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The Eleventh Hour

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6:23 pm...

 

Quatre wiped his sweaty palms against his trousers and then drummed his fingers against his kneecaps. Sitting alone in the back of a stretched limousine en route to a undisclosed location, it was quite peaceful all things considered. Only the muted sound of rain hitting the car’s roof was keeping him company during this dark and stormy trip through the hillside and that was just fine by him.

Occasionally lightning would streak across the sky and illuminate the car’s interior, startling him from his train of thought. He glanced at his watch and cursed under his breath. Seven minutes since the last time he’d checked. Impatiently, he fumbled for the power switch that controlled the partition separating him from the chauffeur and watched the pane of glass lower with a soft whirring sound.

“How much longer?”

“Soon, Sir.”

He narrowed his eyes at the back of the driver’s head. “Are those the only two words you know?”

“It won’t be long, Sir.”

His mouth opened in protest as the partition started to roll back up, but decided arguing was pointless anyway. Huffing, he leaned back against the cushions and stared out the window. The rain was heavy and relentless, streaming across the glass in wide rivers. Beyond that, only the gaping maw of darkness. Not even a single lamp post, or porch light to dot the passing landscape.

It felt cold, vast, and unfamiliar and he shivered despite the warmth inside the cabin. He was no stranger to such feelings. Once upon a time, he’d harbored a fear of the unknown, but things were much different now. Now he knew things he didn’t want to know, had a future he wished he’d never foreseen. Now he longed for the uncertainty he’d once loathed, back when as far as he was aware, there had been a chance for a happy ending.

His eyes were drawn to the minibar just to his left, almost as if his conscious mind had taken notice of his rattled nerves and was pointing him to the perfect remedy a mere arm’s reach away.

“Drinks are on the house, Sir,” droned the chauffeur's voice through the intercom, making the hair on Quatre’s neck stand on end.

He wasn’t much of a drinker, but under the current circumstances, a little liver damage was the least of his worries. 

He slid his backside across the bench seat and flipped open the cabinets underneath the small counter. Dozens of tiny bottles waited patiently for this party of one to partake in their festivities and who was he to disappoint them?

He sifted through the cabinet until he found a bottle of Luksusowa. Above the counter, he swiped a crystal tumbler and dropped two cubes of ice into it from a little bucket next to the sink. Drink in hand, he scooted back over to the window and tucked his body into the corner. He’d been doing a lot of that lately. Made it harder for the creatures of the night to sneak up behind him, or so he told himself.

The rivulets of rain that streamed across the glass dimly reflected the coach lights lined along the limo’s exterior and after the first few sips of vodka, he became hypnotized by their changing patterns as they moved from left to right.

In this moment, he could pretend the world outside no longer existed and without visual confirmation to contradict him, it wasn’t as difficult as he’d thought it would be.

And it was worlds better than thinking about the nightmare that awaited him.

Mind hazy with drink, he imagined the car coasting right off the edge of the earth and into oblivion, drifting far past the reaches of the observable universe. Away, into a cosmic Siberia that lay suspended between two parallel dimensions; cold, dark, and desolate. A transitional realm where the laws of physics no longer applied. Where he could hide from his fate like shadows behind a mirror. If he could convince himself that the rivers streaming past his line of sight weren’t made of rain, but rather remnants of the world he’d left behind, maybe he could become one, too.

He smiled, comforted by the thought. Just him, his tedious driver, and their tiny minibar embarking on a journey to explore the multiverse and whatever lay beyond.

Would make one hell of a television series, he thought dreamily as his eyes began to lose focus. The streams of water blurred, then cleared again when he blinked, but only once. There was something else at work here. Something with gravity, tugging heavily on his mind until it was hard to think. A welcome change, one he didn’t fight when it pulled him below the surface of an alien sea, enchanted with bioluminescent life against a black canvas in every color of the rainbow.

The last thing he remembered before he was plunged into the abyss was the tumbler slipping from his hand. He vaguely registered the thump as it landed on his foot and then rolled onto the floor.

I - I think…someone just slipped me a mickey…

 

***

 

8:02 pm...

 

An indiscernible amount of time later, his ears picked up the faint din of voices. Disembodied and seemingly miles away, his numbed mind couldn’t conjure up enough wits to sound the alarms and within seconds, he was out again.

Another indiscernible amount of time later, they returned, but now they were louder and bounced painfully around the inside of his skull. He winced, still unable to see, but at least cognizant enough now to track and possibly identify them. He listened intently, keeping his head hung low to feign unconsciousness.

There was a man’s voice a few feet to his right and after a few minutes, he recognized it as belonging to the limo driver. Except now, it was far less monotone and engaged in what seemed like a heated debate.

Just ahead and to Quatre’s left, another voice interrupted the first. It was feminine and sounded more amused than vexed. A metaphorical light bulb suddenly flipped on and in an instant, he was more lucid than he’d been in days.

I’m going to kill her for drugging me.

Right after I figure out how to untie myself from this chair.

Finally managing to pry his sticky eyelids apart, he fumed as he was met with the inside of a cloth sack that he was pretty sure didn't end up covering his head by accident.

“Mmph…the fuck?”

The hushed exchanged stopped abruptly and he felt two pairs of eyes boring into him like laser pointers.

“Is -” his voice was a weak-sounding croak, likely a result of dehydration. He coughed and tried again. “Is this how you normally greet your guests, Catalonia, or did you go through all this trouble just for me?”

He blanched when the sack was roughly yanked off his head and his eyes were assaulted by a series of inconveniently aimed halogen lights.

“Don’t flatter yourself, Winner. I’m simply a precautionary woman.”

“I thought they called it ‘paranoia’,” he snorted, holding still so the chauffeur - who appeared to have nothing more to say- could cut the rope binding him to the chair. Once Quatre’s hands were free, the stately gentleman quickly made himself scarce. “And since when do you do precaution?”

The corners of Dorothy Catalonia’s lacquered lips slowly curled upward, giving him the impression of a hungry snake moments before unhinging its jaw to swallow a wildebeest. “What you call ‘paranoia’, I call a healthy desire to protect my investments.”

He folded his arms over his chest. “Is that why you roofied the liquor supply?”

For once, she had the decency to look guilty. “I am sorry about that. I can’t risk anyone finding out where I am. I know you wouldn’t rat me out, but my enemies have more…shall we say, untoward ways of gleaning information so, I had to play it safe.”

His mouth twisted bitterly, wishing he had that luxury. “Why? Did something happen?”

“Something’s always happening, Quatre,” she told him in an exasperated tone.

“Cut the shit, Dorothy. You know what I mean.”

“What do you want me to say? That I did something I shouldn’t have and landed myself in hot water?”

“So in other words, just a normal day for you.”

“Hmph,” she sniffed. “I’m sure you understand the risks I take in my line of work and why discretion is sometimes necessary to ensure the protection of those involved. Being that you happen to be one of those involved, it should come as no surprise. It also wouldn’t behoove you to take more cautionary measures.”

“Oh, don’t patronize me. You know as well as I do that I’m screwed any way we slice it. I’ve been careful in every possible way a person can be and look where it’s gotten me. All this - this magic, these protection spells, the talismans that are just collecting dust at this point…none of it has worked, Dorothy. What other 'cautionary measures' do you propose I take?”

Her face was grim and though he already knew she had nothing, seeing his despair reflected in her eyes made it feel real in ways he still wasn’t prepared to accept.

“Quatre, it’s not over. Not yet.”

“No…damn it, don’t you do that to me! I only have a few hours left on this wretched ball of rock and I’m not going to spend them listening to fairy tales and empty promises.”

"Do you honestly expect me to believe you came all the way out here just to tell me you’ve given up? Is that what you’re saying?”

“I’m not - I'm saying I - ugh, fuck!” He clenched his teeth as tears stung the backs of his eyes. He didn’t know what he was saying, or what he wanted to say, or if he even wanted to say anything.

What was there to say?

There was an ubiquitous game of tug-of-war taking place that most humans were blissfully unaware of. For people like Quatre who’d been tossed into the ring before they were even old enough to understand what was going on, it was just another shitty fact of life. Like death and taxes. 

A real fucking pisser it was, but that was the way the cookie crumbled.

And Dorothy…well, she was in the business of making deals. Not for cars, or homes, or flashy jewelry. No, she was in the business of negotiating the lucrative commodity of human souls and despite her elusive presence among the inner circle of her necromancing ilk, her extensive list of clientele was impressive to say the least.

Rumor had it that she’d successfully convinced one of Hell’s most diabolical demons to give the infamous warlord, Treize Khushrenada another twenty years on earth. His bargaining chip? Leia Barton, his own beloved wife.

Quatre was appalled when he’d first heard the story, unsure if this Dorothy Catalonia character was someone he could stomach acquainting himself with. Dorothy herself seemed immune to any existential crisis regarding her own morality, or lack thereof. She was a professional and professionals did not let their personal feelings get in the way of business.

That had been eighteen months ago and as the weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds ticked by, it mattered less and less. His anger was in short supply and it burned itself out quickly enough. Feeling drained, he dropped back into the chair and pulled his legs up towards his chest, wrapping his arms around them. The sense of security was an illusion, but he'd take what he could get. “I had the dream again. Last night.”

Dorothy was silent for a long time and Quatre was afraid to look at her. Was she thinking? Did she fall asleep? Was she rubbing her hands together like a cartoon villain with a dastardly plan?

"Your handsome stranger?” She finally asked in a hoarse whisper.

He lifted his eyes. “I don’t think he’s a stranger.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t - it’s weird. I know I’ve never seen him before, but I feel like I’ve known him all my life.”

“Or he's known you all your life.”

That possibility was way too creepy for his tastes so he pretended he didn't hear it. “Anyway, it’s winter like it is now and it’s always dusk so it’s already pretty dark between the buildings, but I notice when I look up, the sky is lit by the setting sun in this stunning gradient of orange, pink, and blue. It looks like fire and ice engaged in some celestial battle to conquer the universe.”

"You may be more right about that than you realize," she told him, making her way to the bar on the other side of the room. She glanced at him over her shoulder and held up a glass pitcher. "Martini?"

He eyed her suspiciously. "Is it spiked?"

"It's a martini, Quatre. Of course it's spiked."

"I meant with whatever you - ah, fuck it. Yeah, why not?"

"No, I didn't put any drugs in it," she assured him, returning with the pitcher and two cocktail glasses. "Like I said, that was only to conceal my location." She slipped an olive speared on a pick into a glass and handed it to him while motioning for him to continue.

Grateful for the liquid stress reliever, he tipped back half the martini in one gulp and shivered from the intense burn. “Okay, so normally I see him while I’m walking home and he's just staring at me. He never speaks, or smiles, and he never takes his eyes off me. You remember when I told you how I first saw him on the street corner a couple of blocks outside my apartment? And then the night after that, he was standing just a little closer? And the next night, even closer? It felt like a pattern, or something. Like - like a countdown."

"Tell me what he looks like again," Dorothy said, nibbling on her olive.

Unsettled, he rubbed his hands over his face. “He's kind of tall, reddish brown hair. Looks like he hits the gym pretty regularly. Handsome." He laughed, but it was more at himself. "He's fucking gorgeous if I'm being honest. But he's...phlegmatic. Except for his eyes. I don't - I don’t know how to describe them. They’re strange. Like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Beautiful, but chaotic. They burn hot, like green embers in the dark and…when I walk past him, it feels like they’re flaying me to the bone. It’s all I can do to get away from him and lock myself in my apartment, but every time I look out the window, he’s still there. Standing in the same place, staring up at me.”

He dropped his hands into his lap, fists clenched as the memory of last night’s dream wrapped around him with a chill worse than death. “My birthday is tomorrow, Dorothy. My time is up. The dreams I've been having, he keeps getting closer. Then the other night, he was standing right outside my apartment building. I thought maybe the next time, he'd be plastered to my window like a pervy Spiderman, but…last night, I couldn’t find him anywhere.”

For a split second, Dorothy’s eyes were eclipsed by the black of her pupils. “What do you mean you couldn't find him?”

He shrugged. “Just, he wasn’t there. I walked home like I always do, but I didn’t see him. It wasn’t until I went to bed that I realized something was wrong.”

He instinctively curled his body in tighter, remembering how the air seemed to tremble all around him. How the darkness took on a life of its own. It pulsed and seeped into every corner, covering the windows like hot tar and blocking out the sickly yellow glow of the street lights below.

He remembered icy terror, as if he'd been submerged in Arctic waters. He remembered clutching the sheets up to his chin when he felt a crushing pressure on his feet that gradually worked its way up his legs and torso, systematically paralyzing him into a state of entropy. He remembered a frigid draft brushing over his chest, making his heart race with panic as it stole the very breath from his lungs.

He knew he was dying. Pinned down by a strength that far surpassed anything a human was capable of while his brain was starved of precious oxygen, the threads of his life began to unravel. His eyes glazed over, blind to everything but the linear progression of time played back in reverse. Young adulthood, adolescence, childhood, and finally, infancy. His lashes fluttered, struggling to stay alive long enough to witness the moment his fate had been sealed.

"What do you see, Quatre?"

 

***

 

It was late as indicated by the dark that loomed just outside the arched windows of an ornate and femininely decorated suite. Between them, the remnants of a fire smoldered inside a stone fireplace and beside that stood an antique clock, ominously still with the hands fixed at seven minutes past midnight. The pendulum had been stopped manually, its steady metronome gone silent in the wake of Death's departure.

On the other side of the room was a large bed, its ivory linens stained red with copious amounts of blood. Carefully positioned in the center was a woman with a halo of spun gold spread out beneath her head. Blue eyes that might have once rivaled the sky stared vacantly up at the ceiling, just beginning to cloud over. Somewhere in the room, there was high-pitched wailing and a man falling to his knees in grief. In the corner, doctors spoke quietly among themselves as nurses on the far side of the room tended to a screeching newborn.

There had been some sort of complication during labor. The placenta detached prematurely and took part of the mother’s uterus with it, causing catastrophic hemorrhaging that nearly killed the fetus she was carrying as well. Thanks to the doctors’ quick thinking, they were able to save the child, but could not stop the hemorrhage. Within minutes, she’d bled out as her husband watched helplessly.

"I am truly sorry for your loss, Mr. Winner. Words cannot express, but...look. A healthy baby boy. See him? He's the son you always wanted so have faith, my friend. In death, there is always new life. New beginnings."

For over an hour, medical staff and close family friends tried to break through the man's impenetrable wall of despair. They'd brought the child over in the hopes that Zayeed would come around once he saw his tiny son, but the baby was immediately rejected without so much as a passing glance. Spitting curses, he'd swiped at the nurse who was holding the infant before he was restrained and sedated. The doctors said he was suffering from acute shock and needed to rest. They said it wasn't uncommon in tragic situations such as this and that he would be back to his old self in no time.

And everything would be alright again.

Except it wasn't. After two weeks of convalescence, he hastily claimed his son from the wet nurse and kicked everyone out of the house. 

For five days, no one went in, or out. Mail piled up on the front porch, surrounded by an increasing number of flower deliveries that went ignored. The doors had been bolted shut with heavy furniture pushed up against them to reinforce the barricades. Every window in the house was covered by thick drapes, blankets, and towels. Whatever he could find to cut himself off from the world outside.

Like most prominent families, much of their lives were shrouded in secrecy, but as far as the public was concerned it wasn't anything to bat an eye at. What they didn't know was that most of the secrets fed to the press by 'anonymous sources' were manufactured. They served as decoys to direct the pubic's attention away from things that should never see the light of day. 

Closely guarded were secrets that required blood transactions. Secrets that demanded firstborn children as collateral. Secrets that were sentient. Secrets that wouldn't hesitate to kill at the mere thought of foul play. The scope of the Winner family's involvement in sorcery could be traced back through generations; before the colonies, before the Space Race, even before the Industrial Age. As far back as their tribal days when they roamed the deserts of North Africa, relying on their natural gifts and long-perfected skills working with textiles, alchemy, healing, and spiritualism in order to survive.

Of course, every family has its bad apples. The ones who are always more interested in personal gain. The ones who have no qualms about their methods of achieving that gain, even if it means harming the people who depend on them.

It was those elders who'd tapped into the darker aspects of the occult for reasons that were less than noble that had intrigued Quatre's father and according to his sisters, their mother had already become an accomplished practitioner of Obeah by the time their respective families made the final arrangements for their wedding. It was a match made in Heaven. Or Hell depending on who you asked. Together, Zayeed and Quatrine were powerful and formidable, heaping blessings upon those who were loyal and cursing their personal and political enemies into poverty and madness.

But behind closed doors, they were dealing with their own private pain. The heir they'd always dreamed of never came to fruition and they were beginning to think it was forever beyond their reach. Time and time again, Quatrine proved herself unable to carry a child to term and after the seventh miscarriage, Zayeed had proposed the much-despised test tube option. Quatrine reluctantly agreed, but even that method seemed doomed to failure as the couple welcomed one daughter after another with bittersweet resignation.

Three years after their twenty ninth daughter arrived, Zayeed consented to an ancient ritual at the behest of his wife. He was hesitant, knowing the ritual hadn't been performed for over a millennia and for good reason. It was exceedingly dangerous and historically known to be ineffective with only one notable exception and that was what Quatrine was banking on. To be the next proverbial one in a million to reap the ritual's rewards.

At first, it appeared to be a complete success. One month after the ritual, Quatrine was pregnant again and this time, her doctors were pleasantly surprised by how strong both mother and baby were. For all intents and purposes, it seemed to be a perfectly normal pregnancy with marginally low risk factors. When she passed the dreaded three month mark pleasantly plump and radiating health, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Of course, the expectant parents were ecstatic and when Quatrine's twentieth week checkup revealed the baby to be a boy, both of them were over the moon.

Overcome with joy and a little too much confidence in their abilities, they didn't take the time to stop and consider the yang to their yin. What was needed to balance out the scales. They'd forgotten that the practice of magic came with gravid responsibility and respect of the fundamental rules that kept its foundation stable. Wielders of magic held no claim to it. Like nature itself, magic was wild and free. It could not be tamed. Wielders were simply equipped with the ability to channel it with the principled understanding that their choices affected everything around them. That for every action, there must be a reaction. 

Zayeed and Quatrine had ignored the laws that governed their world and for that, there were consequences. By the time they realized the cost of their negligence, it was too late.

 

***

 

8:16 pm...

 

“Quatre? Quatre! Jesus, what the hell happened?! Are you okay?”

He doubled over in the chair, feeling like he'd just been hit by a freight train. Pressing his forehead against his knees, he clenched his teeth and groaned painfully as he endured a tumultuous wave of sickness that left him dizzy, weak, and nauseous. After several minutes, he was able to calm his breathing and his pounding heart, though his hand trembled when he reached up to wipe beads of sweat from his brow. "I don't know," he said, pressing his lips together to keep from puking. "I - Just give me a minute. I'll be okay."

"Fucking hell, you scared the shit out of me! One minute you're sitting there rambling about I don't even know what and the next, your eyes are rolling back into your head and you look like you need a fucking exorcist, or something. I thought you were having some kind of seizure."

"Could I have a glass of water?"

"Sure, but I don't want you getting up, understand? Just sit there and I'll bring it to you. Goddamn, don't ever do that to me again."

"I don't intend to," he promised, rubbing the heels of his hands against his eyes. At the bar, he could hear the cooler door opening and closing, followed by the sound of a seal cracking. When he heard the water being poured into a glass, he swore he could taste it.

"You want ice?"

"No."

"Alright. It's cold anyway." She came around the corner and handed him the glass, watching with concern as he quickly drank it down. "Slow down, tiger. That's a Valentino chair cradling your scrawny ass right now. If you puke on it, you're paying for the clean up."

He finished off the glass and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "My scrawny ass thanks Valentino for such a luxurious cradle. Anyway, I'm fine. Just really thirsty."

"Refill?"

"No, I'm good now. Thank you."

"Swell."

"Shit, what time is it?" Panicky, he glanced down at his watch and sagged in relief. "Oh, thank god. I thought it was almost midnight."

"You weren't out that long," she told him, sinking down onto the chair's matching ottoman. "Maybe ten, fifteen minutes."

"Felt like hours," he said, running his fingers through his hair.

"Are you going to tell me what happened, or are we playing twenty questions?"

"I'm not even sure I know. I remember thinking about the dream last night and then I got confused and thought I was still dreaming. Next thing I know, I'm not in my bed, or my apartment, or even my city. Somehow I'm back on L4 and I'm standing over my late father while he's kneeling on the floor with his ass in the air -" he stuck his hand up when Dorothy's expression belayed her mind's sudden dive towards the gutter. "And no, I don't mean it like that, but thanks for making this even more awkward, you sick, twisted woman."

"Now, now. We did we say about throwing stones at glass whorehouses?"

"...Make sure you're throwing diamonds?"

"Attaboy. Okay, so your dad was what? Praying?"

"I don't think so. It wasn't the Fajr. He was chanting something in Aramaic which is a dead language, or so I thought."

"So you couldn't understand him?"

"No. I didn't even know he spoke it."

"What else?"

He shrugged and traced invisible patterns over the arm of the chair. “I saw how utterly devastated he was by my mother’s death. The man was broken to the core. I had no idea how bad it was. I can't even remember him ever showing emotion around me. He was always so distant. Aloof.” He paused and then added more quietly, "Actually, I take it back. He had no problem expressing disdain, or rage, or...disgust."

It was always negative emotion with Zayeed. Growing up, Quatre couldn't recall ever feeling affection, or love. His father was a perpetual statue, cold and unforgiving as if made of marble. As a child, Quatre had nursed his own scraped knees and twisted ankles. He'd learned early on that tears were dealt with by a punch to the head hard enough to make his ears ring for hours afterward. He'd known for a while what a bastard his father was and maybe under normal circumstances, he could have simply walked away and lived his own life.

But selfishly, Zayeed had stolen Quatre's freedom when he was only two weeks old. Signed away his life and his future because he didn't want to pay the consequences for his actions. Quatre was alive today because of the terrible choices his parents had made and when it backfired, Zayeed was more than happy to deflect the blame onto his own infant son.

And goddamn it, that stung like a bitch.

He swallowed around the lump in his throat, pained by his father’s animosity towards him. “He blamed me. He resented the fact that I lived and she didn’t. He wanted me to pay for killing her. He -” Heart squeezing inside his chest, he turned away and tried to suppress the rising wave of grief with the back of his hand. “That son of bitch. He sold me to the fucking Devil in exchange for my mother’s life. The bounty was agreed to be collected on my twentieth birthday, seven minutes past midnight. My mother's official time of death.”

“But your mother never came back."

Normally, he would have ribbed her for stating the obvious, but he just wasn't feeling it at the moment. He shook his head instead. “No. My father was deceived by the Grand Poobah of liars and signed the contract without...whatever the spiritual equivalence of a lawyer would be, I guess. He was delusional, consumed by madness he and didn’t stop to read the fine print. He failed to bring my mother back and he sold his own son in the process, the fucking prick.”

Dorothy cleared her throat, faltering in a way that was very uncharacteristic of her. “For what it’s worth, Quatre, I’m sorry.”

He turned towards her, genuine surprise lighting up his eyes. “Sorry for what?”

She shrugged, not knowing exactly how to put it in words. “For…not being able to do enough? Because I can’t save you?”

His expression was soft and resigned. “It’s not your fault. You’ve done everything in your power to help me and I’m grateful for that.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to keep trying?”

“No. No, I think we’ve already exhausted every possibility. He’s been waiting twenty years for this. He’s not going to change his mind. I suppose I just...didn't want to be alone when he comes for me. I have no idea what's going to happen. What to expect." He sighed and leaned back against the chair. "Will I go out with a whimper, or a bang? Will it be messy, or clean? Quick, or agonizing?"

"Maybe that depends on what you do when he arrives."

"Maybe," he said absently, plucking lint off the chair with his fingers. "Hey, is there any martini left?"

Her mouth quirked, but she was still a little hesitant. "You sure that's a good idea?"

"Dorothy, in ninety...six minutes, I'm going to be gone from this earth forever. I think that's good enough reason to get shitfaced."

"In that case, there's plenty more where that came from."

 

***

 

12:03 am...

 

Outside the cozy warmth of Dorothy's temporary residence, the storm was really beginning to kick up. Though it was December and they were up in the higher elevations, there'd been more rain than snow this season due to the milder temperatures. It had been raining nonstop for three days and nights and she could only imagine how bad the flooding was down in the valley. She'd heard on the radio the night before that the river had already crested.

A flash of lightning zigzagged across the sky and was immediately followed by a roar of thunder that shook the house and rattled the windows. Despite the ruckus, neither she, nor Quatre stirred. Very few would have after a pint of gin and vermouth. Each.

"Man, the mudslides are gonna be bitchin'," she drawled, absently using one long fingernail to pull down her bottom lip before letting it snap back up. "I've always wanted to take a ride on one of those babies."

Quatre snorted. "You realize most people who do don't live to tell about it, right?" 

At some point, they'd gravitated over to the large sofa. Dorothy had long since ditched her heels - and her manners - and was now slumped against the cushions with her bare feet propped on the coffee table. Her guest took up the rest of the sofa, lying on his side with his head in his hostess' lap.

"That's the point."

"Quit being so goth. Dying's overrated anyway."

"How the fuck would you know? You're not dead."

"I'm about to be."

"Like those two things are in any way comparable."

He rolled the olive pick he'd taken from his martini glass between his teeth, mulling it over. "Maybe not, but I am closer to death than you've ever been."

"How do you figure that?"

He flipped onto his back and stared up at her. "You're joking, right?"

She cackled. "Dear boy, do you know how many deals I've made with reapers? How many times I've convinced some bone-faced dip shit in a black hood to grant some poor sap another ten years of his pitiable existence? Come on."

"Is that what I am? Some poor sap who's not smart enough to look a gift horse in the mouth?"

"Christ, don't be such a wanker. Of course you are."

He rolled his eyes and turned back onto his side. "Thanks."

"Actually, I kinda wish I could go with you."

"Shut up."

"I'm serious. I've seen way more fucked up shit than anyone six times my age should ever have to see. I'm done with this sad, cruel world. Time to move on."

"You know you can move on without subjecting yourself to where I'm going."

"I'm not so sure about that," she said under her breath.

His curiosity was piqued, but there simply wasn't time to ask for clarification and he wasn't even sure he wanted to know what she meant. "Two minutes," he announced, checking his watch. He scanned the room for anything that might look out of place. A sign that something was happening, that someone was there. 

But there was nothing and he didn't know if that was bad, or good.

Dorothy's hand fumbled for his and he gripped it like a lifeline, grateful for the comfort. Maybe if he held on tight enough, he could anchor himself to this world. Maybe if a solid connection could be established, the forces of darkness would be unable to claim him.

"It's gonna be okay, Quatre."

"No, it's not," he mumbled against her knee. It was midnight now and still nothing seemed out of place. "Jesus, I'm so scared. Please don't let me go."

She wrapped her arms around him and rocked back and forth. "I won't. I've got you, okay? You're not alone. If he wants you, he's gonna have to go through me."

Sweet gesture, but they both knew they weren't strong enough to fight off something this powerful. There was nothing left to do, but wait and hope for the best.

At first, it seemed like nothing was happening and he absurdly wondered if demons had a habit of being fashionably late, but that wasn't right. Something was happening. He just didn't know what yet.

It started subtly. Easily mistaken for a normal occurrence on any given day. One that didn't require much thought aside from mild annoyance. It was deceiving in its benevolence and maybe that's what made it so malevolent

Because this was the way his world ended. There was no bang. There was no whimper. Just a tiny glitch in time when the second hand on the clock ticks back once before continuing forward. And no one would be the wiser.

 

***

 

12:07 am...

A speck of dust, or a tiny hair landed on his left eye and he rubbed at it, hoping to dislodge it. He pulled his hand away and blinked a few times, but now the speck seemed more like a blind spot, obscuring part of his peripheral vision. He rubbed harder at it and blinked again, confused as to what it was. 

He lifted his hand and waved it, but couldn't see it from the corner of his eye. The spot was growing, appearing more like a pin light. Initially he'd thought it looked white, but as it continued to expand, he began to notice swirls of green moving into view. 

"What is that?"

After only a minute, or two, the spot was almost entirely green and taking up half his sight. When it spread to his right eye, what little was left of Dorothy's living room was quickly disappearing. Terror squeezed around him, making it hard to breathe. He tried to roll onto his back, but his limbs refused to cooperate. 

In front of him, beside him, all around him, fractals of luminescent green danced in perfect sync against a darker backdrop. They expanded, shrank, rotated, and turned themselves inside out and the longer Quatre watched them, their texture and depth gradually became more visible. Some fractals now appeared closer than others and something resembling tiny fibers became visible along their varying shaped edges. It took several minutes of careful observation to realize that the fractals were reacting to stimuli. They were reacting to him.

Fascinated, he lifted a hand as if to touch and was amazed when they recoiled in response. When he repeated the motion, the reaction was more visceral than he expected and he instinctively jumped back, not sure if he would be met with some kind of aggression. He dropped his arm back down to his side and examined his surroundings a little more closely, trying to get a bead on a specific location. Were there coordinates? Latitude? Longitude? Where was the ground? What was he standing on? How was he breathing?

If this was Hell, there wasn't much to write home about. 

Well, now what? Am I just gonna float forever in this primordial pea soup? Where's the big red guy with the horseshoes and forked tail? Didn't he get the memo? Is he lost? Am I lost? Is there no GPS in this god-forsaken middle of nowhere...whatever? 

He craned his neck, looking up, up, up, and finally there seemed to be a break in the monotonous green pattern, or rather the pattern appeared to curve around something else. From his vantage point, that something else looked like a hole. Huge and black where the green edge curved down and disappeared into it. The longer he stared, the more of it he could see, though he couldn't tell if it was a change in angle, or if the massive hole was moving further away.

His eyes widened as more of the green edge was revealed and formed what looked like a ring around the hole. A few seconds later, he was looking out over a milky white sea that encompassed the area around the ring. Within it, there were vast rivers of red twisting and turning every which way. Some seemed to run in opposite directions, others came together to create an intricate network. When he looked out beyond that, he could see thick black tree trunks lined along the sea's far edge. A little further out and then the trunks were curving forward and down and - he sucked in a sharp breath and slapped a hand over his mouth.

It was an eye. It was a giant fucking eye that could only belong to an even more massive face and -

What the fuck?!

Scared shitless, he stumbled back and lost his balance, falling until his rear end landed on something he could neither see or feel. Whatever it was, it was there. It had stopped his momentum, but damned if he knew what it was. 

He froze like a deer caught in a pair of high beams on a country road, stunned as one eye became two. What he'd originally thought were just distant parts of some alien landscape only a few minutes ago were transforming into the recognizable slope of a human nose, flanked on both sides by the curve of cheekbones, and a cascading shock of auburn hair that hung between them. As the face before him continued to shrink in size - or perhaps he was growing - the lights in his head turned on and the nagging voice that kept asking him where he'd seen such lively shades of green before suddenly went silent because now he knew. 

It's him. 

Up until this very moment, there had been a chaotic smattering of puzzle pieces strewn around him like a cosmic riddle he had to solve before moving to the next level and finally, each piece was sliding into place as if they'd always known exactly where they belonged. Quatre's lips parted, but the words never came. What could he possibly say to one of the most powerful beings his kind had ever known? How insignificant must he seem to it? How utterly meaningless were his accomplishments compared to this creature's?

For the first time, he knew what 'humble' truly felt like. For all mankind's arrogance and sense of importance in their place among the stars, finding out that it was all an illusion caused by interstellar isolation and uncontested prowess at the top of the local food chain was the modern day equivalent of being kicked by a T-Rex.

You just weren't the same after that.

Even with more abstract concepts such as gods, demons, and the 'Devil', who was to say what they really were? Maybe 'demons' were simply an extraterrestrial species as seen from the more primitive and ridiculously limited human perspective.

But whatever they were...whatever this creature in front of him was that wore a human face and stalked his dreams, it was without a doubt smarter, faster, and stronger than he was. And he was at its mercy. So mote it be, this thing had taken ownership of him before he was even potty trained.

It took a step closer and he felt something - several somethings - curl around him with the intention of preventing his escape, though where he would have escaped to was a mystery. Regardless, he didn't resist them, or curse, beg, or pray. There was no point in complicating a situation that was already complicated enough to begin with. Now was the time for cooperation and observation. To test the boundaries and find out what he could get away with and what would incite punishment.

He looked up into the human eyes of this very inhuman creature, hypnotized by the gems of green fire that stared back at him in the same unnervingly detached way he remembered from his dreams. For an infinitesimal moment in time, or perhaps an eternity, there was a ripple in the air and then something that sounded like static crackled around them. There was a shift, jarring and incomprehensible as the kinetic energy kicked up into a wild spin. The world as he'd known it was ripped apart by the destructive force of the fiery cyclone and he instinctively grappled for purchase, unwittingly clutching the front of creature's coat before he realized what he was doing.

At first contact, the creature's arms locked around him with unbreakable strength and he was pulled against a chest that radiated a sweltering amount of heat. He lifted his head and saw the creature grinning down at him in a way that didn't reach its eyes. Or didn't light up its eyes the way it would if this were an actual human he was dealing with. Maybe it wasn't so easy for a creature that had never walked the earth in human form to duplicate the complex nature of human emotion and how those emotions manifested themselves as expression. It didn't seem to matter how powerful, cunning, or advanced this thing was, perhaps there were some things it simply couldn't do.

Though it was unsettling to say the least, he'd just gotten his first inkling that flaws were not exclusive to humankind, but the unique and complex nature of their emotions might very well be. So when he felt a strange tug in his lower belly, he had the sneaking suspicion that this creature was harboring a desire to seduce. When he attempted to retreat, it reflexively tightened its hold on him. Whether this was something typical of its kind, or if it was trying to immerse itself in the human condition, its eagerness to seduce him was accompanied by a yearning for him to resist that seduction.

And he had no intention of disappointing.

 

***

 

12:08 am...

 

Dorothy brushed a tangled lock of hair from Quatre's face and gently closed his eyelids. Everything was so quiet now, so still. The storm that had been wreaking havoc for days evaporated instantly. It was the kind of thing a skeptic would say was impossible and maybe it was. Maybe reality was only a matter of perspective. Maybe the only reason anyone existed in the first place was because something, somewhere had thought them into existence.

It had taken less than a minute, only a few measly seconds. It was over so quickly, she wasn't even sure what had happened, or if anything happened. The last thing he'd said was, "What is that?" and then his heart stopped. That was it. It was so strangely anticlimactic. There'd been no words, no tears, no whimpers, or screams. He didn't convulse, thrash, or tremble. Only a simple inquiry, spoken in a causal tone that held no hint of distress and then he just...slipped away.

But while Quatre, plucked from the earth before his life had really begun, was no doubt facing insurmountable odds, Dorothy still believed he would be okay. She believed there were some people who would always be okay no matter how bad things got. It was a gift, often given as a blessing to the unborn children whose futures were murky at best. They were the ones who needed that extra boost of strength, wit, endurance, and resourcefulness so they could have a better chance of withstanding the horrors inflicted on them before they were old enough to defend themselves.

There was a reason Quatre had earned her utmost respect. He was everything she could never be. He knew how to adapt, how to survive, and how to persevere. He never gave up and he never lost the kindness and compassion that made it so easy for him to love and so easy for others to love him.

A tear rolled down her cheek and she wiped it away as she got up to make a few calls. Legally, she was his sole benefactor. In the event of his death, the final arrangements would be left to her. She picked the phone up and turned, pausing when she saw what looked like a folded piece of paper in his hand. 

Where did that come from? He wasn't holding anything when he -

She pressed her lips together and bent down to take his hand. Lifeless as it now was, it was still warm to the touch. Pulling the paper from beneath his slightly curled fingers, she placed his hand on top of his stomach and knelt down beside him to read it. It was slightly crinkled and looked like it was burned around the edges, but it was his handwriting, no doubt about it. Heart aching, she smoothed it out so his swooping cursive was easier to read. Four lines. There were only four lines, but they spoke volumes. If Quatre's life could have been summed up in four lines, none were more perfect than the ones he'd chosen on the night of his departure.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek before resting her forehead against his temple. Wherever he was, whatever he was experiencing in this moment, he would get through it. It didn't matter how far up shit creek he was, Quatre just never gave up. He was the antithesis of a quitter and she owed it to him not to be one either. It was the least she could do.

"Give 'em Hell, my friend, as only you can."