You don’t want to let them go. Nothing is as it seems, when you’re wearing this hood, but you know this with a certainty that sinks into your bones. You don’t want to let them go. You’re standing together, all three of you, when and where have long since been details entirely irrelevant to you. From the way they cling to you, they don’t want to let you go either. This is the warmest you’ve felt in what could be forever.
It’s standing behind you. You can feel its eyeless gaze on your back, so you close your eyes tight and pretend you’re alone. It won’t work forever, but you’re not asking for eternity, you just want a handful more seconds holding on.
You don’t get them. Everything dissolves into static and water, your fingers grip wrists and the sleeves of jackets. Together, the three of you run. Escape has never been a possibility, you know that, but still, right now? You’re willing to try.
Tim Wright awoke, once again, in the dirt. The panic he always felt when he woke up like this hit him like the headache that made his eyes water, but he tried to push it away as he sat up slowly. He’d done this before, he told himself. He could do it again.
Blinking in the morning sunlight, he looked around. He was in a little clearing, surrounded by woods he didn’t recognise. His fingertips brushed something cool by his side, and he knew what it was even before he looked down. The mask lay white and pristine in the grass. He sighed, and pushed it away. He’d done this before, he could do it again, but he wished more than anything that he didn’t have to.
It was only when he heard a quiet, confused noise from across the grass that he realised he wasn’t alone. Jay was lying in a crumpled heap, and as Tim looked at him, he pushed himself up onto his elbows. He looked about as bad as Tim felt; tired, damp, and covered in dirt.
“Where are we?” Tim asked. His voice was rougher than he’d expected, like he’d been shouting. He didn’t expect Jay to have an answer, but he didn’t know what else to say. Oh, look, we’ve ended up unconscious next to each other in the woods, again! We really should stop meeting like this!
Jay looked around, still looking kind of dazed, and just shook his head. “Ow,” he said faintly, as if only just registering the pain, and he put his hand to his collarbone. His fingers came away red.
“You hurt?” Tim asked.
“I’m bleeding,” Jay said. “Think I scratched myself on something, maybe. I can’t remember anything.”
“Yeah,” Tim muttered. “It sucks.”
He stood up, and patted his pockets for his phone. It felt like a desperate hope, searching for something so mundane to save him from this nightmare scenario, but he had to start somewhere. Perhaps if it had been just him alone he would have closed his eyes again in the grass and tried to pretend it wasn’t happening for another hour or two. He’d done it before. But there was Jay, confused and shivering on the ground. There’d be time for a breakdown later, right now they needed to get out of there.
His phone was in his bottom left pocket. He wanted to check the date, see how far they could have travelled-- anything to give him a clue as to where the hell they were. When he turned on the phone, however, instead of the homescreen, he was presented with an open memo, the text warped and distorted.
Car hidden in treeline. First aid kit in back. Keep running.
Nothing else. Dated four hours ago. Fuck.
“Jay, the car’s in the trees,” he said.
“Message on my phone. It says we need to keep moving.”
“How do we know it’s not a trap?” Jay asked, casting his eyes around the clearing quickly.
“It’s not,” Tim said instinctively, then hesitated. “I don’t know. It could be, but…” he passed the phone to Jay. “It’s not.”
Jay looked up from the phone to look carefully at Tim. Tim just stared back, silently asking for Jay’s trust, just this once. A long moment passed before Jay put the phone back in Tim’s hand and looked away.
“We should go,” Tim said quietly.
“Yeah,” Jay said. “Yeah, okay. Hang on, I should see if I can find my camera…”
He’d turned and started digging around in the long grass when his foot hit something, making a sudden sound. He jumped, and Tim took a step closer.
“What was--” Tim began, but he stopped when he saw Jay’s face. Jay bent down and picked up a white plastic mask. As he turned it over, Tim could see a skull picked out in black ink on its surface. “What’s that?” he added sharply.
“I don’t know,” Jay said, voice shaky. “I know it, though, I think-- like deja vu or something, I--”
Tim took it, looked it over. Reluctantly compared it to his own. “Yeah. I know it too. Fuck.”
“I don’t know what’s happening to me,” Jay said distantly, taking it back and staring at it.
“I could make a guess,” Tim said bitterly. “Come on. We can deal with this someplace that isn’t here.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Jay said, dropping the mask onto the grass. “I don’t think the camera’s here anyway. That’d be too simple.”
They headed for the treeline. Tim pretended not to notice when Jay suddenly froze, and darted back to pick up the mask he’d discarded. He pretended not to curl his fingers around his own mask tightly. A heavy, knowing feeling settled in his stomach, regardless.
They drove for an hour before stopping at the side of the road. There was still nothing but empty countryside around them, but it felt safer, somehow, than the woods. Jay got up on the bonnet of the car, and reluctantly showed Tim where he was bleeding, trickling down his collarbone and through his shirt. They’d checked, and as the message promised, there was a first aid kit stuffed onto the back seat. Tim wasn’t sure how he felt about his instincts to trust the note being right.
“We should keep moving,” Jay said. “Ow. We can deal with it later, it’s not that bad.”
“Bullshit,” Tim said, continuing to clean the drying blood away, holding Jay still with a light hand on his shoulder. “It looks like you skidded over gravel, or something.”
“Well, maybe I did, but guess we’ll never know, because I can’t remember any of it.”
“Yeah, Jay, welcome to my world,” Tim said. “Shut up and let me clean this.”
“Wait until we find somewhere to stay,” Jay insisted. “You know we shouldn’t be wasting time around here, not when we’re still so close to whatever the hell happened while we were out. I know you know.”
Tim shifted uncomfortably. “We can’t afford to have you hurt when everything’s going to shit like this,” he began, but Jay had spotted his hesitation like an eagle after its prey. Tim felt the urgency vibrating off Jay, and he wasn’t stupid. Jay wasn’t the only one who wanted to keep moving. But damned if he was going to let Jay win the fight before Tim had had the chance to finish cleaning the gravel burns across his chest.
“It’s that message, isn’t it?” Jay pressed. “Keep running. It’s right. Someone got close enough to you to write a note on your phone, Tim. That’s fucking terrifying. And neither of us even remember.”
“Was it terrifying?” Tim asked suddenly, fingers halting on Jay’s skin. “I’m not being sarcastic, I-- Genuinely. Was it?”
Jay had gone equally still under Tim’s touch. “I don’t…” he said, then cut across himself. “No, it… I don’t know. You weren’t scared, so I wasn’t.”
Tim looked at him closely, searchingly, even though he wasn’t sure what answer he was looking for. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know,” Jay said, pushing Tim’s hand off him. “I don’t know.”
You’re alone. As alone as you can be, and it feels like a bitter irony that the Operator has faded now, when you can’t even take advantage of the respite to hold the people you love. It’s cold, but you’ve done this a thousand times over, so you find your den and shut the door behind you. Sleep may come slowly, but at least you know they’re safe. You hope they’re safe. You did everything you could. You have to trust them.
At least they have each other. Your dreams are troubled.
Jay had crashed out as soon as they got into the motel room. They’d had to drive for three hours before finding any sign of civilisation, and it had taken longer still to find anywhere that had vacancies. Jay had been falling asleep the whole time, to the point that Tim had taken over driving. Tim had gone to take a shower when they arrived at the motel, and by the time he’d finished Jay was properly asleep, sprawled over one of the beds with his jacket still on.
They’d found the camera under the passenger seat during hour two of driving, and Tim noticed that while Jay might have only barely kicked his shoes off before falling asleep, the camera was set up carefully, little red light blinking. He didn’t know how he felt about it.
He was tired, too, bone tired, but he couldn’t make himself lie down. Maybe it was some misplaced defensive instinct, to keep watch-- not as if he’d be able to do anything if the Operator did decide to show. He’d be willing to try a punch out on Alex, but if Alex did show up, it was already too late for that.
He was just restless, so he lit a cigarette and went out onto the walkway to smoke it. He left the door ajar behind him. He made sure he could still see Jay through the gap in the door. If Jay was going to be picking up Tim’s own hobby of wandering the woods in a mask, it was important that someone else knew where he was, even if that someone had to be Tim, not historically the most reliable when it came to those things.
It scared him more than he wanted to admit, the thought of Jay running off without him. But he’d been doing this a long time, and he was good, by now, and knowing which feelings were his own and which just… weren’t. Not quite. Like echoes, or aftershocks, little ripples left behind by a pebble being thrown into a smooth lake. The fear wasn’t all his. He didn’t know whether it was a relief to know that whoever it was that took over his body cared about Jay as much as he did, wanted to keep him close, keep him safe.
But then, that probably shouldn’t be surprising. He’d watched Jay’s videos, he knew about Jay’s late night disappearances. He knew that some of them had been precluded by the appearance of Tim’s own masked face. The idea of his and Jay’s spooky masked personas hanging out together was darkly hilarious enough that Tim smiled wryly as he took another drag on the cigarette.
He glanced back into the motel room. The mask, Jay’s mask, was new, though. That was a worry. It would be fair of Jay to blame him. Tim wondered if he had put two and two together yet. Jay was smart, he’d been doing the whole puzzle solving thing for years now, he must have put it together. Jay wouldn’t be in this position if it hadn’t been for Tim. And yeah, maybe Tim hadn’t known, didn’t remember any of it, but still. Not remembering doesn’t absolve him, he’d learnt that lesson years ago.
He stubbed out his cigarette on the railing and headed back inside, careful to lock the door behind him. He took his shoes off, tossed his jacket on top of his bag, carefully didn’t look at Jay, asleep on the other bed.
Maybe he should leave. Maybe it wasn’t too late for Jay to quit all this, to recover. Was Tim just dragging him down deeper? Jay had dragged him back into all this first, but that wasn’t any excuse.
He instinctively checked the camera light was still on, then hated himself for it.
It had already been too late for him, he could accept that now. It had probably been too late for him for years before he’d even realised there was anything to be saved from. The thing was, he knew Jay. He wasn’t going to stop. Tim wasn’t sure he could, wasn’t sure that either of them could. (It always came back to blood in the end, blood and the vicious oblivion of distorted memories, blood and the sudden absence of beloved friends. Void to void. Dust to dust.)
There was a noise from the other bed, and Tim looked over. Jay was sitting up, covers pulled around him, looking over.
“You okay?” Jay whispered sleepily.
Tim just nodded. Jay stared at him for a moment longer, before pulling all the covers over him like a cloak and hopping off his bed. He didn’t say anything as he climbed in beside Tim. Tim didn’t say anything either, but he shuffled over to give Jay enough space. Less than a minute passed before Tim could hear Jay’s breathing even out again. He was warm. Finally, Tim felt sleep hit him, a gentle mallet to the back of the head. Fuck Alex, and fuck the Operator, he just… wanted to sleep…
You’re never free. That isn’t how this works. But, when you awake, you’re still you. There’s never silence, but the static is slow, hitting you in waves, a distant heartbeat. You can leave, so you do, and you don’t stop leaving. There’s some people you promised you’d find. Some people that you love. Some people that love you.
You’ll find them. You know you will.