vervaceous: (shadow)
[personal profile] vervaceous
Title: Phoenix 8/?
Fandom: Harsh Realm
Rating: R for language, violence, and adult situations
Wordcount: 3,441
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.


It occurs to him, when he finally lifts his head again, that he's been here before and it's getting a little old.

Not here, exactly. There's cool stone under him, but he knows just by the feel of the place, by the movement of the air and the echo of his breaths against the walls, that it isn't the cool stone of the labyrinth. It feels wider and deeper, not unlike the first great cavern with the dark, living water. For a moment he feels a stab of fear, thinking that he might be back there again, that he might have the journey to do all over, but he opens his eyes and looks around, and he's sure he isn't there, either.

He doesn't know where he is. He can see the narrow strip of floor under him, extending into the distance, the familiar vague phosphorescence, but there's no walls that he can see, no ceiling over his head. He cranes his head back and back, his mouth falling slightly open as for the moment the throbbing in his jaw and hand fade. He's surrounded by darkness, complete and impenetrable. He should be afraid, he thinks, but after killing water and giant dogs and spiders, simple darkness seems like something mundane and welcome.

Slowly, groaning, he pushes himself up to his feet and takes a few cautious steps forward. A stab of pain shivers up his leg and he winces, close to stumbling, barely saving himself from another fall. The stumble takes him close to the edge of the visible ground, and it's then that he feels a thick wave of relief at not falling, because it's more than just the only visible ground.

It's the only ground.

He gasps and takes a step back, fighting waves of vertigo. He can't see the bottom of the abyss. For all he knows there is no bottom. No top. He could believe almost anything down here, without much effort. He might be floating in an infinite space, and if he fell he would just fall and fall and fall into his old age and die falling and fall until he's nothing but bones.

He closes his eyes and fights back the fear, the pain, the encroaching panic. Mike's voice is silent, but when he opens his eyes again and looks down at himself, he sees the spots of blood on his shirt, old and brown and mixed with his own.

Get a hold of yourself, he thinks firmly. Mike fucking died because of you, so don't make it worse by embarrassing him.

He thinks about Mike's upturned face, the gentle, wry sadness, an expression he'd never seen Mike wear before. Something else new flickering behind his gaze. Mike hadn't wanted to die, but it had been more than that.

He hadn't wanted to leave them. All those times Mike had hauled his ass out of some kind of fix, endangered himself to do it, made faces and sighed and cursed and more than once threatened to go.

But in the end, he hadn't wanted to leave.

Tom lifts his head and breathes, and feels his own sad calm stealing through him.

Where is Mike, now? Is his body lying mindlessly warm and vegetative on a slab back in the Real World? Has his body died with his mind? What does death even mean in this place, where people fade into little explosions of light in their final moments, dissipating into the air?

That all depends on what you believe.

He turns and looks down the long line of the path, bordered by darkness and by thin air, and it extends as far as he can see. Behind him, when he looks, is simply a blank rock wall. No way back. Many ways forward, but only one that doesn't involve tumbling, one way or another, to his death. He looks down at his hand; the bandage on his fingers is still fresh and clean but the stumps have begun to bleed again and the white is dotted here and there with red.

"Okay," he breathes aloud, even his whispers eerily audible in the stillness. Not even dripping water. Just the quiet hiss of moving air, hissing that could almost be a voice out of the black, answering him. "Okay." And he starts forward along the path, walking slow and careful of his footing.

At some point the path begins to narrow.

He's been on it for a while when it does. He's not sure how long; time has seemed fluid and uncertain since the moment he stepped through the hatch and since that initial moment of displacement it's only worsened and worsened. But he's been there long enough for the wall to recede in the distance behind him, until he can no longer be sure that it's there at all. He looks back, looks down at the path at his feet and from side to side.

There is definitely less of it.

He stands there for a few moments, holding his injured hand against his chest in a kind of unconscious protectiveness, and frowns. Maybe it's temporary, an initial narrowing before it widens out again. Or maybe it'll continue getting narrower and narrower until it ends in a single point, a precipice leaning out over the abyss and finally no way to go but down.

Once the thought would have terrified him, but he's adjusted and numbed, beaten about the head by too many things, and now he simply accepts it as another possibility, out of a selection of possibilities that, in the end, might not even make any difference.

It could happen, sure. He swallows hard, though thirst is creeping in again and he has less to swallow than he did, and starts to walk.

Narrower, narrower, until he has to stop again, staring down and ahead and still not feeling any real fear, but faint rumblings of disquiet. The path is barely wide enough for him to walk without putting one foot directly in front of the other, and ahead of him it narrows still more. He's lost blood, he's exhausted and unsteady; all the rest he'd thought he'd gotten back near the waterfall had been a lie. As he walks, he's swaying very slightly. It wouldn't take very much to send him pitching headlong into the darkness.

But what else to do? He clenches his fists at his sides and steps forward again.

"Tom Hobbes."

He freezes. The voice is soft and female, and in the first instant of instinct, he's expecting a spider to come trundling out of the darkness, waving its pedipalps and reaching for him with its hairy legs, eyes glittering with dull and predatory intelligence.

But nothing comes. It's only darkness.

"Tom Hobbes," says the voice again. "Stay where you are."

Finally he finds his own voice, trying to square his shoulders, and calls. "Who are you?"

She laughs, her voice echoing softly and endlessly. "That depends. For some, I am less pleasant than this. For you, I am Daena. I am the inward eye. I am the heart's balance. I am the keeper of the way."

He still can't see her and he peers ahead, but her voice is lost in the whispering echoes of walls he can't hope to see, and she could be anywhere. Feet in front of him, yards, miles. "I don't understand."

"Can you not feel the weight of your own soul? Can you feel the shape of your deeds? You have done some ill, Tom Hobbes. But you have done much good in your time, and it is for that reason that I come to you now."

"What reason?" He frowns, shakes his head, uncomprehending still. He can't stop looking down, and the urge to drop into a crouch is rising, though he knows it's a bad instinct. Down lower, it'll be harder to keep his balance. If he drops his head, he knows the dizziness will rush back in and take him over the edge. "Look, I... I have to keep going. Can you tell me how?"

"All souls must cross." She sounds closer now, as though she might be over his shoulder, but when he chances a glance there's nothing there that he can see. "But you are a living soul. For you, the rules are different." She falls silent, and it seems to him that she's deliberating something.

"This, you must do on your own," she says finally. "I will steady you as best I can. But you must cross under your own worth, and your worth will keep the bridge from narrowing. If you are indeed worthy." And now it seemed that she was receding, ahead of him, soft but sweet and coaxing.

"Come, Tom Hobbes. Come forward, and tell me why you wish to cross my bridge."

"A bridge?" He steps forward without thinking of it, her voice pulling at him like a physical thing. It's not Sophie. He's never heard a voice like this before. And if it's a trap, maybe he could deal with it. Maybe he's tired enough to hope for it. "So... there's another side?"

"There may be. My only province is the bridge."

He makes a quiet, meaningless sound and stares down at his feet, one in front of the other like a tightrope walker. He's drawing closer and closer to something like that, the path thinning and thinning. Vertigo seizes him and he closes his eyes, whimpering. A living soul. It only brings home to him what he's felt since he first set foot inside the hatch: he shouldn't be here. He doesn't belong here. This place was not constructed for him or with him in mind.

"You did not answer my question, Tom Hobbes."

One foot, other foot, one in front of the one before it like a tightrope walker, his hands held out to his sides to balance him. But he already feels unbalanced like that, one hand heavier than the other, and in his weariness he teeters and wavers, trying to beat down his instinctive, reptile-brain panic. When she speaks, he thinks as best he can but he doesn't even remember what she's referring to. The abyss below him yawns black and vast like a hungry mouth, opening to swallow him.

"What question?"

"You are a living soul. Why do you want to cross my bridge?"

"I'm..." His heart flutters. He doesn't feel like a living soul. The path ahead of him is no longer wide enough for him to stand with his feet together. he would be afraid to look down, but for the fact that there's nothing at all to see. "I need to... get to the Maintainers."

"The Maintainers." She repeats it, slowly, working over each syllable in her rich and musical voice. "The Maintainers. Is that so? And what would you with them, Tom Hobbes?"

"Santiago." Tom trips, stumbles, as though the name is an invocation and by saying it he's brought himself down. He drops and has time to think This is it, it's over, I'm going to die or I'm going to keep falling forever and forever and then I'll die and then his hands close over the top of the ridge, not much wider than his palm, and he crouches on one knee and clings to it, shivering violently. Santiago. So much blackness in that name. Steel slices through the trembling and he lifts burning eyes and stares into the darkness.

"I'm going to make them delete him."

The woman laughs, and she sounds closer, a soft breath of air moving around him, gently scented with flowers. "You're going to make them, are you? And how are you going to do that?"

"I'll find a way." He grits his teeth so hard they hurt and pushes himself back up, imagining a weighted scale, perfectly balanced and steady. He stands, pulling in slow breaths, and takes another step forward.

"And you're sure that is what you want to do?"

"Of course I am." He almost snaps the words. The questions are distracting him, disarming him, making him feel loggy and confused. He doesn't want to talk. He just wants to keep walking.

"Then I wonder, Tom Hobbes. Whose life is it that stains your shirt? Who shed blood for you?"

He almost stumbles again. It's the memory of Mike's face, pale and upturned, so close to his that Tom could see the tiny flecks of silver-gray in his blue eyes. The mouth, for once, not stretched into scowl or a sneer. He had only been sad. Sad, and not at all surprised.

"That's none of your business," he grates. He tries to look ahead but the bridge fades into the opaque blackness, and he still can't see an end to it. "I'm looking for the Maintainers. When I find them, this is all gonna be over."

"It is all my business." Her voice is still musical, but now it's colder music, harsher, and an entirely new kind of fear grips at his heart. "I am the inward eye, and there is nothing the inward eye does not see."

"And what do you see?" He spits the question out, anger pulsing in him, hard and sudden. He doesn't need this right now, he really doesn't. He's missing fingers, a tooth, he's exhausted and starving and inches away from tumbling to his death, and he doesn't need to be interrogated by a ghost woman.

"Fear."

He's about to cough out a sarcastic laugh, but there's something in the way she says it that makes him stop. Her voice is like Mike's face at the end. Set. Unsurprised. Sad. Fear.

Yes, there's a lot of that.

"I'm trying to save us," he whispers, swaying on the bridge.

"Then cross, Tom Hobbes." Her voice is a gentle breath in his ear. "Cross without fear and you may."

He wants to believe her. All his life, he's wanted to believe in things. It's what's kept him going when every sensible urge told him to stop, with Sophie when she laughed at his first awkward attempts to ask her out, with basic training when his muscles were screaming with blank agony and all he wanted to do was lie down and cry, with cold that froze and heat that baked and exhaustion beyond anything he could have previously imagined. With here, with Mike, he's kept believing because he has no idea what it feels like to not believe, and it frightens him to think of it.

So he wants to believe her, and he almost thinks he does, that he can, though by now part of him can't even get close to trust.

He closes his eyes and walks.

With his eyes closed he can't see the bridge and the last vestiges of his ability to orient himself vanish. But it isn't dizziness. It's calm. All around him is darkness but he can feel the solidity of the bridge under his feet, the shape of it and the width, and he knows where to place his footsteps. Silence, darkness, and in his mind the image of Mike's upturned face. He doesn't know exactly why it's there. He doesn't question it. He fixes it in his mind's eye like a lighthouse, like a talisman, like something powerful, blue eyes flecked with gray and faintly sad.

"Very good, Tom Hobbes," Daena murmurs, and he feels the soft touch of hands at his back. "Very good. It is well."

The shape of the bridge has changed. The ground under his feels more solid, the quiet sound of his footfalls has altered and the image it brings back to him is hazy and warped. He opens his eyes and the brilliance of the light assaults them until his vision adjusts and he can see again, can see that the light is pale moonlight only, though there's no moon to be seen in the black expanse stretching overhead, an inestimable height.

No dark cavern. He's outside again, though the sky over his head is no sky he recognizes if it's a sky at all. A vast open plain, flat and scrubby with sparse growth, extending in all directions to the horizon. When he turns, there's no sign of the bridge at all. It's as if he's walked through a hole in the world.

Looking ahead of himself once more, he can see what looks like a figure in the distance, hazy and unreal. Limping slightly, wounds flaring with fresh pain as he's able to concentrate on them again, he starts walking.


* * *


The sun is baking overhead, and while by now she feels like she should be used to it, she's not used to this, and an hour after they set out she's sweating freely. But she walks steadily beside Ash, showing nothing. No weakness. If it comes to it, if it becomes a question of her safety, she will, but until then. It's not even an issue of pride. It goes deeper than that. Her strength is derived from a deep source, fed by her faith. She lifts her head and pulls the air into her lungs, holding her gun tighter in her hands.

The sun is another hour lower when she falters and almost falls.

Ash catches her in the time it takes for her to gasp and she lets herself sag against him. His arms bear her up and she's grateful for them, because the ground is covered with grit and stones and she would have skinned her palms at the very least. But when she opens her eyes she sees moonlight.

Tom.

She feels pain. It's old pain, pain that has had the time to sink deep into him, throbbing and moaning like a person in mourning. No longer intense but constant, bleeding the strength out of him. She hovers close to him, disembodied, far away from the crumpled thing in Ash's arms.

She can still do what she was meant to do. She doesn't need a body for that. She lowers herself towards him, slips herself past and under his skin, curls herself around the wounds and pours herself into them until everything wavers and fades again, and even Tom's shape slips away from her view.


* * *


"What was that?"

She opens her eyes--Ash, leaning close to her with his face tight and worried. Somehow she had expected to be on her back but she's standing, albeit with a lot of support. The sun is as hot and as high as she remembers. Little time must have passed.

She shakes her head, gently disentangling herself. She feels weak, weak in a very familar way, like part of her has been squeezed and twisted and wrung out. But she recovers quickly. She can go on.

"You just... fell," says Ash uneasily, though he releases her willingly enough. "Is it the sun? Do you need to sit down?"

She shakes her head again, managing a smile, palming sweat away from her brow with a dusty hand. It wasn't the sun, but she has no idea how to explain that to him, and it probably doesn't matter. What does matter is that Tom is alive and she's managed to help him a little, though she doesn't know how or why. And that doesn't matter either.

She inclines her head along the path they'd been following. Let's get moving. And Ash nods, though he still looks uneasy, and as they walk, it's a long time before he stops watching her quite so closely.


* * *


Tom pauses suddenly, gasps, shivers. He's felt this before, but here, it's impossible. He's alone. She's not with him. But he can feel it, feel her, reaching into him and fixing what's broken, a warm surge of strength and healing with love for its vector. It fades from him like an orgasm and he lifts his head slowly, breathing deep. He lifts his injured hand into the pale light, slowly unwraps the bandage. His fingers are still gone. He has no idea if she could return them without risking injury to herself and he wouldn't want her to. But the bleeding has stopped, the stumps are covered over with smooth skin, like it had happened years before. There's no more pain, there or in his mouth, and his core itself feels stronger and more solid. More than patched. Made whole. He doesn't know where she is, he doesn't know where he is, but apparently even distance doesn't matter in this one moment, whether it's the mercy of a god or the caprice of a mindless universe.

He raises his face to the moonless sky and the light turns it to marble streaked with tears.
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