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Creaking Floors

Chapter Text

It started with a horror story in a Kuganite bar aimed at foreigners.

Aza had been seated, half-asleep and drowsy as Bluebird chatted up a burly, Roegadyn barman, that his sister’s prey for the night told them an old story that had been floating around in recent months. Stories of an old, dilapidated mansion owned by a nobleman disgraced, that had lain untouched since his violent death, and how recent scavengers, braving the untended grounds to look for valuable loot, were found dead on the outskirts come morning, their faces twisted into one of terror.

Normally a story Aza would dismiss out of hand. You stumbled across a lot of them, in Eorzea, in Kugane, in Othard… everywhere. They ended up being Voidsent, or ghosts, or Voidsent-ghosts, for variety, but this story… this story

“And what did this nobleman do, to have his house a haunted mess?” Bluebird had asked, clearly finding the story bullshit but enjoying it nevertheless, “Bathe in the blood of young women or something?”

“Worse,” the barman said in a hushed whisper, “This nobleman kept a haram, a haram of child slaves-

And, like that-

Lord Musa, they called him-”

-that was how this story started.


It looked nothing like what Aza remembered.

Probably because he never saw the from manor outside. He only ever saw the front courtyard from the second-floor window, with its lazily spinning aetheryte at its centre, flanked by hedges trimmed into different animal shapes. Oddly, while huge chunks of his memory were foggy and blurred from his time here, Aza remembered, with crystal clarity, that the hedges had been trimmed into a lunging griffin and a rearing horse on the day he…

On the day.

Now, those hedges were wild and overgrown, thorns and brambles choking through thick, fat leaves, and wildflowers pushing through cracked stone at its base. The aetheryte was long deactivated, its crystal lying flat on its side, dull grey and inert, its gold trimming long pried off from looters. Over twenty years had passed, and it left the courtyard absolutely unrecognisable.

“Charming,” Bluebird muttered at his side. They had yet to go past the broken gate – a towering, iron wrought fence that was buckled open, its black surface pitted with brown rust. Aza could see old footprints stamped around the broken gate’s base.

“Yeah,” he said quietly, staring at the inert aetheryte. The manor was there, looming, silent, dark despite the high noon sun beaming down on it. From here, it felt cold, weirdly ominous under the bright blue sky.

“Looks like we had some visitors before us,” Bluebird pointed out, blissfully oblivious, or just aggressively ignoring, the soft, threatening vibes emanating from the dilapidated manor before them. “I wonder if we’ll trip over their corpses?”

Aza didn’t reply. He looked from the aetheryte to the manor, his gaze automatically finding ‘his’ window. The one he sat at almost every day for two hellish years, staring out at freedom, wishing he had the courage to leap out and race for the gate. He had tried it once, had actually gotten to the tree that grew over the fence, but halfway up-

(-sharp teeth sinking into his calf, and he screamed as Master’s dogs pulled him down and white-red fangs flashing in his vision and pain and skin split open to bone-)

“Aza.”

 Bluebird was gripping his forearm. His hands were shaking.

“We don’t have to go inside,” his sister told him, her voice uncharacteristically quiet, “It’s just a stupid horror story.”

No,” Aza breathed, his voice sounding ragged even to his ears, “No, I have to… know. I have to.”

“Do you?” Bluebird asked sharply, “Do you really? This is long in the past, Aza. You’ve moved on.”

He hadn’t. Aza was still in that manor, still sitting at that window, staring out to freedom – he hadn’t moved an ilm since the day he left that fucking place, and he could feel- if he did this (whatever this may be), he might actually rip this fucking place out of his heart by the roots, cast it out, throw it away-

(maybe I will know what I did that day)

-he needed to know.

“Did what?” Bluebird asked, and Aza realised he said that aloud.

Aza pulled his arm from his sister’s grip. She let him go, but frowned, her eyes dark and sharp.

He didn’t answer. He just started moving, back into the past.


Inside was worse.

He stepped inside into a foyer that made his stomach twist hard enough he almost doubled over from it. Modest sized – Mas- Musa, had always perfected the art of fake modesty – the floor smooth hardwood, now covered in a thick layer of cloying dust with footprint trails carved through it. Wide, sweeping marble stairs led upwards, to the floor above, and the stale air burnt his throat. The walls, normally lined with paintings, were empty, the wallpaper rotting off in large, ugly strips.

Rot. He smelled rot. Metallic. Tang. Metal rot. Blood.

“This place’s seen better days,” Bluebird murmured, her voice too loud in the still quiet. It helped Aza to breathe, “Fuckin’ stinks.”

“Yeah,” Aza rasped, finding himself moving. He walked up to the stairs. The white marble was an ugly, chipped grey, now, and disturbed dust showed someone had recently walked up them – but hadn’t walked back down. Aza’s boot landed, heavily, on the bottom step, and he -hesitated.

He knew what was up there.

The stairs looked smaller, though. Shorter. He remembered that he had to take large strides to walk smoothly up them – normally when holding onto Master’s- Musa’s arm, or one of his disgusting friends, artificial smile in place, feeling like his skin was crawling off his body at the body contact, wanting, desperately, to have the courage to just throw those horrible, awful men down the stairs and break their necks-

But that was twenty years ago. It was just Aza, standing on the bottom step, with the legs of an adult and stairs that looked too short. His skin still crawled.

Bluebird was standing behind him, quiet. He could feel her gaze on the nape of his neck.

He knew what was up there.

Then why are you hesitating? A low, dull voice that sounded like Fray muttered, Get up there and confront it, coward.

Confront it.

You want to know, don’t you? What you did?

Yes.

Then go to Ala’s room.

Aza wavered.

“What’s up there?” Bluebird murmured, her voice so soft he could pretend not to hear it if he wanted, “Is that where… Musa…?”

“Yes,” Aza’s voice sounded dead even to his own ears, “His room is up there.”

He took a step.

“Aza,” Bluebird said, her voice quiet yet still too loud, “Wait.”

Aza paused, then shifted to look over his shoulder. Bluebird looked wary, her feet spaced apart and her hands loose, like she was ready to leap into action. But why? Despite rumours of ghosts or whatever, the manor was quiet except for the low creak of settling foundations. The Echo, too, was silent, and it was just them here.

You hope it’s just us.

“I remember you telling me, before,” Bluebird began softly, “about how you escaped here. How, um, you killed that sicko.”

“Yeah,” Aza said, “I did.”

(“I stabbed him, after- after. In his stomach, and, I couldn’t stop after that. I just… kept…”

“Good! I mean, he deserved it!”)

“You said he deserved it,” Aza finished, wondering why he remembered that part, “Then I cried.”

“You always cry,” Bluebird huffed, before heaving a sigh, “And he did deserve it. I’m just saying, if this place is haunted, then… well. He did die a violent death, so… you know…”

He might still be here, went unspoken.

Aza looked back up the stairs. Suddenly, the gloomy darkness they led up to seemed ominous.

“Could be a Voidsent,” Aza said, for once praying it was a fucking Voidsent. He’d take Ferdinand over Musa’s Ghost any day, “Could be nothing.”

“Could be Musa’s sick fucking ghost rising up from his deathbed,” Bluebird snapped, “Who else would it be?”

Yes, Fray purred in his ear, who else, Aza?

“I’m going upstairs,” he said forcefully, and started to do just that, before he lost his nerve.

Aza,” Bluebird growled, clearly exasperated, but she followed him. She always followed him, even if she thought he was being batshit crazy or weird, she followed him. Loyal to a fault, that one.  

Their steps echoed as they ascended the stairs, dust stirring at their feet. The stink of metallic rot grew the higher they went, and Aza fought not to gag as they stepped onto the landing. Its carpet, once a lustrous red, was now mottled with black, slimy mould. Aza clamped a gloved hand over his nose and mouth, squinting at the dark motes floating in the air.

“Mould spores,” Bluebird grumbled, her voice muffled behind her own hand, “We’ll have Crisp look over us later to make sure we don’t carry anything weird back.”

Aza grunted, taking a few cautious steps forwards. The carpet squished grossly, but the floorboards underneath held with only a few quiet, protesting squeaks. Everything was stable here.

It looked strangely dark, though. The landing split in two ways, one towards the west wing, where the servants and Musa’s ‘children’ resided, then there was the east wing, where Musa’s quarters were, as well as guest rooms and the pleasure room. Each corridor towards each wing had large, sweeping windows, designed to let in as much natural light as possible, and outside was a bright, sunny day.

The light currently filtering through the windows was dim, almost washed out, plunging both corridors into a dull, impenetrable darkness.

“Don’t like this,” Bluebird muttered as Aza slowly walked towards the east wing, “I’m getting bad vibes.”

“It’s fine,” Aza gritted out, “It’s just dark.”

Unnaturally dark-!

Something clattered at the end of the corridor, and both of them instantly went still. A quiet skittering, like claws over stone, then a tense, drawn out silence, filled only by Aza and Bluebird’s slow, deep breaths. Aza could feel it now, a prickle of unease slipping down his back as his nape itched, like he was being intensely watched.

“…that better be a rat,” Bluebird muttered.

“Maybe you should go check,” Aza said, managing to dreg up some black humour. He glanced over at his sister’s sour expression, gesturing, “C’mon, ladies first.”

“I’m not taking charge of your own torture session,” Bluebird snapped, but she barged forwards anyway, boldly leading into the darkness with her hands hovering close to the hilts of her daggers. Aza followed.

They stopped at each door in the wing, peeking into the rooms with heightened caution. Majority of them were ruined, the carpet mouldy, wallpaper peeling and the stink of metallic rot thick in the air. The furniture was half crumbled, termites and moths long since eaten through what was once expensive wood and silk. Some doors led into corridors, half-collapsed, or were so structurally unsound they thought it best not to venture deeper into the unstable building.

Eventually, they found the room. Not Mas- Musa’s, but…

“What’s this?” Bluebird muttered, nudging the broken door open with a squeal of rusty hinges. The room was wide and spacious, the biggest one yet, with a window almost the exact length and width of the furthest wall, overlooking the courtyard. It was Aza’s window.

(-he looked out at the garden, could trace the path to the lone tree that grew over the fence, and he’d feel the urge, the desperation – I climbed out this window once, I can do it again, I can make it this time-

But then Master’s dogs would come into view, huge, hulking, vicious, skulking at the base of the tree, and Aza would shrink away from the window, even though they couldn’t reach him, and shiver and shake, too afraid, only able to wait for when Master came-)

“This was my room,” he said dully. He stared at it, stared at the way it was designed, raised seats along the wall, the centre like a miniature stage, filled with half-rotted pillows and duvets.  How many days, night, weeks, months, years, had he spent in this room, with the other children, under the cold, hungry gazes of Master and his friends? They all blurred into one nightmarish, foggy memory he couldn’t grasp the details of, and he pushed it down with a deep, slow breath.

(“This is an opportunity to learn from your older brothers and sisters! So, don’t be shy, and explore yourselves-”)

“Your room-” Bluebird paused, really took in how the room was designed, and repeated, low and angry, “Your room? This isn’t a- a room. This is a fucking stage!”

Aza made a low, non-committal noise.

“With other kids?” Bluebird demanded, and her fist was clenched so hard her knuckles were white, “It wasn’t just him you-!?”

(“-learn from your older brothers and sisters-”)

“Don’t,” Aza said stiltedly, “Don’t say it.”

Bluebird glared at him, could see a muscle work in her jaw – but after a moment the outrage left her, and she let it out with a harsh, noisy exhale. She relaxed her hands.

“Right,” she said, sounding incredibly… sad, “Okay.”

Aza wasn’t sure how long they stood there, staring into the room. Or, Aza stared into the room, out his window, Bluebird just stared at the door, her mouth twisted in open disgust. Probably at you, a nasty little voice hissed at him, but Aza shoved it down. Never him. He knew that much about Bluebird – she would never be disgusted in him.

He closed the door. He saw enough there.

“We done?” Bluebird said roughly. She was looking a bit pale, “You found out whatever it is you wanted?”

“No, not yet,” Aza mumbled, but he was looking at Bluebird, “Are you okay?”

“Am I-?” Bluebird sounded briefly speechless from disbelief, “Aza, this place is your nightmare, and you’re asking if I’m okay? What about you? Are you okay?”

“I’m-”

Don’t lie now, Fray muttered.

“-not,” Aza finished stiffly, unable to look Bluebird in the face any longer, “Kinda? I don’t know. I don’t…”

Feel anything, really. He just… felt utterly nothing. He thought- there’d be horror, disgust, maybe shame, but he just felt empty. He just looked at that room and felt… hollowed out. Mildly sick, maybe. But he wasn’t remembering – his mind would skirt the memories, and he’d stuff it back down before details could really form. He will not remember. He knew, the second, the very second that he stopped to remember all this, every detail, it would break him. And he couldn’t… yet…

“I don’t remember much,” he said quietly.

Blubird looked at him, really looked at him, like she was trying to dig the truth out of his skill from her stare alone.  

“Yes, you do,” she said.

Aza looked at his feet.

I said not to lie, right? Fray sighed, She knows you better than yourself, better than me. Come on, be honest.

“What’re you trying to do here, Aza?” Bluebird asked, softening her tone, “I know you’re not- I know you haven’t completely moved on, but, what’s coming here and digging everything back up gonna do but make you feel like shit? Is this some messed up way of punishing yourself or something?”

“Punish- why, why would I punish myself?” Aza stammered, almost cringing when Bluebird’s eyes narrowed at him, realising that now she had glimpsed a weakness, she wouldn’t let it go, “This wasn’t- none of this was my fault-”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Bluebird said slowly, suspiciously, “None of it is. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Y-Yeah…”

“Nothing at all,” Bluebird finished forcefully, as if daring him to disagree, “You were a kid, Aza. Anything you did here, it wasn’t your fault. The adults here fucking failed you. Do you get that?”

Fray was silent. Aza had been half-hoping he’d whisper a disagreement there. But, if even he felt that this wasn’t… no, none of them had seen the- seen Ala’s room yet. They hadn’t seen…

Seen what? Not even you know what’s to see.

Aza turned away from Bluebird, looking further down the corridor. They were near the end, and he could see Musa’s room, doors pulled shut. Strange, he thought distantly, I never remembered shutting them after I had killed him.

With how the manor was, it looked as if everything was dropped the moment he had murdered him. Like everyone vacated the manor and never came back – but that wasn’t true, was it…? His body would’ve had to be collected, someone must’ve tried to clean the house up – his relatives squabble over ownership, or tried to get rid of it? Kuganites were superstitious about homes where violent deaths occurred, or where a great crime took place. This manor just happened to have both.

“What do you want out of this, Aza?” Bluebird asked him again.

“… I want to know,” Aza said, “About… if, I meant it, when I said I don’t remember… some things.”

He started towards Musa’s room. Bluebird was at his heels.

“Aza…”

“Also,” Aza continued, “I wanna burn it all down, but can’t do that if some people might be inside looting the place.”

“Oh,” Bluebird sounded a little more approving of that, “Well, that makes sense…”

They were at Musa’s doors now. Aza studied them, taking in the water damage that warped the thin wood, the intricate patterns burned into Aza’s memory from the hours he spent kneeling before these doors, waiting for Master to call him in like a dog…

He pressed his hand against the door – it was off its latch, partially open and offering a thin strip to peer into the room. It was too dark to see anything.

Aza’s stomach hurt, suddenly, and it was weird – like his emotions and physiological reactions just weren’t matching up. He could feel sweat bead his brow, his throat thumping high in his throat, but his emotions felt flat and calm, detached. He could see his fingers tremble against the faded, half-rotted wood, unable to force himself to push the door open the rest of the way.

“Hey…” Bluebird said softly next to him, “Catboy, want me to open the door?”

No,” Aza rasped, his voice strangled, “No, I can… I can do it.”

(“Never enter my room without permission. You are to wait, outside, until I call-”)

Aza let out a rough noise, hating himself- weakness – and shoved the door open in a violent movement. Bluebird jumped, but Aza stood there, panting hard, staring into a room that was…

Dark. Spacious.

He stepped forwards, feeling like he was stepping through a hazy dream. The shredded curtains were pulled apart, bright sunlight beaming over the large, king-sized bed. There were no silken covers-

(-sticking to his skin from sweat, holding in the stink of musk and darkening from tears, he pressed his face into it and tried-)

-the mattress exposed, dark brown stains spreading from its centre, surrounded by smaller ones-

(-panted hard, hands stinging, aching, slipping over the leather hilt, stuck, the knife was stuck, and beneath, Master was groaning, animal like noise, but Mom/the Something always said to kill predators fast, now, before they hurt you, kill it, kill it, so he wrenched the knife back, to and fro, hearing it catch against gristle and muscle and bone and-

“I told you I’d kill you,” the Something laughed in his voice, high and wild and crazed, as it pulled the knife free and lifted it up, “I told you-”)

-and footprints, small, dark brown footprints, faded to a very light smear on the carpet, leading from the bed to the door.

The metallic rot smell was at its peak.

“They didn’t even change the mattress,” Bluebird’s voice sounded as if from far away, like underwater.

Aza looked away from the bed.

(-there was blood on his hands and stomach and thighs, and he was in pain and Master was dead and he was in pain and Master was dead-)

The room was wobbling around him, bleaching grey.

(-silk sticking to skin-)

“Aza?”

(-Master’s hands on his thighs- blood on, his thighs, hands- there was-)

“I’m gonna be sick,” he said.

(i cant breathe)

Then he threw up.


Aza came back to himself sitting in the corridor, a weird, animal-like noise groaning in his throat as Bluebird held his hands.

“It’s okay, it’s okay, your big sis is here, see? Look, totally here to keep you safe,” Bluebird was saying, almost grey with worry as she held his hands so tight he couldn’t feel his fingers, “C’mon, fucking c’mon, snap out of it-”

“I’m-” Aza coughed out, his throat raw, mouth tasting of acid, “-out.”

“Oh, thank fuck,” Bluebird breathed, letting his hands go and cupping his cheeks instead. Her fingers were pleasantly cool, his skin flushed and sticky with sweat, “You just- Aza, you just fucking, you just locked down, completely. You wouldn’t, answer me, or anything!”

“S’ry.”

No! Don’t apologise!” Bluebird yelled, and he flinched from the noise, “Shit, no, sorry. I won’t yell, I just… fuck.”

Aza said nothing, slowly looking around. They were just outside Musa’s room. The doors had been pulled completely shut.

“I felt… fine, though, so… why did I…?” he said in groggy confusion, bewildered at how his body was just shaking around him, pulse thumping like a rabbit’s in his throat. He felt like he’d finished running a marathon, sticky with sweat-

(-silk sticking-)

His stomach convulsed and he barely coughed it down – Bluebird almost toppled on her ass scrambling away from him.

“You being sick again!?”

“N-No…” Aza panted, breathing through the nausea, “No, I’m not.”

Bluebird cautiously shuffled back to him, “Aza,” she said seriously, “We’ve gotta go. This is just, fucking killing you being here.”

Aza made a rough noise, might’ve been a laugh or something, he didn’t know, “No, we haven’t… seen…”

I’ll search this shithole by myself!” Bluebird snapped, “I’m not gonna let you just, fucking, rip yourself apart for some stupid ghost story!”

“…” Aza bowed his head a little, “I thought you said you won’t yell.”

Bluebird made a noise like an overboiling tea kettle, but her voice was noticeably controlled and low as she said, “We’re going back outside.”

Aza thought about protesting, but… even he had to see he was a fucking wreck right now. Shame squirmed in his stomach, that a fucking bed reduced him to this pathetic state, but, maybe it was for the best. If Musa’s room did this, then Ala’s… it would’ve shattered him, right?

“C’mon, up you get…” Bluebird sighed, pulling him onto his feet. He wavered, but she gently wrapped an arm around his shoulders, practically pinning him against her side as she moved them, slow and careful, down the corridor.

“It’s okay, alright?” she murmured, “We’ll just go outside and get some fresh air, or something. Then we can go visit Tataru! She’s getting really good at that tea ceremony shit, and I bet she’ll love to just chill out with us, right?”

Aza let Bluebird’s semi-nervous chatter wash over him, closing his eyes as his sister led him onwards. He felt stupid. Why did he come in here? Why did he look?

“-nd then… mm, huh? Did I take a wrong turning?”

What? Aza opened his eyes, frowning, “It’s a straight corridor…”

Said corridor continued to stretch out before them, but it looked… different? The carpet was a royal blue colour, and Aza recognised the nearby door – the baths, which were in the… east… wing? What?

“…did you walk past them?” Aza asked blankly.

No! I’m not blind!” Bluebird huffed, but she looked unsure, “Let’s double back.”

They did, but they ended up in an entirely different part of the manor – the dining room, which was downstairs, without ever seeing a set of stairs. Doubling back again took them to Musa’s room – Bluebird practically snarled at that, urged them past, and they ended up in the bathroom, the pleasure room, the storeroom, the kitchen, everywhere except the stairs leading into the foyer.

Bluebird’s grip around Aza’s shoulders was like iron at this point, her body taut with anticipation as they slowly realised what was happening.

“Fantastic,” his sister muttered as they stood once more in front of Musa’s room, “Great.”

And it was then that the sunlight, pale and washed out as it was, filtering through the window, abruptly darkened, plunging them both into total, utter darkness.

Chapter Text

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…

A kitchen?

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-

A growl.

Bluebird stilled.

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…?

Aza.

“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.

“Aza.”

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.”

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-)

He looked.

(He looked

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ala stared up at him, her eyes wide, and red around her mouth

a soft breathy

little

‘oh’

left her

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

)

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 screamed)

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.”

Yes.

“You were jealous that she didn’t suffer like you.”

Yes.

“You actually… hated her a little, didn’t you?”

“…”

“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.”

“Don’t lie.”

(-but it wasn’t with grief. Rage, rage, rage rage rage-)

Aza breathed.

“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.”