Actions

Work Header

Mushrooms & Magnets

Chapter Text

"I'll take my chances."

The look on Heisenberg's face as Ethan let go of his arm with a defiant glare was almost worth it.  Yep, Ethan thought as he smashed his back on a stupid pile of stupid cogs down the stupid hole where the Lord had dropped him. Worth it.

He tried to hang onto that righteous feeling while a stupid thing with a fan for a head revved up a massive chainsaw. Because of course it did. 

Part of him was a little worried that none of this elicited the slightest shock anymore. A propeller-headed monster chasing him down a corridor in a zombie-ridden factory should have gotten more out of him than a mildly annoyed sigh. 

For months after Louisiana, he had seen a therapist, graciously paid for by Chris' boys and certainly reporting to them as well. He hadn't minded. Being able to tell another human being "and then the horrible lady spat flies out of her mouth and pushed me down the stairs" without them pressing a security button was worth knowing all this went in a file somewhere. 

No, she just nodded and took notes, and provided gentle advice like "you need to reacquaint yourself with vulnerability" or "try visiting an insect museum". 

He had done all that, dutifully. It helped, a bit. 

Hi doc, fresh new trauma just dropped , he would probably tell her if he ever found his way back home. I have a phobia of plane fans now. Guess why. 

He barely dodged the chainsaw that came thundering over him, and turned sharply to unload a deafening shotgun blast into the creature's face. One, two, and… 

"Shit."

Reload-reload-reload-fuck!

The clip slipped from his hands just as the creature gave a mechanical shriek, despite its absence of a mouth. He watched as the horrible blade roared to life and fell upon him. 

An explosion of pain sliced him from head to crotch, and a bubble of agony burst on his bleeding lips. 

Everything turned black. 

---

The clang of machines in the background was almost a soothing sound. It seemed to beat in rhythm with the tangs of torment crawling through his limbs, and Ethan tried to focus on the noise. Dang, dang, ting, blonk. Dang, dang…

As he slowly came to, his other senses tried to provide information in their turn, like a bunch of shy kids raising their hand behind the class troublemaker. 

Shut up, pain. You're grounded. I don't want to hear from you anymore today. 

It almost worked. He was lying down on something cold and hard, and his legs and arms were pressed into the surface by strong restraints. They felt metallic under his fingers, which he counted by reflex. One, two… eight. Relieved, he let out a discreet sigh. He couldn't really afford losing any more fingers. 

The smell of oil and coal filled his nostrils, and he could feel a presence close. Straining his ears while keeping his eyes firmly closed, he tried to pinpoint the source of it. 

"I know you're awake, you little shit", a voice cheered right into his ear. 

He jolted in surprise, and his eyes met Heisenberg's behind his glasses. A massive grin split the Lord's face, like a cat who just found the jar of cream. Ethan wasn't feeling very creamy today, and his heart was pounding in his chest with a growing panic. He bared his teeth. 

"Keep it in your pants, Winters", Heisenberg said, grabbing a chair where he sat backwards. 

"Let me go", Ethan growled with bile climbing in his throat. Quite literally, too. The pain had come back to knock down the tables and wedgie the other kids, and he could feel a good old gag coming up. 

"As if. You and I are going to have a little talk. You see, it's not everyday that…"

The revving sound came from the nethers of a pipe, and he screamed down it: 

"Enough, I swear to god!"

"Let me go right now!" Ethan barked, feeling nausea win the battle for his dignity. 

"I told you, I…"

The stream of sick that came out of him almost splashed on Heisenberg's shirt, and the Lord jumped back, arms flailing as he fell out of his chair. With a swear, he let go of the restraints on Ethan's arms, letting him roll onto his side. 

A few horrible chokes later, Ethan felt slightly better, if damper and stinkier. 

"Shit, would you warn people before doing that?"

Ethan muttered something between his teeth that would have turned Jack Baker's ears red, and swiped his mouth on his sleeve. He caught a glimpse of something on his torso, and stared at his own midriff. A long red scar was snaking on his pale, sweaty skin. It came all the way from his crotch, where his pants had been vaguely sewn back together. 

Gingerly, he touched it and slid his fingers up. It hurt, and kept hurting, on his sternum, neck, chin, up to his forehead. 

"Yeah", Heisenberg said, pulling his chair back at a puke-safe distance. "About that."

"What did you do to me?" Ethan shrieked. 

"I fucking sewed your panties is what I did!" Heisenberg yelled back. "You could show a little bit of gratitude for not waking up butt-naked before throwing up on your generous captor, couldn't you?"

"What happened?! What the everloving fuck-"

"What happened, the Lord shouted over his shrill panic, is that my boy down there sliced you down the middle like a rotisserie chicken, and you just went and glued yourself back together! Unlike a rotisserie chicken! "

Ethan's mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water. He felt very close to the memory of Moreau, suddenly. 

"Now, Heisenberg coughed. I've been watching you wreck the place like the gleeful gun-obsessed American Miranda told us you were, but that's not all there is to you, is it? I mean, people don't usually go ahead and paste themselves back up after being chainsawed. I'd have noticed that, I think. So what are you ?"

"I… I just heal fast", Ethan managed to breathe out. "Ever since... I just do, alright?"

"No, not alright!" Heisenberg yelled, grabbing him by the lapels of his torn shirt. He felt the slab under him move and twist until it resembled a vague, hostile chair. He tried slapping the man off him, but his arms felt weak. Metal groaned against his skin as his wrists were bound again. 

"Quit swatting. I'm not one of Alcina's sexy mosquito bitches. Ever since what?

"None of your business! I… I took first aid juice, alright?"

Heisenberg very slowly removed his glasses, and folded them neatly in a pocket of his shirt before taking Ethan's face between his palms. His hands were rough and callous, and his eyes piercing. 

"What the fuck, he calmly asked, are you rambling about?"

"The juice! The juice in my pockets!" Ethan blurted. He tried to bite Heisenberg's fingers, and snapped on the air. A slap stung his face, not as strong as it could have been. 

With a suspicious squint, Heisenberg rifled through his pockets, extracting a few cartridge clips and a dusty glass bottle. He flicked it with a gloved finger, then unscrewed the top and took a long swig. 

"Don't! Ethan yelped. It's not a drink, it's for external use!" He wasn't quite sure why he should care, now that he thought of it. Except that it was his last bottle, and chem fluid had been scarce in the last hours. 

"Yes it is, Heisenberg said, licking his lips. That's just a damn bottle of țuică with a bit of rosemary in it."

"Healing fluid."

"It's fucking booze, Ethan. It's booze with a herb in it."

Ethan looked at him, then at the bottle. The Lord pulled back his glasses from his pocket, swiping them intently before sliding them back on. 

"Let me get this straight", Heisenberg said with an incredulous look. "You douse yourself in some seasoned prune hootch and figure that's what's healing you?"

"It is", Ethan sneered. "Always has worked."

"No shit. I ask again, Ethan Winters…" 

The Lord kicked his chair back and watched him wriggle on the floor. 

"What the fuck are you?"

Ethan opened his mouth to swear back at him, but something stopped him. Maybe it was the voice of his therapist at the back of his head, pressing him to confront these questions instead of running away. Maybe it was the tingle of flesh reassembling itself along his middle. 

Maybe it was the fact that it was a really good fucking question, even if it was asked by Karl-Metalbending Jerk-Heisenberg, who lifted his chair with a grunt and muttered a half-baked apology for the kick. 

It took him a while to come up with an answer. Surprisingly, Heisenberg didn't press him. He just sat and stared. 

"I don't know."

The words fell heavy from his mouth. They were true, and they were painful. 

"Did Miranda screw you as well?" Heisenberg eagerly asked. His enthusiasm barely faded when Ethan shook his head. 

"Before. There was this place… in Louisiana. Moldy. Murdery. Bunch of redneck assholes with a torture fetish and biomutations. You'd have loved it."

"I'm not big on damp places. Not good for the machines."

Maybe it was being hit on the head with a chainsaw and then assembling himself back that had slightly wrangled his brain, but there was a strange comfort in talking to Heisenberg. Words came out of their own volition now, and he found himself recounting the tale of the Baker estate. Little details that had somehow stayed with him within the horror of it all. Zoe's voice and Marguerite's rotten make-up in the bathroom. 

"They infected me. I knew they did, the- my hand, when… Zoe just clipped it back on. After that, the doctors told me some of the virus was dormant in my cells, but that with time it would die out. Like - like a cancer. Remissive."

Tears were knotting his throat now, but he could think of nothing more ridiculous than crying in front of the man who had just watched him get sliced lengthwise. 

"Well, it looks like it didn't", Heisenberg reasonably said. "So you're a molded too?"

"Don't use that word", Ethan hissed between his teeth. The Lord's eyes narrowed between behind his glasses, but he didn't say anything. 

"Makes sense, he finally declared getting up. None of us were ever enough for whatever plan Miranda has. I guess the natural whelp of a mutated guy has got something that we don't."

"She's a baby, Ethan snarled. My beautiful baby. She likes being lulled to sleep and tugging on her plushie monkey's tail. She doesn't deserve any of this."

"Yeah, yeah. Neither did any of us, did we? And still, here we are." Heisenberg opened his arms and looked over his mechanical kingdom. He seemed lost in his thoughts for a while, then he turned to face him again and crossed his arms. 

"Do you want your baby back, mushroom boy?"

Ethan almost choked on his tongue at these words. 

"What? I told you I had a plan against her. I'm sick and tired of her little games, and you look capable enough. Especially now that I know that we can stitch you up with just some booze to help your willpower."

"It's not like that", he protested, but Heisenberg patted him almost gently on the shoulder. 

"It's alright. That's the point of alcohol anyway, isn't it?"

With a worrying moan, the metal around his limbs twisted and freed him. Ethan stroked his wrists, shooting a suspicious glance at Heisenberg. He was adjusting his jacket and his hat, and combed back his hair with a hand before shooting him a wry smile. 

"Follow me. You and I are going to have a grand fucking time, Ethan Winters."

 

Chapter Text

When Ethan was a kid, he had once got lost in a corn maze while visiting his bad cousins. Every family had the ones, he assumed: wretched boys with a wicked gleam in their eyes and dried food on their chins. The Lucas Bakers of every family in the world. 

They had left him behind as they entered the maze, as soon as they were deep enough for it to be funny. He had run around in circles for what felt like hours before giving up, sitting down, and just starting screaming. 

Heisenberg's factory was giving him that kind of vibe, and he told the man so. 

"Sure, go ahead", the Lord said with a shrug. "Sometimes all a man needs is a good sit-and-scream."

Ethan gladly complied. The echoes of his howl reverberated in the place, and a chorus of distant zombified soldiers took it up in their turn. 

"Feeling better? Get on your fucking feet. You still haven't seen the special lab!"

"Do I want to?" he whined. 

"Of course. That's where all the fun is hidden."

He grudgingly got up, letting Heisenberg drag him by the arm through even more corridors, more ledges and more gigantic machinery bits in otherwise empty rooms. He had been led on a grand touristic circuit of the whole place, from the foundries to the warehouse to the dimly lit workshops where things with spikes for hands and cogs for eyes tinkered with their own alterations. 

It was all very impressive, in a sickening sort of way. 

"And that on your left is your new home!"

Ethan blinked. That had registered. Heisenberg was pointing to a slightly nicer place than the rest of the factory, which wasn't very hard. Cluttered together in a corner, there were a desk near a fireplace, a semblance of a kitchen table with pots and metal crockery, and a ladder which went up to a metallic ledge where he could see a basic cot with bundled covers. 

"That's the guest room. Sorry, I don't receive much."

"I wasn't planning on…"

"Sit down and shut up. You're not leaving my sight, Winters", Heisenberg said without animosity. He pushed a glass of water his way, and a piece of bread that looked a bit contrite about the green spots forming on its surface. 

"Sorry", he said again. "Is the mushroom boy going to have a problem with the bread being a bit stale?"

"I've had worse", Ethan muttered in the understatement of the year. He gulped down the water and the bread, and watched as Heisenberg poured two glasses of something that definitely did look like first aid juice. 

"If you really want herbs in that, he offered as if reading his thoughts, I'm sure I can find some weeds to throw in."

Ethan politely declined, and downed his drink. 

"So, what do you think?"

"I think I've been soaking my coat with excellent booze for the past two days."

Heisenberg snorted, and poured him another. 

"Can't afford to be pissed off your pants when you have a shotgun in your hands, though. Maybe it's for the best", he declared, reclining on his chair. The chair amiably reclined with him, letting out a metallic creak.

The place smelled of cooked food and badly-dried clothes, and the distant clangs of gears and tools echoed in the hallway. It was the most comfortable he had felt since he had been taken from his home, and it was plain weird. He took a breath that wasn't threatening to be his last, feeling the chair under his legs and the gaze of Heisenberg on him. A drop of alcohol was glistening on the rim of his glass.

And suddenly, everything came crashing down. With a silent sob, he lowered his head between his arms on the table, and allowed himself the very deserved breakdown he had been adjourning. 

It was the thing with running for his life, shooting everything that came his way and going from traumatic injury to traumatic capture to traumatic sneaking-in-a-torture-dungeon.

One did not exactly have the opportunity to sit down and reflect on the bigger picture. 

"Not again. Fuck, not again." His voice was a pitiful moan. He couldn't have given a shit. 

Three years since Louisiana. Three years fighting off nightmares, getting cramps from being on edge all the time, bursting into panic attacks whenever a middle-aged woman talked to him a little mean. That had made a few grocery clerks and insurance agents very confused and apologetic, too. Things had finally started to light up with Rose. She made everything soft and sweet around her, even when she was just babbling nonsense or crying with a full diaper. He had barely started to live again, as normal a life as he could, clinging to the idea that the worst was behind him. 

"That's a dangerous thought", Heisenberg said from his chair when he sobbed it out. The smell of cigar filled the room as he shook a match. "The world is enough of a bitch to take that as a challenge."

"Yeah, well. Challenge completed. Shit."

He wiped his face on his crusty sleeve, wrinkling his nose at the acidic tang of puke on the fabric. Without a care in the world, he licked the drop from the glass. It wasn't the best breakdown he had ever had. There were no comforting words, no cake to binge, no hand stroking his back while he sweated his terror out. 

Then again, there hadn't been for a while. Him? He had always wanted to tackle the horrors of what happened heads-on, like everything he did. Molded monsters in the way? Grab a shotgun. PTSD plaguing your life? Grab a therapist. 

Problem? Solution. He had never been a man to dwell or lie to himself. 

Not everyone was like that, though. 

"I'm sensing this might be a bad time to discuss how we're going to grind Miranda to putty", Heisenberg noted with surprising tact. 

"No", Ethan rasped. "Let's talk. You've shown me around. Now what?"

"You first", Heisenberg said. "I'm curious to hear more about what you were planning to do."

"Simple. Step one, get close to her."

"Sure."

"Step two, start shooting."

"Right…?" Heisenberg slowly said. A puzzled look spread over his face as he drew a long breath from his cigar. The light at the end reflected in his glasses like a pair of demonic pupils. "Step three ?"

"There is no step three."

Ethan would have felt a little self-conscious under the incredulous gaze that Heisenberg shot his way, if he could still feel anything. His crisis had left him comfortably numb, and he watched the Lord with growing amusement. It didn't seem to be mutual. 

"That's it?" Heisenberg shouted in disbelief. "You were going to reject my offer, only to run to Mother Bitch with nothing more than a shotgun and your death wish? What is wrong with you?"

"Where should I start?" Ethan snapped back. "It's not a perfect plan, alright…"

"It's not a plan! It's a suicide guide in two steps!"

"Well excuse me for not having the opportunity to devise a clever little scheme while I was running from vampires to haunted basements looking for my daughter in a bunch of jars !"

His voice cracked like a hormonal teenager, and he coughed in his empty glass, tears flooding his vision. 

"How the hell are you still alive? Oh, right. Nevermind, that came out wrong."

Ethan glared at him, and Heisenberg blew out an apologetic smoke cloud. 

"Why, this truly is your lucky day then. I can't even imagine how you were planning to un-crystallize that kid, let alone fight Miranda."

"I still don't need your help", he grunted. Anger was bubbling right beneath his skin, itching along his fresh scar. 

"Good", Heisenberg said while grabbing a pile of papers from the nearby desk. Maps and schemas were laid out there in an abrupt handwriting. "Because I'm not helping you. You are helping me, chanterelle boy. "

Ethan crossed his arms, peaking a furious look at the sketches. 

"You want Miranda dead. I want my daughter back. Let's start with that."

"Right, the jigsaw baby situation. Yes, I imagine that for you, this is quite…"

He exhaled a perfect smoke circle. His smile was all teeth. 

"Jarring."

Ethan looked at him in silence, a vein pulsing on his forehead. Heisenberg let out a roaring cackle. 

"Get it? Because…"

"Yes", he said. His voice could have frozen an entire vampire bloodline. "Because the love of my life is currently in jars."

"Oh, come on. Live a little. I'll go and collect her from the altar while we figure out the whole plan. Better not store her right where Miranda wants her, right?"

Ethan wanted to disagree by reflex, but that sounded surprisingly reasonable. 

"I'm keeping her", he warned in a low voice. 

"Sure. Be my guest. Do you think I liked having some canned baby hands on my mantelpiece?"

He shivered in disgust, which Ethan found quite audacious for a man who turned corpses into mechanical soldiers and regularly scolded a creature with a propeller head like a teenager whose music was too loud. 

"Good. And then? How do I…?"

His hands made vague assembling motions. Words were adamantly refusing to come out of his mouth and be involved in that situation. 

"I don't know. Glue?"

Nausea crept again in his throat, and Heisenberg cautiously moved his own chair back a little. He crushed his cigar in a makeshift ashtray, who crumbled itself into a small metal ball. 

"I'm pulling your leg. Which is what", he pondered, "I guess Donna was probably saying when she got that jar. What do you know about the process?"

"Not much", Ethan muttered. "I know it happens when you people die."

"Well, die is quite a strong word for people like us, isn't it?"

"Seems appropriate to me. Your siblings are fucking stiff."

He considered offering his condolences for a moment, but it seemed even worse somehow. Gloved fingers tented in front of his stubbly chin, Heisenberg nodded. Ethan didn't like the smile creeping on his face. Not at all. 

"Of course. Except, no they're not."

"Yes, they are. I killed them. You know this."

"Not really, you didn't."

"I did."

"Nuh-huh."

A deep, tired sigh lowered Ethan's shoulders. Migraine tendrils were poking at his temples, and he gestured towards the bottle. Heisenberg amiably provided. 

"I don't know how to move this conversation forward." 

"God, you really are more looks than brains, aren't you ?" Heisenberg sighed. In one fluid motion, he jumped up on the table to stride right in front of Ethan, who grabbed his piece of bread as the worst self-defense weapon of all times. The Lord plopped down in front of him with an intense gaze, and he reluctantly let go of his moldy murder bun. 

"I know it's been a long day, but do try and focus. Little Rose is currently…?"

"Cursed?"

"Crystallized. Protected. And even though you have been carrying her in four different recipients, it didn't occur to you that she could be dead. Nor to Miranda, or anyone for that matter. Because she isn't, not really. Not in that state."

A horrible, horrible realization was creeping up Ethan's spine. The satisfied grin on Heisenberg's mouth made him want to punch his teeth out. 

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying that unless after shooting them full of more bullets than a pheasant on hunting season…"

"Which I did."

"Of course. Well, unless you also collected their crystallized remains, ground those into bits with a silver hammer, burnt the powder down and gave it to the four winds with the secret words that only Miranda knows… Boy, have I got some news for you."

Silence spread like a viscous puddle of mold. Ethan's heart felt like it had stopped beating in his chest, which for all he knew of his condition, might have just been the fucking case. 

"Shit. No. You're joking. Tell me you're joking."

"Don't you think the first thing I tried to get rid of Miranda's influence wasn't to put a gun in my damn mouth?" Heisenberg hissed with sudden violence. He grabbed Ethan by the chin, forcing his teeth open with his gloved thumb. 

"I looked at the sky and put a fucking pistol right there. And then…"

Ethan bit down, and Heisenberg yelped. He looked at the leather on his finger with a chagrined look. A tooth mark drew a little crooked smile on it. 

"Damn, but you're the biter. Yes, it went something like that. And well, here I fucking am."

"Here you fucking are", said Ethan massaging his chin. He remembered vividly how Jack had shown him the same thing. At the edge of his mind, the thought started to raise its nasty little head. What if it's the same for me? What if I can't ever die?

"One problem at a time", he muttered to himself. "Right now, that sounds like a big sexy advantage in a shithole like this."

"Except it's Miranda's gift", Heisenberg spat with a hateful look. "Her cadou. And I have no idea whether she can take it back or not."

"Don't think so." Ethan's brains were racking up all his memories from the Baker estate, Chris' debriefings and the notes he had come across in the village. "Probably not from you, certainly not from me. I didn't get it from her. She can't do a thing to me."

"Yes! That's the spirit! Do you see now why you alarm her so much? Why she was pitting you against us? You're a wild card, Ethan Winters. She can't control you, and she knows it. So she'll try to break you instead."

Eveline had tried that before, and nearly succeeded. He didn't say it, though. 

"Can we go back to the subject of your siblings being possibly still alive in those crystals?"

"Don't get your knickers in a twist. It takes weeks to regrow a proper body. Tell you what, if it makes you feel better, we can go and collect them tomorrow, and have a little fun."

He rubbed his hands with a gleeful grin. The light of the fireplace reflected off his shiny teeth. 

"Drop Lady Di down the waterfall. Put Moreau on top of a very tall tree. Donna's alright, though. She used to be a good kid, you know. People came to her house to see the ones they had lost." There was a melancholy in Heisenberg's voice, and Ethan recalled the engraving near the door. Give up your memories. 

How he wished he could. 

"Oh, oh, I know! I'll make Alcina into a coat hanger in her own goddamn entrance."

Ethan coughed a little. His cheeks burned with a sudden embarrassment, and the purse inside his jacket weighed heavy. 

"What? You're not gonna go all goody-two-shoes with me, are you? Unless you have a funnier idea, coat hanger it is."

"It's just… No, nothing. It simply shouldn't be our priority."

Heisenberg's eyes penetrated him like drills, all trace of cheerfulness suddenly vanishing from his face. He grabbed him by the chin again, a habit which Ethan was starting to find a little unnerving.

"What did you do?"

"Stop touching me. I… may have… sold them. Sorry."

There was a big pregnant pause, which gave birth to another silence as massive as a Beneviento nightmare baby. Heisenberg was frowning and forming silent words with his mouth, looking completely astonished. In the background, his chair also seemed to have trouble determining a stable shape. 

"Whom the fuck to?" he eventually managed to ask in a bewildered tone, folding his glasses away. "Who bought that ?"

"The merchant guy."

"What?"

"What, what?"

"What merchant guy? Who?" Heisenberg shouted, shaking him by the shoulders.

"The Duke guy! The only merchant guy!"

"There is no merchant guy here!"

"Yes, there is", Ethan sneered. "He pops up every now and then, we cook, he buys whatever shiny stuff I've found while I was fighting for my life, and he sells me guns."

Somewhere, the propeller thing timidly revved up its chainsaw. Heisenberg didn't even say a word to it, sitting dumbfounded on the table, his feet on Ethan's lap. It took him a good minute to blink, and Ethan was starting to think that maybe that alliance thing was corroding already. 

Heisenberg's eyes were open wide enough for him to try and determine their color while the man shook his stupor away. Green? Grey? With a very slow motion, Heisenberg grabbed his face again, palming his cheeks between his hard hands. His gaze locked with Ethan's, and he leaned forward until he could feel his breath on his skin. 

"Don't you feel lonely in there?" Heisenberg whispered gravely.

"What?"

"Shhh." Gloved fingers pressed on his lips. "I'm talking to the single braincell bouncing around in that big airy skull of yours."

"Fuck you", Ethan snapped while swatting his hand away from his mouth. 

"Dinner first. Ethan, Ethan, Ethan. You can't just go and sell stolen goods and crystal corpses to a strange man who happens to, and I quote, pop up every now and then to give you guns . Maybe this is normal in America, but I swear that it isn't here."

"Yeah well, normal is relative, isn't it? And so far, he's the only one who hasn't tried to kill me on sight. He's basically my best friend at this point."

Heisenberg leaned back with a pained hand on his chest. The chainsaw revved up again gleefully. 

"First of all, ouch. I'm sitting right there. Second of all, stop being pretty and start to think, please. Who is this guy? What the fuck did he want with the crystals?"

"I don't know!" Ethan exclaimed, pushing him away.

"Where did you see him?"

"Everywhere! In the village, at the reservoir, in a room in castle Dimitrescu…"

"A man ? In the castle? Are you hallucinating, by any chance?"

"I mean, yes", Ethan conceded while an increasingly agitated Heisenberg jumped to his feet and nervously paced around the table. "But also, hallucinations don't usually give me money and ammo. Look, I don't care who he is…"

"Well start caring!" Heisenberg's roar echoed in an unnatural way. Stroking stray hair back under his hat, he kicked a foot of the table. "The last thing I need is yet another player in this game. What's his name? What did he look like?"

"Duke…? He sure seems to know the place. Massive shoeless dude, friendly face, with surprisingly dexterous hands?"

The mouth that Heisenberg opened for an obviously crass comment shut back immediately. Eyes widening, he spinned to face Ethan, pinning him to the wall with both his hands and a metallic clasp.

"Massive how, exactly?"

"Massive like-"

The roar of the chainsaw lasted longer this time. Propeller-head was visibly enjoying playing around without being told off. To Ethan's grand surprise, Heisenberg still didn't yell at it, intently focusing on him instead. He gestured a vague, ample motion, which seemed to crash whatever restraint the Lord had. 

"Fuck", he barked while the chainsaw kept warbling downstairs. "Fuck, of course. It's him. He's back!"

Ethan raised his arm to protect himself when Heisenberg lunged at him, and winced in terror when the man roughly ruffled his hair. 

"And if he's here and you're alive, he's after Miranda. Oh, this is brilliant! Ethan Winters, you're a genius!"

"I am?"

"No! You are the dumbest man I have ever met! Now get off your ass, we have so many things to do!"

His voice echoed off the corridors as he started sprinting outside with these words, while Ethan remained sat in confusion, staring at the chair that Heisenberg had kicked out of his way. The bottle of first aid booze looked terribly more inviting than chasing a maniac telekinesist down his labyrinthine factory.

The rapidly approaching sound of a joyful propeller was what decided him. Bottle and glass firmly in hand, Ethan started to jog. In a low voice, he asked the empty hallways: 

"Who is he then?"

Chapter Text

It had taken him a good half hour to find the exit of the factory, and by the time Ethan saw Heisenberg's silhouette in the golden dusk, the bottle had been downed and his feet were feeling funny. The Lord was fuming, tapping his heel on the ground. 

"Took you long enough! I told you we had to go!"

"And then ran off as if I had a map of this damn maze", Ethan slurred. "How do you get anything done in a place so big?"

"I had a lot of time to expand. Are you drunk?" Heisenberg asked, pulling the bottle out of his hand and turning it down. A single drop plopped gleefully to the rocky ground. 

"Not nearly enough. Explain. Who is Duke?"

"Where is Duke is what I'd like to know right now."

"And nobody ever asks how is Duke."

"Ethan, please. Any input?" Heisenberg groaned. He grabbed him by the arm and started striding with complete disregard for Ethan's mumbled protestations. The sun was setting on the valley, castle towers cutting black shadows in the amber sky. It would have been such a pretty view, Ethan thought, without all the murdery horrors. Maybe he would come back on holiday at some point, once the whole place had been scorched to the ground. That would be a fun redecorating project. 

"He was at the altar thing. Slow down!" He bumped into a stray rusty gear, and a string of curses escaped him as he hopped on his other foot, cradling his toe.

"Will you shut up?" Heisenberg snarled, putting a hand over his mouth. "You're gonna attract half the village here. God, you can mold yourself up when you get sliced in half but stub your toe and it's whining hour?"

"I have sensisti… hurty feet. Piss off."

Rolling his eyes behind his glasses, Heisenberg kept towing him, muttering things under his breath. He propped Ethan against the giant chalice when they reached the other side of the river, and looked around with his arms spread out. 

"Well?"

"Hello, sweetie", Ethan said to the stone goblet. "How are you doing in here?"

"Winters, I don't have time for your family nonsense. I can't let him vanish again! Not now!"

"Tough luck. He's gone." He shrugged, and gave an affectionate stroke to the top of the jars. "I'm gonna get you home, I promise. And you're gonna have a phobia of aquariums forever, probably."

Heisenberg's hands clasped him under the armpits and lifted him effortlessly off the ground. Wrinkles of rage were crinkling his face. 

"You don't understand! We have to…"

A distant howl echoed in the gorges. Heisenberg paled, biting his lower lip. Two, three, twenty voices sang in response across the valley. Was it an impression, or were they getting closer? 

"Shit. Well done with the stealth. She can't know that I'm against her, not now. Let's head back."

"Baby first." Ethan firmly pointed the chalice, and proceeded to try and extract the jars from its top. With a deep sigh, Heisenberg flexed his fingers towards the goblet. A cloud of metal parts assembled around its base with the odious screeching of iron against stone, and it let out a loud crack before tipping to the ground. 

"That works too", Ethan conceded. He kept a hand on top of the jars as they trotted back hauling the chalice, ignoring Heisenberg's pity stare. The Lord was grumbling all the way, talking to himself in a low voice while Ethan stumbled against the walls. 

"That's fine. Everything's fine. We'll look for him tomorrow", Heisenberg muttered. "Go and take a nap. I need you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for this fight."

"Yep." Ethan made his way towards the ladder, and was surprised to see the first bar fly away from his grasp, and intercepted by Heisenberg's fist. He pushed a hand towards his nose, grimacing. 

"Actually, maybe a shower first. Don't take this the wrong way, but I work with corpses and you are still the stinkiest thing in this entire place. It's a miracle lycans don't find you on smell alone."

"Yep."

"If the pressure is acting out, just pull the left lever, turn the gear and dabble with the bottom valve. Actually, you know what? Let me do that myself."

Ethan let himself be pulled towards a dingy bathroom covered in old-fashioned tiles, and watched as Heisenberg tinkered with a mess of cogs and pipes who creaked and whined before letting out a flow of steamy water. He walked under it with complete abandon. 

"Is that an American thing?" asked Heisenberg with a disbelieving stare. "Do you people shower with your clothes on?"

"They're crusty. Need laundry."

"No shit. Look, I'll lend you a shirt, alright? But please, behave normally for once."

"Said the magnet man to the mushroom boy."

"Winters, you take your shower like a normal fucking person or I swear I'll undress you myself. And not in a fun way."

The bathroom door slammed shut as Ethan slid to the floor. The water smelled of rust, but he could feel it clear his head as rivulets of dried blood and sick melted off him. Behind the wall, he could hear drawers being opened and half-voiced comments. 

"Not that one. Oof, not this one either." 

The sound of something being smelled preceded a regretful "Well, beggars can't be choosers", and a bundled pile of clothes was thrown towards him by a bashful hand in the door frame. 

Ethan felt marginally better when he emerged from the shower, poking at a stain of indiscernible origin on Heisenberg's shirt. 

"Don't ask", the latter said as he opened his mouth. He was settling in a makeshift hammock of metal parts, and gestured Ethan towards the ledge. 

"Is this your bed? I thought you said it was the guest room", Ethan asked while letting himself fall on the cot. 

"Well, when I happen to have guests, that's usually where they end up", Heisenberg yawned. Ethan laughed unscrupulously, wiped his eyes from hysterical tears, and then laughed some more. The glare that he got over Heisenberg's sunglasses only made it funnier. 

"Right. A real ladies' man, you are."

"It's a backwater shithole village", Heisenberg vexingly said. "I'm as popular as it gets."

Snickering to himself, Ethan slid under a worn cover, and immediately fell asleep. 

It was hard to know how much time had passed when he woke up ; the underground lighting confused his brain and the constant clanking of mechanisms was strangely crooning. The mother of all headaches was splitting his skull, almost as bad as getting sliced lengthwise by a propeller monster. He breathed deeply ; the battered pillow and itching covers had that strange, almost alien feeling of someone else's smell. That had always been the weirdest part for him when he was seeing someone new: the absolute sensory reality of another person haunting their sheets. 

He poked a shaggy head out of the ledge. Heisenberg was already working at his desk, whispering to himself as he drew arrows on a map and circled things on various papers. The sight of the stone chalice propped against the wall was oddly comforting, and he made his way down. 

"Morning. Is that coffee?"

"No, it's machine oil mixed with lycan blood", Heisenberg replied without raising his eyes from his work. Ethan poured himself a massive cup of the thing and downed it in one gulp. 

"Tastes like coffee."

An amused smile spread across Heisenberg's face, who shook his head. 

"With your survival instincts, it's a good thing you are virtually indestructible. Now sit and grab a pencil. I need to know every place where you saw the Duke."

Ethan complied, peaking at what else had been scribbled on the map. 

"Are you finally going to tell me who he is?" Ambush site , Big Fucking Lycan Den, Moreau's stash of cheese , he read under his finger. 

"I could. Or we could work on your guessing skills. I know you don't have those in America, but Duke is not a name. It's a title", Heisenberg explained, pinning a schema of something that looked very spiky and nauseating to a part of the map. 

"Like Mother Miranda. That bitch isn't our actual mommy dear", he continued. 

"Someone should tell Moreau. He's got some massive oedipal shit going on."

Heisenberg cackled heartily, and refilled Ethan's cup with the black, coffee-tasting sludge. 

"Lady Super Sized also has a title. Duchess Alcina Dimitrescu."

Ethan's cup stopped on the way to his lips. He met Heisenberg's gaze behind his lenses, and slowly put his coffee down. 

"You're joking. Please, for the love of god, tell me that's an elaborate jape."

Heisenberg shrugged and took a sip from Ethan's cup.

"How does that come as a surprise? Have you met a lot of giant people around here? She had a husband once. Miranda turned him too. I don't remember him much, I had just been kidnapped. Sorry, adopted. Amiable fellow."

In a precise hand, he drew the outline of a fat, cheerful giant that Ethan had well come to know. 

"And then one day, they had a massive fucking fight that the entire village got to hear, and the next morning he was gone. Miranda forbade to speak of him again, and Alcina turned into the dick-cutting, man-hating bitch we know and love."

He looked pensively at the ceiling. 

"I mean, she already was a dick-cutting bitch. She got worse, though, if you can believe it."

In Ethan's chest, his heart was pounding like angry drums, and a bitter taste colored his tongue. Flashes bolted through his memory, smells of cooked meat and sounds of hearty laughter filling his mind. 

"It can't be. It can't."

"Why not?" Heisenberg asked with genuine curiosity.

"Because…" Words failed him. "Because fuck this!"

Glasses were lowered down for a penetrating look. Biting on the end of his pencil, Heisenberg carefully asked:

"Sure. And apart from that?"

"Because he was nice to me!" Ethan barked. "Because he is the only fucking person in this horrible hole that I had assumed I could trust!" 

Dumb as it may feel, betrayal was twisting his guts. Heisenberg's slightly condescending look didn't help, and he cut him as his mouth opened: 

"Don't say it. Fuck you. I know that a giant man selling me convenient guns was probably going to be shady, but I needed this. I needed a little bit of… normality!"

With a grimace that didn't hide very well his amused grin, Heisenberg solemnly nodded. The thought of ripping his smile off his stupid face crossed Ethan's mind again. He cringed when Heisenberg patted him on the shoulder, and gave him a silent glare. 

"Sure thing, Ethan. Now, gather your… brains, and let's talk. Did he tell you anything?"

"He…"

Go to the castle. Surely Rose is in the lady's chambers. Actually, that jar is your daughter and there's three more. Here they are on your map. Go to the house with the red chimney. Get this, get that. 

"He breadcrumbed me", he whispered with growing rage. "Damn it. You were right, weren't you? I'm being played. I have been all this time."

"Don't beat yourself up. It happens to the best", Heisenberg declared in a tone that silently said " and the worst too".

"But why? What does he want?"

"From what I can gather, he's after Miranda as well. Hence the forthcoming help and suggestions to push you across our way."

A terrible thought embedded itself in Ethan's mind like an arrow of ice while Heisenberg continued to talk. He interrupted him in a low voice :

"Wait. You said…"

"... and his relationship to Alcina, quite frankly…"

"Shut your fucking mouth", Ethan said, pushing a hand on Heisenberg's face. "Let me think for a second. No, don't comment on that. Just shush."

An offended glare met him over his hand. In a whooshing sound, Heisenberg stapled his sleeve to the table with a dozen of deformed forks. He didn't say a thing, though. Carefully working the forks' teeth out of the fabric, Ethan rewinded their conversation and what he had gathered from notes and abandoned diaries. 

"Gimme my notebook. Jacket pocket."

With an incredulous huff, Heisenberg got up and rifled through his ruined coat. He threw the wet notebook on the table, and Ethan turned the pages until he found what he was looking for. There it was, in plain sight. 

Mimicry, huh? 

"She can change her shape", he just said. Heisenberg gave a questioning shrug, and then froze. He sat down with his back very straight, carefully removing his hat and glasses before hitting the desk with his forehead. 

"Fuck. You're right. She sure can."

"I mean, I don't see why Miranda would help me", Ethan thought out loud. "But it's a possibility, isn't it? You mentioned that she was pitting me against you."

"It's possible. She could very well be testing you."

"For what?"

"Maybe she wants Daddy Winters to keep her company with the new baby", Heisenberg said without raising his head from the desk. "Setting us against one another has always been her thing. I don't think she'd think twice before throwing us under the carriage if it meant getting some quality fatherly dick and someone to change diapers."

Ethan winced and settled his back against the chair. 

"Could weird women with biomutations please stop seeing me as their ideal father figure?" he asked to the ceiling. 

"Good luck with that. Well, that's inconvenient. If the Duke is the Duke, we need him on our side..."

"Do we?" Ethan growled. "He lied to me."

"Well, I tried to kill you and you are drinking my coffee. We can't afford to be picky about our allies. But if he is Miranda…"

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Ethan grudgingly nodded. 

"We can't risk it. How do we figure it out?"

They stayed quiet for a few minutes. Heisenberg's fists clenched when somewhere downstairs, a propeller's racket was followed by a loud crash. After a short silence, it started going again, much more prudently. 

"Hit a wall?" 

"Probably."

Hushed thinking continued as the factory breathed its clanks and clinks. Heisenberg was tapping on the table with his gloved fingers, while Ethan pensively rubbed the brim of his leather hat. 

"We could…"

Another crash rumbled downstairs, followed by screaming metallic voices. They shared a look, and Heisenberg got to his feet. 

"Excuse me for a moment."

"Sure."

"Help yourself with some breakfast. I made fresh bread in the oven", he gestured before heading out the door. Ethan flinched when the booming voice of the Lord echoed down the hallway, promising death and dismantling to the next fucking thing who interrupted them. It lasted quite a bit, and he learnt some new colorful phrases. 

"... rip your fucking fanblades off! Apologies. Where were we?" Heisenberg asked as if nothing happened, seating back at the table. Ethan pushed the coffee pot his way. 

"Is the Duke secretly Miranda trying to get in my pants, or just a lying dick who omitted to mention that the gigantic vampire lady was his ex-wife?"

"Right. Well, we could set a trap. Ask him to partake in something that would immediately harm Miranda. I had another lead before your arrival."

With a grunt, Heisenberg pulled a massive file on the table, and started shuffling the pages. Some of them were yellowed and stained, and Ethan suddenly wondered just for how long exactly he had been cooking up this rebellion. 

"Long enough", he said when he asked. "There. A few decades back, Alcina got injured for quite a while. It may be a myth or a wild goose chase ; but in the village, there was talk of a very special dagger. And… Oh, no."

Heisenberg leaned his head to the side, staring at Ethan suspiciously. 

"What did you do?"

"What? I didn't say anything."

"You're making that face again."

"What face?"

"The Ethan-Winters-did-something-stupid face. That face", he mimicked with a dumb-looking scowl. Ethan sneered and crossed his arms. 

"I don't do that face!"

"You are doing it-right-now!" Heisenberg yelled, poking his cheek with every word. "What did you do?"

"Fine! I dropped it!" he shouted back. "I found it and stabbed her with it, and then at some point while a bloody dragon was throwing me around on rooftops, it slipped from my hand! Which might have something to do with the fact that it's missing two fingers!"

Heisenberk blinked, and slowly closed his massive folder. He massaged his temples, and Ethan got some minor comfort at the idea that he was getting a fraction of his migraine as well. 

"I've been meaning to ask", he said pensively. "How does a man who can stitch himself as you do end up missing fingers?"

"A wolfman swallowed them", Ethan grumbled sheepishly. Heisenberg nodded. 

"Ah, yes. They do that. When you need them to take a pill, it's all groaning and spitting, but whenever it's something they shouldn't be eating, you've got to be lightning-fast if you don't want them swallowing it." He considered Ethan's hand while his own fingers drummed on the table. For a second, he made a half-gesture towards his maimed limb, but Ethan flinched and he stopped in his tracks. 

"Back to the matter at… hand. Sorry, that wasn't on purpose. What I'm hearing is that the dagger does exist, and that it's efficient. Let's start there."

He raised to his feet, and extended a hand towards Ethan. 

"Hat, please." 

Realizing he was still playing with its brim, Ethan guiltily gave it back. He cleared his throat and grabbed his notebook, borrowing a chewed pencil on the table. 

"So, first: find dagger", he wrote down. Heisenberg peaked over his shoulder and burst out laughing, pointing at the scribble on the pages. 

"Is that a to-do list? Collect Rose jars, four out of four?"

"I need organization to focus! Then… figure out if Duke is really Duke."

"Yes. Third, prepare for a massive battle with the lycans and what's left of my siblings' lackeys."

"I thought the lycans were yours too?" Ethan scratched his head. 

"Common mistake. They're scared of me, but they answer only to Miranda."

"Even the one with the same hammer as you?"

Heisenberg clenched his teeth at the mention of the giant, just a second. Shrugging it off, he muttered something about improving Ethan's guns and building some traps. 

"Five, figuring out the decrystallization process, and six, grind Miranda to a paste. That's starting to look like a plan", Ethan admitted reluctantly. "Do I want to know how you were planning to involve Rose?"

"Not unless you want to hear about bait strategies, use of her regenerative powers, and, hum. Brain-control devices." Heisenberg mumbled in his beard. He met Ethan's eyes and held his hands up with a tired groan. 

"She would have been fine afterwards! Probably. I figured that if I could gain access to her little brain and activate her powers to their full potential, I would either be able to control whatever Miranda wanted from her, or perhaps turn her into a tiny bio-bomb."

"How on earth did you think I would let myself be convinced by that?" A knee-jerk reflex made Ethan jump in front of the stone chalice. 

"I don't get out much." Heisenberg gave him a lopsided smile that almost looked apologetic. "But now that I know that her grown up daddy has the same powers, no need to involve your little rosebud!" He gave a familiar pat to the top of the jars, to Ethan's dismay. 

"Back to the castle, then?"

"Yes. I'll make sandwiches."

Chapter Text

The wind was hurling specks of snow around their ankles, rustling branches, and strangely hissing through the sharp rocks which lined the way to the castle. Ethan didn't remember it being so cold, and he felt a brief surge of sympathy for the fly ladies who had only been wearing lace in that weather. Even Heisenberg had tightened his trench coat around himself. 

"There's an underground entrance there", Ethan pointed at a weathered wooden cabin. 

"That sounds good. Did you have time to see the place? In between the whole…" Heisenberg clawed at the air with flexed fingers. "To rrrribbons!"

"Yes. Whimsical."

Heisenberg was looking rather excited at the prospect of getting into the castle. Apparently, Lady Dimetrescu's repugnance towards men-thing extended to her pseudo-siblings. 

"I swear, you hit on her daughter once at a family dinner and you're forever banned from even entering the outer grounds. She accosted me first, too!"

"Sure. How unreasonable." 

Ethan could feel his parenting genes physically recoil in horror at the prospect. He hadn't expected to start this day silently agreeing with the cursed vampire lady, but here they were. Desperately ignoring Heisenberg's arguments in favor of his suitability for young women, he pried open the wooden door, and a gush of putrefaction hit his nose. 

Gagging a little, he stepped back. The unfortunate effect of the shower had been the end of the grand strike led by his nostrils, apparently. He could feel the smell imprinting on his tongue, slithering to the back of his throat. The sandwiches were going to taste of it, for sure. 

"How neat! I knew there were underground tunnels, but I had no idea they reached that far away from the walls." Heisenberg had stepped in without hesitation and was already clambering down the ladder. Splashing sounds and an echoing "Come on, Ethan!" invited him down the foul-smelling hole. 

Tapping on his flashlight as he reached the ground, he remembered the source of that sickeningly sweet stench. Everything was red. 

"Ugh", Heisenberg lifting his boot out of the blood pool. "Now that is just wrong."

"You own a corpse factory."

"Yes. Your point?"

This felt like a losing battle, and Ethan was already too tired by the walk and the upcoming horrors to argue with the madman who wore sunglasses indoors and wielded a giant hammer. 

"... and I would never let good materials go to waste", Heisenberg disserted. "It's just about good form, you know? Now get up here. No need to trudge through Lady Di's pantry."

With a flick of the wrist, he had gathered metallic debris under his soles and assembled a dubious platform above the blood. Points and sharp edges swirled in the air, looking like some foot trauma waiting to happen. Ethan politely declined. 

"I'd like to be able to keep counting to ten on my toes, thank you very much."

Heisenberg snorted haughtily and sauntered down the hallway, his cloud of tetanus threat hovering under his blood-soaked boots. 

"I've heard all about the portrait gallery and the winter garden. Do you mind if we go on the scenic route?" he yelled from further away in the tunnel. Ethan was struggling to keep his pace, and shrugged in response. 

"Sure. It's not like anybody is ho…"

A loud splash followed by a string of curses and a familiar, throaty holler interrupted him. Sprinting ahead, he almost tripped over Heisenberg's shape wrestling in the gore with a cloaked figure.

The cocking of the gun echoed like an angry cuckoo clock before Ethan blasted three shots straight into the back of its neck. Sputtering and swearing, Heisenberg pushed it away and rose to his feet, uselessly trying to scrape the blood off his trench. His beard was dripping rivulets that reminded Ethan of the exact reason why he always shaved clean when his former girlfriends were on that time of the month. The brim of the leather hat bended down, cascading glutinous droplets and looking very sad about that state of affairs. 

"Fucking - can you even believe - god, the nerve of that thing!"

Heisenberg was positively fuming, his little cogs and pieces twirling angrily above his head. Ethan considered stifling a laugh, and heartily cackled instead. 

"You look like the creature from the black lagoon. Only, red."

"Yes, I've seen that one", Heisenberg icily said. "Movie night at Moreau's."

Shaking like a wet dog, albeit one who had just returned from lycan prom, he was desperately trying to wipe his glasses on his equally sodden coat. His eyes fell on Ethan with a sudden squint. 

"Come here", he said holding his hands towards Ethan, who quickly stepped backwards.

"You're not wiping on me!"

"That's my goddamn shirt you're wearing. I said get here!"

"Fuck off!" 

Ethan started running through the lagooned corridor, only to feel a vicious rod hit him on the shin, tripping him into the blood. Heisenberg chuckled, calling back to his hand what looked like a dungeon bar. It swirled around his dripping fingers like a cheerleader stick.

"Running again, Ethan Winters?"

Ethan groaned, feeling the horrible sludge permeate his clothes and stick to his skin like an overly-attached body mask. The sheen was glistening and congealing under his fingers. Heisenberg held out a helping hand with a repentant smile, and Ethan didn't hesitate one second before grabbing it and throwing him back into the gory pool. He let out a sigh of satisfaction, and savored the outraged yelling that escaped from the Lord of The Fourth House as he slipped and stumbled in the horrible pond of blood. 

"After everything I've done for you!" Heisenberg lamented. "I'll have your head on multiple spikes for this!"

A hoarse bawling reverberated between the damp stone walls, followed by a dozen more. Still sat in his gruesome bath, Ethan glanced at Heisenberg. 

"Do you want a gun?"

Wiggling a finger in his ear, Heisenberg gave him an unimpressed look. Above his shoulders, the hammer poked its head out. 

"What do you think?"

"Gun's faster, though."

Heisenberg opened his mouth to protest, then scratched his head as the horde of shambling freaks threw long shadows on the wall. 

"You know what? I'm actually not so sure."

Ethan and him looked at each other, and then at the rasping creatures fumbling their way through the blood. 

"Only one way to find out."

Ten minutes had passed when the last silhouette crawled around the corner, hauling a very impressive sword. Its mouth was open on a raspy breath, its cloak flapped in the disgusting puddle, but it was very hard to find it as frightening as before with Heisenberg talking into his battered cassette recorder. As he had put it, it was only science if someone took note of the experiment. 

"Telekinesis versus gun, trial number twelve. Aiming for the same spot this time, if the gun technician can avoid shooting the wall behind the subject."

Ethan snorted and took time aiming. 

"Forehead?"

"Setting frontal lobe as the common target. Three, two, one..."

The bullet blasted almost at the same time as a flying piece of shrapnel, and the creature stumbled face front into the blood. 

"Recovering subject. Aha!" Heisenberg extracted the bullet with a sickening crunch, and rubbed the gore off it. 

"Telekinesis sample found at the back of the projectile. It does appear that the bullet hit first. Further research may be required. Nice shot, technician Winters. End of recording."

"Told you so."

He pocketed the handgun, and walked over the deformed bodies. Heisenberg followed, fiddling with his recorder. They emerged in the cellar, where Ethan quickly swatted Heisenberg's hand as he grabbed a wine bottle. 

"Really? All of those?" he asked in dismay. 

"You wanna try it, be my guest."

The bottle was put back as Heisenberg muttered something about wasting good beverages for other people. 

"You like your booze with herbs in it. You just put it there when you need it. No need to spoil the whole thing for everyone."

A gust of wind had blown open the doors to the main hall, and Heisenberg whistled as they moved into the foyer. The place was as grand as Ethan remembered, with the bizarre statues and baroque furniture. With an utter lack of consideration for the delicately embroidered textile, Ethan sat down on the ottoman in front of the fireplace. 

"Well, this place is nice. I'm starting to feel a little self-conscious here."

"Wait to see the dungeons. You'll feel right at home."

Heisenberg was studying the paintings around the room, hands behind his back like a leisurely museum-goer. Ethan pulled his shoe off and emptied it on the exquisite woodwork flooring. The wind had snuffed out the fire in the hearth, and ashes flew in sinewy clouds. 

"What happened to all the windows?"

"Robbery?" 

"Ah, yes. And they broke all the cabinets and vases as well, I can see. Such petty thieves."

Ethan had no qualm being considered petty when it came to crazy women who tried to drink him and hang him like a pinata in their chambers. His eyes wandered around, and fell on a discrete door down the marble stairs. Jumping to his feet, he strode to it while Heisenberg gingerly poked the tapestry of a man in a wig. 

"The Duke was here. He was…" The door was closed, and did not budge under his shoulder. With a little cough behind him, Ethan saw its hinges lift themselves off the panel, looking themselves quite surprised about this turn of events. 

Dust blew into his face when the door faceplanted to the stone floor. The room behind it was empty and cold, filled to the brim with spider webs. A flabby cockroach, sensing that his time had finally come to go and see the world outside, darted between his legs. 

There was a gross crunch as Heisenberg stepped forward. 

"Looks like nobody has been here in a while."

It was obvious why, too. The ceiling was dipping towards the floor like it was made of fabric, dripping dry paint chips on the battered carpet. Cringing, Ethan took a prudent step back. 

"Water damage."

"I'm not surprised. Have you seen the state of this basement? There is such a thing as building safety."

"Yes, I've seen the railings in your murder factory. OSHA would be proud."

Keeping an eye on the beams, Heisenberg moved to the center of the room, shaking a curious spider off its blood-soaked shoulder. Ethan's memory was layering an elegant parlour with fancy panelings and snug draperies onto this empty room. Had he been dreaming this place up? The wares were one thing, but there was no way the Duke had done a little architectural renovation in his spare time. 

Swatting away a flock of too-many-legged-bugs, Heisenberg got down on a knee and picked something up in the dust. 

"Is this yours?" he asked, wiggling a purple plastic pony at the end of a string. Ethan grasped it in his good hand. 

"Fuck. He was here."

"I saw those dangling on your guns. Good luck charm?"

"Believe it or not, it makes my aim better", Ethan mumbled with a tinge of embarrassment. Heisenberg nodded with a fascinated look, flicking it back and forth. 

"Can I have this one?" 

Ethan gladly surrendered the tacky toy. He watched, bemused, as Heisenberg attached it to the handle of his hammer. Suddenly, he was very aware of the absolute ludicrousness of the thing. It looked completely bonkers, and he told him so.

"That's the Winters charm, though, isn't it?"

"Guess so." 

He walked back to the main hall, sitting on the stairs to ponder. The Duke had been here, somehow. It still didn't enlighten him on his true nature, nor his intentions. Heisenberg was staring with a raised eyebrow at the topless statues, leaving bloody fingerprints on everything he touched. 

"I hate this", Ethan muttered to his feet. "I hate this so much."

"What, the busts ?" One of them gained a red nipple. "It's classical, but it has so much panache."

"No, I like the busts. Stop fondling the stone ladies. I hate… that. " He vaguely pointed to the broken door. "I hate that very clearly, nobody has set foot in there for years. Except I was here. I was."

"I believe you. You know", Heisenberg said sitting on the steps next to him, "Donna has got these mind-fucking powers that can make you see things differently. And they work on us too. Don't ask."

Ethan didn't ask, and Heisenberg continued : 

"I don't know what his deal of Miranda's cards was, but maybe it's similar. Would explain why he managed to set shop right under Alcina's pretty nose."

Recalling the time where he had run to the Duke's chamber while pursued by Lady Dimitrescu, only to see her turn tail once he had gotten through the door, Ethan squinted. 

"You think she didn't see him? Like… she kept seeing an abandoned room behind that door?"

Somehow, that was the straw that broke his back. 

"Screw this", he said, raising to his feet. "So not only can he warp reality somehow, but it's also different according to the people seeing it? What is this? Quantum shit?"

"I don't know what that means. What is wrong with you?"

"With me ?" Ethan blurted. "I know what's wrong with me. I got infected by a fucking parasite who settled down in my cells and is amping up their regenerative process. Look, believe or not, but I was a man of logic before all that bullshit."

He kicked angrily at the unhinged door. 

"I was a bloody systems engineer. I looked at how things worked and I could tell what was right, wrong, and what could be better. And this is fucking wrong. It took me months to reconcile myself with the whole Louisiana nonsense, but I did. I read all the Umbrella debriefings. I took part in some meetings. T-Virus, that's horrible and new, but understandable."

Stomping on the ground, he spinned to face Heisenberg. 

"Tall lady with claws? Sure, why not. Horrible fish monster? I hate it, but I've seen Jack Baker get turned to a tentacle tree by that fucking mold. Cell overhauling, Chris called it. But that kind of crap? Mind-reading and perception-altering? Nope. Screw this. And don't even get me started on your whole deal!" he yelled. 

Huffing, Heisenberg crossed his legs. 

"You don't like my telekinesis?"

"I hate it! It makes no sense! Why metal and not everything else? What the fuck are you?"

Heisenberg smiled, looking quite amused by his exasperation, or possibly by the fact that he had been the one asking that very question two days ago. 

"I was a man of science too", he said. "I studied engineering. I was going to invent steel horses to pull the carriages. Yes, I know. I've seen Miranda park a fucking car in front of the castle." With a sneer, he tapped the pony charm on the handle of his hammer. 

"I've devoted years trying to understand how this worked, hoping that it would help me find a way out. Miranda never let me dig too deep, but I do have a working theory for the telekinesis. I'm not sure you'll like it, though."

"Tell me. Please."

With a deep sigh, Heisenberg rubbed his forehead and looked at him. 

"Magnets."

"Magnets?"

"Fucking magnets."

Ethan sat back down slowly. He didn't even react to the comforting pat Heisenberg gave on his knee. With a depressive creak, the ceiling in the abandoned room gave up and fell down on the floor ; he looked at it with a blank expression. 

"Fucking magnets", he repeated. 

"Yes. Now, can I interest you in doing a little tour of the place before this entire castle comes crashing down on our heads?"

With a careless shrug, Ethan took his hand and got up to his feet. They went through the garden and the dining room, the cellar and the hidden winery. Heisenberg's enthusiasm was contagious, even when they encountered the odd cloaked "staff member", as Ethan called them. 

"You are taking all this very well", Heisenberg said as he extracted his mallet from the poor thing's torso. 

"I'm really not. Just filing all that crap for later. You know, I still wonder why any of it happened to me. "

A sad, crooked smile crossed Heisenberg's face. He made a fatalist gesture that incidentally crunched to bits a sneaking staff member behind him. 

"As does everyone when the shit hits the fan. The only truth being : it had to be someone."

"I was boring", said Ethan as they strolled over the corpse and through a lovely arched overpass. "Scratch that. I am boring. I am a boring person."

"Said the mushroom man to the magnet lord", Heisenberg pointed while pushing open an intricately ornate door. 

"I mean it", he said as they made their way back inside, the frozen crust of blood on them starting to melt again. "You know what my favorite week-end activity is? Going for a long walk on the beach. I keep rewatching the same comedy shows, I love plain cotton pajamas, and my favorite band is The Beatles."

"Oh, I've heard of them!"

"Yes, you have. Everyone and their mother even back in the butthole of Romania have heard of them. I like buttered toast and Asian noodles. I am basic, boring, and I liked it. "

Heisenberg let out a supportive hum, peaking through the eye of a painting. 

"Mia… Mia was the interesting one. She could be passionate about anything. I once heard her debate the ears off a restaurant's cook about proper asparagus cooking. God knows why she picked me."

"Must be for your looks", Heisenberg said, stepping back while squinting at the painting. Ethan offered his knife, but he tutted disapprovingly and carefully lifted off the enormous frame. Toppling around, he managed to prop it against a nearby column, revealing a hidden metallic door. 

"Bet she thought that would keep intruders out", Ethan remarked as the door bent backwards in an ear-splitting whine. 

"I recall her bragging about a library behind a secret passage", Heisenberg said. "I want to know what she reads so I can make fun of her later. 20 leis it's full of bodice-ripping erotica."

Ethan shook on it. Unfortunately, there was no library behind the passage, only a dusty staircase that led them to the Dimitrescu private quarters. Ethan suddenly remembered the gigantic bathroom in the left wing, and excitingly mentioned it. Heisenberg gave him a skeptical frown. 

"Are we talking about a big pool full of blood?" 

"I mean, yes, there is also one. But I'm talking about the biggest fucking bathtub you have ever seen."

A wolfish grin spread on Heisenberg's face, who contemplated his miserably gory outfit. 

"It so happens that I am in a bathroom-defiling mood", he declared. "Race you to it?"

"No. You pushed me in that mess. I have dibs."

His muttered protestations didn't last very long, as he got distracted by an antique commode covered in family pictures. The three daughters and Lady Dimitrescu were the focal point of the collection, but there was also a surprising one featuring the four Lords bickering over a game of cards. Moreau was half out of frame, which made Heisenberg snicker. They also found a bottle of something too transparent to be any type of wine. 

"Heads, you try it. Tails, I do", Heisenberg innocently offered. Ethan accepted, and contemplated the turned coin with sudden realisation.

"You fucking cheat!"

"You're the one who agreed! Now bottom up. It's not like it's going to kill you."

It didn't, though exactly what it was Ethan did and would rather not know. It smelled of alcohol, which was already something. Heisenberg clasped him on the shoulder as he passed it. 

"For what it's worth, he said, turning towards the festooned hallway, "I think you're a fun guy."

Ethan took the compliment with a shrug. It took him a full minute walking down the corridor to notice Heisenberg's lips shaking into an uncontrollable smirk. 

He stopped in his tracks. 

"A fungi ", he repeated. Heisenberg burst out laughing, bent in half with his hands on his thighs as Ethan glared. 

The sound of the shotgun being cocked echoed in the plush lobby. 

"Start running, mate."

Heisenberg did with a gleeful squeal, still laughing his head off as useless shrapnel burst into the air. 

 

Chapter Text

Stretching his legs as far as he could reach, Ethan exhaled a column of bubbles as he slid under water. Lady Dimitrescu's bathtub was meant to accommodate a giant vampire, two to three very good friends, or a single delighted mold-infected man. The latter was currently splashing waves of reddish bath water over the flowery tiles as the disgusting dungeon blood crust melted off his skin. He could spread his arms far over his head and still barely touch the opposite side with his toes. 

If he ever got back home, he was getting a giant bathtub. No more feet-on-the-tap nonsense. 

On the porcelain rim, there was a pot full of scented salts. He was smelling it when Heisenberg walked in with a massive plate of cheese in his arms, booting the panel open. 

"There is food that hasn't been soaked in, baked with, or otherwise jammed full of blood. Pay up."

Ethan lazily gestured at his coat, hanging to dry above the baroque screen. The other extracted a few lei coins from his inner pocket, and sat down on the edge of the tub. 

"Are you done yet? It's been over an hour." 

Ethan hummed nonconcommitaly. The bath was red and steamy, and he could feel the knots in his back melt away. Turning the faucet with a toe to refill the tub of delightfully warm water, he grabbed a handful of cheese without opening his eyes, ignoring Heisenberg's protestations. 

"Get out. My turn."

"No. Find yourself a book or something."

"I already did. All bodice-ripping, as expected", he said, flipping pages from a flimsy folio. "Awfully written. I'm keeping it. You know, for lonely nights."

Ethan snorted, sprinkling the salt pot over himself. 

"Three guesses as to what it's scented like", he told Heisenberg. It wasn't blood, nor lead, but he did get lavender right. 

"Alright, now I mean it. Get the fuck out, or I get the fuck in", Heisenberg said splashing his face with sanguine water. 

"Be my guest. There is room."

Silence fanned out like the wisps of steam between the flowery panels. Ethan smiled, eyes still closed. 

"All bark and no bite."

After a few seconds of shocked quiet, Heisenberg suddenly bursted out laughing, startling Ethan. Loud as it sounded, it felt a little forced to his ears. Behind the water lapping on the porcelain, he could hear buckles clinging and the rustle of fabric. Then, with a huff and a muffled swear, the water level suddenly raised to his chin. 

"Shit, are you making ciorba de ciuperci in here?"

"Mushroom soup?" Ethan guessed. "Baths should be hot. No point in lukewarm."

"Yes, you are anything but", Heisenberg mumbled in a voice so low he wasn't sure if he was supposed to hear. 

Ethan lifted an eyelid and met a quizzical stare. He gave an amiable wave with his maimed hand, elbow resting on the rim. Heisenberg was smiling hesitantly, rubbing the blood crust off his biceps, knees up to his chest. A livid scar snaked over his collarbone, and his greying hair was matted with knots, seeping dirt into the water. Somehow, he looked more naked from the absence of glasses over his gaze than by the rest of his body. 

He slowly unfolded his legs, and his foot brushed against Ethan's before flying back to himself. Whether it was the heady scent of lavender salts or finally being able to untie the tension in his entire body, he felt relaxed enough to let out a hearty laughter.

"Something funny?"

"The man who has been pushing me around for two days, suddenly being demure? Yes, it is."

Opening and closing his mouth with a furious look, Heisenberg splashed his face from the other side of the tub.

"I'm just being polite. You're the one hogging the bath."

"Stretch your fucking legs. What are you, twelve?"

Heisenberg kicked him in the shin with suddenly much less modesty, sending a wave of dirty water on the tiled floor. 

"Do you usually make washing a social occasion in America?"

"I was on the football team in college. Told you, basic", Etha shrugged. He had seen his fair share of butts over the years, whether in communal showers or at the occasional binge-drinking after-party. It had never fazed him. Skin was skin, and nudity didn't have a massive overlap with sensuality on the Venn diagram of his attractions. Sundresses were fucking hot. Naked jocks were fucking not. Plain and simple. 

Cracking his neck, he took a heavy-lidded look at his neighbor between the veils of vapor clouding the parlour. Heisenberg had rested his head against the edge, and was scraping a disgusting scab of something off the back of his knee. 

Something was tugging at Ethan's guts looking at him, twisting knots inside his chest. It was the water dripping from his dirty hair, the pensive look on his face ; it was the sheer normality of a man sitting in a bathtub. It always took him by surprise, somehow ; those moments when looking at someone, he had the shameful epiphany that this was an actual fucking person, a human being with a mind that looked at him through foreign eyes, and it always sent vertigo into his spine. 

It was easy shooting monsters and pushing every thought aside of what exactly he killed while his own life was at stake. Much less was looking at a crusty man trying to detangle his hair with soap on his fingers, and realizing that they were only just that. 

Magnets and all. 

He might have stared into the void and into his scarred collarbone for a while, because Heisenberg coughed a little. 

"Are you done ogling?"

"What?"

He met Heisenberg's amused stare, saw the nervous grin on his shaggy face. 

"Sorry. I was lost in thought." He didn't want to ask, didn't want to know more. Get Rose back, get out of here.The last thing he needed was to start thinking about him. Because then, he would give a fuck, and he couldn't allow himself to give a fuck about anyone else than Rose. Not even about himself. 

He pulled his gaze back to the various scars on his right hand ; the long line left by the butcher hook in Lady Dimitrescu's chamber, the clean slice on his wrist, the multiple impacts on the back of his fingers, and older ones too - holding a knife away from his face, holding a burning tank of gasoline. 

Traces of pain and anger that reminded him that this was his life right now, that the quiet moments were only announcing the storm and that softness was a lie. 

"How old are you?" He hadn't meant to ask. The words had just come out on their own. He didn't dare to meet Heisenberg's eyes.

It took him a while to answer. 

"I'm not sure. I don't know what year it is", he said simply. 

"Do you… want to know?"

Heisenberg remained silent, eyes fixed on his knees. Very slowly, he shook his head, and Ethan felt his heart wrench in his chest. 

"You're gonna have to at some point", he muttered. "When we get out of here."

A sad smile was playing about Heisenberg's lips, and he flicked some water at Ethan. 

"Sure. When we do."

They stayed quiet for quite some time, the water gently sloshing around them. Heisenberg hadn't pulled his legs back, and his ankle was resting against Ethan's foot. It felt weird and awkward. It felt comforting and intimate. It felt hateful. He had to break the silence, say something. Anything to nip in the bud whatever was growing in his chest. 

"I take baths with Rose all the time. She loves the plastic ducks."

Heisenberg smiled, leaning back with his eyes half-closed. 

"She's going to be something, your little whelp." The tone was more matter-of-fact than animosity. 

"Whatever she wants."

"I hope she wants to be a mushroom girl", Heisenberg snorted. "You briefly mentioned her, but mommy dear is also mold, right?"

Ethan's eyes darted open, his heart suddenly pounding in his chest. He straightened up. 

"Shit. Yes, I guess so. I hadn't… thought of that."

You hadn't thought of her, a voice whispered in his mind. Not ever since. Forgetting me already, Ethan?

He closed his eyes fiercely, pushing on his temples. Blood was drumming in his ears, and the smell of rust and grime was suddenly too much. Heat was turning his head and he was shivering, and the ghost of Mia murmured torments into his ears. 

He was splashed with cold water, and blinked. Heinsenberg turned the faucet off, leaning his head to the side. 

"I'm fine with splashing around in blood juice, but I draw the line at you throwing up in here. Do I need to slap you?" he asked, eagerly holding a callous hand up. Clearly, the horrible perspective had overrun his victorian restraint, because he was kneeling between Ethan's legs. 

Running a hand through his wet hair, Ethan shook his head. His pulse was still racing, but the icy sting on his cheeks felt good and grounding. 

"No. Sorry. I started… thinking."

Heisenberg started with a stifled chortle, then moved on to a full-throated bark of laughter. Leaning back again, he gave Ethan a comforting pat on the forearm. 

"You shouldn't be doing that", he cackled. "You're going to sprain something."

"Fuck you", Ethan said without agression. He looked at the remainder of his left hand, where his wedding ring weighed heavy. "I hadn't thought of her since she got shot." He raised a pleading hand when Heisenberg opened his mouth. 

"Don't. Don't say it. I can't cling to that hope. It was Chris, not a common mugger. He's the one who took us away from the Bakers. If he wanted her dead, though I can't for the life of me understand why…"

Words were crushing his bones and his teeth as they came out. It felt like spitting lead.

"She is dead. And I didn't even think of her."

"When would you have?" Heisenberg shrugged. "While you were being chased by Lycans? Mowing down my nieces and their maids? Playing around in my death traps?"

It felt disgustingly soothing to cling to that explanation, and he did so with shame bubbling in his chest. 

"That's not how it works", Heisenberg said almost gently. "You told me yourself. File all that crap for later." His hand was tapping on the porcelain next to Ethan's maimed fingers. 

"And hopefully", he added with a smirk, "leave that shit bottled up forever and move on."

Ethan shook his head again. And again, and again. 

"No. You don't", he whispered to the bloody water. "That doesn't work. You think you can move on and never mention it again, you think you can just drop the weight on your shoulders instead of unpacking it, so you run and you run and you hide the pain behind smiles, as if you could outrun something you carry inside of you, and at some point…"

He could feel the warmth of Heisenberg's hand in the air around his fingers. Lifting his eyes, he met his gaze. 

"You break", he simply said. "Your husband finds out that you have been skipping therapy, and the scrambled eggs come out burnt, so you throw a chair at the wall and you break your voice screaming."

Pain was coiling around his throat like a snake, like it wanted to keep the words in, but it was a pain he knew well. Words needed out to kill the snake. 

"It was bad", he stated without a hint of emotion. "When we met again after Louisiana, when we settled back together, we didn't talk but we clang to each other every hour of the day. And then I started to heal. I did the fucking therapy, I brushed my teeth and did yoga, and it started working."

Heisenberg silently repeated yoga with a puzzled look. 

"I healed, and she didn't", Ethan continued. "She couldn't. She was stuck in the darkness and she was pulling my hand back, because she didn't want to be alone. And I hated her for it, and she hated me for it."

He remembered her face on a day when he had come back home happy and sweaty, having gone for a run without feeling the panic jostle his muscles in desperate sprinting from whatever enemies whatever thing was after him. He had bought a smoothie and he was feeling good, and she had spent the day crying in bed and she hadn't done the dishes like she said she would. They had looked at each other like strangers. Like adversaries. 

"Then one day, the therapist mentioned she hadn't been coming at all. I confronted her. We fought. And… I told you about the chainsaw, right?"

Heisenberg nodded. He was barely breathing, as if he didn't want to risk Ethan stopping there. He was thankful for it. The snake was slowly unraveling from his neck. 

"When she… turned, her face shifted, just a little. And I swear to god that for a second, when she threw that chair against the wall, her eyes changed."

"I throw chairs all the time", Heisenberg muttered to himself.

"We're not married. She scared me that night. And when she came to bed crying about how she was a horrible person, I didn't object. So she turned angry again, she slept on the couch, and the next day… The next day, when I came back, she had done the dishes, called the therapist and put on a clean sweater, and she asked me if I still wanted kids."

Rubbing his middle finger against his absent ones, he looked pensively at the place where the ring was, beneath the dirty bandages. 

"I'm guessing you did", Heisenberg noted. 

"I did. More than anything. Things looked a bit better for a while. And then they didn't. She had always been temperamental. However many sessions she actually did before pretending everything was alright now… there was always that anger beneath. And the baby didn't help. She wasn't ready. She had no patience for her. I came home once and Rose was screaming in her crib, and Mia was in bed with her hands on her ears, yelling in the pillow."

"You were scared of her."

"I was."

With a nervous chortle, Heisenberg kicked him lightly, muttering something about women traumatizing him being a running pattern. He reached out of the bath to grab his battered cigar box, lighting one on the sole of his boot. 

"So how amazing was the sex?" he asked, puffing a cloud of smoke in the tufts of lavender steam. 

"Nonexistent. We fucked all the time at the beginning. Then not at all. Then once for Rose." He counted on his fingers, while Heisenberg gave him a dismal look under a quirked eyebrow. 

"She didn't let me touch her during the pregnancy. Said she felt disgusting and fat. Nor after, because, well, fair enough. She had just popped a human being out of her vagina. Funnily enough, she came onto me a few weeks ago. It was so random and unexpected that I pushed her away and pretended to have a migraine."

He winced at the memory. She had scowled at him and turned heels in a way that had made him feel strangely glad to have turned her down. 

"So, there you have it. I have been very pointedly not thinking about my dead wife. And if I have to be honest about it, which I do because otherwise it will burn me down from the inside and kill me when a chainsaw could not, it's not just widower grief."

He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. 

"I'm sad for her, more than for me. I'm devastated that she never got to really come back from Louisiana. The idea of Rose growing up without her mother breaks my heart."

Reaching to Heisenberg silently, he felt a cigar placed between his fingers and took a long draft of burning smoke. It smelled bad and felt worse, but the blaze in his lungs gave reality to the pain. 

"I don't miss her", he said. 

The words were the hardest and the easiest he had ever said. Shame and relief swirled in his guts like stinking smoke ; he dragged on the cigar and held it as long as he could, letting the pain wash over him. 

Then he exhaled, for what felt like forever. And then it was over. The tide had passed, taking away everything in its embrace and leaving him an empty shore. 

Opening his eyes, he handed back the cigar and smiled. The look on Heisenberg's face was undecipherable, and when he put it back in his mouth, there was a second of hesitation at the moment when his lips touched the end. 

"So", Ethan amiably asked. "How about your sex life?"

Coughing on his cigar, Heisenberg pressed a hand to his mouth while Ethan laughed ruthlessly. He got kicked in the torso this time, but there wasn't nearly enough force to hurt him. 

"I get by. You know how it is. Provincial village with four Lords. Not a lot of options if you're not into farmers or fishmen."

"Ah, yes. You're the default fuck", Ethan nodded wisely. The kick was slightly stronger this time. 

"I have no default", Heisenberg boasted while exhaling a smoke circle. "I'm a fucking jewel."

Ethan's laughter lasted even longer. 

"Sure. Anyone special in the mix?" He regretted the question at the exact moment it passed his tongue. Nobody left , he thought. The last survivors had burnt in Luiza's house while the turned ones tore at their flesh and howled at the sky. If there had been someone, they were long gone. 

Heisenberg smirked as if he had read his thoughts. There was an acidic undertone to his voice when he said: 

"Can't exactly get attached to anyone here. Miranda wouldn't permit it."

Bashful, Ethan nodded with a rigid smile. He needed to stop asking questions, he really did. All the peaks he had gotten from Heisenberg's life made him want to scream and punch something. But he couldn't care. There was no time for that. Nobody mattered, least of all the magnet man with his stupid cigars who looked at him like he was… 

Like he was something else. Something he had never seen before. 

He wasn't. He couldn't be. Not for him. Not while Rose needed him to be everything. 

Glancing at him, Heisenberg recoiled a little, folding his arms against his chest. The contrast of him turned Ethan's stomach. The sinewy strength of his shoulders and the roughness of him disappeared in that defenseless lean. He hated it. 

Apparently, Heisenberg did too, because he cleared his voice and grabbed the rim of the bathtub, getting up on uncertain legs. Marginally cleaner than when he had gotten in, he climbed out, water dripping down his chest. Ethan got a glimpse of brown hair trailing down his midriff before averting his eyes, suddenly feeling stupidly Victorian himself. 

Heisenberg grabbed hold of a gigantic towel that pooled around him like a bride's dress, but Ethan wasn't in a mood to make fun of him. 

"That's enough talk about your moldy marriage", he said in a dry voice. "We have a dagger to find."

With that, he strode out without looking back. Lavender and tobacco roiled in the air, and Ethan watched him vanish with a tinge of something that definitely wasn't regret. 




Chapter Text

5brv17


The planks creaked and groaned under Ethan's feet, and he tried his best to think light thoughts, just in case heavy ones would weigh down his brain and send him crashing god-knew-how-many feet down. 

Feathers. Puffed rice. A grocery bag carried by the wind. 

"Just don't look down", Heisenberg yelled from the rampart where he was sitting, boots dangling in the air and cigar calcining between his teeth. 

He looked down, obviously. His knees buckled at the sight. The trees were looking like miniatures from up here, and the ground seemed to stretch further and further away the longer he looked. 

"The fuck did I just tell you?" Heisenberg lamented. 

"Why would you tell me that ?" Ethan whined in a high-pitched voice, doing his best to pull his eyes back to the end of the narrow footway. 

Grocery bag. I am but a grocery bag floating in the gentle wind.

"Sure thing, morels", Heisenberg said incredulously. "Look, I thought you had been here before! So you can take on a vampiric bitch, a swamp monster and little Miss Gepetto single-handedly, but bridges are your fatal weakness?"

"I don't like heights!" Ethan snapped back, taking a few more uneasy steps on the crumbling slabs of wood. One let out a warning crack, and he stopped again. "And the last time, I was running for my life!"

"Yeah?" 

Heisenberg's eyes lit up with malicious glee, and Ethan knew what he was going to do even before he jumped to his feet. The hammer swang down in an ear-shattering burst of splinters and flakes of rotten wood. With a screech, Ethan had only just managed to jump past its trajectory and land on the cobblestone. He hugged the stone floor tightly while Heisenberg stepped over him with an unapologetic grin. 

"Get up. I can see the mausoleum." Ethan lifted his head and loudly groaned. A massive piece of masonry had crushed the overpass that led to the sanctuary, and Heisenberg had joyfully sauntered onto the nearest roof. Tiles were cascading down into oblivion as he strolled in heavy steps, obviously delighting in Ethan's misery. 

"Grocery bag", he muttered, stepping on the unstable slates. "Be light as a grocery bag."

He inhaled deeply. Just in case, maybe, filling himself with air would make his fall lighter. 

His maimed hand hit the roof when he slipped, jolting his arm with a flash of agony, and a string of colorful curses echoed into the valley. Heisenberg's cackle followed. He was tapping his foot on a decaying walkway when Ethan eventually caught up with him, heaving and panting. The cold stung his cheeks red, his hand hurt like a bitch, vertigo made him unsteady, and Heisenberg's patronizing little smile was triggering his trigger instincts. 

"Almost there", he announced with a pat on Ethan's shoulder that almost sent him tumbling off the roof. "See?"

Ethan saw, and took a step back. 

"Nope."

A rotten string of wood was bridging the gap desperately, like the remnants of a dead marriage. Ethan mentally slapped himself for this comparison, and crossed his arms. 

"Not walking on that."

"Oh?" Heisenberg said, taking a step onto the grunting beam. "Now you're reconsidering my capacities? I thought you didn't want to set foot on, I quote, that lockjaw nightmare ?"

"You said I had to say please if I didn't want it disappearing under my feet!" Ethan yelled. 

"Well, someone has to work on your fucking manners!" 

Crack.

Heisenberg had just enough time to look surprised before the plank split in half under his weight. The sides of his open trench flew up not unlike, Ethan thought, a raggedy grocery bag. Before even thinking about it, he was standing on the edge with his wounded hand hanging onto a column, the other gripping a fistful of fabric and forearm. 

Heisenberg blinked, and adjusted his hat on his head with his free hand as Ethan dug his nails into the worn sleeve of his coat. 

"Well, this is embarrassing", he said. With some scrambling, his right boot found anchoring on a sculpture's head, and the weight threatening to dislocate Ethan's shoulder lightened a bit. 

The situation felt oddly familiar. Heisenberg must have been thinking the same, and he let go of Ethan's arm, leather-covered fingers waving in the air. The sleeve slipped from his clutch, but the other was only grinning stupidly. 

"I'll take my chances."

Ethan looked at him, and let go of his arm at the exact moment where the gloved hand snatched him back. 

"I was fucking kidding!" Heisenberg yelled. "Pull me up!"

With a grunt and a worrying clack in his shoulder, he did so. Heisenberg shot him a nasty glare, straightening his trench. Ethan folded two fingers on his mangled hand and pointed the rest at him, while Heisenberg huffed and turned to the mausoleum. 

Heart in his mouth as the adrenaline faded in his veins, Ethan felt his legs finally give up under him. He slowly sat on the ground. 

"Make a fucking bridge", he said in a feeble voice. 

After a second of painful turmoil, he added : 

"Please."

It was far from the best bridge Ethan had ever seen, with sharp edges and rust sprinkling from the beams he extracted from a nearby tower, which crumbled in surprise when its girders dislodged themselves from the stone. Although, it wasn't as bad as that time he had worked with an architect who had confused herself in metric conversion and proudly produced a bridge that, akin to the architect's skirt, was just short of covering all it was supposed to. 

"What?" Heisenberg asked defensively once he was done assembling the monstrous platform. 

"Nothing. I'm ranking bridges in my mind."

"Really? What place do I get?"

"Number two."

He didn't specify from which end, and Heisenberg looked oddly proud as he jumped up on the recycled pathway. He held a hand to help him, and promptly took it away once Ethan had clambered up. 

Things had been a little awkward since he had stormed out of the bathroom, and Ethan wasn't quite sure why. He wasn't sure whether he cared, either. Mood swings had always left him more annoyed than concerned. If something was wrong, Heisenberg could damn well fucking talk about it. Otherwise, it was none of his business. 

They made their way back to the mausoleum, and Ethan retraced his steps with Lady Dimitrescu. He found the ledge where he distinctly remembered watching in horror as the dagger tumbled into the void, and pointed. 

"There. It fell here. I'm sure. So… We set up a marker, I guess", he said pulling his map. "And then… back down."

Knees faltering again at the idea, he didn't notice Heisenberg coming to stand behind him. 

"Sure ?" a voice whispered in his ear, much too close. He jumped in surprise, turning around. Heels almost on the edge, he tried to step forward to safety, but Heisenberg was crowding his space. The grin on his face felt more teeth than mirth.

"Yes? Move away", Ethan said, pushing past him. "I'm going to..." 

An enthusiastic thrust on his pecs sent him screaming into the void. He barely had time to curse Heisenberg's mother and lineage before crashing on a hard beam, his breath punched out of his lungs. With an acrobatic tumble that his spine welcomed with quite a few pops, he managed to turn and grab the floating pole with both arms before he could slip away, legs dangling in the air as the smell of rust filled his nose. 

Heisenberg's laughter echoed as he conjured a fucking staircase of nonsense, random scaffoldings and pieces of scrap assembling under his feet at the last second as he hopped downwards. It was genuinely impressive, and it would have deserved a clap if Ethan's arms hadn't been very busy cradling an iron beam, clinging for dear life. Heisenberg made his way to him and poked him almost affectionately on the cheek as he walked past. The air was whooshing around them and his heart, guts and kidneys were right at the back of his mouth. Swirling around, the pole fell and fell and fell until suddenly, there was blessed firm ground under his feet. 

With a clanking noise, the cloud of metal scattered on the ground. Legs swaying and mouth cursing, Ethan managed to take a few steps towards Heisenberg, fist clenched weakly, before falling on his knees. 

"Oh, please, no need to be so ceremonial", he laughed as Ethan dry-heaved, hands freezing in the icy dirt. "Rise, peasant."

"I despise you", Ethan managed before giving the ground the hug it truly deserved. 

"Yes, I know. Now, quit groveling and start looking. The dagger shouldn't be far."

There was an almost gentle pat on his back before a firm hand pulled him up and onto his wavering feet. He immediately sat back down on a conveniently-placed rock while Heisenberg clenched his fingers in the air, head leaning to the side as if he were listening to something. Static was coursing around him, raising Ethan's arm hairs on his skin. 

"What is wrong with you?" he uttered once his organs agreed to leave the comfort of his mouth. 

"Ha!" Heisenberg barked, gloved fingers still probing the air. "What a question, Ethan. Quite a few things, one might say."

"No shit", Ethan sputtered. "You can add pushing unsuspecting people off tall buildings to the list!"

"It will make a pretty footnote to the rest", he said with a rueful smile. "You know. Defiling hundreds of corpses to make a rebel army. Watching Moreau undress that one time. Putting your daughter's arms in the fridge next to the pickles because I thought they might go bad." He shrugged theatrically, but there was a tension in his shoulders that reverberated in the air. It smelt like electricity, like the wind before lightning. 

"You… what?"

"In my defense, the label didn't say…"

"Moreau. As in… Moreau." Ethan made a probably-very-offensive impression of a fish blowing his cheeks. A hundred questions were clanging inside his brain, each one more horrifying than the next. 

"Why?" was the one that managed out.

Heisenberg's eyebrows raised above the rim of his glasses. His arms crossed in front of him, air still crackling with strange magnetism. 

"Why do you think?"

That was a dumbfounding answer, and Ethan's brain hung tightly to whatever shred of hope remained. 

"Science?" he squeaked. He desperately wished he could stop gaping, but his jaw was having none of it. 

It took Heisenberg a dozen of excruciating seconds, eyes unreadable behind the tinted lenses, before he added the single most comforting word Ethan had ever heard. 

"Before. I meant before, obviously."

"Thank god", Ethan rasped with a hand on his chest. "Wow. I am… not as open-minded as I thought." He should probably work on that, once the nausea would have settled down. Love was love, after all, and there was someone out there for everyone. Even bloated fish monsters with lactose intolerance and a passion for mucus. 

Now that he thought about it, they were probably the ones needing it most, too. 

Heisenberg's fingers were drumming on his hammer handle, flicking the plastic pony around. Another uncomfortable silence spread, while the wind whistled as if it was trying to pass unnoticed. 

"So", Ethan said. "Adding voyeurism to the list of your crimes, then."

Heisenberg shrugged, and turned back to inspect the brambles. His back was rigid when he replied in a low voice: 

"Don't you worry. I paid for that one already." He glanced back at him from underneath his hat, carelessly ripping shrubbery out of the ground. "Miranda caught me. Bad times."

"Ah. That didn't work with her whole we're a family now schlick?" Ethan gathered, singsonging in a terrible impression of the crow woman. Ogling your fellow kidnappees probably wasn't the greatest way to impersonate brotherhood, to be fair. 

Heisenberg muttered something about there being slightly too many dicks involved in the equation for Miranda's taste. The cold had also turned his cheeks bright red, and he kept focusing on his task, rummaging under the bushes with no regard for the thorns catching his sleeves. 

Ethan had combed through a whole parcel of thistle when the thought hit him. 

"Oh", he said. "I see. Of course, the religious cult leader who's obsessed about babies and dresses like a Catholic wet dream is homophobic."

"I don't know what that means", Heisenberg replied from the top of a rock. He was looking particularly somber, and kept clenching his fingers while discarded screws and random morsels of metal flew to him. Still no dagger. 

"It's a guilt club with excellent wine knowledge and terrible fashion taste."

"We're in Europe, Ethan. I know what Catholic means." He jumped down from the ledge, boots stomping on the ground. Still avoiding Ethan's gaze, he pushed past him to stride to another nearby ridge. The sides of his trench were wet with snow and pierced with thorns, but he didn't seem to care. A tang of something pinched Ethan's throat, once again. 

Bloody Heisenberg, he thought. The man who wanted to invent steel horses, and who looked at other men in secret behind the doors of their abductor. The knot in his chest grew tighter, and whispered sadness as its name. 

What a fucking life you had, mate. 

Pressing his mangled hand to his temple, Ethan sighed. First things first, then. He walked over to Heisenberg, grabbing him by the arm as he walked past, ignoring the scalding glare that he received in return. He didn't push him off, though. 

"Look", he said patiently. "Look… Karl ? May I call you Karl?"

He wasn't so sure about it himself. Karl felt too close. Karl was human, and private and intimate. Karl was dangerous, and he had voluntarily abstained from calling the man anything in the past days. Heisenberg sounded weird when talking to his face. Hey, asshole worked out fine, but somehow this felt like a Karl conversation or none at all. 

So Karl snickered, planting his hammer on the ground and resting his chin on the handle with a shit-eating grin. 

"Let's see", he pondered. "You sleep in my bed, we took a bath together, and I pushed you off the roof of a castle. Yes, I think we are on a first-name basis… Ethan. "

He didn't like very much the way he said his name, the way it rolled on his tongue like he was savouring it, the way it somehow poured into his ears like molten steel. He shook it off, and clasped a hand on the man's shoulder. 

"Alright. Karl, you are a murder hobo and a mad scientist whose main hobby is constructing an army of the dead, and sticking sickening industrial parts on cadavers."

"I like cooking, too."

"Yes. And your ironcraft handiwork is impeccable when you don't use it on horrible death traps, propeller boys and giant meatgrinders. Love what you've done with the crests."

Heisenberg's hand clutched his heart with a flattered smile. He sounded genuinely touched when he said: 

"Why, thank you."

"Yes. As I said. You have tons and tons of problems, Karl. You are a living pile of problems, as high as that rusty dump in your front yard. But liking men is the least problematic thing about you I've learnt so far."

There was another silence, one of genuine surprise. Karl slipped his glasses down his nose and stared at him with his piercing eyes. Almost definitely green, Ethan thought. 

"It is?"

"Yeah. I can tell you in all honesty that I'm way more bothered by the robotic zombies." He patted him awkwardly on the elbow, while Heisenberg pensively removed his hat to scratch his head. His eyes looked greyer in the light, the fucking things. 

"Is this…"

"It's not an American thing", Ethan groaned. "More of a twenty-first century thing. Get with the times."

"Well I'm fucking trying, in case you didn't notice!" he squeaked in outrage. He froze for a second then, and added hesitantly: 

"Twenty- first ? Already?"

Cringing, Ethan gave him a rigid smile. The wistfulness in his whatever-color-eyes made his guts ache in a painful hitch. 

"Sorry", he said. Surprisingly, he found that he really meant it. 

"It's fine. I can't believe I missed the millenia party, though." Ethan didn't mention that he had only been twelve for the party in question, and that he mostly remembered the fireworks and throwing up because he had drunk his uncle's champagne for the first time. 

Karl - not Karl, Heisenberg, bloody steel-horse Heisenberg, shook his head slightly and laughed. Stupidly, Ethan felt better. There, then. He had done his good deed of the day. Now if they could just go back to the task at hand… Walking to the thistle bunch, he knelt again and peered under the plants. 

"Do you, then...?" Heisenberg asked behind him. His voice sounded strange, like he was forcing the words out. 

"Me? No, I don't think so. If I were attracted to men, I would have noticed by now." 

There was a short silence, and then a small cough.

"You'd hope so, yes."

Ethan grunted, dagger still fucking nowhere to be seen in the bushes. It couldn't have bounced that far off, surely. The horrible idea that a Lycan might have grabbed it first with their nasty paws crossed his mind in a panic. 

"Then again, you'd also think you would notice being turned into a fungus with regenerative powers", Heisenberg observed from the riverside. 

Opening his mouth to protest, he pondered and closed it back. 

"I was going to argue, but that is kinda true. Piss off."

Heisenberg chortled, and abruptly stopped. "I think I see it", he suddenly said. Pointing at the river, he jumped down and tramped through the icy water, before plunging a hand into the current. With a triumphant grunt, he extracted a shiny blade from the riverbed. 

Ethan helped him back up, peering at the dagger. 

"It's not made of metal, then?" he enquired, taking it from his hands. It was as sharp and intriguing as in his memory, with a vicious curve to it and engravings on the handle.

"No", Heisenberg chided. "Fucking thing doesn't react to my powers."

In a swift gesture, he took it to his mouth and ran his tongue on the flat of the blade. Ethan watched, aghast, as he smacked his lips in a sloppy sound. 

"It's bone", he said, holding it out to his face. "It sticks. Try it."

He tried it, and although the scientific method left to be desired, he could only agree. The texture of the blade was strangely porous under his tongue, and it tasted dusty. 

"Alright", Heisenberg breathed, turning it in his gloved hands with an uncommon reverence. "There she is. We've got to run some tests. I have some spare cadou in the lab."

"Back home, then?"

"Yes. And maybe you can try tricking the Duke the next time you find him. Tell him you want to sell the weird knife taking room in your backpack for more shotgun shells. See how he reacts. Stab him if he says yes."

It was a decent plan, and Ethan nodded as Heisenberg juggled effortlessly with the dagger. As they strode back down to the village, he suddenly froze, eyes set on the winged gate. Black birds were flapping above it. The blade was abruptly shoved in Ethan's pocket, and Heisenberg pushed him to the side. 

"Run", he whispered. "Ten, nine, eight…"

Blinking and staring, Ethan stayed in his place until three came storming in his ears. His legs were moving before his brain had caught up, and they propelled him off the trajectory of the hammer. With a creak, a venerable pine tree stumbled and collapsed behind him. 

"Ethan Winters!" his voice cheered behind him. "Out for a stroll, daddy dear?"

A chorus of distant howling took up Heisenberg's shouts, and a murder of crows squawked around him as he sprinted forwards. His heart was pounding in his chest, mangled fingers fastening the dagger in place as he jumped over the bushes, landed in an icy puddle, and dashed between the trees. 

And in a flash, the lone beast was back in his chest, squeezing his heart between his teeth. Back to plan A. He was alone. Fucking Heisenberg had betrayed him, obviously, and he would see this through on his own. As he always did. His vision was narrow and thoughts melted away, as the fangs of the heart-wolf sent pangs of violence in his blood. 

Roaring drops of spittle, a Lycan burst onto his path. The shotgun was in his hands before he even had time to think of it, and it thundered in the valley. With a disheartening whine, the creature collapsed as he leaped over its hunched shape. 

Get Rose back. Shoot Miranda. A simple two-step plan. 

He was crossing the river when vicious claws tore at his back, and he screamed in pain as the riverbed greeted his face. Gasping and coughing in the shallow water, he struggled to lift the assailant off him. A piercing maw closed on the back of his neck ; he felt a chunk of flesh ripped off him as he turned around, pushing the barrel between the creature's teeth. His left hand fumbled for the dagger while the thing gnawed and drooled on him - and all of a sudden, it was white crystal. 

Pulling the blade from his ribcage, Ethan kicked the corpse away, and watched as it cracked into pieces that sunk down in the stream. He was dousing first aid fluid on his back before the thought came to him that it wasn't actually necessary. Placebo or not, it worked, and the bolts of pain perforating his neck faded a little. 

The image of the stone chalice propped in Heisenberg's quarters flashed behind his eyelids. He needed to get her back before the asshole handed her over. Get the flasks, buy some duct tape, shoot Miranda. A great three-step-plan. 

Dumping the empty bottle on the ground, he made his way to the factory. A few more Lycans were lurking on the way ; he wasn't in a mood to sneak around, and he had bullets to spare. With savage satisfaction, he emptied cartridge after cartridge as he progressed towards the hidden tunnel they had taken on the morning. 

Blood was still beating in his ears when he shook his flashlight on, dragging a weak beam over the discarded parts clustering the pipe. Cogs, drill pieces, fan blades, broken sheet metal, beams... 

Fan blades ?

"Oh, fuck off !"

The propeller head revved to life in a happy turbine roar. Grabbing the flashlight between his teeth, Ethan cocked his shotgun and took a step back, preparing for recoil. Shoot the thing, get the flasks, buy duct tape, kill Miranda. A great four-steps plan.

"Don't you fucking dare", a voice hissed through the tunnel. It carried so much authority that he almost instinctively lowered the barrel, before gripping it even stronger. 

"I'll fucking 'are", he snarled with the lamp still in his mouth, as Heisenberg's silhouette appeared in the quivering beam. He opened his arms quizzically, and pointed a thumb to the propeller thing. 

"I was talking to him!" Turning to his creature, he added in a threatening voice: 

"I was obviously talking to you, you fucking freak! What don't you get in guard the tunnel, wait for Ethan ?"

The fanblades slowed down. If a turbine could look disheartened, it was doing so. 

"Get lost", Heisenberg snapped at it before it hopped away, swinging its amputated arms. He handed out a towel to Ethan. 

"I saw that tumble in the river. Nasty bite."

The shotgun barrel slowly went down as Ethan's brain walked prudently out of the panic zone. It was very difficult to stay in guerilla mode when someone was holding a fluffy towel in your face. Spitting out his flashlight and cautiously putting the gun away, he grabbed it. It smelled like lavender. 

"Did you steal it from the castle?" he asked incredulously. 

"Yeah. Some pillows too. I went shopping after I lost you in the woods", Heisenberg - Karl, fucking Karl - replied with a wink over his glasses at that word. 

"Miranda", Ethan breathed, still on edge. "Is she gone?"

"Yes. I think she bought it. She looked suspicious, though. I think she really expected you to kill me as well." There was no trace of emotion in his voice, and it was devastating. 

"Rose?"

"Safe upstairs. Good call removing her from the altar. Mother Tart is pissed as hell. She's been combing the entire valley, turning every rock."

Ethan nodded. Leaving the jars out in the open when Heisenberg had invited him into the factory had been the most harrowing part of the entire experience, far beyond ripping his own hands out of Lady Dimitrescu's hooks. 

"We must act fast, then."

"Yes. But we have quite the advantage now. Now come on", Heisenberg said. "I made dinner."

And just like that, the teeth of the beast in Ethan's chest loosened and let go. He blinked, and things were back to normal. As much as they could be when a propeller man was pouting on a nearby walkway, legs dangling in the air and fanblades looking sadly down. 

"You could talk more nicely to him", Ethan pointed as they walked past him. A hopeful little revv echoed behind them, and Karl turned around with a menacing glare. 

"I don't want to. He's dumb as a fucking brick."

"You put a turbine in his damn brain. What did you expect?" he genuinely asked. 

"I don't know!" Karl lifted his arms to the distant ceiling. "You know how it is. Some days, you just wake up with an idea stuck in your head, and there's no doing anything else until you've scratched that itch."

"Yeah. Usually, I'm just craving apple juice or a good wank, though."

"To each their own, Ethan."

"Right. What's for dinner?"

Heisenberg put an affectionate arm around his shoulder, a massive grin spreading on his face. 

"I made your favorite."

"Mushroom soup?" Ethan sighed, concealing a smile. 

"Mushroom soup. It's the least I could do after hitting you with the hammer."

"And pushing me off a roof."

"Hmm. I'm not apologizing for that."

Ethan elbowed him in the ribs, and got butted against the corridor wall in return. They went back and forth for the rest of the hallway, pushing left and right with clangs and snickers echoing in the factory. 

Reaching the elevator, Karl suddenly stopped in his tracks with a frown. 

"Do you hear that?" he said as the heavy door groaned open. "Someone humming ?"

Ethan didn't, but he did once the panel slid away. 

Lifting his head from the book he was reading, a giant man smiled at them both from his dais. A tasteful clutter of antiques was surrounding him. 

"Well, good evening", said the Duke. 

20210630-0111261
image0-2

Chapter Text

Ethan was staring at the Duke. The Duke was staring at Ethan. Somewhere in the background, Karl was crackling with static. 

“Good evening”, said Ethan. “Fancy seeing you here.”

Fancy ?” Heisenberg erupted behind him. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Who let you in my goddamn elevator?”

The Duke barely blinked at his furious barking. His amiable smile was still spread across his rosy face, and he turned his gaze back to Ethan. 

“Wherever my favorite customer happens to pass. I have some wares for your interest.” And after a second of pondering, he added as an afterthought:

“And maybe even something for you, Lord Heisenberg.'' Ethan wasn’t sure whether it was sarcastic or not, but Heisenberg definitely took it that way, because the walls of the elevator started creaking and folding into spikes. He pushed past Ethan, shouldering him aside with a seething glare. It was the first time he had seen him angry, and when he grasped his coat by reflex, the glower he got in return almost made him take a step back. 

Fortunately, he had never been the type to freeze in intimidation. 

“Calm your tits, Karl”, his mouth said while his brain was still processing that the magnet man whose bed he squatted was actually pretty fucking scary and dangerous, in case he had forgotten.

Heisenberg’s mouth opened in an outraged gasp, and Ethan felt his guts cringe inwards when he heard himself. His mouth was not done, though. 

“I have some things to sell. And I could use some shotgun shells.”

“Ethan”, Heisenberg smoldered, pointing aggressively at himself and the surrounding factory. “Metal workshop, remember? Don’t you dare buy fucking ammunition from the man camping in my elevator!”

“I see you’re also carrying poultry”, the Duke noted as Ethan slid a few crystals his way. “You might want to cook that quickly before it goes bad.”

“Dinner is already ready!” Karl screamed, frothing at the mouth. A powerful gust of something that felt like electric wind rumbled through the room. The floor under Ethan’s feet trembled strangely. 

“I have this weird knife”, he said in a deadpan voice. “Could you buy it as well? I’ll take all the shotgun shells. I don’t trust anything he sends my way.” He pointed at Heisenberg with a thumb in a lower voice.

“You little fucking…” Heisenberg looked two inches away from strangling him, fingers curling and uncurling. His eyes suddenly fell on the dagger, and the irate string of curses died in his chest. Oh, yeah , Ethan thought with a tinge of irony. The plan. The plan that will definitely still work if that happens to be Miranda whom we just ran into, arms-linked. 

There was a long silence. With deft fingers, the Duke turned the blade around, rubbing the engravings on its handle. Time seemed to stop. And then, very gently, he pushed it back on his little desk towards Ethan. 

“Why, after all the trouble you’ve been through to collect it, that would be a shame.”

Ethan looked at him. The little smile on his face reminded him of the Mona Lisa, if the Mona Lisa had been a giant man with a small business. They kept staring at each other while Ethan took the dagger back. 

“Stab him”, Karl said. 

“I don’t think it’s Miranda”, Ethan muttered. The Duke quirked an eyebrow, and let out a hearty chuckle at these words. Shaking his head, he took hold of the Angie doll suspended by his dais and straightened its little veil with careful gestures. 

“No, it’s not her”, Heisenberg snarled. “I’d sense it. Still, stab him.”

“Why?”

“Because he is a fucking trespasser who parked his caravan in the middle of my damn property!” 

“I parked my ass in your bed”, Ethna reminded him in an icy voice, pocketing the dagger while the Duke gave Angie a considerate pat on the head. “Get over it.”

Clearing his throat, he put his hands flat on the Duke’s desk. 

“So”, he said. There was a moment of silence, only broken by the drum of his eight fingers on the varnished wood and Heisenberg’s half-voiced threats and mutters. 

“So”, the Duke repeated affably. 

“You’re not Miranda.”

“That would be quite a terrible strategy if I were. Although, I do understand your concerns. You have been running into her several times, after all.”

Karl’s mumbles stopped, and his breath hitched. 

“You what now ?”

I what now?” Ethan repeated, aghast. 

“Come now, Ethan”, the Duke said with an amused look. “How many people have you come across?”

His mouth was flapping open and closed as he rewinded his entire experience through the village. Elena and Iulian and Luiza and the others, all dead. Was he referring to the Lycans? Was the great bearded giant with the hammer one of Miranda’s shapes?

A memory came tugging at the edge of his mind. Death tolls for them all. 

“The crone”, he realized. “Fuck. That bloody hag was Miranda?”

“What hag?” Karl shouted, looking like he was having an aneurysm. 

“I don’t know! Some weird old woman with braids, who kept popping in random places and speaking in riddles!”

Heisenberg’s hands were on his shoulders, shaking him while the man was sputtering in his face. 

“A weird crone follows you around and that’s just good and normal?”

“Nothing is normal, and even nothinger is good here! But she didn’t try to kill me either, so that kinda faded away into the background, alright?”

“Oh, I see. Was she your best friend too, then?” Heisenberg spat, raising his arms to the ceiling. 

“Might as well have been! She didn’t shove me into a hole to be sliced by a sentient propeller!”

“First of all, his name is Sturm, and second, you let go of my hand! God, Ethan! How long has she been following you around? Does she know about us?” He asked with growing panic, cramming his gloved finger into Ethan’s face. 

“I don’t know! I just didn’t think of it!” 

“Yes, that is a problem.” The Duke’s voice was calm yet imperious, and Heisenberg stopped shoving him. “You need to start thinking, Ethan.”

Karl turned around briskly with a scandalized scowl, clearly not caring that he had been yelling the same thing in his ears not a second ago. Ethan also was going to snap back, but a plump hand was lifted in an appeasing gesture. 

“I mean no aggravation. You have not been in the best conditions for reflection. But you do need to take a step back and consider the bigger picture here.”

“Still aggravated”, Ethan grunted. “Alright. Let’s start with you, then… Duke Dimitrescu.”

Heisenberg gave a satisfied sneer, and came standing by Ethan’s side with his arms crossed. The Duke’s eyes went from one to the other ; eventually, he sighed and leaned back into his impossible armchair. 

“I see that Lord Heisenberg has updated you on the village gossip. Yes. That was my name, once.”

“Were you ever going to mention that the crazy witch with the claws was your wife?”

“For what purpose?”

“Truth!” Ethan belted. “Would have been fucking nice, for a change, in the middle of stringing me along like a puppet!”

“I never lied to you, Ethan. Though I’ll admit, I did take advantage of your tendency to move forwards and keep questions for a later time.”

“No shit! I can’t believe you sent me up there while you knew what they had done to Rose. Sure, go ahead and check out the lady’s private chambers! Oh, by the by, you might wanna look for a marmalade jar rather than an actual baby!”

“I’ll ask you a single question, Ethan. Would you have trusted me if you knew?”

“No”, he immediately retorted. “That’s a bullshit argument, though. Like saying oh yeah, I didn’t tell you I was cheating because then you’d have been angry! ” 

“And rightfully so”, the Duke admitted. “But I needed you out and about. And you needed help.”

“Why?” Heisenberg snapped. “He wants his pickled daughter back. I want revenge. What do you want?”

The Duke turned to him then, and Ethan could swear he felt Heisenberg shrink a little under the weight of his gaze. 

“Revenge”, he repeated with a sad smile. “And what good will revenge do, Lord Heisenberg? Will it bring back everything you lost? Revenge is only the harbinger of more pain and destruction. As long as that’s your purpose, as long as that’s what fills your every breath and move, you still live for her. As much as Lord Moreau, no matter how disgusting the thought might be to you.”

Karl faltered like he had been slapped, but the Duke was not done. 

“I abandoned the thought of revenge long ago”, he said, flicking at a jar of cadou. “And you might still evade the tragedy of the fate that awaits all her broken toys… if only you can hitch yourself to some higher purpose.”

He contemplated Ethan when he said the last words. Something strange tugged at his heartstrings. Was he supposed to be a higher purpose now? Was Rose?

“What I want is very simple”, the Duke concluded. “I want an end.”

There was a dark edge to his voice, and suddenly, he wasn’t just a cheerful merchant with his belly out and his shoes off. Danger coiled around him in a way he hadn’t seen before. 

You said Heisenberg was the most dangerous of the four, Ethan remembered. He never counted himself in the mix, now that he thought of it. 

Karl was livid by his side, jaw and fists clenching. Static jolted him when he placed a firm hand on his forearm, tickling his absent fingers, but he didn’t budge. 

“An end to what?” he asked. 

A large smile lightened the Duke’s face, and just like that, he was back to being the affable presence he knew. 

“Take a moment, Ethan. Look at the whole thing. See what is right and what is wrong, and what should be… different.”

Karl’s head jerked back up, and a low growl escaped his throat. 

“He told me that. When we were in the castle. Were you listening at the door?”

“I hear many things, Lord Heisenberg. It might be in your better interest not to concern yourself with it.”

It was said in his lazy cordiality, but there again was that tint of authority floating in his words. 

“Everything is wrong”, Ethan said before Karl had any time to react or piss off the Duke. Somehow, that felt like a terrible idea at the moment. “Where do I start?”

“Stop looking at the shapes. Start looking at the… system.”

Ethan stayed silent for a while, hand still pressed on Heisenberg’s arm. He wrenched himself free of his grasp and leaned back onto the door, glaring at the Duke over his glasses ; it didn’t seem like he was going to impale him in the minute, though, so Ethan put him out of his mind. 

“The cadou is the system”, he said. He could feel the cogs in his brain turning again, smothered thoughts bubbling back up now that he was marginally safe, and allowed to just stop and think  for a while. 

“Miranda is nuts, she wants a vessel for her dead kid”, he summarized counting on his fingers, “so she’s been feeding everyone that piece of shit to try and see if they were receptive.”

“Nobody has ever been”, Karl muttered from his position. 

“Nobody until now”, Ethan said hesitantly. “She didn’t just pick a random baby in her brainwashed village. She wanted Rose, specifically.”

“Because she’s yours.”

“Ye… yes”, he murmured. “She was born from… molded people. So Miranda knows about the mold, somehow?”

Silence spread in the elevator. Karl gave a rigid shrug, arms still crossed. 

“Did she ever mention it? Mention… me?”

Head slowly shaking, Karl looked at his leather gloves with a troubled expression. 

“She said she had found a good candidate, about a month ago. And that she would be gone for a while and we should behave.” The irony in his tone was painful. 

“Did you try to…”

“I did nothing”, Karl snapped. “I’ve tried… I have. Believe me, I have. Before.”

“Bad times”, Ethan said in a low voice. Heisenberg shot him a nasty glare, then looked down when he saw he wasn’t mocking him. His gloved hands lifted a stucco bust which bore striking resemblance to Lady Dimitrescu, and poked at her breasts. 

“Miranda is the only one who has been in touch with the outer world for a while.” The Duke’s tone was soft, and he looked at Heisenberg with something that resembled compassion. 

“She took something out of here, a few years ago. And the army that was slowly making its way around the village stopped in their tracks and moved back.”

The bust shattered on the floor, and Heisenberg turned to the Duke, mouth agape. 

“What army?”

“The Romanian one, I imagine. There is still a country out there, Lord Heisenberg. Albeit one that is very keen on forgetting us, it seems. For the right price.”

A heaving breath wheezed out of Karl’s mouth as he crumpled to the ground, falling to his knees. Ethan strode to him to grab his shoulder, and yelped when a nasty cloud of shrapnel swatted him away. 

“Don’t”,  he rasped. His head was between his thighs, hands clutching the floor furiously. “Don’t touch me. Please.”

Ethan took a step back. The floor looked like it was contemplating the idea of suddenly crumpling under his shoes, and he shot a worried look to the Duke. 

He shrugged and continued: 

“I have no qualms imagining that whatever cadou she bribed authorities with, it eventually made its way across the world. Slightly tampered with, perhaps.”

“Yes”, Ethan muttered. “The Umbrella guys said something about a derivative of leeches and filoviruses.”

“Well, there you have it. It is quite common to adapt merchandise when crossing the Atlantic, or so I’ve heard.” The quip was not funny at all, but Ethan was so stressed that he still chuckled nervously. 

“Right. Fuck. I’m the sexy American variant of your local fungus recipe.”

An incredulous noise escaped Heisenberg as he finally looked back up. Ethan pretended not to see him wipe his face on his sleeve as he uttered:

“I have magnet powers. You ooze.

“Sexily, though?”

There was a second of silence, and then Karl snickered, buried a desperate grin in the palms of his hands, and burst into something that was exactly halfway between tears and laughter. The Duke was smiling as well, and even though it was the weirdest fucking situation, Ethan let out a long sigh and sat next to Heisenberg. 

“I’m sorry”, he said plainly. “Not for oozing, that’s on you and Sturm. For… the rest.”

Karl’s words were knotted in his throat when he replied, still not looking up:

“I just thought for all that time that someday, I’d be out into the world. It never occured to me that the world might not want that.”

His voice was low and soft, and it felt like a punch in the gut. Silently, Ethan put his maimed hand on his forearm again. He didn’t smack it off that time. 

“That is not all there is”, the Duke mentioned, rifling through a coffer. He extracted a shiny box of cigars and held it out to Heisenberg. His hand was hesitant, but he did take it. 

“Right. The mold made its way back here. I… We were set here. In Romania. By Chris and his guys. Are they the ones she gave cadou to? Is that all part of a sick fucking experiment?”

“That, I don’t know”, the Duke said while Heisenberg lit up a cigar and leaned against Ethan’s shoulder, just a little. His gloved hand was brushing against his thigh. “But it’s not what’s important.”

“Beg pardon?” Ethan choked. “She learnt about the mold, she found out about the baby, and figured that it was worth a try. Umbrella must be in on it!”

“Perhaps, yes. But you must look further.”

He shared a glance with Heisenberg, who gave a skeptical shrug before leaning away from him. The warmth vanished on his arm, and Ethan scratched his head hesitantly. 

“I’m not sure I follow you.”

“How deep do you reach when wrenching a problem out, Ethan?”

He stayed silent for a while. 

“All the way”, he whispered. “Miranda… is not the problem.” That made Karl twitch at his side and look at him unnerved, but he kept talking, feeling the threads of the thought slowly uncoil. 

“It’s the cadou. She’s just using it. Or… she thinks she’s using it?”

The beaming smile on the Duke’s face told him he had finally stumbled on the right track of thought. 

“Is she, though? Is it just some sort of… weird, biomutating network that she’s tapping into? Is it somehow… sentient?”

“What an amazing question, Ethan. I can’t tell you for sure. What I can tell you is that this village is much, much older than Miranda. And that the people here have always been… special.”

Furiously nodding, Ethan scrambled for his notebook. He had found the old engravings and the letters of yore mentioning the strange inhabitants. 

“You think she isn’t controlling it?” Heisenberg said, unable to hide the little tinge of hope in his voice. 

“Control”, marveled the Duke. “Such a fascinating concept. How do you control something?”

“Take away what they hold dear”, Karl said with a glimpse towards Ethan. “Remove all alternatives but the path you want them on.”

“No”, Ethan slowly said. “No, that doesn’t work. She had Rose, but she didn’t control me. She took everything from you, but she didn’t control you, either. Otherwise, none of us would be here.”

It was so much simpler than that. It made him want to scream. 

“You give them what they want”, he said. 

The impact of the realization hit him like lightning. Or maybe it was Heisenberg letting out some steam. Either way, he felt electrified, barely daring to move as the idea unraveled inside his brain. 

“The cadou controls her”, Ethan stated, heart beating in his chest. “Sentient or not, it does. It’s shown her a way to get her child back, so she’s spreading it. That’s what parasites do. They give incentive to the host, so it helps them proliferate.”

The Duke had closed his eyes, and was softly nodding. 

“In the local tales of this village, there is always an ancient figure guarding the spirits of the dead. Holding memories of people in its roots, and whispering to the living who are willing to serve. Legends vary, but he is always called the păstor.”

“The… one who keeps?” Ethan fumbled with the unfamiliar word. He understood almost everything people said here, but every now and then, he was reminded that he had only been taking Romanian classes for a couple of years. The passive-agressive owl in his smartphone had been uninstalled when it offered "mucegai" as word of the day, too. 

“Yes”, said Heisenberg. “You know, for an American, your Romanian is pretty good.”

“Thanks. I mean, I kinda had to learn. It’s not like I could expect people to speak fluent English in rural eastern Europe.”

“I know a bit. Where be the soup? The soup be in the bowl ”, Karl said with a guttural accent. It felt so peculiar to hear his mother tongue in his mouth that Ethan burst out laughing despite Karl’s dejected look. 

“Sorry. That’s good. Still haven’t seen you using a bowl, though.”

“You can just eat in the pot and save on dishwashing”, Heisenberg grumbled. “It makes more sense.”

“So, that… păstor. Do we think it’s the mother-cadou, then? The thing that Miranda cuts in cute little pieces to feed innocent villagers and turn them into... whatever happens? The root of that nonsense?”

“I do”, said the Duke, and it felt so refreshing to ear a clear-cut opinion in that mellow voice that he almost cried a little. 

“Then we shoot it. Simple and plain.”

Karl and the Duke exchanged a silent look that said Ah, Americans so loudly Ethan could almost hear it. Sullen, he crossed his arms. The cigar smoke was floating in ribbons, and he chased one with an annoyed wave of the hand. 

“What? I’m not hearing another plan.”

“No, that’s on brand for you”, Karl said with disgusting realism. “We might want to turn your daughter back before plugging the whole thing off, though.”

“Ah, yes”, the Duke whispered. “Your little Rose, wintering in crystals. There are three ways to reverse the process. The first was Miranda’s plan. Harness the power at her disposal during the ceremony.”

“Well, I’m not asking her.”

Karl snorted on his cigar, choking and coughing ; Ethan was still pissed at his comment and purposely didn’t slap him in the back. 

“An understandable reluctance. I also imagine that you are not quite keen on letting Lord Heisenberg screw a controlling circuit inside your daughter’s brain in order to, perhaps and with a lot of luck, jolt her powers awake.”

Ethan was starting to feel a little queasy, and Karl said in a bashful tone once he was done gasping on his cigar:

“We ruled that out already, yes.”

“Then all that’s left is the same ritual that your unfortunate siblings go through to regrow a proper body”, the Duke mused. “Have you ever seen it performed, Lord Heisenberg?”

Karl shook his head, his expression as nauseated as Ethan’s had been a second ago. 

“I… went through it. As you obviously know. I don’t remember much.”

“A blessing, truly. Though quite simple, it does require a tremendous amount of energy. We don’t have access to the same source Miranda uses, obviously, but there is an alternative. It’s a good thing you have been so diligent collecting those crystals, Ethan.”

He gaped at that. 

“They’re energy ?”

“Remains of a living essence. Very precious indeed, and necessary for our purpose.”

“Oh, so that’s why you’ve been buying crystallized corpses off him”, Karl interjected with a scowl. “That’s way less creepy, sure.”

“Stones in glass houses, Karl”, Ethan said with a wave towards the ferris wheel of Soldats slowly rotating in the background. “Are you saying we can use those to revive Rose?”

The Duke gave Angie another pensive look, drumming on his desk. 

“Almost”, he eventually said. 

“What do you mean, almost?”

“I mean that you have gathered quite a lot of power already, but not quite enough. You would need at least one more Lord to give Rose a real chance.”

Heisenberg jumped to his feet, hands in the air. Panic was agitating his face with a twitchy sneer. 

“What? No, fuck you. Ethan, don’t listen to him. We’re pals, right? For fuck’s sake, you are sleeping in my bed. He’s lying to you, obviously!”

“I’m not killing him”, Ethan said, trying very hard not to think that if the Duke told him it was the only way to save Rose, the dagger would be in his hands before he even had time to think about it. “We’re… allies. How many Lycans would be equivalent?”

“I was not talking about him”, the Duke interrupted as Heisenberg kept arguing his case. 

“... even apologize for the roof thing if that’s what it takes. What?”

There was a short silence, then the Duke sat up Angie on the desk. It seemed strangely fragile in his massive hands, and with the dead cadou extracted from its porcelain head, it wasn’t as scary as before. It only looked broken, and a little sad. Ethan still shot it a warning scowl. 

“You have brought me Lord Moreau, and Lady Dimitrescu.” There was almost a tint of affection in his voice when he mentioned her. “And little miss Angie, which many might argue is an extension of Lady Beneviento, and which she certainly used this way…”

He flicked at the china, and Angie fell to the side. 

“... though it is, in the end, just a doll.”

Ethan could feel the weight of Karl’s stare on the back of his neck. He carefully propped up the doll again, fighting all the instincts that yelled to him that she would bite off his fingers any second now. 

“You didn’t bring her crystal?”

“I… guess not. I took the flask, the doll, and I ran out.”

“Why did you even take that thing?” Karl asked with a repulsed look. Turning the doll over in his hands, Ethan suddenly had that strange feeling that melted him from the inside whenever he held Rose’s cuddly monkey. The heavy, gut-wrenching emotion one had when touching the precious comforter of a child. 

“Because it was hers and she loved it.” He couldn’t explain it any other way. A doll was precious, in the same way that a stuffed animal was. Violently, powerfully precious. Like it was somehow filled with all the love and innocence that a child had poured into it. 

“Oh, for fuck’s sake”, Heisenber sighed. “Fine. So you need Donna’s ... corpse to bring back Rose, then?”

The Duke nodded. Ethan couldn't help noticing that Karl looked far from enthusiastic at this perspective. He ran his tongue on his chapped lips, pacing back and forth in the elevator. 

“And then?” he abruptly asked, fidgeting with the end of his sleeves. He was pointedly not looking at the Duke. 

“Then little Rose lives.”

“And they all… die. For good.”

Silence fell heavy on the room. Ethan was still cradling Angie in an absent-minded hug, looking at the tense shoulders of Heisenberg, and the way his bearded jaw clenched under the shade of his hat. 

“Yes”, said the Duke. Almost gently, he added: “An end, Lord Heisenberg. At long last.”

Karl looked like he was going to say something, then he turned heels and headed out. He stopped just at the doorway of the elevator, hand uncertain on the metal frame. In the darkness of the factory, Ethan could barely see his face. 

“Better get to the Beneviento mansion, then.” His voice was strained and painful. 

“I’ll go tomorrow”, Ethan said. “It’s dark already. You can stay here, if you want.”

“No”, Heisenberg snapped back. “I’m coming with you. In case it goes wrong. Who am I kidding? When it goes wrong.”

“Alright. I’ll make the sandwiches”, he tried to joke. “I think I’ll even try the pickles. Need to work on that marinade phobia.”

Heisenberg didn’t reply, body still stiff and hidden eyes gazing at his metal kingdom. 

“We’ll see you then, Dimitrescu”, Ethan added, walking up to Heisenberg. He didn’t dare to touch him, but when he passed him, he followed in his steps with a mechanical stride. “Unless… ?”

“He’s not invited to dinner”, Karl growled. “And keep your fucking ass confined to this elevator, or I swear I’ll set Sturm on you.”

The Duke chuckled as if it was the most excellent joke he had heard all evening. Ethan had no idea why, and he was starting to think that it was probably a good thing.

Dinner was excellent, though Heisenberg picked at his mushrooms with a gloomy expression. He didn’t say much, and while Ethan didn’t want to press the matter, awkwardness was also permeating right into his skin. 

Lights were out and he was lying in bed when he decided to speak, listening to Karl turning around in his makeshift metal hammock. He usually was the first of the two to fall asleep, and Ethan had taken a strange comfort in his light snoring for the past nights. 

“What’s on your mind?” he asked in a whisper. In the dark, it felt easier. 

For a while, there was only the sound of his breathing, then a low voice replied, so softly that he had to strain his ears:

“The… end. I guess I just didn’t expect that it would come… so quick.”

Ethan said nothing, hanging onto the tune of the quiet night. He could hear Karl shift in his hammock, exhaling with an open mouth. 

“I spent the last decades”, he murmured, “preparing for this. And… you know. When you have too much time to spend on something, even though you can’t wait for the end, you still think you will have more. Another year, and another. Days flying by while you think it will last forever. And suddenly... “

He didn’t finish his sentence. 

“The end”, Ethan did for him. 

“The end”, Karl breathed out. “I know he’s right. I know… I know that’s what I should aim for, too. But I’m so fucking scared.” He almost swallowed the last word, and Ethan wasn’t sure he heard right. No way in hell was he going to ask him to repeat, though. Sitting on one elbow, he glanced at the hammock down the ledge. The silhouette in it was curled on his side, knees against his chest. 

Ehtan lied back down, hands crossed against his chest. Words were failing him. There was nothing he could possibly say that wouldn’t make things worse. 

He still tried. 

“We have to be fast. Miranda’s not stupid. She will understand that something is up any day now.”

After a long silence, Heisenberg replied in a whisper: 

“I know.”

There was another excruciating pause, and Ethan was starting to think that he had fallen asleep. With a hitched breath and a voice that was almost not shaky at all, he added: 

“However long it lasts, Ethan… It’s been real.” 

There was no hint of sarcasm in his voice. And there was none in his when he replied: 

“It has.”

Settling back into bed, Ethan finally noticed the pillow under his head. It was soft, massive, with a whiff of lavender oil. It felt weird. The smell of Heisenberg’s bed was, well, what it was, reminiscent of train tracks under the sun with that scent of greasy warm metal. But he had gotten used to it, and it smelled comfortable.

He cautiously removed the cushion from under his head, and asked in a slightly higher tone:

“Do you want an extra pillow?”

“You don’t like it?”

“It’s very comfortable, but I like the smell of yours.”

There was no reply at first, but he saw Karl’s silhouette unfurl and raise onto his elbows. Mortified, Ethan leaned back into bed with an arm draped over his face. 

“That was a weird thing to say, wasn’t it?”

A hearty chuckle came from the hammock. 

“Yeah. But you are a weird man, Ethan Winters.”

That felt fair. He still weighed the fluffy pillow in his hand, and with a deft gesture and all the strength he could muster, lobbed it at Heisenberg. There was a muffled “oof!” and the unmistakable clanker of a man falling out of a metal hammock. Everything went quiet, and Ethan almost wondered if he had killed him with a feather cushion. 

Then he was hit in the head, hard, with a lavender-scented weapon of destruction. Yelping in surprise, he struggled back as Karl bludgeoned him mercilessly with the pillow, managing to land a few hits of his own before a dreadful rip rang the end of his hostilities. Light down was snowing over his bed, and he heard Heisenberg cough out a plume before sliding back into his hammock. It hovered at Ethan’s height now, and he could almost see his smile in the dim light of the fireplace. 

“Well, you win”, Ethan conceded. He threw the surviving pillow his way, and smirked when it landed on his face. 

Sliding it under him, Karl let out a deep sigh, but it felt less somber than before. Ethan felt weirdly happy about it, and he punched him in the arm over the gap between them. 

“Good night, asshole.”

“Good night, rest of Ethan’s body.”

The shriek of laughter that shook him was far from dignified, but Karl looked so fucking proud in the darkness that it was worth it. 

“And good night, Karl”, Heisenberg said in a grunt, rolling over.

“Yeah. Good night, Karl.”

He couldn’t see his face, but the line of his shoulders relaxed over the massive pillow. 

Staring at the ceiling, Ethan waited for a while. When the familiar snoring came up from the hammock, he allowed himself a tight smile, and closed his eyes with a murmur:

“However long it lasts.”

Chapter Text

A branch cracked under Ethan's foot, and in the silence of the fog, it felt deafening. Heisenberg hadn't said much since they left the factory in the morning. He had, surprisingly, brought a pot of coffee to the elevator while Ethan was getting dressed. 

The surreal mist that floated thick along the graveyard path had not changed since his last visit ; apparently, the climate here did not give a flying fuck that the rest of the valley was immersed in cold, hard winter sun. 

Ethan could feel it pervading his jacket, his shirt, his skin. Damp and strange and somehow much colder than the crispy chill of the castle roofs covered in snow. 

The light was weird as well, as if it didn't quite find its way among the bony trees. He couldn't blame it ; they had gotten lost twice already, taking a twisting path that brought them right back to the gnarled pine where dozens of dolls were hanging. 

"What do you think they did?" Ethan tried to quip, pointing at the disturbing small martyrs. 

"Doll crimes, probably", Heisenberg muttered. "Broke a teacup. Had a make-believe fight with Angie. Stabbed the gardener with his shovel." His bearded chin was tucked into his coat, and his hands in his pockets. Ethan glanced at him from the side. He couldn't see much of his face between the collar of his trench and the hat, but he radiated gloom and misery. 

He wished he could have said something. 

Hey, I know that you're upset we're using your sort-of-sister's corpse to reanimate my baby daughter and bind all your pseudo-siblings to a real death sentence in the process. 

We're still doing it, though. Thanks for the assistance. 

Yeah. Better keep his mouth shut. 

On the path they had already taken the first time, he could now see a familiar hump, lit by an eerie green glow. 

"There", he pointed. "I remember this."

"We've tried that way already."

They absolutely had. But it was different this time, and Ethan walked to the doll butte. Not long after his first stop here, he had found a piece of broken nameplate, and come back to put it in its place on the grave's stone slab. There was a name, and two gut-wrenching dates. 

"Claudia. It was her daughter, right?"

No matter how much resentment he held for Donna Beneviento and her nightmare mansion, he couldn't help but feel his heart ache for her. Burying a child was… inconceivable. His brain stopped at the idea whenever the horrible thought of what if it doesn't work what if Rose dies tried to snake in. 

There was no word in any language for a parent who had lost a child. He had always found it quite telling. 

"Yeah", Karl groaned. He kicked away a doll that had slipped on the narrow path, and Ethan held back a scandalized gasp. He didn't know why, but he grabbed it from the bush where it had landed and deposited it back onto the mound while Heisenberg kept striding. 

In the distance, the fog seemed to lift a bit, with a gush of wind. He could see the suspended bridges now. 

They made their way to the elevator, and Karl slid a gloved hand over the creepy mail drop. His thumb rubbed at the engraving. Give up your memories.

"Did you give her something?" he asked in a callous voice as the mechanism groaned its way down. "The first time?"

Ethan nodded. The picture was burnt behind his eyelids and into his brain. Giving away the paper hadn't been too much of a trial. 

"Family photo."

"Hence the nightmare baby", Karl muttered for himself as they stepped in. Leaning back on the grid, he crossed his arms. He was looking more nauseous than angry now. Running a tongue on his lips, Ethan hesitated for a while. If Karl wanted to talk, he would. 

Except he didn't, and he really needed to know. 

"Did you ever? I mean. Give her … something?" he questioned as the elevator trembled and stopped to the ledge where the front yard of the Beneviento mansion spread out. In the background, the waterfall roared like an irate titan, spraying gusts of cold water into the air. Without the fog, it must have been an incredible view ; but right now, it only felt threatening.

The silhouette of the mansion stood impassible in front of the chute. Looming. Towering.

Waiting. 

Weeds and wildflowers swayed in the wet breeze, tracing a path towards the front door. It was still open, exactly as he had left it. 

"Yes", said Karl. Ethan had almost forgotten his question, and Heisenberg's voice was rough and throaty. 

"Once. I was… Look, she was a good one, before. But living here does things to you."

Ethan gladly believed it, and he nodded while watching the mansion's windows. He could have sworn he saw a curtain move. Probably the wind gushing in from the front door. Donna was dead, her mansion empty. He was just on edge. 

"You mentioned that she used to… help people. That they came to her and she made them see again the ones they had lost." The words clenched around his throat, coiling like a snake. Mia. She had shown him Mia.

She could have...

He could have...

It could have been different.

He could only imagine what he would have felt if instead of a horrifying mockery of her, Donna Beneviento had let him sit with the echo of his wife, just for an hour or a day, maybe at that garden table over there next to the patch of yellow flowers. And talk. Just talk. Maybe hold her hand. 

What he would have told her, with the song of the waterfall for sole witness. 

"Yes", Karl muttered. "She was kind, once. And then, she realized she was powerful."

He swallowed his next words, and coughed with an embarrassed look at his feet. 

"... anyway. The one time I asked her, it was too late. Look, it was a stupid idea and it didn't go well, alright? She was pissed at me, if you can even believe it." Sarcasm was dripping from his voice. 

"Can't imagine why", Ethan said before he could think. A grin that was half a wince crawled onto Karl's face as he caressed a column of the porch. 

"Right? I am charm incarnate." His voice had fallen so dark that Ethan didn't feel like laughing. Turning to him, he looked at his profile. Heisenberg was resting his elbows on the banister, back turned to the estate and eyes firmly fixed on the distant lines of the castle towers. 

"Might still be angry, for all I know. She holds grudges."

"What did you do?"

"Might have to do with Claudia."

Ethan felt his heart knot in apprehension. 

"Karl. What… did you do?"

A piercing gaze met his above the glasses, and Karl sneered. 

"I didn't rob her daughter's grave to make a child Soldat, if that's your question." Blood flushing to his face, Ethan looked away. It had been his question, and it didn't seem so far-fetched. He was glad for the reply, though. Karl's fingers drummed on the wood in a somber melody. 

"I may have brought her up during one of Miranda's mandatory family dinners ." He spat the words in the same way that Ethan did in his mind when thinking of that horrible night at the Bakers'. 

"Might have told her that she was a grown-ass fucking adult and that she ought to stop playing with dolls one day. Might have said that try as she may, she wouldn't replace her dead daughter with that fucking monster of a puppet."

He made a brief pause before adding: 

"Might have said that she'd better get herself impregnated again and that I might even volunteer if she didn't mind keeping the veil on."

"Ouch." Ethan blinked and grimaced. 

"Yeah. Miranda didn't like it either."

"Bad times?"

"Bad times. But at least I wasn't invited to the next fucking family tea party. Alcina made a cake, apparently. Thank god I skipped that."

Karl raised his hat to comb a hand through his hair, before pushing it back down firmly in place. His face was odd when he turned to Ethan. 

"They're not my family", he said in a tone that sounded almost pleading. "They're not. We… we were just four people who got captured by this crazy bitch, alright? And I never caved in to the lies, and the delusions, and the pretending we were some sort of happy fucking family while she did to us the things she did."

His breath was hitched and he almost spat the rest of his sentence:

"...but the others gave in, either because it was easier or because they ended up fucking liking it. And..." 

Words died in his throat, his lips pursing. A muscle was twitching on his jaw, and Ethan looked at him with something strange tugging in his chest. He almost put a hand on his back, and stopped himself short of it. Afraid to see him break and crumble under his fingers like a crystallized corpse. 

"I know what that's like", he simply said. 

"Yes", Karl replied after a short silence. "Yes, you do. I keep forgetting that you do. How does it feel?" He leaned his head to the side, looking at him over the bridge of his glasses. 

"To see what you could have become?" he added abruptly. 

Ethan couldn't meet his gaze, and turned to the waterfall. 

"I think I dodged quite a bullet."

"Ha!" Heisenberg's bark was swallowed by the roaring water. Shame was crawling inside Ethan's skin, hanging onto his bones. A week at the Bakers had changed him for life, but at least it had been short enough to retain his sense of identity. He remembered Mia calling Jack Daddy even after they had left Louisiana, and the way she bit her tongue to blood when it slipped. 

"You are strong."

He didn't know where the words had come from, but he meant them. However many decades he had spent into this mess, Heisenberg was still clinging to his own sense of self. Moreau gargling for his mother to watch him had left him deeply unnerved, much more than the whole acidic rain bit of that encounter. 

Karl gave him a strange look, and with a deep sigh, rubbed his soles on the doormat. 

"I'm not. Just stubborn."

Stubbornness was strength in Ethan's book. As Karl moved to pass the door, his hand went to his arm of his own volition, and Heisenberg watched it with a quirked eyebrow. Ethan removed it just as quickly, unsure where the fuck that had come from. 

"I thought I heard something", he lied. A tiny smile came playing about Karl's lips, and then spread into a full grin. 

"Just say you're having cold feet and you want me to hold your hand, Ethan."

With a goading smirk, Heisenberg offered his gloved fingers. Ethan huffed and pushed him aside, but Karl still managed to grab his good hand. 

"Now, now. No need to be scared. I'm right here."

"Scared of what? She's dead already. We just need…"

His foot passed the frame of the door, and everything happened at the same time. 

A crow croaked behind them, and Karl turned around on alert feet, his hand letting go of Ethan's. 

He heard a distinct giggle coming from upstairs. 

And the door slammed between them with a thundering bang. 

 

Chapter Text

"Ethan!" 

Karl's scream was muffled behind the thick wooden panel. Pulling and pushing and slamming at the door from his side, Ethan tasted bile and blood. Panic drummed inside his ears as the lights in the living room flickered. 

Shit. 

There was an otherworldly shift in the air, and suddenly the broken furniture and the circular trace of the pipe bomb he had lobbed into the mansion on his way out vanished. Everything was neat and tidy again, with that strange timeless feel of an old-fashioned home where nothing had been moved for a very long time. 

The trinkets on the shelves were gathering dust again, empty-eyed dolls looking at him from the mantelpiece. In her painting above the stairs, Donna Beneviento seemed to follow his every move as he strode across the room. He went to grab a chair and threw it into the window, screaming. 

It crashed against a wall as the light from the outside disappeared. One by one, all the apertures shut down as he ran to them. There was no glass anymore, only empty frames with curtains draped around hard brick. His heaving breath was the only thing he heard in the dimmed silence. 

Until he heard the giggle again, right behind the shell of his ear. 

He reeled and faced nothing. With an electric buzz, the chandelier flickered, and everything turned dark. An austere voice whispered against his skin, as somber and cold as the laughter had been light: 

"Welcome back, Ethan Winters. "

Something brushed against him, soft as a feather. He kicked blindly, but when the dull light returned, his bag was gone and his pockets empty. Just like the first time. Losing all restraints, he pounded at the entrance and yelled until his voice broke. 

"Karl! Open the door!"

It didn't budge under his weight ; his shoulder throbbed in pain, but he kept pushing until he heard something crash upstairs. 

Spinning on his feet, he shot a terrified look at the mezzanine. Heavy pounding noises were coming his way ; he watched in bated breath as a very familiar gait stomped to the wooden banister. 

"Papa!"

"Fuck!" Ethan shrieked as the horrifying maw of the deformed fetus heaved itself above the rail. Its gleeful laughter filled the hallway while Ethan jumped back, pressing his back to the door, hands clasping at the wooden decor. The behemoth baby did that thing that had always given him nightmares as a parent : clambering onto the baluster and tumbling down with a surprised yelp. 

Its head hit the carpet with a sickening crack, and after a few seconds of shocked gasping, the thing rolled on his back and wailed. The sound was penetrating Ethan's brain, his bones, his teeth, ear-shattering and alien ; the remnants of its bloody umbilical cord left a string of gore on the antique rug when it turned to him. 

He ran. 

For no good reason at all, his legs jumped towards the stairs, and he found himself climbing up increasingly steep steps, as if he was hiking up a sand dune. Behind him, the wailing changed tune. To his keen parent ears, it sounded like the gruesome baby was now more angry than hurt. It was always the hardest part when Rose sounded like that. Comforting an anxious child was one thing. Letting them steam out their anger was another, and he usually just ended up nodding and muttering "Girl, same" when Rose showed her temper because Mister Banana was in the washing machine. 

Stairs were a stupid idea, and he could almost hear the Duke at the back of his mind. Start thinking, Ethan. Start… He made the mistake of looking behind him, and stared right into the black glassy eyes of the monstrous embryo. 

They screamed at the exact same time. The thing lunged forwards, and he smelled its sickening stench as he darted over the banister. 

He hit the floor on his knees and felt them jolt a lance of pain through his body. In front of him, the grid of the elevator shone in a red, sinister light. 

He ran. 

Prying the metal lattice open was the hardest thing he had ever done ; his arms felt like weak jelly, and the capricious bawling behind him was getting closer. His mind blanked as he shook the fucking handles, pulling them aside inch by inch. Almost there. Almost enough. Almost in...

He felt a gush of stinking breath over his shoulders. Time seemed to stop as he turned around and stared right into the abysmal gullet. It smelled like blood and warm milk.

And then, as unformed hands went to grab him, the fetus was yanked back and its chin hit the floor with a painful clack. Ethan heard the grids shriek open just as he was tackled into the elevator. Landing on his back, arms in the air, he watched in terror as the grates were rammed close, and the cabin rattled into an idle descent. A red lantern blinked like an ominous eye in the ceiling, dipping the elevator in a bloody glow.

Panting, he ran a hand over his face. On the opposite side, Heisenberg - Karl, fucking god-sent Karl - leaned against the wall on shaky legs and, very slowly, slid onto the floor as well. He removed his glasses with a jittery hand, the branches clinging against the lenses as he folded them into his chest pocket. 

Ethan kept staring at him, mouth ajar. 

"Are you really here?" he asked in a raspy voice. His vocal cords felt strained and painful. 

Karl looked at him fixedly, then closed his eyes and tilted his head back, throat twitching as he swallowed. His Adam apple bobbed in his stubbly throat. 

"Unfortunately."

Ruffling through his coat with one hand, he swore under his breath. 

"Fuck. You don't have a smoke on you, do you?"

"No. I… don't have anything left."

Karl nodded, eyes still closed. His knees unfolded and his legs flopped on the floor ; an erratic breath was jerking his chest. The cabin was still creaking its way down when he spoke again. 

"Shit, you weren't kidding about the nightmare baby."

"You saw it too?" Ethan whimpered. Adrenaline was roiling in his veins, and the world was spinning around him. Only the silhouette slumped against the wall seemed to stay stationary. 

"Oh, yeah. I need a drink."

Pulse slowly settling, Ethan let out a shaky breath. His mind was timidly revving up, not unlike a propeller-headed creature wanting to play. 

"You... " The most recent memory cut the line of all the thoughts pressing into his brain. "Did you yank it back from me by its umbilical cord?"

"Yep." Gloved fingers mindlessly wiped on his dirty slacks. "I'm not quite sure, but this might be the grossest thing I've ever done. Sturm included."

His other hand, Ethan noticed, was playing about his necklaces, fiddling with an empty leather cord. Another thought pushed all others in the queue and came thundering across his entire body, sizzling his spine with realization. His jaw fell as he uttered :

"You gave her something. Your... dog tag."

Karl stayed silent, fingers clenching reflexively on the missing pendant. 

"I slid it under the door", he said blankly. A deep, painful frown was wrinkling his face. For a second, he looked like he was going to add something, but he didn't. His jaw just clamped, and he gave a weird shrug with open arms, as if to say: What was I gonna do?

Ethan didn't think. He just slowly got to his hands and knees, and put his palms on both sides of Karl's splayed legs. Lifting his knee to straddle him, he clambered onto his thighs, and pulled him by his shirt into a clumsy hug. The beard was itching his neck a little, and he could feel the drums of his heart under his hands, as he spread his fingers across his back. He hung onto him like a drowning man, feeling the heat of his body seep into his skin. Knots were strangling his throat and tears prickled at the corners of his eyes. Words didn't find a way out, but it didn't matter. Right at that moment, nothing did. 

Karl stayed immmobile for a second before giving him an awkward pat on the head. Ethan felt his other hand hovering over the small of his back, but it didn't touch him. 

Embarrassment came knocking at his skull, and Ethan coughed slightly. Right. Personal space. That was a thing. Letting go of his shirt with a tang of regret, he lifted one leg off his lap, and slid to come sit by his side instead. Cradling his knees to his chest, he rested his head on his shoulder. He could still feel the warmth of his arm against his ribs, and that was almost enough. In the dark, he couldn't quite see Karl's expression, but half-lidded eyes were set on him. 

They stayed quiet until the cabin settled down with an ominous clank. Both looked outside as the grid slid open on its own. A corridor unfurled in front of them, almost black, filled with strange shadows by the weak light of a dusty lampshade. Old paintings and wooden cabinets made twisted shapes in the darkness. 

"So", Karl said, making no move to get up. "Not quite dead, then."

Ethan's heart was pounding in his mouth. Panic was creeping back into his spine like a cold centipede, and he almost felt like crying again. 

"But I saw her corpse. I saw her… crystallize."

"And I just saw a two-meter fetus monster and a crow that burst into pollen when I punted it. Can't exactly trust your eyes here."

After a while, he added in a dark tone:

"Can't trust anything."

"But", Ethan insisted, fumbling through words. "But I stabbed her. And, and the jar was just there for me to take."

A deep sigh swayed Karl's chest. Ethan was fighting the urge to just plant his face into it and hide, hide from the terrors of the house like he was a frightened boy walking down to the basement again, hide between the lapels of his coat and wait the night out. 

It didn't work this way, though. He was a grown-ass man now. The night didn't end until you pushed it back. 

"So what then? Do you think I… just hurt her? And she gave me the jar to see me leave, lick her wounds in peace?"

Karl shrugged. He felt it more than he saw it. 

"Maybe."

Or maybe not , Ethan thought suddenly. Karl had given the jar to him freely, though not without a bit of sadistic play. Perhaps Donna was doing the same. Perhaps she wasn't quite as much under Miranda's thumb as he had believed. Perhaps she also had been waiting for the right time, the right opportunity, the right… 

Ethan , a voice murmured from the shadows. Come and see me, honey.

Then again, perhaps not. He shared a glance with Karl, and they both got up on unsteady legs. Silhouettes seemed to be standing in the night, just outside of view. Blood was strumming in his ears like a primal requiem. 

Mouth dry, Ethan ran a tongue on his lips. Without a word, Karl brushed his hand against his, fingers open in an inviting gesture. Ethan stared at him with a quirked eyebrow, and the hand flew back into his pocket. A lopsided smile crossed Karl's face, half apology, half embarrassment, and just a little pinch of something else. 

Swallowing his saliva and his pride, Ethan turned back to the corridor, firmly not looking at him as he reached into his coat to grab his hand back. There was a split second of bashful silence, then he felt gloved fingers intertwine with his and squeeze. Hard. 

Hand in hand like scared children, like castaways, like something that didn't quite say its name, they walked into the darkness. 

Not quite dead, then. The words were tumbling into his mind as they slowly made their way along the hallway. Karl's breath was oddly comforting, and he kept focused on the sound of him as they progressed. 

Not quite dead, then. 

Not. Dead. 

One more Lord. You need one more. 

His fingers clenched instinctively on Karl's, who shot him a side-eyed glance. He could feel the weight of the thought hovering over them both, seeping into the dust-smelling air.

One more Lord.

"I won't kill you", Ethan suddenly said. His feet stopped in the middle of the corridor. Vulnerable as he felt with the darkness stretching on both sides for what looked like miles and miles of vintage wallpaper and porcelain figurines, he couldn't make another step. 

Karl blinked slowly. His hand made a move to slip from his, but Ethan gripped it back. His eyes moved to their joint fingers and a strange expression slid across his face. 

"I fucking hope so", he said in a voice that almost managed to sound amused. "We are allies, after all."

"Good. Just so you know." He couldn't help but whisper, as if they were in a church. As if it made any difference to the things lurking around the corner or slithering behind the peonies on the wall. 

There was a tight smile on Karl's face, then he turned his head to glance away. It felt strange to see his eyes without the protection of his glasses. As though he was thinking the same, he made a move to adjust his absent shades with his spare hand, fumbling on his face when he realized they weren't there. 

"Bit dark for smoked glasses", Ethan remarked. "Even for you."

The unamused grimace returned for a second. 

"What are they even about, by the way?" Now that he had started talking, he couldn't stop. It seemed to make the darkness a little less terrifying. A little less omnipresent. 

A little less lonely.

"I had impromptu eye surgery a few years back", Karl said in an icy voice. "I don't do well with bright lights."

"Oh. Sorry."

And after a second, he added with a smirk: 

"So it's not only because you are a fashion asshole, then."

"Me? You're the one who won't give up on that rotten jacket!"

"It has large pockets! For guns!"

Karl rolled his eyes, and Ethan couldn't help laughing a little ; just a whispered chuckle in the carpeted silence. The shadows seemed to roil away at that, for a moment. 

Then he blinked, and Mia was in front of him. His heart skipped a beat, and another. 

She was dressed in that sweater from the picture, all coziness and warmth. They had bought it together on a trip to the coast, where the weather had gotten colder than expected. He remembered rubbing it with his thumb one night, when she had fallen asleep on the couch in his arms. He remembered how painfully soft, how gut-wrenchingly intimate the night had felt then. 

"Hi", she said with that half-smile of hers. 

"Hi", he repeated. A wave of emotion was washing over him, guilt and pain and terrible comfort, and he understood what Karl had meant when he said Donna was powerful. He felt paralyzed here, and when Mia held a hand out to him, it took Karl yanking him back not to take it. 

"Ethan, I cannot believe I have to say this", he hissed between his teeth while slowly pulling him back. "Do not talk to the hallucinatory lady in the jumper!"

"But…" 

"Do you miss me, then?" Mia asked in a soft voice that melted into his ears. "I thought you didn't."

The last words were harsh and cut through his heart like a knife. Ethan felt blood rush to his cheeks as Karl dragged him away in long strides. Shadows were rolling on the walls, like strange elongated fingers following them down the hallway. 

Straining his neck to look back, he could see her standing there, still and wistful in the gentle darkness. Planting his heels in the carpet, he pulled on Karl's hand, halting them abruptly. 

"Please", he said, not quite sure what he was asking for. Karl looked at him incredulously, clasping his free hand on Ethan's jaw. 

"Look at me", he snarled with his fingers dug into his cheeks. "Look at me, Ethan. Not at her. That's just Donna having her fun, fucking your mind raw while she's sipping tea or eating candied flies somewhere. That's not real. You know that."

"But it is", he whispered with terrible yearning. "Not quite, but… Enough."

Words were stumbling out of his mouth, but they rang true. He couldn't explain it, but his heart was heaving him to the illusion. It was enough. It didn't matter that it was fake. It was what he needed. 

His eyes locked with Karl's as soft steps came their way, barefoot on the carpet. 

"Please", he repeated. His hand was clutching so hard that it was trembling. Karl was going to have bruises for days, but he didn't complain. He didn't say a word, in fact, just looked up at the silhouette who walked to them. 

Sorrow was beating in his chest too hard for his heart to be doing anything else. Ethan put his mangled hand on the fingers still holding his jaw in place. They released him, with something almost like grief blinking in Karl's eyes. 

Shaky breath fluttering out of his lips, Ethan turned around. Mia was smiling, in that tight purse-lipped smile that she kept hiding beneath at the end. 

"You really loved her", Karl's voice said from somewhere, very far away. 

"I did". The words were scraping his throat raw. 

"Yes, you did", Mia said almost gently. "Much more than I deserved."

"That's not true. It's not."

"Oh, Ethan", she sighed with mournful, mournful eyes. "Do you always forget so easily? I mean, obviously, yes." She gave a quick glance over Ethan's shoulder while a sardonic smile came playing about her lips. 

"That man pushed you through a meatgrinder not a week ago and you're holding his hand in a dark corner already."

Karl's fingers released him almost as if he had been caught in a dirty deed. Ethan kept holding. 

"People can change."

"Yes", Mia said with a low voice. "That's what you believe, isn't it? That people can heal, that things can be fixed. Everything will be fine eventually, surely, if only you can find how to make it so."

Her voice burnt in his ears, and his guts clenched. 

"And if it doesn't? If they don't? If they keep clinging to their darkness?" Mia asked, leaning her head to the side. "Oh, Ethan. Then it's your fault, isn't that right? People only leave you because you couldn't find how to make them stay."

He remembered the smell of jasmine in the window of his therapist when they had had that talk. Mia wasn't getting better and he didn't know what to do, what to say, how to make her want him again when she jerked every time he touched her skin. The air smelled like spring, and he was miserable and powerless. Everything was his fault, somehow. 

"But it was always like that between us", she whispered with a cold voice, something cruel seeping in her words. "Don't you remember, Ethan? The hours you spent laying awake, wondering if I was angry, wondering why I hadn't texted good night?"

She took a step forward. Very slowly, Karl pulled him back. 

"Don't you remember the endless business trips? The lies you couldn't help noticing when I told you about my day, the hidden phone calls, the diary where you marked down with little hearts the days I had done something nice, like a desperate little puppy in an empty home?"

Another step. He heard Karl bump into a wall that wasn't there before, and swear under his breath ; desperate fingers were tangling with his, and he pressed back. 

"And somehow it was always your fault", she chuckled, eyes dark and voice darker. "If only you had found how to make me love you proper. If only you had held me back, held me close enough, maybe I wouldn't have gone missing."

It felt like a punch to the gut, and air left him in a pitiful moan. He could hear in the back of his head the commiserating comments at the police station, the relief in his mother's voice at the other end of the phone, the off-handed jokes of his friends. Look, mate, you were never gonna leave her, so she did. You hang on too tight - or was it not tight enough, maybe it was not tight enough, maybe - Sweetie, I'm very sorry but not surprised, come and have dinner. I made pumpkin pie. Well sir, she's a grown adult, isn't she? Any people she might have run to, if you catch my meaning?

You'll see, it's for the best. You two really weren't…

And didn't you have a fight about wanting kids? Sure you didn't push her down the stairs?

Eyes closed, he gasped on air that tasted like her cottony perfume. 

"I'm sorry. I am, Mia, I am…"

A laughter that wasn't hers echoed between the walls, louder and louder, until it was only almost a scream. His eyes flickered open just in time to see her face shift and twist into the wicked sneer that curdled his blood in his veins. 

"Not sorry enough!" she barked, and suddenly there was a chainsaw in her hands revving in a way that would have made Sturm perk right up. 

"Ethan, run!"

He didn't have time to react ; a gloved fist crashed into her black-eyed face, sending her ass-first onto the floor while he was towed by a strong grip on his wrist. His feet stumbled onto her scrambling arms, kicked the chainsaw further and almost left a toe on the carpet in the process, but Karl was pulling him forwards, running like his life depended on it. 

Which might have been the case. 

Mia was retching profanities behind them, the sound of her feet thumping on the floor loud enough to be heard despite the uproar of the chainsaw. 

"Can't you fix this, Ethan? Can't you fix me now? Or were you really always better off without me?"

Ethan didn't say anything, because it wasn't true. He toppled a secretary as they passed, and he heard Mia tumble and yell strings of insults that would have made him dart to cover Rose's ears in another setting. 

Karl pushed him through a door and slammed it shut behind them. He struggled to free his hand from Ethan's grip ; the glove slipped in his palm while he grabbed a nearby wardrobe and knocked it over in front of the door. 

Something crashed into the panel on the other side, and with a horrible whirl, a rotating blade plunged through the wood. Ethan made a step back, holding the glove to his chest while Karl tried to yank it from his hands.

"Give me that, will you?"

Ethan complied, but went straight back for his hand once the glove had regained its place. Karl looked at him with a nervous chuckle.

"God, you're needy."

"Yes. I'm a clinger. Get used to it. And Karl?"

"Yes?"

"Don't take this wrong, but if you let go of my hand again, I'm kicking you in the nuts."

"But the wardrobe..!"

"Don't care. What if I let go of you for one second and I turn back and you're not here anymore? What if you are, but just because she's replaced you?"

"That… would be messed up", Karl agreed in a grumbling tone. 

Despite his muttered groans and half-voiced objections, he didn't remove his hand, and they awkwardly walked into the room while the chainsaw slid gashes into the door. They were cornered ; it was some sort of old-fashioned office with a long table, a cabinet filled with bottles that neither of them dared to open, and a typewriter where Ethan absent-mindedly typed his own name with his mangled hand. 

"Sorry for punching your dead wife in the face", Karl said, watching him hit the keys with his forefinger one by one. 

"It's fine."

"She's very pretty."

"Yes. Do you spell Karl with a c or with a k?"

As he was struggling his way through "Heisenberg" on the typewriter, the blade came thundering down through the wood. Screeches of rage and outrage came from the devastated doorway when Karl kicked the spirits cabinet into the remains of the cupboard, while Ethan threw the typewriter on top for good measure. Mia was panting on the other side, seemingly struggling with the pile of debris and antique furniture. 

"Having second thoughts yet, Ethan?" an amused voice asked behind them. They spinned in the wrong direction, Karl to the left, Ethan to the right, and there was some painful fumbling before they managed to turn back, hands still linked. Karl clearly held his soft parts in high enough esteem to not try and find out how strongly a moldy person could kick. 

A young woman was sitting on the table. One leg was folded under her and the other dangled quietly above the ground. She was playing with a strand of short, dark hair, with a sympathetic look on her face. 

"Zoe", Ethan said. His heart was clamping his ribs together, as he was softly crunched from the inside. She looked just the way he had left her in Dulvey, never to see her again. Chris had said " Lucas and Zoe are dead " in the same sentence, like it had been the same thing, like she had anything to do with that asshole, like it hadn't been a fucking heartbreak to leave her on that rotting pier. 

He had gone up and left the meeting at that point. Zoe deserved as much. 

"Baker?" Karl whispered. 

"Yes", he rasped as she winked, hands splayed on the table and tilting her head, studying the pair of them with a quirked eyebrow. 

"The one and only. You should have picked me to get in that boat", she said. Her tone was amused, but only just so. There were barbs in her words, and Ethan took the bait. 

"I… It had to be her. She was my wife."

"Yeah, yeah. If we'd been married and you'd left me behind, I'd have been pissed too. Still, it felt nice to be… considered. Even if it was just for a moment."

There was a sudden silence, and he realized he couldn't hear the chainsaw anymore. Only that dull, dusty quiet that felt like it was floating into his ears. 

"I know you considered it", Zoe softly said. "I know that for a shameful minute, you wondered if you wouldn't be better off saving me. I didn't cut your fucking hand off, me. Three years in that nightmare, same as her, and I was still as sane as it gets." Her forefinger tapped gently on her fuzzy temple. 

Ethan's knees gave under him, feeling like he was being hammered into the ground. 

He had. He had considered it, and Mia had looked at him, and even as he held out his hand to her, she had known. Zoe had watched him leave with his empty promises and his doubts, and Mia had been staring into the darkness. 

"I'm sorry", he said in a pitiful sob. Zoe burst out laughing, throwing her head backwards. 

"Yes, that's what you do best. Ethan Winters, gold medalist of the regret championship. You know, I would have made a great mom. And I'd have rocked your damn world in bed, Ethan. What a match we could have been."

"That's fucking enough", Karl snarled. His hand was suddenly gripping stronger on his wrist, and he stepped towards the young woman in a menacing stride. 

"And who is this?" Zoe asked without moving an inch. "Another broken idiot who stumbled onto your way, sticking around to be fed crumbs of hope that maybe, maybe, you'll save him too?"

Suddenly, she jumped to her feet and onto the table. Crouched in a low squat, she stared at Karl and grinned. 

"He won't ", she whispered, and it echoed strangely around the room, like a beast circling them. "He won't pick you when the time comes."

"You think I fucking care?" Karl barked, slamming his fist on the table as Zoe deftly jumped out of the way. "I know that. He knows that. Everybody knows that."

He grabbed Zoe by the ankle and twisted, jerking her to the ground. 

"Nobody's coming to save me", he sputtered as she darted around the table. They were face to face now, staring at each other from across the board. "Nobody ever did."

Karl let out a humorless laugh before adding: 

"Except I'm not being a little bitch about it. I don't need salvation. I just want revenge, and you, Donna Fucking-Freak Beneviento , are standing in my way."

With a mighty kick, he flipped the table and punted it to her face. It stopped mid-air, hovering above the wooden floor ; for a second, it stayed there, then it burst into pieces, sending shards and splinters across the room. Ethan put his hand in front of his face, and yelped when a scrap of mahogany pierced through his forearm. 

Karl yanked a stake out of his torso and threw it at Zoe's face. It vanished in a cloud of sawdust, which she lazily blew away with an annoyed sigh. 

"Revenge?" she repeated with a growing smile. "Really, Karl?" She made one step forward, then two, and three.  Her face seemed to get paler as she got closer ; with a terrified gasp, Ethan realized that it was not an impression. Her round, familiar features were stiffening into porcelain. 

"Is it revenge on your mind?" she cackled from her horrible doll mouth. "Is it revenge you think about, late at night, while he is sleeping in your bed?"

"Shut up! Shut up!"

"Better stick to revenge, Karl. Do you really think the man from the future will take you by the hand and into the world? Do you really think you deserve this?"

"Shut-" Karl gave a kick that she barely dodged. " -up !" The roar of his voice trembled in the office, and for a second, it seemed like he was crackling again with that magnetic field of his. Then the Zoe doll snapped her fingers, and it was gone. 

"You are pathetic", she hissed. "You'd best keep away from him. You break everything you touch, Karl!"

"I don't! Quit talking! This is why nobody loves you, you ugly freak!" Karl shouted. 

"More than you!" Zoe shrieked from her enamel mouth. "Nobody cares about you and it's all that you deserve!"

An actual, literal growl thundered up Karl's throat while Ethan's eyes jumped from him to the doll and back. 

"Get your ass down here", he snarled. "Leave your fucking web and come down, and let's see how big you talk once I start ripping your fucking legs off."

He thrust towards her with his entire body, and she flinched back, just for a second. She immediately regained her composure, but it was enough for Karl to throw his head back and start laughing, in that horribly raucous cackle which oozed cruelty and coldness. Ethan hated it, and apparently, so did Donna. 

"Yeah? You think you're tough, you little pest? You want me to pummel you into the ground again like the fucking vermin you are?"

The doll's face was cracking now, chipping bits of bloody porcelain on the floor as it shifted and twisted into a furious grimace. An ear-piercing scream raised, and raised from her maw until Ethan had to put his wrecked hand on his ear, trying to bury his neck into his shoulders. His skull was pounding with the shrill wailing, and he fell to his knees, teeth hurting and stars imploding in his field of vision. Next to him, Karl hadn't moved an inch, still standing tall and laughing egregiously. 

Even when the scream stopped, Ethan's head was still swimming. So, he thought. Pain works here. His forearm stinged him where he had removed the shard of wood, loudly agreeing like someone at a meeting who hadn't had the opportunity to talk enough yet. 

"You won't!" Donna shrieked. "I'm in my house! My home! You can't hurt me!"

She stopped yelling all of a sudden, and silence slapped the room as a liquid smile dribbled on her face. 

"But I can hurt you", she said softly. 

"You think so?" Karl sneered. "You think I've got any pain left to give? You think there is anything you can do that would be worse than what she's done to me?" 

He spat in her direction, wiping his mouth with his free hand while still gripping Ethan like a vise. His hand was sending tangs of pain into his spine, but no way was he letting go. Slowly, one painful foot at a time, he got up to stand beside him. It didn't change anything, but somewhere in his heart, it also kind of did. 

"Let's find out", the broken doll whispered before vanishing into a cloud of porcelain dust. 

Karl threw his head to the ceiling and screamed. 

"Then give me your fucking worst!"

His voice boomed through the room, echoing off the corridors for an unnatural time. When it was done, he stayed silent for a while, panting furiously with drops of sweat beading on his temple. Very slowly, Ethan pressed his fingers, and the strain compressing his bones together lifted a little. 

They shared a look. The lights fluttered, and everything went black as ink. 

Chapter Text

When the lights flickered back on, the office was gone. They were in the corridor again. Karl looked disheveled and undone, fingers still tightly clasped on Ethan's hand. Strands of grey hair were matted by sweat to his temples ; his tongue kept darting onto his lips in nervous licks. 

Ethan wondered if he ought to say something, but words felt hollow in his brain. The only thing that managed out of his mouth was: 

"Well, Rose is going to be an only child."

Karl shot him a dirty look and huffed, which was a bit unfair because Ethan felt quite hilarious. Antique wall lamps seeped a yellowish glow on the hallway. On both sides, rows and rows of doors stood like a guard of honour. 

Purposely ignoring them, Karl strode forwards with Ethan in tow. They walked in electric silence for a good while, until he coughed and pointed at a stain on the flower-patterned wallpaper. 

"I've seen that before. We're walking in circles."

"Just a bit further."

"Karl…" he started, pulling on his hand. Karl spinned on his feet and shoved him against the wall with surprising brutality. His other hand was clasping Ethan's shoulder, pinning him in place. He could feel hard brick pressing against his collarbones, but the look on his face cut the words of protestation he wanted to utter. 

Teeth out, sneering like an angry beast, he dug his fingers into the muscle of his shoulder. 

"I am not opening any of those fucking doors." 

Ethan blinked, and tapped nervously on his ribs with his remaining fingers. Karl jerked away from him like he had been burnt, shame and anger roiling on his features. 

"Do you want me to do it?"

"I want you to shut the hell up", Karl hissed between his teeth. His steps were stiff and his face agitated. They did another lap, still holding hands, but with a growing sense of distance and uneasiness. On the wallpaper over the wooden door, the stain remained, looking just a little wider every time they passed. 

Ethan glanced at it, noticing Karl's jaw was clenched so hard he would probably end up shattering a tooth any minute now. Another lap, and another went by before Karl suddenly came to a halt. His breath was erratic and his fingers were trembling on Ethan's palm. 

"Look", Ethan tried patiently. "How about we just pick one, and…"

"No."

"... punch whatever is in there to a pulp? That has worked so far."

"I said, no." His voice was a hiss, and the tension in his shoulders made him look like a hulking predator. Ethan didn't insist. They made another lap. 

"I think we are not getting out of here."

"We are! Just a little bit longer!" Karl yelled. This time, Ethan didn't cave in, tugging him to the closest door. His maimed hand was on the handle when Karl slammed it with his fist, sending a thunderbolt of pain into his arm. He shrieked in agony, cradling the bleeding fingers to his chest. 

"Dude!" he shouted. 

"Don't fucking dude me!" Karl yelled, smashing his fist against the door this time. "I don't want to! I'm not doing it and she can't make me!"

Ethan tried to yank him back with his maimed hand, still throbbing in pain, only to get shoved aside with a jab to the ribs. Begging Karl to calm the fuck down led him nowhere, his voice unhearable under the strings of distressed swears. His agitation was swinging him side to side, and when Ethan got bumped into the next door because Karl was waving his arms around, he had enough. 

He didn't think before tackling Karl into the wall with his entire body, pounding his torso with his shoulder. It made a very satisfying thud as his back came crashing against the wallpaper. With one hand, Ethan was still clenching his wrist, and his other was pressing his throat, gripping at the lapels of his shirt. 

"That's enough", Ethan barked a few inches away from his face. 

"What the-" Karl flinched, bucked and kicked him in the shin. Muffling a painful swear, Ethan let go of his hand to grab his hair ; with decisive strength, he yanked back. Karl yelped in pain, but that did finally shut him up. 

Stunned eyes met his, looking dirty flaxen in the dull light. Karl's head was tilted back against the wall, his stubbly throat strained backwards. Ethan had weaved his fingers in the greying hair, just at the base of his skull, and he held him in a vicious grip. A deep wrinkle bore into his brow, and his lips curled around his teeth. Ethan felt the weight of his body wrestling against him. He dug his nails into his scalp with a warning scowl. 

"I said enough."

"Let me go", Karl growled in the heavy quiet.  

"Are you done?"

"Ethan, you are going to let go of me, or one of those things is going to happen". His tone was drizzling with sarcasm, but there wasn't a hint of amusement on his face. 

"One, I'm going to get a very embarrassing hard-on. Two, I'm going to punch you through the wall. Wanna take your chances?"

Ethan made a point of considering it, tilting his head to the side, before releasing his hair. An incredulous chortle escaped Karl's lips, and he shook himself free with a glare. It felt strange to not hang onto him anymore, but Ethan's heart was pounding in his chest and he was absolutely not going to be the one to extend the olive branch this time. 

After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, Karl looked down. Beneath the anger, cracking down like Donna's doll mask, pain and anguish were spreading on his face. Ethan kept staring while he pretended to cough into his sleeve, swallowing what were definitely not choked tears. 

The sound of their panting breaths filled the corridor strangely. With unsteady steps, Karl came standing in front of the door spattered with Ethan's blood. He gave a guilt-ridden look to his mangled hand. Ethan did his best to shrug, even though his phantom fingers were still pulsing with agony. 

"Sorry about that." His voice was so low that Ethan wasn't sure he heard right, but the shameful mope on his face spoke volumes. 

"You can be. That fucking hurt." He tried to keep anger out of his tone, but he could feel electric pricks running along his arm. 

"Sorry", Karl repeated without looking at him. "I was... No, I've got nothing. No excuse. That was shitty."

"Yeah. You do that again and I'm leaving you here."

"I won't. Sorry. Sorry." 

His hand was trembling a little when he held it out, as if he was expecting Ethan to slap it away. He did consider it for a second, but the darkness was swelling in the corridor and the fear he had set aside since Karl had tackled him into the elevator was sneaking back. He took the hand with a deep sigh. Eyes darting from the side, Karl swallowed and pressed his fingers lightly.

"Alright. Sorry. Really. Don’t leave. So… punch whatever is in here to a pulp, yes?" 

His voice was weak. Ethan nodded dryly. For a second, his hand hovered over the handle, then he took a step back and kicked it open with a deafening crack. 

The room inside had nothing to do with the mansion. It looked like a workshop straight from Karl's factory, with a furnace roaring in the back and tables covered in machinery parts. An old man was sitting hunched over one of them, feet mindlessly tapping the floor under his bench while he tinkered with small tools. He looked up as the door slammed open. 

His face bore a striking resemblance to Karl, hooked nose and piercing eyes under a mess of tangly hair. Ethan felt his fingers dig into his palm painfully. 

"Karl", the man said, clambering to his feet. 

"Nope."

The door was pulled shut again, leaving only the smell of hot metal and grease in the hallway. Ethan was going to ask the obvious question when without a word, Karl turned and kicked the door on the opposite wall. In there was a woman combing her long, curly hair in front of a cracked mirror, and a ruffled bed with yellowed sheets. 

"Nope." She didn't even have time to turn around before the door got smacked shut. A whiff of perfume, sweat and sex oozed into the corridor, while Karl dragged him forwards.

Ethan watched in increasing awe, half-amused, half-sorry, as Karl punted the doors open one by one. He only got peeks into the rooms, standing on the tip of his toes to glance over his shoulder. 

"Nope." A woman dancing on her own in an old kitchen, stirring a stew while she capered around the pot to the sound of a droning radio. 

"Nope." A bearded man pulling a wailing goat over an altar, blood trickling from the stone in thick red tears. 

"Nope. And she never meant anything to me." Another woman, grey-haired and grey-eyed, braiding wheat into a crown with deft fingers. 

"That's not true!" her voice bellowed as the door shut behind them, Ethan scampering after him. He was trying his hardest to smother the urge to burst out laughing at Karl's unique approach of trauma management. Oh, doc, you would love this guy. 

"It is now", Karl yelled. "I'm taking back everything I said!"

He looked up to the dark ceiling and spat: 

"Don't you remember? I don't care about anyone ." His voice was an annoying singsong, like he was imitating someone. "I break everything I touch! "

As he was saying this, he put his hand on the handle of the next door, and it crumbled between his fingers. Staring at the useless bit of metal in his palm, he crunched his face in an irritated scold. 

“Hilarious. Fucking hilarious.”

Ethan did find it marginally funny, but his sense of humor was a little battered from the nightmare fetuses and impending threats of death. 

They turned around, and there were no doors anymore. Down the corridor was only a toppled shelf blocking the way, with a man sitting atop in a bird-like squat. He rested his chin in the cup of his long, thin hands. A quirked smile was curling his lips. 

“You can’t run forever, Karl”, he said. His voice was soft and slow-paced, yet it seemed to cut through the air. It sounded quite familiar to Ethan’s ears, and he studied the new guy with increasing interest. 

Sleek and slender and just a little bit sleazy, he wore a pinstripe suit with the same comfort and lack of poise as if it had been a pair of sweatpants. He had black eyes and blacker hair, framing a youthful face between waves of ink. It would have looked delicate, and almost effeminate, but the grin clefting it was pure malevolence. 

“No? Watch me”, Karl snarled, striding towards him. 

“Now, that was always more your thing”, the man mused, unfolding his limbs into a cross-legged pose that was just short of suggestive. The look he gave him from under his eyelids was plain leering. A thought hit Ethan like a wayward train. He gasped audibly, pointing excitedly at him with his bloody forefinger. 

“Is that Moreau?” he squealed with an uncontrollable smile opening his face. “Before ?”

Karl looked like he was in physical pain, eyes shut close and jaw uttering silent words. 

“Pleasure’s all yours, I’m sure”, Probably-Moreau said in that lazy tone of his, his gaze never leaving Karl. Ethan was fighting the urge to clap in glee. 

“It’s him! It is!”

“We were just chased down memory lane by your unborn giant daughter and your dead wife with a chainsaw”, Karl groaned in a low voice. “You don’t get to judge me.”

“I’m not judging”, Ethan protested. “He’s genuinely quite good-looking, in an asshole sort of way.”

Karl buried his face in his gloved hand while Moreau laughed raucously. It was a strange sound coming from someone who looked like he could be blown away by a sudden gust of wind, or crumble like porcelain under callous hands holding him a little too strong. Ethan’s mind stopped there, did a double take, and rolled back. 

Ah. That’s the name of the game, then. 

Yes, he could see it now. 

“So that’s your type”, he nodded. “Makes sense.”

Karl turned to him with a furious gasp and the most offended look he had ever seen on him. Moreau was still laughing out loud, vicariously. 

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“You know”, Ethan said. “The fragile-looking asshole with bratty undertones, and the… uh. The you.

“The me?”

“Yeah, the you.”

Karl slowly raised an eyebrow while Ethan suddenly found himself fumbling with words. Putting in details what exactly that did mean in his head was bringing him into a very uncomfortable thought territory. 

“Don’t play coy”, Moreau purred. “He is right.”

Tilting his head to his side, he looked at Ethan and very slowly winked. 

“He does like it rough”, he whispered gravely, humbly, like a confession to a priest. Karl hissed between his teeth, but said nothing. His cheeks were burning red, and he was squirming like his coat was full of snakes. 

Ah. So, there had been a little bit more than just watching him undress that one time. Ethan was trying to find a way to say he didn’t really need more information without hurting Karl’s feelings, but Moreau wasn’t done. 

“You see, Karl? He sees it. The real you. The you who loves pushing people away and punching injured folks trying to help. The you who breaks everything he touches.” His eyes fell onto Ethan’s hand, and he could feel shivers crawling under his skin, as if its gaze really was grazing him from a distance. 

“That must have hurt”, he said with almost-compassion. Karl’s breathing sounded like it came through a crushed pipe. 

“Yes”, Ethan replied. “Less than getting sliced by Sturm, though. We’re getting there.” He raised an encouraging thumb. No matter how mad at Karl he still was, there was no way he was leaning into that game. 

Moreau smiled at him, and it looked like an oil leak spreading on the sea. There was something vicious and cruel lurking under the surface, and Ethan wondered how much of that was Donna’s misdirections and how much was authentic. He had gathered a very strange impression from his encounter with the lord. Beneath the pathos of his horrible fate, there had been something… dark. Something that laughed when Ethan let himself be trapped, something that reveled in the pain Miranda had hand-fed him.

“Do you want me to have a look? I have soft doctor hands”, he offered while extending his long fingers. They almost looked like spider limbs in the dim light. Or perhaps crabs, Ethan reflected. 

“If you want to keep them, get lost”, Karl growled. “And don’t you dare touch him.”

“So feisty. I used to like that in you.”

“And what did you like in him?” Ethan asked with genuine curiosity. He could see the kind of wicked, half-hateful relationship that could stem from the perversion pulsing from that man. But for all he knew, that was Donna’s twisted interpretation of something else entirely. 

Karl didn’t look at him when he replied, in a low bashful mutter:

“I didn’t.” 

“No, you never did”, Moreau said with a sudden edge in his honeyed tone. “You liked feeling rebellious and disgusting under her roof. You liked the look of my skin under your hands. Not me. Never.”

His voice felt like a razor cutting down on Ethan’s flesh. Silence spread, viscous and heavy and nauseating.

“You do have nice skin”, Ethan eventually said. “Shame about the whole… fish stuff.”

Moreau gave him an indecipherable look, then turned his black eyes back to Karl. His hand was pressing Ethan’s fingers like a clamp. 

“Shame”, Moreau repeated. It felt like the word was echoed by a chorus of ghostly voices all around them, running along the corridor towards the creeping darkness. On the walls, lamps were going out one by one. 

Shame. Shame. 

“Shame. You and I are well acquainted to shame, aren’t we, Karl?” he whispered. The words were low but they were drilling their way inside Ethan’s ears. From the agonizing look on Karl’s face, it was the same for him. 

“Except it always tasted more spice than bitterness when it was dripping from your mouth.” His voice felt filthy and sinister. Moreau uncrossed his legs and jumped down. Behind him, there was no shelf anymore, just a veil of pure darkness. Ethan saw shapes twisting in it, like deep waters roiling with unsaid promises of death. 

“You liked shame.”

Karl folded himself a bit, like he had taken a punch in the gut. It wasn’t funny anymore, and Ethan felt a fist clench around his heart. It was one thing to gleefully watch him cringe in front of a former lover, but this was something else. 

“You like it because it’s what you deserve”, Moreau whispered with the chorus of invisible voices. 

“And you like pain”, Ethan stated with a deadpan face. “And I like edging and beach sex. So the fuck what? We’re all adults here. Nothing wrong with vanilla, but nothing wrong with spice either. To each their own.”

Karl stared at him with wide eyes. He looked like he was an inch away from passing out, swaying a little by his side. Ethan shrugged and gave a gentle pat to his palm with his thumb. 

“Now, that’s all been very nice and good, but I’ve had enough.” He made one step forward, pulling Karl whose feet shuffled heavy, like they were welded to the floor. 

Ethan looked into the black, black eyes. Behind the man, the dark waters were stirring with movement. 

“Move”, he said. 

“That’s not how this goes”, Moreau replied in his soft voice. “We are not done here.”

“Move, or I’ll move you.”

“You make one more step and I’m taking back one of my little gifts”, he said, pointing his chin towards Karl without turning his eyes away from Ethan. Karl’s breath hitched in his throat and pulled on his hand. Ethan froze in place. 

“You can’t”, Karl muttered. 

“Can’t I?” He winked strangely, with one eye and then the next, over and over. “Maybe I can’t. Maybe I can. Care to take your chances?”

Karl was blinking furiously in the creeping darkness, and Ethan suddenly remembered what he had said. Impromptu eye surgery . He could only imagine the horrible circumstances that might have led to that. 

Actually, no, he couldn’t. His imagination was having none of it and had resigned from its position and packed its little backpack for a very faraway journey. 

“I’ll leave you one eye”, Moreau said pleasantly. “There are so many more things for you to see here. And after all, I always did enjoy knowing you were watching.”

Words felt tainted and wrong in his mouth, like he was coating them in poison before spitting them out. Ethan tasted bile in his throat. At his side, Karl was fuming with rage, hands trembling and breath heaving. He said nothing, though, and didn’t move. 

“That’s better”, Moreau whispered. “Be a good boy and show the doctor some gratitude.”

“Gratitude?” Karl choked on his spit. “To you?” He looked close to exploding with rage, but his feet remained firmly planted into the ground. The threat was anchoring him in place, apparently. 

“I am not the only one resenting your lack of consideration. That hand… Oh, Ethan is very hurt indeed.”

The sonority of his name felt discordant on his tongue. He cringed before answering: 

“Hand trauma is an old habit. I’m trying to quit, though.”

Moreau laughed whole-heartedly. 

“Ah, Ethan Winters. Such a disgrace that you find yourself meddled in our little family mess. This man does not deserve you putting up with him.” He waved disdainfully at Karl. 

“Do you want me to hurt him?” Moreau asked in a murmur. “I will if you ask.”

“No, thank you.”

“Are you sure? Aren’t you tired of always being the victim in this place? Running, fleeing, fighting, running again. How dreadfully tiring.” His black eyes looked glossy and empty under the single light remaining over their heads. 

“Just say the word and I’ll have one of his eyes melt out. Tell me which one. Don’t you want to watch people suffer for once? See fear change sides, just for a minute?”

“No”, Ethan repeated. And because Karl’s hand was still quivering and anger was growing in his gut, he added: 

“That’s your thing. Not mine.”

Moreau blinked once, lazily. The light seemed so distant now, like the dark waters behind him had swallowed them into the depths. 

“Yes, it is”, Karl hissed. “You always were a sick fucking freak. That’s not on Mother Bitch.”

“Isn’t it?” Moreau asked in a voice so soft that it sounded quieter than silence. “You think you know what she did to me, Karl?”

“Yeah”, he drawled with a sneer. “And I know you were fucking asking for it, you pathetic little wimp. Begging on your knees, probably, trying to get a glimpse under her skirts.” He lifted a fist to hit him, but Moreau made a gesture with his finger and Karl stopped in his tracks, snatching a hand to his left eye. Terror and fury were rolling on his face, clenching his mouth into a painful grimace. 

“You don’t know. You didn’t ask. You didn’t care.” Moreau’s voice was deeper and louder now, echoing strangely as if they were underwater. His face looked pallid in the colorless light, not unlike those creatures from the deep that had always given Ethan cold sweats. 

With a sudden cough, Moreau bent down with his hands folded in front of him. He heaved and gasped, and clear water suddenly was flowing out of his mouth, like he was puking an entire water bottle.

“It hurts”, he said with a dead face, the words gurgled in the stream escaping his lips. “It hurts so much.”

Ethan watched in horror as he kept leaking gallons and gallons of water, like the entire ocean behind him was forcing its way through his throat, or he was going for a world record for most disturbing statue fountain. His face was empty when he asked:

“Why did you let her do this to me, Karl?”

“Let her?” Karl barked. “I told you to fight back! I fucking told you to strop groveling at her feet and stand for yourself. I tried and tried and tried to convince you lot of shit that we needed to fight her, to work together, and you sang her fucking praise and called her mommy! ” For a second, there was so much fury in his voice that the watery silence seemed to recoil. Then, Moreau licked his lips, tasting the water flowing over his tongue. Ethan could feel it lapping at his ankles, soaking through his shoes and socks. It didn’t seem to be stopping. 

“None of us were ever worth her affection”, he said. “But none of us were ever worth your respect, and that was worse.”

His voice echoed in the darkness without his mouth moving now. Eyes still wide and fixed on Karl, he stood there while water seeped from his lips. 

“Karl Heisenberg, the fucking steel horse”, he said in tones so low that Ethan felt them in the bones of his neck. “The only one with the guts and the massive dick to go against Miranda and wage his righteous war, while the rest of us were too weak to join the ranks.”

“You were!” Karl shrieked. “All I ever did, I did alone!”

“So did I!” Moreau screamed back, and the sound took Ethan by such surprise that he stumbled backwards. He splashed in the water, which was now almost at his knees. 

“I was alone more than you ever were! I was alone when that thing ate me from the inside, when she wouldn’t look at me even as I knelt at her feet. I was alone when you were fucking me raw through your bed and against her altar, like I was just a sordid little stone on your path to darkness, like you were hoping I would break under your hands!”

Ethan could feel his guts knot themselves in a painful, twisted mess. The water was lapping at his thighs now, and he could barely lift his feet with the weight of his sodden pants. 

“You despised me for being weak, Karl. Do you have any idea how much I hated you for being strong?”

“You ran to her! You always did!”

“Whom the fuck else to?” Moreau shouted. “You?”

There was so much violence in that last word that Ethan winced in pain. 

“It hurts so much”, he said without emotion. “Why couldn’t you protect me?”

“Because you weren’t worth it!” Karl spat out. “You were just a sniveling asshole always playing with people to try and please her! You were nothing, Salvatore. Nothing at all!”

Ethan winced. That didn’t sound like the right answer. Or anything right at all, for that matter. He pulled on Karl’s hand discreetly, both of theirs now plunged into the cold water. 

“All I wanted was a brother”, Moreau whispered. “Why couldn’t it be you?”

“You are not my brother!” Karl shrieked. “You never were! None of you!”

Ethan felt currents dragging against his shins. Heart beating in his chest, he gazed at Moreau. His blank face was still unmoving and barfing an ocean, but there was a shimmer in his eyes that he recognized. 

Maybe, just maybe… 

He cleared his throat and raised his maimed hand. His voice was almost gentle when he said:

“That sounds like a conversation you should be having with your real face on, lady Beneviento.”

The black, glossy eyes turned to him and blinked. For a second, something crossed the man’s face. The water came to a halt, dripping only lightly from his open mouth. 

Then it let out an otherworldly scream, and a torrent of water hit them with the force of a tsunami. Ethan tumbled back, feeling the overpowering flow drag him away, punching air out of his lungs as liquid coldness hit him in the face. His hand slipped from Karl’s grip, and suddenly he was whirling even faster, taken by the stream, buffeted away as the wave shoved him round and round. His back crashed through a door, and collided against the next wall when the flood spat him out into another corridor. It swept him further down the hallway, the strange clear water lapping against the wooden antiques, and finally, finally, he came to a halt. 

Choking and coughing, he raised on his elbows and shook his head. The water was seeping into the carpet as if it was the most effective sponge ever invented, and soon, the ground was dry under him. He was still soaking wet and shivering cold, clothes clinging tightly to his skin and hindering his moves. Everything was hurting, but he was alive. 

And alone. His fingers clenched the air and felt strangely naked without the presence of Karl.

“Fuck”, he rasped, coming to unsteady feet. He wrung water out his jacket and gazed around. The door he had just come through, quite literally, was piecing itself back together. He ran to it, and shoved it open when he reached the handle. 

The corridor beneath it shone red, and a horrible trail of gore and placenta was spread on the floor. 

“Fuck”, he said again, considering the idea to just close the door and apply the Heisenberg method to all the other ones in this hallway. He could find his way on his own, probably. He had once. Donna looked very busy torturing her not-quite-brother. Maybe it was time to take the opportunity and get the hell out. Maybe Karl would be fine. Maybe...

His fingers twitched, trying to get the comfort of a familiar hand, and clasped nothing. 

He swore under his breath and stepped into the doorframe. 

Walking along the bloody line was as harrowing as it had been the first time, and his thighs kept jolting him, ready to get running in half a second’s notice. His heart was pounding with dread and anticipation, and he wasn’t quite sure anymore what was water and what was cold sweat running down his back. So it was almost a relief when he made a turn and stared into the maw of the horrible fetus. 

He still screamed and bolted. The thing wailed after him and pounded on all fours in his tracks. It was fine. He was faster. He was going to find a way out, and then… And then… 

Another turn, another corridor, and suddenly he saw the red blinking eye of the elevator in the distance. His feet were flying on the floor, thighs strained with the burn of the sprint. He passed a crossing, some other hallway leading to his left, and darted his eyes quickly towards it as he kept running. His legs stopped like he had hit a wall. 

Karl was floating in the air, hair and clothes swaying around him like he was underwater. Around him was pure darkness, the only light a distant spot of sickly blue coming from far above to adorn him in a cold halo. He was wrestling with the invisible depths, hands paddling in panicked strokes. The look on his face was pure agony and terror. Eyes wide and mouth open, he swirled and let out a silent scream. 

Behind him, the slender silhouette of Moreau was standing still. Completely raptured, he was staring at the struggling man with a hunger in his eyes that turned Ethan’s guts. 

He barely shot him a look before turning again to the drowning. 

Behind Ethan, heavy steps were splattering on the woodwork. His eyes turned back to the elevator, then to the monster on his tail. He had no time. If he turned now, the fetus thing would corner him in here without a chance to run back. Start thinking, Ethan. Start...

Without any idea of what to do next, he turned left and ran towards Karl. His feet were hammering solid ground, and he could still hear the excited blabbering behind him as he came closer. He couldn’t feel water, and he was breathing just fine. 

This is not your nightmare , Moreau’s soft voice said behind his ear. He was still standing in the distance, a strange figure in a pinstripe suit underwater, with a face as white as dead flesh and piercing eyes boring through Ethan’s soul. 

He looked at him approach, and turned his gaze back to Karl, like he had decided that it didn’t matter what Ethan intended to do. Karl’s hands were gripping his own throat, one pressed painfully against his mouth as if to prevent himself from breathing. His legs were twitching, and his hat had glided away into the darkness. He met Ethan’s eyes, and his face changed. A pleading gasp opened his mouth, fingers pitifully extended towards him. 

Start thinking, Ethan. Start…

Ethan strode to the floating figure, and yanked him by his belt. It felt cold and tingled his fingers strangely, but he managed to pull him to his height. Karl was still levitating and looking at him with utter terror, begging him in a silent wide-eyed stare. His eyes were a pale grey in the dim blue light. 

Not so far away, he could hear angry wailing getting closer. Fuck. He was fucked, they were fucked, everything was fucked. The panic growing inside him must have shown on his face too, because with a tearless sob, Karl closed his eyes and grabbed his shoulder in a shaky hand. 

He’s going to drown. 

Karl opened his mouth on words he didn’t hear, and threw his head backwards with an expression of pure torture. His body thwarted and contracted, legs kicking at nothing. 

Right behind Ethan, there was a gleeful baby chirp, and something grabbed his foot. 

He didn’t think. With both hands, he grabbed Karl by the back of his head, pulled him towards him, and placed his lips around his mouth. 

He breathed life into him as long as he could. The wet beard was itching his chin. 

Time seemed to stop around them, Ethan standing on invisible ground while Karl floated horizontal in front of him, only joined by their lips and his hands on his cheeks, connected between two nightmares by a kiss of life. 

Ethan suddenly felt water on his tongue, and a torrent sent him tumbling backwards as Karl fell on top of him. The thing grabbing his leg was pulled away by the current just as two hands clasped his face in the same way he was holding him. 

They stayed like this as the water swept them away, Karl’s weight pinning him as the tide rushed around them, lips sealed together and hands clutching at each other. When the stream got too strong, carrying them off like leaves on a river, Ethan felt a hand wrap around his waist and hold him close. Karl’s mouth was still on his, not quite moving, half daring to breathe in the roaring deluge. 

They hit some stairs, hard. Ethan heard something pop in his spine as Karl tumbled away again, the weight of him ripped from his chest and his lips. He rolled as best he could, wincing and yelling when the fall made him bounce on his butt down a spiraling staircase. 

When he finally managed to stop, they were well down, Karl slumped a little further away. Ethan raised his head. Above him was only darkness, and limpid water cascading down the wooden steps. Below was what he thought he recognized as the way into the basement.

He didn’t recall the house to be so deep, but Donna seemed to be in a Moebius architectural period where internal consistency had been gleefully thrown out the window. Good for her, he guessed. What an economy of construction work. 

Karl was raising on his hands and knees when the gaping maw appeared up behind him. Ethan barely had time to scream before the fetus wailed a soundwave that made the steps tremble under him. He watched with his mouth agape as Karl dodged forwards, scrambled back up the stairs, made a steep turn, and with all his might… 

Jumped down. 

Both his feet kicked the top of the creature’s head with a nauseating crunch. The wailing stopped. Standing in the midst of broken bones and putrid flesh, he wriggled out, leaving a boot behind in the process. 

Ethan watched it with the decisive urge to throw up, and Karl had to clamber back to him in order to drag him down the stairs, past the broken infant corpse. Karl’s naked foot slipped as they were reaching the bottom of the stairs, and he nose-dived into the bottom floor. 

He groaned and turned face back up, and laid there for a while. Ethan walked down with a little more prudence. Karl was resting on his back with his hands splayed by his sides, staring at the ceiling with a look that could either be “considering his life choices” or “concussed”. 

Maybe both. 

“Are you alright?” Ethan asked in a raspy voice. It took him so long to answer that he was kneeling by his side to take his pulse when Karl spoke:

“Well, I’ve just dropkicked a baby in the fontanel. So, that’s a new low. Even for me.”

Ethan chuckled nervously, and then laughed, and laughed even more. His legs were jittering when he raised back to his feet. Karl still wasn’t moving, but his laughter was contagious, and soon he was also letting out a shaky snicker. 

“I lost a boot. Ethan, I lost a boot inside the horrible baby.”

“You did”, Ethan sniggered hysterically. “And your hat too.”

“Shit. I liked that hat.”

He draped an arm over his eyes, choking something in the crux of his elbow. Tears or laughter, Ethan wasn’t sure. Slowly and deliberately, he walked up to his waist level, and gave a very small kick in his crotch. Karl froze, and slowly peeked from under his arm. 

Ethan extended his hand with a meaningful look. A variety of expressions crossed Karl’s face before he was hit by understanding. Groaning, he grabbed it and pulled himself back up. 

“Told you I’d kick you in the nuts.”

“I didn’t exactly let go of your hand.”

“Technically, you did”, Ethan pointed with the serene certainty of the man who knew he was right. Karl didn’t argue much. They were still standing in front of each other, hand in hand, and somehow it felt different to be like that. 

Clinging to each other through the darkness was one thing. 

Being face to face now, hair dripping wet and breath hitching, holding hands facing each other’s eyes… Well, it felt different.

Karl’s gaze was set on his mouth, and he involuntarily licked his lips. That made him flinch in turn. A phantom itch was tingling on Ethan’s chin. 

The air felt heavy and tasted intoxicating. His head was swimming, probably from the concussion. Wet leather came stroking his chin as Karl rubbed his thumb under his bottom lip. His eyes shone with something that he couldn’t quite place. 

They were standing very close, Ethan realized. 

He wasn’t sure he minded. 

A fluttering exhale came from his lips as he noticed he had been holding his breath for some reason. It made Karl’s beard sway a little, and he drew his tongue across his lips, as if he was tasting the air. 

They were standing very, very close. 

The scream that echoed behind them made them jolt into each other’s arms. A little embarrassed about the whole state of affairs, Ethan pulled himself free from his grasp, clearing his throat. His cheeks were burning him for some reason. From the steps over them, a horrifying mangled figure was pulling itself down.

“Can I just have one fucking minute to process?” Karl yelled at the ceiling, with a desperate vibrato that Ethan found very relatable. “One minute. Please!”

For sole response, they heard another gargling shriek. Ethan held out his hand with a massive eyeroll. 

“Run?” he proposed. 

“Run.”

Karl’s fingers intertwined with his, and it was as if he had never let go. 

 

halo

image0-1
tumblr-f01788d69a83f96bd510969a70f3c517-23486183-1280
Untitled384-20210628105502

 

Chapter Text

There was a fuse box in front of the grid. A grid, Ethan might have reflected, which had absolutely nothing to do in front of the door to a library, but here they were. Karl groaned and poked at it. 

“Fuses? Seriously? Who the fuck still uses that?”

Ethan blinked. 

“Everyone with electricity?”

“Embeddable reactors, hello?” Karl said, waving his hand. “I thought you were from the future, not the Middle Ages.”

Ethan was going to be offended, but the memory of the door mechanisms in his factory made him scratch his head instead. If they ever got out of here, Heisenberg Corp. would be the new hottest thing in the technological patent industry. Karl shrugged when he told him so. 

“Sure. I’d love to bring light to you backwards fuse box users.” He rolled his eyes as he uttered the word with complete disgust. “In the meantime, any idea what to do here?”

“Actually, yes. I remember another one in the guest room. Should be, uh… this way.”

That sounded like a very daring thing to say in that labyrinthine house of nightmares, but somehow, they made their way to the room Ethan had in mind. Perhaps Donna was getting tired of playing. Or perhaps she was busy planning something else. 

Ethan’s brain provided a very Heisenberg “nope at this idea. 

“Pee break”, he muttered. “She’s obviously just gone to the bathroom.”

He sat on the mattress and bounced a little while Karl examined the metal box on the wall. He had hidden under that bed while the eldritch fetus dragged itself an inch away from his nose. Splatters of stinking placenta had painted his face then. He shivered at the memory.

“There”, Karl groaned. “Now should I get coal to shovel into the steam engine? A donkey turning inside a wheel, perhaps?”  

Ethan smiled. 

“How do your reactors work, by the way?”

“Bioelectricity, of course. It’s the way of the future. I powered the first ones on cadou, but I’ve been trying to move away from that shit recently. Make it… cleaner.”

“Oh, the twenty-first century is going to love you. Did I tell you I’ve worked on geothermal energy plants? I designed drilling systems to get closer to volcanic chambers.”

Karl perked up at that, and licked his lips with a hesitant grin. 

“Can I ask a dumb question?”

“Of course.”

“Did we ever get to the dinosaurs?”

Ethan tilted his head to the side, brows knitting. 

“The ones who live in the center of the Earth. You know?”

Karl looked so hopeful that Ethan’s burst of laughter died in his throat. He winced painfully. 

“Sorry, buddy. The only dinos down there are all liquid now.”

“Oh. That’s a shame.”

“Yeah.” He thought about it and added: “For what it’s worth, we have been using them as fuel for the last century. Though we are running out, I’m afraid.”

Karl clicked his tongue with a disappointed head shake. Ethan felt a smile bud on his lips, stupidly soft. Of course the magnet man who spent decades buried in this village still held beliefs from the last century. He couldn’t wait to tell him about the moon landings. And the Internet. And car races, smoothies, and 3D movies. Something painful tugged at his heartstrings, and he cleared his throat. 

“I do have a bunch of memories of nuclear physics. I’ll write some stuff down for you, if you’re interested”, he offered as they made their way back.

“I might have to kiss you again, Winters.”

Ethan laughed and elbowed him to the side. 

“You’re welcome.”

Karl stopped at those words, and pulled on his arm to face him. His face was grave and his eyes shone as if they were a little wet. 

"I did not properly… Ethan, thank you. Really." His voice was almost a whisper, and Ethan's throat constricted. Intensity burnt so bright in his gaze that he could feel it seeping through his skin, warming his cheeks. He nodded awkwardly, something in his chest trying to get out, and finding it was too enormous to find a way. Thoughts and memories were flashing at the back of his head. Zoe's sad smile and Mia's anger, Karl screaming that nobody would save him, and the coldness of the ocean on his lips. The smell of metal, grease and blood, the muffled sound of footsteps on carpeted corridors, and along it all, right there, the warm pressure on his hand. All along. 

He squeezed his fingers and managed:

"You too."

They stayed quiet for a while, as all the untold words poured around them in the peaceful silence. There was nothing to say that could cover everything that needed saying. 

So they said nothing. 

Ethan cleared his throat and started walking again. The air was heavy with unspoken thoughts, and it was weighing on his mind. He needed to say something. 

"Sorry if I slipped you a bit of tongue."

Karl burst out laughing, and it was a nice sound in the dull ambience of the house. 

"Tell you what, Ethan. When you are saving my life, you can put your tongue wherever you damn please."

"Kinky", Ethan quipped with a quirky smile. He thought about it, and added more seriously: 

"Let's try not to make it a habit, though." The memory of Karl's widened eyes and the silent scream in his mouth was still giving him cold sweats. He had not felt so powerless ever since Mia had given him that dead-eyed stare in a pool of her own blood. 

No, wait . There had also been Elena tumbling to her death while he extended a useless hand above the roaring flames, the smell of smoke and burnt meat drilling through his nostrils. 

And the strange coldness of the flasks where his daughter was held captive and broken. 

And… 

Yeah , Ethan thought. I'm done with powerless.

He had saved him this time by whatever fucking miracle had made him think to try CPR on a man drowning on illusive water, but it had been close and he was done. There was only so much he could take. Karl Heisenberg had become a strange comfort in this stranger world and if he could avoid altogether getting tortured to death by his siblings, that was very fine by him. 

"Sure", Karl said in a small voice. "Once was… nice."

"Yes. I know we're not out of the woods-", Ethan added while they plugged the fuse next to the grid. They leaned under as it raised up, and stepped into the library. 

"-and that anything can still happen here, but…"

Words died on his tongue as he also stepped into something else. Raising his eyes, he felt his heart sink in his chest, down his guts and all the way to his bladder. 

There were spider webs draped all over the vaulted ceiling. Thick and greyish and matted with things that were a little too big to be flies, they hung above the bookshelves like a shroud. They were colossal, and they were everywhere. 

He lifted his shoe from the sticky blotch on the parquet, pulling a slimy thread under his sole in the process. It looked like chewing-gum, albeit the kind that would have been left out in the sun for a very long time. And that was probably something-horrible-flavored, like centipede or watermelon.

"Gross", Ethan winced. "Don't step in that. So, I'm guessing you're afraid of spiders then?"

He tried to sound amused, but the magnitude of the webs tenting above their heads was driving him a little nervous. He had sweaty memories of the one job he had agreed to do in Australia, back when giant hermit crabs were still the most terrifying thing he had encountered. 

They did remain in the top five, to be fair. 

To his dismay, Karl laughed and shook his head, eyes tracing the lines of the webs drooping from the beams. 

"No. They're just squashable sacks of gunk. With a lot of easy-to-rip-off limbs."

Ethan cringed inwards. Somehow, that thought disgusted him more than the slimy draperies of ashy silk. 

"You're a bit mean. They're useful."

"That's spider propaganda", Karl grumbled. "Fucking parasites lurking in a corner, waiting for unsuspecting people to walk into their traps."

People , Ethan's brain noted. It then immediately eliminated that last sentence, and buried its remains deep down in the ground before firmly sitting on top.

Spiders were cool and nice. They were just eight-legged friends who could give four hugs at once. 

"So, whose nightmare is it..?"

Maybe Donna was seeing right through him and he had unconsciously been an arachnophobe in denial this entire time? Or perhaps she was running out of trauma to exploit. Karl had opened and closed every door she had offered. Moreau was busy playing pool decorations, and Mia, Zoe, and his broken baby daughter already roamed the hallways. She could always tap into the elder child stress or the prom incident, but that seemed a bit underwhelming compared to his daily life here. 

He was almost happy to think that perhaps, perhaps, they were finally done, when Karl opened his stupid mouth. 

"Nightmare? No, I think that's real."

"I beg the fucking what now?" Ethan very calmly said. His voice didn't even break before the last word, which made him proud. He had never really minded spiders before, but he reckoned he could envision a change of heart if they stayed another minute in this hellish lair. His brain was adamantly refusing to take into account what had just been uttered by the dumb obnoxious mouth in the middle of Karl's dumb obnoxious face. 

"Well, you see…" the mouth in question continued.

A wet noise came from one of the webs above a bookshelf, and Ethan suddenly made a mental note to apologize to all his ex-girlfriends who had climbed on the nearest piece of furniture at the sight of an innocent bug-eating wanderer. 

"Pal, you're choking me there", Karl said in a muffled voice from under his armpit. "Not saying I hate it, but that's not how I meant to go." 

With incredible courage, and because no other suspicious noise came from the ceiling in the following twenty seconds, Ethan grudgingly set foot back on the ground. He released Karl's neck. The latter stretched his back with a few pops, and coughed while pulling on the collar of his coat. He muttered something about being heavier than he looked ; Ethan was too on edge to pay attention. To be fair, he had been on the edge for a few hours, but now, he had stepped onto the very last inch of it and was doing slackline tricks above the void. Every creak and groan of the parquet made his eyes dart around. His heart was drumming in his ears. 

"... unless you ask for permission", Karl muttered under his breath before an unceremonious hand was shoved in his face to cover his mouth. 

"Shut up", Ethan begged in as low a voice as he could. "I hear something." The squelching sound was back above their heads, and it was moving in the same direction as them. His feet sounded like thunder on the wooden floor, and he suddenly wished he could just hover above the ground without a noise. 

Whatever was napping here deserved their beauty sleep unbothered. 

Karl bit down on his finger, and he yelped in surprise. He almost slapped himself in shame, but his brain provided very reasonably that someone else deserved it more. 

"What? Are you afraid of spiders now?" Karl asked with a massive eyeroll, in a voice that was about twenty times too loud for Ethan's taste. Only the terrifying perspective of making even more noise with a whack on the asshole's face stopped his hand. 

"I don't know! Maybe!" he furiously whispered. "The ones I put in a glass with a sheet of paper don't usually make homes that big!"

"Ah, that famous Californian minimalism you mentioned, yes. I don't get the point of making tiny houses on purpose."

Karl's witticism was giving him thoughts of murder, and he was about to strangle him under his biceps again when something ripped above their head. A rag of spider silk floated down, crusty with insects and knots, as something crashed on the wooden floor with a strange cling.

It was a doll, not higher than his calf, with a pretty lace bonnet on its head. It would have looked cute without the eight horrifying porcelain legs that unfurled around its body. Ethan blinked, aghast, as it came up and up and up, levelling with his waist. The painted face was frozen in a vapid smile. When it rotated an almost entire circle to look in their direction, Ethan shrieked. 

A boot was expertly thrown into the thing's head, which exploded on impact. It writhed in a pile of broken enamel as other swaddled shapes tore free of their sticky shroud and dropped to the ground as well. 

"Gimme your shoes", Karl barked. 

"What?"

"I'm out of boots!"

"I don't have enough for all of them!" Ethan screamed, yanking him by the wrist and running off between the bookshelves as two, three, twenty spider-doll-centaurs scuttled after them. 

"I hate it, I hate it, I hate it", he recited like a prayer to himself. Karl was hurrying after him, swearing when his naked feet invariably kicked into wobbly pieces of parquet. 

"Getting real tired of your shit, Donna-ouch!" Ethan dragged him as he tumbled on the leg of a reading desk. "Shit! That's not even remotely fun anymore!"

"When has it been?" Ethan wheezed. His eyes were madly looking for an exit, and they fell on a cabinet in the corner. Rotten books were pooling at its foot, and it looked decrepit but empty.

"Closet. Hurry up!" If they could kite their pursuers around the aisle like this , and lose them around the turn like that…

He quickly shoved Karl into the locker and pressed himself into it after him, fingers holding onto the panel from the inside. There was barely room for the two of them and they were uncomfortably squashed together, Ethan's maimed hand clinging to the decaying wood. He heard clattering tip-taps scurry by their hiding place, while strange chittering sounds came from the mouthless ceramic faces. 

"Ethan, I didn't see a closet." Karl moved an inch in the enclosed space, and poked Ethan's ribs with his elbow in the process. He writhed to release the tension on his wrist, contorting himself into a weird hug with Karl's side. He was in a strange position, arm locked behind his back to hold the door close while his face was pressed into the spring scale around Karl's neck.

"Shut up. It's fine."

Karl squirmed an arm around his waist and turned, releasing him from the uncomfortable edge of metal squeezing his cheek. They were face to face now, though both of their faces were jammed into each other's necks. 

His beard tickled his skin, and he felt his breath on the lobe of his ear when he whispered:

"No. I mean, the closet wasn't there before you pointed it out."

Ethan blinked in the darkness. He could still hear the porcelain scuttling on the wooden floors, and his heart was pounding in his chest, but the heat coming from Karl was pouring right into his bones. 

"Miranda would love this", Karl groaned, barely audible. Ethan smiled against his skin, smothering a giggle in his neck that would surely alert the porcelain horde to their presence. 

"Right. Hiding in the closet with another man", he said in a snickering whisper. 

Karl buried his face in his shoulder and stifled a humorless laugh. The smell of him was filling his nose too, warm and metallic. Train tracks under the sun, he thought. It was comforting and grounding. It was the smell of his bed, and he had been safe in there. 

At the edge of his mind, the voice of the Duke was murmuring.

Start thinking, Ethan. 

He couldn't think when he was running. But now, he wasn't. All he needed was to calm his pulse down and start thinking. Focus on Karl's warmth and the smell of home. With complete abandon, he shoved his face into the crook of his neck and breathed. Deeply, slowly. Karl tensed against him. 

"Are you sniffing me?" an incredulous voice asked into his ear, half-amused, half-something else. 

"Shut up. I'm thinking."

He felt Karl's mouth open near his ear to reply something, but then it didn't. The arm around his waist relaxed, and pressed him closer. He leaned into it, thankful for the silence. 

Train tracks under the warming sun. Inhaling, and then exhaling, every breath lifting that scent into his nose and mouth, he closed his eyes. It didn't change a thing in the obscurity, but it also did. Just enough. 

In his chest, his heart was slowing as he visualized a familiar scene. 

He was laying in bed, in that beautiful moment of day between waking up and leaving the warm covers, that precious time when the world was still turning without him. Something was sizzling in a pan, and the thuds and clanks of the factory echoed in the distance. From the ledge, he could see Karl fussing over breakfast, and the chalice where Rose was wintering. 

Wintering , he thought. It had been the Duke's word, and it made things better. Rosemary was a Winters, same as him, and so she would endure. Sometimes, making it through the night required fleeing, screaming and shooting, but that was not where he excelled. 

Patience. Stubbornness. Resilience. 

The winter would come to an end. The sun would rise in the morning. And he would still be there, standing. Because in the end, what mattered wasn't who bit the strongest, but who would rise back to their feet once the fight was over. 

Push through the winter, day after day, heartbeat after heartbeat. Endure. Wait. 

Think. 

The cogs inside his head were turning freely now. Alright. Now, where were they?

In a death library, with death spider-dolls. 

OK, so maybe his brain was a little rusty. Nevermind the shapes, what was the system here?

Pain and memories. He hung onto that thought and glided along it like a zipline. They had both given Donna an object with memories attached to it, but clearly, her reach exceeded it. Zoe had not been in the picture, and the panorama of people from Karl's life could not all have been linked to that dog tag. 

Memories in general, then. And trauma. And horrible inner thoughts. 

She had open access to their minds, and she was constructing a simulation from what she gathered in there. Wonderful.

The token at the entrance had worked as the sim trigger. Perhaps some sort of unspoken contract, akin to clicking "I have read the terms and conditions…" if the latter mentioned nightmarish hallucinations instead of hidden copyright infringement.

Donna was obviously programming it as they went, and she was also immersing herself deep in it. It had been her screaming at Karl, in Zoe's and Moreau's voices. 

So. A simulation program with a very involved developer. He could work with that. 

How did they end the whole thing? 

Blow up the house and Donna with it. 

That was a very decent plan, that he filed under "Maybe later once we have loads and loads of mines". What could they do right now? 

On the small of his back, he could feel a gloved thumb drawing circles over his skin. It felt nice, and he took another deep breath, melting into the strange embrace, forgetting about the ceramic horrors for a minute. He felt like his body could meld into Karl if he wasn't careful - and something at the back of his mind whispered: wouldn't it be nice to do just that, to let go and stop binding himself to a human shape, to yield and just be ?

He blinked at that thought. Very carefully, he filed it under "Weird stuff that I will dwell on later, if ever."

His own hand was pressed against the back of the closet. He dragged it over to Karl's hip, and dug his fingers into the layers of fabric there. His breath hitched against his neck while he pulled him closer, as if that was even possible, as if there was even a micrometer of air left between them. He felt the hook of his belt poking hard into his thigh. 

Karl's nose and mouth were pressed against his skin, and that too felt nice. He thought of the look on his face when he had been drowning in Moreau's depths, and of that mouth chafing his lips while they had tumbled away. 

It had been his nightmare, yet Ethan had reached through. He hadn't even hesitated, convinced as he was that it was the thing to do. 

Just because… Because he had thought that it should work. 

And so it had. 

What was it that Karl had said? 

The closet wasn't there before you pointed it out. 

Bearded lips were ghosting over his neck, as if Karl was murmuring something against his skin. Ethan's head jolted back up, heart racing. 

That was it. That was the system, and their way out. 

"Karl", he whispered, wriggling to face him.

"Yes, Ethan."

He couldn't see his face, but he sounded a bit dazed, like he had also taken the opportunity to let adrenaline settle and meditate a bit. 

"There's gonna be a gun", he said with formidable conviction. 

"...Sorry, what?"

"A big fucking gun. Somewhere around here. We might have to dig around a bit, because that would be too easy otherwise."

"Ethan, what are you… "

"Listen to me", Ethan urged him, murmuring almost straight into his mouth. Karl stopped talking. "It's her simulation, but the material is us . She can tap into it, but since she's allowing us to play in her little sandbox, we have a margin of action. I don't think I can decide that this is all fucking over. But if I say there is gonna be a gun, there is going to be a fucking gun. Because that works within the simulation's laws."

He heard Karl lick his lips before he breathed out:

"Right. Like the closet. And the… rescuing me."

"Yeah. There should be one, so there will be one."

He delved into that certitude until it felt rock-hard in his bones. 

"Alright", Karl muttered in his neck. "A gun. Just for the record, you couldn't decide it would be, I don't know, an entire tank?"

"No. It's gonna be a gun. Because it already is."

He fumbled with his explanation, but it felt crystal-clear in his mind. Donna was the master of the show, and she would offer no kindness of her own volition. But she also wasn't the sole player in that game. 

A gun was reasonable. A gun worked . It would be hidden in a locked drawer or behind a puzzle of some sort, and he had no doubt that she would make it harrowing to reach, but it would be there. 

"Let's go."

"Now?"

"You want to stay in here forever?" Ethan joked, straining his neck to look outside. The porcelain noises had faded in the distance. Karl took quite some time to reply: 

"No. I guess not."

He almost sounded bashful, for some reason. 

Chapter Text

The last piece clicked with a very satisfying sound into the crest. Ethan rotated it clumsily while Karl kept watch of the library aisle behind them. His naked foot was doing an irritated tap-tap-tap on the wooden floor. It felt riskily loud to Ethan. They had lost the spider-dolls during the last hour of sneaking around, opening intricate lock after intricate lock and collecting crest pieces ; but the library was their home turf, as far as he knew. Karl was in a somber mood, though, and he didn't dare say anything. 

"There it is!" he exclaimed in a hushed voice, extracting a small key from the panel that had just opened behind the crest. He glanced at the tent of webs above their heads, half expecting some new porcelain horror to wake up and tumble out of it. 

"Great", Karl grumbled. "Remind me what that opens?" 

"It's the key to the drawer in the reading room. With any luck, we should find the code for the symbol lock on the chest."

"Right. The chest that was…"

"On the mezzanine", Ethan sighed. "Behind that grid with the moon crest."

"The one with the fuse box?" Karl asked in an increasingly desperate tone. 

"No. The shadow one that we opened with that ugly mannequin head. Come on, let's get to that drawer."

Karl shuffled his feet behind him as Ethan piloted them into the maze of rooms and secret passages behind bookshelves. He hated to admit it, but his inner child was having a tiny bit of fun in that part of the haunted mansion. 

The dolls had not bothered them too much for the last hour, and the clicking noise of their legs on the parquet made them easy to notice in advance. There had been some more jumping into a cupboard, hiding behind a chest or, on one particular occasion, hanging from a chandelier ; but it was nothing compared to Rosemary's Baby and the Moreau Splash Adventure, as Ethan had started calling them when he was journaling in his head. 

The reading room was dimly lit with old-fashioned green glass lamps above the blackwood desks, but it felt more cosy than scary. Framed paintings of still life were hanging on the walls. It smelled of dust and old books. Karl wrote something on a typewriter with his free hand while Ethan struggled to get the key in the drawer. 

"Aha!" He victoriously extracted a photograph album from it, and blew a spider web off it. On the black leatherbound cover, cracking from the offenses of time, a few symbols were stamped in silver. 

"The fish, the door and the wolf. Did you get that?"

"Sure. Wait, I thought we were looking for a key?"

"No, we already found the key. Keep up, Karl."

An ethereal chuckle echoed between the paneled walls. Ethan jumped while Karl turned around with a menacing glare, but nothing happened. 

"Oh, I see", he said in an icy tone. "Glad the two of you are on the same wavelength. Should I leave you to it? Have a nap somewhere and come back once you're done with your fun carnival of puzzles?"

"Don't poke the wasp nest", Ethan muttered between his teeth. 

"Why not? The wasps are asking for it. Pointy bitches."

He spat the last word with a dark expression. Ethan shrugged. He was getting used to his mood swings. Karl was probably still prissy about the loss of his beloved boots. He had complained quite a lot about that in the past hour. 

Ethan had not relinquished his own shoes, no matter how much Karl insisted it was unfair he still had two. 

With a sudden impulse of curiosity, he flipped the photograph album open. He was expecting random horrifying pictures, maybe depictions of cannibalistic porcelain dolls, or just a really big fucking spider ; but it was all portraits and peaceful landscapes. 

His maimed fingers touched a picture that showed flowers in front of the garden swing, where someone was sitting with the bottom of their dress pooling onto the grass. On the next page was a tall woman holding the hand of a little girl, both of them looking at the windmill in the background.

His heart clenched in his chest, and Karl huffed. 

"Why are you looking at this?" he asked almost aggressively. 

"I don't know", Ethan whispered, turning the pages. "Because she wants me to?"

"And that's a good reason?"

It probably wasn't. Donna was surely appealing to his own family memories with that album. Or perhaps, perhaps this was real. Like the library and the spider-dolls, if Karl was to be believed.

Perhaps this was nobody's nightmare. Just memories.

He didn't say it to Karl, who was adamantly not looking at the album. Ethan kept rifling through the pages. Pictures of the Lords were in the mix : Lady Dimitrescu reading a book to the little girl, who looked older and sickly. Karl sleeping at a dinner table, arms crossed and hat resting over his face like a tired cow-boy. He chuckled at that one, while Karl peeked at it, groaned and looked elsewhere. 

On the next page was a very serious portrait of the four Lords, staring into the camera like it had personally offended them. The austere ambiance was a little ruined by Karl making donkey ears behind Moreau's head with two fingers. 

No Miranda, he noticed. No Mother Bitch, anywhere in the album. That felt… interesting.

His eyes returned to Moreau on the photograph. His jaw was clenched, either to hide a smile or a scowl, but he definitely knew what was happening behind him. A weird feeling was pouring through Ethan's guts, exactly halfway between soft and painful. 

Normal people, he thought. They all looked like pretty normal people. 

That didn't erase the torture dungeon in the castle from his memory, nor the experimentation notes he had found in Moreau's lair. Just as the Bakers' old grocery lists and wedding pictures had not erased the horrors of their house. 

But realizing that at some point, they had all been folks , just regular fucking folks who had slipped into evil day after day after day… That was crunching his guts. 

"What are you thinking about?" Karl asked behind him. Ethan shrugged and swallowed the knot in his throat. 

"Oh, you know. Just wondering. At what point does a human being stop being human. Whether memories of sweeter days make things better or worse. How the decay of the soul is the worst kind of all. Stuff like that."

Karl didn't reply for a while, but his hand pressed Ethan's fingers tightly. 

"Yeah. Been there. I tend to avoid mulling too long on that, usually. Or I just end up screaming."

Ethan felt closer to crying, but he could see that happening too. He followed the advice and cleared his throat. The black eyes on the Lord photograph seemed to be set on him, and he focused on that instead.

"So, Moreau", he said, poking at the picture. "How was he really?"

"What do you mean? You met him."

"I met After-Moreau. And Donna's Moreau, which I assume isn't quite the real deal. Zoe and Mia weren't like that."

"Oh?" Karl drawled. "You mean your wife never chased you with a chainsaw?"

Ethan slapped down the album on the desk with an annoyed expression, and turned to face him. A gloved hand was raised as a peace gesture. 

"Sorry. That was gratuitous. This place is getting under my skin."

"Yeah, I can see that. Can we relax for a bit and enjoy the point where we're not being chased down by a blood baby or drowning in dream water?"

Under his breath, Karl muttered that he would try his best. 

"And for the record", he added in a low voice, "she got him down pat. I forgot that it was her at some point, and that he was... dead. Or, well. Soon. "

The last word felt almost apologetic in the dusty quiet of the reading room. Ethan sat down in a leather armchair that gave a comfortable groan under his weight. With a sigh, Karl pulled his fingers free and sat himself up on the reading desk in front of him. He had let go of his hand again, and Ethan considered a retribution crotch-kick, but his feet were dangling from the table, so he grabbed his ankle and pulled it into his lap instead. That felt acceptable for the time being. 

"I don't care", Karl said in a voice that almost managed not to sound like pleading. "I don't care if he dies. I don't care if they all die."

Ethan stayed quiet, just watching him from his seat and rubbing an absent-minded circle on his shin. Karl's arms were crossed close to his chest, like he was trying to fold himself smaller. 

"I care so little in fact, I'm gonna kill Donna myself", he announced with a tinge of venom. "She had it coming, the little bitch."

"Maybe let me…"

"No", Karl said abruptly. His eyes met his, hard and cold as steel. "You stay the fuck out of this. You couldn't kill her the first goddamn time, huh? It had to be now."

Bitterness was dripping from his voice. Ethan didn't let go of his ankle, but it felt like the air was buzzing with anger. 

Or something else.

"Can you use your powers?" he asked gingerly. 

"No, Ethan! I can't do anything, in case you didn't notice! She took it all away!" He opened his arms in a dramatic flourish. In the direction where his arms were pointing, all the lamps over the desks flickered for a second. 

Ethan glanced at it and opened his mouth, but Karl shoved a finger in front of it. 

"That's not me. That's her, toying with me. She is not going to play fair. So alright, fine, we go through hoops and hope for a magic gun that you may have materialized in the simulation via sheer power of will, but-" 

He grabbed his chin with gloved fingers. 

"Do. Not. Fool. Yourself."

Every word was accompanied by a strong clench over his jaw. When he released him, Ethan rubbed at his cheeks, stroking the growing stubble under his fingers. It hurt a little. Karl sure had a grip. 

"She is not that person anymore", he added, pointing to the album with his head. "The people in these photographs have since been broken and glued back and broken again, and again, and again"- His voice strained to a guttural growl.

"And again, beyond all recognition. This Donna Beneviento is not the one upstairs. Less legs and bigger tits, to start with. Also, a modicum of decency towards other people."

He exhaled through his nose, and his shoulders deflated. 

"The Duke is right, you know. An end, at long last. That's all we deserve."

Ethan didn't say it, but he wondered what good an end was when all you ever had was a bitter story. Instead, he gently pointed out:

"You get more than an end."

"Sure. I get revenge, too. And I'll start with Miss Gepetto, because I can't punch Salvatore to a pulp now that he's a collectible piece of rock."

He scratched his head and a nasty smile spread over his face. 

"I mean, I could hammer it down. It might relax me a bit. I'll ask the Duke if he minds." Noticing Ethan's wince, he rolled his eyes and sneered: 

"He was bad, believe me. Choir boy looks, but vicious."

"That was my impression. Kinda hot, though."

"You think so?" Karl asked with slight dismay. 

"Sure, I see it", Ethan said, coming to his feet and helping him down the desk. He glanced at the album one last time before heading out. He added jokingly: 

"I believe he's what my frat buddy Jōkkio called a pinky toe in college."

"A what?"

"You know. Small, fragile, yet their life purpose is getting roughly banged on furniture?"

Karl stopped in his tracks, wheezing. Holding himself up with a hand against the wall, he let out a raucous cackle into the corridor. Ethan was so happy to hear him laugh again that he didn't even think to keep an ear out for the dolls. 

"Am I wrong?" he asked, grinning. 

"Ethan, please-"

"I know I'm not wrong."

Karl was choking on tears of mirth, banging his fist on a nearby escritoire. It took him a while to manage some words out, while Ethan contemplated his doing with a gleeful smile. 

"Workshop bench", he gasped between two bursts of laughter. "We went right through it."

"I knew it! Lord Karl Heisenberg and his enormous hammer, huh?" he said, quirking an eyebrow. Karl was beetroot red, but still barking with hilarity. 

"Nice. Hey, I don't blame you. I've broken a garden table once like that." After a moment of reflection, he added: "And an ex-girlfriend's pelvis."

Coughing heavily, with a raspy sound coming from his lungs that probably should make him quit smoking, Karl managed to calm down enough to ask: 

"How peasant am I going to sound if I mention my love of straw bales?"

"Charmingly pastoral."

"Oh, is that how you see me?"

Ethan was going to reply something about the charms of rural Europe, but they had reached the staircase heading to the mezzanine, with its banister of painted wood, carpeted steps, and dozens of porcelain dolls sitting neatly on the handrail.

He gasped silently and froze in his tracks. Karl didn't, and bumped into him, sending him tumbling onto the stairs. His hand grabbed the rail before he could faceplant in the plush carpet, and then tiny cold enamel fingers grabbed his hand as the nearest doll slowly turned to him. 

Ethan shrieked. Karl punched it. 

The doll exploded on the paneled wall with an ear-shattering clang. 

"Well, that was not smart", Karl evaluated in the understatement of the day as the other dolls all shook awake, spider porcelain limbs unfolding around them as they agglomerated into a writhing, clicking mass. Ethan yanked his hand and ran up the stairs while the squirming clutch of ceramic shaped itself into a familiar form. 

Two half-grown giant hands clanged heavily on the steps. A glossy, lumpy face was crudely arranged by dolls intertwisting with each other. It split open in the middle. Their spider limbs looked like rows of barbed fangs inside the maw, and somehow, they managed to let out a scream that sounded like nails running along a china plate. 

"I liked the old one better!" Ethan yelled as they ran past it. The chest was not very far, just a bit further away down the balcony that circled the library. 

"Come on, come on!" Karl shouted as his fingers trembled on the lock. Fish, door, and… 

"Apple!" 

"There's no apple!" Ethan screamed as the porcelain cluster crawled its way to them. It was an absolutely horrifying sight to behold, with dolls clinging onto one another by their sharp thin limbs and lacy Victorian bonnets scattering in its track.

He rolled the last band desperately, until a howling wolf appeared under his fingers, jolting the memory. He yanked the lock off the chest and hooted in delight. 

Resting on scarlet velvet, shining slightly in the dingy light, was a big fucking gun. 

He had never bothered to learn names or models at Chris' military training, preferring to refer to them with his own descriptions. And this, he decided, was Big Boy Gunny. 

Gunny might have been offended at such a lowly denomination, considering the intricate engravings on its barrel and its slick pommel of teak. Perhaps this was why, when Ethan spinned around triumphantly with his finger pressing the trigger, nothing happened. 

A sad click was repeated again, and again, as he desperately tried to shoot the enclosing porcelain fetus. There was no bullet in the elegant stock. 

"Are you fucking kidding me?" Karl screeched. It summed up Ethan's reaction pretty well too, so he just snarled an incoherent blubber of raging swears and screams. 

"Gunny, why?" he shrieked as a gloved hand pulled him by his belt and sent him flying over the banister. He heard a horrible porcelain jaw hit the ground where he had been a second earlier, before crashing on the top of a bookshelf. It groaned slightly, toppling on its feet. His back hurt like a bitch, and he raised his head.

Then Karl fell like a hammer onto him as well, and the bookshelf capitulated. Ethan felt it topple into the neighbouring case, which also gave out under the weight with a meek creak. 

They slipped to the floor as one by one, the shelves collapsed like mahogany dominos. He winced at the sight of the books flying out and onto the ground, pooling in a pile of scattered papers. 

"Oh, she's gonna be mad", Karl muttered between his teeth. As if on cue, a chittering screech of outrage echoed in the library. The webs draped over the ceiling trembled and swelled, as if something much bigger was suddenly crawling inside of them.

"Run!"

Ethan ran. Scampering over the devastated bookshelves, he held for dear life as Karl towed him with renewed energy. He pulled him to the exit, and into the nearest door in the hallway leading to the reading room. 

It slammed close behind them with a metallic bang, and Karl froze in place. He turned back slowly to the door as Ethan darted his eyes around the room, looking for something to barricade themselves with. Surprisingly, it was a bedroom, with a heavy four-poster bed in the middle, a discrete commode and a small desk. 

"Help me move the bed", Ethan commanded, striding towards it. His shoulder almost popped when Karl did not budge even an inch, standing still in front of the door. 

"Fuck", he whispered before diving for the handle. He shook it with increasing panic, and his voice broke when he wailed: "Fuck! No!"

Ethan watched aghast as he pulled his left hand free to yank on the handle with all his strength, slamming his entire body into the panel while shrilling breathless swears. The door did not open.

"Fuck! Fuck!"

Each word was echoed by a loud clang as he hurled himself into the door, again and again. 

"Stop it!" Ethan shouted, grabbing him by the waist with both arms and pulling him away. Karl struggled weakly, sweat rolling down his forehead. 

"No, no, no", he whined pitifully as Ethan tried to drag him to the bed. He slumped heavily to the floor, which worked for him too. He let him sag down to the ground into a whimpering mess, the leather of his gloves tangling in his hair as he grabbed it in tight fists. 

Ethan sat next to him, and coughed. 

"So", he said with as much calm as he could muster. "No need to barricade, then?"

He was quicker than Karl this time, when he suddenly jumped to his feet and tried to fling himself onto the handle again. 

"Nope", Ethan said blandly while he wriggled in his embrace. "Sit down and breathe, please."

It was some struggle to make him comply, but he did manage to bring him back down to the floor, both hands pushing strongly on his shoulders. 

"Alright. Calm down."

"No, no, no. You don't understand", Karl snarled in a throaty voice. "I need to get out of here."

"And we will, alright? There's gotta be, uh... A secret passage or something."

He patted his shoulder awkwardly, then checked under the bed and behind the commode. He even tried the door handle, just in case it was actually a "push or pull?" situation. Surely there would be another lever, or a crest shaped like Big Boy Gunny. Karl was no help at all, keeping his face buried in his hands while he explored the small bedroom. 

"Wanna lend me a hand? Or at least, two fingers?"

The glare he got in return made him roll his eyes. He lifted the plum pillows and peeked under the covers. There was going to be something. There had to be. 

"There is not", Karl said in a voice muffled by the cover of his hands. 

"Of course there is", Ethan snapped back. He had never been claustrophobic, but Karl's attitude was starting to chafe his nerves. The pillows were lifted again, just in case. 

"No!" came the thundering reply as Karl slammed his fist into the side of the bed. "That is not how this works, Ethan! Sometimes, there is no fucking way out, alright?"

"Not alright!" Ethan yelled back, finding a surprising anger in his tone. "There is always something we can do ! There is always a way out!" 

He almost stepped back when Karl rose to his feet and grabbed him by the lapels of his shirt. His teeth shimmered with spit when he growled: 

"That is a fascinating fucking insight into your psyche, but not this time. Not here. That is not the way of the world! You can search and scream and break your fingers on the door, and there will still be no…"

His voice died in his throat as his eyes fixed on something over Ethan's shoulder. His hands slumped back to his sides and he took a step back, bonking on the door as he did so. 

Ethan turned around. 

The covers he had so carefully looked under were undone and torn. Hanging from the ceiling of the bed, a ripped sheet had been tied into a noose. 

"Well, that's fucking grim", he judged. Part of him wanted to untie that bleak shit from the beam, but he really didn't want the dramatic linen to come to life and latch onto his throat if he got too close. 

He turned back, and sat on the bed. Patting down next to him with his injured hand, he nodded to Karl. Jaw clenched and eyes set on his naked feet, he stayed still for a while, before very carefully complying. The springs groaned when he sat down, making Ethan bounce up a little.  

Shame about the DIY gallows situation, he thought. It had been years since he had been on a mattress with springs, and the House of Horrors really could have used dome indoor trampoline time. 

Karl didn't talk, and he didn't look in the mood for somersaults. With a deep sigh, Ethan clasped his hand on his thigh and asked:

"Alright. What is this place?"

No reply came. The muscles on Karl's neck were strained, his teeth gritted. Ethan waited a bit, trying out the springs under his butt. 

"Look, mate, either you get to talking or we get to tumbling", he finally said. "But I'm gonna need some action here."

An eyebrow raised in his direction, then another one. Karl looked incredulously at him, and blinked slowly before prudently repeating: 

"Tumbling?"

"Yeah."

"Like… on the bed."

"Yeah. I bet if you jumped down at the same moment I jumped up, I could manage a backflip."

Karl blinked again, then closed his eyes and exhaled through his nose. Ethan raised to his feet and jumped back down to sit again. The rebound sent Karl up a few inches, enough to make him snort. 

"Spill the beans, Heisenberg." Karl muttered something in his beard, but then he did the same move Ethan had done a moment earlier. He squeaked in glee as he bounced up, bumping shoulders with him in the process. They went back and forth for a minute, then Karl brought it to a stop. His face was dour, but he finally spoke. 

"Did I ever tell you how we ended up here?" he said in a low voice. "She got into her own head thinking that some ritual with the descendents of the four founders would give her the power she needed."

Ethan nodded, still bouncing up and down lightly.

"Yeah, I found some of their old stuff. Father Nicola and the like."

"You did? Those are inestimably valuable. I hope you got many shotgun ammo out of them."

Smiling, Ethan elbowed him. 

"See, man, you understand me. So, that's why she kidnapped you."

Karl shut his eyes close again and crunched his face. 

"Not… kidnapped", he uttered as if the words were burning his mouth. "Lured us in."

He swallowed painfully, as if an entire clump of spider-dolls was nesting in his throat. 

"Donna lived here already. Moreau was an orphan, so all it took was a letter telling him he had family here and there were patients for a young doctor. Lady D was a jazz singer struggling for contracts, so inheriting a castle was a fucking miracle. And me…"

Roiling on his brow like a black cloud, there was shame. 

"I… wasn't a good son. Alright? Undankbar Karl. There was going to be money for my work. I had a little, but never enough, and I was fucking tired of begging. So I came. On my own."

He buried his face in his hands, and crumbled into his own lap. 

"She didn't bring me here by stealing my baby daughter. I walked in with a smile. And she gave me a r-room." Words were muddling their way out, and Ethan felt his heart clench. 

"She told me of the fucking cadou, brought it in a little china plate. And when I didn't want to eat that squirming, stinking piece of shit…"

His voice snuffed out, and he didn't say anything more. Ethan looked around the room with new eyes. The bed looked comfortable, and there were basic commodities. The jar of water and bowl of walnuts on the desk spoke of a promise that made his blood curdle in his veins.

Nobody would die of anything here. One could spend an entire lifetime rotting in this cosy cell. The deal had been simple. 

Surrender, or stay.

He wanted to ask how long it had taken him, but he found that he couldn't. It wasn't as if there was a right answer to that question. 

The presence of the noose behind them weighed heavy. As if he had read his thoughts, Karl spoke again, so low that he had to bend down to hear him. 

"I know I should have. But I couldn't. Never found the courage."

The words were wet, and Ethan stared in surprise for a second before snapping out of it. He carefully unfolded the lump of miserable magnet Lord sagged beside him, and sat him back up. He made a point of not reacting to the tears streaming down his face, eyes still set on the ground, as if Ethan couldn't see him as long as he didn't look up. 

"That's just not right", Ethan said as softly as he could. His heart was pounding in his chest, anger and rebellion and something else. 

"I dreamed of it for years after I caved in", Karl whispered, raising his eyes not on Ethan but on the noose behind him. "Of the last time I had a way out, and I didn't fucking take it." Hatred poured in his voice, and Ethan wasn't sure against whom it was directed, but he had heard enough. 

"Look at me. Hey, asshole, look at me."

Karl did with an aggravated scowl, eyes red and beard sodden on his cheeks.

"That's not a way out", Ethan stated, pointing his thumb at the swaying sheet. "That's not courage. That's a mistake."

"Easy to say when…"

"Shut up and listen for once. You're a man of science, yeah?" Ethan lashed out. "You want some logic from the mushroom-brained dude, while we're sitting on a bed that doesn't exist?"

He pressed both his hands on Karl's shoulders and stared at him intensely.

"You did the right thing." At the huff he got in response, he dug his fingers strongly into his collarbones. 

"Death is not an answer. Not unless you are a fifteen-year-old dog agonizing his way to puppy heaven, and your master takes a very hard decision, although out of love, that will make him cry himself to sleep for the next six months."

A half-amused, half-compassionate smile ghosted over his bearded lips through the tears. 

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"No, I'm fine", Ethan said in a voice that almost wasn't shaky. "And as far as I'm aware, you are not a german shepherd with brain cancer, and-"

"Technically, I'm German. And the Heisenbergs did own…"

Air left him when Ethan punched him in the stomach, just hard enough to shut him up. 

"Listen to me. You made the right choice."

"Did I?" Karl retorted, rubbing his belly. "Because leaving the ship before it sinks doesn't seem that illogical to me."

"You're not leaving the ship! You're sinking it first, you dumb idiot, when it might have been salvageable, or when another ship might even have come to the rescue! Life is short enough as it is!"

Ethan inhaled to try to keep his calm, but his voice was vibrating with fury when he continued: 

"Say you put your head through that fucking noose and jumped. Then what?"

"Then I don't go through seven decades of torture!" Karl suddenly shouted. 

"You don't go through anything at all anymore!" Ethan yelled back. "You don't get to see anything that might be left down the road! You don't meet me, for starters."

He tried to quip, but his voice sounded deadly serious. A humorless chuckle shook Karl's shoulders, though, so that wasn't entirely a miss.

"Nevermind the delight of my company", Ethan persisted. "You went through that door at some point because this was the better option, and you knew it. Fuck courage. The will to live or the absence of will to die have the exact same result. And if it felt like giving up and being a coward, well, it doesn't matter. You live. That matters."

Heart pounding in his chest, he ran a tongue on his lips. Karl's eyes followed it. Definitely grey in this light, Ethan thought. He shook his head to stay in focus and concluded:

"Because that linen bullshit over there, that is just throwing to the bin all the chances you might have had."

The greyish eyes were set on him like Karl was drinking his every word. Ethan's fingers were starting to hurt, but he didn't loosen his grip on his shoulders. As if it was him holding a younger German engineer back, somehow, throughout the decades. 

"I did give up", he muttered in a hoarse voice. "She looked so fucking smug, Ethan."

"I bet. But it doesn't matter. Sure, you went through shit. But you kept walking, and now you're almost out. And I swear to god that somewhere down the line, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday, there will be moments that are worth sticking around."

After a second of hesitation, he added:

"There were already some, I think."

He thought about mentioning the photographs in Donna's album, or his passion for mushroom soup, or their bathtub time in the castle. With a heavy heart, he realized he wasn't sure what had really mattered to Karl Heisenberg. 

So he just shook him lightly, and said in a raspy voice:

"Stubbornness is strength, you magnificent bastard. And there is no greater one than getting up, day after day, holding with tooth and nail to the idea that things will get better."

A drop of wetness splashed on his fingers. Karl had closed his eyes again.

"Look at me. I said, look at me."

Ethan was about to repeat it again when he did. His pupils were glistening in the dull light. 

"You did good."

It was barely a whisper, but so firm and adamant that it cut through the silence. Karl slowly raised his hands to the ones set on his shoulders, and held them here. Ethan relaxed his grip, hoping he hadn't bruised too much. The warmth of the leather was seeping into his hands as well. The grey eyes were still staring back at him, but what they radiated was gratitude. 

Karl's shoulders loosened under his hands as he let out a deep exhale. The peace settling on his features was piercing through Ethan's heart like a drill.

"And you know what?" he called at the ceiling. "That also works for you, Lady Beneviento. Because I'm getting real tired of the fucking suicide ideation going around in this family."

The ceiling did not answer. Karl chortled lightly, though, and then burst into full-chested laughter. Crow's feet were framing his eyes in a cheery fringe. It looked nice on him. Like the years suddenly didn't weigh that much. 

"Fuck, I love you", he blurted out in between chuckles. 

That sent a bolt of something weird and painful into his chest, tearing at his guts like a spike. Ethan smiled through it, though, and winked. 

"I know."

"Oh, do you?" Karl raised his eyebrows, looking startled despite his grin. 

"It's a Star Wars quote", he sighed. He didn't feel like dipping in those waters for too long. The strange feeling was still slinking in his chest, burning hotter than shame and twisting the strings of his heart. 

"What is a Star War?"

"God, I envy you."

Chasing away the awkwardness, he squeezed Karl's shoulders and smiled a genuine smile, broad and sincere. 

"I think we should try the door again."

They did, hands slipping back into place together. 

Ethan took a deep breath and crossed his remaining fingers while Karl placed his on the handle. He nodded, and shouted in glee when the door pivoted open. 

Then, he shouted in dismay. On the other side of the door, the assembled porcelain jaws of the doll syndicate shouted in something as well. 

In true Heisenberg fashion, Ethan yanked the door close again, but it was too late. The things were roiling inside with an ear-shattering squeak of enamel on metal. 

"Come on, Gunny", he whined, pulling it out of his pants. It was stuck, and he let go of Karl's hand to untangle it from his belt, just one second.

The yelp that instantly followed froze his blood in his veins. Spinning around, he had just the time to see the plush floor gulch open under Karl's feet, swallowing him into a pit of pure blackness. 

Ethan didn't think, which to be fair, was not unusual at this point.

He jumped after him. 

Chapter Text

Everything was black. Ethan didn't know for how long he had been falling. Far above his head, a square of light was getting smaller and smaller. 

He had panicked for the first few seconds, while the acceleration pushed his guts into his mouth ; but now, it was almost getting comfortable. He wriggled to turn around, trying to see something in the velvety darkness. Karl couldn't be very far, surely? 

Down and down he kept falling. 

The increasing anxiety that this would last forever was poking at the edge of his mind. What if this was his life now? What if he grew old here, just blinking like a blind pup and staring at the distant source of light, so far ahead? 

It had gone so small that it almost looked like a shining star now, which brought some very interesting thoughts about cosmogony to his mind. Maybe stars were holes in the sky, from whence people had once fallen. Maybe there was another world behind the empty dark. 

"Shit, are we in space?" he wondered out loud. 

A yell came from beneath in a hoarse voice. 

"No, dumbass! We're falling down an imaginary sinkhole!"

His heart jumped in his chest, and he perked up. Making swimming motions with his arms, he managed to roll and point down, squinting to try and see something. 

"Karl? Is that you?"

"Who do you think? Archduke of Ostrich Franz Ferdinand?" 

Yes, that was him alright. 

"When we land", the voice of Probably-Not-Archduke-Franz-Ferdinand shouted, "I am kicking you in the nuts so hard you might actually end up in space! You let go of my hand!"

Ethan was going to protest, but that felt fair. There were rules, after all. 

"Sorry!" he screamed back into the void as the air whooshed around him. "Any idea where we're headed?"

After a short silence, Karl yelled: 

"Down?"

"No shit. What's down?"

Another silence. Ethan wasn't sure with the deafening whirl of the fall, but it felt a little bashful. He frowned, as if it meant anything in the engulfing darkness. 

"Karl, what the fuck is down?"

"Nothing!" a protesting scream replied. 

"For the love of… Dude, really? Are you doing the door denial again? I thought we were past this!"

Only the wind came back to his ears, carrying some muttered words too low to make out. 

"Karl, I'm gonna count to ten and we'd better have landed then", he threatened while crossing his arms, which made him tumble around before he managed to stabilize. 

"Or what?" 

His voice was cheeky and defiant, and Ethan gasped in outrage. 

"Or I'll drop a shoe on you!"

"Go ahead!" Nervous laughter echoed from under him. "I could use some spares!"

Ethan muffled a swear and batted his arms and legs to attempt to fall quicker, very aware of how ridiculous it must look, and thankful for the cover of darkness. It didn't help, and he kept plummeting without getting any closer to Karl. 

"We can't do this forever", he tried to reason. 

"And why not?" retorted Karl's voice. It almost sounded like sarcasm, but not quite. Ethan's heart clenched in his chest, and not just from the fall. 

"Cause I need to go to the bathroom?" he joked. "Also, I would really like to see the light of day again? And, you know. Saving my baby daughter and turning Mother Miranda to minced bird meat?"

A groan of approval rose to his ears and flew past. Still, they kept falling. Ethan sighed for himself, pinching the brink of his nose. His eyes were prickling with tears from the prolonged dive. 

"Spill it out", he yelled. "Why are we not landing? What are you waiting for?"

"I don't know!" Karl's voice shouted in return. "Nothing! I… There's just nothing down there that I'm particularly excited about, alright?"

It sounded defensive, but screaming back and forth did not allow much tone subtlety. Ethan shrugged in the darkness. 

"How about getting out of this place and grabbing a beer? Can you get excited about that?"

A humorless chuckle came from under him. 

"Yeah? And then what?"

Ethan wiped his eyes and squinted in surprise. 

"I don't know! Dinner and a movie, and then one last drink at your place?"

Karl barked out laughing for real this time, though his voice was a bit hoarse when he retorted:

"I didn't mean your plan to get in my pants, Winters. I meant…" His voice died and Ethan thought he had actually vanished into space for a second, but then he started shouting again:

"Look, I'd love to wine and dine you and find out what happens. Really, I would! Just might have been a little bit nicer if that didn't involve a toast to murdering my… that obnoxious little... Donna. Alright?"

Ethan felt his guts twist again, and he took a while to reply: 

"Maybe we don't need to? Maybe she…"

"You need one more !" That was a downright shriek, angry and bitter. He clamped his mouth shut, feeling his heart pound in his ears. 

"You need one more", Karl repeated in a slightly calmer yell. "And it is not going to be me. Not if I can help it."

"Of course not", Ethan immediately said. He could feel the gaping crack in Karl's reasoning as well as if he had been reading his thoughts, so he added:

"It's never going to be you, you bloody idiot! Not even if we don't kill her. I'll figure out something, but whatever happens, I am not killing you!"

It rang almost true to his ears. There was no protesting it: he did not want to murder that man anymore. Not even a little. That was not something you did to someone whose hand you had held through an entire house of horror, and who had punched your homicidal wife for you and lost both his boots defending you from various monsters. It was just... poor form. 

And probably, it wouldn't come to it. Surely the world was not cruel enough to force him to make that choice, because it wasn't one at all. 

Karl Heisenberg mattered. But Rose was everything. 

Sound was changing in his ears, as if whatever abyss they were falling through was turning into something else. They were closing in on the ground, he immediately realized. With a strange sense of relief mixed in the usual dread of anticipation, he added in a scream:

"Look, how about we both make a promise, huh? I'll go first. You are getting out of this village. Can't promise much more, but this I swear."

And in his heart, he was wishing it so hard that he felt his blood burning. There was a short silence, broken only by the hiss of the air against what sounded like a stone conduit. Something was shaping around them, some new nightmare that they would face head front, hand in hand. Together, the two of them.

The fire in his chest was growing impossibly tight, impossibly painful. 

"Now you promise me that you'll forget the crotch-kick when we land!" he quipped through a tight throat . 

"Fuck no", Karl replied in a strained yell. "You deserve it. But… But you will see your daughter grow. Can't promise much more, but this I fucking swear."

The words were vibrating with righteous fury, and they hit Ethan like a brick to the head. Seeing her grow , he thought, and he felt like he was run over by a train of emotions and future memories. Assembling a jigsaw puzzle with Rose, and driving her to her first day of school. Letting her win at Go Fish while Karl yelled that it was unfair. Walking her to prom, and down the aisle under a garland of white flowers. 

He did a double take on that list, raising his eyebrows. Well, one of those things was not like the others, and it had come from straight up nowhere. But it felt right, somehow. 

The burn in his chest was boring through his ribs, tearing at his guts, sizzling his skin. His cheeks were pulsating with a painful warmth, and he held onto that one image with desperate fervor. It would happen. He would make it happen. 

And I will devour whatever stands in my way, flesh and bones and soul. 

He frowned slowly as the intrusive thought excused itself and shuffled out of his brain. Well. That place was starting to get under his skin. Time to get out, grab a cold beer with his buddy Heisenberg, and firmly ignore that bullshit. 

"Do you play Go Fish?" he shouted into the darkness. 

"Probably not the one you have in mind!" Karl laughed back. "Unless Salvatore introduced you to his obstacle course?"

Ethan snorted and grinned in the dark, wild thoughts forgotten. He could see the shapes and shades of a rocky cave now, dimly lit by crackling torches. 

"Ah, shit", he heard Karl say right under him, suddenly much closer than he had been so far. 

They crashed. He felt the air leave his lungs and his bones pop in various places as he landed hard onto Karl, who had landed on top of... 

A pile of corpses , Ethan noted, feeling completely jaded. Of course we are at the top of a fucking pyramid of rotten corpses.

For once, he was thankful for the darkness. He could barely see the mound of pale dead flesh, getting only glimpses of rigid limbs entangled beneath them. Under his head, there was a warm chest breathing up and down. Karl was probably having the worst time of them two, now that he thought of it. The stench was unbearable, sweet and sickly, stinging his eyes and tainting his tongue with the taste of decay. 

He heaved loudly, and felt a hand push against his mouth. An unyielding arm had wrapped around him and was holding him in place. Struggling to get free, he bit down hard on the leather glove. It tasted like cadaver, and he gagged on his palm, shaking his head around. 

"Shut your damn mouth", Karl hissed in his ear. 

"Hmpf! 'et me…"

A low growl reverberated through the cave and into his bones, as the pile beneath them shifted. Ethan felt himself slip head first down the stack of bodies, before Karl grabbed him by the waist with his other arm. He was now looking upside down at the slope of dead faces and wrinkled flesh, wrapped in an iron-tight embrace. Very carefully, very slowly, he was hefted back enough for a bearded jaw to set on the side of his face. Whispered words tickled the shell of his ear: 

"Not. A. Sound."

He was going to ask why, or what was going on, but that felt like it would defeat the purpose. The low rumble spread again through the cave, and Ethan felt his mouth dry up as he caught sight of a hunched silhouette. Massive and difformed, it was crouching near the base of the pyramid. A horrible squelching sound of mastication came to his ears. There was a crunch and the drip of saliva, and satisfied muffled groans into something wet. 

The gloved hand carefully slipped away from his mouth and settled on his chest, splaying over his ribs. Blood was starting to pool to Ethan's head and it was very unsettling to look at the hulking shape upside down, but he didn't dare move an inch.

After an eternity, the thing gave one last growl, a very loud burp that almost made Ethan snicker, and it shuffled away. As it passed the dim firelight of a torch, he recognized the massive hammer strapped to its back and the shagged beard. 

Weirdly enough, he instantly relaxed. Oh, that guy again. The werewolf who's cosplaying as Karl Heisenberg.

The real one was still holding him tight, with one hand gently stroking circles over his pounding heart. Very carefully, Ethan managed to lift his head up, feeling his abs strain and silently thanking Chris' Program : From Eight Pack To Six Pack. He wriggled to turn around, ending up sprawled over his chest, face hovering over his face, and desperately trying to ignore the cold dead hand on which Karl's head was laying. 

"It's alright", Karl whispered, and he could feel the air on his lips. "I've got this."

"You do?" Ethan asked, not bothering to hide his thankfulness. "What's the plan?"

Karl blinked and winced. 

"I… am going to walk over to him?" he suggested in a whisper. 

"Sure."

"And this time, I'm getting that hammer back somehow. And... splitting his face open?" He looked like he was studying Ethan for a reaction. Ethan had no idea what it was supposed to be, so he made a variety of faces. 

"Or begging for his forgiveness? Letting him swallow me and spit me out?"

Ethan's face settled on firm confusion at this point, while Karl swore almost right into his mouth. Somewhere down in the cave, the massive werewolf groaned again. It sounded almost painful, this time. 

"Help me out here, for fuck's sake", Karl hissed. "What do I have to do?"

"I don't know!" Ethan protested in as low a voice as he could. "How would I know?"

"You're the one figuring out Donna's hilarious puzzles! Just tell me what to do!"

Ethan glanced at the hulking shadow on the stone, swallowing hard when another menacing growl echoed through the cave. 

"Context, please? Who is this guy?"

Karl shuffled nervously under him, and dislodged a corpse in the process. The two of them slid down a bit further to the ground, Ethan desperately trying to find purchase with his feet to stop their fall. His shoe met something that could be a face or a ribcage, and the heap settled. 

"Does it matter?" Karl's voice was almost pleading, his eyes planted into his. "I don't think it does."

Ethan huffed. Karl's tongue ran over his lips, a breath away from his own. He was still staring at him, looking cornered and awkward. 

"Look, buddy, if you want my insight, I'm gonna need some too. Who is he?"

Karl didn't reply. A voice above them did, as a ray of golden light sparkled over the horrible mound of rotting flesh. It would have looked ethereal if what it shone upon hadn't been empty faces with melting tongues and twisted limbs stiffened by rot. 

"Why, he is you, Ethan", Mother Miranda said. 

She was wearing her regal attire with the strange headgear caging her face, and her crow wings were lazily flapping in the air. Her naked feet set on the back of a whitened ribcage, and she stood there at the top of that monolith of death, proud and quiet. Looking down on the two of them, she smiled under the golden mask. 

"What do you mean?" Ethan whispered, straining his neck to look at her without moving from Karl. 

"He is your fate", Miranda languidly stated, preening the feathers of her wings. "He is what will happen to you, because that is what happens to the people whose lives touch him."

Utter disgust dripped from her voice as her shining eyes set onto Karl, disheveled, haggard, and sprawled over a pile of dead bodies.

"You know this, don't you?" she continued in a velvety tone. "You know that's what I'll do to him." Her chin pointed to Ethan but her gaze didn't leave Karl. "And it will all be your fault."

"The fuck are you talking about?" Ethan furiously murmured. The giant lycan did not seem to react to Miranda's voice, nor to the freaking beam of light surrounding them, but he did not want to push his chances. 

"You have been wanting me dead since we met. If that happens, it won't be on him."

"He's got a point", Karl whispered, poking at him with a firm finger. 

Shiny Miranda smiled almost sadly, and tilted her head to the side. Her wings folded and vanished behind her back, and she crossed her hands in front of her like a humble maiden.

"I wanted you dead because you were a nuisance, Ethan Winters. But now that he has set his hands on you? Now, I want you broken . I will take you apart and unravel everything that made you a man. I will shatter your spirit and defile your body to the point where he won't even want to set an eye on you ever again."

The thought of Moreau crossed his mind as the Miranda illusion continued. That explains some things. In the golden light, her voice was soft and her posture demure, and it made Ethan's flesh crawl. 

"I will leave you a ruin. A pathetic hull to serve only as the living reminder of what Lord Heisenberg seems to keep on forgetting…"

The peaceful tone turned to a shrill scream as she set her unforgiving gaze on him: 

"You break everything you touch!"

Karl did not reply, looking firmly away from the shimmering woman. Ethan rose on his elbows and touched his cheek, turning his face towards him. He locked eyes with him and said in a matter-of-fact tone:

"We both know that's wrong, right? You don't break everything."

"Don't I?" Karl muttered, glancing away. "You've met Sturm."

There was no arguing with that, so Ethan pursed his lips. The images of the factory were dancing in his memory, twisted flesh wrapped in metal and the sick orange gleam of the reactors where something alive pulsed in pain.

"Ok, fine. You kinda have a thing for… desecration", he acknowledged ruefully. "You have weird hobbies. Then again, it's not like I've seen a badminton club around here."

Miranda snorted, and sat crossed-legged on a nearby corpse. The skin of her thighs gleamed white before she adjusted her dress over her lap. 

"Face it, Karl", she purred with intense satisfaction. "You are a harbinger of corruption."

Only silence replied to her. The grey eyes were still stubbornly looking in the distance. Ethan sat up, straddling Karl with his knees, and ran a tired hand on the back of his neck. It didn't look like Fake Miranda was going to maul them in the minute, and the prowling shadow was gnawing at some other unfortunate remains at the bottom of the heap. The whole thing felt like having a very strange family picnic on top of a hill. Albeit, made of corpses. So he turned to her and bluntly asked:

"Why is it that none of your children can get along? After so many decades enduring you…"

"Exactly for that reason", she cut him in a dark voice that wasn't Miranda's. "There is no room for love when all you know is fear."

Karl let out a humorless snort. He didn't protest, and Ethan felt his heart clamp. 

"I know what you think", the woman said, unfurling a leg and lifting his chin with the tip of her bare foot. "Why could they not be friends? Why did they not fight me together instead of leaning into my mind games?"

She wore spiky golden rings around her toes, and he felt them on his face when the back of her foot stroked his cheek, soft and sensual, before slapping him hard. 

"Because they were monsters long before I set my hands on them."

"I don't think that's true", Ethan said, lifting a hand to his jaw. A line of blood smeared on his fingers. Pain was throbbing hot on the side of his face. He stared at the woman languidly sitting in front of him, beautiful and cruel. She was sadism dipped in gold, with eyes empty of mercy and the aura of a winter night. Cold without hope, death not a threat but a promise. 

Reluctantly, he had to acknowledge that he did understand Moreau and his obsession, a little bit. She was magnificent and terrible.

"No?" Miranda murmured in a voice that melted right into his spine. "You think good people would have dived so low into the depths I offered them?"

"I think you lured in an orphan who was dying for the promise of a family, a struggling engineer who thought money would help him change the world, a woman who could feel the waters of poverty under her feet..." He counted on his fingers. With an hesitation, he added:

"And a lonely little girl who lost her parents in dubious circumstances. There's really nothing to gawk about. You took fragile people and pushed them over the edge. Bravo. Do you want a fucking medal?"

"They had in them the seeds of…"

"Oh, enough with the edgelord nihilism bullshit", he cut her firmly. "Everyone has the seeds of evil or whatever. I've been mowing through mutants for a week and I have no qualms shooting people anymore at this point. That won't stop me from sleeping."

He took a deep breath and tried to calm his annoyance. This wasn't Miranda. It was Donna playing as her evil stepmother. He needed to remind himself that. 

"You took the plunge yourself", he said in a slightly calmer voice. "You lost a kid. That has my full fucking compassion. I grieve for her. But you didn't have to break all the lives you broke after that. And you know what?"

He didn't dare rise to his feet on the unstable heap of limbs, but he lifted his chin in defiance. 

"I'm not sorry for you. I'm sorry for Moreau, because you preyed on his need to belong somewhere, and I'm also getting the sense you turned him into a fish to stop him from fucking another man. I'm sorry for Karl Heisenberg, fuck, I am. For everything. I'm sorry for the Duke, and even a little for his lady, though she did go overboard with the nightmare dungeon."

He planted his eyes in hers. 

"And I'm sorry for Donna Beneviento, because she was good once, even with the cadou inside her veins."

The pretty face contorted into spite and hissed:

"Oh, you're sorry for them, are you? What good does that do? They don't want your pity, Ethan Winters." Her foot pressed against his throat and pushed him back. She rose up like dawn and spat:

"You are a good man. They are not. And there is nothing more revolting to the fallen than watching someone refuse to slip down the pit of shit they are wallowing in. They hate you. All of them, even him."

"I don't", Karl immediately said. 

"Yes, he does. He resents you for your freedom."

"I don't", Karl repeated, almost plaintively. 

"You do! You do!"

"I don't care", Ethan cut them. "Mia hated me too at some points, and so did I, and I still loved her. Sometimes you feel like shit around other people. Doesn't mean you hate them, not really. It's alright."

"See?" Miranda said triumphantly, pointing a finger at Karl's guilt-ridden face. "That. Exactly that! That's the kind of thing that drives him mad. Oh, it burns inside, doesn't it, Karl? His fucking compassion for you, like he can't see yet that you don't deserve it?"

"Shut up", he growled, raising on his elbows. "You're just jealous because nobody ever cared to help you !"

Oh, shit. Ethan wanted to interject, but words were failing him. 

"And how could they?" Karl spat. "I'm the one breaking everything I touch? You killed your fucking gardener!"

"I didn't!" Fake Miranda hissed back. "It was an accident! And then, I made sure that it wouldn't happen again, unlike you!"

At the bottom of the pile of corpses, the giant werewolf threw his back and howled. The sound swelled beneath the stone canopy, vibrating through Ethan's skull, and then died in a painful gurgle. 

"Ka-a-a-aaaaaaaa-rl", it wailed in an agonizing quaiver. 

Karl closed his eyes in pain for a second, clenching his teeth before he let out a furious whisper:

"Fuck. You."

"You wish, you horrible degenerate", Miranda sneered in disgust. "Go ahead and tell him, Karl. Tell him what happens to the people who help."

She gave a cold and cruel smile before vanishing with a whisper:

"See if he still wants to save you, then."

The golden light disappeared, leaving them in the darkness again. Next to his own hand, Ethan could feel gloved fingers clenching on the empty cord around Karl's neck. Ah , he thought. Dogtag.

He considered making a joke about it being a wolftag now, but decided against it. A low rumble was reverberating through the cave, and he felt icy sweat drip down his spine. Carefully, he lied back down. The groan was getting closer. Behind the stench of death, a whiff of rancid sweat and wet dog came to Ethan's nose. 

"Fuck", Karl was murmuring to himself. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."

His hand was gripping Ethan's waist so hard it would probably bruise. He bit down on his tongue when a whine came from not far below them. Panting raspily, like a pug with tuberculosis, the giant lycan fussed with the pile in the darkness. Horrible snuffling sounds came up, and it wailed again. Ethan's heart was skipping so many beats it was a wonder it was still pounding at all. 

"Context", Ethan hissed, blinking quickly to try and regain his vision in the dark. The blinding beam of gold had left them in a world of inky black. "Talk to me, for fuck's sake."

"Andrei", Karl whispered after a second of silence. "His name was Andrei. He was th- the leader of the village." Despite the stutter, he sounded furious. 

"Not officially. Miranda wouldn't have permitted it. But he was the one people came to when they had a problem. When the crops were bad or people were fighting, or another girl had not returned from the castle despite the prayers and the sacrifices."

Wet grunts turned into a horrid growl which almost sounded like words. Ethan couldn't make them out, but he felt Karl's chest tighten hard under his palms.

"He… Look, one day, back when I was still trying to- when I was still fighting back... I got hurt. Bad times. Ended up lying in the snow somewhere. He took me in. He knew who I was, he could have taken me to her but I woke up in his bed instead, with two kids sleeping at my feet and a bowl of soup on the table."

The words sounded like they were clogging his throat, heavy as lead. 

"I thought he wanted- a favor or something. You don't take Lord Fucking Heisenberg to bed without an ulterior motive."

He tried to make it sound sarcastic, but it just came out devastatingly sad. 

"And. And…"

"-and what do you expect from me?" a haughty voice asked in the distance. Dots of shimmering sand were shining above the corpses. They looked like golden fireflies, soft and sad, and they painted the horrible landscape with a melancholic glow. Hollering like a warhorn, the giant lycan pounced onto one, claws dripping with congealed blood and saliva. 

"Nothing" , another voice answered, calm and pleasantly deep. "Don't wake the kids, that's all. Luiza has a cold." The specks of gold were imbuing the cave with just enough light for Ethan to see the lumbering silhouette plop down at the sound of that voice. 

"Just speak, farmer" , Heisenberg's voice drawled in that cold boasting that Ethan did not miss at all. "If it's about that Ingrid woman again… "

"It is not. We both know she is never coming back. Rest, don't scratch your bandages, and eat the damn soup, boy."

The giant lycan lowered its head in his gigantic palms. From his jaws came a long wail that sounded almost like sobs. 

"Boy?!" the Heisenberg disincarnate voice sputtered. Karl snorted at that, looking a little coy in the dim light. 

"You were quite an asshole", Ethan remarked as another voice joined the conversation. It was a woman whispering behind a door, asking if the right thing wouldn't be to call Mother Miranda and inform her… 

"We're not disturbing the lady over this. He will be fine."

"It's not him I'm worried about! At least let me go and get Luiza…"

"The weather is too cold for her to sleep on the ground. Stop fretting, my love. She's safe there."

Karl sighed through his nose. Somehow, through all the years, Ethan didn't doubt it one second. That kid - the Luiza, maybe? - had probably never been safer than that night. Being trusted enough to watch over a child… To Karl Heisenberg, that must have mattered more than anything else ever could have.

The voices faded as the specks of light trembled and shifted, like constellations passing in the night sky. Had it not been for the mass grave and the stench of death, it would have been an enchanting sight. When they settled, another conversation broke the silence. 

"Yeah, yeah" , Andrei's voice was booming in annoyance. "And if a man's dick is cut in the castle, the goats are having dinner."

"What ?" Heisenberg replied aghast. 

"It's a local saying. You need to get out of that factory a little more."

"I am trying, in case you didn't notice!"

"I noticed. Give me a heads-up next time you try to run off, I'll ready the medicine kit. What do you even do in that workshop of yours?"

"Uh. Experiments?"

"Of course." Andrei sounded disappointed, and Heisenberg promptly added:

"On corpses. Just the dead. I'm not like the others."

"You experiment on… You know what? I am going to forget I even heard that. Pass me that gauze."

"I'm fine! And about that… goat saying. What does it even mean?"

"It means that it's ridiculous to always try and look at the bright side when something awful happens. So cut the crap about how getting your skin ripped off your arms by Mother Miranda taught you a valuable lesson, and let me put on the damn salve."

Karl's eyes were closed, his face frozen in a terrible yearning. Again, the fireflies drifted, casting dancing shadows on the stone walls. The giant lycan was still sitting on the ground, sobbing in earnest, terribly human sounds mixing with the canine keening.

"I heard about the crops. Did you manage to salvage anything?"

"Not enough. But we'll make do. We always do."

"Can I... do anything? Should I ask around? Hammer someone? Rumors say it was no accident."

"Oh, it wasn't." The man sounded massive and deep-chested. Ethan was starting to guess that the cadou had not made him that much bigger. "But I dealt with the culprit already. I broke both legs on that jealous prick and dragged him to the Moreau clinic."

Karl cringed, Ethan cringed, and throughout the memory, Past Heisenberg audibly did as well. 

"Ah. Well. That should settle things, yes. Permanently. You are a ruthless man, Andrei."

"Heh. I was a soldier before, you know. God as my witness, I am not a violent man, but I am not above dirtying my hands when it comes to it."

Heisenberg hummed in approval. Ethan could almost hear his wry smile in the floating voice. 

"I used to hate the army."

"As did everyone after the Great War. As does everyone, until the moment they have a purpose. Like a toilet plunger, you know? You don't flaunt it around, but you'd do well to have one in the back for when the shit starts flowing."

Heisenberg laughed, in that light, sincere chuckle Ethan had discovered in the last days. He could feel his chest clamp in anticipated pain. Andrei had been a good man. Down their heap of death, the giant lycan was whimpering in a low tone. 

"See that tag? Third Infantry Division. That… was us."

Gold shone the flecks of light as the memory changed again. He could hear muffled voices in the back, and the sounds of crockery and food being passed around. 

"We are so grateful to have you here, Lord Heisenberg."

"Maria, don't sweet-talk the man too much, my love. He will think he's forgiven for missing the summer celebration. Where the hell have you been?"

"Apologies. I got some… unplanned eye surgery."

"Your eyes do look lovely", Maria said anxiously. 

"No, they don't. Nasty scars, too. What color even is that?"

"It's… Look, Miranda asked him to give me lycan eyes, alright? To fit my doggish nature or something. Salvatore insists he heard 'lichen' instead."

Andrei roared laughing while the woman profusely apologized. Ethan bit on his lip. That sounded like the kind of humor Salvatore Moreau was capable of pulling, but it was also a mercy, albeit a small one. Karl seemed to be thinking the same thing, guilt crawling up his face. 

"You should leave this place. All of you."

"Are you fucking kidding me?" Andrei growled. "No, really. Are you? Or do you really think we can leave any more than you do?"

"But… you didn't eat the piece of shit", Heisenberg said, completely aghast. "I thought…"

"You thought we were all happily sticking in this hellhole where pretty girls end up in the castle and babies with the wrong face have less of a life expectancy than a goat on Solstice Eve?"

"I don't know!" Heisenberg yelled while in the background, a kid started crying. "You all look fucking content enough! I don't recall ever seeing any of you fight back!"

"Fight?" Andrei snarled. "You are going to give me lessons in fighting, boy? Sometimes, all the fight you can do is protecting the ones around you. Forgive me for not butting heads with our Blessed Mother."

"Besides", the woman said with almost real conviction, "she provides for us. Our life is not bad. We are glad to serve."

Despite the silence, Ethan could feel the tension in the memory while the dots of light twinkled and drifted. There was music in the background this time, a soft piano tune that tugged at Ethan's heartstrings. It sounded a bit metallic, halfway between a street organ and a spinet.

"The kid is getting good."

"Thank god. I'm not a man to spit on a present, and we were all very thankful for your attention, but I've been through torture lighter than a ten year-old learning music."

"Don't say that. You'll give Mother Bitch some ideas. She's in… a mood, lately."

"Yeah, I saw what happened to the carpenter." Andrei's voice was dark then, and Heisenberg sounded hesitant when he replied:

"I will put him to good use."

"And I don't want to know. Pour us another one, boy."

There was a short, bashful silence and the sound of a glass getting refilled, before Heisenberg blurted out:

"By the way, I am making an army of corpse soldiers to overthrow her."

"You what?"

Ethan stifled a snicker, while Karl let out a painful chuckle. 

"Really?"

"Yes." It was a simple word, but it sounded so heavy and so significant in Heisenberg's mouth. 

"Well, I'll be damned. I take back everything I said about grave digging, then. Let me know if you need a hand for the shovel. I know where to find a trench with quite a lot of former pals."

"That would be great, actually. I'm running out of resources."

"Sure thing. That's what friends are for."

Karl exhaled painfully at that, his breath fluttering in the golden light. He had sat up too, crouching next to Ethan with his head resting between his hands. Again turned the lights, a glowing carrousel of memory. 

"Thank you for moving that damn piano. My back isn't what it used to be."

"Sure thing, old man. I'm glad she's taking it with her."

"Yeah, yeah. The house is looking dreadfully empty already."

"They're going to live down the road", Heisenberg laughed. "She can't keep fucking her husband under her dad's roof, now can she? Ouch!" There was the sound of a punch hitting a belly, followed by more laughter. 

"Maybe you should come and live in her old room, boy. Instead of making your bed among corpses and machinery bits."

A glass broke on the floor. 

"Maria would approve. We worry about you, you know. That dreadful affair with the luthier girl…"

"I am fine", Heisenberg cut him in a voice that was not fine. "Just say you want someone in the house to lift you up when you'll fall and break your hip."

"Heh. Not all of us are blessed with eternal youth. Ish."

"Rude."

Karl folded in half then, grasping his hair in gloved fingers. His shoulders were silently clenching in sobs. Hesitantly, Ethan placed a hand over his back. The lights flickered once more, and vanished. Blackness engulfed them, and down the heap, the giant lycan threw his snout up and roared. 

"It's the last time I saw him", Karl whimpered. "I said- I said I had to think about it. And then…"

Soft as a feather, loud as thunder, Miranda's voice echoed in the dark. 

"So kind of you to finally join us for dinner, Karl. You are late. It doesn't matter, though. I know how dreadful these adult occasions can be for you. And this is why…"

The golden beam lit up like a theater projector over them. In the cone of light, the lycan lifted his head and locked eyes with Ethan. Well, fuck. 

"I found you a playdate." Miranda laughed aloud. 

With a snarl, Andrei jumped up to them. Ethan had barely enough time to grab Karl's hand and tumble down the pile of corpses, cringing hard when his face got shoved into someone else's. They scrambled down to the ground while the lycan ripped himself free from the limbs entangling his moves and dove after them. 

"She turned him", Ethan heaved. "She knew he was your friend, so she turned him."

"Yes." It was the same simple, obvious yes he had heard Heisenberg state a moment and decades ago. 

Blinking in the bright light, Ethan stared at the man standing besides him. Karl had lifted his head up and was fixing Andrei with hard eyes. Goosebumps were climbing up his spine. That was a look of anger he had never seen on him before. Not even with the Duke sprawling in his elevator. Not even when they had been fighting. 

"You fucking missed the point on this one, Donna", Karl stated in a cold voice, face roiling with fury. Andrei seemed to slow in his tracks when he noticed that his prey was just facing him, arms crossed. 

"Miranda broke him", Karl continued as the lycan kept clambering down. "He ate his wife. He fucking ate Maria. But you know what I hear in those memories? He was always a fighter. He helped me on his own terms."

A massive muzzle opened in front of him and roared, sending drops of spittle on his face. He raised a hand to calmly wipe his brow. Facing down the furious jaws, he said between gritted teeth:

"I miss him. I'm sorry for him. But it was not my fault."

Ethan felt his heart swell in his chest, and when Karl turned his shoulders ever so slightly, like he was expecting confirmation, he raised both thumbs up. 

"Really proud of you, buddy. No notes."

The hint of a smile shone on Karl's face, and in the golden beam, he was suddenly looking handsome as a god. Majestic and strong, he defied the giant with a lifted chin and smirked. 

"Now what?" he asked, arms still crossed. 

For a second, it looked like Andrei was wondering the same. Then, Ethan gasped as a massive hammer hit Karl full front. The lycan lifted it again and bawled with so much rage and ferocity that Ethan felt his knees buckle under him. Karl had flown off, straight into the rock wall. Shaking his head, he spat blood and rose on uncertain feet. 

"Now", Miranda's voice said right behind Ethan, "he beats you to a pulp. Just like last time." 

He was going to jump to him when cold, dead hands grabbed his legs and his waist, pulling him back into the roiling pile of rotting flesh.

"Fuck!" he shrieked, slapping at the cadaver limbs. "Karl!"

"Be patient, Ethan", Fake Miranda said without looking at him. "You can have him once he is dead. I will give you his crystal, and then you have that one more to save your daughter. I will help you better than he ever could. I am better."

She smiled at him over her shoulder, looking like an angel of death. Icy fingers were grasping at Ethan from all sides. 

"Just relax for a while", the woman cooed, crossing her hands behind her back as Andrei sprang on Karl, claws shining in the blinding light. "Maybe I should take you out of here while I kill him. We could drink a cup of tea or something."

She sounded a bit skittish, and Ethan almost burst out laughing from the absurdity of the situation, biting his tongue hard instead. Karl did not have such qualms. He hooted in a cruel mirth. 

"Really?" he spat, dodging the hammer that came pounding on the ground as he kicked hard in Andrei's beastly shins. "Flirting with my friend while wearing Mom's clothes? Oh, that's fucking grand. What a turn-on you are, Donna."

Fake Miranda sneered under her breath, and lifted her hand. Corpses started to drag themselves out of the pile, crawling towards Karl. 

Feeling very cruel, Ethan coughed and said in an cringing tone:

"Yeah, no offense, but you are being a little… embarrassing. This is awkward."

Awful as it was, it worked. He felt the air leave the woman in front of him, saw red pooling at her cheeks before she hissed and vanished into a murder of crows. He slapped them off as they flew away under Karl's cold laughter, and yanked his leg out of the dead grasps. 

He punched a livid skull with Gunny's barrel, gritting his teeth at the sickening crunch, and came to stand back to back with Karl. Andrei was prowling around, hammer in his gigantic palm. 

"I'll be having that back", he heard Karl snarl before the man thrust straight towards the lycan, shoulder first. Ethan looked, mouth agape, as he slammed into the giant. Karl Heisenberg fought hard and dirty. He used his body without any regard for personal harm, prudence or size difference, elbowing into ribs and viciously kicking joints off. There was a mess of furry limbs and trench coat, canine yelps and sounds like meat pounded by a butcher, then he rolled out with a bloody nose and the dogtag firmly squeezed in his palm. Big Boy Gunny tingled in Ethan's fingers, and suddenly, he knew what to do. 

"Bullet", he said. "Make me a bullet."

Karl looked at him like he was insane, opened his mouth to say something, then turned his gaze to Andrei. Grabbing the tip of his leather glove between his teeth, in a move that was improbably enticing, he pulled his hand free. Ethan peeked at his naked fingers with a curious feel of voyeurism, so rare it was to see him without the gloves. 

It was a nice hand, calloused and strong, but nothing that justified blushing like a teenager. Shaking his head, he felt a sizzle in the air, hairs rising on his arms as the familiar feeling of electricity ran around them. 

"Come on", Karl muttered through gritted teeth, pressing his skin against the dogtag as Andrei popped his shoulder back in with a muffled grunt and crouched low. "Come on, inner magnets."

It smelled like ozone and warm metal, and he looked so concentrated, face crunched in a painful scowl, that Ethan felt almost guilty tackling him into the ground when Andrei charged in with the massive hammer. He felt the spikes brush against his neck and rip through his shirt and shoulder. Groaning in pain, Ethan rolled away and yanked on Karl's arm to drag him out of the trajectory of the giant. 

A strong palm clasped on his, and his skin felt like a furnace. Greyish eyes locked on him as he felt a hot bullet slip into his hand. 

"Make it count", Karl whispered before shoving him aside and into the corpse pile. He trailed Andrei away, as Ethan fumbled with the barrel. A vicious claw tore at Karl's torso and he fell to the ground, scrambling on his back to get back up with his gloved hand pressed on his side. 

The hammer lifted in the air like a godly threat. Ethan pulled the trigger at the exact moment when it came thundering down. Time seemed to slow, and he saw the spikes plunge towards Karl's head. A hoarse shriek escaped him ; the spikes stopped just short of his skull as the bullet pierced through Andrei's heart. The lycan stumbled backwards, staring in surprise at his immobile mace.

There was a crackle of blue static along the spikes. 

And with a nauseating buzz, the lycan was thrown back, shaggy fur raised all over his body. The smell of fried hair rose to Ethan's nose as Andrei took one last step, blinked slowly, and fell to his knees. He stayed like this, head slumped over his broad chest like a man falling asleep mid-prayer. With his eyes closed, he looked almost peaceful. 

Karl slowly crawled backwards until he hit Ethan's legs. He pulled him up by the armpit, staring at the hammer hovering over the ground. It vibrated slightly, and Ethan felt his eyes prickle just by looking at it. 

"Magnets back on?" he asked feebly as Karl scrambled up. 

"They were never off", he growled. "I just let her get inside my head. But I am done."

The golden light drew sharp shadows on his face. He strode to the fizzling hammer and grabbed the handle in his naked palm before flinging it onto his shoulder. 

Ethan had thought that he looked like a smug asshole the first time he had seen him do that. He was very contrite to admit that this time, he looked like a smug, fascinating, kinda hot asshole. 

"My powers", Karl snarled, lifting the hammer over his head and pounding hard into the ground. It trembled and cracked under Ethan's feet. Stumbling away from the point of impact, he stared as the man raised it again. Fury was emanating from him like a halo of heat, making the air quiver. 

"My memories", he barked. The spiky head sent a shockwave that shoved Ethan ass-first to the ground. A strong smell of coal and fire filled his nostrils, like a spicier version of that homely scent that he usually sweated.

"My life!" 

His voice was a metallic shriek, and the ground shattered. Ethan only had time to gasp before they both fell down. For a second, he expected another endless fall through a nightmare abyss, but they actually crashed through a ceiling and right into the living room. 

With a major difference. 

Coughing and spitting, Ethan wiped a thick layer of cobwebs away from his face and jumped to his feet. The room was just as he recalled, but shrouded in sheets of spider silk, reminding him of that aunt who used to cover the furniture before going on holiday. It was everywhere. The armchairs looked like cocoons splattered with dead bugs, and around the gaping hole in the ceiling, lumps of mesh were floating sadly. 

"So", Ethan pleasantly said. "A literal breakthrough. No complaint. Where the fuck are we now, though?"

Karl turned to him and tilted his head to the side. 

"Back", he simply replied. With a powerful swing, the hammer shattered a nearby table as he looked up and screamed. 

"Get down here, you little bitch!"

Up flew the hammer, pulverizing a framed painting on the wall. A porcelain doll turned its head towards him, and was promptly wrecked as Karl stomped around whacking at the decor. Ethan heard something skitter over his head and he spinned on jittery feet. 

"There you are", Karl purred in an awful voice. Ethan didn't have time to see exactly what was there before it dropped right onto him, throwing him to the carpet of sticky webs. 

"No!" a shrill voice shrieked as the hammer pounded down between Ethan's legs. He got a glimpse of a massive black mass scrambling away as he rose to his elbows, feeling viscous lumps stick to his forearms. 

Karl ran after it into the next room, disappearing from view. Ethan got up with extremely mixed feelings about following them. Screams and crashes were coming from the door, and he waddled through the webs with a longing look to the main entrance. 

"Stop! Leave me alone!" Donna's voice sounded like it was coming from multiple mouths at the same time, chittering in panic. 

"Not so fucking smug now, are you?" Karl yelled with horrible fury vibrating in his throat. Ethan barely dodged a bit of mantelpiece that was ejected his way. The hammer crunched into the ground like thunder. 

"This is my home! I'll tell Mother, I will! Leave me be!" 

"You bring her here and I swear to god, the things I will do to you will make her puke on the spot!" Karl bellowed in an icy tone.

He still couldn't see where Donna was in the cacophony of broken furniture, but she was wailing in terrified sobs. Down and down and down hit the hammer, crushing wood, porcelain and dried flowers. In the midst of it all, he could see Karl's silhouette pummeling around like an angry god of destruction.

"Come here already! Stop making this so hard! I am killing you, you horrible bitch, so we might as well get it over with!"

The skittering and peeks of the massive black shape under the draped webs were not nearly as harrowing as the hysterical shrieks drilling through Ethan's ears. This feels wrong, he thought looking at Karl smacking his hammer around. That Karl Heisenberg was not the one whose hand he had held through the mansion of horrors. It wasn't the man whose company he had come to enjoy, whose darkest memories he had strode through, and whom he kept staring at with a strange ease for some reason. 

"Stop it! You can't hurt me! Please! Plea-ea-ea-se!" 

Karl raucously laughed at that pitiful shriek, and slammed his mace down. Nope , Ethan thought. He didn't like that guy one bit. Maybe it was that realization, and the guilt creeping in his throat, that made him ignore Karl's scream of warning. Maybe it was just exhaustion. In any way, he felt something trample him to the ground again from the side, and he wrapped his arms around it in reflex. 

Coarse hairs stung his forearms and his face, as a chitinous mass writhed in his embrace to escape. He promptly let go and jumped to his feet with a shriek as the creature disappeared under the cover of webs, Karl striding towards them. 

"What was that?" he yelled in disgust, rubbing at his arms. His skin felt puffy and irritated already. "What the fuck did I just touch?"

"Duck!" Karl screamed. 

"That was not a du…"

Agony pierced through his chest like a bolt of lightning. Looking down, he saw, completely aghast, a sharp appendage poking through his ribs. Long, thin and barbed, it was a bug leg covered in black hairs, contracting its multiple joints while it tried to wrench back out from him. Blood was pouring down his shirt and his trousers, soaking a cascade of red down between his legs. 

He screamed. Karl did as well, grabbing at the pointy end of the limb and yanking back. 

Behind Ethan, Donna was clicking and chittering in panic. He could see two other spider legs on each side of him, horrifyingly long. 

"Let me go!" she begged.

"Let her go!" Ethan begged.

"Don't move!" Karl barked, as if that had even been a possibility. He set a foot on Ethan's chest and pulled. With a horrible crack and a shriek of pain that ringed through his skull, the leg gave away. Something yellow and viscous gushed out of Ethan, mixing with his blood, while trembling spider legs crawled back and Karl swayed around the ripped limb. 

"One down!" he cheered. "Seven to go!"

"No!" Donna wailed, pushing back against the wall. Ethan managed to turn around before his knees gave under him. 

There was the hint of a human silhouette in the arachnid shape, like there had been with Moreau and lady Dimitrescu's other forms; but horrendous as she looked, Donna did not seem half as threatening as they had been. Her gigantic black, bloated abdomen was bigger than the couch, her legs long and spindly, but she was cowering in a corner of the ceiling hugging her weeping wound with lanky fingers. 

The thought that yes, that was it, he definitely had arachnophobia now was pushed back in Ethan's mind by the excruciating jolt of pain through his chest. 

He couldn't hear his pulse pumping in his ears anymore. The rhythmic gushes of blood pouring from the hole - the fucking hole where he had just been stabbed - in his ribs were dying. 

And so am I. The realization hit him with full strength, and he managed a pitiful whine, inaudible over the commotion of the fight. The sharp prong had stabbed him exactly through the heart. He was dying. He was…

He was just going to lie down for a bit and let things flow. Just rest his head for a while and yield. 

His eyes snapped open and he found somewhere the strength to cry: "Karl. Help." It came out gurgling and pitiful, but it did get his attention. The hammer stopped mid-air as Karl sneered:

"I'm kind of in the middle of something here! Heal yourself, I need a minute!"

"Yes", Donna clicked in a shrill voice. "That works too. Let him die here. Then nobody needs one more Lord. Let him!"

"He'll be fine! He got sliced in half by Sturm and he was eating my buttered toasts the next morning! Just get some booze on that!"

Ethan could feel his tongue slacken in his mouth, a strong taste of earth and rot climbing to his palate. Kneeling on the wooden floor, blood soaking the carpet of spider webs under him, he stared at his hands splayed on the ground. If he faltered, if he let go, if he laid down for just a moment…

He could rest then. He could stop clinging so hard to the fight and he could just be. He could yield.

His saliva had a strange texture, viscous and clammy. It was lapping at his teeth from the inside.

"Get oozing, Ethan! I've got a psycho spider woman to beat into a pulp!"

The hammer resumed its clanking as pain flowered in his bones, spreading like circles on a pond after a ricochet. His skin felt like fire, his limbs like lead. Very slowly, he dipped forwards. His lips parted, and something black and thick dropped in rivulets from his mouth. It splotched on the ground in the pond of blood. 

"Leave me alone! He's dying anyway! Look, he is! Let me go and I won't tell Mother, I promise! Please!" 

"He needs-one-more!" someone hollered, very very far away. "I'm sorry, but it's going to be you!" Little stars were clouding his vision in brown patterns. His chin felt cold and wet from the stuff pouring from his agape mouth. 

Lie down. Just lie down and yield. 

"Wait, shit. Ethan?" 

A clasp on his shoulder, and the smell of metal cutting through the ambient rot. 

"Fuck. Ethan!" 

From the deepest parts of his mind, where lived the soft face of his daughter and the twinkle of her curious eyes, he managed to pull one last strand of willpower. He couldn't die. Not here, not now. Not while she needed him. Not even if his heart had gone silent in the tomb of his body. 

"Do not. Let me. Lie down."

He slurred the words in a voice that wasn't his own, so low and deep it sounded like they came from an abysmal well. Hanging to the threads of consciousness, he felt strong arms grab him and heave him up. Everything turned upside down, and a sneering woman clambered out of the way and onto the ceiling. 

"He will die because of you, Karl! They all do! You break everything you touch! "

The words sounded like a curse. Ethan blinked once as a door was pounded open, exploding into splinters. The light of day felt like a blessing on his face, and he drank it with a content stare. 

A veil of black rot fell over his eyes, and he heard a distinct voice whisper inside his gaping heart. 

Yield. 

Chapter Text

Ethan was floating in a sea of black dust, a dark void sparkling with cold lights and buzzing from a strange electricity. Everything was everywhere, stimulation overflowing his senses while his body disappeared from his own reach. Like in a dream, he saw through eyes he could not feel. The creeping scent of decay was making a crackling sound, as if his brain was on mushroom-flavored Pop Rocks. 

Taste was the only sensation he could still clearly, physically feel. Somewhere, in a distant plane of existence, his mouth was filled with something disgusting. 

Yield, the feeling of a voice insisted all around him, cradling him in its lukewarm embrace. There was no point thinking of his old stupid body now. The useless thing was dead and gone, and he was free. 

Tasted like shit, though, Ethan mused. With a hint of prune liquor. 

It didn't matter. Nothing mattered. He was free and he would belong now. Belong, belong, belong. 

To whom? asked the part of him that was still resisting. 

That seemed to unsettle the inner thoughts who were trying to envelop him. Why did he care? Everything would be so much simpler now, if only he…

"No, thank you, Coward-Ethan" , Regular-Ethan managed to think on his own. "I'll keep worrying for a bit, refusing to yield and belonging nowhere, if that's alright with you."

Arguing with himself was not in his habits, but he was pretty sure the Other-Side was not supposed to lash out like it suddenly did. 

You will yield. You will belong. 

The words weren't words in his ears, since he didn't have ears, but the thought was clear as crystal and cut like a knife. It wanted him to bend the knee and let go, let go of all the lies and strip down to his true self. His fate was traced already, what was even the point in fighting it? In rejecting his own nature? 

"What lies? What the fuck am I- are you talking about?"

It felt easier to address the thoughts like a stranger, even if they resonated from deep within himself. The Other-Ethan-Whatever-The-Fuck-It-Was did not comply, though. 

What am I? I know this. How can I not know what I am?

"I am a father", Ethan immediately thought in response. "I am Ethan Winters…"

No! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! 

Again, the words were not really here. His mind was desperately shaping into intelligible sentences the feeling of deep wrongness that was pulsating through his soul, like a translator trying to paint music into colors for a deaf man.

I am. So I know what I am.

"Do I? I'm… Fuck, no, I don't know! What do you mean? Who are you? What are you?"

I am, replied the wordless words, and Ethan felt them come from himself. He would have loved to think that he had finally snapped and gone cuckoo, but he knew it wasn't that. There was a truth within him that had remained hidden, and the silent voice was stripping it into the light.

I am. It is in me. Not just my flesh and bones. In my mind. I am it, and it is me. 

The face of a middle-aged man with glasses and the coldest gaze he had ever seen flashed in front of his mind. Welcome to the family, son. 

There had been pain, and then darkness. And then the void had gained a strange, dusty texture, with sparkling lights and a low hum, exactly as he was seeing it now. This place-time-dimension-plane of existence-whatever fuckery it was… It was familiar. 

"Familiar, but not quite the same", another voice whispered.

In an eyeless blink, he was now suddenly standing by a cold river, with the silhouette of a little girl traced against the white sky. 

"Eveline?" he asked, but that felt like a lie and the truth which was unraveling inside of him would not have it. Not Eveline. Me. I am. It is me, and I am it. 

"Shit. Are you the virus? Are you messing with my brain?"

No, that still wasn't it. There was something else in his mind that poked and probed at the hidden truth. He felt like he was sliding down a slippery slope, and there would be a pit of knives at the bottom. 

"The virus is you, silly", the childish voice mocked while the silhouette remained standing, as unmoving as a snow statue. "Can't you tell what is you and what is not, at this point?"

"Fuck off", Ethan retorted, and felt slightly better. The frost was eating at him even without a body, in that place of winter - that place of winters - that place of Winters - where soft warm lies would freeze and break. He tried to focus on the taste in his foreign mouth, the tinge of alcohol burning his tongue somewhere very far away, but he couldn't quite reach it. Laughter echoed in his mind. That was Ethan Winters alright, telling his own subconscious off and seeing nothing of his own self. 

The place of winters would not have it. He would come out bare and broken, with the frostbite of truth on his fingertips. 

"Don't you think it's time?"

It is. Lies, so many lies. Why won't you see?

Were there three of them inside his head now? The strange yieldy one, the Eveline impersonator, and him? 

"Eveline is dead", the child's voice said in the distant horizon. "You know she is. Why do you still need to talk in her voice?"

She died and left me alone. I need to belong. I am made to belong. 

Fear managed to give Ethan's non-existent spine a very real chill. The voice of the Duke was joining the mix now. Start thinking, Ethan.

"Everybody shut the hell up!" he yelled in his own mind, to no avail. The place of winters was freezing him to the bone, and that reminded him of another time. Oh, how cold it had been, so cold when he had woken up tied to this chair in sweaty, swampy Florida in the middle of summer. 

"Cold as death" , Eveline whispered cruelly. 

And here it was, the pit of knives. Ethan felt his soul crunch like it had been punched to the core. The cold was everywhere around him.

"No. That's not true", he said, feeling to the fibers of his being that it was. 

I am dead. I am. I have lived my human life and I am ready to join something else now. Why can't I rejoice?

"Get lost, you", Eveline said while rolling her eyes up. "We're having an epiphany here. There we are, Ethan. You've been dead for three moldy, moldy years."

He would have fallen on his knees, if he had knees to fall onto. Dead. The word felt like a hammer strike. Dead. Dead. Everything was so cold. Why was everything so cold?

"What does it change?" Eveline asked almost gently. "You knew you were special. You got rotisserie-chickened by Karl's minion, and walked it off."

"It changes everything", Ethan whined. "I died... back then. So I am one of them. I am a molded."

"Not really. The molded were puppets under my control. I am dead."

"As dead as me?" Ethan snapped. 

The child laughed as an icy gust of wind caressed the place of winters. It felt softer now, like it was content with what it had unearthed. Ethan felt frozen to the marrow of his absent bones, to the center of his unbeating heart. Cold, so cold. 

"Deader. I am gone. You know this isn't me, right?"

Her own shape was fluttering in the place of winters, as if the strong winds were playing with her outlines. In a blink, she was gone, and Ethan was staring at himself instead, gut-wrenched by the look of confusion and horror on his own face. 

"I am you ", the voice of Eveline said from his mouth. "Not a part of you. All of it. All of you has been mold ever since you died. Start thinking, Ethan. How does it work?"

"Networks", he whispered. "Connection."

The mold had been connected to Eveline. The mold had been Eveline, planting a network of fungal control over her hosts. But what happened to a network when its master disappeared?

"It's still here", Eveline-Ethan stated. "Of course it is, because it is in you. Mia was cut off from the network with the serum, but you never were. The mold is you, and you are it. You could have been the next me."

The idea revolted him so much he almost materialized a fist to throw into the face of his doppelganger. 

"But no, you didn't. You went ahead and made a little baby and cooked soufflés for your neighbors. And Umbrella, they watched and watched and watched, for three years, and didn't they always look a bit disappointed when they did the tests?"

He pushed back the memory of Chris' scientists examining him in a lab with soft blue paint on the walls. He had always wondered what exactly they were expecting, what the results did not say...

"You are the only molded left, Ethan. So you're the captain now. Everyone left the pub and you inherited the keys."

"I don't want that pub", he said in a pitiful tone. 

"Of course you do. It's what keeps you walking. You would be gone, otherwise."

"But what am I? What does that make of me? I'm not… human anymore?"

No, the other thought whispered in the place of winters, like a different wind from another cardinal point. You are one of me. Yield, and you will see. Here, you will belong. 

"Ah, yes", Eveline slowly said. "Now that we are reconciled…"

"We are?"

"I'm you, dumbass. You are talking to yourself. And you know the doc would advise to stop using my likeness and dissociate from the shit you don't like. I'm not another part of you. I. Am. You."

"I'll stick to it for now if I goddamn please", Ethan snapped. Somehow, it helped to hear those thoughts in the voice of Eveline. 

"Alright, then. Up to you."

"What about… the other, then? The one who wants me yielding so bad?"

"Gosh, I don't know. Maybe it's actually Jesus talking to you?"

The childish voice was sarcastic, and Ethan scoffed while the place of winters dissolved around him. 

"So, part of me is a bitchy teenage girl, then?"

"Tell me that's not on brand", Eveline snickered as the dusty darkness engulfed him again. 

Unfortunately, it was very much on brand. Ethan looked around at the sparkling lights in the darkness. It looked like the inside of a circuit, or maybe a brain, with neurons firing up information to one another…

"Exactly like that. That's what it is."

"But it's not mine", Ethan ventured. "This feels… familiar, but not the same. This is not my mold."

"No. Your moldy brain network has got much less activity going on."

That felt like a jab, but it was also true. There were so many lights in the darkness, so much vastness around him. That thing, which desperately wanted him to think he was a part of it, that thing… 

That thing was big and wide, and old. Very old.

"The păstrător", Ethan whispered. "That's it. That's the keeper. Major Mushroom, the source of Miranda's power and of the village's… peculiarness."

How the hell had he stumbled into that? And why was it trying to behave as if it was a part of Ethan, when thank you very much, it wasn't? 

It is. I am it and it is me. I belong. 

"Stop talking in first person like you're me", Ethan snapped. "You're not. Do you take me for a fool?"

No! the inner voice protested. It felt confused, rather than aggressive, which gave him the very strange feeling of scolding his own self. Not a fool. I should see now that I belong here. Yield and be. Why don't I? 

"Yes, Ethan, why don't you listen to the gigantic, ageless alien mushroom and merge into it?" Eveline asked in a snarky tone. 

"Cause I've got a daughter at home", he replied, not ashamed to find out that it was truly the main answer for this question. He was exhausted. He was alone. Yielding and belonging, finally, was a promise worth considering, but he couldn't. Not yet. 

Not yet? What would I need before I yield? 

"Great idea. Let's engage negotiations with the, I repeat, gigantic ageless alien mushroom."

"You are being very helpful today, my dear inner teenage bitch", Ethan said with complete sincerity. He turned back his thoughts to the pulsating organism spreading like a world all around him. 

"Why do you connect to people? What do you want?"

"I don't think it wants anything", Eveline mused. "It just… is. It's a network. It's its nature."

Belong, the voice whispered, and suddenly it was whispering with a chorus of thousands. 

Ethan was starting to get a migraine in his absent head. The taste of sweat and cold cigar was on his lips somewhere, as well as the tang of strong liquor. He turned his mind to one of the sparkling lights, which obligingly ran towards him and engulfed him in a sea of sensations. Bread in his mouth and skin under his hands, long hair floating in his back and an old smile in the mirror. He pulled back, feeling as if he had just been pushed into a pool of electric eels. 

Panting, he shivered. A life. He had just touched a life. 

They belong. All belong, the voice quietly said. 

"So that's what it does, then", Eveline said in a curious, detached voice. It was really helpful to relocate the rational observation to her while he was having a teensy-weensy breakdown with whatever was left of his own consciousness. 

"The Keeper. Literally. I'm guessing it works like a library of souls. Collecting people along the ages, absorbing information and keeping their memories in its cells. Fucking fascinating, that thing."

"Yes", Ethan said in a raspy voice. "A wonder of science. Tell me something, though. Memories are identity, aren't they?"

"Oh, yeah."

"So, what it's keeping there, it's not just a database of collected fragments. It's… people. Souls, as in… actual people. Sentient, maybe. It's a hall of… ghosts."

"Big time", Eveline said. "God, if we get out of here, we need to publish this."

"It compiles souls. And it wants mine to add to the collection?"

"No. I think - which is to say, you think - that it wants you because it knows too", Eveline said. "It knows you and it are similar."

It was too much. Nerves in a wreck, Ethan burst out laughing as another spark of soul lit up next to him. He was a she, suddenly, and Ethan saw a horse between her legs, and blood gushing from her abdomen as the spear in her back emptied her from life. A baby pushing through her belly, stew burning her tongue, soft linen on her face...

"Oh, I hate this. This isn't right."

Why not? All belong, here. Yield, and belong too. 

"How about no?" Ethan asked. He remembered vividly the words of Andrei, in another memory from another man.  "Do you think we can leave?" had roared the voice of an angry man, a man who had been wise when the world was mad, a man he wished he had known- 

"Not sure I can help you, boy", a booming voice said all over his mind. The network of sparkling lights coalesced into a strong presence, as the ghost of a broad-chested man, bearded and translucent, crossed his arms in the darkness. He looked like a lumberjack constellation in an unreal sky. 

"Well, ain't you a special thing ", Andrei said. "He didn't get you yet, did he?"

"No", Ethan said. "Tempting, but…"

"Don't. I think you know what to do, boy. I sure hope so, cause I can't tell you anything you don't already know. See, I'm not really here", the ghost said while pointing at himself. "Not really out there, either. Lost in between."

He laughed, in that deep, loud laughter that Ethan had heard in an illusion an eternity ago. 

"Broken, but not quite dead. More myself as an echo here than I am out there, living in a body whose mind was peeled off by a millenium-old chanterelle and its bitch servant. Limbo is fucking hell in disguise, kid."

Not limbo, the voice said inside Ethan. Something else. Vastly beyond the comprehension of human minds, but he would comprehend it once he yielded, and then he would exist forever and belong-

"Shut your mushroom trap", Andrei snapped in the darkness. "Don't fall for it, boy. That's all I've got for you. Do not yield. You know why? You've gotta know why."

"Because...", Ethan slowly said. "Because if it asks me to yield, it means I have a choice."

"Exactly. Unlike any of us ever had. You set foot in this village, and you're done. It doesn't matter if you eat the cadou. Spores in the air, spores in the water, spores everywhere. It owns us. Nobody can leave."

Horror crept in Ethan's mind. Even his inner Eveline didn't have a snarky comment for that one. Everyone had been condemned since day one. All who were born here, all who stumbled on the village looking for shelter, all had been trapped and cursed. Not out of cruelty, not out of malevolence. Not out of evil. 

Just because a gigantic, ageless alien mushroom was vibing there, doing its own thing. 

That felt worse than evil, somehow. 

"Nobody can leave", Ethan repeated, heartbroken. "Except... me. Because I'm not human. Because I am… I am like it. I'm already my own mold. The Keeper can't just… have me."

"Oh my god, I totally vaccinated you!" Eveline cheered at that. "Can't get infected now, thanks to whom?"

"Yeah, I'm not thanking the memory of that little bitch, even if I'm using her voice for inner dialogue. Sorry."

"That's fair."

"Why does it want me to yield, then? If it knows I'm not human, why is it trying to absorb me too?"

"Shrooms do that", Eveline provided. "Remember that documentary? They can meld and share their memories. I think it's hitting on you for some sexy mold action."

Not meld, the voice corrected. Belong. 

"But not belong somewhere. Belong to you", Ethan stated. "You want me to become part of you. None of the other way around."

I am everything. You will yield and belong like all do, the voice whispered peacefully.

"No, I don't think I will. I think I'm gonna stay myself and be my own mushroom organism over here, if that's fine with you."

It is not. You will belong, the voice insisted.

"I most certainly will not", Ethan amiably said. "And I won't yield, either. Winters don't do that."

"Atta boy", Andrei growled with a wide smile. "Tell Karl he's forgiven. And fight well, the two of you."

He brought three fingers to his temple in a spectral salute before his light vanished. Around Ethan, the dusty night was getting agitated. 

"Right" , Eveline said. "Because if you are not a lost sheep willing to be absorbed, if you're not a friendly little mushroom pal…"

"I am an adversary", Ethan finished in his own voice. 

"A rival organism. Oh, this is going to be interesting",  Eveline cooed, materializing a mental bucket of pop-corn.

Last chance, the voice said inside his mind, his heart, his bones. Yield. 

Ethan took the time to weigh his answer, and chose his words carefully before allowing them out: 

"Get fucked, you massive portobello cunt."

There was a rumble, and a hiss of energy sparkling around his mind. And then the night exploded as the voice said, not angry, not even resentful, just terribly serene and old as life itself:  

Die, then. 

Chapter Text

There was a mouth on Ethan's mouth. 

His chin was prickling with something wet and cold, dripping on his neck as his lips itched from the scraggly beard pressed around them. 

There was a mouth on Ethan's mouth, breathing cigar-tasting air into his lungs. It made a strange, fizzling sound in his chest, like blowing bubbles through a straw. 

He blinked. His eyes were crusty and his vision blurry, but there was definitely a face right up in his own. 

Is that you, Karl? he tried to ask. 

"Shblurb", his mouth offered instead as a disgusting trickle of congealed mold dropped down his chin. He felt a strong hand grab him by the jaw, another one pressed against his painful chest. Bursts of hot pain were knitting his ribs together. 

"Ethan?" a voice asked from very far away, getting closer as he blinked. "Fuck me, are you awake, morels?" Yes, that was probably Karl.

No, asshole, I'm having a nightmare where I'm an undead mushroom zombie, he tried to reply. Let me go back to my power-nap. 

"Mblerp", his mouth said instead with more stinking slime. 

"Are you?" he was asked while the hand on his face traveled to his eyelids, his brow, ending its course grabbing his hair and shaking him by the scalp. "This better not be a fucking death spasm, or I'll… I'll…"

"You'll what?" Ethan's mouth finally managed to slur. "Slap m'corpse back to life?"

"Oh, thank the Black Fucking Goat, that worked!" Karl squealed in a surprisingly high-pitched tone, vocal chords trembling a little. Ethan was squeezed in a tight embrace, and felt the coarse fabric of an unwashed shirt rub against his face. It lifted off some of the slime and some of the dust around his eyes, enough for his vision to clear. Karl was crouching over him, haggard and disheveled. His eyes were wide and reddened, and shone with so much relief and unfiltered joy that Ethan felt his heart tighten somewhere. That seemed to remind it to beat, as well, since he suddenly sensed his pulse jumpstart back on, blood pounding inside his head.  

He breathed out, and here was that fizzing sound again. Looking down, he saw black, viscous bubbles popping from a cavity in his chest. He would have screamed if he had the voice for it, but he just managed a pathetic airless bleep. It sounded a bit like a balloon deflating, and he snorted. That, in turn, made a bigger bubble in the glutinous mess of his torso. 

"Shit", he exhaled. 

"Yeah", Karl acknowledged with a lopsided grimace. "You took your sweet time to get oozing, this time." He patted him on the chest awkwardly, the mold sloshing on his fingers like molasses. 

It reeked of rotting, rancid meat, but not enough to hide the smell of alcohol permeating him. Ethan managed to look around. He had been sat against the well in the middle of the village, soaking wet with more booze and sweat than in the festivals of his college years. Around him were empty bottles and broken glass, and he felt a wet pool of liquor muddying the ground under him. 

Karl was staring at him, breathing heavily. 

"Did you… bathe me in booze?" Ethan asked in a raspy voice. 

"Yeah!" An ungloved hand grabbed the closest bottle and lifted it proudly. "I put herbs in it too!"

And here was Lord Karl Heisenberg, kneeling in front of him, brandishing an empty bottle of moonshine with a wild weed shoved in it. There was still dirt on the roots. Ethan hesitated between crying and laughing, and opted for a mix of the two. 

"What?" Karl asked defensively. "It worked, didn't it?"

"No", Ethan hiccuped. "It's not the booze. It was never the booze. It was the friends we made along the way."

"What?"

"Fuck", Ethan breathed, closing his eyes and trying to stop snickering. "I believed that. I genuinely thought it was the booze that fixed me. I thought it glued my hand back on!"

"Yeah, you're a mushroom-infected mutant with super regenerative powers. We established that already", Karl said, slightly annoyed. "Still, the booze helped."

"No, but it might yet. Is there any left?" Ethan asked without opening his eyes. God, I need a drink. 

"Uh.... No. I emptied all the houses. I wasn't sure you'd make it all the way back home without first aid."

Home, he had said, and the word had been swallowed with teeth of shame. Home was right, though. Ethan wanted nothing more than to sit at the kitchen table and have a cup of terrible coffee while the Lord of Metal screamed after his fan-headed pet. 

"I'd offer you a smoke, but given the state of your lungs, we might wanna avoid that."

"Good call. Let's not add cancer to the pile of wrongness that is my body."

Can my mold get a damn cancer? Can I even get sick anymore? 

"I'm sorry. Smoking gives you cancer?"

Ethan opened an eye and winced. After a lengthy explanation on the smoking industry, its political lobbying, and the chemicals involved in addiction, Karl slumped next to him. With one hand, he lobbed the box of cigars above his shoulder, and there was a distant splash as it sank to the bottom of the well. 

"Can't have anything here", he grumbled. "What am I gonna pass my nerves on now?"

"I don't know. Bubblegum?"

"Oh, no, that's banned from the factory. I coughed one out when I was working on Sturm, one day, it got tangled in the fans. Horrible times."

Ethan tried to imagine what exactly the DIY-Heisenberg-Bubblegum could be made of, and gave up. His day was horrifying enough already. The sun was still shining bright with its morning glow, up above him in the painfully blue sky. They had walked into Donna's house an eternity ago, but it seemed time had politely waited for them to walk out before resuming its course. 

So many thoughts were bouncing inside Ethan's head. They should be on their way. They were too exposed here, and Miranda couldn't be far. That would require moving, though. 

He leaned back to rest his head against the cold stone, just for a second, feeling the icy wind gnawing at his cheeks. It felt good. Like when he had been in the place of winters, except more real, more present. And with a warm arm pressed against his. 

Yeah, death can get lonely , the voice of Eveline whispered at the back of his head. 

So can immortality , Ethan argued with himself. He couldn't quite turn his head, but he managed to glance left to the man sitting next to him. Karl was staring ahead in silence, eyes half-closed. He looked as exhausted as him, and he almost felt guilty to drop the bomb on him:

"Karl."

"Yes, Ethan?"

"I am dead."

"Same."

The wind blew cold around them, but the well was a mild protection, and the heat permeating through Karl's coat into his arm was enough that it didn't feel too uncomfortable. Ethan snorted, but insisted: 

"No. I mean… I am. I really am."

He felt more than he saw Karl turn to him, elbow coming to rest on his shoulder as his ungloved fingers chased a sweaty lock of hair from his forehead. His hand felt nice and warm against his numb skin. It was such a simple gesture. Ethan felt something clench in his guts again, painful and hot. Maybe his moldy heart mending itself back together. 

"Yes?" Karl said with an inquisitive eyebrow raise. "I've seen you ooze yourself back together after being chainsawed all the way down". His thumb traced the vanishing line on Ethan's forehead. It had almost disappeared already, but his touch made his skin burn again. 

"Did you die… otherwise this time?" he asked, guilt creeping in his voice. Ethan remembered the mindless fury in his tone when the hammer was chasing Donna around, while he was bleeding out in her living room. 

"I don't know. I… connected to some ugly truths. One of them being… I am really dead. Have been for the past.. three years." He had not meant his voice to break, had not meant for the mention of those three years to be the thing that would push him over the edge, but it did. 

One thousand days of lies. One thousand days of holding onto the memory of a man who was gone, of trying so hard to make him live again, when he had really met his end in a filthy swamp reeking of rot. One thousand unfair days of walking, breathing, fucking, going to the market and to therapy, like a chicken unaware of its decapitated head. 

One thousand ugly days of being something that eagerly ignored that it wasn't human, haunting the life of the man it had replaced. Was he even Ethan Winters? Was he just a pile of mold with delusions of grandeur, desperate to have a soul? 

His guts were wriggling inside him like snakes, and a silent sob choked him as he clenched his eyes close, head still leaning back against the stone. 

"Oh, chanterelle boy", said Karl in an awkward voice. "Uh. There, there." He felt a pat on the top of his head that only made him crumble to pieces. Fully weeping, he slumped to his side as strong arms caught his fall. 

"Come on", Karl breathed. "Not letting you lie down. You said so yourself." Callous hands propped him halfway up and dragged him into his lap, until he was leaning face-front against Karl's torso. A heart was beating in his warm chest, and for a spare second, Ethan hated him for it. Then he felt the arm wrapping around his waist, the hand holding him on the back of his neck, he felt the heat pouring from Karl's bones into his own, and he broke down. There weren't even tears coming from his eyes ; he was shaking and gasping in that tight embrace, drinking the touch around him like it could undo it all. 

It didn't, but the words Karl said next did. 

"So what?" 

And it was asked with so much ingenuity that it found its way to the bottom of his soul. 

So what, repeated the voice of Eveline. He's right, you know. You're dead. So what?

"So I'm- I'm not just-"

"You're not just a mutant mushroom man?" Karl completed with a soft laughter. "You're an undead mutant mushroom man, and that's just too weird?"

"Yes!" Ethan squealed, starting to feel ridiculous. It helped gather his mind somewhat. 

"Oh, yeah, right", Karl drawled with that deep chuckle of his that Ethan found as infuriating as it was comforting. "That changes everything, does it?"

"Yes! Well, no, but…"

A rough palm cupped the side of his face and made him look up. The smile glimmering in the grey-green eyes made Ethan's heart clamp. 

"So you're a freak. Welcome to the circus."

He was patted on the head again, gentler this time as both of Karl's arms enfolded his shoulders, pulling him close. He breathed in his scent of sweat and metal - train tracks under the sun, whispered Eveline, and he had always loved that smell. As a premonition, maybe? Could some things be loved so strongly that it rippled back in time? 

He dug his nails feebly into the coat, pressing his face, his mouth, his hands into the man holding him. Like if he tried enough, he could meld into him.

For you, I would yield

The thought took him by surprise, but any other ones were consumed by the burning fingertips stroking the back of his neck. You would, Eveline said. Because you know you would belong. Not to him. With him. 

That was a little too much for his tired heart, and he groaned loudly in the crook of his neck. That made the skin under his mouth shiver with goosebumps. 

"It's alright", Karl was whispering into his ear with a strained voice. "You're alright, Ethan Winters."

"Am I?" he managed to chuckle. Two hands grabbed him by the shoulders, two eyes locked with his and contemplated him seriously. 

Ethan waited for the verdict with baited breath, staring at his mouth. 

"Yes", Karl Heisenberg said. And it shouldn't have meant a thing from the man who owned a corpse factory full of mutilated undead soldiers, but it did. Ethan would have kissed the word from his lips, breathed it in again and again, but the hands holding him were strong. 

"You are a good man", Karl added, shaking him lightly. "A good father. A good friend. So the fuck what if you're not a very good corpse?"

After a shocked silence, Ethan burst out laughing, folding in two. He raised a painful knee to straddle the man, diving again for the comfort of his chest and the smell of his neck. A hand came resting on the small of his back, drawing absent-minded circles with the thumb. 

They stayed like that for a while. They should really get going, Ethan thought. The village wasn't safe, even if he had mowed down any lycan unfortunate enough to come between him and the Duke's soups. 

"I met the Chief Mushroom, too. When I was gone", Ethan muttered, completely matter-of-fact. 

"Wait, what? The păstrător? What do you mean, you met it?"

"It talked to me. Tried to convince me to join it for some mold-on-mold action."

There was another short silence, then Ethan felt him smile against his temple. 

"You pissed it off, didn't you." It wasn't even a question. Content, Ethan closed his eyes and snorted. 

"See, Karl, nobody understands me like you do."

His chuckle resonated through Ethan's bones as his arm squeezed him closer. 

"Ha! I don't know why. You aren't too difficult a book to read."

"Are you saying I'm bodice-ripping erotica?"

"Undead bodice-ripping erotica", Karl corrected with a cheeky tone. Ethan could feel his amused breath on the shell of his ear, sizzling his skin. 

"Too soon, man."

The smell of train tracks in the sun was swallowing him whole, and he wondered what kind of book Karl Heisenberg would be. On the cover would be something German, probably, like a giant Fick Dich written in big, gothic calligraphy. But with surprisingly fine and delicate content on the yellowed pages. 

He realized Karl had said something and he hadn't listened. 

"Sorry, what? I was thinking about German erotica."

There was a wheezing laughter at that, and the hand on his back quivered a little. 

"I asked if you felt ready to get back home, but that answers the question. Take your time."

Ethan was going to reply something scalding and witty, for sure, anytime the words would actually deign finding his mouth. In the meantime, he stayed silent, suddenly very aware of the body between his thighs and the heartbeat against his chest and the fingers spread on his back.

How about, his inner Eveline provided, we try and not think about German erotica while sprawled on the lap of our new best friend?

Best friend? Ethan protested. He had only known the dude for a week, and they had stopped trying to kill each other for even shorter than that. 

Well, do you have any other friends left?

That was a low blow, coming from his own subconscious, and Ethan raised a mental middle finger for his inner teenager bitch. 

"Are we friends?" he blurted out for some reason. The hand on his back stopped moving for a second, then tentatively resumed its circling. It made a strange heat pool inside his belly. 

"I fucking hope so", Karl said in a voice too bland to be sincere. "I've lost a boot inside your monster baby's head for you."

"That's fair", Ethan said, and it was. His own hands were burning him now, maybe from the cold, maybe from the mold. That's what he told himself as he slid them below Karl's shirt, dragging a hiss of surprise from his mouth. 

"Cold, morels!" he barked in laughter. Ethan thought of removing them, but his palms were drinking the warmth and his ears were drinking his amusement. He poked at Karl's navel, just to bother him, and if he felt the trail of hair coursing down to his pants under his fingers, well it was just in good-natured fun. 

"Well, then. Given that my pool of alive, giving-a-damn, non-traitor friends is currently at exactly one, that makes you my best friend," Ethan pointed out. His hand was still just below his belly button, but it would be weird to remove it now. The cold in his fingers was thawing, and his cheeks were burning too. Like the furnace that was Karl Heisenberg was heating him up by sheer capillarity. 

"I am touched", Karl said with something heartbreakingly sincere in his voice. 

It was a dangerous territory to slide onto, so Ethan immediately tried to curb. And just like a car braking on a slippery road, he made it fabulously worse.

"Yeah, I guess you are", he joked while pressing his fingers against his skin, dragging his thumb along his happy trail. It was a strange feeling, unlike the casual touch he was used to with his male buddies, unlike the smoother skin he was used to with his female partners, falling somewhere in between in a weird and treacherous place.

Karl's skin was hot, unbearingly so compared to his own. He felt his abs tighten under his fingers, and laughed. 

"Nobody to impress here", he quipped. Karl laughed too, strained and throaty. His fingers kept tracing the line of coarse hair leading down, down, down to the cold metal buckle on his belt, and back up, up, up his belly and to his chest, drinking in the feeling of strong muscle under a small layer of fat. Down and up, down and up, less and less alien every time his hand brushed against his navel. Karl was not saying anything, just breathing raggedly in his ear. Should I ask if that's fine? Am I going to make this weird if I do so?

The part of Ethan that really wanted to keep going, for some reason, could see this fun, not-meaning-anything little game come to an end if he asked. The rest of him could not live with himself if he pretended not to hear the uncomfortable tremor in Karl's breath. 

Lips dry, heart in his mouth, he asked: 

"Can I…"

"Yes", Karl cut him abruptly, the word a mere groan in his throat. It felt weird and dangerous and heat was still coiling in his guts like liquid metal, so Ethan tried to add:

"I meant…"

"Assume yes", Karl hissed in his ear, his beard scraping against the side of his neck and sending shivers down his spine. His hand was gripping the back of Ethan's shirt like he owned it - well, it was his shirt, technically - and he was barely moving, like he was also struck by whatever lightning had fallen on Ethan. 

Ethan assumed yes, then, whatever that meant. So he splayed both his hands on Karl's chest, lifting his shirt as he did so, feeling the weight of the spring scale dangling above it, and working very hard to not think about why he was doing all this. 

Because your hands are cold, Eveline mocked inside his brain. No other reason. 

Because it felt nice was the truth, the painful simple truth. It was nice to feel that another person was there, under his hands, real and present, and friendly enough to let him drink their warmth and the comfort of their existence. It was nice to dive into that metallic scent and breathe it with his nose and mouth. And suddenly, face pressed in another man's neck, hands rubbing the hair on his chest, embraced into his arms, Ethan needed more. His mouth was half-open on his skin, and he needed the taste. 

What, is your tongue cold? snickered his inner Eveline before he shushed her as well as the rest of his brain. 

He trailed his tongue against the crook of Karl's neck, desperate and messy, feeling saliva droop on his chin as he ran it across sweaty skin. He was floating, far away, the only tether to the real world the taste of metal in his mouth. 

And then he closed his teeth on blistering hot skin, something inside him wanting to devour, to take, to have someone belong

And a distinct moan escaped through Karl's gritted teeth, followed by a raspy "Fuck", whispered like a prayer, swallowed like a curse, so sexual in nature and intent that it sent a bolt of fire through Ethan's crotch and a lance of ice into his spine - 

And thoughts were ricocheting into his head while the taste of metal grew on his tongue - what the fuck am I doing, what is going on, why do I need - 

And he opened his eyes, paralyzed by terror and incomprehensible desire, heart beating through his ears, and stared up from the mess of tangled grey hair. Perched on the coping of the well, a massive crow glared at him with glossy eyes. Time stopped, as well as his heart. His head was empty, and so he was pretty sure it was Eveline who said through his mouth: 

"Piss off, bird. We're trying to have a moment."

With a furious scream and a tornado of black feathers, Miranda fell upon them.