vervaceous: (shadow)
[personal profile] vervaceous
Title: Phoenix 7/?
Fandom: Harsh Realm
Rating: R for language, violence, and adult situations
Wordcount: 4,034
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.


She's awakened by a noise outside, and for a moment or two she's still too close to sleep to be sure what it is or exactly where it's coming from. She turns onto her back and blinks at the ceiling of the tent. It's a strange feeling. She's always been able to come awake almost instantly, ready for whatever might be coming at her. It's a talent and a survival skill. But now she feels muzzy and confused. She looks to the side; Lisa's bedroll is empty, Dexter is gone. Sunlight is shining pale and diffuse through the fabric of the tent.

She sits up, rubbing her eyes. It feels late, though that may simply be the disorientation of having slept long and deeply. A few more moments, sitting, collecting herself, and she pulls her boots on, gets to her feet and opens the tent flap.

Outside, it's bustling and fairly noisy, people cooking and talking and somewhere a woman singing. Children chase each other between the tents, shrieking and laughing. No sign of Lisa but Florence isn't worried. This place still feels safe.

She looks up at the sky; a high sun, perhaps just past noon. A woman in front of the tent across from hers is doing laundry with an old-fashioned washboard and tub, soapy water up around her elbows, and suddenly Florence is freshly aware of her own dirtiness, the clothes that she hasn't washed or even changed in days. Filth is just a fact of life here, and it stopped really bothering her a long time ago--it was that or go insane. But now, face to face with another option, it's hard to keep herself from aching with desire.

But she has other things to do. She turns away and starts to walk through the camp, keeping a keen eye out. If she can't find him she'll go to Eli, and she'll see what they want from her.

Because they will want something. They always do.

"Florence!"

She turns, already knowing who it'll be, and Lisa is coming towards her with Dexter in her arms, looking happier and healthier than the day before. Florence smiles faintly. "I was wondering when you'd get up. Ash said I should let you sleep. Did you sleep okay?"

Florence nods. Ash. She needs to ask about that. But Lisa is already talking again, and Florence sees that here, in this place, she's strangely transformed. It's more than health and rest; Lisa is happier here, more herself. The fear in her face is gone and though her bruises are still dark and angry, they seem to somehow take up less space on her skin.

"He told me he didn't know your name, so I told him. He wanted to talk to you when you were up. But you should eat. Do you want to eat?"

Florence nods, then shakes her head. Not now. She nods towards the buildings, towards the one she'd been in the night before, her expression turning inquiring. Lisa understands and nods.

"He's talking to Eli. They've been in there all morning. C'mon, I'll take you." She starts off in the direction of the buildings, glancing back over her shoulder. Dexter squirms, and she pauses long enough to put him down again.

"I'll get you something to eat when you're there."

Florence smiles. She isn't going to bother trying to turn that down. She is hungry, maybe hungrier than she'd realized, and she's learned through long experience to take food and rest when she can get it. She follows Lisa, and as she does she feels eyes on her, sees glances and cautious, surreptitious looks out of the corner of her eyes. A place like this, news travels fast. Who knows what they all think?

She has some guesses. She bets they're pretty good ones.

In the daylight, the inside of the building is darker and more cavelike than she remembers, more cluttered with books and a hundred other things. Ash and Eli are seated at the table, heads together in what is obvious close consultation, but they both look up as she an Lisa enter, and Ash's expression turns reproachful.

"Lisa... c'mon, you know you're supposed to knock."

Lisa flushes. "Sorry, Ash... but it's..." She glances up at Florence. "She's up. You said you wanted to talk to her."

"I did." Ash sighs. "It's okay. Please," and he raises a hand to Florence, motioning her closer. "Come sit down. Things have been happening."

Florence obeys the summons, scrubbing a hand back through her short-cropped hair, again finding herself hoping for a chance to wash. She's instantly annoyed at it. There are more important things to worry about at the moment. Judging by Ash and Eli's faces, things she may not even be aware of. She takes a seat beside Ash, across from Eli, and waits to listen with her hands folded on the table.

Ash looks to Eli and then back at her again, eyes dark in the dim light of the room, and for a moment Florence can see how truly young he is. Younger than Tom. He just doesn't always look it. There's a sense about him of an innocence that was lost a long time ago.

Some unseen signal from Eli appears to spur him into action and he clears his throat, his fingers fidgeting slightly on the pitted wooden tabletop.

"There was a birth last night," he says. "Apparently it happened not too long after you got here. It's a ways away from the camp, but it's people who are still part of our tribe, and they sent word."

Florence's eyebrows rise slightly. There's something about how he says it. A birth. She can't quite parse it, but she's guessing that it isn't an everyday kind of thing. She leans forward, nodding for him to continue, and she can feel Eli's eyes on her. Measuring her. Ash opens his mouth as if to say something more and then closes it again, shaking his head.

"It's better if I show you. We'll go there after you eat some breakfast." He glances up as he says the word, waving a beckoning hand, and when Florence turns to look Lisa is walking into the room and carrying a steaming bowl in her hands, smiling a little nervously.

"It's rabbit," she says, setting it on the table in front of Florence and pulling a spoon out of the pocket of her ragged jeans. "It was kind of a skinny rabbit. But it's good."

Florence takes the spoon with a smile she hopes is sufficiently kind, and Eli waves a distracted hand. "Good, girl. Leave us now." Lisa falters slightly but she nods her head, really almost a bow, and withdraws through the door. When she opens it, the strength of he sunshine in the dimness of the room makes Florence squint with discomfort.

"Eat," says Eli, motioning to the bowl, and Florence begins to do so. Eli doesn't give her the sense that he's used to being disobeyed, and she wouldn't disobey anyway; her belly is lurching with hunger and the stew tastes every bit as good as it smells.

"There's still the matter of your friend," says Ash. "If he's gone to the Maintainers, there's little we can do for him directly. He's in a kind of danger we can't protect him from. But there's other dangers besides the ones he'll find in their world. There's Rusk, just to name one."

Florence looks up sharply, spoon frozen in her hand. Somehow, in everything else, she's almost forgotten the men at the rockface, the ruthlessness in their eyes. She frowns.

"He won't stop at that shit last night. If he really thinks your friend's gone into that cave, there's no telling for sure what he'll do. He's a powerful man, and he's not exactly stable in the head. We don't think he has access to the Maintainers himself, but like I said..." Ash shrugs unhappily. "We're just not sure what he's capable of."

Florence nods. From what little Mike had told her, she'd gleaned that much. Powerful, capricious, dangerous. She'd seen that firsthand.

Mike had been nervous about the meeting. He hadn't told her, hadn't shown her, and he would have taken a bullet rather than let Tom know--and isn't that ironic now--but she had been able to tell.

"We have people in the city," says Eli, fixing her steadily with his rheumy gaze. "They're keeping us informed about his movements. But we should be ready for him to try something." His mouth twists. "If only we could know what that something might be."

"But first," Ash says, and he's fidgeting just a little in his seat, as though suddenly uneasy, "we should show you... well. You'll see. As soon as you've finished your food."

"Yes, you do that." Eli gets to his feet with a huff and a groan, grabbing his cane from where it's leaning against the wall and heading for the door. "I have to piss. And at my age that might take a while, so don't rush yourself."

"He's got a way about him, doesn't he?" Ash says once he's gone, and the nervousness seems to have faded for the moment, replaced by a fond smile. Florence looks carefully at him as she spoons up the last of the broth. The bond she senses... not father and son. Not blood related. But something close. She nods, smiling faintly. He does have a way.

"He held us together," Ash says, something distant flashing through his gaze. "Back when everything was coming apart. He's the reason we're here at all." He seems to remember himself then and shakes his head, pushing up to his feet and stretching. "Anyway. We better get going as soon as we can, if we wanna make it back here by nightfall." He looks momentarily grim. "And maybe we better plan on staying there anyway."

Florence is about to ask why when Eli reenters the room, shaking out his grey locks and leaning heavily on his cane. "Are you going, then?"

Ash nods. "Better sooner than later, don't you think?"

"Take Ben with you."

Ash looks doubtful, frowning. "You think that's wise? We'd go faster if there's fewer of us."

"All the same." Eli coughs one or two harsh barks and lowers himself gingerly into his seat. "I'd feel better. Humor your elders, kid."

"All right." And again that hint of fondness, of genuine affection as well as respect. "We'll go in fifteen. Florence." He turns back to her. "Get together whatever you'll need. You should bring water but I wouldn't worry about food. And whatever weapons you have. I hope we won't need them, but..." He trails off, shrugging, and Florence nods her understanding, pushing back from the table and getting to her feet. Bathing can wait. She's eaten, she's rested, she can do whatever is required of her. Ash glances once more at the two of them, and nods a quick goodbye before he heads back out into the harsh sunshine.

Florence makes to follow. On her way to the door, Eli catches her arm, and though he's not gripping her hard, she can feel the strength in it. His age and frailty aren't entirely an act, she can tell. But they also may not be entirely the truth.

"You watch out for him, hm?" Eli scowls deeply. "Boy thinks he's immortal. I'd rather he not get cured of that the hard way."

Florence smiles and nods, laying her hand over the old man's, and something in him seems to soften. "You might live up to your legend, healer," he says, quieter. "We'll see."


* * *


Hobbes.

Time twists, turns, doubles back on itself. He gave up trying to follow its course a long time ago. He walks in the garden with her, he bathes in the pool, they make love in the spray of the waterfall. He holds her close to him and there is no past to tug at him, no future to worry him. No rising or setting sun to mark the passage of days. Only her hair, her eyes, her skin.

Her skin.

They lie together in their bed, and he curls himself against her body as she sleeps, but he doesn't sleep. He's listening to her breathe, running his fingers through her hair, and he's so lost in the feel and the sound and the scent of her that he almost doesn't hear it, far back in the recesses of his mind, or maybe somewhere in the room, hidden in the shadows.

Hobbes.

He turns and looks into the dimness, trying to see. Sure that he's imagining it. He doesn't even know that voice. He doesn't want to know that voice, low and rough. That voice has demanded things of him, tormented and berated him.

Hobbes, what the fuck are you doing?

No. He shakes his head and lies down again, sinking his head into the soft depth of the pillow, willing it away. Sophie. He has Sophie. He has everything he needs now.

The closet.

He doesn't even remember seeing a closet. And it doesn't matter whether he's seen one or not, because he's absolutely not listening. It doesn't make any difference if it isn't happening at all. Sophie makes a quiet little sound in her sleep and shifts against his chest. It's the kind of sound she always used to make at home, their little house, in a life that's now a million years and a million miles away.

That life. The life before. A life before this. Tom frowns in the dark, puzzling over it, and when he turns again and looked into the dimness of the room, there's a faint lit outline set against one wall. Lit like light coming through the cracks of a closed door.

Closets hide a multitude of sins. A short, sardonic laugh, deeply familiar and somehow aching. Take it from me, dick. I know.

Tom whimpers softly and turns his face away. His mouth is starting to hurt, and the stumps of his fingers. He doesn't want to remember why they're hurting. This is so much easier, so much nicer. On some level he knows it has to be a lie, the lie of this place, something he's seeing because he wants to so badly. But that shouldn't make a difference. After years of hiding and fighting and running and getting nowhere, why shouldn't he rest?

And that voice--that grating, maddening voice--won't let him.

"Leave me alone," he whispers, and again Sophie stirs against him. He presses his lips to the back of her neck, and while he's ready for the voice to speak again at any moment, it doesn't. And it doesn't. There's just silence.

And in the end it's that dead silence that pulls him out of bed. When his bare feet hit the floor, there's that outline of light in front of him. Cold light. He looks at it and shivers. He doesn't want to see that light any clearer.

Slowly, he gets to his feet and walks toward it. He's naked but he doesn't care; it's been a while since he cared about clothing. He's found Eden before the Fall and there's no need for clothes.

But even Eden always had its serpent.

When he lays a hand on the handle of the door--the door he doesn't remember ever having been there before--it's cold. It's so cold that he almost pulls his hand back. Perhaps he does, and his hand remains momentarily frozen to the handle. He pulls the door open, and he stands bathed in that light.

It's more than cold light. It's dead light. The light of a morgue. Stretching in front of him is a hallway, and it's the same exact size and dimensions of the hallways that had led him here to begin with. He remembers that, now, though his mind shies away from it. But this isn't like those hallways. It's metallic and freezing, crusts of ice on the walls and the floor. It's like a narrow walk-in freezer without shelves or food. Still slowly, feeling the kind of dread that comes when a dream begins the relentless transition into nightmare, he steps forward, bare feet on the icy floor.

With every step his feet freeze to the metal surface, and every step after it is a tearing wrench, first only annoying and then progressively more and more painful. He almost stumbles but he doesn't fall, dreading what might happen if more of his body were to come into contact with that freezing floor. The cold is making every part of him ache, and now he has need for clothes, but he presses on, the short hallway seeming longer and longer, and finally he closes his shivering hands on the door handle at the far end and shoves it open.

He has to yank his hands free from that as well, and when he glances behind him there are faint bloody footprints marking his passage, the blood almost black in the harsh light. He shivers again and turns away. Whatever pain there had been is fading into numbness, which might actually be worse.

And ahead of him. He stops, freezes, as though the cold has completely gotten to him, penetrated skin and muscle and bone. He whimpers softly, and he wants to take a step backward, but he can't. Whether it's the temperature or something more sinister, he has no idea. But anything might be believable.

The room he's standing in is a large and echoing version of the hallway, metallic and icy, but lined with shelves and racks, icicles hanging from them and glistening dully.

The shelves are stacked with heads. Human skins dangle from the racks, hooks through holes in the necks. Pale and bloodless and wrinkled, male and female, like human suits. They look like rubber and for a moment he wants so much to believe that they are rubber, props from a horror movie and nothing more, but he reaches out a hand to touch one and yanks it away with something catching in his throat.

The heads are just as varied as the skins; all genders, races, ages, arrayed like...

His blood runs even colder the moment he realizes it. Like the wardrobe collection backstage in a show.

Somewhere, echoing through the chilled air of the room, the voice in his head is laughing.

"I thought you loved me, Tom."

He turns sharply, suddenly feeling the intensity of his own exposure, the lack of any easy way to defend himself--and how can he be thinking that he would need to defend himself against the woman he's loved more than anything else in the world?

But it's a lie. It's all a lie. His love isn't a lie, but everything that it has constructed here is. His middle chills and sinks, and he faces Sophie with his expression grim.

"I thought you loved me," she repeats, stepping forward, and she's naked as well but her feet aren't sticking to the floor. She doesn't look cold at all. "People who love each other... they don't snoop."

He shakes his head slowly. There's no explanation to offer, if he even owes her one, and the harsh place in him from where the voice had come seems sure that he doesn't, but the rest of him doesn't agree. It doesn't matter. The dream is over. Too much knowledge is what brought Paradise crashing down.

"You don't love me." Her face is dark and twisting, somewhere between tears and rage. At another time, in another world, he would have gone to her, pulled her into his arms, done whatever he had to do to make things right. Now he just stands and stares at her, and it feels like he's watching her die all over again.

She reaches out a hand and shoves one of the steel shelves stacked with heads, and it wobbles, two or three heads toppling to the floor and bouncing like rubber balls. Tom almost laughs, his chest hitching hysterically.

"You're just like the rest of them. You come here and you make me think it's all right and in the end I'm not enough for you. I'm never enough." Her voice is rising into a shriek, a howl, echoing over the frozen walls and high ceilings. "Well, fuck you. Fuck you." She grins then, an awful death's head grin, the rictus of a corpse. Tom has seen Sophie die but he's never seen her dead. This is closer than he ever wanted to come.

"There's more than one way to get what I want from you."

She reaches up and places her hands flat on her temples, as if her head is paining her, and then she's twisting. Twisting like it's the cap on a bottle, twisting past the breaking point and all the way around, her mouth frozen into that terrible grin, until Sophie's head bounces to the floor with the rest of the, rolling over and over with that grin rotating into and out of view. It stops by his foot, looking up and blinking at him, and somehow he manages to kick it away. For a moment he's sure he'll vomit. Then he looks up at Sophie's body and he's even more sure.

Eight glistening black eyes are staring out at him, lidless and alien, set into a massive and bristle-haired head, poking obscenely out of her neck. Then her naked skin is splitting, tearing, coming loose in strips and falling away, and eight long legs extend o the floor, supporting a bulbous body.

"Hungry," shrieks the spider. "Hungryyyy!"

Tom turns and runs.

He does it blindly, numbly, too stepped in shock to even be terrified. Eight legs, and the thing will be on him in no time. He skids around a shelf, slips on the ice and falls, yanks himself back to his feet again. He uses the shelf to do it and as he tears away from it, he hears it fall behind him, an ear-splittingly loud clatter and the thunder of a hundred human heads, followed by a scuttering sound and the shrill and clearly frustrated screech of the spider.

He almost smiles. It would be slapstick if it wasn't so far from that.

Ahead of him now he can see another door, and in fact he might be turned around, it might be the same door he'd entered through, but it's all there seems to be and so he makes for it, legs and arms pumping, entirely warm now but not caring. Part of him wants to stop, turn and beg forgiveness, let her do whatever she wants to him if only she'll put on Sophie's skin again and allow him to keep dreaming. But that part is weary and weak and he shoves it away with disgust.

He'll be food for bugs someday. But not until after he's dead.

Ten feet from the door he slips again, goes down and rolls and when he rights himself he's staring at the oncoming spindly blackness of it, eyes blank and pedipalps snapping open to receive him. He gasps and scrambles backwards, somehow gets to his feet and stumbles on, reaching the door and shoving at it just as he feels bristly hair brushing his bare legs, one of its legs starting to curl around his waist. The door won't open; he yanks and yanks at it, screaming mindlessly, until somehow under everything else he hears that voice again, thick with exasperation.

Push, you fucking moron.

He uses the spider to brace against and pushes. The door opens easily and silently and he tumbles through, still half held by the spider, but then it shrieks again, as if in pain, and he feels it withdrawing. He falls heavily, his hands and knees hitting cool stone. All around him is utter blackness, so it doesn't seem to make any difference when he closes his eyes and lets himself go limp against the ground.

Before the world recedes in a smooth rush, he becomes aware of the fact that he's dressed again, the same old and filthy clothes, with the comfortable weight of his gun at his hip.

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