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Neither Sink nor Swim

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“You’re so overdramatic,” he says, in the same tone Claire would tell him, You look like shit, Lechter, like she weren’t the same person who’d tilt her chin and hound him about things like language and not unduly influencing poor sweet Millium

But what a dangerous thing to think about, at this time of day in this wretched prison in the sky, where one could fall and fall and never see the bottom through all those clouds, flimsy and pale and barely sheltering miasmic poison, choking out the air below.

Their eyes meet in the mirror. She has a fondness for kaleidoscopes, reflective surfaces; he likes the absence of varnish and the sheen of silvered glass, the way he can’t be quite certain if it’s really her expression that’s trembling or just his own nerves staring back at him, the coward’s way out perfectly visible even through dust and bendable light. 

“Well, forgive me. Everyone has their off days. Don’t they?” 

“Mm,” he draws out the syllable. “Not the Icy Maiden.”

“It’s the end of the world, Lechter. So spare me.”

Right. Maybe he should’ve said melo-dramatic. She was a musician, he knew that much; a once-been, she might have said, who nevertheless had the hands trained for the deft precision to toy with something else besides the lives of others. Maybe the shift of words would’ve made a difference for her. Maybe. Maybe not.

“For everyone else it is,” he acquiesces. “But come on. I thought you’re the one who’s supposed to hate making a mess.”

It figures; that’s what gets her to drop the knife. It lands on the floor: the clatter of blade on tile is duller than he expects. The sound rattles around in his head in the few moments it takes for him to notice her eyes are dry.  

Right, he thinks, not that those lacrimal glands would well up for any less than a hero, ashen of pure heart and purer convictions. It’s supposed to be relieving, that she’s denied the world her blackest despair, her sobs choked down and misery carefully dosed to flay her from the inside, and at the bottom of it all he's no different to her than all those peons, those flimsy-hearted admirers looking at her from far away enough that all those reflected light made her out to be a tower, beatific and grand and hardly crumbling at all at the base.

Well, not that he’s offended. Far from it. 

He doesn’t take her wrists - the metal blinks at him from the corner and he doesn’t wince at the imagery, doesn’t care that his vision swims with smudges of red - and Claire doesn’t look like the hair-ruffling type of woman either, so really, it’s a win-win. 

She turns around. Her hands are held in front of her - wrists paper-colored, no blemish of skin recently broken or sliced through - palm unfurling half-open like a pantomime of forcible prying. It would be funny how much of a mess she is right now, if she didn’t manage to still look effortlessly threatening at the same time. Yes, even if the only endpoint of casualty is her very own self. You don’t need a weapon to hurt yourself, after all - there are ways to hit and batter and maim without ever leaving a scar, and he's never bothered to ask her what he already knows.

He says, “You know better than to listen to me.”

“Of course." Her smile is a hollowed-out grimace. "And you know better than to give advice.”

“True,” Lechter says. He forgets what they’re supposed to be talking about. It’s hard to breathe, in this tiny room, with stark white walls and crisp, sly shadows. But chess pieces don’t converse about what it feels like to be captured; to be knocked off the board in service of some greater exploit, objects with no will at all, and no claim to shame at having been suckered in through sweet words and the sunk cost and an ass-backwards excuse for conviction. “Wouldn’t it be nice, then, if it turns out there’s no need? If we could just skip all this talking in circles and come out on the other side, thoroughly convinced.”

Claire blinks. She speaks slowly. “Wouldn’t it.”

It’s not a question. Either way, they hear no answer for a very long time.