It had been a peaceful day, the latest in a string lasting longer than Arthur had ever dared hope for again. The sudden chill of the evening wind might have bothered him, once, before he knew what it was like to pray for the discomforts of Earth. Before they'd landed on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere—in the States—and Arthur had sobbed with the relief of being home. Now? Now he welcomed the bracing bite at his nose and ears and—
"Arthur. It's fucking freezing."
He hoped John could tell how badly he wanted to roll his eyes. "How would you even know? No part of you is exposed to the elements."
"Our eyes are. And they sting."
"Well, John, you'll have to live with the agony for a few minutes more. I'm not hailing a taxi to go three blocks—"
"Wait," John said, voice low and urgent.
Arthur immediately tensed, straining to hear what it was John had seen. "What is it?"
"Turn left—a little more—and walk forward three paces."
Arthur forced himself to relax, casually walking across the sidewalk. "The telephone pole?" he guessed.
"A handbill posted on it. A bright yellow handbill."
"It's a primary color. That doesn't mean anything." And if he couldn't ignore the creeping dread that he'd found them, that these few weeks of peace were over—well, a bit of paranoia was understandable.
And John's continued silence was not helping his nerves. "John?"
"Fuck," he muttered without elaboration.
"Jesus Christ, John, what is it?"
"A theatrical troupe, the Pastoral Players. In town for one week only."
"Actors? You're worried about actors, after all we've seen? Even if they're cultists, compared to the things that we've faced, that we've killed—"
"No, Arthur, you don't understand." John huffed in frustration, fingers drumming restlessly against Arthur's thigh. "He—I—there was a play. Whoever watched it, or even read it, would become fixated on me. Some of them would just cause trouble, kill in the name of the King, but others...I took an interest in. And they found their way to me."
"Most of them. A handful were occultists who found me the usual way—" and Arthur might never get used to the fact that there was a usual way to gather a cult— "but most of them were artists, actors, authors—"
"Musicians," Arthur said, flatly.
The drumming stopped. "Arthur, that wasn't why—" John cut himself off with a sigh. "No, maybe it was. The first time you played piano, I...felt something. I wanted to hear it again."
"Well." Arthur took a deep breath, irritation subsiding as quickly as it came. "All things considered, I suppose it's a good thing that you did." A John who didn't care about music, or poetry, who didn't care about Arthur...well, he wouldn't be John at all.
John's relieved chuckle reverberated in his mind. "I agree."
"All right," Arthur said. "What's the name of your play? Is it on the handbill?"
"It's called The King in Yellow."
"Fuck you, I didn't write it. Lean in." Arthur complied. "No, it's not on here. It says they're putting on… The Tempest."
"Unless it turns into your starring role halfway through."
"I wasn't in it, Arthur—"
"Where are they performing? When?"
"The Chamber Theater, next week—you aren't thinking of going."
Arthur rolled his shoulder, John's remaining stiff at their side. "I'm thinking of keeping the King from recruiting a fresh batch of soldiers."
"Arthur, if you see that play—"
"I can't see much of anything, can I? And I have a feeling you're immune."
"Are you fucking serious? Seeing or reading it will warp your mind, but I'm sure hearing it would be fine—"
Arthur pointedly plugged his ear, then removed his finger before John could slap it away.
"What do you even plan to do? Interrupt the play shouting 'I object'?"
Arthur couldn't stop a slightly manic laugh from bubbling up. "Well, now that you mention it…"
"Arthur," John bit out.
"I'm serious, John. There's a week before the performances start. Let's crash their rehearsals and find out why they're in town."
"Because we're here, Arthur. It's obviously a trap."
"And who knows who it will catch if we don't disarm it?"
John laughed mockingly. "Says the mouse heroically snatching the cheese he craves."
"Look. We need to find out what we're facing. If we strike first, we'll be prepared for trouble. I'm carrying our gun, for one. If things look too dangerous, we'll retreat and think up a new plan."
John gave a resigned sigh. "Well, I can't stop you."
"You could try," Arthur said, circling John's wrist with his fingers. "Now, how do we get to the theater?"
John pulled his hand free, swatting Arthur's away. "A few blocks north, near the haberdasher."
With a grudging sigh, John directed him.
"We're here," John said, a short walk and several shorter arguments later. "The lobby is lit, but empty except for the older woman manning the ticket booth. There's a schedule of shows for the season posted on the doors. Step closer—stop. There are no shows scheduled for this week, and The Tempest starts next week as the handbill said."
"Good. They'll probably be rehearsing on the stage, then," Arthur said. "Does The Tempest look like a recent addition? A correction pasted over something else?"
"Not that I can tell. But it could have been printed recently—I haven't been keeping track of the upcoming shows."
"All right. I'll just walk in and act like I'm supposed to be there. If they're not rehearsing now, I'll tell the ticket taker I've found a script left at the cafe." Arthur briskly walked into the lobby—yes, that sounded like the muffled din of rehearsal.
"The noise seems to be coming from the auditorium to our right. The ticket taker is to our left. She's looking at us, aware but uninterested."
Arthur gave a quick nod to his left before entering the auditorium. Here, he could pick out snippets of simultaneous conversations, amplified by the acoustics of the theater. Quieter, but closer, was the whisper of turning pages.
"Several people dressed in casual outfits are clustered on the stage, working out choreography as they recite their lines. Others are sitting in small groups in the audience. There are…fifteen people overall, men and women. The sixteenth is to sitting your left, near the door." Arthur turned, noting the turning of pages had stopped. "She's reading a book—no, a script. She's probably half a foot shorter than us, with short black hair framing her round face. She's looking at us curiously."
"Hello there," said a pleasant alto in a lilting Scottish accent. "We don't start until next week, I'm afraid."
"Oh—I'm sorry, I didn't mean to sneak in." Arthur flashed his most charming smile. "I'm a bit of a theater enthusiast, actually. I studied the Bard in college, and it's so rare that a touring company makes it out here. Have you been around for long?"
"She doesn't seem suspicious of us. She just looks…friendly." John sounded skeptical, and frankly, Arthur didn't blame him. "The others are paying us no mind."
The woman laughed. "Looking for a job, are you?"
"Oh, no, no, I was just hoping I could catch more of my favorite plays in the future. Twelfth Night, perhaps? The Importance of Being Earnest—or do you only do Shakespeare?"
"Oh, we branch out once in a while. Twelfth Night, now that's one of our biggest crowd-pleasers."
"She's leaning closer, conspiratorial." Arthur leaned in to match.
"To tell you the truth, any future stops in this town depend on how this run goes. And—now, don't go spreading this anywhere—we're at a bit of a disadvantage. Our Ariel is out of commission. Don't judge us too harshly, now, he has an understudy. Who caught whatever Alec had, so I'm left to understudy the understudy. But Alec was composing his own songs, and you know how important they are for the character."
Breath seizing in his throat, Arthur forced himself to swallow. "Well, I'm…sorry to hear that."
"Arthur," John said warningly.
"Oh, don't let me scare you off from attending! Just…well, if you know of any theater companies willing to lend a composer…or an actor with a good ear…send them our way." A pen scribbled, and Arthur mechanically held out his hand to receive a folded paper.
"Of course," he said distractedly, slipping it into his breast pocket. Turning back, he took the two steps through the door, back to the lobby. Twenty-six steps, steady and measured, to leave the theater. There in the cool evening air, he stood still, hand on the paper in his pocket.
"I played Ariel in college," he said, carefully pulling out and unfolding the paper. "I wrote his songs. I know the part."
"Of course you know the part, that's why it's the bait!"
"And our chance to learn what he's up to." Arthur traced a crease, edge to edge. "What did she write?"
"We know what he's up to, fucking us over!"
"What did she write, John?"
With a huff, John read from the handbill. "It's the flier we saw before, but she's written 'Cass Morton, director' in neat cursive. She's also written a telephone number…it's in town. From a hotel, perhaps."
"Close enough to find," Arthur said.
"Yes, that's it. We'll investigate the players and stay out of the—Arthur, you're going back into the theater."
"I am," he said, tucking the handbill into his pocket as he crossed the lobby and entered the auditorium.
"Arthur, don't you fucking dare—"
"I know the part," Arthur said, ignoring John's frustrated growl.
"You do! I thought you might." Arthur took a steadying breath; Cass's voice was far from the flat, dead tone of the King's cultists; she simply sounded thankful. "Here, take this off my hands." She placed a slim volume into his outstretched hand—the script, he presumed. "We'll be rehearsing every day at six in the evening. You start tomorrow, off-book as soon as you can handle it."
"Yes! Well. I'll see you then." He managed a smile—strained, yes, but present.
"Before you run off, what should I call you?" she asked.
"Bill. Bill Davies."
"Cass Morton," she said. "And thank you, sincerely."
Fist clenched tense against their thigh, John snarled, "What the fuck are you thinking?"
"Not now," Arthur murmured as he left, tucking the script into his jacket pocket.
"Yes, now, before you deliver us right to—"
Through clenched teeth, Arthur hissed, "I'm not shouting on the fucking street, John! Wait until we return to our rooms."
The walk back was quiet, bustle of the streets and whistling of the wind drowned out by the furious silence from Arthur's mind. John would come around, he thought as he locked the door, secured the chain, and turned—
"We're not fucking joining their troupe, Arthur!"
"Listen to me!" Arthur hissed. "We don't know what the fuck is going on, and the King isn't going to leave us alone if we just run away."
John gave a harsh laugh. "You think he's going to leave us alone if we run right to him? Arthur, we escaped him. And we can do it again. We won in the Dreamlands, and we'll win here."
"Did we?" Arthur asked, softly.
"Did we what?"
He swallowed, hard, finally giving voice to the festering doubt that had only grown the longer they lived in peace. "I think we escaped too easily. I think the King let us go."
"Too easily?" John snarled. "We spent three months wasting away in a fucking prison pit. I have the rest of your arm. Would it be hard enough if I'd taken the other one?"
"We were in his world, John!" Arthur said, pacing across the room. "Where he could bend reality to his whim, see our every move and hear every discussion. We can't trust that we outmaneuvered—"
"Why the fuck not? He's—me. He's half of what I used to be. Why couldn't the both of us outsmart him?"
"Here, maybe we could." Arthur came to a stop at the desk, slinging his jacket over the back of the chair. "In the Dreamlands—"
"So why would he let us go? To taunt us? Because he was doing that well enough in the Dreamlands."
"Maybe," Arthur said, gripping the chair back tightly, "he didn't. Maybe we're still there now."
"Fuck that." The chair tilted under his grip from the weight of another hand holding on just as tightly. Arthur breathed, in and out, just like John used to tell him. Finally, John asked, "How would we know?"
"I have no idea. You'd know better than me."
"And you know this world better." John let out a long sigh. "The illusions I made were…surreal. I didn't really understand your world, so I collected memories and wore them like suits to get what I wanted. The longer I used them, the more I got things subtly wrong. If we were still there, you would have noticed something off by now."
"How about a too-convenient coincidence. Something dreamlike. Like—"
"A play. A role made for you, as soon as we started to let our guard down." John exhaled, so deeply Arthur could almost feel the brush of air against his neck. "Fuck. Do we spend the rest of our lives wondering if we're still there?"
"Maybe. I don't know." Arthur slid into the desk chair, resting his chin in his hand. "Well, at least I'm eating and sleeping in an actual bed, Dreamlands or not."
"And bathing." Arthur ran a hand through his blessedly clean hair before sitting up straight. "Well. We'd better look over the script."
"Oh, yes. That too." He cut off John's scoff. "I can't go unprepared, John. How am I supposed to observe the rehearsals if I get fired?"
"Fuck's sake," John muttered. He pulled the script out of their pocket, throwing it with unwarranted force on the desk. "I thought you knew the part."
"That was years ago. My memory's not that good."
"And now we have to handle this fucking thing."
Arthur paused. "Is it yel—"
"Of course it's fucking yellow, Arthur!"
"All right, all right. Just turn to Act I, Scene II. I'll recognize if the text has been changed." John flipped the pages angrily (and he'd get no sympathy from Arthur when he gave himself a papercut). "Now read me the part Ariel's in, where Prospero calls for him."
John hesitated, finger tapping on the page. "I'm not…"
"I don't expect Gielgud, John," he said with a laugh. "Just read the best you can."
"Well, I…I don't even know what's happening." To Arthur's surprise, he sounded genuinely put out.
"Oh? Now you're interested?"
"Fuck off," John muttered sulkily.
"No, no, I'm sorry. I'll fill you in on the plot as we go. It starts with a shipwreck." He briefly explained the opening scene, how the spirit Ariel created a tempest to sink the ship on his master Prospero's orders.
"All right," John said, finger dragging down the page. "Prospero says…Come away, servant, come." And if John hadn't missed his calling as an actor, his recitation jogged Arthur's memory well enough. He murmured along with Ariel's lines, summarizing the plot in between his scenes.
"Next is Act IV, scene 1, which begins the masque—"
"The masque," John said, damnedly neutral.
"Yes, the play-within-a-play where Ariel and his spirits play the part of—"
"Do they wear masks?"
Arthur let out a heavy sigh. "Yes, John. Yes, I'm sure they'll be pallid." He continued the summary before they were drawn into another argument.
"—and then Prospero speaks directly to the audience, asking for their applause to set him free. It's theorized Prospero represents Shakespeare himself—"
"And that's the end?" John asked.
"Oh yes. That's the epilogue."
"So," John said, "Prospero is a powerful sorcerer who's secretly royalty. And we're playing Ariel, the servant Prospero won't let go."
Arthur scratched his chin self-consciously. "Well. When you put it like that…"
"And scholars say the whole thing is all about theater, enough that the actors perform a play during the play. While wearing masks."
"It's a bit on the nose," Arthur admitted.
John gave a noncommittal hum. "Not as much as naming your play The King in Yellow."
Arthur had to laugh. "Perhaps this is what passes for subtle from—wait. Were there any marks in the script? Hidden messages?"
"Oh," John said, as if woken from a dream. "I…forgot to look."
"Well. We can kill two birds and read over it again tonight."
"Arthur," John said, warning. "You're forgetting we're here to stop the King, not make you a star."
"Of course not. Prospero's the starring role."
He held up a placating hand. "I'm just winding you up, John. There's not much investigating we can do until the morning, and you'll be awake to watch our back. I propose we start with the library, see if any suspicious plays or troupes ended up here in the past."
"The King and his players know we're here. The longer we put off finding them, the longer they have to prepare."
"They'll be expecting us whether we investigate immediately or in a day's time. We can track down that phone number once we're done at the library, then I'll suss out their schedules at rehearsal. I'd much rather stop by when nobody's home. And for now—" Arthur stifled a yawn.
"For now, a good night's sleep. You'll need to have your wits about you when we face the King."
He meant to argue, really, but he could feel the fatigue in his bones. "All right, we'll check the script for irregularities tomorrow."
Arthur didn't dream of the pit, as he did ever less frequently; he didn't dream of a desert, or a murder, or of entering a bathroom and knowing deep down exactly what he would find. He dreamed of Shakespeare, of practicing lines, of laughing with his friends while a voice in the back of his mind laughed along.
The library yielded no leads at all. They'd already scoured the newspaper archives for any occult activity nearby when they first arrived (none, not even any suspiciously missing issues), and there was no mention of the Pastoral Players or any unusual performances in the past. Nothing came of the phone calls to all the theaters he could find in the area, either; no such troupe had ever performed in their theaters or in their towns. And when Arthur convinced John they needed to ask if The King in Yellow was in their repertoire (or, more accurately, finally just asked while John bellowed in his ear), none of them had even heard of it. Their only victory was tracing down Cass's phone number to a nearby hotel and confirming the troupe was staying there.
"I don't like this," said John, back in their room.
Arthur greedily inhaled a few more bites of lunch before answering him. "You'd be comforted if they'd left a trail of bodies in their wake?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Arthur. I want to know what we're dealing with. They're not acting like other followers of mine, and that's dangerous." After a moment of silence he asked, in a subdued tone, "How's the sandwich?"
"Delicious," Arthur said, sucking a stray dollop of dressing off his finger. "Corned beef is…hard to describe. Salty, very tender, almost creamy. Have I described sauerkraut to you yet?"
"Yes. I hate it."
"John, you've never even tasted it."
"I can tell."
"Well, then, I won't order you a Reuben for your first meal," Arthur said as he finished the last bites. "What time is it?"
"Too late to visit their hotel, I think."
"In that case, I could use some more practice. This time, read everyone else's lines and only prompt me if I ask." After washing up ("It's borrowed, John, I can't leave dressing stains on the script,") they sat down and began the read-through once more.
"Wait, wait," Arthur said, halfway through their first scene. John's voice, normally rich and expressive, was…less than enthralling as he read Prospero's lines. It was hard to play against, to be honest. "Iambic pentameter is meant to sound like the rhythm of normal speech. Don't pause at the end of a line if the phrase carries over to the next."
"What the fuck is the rhythm of normal speech?"
"Da dum da dum da dum da dum da dum. It's almost like a heartbeat—"
"Who the fuck talks like that?"
"It's not—it's exaggerated. Like how it feels to hear whatever is being said. Take the part where Prospero is scolding Ariel." Arthur cleared his throat and sat up taller, let all the indignance and rage he'd ever felt flow into his voice. "Thou liest, malignant thing! Hast thou forgot the foul witch Sycorax, who with age and envy was grown into a hoop? Hast thou forgot her?"
"Oh," John said, taken aback. "That sounds like…poetry."
Arthur suppressed a smile before he could bask in the praise, much. "Well, yes, that's the point."
"It doesn't when I read it!"
"It's the second time you've ever read Shakespeare, John. You don't need to get frustrated—"
"I'm not frustrated!" John snapped.
"Well," Arthur said, gently, "besides familiarity—that will come in time—it will sound better if you act it out. It's not meant to be spoken by you, or me. It's spoken by Prospero. Try to understand what he's thinking."
"He…he thinks he owns Ariel. He thinks Ariel will do what he's told just because he saved him in the past. And he's furious, because something that's his—someone that's an extension of him—isn't his anymore."
"Now, read it again," said Arthur. "Like Prospero would."
"Thou liest, malignant thing!" snarled John, and Arthur's shudder took him by surprise. He sounded regal, entitled, furious. He sounded like the King.
And when John finished, both of them sat silent for a moment. "Well," Arthur said, mouth dry. "There you go."
"Why does Ariel do what he's told?" John asked, suddenly.
"Because he's scared of Prospero, perhaps," Arthur replied, thinking. "Because he's grateful for what Prospero did for him. Because he's a spirit, and that's what spirits do. Because he believes that Prospero will set him free."
"He does free him," said John. "But not his other slave, the one who plotted against him. The King is sending me a message, Arthur."
Arthur snorted. "Does he think you'll just roll over and obey? We know perfectly well he won't be setting you free."
"I think," John said, slowly, "he thinks he is."
Arthur blinked, startled. "You think he's doing this for your own good?"
"No, not exactly. He thinks that deep down, I want what he wants, because I am him." John's fingers drummed restlessly on the table. "And that once I'm separated from you, I'll snap back to being him."
"Okay," Arthur said pensively. That made sense, but John didn't normally theorize on the King's motivations in that much detail.
And the more John understood the King, the more he remembered—
Arthur took a deep breath, banishing the thought from his mind. "From the top?"
"All right," John said, and flipped back to the beginning of the scene.
He was well past the point of expecting John to revert back to what he was. He'd watched him discover his own humanity, clawing his way away from the entity who needed only puppets. And…he'd rather not have anything in common with the other voice who thought John incapable of change.
After finishing the read-through (and singing Ariel's songs again on John's request), they set out for the theater. Arthur's gun was secure in its holster, safely concealed under his jacket. He could beg off costume measurements this rehearsal, at least. If he needed it for the rest, well…they'd think of something.
"What should I expect?" John asked, breaking the companionable silence.
"If there's any pretense of being a normal production? We'll walk through the play with lots of stopping and starting, notes from the director, and all that. We can refer to the script for today, but I'd like to be off it by tomorrow. I need you to keep track of the blocking—where the other actors are, where the scenery and props are, and so on. And we'll hope they don't expect me to dance."
"Dance?" John repeated, alarmed.
"Well, Ariel is an air spirit—he's meant to be graceful. Otherworldly. Many productions cast a dancer…our choreographer insisted I take some ballet classes so I could move like one."
"Well. Yes." Arthur shrugged, airily. "Or something like it."
John was silent for an entire block. "...were you—"
"I was absolute shit, yes. We agreed it was best if Ariel walked and tried to look ethereal."
"Ethereal," John said, not even attempting to hide his amusement. "Were you more ethereal back then?"
"Absolutely not. The costumer tried to make up the difference, but. Well."
John laughed, low and long, ignoring the pinch Arthur gave his hand. "Oh? And how was that?"
Too late, Arthur realized the danger he was in. "Oh, ah, nothing spectacular. It was a modern-dress production—"
"No it wasn't," John said, unbearably smug.
"Fine. There was…a great deal of glitter. On my bare chest, stop fucking laughing, John."
He didn't. "I wish I'd been there to see it."
Something made Arthur add, with reluctance, "If we return to Arkham, in the future…there are yearbook pictures."
"Oh," John said, positively gleeful. "I'll describe them to you. Jog your memory."
"Never mind. I'm burning every copy I can find." When his left foot stopped suddenly, Arthur rocked back on his heel to stay steady. "We're here?" He'd almost forgotten, for a moment, that they weren't strolling for their own enjoyment.
Arthur took a deep breath. "Are you ready?"
"The King or stage fright?"
"I'm not sure."
"Well," said Arthur, "that makes two of us." With that, he walked into the lobby, past the ticket booth, and into the auditorium. Once again, the room was filled with the sound of friendly conversation—no hushed whispers cut off mid-word, no unnatural silence of worshippers who had nothing to say that wasn't in service of their King.
"The same people that were here yesterday are clustered on the stage. None of them stand out as particularly dangerous—they look relaxed, of average builds, holding no obvious hidden weapons. If we passed them on the street, we'd think nothing of them. Cass has noticed us. She's waving."
Arthur waved back, calling out a hello as John guided him down the aisle.
"You're the last of us for tonight," Cass said, patting his back as he joined the crowd. "Prospero will be joining us tomorrow. All right, you lot, introduce yourselves to Bill."
John added brief descriptions for each voice as the cast gave their names and roles. Arthur tried his best, but it was rather difficult to match a name to a face without the face. At least he had John to help, not to mention that social faux pas were the least of their worries right now.
What followed was an excruciatingly normal rehearsal. The cast was all quite friendly and professional, Arthur's songs were well-received, and most importantly, no dancing. Even John adjusted to his role quickly, feeding him lines and directing his movements almost as well as Arthur would have done on his own. Arthur poured what nervous energy he could into his performance, but it was still a relief to break for intermission and slip outside for a breath of cool night air.
"You seem in your element," John said, and Arthur couldn't quite pin down his tone of voice.
Arthur chuckled, leaning against the wall of the theater. "I did used to socialize, believe it or not." He let out a breath. "John, they seem…"
"Yes." Arthur let his head tilt back against the rough brick, closing his eyes. Could John feel the wind, harsh against their eyelids, as well as he? "They don't feel like cultists. They don't even feel like casual fans of the King, if those exist. He's clearly involved somehow, but…"
"We don't know why, or how, these people are."
"Right. There are far easier ways to trap us than staging a professional production. They've had every opportunity to overwhelm us—"
John gave an annoyed growl. "Arthur, you've been telling me for the past two days that wouldn't be an issue—"
"—and they haven't. They didn't take us by surprise, even though they clearly knew where we were."
"They're waiting for the King," John said, sounding uncertain.
"They could wait just as well with us chained up in a basement somewhere."
John's laugh was alarmingly sinister. "Would you prefer that?"
"Out for a smoke?" said another voice, and Arthur nearly jumped out of his skin. "Or just talking to yourself?" A light tenor with a Southern accent, coming from Arthur's left.
"It's the man who plays Ferdinand—Louis, I think. He has shaggy auburn hair and a number of freckles dotting his skin. He seems trusting enough; you can play off your one-sided conversation as eccentricity."
"Oh! Just getting some air and some practice," Arthur said with a breezy chuckle. "Louis, right?"
"He's leaning on the wall next to us," John said. Arthur heard the distinctive sound of a lighter, chased by the smell of a cigarette.
"Right, Bill. Smoke?" Arthur shook his head and heard the soft rustle of a cigarette packet returning to a pocket. "Don't tell Cass, would you? I promised her I'm quitting."
"My lips are sealed," Arthur said, the knot in his stomach easing at the banality of the conversation. "I was wondering—where did your troupe start out? I can't help but notice the variety in your players' accents."
"You're one to talk," Louis said with a laugh. "Your compatriot founded it in jolly old Scotland, actually, and took it with her when she came over here. Used to be called something else, I think. Most of us here joined up as she toured the country." He let out a puff of smoke, the smell sweet and nostalgic in a way Arthur didn't want to dwell on. "Planning on adding to it?"
"Oh, no, no, I'm just an amateur. I've only been in a few student productions."
"Really? I never would have guessed," Louis said, and to his surprise, Arthur found himself fighting down a blush.
"Focus, Arthur," John growled, to his irritation. What exactly did he think Arthur was doing here?
"To tell the truth, though, I've always been curious about the touring life—what do traveling actors do when you're not performing?"
"Paint the town red, of course." Louis laughed. "Nah, it depends. Some of us pick up odd jobs—don't get into acting for the money. The rest of us sightsee, take nature walks, visit friends, the works. Except for Prospero. No one knows what the hell he does with his time."
Arthur snapped his fingers. "Oh, right, Sylvia's just filling in for him today. Cass mentioned…" He glanced up, miming thought. "I'm sorry, I've forgotten his name already."
"Just call him Prospero. He's that kinda guy." He heard the clicking sound of Louis idly fiddling with his lighter as he spoke. "Oh yeah, we all were planning on lunch at that fancy Italian joint around the corner tomorrow. Let me treat you?"
"No thank you. I…hate pasta." Ignoring John's snort, he looked toward his wristwatch, knowing John was tilting it towards him.
"There's two minutes left," John said. "Is that really the best you can—"
"It's about time to head back," Arthur said. "And, ah, thank you for the invitation."
He couldn't feel the friendly clap on his left shoulder, but he could certainly hear John's indignant noise. "Of course," Louis said. "You're doing us a hell of a favor."
And as Arthur followed Louis in, John laughed mockingly. "Aren't you popular."
"Shut up," Arthur muttered under his breath.
"Don't forget what he is." Arthur resisted the urge to snap that the investigation would go a lot smoother without John bristling every time Arthur met someone who didn't insult him to his face. In any case, forgetting what the players were was hardly the problem. What worried him was that he was becoming increasingly unsure what that was at all.
Arthur looked down the hallway, left and right, for John; he himself listened for the sounds of housekeeping or hotel guests leaving their rooms. A brief distraction in the lobby bathroom had given them just enough time to look up the room numbers of some familiar guests.
"Room 405, booked to Louis Wilde and Alec Vance. Our Ferdinand and Antonio," John said. "We're clear, for now. How fast are you?"
"We'll see, won't we." Arthur pulled the tools from his pocket, feeling for the business end of the lockpick. "Here, put the wrench in."
John took the wrench from his hand, and moments later Arthur heard the soft sound of it entering the lock. "Ready," John said. "Move your hand up just a few inches—there—and forward."
Sliding in the pick with a slight nudge from John, Arthur carefully worked it back and forth. "You know, I didn't expect we'd be putting this into practice quite so quickly."
"I did. Luck is rarely on our side."
Arthur adjusted the fourth pin, the fifth pin—there. "Ah—there—hold it steady—" With a final twist, he felt the latch give way with a satisfying click. "Fast enough?"
"Yes, Arthur." Arthur didn't suppress his satisfied smile—something about John's praise, just as effusive for picking a lock as bashing a monster's skull in, was oddly endearing.
"Well. You did very well holding it still." Arthur slowly turned the knob, feeling for anything obstructing the movement. "Do you see anything attached to the door? A hair, paper, anything that will be disturbed if we open it."
"Good. Keep an eye out."
"I'll keep both."
Arthur stepped inside, closing the door behind him. "All right. What are we looking at?"
"A typical hotel room, not much different from our own besides the extra bed. There's an open suitcase next to the dresser—forward and to your right, stop—filled with haphazardly folded clothes and a number of books. A script is laying open on the nightstand closest to the door, Ferdinand's lines underlined. There's a closed closet next to us, facing the bathroom."
Arthur nodded. "Let's start with the closet and go counter-clockwise. Remember where everything is, and tell me if anything at all looks unusual. Ready for your first investigation, detective?"
If Arthur didn't know better, he'd call John's laugh shy. "...yes, detective."
Unfortunately, John's first investigation proved unenlightening. "Nothing," John said after they'd pored over every inch of the room.
"Nothing," Arthur reluctantly agreed. "I was expecting…I don't know. A yellow tie, at least." He worried at the edge of John's glove. "Where do we go from here?"
"There's no time to check all of their rooms."
"Right. Let's prioritize Cass—she and Cam are in 520, right? And…well, I'd very much like to investigate our missing lead, but…"
"They seemed reluctant to give us a name."
"Meaning they likely know what we're doing with theirs. Well. It's still our best course of action. For now, let's check 520 and head back for more practice."
"Arthur, you're practicing every night."
"And I need to be off book soon."
John growled, "You're not taking this seriously—"
"What do you want us to do? Run ourselves ragged every day until we're so exhausted the King can slip past our defenses?" Arthur took a deep breath, calming himself. In and out. "Look, John. I need something normal after all we've been through. And we had it, for a few weeks. We were just living. And now, I know what's coming, I know we're back to running and fighting and fearing for our lives, I just need…something real. Something human. Something to remind me there's more than this."
"I…understand." John's hand clasped his right shoulder, and Arthur felt the tension in his muscles ease, just a little. "Just be careful, Arthur. This isn't like him—at least, it's not like how I used to be. And that worries me."
"Maybe he's changed, too," Arthur said, half-joking.
"No. He doesn't have you."
Arthur took a breath, readying to say…honestly, he didn't know. He finally settled on, "I'll be careful, John." With one last squeeze, John's hand dropped from his shoulder. "520, then."
The next room yielded something, at least: the itinerary of their tour. This was the Pastoral Players' last stop, so he and John noted down the previous towns to investigate the next day. Confirmation that they hadn't appeared out of nowhere was something, Arthur supposed, but there wasn't a scrap of evidence connecting them to the King. When they finally arrived at rehearsal, the players were arguing which local restaurant served the best coffee. Just a friendly, mundane, human, argument.
Maybe it was all a coincidence, somehow. Maybe the Pastoral Players were exactly what they seemed, and they were seeing connections that weren't there. Maybe Arthur was still free, could start building a new life, could find John a body. That wouldn't be the worst way to live.
The daydream lasted through the start of the night's run-through. Right until they made it to Act I, Scene II, as Arthur waited for his entrance.
Then he heard the doors to the auditorium open, heard Cass call out "Just in time," heard heavy, deliberate footsteps walking towards the stage. Arthur turned towards the sound, heart pounding, so John could see.
"Arthur," John breathed, a sharp note of panic in his voice. "It's him."
"Approach, my Ariel, come." The voice was cold, raspy, one that he'd only heard in whispers with the echo of dozens, hundreds, thousands of voices behind it. His footsteps were drawing closer, down the aisle, deliberate steps towards the stage where Arthur stood.
And still, John was silent.
"John?" Arthur whispered. "John, come on. Listen to me. Just hold on."
"I…" John sounded sluggish, transfixed.
Fuck. "John, what's my line?" John responded with a dazed noise, and Arthur hurled out the lifeline. "Ariel's first line, after Prospero tells him to approach. Come on, I need you with me."
"It's…all hail. All hail, great master. Grave sir, hail."
Arthur recited the line, raising a hand toward Prospero's footsteps. "And after that?"
"I come to answer thy best pleasure," John said, voice growing steadier, and Arthur spoke the lines along with him.
John let out a shuddering breath. "I—thank you, Arthur." Arthur let his hand brush against John's as he continued the scene. "He's a tall man, with short white hair and a trim beard. He's dressed in a grey suit with a—a yellow pocket square. His eyes are yellow."
The King's footsteps had stopped, his gravelly voice coming from right in front of them. And Arthur—Ariel spoke to Prospero, begged for his freedom, promised to follow Prospero's orders one last time. Their fear, their anger, was Ariel's.
He could barely hear Cass's encouraging shout upon Ariel's exit from the scene. Just dread, his and John's rushing in his ears. Breathe. Arthur took a step back, further into the dark of the wings, waiting for Caliban's entrance to draw Prospero's attention.
"Arthur," John said, urgently. "He's followed us—" He could feel the presence standing there, just a hair too close, the scent of incense and old paper. He could almost see him, silhouetted against the stage lights, impossibly larger than a human, the stage, the theater.
"So we've finally found our Ariel," said the King, cold amusement coloring his voice.
John's voice was hushed, as if it would escape the King's notice. "He…he's staring at us, Arthur. It feels like he's staring at me."
"So you have," Arthur said, voice tight.
"I'm surprised," the King said, voice lowering to a near-whisper, "that you were convinced so easily to join us."
Arthur looked at him, at the absence of light deeper than any other. "I came on my own terms."
"So convenient for us that those overlap so neatly with ours." The King leaned in, then, and Arthur felt a chill wash over him at the brush of breath past his left ear. "I look forward to working with you, my Ariel." With that, he left, returning to the stage.
Arthur stood, silent and shaken.
"Fuck," John said, succintly.
Arthur closed their eyes, taking deep breaths as his heart rate returned to normal. "Hell is empty and all the devils are here," he murmured.
"Are you all right?" John asked, hesitantly.
He considered as he breathed in and out, in and out. "As much as I can be," he settled on. "Are you?"
John was quiet for a moment. "I think so," he said, and he sounded sincere enough. "He caught me off guard. His presence…it feels like home."
Something in Arthur's gut twisted. "Do you miss it?"
"Not being a god. Not the Dark World. But I miss…knowing where I belonged."
"Maybe it's here," Arthur said before huffing a laugh. "Not here specifically, I hope. I suspect we'll be leaving town after all this."
John was silent for a long moment.
"Arthur, you'll miss your cue." And then they were too busy to think about more than the next scene.
The King disappeared the moment they broke for intermission, which was fine for the time being; Arthur felt vulnerable enough as their costumer pulled him aside and measured his inseam. She agreed Arthur could keep his gloves when he mentioned his "skin condition", and even assured him that Ariel's costume would include a shirt. He'd take the small victories.
And after that, the rehearsal passed without incident. Arthur was finally beginning to breathe again, gathering his things to leave, when a large hand grasped his elbow from behind. "Take this," the King rasped, turning Arthur to face him.
"It's—a mask," John growled. There was silence for a long moment, Arthur's arm held fast in the King's grip.
"For the masque," the King said, voice even.
Finally, he felt the flex of John's arm reaching out. The grip on his arm disappeared as the King left without a word, leaving them looking down at the mask they held.
"Pallid?" Arthur asked, lightly.
"No," John answered, to Arthur's surprise. "Yellow."
Arthur took the mask from John's motionless hand, tucking it into his jacket. "Well. We'll test it for…unusual properties later. Let's go."
They made it one step inside their room before John hissed, "Arthur!"
Arthur stopped abruptly, missing the weight of his gun in its holster. "What?"
"There's something on the desk. Step forward."
"Could be a mint," Arthur said flippantly.
"Shut up," John growled. "It's the Yellow Sign."
"On a calling card—don't fucking touch it!" John grabbed his wrist, hard enough to hurt.
"And how do we check the other side?"
"I do it." John's hand left his wrist. "The rest of the card is blank. The Sign was drawn by hand."
"Check the room," Arthur said. "Every last inch of it. Tell me exactly what you see, and don't touch anything until I say so. We start with the safe."
One thorough search later, Arthur was satisfied that nothing else had been touched or left behind, and nothing was revealed through the eyes of their masquerade mask.
"Well," he said, tossing John's glove on the nightstand, "That was a pointless bit of intimidation."
"Pointless?" John asked as he followed suit. "Intimidating us wasn't enough of a point?"
"Well, no." Arthur stripped down to undershirt and boxers with John's help. "We saw the King. He knows we know who he is. His ability to break into our room is hardly unexpected."
"I…yes, I suppose. Leaving us to wonder would be just as intimidating."
"Which leaves the question," Arthur said, "of what he's waiting for."
"I think you're right. So, we make our move before then."
"Excellent idea, Arthur. What move?"
"You don't need to be so sarcastic." He fell back onto the bed with a frustrated huff. "I have no idea. We'll think of something."
"Sabotage the theater?" John suggested. "Convince one of the players to talk?"
"I'm not so sure they're privy to his plans at all. Or even his true identity."
"For fuck's sake, just because you like them—"
"I'm not exonerating them, John. I like you, and I know full well what you're capable of. I'm just saying we can't assume anything about their connection to the King." John didn't answer him for a long moment. "...John?"
"Yes," John said, sounding strangely hesitant. "Right." He fell silent for another long moment. "I…like you too."
"Well. Glad we sorted that out," Arthur said, valiantly trying to suppress a fond laugh.
Unsuccessfully. "Don't laugh at me," John hissed.
"I'm not!" Arthur said, still giggling. "Maybe a little. It's just…sweet. I don't suppose you've heard a kind word very often. At least, not from outside your worshippers. So yes, John, I do like you. I enjoy your company, when you're not arguing with me."
"Oh, don't sell yourself short. There's been entire minutes."
"Fuck you," John said, the words belied by the clear affection in his voice. "Are you planning on going to sleep at some point, or should I smother you with a pillow?"
"Good night, John," he said, turning out the light with a grin.
The next two days were spent unsuccessfully trying to track down the King outside of rehearsal. Neither the guest list of their own hotel nor that of the players included any remotely suspicious names, and the concierges hadn't seen anyone matching Prospero's description. None of the nearby shopkeepers or waiters had seen "the gentleman who dropped this lighter", either. They'd run into three of the troupe in town and even joined them for lunch—but no one, they claimed, knew anything about Prospero or where he might be. He joined their tours, occasionally, bringing his cold gravitas to a pivotal role before leaving for parts unknown. The worst thing was, Arthur couldn't tell if they were telling the truth. John leaned towards no, Arthur towards yes, but their investigations had yielded no inconsistencies, no clues. They were, as far as the evidence suggested, a perfectly ordinary troupe of actors occasionally embroiled with a malevolent god. And if he and John didn't work out why that god was here, why he had tracked down his prey to barely even toy with it…well, he didn't know what would happen. That was the problem, wasn't it?
It took until their fourth daily read-through for Arthur to remember what had been nagging at the back of his mind. "The King quoted Hamlet as Adam, and he clearly knows The Tempest. You didn't remember any Shakespeare?"
"No," John said, after a moment of thought. "Just bits and pieces—a jester, a ghost at a banquet—but if I try to remember more, it crumbles away. Like it's something that belongs to him, not me."
"He doesn't own fucking Shakespeare, John." And Arthur was angry at the King all over again for that, of all things? "Besides, now that you've read The Tempest for yourself, it's just as much yours. So, do you like it?"
"It feels…sad to me, even though it isn't a tragedy. Something about it makes me want…" John made a frustrated noise. "I don't know. But yes. I enjoy reading it with you."
"Well, good. It'd be a shame if you'd been bored out of my skull these past few days." A scene later, Arthur asked, "You said you didn't write your play?"
"The King in Yellow? No. I…entered the dreams of the author and showed him my kingdom. Carcosa." The name felt significant in John's voice, in a way that sent an unpleasant shiver down his spine. "But he put it into words. He made it call worshipers to me, as I intended. I don't think I ever created anything myself."
"Maybe John Doe could," he said, considering. "You enjoy poetry—why not write some?"
"Poetry?" John echoed, startled. "I…I wouldn't know where to begin. I can't write like this." He felt John tap the script.
Arthur managed to choke down a laugh. "Yes, well. You're in good company. It's not about writing like Shakespeare, it's about saying something that only you can say."
"Or writing advertising jingles."
Arthur snorted. "Or paying the bills, yes."
"Do you write poetry?" John asked, hesitant, like he was asking a great secret of Arthur's.
"Words were never my forte, really. Lyrics, here and there, but it was the music that said what I needed to. Except—" He cut himself off before he could dwell on a few songs with silly nonsense lyrics, meant to make a little girl smile. "No. I memorize poems that speak to me, instead. Reciting them…well, it feels more like music. More personal when I say it out loud."
"Yes. It feels…" John hesitated. "Meaningful, when you say it. Like you're speaking to me."
"I picked it up to impress a girl," Arthur admitted with a laugh. "A brilliant girl in high school, always reading poetry. So I picked up the first book of love poems I could find and memorized a few. And it worked! For a few months, at least. It's really something intimate, reciting poetry to someone you—" Arthur stopped abruptly, face warming as he remembered how John had hung on to his every word. "What I mean is, yes, that's the intended effect."
"Yes," John said, slowly.
"Back to the play?" Arthur asked, a little desperately.
"Do you really need to practice? You haven't made a mistake for days."
"No," he admitted, letting out a long sigh. "But I…need it nonetheless."
"It's something real."
"Ironically enough," he said with a wry smile.
"I've enjoyed this, Arthur," John said, softly.
How strange it was, that a fragment of a god and the pawn he manipulated would find themselves here. Which was to say, "So have I."
And then a knock at the door startled Arthur so much he banged his knee on the desk. "Delivery for you, Mr. Davies," a chipper voice said as Arthur muttered curses.
"Arthur," John said urgently.
"I know," he murmured, checking his gun. "Let's go." Quickly making his way to the door, he peered through the peephole.
"It's one of the bellhops. I recognize him." With a sigh of relief, Arthur relaxed the hold on his gun. "He's holding a garment bag."
He opened the door with a strained smile, handing a bellhop a tip as John took the bag. "Thank you!" He closed the door as quickly as he could without seeming suspicious, going over to toss the bag on the bed. "Our costume, I presume."
"Or a personally tailored cultist robe," John said, unzipping the bag.
Arthur shrugged. "Could be both."
The zipper went silent, and so did Arthur. "Arthur…" John breathed.
He swallowed. "Well, give it to me straight. How much skin does it show?"
"That's not it," John said. "It's a navy blue suit. But the fabric…there's patches of gold embroidery all over. Yellow embroidery. Clusters of intricate patterns, fading into blue…" John reached out to touch the suit, and Arthur could almost feel the ridges of thread under his fingertip. "Over your heart."
"They couldn't have embroidered this in two days," Arthur said.
"No. It was ready for us."
"Tonight," he said, the thought of wearing thousands of stitches made for him, for John, for the King, settling heavy in his stomach. "We act tonight."
"How?" John asked, frustrated.
"I…I'm not sure. Confront him, I suppose. A suit will hide our holster."
"Arthur, you won't survive another gunfight—"
"I'm not expecting a gunfight. He can't kill me—"
"He can hurt you!" John exploded. "You're strolling into the lion's den, expecting him to play nice just because he hasn't hunted him down yourself. He's lying in wait. He can make you long for death, torment you until you beg him to take me—"
"What can he do that he hasn't already done, John? That he couldn't do in the Dreamlands? If I truly thought it was safer, I would pack up and go. Leave all this behind, and find somewhere new to pick up the pieces. But we need to confront him. He'll never leave us alone if we run now." Arthur closed his eyes, feeling the tension in John's shoulder, down his arm, down to the fingers clenched into a tight fist. "Please, John. Trust me."
And he felt them release.
"I do," John said, and under the frustration, the anger, he could hear the fear in John's voice. "And I will, Arthur."
"Thank you," he breathed.
"So try not to do something fucking stupid tonight."
"I can't promise that," he said, reaching over to squeeze John's shoulder. "But I'll try my hardest to keep us alive."
"Well," John said with a heavy sigh, "I suppose that's the best I can expect from you."
"Likewise," Arthur said, smiling at John's growl. "Let's get changed, John."
He'd expected the atmosphere would be different, with all the players in costume: everyone in robes and masks, silently turning to watch their prey arrive. Instead, they were greeted by the usual hum of conversation, snippets of dialogue, even someone singing one of Ariel's songs. It was normal, as normal as every rehearsal and conversation and interaction had been when the King wasn't involved.
"All the actors are in costume," John said as Arthur walked down to them. "Their costumes don't match ours. Everyone else is dressed in historical clothing—17th century, I think."
"And Prospero?" Arthur murmured as he stepped on stage.
"Not here." John's voice was tight.
Five minutes John and Arthur waited, listening over the hum of conversation—ten—before they heard the auditorium doors open. Arthur looked up, their eyes locked on the King.
"His suit matches ours, Arthur. The yellow patterns cover the entirety of his suit—" John broke off with a growl. "Except right over his heart. He— he's watching us as he walks down."
"Let him," Arthur muttered, staring at the entity he couldn't see.
"Act I, Scene I, get in place!" called Cass. "Let's get this started!" Arthur moved to the wings with the others, facing the stage as the sounds of a tempest, the sounds of a shipwreck, filled the air.
"Scene II!" Cass shouted, what seemed like seconds later. As the actors rushed past them, rushing to sort out props and costume changes, Arthur could picture the King stepping on stage as clearly as if he could see it. Could see Prospero, having finished speaking to his daughter, raise a hand out to his servant, to his soul, waiting in the wings.
"Come away, servant, come. I am ready now."
Arthur steeled himself as a gloved hand reached over to squeeze his.
"Approach, my Ariel, come."
Arthur stepped onto the stage, light as a spirit, as a slave who knew in four acts' time he'd be free. "All hail, great master! Grave sir, hail!"
And John, word by word, was speaking with him, with none of the hesitation or stiffness of the first time he'd read Shakespeare's words. Speaking with passion and righteous anger and pride, begging the King for the freedom he deserved.
As he and John reached out, pleading with Prospero, Arthur gently touched their left hand with his. John stopped, confused. "Arthur?"
Arthur squeezed his hand. I trust you.
And, slipping back from his body, he let John borrow his voice.
It was unnerving, hearing the quiet gasp come from his mouth. Had he given John his lungs, too? His larynx? As if logic applied to anything born of the Dark World.
"Go on," he said in John's head.
John swallowed. "I prithee," John said. His voice sounded strange through Arthur's throat, smoother and higher than it was in his mind. "Remember I have done thee worthy service, told thee no lies, made thee no mistakings, served thee without grudge or grumblings—" A sound from Prospero, then, a smothered laugh, and John stopped mid-line. Arthur tilted his head towards Prospero, towards the King, and let John look his former self in the eye. "I'm not playing your part anymore."
"Very impressive," said the King, in a whisper that rang across the stage as clear as a shout. "But I could hear my own voice perfectly well."
"John Doe," John said, sure and strong. "John Doe's voice."
"You've relinquished another part of your body for a party trick," the King said. "Do you really think you'll keep the rest?" And he could feel John's shock of panic running through their body.
"Yes. I do," Arthur said, nudging John's consciousness with his own. And John simply relinquished his voice, moved back as Arthur moved forward, a pas de deux between partners who knew each other inside and out. "John's far more capable than you'll admit," he said out loud.
"He's stepping closer," John said, once again a familiar echo in his head. "He's smiling."
The King laughed, low and long, sounding so much like John that Arthur shuddered. "So many inconsequential details filling your mind. Facial expressions and colors and scraps of scenery you'll never see. So much that you miss what is vital to your survival."
Arthur's hand shot to his holster—but too late, too fucking late, and his arms were wrenched painfully behind his back. The scent of stale cigarette smoke filled his nostrils as he struggled fruitlessly.
"Arthur Lester," Cass said from beside him, voice calm as she swiftly removed his gun from its holster. And as he felt the barrel press against his temple, he heard Cass, the King, every single one of them speak in one voice.
"You were so sure that I've been confined to a single body."
"Arthur—the players are putting on pallid masks, all of them in unison—"
Arthur didn't move, knowing his eyes were locked with the King. "You can't kill me. We all know that. So what are you trying to prove? Good job, you could have overwhelmed us at any point."
"And you didn't," John said, voice calmer. The cold metal of the pistol dug insistently into Arthur's skin, but he didn't move a muscle as John spoke. "You gave us a role. You left us a sign. You left us alone."
"I let you remember everything I could do to you," Louis hissed from behind him, his echoing voice dulled by a dozen masks. "That I've known exactly where you were after you escaped my domain. That I could crush whatever peace you think you've found at any moment. I made you remember exactly how afraid you should be of a god."
"Well, you failed at that," Arthur said. "It was rather a nice week, all things considered."
Suddenly a hand was on his chin, tilting it upwards. "I thought the role would suit you," Prospero said, voice incongruously conversational. "After all, you have so much experience drowning people."
A cold torrent of rage, of guilt, of despair, flowed through Arthur, the rushing of blood in his ears robbing him of yet another sense. John's voice was muffled, distorted, but he could just hear him shouting, "Fucking kill him, Arthur!"
And just like that, the rushing subsided. His heart was pounding, the hairs on his arms were standing on end, but he knew the King's manipulation for what it was.
Because John—and the King he'd once been—knew how to hurt him, how to strike through the careful walls he'd constructed around his heart. They knew how to enrage him.
But this was his sin to bear. He wouldn't let her be a weapon. Not again.
"Why are you here?" Arthur said, voice low, as steady as he could manage.
They were surrounded by laughter, a low chuckle dancing from acolyte to acolyte. "I'm here to collect my soul."
"It's not yours anymore," John snarled. "I was the King in Yellow, and I always will be. But I can't forget everything that I've experienced, or how it's changed me. I'm not you anymore, I'm John Doe."
Arthur had the feeling the King was looking straight at John, right through their eyes to whatever impossible shadow inhabited his body. "Call yourself what you want. Add to our list of names. But—"
"Why did you let us go?" John interrupted.
"Let you go?" scoffed the King. "Arthur Lester. You were so brave and clever, fighting your way out of the Dreamlands, triumphing against a king. A god. You'd let that parasite take the only victory you've managed away from you?"
"That's not what's going on here," Arthur said. "We beat you, we outsmarted you, and then you gave up. You let us leave the land where we had nothing, where we were fighting for our lives every single moment, where your allies were monstrous beasts that could overwhelm us with a single command. You let us go."
The King's laugh rang in his ears, all around him. "You truly believe you left?"
"Yes," John said, without hesitation. "I couldn't have made something like this. Something real."
"Something human," Arthur said. "Every one of these people is human, with their own lives and hobbies and hopes. You may have inhabited them, but you didn't create them. You didn't make this town, or this theater, or this play. You came to Earth, outside of your control, and you had to scrabble for whatever advantage you could find. Just like the rest of us."
"Like you?" the King said, every hint of amusement in his voice gone. "I am more than you will ever be. I am a god, eternal, so far beyond humanity you cannot comprehend what I am. And that tatter cowering in your soul would do well to remember what it truly is. A speck that's lost its way. A fragment that can't survive on its own. Something less than a god, less than a human, less than nothing."
"Aren't you less than a god, then?" John asked, and Arthur recognized that condescending tone from the first time he'd spoken to a lowly, terrified human. "If I was so unimportant, you wouldn't need me back. I'd be too far beneath your notice to get angry at. You would have killed us a long time ago."
"You know, he's right," said Arthur. "For someone who's lost barely anything at all, you're rather fixated on John. It's almost like you can't survive without him." It was sheer bravado, the rush of he and John looking the King in the eye without fear, that made him add, "And you still think you're the stronger one?"
And all of them, every single body housing the King in Yellow, were silent.
"Arthur—!" John said in disbelief. "He's taken aback. He—" John's laugh was tinged with wonder. "He looks afraid."
"You know you aren't," Arthur realized, giddiness bubbling in his chest. "You let us go because you're scared of what would happen if you reabsorbed John. You're scared you'd learn what it's like to be human. You're scared he would win."
"He knows what it's like now," John said, voice filled with excitement. "To share a body with a human. To know someone besides yourself."
"And it only took one person to change John's life," said Arthur. "With all this humanity surrounding you, you wouldn't stand a chance. You'd just be an insignificant scrap of John Doe. So fuck off. You won't overpower him."
"Do you truly think that makes a difference?" And suddenly the King's hand was around his throat, squeezing just tightly enough to make Arthur gasp. "You think I can't reabsorb him. In that case…nothing stops me from killing him. Killing you." The gun dug into his temple, cold and heavy as the hand on his throat.
"You could have killed us at any time," Arthur gasped, almost as confident as he sounded. "What's stopped you? Humanity?"
The King leaned in close, Prospero's breath in his ear, masks all around him pressed against his skin. "I will never leave you alone. You're an artist, Arthur Lester. Your soul calls to me."
"It's not yours to take," said John. "Neither of us."
"No one has ever truly become free of me," the King growled, with all the voices on the stage, all the voices he'd ever entrapped, ringing alongside his own. "You've been mine from the beginning."
"No. You never had me in the first place. From the moment I opened that book, I've been entangled with John. And I—" He stopped, suddenly realizing the truth of the words already on his lips. "And I choose to stay that way."
"Arthur?" John breathed, as the hand let go of their chin.
"If it's in one body, so be it. If we separate—if it's even possible—then I stand by my friend. And I'll do everything in my power to keep him safe from you."
"Do you think you can stop me?" the King whispered all around him. "Do you think you're the only one to try? Countless humans, stronger and better souls than you, have wilted under the scrutiny of a god."
"You're half a god," Arthur said. "Just half. John is whole." He stepped forward, the arms holding them captive falling away with no resistance. "So keep following us. Throw your tantrums. Put on your plays. I'm happy to dedicate my life to eradicating every last crumb of what John left behind."
Arthur turned, facing where he knew Cass stood, his gun still pointed at him.
"Her hands are shaking," John said.
"Cass," Arthur said, gently, "give me my gun." He held his hand out; seconds later, the grip of a pistol was pressed into it. "Thank you." One day he'd look for them, see if the players had influenced the King's mind as thoroughly as he'd borrowed theirs. But for now, they were free.
They turned to face Prospero, one last time. Arthur pulled out Ariel's mask, delicate lace so fragile in his hands, and dropped it at the King's feet.
"Goodbye, Hastur," said John.
And as they walked out of the theater, Arthur felt dozens of eyes boring through their back, watching the two men leave them behind.
"Are you sure?" John asked for the fourth time. "What if someone comes in?"
"I'm sure," Arthur answered for the fourth time. "Just give me one."
"Without depth perception—"
Arthur sighed. "We don't need depth perception right now, John."
John was silent for a moment, and maybe he was just as nervous as Arthur was. "All right."
Arthur blinked, twice, the blur of light resolving itself into an impersonal bathroom, a mirror, his own reflection. He looked…well, better than he honestly thought he would. Too thin, still, the lines of his cheekbones sharpening his face; paler than usual, more grey streaks in his hair. But even with the marks of so much suffering, he still looked like Arthur Lester. Like a man who'd been through hell, a deeper hell than he ever thought possible, but fought his way back. A man who shared a body with a fragment of a god, with a being as human as he. And, finally looking straight ahead, he met John's gaze for the first time.
"Are my eyes fucking yellow?"
John grumbled, sounding put out. "I didn't do it on purpose." And he could see John's gaze soften in their left eye, just as clear as the emotion he heard in his voice. "Wait, Arthur. Your right eye—"
"It's hazel." Well, he'd take heterochromia over the rest of the changes.
"I always wondered what color your eyes were," John said, softly.
"You could have asked, you know. If you'd bothered to tell me you'd changed the color." He opened his eye wider, leaning in. "No, wait. It's a different shade than before. More gold."
"You mean yellow."
"Fuck the King, it's gold."
John laughed, sounding unconditionally happy for once, and the sound was so contagious Arthur had to laugh himself. "All right, Arthur."
"Well." He looked at John's eye, at his smile, at the fondness written so clearly in the face they could both see.
"Well." John's eye flicked down, almost shyly, before meeting his gaze again. "I…" He cleared his throat. "I'd like to recite more of the play. Since we can both read it now," he said, hesitantly.
"I'll second that. Careful with the door." They made their way to the desk (barely avoiding the doorknob with their monocular vision), and settled into their usual chair. "Shall we try different roles?" Arthur asked. "I don't think Prospero and Ariel suit us very well at all."
John flipped through the play, Arthur holding the right-hand pages down. "True. You're hardly graceful."
"Speak for yourself. You're the one who's all left feet."
John let out a long sigh. "Arthur, if I could leave this room right now, I would." Still, he sounded almost as if he were smiling.
And when John stopped turning pages, when his finger rested at the lovers' confession of feelings, Arthur's heart skipped a beat. Not out of surprise, out of—
Arthur cleared his throat, hand shifting closer to John's, and began. "But these sweet thoughts do even refresh my labours…"
And on they read, inhabiting the scene, as in sync as if they'd been playing off each other for years.
"Do you love me?" John asked, his voice almost a whisper.
Arthur swallowed, mouth suddenly dry. "I, beyond all limit of what else in the world, do love, prize, honor you."
"I…am a fool to weep at what I am glad of," John said, and Arthur gently brushed the dampness from their eyes.
"Wherefore weep you?"
"Arthur," John said, instead of the next line. "I…I'd like to read more poetry. So I can write my own. Will you help me find some?"
"I'd be happy to," said Arthur, smile wider than it had been for a very long time. "We'll read it together."