Dying hurts a lot more than Quentin Beck was expecting. His shield fails and in his last moments of only mild pain he manages to get his helmet up, only to immediately be knocked violently off his feet, landing on his back as the rubble comes crashing down on top of him. The part of him that isn’t wailing, screaming like a trapped and injured animal takes stock of his injuries – one arm and one leg are definitely broken, he can feel the jagged bits of bone grating against each other from even the tiniest vibrations caused by him breathing. His head aches, just another injury to add to the pile, and he can feel blood dripping into his eyes from a cut on his forehead where the rock that had shattered his helmet had impacted his face.
There are too many other injuries to catalogue. His chestpiece is dented and the weight of the rubble makes it nearly impossible to take in a full breath. He can feel blood dripping out of his gauntlets and chestpiece and into his boots and off the side of his face and his mouth tastes like he tried to gargle pennies.
He wants nothing more than to give up, to let the darkness creeping in on the edges of his vision, barely distinguishable from the darkness of the rubble overhead, to fill his field of view. He wants to rest, to let the pain go away and let him finally, finally have peace.
But he’s not dead yet, and even through the pain he pulls on the warmth of magic around him, letting it fill him and mute the incredible pain of just existing, here and now.
The beauty of magic carries him away on currents of warmth and love and belonging. His vision stops going dark, filled instead with golden rays of sunshine and life and Beck is so taken by the beauty of it that he doesn’t notice as he stops breathing, doesn’t notice that he can’t see the rubble overhead anymore as his field of view whites out.
He’s cold. That’s the first thing he notices as he jerks awake, knocking his head against something behind him. For a moment, as Beck blinks, hard, he could have sworn he saw Peter, leaning over him, worry written all over his face, then he’s gone, his field of view filled with indistinct black and white shapes.
He’s cold, and he’s damp, Beck amends his prognosis of his current situation, rubbing his eyes and then the back of his head as he struggles to his feet. Instinctively he tries to draw on magic to warm him, only to fumble, confused.
It’s not here. It’s not the same as when he first arrived on Peter’s world, where the magic was there but slightly out of reach to begin with. It’s not like when he was a child, aware of the undercurrent of tainted magic that ran through the world but too far away for him to touch. This is a world without magic.
What the hell? Beck resumes taking in his surroundings. Indistinct black and white shapes resolve themselves into snow covered trees, branches bare for the winter. He follows the trees to the sky, staring up at thick cloud cover, noting light snowfall making its way down through the tree cover to land on his face.
Beck takes stock of his situation. He realizes he must have hit his head against the tree he was leaning against when he… arrived? woke up? He isn’t really sure what’s going on. Further exploration of the bruise on his head reveals he’s wearing a soft hat of some sort, knitted and lumpy but serviceable. He thinks he recognizes his own handiwork in the craftsmanship after a few moments of inspection. It’s old, clearly seen some wear, but he recognizes it as a project he started just before he was inducted as a full Sorcerer on his own Earth, a project that was accidentally abandoned in the shuffle to move to his first posting.
He pulls it back on his head, noting his hair is a little shorter than he usually kept it, face almost clean shaven other than a decent amount of stubble making itself be known. He’s wearing a warm winter coat, clearly well worn but well maintained. Same with the pants, heavy and warm and thick enough that the damp of having been sitting in the snow for some time was only just starting to make itself be felt on his legs beneath.
The boots were right, heavy and leather and well worn, almost exactly the same as he had been wearing earlier that day before he arrived here. He settles on arrived as the descriptor for why he was in this forest, “woke up” makes it feel like he was always here, that his life on his earth and then the other earth were only dreams.
His hands are cold, the gloves damp enough to let the chill of the night air through and he pulls them off, blowing into his hands to try to warm them off. No sling ring, he notes with no real surprise but maybe some disappointment.
The surprise comes in when he realizes he is wearing a ring. A wedding ring, a simple gold band on his left hand. It’s not the ring he normally wears, his father’s silver ring on his right hand (which is missing, he notes with genuine sadness), but he can tell from the indent on his finger and the patina on the ring that he’s worn it for quite some time.
The stillness of the night is shattered by a peal of childlike laughter as he is tackled from behind, barely keeping himself from reacting with violence as something – or someone? – slams into his legs from behind, arms reaching around his knees and almost tipping him off balance.
“Found you!” Beck twists to see who it is, analytically noting details.
It’s a child, a little girl. She can’t be more than six, seven at the oldest, wearing a bright pink snow coat over lavender snow pants, pink boots making tiny prints in the thin layer of snow on the ground as she lets him go, jumping up and down in excitement as she looks up at him.
Her face is pink from the cold, her front two teeth missing, and those eyes, those bright blue eyes looking up at him in childlike joy are like looking into a mirror.
Beck manages to stammer out a quiet, unsure, “Yeah, you sure found me, kiddo,” before the girl grabs his hand, trying to pull him along.
“Come on!” she cries as Beck doesn’t move, looking back up at him. “Mom is going to kill you if we’re late for dinner again!”
Beck staggers along behind her, his mind spinning. Mom? Dinner? Late? Again?
Apart from the obvious resemblance and the associations thereof he has no idea who this child is. He has no idea what the hell is going on. He wants off this wild ride and back to his normal life, however painful and abnormal to the average person it might appear.
The trees thin and he stops dead as a scene out of a Christmas card makes itself visible to him. There is a cabin, small but comfortable looking, decorated with strings of golden-yellow lights along the roofline and wound around the posts of the porch and on the bushes planted in front. Smoke curls out of a chimney to one side, and Beck notes the three sets of skates hanging on posts on the porch at the same time as he notices the dark surface of a frozen lake behind the house, its surface lightening as it too is covered with snow.
The girl continues up the steps of the porch, stamping her feet to knock off the snow as Beck considers running, taking his chances in the woods and the snow. This place is too perfect, too much like a half-remembered dream of a world without the Elementals, without constant threats to be real.
But he doesn’t run. Something about the golden glow surrounding this cabin on the lake feels right, feels safe. He offhandedly notes the Maine license plates on the sturdy looking truck parked along the side of house as he take the first step up to the porch, following the girl’s example as he stamps his boots off and makes his way inside.
“Maggie? You and Dad done messing around out there?” A woman’s voice comes from a few rooms away and Beck knows, he knows he recognizes that voice but doesn’t know from where. Its not until she pokes her head out from a hallway, tutting in mock irritation at the water tracked inside and helping the girl – Maggie? – peel herself out of her snow clothes. “Oh Maggie, you’re soaked! What were you and Dad doing out there? Go get changed!”
She gives a warm smile up at Beck as she pushes Maggie towards another hallway branching off from the foyer, shaking her head slightly as he continues standing, staring at her, dripping water in the entryway without bothering to even take his coat off. “And what were you doing, Quentin? Look at you, what, did you decide to lay down in the snow?”
“Ah…” Beck swallows hard. He knows who this is, and that was impossible. She died, she died almost two decades ago for him, one of almost three hundred civilian casualties when Earth attacked a Battalion posting in Maine. She was one of the few people he had ever had a real interest in beyond just being friends, but before anything could happen between them, she died. She was dead. This was impossible. “Christina?”
She tilts her head slightly, confusion playing alongside a smile on her face as she stares up at him with warm, familiar, brown eyes. “Quentin? Are you sure you’re alright?”
He is the first to break eye contact, fumbling with the zipper on his coat. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.”
This was a lie. He was cold and wet and confused and about thirty percent sure this was some sort of hallucination at this point and just wanted to get to the point where this dream home turned to nightmare and he could just fight his way out of it.
“Here, let me help you with that.” She reached for the zipper, fingers brushing against Beck’s jawline and everything went sideways.
He was standing in the long room again, surrounded by unfamiliar and familiar faces. The portal was opening in the center of the room. He was wearing his armor, he could feel magic again, and as he prepared to defend himself against whatever was coming through he-
He was laying on the ground in the foyer of the cabin again, Christina looking down at him in worry and confusion and Maggie poking her head out from around the hallway she had disappeared down.
“Is Dad ok?”
“He’s fine, sweetie,” Christina responds, although her face still showed her worry. “Why don’t you go set the table, ok?”
“Ok!” Maggie all but skips into the hallway that Christina had come from originally.
Beck pushes himself away from Christina, holding his shaking hands out in front of him to ward off any attack that might come. “Stay away from me!” He backs himself up into the corner by the door, curling up slightly. “Don’t… Don’t come any closer.”
Christina pauses in her advance, and Beck could have sworn he saw a flash of gold along with something almost like disappointment in her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she murmurs, hands gently patting the air in front of Beck in a calming gesture. “I didn’t realize that would happen.”
“What? You didn’t realize what would happen?” Beck looks around wildly, trying to find any indication that he was in a simulation, or that this was a hallucination, or anything, really, to explain what the hell was going on.
“It doesn’t mat-”
Beck cuts her off before she can even get the full word out. “Like hell it doesn’t matter. Where the hell am I?”
“Isn’t this the life you’ve always dreamed of?” She takes another half step forward, stopping as Beck pushes himself even further into the corner. “No wars to fight, no one trying to kill you. No monsters, no heroes, just Quentin Beck and a loving family and a good life, even if it is a quiet one.”
“But it isn’t real,” Beck responds, equally quietly. “You’re dead. I’ve never seen that girl before in my life. This cabin, this life, it’s something out of a book. It’s beautiful, but shallow and fake and quite frankly, I think I’d go crazy from boredom.”
Christina’s eyes are sad and gently glowing golden as he looks back up into them, and the cabin fades away, and they once again are in the woods, snow gently falling around them.
“Who are you?” Beck asks, carefully getting to his feet. His clothes are dry and warm again despite the weather around him, and he notes that the wedding ring is gone, sling ring and wristbands back where they should be.
And he can feel magic again, surrounding him like a warm bath, the brightest source he has ever felt flowing out of the woman in front of him, and he revises his question. “What are you?”
She doesn’t answer, instead approaching him and gently laying a hand on his shoulder. He tenses, expecting to be thrown back into his reoccurring nightmare, relaxing only when the woods don’t fade around him again. “You have done more than your share, Sorcerer. You have fought for not one, but two dimensions, proving yourself more worthy than most to carry my light. I offer you the reward that you have earned, eternity within the great flow of energy and life that binds the worlds together. You would be happy, have the life that you never could, never suffer the same pain that you have gone through already again.”
Beck doesn’t even think before responding. He knows that if he thinks too much about this, he might actually consider the offer. “Pass.”
“Pass?” Magic in the form of Christina tilts her head, her face still sad and confused. “There is much pain ahead, much suffering. You would willingly return to that life?”
He nods, setting his jaw in what he hopes looks like a determined expression. “I have promises to keep.”
“And miles to go before you sleep,” Magic finishes the verse sadly, hands caressing the sides of his face as she looks up at him. “You will not remember this reprieve when you wake, but know this, keep it in the deepest parts of your soul, in the place where you know without knowing. You have earned your place as one of my champions, and I do not abandon my own.”
And she kisses him. Beck is too surprised to reciprocate, standing perfectly still as beyond the kiss itself he can feel the energy of magic flowing into him again, filling him with warmth and life and sunshine, like magic was always meant to be.
She breaks off the kiss but doesn’t let go of his head, doesn’t break eye contact. “Quentin Beck. Everything will be ok.”
“I think I plugged something in wrong, this is saying that air resistance is going to increase the ball’s acceleration towards the Earth? And that answer makes no sense so I’ll-” Beck slowly cracked an eye open as Peter’s voice filled his hearing. He considers clearing his throat, calling his attention, but doesn’t, taking in how vibrant, how real he was.
Compared to what? Beck wasn’t sure, but somehow he knew that everything was going to be ok.