Aza never knew a house could sound so angry.
It was like being in the bowels of a ship at storm, the very foundations growling and groaning, minute vibrations running through the floorboards and rattling Aza’s legbones. The windows shook in their panes, the glass pitch-black, like something outside was trying to smash its way in, invisible in the gloom that swamped them.
The house snarled.
Bluebird summed up their current situation with a very emphatic; “Fuck’s sake.”
“I don’t think staying here’s a good idea,” Aza said.
“No shit,” Bluebird snapped, tightening her grip around his shoulders. The question was, to where? It was so dark they had no idea where they were running to – Aza couldn’t even make his sister out, and they were practically standing on each other’s toes – and all around them the manor sounded like it was ripping itself apart, snarling, growling, rumbling, and still, they didn’t know: ghost or Voidsent? What could it-
Behind them, the doors to Musa’s room ripped open with a roar of splintering wood and Aza was moving before he realised it, some deep, animal instinct screaming ‘run’.
“Aza!” Bluebird yelped, abruptly finding herself hauled forwards when Aza bolted, dragging her along by her wrist. The floorboards lurched under their feet, like the entire manor was wildly swinging up and down like the bow of a ship, and behind them-
Something was behind them.
“Ohhhhh, I don’t like this, I don’t like this, I don’t like this!” Bluebird was chanting, her voice going higher and higher with each repetition, and they stumbled, staggered and ran their way down the wildly shaking corridor, the Something hot on their heels. Aza didn’t dare look. Something told him not to look.
Then a door flew open just in time for Aza to run right into it.
He saw stars-
Bluebird lost her grip.
Too late, she saw something swing out, and with a solid ‘dnck!’ Aza slammed into it – her fingers slipped free of his wrist before she could stop. She cursed savagely, spinning around and lunging, hands flying out to grope through the pitch-black darkness – but they met thin air, there was no door, no something, and when she fell on the floor, there was- no body, nothing, just hardwood where there should’ve been carpet and…
Too late, she realised everything had stopped shaking.
Bluebird made sure to keep her breaths steady, even as everything inside of her trembled. Shit. Shit.
It’s fine, she told herself, as she slowly climbed to her feet, everything unnervingly loud in the darkness blanketing her. It was fine. Aza could handle himself, even if he was a bit of a wreck right now, and Bluebird didn’t care if this house was haunted, she’ll rip it apart to find him. No paedophile ghost or Voidsent will stop her. She’ll fucking kill them – again!
First, where was she?
The darkness pressed down all around her, but it wasn’t as thick as before. She could make out shapes, gloomy not from unnatural darkness, but because this place lacked windows. This was… normal darkness? Frowning, she rummaged inside her pocket, pulling out a small lightning crystal for this exact purpose, and sent a light pulse of aether through it. Pale, purple light glimmered and…
It was a large kitchen, with all its appliances still in place, albeit cobwebbed and dusty. Bluebird cautiously ventured further in, scanning for a door, trying to think – kitchens would be on the bottom floor, so this ghost-Voidsent-whatever put her pretty far from her brother. Well, that won’t stop her-
Something clinked, metal on metal, and slowly, vibrations, running up her legs from the very foundations. The crystal in her hand flickered, like something was reaching out to smother its light-
-and Bluebird flung herself flat on the floor, when all the rusted pots and pans, hanging from the wall, abruptly launched themselves at her.
“Fucking asshole!” she hissed from the floor, frantically crawling as shit was thrown wildly around the kitchen, the floor starting to wildly shake, everything rattling in place. Sometimes a pot or a pan would smash into her back or shoulder, sending jolts of pain rattling through her – other times she narrowly avoided fucking knives being aimed at her back, the metal embedding hilt deep into the wooden flooring with each miss.
Where was the door? Where was the fucking door!? She was running out of space to roll and crawl through here!
No sooner had that half-panicked thought shot through her mind, she rounded the gutted shell of an oven and saw – a door! It was open, leading into inviting darkness, but Bluebird could hear the squeal of bolted down metal being torn from the flooring, could see an entire fucking cabinet get smashed onto the ground behind her so, fuck it, go go go!
Bluebird lunged to her feet – sprinted –
- her foot touched over the threshold and met thin air. She cried out but she was already tumbling, falling into darkness, darkness, darkness…
Aza woke up.
It was to a splitting headache and a disorientation that made his head swim. He groaned – then groaned – because fuck he ached. His entire face felt like one giant bruise, and when he clumsily lifted a hand, prodding and poking, his nose felt swollen and blood crusted his upper lip.
What the hell… happened…?
“Nh? Bluebird…?” he muttered, squinting his eyes open at the barely there murmur. A baby blue ceiling swam into focus, dotted with mould and damp, and he frowned, confused. It had been dark-
“Bluebird!” he gasped, shooting upright when he remembered – but he wasn’t in a too dark corridor, being chased by Something, frantic and unaware of what was happening. No, he was sat in a room. A familiar room. A small, room, with a tiny broken bed, and cupboards and cabinets with opened, wrenched doors, empty insides, and an open window letting in lovely warm, summer sunlight.
Aza’s breathing hitched.
He jolted, but the shadow that loomed over him was a familiar one, “Fray?”
Fray looked out of place in that room. His armour was smudged around the edges, something faded about him, and his head was bowed at an angle almost called weary. Aza could feel his anxiety triple, quadruple, because he knew, then, that this was the room, the one he had both wanted to see and avoid.
“It seems…” Fray said, quietly, “It wanted us to come here.”
“It?” Aza rasped, his head pounding just from that one word. He grimaced, cradling his head as he awkwardly got to his feet. Fray watched him struggle in silence.
“It,” Fray repeated, “The thing in the manor.”
Aza heard the unsaid thing, swallowed thickly and lowered his gaze to the floor. Fray was still watching him, his form fuzzing a little bit more. He was him, and he was him, so Aza knew, knew, that Fray felt what he felt, knew why, but… he’d still make him confront it, won’t he?
“It needs to be confronted,” Fray said, “Twenty-five years is a bit too long to avoid something like this.”
“I’ve been fine so far ignoring it,” Aza muttered, almost sulkily.
Fray laughed, an ugly, short sound, “Fine. ‘Fine’. We both know that’s not true. You’ve been in denial. You say you don’t remember-”
(“There are some things… I need to know. I need to know what I did-”)
“I don’t remember,” Aza whispered.
“You do,” Fray said harshly, “You do remember. You know what happened here.”
Aza’s gaze slid, unbidden, to the window at the far end of the room. Sunlight filtered through, pure, bright, its glass smashed in, and the curtain half-rotted and stained from damp. The curtain fluttered.
“See?” Fray murmured, “You do.”
“Where’s Bluebird?” Aza asked abruptly.
Fray eyed him for a long moment.
“Not here,” he said, “You were separated. I’m sure she’s fine, though. Bluebird can fend for herself.”
That sounded… right? But, not really? Something lurched as wrong, but his head was pounding too hard, he felt too dizzy to think it through. Something wasn’t right, but, maybe that was Aza’s anxiety talking, his desire to avoid the thing he needed to confront. Fray just watched him, yellow eyes shadowed, his form smudged and fuzzed around the edges, details indistinct.
It was eerily quiet, this room. Silent, with the exception of that fluttering curtain, the whisper of rustling leaves from outside, muffled birdsong. It was as if this room was placed in a bubble, its own snapshot, frozen in time, at the exact moment… the moment…
Fray was in his peripheral, a black smear in an otherwise pristine memory.
“Stop being a coward,” Fray said, “Go, look, remember.”
No, Aza wanted to say, the word lodged hard in his throat, but his traitorous feet carried him forwards. The floorboard groaned beneath his boots, he breathed, and remembered-
(-Ala stared at him with wide-eyed horror, taking in the blood smeared over him, the knife in his hands. She stepped back when he stepped forwards-
“A-Aza, what- what did you do?”
“We’re free,” Aza said, fizzing with a maddened joy, not seeing her fear, everything searing with a brilliance that made him feel disconnected from reality, raw power, strength, fixing the food chain – we’re predators, Mom said, and they were, he was, he was now the predator, “I killed him, Ala. We’re free, we can go home!”
“Home? This is home-!”)
-and another step, skirting around the collapsed remains of the tiny bed-
(“LET GO OF ME! HELP! AZA’S GONE CRAZY!”
Aza didn’t understand. Frustrated. Ala was always contrary – always, it was Ala, she was ten – but this wasn’t the time for their games! Her yelling was too loud they were going to hear! The time Aza bought, killing Master so silently, and now Ala was ruining it!
She tried to thrash free from his grip on her arm, gripping the windowsill with all of her strength while Aza reeled, off-balance, one hand on the knife, his limbs shaking from exertion and adrenaline, trying not to hurt, but, they needed to leave-
“Stop yelling!” he shouted, letting go of her arm only to snatch her by the scruff instead, shaking her so hard her head wobbled sharply on her neck. She started crying, and the noise scraped at already raw nerves, “STOP FUCKING YELLING! THIS IS FOR YOU! I’M DOING THIS FOR YOU-!”
Ala kicked him in the shins, smacked his face, she even bit him – but Aza was beyond pain now. This body – just filled with the fizzing, urging need to escape, whatever she did to him, it didn’t matter, so long as he got her out, so long as he got her home, so long as he fulfilled his promise – he dragged, her, kicking and screaming, by her scruff, a strength he didn’t know he had as he hauled her to the door-
For Master’s guards to barge in at that moment, weapons bared-)
-glass crunched underfoot, and he was close enough to the window now, to see the jagged edges of the smashed glass jutting out of the frame, the dots of brown faded into the pale, half-rotted wood of the sill-
(-he shifted direction immediately.
Mom had taught them, from a very young age, how to drop from a tall height. Even Ala, because trees and height were a Miqo’te kitten’s only chance of survival from predators, sometimes, and it’d be a shame to escape being devoured by a bear, only to die by a broken neck from an ill-timed jump from a tree.
So, as the guards surged forwards, with Ala thrashing in Aza’s grip, there was only route left to him-
-this was the second floor-)
Aza reached the window-
(Ala shrieked, high and startled, when he shoved her out the window, already seeing her twisting to mitigate the hard landing-)
-he closed his eyes, took a breath-
(-and the noise that followed, was not the ‘thmp’ of a body hitting soft grass-)
ala stared up at him, her eyes wide, and red around her mouth
a soft breathy
Below, in the garden, there was soft grass, now overgrown and wild, gnarled bushes stretching thorny fingers out.
But nestled amongst those wild, gnarled bushes, its dark green surface a pitted, dull bronze, rusty with age and weather, was a bent, jagged iron fence, spiked, hidden, with vivid red flowers winding around the spikes.
(Below, in the garden, Ala dangled awkwardly from the fence, a spike splitting through her chest and staining her white yukata red)
The floorboards groaned as Aza lost the strength in his legs. His knees struck the creaking wood hard, his breaths rattling hard in his throat.
Aza did not scream.
He pressed his forehead against the wooden windowsill, and took a breath. And another one. And another one. He just kept breathing.
“You remember,” Fray murmured softly, behind him.
“I…” Aza choked out, “killed her.”
“You already knew that.”
Aza whined, a low, pained noise that barely sounded human. He curled up, pressed up against the wall, and just… wished he didn’t remember it. It was better, when the memory was twisted up and fogged -where he misremembered and thought it was Ala he stabbed to death, or, she just died, or, it was the guards. That uncertainty had been comforting. It had been… it had been an event that Happened. It just Happened. Like something you read in a book, tragic but distant, unreal.
“You knew,” Fray continued ruthlessly, yet not unkindly, “But you found it easier to deny it. You found it easier to forget her.”
“But she… she…” Aza whispered into the wall.
“She betrayed you?” Fray finished what Aza couldn’t. He sighed, long and deep, “Ala was ten.”
Aza didn’t reply.
“She was ten, and somehow untouched by that animal,” Fray spat out the last word, “She didn’t understand what was happening. Imagine it: her brother, that she barely saw anymore, bursting into her room, brandishing a knife and covered in blood, screaming how he murdered their master who had only ever treated her kindly?”
“He did not,” Aza snarled, uncurling from his pathetic ball, rage rousing him, “treat us-!”
“He treated her kindly,” Fray said softly, “He never touched her, and you never told her.”
Aza clenched his hands so hard they hurt.
Abruptly, he remembered: Ala never participated in the games Musa made the other children play, but then, she was the youngest. She was ten. Even Aza himself had been pushing it at eleven, and Musa waited for him to mature for a year, a year, a year where Aza had started to sink into the same trap as Ala, thinking, this isn’t so bad, but it was, it was.
“She was ten,” Fray repeated, “And you never told her the truth.”
Because she wouldn’t believe me, because she was too young to understand, because I felt ashamed, because, because, because – all these excuses, clogging up Aza’s throat, but Fray heard them, did not grant him the mercy of letting them stay unchallenged. Yellow eyes, glittering, hard and merciless, in the shadow of his helmet – Aza looked away to the floor, ashamed.
“You resented her.”
“You were jealous that she didn’t suffer like you.”
“You actually… hated her a little, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” the word rasped out of his throat like sandpaper, “I… I hated her.”
“And loved her,” Fray added, in a gentler tone, “Too much.”
Aza breathed. He stared at Fray’s boots.
“I killed her,” Aza said dully.
“Yes. You did.”
Spoken plainly. Yes, you did. Simple. No ifs, not buts, no ‘you were a child’, no ‘it was an accident’, no ‘it couldn’t be helped’. Simply: yes, you did. The straight truth. It cut like an ugly rupture splitting his organs apart, and he pressed his hands against his stomach, amazed that his hands didn’t come wet with blood. He had thought Ala had been a wound long since healed over, scarred, but no, it could still rip open, and what came out was not blood but pus.
“But that’s not the end of it, is it?” Fray pressed, because he was merciless, because he was cruel to be kind – he pressed, fingers digging deep into that now raw wound, and pressed, “Is it?”
Aza retreated, curled up – he had nothing left in him.
“Where is Ala now, Aza?”
(When Aza realised what had happened, the guards were already on him. He just screamed, a terrible, ugly, inhuman noise-)
“I… don’t know.”
(-but it wasn’t with grief. Rage, rage, rage rage rage-)
“Discarded,” Fray said, abruptly, “That’s where she is.”
(Somehow, through the boiling haze of red, Aza managed to rip away from the guards, hands slick with red and mouth filled with copper, managed to get to the garden, under Ala’s window-)
“Where did you abandon her, Aza?” Fray asked.
(-he pulled her from the fence, and she was still warm, staring at nothing, blank, empty-)
Aza slowly, carefully, rose to his feet.
“… the garden,” he rasped, “I left her… in the garden…”
“Yes,” Fray said very softly, his eyes a dull brown in the shadow of his helmet, “You did.”
Outside, the birdsong stopped.
“Let us put this to rest.”
Something was wrong, but, through the fog, Aza found it hard to think what it was. Fray was just a blur now – or, Aza’s vision was blurring, his head was pounding-
“It’s time to find Ala.”