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Chapter 18: Turn the Pages

HORIZON’S CROWN, CASTLE 5


Day 6

3rd day of the storm

I have a job.

A tiny drum had been sketched underneath the declaration, with two even tinier drumsticks tapping at its top. The sketch was hasty, the proportions terribly off, but it got the job done. So Sophya thought, at any rate. Drumroll, please she’d written in heavily leaning cursive next to the hasty sketch.

It’s composting sorting.

I’ll start tomorrow.

Sophya wished she had more to write. Or maybe she just wished she had something meaningful to write. A triumph of a sort, maybe, about how she’d gotten closer to Krisi; or that she’d unravelled the mystery of her dreams; or, rather, that she’d unravelled herself from one Varrett Vild Vickers, who remained stubbornly tangled with her and SIN and refused to let go.

None of that.

She’d not even gotten any closer to figuring out if whatever she’d seen back when Pete had died; that thing she’d thought to be a figment of her overtaxed mind back then and which’d come to ruin that theory when something near-identical had appeared in the crowd on Castle 5’s bottom floor.

SIN remained unhelpful on any of the above. The most she offered was a variation of I have got not the faintest. Yet.

Yet.

Yet.

SIN’s patience was a horribly endless thing. No doubt brought on by how she’d lost count of how many hundreds of years she’d been around. Why feel the pressure of time when all you had was time?

Sophya didn’t have that luxury. Neither did Krisi. So, yet? That was awfully hollow.

Presently, Sophya pondered the lot of that, and then wondered why she wasn’t writing down any of it. Why the pen hovered a hair’s width from the paper, rather than scribbling out all her frustration. Why she’d committed to only a few lines after a day spent being useless.

Voices rose in the living room behind her. They slipped under the door, mixed into the constant din of the storm, and told her that V had returned from his escapades up and down the castle.

And because she didn’t feel like being asked how she’d been and didn’t fancy asking him, she hurriedly turned off the lights on the desk, bumbled out of the chair with a clumsy lurch, and scurried off into bed.

By the time the door to the room opened, she’d pulled the blanket over her ear and was pretending to be asleep. Which meant a lot of even breathing while her ear got tickled by the sound of careful footsteps drawing nearer and then turning into squeaky creaks as he climbed the short ladder and hoisted himself into the bunk above her.


Day 7

No more storm.

The remainder of the page taunted her in all its blank glory. Sophya, her head heavy, stared at it. Someone had drilled a hole into her head, evidently, and most of her thoughts had gone and run off.

What is a bigger word than 'dislike' because I'd like to use it on compost sorting,

she finally added.

And even that felt like it'd taken a world of effort as Sophya fought hard to keep her head upright as she sat hunched over the notebook. Her grip on the pen was entirely too tight. Shouldn’t have ditched the collar, she thought miserably. Then her stupid head might have stayed up by itself. But. No, the damned thing had practically gotten soaked in compost stench and she’d rather her head fall off than have to wear it again.

Ever.

Not even SIN wanted anything to do with compost, which Sophya did not blame her for. As such, SIN had been mostly absent throughout the day, allowing Sophya privacy of sorts. Absent but not gone; an important distinction. Her warmth remained and so did her leash wrapped tight around Sophya's soul. She was still only a summon away though; a hard thought; a quiet beckon, but Sophya didn't feel the need to call for her, deciding instead she could do this on her own and that SIN could rest.

If that was what she was doing, because for all Sophya knew, SIN was over in the living room, harassing V. 

Sophya sighed, set the pen back down, squished the tip hard against the page, and made an effort to pry a few more wayward thoughts from her mind. Not all had managed to escape, after all. Some where too unwieldy and fat to have fit through the proverbial hole in her head.

It went poorly. In the end, all she accomplished was a whole lot of nothing and a long, blank stare. And on and on she stared, until—

“Hey, you gonna pass out?”

V’s voice rapped against her like a knock against a door.

Sophya blinked at the page. Ink had begun to soak into the paper, forming a small splotch. She turned her head to look, a motion she (somehow) managed to do both too quickly and too slowly.

Too quick, because her neck protested.

Too slow, because V had slunk into the room by then already and had planted himself by her side, where he’d reverted back to looming. She caught a thrum of heat in the air with him so close; and a faint scratching at her insides, like insistent paws digging at a yet-to-be-identified spot in her chest.

The warmth was him. Standing there. Existing. Taking up space.

The scratching was his curiosity.

Yeah. The tether had gotten worse. Tighter. By now Sophya preferred it when he wasn’t near her at all, since then she didn’t need to feel him bumbling around where he had no right to bumble. Not that he did it intentionally. Truth be told, Sophya figured he had no idea he did it at all. And it wasn’t like she could look him straight in the eye and tell him: Could you please think quieter and exist quieter, you are very noisy on the inside. 

“Yeah I wouldn’t like compost sorting either,” V said while Sophya had herself distracted weighing her privacy and her sanity against the need to keep her secret a, well, secret.

. . .

She wished she’d have mastered a growl of sorts at some point in her life. Failing that, she settled for snapping the journal shut.

“You’re rude,” she said, her voice a little lame.

“Sometimes,” was what he said to that. And then he began to strip. Yes. Strip. Unceremoniously. All of a sudden. Right there. Next to her, starting with a lazy upwards tug of his shirt. 

Sophya’s eyes cut down to her now journal. She tapped its cover with her pen; a cover which had grown a single sticker since she’d gotten it. A round, purple cat with glowing yellow eyes. It had three stubby tails. 

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Gabriel had handed her the sticker. He'd been beaming from ear to ear and had informed her, plainly, how the cat's name was Dan and it was Captain Starblaze’s.

Anyway. V. Dressing down for sleep.

“Can’t you do that in the bathroom?” she asked because that’s where he’d been doing that prior. Why stop now?

"Do what?"

"Undress."

“Oh. Mom's in there. In the bathroom, I mean.”

Click. Swish. There went the belt, least according to her ears (which’d grown uncomfortably warm), and Sophya leaned down until her forehead thumped against the journal. She closed her eyes. Tightly.

Maybe compost sorting wasn’t so bad if it got her the Castle credits to get her own place; something small and quiet and of her own, even if Ellen had told her she’d be sharing a flat. Sharing something small, for that matter.

“Is that smoke?” V asked all of a sudden, his voice ticking up. “Do you have… holy shit, you have smoke coming out of your ears.”

Mortified, Sophya waved an arm (entirely unnecessarily) over her head, suddenly crucially aware of how she’d imagined herself steaming from all the embarrassment. 

“Do not,” she mumbled. The smoke (hopefully) went away.

“Did, too,” he countered, the amusement not only thick in his voice but also running laps around her. It tickled at all the frayed ends of her that wouldn’t let themselves be fully leashed by SIN and she didn’t like how vividly she felt it.

And Sophya would have likely kept squishing her forehead to the journal and lamented, if not for a sudden, metallic rattle.

Her head came up. Her eyes snapped right; to where V stood with one leg out of his jeans and the other hovering midair, the jeans still attached. He, too, looked up and to the right, over to the corner where the noise had come from.

Though, unlike her, he looked ridiculous doing it. Or maybe she did, too. Didn't she generally look ridiculous doing most things? Yes. Yes, she did, but she wasn't made of mostly long limbs and angles and a tucked-in stomach. And she didn't wear boxers with an Earther avocados pattern on them. 

Sophya did her best not to look at him. Or the avocados, for that matter. Instead, she focused on her fear; the oily thing that bubbled over all of V’s invading curiosity and his intrusive mirth. Fear won, drowning both.

“What was that?” She scooted the chair back and stared at the half of the room mostly taken up by a dresser (which spilled over with clothes, most of its drawers not fully closed) and a standing mirror. The mirror was, thankfully, pointed away from her. 

Nothing moved there that shouldn't. Not the shadows. Not the clothes. Nothing.

The noise repeated. Closer this time. Louder.

“Dunno,” V admitted. Then, rather than putting his jeans back on, he shook them off his leg entirely. Which made no sense. Wouldn't you want to re-dress in a situation like that? He left them in a pile on the floor and peered up to where the ceiling met the wall. To a ventilation duct, to be precise. “It’s coming from in there.”

“It’s not a— is it a Revenant?”

V snorted. “No. It’s not a Rev. They don’t come bite-sized.” He paused. His back straightened; a back he had turned to her, and which was marked by a generous helping of bruises and a swath of skin so heavily scarred she wondered if he'd been licked by an acid-tongued Sare Hound or if he'd instead maybe gotten dragged along a road. Either or, it must have been painful getting it.

"I think," he eventually added. 

“You think they don't come bite-sized?”

“Look, I dunno. Just. Ah. Stay where you are.”

Not something he had to tell her twice.

V stepped up to the dresser, his neck craned up to stare at the duct, and then seemed to consider the only drawer on the dresser that was properly closed. It had an electronic lock at the front and Sophya figured that was where he kept his armaments. He didn’t open it though. Instead, his posture changed as something startled him, only for his fingers to twist in one of those universal gestures people had adopted to answer calls.

Not that they had to; most veils linked up to neuralware were perfectly capable of listening. Yet the majority of people decided to not allow it, worried they’d pick up a call when they didn’t want to or disconnect it by accident.

None of which was at all important right there this moment when metal rattled again and V squeezed out an agitated “Col, this isn’t the best of—“

He froze.

“Hey. Woah. Slow down. Col. Col. What do you— oh. Ah. Yeah. Okay.”

Sophya watched from the desk (armed with her pen, which she now held in both hands), as V pushed a stack of clothes (and armour, it was armour) off to the side so he could climb onto the dresser.

“Relax,” V said. “I think I know where he went.”

After he’d balanced himself up on the furniture, V went straight for the duct. He had to stoop and twist sideways awkwardly since he was terribly too tall — and once again it made him look like he’d been put together from mostly legs. How Sophya did not know. It just did.

“Mhm,” he hummed (at Collin, she figured — Collin, who’d looked at her all strangely, as if he knew knew and, no, she hadn’t forgotten about that) as he pried the duct open with his fingers. Then he stuck a hand in. And the arm attached to it. Nearly all the way up to his elbow, which meant he’d angled himself sideways and was looking right at her.

She clutched the pen a bit tighter.

V… winked.

The pen got choked some more.

・・・"Oh. Darling,” SIN suddenly said, her voice a wicked smile by itself. “I hadn’t figured. Would you prefer I make myself scarce some more? Give you two some privacy?”

Sophya wouldn’t have put it past herself if she’d broken the pen at that point, but, instead, she relaxed her grip on it and snapped it down on SIN’s cattish head, who slunk around the desk, her cattish butt swaying. SIN reacted by going up in a puff of cinnamon dust. She reappeared on the mirror opposite of V and his dresser, her paws balancing on the narrow top.

Right about then, a tail appeared out of the duct.

Yes.

A tail.

A nimble, darkly feathered tail with a plume of orange feathers at the tip wrapped around V's elbow, his biceps, and then nearly reached all the way up to his shoulder. When V finally pulled the arm back out it came with an Einling clinging to it.

Crimp.

“Yeah, your little guy popped in for a visit,” V said. “I got him."

No, Sophya thought. Crimp got you. The Einling had latched on real tight with its paws and had stuck its head right into V’s hand.

“Nah," V carried on. "Don’t bother. We’ll keep him overnight, I’m already down to my boxers and I’m not getting dressed again." A pause "Yeah. Night, Col.” With Crimp attached to him, V had to awkwardly tap his fingers together in order to end the call. But once he'd gotten that over with he hopped off the dresser, dropped the vent cover onto a pile of clothes, and then went straight to complaining at the Einling. 

“Ow,” he intoned. “Fella, you have claws.”

Crimp chirped.

And V remained stubbornly undressed in nothing but the aforementioned avocado boxers. And walking up to her. Why was he walking up to her? Sophya, naturally, reacted in the most mature of ways; she imagined a tall, wide swath of black ink splashed across most of his midriff and chest.

V stopped, his Crimp-laden arm lightly raised, and squinted at her. Crimp’s ears flapped.

“Wha— that— that supposed to be a censor bar?” He looked down his front and waved at the figment with his free hand. It didn’t budge.

Sophya gnawed on her bottom lip. A lip she kept sealed, even as V crossed the rest of the way to her, where he eventually held out his Crimp-bearing-arm. It was the one with the burn scar on his biceps, a scar that drew Sophya's attention away for a moment before she realigned it to look at the Einling. The Einling, in turn, stopped nuzzling its head into V’s hand, climbed upwards to perch on his arm rather than hang from it, and, then— leapt.

Ow,” V stated. Louder, this time. And a little... grunty. “Little shit.”

Crimp landed on the desk with a light thud (since he couldn’t well fly or glide with his one wing) and then scurried closer to her. His small nose twitched generously, though what really sniffed at her was the small Reaper’s tiny, borrowed soul. Unlike the first time they’d met, it was a lot more polite today. Eager still, sure. Peckish, too. But polite.

Over on the mirror, SIN watched quietly, her thoughts on the matter private.

V’s were much less reserved. With the fear now gone, Sophya was back to having herself pawed at and tickled at. And, unlike Crimp, V was not polite.

Sophya admitted herself overwhelmed. But there wasn’t much she could do about it, so she stopped imagining that black swath she'd put over V and scratched Crimp under his chin instead. The Einling puffed his feathers. Lashed his tail. And then he scaled her like any Einling would its Ein, except Sophya liked to think she did not, in fact, look like a too-woolly donkey.

“You good with the little guy staying for the night?” asked V as he wandered past her. The arm where Crimp had clung sported shallow scratches from where his claws had dug in.

Sophya shrugged.

“I mean, looks like he made up his mind,” V commented. "Good luck getting rid of him."

Which was true enough. Crimp had wrapped himself around the back of her neck and perched on her shoulder. And his soul? That tiny thing? It was full of homesick hope. All I found and I stay and you keep.

She sighed. Behind her, the ladder up to the bunk bed creaked. Then there was a thump (a head hitting the ceiling). Followed by yet another “Ow—“ (the consequence of that head hitting the ceiling). And, eventually, the squeal of tortured springs. 

Yes. 

She was overwhelmed. 

And something told Sophya that the man in his avocado boxers was a lot better at this than her. Better at being unbothered by the world constantly bending over backwards to make itself difficult. Better at moving on with things after the fact.

And an infinite amount better at falling asleep, as she was to soon find out.


Day 8

I can sit up in bed. I can move my head almost freely. And I haven’t had a splitting headache since the morning. Yes, my body aches still. I still get tired quick. But I’m getting there.

Even if now I reek. Two entire showers later and there’s compost in my nose still.

It’s awful.

I dislike it.

I

Looping back to yesterday's budding revelation on who was better at falling asleep, the bed above Sophya bounced. Her pen paused. Its tip rested on the pages she’d propped up on her knees.

“It’s late,” V informed her, unnecessarily. She knew what time it was. It was I can’t sleep time. 

Yes, she got tired easily but she was no longer exhausted and ever since her body had stopped deciding it’d pass out for her, she’d had trouble keeping her eyes closed. There was too much to think about; which was hilarious in the most tragic of ways, considering when she wanted to think her thoughts squeezed themselves out through that stupid hole from yesterday. And, not to forget, there was also too much to hear; enough for even SIN to have trouble keeping it all away from Sophya.

Sophya turned her chin up.

V had stuck his head over the edge of his bunk. His hair fell in a wild tuft, swaying gently. The only light in the room was a flashlight she’d hung off the bed’s ribs above her, which cast a rather sharp light up at him. It, too, swayed gently.

“Like. Late,” he added. “Can’t sleep? Do you need, like, a plushie or something?”

Curious eyes fixed on her from up there. One green, one hazel, and both weighty enough to make her want to sink into the mattress.

Sophya lifted her shoulders in a shrug. “I was documenting how I smell funny,” she admitted.

“Pssht.” V’s lips pulled back into a smile so cheerful it risked blinding her. Then he vanished, with the bed above her bouncing some more as he thumped back into whatever sleeping position he preferred. “You smell fine. Now. Lights out. I gotta work early tomorrow.”

. . .

Sophya huffed. The pen inched down to the next line. She’d forgotten what she’d been about to write earlier, but a new line of thoughts had presented itself.

I liked it better when Veee was out doing “date stuff” until late at night.

Then she snapped the journal shut, tucked the pen into a little hoop she’d fastened to its cover, and fumbled to turn off the lights. At her feet, curled up, two more sets of eyes watched her quietly. Crimp’s— the Einling hadn’t stayed with Collin long once V had brought him back —and SIN’s. Crimp remained curious and SIN ever-SIN.

Which, currently, meant SIN winked. A lazy wink full of meaning Sophya couldn’t decipher and which was near as infuriating as how all Sophya did as of late was tread water.

But maybe tomorrow would be different.

Maybe tomorrow she’d ask V about taking her to Castle One, where she might find out where Krisi was. Or even find Krisi, if Elaya willed it.

Or maybe she’d figure out how to detach herself from him; put an end to the constant tugging, the pawing, the rummaging, the bumbling. 

Yes.

Maybe tomorrow would be different.