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to render a god speechless

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You've been running as long as you can remember. Not in the metaphorical sense--none of that emotional cowardice (although there’s been plenty of that, too.) But the more conventional definition. Late night runs, laps on the track, hours on the treadmill on the highest setting you can take. Self-structured marathons that leave your heart stampeding in overdrive up in your throat, legs gelatinous, nose runny, face glowing red hot.

You're running now, weaving through the trees, veered way off a trail in the middle of some national park that Dave loved to visit more than his family. The trail is a sinuous, uneven strip that snakes through the park for miles, but you're not on it. You've only seen the end of it once, for completion's sake; something else has always caught your eye and lured you off the path whenever you take this route.

Four years ago, Dave had started vanishing more than usual. He'd always been flighty, always off hunting for some prime photo location or for the "right spot" to compose another brilliant piece of rhythm and rhyme. Then he somehow had become even more scarce, leaving earlier and coming home later (and sometimes not coming home at all.)

"Dude, you should come with me one of these days," he'd said one evening, on one of the rare occasions he'd been around for dinner at home. "There's this place called The Overlook--it's amazing. You wouldn't believe what I saw--"

"Not interested," you'd told him flatly. A lie. You were so interested you'd have cremated and snorted your own teeth to finally be a part of anything your brother was doing. But it rankled you too hard to be forgotten whenever Dave would lose himself in the moment, which was always; you're still sour from being left behind, always playing second fiddle so Dave could highlight something else, always waiting for him to finish gushing about another rock or tree or random pedestrian that he'd photographed a thousand times before. He never took pictures of you, oddly enough, which made the camera that much more aggravating; but it was his passion, and he was your brother, so you'd learned to tolerate it and turn a blind eye long enough for you to work your way out of the picture entirely.

You'd never been jealous. You were just tired of being neglected. Tired of not existing right in front of Dave's eyes.

What you wouldn't give now for the chance to be ignored one more time.

Your foot snags against some obstinate rock jutting out of the ground and you stumble, catch yourself on a nearby tree, and find your footing again. You're bounding over twigs and stones and clods of earth again, unruly masses of weeds and vines scraping against your legs as you forge a path through the brush.

You've been looking for weeks. The Overlook is supposed to be quite the sight, imposingly grand and mounted high on some prominent bluff, with mesmerizing views of the sunsets over the treetops. By the way Dave wrote about it in his journal, anyone would think it an explorer's wet dream, a fantastical place ready to take your breath away. But you're starting to wonder if The Overlook is a code for something else--a thing of symbolism, maybe--because you've been up and down every trail for over a month now and you still can't find anything that even resembles so much as a hill.

It's ironic, how desperate you've been to find it, now that Dave isn't around to show it off. It makes you clench your jaw and push yourself harder, to run faster, to think of how you'd had your chance and had wasted it. Now you're just trying to make up for lost time, even though you know that you can't; and even if you find this magical cliff, you doubt it'll contribute a lick of anything towards finding some closure. But if you don't try, you'll carry the guilt of being the neglectful one for a change, and you absolutely cannot handle that.

You've scoured every conceivable inch of the territory, from sunup to sundown, in the dead heat of the summer, obsessively committed to finding this place. You're winded and aching and vexed beyond description--why the hell is it so impossibly hard to find a gigantic pile of rocks?--and you're actually considering writing this off as a defeat. There are countless other things to keep you up all hours of the day and night. You could just as easily be sifting through more books and photo albums and carefully preserved letters. But you've never been one to sit still very long, and you're more restless than ever before, so you continue to find yourself out here, racing through the trees, because you don't think you can take another minute in the stifling, empty room of memories and silence.

The Overlook finds you before you find it. You crash through a bush and lose your balance, tumble down an avalanche of stones and mud, and you land facedown in a pile of sticks and rope. The heap of materials breaks your fall, but not enough to prevent you from bruising on the spot, and not quietly at all.

You pick yourself out of a jumbled length of rope and brush dirt off your front, out of your hair and off of your face. Your shades are surprisingly unharmed; they're sturdy things that have seen you through tougher things, but nothing is invincible. Blood smears onto your glove when you rub your cheek with the back of your hand, and your legs feel like they've been run through a shredder and into boiling water, but you're otherwise intact.

As you turn to inspect the treacherous slope behind you, it hits you like a brick in the face: The Overlook. A cliff, with an enormous rut carved out of its belly, tall and admittedly stately for a bunch of rocks. A ramshackle structure, mostly wood accented with twine, is built into the earthen wall, and a disconnected collection of earthenware pots, firewood, cloths hung out to dry, and antiquated contraptions litters the ground around you. It's evidently inhabited, although you can't fathom who would live in a shack out in the middle of a forest these days, but weirder things have happened.

Briefly, you wonder if Dave was seeing someone out here. And if he was, were they still here?

You wait until you can feel your legs properly again, take the time to drink from your canteen for a minute, and then pick your way over--traps? cages?--to the door. You knock, despite the absurdity of disturbing someone out here, because while you're unabashedly an asshole at times, you're not a mindless savage.

Unsurprisingly, there's no answer. But there are small windows, one on each side of the door, and you peer in through the scratched panes. It's a single room, a tiny space, but it's thoughtfully decorated with rustic and meaningful furniture. A slender bed against the wall, a wood-burning stove that seems more like a fireplace, a hutch and some cabinetry, a table with two chairs. All wood or organically crafted, like some lumberjack decided he was going to ditch town and live off of the land here a few hundred years ago. There are a few birdcages, all vacant. Half a dozen books line a shelf. A single picture frame hangs over the bed. A few pots and glass jars, some simple dishes, and a towel here or there are the only other things you can see.

Disregarding privacy, you try the door, and it invites you in with a gentle squeak. Your steps are heavy and out of place across the wooden floor; you're a trespasser, and you know it, but it doesn't stop you from looking around. The ceiling is low and the quiet is thick, and you feel a little claustrophobic in here; but somehow you can imagine this being a place Dave would have liked--loved, really--a cozy shack filled with character and simplicity, cradled by a killer view.

You let yourself wander to the bed, to the picture mounted on the wall, and you freeze. You see Dave with a face you've never seen before--not because he's not wearing his aviators, although you're pretty sure the only day Dave hasn't worn them was on the day he was born--but it's his smile, wide and free and full of teeth. He's been caught midlaugh, eyes warm and vibrant and alive.

Footsteps appear behind you, and you wrench yourself around, tense and startled.

It's a man, as visibly shell-shocked as you are, eyes wide behind square-rimmed glasses, mouth ajar. He's draped in some sort of unsensible hooded attire that's far too warm for this oppressive summer heat, but he's still somehow anything but flushed and sweaty and grimy. If anything, he looks delicate, with a certain youthfulness that's difficult to assign an age to; you'd guess that this guy can't be much older than you, if not younger.

Not that you're that old or mature yourself. You're all of eighteen, a wild and rebellious adolescent, caught invading some stranger's hut on the underside of a cliff.

"Well, hi!"

You blink at this greeting, opening your mouth to respond--to ask what the hell is going on here, and why the intimately-captured face of your brother is on the wall--but you suddenly only know one word.

"Hey."

"You aren't who I was expecting, but make yourself at home!"

You notice how blue this guy is then. From head to toe, he's dressed in cobalts and indigos, with teal and pastel blue trims. Some wavy sign you don't recognize is pasted on his chest. It's like stumbling across a fictitious character, but you get the feeling that this guy genuinely wears this stuff around his--well, you guess it's his house.

Then you realize that there's something moving in Blue's hands. It's a bird, a frail and tiny looking thing, covered in down feathers and comically bald. Its face is inquisitive at the sight of you, but lacking distress. Suddenly the cages make sense.

"You like birds?" You ask, though you don't know why. You aren't here to make pointless small talk. But it comes almost effortlessly, and you let the words leave you freely.

"Yeah," Blue smiles, his fingers--they're slender and graceful--ghosting along the neck of the young bird in his grasp. "I like to make sure they get lots of love."

There's a darkness in his eyes as he speaks, a distant look on his face, and it's like he's remembering something else. Someone else, maybe.

You cut to the chase.

"How do you know my brother?"

Blue startles at that, his eyes large and surprised. He moves in from the doorway and hides his face, turning to set his feathery guest in one of the bird cages.

"Your brother?"

"Yeah. Dave. There's a picture of him on your wall. Why?"

"Oh. Um. We're close."

"I'd hope so." You don't actually hope so. You're getting angry again, hands curling and uncurling at your sides, thinking of how this… guy was closer to your brother than you had been--had seen more of him, had been part of his sensitive little photo hobby, had seen him smile and laugh and had a picture of him doing it.

"Is...everything... okay?"

You blink at that, as Blue straightens from the cages and looks you straight in the eyes--or would, were you not wearing your shades. You're grateful for the cover now, unable to decide what you think of the forlorn haze in this guy's eyes, or how you're supposed to respond to it.

"No," is all you can say.

The reality of things stings you, sets you on edge, makes your blood boil so fiercely that you don't say another word. You stalk out of the room, away from The Overlook, and don't look back once.


You've seen more than you wanted to see in your short visit last week, but you're back again on a stuffy Saturday morning, climbing through the dirt and weeds like a disgruntled badger. Now that you knew where you were trying to go, you'd chosen a safer way to get there; you loop around from the end of the trail and work your way up this time, throw yourself up over the ledge onto The Overlook's entrance instead of perilously bouncing down the cliffside like a helpless doll.

Blue is already in the middle of a big project, rags and cages scattered everywhere about the ground. He's cleaning them, oiling them, running his hands along the wires and metal strips in search of cracks or sharp protrusions.

There's no small talk this time. You plunge into deep water right off.

"What kind of relationship did you have with Dave?"

You know you're being rude and demanding, probably even harsher out loud than you feel in your head, but you left politeness behind long ago. Yet it doesn't phase Blue, and he barely lifts his head from his work.

"We're close." It's the same answer as before, infuriatingly vague and still more than you ever had for yourself.

"Yeah, I got that memo already. How close? Were you friends? Fellow hobbyists? Lovers? What kind of close are we talking about here?"

What kind of closeness had robbed you of Dave before he'd really disappeared?

There's a lack of response for a long time. Minutes pass, and Blue just buffers and oils and lines up his cages, his back turned.

You're about to close the gap between them and kick every one of the cages off the cliff when you finally get a reply.

"It's not something I know how to explain."

"Why the hell not?" You're indignant over how you feel brushed off, though you're not sure if it's more for Dave's sake or your own right now. "How were you 'close' if you can't even say anything about him? Did he spend all his time out here for nothing? Do you not actually give a shit about him or what--"

The cages clatter away and go flying, some into the trees and some off the precipice, as an agitated flurry of wind interrupts you. It's like the start of a cyclone, a furious and invisible force of nature, and you have the surreal impression that it's coming from Blue.

Eyes blazing, overcast with cold rage, Blue suddenly seems a terrifying and formidable force, especially with the wind whipping around him so hard that even the trees are groaning as they bend.

"Don't you dare begin to suggest that I do not care, or I will rip the air out from your frangible lungs so quickly that they’ll disintegrate!”

Blue’s voice sounds like a distorted demon, booming and everywhere all at once, and yet so sharp and ominous all the same. The closest thing you've ever heard was when you'd caught Dave scribbling in his journal once, and your brother had shooed you off like an overprotective child.

Private. Protective. Possessive.

Alright, so that clears up something more than just the air.

“My bad,” you say with more indifference than you feel. Your voice is barely audible as you strain against the howling wind, willing yourself not to piss through your pants. It’s terrifying how apocalyptic such an oft unassuming element like air could really be, especially when wielded by someone about to go on a rampage. “Won’t happen again.”

You have a feeling that Blue is not an ordinary cliff-side dweller.

At your acquiescence, the wind abruptly dies out, and the ensuing silence is almost deafening in contrast. Blue, sufficiently mollified, regains his composure, a calm about him again. His voice is even and unnervingly quiet, but still somehow so loud in the absence of a young hurricane. The storm is still in his eyes.

“I don’t mean this as an apology, but I hope you at least understand my intent.”

“Yeah, I think I do.” Your eyes study the symbol on Blue’s chest more closely now. There are three of the wavy lines, pale against the cobalt chestpiece; it’s such a basic bunch of squiggly lines that a preschooler could have designed it, but the symbolism is pretty clear after the gusty display. “So, you’re one of those wind spirits, huh?”

Blue seems particularly gratified by that observation, a wide smile breaking across his face, a slight overbite peeking into view. It's disorienting how seamlessly he switches between a furious justicar and casual conversationalist.

“The wind god, actually. Are you familiar with me?”

“Not really."

This causes Blue’s smile to retract somewhat, but you're not about to lie just to spare a god's feelings. The truth is that sometimes you'd tune in to whatever Dave was constantly going on about, and now and then you'd catch something or the other about mythology--gods and elements and all of that supernatural madness. You're not totally removed from the concepts, and you aren't so blind as to be unable to interpret some mystical being's performance; you just… never cared. Was never into that stuff.

Apparently, Dave had been really into that stuff after all.

"Hm. Did… someone... tell you about me?"

It's unnatural, the way he says "someone," like the words are stilted, like his mouth is sore from being pried open after dental surgery.

"It's not hard to figure out when you almost started a damned hurricane in front of me."

"I guess I did, huh?" Blue looks a bit sheepish then, one of his hands raking through the thick of his dark hair. "Well, what do you think?"

You aren't sure what to say to that, and it's a tastelessly ambiguous question. The disorganized mess strewn across the ground isn't exactly impressive to you, and you have an unusual lack of opinion of personally meeting a deity. Even the threat of evisceration had dulled, a dimmed notion in the back of your mind.

You'd always been somewhat apathetic, and apparently your flatlined perspective applies to the mythical realm as well. It might be because you'd come with a different, predisposed focus; you've been hunting for the missing puzzle pieces regarding your brother; and whether or not Blue is a wind spirit, a wind god, or a windy fraud, is irrelevant to your cause.

Still, there's an undeniable intrigue in picturing Dave with a literal god, as opposed to some affrontingly ordinary mortal who you'd unfairly compare yourself to until the day you died. There's a small comfort in thinking that at least he'd deserted you for something genuinely special. With it comes the needling insult that you evidently weren't special enough.

Maybe, if this wind god proved himself to be the absolute apotheosis of all gods to have ever existed, a flawless executor of values and logic, an entity in which you could find no fault after trying him with the ultimate gauntlet of your bitter grief, you could begin to entertain the idea that you'd eventually understand why Dave had done it--that if there was someone so wonderful and perfect out there, it would be impossible not to have wanted to spend every waking minute and more with him.

The problem with that line of thought was that it was utter bullshit. No one was perfect, not even a god, and you fully blame this guy as much as Dave for the absence of your dear sibling.

"I think Dave spent too much time here," you state bluntly, your opinion on their relationship painfully clear. You don't approve, probably never will, and you're contentious enough to broadcast it loud and clear.

Decidedly oblivious, Blue's face melts into a softer smile, his eyes as fond as his lips bittersweet. Dimples pronounce themselves on his cheeks as he pulls into himself and looks past you, towards the weathered siding of the shack.

"I'd never complain about that." Then, as your chest kindles with agitation, he peers at you questioningly, brows knit together perplexedly, his eyes piercing. "Do you know where he's been?"

The answer to that question squeezes your throat shut at once, makes it hard to swallow, causes your stomach to flip flop with such anxiety that you think you might retch.

"Not here," you spit out, snarling, and you pivot on your heel and abscond from The Overlook, away from Blue and his unsanctioned ties to your brother.

Chapter Text

April 08th, 2008

There's this dude that lives in the forest, calls himself the "wind god," but really I think he's like some sort of disillusioned hobo. He doesn't have that divine appearance, none of the bells and whistles I picture when I think about a master of one of the fundamental elements. Actually he seems more like a nature geek. Like what sort of guy says he's a god and then lets fifty doves shit on him? That's another thing, he's always doing absolutely menial shit, like, grandfatherly workshop type of stuff, cast iron and woodworking and all that antiquated garbage from the century of blahblah boring A.F. And he's wearing fucking, what, pajamas? But fuck if he doesn't have the sweetest smile. I'm gonna go back tomorrow and hit him up for some bird facts. See if he'll let me take some close-up bird shots.

You're largely in agreement with Dave's observations of Blue. Nothing had really stood out about him that made you think he was grandiose in any way. He'd given off every appearance of a guy who was an avid bird and nature fan, and apparently he was wearing the same "pajamas" as recorded in this journal entry. Given that the written date is four years ago, right about when Dave began disappearing more often, this must be around when they'd first met. Clearly, gods weren't that conscientious about keeping their wardrobes up to date in the latest fashion. Not that you have a job as a fashionista. You've been wearing the same clothes since you hit puberty--but that's neither here nor there.

When you flip to the next entry, you note it's accented with cutouts of developed photos--doves, sparrows, blue jays, chickadees, ravens, to list a few. Each picture is labeled and dated in carefully printed text, the red sharpie ink faintly smeared onto the adjacent page.

April 09, 2008

His name is John, and he's actually pretty cool. I think he likes showing off? He's got these victorian bird cages in his little house (which, by the way, is insanely small but it smells like one of those pine candles, only better, because it's made of actual wood) and it's like a rustic little bird hotel. He's got a million birds in there and they all have names, and they actually respond to them. It's crazy. Anyways he let me take a million pictures and some of them turned out hella good. I'm keeping a few in here just because.

I wonder if he can fly. If he's really a wind god and shit. Maybe I'll ask him to do some windy shenanigans and show me some more birds. I really want to get a few more shots of those ravens, they're even cooler up close.

John, huh. That's a disappointingly normal, human name. "John, the Wind God." Even European mythological beings had more interesting names. But at least it's easy to remember.

You wonder for a moment how long Blue--John--has actually been there, puttering around in his shack with the birds and cages. He doesn't seem very old, but then again you don't know how age and time works for a god. There are so many versions of immortality in fiction and popular media, it's not like you have any recurring theme to infer how it all works. You could just ask, if you were interested enough, but right now you just aren't. You more want to know what about this guy had Dave's ass on fire to always be around him, what made him and The Overlook such an irresistible hotspot, why John was the one with that unobstructed view of Dave's face and Dave's heart. It probably had nothing to do with the fact that he had pet birds.

April 11, 2008

John can fly.

We found a bigass bird yesterday. John said they're called red tailed hawks. It was beat to shit and I didn't know that hawks could even get treated like shit, they're so fucking big and fast and stuff. It's goddamned huge, like its wings were wider than I am tall. But John said it was all banged up because the bird mafia came for their dues and Big Red didn't want to pay up. The bird mafia by the way is like a gigantic swarm of crows. They're called a murder when they gang up like that, and it's pretty spot on because I didn't think the bird looked alive when we found him.

I didn't even realize how long we were out there, patching up Big Red. Took all day.

John is actually a pretty dope cook, we had some fish and herbs and ye olde poor people shit but it was really good, and I don't even like fish. He said the birds bring him food sometimes. I don't think he has to eat but I do so it worked out.

Must be nice to have birds bring you whatever you need. His bed is full of feathers too. Softest, warmest, comfiest bed I've ever been on. But fuck if the owls aren't loud as shit at night.

A frown drags your face down when you realize that Dave had stayed the night. He was an adult even then, entitled to his own decisions, and your brother had never been one to be leashed by the social norms, but it was odd on any level to sleep over at someone's house four--no, three--days after meeting them, even if they are a god. There's no mention of anything wild going on, and you've seen the bed yourself so you know it's not exactly a platform meant for group activities; but it still makes you irrationally vexed to know that he'd obviously been hooked so quickly and deeply from the start.

You inadvertently educate yourself on bird facts as you flip through more of Dave's journal. It's not the entirety of his entries--all of them feature John, but there are eventually other unrelated-to-birds activities included. Dave tried his hand at building a chair, and was somewhat successful; apparently, it should still be in there now, which explains why one of the chairs looks rickety and uneven and disastrous to sit in. There are mentions of forestry, of pareidolia during cloud watching sessions, and of course enthusiastic comments about promising photo studies.

With some unrest, you recognize that Dave seems progressively… happier. Eager. Fulfilled. At one time you both shared similar habits; you in your mechanical handiwork and psychological interests, he in his artistic passions and idyllic pursuits. You'd both obsessively lose yourselves in your hobbies, occasionally meet somewhere along the way and catch up, and go back to it. The Dave in these later journal entries is nothing like that--he's genuinely excited for what he's doing, what he sees, and you're in a quandary about how to process it. It's a side of him you never saw, and the more you think about it, the more you're certain that it wasn't because he hadn't offered to show you.

“Not interested. Maybe next time. Tell someone who cares.”

What had been the point of maintaining that aloofness? You're afraid there hadn't been a point. Unsettled, you turn another page.

April 28, 2008

Big Red is doing a lot better. A lot of his feathers have grown back and he's actually a pretty majestic looking bird now. He's got enough swag back now and John said a lady hawk has been around, and Big Red seems to be interested in that. He'll probably ditch us soon, which is cool. He deserves to live his bird life free and full.

I asked John how long he's been out here by himself, with the birds of course, and he said he didn't know. He seemed pretty sad about it but didn't go into it. Like I love the birds and The Overlook is cool and all, but I don't know if I could stay there so long that I don't even know how long it's been. If John wasn't there, I'd probably have moved on already to somewhere more populated for pictures and stuff. A guy has social needs, even if I'm shit at them. John must be pretty lonely too, actually. Like he can fly so he can go anywhere he wants, but he's never anywhere but there. Why?

I'm gonna bring him something cool tomorrow, try to cheer him up.

Despite how disdainful you’re being of John, the concept of his supposed confinement is an interesting point. Even you went stir-crazy, as evidenced by your driven runs and yearning for Dave’s attention. Weren’t gods able to do just about anything they wanted?

Maybe John wanted to stay on that stack of rocks with his foster family of birds. He was his own person. It wasn’t your business. Dave was always the more sensitive one between the two of you; of course he would have considered the possibilities of a trapped god--but not you. You had more than enough going on in your own life to keep yourself busy--you didn’t need the additional headache of shouldering the burden of a god. But, as things suggested, Dave had done exactly that.

You aggressively thumb through several more pages, not bothering to even read them, letting them ripple past you until you stop somewhere roughly a third into the journal. There’s a picture of John, a profile shot, with a backdrop of snow-covered trees; blurred out circles of snow contrasting against his dark hair and the distinct form of a hunched raven on his shoulder. It’s a masterful shot, crisp and perfectly clear, and you respectfully study its remarkable quality for a moment, if only to honor (but not adopt) your brother’s feelings.

December 21st, 2009

Things have been so different lately. Around this time last year, I told myself that it was the responsible, adult thing to do to be home for Christmas. Even if Dirk always has a stick up his ass, he’s still my bro, and I feel like I owe it to him to be there for stuff like that at the very least. But with everything going on, and how Dirk’s been lately, I feel like I’d just make things worse by being there. This year I want to do something with John. He said he’s never celebrated Christmas, even though he’s heard of it. What kind of wack shit is that? I’m going to Christmas him so hard he turns into Santa Claus.

To be honest, I feel like I owe John, too. He’s shown me a lot, and he shares practically everything he’s got with me. He’s a really considerate dude, and he makes me feel like I’m at home there, like… I don’t know, something special.

He said that he can grant wishes. Not like genie shit, but that if there’s something I really want, he can probably make it happen. Just once, but that’s still really amazing. I don’t know what to even ask for. I don’t want to just ask for whatever and blow my one wish like a greedy ape, but he’s been pestering me about it for like two weeks now and I’m trying to figure out the right thing. I guess it’ll come to me eventually.

In other news, we got adopted by a raven. His name is Poe, just like that nutjob author, but leagues cooler. Poe only has one eye, and he's remarkably shitty at not crapping on me, but he's a sucker for scritches, and he's actually really soft and cuddly. I guess I'm one of those furbaby freaks now, but no regrets here. John says Poe gets really cranky when I'm not there, so I pretty much have to be there more now. Can't let the dude down.

You manage not to crumple the page in your hands.

What about you? Why the hell was a shit-bombing bird more important than you, his blood-bound brother? What was with the vague slight about you being "the way" you were? What had you even been that he'd thought hanging out with a bird and some wind god was more significant?

What you'd been was… temperamental. That was a generous way of putting it. You know it's moot to sugarcoat the past--you enjoy that raw, over-stimulated, hellfire in your chest as you agonize over your irreparable failures. Or you would enjoy it, if things weren't actually irreparable, and if it meant things would curtail any faster.

Freshly sixteen, you'd been barely developed enough to control your cynical tantrums. That had only been two years ago, and suffice to say, you haven't made much progress since; you're only more subdued now with grief and regrets. Even in his journals, retroactively, Dave was more tolerating of your petulance than you'd ever deserve. You still stubbornly hold him responsible, though--your heart is still making demands, though there's no possible way for them to be met. You'd never been reasonable in that respect, too set in your ways to adapt when Dave had found someone that wasn't you to pour himself into.

You might have denied being jealous before, but the bitter current of it sweeps you away now. It's not fair to the Dave locked away in your heart, not honorable to his image, but you let the abusive rush in and taint everything anyways, too upset to dam it back this time.

Your face radiates heat long before the tears fall. In an attempt to regain some self-control, you flick a few more pages aside. A leaflet, wedged deep beside an entry, wavers curiously at your invasive snooping, and you peel it back against the thick of the book to inspect it. It's a newspaper clipping, dated in the spring of 2010, featuring some culturally sensitive information regarding prominent characters in folklore. You immediately understand why this has been tucked away in Dave's journal when you see the words, "local spirits," amidst a wordy paragraph. Your city was apparently a popular location for a cultic sort of following some hundreds of years ago--the Skaians--and you quickly make the connection that John was one of the revered deities, among several others; but with the introduction of more industry and manmade conveniences, the number of worshippers who so fully relied on their relationship with these Skaian gods gradually dwindled, until there were almost none left to recall their very existence.

It's a depressing article no matter how you look at it, so you stop looking at it at all, and move on to the related entry. Dave's notes, hurried and messy, all revolve around the same subject. It was like he had visited a library or a Skaian wiki site, compiling whatever he could find. Interestingly enough, there aren't as many details about the wind god as there are notes on the deities in general, which altogether aren't much. Apparently, the number of remaining fans and related literature were indeed few.

March 29th, 2010

The Overlook, The Beacon, The Athenaeum, The Cluster

Respectively,

The Zephyr, The Illuminator, The Chronicler, The Architect

The Tumor
The Law of the Gods
The Jurors
A Comprehensive Guide for the Modern Skaian
Vows of Silence
The Ultimate Proscription
Circumscription Theory
Metaphysical Economy

None of this makes any sense to you. Obviously this is a list of references that you could easily research yourself, but there's currently no clear benefit to do so. From what little you do know, you can piece together a handful of things: One, John's religious title is The Zephyr; Two, at this point, Dave already either discounted or finished two of the eight works--books, you're assuming; and Three, there is some heavily implied, godly drama to be had, judging by the titles listed on this page.

A bird flutters past the window and you glance up at its shadow. Conveniently enough, you also catch sight of The Law of the Gods right on Dave's desk. On impulse, you reach over for the book, and open it atop of Dave's journal.

It's not a hefty book by any physical standard. A quick peek reveals it's barely 150 pages thick, and the reading level isn't at all complicated. Several pages are dogeared, and you thumb to the first tab. Your eyes fall onto an underlined section that's right under a peculiar diagram depicting some sort of generational tree. The names delineated are meaningless to you, although you think one of the illustrations inside, a fiery sort of naga, is actually pretty cool. You skim over the artistic renderings and begin to read the marked paragraph, mostly out of boredom and an attempt to distract yourself from your nearly subsided breakdown.

"Contrary to the teachings of modern institutions, the subset of Skaian deities did adhere to a strict sense of principles, upon which many of our morals today are loosely based. As the Progenitors found their descendents to be comparatively fanciful in nature, they established the Jurors, through which the greater portion of later Skaian tenets were founded."

Huh. While it makes perfect sense that a god would follow some belief system of its own, you'd never really considered the notion of unruly, divine beings, like rebellious teenagers, being subjected to some celestial legislature because they were behaving too arbitrarily. That probably was the point, though; with rules in place, these secondary gods would function with order and purpose, and no one would get the impression that they were self-willed, whimsical creatures. Then again, you find it a bit spurious. Did some god rant about this to someone? How is there a manmade recording or human perspective of this kind of thing?

You ease onto another page, this one outlined in a box instead of merely underlined. A sizable portion of the left-hand page is included, and you regard it dubiously.

"Understandably, even the gods were eventually vexed by these impositions. Victim to acts of protest or outright defiance, some of the Jurors were slain. While there are no indications that the murders themselves were forbidden, the revolts were viewed as inherently transgressive, and the Progenitors instituted a measure to dissuade any further variance. The consequences of manifested dissent were to be tragic and absolute: the full revoking of godhood without restoration. The Chronicler, most lamentably, was among the first of the descendents to suffer this loss, although not the last, as several others renounced their divine rights; but this did serve as an effective deterrent for the remnant, and so it remains today."

You can only raise a brow at the text. Hypothetically speaking, if given the opportunity, you'd consider committing some heinous crimes to ascend to godhood. From the starting point of a mortal already oppressed by rules and systems in place to enforce them, you'd only be gaining; but if you were a god from the beginning, suddenly forced to cater to a novel list of laws, you'd probably do the same subversive shit. You ironically entertain the idea that, in that sense, you and the gods aren't so different.

It's hard to picture John as one of the outliers. From your limited interactions, even though you were an enormous asshole, he seemed too friendly and demure to be a suspect for breaking any divine laws, whatever those happened to be. You aren't sure you care enough to look right now, although you can't say your intrigue hasn't been piqued. Either way, there's no obvious mention of John as a fallen god, and he plainly is still able to wield his element. Briefly, you wonder what was so "lamentable" about an unassuming title like The Chronicler being on the naughty list, if John knew the guy, what John's opinions on this celestial escapade are--until you realize it's been three hours since you started prying through more of Dave's journal and books, and you're abominably hungry.

You close the books and stack them on the desk contemplatively. While you don't exactly have any of the answers you were looking for, you can at least understand why Dave might have enjoyed investing so much time in this supernatural business. There was a certain appeal to the metaphysical, like a satisfying and well-written work of fiction with substantial, immersive lore. It probably didn't hurt to have direct access to a god, effectively making the fantasy a reality. Maybe you would have been more of a believer if you could have personally interacted with a divine presence beforehand. Then again, you'd probably have been spiteful, just like you are now.

For the rest of the day, you take phone calls and run errands. Restock the kitchen, tidy up around the house a bit, make yourself an inordinate amount of burritos to grab on your way out for a run. You resolve not to touch Dave's journal again for a few days, knowing you'll need more time to recover and to digest. It's inevitable--you'll be back, digging through his belongings and private things again, selfishly and greedily absorbing whatever is left of him that you can--but you think you might go for a long run tomorrow, and wait to sort through more emotional distress until you've worn yourself out, before you invade his privacy or confront John again.

Like most of your well-meant intentions, your plans spiral straight into the garbage.

You're out of the house and back on the trail to The Overlook before the sun sets, tearing through the trees like an animal on the run.


When you find John, you're flushed and short of breath. It's been a long while since you sprinted so far without warming up, and you'll probably regret it later, but at least you manage to reach The Overlook before it becomes completely dark.

John greets you from his perch in a nearby tree. He's crouched on a high and thick branch, like some sociable primate, with a crimson colored bird in his hands. You're under the impression that he nearly always is with a bird in some way or another. The pictures from Dave's journal--Big Red and Poe, namely--flash through your mind. You wonder if John names every bird, or only the ones he sees regularly.

You're considerably less aggressive this time around. When John excuses himself from his visit with the bird and more floats than drops down to the ground, you're studying him in a slightly different light. You aren't any less bitter or angry about the feeling that John stole Dave away from you (or what was left of him) but you're tempered by the discovery of how delighted Dave actually was about who John was and what he had introduced, and you begrudgingly are somewhat curious since glossing over Skaian facts (more like gossip, really.) So you're willing to attempt to be civil, if only out of respect for Dave, and of course for further fact-finding purposes.

"Hey, I didn't think I'd see you again!" John seems largely ambivalent at your presence, his face curved in a simple smile that doesn't affect the inquisitive caution in his eyes. It's like he isn't sure how welcoming he should be, and you don't blame him; you weren't very agreeable last time, a fact made even more unpleasant if you point out that you were the one who came to his home. But you aren't here to reenact your gruffness; you're here to properly organize what you've learned and find a better grasp on Dave's interests.

Your mind dashes from question to question. You could start with something simpler, like if he's still called The Zephyr; or you could tackle something heftier, like what his political views are on the "laws" he presumably follows. Alternatively, you could try an entirely different angle, such as who The Chronicler is, or who are the Jurors.

You ask none of these questions. Instead, your mind funnels through your mouth about something unrelated.

"Is Poe still around?"

John's brows climb up high on his forehead, and he quirks his lips thoughtfully for a moment.

"The raven? She passed away a few months ago. Her young still visit now and then."

"Oh." As if to explain how you know about the raven, you add, "I saw a picture of her."

John's eyes crinkle strangely at that. The half-smile on his lips is stiff, unmoving. Instead of acknowledging your words, he glances at the sky, at the last, fleeting strips of light bleeding out from the horizon, and gestures to the shack.

"Want to come in? It's going to storm soon."

You glance up at the sky and consider the utter lack of clouds with some amusement. But, you decide to humor John's elemental abilities and how the weather should putatively be included in them, and you shrug agreeably at him.

"Sure."

You follow him inside and are immediately steeped in the scent of heady tea and musky birds. You actually recognize the puffy, pale chick from the other day, its tiny eyes glittering attentively at you in the lamplight as you enter. A pair of mourning doves peers cautiously at you, their rumbling coos the only sign that they are unsure of your presence. In a cage further away, mounted by the window, is a blue jay, a delicate strip of cloth wrapped around one of its feet. John is plainly still tending to winged forest creatures, just as he had when Dave was here.

The legs of a chair scrape roughly against the floor as John pulls out a seat for you. Consciously striving not to be a complete ogre this time, you accept it without complaint. The chair creaks at your weight, and you recognize it as the one (you assume) Dave had crafted. It strikes you then that this could have been exactly how your brother had begun spending more time here--a random chance upon John and The Overlook, and a healthy curiosity to lure him back in everytime. The thought is wildly alarming to you, and you grip your knees so hard that your nails cut into your skin.

John is apparently oblivious to your dilemma, his features more relaxed now that you're in the comforts of his home. He fetches two lacquered mugs of tea, some sort of citrus blend if your nose isn't misled, and places them on the table. Then he seats himself across from you, folds his hands around his cup, and leans forward with unmasked interest.

"So, what actually brings you here? Surely it wasn't Poe."

Eager to ground yourself, you move your hands onto your cup of tea. It's bitingly warm, but you refuse to remove your hands, intent on exploiting the physical discomfort to escape the mental. When you look up to John's eyes, you are arrested at how vibrantly blue they are despite the dim lighting, and find yourself genuinely fascinated for a moment. A small grin forms on his face then, and you avert your gaze to one of the birdcages past him, hoping he didn't catch that you were staring. Your shades are useful for concealing your gaze, but John is a god, and for all you know, he has some ludicrous, shades-piercing vision.

You peruse your mental library of information as you trace the shape of the cup with your fingers. While you're most interested in his interactions with Dave, you are admittedly curious about John's character as well. It wouldn't hurt to understand more of what Dave appreciated so much. You decide to open with a general approach, one that broadly addresses the whole of your earlier findings.

"It turns out there's a lot of information about gods out there. Are you aware of any of it? Do you know if any of it is accurate or not?"

You ask this just as John lifts his mug to his lips, and he giggles into his tea. He sets the cup down after a sip and leans on the table by the elbows.

"You're not the first one to ask me that! Obviously, it would depend on what's written. I'm not exactly a buff on our literature, but I can tell you what's true and what's not if you run it by me."

He's probably had this same talk with Dave. You're offended at the idea that you're inserting yourself in your brother's wake like some perverted clone, but it's not like curiosity is a trademarked concept. There's nothing wrong with cross-checking your sources.

Gods, what are you, some kind of reporter? You inwardly sigh at your insecurities and decide you might as well stick with some of the simpler issues.

"How many gods are there?"

John is outwardly pensive for a moment, like he doesn't know the answer to that question and is embarrassed to admit it. That impression is debunked when his response grants you a minor headache, albeit confirming what you found in Dave's notes (which shouldn't be surprising if Dave checked them with John anyways); but there are many more new details, and you were unprepared for an in-depth lecture on all of this.

"Ooh, that's tricky. So there are technically sixteen gods like me--er, were sixteen, oops, haha--and eight of the first gods. I think there's only… six of us second gods left?" He says this aloud without compunction, like it isn't disturbing to him to recall that a majority of his divine family were essentially exiled--or killed. You don't know what happens to fallen gods, and you're not sure you want to ask. "I actually don't know if The Architect is still around or not. If she is, then there are seven of us."

You search your cup for some appropriate response. When you don't find one, you use your brain instead. It's too much effort to navigate the emotional waters of the gods. You sidestep the sentiments entirely and move onto more objective things.

"I read that The Chronicler was one of the first gods to be… removed?"

"Oh, yeah." John takes a long drink of his tea, and his face twists, like he'd just had a sip of battery acid instead. "And the Appraiser, too. I thought that The Dreamer would go with him, but they split over it."

Dave's notes didn't cover these entities, so you're unable to comment on them. You make a mental note of them for now, in case you ever decide to explore more gods later, and redirect John.

"You're The Zephyr, right?"

"Yep!" He grins so widely at you that you can see both rows of his teeth, and his dimples are prominent in the low light.

"How do you guys get these monikers?"

"The Jurors assigned them to us. We have personal names, obviously--mine is John--but there was a time when there was a lot of legal unrest, and when The Jurors established some legislation accordingly, they also branded us with more formal titles. Said it should influence us to behave more suitably for our designated roles and all."

He seems ruffled about the ordeal--sulky--and you assume John isn't ostentatious in a prestigious way. For a god, he seems atypically content to sit with the birds all day in a pastoral lean-to. A thought floats around in your head that John could possibly be neither condoning or dissenting about The Jurors' rulings; maybe he just wanted to be left alone to do his own thing. Then again, wasn't that the heart of the matter--why the other gods had revolted?

"How do you feel about these Jurors?"

John scrunches up his face in thought. His hands abandon his mug in favor of gesticulating as he launches into an impassioned explanation.

"I think they get a bad rep! They're made out to be these ominous, enigmatic folks who oversee the justice system with an iron fist! And some of them are actually like that, heh. But a lot of them aren't!

"For instance, there's this one guy, Vantas, who's so uptight it's like he's about to explode all of the time. But when you get to know him, he's not so bad. He's a real genuine dude who has normal interests like anyone else.

"And then there's Pyrope! She's a huge stickler for the rules, and it's really creepy how perceptive she can be because she's physically blind. But she has this… down to earth appeal that makes everything seem so practical. It's really hard to view any of her judgments as personal. She's just that attuned to the integrity of the law, and I think that's really admirable.

"Serket, on the other hand--well, she can be sweet when she wants to be, but I'm pretty sure she's missing a few screws. She can be, what's the word… rowdy? Extreme. And bombastic a lot of the time. And don't even get me started on her spider collections!"

You recognize the fact that John could go on about this for quite some time, and as interesting as it is to thicken your personal, divine dossier, you don't want to derail off topic that hard.

"It sounds like you had some nice buddies. So. What made you come out here and roost in a cave?"

"Curiosity, I guess," he says off-handedly. John sips at his tea again and turns the tables on you. "So why are you here?"

It's the same question. Like him, you've ping-ponged back and forth in an effort not to discuss yourself too intimately. You're starting to notice a mutual pattern here, and you don't like it.

"Because I want to know why Dave was here." You've never been a master of tact. "I want to know what made him so hung up on being out here and seeing you all the time."

When you mention Dave's name again, a disquiet filters through on John's face. He's silent for a long minute, eyes anchored down into his cup. When he speaks again, his voice is that soft, distant tone again. The one he'd used last time when you'd snapped at him like a feral mutt, and he'd nearly blown you away in his indignation.

"I'm not a mind reader. I can't say."

You hope not to drive this discussion off the same cliff, but the secretive act gets on your nerves just as badly now as it did the time before.

"What can you say?" You huff in exasperation, gripping your cup tighter. "Or are you going to tell me that you can't comment on that, too?"

You half expect that John will say exactly that. He opens his mouth, and you regard him in anticipation, hoping he might offer something fruitful for a change; but it's like the words are caught in his throat, and whatever he might have said deflates into a pitiful sigh.

He inspects his cup, his brows stooped together, and chews away the corner of his lip, before drawing some conclusion with several rapid blinks. John straightens in his chair then and scoots forward in it, and you note his solemn expression.

"Have you ever tried to describe someone without using certain words?"

Your immediate thought is unfortunately vulgar. Your next thought is more political, but you doubt this is what John is aiming for. You'll have to ask for the context.

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, say, like how you'd describe me to someone who's blind, without using pronouns or words that include the letter 'e.'"

"That's utterly ridiculous--"

"Try it," he insists, and there's an ineffable intensity in his eyes that inclines you to humor him. Plus, you're not one to shy away from a challenge. You give it the old college try.

"Some--fuck. A guy. In blue--fuck, no. A guy in a baggy outfit, with…" Is there a word for glasses that doesn't include the letter E? You struggle. "Glass--fuck this! What is the point of this?!"

You wait for him to laugh at you and reveal it was a stupid prank. When John remains grave, his eyes gently searching you for something, the gears begin to click in your mind.

Everytime you've asked him about Dave, he doesn't give a normal, direct response, but he's clearly demonstrated that Dave is a sensitive and important person to him. It's not like he doesn't care. He's asked after him--no, that isn't right; he asked about him after you brought Dave up first, but he didn't do so in any identifying detail. He's never said your brother's name to you once. Your mind flashes to the list of titles in Dave's journal. The Law of the Gods. Vows of Silence.

Your eyes focus on him as it all fits together. It isn't that John is unwilling to answer your questions or discuss Dave… it's that he can't.

"You literally can't talk about my brother, can you."

John smiles then, the most wounded combination of upturned lips and sorrowful eyes you've ever seen, and you immediately feel unspeakably chagrined. You've been twisting a knife around in his bleeding heart, and he doesn't even know the worst of it.

Dave is gone, and John doesn't even know it.

"I should go," you stammer. Your tongue feels like it's buried in sawdust as you speak. A tremor in your hands upsets a thin puddle of tea onto the table. You abandon the cup and push back from the table like you just remembered that you left the stove on and your house is about to catch fire. You feel like you might catch on fire--you're humiliated, and terrified of what might be required of you should you shoulder the responsibility of updating John on what happened to his--to your brother. You don't know why.

John's eyes are worried pools, and he rises from his seat after you as you dart out into the night. You hear him utter something in a rush--a warning--right as you remember his earlier remark that a storm was coming. You remember that, because you stumble out right into it.

You're instantly soaked. It's abominably dark, and the rain is coming down so hard that it feels like it's going to bruise your flesh. Jagged tendrils of lightning blister the sky, and the sporadic lightshow pulses into your unfocused eyes, leaving you practically blinded in its absence. Your shades are horrendously unhelpful. When you move your feet across the stony ground, you find it's alarmingly slick, and your footing slips dangerously. You catch yourself on something--some tall earthenware pot of John's, you think. Water is vaulting in enormous streams off the precipice of The Overlook, crashing all around with deafening force, drenching everything around you.

You have no idea how you didn't hear this while you were inside, talking with John--you weren't even in there that long, were you?--but there's no mistake that the storm he mentioned has definitely arrived.

There's no way you can safely navigate up or down to return to the trail, much less get back home without considerable risk, and you realize this with a numbing shock. It hasn't rained like this since you were only six years old, and Dave had been around to comfort you then, to swoop you up into a makeshift tent on his bed and watch videos on his laptop until you'd somehow fallen asleep beside him. But when you sense John come up from behind you, his voice barely audible over the din, your embarrassment outweighs your self-preservation, and you dash for the ledge like a panicked thing in flight.

You're aiming for the slope of rubble you had used to climb up here, but the torrential rain has nearly washed it away, and so your feet land on unsteady, slippery ground. You slam hard onto your hands and knees, gravity forcing you to careen headfirst into a rapid somersault down the cliffside. Your head slams into something, sparking stark white across the inside of your head, and you feel jarring pain explode into your arms and back as you desperately attempt to tuck in and pull your limbs into yourself to shield whatever you can from more damage.

Somewhere along your perilous descent, the chilling rush of falling effortlessly turns your stomach inside out as you plummet through empty air. The wind is roaring in your ears as you close in on the forest floor below, and your mind struggles to cope with your imminent death by relating your predicament to a bad dream. The tense current of gravity is familiar to you, but this time it's actually happening, and you won't be waking up when you reach the ground.

You're doomed to die, your body battered, your mind in a blank panic. In what feels to be your last moments, you twist your mouth into an unspoken plea--a prayer--and let resignation lead you to the afterlife.

Inertia rocks your world. A weightless sensation buoys you away from a disastrous would-be landing. You're stupefied, heavily disoriented and blinded by the darkness; but although the rain hasn't ceased, an invisible bubble shields you from the elements, and you float back to The Overlook in this unseen protection.

John meets you at the top. His eyes pierce the darkness, a transcendent, glowing blue that is so bright that it's almost white. He's weaving air around the both of you with his hands in wave-like motions, and he stands like a beacon to guide you in. You're in his element, the wind and weather in accordance with his commands, and he is, in this moment, every bit the god he is said to be.

Helplessly, you float to him, and when you reach John, you feel the air shift as he merges both your protective dome and his. Under his supernatural umbrella, he whisks you away and back into the shack.

You've never been more thankful before now to be in a cramped room with a god and his birds. Adrenaline is still surging through you, and your heart feels like it's about to jackhammer its way out of your chest and throat; but you're out of the rain and the howling wind, and you're safe from an untimely end for now.

John sweeps you straight to his bed, where you sink down into the softest bedspread you've ever experienced. It's like laying in a cloud, and your beleaguered body openly welcomes it with a weary groan.

He hovers about you worriedly, like a fussy hen with her brood, humming and muttering to himself. You're dimly aware of him plucking your shades (miraculously intact yet again) off of your face, and a gentle and warm breeze ripples over you. Your clothes mostly dry out in this process, and you feel infinitely better without the prickly, plastered fabric against your bludgeoned skin. But John is not satisfied there, and moves about the room to hunt for things.

You let your eyes rest shut and listen to John rummage around his cupboards and shelves. You hear muted thumps and clinks of glass, water poured into some vessel, the scrape of a chair, the sound of the kettle set over the fireplace. The eccentric symphony of his movements is strangely soothing to you, and you begin to drift into a semi-unconscious state. You're still spacey when you hear a chair thud close beside you. The smell of something medicinal is the only warning you receive before he begins to undress you and see to your wounds.

John has your shirt bunched up high along your ribs when your eyes snap open and you fully comprehend what he's doing. You hiss in protest, tensing, as he swabs your side with a damp rag. When you attempt to prop yourself up, your left arm buckles, pain travels up your forearm, warning you of compromised muscles, and you flop back down with a grunt.

"Hold still."

You squint at him then as you grimace from the burning contact against your scrapes and cuts. He's focused, eyes narrowed, brows furrowed, mouth drawn into a frown. As John pats your torso dry, you glance down to see what he has gathered around him, mildly concerned about what he intends to do with you.

Clear jars, some filled with tinctures and some with salve, float handily at his side, along with a number of rolled up bandages, rags, and a basin of water. Pinned into the sleeve of his shirt is a sewing needle, threaded, and you regard it venomously. John happens to see your face then and blinks, transparently startled.

At first you think he's gawking at your loathsome stare, which you quickly dismiss; but as his own expression melts into a thoughtfulness when your eyes meet, you realize he can finally see your eyes for the first time. For some reason, this flusters you, and you turn your head away to face the wall.

"Do you think I need stitches?"

"I hope not," he tells you. That doesn't reassure you, and neither does the overwhelmingly sour odor that escapes one of the jars when he uncorks it.

"What the hell is that?" You squawk as you scrunch up your nose. John chuckles at your response and waves the scent away for you.

"Calendula isn't the most popular smell, sorry."

You glare warily from the corner of your eye at the source of the smell--a translucent and golden fluid that reminds you of morning urine--and your frown only deepens when he blends the rancid-smelling stuff into a palmful of salve. The smell is eventually masked, but you regard the poultice dubiously anyways, as you don't want to smell like a day-old, unflushed toilet from this homeopathic treatment.

"Yeah, I'm going to ask that you miss me with the calendula."

"Nope."

The paste is judiciously applied to every cut around your abdomen and rib cage. You don't smell like rot and decay after all--more like a pungent, earthy mint--but you wrinkle your nose from the strength of the smell anyways. John is apparently immune to it; he leans over you, smearing the paste with delicate swipes of his fingers, until his hands have been emptied of the stuff.

"There we go. That takes care of the easy stuff."

"Easy stuff?"

"Yeah, more or less. Can you sit up?"

"I think so."

Careful not to lean on your left arm, you leverage against the wall with your other arm and manage to sit. You lean forward at his indicating flap of a hand and let your eyes wander over the shredded fabric of your pants. Your torso is tingling and radiating with minty coolness as John wraps bandages around you; he exploits his element, the elastic material stretching and winding and pulling into place, all hands-free. He peeks under your shirt and examines your back while conducting this event, and John hums approvingly after his inspection.

"Well, you'll be pretty sore for a while, but that all looks like it'll be okay. I'm no healer, not like Ja--er, The Physician, but she did teach me the basics pretty well, so I'm confident you don't have any serious injuries here."

"Great. Thanks, doctor John."

"Shush. Let me see your legs."

You pin your tongue flat between your teeth in order not to balk at him. Your pants are torn full of revealing holes, but he's not asking to poke through those. He wants you to take off your pants, which is utterly inconceivable. Even if he is a god, he's a stranger, and you're not going to strip, wounds be damned.

"Forget it."

John clicks his tongue against his teeth and lifts you into the air on a cushion of air. Before you can protest or so much as reach for him, he has your belt unbuckled and your pants pooled on the floor. Your face glows at the immodest display you're forced to put on, and as he settles you back onto the bed, you're about to roll over and seize him by the throat.

You groan in paralyzing agony instead when John presses a moist rag into your left thigh. It's beyond painful--it's searing, raw and hypersensitive. You discover why when he pulls the towel away a dark crimson, and you see the meat of your thigh gruesomely open and oozing with blood.

"Shit."

John sighs at your remark but otherwise ignores you and your pathetic moaning. He cleans your gaping wound with impressive desensitivity, a trait you cannot imitate in the moment. You clutch at the sheets until your knuckles are pale, and you tremble as you strain to hold still. John administers copious amounts of foreign fluids and creams onto a clean cloth, and you don't complain about the smell this time when he sets about compressing and bandaging your leg.

"I won't sew it right now, but we'll take a look later and see if it's needed."

Your eyes are traitorously leaking hot fluid and you sniff feebly as your nose runs. The tears snake down your cheeks and jaw, stinging your skin, giving away another gash you hadn't noticed until now. You're ready for this to end--to go home and take some painkillers and hibernate for a few days--but John is still leaning over you from his chair, hands gliding over your body as he applies more salves and ointments.

While your thigh resembled a marinated steak tartare at best, the rest of your legs are mostly intact, save for sickly, violet bruises that have blossomed everywhere along your pale skin. John covers your legs eventually with a soft blanket when he's done spreading creams and ointments, and you find the cool blues of the fabric admittedly soothing to take in. You wonder if birds bring John these textiles as well, but your mind stumbles over itself when John places his hand under your chin and turns your head toward him.

He's breathtakingly close. You see how clean shaven his jaw is, how soft his lips seem in the grip of his teeth, and you futilely resist his touch. He's too close, too intimately gripping your face and holding you in place as he examines you, fingers solid around your chin as another hand threads gently through your hair.

"What the fuck are you doing?"

With nonchalance that is uncharacteristic for the intimate touches you're enduring, John murmurs, "Looking."

"At what?"

"Your head."

You hiss as his roaming hand finds a tender spot at the crest of your scalp, and you realize that he's still searching for injuries. John is painstakingly thorough, but this should be the last of it, and your head is arguably one of the most vital members of your body, so you grudgingly tolerate his tangible snooping.

"How bad is it?"

"Not too bad. Just needs a good cleaning later."

When John pulls away, your eyes seek out his fingers and consider the blood staining them. But he seems mostly unperturbed by your upper head, and moves on to your face.

John's face is level with yours, your chin still secure in his one hand as his other grabs a fresh rag and pats your cheek. You deliberately stare past him at one of the birdcages, where one of the feathery creatures is preening itself meticulously. You've never done well with intimacy, and you don't fare any better now, manhandled by a god in a bed your brother had once used.

He thumbs a bandage in place onto your cheek, just under the eye, and your face burns from his touch even after he pulls away.

"There you go. It's not great, but it'll work for now until you can see a proper physician."

"Great."

You don't thank him, don't say anything at all after that, and instead watch him in brooding silence.

John floats his supplies back to their designated locations, glass jars in the cupboards and bandages on the shelf. He empties the basin outside, where the storm is still raging, but it hits you that the sound doesn't penetrate indoors. There must be some enchantment that protects the homey, quiet ambiance, some otherworldly "god stuff" that you don't care enough to ask about. John shuts the door just in time for the kettle to begin screaming over the fireplace.

You process everything as you watch John pour freshly brewed mugs of tea. He walks your cup over to you, and you accept it wordlessly. It smells of something unfamiliar but still pleasant, sweet and herbaceous. You peer pensively into its transparent body, straight to the bottom of the lacquered mug, and breathe in the steam. John seats himself by you with his own tea, one leg crossed over the other, and sips at his drink in silence.

The birds across the room communicate among themselves quietly. You hear the faint crackle of flames in the hearth and the fading huffs of the kettle. There's a distinct lack of electronic hum or radio or other background noise you'd usually zone out to at home. You've never enjoyed sitting in such quiet; it teases your mind into sinister, wild thoughts, exactly how it does now.

You're instantly sharply aware of two facts: one, you've made a royal fool of yourself; and two, you're still here, stuck in John's home, and now you're brokenly hunched under your brother's picture. You wish you had supernatural powers, namely teleportation; you'd gladly disappear from here in a heartbeat if given the chance.

What had you been thinking, coming here tonight? What had happened to kicking back and unwinding over some comfort food, and penciling in some easy runs and activities to clear your mind? You'd think that you'd have learned by now not to feed your masochistic obsessions--to rip into your open, emotional wounds by returning to the very place that started this irreparable mess for your bleeding heart. Yet here you are, back in The Overlook, peeling back the skin of your memories, hating yourself for every second of it but unable to stop.

You've always been like this, tunnel visioning into whatever project you'd latched onto. Before it had been electronics and robots, all day and night. Then it had been Jake, every waking moment of every day, pushing buttons and pulling strings, always bartering and arguing and eventually fighting over how you thought things should be. Now it's Dave--or what he's left behind--and you're back to snatching up every single piece of his remains, no matter how little or frail, snarling like a starved beast at anything that comes close for fear that you'll lose what doesn't even belong to you.

It's a miracle John has put up with you accosting him in his home like you have. In light of your discovery today, you realize you've been taunting him and insulting him over something that he cannot fix. You don't know exactly how close John was to Dave, but if your brother's picture is on the wall, and Dave wrote so much about him, and you never saw your brother because he was always here, and John had reacted so strongly when you merely suggested that he didn't care--well, you can put two and two together. They were probably more than friends, though that thought is still surreal to you.

John probably hates it, being unable to talk about the person he loves most. Maybe gods don't experience the same system of grief as a mortal would, but it's piteous to be incapable of going through the cathartic process of expressing yourself about love, or sharing the fond memories of someone, or being able to show that they still exist inside of you at all. If you were cursed with such a fate, you'd probably throw yourself off of the cliff outside. How ironic that you had done just that, and you have been the one demanding the impossible out of John.

And what idiotic drive struck you so you'd suicidally dive out into the hammering rain like a witless moron? You know the answer to be fear--but fear of what? That John will strike you down out of grief, or for telling him the truth, or for waiting so long to tell him? Or is it that you're afraid to say the words yourself, especially to someone else--that if you don't admit it and don't think the words, that somehow the reality of things will change or be any less of a fact? If only.

You know John deserves to hear about what happened to Dave, and you're the only one who will ever tell him. And you doubt that he'd take the news out on you. After your mannerless and loutish behavior, John has cleaned and wrapped you up like one of his birds; you seriously can't imagine him harming you or outright killing you over an inevitable fact of mankind. He's a god, and a rather kindhearted one by your account; he'd probably be more crushed than anything.

Something inside of you--some withered, dormant sprig of sympathy--stirs, and grafts itself onto the root of fear deep within you. John is bound by some divine mandate that prevents him from discussing Dave. You, on the other hand, are prevented by no such restraint, but you're equally as mute about your brother out of denial, a trademarked feature of grief. You both are already suffering enough--and it's not lying if he never brings it up and you never answer the unspoken question, right? What if you… don't tell him?

You spend what feels like the better half of an hour convincing yourself that it's better not to tell John about Dave, when he breaks you from your downward tailspin into mental chaos by clearing his throat. Were you not indescribably sore and also wounded, you'd jump out of your skin and into the ceiling.

He laughs softly at your spooked reaction as you whip your head to face him. His head is angled to one side slightly, his mouth drawn into something that is not quite a smile. You don't miss the sadness in his eyes.

"Are you hungry at all? I have some rosemary bread and fruit if you'd like some."

You did eat one of your many burritos before you'd come, but after your death-defying escapade outside, your appetite has returned in full force. Your stomach shamelessly growls its approval at the idea of more food, but you don't acknowledge it right away. You hate the idea of adding to your new debt to John--that it's him you owe, the one who stole your brother from you (even if you know he isn't to blame, and that you're forcing him into the role of a scapegoat for your own perverted sense of justice); but the fact remains that you do owe him, and in the face of your life, what's some bread and tea?

"Sure," is all you say, your tone nowhere near as excited as your demanding stomach, but John pushes up from his chair with a hospitable eagerness that makes your innards twist with more than hunger.

You swallow down acrid guilt as you watch him, a scarred god, share of his home and himself with you, and for the first time, the question you ask yourself is not why Dave chose John over you, but rather if it's right for you to hide Dave's fate from John. You don't reach a conclusion by the time John returns with a thick slice of bread, crusty and warm, accompanied by dark and fresh berries.

You eat from the plate in a stressful silence, every bite breaking your resolve, every swallow a knife down your constricting throat. You drink deeply from your mug, relishing the comforting and silky warmth of tea as it washes away some of the tension. The taste blends well with your food, and you roll your tongue around on itself and your teeth as you continue to debate the value of honesty.

John has settled in front of the bird cages, no longer directly at your side. You're immensely relieved for the space, unsure of how long you could hold yourself together under his observation. You watch the folds of his clothing stretch and wrinkle along his form as he moves from cage to cage, speaking in hushed tones to the feathered creatures sheltered in his home just like you. Only the birds aren't hiding secrets, and they have more integrity than you.

You yield under the pressure of your guilt. It's not that you can't handle a secret, but it's the consuming fire of being a liar that burns you worse than the gaping wound on your leg or the aching, Dave-shaped hole in your heart.

Your empty plate slides off your lap and onto the flat of the bed, and you cautiously shift back against the pillows. Propped against the wall like this, you feel cornered and anxious; but you breathe deeply and resolve not to flee this time.

"Hey, John."

"Mm, yeah?"

John doesn't look at you; he's crouched in front of the cage with the blue jay, his fingers poking through the bars. He's scratching the bird's neck, and its head is craned to the side to allow for the touch. Blue jays aren't exactly friendly birds from your experience, and it's a strikingly tender moment. John seems to have a way of slipping past ordinary defenses, and you don't seem to be an exception. Look at you, ready to cave to sympathy and guilt because you suddenly feel sorry for him. You're no better than a bird. Less than one.

"I need to tell you something."

After a prolonged moment of scritches on the blue jay's chest, John utters some endearing clicks at it and shuts the cage door. Your stomach rolls over a few times as he approaches you, and when he sits by you again, you feel a cold sweat pass over you.

"What's up?"

You intend to tell him right then, to express your condolences or whatever people are meant to say in this sort of situation, to set things straight. You really do mean to say why you're really here--to shove the weight off of your chest, and even commiserate with him over your mutual loss. You look into his eyes, so gentle and deep and clear, and inexplicably, you find yourself unable to be the one responsible for destroying such a lovely look of kindness.

Damn it. You can't.

You look away and at the wall, and let your deceit manipulate your mouth like a festering parasite.

"I, uh, wanted to say thanks, for… everything."

Coward. Liar. Scum. Pussy. Degenerate.

"Oh, no problem! It's what I like to do."

Miscreant. Lowlife. Reprobate. Filthy, useless, worthless, piece of shit-fucking-selfish-prick-cock-sucking-bitch--

"Sorry."

"Huh? For what?"

FOR LYING TO YOUR FACE, you want to scream. You don't say this.

"For being such an… asshole to you the last couple of times I've been here. And throwing myself off the cliff like an angsty teen."

John laughs at your words, a rich and hearty sound that makes your shame and self-disgust burn even hotter. He fixes a bemused look on you, head tilted slightly, arms loosely gathered in his lap.

"Yeah, I have to ask, what exactly made you do that? You seemed really spooked. Had I said something to make you feel uncomfortable?"

You nearly slam your palms into your face. He thinks he did something wrong? You cannot let this stand. John is innocent of your corrupt falsehood, and you insist he feels that way posthaste. It is you who is the transgressor in this scenario.

"No, no, it wasn't you. I… I'm just…" A lying sack of shit. "Not really good with people. Sorry."

"Haha, well, it's okay. Neither am I, actually."

"Huh?"

At his admission, you turn to regard John curiously. He shrugs at you, a lopsided smirk slanted on his mouth, and folds his hands back behind his head as he leans back in the chair. You think he might be staring at the line where the wall meets the ceiling.

"I've never really liked the city life. Too many people, too much pressure. It gets really stressful. Some of the others really liked it--made them feel special, you know?--but I can do my windy thing out here as well as anywhere else, and I like it here. It's quiet, and peaceful, and I like working with the birds and nature and stuff."

You nod, unsure of what to say, but understanding him well enough. It's unexpectedly similar to something you'd say. You've never enjoyed pointless social interaction, and a crippling fear of disappointing--or worse, failing--those around you has left you practically isolated for years now. You're hard on yourself, accepting nothing less than perfection, disregarding how unattainable the flawlessness that even a god can't always possess is for you. To think that John, a literal god, a master of his element, could possibly feel that way, baffles you.

Your surprise must show on your face, because John explains himself further, a faraway look in his eyes.

"You'd mentioned, erm, that you know that it's possible for a god to lose their divine status. Obviously we aren't perfect. I'm not perfect. I've actually come pretty close to losing godhood myself!" Your brows involuntarily climb. "But out here, at least, I feel safe to do my own thing. No one needs to worry or intervene. I can be myself, whatever that means."

The laugh that escapes him then is chilling. Hollow. You shudder at it, feeling the smallness of your mortality against the amplified cynicism a god wears.

"Anyways," he says, refreshing the conversation, his voice light and capricious, "What about you?"

It's like the conversation had never taken a solemn turn, the way John has returned to his easygoing self. But you know better. That dismal laugh will linger with you for months.

"What about me?"

"Do you have somewhere to go where you can be yourself?"

The question is, perhaps, too intimate for your barely-acquainted relationship, but you consider it all the same. You never felt comfortable at home for one reason or the other, first by the need to maintain a face around Dave, and then by his devastating absence. There never had been a building, or workplace, or other environment where you truly felt "in your element." Maybe that was why you've always been pounding your feet and heart out on your runs. You tell John as much, in simpler terms.

"I'm most comfortable out on a run. I can stop thinking and just go. Or, if I do think, it's just me in my head, so no one bothers me."

"You run a lot, huh? I've seen you go by here often lately."

Heat colors your cheeks when you realize you really had just missed The Overlook. How silly of you. John surely had been able to see you from his aerial vantage, and you'd run yourself ragged through the trees like a lost mutt. Idiot.

"I guess. It helps me think. I try to run once a day."

"Well, you should wait until that heals up before you exert yourself too hard again," John warns you, a hand gesturing at the rise of the blankets from your legs. You don't bother to tell him that you're no stranger to grievous wounds, and that it's never stopped you from going on a run before. You're sure he'd fuss over you, and you're hoping to avoid adding to your irreconcilable debt.

"I'll keep it in mind."

"Good."

John retrieves the plate from the bed and excuses himself to rinse it out in the sink. You tentatively flex the muscles in your arms and legs. Whatever was in the tinctures and salves John slathered all over you has already considerably eased your discomfort. You wish you could tell when the rain would cease so you could plan accordingly to go home. As it is, the trails are either flooded or washed out, and you're trapped here until the weather subsides.

Idly, you reach for your pants pooled on the floor, and fish for your phone in a pocket. You frown when you realize it's not there. You delve into the other pocket and find it equally as empty. A curse leaves you when you figure out that your phone is probably forever lost to you, broken to pieces on some rock somewhere on the crags.

John sends you a curious glance when he hears you grumble to yourself. From the sink, where he's now refiling the kettle, he calls to you.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah. I just lost my phone."

"Oh? I could go look for it."

You're about to snap at him for such a ridiculous idea when it's storming out, when you realize that he's unaffected by the weather. But you feel uncomfortable with the idea of taking advantage of John's divine abilities, especially when you're holding out on him, and so you settle for some excuse to discourage him from digging through the forest for your phone.

"Nah. I'm due an upgrade anyways, and there's nothing important on it."

At least that much is true, and John doesn't argue with you about it. He shrugs at you and then moves to the fireplace. John places the now-filled kettle on to heat up more tea, and he tends to the fire for a few minutes. You watch the fire gild him gold and onyx in contrasting, exaggerated patches, and only look away when he steps back from the stoked flames and returns to your side.

"So," he says, as he stands behind the chair and leans on its back. "What can I do to make you more comfortable tonight? Do you need me to step out so you can get some sleep?"

The thought of rooming with John in any capacity makes you uneasy, but as much as you want to object to staying the night, you know there’s no way for you to maneuver the sloping tracks until the storm at least abates, and that’s being optimistic. You don’t wear a watch, John doesn’t have a clock, and you don’t have your phone; there’s no way of knowing what general time it is until daybreak. You are weary besides, exhaustion seeping into your bones like a sedative meant for someone ten times your size.

So you don’t argue with him and instead default to what you normally do when there is nothing else to be done: you deflect. Of course, John shoots down your pitiful attempts to skirt around the situation right away, but no one can blame you for trying.

"Do gods not sleep?" You dryly joke.

"Hah. It's not necessary, no."

"Maybe I'm secretly a god, then."

"That'd be a twist! But no, I don't think you are."

"Are you sure?"

"Positive."

"Damn. Anyways, I was thinking I should go whenever the storm lets up. Don't worry about it."

John draws out a hum and purses his lips, then makes a disapproving sound.

"It'll take a few days for the trail you were using to dry up. I could help you out some of the way, but with your leg, I wouldn't push it until about two days have passed."

The thought of being confined here like a bedridden invalid for an entire two days makes your skin crawl. You were hoping, at the latest, to leave tomorrow. It's not that John is an unpleasant host or person, but you'd rather not dwell here any longer than necessary while you have the unbearably heavy truth of Dave on your mind. Still, there's nothing for it; you can't undo the weather, and apparently neither can John, even if he seems an expert on it.

You'll just have to keep your mouth shut and suffer. Fortunately, you have considerable practice with doing just that.

"Believe it or not, I'm not suicidal. I'll wait until things die down."

John's face strongly suggests that he doesn't actually believe you. Mouth marked with skepticism, he studies you while he drags a noise out in the back of his throat. But he doesn't otherwise voice his doubts, and the blatant doubt fades away from view.

"Well, okay. So does that mean I should give you some space to rest?"

You can’t remember the last time you’ve enjoyed a decent night’s sleep, and you don’t expect to rest any better in John’s home than yours; but you are tired beyond description, and despite your history of insomnia, you wouldn't be shocked if you did nod off eventually. There’s something distinctly private to you about the circumstances involving your sleep habits, and you'll always choose to sleep alone, if it's at all possible. It feels safer, not feeling pressured to remain alert and defensive. And as it is, you’d be more comfortable without him hovering around you anymore than he already has. Knowing you, you'd let something slip in the throes of an unsavory dream. You’d appreciate knowing that he isn’t right there, watching you (even if you’re certain that he’s not some unhinged scopophiliac) to prevent becoming unwittingly undone before his eyes.

“That’d be peachy. But if you don’t sleep, then what do you do all night?”

"Oh, you know, god stuff," he grins at you cheekily.

You don't know, of course, but you don't make an issue out of it. If he's willing to let you do your thing, then you'll let him do his, whatever it may be. It's his right to be or behave however he elects in his own home anyways. You're only a guest. Although, in your eyes, you're more appropriately framed as an intruder.

"Right."

“Well, goodnight! Erm…” John lapses into a considering reticence, lips pursed, and you arch a brow inquiringly. "You know, I'm not sure what to call you."

It strikes you then that you haven't properly introduced yourself. Another testament of how boorish and unsuited you are for social interactions. A skulking thought drags through your mind and taunts you inquisitively: hadn't Dave ever mentioned you? Suddenly, your tongue is coated with an acerbic aftertaste, and it's all you can do not to spew your resentment at your gracious host.

"Dirk."

"Ah." As if struck with some scandalizing revelation, John eyes shutter at you. He blinks again, twice more, hesitant strokes of his lashes, then offers one more smile, a tentative stretch of his mouth that still leaves him seeming strangely disconcerted. "Goodnight, then, Dirk!"

You choose not to pry.

"Night."

You watch John retreat, his form absorbed by the darkness of the outdoors as he disappears through the doorway. When the door slides shut, you scan the windows in search of any sight of him; but the rain is still descending in sheets, and the glass panes are incomprehensibly blurred as the rain washes down them. You are left to your own devices in reasonable privacy, once again just a man oppressed by his own demons, curled in a corner; you nurse your wounds with hollow justifications, and fail to convince yourself that you aren't making a greater mess of things than they already are. You ease yourself down onto the bed to face the wall and let your eyes drift close in slow, heavy blinks, and you hazily note the lack of hooting owls around you, instead the murmuring of doves, as you slip away into a welcome slumber.


Owls, hooting as if through loudspeakers into the night, are what pull you out of your sleep. Their voices are husky, booming disturbances that clutch your curiosity, reeling it in to the window, and you with it.

Your legs are still bare when you pad over to luminous window panes and dip your head down to peer up into the darkened mass of trees. It's the sensible place for any bird to be, but no matter how you squint, you find no sign of the nocturnal creatures.

Carelessly, you slip out through the door, your feet soft against the stone ground as you gaze upwards. At some point while you were sleeping, the storm finally ceased, and a tranquility has settled over the forest. The clouds have thinned out and, dispersed over the sky, they glow from the presence of a dutiful moon, waning by the glimpses you chance upon through a misty sea of greys and whites.

Almost directly behind you, an owl hoots again, so audibly and clearly and unmistakably huge. A sharp breath fills your lungs as you, ungraceful and startled, whirl around to face the owner of the deep call. Sage-like and stoic, its flat face, tufted with feathery horn-like protrusions, returns your wide-eyed stare from its perch on a small ledge above the shack. Its eyes nictitate unhurriedly at you, and then it fixes its penetrating stare on you unblinkingly. You knew owls could be somewhat large, but as it gazes down at you from its resting place, perhaps just shy of two feet tall, it's unexpectedly imposing, and you feel slightly anxious. This must be how prey feels--the urge to withdraw and seek cover. You're probably too large and awkward for what it would normally hunt, but you're also acutely aware of your injuries now, and you'd rather avoid any chance of angering a formidable night predator if possible.

Turning from the owl, despite your hairs prickling into attention on your arms and the back of your neck, you shift your attention back to the clouded sky. There, high above you, the swollen, billowing masses begin to drift apart; the clouds sail away in a sudden cool breeze that reveals The Zephyr, the conductor to a symphony of magic.

Illuminated with phosphorescent blues, like shimmering, sapphire dust, John contrasts against the heavenly backdrop. He's bathed in moonlight, twinkling like the stars have kissed him, the incandescent display accented by what appears to be an orbiting, loose trail of fireflies. Wispy tendrils of airborne vapors reconstruct themselves into newborn clouds, and sparks of supernatural energy dissipate about them, as his hands flow through the air in fluid, sweeping motions. He's creating the clouds, painting the sky with the touch of his godhood, and you drink him in like a starstruck child.

The only thing more captivating than John's appearance is his voice.

Light and drifting, yet solid, his tenor travels through the air as sweetly as any bird's. Presumably an ancient canticle, one long lost to all but the gods, its tune is hauntingly familiar and yet unrecognizable all the same, the words a foreign blend of syllables and pitches that are as enchanting as they are perplexing.

Never did you imagine that you would meet a god, much less be witness to his work. It's an awe-inducing act of beauty, the way John hovers above The Overlook and saturates it with his song and presence; and you understand that this is the sort of thing that any mortal recording could never begin to do justice--a wonder that a man would never grow tired of.

When the last note fades, you expect John to descend, but he remains floating high above you, far out of reach. A troublesome thing occurs then; an unsettling umbrage eclipses his radiance, and the vestiges of his active power flicker out like pitiful candles snuffed by the wind. Like a swarm of ravenous insects, the darkness quickly scatters from him, vanishing into the night; but the effect is lingering and visible. John droops faintly and begins to sink then, and your eyes follow his descent into one of many trees below.

Silently, the owl behind you takes flight and glides over you, past you, into the dense maze of branches and leaves. Somehow, you imagine its course set to meet John, as every bird you've seen here seems to gravitate towards him. Had you wings, you'd probably do the same after beholding his mesmerizing performance; but you are a man, not a god or even a bird, and you discover your legs are trembling, as is the rest of you, leaving you in no shape to do much of anything but return to bed.

Even once your eyes are closed and your breathing slows, your mind replays the spectacle of John, clothed in ethereal lights, manipulating the skies at his fingertips, over and over and over again, until you fade back into unconsciousness. But this time you dream, and you dream not of John's effulgence, but of his tenebrosity, and dawn does not come quickly enough to save you from drowning in the resulting uneasiness.

Chapter Text

When you were eight years old, all of fourty-four pounds, a lean and withdrawn thing, your brother had cooked you the best breakfast of your life. There had been eggs, bacon, french toast sticks and real maple syrup, ripe bananas and fresh-squeezed orange juice. You'd drizzled syrup on your bacon and eggs, made banana sandwiches with the french toast sticks, and downed at least six oranges' worth of juice. It had been a feast, one you had celebrated with Dave with unmitigated excitement, just you and him at the dining table instead of on the floor in front of the living room sofa.

Since then, you haven't had a real breakfast. At best, your typical morning fare involves you reheating some leftovers from the night before, or grabbing something convenient on your way out for a run.

When the smell and sound of crackling eggs reaches your consciousness, you peel your eyes open and rise up in bed like an undead creature from its sarcophagus. Your mind, deceived by the latent fondness you hold for that far off memory with Dave, and foggy from the dredges of sleep, interprets the distinct signs of breakfast as a pleasant thing. Only when you're on your feet and rubbing your eyes does consciousness fully clear your head, and you remember you are not only no longer eight, but Dave isn't the one cooking, and this isn't even your house.

You squint, glowering at the morning light that slants in through the windows, and reflexively reach at your hip for your phone. You then realize two things: your phone is lost to you, somewhere outside, and most likely unrecoverable; and you are still not wearing pants. Deliberately stony-faced, you hastily scoop up your pants from the floor and reach for your shades, hissing as you stretch stiff and tender muscles, and you promptly dress yourself.

John notices you then, luckily just after you are properly decent (although it's a matter of principle at this point, as he was the one who removed your pants and rubbed medicinal ointments all over you last night, but you digress.) Stooped by the fireplace, poking at a cast iron skillet filled with what must be the eggs, he sends you an unperturbed smile over his shoulder.

"Hey! You're up. How was your night?"

You're immediately relieved to find that not a trace of otherworldly darkness is to be found on John. He's painted gentle oranges and yellows, like young daffodils in the spring, from the busy fire, but you can't help but regard him apprehensively, as if anticipating that the roving mass of dark magic might return at any second.

John must sense your wariness, because he sets the skillet aside on the table, a neatly folded and thick rag ready to receive it, and he turns to you with a concerned crease indented into his brows.

"Something up?"

Embarrassed that your poker face has failed you yet again, you scowl at nothing in particular and yet also everything around you.

"I am, I guess."

It's enough of a normal reaction to allay John's worries. His oddly maternal investigating is replaced by a sheepish grin.

"Oh! Sorry. I woke you up, huh?"

"It's whatever."

You deign not to inform him of your sensitive memories revolving around morning meals, and instead stiffly wander over to the window. At your approach, the birds in the nearby cages perk their heads up and inspect you attentively, most likely in hopes of food or affection. Their disappointment becomes apparent in indignant, demanding chirps and trills when you offer them not even a second glance, your eyes trained on the rays of sun poking through encumbered clouds floating by.

"The storm let up a little while after you fell asleep," John tells you as he scrapes eggs out of the metal skillet with a wooden spoon. "There's still a lot of water down below, though. Not much of a path left."

Your sense of direction is reliable enough that you have no concerns about navigating back home; but while there's stagnant water, it'll be difficult for you to work your way out of the forest, and unarguably unsanitary at best for your injuries. Speaking of which, you need a shower, and you'd like to take advantage of the daylight to better inspect your condition.

"Do you have a bathroom? Or a shower, or whatever?"

"Mmm, sort of!"

You glance back at John and spy him sprinkling finely shredded herbs on top of a plate of eggs and more of the rosemary bread. With a growl, your stomach expresses its interest in John's cooking, and he gestures for you to sit at the table.

"Dig in! It's not much, but it should tide you over until I can put together something more filling."

You don't move from the window, and not for a lack of hunger. Your appetite is numbed by the sickening dread that pools into your gut as your guilt, like a large and lazy predator, yawns and stretches itself to the forefront of your mind. You're sharply aware of how undeserving you already are of John's hospitality, and it's unthinkable to accept another day of it. All you need is to clean yourself off and mind your own business until the trails are clear enough for you to bid John farewell and hopefully never return.

But guilt is a double-edged sword, a finicky thing that rarely favors one side over the other; and John wields the hefty burden in your heart as effortlessly as he does the air around you, all the while clueless to it.

"Come on, don't snuff breakfast! Terry and Teresa worked hard to make it!"

You make a face at the unfamiliar names, and John rolls his eyes.

"The doves. Now sit, or you'll hurt their feelings, and that'll make me upset."

There's a teasing note in John's voice as he says this, but you vividly recall the catastrophic power of surging winds the last time he was "upset," so you reluctantly set aside your apprehension for now. A pleased smugness lifts the corner of his lips when you sit in front of the plate, and he joins you at the table on the opposite side.

"Thanks," you say, more out of etiquette than genuine gratitude; but as you fork eggs into your mouth and tear off a chunk of bread with your teeth, your tongue comes alive from the flavors of simple but good food, and you do finally indulge yourself with a rekindled hunger.

It's not like Dave's cooking. In the precious image stowed away in your heart, your brother, barely more of an adult than you, hadn't actually been skilled in the kitchen, although the memory of it he'd left behind was in its own, special way, perfect. But John's cooking has a homey quality to it that fills you just right, and you don't mind that he watches you as you eat, because it's so satisfying to do so.

"So," John muses, "A bathroom, huh? I don't have a designated room or anything, but I do have a tub, and there's enough privacy to do whatever else you need out here. Want me to set up a bath and some curtains and stuff? You do need to wash off all that blood."

You swallow the last of your eggs and bread with some contempt for your helplessness. Were you in your own home, or even a normal home with walls and running water and electricity, you could manage just fine on your own; but here, in what you can only define as a provincial habitat, you have almost nothing to work with, and little experience in such a situation. For John, who has no such mortal needs as sleep or edible sustenance--and you doubt he's ever had to use a toilet--all of his hygienic needs can be met gallivanting through the skies in the midst of a storm. You, on the other hand, cannot safely rely on flying through the rainclouds to wash off; you, the pathetic human in this picture, need more care. And you need help. John's help.

You're halfway through a virulent, internal monologue about how revolting it is for you to rely on John's assistance for your basic necessities when you're supposed to be a grown man--and that’s not even touching on your chicanery--and then it finally registers with you that "blood" is a factor in the matter.

"What blood?"

There is a notable lack of mirrors in John’s tiny home, and you haven't fully assessed your damage. John had quite meticulously wiped you off last night before bandaging you up, so you aren't sure what blood remains to be seen. You glance down at yourself and let your eyes trace over your limbs and down your torso, and find nothing but mud-stained and tattered clothing.

"Your head."

You can't physically examine your head without the use of some reflective surface, and you don't bother to try. John is already out of his chair and digging through a cabinet, from which he procures a small and antiquated hand mirror that is bordered and backed by iron wrought filigree. The glass of it is worn, scratched around the edges, but light rebounds off of it well enough. John polishes it with a sleeve and then hands it to you, and you take it by its slender neck and peer into it and at yourself.

Your reflection is strangely cold, perhaps due to your shades and the thin line of your mouth, and it's a surreal and almost impersonal moment for you as you take in your disheveled state. Light flashes about the room as you angle the mirror around your head and appraise the wounds there.

Most prominently on display, like a Venetian half mask for a masquerade in the morgue, are sticky sheets of blood plastered around your forehead and the rise of your right cheek. You follow the dark crusts of a ruby trail up the side of your head. Your free hand sifts through your dusty hair and pauses at your right parietal ridge, where a lesion, roughly an inch in diameter, mars the pale skin there. John had said it only needed a proper cleaning, but you're not keen on touching it, and the amount of blood that escaped this gash alone is concerning.

Your left cheek is still hidden to you, concealed beneath the bandage John had smoothed onto your face. A few nicks litter your jawline. Otherwise, you're in decent shape; but you do understand the need to wash off the blood.

You look like a trauma patient in a horror movie, and you aren't sure what to attribute John's indifference about it to. Even with your default aloofness, you're unable to remain unaffected by your appearance. You don't exactly blanch, but your mouth does upturn with distaste.

When you hand the mirror back to John, he places it face down on the table and sets about clearing off the dishes. He speaks over his shoulder at you as he rinses the plate and fork.

"So, bath?"

Having seen your face now, you aren't in a position to decline, heavy conscience notwithstanding.

"I guess I should if I don't want to look like zombie fodder."

"Yeah, you'd look and feel a lot better all cleaned up!"

John allows you several minutes of privacy to relieve yourself off in the bushes while he excuses himself to prepare a bath for you. You're expecting a hole in the ground filled with frigid water at this point; John seems to enjoy simple living on a new level, and you're surprised he even has the means to make a bath. You entertain the idea of drenching yourself underneath a waterfall or something else equally as hardcore if it comes to it.

Fortunately for you, no bone-chilling waterfall pounding is required for you to clean yourself. John returns with the promise of a nice bath, and you barely can open your mouth to reply before you're uprooted from the ground and airborne. He hauls you away on a stream of air around the face of The Overlook, along the curve of the cliffside, into a slender alcove. There, placed against the carved back of the stony wall, sits a large and circular wooden tub, filled to the brim with water. Strung across the width of the opening is a rope, from which dangles a plain white cloth that has been pushed aside.

The arrangement is surprisingly inconspicuous here, secluded by the thick of the trees, without any discernible path a man could climb, the walls of the cliffside so steep they might as well be perfectly straight. Had John not brought you here, you're certain you'd never have realized such a place existed. It's fitting for the privacy a bath requires.

The only problem is you have no way back when you're finished.

John dismounts you from your impromptu air ride, and you stagger onto your feet in the alcove, almost tipping over into the tub. Water spills around you, enticingly warm and sweet smelling, but you twist away from it and fix John with a peevish frown.

"This is great, but how am I supposed to leave when I'm done?"

"I could just stick around and wait?"

The mischievous, impudent spread of his teeth makes you livid. You'd punch John if you could reach him. You're not a prude, but you also aren't a shameless exhibitionist. At your offended demeanor, he bends over with laughter, an impish fairy in the wind. He giggles into a hand like a naughty schoolgirl, and then unfolds, arms linked behind his head.

"I have some stuff to do," he relents, though his eyes still glitter playfully. You practically hiss at him, a reaction he ignores. "Just give me a holler when you're done and I'll pop over."

He doesn't permit you to argue with him about this, as you're surely about to. John flits away through the trees like a free-spirited swift, and you stare after him sourly for a moment before you accept that you're left alone for your bath.

You draw the makeshift curtain across the mouth of the alcove and anchor the ends in place with hefty stones. Your arms don't appreciate the heavy lifting, but you're not about to be victim of a perverted gust leaving you indecent for… Alright, you know there's no one out here but John and the local wildlife, but it's the principle of things, and you're not a man without principles.

With some effort, you peel off the entirety of your clothes and toss them into a messy heap onto the floor. You contemplate the wisdom of removing the bandages and decide against it, if only because you don't have replacements, and not because you're suddenly too uncomfortable with fully exposing your injuries to both the elements and your eyes.

The water is still warm when you dip into it one leg at a time. You inhale deeply and then slowly submerge yourself, displacing water all over the stone floor around you, and you curl yourself so even your head disappears beneath the surface. Water mutes the outside world, your ears plugged with it and your eyes closed, and you let yourself be for as long as you can hold your breath. You don't count the seconds, just hold yourself in place and float, until your lungs burn and your consciousness wavers; and only then do you breach into the air and gulp it in like a desperate fish.

When your breathing evens out, you repeat the process, this time opening your mind to net stray, rampant thoughts--thoughts of Dave and thoughts of John and thoughts of grief--thoughts that persistently attempt to claw their way to your attention no matter how adamantly you reject them time and time again.

You miss Dave. God, you miss him, like an integral section of your heart has been absent and you've nothing but flimsy recollections and regrets, cobbled together with suffocating loneliness and sorrow, to misfire in its stead. You want and want and want--to see him in your home again, to hear him say your name again, to call to you in invitation to see something or the other again, to know even out of sight that you will be able to find him if you really needed him again--and your throat lodges with an attempted scream, half in emotional anguish and half for oxygen. You throw your head back out of the water and suck in shuddering breaths, gasp in and out roughly and deeply, and then plunge yourself under again.

You'd been unfairly--unjustly--selfish, sequestered away in your oblivious little world of self-indulgence. Always taking for granted his patience, his understanding, his--his love. Even when he was seemingly so far away, invested in his work and interests, and you had believed yourself lesser than the necessities of life that ostensibly stole him away from you, a dormant part of you knew that he loved you. And you had spit in his face like a spurned adder, your seething venom born of ignorance met with a knowing turned-cheek-smile all the while. The crime tugs at your soul like searing fetters, wrenches a strangled, bubbling emission from you, and you lurch upwards for breath once more.

You clutch at the rim of the tub, press against it, and let the agitated water lap into your open mouth. You're not quite sobbing, eyes and throat and chest squeezed too tightly for anything but tense shivers to form. The air is euphoric for your tiring lungs, but you reject it with self-condemnation and, yet again, baptize yourself with suicidal enervation.

Your mind is sluggish, your mental senses wading through a complex quagmire of feelings and morals and everything in-between. You're sightlessly floundering into territories of fear and of hopelessness as you play the part of both the prosecutor and the defendant; you accuse yourself of a thousand crimes and simultaneously justify yourself of every single one. You decry your well-meant intentions even as you support them with hollow reasons--"What else could I have done" and "I wouldn't have, had I known better." You spiral down a fatal abyss of condemnation, impossibly unrecoverable, hit the wall and every edge on your way down, every collision a nail in the coffin, a jagged recrimination to your empty pleas.

You're guilty. You know you're guilty, and you have no defense. You failed your brother. You wasted the time you had with him. There is no forgiveness or closure due or available to ever be found. And now you defile the place--the thing--the person--the god--he loved last like some filthy blasphemer, a heathen, a Pharisaical demon.

Can you say you really loved him? Can you claim to treasure him when his memories confront you all around you here, in this baffling hideaway called The Overlook, where a stranger knew and held more of him than you ever could, and all you can do is offer your figurative (and literal) middle finger? How can you demand the sole right to possess him when you can't respect what and who were most important to him? No--not that you can't, but that you won't? Do you actually love him after all?

The fact that you have no immediate answer for that question sends you away like a repulsing magnet. You can't face this yet, and so you retreat, tail tucked between your legs, like a defeated animal.

You heave yourself out of the water and partially drape yourself over the edge of the tub. Your arms dangle limply on the outside as you hug yourself close to the wall of the structure, and your head lolls heavy against one of your shoulders. Your equilibrium is skewed, your lungs are outraged at you, and your body feels like lead and jelly all at once; but your heart hurts the most, and no amount of desperate breathing or rest will ease the type of pain that assails you now. You cling to the wood almost lifelessly, until finally, motivated by some indeterminate force, you decide to actually wash yourself.

A washcloth and a little bar of fragrant soap, floral and mild, are thoughtfully present, and you put them to good use. You lather the soap into the cloth and carefully scrub yourself, skin and bandages all, until your flesh stings and flushes pink. By now, the water is barely lukewarm, but the herbal additions still waft pleasantly into your nostrils. You breathe in mint and lavender and honey, and sit in the tepid bath, focusing on those scents, as you wash the last of yourself, the more intimate bits and the trickier webs of your toes.

Most of the morning must have passed before you crawl out onto the stone floor, a sopping mess of hair and dripping skin and bandages. You don't notice a towel for drying off, a peculiar thing given how detail-oriented John seemed, but you are content to let the warm breeze blow you dry. When your body is aired out and devoid of droplets, you pluck up your clothes and don them again, and push back the sail-like curtain.

Too tired to obstinately work your own way down to traversable ground, and still favoring your injured leg, you search the trees for John. When you don't see him (and just as well, as you'd hate for him to have witnessed your psychotic spirometry) you cave in and call for him, eager to rid yourself from the alcove and the devastating ruminations you've had in it.

You've bathed, but you still feel dirty, and it's not because you're wearing blood stained and soiled clothes.

"Yo, John? All squeaky clean. Take me away."

For a moment, with nothing but faint calls of what you imagine to be sparrows in the trees, you begin to think that John has, in ill-humor, stranded you here as some cosmically decorous punishment for your sins. You regard the obscured drop below you with a narrow frown and quickly abandon the stubborn notion of scaling down the rocky walls of The Overlook.

"Hey! Sorry, I was catching up with Irene!"

John emerges from a sprawling cluster of coniferous needles, and you forcibly sneeze from the pollen and feathers that closely float after him as if attached by static. His hood is draped behind him, his hair an unruly nest of twigs and leaves and dandelion seeds; and, as Dave noted in a journal entry, John is unmistakably marked with bird droppings on his shoulders. You arch an unimpressed brow at him, offering no comment or question about "Irene," and he huffs in response.

"What? Not happy to see me? I can give you more time to yourself!"

"No," you interject firmly, perhaps a bit too hastily. John cocks his head at you, mouth quirked in thought, but he doesn't quibble further with you.

You're swept away on weightless winds, back to the flat entrance of The Overlook, and you again find yourself scrutinizing the condition of the trail below. John leaves you to your staring as he disappears indoors; and you, after some time, with a lack of anything else to occupy you, follow after him.

As you enter the shack, the smell of savory potatoes penetrates you right in the gut. A churning rumble creeps out of you, and John glances over to catch you dithering in the doorway. He's cooking again, having cleaned himself off from bird refuse, preparing another meal he won't eat.

"Hey, come on! Food will be ready soon."

You roll disdain around in your mouth for the way John behaves like a coddling maid, but you're not in a position to turn up your nose at his accommodations. You are ironically thirsty after a prolonged bath session, and your appetite is whet again, and so you resign yourself back into "Dave's chair" and gaze with some preoccupation at the birdcages beneath the window.

The cages host new visitors. The bluejay, doves, and hairless little fowl have been replaced by a single occupant: a young raven whose feathers have been nearly plucked bare around its belly. You think of Poe and his--her--one eye, and you wonder how often, and why, John discovers so many of these birds in such bleak health.

"What happened to the raven?”

Over a sizzling skillet, John makes a cryptic sound in the back of his throat. It’s suspicious to you how he isn’t forthcoming with an explanation when he can’t possibly be ignorant, like he’s deliberately secretive about this latest feathery guest. It’s just a bird, not a legendary artifact of the gods, but the air hangs transparently silent all the same--like another taboo.

“Don’t tell me this is another one of those things you can’t say,” you goad brusquely, swiveling about in your chair to eye him.

"Not really," comes the ambiguous reply. You sigh through the crevice of your teeth and decide it's not worth bullying out of John. It doesn't matter to you.

Scraping a spoon in the skillet, John continues roasting vegetables in relative quiet. You're not invested in filling the atmosphere with chatter, but you are poor at remaining idle; and so, while a god busies himself with domestic activities like crafting a lunch and brewing tea, you, a mere man, engage in the graceful art of pacing.

You cross the length of the room in eleven steps, the width in four, and then you brush past John as you walk back towards the door. Another eleven steps, and you complete the circuit. You begin another lap, and then another, and then halfway through your fourth loop of his home, John releases an exasperated sigh.

"Okay, okay! That's Irene's daughter, Camy. She's been involved in a territorial squabble and lost a few feathers. I'm letting her stay with me to be sure she doesn't get an infection or anything worse. She should be good to go within a week."

As John shares this, you picture Poe again, and you recall that the late raven supposedly had birthed descendents. Standing near the table, your fingers tap dance lightly along the edge, and you find yourself asking more questions despite being supposedly uninterested.

"Is this Poe's… offspring?"

"No, actually," John corrects you. He moves the skillet onto the table and sets a kettle over the fire. You take in the sight of a full pan of vegetables, admirably roasted, chunks of carrots and potatoes and leeks, and you do your best not to openly salivate. "Irene is Poe's daughter, and Camy is Irene's daughter."

"Grandmother Poe. Huh."

"Yeah. They're both fairly young and get along alright. A shame Poe couldn't enjoy seeing her family like this."

It's like they're people, the way he fondly refers to them by name. John idles by the hearth now, embers brightly reflected in his eyes. Your eyes flicker from him, to Camy, and then back to him.

You know better than to ask the real questions: did Dave ever meet Poe's family? Did he have a hand in naming them? You suspect that, by the evasive way John's handled the subject of the ravens, there is a fair chance that Dave's involvement is only a fantasy at best.

It's unclear to you if that bothers you or not.

Neither you or John carry the conversation any further. You sit in Dave's chair, fold your arms on top of the table, and consider Camy in the stifling hush. John remains introspective, withdrawn, until the kettle begins to whistle and wail. It's with a stiff hand that he pours new mugs of tea, dark and earthy, and he transports the cups to the table with a dismissive wave of his hand, the lacquerware gliding across an invisible bridge. You aren't familiar with this blend, don't inquire about it, and you don't so much as glance at the tea despite your thirst.

Your eyes are on John and the hunch of his shoulders, the faraway tint to his blue eyes; and against all tact, you decide that, metaphorically speaking, loitering in the eye of the storm is insufficient stimulation for your depraved boredom. You barrel into the arms of the whirlwind.

"Why can't you talk about Dave?"

He flinches as if burned. You half expect him to turn and propel you from your seat in a violent blast of wind; you'd deserve it, welcome it, even. But John only wraps his arms around his midriff and pensively studies the fire for a long while, long enough for you to consider discarding the remnants of your appetite's patience.

Your hand is almost on a chunk of carrot when John circles around the table and inelegantly drops himself into his chair. He doesn't acknowledge your redhanded dip into the skillet--it's all for you, anyways; he doesn't eat--but your breath catches in your throat anyways, and you have to convince yourself to relax. It's not like you're a thief, no matter how criminal you feel.

It's with an averted look, eyes cast sideways onto the floor, that John speaks. He hunches onto the table by the elbows and clasps his hands together under his chin. The impression you get is a storyteller, a master at his craft, overcast with seemly gravity at the heavy tale he is about unravel before you; and maybe John is, in his own right, a kind of divine bard, his legacy embedded in the very air you breathe, the details of his tragic ballad played out everytime the wind sighs through your hair and into your ears.

Or you could just have a few marbles loose after diving into the bath one too many times. Maybe. You still give him your full attention; he commands it with his tone and with the rueful glaze across sad oceans for eyes.

"I wasn't always a god, you know." You don't know. This contradicts the blurb you read in The Law of the Gods. You blink in surprise, and he laughs mechanically even as he doesn't look at you. "The first gods--the 'Progenitors' as you might know them, were always gods. But us second gods, like me and… and the rest of us--we were made into this."

It's arresting, the way he confesses the truth of things, like shaving off the fluff from a beast and uncovering how pitifully tiny the body of it had been all along.

You wonder if John had consented to godhood. Who wouldn't? But would anyone still choose divinity if they knew the inherent mandates that would shackle them? Maybe that was why the lore recorded the revolts.

John leans his weight into his hands and sighs through his nose. His words are an aggrieved murmur through his fingers.

"I was just a simple kid. I lived with my dad in a normal house. Had a normal life. Did normal things like anyone else." There's a subtle emphasis on the word normal, and the inflection raises the hair along your nape and arms, like the onset of electricity.

John's face is carefully neutral, more inscrutable than Dave's ever was even considering the shades, and it makes you uneasy. It's no small thing for anyone to admit that they'd been violated in any sense, and it isn't any less significant on a spiritual level. If anything, it's infinitely more personal, dealing with the immaterial--the "real person" hidden inside a husk of flesh and bones.

You have no way of knowing how John feels about his godhood or the process of acquiring it, but you'd hazard a guess that it's complicated at best. Apparently even Cloud Nine gets dark at times.

"Anyways," John reroutes himself back on track. "I'm only saying that to explain that 'humans' are kind of just… people to me, like anyone else. I'm used to being different now, but it's not like there's this massive set of differences between, say, you and me."

"Or you and Dave," you suggest tentatively. You see where this is going, you think. John confirms your speculation with a nod.

While it's still a mystery to you why Dave is a forbidden topic, you're at least able to make the connection for why the predicament even began. John has feelings like anyone else, godhood or no. And while you were never fully privy to Dave's, he had feelings, too. However it happened, their feelings had agreed enough for something to kick off.

"Yeah. It just… happened." John shrugs more to himself than you. "I can't get into too much detail, but the… the gist of it is basically this: the gods aren't supposed to get too 'involved' with humans anymore."

"Involved," you intone wryly.

"Yeah, yeah, spare me."

"Sure."

You withhold a handful of clever witticisms and let John say his piece without further aggravation. He resumes his train of thought after a mouthful of tea, an action you mimic. It registers with you then that it's an odd habit for someone who doesn't need to eat or drink. A remnant of his mortality, perhaps. You also notice that this tea is spiced and full on your tongue. Honey and cinnamon. Instantly you're floored by the memory of Dave's scent, and you mask the bitter grimace with a mouthful of roasted potatoes, now cooled but still salted and crusted beautifully. It manages to taste like ash in your mouth.

John flattens his arms onto the table and blows a lock of hair away from his face. He then says (too rotely for your tastes), "When a human loves a god, it's considered worship, a natural thing. Fitting. Right. But as humans are the product of the gods, if a god falls in love with a human, it's categorized as perversion. Arrogance, pride--a weakness. A sin. It's never meant to be more than a one-sided flow of passion."

"You're gods. Who the hell cares who you want to be with," you snort derisively.

John furrows his brows at you, as if chiding you by expression alone. You pluck a piece of leek into your mouth and regard him blankly.

"Come on," he sighs. "They look at it like… like incest. Like a parent or guardian doing stuff with their kids."

Oh.

Just.

No.

You reflexively scrunch your nose up and nearly spit out your food. "In that case, I guess I can see what the problem is."

"Heh. Yeah. It's just..." John falters for a moment, searching for the right words in his mug. "It's more of a grey area for us who weren't always gods, you know? Like, sometimes you might have interests in someone before the whole god thing even happens, but only one of you gets picked for ascension. Or… or maybe everything's fine if gods fall in love with each other, but then things fall apart because one of you suddenly isn't a god anymore, and…"

Your chewing slows to a halt, your mind occupied with digesting more challenging information. Your eyes are fastened to John, and you watch him worry his hair with restless hands. An unsteady breath tumbles from his lips as he finally drops his hands into his lap. His eyes roam the room until they land on the picture of Dave over the bed.

"You aren't just making up an example, are you," you say slowly, disquietly.

John doesn't immediately respond. You feel able to bore holes through his skull as your mind puzzles out what you've been told. The implications in John's story draw out too many questions from you--too many problems.

It isn't possible. Dave has always been your brother. You've been together ever since you can remember. He didn't suddenly become a god--he never had been a god--he couldn't be a god, because gods didn't need to eat, or drink, or sleep, and they didn't have to take a piss, and they didn't d--

"No," John mutters. You force yourself to swallow down the bite of leek, to not fist your hands, to not upturn everything on the table like a charging bull in a rodeo. You're incensed again, and you don't know why, which only serves to further upset you.

"Okay, first of all, even if this wasn't utter bullshit, which it definitely is, because Dave has always just been a normal guy--" You angrily turn a blind eye at John's wince there. "That still doesn't answer my question about why you can't talk about him."

"It's just how the rules work, okay?"

"What rules?"

"The rules!" John repeats in exasperation, tossing his hands aimlessly upwards. "The rules--the oaths--that prevent us from--if we fail and fall in love with--it--it's a punishment, okay?!" He sputters at you.

Both you and John breathe unevenly; you, with building agitation, and he, with tremulous energy; and for a pregnant moment, breathing is the only sound there is.

You break the loop tersely then, hands flailing in the air, punctuating your words.

"You're telling me that you can't talk about Dave because some immortal bigots implemented a curse to punish their hormonal, surrogate offspring; and that this curse selectively steals your voice from you like a corpulent villain from The Little Mermaid?"

"Well, yeah, I guess."

"This is the weakest, most pathetic shit I have ever heard," you growl, flexing your fingers aggressively around your mug.

"It's not like I came up with this," John grumbles. He finishes the rest of his tea in one long gulp, and he floats the cup into the sink. "It's stupid to me that they don't just revoke our godhood outright the first time."

"The 'first time'?" You echo dubiously. "How many times does it take for you to get the heavenly boot?"

"Um. For something like this, it depends. The first couple of times, the Progenitors actually rewrote the world."

You stare vacantly in his direction, not moving so much as to breathe. John shifts uncomfortably in his seat and clears his throat.

"Okay, so that wouldn't make sense to you. But a more relevant answer would be, I don't know? I've only ever had this issue with… you know…"

"Yes, I know," you grind out. Your knuckles crack from the force you're expending on the cup. You have just enough sense to release it and place your hands elsewhere, like your knees. You'll suffer bruises at your hands, no doubt, but you have the right to mark yourself.

"Look," John snaps, showing at last that you've worn on his patience. "I'm just trying to answer your questions. It's hard enough as it is. Don't get all offended at me if you don't like to hear about the way things are."

"The way things are?" You roughly exhale incredulity. "You're telling me that--that Dave's supposed to be a god or something at some point?"

"No," John says almost inaudibly, and your gaze is riveted to him involuntarily. "Not anymore."

"What?"

Not anymore? That implies that there had indeed been a time when Dave's godhood was purportedly a thing of truth. It's not difficult to imagine your brother as one to rescind divinity in favor of some capriciousness; hell, you wouldn't have put it past him to ditch unspeakable, supernatural benefits if it meant something as ridiculous as snapping that shot of the sunset you're convinced he'd taken 5,263 times before--or falling in love with whoever he wanted. You know him, and that's the sort of inane nonsense he'd do.

But it's simultaneously hard for you to wrap your head around the idea that Dave was ever a god, because you knew him. He wasn't imbued with magical powers. Granted, he ate like shit, and slept far worse; but he couldn't fly, and he couldn't command an element, and he evidently couldn't outlast the side effects of time.

What stings the most is if--and it's a disproportionately large IF for you--if Dave had suffered his fate because he had given up divine status--if there had been some way to spare him, to have mercifully prevented the cruel reality that had overshadowed your life--if he still would have been around if the Progenitors weren't such prejudiced FUCKS--

You don't know who to hate right now. John, for… being there? Dave, for not being there? The gods, for being there at all? Yourself, for having not been there more?

You're going crazy, in the home of one of them. What has been the point of your lives? John had said the Progenitors had rewritten the world--what the hell did that even mean? Was life meaningless--were you just some infinitesimal plaything of some bored supremacists in the sky? How were you supposed to feel valid or even real? How were you meant to process what happened to Dave or who he was? If he had been a god, what did that make you? Had John been a part of all of this cosmic bullshit or was he just another pawn, a victim, like you, but just equipped with windy powers and immortality?

"I know it sounds really nuts, trust me," you hear John somewhere beyond your mental collapse, and you narrow in on his voice with a scalding focus.

"Shut up."

His mouth hangs uselessly ajar, and then closes. You're aware of his eyes on you, anxious and searching. You'll give him something to look at.

You stand from the table so quickly that Dave's chair tips backwards and slams onto the floor. John doesn't wince at the sound--doesn't move at all beyond maintaining a disjointed eye contact with you in the face of your shades--and you stare down at him with your lips curled up in a feral snarl.

"This is horse shit. Dave couldn't have been a god. The world just doesn't restart. If I hadn't seen you in the air--" But you had, and oh, you wish you hadn't--then you could have cocooned safely in your willful ignorance! "--I'd say all of this deity bullshit is exactly that. Bullshit."

You unleash your finest apoplectic fit yet, bitter and blunt and boorish.

"Is this a game to you? Do you think it's funny to mess with me like this?!" Your voice cracks as if reliving puberty again, the pitch high and strained.

"I'm sorry," John offers, but his apology only triggers your anger. You snatch up the mug of tea and hurl it at him, wishing it had been something more substantial when it connects with his shoulder, translucent fluid exploding all over his face and hair and clothes. Droplets splatter to the floor like impatient seconds on the clock.

Apologies serve you no purpose. You're the sorriest out of anyone, and it still won't bring Dave back. Nothing will.

"You're sorry? You think you're fucking SORRY?" You pace three steps to the side and snap back around to face him, fists shaking at your hips. "Why don't you tell me what you're sorry about, then, huh?!"

The reply is instant.

"That I can't help you find what… who you're looking for." The earnest simplicity of it surprises you enough that you pause your tirade for a few breaths. John breaks his gaze away and peers down into his cup mutely, and you regard him as if watching a surgeon perform his work on himself.

"Yeah, you can't," you mutter darkly, once your heart's thunderous rampage fades into a discontented, anguished pounding against the inner walls of your chest.

But John doesn't realize the full meaning of his words--doesn't understand that you're suffering more than jealousy or neglect--and how can he? You haven't told him the one fact about Dave you do know without any uncertainty, after all John has openly shared with you. And despite your conscience urging you to absolve yourself now, to make some attempt at mending the broken pieces that lay scattered before you, ripe with opportunity…

...you still can't say it. Not to John. Not to yourself. Not at all.

"I'm leaving," you announce. John's eyes swing up to yours with a cautious warning.

"The trails still aren't dried out yet."

"Does it look like I fucking care?"

"Your leg--"

"If you're so fucking sorry and worried about my leg, then why don't you just fly me somewhere I can walk?!"

You stomp away from John, bumping into the table, clattering dishes as you go. When you wrench the door open, you don't expect him to follow you--but he does, silently, like the ghost of a breeze in your shadow.

He pulls you into the air without a word, and you don't say a thing. The two of you drift through the trees, past gossiping leaves and waving branches, under nosy clouds and the sun's bright eye. Your nails bite into your palm and your head throbs from the tension spread through you, the weightlessness of John's element unable to lift your spirits.

You land on a raised patch of earth, lumpy with muddy stones and clumps of weeds, maybe a mile away. John hovers back, his face schooled into a calm, though his eyes are framed with contrition.

"This is as far as I can take you," he tells you. "I can't go any farther. Sorry."

You don't challenge this statement, and he doesn't wait for you to. He turns in the air, ready to float away, and you harpoon one last question at him before he goes.

"If Dave was one of you, then what about me?"

The blue of his back ripples in a passing breeze, and you hear him reply, "I can't tell you that." Then he ascends high into the trees, out of your range of vision, and you're left alone to pick your way through the murky waters.

Chapter Text

Your head has been a jumbled disaster since you made it back home.

You'd waded and trudged and clawed your way along the remnants of the path, resolved not to allow even an instance of regret despite the burning protest in your every muscle. It'd cost you the entire day. It was well past dark by the time you'd reached a paved road, and you certainly had attracted some disturbed looks at your unkempt and bloodied appearance. But you had reached your house, and you'd mentally spat in the face of every cautionary warning or label you'd ever seen or heard from anywhere or anyone… right before you'd toppled over in your living room, onto the cold, hard floor.

Three days later, and you're back on your feet, not quite at maximum efficiency but at least operational.

You'd elected to not schedule a visit with your doctor despite your common sense urging you to do so. John's homeopathic treatments had worked well enough, and you know your body best; you're bruised, itchy, and tender, but you're healing, albeit slower than you'd like. You're aware of the signs of infection and have yet to notice any, and you're fortunate enough to not have to worry about any (obvious) broken bones.

Alright, so maybe you're being reckless, but you have better things to do than laze about in your house at some pompous medical nerd's recommendations, which is what you're sure a doctor would suggest. Take these pills as instructed and rest? Hard pass. You prefer pushing yourself to your limits in hopes of exhausting your body so much that it also wears out your mind. Your success rates aren't as high as you'd like, but you're young enough that there's plenty of time to improve those statistics.

You've made a point to go out for even a light jog once a day. Your legs will thank you later, even if they scream bloody murder at you now. Routines are important to you, and even a day of slacking, justifiable or not, can throw a wrench in the stability of your schedule and its progress.

Okay, that's largely a lie, too. You'd love nothing more than to drug yourself up and crash on the couch for a week, and marathon some old favorites of yours. But you can't.

The truth of it is that you're still grossly unsettled from your last talk with John. As vehemently as you might deny it, there's a persistent nagging sensation that permeates your indignant rejection. It follows you everywhere--in the shower, in your bed, in the fridge, at the computer, and even on your runs. You can't shake it, can't cleanly erase the idea that maybe, just maybe, John might not be full of hot air, and maybe you've been living in the dark all along.

It bothers you--the possibility that you've been ignorantly living a lie. It leaves you with a sense of helplessness, an unwelcome state as you're only comfortable when you feel in control--or, at least, completely informed and aware of what to expect. You like to be prepared, educated, equipped, and lately you've felt none of those things.

You intend to fix this latest speed bump as you would one of your robots: one step at a time.

Your first stop today is at a phone outlet. The convenience and necessity of a phone is understated even in the technologically inundated world, and you'll need the device if you plan to gain headway on your agenda for the day. There's no hope of finding your old phone, but at least you had insurance, and everything worth anything was already backed up elsewhere. To your satisfaction, the employees aren't abominably slow and brain-deprived for once. You select a similar model, a Skaia-something-or-the-other, and finish your transaction in record time.

Half a dozen unread messages pester you as you laboriously customize your interface and system settings, and you ignore all of them. You have no intention of using your phone for anything but irresponsible internet antics and notetaking today.

Next, you hit up the main library. It takes some navigating to locate the books you want, as the titles are inexplicably stocked in the non-fiction section (a difference of opinion, you figure.) You find A Comprehensive Guide for the Modern Skaian among other religious books, and pull it from the shelf. You aren't committed enough to your curiosity to actually check any of these books out of the library, but you are willing to curl up in a chair and crack open the literature for some investigative reading. This particular book is notably larger than The Law of the Gods, roughly twice as thick, and it weighs awkwardly in your hands as you carry it to a secluded seat around the corner.

You scan the index page and decide to skip the lengthy preamble, and instead pick your way into the later chapters which cover the profiles of the Progenitors and the Tutelaries. You're interested in getting to know the divine family for two reasons: One, you want to better know who to blame and foist your grudges upon; and Two, Dave could be in this list, and you're curious to know what connections you may see about him... or even yourself. The two of you had always been together, and there's no real reason to believe that wouldn't also be the case here.

Depictions of the Progenitors are arranged in a consistent format across eight pages. Each god has an outlined blurb attached to its illustration, each including their official appellations, as well as a brief description of their character and any other features of note; each fills an entire page.

You peruse all of this information with eyes already predisposed to view the subjects as enemies.

The first Progenitor--like all the rest, you quickly realize--is shown in the likeness of a great serpent, its girth disproportionate to a slim and scrutinizing head. Its scales, a vibrant green, an artificial color that you have only seen in children's slime toys, contrast heavily against pale and bare skin. Humanoid arms, wan and gangly, hug its naked torso. Its head, a strangely undefined detail, is thrown back, jaw lax and open, revealing teeth that are more suited for a shark than… whatever this is supposed to be.

You search the text with a mildly disturbed interest.

"Typheus, otherwise known as the Celestial Convoy. Infamous for his self-indulgence, Typheus often invited others to play games with him which would feature his more flattering traits: power and agility. He is one of the largest of the Progenitors, second only to Yaldabaoth, and one of the strongest in terms of direct, brute force. His weakness is his pride; frequently flighty, and petulant when others did not cater to his whims, Typheus has been known to have a harsh hand on those who displease him."

This first summary alone already convinces you that the Progenitors are no more worthy to form laws of any kind more than anyone else. If anything, this half nude snake-man-thing seems like a huge brat to you. You flip to the next page with your lip curled in a condemning moue.

The second serpentine figure is somehow more disfigured. With a bloated belly that would put any pregnant creature to shame, Cetus is painted in ghastly and dark colors, and her head, considerably rounder than Typheus', is the only brilliant point about her. The artist tastefully concealed her unclothed bosom with an arguably lewd grasp of Cetus' hands, and it's awkward to say the least that this Progenitor's eyes are centered straight at any would-be reader, who happens at this moment to be you.

"Cetus, the Insatiable Intellectual, is the third largest Progenitor. Defined as smug even among her peers, Cetus has never displayed anything but confidence in her vast stores of knowledge. It is rumored that Cetus would grant favors to others in exchange for a riddle or fact never before known to her; it is also popular folklore that the goddess is something of a sore loser, as her promised favors came with strings attached. Due to her impressive wisdom, Cetus is sometimes viewed as condescending. She is also considered vain, although rarely openly, as she fancies herself as coy and 'full' of wiley beauty."

So Cetus is a self-proclaimed MILF. Got it. Moving on.

Perhaps the most ordinary of what you consider caricatures of nagas, the next Progenitor sports glossy armor, from head to tail. Even his face is masked with silvery equipment. His body posture is relaxed, arms resting at his sides, and the only defining characteristic you see is what seems to be steam escaping from the metal confines.

"Hephaestus, the second smallest of the Progenitors, is known as the Flexible Forger for his masterful craftsmanship in both the literal and the moral forge. A creative prodigy of swordsmanship, he holds immense satisfaction for creating his own weapons. It is said that one strike of his hammer to the anvil can create a sonic boom. Despite his artful blows of power, Hephaestus is also considered one of the most sociable of the Progenitors; friendly and chatty to a fault, he routinely finds his audience lost in whatever inspired ramblings seize him. Though sometimes nonchalant and even dismissive, Hephaestus is one of the most loyal and fearsome of his league, an invaluable ally and formidable foe."

Your eyes begin to glaze over. There is considerably more text than you had anticipated, and you aren't that invested in learning about these old mythological beings. To save yourself the time of reading through every entry, you decide to conveniently hate them all, and skim to the end, mentally jotting down bullet points as you go.

"Echidna, the Persistent Prevailer. Maternal, patient, strict. Prone to letting things fall into place in their own time. Practiced in tough love.

"Hemera, the Inventive Idealist. Hopeful, benevolent, sweet-spirited. Enjoys giving. Not to be scorned.

"Nix, the Cynical Courier. Elusive, pessimistic, exasperated. Loves crushing the mood. Is fond of slacking."

You pause at the last two articles on the Progenitors. In direct contrast with each other, on your left is an embossed representation of the most lustrous serpentine creature yet, covered in glimmering amber scales well past its waistline and up to its neck, with a mask seemingly golden and cast in the likeness of an austere man, eyes radiating a white light; while on the right you see a most horrific painting of more-beast-than-snake in such dark colors that it seems almost smeared and wholly obscured, the malachite trunk of it marred with a seeping blackness, dripping robes fashioned after a molting blackbird, an obsidian beaked mask fastened to its head like the owner of some grotesque medico della peste costume. Whoever was responsible for these portrayals sure knew how to leave an impression. You haven't seen any art so tasteless, disgusting, or disturbing since you saw Peter Paul Reubens' cannibalistic rendition of some lunatic god. (Yet more evidence that gods are overbearing, insane assholes.)

You might as well go in order, and so you work your way across the pages, left to right, taking in more bolded text with a renewed attentiveness.

"Yaldabaoth. The Imperial Initiator. The largest and, often hinted to be the strongest, of the eight Progenitors, Yaldabaoth inherited his title for his bold extravagance and daring feats of conquest. Oft requiring reverence, and basking in his amassed wealth, he is easily the greediest of his peers, only satisfied with the best. Yet for all of his extensive fortune, Yaldabaoth is also a warrior of unparalleled ability, well-versed in every instrument and technique. Like his counterpart, Abraxas, this opulent god's most striking characteristic is his mask. It is said that without his mask, Yaldabaoth emits a light brighter than the sun, shining with such an intensity that no man can see for its brightness."

You can't say that you're swayed by the absolute arrogance associated with this god. If anything, you're somehow more unimpressed by this particular selection of the deranged pantheon. As you flit your gaze over to the final member of this revolting, mythological census, you're immediately convinced that your opinion isn't going to improve.

"Abraxas, the Divine Demarcator. Perhaps the most macabre and disturbed of the gods, with a penchant for taxidermy and an infinite collection of skins. Not one to be hindered by conventional habits, this Progenitor appreciates a curious mind, having one of his own, and is always probing about the business of others. Some have said that any exchange with Abraxas inevitably results in one parting either naked or avulsed, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally--and occasionally, both. A perceptive god, and not shy about his fascination in pushing others to their limits, Abraxas is infamous for his tests should he deign to speak with others. Often a recluse, and considered repulsive by even the other gods, Abraxas is aptly the black sheep of the Progenitors. Among these distinct traits, however, like Yaldabaoth, his most notable physical aspect is his mask. It is rumored that to remove Abraxas' mask is to invite unspeakable dread and destruction, a black hole, all-consuming and the epitome of darkness, emptiness and death itself."

You get the feeling that Abraxas never won the Progenitor of the Year award. Being a busybody with a reputation for ripping off people's skins probably didn't win him any favors, either.

You're unsure how reliable any of these texts are, and frankly, after what you've just read, you actually hope they're all delusional bullshit. As deranged as you're sure some of the supernatural renditions can be, with your limited exposure to it, this takes the cake for you.

Wearily, you flip to the next section involving the Tutelaries. These are the "second gods," as John called them, which include not only John himself but also, allegedly, Dave. Of sixteen listed, each is presented with a stylized portrait and brief description, like the Progenitors.

For an unfathomable reason, you continue to expect to see yourself anywhere there might be a hint of your brother, if only by anecdotal association with him. It's only sensible that you be mentioned as at least his slave or even a devout worshipper. As distant as you two had become, you'd like to think there was a permanence to your fraternal bonds. But you don't know which of these deities are supposed to be him, or you, or anyone; you know no one, besides John, The Zephyr, and so you reluctantly resign yourself to reading through every single one with an analytical eye.

As a baseline, you scrutinize the first entry, John's, in an effort to pick out how accurate the author has been. The profile is decidedly vague, but appropriately blue, with swirling strokes of air painted around a hooded figure mid-flight. You immediately compare it to your own vision of John, draped in moonlight and vestiges of his godhood, and find this illustration to be woefully unsatisfactory. Of course, no mere book could capture the authenticity of a god's power or magnificence, but--alright, you're getting too wrapped up in this, if you're thinking like that. You're not a cultist, damn it. You're just here to get a better feel for what to expect about Dave and yourself. That's all.

"The Zephyr, one of the first Tutelaries, is renowned for his vital and all-embracing aerial abilities, most notably flight. While The Zephyr has been known to oversee more practical facets of his element, such as nephology, meteorology, and even management of air pollution, this god occasionally indulges himself in entertaining displays in the sky to boost the spirits of his followers. Also a notorious prankster, The Zephyr is commonly regarded as the Tutelary with the most relatable humor and interests, and he is most popular with the younger members of society. His best-remembered lark dates back in the 1800s, when an entire town's laundry, hung out to dry, was misplaced; the missing articles of clothing were later found worn on a flock of migrating geese, many items forever lost."

You curl your lips into your teeth, stifling a snort, and swallow a humored smile. The depiction of John is too short to properly describe even what limited glimpses of his character you've seen, but you can definitely picture him awarding a comically honking gaggle with some "borrowed" garments, if only for his obvious interests in birds. You'll have to ask him about this; if the tale holds any truth, you'd like to hear it from the source.

You haven't given John many opportunities for friendly banter or mischief, and it's not guaranteed that you will, as you're still ruffled over your last conversation; but you know it's not entirely his fault, and part of the reason you're even entertaining these nonsensical compilations is to shift your vengeance onto more culpable deities. Just because you're always an asshole doesn't mean you always want to be one--not to someone who has been nothing but gracious to you.

Unapologetically, you skip the page depicting The Illuminator as soon as you realize it's a goddess. No offense--you aren't a sexist in any way--but you're hunting for evidence of sexy Striders specimens now, and you're thoroughly persuaded that neither you or Dave have ever been females at any time. Well, not in this lifetime, if "rewriting the world," as John so vaguely put it, might edit things. In any case, when you double check the mass of text about The Illuminator, you see that she's apparently a goddess of active status, and you know you aren't looking for a current god. If--if--Dave is--or was--a god, then he'd be listed as a fallen deity.

You find your target sooner than anticipated. On the very next page, the third of the Tutelaries, unmistakably vermillion eyes seize your gaze. You'd recognize the anomaly anywhere. Both you and Dave had never been blessed with ordinary irises, his sanguine and yours a yellowed amber, instead of a brown or blue or green or even grey. You had always attributed it to an unfortunate streak of albinism in the family, but the earth wasn't exactly overflowing with this ocular condition, and it's more than a coincidence to you, given everything you've uncovered recently. Arrested by this new connection outright, and torn between a hope for a coincidence or some due finality, you rapidly take in the passage of a name familiar from Dave's journal, without so much as a second glance of the artwork attached.

"The Chronicler, or the official record keeper for all of the Skaian pantheon, bore one of the most crucial roles of all the Tutelaries. Any significant occurrence or detail was to be added to the immortal archives, all which later on were relocated to The Chronicler's personal library, The Athenaeum, the pinnacle of knowledge and culture.

"While The Chronicler remained busy with fastidious note keeping and maintenance of The Athenaeum, he regularly participated in lively social events held by the Tutelaries. These revelries soon garnered the disapproval of the Progenitors: those who enjoyed The Chronicler's presence regarded him as 'the life of the party, full of wit and verve'; but for those staid gods who had weightier expectations, an ill reputation began to form. At first, this worldly Tutelary found excuse from the Progenitors' judgment, due to his critical and exceptionally organized bookkeepings; however, when the Jurors were instated and the transgressive act of a blood pact with The Appraiser took place, The Chronicler was violently removed from his divine position, and with him, his duties and all memories of it. The Athenaeum has since been mysteriously lost to both man and gods alike, a catastrophic loss to the truths and teachings of the Skaian lineage.

"Among the Tutelaries, The Chronicler was most well-favored, (especially by The Zephyr and The Appraiser), respected for his open-minded approach to finding a place for everything in this world; and so, the first of the fallen Skaian gods, The Chronicler served as the catalyst for an unseemly rift in the heavenly ranks, as a majority of the Tutelaries would subsequently share his fate."

As you read, your mood fluctuates from one extreme to another--from desperate interest, to appreciative musing, to chilling consternation, then a smoldering ire, and finally a bubbling rage. By this account, The Chronicler, a previous manifestation of your brother, had been unseated from godhood because he had made an unauthorized deal with another god. More pointlessly tight leashing by conceited deities who were too inflamed with hedonism to grasp a balanced thought.

You instinctively heap scorn on The Appraiser for thrusting Dave into his poor fate. The laws set in place for these Tutelaries were surely no secret. Why had this selfish and inconsiderate fool coerced your brother into this tragedy--ultimately caused you to lose him? It's no longer John who you despise, the one whose name is a curse on your tongue and poison in your veins, but this Appraiser; you angrily slap away the intermittent pages until you reach the commentary for this loathsome god, and nearly rip the page out from the book--and then you go still.

A reflection of you unsympathetically confronts your stunned face. Every treacherous thought, every push of denial, every inkling of guilt and utter dismay and hopelessness--it crashes over your rationale like a tsunami of glass, shattering disbelief all around you and piercing you with the shards. You might as well have encountered a mirror glued to the page, the picture undeniably you--the hair, the freckles, the honey for eyes--

--the reason Dave is no longer a god--the source of his fragile mortality--

--it's been you.

Nevermind that this means you suffered an equally tragic deposition; that you, too, had once existed on a higher plane of grandeur and purpose. Nevermind the injustices laid upon you and your loved one and all the gods that could ever be found in these incriminating texts, how you had just a moment ago been ready to crucify every Progenitor for their intolerable oppression. Nevermind that you've never had a single thought, a memory, or so much as the ghost of a dream to indicate any personal affirmation of any of this; nevermind that, just last week, you had seen Dave, your ordinary-if-absent-brother, because he shared a house with you and always had, and it had always been the two of you, and you had always been normal siblings. Nevermind that you've met a god whose eyes are so deep that they seem more distant than the bottom of the sky, nevermind that he knew your brother, nevermind that Dave might have come home had he not been with that god named John, nevermind that John knew you had been gods--knew your face before you showed it--and had all the mysteries of your world locked in his heart with the key in a Juror's hands. Nevermind all of that, nevermind every thing--

--nevermind

nevermind

nevermind--

Your ability for coherent thought has flatlined. Time rolls to a halt for you. Your awareness bleeds away into the deafening pulse of your tarnished heart.

You see only the soul-crushing fact of the situation: Dave would still be here had it not been for you.

You numbly hold A Comprehensive Guide for the Modern Skaian in your lap and peer down at it, but you aren't reading it anymore. The words are a meaningless mess of shapes and ink, the likeness of your face a blurred slab of colors. You don't see any of it; you are apprehended, blinded, assassinated, by the cruel revelation that, all along, the true malefactor has been you.

You killed your brother.


You don't know what time it is when you leave the library. Your heart is swollen, near-bursting out of your ribcage, your throat constricted by a vice of the onset of raw, psychological shock. There are people milling all around you outside the entrance as you stand, wedged in an automatic doorway; they brush past you, mutter at you to step aside, but you don't notice a single one. You're oblivious to the world around you, all of your senses withdrawn into a rapidly collapsing grasp of reality. You're about to have a panic attack right there, in view of the public eye, a turbulent adrenaline coursing rampantly underneath your skin; you're lost, swept helplessly along a current of shame and terror, unable for the first time in your life to even guess what you should do or where to go from here.

You mentally check out, and let your body default to autopilot. And you do what you do best when you don't know what to do: you run.


It's not until you're already there that you discover your itinerary. No matter what unrest found you before at The Overlook, some sense of comfort leads you there now. Your legs aren't fully recovered yet, both of them still bandaged and unstable, both worn and trembling from your one-way marathon here from downtown, but you arrive in one piece.

You slide down onto the stone surface that juts out before John's shack, landing on your rump and hands, and send a startled flock of sparrows flying from the nearby trees.

John is outside, fiddling with some length of rope in his hands, forming loops and knots in some semblance of a net. He acknowledges you with an indecipherable look, not quite happy to see you but neither too put off by your presence. You manage to think he looks vaguely concerned.

He doesn't comment on your frazzled state, doesn't do anything other than quietly set aside the rope on one of the taller pots by him and gesture to his open door. You wordlessly admit yourself into his home like one of his convalescent birds, and don't find the little room too cramped at all this time.

Your first impulse is to drop down into Dave's chair, but no sooner than it creaks from your touch that you stagger away from it as if bitten by the reminder of him. You nearly bump into John, who has followed you indoors, and he nimbly sidesteps you and shuts the door. A tightness draws his brows together as he closely studies you then, eyes as piercing as a hawk's, and you, frozen in your panic, like an alarmed doe, let him.

Your throat is clogged with anxiety. You feel overwhelmed with the need to confess everything to John, to unearth all of what you've learned and to own up for every lie, to announce the verdict you've uncovered, to make known the blood on your hands. All that comes from your mouth is a fragile breath, useless and so weak it may as well be inaudible, but you see John's eyes flicker down to it somehow.

It's like he sees through you, his gaze sharp and clear, and you feel frighteningly exposed; but though you expect him to interrogate you, to make sense of you, to pry open your chest of deceitful serpents swimming about inside of you, he baffles you by simply stepping past you and to the fireplace.

You stand still, stunned, as John works a flame into the firebox. By the time fire is eating at a bundle of kindling, and you've turned around, John is arranging a fresh pot of tea to brew. His face is hidden to you from this angle. You gape at his back like a pitiful chick as he pieces together dried herbs, some flat leaves and some brittle sprigs, all handled with a delicate touch, and you blink uncertainly when he begins to talk about nothing in particular, as one would to an animal companion--with no expectation of reply.

"Camy went home yesterday. She's all better now, and Irene was happy to see her." John sets the kettle on the stovetop and then slips his hands into his pockets, thumbs hanging out the sides. "I've been thinking I should do something about the crows. They're always picking fights with the other birds around this time of year, and I feel bad about letting it get like this. I feel like it's not right to interfere with the natural way of things, but they're getting into these territorial spats because of human expansion, so I can't help but feel a bit responsible."

It isn't a topic you can add to at present, and you're not meant to. John moves on from birds to gardening, a subject you know even less about.

"The peas have been growing like crazy. The vines are everywhere. I've had to transplant another bunch out by Amy's nest. Good thing she likes peas. And I'm pretty sure the onions are doing really well this year. I've been poking at the bed because I'm worried about thrips, even though I've never had that problem, but it looks good. The potatoes are doing good, too. I was thinking of trying a squash this year, but they grow so fast, and I don't eat, so I feel like it'd all go to waste."

The tension in your shoulders slowly fades as you listen to John ramble on next about whatever project he's begun to tackle with the ropes outside. None of it matters to you, the words floating by, but your breathing does calm considerably and you do relax enough to stand with more ease, just from hearing him talk about nothing important. He's skillfully distracted you and let you unwind at your own pace, and you're sheepishly aware of it.

When the kettle begins to utter its shrill cry, and John removes it from the heat to pour into cups, you shuffle over into his chair and hope he doesn't mind the switch in seating arrangements.

John does pause when he comes to the table, a steaming mug in each hand, but he barely blinks once before he seats himself across from you as if he's always sat there. He holds a cup to you, which you accept with both hands, and then cradles his own in his palms.

"So," he finally, directly, addresses you for the first time. "How's your leg?"

"Fine," you tell your cup.

"Uh-huh. Any infection?"

"No."

"Cool." He sips at his tea, then asks, "Did you fix the phone problem?"

"Yeah. Today."

"Mm. I found your old one. It was smashed in half, so it's good that you got a new one."

"Huh."

"Yeah."

The sweet scent of honey and mint wafts up into your face, and you sigh it away through your nose. John places his mug on the table and folds his arms across his chest, and you stiffen your shoulders up around your ears in anticipation of some probing question.

It's not what you expect.

"Okay, so, not to be rude or anything, but." Here it comes. He's going to ask you why you're here, after what you said--going to ask why you're being like this--"What is a fat person doing in The Little Mermaid."

"I--what?"

John rolls his eyes and huffs like a dramatic teen girl. "You said a fat person steals voices in The Little Mermaid! Which, by the way, I hear it's not trendy to 'fat shame' these days."

"I… it's…" You're so taken by surprise that you momentarily forget everything else. "They literally made Ursula fat in the movie, dude."

"I haven't seen the movie!"

"Are you serious?"

"Yes! Ugh, don't look at me like that. I've only read the book, and nowhere does it say the Sea Witch was fat."

"I haven't read the book, but she's definitely fat in the movie."

"Well she's not in the book."

"Is that supposed to convince me of something?"

"Yeah, that she isn't fat in the book."

"That doesn't make her any thinner in the movie, and she still steals Ariel's voice."

"I think that's ironic, since in a lot of mythology, there are mermaids that use their voices to lure in people," John remarks, more invested in this discussion than you'd normally warrant. But you follow after this mental detour hard, grateful for any relief you can find for your distraught mind.

"Those are sirens, and they weren't always mermaids. But for the sake of the argument, let's say they're the same thing. What's ironic about a mermaid baiting a human with a pretty ditty?"

"Well, for one, in The Little Mermaid, Ariel gives up her voice for a chance at love with the prince guy, right?"

"Right."

"So, isn't there some irony that normally, in these other folk tales, Ariel would've been the one to just, scream into the air I guess, and the prince would have thrown himself at her? But she gives up that ability so he'd fall in love with her on his own."

"There's a difference between hypnotizing someone with some spell and attracting them with more, say, human means, like maybe a flash of leg or a saucy wink. But sure, it's a twist. If we were to reverse it, you could say Ariel got the short end of the stick, being forced to relinquish her mer-self and live under a bunch of convoluted, societal, human bullshit."

You down a long drink of tea, honey coating your tongue, as John delves into his counter argument. You never imagined you'd be going back and forth with a god about a fairy tale involving mermaids, of all things, but you surprisingly find that you're enjoying it.

John's hands wave around in the air as he speaks, his face expressive and serious.

"Well yeah, because in the book, it says it's like walking on knives for her to have legs; but her grandmother told her that mermaids just turn into foam and spume and crap when they die, and that humans have souls that can live on forever. So to her, it'd probably be a no-brainer to exchange short-term advantages for a long-term benefit, especially if it meant she could be with who she loved, right?"

"Except," you drop your mug on the table for loud emphasis. "There's no guarantee that humans actually have access to eternity like that. It's the dream, sure--look at how many religions and faiths there are with eternity in mind. But the diversity alone should speak for itself on how impossible it is to pin that down."

"If it was for what you loved, wouldn't you, though?" John turns the tables on you then, and you shift awkwardly at the way he intensely searches you for an answer. "If there was a chance to be with someone you loved, wouldn't you have to take it?"

The answer is obviously meant to be yes, but you don't say that for a number of reasons. For one, you've never experienced all-consuming love. You had a rocky relationship at best with Jake, a teenage first-love sort of… thing, that you'd picked apart with your meddling and perfectionist tendencies. You tell yourself that it couldn't have been real love, because you don't do that to people you do love. And even if Jake, or anyone else, had been The One, you can't picture yourself entrusting your heart in full to anyone, not even then; you're too cautious, too entrenched in your defenses, too wary of more scars.

Even in humoring the context of The Little Mermaid, you find fault in the way Ariel, a member of the royal finned family, abandoned her duties and her people for a pathetic two-legged creature who couldn't have begun to genuinely appreciate her sacrifices and efforts. A part of you understands that feelings aren't logical, often even baselessly contrived, and anyone who can experience a feeling knows that--even you; but it's not that Ariel loved a human that's the crime--it's that she irresponsibly and selfishly dumped everything and everyone around her to fulfill herself. It was her choice of feeling over reason that irks you, because you don't know that you'd do the same… or any differently, despite your objective condemnation.

There's also another side of the dice that doesn't sit well with you. You've begun associating the conversation with more real and pressing matters. It's not just about an imaginative story with mermaids and a prince, about Ariel and Eric and Ursula. You're brought back to John and Dave, to the Progenitors and the Tutelaries, to Skaia and Earth--and your face falls into a scowl.

John blinks at your change in demeanor. He leans forward over the table, and his voice softens.

"Hey, what's up?"

You scrape your tongue against the top of your teeth, sifting through your thoughts, and settle on simple facts.

"I went to the library today."

"Oh? Did you have a late fee or something?"

Neither of you laugh.

"I'd been thinking about what you said, about Dave, and how he was… a god, like you, and--I went to look up some stuff."

"I see."

It's John's turn to nurse his tea in a somber quiet. You don't raise your voice at him this time, don't spew obscenities, don't make demands or clench your fists or even sigh. You only look at him with an inescapable sense of defeat, and ask him about the sword cast through your heart, as if he had helped you put it there.

"I'm The Appraiser, aren't I."

The corners of John's mouth twitch strangely. He does not look at you.

"You know I can't tell you that."

"But you can tell me something," you press, hands around your mug like you mean to strangle it.

"I can tell you that you aren't a god," John says slowly, as if you're meant to decipher a code from his words. It's enough of an answer for you.

You bring the cup to your lips and finish off the tea in one big gulp. When you rise from the table, John doesn't follow suit. You place your cup in his tiny sink and turn towards the door. The cages around the window are unusually vacant, the doors ajar, and you realize how smothering the silence really is without a bird or two or more in the ambiance.

You glance over to John, who is still seated at the table. He's propped up as he was when you left your chair--his chair, really--and his head is down, as if he intends to drown himself in his cup if only he could work out how to fit himself into it. You watch him for a short while until it becomes clear that he has no intention of moving from his trance, and you break your gaze away.

When you let yourself out, you don't say goodbye, and neither does John; and you finally leave The Overlook without an entourage of rage or devastation. You leave feeling empty--displaced--like a prince whose kingdom has just been destroyed. Only your kingdom was your heart, and what is a prince without a heart or place to call home?

Chapter Text

Just minutes prior, a postal worker had knocked on your door and delivered a package, a signature required, and you, not expecting any mail, had regarded the parcel with great suspicion, until you had seen the sender's name on the box.

Now, cross-legged on the floor of your house, you stare at a Japanese tea set in its ornate, wooden gift box. You recognize it to be a traditional set, with unusual pieces nestled in soft, pastel tissue paper, beside the teapot. It all is delicate white pottery, a matching square cut of silk and a compact, rounded, metal canister included. A folded slip of stationary rests atop everything, and you smooth it open and read the elegant, cursive script written there in violet ink.


Dear Dirk,
I hope this arrives intact. I recently attended a formal tea ceremony, or a "cha no yu," and picked up some souvenirs for everyone. I trust you're capable of learning the intended use for everything.
Work has been a handful lately. I'm still not certain if my schedule will allow me to fly down in time for a memorial service. If I don't make it, you're welcome to throw these dishes at a photo of me. If you need a photo, you know how to reach me.
Take care of yourself.
Rose

You've spoken to your cousin Rose only a handful of times, most recently over the phone to update her on your brother (she hadn’t answered; you’d left a message.) She's roughly the same age as Dave had been, but comes off exponentially more polished than either he or you ever were. If you remember correctly, she'd mentioned being unhappily employed at some editing firm. You know little else about her other than that she lives several states away in New York, an unsurprising fact given you correspond twice a year at most, yet she always seems oddly abreast of your circumstances. With how much tea you've consumed lately, and all the Skaian palaver on your plate, you're not sure if you should consider her gift a coincidence or not.

You fold the note back up and set it aside. You rustle through the tissue paper and inspect each item curiously. The teapot is self-explanatory, as are the four cups. There is a deep bowl among the dishes, and you aren't sure what to do with that. A strange bamboo thing, which you can only describe as a miniature and stiff bamboo dress, puzzles you greatly. The silk cloth is presumably for wiping or some symbolic theatric. You find finely ground green powder in the canister; it smells like nutty, fresh lawn clippings just went through a coffee grinder and then a dehydrator.

Really, Rose had given you all the information you needed when she'd written "cha no yu" in her note. Clueless as you are about ceremonial Japanese tea products, you’re well-versed in the arts of browsing the internet. You'll search for how all of this works later. Careful not to damage anything, you close the box and rewrap it in the decorative cloth in which it arrived, and you place your gift on the couch to be revisited when you’re ready. You have some shopping and a delivery of your own to do today, and you intend to get it over with before you talk yourself out of it.


You'd happened upon The Plume Room by chance while you'd been out to replace your phone. It's a small shop, a mom and pop sort of business by your guess, supervised by a bored-looking grump at the counter who can't be that much older than you, all of three aisles completely packed with bird fan memorabilia and assorted tchotchkes.

As cramped as the store is, the selection available is more than enough for you to find something worth purchasing. From windchimes to suncatchers to paintings to bobbleheads to duck whistles to pen rests to keychains--gods, there's just no end to what you can find stocked on these shelves--you eventually pause at a series of handcrafted wooden ducks. They're painted in muted colors, but the finish is done well, the wood is sturdy and heavy and smooth, and there's a respectable amount of detail to the head and feathers. You pick up one with shades of blue and grey, the whole of it barely bigger than your palm, and take it to the counter for checkout.

The cashier gives you a onceover as he inputs your purchase in the system.

"You been here before?"

You've never been here before in your life, and you'll probably never darken the doors of this establishment again--not that you're going to say this to his face.

"Nah, not really a bird guy."

"Could've fooled me." He deposits your knickknack into a paper sack and neatly folds it twice at the top. "Look like that guy who came here all the time. What's his name? Dale? Dane? Dave."

A brick with your brother's name attached rips through your sensitive mental barrier. Of course he’d have been here. You resolve not to submit to an outburst, and take a deep breath before more words come out of you.

"Not a people person, either."

"That so, huh. Well, that'll be six beaks."

"Beaks?"

"Yeah, you know. Beaks. Like bucks. But beaks. Because this is a bird shop." He tries again. "How about six bills?" At your deadpanned stare, the guy just sighs. "Christ. Six dollars, please."

You fish out a five and a one from your pocket, take your sack, and leave before anymore fowl--foul, damn it--jokes can be unloaded onto you.


Over a plate of reheated burritos, you scroll through your phone in search of information about cha no yu. As it turns out, it's not something you have any idea of how to do even with a guide at your fingertips. There's a deluge of details about preparation, symbolism, and guidelines to follow (and that depends on if you're a man or a woman, and also if you're a guest or a host, and furthermore what level of formality is involved in the operation.)

You decide that you'll simply pass your gift on to John, someone who obviously is far more invested in serving tea than you. After your latest visit with him, you've come to the conclusion that you've been unfairly extreme about everything with him; as ravaged as your heart is, you know you'll find no balm for it in assaulting John. You'd meant to bring him the wooden duck as a peace offering of sorts, but a tea set is undoubtedly more practical for him. For good measure, you'll give him both.

It takes you all of half an hour to clean yourself up and safely arrange your gifts for John in a backpack. You shoulder your bag, snap on a canteen full of water, and head out for the trails again, deliberating over what to discuss with John as you go.


You meet John at the base of The Overlook, where the trail dissolves into the sloping wall of weeds and rocks you normally climb to get to him. He's crouched over a loose patch of soil, fingers sifting through the moist earth, and it seems at first that he doesn't notice you. But your canteen clanks for attention at your hip as you approach him, and John offers you a dirt-spraying wave when he hears it.

"Hey, back again, I see!"

"Yeah. I brought you something."

"Oh?"

You catch your breath as he stands and brushes himself clean. You're flushed and hot and sweaty, having committed to another nonstop run here from your house, but your heart doesn't ache as badly as it normally does, and you're significantly less tense around your shoulders than before.

John lifts his brows at your labored breathing and grins.

"Want a lift to the top?

It's tempting--sensible, even--to let you and your pack be transported into the air on John's Magic Elevator, but an ornery impulse leads you to be contradictory for the sake of it.

"I'll climb, but thanks."

"You know, I haven't actually scaled this before," John says, and he waggles his eyebrows at you mischievously. "Want to race?"

"No," you breathe out as a laugh, but you're clambering up on the rocks in an instant anyways, and you don't gripe or try to sabotage John as he gropes his way up right behind you.

The two of you pick at each other as you climb, like energetic squirrels at play. Your foot slips once, causing a cascade of dust and pebbles to fall onto John's head. In turn, he tosses a twig up and into your hair. You scrape a disgruntled beetle down into his face. He has the gall to slap you across the legs to speed you up.

You reach the top breathlessly snickering from this harmless back-and-forth, and as soon as you dismount your pack, you let yourself flop back onto your rear and hands, and pant like an eager dog. John heaves himself over with considerable effort, clearly accustomed to flight more than you'd expected, and he's rosy-cheeked and breathing harder than you. You meet his eyes with a smirk, and his eyes narrow sullenly; but you're too amused with the idea that John, a god, is strapped for air, his own element, because he wanted to join you for some rock climbing--which you both could have avoided had you not been so typically difficult--to mind much. The ridiculousness of it all makes you bare your teeth humorously, to which John grumbles a few words you don't make out as he picks himself off the ground.

He still catches his breath first.

"So, you have something to show me?" He reminds you.

"Yeah, here."

You unzip your backpack and hold it out for him to take. John relieves you of it with a curious twist of his mouth, and you drink from your canteen as you watch him delve into your bag.

It's like watching a kid try to be coy about his presents at Christmas, the way John reaches the cloth-covered box first and turns it all around in his hands to inspect it. He shakes it gently, and then nervously bites his lip when he hears the distinct rattle of fragile dishes. You briefly wonder if any of the pottery broke on your way here, but you'd taken great care to arrange everything in extra towels and padding that you'd be surprised if anything suffered damages. You're still relieved when John undoes the tie of the decorative fabric and opens the box, revealing the unbroken array of dishes.

John sends you a confused look.

"What's this?"

You manage to keep a straight face.

"I know you know what a teapot is, John."

"No, I mean--yes, obviously--but what's all… this?" His hands circle aimlessly about the box, and you snort at his bewilderment despite your efforts to remain impassive.

"It's a Japanese tea set for if you're feeling fancy. I happened to acquire one and thought you'd put it to better use than I would."

"No, I know what it is," he stresses, replacing the lid on the box. "But why are you giving me this?"

You aren't about to admit that you're attempting to make up for your brutal temper tantrums and overall thanklessness every time you've been here thus far--that this is your take on the proverbial olive branch.

"Maybe I want you to make some more tea," you shrug.

John squints at you, unconvinced, but doesn't argue further--at least, not until he pokes his head into your backpack and retrieves the wooden duck.

"And this?" He says somewhat accusingly, and you don't have a cunning response for that. You admit defeat with an exaggerated sigh, and avert your gaze off to the side.

"It's a duck."

"It's a gift!" John corrects, a smile spreading into his cheeks. "I like this. Thanks."

You flush with embarrassment, unsure of how to properly handle the attention. John isn't exactly showering you with compliments, but it affects you all the same in the way he traces the wooden duck over with his fingers and examines it with an open fondness.

You lose track of the time like this, sprawled out on the stone floor of The Overlook, John rummaging around with the gifts you've brought him. The air comes to life with a chorus of cicadas, the first you've noticed this summer. A mass of cumulus clouds passes by overhead; you think you see the rough shape of a rat up on its hind legs, looking to the left.

Pareidolia. Dave had mentioned doing this in his journal.

You clear your throat and get to your feet. John looks up at you from the box of ceremonial tea products, and you regard him uneasily for a moment before you will your anxiety away. There will be time for a debilitating meltdown later. You've done enough of that here for now.

"Want me to show you how that all works?"

An intrigue brightens John's face.

"Sure! Let me just bring this stuff inside."

You let John take the lead, the box and duck trailing behind him, hovering in the air. You pick up your backpack along the way and set it by the door as you enter.

A new group of birds perks up from one of the larger cages, stout ones with puffed chests and blushing heads, and they chatter at you in excited chirps.

"What kind of birds are these?" You question, unfamiliar with their red caps and paunchy build. You don't disturb your little audience very long, peeking into their cage just to count six of the riled up things; it takes them a while to settle even after you turn away and join John at the table.

"They're finches. House finches," John informs you as he sets out the various dishes onto the table. The wooden duck is set to observe you both from a shelf. You pull out your phone and review your notes on cha no yu before you begin pointing out pieces and explaining what little you know.

"Okay, so obviously the teapot and cups aren't anything new, but this bowl here," you point as you talk, glancing at your phone periodically, "Is what you actually prepare the tea in. The tea comes in powdered form--there's some in the canister there--and you blend it with the water using this… whisk thing."

You perform a terrible mock demonstration of how one might whisk tea in the bowl. The bamboo whisk is light and delicate in your hands, and it feels out of place with someone as rough as you. John uses this time to pop open the metal container with the green powder inside, and he sniffs at it. You let the whisk rest in the tea bowl and move on to the silk, square cloth.

"So this is a…" You refer to your last line of notes on your phone for the name and do your best to pronounce the word correctly. "A fukusa. You use this to clean everything during a tea ceremony."

John sets the tea canister down and hums pensively.

"Okay, but why is everything white?"

"Huh?" You figured white was a perfectly normal color for a tea set. "I don't know? I didn't pick this out."

"Who did?"

"My cousin. She sent it to me. Said she picked it up at a ceremony she attended." You slip your phone into your pocket and cast a bemused look on the tea set. "Do you not like white?"

"Well, it's not that I don't like it…" John rubs the back of his neck and fixes his eyes onto the pottery. "It's just that, erm, white is sort of a… funerary color. These tea sets are usually… not white."

You hadn't seen anything about that when you'd conducted your short research during your lunch. A knot works its way into your stomach.

You still haven't told John about Dave.

There's an unsettling consideration in John's eyes as he turns them on you. From behind your shades, you pretend not to notice, and feign ignorance.

"Maybe she didn't know? White is a pretty common color for teapots as far as I know."

Rose knew. Of course she knew. She'd sent you this for a reason, hadn't she? You're more inclined now to believe she had an underlying purpose in sending you a tea set despite no indication that you even drank tea, too.

"I guess," John murmurs. "But not for cha no yu. You usually see more earthy colors, or black and red. But the matcha is a nice quality--I like it! I don't have any of the decor for a traditional host set-up, but I'd like to make you some later if you're up for trying it!"

Your dread comes to a screeching halt.

"Wait a second. Do you… know what this stuff is?"

"What, cha no yu?" John flashes you a cheeky grin. "Yeah, I'm familiar."

You sputter. Here you'd been trying to be helpful in educating John on a repurposed gift, and you'd probably unknowingly embarrassed yourself--again.

"Why the hell didn't you just say so?"

"I thought it'd be fun to see what you said!"

You don't share John's humor at the moment. He wisely ignores your sullen flush, and gathers up the dishes to arrange on a shelf. While he organizes his new tea set, you indulge in some self-pity by the window with your arms crossed over your chest.

Once John is satisfied with the placement of the unfortunately white pottery, he settles at the table--in Dave's chair, you notice.

"So what's on the agenda today?" He invites you to sit across from him, and you do, though you're reluctant to look at him. "Did you really want me to make you more tea?"

"Are you going to get up and make some right now if I say yes?"

"Yes."

"Then no," you protest curtly. He exhales through his nose in a way that makes you think he's entertained by you somehow.

"Alright, so what's up then?"

You study the turbid air mingling with the sunlight at the window, tiny particles of dust haloed starkly in the light. Your mind is still snagged on the cultural meaning of the color white and how you'd almost just, however unknowingly, given away your biggest secret with John. Now that you're aware of the possibility of it, there are too many hidden translations just waiting to uncover the truth of things. Of course, you can only blame yourself in this instance for passing on a gift that was presumably meant just for you (though you have some doubts about that--you should call Rose and have a talk with her, really) but the symbolism of death isn't exactly a novel concept, and who knows how else you might inevitably tip off John to the ace in your sleeve? An ace of hearts that should be on your sleeve and not in it.

You recall your last exchange with John over this table, how you had voiced opinions over The Little Mermaid. You'd found yourself deplorably lacking a solid conviction about taking existential risks for your hypothetical loved one(s.) Now you're finding that you're uncertain about the state of life and death as a whole, given that godhood is now a convoluted factor in your assessment of things.

"How do gods… stop being gods?"

Discomfort crawls across John's face like an unnatural shadow.

"Uh, there's more than one way that can happen, I guess? It's kind of complicated."

"Is there anything about the gods that isn't complicated?" You snort mildly and drape your arms over the table. One side of John's mouth lifts slightly.

"No, not really."

John rests an elbow on the table and leans forward, chin in hand. He stares off past you, towards the preening finches, out through the dancing motes and shining windows. You find his expression unusually somber, the face of a man who has been witness to a thousand tragedies; and you, ever the insensitive guest, are forcing him to relive every single one.

You grip the inside of your cheeks between your teeth and even out a sigh. It's been difficult enough, allowing yourself this abstruse method of coping--inviting yourself into these tedious, backwards therapy sessions with John, a god you'd thought you'd hated. But you're ignorant of John's feelings on things, and it would only be right for you to present the opportunity for him to vent eventually. He hasn't asked for it, and maybe he can't, but if you can hold it together through whatever he discloses in response to your prying, then maybe you'll offer to hear him out for a change.

John doesn't provide you much time to formulate any reciprocal proposal. He's interpreted your silence as a respectful patience as he's gathered his thoughts, and you don't interrupt him when he finally speaks, his voice low and heavy.

"Every god like me has a patron Progenitor. Mine is Typheus. There are… others." He licks his lips anxiously, as if in anticipation of some unseen consequence for sharing this knowledge with you. "A Progenitor can revoke our godhood at any time, just like they can grant it. I don't exactly know how it works, but it's pretty incredible stuff. Instantaneous. There's also, um, a gap, I guess, between our immortality and theirs. We can die at the hands of another god, either one of us or one of them. I don't know if they can die since that… never happened successfully."

As John speaks, a worrisome intensity overtakes him. You yourself are increasingly disturbed at the implications underlining what he says. You were aware from your reading that the gods had something of a revolution, but John almost whispers it, as if it were a slaughter. Maybe it was. You don't know if he was personally involved in divine murder, either as a witness or a participant, and you aren't about to ask. You also pick up on the message that someone tried to assassinate a Progenitor... and that they failed. Yikes.

"But the Progenitors didn't actually kill many of us," John continues, mouth carved into a harsh frown, eyes so bitter that you temporarily forget how to breathe. "We were judged as the instigators, back in the Second Session, and they said our fitting punishment was for us to clean up our mess. So they… made us… carry out the orders."

You see John clearly for the first time, a cagey, hurting creature trapped in the body of a god; he's barely less man than you--simultaneously more of one--with his own host of demons clawing for him from their unclaimed graves, your intrusions disturbing every one.

His tears tell you his position on his godhood, on why he's isolated here all alone in the trees, on why the room suddenly feels smaller and the air feels thinner and your blood runs colder. He hates it, finds it miserable business, but he can't escape it any more than you can remove shackles of your own.

"What orders," you dare to ask, your voice weak and unsteady.

John’s eyes are wet, profusely leaking all down his cheeks and chin, dropping dilating splotches down along the sleeves and lap. You’re rattled, irresolute, at the sight. All of the grief and fulminations you have unloaded on John had earned you trivial frustrations at most; and now, here he weeps before you, broken, and though not at your hand, you feel wrong all the same.

“I--I can’t,” John begins, and you wince at the words that you know are coming--the words that he bites out in agony, “I can’t say.”


Whether out of discomfort or respect for John's privacy, you aren't sure, but you excuse yourself and loiter around outside for a while. You shuffle idly around the earthenware pots scattered about, and run your hands along the exterior; they're warmed in the sun, sanded but still gritty; the beige canvases fastened over their mouths are bright in the sunlight. It smells of pine and humidity out here, the air thick with crooning cicadas and the occasional warble in the distance. A sweat forms in the dip of your joints, heat prickling your flesh, but you don't move to escape indoors or think of leaving yet. You move to sit on the ledge of The Overlook, dangle your legs to and fro in the air, and lean back on your palms.

You attempt to decipher the sheer angst that had overcome John.

Any assumption that John's just an easygoing, simple-minded prankster has effectively been stamped out. The raw pain you'd observed on his face convinced you of that. His vexing curse of silence doesn't mitigate that image of a shattered god, and neither does it improve your perception of the Progenitors.

You vacantly watch two birds in flight loop about through low-hanging clouds, one in close pursuit of the other, the pair of them engaged in some mating ritual. You tune them out, eyes unfocusing in favor of concentrating on your thoughts.

Both Dave and John are victims of egotistical gods. You are too, if you still associate yourself among the ranks--which, even with a lack of conjoining memories, you do. You're one of the traitors, no better than any of the rest. Dave's blood is on your hands, and your blood is on someone else's hands. Probably not John's. You wonder whose--try to recall the Skaian dossier you'd perused to guess whose description seemed most likely. But the gods are clearly more than a summary of words on a page, and you have no way of ascertaining anything. You'd ask John if the mere mention of it didn't seem likely to fracture his composure.

It occurs to you that John may never have spoken to anyone about this. You're intimate with the side-effects of emotional constipation. As much unwarranted blame as you dumped on him, seeing as you're apparently in the same holey boat on a celestial sea of betrayal, you feel compelled to be available for whatever venting he's permitted to experience. No one else is around to function as a sounding board--maybe of John's deliberate doing. Maybe he'd ditched the gods and come out here to get away from the insanity. That leaves him in a lonely position (as Dave had mentioned in his journal, if you recall correctly.)

You sit in introspection for a long while, until the sun begins to slump low in the sky and the horizon blushes at its approach. From behind, you hear the door creak open, and John's footsteps are light as he steps over to you. He drops to the ground to sit near you, and the two of you see the sun off as it dips out of sight and the mauve glow of dusk filters into the sky.

John releases a ragged breath, and you acknowledge him in your peripheral vision. His sclera are bloodshot beneath brooding brows, his jaw tense, his lips bruised from where you guess he's bitten them. But his voice is impressively calm, if soft, as he finally breaks the stillness around you, and you tilt your head in to listen.

"It's hard, not being able to talk about it."

"Mm."

"It's like I'm forced to pretend it didn't happen--that I'm okay with it."

You make another noncommittal noise to show you're listening.

"I'm not," John tells you, his confession just a whisper. You draw your legs up and fold them into your lap, then scoot around to face him. He glances at you, and you muster the boldness to pursue after your answers from earlier.

"Why don't I remember any of this? Is this part of what they made you do?"

"Yeah. I didn't do anything myself," John clarifies, "Although, I feel like I had a hand in it. I didn't stop them. Didn't even try."

"You said no one had successfully killed a Progenitor before. Sounds like you couldn't have done much," you try to console. John doesn't accept it. He utters a pained groan from between his teeth.

"That doesn't change the fact that I should have tried! Everyone else--a lot of others--they tried. Why didn't I?"

His question worms its way straight into your core and frightens you at once. Unmistakable regret and grief chills you inside out; goosebumps spread all over your arms and legs, set your hairs up straight off your skin. It's a question you've been asking yourself: why didn't you do more? Why didn't you do things differently? Why didn't you do better, try harder?

You tell him your unfortunately unhelpful conclusion thus far.

"I don't know."

"It's not right. I should have said something. Maybe things would've been different. Living like this--I shouldn't get to live like this. If I wasn't a god, I wouldn't be."

You aren't sure if you should be reading between the lines for any fine print, but you're wary that if you did, you'd be face to face with a suicide note.

Your voice sounds hollow to you as you say, "It wasn't your fault. It was the Progenitors'."

"I was the one who said yes when they invited me to be a god," John snaps--not at you or anything in particular. At himself. "I should have…" He lets the words fade away into the twilight air. "It is my fault. All of it."

"How is any of it your fault?" Your skepticism is rough on your tongue, and you try to soften your tone. "It's not like you could have known what was going to happen. You're not responsible for everyone else's actions."

John suspires, tilting his head back, gaze cast towards the heavens. "You don't understand."

"No, I don't," you grouse, touseling your fingers through your hair irritably. "I don't even remember all of this ever happening, so I'm not going to argue about that. But you literally just told me that you didn't do any of this bullshit, so why are you blaming yourself?"

"Because I--it all started with me. None of this would have happened if I hadn't..."

You exhale from puffed cheeks, determined not to let your growing frustration seep into the conversation. And here you thought you were exercised in the art of self-condemnation.

"Is this going to be more cryptic dialect? Because you can spare me the riddles right now." John slants a deadpanned look at you, and you backtrack. "What I mean is, is this something you want to talk about, but can't? Because I'm not opposed to listening, but I don't need you to torture yourself trying to play Twenty Questions with me unless you want to."

"You deserve to know," John says softly. You don't disagree. But if you've learned anything, it's that there's an indelible line that John cannot cross; and you're not so hellbent on solving mysteries that you mean to rake him over the coals for answers.

"And you deserve to set the pace," you counter. John doesn't reply.

Somewhere along the line, the cicadas' refrain has faded into a crickets' suite, the wind a subdued accompaniment, the leaves a roused audience. You savor the breeze and watch how it teases at John's hood, how he leans into it and over the precipice as if he means to let himself fall. Instinctively, you reach out to grab him, but you stop just short when he turns at your movement.

"It looked like you were… falling," you explain, hand withdrawing, aware of how ridiculous you sound saying that. You think that even John notices, his voice flat as he responds.

"You know I can fly, right?"

"Shit, really?"

He peers peevishly at you for a moment before his face cracks into a lopsided, weak grin.

"Thanks for dealing with my mopey crud."

"Yeah, sure. You've put up with enough of my shit the last few days."

"Maybe," he says, but there isn't an ounce of weight in it.

You shift your weight about and get to your feet, stretching stiffness from your back and shoulders. John remains seated beside you, staring off into the trees, angled slightly too far forward for your comfort. You check your phone instead, blinking your unprepared eyes into focus at its blinding glow.

"Are you heading home now?" John asks, pulling your eyes from your phone to him. You can't see him at first, your eyes gradually acclimating to the dim visibility; you pocket your phone and follow his gaze out, up at the freckled night sky.

"I probably should. It's getting late."

"Okay. Thanks again for the gifts, I really do like them."

"Yeah, sure."

You're keenly aware that John never did continue your discussion on Skaian affairs, but you'd offered for him to set the pace, and so you decide not to bring it up again until he does--or you'll try your best not to, at least. You start your descent toward the trails below, and pause shortly afterwards to call up at John.

"Hey, what's your favorite tea?"

You see the silhouette of John's head turn towards you.

"I don't know… Rooibos?"

"Cool."

You resume working your way down, now conscious of John's eyes on you even in the darkness, but you don't fall, don't so much as slip once--though you're sure John would catch you if you did.

Chapter Text

The day is sweltering, the muggiest it's been all summer, and your clothes cling to you like leeches. You're sprawled out on the stone entrance of The Overlook, determined not to beg John for a breeze, while the god, in his enviable immunity, crouches over a plethora of vines--herbs and flowers--freshly picked from the nearby surroundings.

You'd arrived approximately an hour ago, not long after sunrise, a little paper sack of loose leaf rooibos tea in hand. John had been pleased to receive it, this latest gift placed on the table to be brewed at another time. He'd then coerced you into weeding through the itch-inducing brush about the forest grounds, and you'd submitted without argument when, with a bulging armload of stalks, John had offered to float you back up.

Now, with some futility, you're still attempting to brush off strands of roots and dirt and scratchy, dried leaves, all of which are somehow embedded in your clothes and strewn through your hair.

"Remind me why you do this?" You grumble, picking at another sharp, dried blade of grass that has poked through the leg of your pants. How lucky you are to not suffer allergies to any of these plants.

"Because it's fun!"

John's amusement is unmasked as he stoops over another bundle of herbs, this bunch dotted with tiny purple flowers, and ties it all together with a length of twine.

Vibrant, solidly blue, fuschia, pastel pink, white, and yellow petals waver in a faint, warm current of air that noses its way through. John has been braiding together stems of herbs, a heady collection of rosemary at the moment, to be followed by fuzzy leaves of sage and resilient sprigs of thyme. You recognize amaryllises, black-eyed susans, petunias, and zinnias; an unfamiliar heap of butter-colored whorls, as well as five-petaled flowers as purple as an orchid, glistening against the verdant stalks, are amassed beside the rest of the lot.

"What is fun about getting covered in pollen and gnats and leaves?"

"I don't have that problem," John quips almost flippantly. You sneeze wetly onto your hands and grimace at the unsanitary spritz.

For lack of a hygienic alternative, you wipe your hands onto your pants, and scoot closer to John so you can get a better look at what he's doing. He gathers the last fistful of rosemary, fastening it together with another coil of string, and adds this bundle to a sizable pile. When he reaches for the thyme next, you have a handful ready, and he pauses.

"Want to help out?"

You shrug, absently thumbing at the firm but tiny leaves in your grasp.

"Might as well. Beats sitting here."

"Well, alright. Here, take some of this," John instructs you, passing over strands of twine, which you take with your free hand. You fail to completely avoid meeting his hand with yours, which you cannot help but notice. "Just grip around the bottom and tie it there, like this."

You observe John's neat but skillful loops and knots around his own bunch of herbs, and you mimic it decently enough. He nods approvingly at you, and the two of you fall into an easy rhythm of swipe, roll, tie, stack.

"You know," John muses aloud, as you move on to sage. You hesitate just long enough to see that John wraps these bundles at both ends, and do the same. "Flowers and herbs were once used to pass on messages to people--like a language!"

"Yeah? What's sage mean, then?"

"It's usually associated with wisdom."

"Like the literal definition? That's not too exciting."

"Hey, there are a lot of other flowers to work with. The symbolic possibilities are endless."

"Okay, whatever you say. How about thyme, then? Is that symbolic for actual time?"

"No, actually. Thyme is used to represent displays of courage. Think knights or activists or something."

You toss another bunch of sage into a new, small pile, and reach for more. You idly wonder if you'll manage to tie together as much sage as John. At the fluid rate he's going, probably not.

"I don't get how these puny leaves are supposed to represent courage, but okay. While we're at it, how about rosemary?"

"Hmm, well…" John trails off momentarily, fingers busy with a knot. "It's for remembering."

You glance over at the deep-green blades with a contemplative edge, before refocusing on the sage. You're motivated to continue asking about the plants, half for curiosity of how much John knows about all of this, and half to prevent yourself from diving into some remembrance of your own.

"What about all of these flowers?"

"Okay, first, do you know what any of these even are?"

John doesn't look up from his dwindling group of herbs. You won't win your self-imposed race. You relax your pace and take the time to peer over at each heap of flowers as you work and talk.

"Petunias."

"Hey, you got one! Didn't strike me as a flower guy."

"And you don't strike me as a god, making bouquets in the woods."

"Touché. Alright. Petunias, hmm. They're like… Okay, so, purely hypothetically speaking, suppose we had a huge fight." You snort sardonically. "Hypothetically, of course. If I sent you a bunch of petunias, I'd be saying I'm still pissed at you about it."

"Is that why you picked these?" You drawl, setting aside the last of the sage, and dust off your hands. John moves on to the petunias, starting an intricate weave that he slowly fashions into a wreath. You train your eyes on his hands and refuse to look at his face.

"Well, in any other circumstance, if you receive petunias, it means you appreciate someone and like hanging out with them."

"What? That's contradictory."

"Is it?" You hear the smirk in his voice. "I'd say you can be angry with someone about something and still want to be around them."

You don't comment on that, mostly because you agree but don't want to implicate yourself. Instead, you pull apart a few petunias from the heap, and attempt to imitate John's movements. You aren't very successful; but you do know one weave you'd learned from some artsy class with Dave, and you employ it now. John leans over and peeks at the pattern when he notices you've changed techniques.

"Hey, I like that. Where'd you learn that?"

"Some hipster class when I was a kid."

"Nice."

You let out a breath when John retreats back into his space, and stoke the conversation up again when the lull makes itself too obvious for your comfort.

"What do you do with these? Do you make tea with these too?"

"Not all of them." John shuffles over to the amaryllis next, their crimson bulbs large and strikingly contrasting against the cobalt of his clothes. "Some of these get used as gifts for the birds, like a base for a nest. And they are pretty, so sometimes I just like to keep them around to look at them."

"Huh." The petunias are soft against your hands as you carefully weave them into a circle. "So, amaryllis, right?"

"Mmhm."

"What about those?"

"These are mostly symbolic for some sort of pride. Like the phrase 'pride and joy' that some people use."

"I only ever see these around Christmas. Weird time to be putting pride flowers all over the place."

John chuckles quietly at your remark, but doesn't add to it. You glance at the yellow blossoms adjacent to the amaryllis.

"What are those? The yellow ones."

"Those are buttercups. There's a lot of stories with that one, but the simple translation is childish joy."

"Reminds me of the Powerpuff Girls."

"The what?"

"It's a cartoon. One of the characters is named Buttercup."

"Sounds cute."

"Maybe if you're five."

"Are you?"

"What?"

"Are you five?"

"Do I fucking look five to you?"

"Maybe," John laughs, and you toss a flower at him. It flops uselessly onto the ground, never once making contact with him.

"I'm eighteen," you state, unsure of why it matters; but it's not like age has great precedence in light of immortality, and it's nice to talk while you busy your hands.

"Huh. Younger than I thought."

"Really?"

"Yeah, I thought you were in your twenties, too." Like Dave had been, he means.

"How old would you be?"

"You mean when I became a god?"

"Yeah."

John sets his half-finished wreath down into his lap and looks up at cream-colored clouds sailing by. You recognize the pensive expression on his face and wince.

You'd told yourself that you weren't going to bring this stuff up unless he did first.

"Shit. Nevermind."

"No, it's okay," he says, but he doesn't answer you.

Your face glows hot with embarrassment and the summer heat as you work your way through what's left of the petunias, and John completes six whole wreaths of amaryllis. When he starts on the black-eyed susans, you find your voice again.

"So what about those? Black-eyed susans."

"Mm. These are for encouragement. I also like to use them sometimes for scrapes."

"You can use these in your… things?" It feels rude to refer to John's homeopathic methods by any actual name, given that you aren't a huge supporter of anything other than modern medicine; but having been his patient once, you can't bring yourself to be condescending about it.

"Things? What, the salves and stuff? Yeah, sometimes."

"Huh."

As if sensing your apprehension, John offers some reassurance.

"Hey, I get it. Not many people do this sort of thing anymore. It's a lost art. I mostly do it to stay busy."

"Yeah."

"Anyways, two more to go. Do you know what these are?" John sweeps his hand out towards the purple flowers, and you made an ambiguous noise. "No? Okay, these are phlox."

"Sounds really close to something else."

"Shut up, dude." You do your best not to snicker as he supplies you with further symbolic education. "Phlox flowers represent partnership or agreeability. They're sweet flowers for people who are close."

"Don't think I'll be seeing them outside of this weaving session."

Inexplicably, you glance at John then, and find him studying you strangely. A different kind of heat rouses on your face, and you drop your gaze onto the flowers beside you, snatching up a bunch of phlox.

What the hell was that, and what is wrong with you?

“So, what about the last one over here?”

“Zinnias,” you mutter, wishing harder for a cool breeze now than ever before.

“Yep! Zinnias are....they’re...”

John’s voice wavers away then, and you find yourself looking at him, this time with concern. He’s peering wistfully at the golden heads, a startlingly bittersweet curve to his mouth. You lower the phloxes in your hands.

“What is it?”

His voice is like ash in the sudden wind.

“The daily remembrance of lost friends.”


The house finches chitter at you as you, crouched in front of them, gently run a spindly leaf across the wire bars of their cage. A daring one hops closer and snaps its beak in an opening, either at play or in an attempt to ward off the harmless plant. You slide the leaf in and relinquish it through the bars, and you watch the birds congregate about it, pecking and chattering inquisitively.

From behind, you hear John scrape a spoon around in the skillet. He's manning the fire, having determined to put together a plate of food for you even though you'd insisted it wasn't necessary. The scrumptious aroma of toasting bread and homemade jam wafts throughout the room, and you're convinced that it'll be more pleasant not to refuse John's cooking. You should see if you can solicit some tips from him; the smells alone have driven your stomach wild. But you'll save that notion for another time.

After your informal lesson on the language of flowers, John had lapsed into another brooding muteness. You'd largely kept to yourself, drowning in more than just flowers, thoughts of Dave and daydreams about the celestial life you don't remember having all floating about in your head. Eventually, the braiding and weaving and tying did come to an end, and you'd assisted John in hanging the majority of the wreaths out on a line, while he hung the herbs up indoors to dry.

Now you're just passing the time, entertaining yourself and the antsy house finches, while John prepares your food.

When John places your plate on the table, the distinct sound of dish on wood draws your attention. You straighten from your squatting position and amble towards the nearest chair. Across from you, at the fire, John is pouring you both cups of tea; the fragrance of mint mingles with perfumey rosemary and sweet, wild berries. A full plate of crusty and toasted rosemary bread, thickly sliced and steaming, topped with fresh blackberry jam, awaits you. As John swivels about with the tea, you ease into your seat, and he joins you without delay (still conscientious enough to take Dave's chair for you.)

You remember your manners halfway through your plate, as you scrape together and sop up berry juice with another chunk of bread. John isn't quite staring at you while you eat, his focus drifting about the room periodically, so you aren't blatantly caught horking down oversized mouthfuls of food like a ravenous animal.

"Thanks," you tell him, suddenly self-conscious of sticky stains on your fingers and crumbs on your lips. You'd underestimated your appetite and let it have its way with you, and it's awkward to you to be the only one eating as it is. You sip at your tea to mask your acute diffidence, and try to discreetly clean off your hands and mouth off on each other.

"Sure thing. It's not like I need to eat it," John replies. He isn't looking at you, head angled away, shadows pronounced on his face. You let your gaze graze the contours of where his cheeks meet his eyes; your pulse stutters when John abruptly swivels his head to face you. Thank fuck for your shades.

"Hey," you blurt out, "If you don't need to eat, then why do you drink tea?"

His eyelashes flutter as John seems startled by your question, his mouth parted slightly in a preemptive response.

"You know, I've never really thought about it. I guess I just… never stopped?"

"Huh. What got you started?"

You return to the bread and jam, plucking more reasonably sized bites into your mouth as John finally engages in typical conversation with you once more.

"The Illuminator was really into it, and I picked it up from her."

You remember skipping the summary of that particular deity. You figure John is a more accurate source of information than a library book.

"What was she like?"

John hums thoughtfully, mouth quirking sideways, and leans back in his seat, tea in his hands.

"Really brainy. But sassy about it at the same time. She always had a way of finding out about things, which was kind of creepy--but then she'd make these… dry humor sort of comments about it, and… I don't know. She was actually pretty funny and nice to be around." There's a sliver of a pause and then John mumbles, "I miss her."

You peer into your cup for advice, unsurprisingly finding none; and so you swab your plate clean with the last piece of bread, stuff the bite in your mouth, and wing it.

"Do you not have any way of talking to any of them anymore?"

Neither of you require clarification on who "them" would be.

"Not really, not out here. If someone happened to visit me, then sure, but I didn't exactly set myself up for long distance communications. I don't even know where anyone else is now."

You're again reminded of one of the first mysteries you'd come across concerning John: why is he still here?

"Why don't you just… go look for them?"

"I can't," is the curt reply, and you tongue at the inside of your cheek for a moment, before you decide not to drop it this time.

"Why?"

The way John sighs through his nose, long and strained, leads you to believe that you won't receive a response. He studies the cabinetry behind you, and you count the grains etched into the surface of the table. You eventually give up on numbering the lines when you reach seventy-two; you tip tea into your mouth and let it wallow around sublingual caverns for a while before you swallow it, just as John speaks.

"I made a promise to someone."

"To Dave," you guess, and John confirms it with a nod. "He made you promise to live here?"

"Well, no, but… I was asked to wait."

"Being asked is a lot different than making a promise."

John's eyes sweep across the room to the picture frame over the bed, and his chest rises considerably as he heaves a dejected breath.

"It was a wish."

"A wish?"

The wish. Dave had written about this nearly three years ago, just before Christmas, but you'd stopped reading his journal because you'd been too upset to continue.

"Yeah, a wish. Wishes are…" John bites the corner of his lip in thought. "I guess they're like legal agreements, only the beneficiary sets the terms. Every god like me can grant a person one wish."

"And Dave… wished for you to sit here forever?"

"I guess."

As far as you'd read, Dave hadn't even decided on what he'd wanted to ask of John. In fact, you remember one of the first entries denoting your brother's intrigue about John's presence here. Something isn't adding up for you.

"You 'guess'?"

"It wasn't like those were the exact words!"

"I'm not asking for a play by play, I just don't get how that makes you trapped here." An uncomfortable noise sounds in John's throat when you say "trapped," and he blanches. "Sorry if I'm being too nosy."

"No, just…"

It's hard, you can imagine him say. He doesn't have to say this--it's engraved on his face, weighted on his slumped shoulders, branded onto his every movement and word.

"I can drop it."

"I don't mind," he murmurs, and you retreat to your tea again. "They're just… it's, um, difficult to find the right words."

"I figured."

John lifts his mug to his mouth, and when he pulls it away, he's assumed a semblance of composure again. Had you not just seen his melancholy, you wouldn't suspect him capable of it by his countenance now.

"It's a contract," John explains, all calm and steadiness. "A private law, if you will, that can be established between two people. A god offers it, the other person decides the terms, and then if everything's agreeable, the god 'signs' it by fulfilling the request."

"Sounds like a magical blank check."

"Yeah, effectively. It's really special. You don't just offer it to anyone."

"I imagine most people would abuse the shit out of it."

John hums his agreement, back to nuzzling his cup of tea, the warmth of it casting a fog over his glasses that you'd never noticed before. You glance away and out the window, at the body of the sun descending into a bed of trees.

You hadn't realized the day had passed so quickly.

"Hey, I should get going," you tell him, rising from the chair, and John peeks up from his cup. His eyes seem strangely clouded, greyer than blue.

"Yeah? Alright. Thanks for helping me with the flowers earlier."

"Thanks for the language lesson."

"Anytime."

You slip out from The Overlook while the sun is still in the sky, but your mind is hazy as you make the trek back home; you lose yourself in a fog of wishes, birds, and zinnias, and it's all you can do not to tear into the bedroom and straight for Dave's journal the moment you walk through the front door.

Chapter Text

April 02, 2010

It’s been, what, like two years since I met John? And I never even thought to look him up, him being a god and everything, until last month. Kind of wish I hadn’t.

Nothing wrong with John. I love the guy. He’s one of a kind, really something, never met anyone more intense or deep or, fuck, this all sounds so cheesy, there aren’t really any right words for it, he’s just fucking amazing. I can’t get enough of him. But every time I find out a little more about the gods--HIS gods, like Typheus or Cetus or fuck-whoever-us, it makes me think there’s something seriously wrong going on up there in Skaia or wherever the gods are supposed to be. And everytime I learn more about their freak ass rules, from what John tries to tell me and whatever is in these weird as fuck books I keep finding, the worse it gets.

Why does anyone think the gods are any different than anyone else? Does them having magic powers mean they're somehow better than us, more honest or nicer or shit? Like why do they get the free pass to decide what happens with our lives? Why do they get to interfere with everything because of a three letter word slapped on as a title?

Why do they get to mess up someone like John?

Why is John one of them?

After your extensive socializing with John yesterday, you'd told yourself that you were going to engage in some much-needed meditation, and save rooting through Dave's journal and memories for the morning. You technically made it until morning. At precisely two, you admitted defeat to your insomnia, and rolled out of bed.

You're now spread out on your belly on the carpet, Dave's journal split open before you, the pages yellowed from the lamplight off of the desk.

As you read further into more recent entries, a new frame is introduced for the mental picture you hold of your brother. You evidently aren't the only one who's developed a litany of questions about John, many of them the same, but nowhere do you find any answers. But Dave's approach is unexpectedly more caustic than you'd thought capable of him; he sounds more like your own thoughts lately, and his words reek with offense about the gods and a protectiveness about John. Ironic, considering John was also a god--but that was the issue, wasn't it?

From what little you've learned, John became a god of his own volition. But why? Had he been tempted by gilded gods who were destitute within, but appearing so benevolent and wondrous at first, only to realize their ruined integrity too late? Had there been some tantalizing offer of power that had lured John in like a helpless insect is drawn to the moon? Was it a more violent transaction--a young man, stolen away and consumed by the gluttonous and the insatiable? Or could it have been more innocent? A boy's simple prayer, born of naivety, rewarded with treachery?

You're confident that, as he is now, John has no love for his godhood, whatever obligations he respects. You can safely deduce that whatever convinced him to ascend as a Skaian god hadn't lasted, just as the godhood of many Tutelaries had soon faded. Maybe, you hazard a guess, those two thoughts are not too unrelated, not with how affected John still is about the fall of his celestial peers, and why the ordeal had transpired at all.

There sadly is probably no way of learning the truth of things, with John largely unable to share many details due to his curse, and Dave wouldn't have been able to piece together the obscure methods of communication that John has been relegated to. Or so you thought.

As you turn over another page, you're beset by the stinging notion that maybe you just aren't as good at communicating as Dave was--that you and he had been so distant not because the both of you had been aloof, but because you had been so withdrawn.

You struggle to focus on the words on the page instead of the vicious accusations in your head.

April 05, 2010

He did it for a friend. Someone he cared a lot about. Said his friend was getting beat like shit at home and he never had been able to do anything about it. But then Typheus came down and offered him the god deal. And John turned him down? Said he didn't want to leave his dad and friends behind. Like holy shit, John said no?

But then he thought about how bad his friend had it. He said one time he saw his friend and barely recognized him, he was so beat to shit that he was bloody and had broken bones and bruises and everything. So he asked Typheus if his friend could be a god too, to get the fuck out of that hellhole. And Typheus said sure why not, and John and his friend became gods.

It's a cool story and all but fuck me, I ruined it. I asked who his friend was. And he didn't say but he fucking looked at me like, you just know, you KNOW, and I know who his friend was. FUCK his friend was ME I fucked up John's life fuck fuck FUCK

The letters devolve into incomprehensible squiggles. A section of the page is torn from where a jagged imprint of the pen was carved too hard into it.

You stare at the entry with a great disturbance.

Dave had been facing the same crisis as you. Not once had he even hinted that he had been anything but thrilled, his time so wholly occupied with John and photography and being anywhere but home. But here lies evidence that he had been drowning in the same torturous currents of guilt and confusion and vicious self-loathing.

You quickly come to the conclusion that, at this point of his relationship with John, he probably knew more about the gods than you do now. It's not farfetched for him to think of his existence outside of the life you know. You again wonder about some of what John mentioned in passing to you--about oaths, and not always being a god, and rewriting the world--and how Dave must have been agonizing over these same issues when he wrote this.

To rewrite the world. What did that even mean? Was it supposed to be some alternate dimension or a separate universe like a work of science fiction? You're not sure you can believe in the possibility. And yet, the evidence gathers around you and mocks your skepticism. You're beginning to believe--to feel you have no choice; and in doing so, you reignite the utter contempt you have for the Progenitors, now not only for their abominable involvement in Dave's death, but also for their despicable influence during his life. To know that Dave had suffered this emotional chaos before his passing, instead of finally enjoying himself as was due (no matter the flak you'd directed at him)--that all this came about at the hand of Skaia--it’s unforgivable.

Your sensibilities are too chafed for you to proceed with any further reading. You sorely want to make sense of things, to sort out the enormous tangled web of feelings and lunacy that has inhabited your being, and you know only one succor for all of this.

With nothing more than your phone in hand, you set out in the moonless darkness of the early morning hours, breaking into a full run at the start, your stride driven by the manic pressure pulsing through you.


You can barely see as you navigate through the trees. It's almost pitch black out here in the forest without artificial light, and there's no moonlight to highlight the trail or any obstacles along the way; but you've been through here enough times to have a sensible feel for your surroundings, and you only trip once or twice as you jog through.

Your heart pounds furiously against your chest as you reach the base of The Overlook, and somewhere overhead, the booming grumble of thunder responds. It's too dark for you to see the sky past the canopy of trees, but your ears work well enough, and so does your nose; the air is muggy and infiltrated by petrichor as the clouds roar above you. It's going to rain.

You climb by feel and memory rather than sight, testing each foothold before committing your full weight onto them, tugging cautiously at each stone or protrusion as you pull yourself higher. A strong gale howls against you, scattering dirt into your face, forcing you to spit and cough. At the same time, an unknown object--a bird, you immediately guess--collides into your trapezius muscles with such force that it flutters and bounces away from you with a freakish cry. You instinctively scrabble to get away from the alien touch unseen, shrieking, and your foot slips just enough for you to slam your knee into a coarse stone. Hissing, but otherwise left alone to finish your climb, you concentrate on your ascent.

The rain begins to fall when you suspect you are approximately halfway up the cliff, and it descends sibillating, coating the rocks and earth with a slickness that only makes your climb more dangerous. You manage to reach the flat extension of The Overlook, the entrance of John's house, just as the weather begins to take a turn for the worse, uncomfortably warm gusts sending sheets of rain at a near fourty-five degree angle.

John is nowhere to be seen in your limited vision, and you assume he is flitting through the skies again; you don't expect him to be sensibly indoors and out of the rain, as the windows of the shack are dark. The fireplace would be going if he was here. But if he is somewhere outside, you have no hope of finding him, and so you resort to waiting inside and hoping, by some chance, he is there.

When you try the door, you are met with a strange resistance. There is no lock, but the door barely budges, as if something is leaning against the other side. You tentatively apply more force to the door, hands and shoulders flat against the door as you shove again. This time, the door gives way an inch or so, enough for you to slip in your fingers and get a solid grip on the side of the door.

By now, your instincts have, roused with alarm, warned you that something is wrong; but everything has been wrong for weeks, now--far longer than that--and your mind is already frantic with thoughts of reality and your brother and now John. Your back is particularly soaked as you stand in the rain and heave your weight into the door once more, and it scrapes inward enough for you to squeeze yourself through the opening.

You trip at once over a soft and yet firm object, one that matches nothing you remember being in John's house. You grab something--a bird cage, judging by the clatter--to prevent yourself from landing on your face. The room is entirely dark, the heat more stifling than you remember it ever being, and you fumble around in your pocket, sweating; you grasp your phone and activate the flashlight, angling it at the floor. Your eyes are briefly pained at the light as your pupils readjust, but the sensation passes quickly, and is replaced by distress.

There, on the floor, is a body, strewn about limply on its side. You instantly recognize that it is John.

You're on your hands and knees at once, phone discarded on the floor, worry cold in your belly. You pull at John and roll him towards you, fingers searching for a pulse at his neck. You don't know if gods even have a pulse, don't know what to check for to know if he's still alive--you've seen John breathe, haven't you? Or was that just out of habit too?--but the movement causes him to stir, and you realize you haven't been breathing yourself when you start to sigh in relief.

The beam of white light from your phone, shining into the ceiling, allows you to see John turn his head in your direction, but his eyes are half-lidded and unfocused. He is breathing, chest gently undulating with shallow breaths; his mouth is moving, but no discernible sound comes out. You think you hear him say a name, but you don't recognize it, and you decide this isn't the time to play detective.

You perform a cursory inspection of John, satisfied when you find no traces of blood or visible wounds. Something nags at the back of your mind, but you pay it no heed in the moment. Rain is gathering in pools around the door, battering the wood as it wails outside. You need to clean things up, and that includes John.

You wedge your arms underneath John and hoist him up like a bundle of logs as you kick the door shut with your foot. John is heavier than you imagined, but not unmanageable; you're able to carry him over to the bed and place him on the mattress without much struggle. As you turn to find a rag to mop up the floor, you finally notice the bulky head of an owl peering at you from its perch on Dave's chair, and you stagger, choking on air.

"Holy shit--" It's just a bird. The owl must have flown in with John. You cautiously skirt around it, anticipating some territorial skirmish with it, but it only blinks once at you, hooting quietly, before swiveling its head back around to John.

John, right.

You find his stack of cloths in one of the cabinets and drop to your hands and knees, swabbing up water off of the floor. There isn't anything to be done for your soggy state but strip and hang your clothes up to dry, which you absolutely are not doing; but you do heel off your shoes and socks and place them by the door, and retrieve your phone.

As much as you want to sit in a chair, you aren't exactly comfortable with approaching the enormous fowl at the table; and so you reluctantly creep back around the room, consciously directing the flashlight downwards, and you settle on the floor by the bed.

John is semiconscious, eyes fluttering rapidly as he huffs short, weak gasps of air. He's still attempting to speak, some foreign, disconnected slew of syllables escaping from him in wheezes. It hits you then, as you watch his face--the peculiar darkness that had afflicted him that night in the sky. You see it again, creeping along his flesh, along his hands and up his neck and into his face. You don't know what it is, haven't the slightest clue what to do--but you somehow know this blackness seeping across his skin is bad, and you begin to panic.

"John, hey," you address him, anxiety spiking through you. "John. Wake up. Wake up."

John doesn't acknowledge you, still lost in his otherworldly state. You do your best not to succumb to your antsy nerves, and try to think rationally.

When you had seen it before, then also in the middle of the night, you remember the brilliance fading from John--that he had gradually floated out of sight, down into the trees, as if weighed down by the shadows. You assume the same thing has happened as you coincidentally arrived, only John landed at home instead off in some mess of leaves. He had obviously survived it then, but you don't know through what process, and what if he doesn't do it properly this time?

You are stunned with an epiphany: you are afraid of what will happen to John.

Even if you were once The Appraiser, you are only the human, Dirk Strider, now. You have no supernatural abilities to call on to aid John, no divine knowledge to refer to in order to help him. All you know is that darkness is the absence of light, and you know the best natural source of light at night is fire.

You crawl over to the fireplace. In the firebox, a neat arrangement of kindling is prepared, but you have no way to spark a fire. John's element is wind, or air, or whatever--he has no fire-casting abilities that you've seen, so he must have something on hand that he uses to set this pit aflame.

"Bird, where are some matches?" You mutter more at yourself than the owl, though you're aware of it just behind you. Of course, it does not answer or even hoot, wholly unhelpful as you feel around the fireplace for anything of use. Owls aren't as wise as the popular stereotype, as it turns out.

You find a thin book of matches against the wall, and light one just under a withered bouquet of herbs and twigs. The tiny, incendiary burst catches successfully; you drop the match into the flammable pile and supervise the spread of the flames. Beside you is a small bin loaded with firewood, and you transfer a log into the fire when it seems lively enough to receive it.

Though you've created an excellent light, the room now cast in amber waves, the heat is undeniably unpleasant. You'd never noticed it before, presumably because John had always regulated the temperature of the room; but sweat trickles down your face and sides in itching trails, and your skin feels roasted everywhere. You don't want to leave John alone in his delirium, but it is hellishly hot in here.

When you're convinced you can't tolerate another second in this stuffy shack, phone in your pocket and you on your feet, you hear John rustle about in the bed, and you whip your gaze away from the fire and onto him. You feel victim to a faux retinopathy for a moment as a murky haze clouds your vision; you've stared at the fire too long, and the light level is too dim for you to properly see at first.

By the time your sight has returned to normal, John is sitting upright in bed, and his complexion has cleared--mostly. You're able to glimpse a few dark blotches scattering off of his hands, though they dissolve into the air soon enough.

John meets your gaze curiously at first, but then he frowns almost judgmentally.

"What're you doing here?"

What are you doing here? Your mouth hangs open with uncertainty. You hadn't been able to sleep, and then you'd come across some upsetting things in Dave's journal, so you'd gone for a run, and then you'd found John, and--

You aren't given a chance to form a response; John stiffly rises to his feet, leaning on the wall with a hand, and chastises you.

"It's not safe for you to be here right now! You don't have a--a filter for the--" Another unfamiliar word tumbles out of his mouth. You regard him blankly. The owl hoots bemusedly by you; John's expression softens and shifts to the avian creature. "Oh. Darcy. Did you come in when I…"

John trails off, mouth pressing into a thin line. He and Darcy seem to communicate on some mental wavelength for a moment before John sighs and lowers himself back onto the bed. The owl rotates its head towards you, eyes squinting shut, and goes still.

You glance between the tranquil bird and then John, and then shift onto your feet. Despite your original intentions for coming here, you feel awkward and out of place now.

"Should I go?"

Another ripple of darkness flows off of John and dissipates about him. He looks haggard as he slumps against the wall and begins to breathe laboriously again. He licks his lips and parts them to reply, but is interrupted by a groan, and he winces.

"You can't--" He tries again, but you aren't having it.

You discard any thought of departure and commit to keeping John company during this episode of unnatural affliction.

"John, shut up," you command, and he surprisingly obeys. You're tragically ignorant of how you might help him, but you know he has some basic medicinal supplies, and you hope one of those might be useful. "Is there something you can take to help with whatever the fuck that stuff is?"

"Um, no," John pants softly, hands clamped on his knees so firmly that you think his knuckles are whitening. "But, uh, tea?"

"Tea?"

"Kettle's full already."

Well, alright, whatever. John is the one who is unwell. If he wants tea, you'll get him tea.

"Fine."

You do your best to remain outwardly impassive to John's whimpers in the corner, and fuss with the kettle at the stove for a minute, unsure of if you need to place herbs or powders into it to brew; but John already has dried aromatics steeping in it, the liquid spiced and fragrant, and you set the kettle on the heat and hope for the best.

You grab just one cup from the overhead shelf. You might have grabbed two cups, had you not felt parched and flushed with heat. But although the room is still warm, you aren't sweating anymore despite the fire. Perhaps an effect of John's consciousness, you suppose.

From the corner of your eye, you spy John removing his glasses to rub at his eyes with the back of his wrist. He's not quite crying, and his breathing has calmed, but he's visibly discomfited. Darkness is still leaking from his fingertips.

You piece together what information is available to you. When you first witnessed this phenomenon, it was following an extended display of John's godly abilities. A few minutes ago, John had said that you lacked a "filter," which suggests that some sort of magical process is supposed to be taking place, one which is beyond your capabilities. But John should be able to handle it; last time, the darkness had vanished relatively quickly. What was so different this time? Had John done something on a grander scale, or was he struggling to control things this time?

The kettle whistles at you, jarring you from your speculating. Darcy rumbles a low hoot beside you at the noise. You pour tea into the readied mug and then set the kettle aside on the vacant burner; and when you deliver John his tea, he forces himself more upright, and only takes the cup from you when you place it in his upturned hands, plainly avoiding any physical contact.

You cross your arms and stare down at him, scrutinizing him as you ask, "Do you not have a 'filter' yourself?"

John nearly snorts his tea at the question.

"Erm, what?"

"A filter," you repeat. "You said it wasn't safe for me because I don't have one. I assume this means this is a god thing and I'm out of luck. But don't you have one? Or is this shitty mess it?"

"Oh, right. That kind of filter." What filter did he think you meant? "I… do, sort of."

You standby for an explanation, but John only drinks his tea. He gulps at it impossibly effortlessly when he should be scalded, and you can't stop your mouth from curling with gruesome amazement. You doubt Ponce de León would have guzzled the fabled Fountain of Youth any faster than John did his tea.

A satisfied sigh passes through John's lips when he empties the cup and lowers it into his lap. You're both impressed and annoyed--impressed at his gusto for a drink he purportedly doesn't need, and annoyed that you're entertaining such nonsense. You're also aware of the fact that his overall appearance has somehow improved; the murky anomaly has disappeared for the last time--for now.

"Thank you," he tells you earnestly, and you grunt ambivalently.

"I thought you didn't need to eat or drink stuff."

"I don't," John affirms, and he leans back against the wall. "Not to sustain myself. But this is, um, kind of complicated?"

Now that you've determined that John is not imminently threatened or withering away, you feel heavy with fatigue. You drop into a squat, arms draped over your knees, chin on your arms, and huff.

"Is it more complicated than why I'm here in the middle of the goddamned night playing nurse with you?" Like John had with you not so long ago, if on simpler terms, you don't need to remember.

"Haha, fair enough. It's hard to explain, but I'll try. Are you sure you don't want to get more comfortable? It's not a short explanation."

You click your tongue against your teeth and shrug lightly. It's not like you have anything better to do. You lose your mind every time you're cooped up at home, and you come here to find it.

Huh.

John perceives your gesture as a display of readiness. He tucks his legs under him and cradles his cup against his stomach. The deep blues of his eyes, accented by shadows, are more pronounced as his lashes lower halfway to his cheeks; he looks half-asleep as he speaks in hushed tones. You're not the only one who's tired, but John, ever the gracious host, concentrates on entertaining you, his brow slightly creased with the effort.

"Okay, so, you know I wasn't always a god. I was just an average human guy way back when. But when I became a god, I got these powers, which are cool and all--except they kind of… well…" John blows air out against his upper lip. "So there's still a human part of me left. Like my body--this is how I looked right before I became a god."

That catches your interest. As far as looks go, from a purely objective standpoint, John isn't hard on the eyes, his youthfulness a benefit to the handsome structure of his face. He must have been around your and Dave's age when he ascended, mature enough to develop the attractive features of a man in his prime without the weathered lines of time in the picture. If he were to physically age, he'd probably only become more defined and comely, hair still rich and thick, jawline solid but lips still soft. His eyes would surely retain that stark blue clarity, sharp and vibrant like sapph--Christ, are you ogling him? You subtly sink your teeth into your tongue to distract yourself and, failing that, rip your gaze away and onto--the horizontal frame of the bed, yes, that will do.

John is oblivious to your mind's wandering thoughts, and he continues on, eyes roaming the ceiling, "Anyways, the point is, there's a human side and a god side, I guess? And like, the first gods, they were always gods, so they don't have this problem. But gods like me, the human part is still somewhere in there. So when I use my magic, the god part conflicts with the human part and tries to take it over, and what you saw happens."

You lasso your attention back into safe territory. If you're understanding John correctly, then this is just another undue curse dumped on him by some asshole gods--the same fucks who roped Dave and you into it. Only, according to Dave, it was John who had requested that he become a Tutelary (for noble reasons, of course, but still.)

Shit. Had Dave seen all of this? Was this part of why he blamed himself over John's injustice?

You tactfully don't mention your brother this time. Instead, you reroute the discussion back to your original question.

"And the tea? How does that fit into the whole 'filter' business?"

"Well, ordinarily, I'd have a… purifier? Every god has an artifact that they use to absorb, I guess, the negative flow, and make it safer to use our abilities."

"Ordinarily," you iterate, daring to lift your eyes to peek at John. He sighs down at his cup, transparently dejected.

"Yeah, ordinarily. But when I came here, I left mine behind. So I…" John's head thumps faintly against the wall; he leans back now, his hair mussed around him, his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallows. "I tether myself with the tea."

"You what now?"

"Tether. If I have a strong enough connection to something on my human side, like a memory or something really meaningful to me, then I can manually override the takeover process if I concentrate on that."

"And… tea is the… thing? For you?"

"Yeah." John's eyes slide shut; he breathes in deeply and exhales slowly. Several seconds pass before you see his chest rise again. For a moment, you fear he died, but John does speak again, "My dad was really into tea. I think of him every time."

It explains why John almost always has tea going, why he has so many different blends, why he consumes so much of it despite the impracticality of it in regards to his immortality. You can't relate to a father figure, or any parental attachment; but you imagine Dave instead, and how you would likely surround yourself with whatever you could to embrace his memory, were you in John's position. Apparently, you were, at one time. And you're not so far off from doing the same thing now.

In this moment, you're convinced that John has never come to terms with leaving his father behind, or with the decisions leading to his ascension. His godhood has been a taint on his life. He traded arguably the dearest person in his life to save the closest--said goodbye to his father (had he even done that?) in order to rescue Dave from a past life of suffering--only for Dave to ultimately have been lost (which you can't bring yourself to tell him still, especially now) and John is now trapped in an invisible cage erected by heartless gods. And in the end, all he has left is the memory of a man to keep him from losing himself.

There isn't even a way for him to return to his father, even if he could leave The Overlook, is there? From what you understand, the man doesn't exist anymore, if the "rewritten world" means what you think it means. It would also mean that, in this life, there is no Dave anymore; and even if the world was reformed by the gods, would he really be the same Dave anyways? You wanted answers about that--it's why you're here in the dark of the morning, instead of at home, nestled in the illusion of ease in your bed.

John clears his throat and his eyes blink open again. You don't pry into what he does at night that overtaxes him so, this subject abandoned for now. His focus falls onto you, and he offers you an uneven smile.

"So, why are you here this time?"

This time--as if there's any reason to believe it'll be different than every other time, and probably every time after this that you'll inevitably return.

Every time you come, you bring emotionally loaded questions, dump your mental baggage all over John's conveyor belt of patience and knowledge, and expect him to organize it for you. What are you really doing here? Your head--your heart--your everything is such a mess; every step you take towards some resolution or closure only collapses into a new pit of headaches. You can't make sense of anything--never have been able to; all you know how to do is run from one path to the next, until you've exhausted yourself. You're doing the same thing now, still running from one point to the other, running from denial to guilt to regret to fear, running from memories of Dave to the newness John brings to the discovery of a whole universe you feel so small and lost in--running from home, from yourself, to John every time.

Why?

What would you do differently, if given the chance?

You don't know how your voice doesn't tremble as you respond, "What does rewriting the world entail?"

John traces over you with his eyes, fathomless, unsurprised and weary.

"Are you ever going to ask me any easy questions, like what powers I have?"

"No," you say, just to be contrary.

He breathes a throaty ghost of a chuckle.

"Never was your style, I guess." You tense at the implications in those words--that he might know more about you, in the grand scheme of reality, than you would--that he's right. John extends his cup to you in a dry, empty humor. "I'll tell you everything I know if you give me a refill."

You snatch the cup from him with telling force, but that's the only pique you express as you move back to the fire and pour another cup of tea. It's only when you're handing it back to John, his hand closing around the body of the mug, that you grip it tightly and growl.

"Wait a fucking second."

John regards you with caution.

"What?"

"Did you lie to me?"

"What?"

"Stop saying that!"

"I don't know what you're talking about--"

You wrestle over the cup with John, neither of you willing to release it, warm liquid splashing over the sides and on your hands and all over the floor. You ignore this, tunnel visioning on a discrepancy in what John has told you.

"You said that you started drinking tea because of The Illuminator--that you didn't really know why you kept drinking it! Now you're telling me that you drink it as some kind of godly hormonal regulator that only works because it reminds you of your dad. Which is it?"

John blinks with shock, plainly caught in his lie--or so you think.

"It's kind of all of them!" You hiss with disbelief at him, tugging harder at the cup. He tugs right back. "Honest! The Illuminator was my friend before we became gods! She'd have tea at my house and my dad got hooked on it too, and I really didn't think about it until just now! I asked for tea because it does make me think of my dad, and that's what always works with the--"

Again, John utters strange words at you. He makes a disappointed face, realizing he's unable to actually translate whatever terminology he's meant to say; but you're quelled sufficiently by his explanation, and you don't challenge him further.

You cease your tug-o-war with John over the cup and let him take it. Color swarms your cheeks as you're afflicted with embarrassment at your rash behavior, and you search for an excuse to hide your face.

"Let me, uh, get a rag for all the tea," you offer, but John dismisses the idea with a wave of his hand that effectively evaporates the spilled drink.

"No, it's okay, I got it. But wow, I didn't know what I said mattered that much to you."

You flounder to save face. You don't know why, exactly, but you aren't comfortable with John being aware of how invested you've become in the world he's reintroduced to you. It's not that you suspect he'd manipulate you or take advantage of you, and you're not quite dependent on his perspective of everything, but…You don't want to seem penetrable, is all.

"I prefer to keep the facts straight," you say, thinking this nonchalant enough; but John grins at you as if he's discovered something interesting.

"Facts, huh," he repeats.

"That's what I said--" Oh. You just admitted that you've accepted all of this "Skaian bullshit" as fact. Alright, you can no longer pretend that you find the gods and their invasive connections to you and your brother as cultish nonsense anymore--not that you were probably fooling John, seeing how frequently you've shown up on his doorstep with nothing else to discuss. "Just shut up."

"I thought you wanted me to tell you about the world?" John sips at his tea, smug, but you don't miss the weariness at the edges of his eyes, and you sigh out the last of your grumpy air.

"Yeah, if you don't mind."

As you lower yourself down onto the floor, a strained whining sound comes from John. You arch your brows at him.

"What?"

"Are you really going to sit on the floor the whole time?"

"Is there a problem with that?"

"Well, no, but isn't it uncomfortable?"

"You're more uncomfortable," you retort unintelligently, and John makes a face. "Can you just get on with it?"

"Alright, I guess. Sorry if this doesn't make much sense," he mumbles, and you brace yourself for more numbing Skaian minutiae. John does enunciate his words more clearly now; he's apparently focused on his tea, but you know by now that his mind is elsewhere. You notice that the climate of the room is much more tolerable now, and your skin has cooled and dried; but there's a density around you that urges you to fidget, and you, cross-legged on the floor, busy your fingers with the seams of your pants while you listen.

"So rewriting a world is pretty much what it sounds like. All the fundamentals stay the same--like physics, and geography, and what species there are--stuff like that. Sometimes there are small differences--like once, spiders went extinct, which actually didn't turn out to be so great after all. But for the most part, all the big stuff remains consistent.

"People are the variable here. We gods get to be exempt from this since we're outside of time and space and all of that, but humans get a fresh slate. They get new memories, and a new body--they start in whatever biological timeframe happens to them. Like, you obviously don't start with a world full of babies; some people start over in the middle of their lives.

"Whatever knowledge or skills a person had before isn't guaranteed to transfer. Say, you were a middle aged man before, with a bunch of impressive skills--well, you can be rewritten into a teenager who doesn't know how to do any of that yet. Not that you can't learn, or won't be good at it, but you're starting out at a different place. You don't have those memories, or even muscle memory, to rely on."

There's a monotony to John's voice as he goes on, and at first you think he's either too fatigued or even bored for this conversation; but then you see the tenseness in his neck as he swallows, how his polite demeanor doesn't fully translate into his eyes, and you realize he's deliberately affecting to be detached.

It hurts him to remember. You have nothing to recollect, but John has been an unwilling witness to a world of people he recognizes--and no one knows him. He's displaced, an ostensible resident of this universe; but without his personal sentiments involved, it's as foreign to him as one without any humans or familiar faces. He'd known Dave from before godhood, but what had their relationship suffered when Dave became a mere human again and his memories had been replaced? What happened to his father--was he reborn the same sort of man? Did he even have a son anymore? Even someone like you--what had John felt and thought when you'd arrived on his doorstep, a face he knew, but a husk of the man you were before?

How was anyone expected to retain an ounce of sanity in this situation? How did John manage to smile, or to behave himself with such friendliness? How was he not consumed inside? What kind of attachment did he have for your brother, or you, or anyone else he entertained here or anywhere, that he'd endure that painful absence of mind and heart, to forge memories anew? To settle for what he could make of it, even in the face of what he'd lost and never have again?

You blink your eyes rapidly, determined that they stay dry. Your face is masked by your shades, and your effort is discreet; John continues unaware, fingers absentmindedly tapping at his mug, like he's the one patiently waiting for a lecture to pass in class.

"As it turns out, there are some core traits of a person that remain the same in every universe--the stuff that happens regardless of environmental influence. If you're proud and condescending in one lifetime as a defining characteristic, you'll probably be like that in the next instance, and the one after that, too. If you're a shy person in one life, you'll be shy in the next." John's mouth curls into a weak smile as he says, "If you're a protective guy who always cares about his friends more than himself, you'll be the same self-sacrificing guy in every world."

You aren't sure if he's making some bastardization of an apophatic statement, some reference about Dave or you or someone else; but it's like he's picturing someone as he describes each personality. You feel unusually vulnerable.

"Anyways, all of this works out predictably enough as long as people stay alive."

Your mind flashes to Dave before your heart can forget to beat even once.

"And what if they don't stay alive?"

John frowns into his tea, and his fingers fall still. If the atmosphere had seemed thick before, it's near suffocating now.

"Then I don't know. Once someone's died, there aren't any guarantees about what happens to them. As long as someone is alive when the world is rewritten, then they're rewritten into the next world, too. But once they die, then…" You don't hold your breath. You simply don't breathe. You know the answer, don't want to hear it, but there's nothing you can say or do to prevent the truth of it. "...Well, I can't say they're gone forever, but it's not reasonable to expect to ever see them again. What's the saying--'Lend expecting nothing back?' It's the same mentality."

You're too stricken with grief to be angry, too tired to rage, too numb to feel. Every time you think circumstances have been bleak enough, a new wave of hopelessness rushes into you. You don't know how much more sorrow you can take, how many more ways Dave's passing can rend your soul asunder.

A cold itch pinches at your chin, and you move to wipe it away with your hand. You're mortified when your skin smears with wetness. Tears have been dripping down your face, and you're only aware of them now. Involuntarily, you sniff wetly; you stiffen as the noise gives you away, and John looks in your direction.

"Dude, are you--"

"No," you snarl, denying your tears (or that you're alright--it's all the same to you) even as you again scrub away moisture off of your cheeks and hands. You'd dry your eyes, too, if it didn't require you to remove your shades--if John wasn't directly across from you with a literal front row seat. You settle for blinking an inordinate number of times until your lashes are uncomfortably heavy, coated with fluid, and attempt to lead John's attention away from your embarrassing show of weakness. "So do the gods just cast lots and the winner shits out a new world, or how does the actual process work?"

John's eyes don't leave yours as he brings his cup to his mouth. You're beginning to think he really can see through your shades--that you're as transparently on display as you feel--and a restive twinge sweeps through you; but to your relief, for all of his inspection, John does not pursue the source of your outward upset. He eventually separates from the tea, floating it around to the table, the dish landing inaudibly beside a statuesque and stationary Darcy.

"From what I know, only the first gods--the Progenitors--can perform a rewriting. It's kind of hard to recreate the universe, I guess? So they can't do it as individuals. They argue about who gets to be involved and then form some group that does it. Even Yaldabaoth and Abraxas have to team up, as strong as they are."

In A Comprehensive Guide for the Modern Skaian, there had been commentary suggestive of the latter two Progenitors' superior might. You struggle to imagine either of them creating a modified version of the world; based on your reading, Yaldabaoth seemed too inclined to conquer, and Abraxas too destructive to nurture; and if they both were required to cooperate with each other, it's hard to think anything would ever be accomplished. Apparently, even they had their limits in some capacity or another.

"Guess the gods aren't omnipotent after all."

"They're really not," John rolls his eyes at the ceiling. "Don't tell them that, though."

"The only thing I want to tell a Progenitor is 'go fuck yourself.' Besides, what are the chances I'll ever speak to one?"

"I don't know? It's not impossible."

You doubt that. Then again, John had been approached by Typheus. Why?

"Evidently. You would know. Why did they contact you, anyways?"

Your breath abruptly comes out as a fog, and you shiver at a spontaneous change in temperature. To the side, the fire flutters out, thin wisps of smoke stretching up to the ceiling. Without the light of the fire, it's eerily dark again, save for an icy glow to John's eyes, and the faint glow of dawn through the window panes. You realize the wintry effect is a result of him--the very air around him is responding to his unstable shift of emotions.

His mouth becomes obstructed by frozen mist as he seethes, "I don't know," and you practically leap to your feet.

"Yo, John, calm down."

One of the worst things anyone can ever do is tell an agitated person to calm down, but you never graduated Social Etiquette 101, and you don't have time to take the class again. You're exhausted inside and out, alarm and fatigue racking your body, and you just want John to settle down so the seasons return to their regular schedule.

"Calm down," John repeats in a hollow laugh, sending ice through your veins. "Sorry, do I seem upset right now?"

"Just a... little."

Your voice hitches at the chill.

"Oh yeah? Why do you say that?"

Frost lines the edges of the room, creeping along the base of furniture, lacing the disturbed hairs on your goosebump-riddled flesh. Where water was plastered on your face, there is now biting ice. Your extremities are tingling and your cheeks are burning from the cold, and it's all you can do not to succumb to uncontrollable shaking as the chill intensifies.

"Be-c-cause it's n-not sup-p-posed to f-f-f-fucking snow in August, J-John," you chatter at him, hands running back and forth along your arms, frigid clouds billowing from your mouth, as the first snowflakes begin to materialize around you. Fuck, it's suddenly so cold.

You'd never felt genuinely threatened by John, not even when he'd promised to shred your lungs apart for challenging his affection for Dave. You can't honestly say you feel threatened right now--John is assailed by a fury, and understandably so, but you don't feel that it's directed specifically at you. But you do anticipate imminently surrendering consciousness, the cold seeping into you like a sedative, and you find you welcome this fate. You don't fight the heaviness in your body that forces you onto your knees, nor do you resist when your eyes submit to gravity in slow, chilled waves.

Maybe you'll join Dave in the vast unknown and somehow achieve atonement for your misdeeds against him, and maybe you can flip off the Progenitors on your way. Maybe your suffering will finally ebb and dissipate, and you with it.

Summer heat invades your senses so thoroughly and abrasively that you sharply gasp at its return. You're rudely forced back into a state of alertness, your unprepared skin alight with unseen fire, the whole of you consumed with prickling sensations created by your short-circuiting nervous system. It's like your body has morphed into an overactive beehive in the heart of a volcano; your insides are buzzing and overstimulated and HOT.

You snap your irritated gaze towards John, ready to hurl an exhaustive list of obscenities at him, but the fire dies in your mouth. Blackness is bubbling out of his eyes and mouth, his face contorted in unmitigated anguish, as he cries in a way a man should never be forced to cry, much less a god… much less someone like John.

You have no right to criticize him.

"For fuck's sake," you hiss, scrambling to your feet and for the tea on the table. Why John had dismissed it, you don't know. Darcy hoots with some offense as you noisily retrieve John's cup, stumbling in your haste, but you ignore the feathery griping. You close the distance between you and John in three long strides, and you don't exercise caution as you hunch over and place the mug against where his mouth should be. "Drink your tea."

He doesn't fight you. His hands, freezing and unsteady, close over yours, and he nearly pours it onto himself as he drinks. Darkness spills onto you, a deceptively gossamery mess that feels more like petals than the writhing, oozing essence it initially seemed; up close, in the gradient dawn that peeks in from the windows, you can almost see your reflection rippling along its unshapely surface. It leaves no residue or obvious aftereffect behind, vapid globs of it gradually fading out of view as John calms, not so much as a scent left once it vanishes. All that remains is John's hands on yours, and a depleted mug.

You manage to hold silence for perhaps a full minute as John sobs soundlessly into the air, his eyes glossy with normal tears, clear and liquid; you watch his mouth and jaw tremble in his battle for composure, watch drops of misery fall from his chin; you feel his hands eventually still against your knuckles and fingers as his breathing evens. Then you release the cup into his lap and rip your hands away, unable to handle another moment of contact.

"What the fuck was that?" You demand more than ask, shaking your hands off at your sides despite yourself, and there is no mistaking what you mean. You’ve seen the impurity ravage John’s body before. You know what cold is. What you’re interrogating is the paroxysm so uncharacteristic of this god you’re coming to know so tragically and intimately.

John's expression is unavailable to you, his head dropped down with his chin against his chest. You can see only his hair, thick and mussed, but you can easily sense his discomfiture.

He still gets the jump on you.

"Where is he?"

His voice is so quiet that you almost don't hear it when John speaks--but you do. Your heart rebounds off of your ribcage like a superball just exploded out of a circus cannon in an indoor tennis court. You nearly trip over yourself while standing still.

"What?"

"Don't pretend you don't know who I'm talking about."

You're rooted in place by the presaged weight of John's words. It shouldn't come as a shock to you that he'd finally ask about your brother, especially considering how abruptly Dave had vanished from both of your lives, and with you coming here so often in his stead it would surely arouse his notice; but you're unprepared all the same, unequipped to offer a real response.

"I--" You can't tell him. The words don't come. Now, more than ever, you shirk from unveiling what would surely be the final act of heartbreak for John. You can't even lie to him, can't number yourself among the transgressors, can't say anything at all.

Daybreak dips into the room and crawls to you across the floor, splitting underneath the legs of the table and chairs, reconvening past the furniture; it marks your delay, fraught with dread, and you're pressured with an urgency to form some answer before the light of day reaches you, extracts a telling shadow from you and reveals your abhorrent secrecy.

"I haven't seen him in weeks," you prevaricate. Your tongue feels leaden, filthy, a malignant thing in your head that brings only treachery and corruption to everything in and around you; but you know it's your heart that's defiled, a wounded and wicked instrument full of dissolution and death, pounding in your chest, fraught with the thrill of being discovered for what it is.

He needs to know--sooner or later, he will know, won't he? You can only postpone the inevitable for so long. And yet again, you eschew delivering the news, as if John were asking you to stake him through with spears. You have a feeling the truth would effectually be worse.

When John lifts his head, his eyes find yours facilely--see through your shades, see through you--and you know at once he doesn't accept your response. He isn't, and won't be, satisfied by your shallow excuses for answers, but he doesn't impel you for more. He can't, because you unceremoniously topple over onto the floor, consciousness winking out from you like an expired star.


You're morbidly disappointed to discover that you have not yet died.

A dull throb beats on the back of your head as you sit up. You're in John's bed again, positioned atop wrinkled sheets. John must have placed you there after you'd passed out. Either you were more exhausted than you'd thought, or the contact with the magical dross affected you after all.

A cursory glance suggests it's mid-morning. Sunlight carves into the floor and furniture, the room aglow with gentle light. Both Darcy and John are absent, and you assume they're out and about in the trees again, as the door has been left open. You can hear the warble and chirps of the birds at play, as well as the idle gossip of cicadas in the background. A warm breeze curls into the room and around you, tickling the insides of your nose.

You palm at your face and realize your shades are missing, nowhere to be found on the bed or the floor around you. Mildly disconcerted, you swing your legs out and hop onto your feet. Your back is stiff and your head pulses painfully as you stand, but your balance is steady and you're coherent enough to be mobile.

You find your shades, as well as a plate of scrambled eggs, toast, and wild strawberries, waiting for you on the table. It curdles your stomach to see more of John's hospitality offered in the wake of the tense exchange between you mere hours ago.

It had been ironically convenient for you to have lost consciousness when you did. There was nothing you could have said to appease John--not even the truth would have brought him comfort; and the longer you wait, the wound he'll receive will only become deeper; but you can barely admit to yourself that Dave is gone. Dead. Forever.

How are you supposed to motivate yourself to tell John that his lover is dead? That he's waited for nothing? That all of his efforts to cling to Dave through the worlds have ended in futility? And what will he think of you, dredging up fragile memories and feelings, spending so much of your time here, without properly grieving and honoring your brother? He'd no doubt find you repugnant--broken--and rightly so.

You've known all along how undeserving you are of John's kindness and company. But the void in your chest is too great for you to pretend as if it doesn't exist; and you only know of John to remember Dave so well, to commiserate in your mutual loss. And so you continually gravitate back here, back to John, and hope that by the time your mask--your lie--of omission becomes threadbare and diaphanous, you won't need it anymore.

You retrieve your shades and slip them onto your face, your vision darkening to match your mood. Despite your gurgling appetite, you walk right past the dish of food, slip on your socks and shoes, and step out into the light in search of John and some sort of resolution over the last few hours (though by what means, you have no idea.)

John is immediately outside, positioned on the stony floor in a picturesque siddhasana--or so it seems, what from you can see of him. Dozens of sparrows line his arms and shoulders, hop about in his hair, and perch on his lap. Directly in front of him is a stone basin filled with water, surrounded by another two or three dozen animated sparrows, all preening and chattering and fastidiously bathing themselves. The birds pay you no mind until you approach; your close proximity causes them to scatter in a fluttering cloud, leaving behind wayward downy feathers parachuting down and all about John's vacated form.

"You're up," John observes before you can greet him. His poise is immaculate, like he's centered in the epitome of peace, not an iota of disturbance to be found; but what comes out of his mouth is the antithesis of peace, and you're ransacked by adrenaline and anxiety once again as he asks, "You'd have told me if something had happened, right?"

You don't respond. He doesn't move--seamlessly enters a monologue--and you will yourself not to crack under the pressure of his rightful expectations.

"I know that something must have happened, otherwise you probably wouldn't be here. He'd be here instead. But either you don't know, or you don't want to tell me, and I guess I have to respect that, huh?"

Of course he does. Muzzled by the invisible suppressants enacted by the Progenitors, John lacks the opportunity of ordinary initiative. He can't outright ask you where Dave is, or for any details about him; with how skittish you've been about it, John has been intelligent and perceptive enough to deduce how useless it would be to try to quiz you. You're surprised he can form the generic pronouns required to refer to Dave at all--a loophole in the system, perhaps?

But this is your chance. It's giftwrapped on the infamous silver platter, aching for you to exploit it. "USE ME," it screeches at you, "TELL HIM." John is opening the floor for you to divulge something, anything at all, with the implicit understanding that there will now be repercussions should you turn away. You can absolve yourself here, admit the truth, and maybe strengthen whatever warped relationship you have with John as you both could mourn together.

You say nothing.

The trees rustle restlessly in the wind, shake their piteous heads with reproach at your pretermission, cast their susurrating judgment upon you. You gaze at them as if to convey your plight when you could be honoring John's subtle questioning. You adamantly stare down your faceless accusers even as John turns to you, leaning out of his pose of spiritual grounding.

"You really don't know anything? You would tell me something really bad happened… right?"

You're given one final chance. This is your ultimatum, your pivotal point in the figurative fork in the road.

"Yeah."

You lie--you fucking lie to John, to his face, like you're doing him a favor or have his best interests at heart. In that moment, you brand yourself the vilest sinner, and retreat into your web woven with threads of hypocrisy and deception. You hide away Dave's death as if you'd killed him--and in your mind, more than ever before, you feel as if you have.

"Okay," is all John says. Okay, I accept your proclaimed ignorance. Okay, I'll act as if you're telling the truth. Okay, I won't hold you guilty, because you simply must not know. Okay, I'll work this out alone. Okay, just another lifetime of yearning and heartache and solitude. Okay, I'll go on waiting. Okay, when it's not.

Like a fool, you speak your mind. "You've been in love with him for a long time, huh."

John searches you with his eyes, consternation weighing down his brows and lips. He knows you aren't exclusively referring to the past four years, but he's yet to personally share much about his pursuit of Dave besides an offhanded remark about the rewriting of the world. You've played connect-the-dots using Dave's journal, an advantage you haven't mentioned to him, as with many other things.

"Yeah, but how would you know?"

There's no harm in revealing the existence of your brother's journaling. It might flatter John, ease his pain, to know that Dave thought the world of him and worked to immortalize his feelings--his love.

"He had a--"

Your phone interrupts you, chiming insistently from your pocket. You fish it out and scan the screen.

Incoming call: Roxy Lalonde.

Your other cousin, and Rose's sister, Roxy is about your age and keeps in contact with you on occasion. While Rose is often unavailable due to her work, Roxy has frequently visited you and Dave in the past. Last you heard, she was almost finished with a computer science major at some university in New York. She must have finally received the news about Dave from her sister. You'll need to take this call; it's a welcome diversion, uncannily timed.

"Sorry, I need to pick up," you mutter at John, and he nods. The emotional moment is lost, the conversation messily dropped, and you feel unnaturally heavy as you turn from John and swipe the call through. "Sup."

"Hey, Dirk, I finally got a chance to call you!"

The volume bleeds with alarming clarity through the speakers. You thumb it down until you can barely hear it, anxious that John might eavesdrop; but when you glance back to wave and take your leave, he's gone, vanished in the wind, and you somehow feel emptier than before.

Chapter Text

The last time you'd seen Roxy was nearly four years ago, right before she'd enrolled in her university and right before Dave had become so scarce. She'd been a waifish thing then, barely halfway up to your chest as she'd hugged you goodbye, her hair unkempt and unevenly cut around her chin, her eyes brimming with emotion.

She's not so different now, if a bit taller. Her head rests in the dip of your clavicle as she embraces you in greeting on your doorstep. The untidy hairdo has been styled in springy curls around her face that tickle your chin and neck; as you fold your arms around her, she feels more solid and curvaceous, and you take comfort in the nostalgic scent of bubblegum and inexpensive shampoo.

You'll have her for a week. Roxy had apologized--pouted and said she'd hoped to stay longer, but her last semester of university was about to start and it was pushing it for her to leave so close to her first day of classes as it is. You're grateful to see her at all. Although the two of you live miles apart, your communication somewhat limited, you have always enjoyed her company, and she's one of the few people you feel at ease around.

Her Uber disappears around the corner, and Roxy pulls back from you to look you over. Her eyes, vivid and pink, are full of sympathy you don't deserve but can't refuse.

"Aw, Di Stri, you're so much taller than last time! But you still have these silly shades."

"You're taller, too," you acknowledge, banal in comparison to how you're certain she'll lavish attention on you in fine detail. It's not that you're more oblivious than she is, it's just that Roxy is vastly more successful in expressing herself and making you (and everyone) feel genuinely special.

"Yep! I hit a growth spurt, like, right after I left for uni. I'm digging the height! I'm about five-and-eight now! What're you?"

"I haven't checked in a while. I don't know."

"Got a measuring tape? We could find out right now," Roxy grins at you as she leans over and picks up an oversized backpack. "Anyways, going to let me in? It is hella hot out here, oh-em-gee, this is not like New York. You do have air conditioning, right?"

"Yeah. Come on in."

You wrest Roxy's bag from her like any proper host should, and step inside. She follows you and shuts the door for you, and you barely have a moment to breathe before she's in your kitchen and snooping around in the refrigerator.

"Do you have actual food in here this time? Oh my gosh, yes, you have strawberry milk!"

You can't help but smile as she rummages about further, a bottle of flavored milk in one hand, the other hand snatching up string cheese. You'd spent the latter half of yesterday stocking up on various snacks, drinks, and miscellaneous supplies in anticipation of her arrival. You'd even tidied up the house and invested in air fresheners and plush toilet paper.

"Got it just for you."

"I remember looking in here before and finding robot parts and knives. Imagine using a fridge to store food," she snickers, toeing the refrigerator door closed and leaning against the countertops. "You do eat food, right?"

You roll your eyes at her--not that she can see, considering you always have your shades on--and shrug noncommittally.

"I must, since I'm still here." You don't have the godly luxury of existing without food and water, sadly.

Roxy peels apart the wrapping around the cheese and nibbles at the dairy stick, plucks it apart strand by milky strand. Her eyes float about the room, comparing the sights to her memories. She casually maintains smalltalk with you as she eats; you slip onto a nearby stool and rest your arms on the counter.

"So, what've you been up to since I left? Still building stuff?"

"Mmhm. Moved on from models to operational robots."

"Nice! Like, battle bot operational? Or sexy, ambulatory operational?" Roxy wiggles her eyebrows in what you guess is meant to be a sensual gesture, which might be halfway effective were she not sporting a milk mustache. You decline to tell her of this--she'd never been one for prim and proper, anyways.

"They can walk, but I wouldn't call them sexy. More like infantile. The vocals don't exactly contribute towards an impression of maturity. Squarewave specifically could use an upgrade in the syntax and tonal departments."

"Hmm, damn, I was hoping to get some sleek and chic metallic action going."

"Rox," you admonish, all in good humor, and she snorts into her drink.

"So, what else? You just finished high school right?"

"Put the dick in Valedictorian on my way out."

Roxy lifts her brows as she eats the last of the cheese.

"Did you flash someone?"

"Of course not." You grimace at the thought. "I'd be throwing myself to the wolves. Nah. I just included a lot of phallic references in my speech. Unsurprisingly, it was not well received. Stiff crowd. I don't think they were glad I came loaded like I did."

"Oh gods, please, Dirk, enough."

"I think I've heard that before." You dodge the flimsy plastic wrapper as Roxy tosses it at your head. It lands somewhere beneath your feet, and you lean over and pluck it off of the floor. After the energy and time you invested into cleaning this house, you're not about to let your cousin litter all over the kitchen like a sassy feline. Speaking of which, you remember Roxy as the proud owner of a cat. "How's Mutie?"

"Soft and cuddly as always! She's staying with Rose while I'm gone. I'm going to FaceTime her every night so she doesn't feel so lonely!"

You have no doubt she means to videocall the cat, and not Rose.

It's relaxing, sitting with her like this, exchanging harmless information about each other's lives, so much that you almost forget why she's here. Almost.

"So, are you going to do a memorial service?" Her voice is so gentle that it, of all things, breaks you. Your head sags between your shoulders and into your arms, and you begin to shiver with sobs for the first time. You've hurt and raged and shed tears, but now you finally cry, real and deeply, because of loss. Because of Dave.

Roxy steps over to you, and you both meld together as she wraps an arm around you and holds you close.

You debate the value of holding a memorial service. You'd barely managed to report to the proper channels that your brother had passed; you aren't ready to arrange an official gathering for… the deceased--for Dave. You don't even have a death certificate yet. But you can't not host a memorial service all the same. Even if you have no clue on who Dave knew to invite, and even if some professional programme could never hope to do your love for him justice (as if you have any right to cast stones,) memories are all that's left of him. Without the remembrance of Dave, the pictures, the clips of him and his voice, the remnants of his hobbies, the feelings welled up in your heart--without all of that, he truly is gone, as if he never existed all along. There are countless other Daves whose names mean nothing to you; cinnamon and honey become ordinary scents and flavors again; rap is just a music genre and photography is just a hobby. You keep his flame from dying; he lives on in you--but that's contingent on you, and whether you'll keep vigil over his memory, or if you'll let it gradually dwindle, become effervescent, and snuff out to escape from the pain of holding it.

After what you've put him through, how can you not?

"I guess I should," you whisper. Your mind is already leaping from obligation to obligation. You can catch a ticket to New York and schedule a private meeting for family members only. It'll be easier on the Lalondes' schedules without needlessly trying to simultaneously finagle everyone into Texas. You've arranged for Dave to be cremated, and you can transport the ashes in some overpriced urn. There are several pictures of him you can share, images that don't elicit more brutal feelings than any other. (Images that aren't of him smiling, carefree and happy, without his shades, like that photo of him over John's bed--)

You dig your teeth into the flesh of your arm to ground yourself into the present, concentrate on the bodily pain and Roxy's hand now rubbing circles on your back.

"Just tell me the date and I'll make sure to drag Rose over with me," she promises, and you're certain that if you asked, she'd ditch her classes if it meant being here to support you through this. Roxy always seemed to prioritize you over her own ambitions. It's rare that the opportunity presents itself for you to do the same, though you'd unhesitatingly do it more often if you could.

"I could catch a flight up there to see you guys, if that'd be easier," you offer, detaching yourself enough to keep your voice level, all business. You know the world won't stop to pick you up by the hand, no matter how bloody you are on the inside from your fall--not when it beat you down there in the first place. You need to put your head back on again. "I should know when I get his ashes soon, and we can pick out a solid date then."

All nurture and cooperation, Roxy defers to you.

"Whatever you decide, we'll make it work!"

You choose to believe her. Your arms glisten with fluid as you wipe your face clean and straighten up in your seat. While Roxy would undoubtedly tolerate your sniveling every moment of her stay, it isn't your intention to have her mother you so. You clear your throat and focus on her in lieu of your feelings.

"So, overnighter. You tired? Need a nap?"

"No--" As if reminded of her wayworn state, Roxy's face splits into a yawn. She hurriedly stuffs a fist against her mouth to hide it, but a second yawn comes, and she wipes at her eyes tiredly. "Actually, that sounds dope. Can I just crash on the couch?"

You'd insist she take your bed, were the bedroom not upturned and littered with Dave's memorabilia, and if you weren't aware of how obstinately she'd probably protest. At least your couch pulls out, and it does boast an exceptionally comfortable mattress.

"Sure. I'll grab you a pillow."

You both excuse yourselves: Roxy, to your bathroom to relieve herself and freshen up, and you to the bedroom to fetch a pillow. You falter momentarily once in the room, hesitating at Dave's unused, now extra pillow. You remind yourself that it isn't going to change anything--it won't be any easier later; it'll still be waiting for you--and you crumple your fist into the cushion and take it out to the living room.

Roxy has emerged from the bathroom and is sprawled on your couch. She catches the pillow with her face when you toss it to her, and mumbles an unsavory remark into it.

"Wake me up for dinner," she instructs, rolling about and settling into a bizarre arrangement of limbs around the pillow.

You hover in your doorframe, undecided of what to do until her nap passes, before retreating into your room and gently shutting the door.

You've spent enough time in here alone to easily revert to old habits, you figure. You seat yourself at your desk and flip through a sketchbook. Pen in hand, you aim to flesh out an updated design for one of your robots, Sawtooth; the guy could use an upgrade in mobility, as he's fairly stiff at the moment, which means you'll need to reassess the distribution of the weight for his build, as well as shop for the reliable parts.

Some rough lines work their way onto the page, but nothing substantial comes. For once, you aren't inspired to focus on your machines. The pen idly loops around on the paper several times before you realize you're doodling a flower. Your mind drifts away with thoughts of John and the language of flowers. Maybe you'll borrow a book from the library about it--take Roxy out for lunch tomorrow and then go be nerds in your city's hub for knowledge.

You draw zinnias for most of the afternoon, filling a thick portion of your sketchbook with the flowers, and this time you don't bother to micromanage your curious and impulsive daydreams. You let yourself remember your childhood, Dave, and wonder what your lives could have been had you been better. When you still can't find the right answers, you water the flowers with your tears.


"I swear I'm not crying," Roxy wails over the cutting board, knife slicing through some of the most malicious onions you have ever smelled. Even your eyes are starting to water, and not for the first time today.

You distance yourself from the stinging fragrance and set a pot of water to boil on the stove. You're making a classic, spaghetti, and Roxy adamantly enlisted herself as your sous chef. She's responsible for the sauce, and you're in charge of the pasta, plating, and presentation.

Roxy dabs at her eyes with her arm and sniffs. "Can I trade places with you?"

"Aren't you the one with the knife? I kind of have to do whatever you say," you joke. She squints at you in a disturbing, weepy grin, and brandishes the knife. A few stray onion pieces scatter onto the floor.

"Oh yeah, huh? Okay, this is a stick-up! I demand that you trade places with me!"

"Yes ma'am."

You hold up your hands in staged compliance. A playful laugh fills the kitchen as Roxy abandons the knife, and you both skirt around each other and swap positions.

Your shades prevent you from openly tearing up as you finish chopping up the onion. Roxy peeks around your shoulder as you sweep the acidic, diced vegetable into a waiting saucepan and liberally coat the pieces with olive oil. You're not an aspiring chef by any means, but you are familiar enough with basic recipes to cook a proper meal for your favorable guest.

Roxy inspects the pot of water then and pokes at you.

"Hey, there's tiny bubbles coming up!"

"Yeah? Not quite ready yet." You pour a generous amount of kosher salt into the agitating water anyways, and forage about in your cupboards for a can of tomato sauce.

"So, how'd you learn to cook? I don't think I've ever even seen you eat."

You grab a hefty can of crushed tomatoes and then step around Roxy to loot the fridge for ground sausage and heavy cream. You're pulling out major directions for Flavortown tonight, even if you're sure your stomach will complain later; but your immediate comfort takes precedence for a change, especially in anticipation of some emotionally tougher conversations you're sure to have with your cousin.

John lingers in your mind for a moment as you work open the tomatoes with a can opener. As if by osmosis, after watching him cook over his tiny stove and putter around his home, you feel that you've learned a thing or two about domestic chores and skills.

"From a friend," you say cryptically, just vaguely enough that you've unfortunately baited Roxy's attention. She meddles with the simmering onions, shoving them about with a wooden spoon, and sprinkles salt on them.

"Ooh, who's that? Someone from school?"

"No." She should know you well enough to be aware that not once had you made any friends in school. "I met him out on a run."

"Oh, oh! A fated chance meeting?"

There's a teasing, hopeful hint in her voice, and you only sigh at the liquids now prepared to join the onions, which have just begun to yellow and become translucent.

"This isn't a romance book, Rox."

"Aw, come on, you're saying you learned to cook from someone you met while running? Did they have a big ol' cookbook with them or did you actually, maybe, end up spending time with them?"

"We've hung out a bit," you admit tentatively. You've perhaps spent too much time with John for your undefined relationship with him. He's always been accommodating and pleasant with you--hell, nursing you, feeding you, putting up with your outbursts, educating you extensively on Skaian history and the gods, spending his days or nights or any hour with you, welcoming you to participate in whatever he does, tolerating the web of lies grappling your tongue, laying himself bare to you of his plight, his curses, his abyssal sorrow…

You're suddenly very stiff as you take the wooden spoon from Roxy and practically slap the onions around. Your mood swing doesn't go unnoticed by her perceptive eyes, but you can't manage to care. All you can see is dark magic dripping out of John's eyes and his mouth as he sobs in profound agony.

"Does this have to do with Dave somehow?" Roxy guesses impossibly, and your motions halt. The pan sizzles and the water roils, and you stare numbly down at it all.

All of this had started with Dave, with his--what? His hobbies? His happenstance encounter with a god on the mountain in a national forest, while he was out scouting for photogenic views? Was it past that point, when Dave fell in love with John (all over again?) and let down his guard, his brother, his life? Or do you place weight further back, allegedly before this world, to when Dave was apparently abused in his home and John had struck a deal with Typheus to rescue him?

Of course it has to do with Dave. Everything does, these days. But you can't hope for Roxy to understand the way you do.

You empty the can of tomatoes and the carton of heavy cream into the saucepan. A professional chef would probably berate you for the introductory sequence, but you aren't a professional and you have no interest in becoming one. That's more John's forte, what with his--

FUCK if you can't stop thinking about John and his eyes and the arctic rush of his woe-sodden being, the juxtaposition of his raw intensity concerning Dave against how he'd nearly turned you inside out just patching you up so gently, his hands on you like wildfire--

"Dirk," Roxy's voice reaches you, small and worried, and you feel her hand settle on your shoulder. You're shaking. You haven't let go of the containers. At least your eyes are dry.

For the umpteenth time, you sigh, and pull away to throw the empty can and carton in the trash.

"Sorry. There's still a lot on my mind." With anyone else, the statement would be reasonable, but it hangs in the air like a paltry excuse to you. You're grateful Roxy doesn't question you about it.

"I know," is all she says. The topic dissolves, and you work with her to complete the meal. Sauce is cooked, pasta is boiled, the two are combined, and you heap daunting mounds of saucy spaghetti into large platter-for-bowls. A generous helping of parmesan cheese and fresh basil leaves cover the tops, and you both settle at the dinner table to eat.

You're halfway through your bowl, Roxy close behind to your astonishment, when she slurps up a mouthful of noodles and mumbles at you.

"So, where's a good place to get chocolate around here?"

"I'm not an expert on sweets, but I know there are a few artisan places around here. Unless you just need a cheap fix, in which case, just hit the mall."

"Cheap fix? What am I, an addict?" She snorts, and you shrug at her. "No, I'm shopping for a gift for a friend in uni! Said I'd bring her back something as a souvenir. She's really into baking and desserts so I figured chocolate would be easy to take back."

"Won't chocolate just melt?"

"Hush, you, none of your practicality!"

"I was thinking to hit up the library tomorrow morning," you tell her between bites. "Want to come with me and do your shopping then?"

"Sure! What're you looking up at the library?" An impressive amount of pasta is forked into her mouth. A good thing her appetite for it is so large; you suddenly don't feel much like eating.

"Flowers."

"Like, gardening?"

"Flower... languages."

"I didn't know you were into that stuff!" She hums with intrigue, and you regard your pasta with some preoccupation.

"Neither did I."


You lean back and stretch in the summer sun and marvel that it doesn't completely scorch you, courtesy of John. The air is oddly quiet for the early afternoon, aside from a few disconnected squawks of distant birds. A lone cloud oversees the day's affairs from some indeterminable height.

A thin book, Floriography: A Hidden Dialect, rests on your lap, open midway at a page illustrated with roses of all different colors. You've been impressed to find that not only does the flower itself convey a meaning, but so also does the color, as well as the presentation. Life is full of complexities everywhere you look, it seems.

Close by you, cross-legged on the ground, John is sewing--embroidering, of all things--into a blanket. He works embroidery floss, cerulean and glossy, into a pastel blue sheet; he's the veritable image of domesticity and tranquility, primed to put any homemaker on a magazine cover to shame.

You peek at your phone at your side, and it reads a quarter to two. Shortly after noon, after indulging Roxy in tacos for lunch, you both had agreed to split up until dinner. She'd expressed a desire to shop for more than mere chocolate, and informed you not to expect her until dinner again; and so you had excused yourself to jog off to see John again, not entirely sure of why after the tense exchange between you yesterday, but you arrived, book in hand, all the same, and John had greeted you such a relative normalcy that you were too wary to be openly suspicious.

"Where'd you learn to sew?" You question him, watching with passive interest as he threads floss in what vaguely resembles the makings of a bird. A timid breeze turns a page over in your book back to the P's, onto petunias; you flip it back to the roses and mark your place with a hand.

"I taught myself," he tells you with a trace of pride. You endeavor not to ruin the amiable mood by asking if he'd learned before becoming a god or not.

"Birds bring you the thread?"

"Yeah, they bring me all kinds of stuff. Sometimes I have to tell them to return it."

"Can you do that with birds?"

"Sure, some of them." John pauses to assess his progress, thumbing over the stitches, and nods to himself. "I usually task Irene with it. Ravens are really smart."

"So I've heard. How's the other one? Camy?"

"Hey, you remembered her name!" You aren't sure if you should be insulted at his comment. "Camy's fine. She might actually come over here today."

"How do you know? Do you have some sort of bird schedule set up?"

"No, but I roasted crickets today, and she loves those. She always comes when I offer them."

"Oh." Despite your best efforts to not make a disgusted face, you grimace. John snickers at you, then leans over to gander at your book.

"Roses, huh? Looking up more flower meanings?"

"Yeah, I guess."

Why do you feel so self-conscious all of a sudden?

"Bold flowers. Really depends on the color, what you're trying to say."

"Evidently. There are a lot of colors going on here."

John places his embroidery to the side and scoots closer to you. As he leans over again to better see the pages of your book, you feel his knee brush against yours, and you almost shiver.

No. You are not affected.

"Well, red is pretty easy," John elaborates on the colors for you. "It's famous for passion and love. You see that everywhere. And white is also known for innocence and purity and all that."

"Yeah, I know that much."

He smells of pine, of wood in the sun and sweet grasses, spiced and warm. His hair is so close to your face that if you turned your head toward him, you could dip your nose into it.

"And here, yellow," John reaches over and points to a yellow rose in the book. "Nowadays, that generally means happiness and friendship."

"Huh."

"This one, pink, is like a softer red? You can use pink roses to say thanks, or to express endearment, I guess."

You desperately try to reign in your concentration on the book, and glance down at it. An unusual color catches your eye, and you unthinkingly zero in on it.

"What about this… orange-pink one?"

"Hmm, that's an interesting one… It's usually given to show someone you have a special interest in them." John straightens a bit then and faces you, his eyes level with yours, and you almost recoil at the proximity. "Say, are you looking up all these because you have someone special in mind?"

You stare at his unmistakably mischievous curiosity, at his eyes somehow bluer than the sky, and swallow thickly.

Lying comes easier to you now.

"No."

You nearly will yourself to believe it.

"You sure?"

It's still a lie.

"Yep."

John seems almost disappointed, pouty, at your response, but he relents. He eases back and grabs his sewing again, and you quietly breathe out in relief. Or it would be relief, if you weren't blindsided by the realization that you're physically responsive to John, and his scent, and his touch, and his lovely eyes, and the heat of his body--

Fuck.

You're attracted to him, aren't you.

You slam the book shut with such force that it startles John into prickling his finger. He sends you a peevish look.

"Ow! What was that?"

"Bug," you make up as an excuse, and shrug at his withering gaze.

"Right. 'Bug.'" John neatly folds up the sheet and sets it by the exterior of the shack. He gets to his feet and dusts himself off. "Hey, speaking of which! Want to help me grab the crickets for Camy? It's a good time."

As unpalatable as it sounds to handle a bunch of hard, prickly insects, you latch onto the welcome distraction immediately.

"Sure, why not."

You wedge your book between two of the earthenware pots, and follow John inside. Spread out on strips of cloth all over the table are piles of roasted crickets, legs and antennae and exoskeletons on full, dried-up and brittle display. You wouldn't claim to be orthopterphobic, but a table covered in insects is unsightly, and you stand a noticeably uncomfortable distance away. From a cupboard, John procures a couple of muslin bags, bleached white, and hands you one, which you take apprehensively. He begins to scoop crickets into a bag with his bare hands, and you regard him with thinly veiled horror.

"Come on, fill up a bag," he encourages you, and you override your disgust with rational, convincing thoughts.

They're dead. They're roasted. They're just objects now. They're just crickets, damn it. They're for these ravens John loves so much. If John can touch them, then so can I. Don't freak out. Don't freak out. Don't freak out.

With great self-discipline, you move over to John and the table, and begin scraping handfuls of crickets in through the mouth of your sack. You decide the cricket corpses feel similar to baked, crusty rubber bands, and pointedly do not think any differently until the table is cleared and you and John are each in possession of a bulging bag of bugs. Only then do you allow yourself to gag--and only when John's back is turned as he leads the way back outside.

Alright, so you dislike insects after all.

John performs a unique series of whistles, presumably a customized call for Camy, among other birds, and he settles back down onto the ground, bag in his lap. You join him, purposefully arm's length away, but your stash of crickets is placed at your feet where you won't feel the undesirable texture of their bodies on your skin.

As several moments pass without a single bird in sight, you wonder if Camy, or any creature, will come at all; but eventually, not just one but three ravens become visible. Their wings give them away among the trees, and they flutter and land at John's feet, heads swiveling and bobbing, expectation plain as they probe at the bag of crickets.

John doles out an avalanche of crickets before them, small black insects flowing out onto his legs and the stone floor. All three ravens peck fervently at their treat in concentrated silence, and you observe their feast with a mixture of admiration and nausea. They are merely engaging in a natural diet, but you can't fathom why John collected hundred of crickets for them as opposed to, say, berries or nuts. Still, they seem excited, after a morbidly cute manner.

"Hey, guys," John greets the birds with great warmth. A wide smile on his face reveals that endearing overbite; it's an expression you find suitable for hospitable, affectionate grandparents who invite "youngsters" into their homes for a drink and a chat because they're bored and lonely. Is that what John is most days?--why he busies himself with birds and gardens and handcrafted projects and flowers and tea? Would he still be involved in any of that if he was free to leave?

The corvid trio continues to eagerly ingest a large quantity of insects. One sociably hops onto John's knee, tweaks at his pants with its beak, then resumes its dining. This bird receives a gentle stroke on its back from John, the dark feathers smoothing under his attentive hand.

"Guys, this is Dirk. And Dirk, this is Camy," John introduces you, although you've met Camy before. With his free hand, he points to the leftmost raven pecking around his legs, then the one on the right, and respectively tells you their names as well. "That's Ivan, Camy's brother. And this is her sister, Pepper."

At the mention of her name, Pepper perks up her head and angles it to examine you intelligently. You nod to her, as if it were totally commonplace to socialize with omnivorous fowls and a god, and this was a regular occurrence--like it's some ball held for passerines and their fans.

"Sup," you acknowledge. To your surprise, Pepper dismounts from the pile of crickets, and hops over to you. You glance at John for instruction, and he offers you a slight shrug and widens his grin. He clearly wants to see what you'll do. You're on your own.

The two of you gauge each other in a curious standoff. Pepper tilts her head and sizes you up, an eye scrutinizing you from head to toe and back up again. You tentatively hold out your sack of bugs to her, the mouth stretched open, and it catches her attention instantly. In a grand gesture of acceptance, the raven commences relocating right into your lap, and she plucks at crickets straight from the bag when you lower it down by her head.

"She likes you," John states fondly, and you peer down at your new companion ambivalently.

It's a special thing, to be included in the intimate details of a wild beast. Ravens are notoriously intelligent and well-traveled, so it's not as if a cagey deer or aggressive predator is lounging in your lap; but these are John's feathery friends, not yours, and it is enchanting for this, or any, bird to approach you and entrust you with its mealtime so unprompted.

On the flipside, it's painful to remember the pictures of Poe, and to make the connection that you're a poor substitute at best for your brother. John had loved--still loves, no doubt--Dave not you; Poe and her family are their birds, not yours; and this entire scenario with John and The Overlook had never been yours, either.

You make no move to pet Pepper or to encourage her comfort beyond remaining still as she dines contentedly on your thighs. John speaks low and tenderly to Camy and Ivan, relaying events of the past few days, but you say nothing to the bird before you. It doesn't feel right. You feel like an intruder all over again, a pitiful urchin looking in through a window at a life he's not even allowed to wish to have, because he should be grateful to even be alive.

Soon enough, though, feeding time comes to an end. John's bag is considerably lightened, and yours is roughly a third emptied, by the time your winged guests depart.

Barely a beat after the ravens disappear into the thick of the trees, John turns to you and engages you in further activity.

"So, ever made a dreamcatcher?"

"Like the round, superstitious craft?"

"Yeah, with the rope and feathers and stuff?"

"Nope, can't say I've ever seen one outside of a couple of movies."

"Want to try? I have some feathers we can use."

You check your phone and find the time an agreeable half past four. There should be sufficient time for you to partake of some Ojibwe craft rituals before you need to excuse yourself and meet with Roxy for dinner.

"Sure."

John signals for you to wait and promptly vanishes into the shack to fetch the necessary supplies. He returns with two wooden hoops hanging off a wrist, ample string looped around his shoulder, and what appears to be folded animal skin, which he rolls out along his arms and hands to reveal treated feathers, dark and sleek.

"We can use these!" He beams eagerly. "I saved these during visits with Irene and Camy and everyone."

You spend the rest of the afternoon agonizing over weaving and looping and knotting with debilitating perfectionism. By six, with John's frequent, hands-on guidance, you've managed to put together some semblance of a simple dreamcatcher. John's is incomparably more complex, featuring twice as many feathers and dangling, braided tassels; but you are admittedly proud of your finished product, and despite its inferior state of detail and size, it is easily portable.

"It's not bad for your first," John approves, and he flashes you a doting smile. You dismiss the resulting heat in your cheeks as a side effect of the summer weather, even if you subconsciously are aware that John conscientiously moderates the climate around The Overlook for your comfort. That leaves you with a fluttering sensation in your gut.

You hate what your time here is doing to you--how this pipe dream of subliminal, coquettish behavior that is absolutely not happening between you and John… continues developing. As habitual as it is for you to overanalyze and read between the lines, it's time to go and have dinner with Roxy before you presume to identify a gesture from John that is a mirage of some delusional fancy.

"Thanks for the dreamcatcher-building tutorial. I should get going, though. My cousin's in town and I'm due to have dinner with her." There's no practical reason you're sharing this information with John. You're not normally this forthcoming with your activities, among other things, but at this point, John isn't exactly a stranger. He probably knows more about yourself than you do (a concept that still irks you tremendously) and divulging in your evening agenda isn't harmful. You just wish he wouldn't look half as disappointed as you announce your departure. Or is he? Damn it, is he pouting, or are you imagining things due to a trick of the evening light?

You really need to get a grip.

John gathers up the leftover string from the ground, and sends you off with a wave. "Thanks for hanging out with me today! It's nice to have company."

The pleasantries would probably sit better with you if you weren't still plagued with the knowledge that you wouldn't be here if Dave was still around--that you wouldn't be taking his place if you were somehow less pathetic or if you had… what? You know there's nothing else you could have done as you are, but the outcome of recent events is no less forgivable to you. John thanking you personally for socializing is no different than you visiting him to be closer to a dead man.

In the end, you take what you can get.

"See you later," you salute, and trek off back to town, back to Roxy, your little dreamcatcher and borrowed book both tucked snugly under your arm as you go. John floats through the branches overhead as you leave, coincidentally in your direction. He's ostensibly visiting more birds and checking in on their well-being, but you wonder if he isn't following after you in his own way.

Your mouth is drier than it's ever been by the time you reach the paved streets again, your insides thirsty for something water can't quench.


After much debate, you and Roxy decide to treat yourselves to a night out for dinner. You browse a list of restaurants close to her last shopping escapade, and the two of you are soon seated in a quiet and cozy establishment highly recommended for their authentic Thai cooking.

You're paired with a swollen, crinkly, plastic tote bag full of clothes, on your side of the booth. Across from you, Roxy is rearranging several smaller bags, all filled with assorted snacks, knickknacks, and other apparel. How she carried all of this on her own, or managed to purchase so much, you can only guess. You both have been served drinks, you an orange Fanta and she a Dr. Pepper; and you both also have just ordered your food: the spiciest pad thai for you, and a mild pumpkin curry for Roxy.

"How are you going to fit all of this on the plane?" You ask her once she's finished organizing her things and has turned back to you.

"I'm not," she sighs. "I'll have to ship most of it. I guess I went overboard, huh."

"Far be it from me to judge. Do you need help getting all this to the post office?"

"Mm, no, I think I've got it! I'll take care of it tomorrow. But anyways," Roxy leans in on her elbows and crosses her wrists underneath her chin. "What were you up to today? I see you got a new… dreamcatcher?"

It's only polite that she inquire about your day, but you've been striving to distract yourself from your afternoon with John, mostly because of troublesome, unwanted feelings attached to the mere thought of him lately. Roxy is, unfortunately for you, too perceptive to not be suspicious if you become evasive. You resign yourself to an interrogation.

"Yeah. Made it with a friend."

"Ooh, is this the same friend you mentioned last night?"

"Yeah."

"What's their name? What're they like? Are they hot? Do you have a picture of them?"

You're allowed a moment to strategize as your server appears with a complimentary plate of spring rolls and dipping sauce. Roxy snatches one up immediately and stuffs half of it into her mouth in one bite. Her cheeks puff out in a blissful smile.

"Good?"

"Mmhmm!"

You grab a spring roll for yourself and swirl it around in your dish of what appears to be a sweet chili sauce. The shell of it becomes saturated with the condiment long before it reaches your mouth. Roxy has finished her roll by the time you've taken your first bite. It's fresh and well rolled, the vegetables are firm and flavorful, and the sauce complements carrots and scallions and minced meats without overpowering them; but you somehow end up wishing it was John's rustic cooking.

"So," Roxy says slowly, and you can almost feel her nosiness bearing down on you. "Are you going to tell me about your 'friend' or is this top secret information?"

The moment you submit and provide her with any details is the moment you sign an unspoken agreement to forfeit any obscurity pertaining to your relationship with John--whatever that might be. But it's not like Roxy knows about him beyond some passing mention Dave might have shared; and she does live many miles away in another state, so even if she does pry for "juicy deets," as she's prone to saying, you can easily ignore her from a distance. Technology is convenient that way.

What could it hurt to finally talk to someone about John? To get him out of your head in some way or another?

"His name is John," you respond as you finish your spring roll, sweet and crisp bites tucked into the side of your mouth. You nearly choke as Roxy repeats one of her earlier questions too loudly for comfort.

"Is he hot?"

You deflect.

"Are you looking for a date?"

"Yeah, for you!"

A rebound. You know how to end this.

"The only date I need right now is the one for the memorial service," you snap irritably. Roxy's face falls at that.

You don't intend to be asinine, and you're not offended by her (hopefully) wholesome fantasies of you finding true love one day; but you've been wrestling long enough today with thoughts of John and his level of attractiveness, namely how clear and warm his eyes have been when he's smiled at you, and how pleasant and almost musky he smelled this afternoon, how your skin tingled when he sat by you as you'd read--

It's like you've inherited a curse of your own by way of John. A lust-driven, hormonal curse befitting a brainless and undisciplined youth who has barely reached puberty. It's unusual for you to be this flustered, and you detest every second of it.

Roxy is altogether too mournful over your retort to pester you further about John's potential charms. She sulks into her drink and blows conspicuous effervescence into the sweating cup to battle the lull in what had been your friendly banter.

"Sorry," you mutter, once you feel confident enough in your composure. You sip at your own soda and let the bubbles fizz and pop off your tongue and against your palate. "This is supposed to be a fun dinner, and that statement didn't contribute much fun."

Your cousin is, as always, merciful to your ungraceful social gaffes. She's still wilted, but she does her best to mask it, which only makes you feel worse for your harsh reply.

"It's okay. I know I can be kind of annoying with all the romance talk. But, if you don't mind me saying, this is the second time you've spaced out and got all riled up about this John guy. Are you sure he's just a friend?" You must give Roxy a look, because she waves her hands emphatically. "No, like, I mean, is he causing you trouble? Do you need someone to tell him to give you some space?"

You bite your tongue to keep from laughing at the irony in Roxy's concern. The only trouble you're experiencing is forced by your own hand. It would be like bewailing a dozen snake bites after voluntarily leaping into a pit full of adders. You've frequented The Overlook enough now that you're guilty of the same deed you originally condemned Dave of. How can you blame John for any of your issues when you're the one who won't leave him alone? When you're the one who's immersed in unjust subterfuge, and now this train of sensuality? You couldn't target John as a scapegoat for your sins.

"It's fine, Rox. I'm just dealing with a lot of… Dave stuff right now. He used to take pictures with John." Fuck. Why did you say that?

Roxy's lips quirk up thoughtfully, her brows raising with surprise.

"Oh, you've been hanging out with the same John?" So she had heard about John from Dave after all. "The bird guy, right?"

"Yeah."

"He sounded nice, from what little I heard about him before! It's cool that you guys are hanging out!"

You almost don't catch it--a subtle uneasiness that filters into Roxy's eyes as her gaze slides away across the room to where your server is coming with your food. Her smile is suddenly disingenuous, detached from her eyes, but you can't deduce why. She appears… nervous? Sad?

Your server employs impeccable timing as your food is served. You're immediately drenched in heady aromatics, ginger and garlic and onions and peppers wafting into your nose as a massive mound of pad thai arrives in front of you. Roxy claps excitedly at her bowl, the dish loaded with creamy, steaming, amber curry, heaped generously over freshly steamed rice.

You both dig in hungrily, conversation abandoned in favor of filling your bellies. As the night before, Roxy shovels food into her mouth at a speed that is reminiscent of a competitive eater. You're only slightly less aggressive with your food, but your serving disappears not long after hers, and you're both rather stuffed afterwards.

"I'm paying," Roxy declares when she notices you reaching into your pocket.

"You're my guest," you argue.

"This was my idea!"

"I offered to take you out today!"

"You don't have a regular income like I do!"

"I probably have more money than you do!"

You bicker back and forth for a minute until Roxy slams her palms on the table, jarring the dishes, and stands.

"I'm paying as punishment for you being an argumentative bozo!"

For some reason, you're unable to really counter that. Satisfied at your lack of rebuttal, Roxy excuses herself and strides to the front counter to handle the bill. You sigh in defeat as you gather all of the bags, as well as your own things; you nearly knock over a nearby table as you lug everything, and you're grateful that the restaurant has been mostly empty. A few stray customers are entering just now, and you awkwardly skirt around them and out of the doors.

Roxy joins you on the street and swipes a handful of the smaller bags from you. You walk side by side along the sidewalk, and wish John were available to do away with the muggy evening weather. The very thought of him engages your mind elsewhere again.

"Hey, Roxy."

"Yeah?"

"What do you know about cha no yu?"

Roxy stumbles over a grate on the road and groans.

"Oh my gosh, not you, too."

Chapter Text

You sail on clement winds beneath a sprawling network of aged boughs, the air sonorous in your ears and restless through your hair. John guides the both of you along invisible paths; you're further from The Overlook than you expected he could venture, perhaps a mile or so, when you begin to descend into a section of the woods that isn't altered by a man-made trail.

Less than an hour ago, Roxy had excused herself to run her errand at the post office. You'd offered to help her carry everything, but she'd insisted on going alone, with the stipulation that the two of you spend the afternoon together doing something fun at home. You agreed to that and decided to pay John a visit while the morning was still young.

To your surprise, John had greeted you with great suspense. He had been reviewing the quality of the ceremonial tea dishes you'd gifted to him, and wondered if you might be interested in participating in some sort of informal ceremony of your own, just you and him. It all sounded suspiciously like a date--which you definitely did not voice--but John made it clear that he felt it only respectful to show his gratitude by hosting you for tea in his garden. After several minutes of daunting instructions over what to expect and how the whole affair was to be conducted, you assured him that you were willing to play the guest and that you would take his lead on the details.

Being honest with yourself, which you allow yourself the luxury of in your private thoughts (as quietude and only necessary communication were stressed by John as part of the ceremony--and you wouldn't risk revealing your innermost self to anyone, anyways) you're slightly apprehensive of somehow disappointing or offending John on this outing. Your head has been clouded with uncertainties, all revolving around this affable wind god and who you intend for him to be--what he is to mean--in your life. There are easy labels: Your brother's lover. A Skaian god, a Tutelary. An imprisoned soul in both body and universe. But none of those aid you in defining who John is to you. A friend? A--dare you imagine it so--crush? A sympathizer? You're stumped every time you inevitably arrive at that question--but there's one thing of which you have no doubt: you cannot get John out of your mind, and you are dreadfully concerned with his impression of you.

On the few dates you'd attended with Jake, you had been consumed with two things: that everything would go "right," and that you would seem favorable. With John, you've already failed in almost every respect already, barring the physical; and now, several years past your time of immature fascination with Jake, you are finally conscious and worried about someone's--John's--feelings.

As John lowers the two of you onto a grassy trail leading to a spherical, obstructed part of the forest, your stomach somersaults a few times. You've arrived, you're about to be introduced to John's garden, you're about to experience an informal-but-highly-sensitive tea ceremony with John, and you cannot fuck this up. Why the hell hadn't you read more on all of the ridiculous rules involving cha no yu before?

You focus on maintaining steady breaths as John steps towards what you realize is rather warped but lush bramble. A rounded opening awaits you, through which you can see gentle grass and the set-up for the tea. A soundless gasp vaults out of your throat as John's hand closes around one of your wrists and he leads you into his garden.

You enter a world of beauty. It's a cultivated patch of soil in a modest clearing, but expertly decorated with trailing blossoms and a wide spread of growth. Handsome pine and oak trunks ensconce the venue, the ceiling of the natural space accented by branches, all heavily ladened with leaves drooping down overhead. Vines with ivies wind along and around the trees, and they mingle with ambitious tendrils of flowering sweet peas. The perimeter is covered with zinnias, golds and crimson and pristine whites bold against verdant shoots of onion. Lavender bushes huddle close by rosemary shrubs, and healthy thyme stalks watch over young potato leaves that poke up from the ground nearby. There are butterflies everywhere among the flowers, glimmering and fluttering in the dappled rays of sun that peek through from above. A hundred birds must be singing, serenading you unseen all around you, and you are, without question, enchanted.

In the center of this garden is a cloth, pale but not quite white, with intricately worked flowers embroidered in blue all over its surface. You imagine John is responsible for its impressive craft. This blanket is split horizontally across the middle by a smoothed wooden slab, dark, with remarkable grains, which functions as a table for the tea ceremony. Water, already prepared steaming hot, sends up vapors from the white teapot; two cups, the tea bowl, whisk, and fukusa are neatly lined up beside the pot.

Before you can move to seat yourself, John, with his hand still around your wrist, gestures for your attention. Your gaze follows his movements as he points to a basin of water stationed by the entrance. He releases you and sets about washing off his hands, after which he removes his shoes and neatly arranges them close by. You do remember cleanliness being a key point of cha no yu, and you too carefully rinse your hands and set your shoes by John's. Your shoes are, you note, surprisingly smaller than his by a couple of sizes.

Removing your shoes had come as no surprise; but when John wordlessly places his hands at the sides of your face, you freeze. Your eyes widen involuntarily to display naked shock as he delicately pulls off your shades. He hands them to you, and you take and pocket them, but not before you think you catch a glimpse of intensity in his expression just before eye contact is broken.

John circles around the low, wooden table, and seats himself opposite of you, kneeling with dignity and taking his place as the host. You settle into a seiza on your designated side and observe John's artful motions as he initiates the cleaning process, which you recall as the next step.

You feel embarrassingly underdressed. John had earlier assured you that, while he hoped you might respect the spirit of the ceremony, it was altogether an informal event; but you suffer an unusual pressure in the presence of John and his deliberate, fluid movements. All of the butterflies flitting around you might as well congregate in your belly for how anxious you are.

Your eyes become riveted to John's hands as he performatively wipes and smooths clean each piece of the tea set. You memorize the contours of his wrists and palms and slender fingers as if nothing before had ever been so fascinating to you, and when John begins to scoop matcha powder, earthy and heady, into the tea bowl, your mind bravely explores what else this god before you might do so elegantly with his hands.

At last the water is poured, and the matcha blends together with it to form a rich and potent mix. It's unexpectedly a paste at first that John skillfully brings together with the whisk. You wonder how many times he's done this--if he had to practice to make it seem so effortless. In a short time, John adds more water, and the matcha paste becomes a fine tea.

John holds out the prepared tea bowl to you in a tempered bow, the dark locks of his head all you can make out of him. Your fingers feel alight as you take the bowl from him in a reciprocal bow, and you then fix your eyes on the deep greens of the tea, holding the dish close to your chest and face, willfully remaining oblivious to whatever look John might direct at you as you prepare to drink.

You're meant to admire John's craft--the tea, the meticulous swabbing and cleansing of the utensils, the overall aesthetic--before you indulge in the drink; but your brain has become victim to a landslide of heated desire, of how intimate the setting is, of how bare and vulnerable you are without your shades, of how you are filled with a want that both entices and terrifies you all at once.

The tea is molten as you swallow it, a fire that streams through your chest and causes your belly to feel aflame. You could be drinking gasoline in the heart of an active volcano and it wouldn't be half as hot as the tea in this moment.

You dip your head in another bow as you practically thrust the tea bowl back at John, and you fail to suppress the shudder that courses through you when his fingers ghost over yours as the bowl is transferred between you and him yet again. You glance up and instantly are trapped in his gaze, your eyes locked for the longest moment of your life as he drinks deeply from the dish. The curve of his throat dips as he swallows, and you are suddenly very, very thirsty.

You command yourself to abandon these outrageous sensations at once. What are you, some mentally unsettled, hormonal, desperate teenager? Your brother probably fucked this guy, and as soon as your brother is dead, you're about to undress him with your eyes?

That brings a little more sense back to you--but then John lowers the tea bowl onto the table and licks his lips as he looks at you, and you waive your morals and soul away without further resistance.

You've never pretended that holiness is a virtue of the gods, and you are not about to start now.

You're ready to throw yourself over the table and drink more than the tea out of John's lips, when abruptly all feigned coyness and indiscretion vanishes from John's end. His mannerisms are inexplicably more tame as he prepares more tea, this time in the cups; and you've replayed the perceived events in your mind at least twice through by the time he hands you your cup.

"So," John smiles at you with all the fondness a fox might offer to an egg, and you barely restrain yourself to keep from jolting in your seat. "What do you think of this matcha?"

He's toying with you, the bastard. This is probably nothing more than another elaborate prank--you know, and you're already so caught in it that it's too late to escape.

"A lot different than I expected," you reply as levelly as you can manage. Without your shades, eye contact is uncomfortable at best, and your face feels broiled as John's observes you, but you don't break your gaze away. You stare, almost defiantly so, the mere act of visual address made a silent challenge--and John, keen as you anticipated, has both recognized and accepted it for what it is.

It's no longer an informal tea ceremony between two acquaintances who have set out to enjoy spiritual harmony and a pleasant summer day. This is now a fully committed match of wills to test each other's limits, and whoever caves and either retreats or reacts loses.

You're going to make him suffer.

John sips at his cup, the stellar image of serenity. What you wouldn't give to reach over and strangle him for doing this to you--"this" being an indeterminate amount of raw nerves and loss of cool. It's like he's fully aware that you won't do this, either, or you'll "lose," the way he smiles and probes at you with questions.

"Oh yeah? And what did you expect?"

"For it to be boring grass juice." John chuckles quietly into his cup, and you add, as flatly as you can muster, "It was hotter than I anticipated."

A noticeable pause passes over John, and you watch as, slowly, the cup drops from his lips to his lap. His mouth curls faintly, and he captures you with a knowing look.

"It's meant to be, you know."

"Yeah. Too bad blowing is considered poor etiquette, or I would have done that. Or is it acceptable since this is an informal setting?"

You don't smile. You don't even twitch with the smugness you feel. There's no way he's unaffected by the double entendre return fire you've presented. You're so confident in your success that you completely overlook your own weakness to it.

"I wouldn't mind if you did," John says, and your mouth unhinges slightly.

Is he--are you--

You bury your face in a long drink of tea to mask your near gaping. You drain the cup dry and set it on the table, unsure of where to look or what to say next. No sooner than you've done this than John sets his own empty cup down.

John thoroughly cleans the pottery and whisk again with the fukusa, and you're grateful that his attention is focused elsewhere. You feel weak, antsy, and scorched from the inside out. You're about to surrender to the urge to pull out your shades and put them back on when John hands you the tea bowl. Stupefied, you receive it and regard it blankly for a moment, before he takes it back from you.

Oh, the symbolic review of the host's preparations and cleanliness. Right. Or, knowing John even as little as you do, he's rubbing in the lingering tension from the usage of the bowl. You might as well crawl into an oven to cool off at this point.

John organizes the tea set together again and finally rises from his seat. You nearly bolt upright as soon as you see him stand, but not before you pluck out your shades and return them to their proper place over your eyes.

As you both move to reclaim your shoes, John grins widely at you and claps your shoulder. You manage not to respond physically.

"This was fun! We should do it again sometime. Next time I can prepare something for you to eat, if you want."

He's so close that you smell the matcha on his breath. You wish you could taste it. You turn away and begin to exit through the opening in the bramble.

"Sure. I'm up for more."

"I can tell," he says in a tone that turns the fire to ice in your veins, and you exit too hastily to feel undefeated anymore, too stricken with the shame of discovery to stay a moment longer.


Even from your room, you can hear Roxy come in through the front door. It takes her a minute to scout out the house (and the fridge) before she's knocking on your door.

"Hey, Dirk, you in there?"

"No," you say dryly.

"Oh, damn, guess I'll try again later."

Not five seconds later, she knocks on the door again, and you remember that you'd agreed to spend the afternoon with her--and that she is only here for a few more days.

You crack open the door and sigh.

"Hey."

"What's with the big sigh, Di Stri? Your boyfriend giving you trouble today?"

Roxy is only teasing, you know, but you nonetheless have still yet to recover from your humiliated retreat from John's garden.

You shut the door in her face.

She knocks again.

You lock it.

Chapter Text

You rouse from a restless slumber to the smell of something burning. Fearing the worst, you swipe your phone from under your pillow and bolt out of bed and out into the main living space.

From where you're now standing in the doorway of your room, you see a peculiar smog curtained across the kitchen. Inside is Roxy, waving her hands frantically and coughing over what appears to be your toaster.

You enter the scene of the crime with baited breath. Roxy whirls from the toaster and gives you a pitiful, watery-eyed look.

"Dirk, sorry," she wheezes, "I burnt the toast!"

Your brows sag together of their own volition as you survey the damage. The toaster is thankfully unplugged, but there is still a worrisome amount of smoke billowing up from it. A plate, set aside for the toast, reveals two slices of hardened charcoal that once might have been bread.

It's best if you don't solve this mystery.


After assisting Roxy in safely cooking a proper plate of cheesy scrambled eggs and toast with jelly, you sit down at the dining table and dig into a pair of burritos. Your cousin wallows in shame as she chews a mouthful of toast and pouts.

"Sorry about your toaster," she sighs dejectedly, like you intend to flog her for incinerating the insides of the device. You shrug nonchalantly at her.

"It hasn't been used since I was born, I think. It's no biggie."

"If you say so." You make it through precisely half of your first burrito when Roxy revives yesterday's drama. "Soooo, what was up with the disappearing act yesterday? I was all ready to make popcorn and watch a movie and stuff!"

You scrape tortilla off of your teeth with your tongue and swallow. You aren't about to admit that you had spent the entire remainder of the day sulking in a churning mess of feelings and hormones; you thumb through your repertoire of excuses and select a fitting one for the current circumstances.

"I was worn out, sorry."

"Oh? Hanging out with John again, right?" You glower at her, and even from behind your shades, it's transparent enough that she smiles awkwardly in response. "What? You're being all obvious about it, Dirk! You're, like, pouting super hard like Mutie does when I'm looking at the computer instead of her!"

It should offend you more than it does to be compared to a jealous feline incapable of sophisticated, rational thought. You are a higher being--you were once, supposedly, a god. And yet, there's a disappointing truth in Roxy's words; you did virtually slink home and hole up in your territory feeling unfairly spurned, all because John laid his eyes on you in a different way.

Still, you can't allow Roxy to think you've been swapping spit with John. You have an image to maintain, and it regrettably does not involve the exchange of bodily fluids between you and John.

You might be a tad disconcerted still.

"We were just having tea," you explain insistently, tersely, and you resume consumption of your burrito with aggression. Roxy only giggles at you, plainly unconvinced.

"Oh yeah? John really likes tea, huh?" You pause mid-bite and regard her with suspicion. Roxy blinks in recognition at the change in your demeanor, and says, "Dave used to tell me and Rose a bit about him. He likes tea and birds, right?"

"Yeah."

You wonder if Dave ever mentioned that John is a literal god, too.

"He sounds like a really sweet guy! I'd like to see him!"

"You'd have to climb a cliff." That alone should deter her, but Roxy surprises you with an adventurous smirk.

"This girl has been working out! I can do it!" As if to illustrate her progress, she flexes at you, and you sigh through your nose.

"Alright, I'll ask if you can come visit, if that's what you want. But don't you want to do something else while you're here? You're only here a couple more days."

Roxy snorts at you and stuffs an unbelievably large wad of toast in her mouth. The woman is a bottomless void, you're sure of it.

"Like you're one to talk! You've been out there every day I've been here! I might as well tag along and finally see the guy myself, you know?"

She's got a point. You silently admit defeat and finish the rest of your morning meal. Roxy licks her plate clean like a starved housecat, and digs through the fridge for string cheese afterwards.

"Hey, you should make him something," she suggests, cheese strands dangling from her lips, as you wash plates and forks in the sink.

"Like what?"

"Like food!"

You almost tell her that John doesn't need to eat, but you can't deny that John has hospitably fed you a number of times now, not counting the seemingly endless supply of tea that is always available at his home. (How your bladder is still intact, you don't know.) It would be courteous to return the favor.

"Let's say I did cook John some food." She claps like a cymbal-banging monkey toy. You took the bait, and you both know it. "Any ideas on what to make, chef Roxy?"

"Hmm, well, let's see what we have to work with! What about…" She pries open the door of the refrigerator and scans the shelves. "What about chicken with barbecue sauce and potato salad!"

"That's going to take all morning," you protest weakly, but Roxy has already begun extracting ingredients and stacking them on the countertop.

"I'll help! You have to give John some food so he'll agree to meet me!"

You sigh one last time, as if that would change her mind. It unsurprisingly does nothing to dissuade your cousin from her enthusiasm about cooking John a homemade meal.

"Fine."


For someone who incinerated two slices of bread, Roxy masterfully created succulent barbecue chicken, slathered in savory and tangy sauce. You had been relegated to chopping, boiling, draining, and seasoning potatoes to create a creamy and rich potato salad.

With the threat of bodily harm should you forget "your mission," Roxy ushered you out of your own home with packed tupperwares of your "bribe" and little bottles of orange juice. You had to fight to go back inside and grab eating utensils. Apparently, she was truly adamant about you acquiring John's blessing about her visit. Given how kind John has been with you, it's hard to think he'd reject your cousin coming along for a visit, but it is only polite to ask.

The tupperware thumps in the pack against your back as you scale the last stretch upwards and onto the flat of The Overlook. You see John instantly, but he's not aware of your arrival; his back is turned to you as he rests on his heels, crouched low, attention focused on one of the ravens you recognize from the cricket feeding.

There is visible distress as the fowl utters raucous cries, feathers ruffled and head dipping in sharp, agitated movements. John is studying his avian friend so intently that he nearly topples over when he finally realizes you're there as you approach, clearing your throat.

"What's going on?"

"Pepper is really upset about something," John tells you. You can hear the frown in his voice. Even as you tower over them and shoulder off your pack, neither John nor Pepper break from their huddle. If anything, Pepper seems more animated at your presence; she hops about and presents her tail to John, and caws meaningfully at the precipice.

You're no expert in corvid communication, but either Pepper is requesting for John to examine her hind feathers, or she is hoping to show him something.

"Is she hurt?"

"No, it doesn't seem like it. It's unusual that she'd show up without Camy…" John straightens then, as if struck by his own words. "Pepper, where's Camy?"

A hoarse noise is offered in response, and Pepper takes flight, wings a beating mass of dark feathers and haste. John glances at you then, and you understand at once that you won't be sharing any food with him after all.

"I need to check this out. Are you coming?"

His hand is extended to you in invitation, and you accept it with a nod. The two of you mount the winds in pursuit of Pepper, the raven soaring over trees and screeching harshly into the air.

As you glide with John, hand in hand, you don't notice the feel of his skin or how close he is. You're consumed with a growing sense of dread that winds like a snake around your middle and nests in your navel. Your flight is reaching the unseen border you know John cannot cross, towards where you know the trail is close over a rise--where people tend to wander off in drunken pairs around this time of year--and you brace yourself for an unsightly encounter, should you find the raven in question.

Pepper descends into the trees, and you and John remain close behind. Leaves whisper frightful rumors to you as you scrape past them, and when you land on solid ground, right behind Pepper's squawking form, you see the source of her trouble. John must see it too, because he rushes forward, his hand peeling away from yours, but he staggers to a halt as if hindered by an invisible force.

Writhing on the ground, bloodied and weakly croaking, another raven lays. Now that John is here, Pepper departs in a display of trust; but you see the situation for what it is. This is the location where John had dropped you off after the storm--where he can go no further, and where his beloved friend is just out of reach.

"Camy," you hear John whisper, his voice as broken as her body. Her neck is bent at an angle you can only define as wrong, her beady eyes large and glossy. The ground around her is stained darkly like a bruised rose from where a gaping hole stares at you from her midsection.

The situation is clear. Someone shot her and left her to die. You could take her to a vet, see if she could be saved, but with a broken neck, there's nothing that can be done for her.

Like Dave, Camy is as good as dead.

"I can't--I can't reach her--"

John is scrabbling into the air against his restraints, shaking with an emotion you cannot bear to watch for much longer. He won't leave her, you know, there's no sense in trying to convince him of it. And Camy, bird or no, has become, in your heart at least, representative of the connection tying together you, and Dave, and John.

With an irony bitter in your mouth, you realize you'll be holding a funeral for a bird before your brother.

But John's grief has been enough as it is; and so, without explanation or condolence, you cross the divide John cannot. He struggles no less to join you--strains more frantically, even, as he realizes what you're about to do--and you almost feel dirty, cruel, as you stoop down onto your knees beside the helpless raven and lift her off of the ground one last time; but with the weight of your brother's blood on your hands, you can barely feel the fresh stain on your heart as you grit your teeth and commit to the deed.

You finish the job. You set Camy free.

You kneel there almost reverently, silent and still, for a long while. John sobs uncontrollably, wailing long after there are no more tears left, until at last, he withdraws into himself and quiets, and hangs his head down like a flower retiring into the cool of the year.

Your hands are numb with blood when you stand with what's left of Camy and hold her out to her god. John receives her mournfully, clutching the body to his chest as a precious child, and you let him have his moment. You spend her blood on a grave you dig for her, right at the border between John and the rest of the world; you claw at the earth with your guilty hands as if you mean to bury yourself into it. You wish you could.

John is the one who lowers Camy into the earth. His hands are unsteady, trembling, as he smooths them over her feathers in an unspoken farewell. Then, he stands and turns from the grave, and you're left to cover the body. A fitting task for you, one which you complete with great gravity and thoroughness.

You pack the soil as tight as you possibly can, brush it over to blend the texture of the dirt with the rest of the land, and deem it done. A nosy scavenger could desecrate the gravesite easily, but far be it from you to upset John any further with such an observation.

An unnatural hush blankets the forest as you stand in respectful quiet with John. The air itself is still, its god too wounded to give it breath just yet. No birds sing, no leaves drift by--there isn't so much as a cloud in the sky. But it isn't peaceful; it's smothering, the voice of death.

When you can tolerate the auditory dearth no longer, you step towards John. He faces you unprompted, flushed and glistening with tears, and he sucks in a breath.

"I… I couldn't," he begins, and you shake your head at him.

"I know," is all you say, and he accepts it. You don't rush him to recover; you stand by patiently, simply available, as he collects himself. John wipes his face with his knuckles and sniffs his voice steady again.

"I need to, um, fly." He isn't quite looking at you as he speaks, like he's embarrassed to have been caught in such a fragile state. "Will you come with me?"

In this moment, had John asked you for the world, you would have said yes. You'd have given him your soul if it was worth anything, your everything if you had anything to offer.

"Sure. Whatever you want, John."

He takes your hand again, and you ascend high above the trees, over the dreary interment, away from the trails and the unwarranted tragedy laid along them. The pace is unhurried, the air subdued about you, as John carries you both to the range where only the birds and the gods can roam. The world beneath you seems surreal somehow, almost hypnagogic or even fake, a panorama in a filtered lens of unborn static. Here, there is no scent, no sound besides airstreams in your ears; there is only you and John and the endless sky beneath the stolid eye of the sun.

Whatever John’s thoughts may be are unknown to you. You have a hunch that, like you, while he may be stricken with some gloom over Camy’s death, the true burden to bear is the overwhelming significance of such a small creature, more than the actual creature itself.

Poe is lost, far beyond the ethereal fibers of the universe; Poe, and her intelligent one eye, and her affection for Dave and John; Poe, and the way her image is immortalized in the picture of her and John in Dave’s journal--and perhaps in a way, Poe could continue to live on through her young, Camy, Pepper, and Ivan. But now Poe is gone, and so is Camy, and who will be next? The delicate structure of companionship that bravely supported the fondness and memory of Dave is now crumbling all around you, falling to pieces before John, fading like dust into ashes.

You, at least, have Dave’s journals, his photographs, his music, his voice. You have ways to rekindle the delicate memories of your brother and what he means to you. What does John have? A fragment--a picture, frozen in time, hung over his bed like a headstone over a casket? You know with a certainty what he doesn’t have: the truth.

John has let you into an intimate place of emotion; he's unguarded, open to you as you drift about the upper half of the earth. You're witness to the inside of his walls, not the anger and the sorrow this time but the coping--the closure process you've never learned for yourself.

Out of all moments, in the face of mortality, this is surely the best opportunity for you to come clean to John. You could confess everything and say you simply needed time to figure out the right words, as if there are ever such things; you could help him find relief from the open-ended question that must be eating at him.

He deserves to know, to heal, to move on past stitched up reiterations of the universe and stolen faces. He deserves to live a life without the heel of painful regret and blame dug into his every conscious moment.

You swallow your tongue in the evening light and let your heart turn as dark as the sky. You withhold the antidote for an emotional poison, tuck it away deep within you, and this time you don't bother trying to justify your crime. You accept the guilt in silence.

Eventually, as the last glow of sunlight fades behind the horizon, and as the stars blink themselves awake into a young night, John returns the both of you to The Overlook. You hover there, at the mouth of the recess in which his little shack is sheltered, and see your pack of food, lonely and now cold, abandoned against the walls. The mood for picnicking or sharing a meal is far away from this moment, this instance in which John faces you like he's weathered a thousand storms, in which his face is so close to yours that you can see the pores on his skin and he can surely see your eyes through your shades, in which he holds both of your calloused hands in his warm ones while he keeps you in place not with his touch but with the rawness in his eyes.

"Thanks for being here with me," he anoints you, like you're a godsend and not a demon, like he could somehow forgive you if he one day knew what you've done. You absorb it like a brittle sponge, like a man who hasn't tasted water in days and would drown in it just for a drink again.

"Whatever you need," you vow, even knowing you have nothing to give to a god as a wicked man, defiled, damned by his own hand; knowing you had murdered an innocent, even a bird, and that you'd murder a man--a god--a Progenitor--an entire world, not for love of John but for hate of yourself and the proof of your wretchedness.

John's gaze is soft, too tender for you, as he dips in slightly; you breathe in salt and unformed clouds and the promise of rain, see the grains of his lips in the light of the moon, feel his pulse knock gently and questioningly against yours.

It's not romantic, the way you become the world in his eyes then; it is a horror, a searing brand upon your conscience, a grievous and unholy thing. It frightens you, the gratitude and trust and relief you see bestowed on you; but you can't shy away, can't reject it, though it rubs your degenerate heart raw. John has enraptured you, trapped you--he's on the verge of giving you everything your lustful and selfish heart has craved from the very start, that which you finally know as a yearning, the thing which began as a hostile seed of bitterness, demanding more for itself, but now has matured into a blossom that wishes to give and to grow. He will offer you that which is most precious… and you will deny him.

You will reject John, because you are unworthy of receiving whatever he may offer. You will reject him because you--you--

--your brother loved him--

--how can you do this to him--

John's voice sinks into your ears like honey, a husky and enticing allure, and you regard him like a ravenous beast sees its prey the moment of the kill.

"Is there anything I can do for you? For what you did for… for Camy. For me. I owe you a--I want to grant you a--a wish."

A wish. John is offering you a wish, a favor from a god to another, the very thing he had given to your brother, and Dave had--he had--what had he wished for? Had he ever made a wish? They had been in love. Surely Dave would have wished for--

They had been in love. John is still in love with Dave, longing for him, waiting for him in a place where he will never find him again. You are the illicit party, the intruder, barging onto a tender bed like a hulking monstrosity. John doesn't belong to you; his heart is tied to your brother; and even if that wasn't the case, you still have yet to tell him the truth--that Dave is gone--that Dave is dead, by your hand (and oh, he probably knows half of that story already, doesn't he, knows the beginning far better than you, but John doesn't know the end--)

--you don't know the end of your brother, this last mystery left for you to solve, of what was left between him and John. Against yourself and your want and the propriety on trial, you ache to know, burn to know, what had Dave wished for? Had his wish ever been granted? Had he wished for anything at all?

You need to go home, to rip into that journal and find the answers, put to peace the clamoring, meddling urge to know.

You squander John's heart.

"Sorry, but no."

John looks at you inscrutably. You expect sadness, betrayal, disappointment, offense, surprise--something, anything--but there is nothing, nothing at all, and there is definitely no more endearment left in his eyes.

It is the way it should be. Empty. Distant. Forbidden to you. Over.

You descend with John back onto the ground, and you move away first. You don't look at him as you retrieve your pack and sling it over your shoulder.

"Guess you should go, huh," John says tonelessly.

"Yeah, I guess so," you agree. You step past him, to the rocks that lead to the trail below, and linger for a moment. "My cousin wanted to know if she could come visit while she's in town next time I swing by. Do you mind?"

John stares off away from you, his face hidden by a fleeting shadow as a cloud passes over the moon, and you see him shrug indifferently.

"Why not? I'll be here."

"Cool. Later, then," you salute, and you begin your descent to the ground below, your mind consumed with thoughts of your brother's wish--with the knowledge that if you stop thinking of what Dave wished for, you'll have to confront the circumstances of your own wish, and why you had to turn it away.


The moment you're home, you beeline for your room. You practically stomp past Roxy, who curiously lifts her brows in acknowledgement of your rushing form from her sprawled out state on the couch, and barrel through your door. Your pack is thoughtlessly discarded on the floor with a clatter, and you shut the door behind you and lock it.

"Dirk?"

Roxy has extracted herself from the couch to knock on your door, but you don't answer her. You're hunched over your desk, tremulously foraging through Dave's journal, swiping through page after page your mind recognizes as having been read before.

You don't know how far to go, at what point Dave might have recorded any mention of what he had wished, but you find it by accident--more accurately, it finds you, as it falls from its nesting place and towards the floor. Out of reflex, you snatch the object out of the air, and stare at it as one dead.

A simple but golden thing, glinting in the lamplight, sturdy and smooth, unmistakable in purpose. A ring, here in your hand, that your brother meant to give to John. A ring, here in your hand, that your brother never gave to John.

Why?

Your eyes graze the open book with sickly apprehension, and you clutch the ring in your palm so tightly that your hand becomes a trembling fist. Even before you read the words in that familiar red, you know what you'll find. You know, but you read anyways.

August 4, 2012

Turns out wishes are what gods do to basically say hey, do you like me? It's like a blank check. A god finds someone special and is like, I am a literal god, and I will do mad shit for you because you're hot stuff, do you accept. And the other person goes, oh, well, if you can do THIS, fill in the blank, then hell yeah. And the god is like, well for you babycakes, sure thing. And BAM they're bound in heavenly matrimony or some sappy shit.

Well, I've been thinking about John's wish thing for a long ass time. What, two years, and here's Dave, still thinking. Who would've thought, haha. But I think I know.

No, shit, I know I know, I know so hard I'm the most knowing guy there is right now like fuck I am so excited and nervous and I am going to give John this RING. I was going to give it to him today but okay I chickened out, because what if gods don't "do humans" for life? What if John doesn't want to get hitched with a dude who will just die before he does, which will probably be never? But I can't get him out of my mind, it's like he lives there, and tomorrow I'm just going to play all my cards and fucking PROPOSE! I told him to just wait for me, and if he'll wait one more day then we're doing this, boys.

Shit, I should probably tell Dirk. He's probably all pissed at how scarce I've been lately, which I can't blame him for, but John is just, okay if he says yes then I'm going to tell Dirk and I want him to meet John.

John will probably say yes, right? Fuck I DON'T KNOW, but I'm hella excited, I can hardly wait.

It's going to be great.

You stare at the date, transfixed. August 4th, 2012. You know that date. That was the night Dave died.

You'd received the call from an unknown number late in the evening. The caller identified himself as an officer out on patrol who wanted to know if you were Dirk Strider, and did you know a Dave Strider? Because if so, there had been an accident, and it was his duty to inform you that Dave Strider had been found…

dead.

You had been invited to both confirm the body as your brother, and pay some manner of respects, at the morgue. After legal nonsense with a police officer, you'd entered a tiny room in which they presented the body to you after some warning that there had been "considerable facial damage." What little of his face was left was clearly Dave, and the image of him, cloaked in a pale sheet, with a mangled head and blood for flesh, has been branded on the inside of your eyelids ever since. You'd confirmed the body, and left a hollow, guilty abomination of a man.

You have only yourself to blame.

Dave had stepped out after an argument with you, after you had torn into him about never being home and how you couldn't understand how happy he seemed to be leaving you all of the time if he cared about you as much as he said he did. He'd left to cool off, to take a walk around the neighborhood a few times. You'd said he might as well not come back if he was going to take as long as he normally did.

You wish you could turn back time and take back those words. If you hadn't lashed out at him, maybe he wouldn't have left. If you hadn't involved him in some disastrous incident when you had been gods, maybe he'd never have been able to die from the start. In every world, you learn you've killed him; you're a despicable thing, a sordid wretch, bloody and vile.

You thrust the ring back into the book and shut it, bind it back up and stuff it under as many books and papers as will stay on top of it all; but the knowledge is in you already, and you cannot forget it.

Your mind roils, furiously toiling to make sense of things again. There are a number of things wrong with this scenario that is currently your life, and you intend to have your head on straight about it before you're forced to confront Roxy at your door and tell her to quit her pounding.

Dave's wish was to be with John. He was going to propose, to express his overflowing love in hopes of an eternal bond. John was presumably poised to accept; he had, after all, offered Dave a wish, which meant that he viewed Dave as a potential mate or whatever terminology gods used these days. They had an established connection over the span of multiple lifetimes, of universes, and the only reason this instance had turned out fruitless was because you fucked everything up and caused Dave to get himself killed. John and Dave would have been happily bound together otherwise.

So why had John offered a wish to you? You, also another fallen god victim to some perverse amnesia, a familiar face--but one only introduced to John for barely, what, a month now? Wasn't John still waiting for Dave to return and resume their relationship? After pursuing your brother well into several reiterations of the world, John doesn't strike you as the type of person to shrug and give up after a few weeks of loneliness. Was he offering you a favor out of pity, then, or obligation because of your assistance with his pet--his friend? But then what of the flirtatious messages communicated in all of the discreet but deliberate touches, the meaningful stares, the way he had looked at you in the garden? The way he looked at you tonight? Was all that a mirage--an illusion you created to sate your depraved appetite for attention you never had from Dave? And if it wasn't, then what did that say of John?

Furthermore, what if you had made a wish? Would you have become linked to John in some supernatural contract? What if you had wished for something decidedly average, like cooler weather, or another tea ceremony? Did paltry wishes like that still count toward a god's romantic interests?

A more pressing thought grips you. Dave had asked John to wait--John had even mentioned this some time ago--but Dave had never returned. Why was that counted as a wish? Was it a matter of choice exercised by the god who offers? Was that why John was held hostage at The Overlook, forced to yield to a property line he didn't appear to have chosen for himself? And if so, what if you wished for John to be free? Could wishes override each other, or would a conflicting wish come to naught?

It's a disturbing thought to realize that, until now, you weren't altogether that sure what you would have even wished for other than "John."

You rake your hands through your hair and nearly pull it all out as Roxy hammers at your door again.

"Dirk! What's going on in there?"

She had, of course, been witness to your possessed dash into your room after a long day out of the house. Her interests in John and his interaction with you are odd at best, but you had promised to tell her whether or not she could visit John with you by the week's end--although now, you're not sure you have the stomach (or other organs) to see John again so soon.

You settle for conversing through the door, as any avoidant young human having a crisis is prone to do.

"What?"

"Don't 'what' me! You've been ignoring me for like, ten minutes straight! My fist is all sore! What're you doing in there? Are you okay? How'd it go today?"

"Your priorities are noted."

"Oh come off it, Dirk! I just want to know what's up!"

You intentionally leave most of her questions unanswered.

"John said you can come visit."

There's an unexpected digression in Roxy's assault.

"Really?"

"Yeah. Why do you sound so surprised?"

"I just--hey, don't change the subject! I asked if you were okay!"

"I'm fine, Rox," you lie. You're becoming quite natural at it. "I'm just tired. I'd like to get some sleep."

"Okay," she sighs at you, and you can feel her sag against the door. Neither of you believe you are okay, but you both know that no one will get an answer any different from you. "Did he at least like the chicken?"

Oh. Right.

"I forgot to give it to him."

"Forgot? You forgot? After all of my hard work?! What were you guys doing, rolling around in the dirt getting all sweaty and gross?"

"Of course."

"Ugh!" You feel a thump against your door, and then Roxy whines. "Can I have it then? I was too lazy to get food for dinner and I'm hungry."

You pry open the door and slide your pack through, then shut and lock it again before Roxy can reach in and wedge her way inside.

"Enjoy. I'm going to bed."

But you don't go to bed. You lay on the floor of your room and hyperventilate for most of the night, agonizing over wishes, and the accident, and how you're meant to look John in the eyes ever again; and you slowly suffocate under the weight of too many unanswered questions, until dawn creeps in through your window, and you're out of the house again, sneaking past Roxy's snoring body on the couch, out back onto the trails and back to the one other face you cannot forget.

Chapter Text

The trees are alive with birds once more as you weave through them and to the climb up to The Overlook. You should consider a career in rock climbing, as often as you've made your way up these crags. The stones and slopes of earth are familiar to you now, the clumps of weeds off to one side and the dug out, narrow hole near the top just another image comfortable in your memory.

You crawl onto the surface on your hands and knees, and scan the surroundings for John, but your god is nowhere to be found. Driven by your unrest, you get to your feet and shuffle over to the window of the shack.

Inside, you see John in his chair, bent forward as he tends to an injured bird. After yesterday's tragic discovery about Camy, you're surprised he has the tolerance for another wounded animal; but if John appears pained at all, his movements are graceful and gentle with a control you doubt you could find.

You let yourself in, and although John does not look at you, his brows arch at the sound of your footsteps. He continues his work, massaging ointment into the outstretched wing of what you guess to be a wren, by the look of its rotund belly and angled back; how the bird doesn't startle is a wonder.

"You really don't sleep normally, huh."

John's voice carries a weariness--an edge--the same stiffness you'd noticed last night just before you left.

"The sun is up," you mutter defensively. You stand by Dave's chair and rest your hands on the back of it. John applies more medicinal substance onto what you now see to be damaged, half-plucked feathers. "What's up with this guy?"

"Bugs," is all John says. You watch him thumb over the last of the feathers before retracting his hands. The wren tentatively flexes its wings and utters a considering noise, then eases into a curious inspection of John, pecking at his sleeves.

"It seems happy now."

"Mm. Can you open the door? She'll let herself out."

You acquiesce promptly, swinging the door aside. Like a servant in waiting, you stand by the exit, eyes expectantly trained on the inquisitive bird on the table. Several minutes pass, but the wren does finally abandon John's clothing and takes flight into the vast outdoors. The door is nearly deafening as you shut it then, and it's just you and John in the small space.

As you step to Dave's chair, you halt midstep as John cuts into the quiet.

"So, what do you need?"

You've been around John long enough now to know he is behaving uncharacteristically curt. A quizzical frown darkens your face as you fold your arms across your chest.

"Are you mad at me?" John huffs moodily, but he doesn't meet your gaze. That alone tells you enough. "You're mad. Wow. What did I do to finally piss you off, Zephyr?"

You don't know why you've resorted to pushing his buttons now. Maybe it's sleep deprivation. Maybe it's the way he's strung you along the last few days. Maybe it's the delirium stalking the back of your mind, waiting for you to lose it.

You dare to move over and sit in Dave's chair. The wood creaks a feeble protest at you, but it holds together as you adjust your weight about to lean onto the table. John fiddles with the jar of ointment and withdraws slightly.

"Don't call me that," he grumbles.

"What, Zephyr? Isn't that your title?"

"Yeah, but my name is John." The way John seethes at you then, eyes blazing as he snaps them to yours, sets your skin on edge and leaves you restless. "You never call me that anyways."

"True. Alright, John, what's got your feathers all ruffled with me?"

"They're not--I don't have feathers!"

"You know, just because I'm wearing shades doesn't mean I'm blind," you chuckle dryly. John mumbles something under his breath at you, something that sounds suspiciously insulting. "What was that?"

"I said," John raises his voice, "You might as well be!"

"What, blind?"

"Yeah! You're so… so stupid!"

You blink, unsure of how exactly to respond to that. Because John isn't wrong--but you aren't here to be set straight by him. It's the other way around, and you're rigid in your seat now, snarling, about to leap out of your seat and take him by the throat.

"You think I'm stupid? Is that why you've been toying with me like a witless fool?"

"What…?"

Consternation flashes across John's face, muddles into his petulance; he's tense like you, but more wary than aggressive now, like he's occupied with anticipating how much you know--what you'll do.

You've never been one to leave things unfinished.

"Why did you offer me a wish then?" You hiss, and he grimaces--opens his mouth to respond--but you let your words stampede over him. "You offered Dave a wish, too, didn't you?"

"He--"

"He never told you his real wish, did he?" You're roaring now, demanding, and John is withering before you like a paper house in the rain. "You offered him a wish and thought he turned you down, so you took second place, gave me one because you thought I didn't know any better?"

"It's not like that," John whispers to you, staring at you with a fear you don't want to understand.

"Then what is it? Because you told me that wishes aren't just for anyone--that they're for 'special people.' You made it sound like you could deem anyone fucking special if you so much as felt sorry for them, but that's not it, is it?"

He looks away, down at the table, and John's voice is very small as he asks, "What are you trying to say wishes are?"

"They're a-a--" You stumble over the words, not for forgetfulness, but from the sheer weight behind them and the toll your stress and exhaustion has taken from you. "They're a fucking courtship invitation, aren't they?"

John doesn't respond, doesn't deny your accusations, which only invites more of your anger. You cross a boundary you had not initially intended to cross, one you'd agreed to leave alone; but you're tired and confused and you can't think straight, and all you want to do now is make John feel as strained and high-strung as he's made you.

"Did you really fucking love Dave if you're slinging out wishes to someone else not even a month after he--"

The air leaves your throat. A peculiar tightness takes you by surprise, winds its way up from your gut to your chest to your neck to your nose. Your jaw clicks in place and your tongue goes dry. You're suffocating, and John is doing it to you.

John's fingers dig so roughly into the table that the wood rumbles under his nails. He trembles, first in his hands and then to his shoulders, then in his entirety as he rises to his feet. His eyes are like wintery steel, cold and hard and sharp, and when he turns that gaze of unmitigated rage on you, for the first time, you are afraid.

His voice is like ice.

"Let me remind you, since your memory is so fragile, of what else I've offered you."

He stands before you as unfeeling as a stone even as you gape desperately for breath a mere arm's length away. You stubbornly will your arms to stay at your sides; you will not clutch at yourself, you will not show how panicked you are for air, you will not let go of the hurt and the anger that prevent you from giving in to fear.

John views you not with contempt, but there is no misinterpreting the indignant shadow on his face. It's nothing like the first day you had come here, when John had summoned a threatening wind more out of basic offense than true rage. Now, with your life at his whim, with all the time you've spent together peeling away the hidden layers of your innermost beings, he is fully considering the sting of your insult, and how you should know better.

And you do know better. You've always known better--known better than to push all of the right buttons to set him over the edge--John, Jake, Dave--you never were ignorant of the damage you'd brought. At some point, you simply convinced yourself that it was better this way, to force a reaction.

With Dave it had been because he wasn't meeting your expectations, but you'd told yourself that it wasn't right for him to neglect his only brother like he had, and so you'd berated and punished him for it when he'd only been trying to find his own footing in life--finally found something, or someone, that made his world complete.

Jake had been a bit more complicated. You'd told yourself that you'd only pushed him so hard because you saw what he could have been, and you only were looking out for a better future for him. In reality, you were a control freak who couldn't understand that not everyone was always torturing themselves trying to achieve perfection--that Jake just wanted you to accept him for who he already was, and not what you knew he could be.

There's no question why you're doing this with John. You're tired. Not tired from lack of sleep, or climbing cliffs, or running untold miles to and from your home to his and back; not tired from constantly discovering your life has been a lie, that the gods have played you all for fools, or that you always have been ruining everything for everyone even before you were this version of Dirk Strider; not even tired of Dave leaving you for John, or John offering you a wish when he had done the same to Dave, or of knowing you're living out some ludicrous love triangle between a god and a dead man; but you're tired of the lack of resolution, of the coward you've become, and of how endless the journey continues to seem.

John has no way of knowing the depth of your treachery. No matter how menacing he is now, no matter how heavy and torturous and painful your chest is, no matter if he lets your life fade away out of existence--he'll never know.

He doesn't know you'll always have had the finishing blow.

But John still can hurt you, and he is, as you're gradually subjected to the disorienting and stupor-inducing effects of oxygen deprivation. You're mute, and your body is fuzzy, your consciousness bordered by a haze that will soon be followed by oblivion.

"I've let you in," he tells you accusingly, and you know he doesn't just mean his home. "I've let you come to me all hours of the night and day, let you vent and rip into me and ask a hundred questions, let you see my-my grief and my failures and my everything--and the one thing I have ever asked of you, you deliberately throw in my face because of--of what? What?"

John's eyes betray him. They glow with moisture, tears radiating with his ethereal light like diamonds in a sun-kissed sea; he clenches his jaw and crucifies you with his penetrating stare, a look that is both pleading and requiring retribution.

"What do you want from me?!" He cries at you, knowing you can say nothing, and waves his hands towards your fast declining state. "This? Do you want me to do this to you? Do you want to die?"

Your voice is gone, but you can still communicate. You do what you know John will understand: you grin. It's a twisted thing, uneven and baring teeth, your tongue curled about in search of air, but the effect is only enhanced this way. Its purpose renders success.

John's temper slips away from him as he looks upon you with a new sadness, and you collapse into a slumped mess in Dave's chair as he releases his hold of breath from you.

"Why," his whisper reaches your ears, and despite your gasping, spent condition, your burning lungs and quivering insides, you begin to wheeze with laughter.

Why, indeed. Why seek death from John when it has followed you of its own accord in this life? It would be a fitting punishment, to be slain by your brother's lover, if John had it in him. A pity he ended your reprimand so soon.

You find your breath after considerable effort. John has settled back into his own chair, somewhat deflated against the back of it, his head angled up at the ceiling. You study him, watch tears trickle down the sides of his face, and confidently determine that if he hasn't killed you yet, he probably won't when you ask your next question.

"Does this mean I can't get my own wish after all?"

What you're doing is cocky and unusually selfish, to be sure, but you're inexorably compelled to be satisfied still. You want something in return for all of the trouble Skaia has brought you (and John, too; you're not entirely self-centered.) You want to forget, even for a moment, the loss and the riddles and the regrets. You want… you want…

...you want to imagine, to just pretend, that you can have something for yourself. You want that something to be John.

All of the touches, the sideways looks, the not-so-subtle innuendos and comments lately--you can't push them aside now, when you're so tense, when John just nearly sapped the life from you and it excited you as much as it made you afraid--

You know John can't love you, but you aren't expecting anything as glorious as that. All you want is relief.

John's head drops down and he fixes you with a strange look. There's mild disbelief on his face as he blinks slowly, as if he's debating whether or not he heard you correctly; but there's also a dark curiosity in his eyes and in the corner of his lips, and you're willing to go all in and bet that his disposition is an invitation for you to elucidate.

You don't move a muscle to do more than breathe; you're willing to wait John out in search of some semblance of permission--of submission, really; you want him to be the first to acknowledge the unspoken tension for what it is. But John has been calculating, capable of a devious genius, for far longer than you can claim, and he passes the initiative back to you in what is a challenge as much as a question.

"What would you wish for?"

He examines you with an intensity that belies the austere indifference etched onto his face. The air is thick, and breathing becomes difficult for you, but this time it's not by John's hand. You practically choke on your impulses, the desire to let your thoughts slip away and to be free of all your psychoanalysis and moral trials at last. By some strain of self-control, you remain still in your seat; but your mind flounders hopelessly for some cunning reply, some way for you to use mere words, and you hate the impossibility of it in this moment--hate how John's lips twitch a bewraying amusement at your expense.

You make your decision.

You lunge over the table with total disregard for furniture or propriety. The little jar of ointment goes tumbling away and it rolls around on the floor from your sudden movement. John's face barely has time to register surprise before you're on him, hands fisting at the collar of his shirt and lips colliding into his. You pull him in to claim his mouth even as you push with your legs to get closer, and you wriggle about so frantically that you dislodge John from his chair, but you don't let go and you don't stop.

Air cushions your fall as the two of you plummet down and onto the floor in a heap of limbs. You don't take the time to thank John for his conscientious intervention, for how he's caught you in a protective embrace, his arms coiled around your waist; you're wholly focused on tasting his lips, his teeth, his tongue. John offers no resistance, though the way he lets you take the lead leaves you just as unsatisfied.

You aren't interested in a passive partner. What you want is a dynamic, engaging equal who will mercilessly exploit every available avenue to shamelessly and utterly break your sense of self, nevermind how you're meant to piece it back together in the aftermath.

Settling astride John's stomach, you flex your fingers away from his shirt and up, into his hair, where you grip fistfuls of his hair against your palms so firmly that the skin there itches. John is arched slightly beneath you as you delve into his mouth and hair like this, as you bend over him and work to eat him alive like the starved animal you feel you've become, and you revel in the strangled groan that comes straight from his chest when you finally pull away to breathe.

At once you're actively searching for the next weakness, whatever sensitive flesh you can find. You bare your teeth into his neck and nearly growl with gratification when John shudders under you, his hands raking up the length of your back and bunching your shirt up around your shoulder blades.

Unwilling for clothing to remain a hinderance, you break from your wolfish affections just long enough to tug your shirt off. In that short time, John removes his glasses, which float safely to a shelf. It's only fair and sensible that you do the same. You hesitate here, oddly daunted more by a vulnerable display of expression than any physical intimacy; but John is quick to eliminate any indecision that may distract you as he reaches for your shades and disposes of them by flinging them somewhere across the room.

You aren't so indisposed as to miss the obvious difference in eyewear handling and placement, but to comment on it now is to accede control.

You are vehemently against giving up control. John does not care.

When you dip down to resume your heated sampling of John's neck, you're roughly interrupted as John abruptly disturbs your center of gravity. He spins you about, and you go down onto the floor like dead weight for all the force he uses. Your vision flashes with white sparks as your head slams back against the wood, and a gasp steals away from your mouth as John crushes you with his body weight.

John isn't heavy by any means, but his muscles are taut and he is strong; and you're effectively pinned beneath him as he wrests away your initiative and forces you to submit to his pace. It's a different kind of sensuality that John stokes in you as you writhe and buck failingly under him because he moves with you; you're seeking more but coming back empty; your insides boil with frustration and arousal from the deliberate lack of friction and how you know John is toying with you, stringing your mind out, actively wearing away your last hold on dignity and comprehension so you'll come undone, a slavering and desperate vessel incapable or any thought beside want.

"Move, damn it," you nearly spit at him. He hasn't taken off his clothes--hasn't removed a single thing--but he feels like a branding iron pressed into you all the same. John is burning you alive with his touch, his eyes, and you haven't even begun to fall into debauchery.

If there was any suspicion that John was teasing you before, you have no doubts now. His eyes are gleaming with an intent that bodes ill for your stamina, and your stomach goes cold at his smirk.

"Move how?" Comes the wicked question, and you hate him--you hate John and his timeless advantages over you and how conveniently he has identified just how to drive you insane with words alone. An actual touch will beyond fracture your sensibilities.

John grinds his hips into yours and you moan like a flagging beast in labor. You try to bend backwards, try to follow the searing spread of pleasure that comes from the contact. A broken whimper sounds in the back of your throat as John lifts himself up and off of you just before you lose yourself in ecstasy.

You do spit at him this time.

"And you said I was stupid--"

Your insult is met with a tempered violence. John's hands seize you by the throat as he yanks you up for another kiss. He demonstrates a brutality equal to yours as he bruises your lips with his, draws blood from your lip with his teeth, plunders your mouth like a marauder in a cave. You're left dizzied and panting for air when John relents, unable to continue speaking and without any such desire.

"You are stupid," John tells you a bit too pleasantly. You watch his tongue wipe his lips clean of your blood in an exaggerated swipe, meet his eyes and shiver at the realization that your own are as naked as the rest of you will hopefully soon be. He can see your arousal as much as feel it--there's no hiding your feelings or lust anymore, not with him on top of you, staring into your soul, regarding you with an intimidating hunger.

You become the prey. John's hands clamp down on your shoulders, and his nails pierce your skin, as his mouth descends on your jawline and trails its way down. His tongue and teeth are hot and insistent as he nips and sucks and you wish you weren't too proud and masochistic to beg him to just take you right then.

"You could have had this yesterday," John murmurs into the dip of your collarbone. You grit your teeth and suppress a groan as he suddenly bites into the meat of your neck where it meets your shoulder, and he doesn't release you until you're sure he's left a mark. "But you said no."

Your mind feebly fights through the haze of lust to remember what should be so easily memorable. You're aware that you should know, but your brain never makes it far enough to retrieve the event John alludes to; your concentration disintegrates the second he lowers his mouth right to your ear and huskily whispers into it, his breath hot and moist.

"Why?"

At any other time, you would have had a dozen excuses or witty remarks lined up at your defense. Now, you can only question your judgment, wonder why you had spurned John's generous offer of fulfillment and pleasure.

"Fuck me," is all you come up with. Your fingers curl into your palms--you want to grab hold onto John, onto anything, but his elbows have your arms effectively trapped against your sides.

John laughs in such a way, throaty and low, that it sends goosebumps along every inch of your uncovered skin, but it's his next words that do you in like a knife in the heart.

"You had your chance for the easy way, and you said no. Now, I'll make you beg."

There's no turning back for you now. You couldn't disengage even if you tried--not that you're going to. John has taken over your every conscious thought, and you don't want him to stop there. You want him to take all of you.

But you're not a beggar.

You bark a laugh and dredge up the last of your snark reserves, muster a smugness that doesn't suit the underlying invitation in your growl.

"Just try it."

John's smirk tells you that you've played right into his hand. He leans in close, so close that his lips brush yours as he speaks, and you, like the needy whore you now are, open your mouth for a kiss that doesn't come.

"See," John whispers. "You're already doing it."

You don't have time to dwell on the demise of your dignity. You're too overcome with emotion--much of it wanton--to waste time thinking.

You heave yourself up with all the strength you have. John's hold on you slips just enough that your arms come free. Before he can render you immobile again, you snake your hands out and grab over his head for the back of his shirt. He wriggles back from you, and your combined efforts result in his semi-state of undress as the article of clothing separates from him.

The shirt lands on the floor as you promptly abandon it. You work fervently to remove his pants next, but John grabs for your wrists. You both flail your arms about, intending to gain control of the other, until you take the opportunity to bypass John's hands, and go straight for the nipples.

There's nothing inherently sexy about twisting someone's nipples in order to gain a positional advantage, but you won't deny that you find it very satisfying the way John squeals when your fingers roughly tweak at the hardened nubs.

"Stop that!"

"Beg me to stop," you taunt, hissing.

From his seat on your torso, John is able to easily snatch your hands away. He grins down at you triumphantly, unaware of how you've willingly allowed him this victory in favor of your next move.

All of the running you've endured for your entire life secures you this one superior trait: John may be a god, but your legs are twice as muscular and thick as his. You pit your legs against his weight and buck him off to the side. With his grip still solid around your wrists, he practically assists you in rolling back on top of him.

John struggles with you for a heated moment and the two of you bump into various cabinetry and table legs, but at the last of it you brace yourself on your knees as you straddle him at the hips, and you manage to keep from being dismounted. You squeeze your thighs against his sides; all the jostling has only served to tease your arousal, and you can only think of how best to care for your growing need.

A devious glint is alight in John's eyes as, his hold on your wrists almost bruising for tightness, he tugs your hands to his lips; and then, in an exaggerated show of tongue, he places one of your fingers in his mouth. Heat encloses around your finger as John applies a sensual and hard suction, and you're unable to keep still. You angle your hips down to grind your crotch into his stomach, and when John moans in response around your finger, you're consumed with an impatient passion.

You wrench your hands free of John's grasp. It's impossible for you not to imagine how his mouth would feel around your cock instead of a finger; but you've always been one to edge yourself in regards to your own fulfillment, and the habit holds true even now. Instead of thrusting off your own pants, you target John's and remove them in a series of hasty yanking motions.

To say it's the first cock you've ever seen would be inaccurate, not even accounting for your own. But you're initially unable to do much more than take in the sight of John's erection, sprung loose of clothing, somehow longer and thicker than you anticipated. Out of respect for what remains of your pride, you opt not to compare measurements between the two of you; but there is certainly enough of John to warrant some awe--and that is without consideration of his balls or the shapely curvature of his ass.

Without your shades, your gaping is blatant; and even as John squints at you, his vision limited without his glasses, he sees your enamorment for what it is. Perhaps it's how still you've become as you drink him in with your eyes, your breathing heavy and low, that gives you away most of all.

"Don't tell me you're becoming The Appraiser again, with all that staring," John smirks at you, and you snap your eyes up to meet his at the smug taunt. He's rowelling you, reopening the wounds of your past so he has more purchase to manipulate you; he's making light of your suffering, blurring together the lines that kept distinct what you'd lost and what you'd believed forbidden. You're too heated now to ignore the bait.

You wrap a hand around his cock and anchor your mouth down onto the length of it. Pumping your hand almost furiously, you bob your head and settle into a fast-paced rhythm as if one possessed--and you are, in a way. You're careless with your teeth, generous with your spit, and quick with your hand; you're hurting and you're angry and you can't take anymore, and you're concentrating every bit of that raw energy into what you vow will be the best blowjob of John's entire existence.

You'll make him scream, make him come, make him bleed; you want him ravaged, stretched mentally beyond comprehension, at your hand, for every teasing touch and look and indecent word; you want to make him helpless--to feel bliss from your efforts, to feel anguish for what he's done to you, to feel anything at all, because of you.

You want John to submit to you, because he's driven you crazy, and you want to know that you can do the same to him.

One of the sweetest sounds you've ever heard, an exaggerated and deep moan, crawls out of John the moment you practically choke yourself on his dick. His throat is on prominent display as his head scrapes back against the wooden floor; his mouth hangs open as he heaves for air. You're stealing the breath out of him as you stroke and spit and suck, and you revel in anticipation as you're sure that you're about to bring him over the brink of pleasure and make him flood your mouth with cum.

Your hopes of venereal victory are abruptly thwarted. John, sliding his hands onto your scalp, ostensibly positions himself to guide your mouth into a quicker pace; but he leverages your unprepared and distracted sense of balance against you as you, only braced to give head, are easily and forcibly flung around onto your back again.

The wind goes out of you as you readjust your spine onto the floor, but you aren't given the time to catch your breath again. John clambers onto you and, kneeling over your face, tugs your head up by your hair and thrusts his cock back into your stunned, gaping mouth.

You gag out of reflex, nostrils flaring for oxygen, and John has the audacity to airily laugh at you as he slams his hips into your face. With every thrust, you regain your temper; and in short time, your fingers are digging into the meat of his ass, and you're wrestling for control once more.

An advantage doesn't present itself. John is merciless as he rams his dick down your throat. You're almost retching from the force of it, and your eyes, as indignant as they might shine, are watering; but you claw and struggle all the same, straining against John's weight on your chest. But you yourself are so aroused, aching and tented in your pants, and all it takes to undo you is for John to reach back and grab the hardened bulge of your erection--once.

You surrender.

John overtakes you, and you give yourself in to his whims. You cease all resistance and allow yourself to be a vessel fit for his pleasure. You moan in ecstasy as John debases you, renders you helpless to burgeoning waves of carnality. Your jaw is stiff and pained, your throat slowly becoming raw, and your pants are so tight under John's hand that you're about to scream--and you love every second of it.

You'd expected for John to drench your throat in hot cum, but you're left gasping with puzzlement when he drops your head and pulls away. It takes you a minute longer than it should to realize why, as your head fights to gain clarity; John has released his hold of your crotch to brace himself, hand flat on the floor by your head, and you watch him jerk himself off with his other hand.

In this moment, John is the most gorgeous creature you've ever seen. His teeth are perfect as they grin in concentration; his eyes are as bright as they've ever been, half-lidded and manic; and his cock is flushed and glorious as he pumps his hand over it. You're willing to be witness to this sight as long your eyes function.

Your view of John is then spoiled as, with a shuddering gasp, he angles his cock down towards you, and your face takes the brunt of the first shot of cum. Instinctively, your eyes flutter shut just in time to protect you from an impressive amount of warm and sticky fluid that John unloads without discretion all over your face and the surrounding floor. Your hair is thankfully somehow untouched, but you feel cum oozing all over your lashes, binding to your brows, and dripping down your cheeks.

John offers you no time for recovery or cleanliness. His hands are instantly at your belt, and if you'd thought him dexterous in removing your pants the night he had treated you in his bed, John is nearly twice as quick now. Your mind feebly wonders how much practice he has had over the eons of multiple universes to undo a belt and rip off a pair of pants, before coherent thought flees you.

Your erection is promptly exposed and you finally are fully undressed, just like John; but it's his voice that sends goosebumps scattering across every inch of flesh you possess, not his touch, though you're quick to lift your hips at the sensation of his breath on your thighs.

"Tell me what you want," he demands of you, and you weakly search for an appropriate response, torn between incredulity and submission.

You manage to say, in characteristic elegance, "Fucking."

John rewards you with his teeth in your thigh. You jolt and tense under him, though he's quick to hold you down with his hands.

"Try again," he says dryly.

You'd reach over and strangle him if you could, wring the smile you hear off of his unfairly unforgettable face. But all you can do is pant with embarrassing fervor, and hump at the air in his hands.

"T-touch me," you rasp. As if to illustrate, in case you are unintelligible, as you soon will surely be, you reach for your dick. You want--you need to be touched, to feel friction, to have something done after ignoring your arousal so long.

John slaps your hands away and tuts at you like a disapproving mother. You do grab for him this time, ready to crush him in your hands, but your eyes, still covered in his cum, are shut, and you snatch only empty air. You seethe at his consequent chuckle.

"Be more specific," you hear him demand, hear him shift over you. "Impress me."

"Fucking asshole--"

You snarl despite yourself. You'll impress him, if that's what it takes to get some relief; you'll strangle him and fuck his face like he did to you the moment you can find his fucking neck. You swipe your eyes clean enough with a forearm and blink them open, and then you see John crouched over you with the most intimidating hunger you've ever seen.

You freeze beneath that gaze. He's going to eat you alive.

"Is that what you want?" John's face splits in a grin that would probably chill the devil still. "You want me to fuck your ass?"

"I didn't--"

"That's what you said. I can do that, you know. Gladly."

John descends on you, hands firm on your hips and knees spreading your legs apart. You writhe in his grasp, unsure if you're moving to get away or to encourage him closer.

"I don't, uh, have a condom on me," you sputter, mind stumbling over itself. You want this--want him, want John, in you and on you; you want to throw your limbs around him and let him rail the life out of you here on the floor. But at last, you find a part of you is scared. So very small and frail within you is that childlike worry again, that if you commit to this, the wake of it will be what pulls you under into a brutal current, where you will drown naked, used, and alone.

You communicate none of this to John, as he hovers over your erection, breath hot and enticing; but his eyes narrow ever so slightly, and you get the sense you're transparent before him still.

"Do you really need it?"

And you know implicitly that John would let you break away right now, if you chose--that he's not arguing over the condom, but rather your state of mind and the walls you've constructed since you were born as the man you now are in this world.

Do you trust me, is what he's really asking, and you don't have an answer--not because John is at fault, but because you know the deceptive wretch that you are; and so, as with all other things, you run, run far from the heart of the matter, and leave yet another question unanswered.

"Safe sex is important."

"I'm kind of a god," John snickers, and you huff at his flippant response.

"That's the shittiest excuse I've ever heard to not use protection," you growl, but neither of you pursue this issue any longer.

What John does is seek confirmation. There's a respect in the way he's refrained from proceeding, as he searches you with his eyes, poised over you with a carefulness that would put any large cat to shame. He probes your resolve one last time.

"Do you still want this, then?"

You want to snap at him, to declare with confidence that you wouldn't be spread out on his floor, naked save for his cum on your face, if you didn't want this. But you hesitate all the same, and in the end, you only nod. John's eyes don't leave yours immediately, not until your lips twitch in some foreign manner of reassurance. Then, as if the uncertainty between you both had never transpired, he returns to thoroughly ravishing you, and the moment is lost in the feel of his body on yours.

John's mouth lands on your belly, and he leaves sloppy kisses at the expanse of your stomach like he's cleaning off a plate. You feel every bit ready to be consumed like this, your erection poking into his neck as he trails his mouth down and into the joints of your hips. Slathered in saliva and buzzing with anticipation of what more John will do to you, you're far too sensitive not to jerk up at his touch when his hands slide around and cup your ass.

As a laugh rumbles deep in his chest at your reaction, you strangely don't feel as patronized this time. Instead, you're secure in a sense of care from John. He's not gentle with you as his thumbs knead their way into the crevice of your ass and pry you open; if anything, he's just as rough as before, if not more; but now that you know that your well-being is still somewhere on the forefront of his mind, you're willing to invest yourself in the luxury of letting him catch you when you inevitably fall.

You realize, just before John lifts you and presses the first finger into you, that you had fallen for John long before this moment. Perhaps you had been snared by him from the very start.

Like a helpless thing, you shudder as John prepares you for entry. It's a novel sensation, though you'd rather eat a raw dick than admit it; you're not quite a virgin, and there's no way of knowing if you had any sexual rapport with anyone in some other universe, but as this version of Dirk Strider, you have definitely never taken it up the ass before. You don't meet John's sharp gaze as he grins almost knowingly at you.

"It's going to be a tight fit."

You don't deign that comment with a response, mostly because your brain has rerouted all conscious awareness down to your dick and ass. What you want more than anything now is for John to grab your cock and jerk you as hard and fast as he had done for himself--or at least for him to hammer you unconscious with his dick--but he is nothing if not thorough as he works his way up to three fingers. When he pulls his hand away, he quirks his mouth to the side and hums thoughtfully, as if to admire his handiwork.

"Can you hurry it up," you hiss at him, and John turns his eyes back to yours. He smiles, but his eyes are steely; it's a look that penetrates you straight through the heart. You feel ashamed and hot all at once when you recognize it for what it is.

How you wish you had met John before Dave. His eyes might have been warmer then, had it been your face in the picture frame on the wall.

John heaves you up and swings your legs onto his shoulders, and your skin chafes against the floor as you're half-dragged towards him in the process; but all you can see is his face as he locks eyes with you, all you can hear is your heart drumming the prelude to an unspoken contract you can never back out of, and all you can feel is searing heat and harsh friction as John angles his cock at your entrance and finally pushes in.

Your breath hitches in the back of your throat and your hands fly to latch onto his at the new contact. John leans into you, holds the position for a moment as you convince your body to relax; but it doesn't last long, that patient pause, and you're crying out so loud your voice echoes inside the shack when John begins to really move, to thrust further and further into you.

The room is filled with resounding slaps of flesh against flesh, John's hips into your thighs, and what becomes your own screaming. Soon you hear John groaning over you as well; his fingers are dug into your skin so fiercely that they've drawn blood, and with every thrust he applies more force. You think he'll come soon, for the second time, before you're able to find release even once, a thought that manages to simultaneously disappoint and excite you.

There is no romance, as often depicted in novels or explicit films, in which both lovers achieve an all-consuming orgasm and then collapse together in a loving heap of sweet-smelling, sweaty limbs. John is far more brutal; he is flat out fucking you, beastly and mercilessly, drawing blood from both within and without. There are bruises on your lips, your neck, on your wrists, on your sides; there's semen plastered on the skin of your face and on the hairs of your arms; you're wounded on your legs and hips, and you wouldn't be surprised if you found blood mingled with his cum--if he decides to unload right into you (and you'd let him.) You're shouting nonsense into the air so vehemently that your voice is hoarse and fading, and you still just want something for your neglected cock.

But where John has deliberately refrained from coddling you, he overwhelms you with the sheer intensity of the sex itself. It's inarguably and incomparably hot, the way he's got you at his mercy, thrusting into you without restraint. His hair is slick with sweat against his forehead, his breath rough and short, and you watch his eyes flutter shut as he throws his head back and moans one last time, hips bearing into you as he comes.

You're stunned by the sight, by how wholly beautiful and euphoric John is, and you wish you could be still and let him have his moment; but your cock twitches needily not long after, and you whimper despite your best efforts to keep quiet.

By all accounts, John should be worn now, having come twice, and most of the physical effort credited to him. So you are understandably flabbergasted when he pulls out from you, both for the way he shamelessly grins at the cum leaking from your asshole like the depraved maniac you are finding him to be, and for how he effortlessly drops you to the floor and plants his mouth onto your dick.

You see stars--a flood of constellations--the fucking Big Bang. Stygian white explodes behind your eyes from how hard you're clenching them shut. A sob leaves your throat at the relief you feel as John grants you the direct stimulation you've been dying for. His hands are everywhere, on your thighs and your hips and balls and cock, and he sucks as hard and as urgently as he fucked you. With as long as you'd staved off touching yourself, and as overstimulated as you are as a whole from everything else, John makes short work of you.

You scream as you come. You claw at anything within reach and arch your entire back off of the floor, and you shake as you come right into John's mouth. He doesn't pull back, doesn't gag or spit; he strokes and sucks you dry, swallowing rapidly, and you half convulse, half shiver, as he licks your softening dick clean.

Somewhere in the back of your mind, you manage to wonder what the appropriate course of action is, now that the two of you have thoroughly covered most of the room in sweat and spunk. You wouldn't resist the classic post-coital cuddling, although you doubt John would bother with it, given how rigorously he worked you over; and yet, you don't suspect him of outright leaving you strewn all over the floor like this. Frankly, you aren't sure what to expect--if you should expect anything at all.

You remain supine for a long while after John releases you, long enough that your mind begins to turn on itself once more even before your breathing steadies, and you're suddenly too naked and open to keep still. Your skin teems with an undefined dread that you wish you could shed, but escape eludes you; and you sit up in a haste, your eyes snapping open in search of your shades. A swarm of too many emotions assaults you, and you're about to run.

John squats before you, eye level with you, and you're forced to halt your preemptive flight to avoid ramming into him headfirst. He's still entirely undressed, but his expression has reverted back to his softer, tamer look. If John is disturbed by your movement to leave, he doesn't show it. His eyes are kind and gentle on you now, and he offers you a strange smile.

You're terrified by that tenderness.

"Need a hand up?"

You regard him agape, silent for a moment, before you lick your lips shut and tentatively reach out with a hand. John clasps his hands over yours and helps you to your feet; and standing there beside him, painted in the warmth of the morning sunlight panning in through the window, you wish you were allowed to be with John like this for the rest of your life. You also wish that your weak, fool heart knew how to better isolate itself.

A liar like you cannot love someone like John. No--John cannot return the love of someone who is a liar like you.

In an awkward quiet, you retrieve your clothes as John fetches his. You both dress, clothes murmuring in disturbance (with some toweling off beforehand on your part;) but while John easily finds his glasses, you struggle to locate your shades.

"Where'd you throw my shades, John?"

The room is small enough that you probably could find your shades by simply scanning the ground on your own. You don't know why you're employing John's assistance. It's not like a wild bout of sex contracts him into your service. But you appreciate it all the same when he thumbs over to the far corner of the room from his position by the fireplace (to brew more tea, no doubt.)

You follow John's gesture to the bed, where you hesitate. Your brother's face stares you down, the unmitigated joy captured there a curse on your heart. Like a thief--a contemptible scavenger--you'd come snooping around The Overlook, and gobbled up everything you could find of him. You'd desecrated his memories, his god, and his very place in this humble abode; and for the first time, you hate that he was happy here. You hate that he was ever here at all.

You hate yourself in every dimension for even having these thoughts. You're supposed to be healing, to be honoring what remains of your brother, to be coming to terms with what your relationship with him really was. Instead, you're warped by another sinister, dark emotion--a fearsome jealousy and possessiveness that threatens to skew your ability to process everything objectively. But how can you see straight, when your heart is so crooked, when you've lied to the one soul left alive who you--

Your jaw grits tight as you turn your gaze away from the photo and resume your search under the bed. You find your shades, but before they're back on your face, the world is already darker again for you.

A low whistle sounds from the kettle as John readies two cups on the table. The atmosphere around John is pleasant and hospitable, as always, but there's a sense of something different about him that you don't place right away. You don't recognize it, much as you didn't recognize it on Dave's picture above the bed, not because you had never seen it before, but because you had never seen it before on him.

John is happy. He's practically glowing--no, he is glowing; he's outlined in a soft blue that makes his eyes sparkle and his smile lovely beyond description. He embodies every thrill he surely deserves to feel, after all you've seen him suffer (and how much more you'll never learn is worth considering) and he's happy because of you; but the sight of his happiness haunts you. It's pure, but not rightly so.

Just as you'd been sheltered in your world of ignorance until you'd learned of the gods and their despicable fingerprint on every universe, John is experiencing the same benefit of your deception. He's recovering from a loss he's deduced for himself, but it's like watching a bone heal wrong; you know he deserves the truth, and telling him will only break that bone all over again, and you don't know if it will heal the next time.

But you can't bring yourself to speak of Dave, not after what you've just done--not after you just crossed the last line left in the metaphorical sand. And you can't push yourself to ruin the weightless joy John finally has found, not when he turns his eyes on you and lights up like you're the sun in the sky.

The fragrance of rooibos neutralizes the smell of sex as John pours tea into two cups. It's not so alien to you, what John is doing, especially after all the tea you’ve shared with him during most of your visits. It’s perfectly natural for John to prepare a drink, a snack, or to expect to sit with you at least; he’s arranging for you both to indulge in some companionship after your intimate ordeal on the floor. But that he's being so gracious to you when your hands are stained with such sin is beyond your understanding. Then again, he still doesn't know, and how could he? You've sustained your falsehood even now.

You approach the table with leaden steps, your throat torrid with a penetrating gloom. It's unfair to John, your regression back into foul brooding, after the lengths you'd gone to make amends--to befriend him, even--and especially after you both had just connected in some ineffable way. Shame and self-loathing reign your lips into a tight line, one that is certain to mar the cheer John exudes.

Though you don't sit at the table, you take a cup, warmed and mellow, and hide your face in it. As you stand there, dithering in the meaning of the morning's development and how the complexity of your guilt is meant to be affected, you become aware of John's eyes on you.

"You're not staying, are you?"

At first glance, the smile on John's face seems relaxed enough. His demeanor is disarming--forgiving--for the abandonment you are about to commit. But the more you look at him, the more apparent is the statue-like quality of his expression, how his contented gaze is no better than a mask of stone--lifeless, in the end. As is your trademark effect, you destroy every good thing with your ineptitude and selfishness; you've ruined what little worth was to be found in your visit here today.

"My cousin," you say, as if that would explain or excuse enough.

Neither of you are children. To part ways after sex is no ill feat. What stings you, gnaws at you like a spectral beast, is the weight of the forbidden. You had no right coming here from the start, disregarding and spitting on your brother's memory like this; and now, even though you've consummated your affair with John, he still is no more yours than he was when Dave was alive, because all of this--this pretend at intimacy, at happiness, at moving on--none of it is real. You can't accept the idea that you might have a chance to truly know and enjoy John, because everything thus far has been forged in the fire of lies.

The truth burns you, has grown so hot that your honesty has become welded silent; and as long as that searing ember remains in your heart, you'll never recognize John as anything you could ever have.

Too late, you've taken a bite into the forbidden fruit, and only then tried to turn it away. Too late, you thought better of indulging in your temptations, knowing full well your deeds could not be undone. Too late, you meant to hold onto Dave, and now have only regrets. Too late, you intended to right your wrongs with John, before he drank you in like a poison unawares; and even if you administer the antidote now, the damage is already done.

You are always too late.

John conceals his disappointment as he turns his back to you. He fusses about a braid of herbs in a show of spontaneous tidiness, but neither of you believe his ruse; there's no chance he's unaffected by the return of your aloof behavior, and it's uncomfortable how he doesn't question or challenge it.

"Will you be bringing your cousin by later? You said she wanted to meet me."

For all John has been unable to say, it's impossible to miss the pain in his voice, even as he invites you to impose further on him. And had you not given your word to Roxy, whatever that is worth now, you would have concocted yet another lie--claimed she had left for home early--so you could avoid meeting John again until you'd grown too numb to feel afraid, or guilty, or anything at all.

"Maybe," you murmur half heartedly into your cup. Tea ripples anxiously as a tremor besets your hands, and you place the cup back onto the table the moment you realize your unsteadiness. Your voice is barely steady as you say, "Maybe tomorrow."

"Maybe tomorrow," John breathes in, "Would be better."

You don't disagree.

"Tomorrow, then."

"Okay."

You move to the door and are halfway gone when John stills you with his voice, leaves you breathless as if struck in the gut.

"I'm sorry."

His words are almost inaudible, wispy sounds that fade away the instant they're spoken, but they curl into your ears all the same, creep into your veins and infect them with ice.

You will yourself to look ahead, to not turn back and see the broken god you know John still is.

If only you could have left him happy. If only you had not lied.

"You shouldn't be sorry," the words rattle out of your chest, all indignation and reproach, a strung-out shambling whisper that has no guarantee of reaching John; but you hear him shift curiously behind you at your emphatic response.

John rends your heart into pieces with his simple inquiry.

"Should you?"

In his doorway, choked by a sudden onslaught of tears and the weight of your mendacity, your back is the only answer you can give.

You desert John without another word, without so much as a glance behind; and for all you fear how you will find him tomorrow, you are plagued unceasingly by the image of how you left him today.

When you return home, you don't say a word to Roxy, don't acknowledge her at all. You lock yourself in your bedroom and crawl into your bed, where you pull the sheets over your head and weep for hours, until you're weak and swollen and practically desiccated. You cry into your pillow, and wish it was John.

Chapter Text

You’ve scaled the rocks up to The Overlook more times than you can count by now, a testament to your hale condition; and you’ve always been strong in both body and will. No obstacle, trail, or climb was ultimately ever indomitable to you; obstinacy had a way of lending a hand when you needed to overcome. But you’re tenser than usual--shaky, even--as you hoist yourself over onto the stone landing and roll onto your hands and knees.

Having yesterday forsaken John like he was an insignificant one night stand, you’re not about to pretend that you’ll be basking in his good graces today; but as every time before, no matter how cruel or inequitably you treat John, you always return for more of him. You’re ungrateful, misappropriating his generosity, and had Roxy not hectored and lectured you for all of this morning, you wouldn’t have tolerated even the thought of showing your face here again.

Yet here you are, finding your footing outside of John’s cliff-side shack, as your determined cousin gropes her way up not far behind you.

Roxy is, to her credit, impressively healthy. You weren’t certain she would have been physically able to make the climb up here, or to even last the length of the jog required to reach it--had hoped against it, really--but, characteristic of her, as usual, you find yourself in awe of her achievements. She’s no less winded or flushed than the average person would be after extensive and strenuous activity, her cheeks stained scarlet, her breathing shallow and fast, but she does make it up to the top.

The pair of you are drenched with sweat, the summer day unspeakably hot and calescent still, despite it barely being midday. Ordinarily, you’d appreciate John’s masterful climate control, but the god is nowhere visible outside the immediate proximity of his home, and there is no sign of him inside when you glance in through the windows. Were you not beset with anxiety, and had it simply been you visiting on your own, you would have no issue in settling down in the shade of the rocks, or even letting yourself inside; but you are afflicted with a nervous edge, and with Roxy beside you, surveying the panorama of sky and trees with both delight and expectation, you feel moved with an impatience.

You risk infringement on John’s territory with what you’re about to do, but you’ve made a mess of so much already; and with the intent of withdrawing indefinitely after this meeting to nurse your disgraceful existence in isolation, you choose to ignore the substratal disrespect you’re about to execute. Relying on your memory of John’s voice--that clear and pitch-perfect inflection of his, so pure compared to your wavering noise--you mimic his call to a friend now lost to you. You whistle out toward the trees John’s signature beacon for the raven you buried, and hope that it beckons the rest of her family in the same way it had her.

Roxy’s eyes are heavy on you, her curiosity plain with every blink, every tilt of her head, every shift of her body. You stoically avoid meeting her gaze, stare off out into the trees in search of even a single feather, and you don’t acknowledge her hum of intrigue when a lone bird appears from the tip of the pines. She'd given you enough attention about the marks on your body from yesterday, the bloodied lip and bruises littered along your neck and limbs from the branding iron of John's ardor; you don't need her commentary on your whistling, too.

Like you are a friend and not a transgressor, Pepper lights off from an unseen current and descends onto the ground. A twinge of compunction pinches somewhere in your chest as you watch the raven poke at your feet in anticipation of a treat. For a moment, you can convince yourself that it’s Camy again, that all is restored and you are absolved of your grief and guilt, and that John is hovering somewhere overhead, close by; but Pepper is thinner, with blunter rectrices, and not at all as thick around the neck as Camy had been.

You resolve not to remember the precise feel of Camy in your hands, and focus on Pepper's attention on you now. Her beady eyes consider Roxy, then you, and her head cocks questioningly when your lack of insects or other snacks becomes evident.

"Can you get John?"

It's silly, perhaps, to ask for a god from a raven. But Pepper rasps at you and thoughtfully preens for a moment, before taking flight. You watch her wings shimmer under the sun as she soars around the curve of the cliff, and you hold a peculiar confidence that John will soon come in her place.

"I didn't know you were rocking the Disney princess stuff," Roxy giggles at you, but her mirth ebbs from her as she observes you more closely, and it's not for the bruises blossomed on your skin. She reaches for you, and you step away. "Dirk, what's wrong?"

You don’t have the words to tell her even if you wanted to. There’s no way for Roxy to know, to understand, the range or depth of emotion that consumes you as you stand here--the knowledge that your brother once stood here, that you nearly died here, that you unearthed the truth of your identity here, that you witnessed a god break here, that you buried Camy near these grounds, that you gave yourself to John and took yourself back here--how could she know? What could you possibly say to convey the circumstances alone, much more the imprint on your heart associated with even a single one of them?

You’re relieved of obligation to respond to your cousin as the winds change around you, curl around you almost tangibly, as if learning you all over again, and you don’t need to look up to know that John has arrived--but you do look, and are disquieted at the sight of him. You crane up your head and, with a sickly, sluggish sensation rising in your stomach, regard bewilderment on his face that quickly melts into an indescribable blankness. You know that expression now, recognize it as the same shock taken in stride when you mentioned that Dave was your brother, that your name was Dirk; it speaks of recognition of another world, of shattered dreams and gods fattened by their unchecked ambitions, and you fight not to recoil at the sight of it again.

You fail miserably, your jaw startled loose, as John speaks a name he is not yet meant to know.

“Roxy?”

They haven’t been introduced. You’ve mentioned John to Roxy, and so apparently had Dave, but you somehow are blindsided by the notion that someone, most likely your brother again, had spoken of Roxy to John. There’s a thought that tugs at the back of your mind, whispers to you that John should not know--that the way he utters Roxy’s name is with an inflection that is entirely separate from mere hearsay shared in passing--that the otherworldly shock on his face doesn’t translate appropriately for the unfamiliarity that is supposed to occur before proper introductions.

And your cousin, for all of her feigned, limited information about John, is altogether too unsurprised at his airborne status. If anything, she seems pained now, stricken with an enervated smile that reeks of a remorse you thought impossible for anyone but you to feel.

Your world has long been shattered, but at last, the fragile fragments of it begin to disconnect from the whole.

“Hi, John,” you hear Roxy say, her voice barely a whisper--a sigh--and you turn on her more with anger than surprise. You turn to her, because you still cannot bear to look at John.

Your voice quivers with disbelief, with fright, with a demand to understand what is happening to you and what little left you thought you knew.

“Do you guys already know each other?”

“Um, so, it’s not like--so I’d heard a lot about all--about him--John--from Dave--”

Roxy’s stammering attempts to appease your accusing inquiry are conveniently swallowed up by John’s explanation.

“I've heard about her, from… you know,” John tells you, and you do finally wheel around to face him, snarling like a savage animal. It should be enough, his words, but you’re scalded, fuming, with the thought that all along, you really had been the only one left in the dark.

Do I? Do I know?”

You have clutched so desperately your wicked secret to yourself, to protect them, to spare them--to spare John--and for what? How is it that you alone remain dumbfounded by a world beyond your scope? First John, then your brother, then you yourself, and now Roxy? And what of Rose? Of--of anyone, everyone? Who can you trust? And what is truth?

Had you lied to John for nothing?

There is an irony in your offense at the matter. That you should be permitted to deem when it is fitting to withhold and when to speak the truth, but balk when others do the same, is the epitome of hypocrisy. You’re no different from the Progenitors, the very wretches you blame for the havoc and agony that haunts those left who you… you....

You cannot love John. You will not. You couldn’t even love Dave, upon who you had so openly unleashed your every protest and disapproval. How can you even begin to consider loving John, when you can’t give him the truth--when you don’t even know who you are, or who anyone is, anymore? When you really only came back to say goodbye?

A weariness weighs down John’s features, brings him slowly onto the ground. He looks at you and you only for a moment, and addresses you with a quietude that manages to swallow up every other sound around you.

“Don't you?"

Your breath leaves you then, as his gently spoken accusation pierces right through you, flays your nerves apart, like Damascus steel through silk.

John doubts you and your facade, and you wonder now if he's ever believed you at all.

Caught in the tides of blatant dissension, Roxy wraps her arms around herself, as if that would shelter her from the emotional turbulence emanating from you and John, and she shifts uncomfortably from one foot to the other, shoes scuffling against stone.

"Do you guys have to do this?" She mutters feebly, and you hear the tremble in her voice--you can see her try to make herself small; but you are too consumed by the collapsing remnants of your sanity to fairly acknowledge her efforts to diffuse the situation.

John grants her what might be a piteous look, but you, in your asperity, whirl about back to her, and bite out your words between clenched teeth. Roxy is undeserving of your ire, of how you snap at her like a maltreated mongrel, you know, but as your world continues to crumble about you like disconnected glass mosaic, you are woefully without a shred of composure left for yourself.

"Are you like him, too?"

You see it in her eyes, the depthless anguish--that she understands what you're asking without requiring clarification. No response is needed from Roxy for you to arrive at a verdict. Her silence is enough. Yet she offers you her consolation anyways, meager though it may seem as you're swept away by the undertow of betrayal, and it's all you can do not to scoff in her face.

"I am sorry, Dirk…"

How many people have said that--will say that--to you now? First John, and then Roxy, and who next? What does sorry even mean anymore? What good is "sorry" if it can't heal a hurt or turn back time? If it can't wipe away the tarnished blight eating your heart inside out?

"Not sorry enough," is all you say, your face a contortion of rage and repugnance, before you stalk away, roughly shouldering past the wilting form of who you once knew as your cousin. In doing so, with bitter irony, you provide John with an encore of your back, as you yank open the door of the shack and slam it behind you.

The impact of the door rattles the frame, and to your right, housed in a taller one of the several birdcages, a hawk startles at your sudden entrance. Its feathers rise at the sight of you, auburn pigmentation highlighted golden in the sunlight of the early afternoon; in like fashion, the hairs on your body prickle to attention, though you are, in contrast, shadowed. You lock eyes with the bird of prey, your heart pulsing with a different sort of agitation now, and you stand in shocked stillness so long that the hawk loses interest in you and turns its head away, eyes blinking shut.

You know it isn't the same bird--it can't be--but you're struck all the same with recollection of Dave's journal, and how in it, he had recorded mention of a hawk fondly nicknamed Big Red.

The animal is deceptively sized, far smaller than you imagined when its wings are tucked away, yet its presence overwhelms you as your mind ambushes you with further connections of Dave and what troubles your heart.

Big Red and this hawk. Poe and Camy. Pictures of John in the journal and inescapable images of John in your head. Dave's wish, and his unclaimed ring; your wish, taboo, unspoken but in your innermost secret place. John's love for Dave, and your love for John.

You love John. No matter how you strive to deny it, to ignore it, to scrub it clean from your mind, the sentiment holds fast.

In a more reasonable state, you might have reached the conclusion that loving John is not necessarily in conflict with loving your brother; but now, braced against the door of John's home, with your psyche in shambles and your crisis before you, betrayal is all you feel. You feel it from the very world itself, how it callously upturned everything you know into your face; you feel it from the discovery of the gods who reveal themselves all around you, even once in your own self; and you feel it most of all from yourself, with your tongue coated in a lie that has seized your lungs and plays them like puppet strings attached to your heart.

You slump against the door, back scraping against the wood of it, as you slide down and into a broken little ball of miserable imbroglio. Your hands gather at your neck, where you search for the memory of John's hands once there, and trace your skin as if over a scar. You consider strangling yourself--bolting outside and throwing yourself over the edge of the cliff again--but you're too shaken to control your legs.

Through the cracks of the shack's frame, between the unsteady breaths jostling out of your lips, you hear the exchange of hushed voices, of John and Roxy murmuring close by, their discussion somber and low. Positioned as you are at the door (and gratefully out of sight of the windows or any potential spectators) you realize you have the opportunity to eavesdrop. Far be it from you not to snatch up any distraction; you're unraveling too fast and too hard, trembling on the floor already.

You're already too filthy to abstain from one more guilty indulgence.

"Is he… like this a lot?" You hear Roxy's voice, fragile and soft, as if she's afraid she doesn't have permission to say anything at all.

"Yeah, on and off," John replies, and your ears burn at the sound of his voice. You so desperately want to know what he thinks of you, how he feels; you're sick for want of learning who you really are to him. Your malaise only worsens, however, as John continues with words that certainly confirm the deity of your cousin--the both of them, Roxy and Rose--and you can't help but feel likened to an insignificant pet, the way they talk about you as if you aren't a stone's throw away on the other side of the door. "He was really bad, just like this, when I first met him again. He was--I don't think we were expecting each other."

"Oh, he came looking for Dave, and found you, didn't he?"

"Yeah… I guess so."

"Rose said he would. She… she sent that tea set and said you'd get it, even though she sent it to Dirk."

A chuckle, dry and tired, filters through in John's weathered tenor.

"That's so typical of her."

A rustle, the shift of fabric against stone. They must be seated as they talk, having settled while they wait for you to emerge from your ill-tempered seclusion.

"Did you?"

"Did I what?"

"Get it? The tea set?"

"Oh." There's a peculiar pause before John responds. "Yeah. I did. He… um, you know, delivered it."

"Figures. Leave it to Rosey to predict the future again. I wish I had listened before, when she was telling us about…"

Roxy trails off, and a stifling silence infiltrates the air, penetrates through the wooden divide between you and them and seeps into your lungs like a poison.

When she speaks again, you slowly forget how to breathe.

"I'm really sorry, John."

John doesn't ask after the source of her apology, doesn't ask anything at all; he only sighs in heavy, otherwise unvoiced weariness, and offers her a commiseration that only they can understand.

"I don't blame you, you know."

"You should. I--" Her voice cracks then, and a noise you've never heard before from her--a sob--creeps into Roxy's broken voice. Your Roxy, your unwavering and gentle and optimistic Roxy, wails. "I should have--should have listened to her when she said they were going to make us--I didn't want to--I'm sorry, John, I'm so sorry--"

Her anguished cries become muffled, most likely by John in the form of an embrace or other physically delivered comfort. You hear him wash her with soothing whispers, words you know he never would receive for himself, words of forgiveness and acceptance.

"Hey, Roxy, it's--" An inhale. A sigh. "None of us were prepared for it. I don't think there ever was a real way to be ready. You and Jake--" Your chest wrenches tightly at that name--another name you shouldn't recognize, "--you guys didn't have a choice. You know that as well as I do. It's not… not the end of the world, alright?"

Jake, too--you, and Dave, and now Roxy and Rose and Jake--was there no one untouched by the curse of Skaia?

"It feels like it," Roxy whimpers pitifully. "It hurts so bad, thinking about what we'd done! Pretending like nothing was--was wrong and then just--just doing that to them--I--I think about it every day, wishing I knew how to fix it, what I could have done differently, and I--I just--"

"I know, Roxy, I know."

"I just miss everyone! I miss the way we used to be, all together and happy!"

"Yeah, I do too."

Wetly sniffling, Roxy lapses into a concentrated effort to collect herself. After a great deal of sniffing and labored breathing, composure finds her voice once more, though she speaks with a tone that is almost defeated.

"I… I never got to tell you this, since we both left Skaia after--you know, everything happened, but--I am sorry things ended like this."

"I know. Me too."

"It's not fair to you, especially, with how long you and Dave stuck it out after everything…" A rush of air, strained and long, escapes her. "I'm sorry you had to lose him like this."

"...what?"

With a surge of adrenaline, fight or flight overwhelmingly inclined to the latter, you snap your head up. Your eyes scour the room in a panic, focusing on anything--on nothing at all--as you realize Roxy is about to tip your hand.

"Did… Did Dirk not tell you?"

But out of anyone who should tell John the truth, it should be you, if for no other reason than that you are the one who lied to him from the start.

"Tell me what?"

There's no missing the edge--the danger--in John's voice, how cutting it is and what unfortunate end it means for you. He'd given you a chance already, practically pleaded for you to come clean, and you'd chosen time and time again to withhold what would surely set him free.

"That Dave... He's gone, John."

You pretended all along it was to protect him, because you didn't want to hurt him; but you've hurt him from the moment you'd arrived on this damned rock, with every question and accusation and second of your time here. You've ruined him, forced him to relive unspeakable nightmares, and finally you've consumed him like a gluttonous demon.

You might once have claimed to have lied to spare John's feelings, but you can't any longer. You realize now that you've never cared about hurting John; you've done it because you want to keep John for yourself.

"Did--did he tell you something? Because I already knew he was gone, but he--I mean--damn it, I--you know who I mean--"

And he knew. Of course, John knew, and he played along anyways; he entertained your unholy game as you thought yourself so cunning, as the both of you knew you were ever the dishonest pretender--but why? You've ransacked your mind, agonized over every possibility but one, because it is not possible--

"Wait, John, can you not just… say Dirk's name?"

--when he has Dave--

"Roxy, not now--"

--that John could ever--

"Oh my God, John--you and Dirk--"

--love you.

You scramble away from the door, onto your unsteady feet, stumbling like an unsteady newborn. Hysteria tunnels through your core, up your throat, into your head; it crawls over your skin, pries itself underneath and into your veins. You heave your chest in a silent scream, and clutch at your throat when it won't come.

In your descent into madness, you bump against the table and chairs. Your phone is jostled out of your pocket and clatters onto the floor, where it skids away as you inadvertently kick it across the room. You engage in a wild dance, a frenzy, as you grab at the table to keep from falling; your balance, assailed by your fright, is barely regained.

Your clumsy stampeding about the room causes John to check on you sooner than he inevitably would have. The door gives way to his hasty entrance, and you freeze in place. Braced against the table, you look on him with a terror, and your stomach clenches in icy fear as he returns your gaze with a chilling intensity.

Past him, you see Roxy, eyes glistening with worry, mouth another worthless apology at you, before John shuts the door behind him, and you are trapped in his eyes more than his home.

Your mind frantically fumbles about for what you could possibly say--for some explanation, or statement, that might offer you an advantage in the ominous, impending conversation. If you could just speak first, you might gain some control of things; you might save yourself in one last opportunity to clear yourself before John finalizes your wrongdoing against him.

You've unfortunately run out of chances.

"What are you doing?"

John's voice is unnervingly quiet, tempered, like a slab of ice over a raging river beneath it in the dead of the winter. You're too blindsided to tread carefully. No--you have thrown caution into the sea. You want the ice to break, so you can submerge yourself underneath.

You strike.

"Say my name."

Surely enough, you see a crack in his defenses, as something horrifying passes over John's face.

"What?"

"Say it, say my fucking name, John!"

Your nails dig into the wood of the table so hard you're convinced you're clawing up splinters, your muscles are so tight you're sure you're about to become an entire sprain yourself, and your teeth are ground together with such force that it's a mercy your tongue is not caught between them.

But John only looks at you, his eyes wide, brows furrowed as deeply as you've ever seen, and slowly, he shakes his head at you like he's discovered something foul.

"Say it, John," you repeat, your voice a growl. "Or… or I'm leaving, and I'm not coming back."

The ice you'd hoped to break through utterly shatters.

"No," he says, and it's as if time grows still, his words measured with danger. "You tell me first. What happened."

It's not a question, the furthest thing from a request; but you challenge it, even as you cling to the last of your fast fading ruse.

How you hate to always lose.

"What happened with who?"

Now it is John who snarls, his face twisting with an aggression that intimidates you so greatly that you begin to back away; and like a predator provoked, just as you'd warranted, he closes in on you, until your back presses against the wall and your head is by the picture of your brother, and John looms over you with the promise of death in his eyes.

"Stop pretending you don't know! Stop lying to me!"

"I'm not--"

Glass rakes across your face, flying like shrapnel, as wind slams against you so furiously that you hug yourself in a pitiful whimper. At your side, the picture frame dismantles and collapses onto the bed, tragically face up. Your shades splinter and topple away onto the floor.

John, agitated as the wind amassing around him, hovers before you; he's embraced his power, his godhood, his hurt, and he looks down upon you with the one thing you hate to see in his eyes: tears.

His voice is like a snowflake on the water.

"Please."

You tentatively uncoil yourself, glass shards tinkling off of you and onto the floor, and straighten; your eyes are unshielded, your abyssal soul naked before him now, and you submit to his emotion.

"...Okay."

And though his eyes glow that untamed blue, the wind vanishes away, and John steps down to the ground. You can barely breathe for how close he is to you. Had you the courage, you could take him in your arms and make things right.

"Where is he?"

You drink in John like a truth serum, behold him laden in your sight, greedy for every last moment of him, for as soon as you give him his due answer, you are sure you will never see him again. But time does not wait forever--has never waited at all--and you resign yourself to the end.

You are tired of running.

"He's gone."

"Gone where? Gone how?"

"He's just gone, John."

You hate the way John's voice quivers, how it breaks--how human he is in this moment with you, though he carries the pain of a god in his eyes.

"You," he starts, sucking in a ragged breath. "You said that--you said you'd tell me, if--if anything happened--"

You set your jaw, curl your lips back into your gums, and hiss through your teeth.

"I lied."

John's eyes are unfocused, a pair of toiling pools flowing down his cheeks, as he gapes down at anything--everything--nothing at all.

"You could have just told me--" You could have. You didn't. "But you didn't, so it--it's not that bad, right? He's gone, but he'll be--he'll be back, right?"

"No, he won't," you whisper, your own voice incredulous to you.

You tremble at John, not in sorrow and denial as he does, but with rage. Your fists shake at your sides as tension burrows into your spine, and you struggle not to scream.

Of all things--of all times--John is giving you one last chance.

"He has to--"

You cannot stand it anymore. At his desperate cry, you snap.

It’s not because John still loves Dave. It’s only right for him to, after immeasurable stretches of time and space and universes, if not for the sake of his choosing alone. You’re the intruder, the one who has forcibly inserted yourself in a scenario that was never meant to support your assumed role. But you’re a wretch to the very end--you love John, and your very being protests his union with Dave, because you want John for yourself still, though you’ve destroyed his heart and you’ve killed your brother; and you surely are unworthy of John and the happiness that loving him would bring, no matter how badly you want him--no matter how badly you’re hurting.

And yet John still cannot say your name.

"He can't, John--he won't, okay? He's fucking DEAD--DAVE IS DEAD, and he's never coming back!" You screech into his face, where you are sure he won’t misinterpret the venom in your words, and this time you don’t look away when he fixes his lambent eyes on you.

His words part from him like ash in the wind.

"Why did you not tell me when you first came?"

You are long past secrets now.

"Because I hated you," you tell him honestly, as your lungs feel as if they're unraveling apart in your chest. "I hated that you took him from me."

John looks at you, unreadable and silent.

Now that you've finally opened up, you continue, unable to stop, driven by a dam let loose from within you. John is your priest, your god, your holy one, and you confess yourself before him, no longer fearing his judgment.

What more can be done to you? You have already lost everything.

You speak as if in a fever, words falling out of your mouth with such ease now that it seems so sad you'd waited for so long.

"I couldn't stand to see him always running off to you, always leaving me behind--always rubbing my failure in my face. You--" Your voice cracks as John blurs in your vision; tears leak from your eyes, hot and full, and you shake. "You made him so--so happy, something I had never been able to do, and I just couldn't understand what was so special about you--why he always seemed to love you more than me."

Your jaw, lined with tears, trembles, as you say, "Now I know."

Now it is you who cries, as your world pulses in a shimmering haze of water; but you cry alone, for John's eyes have cleared, and his face is a mystery to you as he turns and stoops over the broken picture on the bed.

"It's funny, you know," he tells you, sifting through glass, pulling your brother's smile up with him as he stands again. He does not quite look at you as he speaks, his eyes focused somewhere behind you on the wall--somewhere in his memories--and it's just as well, because what he says next completely destroys what is left of you. "That was almost exactly what you said, back when all this started."

"...What?"

You cannot breathe. You cannot breathe. You cannot breathe.

There's no way. John can't mean--

"You know, back before any of us became gods. When you were the one killing him." His eyes fall on you like swords. "You know about that too, don't you?"

You do know. At the same time, you had no clue.

While your brother’s journal had said as much--had mentioned that John had made a deal with Typheus to save Dave--nowhere had you seen any mention of who exactly had been abusing Dave. You would have killed whoever it was had you the chance, would have squeezed the life out of them with your hands around their throat.

Again, you find you are confronted with only yourself.

It’s like you’re back in the library, staring yourself in the face, learning that you’re the Appraiser all over again. Your head is throbbing and your mind is spinning and your chest is too, too tight; and you want to run, to run from the chaos and the pain and the bloody reality that pursues you so well--you want to throw yourself over the ledge so John will catch you again, want to hear him tell you about anything or nothing in particular just so you can hear his voice light up inside of you like a compass and help you find your position again. But this time John is the one making you hurt; he isn’t offering to calm you down, isn’t interested in your sanity, because you’ve wounded him, you’ve betrayed him, and you are due to recompense him for your lies.

You’re paying with your heart for your misdeeds all over again. All along, John has been trying to save Dave from you; all along, you have been selfish, wicked, and destructive.

Your mind fails you as you desperately struggle to discern how John has suffered you, how he hasn’t rended you asunder, how he’s been so gentle and kind and good to you, when all you have done is ripped apart everything he has ever had.

Even with nothing left, you have so much more than John.

How is it possible that John cannot say your name?

“John, I--” You of all people understand the futility of apology now, but what else do you have to offer? “I’m sor--”

"You should go."

As the sky meets the sea and a line must be drawn between them, John draws his line. His words cleanly clip away what coherency is left in your mouth, and you do not hope to utter again your pathetic attempts at reconciliation.

You gape in absolute dejection at his back, at the crestfallen curves of his shoulders and head, as John stands with the face of your brother in his hands. Salt streaks into your mouth as your tears pour down your face--too late.

You really are always too late.

As one teetering on the precipice of mortality, your mind, in a panic, flings at you whatever it can, as if you'd somehow discover something to rescue you there.

Are you familiar with me?

Do you have somewhere to go where you can be yourself?

...the Progenitors actually rewrote the world…

If there was a chance to be with someone you loved, wouldn't you have to take it?

You deserve to know.

Younger than I thought.

...there are some core traits of a person that remain the same in every universe…

...you have someone special in mind?

And what did you expect?

Will you come with me?

What would you wish for?

John's smile, his laugh, his voice, his touch, his eyes--every word, every look--it all floods you. Since the day you showed up in his home, he's been trying to see if you remember--if you were the same person as before--if he should treat you anew. He's given you forgiveness already, given you a fresh slate; but the destructive effect in you seems an eternal constant, an inescapable characteristic of your wretched self, and you've laid waste to his grace upon you again… perhaps for the last time.

You don't want to leave and lose your last chance to find resolution--to find relief--and your heart is aching and begging for you to do something to put a stop to the frantic spin the world has undergone.

Against your better judgment, like a pathetic and vulgar leech, you reach out to John.

He stiffens at your touch. You blurt out nugatory pleas, your fingers curling into the sleeve of his shirt, as you hope to bargain for just one more chance--just another moment of his time.

"John, please, I'm sorry."

If you could just tell him, if he knew--

"Get out."

--then he wouldn't--

"I love y--

"GET OUT!" Amplified by a surge of uproarious air, his voice thunders so powerfully that the windows rattle and the hawk by the window squawks in startlement. When John speaks again, it is with finality; and though he's barely audible, the single word rings like the bell toll of death in your ears, over, and over, and over again. "Leave."

For the first time, you find yourself truly unwelcome in John's home.

You withdraw your trembling hand, stare at the rejection John's back gives you, and step away. You edge away from John, from his little forest dwelling, and you run.

You run from John, from the Overlook, from Roxy, from the gods and their scarring touch--you run with a heart more broken than when you first came; and in some belated sense of self-preservation, you don't dare to look back--not once.

Chapter Text

Your mouth is as dry as dust, your eyes drier still. Your stomach is tied into a swollen knot, and your heart hurts like you've been rammed through with a rusted sword. It's been two days since you burst into your room, locked the door, and threw yourself onto the floor in a distraught, sobbing heap. You haven't moved an inch or slept a wink, and you don't foresee the circumstances changing anytime soon.

Had you the will to stand, you'd put an end to your misery.

John rejected you. You told him you loved him, and even though you know his feelings for you are requited, he rejected you. It's no wonder, objectively speaking: you were a manipulative, lying, repugnant coward. It's only right. But that doesn't mean that you're dealing with it any better.

You've squeezed out every last tear in your body, and all that remains of your wallowing is an overbearing numbness that weighs you down onto the floor.

You're fairly certain you're in some state of shock.

It had been painful enough to harbor the blame for Dave's death, even harder to stomach lying to John about it. For what has been a few weeks since you'd met John and opened the can of Skaian worms (a fitting nickname for the gods, surely,) it has felt like months, if not years. The toll of stress and keeping your head on straight has finally caught up with you, and you can barely make sense of anything anymore.

But John decimated the last threads of sanity stitching you together, when he'd effectively knifed you in the heart with the fact that you were the reason everyone had suffered everything.

You had been the one beating the life out of Dave. You were ultimately the motivating factor for John to decide to leave behind his dad and to become a god in order to save Dave. You were the reasons gods died. Had you not been such a fucking degenerate, John would have been able to live out a normal life with his family and friends, as would Dave had been able to--and sure, they both would have died eventually, but at least it would have been naturally, in their own time, and not in some twisted act of tragedy.

They could have been saved from you. John would never have suffered universes of pain. Dave could have… You'd like to think he would have eventually found another way out. More importantly, you would eventually have ceased to exist.

That is something that bothers you. If you had been beating the shit out of Dave, how had someone like you ended up as a god? Ordinarily, you'd be running down the path to The Overlook to ask John and to hash out all of these thoughts, but that's no longer an option for you. It isn't even what drives you most crazy.

What bothers you worst is that, no matter how you might agonize or regret the situation, the fact is that this is your reality--but you don't know what your reality really is anymore.

Somewhere beyond the barricade of your door, you hear a shuffling, your "cousin" puttering around between the living room and kitchen again, in what you assume is another trip for food. Why she would waste time eating, you can only guess; seeing as she's another god, food is unnecessary.

At some time yesterday, Roxy had let herself back in. You don't know how she made her way back--don't know if she, like John, could fly, or if John had assisted her off of the cliff, or if some other supernatural ability was at play. You don't know and you don't care. You can only wonder at how she hid it from you for so long--why she bothered at all. Rose, too--and Jake.

You'd been surrounded by gods for the entirety of the only life you remember living, and never even knew. And why? What gain did they receive by playing at mortality? At pretending to age and grow taller, and working a job and attending a university? At humoring themselves with romance and familial bonds, at your expense? Why not just live wherever they pleased, without a care for money or sustenance or what came of tomorrow?

Then again, why had you lied? Are you really one to judge?

You laboriously rotate through the same spiral of open-ended questions; and as the day transitions into twilight, the last of sunlight on your bedroom floor fading away, at last, a knock sounds at your door.

"Hey, Dirk?"

You've never heard Roxy this timid. She sounds almost repentant, just knocking at your door, while she's a guest in your home and you are ignoring her so you can starve yourself on your bedroom floor. She might as well be a stranger to you now, though, and your tone is unkind to her as you dredge up your voice from the bitter caverns of your throat.

"What."

She doesn't shy away.

"Can I… talk to you?"

"Do I have a choice?"

Her feet scuff against the base of the door, and you can picture her shifting her weight from one foot to the other, her lip doing that pouty thing she does when she's worried or embarrassed.

She might have lied--you might not have known she was a goddess, but you know her as a person. She's still your Roxy. You can't turn her away.

"Of course you do," she murmurs into the door, her voice muddled by the density of it. "But… there are some things you deserve to know, and I… I want to be the one to tell you."

If only you had said that to John, before things had fallen victim to your idiocy.

You're obligated to comply with her now, to have this conversation, and not through the door.

You force your stiffened joints into action and collect yourself off of the ground. Your head is pounding, your chest is aching, your knees are screaming, and you really need to pee; but you get to your feet and to the door and open it to let Roxy in.

Like a guilty child, her hair a frizzy mop of unruly curls, her eyes darkened from crying, and her mouth doing that pouty thing you expected, Roxy peeks up at you from beneath her bangs and manages the slightest of smiles. She glows like a ghost against the backdrop of yellow light from the kitchen.

"Hey."

You can't stay mad at her, not when she looks like that. Not when you're so despicable yourself.

"Hey. Let me hit the bathroom, and then we can talk."

Roxy steps to the side to give you room to pass by, and you quietly excuse yourself to do your business in the privacy of the bathroom.

You wish your troubles would drain away down the toilet when you flush. You wish that just once, something would come easily to you, and that you wouldn't screw it up. It might not be the type of wish you would have asked of John, but you wish it all the same.

You take a moment to rinse and towel off your face, and swish some mouthwash in your mouth. Mint stings the inside of your mouth, burns at your gums and the sensitive places under your tongue, but it's pitiful in comparison to the hurt festering inside of you. You want a shower, scalding hot, to melt away your anguish; but you can't keep Roxy waiting for much longer, or else you'll chicken out of your talk with her, and so you settle for emptying your mouth into the sink before exiting the bathroom.

Roxy is loitering about in the living room, peering pensively at some photo of you and Dave mounted on the wall. It's a picture of the two of you when you were no more than seven or eight, one of the last shots of you two together. You've seen enough of pictures lately; you don't join her.

You instead pad over to the kitchen at the behest of your gnawing and neglected stomach, and peek in the fridge. To your surprise, the shelves are mostly empty, despite your generous stocking not even a week prior. You knew Roxy could eat, judging by the heaping portion sizes she had scarfed down in front of you beforehand, but it's still startling to see your entire fridge depleted of anything remotely edible.

So she's a stress eater. A funny vice for a goddess.

The freezer offers you up a mound of frozen burritos from your extensive meal prepping some time ago, and you content yourself with a plate of four burritos to reheat in the microwave, and a glass of orange juice. At least Roxy had been sensible enough to leave your juice alone.

By now, Roxy has acknowledged your station in the kitchen, and she moves over to you. She seats herself at the dining table, and once your food is warmed, you join her. You sit across from her and begin to eat, and let her initiate the conversation. To your mild frustration, she doesn't; she folds her arms across the table and taps her fingers against her forearms, eyes slanted away, lips quirked into a frown.

It's so very, very hard not to shout.

You swallow a mouthful of food, sip your juice, and breathe as calmly as you can through your nose, before you dare to speak.

At least you have some idea of where to start.

"So, eating."

"Yeah?" Her eyes turn on you then, large and glossy, and you feel your face soften around the edges slightly. She's been trying not to cry.

"You don't have to, right?"

"No--I mean, yeah--I mean, you're right. Sorry--I--sorry."

You do sigh harshly this time, but not at Roxy. Not at anyone, really. You're just so tired--so weary of what's been done to you and your little family.

"Rox," you say softly, and she blinks away tears at your implicit forgiveness. "Relax. Just… let's talk."

"Okay." She wipes her eyes several times with the back and sides of her hands and wrists before finally regaining composure. With a deep breath, she assumes the gentle, hopeful smile of the Roxy more familiar to you, though she still is drawn into herself. "Okay."

You give her space to recover, making a show of busying yourself with your food, tolerating the act of talking with your mouth full.

"What did you want to say?"

You pretend not to see the lifeless glaze in her eyes as she falls back into a subdued quiet.

"I talked to John yesterday, after you left… I--I hadn't seen him for a long time, you know?" She rubs her hands over her arms, gazes down at them sadly, and mutters, "I guess you wouldn't know. But that's what I wanted to talk about."

You hope she doesn't elaborate with much detail exactly what she discussed with John. Nothing good could possibly have been said of you, and you don't think you could take anymore. But this is Roxy's time, and you agreed to let her talk.

"Right. Go ahead."

Your plate gradually empties as you eat, as you listen to Roxy unload the burdens she's carried long before this world was formed.

If John was the storyteller, Roxy is the muse; in her soft spoken, lilting speech, she sweeps your mind into a new corner of perspective, one incredibly more rife with heartache and regrets than you imagined.

How you hate the gods.

"So… when I first became one of the gods, it was actually pretty fun. I got to learn about all these cool things that I could do, experiment with powers, make new friends, discover a whole new world--all of that stuff most kids only dream about. I wasn’t really a kid, I guess, but I wasn’t that old!”

You remember how John’s body was essentially immortalized by his ascension. If the same is true for Roxy, then she couldn’t have been much older than you, either, when she accepted her godhood. Was everyone like this--the same prime age--when the Progenitors uprooted them out of their lives? Had you been the same, too, when you had been one of them?

“I guess I should ask what powers you were granted,” you say, leaning back in your chair, arms loosely folding over your stomach, your plate now empty.

“Hella cool powers,” Roxy beams, but the light dissolves out of her nearly instantaneously. “But not cool enough that I don’t resent them. Not like--I’m not trying to avoid the question. Actually, that’s part of what I wanted to say.”

Her lips flutter noisily as she exhales, and Roxy slumps in her seat like the entire world just piled onto her shoulders. In her mind, you have no doubt it has.

“I can make stuff happen out of nowhere,” she tells you, her hands rotating about in the empty space at the edge of the table. Your brows climb up your forehead as a rose, pink and mature, materializes within her palms. “It’s really fun, now that I got the hang of it. But the other thing that I can do is hide things. Make them go away.” As she says this, the rose becomes obfuscated with a shadow, and the flower dissipates before your eyes, as if it had never existed there at all.

Your eyes scan her hands in wonder, before you blink your focus back to her face; but Roxy is no longer looking at you, her mind transported back to a place in time she’s forcing herself to relive for your sake. Like John, she peels back layers upon layers of a wounded heart, bears herself raw and real to you, like it’s the proper thing to do.

It is not just. You’ve never felt filthier in your life. But you don’t stop her.

“It’s not just material objects that I can do this to. I can do it with… with invisible stuff. With feelings. With,” her voice hitches into a near sob, as she bites out, “Memories.”

You understand the implications immediately. Even if she cannot plainly express herself, restrained by the Progenitors’ laws, just as John, you understand.

The reason you cannot remember your life as a god, or any life until now, is due to her involvement. Roxy is the one who violated your psyche, who wiped your mind clean. The Progenitors didn’t bother to do it themselves--they forced their surrogate children to turn on themselves, like savage beasts.

You don’t know how to feel about this--what’s appropriate to feel--what you want to feel.

You feel nothing at all.

Roxy’s tears glimmer like stars in the low light of the kitchen, trail down the sides of her face as if to caress her still; but she doesn’t acknowledge them, or your stony disposition, or anything around her at all, as she continues on, voice somehow held steady by some act of sheer will alone.

“Jake,” you do flinch here, “he’s one of us, too. I don’t know if you knew that before, but just in case you didn’t, I’m telling you now. He--we both--he can sort of make things happen, in a different way than I can? I don’t know how to explain it, but… it’s like, if you believe hard enough, then things can become permanent. Reality. Like, you just hope hard enough and your wish comes true.”

At your expressionless state, she falters; your lack of response is more than mere patience for her to say her piece--it's outright brooding; but to her credit, Roxy sees it through to the end, despite your silent intensification of emotions (however undefined they may currently be.)

“That's what he does. So if I conjured up this rad prototype of something, he could make it real in a broader sense. And… if I hid something we were trying to make disappear, then he could make it actually gone, like it never existed."

Roxy does weep now, tears overflowing from her eyes, a world of sorrow laid bare in the depths of them.

"The gods," she chokes on the words at first, swallows fiercely to avoid losing her voice, "They made me and Jake--made us--” Her words abruptly take on a harsh pitch, and the tone causes your vellus hairs to prickle from anxiety.

“Do you know what it’s like to take that away from someone? What makes them happy, what makes them sad, what makes them them? To know you’re going to have to watch them struggle to find out all over again--to watch them forget you even though you haven’t forgotten them?” Roxy’s voice drops into a whisper. “It’s like killing them. It’s murder.”

You don’t know what it’s like to so painstakingly ravage someone’s anamnesis, but you are fully aware of the sensation of mentally reaching for something you inherently know should be there, only to come up empty handed; and you are more than familiar with the guilt of feeling associated with someone’s death.

With some warped irony, you find that not one of you feels blameless for the death of someone.

And you can’t fault Roxy for what she’s done--not when she’s so devastated by the deed and the effects of it, and surely not when she is graciously laying out the truth to you so freely and unprompted. You can’t wish ill on her for being forced into yet another atrocity.

You can generate more enmity for the Progenitors, though now, a part of you wonders to what purpose. If you can’t employ your hatred to any useful end, why exhaust yourself with it?

“I couldn't look at John after what I did,” Roxy continues. She bends, drops her head down onto her arms, and sighs. “I couldn't look at anyone, even if they didn't know anymore, cause I did. Every time I saw their faces, it was like going through it all over again. And when I saw John, it broke me, because he had been trying for so long to hang on to Dave, and look at what happened. Look at what I did to him--to both of them.

“So I ran. I left everyone for a while--tried to look for some way to cope. I hopped around lots of places until I ended up in New York for a while, and… I guess I wasn’t doing so hot, you know? ‘Cause Rosey showed up on my doorstep one day, and said I looked like shit that someone stepped on, and she just kind of, bullied me into letting her live with me, I guess? I’d been trying to run from everyone’s faces, but I couldn’t ever forget them, and I never stopped wondering how they were doing--and then when she showed up, and filled me in on how everyone was doing, it was like a breath of fresh air. It was just what I needed. I found out that Jane was actually really close by to me, and then Rose was there, and then she told me that you guys had ended up in Texas--”

When Roxy pauses for a moment to breathe, to recollect herself and to set herself back on track, you realize that your own chest is unexpectedly stiff and stationary. You force yourself to breathe, too, and do your best not to think about how Rose and Roxy had first appeared in your home one Christmas eve, when you had been barely young enough to remember it, and you had believed that they were just cousins visiting from far away.

You had believed many things. How many of them had been real? Was this conversation even real, or would you later discover it to be some construct of fantasy, just as everything else?

While you struggle with a sudden fit of surreality, Roxy returns to her reminiscing, unaware that her words pass through your attention like sand through a sieve. Your concentration requires inordinate levels of effort; you’re on the verge of blanking out, not unlike a panic attack, but without any of the physical symptoms of duress.

Are you overloaded?

Are you… breaking?

“I tried letting things be, but I felt so guilty, that I couldn’t help but stay in touch with you guys… It felt wrong, like I was breaking the rules somehow, but I just missed everyone so much and, I just--I thought that, maybe, if I was there, that I could atone somehow, or make the best of things even if I couldn’t ever make it up, really. I made friends with Janey again,” Again, she says. Again. How many times did Roxy, and John, and Dave, and you, have to start over again? How many times did the value of your lives become inflated in the emotional currency of the gods? “I tried keeping in touch with Dave and you; and I even tried with Jake, but he was really skittish, and we fell out of touch after a while…”

You fell out of touch with Jake, after a while, too. Where had he gone? How had he found you?

“...and I heard John was there, but I was too afraid to talk to him…”

How did you end up here?

“When I heard Dave died, I honestly couldn’t believe it. It was so hard to accept; all I could think about was what I’d done--what had happened--and just, what about John? They’d finally found each other again, and then… Then it happened again--something always happens--and I felt like I owed him something, to just, like, be there after hiding for so long. To say sorry like I wanted to but always chickened out of doing for forever."

You're only dimly aware of Roxy as you're enveloped in a fog made of disorienting doubt and anxiety. You can no longer contest the tides of brain-bending minutiae that swarm around your beleaguered mind and shatter into infinitesimal fragments of sense. Against respect for Roxy's heartfelt admissions, you're blanking out, and of course you are; like anyone with a mite of self-awareness, you're juggling a million questions--although only one resonates strongly and clearly enough for you to recognize it for what it is

How did this happen to you?.

How could this happen to you?

Why did this happen to you?

"Dirk?"

You blink the world back into focus with an unfortunate delay. Even with your shades on your face, it’s no mystery that your concentration had gone adrift. Roxy’s face exhibits profound concern at your spaciness, and you know it would only be appropriate to feel abashed or to apologize for your inattentiveness; but all you can do is blurt out the questions overthrowing your poise.

“How did I become a god? Were you there? Do you know?”

That your takeaway from all of her uncovered emotion is nothing but a selfish string of questions--well, you are embarrassed by it; but there is no one left for you to trust but Roxy, and you don't believe she would lead you astray or lie to you… if only she had the answers you seek.

"Sorry, Dirk, I--I don't know," Roxy tells you--nearly stutters out the words--with a regret that is palpable enough to dissuade you from pressuring her for more. "I know you were introduced to everyone about the same time as I was, and I know you were picked by the big sun dude, but that's all I know. I'm sorry."

You fail to conceal how devastated this unknown part of your life affects you. No matter how you try, your mouth morphs into a pained grimace, your efforts to parse even the most miniscule of facts resulting in futility.

"I really am sorry," Roxy repeats, as you bury your head in your hands.

"For what?" You reply, more into the table than her, your self-pity muffled by your weathered palms.

"For what I did," you hear; the words filter through your ears, into your troubled head, and slowly reign in your focus. "For letting you and Dave down. For going through with what I did back then, when I should've fought those awful gods."

You let your eyes slide shut as Roxy unwittingly reminds you all over of John and his bitter venting.

"They would have killed you," you observe tonelessly.

Roxy only snorts indignantly from across the table.

"Yeah, I would've probably died, but at least they couldn't have used me to be part of their shitty schemes! It would've been better than living the rest of my immortal god life regretting everything!"

"I guess."

What can you say? You're in no position to argue--you can barely think a single thing.

How did John or Roxy, or any of the gods, endure this crippling chaos in their heads? How did they live with such choices, with no escape or end in sight to save them from the moral quandaries?

"More importantly," Roxy utters softly, and you flinch in anticipation even before she finishes. "I'm sorry for outing you to John. I didn't know--I would have waited for you two to talk about it at your own pace if I'd known that you weren't ready yet, and--and I just blew it for you. I'm sorry. I keep saying it and I know it doesn't change anything, but I am sorry, really, and I just want you to know--"

"It's not your fault," you interrupt her, before she can spiral into another whirlpool of misery.

You knead your head with your fingertips and finally straighten in your chair, let your arms fall loose in your lap and your gaze roam somewhere about the table's dark surface, just close enough to be aware of Roxy's stunned expression in your peripheral vision, but not nearly close enough for eye contact.

"But--"

"None of it is. And John…" You sigh his name through a heavy frown. "He deserved to know. I was too afraid to tell him, so I lied to him--to myself--told myself it would hurt him too much so it was better not to say anything; but it was still wrong. You set things right--you just did what you could. No one can blame you for that."

"I can blame myself," Roxy sniffles noisily, broadcasts the onset of tears as she dabs at her eyes with her wrists. "I do."

"Well, I don't."

You really don't. All of this--from the very start--you all could have been spared, had you not ruined it all with your pathetic and inexcusable existence.

If you could go back to the beginning, you'd rid the world of yourself.

Roxy's voice crumbles over you, like a waterfall broken by calloused stone, her words accented by her tears.

"I don't understand how--how you can say that, or be so nice to me, now that you know."

"Maybe someone like me," you tell her, as you slip out from your chair and round the table, "should know better than anyone how important it is to forgive."

You stop short of Roxy, look down at her trembling and hunched shoulders, and put your arms around her; you pull her close and hug her to your chest, and you don't retreat when she returns your embrace--when she presses into you and soaks your shirt, or even after her crying abates, and her breathing stills. You hold her, and express your forgiveness as you let her in--let her hear your heart beat and feel your gut fend off sobs of your own--and in doing so, close the transient gap between you both.

When Roxy finally pulls away, hands smoothing back wet tendrils of hair away from her face, you pull out an adjacent chair and settle into it. You lean back haggardly against the chair, and ease your head onto the back of it. A fragile sigh escapes you as you reach into your pocket for your phone, a resignation about Dave's memorial service not forgotten.

Even if you now are operating in a world full of gods and goddesses, Dave was still important to you--to all of you--and now, more than ever, it will be crucial to recovery to schedule some way to properly say goodbye.

But there is a problem. Yet again, your phone is nowhere to be found; and there is no sense in looking anywhere here for it, because you know exactly where it is. As the time before, your phone is back at John's; but unlike the previous incident, you no longer feel comfortable going back to retrieve it--or to show your face at all.

You unbelievably consider exploiting Roxy, despite just learning of how long and fiercely she had struggled with seeing John face to face again herself. But no matter how she doubts it, you know that Roxy is in a better light than you are with John, and between the two of you, she would assuredly find more success dropping in for a visit.

"Roxy," you practically grunt, nearly affected with a disbelief that you're about to stoop this low. Then again, it's not as if you can do any worse than you already have, can you?

"Yeah?"

With her eyes on you, the temptation to abandon your request swells. You would be indebting yourself to her, forcing her to undergo another round of discomfort and shame, and dishonoring whatever remains of your relationship with John, if you ask her to go in your place; but the thought of reliving John's unyielding condemnation is too cumbersome for you still, and you cave in to your cowardice.

"I need you to do me a favor."

You attempt to feign an indifference, but it comes out almost as aggression, your tone too monotonous to be casual. Your disjointed effort gains Roxy's cautious curiosity; she rubs at her face one last time and then leans forward onto the table.

"Sure, what's up?"

It's fruitless to beat around the bush. You avoid eye contact still, but you are immediately forthcoming with your need.

"I left my phone at John's."

Realization flickers across her face as Roxy mouths some inaudible expression of pity. You feel more than see her sympathy as she offers you an escape, just as you hoped--just as you knew--that she would.

"I can go get it, if you aren't feeling up to running across him?"

"Please."

"I'm on it now," she promises, and you mutter something akin to gratitude as Roxy excuses herself from the table and sets off to run your errand for you.

Have you ever done anything yourself? Sure, you occupied yourself with obsessive projects here and there through the years, but when was the last time you hadn't shoved off the blame onto someone else? When had you ever made the first move for restitution or any positive change?

How long have you been isolating yourself, sulking in your cynicism and rueful outlook of the world, expecting others to pick up your slack?

Yet for as indecent as it may be, to cast your weakness on Roxy now, you can't imagine what else you're meant to do. Even if you had the guts to confront John again, you only would have somehow caused more destruction.

You're convinced that, even had you told John the truth in a more respectable time, you still would have ruined everything. It's the inevitable fact of your being: you destroy.

Unlike Roxy, who understandably is also afflicted with woe and regret, no one persuaded you to wrong John, or Dave, or anyone else you have ever crossed. You have always damaged things, as if by instinct, like a thoughtless barbarian--like an unruly animal.

You hadn't contested John when he revealed you as Dave's original abuser--hadn't even doubted or questioned the idea--because even subconsciously, you knew, as you know even now, that such disaster is an intrinsic part of you. After all you'd already done to Dave, too, how could you deny it? When you were the liar, compared to John, he who had been nothing but honest with you and had given you of everything he had to offer?

Why had you spoiled it like a witless brat? When will you learn to reign yourself in? Can you?

You spend the greater portion of your solitude emotionally flaying yourself with such deserved diatribes, stressfully anticipating when Roxy might return, terrified of what foul disappointment or loathing John must have expressed to her (and surely he would, because he would still be there, just as he always had been--there was no reason to think he'd be anywhere else--)

A fretting wreck, you pace the floor of the living room, clawing at your head and arms, chomping your worries between your teeth, until at last, in a gut-wrenching twist of the doorknob, Roxy returns.

You know at once from her face that your fear has not been unfounded.

Your feet fall still in the center of the room, and you swallow down a sickly taste quickly infiltrating the back of your mouth.

"What is it?"

Roxy's feet are thunderous to your ears, booming like your frantic heart, as she crosses the room and hands you your phone. From the open door, the summer sun creeps in, stretches across the floor and lends you its spotlight; you recoil in the light as, in a mortified whisper, Roxy imparts to you the words you'd been too afraid to think to yourself.

"John's gone."

It isn't denial that grips you, but fear. You're wounded still, no more recovered from your guilt and humiliation than when you had asked Roxy to present herself to John instead of you, but the desire to avoid John has been wholly replaced now by the singular, all-consuming thought that you cannot lose him.

Your phone squeaks in your fist as you squeeze it so tightly that the screen might crack, and you seize Roxy by the shoulder with your other hand to command her attention.

"You know about wishes, right?"

To your appreciation, Roxy is too stunned to quiz you about your sudden interest. Just as well, as you won't be here long enough to play guessing games.

"Yeah? Why?"

"Can a wish be undone?"

"What--Dirk, why are you asking this now--"

"Just answer me," you growl at her, and you jostle her about in your grip. With a frightened look, Roxy nods, and you nearly shake her again as you demand, "How?"

"They--whoever made the wish--they--they have to die," she stammers at you. "The one who grants the wish can be set free or whatever if their bond is knowingly severed by death!"

You release her, shoulder past her, and you don't bother to respond or to so much as tell Roxy where you're going as you sprint out of the gaping door. There's no need; the only running you have done lately is to see John, and you're streaking down the streets to do the same thing now.

But this time, you run with a terror, not away from your fears and the demons that threaten to overwhelm you, but toward them; you run to something--to John--and you don't stop to breathe, to ache, to water your strained and burning throat. You push yourself past the pain, the stitches in your sides, past the breathlessness and constricting anxiety in your chest, past the buckling and weakness in your legs and at your feet.

You tear through the trees, break out onto the upper trails, like a roe from a hunter. The ground drums beneath you as you stampede over it, as you trample flowers and weeds and wayward brush, and once, an upturned root snags you and you tumble face first into a rough mound of dirt and stone; but you scramble to your feet and are dashing away again, as if running with such madness would alter what you know is waiting you at The Overlook--what you cannot accept unless you confirm it with your own eyes.

The unknown has tormented you endlessly these past weeks. A part of you knows--is fulfilled by Roxy's discovery; you know, perhaps better than anyone else left alive, the justice of this. John had been trapped by a request so meager that it's hard to believe such a thing ever bound him. And now that Dave is dead, and John fully aware of this, whatever contract upheld between them has been terminated. But you find it so painful to consider that, despite all this, John would still leave so soon after learning he once again had access to the world. You hope--you want to believe--that, even if to say goodbye, he might have waited a little longer for you. According to Roxy, such opportunity has abandoned you--but maybe she had just missed him; maybe John was simply hidden in the trees, or out tending to his garden, or flying about, or any number of things that would make it possible for you to see him again, if you went to his home yourself.

You have to know he's really gone. You need to confirm it, so you can… so you can…

You don't arrive at any comprehensible conclusion. You stumble over yourself at the drop over The Overlook, and tumble down the narrow and perilous slope onto the stone floor in a reenactment of your first encounter with the place. This time, you're too flooded with adrenaline to register the bruises and scrapes you incur from your fall.

You don't like what you see--or rather, what you don't see.

The assortment of earthenware vessels outside of the shack is completely gone. All of the ropes and canvases and finely worked metals have been cleared away, and the outside of John's home is so vacant that had you not been here earlier not quite two days ago, you never could have guessed that anything had been here at all.

You stamp down ghastly dread and will yourself to approach the shack. Your footsteps echo in the empty space, resound against the worn wood of the cozy little dwelling place in which you had spent so much time with John. As you pass by the window, you can't help but glance inside, and you're promptly arrested by the untouched darkness cast over the room.

In a burst of haste, you rush to the door and jerk it open.

It's empty. Everything is so very, very quiet and empty.

A lifeless silence absorbs you as you gape in the doorway. A useless protest lodges in your throat, but you're too dismayed to voice it.

To your right, the collection of antique birdcages are all emptied, cleaned, and polished; the doors are all swung open, the occupants freed, their temporary roosts abandoned. From where you stand, you can see the shelves cleared of dishes and rags; the cha no yu set and the handcrafted wooden duck are also missing. The fireplace is unlit, swept bare, and dusted. In the corner across the room, the bed is stripped, and no picture frame hangs above it.

All that remains as evidence of John and what transpired between you both is now laid out on the table. Your eyes swell with tears as you recognize the thin slip, the brilliant smile of Dave, on the table surface; but it's not his picture that causes you to cry. It's the flower placed along the length of the picture, with its slender stem and array of vibrant fuchsia petals, that causes you to choke on a sob.

You know that flower, know well what it means, from your reading in those floriography books John led you to.

A sweet pea. A flower signifying goodbye.

Salt stings your lips as you absently regard the subtle message John left behind. It hurts, it hurts, to think that he really left--that he left you, but even as you collapse into a shaking ball of grief, you find you're not surprised.

Of course John is gone. Why would he stay? He was really only there for Dave, only biding his time until he could be finally be reunited with the man he truly loved for so long. You'd trapped him, extended his loathsome sentence here, with your prolonged deceit.

Now there are no more secrets. Dave is gone, and John knows it--knows that you lied to him; and why would he linger here a moment longer when he deserves to roam free? He can go anywhere he wants, and there is nothing here for him anymore. Not love, not Dave, and certainly not you.

It's only fair. It's just. After everything John has suffered and survived, it's only right that he be permitted to bid farewell to this chapter of his life, and move on. It's good for him.

Knowing all this, you cry anyways. You cry ragged, hoarsely, loudly into the little shack of The Overlook; you let your voice echo as you wail out a pain too great for words to convey, and curl into yourself from the weight of the fact that you now are genuinely alone.

Time becomes meaningless to you as you rock back and forth on the wooden floors, hugging yourself and bawling. You're dimly aware of a buzzing in your pocket--your phone, your damned fucking phone--but you can't be bothered to answer. Roxy must be worried about you, must be calling to check on you after how long you've spent mourning your circumstances--the daylight is fast dwindling behind you, dusk soon descending--but all you can think about is John, and his voice, and his touch, and his eyes, and his smile, and how you'll never see or hear or have any of that again, because he's gone, he's GONE--

John is gone.

You gradually lapse into a numb stillness, and the sun turns its back on you, your unresponsive state not concerning enough for it to stay with you. Life moves on as it always does. Twilight overtakes the day, blinks open its starry myriad of eyes, and wonders at your crumpled form in the doorway.

Insistently, your phone vibrates again at your hip, and this time, out of anger, you snatch it out of your pocket and answer it without once looking at the screen. Your voice rings throughout the shack like a shot, hard and violent, and you will not apologize for lashing out so furiously when you know it's Roxy--when she should know how wretched you must feel right now.

"What the fuck do you want?"

"Dirk, come back," she utters in hushed tones, as if she is afraid of being overheard.

"Can't you just fucking let me be alone, Roxy? Do you think you need to mother me because I'm just a dumb fucking human?"

"Dirk, no--"

"Just fuck off," you hiss, thumb poised to end the call if Roxy so much as breathes into the mouthpiece again; but she sends away your hateful venom with words you can hardly believe.

"It's John!"

Your breath seeps out of you.

"What?"

"John--he's here! Come back!"

You don't need to be told again.

You don't even end the call; you're on your feet in an instant, and you bolt for the ledge leading to the trails below.

It's the quickest climb down you've ever made, your footing reckless and hurried on rocks and earth. You slip once or twice, gash your leg and your cheek in a dangerous slide down near the end, but you don't feel it. You've suffered so much worse--your heart had just been locked in the most excruciating pain of your life--and you don't even blink at the sting or the blood on your shin and face.

You run. You'd thought yourself never faster as you'd run to The Overlook, thought you'd never pushed yourself harder; and you're unquestionably exhausted, your lungs on fire and your breath coming in strained wheezes, your legs trembling and unsteady as you will them to move; but you know for certain now that you've never run with more determination than now, and you'd sooner let yourself succumb to an overexertion that meant never running again if it meant you could see John again.

John. John, in your home. John, waiting for you. John, who had not left you after all.

John cannot say your name, but you cannot stop thinking his. It is all you can think, feel, or know, as your feet pound unyielding at the trails, the streets, the paths back to your home.

John. John. John. John. John.

You aren't bothering with plans of throwing yourself at him, of what you might say or do when you reach him, of any glorious act to do when you see him again. No desire to sweep him up in your arms, or to kiss him, comes; there are no speeches or apologies you can imagine; you don't worry over why he's there, whether to see you or to say goodbye one last time. The fact that John is there is enough.

You are starved of John every moment without him, addicted to him, and you will take anything you can get. No matter how often or deeply he may scar your heart, you will take him back and beg for more.

You will love John until the day you die.

Your legs do fail you at last as you round the curb just outside of your house. Asphalt smears grime into your sweaty and bloody skin, peels back layers of flesh from your knees and palms as you just barely catch yourself; but you grit your teeth and pluck yourself back up, off the street, back onto your feet.

It's more of a totter than a jog as you cross the sidewalk and reach your door. You throw your full weight against the door as you slam it open, and you stagger into the living room a gasping, disheveled, filthy mess.

From the couch, Roxy leaps to her feet as soon as she sees you; and you mouth unintelligibly at her. You can't breathe, can't find your voice, but she understands. With a thrill lit in her eyes, she points to the door of your bedroom, and grins at you.

"He's in there!"

Like one drunk on the strongest liquor, you stumble towards your door. You give no warning as you grapple with the doorknob and fling the door open, and all at once, your lungs come to life again.

Standing over your desk, leafing through a stack of books, is John. His back is turned to you at first, but you'd recognize the cobalt hues of his heavenly pajamas anywhere now. It's really him. John is here.

With relief, you say his name.

"John."

At your voice, John turns from his reading--Dave's journal, you realize--and for a moment, you fear he might look on you with those eyes of judgment again. But John's face is indescribably warm as he acknowledges you, and his mouth curves with a gentle smile.

"Hey," he greets you, and all apprehension fades away at the balm of his voice. "Mind if I stay here for a while?"