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Half-Life

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Die, you piece of shit, thought Quentin, back hitting brick and cement as he took his last step backwards and ran out of places to go. He had tried everything—done everything possible, and it still hadn’t been enough. All the planning and struggling and fighting, and he was going to die. Here, in the fucking cave, of all places, and without even being able to take this bastard with him. Nancy. Dad—No. Focus, focus, come on—don’t give up yet. Fight. There’s gotta be something you can do. It’s a dream—it’s a dream, just think.

At the other end of the room, Freddy was taking his time walking. Moving so slow he was barely coming forward at all, claws scraping the wall and sparking, sure now he was going to win, a grin spreading across his burned face, eyes fixed on Quentin.

Fuck you—fuck you! thought Quentin, furious through the panic and the frantic beating of his heart in his chest like it was going to burst. The man was so fucking proud of himself, dragging Quentin back here to the preschool, to the basement, to the hidden room there to kill him. He wanted to puke and to scream and to throw himself at Freddy and try to rip what was left of his face open with his fingernails, but he knew the second he got that close, the gauntlet was going through him, and he would be dead. Dying here, in this awful room, probably slow. And then what? He would just be…be out—be out of the picture, nothing else he could do—no way to protect anybody, or to stop Freddy, or to get any kind of vengeance or justice, and what would happen? What was going to happen to— Stop it, thought Quentin, hands feeling blindly against the wall in some desperate hope for a loose brick, and then closing tightly into fists when they came up empty.

Freddy walked closer, letting his claws leave the wall and flexing his fingers, like an animal ready to pounce. That fucking grin on his face, so ready to enjoy this, like he’d enjoyed everything. Seconds away. Seconds from over. Laughing as he closed in.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, thought Quentin, choking on the fear, feeling sick, sick, and then angry. Furious. He knew what was going to happen, but as Freddy got close, bladed gauntlet flickering in the dim firelight coming off candles in the room, the fear of that was swallowed up in a desperate, overpowering hatred. He was remembering things—remembering everything—thinking about what was going to happen, and what had—to his friends, to his best friend, probably soon to Nancy, maybe his dad, and fuck—fuck, more than anything else, he wanted to see this man die. If he could have reached out there in that little, awful room, and grabbed him by the collar and dragged him down into hell with him, it would have been worth it to burn. I wish I’d been the one to kill you. He wished it had been him who’d lit the fire years ago, the one who cut his throat the week before, he wished he was going to be able to kill him now. He didn’t just want to kill him, he had to kill him. The desire spread through him with every inch the other man closed and horrible scraping sound from the gauntlet as he came. Every memory, every imagined future, every fear.

I have to kill him. The need was desperate, overpowering, and he let it seep into his blood. Channeling it like he could will the man to death. It was a dream—maybe he could. It’s my dream, it’s my head—fucking die! Get out of my life! He wanted to kill him! To kill him, and to watch him burn, and then to never even think of him again! Not once! Fucking die! He kept thinking it, overcome with the need to see him obliterated, praying for it now, and wishing it, and willing it. Die! Die and never come back! Never get her! Never get anyone again!

Maybe four feet away, Freddy took a last step and reached out for him, bladed fingers making a sickening shlick as thy flicked together, and everything in Quentin made him want to shrink back, to run, to struggle, to scream, but he held onto the righteous rage burning in his chest and the hatred in his blood, and he lashed out instead, wishing the man in front of him dead with every fiber of his being. Freddy lunged forward, gauntlet on its way to burying itself in his shoulder, and Quentin was halfway to burying his fist in the other man’s face while the blades ran him through, when time stopped—or—or it couldn’t have, because he was still thinking, and he knew Freddy was too—his eyes were moving, and they were both still moving, trying to move, but. It was like the air was thick suddenly—he could see through it, but it was invisibly thick, like trying to dig your way through tar, and he was still lost—still thinking, What? How—did he? and seeing the same confusion and surprise on the face of the person he hated most, and then there was fog—fog and mist, spiraling across his vision, too thick to see through, and then suddenly it was over.

The fog was gone, and he could see again, and his motion resumed like he’d never stopped the lunge, and Quentin stumbled forward, swinging at empty air, breathing hard. Regaining his balance, Quentin shot upright and turned fast, looking for Freddy—looking for where he was. But.

What the fuck? What the fuck! Where the—hell?

A woods—okay. Okay. A woods. Trees. Moon overhead—still night time. F-fuck it’s cold, thought Quentin, realizing it suddenly and wrapping his arms around himself. Cold? He’d never been…it wasn’t cold in dreams. There wasn’t temperature at all, unless it was something attacking him to burn him. He’d never been hot or cold in a dream before.

A-am I? thought Quentin, unwrapping his arms for a second to look down at his hands. He looked normal. What he could see of himself. His arms—his jacket, his shoes. Necklace? He reached for the cross and the pendant, fear in the split-second of unsurety, but no, it was there too. Good. But.

He looked around again. Tall trees, cold, clear sky, no snow, but not fall either—or not far enough for leaves. I don’t…think it’s Ohio at all. But then where was he? It didn’t…feel like a dream. And none of this was familiar, even in a dream way, where you kind of knew a location—so…not his dream. Was it even a dream at all?

“Where the fuck did you go?” whispered Quentin, turning to look again, watching his breath fog in the air. Every sense was still on high alert, pumping adrenaline through his body. Which was good—which he needed, something to fight off the exhaustion he was—

Wait. No—I’m…I’m awake. I have to be? Even if I’ve gotten burned before and maybe I could be cold, I can’t be tired while I’m asleep. I want to fall asleep right now, and if I want to fall asleep, I can’t already be asleep. And Freddy was gone. If he was gone, then it couldn’t be. It couldn’t be a dream, because he would never have done this, just to draw things out—no way. He’d wanted to kill him. He’d been done playing, and he’d wanted to end things in the cave. There was no way he’d ever pick somewhere over that fucking—

Okay, okay. Breathe. Focus, Quentin told himself, closing his eyes for a second and taking a deep breath. The sound of trees bending in the wind registered faintly with his eyes shut. He hadn’t heard it at all before, through the pounding in his heart he’d been hearing inside his own head.

“You did it,” Quentin said finally, opening his eyes again and lowering his arms to his sides. He stared at nothing. Thinking. Lost in that—afraid to believe it. I did it? Could he really have? He’d been so sure he was going to die in that room, but—it was the only thing that made sense. He’d wanted this—he’d been praying, been willing it to happen. You woke yourself up!

A slow grin spread across his face as he started to let himself believe it. I did it. I did it! “Hah! Fuck you!” yelled Quentin, jumping in the air, so much adrenaline still surging through his veins he felt like he was never going to slow down, “I won!”

You did it! You did it this time. This time. Right. This time. Okay, so focus. Think. He’ll be back. You can’t stay awake forever. First step—where the fuck are you?

Quentin looked around again, somehow expecting to see more than the endless sea of trees he’d seen before, but greeted with only information he already had. How did I get out here? Did I sleepwalk? he wondered, picking a direction and starting to walk, arms wrapped around himself again. That couldn’t make sense, though, right? There weren’t woods like this close to Springwood—at least…not that he knew. But maybe? Maybe he had. He could have taken the car…

God, please let me not have taken the car, thought Quentin, horrified by the thought, God, I can’t believe I’d do that. I could have killed someone.

It…it could have been Nancy? Trying to get him somewhere—to someone who could help, when she couldn’t wake him up?

But wouldn’t she just take you to the hospital—to get adrenaline? he asked himself, stepping under a low bow and holding another back to let himself through in the dim moonlight. Hang on a second. Light. He almost started at the sight of it. Firelight—flickering past the trees up ahead. And voices. People.

Pushing through the low bows quickly, Quentin tore out of the forest towards the voices and light, and he broke the tree line to see a campfire. A campfire and logs and shapes—the outline of people, hard to see past the bright light his eyes weren’t adjusted to yet.

“Holy fuck!” yelled some guy Quentin couldn’t quite see, falling off a log and scrambling back at the sight of him.

Another shot to his feet and had a long stick Quentin hadn’t even seen in his hands and leveled it against him like a sword, body ready for action.

“Is that a—?” started someone—a guy’s voice again, older sounding.

“Whoa!” said a girl’s voice at the same time as she and the guy and the last two other people around the fire all shot to their feet. The girl who’d spoken had red hair, and she had her arms up and palms out like she was trying to get him to stop. Two of the others were just standing there like they didn’t know what to do, but one of the other girls had her fists balled and looked like she was thinking about using them.

That wasn’t the really worrying thing, though—the big worry was the guy with the stick, who Quentin could see now was bigger than him and older by at least a few years, and also now taking off for him at a run, and that was bad, because Quentin was like eleven feet away, and it wasn’t gonna take someone sprinting very long to go eleven feet.

“Wait, wait, wait!” said Quentin, backing up and holding up his hands, “I’m friendly! Stop!”

The older guy hesitated about two feet away with his heavy and increasingly threatening looking log raised, looking like he still really wanted to kick his ass.

“Hang on a second, Jake!” called the girl, hurrying forward a little herself, “And you too!” she added accusatorily, pointing at him, “Who are you? How did you find us?”

“Yeah!” said the angry girl, coming up beside her.

“I—I came through the woods,” said Quentin, answering the questions in reverse order in his panic, “I saw the campfire. I’m Quentin.”

“People don’t just come through the woods,” said the bigger guy harshly. And man, he really looked like he was fighting his instincts with every aspect of his being not to flatten Quentin against the ground and beat the shit out of him right now.

“Yeah, they don’t,” came the guy who’d fallen off his log and was quickly picking himself up back by the fire, “No one does. How did you get here?”

“I-I don’t know,” said Quentin desperately, “I woke up here. Like—two minutes ago. I don’t even know where I am. Look—please put the stick down—I’m not going to attack anybody. I’m not even armed!”

The older dude with the stick considered that, but didn’t move. He looked incredibly suspicious.

“I don’t know,” said the third girl, who hadn’t spoken yet. She had short hair and an undercut and a beanie, which usually Quentin would have thought made someone look slightly more trustworthy, but she also had her eyes narrowed at him like she wanted to throw hands.  “He’s got a bigass jacket—what if he’s got a knife in there? Or a gun?”

“Fuck, a gun?!” said the redhead, “That wouldn’t be fair! We’d all die instantly to a gun.”

Y-yes? thought Quentin, very confused by her choice to verbalize that. “Look—I can drop my jacket and let you go through it if you want,” said Quentin, “All I’ve got in it is a lighter, a bottle of pills, and my cellphone.”

“…That seems legit,” said the girl with her fists balled. She was shorter than Quentin—shorter than all of them—but somehow still looked scarier than anyone but the dude with the log. “But he hasn’t done it yet. Why hasn’t he done it? Hit him, Jake—don’t chance it. Just don’t kill him, and if he turns out to be okay, we can just apologize later.”

‘Jake’ looked like he was going to go for that, and Quentin took another step back. “Wait! Don’t!” he said, going to tear his jacket off. “I’m not lying—I’m unarmed!” Wait a second.

“Yeah—don’t kill him, Jake. Just—let’s do this slow, and careful,” said the guy who’d fallen over when Quentin showed up, walking to join the others near the front of the group and adjusting his glasses.

“Wait a second,” said Quentin, stopping with his jacket still on, “Why are you guys so suspicious? Who are you? This is weird.”

“It took you till now to get that this is weird?” asked the redhead.

“I just had someone try to kill me—I’m kind of not thinking straight, and running on adrenaline right now,” said Quentin defensively.

“Come on—let the kid come sit down and we can talk this out,” said the only person in the group who looked like an adult—maybe in his late forties, with grey hair. He gave Quentin a sympathetic smile. “He’s not a threat. I know people don’t just walk up out here, but he’s clearly human like the rest of us, and he doesn’t have a big weapon or a mask or anything.”

“Yeah, maybe he just got out of a trial with Claudette,” said the girl with the beanie uncertainly, “Did you already meet a girl—another one? She’s black, has glasses, about this tall,” she added, holding her hand up to show someone a couple inches shorter than herself.

“What do you mean a ‘a weapon or a mask or anything’?” asked Quentin, “Who are you people?” He’d been suspicious for a second—on edge, feeling like he was walking into a trap, but as he looked at them, they looked…ragged. Torn clothes, bruises, scrapes. Hungry, and cold. Like they were stranded out here or something. Not bad people, I think, decided Quentin, relenting internally, But in trouble. And something’s going on. “–Are you…okay?”

The guy with glasses and the redhead exchanged looks, then the guy with glasses and the one called Jake did the same.

“He’s okay, Jake,” said the guy with glasses, putting a hand cautiously on the other guy’s arm, “I don’t think he’d ask that if he wasn’t lost for real.”

“He might just be smart,” said the guy with the log, but Quentin didn’t think he really meant it. The readiness and violence that had been in his movements before was gone.

“I seriously don’t know what’s going on,” said Quentin, speaking for himself, “But you guys look like you’re in trouble too. Are you lost out here?”

Jake and the guy with glasses exchanged glances again, and Jake sighed and lowered his arm. Thank God.

“Not…’lost’ exactly. Stuck,” said the older man, answering for the other two since they were having some kind of silent exchange.

“Stuck? Are you in trouble?” asked Quentin.

“We all are,” answered the guy with glasses, turning to him, not hostile at all anymore, not even really wary, just sounding kind of sympathetic, “You too, if you’re here, but it’s complicated. You really just got here? No trial, no—you didn’t see anybody with a mask, or hugeass doors—anything?”

“Uh. No,” said Quentin, “Just trees. And you people. I’ve been here for maybe three minutes now.”

“Well. Welcome to hell,” said the redhead, extending a hand to him, suddenly all friendly grins, “I’m Meg Thomas.”

“Yeah, sorry about the…uh, rough reception,” said the guy with glasses, offering him a hand too, “I’m Dwight.”

“Quentin,” said Quentin again, shaking both hands, “But I said that. When you say hell, you don’t—I’m not actually dead for real, right?”

“No,” said Dwight, giving him a tired smile, “But you’re probably going to kind of wish you were a little bit. Where we are is hard to explain, but we’ll do out best, over by the campfire, preferably. It’s cold as fuck out here.”

Yeah it is, agreed Quentin internally.

“Uh, this is Nea, Feng, Jake, and that’s Ace,” said Dwight, pointing to the girl with the beanie, the one who’d looked dangerous, the guy he’d already known the name of, and the older man.

“Hey,” said Nea.

“Nice to meet you, Quentin, I promise we’re not as violent as that looked,” said Ace.

“I still don’t know,” said Feng, crossing her arms, “You can’t get to the campfire without getting out of a trial. How did he get here?”

“Don’t know,” said Dwight, starting to walk back towards the campfire and motioning the others to come with him. “We can figure that out by the fire, though.” Quentin followed cautiously, totally lost, but not feeling threatened anymore. Also, this was the only lead he had at all, and he had no idea where he was or how to get out. Plus, these people pretty clearly needed help. The older guy gave him a friendly smile and walked past, and Quentin started in surprise, seeing three deep gashes through the material in the back of his jacket. Holy fuck—he’s hurt—he’s hurt bad. They’d all looked rough, but that was—

“Are you okay?” asked Quentin, speeding up to catch up to Ace, who looked back at him, surprised. “You’ve got cuts.”

“Oh—yeah,” said Ace, reaching back almost absently. “It’s okay. It’s old.”

“How old? How long have you been out here?” asked Quentin, worried. There was still blood on the jacket.

Ace gave him a kind of quizzical and simultaneously grateful look, and flashed him a smile. “Awhile. We’ll explain, don’t worry.” He looked sad then, for just a second. Which was a confusing face journey to watch someone take in about four seconds.

“Hey, can someone go get Claudette?” asked Dwight, “She went off to get plants like ten minutes ago, so she can’t be far.”

“I’ll go,” said Jake with a sigh, “She went dead east, so—”

There was an ear-piercing scream, and everyone froze.

“Fuck,” whispered Jake, turning in that direction, all the violence and readiness from before suddenly back.

“That’s Claudette,” said Nea, eyes big.

Meg hadn’t even stayed to hear that. She took off at a full run, and then everyone was going with her—Quentin too, because it didn’t matter he didn’t even know who ‘Claudette’ was, someone was in trouble, and he wasn’t going to leave them alone like that.

He hadn’t even totally recovered his energy from the life or death struggle minutes ago, but Quentin was used to running on motivation alone, and he kept pace with Jake, tearing through the woods just a few feet behind Meg, people all around him, running for the voice they’d heard as one.

There was a change in the light up ahead, and Quentin couldn’t really see what it was, but he could tell it was some kind of clearing—the trees were ending.

“That was woods when I ran this morning!” shouted Meg, somehow not slowing down even a fraction since she’d started.

Quentin and Jake were just behind her, clearing the last patch of trees, and then they were out, and Quentin could see what was laid out before them, and he skidded to a stop, staring in horror. Jake went clear past him, and then glanced back and stopped—stopped like he was angry about stopping.

“What?” shouted Jake, trying to snap him out of it—frantic to keep moving, but wanting to rip whatever information Quentin had that he didn’t out of him before he went on.

It can’t be, thought Quentin, sick, but it was. Spread out before him were the old ruins of Badham Preschool. Unburnt again, horrible, and waiting, like a headstone with his name. Here. Here where it didn’t even exist—not on the edge of some road in the middle of nowhere Ohio, burned to a ruined husk, but whole again, here, in the woods, with all these strangers, and he’d only just gotten free. God, no—it’s not possible. It’s not. What’s going on? I don’t understand—I can’t. I can’t go back. I can’t I— Fuck! No! No, you can’t freeze up. It doesn’t matter who they are, or what’s real—it feels real, and it might be, and if it is, there’s a girl in there, and he’s going to kill her if you don’t move.

Physically tearing himself out of the moment of frozen horror, Quentin started to run again, catching up to Jake almost instantly, barely aware of other people around him. You don’t even have a weapon—get a weapon! You want to save this girl, not go die too—come on! You can do this!

“I know this place,” called Quentin as they ran, knowing he wouldn’t be believed, but having to try, “Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep! This sounds fake, I know, but I swear to God, I’m not lying. There’s this guy who’s some kind of demon—if you fall asleep, he can kill you, and you’ll die for real. The second we find your friend, we gotta wake her up.” He snagged an old chunk of broken metal piping as they ducked through a hole in one of the ancient chainlink fences around the school. “I know I sound like I’m delusional, or fucking with you, but I swear to God, it’s true—I wouldn’t lie about this, and we gotta be fast if we’re gonna save her!”

For some reason, the guy nodded, like he totally believed every word Quentin had said, and just kept running. Which was maybe the most confusing and worrying thing yet. But there wasn’t time to worry about that. Jake and Quentin reached the side door to the preschool together, having lost sight of Meg when she made it inside. Fuck—fuck, left, or right?

There was another scream, and Quentin felt sick, because it was the basement. Fuck—fuck, they’re down there—we’re gonna be too late, I’m gonna fail—she’s gonna die, and—

“Where the hell are they?” shouted Jake, turning frantically in the foyer, looking for stairs. There was a hole in the ground, and Jake just ran for it, dropping without hesitation into the darkness below.

Quentin ran after him and vaulted after without even looking, landing painfully on the concrete fifteen feet down, and trying to fight the ingrained fear of steam pipes and fire. He’d only been a few seconds behind, but somehow, Jake was already gone, and it was a fucking maze with all the pipes. He felt sick, like the walls were closing in around him. No idea where stairs were, or a way out—no way back up through the hole.

It’s not about you! Fuck you—find the girl! he yelled at himself internally, trying to focus, trying to breathe. And chunk of metal raised like a lead pipe, he started to run through the basement, no idea where he was going.

He heard her scream again—and not fear this time—pain. He knew the difference. The choked sob, the volume of the cry. Close—so close to him, but which direction.

She’s gonna die—fuck, fuck, wherever you are, he followed you, and she’s gonna die—what can I? Oh! Wait! Wait, there was one way—maybe. Maybe.

Fall asleep, Quentin told himself, feeling sick, and horrified, and terrified at the idea, shutting his eyes, Doze off—come on—you haven’t really slept in a week and a half. You can do it. It felt like slitting his own throat, but he did. Even with the fear pumping through his veins, he was tired enough to be micro napping constantly, and shutting his eyes was more than enough to trigger one. He could see it in the fog in the air and the distortion on objects when he opened his eyes again. Come on. Come on, you can do this. You can save her. I know you can. But—but don’t ask him to come. He’ll kill her to spite you. You gotta piss him off.

“Hey!” shouted Quentin, slamming his pipe into the wall, “Krueger! How’d you enjoy that escape, huh? Fuck you! You thought I was dead, right? Well I’m not! I’m armed, and I’m gonna fuck you up when I find you! You piece of shit! You’re dead when I find you! Hear me? Beheading you wasn’t enough, so this time, I’m gonna bash it in until you don’t have one anymore!”

There was a flicker immediately, and there he was, about fifteen feet off through the pipes, grinning, but angry behind the grin.

“Ahhh, and here I thought you’d gone off to hide under a rock with your tail between your legs,” came his voice, smug as it always was, with a violence behind the smugness, a readiness to hurt.

Quentin leveraged his pipe, ready. There was blood on the gauntlet. Fuck—fuck—please God—please let her be okay. Don’t let me have been too late. Please. Nobody else has anything to even do with this. Please.

“Gonna have to make this quick,” said Freddy, walking towards him, flicking the blades on his gauntlet, “Found this cute little thing I wasn’t quite finished cutting up, but you know I’ll always make time for an old flame.”

I’m going to actually fucking kill him, thought Quentin with absolute certainty and a calmness he’d never had around Freddy before, so overcome with rage at those words he entirely lost his ability to feel any other emotion. He ran at him with a scream and brought the pipe against the other man’s head. Freddy tried to catch the pipe, but the force of Quentin’s swing was so strong that it slammed into his head even with his fingers around the weapon, and as Quentin ripped it free and swung it again, Freddy yelled in anger and slashed at him. The gantlet caught Quentin in his left arm and left deep scores, but he didn’t even care, the pipe hit Freddy’s face so hard it broke his nose and tore some of his burnt skin off, and Quentin was already swinging it again by the time Freddy was reaching up to feel the damage, totally ignoring the blood pouring from his own arm, and he brought the pipe up between Freddy’s legs and slammed it with enormous force into his groin. Even a dead whatever he was now, Freddy screamed and stumbled a few steps back. He angrily swung an arm towards Quentin, and an invisible force slammed into him and sent him crashing backwards into the pipes there, hard, and from them to the floor.

Dazed, Quentin made it to his knees the same time Freddy made it back to his feet, and the rage was still overpowering, but it was being tempered with logic again. I know you want to kill him, but maybe run now, Quentin told himself, and he struggled back up and tore off through the basement, hearing the man behind him laugh as he fled.

It’s okay—it’s okay, Quentin told himself as he leapt some low pipes and slid under another few, seeing a staircase ahead and gunning for it, No matter what, you distracted him. Her friends are gonna find the girl he hurt, and she’ll be okay. Just get him as far from the preschool as you can, and then…then wake up again.

He knew that wasn’t going to work. He knew that wasn’t as easy as just doing it, and he was probably going to die, but he wasn’t willing to think about that right now. Too much to do. No giving up—now was time to fight. I’m never giving up, thought Quentin with absolute certainty, Fuck you—I’m going to kill you, and I’m never going to quit running and fighting, no matter how long I have to stay awake. I can do this.

He made it up the steps and out into the yard behind the preschool, no sign of any of the people from before, but as he turned, he saw Krueger behind him, walking slow, vanishing and reappearing a few yards closer every few seconds, not having to exert the energy to run. Stalking him, having fun.

Fuck you, thought Quentin again, running harder. He tore past old buildings and into the woods at the edge again, and then suddenly Freddy was right there, right in front of him, and he didn’t have time to stop, and he collided with the bigger man with a scream. Freddy caught him by the throat with his left hand, right hand snapping out to catch the pipe. Quentin saw him go for it and managed to swing past him, ramming the broken metal into his head again, but this time the man just snarled and squeezed down so hard around his throat it hurt, and he couldn’t breathe at all. Catching his hands, Freddy dugs the blades of the gauntlet into the back of his left hand, and Quentin screamed and let go on impulse before he even had the chance mentally to fight it, and with only one hand around the weapon, Freddy tore the pipe away from him and threw it. Shit—shit, no—

Turning back to him with a grin, Freddy closed both hands around his neck and walked towards him, forcing him backwards, stumbling, and then slamming his back up against a tree. The force around his throat was crushing, and Quentin was struggling now, unable to breathe. He reached for Freddy, trying to tear at his face and hands with his fingernails, kicking him, trying to knee him, but Freddy let go of his throat with his right hand and grabbed Quentin’s head with the gauntlet and rammed it back into the tree, so hard that Quentin’s vision lost focus and went black and for a second all he could hear was ringing in his ears, and before he’d even recovered, Freddy did it again, harder, and a third time, and then Quentin did lose consciousness. It couldn’t have been for long, because when he opened his eyes again, Freddy was still right there, hand around his neck, and he was against the tree, but he felt sick, and disoriented, and he wasn’t standing anymore, he was slumped, halfway down the base.

“Come on, Quentin,” said Freddy through his damaged hearing, “I thought you were going to kill me?” Using the hand around his neck, he dragged him forward and then rammed him against the tree again.

Quentin struggled to lift his head and look back up at him, moving his arms weakly now, finding Freddy’s hand and trying to pry his fingers off, but without enough energy left to force anyone to do anything.

“Wasn’t that how this was supposed to go?” asked Freddy, voice deeply mocking.

“Fuck you,” managed Quentin, barely able to choke it out through the grip on his throat.

“Don’t give me ideas,” said Freddy, a smile playing on his lips, and the words shot terror down Quentin and he wanted to throw up—wanted to cry—wanted to fight, but he didn’t have the energy to do any of those things.

“So. What to do now,” said Freddy thoughtfully, still keeping his grip on Quentin’s throat tight, moving him around by it, “Gonna kill you, of course. But this is fun. I only get to make you die once, you know, so I should make it memorable, don’t you think?”

Quentin kicked him.

“Yeah, me too,” said Freddy, voice dripping patronization.  With sudden violence, he flung Quentin to the ground on his back and stooped over him.

No, no, no! The terror was stronger than any he’d ever felt before. God—please—please just let him kill me.

“Get off me!” shouted Quentin as well as he could, voice hoarse and raspy from being choked, struggling with everything he had to kick Freddy as he got on top of him, pinning his legs down with one of his own, and stepping on an arm with the other as Quentin tried to fight him off.

“Awww, but I haven’t even gotten started yet,” said Freddy, “That would ruin all the fun. Such a tease—call me out in the basement, and then you just want me to leave? No, I don’t think so, Quentin. We’re gonna have some fun.”

Please—please God, no. His body was trying to cry, and he was fighting not to do it, not to let Freddy see him do it. With all his might, he swung at Freddy with the right arm that wasn’t pinned down yet, and he caught him in the jaw, but with so little force that it felt awful, and hopeless, and Freddy grabbed his arm and dragged it down.

“I really thought you were gone back there,” said Freddy idly, like the attempt to fight back hadn’t even been worth noting. He pointed a gauntleted finger at him, a sickening smile across his lips. “You should have kept hiding. Now what are you going to do?”

Don’t give up—don’t give up, come on, he begged himself, struggling beneath the weight of the man on top of him, still weak and disoriented from the damage to the back of his head and the choking.

“I’ll tell you what you’re gonna do,” answered Freddy for him, running his claws along Quentin’s chest, sending a sickening, paralyzing fear across him. He readied the claws above Quentin and grinned down at him. “You’re gonna scream.”

The claws shot down and dug into his chest, tearing through his shirt and cutting him open, and Quentin did scream—he hated himself for it, but he couldn’t stop it. And it was worse than the pain and the blood pouring up out of chest—the smug smile on the face of the man above him, the knowledge he’d just given him what he wanted.

“Don’t worry, I’m not gonna kill you fast,” promised Freddy, “You’ve got a couple minutes at least. I want to have some fun first. You can say your prayers while I’m doing that.” And he reached up under Quentin’s shirt and dragged the claws gently along his side, just deep enough to make him bleed, watching him jerk and squirm and try not to cry out at the pain. “You know,” whispered Freddy, leaning in so close his face was inches from Quentin’s and the stench of his charred flesh was overwhelming. He moved his head past him and took a deep breath by Quentin’s ear, and then lower again, by his neck, then looked back up at him, a grin on his face. “Nancy smells different now, but you don’t. I guess not a lot has changed. Has it?”

Quentin screamed and thrashed, furious and terrified, but Freddy reached down and closed the gauntleted hand around his throat, watching him with no concern as he started to choke and lose air and kick and thrash more weakly then before, body fighting to get oxygen into his lungs. It was too much, and Quentin blacked out, going without air for too long. Maybe only for about ten seconds, but when his eyes were open again, he could barely move, and his head was pounding, his body felt like lead. His memories felt jumbled now, all mashed together and confusing, and all he knew was that Freddy was still there. Looking down at him with a smile that held nothing but malice, his gauntleted hand lazily running down Quentin’s leg, and the sensation made him feel so sick he wanted to die. The gauntlet sliced in once, low, by his hip, and he choked back the scream this time, the only thing he could still do to fight back. To resist, to not give him what he wanted.

“You better quit fighting,” said Freddy reproachfully, like he was explaining something to a very small child, “Or I’m gonna have to keep doing that. Asphyxiation’s not good for you.”

Don’t cry—don’t let him see you cry. Choking back how he felt, Quentin looked up at him with hatred, struggling to think, willing him dead like before.

“That’s better,” purred Freddy, bringing the gauntlet up to the top of his jeans and resting the blades against the base of his stomach, “Don’t worry,” he added, leaning in close again, “I’m pretty sure I can get you screaming.”

Quentin felt him reach down by the base of his stomach and hook his fingers around the base of his pants and start to rip through the fabric with the gauntlet, little blades digging in and cutting him open with tiny slits as he went, and Quentin was overcome with a last desperate surge of adrenaline, and with all the energy he still had, he tore one leg free and rammed it into Freddy’s groin again. Freddy screamed and fell back, just for a second, but Quentin was tearing himself free and up in that same instant, propelled by fear and hatred and desperation, shoving the other man off and scrambling to his feet in the one second of advantage he had, and then he was running again, blood pouring down his chest, head aching, the sound of laughter behind him.

“You better hide fast, little Quentin,” called Freddy behind him, “You know the rules. I’m only gonna count to ten.”

Fuck, fuck, fuck, thought Quentin, heart pounding, body wanting to cry. He didn’t know where he was going, or where he could go, and he was going to die—he was—

There, in the woods ahead—he was sure he’d seen light again. Light, but higher up, and Quentin veered left and ran towards it, right hand pressed against his chest, trying to staunch some of the bleeding, feeling faint and weak, but knowing that if he passed out, it was over. He kept going until he had no energy left to run at all, and then somehow he went on anyway, stumbling through trees, staggering, fighting to stay upright, and he broke the tree line and saw a cabin. Old, log. But there was light inside—someone had to live there, then, and—and maybe. Maybe…

“Help!” called Quentin, lost and hurt and not thinking straight, but fixed on the house as some vague light in the darkness. Somebody else meant someone who might be able to keep him awake. Please, please, please let there be somebody. I don’t want to die like that—please, if I have to die, just let me bleed out, God, don’t let him find me. His bloody fingers found his necklace, trying to give himself comfort as he staggered through the dark clearing beyond the cabin, searching for some sign of life, trying to make it there. “Please!” he shouted again, voice cracking, fear and sorrow and desperation catching in his throat, “Please—somebody! Help! I’m—” he hit a stump he hadn’t seen in the dark and fell with a cry, struggling to drag himself back up. His head hurt so much, and he was so tired, and weak, and his chest wouldn’t stop bleeding. No, no, no, you can’t pass out. Please don’t pass out.

He tried to lift himself back up with his arms and made it, then to his knees, then, with monumental effort, all the way to his feet. Shakily, head pounding and vision unsteady, he took a few more steps towards the faintly lit building, and then his leg gave out and he collapsed into the grass again. Body shaking, cursing under his breath, Quentin struggled to get up again, and this time he couldn’t. He couldn’t get to his knees, no matter how hard he tried. His arms were shaking too much and they couldn’t bear his weight, and he was so spent. He thought he was going to throw up, and God, there was so much blood. How much had he lost?

“Please,” he asked, voice weak now in the darkness. Strength gone completely, his arms gave out, and he huddled there on his side in the grass outside the cabin, past the trees and in the clearing now but too far—too far to be sure anyone in the house would hear him. “Help,” he tried again, with all the energy he had left, hand pressed to his chest, blurry vision taking in the yard, desperately begging someone to be there. Everything was still, and so cold and it all felt distorted and wrong. He thought maybe he would freeze to death, and it was a relief, because that would be better. There was a sound then, one he couldn’t place at all, at least, Quentin thought he heard something, but everything was off and echoey and muffled and hard to focus on. But the light changed in the direction of the house, like someone had turned some of them off or something, and he tried to turn his head to look, but was having a hard time doing that, and then he realized it was a shadow, a shadow blocking the light, because it moved. There was nothing, and then there were heavy footsteps, and he was looking at a pair of bare feet in the grass, one wrapped with some kind of bandage, and there were blue pants above that, and he struggled to look up, and tilting his head, there was a person there above him. Big—really, really big—tall. His vision was blurry, and unfocused, but he thought it was a woman. A skirt, long, dark hair, head tilted, looking down at him, but there was something strange about her face—too different from the rest of her body, but he couldn’t tell why. It was hard to even stay awake, much less see anything clearly, and he was just overcome with relief at the sight of another human being.

“Please,” he said, digging deep and using all the strength he had left to raise an arm up towards her, reaching out, “Help me.”

The towering shape above him looked down and cocked their head further. They were holding something he hadn’t noticed before, but he couldn’t tell what. It was hard to think at all, and his arm was starting to shake. He couldn’t keep it up much longer. Freezing, head pounding, all his energy gone with the blood he’d lost.

“Please,” he whispered again, dropping his arm back into the grass when the pain of holding it up became unbearable and his strength gave out. It was so hard to even keep his head tilted so he could look up at her.

She started to crouch beside him, and hope blossomed in his chest, and then from not far back the way he’d come, he heard a familiar laugh cut through the night. No, no, no, no—fuck! He opened his mouth to try to ask her to wake him up, but when he looked, her head was turned too, back in the direction of the woods, alert and watching. S-she heard it too? That’s impossible. Is she that tired somehow? –T-to already be micronapping? Oh God—fuck—I—I shouldn’t have done this. I didn’t think someone else would be—

The deep, horrible chuckle came again from off in the woods, and the person beside him straightened up and turned to face it, and when she did, he realized what she was holding, because the head of the weapon was close enough to make out even with his failing eyesight. An axe.

“Quentin,” came the voice he knew so well from back in the woods, an amused purr to it, “I know you’re close—I can smell you.”

He felt so sick—he wanted to scream and to vomit, and he tried to drag himself back up and failed again, strength too gone. There was singing then—almost like the voices of little girls, but wrong, the off-key melody just bouncing around in the darkness, echoing off trees and pouring through the night, looking for him. ‘One-two, Freddy’s coming for you. Three-four, better lock your door. Five-six, grab your crucifix. Seven-eight, better stay awake. Nine-ten, never sleep again.’

Quentin couldn’t shut the sound out. He started shaking, struggling to turn enough to look back towards where the laughter had come from.

“Am I gettin’ close?” called the voice from out in the woods, closer now, taunting him, “You know, this game’s not very hard when you leave behind so much blood. But you were never very good at hide and seek, were you?”

Beside him, the tall person with the axe took a step and started to walk towards the sound.

“Wait!” called Quentin desperately, reaching out and grabbing onto the fabric he could just barely reach at the base of her pants, “No, don’t! Please—just run! He’ll kill you! An axe isn’t gonna stop him!”

The huge woman glanced down at him and tilted her head, then jerked her leg free, and he didn’t have the strength to hold on.

“Please—please,” begged Quentin, trying not to cry, reaching out for her, “Don’t go—you’ll die.”

She watched him for a second, and then kept walking.

“No—come back!” he called after her, voice cracking. It was so hard to talk. It was so hard to think. Don’t pass out, please, please don’t pass out. She was going to die. He had to—had to get back up, and—and go somewhere else. Lead him away, and—

With immense effort, Quentin turned and dug his fingers deep into the grass and dirt of the yard and struggled to make it up to his knees again. He fought so, so hard to do it, and he made it to his arms before he collapsed this time, head pounding from the overexertion and vision starting to black out against his will. He was facing the woods, and he could see the outline of the woman only a few feet away, and past her, by the trees…

No, no—please.

“Please, run,” he tried to call after her, but this time when he tried, there was no sound. His energy was gone, and the exhaustion of the struggle, and the fight, and the wounds, and the past two weeks of fighting to stay alive finally won out, and his vision went dark as he lost consciousness.

 


 

In the darkness of the woods around her cabin, Anna watched over her shoulder as the small thing she had heard first stopped moving, then turned her attention back to the shape in the woods. It had been flickering, like just the suggestion of a person, but the shape reached out its hand towards her and suddenly she could see it clearly, but everything else was off.

She had thought she heard little girls, and she heard them still, but she could tell now, close to the burned figure waiting at the tree line, that there were no little girls there at all. She didn’t know where the sound was coming from, other than close to him, but those were not normal voices singing words she didn’t know, and she narrowed her eyes at the waiting figure as she faced him. The man in the sweater had been so burned she had not been sure what it was at first, but closer now she could tell it was a man. Disgusting. She did not like men at all, and there had been something in his voice that she liked even less than the way he looked.

“Hey there,” said the man, waving his right hand at her, little knives on his fingers flickering in the moonlight at the motion, “That thing on the ground belongs to me. Mind kicking it over?”

A man, a threat, in her woods. A predator. It had been a very long time since this had happened. He was speaking a language she didn’t know, and she had no idea what he’d just said, but he’d pointed to the collapsed thing on the ground behind her. She wondered. There was blood on the man’s claws, and blood on the child.

You chased kill all the way here. That would make sense. Chased it, and wanted it back. Which was too bad for him, because he wasn’t coming into her forest. He had done something to her, too. To her woods. The things around her were distorted and blurry, with much white mist that had not been there before. Demon man. Demon man who had dared come into her woods and drug her. He would regret that.

“No?” said the man, walking a few paces casually closer, gauntleted fingers scraping together to make a horrible little sound and a sickening smile on his mangled face, “Well, that’s fine. What’s one more person to gut? If the kid’ll have fun watching, I guess I don’t mind going through you.”

He lunged then, like a flash, near-inaction to nothing but fluid violence, bladed fingers catching the moonlight as he shot towards her, and then he slammed into the invisible barrier she’d known was there, and Anna let a small smile spread across her lips as he pinged off it and fell backwards, looking at her and then the nothing that had stopped him in betrayed surprise.

Recovering his balance, the demon man got as close as he could and slashed at the wall again in rage and made an angry sound in his throat when nothing happened.

Anna took a step forward and knocked on the invisible barrier, then flashed him a very pleased smile. My house. No coming in. Now I kill you. He gave her a furious look and tried to slash through the wall at her again.

“Mоя очередь,” said Anna, stepping back from the wall and snagging a hatchet from her belt, then pulling her arm back.

“Hah—you can’t get through ei—” started the man, and then she launched the hatchet and it shot through the wall and buried itself in his forehead and he fell back onto the ground with a scream and went limp.

Making a pleased sound, Anna smiled at the body and turned to go. Her back was to the man when she heard a furious scream and whirled around again to see him struggling to pull the hatchet out of his head—which was impossible—she’d killed him.

“You fucking bitch!” called the man, frustrated more than anything else, still trying to dig her weapon out of his skull with both arms.

Still alive? She stared at him, and then drew back another hatchet and let it fly. She heard the man scream again in pain and fury, but he was still breathing, still trying to tear the first hatchet from his head, and ignoring the one in his chest completely. Going for a third strike, Anna aimed for his neck, which was wide open with his head tilted back by his arms from trying to dig the blade out of his forehead, and she let fly. The hatchet buried itself in his throat and he make a choked gargling sound and black blood started to pour from the wound, and struggling, somehow still not really dead, the man flipped over onto his side and started to try to drag himself up and crawl away, and then he flickered and vanished, and suddenly the world was like it had been again—no distortion, no white smoke, and he was gone.

“Что?” asked Anna thoughtfully, blinking at where the monster man had been. Gone, now, though. Gone for real. Not because the singing was gone, or the distorted smoke, but because she couldn’t smell his burned stench. And she had noticed that before she’d heard him at all.

Turning back towards her house, Anna remembered the other person who had invaded her home, and she walked over to the motionless body on the ground and came to a stop above it, thinking.

It was some kind of a child, maybe, but not a little girl. She’d heard it calling for help from off in the woods, and come out of curiosity more than anything else. Usually she would kill anything that trespassed into her home. Anything like her was a threat. But it was unconscious now, still breathing and bleeding in the gras, but not awake. Why had it grabbed her? She hadn’t understood anything it said, but she was pretty sure it had been scared. Asking her to protect it. Weak, broken little thing. Usually something hunted like this was for eating, but.

Kneeling, Anna turned it over a little, trying to get a look at its face and figure out what it was. Big eyes, closed now, with small cuts all over its body from the fight it had lost. Still, she thought, Man was very hard to kill. Very hard for little baby to kill. It was kind of no wonder it had lost. She wondered what to do with it now. She could have just left it there, but that would be a waste, and it would just die and rot in her yard, and she should at least use the meat if it was going to die. But she wasn’t sure that was what she wanted. The man with the claws had wanted to kill it and eat it himself, and she had not liked him at all, and that sort of made her curious about the child, and not want to kill it.

Little one, but not little girl, thought Anna, trying to puzzle that out. It wasn’t like she had never seen one before, but she had never payed attention. Most of the humans who came into her woods were adults, and she would fight them off and hunt them like elk and bear and wolf. As the years passed, there had been a few families passing through with daughters, and she had wanted so badly to be a mama that she had always noticed them—remembered them, tried to catch and keep them. And when those little girls had died in her house, one by one, lost to sickness again and again no matter how hard she tried to feed them and keep them safe, there had been many times she had broken into houses in nearby towns to find another little girl and try again, sure that this time she would do it right and be a good mama like hers had been, and she had seen other little ones sometimes doing that, but never thought much about them. In her head, people fell into the categories of Mama, Daughter, and Predators. This was uncharted territory. …Little man? Child. Not little girl. Cub?

She didn’t know what to think about that. There were humans here sometimes, in the hunts she did for the beast in the sky, but this was not a human she had ever seen before. Trying to make sure, she took its chin and tilted its head to get a better look at it, and it groaned weakly and shuddered, eyes still shut. It was wearing a little grey hat, and she tugged that off, curious, and found a bunch of curly brown hair beneath it and ran her fingers through that, thinking. Cute child. Little cub man. Not little girl, but…

But it had called for her to come help it, and that had made her feel a way she hadn’t felt in a long, long time. It had awakened an impulse almost forgotten after so many deaths and so much desperation and isolation out here in this little cabin.

Thinking maybe she might try to keep him, Anna stooped down and hooked her fingers under the child’s knees and his shoulders, lifting him up against her chest, and as the motion hurt the slashes on his torso, he whimpered in his sleep and buried his head against her arm for comfort, and then she was very, very sure that she wanted to keep him, a deep longing waking up in her and making her warm and causing her chest to ache at the sight of him.

“Тсс. Bсе хорошо,” she whispered, turning and walking back towards the house. “Tы в порядке.”

 


 

…Cold…I…she’s gonna…I s-should…

Should…? What had…

Struggling to get through the fog in his head, Quentin managed to force his eyes open. He—he couldn’t remember what had happened. I was—I was running—n-no, I was dreaming. And—Freddy!

Instantly very awake, Quentin shot up, and then fell back with a barely muffled cry of pain. Shit—shit! His chest ached and stung, and he remembered being cut up there now and—Wait a minute.

He’d gone to hold his palm to his skin, to try to keep pressure on the wound, and he’d hit skin—skin-skin. Not his shirt, not his jacket, but skin. And Quentin looked down and saw he was shirtless, nothing left but the necklace and the four bright red gashes, and horrified and panicked at that, struggling to make it up to an elbow, he looked around, trying to get some idea of where he was and what someone had done to him.

Logs—log walls and—I’m on a table? He was. A small table, with old blood stains, and—Oh fuck. There were ropes above him, and a little pulley system in the roof, with big hooks. A few with meat hanging from them—raw animal carcasses, and he felt overwhelmingly sick. Why? Who did this? Where the fuck am I? He had no idea. Everything in his head was so jumbled, and he was having a hard time digging through things in order. Whoever had taken him here, they’d left him in a small log room, with two entry ways on one end, leading deeper into the house, and a couple openings behind him too, back into the yard, all dimly lit by old white candles in the walls. He couldn’t see what was further into the house, but he didn’t want to know. There was a window big enough for him to get through easily behind him, open to the night, and he was struggling to make it up to his arms to run when there was movement, and he looked towards the entrances deeper into the house and a huge figure ducked into the room.

A woman—huge, tall and muscular, with blood on her hands and a white mask like a rabbit that absolutely terrified him. He’d seen her before—out in the yard—and he remembered that, and his memories clicked into place, but he wasn’t relieved to see her this time. Horrified at the realization she must have taken him here and using the little strength he’d managed to regain, he struggled up to a sitting position, and tried to throw himself off the table.

“Замри!” called the woman, dashing forward and catching him before he could make it, forcing him back down against the table and pinning him there. “Спокойно.”

“Stop!” shouted Quentin, trying to fight back up, “Let me go!”

“Bсе хорошо,” said the huge woman with the mask, holding him down.

He didn’t know what she was saying, but he kept struggling, trying throw her off and getting nowhere, still weak from before, and losing energy fast.

“Замри!” said the big woman again, raising a hand, and he thought she was going to hit him, and he stopped fighting momentarily, unable to stop himself from flinching on instinct before the strike, but she let go with the other hand too and held both palms there above him.

Breathing raggedly fast, he watched her, disoriented and lost and so scared of what she was going to do, of being stuck like this, weak and injured and trapped, arms tucked in close over his chest to be harder to grab and ready to fight again if she reached for him.

"Не двигайся,” said the woman like a warning, making a gesture he thought meant she didn’t want him to move. “Я помогу.”

I don’t understand. I don’t know where I am or who you are or what you want from me—why do this? Why take me? I—I just want to go home. What had happened?—Freddy was gone, but, he wouldn’t have just stopped chasing, right? That was good, but this wasn’t looking a whole lot better. He was weak and sick and felt like he’d just stumbled into some isolated cannibal cabin in a horror film. God, there was so much blood soaked into this table, and why wouldn’t she even let him sit up—why take his clothes? Fuck—fuck. No, no, no. It was so hard to focus and to not give in completely to the fight or flight instinct pumping out the little adrenaline he had left. Why had this happened? Of all the places he could have ended up, trying to run for help. Was everyone just bad? Waiting for a chance to get someone who couldn’t fight back at their mercy? Come on, come on—you’re not helpless. You can still fight. There’s gotta be a way out. You can try. “Please,” said Quentin, looking up at her and freezing and so lost and confused and alone, “Just let me go.”

“Не двигайся,” said the woman again, pointing at him, a little bit less forceful this time.

“I don’t understand—I’m sorry,” said Quentin, huddled on the table, heart thudding in his ears so hard he almost couldn’t hear himself over it, trying to figure out what she was going to do to him, “I-I only speak English. Please, I don’t even know where I am. Just give me my clothes and let me go. I won’t come back—I promise. Please.”

She cocked her head, listening. “Я тебе помогу,” she said, almost conversationally, and then she reached down placed a hand on his stomach and he felt sick, the sensation of skin on skin sinking into him. Why? Why would you do this? Please, please just be a normal person. She couldn’t be, though. God, there was so much blood on her clothes, stained in, and staining the skin around her hands. He could see now that she had little hatchets clipped to her belt, and he was remembering the huge axe.

“Please,” said Quentin again, choking on the word. She looked up into his face when he spoke, and then back down at his bare, damaged chest. “Please don’t,” whispered Quentin.

He could plead all he wanted, but she didn’t care. She just looked away again, down at his abdomen, and her hand moved along his skin, tracing it down towards his hip, and he let the fear and adrenaline and anger inside him take over and he screamed and kicked her, struggling to push himself up onto his arms again, and she made an angry growl in her throat as his foot collided with her chest, and she moved past his legs, going to hold him down again. He tried to make it up before she got to him, but she was faster than he was, and the woman got her palms on his chest while he tried to sit up and shoved him back against the wood grain of the table with force, and it hurt and made the back of his head ache, still injured from the fight before, and disoriented and weak he swung at her with a fist and caught her in the mask, and she made that angry, choked cry again and caught his hands, first one then the other, and dragged both his arms up above his head while he struggled and thrashed against her, trying to get his legs back far enough to kick her and failing, screaming as he fought.

Pinning his arms back and holding them together at the wrist with one hand, the woman reached up and took rope from one of the pulleys above them and dragged a large section of it down and took it and moved behind him, and he could feel her wrapping it around his wrists to keep him in place, and horrified and so scared it made him sick, he tried to jerk his arms free, or twist and pull his hands out of her reach, but there was no way to do it. She was so, impossibly strong, and his chest was bleeding again and making him feel sick, and he was losing the struggle. Fighting and thrashing and kicking at nothing with all his might, he tried to wrench his arms free again and again, but she kept them in place, and he felt the rope go taut and dig into his skin around his wrists, and then she took a hatchet from her belt and raised it over him and he froze, sick and scared and sure she was going to bring it down into his skull. She swung the blade down and he squeezed his eyes shut, flinching in anticipation, but he heard the hatchet thunk against the wood of the table, and when he opened his eyes again, she had cut through the rope, and now that it wasn’t connected to the pulley above him, she was tying it to something at the top of the table he couldn’t see, keeping his arms pinned up there at the wrist above his head.

Quentin tried to fight through the ropes and tug his wrists free, but he couldn’t. The bonds were tight and rough and thick, and he was losing energy fast. No, no, no. Please.

The huge woman moved back where he could see her, a long length of rope in her hands and he felt his stomach drop. He dragged his legs up as far as he could, to try to shield himself and be ready to kick her.

“Please,” said Quentin, watching her study him through the holes in the big white mask, “Don’t do this.”

“Bсё в порядке,” said the big woman calmingly, almost tenderly, holding the rope in one hand and holding the other out to him palm up like it would be okay, and it made him sick. Why? How you can you do this and talk to me like that—it isn’t right. Towering over him as he lay there half naked and tied to a table, old blood on her hands and her mask, talking to him in a voice like she wanted to help.

The towering woman reached down then, and he could tell that she was reaching for his legs, rope in her other hand, and he knew what she was going to do and shrunk back from her as far as he could with his arms pinned above him. He wanted to kick her off and free himself and run, or fight, but was he trapped, and exhausted, and maybe dying, and he couldn’t—he couldn’t do anything. And it made him furious, and desperate, and more than anything else, it just made him so fucking scared.

“Please—please, stop,” he begged quietly, trying not to cry, watching her eyes behind the mask as she hesitated and looked at him, “Just let me go.”

It didn’t matter. Ignoring his pleas, the hulking woman gabbed Quentin’s legs and he screamed and kicked and fought with everything he had left as she pulled them straight and dragged them together at the ankle, away from him. Using one huge arm to hold his legs in place as he thrashed and struggled, she wrapped the rope around his ankles with the other and then pulled her knot tight and used the rope to drag his legs completely straight so he couldn’t move—could barely even turn or struggle at all, held down like that, and then tied the rope to something at the base of the table.

That was it then. There was nothing else he could do. His body was begging him to just shut down—to try to dissociate and not be there while things happened, but he was trying to fight that, to not give up. Breathing hard and ragged, trying not to cry as the masked woman straightened up over him and looked down.

“You don’t have to do this. Please—please don’t,” he asked, looking up into her eyes, digging—trying to find some little fraction of doubt, or sympathy, or anything in them at all.

She tilted her head, watching him, and then turned and picked up some cloth and set it down on the table beside him and studied him, eyes scanning exposed skin thoughtfully. The masked woman reached out and he shuddered when she touched him, fingers moving along his side. Unable to pull away this time.

She’s not listening. You can’t stop her—you’re gonna— He choked on the fear and shut his eyes, turning his head away from her and pressing it against the arm pinned above his head. Her hand reached his left hip and tugged down some of the torn fabric and he choked back a whimper, trembling and overwhelmed by everything.

“Младенец.”

The woman’s voice. All sad, and worried—like she was concerned. The hand against his hip moved and he felt the warmth of skin touching his face as she cupped his cheek. She turned his head so he would be facing up again, and Quentin opened his eyes and looked up at her, choking back tears. Her head was cocked and her eyes behind the mask fixed on him. The woman was watching how sick and miserable and helpless he was, holding his face gently like she wasn’t the person who’d done this to him—like she wasn’t the one still doing it.

“Bсе хорошо,” said the blood-stained woman with the mask, voice soothing.

It stung, being taunted like this—treated like this, and he felt his eyes well up with tears against his will and tried to stop it, but he saw her see it too.

“Тсс,” she shushed him, voice comforting, and she ran her other hand through his hair and stroked his head, and tied down and unable to move, there was nothing he could do to fight her off, and the gesture felt so cruel as her fingers ran through his hair, and it made him want to despair, because he knew she was never going to stop, and he closed his eyes again, choking on the urge to cry, and as soon as he felt her hand slip away from his cheek, he turned his head away again, trying to do the only thing he had left—to shut her out, to not look, to try to distance himself from his own body.

As she went about resuming what she’d been doing before, Quentin felt the woman’s hands on him again and shuddered, trying not to think at all, and then he felt something cold and wet on his chest, and surprised by that, he sucked in a sharp breath and opened his eyes and saw the woman was holding a rag, wiping at the cuts on his chest, clearing away old blood. What?

She was gentle, but it still stung, and the pain in the gashes was awful, but she kept going, movements steady as he twitched under her hands. When she’d gotten the blood, she patted the cuts themselves dry, trying to keep from just bleeding more. With the blood gone and his skin clear, she looked down at his chest, concern in her eyes beneath the mask, and he tried not to jerk away as she ran her fingers along the older cuts there—the ones still with stitches in them, but mostly healed, from a few weeks before. A matching set. She turned and looked at him then, and Quentin watched her, confused, and worried, and very, very afraid to hope. She’s…she’s trying to help you. But God, he was so afraid to believe that. A-and no, that was stupid—if. If that was it, why do it like this? She…she’d hurt him, and tied him up, and taken some of his clothes, and god, the meat hanging up here and the blood, and maybe she was just some kind of hunter, but this wasn’t normal, and he was trapped and she was so big and dangerous, and wearing a mask, and why? God, he was so afraid to even try to trust her. He wanted more than anything to have been wrong, but he was so afraid to hope, and to be wrong again. That would be so awful to endure.

The woman blinked, eyes still fixed on him, and then reached up and patted his head once and he flinched and tried to pull away, and she looked confused by that. Why—why are you doing this to me? I don’t understand. I…

Turning, she opened one of the little pockets on her belt and pulled out a small bottle and held it up to inspect it for a second, and he froze, mind throwing him possibilities of what that could be at lightspeed. Satisfied she had what she wanted, the woman poured some of whatever was in the container onto a finger and reached over and started to smear it onto his cuts. He jerked and choked back a cry on contact, because it had stung, and felt weird, and he didn’t like being touched at all, especially pinned down like this, alone and in a strange place with some blood-spattered, masked giantess, but almost as soon as the stuff got into his cuts, the pain was a little less, and he looked up at her in a mixture of wonder and confusion and hopelessness as she kept going, intent on her work as she went along gently cleaning and slaving cuts. I don’t—is she really just…?

He held still and looked up at the old log ceiling, trying to calm down and process things and think, which was so hard to do. The lessening of the pain in his chest was such a relief, but he still wanted to scream and fight and run away. Everything happening to him was so impossible to work through, and the sensation of having his skin touched was still making him want to vomit. Things from earlier in the day were flashing through his head, and he couldn’t shut them out, and he shuddered and shut his eyes for a few seconds, working to steady his breathing and regain some kind of control. When he felt a little bit less absolutely sunken and buried, he opened his eyes and looked at the ceiling again, working hard to think straight and to make himself stop shaking. It’s okay. It’s okay. You’re gonna be okay. Just breathe, and try to calm down. I know it’s bad, but you can do this. He tried to make himself believe that.

“…I’m sorry,” he managed to say after a few seconds, looking away from the ceiling and at the woman towering over him, still very afraid of her, but feeling guilt now too with the fear and the confusion and sickness in the pit of his stomach.

She paused and glanced over at him curiously.

“I…I thought you were…” He didn’t even know what to say after that. Quentin swallowed and tried again. “…going to hurt me. I’m sorry I hit you. T-thank you. For…trying to help. You can untie me now—I understand. I won’t fight you anymore.”

The whole time he was talking, the woman watched him, very attentive and paying close attention, but as soon as he finished, she turned back to what she’d been doing without a word and just started hum to herself, a short, repetitive little melody he’d never heard before.

Fuck—fuck, she probably doesn’t speak English, and I think that’s maybe Russian or something like it she was speaking, but I don’t know any of that. How can I even…

Maybe if he just held still and stayed calm for a couple of minutes she would get it. It was the best he could hope for. He kept telling himself that would work, but he was still extremely afraid she would just be patching him up so he would live longer, and she could do something terrible to him as soon as he was stable, and Quentin tried to calm himself down and tell himself that that was just paranoia and he only felt that way because he was injured and didn’t know where he was, but that just started to make him feel worse. He was injured, and lost, and nothing that was happening to him made sense, and God, she was so big, and he hated being tied down and weak like this. He couldn’t stand it.

Trying to do his best to cling to the frail hope she was just a very strange good Samaritan who was going to let him go once she was finished, he tried to keep still, fighting to control urges to flinch and shrink away. Suffering in the weight of the oppressive fear that came with being tied up like this. And with his chest cuts cleaned, the woman moved and took care of the little cuts on his side. He tried to stay quiet while she did that, still trying to believe that maybe if he did for a little while she would realize that he understood what she was doing now, and untie him, but she didn’t. The cuts on his side were shallow and didn’t take long, and then she went and mopped up the blood from the gash by his hip, and he fought to stomach that, beating down instincts to scream and fight and just trying to be still. It was impossible not to hate it—not to feel sick, and awful, and miserable, but she didn’t hurt him. She was careful, and cleaned the cut and then leaned close and reached down beneath him and hooked an arm under the small of his back and lifted him up the little bit she could with him tied to the table, and it freaked him out and he choked back a startled cry as she moved him, not understanding why she would do this, and then she took a long length of white fabric and ran it behind his back and over his chest, and began painstakingly wrapping his wounds. It didn’t feel good, being held like that, and it hurt a little, but he closed his eyes and tried to make himself stop shaking and stay quiet as she worked.

“Mолодец!” she told him proudly as she set him back down against the table when she was finished. The white mask she was wearing only covered her face from the nose up, and he could see her mouth, and she smiled at him. Which felt so, so weird.

I really wish I knew what any of this meant.

Moving on, she carefully bandaged the cut on his hip, and he shut his eyes and turned away and struggled to not move and to shut it out while she did it. He was so good at that once he really started trying that he didn’t realize she’d stopped at all until she tapped his forehead and said, “Готово.”

Quentin opened his eyes again and blinked up at her, having a harder time focusing than before. Shit…I…I’m going to pass out again if I’m not careful. He was so tired. Worn to the bone, but he couldn’t do it—he couldn’t sleep, or he’d die. Somewhere in the back of Quentin’s mind, he was almost wondering why Freddy wasn’t here—how he hadn’t micronapped yet, as tired as he was, but then the woman started cleaning the gashes on his arm and that stung and he momentarily forgot anything else.

His arm was a lot faster for her than his chest had been, and when she finished wrapping it, the woman straightened up and looked him over, studying her work. Reaching down, she tapped his neck gently with a finger, and he winced—half out of the instinctive fear of someone reaching for his neck while he was tied to a table, and half because the pressure had hurt in a way that made him think his skin had to be bruised from earlier, and that would have made sense, considering.

“Бедное дитя,” said the masked woman sympathetically, straightening back up.

“Please, can you let me go now?” asked Quentin, trying to tug his arms free a little to show her what he wanted, still shaky and uncertain and afraid. Please God, let her say yes. Please don’t let this just be to keep me alive longer so she can do something horrible.

 The big woman glanced down at his wrists and the ropes thoughtfully, and then reached behind his head and drew her fingers back bloody. Shit.

“Не двигайся,” she said like a warning, looking into his face and holding a hand up. He had no idea what that meant, but he wanted to be free and nodded, and the woman went behind him and he heard the sound of her hatchet slicing through rope, and then he could move his arms again.

His instinct was to jerk his arms free and bring them back in front of himself and hold them close to his chest, but he forced himself to lower his arms and draw them in slowly, no sudden movements. He could move the arms again, now that they weren’t tied to the table, but they were still bound at the wrist, and he struggled and failed to sit up without the use of his arms as props and almost blacked out from the effort, and the woman caught him.

“Oсторожно,” she said, gently helping him up to a sitting position.

“T-thank you,” he replied, shivering, somehow colder up than he had been on the table, and keeping his arms tucked in close to his chest.

She smiled at him and patted his head again, and he only half succeeded in trying to make himself not flinch at the touch.

“Не двигайся,” said the woman, holding her hand up like she was telling him to wait.

He nodded again and held still, shivering and watching as she picked up some of the salve and more of the white material she was using for bandages and went behind him. It stung when she felt for the injury in the back of his head, and he sucked in a sharp breath and jerked.

“Tы в порядке,” said the woman, patting his shoulder.

“Sorry,” said Quentin, struggling to hold still.

She went gently, smearing the paste on the back of his head, and then wound the white bandage around his forehead a few times and tied it in place.

“Теперь лучше,” she said, circling around to be in front of him again, smiling at him.

“Thank you,” said Quentin, holding his bound wrists out towards her to try to show her what he wanted. “Uhm. Can you please untie me?”

The big woman with the white mask blinked at him, looking from his face to his wrists and back, and she cocked her head.

“Please?” he asked again, leaning forward a little to hold his arms out further, heart sinking a little.

Unclipping a hatchet from her belt, the big woman walked to the base of the table and sliced through the rope pinning his legs there. Feet still bound at the ankle, Quentin tucked his knees up towards his chest, compacting on the table as much as he could.

“Хорошо, пора спать,” said the big woman, moving back to his side and clipping the hatchet back to her belt.

“Uh—wait, can you,” started Quentin, trying nervously to hold his hands out again.

She grabbed him. Arm behind his back and another under his knees, and he was suddenly being lifted up into the air and held against her chest and she was turning and starting to walk deeper into the house.

“Ah! Wait—stop! What are you doing?” he asked frantically, struggling to get out of her arms.

“Тсс,” she shushed him again, smiling down at him.

What? Why—what is she—

The room by the one he’d been in was big and open, and there was a fireplace at the far end of it, logs stacked high inside and burning brightly, an old portrait hung high up the stone chimney and a chandelier made of antlers hanging above, and in front of the stone hearth by the fire was a big nest of thick animal pelts and blankets, like a bed, and he realized she was heading for it.

“Wait! Put me down! Stop!” he shouted, trying hard to tear free.

“Тише, спокойно. Bсе хорошо,” she said reassuringly, not stopping, not even slowing down, and just holding him tighter against her, “Не бойся.”

Reaching the center of the pile of blankets, she set him down in the middle of them, and he struggled back from her as soon as he was free, doing the best he could with his legs and arms still bound. She tilted her head and watched him, not even trying to stop him, and that was so frustrating—like she didn’t even think he could do anything to fight her, and what was worse was that she was so close to right. He could barely move at all with his arms and legs tied together, and what he was doing hurt, and he was so fucking tried, and cold, and his head ached so bad it was hard to think right. Why. Why? I don’t understand.

“What are you doing? Untie me!” said Quentin, holding his arms up towards her again, frantic and almost angry now, trying to bluff and sound stronger than he was, “Let me go!”

She blinked, and looked down at his arms, then turned and went quickly back into the room they’d just been in and vanished.

“Wait!” he called after her, but she didn’t come back. Trying to move a little to see what she was doing, he fell over painfully on his side and had to drag himself up onto his elbow. He still couldn’t see what she was doing though—just that she was moving in there, back to him.

Shit, shit, shit! This was all so bad. He still didn’t even know where he was. He’d been home, in Springwood, and then something had happened, and he’d ended up here. But I can’t be asleep anymore—I-I know, I woke up. Way too much had happened that had been linear, and he was still tired, which didn’t happen when you were already asleep—not like this, not where you were fighting not to go to sleep again. And he was fucking freezing, and he didn’t think he could have made someone in a dream speak Russian, because he didn’t know it. Could he be in Russia? No—no, that was ridiculous—he couldn’t have been asleep fighting Freddy long enough to get to Russia even if someone had thrown him in the back of a plane. Plus, there had been other people here, and they’d sounded American and all spoken English and not been surprised that he did too. So… What did they say? That we were trapped here? That they were in trouble, but it was complicated? That made so little sense, and the confusion and frustration of it all was overwhelming and he felt hopeless, sinking into it.

He didn’t know where he was, or what was going on, or who the scary bear woman in the white rabbit mask was, or why she’d taken him in and tied him up, or what she was going to do, or where Freddy was and when he’d be back, and why he hadn’t killed him already when he’d been unconscious on that table, and he wanted that less than anything in the world—even less than being torn into pieces by the bloody woman and her axe, but even if so much had just happened and changed, things had only gotten worse. He was fucking trapped and it was just a matter of time.

Y-you should get up, and run. Find something to cut through the ropes. Fuck, I’ve been thinking too long. She could be back any second, and God knows what she wants. If you stick your hands into the fireplace you’ll burn them, but you’ll get the rope. Was he that desperate? He was pretty desperate…

She was back in the doorway then, eyes picking him out in the middle of the heap of pelts instantly, and he saw she was holding a long, thick length of rope, and his stomach dropped as he stared up at her in horror.

“Oh God,” whispered Quentin.

She started to walk to him, and he tried to drag himself away with his bound arms and make it to the fire, as painful as that was to do injured, but she saw him going for the fireplace and cried out, “Замри!” and dashed forward and caught him by his bound ankles and dragged him back towards her. He screamed and struggled so hard he almost blacked out from the effort and the pounding in his head, but he couldn’t stop her, and she pushed him onto his back and held him there gently with a knee on his stomach as he tried to struggle free. He was so fucking weak, and his head was sending waves of pain up and down him, and he felt like throwing up and crying, looking up into her face.

“Please,” said Quentin quietly, trying not to cry, “Don’t.”

She reached down and looped the rope around his neck, one hand catching his bound fists as he screamed and tried to hit her and stop her, but he was swinging with such little force now she barely had to exert any effort at all to keep him down, and she got the rope there easily and tied it in place as he struggled weakly beneath her.

He was so utterly spent when she straightened back up, work done. Tied up with a rope around his neck, he didn’t have any energy left to fight, and he lay at her feet, breathing raggedly and shuddering and trying to choke back tears, arms by his head where she’d left them when she stood up and stopped pushing them against the floor. Watching weakly in dread, waiting to see what she was going to do to him. If she was going to hang him, or something worse.

The big woman glanced at the small child trembling at her feet, and then turned and walked a few paces left. On the side of the fireplace was a big wood staircase leading up, and she wrapped the end of the rope around a bannister pillar at the base of it that was as thick as she was, tethering him so he couldn’t possibly go more than ten feet in any direction, and wouldn’t be able to make it the last two feet to the fire anymore.

Beaten on the pile of furs, Quentin stayed still and watched as weathered feet walked back into view beside him again, and slowly tilted his head up to see her.

“What do you want from me?” he asked, lost and fighting to look strong and to not cry. Half-naked and injured and freezing in the big, unfamiliar cabin. “I don’t understand. Please, just let me go. I want to go home.”

Watching him with catlike curiosity, the big woman in the bunny mask knelt beside him and he was too exhausted this time to flinch and try to shrink away at the sight of her getting close.

She reached out for him then and he shut his eyes and tried to bring his arms over his head to protect himself, shuddering instinctively in fear. But the woman leaned clean over him, and he felt something thick and soft and warm set down over his shoulders and opened his eyes in confusion and surprise to see she had pulled one of the pelts over him like a blanket. She smiled at him when she saw him looking back and patted his forehead.

“I don’t understand,” pleaded Quentin, not even sure if he should be relieved at all by this and utterly lost, “Why are you doing this?”

The big woman tilted her head and then tapped her chest. “Мама.”

“What?” said Quentin, staring.

“Теперь я твоя мама,” explained the woman patiently, smiling gently at him. “Я защищу. Ничего не бойся.”

“Mama?” questioned Quentin in disbelief, because that had sounded an awful lot like English and he was reeling wondering if he’d heard that right.

She lit up excitedly and nodded. “Мама!” she agreed enthusiastically, pointing to herself.

He stared at her.

Not seeming to notice, she unclipped something from her belt he hadn’t even noticed was hanging there, and reached over and strategically placed a little stuffed, hand-sewn fox between his bound arms beneath the blanket.

“Oh God,” said Quentin, really afraid he was getting it, “Are you serious?”

She was still just beaming at him.

“Are you kidding?” he asked again, almost incensed, “You’re actually kidnapping me?”

“Тсс. Bсе хорошо,” she shushed, reaching over and patting his head as he grimaced and tried to lean away. “Спокойно, пора спать.” She moved then, pulling up the blanket and sliding in beside him.

“No!” shouted Quentin, panicked and angry, “Get away from me! Let me go!”

She tilted her head and gave him a confused look, then wrapped her arms around him and pulled him close so his back was against her chest, and he struggled and kicked with the little energy he had left, every little semblance of okay he’d been able to rebuild inside himself since hoping maybe she was trying to help him shattering all at once.

“Stop it! Let go of me!” he screamed, trying to struggle out of her grasp. She wouldn’t let go though, she just held onto him and pinned him in place, saying words he didn’t understand. Quentin kept shouting and fighting and thrashing for about five minutes, and then his strength finally gave out completely, and exhausted, he went still, just breathing raggedly, unable to do anything else, still pinned down.

It felt so fucking awful, and hopeless. And there was nothing he could do.

A few seconds after he went still, he heard the big woman start to hum, holding him down with just one arm now, and using the other hand to gently stoke his head. He wanted to cry.

“Please,” he said finally, turning his head as far as he could and still unable to see her, “Please let me go. I don’t want to be here. I wanna go home.” There was no response. Not even a change in her humming. He felt himself tear up and tried to choke the despair back down. “Please, let me go,” he asked again. But she didn’t answer.

 


 

Quentin stayed up as long as he could that first night, struggling to stay awake, but as afraid of the woman as he was and as sick as he felt stuck next to her, he was so fucking exhausted, and being warm by a fire on a soft pile of furs and blankets wasn’t helping, and when eventually the injuries and absolute exhaustion won out even over his fear of falling asleep somewhere a few hours later in the night, he passed out.

And Quentin slept.

He had slept a little bit—mostly against his will, never for long, and always at a high cost, these past two weeks, but in any way that really mattered, he had been awake for three hundred and thirty six hours. Run ragged, fighting with pills and energy drinks and pain and determination not to fall asleep. A kind of exhausted that human beings weren’t meant to be able to ever even be.

As soon as he was out, he was out cold, and hard, and deep in sleep, as close to a coma as his body could drag him, desperate for real, true, good, uninterrupted sleep. But for the first time in almost a month, Quentin didn’t have a nightmare. In fact, Quentin didn’t dream at all. Nothing could enter the Huntress’s realm to hurt her, and neither of them knew it, but that meant nothing could enter her dreams here. And, since he was here now with her, that meant nothing could enter his. He had fought falling asleep for hours on the floor of her cabin, even as close to dead already as he had been, knowing with absolute certainty what would happen if he passed out. Only, it didn’t. And Quentin slept. Real sleep. Deep sleep. Full cycles, body desperately trying to repair damages it hadn’t been able to get to in weeks, and he stayed out for almost two days.

Anna got worried part way through the first day.

She woke up early that morning, even after a full night, because it was just what she was used to, and then let herself doze and stay under the blankets for a few hours when she saw that the child was still fast asleep.

After a little bit, she got up to make food, and she did that happily, and then waited for him to wake up. He didn’t though, and after a couple of hours Anna went ahead and munched her meat and a handful of berries without him, sitting by him cross-legged on the floor, watching his face as he slept. He had been very afraid last night, but children were always afraid of her at first. She thought children must just take a little while to get to know you. And this one had been through so much, with the demon man hunting him—it would only make sense he would be a little bit afraid. He did not know that she had taken care of the man, after all. Probably he was still afraid it would come back for him, and it might—it had somehow still been alive when it had crawled off—but Anna felt very certain it could not get at him here. Nothing could. The house and the little woods she owned were safe. And tied to the bannister here, he would be able to walk around and play by the fire where it was warm, if he wanted, but he would not be in any danger of wandering off and going past where it was safe.

A strange child. He talked a lot more than she was used to from children, but she liked that, even if she couldn’t tell what he was saying. It was nice to have a conversation, and to listen to him babble. He had been very unhappy last night, but she was sure that once he calmed down and realized that he was safe here, he would feel much better, and be happy again. She had a lot of toys, and some books with fascinating pictures in them, and it was so exciting to think through all of the things she could show him—it had been so long…since. Since Anna had had a child.

She had gotten up then, trying not to think about other children and not to worry about what had always happened in the past, and had distracted herself by going and getting the blood out of his clothes. Anna had been going to fix them, too, but she was called into a trial and gone for a little bit. When she got back, she ran right into the house to make sure the child was still okay, afraid he would have woken up alone and thought he had been abandoned, but he was still asleep when she made it inside, which was a relief, and then a worry. She wasn’t sure how long children usually slept, because it had been a long time, but it wasn’t this much, was it? Maybe because he was hurt, though, and he had been very hurt.

Anna had knelt by him and felt his chest, making sure his heartbeat was steady, but his heart felt strong, and he had groaned a little in his unconsciousness and shifted, so she thought he would be okay. Just very tired.

“Бедное младенец,” whispered Anna, patting his head.

A very pretty child, she thought proudly, watching him breathe, features still, very lost to the sleep, Cute. Big eyes and a round face. She liked him very much, and she wanted to protect him. Keep him safe. Good child.

Not a little girl. That was strange, but she was sure now that she liked this one, even if he was not a little girl. He was strong, and looked at everything so carefully with his big eyes like he was trying to understand it. And he was smart—even though he couldn’t speak the right language, he had understood several of the things she had told him, and she was very proud of that. A clever little child. Still though, even if he needed to sleep, how much longer was he going to do it? Rest was important, but he was going to die without some water and food, and there had been other little children she had…had watched waste away, no matter what she did to try to save them, and... He is okay, Anna told herself, holding her hand against the part of his forehead the bandage there didn’t cover, making sure he wasn’t sick or too hot, See? He is healthy. The bleeding is stopped. He will be okay. Just resting a lot. This one will not die. She hoped he wouldn’t. She would try—no, no he would have to not die. He was bigger than any of the others had been, and that meant he must be stronger, a little older. He would have to be okay. This one would live. And the sleeping was okay. He must just need to heal. Besides, he would have to wake up soon, wouldn’t he?

Anna let him sleep for a few more hours as she fixed tears in his odd clothes and sharpened her axe, but he stayed asleep, and it got to be many, many hours, and pretty worried now, Anna started to get agitated, and pace, watching him. She thought she would wake him up, but got taken into another trial before she could, and when she rushed back into her home to check on him and he was still sleeping peacefully by the fire, she calmed down a little bit and decided it would be okay to keep letting him rest. He was not hot, or tossing, and he didn’t look sick. Just sleeping. So she laid back down beside him to help keep him warm and wrapped an arm over his shoulder and went to sleep herself. He mumbled something and jerked a little when she touched him, face suddenly scrunched up in worry, but he didn’t wake up, and in a couple of seconds he was calm again, and still, and when she stroked his head, he smiled in his sleep for just a second, and her chest filled up with happiness and warmth and she fell asleep herself very content, holding a child she had to raise and protect for the first time in such a long time.

There weren’t days in the realm. Ideas like ‘early’ or ‘late’ or ‘morning’ were just that—just ideas, impressions, things Anna felt was happening because she had a keen sense of the passage of time. In this place, there were no real days ever. It was an eternal night. But, after a normal amount of hours of rest, Anna was up again in day two for her, and feeling hopeful. For a few hours, she just stayed watching him, fascinated by the sight of another person up close for the first time in so long, replaying things that had happened over the past day and a half in her head and thinking about them. He was a very tired child. There were deep bags under his eyes like he had never slept before, but he was sleeping now. A nice child. Even if she had been around him unconscious now for longer than awake, she was enjoying having the child to look after, and she was excited at the idea of him waking up again.

After watching him for a little bit, Anna moved on. She finished fixing the child’s clothes and hung them up to dry by the fire, and checked to make sure her bandages had not bled through, and went to a trial, and hunted, and waited. But he stayed asleep. She had never for the life of her seen anything at all sleep so long. His neck had been a little bit cut up when she had found him, but it had bruised now, dark purple and green on the edges, but not from her rope—she had been careful with that, making sure it was loose, and would not hurt him. She started to get worried though, that maybe something was wrong with his head, because he had been asleep so long. It had to have been something like thirty-six hours now, and he was still as unconscious as he had been at the start. Anna tried to wait, because he didn’t seem sick, but after a few more hours she couldn’t take it anymore and the worry that had built inside of her after losing so many little ones before became too much. He needed to wake up, and eat, and drink, and move a little, or he would get ill, and weak, and die, and she couldn’t stand watching that happen ever again. And overcome with the fear of that happening, Anna finally decided to wake him up.

The child had to drink something, at least. She decided that after worrying about what to do for a few minutes, and determining her best course of action, Anna carefully carried a cup of water over to the child curled up on the floor in her mound of furs and and sat down beside his head. The small thing stayed unresponsive with her beside it, and very gently she held him up and propped him against her in her lap so that he was sitting. He groaned and his head lulled to the side when she moved him, still asleep but face scrunching up like he was dreaming about something bad. Carefully, Anna tapped him on the shoulder and held the water glass up to his lips. His mouth was already a little open from breathing, and she gently tilted his head back and leaned it against her shoulder, and then it was easy to tip back the cup and pour some of the water past his lips to get him to drink. To her surprise though, his eyes opened almost immediately when she did that, unfocused but suddenly very awake, and he choked on the water as his body tried to swallow it, and fell forward against her arm as she caught him, and he doubled over coughing.

“Ты в порядке?” she asked hurriedly, trying to help him back up as he coughed and gasped for breath.

The boy turned and looked at her with frantic eyes.

“Ещё раз?” she asked, holding the cup up and trying to bring it to his lips again. He jerked back and tried to get free, struggling with his bound arms as she reached for him, turning his head as far away from her as he could.

“Stop! What are you doing?” he asked desperately, “Get off of me!”

“Вода,” she explained soothingly, trying hard to get him to drink it, “Хорошо.”

“Let me go!” he shouted, trying futilely to get away from her, expression frantic and terrified.

“Всё хорошо,” she promised, and she got the cup into his mouth again as he struggled with her, and as soon as she managed to pour water in, Anna tipped his head back so he would have to swallow it, and the child jerked, trying to tear himself free, scrambling for traction with his bound feet as he choked on it and fought not to swallow. With a sudden ferocity, he yanked his head to the side, out of her grasp, and spat the water out onto the ground, breathing frantically, droplets running down the side of his mouth as he looked back her like she was some kind of monster trying to eat him.

“Get away from me,” he said, voice a little unsteady but less loud this time.

“Вода,” she tried again, confused, holding the cup out to him to see if maybe he would want to drink it on his own, “Пей.”

He shook his head at her, still watching her with big, dilated pupils, like she was something very horrible. And it hurt.

“Не бойтесь,” she said quietly, trying to reassure him. “Я хорош. Мама.” She patted her chest when she said it, and then held out the cup to him again.

“No,” he said, shaking his head, “I’m not drinking that.”

Maybe he was hungry, she thought hopefully, and she set him down gently and he dragged himself back as far as he could go, arms tucked in close against his chest, watching her in dread.

Anna went quickly, getting some smoked rabbit and berries and more water for the cup, and went back to the child as soon as she could. When she got there, he was fighting with the ropes around his wrists, trying to fear out of them, and she saw that he was cutting into his wrists doing it. As she stepped inside and he saw her see him, he stopped, and a look of fear swept over his features, and he compacted on the floor, limbs drawn in to kick if she got close, and to be hard to grab, like a wild animal.

“Нет, нет,” said Anna, distressed, hurrying over, setting her food and drink aside. He tried to kick her when she got close, but she got past his legs easily and took his arms while he tried to pull away from her. “Поранишься,” she said worriedly, feeling the cuts on his wrists from fighting with the rope.

“Then let me go!” he pleaded. Anna couldn’t understand what he was saying, but he looked so distressed and afraid. The small child was almost crying, and shivering again, even by the fire, now that he wasn’t under the warmth of the blankets. She hated to see him like that, but she didn’t know how to fix it. Children were always scared of her at first, even with the cute masks she made, and it took a little time for them to get used to her being there. He will be okay, she told herself, trying to feel encouraged, He is just still sleepy from all the sleep for so long, and afraid. Children are always afraid. But he will be calm in a little bit.

She didn’t know what he’d said, but she could tell he was distressed by not being able to use his hands, and she’d been planning to untie those once he was calm enough she didn’t think he would hurt himself. He was still very scared right now, but he was hurting himself with the ropes, so she thought that maybe she would try it and see if he felt a little bit better. “Всё хорошо,” said Anna gently, holding up a hand to try to calm him down. She unclipped a hatchet from her belt, and he leaned as far away from her as he could with the rope around his neck stopping him, breathing fast and tensing in anticipation of being struck. “Нет, нет,” said Anna again, soothingly, “Я помогу. Не бойся.” Reaching out and catching his hands before he could jerk them away from her, she held him steady and sliced through the rope.

The bonds fell to the floor and the child pulled his arms back in towards himself and rubbed his wrists, looking at the marks there, and then back up at her, mistrustful and somehow still sad, like he might cry.

His feet, thought Anna, remembering, and she reached down and cut the rope around his ankles, and he let her, and when she looked up this time, he almost looked okay again. Almost hopeful, looking back at her. Definitely calmer. It works! He is better now. See?

“This too?” asked the child, tugging on the rope around his neck.

Anna shook her head at him, which made all of the fragile hope on the child’s face vanish, and instead he instantly looked incredibly distressed.

“Why?” he pleaded, “Why are you doing this to me? Please—just let me go.”

She cocked her head, listening, no idea at all what he was saying, but trying to let him know she was paying attention and doing her best.

“Please,” he said again, more vehemently, tugging on the rope again.

“Нет,” said Anna sympathetically, shaking her head. She understood he wanted to be able to walk around and explore, but it was dangerous out there. He had almost been killed the last time he was in the woods, and if she let him go, and ever was not watching carefully, something might kill him. He was too small to fight off the demon man like she could, or the other things out there she had seen, so he had to stay. He was just too little. “Опасность,” she added, pointing out of the house, then, “Безопасности,” as she pointed to where he was.

His eyes welled up, and he looked away and shut them for a few seconds, breathing uneven.

“Why?” he asked after a moment, looking back at her with glossy eyes and a pained expression, arms wrapped around himself for comfort, “You’re not evil, or you would have just killed me. Please—please, let me go.”

Hoping that that had meant he didn’t like it but understood, Anna reached out and patted him on the head. He flinched and tried to pull away from her and wasn’t quick enough, but it made her sad he kept trying to do that.

He is just confused, she told herself, Children are always scared at first. He must be hungry, and need water too. She remembered the tray then, and turned and picked it up and walked over to the boy and knelt a foot away and held it out to him.

“No,” he said like he couldn’t believe her, still looking afraid and lost, but sad and hurt now more than anything, “I’m not taking that.”

“Хорошо,” she promised, still holding up the little tray.

“You stole me,” said the child, eyes searching and fixed on her face, “You found me when I was weak and hurt and couldn’t fight back, and you kidnapped me. I don’t care if you patched me up, or if that’s food—I’m not touching anything you give me. I’m not gonna help you keep me. I don’t want to stay here! I want to go home, to my real family! I have a real house, and a real dad, and you can’t just lock me up and keep me here like a pet—you have to let me go!”

She knew he was upset, but she couldn’t understand why, and she looked down at the tray of food, hurt and worried, trying to figure out if maybe something was wrong with it.

“Please,” he said a lot less forcefully, but voice just as desperate, begging “Please, let me go.”

Not understanding, she held the food out again, and he looked so disappointed and broken by the gesture, and turned away from her and lay back down on the bed of furs and curled up, arms around himself and shivering.

“Mладенец,” said Anna haltingly, reaching out for him and then hesitating when she saw him tense in anticipation of being touched. Slowly, confused, she drew her hand back.

 


 

Anna didn’t know what she’d done wrong. Children had always been scared of her when she’d taken them, but she had usually been able to convince them she was going to be a good Mama, and look out for them. It wasn’t working with this one at all.

For the next three days, she brought him books, and toys she had made, and shiny baubles she loved to look at, and food, and water, and he wouldn’t touch any of them. He wouldn’t eat, he wouldn’t drink. He wouldn’t even sleep again. He just lay in the piles of fur, turned away from her, or sat huddled up by the staircase, back against the banister, staring longingly and sadly out the open doorway at the woods beyond. She tried, many times, to go over and to play with him—to show him how to use a toy, or to read him a book, but he hated her. He would fight and try to get free, and even if she got a grip on him and pinned him in place with her while trying to read a book, he would fight the whole time, and never stop, and it made her very, very sad. Anna couldn’t understand why, but nothing she did could ever calm him down.

And he was sad—he was so sad. Sometimes he was angry too, and would shout at her, or try to break the rope or untie it, but the rope she used was as thick as an arm, and all he ever did was cut up his fingers, and she tried to bandage those for him, but he wouldn’t let her anywhere near him, and when she had finally gotten close enough to grab him and try to do it, he had screamed, and she had been so hurt she had let him go and backed away and given up, not able to take the agonized sounds he was making. She didn’t understand what she was doing so wrong, but he was miserable. He would yell sometimes, sometimes he would beg her, sometimes he would cry, but mostly he just sat still and looked hopelessly at nothing, huddled in the jacket she had given him back. So sad. And she wanted him to be happy. He was a smart little child, and she liked him very much even though he did not like her, because she knew that he was scared, and not mean, and she just could not understand what he was so scared of, and could not ever figure out a way to convince him she was nice too, and not going to hurt him. He would not call her Mama, and he was afraid to get close to her. Anna had tried changing her mask a few times, to a bear once, an owl for a bit, and then a kitty, but he had been just as afraid of those as her first mask, so she had returned to it, still confused and sad. Her repeated attempts to get him to eat had gone just as poorly. Early on the second day she had gotten worried and tried to force feed him and to make him choke down some water, and he had screamed and fought her and knocked things over, shaking and desperate, and spat out anything she had managed to get into his mouth, and when he had dragged himself up off the floor, coughing from water he had choked on, he had looked at her with such an awful expression that she had stopped. He had looked at her like he thought that she was trying to hurt him, like she was doing this to watch him suffer, and she wanted so badly for him to understand that she just wanted to keep him safe.

Sometimes, when he didn’t know she was watching, he would talk to himself or play with his necklace a little, which she thought was very cute. She had been hopeful about that the first time she had seen it, but then only a few minutes later his expression had crumpled and he had bent forward over his knees where he sat against the banister, and buried his head under his arms and tried to choke back sobs and be quiet while he cried, so she wouldn’t hear it. Shaking with the intensity of his despair. And there were a few more times she saw him fiddling with the necklace or talking to himself, or doing something that looked to her a little like playing, but mostly when he thought she was gone and she tried to sneak a look at what he was doing, he would curl up and cry. He was so miserable. And it broke her heart and she wanted to go over and hold him and stroke his head and tell him he would be okay and she would keep him safe, but she knew that she was what he was scared of, and she didn’t know how to change it. She kept trying, over, and over, with new toys and good food, and calm singing, but nothing worked, and as the days went from one to three, she started to despair.

Nothing she could do would even get the child to eat, or to drink. And he was dying. She was sure of it—she had seen it so many times before. It had only been a couple of days, but he was getting weak, having a harder and harder time staying upright, and his eyes were getting unfocused, his cheeks gaunt and sunken. Getting sick. And she couldn’t save him. She had watched child, after child, after child die like this, and it was going to happen again, so fast this time, and she wouldn’t even be able to comfort him when it did, because he was only more afraid whenever she got close, and as she sat against a wall and watched him huddling in a little ball by the banister, unfocused eyes on the wall opposite him, face ashy, miserable and weak, and sick, and fading, the sadness became unbearable and she was lost in it.

Anna couldn’t watch him anymore. The child’s curly hair had lost so much of the fluff it had had, and his gaunt blue eyes were dying, his slow breathing getting weaker and weaker. So quiet now he didn’t even scream or cry. He just sat still for hours. And she couldn’t see him like that anymore, so she went outside, behind her house, and looked at all the little unmarked graves she knew so well out there, and tried to pick a place to put him that would be nice. Eyes scanning the yard, she thought about the uneven grass and about putting him beneath it with all the others, and that was too much to bear, and remembering face after face and sixteen voices and pairs of eyes and children, Anna sunk to the ground against the wall of her house and buried her face in her arms. She had been so happy, finding the little living thing, imagining keeping a child and raising it, and now that hope and happiness was all gone and she was so alone again. She was always alone. And there would be seventeen graves now outside the isolated, empty cabin, and the child would die miserable, and there was nothing she could do to save him.

 


 

Everything was so awful, and overwhelming.

Quentin couldn’t understand it. He didn’t know how he’d gone to sleep and not had a single bad dream, or where Freddy had gone, but he didn’t even get to be relieved about it, because this had happened. From one bad place to another.

He had been terrified that first night that the woman who had tied him up was going to do something awful to him, and she hadn’t hurt him, but she wouldn’t let him go. He had been well and truly kidnapped. In maybe the most literal possible sense. Sixteen, and she was acting like she’d stolen a four-year-old, and he hated that. Being imprisoned was bad enough, but that part was too much like other things. No matter what he said, or did, though, she wouldn’t let him go. She just kept bringing him toys and books and food and trying to get close to him, and all of it made him sick, and he just wanted to go home—wanted to see his real dad, and his own bed, and Nancy, and feel like, some tiny percentage of okay again.

He still didn’t even know where he was.

The woman was definitely Russian, because he’d heard her say both of the only words he had known in Russian now—yes and no—but he couldn’t communicate with her at all. He knew that she knew he wanted her to untie him and let him go, but she wouldn’t do it, and she wouldn’t explain, and he was trapped. Quentin couldn’t even figure out where the hell he could be with some Russian woman off in an isolated cabin, but that wasn’t all. It was always night—always. And he couldn’t figure that out. Quentin sort of thought he’d read that there were some places way, way up north where there was no sun in the winter at all, and he thought that meant that had to be where he was, but there wasn’t any snow, and that was just as confusing as the eternal darkness, because how the fuck had he ended up so far north? It hadn’t been a long dream, when he’d been fighting Freddy. I mean, kind of long for a Freddy dream, but it had been like, maybe a half an hour. There was just no way. And nothing made sense, and he was so lost, and alone.

He couldn’t understand anything that was happening to him, and nothing at all was getting better. It had been days now—he wasn’t even sure how many, because the sky never looked any different, but he knew it had to have been at least a few. He just wanted to go home, but no matter how much he begged or pleaded or fought or reasoned, the huge woman with the rabbit mask wouldn’t let him go. She’d taken all of the things he’d had in his pockets before giving him his jacket back, so he couldn’t use his lighter to burn through the ropes, and in desperation, he’d tried to untie the rope around his neck himself, and when he’d realized that was impossible, to rip it up with his fingers, but all that had done was cut through his fingertips and stung and made him bleed, and she’d come in and yelled at him to stop and grabbed him like she always did and tried to bandage his hands, but he hadn’t wanted that—he wanted her to get away from him. He wanted her to stop trying to hold him, and pet him, and force him to eat and drink, and play with him, and lay down anywhere near him, but she just wouldn’t. It was overwhelming and he felt so despairing, and angry, and sad—so powerless to do anything to protect himself, or to get free. It was like being somebody’s pet, and he hated it. He just wanted to go home. But no amount of pleading or hoping or fighting could change the fact that he was trapped, and she had no intention of ever letting him go.

God, he was so tired. He had really tried to think, and to work, and to form some clever plan to get out of here, but nothing he had tried worked, and he felt so stupid, and hopeless, and utterly alone. The cuts on his chest hurt dully, and his left arm stung, his head ached, his throat was still sore, and none of that was as bad as when she would come in here and pin him to a wall and try to force something down his throat. He wasn’t going to fucking do it—he wasn’t a pet; he wasn’t something you could just steal and keep—he wasn’t something at all. He wouldn’t eat her food and play with her toys and play along like this was fine and let her just keep him tied up in some shack in the woods, away from his dad and everyone he knew for the rest of his life. He wouldn’t. He was so fucking sick of people treating him like they could do whatever they wanted, and he was always, always going to fight back. But God, he was so tired, and no matter how much he fought or how many times he told her to leave him alone or begged her to let him go, nothing ever changed. And he was starting to be afraid that she would get angry eventually, and do something worse to him again. Tie him up like before, or drug him, or God only even knew. He kept praying that something would get better—that he would figure something out, or she would change her mind, or someone would come and find him, but he was running out of energy even to do that.

Everything that had almost happened to him was still fresh in his head, there whenever he closed his eyes, and it made him sick, and he was worried about Nancy, and worried about his dad, and worried about whoever that girl who’d gotten hurt had been, and worried about himself. He wondered if he was going to die here. He wondered if the woman was going to get mad eventually, and come in here and kill him with that huge fucking axe he’d seen her polishing and sharpening every night. He almost didn’t care anymore. Quentin was getting so tired, all that he wanted to do was lay down and cry, and he fought that, struggling with everything he had to remain positive and to think and to believe he would figure out some way to get out of here, but it was so impossible. He kept trying and trying and trying to escape, but he was always being watched, and cornered, and grabbed, and forced to do things, and he just wanted to cry and to sleep, but he was still afraid to sleep, and he wouldn’t let her see him cry, so he just stayed on the pelts and stared at nothing.

As time passed, his energy faded, and he fought less and less and mostly just shut down and turned away from her when she tried to give him things or talk to him or make him do things, until the third day almost all that Quentin did was lay on the furs or sit by the stairs and stare at the wall. So run down and exhausted and dehydrated and starving, but past the point with hunger where you even realized you wanted to eat. Just scared, and sad, and homesick, and hurt, and so, so unbearably cold, even by the fire. Scared too. He was always scared. It had just become a constant state of being, exhausting him. Scared the woman would come in and grab him, and hurt him, or tie him down again, or kill him. Scared Freddy would come back. Scared he was going to die, and his dad wouldn’t ever even get to bury him. It was draining to be scared all the time, but he couldn’t shut it down, because she was always there, and so he was just exhausted. Exhausted and beaten and still trying to hope. Trying to dig deep and find energy to hold on, and to fight, but so, so tired. Raggedly worn down.

It was late in the third day, although Quentin wasn’t keeping good track on time, and it had been a while since Quentin had seen the woman. He didn’t know anymore even a ballpark figure of how long it had been or when in the day it was or even if there was a time of day at all in this endless night, but it had too have been an hour since she’d been there last, and for her, that was a lot.

He was drifting in and out of consciousness, exhausted, propped up by the big post at the base of the stairs, where he’d dragged himself and made himself stay up in a weak attempt to stay awake, when he heard something.

It was unusual, and that was enough to wake him up. He hadn’t realized until he did wake up that he’d been mostly out, leaned forward over his knees, head against his arms, eyes shut. Cursing himself mentally for doing that, he tried to drag himself back into alertness and sit up a little, looking for what the sound that had woken him up had been. Come on. Get up. You gotta stay awake. If anybody comes close to the house, you have to be ready to shout. If you can warn someone in time, they could go get help, and you might get out of here. You have to not give up—you have to keep trying. Things—

He stopped, tilting his head. That was…it was coming from inside the house. Someone was…crying?

Weakly, Quentin used the banister he was tethered to to drag himself to his feet, and he turned to look for the source of the sound. Upstairs.

That was going to be a problem. He couldn’t get upstairs. Not with how short the rope around his neck was. He could try, but he’d be stuck a few steps from the top, and he was wary, trying to pick out the voice, because it sounded kind of like the woman to him. Why would she be crying?

Quentin hated the gigantic person who had kidnapped him and imprisoned him and kept him chained up here like a dog, but God, the crying sounded so miserable. It was intense and ragged, but the quiet, kind of choked kind. The way someone sounded when they were trying to be quiet about doing the crying, but they had been completely overtaken by something that broke them, and couldn’t make the crying stop. And that was…confusing. And maybe it wasn’t her. And maybe it was, but he was still…

Quentin quit reasoning through what he should do and climbed up onto the staircase and started to walk up. It was harder to do than he’d thought. He almost blacked out just standing totally upright, and had to keep his hand against the wall to stay steady as he climbed.

As he got closer to the top, he could hear the crying better, and he was sure that it was the woman now, and as he reached the closest stair to the top he could reach, he saw her. She was sitting against one of the walls in the hall, holding a little box in her lap and crying over it, something he couldn’t make out in one of her hands.

What are you doing? God she sounded so…so genuinely sad.

Her head had been turned away from him when he first saw her, but she turned her head a little to look down into the box, and his eyes widened as he realized she wasn’t wearing the mask. Quentin had never seen the woman without her mask. She looked…very different. Short dark hair, so short it was barely even something you could call a pixie cut. There was dark powder smeared along her eye sockets but he could still see big brown eyes past that, so big he could barely see whites in them at all, swollen from crying. And she felt eyes on her then and turned and saw him, and he saw her eyes widen in surprise too, and she sort of choked on a gasp and held the box closer to her chest. There was a scar he somehow hadn’t noticed before, a big one, on the left side of her lips. He wondered what could have caused it.

“What’s wrong?” asked Quentin, not sure why he had done it or what he was even feeling. He had been working so hard not to talk to her at all, but it was hard to feel the same way about her while watching her curled up on the ground weeping.

She cocked her head at him, and then her eyes welled up with tears and her shoulders started to shake and she began to cry again. Quentin tried to take a step towards her, to comfort her, or something, forgetting he was already at the end of his tether, and he choked himself and stumbled back before catching himself against the stairwell.

The woman tried to say something to him but didn’t make it all the way through the word before starting to cry again, and she just shook her head at him.

Quentin watched her, confused and kind of concerned, as much as his mind kept telling him he had no reason to be concerned for someone who had kidnapped him, and he knew that was true.

“Why are you crying?” he asked, staying where he was this time.

She blinked at him with swollen eyes, and he looked from her to the box, and she followed his gaze and started to cry again.

Shit. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.

The woman looked over at him again, eyes still full of tears and choking on sobs, and then her eyes widened and she felt her face, and, looking horrified, she quickly felt along the ground and snagged her rabbit mask from where he hadn’t been able to see it on the other side of her and started to pull it back on.

“Wait,” said Quentin, holding a palm out towards her, “You can keep it off.”

She paused and glanced at him, tears still running down her cheeks and mask half over her head. He tried shaking his head and making a motion like he was lifting a mask off, and slowly, confused and sniffing, she set it back down on the ground and looked at him for conformation. He nodded at her.

“You look a lot less scary without that on,” said Quentin, still not really sure why he was doing any of this. Well, no. He knew why. It was because as soon as he’d seen her crying, he’d felt bad for her, but he knew that was such a dumb thing to feel and he was angry at himself for it, and ashamed, because he knew that was weak, and stupid. But he couldn’t control it. Not totally. Come on—why do you even care? Just walk back downstairs. If she wants to be miserable, let her be. You’ve cried enough. She should too. He didn’t really like that, though, and he felt bad as soon as he tried to tell himself it. He hated her for kidnapping him and keeping him tied up here, but, he—well—it was…he didn’t know how he felt, but he didn’t want her to suffer. He just wanted her to let him go.

The woman watched him for another few seconds as he stood there in silence, and then she looked back at the box and started to cry quietly again.

“Why are you sad?” asked Quentin as soon as she started to cry, pointing at the box, “What is that?”

The big woman looked up again and sniffed. She looked confused by the fact that he was here and talking to her, but she pulled herself to her feet and walked over. Quentin suddenly felt very different. He had forgotten for about sixty seconds how big she was, but she was muscular, and huge, and towering over him, and he felt very small and weak and defenseless as she got close.

She didn’t hurt him, though. She just walked down to the fourth step from the top and sat down beside him. Taking his cues from her, Quentin sat down too, looking over at the scary woman on his left curiously.

Wordlessly, she showed him the box. It was full of…cloth? Yeah. Scraps of cloth. Quentin started to reach out a hand and gave her a questioning look, and when she nodded, he reached inside and held up a piece. It was faded pale green, with a little yellow flower print.

“Василиса,” whispered Anna.

"Vah...Vahsyllisa?” asked Quentin, trying to echo what she’d said. Her eyes welled up with tears and she nodded.

“Зоя,” she said, pointing with a wavering hand to a dark blue in the box, and then a pale yellow, “Любовь.”

Choking up, she pointed to him and opened her mouth and then stopped, almost surprised, and then burst into tears and sobbed out, “Нет даже имени.”

Me? What did I—because I don’t do what she wants?

“I don’t—” started Quentin, confused, but she cut him off, crying harder through her words as she struggled to get them out, speaking in a flood.

“Ты умрешь. Mладенец моя. Лервый младенец  давно. Я так тебя пюбовь, а ты меня ненавидишь. Я хочу чтобы ты счастлива. Я хочу защитить тебя. Я хочу чтобы ты безопасности. Ты умрешь--Ты умрешь как всех моих младенец. Я не могу спасти тебя!” She started to sob harder, and she reached out for his face and he was so surprised that he didn’t jerk away, he just flinched when she touched him. “Даже не имя для коробка,” finished the woman miserably, tears streaming down her face. It had been so much and so much more than he had ever heard her say. Spoken fast, like she couldn’t stop the words from spilling out, desperate, and agonizing, and she just kept crying when she was finished, and he was utterly lost.

“I…don’t understand,” said Quentin, watching her nervously.

She patted his head, still crying, and then slumped back over her box, shoulders trembling.

What’s wrong with her. What is this?

Slowly, Quentin picked up one of the little pieces of fabric, pale blue, and held it up for her.

“Клара,” choked out the woman.

‘Klara?’ Wait.

“Are—wait, are these names?” he asked, suddenly sickened by the box, “Were these people?” Holy fuck—is she going to kill me? Or—no, but she. The panic had been very real for a second, but she was looking at him so miserably, like she felt bad for him.

He looked down at the box for a second. “Did ‘Klara’ die? Uh.” Shit. He closed his eyes and laid back on the steps with his hands over his chest. The woman made a horrified sound and he felt her grab him and opened his eyes as she dragged him back up and clutched him against her, stroking his back.

“D-did she?” he asked, trying to fight the urge to tear free. “Klara…” Fuck. This is the only thing I can think of, but it’s going to be tactless and mean, but I don’t know how else to ask. Feeling immensely guilty about it, Quentin moved back so she could see him and brought a finger up to his throat and made a slashing motion.

The woman watched him with big watery eyes and tried to not cry and to nod. “Умерла.”

“How many?” asked Quentin, horrified, picking up pieces of cloth, counting. Ten pieces of cloth, two ribbons, and four buttons. “I-is that ten, or sixteen? Jesus Christ,” he whispered. Did she kill them all? On accident? Doing—doing what she’s doing to me? Wait—she. “Me?” he asked out loud, looking up at her again, pointing to himself.

“Умрёшь,” she whispered, and she was quiet, but tears started streaming down her face again.

“I-I’m not,” started Quentin, not even sure what to say. Trying to understand this and feeling so overwhelmed and confused and weird.

“Детки мои,” the big woman told him, holding the box and making a motion with her arms like she was rocking a small baby, “Все умерли.” Her eyes welled up with tears and she pointed to the big open window at the top of the stairs and the yard beyond.

“…You had a baby?” asked Quentin, trying hard to understand, “And it died. You’ve been…” Looking for a new one. But. “They all died.”

Watching him, head tilted, but not understanding, the big woman gently placed a palm on his chest. “Tы умрёшь.”

“I die,” he translated, staring past her at nothing. I die, and you’re sad about it. Because you like me, and you want to keep me. God, this was all so wrong. He wasn’t supposed to feel bad for her at all. It didn’t matter if her kid was dead—she had no right to kidnap him, or anything, and…

He looked off to the side, at the big portrait that hung above the fireplace. Old, and worn, and almost colorless. But it was of a man and a woman and a little baby in a blanket, held to the woman’s chest. He squinted at it, trying to tell if the woman in it was the one beside him. He didn’t think she could be, but, he wasn’t sure. It was so faded. How did you get out here, he wondered, looking back at the woman huddled over her little box beside him, Why are you all alone?

“Is that your mom?” he asked, pointing to the picture. She looked over at him and followed his gesture to the portrait above the fireplace. “Your Mama?”

She turned back to him and nodded. “Mама.”

“Umryosh?” asked Quentin, trying to copy the thing he thought she’d been saying for ‘dead’. She nodded at him, tearing up again.

Quentin looked at the ground.

“Нет есть,  нет выпить, младенец мертва,” cried the woman.

Shit. I…

He didn’t know what she was saying anymore, but he could tell she was upset because she thought he was going to die, and she might be right. He had been kind of worried about that himself. Quentin wasn’t hungry, but he had been, and he was so sick and weak and freezing all the time. If he didn’t sleep and at least drink water, he probably wasn’t going to live much longer. If he took her food, though, she would think she was winning, and going to get to keep him, and he wasn’t going to let anyone fucking do that to him—he didn’t care if she was sad, or lonely, it wasn’t right. None of this was, and he had to go home. He was so lonely and homesick and scared all the time it was unbearable, and he shouldn’t care how she felt at all. It wasn’t right to just—

He looked over at her. Eyes swollen and red from crying, little box clutched to her chest in a death grip. Tears rolling down her face.

How can things change so much in four minutes? I shouldn’t…I…

But.

“Uhm,” said Quentin nervously, feeling sick to his stomach, “Look. I…”

She turned her head to look at him, eyes bleary and still full of tears.

“I’m kind of hungry,” said Quentin. “I-if you’ve still got any food.” He paused, and then rubbed his stomach, no other idea how to tell her what he meant.

Her eyes widened, and she stared at him in hopeful disbelief. “Кушать?”

Quentin wasn’t sure what that meant, so he just nodded and patted his stomach again. The woman lit up. She grabbed him and shot to her feet and started crying again, and kissing his forehead and cheeks, and that was kind of horrifying at first, and hard to stay calm through, but she was so happy, and after a couple seconds, he’d fought down the fear and convinced himself that she didn’t want to harm him.

“Okay—okay, stop,” said Quentin not very aggressively, trying to push himself far enough away that she would stop kissing him, “Look. I’m not staying with you. Just. It doesn’t help either of us for me starve to death. Okay?”

He was pretty sure she didn’t understand any of that, because she just kept nodding as she raced down the stairs with him in her arms and plopped him back down in the pile of furs by the fire.

“Жди тут!” she called excitedly, holding a hand up, and she vanished into the room with the table. She was back almost instantly, holding a chunk of wood like a platter, a big slab of smoked meat on it and some berries in a little wood bowl, and with it a tall wooden cup, full of water. She had been very excited, but when she got close, she slowed down and handed it to him nervously, and then backed up a little once the tray was down, like someone trying to coax a stray cat to come out for a treat.

It was almost cute. Or sweet. Or something. It shouldn’t have been, and he felt guilty for thinking that, but. God, all of this was so confusing. She was so happy, and seemed so genuine, it was hard to…

Tentatively, Quentin reached out and picked up the cup of water and took a drink out of it. Instantly, he was very, very, physically painfully aware of how hungry and dehydrated he was, and he downed the whole cup so fast it almost went down his windpipe, and then he devoured the berries and the big slab of meat. He ate so fast he almost threw up, but he managed to soldier through, and when he finished, the woman excitedly brought him seconds, which he drank all of and ate most of before becoming very certain that he would really throw up if he kept going.

“Mолодец!” said the woman excitedly, ruffling his hair when he was finished, which felt really strange, and still a little uncomfortable, but not like it had before. Not like he wanted to fight her off, or vomit at the touch.

“Hey, what’s your name?” asked Quentin, watching her walk back into the far room with empty containers.

She paused and looked at him and tilted her head, curious.

“Quentin,” said Quentin, tapping his chest.

“Cahv…Cahveentyin?” asked the woman, trying out the sound of that.

He nodded and tapped his chest again. “Quentin.” He pointed at her then.

“Mама,” she said with absolute certainty.

“No, your name,” said Quentin.

“Mама,” she repeated, motioning him coaxingly, trying to get him to say it.

“I don’t know about that,” said Quentin, “I don’t want to call you Mom.”

“Mahm?” asked the woman curiously. Shit.

“No—fuck, I said I don’t want to call you that,” said Quentin.

“Mahm,” she said approvingly after a second, nodding at him and walking into the next room.

“No wait—come back,” called Quentin after her, “I don’t want to call you Mom! What’s your actual name?”

“Иду,” she called from the next room.

“Eedo?” he asked himself, and then, louder, “Eedo?”

She appeared at the doorway and gave him a confused look like she had no idea what he was doing.

Okay, not Eedo. God damn it. I’m not calling her ‘Mom’.

“Look, I’m eating and drinking and not dying,” said Quentin pleadingly, “Can’t you at least tell me your name?”

She watched him with interest as she walked back over and sat down.

“Quentin,” he tried again, pointing to himself. He pointed to her then.

“Mahm,” she suggested.

“No—Nyett,” said Quentin, shaking his head at her.

“Mама?” she tried.

He shook his head again.

She furrowed her brow, confused and thinking deeply. “…Анна?” she tried after a second, like she was testing the waters.

“Anna?” he echoed.

“Анна. Mама,” she said very carefully, tapping her chest.

“Anna. Okay,” said Quentin, “Uhm. Thank you.”

She tilted her head again and looked at him. Not understanding, but listening intently and trying to figure what he was saying out, and he liked that. It made him smile, for just a moment.

“For saving my life,” he added, glancing down at his chest for a second, and then back up at her. “You’ve done a lot of really bad stuff to me, but I’m not sure you understand that now. And…and I guess. Even if you do. Still thank you. I thought I was going to die in the worst possible way I think I ever could have, and you saved me from that. I won’t ever forget it. Even if you really scared me.”

Anna smiled at him, a big smile that made her eyes squint. “Cahveentyin рад?”

“I don’t know,” said Quentin, smiling tiredly at her and shrugging, “I don’t know what anything you say means.”

Whatever she’d said, she took that as a yes, and held open her arms for him.

Even with all this…whatever it was, he balked at that. At getting close to her and letting her touch him. She lowered her arms and her face fell a little.

“Sorry,” said Quentin, “I just…”

Hesitantly, Anna scooted over closer and reached out a hand, pausing when it was a few inches from his head. “Лучше?”

“Uhm. I guess,” he said uncertainly, looking up at her, and then he nodded. She stroked his head a couple of times and then messed up his hair and smiled at him, and that felt weird, but not terrible. Confusing. “Thank you,” he said hesitantly as she drew her arm back, “For asking me.”

Anna blinked at him curiously, and then tapped his nose with the tip of her finger and gestured to the pile of furs.

“Sleep?” he asked nervously. God, even if he had fallen asleep a few times in here and been fine, he really, really didn’t want to. “I don’t know—I’m. That guy?” He held up a hand and made a clawing motion with four of his fingers.

Her face got very solemn and she nodded.

“I’m afraid that if I got to sleep, he’ll kill me,” he explained, pointing to the bed and then copying the raking gesture.

She nodded, and hopped up, and disappeared deeper into the house, and was back a couple of seconds later with her gigantic silver axe. “Я его убью,” promised Anna, leveraging it like she was going to hit someone.

“I appreciate that, but I’m not sure that’ll work inside my dream,” said Quentin, watching her with big eyes, a little bit scared of the sight of her with the gigantic weapon.

Leaning the axe against the wall, Anna walked over to him and knelt down and patted his head. “Cahveentyin безопасный,” she said with great conviction.

He wasn’t sure about whatever that meant, but he didn’t want to see her cry again, so he laid down, not sure if he was actually going to try to go to sleep, or if he’d just stay there.

True to her word, though, the woman called Anna sat close by, axe in her lap, humming some kind of a lullaby to herself, awake and alert and watching for danger.

It was so weird. Quentin thought about that, curled up on the floor in the mound of blankets. So little had changed. He was still tethered to a pillar by his neck, kept on a leash. Anna wasn’t going to let him go, and he still wanted to go home, and break free. But. A few hours ago, if he’d had the chance, he would have bashed her over the head with a heavy object and run, and now if he’d done that he would have felt terrible. Which felt so stupid and weak, but it just—it wouldn’t feel right. He would still run away as soon as he got the chance but.

He looked up at her again, watching her hum happily to herself in the firelight.

Quentin knew he didn’t really understand who Anna was, or why she was doing the things she was doing, but even with all the guilt he felt for feeling this way, Quentin liked her. Against his better judgement, and logic, and everything that made sense. He was listening to his gut, and he knew that was stupid, but God, he was so alone out here. And he’d had a real conversation, almost, even if both of them had only understood their half of it. He’d talked to someone. And that alone had made him feel so much less isolated and hopeless. And she was so happy now—he’d made her so happy, just by eating her food. She’d been so scared he was going to die, and that didn’t feel like something someone awful would care like that about, and it had been sweet, some of it, and just—God—God, it was all so complicated.

You’re trying to do the right thing, Quentin tried to console himself, running his thumb absently against his necklace, That counts for something. He hoped it did. He was still so tired and spent, but maybe things would be a little better. If she wasn’t so bad, maybe he would eventually be able to convince her to let him go. Maybe he would still get to go home.