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The Windmills of Your Mind

Chapter Text

“He’s in again.” Green sparks cascaded from the cocktail shaker as Strange expertly spun it into the air and caught it in his left hand.

“What?” De Lancey was watching the group of young people who had just come in and his head was full of ideas for the night’s set.

“Old misery-guts in the corner.” Strange gestured with the shaker before unscrewing the lid and pouring the contents into a frosted glass. He pushed the drink across the bar. “Just bloody sits there on his own all night. Every time. I’m surprised you haven’t managed to get through to him yet. Losing your touch?”

De Lancey looked over to the table Strange had indicated and sure enough the blond haired man was sitting in his usual place, leaning back with his eyes closed and his hand curled round a half-full whisky glass.

At first, he had been worried that the man was some kind of undercover cop who had managed to get past the advanced biometric identification system. Most, if not all, of the new people who came to the club were guests of existing members and anybody who wanted to achieve that sought-after status themselves had to undergo a very thorough vetting before they were added to the list.

He remembered the first time he’d been brought here, his friend Bella leading him through the city’s hidden alleys, insisting that the place she was taking him was like nowhere he’d ever been before and that he’d never want to go anywhere else once he had experienced it.

Of course he had mocked her, assuming she’d just discovered yet another dodgy underground club where his ears would be assaulted by a barrage of sound that the bright young things would tell him was the next wave in music and he would be expected to sample the latest designer drugs.

He recalled the surprise he had felt when a panel beside the unremarkable door had opened to reveal a fingerprint reader and an iris scanner and the amusement on Bella’s face as she had held the door open and ushered him in.

So to see someone he didn’t recognise turning up alone several nights in a row and looking for all the world like he was trying his best to avoid having a good time rang some serious alarm bells. But the man didn’t look like police - if anything, he had a military bearing - and besides, an undercover operative would surely do a much better job of blending in.

Not that it would have mattered. The drug squad could deploy all the tests at their disposal and they would never find any illicit substances in the drinks that Strange prepared for the Windmill’s elite clientele.

It was not that kind of place.

Nevertheless, De Lancey had pointed the man out to Wellesley, just to be on the safe side, and the club’s owner had simply glanced at the monitor in his office and said “That’s Major Grant. He’s a friend of mine,” in a tone with a distinct undercurrent of that’s all you need to know. Leave it alone.

Of course, De Lancey being De Lancey, this had only served to pique his curiosity and the man had become a puzzle that had to be solved.

“It would help if you could persuade him to drink something other than neat whisky,” he complained, “at least give me a way in. I don’t know why he even comes here if that’s all he wants. He looks the type who’d be more at home in a local pub anyway.”

Strange sighed. “I’ve tried. Told him what we could offer him. Thought he might appreciate a shot of Bliss or Chill The Fuck Out, but he’s just not interested.” He shrugged, “each to their own I suppose,” and turned his attention to the young couple draped over each other at the end of the bar.

De Lancey picked up the glass and made his way over to his booth in the corner of the room.

That first night, it had soon become clear that Bella had an ulterior motive in bringing him here. With Strange and Wellesley watching from behind the bar, she had shown him the mysterious box with its arcane symbols and opened it to reveal a curtain of sparkling lights that hung in the air and chimed discordantly when she ran her hand through them. She had told him they thought it was some kind of instrument but nobody had been able to work it out and asked if he would like to have a go, knowing full well that he couldn’t resist a challenge.

As soon as he touched it, he knew he could never go back to nights of spinning the decks at the old club, days spent hunched over the keyboards in his flat, making music that nobody would ever hear. All he had to do here was imagine the notes in his head and move his hands through the river of light and it was as if the glowing threads themselves knew his mind and translated his thoughts and feelings into haunting melodies or joyful airs.

Bella had beamed, “I told you he could do it,” and Wellesley had nodded his approval and asked if he wanted a residency. Which was just as well. If he hadn’t been offered the job on the spot, he would have probably refused to leave until they let him take the damn thing home with him.

It was the drink as well of course - the one that Strange, with his mysterious ability to imbue a beverage with uncanny properties, had designed specifically for him. Empathy, he called it. The magical elixir that enhanced his natural abilities and allowed him to connect with others who had sampled the mixologist’s potions on a level he had not thought possible. To sense what they were feeling and what they needed and channel those desires through his fingertips, turning them into a symphony of almost unbearable beauty.

De Lancey downed the shimmering green liquid in one go and cracked his knuckles as the ambient music faded out. The young crowd he had been watching earlier were looking in his direction with an air of excitement and anticipation so he decided to focus on them first. What was it Strange had given them? His mind reached out and he grinned as he felt the connections between them expanding like the ripples from a stone thrown into a lake. Ah, Harmony, of course.

His fingers caressed the air and he savoured the reaction as the first few notes filled the room. Every time was different, every time like the first time, no matter how often he opened the box. The music was composed by the people in the room, by their fears, their passions, their hopes and dreams. The permutations were endless and there was always a new creation waiting to emerge.

If anyone asked what he did, he still said he was a DJ at a club, but those who came to the Windmill knew him as an artist, a musician, a storyteller, a weaver of dreams and soother of broken hearts. They gravitated to the club because something was missing from their lives and De Lancey’s music filled their souls with something they knew they needed but could not name.

All the chatter in the room stopped as his audience turned, entranced. He sensed the mood shift as they let themselves sink into the music and responded with a vibrant arpeggio that sent purple flashes bouncing from the mirrors on the walls and created stunning interference patterns in the focal point at the centre of the room.

He stood with his eyes closed, hands guided by instinct alone as they moved through the shimmering cascade of light, completing the circle with the group and feeling their love for each other flow through his veins.

Suddenly, he sensed a discordant note in the room. Scanning the crowd for the source of the disturbance, he caught sight of two men facing off against each other over a table in the far corner. He recognised one of them as Fitz Somerset, a long standing member who had never caused any trouble, but the other was unknown to him.

Dragging his focus away from the others, he slowed the tempo, be calm, and threw in a couple of minor chords, this is not the way you want to feel, to counteract the rush of adrenaline he could smell in the air.

Somerset paused and looked around but the other man just seemed to become more agitated.

De Lancey frowned. He could usually diffuse a situation like this with ease and Wellesley relied on him to deal with such matters discretely, hating to disturb the atmosphere in the club by sending in the heavies unless it was absolutely necessary.

He looked over at Strange who just shrugged and shook his head, I didn’t give them anything.

Fuck. No wonder he was finding it hard to connect. A sheen of sweat broke out on his brow as he struggled to find the key that would resonate with their higher emotions and dissipate the tension. He could feel his own frustration building and the last thing he wanted to do was let it seep into the soundscape and affect the other patrons, who had so far remained oblivious to the scene developing in that corner of the room.

Or at least he thought they had, until Grant appeared at Somerset’s shoulder, seemingly out of nowhere, and reached out to take a firm hold of the other man’s arm. He leant forward and whispered something that De Lancey could not make out and the man just stopped and stared.

De Lancey felt all the fight go out of the stranger as he turned back to Somerset and held out his hand in a gesture of apology and supplication. He wiped his forehead and took a deep breath, a puzzled frown crossing his brow. Whatever Grant had said had done the job and he was grateful that the situation was under control but now he was even more intrigued about the mysterious major and his place in Wellesley’s plans.

Grant walked slowly across the room, giving a small nod as he passed the booth. He eased himself back into his chair and took a long sip of his whisky. His expression was as inscrutable as ever.

Chapter Text

“Oh fuck off!” De Lancey groaned, pulling the covers over his head in an attempt to block out the sound of the doorbell. Nobody who knew him would be calling round at this time of the morning and he certainly wasn’t going to get out of bed for someone he didn’t know.

The ringing persisted. Whoever it was, they were clearly not going away.

Continuing to swear under his breath, he stumbled into the hallway and blinked blearily at the small screen beside the intercom.

“Shit!” The face on the screen was not a happy one and even without knowing how to lip read he could understand the words.

“Open the sodding door De Lancey!”

He hit the speaker button. “What the hell do you want?”

“Just let me in or I’ll disable the building’s security system.”

De Lancey had no doubt Grant could, and would, do exactly what he said so he buzzed him in and hurried back to the bedroom to grab a T-shirt before his unwanted guest made it to the tenth floor.

He’d made several attempts to find out more about the mysterious major - if that was even a real rank - over the past few weeks, but Wellesley deflected any questions he asked and the man himself remained stubbornly taciturn.

Admittedly, Grant had stopped a fight breaking out with a single look and handled himself very impressively in a physical confrontation a few days later with a group of dodgy looking characters who were hanging around outside the club, but there was clearly a lot more to him than a glorified bouncer and De Lancey hated being kept in the dark.

Anyway, he thought, there is no excuse for turning up on a person’s doorstep at such an ungodly hour, dragging him out of bed without an explanation and ordering him around like he is under your command.

He stifled a yawn as he opened the door and muttered a few choice words in protest as Grant barged past him into the hall.

“Christ, Grant, what’s the fucking emergency? And how the hell do you even know where I live?”

Grant ignored his questions and thrust a cup of coffee into his hand, “get dressed, you’re needed at the club.”

Finding himself on the receiving end of the stare that was usually reserved for troublemakers at the Windmill, De Lancey did what he was told without complaining and emerged five minutes later, having showered and thrown on the first clean clothes he could find.

The caffeine was starting to kick in – somehow Grant had known exactly how he took his coffee – and he was almost feeling bad about being so rude by the time they reached the sleek black Jaguar waiting in the building’s underground car park.

“Sweet ride.” He smiled, running his finger along the edge of a wing mirror, but all he got in return was a gruff “Get in.”

Despite his attempts to keep his eyes straight ahead, he could not help glancing over at Grant as they sped through back streets he didn’t even know existed, adding ‘shit-hot driver’ to his list of talents and wondering how much more there was to discover.

They arrived at the Windmill in around half the time he would have expected and he blinked to let his eyes adjust to the relative darkness in the club.

Wellesley was standing beside the booth with a proprietary hand on the box and a stern expression on his face and Strange and Bella were sitting at a nearby table, talking in hushed tones and glancing over at the bar every now and then.

De Lancey followed their line of sight and frowned, unable to work out what they were looking at until he turned his head slightly and caught sight of something in his peripheral vision. It was like trying to see a star in the night sky – if he looked directly at the space there was nothing there but if he let his focus drift he became aware of a man in a long coat standing in the corner where the bar met the wall.

He saw Grant’s hand go to the inside of his jacket.

“No need for that, old chap.” Wellesley put a hand on Grant’s shoulder as the shadowy figure stepped forward.

“So you’re the one.” The man was looking at De Lancey with barely concealed disdain.

De Lancey bristled at his tone.

“The one what?”

“The one who’s been playing with things he doesn’t understand.”

“And what would you know about it?”

“More than you, it seems. Show me what you have been doing.”

De Lancey looked over to Wellesley, expecting him to object to this challenge to his authority, but the club’s owner seemed remarkably unflustered. “Do as he asks, De Lancey.”

“I can’t just…”

Wellesley shot him a warning look and he figured out what was going on just in time. Without Strange’s cocktails, all the man would see would be a sound and light show, no different to what he might find at any other club.

“Ah, right, OK.” He started towards the booth, wondering once again why it was so important to keep everything so secret.

“Nice try,” the stranger growled, his tone becoming more threatening, “but aren’t you forgetting something?”

Wellesley was clearly getting angry now but for some reason he was still unwilling to refuse the man’s demands. His jaw clenched as he spat out the words. “Make us some drinks, Merlin.”

Strange rolled his eyes at the nickname as he made his way over to the bar and started mixing.

De Lancey watched him for a while to try and figure out what kind of concoction he was making but it was not one that he had seen before. Wellesley and Grant were talking quietly next to the booth and although they kept glancing in his direction they did not look like they were in the mood to give him any answers so he went and sat down beside Bella.

“What the fuck is going on?”

“Beats me. I just came in to pick up some stuff from last night and he was in the office with the boss when I arrived.”

“But why are we even going along with this? Why doesn’t Wellesley just tell Grant to get rid of him?”

Bella shrugged. “From what I overheard, it’s something to do with how they got hold of your box in the first place. I don’t think it was strictly legit, wherever it came from, and he’s threatening to tell its rightful owner where it is if we don’t do as he says.”

"Fuck!" The thought of having his music taken away hit him like a punch to the gut but he tried to keep the mood light as Strange passed the drinks around.

“Bottom ups! You may want to take a seat, Mr….?”

“Childermass,” the man growled, leaning back against the wall, “and I and fine as I am.”

De Lancey took a deep breath and opened the box. He tried to relax and let the music flow through him but the pressure to perform and the waves of nausea that hit him whenever his perception strayed too close to the distortion in the air around Childermass threw him off balance and the notes produced by his shaking hands were discordant and hollow.

“Shit!” He swallowed and shook his head, the fear of what would happen if he didn’t get it right making it even harder for him to concentrate. He was about to admit defeat when he sensed a solid, reassuring presence at the back of his mind and looked up to see Grant watching him with a hint of a smile and an encouraging nod.

Letting the feeling wash over him, he smiled back and began.

It started quietly: A deep, resonant chord that reflected the calm strength emanating from the ex-military man. De Lancey reached out to explore the connection, building up layers of sound as he felt Grant’s astonishment at the effects of Strange’s magical potion, adding harmonies and increasing the tempo as his confidence returned.

Wellesley’s presence was a steady beat in the background. A note of caution that was immediately drowned out by an exuberant fanfare when he shifted his focus to Strange. The barman was fearless, excited, the power of the magic amplified by his natural talents and his adoration as he looked at Bella.

De Lancey smiled and let the melody bring them together. He felt Bella respond with surprise and delight, her blushes echoed in a flurry of grace notes and a brief snatch of a swirling waltz.

Even the dark aura around Childermass no longer felt threatening. The music absorbed it and transformed it into a rhythmic counterpoint and De Lancey let his body respond to the changing patterns, merging the beats in a wild and hypnotic dance.

He brought his attention back to Grant, discovering soft dissonances and hints of melancholy that balanced the waves of joyful anticipation bouncing between Strange and Bella, binding it all together with his own sense of wonder until the sound became a part of him and he forgot anything else existed.

As if from a vast distance, he heard Wellesley say “Alright, you can stop now,” but the music was drawing him in with the promise of something just beyond his reach. He needed to go deeper, to get completely lost in it, to become one with the source of this mystery.

“De Lancey?”

A different speaker now, more urgent, trying to counteract the voice in his head that was urging him to keep playing until he found what he so desperately wanted.

No. He was so close he could almost touch it.

“William?”

He felt a pair of strong hands close around his own, stilling his fingers and silencing the sirens’ song. The last few notes echoed and died and he opened his eyes to see Grant searching his face for a sign of recognition, his brow furrowed with concern as he gently but firmly resisted De Lancey’s efforts to reach out for the shimmering lights.

“That’s enough.”

Chapter Text

Grant was worried, and if Grant was worried there was definitely something to worry about. He’d always thought of himself as open-minded and he accepted that there was a lot he didn’t understand about the way things worked at the Windmill but this was getting a little too weird for his liking.

He gazed across the square from the table they had taken outside a small coffee shop and pondered the best course of action.

Childermass had left the club, muttering something about ‘making arrangements’ and telling them to meet him back there in a couple of hours, and Wellesley had taken Grant to one side and asked him to keep an eye on De Lancey in the meantime.

Rather than hanging around waiting, he had suggested that they go for a cup of coffee. He had thought that a change of scenery would be a good idea, but now he wasn’t so sure. He just wasn’t very good at this sort of thing and had no idea what to say.

De Lancey was stirring his coffee and staring into it as if he thought it might hold the answers to the questions that were clearly troubling him.

After his link with the box had been broken, the feeling of emptiness he’d been left with had been so overwhelming that he had lashed out, catching Grant’s face hard with his elbow as he’d struggled to regain the connection. Of course he was no match for the other man’s strength and he’d ended up being hoisted over a broad shoulder and carried half way across the room before being unceremoniously dumped on one of the Windmill’s red velvet couches.

He’d sort of tried to apologise by joking about it as they were leaving the club but Grant had remained stony faced and marched on ahead, his stride lengthening as he crossed the square.

De Lancey cringed at the memory. No matter how he looked at it, the fact remained that he’d been manipulated by something outside his control and behaved like a child throwing a tantrum and the whole experience had shaken him more than he cared to admit.

The silence was getting oppressive so he attempted a conciliatory smile. “Well this certainly isn’t what I signed up for. All I wanted to do was enjoy the music and help people have a good time.”

He looked up from his cup, wincing slightly as he noticed the beginnings of a bruise around Grant’s left eye. “What if we just don’t go back? What’s the worst that could happen?”

Grant sighed. De Lancey was only a few years his junior and the background checks he’d run had shown him to be perfectly capable of looking after himself in tricky situations, but right now he looked like he could make a break for it at any moment.

It was a look Grant had seen too many times before, on the faces of young recruits who had suddenly realised they were actually in the middle of a real life war zone and not just another training exercise or simulation. No matter how well they had prepared, how tough they thought they were, there was almost always that moment of self-doubt, that Oh Fuck I Can’t Do This, that split second when the fight or flight instinct could go either way.

“You’ll be OK.” He needed to find words that would encourage De Lancey without sounding patronising. In the army it had been so much easier. He could remind anyone who faltered of their orders, their duty, and, if necessary, the consequences of failing to comply.

I didn’t sign up for this either, he thought as he tried to affect an encouraging smile. “At least you know what to expect now, I would imagine it won’t be so hard to resist the effects next time.”

He reached out to cover De Lancey’s hand with his own, hoping that the gesture would provide more comfort than his feeble attempts at verbal reassurance, and as their fingers touched he felt a tingling shock and a sudden awareness that he was not alone in his own head.

It had happened before. When he’d reached into the lights that flickered and danced around the mysterious box, he’d had the same sensation and, for a brief moment before the music had stopped, the link had gone both ways. He had experienced De Lancey’s ecstatic immersion in the music, his need to follow the beguiling presence that a was urging him onward and his frustration and anger at being dragged away.

In the club, Grant had known enough about what was going to happen when he drank Strange’s peculiar brew to keep his guard up. He’d been using all his mental discipline to let De Lancey sense only what he wanted him to and the effects of the surge had been limited.

This was different, unexpected, intrusive.

De Lancey’s expression changed to one of shock and confusion and Grant could tell he’d given away more than he should have. He didn’t know how, but the combination of this man’s natural empathy and the unnatural forces that had been unleashed in the Windmill had penetrated his defences, exposing the pain and remorse he usually kept locked down with an iron grip.

He snatched his hand away and stood up abruptly.

“We’d best be getting back.”

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Strange was mixing drinks and decanting them into a row of small bottles.

“What the hell are you doing?” De Lancey wandered over and leaned against the bar.

“Just following instructions.” Strange inclined his head in the direction of Wellesley’s office. “He’s in there now. Told me to prepare some very interesting mixtures I’d never even thought of before.” He seemed excited and eager to learn more about Childermass’s plans. “I guess I’ll be going with you on this adventure, whatever it turns out to be.”

“Adventure?” Grant snorted. “I really don’t think you should be treating this as some kind of game. I doubt he’s taking you on a fucking day trip to Disneyland.”

“Oh relax, Grant.” Strange started packing the bottles into a small green backpack, along with a cocktail shaker and a couple of the plastic glasses that they gave to people who wanted to take their drinks out to the roof garden. “In case I need to improvise on the fly,” he explained in response to De Lancey’s quizzical look.

Childermass emerged from the office with Wellesley following a few paces behind, his brow furrowed in concentration.

“Ready?” At least their visitor seemed to have got rid of that eerie shadow effect as he approached the men at the bar.

De Lancey stood up straight and faced him, bristling with renewed indignation at being expected to do as he was told without any explanation. “Are you even going to let us know what this is about? I don’t know what you think is going to happen wherever you are taking us but I won’t be much use to you without that.” He pointed at the box, dark and silent on its pedestal in the booth.

Childermass smiled, or at least Grant thought it was meant to be a smile.

“Oh, don’t worry,” he replied with a knowing look, “you won’t need that where we are going.”

He walked over to one of the large mirrors on the wall and reached out his hand. The surface of the glass seemed to ripple and shift as he beckoned to Strange and De Lancey. “After you.”

“Wait!” Wellesley suddenly felt the need to take back some control of the situation.

“Grant,” he said, staring at Childermass as if daring him to challenge his authority again, “perhaps you should go with them.”

Grant glared at him. “What am I?” he snapped, “some kind of babysitter now?” But there was something about the way the boss was looking at the dark stranger that sent a chill down his spine.

“Shit,” he muttered, stepping forward to stand beside the others although he was pretty sure he was the last person De Lancey would want next to him in a fight.

“Oh great.” De Lancey’s voice was dripping with sarcasm and Grant wondered once again how deep into his mind the other man had seen. “Well now I’m much more confident.”

Childermass rolled his eyes. “Fine,” he motioned them forward with an exasperated sigh, “just get a move on, I can’t hold it open forever.”

Strange went first with barely any hesitation, jumping at the chance to explore the unknown, and De Lancey followed, clearly unwilling to show any sign of the trepidation he must be feeling.

Grant watched them vanish into the rippling surface and muttered under his breath “what the fuck am I doing?” as he took a deep breath and stepped through the mirror.

----------

The Windmill’s neon glow was replaced by a different kind of illumination, a phosphorescence that somehow seemed to emanate from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Grant shook his head to try and shift the feeling of disorientation. It was impossible to tell if they were indoors or outdoors, if it was day or night. He glanced up, hoping that the presence or absence of stars would answer his questions, but that just made it worse. Although there were no clouds or constellations visible, there did not appear to be any end to the darkness either.

He swallowed down the feeling of nausea and looked around to see if the others were faring any better.

Strange and Childermass were deep in discussion, the barman nodding and scribbling notes in the pad he always carried with him as his companion pointed out various features of the bizarre landscape that surrounded them.

Thinking it best to just leave them to it, Grant turned his attention to De Lancey and found him walking slowly towards a small mound in the earth that was glowing with a warm amber light and surrounded by a swarm of what appeared to be some kind of golden fireflies. He had a distant, blissful expression on his face and was tilting his head every now and then as if he’d caught a hint of something at the upper range of his hearing.

Fuck. That didn’t look good.

Grant rushed over and grabbed De Lancey’s elbow without thinking, only realising after he had done so that the layers of clothing between his hand and the other man’s arm must be preventing a repeat of the earlier incident.

“Hey.” He moved around in front of De Lancey to block his path, attempted a smile. “Don’t make me pick you up again.”

De Lancey hardly seemed to notice.

“Can’t you hear it?” he whispered, his voice filled with wonder.

Grant took hold of his shoulders and gave him a firm shake.

“Merlin!” he shouted over at Strange. “I think we have a situation here. Don’t suppose you could leave off the geography lessons and give me a hand?”

“Here!” Realising what was going on, Strange reached into his bag and pulled out one of the small bottles. He launched it into the air in their general direction. “Make him drink this.”

Unfortunately, his underarm bowling was nowhere near as good as his skills with a cocktail shaker and Grant had to leap sideways to catch the bottle, allowing De Lancey to resume his progress towards the mound.

Make him drink it? How the fuck am I supposed to do that?

There was only one thing for it. He clasped his arms round De Lancey’s waist, twisted to the side and threw him to the ground, pinning him down in a thigh lock before he had time to react.

“Sorry.” He shrugged. “Needs must and all that.”

Manoeuvring himself so that he was sitting astride De Lancey’s chest, he pulled a pair of black leather gloves from his pocket – he wasn’t going to risk any accidental contact, either with Strange’s potion or with exposed skin – and unscrewed the top of the bottle.

De Lancey squirmed and tried to turn his head away but Grant took a firm hold of his face and used his fingers to find the pressure points that he knew would force a man to open his jaws.

Never imagined I’d have to use that one, he thought as he poured the contents of the bottle into De Lancey’s mouth and held it shut to make sure he swallowed.

Chapter Text

De Lancey stopped struggling and blinked a couple of times as if he were surprised to find himself lying on his back with a particular part of Grant’s anatomy in such close proximity to his face.

“What the fuck?” he spluttered as he tried to turn his head. “Jesus, Grant, get off me!”

“Merlin?” Grant kept his thighs firmly clamped around De Lancey’s chest. “Has it worked?”

Strange walked over and crouched down beside them, taking hold of De Lancey’s chin and looking into his eyes.

“I think it’s safe now.” his attempt to keep a straight face was not proving entirely successful. “That should stop him from wandering off until we’re ready.”

“Ready for what? Will someone please tell me what the hell is going on?” De Lancey pushed at Grant’s knees with his elbows. “And for fuck’s sake stop sitting on me.”

Grant stood and held out a hand to help De Lancey up but the younger man gave a snort at the sight of the gloves he was still wearing.

“Wouldn’t want you to risk catching anything.” His tone was sarcastic but his eyes were blazing with indignation as he refused Grant’s offer of help and pushed himself to his feet.

Grant shook his head and gave an exasperated sigh – he really didn’t have time to deal with this right now.

He turned to Childermass. “I don’t know about the others but I’m not taking another step until you explain exactly where we are and what we’re doing here.”

Childermass rolled his eyes, clearly regretting his decision to let the major come along.

“Fine,” he grumbled, “but we don’t have much time. I’ll tell you on the way.”

Setting off in an apparently random direction, he began to recount the events that had led to their current situation.

“So before the box fell into your boss’s hands, my employer,“ he almost spat the word, “gave it to a friend of his who was looking for an unusual gift to keep his young wife occupied. He didn’t know what it was, of course, just thought it would provide a pleasant distraction for her. Unfortunately, she also has a talent for…,” he frowned at De Lancey, “…for whatever it is you do, but there was nobody around to stop her when she went too far and she ended up trapped in this place.”

Grant raised an eyebrow. “I still don’t see why you had to drag us into it.”

Childermass sighed. “Her husband is a politician – didn’t want the press to get hold of the story and all that – so he offloaded the box onto Wellesley under the pretext of paying back a longstanding debt and is flat out refusing to talk about what happened. As is my employer.” The shame was evident in his face as he continued, “but I can’t just leave it like that and I can’t get her out myself so I need your help to bring her home.”

De Lancey put a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “Well you could have just asked,” he said, “why all the cloak and dagger stuff?”

“I suppose I didn’t think you’d care.” Childermass shrugged.

Walking alongside Strange, Grant muttered to himself, “yeah, and you’d have been right.”

He glanced over at De Lancey and Childermass and raised his voice just enough to ensure they’d hear him.

“I’ve got a very bad feeling about this.”

Strange chuckled. “You’re worried about him, aren’t you?”

“What?” Grant blustered. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m concerned for all of us. In case you hadn’t noticed, this isn’t exactly the safest place on the planet. If indeed it’s on the planet at all, which I’m seriously starting to doubt.”

They made their way cautiously through the shifting landscape, picking a path around the strange luminous growths that rose from the earth in front of them with each step they took and stepping carefully over sparkling streams that doubled back on themselves in impossible Escheresque loops.

Despite the effects of Strange’s potion, De Lancey was in no doubt that this was the place he had felt calling him from the Windmill.

Startling cascades of iridescent colour appeared out of nowhere at the edge of his vision and vanished just as quickly when he tried to look at them; hints of a sublime melody caressed his ears, teasing him with the promise of delights beyond anything he’d ever known; nebulous shadows stalked the borders between light and darkness, beckoning to him and tempting him to leave the path and follow them to a place where anything was possible.

He was so enthralled by the sights and sounds surrounding him that he walked straight into the back of Grant, who glared at him in annoyance before coming to an abrupt halt himself with a sharp intake of breath.

A young woman was standing before them in a circle of light, her body swaying to a rhythm that only she could hear. As she moved, her fingers brushed against a cloud of shimmering motes that spun and danced in the space around her and a mournful tune filled the air.

Childermass turned to face the others.

“This is as far as I’ve managed to get,” he admitted, “somehow I keep ending up back where I started whenever I try to get any closer, but I’m hoping you can find a way through.”

He help out a hand to Strange. “The antidote please?”

Strange rummaged in his bag and handed a bottle of violet liquid to Childermass, who gave the lid a twist and passed it to De Lancey.

“Wait!” Grant made a grab for the bottle but De Lancey snatched it away.

“You haven’t thought this through." Grant hated to admit it but he really was getting worried. He gestured at the lights surrounding the woman. "What are we supposed to do if he gets sucked into that ... whatever the hell it is?”

This just made De Lancey even more eager to get started.

“Don’t be such a baby.” He smirked, summoning all his bravado to show Grant that he wasn’t afraid. “The sooner I do it the sooner we’ll be home.”

With a wink at Strange, he lifted the bottle and emptied it into his mouth.

The music took over his senses and he instinctively knew that something was missing. He discovered gaps that let him slip between the notes and approach the oblivious woman, willing her to open her eyes and take his outstretched hand.

“I can do this!” he shouted. “I can reach her!”

But the closer he got, the less certain he became. Instead of exploiting the silences, he found himself filling in the absent notes, a thrill surging through his veins as the unpredictable harmonies and trembling chords built her simple melody into an irresistible crescendo that far surpassed anything he’d ever created at the club.

“Shit! I think we’re losing him.” The excitement in Strange’s eyes turned to concern as he watched De Lancey disappearing into the cloud of light. “Do something!”

Although he was clearly trying to maintain his air of confidence, Childermass’s voice betrayed his fear.

“I didn’t realise it was this powerful,” he stammered, “I thought he’d be fine. I’m sorry, I don’t think there’s anything I can do.”

Grant spun on his heels and let fly with a powerful left hook.

“Enough!” he shouted as Childermass hit the floor. “This is not happening again! If I wanted to keep watching men walk into traps while I am expected to stand by and do nothing, I would have stayed in the fucking army.”

Removing his gloves, he strode after De Lancey and took hold of his hand. The sudden rush of yearning to become one with the music almost took his breath away and he fought the desire to simply give in and let De Lancey follow his heart.

Grant gripped the younger man’s shoulder with his other hand and managed to stop him in his tracks and spin him round so they were face to face.

The glowing particles in the air were gathering around De Lancey’s head, giving the impression of a golden halo that illuminated wide eyes darkened by dilated pupils and lips parted in an ‘O’ of astonishment and awe.

Grant found himself thinking that he had never seen anything so beautiful, so perfect, but something inside him was still fighting, telling him that this was wrong, that giving De Lancey up to this place would be the biggest mistake of his life.

He forced himself to focus and tightened his grip.

“William?” he was no longer sure if he was saying the words out loud or not. “Can you hear me?”

He tried to reach out with his mind and a violent shudder wracked his body as he was ambushed by long-submerged memories of diving into dark, forbidding waters to try and rescue a drowning man who did not want to be saved.

No! he thought, I am not letting go. Not this time. He does not want to be here. He does not belong here.

As the words rang out in his head, he knew that it was not enough. He couldn’t just think it, he had to feel it. The soldier in him was commanding him to keep the barriers up, warning him that if he let his emotions take over and allowed the pain and regret to surface he would never be able to control it again. But as he looked at De Lancey's face, overlaid in his mind with visions of another beautiful man in what seemed like another lifetime, he realised that he had no choice. He closed his eyes and felt hot tears rolling down his cheeks as he finally let himself grieve for everything he had lost and start to hope again for what might be.

There was a sudden change in the atmosphere and Grant felt strong fingers tightening around his own as De Lancey followed the connection back to the source, bringing the young woman with him in a rush of recognition and relief.

The music stopped abruptly and the lights in the air disappeared, leaving them surrounded by utter darkness and a silence so complete that it made Grant think he might be dead until he felt De Lancey squeeze his hand and heard him draw a shuddering breath.

Childermass and Strange ran over and started to congratulate them but they’d barely had time to say a word when everything shifted and they found themselves standing in a large cave beside a dark pool whose surface rippled with impossible colours.

On the other side of the pool, an imposing throne carved out of the wall was occupied by a figure that appeared to oscillate between the shape of a man and that of something so entirely other that Grant’s brain refused to process it.

A mocking laugh echoed through the cavernous space and the creature rose to its feet, regarding them with a knowing smile as it hissed through pointed teeth.

“Did you really think it would be that easy?”

Chapter Text

Shadowy figures emerged from the darkness and surrounded them, and when they tried to turn and run they found that they were unable to move.

The shadows parted as the creature approached, its eyes reflecting the colours swirling on the surface of the pool. It circled the group slowly like a spider sizing up the flies it has caught in its web and deciding which to eat first. Its movements were disjointed and erratic and there was a hint of terrible otherness about its presence that sent chills down Grant’s spine and made the hair on his neck stand on end.

“Ah.” The creature had stopped in front of De Lancey. It raised a claw-like hand and trailed a long, sharp nail down the side of his face. “You are the one.”

De Lancey shuddered with revulsion at the touch on his cheek and fought to keep his voice steady as he raised his chin and stared back in defiance. “The one what?”

“Why, the one who will finally free me of this prison and allow me to return home. Come.” it beckoned with a crooked finger and De Lancey found himself stepping forward, his feet no longer under his own control.

Grant tried to reach out and stop him but the paralysis extended to his arms as well as his legs and all he could do was look on helplessly as the creature led De Lancey towards the mouth of a dark tunnel that led off from the side of the cave.

“You see,” it continued as if it were simply making polite conversation, “I was banished here a very long time ago and I need your assistance to return and take my revenge on those who wronged me. I spent eons crafting the lure that I sent into your world and just when I thought that pathetic specimen,” it indicated the young woman standing next to Strange, “was the best I was going to get, it has finally brought me one who is strong enough to end my incarceration.”

Grant hissed at Childermass, “Sent into our world? Help it get home? What the fuck is that thing and where is it from?”

Childermass shrugged. “As far as I can tell, it’s not so much a where as, well, I suppose you could call it another dimension.”

Grant felt a surge of anger rising in his chest. “And this place?”

“A bubble of sorts. Hidden between the planes of existence. Apparently constructed as a prison for our host.”

“You knew all this and didn’t think to tell us?” If Grant’s arms has not been pinned to his sides by invisible forces he would have swung at Childermass even harder than the last time. “What the fuck gives you the right…?”

They watched in trepidation as the creature came to a halt next to the opening in the wall.

”The door to my cell.” It gestured expansively as it took a step forward and its way was suddenly blocked by a veil of golden light. “Locked from the other side, of course. You, however, will find the key and open it for me.”

De Lancey gave an exaggerated shrug of his shoulders.

“Oh I’m sorry,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “I don’t know how to do that. May we go now?”

The creature seemed to loom over him, its voice becoming even more menacing. “Oh but you do know how. I have witnessed your remarkable talent.” It grasped his wrist and tried to force his hand into the light. “Open it!”

Grant glared at Childermass, the force of his anger not quite concealing his concern.

“What will happen to him?”

Childermass flinched as if he had been struck. He glowered back at Grant but avoided looking him in the eye and his reply was uncharacteristically meek. “I don’t know.”

Their new companion, who had introduced herself simply as Emma, suddenly found her voice.

“Oh now you don’t know.” She was seething with barely suppressed rage. “That’s just bloody brilliant. You finally manage to get this far and you have absolutely no idea what the hell you are doing. Fan-fucking-tastic. Let’s just put all these people’s lives on the line so you can prove a point to my pathetic excuse for a husband and his ridiculous little friend.”

In an attempt to diffuse the tension, Strange offered a hopeful “Perhaps it will let him go if he does what it wants,” but his cheery optimism was starting to rankle with Grant, who rolled his eyes and muttered, “If you believe that you’re even more naive than I thought you were.”

De Lancey was determined not to give in that easily. He could sense the evil emanating from this thing and had no intention of helping it to escape. He snatched his hand away and folded his arms.

“I won’t do it and you can’t make me!”

The creature sneered. “Oh can’t I? I might need you alive but the others are a different matter. Let’s see how much you care about your friends.”

It bared its pointed teeth in a grotesque facsimile of a smile and called to the shadows that still surrounded the group. “Bring me the fair one.”

As the formless entities propelled Grant forward to stand beside him, De Lancey scoffed, “Yeah right, like I care about him,” but his heart skipped a beat when the creature produced a peculiar-looking blade from the folds of its cloak and twirled it nonchalantly between its fingers.

“I am told that the pain this inflicts is quite excruciating,” it rasped.

De Lancey felt himself faltering as he realised what it was about the weapon that was so disconcerting – it seemed to absorb the light from its surroundings and left a glittering trail as it moved through the air, as if it were sucking out all the heat and making the moisture in the atmosphere coalesce into sparkling crystals of ice.

He dreaded to think what would happen when it came into contact with a living being and the idea of another person suffering when there was a way he could prevent it made him feel physically sick, particularly when that person had already saved his life twice and was only caught up in this mess because of him in the first place.

He sighed with resignation and was starting to move towards the curtain of light when the creature ripped open Grant’s shirt to hold the weapon against his chest, revealing a tattoo of a burning mountain and the words ‘Stand Fast’ emblazoned over his heart.

De Lancey froze and stared open-mouthed at Grant, who gave an almost imperceptible smile and shook his head, his lips forming a single word - don’t - as the weapon made contact with his skin.

The tip of the blade disappeared into Grant’s body. Although there was no blood and no physical wound, it seemed to warp the area around it and a network of dark lines began to spread out from the point where it entered.

Grant, however, did not so much as flinch.

Certain that this display of stoicism was intended as much for his own benefit as anyone else’s, De Lancey did his best to reflect Grant’s confidence and strength.

“You picked the wrong guy to torture,” he taunted, “Major Grant was in the Army, you know. He’s survived a lot worse than this and he’s sure as hell not going to give you the satisfaction of letting you know if you’re hurting him.”

“Is that so?” The creature hissed as it pushed the blade deeper.

A visible tremor ran through Grant’s body and a moan escaped his lips but he kept his gaze fixed on De Lancey’s face and the message in his dark eyes was clear – don’t you dare give in to this thing because of me.

“Well, well. It seems you really don’t care.” The creature twisted the obsidian handle and Grant’s face turned deathly pale, his features contorted in a spasm of agony. “Perhaps I’ll just kill this one and move on to the next, then. Tell me, how many deaths do you want on your conscience today?”

De Lancey couldn’t take any more. Seeing Grant suffer like this was bad enough but the thought that he would be denied the opportunity to make amends was too much to bear.

He reached one hand into the shimmering wall of light and a single mournful note echoed through the chamber.

“That’s better.” The creature pulled the blade from Grant’s flesh but kept it pressed against his chest. “Now if you would be so kind as to complete your task.”

The music began to swell as De Lancey sought out the chords that would allow him to open a passage through the veil and put an end to this, one way or the other. As he began to lose himself in the melody, tendrils of luminescence emerged from the tunnel and started to swirl around the creature, drawing it towards the opening.

“Wait!” Grant drew in a deep, shuddering breath and strained against his invisible bonds. His voice was ragged and hoarse and his eyes flashed with a rage that would instill fear in the bravest of men. “Let’s give this thing a taste of its own medicine.”

De Lancey gasped with disbelief when he realised what Grant was suggesting, but he reached out and grasped the major’s outstretched hand before the creature had a chance to react.

He cried out as he felt the full force of what Grant was experiencing but held on and let it surge through him, channelling the pain and anger into a crescendo of ear-splitting intensity. The lambent coils that had been guiding the creature turned a violent shade of crimson and tightened around its body, dislodging the weapon from its hand and trapping it in a glowing net that seemed to solidify as it constricted.

The shadows disappeared and, free to move at last, the others rushed to the edge of the pool. Childermass knelt down and touched the water and Strange watched as the surface rippled and shifted, providing a glimpse of a familiar room. He smiled and beckoned to Grant and De Lancey. “Lads,” he shouted, “we’ve got a way out!”

Grant flashed a triumphant grin and tugged at De Lancey’s hand.

“Come on,” he urged, “let’s get out of…” but his smile disappeared as he realised too late what he had done. By giving in to his desire to punish his tormentor, he had sealed his companion’s fate.

With a heavy heart, he understood that De Lancey wouldn’t be able to relinquish his position without releasing the creature and putting everyone in danger again and, what’s more, that he had known this when he took Grant’s hand and had done it anyway, giving up any hope of securing his own freedom to make sure they were safe.

“You stupid…” he berated himself as the grip on his fingers loosened and De Lancey whispered, “Go with them. I’ve got this.”

In his head, Grant knew it made sense. He tried to convince himself that he would be able to come back, that this wasn’t like before and De Lancey would be strong enough to hold on until he could find a way to make things right, but he could sense the fear and desperation beneath the younger man’s determined exterior and he simply couldn’t bring himself to let go.

“Damn it Grant, you’re one stubborn son of a bitch.” De Lancey was too tired to argue and his relief at not being left alone was palpable. The effort of keeping the creature confined was taking its toll and he sagged against Grant’s shoulder, his eyes coming to rest on the striking design of the tattoo and the words that now seemed all too relevant. Despite, or perhaps because of, the feeling that the end was near, his curiosity got the better of him.

“What is that anyway?” he asked. “An army thing?”

“A family thing.” Grant raised his eyebrows, surprised at De Lancey’s ability to make him feel at ease even as they faced an unknown fate. “It’s the clan crest.”

“You’re Scottish?” De Lancey chuckled, “Why, Major Grant I would never have guessed. Have you got a kilt? Are you a true Scotsman?”

“Aye,” Grant winked. The younger man’s humour was infectious and he had nothing left to lose. “Maybe I’ll show you when we get home.”

The mention of home set off a pang of regret and he looked away, determined that De Lancey shouldn’t see him waver. Strange and Emma were no longer in sight but Childermass was still kneeling by the edge of the water, his eyes closed in concentration and his hand resting on the rippling surface.

“For fuck’s sake. What the hell is he waiting for?”

His question was answered when Strange clambered back out of the water with something tucked under his arm. He ran over to them and set the box down on the ground, opening the lid to let the beams of light shoot into the darkness high above them.

“Emma’s idea,” he gasped as he tried to catch his breath. “She told me to mention amplifiers and feedback loops. I have no idea what she was on about but she said you’d understand.”

De Lancey’s puzzled frown transformed into a wide grin.

“Genius!” he exclaimed. “Sorry, Grant, I’m going to need my hand back.”

Sensing a moment of hesitation and recalling the memories of loss that had surfaced the first time they touched, he leant forward and kissed Grant’s trembling lips. “I’m not going anywhere. Trust me.”

Grant felt a surge of hope and certainty. He let go and watched De Lancey manipulate the beams of light with his slender fingers, drawing out glowing filaments from the two sources and using the last of his strength to weave them together. The creature twisted and writhed in pain as the eerie music from the box started to resonate with the sound of the blood-red strands that held it immobilized.

“Ready?” With one final flourish, De Lancey completed the circuit and collapsed, his eyes rolling back in his head.

Grant darted forward and caught him before he hit the ground. He tried to lift the inert form but the effects of his earlier torment had left him barely strong enough to stand.

Strange put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a reassuring smile. “Let me,” he said, gathering De Lancey into his arms and making for the pool as fast as his burden would allow. Grant stumbled after him without looking back, and with the creature’s shrieks of frustration and agony ringing in their ears, they stepped across the threshold between the worlds.

---------

Grant opened his eyes to the welcome sight of the Windmill’s ornate ceiling, partly obscured by the concerned faces of Bella, Wellesley, and Emma.

He turned his head and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Strange sitting on the floor with De Lancey cradled in his lap and Childermass on the other side, pale and shaking on his hands and knees.

Then he looked again and realised De Lancey was not moving, despite Strange’s efforts to elicit a response.

He crawled over to them and gently placed his hands either side of De Lancey’s face. His voice caught in his throat as he reached out for the presence he had become accustomed to.

“I can’t feel anything.”

Bella rushed over and positioned her fingers on De Lancey’s wrist. “It’s alright,” she said, ”he’s got a pulse, he’s breathing. I think he’s just unconscious.”

Grant looked at her and shook his head. “That’s not what I meant. I can’t feel anything. I can’t….”

De Lancey sat up with a start. His breath was coming in ragged gasps and there was an expression of such terror on his face that all Grant could do was put an arm around him and pull him into a strong embrace, murmuring softly, “It’s OK. We’re back. We’re safe.”

“Are we?” De Lancey looked up at him with frightened eyes. “How do you know this isn’t just a trick to make us think we’ve won? God, Grant, I don’t even know what’s real anymore.”

Grant held him close and kissed the top of his head. “This is real,” he said, “trust me.”