vervaceous: (shadow)
[personal profile] vervaceous
Title: Phoenix 6/?
Fandom: Harsh Realm
Rating: R for language, violence, and adult situations
Wordcount: 4,439
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 [ profile] _shades_; the plot is hers. I merely flesh it out.

When he wakes up again, everything's changed.

At first he thinks he's still dreaming, because the change is that subtle kind that comes in dreams, when you're in a familiar place or looking at a familiar thing and in every important respect it seems to be as you remember it, only it's not. It's different. It's changed. It's wrong, and it's at that point that the dream begins to skew itself horribly towards nightmare.

It's the same cold stone under his cheek. When he opens his eyes he's staring at the same stone wall. He shifts, groaning, his hand throbbing angrily and the hole in his jaw feeling cavernous. He's not sure how trustworthy any of his senses even are anymore. Because he'd heard Sophie's voice and in Harsh Realm, Sophie is dead.

Unless the rules really no longer apply, down here. Wherever here is.

He lifts his head, pushing himself up with his hands and groaning again at the stiffness in his joints. He's spent the last couple of years sleeping on the ground and many years before that where he wasn't always exactly in a feather bed, but this is somehow worse. He feels like he's been pummeled, beaten, tossed aside and left.

And when he pushes up to his hands and knees, he's sure that everything's changed.

The light is green.

It takes him another second or two to work out exactly why it's green, and then a leaf, serrated and delicate, drifts down in front of him and lands between his hands. More leaves, when he raises his head, a blanket of them covering the ceiling, creeping down the walls, vines thick and lush. Jungle-like, here in a stone passageway, where he feels sure there has never been any sunlight at all.

He picks up the leaf with his good hand and crushes it between his fingers. It's cool, wet, smearing green. He has no idea how to even begin speculating about what this might mean.

He manages to get to his feet, his knees trembling and feeling like they're hollow balls full of lukewarm water, and he hears a sharp rustle ahead of him, like something darting through foliage. What foliage? More than the vines? He stands his ground, his hand hovering close to his gun, but he doesn't know how much good it could even do, here. It had stopped the dog, or slowed it down, but that could have been luck. It could have been something else. The dog had had three heads.

He walks, his injured hand on the cool stone at his side, the leaves hissing softly overhead as if in a breeze that only they can feel.

He's been here before. Not here, but in a place where the rules worked according to their own logic. Looping endlessly back on itself like one of the carvings in the doorway. He lives in a world where he can walk through holes in the skin of things and come out somewhere else. He's seen ghosts and fairies and magic. So of course there are green leaves underground.

He coughs, muffling it with his hand. He's thirsty. And as soon as he thinks it he hears it: the distant sound of running water. He lifts his head in a sharp jerk, his throat instantly twice as dry, and it's easier than it should be to ignore the little warning voice in him.

Don't believe it. Don't. When has anything here been what it seemed to be?

But he's thirsty, and he's learned before through his own hard experience that thirst is its own kind of madness. He moves forward at a clumsy half run, hand still against the wall, and the vines are creeping down and down until his remaining fingers tangle with them and he has to pull his hand back and away. The passage curves and then curves again, extending in a shorter arc, and he follows it with no more thought for the shape of it. He's surrounded by green, running through a hall of green, like the most complete kind of maze in an English garden. All around him he smells plant flesh and wet earth, and ahead of him there's still the tantalizing, torturous sound of the water. He knows without even seeing it that it's cool and clear, flowing and burbling and crashing joyfully into itself. There are other noises under it, a faint rumble and an even fainter snorting and panting, but he doesn't even hear them or if he does he isn't aware of it.

Mike had always told him that he sucked ass at self-preservation.

He stumbles along the passage with ever-increasing eagerness, curving and turning and curving again, until finally a thick wall of tangled green vines blocks his path. The water is almost at a roar now, thundering in his ears. And over it, though he has no idea how it's possible that he should hear it, there's a soft, sweet call.

"Tom! Tom, come here! I have to show you something!"

"Sophie," he breathes, panting and hectic and heedless of his pain, at least for the moment. "Sophie!" He beats at the vines, tearing at them with his hands, and when the stumps of his fingers begin to bleed again he doesn't notice, red dropping gently onto green leaves. When he breaks through he's gasping for breath and his arms and cheeks are scratched, almost as though the vines had grown thorns to defend themselves as he'd ripped them away. When he breaks through it feels like being born. He trips on something he doesn't see and falls again, hands out to protect himself from the stone floor he's sure is rushing up to strike his face, but his palms sink into soft cool grass, thick and uncropped, his nose full of the living scent of damp soil. He lifts his head, dazed, and then he knows that the waterfall crashing into the small pool a short distance away is not the only source of the thunder.

Half of staying alive in the Realm is acting before you know that you need to. At the same instant that his gaze hits the water he rolls to the side, freshly aware of his bleeding hand and trying to protect it. There's still no sunlight, a distant part of himself notes, though the light here is brighter, and the water and the leaves glisten dully. But that's not what he really sees. What he really sees are the pounding hooves coming rapidly towards him, one set and then another and another in a tangled chaos that would be impossible to sort through. He lifts his head again and sees a flashing line of shifting, rushing silver bodies, the tossing and clacking of antlers, but he can't pick out any one animal. It's a solid mass of running, panting flesh and hides, and the smell of the dirt is obscured by the animal musk, sweat, dung. They're so close. They're trampling over where he had been and he can see the clods of dirt and grass torn up by their relentless hooves and tossed heedlessly away. He buries his face in the grass and moans.

Fucking deer.

After an inestimable length of time the noise fades and finally ceases and he looks up again, staring at the swath of trampled grass, brown and torn and destroyed. And then he forgets about it entirely and stares past it at where he is.

It's another cavern, or it would be, if it still didn't have that sense of constructed regularity that the rest of the labyrinth has had. But the regularity is hidden and disguised by the size of it, by the ivy overgrowing almost every inch of wall and most of the ceiling. There's no stone floor to be seen, just grass and soil and here and there a few stones, and at the far end of the chamber is the pool he'd caught a glimpse of before the stampede, and the waterfall tumbling and cascading into it.

And where the waterfall comes from... out of a crack high in the wall, wide and dark. And beyond that he can't see.

There's a flash of bare pale feet, the flutter of a white dress, and he shoves himself up off the grass with his eyes wide and wild. He knows that dress. He saw it once, the last night with her. He never saw her wear it. Her blond hair is flying as she runs, and once she looks back over her shoulder and smiles at him. Her smile was the first thing he'd seen when he looked at her and it was the hook that dug into him and reeled him in. It's pulling at him now, and when it tugs into him it tears at his flesh. He's going to run, going to follow her, but she turns lightly on her toes like a dancer and the vines swallow her, and she's gone with her voice like a breath of air lingering behind her.


He lets out a quiet sob and coughs, tottering on his feet and almost pitching back down into the grass. But his body is greedy and single-minded, and soon the sound and the sight of the water obscures everything else he's feeling. He makes his shaky way towards it over trampled ground and then the mossy rocks around the pool, and he can feel the cool air drifting up from its surface, moist with just the lightest spray.

If he can just drink. Drink and rest a while. And then maybe he can find her again. His shirt is still stained with Mike's blood, with his own blood, but when he tries briefly to think back, he's no longer even sure who Mike is. Was? Maybe. He drops to his knees on a broad stone and stares down into the water. It's so clear. he can see right to the bottom. He can see the smooth, water-shaped stones lying at the bottom of the pool, and they seem almost to shine, like dull gems. He lowers a hand and scoops up the water in his palm, lifts it to his lips, which part and tremble.


He almost doesn't hear her over the roar of the falls, but then she says it again, more insistently, and he turns to look at her. She's standing there in her white dress, not her wedding dress but something light and summery, her feet bare and her cornsilk hair loose around her shoulders.

"Don't drink it, Tom."

"I'm thirsty," he croaks, but he can't take his eyes off her. She's there and so beautiful she makes him ache. He's missed her missed her so much that he's forgotten how much, because to be constantly aware of that would be its own kind of torture.

She drops into a crouch and reaches for him, her hand cool and soft on his heated brow, and he closes his eyes, his hand still cupped with the water tricking slowly out between his fingers.

"If you drink it, you'll forget everything. You'll forget me."

"Sophie," he whispers, and he squeezes his eyes shut, because it hurts too much, his thirst and the sureness that he's already begun to forget her, that he's been in this place too long and soon she'll become less and less real to him. A ghost in a ghost of a world.

"Come with me, Tom." She takes his uninjured hand in hers and tugs him gently upward and he manages to get to his feet, knees trembling. "I'll take care of you."

He sags against her and she curls her arms around him, holds him up with a strength he wouldn't have suspected in her, He turns his head against the hollow of her throat and he smells soap and lilacs, the light scent of her sweat. She isn't a ghost. She's as real as anything he's ever touched, and he wants to stop circling the labyrinth, chasing a long-forgotten goal through the stone passages. He wants to be cared for by her. She had told him that he would forget and that's what he wants. Everything but her.

"All right," he whispers, broken. The deer had run so fast. "All right."

She holds his hand and leads him away from the pool, away from the roar of the falls, and when they reach one of the ivy-covered walls she reaches out her hand and parts it like a curtain. Through the leaves he sees a room, small and warm, a fire burning through a grate, a soft couch--and he recognizes it as their first couch, bought secondhand from a friend for eighty dollars, the same stain on the left arm. And beyond, a bed. A bed big enough for the two of them.

He lets out a long breath, and when she leads him past the curtain of vines he goes without a second's hesitation. If you asked him whose blood it was that stained his shirt, he would only have replied with a slight and confused frown.

* * *

Florence doesn't know how late it is when they finally reach the camp. How late or how early. There's no line of dawn on the horizon, not yet, but she knows they've been walking for hours, and Lisa is half asleep at her side, Florence putting out a hand to steady her when she stumbles, Dexter trotting steadily at their heels. Florence is tired, tired than she remembers being in a while, and when she sees the lights ahead of them and the dim shapes of tents and low buildings, she feels a flush of relief. Maybe there can be food and rest, now.

But she doesn't really think so. Ash knows who she is. And he knows she'll tell the others. So it's the meet and greet routine again, most likely. She's never begrudged it. People need their hope, and to a degree, they need their heroes and their gods.

But she's so tired.

"We're close," Ash says, glancing back at them as he walks ahead, and though Florence can't see his face in the darkness she can feel his gaze shifting to Lisa. "Is she okay?"

"'M fine," Lisa murmurs, and Florence nods. She doesn't really believe it, but she recognizes that kind of stubbornness, and she'll respect it. It's not like it's at all unfamiliar. And it's only weariness, and in the end weariness is one of the easiest things there is to heal.

"We've been living out here almost since everything fell apart," says Ash, pausing long enough to give them a chance to draw alongside him. "Once it started getting hairy... a bunch of us figured we should be ready." Half shadowed in the starlight, she sees him grin. "My people have been here longer than anyone else. We can survive anything."

She nods again and smiles. She knows the sentiment. It's a feeling common to so many these days, not the feeling of long place but the feeling of roachlike toughness. If you've lived this long, you'll hold out. Starving, sick, and miserable, but you'll keep going. She's heard it from the leaders of settlements, camps, resistence movements. We're here to stay. Nothing's gonna burn us out. Not Santiago, not nothin'.

We keep moving, Mike had said once, because it's what we do.

She thinks Mike would have liked this man.

When she hears the coyote call she starts but relaxes when she realizes what it is, though a little shiver runs through her--the coyote, standing in the road and looking at her as though it knew exactly who she was and what she was looking for. But she starts again when Ash stops and lifts his head, barking his own echoing call into the waning night. Dexter whines softly but otherwise keeps silent. A few seconds and there's a response, closer, though she can't see anything in the desert around them and Ash motions for them to keep moving.

"The watch," he says. "They know who we are now." He smiles thinly. "They won't shoot us."

Oh. She supposes that's a relief.

The camp, when they enter it, is quiet and mostly sleeping. They walk between two tents, past flanking and equally drowsy looking guards with rifles on their knees. Here and there the last coals of a campfire are dying. In the distance, towards the center of the encampment, are two or three low and blocky buildings.

"They were the start," Ash says quietly. "Then we started getting so many people, tents seemed more practical. Never know when we all might have to move on. The people in the city..." He smiles, thin and tight. "They're not crazy about us being out here. They deal, 'cause we contribute, but if they really thought they could take us they'd probably give it a try."

Florence nods. This, too, is familiar. People now can't organize, can't cooperate. Left fighting over scraps. When a few of them unite around a leader, the others are threatened. She remembers Cincinnati.

What they need is a leader to unite everyone.

They stop in front of one of the low buildings, and through some ragged curtains a dim light is burning,cousin to the rheumy yellow lantern hung over the door. Lisa is swaying gently on her feet and Florence pulls her a little closer with an arm around her skinny shoulders, reaching out and touching Ash's hand. When he turns she nods down at the girl, giving him a significant look.

She needs rest.

"Oh, shit." His mouth twists ruefully. "I totally forgot. Hey, Jessie." A man sitting on a box by the door of the house looks up suddenly, and Ash lets out an exasperated laugh. "You sleepin' on post again? Christ, Jessie, the old man's gonna have your ass for his footstool."

"He won't if you don't say nothin'," Jessie snorts, scrubbing a hand over his face. "What the fuck you want?"

"The kid here needs a bed." He gestures to Lisa, and Florence pushes her lightly forward. She goes, yawning and rubbing her eyes. "She's asleep on her feet. Take care of her, huh?"

"I'm not a fucking babysitter," Jessie grumbles, but he holds his arm out for the girl, kindly enough, and Florence is sure that Lisa is known here. Not one of them... it doesn't feel like that. But kin to them. An outcast from outcasts. Lisa takes Jessie's arm without hesitation and they disappear into one of the nearby tents. Dexter hesitates a second or two, looking up at Florence as if asking permission, before he trots after them.

"She'll be fine," Ash says, watching them go with a faint smile on his face. "Jessie like to pretend to be an asshole but he's got a soft spot for her. Hell, pretty much everyone does." He turns back to Florence. "You stay here. The old man should know about you."

Florence isn't sure what to make of that but she stays where she is as Ash knocks quietly at the door and enters a second later, whether of his own accord or in response to a signal she can't discern. She's swaying a little bit herself, if it comes to that, and she instinctively covers her own yawn with her hand. She can run for two, three days without sleep when she has to, but a lot has happened.

Too much. Her mouth tightens but she won't cry. She'll cry when there's time for it.

Ash opens the door and emerges, ducking his head slightly to get through the low doorway. He lifts a hand and beckons to her. "C'mon in. He wants to see you."

She goes. She can lift her heavy feet a few steps more.

Inside the house is a single room, combined kitchen and living room and bedroom. A Coleman camp stove, an old wooden table and a couple of benches, an army cot. Books. More books than Florence has seen in years, more than even the old hermit had had, piled in corners and on a rickety shelf and on the table. Sitting at the table is an ancient man, features almost lost in sun-dried wrinkles and his head barely covered by the last remaining strands of wispy white hair.

"You," he croaks, and Florence simply stands. She's not sure what she should be confirming, but there's nothing to deny. She is herself.

He laughs, a dry throaty cackle, and motions her closer. "Come on, sweetheart. I'm old. Don't make me squint any more than I am already."

She half smiles, thin and dry as his laugh, and moves further into the room. He peers at her through eyes milky with cataracts, and she feels the gaze keenly. But it's not unpleasant. He's weighing. Gaging. Trying to be sure of what he's dealing with.

"Ashkii here says that you came with a man," he says at length. "Where is he?"

"I told you, Eli," Ash says. "She doesn't talk."

"I know she doesn't talk, you little shit." Eli pauses and coughs long and loud into an old handkerchief. "She's probably been like that a long time. I'm guessing she's found ways to work around it." He smiles at her, his eyes narrow and shrewd. "Anyone who's made it this far in the Realm, I think they can probably work around a lot."

Florence returns the smile, wider. She can feel herself easing under the weariness. This, too, is someone she thinks she can trust. She inclines her head back towards the door, angles her hand like the hillside. Makes a door of her hands, and opens it. Eli watches her carefully, and when she's done he nods.

"This is serious, then, if he's there." He glances at Ash. "Bring her some paper and a pencil. On that shelf over there."

Ash brings her the paper, the pencil, clears a place for her at the table opposite Eli, all without a word. The old man seems anything but formal, but she senses from Ash a profound deference, and it's not surprising. It's clear what role Eli is playing. She remembers Lisa speaking. The Elders.

She writes for several minutes, and Eli and Ash watch her. When she's finished she lays the pencil down and hands the paper across the table. Eli squints harder at it, and for a few more minutes there's silence.

Finally he sets the paper down and looks up. "So he's gone to do what you meant to do. Contact the Maintainers."

Florence nods.

"He might be the one promised from the East," Eli growls. "But he's a damn fool. No one can reach the Maintainers. Not unless they want to be reached."

Florence cocks her head, trying to express curiosity. She's heard what Mike had told her, and she'd heard the whispers of others. But there are still many things in the Realm about which she knows very little.

"They control their own little pocket of the game," says Eli, getting slowly and groaningly to his feet, reaching for a cane leaning against the wall. He bats away Ash's hand and moves over to the stove, setting a small tin kettle on one of the burners and turning it on. "They can change time, space... make you see things. Feel things. Anything they want. And there isn't anything they don't know."

Florence frowns slightly. This isn't exactly what she'd heard. And if it's true...

"Your friend is in a lot of danger." Eli turns and holds up a gnarled hand. "And before you ask, no, we can't help him. No one can, not now."

Florence hesitates, hands fidgeting on the table, but she nods. She isn't surprised. She'd known it already, that there would come a time when he would move out of her reach, and no matter how much she might want to help him, it wouldn't be her place.

"All we can do now is wait. If he's digitized, we have ways of knowing." Eli waves a dismissive hand. "Go now. I can see you're tired. Ashkii will show you where you can sleep."

Ash nods and motions towards the door, and Florence gets reluctantly to her feet and picks up her pack. Just sitting had been an incredible pleasure. But if there's sleep ahead of her she thinks she can move a little more.

Outside the dawn is breaking over the desert, pale and cool, and a breeze caresses her face as she steps through the door. She closes her eyes momentarily, smelling fresh earth and clean dust, alien smells but good. Out here, the world still seems less touched by disaster. It's easy to look at the camp and feel hope. But then she thinks of Tom, facing dangers she can't even imagine, and the hope doesn't vanish but it quavers.

And she thinks of Mike.

"Come on," Ash says quietly. The camp is stirring around her, people emerging from tents and setting fires for breakfast cooking, but she barely notices now. Ash ushers her into a small tent, where Lisa is already dead to the world on a bedroll, Dexter curled up beside her. There's another bedroll, and she hardly has her boots off and her pack laid down before her eyes are closing.

* * *

Sleep, Sophie whispers, and he does. Or he will, but she's slipping into bed beside him, the sheets so soft and the mattress like sleeping on air. Like no bed he's ever slept in before. He turns towards her, and he doesn't remember cleaning up but he's clean nonetheless, all the blood and grime washed away. His hand freshly bandaged. Naked as he presses against her, and there's no more sign of her white dress. She curves, as soft as the sheets, slips a leg between his and kisses the corner of his mouth.

"I love you, Tom."

"Sophie," he whispers, like he can't believe it's real, but he does. He wants to. He threads his hands into her hair and kisses her, kisses her until they're both gasping, her breast a gentle weight in his palm. She's exactly the same as that last night, yeilding and pliant under him, but arching up, demanding when she wants to be, pulling him into her with her hands tight on his hips and breathing out something that sounds like a curse, only she says it like a blessing.

I love you, Sophie. He moves in her, repeating her name in a kiss against her mouth, her cheek, her throat. He loves her.

He loves her, and he's never going to leave her again.
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