I told Winston how he'd ask me to do little jobs for him. Stupid little things that he claimed would somehow start a Domino effect for some other Game he was playing at.
I told him about when Valtiel asked me to shoot the local mailman
I told him about when I was to throw a brick through a specific window at a certain address.
I even told him about the time when Valtiel told me to buy my groceries at a certain store. That was it. Just buy them and leave.
Sometimes, he hadn't wanted anything at all. Nothing more than to talk, in any case.
I started getting more comfortable around The Snake as time went on. I started calling him "Vivi" instead of "Valtiel" - at first simply to see if it bothered him, but, when it didn't, I kept on using it anyway. I preferred it. Kali and Loki never particularly enjoyed his visits - and that was something I took keen note of - but he never bothered with them. Never questioned why I had them. Why I raised Loki from a chick even as I'd been scrubbing the blood from my hands each night. In fact, he questioned little of what I did or why. Just so long as I did my Job, I suppose he thought it didn't matter.
Now and again, just before he'd leave, he'd stop and ask who I was.
From the very first time, I always knew what to say.
"I am His Humble Servant. Nothing more."
It was the reason I trusted him.
The reason I ignored my instincts when they screamed at me that things weren't lining up right. That something was wrong. That I wasn't Seeing something... and that, by the time I did, it would be too late. He had interfered before. He had helped before. I knew there had to be a reason behind it. Something more than just his amusement...
Beneath the slapping tin from the storm, I told Winston... that he wasn't the only one guilty of hubris in this mess.
I am as well.
For I thought all of this... his very reason for helping me... was because he had a plan FOR me. One that was far less than ideal. Far less than anything I would come out alive from. But for ME, nevertheless. Something I wouldn't turn down... simply because debt runs deep. Because he warned me so I could protect my family. Because he reminded the Highers there were bigger matters at hand than one little Proxy killing off their Handler...
But it had never been for me.
I see that now.
I doubt if he knew what Ends would be met at the very Beginning... but somehow he'd known that I was worth keeping an eye on. Worth fixing a little thing here and a little thing there as time went on. Worth waiting to see... but not necessarily FOR me, in the end.
It was for my line. My bloodline.
I had... recognized the Man In The Rain. The one who had watched me from under his umbrella with sorrowed eyes as I left the mental hospital with blood on my hands. My spouse's blood. I recognized him, because he looked exactly the same as he had the first time we met. The afternoon that he'd given me a warning. A warning that I... that I hadn't heeded.
I knew something was wrong. Very wrong. I knew I'd made a horrible mistake. Somehow, something got twisted. I didn't know how, but I knew something very important had changed. I tried to reassure myself that I was being paranoid, but it didn't matter. That feeling kept gnawing at me until, in all my irrationality, I only wanted one thing.
I had to see Leo.
I thought that... if I could see him... if I could just see that he was okay and exactly where he should be... that I could prove my own instincts wrong. That it would stop and I could move on.
I jumped states through The Path.
Once on the other side, I tore off my gauntlet. My hoodie. My mask. Everything. Changing into a simple hoodie and jeans I'd brought... and then I tucked my things behind a dumpster just a block or so from the school. Leo's School. I slipped a switchblade into my pocket as a just-in-case. Just in case of what, however, I wouldn't have been able to say.
I closed the distance fast - all too aware that I shouldn't be there at all - and snuck around the back of the building. Despite the "normal" clothes I wore, habit kept me to the shadows. Then I peaked around the side.
They were on recess.
I scanned the faces. Wondering what he'd looked like now. Wondering how three years had changed him. Wondering if I'd even recognize him... when, just like that, he was there. Playing on the monkey bars amongst a few other children. Hanging upside down as he laughed and yelled something at one of the others. That unruly head of hair I'd given him looking ever-more wild as it reached for the ground. He giggled and grabbed the bars again - unthreading his legs and doing a complete flip-around through his own arms. Landing on the ground with the rattling of loose gravel before he was tearing off running after another boy who also started to run. Laughing. Yo-yoing back and forth amongst the playground equipment and other kids - younger and older - in what looked like a game of tag. Others followed those two. Obviously involved as well.
I watched them for I don't know how long. Mesmerized. My forehead resting against the brick corner of the school. I watched the game change from tag to hide and seek... which dissolved into Scare The Girls With A Grass Snake when one of the boys found it while Seeking. Which in itself dissolved when it turned out one of the girls actually had a thing for snakes and "rescued" it from the boy. So then everyone gathered around the girl to get a look at it. To pet it. The girl purposely keeping it away from one boy in particular because, and I heard her when she screeched, that he'd hurt it.
And felt a slender arm curl around my shoulders.
I snapped back and spun... only to drop those same two words again with entirely different context. Nerves strained as I bit back those few seconds of panic that had gripped me. My guard had been down... and then, standing right next to me... was Alex.
A bright smile.
Paired with burning, Amber Eyes.
Paired with burning, Amber Eyes.
Body thin and pale.
A horrific neck wound congealed with dark blood. Cut right through to the spine which made it a wonder that the head didn't just fall off...
"Little Leo is growing up so fast, don't you think, Sam?"
The Snake's smile grew as he asked if there was something wrong. Commenting that I looked as though I'd "seen a ghost" with a laugh in his voice before the corpse closed the single step that I had created between us. Arms slipping around my waist. Coiling around. Forcing me into an embrace that brought a shiver down my spine. I cleared my throat to hide the glitch before forcing out a smile against that Snake Grin. I told him it was nothing. Nothing at all. Raising a hand to lightly brush dull, lifeless hair away from Amber Eyes. My will to complete the Show overruling the hesitation that threatened to hold back my arm from the action. Admitting only that Vivi caught me a bit by surprise. That I hadn't been expecting company...
That seemed to please him. His coils releasing as he stepped back. His own hand lifting to idly play with the hanging flesh of the neck wound. Giving himself a figuative pat on the back while he commented how his... "dear little Raven" is usually so hard to surprise. I found it hard to keep my eye away from the motion of the fingers... exploring their body's own fetal injury. I've seen a lot of things in my time, and yet...
"It... has been a bit of an odd day."
"What's the matter, Sam?
Did you think I was going to go kill little Leo to complete the set?
Your son isn't in any danger. So why are you here?"
I didn't know.
I stood on a boundary between Our World and the Norms... and I didn't know what had brought me there. At my back, I could still hear the sounds of the children playing their games. Joyful. Oblivious. Safe. And, in front of me... was an Amber Eyed Snake in the form of my nearly-decapitated spouse. Toying with the tattered flesh across its neck. Smiling that unpleasantly pleasant smile.
No, I didn't believe even in that moment that he wanted to kill Leo.
But something was screaming.
Something was screaming... that I'd missed a key point
That I'd fucked up.
But I didn't know how. Leo was fine. He was playing with the other kids. He was fine...
And, yet... not a cell within my body believed that.
I told this to Valtiel. Explaining that it was... a feeling. A gnawing feeling that refused to leave me...
And then I heard a voice.
Just... a single, soft, questioning voice...
And everything changed.
That boundary... changed. Suddenly, I was on the other side of that line. Pulled over it... and thrown back into the world I'd left behind when I saw Father for the first time. A place where monsters didn't exist... except when nurtured in the hearts of normal, everyday humans.
Hearts... like mine.
I was the monster there. The worst kind that world knew... but... but that wasn't... all I was. Not to all of them. To most, yes. To most, they'd avoid my gaze at all costs. To most, they'd want to lock me up and throw away the key - leaving me to rot. To most... they might want to warm up Old Sparky and flip the switch themselves... but to one... to one boy with a head of untameable hair and dearest of blue eyes...
To him, I was...a face he'd never expected to see again. One that... almost surely should have been replaced over the last three years by the faces of his new mum and dad. One that... I was sure... he wouldn't recognize anymore...
never did i think he'd remember
he'd been four years old when I... left him behind. How could I ever hope...?
I thought... I'd stopping being a parent a long time ago. That only the... instinct remained. The parental bond to protect ones young at the most basic level. If you would have asked a few months ago, I would have smiled and explained that the rest had rotted away in the cesspool...
But... that questioning voice...
he called out to me
Disbelief, confusion, and frustration were torn across that young face... but, the second our eyes met, the disbelief flooded over top of everything else. Dominating it over as... as his name fell from my lips without even my realizing it. He heard me. I could see it register in as he tripped over his own voice - calling out again before he took a step forward. Then another. Then another. Quickening. Running. Sprinting. Calling again. Desperation cutting into the voice. Expression near panic as if... as if he feared I was little more than a mirage...
For a split second, logic gripped me... and screamed to BE a mirage. To disappear into thin air and never look back. Screaming that I shouldn't be there. That it was wrong. Riskly. Dangerous...
But it didn't matter. The desperation I heard my boy yell out with... clawed down deep into me. An eruption in my chest that overruled the scream. The Soldier's Fear of being Seen... whipped clear off the board... by something I thought I'd lost.
He hadn't forgotten me.
I hadn't been replaced.
I wasn't just a monster.
In that moment, it was barely a part of me.
I was a parent again.
I... was Leo's... I...
I... can't do this yet.