Thursday, November 1, 2012

Goodbye To A Good Friend. Part 4.

It was October 5th.

He had his back to me.

"Joseph" might as well have been a coat hanging on the back of a chair, or a mannequin propped up for display in the corner. He was so still. Disturbingly so. As though his physical and even metaphysical presence had somehow approached the horizon of zero. Internalizing it. Adopting it. Making it part of his newest mask until even my own eyes wanted to breeze right across him as if he wasn't even there.

I was the Shadows that edged the dimly-lit bar. My human body feeling nearly endless in it as I silently moved across the bar. Never leaving that cloak. The only thing caught on my figure every so often by a faithless bulb being a sharp glisten across my gauntlet. It still hurt to move it. To use it was agony... but that hadn't stopped me yet. Nor would it start now.

I asked if he was disappointed.

His barest whisper... suggested that Death would have been easier. Cleaner. For everyone involved.

The shingles on the roof rattled with the wind. The building creaking and groaning in strain... and every thought in me was screaming. Screaming that he should have just let me die when Redlight threw me in his lap. Screaming that everything should have Ended back then. With the Plague Doctor. With me pinned down beneath His cane convulsing in the middle of the road of that Cult Town... convulsing in an agony so clawing, so deep, so burning, that, even now, I don't have the words for it...

It should have Ended then.

I should be dead.

And Leo...

"Joseph" didn't wait for me to sort out my thoughts - or maybe he just didn't think I was going to answer at all - and asked if I'd come to kill him. Asked if I had decided how "slow" it was going to be. Or if I wanted a punch for myself for my own role in the whole mess. He laughed then. A strange, twisted sound that was almost painful to hear. Shaking his head. Shoulders sinking over the bar that much more. Over a drink that was left untouched in front of him. Muttering how it wouldn't do anything. Wouldn't change anything. Wouldn't accomplish anything. Going on about how I've always been sharp. Sharp, despite the Jester Act. Despite all the jokes. Despite the smiles which can be anything but...

I remained in my shadow.

"Can't even turn to face the one you stabbed in the back, Sherlock? 
Or are you praying that I return the favor? 
Must admit. Tempting offer."

"...You once said that the thing you liked about me was that I was human. 
You never did consider what that truly meant, did you? 
Fear, selfishness, pride... all things that tempt us. 
Shape us into who we are. What we decide to be. 
I don't blame you for hating me. For wanting me to die. 
In fact, it's almost a relief to see that you aren't just aloof about everything. 
Betrayal... even if it was unwilling... was something you should've seen coming. 
I was weak, Sam. I couldn't fight against them. 
But you... you let it happen, just as much as I did. 
So tell me... who's corpse do you want to see on the floor today so badly? Mine? 
Or your own, perhaps...?"

He didn't move.

I moved him.

I don't recall whether I lunged at him or if I used The Path. All I remember of that instant is having his coat in my grip as I ripped him from his seat and flung him around. Slamming his thin frame back against a support beam. Pinning him there. The blades of my one hand shredding the material to ribbons, but my other grip held as anger thudded in my ears. As that voice in my head screamed louder and the useless hold my gauntlet had was let go for a better purpose. Snapping the metal across his jaw with a sharp fist.

It seemed to hurt me more than it hurt him.

My burn beneath the gauntlet turned to white fire as his head snapped to the side. Twisting. He barely cringed, but my other hand held him where he was as I struggled to shove back the fresh pain that spiked up my arm. I could feel where the skin had been torn again. Feel the blood come. The melted metal having ripped it away from my flesh. A new movement. Unfamiliar. Had to tear the scabs of healing flesh to make room for it...

All the screaming inside finally found my tongue. I yelled at him. A cold growl in my tone that almost didn't seem like mine. A fury rising from so deep that I felt myself tremble with it.

I had defended him. When "Joseph" had given advice to that idiotic Sage, Redlight had appeared out of thin air and grabbed the bartender by the head. Slamming him down onto the counter with such force that it was a damn miracle his skull hadn't cracked open. The Devil in a rage all his own as everyone cringed back. Even David had shrunk away after that rage was blasted against him. Dropping the hold he had on the "Joseph's" hand. Leaving him to his fate.

Buckle and allow.

Buckle and allow.

Buckle and allow.

So long as you're alive at the end, you can justify it, can't you?

Morningstar hadn't cared. He didn't much care for anyone there, pardoning me. And that was a loyalty that went back to when he actually had BEEN Morningstar. Luke Cifer. Not a puppet of some poor fool on strings, held together only by the memories of a stranger. This one was a fake. But he so wished to prove himself to be real, that he'd die to act the part. He'd want what I'd want. Because we were allies. Friends as Proxies. Nightscream and Morningstar. Together again.

To be a Real Boy, this time, Pinocchio fully accepted his strings. And danced.

It was disheartening. But also handy. I knew I had a Ace up my sleeve, so long as he was there.

And he proved it in that moment.

When Redlight's presence was practically radiating malice, the only one who stepped forward had been me. I left the game of chess I had going with Shooter behind, and I walked to our hotheaded Leader. Talking to him. Standing across from him. Against him. Posture relaxed and smirk on. I challenged him. His view. His anger. Gain verses Loss. And, when barely prompted, "Joseph" had streamed an apology. Begging for forgiveness. Swearing it wouldn't happen again. So sure that he was Done, all the same. So sure - so terrified - that that was how it was going to end for him.

Just behind me, Morningstar agreed with my statements. Making a few of his own. Supporting my own will, only for the simple fact that it was my will... despite the red hued rock of the ring on his hand.

David joined the Defense then. Uttering some form of ultimatum that I wasn't paying close enough attention to catch. His fear would let him support. But not Lead.

For once, that would be my Role.

Despite the other voices joining, my stare never left Redlight's eyes. Amber eyes that were still angered - still burned with fury - but something else had risen in them. A faint realization. Or perhaps confirmation. They simmered back after a moment. Cooling off. That radiation that choked the room seemed to withdraw a touch... and one last threat was made clear by the Crimson Prince towards "Joseph" himself before he vanished in a gust of Leaves.

David had been at "Joseph's" side in an instant.

Morningstar said nothing. Merely fiddled with his red ring. Glaring at it.

As for me, I was still caught on the last look The Devil had paid me before he disappeared. He knew what I had done. David and Morningstar were his pawns. Just as I was. Only I'd just had them both back me. Both were terrified of Redlight, but had stepped forward regardless. Because I had done so first. Because I knew the words to say. I knew the Game. I knew how to get what I wanted from people. Even if they didn't realize they were giving anything at all.

In that moment, I received the look from a figure... who'd pin-pointed a threat.

We spoke of it when he came back. The night we played a chess game of our own. I knew he was annoyed, to a point, that I had... interfered, but he was willing to speak to me. Willing to talk it over. It was the night that Secrets became a very important thing. Maybe the Most Important thing. The night I assured Dearest Redlight that I would not bow to him, but I would follow... so long as respect was a two-way street.

It was the night I haggled for "Joseph's" life.

We didn't spend our whole chat in the Cafe like I had lead everyone to believe. We paused about three-quarters of the way through. Redlight invited me to go for a walk with him. I held no problem with that, so grabbed my coat. We discussed many things as we walked the Endless Road of the Loop... and "Joseph" became one of them. Brought up as a problem needing to be rectified. That he was a liability. A spy. That dogs like "Joseph" were loyal to those that had saved their miserable lives - like the Highest, Author, had done with the Moriarty mess. I was another example. My loyalty to Redlight because of the Plague Doctor. Just dogs and their "masters"... and yet it built a problem. A very pressing problem. And when I commented back in "Joseph's" Defense despite it, that too-wide grin spread across The Devil's face. A ghoul's face in the strange, distorted moonlight. His skin had nearly looked as white as bone...

And then he was behind me. His front against my back. His hands having settled on my shoulders. His lips right by my ear. Whispering to me. Mocking me. Asking if I considered the bartender "mine" now, after all this. If I'd finally fallen victim to my human urges. Human desires and wants. If I now thought that I had my own little Whore tucked off into a corner. Mentioning his own disappointment in me - having thought I was different from the flock - before asking what had attracted me to him. The body? The mind? Some misguided pity, perhaps...?

I turned to face him in that twisted moonlight. Not backing away. Not caring for personal space. Not shrinking from a presence which gave every reason to. Everything about him was Wrong. He reminded me of a song I once heard (I'm the dagger in your back! An extra turn upon the Rack! The quivering of your heart! A stabbing pain, a sudden start...!). The strange light flared off his eyes within the shadows of that red hood. Gleaming as pits of pure madness above that grin... and I couldn't help that my smirk grew just a little bit more. Amusement. For the first thought that came to me... was that I'd named him well. My little nickname for him - something I thought of when he was still playing as the Mongrel - suited him to a Tee.

He really was The Devil.

(I got a fiddle of gold to get your soul, 'cause I think I'm better than You...)

I smiled into that grin. Assuring him how my heart beat only for him and there was no need to be jealous.

He laughed.

It was the night... that I claimed "Joseph" as one of my Pieces. A part of my own Game. A Pawn with a role to play... once I got back on my feet myself, of course. I still had my Plan. Something I've nursed along and built over the past years... and it was under that distorted night sky that I told Redlight that Dearest Jo had a role in it. That I needed him alive.

Whether that was a lie or not... it doesn't much matter now.

The Devil granted me that, nevertheless. He warned me to watch my step, but promised he wouldn't interfere with my Plans. So long as they didn't conflict with his own. That I could have "Joseph" if I wanted him.

I never told Winston that.

Didn't see a point.

But I told him then. I yelled. I hissed and growled through blurs of details and events and conversations long past. I gripped hold of my anger just as I had gripped hold of him. Clinging to it like a drowning soul grips to a floating piece of driftwood. I yelled at him for calling himself "unwilling". Demanding to know how the Hell one "Unwillingly" digs into someone else's history. Demanding to know how someone can break down a wall without realizing it. Yelling that I'd buried them. Both of them. And he had to know that. He had to KNOW there was something to hide once he hit that wall... but he hadn't cared. I had trusted him, and he dug anyway. The almighty Sherlock...

The eyes that gazed back at me were hollow. Pits to a soul where there was supposed to be windows. His expression never changed. His voice never rose or fell. All he was... was an near empty vessel of quiet, measured words. Words of Truth. Harsh, painful Truth.

I never told him.

That's what it came down to.

I trusted him, yet I failed to trust him enough to tell him of the landmine I myself had buried three years ago. One that was bound to be set off eventually. Even if I never detailed what, I could have said something was there. I could have said anything. He called it "always hiding behind lies and collusion and baited glances". Never giving an inch unless I was taking two inches somewhere else. Dropping little, meaningless details, but always dodging the bigger questions. Always smiling and changing the subject. Answering without answering. And then answering one question, only to create eight more.

"When along the way did you forget who I was, Sam?

What I did? 

How and why I got myself into trouble? 

We were friends.

But our business was always secrets. 

Or maybe yours was. 

Because mine was uncovering them.

The Crimson King suggested there was something... about you. 

Something in your past that might get you killed.

Or maybe just something you'd risk all our hides for.

I thought... that I could help you, if I only knew what it was. 

 It could have been anything. 

Maybe you weren't even who you said you were, 

only brought back to be a pawn in someone else's game. 

Maybe you were a wolf in sheep's clothing, 

like a certain Mongrel we all knew... 


That's all in the past now. The would'ves and the could'ves. 

 It was misguided, yes. 

I'll give you that. And I have no excuses.  

We both know... that the Crimson King was never on either of our sides. 

It's kind of ironic, if you think about it... 

outplayed by the very monster we both predicted would rise to the occasion... 

 I'm not sure who's worse... 

 me, the coward who opened Pandora's Box, 

heeding the whispers of the Devil in his ear, 

or you...

who did not do nearly a good enough job hiding nor protecting it...

You know this isn't going to be enough.

Nothing will ever be enough.

You can kill me if you want, Sam.

I won't stop you.

...Honor doesn't matter anymore."


This isn't about me, don't you get that yet?!
This isn't---!
It isn't...
It's... about him.
God, Winston, if you had to destroy me like this, so be it.
But why did he have to get involved? Why did...?
I gave up everything... everything... just to keep him safe and now...
God, how long...?
How long before he becomes like us?
Like... me?
How could I... how could I do this to him? How could I do this to my own son? 
I had one job... the rest was all play, but I had ONE FUCKING JOB... 
And I... I lost, Winston. Goddammit. GODDAMMIT!"

He didn't even flinch as I punched my gauntlet to the beam mere inches from his face.

The white fire came back. This time I didn't push it back.

I deserved it.

"...The only sad part is that you've said many times that you're not like me. 
That you don't have a speck of humanity... left in you. That you forgot.
But that was never true, Sam. 
I just wish... 
I wish a lot of things." 

That empty stare finally looked away. I knew the look. Guilt.

He carried his.

I had mine.

And I let him go with it. Taking two shaky steps back to put my back to the counter. Leaning against it. My good arm holding my gauntlet against me. I felt... exhaustion weigh over me. It took everything just to not sit down. Stool or floor, it wouldn't have mattered. The floor would have been more suiting. Inside my hoodie, my tape recorder continued its job. Recording the conversation.

"'...Once you have claws... you'll only ever be... a monster...'

That's what that bastard told me when he... 
When he melted the fucking THING to my arm.
Why did I risk it, Winston? Why did I go to him? Why did I...?
I... I should have just killed him.
Like... Alex..."

"... Because that's your child, Sam. 
I can't answer that question, 
since that sort of love is something that nobody could ever fully understand. 
Maybe I, once... had something similar, but not as powerful. 
Not as potent, as sharp and piercing, as painful... 
And through me, such a thing has been compromised. 
You don't want to hear it, I'm sure, and it will never be enough...

But I'm sorry, Sam. 
I considered you my closest friend. 

I... was a fool, but I never meant to... I never meant for this to happen..." 

I said nothing for a while. They say misery loves company, and I suppose that's true. But, after a while, I knew I couldn't put it off much longer. I had to do what I had come to do... but, first, I wanted... to give something. I wanted to finish my story. Or, at least, the beginnings of it. It was true, I had never told him details even though he'd told me several tales of the battlefield. About how he came back only to find mother and father in early graves. About how he'd never seen Slender Man. Not really.

I suppose I decided in that moment... that I owed him the story. 

So, I brushed off my hood.

Took off my mask.

And I told it.

And now I'm going to tell it to you.

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