Warnings: This story will contain violence, swearing, slash, and mild sexual references.
Disclaimer: Opening lines preceding the chapter title are taken from Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin.
The sun had already begun its climb into the sky, but there was a moment where everything, everything, was enveloped in darkness.
Then there was nothing but pain, and red.
Eric gasped when he forced his eyes open. He realized that, by some miracle, the impact from having fallen to the rocky shore below hadn't killed him instantly. Neither had any of the falling shards from the window pane, a rain of glass that had escorted his free-fall.
No. Somehow, he could still see the sky.
Dimly, he could hear voices echoing from the general direction of the castle up above – shouting, wailing. There might have been gunshots. He couldn't tell. Everything was hurting. He was dying.
He was dying.
Then the sounds grew softer – or they didn't, and it was just getting harder to hear. He thought he could make out the waves though, crashing onto the shore, coming closer and closer. Aside from that, everything else was silent.
The voice was gone.
He would have laughed, if only his chest were still capable of supporting it. If nothing else, Magnus had been wrong – so wrong. Jude and Liam had come for him. They had come to save him. And he… he had saved them.
Together, they had saved hundreds, maybe thousands more.
That was worth something, wasn't it?
Eric opened his eyes again, not even remembering when he'd closed them. There was a figure hovering in the space above him, and if he focused all of his efforts on not letting the world go dark, he could see strands of blond framing a man's face. "Jude…?"
That was odd. That couldn't be right. There was no way his brother could have gotten down here that fast.
Then the face snapped into focus, and he remembered that this was far from the first time that mistake had been made.
"Sorry… I'm so… sorry…" He choked back a sob. "Forgive me…?"
He thought he saw a smile. And this eased the crushing ache in his chest, if only a bit, because maybe it meant he'd already been forgiven all along.
But he also knew what this meant for him.
"Will they be alright?" There were other questions to ask, he knew. After everything that had happened, everything Magnus had done, there were a million other reparations to be made. But he was fading too fast to be able to worry about any of them. He would have to trust in those who would be left behind, and so… "Jude… will he…?"
He didn't get an answer, not really. But there was comfort to be found as the figure knelt down and offered a hand.
Here, he seemed to be saying. Come here.
Eric found himself reaching out to grasp that hand. It was strange, because he didn't feel anything at all. But bit by bit, the pain ebbed away, and he felt something close to peace for the first time since this had all begun.
Time to end it now, the tight squeeze of a hand seemed to coax him. I've got you. Let's go.
Yes, Eric thought to himself, as he closed his eyes to keep the tears inside. Jude was a survivor. He would be all right. So long as Liam was with him, then…
Everything's gonna be all right now, hero.
"Thank you," he murmured, or tried to. It was hard to tell. "You… were always… so good to us."
It was time to go home.
And it's whispered that soon if we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter
42. the hero
A cold breeze blew into the back room through the open loading doors. The man in black shivered as he stuffed his work vest into his locker.
As soon as he'd shut the locker door, he was met with the grinning face of an older co-worker. "Calling it a day, Will?"
"Yes. Time to go home." He pulled his heavy wool coat on, and began winding a scarf around his neck.
"That's great. Three-day weekends are great, aren't they?" The pleasant-faced woman paused for a moment, before licking her lips. "So, anyway, I was wondering if you could do me a favor. See, George called in sick a few minutes ago… I know it's late, and I hate to spring this on you..."
He sighed. This wouldn't even be the first time she'd apologized for 'springing' something like this on him in the past week. Normally he wouldn't have minded the extra hours, but today was an unfortunate exception.
"I can't tonight, I have family coming in from out of town." He slung his backpack over his shoulder, and gave her the most apologetic look he could muster. "I'm sorry, Shirley."
"It's alright, Will." Shirley smiled at him, and almost succeeded in hiding her disappointment. "Enjoy your time with your family."
It hadn't technically been a lie.
He decided to go through the front door tonight, as it was much closer to the bus stop this way. Nobody bothered him on the way out, anyway – with his coat buttoned up and his nametag never having left the vest in his locker, none of the customers could tell that he even worked here. It was one of the perks of working in the back, he thought to himself as he waved to a couple of cashiers, before stepping out into the parking lot. He rubbed his gloved hands together as he waited for the bus.
The wind sent a cold chill spreading across his cheeks, and his eyes watered. He saw his breath come out in puffs with every exhale, and by the time the bus arrived, the cold seemed to have seeped deeply into his bones. And to think that in this city, he reminded himself, it was already spring.
He hopped inside, and took one of the seats at the back. He was grateful for the 45 minutes of peace, and spent them just staring out the window, gathering his thoughts.
After he got off, it took another 12 minutes' walk to reach the duplex that was three units away from the fence separating the complex from a grocery store. He slid his key into the keyhole of the door that would lead to the upper two floors.
As always, he glanced once behind him, before heading inside.
The living room was dark and quiet as he entered. He was used to this by now, yet he couldn't help but imagine another reality in which it would have been louder, cheerier. He shook his head, and reminded himself once again that 'coping' meant pushing certain thoughts out of his mind.
He ended up having to drop his backpack heavily onto the table to get the attention of the other occupant in the dining room. "Hello, Su."
She blinked up at him, emitting a wordless sound of surprise that was muffled through cookie crumbs. "Liam!" She grinned as she pulled off her noise-cancelling headphones. "Didn't hear you come in. Where's the pizza?"
He fixed her with an incredulous stare. "I just now got back from work. Weren't you supposed to call for delivery?"
"Oh." Su yawned and stretched her arms above her head. "I forgot. My bad."
Sighing heavily, Liam pulled off his gloves and rubbed at his eyes, counting to three. "They're supposed to arrive in ten minutes. What are we going to do?"
"I can go out." Matthew came out of the kitchen with two cans of soda, one of which he tossed at Liam. "Pick something up to go – it'll be a lot faster, especially on a Friday night."
Liam gave him a relieved, grateful smile. "You don't mind?"
"No, it's fine." Matthew returned his smile. "Not sure there's a pizza place in the plaza across the street though. How do you guys feel about Chinese?"
Su pouted. "I really wanted pizza, but that's fine. Ooh, so long as we get those dumplings with soup in them, please and thank you!"
Liam fumbled in his backpack for some cash. "You didn't happen to see Jude come out of his room today, did you?"
Matthew shook his head. "No. I don't think he touched any of the food you left for him in the fridge, either."
Liam felt his heart sink. "Then he hasn't eaten anything all day, then?"
"I wouldn't know," Matthew murmured. "I was at school 'til six. I'm sorry."
Liam nodded and thanked him anyway. As he watched Matthew go, he briefly thought about heading upstairs and knocking on the door to the master bedroom that always seemed to be locked.
In the months since the day they'd stormed the Island, Jude had hardly ever left that room at all. He'd gone through the motions – the clean-up, the burial, the bare minimum required as they'd moved to this last of Alexander's safehouses. But he'd been a shell of a man since the day he'd lost Eric, and Liam wasn't sure he could blame him.
He sank onto the couch, suddenly feeling exhausted. The TV was showing a news program: something about Charles Reinard, the former Grand Keeper of the Organization affiliated with the Carnation Culprit, being formally charged. "What are you up to?" he called out.
It took a few seconds before Su remembered that she was the only one within earshot. "Sending an email to a friend," came the cheerful reply. "She had to go off the grid for the past month for a job, but she's back on now, which is great."
Liam nodded absently, not really paying much heed. "That's good."
"Yup. I keep asking her to come visit again, but she keeps saying not yet, not yet. Something about 'baggage'." Su paused. "Oh, how was work?"
"Uneventful," he murmured. It was the same as the answer he'd given ever since he'd started that job. While Alexander had helped them get settled in this new city, and even generously offered to sponsor the rest of Matthew's education, most of the household's money was still tied up in Jude's accounts – accounts he'd earmarked for Eric. Liam didn't have the heart to even imagine bothering Jude about the matter, so he'd had to find another way.
Su had helped him through every step of the long process, crafting this identity of 'Will Blackwood' to have on government databases. She still helped in other ways now, doing odd jobs online every so often, but having a steady stream of income from Liam's job meant one less thing to worry about at night.
The chime of the doorbell broke Liam's train of thought. Glancing at Su, he saw that she had her headphones on again. He rose to his feet wearily.
Long ago, he knew he would have waited for a precise sequence of knocks before even thinking of opening the door. But ever since the fall of the Carnation Culprit and their move up North, their lives had turned much quieter – almost boring.
He tried not to dwell on what that said about him as he opened the door. He was greeted with an oppressively chilly breeze, and dark red lips that curved up into a smile.
"So sorry we're late!" Their owner immediately went in for two cheek-to-cheek kisses, her face icy from the cold outside. "Ah, are you William or Jude?"
"The former," Liam said softly, taking her hand. "Audrey, I presume?"
She let out a cultured laugh, pleasing to the ear. "You would presume correctly. It's nice to finally meet you; Chris has told me so much about you. All good things, of course. Your house is lovely!" She presented him with a bottle of wine, and walked inside to introduce herself to Su.
"Thank you for the wine," he ended up telling Bradley, who was shaking snow off his boots by lightly kicking at the railing of the stairs leading down to the sidewalk. "How was the drive?"
"Eight hours of boredom." Bradley was holding onto a box marked with the logo of a famous chain bakery. "Where's the birthday boy?"
"Actually, he stepped out to get dinner." Liam scratched at the back of his head. "He should be back soon, but I hope you're not starving."
"Not particularly." Bradley rubbed at the side of his face, and suppressed a yawn. "You gonna let me in?"
As Su chatted with Audrey – introducing her to their pets, telling her about a 'suite of tax fraud software from the dark web' – Liam fetched a can of beer from the bottom of the fridge, and handed it to Bradley. They both lingered in the kitchen, and Liam broke the silence then: "So she still calls you 'Chris'. You haven't told her?"
Bradley shrugged as he took a sip of his beer. "Didn't think it was all that relevant. It's not like anyone's really looking for me anymore, anyway." He stopped as though to consider that, and asked, "Does Su know?"
Liam shook his head. In truth, the only reason he knew that Bradley was Subject 52 was because of Alexander, who'd found Bradley on the brink of death in the Middle Layer, clutching at his files. There had been little else to do that day, while waiting for both Bradley and Jude to come out of surgery, besides grieve and talk. "It's not my place to tell her. Unless you want me to."
"I don't know. Not yet." Bradley walked over to the counter where their knife block was sitting. "How's retail life treating you?"
"Reasonably well." Liam watched him as he pulled out the serrated utility knife and inspected the blade keenly. "You?"
"Freelancing's good. You make your own hours. Building up the client list is the hard part." He sighed, and let the knife slide back into the block. "Picking up Alexander's old 'regulars' has helped a lot though. He says hi, by the way. Sorry he can't come – his wife's family's in town, et cetera."
"Hmmm." Liam thought about the alibi he'd given to Shirley, and drank quietly.
Matthew arrived with the food not long after that, much to Su's delight. The conversation that ensued over dumplings, noodles, and roast duck was desultory: skiing, politics, the recent winter and how awful it had been. Audrey's parents owned a cottage about two hours away, which was where she and Bradley were headed for the long weekend. Liam smiled politely and chimed in here and there, but most of the time he found himself glancing at the stairs, wishing he would hear footsteps coming down, wishing Jude would join them tonight.
"What year did you say you were in, again?" Audrey asked Matthew sometime during dessert – fortune cookies and some brownies from a box Su had been using as a mouse pad.
"Senior year," he replied dutifully.
"I bet that's exciting. You have any plans for college?"
Matthew tilted his head. "More or less. I've been thinking of going to medical school."
"Medical school!" Audrey raised her eyebrows, and smiled. "Admirable. And you'll be more or less guaranteed to be able to pay back your student loans once you start working."
"No loans," Bradley murmured over the rim of his glass. "He's got a sponsor with pretty deep pockets."
"All the better then. Your family must be so proud of you."
Liam froze mid-bite. Glancing up, he saw Bradley deliberately taking a long sip of his beer. Even Su had lost her seemingly permanent grin, and was poking at a piece of brownie on her plate.
But Matthew simply smiled. "Yeah. I guess." He said nothing of the two phone calls he would make every night: one to his father and one to Charlotte, neither of which would ever be answered. Liam supposed it was easier this way, and not all that surprising. Very few of the Organization's members had gone public since the Island's collapse, and those who had done so chose to tell precious little at a time, invariably hiding behind lawyers.
That was probably for the best.
There wasn't all that much cleanup to do after dinner. It was Matthew's turn to walk Cocoa today, and while he was doing that, Su dragged Audrey over to her computer to show her a video of goats jumping onto a wobbling arc of sheet metal.
That left Liam and Bradley alone in the living room, and the question Liam had been dreading all night came within ten seconds: "How's Jude?"
The first few weeks had been the most difficult. Jude had slept most of those days after having been discharged from the hospital, and he'd kept his room bathed in darkness as much as he could. Liam had tried occasionally to turn on a lamp while leaving him his food, only to hear a despairing sound from Jude's throat that would linger until the lights went off.
Days and month had passed after that, with few words and even fewer touches; Jude had always assured him that he was fine, that he would survive, and that it wasn't Liam's fault. Even now, Liam himself wasn't sure if he believed that. "He hasn't come down all day today," he said instead.
"He working yet?"
"No," Liam whispered. "I don't mind supporting him until then."
"Still." Bradley stood up. "That doesn't sound healthy."
At this point Audrey was pulling on her coat at the doorway, and mentioning something about wanting to make it to the cottage before midnight. But Bradley was already heading upstairs, ignoring all of Liam's sputtered protests.
"Jude?" Bradley knocked on the closed door with enough force to make Liam wince. "Jude. Jude."
"Stop," Liam hissed, grabbing onto Bradley's arm. "He might be asleep – "
But Bradley got no resistance when he turned the doorknob, and the door opened into an empty, darkened room.
Jude wasn't even home.
Liam raced down the stairs as fast as his legs would let him. Bursting into the dining room, he sought out Su immediately. "You didn't notice that he wasn't in the house?" he demanded.
"Oh." Su threw a guilty glance at her headphones, which were on the table. She gave him a sheepish smile. "Um…"
Bradley placed a hand on Liam's shoulder. "We have to hit the road. Thanks for dinner, and all that. See you around."
"Yes." He nodded, and hurriedly pulled out his phone. "Thank you, too."
By the time he watched Bradley's car pulling away, he'd gotten Jude's voicemail for the third time. Undeterred, he ended the call and dialed again.
Sadness wasn't an open wound that festered and bled. Sadness was a dull ache constricting his chest, making it impossible to breathe. Darkness had fallen on this part of the cemetery, and there was no-one else in sight. This was a small comfort, Jude thought to himself – his grief was a burden he preferred to bear alone.
He'd heard from someone before that the mind could suppress memories if they were too painful, to stop from hurting too much. Yet he remembered everything – from the moment Eric had fallen through the window, to the quiet celebration from the Villagers behind them. He remembered crawling, clawing his way to the broken window and leaving a smear of blood in his wake, a sob in his throat and tears in his eyes. He remembered Liam pulling him into an embrace from behind, covering Jude's eyes with his arm and crying: "Don't look!"
He remembered screaming. He remembered doing it again and again.
He remembered waking up to the smell of disinfectant, to oppressive white lights and cold hospital walls. He remembered Liam clasping his hands, pressing kisses onto his knuckles, whispering "I am so sorry," after each one.
Alexander had been generous. He'd taken care of all the red tape. And he'd made all the necessary arrangements so that once Jude was able to walk again, he was there to watch his brother's coffin lowered into a fresh plot, beside their parents' graves.
He'd rewritten the narrative too. As far as the world was concerned, the man who'd led a secret, radical Organization hell-bent on moral purity and thinly-veiled terrorism had perished at the hands of an elite task force composed of private contractors and former military personnel. And he and Eric Macmillian had no connection to one another whatsoever.
Someone at the funeral – either Matthew or Alexander, he couldn't remember – had suggested to Jude to try to find some solace in that. He'd been trying to find solace ever since then.
He felt a vibration in his pocket. He'd lost count of how many times his phone had buzzed in the past hour, but this time it was only a text message, from Liam: 'Where are you?'
He stuffed the phone back into his pocket, and pulled his jacket closer to his body.
He could feel the wind, but he couldn't hear it – not over the sound of hard rock playing. With Su's help, he'd taken the most frequently-played songs from Eric's phone and saved them onto his own. While he didn't care much for the music himself, playing it here seemed… right, somehow.
"Not exactly appropriate for the location," he murmured, "but I figured you'd appreciate this."
His eyes drifted over to his parents' headstones, and while he lowered his head, he didn't say anything. Aside from the obvious reason, he'd simply run out of apologies to them at this point. And nothing he could say would ever be enough.
He must have been staring at the ground for half a minute before he realized that the playlist of Eric's favorite music had ended. There was a moment's peace lent by the sound of the leaves rustling in the blowing breeze.
The footsteps were a discordant note.
But he knew. Even with the voice of Jude de Fontaine now silent forever, somehow… he knew.
Jude's breath left a shaky trail of white as he opened his mouth to speak: "Lady… have you come to take me away now too?"
The footsteps stalled. When he turned to face her, he wasn't all that surprised to see a soft, sad smile frozen on Leila's lips. "Hello, Jude."
He didn't know where to begin. "I have to say, I never thought you'd show yourself again. Especially after everything that happened."
"I felt as though I owed it to you." She took a step forward, and her eyes glittered in the darkness.
Jude let out a hollow laugh. "You owed this to me, but not anything else? Say, telling me the truth upfront, maybe? Before everything went to hell?" He clenched his hands into fists at his sides. "You were right there, all this time, and you never thought to warn me?!"
"I had to pay a price that day as well," Leila said, her voice soft and calm, but rueful. As were her eyes. "Do you really think that I would have kept you in the dark for so long if I could have helped it? I have watched over you, Jude – sometimes from afar, sometimes in plain sight, within reach. I have watched over your family from the beginning, from the moment Jude de Fontaine buried what was left of his heart and covered it with earth." She paused, before adding softly, "That does not mean I cannot be sorry. And I am, Jude. Sorrier than I have ever been for anything in my entire existence."
No matter how hard he tried, Jude could find no comfort in this, either. "Did you know? That Eric would be the price?"
She shook her head sadly. "Not until it was too late."
There was something in those words that felt like a knife between the ribs. Jude took a deep breath, and wished it hadn't hurt so much. "Was there anything…" His words died, and he had to close his eyes, swallow back the lump in his throat before trying again. "Anything I could have done?"
"The price to be paid for walking in the realm of the gods," Leila whispered, "is known to the gods from the moment the contract is forged."
"So that's a 'no'. Okay." Jude had to wrap his arms around himself as the implications of that, cold and cruel, sank in. "Why did it have to be this way? It isn't fair – "
"No," Leila cut in softly. "Perhaps not. But now, all debts have been paid. Your brother died a hero, Jude. After all the torment Magnus' spirit put him through, he was able to come back to himself when it truly mattered. Hold on to that."
He thought of the detonator Eric had been holding in his hand, the one he'd thrown away despite having known fully well that it was the only thing keeping the Villagers from attacking. He thought of how his brother must have suffered in his last moments.
The voice in his own head – Jude de Fontaine's, he was certain – had died with Magnus. He wondered what his brother's life would have been like, if he'd survived and had to live with that madman's spirit, fighting him for control over his own body every day. He tried to imagine what kind of a future his brother could have had, but all he could see were years of therapy and possible confinement – to stop him from hurting others, and hurting himself.
"Is this it, then?" he whispered, staring at the headstone over his brother's grave. "What am I supposed to do now?"
"That would depend." Leila searched his eyes. "Do you want to make a wish?"
The answer left his lips before he'd even fully processed the question. "No. No more wishes. No more…" He struggled to remember how she'd phrased it. "No more walking with the gods. We've… done enough of that for a thousand years' worth of lifetimes, don't you think?"
Leila smiled, and reached out to stroke his cheek with more affection than he'd been anticipating. He found himself leaning into the touch, if barely. "Then live on, Jude Macmillian. Survive. You are a good man in this world teeming with lesser ones. You must endure."
He scoffed. "That's not saying much. Considering."
"I never said you would have to do it alone."
Maybe it was testament to some kind of power Leila possessed, or maybe it was just sheer luck, but those words had scarcely left her lips when he felt his phone vibrating again. Sighing, he took it out and read the new text message Liam had sent him: 'Worried about you, but I don't want to be a bother. Please be safe, come home soon?'
"He's been trying so hard," Jude sighed. He didn't show Leila the message on his screen, nor did he even bother clarifying whom he was referring to. He felt as though she already knew, anyway. "I keep thinking that… we'll never really be as happy again, him and me. I don't blame him for what happened. But I lost my brother the moment I found him. That… never goes away, does it?"
"No, I suppose not. But your brother was lost to you the moment Jude de Fontaine made his wish, 700 years ago."
Jude shook his head, feeling his whole body tremble. "What kind of gods would let a child be born, whose only destiny was to be possessed by some madman, and…?" He couldn't finish.
Through some small miracle, he managed not to flinch when she laid a finger on his lips. "You gave him 16 years," she said. "16 years of kindness, and love, more than some souls receive in a lifetime many times as long. And you raised a strong, intelligent, kind young man – a young man who knew what was truly good. A young man who was able to wrest control back from Magnus' psyche in the end, and save countless lives."
Another buzz jerked him out of his thoughts, but his phone was already in his hand this time. 'I'll leave the porch light on. Let me know if you're short of cash for a cab, I'll wait at the door.'
He wasn't sure if he was smiling. It felt like it, but it also didn't. It felt like he couldn't quite remember how, and he wasn't sure if he was doing it right.
"Go home to him, Jude," were among the last words Leila would ever whisper to him. And: "Let him help you heal."
When he finally arrived back at the house, the living room was dark. Su was curled up on the sofa, having nodded off despite the video still playing on her laptop: a play-through of some pixelated horror game.
No-one else was in sight. Bradley and Audrey, whom he was vaguely aware were supposed to have visited today, had probably already left. He guessed Matthew was already upstairs in bed.
The only light came from the kitchen, from where he could hear a rhythmic, steady chopping sound. Liam was standing at the counter, with his back turned to Jude. A large pot sat on the range, and he could smell the tomato-based broth from here. Cut-up onions, bell peppers, potatoes and carrots sat on wooden cutting boards, waiting.
"Lunch and dinner," Liam announced before Jude could get a word out. "I hope you don't mind. It's so that I won't have to cook tomorrow..."
Jude walked into the kitchen. A dreadful pop song was playing on the radio, which had been set to Angelo's favorite station. He wondered if it would ever feel right to change it.
Liam looked exhausted as he turned to lean over the pot, stirring its contents. Jude could see the bags under his eyes.
"Do you need help with that?" he murmured.
Liam slowly raised his eyes to meet Jude's. He couldn't put words to all of the emotions he saw there, but when Liam broke into a small smile, it was as though the persistent vise around his heart began to loosen, little by little.
"I would like that," Liam said at length. He handed Jude the peeler and a few more potatoes. "If you please?"
Their hands brushed as Jude took the peeler from him. It felt like such a cliché, but for the tattoos on Liam's hands. Jude ran the pad of his thumb along the outline of the carnation, remembering the scared young man who'd gripped his hand as they'd walked through Times Square, and the knight who'd fought side-by-side with him as they'd stormed the Carnation Culprit's castle.
"What's wrong?" Liam asked.
He'd been giving that answer for months. It was practically a knee-jerk response by now, meaningless.
But Liam must have seen straight through it, because he gently pried the peeler from Jude's hand, and pulled him into a hug.
"Welcome home," he whispered.
This time, Jude knew that he was smiling. It still didn't feel quite right, like it would take some getting used to. But it was a start.
"Thank you," he mumbled as he pulled Liam close, and pressed a kiss against the top of his head.
He supposed a promise was made that night, as he and Liam held each other until Jude remembered to let go. There would be no more murders from now on, no more contracts, no more hiding. They would heal.
They would survive.
You've reached the end of Carnations' Wake! High-five, throw confetti, pop the bubbly…
Of course, it goes without saying that we are both immensely grateful to everyone who's kept up with this story until the end. We're also very thankful to all of you who left a review, or added this story to their favorites/alerts lists. Writing a novel, especially a beast like this, could be daunting at times, and we wouldn't have gotten as far as we did without all of your support. We've learned so much along the way, and we're so thrilled to have had you along for the journey.
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