When they get him back, Jackie isn’t really sure what to expect.
It had been a harrowing few days, the frustration of planning a rescue mission wearing down on him. This had primarily been his and Henrik’s show--because Jackie was the hero, this was his job, and Henrik was the only one that truly knew what Anti was capable of. They’d barely gotten Jack back from his clutches so long ago, and it only makes sense that Chase would be the next target.
Gentle, sweet, delicate Chase. Jackie had known that it would be a difficult mission. They had no idea what condition their friend would be in when they arrived, and they had no idea what measures had been taken to protect the property. All things considered, Jackie feels he should be grateful--the mission went smooth and sound, and seeing Chase alive had been a euphoria difficult to express.
Their resident dad had always been pale, like the rest of them, but in Chase’s normally pretty face, there was such a lack of anything. Like Anti had stolen every part of him and crushed it in the first hours, and left nothing but a husk in the weeks to follow. Something about that thought boils beneath Jackie’s skin, but he can’t be mad about it, not yet. Right now, they had to get him back home, so they could look him over, to see how far the damages went, and if they were lucky enough that it was only skin deep.
The ride home is filled with silence, but Chase’s breathing is a welcome relief. His head lays in Marvin’s lap, the magician waving his hands up and down his chest, a delicate glow cast over them. Jackie has never tried to understand how his magic works, but Chase isn’t whimpering, at the very least, so it must be helping. Or at least calming him down. He’d been a riot earlier.
Jackie can’t help the itch that crawls throughout his skin, like he’s waiting for the other shoe to drop. It feels wrong, having gotten Chase back this easily. Even as they take him inside the house, he waits outside a moment longer, staring into the darkness, as though expecting those green eyes to appear, or to hear the fizzle of static that signals his presence. But perhaps this is what Anti wants. To sow some sort of unease for all of time, for the rest of forever until his next move.
When Jackie returns to the den, Chase is awake, letting Henrik look him over with little complaint. In the light, he looks so much worse--so much smaller, so much more scarred, mangled. Jackie notes the splattering of claw marks along what was once completely unmarked skin, and he feels his jaw tighten at the implication. It seems to be healing, for the most part, uninfected, but the fact that it’s there just drives him wild in a horrible, sinking way.
Physically, though, he seems to be alright. Henrik proceeds with some basic tests, checking his eyesight, checking his reflexes. Chase can walk, and stand, and count, so at least Anti wasn’t so horrible--or didn't have the time--to remove what made him human.
But he looks exhausted, and for good reason. Henrik opens his mouth to ask more questions, and Jackie steps forward.
“Hey doc,” he interrupts, taking Chase by the wrist as gently as he can. “I think...I think he’s really tired, okay? Let’s get him into the shower, and to bed, yeah?”
And he sees for a moment the frustration on the doctor’s face, and Jackie knows in his mind that it’s all with good intention. Henrik knows the damage Anti can wrought, had been a victim of it, and seeing Chase this way hurts him in ways unimaginable. The only way Henrik knows how to help is through his medicine, and to be denied that can’t feel good.
But he relents, after a moment, his gaze returning to his dear friend, before he presses his lips together with a nod.
“That good, Chase?” Jackie asks, watching Chase tilt his head towards him with a slow, gentle blink. “Ready to wash everything away?”
Chase nods his head, but says nothing. He looks down at where Jackie’s holding him by the wrist, and Jackie lets go of him, suddenly realizing that it may not be the best thing to do.
“Awesome,” he smiles, patting him on the shoulder instead. “Let’s get you all set, okay? Your room is just as you left it, cleans sheets and all. I’m sure you’ll be comfy as hell.”
Jackie begins towards the stairs, and makes it about half a step before Chase reaches out, grabbing his own wrist in turn. The hero looks back at him, confused, but Chase nods again, still with his fingers wrapped around him, and Jackie takes this as a sign to continue nonetheless.
He guides him up the stairs, as though Chase doesn’t remember the way to their bathroom. Perhaps in some ways, he doesn’t. They still don’t know the extent of the damage done to his psyche, and won’t know for some time, likely, so it’s best to proceed with caution. He leaves him to wash himself in peace, thinking the quiet will do him some good, because with Anti, he’s never really gone, even if he’s alone.
Maybe Chase will find solace in the privacy.
Jackie goes to his room to try to ease the tension out of the day--changing into pajamas and settling in to some simplicity. The blinds are drawn on the window, and yet he still feels that itch inside of him, like something’s going to happen, like there’s still one last trick up that old glitch bitch’s sleeve before the dust settles.
He hears Marvin talking with him sometime later, helping him into bed with a soft, delicate voice. He recognizes the tone of voice--dipped in a gentle sleeping spell, meant to ease tension and help one fall asleep with little effort. Henrik’s got some bad insomnia, so he often uses it then, and Jackie himself has had his friend concoct him a draft of good sleep on bad nights.
It’s comforting, to say the least, when he hears the door to Chase’s room shut.
It’s been a while since they could.
In the days to follow, Jackie hopes to see the slivers of Chase’s old self resurge once he returns to being around the people he loves, and those that love him.
But nothing about the days to follow is easy.
Chase...doesn’t respond. He’s got a sort of stare that lingers like an unwanted ghost. Their old friend feels like a ghost, drifting to and from rooms when called, smiling with a hollow grin when something funny happens, or even when something funny doesn’t happen.
Anti did something to him in those months. Something that stripped him of whatever made him himself. The indignation of it boils Jackie to his core, and he’d known, he’d known that another shoe had to drop--Anti couldn’t have just let them have him back, not without ruining it, tainting the victory.
But there’s something yet to come. Jackie realizes with bitterness that nothing in this world could stop Anti, if he’d wanted to keep Chase.
So how did they get him back?
Why did Anti give him back?
That familiar itch burns beneath his skin.
Henrik interrupts his thoughts.
“I think we are in over our heads, my friend,” the doctor admits to him, his voice calm. “I am not certain this is something we can handle.”
And it takes Jackie a moment to recognize how tired he looks. If exhaustion was a person, Henrik would be it--bags under his eyes, clothing rumpled, hands ever so slightly shaking as though he hasn’t slept since Chase returned to them. Perhaps he hasn’t. Jackie hardly feels like he’s slept, either.
“That monster,” Henrik says, with such conviction, spitting the word out as though Anti’s name is far too poisonous to speak aloud, “did something, removed something from him. I do not know what. I can find no scars, no affliction. There is nothing. But perhaps that is the problem, yes? There is nothing. Like a hard drive in a computer, wiped clean. Works, but at what cost?”
Jackie swallows the lump forming in his throat. “Anti--”
“Do not speak his name.”
He bites his lip. “He...he fucked him up bad, doc. But I think, I think with a little more time, we--”
The doctor slams his hand against the wall.
“You do not understand,” he hisses, and Jackie finds himself startled at the hostility. “We were lucky enough to get Jack back from him. Jack remembered nothing. Nothing of him. Nothing of what happened. To this day, he...it’s all a blur to him. And he has only gotten stronger. I do not think we can bring him back, Grayson. I think he is--”
“Stop it,” Jackie snarls, trying to ignore the heat burning in his stomach at his real name. He hasn’t gone by that name since childhood. He’s always been Jackie. A fond nickname. “We can fix this, Henrik. Don’t fucking give up on him! I thought you two were friends! You’re telling me you’re just gonna chock him up as a lost cause?”
“Do you think I have not tried everything in my power?” Henrik whispers, and he crumples, then, and for a moment, Jackie thinks perhaps he’s the one that’s broken. “Do you think that I have not tried to bring him back? To bring back my friend, my old friend?”
It isn’t the first time Henrik has lost a friend. For the first few weeks after Jack woke up, he remembered next to nothing. Confused. He slowly regained memories of Henrik and Chase, and his following on YouTube, but was never quite the same. The doctor had gotten a taste if what it was like to have a friend forget about you. Now it seemed that fear was actualized.
“I think he just needs time,” Jackie implores, softly. “Let’s just keep working with him, yeah? Keep talking to him. That’s what we did with Jack, remember? And we got him back. Chase just needs some time. It’s only been a few days. Keep him fed, keep him comfy. He’ll be back to himself in no time.”
Henrik looks up at him, and it’s the closest he’s ever actually seen the man to crying. He’s seen the aftermath of the tears, when he’s trying to hide it, and he’s heard the actual crying, but never like this. Nothing like this.
“He’ll be back to himself in no time,” Henrik echoes, sounding devoid of anything. “Of course, my friend. Of course.”
The doctor straightens his shoulders, and exits the hall, leaving Jackie with that familiar itch beneath his skin.
It doesn’t get better.
In fact, it gets fucking worse.
Jackie had hoped that everything would mellow out, that Chase would start to act like himself again. Even just a little bit. But instead, he’s even less like himself. Three weeks has done nothing.
Chase had always been fairly proud. He’d also always been pretty stubborn. It came with the territory of being a dad--to be a good one, you can't let your kids push you around. Chase had always had a habit of ignoring any command given to him unless a please and thank you was issued. It was one of his more endearing qualities.
But now...now he just...did things. Without question. Without qualm. Without even so much as a whisper. It was unnerving.
“Chase, can you do the dishes?”
A silent nod.
“Chase, you mind helping me move this?”
A polite smile.
“Chase, are you feeling alright?”
A hint of a frown.
“Chase, stop looking at me like that.”
Jackie hadn’t really come up with a name for it other than weird, increasingly more frustrated with the behavior as the days went on. Marvin is the one to coin the term.
“It’s like he’s not in control of himself, you know?” Marvin murmurs, eyeing him idly as he calmly, quietly unloads the dishwasher. “Like someone’s pulling his strings. Like he’s not alive anymore and someone’s piloting him.”
Like a puppet.
“I’ve been trying,” Marvin continues, pausing to give Chase a light smile as he tilts his head back towards them. There’s the faintest glimmer of happiness. Chase seems to like receiving approval, in any form. When he turns back, the frown returns. “I’ve been trying a lot. Dipping my toes into magic that I shouldn’t. Memory restoration. Cleansing spells for corruption. Anything to fix him. Nothing’s worked.”
He sucks in a deep breath. “He just needs more time, Marv.”
Marvin fixes him with a piercing, but soft look.
“It’s okay, Jackie,” he whispers, gentle, almost condescending, but not quite. “I miss him, too. It’s okay. We miss him. You can say it.”
His eyes sting. “Why would I miss him? We got him back. He’s right there, I’m looking at him. There’s nothing to miss.”
The magician presses his lips into a thin line, and he looks so sad, then. But not for Chase. Jackie hates the way that it feels on his tongue. His touch startles Jackie, despite having seen his hand move. “You’re right. Of course.”
And he leaves.
It’s just about two months since they get Chase back when Jackie senses a disturbance in the house.
He’s always been a light sleeper, anyhow. But something about the energy of the building sends a shiver up his spine as well as a hot flash throughout his body. Something isn’t right.
Rousing himself from his bed, Jackie steps onto the carpeted floor and tenses, something almost...electric tingling his toes. The hairs at the nape of his neck stand on end, and his mouth dries. Familiarity washes over him like a ghost, and Jackie can’t help but grit his teeth, feeling the pressure of his jaw work harder and harder as he pushes himself to move forward, towards the door.
He doesn’t know when it started, but his hands begin to shake as he opens the door, the tingling sensation traveling throughout him, now. As the door creaks open, a subtle tune flows through the hall, distorted, gentle, elated.
It’s not the first time Jackie’s heard that voice.
But he can’t bring himself to run, to rush. No, he can do nothing but crawl, legs nothing more than lead weight as he drags himself towards the only room in the house that isn’t silent.
The door to Chase’s room lays slightly ajar, and with as much force as he can muster, Jackie pushes it open.
All oxygen leaves him in a flash.
Splashes of green and grey and red decorate the room, distorted lines and static cracks painting something right out of a movie--none of it looks real, like Chase’s room is nothing more than a green screen, and it’s torn, fucked up in every way like Chase isn’t real, like Chase’s life was never real, and it’s not--it’s not okay.
None of it is okay.
Chase’s form curls on the bed, a slow rise and fall to his chest. For a moment, Jackie can imagine he’s just peaceful, not unlike his old self again.
Anti’s form stroking the hair from his face ruins this petty illusion.
“You’re cute, little hero,” Anti’s voice crackles, and Jackie feels his ears popping at the sound of it. “Thinking that you’d won. But even throughout all of this, you knew, didn’t you?”
His hand stalls on Chase’s cheek, rubbing a slightly clawed thumb across it tenderly. “You knew that you couldn’t win. But you wanted to pretend. I thought it’d be fun to let you. And it has been.”
“You can’t have him back,” Jackie breathes, finding his voice has left him, nothing more than a whimper. “He’s ours, Anti. Leave him alone.”
Anti tilts his head, green eyes flickering, smile curled onto his lips like his skin will rip. “Jackie, Jackie. It’s funny how stupid you are. How you fucking think that you have any say over what’s mine.”
Jackie tries to quell the trembling in his hands. “He’s not yours. You can’t fucking have him, Anti. I won’t let you.”
“And who are you to stop me?” Anti’s voice drops in octave, the green of his eyes dipping into black. He shifts, and Jackie only blinks before the demon is upon him, nails digging into his nightshirt. “A scared, weak little boy in a mask?”
He begins to laugh, and Jackie feels it in his spine, the way it rings in every bone, every atom of his being. The hero reaches up, using what little strength he can muster to grab Anti’s wrist, but it’s little more than the pressure of a hairband.
Anti shoves him backward, watching with a blank expression as Jackie stumbles back, legs giving out beneath him.
“I’m tired of playing games,” he declares, a smile on his lips still, but his energy radiates something else entirely, something dangerous and livid. “I’m collecting what belongs to me, hero, whether you like it or not.”
Without waiting for a response, Anti shifts back over to Chase’s curled up form, pressing a gentle hand to his head. Were this anyone else, Jackie could mistake it for affection. Love.
Effortlessly, Anti raises Chase up in his arms, as though he were precious cargo. He glances over his shoulder at Jackie, still flat on his ass, wanting to move desperately but feeling chained to his spot.
“I’ll see you soon,” he laughs, and Jackie’s eyes swirl as the room fades in and out.
Nausea washes over him, but as the room slows to a stop, it is exactly how it was moments before bed, without Chase occupying it.
In, out. Jackie sucks in a deep breath, curling his knees to his chest. His whole body trembles, and he buries his face in his hands, wondering what the fuck he’s going to do about this.
His skin burns with that itch, scalding, and he knows that Anti’s coming for every single one of them, and there’s not a thing on this goddamn earth Jackie can do to stop him.