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The Eccedentesiast

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When people meet Frank Fontaine, they’re quick to tell him one of several things: that he’s twisted, that he’s arrogant, or that he’s a bastard. Sometimes they do away with the “one” and just call him all three at once, one long and cobbled-together insult: you twisted, arrogant bastard. Fontaine would be lying if he said it didn’t make him smile-- because in his experience, throwing around words with the intent to hurt is a surefire sign that someone is getting scared. And that, inevitably, means he’s won.

As Atlas, though… as Atlas, it’s different.

“We have to fall back!”

He lifts his head up over a barricade long enough to make out silhouettes through the dust-thickened air. Long enough, also, for Ryan’s men to catch sight of the movement and open fire. He narrowly misses catching a bullet in the forehead and curses wildly, heart thundering in his chest.

The man at his side-- hardly a man, really, and more a boy trying to be one-- hisses through his teeth at the harsh zing of bullets over their heads. He moves to repeat himself, face turned beseechingly to his leader. 

Atlas doesn’t give him the chance. “Like Hell we’re givin’ up now,” he grits out. “We go anywhere, and we’re as good as dead.” With steady hands, he reloads his rifle and takes stock of his munitions. Perilously low, all of them: bullets, rounds, grenades. The silence where there had once been crackling electricity and billowing flame lets him know they’re running out of Eve hypos, too. 

Lord, does giving up right now seem like the easy way out-- but Atlas knows better than anyone that turning tail to Andrew Ryan is a surefire way to end up dead.

After all-- in another life, he did.

“We wait for reinforcements,” he says. “We’ve sent for them. We know they’re comin’.” When he turns, the eyes that meet his are like the blank, awed stare of a fish. For a moment the boy seems to forget himself.

(Atlas nearly does the same, faced with all that devotion. Blind trust grates on his already flayed nerves.)

“If our position changes, it’ll be at my say-so. Tell the others. Now.” 

The order comes out harsher than he’d intended, but at least it snaps his follower back to attention. He scrambles away nearly on all fours, gun clutched to his chest, head low to avoid the line of fire.

With a final snap of metal against metal, Atlas readies his weapon. The Lord hates a quitter, he tells himself as he starts off in the opposite direction.

Things are far, far worse than he’s seen them in a long while. He hadn’t expected the civil war to go down easy-- not with all of them trapped at the bottom of the sea, practically waiting to kill or be killed-- but the recent escalation is something else. Artemis Suites has been abandoned by the rich; Hestia Chambers is full of the bodies of Rapture’s poorest citizens left to rot. Only his headquarters remain in any sort of habitable condition, and only just. 

Apollo Square itself is a no man’s land of cobblestone and leaking pipes. He steps gingerly over one such puddle, remembering how he’d seen a man fried by Electrobolt while merely ankle-deep in water. The smell had been unbearable. 

Grimacing, he tucks himself behind another barricade and dares another glance. Still the same: Ryan’s men lined up like a firing squad, ready to pick off whoever shows their face first. 

With a group this small-- merely a scouting crew, meant to forage for supplies, not fight-- it won’t be long before they’re wiped out entirely.

His slow crawl across the front lines brings him to another small cluster of his followers. One of them turns as he approaches, and even in the distance he can make out the dark, jagged scars twisting her face.

“Sir!” she calls. “What should we do?” 

“Wait. It’s all we can do.”

Unnerved by his answer, Diane bites her lip and raises her head to peer across the vacant street at their foes. A shot or two goes off, but they miss by a mile. She lowers herself carefully, jaw tight. She’s favoring her right leg. 

Atlas wants nothing more than to ignore the possibility that he may lose another foot soldier in this fight, but he forces his expression to gentle nonetheless. “How are we lookin’?”

“Not too great, sir,” she admits. “Johnny got skimmed by a few bullets, but Pearson’s got a nasty burn from some a’ that Incinerate. All the way up his shooting arm, too. We’re not in much of a position to retaliate.”

As he looks down the line of haggard faces, Atlas knows she’s right. Diane is dim in a lot of ways, but she has a knack for understanding the real gut feeling of a situation-- for knowing the way the wind might blow next. He expects it’s from her past but recent brushes with misfortune. They’ve hardened her; in some ways, he can admire that. For someone who’s hardly worked a day in her life, who’s hardly had a thing to fight for, she’s become a fine revolutionary. 

If only any of that meant something with them backed, quite literally, into a corner. 

Their backs aren’t facing the street, which prevents an ambush, but they are trapped in one of Apollo Square’s many smaller courtyards, once the atriums of towering apartment complexes. Now, they’re nothing but crumbling stone. There’s not a way he can think of that will break them through the line of Ryan’s security personnel. Not until help arrives. 

Atlas grits his teeth. The king is in check. Why had he even bothered to come on this fucking raid?

(He knows why. The man of the people, of course, would have no qualms about lowering himself to their level. Agreeing to the raid-- his first in many, many weeks-- had been as thoughtless as breathing. He fits so neatly into this skin now that it almost unsettles him.)

The silence stretches on, and on, and on. No one dares to speak until spoken to, and with nowhere else to turn, they all remain crouched in hiding like game from a huntsman. 

The silence stretches on-- until it doesn’t.

It starts beneath their feet. A slow, lumbering sound vibrates through the cobblestone like the distant thud of some great hammer. As it grows closer, it also grows in strength; Atlas has to force himself to relax, or risk biting clean through his tongue. He readies his weapon and hears his followers do the same.

Lifting his head even a hairsbreadth over their cover tells him all he needs to know. Through the ambient fog of Rapture’s streets, he sees the glowing light of a porthole.

“Big Daddy!” Someone shouts far off to their left. Atlas resists the urge to shout back for them to be quiet, because of course it’s one of those hulking monsters. Their luck has been rotten so far; why should it change now? They can only hope that no one aggravates it as it makes its rounds. 

He watches closely as the creature passes through no man’s land like it’s parting the Red Sea. No one dares to move. It stops, ponderous, and observes its surroundings with a detached sort of interest. At least it’s without a Sister; it may be more docile that way.

But then, as he watches a figure moves to join the Big Daddy-- someone from Ryan’s side. The man is dwarfed by it, but somehow seems unfazed, even as he rests a glowing palm on the armored diving suit. 

Yellow light gives way to green gives way to red. Something in the pit of Atlas’s stomach drops. His instincts kick in before he even fully reaches an understanding, and he screams, “Move!” 

The lot of them barely make it out of the way in time before a grenade hits the barricades with a deafening explosion. Someone behind him is thrown from their feet, someone else stops to help, but Atlas keeps moving. If he’s to get any of them out of this alive, he can’t look back. 

For the briefest moment, he remembers one revolutionary being carried in weeks ago, stomach gored by the telltale pattern of a drill bit. Piteous wails had filled the air when they’d tried to cauterize the wound with Incinerate. Despite everyone’s best efforts, the man had died in little over an hour. 

Atlas had been there to help the whole time. Sticking to his script of the bleeding heart hero, he’d gripped that white-knuckled hand tightly and told the man that everything would be alright, and that he would live, and that Atlas was proud.

For the briefest moment, Atlas remembers the feeling of blood caked under his nails, nose so full of the metallic scent that his eyes had begun to water.

(In the present, his stomach clenches tight at the memory, and resolutely, he ignores it.)

They make it back to the rest of their group within a few terrifying, floundering moments. Atlas doesn’t even bother to stop; he tells them again, “Fuckin’ move!” and they fall into line as he leads them deeper into the atrium. Now that a war of attrition is off the table, their next best bet is to hide. Luckily, the forest of concrete pillars provides enough cover for them to at least avoid an immediate, unfortunate demise. 

Together they huddle in a distant corner. Everyone is nursing wounds, eyes rimmed in white-- and like clockwork, all those eyes turn to Atlas.

He avoids it all deftly by turning to find the Big Daddy. Its location is easy to pinpoint, at the very least, but it’s searching for them with all the vitriol such masses of metal and flesh can muster. The room’s layout has gotten it confused, but it won’t be for long. 

As it passes by the central column, its lights flickering over the gilded gold of the apartments’ elevator, Atlas makes a decision-- albeit reluctantly.

“This ain’t gonna be easy,” he mutters.

“Tell us what we need to do,” Diane says. A chorus of agreement accompanies her words. 

Everyone listens in rapt attention as he explains his plan. Though they seem just as skeptical as he is, no one bothers to lift a finger in protest. It’s their only shot; even without Atlas saying so, they can figure out as much.

“Alright, then?” he asks. Again, a chorus of agreement, this time accompanied by the click of gunmetal and a few remaining sparks of plasmid.

“Drinks on me if we get out of this,” says one of the men-- Pearson, he thinks.

Atlas smiles. To his own surprise, the expression feels genuine. “Cheers,” he calls back, before rising to his feet.

They break off again into two smaller groups and move along the room’s perimeter. A deep, sonorous sound echoes off the walls, sinking deep into Atlas’s bones; the Big Daddy has found its target. Immediately, the group to the right returns fire, shots pockmarking the pillars. Another bellow lets them know that someone has hit their mark.

 Atlas tears himself away from the sight of lightning forking through the murky darkness. Focus. His group needs to move while they have a chance.

Keeping to the left, they make it around the central pillar without much trouble. Diane remains at his side the whole time, as does the boy he’d spoken to earlier, along with several others. The paneling of the elevator seems to be still intact: although tarnished, it lights up when Atlas presses shaking fingers to its buttons. 

He knows the code-- after all, it wouldn’t do to forget the keys to his own home.

Of course, he can’t use the code. Too many questions tied to info like that. Instead, he fits his nails into the groove of the panel and says, “Diane?”

The woman reaches forward wordlessly, fingers curled. When she clenches them in a fist, a thrumming sound fills the air, like someone blowing over the rim of an empty bottle. The glinting metal in Atlas’s hands crumples inwards as its screws loosen and fall to the floor. 

“Well done,” he tells her, and catches the barest hint of an abashed smile before he turns back to his work.

Hotwiring has never been one of his strong suits, but one doesn’t get far in Rapture’s civil war without learning how to recognize the blue wires from the red ones-- so to speak. It’s not quite that simple. Regardless, he finds the bits he needs and slices them open with the ruined paneling, pressing them together and searching for a spark. 

“How long’s that gonna take, sir?” says one of the other men. He’s peering around the pillar, watching the fight with the Big Daddy closely.

“As long as it bloody has to,” Atlas snaps. The man’s name escapes him-- Wilson? Williams? Fuck if he can remember with all the shouting and gunfire and blood pounding in his ears.

“S-Sorry, sir, I just don’t know how long the others can--”

If Atlas had been superstitious at all, he would’ve called those words a jinx. They’re cut off by the sound of another explosion. Someone screams and then, abruptly, stops. The Big Daddy makes a sound like a wounded bull, and it’s accompanied by a crumbling of stone so incredibly loud that it may as well be an avalanche.

“They took out a pillar!” 

“How are they gonna clear that to reach us?”

Everyone moves to look, watching the scene unfold with bated breath-- all except for Atlas. If things are only getting worse, he’d damn well better make use of every opening he’s got. 

With one hand, he presses the wires back into their rightful places, ignoring the sting of electricity at his fingertips. With the other, he quickly enters the code and watches the tiny screen light up in confirmation. “Got it!” he shouts. 

A ripple travels through the group as their attention is drawn back to him. “Come on,” he hisses. “Stop gawkin' and get the fuck in. We don’t have much time!”

Those who can, comply; the elevator is painfully small, with only enough room to carry maybe three people at a time. Diane goes up first, along with two others. Atlas is left with the two men remaining and the creeping dread that their group is about to become much, much smaller.

“They’re coming over the rubble, sir!”

This time, Atlas allows himself the distraction. He moves to Williams’ side and watches the second group pick their way through the dust-choked air. His breath catches in his throat as he realizes they’re one person short. 

Pearson reaches him first, face and shooting arm raw and weeping from his burns. “Sir,” he gasps out, “we got in as many shots as we could, but those things are tough bastards-- The pillar was Campbell’s idea, and he--”

“He did what he saw fit.” Atlas lays a hand on Pearson’s good shoulder, directing him towards the open doors. “Don’t let it go to waste.”

Harsh, maybe, but they’re not out of the clear yet. That much, everyone understands. Pearson gives him a resolute nod before climbing into the elevator with the two other remaining members of his group, both of them looking no less than shell-shocked. 

No sooner do the doors close than a light cuts through the darkness to their left, bathing the floor in crimson. That glowing porthole looms over them like an all-seeing eye. With a slow turn of its massive head, the Big Daddy catches sight of them. 

No one has time to speak before it raises its rivet gun and fires. 

Those remaining scatter in an attempt to make themselves smaller targets. Somehow, Atlas manages to flatten himself against the elevator doors as the bolt whistles past. There’s a crunch, and a scream, and a body is thrown backwards. 

It all happens so quickly that he doesn’t immediately register the boy’s absence at his side.

“James!”

Before Atlas can think to stop him, Williams goes running to the boy’s side, plasmid arm at the ready. Blue light fills the space and the Big Daddy halts in its tracks as electricity courses through its body. Enough to buy them a few precious seconds.

“Atlas!” Williams has the boy-- James-- held tight to his side, struggling to support the extra weight. He looks to his leader like a man on the gallows. “Please!” he calls.

(And here, again, the skin he wears begins to unsettle him. Because Atlas does not think twice.)

He comes to their aid with arms outstretched. “Give him here, quick.” James is practically a deadweight, but has enough sense to throw an arm over Atlas’s shoulders, legs shaking and near limp beneath him. 

Together, they manage to support the boy and cross the few remaining feet to the elevator. Heart beating hard against their ribs, they watch the Big Daddy stutter back into movement just as the doors close. Silence settles over them in a great, smothering blanket.

“Thank you, sir.” 

Atlas grits his teeth. Anger fills his gut, thick and molten, but he doesn’t know who it’s for-- these men, or himself. “Save it for when this is over,” he replies.

Williams ignores him. “I wanted to… to make sure he wouldn’t die alone.” 

“No one said anything about dying.”

It’s a lie, and both of them know it. Plenty has been said about dying-- just not with words. Their expressions, their tones, the ginger grip they have on the boy between them. The open discussion of his fate, even as his glassy and unfocused eyes rove over them both. If anything at all is certain, it is death.

When the elevator doors open to the foyer of Fontaine’s home, it’s like stepping into a half-forgotten memory. Busy as he is helping to carry James into the waiting arms of their remaining comrades, part of his mind is distracted. He can’t pinpoint the last time he was here.

Had everything always been so gilded? It must’ve been. He designed the place, after all. But then why does it all feel so--

“How bad is it?” 

Diane looks between him and James and Williams with wide, teardrop eyes, and Atlas has to disguise his scowl. “Not good,” he mutters. Atlas, like Fontaine, is not one to mince his words. “But we’ll do our best.”

Everyone flits around them nervously as they lower James to sit against one of the bookshelves full of old, waterlogged tomes. As gentle as they are with him, his breath still leaves him in a pained hiss as he’s moved. His glassy eyes are like marbles set into his skull. Atlas finds himself having to look away. 

Pearson, their resident medical expert, kneels down at the boy’s side. “Rivet through the left lung,” he says after a moment of careful inspection. “Definitely collapsed.” When he looks up at Atlas, his gaze seems loud in the tense quiet. “We’ll have to leave it in. All we can do for now is find somethin’ for the pain.”

Atlas nods. Clinical information is easier to swallow, even with a human life attached. “Anyone have anything on ‘em?” he asks. There are a few shakes of heads, the patting of pockets followed by quiet denials. “Then we’ll have to hunt for supplies here. There’s gotta be somethin’ of use; this place has been untouched for a dog’s age.”

All but Pearson disperse into pairs or walk off on their own. It’s a big place, and they need all the help they can get to pick it over efficiently. William lingers a bit longer, but when even Atlas moves away to join the search, he’s quick to follow suit. He joins Diane’s group of two and disappear up the central staircase to the right. 

Not a moment later, the silence is shattered by the deafening ring of gunfire.

Atlas abandons the materials he’d scrounged up in the kitchen and sprints out into the main area, taking the stairs two at a time. His pistol is already in his hand by the time he sidesteps into the upper sitting room. The gunfire, however, has ceased.

“Turret!” comes the shout. Diane’s head appears from around the doorframe across the room. “We took it out!” 

It takes a monumental effort to force himself to relax. The footsteps of several others come up behind him.

“Alright?” Pearson calls over Atlas’s shoulder.

“Mostly! Aitken was glanced.”

Now that the coast is clear, they all cross the room and pass through into the corridor. There sits the deadened turret, with Diane, Williams, and Aitken all standing over it, looking shaken. Aitken is clutching his bicep, whiter than a ghost.

“Just a knick,” he says through gritted teeth. “Hurts like a bitch though.”

A cursory check by Pearson confirms the injury is no more than surface level, and those who’d run upstairs to deal with the commotion soon disperse. Atlas remains behind. He steps aside to let Diane and Williams pass on their way back to scour the sitting room.  

Rubbing a hand over his face, he's suddenly, distinctly aware of the headache pounding away behind his brow. Christ, but he’s tired. “Let’s try not to set off any more surprises, shall we?” he says.

“Sure, boss.” Aitken straightens up, flexing his newly bandaged arm. “S’not like I’m trying t’start shit.”

“Course not. Just be a little more careful-- there’s bound to be all sorts of security set up in here.”

“Right.”

Atlas starts off in the opposite direction as the others, towards the balcony that overlooks the foyer. Just as he passes through the doorway, however, Aitkens calls after him. 

“You think Fontaine was smart, havin’ all this in his own place?”

Atlas stops. It takes what feels like far, far too long to formulate an answer and force it from his mouth. “I think,” he says, “that Fontaine was paranoid. Nothin' more.”

A brief but welcome silence eclipses him as he crosses the balcony alone. Outside the window far to his right, he catches glimpses of fish and seaweed and God knows what else-- monstrous creatures not unlike the ADAM slug that had gotten them all into this mess. There’s an eerie light to their movement, even this far beneath the waves. Atlas finds it strangely comforting.

His old office is at the end of this hall. If there’s anything valuable left after Ryan’s men had finished with it, that would be the place.

(And maybe-- just maybe-- part of him hopes that it’ll be easier, there. To remember.) 

His reflection distorts over the frosted glass that divides the office from the corridor. Through it, he sees a smudge of color in a vaguely human shape. Had someone gone ahead without him noticing? But once he steps inside, the source of the apparition becomes clear.

A framed portrait hanging on the wall, the light above it casting an eerie glow on the faces therein.

He doesn't look closely at it right away. Instead, he crosses the room to his old desk. It's bare save for a few loose papers, coated in a layer of dust that, at another time, would have caused him a spark of irritation. Atlas browses them with a careful eye. He doubts there's anything incriminating left behind; if there had been once, it would've been revealed long ago. A connection between the revolutionary hero Atlas and the infamous Frank Fontaine? It would have been a shitshow.

Jesus, how much planning this new life had taken. The surgery, the accent, the faked death-- those were the major components, sure. But he's sorely sorry he won't ever be able to share the nuances of the rest of it. How he trained himself to become, quite entirely, someone else.

He smokes less now, and drinks more. He's changed the shape of his smile. The pitch of his laugh is different, the tone of his anger, the sound of his sadness. Fontaine had never once allowed himself a nervous habit, but Atlas bites his nails to the quick and jimmies his legs and never stops moving. Now he catches himself fidgeting constantly-- even when there's no one there to fool but himself.

This isn't a problem of course, Fontaine knows. In the longest, most complex of cons, going off script even while alone can be damning. Who's to say he won't do the same again, and this time in company? Such worries lurk in the back of his mind each and every day. He regards them carefully but keeps them at arm's length.

(That is, except for when he is vulnerable. At night, he sometimes dreams of slipping out of his brogue, the transition so smooth that he doesn't notice until it's too late; until his followers have heard the truth; until Frank Fontaine's voice is coming out of Atlas's perfect mouth, and just like that, everything is lost.)

This isn't a problem of course, Fontaine tells himself. The longest cons, after all, are always the hardest.

It’s with a slow, inward sigh that he finishes his once-over of the office and turns finally to the portrait. First, there is himself-- only different. A mustache, no hair, no cleft chin. His jaw is wider, his cheekbones less defined. He’s in a Prussian blue suit, a shade he’d been rather fond of and worn quite often. He’s not exactly smiling, but his expression isn’t stoic or somber, either. A smudge of gold paint on his left hand indicates the presence of a ring. 

Then, there are the other two people: a woman and a child. Something about them is wholly insignificant, yet in a way that makes them seem all the more human. 

Moira and Patrick, he notes, looking at each of them in turn. 

And then he stops. 

Because… no. That can’t be right. Moira and Patrick are--

Very abruptly, Atlas finds it hard to breathe in the stuffy, confined space of this damnable office. Something prickling and cold works its way up his spine until it reaches his nape, making the hairs there stand on end. His fists clench and he feels his nails bite crescents into the meat of his palms.

Moira and Patrick do not exist. They are a figment, a story to tell his followers, aye, I’ve got a family meself, they’re somewhere safe. I want them to see the sunlight again. 

Frank Fontaine does not have a family. Not in Rapture, not on the surface. This portrait, too, is a figment. Who had he hired to paint it, and had they been silenced? Or had he told some lie to explain his need for it? 

Had he even bothered to give them names?

“Atlas?”

He nearly jumps out of his skin at the sound of Diane’s voice. “Jesus Christ,” he snaps, “Don’t sneak up on me like that. Understand?”

As he lowers one hand from his pistol-- and the other from his hammering heart-- Diane shrinks away, thoroughly chastised. “Sorry, m’sorry! I-I just. You were gone for awhile, and we finished in the other room so I…” Teeth catching on her bottom lip, her eyes dart around the room as though trying to avoid looking at the sun.

And that’s when she sees the portrait.

“Oh, God. It’s Fontaine, isn’t it?”

Of bloody course it is, Atlas thinks angrily. Who the fuck else would it be? But he steps aside as she moves closer, head tilted in quiet contemplation. 

“I didn’t know he had a family,” she remarks. 

Atlas shakes his head. “Nor did I.” He’s still trying, and failing, to relax the ramrod length of his spine.

Both of them are silent for a moment. For someone so often dim, Diane’s scrutiny in particular has always made his skin crawl. Her moments of brilliance are surprising and often profound. The longer they stand here together-- motionless and alone with their thoughts-- the more he worries that some part of her must know. 

But then Diane turns to him, and her smile shows her lack of understanding, and Atlas knows he is safe.

“Don’t know a woman alive who’d’ve wanted to marry Fontaine,” she says wryly. She tosses her head in the direction of the portrait. “She must’ve been some lady.”

Coming from the broad who bedded Andrew Ryan, he wants to say. Instead, he replies, “Aye, if that ain’t the truth.” And he leaves it at that.

To his relief, they’re quick to wrap things up and leave the office, carrying the few items of interest they’ve discovered. The whole group has gathered in the foyer once more with their own finds. It’s a good haul: several med kits, plenty of alcohol, and even-- to his surprise-- an EVE hypo. He supposes he must’ve kept it around as a last resort in case things went wrong.

(Fontaine hadn’t spliced; that much he is still sure of. )

“We’ll set him up with bandages and booze,” says Pearson. “But he’s fading fast.”

James looks like death itself. The ambient light of the ocean casts his pale skin in a ghostly light, drawing attention to the slack darkness of his open mouth and half-lidded eyes. Every breath that leaves him is labored. His hands, limp at his sides, twitch as though longing to reach for something that none of them can see. 

When Pearson casts him a grim look, Atlas only nods. Won’t be long now. 

No one dares to leave the boy alone then. They stand together, watching, shifting their weight, averting their eyes when they begin to feel too guilty for watching. Some of them step away to give him some modicum of privacy. Williams remains close to James, speaking to him in hushed tones that Atlas cannot hear from where he stands. 

How do they know each other, again? he asks himself. It’s with some slow-brewing surprise, and perhaps some fresh guilt, that he realizes he has no idea. His following has grown so much in the recent months, even weeks-- some of even his innermost circle still feel like a face in the crowd. 

The same cannot be said, however, for how they feel about him.

“Atlas, he’s wanting to talk to you.”

Atlas takes a deep breath to steel himself, lets it out slow as he crouches down beside James. Those eyes turn to him and seem, for the first time in several long minutes, to actually focus on the present.

“Sir, I-I wanted to let you know--” A wracking cough disrupts his sentence and pitches him forward. Both Atlas and Williams throw an arm out to support him, careful not to jostle the bolt sunk deep in his chest.

“Careful, now,” Atlas finds himself saying. “Don’t make it any worse for yourself.”

James actually laughs at that. With one arm pressed against the boy’s stomach, Atlas can feel the way his breath leaves him in harsh, crackling gasps. “With respect, sir,” he says, “I dunno if it can get any worse.” 

It always can, kid. It always can. But Atlas just smiles. It’s grim, and probably not all that reassuring, but James still lists into him like he’s got some kind of magnetic pull, and all of a sudden, the smile makes his teeth ache. He doesn’t stop. 

“James is your given name, isn’t it? What’s your family name?”

“Headley, sir.” 

“Do you have family anywhere, James Headley?”

“Not that I know of, sir.” Another cough, this time suppressed. “Da was killed back during the riots. Dunno where my Ma or sister are. Could still be alive.”

“Well, if they are, we’ll try our best to find ‘em. Pass on whatever you’d like to say.”

James shakes his head. “I’m not sure if you’ll be able to, sir,” he says. It’s not spoken with vitriol, or even any real remorse. It’s simply a statement of fact-- and that, in some ways, makes it more unsettlingly real.

A sensation starts up in Atlas’s chest, claws its way up into his throat, like the burn of a hot coal. He replies, “Can’t know for sure if we don’t try, boyo.” Awkwardly, he pats the limp shoulder before him. A mimicry of a parent consoling their child. “That’s all we’ve got goin’ for us, if we want to win this war.”

What little strength James had saved up for their conversation faded quickly. By now, he is all but insensate, but when he’s propped back up against the cold, hard walls of Fontaine’s home, his gaze manages to lift itself to his leader once more.

“If anyone can free Rapture from her chains, it’ll be you, sir.” He smiles, and his teeth are lined in red. “Atlas.”

(I can’t, I can’t, part of him wants to say. Perhaps the part of him that is Atlas.)

After that, James falls silent. Williams is the one to close his eyes. 

Time passes too slowly and yet too quickly all at once. There’s a brief period of mourning, akin to the kind they allow themselves in a firefight: short, but no less meaningful. Then everyone settles in to wait. The quiet pushes inwards, closer and closer, until Atlas feels as though he’s suffocating. He smokes half a pack of cigarettes-- his good ones too, left over from their topside rations-- in the time it takes them to get any sign of movement from beyond the apartment. 

Runner crew, can you hear us? We’ve made it through the barricade but we can’t find you!

Life seems to return to the whole group as the transmission echoes all the way to the rafters. The reinforcements are here. Atlas fumbles with the radio at his hip in his haste to answer. 

“Yeah, yeah, you’re loud an’ clear! We had to lock ourselves up in Fontaine’s office, Artemis Suites. Should be just past where you got our initial call. There’s a Protector in the area too, so look lively.”

Understood. We’ll wait here and watch your back as you come down. How many?

Atlas pauses. He glances around at the faces of those remaining, drawn and sober. “Eight total,” he replies. They’d started the mission with twelve. 

The elevator moves laboriously down, up, down again, diminishing their numbers in a painful fashion. Atlas’s group is the last to leave. Though he’s relieved to be free of their temporary prison, his nerves spike as he turns his back on the gold and mahogany and dark, dark ocean waters. The smooth slide of the doors as they close is like a sentencing.

When he reaches the ground floor, a chorus of voices meet him. After that, it’s easy to smile, if a bit tiredly; and to forget that which, mere hours ago, he had wanted so much to remember. 

As they make their way slowly back towards Apollo Square, they split into two groups: one to continue onwards, and another to loot what’s left from the standoff. The idea is Diane’s suggestion. “I figure we could use whatever that Big Daddy is carrying,” she tells him. Atlas agrees, equal parts interested in the potential payoff and eager to place some distance between them. Their short interaction in Fontaine’s place still lingers in the back of his mind. 

Maybe he’d been right, when he answered Aitken’s question. Maybe he really has become paranoid.

He returns to their headquarters in Fontaine’s Home for the Poor. Those that join him are quick to disperse, heading towards threadbare mattresses or the med bay or the few working showers they still have left. Atlas, for his part, climbs the several flights of stairs to his office and shuts the door firmly behind him.

“Thank Christ,” he mutters. Already a massive weight seems to lift from his shoulders now that he’s alone. It quiets his mind, too, lets him focus more on the actual, practical implications of their mission. He takes a seat at his desk and winces when his joints pop from the movement. He’s tired, and he aches, his body nothing more than live wire and barbed fence.

They’d lost several good men-- useful men. 

(In the back of his mind, he hears a voice echo from between bloody incisors: If anyone can free Rapture from her chains, it’ll be you, sir. It’s almost too loud for him to drown out, but he manages. He always does.)

They’re lucky they didn’t lose more, with the situation they’d gotten themselves into. His jaw tightens when he thinks of how things might’ve ended if he’d been captured-- or worse, killed. The chains he’s kept such a tight rein on would have slipped from his hands, easy as breathing. 

He rests his elbows on his desk, his head in his palm. When he glances up, he meets his own eyes across the room: one of his many propaganda posters, staring impassively back at him. 

There are no actual eyes there though. Just holes, deep and dark, where the eyes ought to be. 

Staring into those pools, it’s all too easy to drift silently into sleep.

 

The prison bars before him shine even in the darkness-- slivers of silver, thin knives waiting to rend. Through them, out in the echoing space of Persephone’s walls, he hears voices. 

“Really lucky that we caught him in all that mess.” 

“No shit. I told Macready that Big Daddy plasmid was no good-- too reckless.”

“It’s not like we needed the rest of his crew alive too.” 

“Suppose.” There’s the jingle of keys, slowly approaching. “Would’ve been nice to have leverage.” 

“Yeah, yeah. Honestly, I’m glad that thing took out the lot of ‘em, just so we wouldn’t have to. Slimy bastards always manage to slip away.” 

Atlas cranes his head to try to see the guards, but when he moves, his vision blurs and blooms in bright shades of red and purple and white. He winces and squeezes his eyes shut to block it all out. A concussion, maybe? As he shifts in place, flashes of pain are accompanied by the brittle grind of bone against bone.

Teeth grit, he stops moving altogether, barely daring to breathe. He’s seated in a chair in the center of his cell. His hands are shackled tight to the armrests, cold metal biting into his wrists.

“Alright there, hero?”

A bright light suddenly flares up outside his cell. Atlas squints into it and sees two guards staring back at him. One holds his hand aloft, alight with Incinerate; the other rests his hand carefully on the grip of his pistol. Both watch him with a strange, discordant mix of apathy and antipathy. 

“I’ve been better,” Atlas rasps. 

The one with the flame-- the one who’d spoken first-- sneers at him. “Reinforcements aren’t comin’, if that’s why you’re bein’ so funny about all this.”

The other guard gives his companion an accusatory glance. Then he says, “We are here to offer you a bargain, though.” 

Atlas frowns. A bargain? “You sure you’re Ryan’s men? Cause he ain’t the sort to make any concessions.”

The second guard nods. “We need a confession,” he explains.

“Because you’re Fontaine, aren’t you?” continues the first.

It’s said so matter-of-factly, so casually, that Atlas almost forgets to deny it. “Like bloody hell I am.” He hopes the words sound offended enough for their liking. “Where’d you get that from, anyhow?”

“It’s nothing I’ve ever heard,” the second guard sniffs, once again looking to his partner.

“I have,” says the first. “All kinds a’ people are sayin’ it. You may think you’re hidin’ it well, but if you look close enough, it’s all rather convenient, isn’t it?”

“What is?”

“Well, this whole Atlas thing.” Flame dances in the air as the guard gestures up and down, a grandiose motion. “What, Fontaine kicks the bucket and, right then, without promptin’, you show up?”

Atlas shifts again, this time welcoming the pain of it. Pain forces him to focus. “And?” he challenges. “There’s no such thing as without promptin’, not in this city. You don’t think Ryan and Fontaine’s dispute is what forced my hand?”

“The catalyst,” adds the second guard, “to make people feel like they had to do something for themselves.”

“Right. Exactly.” Awfully helpful for someone lookin’ for a confession, Atlas thinks, but he’s quick to accept it regardless.

The first guard scowls. “Yeah, yeah. But if you aren’t Fontaine, then what’s in it for you? Some warm, fuzzy feeling?”

“You do have your family to look out for, isn’t that right?” adds the second.

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s right.” Something settles uneasily in Atlas’s gut. “A wife an’ son.”

“Moira and Patrick,” says the first guard, almost singsong, like he can recognize the falsehood in that even just from the names alone. “So, you doin’ this for them, are you, Atlas?”

“And your followers’ families?” asks the second eagerly. “Are you doing this for them, as well?”

Atlas looks from one man to the other. Their eager eyes set his teeth on edge, but it’s not as though he has a choice but to answer. Silence is a confession here. “Of course,” he replies. “Who else would I be doin’ this for, if not for them?”

Seemingly satisfied, the second guard nods. The first, however, does not.

“See,” he starts, “I don’t buy it. Anyone can say somethin’ like that and not really mean it.” There’s a click as the man fits his key into the lock and steps into the cell. The shadows around them skitter to the corners as his flame moves closer. Atlas can feel the fingers of its warmth now.

“You need to prove it, is what I think,” the guard says. “Prove you’re a parasite, if you’re dead set on callin’ yourself such.”

And before anyone can protest, the flame is spreading to both his hands and he’s pressing them, palms down, against Atlas’s shackles.

The heat takes a moment to eat through the metal and reach his skin. Long before it does, though, the anticipation of it is almost excruciating enough on its own. Atlas can hear his pulse thrumming in his ears as he watches silver morph into yellow, then orange, then red. 

That’s when the real pain starts.

“Now.” Close as they are, Atlas can hardly avoid the gaze of the guard. It bores into him, nearly as painful as the white-hot burn at his wrists. “Tell me. Are you Fontaine?”

Atlas takes a deep, shuddering, seething breath. “No. M’not.” 

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” 

The guard’s eyes narrow. “I don’t believe you.” 

“No fucking shit!” Atlas leans forward, trying to intimidate, but to no avail. Instead, the new position presses delicate skin closer to searing metal, and this time, he can’t stop the pained wheeze that escapes from between his teeth. 

“I believe you.” It’s the second guard, now at his side as well. His tone is soothing, and there’s pity behind his words-- in some ways, that makes them all the more painful to hear. 

“Then you’re as much a fool as he is,” snaps the first.

“No,” his partner replies. “After all, who else would persevere like this, if not a man with a clean conscience?”

“A clean conscience, huh.” Atlas’s head is bowed now, so he doesn’t see the mocking smile on the first guard’s face, but he can hear it loud and clear. “You hear that, Atlas?” he’s asked. “You got a clean conscience?”

When he parts his lips to take a ragged breath, his jaw aches as it’s loosened. Has he chipped any of his teeth? Has he lost the use of his hands? He flexes them, and all he gets for his efforts is a flare of pain so searing that he nearly loses consciousness altogether. The smell of burning flesh seeps into the air and makes his eyes water. He shakes his head, firmly, once.

“‘Course not. Because what’s clean about using human lives as collateral?” says the first guard.

Again, Atlas shakes his head. “N-No, I--” 

“You haven’t thought of them as collateral in some time, have you?” says the second.

“No!” he gasps out. “Wh-What… What else d’you want t’hear?!” 

“That you’re Fontaine,” says the first, just as the second says, “That you’re not.”

The hands encircling his shackles now suddenly enclose his bare wrists, skin against skin. Agony blinds him. His confession is torn from him in an instant: “I am!” 

Silence. He’s left to convulse under the pain for another few slow, torturous moments, until finally-- finally-- the hands retreat. The next breath Atlas draws is sickly sweet and reverberates tenfold against the walls of his cell. 

“I don’t believe you,” the second guard says. He sounds betrayed somehow, even as his companion’s scowl reorders itself into a smile.

“I’ll prove it,” Atlas says, desperate to please, even as his guilt and shame threatens to choke him. 

“Alright.” The first guard gestures impatiently. “Go on then.” 

He opens his mouth. Sure to enunciate carefully, recalling an accent he has tried so hard to scrub from his brain, he speaks: “I am Frank Fontaine.”

It is said with the voice of Atlas.

The first guard laughs, cold and cruel, and says, “Sure, you are. But Frank Fontaine is dead.”

 

Atlas wakes and narrowly misses braining himself on the edge of his desk. His heart is beating wildly against his ribs. There’s a gummy sensation pervading his mouth; he runs his tongue over his teeth, grimacing, blinking the grit from his eyes. 

Just a dream, he tells himself firmly. But unlike any other dream he’s had, recalling it only makes it more clear in his mind’s eye. Part of him is ashamed to admit that, for a second, he nearly checks his wrists for the burns he imagines so vividly to be there.

And all of a sudden, the thought of remaining himself-- remaining Atlas-- becomes unbearable.

His chair scrapes loud, shrill grooves against the floorboards as he stands abruptly and moves to a safe situated in the corner. Inside lies a stack of audio diaries. Most are already numbered, all of them bearing dates from no sooner than two years ago. It’s been hard to find time to record any; he’s never alone anymore, it seems.

One of the tapes towards the back remains blank. He returns to his desk with it, situates it on the warm wood and steadies himself with a slow inhale.

The door is closed. No one will bother him. The surface of his skin itches like it wants to molt.

He presses the record button on the tape and says, “Never play a man for the short con when you can play ‘em for the long one.” 

Longer vowels, fewer consonants. Lower pitch, with words thick on his tongue instead of high and clear like his lilt. For the first time in years, Fontaine’s voice leaves his mouth and he feels right again.

(Only, not quite. It’s less like he’s removed a skin, and more like he’s added a second.)

“Atlas is the longest con of all,” he tells the tape. 

(Only, not quite. It’s less like a con and more like-- he doesn’t know.)

“It was simple, really,” he says, with all the false modesty of someone implying that it was very much not, “because I gave Rapture what she wanted. Gave Ryan what he wanted. Fontaine dead, and a new scapegoat to pin all his fear mongering on. The face of the revolution and the face of the parasite-- two birds with one stone.

“The Atlas persona is working well. The new face, the clean record-- all of it. No one suspects a thing. With the war on now, it’s only a matter of time before Rapture falls and she’s--”

“Atlas?”

His veins turn to ice.

Even in the split second before he turns, he knows what he will see. Diane is standing there, just as she had back in that office-- that fucking office-- and watching him with eyes rimmed round in white. The door is already closed behind her. The stunned silence tells him all he needs to know.

“M-Mrs. McClintock--” Stupid, he thinks, stupid, he never calls her that, who the fuck does he think he’s fooling-- “ah, what’re you doin’ here?”

For a moment, it seems like Diane is going to turn a blind eye. How harsh a reality must it be, after all, to learn that her hero is anything but? That not hours ago she had been alone with a man notorious for the disappearance of his dissenters?

Just as she is now.

For a moment, it seems like this mishap will pass them by. But then again, perhaps that is simply too much to hope for.

“Atlas,” Diane repeats. His name splinters under the weight of her realization. “Atlas, y-you’re--”

“Hold on now,” he finds himself saying-- too loud, too rehearsed. All the syllables sit wrong in his mouth. “Let me just… turn this off.” The click of the tape punctuates his sentence and turns it sinister, even before he moves, slowly, to stand. 

Diane only watches. Her blank expression is at odds with every rigid line of her body.

“You were saying?” Atlas asks her. 

Nothing, at first. Then: “You’re Fontaine, aren’t you.”

It feels strange, hearing it from another person’s mouth. “I am.”

“And you-- a-all this time, we thought you were--”

“I was what? The voice of the people?” He lets his lilt melt away again, and God, this time it feels wrong, but he can’t bring himself to stop now . “The workingman’s hero? The liberator?” He laughs. It’s a mere shadow of its old sound, but there’s a gruffness to it, a smokiness, that he hasn’t heard in a long, long time. He tells her, “People sure are easy to fool when you feed ‘em lies they already believe.”

“And what about you?”

Atlas stops when they’re a mere foot apart. Up this close, he can see the slow but shuddering rise and fall of Diane’s breathing. She’s pale beneath her scars. It’s the look of game that’s trying not to bolt, all too aware of the eyes of the hunter.

“What about me?” he says simply-- even as part of him already understands her meaning.

“Do you believe any of it?”

How badly, in that moment, does Atlas want to feed her yet another lie. To tell her no, and laugh, and sneer at how naïve they’d all been to trust him. It would be so easy. 

Yet Diane is so often the chisel to his carefully constructed façade. What mere hours ago felt easy as breathing is now a monumental task. And this time, when he reaches for that place from where all lies are born, he finds none.

All he finds is the truth.

He isn’t quite sure how it happens, but when he blinks next, his fingers are around Diane’s throat. 

He’s squeezing, squeezing, and she struggles panic-stricken in his grasp, mouth wide in a silent scream, nails scraping skin from his wrists and leave them bloody. Her eyes are blue, he realizes. Filled with tears, they reflect the room’s warm light until they seem aflame, and he watches them dart downwards a split second before he realizes what’s going to happen. 

She lets go of him. She reaches for the knife Atlas knows she keeps strapped to her thigh. When she brings it up, aiming for his gut, his hand is already there waiting. 

It’s a simple, practiced movement to grip her by the wrist and turn that blade back on its wielder.

The noise Diane makes as the cool steel slides into her is quiet. Nothing like the scream of someone rent by a drill, or the gurgling, choking, frothing of a lung pierced by a bolt. It’s understated, and if he hadn’t been listening so carefully for it, he doubts he would’ve heard it at all. Diane’s eyes grow impossibly wider as the pain rolls through her and she realizes what has happened.

How long it’s been since he’s killed someone like this, intimate in a way that feels almost too cruel. Atlas imagines what she must see in him now: the face of someone she’s come to trust, twisted until it’s unrecognizable and alien.

Life bleeds from Diane slowly, slowly, and then all at once, she is limp in his arms, held close to his chest like a partner in a dance. Atlas can feel her blood, hot and tacky but already beginning to cool. It seeps between his fingers and into his shirt. Carefully, he lowers her to the ground, then takes one, two steps back. Her blank eyes seem to follow his movement in the lowlight. 

For a moment, Atlas only stands there. Then reality comes rushing up to meet him, and self-preservation rears its ugly head. 

“Someone come quick!” he shouts.

The call is answered quickly by the sound of doors opening, footsteps approaching, and mere moments later he’s surrounded by at least ten of his followers-- and counting. Gasps of horror and muttered curses and quiet exclamations run like ripples through the group. Is everything okay, there’s so much blood, is that Diane, is she dead?

“Let me through, let me through--” Pearson pushes his way to the front of the crowd, alerted to the commotion even from the med bay one floor below. His arms and shirt cuffs are still smattered in blood from their raid. From James. 

He stops in front of Atlas, Diane’s body between them. “Jesus Almighty.” His eyes, and countless others, turn to their leader. He asks, “What the hell happened?” 

Later, Atlas will remember how this time, the lie comes to him almost too easily. He will stare up at his bedroom ceiling, counting the cracks in chipping plaster, and wonder just what switch it is inside him that flips. What stays his hand sometimes, and what others, does not. 

(Eventually, he will suss out the answer: it’s not that he’s Fontaine, exactly-- but he isn’t quite Atlas, either.)

In the present, he shakes his head slowly, still frozen in place. He doesn’t need to fake the slack-jawed look on his face, nor the way his hands tremble at his sides, nor the uneven timbre to his voice. “She came to my door,” he says. “Said she needed to talk to me about-- about the mission. And then, she just.” His eyes catch a glimpse of flashing silver dipped in red. “She had a knife.”

“And she came after you, just like that?”

Atlas looks down. Diane’s eyes watch him still, almost accusatory. “She used to be Ryan’s bird. Did any of you know that?” A murmur of surprise answers his question, and so he continues. “She didn’t say much,” he says, “but I don’t doubt it had somethin’ to do with that bastard. Might’ve still answered to him, even.”

More murmuring. Pearson, though clearly shaken by the thought, nods in agreement. “Old loyalties are hard to shake,” he replies, his face grim.

“Traitorous bitch!” shouts someone from the crowd. 

A brief, shocked silence follows the outburst-- and on its heels, there is a deluge.

“So she didn’t believe in the cause, did she?”

“After all Atlas has done for us!”

“It’s what she deserved!”

“And Ryan calls us the parasites!”

“Death to Ryan!”

For as long as he’s lived, Atlas has understood the fickle cruelty of humanity. But faced with it now, as men and women alike turn on their once-ally like birds to carrion… 

“Good thing you’re quicker on the draw, eh, Atlas?”

He blinks, looks up again. In the midst of the angry shouting and raised fists, Pearson is looking at him with a truly wry smile. Like that of a man sharing a joke at the expense of someone lesser. 

And even as Atlas’s stomach roils in disgust-- at himself, at all those surrounding him, at this entire goddamn worthless city-- he smiles right back.

“Suppose so,” he replies. “Or maybe I’m just one lucky bastard, is all.”