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if the earth is dark, if the rain drowns you

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It’s a beautiful church.

It’s the first thought that preludes Walter’s musings, one that would be deemed unusual by most. It’s deemed almost abhorrent by him. Beautiful was not a word he used often as a descriptor, if at all. He finds beauty in his thoroughly studied specimens, his infinite collection of data, and his paycheck, not places of worship. The church was devoid of the rationality he valued so highly, believers putting their faith into nothing but a fallacy. Admittedly, they could be quite fervent about it, their passion at times contagious. Admirable, even.

(He supposes that’s why he developed an affection for the priest in this dream. It might be the most irrational of all.)

The white building that stands in one corner of town possesses a certain quaintness that Walter no longer has the luxury of experiencing. He’s seen the worst of a depraved mind, how warped and horrid it is. His dayjob isn’t much better, actually. Dreamsend is one of the bleakest places he can think of, his workplace a near-empty room with only a few beds scattered in the center. Sleeping for a living does not make for the most vivid of workplaces. Not that he’s bothered by it – the contrast is interesting, to say the least.

The vines that wrap lovingly around the windows and climb along the sides bequeath to it a rather harmonious appearance; as if nature had extended a hand to this place of purity. Such romantic thoughts are usually unwelcome to Walter, but today he decides to make an exception. He notices the way cracks have started forming in this dream, some of the buildings bent and bruised and hideous. The very ground beneath him is like mire, his boots sinking into unidentifiable rot with each step. A little longer and it would swallow him whole with one miscalculation. This would truly be the last time.

The dreamer – a boy, only on the brink of adolescence – had lasted much longer than previous subjects. Walter should feel exuberant at the progress he’s made; and he does, regardless of the way his sentiments have hardened each time the Happy Dream resulted in a futility. He’s not so naïve to allow himself a celebration just yet, but he feels like he did the first time he applied for Dreamsend, Inc. That is, perhaps there truly is a way for the unsalvageable to be saved. Out of all the endless failures, perhaps Russell could bear the fruit of his research and restore the belief he felt was quietly being smothered with each dream. It’s been years since he’s fostered something that can be solidly defined as hope. He hopes Russell will overcome this, for both of their sakes.

So why is it he still feels a twinge of bitterness? Can he not experience a dream without this sensation, a cruel punishment for all those he’s failed to save? He pulls open the single wooden door that leads inside the church, and he, not for the first time, wonders what exactly it is he’s doing. There wouldn’t be any benefit from this, logically speaking. Walter wouldn’t gain anything from this frivolous whim. He should be packing up his materials, organizing his data for analysis when he finally departs from this dream. He shouldn’t be in this deteriorating town, among its fading citizens. They were not real – their words held little worth, arguably less than the drivel that poured from Raymond’s mouth on a constant basis. But he’s here now, and he might as well see it through. It’s never been in his nature to do things halfheartedly.

Walter peers inside, straining his ears for any sign of life. The church is always deathly silent, no matter what time of day he comes. Dogma claims to hold mass now and then, but he’s only seen Russell and Cody set foot inside. Of course, this is a dream. Night turns to day at Russell’s request; nonexistent sermons could be another fabrication. Today, there are no worshippers again. In fact, he can’t even see the priest, the only indication of his presence a cough echoing in the church. Walter surmises he must be dusting again.

His hypothesis is confirmed when he reaches the front row of pews, Dogma dutifully crouched on the ground to futilely wave the duster about beneath the wood. At any other time, Walter would have remarked on the ineffective method he’s using, but the stained glass casts about him a halo of colors, and Walter’s mind dredges up another word he isn’t fond of using.

(Radiant. That’s how he would frame this moment in a concise word. Just because Walter does not make a point to indulge in the arts does not mean he can’t appreciate it when it is offered to him. Even if it is in the form of a priest stirring up the dust.)

“Dogma.” The single word that leaves his lips startles the other, the priest’s head whipping towards the researcher in a slightly bewildered fashion. Dogma picks himself off the ground, a rosy tint coloring his cheeks. (Walter watches with more intent than he usually does; the other always became flustered at the smallest things, didn’t he?)

The duster is held in one hand, a cough into the closed fist of the other. “Good day, Walter.” The priest turns and answers stiffly, but Walter takes no offense; it’s the only way Dogma greets others. Or rather, he doesn’t know of any other way. “Is there something I can help you with?” The dissonance between his perpetual pout and amicable greeting is a bit amusing.

“Nothing in particular.” He hasn’t come here to dissect the other’s faith again, regardless of how often he’s done so in the last week. Between the many escapades he’s been on with Russell’s choice of companions, he’s had plenty of time to engage in heated debates with Dogma. And while he enjoys sinking his teeth into each searing word the priest offers and refuting it with an icy logic of his own, he feels it would be unfitting for the occasion.

Truthfully, he doesn’t remember the last time he’s done this. He’s always considered farewells to simply be part of life; there was no need for formalities when it was nothing special. A beat passes as Dogma looks at him expectantly, his sharp tongue for once dulled and clumsy. Five measly words leave his mouth, a candid explanation for his slight discomfort. “…I have to leave soon.”

The priest watches him curiously, a brow quirking. “Is that so? Admirable of you to spare me a greeting despite the lack of time. Do take care; you’re welcome in this sanctuary should you need it again.”

“That’s not what I mean – I meant my job here is coming to an end. I’m going to have to relocate soon.” He’s going to have to meet up with Raymond, Yue, and Fairia soon, and then they’ll leave this dream without even the inkling of returning. It’s what happens each time, yet…

“I see…” Dogma’s voice reaches a decrescendo with those two words, the lilt of disappointment tinging them. He’s always been painfully honest with his emotions. “Well, I pray for your success and safety. It’s a shame I won’t be able to see you off, but…”

What a shame, indeed.

“I’d like to hear one of your sermons.” The request is blurted before Walter has the time to swallow it back down.

The priest looks taken aback; ruby eyes widen, eyebrows normally fixed in annoyance perch higher on his face. It reminds Walter of the first time he had openly denounced Dogma’s misplaced faith. “Why the sudden change of heart? Have you finally come around?”

The researcher regains footing, his façade composed once more. “You… promised me, did you not? That you’d have me sit through at least one of your preachings.” It was something akin to a threat during one of their clashes, one that Walter did not intend to have him fulfill. Until now, that is.

Dogma’s surprise wanes, expression becoming thoughtful as he considers the other’s words. “Ah… that’s true. Very well.” He places the duster on the nearest pew and strides up to the pulpit with a practiced decorum. “I don’t make it a habit to give sermons for just one, but… make yourself comfortable, then.”

Walter settles on one of the front pews, unsure of where to put his hands. They take refuge in his lap as he watches Dogma clear his throat. “…Is there anything troubling you?”

There are numerous things troubling Walter, truthfully. One of which was right before him, but he holds his tongue. “Hm… I suppose I am a bit concerned about Russell.” A rare admission of the burden that weighs heavy upon his shoulders. Part of him wants to confess it all to the priest, but he cannot. It’s not his place to reveal the truth of the matter.

Dogma hums in agreement. “Yes, that boy can be quite reckless at times, but I have the utmost faith in him…” With that, Dogma launches into an anecdote of ageless origin.

It’s different from the holy light Dogma used to heal his wounds time and time again; this is a healing of the spirit, rather than the body. Dogma speaks a foreign language laden in fables, of a timeless belief that holds his resolve steady like an unbreakable pillar. Walter is a man of research, but he’s never made a point to delve deeply into the history the priest now delivers with each breath. It’s spun together in a firm yet benevolent voice, one that Walter would not mind listening to for the rest of eternity.

He is soothed by the presence of the other, but these thoughts… they are unnatural. Walter holds the citizens of each dream at an arm’s length – more if he can help it. They are manifestations of the dreamer’s subconscious. There is no incentive in forming bonds with them, for they are not the subject of the dream. (And often times, their real world counterparts were dead.) Most dream citizens kept clear of Dreamsend employees, but Dogma… he had barged into his carefully constructed fortress without grace or reserve.

Walter found it bothersome how the other clung so fervently to his beliefs when they had no solid foundation to stand upon. He found little point in being saturated in religion, and was not shy to say so. The priest would huff and rebuke him mercilessly, once for asking why he felt the need to incite conflict when they were in the middle of a dungeon and another for belittling his way of life. Never before had Walter had such a stimulating conversation partner, one that was his complete opposite in nearly every stance. Yet as much as he thought Dogma to be a fool, he could not deny the genuine kindness and strength he possessed. Dogma was a good person amid the cynicism that permeated his perspective on near everything. Walter did not mind his companionship.

(Ah, but he’s not real. Walter reminded himself of that as frequently as he could.)

When Dogma finishes delivering his wisdom, he seems to be slightly out of breath. Asthma, Walter remembers him once saying. Still, his frame does not wilt when he addresses Walter again. “Well? Have you considered entering the Lord’s bosom?”

Walter’s lips twist into a wry smile, bitterness lying beneath the placid surface. “Unfortunately not.”

Dogma shares the same rueful look. Walter has never seen the other smile, but a there is a wan quirking of his lips that could be loosely considered as such. “Hm… a pity. At the very least, accept this from me, if not the faith. Perhaps you’ll find solace when you’re away. Give me your hand, will you?”

The priest steps away from the pulpit and withdraws his rosary from his hold, untangling it before he places it into Walter’s open palm. The researcher’s eyes widen at the gesture, even he can recognize this is a symbol of Dogma’s good will and appreciation. The scene is too much for him to stomach; this is the very kindness that hurt Russell, and it is now hurting him. The priest has dug a tender crevice in his calcified heart. Words escape him, a quiet murmur all he can force from his punctured lungs. “Thank you.”

(Even through his gloves, the beads feel white-hot, a devotion branding his palm and charring him alive. It only makes him clutch them harder in his hand.)

As he walks out of the church, he holds them in front of his chest in silent prayer.

Goodbye, Dogma. And please, let the boy make it out of this dream.

-

Walter isn’t one to shift extensively in his sleep, but when he wakes up Raymond is standing over him and giving him a puzzled look. “You okay, buddy?”

Walter blinks a few times, then squints. It’s always a bit disorienting to wake up being greeted by a pure white ceiling and the hum of the machines in the room. Even moreso when your mouthy colleague was showing you a look of concern.  “I’m fine.” Walter’s voice is a croak, an effect of being in the dream for such an extended amount of time.

“You sure? You’re…” Raymond points a bit below his chin, and Walter follows his gaze.

It takes him a moment to realize his hands are placed in front of his chest, squeezing an imaginary rosary with all his might. His fingernails have dug small crescents into his palm from the force. Yue asks if he had been attacked in the dream. Walter shakes his head before unclasping his hands and sitting up. The ghost of a burn still lingers.

-

The news reaches Dreamsend only a couple days later. Walter can only stare numbly at the report that’s been sent out. It’s the same sensation as the first time he watched a dream collapse. Something buried inside him follows suit. It aches.

-

Yue’s family has experience with flowers, mostly of the Eastern variety. She gives him a bouquet of irises, like he’s asked, and he thanks her before walking away from the doorstep of her apartment. It’s both of their days off.

Walter spends most of his free time poring over his research, even if he’s not getting paid for it. That means most of his days off are spent at home with his notes, or somewhere that isn’t terribly noisy. But today, he’s made plans – oh yes, how Raymond and Fairia teased him for not staying true to his title of hermit. He ignored his coworkers’ teases of possibly finding a significant other in favor of gathering the necessary data from his desk.

When he leaves Yue’s building, he settles himself into the driver’s seat of his car before placing the bouquet in the empty passenger seat. The sun is not overhead yet, which means he has plenty of time. His fingers itch to hold paper and he reviews his notes again, out of an unplaceable anxiety. He starts from the beginning.

Russell doesn’t have a grave. What they do with the bodies of failures is unbeknownst to him. Maybe he’s being used for further research, or cremated in the morgue… no, that’s not something he’d like to think about. Wherever Russell is, Walter hopes he’s found peace with himself. It’s all he can offer.

But while Russell does not have a grave, Walter has found the location of a burnt-down church that rests on the sparse outskirts of the city. According to pictures before its ruin, it was a small white building, wrapped in vines. It seemed beloved by nature and God alike, an ideal symbol of piety despite its size. Walter’s hand digs into his coat pocket, feeling the familiar beads of a rosary and clenching around it. It’s a beautiful church.