“Ah.” Miri bit her lip as they approached the entrance to the Passion Lounge. The pale pink light from the buzzing sign flickered in the night like a beacon. “I think I understand what you meant.” Her ears twitched for a moment, arching one eyebrow high as she gave him a look. “Spend time here often?”
“Hardly.” Hal wrapped his fingers around the handle to the heavy door. “But I know the people who run this place. We go way back.”
“How far back are we talking, here?”
He pulled open the door and it emitted the faintest of heavy creeks as it swung outward to let them into the foyer. The brothel's velvety but heavy aroma was quick to greet them. Miri coughed a bit on her first breath as they stepped into the building and left the cold of night behind.
“Welcome to the Passi-OH SPIRITS!” Cassi and Jonny were both standing behind the front counter, but neither were prepared for the sight that had just walked through the front door. “Sugar, what in the world happened to you!”
“Don't just stand there like an idiot Hal, get your ass out of sight!” Jonny quickly grabbed Hal and hustled him away from the entrance, dragging him across the foyer into the back office. Here, they were no longer at risk of being seen by other customers.
Once the door was closed behind the four of them, Jonny finally had a moment to give Hal a good once-over. He whistled in awe, brushing some imaginary dust off of Hal's shoulders. “Wow. Ok. I never thought I'd have to say this, but first thing's first I guess.” Jonny looked Hal in the eyes, his trademark golden smile wasn't anywhere to be seen. “Hal. Why the hell does it look like you just killed a couple guys with your bare hands?”
“Um...” Hal cleared his throat. In the bright light of the office, he noticed for the first time just how shocking his appearance was. Blood stained deep into his clothing, and dried remnants still clung to his legs, arms and face. In the darkness of the midnight streets it was easy to miss, but here there was no hiding the evidence of the violence he so recently survived.
“That's not important right now.” Miri butted in rather boldly, cutting short the question and answer session. “Hal says you can help us. Marcus is going to topple the Tower and we need to get word to the troopers outside of normal channels.”
“Wait, come again? What's Marcus up to? And who are you for that matter?” Jonny looked to Hal with surprise. “Is this that girl you were telling me about?”
Hal nodded tiredly, scraping at some of the dried blood around his eye. “Here, hun.” Cassi handed him a fresh towel with a quiet whisper. He muttered his thanks and did his best to clean himself up. “It's true Jonny. It turns out Marcus was the leader of that crazy zealot group all along, and he's planning on starting a revolution. Like, in the next 12 hours. We barely got away with our lives.”
Jonny shook his head in disbelief. Clearly it was a lot to take in all at once. “A revolution? That could be messy for business. Doesn't Marcus know not to rock the boat around here?”
“Kid's damned crazy.” Jonny scoffed, shaking his head. “And why in the world would Marcus try to kill you Hal? You're brothers. You're the only family he has left. You used to be so tight.”
“I know Jonny. I know.” Hal's voice was strained, stretched close to the breaking point by the chaotic events of this one terrible night. “Everything's totally screwed up right now. I can't even begin to talk about the shit we just went through over the last few hours. And now, I don't have anywhere else to turn. You two are the last living souls in this city that I believe I can trust.”
Jonny and Cassi shared a look. “Alright, Hal. Let's say for the sake of argument that I believe you. What's Marcus' plan of attack and how do we stop him? That tower isn't going to fall over all on its own, and as much as your brother loves huffin' and puffin' he ain't gonna just blow it all down.”
“It's the meteor.” Miri adjusted her glasses, willingly launching into the explanation. “It greatly amplifies an individual's Dreamkeeper power. He has a whole army of power-awakened ex convicts equipped with shards of it, and between the lot of them, they probably have what it takes.” She gave Jonny a sharp nod. “Look, this is way out of our league here. This isn't some action movie where we win by launching some stupidly brave and heroic assault against the forces of evil. We need to let the troopers handle this. It's what they're supposed to be trained for after all.”
“Man, fuck those guys. I hate the troopers.”
“Everyone hates the troopers.” Miri agreed. “But they have the tools to handle it. We don't.” Hal wiped the towel over his eyes, nodding in silent agreement. Miri continued undaunted. “You look like a guy who knows people. The kind of guy who gets deals done in back rooms with a handshake and a smile. Maybe there are some people you can call, to get the warning passed to City Central Authority directly. They need to send a full company to the Church of Celestia and stop them before they start.”
“Damn Hal.” Jonny whistled. “You sure know how to pick 'em.” Cassi gave Jonny a jab to his ribcage. “Ow! Hey watch it, girl!”
Cassi smiled warmly at Hal and Miri. “What Mister Riggazoni meant to say is that he is delighted to make your acquaintance, hun, and that it would be his absolute pleasure to make some calls for you and sort everything out.”
Jonny coughed and ran his fingers through his rainbow-dyed mane. “Yeah. Um. Exactly. I think I know a guy who might know a guy who's friends with a dude that can help. It might take a little while, but maybe I can make a few calls. See what's up.”
Hal felt a wave of relief wash over him. “Thanks, Jonny.”
“Hey!” Jonny pointed a finger at Hal with a sly grin. “You already had your free lunch. You seriously owe me now.”
“Yeah. Yeah.” Hal nodded his head. “I know. I'll buy you dinner or something.”
“Dinner!? Are you kidding me?” Cassi started to push Jonny towards the door, and he shouted over her shoulder as he was forced out of the room. “You better have, like, a fucking zen revelation about the nature of existence and invent a better glo-orb or some shit, because I am getting too old to be bailing your ass out of every little two-bit 'blow up the tower' conspiracy you find yourself swept up-”
Cassi shut the door on Jonny before he finished his rant, leaving the three of them alone in some welcome silence. She placed her arms on Hal and Miri, giving them a warm, matronly smile. “Now that, that unfortunate business has been taken care of, are you two alright? Poor little Hal here looks like he's about to keel over dead. And I'm sorry to say it sugar, you put on a good game face, but it looks like you could use a breather as well.”
Miri didn't argue the point. “I guess we could use a place to lay low for a while. It's been... well, it's been kind of crazy tonight.”
“I bet.” Cassi walked over to her desk and consulted a large floor plan of the building. Each room had colored tokens placed on top of them representing their “occupancy” for the evening. “I think you two are in luck.” She pointed to the top room with a smile. “It looks like our private penthouse suite was just finished being cleaned up, and no one's booked. Why don't you head on upstairs and make yourselves at home. I'm sure it'll take ol' Jonny a while to get everything sorted out. Just don't hang around in the lobby for long. It makes my customers nervous seeing people stumblin' about all covered in blood. You just make sure little ol' Hal here gets some rest.”
“Thank you. I will.” Miri offered her sincere thanks. “I know it's all of a sudden, but I really appreciate your help miss...”
“Cassandra DuPuis.” Cassi offered one arm for a handshake. “But you can just call me Cassi, hun. Ain't nobody got time for formalities in a place like this. Y'all go do your thing. If you need anything at all, just holler. I'll be here all night.”
With their business concluded, Miri helped Hal struggle up the stairs to the suite that rested alone on the top floor. With his energy stores nearly exhausted, Hal didn't have much left in the tank to do much else than let himself be led. Soon enough they reached the top landing and the suite which would serve as their refuge for the evening.
The room was wide, but lavishly furnished. A large, heart-shaped bed sat at the far end of the room, accented with a mind-boggling number of smaller throw pillows. The bedding seemed to be made of shimmery, skin-hugging satin. A control panel sat at the edge of the bed, the many buttons controlling features Hal could only begin to guess at. The windows to the room were obscured by thick velvet drapes that completely hid any view of the outside world, and the ceiling seemed to have a reflective mirror finish, no doubt for the benefit of certain patrons. One door off to the side led to an attached bathroom which was certainly decorated in a similar manner.
Their current lodgings would normally be rather uncomfortable for Hal, but he frankly didn't have the energy to care anymore. He crashed down on the bed with a heavy sigh, finally surrendering to the weight of the day. Miri shook him gently to prevent his immediate fall into slumber. “I know you want to sleep, Hal, but maybe you should get cleaned up first.”
“Mmmm.” Hal gave Miri a muffled grunt of acknowledgment, and eventually summoned enough willpower to get back on his feet and shuffle over to the bathroom. The cold, mosaic tile that decorated the floor was quick to shock Hal into action, and he soon had the shower running with the hottest water he could bear to survive. Steam quickly filled the air, giving it a rejuvenating weight that he could drink in with each deep breath.
He shed his clothes and stepped into the stream of hot water, pushing through the initial sting as he adjusted to the high temperature. He leaned one arm against the forward wall and dipped his head, letting the world finally grow quiet to his senses. Soon he was mercifully alone, with only the sound of simmering water to keep him company.
Here, at one with his thoughts, the events of the past few hours flashed through his mind: Dr, Kincaid's spasming end. The sick slippery sensation of talons tearing into flesh. The cold touch of a trigger against his finger as he smiled with vengeance.
Blood washed down off his body and swirled lazily into the drain between his feet. Despite the water that ran into his eyes, Hal found himself mesmerized by the whirlpool. Over the minutes that passed, the crimson swirl gradually lightened, and eventually became clear when there were no more memories to be washed away.
Hal blinked the blur from his eyes and finally urged his body into motion again. He grabbed a bottle of body wash without bothering to read the label, and proceeded to take his time scrubbing away any last remnants from the fights he survived. Soon the steamy air had the tingling sweet smell of tropical fruit.
Eventually, the heat of the flow was too much to bear, and the faucet was turned off with a high-pitched metallic squeak. A luxuriously thick and soft white towel waited patiently for him on the rack just outside the frosted shower door. Hal stepped out and used it to wipe himself dry. The languid air grew quieter still, and a blanket of calm silence wrapped around him as snugly as the towel he wrapped around his waist.
He stepped over to the sink and ran the cold water, splashing some onto his face, shocking his nerves back to alertness. Looking up, he was greeted with the misty shadow of his own reflection. He reached out with one hand and wiped at the condensation, clearing a diagonal path for him to see clearly the image of his own face.
The man that looked back at him was one Hal scarcely recognized. His eyes were sunk deep into his face, rung by heavy darkened eyelids. His lips curled involuntarily into a bitter scowl. His tail, normally quite animated and lively, merely hovered, staring unblinking into the image presented to them. It looked almost like Hal had been through a week long alcohol and amphetamine bender, with maybe one wild night of chemotherapy mixed in.
Was this the face everyone saw when they looked at him? Is this who Miri saw?
Hal was hesitant to touch his power again, but he had to dip his toes one more time, just to see. After the world grew out around him, Hal finally saw his true state. Neon blue tendrils of color glowed brilliantly from nearly every vein in his body. They spidered out, transitioning from a complex web in his chest into long winding avenues down each limb and up his neck. Even the tree branch network of capillaries in his fingers, toes, and face glowed brightly for him to see. The meteor's corruption over him was nearly complete.
The world shrunk back down around him and the glow faded to dark. Hal couldn't bear to see it any longer. He was left again with his own sad reflection, staring back. He swallowed desperately between deep breaths, and realized that the face across from him looked as scared as he had ever seen. It was exactly the same terrified face as the one Vanir gave him, one heartbeat before he gleefully shot a bullet through her chest.
Like the one delicate snowball that eventually grows into an avalanche, Hal felt the weight and finality of that gunshot wash over him and rip his heart to pieces. She was just as scared as he was. She wanted to hold on to what she had just as bad as he did. And now, she was dead, along with her unborn child. Hal could never face his brother again. He had no family anymore.
He took one more breath, but the shuddering exhale became a snowball, and the snowball became the only thing it was destined to be. The avalanche hit hard, and Hal had no power to hold it at bay. His legs buckled, and soon he was leaning heavily over the sink and sobbing deep into the drain. The heavy, gut-wrenching bursts of emotion flooded the basin and quickly spilled over into the other room.
A knock at the door failed to interrupt him. “Hal, are you ok?” When Miri's question received no response, she opened the door to find Hal crying into the sink. Soon her hands were on his shoulders, gently pulling him away from the mirror. “Come on... I got you.” With some soothing words and a light touch, she guided Hal back into the bedroom, sitting him down on the edge of the mattress. She didn't interrupt his grieving, but instead patiently waited it out with one arm resting tenderly on his shoulder.
It took a minute for the flood of emotion to subside. When the overflow was reduced to scattered sobs, Miri reached out and wiped the tears from his eyes. Hal looked up, staring deep into her own eyes as the blur slowly cleared. “Miri...” Hal's voice wavered unsteadily. “Am I an evil man?”
“What?” Miri shook her head. “No Hal, of course not. Why would you even think such a thing?”
“Because Vanir...” Hal blinked away fresh tears that threatened to blind him. “I murdered her.”
“She was trying to kill us, Hal.”
“No Miri!” Hal cut her off with a loud bark. “You don't understand. I didn't just kill Vanir. I murdered her.”
Miri offered Hal a sad frown, and he continued. “Her body was broken. She wasn't a threat anymore. We could have just left her behind. But I...” Hal shook his head violently, as if trying to deny the truth he was speaking. “I wanted her to die, Miri. I wanted her to feel pain. My pain. The pain she first gave to me when we fought at the river's edge. The pain I felt when she took everything away.”
Hal laughed bitterly. “I wanted to savor her end. I wanted to see the scales balanced. I thought it would liberate me.” The laugh devolved into cry at the very end. “But it didn't Miri. It didn't. All I feel now is the emptiest I've ever felt in my whole life. I wish with all my heart that I could go back in time and change it all. Do everything over again.”
“Oh Hal...” Miri reached forward and pulled him in for a hug. Her voice whispered in his ear as she held him close. “That is exactly why you are not an evil man. Evil men don't regret their mistakes. They let it harden them and turn their heart into stone. That's not who you are.”
“Then who am I Miri?” Hal pulled back slightly so he could see her face. “I don't even recognize my own reflection. I thought I knew where my life was going. I thought I'd escaped all this violence. But now...” Hal blinked, shaking his head. “The only thing I know is that I don't know anything at all about my life. I don't know if I ever knew anything to begin with.”
Miri reached out and smoothed the feathers on the top of his head. When she spoke her voice was calm, gentle and soothing. “Can't you see how special that makes you?” She smiled at him. “Hal. Your life is a miracle because you've built no walls around your heart. You have no affectations, no self-made illusions of who you are. You live every day entirely open, entirely vulnerable, and because of that... the world hurts you sometimes. I think it hurts you more than anyone else.”
She leaned closer, brushing the last remnants of tears from his face. “But that also means that you can experience life in ways that no one else can. You can see things, feel things, that no one else even knows.” Miri's own eyes began to water. “Let me tell you a story about a person I met.”
“A few years ago I met a man. At first, I didn't think I liked him that much. He was kind of funny looking, a little shy, and he struggled at first with the simple things that the rest of us students took for granted. Taking notes, doing homework, learning how to use a telescope for the first time. But he learned quick, and he didn't let anyone stop him from doing the things he loved.”
Miri continued. “Soon enough we were working together, and through countless nights, some of them darker and colder than any can be, he taught me who he was. When I felt down he would make me laugh, always ready to offer some witty remark. When I was lonely, he would keep me company, talking with me deep into the dead of night. When I was hungry, he made me breakfast. When I was cold, he built me a fire. And when I was tired, he gave me an extra blanket and his only pillow so that I could sleep.”
“And when that man thought I was asleep, when he thought he was truly alone... do you know what he would do?” Miri smiled at Hal, caressing his face. “He would walk outside onto the balcony. He would stand out there, alone, against all the cold and all the wind and all the darkness of the world, and he would look up at the stars.”
Tears started to roll down Miri's cheeks. “And do you know what happened when he did that? He smiled, Hal. He smiled with such raw and rapturous joy, like a little child, discovering the tremendous beauty of his world for the very first time.”
“That man is the person I fell in love with.” She half-laughed, half-cried, looking into his eyes. “That man... is you, Hal.”
“Oh Miri...” Neither of them could hold back the second flood that carried them both. Hal pulled Miri close holding her tightly, and they both cried in eachother's arms. “Miri...” Hal sobbed, finally unable to hold back the words that he meant to say. “I love you. I've always loved you.”
“I know.” Miri returned his embrace, crying over his shoulder.
They held eachother for a long time, letting the years of pent-up emotion finally spring forth. It seemed like such a simple thing to acknowledge, yet it took them almost an eternity to finally reach this point. Eventually, Hal pulled himself together enough to speak again. “Why did it take us this long, Miri? Why is it that only now, near the end, are we able to say the things that we mean?”
“Heh.” Miri pulled back, wiping at her face, clearing the water from her eyes. “I guess no one's perfect.”
Hal laughed, shaking his head. “I don't know how much time I have left Miri. The meteor inside of me... it's spread so far. I can feel it and I can see it. If I have to use my power for one more night...” Hal didn't look away from her eyes. “I may never wake up from it. I'm already so tired.”
Miri nodded in sad acknowledgment of the truth. “I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, Hal. Truth be told, I'm scared to find out.” Her fingers traced across the edge of his jaw. “But no matter what happens, whether it's good or bad, whether we make it or not, we still have right now.”
“Yeah. I guess we still have that.” Hal nodded slowly in agreement. “When did you figure me out so well, Miri? Since when did you become the wise one among us?”
“Ha.” Hal's remark was met with honest laughter. “I guess you could say I've been an interested observer for a long time. As for wisdom... beats me Hal. As far as I'm concerned, we're both wise, and yet we're both lost fools all at the same time. It's kind of messed up to think about, but that's the only way I know how to describe it.”
“Yeah. I guess so.”
The air of the room seemed to hang still, trapped in a moment of suspended animation. When Miri spoke again, her voice was much softer, almost a whisper.
“...do you want to see my power?”
Hal's heart froze in surprise. In all the years he had known her, not once did Miri even hint that she had found her dreamkeeper power. “You found your power!?” Hal was unable to hide the astonishment in his voice.
Miri nodded softly. “I found it after...” She hesitated for a moment. “After you were shot. After they killed Tesla. When I held him in my arms before they dragged me away.” Her own composure seemed to tremble a little bit. “I haven't used it since then... but... I think I'm ready to show you, if you want to see.”
Hal nodded, still speechless.
“Ok.” Miri took a long, deep breath, letting it out slowly. She placed both hands on Hal's shoulders, finishing the exhale. “Close your eyes.”
Hal wasn't sure how he was supposed to see with his eyes closed, but he did as she asked. They sat there in silence for a few more heartbeats. Then, all of a sudden, Hal's world changed in an instant. His one heartbeat became two heartbeats. His one breath became two breaths. He saw an image of himself through Miri's eyes. He felt not only himself... he could feel everything she felt. Hal opened his eyes, and suddenly he had a dizzying overlay of double vision as he saw the room through them both, all at once. Vertigo quickly overtook him, sending his sense of equilibrium reeling as his brain struggled to process competing inputs. Miri broke the link before things got too far out of hand.
“What the hell was that!?” Hal asked, gasping for breath as he placed both hands down on the bed to regain his balance.
“I told you to close your eyes...” Miri whispered, blinking away the disorientation. “It's a sensory link. Full two way synthesis. If I touch somebody else, I can feel everything they feel, see everything they see... and vice versa.” She looked down at the ground. “The first time I used my power... I felt Tesla die in my arms.”
“I'm sorry Miri.”
She shook her head. “That day has come and gone, now. I don't have to focus on the bad memories. I don't think that's what my power was meant for. I can build good ones as well.” Her eyes found his again. “Do you want to try it one more time?”
Hal swallowed, and nodded, bracing himself for the second wave. “Okay.”
“This time, actually keep your eyes closed.”
He closed his eyes and felt her hands back on his shoulders. In the next breath, he felt his senses duplicate, and the two of them were breathing with shared lungs, holding with shared arms. Her eyes were closed as well, letting them each wade into the pond slowly. He felt them both lean forward with care, adjusting to the waters. When the ripples began to subside, they each tilted forward just one more inch, and felt their lips touch.
It was so faint at first, like the gentlest breeze or the softest whisper. A mere memory of a kiss. They parted, for just a moment, each grabbing on to a thread of that memory before coming back together. The second kiss was deeper, more yearning, and soon all hesitation had drifted off into the night. They drank deeply of eachother, breathed deeply, and let themselves fall back onto the bed, entwined in mutual embrace.
There were no words Hal could use to describe the experience. They lost themselves yet found eachother all at the same time. Here, alone together in the deepest dark of night, they remembered that they were alive.
* * * * *
Some time later, after their hearts and their bodies had been spent, after the fire of passion faded into the glowing embers of comfort, they rested. Miri slept soundly curled close next to Hal, resting her head on his chest. Her warmth leeched into his core with a tender softness. One arm, wrapped around her back, held her close.
Hal felt his body, so tired now, sink deep and heavy into the mattress. Even if he wanted to move his toe with all the will in the universe, he wouldn't be able. There were no more words he could say, no more energy he could spend, no more minutes in his day. At the end of it all, there was nothing left that Hal could give.
He looked up at the ceiling and the dim reflection of the two of them, feeling his eyelids begin to close as he surrendered to the end of the night. Before he drifted off into a long and welcome rest, Hal couldn't help but understand that in this one fleeting moment, perhaps for the first time in his life, his soul had found peace...
[End Chapter 21]