(Sorry About Dresden)
(Chapter IV)(Fairy Tales Tell Tales)
Examining Neely's back, Dresden clenches his jaw with worry and a silent sigh, helpless against her attempt to disappear. A permanent curve hunches her shoulders, her impossibly white hair gathering in each crook of bone and skin to outline its slope, as if she were carrying the literal weight of her sadness. Some twisted sense of irony reminds him that her despair is his last hope — she is his last hope — but his faith is waning. It had only taken her moments to wish to disappear, to attempt to simply escape her life. The shock of her words, of how easily she had committed to them, paralyzed him. Had the Willow not interfered —
A weight in his stomach tries to touch his toes, pressing against his insides with a sickening heaviness. Despite reminding himself that it would be hypocritical to judge her for her attempted wish, a part of him still can't help clinging to resentment, all too aware of the consequences her wish would have had upon him. While a part of him genuinely wants to save her from such a fate, his motivation is far from selfless. It's as if the strange impossibility of her has rekindled an ability to daydream he thought he had discarded as too childish years ago.
Taking a deep breath, he tries to convince himself that just as their despair is tied to one another, so might be their happiness — if two such hopeless souls can manage to find it. "Why are you so unhappy, Neely?" Dresden wonders aloud, realizing that he knows almost nothing about the girl in front of him and that all his actions so far have been based upon a single, brazen assumption about her. From the first moment he saw her from the boat — untamable hope screaming within him the instant her eyes met his without flicking away — his instincts placed a bet on one impractical fact about her, gambling that it would be worth trusting his intuition.
"I don't even know how to begin explaining that to you," she replies, interrupting his wandering thoughts. Numbness softens her voice, as if his question were anesthetic for a girl already prepared to be cut open, the disquieting resignation in her tone mimicking the vacant white of her eyes. The boy beside her, however, is no surgeon. "But I can try to show you, if you're curious."
That one little if is enough to cause him to stop and attempt to look past gut feelings of supposed-to-be, searching for a hint of what really is. "I just want to know why you would make such a pessimistic wish instead of one that could," pausing to take a deep breath, he steps forward to stand at her side, smiling with an attempt at reassurance he isn't sure he believes, "maybe fix something for you." In truth, these words are as empty of conviction as her own. He knows perfectly well why a person would make such a last-ditch wish, going so far as to abandon their own life or body to get away from problems that feel like more than what one lonely soul is capable of handling. Sometimes pessimism is just another word for reality.
"Fixing one problem won't help the others." The retort comes automatically, her expression distant despite the eye-contact between them. Retrieving a battered leather rucksack from the ground, she tucks the ticket inside with her sketchbook before slinging it over one shoulder. As if staking a claim on yet another possession, she reaches for his hand to wrap her fingers around his wrist, tugging him along with her until he follows compliantly, wondering what she has to show him in the middle of the night.
"Where are we going?"
Veering left to follow a winding sidewalk, heading away from the lake and back toward the asphalt streets of the city beyond the park, Neely merely shakes her head for a moment. "Home isn't the right word, but that's what other people would call it." Streetlamps flicker above them as they pass by a dull parade of sleeping houses, the muddled yellow glow of suburbia graying out the night sky and the stars that light the lake. The silence of the neighborhood is deeply familiar to Neely; its occupants are quiet people who appreciate other quiet people — they get along quite well with her in that respect, even if they're more than a little unsettled by her grayscale appearance.
Coming to a stop in front of a nondescript two story house, Neely redirects her attention to Dresden, tilting her head while her fingers twitch softly at her side, as if counting out a math equation running through her mind. Betting and odds. Reaching up to run her fingertips across the rise of his cheekbone, testing her hypothesis against his skin, she finally nods to herself in approval. "I'm sure they won't," she mutters absently, even as the left corner of her mouth tugs itself down in a defiant show of uncertainty.
"What?" he asks, unable to connect the dots between her thoughts and her actions.
Eyebrows lifting as she jolts with surprise, it's as if — lost in thought for a moment — she had somehow forgotten he was there. The slip in her attention span seems to register as an offense with her companion, the smallest of frowns tugging at his lips as he straightens his shoulders, silently insistent of his own presence. "Oh." Fumbling with an explanation, her own shoulders slump a little further. "My parents. I was trying to think of an excuse for you in case they're still awake, but I realized it wouldn't matter because they won't be able to see you."
"How —" Jaw dropping slightly at her conclusion, clearly this was not an answer he'd been expecting. However, as his frown vanishes, replacing itself with an indefinable expression that gives her the strangest impression of being proud of her, it becomes apparent that perhaps this is a triumph of logic he was secretly hoping for. "How do you know that?"
Shrugging as if nothing impressive lives within her words — after all, impossibilities such as this one are common in her life and rarely faze her anymore — she fails to match his thinly veiled enthusiasm. "No one at the lake could see you, other than the willow tree. No one else so much as glanced in your direction, despite the way you flailed around, so that must mean I'm the only person who can, right? Although, that provides more evidence for you being a figment of my imagination than it does for you being," examining his look of confusion at her logic, she begins internally second-guessing her theory before she has even finished explaining it, "invisible."
What if he is simply a product of her imagination? Impossible things occur in her life on a daily basis, but they're never things that give her the potential for happiness — that is her personal definition of impossible. Looking as though it hadn't been a thought of invisibility that had occurred to him when she'd brought the subject up, a nervous edge creeps up on Neely, crawling down her throat to shiver inside her bones. He's the Messenger; he should know the laws of his own existence far better than she. If she is the only one who can see him, he should know — he should be aware of his own invisibility and not look so surprised at the idea. "I'm not imaginary," he states with a little too much insistence, as if trying to reassure himself as well as Neely.
"Then," worrying at her bottom lip, she searches her memory for evidence to support his statement, wanting something more concrete to believe in than just his word, "can other people see you?"
"Yes." Something close to anger scars the tone of his overly-sharp response to her skepticism and he flinches as she takes a step back, immediately shrinking into himself with shame, obviously surprised by the intensity of his own reaction. "I mean, no, they can't. Not really... just," his voice carves itself into a wound in the span of seconds, raw and aching to the point that Neely almost begins to feel as though his sense of regret has become her own, "sort of." It's clear that he wants his justification to hold more truth than it does, as if searching for a loophole to something beyond her abilities of comprehension.
Dumbstruck for a moment, she almost can't bring herself to ask the follow-up question burning within her, knowing already that forcing him to answer with a kind of honesty she can understand is bound to hurt him further. "What do you mean?"
Whatever he had been hoping for when she began this turn of conversation was obviously impossibly wishful and it's with defeat that he retracts his self-assurance and concedes to her theory, almost cowering as the words sigh out of him. "It's worse than invisibility, but that's close enough." Already she's noticeably struggling with an attempt to stop herself from asking for a better explanation, bottom lip clamped between the safeguard of her teeth, and his stomach turns sick at the sight, knowing she's only holding back in some misguided attempt to save him from another round of the self-loathing that caused him to snap at her earlier. She deserves better answers and he can't give them. It's with a cracked and desperate whisper that he stops the words before they find an opportunity to leave her mouth, "you know how sometimes saying something awful out loud is what makes it true?"
Why are you so unhappy, Neely?
I don't even know how to begin explaining that to you.
The struggle to bite her tongue dissolves into a pointless endeavor as her unspoken curiosity loses its willpower and she finds herself nodding along numbly instead. "Yeah," the broken murmur of understanding that slips from between her lips matches his own, "I know."
Scratching at a spot behind his ear and toeing the ground with embarrassment, he struggles to force the bitterness away and remember that he shouldn't be taking any of this out on Neely. "I just don't want it to be true with you," he mumbles, more to himself than to her, before straightening out his shoulders and hesitantly rewinding his voice back to a time when it remembered what light-hearted amusement sounded like. "I'd rather be thought of as a superhero and invisibility is a pretty good start for that."
"I thought I was the hero saving lives today." The joke is strained enough that they could play Cat's Cradle with the threads of tension strung between their bodies, but Neely's effort to forgive his verbal missteps and leave his secret untouched is enough to summon a true smile back to his face, despite knowing he hasn't earned it.
"That's not so impressive," a small laugh laces his sarcasm as he realizes that until now her preconception has been to think of him as something more than human, as if he were a kind of angel or genie of fate, untouchable by mere mortals like herself. In truth the two of them are not so different. "I saved a life once too." Despite the teasing tone of his voice, she thinks she catches a hint of truth in the statement, still half-convinced he might be a demigod of some sort as she grabs him by the wrist once more and leads him into the house in an attempt to finish leaving the conversation about his sort of invisibility behind.
The main floor is incredibly still, confirming Neely's hopes; neither of her parents have waited up for her. Tugging Dresden through the entryway, she takes a right through the first doorway to a flight of stairs. Marveling as the rich brown wood at the bottom progressively fades to gray with each upward step they take, Dresden glances around, realizing the kitschy flowered wallpaper is fading as well. Nearly all color disappears as they approach the second floor, the stairs leading directly to a heavy wooden door as the last breath of tint that flickers under its frame inches away at their arrival. Neely pauses to pull a face at the lingering evidence of grayed-yellow in the walls, blowing a puff of air at it and frowning as it scatters and flees from their presence.
Dresden's jaw drops as soon as she opens the door and nonchalantly flicks on the light. The bedroom before them is entirely black and white, the flawless grayscale contents looking like an antique photograph until she walks in, breaking the illusion. The lack of color is something he could have anticipated; he would have been more shocked to find pink carpeting and rainbow bed sheets. However, none of his musings about what might be behind that door had prepared him for her walls. Painted perfectly white at their base, an entire world appears to be drawn onto them in shades of charcoal and graphite. Stray lines veer off the surrounding canvas, both above and below, until they're standing atop tufts of grass carefully rendered onto the floorboards and beneath a canopy of false stars drawn into imaginary constellations across the chipped ceiling. "Incredible," undeniable awe overtakes his gasp as he enters the room, turning in circles to examine every detail.
Shrugging off her bag and closing the door behind him, Neely only manages to look melancholy in response to his exclamation of appreciation. "I started them years ago," she explains, preempting his inevitable questions, "the day color abandoned me and I realized I didn't have a place in the world anymore. Suddenly I was disconnected from everything around me. I looked like a pencil drawing wandering around in a colorful painting and knowing I didn't belong. So," picking up a piece of vine charcoal from the desk beside her and rolling it between her fingers, she watches as the dusty black pigment fills each notch of her fingerprints, "I drew a world I could belong to."
Catching a flicker of movement across the wall, Dresden inhales sharply with surprise. The graphite leaves of the trees drawn in front of him seem to shimmer, twitching as if a slight breeze is ruffling them. Reaching up to trace his fingertips across their line-work and investigate the phenomenon, his hand passes through what should be the barrier of the wall and into Neely's drawing. Wide eyed and speechless, he moves his hand back and forth between the two spaces. "Of all the impossible things we've experienced since I saved you from drowning," despite her consistently bleak expression, there is a playfully teasing tone inhabiting Neely's voice, "walking willows and copper-eyed boys aging years in moments, this," giving him a push from behind, his entire body stumbles forward into the world of the wall drawings, "is what causes disbelief for you?"
Jaw completely unhinged from the shock of standing within a space that should be solid, but instead breathes with unexpected life, he systematically closes and reopens his eyes as if expecting everything to look different the next time he steals a glance. Each time his eyelids lift, it is as if he is experiencing an unveiling for the first time, glimpsing a stunning sight he can't quite wrap his mind around. Running his hands through his hair, he finally cracks into a flurry of spastic movement, mussing his fingers through the shock of black at lightning speed before throwing his head back with a sudden bout of laughter. Wayward strands of hair splay in all directions in the wake of his outburst, causing him to look at least half as crazed as he feels in the midst of this wonderscape. Grabbing onto a limb of the nearest tree, he pulls himself up into it, gleefully climbing through the branches like a child playing king of the monkey bars and reveling in the way the lush scenery has come alive beneath his touch. "You drew your own world, Neely." Swatting leaves away, only to have them bounce back repeatedly to smack against his arms and face in puffs of black charcoal dust, he peeks down at her from his perch. "You're phenomenal."
The corner of Neely's mouth twitches in response to the compliment, trying to form a forgotten expression she hasn't been able to identify since she was too young to know better. Stepping into the drawing with him, she inhales the familiar scent of graphite, tangy and metallic, before kicking off her sandals and grabbing onto a low-hanging branch to help pull herself up. Her toes grip the bark of the trunk as she lazily walks her lower body up its side. Like her, these trees have grown taller over the years, beyond her control, rooted in something deeper than necessity and she hopes that whatever force thrives within them belongs to her too. Offering his hand, Dresden helps her into the boughs, grinning wildly as the breeze stirs once more and attempts to weave Neely's long white hair into the branches. "Everyone needs a place to escape to," she explains, appraising him with a glint of mischief in her eyes as her fingers twitch, plotting, against the stick of charcoal still gripped within her hand.
Reaching out and drawing the tip across the space above his upper lip, she snorts with amusement at her handiwork. "You look like a cliché storybook villain," she teases, twirling the tip of his newly acquired handlebar mustache between her fingertips. His smile falters. As amazing as this world she has drawn for herself is, her reasons for creating it are anything but. For a moment, Dresden's prying eyes drift across the graphite and charcoal veneer of Neely's beautiful soul and there is no mistake about it: she has drawn these walls into a piece of her. A measure of fearful commitment resides within their creation and the closer he studies her drawings, the more striped down she's beginning to feel. The reality of the gorgeous fiction surrounding them is that Neely has been ostracized by the rest of the world and this is a coping mechanism. Her life is so miserable she needs to draw herself a new one. In that respect, the wish that waits for her can do more than offer her an escape — it could fix her problems. Yet, Dresden can't deny his selfish desire to influence her, not only preventing her from wishing to disappear, but harboring hope that she might sacrifice the chance to save herself for him. Suddenly villain isn't an inaccurate word for how he sees himself.
"Thank you." Her unexpected gratitude breaks his thoughts, awkwardness overcoming him as he weighs his hidden intentions against her genuine sentiment.
A surge of inexplicable courage blooms within her, further proof that the wildflowers rendered before them truly are a reflection of her. "At the lake, when I was trying to decide on a wish," avoiding eye contact, flashbacks of his panicked reaction to her original attempt scatter the echoes of her pulse to places beyond the confines of her chest, "one of them was to be an artist. It's true that I draw because I prefer imaginary realities to my current one, but," setting aside the memories, she meets his eyes, emboldened by their impossible clarity, "I love it. Even if I didn't need it to escape, I would still draw and aspire toward a life as an artist. So it means a lot to me for someone to appreciate something I've created."
Dresden is practically swimming in the depths of her by being here, having walked right into a place otherwise untouched by any hands but her own. Feet dangling over the branch where he sits, he seems to tap at nothingness as he absently kicks his legs back and forth, but Neely feels each beat of movement somewhere deep in the pit of her stomach. Mesmerized, she watches as the reach of his toes syncs itself to each lurch within, sick with a feeling so terrible and writhing that it pushes past its own limits and into the definitions of very different words. This deceptively aching emotion is one she will hold dear the moment it tries to leave her. For the first time in forever, another person has seen something beyond her unsettling physical appearance and, to her absolute disbelief, he is smiling softly.
Reaching forward, he untangles a few strands of her hair that the mysterious wind has twisted into the tree's branches. Suddenly convinced she's reclaiming more than trespassing — his every movement in this place echoing within her veins — she too leans forward in a brazen invasion of his personal space and picks a fallen leaf from a knot of hair just above his ear. "What are you trying to escape from?" Disappointment twinges through her as his question breaks the air of contentment that had befallen them with a reminder of why she brought him here to begin with.
Sighing evasively, she pulls back and begins smoothing down her own hair while staring awkwardly at her toes. "I'll show you tomorrow." Silence falls between them and the only thing that prevents Dresden from daring to press for a proper answer is the memory of her earlier resistance, denying her prying curiosity for his sake. Resigning himself to twiddling his thumbs and wondering where the breeze is coming from, he's suddenly struck with the realization that perhaps Neely knows how to draw the wind.
With a yawn, she lifts her head and stretches against the dwindling evening hours. Laughing to himself at how the right side of her mouth opens wider than the left, Dresden prods her impishly in the ticklish spot between her ribs to gain her attention and a startled yelp. "I think it's your bedtime," he whispers teasingly as she nods and rubs her knuckles across her eyes, her body suddenly realizing how late it is. Dropping down from the tree, she walks out of the dreamscape and pads back into the main part of her room, her feet leaving a trail of charcoal footprints behind her. Examining his hands, Dresden realizes he is also covered in evidence that they have been climbing through a drawing, black pigments smeared across his skin and clothing.
Pulling a white nightgown from her dresser, the light of the glass bulb-turned-sun swinging subtly from the ceiling-turned-sky above her, Neely pauses at the door to her adjoining bathroom and glances back at him with a flutter of nervous embarrassment. "Will you read me a bedtime story?" He laughs lightly at her meek request, nodding indulgently before jumping down from the tree and making his way over to her bookshelf as she continues into the bathroom to change while he begins rifling through book titles. If not for the distraction of his new task, it might have been difficult for him to ignore the pang of leaving behind a world his own black and white body was beginning to feel at home in.
The spines cracked from frequent reading, one book's title seems to be yet more illegible than the next and it takes him a few minutes to make sense of the broken letters — i e's Ad e tu es In W n ; og rinc s ; y an th B a ; S ow W i e. Fingers trailing from cover to cover, he chooses one with a tattered cloth cover that clings to its pages by mere threads, theorizing that her favorite book will be the one that appears to be the most frequently read. Realization dawns on him by the time she returns to the room, looking from the title page of the story in his hands and back to the volumes still lined up on the shelves. "They're all fairy tales, aren't they?"
Turning on a soft lamplight so she can switch off the overhead one, she climbs into bed and stutters soundlessly as Dresden lays the book down upon the nightstand and reaches out to tug the covers up for her, tucking her in as if it were something natural and practiced between them. Carefully, his hands smooth out the creases in the edge of the sheets before double checking to make sure they aren't pulled too tightly. "People read stories to experience things they can't have themselves," she explains belatedly, forcing her vocal chords to remember how sound works as she tries to think back to the last time either of her parents took this much care putting her to sleep. As if her voice is a reminder that they're nearly strangers, his hand stills in midair, inches away from an impulse to ruffle her bangs before switching direction in favor of retrieving the book instead. "I like fairy tales because everyone lives happily ever after."
Except the villains, he reminds himself bitterly, wiping away the mustache she drew above his lip earlier with the back of his hand before settling down on the floor beside her. In the glow of the lamplight, hands trembling with grief as he recalls the last time he sat by someone's bedside murmuring stories into the dark, he flips to the first page and takes a deep breath. "Once upon a time..."
(Author's Note: So, thanks to my awesome-tastic new beta, effervescent-sentiments, not only is this chapter much improved from what it would have otherwise been, but all three of the previous chapters have been edited as well!)
(1.11.14: Wow. So I did way more rewriting in this chapter than I meant to; I think it's nearly twice as long as it originally was. I'm a firm believer that a writer should have defined rules for supernatural elements in stories, so it's really important for me to go back and clarify a large portion of my logic concerning Dresden. I also want to take the opportunity to be a little more careful with characterization and do more showing and less telling whenever possible (which I'm still not certain I'm doing well?). I'm still looking for betas, as I'm well aware of my habit of being too heavy-handed with my writing. Feel free to give me a shout any time I start to get incoherently poetic or go off on incomprehensible emotional tangents. After the next chapter I'll be writing from scratch as opposed to editing and reworking things I've already written, so there will probably be a marked shift in the writing style and I don't want to go too crazy.
Thank you so much for the reviews and support! Any time I get a bit of a writing block, I go back and read through your comments and start to feel like I have a launching point again. You guys pointing out what you do and don't like is seriously so helpful to me and I appreciate every word of it!)