After watching Tory stare dumb for a minute too long, Rien yawns and taps on the glass. Tory makes the stiff journey to the wall and carefully lifts the window. "How are you doing that?" he asks weakly.
Rien raises one of his feet. He's standing on something long and thin, perfectly balanced several stories above the ground. He isn't even holding onto the side of the building.
"Oh," Tory says. "Right. I forgot you can… balance good."
"It's a friggin' parlor trick." Rien puts his hand on the window ledge. "Now be polite and invite me in." Tory reaches to slam the window shut but he's too slow. Rien wedges it open with his arm. "Fine... I'll do without the invitation. Miss me?" he asks as he climbs in through Tory's window. Through Tory's seventh story window. For some reason that tiny fact makes Tory a little lightheaded.
Tory backs away. The only thing he can think about is he doesn't know what he's going to do if T.T. starts barking, he isn't even allowed to have her in the building. His brain clings to that one sliver of sane coherency, that's all he knows, all he can think about. So he definitely doesn't know what he's going to do if Rien gets any closer. He doesn't know, he can't think, he can barely keep his eyes open. "What do you want?" he says, voice low. The dorm walls are paper, he'd be surprised if someone hadn't already heard them talking. Rien pulls a long wooden stick inside with him and tosses it onto the floor and Tory's certain the sound has probably woken up everyone in the building.
He looks down at it, the thing Rien was standing on. "And what is that, exactly?"
Rien grabs the front of his belt and juts his hips forward. "My pole."
"You're obscene." The vision forces Tory to smash his eyes closed. "What are you doing here?"
"Like I need a reason to want to visit my favorite brain donor?"
"You just came in through a seventh floor window—" Tory starts, but Rien is backing him into the corner and he's a little slow on the uptake. "Um. Brain donor?"
"How do you feel?" Rien asks him instead. He ruffles Tory's hair. It's the most normal thing Tory's felt all night and he leans into the touch despite himself. Rien's hands are warm for once. "You look like you're about to collapse," Rien adds, smiling and taking hold of Tory's arms apparently just in case.
He tries to shake him off. "As though I have the mother of all hangovers. I didn't even have that much."
Rien's expression is almost caring, but it's too amused for that. "You don't have a hangover," he says, arms wrapping around Tory. It would be too great a temptation to collapse into them if Tory weren't so unsure about whether Rien would catch him or not.
He can't stop his head from falling onto Rien's shoulder, though. He hates that he does it. "It feels like my head is splitting open," he mumbles into Rien's jacket.
"You don't have a hangover," Rien says, his hand caressing the back of Tory's neck with insulting familiarity. "Your head really has split open. You didn't think I could just leave that field, did you? I needed a brain to pay my way out, so I took part of yours."
"I could have sworn I just heard you say you stole my brain," Tory says. He is tired. His eyes sting and ache from staying open. He wants to just fall into nothing and sleep until he doesn't have to worry about any of this anymore.
"Yes, that is generally correct," Rien says.
"You're obviously tripping or insane."
Rien chuckles into his hair. "I completely understand you're too far gone to appreciate it, but oh the irony. Hey. Stay with me, now. Wake up. You're not done."
"Yes, I am." He lets his legs go out from under him, and as he suspected Rien doesn't hold him up. That's okay, though. He falls and slides onto his stomach and carpet catches him and it feels wonderful. Floor will do. Floor is good.
"Give me a break," Rien's voice mutters somewhere above him. "I know it takes a lot of energy out of you, but you're being ridiculous. Get up."
Rien grabs a fist of the back of Tory's shirt and tugging him up onto his knees. Tory could cry. "What could you possibly take now?" he says. "What could I give you? My heart? A piece of spine?"
The growl buzzes in his ear, turning Rien's voice dark. "Someone's already stolen your heart my dear, and I have ten times the backbone you do. What would I need yours for? Besides, you don't steal someone's courage from their spine. You steal it from their blood." His tongue is a swath of rough wet velvet on Tory's neck, directly over Jarek's wound. "But something tells me," Rien says, "you already knew that."
Tory's eyes stare out at nothing. "Who stole my heart?"
"Guess." Rien stands up, pulls Tory with him. He finds Tory's scarf from somewhere and starts wrapping Tory in it. "Guess while we walk, though."
Tory lets his coat be put on him. T.T. anxiously walks around their feet, looking up and like she's trying to figure something out. Tory frowns, tries to search out Rien's eyes, but he can't focus and Rien won't face him directly. It's like some optical illusion where his gaze keeps sliding off target. "What do you want?"
Rien smiles thinly. "If you were me and had just escaped from that pumpkin hellhole, what would you want?"
"I would want Tory to sleep?"
"Ha, no." The smiles turns into an equally thin smirk. "No, you would definitely want… cigarettes."
For a few beats, there is just silence.
"Cigarettes," Tory says faintly. "You stole my brain and have been stalking me all the way back to my room because you wanted cigarettes?
"Not quite. I had to get your brain anyway, this is just bonus. It isn't often I can get away with cigarettes without, you know, spontaneously combusting. Smoke and straw, they don't always mix so well. And I'd like a bath, as well. Know where we could find a bath?"
Living in the dorm, Tory only has the showers. But he might have a solution. "Only if you don't mind dog hair."
Rien shrugs, gives T.T. a wary look. "Whatever. Let's go, and leave the little dog at home."
Tory buys the cigarettes and matches because he doesn't smoke and clearly doesn't have any of his own. He's grateful he doesn't have to buy anything else with Rien right there at his elbow. The store owner hardly raises an eyebrow at him (doesn't acknowledge Rien at all) for being in there at four in the morning, but Tory still feels filthy as he does it. Criminal, cowardly, slinking around in the early hours.
He doesn't stop to think Why am I doing this? until he's used the key under the mat around the back entrance of the animal shelter to get into the building and is leading Rien into the back rooms. He's still turning the thought over stupidly in his head, not doing anything but worrying it repeatedly, as he shows Rien the human bathroom. They probably used it to wash dogs before they got the animals their own room and whispers of disuse and dusty corners. There's a sink, a toilet, some cabinets, a bathtub.
"This what you had in mind?" Tory asks. He doesn't dare cross over the threshold into the bathroom as long as Rien is in there. Rien doesn't answer, but turns on the hot water and lets it start filling up. He checks the cabinets, finds a mysteriously placed bubble bath bottle with some liquid still in it. Tory watches him pour the rest in the water and use his old cigarette stub to light a new one.
It's bizarre seeing Rien in all his unusualness in an otherwise ordinary location, a flagrant bastardization of normal, of everything Tory takes for granted. He stands in the doorway, not sure what to do about it.
"Not that I care one way or the other," Rien says on the exhale, as he places the new cig on the side of the counter, "but you strike me as the sort of individual with a, for want of a better term, Victorian sense modesty." He checks himself in the mirror and runs a hand through his hair.
Tory watches his fingers move, wonders why he isn't more afraid. "What does that mean?"
"It means," says Rien, as he begins unbuttoning his jacket, "I'm giving you the opportunity to get your delicate eyes out of the room before I ditch all my clothes. You sticking around for this or what? I would, of course," he says, not hesitating even a little in undressing when he catches Tory with his eyes, "be willing to answer a few more questions, since you were so obliging with the accommodations."
Rien challenges and dares him with his eyes to stay, but Tory slips around the corner, as much to hide a blush as to give Rien a moment. "I'll… close my eyes."
"Yeah, you do that." Tory hears the rustle of clothes and, eventually, the lap of water against the tub as Rien gets in. There's a hiss. Rien's voice, oozing disbelieving bliss. "God, yes. Holy shit motherfucker…"
Tory frowns, carefully looks around the corner, ready to avert his eyes in case it isn't safe yet. He sees Rien up to the neck in water, his head rolling back. "This feels so good, you can't imagine, Tory." The way he tilts his head back and opens his mouth and closes his eyes in just the right way makes Tory's blush ascend to a higher pitch of confusion, and worse yet is Rien opens an eye and notices him fidgeting. "In or out, dollface? I don't care much one way or the other but close the door."
"I…" I care. "Okay. In." Tory closes the door and sits on the toilet beside the tub. Rien's deep in the water, his eye closed, cigarette hanging loosely in his fingers over the side. The bubbles preserve decency, but Tory can't help but check them every so often.
"You're not made of straw," Tory says. The weather would be an instant givaway to his shaky mental state, and he's not sure how else to make small-talk with a scarecrow. Without opening his eyes, Rien casually flips him off. "Sorry. I thought that was one of the defining factors."
"Not necessarily. Beside, with a brain come nicer lodgings, which are necessary when outside the pumpkin patch. Was that a question, by the way?"
"No," Tory says quickly, making Rien smile. "So are you going to explain some things for me, or…?"
"Sure. First question."
Tory's hands hold each other, and tighten in his lap. "What the fuck is going on?"
It's the sleep withdrawal talking mostly, but it gets Rien to open his eyes. "Well, basically your life sucks, and so does ours, so we're recycling yours to make our lives better."
Tory stares. "But that's so selfish!"
Rien holds his hands out. "I'm… sorry, hello? Didn't I already say that? A brain is a terrible thing to waste. We're not some winter solstace celebration, sweetheart, we're not going to hold your fucking hand through this."
"Then that's the point of this whole thing?" Tory asks. "My Halloween spirits or whatever, you're just here to waste me away to nothing so you can get your fix?"
"Well. Yeah." Rien waves the cigarette at him. "Occasionally—and this is very occasionally, mind—you can get your shit back and you end up a better person and all that, but we don't want that kind of thing getting out. It'll make us look like a bunch of December mistletoe freaks."
Tory shakes his head. "I thought there was something strange about all these people suddenly being fascinated with me. And all the," he blushes when he says it, "getting... really close."
"Well, what did you expect?" Rien says. "We're not psychic. There has to be some physical contact and you're just not the kind of person who goes in for casual sex with strangers. So kissing it is. Except for the Future, of course. Courage only works with that one medium."
"Jarek," Tory says dryly.
Rien laughs. "Let me guess. First, it was the flattery approach, then he was a little more forward, and then if that didn't work the third time he basically tied you up and had his way with you. Sound about right?"
Tory's neck pulses with dark memories. "Does that happen a lot?"
"Yep. General modus operandi of his. I swear, there isn't a drop of originality in the entirety of that man. Or whatever he is. Haven't quite figured that out, yet."
Tory's eyes are wide. "So, does that other thing ever happen?" he says. "The… sex?"
Rien bares his teeth playfully. "It has been known to happen, yes."
"Why do you do it?" Tory says. He doesn't mean to, but he's staring into space and the space just happens to be the bubbles on the water surface. "I mean this. All of it. It can't be just what you are. I mean, you like cigarettes. You must have been human once. You have too many flaws not to be human."
"Excuse me?" Rien laughs. "I would not be pointing fingers on that flaw issue, if I were you."
"But you are human?"
Rien eyes the tiles on the opposite wall. "No. Not anymore."
"Amos was. Jarek's anyone's guess." Rien sinks into the water, his arms resting around the rim.
"Why are you doing it, then?" Tory says. He looks away from the bubbles when he realizes what he's staring at. "I'm going to have to guess, aren't I?"
Tory sighs, swivels on the toilet seat. "Is there any way for you to stop doing this? Break out of it?"
"Yeah, eventually." Rien takes his time answering through puffs on the cigarette. "I always thought it was we get let go after we collect enough hearts or brains or whatever."
"So it's like some kind of penance."
"Penance is self-punishment."
Tory sighs again. It isn't a yes or no, and it makes him wonder what Rien is avoiding answering. The silence is broken as the dogs out in the kennels start howling. Tory listens. Eventually it stops, lonely sounds fading in the morning. "Are you doing this because you killed someone?" he asks.
Rien scoffs and sits up. His wet hair clings to the base of his neck, the water laps his bare chest. "You know what, I've already told you too much. I'm not answering anymore."
"Then you're not going to tell me who you killed."
"This was before you were even born. What would a name mean to you?" Rien sinks back into the water, a little sullenly, Tory thinks. He stops before his mouth goes underwater. "It was Amos."
Tory's eyes go wide, but he knows Rien is watching his reaction, so he stops it there. "That fits, I suppose," he says finally.
Rien grunts and there is silence. The haze of humidity in the bathroom has lifted somewhat, dropping the temperature. Neither of them talks for some time, absorbed in their own thoughts. Tory is staring off again.
Rien slowly smiles. He flicks some ash into the trashcan before raises the cigarette to his lips. "You know, if you want I can move some of those bubbles for you, Tory." His eyes stay trained on Tory's, an amused glint deep in them.
"No. Please don't," Tory says from behind his hand. Caught, but when has that been unusual. He closes his eyes. "That would not be a good idea, actually."
"Well." Rien blows the smoke away from Tory's side of the bathtub. "In that case you might want to at least turn around, if not leave the building, while I find a towel."
Even if Rien hadn't been there, Tory still wouldn't have worried about changing his clothes before falling into his bed. After ignoring them both for leaving her alone so long, T.T. forgives and climbs onto the bed with him, snuggling up into the crook of his knees. He hits the mattress and swears he's never felt anything as beautiful as that gentleness, so good it almost hurts. He mimics Rien's moans in his mind for that unbelievable, god-amazing, just short of sexual sensation that is almost like everything he's ever wanted…
But he can't sleep. Too much on his mind.
He can feel Rien somewhere in the room. They split up after leaving the animal shelter and he appeared again just as Tory got to the residence hall. Since the shelter, no words have passed between them. It hurts to think about breaking that spell. Some rule still holds him to silence here in the room as it did as soon as Rien put his clothes back on.
"What's going to happen to me?" Tory says quietly.
Rien's voice comes from by the window. "You're going to die." Tory opens his eyes, staring at the wall. Rien snorts at his silence somewhere behind his back. "Didn't get that talk from Jarek? Everyone dies, dummy."
"I mean, if I don't get my heart and stuff back."
It bothers him how long it takes Rien to answer. "You'll fade away to nothing," he begins, making Tory go cold all over. "Die an early death. Nobody will remember you, nobody will care. Nothing that wasn't going to happen anyway, rate you were going."
"Does it hurt?"
"Yes. But not in the way you were thinking."
The silence shrouds the room again, shot through with rustles as Rien moves away from the window.
It's hard to tell how much time passes. The light coming in through the window is still hard, cold morning light. Tory stares at the blue glow it reflects off the wall, thoughts swirling around and around.
Then, so softly, a knee slides onto the mattress behind him. He closes his eyes when Rien's hand appears on his other side, by his face, pressed into the covers and holding up the body so suddenly over him. He turns his face into the pillows, away from the closeness of it.
"Did you really think all these people were suddenly appearing in your life for no reason at all?" Rien whispers, bending over him. "Like we all just really liked your personality? Me for instance. I hate your personality. Everything about you is irritating, irrelevant, and indecisive. You're wasting away and you're doing it because you want to. By choice. Are you really giving up so soon? Does your life mean so little to you?"
Tory opens his eyes. There are thin white lines like tattoos on the scarecrow's wrist, but Tory can't make out what they are.
If he could, he'd think of other things, escape into some fantasy to get him through. But he can't even do that now. He rolls onto his back, prone under Rien. "Why are you still here?"
Rien blinks. "I like you for your brain, as it were."
"You already took that."
"Well, I'm the Present, technically I'm always here—"
"You didn't answer my question." Rien doesn't answer this time either, and Tory sits up. "Give me back my brain."
With frightening stillness, Rien sticks his face right down in front of him. "Make me."
Snapshots of Rien wet, Rien in the bathroom, Rien wrapping his lips around his cigarette. God damn Rien. Tory can't get his hands to move, not when he's pinned down with such a solemn gaze. He doesn't even have the daring to try to hide the failure with forced bravado. He's still so tired.
He tries. He thinks it. If physical contact is the thing, he could just skate his fingers over Rien until his hand was behind his neck, pull him down. Somewhere, deep in his mind, that happens. He drives them together, his tongue bridges the gap, he forces it out of Rien any way he can. He makes it right again.
Tory just doesn't have the energy.
And what a horrible excuse for not having the guts. What a horrible excuse for not caring enough.
Tory looks away, not an easy task with the majority of his vision occupied. Rien makes a sound under his breath, affirming some hidden theory. "I didn't think so. Not even to save your life. That's pretty sad."
"Even for me?" Tory says. He snorts. "Why? I'm not anyone—I'm just Tory."
"This isn't a rehearsal, you idiot!" Rien says. "You can't go back and change it later. You can't always practice it until it's perfect. You don't get a second shot. You don't get to try it once, go sit in a dark room by yourself and edit it until it looks pretty enough for you. This is it. Your life. It's passing you by one second at a time, and what are you going to do when your map runs out of dotted red line, huh? Wander around without direction until you meet a dragon and that's that? You're—"
Tory's almost too nervous to breathe, diaphragm shooting itself in the head rather than give him the oxygen he needs, but he does it even as his vision practically goes dim in the corners. Raises himself up into Rien's lips. He knows he's better at this, but his hands are clenched too tightly in the blankets to assist him, he won't open his eyes for anything, too terrified of what he might see. Because Rien just went still, and he thought for sure that wouldn't happen and now what does he do?
The trick-knot of the strain slips loose when Tory feels the warm mouth press back. The tightness in his back dissolves, he lets himself be pushed down. Rien directs him, his hand on Tory's face, drawing the most horrible whimpers from him without even trying. He doesn't realize he has control over his hands again until he feels the worn leather of Rien's jacket under his fingers, the damp fabric of his hair. Everything, so warm, so yes…
He opens his eyes.
There was a reason for this. There was a reason for it. What was it? What was the reason?
He pushes Rien off. "Did it work?" he asks when he has enough air for it. He has to blink in an unnatural way to keep his eyes from going cross.
"Did what work?" The ensuing pause is long enough for Tory to assume Rien is playing through the same what was the reason game he was, trying to figure out what Tory was talking about. "No," Rien says eventually. "Absolutely not. Doesn't work like that in reverse. Good theory, though. Excellent hypothesis."
Tory stares. "You knew that wasn't going to work? From the very beginning, you knew it was pointless?"
"And you still goaded me into doing it?"
"It was amusing as all get out. You should have seen your face. Okay." Rien sighs and rests his hand over Tory's eyes and forehead, pushes him back into the bed. "Enough. For the love of tomorrow, go to sleep before you do any more damage to yourself."
He can't just go to sleep like that, Tory tries to say. Sure he was almost about to pass out from exhaustion, but now… And yet, despite the morning light warming as it passes through the window, his blood pounding in him, as soon as Rien's hand brushes his eyelids closed, it's over. Sleep is on him and pulling him down in its arms, and he can't fight it anymore.
Rien is gone when he wakes up, but that's fine with Tory, especially once he spots the clock. Flashing a mocking, cheerful blue 12:15 at him. Halloween day.
He had an Animal Sciences midterm at 12:00.
He runs all the way to the building on the other side of campus, not stopping for traffic or cattle, and thankfully the instructor gives him his test (and a menacing scowl) despite being seventeen minutes late. Not that it matters. Tory stares at the paper for minutes before he starts working. It might as well be in a different language. He knows it, but he can't think, can't get it straight in his head. Sheepishly, he reads though the questions and gives them his best guess, turns in the paper feeling sick in his stomach.
He's still beating himself up about it when he saunters into the coffee shop. He's been dreaming about this, ready for something to get him back on track. It clicks as soon as he walks into the wall of coffee aroma, though, that he isn't going to get what he needs here. It's there to take, but something is different. It's beyond his reach today.
Tory sighs. He wants this so much, he wants it to go back the way it was, but it escapes him. It isn't making anything better, being here and doing this.
The guy behind the counter, the one who's there every time Tory comes in but he never learns his name, flashes Tory a wide smile. "Happy Halloween, Tory. The usual? We have a Halloween special today—"
"No, just the usual." Tory glances at the name tag as he gets out his wallet. "Sean. Thanks."
It's a small out of the way place. It's just Sean doing the coffee, nobody else in the room, not even other customers. Sean frowns a little as he gets out the ingredients. "Everything okay, Tory? How's Halloweek been treating you?"
The beam of whatever strength Tory possess, whatever it is that's been getting him through the week, cracks. A huge fissure right up the middle. He told himself, over and over, if he could just make it here he could start over and make it better. But now he's here, and it's not, and the map's run out of dotted line.
"You know what?" Tory slams the cash and exact change down. "It's been pretty shitty. Actually, life in general has been shitty, Sean. How about you?" Smile fake, tone cutting. Wanting to draw blood.
Sean, as expected, hesitates. "Oh, you know. So-so. Midterms, of course," he says, shrugging like ya know? Trying to get Tory to help him out.
"Oh, yes," Tory says. "I know the feeling."
And it might have been okay, except Sean decides to be a nice person when he hands Tory his coffee. "Well, I hope your day goes well and you feel better, yeah?"
The beam snaps in half.
Tory looks up. "Do you?" he says. "Really? Or are you… I don't know. Just saying it? Do you actually care?"
Sean stares, fish gaping at him. "I… I'm sorry, I just thought…"
Tory holds up his hand. "Don't. Never mind. Don't answer, please, I'm sure I know. Thanks for the coffee, Sean. Just, you know, from now on maybe just stick with coffee, yeah? You're actually somewhat mediocre at that, at least."
See Tory he blow past the gentlemen and their chess game, not apologize when he brushes by strangers on the street. See Tory run. He runs until he's out of energy, finds a park bench, and sits down.
Tory closes his eyes and his head falls into his hands, he hides his face. The power goes out of his shoulders and his throat burns. What did he just do? When he looks out over the busiest street in the town, all his life's nothing but dragons and not a single red X as far as the eye can see. What happened? Is he really supposed to believe a few smart-ass, supposed spirits have really changed his life that much? Or is this how it always was, without the rosy glasses, without the delusions of optimism? He's never felt this bad, he doesn't want to believe his life sucked this royally before, but what else is there to believe in anymore?
Where does he go from here?
When he returns to his room Rien is mysteriously back, sitting by the window and smoking. A rush of blood reaches the tips of his ears and Tory slams his backpack on the desk, going directly to the window.
"You asshole," he says. "You made me fail a midterm! And then I completely blew up on this poor guy who was just trying to be nice!"
Rien gives him a shrewd look. "You are giving me way too much credit, you realize that, don't you?"
"What do I do?" Tory grabs fistfuls of Rien's jacket and throws the cigarette from his hand from shaking him. "How do I fix this? Just tell me what I have to do."
Rien moves his foot and toes the cigarette out in the carpet before gripping Tory's wrists and pulling him off. "Well since you asked so nicely… I'll never tell you how to get your brain back, but since I hate his guts, I'd suggest you start with Jarek. You'll need it if you want to have a chance against Amos—hey, where you going?"
"Out," he yells, and Rien falls silent. "I have to fix this right now--and I'll be back for you when I'm done, make no mistake!"
Tory finds a suitable place, a little out of the way, but still near the main streets. It's the alley of a larger alley, surrounded on all sides by brick building, old forgotten graffiti portraits. Phantoms of art and memories.
He isn't sure exactly what moment it was that he started believing in ghosts, but seeing as he has nowhere else to go back to it might as well be this yellow brick road.
No. He has to think of something else. Tory frowns and closes his eyes, concentrating. Something else, something else. Other plans. Making other plans. He couldn't do this without the other plans. Things that keep him going. Kept him going.
The look on Sean's face, disgust, disappointment. Rien's tongue grazing Tory's bottom lip. The warm, safe feelings of the conversations with Amos, that could almost be love but for the fact he was only a spirit out to steal Tory's heart.
He has to live for these things. To fix them, to live them again for real. They're waiting for him, on the other side of this. When he feels ready, the sense of peace and resolution falling over him like a veil, he takes a step around the corner.
Tory's prepared, so Jarek doesn't knock him to the ground. They stumble but both remain standing. After a second Jarek looks up at him and smiles. "Well. Hello, Tory. How's life? Hope you're not mad about the whole courage thing. Nothing personal, you understand—"
"Then you'll give it back to me," Tory says. His voice sounds stronger than he thought it would. "Give it back, Jarek. Right now. I need it."
"Need it?" Jarek gives a small laugh, holds his hands out helplessly as he starts to say something. Tory's ready for any excuse he could give, but he's not for Jarek's final response: a clean and simple, "No."
Tory's eyes widen, the hairs on his arms stand on end. "What?"
"No. I'm not giving it back."
"Simply because, Tory. I'm not required to justify myself to you," Jarek says. His mouth twists in a sneer, and it turns his face ugly. His eyes take on that sharp predatory glint. "What? Are you going to come and make me give it back? You couldn't even take back your brain from Rien—what hope could you possibly have of taking back your courage, from me? The only courage you have anymore is on people weaker than you. Poor Sean. Is that what's got you so worked up? You've finally realized what a bastard you are?"
"Shut up." Tory clenches his hands. "It belongs to me. It's mine."
Jarek laughs, a high, unimpressed sound. "Fine. Come and take it from me, Tory. Go ahead. I don't bite." Before Tory can try, Jarek flashes his fangs at him, stopping him in his tracks. "Oh, wait... I guess I do bite, huh? Didn't think so anyway, I knew you weren't strong enough. But more importantly, you know you're not."
Tory takes a step back.
Jarek advances. "You know, I'm actually doing you a favor, Tory. We all are. Stealing these things from you, it'll just speed the process along. As it is, there's no point to you at all. You're not important, not important to anybody. Nobody loves you." Jarek shrugs. "They don't, why are you so surprised? Haven't you been telling yourself that for years? In fact, they lower themselves to your level for your benefit. You only drag them down."
The voice is hypnotic. He can't stop backing away, trying to avoid the oily black shadows creeping for him, he can't stop listening to it because it's so seductive. His shoulder blades scrape the brick wall and he presses back against it, trying to disappear. "That's not true. You're lying. Shut up."
"They're only showing pity," Jarek says, over-enunciated with relish. The shadows leap out, block out the sounds of the street a block away, block out the light. "Like your family. They know you're not superstar material, but they have to show support, don't they? Emily, too, you were right about her. She knows you're not going to make it, and do you know why? It's because of you. You're doing it to yourself. You'll never be good enough because of that. You're a failure, always will be. Why do you even try?"
"I... don't know." Jarek's voice sinks into the deepest parts of him. Everything in him screams, yes, yes, I know, I knew it all along, it's true! "No, that's not true! Stop fucking with my head." His air is suddenly thick, choking him and fogging when he exhales, but no white haze comes from Jarek's breath.
"I'm not fucking with your head." Jarek plants himself in front of Tory. "You're the one who's been doing that. Floating by, convincing yourself just barely that you could get away with it. But you can't. You can't, after all." He leans in, whispers it directly into Tory's scull. "You can't make it because you don't want it enough. You don't deserve it because you don't think you deserve it, and there's nothing anyone can do about that. You're done."
"I don't believe you." Tory trembles uncontrollably, the voice piercing him, violating him through the ears, but Jarek holds his face, forcing him from turning away.
"Tory, look at me," says Jarek, so quietly, so patiently, not raising his voice even when Tory tries to fight his grip and shake his head no. "I'm only telling you what you already knew, why are you pretending to be so devistated? Let us help you. If you declare, if you give up these things to us, you won't have to try anymore. You won't have to pretend to live, or worry about all those mistakes and all those failures. It'll be all over." Tory shudders, shocked when the mouth descends to lick at the few tear streaks that have forced their way out from his eyelids. One of Jarek's clawed hands touch his wrist, pinning it against the wall.
"Just give it to me and you won't have to worry about it any longer," the voice says, and not long after Tory feels the pinprick sharpness beneath the lips on his throat. And he remembers.
Throwing Jarek off takes every last bit of strength in him, but he does it, breaking free of Jarek's grip and shoving him away. Tory doesn't know how he can keep standing, but he does that too, somehow. Jarek stumbles back into the other alley wall. For all the effort it took, he would have thought Jarek would have been thrown farther than that.
Tory pushes himself up and stands on his own. "Like hell you want to help me," he says. Jarek's shadows retreat enough he can almost make out the sound of traffic, far away. Where he needs to be. "I'm sure I wouldn't have to worry anymore, because I'd be dead isn't that right? I don't think there's a word you've said that's been all the way true, so fuck you and fuck this. Speaking of picking on people weaker than you are, that's all you ever seem to do. That's all this freakshow is, isn't it? You should be ashamed of yourself."
"Haven't gotten your brain back yet, have you?" Jarek says, rolling back his shoulders.
Tory watches the gloom build up behind his adversary. Oops. "Um. Why?"
Jarek grins, a big carved pumpkin open slash across his face. Full of teeth. "Offending something that can tear your throat out? Bad idea. And as your Future, I have every right to end your life right here, right now."
It doesn't even register with Tory at first, it's so unbelievable, so unexpected. Actually dying has simply not occurred to him and it's too late to take it back by now, now that he knows it's all real. "No—!"
Jarek leaps and Tory is thrown aside to the ground, air shocked out of his lungs from the weight. It's done before he knows it, too late to stop or wish he hadn't, and the darkness floods inside him.
The first thing he knows is silence.
It isn't cold or painful in the dark. It's warm and pleasant, it feels like he's back in bed in his dorm room, relaxing after an overly-stressful day of finals. The darkness holds him in its arms. It kisses his bruises and pleads with him. It's okay, it says. Just an inch, let it happen and relax it won't hurt for long—
"Shit." He fights out before the familiar sharpness can dig into his neck. "No. Fuck that!"
Tory rolls to the side, palms scraped bloody from the fall. It feels like his lungs are full of nails as he breathes oxygen back into them. He climbs to his feet, supported by the wall and not much else. He can see again, but there is only darkness. Jarek appears in the middle of the dark, without an outline, just a face set in gloom. The face grins like a light turning off, sudden mechanical movements. Time to die.
"Fine!" Tory sets his high-tops in the concrete, clenches his fists. The sound of his own voice hardly reaches his ears. "Come on!"
Jarek lunges. All the dark descends upon him.
He isn't sure if he closes his eyes at the last second or if it's just the shadows taking over everything, but when he opens them again, when the dark is gone, he's alone.
The sound of traffic and people returns. The sun shines. No nightmare shadows, no bloodthirsty vampire.
Tory remains standing, in a pathetic fight stance he probably learned from an arcade game, his fists up and ready. He looks around. Jarek is gone. He feels like an idiot, standing alone in an alley. It could just be him alone with his shadow, here. Nothing else. Invisible monsters.
But his heart pounds like mad, and he feels something on his skin like wet static, tiny claws digging in one last time. Tory turns around once, three hundred sixty degrees, and when he gets back to where he started Jarek is there, in his human body.
Well done, Tory hears in his head. Jarek smiles and bows to Tory, once, before he disappears.
This time Tory really is alone. He can't stop shaking, almost can't stand for the shaking.
But he's still there. Still breathing. One foot in front of the other.
He opens the door to Harvey's house and steps right in. The perpetual morning crowd doesn't even look at him as he takes the stairs in twos up to the attic.
It's getting easier to walk without the dotted line all the time.
The stillness of the attic takes him by surprise. After his battle to the death with Jarek and whatever it was he did with Rien, Tory just stands at the door for a moment, taking it in. It's so alien. The old forgotten furniture, the dusty light.
Amos waiting serenely for him on the couch.
He stops, just stops, and he looks at Amos for the longest time. He wants to hate Amos, but he just can't. It would break his heart, this moment. If he had a heart.
He falls to his knees at Amos's feet and lets his head drops onto Amos's lap. They don't say a word. Amos cradles Tory's head, gently brushing hair strands out of his face, and they stay like that for the sweetest, most beautiful two minutes Tory can remember in his immediate past. He closes his eyes, sighs, breathes in Amos's very faint smell. Amos puts his arm around his shoulders. "I guess this is going to be our last conversation," Tory says at last.
"Yes," says Amos.
"Can I ask you something?" he asks. Amos nods and Tory takes a deep breath. "Rien said he killed you. Is that true?"
"No, it's not true," Amos answers with a sigh of his own. "It was an accident. Rien needs to stop blaming himself for things that are beyond his control."
"Why were you crying that first time, when we met here in the attic?"
Amos takes a few moments. "I do get lonely sometimes."
"Then don't leave." Tory puts his hand over Amos's knee. "You can stay here. I don't want to be lonely either."
He hears Amos give a small laugh. "I can't stay, I'm afraid, but you have nothing to worry about. You're never entirely alone. You're going to be okay."
Tory sniffs. "I know you stole my heart and everything, but I'm still glad I met you. Is that strange?"
"Not at all. I'm very glad to have met you too, Tory," Amos says, "but I never stole your heart."
Slowly, Tory raises his head. He sits back on his heels and tries to search out the answer in Amos's face. "You didn't?" he asks.
Amos smiles. "Hearts can never be stolen, Tory. They can only be given. It works a little differently with me."
He looks at Amos, to no reaction. Amos isn't going to help him through this. Tory stands, putting distance between them. His eyes sting. His voice is small. "I still want my heart back, though."
"Of course." Amos nods. "I know it's been hard for you, but you've handled it wonderfully. It's almost over." Amos gestures for him to bend down and he does, letting Amos kiss his forehead. "Are you ready, Tory?"
Tory sits on the couch, alone.
He can feel it this time. It's a heaviness on his chest, a more concentrated burning in his throat, a misery even more intensely saturated than before. The colors run together. He's alone again.
He is still staring at the empty place beside him, giving himself time to pick up the pieces and spending most of it bracing himself for the picking instead of the actual picking itself, when the attic door slams open.
Great way to break in his new heart, Tory thinks. Heart attack. Nice.
Harvey, Tony fast on his heels, jumps into the room. His eyes go wide when he sees Tory there. "God, again? How did you even get in here?" Two strong sets of hands grip Tory under the arms and haul him out of the room. "—Tory, quit it, seriously, you need to stop hanging out by yourself in my attic, dude, I'm not joking. Oh, man, come on, wipe your eyes, okay? I didn't mean to make you cry, you can stay up there if you want. But just go vent your estrogen somewhere else, okay? The party doesn't start until nine. Come back then, we'll have plenty for you to do, okay?"
Tory wipes his eyes and slips out from Harvey's arms. The cold air on the porch helps him wake up. "Yeah... about that... I don't think I'm going to be here."
"What? Why?" Harvey's jaw drops. Behind him back inside the house, Tony almost claps his hands in glee.
Instead of rolling his eyes as he might have done a few nights ago, all Tory can do is be happy for them. At least for Tony, for becoming Harvey's beer pong partner like he obviously aspires to be. Tory shakes his head, smiles a little. "I'm a little partied out, to tell you the truth. Sorry."
"But what are you going to do all night?" Harvey calls after him. "Go hang out with the cows? There's nothing else to doaround here!"
Tory waves goodbye to them. "I'll find something. Gotta find my own way and that."
Harvey shrugs. "Fine. Whatever. Just abandon me, why dontcha. Yo, good luck with that, man."
Rien isn't in the room. Tory runs to the pumpkin patch, T.T. flying after him, the air cutting at his throat and lungs with every breath. It wakes him up more with every step.
The pumpkins are gone, all called for and carried away for Halloween. By now they've most likely been eaten, or are carved up and beginning to rot. The patch is depressingly barren without them, like an empty battleground or gravestone-less graveyard.
The scarecrow stands alone, back on its pole, in the middle of the trampled vines.
Tory climbs the fence and for the first time ever jumps down onto the other side, T.T. wiggling through the lower planks of the fence and trotting after him. The scarecrow towers over him, the pole alone almost taller than Tory is. He steps back so he can see its face.
"Rien!" Tory yells. Like somehow magically his voice will get things going. All it does is send a flock of sparrows into the air. "Hey, I'm in your pumpkin patch! Aren't you going to do something about it? Rien, are you alive? Hey!"
The scarecrow sways in the breeze, decidedly lifeless.
Tory wraps his arms around himself to fight off the cold. He squints up, searching for… something. Anything.
"Were you ever alive?" Tory says, to nobody.
"What a loser."
Tory's eyes snap back up, but the laughter that follows comes from behind him. Jarek, leaning against the fence. Jarek opens his mouth to speak, but Tory is already there.
He slaps Jarek across the face, swinging his arm around for it, putting his entire shoulder into it, and Jarek stumbles off balance. "Fuck you," Tory snarls. "How dare you be here? And I just wanted to tell you if you ever pull another one of those biting stunts with me again I will pull out your intestines and make you jump rope with them. Do you understand? And… yeah. I just wanted to say that."
A beat later, Jarek laughs. He claps his hands in a tiny applause. "Well, that's quite the improvement in an hour. You get my stamp of approval."
He moves for Tory, but Tory doesn't flinch. "Why? What for?"
"What better way to get over your fear of living than slapping your death? If all goes well with you," he says, looking sly, "we won't have to do this again next year. And just a heads-up, this is a one-time thing."
Tory tilts his head to the side. At his feet, T.T. growls low in her throat, baring her teeth at Jarek. "If it's a one-time thing why would I see all of you again next year?"
"No, no, you don't understand," Jarek says. "If we do it again, you won't see the other two. It'll just be us. You and me. Your Past and Present won't be able to dig you out of that hole."
Tory takes that in. "Just for kicks and giggles… why me, of all people? Why not Harvey, why not Emily?"
"A person who refuses to acknowledge their heart, brain, or courage, and who also believes in ghosts isn't as common a thing as you might think."
Tory lowers his pointed finger. "You know, you keep going on about how you're not like Christmas and weren't in this to help me, but you guys did. I mean, apparently, I'm a better person now."
"I don't know. I feel like I might be."
"And what does that feel like?"
Tory blinks. "… less afraid?"
"Unified rock-solid individualist?" Jarek suggests with a smile.
"Yeah, that." Unified rock-solid individualist who still has a blushing problem. Oh, well. It'll be a work in progress. "And it was inside me all along and all that jazz."
Jarek raises and eyebrow. "Don't think we wouldn't have kept those things if you hadn't have fought to get them back, Tory." He pauses, looks Tory over. "You know," he says with a sigh, "I bet if you asked really nicely and made him think it was his idea instead of yours, Rien wouldn't mind hanging around for awhile."
That makes Tory pale a little but before he can protest, he blinks and Jarek isn't there anymore. Tory's alone in the pumpkin patch. Alone again.
"Smug bastard, isn't he."
Tory looks up and he can't help but smile when he hears the dramatic sigh behind him.
...Never entirely alone.
He stops himself before he turns around. "You say it like he's the only one," Tory says, looking out over the fields instead.
"But I just pretend I know everything. He actually believes he knows everything. Like I'd seriously hang around just for you."
Tory smiles to himself. "I'm glad you feel that way—"
"I'm glad you're glad I feel that way."
"—because I'm not seriously going to hang around here for you, either."
There's a pause. "Please. Like you could stay away for long. Besides, don't you want your brain back?"
Tory almost turns around then, but stops. "You know," he says little by little, "I've noticed there's always a catch to the three of you. Courage is only by blood, Hearts can never be stolen. I think there's a trick to the Brain, too."
"Ah," says Rien slowly. "And what do you think? Bearing in mind if you guess and guess wrong I get to keep it."
Tory takes a deep breath. "I think… I think if I still actually believed you stole my brain, I never had a brain to steal in the first place."
"Ooh," Rien says. He laughs. "Tricky. Well, that's exactly right, Mr. Smarty Pants. Very good. I'd have told you before, you know, but it would have ruined the joy of self-discovery."
"So how did you get out of the pumpkin patch if it wasn't because of the brain?"
"I'm not telling," Rien says shortly. "You know, if you were any sharper, you'd cut yourself."
"I guess we'll see," Tory says. He breathes in, and this time the taste of the air energizes him. It's a strange feeling, but if he were to put a name to it he would say it feels like today... he can do anything. For some reason, his mind flashes to those white marks on Rien's wrists. "You know, they have a technical term for murdering yourself."
"I am aware of that."
"And maybe you should invite Amos over to visit or something, if you can do that. I don't know what it is you're blaming yourself for, but I think he misses you."
Rien scoffs. "Well, I—nobody asked you, did they?" There's the slightest of pauses, then: "And... uh…"
Tory takes off down the road back into town and doesn't look back.
Emily is sitting at the front desk of the animal clinic. Tory didn't come in for work today, and that in itself is reason enough to start checking for further signs of an approaching Armageddon, so she looks up with a little more interest than usual from a Cosmo magazine when Tory rushes in. "You're late," she yells after him in a sing-song voice.
"Em, I'm going out."
"Out? Of… your mind? Where are you going?" she asks. T.T. scampers in behind the desk for a scratch behind the ears before running back to Tory.
"I don't know yet. But I want to go do something. Anything."
Emily raises her eyebrow as he fast-walks past her into the office. The kid sounds different today. Must have thrown that funk. "Do something? Just…something random to get out of coming to work, say?" she asks, just to make sure.
"No. Something exciting. There's this boy who works at the coffee shop I need to get on my knees before and beg for forgiveness and if he'll have me, I want to ask him out to lunch. Or I could call my parents or go fishing or study super hard for my next test or go play in a pile of dead leaves. I don't know yet."
"Oh. Wow." She blinks. Not only threw that funk, but put it into orbit. "Go Tory. I'll cover for you, bud."
"Thanks, Em." She watches him wrap his scarf twice around and check himself in the hall mirror. He smiles at his reflection and clicks the heels of his red high-tops together three times. He takes a deep breath. "How do I look?"
"Ready," she says, even if he doesn't hear her on his way out the door. She chuckles to herself and gets back to her magazine with a smile on her face.
A/N: END!! Haha, that's the first time ever a Complete story will be on this FP account! How exciting ;D
Eh. Whatev ;D I'd love reviews, if you would like to tell me what you thought. That'd be amazing, guys. Sorry for the superlong chapters and everything. Thanks for reading and Happy Late Halloween!
*Edit Jan 26st 2009: And voting for the SKoW awards opens up sometime around February 1st (I believe) so if you enjoyed this please feel free to go vote for it in the Best Non-Romance category and thank you again so very much for the nomination!