, I thought I said-"
There was no heart in it, the snap behind the words gone. Worse, Barry seemed to know it. He smiled, the expression soft, and Edward felt his stomach do flip-flops like he was only a hundred again.
"You can call me Barry, you know. And you didn't answer the question. Are you alright? I heard the crash."
They stood there like that for a long moment, Barry's hand on Edward's shoulder and Edward's mouth just slightly open as he tried to find the words he needed. He had lied so many times in his life, he could do it again. He could brush all of this off. He could say it was nothing. He could throw Barry out again. He could laugh and say he'd done it for fun. It was nothing.
He leaned forward, resting his forehead against Barry's shoulder.
"I don't know." The stark truth and nothing else. "I just... I miss my sister. You understand, don't you?"
Barry hesitated visibly, almost tensing. Then he put an arm around Edward's shoulders in a loose hug.
"I... I do, actually. Maybe not the same but..." He inhaled sharply, trying to make a decision. "I can talk to Kravitz. You have to understand, we can't leave you two alone. Not after... well, you know, last time. But I can at least try to let you talk to her."
Edward hadn't been expecting compassion. How long had it been since anyone offered him compassion ? Since so very long before Keats got sick, at least. After that, everything had by necessity been about Keats and even then, no one actually gave them compassion. Pity, certainly. And scorn. And so many other things that had failed to help them where compassion could have.
Barry was rubbing his back gently and Edward wasn't quite sure when he started shaking. Dammit, he couldn't show this kind of weakness. And yet. And yet.
And yet, for the first time quite literally in centuries, there were tears on his cheeks. Edward closed his eyes against them, trying to deny that it was happening. He hadn't cried since... since... Had he even cried when Keats died?
No. He hadn't.
His tears had dried long before then, when the healers had told them there was nothing they could do. After they had put everything they had into trying to save their brother only to be told it was fruitless. And now he was shaking and silently crying with his face buried against the shoulder of... of what? His captor? A friend? He wasn't even sure anymore.
Edward pulled away. Barry let him. Something hung in the air between them and neither was sure of the other, neither was sure what that something might be. Whatever it was, though, they both knew it was important. Barry started to open his mouth and Edward cut him off.
"I would appreciate that. Seeing Lydia, I mean."
There were still tears in his eyes and on his cheeks but he didn't raise a hand to wipe them. Not yet. He refused to acknowledge it until Barry was gone. Barry nodded.
"If I can find a way, I will. I'll... I'll be back tomorrow and I'll let you know. I promise, Ed."
He stood there for a long moment and then headed out the door.