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not lethe nor nepenthe

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His gloves are missing.

Their apparent absence isn’t the most remarkable thing about his current state, really. Between the flecks of blood seeping through his sleeves, the sickness roiling in his gut, and the pirouetting world around him, he knows, distantly, that there are more pressing matters at hand. But—his gloves are gone, and all Aesop can think about is how desperately he wants them back.

The lacquered wood wall of the unfamiliar corridor seems to bow beneath his palms as he places them against it in a feeble attempt to stop the spinning and steady himself. Aesop rolls up one cuff to inspect the wounds beneath. His mind catalogs the sights as his eyes trail upwards from the bare back of his hand: nails chewed to their quicks, varicose veins snaking up his forearm, the blue stains of fresh bruises and newly scabbed track marks clustered around his wrist and the crook of his elbow.

Needle pricks, then. The veins of his bicep throb where they’d been squeezed taut by a tourniquet before he’d been injected with whatever chemicals are currently swimming in his system. Perhaps he was the subject of some experiment—but why?

Aesop screws his eyes shut, tries to block out dizziness, stifle the ache in his stomach, to remember—remember—why can’t he remember?

Pain lances through his skull, sickle-sharp and agonizing enough to send him straight to his knees. Sweat licks at his fingers as he cards them through his hair, slicks his grimy bangs back from his forehead, and clutches his head between his hands.

Am I dying? Aesop idly wonders. If it is death that dogs him, it’s an unfamiliar kind. No game, no hunter, no last gurgling death rattle as he chokes on his own blood. Just the sluggish thrum of his heart in his ears as whatever substance he’s been injected with eats away at him from the inside. Just him, alone, sprawled on the dingy floor in some nowhere hall.

Aesop drifts in and out of consciousness for seconds, minutes, hours. Nausea laps at him like waves upon the shore. As he chokes back a swell of vomit, some faint part of him realizes that he’s laying on his back and would likely suffocate on it, but he can’t muster the energy to roll over. If these floorboards are to be today’s bier, he thinks, so be it. This end will be the same as the countless other mimicries of death he’s experienced in this place—he’ll wake up again and stumble into the banquet hall, alive once more.

He closes his eyes and resigns himself to his quiet, unremarkable demise.

- - -

Aesop expects to awaken as he usually does: in a cradle of silence, lying prone upon his bed like a stiff corpse and greeted only by the sight of his room’s waxy ceiling.

Upon opening his eyes, he instead finds himself face-to-sole with a familiar pair of buckled shoes. The view sends another churn of pain through Aesop’s head, reminding him that he is, unfortunately, very much still alive and still miserable.

“I would ask if you are all right, but I believe I already know the answer to that question,” Joseph remarks, his usual clipped tone laced with a curious undercurrent of something Aesop can’t place.

Aesop trails his gaze upwards, over dark stockings fit to slim calves and the elegant flair of a brocaded coat. Before he can meet Joseph’s eyes, Aesop cants his head to the side, fixing the photographer’s cravat with a long stare instead.

Joseph fits a hand to his hip, obviously awaiting a response, and Aesop attempts to placate him with a noncommittal grunt. A clawed hand extends downward, forefinger crooked in an obvious offer of aid.

Aesop eyes it warily. “You needn’t concern yourself with me. I’m—” his words taper, eyes screwing shut as twin pinpricks of pain blossom behind them, “—fine.”

Above him, Joseph snorts. Raises a single, prim brow. “‘I’m fine,’ he claims, from the floor he is collapsed upon,” the photographer retorts, echoing Aesop’s stilted words. “I have seen you fare better with six inches of steel sunk between your ribs. And, considering you have somehow managed to stumble your way over to our side of the manor, I do need to concern myself with you.”

“Your side? I’ve never set foot here. How did I…” Aesop trails off, the revelation muddling his already hazy mind further.

“I was hoping you would answer that very question for me.” Joseph clicks his tongue. “Fortunate, at least, that I happened upon you instead of another; though I am sure most of my fellows would not harm you, there are some that I doubt would be inclined to help you, either.”

Several names flit through Aesop’s mind. Though he doesn’t disagree with Joseph, he still doesn’t take the offered hand, a silent reiteration of his earlier sentiment.

His stubborn refusal earns him a pointed (bordering on dramatic, really) sigh from the photographer. “At least allow me to escort you back to your side of the manor.”

A riptide of nausea surges within Aesop at the thought of the others seeing him like this. Feeble. Unkempt. More useless than usual. “No,” he grits out, shakes his head. “Don’t bring me back there. Not—not right now, please.”

Joseph hums in thought, head tilted to the side as he considers the plea. When Aesop meets the other man’s eyes, he finds unspoken understanding in that glassy, ever-perceptive gaze. “It would appear we are at an impasse, then. You refuse to return, and I refuse to leave you here. Perhaps a third option, then.”

Aesop’s brows knit. He knows where the photographer is going with this line of thinking, and he’s unsure how to feel about it. But, the thought of any other hunter finding him curled up here while he waits for this drug to pass through his system is just as un-stomachable as returning to his fellow survivors.

“Your quarters, I’m assuming,” Aesop says.

“Mm. Just until you feel well again.”

Just until I feel well again, Aesop echoes in his mind. A few hours, at most. He can do that. Joseph certainly isn’t the worst company to keep; not anymore.

“Fine.”

Joseph dredges up a smile. “Shall we?” he asks, offering his hand once more. This time, Aesop takes it.

- - -

The walk back to Joseph’s room passes in a dizzying stupor. Joseph supports Aesop with the practiced care of a man intimately familiar with handling sickness; he slings one of Aesop’s arms over his neck, hovers a steadying hand around his waist, takes slow steps and watches, hawk-eyed, for any signs of discomfort. It’s… oddly endearing, Aesop supposes.

He’s surprised to discover that the hunters’ rooms are somewhat nicer than the survivors’. More spacious, clearly designed to accommodate unnatural size and extra appendages. Joseph’s room is a nondescript thing, tucked away at the end of a long hall. Tallow candles sit upon prickets around the space, wicks winking with gentle flames that illuminate a bed, some furnishings, and the door to an ensuite bathroom.

Resting atop Joseph’s vanity are a few personal items, Aesop notes. Small, but telling: a gilded handheld mirror, cosmetic phials, an ostentatious quill pen tucked into the cinch of a closed journal. A near-empty decanter of dark wine and beside it, a single, lonely goblet. His eyes dart to the photographer’s camera and saber, both intimately familiar to Aesop, now. Sensations shiver through him at the sight, drawn out like a shadow at sunrise—the phantom pain of metal piercing his lungs, severing his carotid, deftly gashing his veins open like a physician’s fleam. Death after death, bled out at his own behest.

“Are you all right?” Joseph asks, hand still hovering beside Aesop’s waist.

Aesop turns away and slumps into one of the armchairs, tucking his hands into the folds of his elbows. “Fine. Just… cold,” he murmurs, the statement not entirely untrue.

Joseph moves to the room’s solitary window, brushing voile curtains aside to wrench it shut. A set of bars hug the panes, similar to the ones fastened to Aesop’s own window, wrought iron coiled in decorative trefoils meant more to keep the room’s occupant prisoner than prevent any outsiders from breaking in. Aesop can’t see much through the gloaming; beyond the bars, he spies a dismal sprawl of grass and snarled briar. Not much of a view for an artist, he thinks.

“Better?” Joseph asks, settling back into his chair.

Aesop nods. Leans his head against the soft upholstery of the chair, body sagging into its comfort. As silence yawns on between them, he can feel Joseph’s curious eyes on him, like the man is expecting him to strike up a scintillating conversation.

Though quiet is a comfort that Aesop is usually content to blanket himself in, he breaks it, briefly, with the question that has been on his mind since Joseph found him in that corridor. “Why help me?”

“There is not much sport in a hunt if your prey is indisposed,” Joseph replies, letting out a little thrum of laughter.

It’s a deflection, Aesop knows. He lets silence settle over them again, content to keep that opinion to himself. The pointed absence of a reply to his little joke makes Joseph shift in his chair, shoulders drawn taut like a bowstring.

Finally, Joseph speaks again. “Contrary to this role I have been assigned, I do not derive some twisted pleasure from seeing others in pain. Leaving you in such a state would not have sat well with me. Am I not allowed to show my rival a modicum of mercy?”

“I didn’t think your moral compass pointed so strongly north,” Aesop retorts, “considering some of the deaths I’ve suffered at your hands.”

“The only reason I treat you so is because I know that you do derive some twisted pleasure from pain,” Joseph scoffs.

A flush rises to Aesop’s cheeks, unbidden. Fidgeting uncomfortably, he tugs his mask further up his face, like it will conceal the redness. “Is it so obvious?”

The photographer snorts. “Please. None of the other survivors are keen to lash themselves to the post and bare their backs to their tormentors. You have an odd way of playing the part you’ve been assigned in this grand performance.” Joseph cups his chin in one hand, elbow propped on the arm of his chair. Stares at Aesop like a wolf considering a lamb. “You fascinate me, Aesop Carl.”

Aesop tilts his head, wincing at the way the motion sends a twinge of pain through his skull. “I recall you once saying you despised me.”

“I did, upon a time,” Joseph agrees. “You infuriated me. How blasé you seemed about death, how you seemed to be the antithesis of the very word ‘survivor.’ But that was before the games we have since played, before you found whatever answer you were searching for. Before you brought some color to these dull halls. I cannot quite understand what is going on in that pretty head of yours, but, I confess, a part of me would like to.”

Unease blossoms within Aesop’s belly. He can’t tell if Joseph’s words are praise or mockery, isn’t sure which would be more embarrassing.

“Rivals,” he says quietly, abruptly attempting to pivot their conversation in a different direction. “You called us rivals. It doesn’t make sense for enemies to…” he trails off, grasping for a word that his addled brain can’t quite reach.

“...Fraternize?” Joseph supplies.

Not the word Aesop would have used, but. He nods.

“Does anything here make sense? The dead cannot truly die, the living are trapped in limbo. We might be opposing pieces on the Baron’s board, but the rules of the game he has created only mandate what we must do on the field.” Joseph leans forward, half-lidded eyes impossibly bright. “In here, on our own time, we can do as we please. Consort with whomever we would like.”

“I… suppose you’re right. This place distorts logic beyond comprehension,” Aesop agrees.

“Friendship, rivalry—it distorts the bounds between those, as well. It seems some of your friends have taken that fact in stride. A few have found companionship over here.”

There’s an incomprehensible lilt to Joseph’s voice, something Aesop can’t quite place. “For all the souls trapped here,” Joseph continues, “this manor can feel like a lonely place, sometimes. Kindred spirits are rare to come by.”

Almost unconsciously, Joseph’s fingers drum against the arm of Aesop’s own chair, chasing the flicker of candlelight beside Aesop’s wrist. When he finally meets Joseph’s eyes, a slip of a smile curves the photographer’s lips.

Aesop feels a flush crawl up his neck, a burning sensation in the pit of his stomach. “I—” he starts. Joseph seems to perk up, keen to hear his response.

It never comes. As the wave of nausea finally crests and comes crashing down, Aesop clamps a hand over his masked mouth, stumbles to the ensuite, and promptly empties his stomach into the toilet.

He faintly hears the rush of footsteps, then feels a soothing sweep of nails against his scalp as Joseph cards his sweaty bangs back and holds his loose hair away from his face while he continues to heave. It’s gentle. Comforting. Joseph says nothing, just kneels beside him and soothes him through the worst of it until Aesop retches the last of the bile from his stomach and sags, forehead tucked into his crossed arms.

Whatever energy he’d mustered during his brief respite saps entirely from his body. As Aesop’s eyelids stutter shut, he faintly registers the feeling of a coat wrapping around his shoulders, arms bundling him, and the comforting hum of Joseph’s voice.

- - -

When Aesop awakens, a new pair of gloves rest on the pillow beside his head.

Dawn wells up like blood from a wound outside, the rosy gray light of clouded daybreak splintering through the latticed windows. He sits up. Still groggy, it takes him a tired moment to fully register the fact that he’s tucked into Joseph’s bed. The man himself is nowhere to be found, his camera and saber absent from the room. A game, then.

Aesop takes stock of his body’s current state—stiff neck, cottonmouth, clear head. Whatever drug he’d been given, it worked itself out of his system overnight.

An unsealed envelope with his name written penned in a flourishing script catches Aesop’s eye. He gently picks it up from where it rests on bedside table and unfolds the piece of paper tucked inside. It’s a map of the manor—impressively detailed, with cramped handwriting denoting each room and a through-line connecting the survivors’ side to Joseph’s room. Beneath the drawing, a few words are written. Come again, if you are so inclined. Preferably less sick. My door will remain open for you.

The edges of his eyes crease. He sweeps his thumb across the line that connects their respective sides of the manor; slow, contemplative. Perhaps, Aesop thinks, he will.