So maybe he's been abducted by a guy whose name he can't even figure out. So maybe his own name has been lost somewhere in the dank recesses of his mind. So maybe he's suddenly a real freaking psychic. So maybe the lives of everybody he cares about are on the line. So maybe no part of this insane situation makes any kind of sense. Things could be worse... right?
Categories: Alternate Universe Characters:
June 08, 2016 Updated:
November 04, 2020
1. Chapter 1 by EvenAtMyDarkest
2. Chapter 2 by EvenAtMyDarkest
3. Chapter 3 by EvenAtMyDarkest
4. Chapter 4 by EvenAtMyDarkest
5. Chapter 5 by EvenAtMyDarkest
6. Chapter 6 by EvenAtMyDarkest
7. Chapter 7 by EvenAtMyDarkest
8. Chapter 8 by EvenAtMyDarkest
9. Chapter 9 by EvenAtMyDarkest
10. Chapter 10 by EvenAtMyDarkest
11. Chapter 11 by EvenAtMyDarkest
12. Chapter 12 by EvenAtMyDarkest
13. Chapter 13 by EvenAtMyDarkest
14. Chapter 14 by EvenAtMyDarkest
15. Chapter 15 by EvenAtMyDarkest
16. Chapter 16 by EvenAtMyDarkest
17. Chapter 17 by EvenAtMyDarkest
18. Chapter 18 by EvenAtMyDarkest
19. Chapter 19 by EvenAtMyDarkest
20. Chapter 20 by EvenAtMyDarkest
21. Chapter 21 by EvenAtMyDarkest
22. Chapter 22 by EvenAtMyDarkest
23. Chapter 23 by EvenAtMyDarkest
Chapter 1 by EvenAtMyDarkest
Hey all! I am very excited to debut my first multichapter Psych fic. I don't really know where this idea came from, I just know I'm quite proud of it. I know it's weird, but hey, we all watch Psych; we can take weird.
This is set between "Nip and Suck It!" and "No Trout About It," the latter of which is the season 7 finale. You'll not come across anything more questionable than what's in the show normally—or at least until later chapters, which might get slightly disturbing, but if you watch Psych (which, seeing as you're here, I'm guessing you do), you should be able to handle it.
By the way, I don't own Psych and this fic is earning me no money. All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended. You probably skimmed that or skipped it entirely. I understand.
When Shawn doesn't show up for breakfast, Gus doesn't even think past being irritated. He calls Shawn's phone twenty minutes after the time they were supposed to meet, and leaves an annoyed message. And another half hour later, he leaves a second message, doubly annoyed, and leaves. He thinks, He probably stayed up too late playing video games and is now sleeping in, and that's that. He goes back home for a bit, and then to his real job.
He arrives later at his apartment expecting to be greeted by a new message on his landline from Shawn, giving some elaborate explanation of questionable plausibility as to why he didn't make it to breakfast. But there is no such message (well, not one from that day, anyway).
Gus finds this a bit peculiar. So he tries Shawn's cell phone again. It goes straight to voicemail just like before.
Slightly worried, Gus hops into his beloved Echo and heads for the Psych office, which is notably empty of Shawn. They don't currently have a case, so Gus can't think where Shawn might have disappeared to.
Finding nothing out of the ordinary at the Psych office, Gus elects to just go home and have a nap. He's tired anyway, and Shawn isn't worth losing sleep over.
Of course, when he wakes up later and finds that Shawn still has not called him back, he decides to phone Henry, because he is starting to get a little anxious. Mr. Spencer says no, he hasn't seen Shawn today, thank God, and Gus by now you should really not be surprised when he flakes out on you for a breakfast date. Gus hangs up disappointed and decides that he'll try again in the morning, and if Shawn still cannot be reached, he'll go to Chief Vick about it.
Needless to say, that's exactly what happens.
Seeing as his Norton is still parked in its usual place, and the keys are hanging in theirs, and nobody can get a hold of Shawn, the Chief agrees to open a missing persons case immediately.
Twelve hours pass, and the forty-eight hour mark is upon them. Gus knows—but only in the back of his mind—that their chances of finding Shawn have just dropped dramatically.
Another day passes. Nothing at all. No ransom call, no notes, no evidence to speak of.
The thing about kidnapping is, in the vast majority of cases the perpetrator is a family member and the victim is a child. Gus knows that kidnapping victims of Shawn's profile are quite uncommon. But this is Shawn, and naturally his wouldn't fall under a common case.
There is no evidence that would suggest he was in danger. Gus was convinced for a while that his friend must have been working on a case that he simply hadn't told him about, but that makes no sense. Gus is always the first to be dragged into Shawn's investigations, and Shawn had ample opportunity to bring something like that up in the days leading up to his disappearance. As the days drag on and no evidence is found indicating he was working on something that would piss off someone dangerous, Gus has no choice but to accept that the perpetrator is likely a complete stranger about whom they know nothing. For about two seconds he entertained the possibility that Shawn just ran off, but of course that fantasy ended when he remembered that Shawn's motorcycle was left behind.
Five more days. Practically the entire SBPD has pitched in on the search somehow. Still nothing.
It's been some weeks before it even occurs to Gus that he might never see Shawn again.
Shawn wakes up with a horrible headache inside something that's moving. It's obviously on wheels, traveling over uneven ground. He blinks his eyes open, which, thankfully, does nothing to worsen his headache, since wherever he is, it is very dark. He is lying on an itchy blanket inside some kind of windowless room made from wood. He's been around the block a few times, but this is a first.
"Hey," he tries to say, but his voice comes out very raspy and weak. One hand on his head, he sits up, unsteady but not too slow. "Hey," he tries again, much stronger this time. And then, just short of shouting, he is able to call, "Hey, where am I? Let me out of here!"
There is no response. He decides it must be night, because it is really dark. Either that or this box in which he has found himself is just so exceptionally well made that no light at all is able to seep through the cracks. He blinks several times, but it doesn't help. He can't see a thing. "Is anyone else in here?" he asks, a bit nervous. Silence answers him.
After ascertaining that he is alone in wherever he is, Shawn's next step is to go for his phone. But it is not in its usual pocket. He pats himself down, and finds nothing. He has nothing but the clothes on his back. And even his outfit is incomplete; his Nikes are missing.
Starting to worry, he casts his mind back, trying to remember how he got here. The last thing he remembers, which takes a full minute to come up with, is riding his Norton along the highway, on the way back to his apartment from bowling with the SBPD team… and then nothing. Did he make it home? He thinks so, but he isn't sure…
It's quite clear to him that this is abduction. He must have been whacked over the head… It hasn't even occurred to him until now to do a physical inventory of any injuries, and that worries him. But he finds nothing. He even double checks his head for any bumps at all, and there is not a blemish to be had.
That leaves only one possibility, assuming he didn't faint from shock (no, that's something Gus would do)—he was drugged.
He hopes they were gentle.
He doesn't know where to go from here, and he's so tired. The only thing he can do, it seems, is go back to sleep. He knows that it might benefit him to stay awake and listen for any sign of where he's being held or who's doing the holding or why, but it might benefit him even more to get some quality rest to do all that later.
He knows it would be impossible to resist the urge for very long anyway, so he just gropes around for the itchy blanket again, and falls asleep before he's even dragged himself all the way on top of it.
Chapter 2 by EvenAtMyDarkest
The next time he wakes up, his eyes are immediately assaulted by the sunlight pouring into his humble little wood-room. His forearm goes up on its own to shield his eyes. Thankfully, his headache seems to have gone down—but not enough. The light is painful.
Finally he manages to open his eyes enough to actually see what's in front of him, and it takes him a while to process it when he does. An entire wall has been removed from the cart or whatever it is that he's in, and outside, he can see a wide stretch of… not much. The landscape is not terribly exciting; not flat but not all that hilly either. Grass spots the ground, but there's a lot of brown and red. He sees no sign of civilization.
Directly in front of the opening, in a cheap-looking blue and white lawn chair, sits a man. If Shawn had to guess he'd say he were in his mid-thirties, though he could easily be twenty-five or forty based on what Shawn can see. His skin is very dark, but Shawn thinks that it may be due to very long hours in the sun. He can't be sure, though. His hair is about as black as hair gets, and thick, but meticulously gelled so there is not a flyaway to be had. He wears dark, simple sunglasses, so Shawn can't see his eyes, which doesn't help with gauging his age. His outfit is simple—a white T-shirt, cargo shorts, and flip flops. When he smiles, his teeth are startlingly white, especially against his dark skin.
"Good morning, Mr. Ronaldo," he says, and his accent is evident straightaway. Shawn isn't quite sure of its origin. Indian? Russian? Neither sounds quite right. He quickly reminds himself that he's heard only four words so far, and moves on to the next thing—confusion. He turns to check behind him, looking for the Mr. Ronaldo whom this man has just addressed. But there is no one.
He points to himself, silently asking, Me? The man only smiles again and continues, "It is good to see that you are all right."
Shawn nods slowly, not sure what else to do. "Thanks."
"I would like to personally welcome you to The wreestelowitgabahiku Freak Show."
What? Shawn didn't quite catch that. But he immediately dismisses it, and zeroes in on the last part.
"Freak Show? As in, putting people with deformities on display? Those are still around?"
"Well, yes, they are actually." His voice has a maintained and apparently very natural quality of sereneness that unnerves Shawn a little bit—not that he'd ever let on.
"That's sick, man."
"Irrelevant is what it is. We don't do anything like that here."
"That's great, I'm real happy for you. What I'd like to know is why I woke up inside a…" He trails off, and suddenly leans forward and glances back and forth to each side. He's in the back of a truck. They're by an open road. There is nothing for miles. "Wow."
"Incredible, isn't it?" the man asks, also surveying the asphalt stretching to either horizon. "I just love the feeling of the open road. I was born to travel. I hear you've done quite a bit of that."
Shawn is starting to get very nervous. He's in the middle of nowhere, so taking off at this second would do no good. He doesn't have his phone or even his shoes. Damn smart kidnappers. And apparently this strange man knows something about his past. "Who are you? What do you want with me?"
He's itching to crack some eighties reference or tangential comment—he's already let about three opportunities slip by—but he knows that's not going to help him get information. At least the last time he was held against his will for this long, he knew why.
"I merely want your services, Mr. Ronaldo. I have done a bit of reading on your accomplishments. Quite impressive, really. I want you to do readings during our carnivals."
Wait, what? Carnivals? Readings? …Mr. Ronaldo? "If you've read up on me so much, you should know my name."
"Certainly. Arashk Ronaldo."
Shawn furrows his brow, more confused than ever, but he files the name away, thinking it might be important later. "Try Shawn Spencer."
The man only gives a calm and patient smile. "I am very much looking forward to having you on our team, Mr. Ronaldo. I think our guests will very much enjoy your readings."
"Hold up, now. Let me get this straight. You kidnapped me so I could do psychic readings? For the benefit of your show, or carnival or whatever?"
"Your services will be well loved by all, I am sure of it."
"It was not a request, Mr. Ronaldo," the man says, and he's still smiling, which is starting to creep Shawn out severely.
"Look, dude, I'm flattered, really. From the heart. And let me return with a compliment of my own: you have the weirdest motive I've ever come across."
The man cocks his head, waiting for Shawn to go on.
"But I have a life I'd like to get back to, so if you don't mind pointing me to Santa Barbara, I'll be on my way." He pauses, and, deciding that asking can't hurt, says, "Where are we, anyway?"
"We passed through the city of St. George in Utah this morning," the man says, surprisingly forthcoming. "Our first stop is about 70 miles from here, tomorrow afternoon. You will not be giving readings then; you will be among the crowd, getting the feel of how we run ourselves. After that, you will start earning your keep."
"I don't need to earn my keep!" Shawn blurts, just this side of angry. "I need you to start making sense." He can't get anything out of this guy. And he's straining to try to figure out anything, anything at all from his appearance, but nothing sticks out except that dental care is really important to him.
"Okay. That I can do." The man seems to take a moment to think. When he speaks, his easygoing smile has melted away completely, but his voice and expression remain perfectly calm. "Maybe you can understand this. You will cooperate. You will be obedient and quiet and you will do as you are told. You will not try to run. You will not do anything at all that you think I wouldn't like. Because I have connections, and I do not think you would want anything to happen to, say, your partner, or your pretty little detective girlfriend."
Shawn is suddenly sick to his stomach. The man's entire demeanor has changed. He is clearly dead serious. But then he smiles again, serene and unruffled, and holds up a few photographs that Shawn didn't notice him having before. Shawn glimpses one, and snatches them out of the man's hand.
The photos are of decent quality, probably taken with a smart phone, and clearly without the subjects' knowledge. One is of Shawn and Gus leaving the Psych office. Another is of Shawn, Gus, and Jules talking outside the station. Another was taken through a window, and shows Lassie and Jules inside the precinct. The final photo is of his dad as he locks his front door, fishing rod in his hand and tackle box at his feet.
Shawn looks back up at the man, suddenly feeling nauseous. The man's face is still calm as ever, not a twitch or a blemish to be had. "Act as my loyal psychic," the man says, "and your friends will be left alone. It's as simple as that."
Shawn tries to speak, but he finds that he can't. He wets his lips. He clears his throat. Finally, "What do you want with me?"
The man raises one eyebrow. "I want only your cooperation as a psychic. Entertain people. Give them a good time, and tell them their futures. And in return, the people you love will be left to live in peace. Does that sound fair?"
The man is tucking the photos neatly back into his pocket. Shawn doesn't even recall giving them back.
He doesn't answer. He just asks, "Who are you?"
The man offers nothing but another peaceful smile, and very suddenly, Shawn is left in the dark. He stumbles back, eyes wide, wondering when the opening was sealed off and how he missed it. Just as he reestablishes balance, the purr of an engine reaches him, and the truck starts moving again.
He vomits the meager contents of his stomach onto the wood floor. Trembling, he wipes his mouth with his hand, and goes to find that awful blanket again. He's exhausted, but when he curls into a ball on the floor, sleep does not come.
Chapter 3 by EvenAtMyDarkest
The worst part of this whole thing is how well he's treated the following day.
He feels like he hasn't eaten in forever. It's probably been about two days, maybe even three. At least last night they gave him a few bottles of water, though it kinda tastes like crap.
But in the morning, he's let out of the truck. They give him a full breakfast—a few pancakes and sausage links, which he gobbles up despite himself. They let him have a shower inside a surprisingly nice apartment room in a train car. And then they give him a change of clothes.
He's coasting, at this point. He's not doing much himself; things are being done to and for him. And he's thankful for this. He has some serious crap he needs to sort out in his head.
The whole thing is ridiculous. He meets the rest of the freaks, and the non-freak employees, and they act like he's always been there. They're not exactly friendly or welcoming, but they give him what he needs and don't give him trouble.
It doesn't stop him from feeling like he's being held against his will, because he is. But it makes him feel—even though he knows he has no reason to—like his misgivings are unjustified and he should quit whining.
He hates that.
He's allowed to wander around the site—near a town, but by a forest—while they set everything up, which he also hates. There's no supervision (although he has no doubt that if he were to try running, somebody would give chase), and it's like that man is already confident that Shawn is here to stay.
He hates that too. Because so far it's looking like he's right.
There are, according to the handful of people he's asked, ninety-two people traveling in this show. He's had at least a brief conversation with almost a third of them so far, and he's asked almost every single one he's talked to what the man's name is.
What's really freaking him out is that he can never remember their answers.
The show begins at noon and is set to continue until after dark. Shawn isn't sure that his attention span will last that long, but he tells himself that he's just going to dedicate the entire time to learning all he can about the show and all its members.
Really, it's more like a carnival setup. There are various tents and stages set up, and one tightrope stretched between two platforms, complete with trapezes. There are all kinds of acts going on. Food is being sold—cotton candy, pizza, funnel cakes, pretzels, popcorn, all the classic carnival food. Shawn wonders if he could get some.
He doesn't try, though. He just melts into the crowd and begins the process of watching every act, one by one.
There aren't just people here; they've got animals, too. The first act he sees is a lion tamer; nothing he's not seen before at the circus. He notices that the man's hands are shaking, but aside from that he doesn't seem nervous at all. Shawn wonders if it's a symptom of some kind of disorder.
Next is a sword swallower, which he watches in fascination, as he's never seen such an act before. Nothing remarkable stands out to him about this man (except for the fact that he's got a freaking hilt sticking out of his mouth).
By the end of the second hour he's seen all the acts, and he finally wanders over to the funnel cake stand to see if he can get one. When he leans in to the portly woman behind the counter and starts to say, "Am I allowed to…?" she interrupts—not unkindly—by saying, "Of course, Arashk. Just one moment."
He's startled. "What did you just call me?"
She looks up. "Arashk."
"Right." He pauses, and adds, "That's not my name."
Even as he speaks, her head swivels around as a sudden explosion of applause breaks out from the audience surrounding the stage nearest them. It's pretty obvious she didn't hear what he said as she smiles and holds out a plate to him. "Enjoy," she says—he can't hear it over the clapping and shouting, but he can read lips adequately.
He finds a bench and sits down to eat in total silence and solitude. That's what he needs right now, but unfortunately the rest of the world doesn't seem to agree with him.
A young blonde woman sits on the other end of the bench when he's been sitting there for half an hour and the paper plate next to him is threatening to blow away in the wind. He glances up, and on seeing that she's just a carnival-goer, looks back down at his lap—at the pants he's wearing that aren't his. They're khakis, pretty plain. His shirt is a crisp white button-down—or at least it was, it's already got dust all over it. He hasn't seen his Nikes since he's been here. They gave him new shoes—he can't even really identify them, they're just weird. They sort of remind him of slippers, they're just a bit sturdier.
"Hi," a voice says, and he looks over at the woman across the bench from him, having forgotten about her. She offers a friendly smile and then looks down at her phone.
His eyes lock in on the phone.
He could ask to borrow it. He could look up the SBPD's number—because God knows he doesn't have it memorized— and call them right now. Nobody is looking. He could call, tell them it's a delicate situation, they could track the phone and that odd man would be none the wiser.
It's a theory, anyway. A series of images flash across his mind, of some goon catching a glimpse of him on a phone, of that man hearing about it, of Gus prone on his living room floor and Juliet's beautiful eyes shut forever...
"Hey," he says softly, giving one nod.
She doesn't notice his hesitation; she's too immersed in the text she is currently typing. She's rather petite, and when her head is bowed forward and a veil of hair falls between Shawn and her face, he is seized by a sudden longing to hold Jules in his arms. She must be missing him. She must be worried sick.
His feelings towards the strange and thus far nameless man, which were previously a resentment in the back of his mind, suddenly intensify into a deep and burning hatred. He's taken him away from his friends. Jules will be worried to the point of distraction. Gus will have nothing but pharmaceuticals (he will be especially miserable). Lassiter won't let it show, but he'll be concerned too… And Dad…
The woman looks back up at him, and the illusion is broken. Her face doesn't resemble Juliet's at all. (She's not bad-looking, but Shawn finds himself aching to see Jules' beautiful smile.)
"You here with someone?" she asks conversationally.
"Nah," he says, lacking the energy to elaborate at all with some ridiculous cover story.
"That's right," he says, and if it weren't so loud he's sure she would have heard the tiredness in his voice.
"I'm not either actually. I live nearby and I was bored. Wasn't expecting to not be the only one though."
He nods. "Yeah, pretty much the same situation with me."
"I thought that must be it."
She falls silent, and Shawn is thankful for that, but she doesn't leave. He wishes she would. He just wants to be alone.
A few minutes pass, and the woman stands back up. She just offers a little smile as a goodbye and then wanders off to watch a contortionist's act.
He goes to glance at his watch, but he doesn't even have that anymore. He leans his head back, silently wishing he had asked the woman for the time when he had the chance.
He looks around, going through his mental inventory of all the members of the show. He's been able to assign simple descriptions to most of them—neat freak, wallflower, confident, in love with his job. There's a lot of overlap, of course, but he's seen something unique, even something small, in nearly all of them.
He decides to get up and try to conclude something about the ones who are still just faces in the crowd to him. He may be tired, and quite frankly miserable, but he's far from giving up. Knowledge is the first step to victory.
Besides, it's ages since he's been to a carnival.
Chapter 4 by EvenAtMyDarkest
Things really start getting interesting when dusk is about to fall.
They're pretty much out of daylight, and Shawn is observing a man who is charming an entire nest of snakes. He doesn't really understand how this sort of thing is possible—especially to the degree he's seeing right now. He swears he heard that dude speaking Parseltongue earlier. The snakes just do what he wants. It's ridiculous. Shawn's not sure if snakes are trainable, but even if they are…
It's not the first unexplainable or near unexplainable act he's seen. Most of them he can watch for a minute or two and pick out the ultrasonic beeper in this lady's pocket or the button that that dude keeps pressing with his foot. Then there are the genuine acts that, while strange, he knows are possible when you have the right medical phenomenon or you're made of Jell-O.
And then there are the ones that just aren't possible.
There's this snake guy, he's not sure about that one. It's conceivable, he supposes, but highly unlikely. And the other one is the sword swallower. When he first saw the guy, Shawn noticed a bruise just above his eyebrow. (He doesn't know how he got it, but he keeps imagining a guy going to swallow a sword and accidentally clocking himself with the hilt, and it's enough to make him almost laugh.) He watched the guy's act multiple times (he can't help it, there's just something inexplicably fascinating about watching a guy almost make himself a human shish kebab), and the third time, when he drew the sword out, Shawn saw blood on it. The man clearly has quick hands, because within seconds he had wiped the blade on his baggy red trousers and put on a smile, and that was that.
Shawn knows any internal bleeding's gotta be very serious. But the dude is fine. It's not possible. Shawn is sure of what he saw.
And even if he weren't, later he noticed that the man's bruise—which, again, he is certain was there—was completely gone.
The snake charmer concludes his act, and a few seconds later Shawn realizes that he's not the only one. All other acts are wrapping up as well, within two minutes of each other, like a well-oiled machine.
Seeing something out of the corner of his eye, Shawn looks up, and is surprised to see that there is activity going on on the platforms between which the tightrope is extended. Three people now stand on them—two men, one on each side, and one woman. The woman is wearing a pale blue leotard and seems to be the one who is to start the act, seeing as she is raising her arms, waiting for the crowd to quiet a bit.
Shawn watches silently. Clearly this act is an important one, for it to have its very own time slot.
After the hustle and bustle of the crowd has died down enough for her to know people are paying attention, the woman takes her first careful step onto the tightrope.
Shawn frowns thoughtfully. It didn't occur to him before, but… is this a trapeze act or a tightrope act? Both are set up. Perhaps there will be a trapeze act later.
Dramatic music begins to play from the various speakers around the carnival. When the woman is about a quarter of the way across, the man opposite her begins to walk as well. The man who was on her side follows not long after. When she reaches the center, she stops, and the men come to a halt almost right next to her. The music is building up.
The men crouch down, the woman turns—and jumps over one of them. The crowd gasps, and applauds. Shawn raises his eyebrows, trying to remember the last time he went to a circus and if he saw that trick there.
Then the woman turns back, and cartwheels over to her original position.
Shawn actually lets out a small gasp at that one.
The men just sit there, chilling on the tightrope, while the woman jumps over them like they're hurdles. Shawn almost feels obligated to clap.
Her foot slips. She nearly rights herself. Shawn sees it a split second before she desperately lurches to the side, overshoots just a tiny bit, and succumbs to gravity.
The crowd gasps in horror. There is no net. For a moment Shawn is sure she's going to die.
Then she grabs hold of a trapeze, flips herself over to land gracefully in a sitting position on it, and raises her arms in victory.
The crowd bursts into wild applause.
Shawn, for his part, stands still, unable to believe what he's just seen. The way her body jerked when she stopped her fall… seemed… unnatural. He's suddenly sure that there must be hidden cables somewhere. It is getting dark, after all.
The men return to their original places fairly quickly, get down onto their own trapezes, and start flipping the woman around with moves that all trapeze acts include. Shawn doesn't take his eyes off the woman, who is by now obviously the star of this act. He's waiting for the impossible to happen again.
The moment comes when one of the men throws her particularly high, and she does a few midair somersaults while she's up there. Shawn sees that the other man is not in a position to catch her, and he watches, riveted, as she reaches the peak of her flight, starts to come down—
and lands on the tightrope.
The clapping is explosive. Shawn reaches up to test his ear for blood.
That's not even the end of it. She's back on the trapeze within a few seconds, and the jump that brings her there is outrageous. Then when one of the men throws her again a short while later… Shawn isn't even sure what happens. She's headed for the rope, she clearly has enough momentum to continue upwards quite a ways, but she doesn't. She twirls around the tightrope, and then grabs onto it with one hand, does a quick little move not unlike breakdancing, and lets herself fall again.
That, Shawn is sure, is not physically possible.
The act ends and so does the applause, several minutes later. Shawn hasn't put his hands together since that first cartwheel. All his attention has been focused on that woman.
It's already fairly dark. The song that's been playing throughout the act ends, and another, almost as dramatic, begins.
And suddenly there is fire everywhere.
Shawn spins around about eight times, taking it all in. All the stages are suddenly occupied, and spurts of flame are abundant. He sees a fire-eater, a few men juggling torches… Some he saw doing other acts during the day, others are new.
He's a bit stunned—by the act he's just seen, by the fact that he's so stunned by the act he's just seen, and by the sudden explosion of flame that escaped his notice until it wasn't supposed to anymore.
Deciding he needs to sit down with something greasy and clear his head, he acquires a hot dog and a beautiful pile of nachos, and heads over to the same bench as before to sit.
The defiance of physics is bugging him, but he tries to remind himself what he really needs to be thinking about—finding a way out of this. This, however, is going to be difficult, considering he's surrounded by fire and has ADD.
Chapter 5 by EvenAtMyDarkest
It's late, and he's tired, but he sees the physics-defying woman enter one of the train cars and can't help himself. He approaches the door and knocks.
She opens it seconds later, still wearing her blue leotard. Her face is fairly young—in her early thirties, Shawn would guess. Maybe even late twenties. She blinks her blue-grey eyes in mild surprise and something that looks like relief or happiness—he can't be sure, and he certainly can't figure out why. "Mr. Ronaldo," she says in a vaguely northern accent. "Hello."
He blinks, not sure what to make of this name business. "I dig that I already have a nickname, but usually there is some kind of basis for that type of thing."
She cocks her head a bit, leaning against the doorjamb, and he drops all forms of insincerity and glibness. "Please just call me Shawn."
"The Master said your name is Arashk Ronaldo."
He furrows his brow. "The Master?"
"Yes, our leader and director. The man who owns this carnival. You've met him, yes?"
"I… I think so." He's a bit disturbed by this revelation. "You call him the Master?"
"Doesn't he have a name?"
"Of course, but we don't use it." She pauses while he tries to think of something to say to that. Then, "Would you like to come in?"
He steps in readily, saying, "Thank you." The interior of the train car—or her section of it anyway—is rather nice but not very large. Still, it seems that she has everything she needs: a bed, a tiny bathroom, a shelf, a vanity, a small kitchen area with a microwave and stove. The walls are the same pale blue as her leotard, and by this point he has a reasonable guess as to her favorite color. She has a couple small posters and photos decorating her wall, shelf, and vanity, but he notes that all photos seem to be within the context of the carnival. He wonders how long she's been working here.
He stands there as she sits at her vanity and appears to resume the process of makeup removal. After a few seconds, not sure what else to do, he says, "So this is what it's like, huh?"
"It's a sneak peek. You will probably get a room of your own, similar to this one. Welcome to the show, by the way." She smiles, and it seems genuine, but there's something else there he can't quite put his finger on.
"Thanks," he says. "The show" is the last thing on Earth I want to be a part of.
"Oh, how rude of me! My name is Livia, Istok." She wipes her hand on a paper towel and sticks it out, and after a beat, he steps forward to shake it.
"Shawn Spencer," he says, suddenly desperately wanting her—anyone, really—to say it out loud. Say my name. Please say my name.
She doesn't. She just drops his hand and says, "I hope you enjoyed your first day."
He withholds any comments on the specifics of what she just asked, and instead says, "Girl, what you did was freaking insane. It was like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon levels of unreal."
Livia laughs lightly, beginning to undo her dark blonde bun. "I am glad you liked it."
"Seriously though, I think physics would denote that what you did wasn't possible."
A small chuckle. She turns towards the mirror, pulling her hair tie out. "The impossible happens all the time here."
"I don't think you're getting me. It wasn't possible."
She goes still, and turns back to him. Her face is blank. She looks… caught. He's dead serious for a second, and he knows she can see that.
Then he smiles.
"Great show," he says, and goes to leave.
He's all geared up for a sort of quietly dramatic exit, leaving her with an incomplete thought that she can mull over, but she suddenly springs up and intercepts him. "Wait!" she says, all traces of a smile gone from her face. She looks worried. She looks… sad.
"What?" Shawn asks—in a hushed tone, because the door is still open and he's immediately on high alert, hoping that she's about to give him some helpful information.
She pulls the door shut, and then stands there for a moment, seeming unsure of what to say. But after a short pause, she blurts, "Are you like me?"
Like you? This question of hers, uttered with such urgency, only serves to plant a million more inside his own head. What could she possibly mean by that?
After a few seconds of staring at her with his brows drawn together, he opens his mouth to reply, but that is the moment her door swings open and there stands the man she calls Master.
He is wearing black trousers, a white T-shirt, and a dark grey suit jacket. His sunglasses sit atop his disgustingly neat hair. Shawn has not seen him all day. He wonders where he's been hanging out.
Smiling calmly, the man says, "I see you two have met."
Shawn glances at Livia. Her eyes are wide as she looks back and forth between them.
Shawn doesn't know what she meant by her question, but it's clear it's very important to her. "Hey man, good to see you, but we were in the middle of a conversation, so…"
"It can wait," the man says scathingly, meeting Shawn's eyes with deliberation, his own saying Don't test me. "Do be decent and give Livia a bit of privacy."
Shawn doesn't break eye contact. The man's eyes are like two burning coals in his face. Shawn half-expects to see smoke eking out.
"What is your name?" he asks in a voice that forbids anything but a direct and truthful answer.
He was half-planning on following up with an equally serious "What is your quest?" but the man's so-called answer is a hand clapped onto his shoulder and the words "I trust you enjoyed your first day?"
"The food was great, and the fire-breathers would make a dragon envious; there's just one aspect I'm not so much sold on," Shawn evenly replies after a moment. He blinks. What just happened? Wasn't there something important he wanted to know?
"You will get used to life with us," the man says certainly, as if this conversation is perfectly normal. "If you will come this way, we will show you where you will be staying during the nights."
Shawn glances at the acrobat, who seems to have developed a deep fascination with the wall next to her. She looks up when he speaks, though. "Nice meeting you, Livia," he says, offering a crooked smile.
She returns the gesture, and replies, "And you, Arashk."
Again, he frowns, but elects not to say anything this time. He just turns and steps outside.
The man standing in front of him looks nothing like the one who has orchestrated all this; he is tall, and pale, and his muscular arms are covered with tattoos. Shawn recognizes him from earlier; he was lifting some ridiculous weights, and members of the audience.
Shawn stops short, looks left and right, but does not see the man he's looking for. He glances at the closed door behind him. Did he stay inside? "Where'd…" He pauses, not sure what name to use. "…he go?"
The tall man shrugs, and says, "He asked me to show you to your room. This way." He turns and starts walking.
Shawn has to hurry to catch up. "So," he says conversationally after a few seconds, "what's your name? I saw you performing earlier; great stuff."
"Terrence," the man answers shortly.
"Ah," Shawn says, unsure of how to continue the conversation (if it could be called that at such an early stage). But awkward silence is not the Shawn Spencer way. "I saw a strong man on TV once," he continues. "He pulled a giant semi like thirty feet or something crazy like that using nothing but chalk on his bare hands. It was nerve-wracking. Beautiful piece of cinema. He wasn't wearing a shirt. Do you like activate your muscle powers when you take your shirt off or are you just taking advantage of any well-deserved opportunity to show off your guns? Speaking of guns, is there anybody around here who shoots himself—or herself—out of a cannon? Because I haven't seen any of that and if you don't have that act I'd like to put in a request. I think I could make lots of good requests."
"You certainly like to talk," Terrence mutters as he comes to a stop next to a train car with a plain-looking white exterior. He gestures towards it, saying, "Here it is," and tossing Shawn a key, and walks off immediately after his job is done.
Shawn blinks in mild surprise at his abruptness, but refocuses his attention on his apparent new living quarters. He opens the door and slips the key in his pocket.
The interior is completely plain. A tiny bed is situated against the white wall across from the door, and next to it is a protrusion in the wall with one door on one side of it and another door on the other. At the far end, across from the second door, is an oven with a few cabinets above it and a small counter next to it. By the counter is a dresser, on top of which sits a microwave. Shawn walks over to the further door and opens it. A puny bathroom.
The other door is more interesting.
It's a closet, and it's already filled. There are several plain, practical outfits, similar to the one he's wearing now. A few pairs of jeans, khaki pants and shorts, plain T-shirts and collared shirts and polos. That's where the mundane and everyday stops.
The remainder of the closet space is filled up with robes, vests, and baggy pants. Robes of deep, rich colors and patterns of varying intricacy. The vests are just as interesting to examine, and most have a matching shirt to wear underneath—all of which are boring against the vests. The pants are rather plain in comparison as well, although a few have very impressive belts hanging with them. They all look expensive and exotic. Many pieces of clothing are trimmed with gold, and they are all soft to the touch.
Shawn looks through them in wonder, and pulls one robe out at random. It's a deep brown with gold trimming. A cloak of a similar color scheme hangs with it.
Shawn wishes for a mirror—at first just to hold it up against him and see how it looks, but then he realizes that he needs to see something familiar, even if it's just his own face. Because he actually opens his mouth to make a reference to Gus, but snaps it shut on remembering.
He tosses the robe in a heap on the closet floor, not caring how expensive it is—actually, strike that; he hopes it's a priceless antique.
He flips the light off, kicks off his strange shoes, and drops himself into the bed.
Chapter 6 by EvenAtMyDarkest
Shawn doesn't know what time it is when he's rudely awakened, but his internal alarm clock definitely would have remained silent for several more hours. He glances through the tiny window on the opposite wall, sees sunlight bleeding through the trees, and surmises that he's literally being roused at the crack of dawn. He dearly hopes that this isn't typical in traveling freak show life.
He rolls over and peers at whomever was just shouting at him—some guy he thinks he saw a few times the day before. "We are about to leave," the guy says, "and he wants you to ride with him for today's journey."
Shawn has no desire to ride with him, especially not all day. "Rain check," he mutters, rolling back over and putting his pillow over his head.
"He insists," the young man replies readily, and Shawn sighs, but it's muffled by the pillow. He doesn't know how much patience this strange man (he resolutely refuses to call him Master, even in his head) has, and he's not about to test it. Not yet.
He steps into his slipper-shoes and steps outside. It's evident that everybody is ready to go; conversation is audible through the walls of the train cars, and a couple of people are standing right outside their doors, obviously wondering what the holdup is. Shawn wonders, in horror, if rising when the sun does is considered "sleeping in" here.
He's led to a train car, which he steps inside after a moment of brief hesitation. Inside there is a desk and a couple of chairs, and behind the desk sits the orchestrator of all this.
"Mr. Ronaldo," the man says, smiling, and gesturing for Shawn to sit.
Shawn does, contemplating what to say all the while. Once he's seated, he settles on, "Is there any food around here?"
"You will have a mini fridge in your room soon," the man says.
Shawn blinks. "What, really?"
"That's pretty awesome," Shawn has to admit.
"I am glad you think so. I am also very glad to see that you are settling in."
"Yeah," Shawn says dryly. "You could call it that."
It is at this moment that the room around them gives a slight rumble, and Shawn instinctively grasps at the chair he's sitting on. After a few seconds, the floor starts pulling away from him, and the train begins to move. Something inside Shawn says he ought to be excited at the prospect of riding in a train, and it's pretty unfortunate that he has to be preoccupied like this.
"And we're off," the man says.
Shawn does not respond. He has nothing to say. Really, he just wants to leave. But to do that in the most permanent way possible, he has to stay, gather information. So he waits for the man to start giving it out.
"Today I am going to make it clear what is expected of you," the man says.
Shawn raises his eyebrows. "Good luck, buddy. The people I know are very good at that and it doesn't actually make a difference in my behavior."
"Oh, don't worry, we'll fix that," the man says, quite happily. "Now, to begin with the basics: your wardrobe. Have you looked inside your closet?"
"Tacky," Shawn says by way of answer.
The man's smile dims a notch. Shawn congratulates himself. "You will be permitted to choose your own outfits, but they must come from that closet. You may have noticed that your bed doubles as a storage area; there are some items for you to wear underneath there as well. I shall give you some pointers before your first day."
"Yippee," Shawn mutters.
"Do not be that way, Mr. Ronaldo," the man chides. "You shall have fun with this, I am sure. Now, the second note—oh, I have not yet told you what your 'act' is to be called, have I?" The man grins, and leans forward, obviously quite enthused to be informing Shawn of this. "It shall be 'Arashk Ronaldo's Tent of Days.'"
That stupid-ass name again. "Days?"
He nods. "Days past, days forgotten, days yet to come."
Shawn hates to admit it, but that does have a nice ring to it. Of course, nothing will ever beat "Shawn Spencer, Head Psychic of the SBPD."
He says nothing, and the man continues, "You will stay inside your tent during carnivals unless given direct permission to leave. You will be polite to all patrons. You will speak to them of nothing except their fortunes. You will not tell them anything I wouldn't like. Each reading will last a few minutes."
"Am I allowed to eat in the tent?" Shawn asks seriously.
The man blinks. "We'll see."
"That means no."
"It means 'we'll see.'"
Shawn, reminded way too much of his dad, almost grins despite himself.
"Will the tent be well lit?"
"Soundproof? Sometimes I sing to myself. I get really into it."
"Good; the world deserves to hear what I have to offer. Will there be a bouncer outside the tent?"
"I've never just sat at a table and told fortunes professionally before. What if I don't get any psychic vibes from a person?"
"Then Detective Juliet O'Hara will be the first to pay the price."
Shawn's smile freezes. He stares, suddenly feeling a little sick. The man smiles pleasantly and says, "Have you any more questions, or may I continue?"
It's the most unpleasant car trip of Shawn's entire life—including the one all the way to Denver that his father forced him on when he was nineteen, which is sure saying something.
It's amazing how much instruction the man has to give him. Well, honestly, most of it is just light chitchat; the man goes off on tangents easily. Shawn probably speaks more than his fair share as well. Of course he doesn't want to endanger any of his friends or family, but he just can't help himself. On a good day he's talking whenever he's thinking, which is all the time. When he's nervous he talks even more.
After a good long conversation, the man seems contented, and goes to get snacks for both of them. Uncharacteristically, Shawn isn't feeling hungry. He wishes to be left alone, but it doesn't happen for… far too long. There's no way for him to tell time. The man finally stands, and asks if Shawn ("Mr. Ronaldo") has any remaining questions.
"Yeah," Shawn says, in a voice that's quiet but very firm. "What's your name?"
Less than a minute later, he remembers his own anticipation as the man licked his lips to speak. He remembers readying his mental pen and clipboard. He even remembers the concentrated scribbling on that clipboard, the determination to not lose this very important note. But, less than a minute later, when he looks again at the clipboard, it is blank.
Chapter 7 by EvenAtMyDarkest
As he waits, Shawn scratches at his scalp and straightens the leftmost candle on his table, both for the umpteenth time. He's sitting in his dimly lit tent, waiting for his captor to come in and evaluate his work. An hour ago, right after the tent itself was set up, he was given two full chests and the task to decorate the interior of his workstation himself. Upon examination of the chests' contents, he found bags full of gold and silver glitter, a collection of ornate candleholders with simple white candles, a lighter, a couple of legit crystal balls, some antique bowls and other valuable-looking knickknacks, an impressive assortment of packs of cards, even small boxes of tea leaves and delicate animal bones. Anything and everything a fortuneteller might require. In addition to the chests, he was given any number of pieces of furniture: two ornate chairs with a matching table, a few other smaller tables, blankets, pillows, bean bag chairs.
Shawn enjoyed the task of decorating the tent, despite himself. He laid out all the blankets he could fit on the floor, but also set up the table and chairs in the middle. He used three candles on the table and left the rest in the chests. He promptly chucked the cards, leaves, and bones back into the chests from whence they came; he's not used to using props, and he doesn't know what his captor will do if he messes up.
He's also waiting to be critiqued on his clothing choice. He went as simple as he could; he'd known only that his captor wanted him to wear a headpiece. So he chose a matching green robe and turban. No jewelry, no face makeup—though that was an option.
The dark-skinned man finally walks in. Shawn stays seated in his chair, feeling ridiculous that he's actually a bit nervous about what his captor will think. But after walking around for a minute or two, the man puts on a big smile and says, "I love what you've done with the place, Mr. Ronaldo! Now, let me see your choice of attire…"
Clearly his captor has no conceptions on the idea of personal space. He gets as close as he likes, but Shawn doesn't move; just makes faces at the back of the man's head when he sees it.
When the man withdraws, he's already shaking his head. "I had wished you would be more daring, Mr. Ronaldo. Not even one ring?" He tuts. "That is all right for now, though. As long as you are comfortable." Another wide smile. "Your customers will begin coming in any minute now. I suggest you prepare yourself." And then he's gone.
Shawn lets out a breath he didn't realize he was holding. He knows he's being ridiculous, getting nervous… or maybe he isn't. Who's to say a poor choice of clothing wouldn't tick this lunatic off enough to hurt someone he cares about?
He sits down at the table and waits for several minutes. And then, in walks his first customer: a youngish, scrawny man who's already balding but has a baseball cap on to cover it up.
He wonders how he knew about the balding at all.
His first day is basically made entirely of stress. It's difficult trying to find information that would be included in a real psychic reading, but God knows he tries. Every time someone new walks in he immediately scans them head to toe, hoping that they don't notice. Hoping he can please his captor. Hoping no one gets hurt.
He does well enough, apparently, because at the end of the day the "Master" comes into the tent, claps him on the shoulder, and exclaims, "Your customers were impressed with your readings, Mr. Ronaldo!"
A wave of relief washes over Shawn. Then, "Based on their feedback on the atmosphere you presented, however, I have one stipulation to add, starting tomorrow: you will always speak with an accent."
Shawn stares in disbelief. A moment of silence passes between them. And he bursts out laughing.
For once, the man looks annoyed. "What is so funny? No one was ever impressed by an American fortuneteller."
"That's racist," Shawn manages to get out. After a few seconds more of laughter (which, if he's honest with himself, started out genuine but turned a little forced towards the end), he calms down, and wipes a stray tear from his eye.
The man still seems irritated. But, as if reminding himself of something, he smooths out his expression and smiles calmly. "See it done," he says, and somehow Shawn can read the threat in his eyes. He sobers immediately, and nods, silently hating the man in front of him.
But he knows there's nothing he can do about it.
The second day is one of travel, and Shawn spends it practicing his accent and getting a tattoo.
He's contemplated getting ink before, but never like this. The "Master" appears delighted and gives Shawn a sheet of strange symbols to choose from. He tells him, "You have complete creative freedom—well, within reason, of course. These symbols are from a variety of different cultures, and they all have something to do with destiny, or the future, or sight. Things like that. You can also choose where you want them." He smiles. "The only choice you do not have is whether or not you want one."
It's enough to make Shawn choose one without question. But he gets the smallest one he can, in the spot of least visibility that the Master will allow—his ankle. He figures it'll be covered with robes or freaky slippers at any given time.
He senses his captor's disappointment at his simple choice, and it frightens him. But the man doesn't utter any outright threat.
The third day is his second show, and he puts his new accent to use—so constantly that his mouth starts to feel weird. He's basically mimicking the one he hears from the Master and Livia, figuring it will please his captor. And it certainly seems to do so.
It's a bit easier to do readings this time around.
He's also answering much more readily to the name "Arashk."
The fourth day is another show in the same location, and many of the same people from the day before arrive with friends who are interested to visit a psychic.
Several customers in, one says while leaving, "Thank you, Mr. Ronaldo," and the fortuneteller feels strange for a long moment after that. Finally he figures out why: usually he'd be mentally correcting them right about now.
But with what?
It takes him about ten seconds of full concentration to come up with "Shawn Spencer." He's panting by the end of it. And he's utterly terrified.
As soon as he can get to a piece of paper, he scribbles down the words "Shawn Spencer," looks over it about eight times, and stashes it in a drawer in his trailer. He stands there staring into the polished wood of his dresser—the closest thing to a mirror he has access to—clutching its sides so hard his knuckles turn white. He's starting to get a little scruffier than he'd like, but he hasn't seen a razor since he woke up in that truck.
"C'mon, what's wrong with you?" he whispers to his dim, warped reflection after several seconds. "You can't let this guy get into your head. He's crazy. Well, you are too, but at least your craziness is contained and doesn't hurt anyone. He's freakin' nuts. He won't win and you can't let him. Your name is Shawn Spencer. Your name is Shawn Spencer. Your name is Shawn Spencer."
He feels a little bit better by the end of his intense staring contest with his own image in the wood, but—though he would never admit it to anyone—he's still trembling.
Chapter 8 by EvenAtMyDarkest
Shawn has to check that paper far more often than he would like in the following few days. It becomes his ritual to make it the first thing he sees in the morning and last thing he sees in the night. But it never seems to stick. It's like a Band-Aid you had on for weeks and then you go to slightly rip off a corner to readjust it and the whole darn thing comes peeling off and you'd never know it was ever effective as an adhesive at all. He just wasn't aware that that was also a property of names.
It's not that Arashk Ronaldo is becoming his natural default. No, it's more just that as Shawn Spencer fades from the position, slowly and inexplicably but surely, when he gropes around in search of something to call himself, the name that all evidence would point to—everyone around here calls him by it regularly, he sees it every day on the sign outside his tent—is the first one he arrives at, given the lack of anything instinctive, as names should be.
He's pretty sure it's been a week and a day since he woke up in that truck. A week and a day since he saw Santa Barbara, since he spoke to Gus or Jules or Dad. He pictures what they're doing right now. According to the cheap alarm clock next to his bed, it's just past 7am; Gus is probably on his way to work, listening to that lame station with only violin music that he invariably has on whenever he's upset about something. Jules is definitely already at the precinct, just finishing her morning coffee and going over the case file for his disappearance for the ninety-second time. He sees the bags under her eyes, the flyaway hairs that she keeps unconsciously brushing out of her face. Dad didn't sleep for more than two hours cumulatively last night. He's sitting on his living room couch, trying to hold back from going up to Shawn's old room again and just lying down where he used to sleep.
Shawn blinks, realizing he's been staring into his closet for a solid five minutes. He still doesn't move though—other than to glance over at the drawer that's currently making up for whatever is going on with his brain right now. He stares at it for about ten seconds, tells himself You don't need it, Shawn, and returns his gaze to the vests in front of him.
"I'm Shawn Spencer," he says, softly and very deliberately, "Head Psychic of the SBPD, and this is my partner, Ken D. Mann. His full first name is Kenneth, and he is not to be confused with the Candy Man; that's his Uncle Willy."
He almost feels a smile rising inside him, but it doesn't quite make it past the cognitive stage.
He exits the train car clutching his stomach in hunger, reminded yet again why he always sleeps through breakfast if he can. It's a short walk to the food area, and when he emerges, bearing one last sausage link, it's an even shorter one to the training area.
Most acts require practice, and since his doesn't, the best and only source of entertainment available to him has been to watch those of others. He's seen at least part of all of them by now; some have already begun to get dull, others haven't. He's kept an eye out for Livia, but she's been surprisingly scarce considering the relatively small number of performers here.
The first face he spots that he can put a name to is that of Terrence, the strongman. He's doing what Shawn is pretty sure is called a deadlift, and he shudders to think how much weight he's currently hoisting into the air.
Shawn walks over and stands there, very comfortably conspicuous, watching as the weights slowly go up until Terrence's bulging arms are as straight as it gets. He holds the position for a few seconds, glancing at Shawn, who waves. And slowly but steadily, the strongman begins to bring them back down.
Shawn has already started to fidget by the time the weights hit the ground, but when they do, he bursts into enthusiastic applause. Terrence straightens and turns to face him, and Shawn's hands slow. The guy is easily a head taller than he is. His biceps look hard as rock.
"Very good," Shawn says. "I'd ask for an encore but honestly just that one time was a little too much for my nerves."
"I do this every day," Terrence says slowly.
"Ah yes. But you see, I don't watch it every day. You can't know how exhausting it is."
The strongman stares at him for a few more seconds. Shawn notices his eyes are an impressively pale blue. He also notices a skull among all those tattoos on his arms. He decides that's enough noticing for now.
Finally, Terrence reaches to the ground, picks up the large water bottle there, and takes a swig. As he wipes his mouth with one hand, he says, "What was your name again?"
Suddenly excited, Shawn leans forward. "Shawn. Shawn Spencer," he replies, savoring the taste of the letters in his mouth.
Terrence cocks his head, eyebrows knitted. "Really? I was way off."
As he replaces his water on the ground, Shawn waits anxiously, half hoping for more information and half wondering what information there could be to hope for. Finally he thinks to comment, "Everyone around here is. It's fine."
"Really?" Terrence asks again. "It's a pretty common name."
"What, mine?" Shawn asks, crossing his fingers.
"Yeah. There are plenty of Shawns."
He exhales, searing this moment into his memory as thoroughly as he can. He never realized what a comfort it was to hear your own name said out loud—how reassuring it was. And it might be some time before he can experience it again. He has to enjoy this warmth while he can.
"Yeah, it's a pretty strange phenomenon," he says. "In fact I'm not sure there's a scientific precedence." He hesitates, and then, not sure whether he'll regret this later, he asks, "What did you think my name was?"
Terrence reaches for a smaller one-hand weight that Shawn probably still couldn't lift with all his muscles combined. "I can't remember. Something weird." He brought it up to his shoulder, and back down. "Must have been somebody else."
Shawn stands there biting his lip, trying to think of other questions to ask that might help him, but mostly distracted by that warm feeling that's only just beginning to fade. The opportunity slips away when Terrence says, voice strained slightly with exertion, "You're the psychic, right?"
Shawn bobs his head. "Yessir, that's me. Brand new round these parts."
"Bet you get asked this a lot, but what can you tell about me?"
Shawn glances, not as subtly as he'd like, back to Terrence's tattoos. Images flash through his mind as he picks out individual aspects of the tangled web of ink on his arms—a rose, a hawk, the word "stop," a golden ring, an anchor, that skull again—all connected in an intricate swirling design in dark grey. It doesn't tell him much. Quite honestly, he doesn't have the energy to try to work through it all. Though guesses at the inspiration for each image do flit through his mind—for some reason he keeps picturing some woman telling Terrence he moves too fast through life and needs a reminder to slow down, hence the "stop." Seems like a reasonable guess, but he's not about to bank on it being right.
He meets Terrence's eyes again, realizing he's off his game if he's so obviously grasping at straws immediately after the question is posed. "I don't think you want me violating your privacy," he tries. "I don't like to do readings on non-clients without their permission. And, like, a deep understanding of how my readings work."
Terrence shrugs, not looking surprised. "Fine. If you're a fake, it'll come out soon enough."
Shawn freezes, and looks back to his face, but Terrence isn't even looking at him anymore. His eyes are closed in effort as he continues to bring the weight up to his shoulder, then down to his waist, then up to his shoulder, then down to his waist.
Shawn tries to look normal, but his heart is pounding in his chest and suddenly he feels a little lightheaded. What if this man, this "Master"… finds out he's not the real deal?
He's going to have to be good. Better than good. He's going to have to be perfect.
"So," Terrence says, and Shawn hears a clank as he sets the weight down, and realizes he's already completed a set. "What made you want to join the show?"
Shawn takes about one second to contemplate how to answer that before Terrence, apparently thinking in the lull that he ought to give more information, goes on, "I mean, you look pretty normal. Could probably have a pretty normal life."
He blinks, wondering if that's a typical observation to just express to someone in the context of freak show—or circus, or whatever this actually is—life. After a moment he replies, "I take offense at that, I look fantastic—though I do apologize for my hair. I haven't been able to get my hands on my usual shampoo in the last week."
"But you've only been here for that long," Terrence says.
Terrence pauses, brow creasing in mild puzzlement. "You didn't bring any with you?"
Shawn shrugs, trying to come up with something normal and mundane to explain this thing that really should be very simple. "Yeah, I, ah, didn't have a lot of time to pack."
"You left in a hurry?" There are still questions in Terrence's face, but after a moment his expression smooths over with deliberation and he says, "All right."
As the strongman walks a couple paces away to a rack of weights, Shawn is left standing there, registering that Terrence didn't want to pry or be insensitive. Maybe freak show people just don't typically talk about non-freak show life, and Terrence didn't intend to veer into that territory. He doesn't have a good enough handle on the way things run around here to be sure yet. His fist clenches in frustration. No, Terrence, pry. Pry!
There is a light tap in the middle of his back, just beneath his neck, and he very nearly jumps out of his skin as he whips around. Livia appears to nearly jump out of her skin too.
"Damn, Liv," he exclaims, "go on and give me a heart attack, why don't you. I feel like Anthony Hopkins from Meet Joe Black. Or like… basically every single character in that movie except Brad Pitt. I think? Is he that specific brand of creepy? I don't know, it's kind of long and I get distracted.""
Her eyes are laughing. "I thought you were a psychic," she says, mouth curving upward. "You didn't sense me coming till just now?"
He stares at her, a smile spreading across his own face, but he doesn't really feel it. He hasn't seen her since her room after that first show, over a week ago—the only time he ever spoke with her. She looks very different without all her makeup on. Prettier, he thinks. Her hair's down, almost straight but poofing out with a little volume, and reaches just past her shoulders. She's wearing a simple white tank top and black leggings. Her feet are bare.
Shawn opens his mouth to say something, but she speaks before he can: "I'm sure you'll be able to go on a milk run, so to speak, in the next few days."
A milk run…? Crap. She heard the thing about speed-packing. Well, it could be worse.
"Just ask the Master; nothing's happening today, and he's an accommodating man."
Accommodating? Admittedly, Shawn knows frustratingly little about the guy at this point, but that is certainly not a word he'd use to describe him.
"So where have you been hiding this past week, Livia?" he asks in what he intends to be an offhand manner.
Something in her expression changes. It's very subtle, and he probably wouldn't notice if he weren't looking for it. But her eyes suddenly become more guarded; she immediately starts twisting the simple silver band on her index finger. Her eyes flicker away from his briefly, and though they return quickly, it's enough.
"Here and there," she says, voice modulated regularly. "I've been catching up on sleep lately, and I was a little sick for a couple days. It's been quiet. Nice." She pauses for a moment, and her graceful hands drop again to her sides. "How about you, Arashk? You left so eagerly; has the show proved to be everything you hoped it would?"
"Well it's certainly been entertaining," he says carefully.
"How do you like your clients?"
"Some of them have been very interesting people." He's trying to decide which questions would be best to ask first, and which ones can be saved for another time. It's hard; there are a lot to choose from.
"In a way, it must be more exhausting to get so up close and personal with your clients than it is to fly about on the trapezes." She smiles. "I do not envy you."
You really shouldn't. "Nah, it's cool. Speaking of the trapezes though—be honest with me, do you use hidden wires or any tricks? I mean it's obvious you're crazy talented, but… some of the things you did…" He blinks, suddenly remembering the last time he spoke to her about this. What she said. Are you like me?
He continues before she can answer: "What… what did you mean?"
She draws her eyebrows together, but he sees a tentative clarity in her eyes. "What do you mean?" she counters.
He lowers his chin but maintains eye contact, showing her he means business, but he keeps his eyebrows raised, trying to still appear friendly. "I think you know," he says quietly.
It's immediately clear that she does. After a pause, she says dismissively, "Oh, the question I asked you? I thought you might be an acrobat like myself. I hadn't heard the role our newest member would be playing, and I thought it may be the reason for your coming to see me."
He raises an eyebrow, glancing down at himself. "I look like I have an acrobat's body to you?"
She giggles. "Not particularly, which is why I was curious enough to ask."
He stares at her searchingly. She seems sure enough now, but a moment ago she was quite clearly hiding something… and the tone she adopted when she actually asked the question was more than mere curiosity. It told a story of desperation, of heartache. He just… doesn't know what that story is.
She's about to say something else, and the opportunity will be lost, for who knows how long, and he says without thinking, "Is he making you say that?"
Her brows furrow immediately and completely into a genuine expression of confusion, and her eyes widen into a genuine expression of alarm—a very not good combination for him at the moment. "What? He?"
Crap crap crap. "Never mind, forget it. Uh…" He grasps for something else to say, anything else, before she can ask what he means.
"I don't know what you mean."
Dammit. Well, it's not a question, but it's as good as one. "It's nothing, forget I asked."
"Arashk… are you talking about the Master?"
In too deep, in too deep. He opts for the works-when-not-questioned "total misunderstanding" tactic, and says, "What?" punctuating it with a laugh that ought to sound real to the untrained ear. "Oh man, we are talking about completely different things. Wow." As an afterthought, his hand goes up to his head, and he presses his fingers into his temple, breaking eye contact to stare into the distance.
And that's what seems to finally make her relax. A look of false understanding spreads across her face. Oh, he's talking about something I can't see, he almost hears her think. Best leave it, I suppose.
That's right, Liv. No need to worry. No need to tell anyone at all about this.
"Are you okay?" she asks after a moment, and he realizes that he went as far as closing his eyes. He doesn't open them, though.
"Yes…" he murmurs, not moving. "I just… I'm not sure what I'm sensing. I… may need a moment."
"Of course. Well, I'll see you around." The quiet—almost too quiet—sound of bare feet retreating lightly at a slightly-faster-than-comfortable pace starts up, and quickly fades. He counts to five after the footfalls leave his range of hearing, and opens his eyes.
That was almost very bad. And I still would've gotten exactly nothing from it.
He breathes out, trying to calm his rapidly beating heart, and drawing up a mental list of Things Livia Is: convinced of his good faith, mildly puzzled, quiet, acrobatically gifted to the point of impossibility, hiding something.
Not the most helpful list. But at least he has something to work towards. Or, since that method was obviously not nearly subtle enough, he has something to work toward working towards. It's gonna take some doing to even figure out a way to approach this, let alone piece together whatever information he'll eventually get from her to form something useful.
He hasn't been out here that long, but he deems it time to grab a couple more pieces of bacon as a snack, and retreat to his room to stare at the paper with his name on it for as long as it takes to feel better.
Chapter 9 by EvenAtMyDarkest
Reviews are extremely appreciated!
They travel to their next site that night. The following morning ushers in a long and hard day of setup. Of course, setup is decidedly not Shawn's job, but he still manages to insert himself into the process, annoying a little under half of the workers and amusing the rest.
He goes to lunch having made about five new friends and three new enemies (one of whom is a tall man with a perpetual scowl whom he very nearly called "Lassie" at one point), and gathered little new information other than a pretty consistent theory that the Master has a mild case of OCD, which he files away but suspects won't be that helpful.
Quite honestly, he's been pretty distracted most of the time. That whole encounter with Livia made him realize (not for the first time, and not that it's ever stuck any of the numerous other times in his life he's had this thought) that he needs to think before he speaks. Forget breaking social conventions; he could get himself into serious trouble.
He could get his friends into serious trouble.
He dodged a bullet with Livia, and isn't really feeling up to doing cleanup like that again. He's allowing himself to inject little bits of observation into his questions, but only as far as what he's actually seen outside of the context of his abduction; for the most part, he tries to keep his inquiries simple and to the point. It certainly feels much safer, and he hasn't had any more problems with people appearing confused or suspicious.
But no matter how much he holds back, there is a ball of ice that has formed in his gut, settled down, and apparently filed for permanent residence. No matter how many times he sics the feds on that ball of ice, it always finds some legal loophole that allows it to stay. It's a constant presence that progressively chills the entirety of his insides, and a few minutes after he disengages himself from subtle interrogations in the name of food, it suddenly and inexplicably grows spikes. With barbs, no less. He feels like he can't move with any degree of freedom, lest it puncture some vital organ.
The analogy is way apter than he's comfortable with; there is something eating away at him physically, to the point where he feels like he's going to be sick. It doesn't even seem to be drawing from his emotional state, which he's managed to keep pretty regularly modulated considering the circumstances; it's an entity all its own.
He hides it, of course. He has to. But it definitely affects his information-gathering skills.
Fortunately his food-eating skills don't need that much concentration, and he even manages to enjoy the burger and nachos he has for lunch. But after that, it's back into the fray.
The barbs have melted, but he still feels sick.
He does his very best to ignore it, to tell himself that, while he's not out of the woods yet, there's nothing he should reasonably be immediately concerned about. He keeps an eye out for the Master, whose mannerisms would hopefully be able to tell him something, but he doesn't seem to be around. Part of him is glad. The other part wishes he'd come out of the woodwork so he can get a solid sense of how worried he should actually be.
The next day's a workday, and he comes out of it absurdly proud of how much easier it's gotten to pick up on details consistently. He was always good at it, of course. His dad made sure of that from a very early and dysfunctional age. But it was usually more a question of how much he could figure out given a situation. Now, the given is a person. No setting, no interactions with other people, and he has to come up with enough at least near-accurate information to fill about three minutes for each and every person who walks into his tent.
It was hard at first. But with this constant practice over the length of a normal workday, it's already become almost second nature.
At dinner the last few days, he's been either sitting with someone random and asking basic questions about the show, its history, and its setup, or just taking some food and eating alone in his room. Based on the information he's gathered with the former method, he's gotten a basic picture—no one's quite sure exactly how old the Master is, but the show's been around for almost twenty years, and he started it all on his own when he was pretty young. He's very mysterious, and doesn't say much about himself—and of the information that people do give Shawn, most of it seems to conflict. One of the assistants even claims to have heard that he inherited the show from his father and replaced the entire staff and cast, though most seem to agree that it came from him and him alone. Nobody knows for sure if he has any family, or where he's from. Nobody knows where he goes when he disappears every few days. But nobody seems to have anything against him either. He's widely trusted and liked. Shawn finds this irritating.
It's all been totally unsystematic, except that he tries to sit with someone different every time he dines outside his room. Often he sits at a table alone and waits until it's filled, letting the others decide who sits near him. But this time, he sees the impossible sword swallower, and he can't resist.
The man is biracial, he's pretty sure, with very dark hair just long enough to be tied back in a tight ponytail, and light brown skin. He turns slightly when Shawn takes a seat next to him, and Shawn immediately notices how deep-set his eyes are.
The man's holding a fork between his thumb and index finger and his mouth is full of salad, but he waves his three free fingers at Shawn when he sits down. "Hey," Shawn says amiably, staring at his large bowl filled with little more than lettuce and fruits and wondering how a person can survive on that.
He goes to pick up his chicken sandwich, and feels a twinge in his right wrist. That's been bothering him periodically since noon yesterday—and it's weird, but when it flares up, it never seems to have anything to do with his movement. It comes to the forefront at random times, whether or not he's doing anything with those muscles.
As soon as the sword swallower finishes chewing he offers his hand to Shawn and says, "I don't believe we've met formally. Sebastian Jaeger."
Shawn puts his hand in the outstretched one, and as Sebastian grips tightly and shakes firmly, strange tingles skitter across Shawn's skin. He blinks, staring at the large hand encasing his own, trying to remember when the last time he touched someone was. He usually touches people's hands during readings, he supposes, but… this is different. This is welcome.
"Shawn Spencer," he says.
"Shawn? Good to meet you." Sebastian releases his hand, and Shawn had planned on commenting on the impressiveness of his handshake, but he's again distracted by the use of his real name. He's been using it to introduce himself pretty regularly, and while no one seems to remember it—just yesterday Terrence called him "Arashk"—no mishaps have occurred, and he hasn't been confronted about it.
Suddenly thinking it might be nice to return the favor, no matter how much it might go over this guy's head, he says, "And you, Sebastian."
Before he can continue, the man says, "You're the psychic, right?"
"How's that going so far?" He takes another bite of salad.
"Really well," he says after a pause. "It's fun to see how much shock and awe I can induce in the span of regular workday." As he speaks, another guy joins the thus far empty table next to theirs—an older man Shawn has noticed cleaning up from time to time. He looks like he's pushing sixty, and while he generally seems pretty spry, he definitely sometimes seems to be struggling with movement. Shawn wonders how long he's been with the show. He hopefully could offer some helpful insight.
Sebastian chuckles, bringing him back to the conversation. "I'll bet," he says. "I know I make people cringe like you wouldn't believe, but I'm usually a little preoccupied during their initial reactions. Wish I could just watch them watch me like you can. Unless the visions are really intense?"
Part of him wants to ask about the sword swallowing (and that part is split in half between wanting to know about medical problems and quick fixes, and just general fascination with how a person comes to decide he wants to shove blades down his gullet for a living), but Sebastian's given him an opportunity to keep talking about what he chooses, to ask questions. "Sometimes they are, yes," he says, "and it can be problematic in taking snapshots to enjoy later, but I can normally tell how freaked out people are by how quickly they leave."
Sebastian laughs out loud, smile lines bursting across his face. "What, do they actually run out?"
"Sometimes, yeah," Shawn says, a smile rising, unbidden, inside him.
"That must be highly entertaining, friend. I don't know if I'd want to go in if I were waiting in line after a person who exited running."
As he speaks, Shawn begins to wonder if there's a light accent in there somewhere. His English is perfect, but when he says certain words there's something vaguely un-American in his voice.
"I do notice pauses at times," Shawn says, and, wanting to get the conversation back on track, he goes on, "There are some things I notice even outside the context of the workday. It's very interesting around here."
"Oh yeah?" Sebastian asks, sounding fascinated. "What kinds of things do you notice?"
He's definitely much readier to believe than Terrence, Shawn notes. "Well," he says after a few seconds, carefully constructing what he'll say in his head—this is important, don't mess up—"I certainly get a lot of vibes from the Master."
"Yeah? Like what?"
Totally unsuspecting of anything. He supposes the best psychopaths are the ones that don't seem like it… Maybe this isn't a good idea after all.
Well, no turning back now. "There is much about him that is shrouded in shadow," Shawn continues carefully. "Much that he doesn't want us to know."
"Yeah, that's something you come to know about him even without psychic visions," Sebastian says lightly. For a moment Shawn wonders if it's meant as a jab, but Sebastian doesn't even seem aware of that as an interpretation option. "You get anything specific? I probably shouldn't ask, it feels like an invasion of privacy, but I can't help being curious."
Shawn's heartrate has quickened noticeably in the last few seconds of conversation. This matters. He could make a difference for himself here. But he's gotta be damn sure it's a difference in the right direction.
"Something about his emotions is out of whack," he says, slowly, after at least a five-second pause. "He isn't affected as strongly by those of others as most are—sometimes not at all. He… He lacks empathy. It's a bit frightening. Have you ever noticed this?"
Sebastian wipes some dressing from his mouth, his brow furrowed in puzzlement. "You're talking about the Master?"
"Yes. He hides it from most, but… there is something dark in that man."
Sebastian's looking genuinely concerned now. No subtle glances over his shoulder, no whispered "I've noticed it too." This isn't getting him anywhere. Except to plant seeds of uncertainty in an obviously trusting man's heart—under false pretenses, but for the right reasons. Which he supposes would be worth it, if only he could be sure that this won't go back to the Master.
"I don't understand," the sword swallower says slowly. "The Master has never been anything but kind to me. I think you have him pegged wrong… I mean, certainly he has things he doesn't tell us, but don't we all?"
Shawn nods, trying to get along. "You may be right. All I know is there is something I detect in him that makes me uneasy."
"That's vague as hell, friend. I mean, I don't think you're lying, but don't go saying things like that unless you have something concrete."
Feeling rather sheepish, and trying to make that clear by his expression—maybe if he acts apologetic enough, Sebastian will be more likely to truly consider his words but not tell anyone about them—Shawn nods. "You're right, I'm sorry." He itches to say something else, probably beginning with "but," but he holds back. This is the best place to end right now.
Sebastian stands up, and Shawn's heart gives a single thud, but he notices the man's empty bowl and realizes he's simply finished eating. "Well, I'm glad to have finally met you, Shawn," Sebastian says, and he sounds like he really means it. "Take care, all right?"
Shawn nods. His name's stuck for this long in Sebastian's head… He suppresses a sigh. There are too many things to be worried about at once. "You too, Seb."
Once his new sword swallower friend is gone, Shawn has nothing left to focus on but his sandwich. As he picks it up to take another bite, his eyes flicker over to the old man, who appears to be falling asleep over his own sandwich and soup. As he chews, Shawn contemplates waking him up to ask a couple questions.
He's just about to do it, too, when he looks around to do a quick scan of the surrounding tables, to see if anyone's watching or anyone interesting has sat down since he did, and his gaze falls on the Master.
About four tables in front of him.
Staring right at him.
A chill immediately shoots down his spine. A plate of crumbs sits on the table in front of the man. He has clearly been there for some time. His expression is intense in a subtle way, but completely unruffled. The white button-down he wears is spotless; he has a beige napkin tucked into the front of it, which he removes and begins to fold up without breaking eye contact with Shawn.
Shawn sits there, frozen in place, hands pressed against the table, body turned towards the old man. The words meant to rouse him die on his lips. There's no way he knew what we were talking about, he tries to tell himself. Come on, Sh… S… Spencer. What are you so worried about?
He desperately wants to wrest himself away from this beyond uncomfortable staring contest, but there's nowhere else to look. And after a certain amount of time passes, it becomes a matter of personal integrity. And… and he can't shake the feeling that it's time to abort the mission, no matter how ridiculous it is to think the guy could actually know what he was trying to accomplish with Sebastian.
He continues reassuring himself that the Master is doing this just as a scare tactic, and it even starts to work. Then the man's eyes suddenly flicker away from his, and Shawn actually feels a brief but definite sense of triumph.
Until he follows the Master's line of sight, and realizes who he's looking at.
He didn't notice the empty seat with the empty plate next to the Master, but when Livia sits down and fills it, the man turns on the charm. He smiles, and says something to her that Shawn, based on his feeble grasp on lip-reading, interprets to be Did you find anything? Livia puts down the small bowl she's carrying and gives some answer in the affirmative.
The conversation continues, and it becomes clear that Livia was originally sitting with the three other people at the table when the Master chose to join them. Shawn guesses he doesn't usually do this, just based on his mannerisms and those of the others at the table, but he chose to today, because… because…
He leans back to slouch in his chair, leaving the old guy alone. He is certain beyond any shadow of a doubt that the Master is sending him a message here. And that message is that… he knows.
He walks back to his room with dragging steps, unbuttoning his vest as he goes. This day… certainly could have gone better. Those words just keep circulating in his mind, doing nothing to help further his knowledge or lift his mood, but at least they provide a distraction from thinking too deeply about all this. He doesn't have the energy.
So Livia told the Master about what he said to her. Probably because he asked. How he would have known to is lost on him, unless… he had previously told Livia something that convinced her to come back to him with reports about the show's newest member? If that's the case, she's probably not the only one. She can't be.
He reaches the train car that contains his room, for the first time since this morning, and pulls the key from his oversized pocket. As he inserts it slowly into the lock, he's going through a detailed review of all the interactions he's had with the other cast and crew members over the last several days, trying to spot any tells, any reason to suspect any individual of working directly against his escape efforts, even if they weren't aware of it.
It's a very involved job that he doesn't currently have the energy to do as thoroughly as he needs to.
He closes the door behind him and pulls his vest off, letting it drop to the floor. As he flips the light on and turns towards his bed, his attention is immediately drawn to the obvious change in his normally changeless room. Two sheets of paper have been placed side by side on his bed. They appear to be a news article, printed off a website he's used multiple times before. Quite often in fact; it's all Santa Barbara news. The title:
"TWO MYSTERIOUSLY INJURED DURING POLICE INVESTIGATION; FOUL PLAY SUSPECTED."
Chapter 10 by EvenAtMyDarkest
Whoops, forgot I was posting this here. If anyone's actually reading, sorry for being a terrible person.
"God no" is the only thing his brain manages to produce and push past his lips before he dives forward, nearly breaking his outstretched arm as his elbow smashes into the bedframe. He thinks he shouts some word that no child ought to hear, and just uses the hand at the end of that arm to snatch up the papers, as the good one is busy gripping his elbow tightly.
There's no picture; just a short series of paragraphs in infuriatingly large font considering the diminished amount of information that can fit in the given space as a result. He starts reading, but quickly realizes he's two sentences in and has processed exactly nothing except for Juliet's name.
He starts over, tears stinging his eyes, but none falling.
"At approximately 11:30 in the morning on Thursday, September 5th, a team of detectives from the Santa Barbara Police Department were investigating a hit-and-run accident when the engine of the victim's overturned vehicle spontaneously exploded. Detective Juliet O'Hara and police consultant Bruton Gaster (known for working with psychic detective Arashk Ronaldo, who recently disappeared) were wounded but are expected to make full recoveries.
"Though it is widely theorized that this was no accident, no conclusions have been drawn and examination of the wreckage continues. 'The cause of the explosion is yet to be discovered,' says Head Detective Carlton Lassiter. 'Investigation is currently underway. We have no further information to divulge at this time.'"
That's it. That's freaking it. The article itself doesn't even extend to the second page; the rest is just logos and crap from the website. He reads through it a second time, and once he gets to the end, he automatically looks up, scanning the rest of the room.
There. On his nightstand, next to the lamp. The two papers flutter to the floor as he leaps onto the bed and grabs the photos he sees there, and he sits on his feet at the head of the bed, staring at them, the sharp pain in his arm forgotten.
An image of Gus is on top. He's frozen in midstride as he walks across the Psych office, face contorted in pain as he presses one hand against his back. The picture offers a pretty complete view of the little office, apparently from somewhere near the ceiling, and appears to be a screenshot.
He's got a camera in our office.
Which is not nearly the worst of it, as he moves immediately to the second picture, and his bones freeze in place.
It's Juliet, curled up on her couch at home, fully dressed but fast asleep. A small white bandage doesn't quite cover a long cut near her temple, and her right arm—her shooting arm, he immediately thinks—is in a sling.
The image is very clear, and very close.
Somebody was inside Juliet's house while she was asleep.
He just barely makes it to the toilet to empty his stomach. He sits on the floor, head resting against the clean porcelain, smudging it with the sweat that's rolling off his body in buckets, despite the temperature of his clammy skin. His breathing is ragged, and the only way to get his hands to stop shaking is to press them flat against the wall.
He's not thinking in words anymore; he doesn't have the strength for that right now. He's thinking in fears. In guilt.
Strategically, this tips the scale definitely in the Master's favor. What this has done above all else is effectively demonstrate that his threats are legitimate, that he does have every capability of following up on them, that he will not hesitate to do so, and that he's nowhere close to being caught.
He releases a shuddering breath. If this is what happened as a result of a few suspicious words exchanged with the resident acrobat… well, now's not the time to be thinking about what he'd find back home were he ever to actually disappear from this place entirely.
He did this. The Master told him "Don't say anything I wouldn't like," and what does he do? He starts hinting at anyone who asks just what's going on. Didn't have the balls to say enough to make any difference, didn't have the balls to keep his trap shut.
And now Jules and Bruton have paid the price.
His head snaps up. Bruton? Stupid article. Stupid journalists. It's Gus. Juliet and Gus.
Slowly he begins to stand. His elbow bumps against the toilet lid on the way up, and he inhales sharply as pain shoots down his arm. He twists it around to examine it, and finds an impressive array of colors mottling at least three square inches of his forearm just above his elbow.
At least he didn't get hit by an explosion.
He returns to his bed, feet dragging, and picks up the papers again. He reads the article—this damn thing's got some nerve calling itself an article at this length—a third time, a fourth, a fifth. By the sixth time he's seeing the explosion vividly in his mind—Juliet being thrown onto the hard concrete and landing right on top of her arm, Lassiter reaching out from several feet away but able to do nothing, Gus taking a back full of shrapnel and breaking his wrist as he's flung forward…
He pauses, and looks back at that mention of Gus.
"Known for working with psychic detective Arashk Ronaldo."
"That's not my name," he whispers.
Of course, this article could easily have been edited before being printed off. In fact that's certainly what happened. So why, after he noticed that something was off about the name, did he feel even the slightest hint of doubt?
No, of course his name is…
He holds still for ten seconds, twenty, thirty, groping desperately around his mind and coming up empty-handed.
Finally he allows himself to do what every part of him has been screaming for him to do for the last half-minute that felt like an eternity: he dashes across the room to his dresser, hears a mighty crack as he yanks open the top drawer, and reaches for the back, rifling around the small amount of clothes he's chosen to store in there, searching for his identity.
…Normally he'd have found it by now.
He peers into the drawer, and seeing nothing, he starts to remove the clothes from inside in what he's trying to make a calm manner.
The drawer is empty very quickly.
His name isn't in there.
He wakes up lying on top of his gimp arm, sore and aching in numerous places besides. It takes him about three seconds to remember why.
His face is pressed into the carpet, and after a moment he identifies the various lumps between him and the floor as pieces of clothing discarded after being removed from his dresser. He slowly draws his good arm up from his side and braces his hand against the carpet, pushing his upper body up an inch or so so that he can pull his right arm free. Wincing in pain, wishing he had control over his position while he sleeps, he slowly and steadily moves his arm free from its trap. The process takes over a minute of agonizingly painful concentration, and once he manages it, he flips over on his back and stares at the ceiling.
He thinks he dreamed something last night. Vague feelings of alarm, fuzzy pain, a muffled boom that just plays in his head over and over.
His right wrist still hurts. He rubs it absently, and glances down at his arm. Yep, the skin just below his elbow is sporting outstanding hues of blue and purple, tinged with yellow on the edges. How beautiful.
Sitting up is fortunately fairly easy. He glances at his bed, wondering if it might be a good idea to pull himself on top of it and go back to sleep. But as his internal clock indicates, and to which the sunlight currently threading through his blinds attests, it's not that early.
Suddenly remembering, he gets up on his knees, and surveys the top of his still-made bed. It's notably empty of any paper or photos.
He drops back to a sitting position on the floor. He's not going to go through another minute of fruitless searching and suppressed screams. It's exhausting, and it hurts too much, and he's not going to find anything; he knows that now.
He pictures the Master entering his room, taking in the scene before him—his basically enslaved psychic dead asleep on the floor, dresser drawers open, clothes everywhere—and simultaneously scowls and cringes at the satisfaction that must have given him. Not to mention how totally creepy and unnerving it is to think that the guy was in here while he was asleep. He pictures the man stepping carefully over his unconscious form to get to the bed and remove the papers and photos. They've probably been destroyed by now, or discarded in some local trash bin that he can have no hope of finding. Along with the slip of paper that carried his identity. Or at least the words that were assigned to him at his birth. Just words. They're not all that matters.
So Jules and Gus were hurt by an explosion rigged by instruction of his captor. But not too badly, and it was just them. They're not "safe," but they're okay. Jules, Gus, Lassiter, Dad—they're all in one piece.
He's a piece of crap for endangering them like this. But the Master… there aren't words for what he is. And while this is certainly a setback, it's not a defeat.
He climbs to his feet, and slowly begins gathering the clothing up off the floor, a sort of guilty triumph finding its place in his mind. The Master must think he's won. Fine, he won't be uncooperative anymore. He'll do as he's told.
Next time he makes an attempt to get out of this, he won't half-ass it.
And as for his name…
All right, he's Arashk Ronaldo.
But Arashk Ronaldo's not giving up yet.
Chapter 11 by EvenAtMyDarkest
Arashk wakes up with a terrible knot in the pit of his stomach. That's become very common, however. Like almost every morning. He's not sure if it's nightmares that he can't remember, or just the general awfulness of his life right now. At first he ignored it. But lately, he's been fanning the flames, as they prove to be effective fuel for the negative emotions he normally tries to hide and just can't ignore anymore. All manners of hatred and bitterness, directed towards one man—the one who calls himself the Master.
It's been about two weeks since the explosion, and Juliet's and Gus's injuries. Arashk has not received a single word on their progress, or even any sort of acknowledgement of the incident. He's seen the Master, sure—glimpsed him in passing, no more than twice or thrice, and at one point resolved to corner him and ask for a report. Sure it almost certainly wouldn't have been worth it, and it was probably a blessing that he was interrupted by one of the crew members—a skinny guy whose appearance broadcasts a remarkable amount of information on a daily basis, and who is constantly asking for readings because of it—before he could actually apprehend the Master, but he'd had… a feeling. Hardly airtight, but it seemed like a reasonable idea at the time to just politely ask for some kind of update.
But as it happened, he was interrupted, he has no information, and he is starting to—just a little bit—lose his mind.
He brushes his teeth, has a shower, and is silently thankful for the hundredth time that he doesn't have a mirror to look into as a reminder of his much longer than usual beard, and the strange tribal tattoo he now has stretching right across his forehead…
It's been there since shortly after the explosion. The Master appeared at his door while they were setting things up at their next site a few days afterwards, smiling pleasantly, and said with a dangerous edge to his voice, "Mr. Ronaldo, our best tattoo artist has just finished up a batch of new designs and some of them are simply to die for."
It's the only time Arashk has seen him face-to-face since the incident, and he would have loved nothing more than to grill him with questions until he had to be threatened to stop, but the Master had some guy with a clipboard standing right next to him and referring to his predicament seemed highly ill-advised. Arashk is still certain that that was planned. So he just nodded, tight-lipped, and followed the two of them to the tattoo parlor.
The Master chose the design, and the location. Arashk put any long-term ramifications out of his mind, and just sat back and let it happen, staring at the wall, clutching the thick fabric of his robe in his fists.
Livia was visibly surprised when she first saw it. Arashk just smiled dimly and said, "You like?"
He goes to get dressed. Though wearing just a vest is an option, they're over in Missouri, and winter is coming (he misses Game of Thrones… He hasn't watched TV in weeks). So he gets on a rich red robe trimmed with gold, a black turban, and two clunky black bracelets and black shoes to tie it all together.
He's given in to the Master's wishes that he'd make his wardrobe more exciting, and is still trying to convince himself that it's fun. At least he looks fabulous no matter what he wears.
As always, the only things he takes with him when he leaves to prepare the tent are two bottles of water. With the constant talking during his shifts he drinks a lot of water these days, and he gets a new supply every few days. Livia is the first person he sees on exiting the train car. She's standing a few cars away, talking to Terrence. She sees him more or less immediately, and offers a smile and a wave, both of them small. He can only find the strength to smile in return—though it doesn't reach his eyes—and heads over to his tent, head down. They have about twenty minutes before they open, but lately he's been finding that he needs more frequent changes of scenery to prevent himself from losing his mind.
His tent has gotten more and more psychic-y since he first started. After the first few shows, the Master told him that some people commented that the ambience was a bit lacking, so he gave him some incense which Arashk is now required to burn when he's doing readings. Arashk doesn't like it; it burns his nostrils and leaves him a bit lightheaded. But he's gotten used to it.
There are also a lot more candles than there were before. As in… it takes way too long to set all them up and he's already lost three to careless clients. And he's been given a "scrying pool," which is basically a fancy little bowl filled with water that he's supposed to stir and look into mysteriously, seeing images of the future. He's used it a few times now, and it's not too hard to incorporate into his routine.
Reading people has gotten so much easier with the constant practice. Sometimes it almost scares Arashk how much he can tell at a glance.
Sometimes he wonders if he'll be different when he finally comes back home.
Sometimes he wonders if he ever will.
He's been sitting in his chair, just staring ahead, lost in thought, for half an hour when his first customer walks in—a nineteen-year-old whose girlfriend just broke up with him after finding out he was cheating with two other girls. Arashk gazes into the bowl in front of him and gives a vague description of a young woman with brown hair, relying on the good chance that at least one of them was brunette. The young man seems to buy it. Arashk foretells relationship problems and advises him to get his act together. As he leaves, Arashk realizes he's unnaturally disgusted with the young man's actions, considering he wasn't a witness to them himself.
It's far from the first time that's happened. For some reason, the more readings he does, the more invested he gets in the lives of his clients. It's almost like... because it's so easy to, during the workday he bails on his own emotions and operates on borrowed ones. It's his theory, anyway.
About ten clients in, a little old lady enters the tent. As soon as she does, he's hit with a wave of cold. Only it's not like a cold breeze—it's almost like it's inside him. He rubs his arms, but it doesn't help.
"Welcome," he says with a grand gesture in his as-of-yet unidentified accent. He doesn't even have to think about using it anymore. "Why don't you sit down, Mary, and tell me…"
He trails off, trying to push down his panic. He was about to ask for her name. But. He's had hunches like that before in recent weeks, about clients' names, and a few times even turned out to be right. But he knows it's a bad idea to be vocal about it. Being wrong with the very first thing he says? Not good. But this time it wasn't even a hunch, it was just… knowledge.
The woman looks at him for a few seconds, and an impressed smile spreads over her face. She takes several seconds lowering herself into the chair and leaning her cane against the table. "That was quick. I think this'll go well."
He breathes out, making a quick shift from terror that he'd be wrong about her name to terror that he was right. How did I do that? "I reckon you are here to hear what I can tell you about your future," he says smoothly, putting on a serene expression. "Is that right?" God, how am I so good at this?
"Well, yes," she says, loosening the flowery scarf that's wrapped around her head. It seems to him that she had something else to say, but she stops herself.
He nods. "Lay your hands upon mine," he commands quietly, laying his own hands on the table, palms up. She complies, and he closes his eyes.
The typical malarkey begins pouring from his mouth—he noticed a wedding ring on her finger, and another very similar one on a chain around her neck, so she has a deceased husband, and she's not wearing glasses but she has faint marks on the bridge of her nose, so she probably likes to read—but less than a minute in, something stops him.
Not only stops him, but stops him midsentence. That's never happened to him before.
It feels like the temperature in the room drops by twenty degrees in about two seconds—but Mary seems unaffected. He draws in a light gasp of surprise, and then there is something in his mind that is not his own.
For a moment all he can do is squirm—whether on a physical level or not, he can't be sure—and just try to shake it off. These attempts consist entirely of instinctive thought processes he can't begin to keep track of and doesn't understand, but whatever it is he's doing, it doesn't seem to work. He feels something whispering. Not hears, feels. He doesn't understand the sensation, but there it is, and it's finding the cracks in whatever foreign defenses he's throwing up, and he doesn't remember the last time he was this scared.
"Let me speak to her," it says, so softly. "Let me speak to my wife."
He shakes his head violently, screwing his eyes shut. It feels like all his senses are being assaulted. The thin, papery voice, like a soft breath of wind in his ear—the cold, unlike any cold he's felt before—the horrible feeling that something is present that should not be—the tingle all up and down his spine—safe her tell Mary tell together Mortimer speak Mary let me and it's all jumbled up and he doesn't even understand what it is and he is terrified, and he can't feel his body anymore but he knows he must be shaking—
All at once, it stops.
His eyes open wide. Mary is sitting back in her chair, rubbing her wrist, a look of caution on her face as she watches him. Arashk blinks, and looks down at his hands, which are trembling slightly against the table. His mind is currently far too dedicated to its attempts to work through what just happened and prepare itself in case it happens again to spare any energy wondering how Mary's been seeing this.
"Tell her I'm safe. Tell her we'll be together again soon."
He flinches, but that's it. The voice has gone silent. All at once the presence in his mind has vanished, and of this he is somehow certain.
The next few seconds seem to stretch into long minutes. He stares at the tabletop, breathing raggedly, trying to calm his pounding heart, trying not to think about whatever the hell just happened.
The voice was clear. There can be no mistake about what it was.
But it makes no sense.
He doesn't know how long it's been when he looks up again to Mary, but she's still waiting, so it couldn't have been more than a couple of seconds. Slowly, very slowly, he raises his finger to his temple in traditional psychic detective form—though he's not sure he's ever been further from a detective than he is in this moment. "I sense a name," he says, and though he maintains eye contact, he can do nothing to keep the shudder out of his voice. "A… Mortimer."
There's no way he's invested enough to do his usual "guessing a few similar names before the right one" crap.
Mary lets out a little gasp. "Mo," she says. "Is he here?"
"He is," Arashk says, and his voice betrays him yet again. The cold has already left him almost entirely, and he is suddenly so tired. "He wants you not to worry. He says… he's safe. He says you will see each other again, very soon."
Too tired even to add a bit of embellishment.
Mary stares at him, eyes wide and brimming with tears. It suddenly registers in Arashk's mind what he's just said. He stares back at her.
Did I just tell this woman she's going to die soon?
And he begins to panic.
The Master won't like that.
Until he realizes that Mary doesn't look horrified, or upset. She's staring at him with wide eyes, and while he is sure they're reflecting more light than usual with the presence of tears, they hold no fear. Her face creases with countless smile lines as her mouth curves upward, and she presses her hand against her heart.
"He was your husband?" he asks quietly.
She clutches the ring hanging around her neck, and nods. "For sixty-two years. He passed five months ago."
He has no idea what to feel.
Relief that she's not upset… a dull terror gnawing at his mind that he resolutely refuses to pay any attention to…
He has to be alone. He avoids thinking about how the Master will take it if he closes the tent, won't take any clients, just for a few minutes…
"I'm sorry," he rasps, groping for an explanation. "I just… I have never felt such a strong message… It's a bit too much." He rubs his face with one hand. "Would you… Do you mind?"
"Not at all," she says, grasping her cane and pushing herself up, smiling widely, tears still running down her face. "Thank you, Mr. Ronaldo. Thank you so much."
With those words, she hobbles out of the tent.
Arashk didn't realize how drained and baffled and lost he felt until she's gone and his shoulders droop of their own accord, and he wraps his arms around himself and draws his knees to his chest. Tears prickle in his eyes, but none fall.
"So, I've lost my mind," he comments to the darkness, trying for nonchalance.
He thanks whatever powers may be that the darkness does not answer.
Chapter 12 by EvenAtMyDarkest
The second night after Mary, he has a dream.
It opens on Juliet, sitting at her kitchen table, eating a bowl of soup. The bandage is off her forehead, but the cut is still quite visible, and her arm's still in a sling. He himself is nowhere in the dream; just a nameless, faceless outsider. But he's also the reason she's crying.
It takes him several seconds to realize that she's not actually producing tears; he just somehow has a clearer view into her heart than he expected. He wants to reach out, offer a hug, an "it's all right," but he can't figure out in what sense he's actually present. He has all his senses about him, but he has no body with which to do the sensing.
He tastes the soup in his mouth—noodles. Thai. He's never liked Thai, always considering himself more of a Chinese takeout man. But Jules loves it. She always has a stash of prepackaged soups for whenever she's not feeling up to actually cooking something. He feels the softness of her robe on her shoulders, smells the spicy aroma of the soup wafting up and around.
He's seen her take only a few bites when the doorbell rings. She sits there for a moment, staring into her soup, and he feels her trying to decide whether to answer it. Suddenly a name pops into her head, and it's his, and even though she knows that if there were news, she'd get it immediately via phone call, that thought doesn't really register with her until she's already halfway to the door.
She slows down before she reaches it, but continues without hesitating. Once she pulls it open, Arashk is unsurprised but at the same time overwhelmed to see his best friend standing outside.
He's wearing his navy pullover over his light blue pinstriped button-down and both his hands are stuffed into the pockets of his grey slacks. He has the air of someone who isn't really sure exactly what he's doing here, but knows it's the place for him to be. Arashk can easily picture him coming home from work, lying on his couch without changing out of his dress clothes, staying there for half an hour, getting up, and just throwing a sweater on before heading right back out.
Juliet wipes her dry eyes with the back of her good hand and puts on a small smile. "Hi, Gus," she says. "How are you?"
He gives a wry smile that reads About as well as you. "Guess I just felt like I needed some company. You doing okay?"
She shrugs. Of course not. "It's just been one of those days. There are things to do, and I do them, but…" She trails off. Gus understands. "I was just eating, actually. Do you want to come in?"
For the first time he removes his hand from his pocket, putting the off-white cast encasing it on full display. But all his fingers are free, and his hand seems to still be more or less functional. And with the hand comes a small package. A Ziploc bag, containing five or six chocolate chip cookies. "Dessert's on me."
Arashk feels himself smile on some plane other than a physical one. He can't be there for Jules, but Gus is taking care of her. They'll be all right until he gets back.
He watches as the two of them get out the materials for Gus to make a sandwich, and then sit and eat together, making light chitchat between almost-comfortable silences. The two victims of both his capture and his quest to free himself, helping each other through it. He listens to Gus's critiques of the commercials he saw while channel surfing as he ate breakfast, and Juliet's newest story of Lassie's tactlessness when he was talking to some trainees the previous afternoon. It's all perfectly normal, and mundane, and for just a few minutes, all is right with the world.
Until he realizes he's waking up, and with that realization comes sudden full consciousness and awareness, and he lies there staring at his ceiling, the reality of what just happened coming to him in a single unforgiving rush of realization.
Arashk sits up, panting, thinking maybe he wasn't really asleep and was just vividly remembering that conversation, only there's no way he could have been there for it because he wasn't present in the scene and it clearly happened very recently, or maybe even hasn't happened yet, or—or—
He rubs his arms, runs his hand through his hair, puts his head in his hands, sits up straight again, rests his head on his fist, gets out of bed, gets back in, tries six different positions, and finally realizes that he's not going back to sleep at any time soon.
However, he also resolves to try his hardest to do so. Time to think is exactly what he doesn't need right now.
He spends the next two hours replaying the content of the dream in his mind while successfully barring himself from considering its origin or implications. It's a very plausible scenario that it laid out, and therefore pretty easy to accept as something that actually happened, and it's the first legitimate near-firsthand update he's had on these lives that are so dear to him in way, way too long.
Arashk falls asleep eventually, and the dream replays throughout the night, sometimes starting and ending at slightly different times but never varying in its details. It's the most peacefully he's slept in a very long time.
The fourth day after Mary is the first one they don't have a show. They spend most of it on the move, as they have another show coming up in just a couple of days a few states over, so Arashk has a lot of time to kill in his room.
They've had only a handful of days like this since he showed up, and he's hated all of them. There's very little with which to fill the long hours. Typically he eats a lot of snacks, rearranges his furniture in eight different ways, and plays a little bit on the three handheld video games the Master gave him after his second show. They're old and cheap and he gets bored with them quickly, but he must admit that they are better than nothing. Slightly.
Shortly after he mentioned to Livia that he hasn't got much to entertain himself with, she started letting him borrow her books. They're mostly classical novels—she says her favorites are To Kill a Mockingbird and Pride and Prejudice—and he's not able to pin them down for long enough with his short attention span to actually read any of them from beginning to end, but it's nice to have some books lying around that he can skim if he wants.
At one point he was given a thick pad of paper and a few pencils as well, and though he's never been much of a drawer, he's done a lot of doodling on days such as these. One time he even produced a halfway decent rendering of Juliet's face. He suspects every day that he'll come back to find it's disappeared, but until that happens, he hangs it above his dresser with a push pin he borrowed from Sebastian.
In times of high energy, he's taken to doing some exercises, like halfhearted pushups and jumping jacks and laps of rapid pacing back and forth across the room. In times of low energy, he can nap with the best of them.
But on this day, the fourth day after he felt something he absolutely could not explain, he finally has time to himself and the option to think about it. This occurs to him about three minutes after he rolls out of bed, as the echoes of last night's dream are fading from his mind. There's nothing for him to be prepared for, not even a reason to get dressed. He doesn't have to choose clothes for himself or head to his tent to decorate its interior. Today's breakfast and lunch will be out of his mini-fridge. He heard yesterday that they're going to stop for dinner.
There is quite simply nothing else worthier of lending thought to.
"All right," he whispers. This is important enough to have a conversation out loud with himself. Not that there necessarily has to be an important reason to talk to himself; he's been doing it a lot in the last several days. Though he's found that he can't get too loud, or he'll bother his neighbors on the other sides of his moderately thin walls. He can hear one of them talking fairly clearly right now, if he listens—on the phone with his brother, catching up. At the moment they're talking about his niece, who just entered kindergarten.
Maybe he should try to keep this one in his head.
Possibility one: he was, for reasons he can only guess at, drugged. Given… some kind of hallucinogen. He sighs immediately. So, either Mary didn't mind or didn't notice that he was saying stuff that didn't make any sense, she and all clients before and after her were figments of his imagination—because he would have had to have been affected for the majority of the workday—and he was sitting alone in the tent tripping balls for hours on end, or… he wasn't drugged.
He gets up from his perch at the edge of his bed and starts pacing, running a hand through his getting-too-long hair and chucking that middle option out the window. What he heard in that tent… Mary confirmed it. If he imagined that voice, he imagined her responses too. He has seriously no clue why the Master would want to drug him on a workday, but he has no clue why the man does anything that he does.
Arashk's head is already starting to feel a little clearer. This is much better than pretending it didn't happen, even if he still doesn't understand the first thing about it. Possibility two: He is… genuinely losing his mind. He gulps. He's been called crazy his whole life, and came to own the label. This kind of crazy though… this is something different.
He pushes these thoughts away. He must stay practical and focused. And (fortunately?) a lot of the same problems with the drug theory are applicable to this one. Mary's presence and input rule out a lot of possibilities.
Unless… this is all a scam?
No. None of it makes sense. There is no logical reason anyone would slip him something to alter his perception of reality, hope that his hallucinations manifested in the form of psychic visions, and plant an innocent-looking old lady among his clients who has been told to go along with whatever he says.
And… he's been drugged before. Only a handful of times, and he knows every drug affects you in a different way, but… he can't imagine any chemical compound making him feel how he did in that tent. While his skin maintained more or less the same temperature, his bones felt like they were frozen solid. His muscles stopped working. His heartrate went down—or would have, but given his panic at the moment, it actually remained pretty much constant.
And that voice… he heard it, but not with his ears. So… he didn't hear it?
"How does a person pick up a voice but without the sense of hearing?" he asks his empty room, and immediately regrets it, but fortunately there is no answer back.
A quick run through the other senses later, he comes up dry. So it wasn't any of the five traditional senses. Not that that makes sense (har har, he thinks), but whatever. Which means… it was another sense. Totally illogical. Isn't it?
But there are also the dreams. One night it was Juliet and Gus, but when he had a nap during his lunch break the other day, he saw Lassie being called into Vick's office. She told him to go home, that she had nothing for him for that day. He argued, of course; she came back with a reminder that she was in fact his superior, he said he was worried about his partner, she asserted that Juliet would have to work through this on her own and so would he. Eventually he relented, and on his way to the parking lot called home to tell Marlowe to be ready to go out to lunch.
They talked about him directly, if briefly. And Arashk knows they used his real name, but by the time he woke up, all his brain could supply was "O'Hara won't talk about him anymore."
Sure, he could slip into idiotic denial and say there's no reason to believe these dreams have anything to do with reality, but the fact is, his dreams have never made any kind of sense until these last few days. They were always chaotic amalgamations of thoughts and feelings and experiences of the day, many of which he couldn't even recall by the time he went to sleep, all tied together with whatever flimsy thread of a "plot" his subconscious could come up with. This is completely different.
It's not even just that; since Mary, every time he imagines what everyone back home is doing right now—a practice that has become very frequent in recent weeks—it feels less like his own choice, and much less like guesswork. It's like… rather than suddenly wondering, of his own volition, how Dad spent his evening, a memory pops into his head of seeing the man having dinner with Mom and trying to think of things to talk about other than their son, but slipping into retelling stories from his childhood and pretending not to notice the tears in each other's eyes.
"I know what I felt," he whispers, and blinks, surprised at his own locution. But it's true.
He felt death.
He sighs, and takes a seat. He knows what lies ahead, barring unexpected developments. It's just that he's not ready for it—not yet.
That's enough theorizing for the day, he decides.
He needs more data.
The conversation with himself helps. He's basically made the decision to be at peace with not having all the answers yet, and while there's a definite itch in the back of his mind that is going to grow the longer he doesn't know for sure what's happening to him, it's bearable for now.
It's almost 12:30, and he went back to sleep right after breakfast and only just got up again ten minutes ago, and he's spent the entire time sitting on the edge of his bed, going back and forth between pondering whether or not Lassie-face has admitted yet to missing him and glancing incessantly at an empty space at the end of his dresser. He can't figure out why the latter keeps happening, but it increases in frequency as the minutes pass, until he's full-blown staring at that dresser corner, trying to figure out what's missing.
It's at this point that there is a knock on his door, and he looks up in alarm. He doesn't get a lot of visitors, but no news is good news. He stands up, crosses the room, and peers into the spyhole in the middle of his door.
Smiling blue-grey eyes look back at him. He stands still for a moment, registering surprise, and in the lull she calls, "Arashk? It's Livia."
He unlocks the door, and pulls it open to reveal his new acrobat friend. She's wearing a grey sweater over a white tank top with blue jeans, and her hair is pulled back into a ponytail. She looks very comfortable, and is holding a couple of grocery bags.
"Hey Liv," he says, putting on a smile.
"Hi," she says, offering a smile of her own. "I was just in town and… well, at lunch the other day you mentioned again how bored you get on our off days, and then the Master mentioned this morning how you don't like to go to really public places because the visions get overwhelming, so it was on my mind… so while I was in the store I picked up some things." She holds the grocery bags up a bit higher to demonstrate.
His head is spinning. He suspected it before, but this is pretty solid confirmation that he is not at any time allowed to leave the location where they set up camp. At least this time the Master was gracious enough to provide him with a reason to give to people when they ask. "Aw, really?" he asks, eyeing the bags and actually feeling some excitement as he considers what might be inside. "You shouldn't have."
Her smile widens. Arashk stands aside, saying, "Please come in," and she steps over his threshold.
As he closes the door behind her, he realizes that he's never had a visitor in here who wasn't the Master or sent directly by him. Part of him hopes that she'll notice the stark nature of his room and get suspicious or at least worried, while the other part is certain that whatever the Master told her will have that covered.
"I wasn't sure exactly what you might like, so I went pretty generic," she says as she walks to his bed and places the bags on the spot where he was just sitting. "I know my novels aren't exactly your favorite things in the world."
"Well, I do understand the appeal in some of them at least. Darcy sometimes sets even my heart aflutter."
She laughs. "I'm glad they weren't a total waste." She removes something from one of the bags, and turns to face him. It's a box—a 500-piece puzzle of an image of a bowl of fruit. "There were a couple other pictures to choose from, but this one seemed classic enough."
She blinks, and examines the box closely. "Uh, no."
He gives a barely perceptible shrug. "That's a shame. Did you know they're the international welcome fruit?"
Livia shakes her head. "I did not."
"They are. They are also nature's yellowest form of sweet goodness coated in only the spikiest of armor to protect their precious interior. However, apples are fairly worthy as well. Just not as badass."
She's smiling widely again. He pretends not to notice, and just keeps going, enjoying hearing his own voice (especially without that fake accent—it's really been bugging him lately). "I do very much appreciate the sentiment, and will tackle this puzzle challenge with all of my faculties, but I should warn you that the last time I put together a puzzle was probably before the turn of the century. I was a damn good puzzler, but the number of pieces I worked with never rose to the triple digits."
"Well, if this proves to be too challenging, I brought a couple other things," she says, and starts to reach into the bag.
"Yeah, the sketchbook, nice close-up of a pencil tip on the front." He waits expectantly for a fraction of a second, and then suddenly realizes what he just said.
He catches Livia's first words—incidentally, they're "That's one thing, yes; you said at some point how…"—but after that they've faded so far into the background it's like they're only reaching him through water. He slowly and almost unthinkingly makes his way across the room and lowers himself onto his bed next to the bags.
How did he know that? Did he see it through the slightly translucent bag? He looks to his left to examine it. No, he couldn't have—and how did he even know which bag it's in? He puts his head in his hands.
By this point it's fairly obvious how he knew. But he's still not ready. Not yet.
Livia's presence is gone from his side, and after a moment he realizes that she's gone silent. Her last words suddenly echo in his head, though he doesn't recall hearing when she actually said them: "Arashk? Are you all right?"
He looks up. She's standing by his dresser, and her feet are facing towards it but her body's turned in his direction. Her eyes are wide and concerned, and suddenly more of what she was saying is processed in his brain: "I'm not sure just how much you draw, but don't worry, it was just a few bucks… I do notice this picture though; it's quite good. Who is she? …Arashk? You okay?"
He shifts his gaze to his drawing of Juliet that hangs above his dresser; clearly it's what she was looking at. Even as he does this, his brow furrows in confusion. Processing something that you heard or saw a few seconds after the fact isn't so unusual, he knows. But in this particular instance, the duration of that which he processed with a delay was… impressive.
"Well," Livia says after a pause. "That's that, I suppose. I should probably go practice, there's a new move the Master thought might be neat to try to be show-ready by the time we reach Springfield, so…" She heads for the door, and looks back one final time. "Take care, Arashk."
She sets the puzzle she still holds on the corner of his dresser, and leaves the room, closing the door behind her.
He spends the entirety of the next day, their first at the new site, guessing the first name of every other person who walks into the tent. The ones he gets wrong, he seamlessly plays off as a joke, and everyone responds with a polite chuckle and moves on.
But he gets a good thirty percent right.
It's far more than is reasonable to expect, and the first few times freak him out a little. He has at least some basis for a lot of his guesses; if they remind him of someone he knows, or has seen on TV or even met briefly, he goes ahead with that name. But naturally, when he turns out to be correct and looks back on his thought process, he finds that there was none. A name just popped into his head, and he went with it. And at first, thinking about where that information could possibly have come from makes his mind work so furiously and desperately that it nearly grinds to a full halt. Which turns out to not be so conducive to convincing fortunetelling.
But as the hours crawl by, it becomes easier to just trust his gut, and less surprising when it turns out his gut did not steer him wrong. And it's not just with the names.
The first time he registers that information that turned out to be correct really came from no logical source whatsoever is with a twenty-year-old girl named Dana who was a contestant in a statewide speech competition, having only just been eliminated in the semifinals. There's no reason that he can find just by looking at her to come to that conclusion, but when he allows himself to say it—very slowly and tentatively, reading her facial cues—she immediately confirms it to be true.
He puts on a serene face, but inside, he's losing it.
The thing about his readings is he's never had any capacity to tell people for certain anything about their futures, so with the people who make it clear they're there for more than to be impressed at what he knows, he has to come up with some vague platitude based on what he can figure about their pasts and presents. If he acts intense enough, they don't question him, and the Master's never said anything about people being dissatisfied with the amount of information or advice he gave them.
Now, though… things are changing.
When a middle-aged man called Jeremiah comes in, Arashk immediately blurts on seeing him, "Don't go to the store tomorrow!" The wisps of undeniable truth swirling around his mind are dissipating before he can get a solid picture of why he's said this, so it's a bit difficult and Jeremiah himself cuts the reading short when it becomes clear Arashk is grasping at straws.
As he walks out, Arashk realizes that even though he never confirmed his name, he finds it quite difficult to convince himself he could possibly be wrong about it.
The thing about noticing more than he can explain, especially when he's still not quite come to terms with that even being possible, is that it exhausts him. He closes the line around the end of the second hour, promising that he'll reopen in five minutes, but ends up giving himself fifteen.
What he accomplishes in those fifteen minutes is about five minutes at the beginning and end sitting in one of the bean bag chairs and breathing deeply, and five in the middle pacing around whispering fiercely to himself, "Listen, the Master's biggest concern is not the quality of your readings. Don't know what it is, but it's not that. As long as he has no reason to think you're trying to get away or cause discontent or concern, you should be fine. Do what you have to to figure this out. Take small risks. Act like a lunatic, but a confident lunatic. Can't learn anything new without doing anything new."
It's six clients later when he not only is able to tell a man that in two days he plans to go hunting with his brothers, but hears the gunshots like explosions in his head, that he loses the will to continue seeking alternate explanations as to what's happening.
All right, he's a freaking psychic.
He lies awake that night, staring upward, going back and forth between not being able to convince himself this is such a big deal, and being mildly concerned at how hard that convincing is turning out to be.
Sure, considering his line of work and the constant lies it entails, he's asked himself on multiple occasions whether he really believes in all this stuff. His answer is generally along the lines of not really, but he'd be open to believing given solid evidence. But… this kind of reaction goes beyond the cushioning provided by having casually considered it being potentially conceivable to be reality for someone other than him.
Why am I taking this so well?
It occurs to him that he may be experiencing disassociation. Or maybe the psychicness has been coming on gradually, stealthily insinuating itself into his subconscious so by the time it surfaced in a big way, he'd already be, on some level, used to it. It almost actually makes sense.
He tries to think of any possible reasons for this to happen. Just completely out of context—when do people in the movies become psychic? After sustaining some brain injury, usually. Awesome. Only problem: the last time he can remember hitting his head with any force was five months ago when he fell off a chair trying to reach his favorite cereal from the highest cabinet in Gus's kitchen. He can't imagine there would be such a delay, although he admittedly is not as much of an expert on this kind of thing as he would have the entire precinct believe.
Now, when he was first taken… they did drug him. He distinctly remembers checking himself and finding no bumps, nor does he have any memory of hitting his head—not that he has any memory at all of the actual kidnapping, but that's beside the point. But there's still a possibility that he took some kind of damage during the incident that may not have left a mark, but still could have hit him just right in whatever part of the brain that's in charge of this stuff, and turned on some ability that's been very gradually climbing into the limelight ever since.
He sighs. None of this makes any sense.
When he first told the police department that he was psychic, he said he'd had it all his life, but his father had for some reason gone with the story that he hadn't really come into his abilities until he was eighteen. Could that possibly be what's happening here? He's simply growing into it? He's never heard of anyone "growing into" anything at his particular age, but nobody exactly has this topic down to a science. What if… what if he really was psychic his entire life, but it just manifested in really small ways, allowing him to notice the right things at the right times? That's a weird thought. He's not sure if he likes it. Maybe these abilities were just in the incubator up till now, and with all the stress of the situation, not to mention the sudden necessity of actual fortunetelling, they've finally become usable?
There's something about this he doesn't like. It's too convenient. Mere weeks after being kidnapped by a guy who seems to want nothing from him but his alleged psychic prowess, he actually develops psychic prowess? This isn't just some sudden coincidental development in his life that lines up with a case in a weird way; this is in his head, and he's heard dead people dammit, and it changes way too many fundamental aspects of his life and world view that he should have been able to count on.
His mind has always been his haven, his greatest tool. He's proud of its level of functioning, he's constantly entertained by it and loves using it to entertain others, and in the various times of his life when he's needed an escape, he could withdraw into it and be safe there. Now? He doesn't know what kind of new corners and facets may be in store for him. And all this on top of forgetting his name…
Screw it. He has a headache—hardly surprising, considering—and he's exhausted, and maybe if he manages to sleep tonight, he'll be able to see Juliet again.
Chapter 13 by EvenAtMyDarkest
He doesn't know how long he's been here.
He knows it was moderately warm that morning in Utah when he woke up to all of this madness, but it's always at least moderately warm in his hometown, and they've been all over the country. Initially he kept a mental list and tally going of how many cities they'd stopped in. He lost track around twenty.
Christmas has passed, he knows that. It was a show day. He never thought to wonder before whether traveling carnivals had to work on Christmas, but… now he knows. They did have celebrations among the cast and crew afterwards. Livia gave him a Blues Brothers poster for his wall and pineapple with a huge red bow, and he got very, very drunk in Sebastian's train car apartment with a few of the sword swallower's friends.
He'd been having random flashforwards of everyone's Christmases back home for a week by that point anyway. Alcohol was what he needed. Unfortunately, the following morning brought the absolute worst headache he'd ever had in his life, along with jumbled flashes of what had gone down after the memory center of his brain decided to take the rest of the night off.
The train traveled through snow and ice two days later, and soon enough it was 2014. Arashk went to bed early that night, and in his sleep watched his friends herald the new year together. Their toast made him wake up with tears fresh on his face: "This is the year we find him."
It's warm this morning, so instead of a turban and robe, he goes for some simple face paint and a vest over a collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up—putting his third and last tattoo, a design like a vine curling around his right forearm, in full view. The Master didn't even order that one directly. The tattoo artist just showed up one day and said, "I was told you wanted some new ink. Just so you know, I'm only free till four."
He went all-out, making the decision to get it in a fairly visible area, and hoping he'd be allowed to leave his skin in peace for a while afterwards. So far, it seems to be working.
He peers into his reflection, putting the final touches on his eyelid eyes and the simple sunburst designs on his cheeks. He's glad he ended up getting a mirror in his bathroom, and often wonders why he didn't have one to begin with. It was strange, too, the way it came—in a package on his doorstep. And taped to the back of the box was a typed message reading simply, "This should help in using the face paint underneath your sink. –M"
Just thinking of it makes him snort. "M." Already mysterious enough, buddy. Now you're just trying too hard.
Livia's gotten him a few more decorative things in her trips downtown—often related to the town they're in, just as souvenirs, but sometimes she goes out on a limb and buys something just because it's from or is referencing something from the eighties. That kind of thing is pretty hit-or-miss, and while he appreciates that she tries, he can't bring himself to put up the posters of movies and shows that he's never watched. It just makes this room feel even more like someone else's. Not that he wants to feel like he's creating some kind of home here, but… he does want somewhere he can feel comfortable. Even if he's fooling himself just by thinking that might be possible.
She doesn't seem to mind that he doesn't use everything, and she never asks about it. In the beginning she seemed to treat him like he was made of porcelain—like communicating with him required constant vigilance and care, or she might accidentally break him. He's gathered that whatever the Master said to her about his "powers," he made him out to be very fragile, having had bad experiences with his visions and wanting to avoid having an excess if he could.
Of course, that's become closer to the truth since this whole mess started.
It was seven days after Mary when a little boy no older than seven or eight came in after a twenty-minute lull, and sat down silently at Arashk's indication. The moment Arashk touched his hands, fear shot through him—panic, concern, regret, all shapes and forms of negative emotions. He felt tears prick in his eyes, and quickly yanked his hands away, staring first at them and then at the bewildered child before him. He took a good look at his face for the first time, and immediately noticed the red rims around his eyes.
"You're upset," he said.
The boy wiped his nose on his sleeve. "Well, yeah." Rubbing his eyes, he continued, "I've been looking for my family… my sister and my parents. I was here with them but I haven't been able to find them and it's been like… a long time. You're like a fortuneteller, right? Do you know where they are?"
Arashk was still struggling through the residue of the boy's fear, and, not knowing what else he could possibly try, he only said, genuinely apologetic, "Don't worry so much. I'm sorry, I'm not… currently capable of fine-tuning my visions like that. Let me point you to security. They'll help you find your family."
As the days passed and he conducted a series of tentative experiments, it became clear that sometimes a touch transmitted a person's current emotions to him, and clued him in to his or her state of mind—but other times, it showed him a scene, and sometimes that scene hadn't happened yet. It all depended on whether the person he was touching was thinking about something specific—though the line between specific and not was one too fuzzy for even him to distinguish. One time a middle-aged woman entered his tent and he asked her to think about something she was looking forward to in the next week or two. By touching her hands, he got a pretty clear view of what was going to go down when her daughter came home from college for the weekend—the family would go out for pizza, the girl would have a ton of trouble with her biochemistry homework, and her time of departure would be delayed by a couple hours. Arashk described this to the woman, and she was obviously impressed, so he took it a step further—he asked her to picture a farther off event, at least a couple years away. This time, all he got was a vague sense of warmth and comfort, and a few flashes of blue. He confessed he wasn't sure what he was sensing, and she told him she'd been thinking of the cruise she and her husband planned to go on for their thirtieth anniversary.
Arashk eventually found the same principle applied to past events: the further from the present it took place, the harder it was to pick out details. He did get better at it with practice, but that trend was definite. Past and future, it was the same, except for the clarity—and while he would have thought that events that had already happened and were set in stone would be clearer, it was quite the opposite. When he looked at the past, he saw two images occurring in congruence—the way the person remembered it, and the way it had actually happened. Each version had a slightly different atmosphere hanging over it, but it varied so much from person to person that it was almost impossible to tell which was which without asking questions.
He sighs, half hoping he'll run into Livia later today, just to see a reliably friendly face, and half hoping he won't, because she's the one who treats him the most carefully. He's made it clear to pretty much everyone he speaks to on a semi-regular basis that he's not overly fond of touch. And doing that took conscious effort—normally he has no particular aversion to touch, but now things are different. For example…
On the eighteenth day after Mary he went to watch people practice their acts. It was something he hadn't done since he'd discovered this whole different side to his mind, as he'd been spending a lot of time trying to work through that. But he couldn't hide in his room forever; he'd already wasted enough time doing that. He needed to continue information-gathering. And maybe… maybe this way he'd have more success.
Sebastian was just sliding the tip of a long sword out of his mouth when Arashk arrived. The man was holding two other swords in his free hand, and Arashk could only assume that he'd had all three down his throat at once mere minutes before. When Sebastian's throat was clear, he tossed the sword into the air with a small flourish and managed to catch it in the hand that already held two other swords. In the same motion, he snapped his head downward and threw his arms outwards in a classic applause-seeking pose. His eyes immediately fell on Arashk, who began to clap wildly. "Attaboy, Seb!" he called, grinning.
"Ronaldo!" Sebastian cried, placing the swords carefully on the ground and stepping forward, hand extended. Arashk had found that the sword swallower frequently greeted people with a handshake, and he placed his own hand in Sebastian's unthinkingly.
The words "It's been a while" echoed in Arashk's ears as if over a loudspeaker as an image popped into his mind, overwhelming all of his other senses. His eyes went wide, and that was the last bit of awareness as to what his body was doing before he was standing in Sebastian's train car at least a decade before.
The area was not nearly as decorated or comfortable as Arashk had come to know; the walls were bare, and there was an empty suitcase propped against a wall. Sebastian was seated at the edge of his bed, and standing across the room from him was a younger version of the Master.
His physical appearance was more youthful, certainly. Late twenties, maybe? His haircut was a bit different—shorter. He had stubble, and his skin definitely appeared smoother. But that glint in his eyes… that was exactly the same.
"You don't have to worry so much," the man was saying, a seemingly genuine note of encouragement in his voice. "As long as you're slow and careful, it's the safest thing in the world. You know this."
"I do know," Sebastian said, but there was a shudder in his voice. Arashk felt how shaken he was, the nagging doubt that filled his mind to overflowing, but he couldn't discern any details. "I just… have trouble remembering."
As the scene continued, and Arashk's perspective shifted back and forth between a bird's eye view of the scene and a view through Sebastian's eyes, he began to notice something… off about Sebastian's face. Something was keeping him from identifying what it was, though… the vision's clarity? Was it too foggy? He couldn't quite figure it out. All he could do was receive the information that came to him.
"Well," said the Master, smiling at Sebastian reassuringly, "you have a very, very long time to train yourself to do that."
Sebastian nodded, but he looked tired.
Arashk realized he was gasping lightly, and suddenly remembered that he had to have a connection to his body to do that. Which meant he must be back in his body. The train car around him was gone. He was outside again, stumbling backwards, not sure what he was looking at. The sky was spinning around him, and he fell to his knees, and it was then that he finally figured out which way was up.
"Arashk, I'm sorry!" Sebastian's voice was floating around him, gradually climbing into focus. "I didn't realize that could affect you so much… is this unusual? Arashk, are you okay?"
"Fine!" he said brightly, or at least tried to, just like how he also immediately tried to get to his feet, but the ground lurched dangerously beneath him and he would have fallen on his damn psychic head if Sebastian hadn't grabbed his shoulder to steady him. He stood there, just focusing on his breathing for a moment before transitioning into simultaneously trying to mentally deal with what just happened and trying to come up with a reasonable lie—not something anyone should ever have to do at the same time, he tells himself sourly.
"Yes," he finally says, and his voice is almost normal, "it's unusual. Sorry, Seb. I do get visions triggered by touch—not all the time—it's just… for some reason, since I joined the show, they've been harder to control."
"That's odd," Sebastian said, concerned. "Are you all right?"
Seeing an opportunity to respond without speaking any more, Arashk only nodded.
Sebastian hesitated, and removed his hand from Arashk's shoulder. He swayed in place for a moment, but all his faculties had returned to him and he was pretty sure he remembered how to stand now.
"What did you see?" Sebastian asked quietly.
Of course he was wondering. Perfectly understandable, really. He had every reason to believe that Arashk was just inside his head—and he was right. "Not a lot," he said, and really, it hadn't been. "Just you talking with the Master about the whole sword-eating thing. Felt like an early conversation. You've been doing this gig for over ten years?"
Something in Sebastian's face changed. Arashk was sure he witnessed a compacted version of a war raging behind the man's eyes as for how to respond. After a moment, he only said, "Sixteen."
Arashk whistled. "That long?" He furrowed his brow. "How old were you when you got started?"
Another war. Shorter this time, though. "Nineteen."
"Wow. I tell you, you're probably more cut out for this traveling circus life than me. At least more used to it."
"How long have you been psychic?" Sebastian asked, a mixture of true curiosity and an obvious preference not to continue with this topic of conversation in his tone.
Arashk froze, and immediately gave himself a solid mental kick for it. This was exactly what he had just witnessed as rendering a lie completely ineffective, and here he was doing it himself. "Since I was eighteen," he said, maybe after the pause had stretched on for too long, but maybe not.
Sebastian nodded. Arashk wasn't sure whether that was trust in his eyes.
Arashk sighs. There was definitely something wonky about that conversation, and he's been dying to ask Sebastian about it ever since, or better—or at least easier—just touch him again and see if he can't have another, more useful, vision. But the guy won't lay a finger on him. It's out of respect because he's not sure Arashk can handle it, and honestly he's totally right to think that, but it's annoying as hell.
Livia pretty much does the same thing, which is really just as grating, because she's obviously hiding something too. He's been trying to brush against her seemingly on accident and pretend that the resulting visions don't really affect him, and he's had success only a couple times. But she's never thinking about anything particularly dramatic or useful when he tries this—once she was remembering a conversation with a fellow acrobat the day before, another time she was thinking about a TV show she was looking forward to watching that evening.
There was one notable exception to this, however.
He came to her door seeking company and, when she answered, got the feeling that she'd recently been crying, despite no physical evidence to back up this theory. He was immediately excited—and simultaneously kind of guilty about that excitement—thinking maybe something had happened with the Master. He had no good reason to think this, but he couldn't stop himself from hoping.
As soon as he saw an opportunity, he placed his hand on hers in what was meant to be a comforting gesture. Instantly a storm of emotions barreled from her mind and memory to his, and voices wafted around him, and he did his best to maintain some kind of façade of normalcy, and then he was plunged into something he didn't understand.
Shouts echoed all around him. There were only two voices involved, and one was Livia's. It took longer than usual for the visual part of the scene to come into focus. He didn't know why.
He was standing in a kitchen that seemed to glow a pale yellow with all the sunflowers it was decorated with. The windows bore golden curtains and there was a sunflower pattern circling the walls a bit below eye level. Arashk could see pale echoes of a little girl with blonde pigtails reaching to touch the images, a faint, encouraging voice telling her she'd be even taller than they were, one day.
The voices surrounding him now were nothing like that voice. The first words he made out belonged to Livia, stinging with tears: "Shut up! It's my life, my choice!"
Finally he located her. She was in the corner of the room, and her hair was a lot longer than he was used to. Almost to her waist. Impressive amounts of tears were dripping from her eyes and down her cheeks.
The other voice came again into focus, and it made him flinch, in whatever way he could: "You bet your ass it is, and I'll be glad of it when you crash and burn! Well, when that happens, don't come crying to me!"
Livia wrapped her arms around herself, and then Arashk wasn't seeing her anymore: He was seeing the woman across the kitchen from her. A bit portly, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, with light brown hair just starting to go white and the same grey eyes as Livia. The look of absolute rage she wore didn't sit well on her face.
"Please," Livia whispered. "You're not… You're serious?"
"Do I look like I'm anything but, you little brat?" the other woman snarled. "If you're gonna go, then go. And don't expect to be able to come back."
It was at this point that the negative energy, the tension whose buildup Arashk hadn't witnessed, hit its breaking point. Arashk lost all sensation, and then he was sensing more than he could process, and then he was on his hands and knees on Livia's carpet, letting out ragged gasps he couldn't control for a good long while after becoming aware of them. Livia was next to him, her hand on his back, saying words he didn't understand, and he was getting a little sick of that particular brand of crap.
After several seconds of focus, he realized she was pretty much just saying "Arashk" and "Are you okay?" over and over. Mild panic permeated her voice.
He grasped her arm, and she clasped her hand over his own. "How long did that last?" he asked, voice shuddering.
"Just a few seconds," she replied promptly, sounding relieved to receive the question. "You were just… standing there, blank-faced. You were kind of mouthing some words, but I couldn't begin to tell what you were saying. And now you're on the floor. Are you all right?"
He clapped his remaining hand down on her other shoulder, and was still gasping a little as he said, "I'm so sorry, Liv. I shouldn't have seen that."
"Seen what?" she asked quickly, but he heard the understanding in her voice.
"What you've been thinking about." Finally he was able to meet her eyes—wide, fixed on his face, and in the early stages of producing tears.
She flung her arms around him, and as he hugged her back, he got the distinct sense that she was trying to provide support to him just as much as she was seeking support for herself.
He never did describe that vision to her in any detail, and she didn't provide any context for it.
That's fine. He sincerely doubts that it's relevant to his escape efforts anyway.
He finishes his mental recap of all this information—which he finds himself engaging in most mornings these days—around the same time he finishes gelling his hair. Normally under these circumstances, he wouldn't bother with his hair at all. But it's been getting longer than he can manage, and gotten pretty obnoxiously tangled more than once, which isn't something he's had to deal with in a long time. Besides, he's seen the Master stare at him with a knot between his eyebrows, discreetly running his hand through his own hair, one too many times, and just last week found that some new products and combs had appeared underneath his sink.
He knows how messed up this is. The Master can't possibly really care about how he manages his hair—no, it's not at all about the hair. How he grooms himself is not important to either of them (normally, of course, it would be quite a ways further up the list for Arashk, but his current situation is far from normal). It's about little displays of the hold the man has over him. Arashk will gladly invest more time in his personal appearance if it will lessen the chances of someone he cares about getting hurt. And it's sickening.
Shaking himself out of these thoughts, he steps back a bit and surveys his work in the mirror. He's wearing a faded orange vest over a pale blue shirt. Tiny orange jewels decorate the vest, and an orange sash is wrapped around his waist. Clunky blue bracelets on his wrists tie the look together. The suns painted on his cheeks and the blue circles around his eyes, not to mention the short but thick and scruffy beard he's grown out of lack of shaving options, leave his face looking… not his own. He thinks his skin has paled a shade or two since starting here as well; that certainly doesn't help either.
He wonders how long it would take one of his friends or family to recognize him if they were to walk into his tent. The people he was closest to at the time were in on his psychic charade from the jump, so he has no frame of reference for their reactions to news like this. But others he'd known in the past, when finding out that he was allegedly psychic… none of them were exactly floored. They were impressed at what he knew, sure, but a lot of them were still dubious, and those who weren't still didn't consider his abilities too… otherworldly. He just saw more than most, and that was the end of it.
Now… he can hardly touch anyone or anything without flinching, he can't control when he has revelations, and he actually hears the dead and it's more terrifying than he would ever have imagined. He recalls her reaction on finding out he was a fake; how will she take it when she finds out it's real?
Hopefully better than he's been.
At least the ordinary act of remembering is still mundane, he supposes. At least he doesn't have to go through a vivid flashback whenever he wants to recall something from his own life. That would really suck. And as much as it steams him to admit that anything good has come of this unwelcome addition to his mind… it does seem that his brain can work even faster nowadays than it used to.
Not worth it, of course.
Or at least… he will absolutely not be able to clearly evaluate its pros and cons until he can get the hell out of here.
That evening at dinner, he's sitting at a table on his own, staring at his pile of nachos and trying to remember when such gloriousness stopped being so appetizing to him. He recalls eating this very meal-slash-snack ("sneal" some as-of-recently disused part of his brain supplies) with his best friend and tearing into it like animals. Somehow it just… doesn't make much sense to him anymore.
What is this world coming to when he, Arashk Ronaldo, can't just enjoy some freaking nachos?
It's been a lonely day. He had a brief exchange with Sebastian at the tail end of lunch, but that was it. Apart from his clients, anyway. He guesses that Livia is eating in her apartment, which she does for about sixty percent of dinners. He normally doesn't, going for the usual gruel provided during the workday. Because the only food he has in his own apartment is stuff that appears in boxes on his doorstep every week or so—mostly prepackaged microwaveable crap—and pieces of fruit and bags of chips he's taken from the community meals. Sometimes Livia brings him snacks from the supermarket, but it's not a terribly common thing, which is good, because he can't pay her back. His mini fridge is usually pretty well stocked with soda and water, and he's even started getting used to how crappy the latter tastes, so there's that at least.
As he chews unenthusiastically, he eyes the paper plate across the table diagonally from him. It has crumbs on it, and a possibly empty soda can resting on top, and he assumed when he sat down that whoever had been sitting there would be back soon. They haven't returned yet, and he's starting to think maybe they're not going to. Which just might give him an opportunity to practice.
Visions that he can't control or block and that could be about flipping anything are one thing, but he's found that visions triggered by objects are a little more predictable. Primarily, plates and cups and utensils are usually pretty innocuous. He'll get to watch someone eat a meal, maybe creep on a juicy conversation or two, and nothing intense enough happens to make it a difficult transition back to his own mind in the present. Once he saw the beginning of a tender conversation between a crew member and a trapeze artist whom Arashk hadn't known were dating. Once the napkin he picked up happened to be Sebastian's, and he just watched the sword swallower eat with a couple friends Arashk thought he recognized from Christmas.
In this moment, it's a way he can attempt to familiarize himself with the visions and maybe fine tune his understanding of them. And it's safe.
He counts to one hundred. It looks like the poor plate and can have been abandoned. He reaches for them.
When he touches the edge of the plate, rather than him being plunged into a different scene entirely, the scene around him just slowly melts until the sky's a touch brighter, the shadows are a touch shorter, and an old man is sitting across the table.
It's the same man Arashk very nearly spoke to the day the Master left that article on his bed, however long ago that was. His hair's grey, with just a few hints of brown left, but it's impressively thick for his apparent age. Reading glasses are tucked into his breast pocket, and he's enjoying a grilled cheese sandwich alone.
Doesn't look like it's going to be that fruitful. There's no sense of time in these vision things, which Arashk has found to be the most difficult to explain; it's like his brain fast forwards through the uneventful bits, and then later he has no idea how long any of it took in real time. Right now, the geezer's looking pretty chilled out, and some part of Arashk's brain begins to consider breaking the connection; it's not looking likely that anything's going to happen other than the old guy getting up and leaving his trash at the table, probably in a moment of forgetfulness, as old people are wont to experience (unless you're my father, Arashk adds silently).
Until someone sits across from him.
"Art," the newcomer says in greeting, and Arashk feels the man's name for the first time—Arthur. Arthur… London? Lowry? Lewis? Not remotely important, as Arthur's reply is simply
The way he says it trips Arashk up. There's an extra layer of meaning, some kind of unspoken irony, some context that Arashk doesn't have access to. He's never heard anyone else say it like that.
"What's new?" Arthur asks then.
"Not a lot." The Master passes him a soda can. "One of the snake charmer's snakes died. Utterly morose. Gotta order a new one."
Most people Arashk has spied on… erm, seen via his visions have talked about family and home life. Sure, they talk plenty about work as well, but Arashk would be surprised to hear that the Master has a family he still keeps in touch with. But then… making assumptions is still very dangerous.
"And it's looking like the fortuneteller is settling in."
Arthur nods. "That's good. He's seemed so unhappy. Glad he's starting to get comfortable."
"I don't know if I'd go that far. This method is of course the one that leaves them most prone to be unhappy. He may never get comfortable."
Arashk's mind is going in a million directions at once. Number one—"the snake charmer"? "The fortuneteller"? Surely he knows their names—goddamn, he's the one who picked out "Arashk Ronaldo"—and yet he refers to them by their acts. A very cold, dehumanizing thing to do really, and it just adds to Arashk's suspicion that the guy is simply a sociopath. What's even weirder is that Arthur didn't point it out or even react to it.
And what's this talk of "this method"? What method? Of doing what? Arthur obviously knew what he meant despite how freaking vague it was. How familiar is he with the Master and his mannerisms and activities? How long have they known one another?
The conversation's still going, but it's turned in the direction of one of the strongmen and is beginning to fade away. Around Arashk, the present is reasserting itself, and he finds himself sitting alone at his table, clutching a paper plate like it holds the answers to the deepest questions of the universe.
It might not know anything about the universe, but it certainly knows something.
A smile begins to curve Arashk's mouth, unbidden.
He has a new lead.
Chapter 14 by EvenAtMyDarkest
There are two kinds of objects.
Sometimes when Arashk picks something up, he experiences memories attached to it. The object itself need not be terribly important to the person or people whose memories Arashk finds himself in, but human contact is key. If something has spent most of its existence sitting in an attic, he will not see those years and years away from humanity. He may see the time the item was packed away in a box, and hear the conversation taking place above it, even if it doesn't factor into the discussion at all. But no object he comes across is psychically significant if it hasn't spent time around people. Everything depends on the human mind and human emotions. Based on the data he gathers, he's formulated a hypothesis that an item's psychic significance doesn't extend to before the moment it became whatever it is in most people's minds. He's not going to see what happened to one of the knife thrower's blades before it was melted down and repurposed to become a weapon any more than he'll see children climbing in the branches of a tree when he touches a book.
Type two is the one that offers an open link, and those kinds of items are significantly less available to him, but he's encountered a fair number of them, mostly during readings. He's rather proud of his discovery of this ability, just because he guessed it beforehand, so it didn't completely blindside him like most aspects of his newfound psychicness. Items of type two basically afford him the same view into a person's emotions and general thoughts as skin-on-skin contact sometimes does. He discovered this when he asked a preteen girl for permission to hold the locket she wore around her neck. It clearly meant a lot to her, and he'd suspected that items with great emotional value attached to them would be somehow psychically significant. But instead of receiving a vision of how she'd gotten the locket, as he had expected, when he held it in his hand he immediately was experiencing emotions that were not his own—thankfully not particularly strong ones, just mild curiosity and doubt, and the vaguely threatening thought You'd better not break it. He'd returned it, and immediately when he was able, he'd gone and retrieved Livia's copy of Pride and Prejudice, which he'd been continually telling her he was reading but that he hadn't actually touched for some weeks. Clearly it was important to her, and he really had been meaning to get through to the end, but it just hadn't happened yet. And he was glad, because now he could test the geographical limitations of this ability. When he picked up the book, he felt an immediate adrenaline rush. Sure enough, when he checked a few hours later, he discovered that at that time, Livia had been in the middle of an act.
Thank God these classifications mean there is still a fair number of objects out there that give him no visions at all, just a slight vague tingle of memories.
He doesn't know how the line is drawn, how an item's type is determined, and he suspects he never will. Or at least, he'll never have a much more concrete understanding of it than he does now; each object feels different, and he's never surprised to learn that any given object falls under one category or the other, but were he asked for an explanation, he'd never be able to give one.
After dinner that day, Arashk takes the paper plate to his room and places it in his seldom-used trash can. It ought to look perfectly harmless in case of any inspections taking place in his absence, and it's so rare that he has cause to empty his personal trash can that he should be able to have it available for re-experiencing that vision for quite some time. Even with this, he'd still be a bit worried that the Master might look through his trash and find the plate suspicious, but fate seems to have smiled upon him in this case, because he has brought disposable cutlery and plates and containers to throw away in his room on multiple occasions before. If the Master has been monitoring his trash—and really, he wouldn't put it past him—this shouldn't appear to be any cause for concern.
His next step—also known as his first step, and the only step in sight—is to acquire a type two object of the old man's.
Arthur Loriss, he's discovered his name is. This knowledge came the old-fashioned way—he just asked one of the acrobats about "the old guy" and got a name pretty quickly but not much else. Seems the dude pretty much keeps to himself. At least the name's stuck in Arashk's head this long.
Though the majority of him is still dead set on not spending valuable energy worrying about this name thing until he's gotten out of his current situation, some part of him wonders if the issue is related to his psychic abilities. Not its origin, but its prevention—after all, he doesn't seem to have had any similar problems since he came into his abilities. If he'd just done so a few weeks earlier… maybe he'd still remember his name.
Anyway. Enough thinking about that. He's got an old dude to rob.
It's going to be very difficult, though. He doesn't see Loriss a whole lot, and he's never actually spoken with him. And he has to assume that he's in on it, ready to report any suspicious behavior immediately to the Master. So when he does take a type two object, he has to leave Loriss with no reason at all to even consider the possibility that Arashk had something to do with its disappearance. Everything relies on stealth. It would be preferable for him not to notice it's gone at all, but people invariably notice when their emotional valuables go missing. No two ways about that.
He's sitting in a spare chair in the practice area, and originally he was idly watching Terrence across the ways as he lifted more and more ridiculously huge weights, but he hasn't been paying any attention since the first ten minutes or so. Instead he's been staring at the yellow grass a couple yards in front of him, trying to come up with a safe way to take Loriss' valuables. So far it's been a completely fruitless endeavor, and his mind has instead been continually drifting towards the people he's trying to protect.
To his dismay, in recent weeks his dreams of them seem to be growing less and less frequent. Well, "dismay" may be too weak a word—more like terror, terror that this inexplicable connection to these people may one day be out of his reach, and he'll lose his knowledge of the happenings of their lives, lose everything. Instead, he's been dreaming every once in a while of Livia and Sebastian and Terrence, of their various comings and goings in the towns they visit. His best hypothesis is that his dreams focus on the recent and upcoming activities of the people whom he spends the most time thinking about and interacting with. He doesn't quite know where to draw the line, because he hasn't had any real interaction with his friends or family back home in a long time but he sure still thinks about them a lot, and he spends enough time plotting the downfall of the Master that he ought to be making an appearance sometime as well.
He doesn't have normal dreams anymore. He kind of misses them.
He's in the middle of wondering whether his girlfriend has recovered from that cold she came down with last week when he suddenly snaps to attention, ready for Livia's presence. After a quick scan of the area yields no results, he turns around, and there she is, hand extended, mere inches away from where his back was.
She withdraws her hand and raises it instead to push a wisp of hair from her forehead, taking a step back. "You've gotten better at seeing me coming," she says, offering a small smile.
Arashk stares at her hand, relief flooding through him that he was able to find her before she touched him. After a moment, however, he remembers that only skin-on-skin contact has the potential to cause visions, and bites his lip, shuddering inwardly at the implications of his automatic aversion to the idea. What ever happened to Operation: Brush Against Livia and Seb When Possible? he scolds himself.
Not really sure what to say, he offers the simple greeting "Hi, Liv," voice lacking energy.
She cocks her head. "You okay? You sound tired."
He shrugs, and goes for the easy out. "I am."
Arashk tilts his head, looking up at her, searching for a plausible lie. "Bad dreams?" he tries, and could just about kick himself; what a lame excuse, and the way he said it sounded like a question.
"What does a psychic even dream about?"
It's not something she's ever asked before. He launches immediately and automatically into another search for a lie, but stops short, suddenly wondering if that's really necessary. He always feels the instinctive need to lie whenever questions about his powers are asked, but… lately he's been realizing that he doesn't have to anymore. He has a consistent story, because that story is true.
Then again, in this case, the answer Oh you know, just my family and friends I was torn away from when that "Master" of ours freaking abducted me wouldn't work either, for quite different reasons.
"That's a bit personal," he finds himself saying.
Liv nods quickly. "I'm sorry, you're right, that was out of line for me to ask."
Seeing an opportunity, he says quietly, "We've all got secrets."
She nods in agreement, trying for nonchalance. She doesn't do a bad job of it, but very little gets past him lately, and it was his goal to stir up some kind of reaction in her. He waits for her to say something, but when she does, it's only, "Whatcha doing out here?"
He suppresses a disappointed sigh. "Just… thinking. You about to practice?"
"Yeah. Just small scale stuff; I don't really have a lot of energy either."
Arashk hasn't watched Livia practice very much. She's usually off in her own corner. Arashk doesn't know why; it seems like she should be in full view, using the tightrope and the trapezes, but for a circus performer she seems to enjoy her privacy. When he has watched her, though… every time he's walked away frustrated and amazed. A lot that she does seems like it should be very much not possible. She'll alter her trajectory midway through a jump, dive forward and continue her momentum in a series of tumbles that goes entirely longer than it should be able to, jump when it looks like she didn't even bend her knees… She especially likes to stand and walk on her hands, and one time when he startled her with his entrance while she was in the middle of such a practice and she started to fall over, she managed to straighten up again in a way that did not look at all natural. The lower half of her body just kind of turned on the way down, she flung one hand in the air to steady herself, and she ended up straight as ever, toes pointed skyward. Arashk didn't even know what to say or ask. It was too bizarre, and she played it off as a perfectly normal thing.
"Must be nice not having to practice or prepare," Livia says, shaking him out of the recollection.
She's standing beside him now, and really doesn't seem that keen on heading off to practice. He'd offer her a chair, if he had an extra one; as far as he's concerned, laziness is to be encouraged. "But you enjoy the practice, right?" he asks idly.
She takes a fraction of a second too long to reply, and he looks up at her face quickly. She's wearing a soft smile and her eyes have an unfocused look to them, and something inside him that he knows he has to trust tells him that it would be a good idea to continue pressing the issue.
"Of course," she says as soon as he comes to this decision, and she sounds genuine, but there's something else behind her words. "It's just… sometimes I wonder… Never mind."
"Wonder what?" he urges, immediately interested.
"No, go on. Tell me." He tries an encouraging smile, but she just shakes her head, so he ventures, "You wonder if it's necessary?"
"It's not that." She bites her lower lip, but it turns into a tiny smile again as she continues. "Just… you know. I wonder where I'd be today if the Master hadn't told me about the show."
Bingo. "How'd that happen, anyway?" he asks, trying for all he's worth to sound casual.
She shrugs. "He was in my hometown, holding auditions, and he saw my performance at a gymnastics competition. Encouraged me to try out."
She's leaving something out. He knows it. It might not be important, it might be personal, it might have everything to do with that shouting match in the sunflower kitchen and nothing to do with the Master himself, but he can't risk not finding out. "It was that easy, huh?" he probes, and he knows his mask is crumbling and his desperation is just starting to show, but he can't do anything about it. Not anymore.
After a long pause, she nods. "Yep. That easy."
He stares at her, and she clearly isn't going to go any further and he's sick of no one talking to him about things he has to know, and in a moment of pure impulsiveness, he reaches out and grabs her hand.
Right off the bat it's clear as day that he's staying within this time. He's not reaching into her past, so she must not have a specific event in mind, which is a bit unexpected, given the conversation. But it's something he's seen numerous times in readings—when something happens that really matters to a person, after a while of thinking about it, it becomes less about the specific memories, and more about the feelings behind them. The woman who had won five hundred dollars in the lottery last year wasn't thinking about the day she found out so much as the happiness and the comforts the money had brought her; the older gentleman who was remembering the day his twin children were born was thinking about the joy of new fatherhood mixed with the fear for his wife; the young lady whose longtime boyfriend had broken up with her several months before was broadcasting nothing but grief and confusion. All he got from them were emotions, brief snippets of dialogue, and a name here and there. He had to flat out ask them for details. Hell, Arashk himself has displayed similar symptoms and he knows it; after the first month or so he stopped thinking so much about the specifics of his situation during his constant bouts of resentment and just kind of started picturing the Master's face and considering how much he hated it.
In Livia's mind he sees the vague shape of a face, and it might be the Master's and it might be someone else's; he can't make out enough details to be sure. Everything around him feels… confused. Confused and extremely bitter. He slides back and forth between thoughts and feelings and every time he lands on one it's something new: a feeling of great pride tinged with trepidation, a void left where something wonderful ought to be, a heart threatening to pound straight out of its respective chest, the simple word why playing on a loop, the feeling of falling, the very specific mixture of fear and anticipation that signals a change in living space, a name, a… a…
He consciously tries to steer himself back to that, and eventually succeeds. Upon examination, all he can really say of it is that it's very… unusual. An anomaly. He can identify it as a name, but he's never been able to do so without also figuring out at least part of what that name was. The piece of information is shrouded with a grey fog Arashk can't pierce, and from it leaks a thin mist that hangs over the entirety of her thoughts. He never noticed it before, but now that he sees what appears to be its origin, it's undeniable—that mist was present every time he stole a glimpse inside Livia's mind. All coming from this name she knows but doesn't.
It doesn't make any sense. It's two facts that conflict fundamentally and he doesn't know how to reconcile them. Nobody remembers that a name exists and thinks back on it and holds it as important but forgets the name itself—
It hits him so hard he thinks he sees stars.
The situation is a little too familiar.
Chapter 15 by EvenAtMyDarkest
"Arashk! Arashk! Are you all right?"
Only a few seconds have passed, he can tell. In his absence, his body seems to have stayed pretty chill; he's still seated in the chair, blinking profusely, hands hanging limply by his sides. As his vision rapidly comes back into focus, he sees that Livia's kneeling in front of him, wearing the same concerned expression she usually has when he comes out of a vision. Her hand is grasping his shoulder, carefully positioned so her arm doesn't brush against his cheek.
"Yeah," he says after a few seconds, shaking his head. "Fine."
At this affirmation she immediately stands up, her expression morphing into something he's never seen on her before. "Then what the hell was that about?" she demands, eyes wide, a knot forming between her brows.
He blinks up at her, and opens his mouth, still not sure how he's going to respond, but she continues before he can formulate an answer: "That was a total invasion of privacy! And what happened to the whole 'don't touch me' attitude? I thought you preferred to avoid visions when you could!"
"Yeah, and who told you that, exactly?" he retorts, and immediately snaps his mouth shut. Idiot. Think before you speak. She's upset, and she will go back to him with anything suspicious if she stays that way. Keep it cool.
She's staring, and her eyes are still wide, but now she just looks bewildered. "The Master did. Why is that important?"
He shakes his head. "Forget that. Just… can I ask you a question?"
The look she gives him is not encouraging, but after a moment she just says in a small voice, "What?"
Arashk draws in a breath, deep and controlled. This might be a truly terrible idea. But he has to know. He's losing his mind, and he has to know if there's the tiniest chance that… that he's not the only one. He can always do damage control later.
And before he has a chance to talk himself out of it, he asks, "Is Livia Istok the name you were born with?"
The look that passes over her eyes answers his question immediately. She opens her mouth, but the word seems to die on her lips.
But he doesn't need it.
He points at her, eyes wide, and says with renewed confidence in his voice, "It's not, is it? You took it when you joined the show, I'll bet. Another inquiry, if I may—what was your name before that?"
Livia's staring at him with her eyes wide and her mouth still slightly open.
He leans forward eagerly. "Come on, it's a simple enough question."
Even as he gets closer to her, she steps back. "Arashk, I'm not—"
"Or might I rephrase—can you tell me your name before that?"
She's visibly uncomfortable. "I don't see why you want to know."
Confirmation. Not that he needed it. "I know it's personal, but it's also important, and…" He's getting excited. Somewhere in his mind it registers that this is a dangerous thing, and while normally he'd probably just brush such a thought aside, the things his mind produces nowadays as far as theories about what might happen are much worthier of being listened to. He closes his eyes for the briefest moment, reorienting himself, and
"Are you like me?"
He thinks he gasps, but he's in his mind now, and he can never be sure what his body is doing when that's the case. He sees her diving towards him as he heads for the door, he sees the false smile drop from her face, he sees her lips forming those words—Are you like me? And then he was there, and he urged Arashk away, and then he told her something, something to discourage her from pursuing the line of inquiry any further. But most of all, Arashk sees the desperation in her eyes. They're the eyes of someone who has been very, very alone, who sees the slightest possibility of finding a kindred spirit, whose every hope hinges on a single answer in the affirmative.
No wonder the life had left her eyes by the next time he saw her. That… that man had snatched away her hope. She must have felt even more alone than before.
As Arashk opens his eyes after what should have been only a few seconds Livia's about to vanish from his line of sight. He registers her brusque words "I have to go practice" several seconds late, and he just about falls flat on his face as he leaps out of the chair and tries to start running. Clearly his questions were driving her away, but now he thinks he knows what to say to get her to open up.
Arashk dashes after her, calling, "Liv! Hold up!" The moment he calls her name, though, is the same moment she rounds a corner, disappearing behind a line of trailers full of equipment.
He's only a few seconds behind her. But when he skids to a halt around the same corner, she is nowhere to be seen.
He just stands there for a few moments, blinking in disbelief. But there's no time to work out how she might have vanished so completely so immediately—he just has to find her, because she did not leave him in a state that he can trust to keep quiet, and if that damn man hears a single word about this—
He doesn't know, can't know, who's around. There's no reason to suspect there's anybody within earshot, but he's become more than a little paranoid of late, and justifiably so. The Master, he has to assume, has ears everywhere.
He has to risk it.
"Livia," he calls, stepping forward cautiously. "I know you're scared, but you don't have to be. We need to talk. Hear me out. I… I am like you, Liv. Or whatever your name used to be. Please…" He blinks back sudden tears. "Please don't tell him about this."
He walks around the vicinity, repeating the message as many times as he dares, because she might be hiding, and if she ran, he has no idea which way. He gives up these efforts after several minutes and wanders around for a few more until he finds the typical area where she practices. But she's not there.
Arashk has been lying on his bed trying to sleep for half an hour when he has to throw in the towel. A nap's not happening. When he returned to his apartment after thirty minutes of attempting to locate Livia, he was exhausted, and it just figures that he wouldn't be able to sleep. Then again, the moderately loud jazz music his neighbor is playing doesn't exactly help. Normally he doesn't really mind. Now's different.
He just wants to see her. Her golden hair, her sky blue eyes, her brilliant smile. He wants to hear her laugh until she has to hold her sides, he wants to hear her sing. To smell her hair, stroke her face, twirl her on the dance floor, kiss her till she sees stars.
He wishes with everything inside him that he could remember her name.
The time has come to face the facts. He's been avoiding putting what's happened into words in his head—as if doing so would suddenly make it real. No, it was always real, and sure it doesn't make a goddamn bit of sense, but since when has anything in this world?
He can't remember their names. None of them. Not one of the people he dreams about, not one of the people he's idly thought of in spare moments. His ex-girlfriend, the teacher who loved service, the one who wanted to live to change people. That tall, grouchy, trigger-happy detective embittered by the world and trying to stay cool and distant, but who definitely liked him, deep deep down. His father, whom he can at least still label "Dad"—or "Father," or "Pa," or whatever he used to call him, but probably "Dad"—who shaped him into what he is now, who never stopped loving him but also never had a flipping clue how to show it. His best friend for as long as he can remember, his loyal sidekick, a pharmaceutical salesman, a great dancer, a ferroequinologist, some of whose ridiculous nicknames have managed to stick in his head, but whose real name is lost.
His beautiful girlfriend, brave and strong and smart and kind, a skilled detective, a truly good person, the woman he would marry straightaway if he weren't so commitment-phobic.
If he ever manages to get out of here, he'll somehow relearn her name, and he'll propose as soon as he's sure he's got it.
Most countries, cities, and states remain in his mind. He knows he was born and raised in the southwest of the United States, and he can still clearly picture his hometown on the coast, the house where he grew up—he just couldn't produce even one part of his address. He has some inkling of the street number, but based on his track record, he wouldn't bet on being right.
He sits up. There's something he's trying to distract himself from with this subject of thought, isn't there? As soon as that thought enters his mind, he shies away from it, groping for something else to think about, but it's back again, and it's not letting him forget—Livia—the Master—the people whose names he can't remember—
His eyes are suddenly and intensely drawn to his door. Acting on a sudden impulse that rises from somewhere deep inside him, he gets up, crosses the room, and pulls it open.
Just outside, Livia jumps in surprise, lowering her hand. Normally he'd be registering a similar sort of surprise, but he realizes that he's actually quite impassive at the moment. Maybe he's finally starting to get used to this.
He unconsciously bites the inside of his cheek as he waits for her to speak. Somewhere in him is a bright optimism, that her appearance this soon after that conversation is probably a very good sign. He does all he can to squash it. In this moment, optimism feels very, very dangerous.
Livia's pursing her lips, watching him, apparently still searching for the right words. After a few seconds that feel like way longer, she says quietly, "You were right."
Oh God. Oh sweet Jesus in heaven, thank you. Something's going to go right. He's going to learn something he can use, or at least gain some sort of comrade, and for the first time in however the hell long he's been here, things will be looking up.
Livia opens her mouth to continue, and even though he checks his room for bugs every night and sometimes during the day as well and is reasonably sure that they're not under any kind of surveillance, before she can get a word out he steps forward onto the tiny platform at the top of the stairs that lead up to his door—so tiny that Livia has to step back to the first step to make room for him—pulling the door shut behind him. "Let's take this elsewhere," he says lowly.
For a few moments she just stares at him. Then a dark understanding overtakes her eyes, and she turns and starts down the stairs.
Arashk follows her down, but takes the lead once they hit the ground. Something urges him to go left, and he's not yet sure where they're headed—he just knows they shouldn't be seen walking around together. The Master must know at this point that they've become friends, so if they're seen just having a conversation that shouldn't be suspicious, but… he would avoid letting anyone overhear any part of this particular conversation, if at all possible.
He stops by a car that they both know is used only for storage, and ascends the short staircase. He knows before he tries the knob that it will be unlocked. Grinning involuntarily, he pulls the door open and steps aside, gesturing to Livia to go ahead in.
Livia looks at him dubiously.
"No one will be coming in here for at least a few hours," Arashk asserts.
She asks, apparently without thinking, "How do you know?"
"I just do," and that's really all there is to it. He is certain that it's true, and he's gotten over the days when he just had to fact check and worry and wonder before finally accepting that his unfounded certainty carried any weight. He still somehow feels a little violated when this happens, when some realization enters his mind outside of his perception or understanding, but he's not about to complain now.
Livia doesn't ask for any further explanation. She steps inside, and he follows after, closing the door firmly behind him.
He finds the single light switch rather quickly, and conducts a quick scan of the room's contents. Mostly game stuff—collapsed tents, rings, huge stuffed animals.
"Did you say anything to the Master?" he asks immediately on turning.
She doesn't answer immediately, and his heart just about stops. But after a few seconds of considering him silently, she says softly, "No."
His heart starts beating again, and he exhales. "Good," he manages.
"Why?" she asks almost immediately.
His mind is already racing. Should he explain? He already seems to have… "recruited" her, at least in part; why not go all the way? This hyper-freaky selective amnesia has to mean they have something in common, but it really seems that she is, in fact, here of her own free will. If she wasn't abducted like he was, he doesn't really have another guess as to what that connection might be. So the question here is… will telling her that he was kidnapped increase his chances of getting further useful information?
It might. He has no way of knowing. Revised question: what would he be risking by telling her?
She clearly trusts the Master. She's never voiced any doubts about his character. But she seems to be very tentatively accepting of the possibility that he's not what he seems—at least enough to go this long without talking to him about what she surely normally would have reported soon after it happened.
But should he risk it?
Discretion is the better part of valor. Instinct tells him to keep quiet for now. There is obviously something beyond the realm of normal human understanding at play here and it could be dangerous just to put that extra information in her head.
On the other hand, it could be the one thing that leads to her sharing something that she wouldn't otherwise—whether just by causing it to occur to her, or by inspiring sufficient trust.
He tries to see things her way. To her, as far as Arashk knows, the Master is a kind man who gave her a steady job that she loves when her family wasn't supporting her and who has never given her reason to doubt him until, perhaps, now. And Arashk is a psychic of questionable stability who wants to keep secrets from him.
Telling her might inspire more trust. But if it doesn't inspire enough, she could turn back to the man who has it out for him and give him a reason to hurt Arashk's family.
He has no way of knowing. His head is starting to hurt. Livia looks concerned.
So he does the only thing he can think to do.
He changes the subject.
"When I was in your mind," he says quietly, trying for all he's worth to appear composed, "I saw a name. But it wasn't like any other name I've ever sensed—because I couldn't actually tell what it was. That's extremely unusual. Do you see how strange that is? To remember a name that you once knew, but not actually remember what it was?"
There's suspicion in her eyes. But for now, he doesn't sense any intention to push him to explain himself—at least not immediately. He knows the words he's saying are hitting close to home. With every word the suspicion is replaced more and more with terrible, crushing loneliness and general misery, with a dash of old confusion mixed in for good measure.
"Okay," she says, immediately beginning to fidget with the ring on her index finger like she does whenever she's nervous, but her eyes are locked on him. "Okay," she says again, and, the words clearly a struggle for her, "you were right."
Arashk waits for her to continue, eyes wide, hanging on her words.
"I…" She bites her lip, and actually squeezes her eyes shut before finally managing, "I don't know my name."
God, he wishes he could smile. He remembers a time when he used to do it a lot more. He knows he shouldn't, but the confirmation beyond any shadow of a doubt is such a relief, such a comfort, he would love to be able to show it, even in a simple way. But Livia looks like she's about to cry, and with that right in front of him, his instincts won't allow a smile.
Instead, he just says quietly, "I don't know mine either."
At once she looks at the ceiling and lets out a small gasp, a release of air it sounds like she's been holding in for a while. She rubs at her eyes roughly, but they still appear to be pretty dry. "I'm such an idiot," she whispers fiercely. "When you first came to me and introduced yourself, you gave a different name than the one I'd heard people saying, and I wondered, but—but I had accepted a long time ago that I was just insane, and Livia probably really was my name, and either way it had nothing to do with anyone else, and… and…" She trails off, clearly trying to compose herself. She still hasn't shed a tear. Arashk is impressed.
"No use beating yourself up over it," he says quietly, consolingly. And, after a pause, "Where'd 'Livia Istok' come from then?"
She glances at him, looking puzzled. "Everyone was just calling me by it when I arrived. It was on all my papers, even in my own handwriting… My original name, which I'm sure was written on at least a few of my possessions, was replaced by it… When I started seeing it written down everywhere, I stopped correcting people. I never said another word about it. It was just too absurd."
He's silent for a moment, trying to decide on the best thing to say next. But Livia's not quite done. "And what about you?" she asks. "Arashk Ronaldo. Where did that come from?"
"I mean… about the same as it was with you, I guess." He frowns. There are a couple more details he could mention, but they involve the Master, and he's not ready for her to ask about that again.
Fortunately, he's spared from having to continue when Livia whispers, "Why us, Arashk? Why did we forget?"
Arashk rubs his head. "I don't really have a solid theory at the moment," he admits, "but there has to be something that we have in common. And… it was probably done to us on purpose." He's been hearing the dead and sensing the future for several months at least and even now the words sound ridiculous.
"How?" Livia asks, eyes wide.
He shrugs helplessly. "No idea. But here's what I do know: it happened to both of us as soon as we joined the show. It's something to do with this carnival, Liv. Probably a person within it." He draws in a breath, and before she can take advantage of the pause to ask another question, he barrels on, "God, okay, listen, you have to trust me. Please trust me. The old man in the setup crew, Arthur Loriss, he might know something, and I need to get something of his that he values to try to find out what it is, but he cannot know that I have it, can't even know it's been stolen—"
"Arashk, slow down!" Livia cuts in, and she sounds frustrated. "You need to steal something from Loriss?"
He nods. "Some object he has a strong emotional connection with. So I can keep track of his thoughts and feelings and—"
"What makes you think he has anything to do with this?"
There is no patience in her eyes anymore. She's stopped fiddling with her ring. Her arms are crossed, her jaw set. She wants answers, and she wants them now.
"I'm so sorry," he says, and his voice comes out hoarser than he expected. He pauses to clear his throat, and repeats, "I'm so sorry, Liv, but the fact is, somebody was in our heads to find our names and pull them out. For reasons that I can't tell you, the full explanation would be very dangerous to disclose and trust me, I would give my blood to make this less complicated, but as it stands… I can just say I'm sorry."
Her arms have loosened just a touch, but she's still holding his gaze.
He puts his hands together in a praying position. "Please. All I'm asking is for you to help me get one thing from Loriss and not go to the Master about it. I know he asks after me. I know you worry about me. And I know it's a long shot, but if this works, this just might help us remember our names."
That does the trick. Her eyes soften, and he can read a deep longing in them, the fulfillment of which she's not about to deny herself. At least, he hopes not. Her family's not on the line; as far as he can tell, this whole name business is the most confusing and upsetting aspect of her life right now, and were he in her position, and offered a chance at getting it back, he's sure he'd take it in a heartbeat.
"I don't like keeping secrets," she begins hesitantly, and Arashk swears his vision starts to go black around the edges. Is he about to faint? He can't recall ever experiencing that in response to a purely emotional stimulus.
"But," she continues, and suddenly the world manages to right itself, "if somebody is in fact keeping my name a secret from me, I want to know why. And I want it back."
He stares at her, blinking. A quiet but unshakeable determination has taken root in her eyes. And a grin starts to curve Arashk's mouth, completely out of his control. "Liv," he breathes, "I think that was the most badass thing I've ever heard."
A laugh of pure surprise escapes her, serving only to widen Arashk's grin even more. It's such a simple thing, but all of a sudden it's like part of the enormous load on his shoulders has been lifted. He doesn't want it to end. So in the cover of Livia's giggles, he allows himself a little laugh as well.
For just a moment, he feels like his old self again.
If only he had a label for it.
Near-comfortable silence descends on them. Arashk enjoys it for a few more seconds before deciding it's time to get back on track. "If you do in fact get something," he says, "bring it to my apartment. Don't actually say out loud that you have it. And if I'm not there, don't leave it at my doorstep or anything."
"And make sure Art has no reason to suspect it's been taken." She nods. "Got it."
He sighs. Going over the rules again just solidifies to him the practical impossibility of this endeavor. It just… can't be done. Leastways not anytime soon. He knows that. He also knows that having recruited Livia, he ought to feel more vulnerable. At least he knew he could trust himself to be covert and keep his own secrets.
But utilizing a skill born out of long years of practice, he can make it a decision—feel less safe because he has a potential blabbermouth, or more safe because he has a confidant. There's no going back now, no benefit to be had from feeling insecure. This is no longer a situation in which those survival instincts can help keep him safe, so he'll take a feeling of security any day.
He's pretty sure all that needed to be said has been said. The summary of the situation felt more than a little like a parting line. He unconsciously takes a step towards the door as he pulls up a mental list of everything they've covered, and cross checks it with a list of everything they needed to cover. As far as he can tell, things are looking good. "Remember," he says, deciding this would be something good to leave her with, "rule número uno: you can't breathe a word of this to anyone."
Livia considers him for a moment, and opens her mouth. He's fully expecting one last question or expression of confusion to come out of it, but what she does say, voice saturated with uncertainty, catches him by surprise: "Should I carry on calling you 'Arashk'?"
He blinks. And blinks again. Though it's an exercise in futility that he's put himself through time and time again and that has yielded no success, his mind flashes through a million different memories that really ought to include his real name. But, as ever, where the people in those memories ought to utter that name, what comes out of their mouths is just white noise.
"Yeah," he finds himself saying. "I mean, you've gotta call me something. And using any other name would look fishy. So… if you're asking if I mind…" He pauses. "I do. A lot. But it's okay; I'll know what you mean. Or rather, I won't, but… I'll know what you mean to mean."
She smiles uncertainly.
"What about you?" he asks, bringing his voice down a notch.
Her smile takes on a more genuine look. Her eyes wander away from his for a moment, but they manage to return as she says, "You know… no one's ever really called me 'Liv' before you showed up. Every time you say it, it's… it's nice. I know it's still no replacement for my birth name, but it's also not what everyone else around here thinks my birth name really is."
Arashk finds himself smiling back—an honest to goodness smile for the second time in just a few minutes. He's on a roll today. "See you later, Liv."
Her face is still lit up with muted happiness, but as he places his hand on the door handle the smile fades. And she says, in a tone that leaves no room for argument, "I fully expect a complete explanation as soon as you can give it."
He blinks in surprise at the sudden tone shift, but he nods. A few drafts of oral responses flit through his mind, but there's really not anything else to be said. She really shouldn't be trusting him. All he can do is be thankful that she is.
Arashk steps outside, and before he's even managed to shut the door, a shout sounds behind him: "Hey!"
Oh crap oh damn why didn't he check for witnesses before he stepped outside he's such an idiot—
He turns around, and standing a few yards away from the bottom of the stairs is Terrence. The strongman's wearing his typical wife beater, short shorts, and fingerless workout gloves, but the expression on his face is far more severe than the one he usually wears. "What were you doing in there, Ronaldo?" he calls, crossing his arms.
Okay. Okay okay don't panic Arashk, just—He squeezes his eyes shut, trying to orient himself. Just be the unstable psychic he thinks you are.
"Terrence," he says, eyes snapping open, thanking the powers that be that Terrence called him out before Livia left the car. She's still inside. She must know something's going on. "Terrence," he says again, trying to find the right words, "I… I'm not really sure where I am."
The emotion on the strongman's face shifts—it's not quite what Arashk would describe as rage, but maybe rage's first cousin. "Do I look like a fool?" he spits, and oh God he's coming closer. Arashk hurries down the stairs, hoping to have the conversation at ground level, but Terrence steps briskly past him, and of course there is nothing in Arashk's power he can do to physically stop him. He's never suspected Terrence to have a personal vendetta against him, and he still doesn't, but the guy is clearly a strict rules-follower, and he's gotta admit this doesn't look good.
"Wait, Terre," he pleads, following him back up the stairs, "I promise I didn't break anything, I didn't mean to go in there, this happens sometimes, I just wake up in strange places after visions and—" In what he knows is a futile effort to stop a guy two heads taller than he is and at least twice his weight from moving forward, he grabs at Terrence's forearm.
He's never touched Terrence before. He always kind of suspected that if he did, he'd find himself in a tattoo parlor. Now, as he becomes accustomed to his new surroundings, he realizes that's a bit far off the mark. He's standing in a nice apartment decorated with pale green and off-white, and across from him, a younger version of Terrence stands facing a pretty woman with a creamy complexion and a cascade of wavy blonde hair.
It's a quick one, as visions go; Arashk hears the words "You need to slow down" floating around him, he feels a name beginning with S, he senses a relationship between the two people in front of him that used to be strong but is now breaking rapidly apart. Terrence looks profoundly upset, but at the same time, composed… There are knives mounted all over the wall behind him… They're both wearing long sleeves and the calendar on the wall bears a picture of a snow-covered tree…
It all fades away faster than it usually would, and somewhere in the back of his mind he wonders if he's starting to develop some control over the duration of his visions. It's a nice thought that the psychic center of his brain might be in the process of becoming attuned to when he's okay with checking out for a few minutes at a time, and when he really really needs to be present and aware of what's happening around him.
He's in the middle of rapid-fire blinking when he returns to his body, and Terrence is standing halfway up the small set of stairs, just watching him. Arashk's gaze goes automatically to the area on his arm he touched, and sure enough, his eyes fall on the word "stop."
Suddenly he feels like writing a research essay on the psychic significance of tattoos. Or making his best friend write such an essay, like he always did back in school. Do they count as objects? How interesting.
Wait. Terrence is standing alone. His expression is significantly more forgiving, all the anger at being lied to having drained away, and he looks… concerned. Arashk has gotten tired of being looked at like a damn charity case, but in this instance it's a huge relief.
It also doesn't make a lick of sense.
Was there a window in there? Did Liv hide and Terrence just didn't look very hard? How the hell did he not find her?
Stop thinking about that, Arashk, you can't afford to be distracted. Terrence has expressed doubts in regards to his psychic abilities in the past; if there were ever a time and opportunity to seal the deal, this is it.
"She was a knife-thrower, I bet," he tries, and Terrence's expression changes, and that unelaborated fact alone freaks Arashk out enough that he continues, "I mean, I don't know how else to explain all those knives. I feel like that was a different circus than this one; not really sure why, but it's the analysis I'm sticking with. You've been part of multiple circuses? That's neat. I'm sorry about the whole situation, she was beautiful, and she loved you, but something went wrong along the way, you were taking different paths or something, I'm not sure… Happened in the dead of winter too, I feel like that's prime breakup time for some reason…"
Man, he's already babbling. He'd love to be suave with this. But even beyond the fact that he probably couldn't currently pull off "suave" if he tried, it just doesn't seem to be his best bet to get Terrence on his side.
"You saw her?" the strongman asks, his voice quiet, his features controlled.
Arashk nods. "Was it… Sally?" Terrence's eyebrows quirk just enough that Arashk feels safe saying, "No, not Sally. Um… Sam… Samantha."
"Samantha," Terrence whispers, a small smile curving his mouth.
Arashk points to the "stop" on the strongman's arm. "She'd approve of that, I'm sure," he offers, and immediately wishes he'd given himself more time to think of something a little more… eloquent.
Sticking true to the way he's always been and not learning from his mistakes, he switches gears and goes on immediately, "I'm sorry I was in there. I got lost in a vision, and the door must've been unlocked. It's a lot like sleepwalking." He takes on a pleading look, and says in the most pathetic voice he can manage, "Please don't tell anyone. It was an accident. It won't happen again."
Terrence is sold, he can tell immediately. His concern has evolved straight into pity, and Arashk silently congratulates himself, for once glad to see that expression directed towards him. "Hey, don't worry about it," he says. Aw, Terrence. You're just a big softie, aren't you? "Just…" Arashk can see the full struggle to find something appropriate to say on the strongman's face, and indeed, Arashk is pretty curious as to how he's going to finish that sentence. While he waits, he just counts his blessings that this BS about sleepwalking isn't actually something he has to deal with.
"Just be careful," Terrence finally settles on. "You said you don't know where you are. Have you figured it out?"
Arashk blinks. "Uh… I think my apartment is that way, if that's what you're asking?"
Terrence nods. He seems to actually be offering genuine reassurance, which means he must remember the one time he came to Arashk's door—when he gave him the key his second night here. Impressive.
"Well… I think I'll go have a nap." He makes solid and prolonged eye contact with Terrence and makes sure to put on the most disgustingly grateful expression in his arsenal when he says "Thank you" one more time. He almost wants to complete the sentence with a reminder of what exactly he is thanking Terrence for not doing, but best not; the guy knows, and this way it will feel less like he's following instructions and more like he's doing a favor.
"No problem," the strongman says, offering a small smile of reassurance, and Arashk starts padding in the direction of his apartment, feeling Terrence's eyes on his back the whole way. He tries to calm his heart, still pounding hard and fast, and after performing a few breathing exercises, he has to resist the urge to look back at the train car that Livia is apparently no longer in. That woman is amazing. And… kind of utterly infuriating. He'll have to ask how she managed it the next time he sees her, if it's safe.
Once he's decidedly passed out of the range of Terrence's view and the train car that contains his apartment enters his line of sight, he starts wondering whether he's in a better or worse place than he was half an hour ago. In that time alone two people have been given ammunition to use against him if they so choose, but also reasons not to do so.
He decides, as he's been trying to do the whole time he's been here, trying to do his entire life, to look on the bright side. Keeping that up is the only way he's going to get through this.
Well, one thing's for damn sure: he really does need a nap.
Chapter 16 by EvenAtMyDarkest
The next day is a day of travel. Arashk spends it more or less bored out of his skull.
They've been on the move since late last night and he doesn't even get out of bed till nearly noon, but less than half an hour later he's ready to beat his head against the wall. Being alone with his thoughts is the last thing he wants.
After making himself some toast, he casts his eyes about the apartment in search of something to do. He skims over the sight of Livia's copy of The Princess Bride lying on his dresser, the drawer that contains those cheap old video games he got unbearably bored with in a matter of a couple weeks, and his eyes land inevitably on the sketchpad by his bedside lamp.
He sighs softly, and climbs onto his bed to pick it up. Mostly he's doodled people, food, and movie characters in improbable situations—his personal favorite so far is an image of that dinosaur from Land Before Time leaping out of an exploding helicopter. It's almost full, at this point. He counts seven pages out of fifty that haven't been used.
Very suddenly, it hits him that he should be using those pages. For insurance. He's forgotten his own name and the names of all the people closest to him. There is a very decent chance that "Arthur Loriss," a name he absolutely cannot afford to let go of, is going to slip out of his head at some point in the very near future.
"Idiot," he whispers to himself in disbelief, and immediately flips to the first blank page, but his hand stops short, pencil tip trembling against the paper.
The Master's no fool. He checks this place, probably extremely thoroughly. The only way to keep this paper safe is to carry it on his person at all times—that shouldn't be too much of a problem. But… the Master removed that slip of paper with Arashk's name on it from his dresser, which means he's on the lookout for any attempts Arashk makes to remind himself of anything. And if he comes in here as often as Arashk suspects he does, he knows how many pages were in this sketchbook. And if any of them are unaccounted for… Arashk is sure he's capable of at least piecing together that his fortuneteller is in some way breaking the "Don't do anything I wouldn't like" rule.
He retrieves a Sharpie from his nightstand drawer, darts to his trash can, fishes out a slightly used napkin that he threw in there just last night, and scrawls "Arthur Loriss" across the center of it.
Immediately he releases a silent sigh of relief. It would have just figured if the name had escaped him in his last mad dash to make a note of it for himself. Thank goodness it's in writing now.
He holds the napkin at arm's length, examining it, wondering if there's anything else he should write in that blank space. Nothing springs immediately to mind.
A slight chill passes over him, and he shivers and glances over at his heater, wondering if it's broken. He realizes, though, that it's been pretty warm lately, and it really shouldn't be chilly… and… and this particular chill is not the kind he'd suffer by reason of a broken heater.
Arashk looks down, and his hand is gripping the marker, and it's moving, only he hasn't been telling it to, and there's an image on the napkin, almost photorealistic, and the sight combined with the realization of how it got there is so unexpected and frankly alarming that he releases a loud, shuddering gasp, and flings the marker across the room. It hits the wall and falls down to the chasm of despair that is the crack between any dresser and the wall it's pushed against. He automatically scrambles backwards a bit, staring at that napkin like it's a huge cockroach that found its way onto his bed.
Only it's not a cockroach. It's not repulsive. It's exactly the opposite that's the problem. The longer he stares at that napkin, the further forward he leans, trying to see better, because he has never produced a drawing this professional. The details are incredible, especially considering the medium—he's never exactly seen a plaque at an art museum reading "Sharpie on napkin."
He stares at his hands for a moment. They're shaking slightly, just from the shock of it, but on the whole they look quite unremarkable. These are not artist's hands.
He didn't do this.
Finally he swallows, gathering himself, and reaches forward, picking up the napkin to conduct a more thorough examination. The image is of a man's face, and aside from the deep twinkle that conveys both wisdom and kindness in his eyes—how the hell do you even convey that in a Sharpie drawing—a slightly longer nose and more pronounced cheekbones, and darker bags under his eyes, it's a face he's seen before.
It was the first face he saw after waking up in the back of a truck on that lonely road all that time ago.
He shuts his eyes and breathes out slowly, gripping the napkin tight, as if to keep it from vanishing into thin air. What does this mean? Since when was drawing detailed images of what appears to be a relative of his current archenemy one of the abilities in his psychic arsenal? Maybe… maybe it's just a manifestation of one of the abilities he already knew he had. Okay. So he didn't draw this. But somebody did.
His eyes snap open.
He's let ghosts in before. Maybe a third of the times they show up in his tent, they ask to speak through him, and usually he says no. Taking a message ought to be enough, and he's already got enough crazy crap going on in his head; he doesn't need to surrender control of his body as well. But there have been times, like when that young woman came in on the first anniversary of her husband's death, or when that preteen boy was on the verge of tears at the prospect of talking to his late father one last time, or when that bratty girl who kept complaining about how lame his act was turned out to have a deceased aunt who wanted to speak to her about something trivial—and what a laugh he had at that later—that he acquiesced. His system is not a consistent one; sometimes it just feels more right or more acceptable than other times, based almost as much on how good a day he's having as it is on the gravity of the client's specific situation.
A ghost has never been able to get in without his permission before. Theories fly through his head, about how this particular scenario didn't require a very profound level of control, how this is personal for him so maybe he was giving permission subconsciously somehow, but he supposes it hardly matters, because he is sure now that this is what happened.
The implications of the involvement of ghosts hit him like a physical punch to the gut. Or, more aptly, like all his insides suddenly turning to ice.
This is confirmation. Confirmation of what he would have been a fool not to consider before now, but what he wouldn't, couldn't, let himself spend too much thought on. He couldn't afford the distraction the fear would bring.
In this moment, Arashk is sure that if he doesn't get out of here, he is going to die.
He's on the pier. The one so close to the house where he grew up. The one where his then-girlfriend almost died and then dumped him. The one where he and his best friend used to hang out so often, before… before he was here. The one where his father still frequently fishes.
The one where he's fishing even now, right in front of him. Arashk gets as up close and personal as he can, but he still doesn't have much control over his vantage point in these dreams. That's okay. He's near enough to see the whites of his eyes and the details on his godawful shirt.
It's a familiar scene, and he's already experienced enough visions similar to this to span a couple hours total, probably. Sometimes his dad has fishing buddies with him, sometimes he's alone but encounters somebody he knows, sometimes he just alternates between sitting and standing for the entirety of what Arashk sees, silent, expression impassive, never cracking a smile.
Arashk wonders if his father typically is this unemotive during the fishing time he claims to enjoy so much, or if this is a new development since he disappeared.
The sun is bright, but the air is pleasantly mild, at least for… Damn. He was about to name his hometown, he knows it, it was on the tip of his tongue… Whatever. At least for wherever this is. There are gulls everywhere and the air smells like that awesome sandwich place two hundred feet away. Arashk draws a deep breath as a gentle breeze passes through him.
He doesn't remember what it's called, but he won't forget how it feels.
Arashk doesn't know how much time goes by just watching his dad sit there patiently, every so often reeling in a bit. The vision must be speeding things up, like it always does when not much is happening—he's just not sure to what degree. But the rate of passing time snaps back to normal when a man approaches his father from the side.
"Anything?" his father asks without even looking up.
Arashk recognizes the man. It's the gruff detective he used to work with all the time. He almost senses his name, he thinks… It starts with… an L?
The man starts talking, and Arashk quickly abandons the futile endeavor. He knows how this ends. He might come close to remembering, but by the end of the day, once again he'll have no flipping clue.
He can still hope at least one of them calls the other by name, though. Then he can enjoy knowing at least until he wakes up. The names usually stick around till then.
"You know if there were anything you'd be notified immediately by phone," the detective says quietly.
Arashk has seen variations of this exchange before. The detective is showing extraordinary patience by saying these words so calmly. Considering his past experiences with the guy, anyway.
His father lets out a shuddering sigh, pinching the bridge of his nose. "What is it then?"
"Chief still has your check from two weeks ago," the detective answers, voice still soft. "You haven't come in to collect it. I just got off and she said you weren't answering your phone. I thought I might find you here."
His father pauses, and draws his cellphone from his pocket. His features shift slightly to convey apparently genuine surprise as he places it back into its pocket and returns his gaze to the ocean ahead of him, saying only, "It's dead."
The detective fixes him with a severe stare, which his father resolutely ignores. And it's all just so typical.
They stay there, the detective eventually turning to face the ocean, for at least a few minutes of silence. Arashk has to admit surprise. It's definitely out of character for both of them. Dammit guys, I don't look forward to these vision things to see you acting like gal pals. Be your grouchy selves.
The detective rubs the back of his head, and it seems to Arashk he's about to leave. "Well," he starts to say, just as a lure—one of his dad's favorites, Arashk is pretty sure—falls out of the man's tackle box and skitters a bit across the wood floor of the pier before going still. This strikes Arashk as odd; there's not really any wind.
His dad stands up to retrieve it, as it's passed out of his reach. The detective is in the middle of a sentence as he straightens up, something about that paycheck, when a shot rings through the air and blood explodes from his dad's shoulder.
A collective gasp and cries of alarm rise from the crowd on the pier, and most of them duck or even throw themselves entirely to the floor. The lure goes flying from his dad's fingers as he staggers backwards, crashing into the wooden rail. Arashk can only watch in horror as the wood splinters beneath his weight, giving way, and with nothing but thin air separating him from the ocean below, his father falls backward and plunges down to the water. In the last moments that his face is visible, the panic lighting his eyes is crystal clear. And then he's out of sight.
"Henry!" the detective shouts, already shedding his jacket, and normally Arashk would be snapping to attention at that, trying to focus on storing it in his long-term memory, but in this moment, he doesn't need it. The man is just his father. Just Dad.
A sizeable splash sounds somewhere below them.
"Call 911," the detective commands the people nearest him, who already have their phones out. Without waiting to see if they comply, and leaving behind his jacket, shoes, and socks in a pile on the wood, he leaps off the pier and descends to the water in a graceful swan dive that Arashk would give a 9 if he weren't so petrified with fear.
The next several seconds of silence are the worst. He tries to propel his vision-self to the edge of the pier to watch the surface of the water, but it's a lengthy process, and he spends the time cursing himself for not practicing this with greater urgency earlier on. Some part of him has the presence of mind to wonder why he's not where the action's at, because that's where he usually automatically finds himself. As this thought passes through his mind, he reaches the edge, and hovers between the splintered edges of the rail to peer downwards. He realizes then that the edge of the pier is not, in fact, where the action is at. He can't see a thing from here.
Just as his heart seizes up with fear at this realization, he finds himself surrounded by water. Muffled screams are all around him, rising upwards in flurries of bubbles, and terrified faces fill his vision. The water rushes around him in constant motion and they're both kicking as hard as they can but something is wrong, something is so wrong, and Arashk tastes salt and iron as his father's blood pours out of him in clouds only to be quickly dispelled by the limbs thrashing frantically through the water, and the water's everywhere, and the bubbles are rapidly dying down in frequency, and the light is fading—
He wakes up to a loud shout, and sits up in bed, his mind going in a million different directions. The shout belonged to him. His heart is beating harder than it should be. The sound of a knock on wood echoes around him. His cheeks are damp. He thinks that's on him, but it takes a moment to get through the gut reaction of equating the salty tears to ocean water. Even now gulls squawk overhead.
"Arashk?" comes Livia's voice from his door. He stares at it, watching the shadow move back and forth across the spyhole, shoulders heaving. Trying to regulate his breathing. Trying to compose himself. Trying to calm down. Calm. Compose.
He grips the corners of his sheets so hard his knuckles turn white.
"Arashk? You okay in there?"
His dad screaming, air bubbles exploding from his mouth and flying upwards.
Four impatient pounds at the door.
The detective, his friend, holding his father under the arms and kicking desperately, face turned towards the wavering sun.
"I heard a yell. Are you all right?"
He can't be calm that really happened or will happen and he can't do a damn thing about it—
"Arashk, answer the door!"
He should get that. He really should.
His feet hit the floor and he immediately collapses under his own weight. Oh yeah… he has to hold himself up. How do you do that again?
He lurches to a standing position, and he's wobbly, but it'll do for now. He stumbles to the door, horrible screams stifled by water still ringing in his ears so he can't hear and he can't think, and he grasps the already jiggling doorknob, twists, and pulls.
Livia's concerned expression evolves quickly into alarm as she sees him, and she stretches her hand out as if to comfort him, but pulls it back again, remembering. Her voice echoes in his head under the screams, which are only now starting to fade, and he can't tell what she says but he can take a guess, so he says, "Yeah," he's fine, and sure it's a lie, and she'd never believe it, but it's the only option he sees right now.
He must have done a better job pretending to be fine than he thought, because she just looks uncertain now. She's slightly hoisting up a grocery bag he didn't notice her holding before, so he reaches out and takes it, and she lets him.
A few more words are said, one of which is probably "Thanks" and another of which might be a word of farewell, and he slams the door shut, turns around, slams his back against it, and sinks to the floor, dropping the bag and immediately forgetting it.
There was more. He didn't see how it ended. He missed something.
He ignores the fact that these are nothing more than baseless assumptions, and he is absolutely denying the existence of the possibility that they're incorrect. That there wasn't any more. That that actually was the end.
Metal explodes before his eyes and a sharp pain flares up in his wrist. He grabs at that wrist with the opposite hand, gasping. Yes, of course, the car engine explosion that briefly hospitalized his best friend and his girlfriend, the one he ultimately brought about because he was asking just a few too many questions—
Terrence probably never intended to stay quiet about his little misadventure in the storage area. In all likelihood he did it with the best intentions.
And in response, the Master commissioned somebody to shoot his dad.
Arashk grits his teeth, rubs roughly at his eyes, grabs two handfuls of his too-long hair. He could tell by the aura hanging over the dream that it hasn't actually happened yet—and that makes it ten times worse. Is there anything he can do to stop it? What if Terrence hasn't said anything yet?
Something deep inside him coming from a place he doesn't understand tells him that no matter what he does now, it's too late.
He stretches his arms out in front of him and rests his forehead against the carpet. Useless ass psychic powers. They tell him about this now, when he can't do anything about it—why couldn't they warn him before he opened that door that Terrence was outside? Better yet, why didn't he use his brain for one goddamn second and check to see that the coast was clear before swinging that door open wide like a complete idiot?
He tells himself there's no point to questions like this. But what else is there? What else could he possibly do that bears some resemblance to productivity? If he could go seek out Terrence right now and flat out beg him not to mention his supposed vision-induced sleepwalking episodes he would, but he's come to trust his psychic senses just as much as he trusts his mundane ones, and he's as certain as he'd be if he had seen it for himself that it's too late. There's nothing to stop the endless flood of self-accusations and lamentations and… and…
That son of a bitch put a bullet in his dad.
Arashk leaps to his feet, fists balled up, and kicks the wall with all the force he can muster, leaving a sizeable depression at knee height. As he does, gunfire bursts in his mind, and he clutches his head.
Where was the shooter? It's probably foolish to hope that anyone saw him, or maybe her, but… but maybe if he can have the same dream again, he can start to figure out which direction the bullet came from?
And he can see how it ends.
Arashk returns to his bed, throwing the covers over himself and squeezing his eyes shut, ignoring the fact that it's 11 in the morning and by this point he's as wide awake as he's ever going to be. He forces himself to go still, trying to call to mind all the mind-clearing exercises he always meant to practice but was always thinking too much do so.
It's not two minutes later that something starts tugging at his mind. He's burrowed underneath the blanket now, and though his eyes remain shut, he furrows his brow. There's something he should be looking at right now. Something close by.
Heaving a dramatic sigh, he crawls out from under the blanket and onto the floor, pulling himself to a standing positon and walking automatically to his door before he even thinks about what he's doing. When he stops, he's standing right over the grocery bag that is still sitting by his door.
He stares down at it. Though it is by all appearances just another bag of snacks Livia brought him no matter how many times he's told her he can't reimburse her, his psychic senses are tingling, telling him it's somehow more significant than it seems. Tentatively he kneels down and pulls it open, and starts removing its contents.
First are two Lunchables packets—which he gets pretty excited about despite himself—and then a six pack of chocolate pudding. Next a small bag of Funyuns that it looks like she got from a vending machine. And at the bottom of the bag lies something that catches him by surprise—or would, if he weren't expecting the unexpected.
It's a small book, maybe 150 pages, leather bound, with red binding and a cover that bears a design like a leafy vine framing the edges. It vaguely reminds him of the tattoo on his arm. On the front, obscuring the title, is a bright pink Post-It note.
He knows as soon as he sees it, maybe a second or two before, what it means.
Being careful not to touch the book itself just yet, he removes the sticky note. Underneath he sees the title—it's a collection of some of Kipling's works. He turns his attention to the note: Loriss loaned this to me last week. He thinks I have it, and won't be asking for it back for at least that long. I hope it helps.
He notes that she didn't address it or sign it. He supposes there was no reason to, especially in light of their recent conversation.
What's way more interesting is how she got it.
Loriss loaned her a book? She already freaking had this when they talked two days ago. He supposes she meant to surprise him. Or maybe she needed time alone to think about whether she actually wanted to go along with his plan and hand over somebody else's belongings to an unhinged coworker. But never mind that—even without psychic powers it's guessable that this is not an uncommon occurrence. Suddenly he flashes back to their conversation.
"And make sure Art has no reason to suspect it's been taken."
Art. She called him Art.
He lent her a book. Presumably this isn't the first time he's done so.
They're… they're friends?
Arashk blinks, trying to process this. First of all, God it feels good to figure something out the old way again. Secondly: they're friends. Nobody Arashk has spoken to knows a thing about the guy, but apparently Livia is on book-borrowing terms with him.
What absolute dumb luck.
Of course, that's only if this item is of the right type.
He didn't explain to Liv the system of psychic item classification. There wasn't really a reason to—probably trying to put it all into words wouldn't be good for anything more than confusing her, and anyway, he told her all she needed to know: it had to be an item of emotional value to Loriss. And as it turns out, she's more familiar with the guy than it ever occurred to Arashk to guess, so she ought to have pretty reliable guesses on what is meaningful to him and what isn't.
Arashk's hand stalls right above the little book. There's something wrong with this situation. How easy it was—if this works. Somebody made a grave error somewhere along the way to make this possible, and probably doesn't realize it yet. All he can do is hope and pray that it wasn't somebody on his side.
Before he can find another reason to keep himself from finding out what he has to find out no matter how afraid he is, he lays his hand on the cover of the book.
Against all odds, and in spite of everything, a grin curves his mouth.
Chapter 17 by EvenAtMyDarkest
I changed the summary because I was getting a little tired of the old one and felt like I could do better. Hit me up with any other suggestions.
The next three days are way more of an emotional rollercoaster than Arashk would prefer, especially since he doesn't even get a break when he's sleeping.
The first replay the first night, it starts out a little early. He knows he'll just be watching his dad fish for a while, he knows his phone is dead, he knows the detective is coming, he knows one of the lures is going to inexplicably fall from the tackle box. He's holding his breath waiting for every little detail to come to fruition, and yet when that bullet finally cuts through the soothing bustle of the crowd and enters his dad's shoulder… it's like the rubber band he's been steadily stretching out for ages finally snaps, and he finds himself jolting awake at only a few minutes after midnight.
He forces himself back to sleep in a matter of minutes, and the sequence of events has started over. This time, when the shot rings out, he keeps himself firmly planted in the dream. He's not prepared enough to be able to start to narrow down the bullet's origin, but he does manage to shift his viewpoint down to the water before his dad even falls.
By the time he wakes up around 9:30 that morning, he's seen his dad get shot about half a dozen times. He's seen his friend dive into the ocean after him. He's felt at least some shadow of every stab of pain either one of them suffered—the bruise the detective gained on his foot when he smashed it into an underwater post of the pier, the crack in his finger as he snagged it violently on Arashk's dad's sleeve, and, of course, the pain of a bullet ripping through his dad's shoulder. It's almost exactly the same place as where he got shot ages and ages ago, but somehow, this time it hurts so much more.
He's seen all these details as many times as he's going to need to, and way more than he wanted to, but he still hasn't managed to figure out if they survive.
Their struggle underwater lasts longer than the vision seems interested in showing Arashk. And he hasn't even been able to figure out why. They weren't stuck on anything, he couldn't see anything holding them down, and they were both putting everything they had into their efforts to reach the surface, but they just weren't making any headway.
In the last replay before he wakes up, he sees the moment his father stops struggling.
He spends almost the entire day attached to that little red book.
It's a day of setup, so Loriss must be performing a lot of manual labor. For this reason Arashk expects to feel a lot of body pains and frustration when he taps into this open link to the guy's thoughts and feelings, but instead he just seems to experience a lot of… satisfaction. Like the kind you get after a job well done. Soreness develops in his arms and feet throughout the day but that's natural even for a young, able-bodied person. Around eleven Arashk vaguely tastes tuna sandwich, cantaloupe, and water that tastes a hell of a lot better than the stuff he's subjected to on a regular basis. Around 4:30 Loriss eats the second half of the sandwich and drinks some apple juice. No wonder Arashk sees him at mealtime so rarely; he eats pretty early.
By the time he finishes eating his own quick dinner in his apartment around 6 PM he's feeling little stabs of panic in his chest, trying to remember why he thought this would be a fruitful endeavor. Yeah, the guy probably knows something, but how is Arashk supposed to get any of that information via access to his everyday thoughts and feelings?
He tells himself to be patient, but his patience is running thin. The sooner he gets out of here, the better. His family and friends are back home getting hurt and possibly killed every time he messes up.
His dad and detective friend might be dead by the end of the week.
He'll probably find out for sure if he just waits, but waiting has never been his strong suit. That's why they got hurt in the first place. He put them on the line because he was reckless. He owes it to them to lie low for now and await further information, whether by way of psychic vision or an unwanted visit from the Master.
He hasn't actually seen the guy face-to-face in a long time. Across the fairground and dining area, sure, but the last time they exchanged words was… a matter of weeks into his captivity. Around the time these powers were developing, in fact.
He shakes his head, trying to quell the fear inside him, only the fear really isn't that active at the moment, and that's the worst part of all this. The fear is, at this point, such a constant that it's settled down in his gut like a shadow haunting his every moment. He's become comfortable with it.
He was always able to put this kind of thing aside before. By the time he left his teen years behind he had pretty much mastered the ability to tell himself "Life could be worse" and make himself believe it, and hell if it wasn't a useful skill. But it seems to be breaking under the constant use lately; fissures are forming and the fear is oozing through and accumulating somewhere between his stomach and where his appendix used to be. Sometimes he gets pangs of discomfort without any immediate reason, and that reminds him how afraid he is, rather than feeling uncomfortable because he's afraid.
"I suck," he mutters unhappily.
It's the first time he's ever said anything like this in his life, and he doesn't give himself time to contemplate whether he's starting to believe it.
By the end of that second night, he finally has an inkling as to where the bullet came from.
The shooter was obviously situated somewhere along the shore, because of the direction his dad was facing, and Arashk is able to narrow it down to one of three buildings up the hill and down the way.
However, one of those buildings contains the Psych office, so that makes the guesswork a little easier.
He'll allow himself the sick-to-his-stomach feeling this realization introduces, but he really shouldn't be surprised. They obviously have a way to get in the office without leaving any evidence behind—he knew that from the pictures of his best friend left on his nightstand all that time ago—and because of the camera they planted, they know when it's empty. So it makes sense that they would set up there. Clearly Arashk is looking at at least one individual with some skill with a gun; a shot like that could not have been made by an amateur.
Removing this threat is without a doubt going to be the hardest part of his escape. At this point, he has no idea how he's going to manage it. He doesn't even know which state he's in half the time, let alone how to extend his range of influence to his hometown, wherever the hell it might be in relation to him. And who knows how long it will take just to gather enough information to paint a clear mental picture of the person or people with their fingers on the trigger, waiting for the Master's orders.
His stomach clenches at the thought of how long he still has before he can go home, but he shakes his head violently in an attempt to force that train of thought to a halt. It's not going to help him.
Arashk is inside Loriss' head practically every spare moment he has the following day, but it's a show day, and an especially busy one to boot, so there aren't too many spare moments to be had. He pulls the book out in the ten seconds he has between readings but very quickly concludes that it's not worth the extreme disorientation of switching back and forth between his client's feelings and Loriss' so frequently. It seems all the guy is doing is walking around picking up trash and answering questions, anyway.
Really, it's probably good he has the distraction of working the tent. There's not that much helpful information ripe for the gathering at the moment.
Five ghosts, one channeling, and countless visions later, he extinguishes his candles, dumps the water from his scrying pool into the grass outside, and heads off to the dining area.
As he sits there alone with his mini corndogs and meager serving of fries, he reviews his current objectives. They just keep piling on, and the worst part is, he's not sure which of them he should be pursuing the most urgently. So he's left with no choice but to devote more or less equal focus to all of them. He and Livia seem to be on the same page, but he still has to figure out what they have in common that would lead somebody to strip them of their old names and force new ones on them. There's Loriss, of course, who seems to have some kind of history with the Master, and who therefore might be able to lead Arashk to some useful backstory that might shed a little light on the present. And then, on the back burner, there's—
"You look so dour, Ronaldo."
Arashk's head snaps up, and he finds himself staring into friendly brown eyes. At the moment, they don't seem to be hiding anything, but they've betrayed the presence of secrets before.
Trying to summon the energy necessary to rectify his apparently "dour" expression, he puts on a grin and says, "Hey, Seb."
The sword swallower takes a seat across from him. Arashk sees his hand start to go up after he places his plate on the table, but the attempted handshake is quickly aborted and transformed into a scratch behind his ear. Arashk would appreciate this courtesy if he weren't looking for information.
But he appreciates it all the same.
"Something wrong?" Sebastian asks then, as he begins to tear open his ketchup packets and squirt them out next to his fries.
Arashk stiffens slightly. Something is definitely wrong, a lot of somethings in fact, and with every microsecond that passes he can see with increasing clarity that Sebastian would be willing to listen, but… he probably shouldn't answer honestly, right? Operating under the safe assumption that the Master will be hearing about it if Arashk even drops a mention of unhappiness… it likely wouldn't be safe to do so. But really, would the Master care? He could make something up based on just a few shreds of truth, he could say he misses his family and sometimes worries about them because their work can be dangerous, he could say he's not sure he made the right choice joining the show, he could even say he saw one of them get hurt in a vision and is lamenting that he can't go home due to some emotional insecurity, and none of it would have to raise any suspicion at all. It wouldn't be rational to punish Arashk for something so harmless.
But while the Master has proven himself to be many things, rational is not one of them.
He can deal with this by himself, like he has been all along.
He opens his mouth to tell Sebastian no, he's quite all right, thank you, and what a jolly fine day it is too, but before he can say a word, Sebastian comments, "You have that look everybody gets when they're worried about someone. Or at least missing someone."
Arashk just stares at him for a moment, blinking, shocked at how on the nose the observation is. He wishes he could laugh, offer an impressed comment on the accuracy of it, but he's just decided he's not going to talk about this and his brain is admittedly still trying to work through his options.
Sebastian offers a sympathetic smile, obviously seeing the surprise on Arashk's face. He gives himself a solid mental kick as the sword swallower says, "I've been here for quite some time, and I've gotten good at recognizing that expression in particular."
Maybe the Master really wouldn't mind. The last two times he's screwed up it was pretty obvious he was up to no good—talking crap about the Master and getting caught in a train car he had no business being in—so maybe…
"That's pretty impressive," he finds himself saying.
Harmless. Definitely harmless.
But somehow, it already feels like he's pushing his luck.
A short pause hangs between them as Sebastian puts a few fries in his mouth, and before he has a chance to speak, Arashk seizes the opportunity to control the direction of the conversation, and asks casually, "So how long have you been here?"
"Sixteen years," Sebastian answers, a hint of pride in his voice.
Arashk tilts his head, going over what he already knows of this man. Something about this seems… weird. Not totally implausible, but probably unusual. "So you've been with the show for your entire sword swallowing career? Since your awkward teen years?"
"Yep," Sebastian replies readily, but there it is again—that look behind his eyes. Carefully guarded—not just trying to keep some information hidden, but to hide the fact that the information exists at all.
Unfortunately for him, the guy he's trying to hide from is a psychic.
Arashk gauges how best to proceed, and after the shortest of pauses, lets out an appreciative whistle. "You got any family?" he asks then, injecting some uncertainty in his voice, because if he sounds tentative, it's clearer that he's playing off the answer to his previous question and looks like he's not sure whether it's appropriate to continue—rather than just asking out of fake curiosity.
Sebastian stops chewing.
It's such a small change, and it lasts for less than a second before he goes back to contentedly and casually munching on his fries, but if Arashk's dad taught him anything it was that every detail is important, and he's not about to stop honoring that now.
Sebastian swallows, does that tiny quick smile people put on that's really just a pull at the skin on either side of their mouths, and says, "Nah."
Way before he was Arashk Ronaldo, before he was really psychic, he was good at picking up on the details that mattered. Back then, he had to rely on nothing but observation, intuition, and the skills his dad passed down to him. And he still has all that now, but with the definitely helpful addition of an actual sixth sense.
That sense is pushing him to push Sebastian, and he's absolutely ready to comply.
Of course, he has to put some thought into how to go about doing this without being an ass about it. In the interim while he tries to form words, he works on his expression. The slight drawing together of his eyebrows demonstrates concern, while a slight quirk of one of them indicates curiosity. He tilts his head just a smidge, and is considering what might possibly be beneficial to say when Sebastian looks up, notes his expression, and admits, "I used to."
Aw yiss. Widening his eyes just a touch and making sure not to let his excitement seep into his voice, he tries, "Everyone at least starts out with family."
Sebastian releases a slightly shuddering breath. "Listen, Arashk, it's not something I really like to talk about."
Arashk watches him, mind racing, and he tries to rein it in, but that's more difficult nowadays than it used to be, and it used to be impossible.
Dead. All of Sebastian's family. Dead.
"I don't understand," he once said. "The Master has never been anything but kind to me."
He can't be in Arashk's same situation. It wouldn't make any sense for him to come to the Master's defense if he were.
But they are dead. Arashk is sure of it.
He tries to slow down. He's tumbling head over heels from assumption to conclusion and back again and when he loses track of his own thought processes like this, things can get dangerous. He has to stay as clear as possible. Now, does he have any reason to believe that they were killed like his family and friends might be? Where the hell did that idea even come from?
He eyes Sebastian's hand resting on the table across from him. If he were to reach out and touch it now, it would be very clear what he was trying to do, and he would lose all of Sebastian's trust just like that. But how much value does Sebastian's trust have right now? Is there anything he can do with it? Can it be used to keep Arashk's family safe?
Other, perhaps better question: what can he expect to get out of a sneak peek into what Sebastian is thinking right now?
Nothing. Almost definitely nothing. If the Master did in fact kill this man's family, it's painfully obvious he doesn't know anything about it. And if he didn't, their deaths, however tragic, are irrelevant to Arashk's investigation.
He's not quite satisfied, but he's pleased with his reasoning. And when he realizes that only about two seconds have passed, it almost makes him feel good enough to forget for a moment that his dad and friend might be dead.
The third night, the scene has changed.
Arashk is in a hospital, and his vision-self immediately lets out a series of ragged gasps of relief, because hospitals are not where the dead are taken. As the scene solidifies around him, he registers that he is not in his father's room. The gruff detective is standing near the bed, and Arashk's beautiful girlfriend is behind him, helping him into his suit jacket. Arashk senses the bandages wrapped thickly around his elbow, and the athletic tape binding his pinkie to his ring finger is readily apparent. Not to mention the bandages encasing the entirety of his left foot, or maybe that's a cast; for some reason Arashk can't tell that, but he does know nothing in the man's foot is broken, it's just very badly bruised. He doesn't recall the elbow injury—it must have been sustained when they got out of the water. However they eventually managed that.
"It doesn't make any sense." It's the detective speaking. Well, they're both detectives, of course, but Arashk can't think of a better label for him at this point. "I'm a very strong swimmer. I was always top of my class when I took lessons. Even better than that stuck-up Peter Helfrich, the son of the swim coach." He grits his teeth, obviously doing the mental equivalent of throwing darts at a photo of the named twelve-year-old.
"No one is doubting your swimming abilities, Carlton." She speaks softly, with a slight but distinct tone of amusement.
Arashk frowns. Carlton? It sounds familiar, but… not. That's not his first name, is it? No, wait… it is his first name, and that's the problem. Arashk always called him by something else.
"No, O'Hara, it felt like… like something was holding us under."
O'Hara? It's the same sort of issue, he's pretty sure, only inverse.
She's frowning, a knot forming between her graceful eyebrows. "Were you caught on something?"
The detective chews on his lower lip for a moment, eyes far away. "We… must have been," he says dubiously.
Arashk glares at them in frustration. They're not talking about the right things.
She blinks, clearly grasping for words. "Well, that's… pretty bizarre," she tries.
"I'm aware of that." He lets out a short, forceful exhale, and for a brief moment neither of them speaks. "All right," the detective says then, and it's a transition, and Arashk tenses up, formulating a reasonable guess as to what's coming.
Without another word the two of them exit the room, Arashk's girlfriend in the lead and her partner walking with the faintest of limps just behind her, entering a long white hallway. They head for the elevator in the center of it, ascend two levels, and after a few minutes come to a stop in front of a closed door.
She looks at him with masked concern as she reaches for the doorknob, he refuses to make eye contact, and she pulls the door open.
Arashk would close his eyes if that were an option. As it happens, there is nothing to stop him from beholding, unfiltered, his father, lying in a pale green hospital gown on the bed, a tube stuck down his throat, his eyes shut like they might never open again. His skin has a pallor to it that rivals the hospital sheets whiteness-wise. Arashk's not used to seeing him so… colorless.
The two detectives stand there regarding him silently for a very long moment, her gaze full of suppressed sorrow, his tense and tired. Their jaws are set in exactly the same way. Finally, "No arteries or vital organs were damaged," she says quietly, in a way that leads Arashk to suspect she's already said it at least once.
"He was under for too long," the taller detective growls, and her shoulders sag, disappointedly releasing the apprehension she was carrying.
Arashk's fists clench. God, Carlton, if it's anyone's fault, it's mine. Blame me. Blame the Master, hell, blame the guy who pulled the trigger—but don't blame yourself.
"It's not—" she starts to say.
"I don't want to hear it, O'Hara." He lets out a long, controlled breath through pursed lips. "I was standing right there."
She doesn't try to respond.
He rubs a hand down his face. "The Spencers have an awful habit of pissing off dangerous people. Getting themselves shot, specifically."
Her gaze has hardened just a touch. After a calculated pause, she says evenly, "They might be related, these incidents. We're looking into it, as much as we can be. But that's not a lot. If things continue on this vein, this will be just another incident with no evidence attached to it at all."
Her partner goes as far as to open his mouth, but he snaps it shut quickly before making a sound. She doesn't notice. Arashk can't quite discern what he was going to say, but he can take a reasonable guess that it was about him.
For another long moment, the only sound in the room is the steady hum and regular beeping of the machines currently keeping his father alive. They both look profoundly unhappy, their brows deeply furrowed, jaws set identically once again. Arashk wonders if there may be some cop to the idea that if two people spend enough time together, they start to look like each other.
He knows he's trying to distract himself.
"I'll bring the car around," she finally says. "Meet me at the front entrance in five."
He nods, not taking his eyes off the unmoving form of Arashk's father. She lays a hand on his shoulder, leaves it there for a few seconds, and finally exits the room. Arashk sees her stop and watch her partner for a moment through the little window in the door, and finally, she disappears from sight.
The vision doesn't follow her. Arashk is still in the hospital room, watching the detective watch his father. The man's breathing is deep and steady; it's the horrible pallid quality of his skin that dissolves any illusion of health.
For a couple minutes, the detective doesn't move. He just stands there, staring at the still face before him, and Arashk is left trying desperately to find something else to focus on. Observing the detective's wretched expression is hardly a better option, and just leaves him wondering which is actually worse—being there with his dad but with no idea why this happened or how to catch the guy who did it, or being here, knowing full well that he's the one responsible, but with at least some iota of hope that he can keep it from happening again.
The noble choice would be the latter, and of course as long as he has strength left he'd go for it every time, but damn if it doesn't hurt.
The detective's face hasn't even twitched, but Arashk notices his gaze beginning to harden. He chews the inside of his cheek, closes his eyes for a long moment, opens them. Slowly and with faltering steps, he approaches the bedside of Arashk's father and grips the metal frame of his bed, never taking his eyes off the man's face. Arashk checks it with the same intensity for a short moment, just to make sure his dad hasn't moved. He hasn't.
The detective draws in a deep breath over several long seconds with an impressive level of control clearly born of years of practice. It occurs to Arashk that even in visions, he doesn't see this man alone very often. He's never seen him produce tears, and he's still not sure he has, but it really seems that there's a sheen over his eyes that isn't usually present.
With a slight hitch of his shoulders he tightens his grip on the bedframe till his knuckles turn white. "Dammit, Henry, you bastard," he whispers with a ferocity Arashk has never seen in him, "you can't die on us. Not now. You have to be here when your son comes back."
The details of the room immediately start to blur, running over each other like Arashk is looking through a windshield in a torrential downpour, and he finds himself lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, his cheeks damp with tears.
Chapter 18 by EvenAtMyDarkest
This is a pretty short one but it's important, and I promise the next one will be significantly longer.
Also, I am no gunsmith by any stretch of the imagination, so if I got anything wrong, which I probably did, please let me know so I can correct it.
Five days after getting the book from Livia, Arashk is starting to get exhausted.
He's never psychically stalked another person so constantly before. Not that he's a veteran of psychic stalking, but he's been inside other people's heads before, and two minutes is a lot more manageable than up to an hour at a time, multiple times a day. By the time the sun's setting he feels worn out and used up.
Oh, cry me a river, Ronaldo. You know how your dad feels? Like there's a goddamn bullet in his shoulder.
He has to remind himself that even now that bullet might not have left that gun, or even been loaded into it. But if it hasn't happened, it's coming soon. Very soon. All he can do is pay very close attention to Loriss and hope the guy not only knows something, but unknowingly communicates that information to Arashk via his little red book.
It's not looking good.
He knows this full well, and he allows the words to flow through his mind as often as they occur to him, but he is absolutely forbidden from actually considering their meaning. This is all he's got right now. It has to get him somewhere. It just has to.
He's sitting in his tent between readings on one such occasion, keenly aware of the slight bulk of the book underneath his vest—none of his clothes have pockets, something that never really troubled him until he found himself in possession of an object that he could not leave unattended under any circumstances. Normally it's pretty easy to just slide his hand on in there and get an update on his old pal Loriss, but at the moment that hand is weighed down, and not just by the enormous wooden bracelet adorning the adjacent wrist like a shackle. He's tired, very tired, of keeping such close tabs on the mundane, day-to-day activities of an old man on the maintenance and setup team of a traveling circus. He's tired of letting the hope course through him every second he has his hand on that book, constantly putting faith in the notion that if he just gives it a little more time, Loriss is going to strike up a conversation with the Master and give Arashk just the barest sliver of useful information. He's tired of feeling that hope peter out from each morning to each evening, and witnessing the moment Loriss's mind slips into the blissful veil of sleep, marking the end of one more wasted day.
Livia is going to have to give this book back soon. And when she does, Arashk knows, with a certainty that weighs down on his stomach like a stone, that he will have nothing to show for it.
His next client walks in—a thin middle-aged woman who wants to know how her estranged son is doing. Arashk's heart goes out to her, until it hurts too much, and he can just picture his own parents in her place. He retracts it then, and cuts the session slightly short without telling her anything definitive about her son. She looks a bit resentful at first, but as she rises to her feet her expression melts into something more heartbroken. He closes his eyes until he's certain he's alone again.
He can't become idle. There are people back home being affected by his absence. If he's not strong enough to keep this up for himself, he has to do it for them.
It's been about twenty minutes since he checked on Loriss. At that time, he was just getting ready for his break, which is a time that Arashk would usually listen in on more raptly, but he was distracted by the appearance of a client. Loriss is almost definitely still on break, but Arashk is having a hard time motivating himself to tap into the connection the book lends him and experience the disorientation of immersing himself in someone else's mind.
He sighs silently. Every moment he wastes increases the likelihood that another client will walk in and remove the choice from him for another three or four minutes, and then there will always be more. He needs to stop bypassing the opportunities he's given. He lifts his hand, moving with dreamlike slowness, and slips it into his vest.
The instant his fingertips touch the binding of the little book, he knows something's different. It's no lightning strike moment, but when he enters these empath episodes he's pushed headlong into the thick of it, and the sensation of peering through another person's senses remains constant from the start to the end. And there's something going on here he's never felt before.
If he had to put it into words, he'd almost say there's… an extra layer to the vision that shouldn't be there, but is. Like if he were having a vision of someone having a vision. Not that that's something he's ever experienced or expected to experience, but it's how he would describe it. There's something between him and a direct connection to Loriss that's never been there before.
And the focus, the actual content of what he's feeling, is decidedly that of somebody picking up a gun.
Arashk can't see or feel the arms or hands that hold the firearm—he's barely aware of the object itself and he has no idea who's doing the holding, somehow the body must have gotten lost in translation—but the sensation is so achingly familiar, and suddenly he's back at the firing range his dad took him to time and time again when he was a kid, drilling him constantly, teaching him how to field strip a weapon, how to nab a moving target, how to reload quickly and efficiently.
The feeling of a gun weighing in his palm is something he'd never misidentify. Even if he can't exactly feel the palm.
The gun is loaded already, he can tell that much. It's still at the moment. Arashk spends several numb seconds just familiarizing himself with what's going on, putting his endeavors to describe it in words on hold. He keeps his psychic eyes open for any hints towards who's holding the weapon, but all he can tell is that it's being aimed. Carefully. It doesn't even tremble.
This goes on changelessly for a full minute before a sound pierces the relative quiet of the real world around him, and his eyes open, snapping him from the phantom gun and back into his Tent of Days. He looks up, vision failing him for a moment, or maybe showing him too much, he can't be sure, and after a moment his eyes fall on a couple standing a few paces in front of him, watching him curiously, their young faces lit dimly by the candlelight.
Inside two seconds, he slips into his Arashk Ronaldo persona, collects his thoughts, and says in whatever the hell accent he's been using for the past however many months, "I am sorry, but the spirits are not very active right now. Perhaps you could come back in, say, half an hour?"
Normally he'd tell them that he doesn't take more than one client at a time, but on the chance that they insist on a reading, he does not want to risk them both wanting to come in separately and wasting even more time.
They don't leave, saying they don't really want to talk to any spirits anyway and just wondered what he could do. He barrels through the reading, trying desperately not to show his urgency. He tells them he's going to get a slight raise soon, but she'll run into some trouble with an old friend, and they'll have to support each other, blah blah blah, and he feels about as useful to them as a fortune cookie, which is a shame because he's much better than those tasteless cracker things in every way, but something is compelling him to return to Loriss and that gun. This is important. He doesn't have time.
He finishes in just over two minutes, bids them a pointed farewell, and reaches into his vest just as they vanish from his sight.
The gun is being held in the same position. Whatever hand holds it has hardly twitched. For a moment he has the bizarre worry that maybe it's not being held at all, and it's just sitting on a shelf somewhere, but no—more than anything he can feel the intent around it. Somebody is about to shoot this gun. And if the silencer on it is anything to go by, they don't want to be noticed doing so.
In the continued lull, he attempts to identify the gun just by its feel. It's definitely a handgun, and probably a pretty good one too. 9mm? A Glock, maybe? It feels like it might be something Arashk himself has held in his hand at some point in his life, enough that he would remember how it feels even now…
Something tickles at Arashk's mind, something he can't explain. It's a part of the vision, which might make it even weirder. He's still trying to come up with an explanation when just a few seconds later, his attention is drawn to far more important things.
The trigger pulls back. The firing pin drops onto the primer. The gunpowder is ignited, propelling the bullet forward through the barrel, spinning it around and around as it exits the gun, slicing through the air, traveling in a path that is not one hundred percent straight—probably due to the wind—and enters the living flesh of a man. For the briefest moment Arashk can feel around this man's insides, almost as an assessment of the damage done, and indeed nothing vital seems to have been touched. It's an expertly done job, almost surgical in its meticulousness, and Arashk has no idea what the hell is going on.
Suddenly the focus of the vision-on-vision is back on the gun, and where it was perfectly still before, now it's being moved with an urgency Arashk wants desperately to understand, but there's somebody else standing in front of him in this damn tent, an older woman, by all appearances the kind who would definitely go complaining loudly to management if her food were a bit cold, so as discreetly as he can manage he pulls his hand from his vest and invites her to sit down.
Three minutes later he doesn't know what he's just told her. It was probably vague as all getout but he can't recall any overt dissatisfaction, so there's no need to think about it any further. Before any more interruptions can come walking through that door—or entrance, or whatever tents have—he returns his hand to the book.
Loriss is coming back from break.
Arashk sits in the dark tent with his hand resting inside his vest, blinking repeatedly, mind stalling, feeling the warm sun on Loriss' balding head and the slightly recharged energy coursing through his limbs.
His dad has just been shot. And somehow, Loriss saw it happen in real time.
"Holy hell," he breathes.
The guy is definitely still on the fairground, Arashk saw him briefly a matter of hours ago. And the problem isn't that it's not possible to see things happen from hundreds of miles away—the problem is that, as Arashk first found out a matter of months ago, it is.
He's not the only one.
Chapter 19 by EvenAtMyDarkest
Trigger warning for a panic attack and lots of symptoms of anxiety.
Four days after his dad was shot, Arashk wakes up in the gloom before dawn feeling colder than death.
He's immediately pissed that his simple dream of watching her brush her teeth and comb her golden hair was interrupted, but the annoyance quickly drops out of prominence when it registers with him that his body is shivering involuntarily. His hands tremble against the sheets and his teeth chatter, and he's pretty fuzzy on the exact date and even the month but he knows that spring started a long time ago.
Strange, unintelligible whispers start to fade into focus, caressing his mind in both a physical and mental way that leaves him with jumbled thoughts and something akin to a brain freeze, and he amends his previous evaluation of the feeling. This isn't colder than death.
This is exactly as cold as death.
He squeezes his eyes shut and pulls the covers over his head, partially in an attempt to warm up physically, and partially in a desperate hope that whatever ghosts have stumbled in here will give up and go away if he refuses to engage them.
Some of the cobwebs fall from his barely conscious brain, and he realizes rather abruptly that this is without precedence, and outside the range of normal ghostly behavior. They don't just stumble in anywhere. And he wouldn't be feeling the ripple of death they broadcast so keenly if they weren't here with a purpose.
He sits upright, and the blanket slides off his head, but he doesn't open his eyes just yet. He just quiets himself, sitting as still as possible—which for him is not an impressive level, but it'll have to do. The temperature remains steady, but he finds himself quickly acclimatizing to it. The cold slides into him and settles down inside his bones, and gradually, shapes begin to take form in his mind.
They're not at all clearly defined. He can't tell a thing about them, not their ages or genders, how long they've been dead, nothing. He just knows there are three of them, and they have something to say to him.
A feeling like a spike of ice being driven through his stomach takes hold of him, and he clutches at the area with one hand, barely managing to conceal a cry. His hand lands on the book tucked into the elastic of his pants.
His eyes finally open. By all appearances, he is still alone in his room.
Two words, very faint but slow and clear, sound in his mind: "Return it."
He's out of bed, his feet slid into his strange slipper shoes, before he gives himself time to think. He grabs his room key and pauses just before touching his doorknob to look back at the digital clock by his bed. It's 5:08. Livia won't be happy about this.
The chill overtaking his entire body intensifies, and he's out the door in the dark of morning.
The ground is flat but it somehow feels like he's running downhill. He trips and very nearly falls flat on his face halfway to Livia's apartment, and before he knows it, he's at her door, knocking at a volume and speed that he hopes is just soft enough not to wake her neighbors but incessant enough to wake her.
Three full minutes go by. He swears the temperature drops another five degrees at least, and he wraps he free arm around his knocking one and whispers, "Cut it out, I'm growing icicles."
He's fallen into a rhythm and his hand knocks twice more even after Livia opens the door, clad in her PJs and fuzzy blue slippers, hair in total disarray, looking supremely annoyed but trying to be patient. "Arashk, do you know what time it is?"
He yanks the book out of his pants, his fingertips absorbing the peaceful sensation of sleep, and shoves it into her arms. There's not time to register her reaction before the voices are back.
"Put another one in its place."
Without missing a beat, not sure where this urgency is coming from, he asks, voice low so as not to wake anyone, "May I come in?"
She draws her eyebrows together, but she doesn't budge. "Why? Is something wrong?"
"One of similar dimensions."
"One of similar dimensions," he repeats unthinkingly, and immediately winces.
Now she looks almost alarmed. "Arashk, are you okay?"
"I'm fine," he says automatically. Yeah, that's sure something she's likely to believe. "I just… would like to borrow another book, if that's okay with you."
She stands there blinking, and he has half a mind to just slide past her and start for her bookshelf, but he couldn't manage that without brushing against her, and the idea of that makes him want to shrink into himself.
"Livia!" he says in a fierce whisper when a few seconds have gone by with no response.
She jumps a bit, but finally steps aside, and he strides past her. There's no temperature change at all as he enters the apartment. He can almost feel the ghosts taking the same steps he is.
He stops at her bookshelf and starts scanning the outward-facing spines for smallish leather-bound books. Automatically after a few seconds he looks behind him for the book he already gave to Livia, seeking a comparison, and sees her pulling the door shut and starting in his direction.
"I need something as physically similar as possible to that one," he says, voice still quiet, when she's close enough.
"Why?" she asks, stern and unhesitating.
The two options that spring most immediately to his mind are "I don't know" and "I can't tell you." Both true, neither encouraging.
What leaves his lips instead is "I'll tell you soon." Provided I can figure it out.
She sighs, but her expression softens, just a touch. It turns thoughtful as she begins surveying her books, and she says, "I don't think I have any that are really similar to that one…"
He doesn't know why, but his heart plummets.
"Wait, hang on—"
He grasps at his chest, not sure how much more of this he can take.
And she pulls out a small book bound in brown leather that sends Arashk's heart pounding like crazy, so he keeps his hand over it as he grabs at the book with his other one. "Daily Meditations" is printed on the cover in flowing script. It looks barely used—as did Loriss' book, though that was because he's taken very good care of it over the years. This is because Livia's barely opened it. He sees the time she bought it in a bookstore a couple years ago, on a day when she'd broken down crying, and the times she read it almost daily for a few weeks afterwards, until she gave up hope that it would be useful and nearly forgot that she owned it.
Arashk holds the book of meditations up to the one that Livia still holds for comparison, and this new one is only slightly smaller and thicker than the one that's spent the last week or so in his vest. The cold air around him somehow emanates approval, and he breathes out a soft sigh of relief, though he still doesn't understand one bit of what's just happened.
"That one will work, then?" Livia asks, watching him through tired eyes.
He nods vigorously, and almost shoves it into the elastic of his pants where the book of Kipling's works just was, but given that Livia is standing right in front of him, thinks better of it.
"But you're still not going to tell me what's going on?"
He freezes, staring into her blue-grey eyes, in which he can already read disappointment before he's figured out how to answer. Something pangs inside him at the thought of what she must be going through because of his inability to explain anything to her, her slowly deteriorating confidence in him as he continues to enlist her for covert activities without offering any explanation or payoff. This can't go on forever. He's running out of favors to ask.
Only a few seconds have passed, and he opens his mouth, not sure what's going to come out of it. Before he can find out, Livia says, "Whatever. If that's all, I'm going to see if I can get a little more sleep."
He blinks, mouth still slightly open, and she says with no patience in her voice, "Goodbye, Arashk."
He compliantly heads for he door, thinking better than to argue, and she follows him closely to shut it behind him without even giving him time to say thank you.
"Go back to bed," the voices whisper to him, and he tucks the newly acquired book into his pants to rub his arms. Somehow the urgency is still alive and well in their commands. Advice. Whatever the hell it is. But he imagines his work will be done after he obeys this one. He's not sure what could possibly come after going back to bed. Unless there's more waiting when he wakes up again. If he can get back to sleep.
He starts walking, and not a few steps later he feels something at his back, but when he turns, there's nothing there. He keeps heading forward, picking up the pace, and mutters, "I'm moving, get off my back."
It's not until he's actually lying in bed that the temperature around him normalizes. He feels his cheeks flushing with the sudden warmth, and the tingle in the back of his brain dissipates. And just like that, the three ethereal presences that have been dogging his steps are gone without a trace.
He realizes that he's been operating on borrowed, or even forced, emotions and motivations for the last twenty or so minutes. And he still doesn't have an explanation.
He just surrendered his only connection to Loriss. Why? Because the spirits told him to and for absolutely no other reason.
"Oh my God," he whispers to himself, eyes wide even as they take in very little in the darkness of early morning. "I've actually lost my mind."
Strangely enough, Arashk sleeps like a baby.
He gets up as late as he can, giving himself just enough time to get dressed and make it to his tent before he's supposed to open it. Vague memories of witnessing the Head Detective perform some stretches with his injured arm and his wife help him along flit haphazardly through his mind in his spare moments between readings, of which there is a considerable amount today. Sometimes he goes to slip his hand into his vest, just by force of habit, and is quickly reminded that spying on Loriss is no longer in the cards. At that point, he usually takes out the book and flips through it until his next client enters.
He's as unsure as ever why he has this book of meditations on him. In the lull between his first two clients, he tries asking out loud, "So what was that about?" He's not sure whether or not he imagines the brief cool breeze in response and he just feels like an idiot talking to the empty air. All he can do is hope some answers come soon.
He gets his two meals, per the norm, and forces himself to have a respectable lunch, but come dinnertime he's just not hungry enough to even finish his hot dog. He is sure of this so early on in the meal that he decides there's enough time to wash off his face paint so he can go sit among the crowd, and reapply it when the time comes to return to the tent.
He's done this once or twice before. He's heard that generally it's allowed, as long as you're not in costume, or overtly recognizable. This is the third or fourth time he's done it just by removing his makeup (normally he'd also leave his robe or vest behind in the tent, but this time he holds something of admittedly questionable but still significant enough importance in his vest) and nobody's ever questioned him.
Livia is in the middle of her trapeze act when he takes a seat on a bench. Almost every carnival-goer in sight is watching her, with a few exceptions buying and eating food and whatnot.
That's good, he supposes. Relative to the usual din of the crowd, this is fairly quiet, and he needs to think. Of course, the best place to do that would be his closed tent, but he can't bring himself to spend any more time than necessary in there. He'll go stir crazy.
All right. Things he needs to think about.
Loriss. Sebastian. The connection between him and Livia.
He idly trails the acrobat with his eyes as she's flipped to and fro by her partner. Whatever it is they have in common, he hopes it's not something deeply personal that she would never want to talk about. Really, she doesn't talk much about her past or her home life. What little he knows is from that one time he touched her hand without asking.
Let's see. The Master singled her out specifically and asked her to be in the show. Presumably for the same reason he kidnapped Arashk. They joined or otherwise became part of the show at least a couple years apart and probably never had anything to do with each other before they met here. Which means the Master chose them for a specific purpose.
Well… Livia is clearly crazy talented in the field of acrobatics, and Arashk was all over the news for his alleged psychic abilities. Both are relevant and useful skills for someone in the Master's line of work, and that's even the reason he directly gave Arashk for his abduction—though of course he never went so far as to call it that. "I only want your cooperation as a psychic," he said.
Arashk doesn't know whether to ignore it as a misdirect or treat it as a clue.
An especially impressive gasp rises from the crowd, shaking Arashk out of his thus far unproductive thinking session. He looks to see why, and finds the reaction understandable—she's balancing on the tightrope on one hand, a feat that Arashk would never have believed practically possible before meeting her.
But then, he spent half an hour before the sun rose this morning unquestioningly following the commands of ghosts whispering in his ears, and that's not something he'd ever have seen as a possibility either.
His brain, his amazing ghost-sensing future-seeing never-stopping psychic brain, grinds to a full halt.
That can't be it.
Because if it were, he'd be faced with the impossible task of finding an excuse to explain why it hasn't occurred to him before.
Suddenly all his inhibitions about being seen as even crazier than he actually is vanish completely, and he's wishing with all the zeal he can muster that he'd questioned Livia more closely on the extent and origins of her abilities. He knew something was off, he knew that some of the things she could do didn't make sense. And he allowed the danger his family and friends were in to distract him from trying to get answers, in the same way he was distracted from trying to work out why he could suddenly hear the dead, see the past, and feel other people's emotions.
They might have something to do with each other.
They might have everything to do with each other.
His expression has frozen into one of intense thought, an enormous knot between his brows and his eyes as wide as they can get as they unconsciously follow Livia around the tightrope. He forces himself to smooth it over, reminding himself that he's gotta do whatever it takes to appear as lost and confused as possible at all times.
It's become a lot less work lately. He doesn't let himself consider why this might be.
Are they freaking superheroes? Did the Master gather them together because he knew they were about to grow into their powers? Is he a supervillain? Are there more besides him and Livia? What about Loriss? Is he—
The flood of questions suddenly becomes a typhoon of disorientation as something yanks Arashk out of his reverie. For a long moment he's not sure what, as he just tries to pick up the debris in his mind, and then somebody sits on the other end of the bench.
His heart starts thudding with all the power of an automatic weapon. He's turned slightly away from the newcomer, but he can feel the wood beneath him strain slightly with the added weight, and though he'd love to be able to convince himself that it could be anyone, he knows who it is.
He holds as still as possible. The smallest movement feels dangerous, in the same way a child burrowed under the covers with his closet door wide open might feel afraid to move. He realizes he's stopped breathing, and forces himself to resume. The book nestled against his chest feels like it's burning a hole straight through to his heart.
"It's been too long, Mr. Ronaldo."
Immediately he's cursing himself for letting the other man speak first. But even now all responses flee from his head. So instead of speaking, he slowly turns back around, easing his body into a normal position facing forward on the bench. He doesn't make eye contact with the man, doesn't even look at him.
"It's a gorgeous day, isn't it?" A small sigh of pleasure. "I love the sunlight. Little to no cloud cover. It's days like this we see the largest crowds."
Arashk says nothing.
"You know, Mr. Ronaldo, your clients seem to have become more and more impressed as time has passed. It really seems you've gotten the hang of these readings, despite your initial concerns."
You're freaking welcome, you son of a bitch.
"It's really quite incredible how far you've come. You certainly look the part; I am very pleased with your tattoo selections as well."
With every word Arashk swears his heartrate increases. He knows what's coming. Last time it was a surprise. He's not really sure he'd say he prefers having prior warning; it's like waiting to see his dad get shot all over again.
There's a long pause, and his body is slowly tensing up even further. He notices it several seconds into the lull but can do nothing to stop it, until he feels like a stiff board of frayed nerves, and the guy still hasn't said anything. What the hell is he waiting for?
Gathering his courage, Arashk finally manages to sneak a glance to the side.
The Master is sitting with his hands on his knees and his eyes closed. His dark hair is slicked back, as always, leaving just a few loose strands to tremble in the slight breeze. He's dressed as casually as he's been every other time Arashk has seen him, with sandals, cargo shorts, and sunglasses tucked into the front of his gray T-shirt. The movement of his shoulders indicates deep and purposeful breathing, and a serene smile plays at his lips.
He's in no rush.
Arashk has half a mind to tell him his break is over and he needs to get going. Well, maybe like, twenty-two percent of a mind. He constructs the sentence in his head—Well, I need to get back to my oh-so-important readings, so if you wouldn't mind… But this guy probably knows he still has more than twenty minutes left and his tent is just around the corner. No, there's no way out of this.
He wants to at least prompt him to speak, but those words die on his lips as well.
Finally, the Master's voice comes from beside him. But the words are not what he expected. Instead, spoken with all the softness and icy calm of a trained killer, comes the question, "Mr. Ronaldo, what's that you've got in your shirt?"
His heart stops beating. He swears it does. For something like two seconds it just hangs in his chest trying to remember how to function. A strange and suffocating mixture of crushing relief and intense dread fill his brain, leaving that out of commission, too. He doesn't move a muscle. He's forgotten how. His vision is going a bit black around the edges.
In the lull, he detects movement to his side, and realizes that the Master is patting the middle of the bench, indicating that Arashk should place the contents of his vest there. Knowing he has no choice, hands shaking like the dickens, he finally finds the strength to reach into his vest, pull out the book of meditations he's had in his possession for something like twelve hours, and move it towards the space where he's meant to put it down. He drops it about two inches above the wood, his muscles forsaking him, and withdraws his hand as fast as he can. For a long moment, the only thought his brain can produce is that he hopes the Master gives the book back; he's not big on meditation, but it sure seems like something he could use right now.
Waves of confusion emanate from his right. He's not sure if that's good or bad. The soft sound of pages being turned reaches him, and so do the words "Doesn't this belong to Miss Istok?"
He would know, that creepy bastard. Arashk gives a tiny nod.
"Why do you have it with you? How long have you had it with you?"
Arashk wets his lips, scrambling to remind himself how to speak. Finally he manages to push out the raspy words, "A few days. A week. I don't know."
The Master pauses. There's something about it that seems very deliberate to Arashk, but he doesn't have enough functioning brain cells at the moment to begin to puzzle through exactly what that might be. Then, again, "Why?"
Why, indeed? What has he been doing with the last twelve hours that didn't involve coming up with a believable story in case of this exact sort of situation? There's no time. Go basic. Truth is simple. Did his heart ever start beating again?
"I didn't want it taken away," he finally whispers.
He doesn't believe him. Of course he doesn't. But what can he do?
"Mr. Ronaldo," the Master says, voice low, "you would do well to be honest with me."
Arashk counts to one Mississippi. He can't answer too quickly, or this all comes crashing down. "I swear," he says, voice gaining an iota of strength.
Another long, calculating pause. It's only like seventy degrees out here, and his shirt is thin, but Arashk is burning up. He's not sure whether his heart is beating so fast he just can't feel it or said organ—muscle, a familiar voice corrects in his mind—has actually been completely still for the last several minutes and this bench is his personal purgatory.
Suddenly he realizes what he said a minute ago. That he's had the book for a matter of days, rather than as of just this morning. God almighty, why did he say that? What if the Master checks Livia's room as regularly as he does his? What if he knows the book was in there just yesterday? What if he's turning that information over in his head right now and realizing that something doesn't add up?
Finally, the Master speaks, and when he does, Arashk finds himself unable to understand any of the words. Spots dance before his eyes. His heart pounds in his ears. Sweat runs down his forehead. Air is entering and exiting his lungs too fast, nothing his brain is pretending to process is coming out coherent, and it feels like anything could happen—though a lot of the scenarios that he can't help but consider involve his heart giving out, something in his brain rupturing, or the sheer weight of reality crushing him. He knows what death feels like, and this is different, but a quiet yet powerful voice inside him is saying it's not different enough. He is seeing too much, hearing too much, feeling too much, and it all comes in in a jumbled mess, and he can't handle it.
Faces swim before him and he both recognizes them and doesn't at once. Something that feels like a hand on his shoulder sends him flinching away, only there's nowhere to go, and his shoulder connects forcefully with the back of the bench. Bench. He's sitting on a bench. At a carnival. He's at a carnival. The carnival. The one he works at. Lives at. Against his will. The Master. The Master is one of the faces. He's Arashk Ronaldo. But he's not. He's a psychic. But he's not. He's about to die.
But he's not.
A ragged gasp tears out of him, probably one of many, but at least this time he was aware of it. There are two people kneeling in front of him—the Master, who is being careful not to touch him, and a crew member, one of the friendlier people on setup, a woman in her late thirties with an infectious smile that is decidedly not present at this time. Her mouth is moving, her words floating up and around like bubbles for Arashk to catch. Finally he manages to process a few, but they're so predictable: "Arashk, can you hear me?"
At least she's not asking dumbass questions like "Are you all right?"
Another sentence makes it through, one from the Master: "He said he's been having very intense visions today."
Arashk feels like crying. Hell, he might already be doing that; he's not sure.
"Breathe, Arashk," the woman says. He's so glad her hand isn't brushing against his cheek and his shoulder is decidedly covered by his shirt. "Do you know where you are?"
"Show," he gets out. "Bench."
"That's right. You've had some kind of an attack, Arashk. You're fine."
Is he fine? He sure doesn't feel like it, and he's not sure he can trust someone whose diagnosis was "some kind of an attack" on the matter.
"Can you stand?" she asks then, and Arashk kind of doesn't think he can, but he'd rather try and fail and fall on his face than have somebody touch him to help and add visions to the mix. So he nods, they step back to give him a bit of space, and he just sits there, coming to terms with how badly he's trembling, trying to figure out how this started, and ergo, how to stop it. But the worry rippling from the woman and the subtle threatening glower from the Master are making it through the processing center of his brain now, and once again it's all too much, so he just braces his hands against the arm of the bench and pushes himself to his feet.
His knees wobble, and their hands go out to catch him, but he manages to stay upright. His head is actually beginning to clear. For the first time he registers the sheer number of concerned faces passing by in the background, and a couple other crew members standing behind the two people closest to him.
"Should I call a doctor?" the Master asks, voice dripping with concern, and maybe Arashk can only hear the warning note in his tone because he's got senses other people don't, but the overtly menacing expression on his face, which no one else is currently looking at, seals the deal.
"A doctor wouldn't be able to do anything," he says, voice wobbling but gaining strength. "This has happened before. I'm fine."
All lies, except maybe the first thing. Maybe.
Arashk honestly wouldn't mind testing it out, but if the Master continues to get his way, he doubts that will ever even become an option.
He's excused from returning to work that day, thank God.
The Master sends the woman and one other crew member to spot him on the way back to his apartment, disappearing to who knows where. They stay for a couple of minutes to get him some water and ask ten times if he's sure he doesn't need anything else, and he proceeds to spend the next hour lying on his bed, staring at the ceiling, trying his hardest not to think. He's tired of thinking. Feeling too.
He's been having a pretty successful time of it when the sound of a key turning in his lock pierces the relative quiet of the room.
He sits upright quickly but not urgently, and watches as the Master steps inside, looking completely unruffled after their last encounter, and calmly locks the door behind him. For an instant Arashk wonders how he got in, but he reasons he probably has access to backup keys for all the apartments. Or… a Master key. Hah. Hahah.
He doesn't let himself think about how goddamned thrilled the man must have been to see the fruits of his labors manifest the way they did.
He's got a manila folder tucked underneath his arm. Arashk knows what's inside. "Mr. Ronaldo," he begins, "I won't keep you long. There is one more thing that I wanted to talk about before our conversation was… cut off. And at the risk of sparking another such reaction…"
He won't. Arashk is never going to feel like that again if he can help it. Which he's painfully aware he can't, but.
"…I am here to address it. First, however," and he pulls something from behind the folder, approaching Arashk's bedside and setting it on his nightstand, "I think you've offered sufficient proof of your need for this."
Arashk blinks at the book of meditations sitting beside him. Not really important; he'll think about it later. He returns his attention to his visitor.
The Master places the folder next to him and takes a step backwards, watching him expectantly. Arashk looks at it and back and him, and he so desperately wants to say something snarky, but even ignoring the fact that his snark setting has lost its edge, and as satisfying at that would be, it certainly wouldn't be wise. So he silently and compliantly takes the folder into his hands and opens it.
Four photos rest on top of an article. He wants to read the article first, but the first photo is of his father being loaded into an ambulance on a gurney, and after he sees that, all his attention is drawn to it. It's one of the few moments of the incident that he hasn't actually seen already. He examines it closely, but there's not much to see other than the only hint of red on his shirt that's visible given the photo's angle. The next picture is of the detective who dove after him, standing on the ocean shore surrounded by paramedics, dripping wet, standing funny, and clutching his elbow, face contorted with pain and fear.
The other two are of the aftermath: a shot of his father full of tubes in his hospital bed, and one of the detective in the parking lot at the precinct. His arm is bent awkwardly, and Arashk can read the limp in his step.
He's impressed with how calm he's managed to remain so far. He moves on to the article and scans it for new information, but there doesn't seem to be any. Unknown shooter, investigation continues, a statement from the detective, and all the names have been removed, with one exception: "the father of Arashk Ronaldo, the psychic detective who disappeared last year."
Last year. He disappeared last year.
It makes the event sound so… remote. So distant. How long has he really been here?
"Now, Mr. Ronaldo," the Master says, "I am no fool. I know the overwhelming likelihood that you have already seen this, that you know what happened. But on the off chance you haven't, I will narrate for you. When—"
"No, I know what happened."
God, maybe that was a bad idea but man does it feel good. The Master's disgruntled expression at being interrupted alone is worth it, not to mention his lack of enthusiasm for the idea of listening to this guy, of all people, tell him what happened to his dad when he already knows.
After a few seconds the Master smooths his expression over, replacing the displeasure with his typical tranquil look. "Do you also know why?" he asks.
'Cause you're an evil bastard? For a moment he contemplates whether it's actually a good idea to answer this, since there's a possibility that it's not what he thinks, and he doesn't want to give this lunatic more ammunition. But no, he's sure. He's sure in the new way, the way he doesn't have to doubt. And he's reasonably certain, based on the Master's expression, that answering is not optional. "I imagine it has something to do with my venture in the storage area," he says, a little meeker this time.
"Very good. You probably also won't be surprised to hear that I'd like to know what you were doing there instead of 'sleepwalking'?"
…This is bad. And something he should have anticipated. He can't mention Livia, he can't. What would be a reasonable story? The Master isn't likely to buy an innocuous explanation like "I was meditating" or some crap like that. But what else can he say? "I was plotting your downfall but it's not working out so well so you don't have to worry hahahah"?
"Be truthful, and promise me it will stop, and you have nothing to fear," the Master says softly.
Yeah, that's likely. Okay, if he removes Livia from the scenario, is there still a story to be told? Not really. The Master is watching him carefully; he feels like he's taking a polygraph test, and maybe that's how he should be acting. Tell the truth, just not all of it, and piece it together in whatever way suits his needs. Okay. What did he and Liv talk about?
…They talked about their names, they talked about Loriss, they talked about any number of things Arashk can't repeat. He's still waiting for an answer. The pause has gone on too long.
Arashk sighs, and starts, "I could sense that nobody would be coming in there for a while…" So far so good. That's completely true. But he doesn't have the second half of the sentence prepared and the Master is waiting and nothing is coming to mind—
So Arashk does what he does best.
He just makes something up.
"I've been trying to come up with a way to spark visions completely free of any relevant stimulus and I wanted to practice. I couldn't use my apartment because it requires total quiet and the guy next door was playing loud music. The storage unit was far away from most people and really dark, which is also helpful. I was…" He swallows, doing his best to appear genuinely nervous—more than that, doing his best to be genuinely nervous—and goes on, "I was trying to figure out something about you. Your past, your plans, anything at all." He pauses, as if unsure whether to go on, and also actually unsure whether to go on.
"I want full disclosure," the Master prompts. "You will not be punished for it. Nor will anyone else."
This is a bad idea. This is a very, very bad idea.
But if he says he was completely unsuccessful, he doubts he will be believed. And if he makes something up, he definitely won't be believed.
There's no way out and no time to think. So he screws his eyes shut, rubs a hand down his face, opens them, and says, "I didn't get much, but I did see a face."
"Describe it," the Master deadpans.
Arashk rubs the back of his head. "He looked a lot like you. My first thought was an older brother, or I guess father or uncle, depending on what time the image was from. Um…" He squints, straining to recall details. "His nose was a bit longer and he had a couple creases on his face… His hairstyle was definitely different…"
The Master looks at him thoughtfully. His poker face is incredible.
"It wasn't very clear," Arashk explains, "and I didn't get any context. Just a face."
His face doesn't change. Not the slightest twitch disturbs his expression. Something tickles at the back of Arashk's mind, but he pays it no heed. He is telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and he knows it. And he has to keep knowing it.
Finally, the man smiles, and his teeth practically glow. "Thank you for telling me, Mr. Ronaldo."
More than dismayed at having lost some of the lead he had before, but also relieved for reasons he can't let himself consider just yet, Arashk nods, shoulders sagging.
"You are, of course, forbidden from attempting this again."
Whatever you say, man. He gives another compliant nod.
The guy hasn't taken his eyes off him, and Arashk doesn't like the look he has, like he's seeing straight into him, perfectly aware that his apparent submission is total crap. Or at least near-total crap.
"If I could make a request," he says tentatively, "might you stop looking at me like that?"
The Master, still standing above him, chuckles softly. Arashk watches the way the oft-practiced smile sits naturally on his face, but more than anything else he resembles a shark. With a lot of people, creases explode over their faces every time they laugh, conveying true joy. There's nothing of the kind here. This man has no smile lines.
"Next time you step out of line," the Master says, voice perfectly even and soft as silk, "one of them dies."
He was doing so well. He thought that he had control over his body, that in the end he'd come out of the day largely unscathed, and it would just be a "close call." But the words hit Arashk like a literal punch to the gut. Or rather a stab. A dagger has just torn open one of his lungs and he can't breathe, can't feel, can't think.
He should have seen this coming. He did see this coming. But… but like always, he managed to fool himself into believing that his actions had no consequence.
He's an idiot.
No, worse. He's actually very intelligent. And yet he acted idiotically. He's… he's not sure there are words for what he is.
At least he has the presence of mind to realize that the Master has made his way to the door. He reaches for the knob, but stops with his fingers resting delicately on it, and turns back towards Arashk. "Make no mistake, Mr. Ronaldo," he says quietly. "You belong to me. You can't hide anything from me. And you are not going anywhere."
And just before shutting the door behind him, one last time, he smiles.
Chapter 20 by EvenAtMyDarkest
Arashk enters a fog that day.
He gets up in the morning, he tells people's fortunes, he usually remembers to feed himself, he goes to bed, and the cycle repeats. It's not all-encompassing, but it allows him to stop feeling so much. It lets him go through his days without even wondering whether or not any of this is normal, without thinking about his past or his future. The sun rising and the moon rising, it's all the same to him. Either way the light is muffled.
The fog is self-induced.
As long as he's not fully aware of what's happening around him, he doesn't have to care.
Feeling the passage of time becomes difficult. Such is the way of the fog.
Sometimes he wakes up in bed and can't remember whether he's just had a nap or slept through the night. There comes a time, very quickly, he thinks, that he doesn't know whether it's been a matter of days or weeks since he knew what day it was.
His visions of home are becoming less and less frequent. At first he was worried about this, but he came to realize that this worry took up more energy than he has at his disposal. There's nothing he can do to stop the decline, anyway. So he just takes what he can get. Besides, the more he sees them at night, the more it hurts not to see them during the day.
He still enjoys the updates as they happen. When he exists only as a projection in the faraway happenings of the lives of his friends, he doesn't hold back any of his feelings. The idea is that the little bit of relief will help him stay strong while he's awake. Frequently the visions are nothing to get too excited about, but every once in a while—and who knows how long "a while" is—he'll get a gem like his girlfriend petting a dog in the park and making fast friends with its owner, his best friend getting very off track during a meeting when he finds out he and his client have the same favorite TV show, or the head detective and his wife talking about starting a family.
The evidence that they're starting to figure out how to move on and live without him is comforting.
When he's not dreaming about the people he's trying to protect, he's seeing the ones he spends the most time around at the carnival. Not that there's anyone with whom he actually associates on a regular basis; it's just that apparently these near-nightly dreams are mandatory, so he ends up with random updates on the fire-eater with whom he happened to speak two days in a row and the group that always sets up and takes down his tent interspersed with the ones of the people he actually cares about. And every once in a while, sometimes inexplicably, he still gets a peek into the daily lives of Livia, Sebastian, and Terrence.
He doesn't know how long it's been since he spoke with Livia. The evening after the Master came to him, she turned up at his door asking worriedly how he was doing, if he was okay. He doesn't really recall how he responded, but he's certain he used the words "I'm fine." They haven't had a conversation since then. Not of any length, anyway.
The information he's gathered about her and the conclusions he's drawn from that information still bounce around his head from time to time, but they're in stasis. He doesn't give them the time of day. He'd love to be able to. He knows he would. But any further conclusions would be less than useless to him. If he reaches any, he will just have more incentive to act, and then somebody he loves will die.
No incentive. No risk. No escape.
He will never be able to convince himself that he's happy here, not if he spends the rest of his life trying. But he was never really happy for the first three decades of his life anyway. He knows how to get along without being at peace.
Really, this is no different.
Except that now, he has had a time in his life when he was happy. He found out just how wonderful it was to be able to wake up and go to a job that he loved and that allowed him to help people, and he didn't even have to dress up for it. His partner was also his best friend, and he was in love. He even had an okay relationship with his dad.
He doesn't see how he can ever return to it.
So he has to get back the mindset he had pre-happiness.
He has to forget.
He starts to work on developing the ability to compress time, at least in his own mind. He doesn't know if a technique for this sort of thing exists, but even if it does, he has no access to information on it, so he's got to try to develop his own. Frequently he doesn't even need to make a conscious effort, but sometimes, when he's alone with nothing to distract him from his thoughts, it strikes him as a very useful skill to have.
At first, his attempts are so ineffective that it's almost not worth the discouragement. It would never have been easy for him; his brain has been working on overtime since he was a kid. And now, with a sixth sense he doesn't even understand added to the mix, it's almost impossible to shut his mind down.
But gradually, he starts to see progress. At one point he's been sitting on his bed, doing his best not to notice the passage of time, and then a short moment of unawareness passes and he realizes that an hour has gone by. His initial reaction is fear and alarm, before he harshly reminds himself that this is exactly what he's been trying to do.
This is a good thing.
He feels cold all the freaking time. The three spirits are, at this point, pretty much constants. Following him around, worming their way inside his head, but he does all he can to shut them out. To shrink into himself. To lose awareness. To forget. They don't have the strength to actually be on constant offense, continually trying break down his barriers and say whatever the hell they want to say, but they're always there.
He can't keep trying. Even if he doesn't change his behavior at all, even if he just tries thinking through this puzzle, he's not sure he has the strength to hope anymore. Whatever the ghosts have to say, he doesn't want to hear it.
And anyway, it's been shown that even some of the things inside his head aren't safe. He could actually get someone killed by knowing too much.
Really, this is a pretty sweet deal, compared to a lot of the jobs he's worked before. All his living expenses are paid for. He doesn't even have to do his own grocery shopping. And riding in a train all the time is pretty cool.
There is one downside he's having a tough time putting a positive spin on, though: for all the people around him pretty much 24/7, it feels like he's always alone.
Arashk has never enjoyed being alone. But this feeling of being thus even when surrounded by people is at least something he's familiar with.
As often as he can, he scrounges for dinner in his apartment. Livia doesn't bring him snacks nearly as often nowadays—she barely even comes round anymore. After a while he runs out of food and has to go to the community meal until his cabinets are magically restocked. He always sits alone. Nobody ever joins him.
Well, that's not quite true. Sebastian does sometimes.
The guy has clearly heard of his little… incident. He's never brought it up directly, but he always asks "How are you doing, Ronaldo?" and always wants an answer, even if it's an obvious lie. He does most of the talking, which Arashk appreciates. Always light chitchat—talk of work and the various goings-on of his friends, some of whom sometimes join them at the table, but they never directly address Arashk and barely even look at him. He recognizes many of them. He's associated with them by proxy of Sebastian multiple times before, spent Christmas with them, said hello in passing.
Strangely enough, whenever Arashk is with Sebastian, the whispers nagging just outside the barriers he's set up around his mind go completely quiet. He hasn't yet formulated a plausible theory as to why; the best he's got so far is that maybe, for some reason, they care about letting him have some form of a social life.
Life becomes extremely predictable. It's not something Arashk ever wanted before. At least the work itself is pretty exciting; he can never be sure when people walk in what he'll find in their minds. And not only is being able to get inside the heads of strangers still a pretty novel concept for him, but he's gotten some really interesting people in their own right. One day a guy comes in who speaks eight different languages, and that makes the finer details of his thoughts practically impossible for Arashk to decipher, because they come in a mix of some Nordic language and what he's pretty sure is Spanish. Then the following day he gets a woman who was homeless for three years in her twenties but has since then started her own company. There are some really impressive stories he gets to see and oftentimes it feels like he's living vicariously through his clients.
There's one location that he knows is pretty near the west coast, and even as he sits in his tent for those three days he imagines he can feel the ocean breeze upon his skin. Every time he hears the slight rustle of the curtain being pulled back by a client, he tries not to look too eager as he waits to see somebody he knows and misses walk into his tent.
For the most part, he can identify this hope as an irrational one originating from his heart rather than his psychic head. But at one point, near the end of the first day, a young woman about his age with mousy brown hair walks in, and her face seems extremely familiar to him. It takes him until he divines her name to realize that he went to high school with her—even had a crush on her for about two weeks, but never said anything except to his best friend.
Of course, when she looks at him, there's not a hint of recognition in her eyes. So he feels safe telling the story of the kid who spilled milk all over her skirt on the third day of freshman year (it wasn't him, but his entire class was there to witness it). Her eyebrows go up as she slowly realizes the story he's recounting, and he has to stifle a smile.
It's a moment of levity that he didn't realize he needed so badly, but it's also an opportunity to do things the way he used to do things—without psychic powers. Just with an exceptional memory and a whole lot of luck. It feels fantastic.
As she leaves, though, he reminds himself that he's not allowed to think about that anymore.
He is unable to convince himself not to be terrified when he loses almost an entire week.
He passes the impressionist, a kind Asian gentleman with whom he's hardly ever spoken, during a break and is stopped and asked, "You doing okay? You seemed very out of sorts when I saw you last weekend." And Arashk can only blink in shock as a response, because he would have sworn that was just yesterday. After asking for the day, he concludes that it's been eight days since what he thought was yesterday. Try though he might, he can summon up only a few random snatches of memory from this entire span of time.
He doesn't know what he says to the impressionist. That's lost to him too.
Every free moment he has for the rest of the day—thankfully, not too many—is spent trying not to hyperventilate, violently wishing he could allow himself to just think, and knowing that he can't.
"Look, Arashk," Sebastian says abruptly during one of many long lulls in dinner conversation, just as they're winding down after about half an hour, "I won't lie; I'm a bit concerned about you."
Huh, he thinks in a rather detached manner, running his finger around the rim of his cup. Somebody finally said it.
They're sitting on their own at the moment in the moderately busy dining area. Arashk hasn't eaten outside of his apartment in at least… five days? Six? And in that time he's seen Sebastian in passing several times but they were never close enough even to say hi.
"I know you've been having… some trouble," Sebastian goes on hesitantly, "but… but you're not getting better. At all. Do you need help? Is there anything I can do?"
Arashk doesn't know why the queries surprise him. He supposes if anybody were going to ask them, it would be Sebastian, but somehow it's still unexpected. In his lifetime he's found that generally, even when people know something's wrong, even when it's clear as day, they won't bring it up, and they come up with as many excuses as they need to—they don't know the person well enough, he'll probably be fine tomorrow, she probably doesn't want to talk about it, and Arashk's favorite: it would be too awkward.
He stares at Sebastian's salad, contemplating how to respond. If the question is of whether Sebastian, or anyone else really, can do anything, he's immediately inclined to answer no. But for some reason, he feels the need to fact check. Is that actually true? Sure, he can't… he can't rip up Arashk's problems by the roots, but might there be something he could do to make things better?
Sebastian's watching him like he's the only person on the face of the earth right now, and Arashk realizes that he can't ask any more of this man. He already spends so much time with the psychic who can't even remember how to hold a normal conversation and has a laundry list of psychological defects besides—and Arashk isn't even sure why. They were tight before, he guesses, back when things were brighter and Arashk didn't feel so damn tired all the time, but Sebastian is a fun guy, and he likes to be entertained. Arashk has nothing to offer him.
It suddenly strikes Arashk that if they had met under other circumstances, they could have become very good friends.
It's somewhat miraculous that even with this disconnect between them, Sebastian hasn't given up on him. Maybe he sees the potential too. Somehow.
He realizes the pause has gone on almost too long. It's not something he ever would have let happen at home. Finally, he just shakes his head, and says, "Nah." And, almost as an afterthought, he adds, "Just keep doing what you're doing."
Sebastian's mouth twists into an expression of deep thought, and for a moment Arashk expects him to ask another question or try to pry more information out of him, but instead he picks up his empty cup, rising from his seat, and says, "I'm gonna get a refill."
Arashk watches Sebastian's retreating back until his vision loses focus—not an uncommon occurrence nowadays. As the happenings around him become blurry and undefined, he slips into convincing himself that no time is passing. It's still not easy, but it's become more so with practice.
Evidence of this fact comes when Sebastian seems to be back immediately, waving one hand in front of Arashk's face while the other holds his full cup. His lips are moving, and Arashk pulls himself back into reality, blinking, and mumbles, "Sorry."
Sebastian doesn't try repeating himself, just regards Arashk with unmasked worry as he takes his seat. After several seconds, he asks quietly, "You still missing whoever it is you're missing?"
The word YES screams through Arashk's head without warning, and he grimaces slightly. It wants to be heard. But he can't risk giving a voice to it, can't even put the reasons in words in his own mind, or he might actually fall apart.
"Nah," he hears himself repeating, and finds that the strength to fake a small smile is minimal and manageable. "I'm over that. But thanks for the concern there, Seb."
He's waiting for the sword swallower to drop the matter and continue on, just like he's always done after Arashk lies to his face about being fine. But instead, following his answer is silence. He feels the man's gaze on him, and for a couple seconds he tries to work out where to look. Eventually he has to submit, and looks up to meet Sebastian's brown eyes. As soon as he does, the man says, voice still low and accompanied by a smile that's both knowing and sad, "Saying it out loud doesn't do a thing to make it true, friend."
The undeniable truth of the statement hits Arashk like a freight train, and it is exactly what he doesn't need to hear right now, because it undermines his entire mission. He has to convince himself he's happy here, dammit, because succeeding in that delusion is the only way he can do any good with whatever remains of his worthless life. He is going to die, and he feels this certainty weighing down more and more on his heart with every passing day, and in the part of his mind that he's no longer allowed to acknowledge he's beginning to wish that bastard would just get it over with already so he can drop the charade and really give up and maybe finally find out what the hell this was all for.
He's thinking too much, more than he has in the last week combined, and he screws his eyes shut, willing himself to stop before it spirals into something he can't control.
"Okay, Arashk," comes Sebastian's voice again, and with an effort Arashk pulls his eyelids apart to make eye contact with the man, "it's obvious you don't want to talk about this, whatever it is, and I'm sorry for bringing it up, but can I just say one thing?"
Arashk wants to say no. But he can't quite bring himself to, and Sebastian obviously takes his silence as permission to continue: "When you first arrived here, I heard that you'd had some nasty experiences that you'd rather leave behind, and for quite some time, I believed it. But lately, the way you just stare into the distance… you're obviously not here and now. If you'll pardon the unsolicited advice, I'd really recommend you decide where you want to be: here, or there, wherever there was. You can't be happy if you're always wishing you were somewhere else." He must see the determined set of Arashk's jaw at this, for he adds, "And you can't cherry-pick your wishes either. As hard as you may try."
Arashk stares at him searchingly. As he knows him, Sebastian is not one for heartfelt speeches such as the one he has just produced. "You really believe that, do you?"
Sebastian shrugs, the corner of his mouth quirking upwards, and immediately when he says, "A wish is a gift. It's the only reason anybody does anything," all of a sudden the three presences Arashk has been desperately trying to block out start losing their minds for no discernable reason, and as he starts throwing up mental defenses he barely catches Sebastian's next words: "That's what my mama always used to say, anyway."
At this, one of the voices rises above the others—something that has never happened for more than a second at a time. But now, it lasts. It's still not intelligible, but it's distinct, and for the first time, Arashk can tell that it belongs to a female.
Sebastian's voice echoes around him, just as unclear, but he's probably asking something dumb and meaningless like whether he's okay, so Arashk just pushes out the word "Yeah," because the rusty old gears in his mind are spinning now and it's a feeling he missed dearly but never mind that, something's happening here—this is the first time Sebastian has ever mentioned his family without being prompted, and even then it was just that one time. Arashk would remember if it had happened outside that isolated incident when the only thing he really learned was that Sebastian wasn't going to make the learning easy for him. At the time he figured the information was irrelevant to his efforts anyway, and he let the matter rest.
He finds himself staring at Sebastian, who doesn't seem to be readily picking up on Arashk's distractedness. He's somewhere else at the moment. In his past. With… with his mother.
The voices in his head speaks with clarity for the first time since they bade him to replace Loriss' book, and two words sound in Arashk's head as he looks at Sebastian.
Arashk flinches back so far he feels himself falling. He doesn't know whether he manages to catch himself before he hits the ground or whether he has to pick himself back up again, but the next thing he knows he's stumbling away through the grass, picking up speed until he's in a dead run, the temperature around him somewhat normal, the inside of his mind suspiciously quiet, and finally he finds himself outside his apartment, jamming the key into the keyhole, and finally stepping inside and slamming the door behind him.
He can't pretend this doesn't change anything.
Things he knows for sure: his life is in danger. Indirectly, so are the lives of his loved ones. Sebastian's loved ones are dead. They've been following Arashk around.
And they are convinced Sebastian's life is in danger, too.
He sits at the edge of his bed, wringing his hands, periodically running them through his beard and his mop of hair. It's been half an hour since he ran off, and thankfully Sebastian hasn't come after him. He's not really sure what he would tell him if he did.
Should… should he tell him? If Arashk has been hearing from his dead family, he feels the guy deserves to know. With what little information Arashk has garnered from them—no information at all really, just instructions—he wouldn't really have reason to believe him and would probably go to the Master about it. So Arashk clearly can't say anything now. Maybe after he has more information and thinks it would be worth it to enlist Sebastian to… to… He doesn't really know what the sword swallower could do for him, except agree to stop giving the Master updates on his condition.
Although Arashk once thought he'd enlisted somebody, and now he's not sure if Livia has slipped back into her old habits of talking about him with the Master or not. At least she obviously has kept the important stuff on the down low, or Arashk's girlfriend would probably be…
He clutches his head between his hands and leans forward so far it's almost between his knees. What the hell is he doing? He should not be thinking about this, not any of it. He should be blocking everything out and… and…
Slowly he takes down his hands and sits up again.
This is ridiculous and it needs to stop.
It's obvious now that this is bigger than him. Bigger even than his friends and family. They are back home living with no knowledge of his location or condition, his dad is hanging onto life by a thread, and of course he has to be careful beyond measure to make absolutely sure he doesn't worsen the situation, but he owes it to them, and Sebastian as well, to try. Even if the hell wherein he allows himself a modicum of hope turns out to be even worse than the hell he's in now.
Time to stop trying to be a damn martyr and start thinking again, Arashk, he tells himself grimly as the remaining cobwebs slowly begin to fall from his mind in sheets, and he feels a thrill of excitement despite himself at the idea of being not useless again. You've got work to do.
Chapter 21 by EvenAtMyDarkest
If he does anything, anything at all, it has to fulfill two qualifications: 1) He has to be certain beyond any shadow of a doubt that he will get something useful out of it, and 2) he has to be even more certain that he won't get caught.
But "doing" anything isn't an option yet. First he has a lot to think through, and a ton of information to gather to make up for however long he's been sitting around wallowing in futile misery.
He devotes the entire evening to thinking. He's going to sit up in bed and just review all the information he has and draw all the conclusions he can until he can't stay awake anymore.
Sebastian obviously doesn't know it, but he's involved in the Master's plan in a way similar to how Arashk is. Andâ€¦ if he doesn't know it, that opens up a whole other can of worms. Arashk has been assuming he's the only one who's part of it because he hasn't found anyone displaying any signs that they're here against their will, but if not all of the Master's victims actually know they're victims, they'll be harder to spot. Maybe impossible.
There has to be some kind of pattern, but it might not be a discernible one. The connection between him and Livia may be a good place to start. Actuallyâ€¦ she's probably a victim too.
Arashk blinks into the darkness.
That's where he left off, isn't it? The connection between them. They can both do things that they rationally shouldn't be able to. With him, it's knowing the unknowable; with her, it's doing the undoable. He doesn't know the full extent of her ability to break known laws of physics, or where that ability came from--and really, she might not either; he has no clue regarding the origins of his own--but it's something he should really work on figuring out.
That's not all, though. There are three patterns he's found so far that seem to be significant: people's family members being dead or in danger of dying, people forgetting their own names, and people being able to do what should be impossible.
Sebastian and Arashk fall under the first category; Livia and Arashk fall under both of the other two; and he, Liv, and Loriss fall under the last.
Even though this memory hasn't seen the light of day for several months, immediately Arashk is thinking back to the first time he saw Sebastian, sticking swords down his throat during the first of these carnivals Arashk ever experienced. He sees the streaks of blood on the silver blade, the quick disposal of the evidence on the baggy red pants Sebastian is always wearing during his act, probably for that exact purposeâ€¦
How did Arashk forget about that? It was what caught his attention in the first place, the reason he singled out the sword swallower at dinner and introduced himself so near the beginning.
Okay, so he's got four people with superhero powers on his hands, himself included. One of them--Arashk himself--is a victim of kidnapping. Two of them--Seb and Liv--have displayed strong indications that they are not. And on the last of them--Loriss--the jury's out.
So what does he know about Loriss? That he's got some kind of history with the Master, and that somehow, he wasâ€¦ a witness to the shooting on the pier. Arashk saw, or rather, felt it happen through him. So there are two possibilities that he can think of: Loriss is psychic too and has some kind of connection with Arashk that would allow him to have a vision of his father, orâ€¦ he was in some way involved in the actual shooting.
His fists clench at the thought, and he tries to calm down, to remind himself that there is still so much he doesn't know, and there's some compelling circumstantial evidence to suggest that Loriss might be a victim too. What Arashk doesn't understand is that they were definitely nowhere near his hometown on that day, and he knows, courtesy of the works of Kipling, that Loriss was at the carnival about to go on his break not half an hour before it happened.
What are you getting at, Ronaldo? he asks himself with a sardonic snigger. That it's impossible that he could have been involved? At this point, nothing is impossible. Annoying but true. So the question is, based on the available information, what particular brand of impossibility could have been utilized to put Loriss at the scene of the crime? Or at least to in some way allow him to witness it?
Several potential answers flash through his mind. Teleportation is at the top of the list, right alongside the possibility that he's psychic as Arashk is. Not for the first time by any stretch, he grimaces at the thought, but he forces himself to put away the misgivings. They have no place here anymore. The world, as it turns out, makes even less sense than he's always thought.
He can only speculate as to the how; the other question is the why. Either he's being forced, or he's in on it. If he's being forced, he would probably make a very valuable ally, whereas if he's actually voluntarily working with the Masterâ€¦ then he's Arashk's first lead in all the time he's been here as to who is directly responsible for the leverage being held over Arashk's head. Either way, it's a game changer.
Arashk immediately thinks that he would probably be able to tell which of these possibilities is the reality if he just had a chance to see where Loriss lives. It ought to be fairly obvious just from looking at his bedroom whether he's living comfortably or trying desperately not to build any kind of life here. And even if it's not readily apparent at first glance, this whole psychic deal really oughta come in mighty handy.
The problem isâ€¦ it's risky. Always and horribly risky. He can't even do something as innocuous as come up with an excuse to knock on Loriss' door--after figuring out where the guy lives, of course--because a) the way he's been acting, he wouldn't be aware enough to deviate from his usual route in any way at all, and b) as far as he knows, the Master has no idea Arashk is clued in on Loriss' significance, and he needs to do everything he can to keep it that way.
He lets out a sudden grunt of frustration so loud he surprises himself, and immediately hopes that neither of his neighbors heard that, but soon cycles back to focus on his near-complete inability to do anything. He balls up his fists and presses them against his temples, taking deep breaths. This has never been a problem before. Back when he was someone else, when he was faced with a puzzle, he was allowed to examine all the evidence, to talk to witnesses, to scope it out, to see it. Even in the cases wherein he wasn't, he found a way to. Now? He's got nothing. And if he's caught trying to turn that nothing into something, the consequences will be severe.
Butâ€¦ but that's never stopped him before. He went behind people's backs all the time and he was never caught. So what's different now?
For the briefest moment the scene changes before him. Tears tremble in blue eyes, music echoes in the background, and it all melts away again as a glass of wine splashes into his face and his whole world falls to pieces all over again.
He was caught. Once.
Arashk releases a sigh, and stands up to retrieve the T-shirt and sweats he sleeps in from his nightstand. The gears in his head don't stop turning, and his motions are aggressively unhurried as a result.
So if he does something, he'll have to be careful. Fine. He's never really put much effort into being careful, but he feels like if he did he could be pretty good at it.
As he unbuttons his vest, something falls to the floor, and he stands there with the article of clothing half-off, staring down at the object. He can't quite say that he forgot about it, because for some reason it feels like he's never really lost awareness of its presence, but it's been such a long time since he thought about why.
It seems that in all this time he's been moving through his days in a dreamlike state, sometimes utterly unaware of what he was doing, he never took that napkin off his person. As he stares down at it, he vaguely recalls going to throw it in a public trash can during a carnival towards the beginning of his self-inflicted stupor, but when he went to draw it out from his vest, his entire body was assaulted with a cold like he'd never felt before, and he let out an audible whimper as he acquiesced.
The drawing of the face he claimed to the Master to have seen in a vision was a gift from Sebastian's family, and it's obviously very important. The only other thing on the napkin is the name "Arthur Loriss." The name that he at least at one point was convinced would be paramount to his investigation.
He's not sure when or why he stopped operating under that conviction, but he should probably get back to it.
But surely there's more than just that name that he should make sure he doesn't forget.
Arashk retrieves his Sharpie and writes all the names he thinks may have even the slightest relevance to his investigation: "Livia Istok," "Sebastian Jaeger," "the Master," and, just in case, "Arashk Ronaldo." After a pause, he circles "the Master," and adds "me" in parentheses after that last one.
It feels unnecessary, but before this whole mess he would have said writing his own name down just in case he forgot would be unnecessary. At this point, nothing is out of the cards.
As he slips the crumpled napkin into the elastic of his sweatpants, he starts mentally reviewing everything he has to look out for. Sebastian really doesn't seem to know anything helpful, and for Arashk to clue him in on his awareness of his abilities seems more likely to freak him out than anything else. Livia might have some information on the origins of her abilities, which would be extremely helpful, as it's very likely that the origin is the same across the board.
Crap. What if it's not? Better just assume it is; he'll cross that messy, derelict bridge when he comes to it.
So questioning Livia might be fruitful, but he doesn't know how much patience she has left with him, and at the very least, to try to get answers would alert her that he's gotten over the rut he's been in for however long. Right now, her pity is an advantage. He doesn't particularly want to risk her blabbing for another might.
But the only other lead he has is Loriss, and he has gleaned so little information on the guy for the entire duration of his time here that a vicious headache strikes without warning at the thought of how much longer it would take to learn anything useful.
He sits on the edge of his bed, massaging his temples. He'd like to think that it doesn't matter how long it takes, that sure it would suck if he weren't nearing the end of his imprisonment but he could just keep trucking on, but he is on a timetable. He doesn't know how much time he has, but he needs to make every day count. If he can't make any progress relatively soon, he will die. And so will who knows how many others.
Idly waiting for new information to come his way isn't going to get him anywhere. He's gotta take some carefully calculated risk. Preferably one that doesn't rely on the discretion of other people.
He's gotta find a way to get into Loriss' apartment when nobody else is there. That seems to be his best option.
Trying not to be too hopeful, he immediately attempts the only way he can think of to acquire information to help with this endeavor, and asks the empty air, "Got anything for me?"
The spirits don't respond. In fact, for the first time in a long time, he can't feel their presence at all.
Okay. So he's on his own.
What else is new?
At first, when Arashk walks through the relatively quiet fairground that morning to get to his tent just a few minutes before it opens, he feels like a fraud. He knows that he's gotta keep acting the way he has been. If he's convincing, there's a chance he'll even have an edge on the Master. If he's not, he'll be under greater scrutiny than ever and lose any opportunity to change a thing about the situation.
Sebastian pins him down at dinner that evening and asks what his sudden retreat last night was all about. Arashk, wide-eyed, denies any memory of the event. It almost makes him sick to see how easily Seb buys it.
The days crawl on, and he falls into a groove. Constantly acting empty and defeated is pretty exhausting at first, but he gets used to it. And all the while, he's trying to get information.
Really, his only semi-safe connection to Loriss is Livia. Flat-out asking her to be an excuse for him to enter Loriss' room that doesn't look like it was his idea would be so easy, but it's not something he's willing to chance. But there might be another option.
The way he sees it, if the two of them are on book-borrowing and nickname-using terms, they must sometimes do stuff together. Eat food, maybe watch movies, whatever. He has ways of getting regular updates on at least one of them, which is all he needs. And if those updates go on long enough, eventually he's bound to hear about some form of socialization taking place outside of Loriss' place, lasting long enough for him to get in, see what there is to see, and get out. But getting such a stream of updates would require spending more time with that person.
Suddenly trying to become pals with Loriss is absolutely not a possibility, so he has to start gravitating towards Livia again.
As far as he can recall, he's spent very little time with her since he showed up at her door at five in the morning to borrow that book. It's still sitting on the dresser across from the bed; she hasn't asked about it, and as much as he'd love to use it as an excuse to talk to her again, suddenly returning it would fall under the category of deviating from his normal routine, something he hasn't done in a long time.
He figures the only safe way to do this is to eat with her once, but make it look like an accident, and during the meal give her a good reason to start making an effort to spend time with him again.
A full three weeks pass before he has an opportunity to enact this plan. A new box full of food shows up in his room the following day, and he has to eat all of it before he can go to the community meals again; that's how he's been operating all this time and he can't change that. He can't eat at a faster pace than usual either, because that would look suspicious too.
It's finally gone after fifteen days. After that it's just a matter of logistics; the dining area has to be crowded enough that he is forced to sit at a table with other people, there has to be an empty spot by Livia, and unless that spot is the only vacancy, she can't be at the table when he takes a seat, or it would look intentional. Thank goodness Sebastian isn't also a factor; Arashk never turned him away when he asked permission to sit with him, but if he walked into the dining area and saw that Sebastian was already there, he still elected to sit by himself.
Eight days pass before he gets his chance. As Arashk feared, they're agonizing. He has to remain keenly aware of what's happening around him, but he can't actually do anything, and all the while he has very few opportunities to drop his faĂ§ade of brokenness.
Finally, though, the stars align, and Arashk finds himself standing at the edge of the tables with his tray of food, unable to find a single empty table. And lo and behold, he sees Livia getting up, leaving a half-eaten salad on her table, to go get another cup of water. She's eating alone. He has a few seconds to get over there before she returns, but he can't hurry or it will look too intentional.
He meets these requirements by a hair, spending a few seconds meandering around the tables, pretending that he still hasn't figured out they're all occupied, and finally setting his tray down at the seat diagonal from Livia's just as she reenters his line of sight.
He keeps his head down, pretending not to notice her approach, and he contemplates saying something aloud to express his fake surprise when she reclaims her seat, but thinking that would be a bit too much, he just raises his eyebrows a little and goes back to eating.
For a moment she doesn't say anything, and fear that she'll spend the meal in silence takes hold of him. But then come the words, "Hi, Arashk."
A complex mixture of emotions hides behind the greeting. Surprise, just to be seeing him. Wariness, since she can't be sure of his mental state right now. Guilt, that she's allowed so much time to pass between checking up on him.
He's gotta use that last one to his advantage, starting immediately.
If he calls her Livia, she won't think anything of it. If he calls her Liv, she still might not. But there's an option that will draw her attention to it, definitely look deliberate--which in this case is a good thing--and remind her of the connection they share.
"Hey, Livia," he returns quietly, allows a fraction of a second's pause, and amends, "Liv."
He forces himself not to watch the fruits of his labors unfold, but he knows it's worked. He idly uses his spoon to push his stew around the bowl, and after just a few moments of silence Livia launches right into it: "How have you been?"
The guilt and concern in her voice are much more apparent now; the wariness is still there but has evaporated almost completely.
He shrugs, not looking up. Not only does this make it clear to her that he doesn't want to talk about it, she'll likely twist it into a sign that he no longer trusts her enough to talk about it. Shifting the blame to her. At least that's the idea.
Uncertainty is coming off her in waves. As he raises the spoon to his lips, she tries, "I haven't seen much of you lately."
Time for a slightly longer answer. He swishes the stew around his mouth for a few seconds, swallows, and responds softly, "I've been eating in my room a lot." And as an afterthought, "Sinceâ€¦" He trails off and takes another bite.
Now she's thinking about how much time he must be spending alone. Remembering that she was one of his only friends. Realizing that if he's lonely, she's largely at fault. And that she abandoned him at the exact moment things started to get hard for him.
For a long time she doesn't say anything. Indeed, how would one respond to that? He gives it enough time to make it clear that he's not really invested in keeping the conversation going, and just as she's finishing up her salad, he asks as if it has just occurred to him, "How have you been?"
Another stabbing reminder that she hasn't been around.
"Fine, thanks," she says, and finally, for just a moment, he looks up and meets her eyes. Her hair's down, and he notes it's markedly longer than it was when they first met, but she normally has it up so it doesn't really tell him much about how much time has passed. Her skin is clear, practically glowing. He notices the polished nails on her hand, currently paused in its journey to bring her fork to her mouth. He thinks the top she's wearing is a new one. She looks well.
A spark of very real resentment flares up in his mind, to his surprise. He pushes it down, only allowing a tiny, forced smile to grace his expression as a demonstration that he'd like to be happy to hear this, but can't quite find the energy.
Time to go in for the kill. "Look, Iâ€¦" and he looks down, stirring his stew a little too aggressively, "I'm sorry I woke you up that morning. It wasâ€¦ I wasâ€¦ I was soâ€¦ I don't even know why Iâ€¦" He takes a few shallow breaths, composing himself. "I'm justâ€¦ I'm sorry."
Now she thinks that she's made him believe the reason she's become so distant is that he interrupted her sleep that one time. Not only that, but she thinks he's genuinely distressed about it. The guilt emanating from her is palpable.
"Arashk, it's fine," she responds, quickly and emphatically, and he allows himself to look up at her again, pasting an expression of uncertainty across his face. Her eyes are wide as she goes on, "I'm not upset about that. I'm really not."
Not even asking for the promised explanation. Perfect.
But she's not done: "I'm the one who should be apologizing anyway--I'm sorry I haven't reallyâ€¦ been around. I guess I justâ€¦ got busy. Life got crazy, and I'm not so good at time management."
The excuses are straight-up lies, or at least extreme hyperbole, but at least it's better than saying, "You were kind of making me uncomfortable so I've been purposely avoiding having to deal with you. Guess now that you're in front of me I can't really think of a viable excuse, but I feel bad so I'm going to amend my ways for the sake of my own moral image of myself."
He blinks, wondering when he became so cynical.
Clearly distressed by his silence, Livia barrels on, "I'd like to see more of you. And it's not good for you to be alone so much. Would it be okay if I started coming over more? And you can come over anytime you like, of course."
Wowee, she is desperate to be reinstated as a morally upright individual. Arashk chews his lip, letting her stew in her guilt for a long moment, and eventually simply says, "Sure."
The chance at redemption lights up her entire face, and he tries not to visibly react to it; she can't know how much effort has been put into this conversation, how pivotal it is. "Great!" she chirps. "I'm actually in the middle of a Downton Abbey marathon. Have you seen it? I've got seasons one through three on DVD. I could bring them over and we could watch together."
Arashk blinks at the immediacy of the proposal. He has seen a few episodes, actually, and he must admit it's quite compelling. But the question is, would the fragile psychic character he's playing have really watched TV? Probably not. He shakes his head, but says nothing.
"Well, that's an idea at least," says Liv, her anxiousness much more obvious than she wants it to be. "I have plans this evening but maybe tomorrow, yeah?"
"Yeah," Arashk replies, keeping his tone as neutral as possible, and adds, "I'm never doing anything in the evenings we don't have a show anyway."
She winces visibly, and starts gathering up her trash, now avoiding eye contact to some degree. "Okay," she says as she straightens up, arms full. "I'll see you soon. Have a nice evening."
"You too," he intones, voice so low it's almost a whisper, and she offers a smile as her final farewell before heading off in the opposite direction.
Arashk tries not to break into a victory dance on the walk back to his apartment. This is just phase one. There are at least, like, two and a half more phases. Bit premature. Besidesâ€¦ there's a certain solemnness hanging over his mind after what's just happened.
He's lied before, and those lies sometimes hurt people, and frequently there was less at stake than there is now. But somehow, this still feelsâ€¦ different. Worse.
Maybe because he wasn't entirely lying.
This can be explained very logically, he reasons: he's disappointed with Livia. To some degree, he got a very real grim satisfaction from seeing the shame twist her features. She deserves it for abandoning him just when he needed her most.
And if she can disappoint him, it means he trusted her.
Saw her as a friend.
And he doesn't like hurting friends.
He sighs. That's what this boils down to. They may have met under seriously twisted circumstances, but she's treated him with a rare sort of non-self-seeking kindness when he couldn't give her a thing in return. Sure, she screwed up majorly, but everyone does at some point. He doesn't want to be upset with her. He doesn't want to get gratification out of guilt tripping her, and he doesn't want to have to keep lying to her.
His misgivings are rather easily dispelled when he reminds himself that it's very likely that her life is in just as much danger as his is, and this is honestly for her own good.
Just like that, Livia starts coming over almost every day.
When she does, he can't act overtly excited to see her, but he does his best to inject that quiet appreciation into his mannerisms, to make sure she has incentive to keep coming. Throwing gasoline on the flames of her guilt was useful as a tactic to get the ball rolling, but if she keeps feeling like that even as she tries to make amends, she might start shying away from the whole ordeal again.
Watching a long TV series together turns out to have tons of benefits: they can spend hours together without him having to be constantly in character, the show itself actually provides a nice distraction from everything, and she frequently brings snacks. One downside is that he has to put a lid on his enthusiasm and can't engage in the kind of in-depth discussions of each episode that he'd like to. So he saves all his observations and theories for after he busts out of here. If he can't share them with Livia, he has a best friend at home who he's certain would love to hear about them.
Inside two weeks, he's having visions of her nearly every night. Four days later, he learns where Loriss lives when he sees her visit briefly to return a book. And after the passing of about one more fortnight, he reaches phase three.
The atmosphere of the dream feels like, at most, four days into the future, and the analog clock on the wall of her tiny kitchen indicates the time as 7:16 as Livia pours a pot of spaghetti through a colander over her sink. Loriss is standing at her small table, composing a salad that actually looks pretty appetizing to Arashk, despite it being, you know, a salad. They're chatting away about some book that Arashk has never heard of, and it looks like they've been at it for some time.
The dream lasts until the clock reads 9pm and they're both drinking scotch but being pretty responsible about it, and as Arashk blinks awake to the light of midmorning, he knows immediately that he's found his chance.
One psychic skill that he actually has been attuning pretty well is the ability to will certain visions to replay. So the following night, he watches the scene a total of four more times, and finally pinpoints Loriss' times of arrival and departure: 6:58 and 10:11.
There it is. That's his window.
He knows what day this must be going down because today's their last show day in this location and they don't close till 9pm, Livia's promised him dinner and Downton Abbey tomorrow, and the following day is their last free day for the next week. He doesn't like not having any solid confirmation, but he turns it over in his head so many times and this is the only possibility.
There's one last precaution he feels he should take, though.
It might pay to give Loriss plenty of reasons to drink more.
There's really not an overwhelming amount he can do to encourage this, but if he can introduce little annoyances throughout his day leading up to dinner with Livia, he just might be able to stretch his window of time further than it otherwise would be. Not that he plans on needing any extra time, but it can't hurt.
So, when the day comes, he arrives at lunch early, as he knows Loriss always does, and since not many people are here yet, he's able to get away with tipping Loriss' half-full cup of lemonade all over his tuna sandwich and partially over the book lying open on the table while the guy is getting a napkin without anybody seeing. He immediately leaves the scene of the crime, trying to walk at a normal pace, for a moment kind of hoping Loriss is in cahoots with the Master, because if he's not Arashk would feel pretty bad about ruining his lunch and wrecking his book.
Although the more he thinks about it, the more he realizes that Loriss would probably make a better ally than an enemy. Arashk would kill for somebody with whom he can speak freely about all this, and if he's just another bad guyâ€¦ well, it depends on what else he finds out. But it might not be as much of an advantage as he's been imagining.
He wishes he could walk around throwing trash all over the place for Loriss to clean up, but to be seen out and about for any reason other than food would do more harm than good. So he has to leave it at that, and hope it's enough to get him drunk as a skunk. He's not much of a reader but even he'd be pretty pissed if the wind ruined one of his books, so he can only imagine how much this will affect Loriss.
Livia drops by in the early afternoon, simply to say hi and bring him a chocolate bar that she claims she bought accidentally but is obviously just another byproduct of guilt. He accepts it, but ventures to say, "I'm psychic, Liv. I know a deliberate chocolate bar of continued apology when I see one."
He hasn't said anything with so much personality in weeks, and he can tell she notes the same thing by the surprised and happy glint in her eyes, even as she's caught in the lie.
He sits there munching on the treat after she leaves, watching the hours tick by, and with every minute his trepidation mounts. About a hundred times the little angel and demon appear on his shoulders, and one of them tries to convince him that he doesn't really have to do this and really probably shouldn't, and he's never sure which one it is. But his resolve is unshakeable. This might be his last chance to make any sort of difference in his situation. If he passes it up, he might as well roll over and die right now.
He's going to learn what Loriss is all about tonight. Whether he's a friend or foe. And whichever it is, that knowledge is going to turn the tide.
It has to.
Chapter 22 by EvenAtMyDarkest
The spirits don't let Arashk leave until 8:37.
He tries to open his door at 7:05 and finds that his muscles freeze up and suddenly they're assaulting his senses, darkening his vision, pushing him backwards, chilling him to the bone, screaming like banshees in the depths of his mind until tears are streaming down his face because it's just too much.
He makes a fresh attempt every five minutes for an hour and a half, and each time he meets the same result. He begs, he pleads, he tries appealing to their senses of reason if they have any. He tells them this could be his last chance to save Sebastian, but they are adamant. They won't, or perhaps can't, give him a reason, but there must be one.
This rationale does not stop him from staying doggedly at it until finally, they let him go, and he just about weeps from relief. (He doesn't, though. Full-on crying's not really his thing. At least that's what he used to tell himself.)
Getting into Loriss' apartment takes just over nine minutes of lock picking. It's full dark, and thank goodness the one time somebody walks by he has a psychic inkling about ten seconds before it happens. He manages to duck down underneath the train just in the nick of time, glad he elected to wear a dark grey button-down for this venture, and he stays there until he's sure it's safe.
When he hears that faint click, his heart just about stops beating. He holds his breath, pushes down on the handle, and releases.
The door swings inward, completely silent. It's dark inside, of course. After stepping cautiously inside he goes unhesitatingly to his right for a light switch, and sure enough, his hand falls on one almost immediately. He shuts his eyes, counts to three, flips it upwards, and finally allows himself to look.
He doesn't really know what he expected. It's a pretty ordinary-looking apartment, as far as he can tell. A bit larger than his and much more thoroughly furnished, with a very nice dresser covered in knickknacks, a bookshelf reaching the ceiling completely packed with books, and a neatly made bed. The carpet is immaculate, probably the closest to true whiteness Arashk has ever seen a carpet achieve.
All the furniture is new or at least in fairly good shape, and Arashk sees only three picture frames, which show Loriss with various combinations of two men and a woman who bear a strong resemblance to him, but they're fairly old photos, at least ten years. So he's not very sentimental, and he probably hasn't got a family of his own. Arashk strides over to the bookshelf to examine the selection, and to his surprise finds a lot of thick textbooks--mostly physics, with some chemistry and anatomy thrown in there.
There is so much more here than a victim of kidnapping would accumulate, even after years and years.
Spirits falling, Arashk quickly checks the clock on the dresser. Only three minutes have passed. He doesn't have as much time as he wanted, but he knows for a fact that Loriss won't be back for at least another hour. He almost tells himself to relax, but he knows that'll be a one-way ticket to overstaying his welcome and getting somebody killed. It's not like he could relax if he tried, anyway.
Moving swiftly, he checks underneath the bed, and finds the narrow space very clean and empty of any storage containers. Next he takes a peek behind each of the two doors he sees. Naturally, the first is a simple bathroom. The second is a closet.
As soon as Arashk opens the door his eyes are drawn downwards. The bottom of the small walk-in closet is uncharacteristically chaotic based on the neatness he's seen evidenced so far, with a surplus of shoes covering the floor and a few pieces of clothing discarded haphazardly on top of them.
He reaches out to start moving the shoes aside, but hesitates just before touching them. The possibility of Loriss being psychic is still in the back of his mind, but the more he thinks about it, the less plausible it seems. The way he sees it, if the Master already had a psychic, he would have no need of Arashk. It was one of the first possibilities he thought of simply because it was familiar, but it's so much more likely that whatever Loriss' ability is, it's something different. And dammit, he can't keep finding reasons to choose not to take action. This risk is a small one, and it's necessary.
Carefully, he begins to pull shoes out of the closet, trying to move them as little as possible so as to leave this place looking exactly as it did before he came. Fortunately, he has a lot of experience with that kind of thing, and manages to keep things very much in order even as he pulls out the sleek black box and places it carefully on the pristine carpet.
He doesn't even look at the dials. There's really no reason to. He closes his eyes, sliding his finger up on the first digit until he feels compelled to stop. He does the same with the second. Then the third. And following that, he sits still, not opening his eyes, for some reason not wanting to see whatever number he has just entered in, his finger resting lightly on the clasp.
If this doesn't work, he doesn't know what he's going to do.
Holding his breath, he pushes up on the clasp, and it opens with a snap.
A tiny gasp escapes him, and he quickly pushes the lid up to see its contents. The box holds six file folders with their spines facing down. The tabs sticking up read, from back to front, "JR/SJ," "EJ/PT," "VN/DC," "CC/LI," "SS/AR," and "GH." For a long moment Arashk just sits on his feet, staring down into the box, utterly at a loss as to how to prepare himself for what he's about to see. He reaches a tentative hand out, and it vacillates over the folders, not sure which side to start on.
Something in the back of the box catches his eye--it appears to be a loose sheet of paper. He grasps it at both corners between his thumb and forefinger and pulls it gingerly out.
Written neatly and classily in flowing cursive in the middle of the paper is the sentence "Your name is Benedict Goodwin."
Arashk stares at the words, mind racing, cognitive dissonance beginning to take over. This paper can only be intended for one person, and it's probably the one who put it in a lockbox in his closet. The whole situation with a person writing down his own name and hiding it in his room so he doesn't forget is so familiar to him, and yet Loriss--Goodwin?--hasn't had his taken from him? Does this mean he is in fact a victim, just way better at hiding things than Arashk? How did he get a lockbox? How has the Master not just taken the whole thing away?
Though it seems colossally counterintuitive, Arashk tries to fit this piece of paper into the possibility of the man working with the Master. If he isâ€¦ well, it's logical that he'd go by an alias anyway, right? And maybeâ€¦ with all the instances of people's names actually vanishing from their memory he justâ€¦ got nervous? Wanted to be sure in case something happened? It makes sense, Arashk supposes. More sense than the Master failing to find a lock box hidden in the back of a closet.
After ascertaining that the rest of the paper is blank, with infinite care he slides it back where it was and withdraws the folder closest to it: "JR/SJ."
He flips it open, and his eyes are immediately drawn to the large bold letters at the top of the first page, reading "James Randolf."
And on the line just underneath: "Sebastian Jaeger."
He blinks at the names, registering very, very slowly what this could mean. Even as he does this, his eyes slide down to the photographs paperclipped together but otherwise loose in the folder.
The top one is of Sebastian. He looks exactly the same as Arashk is used to, except his hair is markedly shorter, and he wonders how recently the photo was taken. Carefully he slides it out of the paperclip and flips it over.
On the back, written neatly in somewhat faded blue pen, are the words "James Randolf, 1996."
He stares at these words for the longest time, reading them over and over and over again, brain shutting down for a few minutes only to wake with a start and review the label just one more time.
Arashk releases a breath that's only moderately shaky--still a ways away from the level of calm he'd like to be able to claim, though, so he lowers the picture, closing his eyes and drawing in several deep breaths.
He's hit the motherlode. He can tell. Which means that he can't go trying to rework his perspective on this whole mess with every new photo and document he sees--he'll never have enough time if he does that. He has to take this in batches. Next step: look at the rest of the photos.
Tentatively he turns again towards the stack of pictures and starts flipping through them. Several pictures are various angles of a nice one-story brick house with pink carnations at all the windows, and several more of a university Arashk has never heard of. The rest are posed pictures of people, each with a name written on the back: "Marianne Randolf," an older African American woman with short hair and a gentle smile; "Richard Randolf," a skinny guy in the midst of losing his blond hair but looking pretty fit otherwise; and "Caroline Randolf," a young woman with a long thick braid and very familiar brown eyes.
The final picture, labeled "Randolf family, 1986," is also posed--a group photo of all the same people together, smiles plastered across their faces. Caroline standing with James serves only to affirm the resemblance between her and Sebastian.
Not Sebastian. James.
Okay. So Sebastian's real name is James.
Arashk would almost say that he prefers "Sebastian" for the guy, that it suits him better. Then he imagines someone saying that "Arashk" suits him, and he knows he can't really commit to this thought.
He stares down at the picture, noting how everyone is in some way connected, hands resting on each other's shoulders; how their clothes seem to be pretty expensive but not really stylish, even for '86; how the watch around Richard's wrist is the same one Arashk has seen Seb--James wear almost every day; how James' posture, the graphite stains on his hands, and the class ring on his finger give him away as a dedicated college student whose biggest concern is his GPA.
And all Arashk's mind can really focus on is the fact that three-fourths of the people in this picture are dead.
He forces himself to tear his rapt attention from the photos and turn to the papers in the folder, though the photos remain gripped tightly in his hand even as he does.
The first few pages are a profile of James Randolf: his birthday (June of 1963), his address (a city in Michigan Arashk has never heard of), his daily schedule (he was a medical student), his friends (of which he had many), his organizations (intramurals, a service fraternity, and a Lutheran church), his finances (his family was pretty well off but he still worked hard), even his habits (he was more likely to get drunk on Fridays than on Saturdays, he called home most Thursday evenings, and his preferred place to study was on the quad).
Arashk finds himself reading more closely than he intended, morbidly fascinated by the level of detail, and stopping every third line to be surprised by something that doesn't match up with what he would expect from a younger version of Sebastian. Soon enough he realizes that he's spending too much time on this, and does his best to skim ahead to information that might actually help him.
But when the profile of James stops, what follows is another profile, equally as detailed, of his mother.
Arashk flips through the double-sided papers, gaze sweeping over the endless supply of information on each member of the Randolf family. Years' worth of masterfully succinct notes referring to the individuals by their initials indicate Marianne's love of knitting, hiking, and the ocean; how she met Richard at the tail end of college just as he was starting out as a freshman; the rough patch they hit a year into their marriage and the couple's therapy they underwent; Caroline's birth four years after James; all her hobbies and clubs, tennis and painting and volunteering at the animal shelter; the biweekly fishing trips Richard took Caroline on after her brother went away to college; all the times they were typically alone.
The underlying purpose of these notes becomes clearer and clearer as Arashk nears the end, and the times become more specific, even including some transcriptions of overheard snippets of conversation concerning upcoming schedules. Finally, at the top of a page labeled "Phase 1," he reaches the note that makes him feel almost physically ill:
"July 2 1990: RR will attend a 7:00 business dinner at Alexander's. Parking is usually bad so a fairly long walk will be necessary. Sunset is not until 9:14 so Goodwin will attempt to delay service. If all goes well Goodwin will mug and fatally shoot RR before he reaches his vehicle. His wallet and any valuables will be removed to ascertain that authorities will see him as a randomly selected victim."
Arashk takes a few deep breaths, involuntarily glancing back down at the family photo he still holds. Richard's hand is resting on his daughter's shoulder. His collared shirt is slightly rumpled but less so on the side facing his wife, as if she'd smoothed it over for him just before the picture was taken. His smile displays rather crooked but meticulously cleaned teeth, and his eyes are laughing.
Arashk shoves the photos into his vest. He may have to refer back to them later but at the moment they're just a distraction. He turns his attention back to the papers and forces himself to keep reading.
Seems the mugging didn't work out that night. Too many witnesses. Arashk feels an iota of relief even though he knows this is no victory, only a delay.
Two more attempts are planned and aborted due to various inconveniences. The note-taker begins to speculate that a mugging may not be the best way to go. But the magic day finally comes on August 17th of 1990, when Richard gets off work a bit late, but instead of going home, heads to the bookstore to look for a birthday present for his wife. The note-taker indicates prior knowledge of the day being a little long but it seems the extra stop was a surprise--one that they took advantage of.
The store was empty except for the last employee closing up shop, with Richard's car parked so that the driver's side faced away from the window. Moderately loud music was being played in the shop. It seems all the stars were aligned. The notes simply state, "A handgun with a silencer was used. RR was blindsided by the attack. Goodwin wore a mask and ostensibly played the part of a mugger in case of unknown security cameras, but did not directly ask for anything in case RR complied. After approximately thirty seconds of intimidation, Goodwin shot RR through the heart, took his wallet, and fled the scene. The body was discovered by the store employee eleven minutes later."
Arashk breathes out shakily, closing his eyes for a moment. More questions are forming in his mind with every new piece of information but he has to stick to his guns and just keep learning as much as he can. He just has to use the limited window he has to gather answers. He can match them up with the questions later.
He knew going in that this wouldn't be pretty, but somehow he's still not prepared for what comes next.
There's a gap of several years after that--the next entry, just below the heading "Phase 2," is labeled "March 19 1997," and displays an abrupt change of focus to Caroline Randolf.
Arashk wipes the sweat from his brow, trying to breathe normally.
Caroline, it seems, had a great love of the water. The family lived relatively near the shores of Lake Michigan and had a small lake house there, where Caroline would often visit--a hobby for which the orchestrators of her death had a clear and sickening appreciation. Frequently her mother Marianne would accompany her, and if James was home, they would all go as a family.
It was the plan from the beginning.
And it is here that the notes get weird.
They start out normal enough, at least for a stalker's log: "May 16 1997: CR set out for lake house when workday ended at ~5:20. Sunset is at 8:35 and the drive is just under an hour. Goodwin and M had arrived at lake house at 4:00 and remained there for the duration of the proceedings."
No need to wonder who that is.
Then comes "Goodwin killed the engine at approximately 5:55. CR exited vehicle and attempted to locate the problem for about 10 minutes. Finding nothing, she tried turning the key in the ignition again, and Goodwin allowed it to work. CR called MR to alert her of the problem but got back on the road."
Arashk blinks at the vague words, trying to figure out exactly how Goodwin inserted himself into the situation while remaining hidden. He allows himself only one reread before forcing himself to move on.
"CR drove more carefully moving forward. About ten minutes later, as she was driving at the edge of a sharp incline above the lake, Goodwin killed the engine again, locking the wheels and sending the vehicle over the edge and into the water.
"Less than two minutes later Goodwin realized that CR had survived and was pulling herself onto land. She had sustained serious injuries and probably would not have made it far enough to get help, but to be safe Goodwin accelerated her bleeding. She bled out and died within five minutes."
Arashk lowers the folder again, drawing in deep, even breaths, telling himself to remain objective, to stay calm, only how is he supposed to do that when he can practically hear Caroline's screams? Feel the warm, sticky rivulets of blood all down her face, her punctured lung, her cracked bones? How can he remain calm when he knows he's up against someone who can accelerate someone's bleeding, apparently without even touching that person or being anywhere near her?
Keep reading, Ronaldo. Keep freaking reading. Do not stop. Every second is precious.
He turns back to the veritable horror story he has found himself in the middle of, and finds his place again.
They're in Phase 3 now. After a few brief, callous bullet points on the discovery of the body and wreckage and the funeral, the notes launch right into detailing James' emotional reaction. Surprise, surprise--he was crushed, almost catatonic with grief for a long time, and though he did his best to put on a strong face and comfort his mother, his sister's death almost destroyed him. He did not return to work for several weeks.
"June 12 1997: M approached JR and introduced himself using prepared profile. JR was uneasy but clearly interested. M gave him contact information and departed."
Prepared profile? Arashk glances ahead through the papers, and sure enough, the next one is a slightly different style, a standalone profile of a college friend of Richard Randolf's who felt he owed a great debt to the Randolf family and wanted to protect its remaining members if possible. He was extremely superstitious and firmly believed that the Randolfs were cursed, and this was why Richard and Caroline had died in the ways they had. And he came to James with an opportunity to ensure that he stayed alive for his mother.
Oh, Sebâ€¦ What did you do?
Arashk returns to the timeline. "June 20 1997: JR contacted M with questions--mainly what the process entailed, whether it would be reversible, and whether his mother could do it as well, the latter two of which were answered truthfully--and agreed to try it. He also asked whether there was anything he was expected to give in return. The following answer was given exactly, overtly in jest: 'Oh no, of course not. My traveling freak show could use a sword swallower, I suppose, if your medical career ever goes south, but that's just an idea.'"
That manipulative, conniving, scum-sucking, sociopathic son of a bitch.
The next page or so provides a detailed outline of the following months, during which the Master would come by on a somewhat biweekly basis, claiming to be using a natural gift to build physical and even retroactive resilience in others via meditation and contemplation. He would chant over James, spend up to an hour at a time just sitting in silence with a look of concentration, and he wasn't really doing anything, but James could feel a difference as the weeks went by because of what Goodwin was doing behind the scenes.
And his contribution is described very near the beginning as such: "Goodwin will temporarily move into an apartment .7 miles from JR's residence. He will constantly be on the watch for opportunities to introduce water into food and drink which JR intends to ingest."
There are so many pieces missing. The note is vague in so many ways. And Arashk is growing more impatient with every passing second to know what Goodwin's deal is, so in what would normally be a pretty useless subconscious attempt to find another source of information, he glances up, distancing himself from the folder's contents for just long enough for him to notice two things: there's a gun stashed in the drawer next to Goodwin's bed, and he can still hear Caroline screaming.
For some reason, it's the second revelation that hits him harder.
Arashk sits there staring at the polished wood that he knows conceals a weapon, just listening to the echoes in his ear. It's passed beyond imagination. This is what they really sounded like. Ragged, primal, and terrified.
With his sudden awareness of what's happening the sensory input increases tremendously, and he's falling through the air and plunging into shockingly cold water, and pain explodes in too many places on his body to count, and everything is metal and water pulsating around him, and thinking becomes almost impossible. He doesn't even know if all parts of him are still attached and all he can taste is blood and iron and there's no air, no light, no escape--
He has to get out of this before it gets out of hand. Utilizing a skill born of intensive practice, he starts the involved process of removing himself from the vision. All it takes is locating a single stimulus that is, in fact, his own, and building on that to return to his own body and his own time. Normally the air entering and exiting his lungs is a good starting point. He breathes slowly and deliberately, and gradually the water begins to recede, the splitting agony fades into a dull ache, and his heartrate crawls its way back to "normal," until finally he's left with only the faint but relentless echoes of Caroline's death cry, and he finds himself sitting in the dimly lit apartment of Benedict Goodwin, still holding the folder, faced with the task of rationalizing what just happened.
Here's the thing: he hasn't touched anything that should logically lead to a vision like that. If he had a piece of the wreckage, sure. Maybe even something Caroline was wearing when she died could have done the trick, but there's none of that.
He has never had a vision triggered only by his own thoughts before.
If only there were time to consider the implications of this.
He forces himself to shove the development into the back of his mind, place the folder carefully next to the still-open lockbox, stand up, and cross the room, stopping in front of the drawer that's driving his psychic senses nuts.
He's not sure what he would call the piece of furniture--it's some weird nightstand-dresser hybrid, with two drawers of unequal size. Tentatively he reaches for the ornate brass handle on the lower and larger of the two, and pulls it open.
He doesn't immediately see any sort of firearm, and he releases a quiet sigh of trepidation as he instantly knows that this means he'll have to move stuff around. Which will involve some touching. There's a pretty reasonable amount of clutter, though--a tiny decorative pillow, pocket editions of two books, and a few packs of playing cards are all he sees at first glance. Bracing himself, still trying in vain to block out the screams, he reaches into the back of the drawer, the back of his hand barely brushing against the pillow, and his fingers quickly find something made of metal.
Arashk blinks, and finds himself in 1990.
He's standing in a small parking lot a little ways from a peaceful street, empty save for two cars, one of which is a grey Chevy belonging to one Richard Randolf. The man is holding a gift bag that seems to contain a tiny book and what is possibly a scented candle as he stands by the driver's door, fiddling with his keys. Always a bad idea.
Arashk supposes Richard didn't have a paranoid father who drilled such habits out of him at an unnecessarily young age.
Richard clearly doesn't notice the figure approaching him quickly from behind, but to his credit, Goodwin moves with almost unnatural silence and seems to be very agile. He's got on a ski mask but his youth relative to the way Arashk has come to know him is immediately evident by his build and his movements.
He stops just out of arm's reach of Richard, holds out the gun, and cocks it. Arashk sees every one of Richard's muscles immediately seize up. Before he has time to react in any capacity, Goodwin commands, voice low, "Turn around very slowly."
Richard complies; of course he does. Though to his credit, he's keeping a pretty firm lid on his panic. He eyes the gun, hands up slightly, palms facing outward, the gift bag dangling from his thumb. "Easy now," he says, voice trembling.
Goodwin adjusts his grip on the weapon, shoving it an inch or so closer to Richard, whose hands go up even higher. "Don't you dare move," he snarls.
Sweat is rolling from Richard's receding hairline, and his eyes fix on the gun, and Arashk senses in him an instinctive desire to empty his pockets and run as soon as he's allowed, but he can't make any unrequested movements. Several long seconds pass, filled only with the sound of Richard's labored breathing, until finally the man dares to glance up from the weapon trained on him, and at the mostly covered face of the stranger who's holding it. Arashk sees everything play out on his face--the slight rumple between his brows indicating confusion, only to be smoothed over, and a gentle understanding grace his features as he comes to a conclusion as to why nothing has been asked of him yet.
An understandable conclusion, but the wrong one.
"Calm down, son," he says, voice low and cracking slightly, and even ventures to lower his hands a bit. "Deep breaths now. You don't really want to do this. Let's talk about it, huh?"
Goodwin hisses through his teeth and straightens his arms ever further, pointing the gun very purposefully at Richard's chest.
The hands go up again. Clearly he hoped the attempt would be immediately successful and is finding it difficult to convince himself it's worth continuing. "What do you want? I'll give it to you. Just put the gun away. I have to get back to my family."
Arashk sees what Richard is doing, and he's gotta give him props for having the presence of mind to try to appeal to his attacker's humanity. Not that it has any hope of working.
"My wife and I have been married for almost twenty years," Richard continues, encouraged by the lack of aggressive response. "We celebrate our anniversary in three months. And we have two beautiful children. Their names are Caroline and--"
"James." A wicked grin curves Goodwin's face, and the full enjoyment he's getting out of what he just said is not in the least obscured by the ski mask. "Oh, I know."
His index finger pulls back on the trigger.
A muffled shot rings through the air.
Arashk, even though he knew exactly what was coming, can't keep himself from jumping, hands covering his mouth.
Richard goes down with a look of shock and horror on his face.
Goodwin stands still, peering over the roof of his victim's car through the mostly-glass walls of the bookstore. The music is the only thing audible aside from Richard's desperate gurgling. The employee is nowhere in sight.
Blood is blossoming over Richard's clean blue button-down and pooling on the concrete beneath him. He makes a single grasp at his murderer's ankle before his hand goes limp. The panic and horror in his eyes does not fade, but instead freezes into place, not advancing any further, just remaining a snapshot of the last thing he felt.
Goodwin wastes no time in crouching down over the body, reaching for the left front pocket of his pants. Arashk notes in disgust that he doesn't even hesitate. He knows exactly where Richard always carries his wallet.
Only he doesn't even have to place his hand inside the pocket.
The wallet slides out on its own, entering Goodwin's palm as if rushing into the arms of an old friend.
The scene freezes. Goodwin is in mid-turn as he begins his retreat, still in the midst of placing the pilfered wallet into his own pocket. The blood has stopped making progress in its mass exodus from Richard's body. Sound is no longer a factor. Arashk is left wondering whether he's being affected by whatever this is as well, because his brain sure as hell isn't doing anything right now. He tries blinking, and is able to.
The wallet moved.
Goodwin made it move.
Without touching it.
And just like that, he is no longer in that lonely bookstore parking lot in 1990. He is in the much more recent past, standing on a quiet road among a multitude of police officers, most of whom he knows, some of whom he's known and loved for many years, and there are police vehicles everywhere and just off the road is an overturned army green station wagon, and his own voice echoes around him, unheard by anyone else at the scene, carrying the words "Is he making you say that?" and as soon as the locution wraps up he feels the station wagon's engine coming apart, metal flying in all directions, and he can feel every drop of gasoline and piece of shrapnel, including the ones that embed themselves into his best friend's back, and his own body is gone from the equation because he is the force throwing these people back, cracking bones against asphalt.
Somewhere in the dim recesses of his mind he recalls reading once, years ago, that there's not really anything that can make car engines explode like they do in the movies. It just doesn't happen in real life.
That wasn't an explosion.
That was surgery.
He blinks, and then he's in the office where his psychic detective business is based, holding a gun, even though his hands aren't present--but he's also out on the pier, closely watching two men, and his window is closing and the detective is about to leave, so even though there's no wind, he chances pushing a lure out of the tackle box at his target's feet. It works, and when the man stands up to retrieve it, he seizes the opportunity, pulling back the trigger and sending the bullet flying through the cracked window, gently and masterfully altering its course so that it ends up in the man's shoulder, where it will cause plenty of bleeding but no further damage. The detective's heart pounds like the drums of war, and even though the wood of the rail isn't weak enough that it ought to break when the man stumbles against it, matter is his to control and command, and he says it is. So the wood gives way, the man falls from his sight, and just as he hoped and expected, the detective is displaying clear intentions of going in after him. But he can't let them come up too quickly, so he tosses the water around them and holds them under until the very last second.
He's at the carnival, noticing the book that pitiful fortuneteller is hiding in his vest, and alerting the Master about it. It's a few days before the man has the chance to question him about it, and as he does Goodwin keeps careful tabs on the fortuneteller's heartrate, and it's elevated, so he reaches out with his mind and slightly tugs on the Master's sleeve--the signal they agreed upon to indicate deception. But then the fortuneteller is having a genuine panic attack and suddenly there is an explanation for his irregular heartrate that matches the one he gave and all seems to be well, after all.
He's somewhere else, maybe a year into the past, strategically hiding cheap cameras all over the hometown of his upcoming victim so that later he can go back and slightly adjust their positions to snap pictures from afar. He is locating all the people he will hold over that victim's head, thoroughly familiarizing himself with their mannerisms, their height, their weight, the structures of their faces, so that he'll be able to find them again no matter how far away he is.
Through all of this, Arashk remains in whatever position he was last in when he touched that damn gun, on the floor of Goodwin's apartment, but he is also seeing out of Goodwin's eyes as he commits all these deeds from the comfort of his own bed, eyes shut, legs crossed, breathing deep, mind and influence extending over thousands of miles.
All these locations and events and plans and sensations are already overlapping and Arashk isn't sure he can tell them apart anymore, until one more inserts itself into the flood of information and memories.
He is sitting in the passenger's seat of a van two streets from the house of the man who will soon be calling himself Arashk Ronaldo. He is waiting for him to arrive home. When he does, as soon as he removes the keys from his motorcycle, he cuts off blood flow to his brain. The victim's alarm increases as his mobility decreases, and he loses consciousness shortly before reaching the front door--but his body is kept upright, and his limbs are made to move, and his body walks drunkenly like a marionette with a string or two cut, down the street, to the right, until it reaches the van that will spirit him away from everything he knows and loves. It hauls itself into the back and goes limp, and just like that, it's over.
At any given moment, not that he can tell those apart anymore, Arashk has no idea where his mind is or where it's going next. Connections are being made too quickly and sometimes names pop up that he thinks might spark something like recognition in him but everything is just a flood of sensory input that doesn't even belong to him and he is swept away in the chaos of his mind and what's been done to it.
And then, without warning, he is pulled from the flood as if by a chopper, but it still rages beneath him and debris clings to his skin and he is shivering and replaying what he has just experienced on a loop in his mind. And he's in the apartment again, falling back onto the spotless carpet, the gun somehow having found its way into his shaking hand. He pushes himself desperately backwards, eyes trained on the still-open drawer simply because he doesn't want to see anything new for a few seconds at least, and he thinks he might be giving himself a rug burn on his lower back where his shirt has rolled up a bit, but who the hell cares about that now.
His mind, already taxed beyond belief, races to figure out why it stopped--or at least why he was slightly distanced from it. Because as it was happening, it felt like it never would. Like he was going to be at the mercy of the visions until he was able to understand every single detail that came his way--or until his brain simply stopped working.
The hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. A tingle, beginning at the same site, travels down his spine, and he springs to his feet just as the door creaks open.
The old man he once thought might be his friend appears to barely have time to register surprise before Arashk grabs him by the front of his shirt, yanks him inside, and slams the door shut behind him. The man is sprawled on his back on the floor, the contents of his pockets spilling out onto his infuriatingly white carpet.
Arashk takes the gun he's still holding and points it at Goodwin. He himself has no idea what his intention is--to pull the trigger, to just use it as a way to maintain distance between them--but the decision is taken, quite literally, out of his hands when the weapon flies forward to Goodwin's outstretched hand, and Arashk himself flies backward, his back slamming against the front door and pain flaring up in his knees as he falls four feet to the floor.
The object that brought on the visions is no longer touching him, but the blood, the screams, the sensory overloadâ€¦ none of it has stopped. He lies on his stomach for a moment, winded, aware of nothing but the sound of people dying, going back and forth between deafening and fuzzy with the throbbing in his head.
As he goes to sit up, he finds that movement isâ€¦ difficult. It's the strangest feeling, almost like his muscles have seized up, but he can tell there's nothing weird going on inside his body--something is being done to him. He manages to tilt his head up enough to have a limited view of what Goodwin is doing. He can't hear much other than the screams, he can't smell much other than the blood, and flashes of red keep obscuring his vision, but he can tell enough to know that Goodwin is holding the gun in one hand and very casually gathering all the items he dropped with the other.
"You're pathetic" somehow reaches him through the pounding in his ears. He tries to focus enough to see Goodwin's expression, but it's too much. His voice continues, and Arashk barely catches the end of his next sentence: "â€¦what you've done to them."
Arashk struggles mightily against the force keeping him pressed to the floor, but can make no headway. He grunts something, and immediately isn't sure what it was--something vague about the future, bad things happening if he continues down this pathâ€¦ A twang of shame goes off in the back of his mind. Here he is, an honest-to-God psychic, and he's using the same classic techniques used by every no-good swindling fake soothsayer ever to walk the planet.
Goodwin, clearly not impressed, laughs. It goes disturbingly well with the murder scene he can still hear, nearly overlapping with the smile he bore as he buried a bullet in Richard's heart, and he wishes the entire world would just go quiet for a minute, but no dice. His head clears up enough for him to say, "If you kill me, fine. But I just gotta tell you this one thing first."
Goodwin, as far as he can tell, says nothing.
Arashk hisses the words through his teeth, not quite able to hear them intelligibly himself: "I've spoken with the Randolfs, and they are gonna haunt the hell out of you for what you did. And you better believe I'm gonna join them."
There are three things he knows at the moment that give him even the slightest shred of hope that he and the people he loves the most might live to see another day. The first and most recently learned is, of course, that Richard, Marianne, and Caroline were real people in whose premature deaths Goodwin had a definite hand. Though their presence is, for reasons Arashk might never figure out, not strong enough to do any real haunting, Goodwin doesn't know that.
The second thing is that Goodwin is, to use what Arashk is pretty sure is the technical term, a telekinetic. And he's good. Good enough to locate specific people he's never met and a nearby engine and make said engine explode from hundreds of miles away, good enough to aim a gun out of a window and direct the bullet so that it wounds but doesn't kill his target, and definitely good enough to a) tell when somebody has a thick stack of old photos in his pocket, and b) tell when somebody's heart is beating rapidly, when his breathing is different, when he's sweating a lot, when he's lying.
And the third and longest-standing fact, and the one that just might save his ass, is that Arashk is one of the few people who can reliably fool a polygraph.
Goodwin's essence pales. Arashk can feel the difference in the guy's mood, even if he can't quite see him clearly. He believes in ghosts, and with good reason. And he believes Arashk.
Everything slows. Goodwin takes the few steps to close the distance between them, clutching the gun tightly. As he moves, the pressure on Arashk's shoulders increases, though he notes that his legs are pretty much free.
As Goodwin leans over him to reach for his pockets, he presses the barrel of the gun into Arashk's neck.
And the pain of a bullet ripping through his chest taking a face full of glass his neck splitting open the metallic taste of blood in his mouth water bursting all around him his ears ringing like the knells of death his every heartbeat like an explosion in his chest the screams the crash the blood the screams--
His body twists in a way it never has before, his actions guided by more than just sight, and his foot connects with the side of Goodwin's head.
All at once the weight on his upper body is gone and he leaps up to his feet like a spring trap. Screams still sounding in his head, every one of his senses in overdrive, Arashk gropes around until he finds something that's moderately difficult to lift, and lets his instincts take over.
He loses count of how many times he brings the object down. Shouts echo in his ears, but he has no idea whether they're his own, Goodwin's, or residue of the glimpses into the past that seem to have gotten stuck on repeat in his mind. All rational thought has left his head. He barely even feels present. He's become like one of the ghosts with which he so often converses of late--a shadow in the background, unable to influence the physical world, save for utterly tormenting the resident psychic. The only difference is that his body is still alive.
When he finally begins to slow, coming back to himself, his heart is still doing its damnedest to burst out of his chest cavity but his senses are beginning to return to him. He automatically goes through a quick reality check--he's Arashk Ronaldo, he's in Benedict Goodwin's apartment, andâ€¦ andâ€¦
The bloody bookend falls from his hands and strikes Goodwin's still foot. Arashk very nearly vomits on seeing what remains of his face. He doesn't know how much noise either of them made, how long this lasted, whether anyone's coming, where he is, what he's doing, if he's alive, what's real, what's remembered, where to go from here--
And Arashk, following what every single one of his instincts is telling him--which he's learned to trust a lot more of late--bolts out of the train car and into the night.
Chapter 23 by EvenAtMyDarkest
Lel, I should probably add some more chapters to this thing. It's probably fine, I mean, it's only been two years since I last updated on here. FYI, this full story has been over on FF.net for longer than that, so if you'd like to check it out there too, feel free.
Arashk sees himself.
This is a strangely unusual occurrence. Normally the only psychic warnings he receives of his own future are vague tingles of foreboding or reassurance whenever he's considering a decision, and usually not a major one. He could spend all day hypothesizing as to why, but now's not the time for that.
He's strapped down, and he's bleeding.
It's in an oddly controlled manner, however. A tube is attached to his arm as he lies on his back, strapped to a table, and it leads to some sort of large container situated in the corner of the dimly lit room. Arashk can't discern any details, but the size of the container is alarming.
He looks pretty much exactly like he's looked forâ€¦ well, however long. Which is a little concerning, considering his plan to shave this beard and do something with his once-glorious hair as soon as he gets the opportunity. The tattoo on his forehead is on full display, standing out even more shockingly with the sickly paleness of his skin. His eyes are closed, his breathing deep, his muscles slack. He is obviously either asleep or unconscious.
Whatever is happening, it feels very close at hand.
The unspecificity of it allâ€”the lack of anything actually happening, of indication of where this room is, of any action on his future self's partâ€”all of it seems to Arashk, on a coldly logical level, though he knows better than to actually believe it, like your everyday run-of-the-mill nightmare.
He's always been pretty good at pulling himself out of nightmares.
Consciousness rushes to Arashk all too quickly. He's immediately wide awake but maybe not so aware, and he presses himself against the flat surface behind him, drawing in deep gasps. It takes him about three seconds to register that he's on a bed in a motel roomâ€”pretty cheap, he thinks. The mattress beneath him is stiff, and the wallpaper pattern looks like something his dad would wear.
Memories rush back to him just as suddenly as consciousness didâ€”of flagging down two guys who had the exact same shade of green eyes driving a dusty silver Chevy after who knows how much runningâ€”he ran until his feet felt like they were about to fall offâ€”and then several hours of wavering between walking along the highway and sticking his thumb outâ€”of them offering a ride, of him agreeingâ€¦
He's not sure where the motel room came in, though.
Suddenly he realizes there's another mystery in this situation: he's wearing a grey jacket that he doesn't recall putting on. He stares down at the too-long sleeves, thinking it looks somehow familiar, and slowly registering the fact that his skin is tingling in every place it's being touched by the jacket. He doesn't get that feeling from his own clothingâ€”or even from the clothing he was wearing during his time in that hellhole. Finally it comes to him: it belongs to Sebastian.
Why the hell is he wearing Sebastian's jacket?
There's a distinct possibility that this detail is even more important than the question of how he got here, but the latter is of more immediate concern. He casts his eyes around until they land on a note, lying besides the alarm clock next to his bed, which reads 11:17 AM. It's written in blue pen, in fairly sloppy handwriting. He snatches it upâ€”and underneath it finds a disorganized but very real stack of cash, with a $10 on top and at least two or three more bills underneath. He stares at it, and turns to the note.
You're in Reno. We arrived a little after midnight last night. Room's paid for till noon, so hopefully you wake up before then. If you need a place to stay, there's enough here for one more night. If you don't, we hope you can find some use for the money anyway. Sorry we couldn't stay; we were on a deadline and we didn't want to wake you.
-John and Lambert
He grabs at the money, and counts it. Sixty dollarsâ€”two tens, a twenty, three fives, and five ones. Turns out there are actually good and generous people in the world.
He reviews the note again. Arash? He must have swallowed the k when he introduced himself. He'd think whoops except he considers it a small victory to have slightly botched this dumb name he's been saddled with.
Reno. He's in Reno. That'sâ€¦ actually relatively close to his hometown, he's pretty sure. He may have had no idea what he was doing at the time, but somehow, he was able to produce results.
That would about sum up my autobiography, I think.
Glimpsing a pen behind the alarm clock on top of a thin pad of paper, he snatches them up and stuffs the note and money into his pockets. His search for a key card for the room is neither long nor difficult, and with that in hand, he exits the room.
As he emerges into the hall, he vaguely remembers walking here. It was one hell of a night, that's for sure, butâ€¦ apparently he was able to walk (stumble maybe) from the parking lot to that bed without being fully conscious? He can't help but be impressed with himself.
The front desk is not difficult to find. There's a thin brunette woman behind it, and when his eyes meet hers, they register some kind of recognition. Either she was working last night, or he's one of their more unusual guests and has been the talk of the motel.
Either one would be fine with him. "Hi, umâ€¦ do you offer complimentary razors?"
She blinks, surprise and confusion clear on her face, for a moment just surveying his wild facial hair and working through the implications of this request. "Uhâ€¦ No, sir, I'm sorry, we don't."
Figures. This is a pretty cheap place. "All rightâ€¦ Well," and he checks the clock on the wall behind her. "I know I have to check out pretty soon, but first do you have a computer I could use?"
As he sits down at the only guest computer the motel has available, it comes to him very suddenly that he's out. However brief it may be, whatever consequences he may suffer, in this moment, he is free.
It doesn't feel real.
The off-white counter on which his forearms rest is carefully cleaned. The faint din of traffic reaches him through the walls. The rapid sound of typing is quite audible from one room over, where the receptionist is working. The building is relatively quiet, as every room is vacant except four, and only one of those actually has any people in it at this momentâ€”a young couple and their seven-year-old son, about to leave for their family reunion.
Back home, life goes on, too.
Concentrate, Arashk. He pulls up the Internet browserâ€”Internet Explorer. Typical. Fortunately it doesn't take too long to load the page, and after a brief moment of thought, he enters "psychic detective" into the search bar. His fingers move haltingly; it's been such a long time since he typed anything.
The first results are all about that show Psychic Detectives that started in 2004. Dangit. He's heard of it of course, but forgot for quite some time that it existed. He scrolls through the first two pages and is already starting to deflate as he clicks to the third. Nothing sounds familiar, and he's not quite sure he trusts himself to recognize relevant names even if he sees them.
Time to narrow the search, then. So he can't remember the city or even the state where he lives, but he can still picture in his head where it is on a map of the US. He clicks on the search engine's image tab, pulls up such a map, and locates the name of the southernmost state on the west coast.
California. That's it. He recognizes the shape.
Arashk yanks the pen and notepad from his pocket and scrawls the state's name across the top page before correcting his initial search to say "psychic detective California."
The first page of results is entirely filled with articles about a Shawn Spencer from Santa Barbara.
It almost sounds familiar, and even as he tries to keep himself from hoping, he holds his breath and clicks on the first result.
He scans the article, and it mentions a couple other namesâ€”Lavender Gooms and Carlton Lassiter. The second one might be something he's heard before, but he's not sure what that first one's all about.
Already impatient, he opens another image search, types "Shawn Spencer," and, moving too fast for his fingers to tremble, hits enter.
The page floods with pictures of himself. A neatly groomed, untattooed, nearly clean-shaven version of himself.
Arashk covers his mouth to keep from crying out, but he can do nothing to suppress the sudden desperate pounding in his chest. And it is overwhelmingly cool with him; he needed it as a reminder that he's alive.
Under "California," he writes the name, or at least attempts to; his hand moves so fast, so desperately, that he swears his handwriting is, for a moment, just as bad as it was in the fourth grade. His teachers frequently believed his name to be spelled "Shaun" because he wrote his w'sâ€”and still sometimes doesâ€”like a drunk six-year-old.
Oh God. He forgot that. How did he forget that?
He feels the sudden urge to put his head in his hands and just move as little as possible in an attempt to allow the storm raging inside it to settle.
His name is Shawn.
His name is Shawn Spencer.
He has to whisper it to himself: "Shawn Spencer," and oh sweet ecstasy, its taste on his tongue has no comparison. "Shawn Spencer," he says again, drawing out the vowels. The pleasing whoosh of that palatal fricative has never given him such satisfaction.
He has a name, he has a destination, and he has sixty dollars in cash. Way more than he had yesterday. So what's his next move?
He could call 911. He should call 911. It wouldn't even cost money. But he honestly isn't sure how that would play out, particularly since he now finds himself in Reno, Nevada. A local operator would pick up and the Reno Police Department would get involved andâ€¦ and it's irrational and reckless but he refuses to risk getting stuck here. Even if he were to look up the number for the Santa Barbara Police Department and call them, they'd probably tell him to stay put and they'd come get him, or they'd contact the Reno PD to take care of him, or something.
He refuses to stay put. Shawn Spencer doesn't stay put. He's going home today.
If he can manage it.
His conviction that he can't stay idle for even a moment doesn't fade as he starts searching for local bus schedules, but something else is nagging at him. He can take care of himself, but the Masâ€¦ thatâ€¦ that man is still out there, and as long as he is, everyone he cares about is in danger.
His heart stalls at the thought of him.
His captorâ€”ex-captor, he reminds himself in muted joyâ€”is still out there.
But the actual source of all the harm, the one who could actually follow through on the threats, is, at least for the moment, out of commission.
He does not need to think about this. But now he's doing exactly that, and his stomach performs a somersault at the thought of what he did. He can't remember at all what happened directly after thatâ€”he wishes he couldâ€”but that's not what his brain is stuck on at the moment.
He can still feel his arms working as hard as they ever have, swinging up and down and up and down, long after his target had stopped moving. He can still smell the blood. He can still feel Goodwin's skull cracking beneath his hands. And oh, God, the screamsâ€¦
In a more dramatic fashion than he intended, he rises abruptly to his feet, shoving the notepad into his oversized pocket, closing the windows he opened, and striding towards the front desk to check out and get the hell out of Dodge.
This time, neither of the men he sees before him is familiar. Not that he can clearly discern either of their facesâ€”the dense foliage above them obscures any moonlight that could illuminate the proceedings. Besides, he's found that all five senses are equally represented in visions, making it difficult to focus on any one in particularâ€”and in cases where the olfactory stimulation is this overpowering, recognizing faces can be almost impossible.
One man lies on the forest floor, blood soaking into the fresh soil around him. His hands grasp weakly at the large branch lodged firmly into his side. He seems to be attempting to pull it out of him, and with every little bit of progress a cry of pain issues from his lips. As far as Arashk can tell, at the rate the blood is fleeing from his body, there's no way he can survive, especially if he succeeds in removing the branch.
The other man is notably still as he just stands above his comrade, staring down at him. The mood Arashk is getting from him is, above all else, thoughtful. A far cry from calm, but he doesn't seem to have any intention of leaping into action. The dying man seems to be struggling to speak, but the only sound in the air is the soft rustle of the leaves in the breeze and the man's feet kicking weakly against the grass, sometimes accompanied by tiny groans of agony. Arashk might be glad he couldn't clearly discern the fading light in his eyes if the tradeoff were something other than the stench of his blood.
After several seconds of this, the second man bends over, grasps the branch, andâ€¦ and doesn't let go. He simply stands there, hunched over his comrade, staring into his eyes as the life drains out of him. The man on the ground is unable to continue making headway in his attempt to free himself of the object that's killing him.
Several minutes pass like this. Arashk begins to question whether it's worth enduring this smell to see how this ends.
Finally, the man's hands go limp. Arashk would look away if he could.
The man still living doesn't move for a solid minute. Arashk senses a drastic change in his moodâ€”grim, a little uncertain, but triumphant.
In one swift motion he yanks the branch from the dead man's side. The stench becomes that much more prominent as it flows freely and rapidly. Arashk pours every iota of effort he can muster into focusing on something else, anything else. That something ends up being the perpetrator's face, which suddenly seems eerily familiar.
The man wastes precious few seconds watching the unrelenting flow of blood before he opens his mouth wide and leans forward.
He jolts to full wakefulness in record time, eyes darting around so frantically they're not taking anything in except streaks of light, and oh God the floor is moving beneath him, wait, it's a bus seat, he's on a bus, buses move, it's what they do, calm the hell down Arashk.
He melts into a puddle of goo against the royal blue fabric of the back of the seat, breathing hard, ignoring the eleven-year-old boy a few seats in front of him who's staring openly, and all the other passengers who are making an obvious effort not to. He wonders if somebody asked him if he was okay, and if he even answered without realizing it, or if everyone on this bus is just a dick. Either way. He guesses he gets it. He wouldn't really want to associate with a full-bearded guy with weird tattoos drowning in his own jacket falling asleep on public transport. Particularly if he knew the amount of blood that jacket was hiding. Oh manâ€¦ he hopes to God nobody sees that and calls the cops on him. That would make all this even more complicated than it already is.
He's distracting himself, of course. And he's not even doing it well. He was trying not to think about the blood. Heaven forbid its stench ever leave his nostrils. Everywhere he turns more blood has been spilt and it's beginning to feel like he'll never get away from it for as long as he lives.
The dream is still tickling at the back of his head, as if telling him, I'll be waiting for you. And he knows it will. When he goes back to sleep, it'll be ready.
He doesn't think he wants to go back to sleep.
There's something else in the back of his mind, thoughâ€¦ something directly related to that godforsaken nightmare. A chill passes through him, and he wraps his arms around himself, doing his best to fit as much of his body as is physically possible into Sebastian's jacket.
It's no ordinary chill. Of course it isn't. He squeezes his eyes shut, but he listens.
The message is short. It's a name. He's almost surprised by how immediately he can tell, but there's really no reason to be; he's had a ton of practice with this stuff over the lastâ€¦ however long.
For some reason, though, the name takes a very long time to come into focus. The ghosts soundâ€¦ not tired, per se, butâ€¦ drained. There's a lot of overlap between the terms when applied to living people, but he doesn't think he could accurately describe a spirit as tired. Still, he's pretty sure he's sensing what's more or less the ghostly equivalent, and he's really not sure what they could have been doing to tucker them out so much, but he imagines he's not going to get any clarification on the matter any time soon.
The three voices are fading in and out of focus and overlapping each other like they don't realize the other two are speaking, and even though Arashk knows it won't change things a smidge, he covers his ears.
It's just a bunch of snatches of sound that come in in the wrong order and ergo don't mean a thing to him.
Finally, they seem to give up, and as they fade gradually into silence, he breathes, hardly making a sound, "That's right. Go get a little R and R, and try again later."
He would have sworn that he was too quiet to hear, but immediately that friggin' kid is giving him another look. He sticks his tongue out at him and sinks down into his seat, not particularly keen on finding out whether there were any witnesses to that.
Since sleeping is out of the cards, he spends a lot of time bored out of his skull. At first he's not sure he really minds; it's a feeling that, between all the anxiety and fear and planning and visions, he hasn't had a chance to experience in quite some time.
He's quickly reminded how much it sucks, though.
He slips his hand past the maps he got from the visitors' center in Reno and fingers the money he has left in his pocketâ€”a buck fifty. The generosity of two brothers on the road was just enough to get him a bus ticket to Fresno. It was the best he could do on his budget, and it's more than he could have hoped for, but he's trying not to think about how he's going to manage once he makes it there. Fresno's still four hours from home. He figures he has three options: call it good enough, throw in the towel, and call the police; hitchhike the rest of the way; or beg till he's got the funds for another bus ride.
That last option is unappealing for many reasons, but most of all how long it would probably take. Speed is paramount. He's not going to go for the first one unless he's desperateâ€¦ which he supposes will be around the time night has fallen and he hasn't gotten a ride yet.
Hitchhiking it is, then.
He's just finished his fourth round of the alphabet sign game with himself when he hears the voice of the woman he's identified as that kid's mother whisper sharply, "Ryan, stop staring."
He turns just in time to see the kid swivel his head back around, and for a moment he's caught between embarrassment and amusement. He decides to go with the latter, and smirks to himself. So now he has a name to go with the face that's been turned towards him for about seventy percent of the trip.
The thought of the kid's name quickly turns his mind to his own, which, thank heaven, he's recovered. He sits there smiling contentedly to himself for a few minutes before realizing.
There's still a blank space in his mind.
It's not just a moment of forgetfulness after learning new information eitherâ€”it's gone. Vanished. He doesn't have it anymore.
He scrambles to pull the notepad from his pocket, knowing that he has several names written down and fearing he won't be able to pick out the right one. But thank all things good in the world, when his eyes fall on "Shawn Spencer," he relaxes.
Okay. So he can only remember his name for as long as his mind is focused on it. If he's idle for too long, if he goes even an hour without reminding himself, it's lost.
But is there a damn reason?
This is one thing of many he still hasn't been able to figure out. He's sure it's intentional. Hell, you know what, he's already submitted to plenty of other crazy crapâ€”he'll go ahead and admit to himself that he's pretty sure the Maâ€¦ that man did this to him on purpose. Somehow.
Which means he's also admitting to himself that the man has resources Arashkâ€”why the hell is that one still in his headâ€”can't account for. Even without Goodwin.
He stares down at the phone number written on the notepad as well, labeled "SBPD." He couldn't call beforeâ€”he had a bus to catch, and there wasn't time. But nowâ€¦
Ryan is staring again.
Arashkâ€”Shawn, your name is Shawnâ€”stares back.
Then Ryan's mother is grasping his arm firmly and whispering to him with hellfire in her eyes, and Shawn is looking away, again attempting to conceal his snickers, when he realizes the opportunity he really shouldn't miss.
He slides over to the empty aisle seat next to him, and leans over, swallowing a few times to make sure his throat isn't too dry before saying timidly, "Excuse me, ma'am?"
Ryan's mom turns sharply, loose brown curls whipping against her face, and though she remains more or less composed when she speaks, her eyes register total panic, and her cheeks burn red. "Oh! Sir, I am so sorry about my son, I keep telling him it'sâ€”"
"Oh no," he says, waving it off with a sad smile, "don't worry about it." The unspoken words I get it a lot hang in the air, and Arashk continues, voice low and raspy and with just a touch of fake but not really fake desperation, "Actually, Iâ€¦ I was just wondering if I couldâ€¦ if I could use your phone?"
He puts on the best pathetic mistreated-by-the-world face he's got. And he sees her entire thought process. He doesn't even need to be touching her; unwillingness to hand over any of her possessions to this dirty hobo is extremely clear on her face, but then she glances back down at her son, who, to his credit, is now staring out the window instead of at said hobo.
"I'll be quick, and it's important," he adds earnestly, and even though everything he's said is perfectly true, he swears he feels the exact same way as whenever he introduces his friend by an outrageous name he made up on the spot.
She hands it over. Of course she does; who could resist this face? He accepts it into his hands, and it's been such a long time since he held a phone. He just tests its weight in his palm for a few seconds, and, knowing full well the woman is pretending not to be watching him closely, pulls up the dial pad and enters in the number from the notepad.
He's not sure what he's going to say. He's really not. "What up. Not dead. On my way. In the meantime, don't die. Who should be worrying about this, you ask? Umâ€¦ I don't recall their names." Whatever happens it's not likely to go well, but they'll hear him. They have to.
He doesn't even hear a ring before a robotic female voice on the other end informs him, "You are roaming."
"Oh, come on," he groans, taking it down from his ear. He's not really sure what he expected; they're in the middle of Nowheresville right now. Nevertheless, he tries once more, twice more, and by the third time he's pretty much got the number downâ€”he never had it memorized beforeâ€”but it isn't working and Ryan's mom is looking pretty antsy.
But as they say, or maybe they don't, fourth time's the charm.
"Santa Barbara Police Department."
A lump forms in his throat and his muscles seize up, and he looks down at his notepad and says as soon as he's able, "This is Shawn Spencer. Iâ€”youâ€”they're all in danger. That's whyâ€”why the shooting, and the car engine, andâ€”post guards, be on the lookout, he'll be there soonâ€”"
"Shawn Spencer?" The shock in the person's voice is obvious, but to her credit, she continues on almost immediately, voice remaining level and professional, "Okay, slow down; where are you?"
He's trying to place the voice but he can't quite manage it. An acquaintance, he supposes. There really wasn't anybody around the precinct who didn't know him, but he admittedly didn't know a lot of them very well. "Did you hear what I said?"
The phone beeps at him.
He takes it down and looks at the screen. The call has been dropped.
That didn't last long. But, God willing, it was long enough.
When he returns the device to Ryan's mother she looks torn between asking questions and never having anything to do with him again, and he wonders how much she heard. He was trying to be quiet. Before she comes to a decision, he smiles and says, "Thank you so much, ma'am."
She clamps her mouth shut, puts on a polite smile of her own, says, "You're welcome," and looks away.
It's not quite what he'd call an actual con, but for a moment, Shawn feels like himself again.
Ryan and his mom get off at a stop in Modesto. The kid makes brief eye contact with Arashk as he stands waiting for his mother to put everything in her purse, and Arashk waves goodbye. Ryan looks like he's trying to decide whether to wave back when his mom hustles him down the aisle and out the door.
Arashk spends the next hour and a half trying not to fall asleep. Every time he nods off he swears he comes back with screams echoing in his ears. Though he's not sure whether that's by psychic vision, or simple memory.
His legs are stiff and his knees almost buckle when he finally stands to exit into the Fresno bus stop, but he makes it without mishap. After half an hour of walking and map consultations and direction-asking, he finds a pretty good spot without too much local traffic and with plenty of space for passing vehicles to see his extended thumb and be able to stop.
Five minutes in he's pretty sure he's entered the seventh circle of hell, and he's not going to be picked up by anybody whose destination isâ€”he checks his notepadâ€”Santa Barbara until it freezes over.
After some time he starts assessing himself for physical characteristics of a trustworthy hitchhiker. Ideally, his arms and legs wouldn't be coveredâ€”people appear less threatening that wayâ€”but in his case, removing this jacket is not an option. His location is pretty ideal; there's not really much he can to do improve it.
It's probably been about an hourâ€”one offer that didn't work out and one would-be offer before which his psychic senses told him to put his thumb downâ€”when he caves and sits down in the grass. He's not sure if hitchhiking stillâ€¦ works if you're sitting down, but he needs this. Not as much as a lot of other things he really really needs, but this one is pretty attainable, comparatively. He's going to sit here for a few minutes with his thumb aloft and nothing else, and he's not going to think, he's not going to have any visions, in factâ€”he's going to close his eyes.
After a couple minutes of sweet stagnancy, during which he finally realizes he's getting pretty hungry, the collective rustle of leaves all around him and the wind tossing his already unkempt hair catches his attention. The air feelsâ€¦ different. Heavy.
He doesn't bother stifling his groan as he opens his eyes and looks up.
The sky is heavy with ominous clouds, and thunder rumbles in the distance. He sucks in a breath and pulls himself back to his feet, because if there's anything he can do to get inside a vehicle before being rained on, he'll do it.
Five minutes after the first far-off lightning fork and accompanying clap of thunder is when he gets his next offer, and as the car pulls to a stop next to him, he realizes that the rain is a blessing. People aren't generally generous until they see some poor sap standing in the rain; then the guilt is pretty much unavoidable.
Unfortunately, these guys are headed for Visalia, which is so close that to go with them wouldn't be worth it. As they speak, it occurs to Arashkâ€”Shawnâ€”that a sign might not be a bad idea. But no way would anything he writes down in this notepad be big enough to be visible to passing drivers, so he asks them if they have any large pieces of paper he could borrow and not give back. The best they can offer is an old map that's useless to them, and a Sharpie for him to hurriedly write "SANTA BARBARA" as big as he can across it, as making the letters visible enough with his pen would take for frigging ever.
They apologize for not being able to do more and get back on the road just as it starts sprinkling. The rain intensifies in the following few minutes, and Arashk starts to worry that his sign will be ruined beyond legibility before anybody passes by who can help him, but stands there dutifully holding it aloft for a grand total of eleven minutes before a large blue van rolls to a stop next to him. Arashk lowers his sign, noting the scratches along the side, and the loud bass beat that's booming from within, and the shotgun side's window rolls down. A young woman, probably no older than twenty-three, is sitting inside. She raises her voice to be heard above the rain and the music: "You need a lift to Santa Barbara?"
For the briefest moment Arashk feels a stab of doubt. He glances down as surreptitiously as he can to the sign, and at the confirmation snaps his eyes back up to her and nods emphatically. "Yes, please."
Her next words very much catch him off-guard: "You got any problem with dogs?"
He blinks. "Nâ€¦ No?"
The girl turns back to whomever is sitting behind her and says a few words, and the back door slides open.
It's a bunch of college-age kids, four guys and three girls. At least one of them looks stoned, one of them strongly resembles that Flo chick from the Progressive commercials, andâ€¦ holy crap, they have a dog.
Arashk stands there for a long moment, staring at the ball of energy in the back seat. He's not really sure at first why he's so thrown by the sight; it's not that large a dog, maybe Labrador-sized or a little smaller, and all it's doing is watching him fixedly and panting, tongue hanging out and tail going at ninety miles an hour. He notes its pelt is a strange pattern, fully black in some places and white with black speckles in others.
"His name's Kip," supplies Flo in the lull. "He's used to long car rides, don't worry."
As Arashk steps into the vehicle, it strikes him that it's been a very long time since he was this close to an animal. Sure, there were some snakes and a couple of birds and one wild cat as part of the show, but he was tucked in his own little corner, and he hasn't actually seen any of them in quite some time. And it looks like he's going to get pretty up-close and personal with this one; it's a huge van, but all vehicles are still considered pretty confined quarters in his book.
"What's your name?" asks one of the guys in the back, a gangly fellow with the pastiest skin Arashk has ever seen.
"Araâ€¦" he starts to answer, before swallowing his tongue and doing his best not to let the near-physical pain show on his face. The reply was almost instinctive. He can't correct himself; he does not need these kids finding out he's half-mad and barely knows his own name, at least not before they get on the road. Now that he's paused, he can't even finish the locution, or that would look even more suspicious.
Which results in one of the guys, a surfer-looking dude with shoulder-length hair and an intense tan, repeating, "Ara? Sweet name. What is that, like, Indian?"
Fumbling around with the seat belt, Arashkâ€”no, it'sâ€¦ it's Shawnâ€”answers as patiently and graciously as he can, "Don't know. Never asked."
There's a pause while they process that answer, and he finally hears that satisfying click. Then they start the round of introductions, but because the brakes are released around the same time, Shawn is admittedly distracted and doesn't catch any of them.
He's so tired.
Why can't he sleep again?
The tingle is still there. The dream just waiting to be set loose. At least it's lost some of its strength.
But if he goes to sleep, every single one of his senses will be assaulted with blood.
After a while his appetite somehow finds its way back to him, and when the pasty-skinned guy pulls out a bag of grapes, he immediately notices Arashk's longing stare. Within moments an entire cooler and backpack full of food has been offered to him, and Arashk doesn't hold back. He feasts on the grapes, a simple turkey sandwich, and more Funyuns than he's eaten in a long time.
After that he spends as much time as he can petting the dog, because he thinks some of its energy actually transmits to him through the touch and helps keep him from falling asleepâ€”not to mention its concerning interest in the smells of his shirt looks more natural if he's actually interacting with it. It's interesting inside the thing's head, and while he's mind melding with it, everything around him goes a little dull. At one point he spends a full ten minutes without taking his hand off the creature, and when he finally does, for a couple of minutes afterwards it seems everything that moves is a new distraction.
There's something about psychically connecting with the animal that makes it more acceptable than doing so with a person. Or at least a stranger. He's not going to touch anybody he doesn't know for a very long time, if he has anything to say about it. Which, finally, after who knows how much time with unwanted physical contact as the main part of his job, he does.
Suddenly, surprisingly almost for the first time, he pictures having this for the rest of his life. Never again being able to pick something up or shake a new acquaintance's hand or clap his own on his best friend's shoulder or kiss the love of his life without being plunged into somebody else's mind against his will. Spending the rest of his days wide open and emotionally vulnerable and mentally uncontained and not in control of his own thoughts.
Where are the barriers of his mind, anymore? The influence of everyone who is or ever has been physically close to wherever he is at any given time is always threatening to bleed into his psyche and affect how he thinks. No one deserves to have to worry about that.
He may never have a chance to rid himself of this.
He may have decades of this yet ahead of him.
He almost considers rolling the window down to stick his head out and be sick, but he manages to ride it out. He'll have to take this the same way he's taken everything else unbearable about his lifeâ€”one day at a time. One hour at a time, or even minute, if necessary.
"Dude, you look fried," comes a voice maybe an hour into the ride, and he looks up. The girl riding shotgun is looking at him with her graceful brows drawn in concern. "You want a pillow?" she offers. "We've got some in the trunk."
"No thanks," he responds hastily. "Iâ€¦ I can't go to sleep until I get home."
"Youâ€¦ you sure?" Shotgun responds, the knot between her brows intensifying.
He nods, though doubt pangs in the back of his mind.
The suppressed curiosity filling the vehicle is almost palpable. "So this is a trip home for you, then," Surfer Dude finally ventures.
He nods again, regretting having gone any further than "no thanks."
It's a testament to their decency that they spend several seconds after this just glancing at each other rather than asking intrusive questions. Finally Pasty ventures to ask simply, "You looking forward to it?"
He blinks, having not anticipated the question. And in thinking of how to answer, the reality of it comes crashing down on him all at once. He's never going to have to get up at the crack of dawn to decorate the interior of a tent that he wants no part of again. He's never going to have to put on that godforsaken accent for such a long time that he forgets how he naturally speaks. Never going to wake up tasting salt, having spent the entire night watching his friends and family worry themselves to death over his absence and wallowing in his utter inability to comfort them.
He is free.
And he is going home.
"Unbelievably," he whispers, and his voice cracks.
Over the next hour, he doesn't stop thinking ahead to home. And as he does, his anxiousness to just get there, to make sure they're safe and protected, steadily climbs into what's very close to full-blown panic. He first realizes that it's actually a problem when the third girl, whom he at this point has just dubbed "Three" in his mind, asks in concern, "You okay, Ara? You're breathing pretty funny."
"Fine," he wheezes, and shuts his eyes tight, blocking out the unconvinced questions that he's sure will follow.
He tries petting Kip for a while, in the hopes that it will take his mind off things and provide some simple, numbing happiness for a while, but unfortunately, after a few minutes he can only conclude that all it's doing is somewhat muting his panic to the point where he's still exhibiting the physical symptoms, but can't focus on the root of it. Not terribly helpful.
So after that, he just hugs his knees and tries his best not to let the dog's active tail thud into him too many times.
Until he remembers the skill he developed when he wasâ€¦ well, when he was being a coward. When he was unwilling to face any part of his situation, even the passage of time.
Worrying's not getting him anywhere now. He's on his way. There's nothing more he can do, and this can't be good for his heart, in a very physical sense.
Leaping at the idea of an escape, even though something in the back of his hopelessly confused mind screams in protest at the idea of being shut off again, even for just a few hours, he starts the process of speeding time up.
He blinks, and suddenly they've passed out of the rain, the sun is shining, shafts of it falling through the clouds and illuminating patches of the field to their west, and Sebastian's family is back.
"Is the heater busted?" Shotgun asks, rubbing her arms vigorously.
"It's friggin' May," grunts the driver. "We shouldn't need the heater."
"Well the AC unit isn't on," observes Pasty.
"Fine, I'll try the stupid heater."
Arashk keeps quiet, feeling a bit exposed even though there's absolutely no reason to suspect these kids will link the cold to him. He focuses on the activity of the spirits pressing in around him, and abruptly realizes that something's different about their mood now. Less urgent, somehow, but they still have something to say to himâ€”something important, if their focused attempts to make absolutely sure he's paying attention are anything to go by.
I'm listening, he tells them silently, shaking the last cobwebs of unawareness from his tired mind.
And immediately, they all cluster in around him and speak in one voice, and as they do he's dimly aware of some sort of din happening around him. He shuts it out in favor of being able to hear the spirits.
Barnabas Thornton, they say. Find Barnabas Thornton.
Immediately he's pulling out his pen and the first writeable surface he finds in his pockets, which happens to be the napkin he's been carrying around for way longer than anybody should have to carry a napkin around. He scrawls the name across the top, right above the picture they drew using his body, and shoves the napkin back into Sebastian's jacket.
Save James, they say then. Save our boy.
The air is heavy with expectation. They want a response. And as he has seen, on multiple occasions, they were the only thing that kept him from getting caught red-handed trying to escape and ultimately bringing about the death of somebody he loves.
He owes them. Without their intervention heâ€¦ he doesn't want to think about where he'd be.
He draws in a shaky breath, and tells them, "I will. Iâ€¦ I promise."
And just like that, they're gone. The air is empty.
He sits still, blinking. Something feels different about this emptiness. Or maybe it's just something about the words that immediately preceded it. They wereâ€¦ irregular. They've never made him respond back to them before.
In the span of a few seconds his senses return to him, and Pasty is just saying "Ara!" repeatedly, his voice sharp andâ€¦ and frightened? Arashk makes eye contact with him, still blinking, and he snaps, "Who the hell were you talking to?"
All Arashk can really do is blink. "What?" he says dimly.
"You will, you promise?" Pasty reiterates in disbelief. "Ring any bells? The freaking radio just blew out. Was going nuts, switching back and forth between stations. Joe just about lost control of the car. Kip barking like crazy. You didn't seem to be bothered by it at all."
"Leave him alone; he didn't have anything to do with it," murmurs Shotgun, but there's not much conviction behind her voice.
"I wasâ€¦ daydreaming," Arashk tries, voice a trifle weak. "I talk to myself sometimes. Sorry. I won't do it again."
His accuser immediately and visibly deflates, guilt overcoming his face, and in the silence Arashkâ€”presumably at about the same time as everyone else in the vehicle, although they wouldn't know whyâ€”suddenly registers that it's significantly warmer now that the spirits are no longer present to bring the temperature down.
So Arashk, trying his hardest to act natural, forgets for a moment that he's thrown out the option of removing his jacket, and reaches up to pull the zipper all the way down.
"Holyâ€”" screams Three, pressing herself against the car door as far from him as she can get, and then covers her mouth, eyes wide as she apparently fails to decide on an appropriate way to end the exclamation. Arashk automatically pulls the jacket back together, effectively covering the evidence, but it's too late.
"Did I just see what I think I saw?" stutters Surfer Dude, eyes wide.
"What?" ask Flo and the driver frantically, almost in unison.
Kip's back to sniffing vigorously at Arashk's chest now, and he tries to push his snout away, but the creature is not to be deterred in his quest for answers.
"His shirt is covered inâ€¦ in blood!" Pasty gags.
"What the hell, Ara?" demands Shotgun, eyes wide with shock and concern. "Are you hurt?"
"He's not hurt!" accuses Three. "He couldn't have lost that much blood and be walking around. And it'sâ€¦ oh gosh, just from that brief moment I can smell it."
"It's fresh," Flo moans.
Their shock and befuddlement and fear are hitting Arashk on all sides like heat waves, passing through him and interlocking and pulsating endlessly, and even without all this distraction he doubts he'd be able to come up with a story to inspire sufficient confidence after this.
The driver is applying the brakes. Stoner Guy, who's spent most of the ride conked out, is looking around with an expression of utter bewilderment on his face. Everyone else is remarkably quiet, something keeping them from speaking even though it's more than obvious they all desperately want to.
After several seconds, Shotgun finally seems to muster up the courage to plead, "Ara, tell me you have a good explanation for this."
"I don't want an explanation," says the driver, as the vehicle comes to a complete stop on the side of the highway, and he pushes a button. Immediately the passenger's side door next to Arashk begins to slide open automatically. "I want you out. Now."
Arashk fixes his eyes on the young man, a wild desperation quickly overtaking him. "No, pleaseâ€”"
The driver quickly breaks eye contact, steeling himself. "Look, I'm sorry, but I'm not comfortable driving you any farther. We're really close to Santa Barbara, you can make it the rest of the way. Get a ride with someone else or just walk along the highway, it can't take you more than a few hours."
"If I were going to hurt you I would have done it already," Arashk pleads. "You know this doesn't make any sense."
The driver quickly grabs something from Shotgun's lap, and she exclaims in surprise as he holds it out to Arashk, who finds himself staring down a bottle of pepper spray.
"Get the hell out of my car," the driver demands, and Arashk doesn't know if it's as obvious to everyone else but the fear behind the words hits him like a ton of bricks. He thinks he catches tears forming in the corner of the guy's eye.
And as Arashk glances around, he realizes so is everyone else. Nobody's speaking a wordâ€”and it's not because they don't have anything to say. Flo has her hand on Kip's head, hunching over him protectively. Every single pair of wide eyes is trained on Arashk, even that of Stoner.
They are afraid. Of him.
And somehow, even after what feels like an eternity of being in that exact emotional state almost constantly, suddenly finding himself on the other end of the exchange feels a thousand times worse.
The effect of nausea is so instantaneous he immediately unfastens his seat belt, hands shaking, and practically falls out of the car on his hands and knees in the grass, vomiting up the meal those kids provided him mere hours ago. Mashed grapes and bread splatter into the grass. Some vomitus streams from his nose and the back of his throat burns. By the time his stomach is empty, he's shivering badly and the van is long gone.
He stops time for himself as he just moves his feet, putting one in front of the other, down the endless road.
This way he doesn't have to think about how exhausted he is. How he was so close, and if in that moment he'd been using his head enough to just keep his jacket on and bear to be sweaty for a few minutes, he would already be home by now. How if he'd just let himself sleep and face some unpleasant but potentially useful dreams this walk might not be like hell on earth. Every part of his body screams at him that he shouldn't be moving, that he needs rest, and there is literally no end in sight, but he can't stop.
Night falls as he walks along the highway. He pulls himself back into awareness as he realizes how dark it's gotten; nobody's likely to be on the side of the highway in the middle of freaking nowhere, but he should probably still be a little more alert.
Also upon reentering the passage of time, he suddenly becomes aware that, once again, he's totally lost his name. He's not sure he'll even be able to read the notepad with so little light, but with a sigh he begins digging around his pocket to refresh his memory.
This is how he discovers that he no longer has that notepad within his possession.
After a few moments of increasingly frantic searching, an image suddenly flashes through his mind, an image of himself sitting in that van, yanking the napkin out of his pocket to make a note of the name the spirits were giving him. As he did, out fell the notepad onto the floor of the vehicle, leaving him irrevocably nameless and none the wiser.
Upon this realization, his legs stop working. He stands still, staring at the grass before his feet, trying to breathe normally as he just thinks of how damn lucky he is that all he really needs to do is follow this road for a few hours and he'll find his answers again.
And suddenly, with the loss of the name his parents gave him, the name of the city he's trying to find, and the number of the police department, it becomes blindingly obvious that the very simple plan of just calling 911 on the first phone he can get a hold of is the best course of action.
Given the option to do it over, starting from his awakening in Reno this morningâ€¦ he'd probably make the same call. The only thing he'd change is the reflexive unzipping of Sebastian's jacket.
He walks under the open sky as stars begin appearing, keeping a solid three yards between himself and the highway. In some sense at least, he doesn't know where he's going, and he has no idea how close he is to getting there. He doesn't even have a watch to tell him how much time has elapsed since he started walking.
Once again he pushes himself out of the passage of time, though the closer he gets, the harder that becomes.
His feet feel like deadweights by the time buildings begin to appear around him. It is full dark and his eyes are hurting from straining to see what's directly in front of him. The headlights nearly blinding him from the opposite side of the road certainly aren't a help. His stomach growls weakly every few minutes and there's a knot of pain in his lower back. And he wouldn't be overly surprised to find his feet bleeding when he's finally able to stop and remove these ridiculous slipper-shoes.
But he is just about home free and heâ€¦ Well, he would say he feels like he could leap over the moon, but that would be a total lie. Old him might have said that. Now him is just willing to roll with the various aches and pains plaguing his body.
It's not long after he sees the first sign reading "Santa Barbara" that he realizes that the buildings around him are actually familiar. And that is the moment when he finally manages to truly forget how much pain he's in, how much he needs to sleep, how much he regrets his various stupid mistakes, how much he misses his family and his friends and the ability to touch someone's hand without flinching.
For some months his own face hasn't looked familiar and he had no idea how far away he was from understanding how much of a gift it is to look at something and really feel he knows it.
With renewed energy he draws up his incomplete but definitely accurate mental map of the city he grew up in, and though he doesn't quite recognize the names on the street signs around him, after several more minutes of walking he is able to determine his precise location.
As well as the location of the nearest payphone.
He very nearly breaks into a run, and by the time his eyes fall on the small structure off the sidewalk bearing that simple black phone and dial pad, he's actually managed to convince himself he's not about to pass out.
He doesn't hesitate for a second upon reaching it, just quickly punches 9-1-1 into the phone, breathing hard, though he immediately thinks it might have been a good idea to rest a bit and catch his breath before initiating this very important conversation.
Too late now.
"911, what is your emergency?"
It's a woman speaking. He doesn't recognize the voice. He launches in without so much as a fraction of a second's pause: "This is Arashk Ronaldo. May I speak toâ€¦" He stops.
Right. He can't remember who he wanted to speak to.
After a few seconds, the operator says, "Sir, please state the nature of your emergency."
His relieved high is failing him now and reality is crashing back down on him. He draws in a breath. "I've been missing forâ€¦ for a long time. I'm back and I need to speak withâ€¦ Detectivesâ€¦" He shakes his head. He really didn't plan this at all. Why did he think he'd be able to come up with a way to describe them?
"Where are you calling from?"
He knows what street he's on, but doubting himself, he turns, casting his eyes about, and locates a street sign. Just to be sure. "El Camino Real. I'm calling from a payphone."
"What was your name again, sir?"
"Arashkâ€¦ Ronaldo," he repeats carefully, but then pauses. What are you, braindead? "Wait, I'm sorry, that's not it. I'mâ€¦" Scared. He's scared. Everything about this is so wrong. He knows that is absolutely not his name, he's never doubted this for a second, and yet it's how he labeled himself without even thinking. He stands there, clutching the phone tightly with his mouth hanging open, grasping for words.
"Sir, can you please tell me your name?"
"I don'tâ€¦" Don't what, Ronaldo? Don't remember? Yeah, that's definitely the thing to say right now.
The operator waits.
"Do you have any record ofâ€¦ I meanâ€¦ I'm the psychic! I'm Head Psychic of theâ€¦" Dear Lord, he just saw it on a sign not half an hour ago, and now it's gone. What was the city's name?
"Waitâ€”psychic?" The word clearly has stirred something. He hears a muffled voice, like the operator has taken the phone from her ear and is speaking to someone else. Then, promptly, "You say you were missing? What happened?"
Okay, this, this he can do. "I was abducted. Likeâ€¦ months ago."
"Are you hurt?"
"No, I'm fine, Iâ€¦" He rubs his head with his free hand. "I just need someone to pick me up."
"Are you saying you are in no immediate danger?"
"Yeahâ€¦ Yeah, I guess. But he's probably still after me and I'd rather get off the streets as soon as Iâ€”"
This voice is new. But not new. He recognizes this voice.
The name of the person it belongs to is on the tip of his tongueâ€¦
"Yes? Who's this?" he tries.
"Oh my God, Shawn." It's her. It's the one he's been dreaming about all this time. He doesn't even need a nameâ€”her voice conjures up her face, her smiling, beautiful face, and he's suddenly weak-kneed with happiness.
"Shawn," she says again, and he hears tears in her voice. "Are you okay?"
"Justâ€¦ just really tired," he says, a smile creasing his face for the first time in he can't remember how long.
A pause, a nearly successfully stifled whimper, and then, "Where are you?"
"I'mâ€¦ I'm on El Camino Real."
"You're in Santa Barbara?"
Oh jeezâ€¦ Is that it? It sounds familiar. Yes, it must be. "Yeah."
"You're here. You're within driving distance." She sounds like she can't believe it. He can't either. "A payphone on El Camino Real. I'm on my way. Shawn, just hold on, I will be there in just a few minutes."
He doesn't stay on the line to listen for the click of a call ending, or the operator returning to tell him to stay with her. He lets the phone slip out of his hand as he sinks to the cool concrete beneath him, finally able to be fully aware and accepting of the exhaustion in his bones.
He's done all he can. He's going to be saved.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.