Jennifer glared at Lyla as she strutted around the room, clearly unfazed by the broad-shouldered man's lecture.
"Girly! Ya gotta let that chip on yere shoulder go, I figured some time in the breaky room'd do ya good, but ya look just as peeved as before." Freddy hummed as he scooped up empty dishes from around the table Jennifer moped on.
"I just don't get it, why the hell is she allowed to just walk around like that!? She tried to murder someone!" Jennifer fumed, eliciting a slight chuckle from Freddy. "How the hell can you stay so chipper? Y'all are trapped down here, doesn't that bother you?" An exasperated Jennifer thought she might go mad if she didn't get an answer soon.
Of all the Forms, surprising as it was, Freddy was the only one she sort of trusted. Even though he'd humiliated her earlier his story had clicked with her, and he had been the only Form to offer any help when James was dying. But, since arriving here Jennifer's mood had only gone from bad to worse and that didn't seem like it would be changing anytime soon. She'd been taking stock of all the bad and horrible things that had happened to her in just the past couple of days, she'd lost Enoch, almost been killed by the Deathless on two separate occasions, froze up and allowed James to face the Deathless alone, been ignored by Slade, humiliated by the Forms, been controlled by Lyla and nearly killed James! The part that pissed her off the most, the icing on the cake of this terrible awful life she's living, is she tried to change. When Slade had ignored her, when she'd nearly got James killed because of her fear, she'd decided that a change needed to be made. And yet, at every turn, she'd failed to implement even the most minute changes. Instead of being patient, instead of listening first and talking second, she'd leapt to conclusions about everyone in the room. When James needed her to be strong after he'd just been poisoned she ran away and smashed boxes, leaving James to come and comfort her, when she should have been there to comfort him. When the opportunity came for her to be exploited she had been so focused on her own issues that she didn't even notice that her drink had been tampered with. All of this piled onto her and, instead of facing her problems head on, moving past them and learning from them, she wished instead to forget, to forget about all the pain and failures and loss. The room around her shone with a beauty whose majesty had taken ages to perfect, but she couldn't see it, the beauty had been stripped of all its color, its grandeur, its heart, and all that was left for Jennifer to gaze upon, was a room, nothing more and nothing less.
Freddy, far more perceptive than he let on, saw most of this in her eyes. He stood over her and thought for a moment, meticulously picking out just the right words.
"Jenny, can I call ya Jenny"? She thought about it for a moment and then shrugged, Freddy took that as a yes, "Jenny do ya know what the difference is between blokes that succeed in this life and them that don't"? Jennifer, confused by the question, just shook her head, 'no,' "I figured as much, see Jenny, them blokes that do life properly don't ave it any easier than the bloke that fails at life, they both get their licks in equal supply. But one ah the blokes manages to walk out with a smile on his face, ya wanna know how"? Sighing weakly Jennifer looked up and offered a lazy,
"How"? Freddy smiled,
"I'll tell ya how, the bloke that smiles at the end does so because he figures life'd be pretty miserable if he didn't! See, life is gonna hit ya whether ya like it or not, but ya double the blows if ya let the blows keep ya on the floor."
"It's not that simple," Jennifer retorted, still not able to even muster her usual gusto, "I've tried being happy, and every time I do I just get hurt, like the universe is just conspiring to keep me miserable… I don't know why I'm even telling you all this, would you please just leave me alone for a while"? She turned to face the wall, hoping Freddy wouldn't pursue the issue, but, deep, deep down, Jennifer needed him to keep talking.
Freddy didn't say another word, he just threw down the tray of empty dishes onto the floor and listened with joy as they all cracked into shards that spread over the carpet. A quick inspection of Jennifer's boots told the fox there would be no issue there, and so he grabbed her by the arm and pulled her to the dance floor, Jennifer let out a slight gasp, but Freddy moved to fast for her to fight. Freddy gave a slight nod to the man behind the piano and the music stopped. Standing in the middle of the dance floor, most eyes on her and Freddy, the room went eerily quiet with all she could hear being the slightest tapping from the cymbal.
Drums began to boom in quick succession, a rhythm that forced foot tapping from all around the room. Soon the rhythm of the drums became the only noise, the steady beat preparing for something and all grew still. The trumpets began to sing, accentuating the drum beat, when, out of nowhere, horns appeared, blowing wildly between the sounds of the trumpets. Suddenly the music exploded and Jennifer was in motion; Freddy swirled her back and forth, his foot and peg lightly bouncing off the ground in quick succession with the beat. The lights danced alongside them as Freddy spun her away only to quickly grab her waist and pull her back close. Whether she was dancing wonderfully or poorly she had no clue, but, as she looked into Freddy's orange eyes she suddenly stopped caring. The music picked up, louder than before and she found herself merging with the beat, her feet landing in time with every note, her torso following playfully wherever her hips took her. Her feet stepped in and the two met only for her to pull back and prepare to go back in again, with each repetition gaining more and more confidence until she began to strut inwards and throw herself out, striking quick poses each time she landed on the beat. She laughed as the twirling continued, finding herself released from Freddy's grip, throwing her arms up and allowing the spin to take her, only to snap back around, leap back into Freddy's arms where he spun her around the room before placing her just above the ground allowing her to push off and land on the ground with a graceful stomp. The music lowered and the drum beat continued solo, Jennifer got lower, meeting Freddy's eyeline as he stomped low to the beat. They sized each other up, both attempting to predict the other's next move. The trumpets came back in playing quick notes in the rhythm of a man climbing stairs, followed shortly by the horns that resumed their usual blaring, Suddenly the music erupted up again and the two rose and leapt right back into the action. Jennifer wasn't even aware that the rest of the bar had joined in, all of them dancing wildly to the trumpet's blast and the drum's booming. A chorus of voices, all different, all unique, each hitting on notes from highest to lowest, serenaded the room with songs about Fox trots and sock hops.
Jennifer couldn't tell you how long she danced for and she didn't really care. By the end of it a smile had grown on her face like an infection and no matter how hard she tried she couldn't shake it. The edges of her mouth twitched and it struck her that she'd never smiled this long in her life. Covered in sweat and downing drink after drink Jennifer began to feel a sense of ease that overcame her deepest insecurities locking them away in a closet, so no matter how hard they banged on that door Jennifer couldn't hear a word of it.
"So love, do ya think ya get it now"? Freddy bellowed over the music. The feeling that overwhelmed her had the answer, but she knew she wouldn't be able to articulate it into words.
"I think so… But why don't you tell me? What am I supposed to get"? She shouted back through strained breaths.
"The reason why we laugh off attempted murder, the reason we don't mind that I'm stuck here with a plank of wood for a leg and why we don't bitch and moan about the state of the world outside, all the reasons are one in the same love."
"And what would that reason be"?
"It's more fun!" Freddy proclaimed as he spun her round, dipped her and planted an impassioned kiss right on her lips. Her eyes exploded open, she'd never kissed anyone before, and she hadn't prepared herself, she didn't know how someone's supposed to react in this sort of situation. She thought about pushing him away but for some reason the thought just seemed silly, so instead she threw her arms around his neck and allowed the kiss to run its course. When he lifted her back up she was beaming, though she hadn't known it before that was a perfect closure to a perfect dance.
The music began to die down after that and Jennifer followed Freddy over to the bar,
"So love, what do ya think? Ya finally figure that yere anger and yere convictions don't ave any place here? The world is gonna end, big bad death's a comin and all we have is today. So be a little selfish, make a fool of yerself and don't worry about a tomorrow that may not ever show its ugly face." Something about Freddy's words connected with Jennifer, like a puzzle piece that looks as if it just might be the perfect shape to fill in that one little gap. But, even in her hazy state, she still remembered something James had said, something important…
"So what happens next"? Jennifer asked excitedly, figuring that the night could only get better from here.
"Fer you and I? Nothing," He smiled cheekily, "The lessons not over yet, ya can't dance with one bloke and figure that yere problems are all gone, ya gotta go dance with a bunch of blokes, some broads and then a chair when yere done. Do something that terrifies ya, something that ya know is wrong and, when yere done with all that, take a nap and start the whole process over again when ya wake up." Jennifer smiled right back,
"Ya know something, I think I was wrong about you, you're actually a pretty nice guy." He bowed,
"A great honor comin from such a fine young lady. Now off with ya, come back when ya've done what I told ya!" Jennifer scrambled off, an odd feeling of disappointment nagging at her as she left Freddy's side, a dangerous feeling that, if left unchecked, only lead to heartbreak. But that was a lesson Jennifer would have to learn the hard way.
James watched Jennifer as she flitted about the room, dancing and laughing with every Form who'd give her the time of day. It's funny how lonely people make all these declarations, 'I'll never trust them again,' 'fool me once but never twice,' 'I don't need anyone, I'm enough,' and yet, the moment the chance to end the loneliness arises, they dump all of their convictions and allow themselves to be swept up by the current and hurt all over again. Only moments ago, Jennifer had made a similar declaration only to drop it the moment the sly fox made her feel wanted. Lonely people are a lot like alcoholics, they all experience pain, loss, isolation and degradation at the hands of others, like a man who drinks until the liquor burns his throat, wrenches his mind and leaves him sick with his head stuck in a toilet. The promise is always made after that, never again. But, just like the alcoholic, the lonely run back to the very thing that hurt them, ignoring their promise and tempted by the allure that this time, the joy will outweigh the sorrow. Forgetting that the Forms had laughed at her, drugged her, and made her a pawn in their game, she still allowed hope to grow, hope that said that maybe, just maybe, she'd found a place she belonged.
Hope is a powerful tool, whether for great good or great evil seems to depend solely on who's offering. James wondered on this as he watched Freddy, attempting to gain some insight as to why Freddy had given Jennifer this hope, for what purpose? There couldn't be any chance that he'd allowed himself to become jealous of the fox's ability to do what he couldn't, to make Jennifer hope again, smile again. James didn't even know why he cared so much, he had a job to do, he had a brother to find and whether Jennifer smiled or not had nothing to do with it and yet… He shook off the feelings and wandered over to the table with the imposing blond-haired woman in the sparkled black cape.
She smiled when she saw him, as if she'd expected him to approach for a while now. He sat across the table from her and she allowed herself a slight smile, like a queen in her court she held herself with the utmost regality, a woman with all the makings of some ancient empress, undeniably powerful, with a history that calls into question the, 'glory days'.
"What can I do for you"? She inquired politely. James hesitated for a moment, knowing what he had to say, but uncertain how she may take it.
"You're Helios correct? The Form of stars"? She smiled again,
"For a human you certainly know your Forms quite well," An underlying curiosity in her tone, "but you are correct." James leaned in, hoping not to draw unnecessary attention to the conversation,
"Melody is in a great deal of pain… A star is never meant to set for that long." Helios twitched, a slight lapse in her regal demeanor, "but you're certainly aware of this, and I know why you haven't stepped in either."
"Go on…" Helios's voice had a dangerous edge to it.
"I don't mean to offend," snippets of Jennifer's speeches ran through his head, "but, your daughter needs to be let go, you can't keep her in this state forever." Helios' eyes squinted, and James could clearly see the force capable of leveling planets in those eyes.
"You are an interesting human, speaking so boldly to the Form you know to be the most powerful being in the room." James knew what Jennifer would say, 'then why are you hiding down here if you're so great'? But James knew better, so he allowed her to continue. "You humans, always with the heroics, always with the self-sacrifice and the 'greater good,' you all fail to see the importance of hope. I will not allow Melody to die, so long as she lives there's hope she may recover. Now it may be best for you to walk away now, my patience is great, but you are testing it." It wasn't a suggestion. James stood to his feat and began to walk away when he saw Jennifer dancing with the Form of steal, Jennifer's smile sparked something within James, some desire to prove… something. He turned around and stared Helios down,
"No. Hope is not reserved for Forms who hide away in a cave drinking and dancing. Hope is not an argument you get to use to justify the continual suffering of someone you are directly responsible for. If you truly believed in hope then you would be risking everything to see that your daughter may be set free, whether by you rising from this cave and getting her or you finally letting her rest. And the choice may have already been made for you, because you waited too long and I think you know it. Even if you set her free right now she would still be beyond saving. So don't you dare speak to me about hope, what you're doing isn't hope it's cowardice. Nothing will ever change if you refuse to fight, refuse to risk everything to make a difference. Maybe now isn't the time to face Death head on, but it is the time to start showing Death that he doesn't rule over us. His twilight world needs to end, he needs to see that he can't simply pick and choose who lives and dies, but that choice belongs to us. He may be death, but he never deserved that title, and he wears it proudly so long as we allow it. Let Melody die on your terms and hers, and I know you know that she's been ready to go for a while now." James never raised his voice, never cracked his focus, but delivered every word directly into Helios' eyes, not blinking once. The room froze as Helios rose from her chair and towered over the much shorter James, her hair falling down to her knees and the golden stitching on her dress burning as her eyes transfixed on James'. James held her gaze. Then, with an exaggerating flourishing of her cape, she left the room, ascending to the surface.
Placing a hand on the chair for balance, James allowed himself to collapse forward, clutching his chest and breathing deeply, knowing that he'd just risked the entire planet with that stunt, but he knew he had to, that was his integrity.
The time was quickly approaching for James and Jennifer to leave this place, James knew it, and he knew Jennifer would hate him for it. Her quick change in mood had come as a shock, he'd hoped she might be happy to leave when the time came, but now… He'd spoken to Helios, made a deal with Claudia, and set other smaller things into motion to ease the rest of their journey which meant that there was only one thing left to do. The idea of talking to Adam wasn't exactly thrilling, the man had more reason than anyone to hate humans and his stance on Forms leaving the safety of the cave was rigidly negative. James played out every possible scenario in his head, practiced points he might make, attempted to piece together every argument Adam might counter with, knowing that everything hinged on his leniency. With a deep breath he walked to the door and readied himself to knock.
James' hand froze when the door swung open and the short broad-shouldered man stood on the other side, his face all business.
"Come in." He commanded, turning around as he spoke without checking to see if James followed. Decorations have their place in this world, but that place certainly wasn't the man's office, James walked into a small room with a single desk cut from quartz, a mug full of coffee and papers scattered about with various numbers and calculations. Something about Adam reminded James of men who drink black coffee, the kind men order after they decide adding cream and sugar is unnecessary work, because to them coffee is a tool, not a treat. After taking a couple of steps in, James came to the unsettling realization that they weren't the only two people in the room. Rocking back and forth on an old wooden chair, making intermittent grumbles of disapproval, sat an angry old man with a short stubby beard, a bald and liver spotted head and eyes that cast judgement on every speck of dust they fell upon. The broad-shouldered man seemed painfully aware of the older man's presence and did everything in his power to avoid acknowledging him, James couldn't imagine why…
"Adam, thank you for allowing my friend and I to take sanctuary within your walls." James figured he best begin with some pleasantries, he knew little about Adam and hoped that some idle chit chat might help fill in some gaps.
"I didn't allow anything," Adam stated plainly, "your little friend and you just wandered in." James coughed uncomfortably,
"Uh… well sorry about that we-" Adam raised a hand,
"Look kid I really don't care, stay go, that's none of my business, but none of the Forms are going with you." James began to protest, but Adam merely raised his hand again, "I don't want to hear it. You already pissed off Helios, I would suggest not testing your luck with me." He sat down at his desk and began shuffling around some of the papers, setting them up in neat little stacks, when James didn't leave he looked up from the papers and spoke with nonchalant authority, "you can go now." James didn't move an inch. Adam went back to shuffling papers.
"You hate what they're doing out there don't you"? James guessed after seeing the way he'd designed his office.
"What they do out there is none of my concern, just so long as they stay there." Adam responded, his face still focused on the papers.
"You stay in here because you can't stand to watch them, none of them appreciating what you're doing for them," James began, knowing that one wrong step might ruin everything, "I get it, the burden of responsibility, the knowledge that you're the only person that stands between them and Death, it's a tough job." The old man in the back laughed coarsely,
"You're wasting your time," The voice oozed bitterness and he spat each word, "Kid's a coward, always has been." The old man turned toward Adam who's pale white knuckles stretched back his skin while he did everything in his power to avoid puncturing the papers in hand. "He should have wiped those humans out millennia ago, buried each one until there was nothing left, but what does he do? He shelters them! Now look at him, hiding away down here, babysitting the trash of the universe." The old man let out another coarse laugh.
"That's enough." Adam ordered as calmly as he could manage, but the resentment came across quite clearly.
"See!" The old man pointed one withered finger toward Adam, "see how he defends them! They attempted to kill him and now he runs a daycare for them!"
"DAD!" Adam shouted, the very walls of the room quaking in fear. The old man threw up his hands in mock defeat. The old man's identity hadn't exactly come as a shock to James, but the state of him made James nervous.
"It's hard to hate them isn't it"? The room grew deathly still, Adam placed the papers down and eyed James suspiciously. "They depend on you, walk all over you and barely ever offer even the slightest thanks, but that doesn't change anything does it? You see them when they're born, watch them grow, love, fail and overcome… You could never hate them." Adam's eyes softened, and he gave James his full attention, "That's why you keep them here, because you know what they'll do if you set them free, and you couldn't bare to watch it. But you've resigned yourself to an even greater punishment, because you know they'll hate you for it. They see you as a jailer. You don't just hide in here because you don't approve of what they do, but because they wouldn't do it if you didn't. You willingly separated yourself from them so they could enjoy themselves, accepting that you'll be alone."
"I know who you are boy! Coming in here lecturing that shell of a son when you're an even bigger coward than he is!" The old man screamed gleefully.
"Dad," Adam rose from his seat and towered over the old man who suddenly looked quite a bit more nervous, "wait outside." The command didn't possess any room for debate. The old man rose from his chair shakily and stuck his face upwards to look his son in the eye. The two glared at each other for a moment, the old man's hand beginning to twitch uncomfortably, sweat dripping from his brow. The old man snapped his head away and left the room in a huff.
Once the old man had left, Adam returned to his desk, rubbing his temples and shaking off some heavily repressed emotions.
"Sorry about that, my father hasn't taken to being kept here positively. The man you just saw is not the father that raised me, Death broke him a long time ago." The words, full of shame, rolled off Adam's tongue like beads of sweat off skin, a mix of necessity and discomfort. James wondered if this is the first time Adam had acknowledged his father's current state.
"The cosmos owes him a lot, the universe wouldn't be what it is today without him." James stated, hoping to share in Adam's recognition of his father's once great status.
"Thank you, that's kind of you to say." Adam's mood shifted quickly, a cautious air overtook him, "I won't ask you how you know all this, how a human can know so much about the higher Forms, but just know that I'm not blind to this." James nodded, glad to avoid the places that conversation may lead them.
"I won't ask you to allow the Forms to leave, I see now that, of the two of us, you seem to have their best interests more at heart." James's recanting took Adam off guard and he eyed James skeptically.
"I appreciate that, few humans can act with such wisdom." The compliment given with suspicion.
"May I ask one thing of you though"? James ventured, one of Adam's eye brow rose, "The area around the gravestone, while I understand it, I would ask that you abandon it, for your sake." Adam nodded for him to go on, uncertain where James was heading with this, "You don't deserve their hatred, and that gravestone is your attempt to destroy any chance they might have to appreciate you before they destroy it themselves. Allow that area to become beautiful again, to bloom, to shine, and remove the gravestone. What you're doing for them, what you're sacrificing, make that entrance your pride, acknowledge the beauty of what you're offering."
"You're suggesting I put a giant marker on the entrance of my secret bunker"?
"You know as well as I do that Death is well aware of your set up, and the Deathless couldn't get down here if they wanted to, you have nothing to lose." Adam thought on this, never once considering taking pride in the sacrifices he'd made, acknowledging all that he'd done for the betterment of those he loved. Once somebody resigns themselves to misery the notion of appreciating one's good qualities seems quite foreign. He wondered who stood before him, who could possibly know this feeling so well? But, if Adam believed anything, it was that a man's business is the property of that man and that man alone, he refused to pry.
"You have an hour after sunset, after that all the Forms need to return." Adam decided, not opening it up for discussion.
"Sunset… So"? There was hope in James' eyes.
"Helios made her decision, you seem to be quite persuasive." Adam's suspicions only deepened.
"I better start preparing, thank you, truly, thank you." James smiled as he headed toward the door, Adam returning to his work.
"Oh and before I forget, James," James stopped right before the exit and turned to Adam, his head slightly lifted from the paper's before him, "go out and have a drink, you've earned it." Adam allowed himself a slight smirk, this was the first time he'd used James' name. Unsure of how to respond James offered an awkward smile and a, 'will do', before exiting the room quickly.