vervaceous: (shadow)
[personal profile] vervaceous
Title: Phoenix 13/13
Fandom: Harsh Realm
Rating: R for language, violence, and adult situations
Summary: Mike, Florence, and Tom travel to Arizona in search of the Maintainers, godlike programs that hold ultimate power over the code of the Realm. But things go horribly wrong, and Tom finds himself making a desperate journey into a world far outside his experience--a world from which he may not be able to return.
Note: I owe a huge debt here to [livejournal.com profile] _shades_; the plot is hers. I merely flesh it out.


Abe comes down the stairs in a rush just as they're pushing out through the back door, a bloody graze along one cheekbone but otherwise seemingly unharmed. "Go!" he cries, pushing at them, turning to fire back through the front hall. There's a snarl and a grunt and the sound of splintering wood. "They're coming through. Praise everything they didn't think to come around the back." He laughs wildly, and Florence feels the echo of it bubble through her own chest. Beside her, Margie is weeping in the most stoic way that Florence thinks she's ever seen.

"My house," she murmurs. "Oh, no. No."

"The shed," Ash cries. "Come on, we have to cross in the open. Run!"

They run in a dusty stumbling clot, Abe bringing up the rear, the shed looming in front of them. This isn't going to work, Florence thinks. There were too many of them. It was a good effort, but... She thinks of the buffalo calf, those blue eyes, the soft velvet of its hide, and she feels something go cold inside her. I'll put a bullet in your head before I leave you for him.

Mike.


They rush into the cool dimness of the shed, Abe pulling the door to, and there in a faint shaft of light, the calf raises its head and meets Florence's gaze. I'm sorry, she thinks.

And as she crouches beneath one of the shed's two windows, Ash beneath the other, the calf looks back at her and what she sees... what she hears...

That can't be right.

It's gonna be fine. I've got this.

I made a deal.



* * *



Choose, Tom Hobbes.

"I can't." He lifts his head, hands loose and useless between his bent knees, the world a blurry mess in his vision--and maybe that's for the best. He can't see them. They feel less real. The truth of them can't cut as deep. "I can't do that. I can't make that kind of choice. Why the fuck would you give it to me?"

Because the Simple Man must be able to make choices such as these.

"Well, maybe I'm not the fucking Simple Man!" He snarls it, spits it out like poison, pain and hate mixing into something that burns in his chest and mouth. "I never wanted this! Any of it! I wanted to fucking... marry my girl, I wanted to have a house, kids, I wanted to live my fucking life. And since I got here all I wanted to do was go the fuck home."

In that case, Tom Hobbes, your choice should be very easy.

"But I..." He trails off, head lowered again. Behind the incoherent mess of agony and rage, he's thinking. Santiago. Sophie.

Just don't hurt me. I think you need help. And in the end, a flash of recognition... but not love. Not the recognition that comes when you know someone. Only the flash of light that comes with the first beginnings of hope.

Sophie Green as she had been in Santiago City was a simulacrum, a shade. Not his. Not ever his. Only an approximation.

Santiago. I can go home. I can have it all back.

Mike can go home, too.

Mike.


Palming tears out of his eye, he makes himself look back and up, swallowing the hard stab of pain that comes when he does. Mike, there on the wall... sleeping, or so it looks, but now... is that his imagination? The slight furrow in his brow, as though he were dreaming about something that requires concentration.


* * *



Florence can hear panting from outside, low and rough, and she knows that what they've walked into is a killzone. Worse. If Rusk wants to try to fight his way inside, they might be able to hold him off, at least for a while. But now she can smell smoke, hear a fire crackle, and she knows. really, it's a little surprising that he hadn't tried this before while they'd still been in the house, while both his prizes had been separate.

"You got the fucking buffalo in there, don't you," he growls through the door, his voice tight, sounding pained. Angry. Amused. "I wanted it alive, I won't lie. It and you, you tight-lipped dyke bitch. But you cost me way too many men. So I'll settle for taking you both out at once."

Ash is cursing, low and harsh, barely audible over Margie, who is huddling close to Abe, whispering to him. What might be goodbye. They had been so sure, Florence thinks, so sure that something would come and protect them all, some miracle.

But she hasn't taken her eyes off the calf, off its milky hide, its blue human eyes, and now as she watches it struggles to its spindly legs, trembling as it tries to stand. "Christ," Ash whispers, falling silent mid-swear, and now Margie and Abe are looking too, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, faces glowing.

The door is beginning to smolder and smoke, flames licking along the bottom of it, stretching delicate tongues out toward the walls. The wood is dry, sun-baked. It'll burn quickly.

Florence stares into the calf's eyes, and they seem to twinkle with wry amusement.

Watch this. Better be worth it, what I had to give up.

It's like a sudden violent wind, a hot palm across the face. The calf drops onto its knees and the whiteness of its hide seems to explode outward, rushing out to and through the walls of the shed. There's a loud, hard whumph, a smell of cooking meat, a scream, and the walls of the shed turn to cinders and fall away, and Florence looks up. They're in the eye of a firestorm, a tower of flame moving out and up and all around them, and Rusk and his last remaining two men are horrible flailing things, barely visible, staggering and falling and going out. Florence feels the heat on her face, tightening the skin, but it's not much more than the heat from a close campfire, almost comfortable. She kneels there, staring out at the flames, her hands clasped between her knees. Vengeance is mine, she thinks--or maybe hears--and laughs silently.

She goes on laughing a long time after the fire has died down into the ring of coals that were the shed, and she only stops when she turns and sees, beyond Ash's shellshocked face, beyond Margie and Abe and the way they're clutching each other, caught between terror and joy, the charred skeleton of the buffalo calf.

Then she doesn't laugh at all.


* * *



"Fuck you," Tom whispers. It takes a struggle, the kind of effort that leaves him panting and sweating, knees weak enough to collapse and send him tumbling down again at any moment, but he moves forward, and then a little more, hands outstretched. "Fuck you. Fuck you for doing this to me, fuck you for putting me through all this shit and then sticking this in front of me like you're doing me some kind of big fucking favor. You hear me? Fuck you."

He still can't see them, his buffet of choices, who he's reaching for. Again he hears the unanimous chorus of voices, still with that maddening faint edge of amusement.

You cannot goad us into giving something up, Tom Hobbes. Choose now. Or suffer the withdrawal of any choice at all.

"Too fucking late," Tom breathes. Because he can see it now, clearly, though his vision is still hazy and blurred: the choice was made for him before he even set foot through the door in the hillside. The truth of what he's here for. Not Sophie, the dream of Sophie, who is feeling more and more indistinct, who was before the spider used her skin as bait. So then Mike or Santiago.

Friend or enemy.

I've lost so much, he whispers, he thinks, he feels. Forgive me, but I'm so fucking tired of losing. He fumbles forward, reaching out with his ruined hand, and the room dissolves around him.


* * *



The sun wakes him. At first he can't decide why it should feel so strange; then he knows: it's the sheer novelty of it, the freshness, sun after a sunless age. A sunless dream. He stretches, groaning softly at the ache in his limbs, blinking up at the sky.

Blinking two eyes.

Tom lets out a breath, turns--the ground is bare under him, pebbles and sticks, though he's not yet awake enough for it to really be uncomfortable. He feels bare skin on bare skin--a body tucked against his, naked and sleeping. It stirs, sighs, shifts closer and turns to face him. He lets out a breath.

Mike.

Mike stirs again, opens his eyes and freezes.

The movement, when it comes, is in unison and all in a flurry, both of them scrambling back, staring; then Tom is reaching forward--hand whole and well and unscarred--and Mike shies away. His gaze is icy. Disbelieving. Enraged.

"You didn't," he breathes. "You fucking didn't."

And Tom doesn't know what to say to that. Sitting there in the desert morning, naked and healed and alive, there might not be anything to say.


* * *



The next few hours are hazy. Later he remembers them in bits and fragments, somehow less real and less substantial than any of his time underground. Getting to his feet; the novelty of being whole and well and without pain but for a few scratches on his legs and some stiffness in his muscles. Looking around, seeing the rows of tents and low buildings clustered in the distance.

Turning to Mike. The way Mike won't look at him.

They make their way across the flat together, not speaking, barefoot in the dust. Ordinarily Tom would be blushing and flustered at his own nudity, but just now he supposes that he's mostly past caring. Only they have to get some sort of cover soon, with the sun high and getting higher.

Mike. His focus is on Mike, even without looking at him. The sounds of his movement, his breath. Mike, alive, and so angry that it's boiling off him like steam. Maybe angrier than he's ever seen him. So it's sort of ironic that now, he doesn't really care. Mike can be angry. That's fine. If he's angry he's not dead.

Yards from the camp--or maybe it's a village, he can't be quite sure and it seems neither entirely permanent nor entirely transitory--they're spotted, and people rush to meet them, pointing, talking excitedly in words too distant to yet make out. "They'll have water," Tom says softly, and laughs. "Clothes."

Mike grunts and says nothing. But then he stills next to Tom, staring; Tom pauses and follows his line of sight and takes a hard breath.

A woman hurrying toward them, breaking into a run, lanky and strong and short-haired and wonderfully familiar, her face twisted with more emotion than he thinks he's ever seen there before. A little dog running at her heels, yapping with excited joy. Tom drops into a crouch, holding out his hands, and Dexter leaps against him, licking his face, grinning a dog-grin.

And Florence falls against Mike, arms around him, her face against his neck, and from where he crouches Tom can feel the rage subsiding and replaced with something else, Mike's hands against her back, murmuring something that Tom can't hear. That he understands isn't meant for him.

He doesn't think he's ever seen Florence cry before.


* * *



"You're leaving."

It's not a question. Florence looks up from the fire and nods at Ash, favoring him with a faint smile. Something of apology in it. Across the fire, leaning on each other in silence, are Abe and Margie. They're leaving too, they've determined; going back to the ruin of their house, back to build it up and make it new again. Florence had raised an eyebrow at that, but at least they won't be going back alone. Ash had volunteered, among others. And now, dropping into a crouch at her side, he doesn't sound surprised. Not even particularly upset. But there's an edge of regret in his tone all the same.

"You could stay a while," he offers, though she can tell that he knows it's only a gesture. "We could use help. You'd have a place here, never mind what Eli thinks--"

She lays a hand on his arm, gently shakes her head, still smiling.

"I know," he murmurs, and shakes his head too, clearly chiding himself. "Shit. Okay. I know." He covers her hand with his, and for a moment he's silent. "You're... really something," he says at last. "I can tell you're not interested. I won't push it. But any time you and your friends need anything, I'm here. No hesitation, no questions asked."

She doesn't think about it, doesn't debate it with herself--with those words, she supposes, the danger of leading him on has largely dissipated. She leans in, presses a brief kiss to the corner of his mouth, and gives his arm a final squeeze before releasing him.

"Florence!"

She looks up; a few yards away, Lisa is running toward her, Dexter trotting at her heels and barking happily.

"I taught him to catch a ball in the air, Florence. Look!"

And just for the briefest of moments, Florence wishes that a great many things were different.


* * *



Sunset over the desert, brilliantly red. In the distance, the lights of Phoenix are coming on one by one, little stars in a mirrored sky. Tom sits on the top of a low outcropping and watches them, the fingers of one hand worrying the fingers of his other--really there, really whole again--and when he hears a familiar step behind him he doesn't turn.

"I think they want us moving on ASAP," Tom says quietly. "They're too polite to say it, though."

Mike grunts but otherwise says nothing.

"I tried to get some of them to come with us," Tom continues, pushing through the silence. "I figure... place like this, maybe it's exactly what we've been looking for. But that old guy, Eli... he just laughed at me. Said 'not that way'. He wouldn't tell me what he meant."

"Coulda meant you had your fucking chance and you blew it," Mike says, flat and cold, and Tom turns on him, frowning, an ache behind his breastbone that he doesn't really care to look at too hard.

He's so tired of hurting.

"I made the choice I had to make, Pinocchio," he says, still quiet. Weary. "You weren't down there with me. You didn't go through the shit I did."

"No? And who's to say you were the only one who went through shit down there, dick?"

There's a tightness in Mike's voice that makes Tom pause in the middle of opening his mouth to answer, searching Mike's face, though it's expressionless and impenetrable as ever.

"Typical," Mike says, and lets out a soft, scornful laugh. "You gotta blunder your way into everything, fix shit you don't even try to understand. You weren't down there with me. You don't know what I--" He shakes his head and looks away, out toward the last of the bloody sunlight, teeth working his lower lip moodily. The scorn is gone now, as far as Tom can tell, replaced by a kind of exhaustion, a kind of sadness that he doesn't think he's ever seen Mike Pinocchio wear before. "I was waiting for this. You took it away from me. And you couldn't even finish the fucking game."

There's a long silence. Tom doesn't break it. He doesn't know if he has the strength. The last of the sun vanishes behind the horizon, leaving a red smear behind it. Tom thinks about Mike's blood spilling over his hands, staining his shirt. Mike's bloody fingers against his cheek. That last touch, the look on his face, a kind of goodbye that he hadn't even known Mike was capable of.

"I wanted you back," Tom breathes. "I... I needed you."

The sound that escapes Mike isn't a laugh; for a moment Tom mistakes it for such, perhaps because he's expecting it. But it's nothing like a laugh, not really. It's a soft exhalation, an edge of voice... more like a sob.

Tom doesn't turn. Mike gets up, abruptly and without a word, and starts to walk away, back toward the camp.

"Mike."

The sound of his footfalls pauses. He still doesn't speak.

"It was worth it. For you. I'm not sorry."

He's not sure what it is--a kind of defiance, a kind of reaching out. Desperate. Confused. Certain. Mike stands a few seconds more, then starts to walk again. Tom looks out and then up at the sky, already blazing with stars, more than he could have believed were out here. Back east, the stars look dimmer, less numerous. He realizes that part of him had stopped really believing in them.

And yet here they are. Here they all are, brilliant as ever.

"I'm not sorry," he whispers again. The ghost of Sophie Green sleeps in her block of ice, and the game goes on. Tom sits under the stars and looks up at them in silence until Florence comes to him, touches his shoulder, gently leads him back to the camp. Dexter. Mike. The road, soon enough.

Not that way, Eli had said. So another way, then.

And he's not sorry about any of it.

-end-
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