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[personal profile] vervaceous
Title: Phoenix 9/?
Fandom: Harsh Realm
Rating: R for language, violence, and adult situations
Wordcount: 3,891
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.

It takes longer than Ash had expected. He doesn't talk about it, just keeps walking with his head down and his shoulders set, but Florence can tell, can feel his frustration like a physical thing emanating from him, and she knows that at least part of it is him scaling back the pace for her. She doesn't argue with him. She knows it would be as pointless as trying to argue with Mike had ever been. And in truth she's grateful for the slower pace, with her hands shaking like they are and her knees as weak as they feel. It's temporary. She'll be fine in the span of a few hours. But for the time being, everything is harder than it should be.

Tom. Alive. She had been sure that if he were dead, she would somehow know it, but to see him... to feel him like that... Hurt. Weary. But still moving. She thinks of the dark landscape of which she'd caught a glimpse, the path stretching out before them and lit with a weird silvery light. Moonlight, except there had been no moon that she could see.

A dream country. No longer underground. In Harsh Realm there are worlds within worlds, but this hadn't felt like anywhere she had ever been before. It had felt so much deeper, so much older, like she was seeing the very foundations of the program. The Realm Primeval.

"You okay?"

Ash is still watching her with barely concealed concern, and she smiles reassuringly at him, nodding. After a moment or two he returns the smile, absently palming sweat away from his brow.

"You had me worried back there. Does that happen to you a lot?"

She shrugs, lays her hand flat in the air and see-saws it from side to side. Now and again. She smiles again and flexes her arm. I'm strong. Don't worry about it.

"There aren't too many people left around here that aren't strong," he says, his smile turning faintly grim. "I was just a teenager when everything started going to hell. I dunno what would've happened to me if my brother hadn't been there."

Florence looks at him, points to his chest and then gestures around them with a questioning look. Where is your brother?

He frowns for a brief moment, then gets it. "Oh. He, uh... he died." Ash looks down at the reddish dirt under their boots. "About a year ago."

Florence is silent, her face composed to calm sympathy, and after a few moments of quiet walking Ash speaks again.

"I wish I could say it was something... all fucking big and heroic. He died saving... a village of women and children from Santiago's men. Orphans. Anything. But he didn't. It was stupid. He was on the wrong end of a goddamn bar fight."

Florence pauses, reaches out and lightly touches Ash's arm, pulls her hand back and lays it against her own chest, smiling sadly. We have something in common.

"You lost someone?"

She nods.


A slow shake of the head.

"A friend?"

She nods, pauses again, returns her hand to her heart and bows her head slightly. A very dear friend. Family wasn't technically correct, but maybe it was closer. Not everyone who saw them together had ever understood the depths of it. Perhaps if Ash could see Mike now, he wouldn't understand either. But he only nods, face solemn, and she's oddly glad that there's nothing here to make him doubt.

"I'm sorry."

She shrugs, starts to walk again. We all lose people.

But she had been hoping that it wouldn't be quite so soon.

* * *

He comes to the crossroads in the moonlight which is coming from no moon, and he stands and stares at it, and looks in all directions. All around him is vast land, empty, featureless, and four roads cutting across it in the four cardinal directions. He has no compass and no way of knowing this for sure, but he knows it all the same.

No sign. No indication at all of which way is the right one. He stands in the center of the crossroads and turns slowly, trying to feel a pull. Why should he expect one? Why should he expect any of what's happened so far?

"Can I help you?"

He turns and there's a woman standing there beside him, a woman clad in a plain and oddly colorless dress, and when he squints and tries to make out her face in the dimness, he can't. Or rather, he can, but the instant he blinks or shifts his gaze away and loses his focus, she becomes something once more unfamiliar. Her features are undefinable. Her hair might be any color, any length; it's impossible to say for sure. Next to her on the ground, sitting back on their haunches and panting, are three large black dogs.

He feels his guard rising and he can't stop it. Women and dogs. It might be unfair to say it, but his luck with them has thus far been less than good.

"Who are you?" he asks warily, and his hand moves to his knife.

She clucks her tongue. "Now, that's not very nice. I asked if I could help you, after all."

"I've been asked that before. It didn't end so well."

"Perhaps it will end better this time." She reaches out and tugs his hand away from the hilt of his knife, and when her slender fingers brush his they're soothing and cool and the same pale no-color as the moonlight. He's at once surprised and not surprised at all when he lets her pull his hand away, though he keeps himself stiff, wary, ready to dart or spring.

"You're at the crossroads, aren't you?" She laughs and tips her head back to the dark sky, and her dogs bark as though they're laughing too. "My country. Are you seeking a direction? They're all very fine ones. I'm sure any of them will serve you well."

"I'm looking for the Maintainers," he says. He's getting a little tired of telling people that. It would be nice, so nice, to be able to stop saying it and finally do it. The woman clucks her tongue again and steps a little away, half circling him and looking sidelong at him, something not quite flirtatious in her eyes.

"I haven't seen anyone looking for them in..." She laughs again. "Well. Time is a little funny down here, isn't it? But it's been a while."

"You know where they are?" he pursues, his eyes wide and just a little bit wild. And bloodshot. He can feel it in the way they burn when he blinks. He has no idea when he last slept but, as she says, it's been a while.

"I know." She stops her slow circle and purses her lips. The dogs stop with her and sit again, panting, their tongues lolling and their soulful brown eyes rolling up at him. He used to love dogs, used to have one, once upon a time and a long way back. Now it's all he can do to keep from lunging at them with his knife, to keep from running. This is not a friendly place, and no matter how much the woman smiles at him, he doesn't think he trusts her.

"Can you tell me?" he asks, trying to keep the impatience out of his voice, though it may just be some useless vestige of politeness that compels him to do so. He has no reason to care what she thinks.

She nods slowly, and without a great deal of conviction. "I could. Are you sure you need to know that?"

"Yes, I'm fucking sure," he snaps, and inwardly a part of him winces. "I need... look, I really need to find them."

"Why?" She cocks her head, her hair dancing lightly in the breeze, almost floating, as though gravity is not the same shape for her.

Tom swallows hard and looks at the dogs. There are moments--still rare but coming closer and closer together--where he's no longer sure who he is. "I need them to kill someone for me," he whispers.

"Killing," she murmurs. "That's deep magic. But they could do it for you. They can do anything." She reaches out and touches his forearm, gentle and light. His wounds are healed, but the ends of his fingers are still rough stumps, still stained here and there with old blood. "What happened to your hand?"

"A dog bit me," he says flatly.

"Well." She doesn't remove her hand, and he doesn't try to make her remove it, though his eyes don't leave her face. She glances down at the dogs, and they look back up at her, their eyes large and sorrowful as though apologizing for a crime they're fully innocent of.

He assumes. Or perhaps all dogs are alike in some places, and perhaps this is one of those. Perhaps the faces only seem to change.

It would be so easy to go mad here. Could be, he's mad already.

"I'm sorry that happened to you," she says, her voice low. "You seem like a nice man. It's a shame to think of anything like that happening to you." And he almost asks her if that's a threat, because in the way she says it, with quiet and simple concern, it might be. Anything might be. A kiss had been the same as a spider's bite, soft and poisonous, and his heart nothing more than food.

"It happened," he says. "Nothing to do about it now." He turns, against his better judgment turning his back on her, looking out at the roads he might take. He supposes that nothing says that he has to take any road at all. He could cut across country, turn in circles, fall, lie on the rough grass under the moonlight until this strange invisible moon sets, if it ever does. Maybe the Maintainers would come to him. He's let his blood. He's passed every test set before him.

He's lost a friend. A blood sacrifice. No body to burn for the altar, but here that surely can't make a difference.

"Tell me where to go to find the Maintainers," he says simply, still with his back to her. One of the dogs whines and it moves through the darkness like a sound much more distant. "And let me worry about the rest of it."

She sighs, sounding weary, and he feels a hand on his shoulder. "Many years I've been on these roads," she murmurs, her voice changed, and changing, at once deeper and higher and taking on the sound of many voices at once. "And many travelers I've met. They've asked me questions and I've given them answers, and I've passed over their lives like threads in my hands. Once they built temples to me. Once they burned the branches of the yew and cypress and they gave me hot blood to drink. But those days are gone."

She presses her cool lips to the nape of his neck, and he feels her smile. "Don't worry. I won't ask for your blood. You've spilled enough of it already, and I don't have so much of an appetite these days." She points over his shoulder, along one of the paths. "Follow that way. It'll take you where you need to go."

He lets out a breath, though nothing's really eased. He can move again, and for the moment that's all he has. He turns back to her, and with a strange boldness he takes her hand in his, and it's so light and delicate that it might not be there at all. "Thank you."

She shakes her head, and her oddly intangible face looks sorrowful. "Don't thank me. I'm not sending you anywhere good."

"You aren't sending me at all." He takes a step back, along the path. "I have to do this."

"I know." One of the dogs whines again, low and mournful. "I can't see your ending. It's outside my view." She raises a hand to him, and it could be somewhere between farewell and beckoning. "Mind your path, Tom. Mind you don't fall."

He turns, and the path stretches out in front of him, pale and almost shimmering. He would want to see what it looks like in the sunlight, but he senses that there is no sunlight here, never has been, never will be. It's a night country.

After a few yards a chill wind blows over the flat land and catches him up in itself, and he shivers. Somewhere far behind him, a dog is howling.

* * *

"Here," says Ash, pushing the rickety wooden gate open for her. It's a ranch house, low and flat as the land and half falling down. But it's clearly occupied. There are lights in the windows, in the evening dimness, and woodsmoke coming from the chimney, and as Florence steps through the gate with a certain amount of gratitude and walks up the gravel path, a woman comes out onto the porch and waves to them. As Florence draws closer she can see lines of age, the crossover point between middle age and true seniority. The woman's hair is a silvery gray and her back is bent, and she looks tired, but she smiles and holds out her hands. Florence is unsure of whether or not she's meant to take them, but Ash moves past her and clasps the woman's wrinkled hands in his.

"Thought you might not come, kiddo." The woman glances back into the house. "We got word to everyone we could, but even our roads are more dangerous these days."

"Of course I came. Couldn't not." Ash half turns to Florence, beckoning her up onto the porch with a nod of his head. "Florence, this is Margie. Margie, my friend Florence." He pauses, as if searching for the right words, and when he speaks again it's with a sense of heavier meaning. "She's from the East."

"Oh." Margie steps back and regards her more carefully, and Florence smiles, though it's a little tight. She's not sure how many more of these significant looks she cares to take. Not when there's so much to do. But Margie only smooths her hands over her apron, stepping back through the open door. "Well. Come inside, then. Have some lemonade and Abe will take you around back to the shed when he comes in."

Florence touches Ash's forearm as they step into the house, sending a questioning look his way. Shed?

"You'll see," he says softly, and just for an instant he covers her hand with his own. "I'll explain everything."

The house is small and cramped and crammed full of books, stacks of papers, furniture in states of half-completed repair, ragged and faded floral print curtains on the windows, threadbare rugs with a hand-woven look. It's strangely comfortable, the kind of comfort that comes with a place long-lived in. Florence drops a hand to the arm of a rocking chair and feels the smooth suppleness of the old wood. So many hands, in exactly that place, rocking. She smiles.

"That was my grandmother's." Margie turns, grinning. "We're not very good at getting rid of things, you see. Especially not now. These days, you have to hold onto whatever you got. Isn't that right, Ash?"

"Right enough, Margie." Ash sinks down onto a low couch and leans over his knees, and it's only then that Florence sees just how tired he is. "We could sure go for that lemonade, if it's still on offer."

"Sure, it is." Margie turns again, moving towards what looks like a small kitchen. "You kids make yourselves comfortable. I'm sure Abe'll be in soon enough."

Florence sits carefully in the rocking chair; it creaks, but it's a old, comfortable kind of creak, the kind of creak that could have been happening in the same way and in the same place for years and years. She lets herself lean back with a quiet sigh, and she knows that she could sleep here if she let herself.

"Margie and Abe have been here as long as anyone," Ash says, moving his dusty hands one over the other. "They were some of the first to start picking up the pieces after shit fell apart. Let people stay here, kept working the land... until that went bad too. But they still try. I guess they pull in enough to feed themselves. Rusk leaves 'em alone, God knows why."

Florence nods slowly, listening but that's not really where her attention is. She's looking at the pictures on the walls, so many pictures, some paintings of animals, desert landscapes, but even more photographs. A young woman and a young man, in front of the house. Smiling and happy. The same young woman, her dark hair loose over her shoulders, holding a new calf and grinning for the camera. A birthday party, a room full of laughing people. The woman again, not so young, her dark hair struck through with silvery gray, held back with a turquoise clasp, her hands full of desert flowers. Life. Memories of life, but here there is life still, and she can feel it flowing into her. An island of the world before, in the middle of the world ending. Someday it'll sink below the surface and be covered, but as long as these people are here...

"Florence?" It's Margie, and Florence opens eyes that she hadn't known she had closed. She's being handed a glass of something cold, condensation beading the sides, and she takes it with a grateful smile. The first sip is so sweet it almost hurts her mouth, but before she knows it she's gulping more, and more, the coldness of it spreading the ache from her mouth down into her chest, an ache so close to pleasure. For so long, nothing but water, because she won't touch anything that makes her head spin, that clouds her mind.

"We have ice today," Margie says with a touch of pride. "I said to myself, I'll turn on the generator just this afternoon. I didn't even know why, but it felt like the thing to do. And here you are."

"Margie?" A man's voice from the kitchen door, and Florence turns. He's old, older than Margie, thin and stooped and already dark skin darkened still more by the sun, and deeply wrinkled. But his eyes are bright and intelligent, and his smile is warm. "We got company?"

"Ash and his friend," Margie says, going to him and pulling off his wide-brimmed hat. "Abraham Lincoln Teasedale, you mind your manners and take off your hat in the house. This here is Florence, and they both come a long way."

"Florence?" The man steps forward, holding out his hand. "I had an aunt named Florence. Nice name. Good to meetcha."

Florence sets her glass on the floor, gets to her feet and shakes the proffered hand, grinning in spite of herself. Ash is on his feet as well, glass still in his hand, clapping Abe on the shoulder. But his face is more serious now. Almost solemn.

"You know why we're here."

"Yeah, I know." Abe's smile fades as well, and he reaches up to scratch his balding head. "We couldn't hardly believe it when it happened. But it's... well, you better come and see for yourself. The more people see it with their own eyes, the better."

Once again, Florence touched Ash's arm, once again questioning, but she's being drawn into the little kitchen by the simple movement of the three of them, as if being pulled by a current in a stream. Out through the kitchen, full of the smell of spices and old flowers, out through a back door and down two steps into a dusty fenced yard. In the back of the yard is a shed, almost big enough to be a stable, and from a peg on one of the doorposts hangs a small lantern, glowing faintly.

"We've been trying to keep him safe," Abe says, and his voice is strangely low and hushed. "But he's... well, you'll see. I dunno how much we can really do." He inclines his head toward the shed's doorway. "Go on in."

Ash steps through the door, hanging back for a few seconds, hesitant, and Florence follows, wondering what cause he could have to hesitate. The shed is packed full of barrels, crates, gardening equipment rusted from long disuse. The air is heady with the smells of dry wood and straw and red dust. Ash halts, staring, and Florence has to push carefully by him to see what's stopped him so abruptly.

And then she stops.

Curled on a bed of straw, and breathing so slightly that it's difficult to be sure that it's even alive, is a milky white buffalo calf. The purity of the whiteness is close to shocking, smooth and perfect and even in the lantern light. Its eyes open once, shining but somehow distant, and close again.

"Jesus Christ," Ash murmurs, and there's reverence in the words.

"I just found him out by the mouth of the canyon yesterday," Abe says quietly. "No mother in sight. Half dead. I've never seen buffalo out here. Don't even know when there last were any. We've been trying to feed him, but... And I can't even think what it means."

Florence gently pushes Ash aside and steps forward, bending, kneeling before the calf with her hands on her thighs. She's very tired. But she knows now why she's here. Like all things, it comes clearly when it finally comes.

"Florence--" Ash says, but she isn't listening anymore. Her hands find the milky hide, smoothing over it, and it's a pleasurable thing to touch, like sun-warmed velvet. But it's hurt. She closes her eyes and lets herself slip into it--into him--and she can feel the depth of the hurt. The sun, the loneliness, the sudden terror of being.

There, now. I'm here. She feels it ease, steels herself in that ease, and pours herself into him.

It's like plunging into water and opening her eyes. Everything she sees is blurred and distorted, but rushing at her in a flurry of images. A deep cavern, infected with a deeper darkness. The pounding hooves of ghosts. Poisonous water. A looming, many-legged shape. A bridge through nothingness. The baying of dogs and the moonless moonlight. And pain, so much pain, and even as she lets herself flow to fill it, she wonders if there is enough of her to heal this breach, to make this much whole, to cross that much distance and close the link. But she's flowing, flowing like the water that surrounds her, the blood that surrounds her, jumping and jerking and now pounding with the force of its life--

The light is hurting her eyes. She's falling backward, borne up by unseen hands. Her own hands waver in her vision, and she's sure that they're stained with blood, dark and already clotting. But the voices roaring around her block out everything else, and when her eyes close and the darkness swallows her, all she's left with is the certainty that the calf had opened its eyes to her once more, and they had been a deep and brilliant and familiar blue.
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