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It was pitch black and freezing when he blearily opened his eyes, already shivering, instinctively flinching at the groans and whimpers beside him. He couldn't pinpoint why his room suddenly felt so dark, cold...terrifying. But with a jolt of realization, Roman swiveled to his side on his bed, finding his brother, curled up and tangled in the blankets, trembling and jerking. Roman placed a hand on his shoulder and shook him slightly, but he was unresponsive. He was finally recalling how he welcomed his brother to his room to sleep—perchance to dream, instead of having nightmares. But his idea seemingly failed.

"Remus?" Roman whispered. The heavy lull and the pleasant paradise of his dreams were slipping away. He hated when that happened, but it almost never did. Until tonight. Roman realized there was fear curdling in his stomach, and he shivered again. "Remus," he tried again, voice barely above a whisper, and jostled him once more. 

Remus yelped, thrumming with terror. Roman hadn't seen him like this decades ago. Then again, it was the first night in years that Roman offered his room to him.

"Don't hurt me," Remus slurred, voice thick with tears. Roman shook his shoulder again, beginning to feel helpless, losing his voice. He didn't wish to scare Remus into waking. Remus never slept, always too enthusiastic or anxious to even consider lying down. 

But then he screeched.

Roman convulsed, felt his room warp, his insides twisted, and before he could think, he was on top of Remus, gripping his shoulders tightly and jostling them violently. "It's a nightmare, Remus! Wake up!"

Remus gasped heavily, convulsing one last time, before staring above at Roman, through unfocused, haunted eyes. He shriveled under Roman, eyes becoming animalistic and ferocious. But then he shoved Roman off with the force of a truck.

Roman yelped before the air was stolen from him as he crashed onto the freezing floor below. He gasped, swallowing oxygen through the pain, and shivered when it froze him to the core. He didn't know Remus could have so much power here. He forced himself to sit up, to see Remus grinning, eyes unhinged, a long knife in his hand.

"You're not hurting me again," he singsonged, trembling every few seconds. "I left my prison, remember?"

"W-w-what—" Roman sputtered, crawling backwards, but Remus was already over him, knife at his throat, free hand pushing against Roman's shoulder. He winced as a sharp pain shot through his arm. Words died on his throat—all he could do was stare at Remus' maddened, bloodshot eyes as his grin widened, pushing his palm deeper upon his shoulder. Roman cried out, searched desperately for words. "B-brother—h-hey, hey, Remus, please—please, p-please don't do this—I don't know what's going on!"

Remus faltered for a second. But then Roman felt warmth slithering down his throat, the acrid smell of iron wafting to his nostrils. Remus giggled at the sight of blood. "You won't fool me!" he raved. "You'll pay for it, dear brother!"

"Pay for what?!" Roman screamed, tears springing to his lashes as he tried to blink as quickly as he could. "Remus, it's me, it's me!"

Remus scowled, eyes dark with wrath. 

"I-I'm not going to harm you," Roman pleaded, voice trembling—but a sickening crack interrupted him. He furrowed his brows, holding his breath...but then wailed as agony rushed to him with a vengeance. His shoulder—his shoulder was—was fractured? Dislocated? He was going to be murdered here by his own brother, with his haunting, deranged eyes. He could feel his bloodstream slowing in the freezing atmosphere, the beginnings of cinders concentrating at the base of his wheezing lungs.

"Prove it, then," Remus growled, pulling Roman against him until they were inches apart, twisting his shoulder behind his back until tears freely streamed down Roman's face. He sobbed, but Remus' glare was ablaze, leaving Roman to sob harsher in terror. "Prove you're my brother, you bastard."

His breath hitched and betrayed him, but he breathed the first words that came to his frazzled mind. "I-I—I l-love you…"

Remus' eyes widened, and Roman collapsed to the floor, no longer held up nor pushed down. He lay there, gasping, quivering, expecting more pain, but it didn't come.

He heard a whimper. Then hyperventilating. Then a sob. But he couldn't register them.

"Deceit!" 

The screech was so far away. Roman marveled at the ashes above him, levitating lazily in the air. They were so serene.

His head was moved, the beautiful sight blocked by a cold, brown iris and a terrified yellow one. He was soon cradled, and he buried himself in the warmth, until he was let go. He now lay somewhere else—not freezing, nor hard. A bed, his mind slowly supplied. But he craved the warmth again. The pain was faded, he couldn't feel his skin crawling anymore—he felt like he floated in an endless ocean. His head lolled to the side, twisting on its own to see Remus, embracing his knees, curled up in the corner of the now stifling room, shadowed by the curtains and increasing inky darkness.

"I swear," he heard distantly, the words out of sync from the trembling lips Roman saw moving. "I swear it was him. I didn't know—"

"Oh, of course you didn't." This voice was so cold, so mocking. Clothed hands were gently scouring his shoulder, and he groaned, the pain being the only thing crashing through his numbness. His eyes flickered to the face above him. It was bitter, but his left eye was haunted, serpent pupil dilated.

He glanced back to the corner of the room in the distance. Tears brimmed in his brother's eyes, one spilled down one cheek. Roman's fingers twitched, but it hurt. He wished to caress the tears away. "It was dark and cold again," Remus whispered, but the voice kept rising and rising until it was a desperate shout. "He was over me again. He was gonna hurt me again!"

"You're not there anymore, Remus!" Roman flinched at the sudden shout, saw Deceit clenching his eyes shut, then swiveling towards Remus, his voice venomous. "You can't just keep hurting everyone else because you're stuck in there! Get it through your thick head!"

Remus was on his feet in a flash, rage distorting his features. "Well, maybe if you try being stuck there for twenty-two fucking years, you'll understand!" he spat, tears now freely streaming down his face.

"Hey...what's going on?"

Deceit subtly rubbed the left side of his face, looking away to hide it from Remus and the visitor's view, but Roman saw how only that side crumpled. Roman shifted his head, hissing as his shoulder screamed at him with the movement, and saw Patton's tired, uncertain...scared features in the doorway.

"I swear I didn't mean to hurt him," sobbed Remus, shrinking back even further into the corner under the newcomer's gaze, pupils overshadowing his brown irises, hunching over. Roman felt a growl in his ears, almost as if inside his mind, echoing all around. He shuddered, closing his eyes to push it away. He opened them, but he still sensed something monstrous breathing here.

Patton's brow screwed up in worry. He quickly entered the room, beginning to shiver, and gasped when his widened eyes landed on Roman. 

Roman tried to smile. He hated seeing Patton like this. He tried to think of words of comfort—or warning, there was something here—to no avail.

"He's in shock," Deceit stated indifferently, cold eyes on Roman only, almost pointedly avoiding Patton altogether. "It happened too fast. I couldn't get here in time."

Patton's breath shuddered, and he gulped. "What happened?" The question was met with unbearable silence, save for the beast curling in the air, behind the curtains, in Roman's head. "...Maybe Logan will know how t—?"

"No," both Deceit and Remus snapped in unison, one impassively, the other desperately. "I'll just take Remus with me," continued Deceit. He finally looked at Patton, emotionally paradoxical eyes dragging to meet the fatherly side's, but the emotions were being slowly buried. Roman marveled at the transformation in them, in his features. "Roman must be reacting badly to his presence, and…" He trailed off, looking at the falling ashes, and then at Patton when he shivered again. "...All of this."

Remus hugged his arms tightly, staring at the floor. Roman's throat constricted. He felt an urge to reach out to his brother's throat wet cheek and strangle stroke it.

"Can't you...snap him out of it?" Patton asked tentatively. Roman could tell that he struggled to keep his face as accepting as possible, but fear edged into his voice, his eyes.

Deceit sighed, staring at Roman again. Only Roman could see the uncertainty in one eye. "I can. Just get him out of here." 

Remus flinched at that, but before Patton could nervously place his quivering hand on his shoulder, Remus bolted out of the room. Patton remained frozen in surprise, but then sighed and promptly left the room, calling out for the other as quietly as he could.

There was a hand on his healthy shoulder, and Roman's eyes fluttered closed at the gentle warmth of it. 

"Roman, I don't need you to look at me."

He furrowed his brows. After a beat, he settled on the belief that it was a lie, and forced his heavy eyelids to open. His vision was blurry, but he focused on Deceit above him. "Hey," he whispered numbly, noticing the empathy on both of the other's eyes. But it quickly disappeared.

"It isn't real." Deceit's voice was a mix of vulnerable and bitter. "The wound, the cold, the dark—none of it is real. You need to ignore the voices and thoughts in your head, they're not yours yet."

Roman nodded, not understanding at all.

"You're not really lucky you weren't in Remus' room. The corruption there is bearable." Roman listened with as rapt attention as he could muster, but still couldn't understand, his mind unable to sift from the truth and the lies—everything just felt frightening, but his core instinctively pushed the fear away. He focused on the way Deceit's brow furrowed, how his eyes contrasted each other in any way imaginable, on the dark bruise of exhaustion painting the skin around his lemon iris, on the scales covering the scars that couldn't be seen from far away, on the smooth balance of his voice that cracked whenever he didn't lie to him. Anything that wasn't the laughter and screams in the room.

"Do you hear them too?" he whimpered, holding on tight to the hand on his shoulder, grounding himself.

Deceit shook his head, but he avoided eye contact, only for the flicker of a second. "I don't hear anything. Because it isn't real."

"Which one is the lie?" Roman breathed out.

"Neither," he bit out. "It isn't real. Listen to me, Roman. Your brother did this. Not on purpose, but he did. Which means the terrors are as real as the monsters under your bed."

Roman hummed noncommittally, closing his eyes. He was so tired. The flashes of blood and screams made him shudder, but he couldn't open his eyes again.

"Sleep terribly, Roman," he vaguely heard. The warmth lingered on his quivering, freezing shoulder, even after the gentle pressure left.

He saw Remus smiling. A real smile, dorky and wide. He was a child with bruises, cuts, dirt, and wild hair, but he laughed. Not a shrill, hysterical one. A childish, free one. He seemed so young and mischievous, innocence shining through the shameful things he'd think. Roman felt himself smile back.

 


 

Remus bit his fist, drawing blood, vainly attempting to muffle his sobs, hidden under the musty covers of the dusty, abandoned bed. He loved and hated his room, with the weapons taunting him and the ashes racing around him, the crimson lightning somewhere in his vision. Yet it was still his, and it held a semblance of humanity for him. 

But he was so foolish to have a semblance of hope. Hope that the damn prison and its games and flashbacks would leave him alone. Hope that time, and the comfort of his brother and his room would bury the nightmares away. But nothing seemed to work. And...

He tortured his brother.

He tortured his brother.

He clenched his eyes shut, cursing Deceit with a thick voice. He was a monster because of him. Perhaps if Deceit knew what that felt like—

A knock resounded in the stifling room, louder than the storm. Was it raging in his room or in his head?

It must've been Deceit. He wasn't sure if he would see rage, guilt, exhaustion, or just a lie in his face. But he needed the company anyway. And Deceit was always best in handling him. He buried the rage that had built and scorched for too long, forced himself to think of all the things he did for him—his health, his nutrition, his freedom. It was always so ironic.

"Come in," he mumbled, and the old, unused door creaked open. He wearily pulled the covers from over him and looked at the door.

Perturbed eyes peered through the small crack in the entrance, until the newcomer hesitantly opened it slightly further. Remus blinked. It was Virgil. He was hunched over, one hand stuck to the doorknob, the other's nails between his teeth. "Sorry. Couldn't sleep."

Remus snickered emptily. "Because of me?"

Virgil paused. Then nodded.

Remus beckoned him, shifting his position to sitting cross-legged on the bed, leaning against the cold wall. The ashes still raced, but the storm wasn't here—it crashed with thunder and lightning beyond the window, or perhaps in his head. Virgil looked around the room as he entered, at the peeling emerald paint, the voodoo dolls, the thriller and horror book and movie collection, the blood and dirt specking surfaces cloaked with dust. Nostalgia was prominent in his eyes. 

"Disheartening, isn't it?" mumbled Remus, ignoring the echoes of Roman's frightened pleads and screams in his mind, following Virgil's line of sight.

Virgil sighed heavily, like life drained from the single breath. It was answer enough. He sat beside Remus, pulling his knees to his chest. Remus realized, in the vicinity to the other, that Virgil's hands were trembling, though he tried to control it by opening and closing them. Remus recognized that used to be his brother's tick. When that was no use, he settled on scratching the skin on his palms. Remus' tick.

"Why my room?" Remus grinned, not sure what to do with the wretched silence and the crushing weight on his shoulders. 

Virgil glanced at him. "I guess you just...understand," he muttered, his eyes now filled with frustration. "The others wouldn't."

Remus twirled his fingers around a whip that floated near his hand, tilting his head more than necessary. "Is this a classic game of telepathy?"

"No!" yelped Virgil, startling a foot away. "You are not getting inside my head again!"

"Well then!" derided Remus with too much cheer, eyes wide with Deceit's form of enthusiasm. "How about we practice some clarity? Much more boring, huh, Virgil?"

Virgil glared, but relented after a beat of silence. "What happened over there?" The quivering of his hands spread to his arms, his torso, until he seemed to tremble from his very core. "Why was Ro screaming?"

Remus laughed breathlessly, until they edged into cackles. He should've known Virgil didn't want his company. Roman was the perfect brother, after all. He was the wanted one, not Remus. "You know, just some good old games!"

"I thought you were better!" cried out Virgil, gesturing madly at him.

"So did I!" Virgil flinched heavily at the demonic corruption in Remus' voice. "I thought it wouldn't follow me to the ends of the Earth, persecuting me and cutting me up every fucking time I close my eyes—" He gasped for breath, feeling so, so cold. "But it does!" His voice was on the edge of breaking. "But nobody sees it—it's my mind that's lacerated." He laughed to bury the sob fighting to tear up his throat, indifferent to the indescribable emotion in Virgil's wide irises. "And I thought that the damn murderer would leave alone for one night, because he hoped that his room could protect me!" He cackled harder. It was hilarious. Hope was the greatest joke in history!

A hand landed on his arm, and he snatched it away as if burned. Virgil retracted his hand, but hesitantly tried again. His eyes were...full of something. "What...happened there? What happened with you and Roman?"

Remus inwardly cursed himself when his grin fell. "Or did I?" he whispered.

Virgil couldn't withhold his gasp, his face screwing up in actual pain. "D-don't tell me—"

"I swear on the worst two decades on my life, it was him." He choked out a sob. "But then it wasn't."

"Holy shit." Virgil stared at his own trembling hand in shock, and inched closer to Remus, avoiding eye contact. Remus stiffened once Virgil leaned his head on the other's shoulder. "Yeah… That's why you understand, and no one else."

"Understand what?" laughed Remus disbelievingly.

"Seeing him."

Remus felt his own features twist in confusion as he looked down at Virgil, who stared at the weapons and the perhaps imaginary storm, entranced. Remus pulled him tighter against him. Deceit couldn't handle three days here, but Virgil could barely handle hours. "You still see him?"

"Of course I do." Exhaustion bled into Virgil's voice. "You cursed me ten years ago, and it lives on in my nightmares. On particularly bad days, I can see him by only entering my room." 

Remus shook his head. "How—why?"

"It's called trauma, dumbass. I just thought you handled it better 'cause you aren't...me."

Remus held Virgil even tighter, his throat and chest constricting. The memories all returned, of a young, paranoid Virgil, with a small, buried hope—that everyone but Dee and Remus couldn't be trusted—shining through. Until a time came when willing visits became rare, reluctant ones—until he came only after Deceit distantly screamed at him that he couldn't handle this alone anymore. Until he never came again, no matter what, and no matter how much Dee lied that he would.

Remus still remembered vividly the last time he came, ten years ago. The horror, the blood, him.

Remus dug the heels of his palms onto his eyes. The whispers that he was a monster, the disgust and the fear in their eyes, everything returned, as if he was back to a damned eight-year-old all over again.

"You know that feeling that—" Virgil's voice caught, but he tried again, effectively cutting off the unwelcome thoughts beginning to scream in Remus' head. "That feeling, where you really wanna let go of something, or maybe just...accept it...forgive it, but you can't?"

Remus nodded, smiling emptily at the blood dripping down the wall. 

"Well…" Virgil shifted closer, his eyes never leaving the exact spot in the wall, the one where all the blood was accumulating. "I always wanted to stop seeing Ro like...like that. And maybe to…" He sighed, but then silence encompassed them again. Remus merely hummed a tune off-key to chase it away.

Remus was tempted to reach in, hear all the whispers in Virgil's mind, the end of that sentence, but stopped himself. His own mind was enough. For now, the sentence would go unfinished. Perhaps forever.

They remained like that, holding on to each other, enraptured in the one thing that seemingly couldn't stop clawing at them, no matter the years. Deceit never entered, but Remus heard his heart beating, heard his pacing, like he always did to convince himself Deceit was alive, and that Remus wasn't alone.

At least he still had those two things.

 


 

Roman woke gasping for breath, the dregs of horror tunneling his vision. He heard dark, sinister laughter echo around him, and the full-size, golden, embellished mirror showed black eyes and a bloody, Cheshire grin in his reflection. He blinked, and it was gone. Roman remained there, embracing himself, avoiding the mirror, feeling the crushing weight of loneliness and...something else. The cackle was gone, and the remainder of the nightmare finally left his reality. He sighed heavily and lay back down, fighting the tears in his eyes.

What happened yesterday? What did he even dream just now?

Why was he so afraid?

He tossed to his side, seeing that it was 10:45 am on the golden clock on the wall, noticing the sun rays escaping through the curtains for the first time. He curled up, sighing again. He wasn't sure why he felt so heavy and wrong, especially in his room of all places. Perhaps he just didn't sleep well. He'd get up when Thomas needed him.

"Roman?"

Curses. If it was Logan's voice…

"Can I come in?"

"Sure, nerd," he moaned dramatically, not in the mood to feign grace. He was still wracking his head to find the cause of this helplessness, his sudden aversion to the mirror, and the strange sighting there.

As he heard the door click open, Roman's eyes widened.

Of course.

Remus.

He sat up again, wiping his brows from sweat, glancing to the empty side of the bed, where only tousled and twisted blankets remained as evidence of who lay there, seeing the drops of blood on the floor, watching to see if Remus was merely in the bathroom. But it was pure silence in here. He was nowhere to be found. He couldn't for the life of him remember what happened.

"Good morning," greeted Logan, nearing him with that efficient stride that Roman always wished to improve his own gait with. "I assume you remember the events from last night?"

Roman furrowed his brow, shaking his head. "I can't."

Logan raised his eyebrows. He hummed, as if it wasn't nearly a problem, and sat beside him. But his forehead creased as he gave Roman a once-over. "You seem unwell, Roman."

"What happened last night?" asked Roman, not keen on responding to Logan's topic.

Logan adjusted his glasses, giving him another once-over. "I have only second-hand evidence. Patton told me what he saw of the aftermath about something we both missed. I was expecting that you would clear some inconsistencies."

Roman closed his eyes, but his head was already pounding from the repeated attempts to recall. "I-I just know I had a nightmare, but I can't even remember what it even was."

Logan sighed. "It's alright. Let's only hope Remus, or even Deceit, are cooperative."

Something cleared. He remembered a lemon-colored iris, haunted. "Wait—I don't think either wanted you to know."

Logan raised an eyebrow, a flicker of anger at the mere thought of being left out flashing in his eyes. "And why is that?"

Roman shrugged, and silence reigned for a beat. "Do I need to come out, or do I have time to sleep in?"

"You've already come out, Roman," Logan groaned. Roman giggled in surprise. "You've also already slept in, therefore you only have one alternative."

"Is this your way of using my own logic against me?" he asked, snickering.

"Yes." A ghost of a smile lifted his lips as he stood from the bed, already picking up abandoned pillows on the floor and organizing the covers. "My plan was successful. Now get up, there's much work to do."

Roman groaned, but stood. However, as soon as he did, the sensation of a cold metal cutting his throat beleaguered him, and his shoulder began screaming in anguish. His legs buckled under him, his surroundings faded to grey—flashes of a deranged, too wide, too white, too crimson grin were all he could see—

And then it was all gone in the blink of an eye, and now all Roman could see was Logan's perplexed gaze as he held his chin up, slowly lowering him to the floor and allowing him to rest his head on Logan's lap. Roman couldn't help the relief to be held by Logan, saving him from crashing to the floor—but the urge to weep was becoming increasingly tempting. "Roman, can you hear me?"

Roman nodded, realizing he was whimpering, shivering in Logan's steady hold. "I think I remember," Roman whispered. 

I linger in the doorway

Of alarm clocks screaming—

Monsters calling my name

Worry bled into Logan's eyes the second the words left Roman's lips. 

"I think he thought I was an impostor." 

Blubbering, hyperventilating, freezing—

Roman squeezed his eyes shut.

Let me stay!

Where the wind will whisper to me

Where the raindrops, as they're falling

Tell a story

Prove it, then. Prove you're my brother, you bastard.

"Roman, I need you to stay with me." Logan wiped away the new tears he hadn't even noticed streaming down his cheeks, his temples. "What happened?"

"He attacked me, I-I don't know why, b-but…" He breathed heavily, too many memories coming to his head at once. "He made it sound like I was going to hurt him." He sobbed, holding onto Logan's arms like a lifeline. "I didn't want to hurt him, he was just having a bad dream, I swear—"

"I believe you, Roman. It's alright." Logan's eyes weren't convincing. "I'll help you solve this. We'll just have to speak with Remus—"

"Don't question him! N-not yet." Roman took a shaky breath. "You didn't see how remorseful he appeared tonight, after everything. Just...just give him time. It'll fade eventually."

Logan shook his head. He opened his mouth.

"It has to," Roman pressed.

Logan remained quiet, glancing at the floor, tilting his head to think. "I'll appease you for now, until the situation abates."

Roman smiled in relief, forcefully pushing the too vivid nightmare away. "I thank you, Logan."

 


 

"Kiddos!" Remus heard in the distance, snapping him out from his obsessive thoughts about the...incident, yesterday. "Dinner's ready!"

Remus craned his neck backwards, using his uncanny flexibility to the max to see into the kitchen from the couch of the Mindscape commons from an inverted perspective. He was still sweaty from the heat here, but he'd take even a hundred degrees over the cold from...home.

Patton and Logan left the kitchen, preparing the dinner table and setting the plates. Patton flinched at the sight of Remus, then laughed awkwardly. "Jeez, kiddo, you surprised me there." He paused when Remus didn't move, grinning at an upside down Patton. "Isn't that a bit uncomfortable, kiddo?"

Remus tilted his head, and it cracked. Patton flinched harsher, his smile almost falling. "Nope!" Remus replied.

Logan put a steady hand on Patton's shoulder. It seemed to awaken the latter from his trance, and he smiled sheepishly before he set the last plates on their respective spots.

Remus swiveled around to hang over the back of the couch, and reverted his head back to its normal position, squinting to see if he saw it right. Six plates. Six. Oh Hell.

He and Dee were eating with them today.

He turned around and shrunk in the couch. The thought of seeing his brother immediately brought back the thoughts that were shaken away by Patton's sudden call, and a certain feeling of endlessly falling. It would be a great challenge to eat today. He wasn't sure how Roman would be faring, how he actually dealt with his...corruption, after so long. Only Dee and Virgil dealt with that, and only Dee could actually deal with it for longer periods of time.

Perhaps he should just skip the whole ordeal. 

"Remus."

He jumped, a shuriken already in his palm, but he imagined it away at the sight of Logan. Remus liked Logan's gaze most. It was always indifferent to whatever the others would be scared about. Right now, it seemed curious. "Are you alright?"

Remus nodded, smiling perplexedly.

Logan nodded, though he seemed slightly amused by the lie. "Can you notify the others to come eat?"

Remus blinked. Oh well. Maybe he could get Virgil to look for Roman. He grinned widely. "Sure! Though I'm too busy with ideas to be hungry."

Logan tisked. "I would appreciate to use that excuse as well, but Patton would be upset by it."

Upset? He saw a flash of the fear in Patton's eyes. It hadn't particularly left, not after last night. "Why?"

"It would be our first meal together." Logan shrugged stiffly. "In two decades. You could comprehend why he is enthusiastic about the whole ordeal."

Remus squinted again, resting his chin in his perspiring palm. "And what of you?"

Logan sighed, adjusting his glasses and tie, but he broke eye contact. "It would be more than satisfactory that we understand each other. To avoid the...errors I've—we've made."

Remus giggled disbelievingly. "Oh, honey! You're the second highest in my list of esteem. You're fine. Consider that, since you're a walking algorithm!"

Logan sighed deeply through his nose, crossing his arms. "I'm not sure what I'm supposed to decipher from the dichotomy of your sentences."

Remus shrugged.

"Hey, kiddos, I get this conversation is fun and all," Patton nervously cut in, "but if Virge and Dee had it their way, they'd never come."

"You'll get Roman, I'll get the other two!" he yelled, and bolted to Virgil's room. He crashed the door open.

"Jesus!" Virgil cried out, ready to throw the phone in his hand. He deflated when he registered it was Remus. "Look, just because we spent the night being insomniacs in your room doesn't mean I gave you permission to give me heart attacks."

"It was fun!" said Remus, already pulling a tense Virgil by the arms. "Dinner's ready!" he sang.

"Not hungry," Virgil mumbled.

"Same! But apparently Patton really wants to see us eat." He gasped dramatically, then dropped his voice to a playful whisper. "Do you think it's a kink?"

Virgil deadpanned, slightly repulsed. "Do me a favor to never mention that again."

Remus threw his head back and groaned. "I can't do anything around you guys." He still yanked Virgil along, who stumbled with the force. "We're still eating, so—"

"Wait, where're we going?" Virgil interrupted, voice increasing in pitch with every word.

Remus stopped short, blinked. He was in the Dark Mindscape already. "Right, it's not here. Dee's here, though, right?"

"How should I know?" 

Right on cue, Deceit almost passed by them, eyes glued to the book in his hands. He stopped in his tracks and looked up, cold gaze lingering on Virgil. "And what do I owe this visit?"

"Patton's calling us all to eat," Virgil summarized, shrugging.

"Isn't that wonderful?!" Remus raved, though bile rose up his throat at the memory of his screaming brother. No, he couldn't see him today.

Deceit paused for more than five seconds, almost as if he malfunctioned. "I definitely understood that perfectly," he drawled, eyes already reading whatever philosophies he obsessed over.

"I'm serious, Dee. Remus came to get me." 

"Well, that was quite the genius joke to pull, Remus!" Deceit mocked, glancing with wide, artificial eyes at him, only to continue reading. Something twisted in Remus' stomach.

"That's…" he tried to smile, but the energy suddenly escaped him. "That's not a funny joke."

Virgil rolled his eyes, bitterness pooling in his eyes in an instant. "Well, Duke, if your jokes were ever funny, then my name isn't Virgil." He sighed. "Dee, just come with us. This place really sucks to stay in."

Virgil pointedly avoided mentioning the fact that he'd stayed here for almost a full night.

Dee sighed, never fully turning to look at them, his scales and yellow eye out of Remus' sight. His voice held the same bitterness Virgil's eyes did, but Remus knew there was something else there in the voice. "I suppose it isn't a useless gesture. Fine, I'll come."

"Didn't miss that sarcasm," Virgil muttered as he turned, wrenching his arm from Remus' grip and striding out the hallway. Remus followed, a skip in his step, eyes fixed over his shoulder to see Deceit skimming the book, walking behind him.

Remus was a terrible liar. But an idea was blooming in his mind, welcome among the growing chaos he consistently dismissed. He stopped short, almost allowing Deceit to crash into him before he froze in his step. "Hey, Dee, can you tell them I can't eat because I'm sick or something?"

Deceit raised his eyebrow. "You're serious?" 

"Yep!"

Deceit paused again. "So, this wasn't a lie to get me out of here." It was not even a question.

Remus scratched his cheek a little too violently, relishing in the pain for a few seconds, but then he imagined Roman's pain when he dislocated his shoulder. His thoughts wouldn't shut up. "Nope, Patton actually wants us there."

Deceit threw his head back to laugh incredulously. He wheezed and smirked sarcastically at Remus. "Now that isn't funny."

Remus giggled, but for him it really wasn't. It was a dream come true for him, to spend time together like so, so long ago, without anything holding them back, or imprisoning them. But it was merely...too good to be true. And he could imagine the terror and rage in Roman's eyes if they saw each other today. 

"If I am to eat there today, so will you," stated Deceit, as if it were the most obvious statement in the world.

"I'd imagine you're more welcome after my stunt yesterday!" It was so easy to ignore the sickness in his gut with a smile. Deceit must've cursed him with that. 

Deceit placed a theatrical hand on his chest, feigning too sweet innocence. "Well, I surely played no part nor caused any of your stunts, of course!" 

"Guys, oh my God." Virgil was leaning on the wall right before the corner, rubbing his forehead in frustration.

"In a minute, Virgil," called Deceit, mirroring the same amount of annoyance in Virgil's voice. He deadpanned at Remus. "You're coming with me."

Remus let out a strained, high-pitched "Yay!" He then allowed to be led by Virgil's grip this time.

 


 

Roman didn't feel all that hungry. 

He remembered another similar day seemingly so long ago, when Virgil was barely accepted to be in their company at all times: sirloin before him, but something deep in his soul forbidding him to enjoy it. That day, years ago, he was used to not remembering his brother, save for those glorious, nostalgic dreams when they played together that intruded his deep sleep. He simply thought Remus hated to see them all. That Remus adored the darkness, and never his brother's light.

If he thought those days, when he felt like a failure, a poor excuse for a Knight and a Prince, as the heaviest, most frightening of his life, he couldn't have been more wrong.

Remus fidgeted in front of him in his own seat, equally repulsed by the steak before him, not once looking in his brother's general area, pointedly ignoring his stare by commenting something about blowjobs, to which Patton choked on the water he was currently drinking.

Roman didn't know why he felt so present, yet so far. He only wished for the nightmares from last night to cease beleaguering him. 

He chose to look at Deceit, who almost incessantly brushed his gloved hand over his scars and scales, disinterested as he played with the meal, eyes glued to the book on his lap.

"Hey, Dee," Virgil mumbled beside him. "Think you can survive without reading that."

Deceit sighed, finally looking up, but not at Virgil, spreading out the hand that balanced his chin to cover his cheek, features clearly irritated. "Well, this isn't awkward."

Virgil rolled his eyes. Remus stared at Deceit with a hidden, deep-seated rancor. No shit, Sherlock; why do you think I asked you to lie?

Roman startled, the fork and knife slipping from his fingers, clattering onto the plate, and eyes landed on him instantly. He held out a placating hand, smiling gracefully, picking the cutlery once more with slightly quivering hands. "Forgive me, it was nothing." The others remained staring a second longer, before they reluctantly returned to Deceit, who barely furrowed his brows, boring his gaze into Roman's soul. Roman tried to hold the smile, feeling his breath tremble within his lungs. Why did he keep having these thoughts?

In truth, this wasn't the first day in which he encountered these disturbing rarities—they were only worsening. The urge to conjure a knife had been electrifying his whole right arm days ago, but he ignored it as best he could. Nightmares were few and far in between since a week ago, when before they were basically non-existent, but yesterday… He wished that was the end of that.

The worst part was not knowing what was real and what wasn't. What was his and what wasn't.

In my field of paper flowers

And candy clouds of lullaby

I lie inside myself for hours

And watch my purple sky fly over me

He forced the thoughts out, thinking of Disney movies instead. Halloween was a couple of months away; perhaps he should begin planning his costume for then. Perhaps Prince Hans wasn't so bad—

He shoved a bite of the sirloin into his mouth, chewing to avoid groaning when he thought of imprisoning and killing a certain queen. He immediately coerced his mind to focus on the next movie that came to mind. Tangled, perhaps, where Rapunzel dreamed of freedom and—

The steak tasted like ashes. He chewed slowly, emptying his thoughts, for they all led to the same idea weighing him down and giving him nightmares. The one thing he should've expected all his life instead of what he forced himself to believe. But he felt a stare boring itself into his head, and looked up. A creased brow and fearful, wild eyes met him, but it was all contrasted with a strained, wide smile.

Somehow, Roman knew exactly what his brother was thinking. Because it was what Roman himself was thinking. 

He shook his head, swallowing the bite, proud of himself for not gagging. His mind was constantly betraying him. Is this what it felt like to think like Virgil? He would visit him tonight and keep him company if it were true.

Remus was still staring while Patton's muffled voice attempted to make conversation, but Roman couldn't stare back—the eye contact kept contaminating his thoughts, reminding him of the nightmares, the actual wound on his neck, the pain in his shoulder—but were those real?

"Earth to Roman."

He snapped his head up, seeing that everyone was looking at him again. "Yes?"

"Are you not hungry?" queried Logan beside him, studying him intensely, yet with a serenity he was vastly envious of at the moment. "You've barely eaten."

To make a point of it, Roman brought another bite to his mouth, schooling his features from any revulsion. He was an actor, for God's sake. Patton was on his other side, his hand already reaching out to caress his shoulder. He stiffened, vainly trying to ignore his flaring agony with the single touch. Patton retracted his hand, brow creased as well. Deceit snapped his gaze from Roman to Remus, back again to Roman. He straightened, seemingly forgetting the book completely, subtly furrowing his brows in suspicion once more. 

"I'm fine," Roman said, straining to not sound vexed.

Virgil scoffed. "Yeah, this isn't familiar at all."

His injured shoulder spasmed, but Roman clamped down the urge to strangle him. But he still couldn't help but snap. "Why, you certainly can't mind your own business, can you, you paranoid emo?"

Virgil flinched, his face cracking in a way that a façade would. Roman swore it was a mirror of Deceit's. His stomach twisted sharply. 

Remus' eyes snapped from rage to resentment to guilt, but they never ceased from looking at Roman save to glance at Virgil once. Deceit snapped his gaze to Virgil, left iris betraying worry, the other cool rage. Logan merely stared in surprise, his gaze numb as he observed and analyzed everyone a mile a second.

Patton slowly turned to Roman, his face slack, his eyes disbelieving. Roman's stomach tightened further, crushing his lungs. He really had crossed a line. With one word. "What did you just say?"

"Fuck it." Virgil stood almost too violently, eyes livid, a terrified memory living in them, in the quiver of his lips and shoulders. His voice poisoned Roman's heart. "We should just stop pretending we don't know who I am anyway." He stormed off, not forgetting to flip Roman off as he left.

Roman felt as nauseous as Remus appeared. But no words sprang to mind—no apologies, no pleads, nothing to appease anybody. All he felt was the energy to harm. 

He stood up, the chair screeching behind him, and ran, tripping on the couch's leg, then on the stairs, and locked himself up in his room.

Don't say I'm out of touch 

With this rampant chaos—

Your reality

He covered his mouth with a trembling palm, attempting to conjure puppies, or candy, or royal attire, or a unicorn—but all that came to life in his room were corpses, way too recognizable, even through their rotting flesh, their bloodied clothes, twitching, crawling to him—

He shut his eyes, biting his tongue from screaming. He recognized the once violet hoodie, the ripped, once striped tie, the gory cape, the spiders crawling over a dirty gray hoodie—all wrapped, draped, and tied around festering flesh. 

What was wrong with him?

I know well 

What lies beyond my sleeping refuge

The nightmare

I built my own world to escape

He choked back a sob, sliding down his door, staring at the growing darkness in his room, sensing his skin call out for his brother.

He felt his brother call back.

 


 

Remus had never seen Patton so angry in his life.

Granted, Remus had barely lived one, but still.

Patton was pacing, murmuring to himself how it could've gone so wrong, eyes livid, but there was a palpable weight on his shoulders Remus couldn't ignore. Logan was still seated at the table, hands clasped before his features as he pondered, eyes gazing unseeingly at the wall. Deceit kept reading, his eyes trailing over to Patton, then to the door where both Virgil and Remus' brother left.

Perhaps watching could allow Remus to stop hearing sobbing. Sobbing that resounded from two separate rooms. Or from his own head.

Deceit all too subtly looked at Remus again, but Remus squirmed under the glance. The possibility was almost obvious, but it still couldn't be. Years ago, their connection was torn apart. It was meant to be that way—they were two different coins instead of two sides of one.

But that didn't stop his suddenly very nostalgic and lonely thoughts. He hated them—he wished to taste the bitterness of loathing more than the sweetness of expectation. He shouldn't hope for anything with his brother—he ruined it after all. He was only setting himself up for heartbre—

He shook his head violently and stood from his seat, making sure the screech of the chair got everyone's attention. "How about we do something fun?"

"Not now!" Patton shouted, glaring in disbelief. "Why do you always have terrible timing?"

"Oh, sure, Remus is definitely to blame for all of this," Deceit said, mirroring Patton's rage mockingly, leaning to speak towards Virgil's empty seat for good measure. "Let's just scream at each other until we inevitably solve this."

Remus couldn't explain the spark of anger from merely hearing his voice. Was that sensation his? No—everything was his, never from somewhere else. The question was: was it intrusive? It must've been. Deceit hadn't said anything to cause it.

Logan tilted his head, clearly listening, but clearly still entranced by his thoughts. "Everyone's vulnerable again," he murmured, as if subconsciously. 

"Look, I thought they had it solved for now, at least," whined Patton, looking to the ceiling like in a prayer. "I don't understand what caused this—they were fine! Weren't they, Logan?" He snapped his gaze to said side, who sighed, rubbing his temple.

"You're the emotionally intelligent one, not me."

"Well, we can all agree that the heart is blinded almost constantly, can't we?" Deceit's words were now laced with venom as he played with his nails, but Patton merely glared back, his eyes glazed with tears.

"I asked," said Remus, cheeks hurting from smiling, ignoring the terror in his gut, the screams in his head, "who wants to have fun?" 

"No one," responded Logan calmly, eyeing Patton doubtfully. Deceit grinned triumphantly. Remus always feared when Deceit became this believable. He abruptly felt something beside him, like a presence, turned around—

Empty eye sockets stared back.

He tripped over the chair, collapsed to the floor, crawled backwards, his eyes fixed on him.

He grinned.

Deceit stiffened, his scales and snake eye morphing the victorious façade to that haunted truth that he always wore when he happened. "He's not here, Remus."

Remus whimpered, already trapped by the wall and the wide grin dripping with gore. He hated him so much. "Leave me alone."

"Remus," Deceit repeated, voice wrought with warning. "He's not here."

"Or am I?" Roman tilted his head, his empty stare boring into Remus' soul. Remus shivered, coughing on ashes. Roman's void, too perfect laughter echoed around the cell—the ashes almost coming to life in the thin, pale skin. He was the only light in the pure penumbra, the ivory and crimson of his skin and clothes glinting on its own. He slowly neared, a katana now in his graceful, slender, clawed fingers—

Remus was slapped before he could be stabbed. 

Light tore through Roman until he was gone, and with him, the darkness. No ashes were here, he was perspiring and shaking heavily. The only constant was Deceit and his embittered indifference, his hand still held up high. But he covered his scales and yellow eye with the other, rubbing and scratching.

"I told you," Deceit said, gritting his teeth, "you aren't there anymore. And he never even existed."

Remus couldn't bring himself to feel anything, but he merely clawed at the glove of the hand that covered Deceit's scales, causing him to freeze. But Remus could only emptily grin. It was a curse for both of them, after all. Enjoyment from inspiring pain and fear was almost a requirement to survive in the darkness. His voice was but a whisper, a fun secret between the two. "Does that explain Virgil's scar in his heart?"

Deceit pulled back and raised his hand again, but the rage in both his irises bled to something else. He wrenched his gripped hand away, ripping the glove from the clawed grasp, and stood, avoiding every stare and holding his slightly bared hand tightly against his chest. He snatched the book with his fully gloved hand. The something in his eyes was unreadable, constantly evolving, but it soon settled on one familiar sighting when he strode too quickly away from everyone, thanking them for the meal he didn't eat.

Roman recognized it too, Remus suddenly realized. Roman lived it constantly.

It was the anguish of guilt.

Patton was frozen still, mouth covered by both hands, but once Deceit left, he surged forward as if revived. He kneeled before Remus, hesitated for half a second, and then began shedding silent tears as he pulled the other into a tight embrace. Remus froze up then, but the warmth was something so beautiful.

"I'm sorry." Patton's voice was a thick whisper. "I should've done something. I'm terrible." 

Tears sprang to his eyes, the numbed shock fading away, and he remained there, in the soft embrace. His locked muscles and racing heart would never understand that perhaps he was finally safe, here. But that was because nobody with a mind like his ever truly was.

Logan stared at the entrance where three have now escaped through. "Patton, is it me, or is this all because of last night?"

Patton took a quiet, trembling breath, already recomposing when he pulled back, brushing his tears away, almost exactly like Deceit brushed his scars. "I think they're pretty upset about that."

Logan sighed, rubbing his eyelids behind his glasses, but then adjusted them like he wasn't affected. "I believe we all are."

Remus felt like conjuring a weapon, any weapon—or maybe fall asleep and never wake up. He was restless and exhausted, his skin crawled every time Roman flashed in his sight. He wasn't sure if his brother was real or not when he remembered him. Thoughts that didn't belong to him filled his mind, and shame and disgust pooled in his gut.

In my field of paper flowers

And candy clouds of lullaby

I lie inside myself for hours

And watch my purple sky fly over me

He closed his eyes, resigning to the chaos, opting for numbness like that one cursed day—the day when neither him nor Deceit could take it anymore.

 


 

"Are you sure you're going alone?"

Logan glanced towards Patton as he adjusted his grip on Remus. He appeared unconscious, if his unresponsive, extremely heavy body was any indication. Patton was biting his lip, his eyes lost and perplexed with everything that transpired in the last approximately five minutes.

Logan hated to admit it, but he felt so...disconnected from all of...that. He repeated the scene over and over in his head, searching for the psychological signs, the symptoms, the motivations behind each insult and each embittered remark. There was something...rotten, within them. Within Remus and Deceit, which was expected, but also within Virgil and Roman.

What happened last night?

He wished to shake awake the man asleep in his arms, interrogate him, get answers, figure out why he wasn't wanted.

"Logan?"

He took a deep breath, realizing he couldn't adjust…anything with Remus in his grip. "I'll be alright, Patton." Patton furrowed his brows doubtfully. "He just needs to be returned to his room. We both know you don't appreciate the atmosphere there anyway."

In truth, nobody did, but Logan was the most unaffected by the Dark Mindscape, and the most accustomed to all the falsehoods of all the troubled aspects. Therefore, it would be most rational for only him to reach that destination.

"Deal with Roman and Virgil," Logan concluded. He knew Deceit was very ladened with buried lies again. He wondered if that would never cease being a problem. But for now, Deceit didn't lash out at him though he certainly didn't seem to want his aid. He struggled not to ignore the pressure in his chest. For him to be dysfunctional now wouldn't only be detrimental, but self-destructive. "I'll speak with Deceit. He must have the answers."

Patton scoffed, a residue of...aggravation in his eyes at the mention of the other. "Good luck with that."

Logan nodded, deciding it to be simpler to sink instead of walking there.

Quite the misjudgement.

He stiffened against the sudden onslaught of cold, feeling his pupils dilate to the darkness. The strange atmosphere seemed to settle in his bones. He held Remus tighter when he almost instantly shuddered in his sleep. He heard pacing.

He strode to Remus' room, almost stopping short when the weapons levitating there turned towards him. He placed the other carefully on the dusty bed, and decided that tomorrow he should clean this place.

"What are you doing here?"

He sighed, seeing his breath materialize before him, shifting the ashes with it, and turned around, rubbing the goosebumps away from his arms. Deceit stood in the doorway, book still in hand. His gaze burned at Logan's unwelcome presence.

Logan shrugged, easily seeing through the lie. "Returning Remus. He went unconscious soon after the flashback you...reanimated him from."

Deceit paused for a second, but then smirked cruelly. "Looks like you do have a purpose after all." He gestured Logan away carelessly. "Now run along. Return to the light and order."

Logan squinted, seeing the scars and scales far better here, attempting to analyze why Deceit had been masquerading them at dinner. Then he saw how bloodshot his eyes were, and realized why Deceit had been avoiding eye contact until this very moment.

Deceit noticed. Subtly turned his head to the side, effectively blocking the scales once more. But his smirk never faltered.

Logan was surprised to think he almost...felt envious of that. He attributed it to the dreadful toxic thinking here merging with his...aversion for emotions.

"Deceit," he said instead, dismissing the other's words, "when was the last time you've slept?"

Deceit raised his eyebrows, rolling his eyes. "And this question is suitable how?" 

Logan adjusted his glasses. "You have no evidence to deny the fact that you look terrible." 

Deceit really did look ill. It was somehow far more discernible in the dim lighting, and it seemed he expected no visitors after the catastrophe everyone caused. The more Logan stared, the more flaws he could see—flaws he'd never seen when Deceit showed himself on his own accord. The scars were more pronounced, even gruesome, overshadowing the mutated laminae on his skin. His yellow eye held more experience, a darkness he always buried before. 

Logan realized he was lost in his thoughts again, analyzing all his memories about Deceit, vainly trying to read into an unreadable book, when Deceit ducked his head, fidgeting under the gaze. "I said leave," he snapped.

"Answer my question first."

Deceit glared, one eye flickering between hatred and something worse. "The answer doesn't matter."

Logan felt his stomach twist. His earlier assumption about Deceit's cognitive distortions was correct. He wish he wasn't right for once. "Remus collapsed from exhaustion. I would rather that the exact situation would be avoided."

"I'm not him!" Deceit yelled, his eyes almost maddened with wild rage. "Stop fucking treating me like I'm the unstable one! I'm fine!"

Logan took a deep breath through his nostrils. He coughed to the side twice when he breathed in undetected ashes. This room, yesterday's mystery, Remus' flashback, and Deceit's own lies. Too many things were affecting Deceit. Logan's mind reeled to find a solution. But then, he paused. He shouldn't be reeling. He was becoming affected by this room's atmosphere as well, wasn't he? "Deceit, let's leave Remus to rest."

Deceit almost gladly stormed off, leaving Logan to follow. Logan saw the heavy, unstable gait of the other, the way the recently revealed hand trembled in a tell-tale signal of fatigue.

"Leave," repeated Deceit, not bothering to even look at him.

"Deceit, you're suffering a relapse."

"I sure am!" he laughed mockingly.

Logan sighed, rubbing the pressure away from his chest. It was draining to deal with Deceit's falsehoods, more than anyone else's. The question plaguing his mind left his tongue without much thought. "What happened last night?"

Deceit froze. "What did Patton tell you?" he growled.

"He couldn't state many details." How could he get Deceit to trust him? What could he do? Send him to Logan's room? It seemed like the best option. He was too focused on finding solutions to notice his quickened heartbeat, his drumming fingers. "Everyone is reacting adversely after last night's events. I don't have any knowledge about it."

"Because you shouldn't."

"Falsehood." He loathed that his voice failed him in a single word. 

Deceit finally turned around, rubbing harshly at his scales, smiling. "Whatever helps you sleep, Logan."

Logan grit his teeth, walked right before Deceit, straightened his posture to tower over the other. "What. Happened. Last. Night?"

The smile cracked. After a beat of silence and Logan's ever-quickening heartbeat, Deceit hunched, avoiding the gaze again. "Remus hallucinated Roman like you saw him earlier."

"For how long has this been occurring?"

Deceit rolled his eyes. "Why do you need to know?"

Heat spread in his chest. "For how long has this occurred?"

Deceit's glare was weakening with each question. "Two years."

"Falsehood," Logan bit out.

"Eleven." His yellow eye was anguished now. Deceit brushed his hand over it.

Logan's eyes widened. This wasn't acceptable at all. How has Remus lived with that for so long? "Eleven?"

Deceit held his newly gloved hand against his chest, breathing harshly through his nose. 

"Deceit, come to my room." He was edging into pleads. This place really was distressing. Logan hasn't even felt this disconcerted in Virgil's room.

"I'm just fine here, thanks," muttered Deceit. 

"So you're perfectly fine with no company at all except for a traumatized, violent side in the darkest place of our host's mind." Logan scoffed. "You can lie all you like to the others, but it's foolish at best, self-destructive and inefficacious at worst, to lie to me."

Deceit sighed, closing his eyes. The skin and scales around them seemed bruised. He was pale and perspiring. Logan placed a balancing hand on his shoulder when he staggered. But Deceit behaved like nothing concerning ever happened when he opened his eyes again, and gestured sardonically at the end of the hallway. "Lead the way."

Logan obeyed, refraining from sighing in relief, slowly guiding Deceit to the Light Mindscape. If Logan had an adverse reaction to the Dark Sides' home, Deceit had an almost dangerous one to this place. He clenched his eyelids shut against the light, flinching at the warmth every five seconds. He sweat even more profusely. But soon enough, they reached Logan's room. It always calmed the logical side, with its navy walls, its many bookshelves, and the calming, dim light. Logan directed Deceit to his bed, and the weary side reluctantly sat on it, seemingly carrying the figurative weight of the world on his shoulders.

"Deceit," Logan began once more, as gently as he could, "can you tell me when was the last time you slept?"

The other side stared at the wall. "I don't know."

Logan furrowed his brows. "Elaborate."

"...Even though everything was fixed for good, I haven't been able to."

Logan took off his glasses to dig the heels of his palms onto his eyelids. "We found a standstill last month, after you admitted the truth, but our problems are far from over."

"Are they, now?" Deceit scoffed, shaking his head. 

Logan readjusted his glasses and frowned. How could Deceit not see? "Remus is still expressing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder due to the soli—"

"He's just getting used to freedom," interrupted Deceit. "And it had to be done at the time."

Logan refrained from sighing in frustration again. He had no reason to be emotional here. "This situation could also be stemming from the twins' unnatural separat—"

"Let's agree that it's my fault and get this over with." Deceit's voice was a whip of rage, but he refused to look at Logan, eyes fixed on the wall, limbs locked tight. "There's no analysis for this, it was just a mistake. Now can you not mention it?"

Logan paused. Questions rushed through his head. What was the mistake? Everything felt like a mistake recently. The discourses, altercations, and even heavy silences seemed to be the only things he recalled. Perhaps that was what Deceit meant. Or perhaps he meant something worse—the true root of all their suffering.

"Deceit…" Logan glanced back at him, adjusting his glasses. He didn't have the solution as of yet. Neither did Patton, much less Virgil and Remus. No facts or behavioral books he studied provided any solutions. Perhaps for now, helping Deceit reach some enlightenment would help clear what this predicament even was. "Why are you unable to sleep at night?"

Deceit scratched the scales that were out of Logan's sight. "I should be working right now."

Logan sighed, a growing weight in his chest. "Trust me when I say you're causing Thomas more harm than good with that."

Deceit furrowed his brows, turning to look at him through glazed irises. "Which means…?"

Logan sighed again, unsure if it was shame that he felt when he thought of the incident from two years ago, or something else. He could only murmur, somehow easier to admit it here, with Deceit of all people, after ignoring the incident for so long. "Logic is apparently capable of anxiety attacks."

Deceit snickered, leaning his scarred face on his palm and closing his eyes. Logan could only watch as he shook from laughter but then became strangely still, one visible eye deep in thought. 

"Deceit, why can't you answer a question?"

Deceit shrugged, shaking his head. 

Logan raised his hand, hesitantly placed it upon Deceit's shoulder. The other stiffened under the touch, but didn't react otherwise. "You can rest here for the night, and...also the nights after that."

Deceit laughed again, louder, and Logan began to fear he was becoming delirious. He shrugged off Logan's hand and stood. "Consider a career in the comedic spectrum, at least for me."

Logan heard himself growling, and pulled Deceit back down by the arm. "You've hurt Patton's feelings, dismissed Remus' trauma, and derided me all in less than a day."

Deceit swiveled around and yanked his arm away, sneering. "Yes, I'm quite toxic, aren't I?"

"All the queries I have for you are why." Logan stood, seconds away from rage, but swallowing down the urges to lash out. He stopped himself from gritting his teeth and fisting his hands. "Why do you keep pretending? Why do you adopt the persona? Why do you not trust any single one of us? Why do you avoid your purpose and all mentions of the 'mistake'? All I ask is for you to just sleep here tonight!"

Deceit shook his head disbelievingly, his eyes wide. His lips twitched in artificial amusement, but then fell. "I understand everything you are saying, and your motives to aid me right now. I comprehend why you all wish for my company, and why you're so desperate to know me." He laughed before continuing, faux sweetness in his eyes. "To trust me. Tell me, is it because you wish for me to be under your control? Is it because it's better for me to remain as your slave?"

"To think that Virgil's cognitive distortions were difficult to handle!" Logan shouted, gesturing stiffly at the other, but took a deep breath a proceeded with gritted teeth. "This is for the good of Thomas—"

"Of course it is! It always has been!" Logan froze when he saw the tears brimming in Deceit's bloodshot eyes. "Therefore, it makes so much sense that you want me around!" 

"Deceit..." Logan felt his chest tighten, his breath hitch. How...frightening it was whenever he was at a loss for words, but he remembered Patton's words of acceptance even now. He took another steadying breath. "You...adapted to a lifestyle, in which you denied the truth to survive. You act...dismissive, though it is clear there's remorse on your part." Deceit sighed in frustration, but he violently rubbed his scales and cicatrices. Logan reached out to the gloved hand to cease its movement, lowering his volume. "And I can't comprehend your...logic, for lack of a better word, that for some reason, the good of Thomas never translates to the good and balance of all of us." Deceit furrowed his brows, squinting. "You're a necessity to Thomas, even though your techniques sometimes aren't acceptable for his lifestyle and beliefs."

Deceit glared.

"Similar to…" Logan trailed off, feeling his throat constrict. "Similar to how my ways and advice are easily overlooked, and how Patton's negative emotions are an obstacle to Thomas' lifestyle. Or how Roman's excessive pride and unreachable artistic standards make Thomas needlessly endure large amounts of pressure, or how Virgil convinces our host of cognitive distortions." He paused to watch Deceit's heterochromatic irises, observe for comprehension. Deceit's mind was visibly churning, but his exhaustion made it clear he wasn't following. 

But his point was a recently learned one, one that wouldn't cease haunting his thoughts, one that arose in a scene that he consistently replayed in his mind to understand where it all went so wrong, how wrong he had been, twenty-two years ago. Nonetheless, he continued, albeit mortifyingly vulnerable, if his thin, increasingly wavering voice was evidence enough. "None of us are always acceptable, or...even useful sometimes. And sometimes...we're even detrimental."

"You're never detrimental."

"Falsehood. Various times I haven't heeded Thomas' emotional needs, and two years ago, I caused quite the dilemma because of it."

"Yes, and let me guess." Deceit pretended to think, wrenching his hand from Logan's grip again to cradle his chin. "You've done what? Three mistakes? All I know is you're so mistaken to even consider dealing with us and—" He gasped dramatically. "You've solved everything by forcing me to tell the truth and by dismissing Remus' trauma first."

Logan pushed up his glasses to groan loudly onto his palms. Deceit was making negative percentage of rationality. He spoke through gritted teeth again, his shoulders painfully stiffened. "I can't show the truth to those who deny it. You're not always right." He adjusted his glasses again, resigning on attempting to keep a straight posture, conjuring a chronological chart of Thomas' life. "Your stubbornness, like Virgil's, and Patton's, and Roman's, and mine, is exactly what is figuratively tearing us apart and has been figuratively tearing us apart since Thomas was a child." He tapped his fingers towards the age eight in the chart repeatedly. "But have you questioned why Patton, out of all of us, was the first and most keen on compromising with you a month ago?"

Deceit held his chin high, but after a beat of thick silence he subtly shook his head.

"Because…" He sighed sharply. "Because Patton sees your potential to help Thomas with the right execution. His execution. Did you think it was a manipulation tactic to balance you?" 

The silence from the other side as he stared over Logan's shoulder would've perhaps broken Patton's heart. It made Logan's chest constrict. "I understand," Deceit said.

"You don't."

Deceit sighed, closing his eyes. "I don't. You all decide that everything here will change in the blink of an eye, and that I'll adjust. Consider that done."

Logan stiffly reached for Deceit again, gently pulled his hand to sit on the bed once more. He glanced at the clock. It was late for them. "Is that why you remain in the Dark Mindscape?"

Deceit blinked all too slowly. "No."

"You isolate yourself because you're trapped in the past." His chest hurt more from that sentence. The more he analyzed, the more he resonated with the other.

"You're wrong." But Deceit's eyes betrayed the opposite.

Logan took a final breath. "You can't sleep because you're secluded there, aren't you?"

Deceit's shallow breath trembled. He brushed the scales side of his face again.

Logan nodded, standing up to find an extra pillow and another blanket. "Do you wish for my company beside you tonight, Deceit?"

"I under—I don't understand." Deceit wearily stared at Logan like he were enigma. "I don't understand."

"Don't preoccupy yourself with that." He offered his own sleeping attire, but Deceit stared blankly at it. "You will in time. For now, the priority is for you to rest."

Deceit laughed weakly, slowly glancing back up at him in disbelief, covering his yellow eye with his gloved fingers. "How deplorable."

Logan felt the ghost of a smile on his lips. "Indeed."

 


 

He was shaking so harshly, his room felt like it was enduring an earthquake. But the darkness was gone, and so were the undead, with their scraps of very familiar clothing and flesh.

Swallowed up in the sound of my screaming

Cannot cease for the fear of silent nights

He heard a click and whimpered, hiding further behind his propped knees, under the bed, curling in like a serpent.

"Hey, kiddo."

A rough gasp of fresh air escaped him and he looked up, and through the blurry tears—there he was. Patton. Not dead. Not evil. It was just him, crouched on the floor, peering at him with a tilted head. And he was nearing him delicately, beckoning, worry and sorrow in his eyes.

He sobbed, crawled out of the hiding spot, and pulled him into an embrace before Patton could reach to touch him.

"I'm so sorry." He gasped again for breath, voice trembling along with his core. "I d-don't know what's w-wrong with me."

Patton gently hushed him, rocking him back and forth. "It's okay. We all have our bad days, Roman." He pulled back, cracking a small, sad smile. "Remember last time, two years ago? You grew from last time spectacularly."

"This is so much worse than last time," Roman whispered, gripping Patton's arms with white knuckles. Patton winced, but he formed it into a smile again. It was more strained now.

"What do you mean, sweetheart?"

Roman shut his eyes, vaguely feeling warmth slip through his eyelids. A small part of him feared it was blood. But most of him felt a nauseating, eternal fall, and then he felt bone after bone crack—his arm, his collarbone, his ankle, his ribs—and finally, the back of his head crashed against—something—

"Roman?"

Roman wailed loudly, any movement he inadvertently made piercing him with pure excruciation, but then he gasped heavily and opened his eyes, the agony gone. Patton held his shoulders tightly, his eyes morphing into fear, and denial. He shook his head numbly.

Oh, how I long for the deep sleep dreaming

The goddess of imaginary light

Roman breathed like he hadn't breathed in years, quivering and hunching under the pure touch. He felt disgusting before Patton, like he didn't deserve his presence. He couldn't look into the other's eyes.

"Remus woke up." It was all Roman could say. But it was exactly what Patton didn't want to hear.

Patton covered his mouth with his fist, but he still screamed.

In my field of paper flowers

And candy clouds of lullaby

I lie inside myself for hours

And watch my purple sky fly over me

Chapter Text

Remus swallowed cold, ashen air, and sprang up in the bed, scratching his arms with unstable hands until he drew blood. He squinted in the darkness to see, perhaps distract himself from yet another nightmare, the pain and terror of death unable to slip from his perspiring skin ladened with goosebumps. Time was relative here, but for Thomas it must've been nighttime. It was simultaneously relieving and frightening that he felt a pull from his host at this hour, as if on cue, right after almost dying in his dreams again. That meant distraction from here, from his racing thoughts—yet it also meant the threat of Thomas knowing what Remus would never be prepared to believe. But he honored his host's calling anyway.

He squinted again, flinching at the bright, artificial lights, once he rose up, dizzy from rare occurrence of coming here on Thomas' accord. He still loved it here.

But then he realized they were all here. He was here. They all stood, watching Thomas expectantly, worry evident in some's features, terror in others'. And then there was him. 

It's not him, he told himself. It's Roman. He's graceful yet imperfect, he isn't mighty or sinister. It's just...him. There's no blood on him, no Cheshire grin. He was hunched into himself, exhaustion pulling at the edge of his eyes. Remus avoided those eyes, but he could feel how heavy and ashamed his brother was, the dregs of terror and darkness shared between them. Remus winced, but he quickly made it a grin. "So I'm finally being invited to parties!"

"We all know that this isn't a social gathering for social sake," replied Logan, rubbing his temple, his eyes faded in thought as he expectantly watched Thomas.

It was obvious that both Remus and Deceit kept to the corners where the others wouldn't stand, unused to having their own spots. Deceit rolled his eyes, taking as least space as possible between Logan and the staircase—though the other moved for him—suspiciously glancing at Thomas. Virgil glared up the stairs beside him, sitting instead of standing in his spot. Remus decided to sit on the railing of the stairs, resting his face on his palms and swinging his legs like a child.

Thomas was glaring at Remus, and he finally opened his mouth to speak. "Look, I know we had a bit of a breakthrough last month, and that we saw a different side of you, and that you were through some really tough shit."

"That's an understatement," raved Remus and muttered Roman. Roman slapped a hand to his mouth.

Thomas proceeded to glare at Deceit, who raised his hands placatingly, raising his eyebrows mockingly. "Guilty as charged."

Remus saw and sensed Roman torn between kissing Deceit's feet and screaming at him for lying so convincingly. Remus wasn't sure why either of them felt that way. 

"As I was saying," continued Thomas, sighing, "I'm trying to accept all parts of myself, no matter how flawed they can be, but you guys are still making it impossible for me to sleep, and I kinda feel like hating you right now." He gestured to Remus and Deceit in frustration. "So, can both of you take it down a notch?"

"Thomas," said Roman, voice wrought in hesitation, "it's not just their fault."

Thomas glanced at Roman, furrowing his eyebrows. "What do you mean?"

Patton hugged himself, eyes fixed on the floor. Logan cleared his throat and adjusted his tie. Deceit rubbed the left side of his face, his yellow eye flashing an indescribable emotion for milliseconds. Roman and Remus ran their hands through their hair and scratched their arms harshly. Virgil and Thomas' gazes snapped between each face, agitation even more apparent in the former's features. 

"What the hell did I miss?" Virgil snapped, crossing his arms tightly. 

Roman glanced at Remus with fear in his eyes, a semblance of denial in his silent pleads. Tell me it's not what I'm thinking. Tell me you can't read my thoughts. Tell me it's all a disturbing prank of yours and nothing more. 

But Remus knew, in that exact moment, that it was true.

There's a memory of how we used to be

That I can see through the flames

He felt all his insides twist, light-headed in the span of two seconds from the sight of him, the thought of what Dee and Virgil had gone through, the thought of Roman suffering like he has just because they were—

"Wait, what happened, really?" Anxiety flashed in Thomas' eyes. "I thought we were getting better."

Remus tried to stifle his thoughts. Or maybe that was Roman.

Patton sighed at the echo of his own words, eyes swimming in guilt. They all remained too silent, seemingly expectant. Remus was too distracted to see what they waited for, attempting to forget the nightmares of death, the faded memories of a childhood he never lived, the faint sensations of sharing what shouldn't be shared. 

I am hypnotized as I fantasize

Forgetting lies and pain

But I can't go back

But then Patton looked up at Remus, Roman, and then Deceit. His voice was a murmur when he spoke, wringing his hands. "It's okay if you're not exactly...better. Just tell him, and we can try to help each other."

Remus looked to Roman now. Their eyes mirrored each other, they both knew. Roman sighed heavily, and closed the distance that they've purposefully created between them, taking his hand. "I believe they all have to know," Roman murmured, the elegant tone he always used distorted by fear and shame. Remus hated that Roman felt what he'd felt as a child. "And we need to cease denying it."

Remus giggled all too forcefully, but the permission his brother gave him was liberating. "Well, it's all fun and games until you realize you can't be near me anymore!"

Roman shriveled. Remus saw in his peripheral vision how Logan stiffened, how Deceit looked away, how Patton closed his eyes and breathed deeply. But Thomas and Virgil glanced questioningly between each other.

"Kiddo," began Patton hesitantly, yet patiently, "what do you mean by that?"

Roman stared at the floor, wrenching his hand away when both he and Remus thought of ripping away a corpse's fingers. He breathed shakily, his voice a whisper. "I thought the strange thoughts and ideas in my head were just that. Strange, but bearable. And mine." He shuddered, and Deceit swallowed, eyes impassive. Logan sighed through his nose, eyebrows furrowed as he watched. "I never gave it contemplation then, but soon it wasn't just wondering how it would be to be a warrior against monsters, or cheating death—or whatever it was before. Then…"

"I began having nightmares," finished Remus. There was a vice of Roman's horror and shame upon Remus, and he couldn't smile anymore, couldn't raise his volume or pitch. He couldn't bear to look at Patton, at Virgil. He wished for a dream of stars, riding into sunsets, anything so painfully simple and glorious, anything but this. "Roman's room was...strange for me. I always had nightmares—or just saw things that didn't exist, but I never had...those kinds of nightmares in—in there—" In the cell, that Goddamned cell— "Nor in my room. It was so much more vivid in his room, and he came to life like never before."

Virgil fidgeted, scratching and peeling the dry skin from his palms, eyes pained at the mere mention of him. Deceit never truly knew who he was, but he knew the screams and nightmares he caused in both Remus and Virgil. The way Deceit fidgeted and uncomfortably rubbed the left side of his face was proof.

"Does that prove my theory?" Logan tapped his fingers in a quick, erratic rhythm on his crossed arms. His eyes were analytical again, his head tilted. Remus wondered how it'd be like, neverending thoughts in his head instead of neverending hallucinations. "Your connection was mysteriously, unnaturally severed weeks after our seventh birthday. You were no longer King Creativity, but two diverged, contrasting beings; yet you both behaved and spoke as one. You then...separated a year after that, and Remus was secluded for two decades."

More like quarantined, thought Remus, a comment he painfully swallowed for Logan's sake, restless and unsure if he was prepared for the torture of flashbacks like he usually was. Logan was unaware of Remus' beginning palpitations in his chest and Roman's brimming tears, unaware of how Deceit and Virgil paled considerably. Logan himself tapped his arms faster, muscles locked up, unaware of how his own eyes glazed over.

Patton placed his hand on Logan's shoulder, but the latter was unresponsive. He merely became silent to listen, not moving a muscle. "Then…" he edged on, gentle and hesitant, "they became different, right?"

Logan paused, and finally looked at Patton, almost too emotionless. "Indeed. The time apart, and...the trauma had their effect on both of them." He made a model with both of his stiff, slightly trembling hands, apart as far as both of his arms could reach, gaze jumping between Remus and Roman the whole time. "Now that you're reunited, and have been for a month—" he slowly moved them closer until both hands were tightly interwoven, "everything about you is beginning to connect like before, like information and code backing up in two concatenated electronic devices."

Remus glanced at Roman, both feeling bile rising up their throats. This wasn't what they had planned. This wasn't what they wanted. Roman reached out with that damned hope, and contaminated Remus with it. Now they were both corrupted, a merge of hopeless hope, nightmarish dreams, imprisoned freedom. Remus saw the terror in Roman's eyes, the way the blinked rapidly for the tears to fade, battled the chaos in his mind—everything was mirrored in Remus, but more disturbing. But their minds were racing between the never-ending paradox, mirroring and battling that which wasn't theirs.

Who was in control?

"Why is this happening?" It was Deceit who finally spoke up, shattering the silence with his murmur, eyes glued to the wall over Logan's shoulder, still rubbing his scales in that concerning way that spoke of the unspoken past Remus was forced to vow he'd never reveal. He tore the mental image of another perspective away from his thoughts, focused on Patton biting his lip and squeezing Logan's shoulder, focused on how Virgil instinctively looked to Deceit for comfort until resentment filled his gaze and made him look away. 

"Perhaps Remus is too unaccustomed to, well…" Logan trailed off, eyes fogging again.

There wasn't a nice way to say this, and Remus knew it. Everyone seemed to know it, their eyes all haunted once again, though Logan adjusted his glasses and smoothed his features—Patton bowed his head—Virgil hunched over himself—Deceit covered his eyes while rubbing his forehead, his eyelids, his temples—

"To what?" urged Thomas, glancing between all of them in worry, beginning to bite his nails.

"He isn't accustomed to his newfound freedom," continued Logan, "and the excessive amount of stimuli. Perhaps Roman's room exacerbated that—like Remus' can—but in a worse manner, since it opposed Remus' very nature."

Both brothers watched. It was better than thinking. Breath was being stolen away by an unseen, all-encompassing presence in the room.

The ashes call my name…!

"And it just connected them more," Virgil finished, hiding his face in his hands to groan. "Why can't we catch a fucking break?"

Patton seemed to wish to disagree, but there was a pain in his eyes that didn't let him. Deceit's yellow iris betrayed the same anguish for only a second.

"I hate mirrors," Remus blurted out, distantly noticing Roman had too—and he wasn't sure who was thinking this, who decided for both of them to say it. "I can't stand them—they show the reality that we avoid—but then they show what our world is too scared to conjure."

Logan furrowed his brows, right eyelid twitching from what he obviously couldn't comprehend. The idiot.

"So, how can we solve this?" Thomas asked, his voice almost pleading, staring at Logan for guidance. 

Logan subtly shook his head at Thomas, his eyes too vulnerable for everyone's fears. Three words that he shouldn't ever say or represent were spoken in that single gesture. Virgil began to hyperventilate.

"Well, uh, maybe—" Patton clenched his eyes shut, brows furrowed in concentration, but instinctively reached out to Virgil this time, holding both his shoulders and smiling all too automatically. "Maybe we just have to begin asking the right questions, like when we pretended to be puppets! I mean, I can't be the only one that feels like everything is just…" Patton held his breath, eyes flashing in pain once more. "...wrong."

"And I suppose we should listen to the one that only wants us to fix ourselves as soon as possible," derided Deceit, plastic smile on his rigid lips as well.

Remus laughed, and Roman slammed his hand upon his mouth again, vainly muffling one—or both—of the brothers staring at the presence that couldn't be seen. Roman felt fire in his chest, scorching his lungs—perhaps that's why Remus always breathed ashes.

Pouring the fuel

Fanning the flames

Breaking the habit and melting the chains

Virgil flinched heavily, hunching further, wrapping his arms around his chest protectively, gazing at Roman with worry. Remus saw a flash of a gaping wound, blood oozing in the darkness, sobs becoming hyperventilation becoming screams becoming silence—

He gripped his head—it was so hard to remember which name was whose, which memory was real, which was imagined, which idea belonged to one or both—

He cackled louder, trying to drown out the other's laughter, unable to escape the empty eye sockets, the graceful death and majestic horror of him—

"Stop!" Roman roared while laughing and sobbing, and then suddenly the monstrous presence was gone, the flames in their chests were gone, the ashes, the growing darkness, the flashbacks, he was gone.

What was left was the sensation of a rainbow in the sky, seen just outside the window covered by the curtains. He felt an urge just to check, to reach it, to do nothing else but observe it. Or maybe that wasn't—

"There." Roman was gasping, trembling, seemingly about to collapse, hunched beside his brother. Remus felt like he could finally see, breath, be again. "Just stop thinking—that's what does it."

Embracing the fear

Chasing the fight

The glow of the fire will light up the night

Thomas hugged himself and let himself fall to his knees, whimpering, eyelids tightly shut. "Please never do that again. Both of you."

Everyone else stared at the brothers. Patton tightly held Virgil, who also quivered under the embrace, staring like he was far away. Deceit scowled, breathing too shallowly. Logan neared the twins like approaching a wounded animal, focusing on them and observing them closely, a hesitant hand brushing away the disheveled locks of hair and the tears on each, one after the other, observing even closer into their gaze. There was a certain fearful disappointment when he looked into Roman's eyes. "Roman, you repressed him."

"What else was I supposed to do?!" Roman screamed, wildly gesturing at Remus, gaze almost savage with fear.

That somehow stung more than being locked up. Remus' lungs constricted, his stomach twisted. He couldn't help but look away.

Logan sighed, and looked at Remus, burying a very familiar emotion Deceit wore when he entered the cell, all those nightmarish years. "Remus, what can we do? How can we help you cope with all of it?" He was as helpless as everyone else, but there was a gentleness in his voice and irises, like the waves caressing the sand in a cold night. "Trauma is complicated. It always will be, but we can find better ways to cope with it."

We.

That single word. It left an effect on each of them, even on Logan. It was like his eyes finally cleared from the constant analysis. Remus felt his limbs seize—he mentally cursed Roman's increasing hope from the word. Virgil took a stabilizing breath, relief mildly coursing through his stiff features. Patton furrowed his brows in confusion. Deceit scoffed, crossing his arms.

Roman shakily took Remus' hand once more. It was a loose, tentative, breakable grip, but it was there. No terrifying thoughts ran through Remus' mind. He was sure it was Roman's doing. How strange. His mind was racing, but not paranoically. So many things he wished to have, like the sunlight tracing his skin throughout the darkest days—real sunlight, not the lightbulbs overhead that still scorched his cold, thin skin. 

That dream was his and his alone—the only hope, the only fragment of Roman's that he successfully held onto throughout the years. Perhaps that was the only connection they could have. Perhaps they weren't ever torn apart completely, no matter Thomas, Patton, and Deceit's attempts.

"I…" Remus trailed off, suddenly remembering so many things. Him and his wickedness; Remus crawling towards the light, creating chaos to fight the dark, silent death; Virgil and Deceit's screams, the pacing during the days and nights as Remus rotted in the cell; the haunting something that still lived on in Deceit and Virgil's eyes, Logan and Patton's failed attempts to continue life as usual, Roman's weary, haunted, hysterical eyes... That's what Virgil called it, when he visited his room. And now, Logan called it the same thing. Was that what it all was? Was that all his nightmares and sensations and hallucinations were? Was that all he was?

Was it all trauma?

"I don't know what to do," he finally admitted, his voice breaking at the last words. Logan blinked slowly, biting the inside of his cheek, the helplessness darkening his eyes.

Roman tightened his grip on Remus' hand, strengthened it. "We'll find our way," whispered Roman, eyes shining weakly with that which Remus forgot long ago. "We always have before. Together."

Hope bloomed in his chest when Roman smiled. Remus didn't know how to bury it.

It's uncontrollable, such a beautiful desire

There's something sinister about the way it hurts

When I watch it burn 

Higher and higher

Because I can't go back

"Lo?" The side in question turned to look at Patton, who chuckled nervously beside Virgil now, shifting balance between his feet. "What did you mean by what you said earlier, kiddo?"

"Patton, none of us are fine," said Virgil, burying his hands in his hoodie pockets, his voice a weary murmur. "We're all pretty fucked up from last month. Some of us for longer." Patton pursed his lips, pointedly looking at Virgil. Virgil tisked, brushing his hand through his hair. "Sorry."

Patton sighed, closing his eyes, his brow creased, and took a deep breath. "Then I guess it's time for me to say it." His words wavered, and he took another breath. He opened his eyes, sheened with tears. "I have no idea how to handle...all this, but I have to make up for it—for what I did. I thought maybe it could work after a month, but—"

"So this is what everyone has to speak about at every turn?" snarled Deceit, eyes flashing with venom and that something. "We've established the mistake was my fault, and there's no need to mention it again."

Remus knew that look in Deceit's eye best. It was a well-spoken, concealed truth, but the hatred in his eyes was too familiar, a hatred that cracked with each sleepless night and lonely day. Not even Virgil knew how endless the artificial hatred was, nor did he know of its end. But seeing it again burned something in Remus' chest, brought back the flashes of cold indifference in Deceit's eyes while incarcerating him. Roman glanced at him worriedly, inching even closer to his brother.

"Dee." The warning in Virgil's voice was enough to give Deceit pause, caution merging with the bitterness as he looked at him. "He's been quiet for a month about this, and you know it."

"Patton's not the only one who's been dysfunctional with his...his guilt," added Logan, adjusting his glasses, staring at Deceit with recognition in his eyes. "Let him speak. It's alright." He turned to Patton, nodding encouragingly.

Patton paused, wringing his hands. "I've been trying to accept and welcome all of you, especially you, Remus, and Dee. I tried to get to know you better, to talk to you whenever we could. But…" He took another quivering breath, unable to blink the tears away. "I just don't know how to fix it, and everything fell apart yesterday, and I was so lost when that happened."

Logan bit the inside of his cheek again, empathy lightning up in his eyes once more. 

"What do you mean?" asked Thomas, surprised. "What happened yesterday?"

"...A fight," Patton answered vaguely, unable to look Thomas in the eye. "I mean…" He stared helplessly at the floor, chuckling wryly. "I basically destroyed your self-esteem, Dee and Remus, because I couldn't find a good way to turn you down, or to listen to you." Patton clenched his eyes shut, two lone tears slipping through each eyelid, his breath beginning to hitch. 

"Oh, Patton," breathed Thomas, eyes beginning to glaze over with their own tears. Remus and Deceit shared a glance, and Remus was sure Deceit expressed enough surprise to mirror his.

"But then I thought I was doing good now, at least." Patton continued like nobody was speaking or listening, his words tumbling faster and faster. "I convinced myself we were fine, that I was fine—again—and now I realize I basically dismissed your pain again, until a couple of days ago. I did the society thing again, didn't I, Dee?" He finally slowed down, opened his guilt-ridden eyes, breathing shakily. "Is that why you're doing...everything you're doing right now?"

Deceit sighed, something terrible rotting in his eyes. He sneered sarcastically, his voice sharp. "Yes, it is. I didn't say it's my fault, and I know exactly what the hell you're talking about."

Patton bit his lip harshly, choking back sobs. Remus saw how Patton hated Deceit's lying. "I am not a good Morality, Dee. I failed all of you." The sobs finally escaped him, but he did nothing to hold them back this time. "Thomas, I failed you. I couldn't accept your imperfections. I made you suffer with a smile and I didn't even notice. I'm a broken Morality." He buried his face in his hands and shook violently with sobs.

Remus and Roman both covered their mouths with their free hands, and the latter hid his face in the crook of Remus' neck, trembling, until Remus felt a cold dampness there. Remus felt his brother's pain of mistakes and brokenness too vividly, doubled with his shame. 

Remus caused this for Patton. Patton was fine, until he came into the picture—no, when Deceit decided to fuck everything up. The heat of hatred returned, and he glared at Deceit, who stared at Patton in denial.

Logan sighed heavily, adjusted his glasses and tie, and placed a hesitant arm on Patton's convulsing shoulders. Virgil stared on, features slack in shock. Thomas blinked back the tears quickly, perplexed and burdened with that empathy that he didn't seem to realize he felt.

It was a universal sensation, something that hit home and resonated with each of them. Remus knew it—he felt it from his brother's pain, saw it in the tightly woven limbs of Virgil, the incessant drumming of Logan's fingers upon his thigh and Patton's shoulder, and the crumpling side of Deceit's face that he couldn't hide, no matter how hard he tried.

Virgil suddenly lurched towards Patton, wiping away the tears from his cheeks, cupping them with his peeled, calloused hands. Virgil said nothing, staring with that gentle brokenness he specifically reserved for the vulnerable.

"Keep crying," muttered Deceit, slowly walking nearer to Patton. There was a strange confusion beneath the sarcasm as he shook his head. "It's your fault, apparently."

Virgil turned to glare at him.

Deceit took a steadying breath, speaking as if Patton were an eight-year-old, with wide, condescending eyes. "I und—I don't understand. You were innocent. You didn't know. I merely placed the blame on you because…" He looked at the floor, his hand twitching upwards to hide his scars, but he seemed to control himself just in time. Logan smiled softly at that. "Because I am a liar, Patton. I couldn't handle the blame. But I…" He took another deep breath, the words seemingly dying in Deceit's throat. 

The next words, though, were impossible. Words that no one has ever said to each other, no matter the sins and mistakes and the torture. 

Deceit trembled, his left eye twitching, and Patton opened his eyes wide to see, to hear, behind the cracks of his fingers. Deceit said it in a mumble. "I f-forgive you."

Patton froze, eyes unblinking. His hands fell limply from his face, and the tears momentarily ceased. Three seconds of pure silence passed—then he shattered. Virgil immediately pulled Patton into an embrace, shaking with the force of the other's sobs. Patton buried his head into the crook of Virgil's neck, much like Roman did with Remus', and Logan brushed his fingers gently over Patton's back and shoulders. Remus couldn't comprehend it. He was a little too corrupted from the forced peace of his brother, too hopeful that one day, he'd be forgiven. That one day, he could look at Deceit or at Virgil and never wonder whether he'd feel consuming guilt or raging hatred again. But Patton's reaction…

Deceit glanced at Logan, who looked back worriedly. Roman still leaned his head in Remus' shoulder, tightening his grip in his brother's hand and arm, watching everything unfold too vulnerably from one eye. The physical contact blocked the fear, the darkness, and him. For now. Remus marveled at it, wondered if maybe it was possible to be forgiven. If he'd react the same way as Patton were that to happen.

Thomas had his mouth covered, rubbing away the rare tears sliding down his cheeks.

What did I say? Dee mouthed to Logan, hamstrung by the growing bewilderment. What did I do wrong?

Logan subtly shook his head again, eyes helpless once more. I don't know, the gesture said.

Patton calmed his quick breath, quivering from weak sobs, and finally looked up at Deceit. There was disbelief there, and something more. Roman whimpered, and Remus suddenly knew. It was heartbreak.

"You're just forgiving me 'cause you think you're the only one to blame." Patton's eyes and voice hardened. "You're lying to yourself. And you know." He gasped shakily, the gaze cracking again with agony that only Patton could have from comprehending all the others' pain best. "You know you can't forgive anyone if you can't forgive yourself."

There. There it was. The truth. Dee's features fought and merged with it. It was horrifying. But then, he clawed at his scales—his snake eye twitched madly—and he began to sink out.

Remus felt his gut drop, felt an unstoppable force punching his chest. He lurched forward, reached out to him, like he was the glint of blinding light coming through the ajar door of the cell

But he was too late.


 

Roman was struggling to hold onto the atmosphere and aura he lived with all his life—it was like controlling the thoughts, hopes, and dreams of three people. It felt like second nature before—balancing himself and Thomas was like controlling body and spirit naturally—but with Remus in the picture, and his very rebellious mind, Roman felt like he'd been battling for decades to 'repress' his disturbing ideation. And yet, Remus was a walking paradox—Roman felt burning loathing, and then gut-wrenching anxiety and empathy, all towards Deceit, and to a lesser extent, towards Virgil.

The others insisted on leaving Deceit alone, mainly Virgil and Thomas, but while Remus was tempted to leave him, out of a cruel wish to leave him to suffer in isolation— there was the guilt that Roman wished to chuck out into the ocean and never feel again.

It was why, after three days of silence, they stood outside of Deceit's room. 

Roman always felt torn about Deceit. Did Roman like him or dislike him? Did Deceit like him? Deceit was charming, too charming—a master of flattery, a manipulator, and a very, very compulsive liar. Then again, there was a certain observance and knowledge of people he had, and he could read into Roman by barely looking at him. Was that terrifying or alluring? Then there was the side of Deceit that Roman was certain only Remus could truly unlock, no matter Virgil's history with him and Logan's unrelenting search for truth. All Roman could trust about Remus is that, no matter how convoluted and disturbing his relationship with Deceit was, Deceit was someone very dear to him, perhaps even indispensable. It was enough to make Roman trust him. For now.

Remus knocked on the door. Roman saw how old and worn it was, and the oxidation on the doorknob. From afar, surprisingly enough, it looked flawless. Perhaps it was a trick of the...darkness. Roman attempted to clear his throat as silently as he could, but to no avail—the sensation of ashes was now real and not fantasy, and still they couldn't be shaken away. Was this atmosphere healthy at all? Would Logan condone it? How were the three who lived here not ill?

Remus gave him some experience of the cold, ashes, and dark almost instinctively, as soon as Roman shivered. It made Roman feel heavy from the fear of the darkness and all its memories, but at least the goosebumps covering his skin calmed somewhat.

Throughout the seconds, or minutes, that it would've taken somebody to answer, there was silence. Remus fidgeted and grumbled, and through Roman's defenses, he sensed the crippling, visceral fear of pure lack of noise. That explained why he was always so loud.

Remus knocked again. "Dee, buddy, come on out now," he singsonged, leaning onto the dilapidated door, cupping his mouth to be heard.

Silence.

Remus giggled, his forehead creasing and his pupils dilating in that way that screamed bad news. Roman pushed his peace onto him, silencing him before he acted. But Roman's own curiosity and concern for Deceit's honor was piqued, and he pushed open the door gently. Inside, on the king-sized bed, lay Deceit, staring at somewhere Roman couldn't see from this vantage point, unblinking, unmoving. He hadn't even seemed to notice the two visitors. Remus swallowed his whimper, but Roman still felt it rising up his own throat. 

Deceit was semi-curled up, scales, scars, and lemon iris hidden by the mattress and covers, holding a dark cloth tightly to his chest. The weak light from beyond the dark curtains lightly rested on his shadowed face, enhancing the bruise-like circle under his one visible eye. Roman followed Remus, who neared with a repressed wild energy, and only from a few feet away from the bed did he notice four perturbing details.

Number one: Deceit was holding a familiar, worn, slightly bleached, ebony hoodie, with cubic patterns of gray overlapping the black. Remus' face twisted at the sight of it.

Number two: Deceit was boring his gaze into a shattered, distorted mirror. Its reflection made Roman shudder. Remus seemed to recognize it, and wasn't nearly as perplexed or terrified by the sight of it, nor by the strange trance it held over Deceit.

Number three: Roman had never seen Deceit more defeated and empty in his life. It was exacerbated by the fourth detail he saw when he sat on the edge of the bed, which he saw through Remus' eyes, when he sat right before Deceit to cut off the stare into the broken reflection.

Number four: There was a slightly old blood stain on the mattress, right below where his cheek and left eye rested. Roman didn't wish to imagine, with Remus' help, the story behind that.

Only when Remus saw Deceit from up close, did Roman feel the drowning fear that Logan must've constantly suffered when dealing with him. Remus' hands hovered over Deceit.

Looks like our roles are reversed, Roman heard echoing in his head. It was Remus' voice—he'd forgotten they could communicate like this until Remus did it once more, after years of silence. Remus tried to chuckle again, as he glanced at Roman for help. 

"What do you mean?" murmured Roman.

Remus placed his palms over his chest. Broken. He then gestured to Deceit, eyes helpless. Fixer.

"Oh," Roman breathed, feeling cold spread through his lungs and heart.

Remus looked back at Deceit, and gently shook his shoulder in that playful way he always did to wake a seven-year-old Roman. "Dee."

Deceit finally shifted as if awakened, his heterochromatic eyes slowly rising to meet Remus'. "Hello."

Remus smiled. A real smile—or as real as it could be. Relief crashed through Roman at the sight of it. No matter how weary and dull it was, it still had some real joy left. "How do you feel, Dee?"

It took Deceit some time to respond. His eyelids fluttered for a second. "Fine, thank you." The words were slow, void of anything.

Roman took a deep breath, the empathy from feeling too heavy with guilt washing over him. It felt like yesterday, yet so long ago, the plights from two years ago—plights that now felt like mild inconveniences compared to what his brother endured, to what Deceit and Virgil witnessed. He attempted to ignore the questions plaguing his mind but it was all in vain—for how do you know? How can you really figure it out? How can you really fix that which is broken? How can you restore someone whose life has been unbearable suffering?

Roman and Remus shuddered, realizing both had control of the questions. But neither had the answers.

Remus sighed, swallowed down the flames like bile, and plastered on another smile. This smile, now, was so Deceit it almost gave Roman physical pain. "It's not really your fault, Dee. You did what you had to do. You were just following orders." 

Roman was sickened by how sweet everything about him was, and he realized this is how they lived, day by day, when Remus suffered and Roman didn't dare question his disappearance. Remus was a mirror, in a room that exacerbated lies, for he didn't know how else to lift Deceit up. Neither knew how to find true hope. But then that begged the question: Did Roman know how to find true hope, or was it as fantastical as their lies?

"I'm in quite the mood for sugarcoating, Remus," Deceit drawled, allowing himself to fall limp again.

"You still cared for me…" Remus faltered, for he was never the lover of pretty lies or glorious theatre, even as a child. "There must be a reason for that."

"Perhaps it was for you to develop Stockholm Syndrome. Did you ever consider that? I assume you didn't."

Roman sighed, and Remus scowled at the condescension in Deceit's brittle voice. Roman felt the foreign urge to pull Deceit up by the hair, and slammed his hand upon Remus' twitching one.

"Deceit." Roman pointedly glanced at Remus, and then looked at the other with shallow breaths plaguing him, who barely glimpsed back. "Let's get you out of here. This place is dreadful."

"And I know where we're going is outstandingly wonderful, isn't it?" Deceit laughed breathily, turning to lie on his back, staring cynically at the both of them. Roman conditioned himself not to wince at the butchered scales that no lie, makeup, or artificial lights in the Light Mindscape could hide. Remus didn't even blink at them.

"Y-yes."

Remus and Deceit both furrowed their brows and stared at him.

Roman sighed. He had no other choice. "Remember the old times, brother?" Remus' features shifted to slight pained nostalgia, but back to confusion. Roman smiled, but his lips were heavy. "Remember the nightmares? The secret door?"

Remus dropped his head, his features seconds from crumbling. Deceit took a deep breath, staring at the ceiling. 

"Why are you saying that?" snickered Remus, still avoiding eye contact.

Roman lifted his chin, trying to be the confidence the other two couldn't pretend to be yet. "Let's go. The secret door is still hidden, but it never ceased to exist." He pulled the wrists of both his brother and the deceiving side, and Remus jumped to his feet with the force. Deceit barely sat upright like a ragdoll would, but still held the hoodie tightly against his chest with one arm, weakly glaring at Roman all the way. The scars and his left eye weren't convincing. "Up, up, up!" he yelled enthusiastically, pulling more forcefully, feeling higher spirits the more he resonated with Remus' buried hope.

Remus tentatively smiled again, and glanced at Deceit in mute pleading. Deceit groaned quietly, reluctantly stood, letting the cloth fall on the mattress and spreading his arms as if satirically questioning Are you happy? Roman sighed steadily in relief and yanked them out of Deceit's room, through the dark, cold hallways, through the bright entrance to the Light Mindscape, and finally: into his room.

"None of this is a lie," said Deceit, lacking the energy Roman was used to.

"It won't matter for a little while," he answered, drawing the curtains to let in the sunlight, far brighter than the dimness of the deadened sun in the Dark Mindscape, opening the windows to breathe the fresh air. Deceit hissed and Remus yelped at the foreignness of it all. Roman threw his soft, heavy, embroidered blanket at them, which they desperately covered their skin with, and polished the embellished, golden mirrors and whistled a tune to let in the birds. Four immediately entered through the open window, as if they've waited so long for this moment. The fifth, a scarlet tanager, trailed behind, flapping its weak, black wings wildly and leaving behind a trail of red feathers. It seemed frazzled and savage, looking around, perhaps for safety. Roman allowed it to perch on his fingers, watching how it tilted its head and chirped its high-pitched, quick, almost desperate cry. Roman leaned his forehead into its own, and it calmed somewhat. Then it flew along with the others, who chirped and raced around the room in their own different energies. War and bloodshed was what it was supposed to represent, but he bathed its aura with his peace.

"What are you doing?" asked Deceit, uncertainty prevalent in his traveling gaze, which could not be settled with all there was to observe.

Remus grinned, tears brimming his entranced eyes as he watched the scarlet tanager with recognition. "I remember now."

"Sometimes all you have to do is hide," Roman whispered like a child spying for the yearly miracle in a silent house on Christmas Eve, feeling the luminescence and beauty return to his senses. "Close your eyes, hide in the closet, burrow under the bed, get lost in a book—it doesn't matter. All you have to do is escape from the world."

Remus' eyelids fluttered closed serenely, and he enveloped himself under the blanket with a swift movement of his arms. His side of the blanket swayed to the floor. Deceit wrenched the heavy cloth off himself and off the floor, but Remus was nowhere to be found. Deceit snapped his terrified gaze towards Roman. 

"He found his secret door." It was all that could be said. Deceit still stared like Roman had gone insane. Perhaps he had. But that never stopped anyone from having fun.

Deceit walked over to the windows, hunching over the light, and pulled them close. He took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. The curtains escaped his grasp and flew over him with the wind, until all that could be seen were the scarlet blinds dancing in the air, and nothing more. They died down, leaving space for one more bird to fly through. It was small, light brown, stained with dried blood, its feathers disheveled. In the sunlight, though, none of its imperfections could be seen. It careened into Roman's arms, silent save for whimpers drowned out by the song of the other birds, and Roman saw that it was a mockingbird. He cradled it, seeing its broken wing, its crippled leg, its white, blinded eye, all on the left side—and he saw the terror and hopelessness contrasting the imitation and defense that it should represent, according to cultures and legends. He still held it, closed his eyes, and burrowed his face into its feathers, wishing it healed.

When he opened his eyes, it flew from his gentle grasp, chirping its song freely, joining the serene blue jay first, and the scarlet tanager neared with wild joy—the owl lazily settled in a crook, staring with wide, fearful eyes—the chickadee cheerfully singing different songs as it fluttered around the mockingbird and the tanager. Finally, the red cardinal soared over them, shielding the smaller, weaker birds with the shadow of its wings.

Roman smiled, the weight lifted from his shoulders. If only they were birds.

A shrill, piercing laughter echoed throughout the green meadows, and Roman saw the lively woods in the distance, the coastline on the other end of the horizon. But then he saw Remus jumping off the cliff he stood on, falling to the waters of the fjord. Roman laughed, blinking back the tears. The paradise was never the same, never as complete or realistic or gorgeous without him.

Deceit ran until he reached the edge of the grassy ground, staring down where Remus fell with numbed shock. As soon as Remus crashed into the water, however, Roman raised his arms. Drops and swirls of water rose up in the air, lifting Remus upside down, who cackled like a child being tickled. Roman set him down beside them just in time, for the scarlet tanager settled on Remus' shoulder without any hesitation. Deceit observed the wild wonder of his once-prisoner, as he stared at the bird and at the paradise surrounding them—the luminescent, forgiving sun rays, the pure, crystalline waters, the emerald forests and palm trees in both poles of the nation of Imagination—and then…Deceit's lips twitched upwards.

Roman pushed Deceit towards the cliff, grabbed his wrist, and jumped off the edge, pulling him down along with gravity. He heard a cry of fear as they plummeted, but Roman whooped with the rush of adrenaline. The water was hundreds of feet away, but it enveloped them like a mother's embrace. They were welcomed in gently, guided upwards for oxygen by the living currents—though in this paradise, there was no need to breathe.

Deceit gasped for air anyway, staring at the walls of the fjord, up at the clear, teal skies, at Remus who jumped up and down in the heights of the cliff above. And though he was still dull and grey around the edges, he laughed nervously, until it became an actual giggle. His serpent eye brightened when it saw Remus' joy, his scars began to fade from the living, miraculous waters they floated in without any effort. Roman grinned until his cheeks hurt, and levitated the both of them up to where Remus stood. The inner child, the brother Roman knew before their separation, was back in his wide, chestnut irises, and he chirped along with the loyal bird on his shoulder.

Someone cleared their throat.

The three turned to watch Logan, who dubiously glanced at the obvious inconsistencies of climate and geography that he was barely holding inside. Roman grumbled, but then chided himself when he saw the fleeting hurt in Logan's eyes.

"What are you doing here, Logan?" he opted to say. "You usually hate my hijinks here."

"Hate is a strong word." Logan adjusted his glasses. "I merely planned to check on all of you. It appears—" He interrupted himself with a half-ironic chuckle, half-resigned sigh. "It appears you are needed." His words and gaze were directed at Deceit, then at Remus.

Deceit snorted immediately, the sad, tentative smile and reminiscent laughter replaced by the same cynical smirk. "All of us are needed. Well, then, I'll come in no time."

Remus' features distorted again like they did earlier, like he was hearing something he couldn't hear or see in his wildest dreams. 

Logan cleared his throat again and crossed his arms, beginning to drum his fingers onto his right one. "Deceit, are you alright? You haven't visited in a while."

"Your room helped, Logan. In fact, I don't need it anymore. I'm grateful for your offer." Deceit's eyes and lips gracefully moved, but Remus wasn't fooled by it like Roman was about to. His once childlike eyes burned with frustration.

Lie.

"Are you alright?" Logan repeated, eyes subtly more intense.

"Yes, I am." He smiled at Roman and Remus, but Roman now knew the difference. It was astounding how his artificial smile was more common than his real one—but he was still somehow so convincing. "These two were very helpful. I'm all better now."

Lie.

Logan drummed his fingers even faster, disappointment—and even pity—swarming his impassive eyes. Remus wrapped an arm around Deceit's shoulders, and only then did Roman notice how hunched they'd become. For a moment, Deceit was unresponsive, but then he gently shrugged the arm off. 

Something in Roman's chest, his heart, his ribs, his lungs, his sternum—crashed.

It really was a lie—they only believed it for a little while.

No matter how hard he tried, he was as successful in lifting them up and giving them wings as Deceit and Remus' fabrications.

The red cardinal yelped in pain in the distance, trying to save the mockingbird and the scarlet tanager that abruptly plummeted down the valley, but they clawed at its wings in an attempt to hold on, unable to fly. The red cardinal also began to plummet down the cliff, faster and faster, singing hopelessly to its death, brought down by the smaller, weaker ones, cursed by silence.

 

He closed his eyes tightly, holding back the tears, feeling anguish and panic returning in their full power, and when he opened his eyes again—

His room was darkened, the gold and silver of the mirrors and walls were rotten and black, the birds were gone, the wind was dead and cold, and the ashes covered all surfaces.

He glanced at Remus, who looked back, mirroring his same horror. Then he turned to Deceit. No mask could hide the hopelessness as he looked around the ruined room. Logan stood steady, offering a firm hand to lead them out. Deceit shoved into him and left on his own. Remus froze, then followed worriedly, sidestepping Logan apologetically. Roman took Logan's already lowering hand tightly, feeling his breath quicken and waver. 

"What did I do wrong?" he whimpered.

Logan stared at the empty entrance of the room, forlorn. "Nothing." But he instantly reincorporated himself and led Roman out the door, striding in perfectly balanced and distanced steps. "Deceit."

"Drop it." Deceit glared over his shoulder as he rounded the corner. Logan and Roman quickened their pace, and Logan turned Deceit around with a rigid hand on his stiffened shoulder. "There's nothing to solve or fix," the facetious side snapped condescendingly. 

Remus reveled for a moment in the boiling rage, taking a heavy breath. "You should just leave him alone, Logan." He deserves to suffer in isolation like I did.

Roman winced at the burning thought. And it was like Deceit heard the unheard words himself, through the vague words spoken. It suddenly snapped into place for Roman: Deceit was subconsciously agreeing to his self-imposed, Remus-sanctioned punishment. And all Logan could do was plead for one second in silence, and then turn around, leave, gait and limbs noticeably more yielding than before.

As he left, Roman felt his small flame of hope for them reduce to ashes.


 

"Dee."

"What?"

Remus sighed heavily, pushing his hands deeper upon his ears, digging his nails into his hair, hiding under the covers of his too-small bed. He heard all too clearly the soon-to-be dispute between Virgil and Deceit a room away, like those good old times when hearing them scream at each other was better than the sound of silence. He hated his room—better than somewhere else, but still worse than what could be. He cursed Roman and his damned hope. He was supposed to be grateful to be free, not nostalgic for a time that was gone, no matter how many times Roman wished to revive it. 

"Logan wasn't kidding when he said we needed you yesterday."

"I mean, how many strategies are you going to use on me? Just listen to Roman's dreams, and Thomas will be fine."

"You know it's more complicated than that! We're trying to listen to everyone, and everyone includes you." There was a pause, and Virgil continued, quieter. "I don't know what to do, and we think you can know. Thomas needs you, and I know you care about him."

"If you care about him, leave me out of it."

Remus curled tighter under the covers, squeezing his eyes shut, when Virgil's neverending rage towards Deceit was fed like a flame being enlivened by Deceit's gasoline. "Can you stop for once in your miserable, egomaniacal, fucking life, treating me like I'm nothing?!" His voice was vitriol incarnate, a shriek that could reach the Light Mindscape. "Just listen, damn it! I wouldn't be here if I had no reason—"

"Can you, for the love of all things revolting," Deceit shot back, all subtlety and grace gone in an instant, "ignore my miserable, egomaniacal, fucking existence?!"

Remus hadn't even noticed he'd smashed into the worn door of Deceit's room, earning a gasp and a loud groan. "Can you two shut the fuck up?! I will be an insomniac all my life thanks to you two!"

"It's 2pm," Virgil muttered shakily, rubbing his chest. He turned back to Deceit, who glared at Remus like he were a murderer infiltrating his home. "Honestly, if you were useless, I'd gladly leave you here to rot." Remus winced, but Deceit almost smiled in masochistic satisfaction, looking back at Virgil all too confidently. "But you aren't. The others are either blinded by lies or just don't know what to do."

"Can I come?" Remus blurted out. Nothing was solved in siblinghood terms, and they were all probably worse than ever, but he still craved the sunlight behind the curtains of the commons and the fresh air desperately. 

Deceit heightened his voice like Remus was a child, his eyes wide and innocent. "Oh, of course, insomniac."  

Virgil sighed. "Sure, come." He pulled Deceit up by the arm. "Let's go."

"What is it with you all dragging poor victims out of their rooms?" Deceit stumbled through the room, brushing his left cheek, temple, and eye, covering the worst of the scars, butchered scales, the dark circle under the eye, and finally the dull, deadened, resigned pain in it—but when he lowered it from the left side of his face, everything was somewhat fixed with a compulsive glamour. Remus felt the whiplash at the sudden transformation. Deceit was becoming increasingly careless, less and less refined with his lies. Remus wasn't sure why that was occurring.

Virgil rolled his eyes. "It has to do with the impossibility of the idea that is trying to help you, asshole." 

Everyone clambered to the Light Mindscape, and Remus quelled his urge to jump upon Roman and embrace him. There was something void in his brother's eyes, but he still smiled and gestured gracefully to welcome the three, though Remus saw how his hands and eyes shook intermittently with exhaustion. Even now, Remus realized, he was trying to rein Remus' delusions in. That explained his remaining semblance of sanity, and even his wish to sleep for weeks on end.

Patton's lips strained into a grin, but he faltered when Deceit deadpanned back. Logan was the only one who didn't cling onto pretenses—he pursed his lips, drumming his fingers against his thigh, but otherwise calm as ever.

Thomas, strangely, wasn't here.

"Now, this is a party, isn't it?" Remus sighed dreamily, opting on rubbing his perspiring arms to do something. "Now that the host isn't here, we can do whatever the fuck we want—"

Deceit rolled his eyes, slightly wincing at the light. "Why is Thomas here?" 

Virgil sighed. "Patton and Roman don't really think there's a terrible problem, so Thomas hasn't realized he needs our help yet."

Flashes of birds flying freely, wings reflecting sunshine—

Remus shook his head from the sudden vision. He glanced at Roman, whose eyes were faded, as if in a dream—but then they became a different kind of faded. Like the dream was dead.

The red cardinal tried to keep both crippled birds in the air, flapped its wings as hard as it could—

"There really is no problem, Virgil," murmured Roman, weariness prevalent, taking all his dramatic mannerisms, and Remus wasn't sure whether it was a good thing that Roman seemed too tired to be vexed as of now.

Virgil gestured at Roman while smirking at Deceit. "Case in point. Logan." Said side's eyes cleared from presumably his incessant thinking, and nodded in response. "Summarize."

"Gladly." Logan took a breath, clasping his hands. "Thomas has been subconsciously burdened by a friend, Louis, who seems to use subtle tactics to gain the upper hand in the so-called friendship."

It plummeted endlessly, dragged down by the other two, singing to its death—

Remus swallowed his groans, breathing shakily. He tried to focus.

The ashes call my name…!

Logan sighed. "However, because Thomas is predisposed to kindness and tends to see the good in people, and as an effect of Louis' nuanced manipulation, Thomas is figuratively blind to the situation."

"No offense, kiddo," Patton chuckled nervously, bringing his thumb and forefinger inches together, "but all you just said sounded a little biased."

"Well, Patton, I'm sure you don't even know what is impartial," Logan shot back.

"Look, all I'm saying is," Virgil cut in, holding his hands up to silence them, "it's not normal that Thomas feels weird and anxious at the thought of disagreeing or not being able to help Louis. It's not like he'll hurt Thomas or anything, but…" He licked his lips, fidgeting. "It just feels wrong to be afraid of his anger, or even his sarcasm."

"Yes, exactly." Roman smiled like Virgil said all the answers, spreading out his arms victoriously. "You're overreacting."

Gore leaked from broken wings, waters blackened, the air burned, the greens rotted—

Remus resorted to scratching his arm. He felt itchy all over, like all the energy was returning to him after four days of empty dreams he never let himself believe in, four days of artificial peace. But now he missed the dreams and peace, for he could swear the freezing death belonged to him, and that the lively light was poisoning him.

Virgil tipped his head back to groan at the ceiling as loudly as he could. "Dee." He looked at him with fire in his eyes. "Tell me you don't think I'm fucking crazy." Remus recognized the desperation, the terror, his unspoken words. Don't you dare call me paranoid.

"Virgil." Patton swallowed, taking a short breath, and continued, quieter, looking at the floor. "Language, please."

Virgil didn't even look at Patton, still glaring at Deceit.

Deceit hesitated, barely opening and closing his mouth. He crossed his arms slightly too tightly. "I believe you, Virgil," he finally muttered.

There was something, something that collapsed—perhaps relief, perhaps perplexity, perhaps shock, perhaps distrust—in Virgil's eyes. Remus closed his eyes and breathed. It was better than remembering their fights and screams. Better than imagining a bird with broken wings.

"You do?"

Remus opened his eyes to see Patton deflate and sense Roman's growing heaviness. Remus sighed, and couldn't control his hand that reached out to brush his brother's arm with his knuckles. Roman reached a hand to caress Remus' own.

Deceit smirked back at Virgil. "Do I?"

Virgil sighed deeply, broke eye contact, and began to peel the dead skin from his palms. "Okay, so...what do you propose?"

Deceit covered his mouth to laugh and gasped for breath. "I propose that you can solve it."

"Louis literally bends everything Thomas says, to make us feel like we're agreeing with him or giving him the argument." Virgil gestured wildly at everyone around him except Deceit. "How can we solve it?"

Deceit nodded, pretending to be thoughtful. "Right, that's not toxic. We can also guess who isn't toxic among us."

"Deceit—" Logan began, adjusting his glasses.

Deceit didn't even falter, resting his chin on his palm. "The truth being bent so easily is because our host is always trusting the so-called friend, no matter the lies." He glanced at the moral side for a millisecond, but Patton caught it, his eyes widening. "You, Virgil, never trusted him. Therefore, you can solve it."

"Deceit—"

"Avoid him, Virgil." Virgil looked at all the others in disbelief, his gaze remaining on Remus for a second longer, pleading for disagreement from anyone towards Deceit's argument. Roman was too weary to think of anything passionate to say. Patton looked at the floor, unblinking, seemingly internalizing Deceit's words. Logan gave up from speaking, adjusted his tie, sighed heavily through his nostrils, and his eyes faded as well. Deceit was oblivious to all the turmoil, to Remus' flashes of the past and the imagination that still didn't entirely belong to him—and there was a strange passion in Deceit's heterochromatic irises as he kept on arguing indifferently. "You either fight him or you take flight. It's not quite simple, you see—it doesn't really envelop the entirety of your identity and what you represent."

Pouring the fuel, 

Fanning the flames

Breaking the habit and melting the chains

"I agree, but I believe that is only half the solution," countered Logan, eyes increasing in intensity, threatening him to interrupt again. "Virgil is Thomas' self-preservation, but an insecure, fearful one. Patton is influencing Thomas to be kind, and Roman is influencing him to be hopeful that Louis will stop his treatment without any action from his part. Thomas needs…" He trailed off, but sighed shortly. "I'll just say it—Thomas needs an ego."

"You don't say." Deceit glanced at Roman, then at Virgil, furrowing his brows. "Does Logan think you two aren't enough?" 

The red cardinal choked on the ashes and the ink, its pores and feathers blocked by the now petroleum-like fjord—it gasped and gasped for breath, but there weren't any breaths to take—it plummeted into the depths of the pitch black, no sight of blue skies or bright suns—and no oxygen existed—and it screamed, bubbles the only trailing, evaporating evidence of its dying, desperate song—

Virgil rolled his eyes at Deceit's words, but then perturbation infiltrated his gaze. Remus whimpered and rubbed his chest. It was raw with pain, and he mentally cursed Roman and his vulnerable pride. Roman, however, only smiled sadly back at Remus, caressing the back of his head. Remus shuddered at the death in his eyes. Roman still smiled, but it was as empty and gracefully artificial as Deceit's.

Logan crossed his arms as well, began to drum his fingers in his arms once more. Remus noticed he was beginning to breathe shallowly. "He needs to think about his emotional and mental needs."

"Oh, so none of you do it for him!" Deceit gasped, eyes widening, placing a hand on his chest. "How dreadful!"

"Indeed, you are a prime example of Louis' behavior," Logan snapped.

Deceit dropped the dramatic act, grinning. "Virgil, Roman, do your job. I'm leaving you all to it. Hopefully you'll give me another chance of being a good person!" 

He strode off the commons, shadowed by the entrance to the Dark Mindscape, his silhouette mingling with the ashes.

Embracing the fear

Chasing the fight

The glow of the fire will light up the night

Roman took his arm away from Remus, looking at Virgil uncertainly, hunching over. Virgil glanced back, eyes doubtful, and even lost, fidgeting and scratching his palms and fingers. Remus felt like he couldn't breathe.

Patton stared at Logan, almost as if he didn't know him. He shook his head, silently scoffing, and spoke so quietly Remus struggled to listen. "So you really think I don't care about him?"

Care , the cardinal pleaded at the murky waters, at the crimson sky, at the ashes merging with the ink, but it was blinded by the darkness and no other bird noticed—

"Of course I know you care, Patton." Logan's eyes shattered with disbelief. "Do you really consider Deceit's falsehoods as fact?"

The bridges are burning

The heat's on my face

Making the past an unreachable place

The mockingbird was drowning but it didn't notice, it never had—the tanager was drowning, but it never knew how to breathe, save through the cardinal's lungs—

"Did you ever think that I was here to make Thomas feel like garbage?" Patton creased his brow, laughing in shock. "All I was trying to do is make Thomas a better person."

Logan gritted his teeth as he spoke. "You're functioning via guilt, not via morals. Do you have any information about who else functions via guilt, Patton?"

"I'm glad you just can't feel guilt, apparently!" Patton grinned, tears brimming in his gaze. "No, really! It's the worst emotion to ever feel, and it never goes away. But I'm sorry to say that it helps you to be selfless. Not a hypocritical egoist." Patton glared, betrayal swarming in his eyes. "So don't you dare compare me to him ever again."

Logan took a shaky breath, gripping his arms against his chest even tighter. There was a bitter resignation as he shook his head, eyes on the floor. "I can't comprehend how easy it is to listen to everyone except myself."

Patton furrowed his brows, his eyes widened, and reached out, the word " Wait— " on his lips, but Logan left as well.

Virgil buried his head in his hands, beginning to hyperventilate. "We're such a damn mess ."

Roman smiled sadly. "That we are."

Remus shuddered and closed his eyes. The nightmares were better than this. He sensed death hanging over their shadows, fed by their guilt.


 

Remus returned to Roman's room for the first time since the...incident, after another three days of silence after their last fight. He saw his twin sitting in bed limply against the bed frame, staring out the window, at the crimson sky. He wasn't doing anything, a book abandoned in his unmoving hands, and it struck Remus that the reason he came here was this exact scene before him.

"Brother," he called quietly. Roman's dead eyes slowly turned to him. Remus took a deep breath, snapped himself from the flashes of other dead, malicious eyes, and focused, feeling his heart shriveling within his sternum. "I believe we should…" This was so difficult to say. That was a novelty—Remus always knew what to say, never in his damned life shut up. But the words evaporated on his tongue, his lungs constricted, and he felt so heavy he could sleep forever and never wake up. "...I… I believe we should...n-never see each other again."

I won't turn around

Roman merely blinked once, slowly, but his expression never changed. He appeared so tired. His syllables dragged as he spoke. "Alright. Why?"

Remus took a deep, quivering breath. "Because I keep corrupting you. You're not yourself." He took another breath, but his chest was drowning no matter what he tried. "And I hate that I'm not myself. I can't control anything I think—and we keep having the same wretched fucking dream—"

"Okay."

Remus froze.

Roman smiled numbly. "I'm controlling you, but you're still…" He blinked again. "Uncontrollable."

Remus choked back a sob. "You know I'm gonna explode in your face if you don't stop."

I won't turn around

Roman nodded slowly, still smiling. "I know." He shrugged. "At least I lasted this far."

Remus shuddered, his skin crawling. This all felt so wrong. He gasped for breath as he backtracked towards the doorway, gripping the frame with white knuckles.

Roman's smile collapsed—it was a grief that couldn't be expressed with tears or sobs. Just silence. Remus whimpered—but before he knew it, both ran into each other and embraced, tightly, desperately, and Remus let go of his sobs, allowed himself to drown in Roman's arms. 

"I don't want to do this," he wailed, his skin memorizing Roman's breath, his soft royal cloth, his silent tears.

I won't turn around

"I know," came the thick reply.

The red cardinal shrieked, pulled down and clawed by the desperate tanager, both cursed with broken wings—

Remus gasped heavily and wrenched himself away from Roman. His vision tunneled, his surroundings disappeared. "I'm drowning you," he whispered, tears slipping down his frozen face. "That's what the dream means."

Roman hunched his shoulders, his gaze resigned. "It's not just you."

"I've been ruining you this whole time ," he sobbed, trembling uncontrollably.

"It's not your fault either."

Remus sprinted to the doorway again, holding on to the frame again, staring at Roman again. The ashes returned, and Roman glanced emotionlessly at his reflection in the blackened mirror. He must've gotten used to the monster living there. He looked back at Remus, grief stark in his features.

Pouring the fuel

Fanning the flames

Breaking the habit and melting the chains

"I won't forget you, never again." Roman's eyes brimmed with tears, but this time, not a single one escaped. "No matter how painful it is, you'll perpetually be part of me. My half."

Remus closed his eyes and leaned his forehead upon the door frame, feeling his heart reducing to ashes. But he forced his eyes to open, see him one last time. "I love you too, brother."

The bridges are burning

The heat's on my face

Making the past an unreachable place

He ran, losing feeling in his limbs—locked himself in his room, and destroyed everything in it, shrieking and gripping his head until he felt warm blood sliding down his hands—as the terror and hopelessness returned full-force, no sign of peace and joy in sight.

Pouring the fuel

Fanning the flame

I know…

This is the point of no return.

Chapter Text

Logan had never felt so lost in his entire existence.

He bit his cheek, drummed his fingertips, and pondered. He'd been doing that for a while—everything felt strange and malfunctioning, within him, around him, and he could only react in the oddest of ways. His chest was tight and his heart was beating harshly, though he sensed no immediate chaos. However, he was learning slowly that the chaos seemed to rest right under the surface. 

Roman had become only slightly more stable after separating from Remus, partly regaining his lost passion—but even still, there was something off with him. He'd been fantasizing incessantly, humming emptily to himself—he was barely...present, with them. Virgil had been mainly the one who would violently awaken Roman if they'd completely lost him, with a perhaps unhealthy dose of fear directed at someone who shouldn't, and perhaps couldn't, coexist with it. But whenever Roman would awaken from his fallacies, he would return to that frightening state of numbness. That was supposed to be Logan's job, be unfeeling—but Logan's been feeling like his thoughts and analyses and strategies and studies and observations and—everything was racing, no ceasing in sight.

Deceit had advised Roman seemingly forever ago, figuratively speaking, to be Thomas' ego and bring his needs and hopes to the forefront. Roman did that, actually, yet merely metaphorically. The literal execution wasn't successful. Imagining Louis to apologize and be kinder, or imagining an argument, appeased Thomas, but Roman didn't have enough courage to push Thomas to make those ideations a reality, especially when he was barely strong enough to be Virgil's foil.

Virgil had been constantly trembling these days, scratching his skin, breathing too shallowly, and exhibiting too many symptoms of sleep deprivation. He'd rambled until he was breathless, he'd become furious at Roman's illusions, and even verbally attacked Deceit if the latter so much as appeared to witness the disaster all this was.

Patton had become too quiet, had reproached less and less throughout the weeks, until then came a time when Patton had seemed too exhausted to smile.

Who would have known such a simple problem could become so unsolvable?

But then Logan knew that the surface problem was nothing compared to what was unleashed on July 20th, 2019—one month, two weeks, two days, three hours, seven minutes ago—buried somewhere, perhaps in the depths of their minds. This, this was what Deceit was so terrified of, this was what created his falsehoods and nightmares, what made him crave isolation and pace the empty halls of the Dark Mindscape throughout the dark, silent nights. Deceit knew that the truth would destroy them if they didn't ascertain the root of the problem. 

Because it had been destroying him since long ago. 

Logan wished to see him again. Deceit was always someone Logan somehow could connect with, if Deceit allowed it. He couldn't explain why—they were supposed to be nothing alike, and yet… 

Tired eyes, barely open

Crippled by a promise broken

A small part of him was also concerned this situation was burdening Remus and Deceit too much for their own good. Then again, they were all too burdened for their own good; there was enough proof of that. He closed his eyes, pushed his glasses up to rest upon his locks, dug the heels of his palms onto his eyelids. A migraine had been present, drumming in his mind, since almost a week ago, and he couldn't recall the last time he'd slept—but he needed a solution, for everyone merely ignored the problem—therefore he couldn't stop thinking.

"Logan?"

He peeked behind his hands and was greeted by a blurry, teal and beige blob. He'd forgotten they were all in the commons, sans Remus and Deceit, attempting to discuss a way out of this together. He adjusted his glasses and tie, mentally chanting the mantra of indifference until it drowned out all his other illogical thoughts. His vision was still blurred, even with the glasses; the light was too bright, too painful, his head pounded mercilessly. He blinked and squinted, focusing on Patton's hesitant eyes and purposefully small frame. "Yes?"

"Um." Patton glanced at Virgil for disagreement or alarm of any kind, but Virgil held his breath and gazed with wide eyes at the fatherly figure, more attentive and open than ever. Logan forced himself to focus again—this was the first time Patton spoke up today. His chest constricted at his small voice, his averted eyes. "I think we need an...an outside perspective. Again."

"Call Joan again?" Virgil asked, way too quickly. "We haven't seen 'em in a while."

"It's been some time since they and Thomas have spoken, hasn't it?" Logan murmured. One month, three weeks, two days, fifteen hours, thirty minutes, seven— He shook his head, dismissing the obsessive thoughts.  "That may not be helping matters either." 

Relief coursed through Patton's features. "Y-yeah, I think Joan and Talyn could help."

It was clear by now Thomas was avoiding them. It was Logan's fault after all—Thomas was too busy with the damn schedule, until he merely gave up on it altogether. That schedule began giving Logan nightmares four days ago. Virgil hated this vulnerability of his and it showed, Patton was too ashamed for some reason Logan couldn't fathom, Roman dreamed of better days. Remus and Deceit were nowhere to be found in the Light Mindscape, but the latter seemed involuntarily successful in making Thomas lie to himself that this wasn't a problem, or that all this would fade over time. 

I have seen an empire falling

Hopeless, can you hear me calling?

Objectively, this couldn't be more dysfunctional. Therefore, Patton, Virgil, and Logan all looked at each other, nodded, and pulled for Thomas' attention. But they couldn't reach him. Logan felt his breath hitch, and looked at Roman, who shook his head, features ready to laugh it all off. Logan's chest tightened. Roman seemed to block them from pulling for their host. Perhaps he was involuntarily lying to Thomas as well.

The fear of falling apart seemed to become too much for Virgil, palpable in the way he desperately glanced at Roman, holding out his hand, waiting for the other to take it, panic in his eyes. But Roman giggled disbelievingly, irises fixed on Logan as he swatted Virgil's hand away. There's no way we're doing that, his eyes pleaded hysterically. Patton sighed, placing a hand on Roman's shoulder, grief stark in his features. But his lips lifted in comfort, and he nodded encouragingly.

Roman sighed, eyes lost, perhaps slightly disheartened—Logan wasn't sure how Roman could feel like this, given that dreams could potentially be in metaphorical reach after solving...whatever this was. But Virgil and Patton pleaded the Prince with their eyes. Roman glanced at Logan once more, and the latter nodded. It'll be alright, he hoped the gesture said. Roman paused, then nodded back, solemn, and finally took Patton and Virgil's hands. The two slumped in relief, taking Logan's hands gently. It was the quietest, most peaceful agreement they'd had in so long, perhaps in forever. Perhaps it was the first quiet agreement. And without a single word. Logan blinked quickly, fought the stinging in his eyes. They closed their eyes at the same time, tightening their hold, and pulled as strongly as they could. Logan felt the pain, the anxiety, the guilt, the broken dreams of all the others, all they brought to the surface, just to reach their host. All Logan could bring to the table was that he was lost. And then he felt his surroundings distort, transform, and he mentally sensed the change from abstract, mentally conjured Mindscape commons, to a concrete living room.

"Okay, okay, fine, geez. What do you want? " Thomas panted, clutching his chest, glaring at all of them. "Next time you want my attention, you each take your turn, and do your best to not give me a heart attack and heartbreak at the same time!"

"You wouldn't have listened to us any other way," murmured Patton guiltily, looking at the floor. 

"Thomas." Virgil was thrumming with adrenaline from the success, his eyes wide, pupils dilated. In a second, Logan realized they all felt voiceless until this very moment. "What the fuck were you thinking?" He began to count his fingers every observations he'd made and kept for this moment. "You distanced yourself from everyone, you've worked yourself to death while still sucking at making videos, only to not make any whatsoever—what is going on?!"

"You tell me!" Thomas shouted back, eyes beginning to brim with tears. "I don't know what's wrong with me, but I can't control a single thing in my life! What the hell did you do to me?!"

A voice had begun whispering in Logan's head since he realized his logic had broken Roman, in that dreadfully perfect paradise—that felt like a cognitive distortion, but he couldn't forget the way Roman's eyes fell to despair. It was a rare, quiet voice, that hid between his thoughts, and with time Logan forgot how faulty it sounded. It only spoke on days where he had no logical guidance or evidence to base himself. Moments like these. And right at that moment, the voice whispered about how he was never daunted nor perplexed by this dilemma, while everyone, absolutely everyone around him—even Remus—was terrified of how far they've fallen. But now, his racing thoughts, the voice that said he'd been useless too long, his inability to breathe right were proof: he was no exception. God, he was a party in this terrible statistic.

Turn away from all I know

Burning this bridge behind me

Light the way and I'll follow

Where you go

"We…" He shook his head, crossing his arms tightly, his ribs crushing his lungs. His migraine aggravated exponentially. Admitting this was...terrifying. "I do… I do not know what's wrong either, Thomas," he muttered, furrowing his brows, vision shifting and blurring with the four words that haunted him throughout months. Everyone glanced at him in shock. He felt himself stiffen, but found a strange, deep strength to continue. "That's why Patton had a temporary solution that would help enlighten the situation." He gestured at the other side with one hand, nodding at him in encouragement. 

Patton smiled slightly, brows furrowing in confusion. He turned to Thomas, shuffling his feet. "Yeah, Thomas. First, though, I wanted to apologize for how, uh, terrible I've been feeling. I know it mustn't have been easy for you." 

Thomas sighed quietly, but smiled wryly. "It's okay, Pat."

Patton closed his eyes and moaned. "I wish it were, but I have no idea how to fix it." He opened his eyes again, intertwining his hands. There was a muted hope in them. "Maybe...Joan and Talyn could clear this up. You know, like Joan did last time."

Last time being the awful derealization episode Deceit suffered. 

Thomas and Virgil creased their foreheads in doubt, but Virgil still snapped his fingers quickly. "Go, Thomas, for the love of Hades. Just invite them home. You know you can't stand being alone for two seconds longer."

Roman snorted, probably at the mythological reference, playing with his nails, finally refocusing. "I mean, technically, he is not alone—"

"Roman," Logan interrupted, adjusting his glasses, "he is communicating with his own mind and personality. Ergo, he's talking to himself. He is alone."

Roman's lazy smile twitched. "Figuratively?"

"Literally."

Can you tell me what is real?

Cause I lost my way again

Can you tell me how to feel?

Cause I don't feel anything

Roman sighed and slumped, reluctantly quietening once more, and Logan refrained from exhaling in relief. They finally found a logical standstill for the first time in weeks. "Alright. I…" Roman's eyes flashed in pain. "Then I don't wish to be alone anymore either."

"Okay," said Thomas, eyeing them uncertainly. "I'm sorry guys, I'm being hard on myself. Really hard on myself. I just…" He shrugged, gesturing helplessly. "I guess I'm scared too. Or something."

"We won't be scared by ourselves anymore," promised Virgil, a tinge of relief behind his wry smirk.

Logan could functionally inhale again when Thomas pulled out his phone—but remembered how he'd held onto someone who wasn't here now, had begged him to just let go, right when their host had asked for help last time.

Logan's core yearned to unlock the truth in the facetious side, remedy his toxic falsehoods, repair all the damage in his paradoxical eyes. Perhaps then, Logan finally wouldn't be so confounded by all the distortions, all the faulty lies. And that wretched voice in his head.


 

"Thomas, you're such a nice guy…" Talyn began, pity in their eyes.

"But this is just getting out of hand," finished Joan, shaking their head, eyes wide.

Thomas sighed heavily, his own irises swarmed with irony. No shit. "I know."

Roman was feeling restless as he watched the three friends discuss a topic he did not crave hearing about in the most boring of ways—but simultaneously, he felt too weary to even fidget or act out any distraction that raced through his frazzled thoughts. He felt strange and lost and wished to sing it all away—but what was the point in singing anyway?

Searching through the darkness below

For a light in seas of shadows

Talyn brushed their hand through their fiery curls. "Look, I get what you're going through. I bet it's mixing with a lot of stuff you're going through too. But trust me when I say, you gotta cut Louis off."

"But he apologized," Thomas whined. "I don't wanna be a dick to him when he's trying to change and all."

Joan scoffed. "Change—and this is the umpteenth time he apologizes, isn't it?" At Thomas' silence, they continued, gentler. "He's basically just apologizing to get permission to insult you again. But it's so subtle you barely notice it."

Thomas groaned, hanging his head upon the back of the couch. Roman very much related to that weary gesture, but he felt too tired to even voice his same concerns. "Well, what am I supposed to do?"

"Stop being his friend?" Talyn deadpanned. "He's a dick to you, and you worry about being the dick—that's just sad, dude."

Joan exhaled through their nostrils, sympathy in their eyes. "Also—look, take as long as you need of a break, Thomas. We know you need it."

"I just—weirdly enough, I hope that's only one of the problems." Thomas embraced himself, scowling. "I mean, I'm letting everyone down, and my excuse is a fake friend who I can't even get enough courage to leave alone?"

That stung. Roman scowled, growling—and then stopped himself. He was behaving like his brother. It was his fault, after all—Deceit gave him one job, and he ruined ThomaThomas' dreams anyway—

Talyn put their hand on his shoulder, shaking their head earnestly, sorrowful surprise in their eyes. "We're here for you, and you'd never let us down."

"And take as long as you need," Joan echoed, gentler, eyes shimmering with empathy. "You'll figure this out. Just cut off some toxicity, and we'll help in what we can. I promise, it'll get better."

"And, you know, you can trust us too," Talyn added awkwardly, shrugging, "You can tell us, once you figure out the stuff giving you a mindfuck."

Joan and Thomas giggled, and the latter smiled weakly. "Thanks, guys really. And—let me get this straight."

"Can you?" responded Joan, raising their eyebrows.

Now it was Talyn who giggled, and Thomas' smile widened slightly. Roman marveled at it, jaw slack. He hadn't seen his host in too long, but hadn't seen even a semi-real smile on his lips in longer.

"You got me. But, uh—you actually said it was fine if I was a dick?"

Talyn and Joan looked at each other, before Talyn spoke again, shrugging again, voice singing off-key. "Self-care isn't selfish, Thomas."

"Yeah, man, take care of yourself for a while, please," added Joan, eyes widened. "You really think you're being a dick for feeling bad? Just be, like, one percent more 'selfish'," they wagged their fingers as apostrophes," to leave that 'friend'. Let your fans wait for a while, and listen to yourself. What do you want? What's bothering you?"

Roman closed his eyes at the questioning, seeking the answers. His arms snaked to embrace himself tightly. He was the bitter opposite of his nature—he knew that. With his twin, he was miserable. Without his twin, he was miserable. With Deceit, he was reminded of his failure. Without Deceit, he was reminded of his failure. So what was the cause of this? Was he merely being vexatious, obnoxious, incorrigibly burdensome for everyone for no reason at all? And...

What did he want?

Roman opened his eyes to see Thomas stare at both his friends, comprehension only slightly shining in his dark irises. Roman hadn't realized he was holding his breath to hear his host's answer, digging his nails into his arms just like Remus would. 

"I don't know," Thomas mumbled, staring at the coffee table below him, pursing his lips.

Joan smiled. "Well, don't stop asking yourself until you find out."

Logan's head snapped up, and he gasped. Virgil facepalmed. "Of course," whispered Logan.

"Mutherfucker," moaned Virgil.

Both shouted in unison at the ceiling, frustration boiling in their eyes. "Deceit!"

No one answered.

Patton stared at both of them, perplexed, but then his eyes widened, cleared. He sighed, utterly dejected, and dragged one hand through his hair, the other down his face, leaving his glasses lopsided. "How could I have been so blind?"

"You're not the only one," muttered Virgil, while Logan rubbed his temples, clearly aggravated.

Roman felt half-present, already imagining how he would face Louis with actual courage this time. How to figure out those unknown answers. "What about him?"

Far from you, but I could never

Abdicate, I'll fight forever

"Self-preservation, Roman," Logan answered, suddenly so patient Roman smiled slightly in surprise. "Deceit and Virgil are halfs, two sides of self-preservation." Logan's words increased in speed, and he clasped his hands together, eyes infinitely more concerned as each second passed. "They take polar opposite stances on the best way to survive, but they still need to work together for Thomas to reach balance." He ran his hands through his hair, letting out a half-formed laugh of disbelief." Deceit has been barely present, and therefore, it resulted in Thomas not taking care of himself—this proves my theory was correct after all this time!"

"And my instincts actually made sense," Virgil added, biting his nails, scoffing. "I fucking knew Dee was messed up when he—" He turned his head upwards and groaned. "Gee, we're quite immune to Deceit's lies, aren't we?"

"This has happened like, a thousand times to Thomas." Patton stared at the floor, forlorn. "Louis, and what happened to Remus, and... I remember it all now. All the times...Thomas did it. Since he was a kid." He sighed, glancing upwards bitterly. "And here I thought Dee and I could work together a month ago."

"Deceit," Logan repeated, crossing his arms. He then glanced at Thomas, who glanced back with a look that was meant to quieten them before proceeding to speak with Joan and Talyn. 

But Deceit didn't answer.

Roman didn't comprehend the suspicion in Virgil's eyes. Patton was right with his advice, it seemed. Roman found himself believing Thomas' friends' words, believing and hoping with a purpose for the first time; he found an energy in his core he hadn't sensed in a while. He felt himself grin freely. They finally found a fragment of this terrible melodrama between them. Perhaps it was a fragment of one answer. His chest swelled, his heart pounded, and he fought a relieved, confused laugh from tumbling out of his lips. No matter how unsteady he felt, this was infinitely better than the lead in his bones and veins. He unsheathed his sword and held it high triumphantly. "Then let us discover his whereabouts!"

But then he felt his skin crawl—saw a crimson cardinal drowning in ink staining it ebony, another bird wildly clawing and pecking the once-graceful cardinal's feathers to hold on—and the sword slipped from his grasp and clattered to the floor.

Remus snapped into presence beside Roman right on cue, perspiring heavily, heaving, eyes wild with panic. For a split second, he looked into Roman's eyes, and winced, looking away. Roman felt a jolt of chaos with that split second of eye contact, making him flinch. "I can't find him," Remus whispered hoarsely.

Roman's blood ran cold. Virgil's eyes widened. A whimper escaped Patton's lips. Logan stiffened. 

Thomas glanced at them once more, but continued thanking his friends profusely and saying goodbye, muted, perplexed fear in his eyes. He closed the door to his apartment, swiveled around, and strode to Remus. "What are you talking about?"

"You can't find Deceit?" Patton asked, voice so small and frail Roman could barely hear.

Remus frantically shook his head, giggling hysterically, words tripping over themselves. "I couldn't hear him pacing, he's not in his room, nor in Virgil's, I checked in my side of Imagination—he's just gone! "

Virgil clenched his eyes shut, biting his lip and peeling skin from his dry palms, breath shallow. Logan's eyes faded as he processed, fingers racing upon his arms in lack of rhythm. Patton walked up to Remus and tried to comfort him with soft whispers. Roman suddenly felt so far away.

Deceit ducked out.

And he couldn't be found.

It was like a vampire was being introduced to blood after avoiding it completely for decades, barely surviving. Merely their eyes meeting once—Remus' very presence—gave Roman nausea, made his mind race, twisted his organs. But he buried the nightmare and the hopelessness, and fought his own desperate dreams to keep them at bay. He blinked away the fear, the darkness, his dark reflection on the windows behind closed curtains, the Mind Flayer hiding in the atmosphere, and finally, for the first time since they'd separated, focused. 

It was time to battle for Thomas, not sit around waiting for miracles.

"Then we'll find him," he stated fiercely. "He won't duck out on our watch."

Remus glanced at him, but didn't dare look into his eyes—and through the tears, pure joy and relief shone in his wildly panicked eyes. Before they could think, their fingers interlaced. It was the first time in weeks that Roman somehow felt alive. He felt complete, whole, holding his brother's hand, and sensed Remus finally find peace and hope for his chaotic mind. Both sank out together, and found themselves in the darkness sprinkled with ashes once more, silhouettes and dreadful silence distorting Roman's vision. The Prince glanced behind his shoulder to see Virgil and Logan quickly following, the former sprinting while the latter held Patton's hand and strode. Patton froze in the entrance of the Dark Mindscape, gazing into the darkened hall, the floating ashes falling in the distance. 

Roman realized he hadn't been here in so long, yet the phantom memories traced along his insides and skin, reminding him of a life he didn't live in such a lifeless place. But Patton had never been here, only had glimpses of this place when Remus teased his mind to them all so long ago, in the day of the revelation of truth—the day that haunted them with guilt for leaving the three darker ones down here. Patton glanced at Logan uncertainly, and Logan nodded. They surged forward, followed by Thomas, who bristled at the sight before him as he walked. 

Roman ran along with his brother, winced at the sharp pain in his hand—Remus was digging his nails onto it, never looking back nor stopping. Roman closed his eyes, let his serenity slip from his heart, traveling from his shoulder, through his arm, brought by veins to his fingertips. He squeezed Remus' hand comfortingly, sharing his essence. Hopefully it would work. We'll find him, brother.

They checked Deceit's room once more, but it was empty—the broken mirror covered with dark cloth, books, papers, and studies were scattered over the floor, evidence of something frightening for all of them. Remus whimpered, and Virgil bit his fist. 

They quickly examined Remus' own destruction of a room, all features slack and all eyes horrified, save for Remus', at weapons embedded into blood-splattered walls, furniture splintered and broken into pieces. But Deceit wasn't there either.

"Let's separate," said Virgil, thrumming and trembling with fear, eyes filled with dread. "We need to find him now."

"Adequate," responded Logan, rubbing Patton's arms. The latter's teeth chattered, his frame jerked with heavy shivers. "Patton, Thomas, stay with me." Nobody challenged the level order, burdened with foreboding. He waited until the two he spoke to nodded, and looked to Roman. "Roman, are you alright?"

Remus subconsciously clenched his white-knuckled grip impossibly tighter. But Roman smiled to comfort all of them, and it wasn't painful this time. "More fabulous than ever, Logan."

Logan nodded, stiffened muscles finally loosening with relief. Then his gaze hardened with authority once more, eyes settling on the final two. "Remus, Virgil, stay with him. You know this place best, and you know his limits. We don't need a relapse from anyone else on top of this."

Virgil scratched his hands but straightened. "We'll protect him."

Remus finally bore his gaze into Roman's own, the promise etched into his features, the certainty in his irises. 

"If we don't find him after twenty minutes we reunite in the kitchen down here." Logan looked every single one in the eye, searching for something Roman couldn't conjecture. "But optimistically speaking, that won't happen. Objectively speaking, there's a forty-three percent chance we won't find him in longer than the time limit."

"Nevertheless, we shall," stated Roman. Thomas nodded at that, eyes desperate to believe it. Remus fought his brother's hope, but at least he didn't dive back into the loneliness and despair given by the...cell.

Cell—

Both twins gasped heavily, meeting each other's gazes in horror.

"What?" asked Thomas, hugging himself. His eyes shone with the mix of ferocity and fear, hope and dread, but there was something darker threatening to take over. "What is it?"

"There is one place I haven't looked into," Remus murmured, voice wobbling. Roman looked away and winced again, fighting the terror, the worst-case scenarios, the flashbacks.

Virgil's forehead creased in confusion, but then he paled to the color of the ashes levitating around him. "No…"

Without another word, Remus whirled around and ran once more, but the siblings' grip slipped. Remus didn't seem to notice. Roman followed, leaving the others behind with their perplexed alarm. Before he knew it, they reached an old, black metal door, far more oxidized than the door of his brother's room. It exuded a deep, buried, sinister darkness within Roman. He saw it in the quivering of Remus' hands, the hunch of his shoulders, the haunting, phantom agony in his bloodshot eyes. But Remus still unlocked the door with trembling fingers, and flinched as the door screeched ajar at his yanking.

Virgil gasped shallowly, holding onto Logan's arm, staring into the crack of the door with pure terror, but his sight was blocked by the barely ajar door, and Remus' presence in the doorway. Patton shuddered, shivering violently now, dark circles growing under his eyes. He really wasn't reacting well to this place. Logan swallowed, breathing in a forced, level rhythm. Thomas was still confused, glancing at the others worriedly, then at Remus, waiting for answers. Remus was the only one who could see into the mystery, but he remained locked in place, muscles stiffened, as he stared into the void within—hopefully not Deceit. Roman witnessed a phantasmagoria from his brother's mingled nightmares and memories—but in the chaos of his visions, there was one thing they both yearned to be a chimera and nothing more.

A sob tore from Remus' throat, and Roman knew instantly it wasn't a phantasm. Remus surged forward, an abruptly unstoppable force, only to then collapse in the middle of the pitch black prison. Freezing drafts settled in Roman's bones now that Remus didn't block the entrance, and only then he saw, from the dim light refracting on disturbing scales, and a gloved hand shielding eyes with a hiss, that he was really here.

Roman unwillingly entered, embracing himself, smelling the illusive memory of gore, feeling the crush of isolation, tears pushing behind his eyes, shrieks echoing in his mind. If he'd remain here for an hour, he knew in his heart he'd go insane.

How did you survive this, brother?

Remus sobbed again, fury, pity, guilt, relief a hurricane in his mind, holding Deceit tightly. Roman neared, saw the withered, lost irises of Deceit, and recognized them—it was like looking into a mirror, when Remus had too much control on his sight, his reflection. Deceit blinked sluggishly, weakly pushing Remus away. The cicatrices that traveled from his cheek to his temple were worse than ever, and if Roman squinted, he could see a fresh wound on his temple, inches away from his lemon eye. The pure perplexity in Deceit's features unleashed Roman's own tears, merging with the dying sun inside this cell, the false memories of burying his brother. 

Roman and Remus both took Deceit's arms, but Deceit wrenched them away, distrust and fear increasingly overwhelming the faded waking dream in his heterochromatic irises. They then gripped him ever tighter and dragged him out of the cell, where the others waited. Virgil and Patton promptly encompassed him.

"Give him space," Logan murmured, holding Patton and Virgil back from embracing him. Deceit hunched further from all of them, squinting at the darkened luminescence that left shadows in all their features. It was better lighting than the pure pitch black within that cell.

Remus rocked back and forth on his feet, tightly crushing his ribs, choking back furious, heartbreaking sobs. But then he opened his lips, and croaked, "How long?"

"Couple hours." Deceit blinked sluggishly again, his serpent pupil dilated. 

"Lie."

Deceit's yellow eye now betrayed the guilt. Mockingbird whimpered, drowning, followed by the scarlet tanager— "Since last night."

Remus snarled, limbs twitching. His eyes were haunted with guilt as well. "Why?" 

Deceit remained silent, breaking eye contact, seemingly lost in thought. 

Virgil peeled his hands and bit his lip until he drew blood, shaking his head in disbelief. "You're lying—there's no way you were there that long." Logan checked the time by craning his neck, watching the clock hanging in the kitchen. Roman followed suit, fearing the way Logan's features fell, and swallowed a gasp. It was three in the afternoon. Questions raced in his mind— What hour in the night did he come here? What caused him to do it? Why were the two rooms here in such a destroyed state? Why were Deceit's eyes so dead? What could he have seen? Could he have gone insane if they hadn't found him?  

Patton merely covered his mouth, shivering, staring at the cell with numbed horror. He was finally piecing everything together.

Deceit ducked his head. "I don't know why," he answered instead.

Logan kneeled before Deceit and gently placed his hand on his arm, before Deceit wrenched it away. Logan didn't seem perturbed by that, letting his own arm fall, but his eyes observed him deeply. He shivered intermittently, drumming his fingers against the dusty floor. "Perhaps we should all visit my room. For some impartial truth."

"Th-the only one in c-control of the lies i-is Deceit." Patton still stared at the cell, heartbroken tears trapped in his eyes, teeth chattering loudly, but his expression was solemn. "If h-he won't let g-g-go of them, it's not y-your fault."

Something broke in Logan's eyes, and he looked to the floor. But Deceit glanced at Patton, almost as if questioning. "Let's go," Deceit challenged.

Logan didn't hesitate. He offered his hand, and Deceit wavered, but took it. Logan pulled him to his feet, and beckoned the others, glancing at their frozen host. "Thomas, bring us there."

"I—" Thomas trailed off.

Roman winced again, closing his eyes against the onslaught of memories that didn't belong to him. He sensed Remus trembling more and more, looking away from Roman. Roman had a premonition that he seemed like him in Remus' eyes.

"I don't think I can even think clearly, Logan," Thomas admitted helplessly. Roman's eyes snapped open at the words. Were Remus and himself affecting him to that point? 

Logan sighed knowingly, his gaze faded in thought. "Just focus on the truth." A beat of silence, and Logan began to drum his fingers subconsciously on the back of Deceit's hand. "Even if it hurts."

Thomas sighed as well, just as wearily as Logan had, and closed his eyes, furrowed his brows. 

Roman closed his eyes once more, trying to balance the terror, but Remus was still too powerful; the trigger of the trauma was mere feet away from both of them. But then he felt the slow change of his surroundings, the light shining beyond his eyelids, the warmth finally comforting his freezing bones and racing bloodstream. He opened his eyes and was greeted by the indigo and cobalt hues of walls, bookshelves, and furniture before him. He took a deep breath, feeling the echoes of numbness, somewhat like that grief of separation a mere week ago—but this was much more serene than the fall from hope he'd had.

Turn away from all that I know

Burning this bridge behind me

Remus gasped for breath, like he'd been drowning until now. Roman felt his mind clear and his lungs expand along with his brother's. Deceit blinked and sighed quietly in relief, finding balance in the dim light and temperate atmosphere, still holding Logan's hand. Thomas still held his eyes closed, concentrated. Patton still shivered heavily, ashen, and sat on Logan's bed to catch his breath. Virgil hesitantly settled down beside him, thrumming with frenzy, leaning his head on Patton's shoulder and closing his eyes tightly.

"Deceit…" Remus still quivered, rage flashing in his hopeless gaze. Roman couldn't help taking his hand once more, pushing peace onto him. It brought some comfort to both of them. "Dee, can we speak alone?"

Logan nodded. "In a moment—let's give us time to wind down."

Indeed, Roman felt like everything in his mind raced, only to momentarily cease and ebb, but Remus still trembled unsteadily, no matter how much Roman attempted to balance everything out. It was like second nature now, being the other half, reaching equilibrium—but their connection was still so wrong and volatile and erratic. 

Light the way and I'll follow

Where you go

Deceit sighed heavily now, finally moving less limply, less wearily, but there was something missing in his eyes, as if they'd left it in the cell to rot. Thomas finally opened his eyes, finally displaying some peace Roman hadn't seen in too long. Patton caressed Virgil's trembling back, quietly shedding tears, while Virgil buried his head in the crook of Patton's neck. Deceit scoffed, glancing at all of them, at how they trembled and fought terror, and then stared at Logan, who drummed his fingers in the back of Deceit's hand, eyes switching in deep thought. 

"You can't be serious," Deceit murmured, shaking his head. "It was quite the problem—Remus only missed me for a day. Actually, less than that. And now, you're actually worried? "

Patton didn't answer, rubbing the tears off his cheeks, but Virgil glared weakly. Logan retracted his hand, holding it to his chest, looking at Deceit with pity. 

"I believe I speak for everyone when I say, yes," responded Roman, squeezing his grip on Remus' hand, glaring daggers at Deceit. "We're serious, we're actually worried. We haven't seen you in so long, and the first thing you do is lock yourself into Remus' cell. "

"Okay!" Deceit shouted back, drowning out Remus' whimper, unaware of Virgil hiding ever further behind Patton as soon as the words escaped Roman's lips. In a split second, Roman realized the terribly fragile states of mind the three had whenever they approached this topic. "Yes! You're 'worried' about me." Deceit made apostrophes in the air with his fingers, bitterness so palpable in his gaze Roman feared he'd say something vitriolic. "I was there for only three-fourths of a day. I'm fine. Can we please keep talking about this then?"

"No," Virgil croaked. "No, we can't."

Remus begged to differ, but Roman felt how his brother held himself back, still shaking from terror and lividity. 

Can you tell me what is real?

Cause I've lost my way again

"Deceit," Logan finally spoke up, eyes fixed on the floor. "The reason we came to get you is because Thomas needs you to end the so-called friendship between him and Louis."

Deceit laughed breathily, cupping his scaled, scarred cheek. His wound looked sickly in this lighting. "So, now we're selfish on purpose, are we?"

"I was harming Thomas, Dee," mumbled Patton, eyes swimming in deep guilt. He seemed barely present. Roman's heart shriveled at the sight. "You were right. I was blind. I thought he needed to be a good friend, no matter what. So do what you were made to do."

Deceit took a deep breath, façade cracking as quickly as it came, but it was reincorporated even faster. Roman couldn't help but feel he was barely keeping himself together. Remus closed his eyes to block his tears, but Roman felt deep in his soul the wish to feel the bitter hatred more than the sweet empathy. "Yes. Logan said going against you and what Thomas deems correct is detrimental. I can d—I can't do it."

"In this case, you are an exception, Deceit." Logan adjusted his glasses, loosened his tie. "You can solve at least one of our problems."

"What other problems could we have?" Deceit asked mockingly.

Logan finally looked at Deceit, the mockery in his own gaze. "Who do you think?"

Deceit froze and broke eye contact. Roman wished he had that power Logan had over him. 

"You know well who it is," pressed Logan, and Roman wondered the meaning behind all the unspoken words between those two. Thomas' eyes flashed between them, just as lost.

"Ah, yes. It isn't me, is it?" Deceit scoffed, resting his chin in his palm to pretend to think. "Which is why...it's marvelous and very logical that I'm a solution for a friendship." Deceit lost all energy to place theatrics behind his words, resorting to chafe the left side of his face. 

Roman couldn't differentiate the lies from the truth, but feared the resigned disbelief in Deceit's eyes, the buried pain in his yellow iris. Patton shook his head, opening his mouth to speak, perhaps to try to convince him.

But Logan sighed, snapping Patton's attention to him. The former pinched the bridge of his nose. "Then go."

"...W-what?" laughed Roman disbelievingly. "That's it? That's what we're doing?"

Logan crossed his arms, drumming his fingers on his arms yet again. Bitter dissatisfaction shone in his stiff features. "He won't listen, Patton was right about that."

Deceit seemed satisfied, but then he scraped his scales incessantly again, heterochromatic eyes lost in thought.

"No," growled Remus, eyelids lifting to show blazing irises. "He's coming with me."

Roman could barely blink before his brother took Deceit's arm and wrenched him towards himself—and in a flurry of ashes, both were gone. Roman's hand felt impossibly cold, and something was left weightless and empty within him. He shuddered. Whether together or apart, both he and Remus still suffered. At least...they suffered less today.

Can you tell me how to feel?

Cause I don't feel anything

Now that I'm down here again

I'm down with the fallen again

Virgil scowled and stood, crossing his arms tightly. "I can't figure out whether he was doing it for attention or because he could."

"Do what?" asked Patton. "Arguing with Logan or…?" He trailed off, tears shining in his eyes once more.

"Everything. Especially… " Virgil winced, but his face still seemed vexed. "Especially that. "

Roman breathed experimentally, feeling his lungs expand, but there was a weight in them. Exploring how he transformed with and without his twin's presence was always so strange. But something in Deceit resonated with him, back when he wished to live or at least to witness all the things he'd missed from his brother's life, all the agony he unknowingly dismissed. "He craved to know what it felt like." Those words that escaped him weren't his, but also were. They were a deep knowledge, the cause of Remus' agony, the cause of their connection. And they were something Roman sought, something he now knew would only ruin him. "He wished to know how he cursed my brother...exactly how he almost went insane."

Be careful what you wish for, Remus' mind whispered acridly. It was true—to know what went on in there is all but a curse.

Virgil's features crumbled then. "That's exactly what I didn't want to hear."

Logan looked away, adjusting his glasses and tie. Roman caught the subtle shake in his fingers, the shame in his eyes.

Thomas looked at all of them, unexpectedly calmer, but pain still flashed in his eyes. "I guess I'm finally making sense of it, now that I'm here…" He glanced at Patton, and then looked to where Deceit stood, as if there were answers in those small spaces. "I kinda hate myself."

Patton flinched. Virgil blinked slowly. Logan breathed like he was forcing himself to, drumming his fingers once more. And Roman felt like a subconscious part of his mind was illuminated. It… It explained Deceit's disappearance, Patton's silence, Logan's rare erraticism, Louis and the fact that he stayed with them for so long, Roman's need to save his brother and Deceit—it explained everything.

Realization dawned on Thomas' features. "I hate the...bad parts of myself, and I'm ashamed of myself because of them." He glanced at Logan. "Right?"

Logan nodded slowly. "It seems to be the case."

Did that explain why Deceit was constantly self-sabotaging himself? Roman's chest tightened. He didn't want to know the answer.

Patton sighed, fiddling with the sleeves of his tied hoodie. He nodded subtly.

"And that's why I'm such a mess?"

"...Yes." Logan's eyes widened, and he gazed unseeingly, his drumming ceased, as if he was finally, completely comprehending the truth that he subconsciously carried all this time. "Guilt is self-destructive, Thomas."

Thomas blinked. Then realization dawned in his eyes, just as Patton's eyes widened and Virgil straightened. Roman inhaled, staring at the ceiling. He wasn't the only one, was he? Were they all plagued by it, this guilt? He wasn't sure, but this knowledge was somehow so liberating. He grinned at where he imagined the birds would be flying freely, finally, once more. And perhaps in the future, two wouldn't drag the red cardinal down.


 

"Why?" Remus shivered in the darkness of his room. It now held a strange comfort within it—the dust and furniture called to another time, and dismissed the pain of a lost childhood. But he still shivered, trying to bury the terror of the sight of Deceit in that cell. There was no way he'd let Deceit return to his room alone. There was no way he'd leave him alone for the next month. He shuddered again, attempting to focus, but his thoughts ran in hundreds of different directions—towards all the nightmares, all the fights and screams outside and inside that hell, all of him.

I will not run

"I don't know why," answered Deceit wearily, echoing his earlier words, sitting hunched over on Remus' rickety bed.

Remus felt himself quiver even harsher, switching his balance between the balls of his feet. "You do know."

"Well, if I knew, then you most certainly don't, do you?" Deceit snarled.

Remus sighed shakily. "You...think you deserve to be there, don't you?"

Silence, and something flickered in Deceit's left eye. "...No." He breathed shallowly, gaze falling to the floor. "I didn't know you wished it so."

Remus choked back his sobs again, the lie stark for Remus. He recalled the tears, the agony in Deceit's features through the mask, two-hundred and eleven days ago—the destined, miraculous day of Remus' liberty. Remus always subconsciously counted the days since he'd had to be back there. Now he was back at zero, and so was Deceit. The chaotic one's voice cracked as he whispered hoarsely. "Nobody deserves to be there. I wouldn't wish it upon anyone."

Deceit remained silent once more.

Remus neared him, knelt before him, taking his hands, vaguely aware of how he dug his nails upon the skin. "What did you see?"

I will not fall

"Nothing."

"Lie," Remus growled.

Deceit sighed. "It was easier to remember all the things that went wrong there."

"All the mistakes."

Silence. 

Remus knew it was far worse than that. That place took all your senses, consumed your thoughts and memories. More than his room, that cell was his true embassy. All his insanity was administered there. And the proof was in the weary death in the other's eyes. Sometimes, Remus had to blink quickly—else he'd think he was looking at his brother, corrupted by his presence. Or him.

I will not bury it

"Dee…why?" Remus stared at him with increasingly blurring vision, but Deceit never answered. "Why do you think you deserve it?"

"I've been fine compared to you two," Deceit murmured, still staring at their interlaced hands, Remus' locked, whitened ones, his own slack ones. "I barely suffered, and yet, I'm a disaster." Deceit's features almost crumbled, the bitterness overpowering his gaze, but something held, reinforced the façade with snark and irony. "I'm quite the ungrateful bastard."

Remus looked down at their hands, thinking—but he remembered everything differently. "Dee. What makes you think you haven't suffered?"

Deceit scoffed, snickering. "Right. You two weren't traumatized by him or anything."

"You're right. But Virge wasn't really alone. And you never let a day pass without seeing me." Deceit paused, silent once more. "You tried your hardest to make us feel...cared for, even if it wasn't good for us. I know that."

Deceit shook his head, pulling his left hand away. "That's not true."

Remus sighed, grabbing the hand tightly before it abraded the scales. His voice hardened. "I know more than you think. And I know you're alone. I know how much you think you deserve it, and I know it's still torturing you. It has for years."

Deceit finally looked at him. His eyes were momentarily truthful, in that vulnerable way that threatened for answers, threatened for proof, fearing it was there.

Remus dug deep into metaphors, inspired by someone who didn't belong in the darkness of his cell. But his brother still understood this brand of agony, lived it. And though he may never admit it, it was a truth that belonged to both of them, something they shared ever since the prison tore them apart. Honesty and courage mixed in his heart, and he took a deep breath, looking into the contrasted eyes of his captor...and perhaps his only friend. "For so long...I have seen walls before both of us. And I've tried everything to tear mine down, brick by brick. And just when the hole is big enough to escape through that prison, to reach you...I find another wall. And it's reinforced, bulletproof, and I can't get through."

Deceit's hands began to tremble under Remus' iron grip, resorting to stare over Remus' shoulder. "I know why you try."

"I don't know either…" Remus took another deep breath, relishing the lack of chains around his lungs, the terror of the cell burying itself to his subconscious once more. He closed his eyes, allowing the tears to slip through his eyelids, willingly remembering the pain and darkness in that awful place with a newly detached grief. "Perhaps, because...because we were the only thing we had. Virgil found them—a family. But we were left alone, and we...always clung to each other because of it. And I still cling to you."

Deceit wrenched both gloved hands away, but otherwise he didn't move. "Remus."

It was a warning. A deep-seated phobia rising up through one word. Remus ignored it, his voice rising with a rage he could barely leash in. "Dee, what did you see?"

Deceit flinched. " Nothing ."

"Not even my brother could understand it, and he has seen into my mind! I'm the only one who can. I…" Remus trailed off, memories of his brother's drowning hope settling in his bones. "I fear I could've…"

Deceit's eyes snapped to Remus', wide, almost maddened by fury. "You could've what? Don't tell me you just implied—"

Remus sneered. "Yes, I did. I fear I could've caused you to fall over the deep end." Remus seethed, a wild urge in his chest, something deranged coursing through his veins, but he couldn't reach out to him, couldn't hurt him just because of frustration, not again—for Deceit's eyes were too vulnerable with Remus' chimerism already. "You were there for a day. Guess what, Dee?! My room is nothing compared to there! Three days in my room? That cell does it in one."

Deceit knew that, but couldn't ever fathom the power Remus knew intimately. He'd visited him there so much, every day, but he always left before it became perilous for his mind. He never knew the extent of that place. Virgil did. The extent of that hell lived in him.

"Remus," Deceit began, and there it was, the crack in the façade again—a pain that ran so deep it gave Remus goosebumps. "I didn't see anything except for what I told you. Leave it."

"Alright, then!" Remus cackled, his old self springing up at the diminishing presence of his brother in his soul. "Then who was the King?"

This is war!

War!

Deceit's pupils narrowed into slits. 

"Would the cell transform if it were you and I to stay there? Would he be someone else to you?" He sneered widely, eyes wide, pupils probably dilated—he hadn't felt this much adrenaline in ages. And perhaps this was necessary to collapse Deceit's walls, or perhaps he merely craved to see Deceit break—perhaps both, perhaps neither, guilt and rage mixed to cause this agony that made him tremble and cackle like always. "Oh! And what if Roman or even Logan stayed there to find you?" He grinned again, ever wider, and almost yelped at the pure satisfaction it gave him to see Deceit flinching again. "If it ever came down to it, could you have locked them up for the good of Thomas? Would you?! "

His head snapped to the side with the momentum. He'd been slapped again. He fell backwards from the following shove, and balanced himself with his elbows on the ground, peering up at a boiling man with shadows silhouetting his burning features. He'd succeeded. He'd reached one of the hallucinations of the man before him. Remus couldn't help but laugh. He knew Deceit too well. 

"What are you trying to say?" Deceit towered over him, eyes livid.

Remus finally felt like himself here—it was finally so simple to just grin, especially at the pain. Thank Hell Roman was gone now—Remus was sickened by his tears, the guilt, the hope. "That I can hurt you better than anyone. I can ruin my brother by only looking into his eyes. So! If you dare think you're the one who deserves to be locked up, you're very mistaken."

"And what?" Deceit snapped, stiffened, flinching as the weapons turned to him as soon as Remus jumped to his feet. "You're just going to abandon your brother, sacrifice him after he helped keep you sane?"

"Well, Dee, are you the one already sacrificing him by corrupting him to the point where he's dead inside and leaves Thomas dreamless?" He hadn't realized he was inches from Deceit again, towering over him now. But Deceit was silent once more, eyes barely guarded from the pain of the truth in Remus' words. The murderous side grinned. "That's what I thought!"

Deceit blinked, nothing more, but regained some sarcastic composure. "It's hilarious how many times you mention it's my fault and not yours. You both haven't suffered since youth. It's also hardly my fault in the first place." 

"I think you were right," Remus whispered, his smile now painful, on the brink of crumbling. He ignored the pure agony in his heart at the next words. "We belong apart."

Deceit reached up to scrape his scales again. "You don't suffer at all apart."

"We suffer more together. After all, I belong to the demented! He belongs to joy, not me. It's why I was locked up. And you know that."

Deceit closed his eyes, rubbing his left, bruised eyelid now. "You're lying to yourself, aren't you?"

Remus felt his lips twitch, but he suddenly felt so heavy. "Are you?"

Silence.

"Face it, Dee. You can be a solution to something, a friendship—which Logan was right about, by the way—but you have to accept it. There's no fixing me."

Deceit crossed his arms in an unsteady embrace, closing his eyes. "You're lying."

"Beacon of truth?" Remus gasped.

Deceit was abruptly shivering so much, Remus stopped feeling delight. The deep resentment for the other that he wished to feed on wasn't enough to override his own guilt. He placed his hands on the other's shoulders, but Deceit was unresponsive. 

"I'm broken. Fine! I'll admit it—it's your fault. But there's a reason why Patton told you to get rid of me in the first place. There's a reason Thomas hated me. There's a reason why Roman and I were one, but were then torn apart."

"The separation was unnatural," Deceit choked out, trying to repeat Logan's words.

Remus gently shushed him, index finger caressing Dee's trembling lips. "It happened all on its own. Nobody's fault. Remember?"

Deceit's breath hitched, slapping Remus' hand away. "Do you really see me like this?" His surplus limbs spread and moved wildly, and furious tears glistened in his eyes, and his voice rose to a screech. "Do you expect me to imprison you again? Is that what you want?!"

Remus shrugged, tears pushing behind his eyes. Virgil's treacherous words rose in his throat. "What we want isn't the best for—"

"Fucking bullshit. " Remus shuddered at the pure self-loathing Remus unleashed in Deceit's serpentine eye, and now he began to doubt whether this was the way to unlock Deceit. It was what he wanted. It didn't mean it was painless. And pain was an understatement—both of Deceit's eyes were now almost deranged—and oh, how Remus' heart ached to see it. "I promise on my life you'll never go back there. I fucking ruined our host to feel fucking appreciated—and you think I did Thomas good by it?! Wow! Let's allow his subconscious to rot for twenty more years, see if that's the solution!"

Can you tell me what is real?

Cause I've lost my way again

Remus held his breath. The question that he tried to analyze and answer finally came again. "Then why were you there?"

Deceit stared in silence, in a second of nothingness. But then Remus almost violently pulled him into an embrace. The bowler hat fell to the floor. Deceit was still frozen there—until he tried to pull away, shove him away.

"Why did you think you deserve to be there?"

A sob tore from Deceit's throat, and Remus felt himself tremble from the worsening shivers wracking the other. Deceit fell limp against him, sobbing again, convulsing. Remus clenched his eyes, trying to grin again, failing, resting his head on top of Deceit's bare hair. These sobs were heartwrenching.

Can you tell me how to feel?

Cause I don't feel anything

Now that I'm down here—

"Why, Dee?"

Remus held the other tightly, uncharacteristically gentle now, and knelt again to let Deceit finally collapse to the ground. Remus couldn't help but wonder how the other could hold so much in. No cell was needed to make Remus go insane if he couldn't speak his mind, bury all his pain like this.

But Deceit couldn't hold back his weeping now. Remus pulled back to watch him, took his hand before it instinctively reached up again to scratch his laminae. He felt his stomach twist when Dee hunched, looked away to block the scales from view, furiously wiped the tears away with his free hand. 

They both remained in silence now, save for the choked sobs and gasps, Remus watching. The fear curled around his heart once more. Was this the first time he'd locked himself there? Had he done it before?

Would he do it again?

Something told him Logan, Patton, Virgil, Roman, and even Thomas, wouldn't ever allow that, never again. That allowed him to breathe easier. But the misery in Dee's eyes...

"I—" Deceit's breath hitched again, as he stared at the wall. "I don't—I want to fix you. More than anything."

Remus smiled. It felt like a smile that belonged to his brother. Tears threatened to spill again. Roman was somehow still here, in half of his heart.

"Logan called it trauma." Deceit gasped for breath, hoarse, whimpering. "He'd be able to help fix you. I can't—but you—you can't be ruined because of me forever."

"Why?"

"It's not fair, " Deceit shouted, sobs renewed. "I've never been fair—this can't possibly be fair."

Remus gently took Deceit's hand, then yanked off its glove. Deceit yelped, but Remus' hold was stronger than the other's desperation. He finally saw the bare fingers, the scars in them, the scales. He caressed them, remembering when Deceit forgot to wear the gloves to reach him some nights. The darkness never hid these hands, and the cold never left them brittle.

Deceit sobbed harder, ducking his head. That was okay. Remus didn't stop caressing the hand, waiting. He didn't care if he had to wait hours for the last buried tears to break free. When Thomas could break free from the spell, when everyone could break their chains of guilt...perhaps they could finally get to the root of this disaster.

Perhaps he'd know how he and his brother could stop hurting.


 

Roman knocked gently on the door, opening it, greeted by an unexpected dimness. The Christmas lights shone weakly in the dark room, the many physical memories scattered on the bed by the far wall. Nostalgia and grief crashed into him, far stronger than what was already cursing him when Remus pulled away. He searched the room for its owner with his eyes, but found him when the many blankets shifted in the bed.

A vulnerable smile, threatening to crumble at any second, graced Roman's sight. "Hey, kiddo," Patton mumbled.

"I heard you were upset," Roman explained hesitantly, carefully avoiding frames and toys as he walked, and picking up a microscope and a rock album, followed by a crown. He reached the bed, placing the prized possessions on the bedside table, and moved the other memorabilia from the bed to sit beside a laying Patton. Roman smiled gracefully at the other. "I came to the rescue."

"Virgil told you, right?"

Roman nodded.

Patton sat up, shifting the covers to remain on his shoulders. There was so much grief in his eyes. "Thanks. But, uh, I think we know who really needs your company."

Roman sighed dramatically. He felt himself and Remus realize the same thing at the same time. It was somehow so clear once Logan gave the terrible sensation plaguing them all a name. "You do need the company."

They all did. They were all lonely and touch-starved, and it showed in the oddest of ways for each of them. It was most obvious when Roman and his brother had been reunited, like an awakening for the former. From then on, Roman noticed how Logan would always avoid eye contact if it was too intense or if he was overwhelmed, how he drummed his fingers to feel something, and thought deeply to distract himself from his loneliness—especially when burdened with the truth. Roman realized that Patton would physically and emotionally reach out to everyone once, until Deceit and Remus revealed the extent of the damage Patton really caused without meaning to. And slowly, Patton transformed to quiet and small, and the something became palpable in every action and word he dared make. Roman saw how Virgil would curl up into himself or subconsciously harm himself when under stress or when he looked remorseful, his increasing panic whenever he remembered his lost control, the past he would perhaps never reveal; how Remus would approach Roman with doubt and fear, but still do it desperately nonetheless, until he violently pushed his brother away again, physically and mentally; how Deceit would have an impassive face and act dismissive and sarcastic until he would hide his scales in the subtlest of ways, self-consciously avoiding the truth at every given moment. 

Every single detail spoke of that toxic little voice that word for word broke down their beliefs and identity, and their sense that they deserved to be understood. To be forgiven. Perhaps even loved. Out of all of them, Deceit and Remus seemed most consumed by that wretched voice, the something—the guilt—so Roman made it his mission, as a Knight, as a Prince, but mostly as himself, to protect them all from their own minds. Save himself from his own remorse, the nightmares of a monstrous side of himself plaguing Remus and Virgil. Perhaps vanquish everyone's collective trauma like a demon or a dragon, with their help.

"Can you tell me what's plaguing you, friend?" Roman queried, still holding onto some grace, wishing to make Patton comfortable. 

Patton smiled sadly, and relented. "I'm not that sure. It's a lot of things."

Roman hummed, brushing the wayward locks from Patton's forehead and glasses. "The curse of the heart, yes?"

Patton chuckled softly. "I guess so. Blinded, remember?"

Roman sighed once again. Deceit's words really marked him, hadn't they? "Well, let's ask the right questions, father." When the other nodded slowly, the Prince crossed his legs, turning to him completely. "What makes you think you don't need company?"

Patton took a breath, looking to the ceiling. "Well, considering Dee literally arrested himself or something, he needs help more than me."

"Then why are you upset?"

Patton reached out to hold the crown. Roman realized with a jolt that the old, rusted crown had emeralds and rubies incrusted in the once gold and silver coronal. "I guess it stuck with me more than I thought."

"What did?" He reached out to the crown without thinking, fingers tracing along the embellishments, vague, forgotten memories pushing in the corners of his mind as he looked at it.

Patton shrugged, struggling for words momentarily. "Everything. Thomas' whole history. My promise to Dee. His obedience. Your separation. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I can't sleep well anymore, because of it."

Roman couldn't bring himself to speak. Those things plagued him too. He caressed the gems in the crown, especially the emeralds, looking at Patton expectantly.

Patton wouldn't meet his eyes, caressing the crown lovingly, furrowing his brows. "And I tried to fix it. Get to know them better, like with Virgil. But it was harder—and it made me, well, angry." Guilt and perplexity flashed in his eyes at the memory of that failed dinner. "But I mostly got angry at myself. Like, for some reason I couldn't understand anything those two believed or felt because I couldn't handle how different they were—or something like that."

"Until it all fell apart."

Patton's grip on the diadem slackened. He finally looked at Roman, an edge of desperation in his gaze. "It's all my fault, isn't it?"

"No," he answered immediately. His stomach churned, his grip on the crown tightened. His voice was slightly strained with the need to convince him, and with the horrid whispers in his head. "Not all of it. You were a child—we all were. But we all were responsible for it. I never even questioned what happened to Remus—and then to Deceit and Virgil."

Patton sighed deeply, like the memory weighed tons on his shoulders. Roman felt it too. He saw the disbelief in the other's eyes, but Patton didn't say a word.

The Royal's mind now ceaselessly screamed at him—blaming him over and over for abandoning his brother for his own benefit, his craving for attention, his wish for full creative control. Roman shut his eyes and breathed. It wasn't true. Intrusive, deceitful, guilty thoughts were all they were. He'd only buried his grief and put a smile on his face as a lost, frightened eight-year-old. He'd only fed the fear of his brother, and who he could've become if they gave him too much power over Thomas—only to then cry himself to sleep in a room that once belonged to both of them.

Tell me—what is real?

I've lost my way again

Can you tell me how to feel?

"And the last month and a half wasn't your fault either, Patton," Roman added, shaking himself from the memories.

Patton tisked his tongue, shaking his head, sniffing. "Roman, I always tried to take care of you all. I tried to guide and encourage you." He paused, the grief increasing exponentially, but he scoffed. "Most of you, I mean. I tried to be good enough, and I comforted myself with whatever good I tried to do all my life so I could have my hands clean." He took a trembling breath, pulling the covers tighter around his shoulders. "But still… I still dismissed all your pain. I still…" He closed his eyes. When they opened, tears had already gathered. "I still indirectly incarcerated a part of Thomas' mind. A person. Twice. "

Roman shook his head frantically. "Pat—"

"No!" The side in question embraced himself ever tighter, breathing heavily. "Don't sugarcoat it—don't do what he'd do. Don't you dare forgive me because you blame yourself too."

Roman gulped, frozen, then lay down in the bed, staring at the ceiling decorated with glowing stars, still brushing his fingers over the gems and the oxidized embellishments of the crown. "I do… I do blame myself. But you don't accept forgiveness anyway, for you blame yourself as well. Perhaps…" He turned his head to gaze at Patton's expectant, doubtful eyes. "Could we fight it together?"

Patton fiddled with his hoodie sloppily, blinking quickly to hold back the tears. "Fight what?"

"Self-hatred."

Patton reacted like he was slapped. "I-I… I don't get it."

Roman pulled the other's arm gently, and Patton complied to the silent plead, lying down on his side beside the actor. "Thomas' words had truth. He seems to...hate himself. And Logan said that is detrimental for us. And we can't solve...whatever problem that plagues us, because we didn't try to reach our potential. Because we feel like we don't deserve the solution."

"Is that really what Logan said?"

"More or less, he told me that. Before and after you left."

"I wasn't paying too much attention," Patton murmured remorsefully, and then hesitated, turning to lie on his back, looking up at the stars. Roman gazed there as well. "Does he feel it too?"

It was Patton's recent way of avoiding the wretched word, the something. Roman wasn't sure how, but he always subconsciously knew what it meant.

"I believe not as strongly as us." Roman couldn't help but smile fondly. "But he cooked every day for all of us, including my brother, though he never showed."

"Until he finally did, two weeks ago."

Roman paused. It felt like that fateful dinner had taken place an eternity ago, the incident in his room for even longer. Was it all really two weeks ago? "He searched for him and Deceit often as well," Roman continued. "I thought he was curious, wanted to learn from them and their perspectives…" Roman hummed, remembering all the ways Logan reached for them. Like the day the incidentally broke the dream—a dream that wouldn't have solved a thing anyway, Roman soon learned. "Perhaps that was merely half the story."

Patton chuckled weakly again, eyes snapping to him, then back at the stars. "Since when are you so perceptive?"

Roman sighed. "Since I realized how beautiful it was to not be alone, only to be cursed with it again." That was one thing Remus' pain and company taught that Roman didn't feel he regretted too much—a new perspective. "You see things clearer when you can see the other side of your pain."

"Wow," Patton whispered, staring at him now, lain on his side once more. He quivered intermittently, blinking back tears, but one still slid down his temple. "That sounds beautiful."

It wasn't. It wasn't meaningless poetry. It only felt like truth. It felt like a lifetime of mistakes, until seeing the world through hopelessness, and contrasting it with his hope.

"Patton," Roman tried again, turning to his side as well, searching for the other's hand hidden under the many blankets. "We've all made way too many mistakes. Terrible errors that have been forgiven by you, and the others, over the years." He chuckled wryly. "I still marvel at it when night falls—how you all stand my utterly obnoxious self."

"Oh, Roman," Patton mumbled, guilt swarming his eyes once more.

"This, all this, no matter how horrible it looks, how tragic and unchangeable our past, will not be an exception." Roman bore his eyes into Patton's glazed ones, hoping against all hope that he could understand. "And I believe with all my heart that Deceit meant it when he forgave you." Patton curled up, tears slipping through his closed eyes, smudging his glasses. Roman finally found his hand, held it tightly, breathing shakily, fighting his crushed lungs to expand. "He knows exactly how you feel, friend, as do I. And trust me when I say I forgive you as well. You know I could've found the truth if I was courageous enough to seek it."

I don't feel anything

Now that I'm down here again

I'm down with the fallen again

"I ordered someone to take your brother away from you for two decades, and this is what you say?" Patton croaked out, voice thick with tears. "That you should've been braver and risked your freedom to set him free? When you never even knew where he was?"

"You didn't know either." Roman's voice cracked as well. Patton burrowed into Roman's chest, buried his head in the crook of the prince's neck, breathing even heavier. "We both didn't know. We should've tried to find out. We didn't know better, and we were convinced by the lie Dee told, the one he told himself so he could sleep at night." Roman couldn't control his tears, wrapping his arms around Patton's quivering form. "We were convinced that it was best for Thomas."

"I don't know what's good for him anymore," Patton sobbed. 

Roman held him tightly, rubbing his back, and stared at the crown that lay behind Patton's back now, glinting in the weak lighting. He closed his eyes. "We'll figure out what is. We'll learn from this…" His breath shook, but he smiled wobbly. "I have hope that we will."

They remained under the embrace of the covers, under the vulnerable luminescence of stars and holiday lights, crying themselves to a peaceful sleep, finally not alone.

Chapter Text

Without his brother, he shivered at the echoes of screams, giggling nervously as he pressed twitching hands upon his ears. It was like balance, as precarious as it had been, completely shifted, subverted all that allowed him to endure the sunlight's scorching rays on his skin, absorb a Disney-esque view that simply didn't belong with his memories.

Without the forced peace and hope in his soul, Remus all but ran from his room, invading Deceit's. The owner of the place wasn't here, but Remus' surroundings were suddenly too much. Everything became too bright, too loud, too colorful, too odorous once again. He tasted the phantom iron of blood on his tongue. There, in the cell, reigned nothingness, where his mind, his imagination, were chained—and now he wasn't sure whether he wanted that or the chaos. Was it because of the constant fear that Dee would be back there? Was it because of the fact that Remus entered that awful place for the first time in half a year to pull him out? Something was making him shiver, giving him urges to just distract himself with pain. But he couldn't go back there now, to the dark crevices of his mind—Dee needed him, and if Remus was going to take one thing from his brother, it would be his unbelievable resilience.

Blood, screams, pain infiltrated his mind—and the dim light blinded his eyes with its glare, the silence deafened and enveloped him—but the small sounds of Deceit's pacing somehow sounded more terrifying. He gripped his head. 

"It's terrible, but it's passed," he whispered to himself. "You're not going back there. He promised. If you deserve to be free…" He couldn't finish that thought—it revolutionized his mind, everything he'd ever believed. It was overwhelming, that knowledge, and it promised a future warmth in his chest—but right now, his mind, heart, and body were trapped in the past once again. He looked about, seeing the cloth-covered mirrors and the undone bed, and his sight zeroed in upon the closet. 

It was ironic, the urge to hide there. But the dimness and safety of the closet was still far better than the looming threat of the cell, coupled with the overpowering stimuli screaming at him that the darkness was better. He opened it, tiptoed in, and closed his eyes as soon as he shut it, sighing heavily in relief, slumping upon the clothing and the wall behind it. Light seeped through the cracks of the door of the closet, broken and designed. There was enough space for him to sit, and he held on to the walls as he almost collapsed to the floor in the claustrophobic space, caressed by the capelets, shirts, and pants. If all else failed, at least this place would stop him from reaching out to Roman...and hurt him.

Trauma is complicated. It always will be, but we can find better ways to cope with it.

"Okay," Remus murmured, vainly trying to hold on to Logan's everlasting patience. "I'll try."

And as if on cue, he heard the perfectly rhythmic, almost soldier-like stride entering the room, followed by the slow, cautious gait Remus memorized to be Deceit's. Remus leaned forward, peered through the cracks of the closet, watched Logan slowly sit down at the edge of the bed, beckoning the other, who remained distant. Remus could only see the shadows of the facetious side.

The silhouette remained in the doorway, somewhere Remus could only see with his peripheral vision, while Logan waited in silence. "Why are you here, Logan?" murmured Deceit. Five words. They betrayed a millennia of exhaustion—Remus winced at the barely masked crack at the last word, at the hoarseness that he could always identify behind the lilting vocal façade.

"We still have yet to solve the problem." The calm of that voice was like the wind murmured to him, propelling him to move. "We haven't ended things with Louis."

"You're certain I'm what he needs." It was a toneless question, but the doubt was as clear as Roman's skies. 

"I'm certain. But I'll give you time to let it sink in." Another pause of silence, and Deceit finally shuffled to the other, sitting on the edge of the bed, three feet apart from the other, like a foreigner in his own room. The edges of Logan's lips lifted slightly, but the subtle emotion faded to another one that he hid by adjusting his glasses. Remus saw the something in the 'emotionless' one anyway, as he took a light breath to speak. "I wish to apologize for my words yesterday."

Deceit blinked, but seemed utterly unfazed. "They didn't make sense. After all, I've never held you back." 

Logan nodded, seemingly aware of the compulsive lies, and their true meaning, and his gaze broke away from Deceit to think. "To be fair, we've all contributed in holding Thomas back."

Deceit raised an eyebrow, and his eyes widened minutely for a second. "...That's expected."

Logan smirked. "It actually is."

Deceit furrowed his brows, and waited in silence.

There was something comforting about this room, even though it lied to every visitor's subconscious. And Logan's voice was so grounding. Remus pushed back the visions of ashes and corpses to the edge of his mind. 

"Facts are...always disconnected from the emotional situation," Logan explained, adjusting his glasses again. "Therefore, it's not the first time I haven't been listened to. It's not the first time I was…" He faltered, a small sound of ironic frustration trapped in his throat. "...unequipped to handle our host's dilemmas."

Deceit's eyes softened for the first time. Remus felt a ghost of a smile tugging on his lips at the rare sight. "I'm the cause of that, aren't I?"

"Again, you're not the only one." Logan smiled wryly, but once more, his features hardened, as if it was too old of a habit to become cold at every emotional sensation. "Thomas subconsciously feels like he deserves Louis' treatment, among other things. In addition, I should've realized the root of this much sooner." Logan sighed, and in a split second, Logan seemed utterly exhausted. "You seemed to be the origin of the guilt, ironically enough. But with your...lies, you seemed to activate Patton's own guilt. Or, at least, exacerbate it."

Deceit groaned to the ceiling, stopping himself before he scratched his scars. "Include Remus and Virgil to the list."

Remus flinched, arms snapping to hug himself before he revealed himself with noise. He shook with the need to move, shook from his attempts to unnaturally still himself. He supposed Deceit's words made sense, but he hadn't known Virgil suffered the same. Until his weary, sarcastic, yet uncharacteristically vulnerable voice returned to Remus' mind.

You know that feeling that—where you really wanna let go of something, or maybe just...accept it...forgive it, but you can't?

"Exactly." Logan smiled wryly. "They could've blocked the guilt if they were aware of it, but it seems...we were all influenced."

Deceit looked away, turned to the wall, brushing his scales with his fingertips. "Why?"

Logan shook his head. "Perhaps Thomas still struggles with the question. Whether he's a 'good' person or not."

" Is he a good person?"

Remus winced at the doubt in Logan's eyes. "That depends on Patton's standards. Yet...those standards will consume him if he remains following them. I know from experience."

Deceit sighed deeply, closing his eyes. His façade cracked for three seconds. "If I hadn't revealed the truth in the first place, none of you would have to go through all this."

Logan raised his hand slightly, and after a moment he gripped the other's forearm. There was a lifetime of regret in his features, but his words seemingly canceled it out. "We can't change history, Deceit."

Deceit's free hand began scraping at the side of his face again, looking at the car wall to avoid Logan's gaze. "I can help him the way you want me to, Logan."

Both Remus and Logan sensed the lie in the other's soul. Remus could see it in the buried pain in Logan's eyes.

Logan stared at Deceit, squeezed his grip, but didn't say another word, finally looking at the floor. Remus found it strange—the urge to shut Dee up and slap the lies away was debilitating, but Logan was still silent, still patient.

And then, it was like something buried unlocked in Dee's eyes, and couldn't ever fade to impassiveness this time. Whatever it was in his gaze, it was bitter, and venom filled his voice as he finally spoke, faux joy mingling with it. "I am the literal personification of selflessness. With me, everything is sunshine and rainbows! I don't spread pain like wildfires."

Logan had a strange, darker grief in his eyes now, and he squeezed again. Otherwise, he seemed numb. Deceit took a deep breath, and forced his left hand to rest on his lap, twitching to keep touching his face.

"I…" Deceit gulped, inhaled deeply through his nose. "I...knew the truth would destroy you." He seemed physically sickened by the truth that escaped his lips, but he seemed physically unable to stop now. "I know you figured that out. And if we are to ignore last month's beautiful talk for the sake of forgiving me, then let's return to when we were eight." Deceit pulled at his gloves vainly, still avoiding the calm one's gaze to stare at his hands with disgust.

Logan remained ever silent, never looking up. He nodded, but Deceit didn't seem to see it. 

"Perhaps…" Deceit scoffed, gulped again, took another breath, looked to the floor. It didn't hide the something in those eyes. "Perhaps...if I had bet—hadn't betrayed and...done the mistake, I wouldn't believe—I would believe you."

The serenity of the logical side allowed Remus to cease unknowingly digging his nails into his arms, and he finally slouched against the wall, still watching both of them outside. It almost felt like listening Deceit's empty promises and Virgil's whispered pleads from within the cell, until they became screams and insults. Almost. Here, though, the silence was beautiful. Everything sounded so serene, and real , after years of turmoil between Dee and the one who left.

Deceit finally turned to look at Logan, fear in his eyes. "Why are you saying so much?"

Logan gestured emptily, and dragged his eyes to stare back in that moment. "I understand. I realize you firmly believe all this, and you have some strong points." He took a steadying breath. "I can't right your falsehoods. But I don't wish for you to internalize them. I only…" He sighed. "I want to know how you think."

Deceit blinked, but stared at the other's eyes. Logan's didn't seem numb anymore, but earnest, and even empathetic. "Why?" questioned Deceit, hesitant.

Logan looked to the ceiling. As if he was searching for meaning, or guidance. Perhaps just the right words. "I thought that a mental balance was reached when we were children, after you two were gone. Especially after Virgil was gone. I thought many things." He took a deep breath, sucked his teeth. His fingertips twitched, and then began drumming. "I was wrong. And I wish to see from another perspective to understand exactly how I was wrong. But the main reason why is: I do understand."

It was Deceit's turn to be silent. He still stared patiently, eyes drinking in every detail. Remus suddenly knew how observant they both were, how similar their silences, the way they watched from the sidelines. Logan looked at Deceit expectantly, and broke eye contact immediately after it began.

"I realize the others may shut down or dismiss your thoughts, falsehoods or not," Logan continued. He had a small, wry smile tilting his lips again. It didn't fall this time. "I figured the best strategy to understand you was to listen."

Deceit scoffed, but his eyes betrayed that he was impressed. "Terrible strategy, I must say." After a beat of silence his features and voice softened again. "You said earlier that we don't listen to you?"

Logan shrugged, like it was all inevitable. "Again, I'm disconnected from the emotional situation. Facts, studies, and philosophies don't really matter in the long run for them, though they try to care about them." Deceit's eyes widened, and Logan's brows furrowed, and his forehead creased. "Falsehood," he said slowly.

Deceit stayed silent, but he looked around his room, recognition in his eyes.

It clicked for Remus then. The lies were a balm for Remus' raw mind—they soothed his goosebumps, quelled his trembling. It was like Deceit was with him, speaking to him, sugar-coating everything, but without words. For Logan, however, this place was a source of loneliness.

Logan smiled ironically at the other's silence. "It's difficult to find a solution that is acceptable for everyone. Optimal physical and mental conditions many times are strictly against emotions and dreams. And sometimes logic just cannot decipher the senseless rationality of them. Therefore...silence isn't, well, ideal , but it's for your convenience."

Guilt flashed in Deceit's eyes. "Is that really...how we are?"

Logan sighed softly. He finally looked at Deceit. "Yes. We all suffer from miscommunication, or sometimes complete radio silence, figuratively speaking. Or we speak, and we don't listen to each other at all."

Deceit hesitated, but his eyes became subtly suspicious. "Alright. I believe you're not omitting."

Logan scoffed. "What information could I possibly be omitting?"

Deceit knowingly stared, eyes tinting with almost amused clarity. "The way you feel about being silenced, perhaps."

Logan stared back, as if challenging the other. "You also haven't spoken of it."

Deceit sighed sharply, weariness abruptly prevalent in the curve of his shoulders, and looked at his hands, then back at the wall opposite Logan, while adjusting gloves that didn't need adjusting. "Fine... I got...used to it. We were children, and I was always wrong. I imprisoned and manipulated—I knew I was wrong to do that. I tried to make Thomas follow his dreams. I was wrong there as well." There was such a subtle change in his features that Remus blinked to prove if it was real. But it was still there, a deep pain, a longing that grew with years, yet barely seen. Logan sighed silently, adjusting his glasses with his free hand, still holding Deceit's forearm with the other. "From all that," Deceit continued, tiredly, breathily, "I merely became a listener since I was young. When I speak, I'm wrong—that's just how it works. Now—how do you feel about it?" Deceit looked at Logan, challenging him back.

Logan paused, and finally let his posture fall slightly. "When my logical functions are hindered, whether by…" he began, hesitating, looking genuinely revulsed "...feelings, or by merely being silenced, or by Thomas being in a highly stressful or emotionally intense situation, it...hurts, for lack of a better word. Sometimes it presents itself in a headache. Sometimes it's represented by nausea. Most often it's merely an emotional response that I cannot pinpoint. Either way, it has never harmed or inconvenienced anyone, and the others found their solutions through their own ways, times, and designs. And those solutions never truly harmed me, technically speaking. Therefore...I also became accustomed to it."

"And yet, it hurts."

"Not as much." Logan paused, swallowed. "Anymore. But, yes."

"It doesn't hurt me either…" Deceit smiled bitterly at his hands. "It's like a voice adds on to what they don't say. Or what they do say. And I find myself immediately agreeing with them within, but many times I just continued my point anyway, for I had a purpose. But, well...I didn't have a true purpose for twenty-two years, save from being a damned warden."

Logan hesitated, lips parting but words fading before they left. He adjusted his glasses again, and attempted to communicate with his free hand. He failed, took a deep breath. "I'm sorry about that."

Deceit snapped his gaze to Logan in disbelief. 

Logan took a deep breath, waving dismissively. "Emotional response. The...guilt caused that, I believe. Your history is...emotionally compromising. I believe I partly blame myself for it."

Deceit pulled his gloves up his wrists again, rubbed the cloth. Remus noticed he did everything to not reach out to the left side of his face. "I'm not… I'm sorry that you do—and that I began this mess in the first place."

Logan smiled uncertainly. "You are forgiven."

Deceit ducked his head, but he smiled wobbly. "No, I'm not."

Logan remained silent, but let go of Deceit's forearm to take his hand.

Deceit breathed shallowly, not looking up once. "You are—forgiven as well."

Logan nodded perfunctorily, but said nothing. He didn't seem to accept it either.

But something began burning in Remus' heart. His mind was empty from Logan's calm aura, and this room's almost therapeutic atmosphere—until it shifted, darkened. He furrowed his brows, pressed his newly twitching hand against his suddenly burning chest, and tried to breathe as deeply and silently as possible. Deceit had forgiven Patton. He forgave Logan. Logan and Patton forgave him. And for some reason, as he kept replaying the words over and over in his mind, the flames worsened, and he crushed his chest harshly with both his hands, clenching his eyes shut, breathing harshly through his nostrils. 

You don't deserve it, you son of a bitch.

He bit his tongue before a noise came out—he wasn't sure if it would be a growl or a whimper. He felt like a monster was puppeteering him, controlling his every thought. But it was himself. He'd never be forgiven, of course. He was imprisoned for a reason—and Deceit was a victim of his own guilt more than his wrath. Unlike Remus.

"Was it hard, dealing with the others and their...emotional needs, when you couldn't comprehend them?" Deceit tried, deviating the conversation. Remus chose to focus and opened his eyes, dismissed the frightening thoughts that whispered he never knew who he was— he never knew how much you wished to die—he deserves punishment—

Logan closed his eyes for a moment, but his voice and features somehow remained level. "Yes. It was probably the most alienating sensation in my life."

Deceit nodded, finally allowing his clothed fingers intertwine with Logan's. The simple gesture almost made another animalistic sound Remus couldn't pinpoint escape his lips, but he swallowed it down like bile. Deceit's voice was becoming hoarse. "I...felt like I had to run back and forth between both of them. I never really gave time to myself. I had to listen to them, or comfort them."

Remus scowled to ignore the stinging in his eyes.

Logan's eyes swam with worry. "Why?"

Deceit shrugged. "Silence was terrifying. It…it still is. And if I was alone with my thoughts for longer than ten minutes...it scared me."

"That explains your lack of sleep?"

"...I don't believe so."

Lie.

"And your workaholism."

Deceit raised one eyebrow. "Don't you suffer from that?"

Logan mirrored the other's gesture. "Yes. So do you."

Deceit sighed again, while Logan seemed mildly victorious. "Fine—I had to study or write, or find a way to make Thomas listen. But then I convinced myself I shouldn't be listened to. But I still hopelessly wrote and worked anyway. It was the only thing that belonged to me, to who I was. Everything else just…" His brows furrowed, as if it was then, right then, that he realized how his subconscious functioned, how it ruler him. "...It all just faded away."

Silence. Remus shuddered, clenched his eyes shut again, and curled into himself, ironically comforted by the darkness. He'd never heard any of this before. All these resigned, admitted truths were somehow more painful than his tears—truths Remus would probably never hear with trust, never be told. Deceit would sleep even less if he knew Remus was hearing this. But Remus still pushed back the tears and the burning thoughts that Deceit deserved it— he caused that for himself.

Deceit took a trembling breath. "It felt like I didn't deserve rest, or whatever was somewhat good down here... Yet, I still survived with Virgil's comfort."

Logan spoke with a strange, foreign emotion in his quietened voice. "But then he left."

That was when Deceit stopped. Remus opened his eyes again, blinking back the tears. Deceit began to scratch his laminae again, and broke eye contact. Logan nodded, remained silent once more.

Remus wanted to jump out and run out of the room, feeling perilous energy swirling in his gut, racing through his bloodstream, all over again, but he forced himself to freeze once more. He wasn't sure if he could handle the other side of the truth, Deceit's truth—and his warring guilt and wrath. But Deceit couldn't know that he was here. He bit his tongue until he drew blood, and dug his nails into his arms again.

"Logan," whispered Deceit. "I don't wish for you to repeat this."

That stung. Remus held his breath. Closed his eyes again.

"I won't."

"I shouldn't have said half the things I said."

"It's alright. I admitted...less than acceptable things for someone like me. I wonder if...they'd ever understand."

"They wouldn't." Deceit paused, but didn't correct the obvious lie. Logan didn't either, which somehow made Remus' stomach twist and his heart darken. Deceit then murmured with that palpable fear of shame vicing his voice. "I've never felt so…"

"Vulnerable?"

Deceit remained quiet.

"That's ironic. We've seen you cry before. You had a derealization episode."

"You also had an anxiety attack. They've seen us at our worst. And yet…"

Logan sighed. "...I know. I haven't ever spoken like this before."

Remus opened his eyes to see a blurry Deceit nod. He never heard words like these, trust like this. He knew Deceit, but...not like this. He wasn't sure why that gave him physical pain. But it did. He wasn't trusted. That was all that echoed in his head. He wasn't trusted. Not even after they were all each other had for years, for one whole year after Virgil left.

"How can you handle the falsehoods, Deceit?" Logan appeared visibly exhausted again.

Deceit squeezed Logan's hand. "You're mostly immune to them. You should see how Virgil reacts to this place."

"We were truthful in your room." Logan smiled wryly. "Your life is composed of irony, Deceit."

"Are we done with the fluff already?!" Remus cried out before he even realized he was speaking. He kicked open the closet and all but crawled out, jumping to his feet. His skin crawled, his heart pounded, adrenaline borne out of too many emotions at once ruling him, but the fear of the cell was in the back of his mind now.

Deceit had flinched, while Logan blinked, eyes widened, and both let go of their grip, pressing their once-intertwined hands to their chests. But then Deceit slumped and groaned, burying his head in his hands. Logan adjusted his glasses and tie with trembling hands, drumming his fingers on his thigh right after.

The scorching in Remus' chest flared up. He shifted his balance constantly, digging his nails in his palms now. His voice was joyful, though he felt anything but. "Eavesdropping isn't any fun—please consider the algorithm's room next time!"

"You heard nothing," Deceit growled, still muffled.

"Fine, let's just repress again!" Remus smiled, and it hurt. "I'll leave you to your amazing truth and trust."

He raced from the room, hiding under the covers of his timeless room, knowing now that the fear of being locked up was better than wishing for a second chance.

He didn't hear Deceit call out for him.


Roman looked over to see the unrecognizable visitor who knocked before cracking the door open, and beckoned him inside. The door was left ajar, and Virgil stood in the doorway, hunched over, bitterness merged with weariness in his eyes. He squinted at the brightness in Roman's room, and somehow the illumination made Virgil seem even more deathly pale. Roman shuddered at the sight of the dark bruises under his eyes, and promptly stood from his bed to usher him in.

"I haven't seen you in a while," Roman greeted gently. He felt a pull of empathy at the exhaustion and grief in Virgil's features. But Roman felt that Remus was too familiarized with the rage that was prevalent in his eyes.

Virgil shuffled to the bed, picking up a book Roman had left upon the bed. Though he stared at the cover and the back, Roman could tell he couldn't read a thing. "I needed some time alone." Virgil's voice was toneless, monotone, and he then stared at the floor. Roman sat beside him, and he allowed the Prince to wrap an arm around him. Roman stiffened at how thin the other felt under the oversized hoodie.

"Have you eaten?" he asked. He was careful to sound nonchalant—Virgil could never deal with others' worries well.

Virgil sighed shallowly. He never once looked up from the floor. "Not hungry. I came 'cause Pat wants us to eat and talk together. Logan cooked too." Virgil slowly settled under the warm touch, leaning onto Roman. "I don't really wanna go."

Roman sighed heavily. "We have to. The last time we've all met up was…"

...He couldn't even remember how long ago it was.

Virgil nodded. "I'm…" He huffed, beginning to peel flaking skin from his palms. Roman rubbed the back of the other's hand with his thumb. "I'm, uh...scared to see Remus and Deceit."

"So am I," Roman admitted lowly.

Virgil glanced at him under the shade of his wayward locks. "You are?"

Roman gently encouraged Virgil to stand, swallowing the bile that rose up his throat. "Seeing my brother after being separated is always...disturbing. And I wish Deceit was better as well..." He couldn't help but feel helpless at the thought of them. He had no way of helping, save for hopelessly hoping for fantasies that didn't exist.

Comprehension filled the pale side's eyes. "We're always wrong anyway," he finished. "I just wish they were wrong too."

The unspoken words were deafening. Remus would know exactly what Virgil would be thinking. Roman swallowed and nodded anyway.

...after all they've done.

To me.

Virgil shrugged off Roman's arm, but didn't complain when the latter hesitantly took his hand. "What's for dinner?" Roman murmured.

Virgil's lips twitched, a warm affection blooming in his eyes at the question. "Our favorites."

Roman paused. "Really?"

Virgil hesitated, still ducking his head, but he still had a ghost of a smile. "They asked me what Dee and Remus liked to eat most."

Roman returned the smile with a grin. "I hope I enjoy the sirloin this time." Then his smile crumbled at the memory of that day. Virgil seemed to notice, his brows furrowing in concern. "Listen, friend…" Roman suddenly said, the words buried in his throat, urging him to let them go. "Forgive me for calling you...the word."

Virgil sighed. Roman could tell by his eyes, that word still haunted him. Roman doubted he'll ever know the precarious story behind it, but he could guess. The only one who could call him paranoid in all those years was…

Virgil's gaze met Roman's, and the former smiled slightly strained. "It's fine, I kinda attacked you too."

Roman pursed his lips. "It isn't fine."

Virgil leaned into Roman's warmth once more. "Okay. But, uh, I-I...I accept your apology, then. S-sorry." Virgil pulled away from Roman and dragged him along, confusion tilting his features to a scowl, color tinting his pale features in shame.

Roman sighed quietly, allowing himself to be led. Virgil's behavior somehow hit home. 

When they reached the dining room, Logan had already brought Deceit and Remus with him. There was a certain wild fear in Remus' very essence, and he also avoided eye contact. However, Roman flinched at the jolt of rage and bitterness. It was a thousand times more powerful with the other's presence. 

Roman decided to sit beside Virgil, and beckoned a faltering Patton to sit on his other side. Patton nodded, smiling gratefully, but kept serving the varying meals and drinks. Deceit stared at the plate Patton had just set down, and only when Logan guided him to do so with seemingly practiced gentleness, sat opposite Virgil. It looked delicious, really—and perhaps very unhealthy. It was a colorful array of sushi rolls circling the plate. Deceit finally looked at Patton when he saw the fatherly side serving grape juice in his cup. "How…?"

But before Patton thought to answer, or ask Virgil permission, Deceit snapped his gaze at the thin side beside Roman doubtfully. Virgil smiled timidly, though he still seemed like he hated the attention. Deceit's eyes softened. The perturbed side had that conflicted aura around him again, biting his lip.

Remus watched on, too serious for someone like him. His features settled into an almost-glare. But he shriveled under the soft smile Patton gave him when he served the plate stacked with chicken wings. Roman bit his lip to control his giggle at the immediate lighting up of his brother's features. And in that moment, nostalgia overwhelmed Remus' gaze. He glanced at Deceit, bitterness still in the shadows of his eyes—and Deceit stared back with pain in his eyes.

"When was the last time we…" Remus trailed off, eyes dropping to his hands, then at the food, shifting his balance between his feet. He looked at Patton, a challenge in his eyes. "What's the sauce?"

Patton chuckled nervously, glancing at Virgil. " Da' Bomb...Beyond Insanity ."

Remus grinned wildly, and in a second Patton yelped as Remus jumped into him, embracing him tightly. Patton chuckled again, relief gracing his face, and he returned the embrace softly. "Thank Virgil, not me."

"You and Logan are the cooks, not me," Virgil muttered with a small degree of affection, already playing with his broth with his spoon. "Logan, what—?"

"Eggs, salmon, Brazil nuts, turmeric, and various vegetables," Logan listed off without hesitation, pouring Virgil's drink. He seemed glad, a ghost of a smile on his lips. "Patton made the chamomile tea."

Remus finally let go of Patton, and Roman felt an apology on his lips for no apparent reason—the guilt boiled as Remus stared at the fatherly figure, who bashfully giggled at Logan's words. "I probably messed it up, though."

Virgil smiled gratefully. "Thanks."

Roman's eyes widened at the idea of such a broth with so many ingredients, turning to Virgil. "Why so specific?" he exclaimed. "Did you actually list off all that?"

Virgil shrugged. "It's actually tasty."

"Most ingredients are thought to reduce anxiety by specialists," Logan continued calmly, checking the table for anything missing as he spoke. "They provide selenium, vitamins D and E, Omega-3, and tryptophan—which is an amino acid that creates serotonin." Logan sat between Deceit and Virgil, speaking with that perfect pace and perfect enunciation with barely any effort. It made Roman breathe easily—it meant he was improving. 

"What he said," Virgil said, pointing lazily at Logan, smile widening, and brought a spoonful to his mouth.

Patton sat beside Roman and Remus, closing his eyes and bowing his head. His lips moved in a silent prayer for a few moments, and then he opened his eyes to smile at them. "I'm so grateful to have you all here," he murmured.

"...As am I," Logan stated, far more hesitant this time.

"I shan't imagine what I would be without you," Roman added dramatically. Remus smiled sadly at that. Roman wished to hold his hand, but his brother was out of reach. He still pushed some of his hope towards him, craving to leave behind the vague fear and wrath, just for today. But his muscles locked up when Remus pushed back in rebellion.

The more you try to fight it

The more you try to hide it

The more infected, rejected

You feel alone inside it

"You gave me this on particularly bad days, didn't you?" Remus asked, eyes snapping to Deceit in a hidden threat. "Back when you had time to actually cook. When you had the ingredients anyway."

Deceit was about to take his first bite of the sushi before the hand holding the chopsticks froze. Roman swallowed his shudders at the instant closing up, the numbing of emotions, the fading gentleness of Deceit, at the implications that perhaps only three, and by extension Roman himself, immediately understood. 

Virgil tensed and sighed, letting the spoon clatter on the smooth plate under the bowl. "Okay, I'm actually trying not to be bitter. Can you?"

"Let's see—Logan or Patton probably made you soup once a month once you left us." Remus grinned, tilting his head to the side. "I don't think you honestly know what I'm talking about!"

You know you can't deny it

The world's a little more fucked up every day

Patton's worry rose exponentially. "Guys, I'm sure we can talk it out."

"Wait." Virgil held a hand out to Patton, which silenced the latter so easily Roman had to double-check. Virgil's eyes were beginning to burn. "You're saying it was all sunshine and rainbows for me after I left, aren't you?"

Deceit blinked once. He stared at the sushi before him, hand holding the chopsticks too steadily. 

"Who knows?" Remus spread his arms, powerful energy flowing in every movement he made. "I don't know how it is here—you can imagine, being two decades somewhere else.

Roman placed a hand on his chest, feeling flames licking his lungs and heart. Remus didn't seem to notice how Deceit tightened his hold on the chopsticks, how his eyes faded and his features hardened ever more.

The way you look us over

Your counterfeit composure

Pushing again and again

And sinking lower and lower

"Remus," Logan tried.

"But you don't understand one thing, and that is being unbearably alone." Remus' voice lowered to a growl. Virgil scowled back. "Be grateful for that. Now, Dee. "

"Shut it," Deceit answered without hesitation. "Not here."

Remus let the chair screech and collapse behind him, a sadistic glee in his heart making Roman nauseous. "You really thought for a moment there that I would just up and forgive you, huh? That the others might see exactly what you show them? That Logan would be fooled by your 'guilt'?"

The horror on Deceit's eyes was indescribable. "What?"

The world is on our shoulders

Do you really know

The weight of the words you say?

Logan slumped, resigned. He seemed to know what was coming. Patton hunched over, eyes fearfully jumping between each face. Regret was too painful in Roman's chest, in Patton's eyes. Roman took his hand and held it tightly, trying with all his might to breathe. 

"He hurt all of us, not just you," Virgil shot back, already on his feet. "We all fucking hurt each other. And though sometimes I feel like killing him, I know that I'm wrong for actually wanting that."

Deceit began scraping his scales. Logan placed a steady hand on his shoulder, but Deceit was unresponsive. His eyes were lost in a trance. 

"Oh, all the hugs and sweet whispers, the bared secrets, and supposed forgiveness were so torturous, weren't they?" Remus snarled. Virgil, Logan, and Patton flinched heavily, respectively, as every single thing Remus listed hit home to each. Roman gulped the whimper trying to tear off his throat—the scarlet tanager was willingly drowning this time, and the mockingbird decided to follow after only one willing breath of fresh air. Roman's hands shook with unbridled rage, with the still-open wound of betrayal, with the asphyxiating envy of something Roman felt he couldn't ever deserve or receive. Roman stood quickly and staggered to Remus, taking his hand, begging him in silence. Remus glared with that pain that resonated in Roman's soul—and swatted his hand away as if burned.

"God forbid any one of us move on , then!" Virgil yelled.

"I don't want to move on!" Deceit screamed, clenching his eyes shut.

Logan startled, his hand landed on his chest and began drumming a chaotic rhythm in a second. His eyes faded as he watched the three that once didn't belong with almost numbed observance merged with that now familiar helplessness. Patton tried to appease Remus with his hand as well, but Remus jumped feet away at the touch. 

You want a little of it

You just can't let go of it

You've got an ego to feed

Roman closed his eyes tightly—too loud, too many sensations, too much. But Remus couldn't bring himself to stop, the adrenaline of rage guiding him. "You want to know the truth, Dee? Why I can't move on? I'll fucking tell you!" Roman could picture the horrifying glee merged with unleashed thirst for vengeance. But beneath it all, Roman gagged at the consuming guilt.

"You don't need to," whispered Deceit. Roman felt his chest constrict, his stomach twist, his eyes burn at how easy it seemed now to bring Deceit to the edge of bursting into tears. No matter the hope that Roman finally clung to after distrusting it with Remus' soul, they were always back at the beginning—back to fucking drowning.

"I can't, you monster!" Remus roared—and Roman gasped heavily at the death spreading in his chest. "Remember the wall?! The one I tried to tear down? You keep building it, placing brick over brick, and you keep reinforcing yours." Roman could only watch as Remus now held a morningstar in a white-knuckled grip without noticing, twitching and trembling, blazing eyes set on Deceit, who could only shrivel under the gaze. "Remember when I couldn't help but hate you?! Because sometimes it's easier to build it with you. I want to reach you, I want to fucking know you—but I don't want to."

Virgil stared on, silenced not by fear, but by something Roman couldn't recognize. Deceit couldn't look in anybody's gaze, not even their general direction.

"I don't want to, because you don't deserve it—but then I justify every single fucking thing you did because I was locked up for a reason. " Remus quivered even more, gasping for breath. "And then comes a time…" His voice thickened, about to crack and break, and Roman choked back an almost-uncontrollable sob. "There comes a time when I do everything I can to forgive you."

You know that feeling that—where you really wanna let go of something, or maybe just...accept it...forgive it, but you can't?

Tears gathered in the furious gaze, and he took a shaky, wheezing breath. "I want to do it so, so badly. I did everything to think about your guilt, everything to push back the need to hurt you."

Deceit's eyes filled with tears, an indescribable torture living in them.

Remus' knuckles were ashen from how tightly he held his weapon; he now trembled all over. "I want and want to tear down the wall, claw and kick and punch and stab it, but I can't. " He sobbed, allowing his weapon to clatter to the floor, only to collapse beside it, kneeling with shut eyes and endlessly falling tears. "I'm a monster because I can't! I can't forgive you—I can't! "

There it was. Roman knew the rage was the shield. But he wasn't prepared for the suffering their souls now shared. Even still, he couldn't help but stare, lost in a haze, now that the painfully buried truth finally escaped Remus.

Virgil buried his head in his hands and pulled his hair with a violence that took Roman's breath away. Logan froze, didn't even blink. Patton bit his lip and embraced himself tightly, closing his eyes. Roman felt like he would burst any second—the pain was too much, the suffering of a lifetime flashing before his eyes, cold, heartless eyes haunting it all. He was created and demonized because of all this—the lost childhood, the drowning shame, the feeling of dying because he would never see his brother again— everything hurt so fucking much.

Too late to rise above it

Don't look now

But the little girl's got a grenade

But the dams broke when Deceit let out a heartbreaking wail, and devolved into agonized, miserable sobs.

And in a second—Virgil whimpered, tears springing from his shaking lashes—Logan breathed heavily, without any rhythm or precision, and touched his tears with his fingertips, visibly uncomprehending of the wetness dripping down his cheeks—Patton curled up in the chair like a small child, his breath hitching and nearing hyperventilating, interrupted by pained yelps, glasses ruined from the waterfall—

And Roman was cursed with Remus' endless sobs that wracked his whole body with a force that promised to kill him. He gripped the table and let himself collapse to the floor, throwing the chair as far back as he could with as much strength and blind rage he could muster—only to be left hopelessly sobbing on his side, under the shade of the tablecloth.

"Stop!" Deceit wailed, and Roman thought he'd cry harder from the sheer self-hatred in the voice. "Stop trying to forgive me—just s-stop! "

"I can't stop," Roman heard himself whimper, while Remus roared the same words simultaneously. 

Nobody could stop. It was why they all burst into tears.

I just want to forgive myself, the red cardinal pleaded in a desperate song. How can I set them free when I'm a slave? Free me so I can set them free.

I want to deserve it, but I don't, replied the scarlet tanager, cawing in shrill agony. I'm a monster, and I was tamed by the worst of them. Let me drown!

I can't. I can't stop trying. I'll drown with you. I can't let you go again.  

"Well you need to." Deceit took a deep, unsteady breath, and glared at all of them. Roman tried to force himself to his knees, but failed—the tears took all energy, rage, and adrenaline with them. He was so drained, he could close his eyes for years. Roman fought the heaviness of his eyelids and looked at Deceit, who glared at Logan first. "Stop trying to solve what you can't solve. We're not code or an equation—and I know— " A sob tore through his lips. "I know how tempting it is to risk everything and give yourself away to fix it, but you can't."

Logan's features crumbled, and he let his glasses slip from his face as he hunched over.

Deceit turned to Patton, a wild, almost insane edge to his glazed, unfocused eyes. "Stop trying to be perfect. Stop dismissing the fact that this world is ravaged by greed, wrath, vengeance, pride, hatred— everything you hate. Stop thinking you owe this fucking world your slavery— stop thinking you have to be the puppet everyone is and takes advantage of you for."

Patton couldn't battle the haunted horror in his gaze, as he stared at Deceit with utter defeat, tears still leaking freely down his face.

"You cannot sacrifice your hope and your sanity for him," Deceit continued, hoarse and weary, now towering over Roman while still slumped, disappointment in his eyes as he gazed into Roman's exhausted ones. He shook his head in disbelief, on the brink of hysterically mocking laughter as he stared at the Royal. "Look at you! You're an utter mess , all for him! You never once pleaded with him to let you breathe after you lost hope, because you fear you haven't suffered enough like he had. You fear you'll be exactly the nightmare that haunts him. So stop giving away every ounce of yourself and your identity to keep him sane."

Roman breathed shakily, and closed his eyes. It was terrifying how Deceit knew him more than he knew himself. But the empathy and pain in Deceit's gaze made Roman nod, tears slipping faster through his shut eyelids.

"Vee…" Roman's eyes snapped open, and tiredly got on his hands and knees, and balanced himself on the table to wobbly stand. Deceit knelt before Virgil, who shook in his chair, pulling his hair and quivering, breath coming in short gasps. The nickname Roman had never heard before made Virgil shudder. Deceit smiled with an affection that almost overshadowed the woe. Almost. "Stop burying your hatred for me. I hurt you. It's impossible to forgive when all you tried was to let me go. But I know you can't." A sob escaped Virgil's throat, but he never once opened his tightly-shut, bruised eyes. "I tried to let you go as well." Deceit slowly placed a trembling hand on his shoulder. "Don't blame yourself because I couldn't. Don't blame yourself because you wanted to survive." Deceit stared with something ineffable as he looked at Virgil, sobbing anew. "You had to leave, and scream, and blame me all you wanted. You're not the villain for it. Stop justifying me—just hate me."

"I don't want to hate you anymore," Virgil wept, finally opening his eyes to stare back with his own indescribable pain, and he yanked his hair harder. The history between them was as thick as blood, heavy in the air, in their eyes. Roman felt Remus hunch over even more, sensing an unbearable pain in his heart.

Why do I live to see what I have lost? What I shall never receive? 

Why was I freed to live in chains?

"You did everything for me," proceeded Virgil, oblivious to the brothers' agony, burying himself in the crook of Deceit's neck like it was second nature. Deceit wrapped his arms around him with a certain desperation—he rested the left side of his face on Virgil's hair, closing his eyes to relish it all. Roman recognized it, and Remus did as well—they'd done the same when they could embrace each other for the first time in forever. "You thought you were protecting me."

It's not really your fault, Dee. The painfully sweet lies infiltrated Roman's memory—Remus' words echoed in his mind as Virgil whimpered all the excuses. You did what you had to do. You were just following orders.

"I was imprisoning you." Deceit's level words did nothing to hide the regret.

"You didn't know any better." Deceit opened his glazed eyes at Virgil's words, furrowing his brows in confusion. In disbelief. Virgil pulled back, skin flushed and tear-stained, with drenched, wispy locks glued to it. "I didn't know that—that the best form of care you knew was hiding me—hiding me from them. You thought I'd only get hurt with them—but when I made you the monster and promised how much better they were…"

Deceit held his breath.

But Remus finished the sentence for him, in a silent growl.

"You let him go." And not ME.

Deceit turned to Remus now, as if to avoid all of Virgil's justifications, all the vain attempts to make sense of the battle to forgive him. But Roman recognized that bitterness still, that resentment, like a vice in Virgil's gaze, his shoulders. No matter what he tried, it wouldn't let go.

Remus had tried the same thing once. You still cared for me… There must be a reason for that. But he was giving up. 

Deceit approached slowly, head hanging low, dark lashes hiding his eyes. "You think you belong there...that you don't deserve what little freedom you have. And you want to hate me, but you believe I'm right. You hate yourself for making me suffer, but you can't stop." Deceit spoke to the ground, like he was barely there, like he was voicing visceral interpretations of what he was realizing, learning from what he could see in his memories. He reached up to abrade his cicatrices with a shaking hand, without a second thought. "You want to forgive me as well as Vee, but you want to make sure I know exactly how you suffered—that I suffer as much as you did." He finally raised his face to look at Remus, and Roman felt a shiver run down his spine at the sight of the truth, in both sides, both eyes, scales and skin. And the truth screamed: Stop holding on . "I ask of you one thing... All I ask is for you to choose. Hate me, leave me, hurt me. Or just forget me." He shook his head once more. "You can't do both… Forgive me? Really?" Deceit snickered disbelievingly, shaking his head. "You and I both know that forgiveness was never a possible option." 

Roman felt his heart shatter into a million pieces with no hope of recollecting them. He wasn't sure if the broken heart was his, or his brother's, or both.

Remus screamed and gripped his head—simultaneously, for both of them, every single emotion merged into the desperate hopelessness that deafened, blinded, took all identity. This darkness was enough to kill the dreams to feel the light caressing cold, pale skin. Every sensation that made the Duke wish for eternal death when he could only give up returned. But Roman pushed as strongly as he could, while the visceral emotional disparity filled every crevice of his mind. Roman wailed in pain, mentally begged and hoped achingly for forgiveness—felt the oxygen fade as he choked in the pitch black ink—

And Roman fell to his knees and hands, panting, but the pain and nostalgia and grief and hatred and guilt were gone, replaced by nothingness. Remus had almost fallen victim to unconsciousness, holding onto his previously forgotten morningstar on the floor to ground himself, lying on his side.

Roman wasn't sure what had just occurred, but he was sure, from the death that encompassed his whole being, and the exhaustion that didn't let him breathe right, that this was the worst episode of their connection yet.

Deceit stared in terror, mirroring the frightened, frozen set of Virgil's features. Patton didn't hesitate to react this time, first pulling Remus to lean listlessly against his chest, and reaching out painfully to brush Roman's limp hand. But Roman couldn't move an inch. He was too exhausted to quiver. Logan neared just in time when Deceit staggered, and Roman realized distantly that Deceit had instinctively reached out to Remus. Roman recognized the pure fatigue in both of their gazes as Logan helped balance Deceit, both too slow, too heavy under an invisible weight. The truth was simply too painful.

There was a change in Logan's features—a numbed determination with a despondency that betrayed the surface of tranquility. And in that moment, while Patton held Remus and sobbed over him, Logan briskly pulled Deceit into a stiff embrace. Virgil stood on wobbling legs, stumbled, only to almost fall into the two. The scarred, lying side froze, but embraced both of them with a strength that surpassed his weariness. And finally, Logan led them both towards Patton, gently held them as they kneeled with tired relief, and reached out to Roman like Patton had, pulling him towards the others. 

No boundaries, rules, self-hatred, resentment, pride, or fear held them back this time. They settled in a strange huddle, where limbs and clothing mixed, and none of them were sure how long they remained there. But they all breathed in the scents and relished in the miraculous warmth, desperately reaching and leaning for more. It was a million times more wonderful than craving for sunlight, than wishing for soft and misleading whispers of safety, than bared secrets behind impassive facts, than clinging onto broken dreams, than the tireless racing after perfection, and the bittersweet lie that one day the guilt and loneliness wouldn't hurt so much.

Tears were silently shed, and unstable breaths and mental storms calmed, until Romas was almost lulled to sleep. But then a hand brushed his locks from his face, encouraging his heavy eyelids to open. Once Roman complied, Patton smiled. It warmed Roman's heart to see the relief and joy in that gaze. "Wanna actually eat your sirloin this time, kiddo?"

Roman nodded slowly. "I believe I'll finally have pleasure from it," he slurred, but still smiled, the long-gone lullaby of dreams returning to his weary, frozen bones after months, perhaps even years.

Logan shifted, to see Virgil nodding off upon his and Patton's lap, and Deceit slumped over Logan's shoulder. He smiled, so still save for his rhythmic swaying from side to side, as if rocking them to sleep. "It wouldn't be ideal to wake them up now."

Roman lowered his gaze to see Remus sprawled over Roman's legs and Patton's chest, snoring lightly. That explained why he felt like the lightest melody could send him to the most profound sleep of his life. "Neither of you are famished, are you?" he asked in a murmur.

None of the three sleeping sides even shifted. 

"Nope," answered Patton softly, a bittersweet grin pulling his lips to fully show his hidden teeth. Roman giggled despite the terrifying pain from earlier, covering his mouth. Logan pulled Virgil closer and moved Deceit's head to a more comfortable position upon his shoulder and the crook of his neck. Deceit breathed deeply without interruption, while Virgil whimpered and held Logan tighter.

"I don't think I've been less hungry in my entire existence," stated Logan in such a low voice, a certain shine of wonder and curiosity in his eyes. It gave Roman a wave of nostalgia.

I'm gonna save you from it 

Together we'll outrun it

Just don't give into the fear

They lingered in the peace, relishing it. It was new, a forgotten feeling and atmosphere that finally returned. Though the Prince felt exhausted, all his shed tears gave him more comfort than he expected. And Roman felt warmth spread throughout his chest, followed by the weightless sensation of dreams. "Want to come to the secret door?"

Logan shook his head, holding onto the two sides tightly. "Perhaps another day. The fallacies wouldn't be...ideal for me today."

Patton smiled sadly, weariness prevalent in his eyes. Roman saw the darkness under his eyes now, seemingly revealed by his tears. "I think I'm gonna sleep for twenty hours today, kiddo."

Roman nodded, reaching out to squeeze Patton's shoulder, then Logan's. "I'm going to wind down over there…" He looked at his brother once more. "After a moment, of course."

"Guys…" Patton began, his smile falling slightly. "I really don't know how to help them."

Logan sighed deeply, eyes fading to helplessness again. He shook his head.

"Perhaps Dee was right," said Roman. Both turned to look at him. "Perhaps we're trying so hard—but the ones that need to grow are them."

Logan nodded slowly, pondering, eyes on Virgil as he stiffly reached out to set Deceit's bowler hat on the floor beside him. "You're...you're not an equation. I can't...force you to see the truth, no matter the strategy." There was no relief in his eyes, merely resigned acceptance. "I can only witness your choices."

Patton took Logan's hand, rubbing the back of it with his thumb, forlorn. "I'm...I'm not helping you with the whole righteous thing… I'm forcing myself to be the best for all of you, and for Thomas." A wry breath left in an unformed chuckle. "And I can't stop thinking about my mistakes."

Logan took a shallow breath, and attempted to make eye contact with Patton. "It's alright to be an imperfect Morality."

Patton smiled. "It's okay if you feel helpless sometimes. You aren't useless for it."

Roman pressed a hand to his chest, rubbing his ribcage to cease its diminishing agony. He wished for the numbness to remain—but the dreams rotted in the hopeless depression. "We all feel like we deserve to sacrifice everything for them, don't we?"

Silence greeted them, and they stared unseeingly as they recalled Deceit's words.

Roman couldn't help but think this was all due to them making up for everything. But history would never be erased. 

So many things I would've told you

If I knew that I was never gonna see you again

"What was the truth and what were the lies?" Patton asked, hopeful eyes on Logan.

"It isn't impossible to forgive him," Logan responded immediately, worry immediately shadowing his gaze. "But Deceit was right—we can't dismiss our pain to do so. Forgiveness is...a process, which comes only after the decision is made. I believe it is part from healing from trauma."

"What does it mean to forgive, then?" Roman queried.

Logan hesitated. "I know it must be liberating. But it seems to be subjective." He paused, then looked at Patton once more, a ghost of a smile gracing his stiffened lips. "Perhaps we could study some theology together to find out."

Patton brightened slowly, but his features still faltered. "...You mean that?"

"I'm serious." Logan pointed at his tie, his smile growing. "You've said years ago that the subject, and the Bible, focuses on forgiveness. Even...love."

"Well…" Patton began fidgeting with the sleeves of his hoodie wrapped around his neck. "With a pretty spiritual viewpoint."

"We can't deny that it has some historical worth, at least."

"And it has wonderful stories to tell," Roman added, grinning. Two years ago, he dreamed of being a Prince of Peace like the book's Protagonist. At least, now he knew he couldn't live up to that pedestal. "Nothing more honorable and selfless comes from anywhere else, in my eyes."

"Thanks, guys." Patton smiled, bashfully ducking his head. "I know sometimes I sound pretty...fanatic, with the whole Christianity thing. With the whole 'do everything right' thing."

"We're all quite zealous in our own ways, and you're always so patient." Roman felt a dull pain at the way Patton still downgraded himself. "Let us be patient and welcoming with your quirks, and let us help you grow."

"They are...endearing," added Logan. "And I want to know you, further than what you think should be shown." The glimpse of wonder returned to his gaze. "I wish to know all of you and...and all figurative crevices of your personalities. Therefore, you don't have to feel ashamed of yourselves."

"I take it our secrets will be safe with you," Roman murmured, brushing his fingertips carefully over Deceit's laminae. The other shifted, but then unconsciously leaned into the touch. 

"Like your secret door." Logan sighed, finally regaining some of his posture. His eyes faded, perchance with predictions and hypotheses. "Perhaps one day I'll be able to face my dreams."

I wanna lift you up into the light

That you deserve 

"You will." Roman wished to do something to prove it, a physical touch that wouldn't overwhelm Logan, or wake Deceit, but still convey that he believed it with all his might, that his heart didn't drown in the ocean of black tears perpetually. But he feared relinquishing his touch from Deceit's cheek and temple—it seemed to work wonders, calming his pained features and loosening his stiffened muscles. "And they aren't dead, your dreams. They're always there."

"Even if they fade slightly," Patton finished, bittersweet smile once again in place.

Soon, silence reigned. They couldn't battle their leadened eyelids and their heavy, slow breathing, nor lighten and activate their strength. Roman realized none of them had really slept nor had peace in almost two months. That explained the migraines, the dark circles under eyes, the thinness of the skin, the nightmares that lived in most of their eyes. The three slumped, balanced and somewhat crushed between the other sleeping sides. Roman watched as Patton lay beside Remus, hesitantly embracing the other with his arm, and fell limp in seconds. Logan rested his head on Deceit's own, then chose to move the other as gently as possible to rest close to the others. He set aside Patton's glasses, observed the sleeping ones for a few seconds, and nodded in satisfaction, settling against the wall, both hands resting on Deceit and Virgil's shoulders, and watched until his head hung low.

Roman took the other's glasses, loosened his necktie, and shifted him to lie in a more comfortable position. Logan was unresponsive. Roman moved silently until he could slither between Remus and Virgil, and allowed his brother to instinctively burrow in his chest, settling into his warmth and scent. Roman suddenly remembered the mischievous seven-year-old child smiling at him sleepily, before he burrowed in, against young Roman's 'manly' proclamations. And the Prince smiled.

I wanna take your pain into myself

So you won't hurt

The birds settled in a high branch, above the canopy, basking in the sun, finally breathing easier, and fell into a fitful, but deep, sleep.


"Wanna play?"

Deceit's head snapped up from his book, eyes widened. Remus almost winced at the fear of the memory of the cursed words that haunted throughout their lives, in Deceit's gaze. Remus had a hand held out to him, and Deceit stared at it in suspicion. 

"It'll actually be fun for you this time. We're going through the secret door." He grinned, his cheeks stretching more than they liked. Today he felt like forgetting the betrayal. Pretending he was a child without pain, reliving what he lost, felt therapeutic the first time. He knew Deceit finally allowed himself to enjoy something there as well.

Deceit vallicated a few more seconds, before setting aside the book and lightly taking the hand. "This isn't a lie, is it?"

Remus shrugged. "You know I'm a terrible liar, Dee."

There was still a heaviness in Deceit's shoulders, but a spectre of a forlorn smile tilted his lips. "What was your choice?"

Remus sighed heavily, tightening his grip on Deceit's hand. "For today...the impossible."

Don't you dare surrender

Don't leave me here without you

Cause I could never 

Replace your perfect imperfection

Deceit took a deep breath, and nodded. Remus led him out of his room, excitement filling his veins, until he forced the other to run to Roman's room. Inside they found a visitor Remus didn't expect.

"I don't think I should—" began Virgil.

"Oh, come on, Virgil!" raved Roman, eyes lit up like it was Christmas, wildly gesturing around. Remus smiled fondly at the sight, chest brimming with wistfulness, and found himself shimmying subconsciously in enthusiasm. It'd been twenty-two years since he'd seen Roman's true joy presenting itself so child-like. "You've never been before! I know you'll love it. Even Dee has seen it!"

Deceit's lips twitched at the nickname, while holding Remus' hand tightly. Virgil looked at Deceit in surprise. "You have?"

Deceit opened his mouth to speak, but he hesitated once more. "It isn't...it's marvelous there."

Virgil's hardened gaze softened, and he glanced at Roman uncertainly. "Really?"

"I'll tone it down so you're not overwhelmed," Roman promised quickly. "But please, stay for a while. I know it's not nearly as dreadful as you imagine."

"It's not that it's 'dreadful', it's…" Virgil huffed, shifting between feet. "It's just that...it's like Patton's room."

Roman faltered, understanding crashing his features. "Oh."

...It happened to me as well, whispered the mind of Remus' brother.

"Wait…" Deceit's eyes snapped between Roman and Virgil in confusion. "I understand."

"Me neither!" cried Remus, but then pretended to be thoughtful, unable to fight off his grin. "Although I do believe I'll throw up if I have to stay in his room for long."

Virgil sighed, pushing his hands into the pockets of his hoodie. "When you see how wonderful it is, being in his room...you fear returning to whatever reality you're living now."

"Logan said excessive nostalgia can…make reality from the present painful," Roman explained. He didn't mention the hopelessness that plagued him when Logan told him the dream wasn't true.

"I…" Deceit vacillated yet again, but there was a strange hope in his eyes. "I still don't want to go…"

"I miss playing with you," Remus added, looking at Virgil without blinking, and then at Roman, almost skipping from his toes. Now he felt like a child as well.

Roman smiled, and held a hand out for Virgil to take. The other stared at the graceful, flawless hand, and unleashed one of his own from his pocket. He intertwined his bony, calloused, pale fingers with Roman's thicker, soft ones. "Okay," he mumbled. "Just for today."

"Then let us soar and begin our adventure!" Roman cried, spreading his arms wide while still holding Virgil's hand delicately. Right on cue, the windows opened and the curtains flew, the golden embellishments vibrating, shining, almost coming to life while reflecting the bright sun. Remus took a blanket and once again placed it around his and Deceit's shoulders, while Virgil stared in awe at the chirping and crying colorful birds that flew into the room. "The secret door is everywhere and everything, and everyone can reach it! All you have to do, Virgil, is hide."

Virgil snorted. "I do that best. But how?"

A laugh tumbled from Remus' lips—feeling this alive only happened in Roman's room, the one that used to belong to both of them. He closed his eyes to relish in the light and warmth he avoided before—his heart warmed and expanded, and his lungs filled with oxygen like never before. The light became blinding beyond his eyelids, and he decided to fly like a bird. Weightlessness reached him, and he felt like a cinder rising to life and flame like a Phoenix.

When he opened his eyes, he was here.

He laughed again, shrill and loud, but it felt different in his chest and in his throat. The forgiving, bright sun embraced his skin—the aroma of greenery and flowers calmed his racing heartbeat. He heard distantly from one side of the world the whistle of the wind, the cry of seagulls, the crash of the waves, as well as the chirping of birds and the drizzle of light rain from the other side. Seconds after, the wind flew around him and ruffled his locks, blowing his glittering suit. Suddenly Deceit stood beside him, like he literally came to life and form from thin air. Remus cackled harder in wonder, and Deceit smiled widely back, eyes brightening and crinkling at the edges.

That proved it. Remus' laughter was definitely different, and he knew Dee adored it. 

A flock of birds flew overhead, and from the wings and feathers that slowly fell, dancing in the breeze, Roman and Virgil came to be. Virgil gasped as he looked around the meadow, shuffled forward to stare down the cliff and the fjord in fear, only to raise his gaze to look at the distant coast. He seemed less pale, less thin, less heavy as he breathed the liberating, natural air, and closed his eyes, basking in the sunlight. 

Remus turned to Roman and crashed into him. "Tag! You're it!" Then he sprinted as fast as he could, feeling the adrenaline rush through his bloodstream, his heart beating in fervor instead of terror. He let his arms unfold and elongate as he ran, like wings in the wind, and he flexed his neck until he saw the world upside down behind him. In the inverted perspective, Roman galloped, his hair flying, his eyes reflecting the sunlight. 

We stand undefined

Can't be drawn with a straight line

The exhaustion was gone, and seemingly would be for eternity—he could run his whole life in this freedom. He fixed his neck's position and kept running, but suddenly, he was tackled to the floor, and rolled with the other body down the gradual slope of the meadow. Their limbs got tangled, and they itched with the blades of grass that stuck lovingly to their skin, and they laughed so harshly they convulsed with each breath they wasted on their cachinnation. Remus opened his eyes, vision blurry with tears and vertigo, to see Virgil and Deceit walk up to them—the former had that almost motherly concern as he observed for injuries, but Deceit waved him off.

"There's no danger here," he explained, a relieved, freed smile on his lips as he stared at the siblings.

Roman disassembled from Remus, kneeled over him powerfully, and unsheathed his perfectly embroidered and molded sword, playfully raising it to the air, a wide grin on his flushed face. His voice boomed across the meadows, fiery and wrought with grace. The sight and his voice were far better than whatever Remus' mind tried to conjure to remember his brother, in all the years incarcerated. "You're mine, tagging fiend! Now I, the Prince of Dreamya, will return to you the curse given to me, and you will limp to find another victim!"

Remus giggled mischievously, and leaned upwards, uncaring of the proximity to the sword, lowering his voice to a dramatic whisper. "Try me, Prince. The Duke of Gehenna is far more resourceful than your imagination could ever muster."

Remus became a blackened breeze that flew around Roman, moving overhead, only to turn into himself again ten feet away from his brother, right behind Virgil. His hand landed on the other's shoulder with a finality, and he cried, "The Minister of Terror has been cursed!"

Virgil glanced over his shoulder, and sneered as devilishly as Remus felt, and became a flock of bats as soon as the other three began sprinting in different directions. The bats dispersed to follow them, and his dramatic, sinister cackle was heard from everywhere.

Remus ran into the forest, where the canopy provided a comforting shade that could hide him for now. He snickered, but dug a hole and hid within it, peeking slightly to watch. The branches and trees swayed with the wind, and some sun rays infiltrated the thick canopy. He smiled at the sight, kept observing his surroundings…

Until his stomach dropped and twisted.

"I am not the loyal servant of the Spirit of Terror," Remus heard whispered with a lisp, right behind him. "You can trust me."

Remus bolted out the hole, grinning, though he sensed something off. There was something pushing at the back of his mind, willing him to remember—but he only wished to play. Deceit sneered back, but there was a millisecond crack in the playful façade. They knew each other too well. They both knew something was wrong.

"Well, unlike you, I am free," Remus responded with an air of haughtiness. "I work for no one but the nation I own."

"How dare you curse the Prince!" cried Roman in the distance, which caused the snort from all the bats hiding up in the trees of the canopy. Remus and Deceit glanced up, and saw the black and violet eyes staring unblinkingly back, though there was a smirk tilting the bats' muzzles.

Remus tried to smile back, but the strange pupils of the bats narrowed, then dilated. The Duke saw flashes of the same forest, but darker, where the sun was present but still didn't shine. The canopy, the leaves, the roots, everything was larger, intertwined, withered—

"Remus?" Deceit asked, uncertainty in his gaze. He reached out and took Remus' arm. It was then that Remus realized he was trembling.

Remus found himself shaking his head, answering the silent question. "I'm sorry."

"Hey, don't be." Virgil was at his side now, his hoodie replaced by a cape that seemed to cover black wings protruding from his back. It was clear how enraptured Virgil had become in the game, but now he stared intently at Remus, worry distorting his features. "What's bothering you?"

Roman seemed to sense something. The red cardinal was gently observing and nudging the scarlet tanager with its beak in the branches above, before Roman himself appeared. His eyes were strange—there was a wild, sinister look to his features, and Remus feared to see his grin. But he shook his head—this was his brother, not an apparition.

Or am I?

Remus flinched, cursing himself internally, and flinched harder when Roman took his shoulders. But Roman was patient, and there was a pain in his eyes that promised he understood. "It's going to be alright. Sit down, you look faint." He led Remus to do so on the green grass, by a tree, then knelt before him, hesitating for a moment, but then taking his brother's hands.

This will not be our ending

We are alive

We are alive!

Deceit took a deep breath, a haunted memory in his serpentine eye. "Is it the forest?"

That was it. Suddenly everything made sense. Remus nodded, swallowing bile.

Roman and Virgil questioningly waited for answers, the former more impatient than the latter, though Remus knew his brother tried to hide it. Instead, Roman beckoned Remus to lay in his lap. 

"Remember when we were young?" Remus mumbled, slowly allowing Roman's warm touch to lead him to rest for a while, just as exhaustion from the infiltrating memories and him crashed in. "We always played in the meadow and the fjord. You could see the forest, and the beach, but we mostly left those alone."

Some understanding shined in Roman's eyes, but he seemed slightly perplexed still. Virgil looked at Deceit, querying with his eyes. Deceit impassively glanced back. He seemingly couldn't answer. Remus closed his eyes, only to open them, trying not to blink again, fighting the sight of him in the darkness.

"When we separated," he continued, "it was like our world tore apart, and our bridge was gone. But we didn't even know we had domain of only one biodome beyond the secret door."

Roman nodded, furrowing his brows. "Is that why the forest was gone after Thomas' ninth birthday?"

Remus hummed, leaning into Roman's hand as it caressed his locks. "We both lost the meadow and the fjord until this year, in August 22nd." Roman smiled at the date—Remus knew both had memorized it. After twenty-two years, it was on that day that they saw the meadow and fjord again, together. "When alone, you had the beach. And I...had the forest."

"The cell didn't allow him to reach the Imagination," Deceit muttered, beginning to trace and scratch the dirt beneath his left glove. Remus knew he was doing everything to not scrape his scales. "It was only in his room that he could reach it."

"But it was never the same without you." Roman sighed softly while Remus did shakily. "You hold power here, you always have. Patton didn't like it that way before."

" Everyone didn't like it that way," Virgil corrected, also breaking eye contact. He almost peeled the skin off his hands, then settling on rubbing his arms. "Patton did what he was told. Like Dee."

"What's it like? The forest?" Roman didn't wish to know, Remus sensed. But Roman still asked, and Remus felt his brother thought it necessary, that he deserved to know, if Remus had walked through it alone.

Lightning and thunder crashed the once calm forest, causing everyone to flinch heavily. Virgil stared at the cracks through the canopy, rubbing his chest, breathing shallowly, while Roman looked at Remus in shock. It couldn't evolve to fear—now he was curious. But Deceit's hand snapped to his chest, like he was checking to see if he was wounded. His pupils were dilated, but he continued struggling to hold his features still.

"No words can describe it," Remus echoed, words he'd said before, back when the truth was still barely buried, back when he and Deceit were trapped in an endless cycle of agony. He stared above him, seeing him, instead of somebody else, but the sight was gone, easily replaced by the enhanced beauty of his brother in the land beyond the secret door. "You need to see it for yourself. And not in here—not in your room. You hold too much power here."

Roman barely swallowed his shudders, and looked away, though his hand still stiffly brushed Remus' greasy hair. "N-not yet…" Roman glanced at Virgil, a strange pleading betraying through his hopeful gaze. "Perhaps we could see yours instead?"

"My what?" Virgil asked, bewildered, shrinking into himself. He seemed to fear the answer, but then his eyes widened. "No—no, I'm not going back there." Remus now recognized the terror in his gaze, buried behind the confusion. 

Deceit was merely perplexed for seconds, and then his eyes faded. "His mind, you mean." His voice was monotone, not a trace of sarcastic lies in it. "Roman, you'll see it. You'll know Remus' subconscious...you'll know the forest. You keep trying to elude the pain, but it'll catch up with you eventually."

He spoke from experience.

"But we can wait…right?" Roman stared at Virgil again. "Virgil, do you wish to…?"

"Fine," Virgil sighed, resigned. But then he looked at Remus with a strange, determined threat. "One last time. You won't enter my mind after this. Promise me."

"One last time," Remus promised. He smiled in a way that hurt, and he knew seemed somber. Roman's demesne was already attempting to bury every trace of him, but the memory of his song, his screams, what he'd done, was still free with Remus' added presence. He felt so exhausted with this constant battle. God knew how weary Roman must've felt—how he could've gained the strength to keep fighting, Remus couldn't imagine. "They won't need to see it again after this."

Virgil nodded, then looked at Roman. "I guess you'll know why I kinda hated you once. And...a lot of, uh, juicy stuff." Remus hummed in amusement, his eyes widening in interest. Virgil groaned in disgust and covered his eyes. "Why did I have to say that word?"

Deceit scoffed in amusement, and began to stand, dusting himself off. "Well, the last time we got out of here was because of you, Remus."

"No!" Roman yelped, then cleared his throat, tightening his hold on Remus. "You can't do it again, brother. That really, uh…"

"Fucked you up?" finished Remus, smiling wryly. "Me too. I don't remember how we left when we were young."

Roman sighed, his eyes switching to each side in deep thought. "Instead of...hopelessness, I believe you can decide to bravely face reality. With hope that...your tears and plights will one day fade." Roman smiled doubtfully, gently, helping Remus to his feet. "That's how I tried to live every day, at least."

Virgil sighed shakily, closed his eyes and steadied himself. "Let's hope you're right." The bats abruptly flew to him and danced around him like a tornado, until they dispersed, leaving no trace of him behind. Roman took Remus' hand tightly, looked at the birds above him and grinned. "I promise I'll give you wings in time," the former whispered, and the birds answered by chirping and soaring. The feathers, carried by the wind, enveloped Roman as well once more, and then he was gone. The warmth of his glorious flames lingered in Remus' fingers and palm, long after he was gone.

Deceit blinked, then glanced at Remus with perplexity. Perhaps even some helplessness. How the hell do I face reality? his eyes asked.

Don't you dare surrender

Remus slowly took Deceit's gloved hand now, wracking his head for answers. But it was something ingrained in his mind—to embrace the worst of life, even exaggerating it in fantasies. But that was the bitter opposite of Deceit. "Patton would have the words for this."

Deceit smiled wryly. "Of course." He paused. "How would you do it? Face it?"

Remus shrugged, remembering when he buried his head in the crook of his neck when Deceit carried him out of there, for the first time, into the light, into the real world of the Mindscape, no matter how dim it still was down below the Light Mindscape. He remembered the fights, the panic attacks, the nightmares, the flashbacks, the hallucinations—nothing ended even when he was 'freed'. And yet, Remus was never alone through that hell, no matter how horrific, no matter how much they hurt each other. Remus looked into Deceit's eyes, and still found embittered self-hatred there, mingled with powerlessness. "I guess...together?" 

They seemed to be the right words. Remus' chest felt less tightened, and Deceit's features softened. The latter's eyes fluttered closed, and Remus followed.

Don't leave me here without you

When he opened them, he was faced with Deceit once more, in the bright, embellished, Disney-inspired, song-filled room. 

"You did it!" Roman cheered, clapping and bouncing on the balls of his feet. Virgil smiled, relieved, pushing his hands into his hoodie.

"Well, follow me, then," said Remus, spreading his arms awkwardly, but he felt his lips widen slightly. "It's like Halloween's already come in Virgil's head. It could be fun!"

Virgil snorted disbelievingly. "That's one way to look at it."

Deceit still hasn't let go of Remus' hand, and Remus reached out to take his brother's. Roman reached out to take Virgil's—after a moment of hesitation, Virgil took it once more, and neared the other two to take Deceit's. His small smile and Deceit's brightening heterochromatic eyes infected everyone else with joy. 

But Remus knew it would be short-lived.

One step in front of the other, Roman's voice echoed in Remus' thoughts, quoting someone else. 

They all took a breath, squeezing their hold, readying their hearts, and then let go, allowing Remus to lead the way. Nobody shivered when they reached the darkness filled with ashes, not even Roman, now entirely accustomed to the Dark Mindscape. They walked without stopping, as if one hadn't lived in this place his whole life, as if another hadn't returned for so long. But once Remus reached the doorway, he froze.

A hand landed on his shoulder. "We'll enter the secret door together, brother."

Don't you dare surrender!

I'm still right beside you

Remus gulped, but he knew, deep down, this was necessary. He couldn't bury or hide like the others—he had to relive it somehow. He had to see it, truly see him again. 

He pushed open the door. And the twins entered at the same time.

Cause I could never

Replace your perfect imperfection

Chapter Text

Virgil couldn't control his palpitating heart. He rubbed his palms unto his pants but couldn't cease the perspiration. He wished for one minute to not be afraid. Just a minute, to know what adventure Roman always sang and boasted about. 

And to comprehend how Remus could embrace the terrifying journey before them.

But he still forced his head to rise and made eye contact with each of them, with Remus, with Roman, with Deceit, taking them in before the worn door would open to all the horrors he'd pushed away for years. Deceit was the other one filled with muted dread, but he seemed open enough to whatever the siblings had in mind. Virgil wondered what it was that sparked recognition in Deceit's eyes since they reached the forest in the brighter Imagination, but he couldn't help but sense he'd find out one day. 

There was a palpable fear, an unorthodox aura back in the forest, and nowhere else, but it didn't belong to Roman, nor to Virgil. Could it have belonged to Remus? But whatever it was that lived in Remus' eyes when they were in the woods had gone now, replaced by an unstoppable determination in his features, a dead-set fury that now couldn't hold him back like terror could, as he slammed the door ajar against the wall, strode in, and spread his arms wide. Right on cue—the frozen weapons inside the room swirled and raced, the ashes flurried in all directions, and chaos awakened in the room in its own definition of life. Virgil found himself breathless in unsettled wonder by merely staring at it all. 

"Instead of hiding, we need to embrace it. Allow it to enter." Remus spoke like he was an ambassador of something that couldn't be manifested in words, eyes closed, but then they opened. He stared unseeingly, and Virgil hated that he recognized the thousand-yard stare in the gaze. "We can't see into your mind if you want to hide from its brokenness."

"What is 'it'? What are we doing here?" asked Deceit, arms crossed tightly, features hardened by the forced lack of confusion in them, and Virgil felt like kissing his feet. 

Took you long enough to voice that, he thought.

"Reliving the pain," Remus answered. His eyes never broke their incessant stare at nothingness, his arms never moved in the increasing winds and the rising crimson and ebony clouds and rain. "Logan gave it a name. Virgil did before him. And I've repressed it for too long. So have you, Dee."

Virgil remembered suddenly, back to when it all began—sitting beside him in this very room, after the incident with Roman in the darkest night. It's called trauma, dumbass, he'd said. He vividly felt the desperation and paranoia from that long, sleepless night. It was like spending the nights with Deceit so long ago, but without affection, without the caring pretenses Virgil had become so used to. 

If only he'd known back then that he had a chance that night, and all the nights before that—the opportunity to save both of them, pull them with him to meet the others... But Thomas' orders to keep them at bay held strongly back then, no matter how subconscious and wrong they had been. It was out of your control, not your fault, not your fault— 

But it was, wasn't it?

A hand gently pressed upon his shoulder, and he unwillingly flinched. But it was grounding. Thank God Roman noticed his spiral. He glanced at Virgil with a smirk and that undeniable concern in his brown irises. Virgil really needed to cut out the whole almost-dissociation thing that he'd been having for almost two weeks.

"Focus on why it hurts, and you'll find it," Remus continued, seemingly unaware of Virgil's distracted thoughts, then finally looked at the other almost knowingly, that disturbing, devilish grin the primary sign that Remus was beginning to read him, his mind. "Seeking answers and solutions for what already passed will only keep you out of there. So will trying to forget."

Virgil huffed, pushed his hands into his hoodie, and closed his eyes, forcing himself to focus. He thought of how Dee dragged him to hell while he pleaded and promised to be better when they were nine—how no music or books or blankets could block out Remus' threats from boredom, and then his screams of horror—how Virgil wanted nothing more than to trust someone , and trusted the wrong one—how he had to talk Dee out of the fog in his mind, the trembling episodes that always led to something worse without company—the panic attacks and nightmares that never went away even after he'd left—

His heart clenched and his lungs constricted. His chest began to heat up, as if flames began licking his heart, while he gasped for breath—like his lungs filled with water. He opened his eyes, dizzy and disconnected, and heard himself, and perhaps Roman, gasp.

Virgil gaped at the pitch black emptiness before him, and squinted while looking around, glancing over his shoulder, looking to the lightless sky. They stood in a road, uneven and cracked, but he could barely see where he trod because of the condensed fog that reached his knees. His hoodie felt heavier, colder, and he felt his pupils dilate, seeing new details as each second passed. To his left was a coast—the waters were gray, turning ebony, and the foam carried something sick and greenish. Dead fish were strewn about in the blackened sands. To his right was a chain of abandoned houses; they were so worn, rotten, broken down, on the verge of collapse. There were ravens cawing, but Virgil couldn't place their whereabouts—

Virgil couldn't even gasp as he felt more than heard, sensed more than saw pure danger, and he staggered from the road, pulling Remus beside him, just as a car raced past. He felt himself begin to shake, still holding Remus' arms tightly, unable to breathe. The car had almost hit them, and it carried sounds and voices that echoed throughout the road, until they rang in his mind—familiar, frighteningly familiar sounds and voices. But Remus grinned widely at the adrenaline, and Roman almost came to life as a Knight again, pressing a steady hand on Virgil's shoulder, though he, too, stared down the road where the car disappeared with heaving breaths. 

There was something pounding at the back of Virgil's head, like something fought to break free, but Virgil shoved it down, gulping. His chest felt like drowning . "Y-you guys okay?"

"Yes," replied Deceit, staring down the dark road as well, frozen. Virgil saw the numb shock fresh on his eyes, though he tried to harden his features. Virgil sighed heavily and pulled Remus' arm, striding on the rocky asphalt. He didn't wish to look to both sides away from the street, give any attention to the sharp sounds or the moving shadows in the sea or the houses. He just needed to get done with this—he didn't even know why Remus and Roman thought it was necessary to come here.

Or why he agreed.

He had come here before, never for too long, but he never understood it. And this time, his mind seemed millions of times more horrific. Perhaps Remus did understand his mind, but Virgil never wished to know what he liked or knew from here. Virgil loathed this place, loathed how whenever he came here, his mind ran wild. He wished now that Patton and Logan were here—they'd know how to help, and maybe figure out what this whole mess here meant.

They hate you, Virgil.

Deceit flinched, and Virgil shuddered. The four words were sing-songed, too sweet for what they said. But he kept walking as quickly as he could.

Crowded streets are cleared away

One by one

Hollow heroes separate

As they run

Tires screeched as they raced across the asphalt, and Virgil could only take a desperate step to the side, but he was too late—

He expected pain, but reality tore apart, blinding, artificial lights infiltrating like a delusion burning through reality— and Deceit stood there before him. He was off, a strange, unreadable look in his eyes. 

And then he smiled. 

"They'll only use you for Thomas' sake, sweetheart."

His voice warbled... 

And Virgil realized he remembered this, all that he saw. His surroundings molded to a dark room with wallpapers, cobwebs, a suffocating atmosphere he was used to—but it was all trembling, distorted. This memory was old and faded from rotting in his subconscious. Virgil wasn't sure how he knew this, but he still shrank at Deceit's words. But then, he straightened, forcing himself to glare at the robotic, almost frightening man before him. But before he could open his mouth, glass shattered, and the vision tore apart again, and he was met with darkness. Momentarily. For a house on his right burst into flames.

Virgil jerked to awareness, just as Roman balanced him with his hands. The Prince gazed worriedly at the violet-clad side, and then looked behind him to stare unblinkingly at the flames, still holding onto Virgil, the illumination lighting his features—until his eyes were black and wide and empty. Virgil had to dig his nails into his palms to remind himself it wasn't him. It was only Roman. But the deluding look in Roman's eye that suddenly became empty and cruel had been happening more and more often, heaven knew why. 

"I'm not sure what you saw, but I heard him," Roman mumbled, and then he turned to glance at Virgil, taking his hand and squeezing. Virgil realized he was freezing, and Roman wasn't. "What happened?"

You're so cold

Keep your hand in mine

Wise men wonder 

While strong men die

Remus hummed peacefully, smiling at the collapsing building, bouncing between his feet. Deceit had already gripped the other's arm to stop him from discovering what fire really felt like. "I bet you hate what he did to you that much!" he whispered, placing a hand beside his lips, as if this was a playful secret to be told.

Virgil ducked his head. He didn't want to see Deceit's reaction to those words. "Let's just keep walking."

They'll convince you of love and fairytales, but once your use is up…

A silent laugh, embittered and sarcastic, echoed throughout the emptiness around them. Virgil shoved his hands within his hoodie and tried not to growl. Then startled as another house blew up.

"Hey!"

Virgil's head swiveled, to see a silhouette. The stranger sounded angry, which made him almost unrecognizable. But then something clicked. Virgil began walking quickly, off the road and towards the sand where the distant person stood, his stomach clenching as he recognized the hoodie wrapped around shoulders and the black frame of glasses.

If you find your family

Don't you cry

"Patton, what are you doing—?" He froze. There was a strange look in Patton's gaze too. It looked like wild...something. It was something beyond fear, beyond rage. It made Virgil's blood run cold. "Patton?"

Patton was ragged. His hands were stained with grime, and they shook intermittently. The tattered cat hoodie wrapped around his shoulders couldn't cover how emaciated he seemed, and one lens of his glasses was cracked. But nothing was more terrifying than that look in his eyes. "Kiddo." That nickname was a threat, and he grimaced in a grin that screamed something. "You can stop trying to ruin us now."

Roman pulled Virgil and stood between him and...whoever this was. His features were hardened. "God knows where you came from, but leave. You're only speaking nonsense."

" Or am I? " 'Patton' replied, and Virgil felt his world twist and blur at the same time he heard a frayed gasp beside him. Shit.

In this land of make believe

Dead and dry

Another car zoomed by twenty feet away from all of them, but it didn't need to hit for all of them to see flashes of him, sneering sadistically, singing off-key as he carved a hole on Virg—

They'll leave you to rot in hell.

"Shit, shit, shit," he gasped. Remus was thrumming beside Virgil, eyes betraying growing panic, still held by Deceit. Patton looked animalistic, but gazed at the sand carefully, tilted his head, crouched to trace along the grains, and revealed the bloody hilt of a sword—a katana. Then he looked back up. He still stared like there was no life in him, like he'd been eternally trapped in a nightmare, and then glanced at the waves returning to the sands almost ten feet away, mesmerized. If he was who Virgil thought he was, if he was a mix of him and something else—

"All I did was try to fix you, Virgil," he said, deceptively innocent and wrong , the grace and the hatred merging into whatever lived in his eyes and voice. "To show you. Why won't you listen?"

They needed to run.

Remus knew that. He conjured a shuriken, threw it to pin Patton's hand to the ground before he could take the katana, and dashed with Virgil towards the road. 

'Patton' laughed, and Virgil glanced over his shoulder, panting, but the impostor didn't even try to move. He merely watched, tilting his head again. 

"Where do we go?" Roman asked as he caught up, breathless.

Nowhere is safe, nowhere is safe— "I don't know," Virgil breathed, embracing himself. He'll come back any minute—

"Why did he lure you to the coast?" Deceit queried, features unreadable, but he still held onto Remus, who trembled with unbridled terror and rage.

"I don't know!" Virgil's voice cracked with frustration, and he gestured wildly, but Deceit's demeanor never changed. "I've only come here once or twice because of Remus, but I never knew, I never had control.

"Should we find a sturdy house?" Roman interjected helplessly, already looking into the chain of abandoned buildings. "And perhaps Deceit has a point."

"About what?" growled Remus, fire in his eyes. 

Deceit sighed, closing his eyes for one second. "You have to see the worst to understand, don't you?"

Pain is necessary, Virgil. It makes you better.

Virgil pulled his hair with shaking fingers, groaning in frustration, and began walking again. Understand, huh? he thought. Exactly what is there to understand? He needed to move, do something . He couldn't ignore the memories or him now . What the hell is wrong with my mind? 

Better than them.

Deceit's snake eye faded, and he reached to rub the left side of his face. That proved that Virgil wasn't going insane, that someone else heard the bitterly sweet voice. Everyone shuffled behind Virgil, while Roman still stared at the houses. Some were rotting, others trembled, and laughter could be heard from one. "Roman—Roman has the only idea," Deceit stuttered, clearly as disturbed as Virgil felt. "So we won't follow it."

Virgil tried to focus, but he began to hear more voices. Deceit's, and Roman's, and his. "Why?"

You only belong with the fallen, Severus Snape.

You should definitely be bothered by a scar. It couldn't have been worse.

Come to me, Virgil.

Virgil closed his eyes wearily. They all began to sound the same.

"There are things to see," said Remus simply, making Virgil struggle to open his eyes. The usually wild one was mellow, his eyes unblinking and profound, in that intermittent wisdom that only came to him at unexpected moments like these. He looked to the floor, and then to the distance, where clouds and darkness and fog reigned, far beyond where the road would take them.  Ashes and wind could vaguely be seen flurrying in the distance. "Your mind needs to be explored, to find a way...out of this beautiful mess. And there's a storm coming."

"Wh-what do you mean storm?" Virgil hadn't noticed he was peeling his palms until this moment, but now he couldn't stop. Roman wrapped them with his own hands, exasperated worry in his gaze.

"You'll see." Remus grinned, and strode to the house where the laughter echoed from. It was reddened with dried blood, the wood and metal that held it dilapidated. And soon after he entered, the laughter within became shrieks. Roman followed, choosing to hold Virgil's hand to pull him along. Virgil wanted to gouge someone's eyes out for simply being here.

But when he stepped in through the doorway, blind in the darkness within, reality shattered and shifted again. Virgil felt his heart crush.

He stood before the mirror, black, worn hoodie unzipped and only covering his shoulders. There was no shirt below it, and he rubbed the large, fresh scab and slowly forming scar on his chest with quivering fingertips. There was a rush of noise in his ears, blocking the screams and laughter of reality, and the calls of his name. Only an off-key song resounded loudly in his ears, harmonizing with the rush of his bloodstream. But the door clicked open, and snapped Virgil out of his trance, making him rush to zip his hoodie closed.

"Can't you fucking knock?" he snapped, still feeling far away, but with enough coherence to glare daggers at Deceit, who now knocked sharply on the open door while deadpanning back.

"There." He smiled smugly. "Dinner's ready."

"Not hungry. And you won't eat either." Virgil looked away to stare at the mirror again, too still. He always had the feeling that Deceit would read him with a single movement. "So have fun throwing the crappy food away."

Deceit lingered in silence. Virgil saw his eyes flash in that terrible monstrous way in the reflection, but they returned to their normal, impassive gaze. Deceit was thin, evidence of Virgil's words, but he held his head high, not a speck of regret. Virgil always wanted to punch the smug look in his eyes. But...it was an ungrateful thing to do. 

"Did it scar?" Deceit asked calmly.

"None of your fucking business. Get out of here." Virgil buried his hands in his pockets to hide their increasing trembles. And he jumped at the renewed sobs below. "Worry about your prisoner instead."

"Now, Virgil," Deceit said smoothly, walking with grace over to the other, and gripping Virgil's jaw tightly to make him look at him. "What lies got you so bitter this time?" There was no denying the buried rage in his eyes. Virgil felt his lungs constrict.

"You made me go in there." His voice was quieter, but the meaning behind his words was still there, haunting them. Virgil fought off the urge to rub his chest.

Deceit scoffed. "I had control over what Remus did in there." He placed a hand on his chest and bowed, still gripping Virgil's chin, still staring disturbingly at him. "Apologies. Also , you've gone through the worst experience with him."

Something about the way his eyes flashed made Virgil's stomach twist. "Dee—"

"Is this about them being supposedly kinder?" Deceit grinned, almost amused by Virgil's ignorance, and straightened, now towering over him. "We've been over this—they'll teach you about 'kindness' and 'love', but it is…"

"And always will be a lie," finished Virgil, losing whatever energy made him snap at Dee before. Right, that's all it was—he was being paranoid towards Deceit again. But Deceit was the only one he could trust.

Deceit smiled and finally let go. "Did it scar?"

"...Kind of."

"Can I see?"

"No!" Virgil gasped heavily for breath, the numbness of the dream and faded memories wearing off, making way for panic. His hand immediately pressed to his chest, tightly rubbing the phantom pain away. Roman held Virgil safely, and the latter realized he was leaning heavily onto the former. He tried to push the Royal away, staggering away, rubbing his chest.

"That…wasn't disconcerting," Deceit slurred, blinking sluggishly, brows furrowed, while Remus balanced him as well.

"We could only watch the—the scene, like ghosts," Roman said quickly, perplexity shining in his features. "It was like cinema. Like we were watching you instead of being with you—why?"

"Minds work differently, brother." Remus' lips twitched along with his eyelid. "This one is haunted—it wants the protagonists of its memories to really relive it."

"Relive what?" whispered Virgil, clawing at his chest now. The pain was too real—the wound before it scarred had been ingrained in his mind, along with the song, and him, but this was different. It was worse than any nightmare he'd suffered for the last ten years. It was worse than the stinging pain that remained for the first three years after...

"Everything." Remus closed his eyes and grinned too widely, his brow creased. "Everything was painful for us."

Virgil suddenly realized they stood before the collapsed house they were once inside, now reduced to ruin and dust. Black sludge invaded the wood and metal that shaped it. And… Virgil blinked, squinted, pressed the heels of his palms against his eyelids and rubbed them harshly. And looked at the house again. He wasn't hallucinating. 

Logan shivered in the middle of the rubble, arms limp at his sides, a numbed yet deranged emotion in his wide eyes. Virgil groaned again, and pulled Roman along to walk on the only path they had, stumbling when the pain was too sharp, when the lies became fresh and believable once more. He only sped up, on the brink of sprinting again. "How do we get out of here?"

"Enlightenment!" Remus stood in the same place before the house, fidgeting excitedly, and waved at Logan playfully, who stared back, so robotic. He seemed to be a dead man walking. "They're here to show you something. Both of them want you to learn."

"A terrible truth doesn't do the trick of awakening," added Deceit, catching up with Virgil, who still pulled Roman, pain in his yellow eye as he looked at ' Logan '.

"I think I've seen enough, you know!" Virgil spat sarcastically. "Terrible truths make up my whole damn life. Now can we leave this literal nightmare?"

"Well, have you learned?" Roman asked, earnest, steadying his balance when Virgil froze in his tracks.

Virgil huffed, but wasn't sure of the answer. He glanced at 'Logan' in the distance, watched as he walked across the pitch and ruins, watched as the dark ink stuck and pulled on his briskly moving legs, but he continued as if he hadn't noticed. As he neared, Virgil saw his dilated pupils and the dilapidated effect of his skin. He really looked like a machine. A decrepit one.

"Greetings." His voice sounded like it has been running out of gasoline for way too long. "Why have you abandoned the residences?"

"What does that mean ?" Virgil cried, brushing a hand wildly through his hair. Roman held his other hand tighter. "You mean that pile of rubble?!" He gestured wildly at it, fighting off a scream of frustration. "Why do you think we left?!"

Deceit swallowed. "Virgil. You...want to see the truth. You aren't blocking it."

Virgil wished to believe he wasn't talking in lies. But a part of him deeply knew he was.

Remus gasped in surprise, tilting his head. "Then that means you're still ashamed!"

Of what?

"Please state information," Logan continued, words chopped and toneless, as if no one has spoken, his eyes still wide, pupils hiding the sclerae, focused only on Virgil. "This place is illogical. You have no destination."

"Yes, we do!" Remus countered, and grinned wildly. Virgil felt his stomach twist. That grin was always bad news. "We're going to the storm."

Logan jerked, blinked for the first time. And smiled. Virgil fought the urge to gag at the sight. "Are you, now?"

Virgil glanced at the sky in the distance. It was darker, like smoke accumulated on the already black clouds, and ashes were now racing in circles.

"Any...checkpoints, before we reach it?" Roman added hesitantly, warily staring where Virgil looked, and then pleading at his brother with his eyes as to what a terrible idea it was. Virgil wanted to ask Remus and Logan what the 'storm' even was . But Deceit shook his head at him and Roman, resigned. Remus simply paid them no mind.

"Look into the reflection of the ocean," Logan answered, the smile collapsing as fast as it had come. "Patton wishes to show you something there."

Deceit sighed. "What about you?" 

Logan remained silent. Laughed slowly. Never looked away from Virgil. "You don't want the truth as of yet. I am unable to show you a thing."

Virgil blinked, and Logan was gone.

Roman swiveled and sprinted to the waters as soon as he'd vanished. He stood still once the waves lapped to his feet with almost a vice grip, but he seemed to avoid the waters. He looked back uncertainly, but his determination wouldn't shake from Virgil's pleading in his eyes. As soon as Roman turned back, bowed his head, and peeked at the reflection, he froze. 

The rest crossed the road—barely missing another car that brought sensations of unadulterated guilt and the hunger to forgive, to just move on —and reached the sands. But Virgil couldn't bring himself to look into the liquid reflection yet. Deceit tried to move Roman's head to the side, and Remus pulled on his brother's arm hard enough to dislocate his shoulder—but Roman only reacted by walking beside the sea, ignoring the other two, still staring at the sickening waters. Deceit and Remus then let him go, and Virgil could only observe his unfocused, glazed over gaze.

"Roman," Virgil called. Roman kept walking, and the short waves with blackening foam pulled Roman further to itself. " Roman ." Virgil strode up to the other and snapped his fingers before his face. Roman finally, achingly slowly, turned his head, and his eyes were like...like Patton's, and Logan's. "Shit."

"You really let yourself rot like Dee told you we would." Roman smiled sadly, his eyes wide and empty. "How many of his empty promises have actually you made true?"

"What?" But then something dawned on Virgil, and he straightened. "What did you see?"

"You should see for yourself."

"No."

I hate you. All you've done was let my life fall apart!

They did that for you, Virgil.

Virgil covered his ears from the sarcastic sing-song voice, feeling the increasing urge to scream at the sky to shut up. His chest began to burn.

"That's okay," Roman said, still smiling numbly. "Your mind will make you listen. It has been trying for too long now."

Remus peeked into the waters over his shoulder, but Deceit desperately grasped his jaw to make him look away. Remus' eyes transformed into nothingness for a millisecond, but then reverted back to his normal animalism. "I couldn't help myself!" he snickered quietly, shrugging. 

Virgil pulled Roman's hand before he could resume his gait, but Roman was unresponsive—and empty. Like when the twins were separated, until seemingly minutes ago—or ages ago. He wasn't sure how long they've been here, in this shithole. How long ago they played like there was no tomorrow. "What are you talking about? What do Patton and Logan want to show me?" Roman smirked, and Remus' eyes lit up with realization.

"You have so many broken dreams." Roman's features crumbled for a moment. Only a moment. "Broken and buried. You won't even look at them. Do you know why?"

"Roman, wake up, and answer me," Virgil pleaded, digging the nails of his free hand into his palm to evade doing anything drastic. He squeezed Roman's hand instead. "Please."

"The crumbled house was showing you something—everything here is." Remus looked all around him, at the road, at the waves brushing his feet, at the dark, starless sky, at the sudden burst of flames thirty feet away, which lit up his features again. He grinned uncertainly, his eyes drinking in everything. "But you always look the other way."

"Well, how do I fix this place? How do I see—whatever it is?" Virgil snapped.

Deceit dragged a hand down the scarred side of his face, and finally spoke up from his silence. "I taught you terribly , didn't I?" He sighed, staring at the burning house. "You have to undo everything I taught you."

Virgil furrowed his brows. "Taught me?"

Deceit merely glanced at him knowingly, and Virgil felt himself hunch. He didn't want to know the answer to that. There were so many things that took him ages to unlearn, but a few shards of pain and... paranoia were still internalized in his head, like shrapnel, leaving his mind broken. What could Deceit mean now? A car screeched past in the distance—

One lie those childish movies of his teach well is…

I know, Dee.

Say it.

...Empathy.

And?

"How do I undo it?" Virgil asked, blinking away the memories.

"I'm glad you asked," replied a broken, off-key voice right behind him, and he jumped, swiveling to face a smiling 'Logan'. Virgil wanted to punch that smile off. Logan tilted his head to the side, which shivered, like it was glitching. "I'll be your guide if you allow it. I hear your destination is the storm."

" That's where we need to go?" asked Virgil. " Really?

Roman nodded somberly this time, eyes still faded. His fingers twitched at his side, and his core seemed to lean towards the sea. 

"The root of all this fun wonderland is in the center of the mind," Remus added, smirking ironically, like everything was just a mild inconvenience, but still gripping Roman's arm tightly. "Sure, reliving memories is nice, but we need to get to the juicy ones. To really get to the bottom of this."

Logan flinched without cause, his smile twitching. Then he proceeded along the road, already leading the way, leaving the others scrambling to follow his brisk gait. "There are some detours you should see, Virgil," he offered over his shoulder, echoing Roman's earlier question, eyes studying each abandoned house and store on the right patiently as he walked.

Virgil paused, sprinted to stand before the other, making Logan stop without reluctance, while staring at one house in particular. Virgil finally decided to take Logan in, blocked his fear, and let his vision linger on all crevices of him. His fingers were scorched, the tips blackened and deformed. His arms were stained with something unnatural, like ink, and it looked like the black stains would never wear off. The left side of his face appeared to be on the brink of melting from the heat, like his skin was synthetic, made of metal, or plastic. And his chest was sunken in, like he had no ribs to give it shape—like the lungs and heart they were supposed to protect went missing…

"Why are you and Patton so becoming?" mumbled Deceit, an unreadable emotion flaring in his left eye. "What happened to you?"

Logan tilted his head unnaturally, and smiled robotically once more. "You know full well, Deceit."

With that, he turned on his heel and walked briskly towards the nearest house. Virgil reluctantly followed, apprehensively watching the black smoke leaving its windows and mingling with the dark sky. 

Why are you two so messed up here? Virgil thought. Is it him or something else?

He looked over his shoulder to gaze at Roman, who gave a strained grin towards the toxic waters. But Remus pulled him away and in the direction of the homes. Deceit caught up to Virgil, a frazzled pain increasingly clear in his eyes as he watched Logan, then turned to look at Patton, who crouched by the sands in the distance, playing with the sands and his disheveled hoodie around his shoulders, staring straight at Virgil with a wide, barely hidden sneer. But then he looked at the sea once more, fascinated.

Is it my fault?

"You're welcome to come in," Logan said tonelessly, eyes unblinking as he stood frozen in the doorway, unbothered by the smoke that made Virgil's nose curl and Deceit cover his mouth with his arm.

"Right," Virgil breathed, and walked inside, closing his eyes tightly at the onslaught of pain in his chest and the pounding of his head—

"Dee."

Deceit looked up from his book, perched on his bed—though it was clear from the glazed, frazzled look in his serpentine eye that he wasn't reading a word—to see Virgil trembling in the doorway, flinching every three seconds at the thunderstorm outside, balancing himself on the doorframe. The crimson lightning lit up Deceit's gaunt features, but couldn't chase away the shadows that hid most of his face.

Both knew what that storm meant. But more frightening than the crack of thunder was the silence from Remus' cell.

Deceit sighed softly, set aside his book, smiled artificially, and spread his arms wide. Before Virgil could even think, he had already jumped on the bed and burrowed into Deceit. He tried with all his might to remain quiet—he knew how much Dee hated noise, but also how much he loathed pure silence.

"Is it him again?" Deceit gently queried.

"Not just him," whispered Virgil, taking a liberating breath as Deceit's hand began caressing his back gently. " Him ."

"He isn't real. He won't haunt you. You'll be fine."

Virgil clenched his eyes shut and clutched his chest. His limbs were tangled with Deceit's, but right now, he didn't have the energy to mind. "You weren't there, Dee."

"Just bury the pain." Deceit's voice was tender and sweet, and this is what Virgil lived for. Everyone was always on edge, or ready to insult, or playing with him, manipulating him. But when these awful nights came, Deceit became soft and even loving, and Virgil always felt like he could breathe again. "Stop focusing on it, and you'll be okay. Everything is okay."

No, it's not.

His mind tugged at distant memories, when they were all young when everything was alright, when no one suffered . But everyone was innocent when young—the others became manipulative and selfish as they grew. Deceit knew that best.

"What's wrong with Remus?" Virgil opted to say instead, still slightly shaken from the visions of Remus playing, singing, greeting him , his brother. "Why the storm? Why is he so quiet?"

Deafening silence greeted him, and Deceit's caressing hand stopped in its tracks. Virgil stiffened. Shit, I fucked up, the moment's gone, Dee will hate me, why did I mention it—?

"It isn't the twins' birthday," Deceit replied emptily. He didn't resume his petting, and Virgil finally found the courage to open his eyes, look up from his protection, to see Dee staring straight ahead of him, at the far wall. "He never senses the day coming. When...they separated." Deceit was too...not himself today. Virgil would have to do something to make him snap out of it soon.

But he wanted to see him burn, and suffer every day of his life— And he just wanted to forget all the terrible deeds and move on and—

"Hey," he mumbled, reaching a stiff hand to snap his fingers before the other's eyes. He fought a sigh of relief when the eyes snapped down to him. "Sing to me. I'm scared."

They both shifted to comfort, finally untangling, until Virgil leaned heavily against Deceit's side, embraced by an arm and the capelet that hung upon it. Virgil leaned his head on the facetious side's shoulder, curling for warmth, forcing his hands to still. There was something calming about Deceit and his room, something that made Virgil wish to close his tired, bloodshot, stinging eyes to the end of his days, instead of keeping them open, watching for never-ending danger for his host.

"A gentle breeze from Hushabye Mountain," Deceit tenderly began, his soft breath and slightly hoarse voice tenderly felt by Virgil's ear and cheek.

"Softly blows o'er Lullaby Bay.

It fills the sails of boats that are waiting,

Waiting to sail your worries away."

Virgil sighed shallowly in relief, focusing on the melody and not on the fiery storms outside, or on the silence that reigned when the lightning storm fell quiet and left them in utter darkness. He closed his eyes, fought the sight of him , and ignored the slight shake of Deceit's voice, and the way his grip tightened protectively, and the scream of his subconscious that no lullaby could bury this hell.

"It isn't far from Hushabye Mountain,

And your boat waits down by the quay.

The winds of night so softly are sighing;

Soon they will fly your troubles to sea—"

But a screech of thunder echoed through the walls, the halls, and pain erupted in his chest—

Virgil cried out, gravity chaotic and going in all directions, until the unforgiving asphalt crashed with his head and left shoulder. Pain didn't bloom save for his chest, and he distantly sensed himself swivel on his back, elbows balancing him, and he watched the flames eating the last of the still-standing house, blinding like the sun. He was too far away to understand the sight before him, and he stared and stared. The right side of his face was numb, while the left was stinging from the clash with the road below him. He felt heavy, empty, the thundering and the ringing in his ears leaving everything else so, so quiet. He could only remain staring, too shaken to blink, at the destruction and crimson fire. It was the only source of light in this penumbra, and Virgil couldn't look away.

'Logan' limped out of the hellish sight before Virgil, smoke, ashes, and melting synthetic skin merging, and his clothes were left tattered. But even still, he seemed nowhere near death. No matter how bedraggled he seemed, there was still a smile of relief, contrasting the bitter rage in his wide eyes. 

" What the fuck was that? " Roman and Remus bellowed, both on the floor as well, the former horrified and quivering, hand clutching his chest as he heaved from the shock and balancing himself with his free elbow—and Virgil felt his lungs expand from the sheer relief of seeing Roman sane again, only to cough heavily from the deep breath of relief. Remus was mesmerized, hair disheveled and clinging to his lashes and his perspiring forehead, as he rocked himself back and forth, embracing his knees.

"He buried the rage for the sake of deceptive peace," Logan answered calmly, robotically, though his eyes betrayed otherwise when they snapped to Virgil. "Your mind is literally imploding from the falsehoods. But it is also crumbling. And Patton will teach you how it is drowning."

Virgil hunched, and realized he was jerking and trembling, the smoke and ashes infiltrating his lungs and making him hack harshly. "Wh—" He coughed harder, and could only continue in a hoarse whisper. "Why?

Another string of coughs resounded behind him, and Virgil glanced behind his shoulder to see an ashen, hunched Deceit, convulsing with every severe cough. The scales and scars were charred as well, and he adjusted his capelet tighter around his shaking shoulders. But when he looked up, utter guilt and empathy shone in his eyes, faded with shock. "Bec—because…" He turned his head to the side to cough again, shuddering. Virgil felt his stomach plunge from how disturbed he seemed. "Because y-you learned...too well f-from—" Two more coughs. "From m-me."

"You let them almost rot in the flames!" Roman shouted indignantly at Logan. "Did you even plan the explosion?!"

"They merely needed to cognize the extent of the damage," Logan replied impassively, his voice intonating even more artificially. He pointed a twitching, deformed arm at the remains of the house right as it imploded once more. "Ignorance is the cause of this, and," he gestured towards the distant, black waters, "the pollution of the sea."

"You l-lied," Deceit added hoarsely, crawling closer to Virgil, panting from the movement. "To yourself." Virgil shakily reached out to touch the hand whose glove was tattered and burned away, revealing old scars and deformed scales. The shock was wearing off now, and giving way to terror. Their heavily quivering fingers touched, intertwined, nails tightly digging into already bruised, calloused, and splintered hands. Could they have died? Are wounds here permanent, effective like Remus' fantasies? Nevertheless, Virgil's vision tunneled, his chest constricted with agony, and his numb limbs began screaming in pain and weighing him down with pure exhaustion. 

They'd come too close. Whether it was real or not, they had.

And no lie could hide the unfocused horror in Deceit's eyes.

You're so cold

But you feel alive

Lay your hand on me

One last time

"W-wait." Virgil closed his eyes, and forced himself to focus on the constant mental reliving of the scene that just occurred. A deep, deep fragment of his heart had burnt for years, until it had become cinders—yet it still tried to light on fire. He'd drowned and asphyxiated the toxic thoughts and memories before they could fully form, time and time again.

He didn't want Deceit to get lost in his thoughts either that day, or the days after that, so they left themselves with so many open bullet wounds bandaged and covered up without stitches, the shrapnel and bullets still haunting under the skin. Both… Both did the same thing.

So close your eyes on Hushabye Mountain,

Wave goodbye to the cares of the day,

And watch your boat from Hushabye Mountain

Sail far away from Lullaby… Bay.

His chest flared up in pain, and he opened his eyes. He felt light-headed now, the world spinning around him. He still looked to where the silhouette of Logan stood. "You're saying...that—that the—" He hacked, and felt Deceit near even more, an unstable hand lightly pressing against his back, the other one tightening its grip on Virgil's own. "That the house exploding is a—a m-metaphor?"

Logan's blurry silhouette's lips twitched.

"That my ch-chest hurts, because of...of what…" He took as deep breath as he could handle without unleashing another string of coughs, trying to avoid the smoke. "...of what Deceit...allowed to happen?" He would perhaps never voice what happened—but flashes of blood and his scar infiltrated his vision. Deceit wouldn't voice it either, but he must've been drowning in it as well. His voice lowered to a whisper. "He normalized it. And—and I...believed it. F-forced myself t-to...believe it, the…" The trauma, his mind whispered, but the word wouldn't leave his lips. "But—" His hand shot to his chest, and he heaved at the burning within it. Remus grinned knowingly, pure sadness tinting his eyes. He knows the feeling, doesn't he? "It hurts because…"

Logan stared. But Virgil felt his singeing pain die down, and he suddenly felt too heavy once more. Like he'd resigned to drowning rather than burning. "Say it."

Virgil shook his head.

Deceit closed his eyes, and the pale features, reflecting the flames, caked by blood and dust, slowly fell into perturbation, deeper than Virgil remembered ever happening in his life. "Say it."

"No."

" Say it! " Logan screamed, his voice glitching and chopped, his gaze utterly deranged, and four more houses blew apart simultaneously, near and in the distance. Roman gasped severely, crawling back quickly, staring wide-eyed at all the destruction. But Remus stared at Virgil, shaking his head, smiling knowingly, full of pity and shared pain, only to turn watch the fires, awed. Virgil cried out at the abrupt excruciation in his scorching chest, pressing his hands against it.

"I—" He groaned, coughing, but decided to fuck it all. "I'm—I'm, uh—I'm angry." The hoarse mutter began raising volume, higher and higher. "I'm— angry at him—I'm—I'm fucking furious! "

Deceit took a trembling breath, his eyes still closed. A strange relief began smoothing out his features. It gave Virgil an even stranger urge to make him suffer.

Logan closed his eyes, his brow creased, and he grinned, this time utterly relieved, in a disturbing way, as he blindly faced the skies. He spread his arms and giggled distortedly, solace coming off of him in waves. And the wildfires in the four houses suddenly simmered down to almost peaceful flames.

But Virgil couldn't stop now. The dam was broken, and his voice was only rising further into a shriek. "I thought the—the only way to remain sane was to just—" A cough interrupted him, but he barely noticed it. "—just—believe you—to just do as you said! I was so fucking stupid to trust you and your need to control me! "

"You weren't," whispered Deceit. "It's my fault."

But something in his burning chest abruptly died down, and a car zoomed by, giving him flashes of trembling, gloved hands, fresh wounds and haunted eyes that no lie could hide—

He gasped for breath, stuck in an endless ocean, and squeezed his eyes shut. But he felt Deceit stiffen beside him, and Remus growled. Virgil forced his eyes to open, and…

There was 'Patton'.

His arm was outstretched, bare skin showing goosebumps and dark sand clinging to it. His hand was pitch black now, and he grinned painfully, glazed tears in his empty eyes. "Let me show you, kiddo."

Virgil paused, sighed, and reached out shakily, taking his hand limply. Virgil sensed that Patton understood; his eyes showed Virgil that he wasn't alone. Now he wasn't sure if...this impostor really was him. The strange mirage seemed like a merge of...something. Maybe Patton was just a creation from Virgil's own mind, for a purpose he couldn't fathom. Patton tightened his grasp and pulled Virgil to his feet. Deceit pushed himself off the floor with trembling hands and stood unsteadily, his expression unreadable as he stared at Patton, his back against the flames, shadows on his face. 

Virgil glanced to see Roman stand, eyes glancing at the place where—where Logan used to be. Virgil hadn't even noticed he'd vanished again. Roman took Remus' hand and silently awakened him from his trance with his mere presence, and then helped his brother to his feet. Then, the shaken yet newly determined Prince turned to look at the growing storm in the distance. It looked like a tornado of ashes and cinders now, under pitch black clouds, and every time Virgil looked at it, it grew nearer. He coughed again, still staring at the terrible skies, and looked back at Patton, who waited in silence, never blinking. "Fine," he finally said. 

Show me how it ends

It's alright

Virgil lurched forward as Patton yanked him along, glee flashing strangely in his ashen, begrimed features. But Virgil covered his eyes with his free hand as he sprinted behind him, feeling the viscid, inky waters grasp his ankles.

"Let me show you, Virgil." The words were stranger, strained, off-key. Like a threat.

Virgil coughed again, panting, eyelids clenched shut behind his fingers. "What will it do to me?"

"It's already doing it to you!" Patton's voice was ragged. " Kiddo, why are you letting us rot? "

Virgil peeled his hand off his face with an enraged shout, and opened his eyes to see below.

The scream died in his throat. And before he could breathe, he lost all control of his limbs, his emotions merged and became impossible to grasp, so far away—he craved, needed, lived to see—

He threw himself into the waves.

As the ink infiltrated his eyes, his mouth, his nose, his ears, and his lungs, everything screamed and blazed in the muffled waters all around him, before his blurry, dim vision darkened—

"I'm sorry."

He was gasping, trembling, holding his hands tightly, fearing to lose control again. He wasn't sure what caused it this time.

Blood was beginning to slip down Deceit's already scarred cheek, a new wound adding to the disturbing canvas in the left side of his face. But Deceit hadn't even blinked this time. Before, he was terrified out of his mind when Virgil finally fought back. So why…?

" Are you, really?" Deceit tilted his head to the side from the other side of the room, eyes so empty Virgil shivered. Asshole, he deals with enough already, his mind venomously supplied, making his chest constrict all the more. Remus is the violent one, not you .

And yet, there was blood on Virgil's nails and fingertips.

"I'm so sorry," he repeated, a sob trapped in his throat. He felt frozen, drowning in an endless sea, saltwater sloshing in his lungs.

"You don't trust anyone." Deceit smiled—no, sneered—and finally reached up to touch his wound, the blood pouring out of it. He wasn't bothered by it in the slightest as he glanced at his gloved fingertips. It gave Virgil an unbearable urge to gag, the world tilting as nausea beleaguered him. "Not them , not me. If that's how you want it, then I'll leave you alone."

"Wait—"

"It's what you want, Virgil. To be alone. Isn't it?"

Virgil clenched his eyes shut and flailed his clean hand to the wall for balance. "I don't know where this came from. I swear."

"Because you always do."

"Dee!" The sob finally tore through his vocal chords, and his knees were about to buckle. He couldn't breathe. "I'm—I—" He gasped.

A gloved hand tilted his chin up. It was warm and wet, and Virgil finally gagged, forcing his eyes open. Deceit stared down at him, towering as always. But there was something strange in his eyes. They were no longer impassive, nor empty. "Breathe. It's all in your head."

Virgil only sobbed again, pressing his bloodied hand to his constricted chest. I'm sorry.

"Despite everything, I won't stay. Keep crying." 

The lies almost clung to Virgil's frazzled mind, but then consolation spread through his chest—only briefly. He wasn't leaving. It was only a threat. Only an ephemeral punishment for his actions.

I'm sorry —stop being pathetic, Virgil. But he couldn't stop.

"S-sorry…"

Deceit smiled. A small part of Virgil shriveled—the smile was more triumphant than comforting. "I know."

He swallowed the air hungrily, the ink in his lungs making him gag and cough it all out, but it still attempted to pull him under. He craved to drown in there again—felt a need to do it for someone, everyone, though he didn't know why—but he was held by his arms and armpits, hands holding his head high so it wouldn't fall limply underwater.

Let me go , he tried to say . But he couldn't move his lips, his tongue was heavy and frozen, and his voice had vanished. He couldn't feel a thing, completely empty inside, save for the tar that filled the hole where his heart perhaps rotted to death. His damp locks were stuck to his forehead and eyelids, which were also sealed shut from the ink. It was like a shell cocooned him, disconnected him from those who naïvely wished to hold on.

Show me how defenseless 

You really are

Let me go.

With unnatural force that didn't belong to him, he pushed the limbs away and returned to the waves—

"Just close your eyes…"

Deceit's voice was hoarse as he sang, worse than usual, yet still strangely reassuring, grounding, breaking through the wild colors in his vision, the thousand needles in his skin, his painfully numb limbs, his palpitating heart, his racing bloodstream, his hitched and choked sobs because he couldn't breathe.

"The sun is going down.

You'll be alright…"

He shakily held onto Deceit, buried himself in his embrace, into the crook of his neck. The scent of blood came from Deceit in waves, and it was enough to make him tremble and drown even worse.

Always so pathetic, so paranoid, it's a miracle he hasn't abandoned you yet—

"No one can hurt you now.

Come morning light,

You and I'll be safe...and...sound."

As the panic began to slowly subside, he began to sense Deceit's weariness, his heavy, slow breaths, the way he buried his hisses when Virgil tightened his embrace for comfort. But Virgil couldn't bring himself to let go. Not yet. And Deceit never said a word, merely rocked him back and forth, humming hoarsely. Virgil felt tattered gloves rub his back, felt strange, wet warmth in his torso, his arms, while he embraced him. His stomach twisted.

"There's nothing to be scared about," Deceit whispered. But Virgil knew Deceit was scared. "Nothing to cause your suffering. Everything is okay."

Nothing was.

Virgil couldn't add more problems here. He was merely pathetic and paranoid again. Deceit was always stronger than him, could always handle them . Could always handle Remus, and never feared him . So Virgil should just be mindful of that, give him a break.

I'm sorry.

But he couldn't bring himself to say it. Deceit would twist it to something else. Or he simply wouldn't listen.

I'm so sorry.

...It was for the best. No matter what he tried, he always ended up here. Perhaps the only way to save them was to stay—

 

His riht arm and left shoulder were yanked back, and pain exploded in his shoulders and neck from the violent wrenching, and he was pulled upwards, the cold, heavy sludge remaining below his chin. He swallowed air again, even emptier, freezing, falling against warmth like a ragdoll.

"...it again! I fucking dare you to do that again!" Ragged, horrified, broken voice, failing at sarcasm terrifyingly. It was the only thing that shattered through the siren song of the sea, but he still craved to cover his ears and dive back inside.

Satisfied and empty

Inside

But he battled to open his eyes, until they pried ajar in a squint, and saw Patton, beyond, watching with that eternal, profound pain in the paradoxically numb gaze, the tarwaters at his hips. He was too bony, too deathly now, rotting in the waters. And yet he still stood silently, waiting to be heard.

Virgil finally realized that these waters were a warning. Just like the fires.

A sob shattered his trance again, and he was held tighter. He achingly craned his neck to see Deceit, drenched to the bone in ink, horror starkly haunting his heterochromatic, glazed eyes. He rocked himself and Virgil back and forth. Roman stood a few feet behind, staring with agony at Virgil, and then at Patton, a hand curled on his chest. Remus, for the first time, seemed filled with dread beside Virgil, as he gripped his limbs and chin hard enough to bruise.

It all meant Roman and Remus knew what Virgil saw. They'd seen the waters from afar. 

It all meant that Deceit lived the flashbacks with Virgil just now. Dove in and battled the demons to save him.

Virgil weakly reached out to wrap his drenched arms around Deceit, and suddenly, every emotion and sensation flushed back into him, exacerbated with guilt. And he began sobbing, bringing Deceit to continue doing the same. But Patton dragged his feet, slowly nearing, the waters vainly pulling him. And Virgil heard perfectly paced, robotic footsteps behind both him and Deceit.

"You wanna blame yourself," began Patton, undisturbed by the sobbing before him, with wide, poisoned, grief-stricken eyes. The waters clung to his skin and his blackening clothes. "You only look at your failures."

Logan staggered around them, hunched over, his pace faltering as he neared Patton, looking at the two who embraced while the waves lapped at their feet in deceptive comfort, in a thinly veiled threat. Logan was scorched, more than ever before—an empty eye socket stared, while the other blazed with hysterical wrath. Ashes and cinders and smoke followed and clung to him, while burnt clothes and hair revealed the synthetic skin and metal 'bone'. "Or you look outside to hate and blame."

"You drown in guilt."

Logan was now beside a too small Patton, speaking emotionlessly, newly hunched. "Or you drown in rage."

Virgil growled, fire bubbling in his chest. Why are you two so damn vague? "But—" He panted, voice still weak from the smoke and tar in his lungs. "Then whose fault is that?"

"I…" Logan trailed off, lone eye glazing over in mock-analysis, and he tilted his head to the same, perfect angle he always tilted it to. "...I prefer to consider the culprits as multiple choice."

Patton nodded, grimacing, but still trying to grin. "It was all astounding teamwork."

He saw behind his eyelids flashes of the real, young, nine-year-old Patton glancing fearfully at him—small, naïve Logan gazing at him as if he were a glitch in Thomas' code—Roman insulting him at every turn—Deceit calling him the word, making him feel as if he was going insane from his mind's paranoid lies—Remus 'playing' with him, bringing him to life—

And finally, himself. Blaming, screaming, sobbing, apologizing.

And then both spoke at the same time, connected in such an uncanny way; they shared the same breath, the same syllables, the same numb intonation. "So stubborn in our ways, all of us, but then we turn out to be wrong."

"Or lonely," added Patton, a lone, black tear slipping from one frozen eye.

"Or useless." Logan flinched, limbs jerking abnormally, his eye flashing with rage once more. Then helplessness.

Patton kneeled before Virgil, and placed a grimed, thin, weak hand on Virgil's calloused, peeling, stained one. His eyes bore deep into Virgil's soul—and in that moment, Virgil realized his subconscious had, with Remus' help, creatively taken two familiar forms who understood his pain deeply, tried with all their might to call Virgil's consciousness to attention. To a warning. "You search and search to find a way to prove yourself," continued Patton, "make yourself worthy, forget all the pain for the sake of family— "

"Or you disconnect and isolate yourself from it all, to protect yourself," Logan interrupted, arms crossed tightly, gazing at Virgil with unblinking certainty, and a vague horror of empathy. But then his gaze slowly traveled to Deceit, who stiffened in his desperate embrace.

Both mirrors of their friends spoke simultaneously again. "It's not all about fear. You're merely desperate for home. But you haven't found it—you're disconnected from the pain of the past, yet still stuck in it."

"You forgive him—" said Patton.

"But you hate him," interjected Logan. "You're angry—"

"Then you forget you were when fear and guilt set in." 

Virgil's eyes widened, and a gasp lodged itself within his lungs. The realization dawned on his core, twisting his stomach, crushing his chest, making his heart pound. It was so clear now, all the time he'd wasted being a fragment of himself. But neither of his subconscious' mirages were done.

Patton's shoulders hunched and slouched under an invisible weight, and his eyes pleaded more and more. "You seek home—"

"And run away from it." Logan's teeth were gritted, his chest rhythmically heaving, as if a fan in an endoskeleton raced to compute.

"You can't focus on one extreme, and then another." Patton's weak hold strengthened, and he shook his head, closing his eyes, exhaustion exuding from him in waves.

Logan began to quiver, but he stared as if nothing was wrong. "You…necessitate—"

" Balance, " both finished.

Virgil straightened, feeling two pairs of limbs tighten around him, and Roman step closer. Virgil saw the waves moving faster, more violent. Ashes flew around the mirrors of Virgil's subconscious—and he looked to the distance, in the horizon where the road led. He stiffened, felt his lungs constrict even tighter and his heart plunge to his stomach.

The storm was too close. The tornado was enormous, presiding over the skies, the sea, the chains of houses. It was probably around seventy feet away. Its winds were already blowing everything nearby towards itself, ruffling Virgil's inky locks and drenched clothes.

Remus snickered at the sight. "Finally. She got impatient, I see!" He turned to Logan and Patton and flourished one hand free from gripping Virgil's arm, gesturing wildly at the pitch black tornado. "Lead the way!"

And both mirrors came alive. Patton laughed and grinned, the pain in his eyes dimming slightly. Logan blinked twice, straightened, spreading his burnt fingers, as if he was rebooting from the simple command. "Gladly," he said, and Virgil's eyes widened at how the former's voice had restored to normal, his lone eye no longer deranged with wrath, but with renewed serenity without a trace of numbness.

"Come on, kiddos," Patton said, taking Remus and Virgil's hand and pulling them to their feet. Virgil glanced at Deceit and Roman behind him, seeing the resigned weariness in the latter's eyes as he gazed at the tempest. The former was hunched into himself, still sitting on the coast, as the waves lapped to his feet, embracing his own arms tightly. Deceit's left, serpent pupil was dilated, and his right one narrowed into a slit. He never stopped staring at the waters.

Remus stared at Deceit with a tinge of hesitant worry, then stepped forward and took Roman's hand. It was enough to make the Prince's eyes drag towards his brother's. "Together, right?" Remus asked, smirking.

Roman's lips twitched upwards, his eyes softening. "Together." 

Virgil kneeled before Deceit, watched his painfully familiar, unfocused eyes, and placed his slightly quivering hand on the other's arm. "Hey…" Deceit still stared. "…Deceit."

It took six seconds for Deceit to respond. When he did, he blinked, raising his gaze to Virgil, his eyes only slightly clearing from the thousand-yard stare.

"I'm here." I'm not okay. But… "I'm here." It was a liberating thought. I'm not okay. I'm scared. I'm angry. I'm guilty. But I'm not a lost cause. I'm still here. And for the first time, he could breathe freely, just for a while. Deceit seemed to understand his words, said and unsaid, and he took Virgil's hand weakly, nodding. Virgil helped him up, and though the facetious side avoided eye contact, there was a new connection of understanding between both of them. It was a new guilt, a new history in a different light.

Well that's alright

Let's give this another try

"I'm not…" Deceit took a deep breath, looking at the cloudy, ebony sky. "I'm sorry."

Virgil felt the world tilt for a second. Deceit had never said that before. Not to him. "Wait."

"You didn't apologize your whole fucking life," said Deceit sarcastically, holding a hand up to silence him, still staring upwards. But then the energy dissipated from him, and he stared at the floor, as if realizing in horror the extent of the damage, still reliving every memory. "It was me who should've."

Virgil bit his lip, and smiled sadly. "Uh… Thank you...Dee."

Deceit's eyes snapped up to him, disbelief stark in them. Even Virgil's tongue felt foreign at saying the old, unused nickname. But he didn't have any more words. It was difficult to breathe, as his throat clogged with something. But it felt like a good something. He rubbed his arms, the wobbly ghost of a smile still in place. It was enough to bring tears to Deceit's eyes again. Something was slowly growing new, transforming between them. Virgil couldn't call it forgiveness yet...but it was a fraction of something pretty similar. How strange, that a simple name could bring everything under such a different light, how a nickname abandoned by rage could be picked up with more affection than Virgil could remember. 

He turned to Patton and Logan, who looked on in growing consolation, and nodded. Patton sprung to life once more, pulling a smiling Roman and a relieved Remus' hands with a stiff, yet warming smile, and Logan nodded back, lips twitching, and proceeded walking, gait resolute and never hesitating. Virgil looked to the storm fearfully one last time, before forcing himself to follow, glancing at Deceit, who followed with softened eyes.

As if the cataclysm knew that they sought it, it neared faster and faster, wood, water droplets, and even crumbled asphalt began flying straight towards where they traversed. Virgil looked behind him, saw the crumbled, burnt, and flooded world. Something told him that once this tempest struck, agony would make this place fall apart. But for what?

"Hey, Lo…" Virgil called. Said robotic side perked slightly, tilting his head to listen as he kept walking. "Deceit said you need a realization to get out of here. Is that what the storm does?"

Patton looked over Roman's shoulder, slightly uncertain. "It depends on how you take it." He shrugged, but through the still cold numbness in his eyes, Virgil recognized the worry. "You could accept the truth in the storm."

"Or you could let it destroy you," said Logan, and finally stopped to look behind him, solemn. "You're afraid of the latter. It is why you never allowed Remus within your mind, since…" Logan trailed off, and glanced at the storm. 

"Since then," finished Patton, all energy gone, staring at the tornado. It was too close for Virgil's comfort. Scratch that, too close for him to remain calm at all. But then Patton brightened slightly, as if its proximity was good news. "Until now."

Show me how it ends

It's alright

Virgil snatched Deceit's bare, hardened hand without thinking, and tightened his grip enough to bruise it, breathing shallowly. Remus also took Virgil's hand, head held high, grinning excitedly. Roman grasped his twin's shoulder and nodded encouragingly at Virgil.

"Do you know what's coming?" Virgil asked, uncertain if he was asking Remus, the subconscious mirrors, Deceit, or himself.

"I have an idea," Remus answered, dimming with guilt. It was enough to make Virgil's heart pound faster.

Deceit shook his head, dread filling his eyes as he pursed his lips, looking straight at the inky tempest. 

"I'm not sure I even want to," said Roman with a forced chuckle and a strained smile.

"We do," replied Logan and Patton, relieved and frightened all the same. "But it's been years since we've seen it."

Show me how defenseless

You really are

Those were the last words Virgil heard, before he took a deep, profound breath, and charged forward with Remus, Roman, and Deceit, led by the mirrors. The storm, almost as if it knew it was being approached, moved ever closer, destroying, warping, absorbing everything in its path—

"I don't wanna fucking miss you."

There was no one there, but it was nice to pretend. It was nice to curse him out, liberating, even. But it wasn't liberating enough, because a sob escaped his throat. His lips and voice wobbled, and he clung to the pillow, the much softer pillow, hiding under clean and so much warmer blankets. He tried to recreate the dark—it was so disconcerting, sleeping with some lights down the hallway, out the window, with clear air and just the right amount of warmth.

"I don't want to fucking miss you ," he sobbed again, burying his head into the pillow, trying to muffle his weeping as much as he could. Patton couldn't hear him like this—he was supposed to be joyful, relieved to be up here, in the Light Mindscape, away from the Others.

But the truth was...he still yearned Dee's—Deceit's company. The silence rang deafeningly, and Virgil disturbed himself by craving the chaotic noise from Remus. There was something comforting about the suffering they shared, about the care and gentleness Deceit gave him in the nightmarish nights… Nights like this one. His chest burned, and he couldn't breathe.

He'd escaped, he'd left it all behind—but he still breathed and laughed in this new room, and Deceit's condescending grin flashed behind his eyelids, and his mind made up Remus' shrieking laughter to make up for—for—

He gripped his hair, and tumbled off the bed, staggering to the bathroom, and began running the shower, trembling as he stripped, breathing shallowly as he turned the faucet to the highest temperature possible. 

It's raining…

Virgil sobbed again, and stumbled in, hissing as the rain scorched his skin at contact. With the heat, and the bitter distraction, he could forget. He didn't need him anymore, nor consolation—for it was all a lie. 

It's pouring...

He was okay. Deceit was gone. Remus couldn't hurt him. Virgil would be okay .

Virgil is pour

He blinked blearily , winds, embers, and ink racing around him. Other than that, it was pure darkness. There was nobody around—he didn't remember who was supposed to be here. He blinked slowly, still in the center of the storm, and flashes of memories came to life behind his eyelids. Where was he? When was he? Where and when had he been before? His mind was muddled with echoes of words and screams, shadows and figures that he almost remembered. He was so tired. His eyes fluttered closed, as the wind violently ruffled his hair and his hoodie, but he seemed to be anchored to the floor, like he was the eye of this storm. His surroundings quieted to complete peace, but he was still rooted to the floor, and began to tremble without even knowing why, and opened his eyes to empty pitch black once more.

The metal door creaked open, a slight screech from oxidation as it moved. It made Virgil flinch, for his limbs had moved on their own, without his control, but there was something deep in his heart that still pulled him inside. He couldn't understand it. He didn't understand anything in his life really—but he was too young to question it.

It had been almost three years since Remus disappeared, to the joy of Thomas, and relief of Patton, and satisfied productivity of Logan; and it had been one and a half years since Deceit dragged Virgil down here. It was for their host's good. It was.

Deceit never spoke to Virgil in the first year—only visited Remus to feed or calm him. Even now, he and Virgil were separated by a wall, and the latter wanted to keep it that way, no matter how lonely it was. It was obvious that Virgil didn't belong down here. He wasn't one of them. But here he was, opening the heavy, loud door, entering the pure darkness, hearing a muffled gasp. Somehow, Virgil felt more frightened now than when they were seven, when he hated the wild kid. And yet, here, he ignored his instinct to run.

"...Virgil?"

It was a young voice, but laced with something heavy, weary. The word was slurred, slow, yet restless and...even hopeful. In the pitch black cell, the voice's owner's dim figure didn't look like three years had passed. Rather, a decade must've passed—or maybe an endless week. Features painted the color of ash by the penumbra, dark circles under his eyes, and a glint of crimson greeted Virgil. Remus was a paradox of youth and a very, very old soul.

Virgil gulped when the prisoner grinned too wide, the glint of crimson shining in the reflection of light on his teeth. Virgil's eyes strained to see him, drink him in, for it was better than focusing on how dark it was here. "Yeah. I know I-I haven't visited much… But, I'm b-bored."

"No, you're not!" Remus sang quietly, staggering to crawl, approaching him too slowly. Virgil couldn't help but see him like a predator. "You hate the quiet outside."

He knew. He knew Deceit was cold and emotionless, even as a child that fed the both of them. The hidden one only cooked, visited Remus, and locked himself in his room. "Y-yeah, kind of. Look, I just wanted to say sorry. We, um, haven't seen each other much and I was—I-I was mean to you."

Remus' eyelid twitched, and finally, he stood before him, hunched, but the relief in his bloodshot eyes spoke of a buried innocence still. Virgil couldn't understand it, hadn't recognized it. They were only ten. "Until you saw we are the same," whispered the wild, ageless side.

Virgil ducked his head. He didn't want it to be true. But he didn't know who he was. Perhaps all he was after all...was being part of the Others. "We don't belong. You're, uh, you're right. Um…" He bit his lip and looked up, shoving his hands in the pockets of his black hoodie. There was a desperation and loneliness he was too young to recognize, but Remus seemed like he saw it, understood whatever plagued Virgil, clear as day. They thrived in the darkness of the world, thrived on worst-case scenarios. Perhaps they were the same. "Wanna play?"

Remus' face broke into a true grin.

His breathing was strained , and he pressed a hand to his chest. Was it scarred? Was it bleeding? Was it intact? But they merely played together, pretended to be Spirit and Minister of Terror and the Duke of the land of the dead moonlight, Gehenna. 

Satisfied and empty

Inside

There was no harm in it, no pain. They worked together to terrorize the Kingdom of Dreamya in their imagination. So why, why was he trembling? Why did he struggle to wheeze, why was he so leaden with the weight of the world? Why was he afraid? He wasn't for the first time in years—he finally wasn't alone, for he accepted he was nothing but a demon in Thomas' mind—

He shuddered, hands trembling and eyelids unbearably heavy. How long had it been since he'd slept? He wasn't sure, but the colors were too bright, walls and objects swayed and crawled, and the light… The fucking light was blinding. He didn't belong here. He never did. He was fooled to belong here.

"Kiddo?"

He saw hands reach out and cup his cheeks. But he only felt gloves. He swatted them away. His lungs constricted when hurt flashed across the eyes before him. But the hurt became muted anger, the tell-tale amused irony showing through the impassiveness.

A warm hand landed on his shoulder, steady and fierce, and Virgil glanced at Roman beside him. But he recoiled—empty eye sockets stared back, and he flashed a wide, bloodied grin. The hand on Virgil's shoulder was now bony yet smooth, brittle and graceful, and its grasp tightened to bruise. 

Virgil couldn't escape him. Because Virgil belonged with him—with...Deceit. And with Remus. And him.

"Virgil, breathe deeply, you're hyperventilating."

His hands yanked at his hair as he gasped, jerking and quivering, unsure who was speaking—was it Dee? Was it Lo? He was heavy, and his ribs crushed his lungs and heart—he hunched over himself, enveloped by gusts of wind that seemed to traverse through him. He felt black, freezing tears slip down his cheeks . His mind was torn between past, present, reality, fantasy. He reached out, but all he could touch were the ashes.

Ah ah ah, Virgil… 

Patton was watching a movie, and smiled kindly at him. But Virgil was tempted to believe the grin was artificial, even after everything he did to prove Deceit wrong. Logan was cooking dinner, and would perhaps search for every scientific and psychological way to make Virgil feel heard and understood right after. Or perhaps he'd try to manipulate him to submission. Roman was gracile as he sang a song and danced in the bright halls, seemingly tuned to Virgil's honor enough to quiet down when he saw the darker one, through the ego he still had. Maybe, maybe he only needed to soften Virgil to stab him in the back— 

They hate you. You know that. They'll only use you.

He couldn't trust anyone, could he? It takes liars to know liars. Virgil had pretended to belong all his life, but he never did. And everyone would simply feed that fantasy of home for him to use him.

"Are you sure you don't want to play, Virgil?"

He yelled, punched him in the face and ran, ran, ran—

"Get out of my head!" screeched Virgil at him , sobbing desperately, eyes shut tightly to block the vision of him , vainly holding back the tears. The storm intensified, its winds cackling darkly, as if he were the storm all this time. "Why won't you get out of my head?!" 

"I'll show you."

His head snapped up, his eyes opened, and—

July 15th, 2008.

They were nineteen. Playing like those few times when they couldn't take it, the loneliness, or most importantly, Deceit's lies—though it was disturbing and sadistic, and gave Virgil nightmares after they were done. It was better than being alone—better than the torture of silence. Better than turning to the one who dragged both of them to hell in the first place, unless absolutely necessary. And this was only the fifth time the two played.

But Remus stared at Virgil with a strange glint in his eye that day. Virgil decided it was a trick of the darkness. "I'm feeling nostalgic today," he gasped.

Virgil raised an eyebrow, twirling the knife Remus had conjured for him. "What do you mean?"

"Remember those lullabies we grew up with?"

Virgil scoffed. How could Remus miss those songs? They were disgustingly innocent. "Do I."

Remus grinned widely. "Let's play something different."

Virgil waited, staring at the twirling knife, but silence greeted him. He looked towards the other, but Remus was suddenly frozen, staring over his shoulder. He glanced behind him, but there was nothing there. "Yeah?"

"Let's play with someone else." Remus blinked, one eye after the other, his gaze almost hypnotized.

Virgil furrowed his brows, and felt his heart begin to pound suspiciously. "Who?"

"Trust me." Remus' eyes dragged to Virgil, and stood to approach him. His gait was a shuffle deteriorated by limps. Virgil could never figure out how his adrenaline could make him reach farther than physical ability, for when it ran out, his body was all but atrophied. Virgil's skin was already wrought with goosebumps, and Remus began brushing his hair, stroking it with such a gentleness in his thin, brittle fingers Virgil questioned who was before him.

Another hand reached the back of his head, giving Virgil a sense of gentleness like never before from the other—but the hand in his hair gripped it painfully, yanking it. Virgil cried out, stiffening, hands snapping to Remus' hand. But Remus' grin was widening, widening, and his eyes were empty, yet absolutely gorgeous, brighter and purer than gold—and darker than a starless sky and a rotten land. His teeth were perfect, ivory, but spotted with crimson. He laughed, music to Virgil's ears, yet it made him shudder and flinch.

"Remus—" His words were silenced by a scream of pain tearing from his throat as he was pulled into the air, while another other hand caressed Virgil's neck, tracing it with terrifyingly tender fingertips. "Remus, please! You're—" He yelped, clenching his eyes shut, clawing at Remus' hand and fingers, kicking as strongly as he could. His thoughts were racing in all different directions, trying to comprehend, and failing, what just came over the other—trying to comprehend who he had even become, with such a paradox in his presence that gave Virgil peace and terror. His heart was a sledgehammer in his sternum, and his rushing blood pounded in his screaming head. He trembled, shrieks trapped in his vocal chords. "You're not doing this—you're not like this!"

"Or am I?"

Virgil gagged at the demonic voice that made his ears ring, freezing. This...this—this wasn't Re—

Another scream rose up from his core like bile, but his voice was silenced by a hand crushing his throat before it could resonate in the Dark Mindscape. His eyes snapped open, and emerald and ruby, ivory and ebony, beauty and grotesqueness invaded his sight, a dull, blurry silhouette. And yet, he was more luminescent than the sun, threatening to burn Virgil's eyes.

"Who the fuck are you?" he choked out, the little air he had in his lungs gone. He couldn't wheeze for breath, but couldn't close his eyes, mesmerized and horrified by him. His vision tunneled, chromatic and dark all the same.

"It's raining…" 

The hand around his neck tightened, and Virgil's mouth gaped vainly, his hands now gripping and clawing at the hand on his throat, and he weakly, vainly kicked, unable to reach the stranger. He fought and fought, screams and sobs trapped in his throat, no air to push them out for help. Deceit , his thoughts desperately called, for the first time wanting nothing more than to see the facetious side. Tears slipped from his eyes, sprang from his fluttering lashes. Help me, Deceit!

"It's pouring…"

Whimpers finally died in his shriveling lungs, and he began to slump. Help me...

"Virgil is pouring."

His hair was momentarily let go, and his head fell to the side, then rolled forward, limply, a small comfort that he wasn't able to sense. 

And something pushed through him so easily—he was too numb to feel it clearly, to comprehend… He cracked his eyes open, realizing now they were clenched shut, and the...the familiar object before him...the katana shone in his watery vision. It had crossed cleanly through his chest like it was water. His slow, muddled mind took so long to register the danger, and then—the pain . There was no air in his lungs to allow him to screech—so he convulsed, face disfiguring in the silent shriek, hands falling from the hand around his throat. His head was gripped again, somehow tighter than before.

Cackles reached through the ringing in his ears, melodic and deafening. One thought raced powerfully, clearly, through Virgil's frazzled, faded mind—and it wasn't his.

I am him.

"I'm laughing...I'm crying…"

Virgil's head fell limply back when the hand finally let go of his hair for good. His eyes finally fell closed, fluttering uncontrollably, as his body convulsed with pain one last time, until he fell limply...still. 

Abruptly, light flashed through his closed eyelids, along with a metallic screech.

"Virgil is dyi…"

A horrified scream burst through everything—and he collapsed to the floor, unmoving. His eyes fluttered open, to see him fading away above him.

Blubbering apologies laced with swearing and wild giggles came from one corner—and terrified screams came from another, until the screeched neared. And one brown eye and one yellow eye greeted him, wide and dilated, soon glazed with tears.

But his laugh was contagious. So Virgil grinned.

He wheezed , coughing once oxygen finally entered and bloomed his dying lungs, and felt himself falling. But steady arms caught him and held him close to warmth. Virgil hacked and sobbed, curling into the body holding him, and his eyes fluttered open. Roman held him tightly, eyes closed even tighter, tears slipping through them. He shook violently. A new pair of calloused, ashen hands grasped his shoulders almost painfully. Virgil shakily looked up to see Remus, who could only stare at Virgil in agony, before he jumped onto him, embracing him.

"Oh God—fuck, fuck me—I'm so sorry—I'm so fucking sorry. "

Virgil's weary eyes looked around him to see horror and thriller books and movies scattered on the floor, weapons lazily floating in the air. He finally exhaled deeply in relief, slumping upon Remus. It was over. It was over.

After remembering that wretched night.

His arms tiredly wrapped around Remus, his mind replaying the laughter and the song in his head, over and over and over. His throat was horribly sore, his head still pounded, and he still gasped for breath.

Oh Jesus.

Virgil breathed faster and shallower, closing his eyes—but he grinned in the darkness behind his eyelids.

Oh God—

"Hey," murmured Roman above him, lifting his chin gently to look at the Royal. Roman smiled sadly, and closed his eyes, leaning forward until their foreheads touched. Virgil felt a spark making him jolt and his breath hitch—

And then—

He was in his room again, all alone. He trembled, rubbing his scar, but otherwise he felt so, so numb. He’d resigned to the screams echoing in his head, the venomous words of Deceit resonating in his thoughts. But then, quiet knocks were heard outside his door.

He inhaled shakily, closing his eyes in resignation. A part of him feared it was Deceit reaching out again, aware of how Virgil was trapped in the past. But today...today Virgil was so weary, too tired to push him away, to stay alone in his memories. "Come in," he mumbled hoarsely.

The door opened slowly, creaking as it moved ajar, and Virgil felt himself still in surprise. The other three, the good, the perfect ones, were standing in the doorway, Patton leading. He stepped in lightly, his eyes soft with a foreign pain Virgil didn't remember seeing in his life. 

Roman looked around the room, awkwardly walking in, yet somehow extravagantly picking up Black Cauldron and Panic Room to observe them closely. There was a muted worry on his brow, in the way he glanced at Virgil periodically while pretending he wasn't aware of how Virgil shook. 

Logan entered last, watching Virgil intently, with that patient, all-seeing look in his eye. For the first time, it didn't worsen Virgil's goosebumps—although the screams in his head already gave him those. Patton knelt before Virgil in his bed, a small smile lifting his face.

"Hey, kiddo." His voice was soft, like the slow breeze of mornings. "How you doing?"

Distorted laughter echoed throughout the room—

You belong with the scarred.

Virgil flinched. Nobody else reacted. "'M fine."

Logan furrowed his brows, tilting his head. He neared the bed slowly, calmly gesturing to it, as if asking, May I?

Virgil hesitated, then nodded stiffly. He glanced at Roman, who rolled his eyes. "Virgil, I would give you an Oscar merely to be kind, but that would just insult my talent."

Logan sighed. "Roman's severe point is...correct. You can't veil your falsehoods from us." 

"It's okay, Virge." Patton smiled sadly, slowly placing a hand on his quivering shoulder. "You can trust us. We don't wanna hurt you. We just want to help."

Roman held his chin high, but then nodded in agreement, beginning to open and close his hands as soon as he set the objects down. 

"I…" Virgil faltered. He looked down at his hands, breath shallow. What were they trying to do? Why were they here? Why were they saying these words? 

But silence met him. Roman shifted his balance from foot to foot uncomfortably, obviously holding back a lot of comments, or nicknames. Patton squeezed his grip on Virgil's shoulder, gazing at him sadly. Logan breathed rhythmically, peacefully, infecting some of the terrible atmosphere with his serenity.

Nobody...nobody tried to stuff his brain with...with any kind of painful, or too persuasive words. There weren't lies to sift from any truth—for everyone waited with bated breath for Virgil to speak.

And this…

This made him burst into tears.

Logan stiffened, worry flashed in his eyes. Roman's eyes widened, his body left frozen in place. And Patton took a deep, slow breath, tears filling his own eyes. But they were all still quiet.

"Oh, dear," mumbled Roman. "Was it something I said?"

Virgil shook his head, a smile lifting his lips. A part of his mind screamed at his idiocy, for he was being as naïve with them as he had been with Deceit—but fuck it. They were too good at pretending to care.

"It's alright...if you're not alright," Logan said awkwardly, concerned from Virgil's sudden breakdown.

"We're here, kiddo." Patton nodded, smiling.

Roman looked on, his eyes filled with worry, though he tried to grin. He never said a word, however. They all kept waiting.

…Virgil was beginning to believe this kind of love.

Well that's alright

Let's give this another try

It was then, that day, with all their patient, loving silence as evidence, that he saw so clearly how Deceit thrived in codependency. It was then that the toxicity, the lies that they were okay, and the forced paranoia towards the Light Sides became clearer than the sun for what they really were. Virgil pulled away from Roman and Remus, breathing deeply, still holding both siblings' hands. "Thank you," he mumbled.

"Of course," replied Roman. Remus swallowed, a familiar haunted look in his eyes, but he grin widely anyway.

Virgil turned to Deceit, seeing him clearly once more. Virgil remembered his terror now, that terror that he'd buried deeply under all the cruelty and manipulation. It was the terror that he'd lose Virgil, if he'd look away for a minute, caused by the ultimate memory of the cataclysm. It happened anyway. But instead of a horrifying incident, a trauma that lived like a phantom in their souls, it was Virgil's choice.

Looking at him now, Virgil realized Dee was too exhausted to hold the mirage that he was fine. His scars were grotesque, his eyelids bruised with sleeplessness, and his features were ragged with too much pain and fear from all that just transpired.

"I won't try to force myself to do anything anymore." Virgil's voice was surprisingly steady, strong, and he felt a spectre of a smile lifting the edges of his lips. "I won't force myself to be angry at you, or to forgive you, or to forget you. I was forcing myself for all the wrong reasons."

Deceit visibly expected this. Virgil saw the certainty in his eyes that he'd never be forgiven. It somehow cracked Virgil's heart, but he knew now that the belief in Deceit's heart would be his own process, not Virgil's.

"I think…" He faltered, swallowing, though his throat was dry, and rubbing his palms. "I think what I need to do now...is accept that I'm… I'm just not okay."

Roman nodded hesitantly, admiration in his eyes. Remus grinned wider and groaned. "Fuck, finally."

Deceit's mouth opened and closed, until finally, he murmured. "I hope you don't heal from it."

Virgil pursed his lips, shrugging. "I hope you do too."

"Oh, heavens help me." Roman all but collapsed to the floor dramatically, moaning like a dying man. Apparently the adrenaline wore off for him. "Give me a moment. Let us stay here awhile."

"Please," begged Virgil, a slightly hysterical giggle tumbling from his lips as he followed suit to the floor. Remus and Deceit slumped as well, propped by Remus' bed. Virgil knew that while everyone wanted to run from this awful room, they were too tired to move away now.

Remus laughed breathlessly. "That was way too much fun."

"It was infernal!" shouted the Prince indignantly.

"I'm almost sad to say it was still worth it." Virgil lay on his back now, staring at the ceiling. His heart was still pounding, adrenaline pumping through his veins. He felt like he couldn't be able physically sleep for the next week. "Remus, you're next."

"What?!" The way Roman's eyes lit up in absolute horror made Virgil burst into laughter. "There's no way—"

"It's my room, my mind." Remus grinned mischievously, balancing his chin in his palm. "I'm feeling masochistic today."

Deceit sighed heavily. "I am too ready for my own good." Virgil sensed the very resigned lie in those words.

"But first, let me rest, you plebeians," Roman huffed.

"Let's travel through another mind today, for sure. " Deceit sighed heavily, rubbing his left temple, and then his scarred cheek.

Virgil didn't want to. He knew nobody else wanted to either, but something pushed them forward somehow. But if they rested today, Virgil's thoughts would drift to all kinds of chaos in the silence. But...perhaps that was alright for now. Maybe one day he wouldn't fear a lot of things, like lullabies, and katanas, and signs of affection. Was that healing? What was healing? He glanced at all of them again, seeing the weary pain in all of their eyes.

"Fine, Dee," Virgil got out, and Roman laughed weakly in relief. "We'll table it for another day."

There was no race to be alright. There was that. 

Trauma is complicated. It always will be, but we can find better ways to cope with it. Logan's calm, empathetic words became a slow rhythm for him to breathe.

His lungs slowed and expanded. He was safe. 

He was safe.

One day, he'll heal. Enough to truly live. They all would.

Chapter Text

He hummed wearily at the calming chirps above him, lazily turning to the side.

It was warm here. The pillow stung and prickled his cheek and his neck slightly, but he couldn't bring himself to mind. The warmth eased the goosebumps trailing along his arms and neck, despite his thick royal clothing vainly trying to chase the endless cold away. He was breathing so deeply, and slowly, beyond the realm of wakefulness and sleep, like he was in an alternate, magical reality. He didn't know why he marveled at that. He also marveled at... What was it? Oh, the chirping of birds. He couldn't remember where he'd been, where he was, but his core was so relieved yet confused, his calm heart rhythm interrupted by anti-musical somersaults. He moaned again—something told him he shouldn't stay asleep. Something told him... Something was off.

He felt slightly too heavy, and his heart didn't feel enamored by the call of adventure to figure out his whereabouts. He wasn't sure why. He was distantly surprised to find he did not crave to find out. 

"Hey. Sleeping Beauty."

Roman groaned weakly. That was the Grumpy dwarf, right there. His voice was characteristically deep and wrought with sass. Uncharacteristic were the hoarse cracks of exhaustion in it. He didn't question it. He merely shifted to a more comfortable position. Away from Virgil.

"Wake up."

With great, valiant effort, he blearily opened his eyes, only to clench them shut. This place was brighter than he'd thought.

"How did he get here?" A new voice. This time, it was calm and lilting, with a strained backdrop. "He never dreams about sunshine and rainbows after all."

"You're right," a very familiar voice giggled. "Only this time, in his sleep, he was vulnerable to the things his room would forbid from his dreaming subconscious. In short—bring on the sex!"

Oh, stars.

Roman opened his eyes again, and squinted. His vision was blurry, and too chromatic to be normal. He lifted a leaden hand to shield his eyes from the luminescent sun. Once his sight could focus, he saw...leaves. Branches and greenery shaded them, but allowing rays to flow through. One ray infiltrated his eyes intrusively.

"Are we back at my place?" he slurred slightly, balancing himself with his elbows and painfully lifting himself up to a sitting position. He hoped so. As vague, frightful memories slipped to his mind, he craved the nightmarish journey was over more and more.

"You're dealing with all this tragedy alarmingly well," replied Deceit on his right, somehow dignified while sitting cross-legged. He rested his chin on his hand, drumming his fingers slowly, smiling with an amused glint in his brown eye. His yellow eye, however…

"Sorry, Ro." Virgil rubbed his arm with a weary, exasperated look in his features, sitting beside the Prince. "Remus put us here. It's still his domain."

A laugh tumbled from Roman's lips, shaking him with its force. That was hysterical. "Nice prank, but I'm not falling for it, Three Days Stress."

"I mean, what did you expect, really?" Remus was the only one standing with his back towards them, staring into the distance of the woods, rocking from side to side, gesturing energetically. Erratically, if Roman squinted to look closer. "We all sleep in my place, where my mind is strongest, after the thrilling, glorious time we just had. Not my fault!"

The laugh died on his lips instantly, and he froze. This...this must've been a joke. "Wait…" Roman looked to one side, then to the other, gazing at the canopy, the birds, the filtered lights… "This...is your mind?"

Remus let his head fall back and giggled louder. "Ironically ironic, I know. It fools the best of liars!"

Deceit sighed, a darkness blooming in his eyes, only for milliseconds. "It doesn't work chronologically. Rather...it calls you to his horrors immediately."

Roman wasn't sure whether the other was lying. Perhaps he was. If he was… Was this what his twin's mind looked like before…? Before…?

Remus turned to Deceit, mischief stark in his haunted eyes. The dark circles under them were so much darker, contrasting how much more ashen his skin seemed now. Roman turned to Virgil, and saw the same. Despite how nonchalant they sounded, they seemed like they were just back from Hell. Perhaps Hell was merely their nightmares as they slept—what left them vulnerable to enter Remus' mind in the first place. 

"No spoilers!" Remus sang in a whisper, eyes still glued upon Deceit, covering the side of his lips with the back of his hand.

Roman grunted as he pushed himself to his unbalanced feet with brittle arms. Had he been walking forever? Was this just a mental recreation of his real physique, outside this mind that belonged to a figment of a mind? Or was it a physical representation of his psyche? Were those the same thing? Heavens and stars above, his thoughts were beginning to sound like Logan's. His stomach twisted slightly. They should've called for his help. Perhaps he'd be able to sift through all this, what with his unrelenting study of human psyche. 

He felt his lips tilt upwards as he stared at the emerald scenery before him. It felt new, exciting to see, as if it was the Emerald City from Wicked. But his heart was squeezed by the sight...the familiar sight. It reminded him of… His memories raced to the forefront of his mind as the view called to another time, but his mind instinctively blocked the train of thought he'd conditioned himself to ignore to survive the heartbreak, all those years and years ago, when… 

"Familiar, huh?" his brother asked, thankfully interrupting his trance before it derailed. But Roman fought off a wince at the playful glint in his brother's eye. That signified he would dig into exactly what Roman buried. "Without you, it's all just a forest." Remus' frantic energy dampened slightly. "But after a while in there, well…" He shook his head, sneering darkly. "Life surprises you that way. I would've expected that to be funner."

"But...why is it...so gorgeous here?" Roman murmured, reaching out a hand towards the light, watching the iridescence refract on his fingers. It was almost Disney-esque, in a way. This didn't belong to Remus. But...it wasn't in Roman's imagination, either, when they were torn apart.

Remus sighed, nostalgia in his eyes, and then he draped an arm on Roman's shoulders, leaning in to whisper in his ear with too much cheer. "Like a spoilery snake would say, it all becomes beautiful and broken over time!"

And just like that, he pulled away, and strode forward, down the path of leaves and rare flowers. Roman turned to see the other two. Virgil's eyes flashed in almost paranoid fury as they snapped from possible threat to the next, and he slowly, cautiously pushed himself to his feet, wound up as a bowstring. Deceit, strangely enough, appeared more averse, more...frightened than Virgil, as to what lay ahead. But he stood and dusted off his capelet gracefully, head held high, features impassive, scarless once more behind the shape-shifted glamour. Roman nodded at both of them, and gestured for them to come nearer as he walked backwards, eyes not leaving either just yet. Virgil followed suit, eyes threatening murder. Deceit came last, gaze dragging from harmless branch to frail flower. He looked so numb, so guarded, Roman sensed himself almost too vulnerable against this unpredictable mind. But he grinned, praying it looked real. Deceit smiled openly back, teeth grit, his features a mix of syrupy joy and sarcastic, bitter rage.

"Afraid of a little journey?" Roman teased, grinning wider. Though he was afraid. Deathly afraid. Here was the other side of him, his missing half, that he buried all his life. And now it was coming back to haunt him.

"If we get one more 'journey' after this," Virgil growled, then cut off, stumbling on a large root, interrupting himself with a frustrated groan. "Then I will tear someone's stomach apart, and pull his intestines up through their esophagus."

"Holy shit," Deceit chuckled, swallowing subtly when Virgil turned to glare at him. "Remus' room still works like a charm."

"Whatever."

Roman took a breath, and looked behind his shoulder. Remus was already nowhere to be seen. "We still must hurry before we lose him. He knows this place best anyway."

"Uh huh."

Could this place be worse than Virgil's? Roman wasn't sure, but the dark atmosphere of that place really did mirror the feeling the gothic side gave him in the years when the Prince despised him. Roman couldn't even imagine what awaited him now.

And they couldn't just leave. Thomas' control wasn't here to whisk him away. And a revelation was in order.

Even a well-lit place 

Can hide salvation

A map to a one man maze 

That never sees the sun

Where the lost are the heroes

And the thieves are left to drown

Despite everything, despite the fears of what would befall them, Roman knew they had to try.

"Hi."

Roman's brows furrowed, and he swiveled around. The voice was young, near and far, but Roman couldn't find its origin. Deceit squinted towards the foliage, at Roman's blind spot behind him, until the former's eyes widened slightly. Roman turned again towards the forest and…

There he was.

Black and green greeted Roman, perfectly blended in with his surroundings. His face wasn't gaunt or demented like he'd expected, but… There was an odd joy in his eyes when they met Roman's. He stumbled slightly, but then ran forward with astounding strength. Roman couldn't help but take a step backwards as soon as the child reached him.

"Woah…" He grinned while looking up at Roman, craning his neck. "You're very tall, Ro."

Roman cleared his throat, but straightened his posture, pasting on a smile. "Well, you are quite small."

"That's 'cause I'm seven, dumbass." The child was bright, shaking from excitement, but Roman never missed the fear that flashed in his eyes. "Patton would say I don't act like it, though! But screw him."

"Oh."

Roman swiveled again to see the unorthodox owner of that small interjection, and his eyes widened. Remus crouched on a tree branch with perfect balance, very high up, almost in contact with the canopy, watching the child with numbed awe. With disbelief. His eyes drank him in, unblinking, and he tilted his head. His voice had never sounded so dull. "So that's how you looked like."

Roman hated this. His eyes dragged from his brother in the height of the canopy to the child bouncing on the floor. He looked at Deceit, who was deathly still, who seemed torn between deliberately not believing what was before his eyes, and recognizing something that Roman couldn't fathom. Virgil merely stared, brows furrowed, arms tightly crossed. 

Why was this child here? Why did they have to come here in the first place? Why did he seem so innocent when they were young? Why was he so, so, so different from what Roman remembered?

"Okay, so who is best at eating the most poison ivy?" the child asked, looking between every muted side in confusion, apparently attempting to break the ice.

Deceit took a strangled inhale, drawing his arms into himself, hidden by the capelet. Virgil's eyes merely widened. "But—but it can't be," the sarcastic, stressed side exasperatedly began, scoffing. Roman recognized the pained terror in Virgil's eyes, too fresh from the memories of the storm. Roman's heart twisted at the sight, at the thought of an imagined, dark side of himself doing something so horrific. "That's the best you can come up with?" Virgil continued, strongly pushing his hands into his hoodie. "Poison ivy? What about all the other disgusting—?"

"I think you were just scared, Anxiety," the child said, smiling. "I'm not as creepy as you think." He turned to his...older self up high, pointing excitedly. "You look weird as hell!"

"I like it that way," Remus replied, somber, louder, but his voice was still monotonous compared to his chaotic vocal fluctuations. He drummed his fingers upon his chin, and then pushed himself off the branch. Roman barely gasped before the other landed from almost fifteen feet high in a harsh, loud crouch, still focused on the child. "Are you a guide?"

"Guide to where?" the child giggled, slightly bouncing on his heels. 

"I'm pretty sure we're lost." Virgil rubbed his temples. "Just get us out of here."

"Yes, remember the adventure to be had?" the Prince asked loudly, trying to overcompensate for the dreadful silence, grasping at the dregs of his usual enthusiasm for these travels. All he felt was bile in the back of his throat, at the sight of the child, at the implications of what would be done to said child, by all of them. "Just lead the way, and we won't be stranded for long."

"Lost?" The seven-year-old blinked between Virgil and Roman. "Stranded?" For the first time, he stopped fidgeting, stopped moving, stopped smiling. Only to burst into cackles. He whipped his head back, closed his eyes tightly, and laughed and laughed.

Roman could see Deceit clench his jaw, close his gloved hands, half-hidden by his capelet, tightly into fists. He almost rolled his eyes. "Hilarious, I know."

The older Remus cracked a smile, tilting his head, like he slightly understood what in Odin's name was so wretchedly funny, but it became wistful. And Roman understood. God, how it hurt to see the child laugh. It sounded real. It sounded fearless. There weren't any scars, no frenzy bubbling within it. It was just a child laughing. As a child should laugh.

"You guys!" The child regained only a bit of composure, still trembling from the laughter. "We're not 'lost'!" He wagged his fingers as apostrophes at the word. "We just have nowhere to go!"

"Wait, what?" Roman said. Either he was deaf, or the other was mad. They needed—

"That's a lie." Roman and Virgil looked up in surprise at Deceit's sudden words. The latter looked physically pained. "You just don't know where to go yet."

"Oh." The child paused, but brightened again, gasping excitedly. "Well, let's play a game! If we get warmer to wherever we're going, I'll know, and I'll show you."

"How?" Virgil wondered quietly, suspicion coloring his dark irises. 

"That's part of the game!" the child exclaimed, scandalized, hands on his chest as he shimmied slightly. Then he dropped his voice to a whisper. "No spoilers."

Present Remus looked around until he saw the path made of stones, the light filtering through the cracks and shining upon it. "You know this place best, Dee." Deceit stiffened, eyes fighting off a glare. Remus was undisturbed, and smiled wryly. "What do you think?" 

Roman furrowed his brows at his brother's words. Did he mean what Roman understood? He spoke as if Deceit—

"You weren't lenient to me when I was here," Deceit stated, almost levelly, effectively interrupting his thoughts. Roman sensed the lie in the other's embittered, barely trembling voice. His eyes widened at the conversation between them—and the Prince suddenly realized that Deceit had really been here before. And yet, something told him Deceit was well aware that this place was way worse than what he'd witnessed. That gave Roman moths in his lungs—the haunted truth in his yellow eye was terrifying enough, unable to be hidden by any lie. "There's no difference to this place now that you're actually here."

"Alright, but what does that even mean?" Roman asked, brushing a hand violently through his locks. Virgil gave an impatient look as well, gesturing emphatically at Roman in agreement.

"That we're here," both Remuses raved, eyes shining. "And here , it's actually fun with us!"

Deceit sighed, closing his eyes, craning his head to each side, eliciting cracks every time. Deceit seemed to hate this place more than anything. It made Roman's stomach churn—a feeling he wasn't very used to, even after the torture of Remus' mind connected with his. "Get used to this version of the woods," he said, faux cheer and a backdrop of fear coloring his voice. "It remains forever."

That sounded like a warning.

But everyone knows by now

Fairytales are not found

They're written in the walls

Remus' eyes locked somewhere behind Roman, and the latter turned to see into a narrow path between the trees, where no luminescence from the cracks of the canopy shone. Roman never even saw it until now. By the confusion and subtle surprise on Virgil and Deceit's features, they seemed to be in the same ship. But Remus strode towards it without a second of hesitation, and the child followed right after with a skip in his step. Whenever Roman blinked, the child was somewhere else—dangling upside down from the branches, between the high grass, behind everyone, on Remus' shoulder, giggling all the way. 

As we walk in a straight line

Down in the dirt with a landslide approaching

The path darkened further, as if the canopy or clouds covered more ground—or perhaps the sun itself tired of shining. Roman blinked, trying to acclimate to the dimness—to see the child had...grown older. Perhaps it was a few months, perhaps a year. Roman couldn't put his finger on the change—was it his eyes, his voice? Was he taller, hiding it with a hunch? Did his laugh change, even as he giggled, as freely as a few seconds ago? He could hardly remember the times they were together when young; he'd simply forced himself to forget, since so long ago. Was this mind going to remind him, help him see the vague memories that pulled at the edge of his subconscious, like Virgil's mind had? Even through the fear that gripped his heart, he was beginning to feel...curious. Intrigued? Perhaps. It took a few moments to dawn on him as he walked along this strange place: even if he dreaded it, he knew he needed this journey.

But nothing could ever stop us

From stealing our own place in the sun

We will face the odds against us

And run into the fear we run from

It has begun

The older Remus paused to look at Roman, and then at the child. He looked prepared, determined, yet in a painful way. Roman couldn't explain the unreadable look in his eyes as he looked at the ashen skin, sunken cheeks, and bruised eyelids of the child. But the child was and wasn't a child. There was a truth, a suffering, in the child's eyes that Roman would probably never know. How old was he? In body and soul? The child simply looked like a chronological paradox. 

Well. Roman could not mock Logan's reasoning in the future without being a true hypocrite. Roman was relying on it a bit too much today. He truly missed him, and his certainty, his comforting and grounding truths (even if they clashed with his beliefs too much); and he missed Patton. His smiles and jokes would lighten up the atmosphere in a way Roman couldn't, no matter how much he braced for what lay ahead. He looked behind his shoulder to see the other two, the ones who had it worst in the last journey. And in a second, Roman saw how Virgil missed both Patton and Logan too, in the way that he rubbed his sleeved arms and glanced around for danger in the shadows of the canopy, growling in frustration, vainly attempting to hide that he needed comfort. Deceit himself had his eyes constantly jumping between every moving detail, features tight and frozen in that unreadable way that gave Roman goosebumps. But the Prince knew that truth was the one thing he couldn't provide to ground or comfort them. So he looked back ahead, wracking his head for any conversation or hopeful poem to distract both of them...and himself.

"Shit!"

Roman glanced behind his shoulder again, chest tightening, hand snapping to the hilt of his sword. Virgil froze to a stop, heaving, bunching his hoodie by gripping his chest with an ashen fist. His other hand snapped up, inches beside his left ear, trembling in the air, before its fingertips slowly brushed over the inner part of the ear. He stared somewhere in the distance, but his eyes were unseeing, unfocused. 

Slight confusion colored Deceit's heterochromatic irises, which snapped from Virgil to wherever he stared. The pupil of his left yellow eye dilated. Roman looked to his left, the origin of the mystery, the direction where Deceit and Virgil gazed at. But he only saw leaves, hidden rays beyond the canopy, a blue sky that seemed to begin fading to gray. He looked back at the other two—but there was still an unfocused terror in Virgil's eyes, a disturbed confusion in Deceit's.

"Vee." Deceit dragged his gaze from the invisible point in the distance, and neared the other slowly, very slowly. But Virgil shook his head violently, pulling his hoodie's sleeve, pushing through all of them, hand still stuck to one ear. Deceit stayed still, staring at him, then subtly looked back to the distant spot, reaching up to cover his brown eye, only for the serpentine one to widen in muted fright when he did. Roman knew then that Deceit saw it too...as if he could only see it through a truthful filter. But that didn't make any sense. Roman couldn't see a thing. He looked to both Remuses, raising his eyebrows. The youngest's eyes shone with joy and wonder, looking at the invisible, and then back at the other two who'd witnessed it. 

The oldest was actually unimpressed, tsking once, arms akimbo, shaking his head with a bemused smirk. "I've seen worse."

"Well, then what was that boring occurrence, Remus?" Roman asked, his voice tense with exasperated dread.

"Forget it," Virgil bit out, voice brittle in anger. Roman saw the strategy clear as day—the emotion shielded his fear. Virgil looked to the kid, who gazed back playfully, with a dark inquisitive glint in his eyes. "Well? Show us where to go, asshole."

"We're still cold," replied the child. He sneered, stretching his fingers until their bones cracked. Roman blinked, winced, then felt a pressure form in his throat. He was getting increasingly reluctant to blink. Remus, the child, was definitely older. The child trembled intermittently, as if he were the glitching Logan from Virgil's subconscious. His arms were way too thin, bones almost jutting out from his limbs and torso, thinly covered by stretched skin. 

A hot flame burst in his chest, as the memory of the dark, cramped, freezing, lonely cell pushed to the forefront of his mind. How old was the child now? How long had he been in that cell? How many deranged, lonely, desperate thoughts had passed through that child's mind? For how long had he been malnourished? Roman glanced at Deceit, feeling his features slowly shift into a glare, but then a wave of crushing weight and cold spread through Roman's chest. It wasn't simply the serpentine one's fault , his thoughts whispered cruelly . It's yours, it's yours, oh sweet brother of his. Deceit noticed Roman's gaze, and the latter felt a pang in his stomach at the way the former dropped his gaze, rubbing his scales. 

"But you don't know where you wanna go, do you?" the not-child asked, a mockery of pity and fear in his eyes as he gazed at Virgil's seething, yet dying, rage. Remus' grin widened as Virgil faltered. "It'll always be cold, then. Why don't we play then?"

Virgil stiffened even more somehow, a bitter memory in his eyes. "You're never tired of asking that shitty question, huh?"

The child-not-child, who now seemed between ten and twelve—though his eyes always confused Roman about his age—tilted his head in confusion. "So now you're tired of playing, huh?"

Virgil's eyes widened minutely. So you don't know? his eyes queried. The child stared questioningly back. But silence reigned as young Remus waited, and Roman glanced at Deceit—who was breathing shallowly, adjusting his gloves, shrinking into his capelet—and then at his brother. Present Remus… His eyes glazed over, and Roman wondered if it was simply an unfocused gaze, or it it was tears. But he was too still, Adam's apple bobbing, staring at the child with bitter amazement, and then something so painful Roman felt a punch in his gut.  

...Nobody, not even Remus, had the stomach to tell him the truth. 

Roman took a heavy breath through his nose. He still loathed what the storm revealed of Virgil. He had a feeling they needed to speak of that one day—how Remus' games took such a dark turn, and revealed him. "Games" that would haunt Virgil forever. And Deceit. And Remus himself.

"Anyway!" Young Remus twirled sharply around, gazing in a mix of awe and dread at the few ashes that floated above the graying canopy. "I think you have nowhere to go, but nowhere has you to come to."

The other Remus tilted his head as he stared at the slightly covered horizon, behind the trees, beyond the woods. "There?"

Deceit pulled the edges of his gloves, nodding subtly, knowingly, somehow. "Do you feel it?"

"Yes." Remus' eyes wouldn't blink, and Roman couldn't help glancing towards wherever his brother's eyes lay. Again, nothing. "An urge. To reach there."

Deceit nodded again, more somber than Roman expected.

Roman didn't exactly feel it, that urge, but in his chopped connection with his brother, understood the other's need to reach the edge of the forest, where...something lay. Something that Deceit already knew. Something that made Roman's heart drop to his stomach. A small part within him twisted when present Remus took the younger one's hand carefully, too uncharacteristically carefully. And there was pity in his eyes, which perplexed the child and Roman more than anything the others had ever done. 

"You don't know what's coming right now," murmured Remus, a half-formed, weary chuckle in his voice. "And in the next ten minutes, as you grow older, you still won't know the worst of it."

The child stared back, still. Then... "What's down there?"

Down there? Roman's thoughts asked, giving his skin foreboding goosebumps under his royal attire. 

Remus grinned, threw his head back to sigh joyfully, looking at the slight dirt, dust, and ashes in the air that the wind picked up. "Shit. Not even I truly know. But I can take a guess."

Deceit suddenly hissed, wiping his glove across his scales, differently than when he rubbed his face out of guilt. He moved his hand over his left, yellow eye. He clenched his jaw, but his bare, brown eye was calm, almost unseeing. However, when the hand passed to the other eye, holding fingertips inches before his dark eye, his serpentine one's pupil dilated once more. He was staring at nothing once more, this time the left side of his face falling in fear. Roman struggled to rein in a grunt of frustration. What do you see?

Virgil looked as well, but he didn't seem to see. However, he flinched, shriveled, his eyes unfocusing. He reached out to both his ears this time, palms shakily covering them. "So I'm not crazy?"

"What the fuck was that?" Deceit hissed, his hand now trembling as the palm rubbed his scarred laminae once more.

"Oh!" The young child giggled. But Roman blinked, and the child had instantly grown taller, gaunt, somehow as pale as death. Roman's breath hitched, and he rubbed his eyes, looked again. The child was now a teenager—his eyes were too haunted, glazed over, but there was a joy that contrasted everything. As the horizon betrayed more flurrying ashes, darker skies, a dying sun, Remus grew older, darker, eerier, every time Roman blinked. He seemed sixteen now. The Prince shuddered at the growing sadism in his eyes. "So you do see it too!" young Remus exclaimed at Deceit and Virgil.

"What?!" Roman cried, spreading his arms wide in a violent fashion. "What is it? What do you see?"

"Gunshot. Blood. Uh...c-corpse," Virgil answered shortly, dull, hunching over. "It's the second time it happened. And...something else, before that. I can't see it. I can o-only hear it."

Deceit kept wiping the left side of his face. His left eye told Roman he could see, but the brown one was basically blind to the horror. "I didn't feel it in my scales." 

Obvious lie. Roman would perhaps throw up if he had to endure that. He couldn't help but admire Deceit's conditioned reactions.

"That's because only half of you can see and feel the truth, unlike the Spirit of Terror here," present Remus explained, eyes shining in wonder. "My brother's mind can't handle it, so he can't sense it at all." He grinned widely, his eyes wide and pupils dilated as they met Roman's. "For now."

Something in Roman's heart twisted painfully as it began to pound.

"Very comforting, I must say!" Deceit shouted, eyes a mixture of frustration and artificial, sarcastic joy. But his voice wavered slightly. No one pointed it out. 

"Why can't I see?" Virgil proceeded walking, but he flinched and staggered to the side. Deceit didn't react this time. "Can't you hear?" Virgil's eyes were wild, his voice caught on the edge of hysteria. "There's fucking screaming."

Deceit paused, then minutely shook his head. 

Both Remuses flinched, and Virgil swiveled around, gaze snapping from trees, canopies, skies. Deceit simply covered his wide serpentine eye with a gloved hand and pulled Virgil by the wrist with the other. Roman followed, blocking his imagination and its unorthodox attempts to fill in the mysterious blanks, suppressing shivers. Were they from the ever-growing cold that blanketed over every living thing, burrowed in their bones? Were they from the sight of the sun becoming red, of the colors becoming unreal and lifeless, of the dark mist and ashes that trailed and flew in their direction from the horizon? Or were they simply from being unable to witness the horrors plaguing the others?

If Roman looked hard enough and squinted, he could see the gathering storm of darkness, how the sky above the racing winds and cinders began to be tinted red and black from the mingling of the cataclysm and the setting, scarlet sun. 

You don't know what's coming right now, Remus' warnings whispered in the Royal's mind. And in the next ten minutes, you still won't know the worst of it.

How long had they walked? How much time had passed? Is it passing as quickly as the child's immediate growth? As quickly as the growing storm and dying land and increasingly rotting roots of trees? Or are they frozen in time, in a false promise of innocent youth, until they reach Remus' truth? Would Thomas, Logan or Patton be worried, or would they never notice they were gone in the seconds, or minutes, or hours that they were here?

"Child," Roman called, hating these questions, hating this dreary silence, hating the way everyone else would flinch or yelp or laugh hysterically at whatever enigmatic visions and sensations Roman was thankfully left out from. "What did you mean earlier with down there ? Is that where we're going?" 

"Well!" Young Remus turned around and walked backwards, a skip in his step lingering in his shaking, atrophied limbs. Oh, his eyes, his indescribable, ineffable eyes. A shudder escaped his lips and shook his core at the sight of them. "We need to reach the storm first, as you know."

"Yeah that doesn't really answer his first question," Virgil growled. Nobody mentioned that he was shaking.

"It doesn't really help to know, now does it?" the older Remus responded, smirking knowingly at both his brother and the irritated side. "Unless you wanna be deeply troubled!" He fisted his hand tightly, which shook dramatically from the force, almost mockingly.

Virgil grumbled, and Roman sighed. Those were Virgil's words thrown right back at them. Virgil would get a taste of his own medicine. Roman would remain in the dark once more—but Remus was right. He did not really want to see whatever was down there. He'd had enough of a taste from Remus' mind already. 

Or had he?

His ears unexplainably popped. He flinched, palm around the hilt of his weapon once again. He realized something chirped above him, and he craned his neck up to stare above the few cracks of the canopy. In a branch, under the crimson light, rested a scarlet tanager. Half of the Prince felt relieved, seeing the bird, still and very much not drowning in tar like in his dreams. But his other half shriveled at the sight, as its unblinking gaze fell on him; and it was eternally, so very still . He heard the flapping somewhere behind him, and there was another one, landing in another high branch. Both scarlet tanagers stared. More and more came and approached, chirping, beating their wings, until they returned to their very, very still state up in the trees, utterly silent.

"Ro?"

Roman couldn't look down at Virgil. His gaze was trapped by the scarlet tanagers. Everyone ceased moving, and time froze. 

"What do you see?" the youth asked, as if testing him. A grin could be heard in the question. 

Roman turned around, and around. This time, crows landed beside the other birds, silent. Some had white, blind pupils; others, red, bloodshot sclerae. 

"Ro, tell me. Hey ."

"Your Highness, we are oh so patient for you to answer. "

The voices were in the back of Roman's mind—he couldn't analyze the meaning behind them—the words wouldn't sink in. Then a chickadee, featherless and trembling, dove from the sky—a mauled and bruised blue jay hissed right before Roman, as if it had snapped into existence from thin air—a limbless owl writhed upon a branch, hooting only once with such an agony—a mockingbird flew raggedly, almost dementedly, the only one consistently producing sound, its chirp nearing a devastated, hysterical cry—and—

Roman jumped back milliseconds before it was too late, hands already gripping his chest. A red cardinal had crashed, with a deafening, collective crack, its wings torn apart beside the small frame, black gore pouring from the holes where said wings used to be attached. The confused, questioning, and intrigued voices, as well as the mockingbird's cry, faded to static. Roman wasn't sure if the others saw, heard, or even knew. But Roman couldn't look away—his ears rang with the bloodcurdling crack of bones and broken limbs. His arms went numb, but his shoulders burned and screamed in pain, and all his bones felt brittle—broken even.

A screech resounded, and he sensed everyone flinch, but the Prince remained frozen. He realized the screech had torn from his own lips. And from the peaceful silence and stillness that made Roman's skin crawl, came chaos. The mauled, mangled, limbless, wingless, lifeless birds took flight and dove towards him, beating their wings or bones, cawing and crying deafeningly, a raging storm around him. Roman gripped his head and covered it with his arms, falling to his knees and curling as far as he could, but there was no air nor space, only the creatures encompassing him. Until he began violently hacking, his lungs obstructed with something that didn't feel liquid whatsoever. Something writhed and squirmed in his stomach and lungs, like an animal

"Roman!" The voice was a wall of thinly veiled peace broken by pure terror, cracking, hoarse. "Roman, answer me! What do you see?! "

There was strained breathing behind him, and he was wrenched away from the chaos of birds, but he kept on almost coughing up a lung. A hand pressed against his chest crushingly—and in seconds, all the pain and movement within his organs ceased. Roman's gaze dragged up, to see his brother's resolute eyes. 

"We're warmer, aren't we, kid?" he murmured, eyes not moving from Roman's own. Young Remus didn't answer, but Roman couldn't look at him just yet. It took Roman a while to see all the eerie joy had faded from his present brother. "Breathe," Remus warned, though his eyes told Roman he himself struggled to. "It's all in my head. That goes for all of you."

It also took Roman a while to realize he was barely breathing, and he took a stabilizing, trembling breath, holding onto the hand pressed steadily to his chest. He feared wings would flap within it, or that talons would claw the frailty of the organs inside his skin's armor. He slowly turned his head to see Virgil heaving, eyes clenched shut, as he gripped his head, covering his ears. Deceit gulped, yellow eye wide and frozen, still watching where the birds would be—where the mockingbird would be—until he slowly turned his head so only his brown eye could watch from its periphery. 

The youngest simply gazed with shining, marveling eyes at the birds, which wildly, chaotically flurried in circles like the ashes in the distance. That wonder wasn't in his older counterpart's eyes. There was only fierce warning. A knowledge that this would never end well. "Brother. My mind has broken through your defenses." His voice had never sounded so fierce, so protective, so furious and worried. "That means you will witness everything. Every little detailed shit, no matter how fucking small. You'll see, hear, and feel everything , because you're my other half." He waited to see if Roman understood, eyes blazing. The Prince weakly nodded. And Remus' question barely sounded like one, impatient but infinitely more concerned. "Can you take it?"

Roman's mouth hung ajar, but no words could come.

"Can. You. Take it?" the wild one repeated, seconds away from snarling.

"I have to," the Prince choked out. "I need to—I need to know." He inhaled deeply. "We need to reach down there—wher—" He took another breath, trembling under the unmoving hand. "Wherever it is."

Remus looked on in...in pity. "You'd wish you were dead if you reach it."

Roman defied him simply by glowering. 

When, he growled mentally, for he didn't trust his voice. He knew Remus heard it. Not "if."

Remus squeezed his arm with his free hand, and grinned, residues of pained worry speckled in his eyes. "Whatever you say!"

They turned, and the wood's clearing, where all the rotten flora lay, gaped in the near distance. The darkness infiltrated through the gaping, lifeless hole of the forest, like it was a new light. And in the distance, ink, tar, ashes, crimson lightning, and ebony clouds mingled like dangerous chemistry in the sky. Roman gulped, fought off a shout of every fear and frustration locked in his heart. It was a storm.

"We're getting fucking warmer!" raved Remus from the past, his gaze glued to the storm. Roman glanced at him, then did a double take. Virgil had done the same, and stared. Roman...knew that face, somehow… He looked...

"You're…almost...nineteen, aren't you?" Virgil's voice was as soft as the wind from the beginning of their traverse through the woods—as brittle as the trees around them now. His eyes were hardened, yet glazed over. And Roman knew just how many dreams and flashbacks Virgil suffered about that date—when they were nineteen—to recognize the trembling energy that grew like paroxysms in young Remus' core; to recognize his features, his eyes —which still stared at the raging winds . All of it foreshadowed something Roman didn't feel very ready to witness once more . "What day is it for you?" Virgil asked the ever-growing youth, unbearably still, save for the shaking of his eyes.

"I don't know." The other shrugged, and finally glanced at Virgil from the cataclysm before them, and suddenly, flashes of him and splattered blood raced before Roman's vision—choked whimpers and desperate sobs resounded deafeningly in his ears—before silence reigned, and all he could see was the woods and the racing gales with all they carried. He shuddered. Present Remus took a deep, deep breath, eyes unfocused. Then he dragged his gaze to the storm. But the younger one furrowed his brows, smiling in confusion. Although, his eyes betrayed something that Roman couldn't unravel. The youth twitched, stretched his deteriorated arms and fingers more than humanly possible, shivered again, then looked at his older counterpart, questions mingling with excited fear. "Will I know what day it is once we reach the storm? Or down there?"

"I don't know," echoed Remus, eyes still trapped in the sight of the storm.

An abrupt cry resounded from Roman's right, and he swiveled around blindly, heart pounding desperately in his chest, his racing bloodstream making his head throb—he noticed too late he wielded his sword, held dangerously close at whoever screamed, but the other hadn't seemed to notice it. Roman's tunneled, blurred vision cleared as the panic subsided—the disquieting sound had originated from Deceit, who clenched his teeth and held onto his eye—this time the brown one—with one trembling, clawing hand. His eyelids were shut tightly, his features contorted in pain. 

He was too quiet now, too still, save for his trembling. The pain must've disconnected him from reality.

"Dee?" the older Remus asked, seemingly too aware of what just occurred. Roman wanted to scream—why could he never know? "Dee. It hurts, but that's only because your mind is convinced that it does."

"What happened?" demanded Roman. His voice sounded too tight, like the oxygen had been stationary in his frozen lungs forever. They expanded unnaturally, then shriveled all the more at the sight of trickling blood, slowly dripping down Deceit's human cheek and chin, staining his glove. Is my mind convinced as well? Roman's thoughts whispered. Or is it real?

"Did you see the mockingbird?" The voice that whispered was so small and wobbly, it took Roman a moment to connect it with Deceit's usually stable, lilting one. A beat of silence passed. Deceit cracked his yellow, animalistic eye open, to stare at somewhere close to the ground. Roman followed his line of sight, expecting to see nothing, but this time there were rotten feathers and floating ashes. Nothing else. "It vanished," Deceit continued, struggling to steady his shallow, quick breaths. His voice strained to remain calm, but Roman sensed tears of fear locked in his throat. "It...it didn't perforate my eye." Deceit rubbed his scaled temple with his free hand until his bowler hat was shoved through the floor. He didn't seem to notice. "I told you you weren't lenient to me when I was here." 

Roman realized the words were directed to Remus—but said side simply gazed back, the slightest bit intrigued. Deceit's breathing slowly became ragged, the partly hidden human side of his face flushed and contorted, as rage blocked the terror and anguish from fully forming in his features. "I told you this place remained exactly the same, even with your presence! "

Virgil was frozen, gazing at Deceit like he couldn't recognize him. That sent shivers to Roman's core—if Deceit was behaving like this, how long had they been here?

"Yeah, you were quite right," giggled both Remuses, unaware of the fear in everyone else. Then the oldest neared the heaving side, slowly yet tightly gripped the serpent's gloved hand and pulled it from his face, to reveal the lacerated, bloody eye. Roman winced, and Virgil choked back a gag. His sclera was crimson instead of white, but his pupil wasn't ebony anymore, but...but white. Blood poured steadily from one eye, while tears began to slowly slide from the other. Deceit simply shriveled under Remus's stare, quiet and still, except for his chest's quick, intense ebb and flow. "Now you'll only see my truth, here. Which isn't actually true at all."

"Forget that!" the teen exclaimed, waving everyone away, grinning. There was no light in his features, only shadows. "Nowhere has come to us! Hi!" He waved at… 

Roman turned to see, and his heart dropped to his stomach. The inky, ashen storm, now a hurricane, was so terribly near. He looked around—all the trees were rotten on the ground now. The canopy was gone, but there was no light left to shield from. He looked back at the other four. Deceit shuddered, glaring at the hurricane, gloved hand wiping away the trickling blood from his human cheek. Virgil trembled, his hands shoved into his pockets, eyes flashing with his own storm of memories. The youngest still grinned at the raging, flurrying gales, shivering and giggling. The wilder, older one gazed at Roman, and stepped forward, placing his hands on his brother's shoulders, eyes once again blazing, but now also haunted, simultaneously.

"Are you sure you can take it?"

Virgil choked, gurgled, but neither of the brothers could look at him yet. Visions of death and torture took over behind the Prince's eyes, constricting his lungs and heart, but he nodded fiercely. "I'm certain."

Remus instantly set off towards the storm, never looking back, while Roman placed a steady hand on Virgil's back, gently leading him. Roman wished he could freeze time, order this whole place to cease and leave them in peace, just to be able to check up on Virgil, to comfort him—but they had no time. They needed to reach the storm, needed to see the truth, before the lack of revelation sent them over the deep end, trapped endlessly in this hell. Virgil complied to Roman's unspoken wishes, his hand over his mouth as he hacked, hunched over as he staggered forward, led by the Prince's steady hand. 

"What's wrong with him?" Deceit whispered, catching up with Roman's stride and Virgil's stumbling gait, voice almost lost in the deafening chaos. A bloodcurdling, shrill, young scream resounded, and Roman looked away before he saw who it was from, eyes strictly on the treacherous one. Deceit's hand snapped to his yellow eye instinctively, only to stagger blindly over the dead roots. His only seeing eye was the one that could witness the horrors.

"Not sure," Roman shot back over the howling winds, "but it seems to be the storm's doing. We need to keep walking, get out of here as fast as possible."

"It'll end after the storm." Deceit sounded so desperate, Roman realized his statement was actually honest. It made sense—they'd left Virgil's mind after witnessing the storm's memories. "It'll end after the storm. Come on, Vee." Deceit squeezed Virgil's shoulder and forced his yellow eye to open wide, shivering at whatever he could see. Roman focused on guiding Virgil and Deceit, on following Remus, on reality, to keep the demons at bay, to have some semblance of control and sanity in the midst of the chaos.

Virgil slowed to a stop and stooped over, convulsing with each hack. He shakily held his hand away from his mouth, and choked in a gasp. Ink stained the palm and dripped between the cracks of his fingers to the floor, dribbled down his chin, blackened his teeth. Roman looked away, focused on Remus, who pushed through the hurricane, until Roman could barely see him. The Prince gently pushed Virgil forward again, already feeling his locks and clothing flow violently in the wind. "We're not ceasing, Virge."

The winds came closer and closer as they approached the hurricane, past and present hosts of this realm guiding them, the only ones visible in the abstract canvas of crimson and pitch black. The sun above them, above the blinding, disastrous cataclysm, was scarlet, lifeless; and yet, it was somehow visible through the black clouds. Roman shivered from the cold that burrowed in his bones. And yet, his skin scorched under the deathly rays of luminescence. For a moment, he froze, swiveled around, grasping Virgil's shoulder and Deceit's arm to not lose them. He was lost—his brother wasn't...he was nowhere to be found. 

He clenched his eyes shut, head throbbing.

Where are you?

"Roman?" An unstable, trembling laugh tumbled from the Royal's left side. He couldn't see, even if he opened his eyes, but a shiver raced through his spine. This was Deceit, wasn't it? "Your Highness, where—where are we going?"

Roman shook his head, eyes shut, searching and seeking for energy in the midst of everything.

Where are you?

Virgil held onto him tightly, heaving through the ink trapped in his lungs. Remus' mind allowed him to feel the electric panic fluctuating in Virgil. Deceit clawed Roman's arm this time, waiting for his answer. Deceit's energy was a fading breeze and a rising lightning, a paradox of a war between true horror and artificial courage. The horror was winning.

And then, he reached the hopelessness, the mania, the front of glee and the buried fear. It was an ineffable energy that took over everything. It faded his surroundings to nothing.

Remus.

Brother.

The voice was familiar and wasn't, but Roman was too occupied heaving a sigh of relief to focus on that. He tried to locate him, find and reach him at least with their connection.

Where? Where are we going? Where are you?

It was the equivalent of fingertips brushing. He felt such a subtle wave of hysteria wash over him, but it gave him a spell of nausea nonetheless. He still didn't know where Remus was.

I don't really wanna go down there, Roman.

He almost gasped. It was the young one's voice that had spoken within his thoughts. But not the teen—the seven-year-old child. He'd reached both Remuses. No—he'd reached a vulnerable corner in his present brother's mind: the stunted child.

What's down there?

I don't wanna know. I don't—

He furrowed his brows. Remus, the lover of morbidity, the one who hated leaving a dark mystery abandoned, didn't want to go down there?

Why?

Silence. But Roman lost balance, fighting off the bile rising up his throat, breathing harshly through his nose. Deceit yelped, gripping his shoulders tightly. That was answer enough. Remus probably knew exactly what would befall all of them "down there"—he knew how frightening his mind could become. But whatever "down there" would uncover...not even Remus was ready.

But...they couldn't stay here. Roman sensed the other two—he was losing them by the minute. Virgil's energy was fading until emptiness would be left—Deceit's was wilder and wilder and wilder and wilder. Roman winced and groaned, pressing one hand to his chest, the other to his chest. This place, and the portal to their energies, it all gave him pain. 

Together, Remus… Please. Let me in.

A trembling sigh resounded in Roman's head.

Fine. Asshole.

Roman flinched and arched back with the power that infiltrated his being. Deceit and Virgil held on, keeping him upright. Now, Roman could sense where Remus was. He opened his eyes, though they were blind. His mind wasn't.

Both Remuses lay ahead, somewhere beyond the discord of the gales and ashes and tar. The youngest grew against time, erratically, paroxysmally, tremoring all the way; the oldest hissed, flinched, glanced at his singeing arms, laughed at the sunlight. 

Roman could barely take a breath to ready himself, for he knew they'd reach a new level within the hurricane. His limbs were shoved and wrenched by the unnatural cataclysm. Here, Roman heard laughter—majestic, horrible, melodic, frightening. It was deep and shrill; it echoed all across the realm of the storm, yet it resounded within Roman's head, right beside his ears. It glitched distortedly, but it was perfect. A silhouette appeared, striking awe and terror on Roman's soul, but the Royal couldn't make it out. Beheadings flashed before his vision, along with whispered screeches, which must've come from the enigmatic silhouette. The words evaporated before he could comprehend their meaning, but one word, "head," remained, echoing in a bloodcurdling, wonderful shriek.

Roman pushed through the mighty gales, rebelled against the power of the storm, guiding one half-blind side and another half-asphyxiated one. Both Remuses froze before them, but Roman couldn't comprehend why, could barely see in his mind beyond his brother's doubled, chaotic energy. Fog-like darkness concentrated where the doppelgangers stood, mixed in with cinders, the sludge at their feet. 

His present brother turned, and his eyes were clearer than anything Roman had ever seen. They gave one last warning in his terrified eyes, words of something born of pain—perhaps even love—trapped in his throat, until they evaporated into the ink raining from above. Roman continued on, grunting with the effort, his left hand wrapped around the hilt of his sword, while his right drew quick circles on Virgil's shivering back. Deceit held on tightly to his left shoulder and arm, slightly leaning against him. Perhaps he was utterly sickened of seeing, keeping his eyes tightly shut, showing a trust Roman wouldn't ever expect from someone so trustless.

"Brother!" Roman shouted, drowned by the screeching and howling winds. "What did you find?!"

"Nowhere!" answered the young one, with a sob. Roman froze. Virgil gasped. Deceit tightened his grip. "Down there," added the older one, numb.

Both Remuses looked back this time, and the youngest seemed so familiar it hurt. 

Virgil shriveled. "What day is it?" he repeated. His voice was weak, wrought with ink and lack of breath.

The teen smiled, guilt haunting his features, his eyes a mix of an amused and horrified realization. "July 15th, 2008," he recited, then lowered his voice to a whisper—but the gales reacted like zephyrs, and carried his breath to the others' ears. "I know why you don't wanna play anymore." Both he and the other Remus bit their lips until they split and bled, shivering.

"It mustn't end here," lied Deceit, a desperate, ragged edge to his voice. "We've reached the storm, the damn memory—"

"Exactly, let's—" Virgil coughed, black sludge slipping from his nostrils. "Let's get the fuck outta here!"

Both Remuses paused, then shook their heads. "I told you you'd never take it," the oldest giggled.

Roman gulped, gripped the hilt of his sword painfully, but nodded. "Let us seek your revelation, then, brother."

"What?! " the other two exclaimed. But something took their words away. Something tilted Roman's world, something came over the teen like a spirit, expanding and reviving him horrifyingly; something made the older one grip his head and heave.

Go down there, Roman's thoughts those weren't his thoughts sang quietly, deeply; shrill, lovely, chilling. Just let gravity work its magic.

Roman shuddered and gripped his blazing, throbbing chest—he began losing feeling in his appendages, lost all the adrenaline that propelled him forward. Deceit groaned, his grip slackened. Virgil choked weakly, seemingly losing life as he took a hitched breath. The Remuses paled evermore, their eyes losing reality and sanity more and more. Something pushed through their bloodstream and slowly killed them, left them complacent and drained, like poison. Roman unwillingly took a step forward, and the other two behind him followed, in coordinated rhythm.

Who is this siren?

The youth abruptly cackled, and the pain and terror of losing control came over Roman—stars above, he'd almost killed him— he was here, somewhere, and he had almost murdered Virgil—

He hid his head between his knees, rocking himself back and forth, hearing distant screams of pain, orders to remain still, curses, the rare, scared sob from a forcedly calm voice. It was all outside, beyond the unbearably silent and boring cell. But what had just happened wasn't boring at all.

Wasn't it fun?

"No," he whimpered, wondering who he was talking to, but then he laughed hysterically, wheezing. Back and forth, back and forth, trembling all the way. Blood caked his bedraggled skin and clothes, over his eyelids, hidden in his hair. He was almost convincing himself it hadn't happened. He didn't dare look up and see if the bloodied katana was still there. 

If he was still there.

How about we try again? Maybe we'll succeed this time.

He untangled his head from his limbs and let it hang back, clenching his eyes shut, scratching his arms and face raw. Who was he? Did he really almost murder him? He looked down at his crimson, tremoring hands, his breaths hitching. He felt detached from them—detached from everything. He laughed again, louder this time, because he had no control over it. His head was filled with cotton, everything seemed unreal, yet so amazingly clear. He felt powerful and helpless—did he do all that—did he strangle, torture, and stab him? Or did he do it?

Don't you miss me? 

He shuddered, losing sight of why he shuddered, uncomprehending of his shaking core, his rocking back and forth. The voice was achingly familiar, yet corrupted. He knew he missed someone , but was it this voice? This voice kept whispering that they should play again—but a buried part of him brought tears to his eyes from that word. He began scraping his hands, his arms again, but the blood was everywhere, and it wouldn't disappear. There was deafening silence outside now. No sign of pain or desperation. Did he—did he—?

Just let me take over, brother.

He gripped his head in his bloodied hands, but the voice was a siren, beautiful and grotesque. There was something, someone , in his head, and he'd lost control with Virgil because of him , and he was losing control again—

Let. Me. In!

He screeched, convulsed, tears slipping down his cheeks, but then he laughed and laughed and laughed and—

And young Remus jumped, laughing all the way.

A shriek left Roman's throat, just as desperate, traumatized, terrified sobs were heard from both sides of him. Roman's eyes cleared, and he was no longer blind—but the connection ruptured. The fog and gales moved away from the dark ground at the lone Remus' feet, revealing a pit, as grand as the eye of a hurricane. That was where young Remus had vanished, where the other stared and leaned towards. The whispers in Roman's mind pushed him forward, as well as his own natural terror. He ran, leaving Virgil and Deceit behind, and reached out, but the older Remus threw himself before Roman could hold him back—or follow. He stood at the edge, hand outstretched hopelessly, watching the darkness of the pit swallow his brother. He never heard him reach the bottom—he never heard him at all, just the storm's screeches and Remus' silence.

"No—no way in hell—I am not jumping in there," Virgil yelled, probably at the voice whispering and tempting them. Black tears brimmed in his bloodshot eyes, but he was immediately interrupted by his life-stealing hacking.

"It wasn't supposed to end." Deceit trembled, eyes clenched shut, gloved hands clawing his head. His bowler hat had been lost in the storm. "It wasn't supposed to end. It was—it was. "

"It won't." Roman took a deep breath, looking down the endless, pitch black pit. "Not yet. Friends, we—we have to jump."

"No!" Virgil latched onto Roman, yanking him away from the gigantic hole in the ground, voice cracking with tears and indescribable fear. But then, his eyelids fluttered shut in exhaustion, and inky tears slipped slowly from them. "No."

Roman embraced Virgil, curling protectively over him, closing his eyes, feeling his own tears unleash without his control. He was here. He kept begging him to jump. But if he fought him and stayed here , how would they escape this place? If he let him take over, would he be able to save the others—himself? How would they find Remus? Would he be lost to the ends of his mind until he finally, utterly lost his sanity?

Fine, he thought tiredly, then sighed heavily. I will. But you won't take over.

He took Virgil's hand tightly, and then took Deceit's. Once the haunted serpentine side cracked open his eyes, he smiled wobbly at him. Then he glanced at Virgil, nodding encouragingly, taking a profound breath. "Let us go."

The other two closed their eyes. They looked peaceful, for one second. Roman took advantage of it, gave a bloodcurdling battle cry, pushing the voice away with all his remaining mental might.

Then, they jumped.

Flashes of blood, broken bones, his empty, sinister grin; a hanging noose, Virgil screaming silently and gripping his head; Thomas crying himself to sleep; a flurry of ashes; penises, decapitated doves, drowning, darkness, crimson lightning—distorted, faraway, glitching, reversed echoes of screams, sobs, metal screeching, clattering of plates; choking and strangling holds—

Roman screamed, while Deceit's features were frozen in a silent screech, while Virgil hyperventilated. But then Roman couldn't find them, couldn't see them. There was only darkness and the wind they fought against as they fell quicker than gravity—but the fall was endless, twisting Roman's intestines, somersaulting his heart, constricting his lungs, playing with his mind, and the only way to cope with all of it was to scream at the top of his lungs.

Into the dark below

Evading shadows

Blind in a rabbit's hole

We fall beneath the earth

Hanging nooses, bloodied knives, Remus shrieking, strangling, bullet wounds, murder, Roman sneering darkly, Virgil sobbing as he bled, orgies, Deceit bursting into tears, the taste of sunlight scorching his skin, the penumbra and shadows dancing, insects and snakes living in stomachs, detached fingers, tortured little girls, him, him, Him

The merciless ground crashed against him, beat the side of his head and his cheek like a morningstar, cut jaggedly into his chest and arms. And the racing, endless fall was over, replaced by a stillness and numbness that enslaved his mind with frozen shock. His voice was trapped, save for tiny, quiet whimpers, as he writhed weakly against the painful, jagged ground. It was grass, perhaps, but the ground felt like it was filled with blades of grass, or glass. At first, agony coursed through his skin and blood, but it returned to nothingness. No pain, but no energy either. He whimpered and writhed weakly again, his mind faded, his thoughts melded together into empty, weary madness. He cracked his eyes open, vision blurred and tunneled. But—

He gasped quietly, then tried to push himself upwards, but collapsed to the floor. Restless, limitless energy filled his core in seconds, overpowering the agony, the exhaustion. Remus—

What little air was in his lungs was crushed away as he was shoved to his back, and unbearable weight was thrown over him. He couldn't see it, but it savagely growled and snarled, leaving his confused thoughts racing even more. An animal was attacking him, would probably kill him, and Remus was nowhere, lost, and Roman wouldn't ever find him now—tears brimmed in his eyes and spilled down his temples, and he flailed to his sword, but claws dug into his arm and kept it in place before he could reach the hilt.

His voice was still stuck on whimpers, for his lungs were too breathless to form sobs. He was so tired. He was so tired.

Cold, calloused hands with sharp claws curled around his throat, scraping and lacerating. Roman fell limp—wait, hands?

"Get out!" Its—his voice was hoarse and jagged and deafening and furious. "Get the fuck out! Get out of my head! "

Roman clenched his eyes shut at the familiar voice, the familiar desperation. A month-old memory pushed to the forefront of his mind, flashing between the reality before him. It left him mute and trembling, wondering whether everything after that night was a fantasy—waiting for the murder attempt from that night to be completed now. But as quickly as he was gripped and crushed, the weight was taken from him.

He choked in a gasp, eyes fluttering open, frozen. He stared at the dark, rotten hole where they had fallen from, unable to move, save to tremble. He slowly looked down to his attacker, to see his brother holding the almost-animal tightly, as if he were a straightjacket. Remus snickered desperately, arms shifting to almost choke the other. His wide, bloodshot, unfocused eyes betrayed that Roman wasn't the only one remembering that night. Unstable hands slipped under Roman's back, pushing him up, and a clothed hand brushed his arm fleetingly, before the facetious side stood on wobbling legs, stepping forward carefully. The Prince glanced at Virgil, who was ashen, but relieved as he gazed back at him, keeping him balanced. 

As Roman forced his mind and vision to focus, his mind to still, his heart to cease its arhythmic pounding, he saw that who Remus held was, indeed, Remus. Physically, he didn't seem much older than before they'd jumped, although dried blood caked his arms, his neck, his locks. His cheek bled profusely from wounds that resembled clawing. But his eyes seemed to have either aged a millennia or devolved to a beast. He writhed and kicked, bit and snarled, but his doppelganger wouldn't budge. Roman couldn't look away from the youngest, breath frozen once more.

"Give him to me." Deceit took another step, remaining far enough. His voice somehow regained stability, but his gaze was familiar in that broken way, whenever he saw Remus like this.

Roman's present brother hesitated, eyes flaming in determination to keep him locked in the crushing hold, but Deceit reached out with both arms, gazing back imploringly, stepping closer. Remus sighed heavily, and shoved the other to Deceit's arms before he could escape either grasp. Young Remus struck with his feet, clawed Deceit's scales, screamed, somehow infinitely more enraged. Even still, Deceit held him fiercely, yet protectively.

"Go on, keep at it," he murmured, drowned out by the other's snarls. Then, he leaned the left side of his face atop Remus' head, leaving his human side clear to see, caressing his back. "Nightmare's gone. He won't hurt you. That's Roman , not him."

"Him," corrected Virgil quietly. Then he covered his mouth with a stained hand to cough heavily.

Remus was stubborn; his fiery gaze remained zeroed in on Roman, and he gave out a frustrated groan. But in a second, his features crumbled, and he fell limp. Roman blinked, and Virgil inhaled sharply. Remus gave a quiet, choked, weary sound, between a moan, a whimper, and a chuckle, and began shivering violently.

Deceit let out a shaky breath, eyes wide open. He was so still. Roman realized Deceit was eerily accustomed to the blood trickling down his sleeved arms, caking his scales; he even embraced Remus tighter. There seemed to be pinpricks of wounds and blood on the human side of his face, as well as on the barely hidden skin under his sleeves. Roman could only see them when the skin shimmered in the light, slowly unraveling from the hastily-recreated glamour in the brutally honest demesne. Roman sensed something warm in his own right temple and cheek, and cautiously brushed them with his fingertips. He lowered them—they came away with blood. Strange—he hadn't felt pain in the slightest after the agony of landing. He was numb and trembling with uncontrollable, unnatural vigor. It took him a long moment to connect his apparent wounds with the earlier fall. With the ground that felt like broken glass.

"That's it," Deceit continued, completely in his element, yet prepared for anything, holding tightly, securely. "It's okay. Everything's okay." Roman's stomach twisted—he wished everything were okay. He just wanted to sleep, and hold his brother to the end of times. 

Then Deceit's eyes snapped to Roman, just as the older Remus turned to the Royal. Deceit's gaze held that imploring, begging despair, and nodded slowly against Remus' shuddering head. Take him, he mouthed. Present Remus stared at Roman unblinkingly as well, daring him to refuse with a growing glare.

Virgil bunched the back Roman's sash in his fists, shaking his head violently. 

Roman gulped, hesitated. Nodded. Placed his palms flatly under him and pushed himself, slowly, weakly, to his feet. Virgil lingered behind him, also standing, one hand remaining on Roman's back, the other gripping his arm, forbidding him to move. But his eyes weren't trying to convince Roman to refuse this time, though they were large and dilated. "Just—be careful," he susurrated, so quiet Roman strained to hear. Then, he slowly brushed the blood from his temple, frowning. "You're bleeding."

Roman strangely had no words, as if some mysterious emotion within his heart left him mute, inarticulate. He nodded, swallowing the bile rising in his throat. Then, he noticed the darker stain in Virgil's black shirt, but couldn't bring himself to reach out to it. He was trembling under Virgil's grip, he realized with a start, shivering from the pressure in his chest, the echoes of screams resounding in his mind. He was, once again, newly haunted by whatever was plaguing Remus' mind, from the past, during the present, forever to come. No matter the era or the immeasurable time, Remus' fragile, fading sanity could barely take how close he and Virgil had come, in July 15th, 2008. Roman shivered, clenching his eyes shut, fighting the gurgles and cackles in his head. Their connection couldn't have come alive at a worse time.

Or perhaps it was the right time , Roman hesitantly thought, as he neared with hands shakily held up as a sign of peace; and while Remus recoiled, pupils dilating and shrinking to pinpoints in his reddened eyes, there was something that pulled them closer, something that made the younger twin scrutinize with a conflicted gaze and a frightened growl. Roman was now three feet away, but he felt miles away. Deceit tightened his grip when the one in his arms shoved him fruitlessly—Roman wasn't certain if it was to attack or run away. 

But Remus flinched and froze, features stricken in a half-formed wince, when Roman's fingertips instinctively brushed his wounded, bleeding cheek. Then, his palm slowly came closer, until it cupped the lacerated skin. Remus didn't seem to feel pain, somehow. And whatever made Roman quiver and struggle to gasp for breath vanished. Now he was just cold; slightly empty, but entranced in his youthful brother's enthralled, spellbound eyes. A second of panic rose and passed in those same eyes, until Remus leaned into the touch, never blinking. Roman remained frozen, watching every single thought and emotion fleetingly color his unmoving stare. Deceit slackened his grip, exhaling with a relief Roman couldn't describe.

Roman yelped when Remus sprung onto him, latched on, never let go. But he wasn't striking or shrieking or snarling. The animalism faded slightly, and left in the aura around him sheer fear, like there was a trembling fawn in Roman's arms and not a man.

"What—?" Roman cut off. His voice was ladened with tears. The one curled up in his arms didn't react. "What…?" He dragged his gaze from the younger, to the older Remus, who shifted his balance, cracked his neck, eyes slipping from watching his counterpart to the shadows in this darkened, jaded place. But Roman couldn't concentrate on his surroundings yet, for his gaze always returned to the trembling one in his arms. "What—happened to you?" he choked out, glancing back up at the one from the present, his throat constricting.

Remus shrugged, like this wasn't heartbreaking, like Deceit didn't scraped his laminae with an empty look in his eye, like Virgil didn't hugged himself tightly, hunching over himself. Like Roman didn't have tears brimming his eyes, stealing his voice. "I went mad." A terrified, unconsolable giggle escaped his lips, and he took a deep, trembling breath. "I succumbed to him."

"But—but you're not like this," Roman stammered breathily. 

"No." He shrugged again, grinning and grimacing simultaneously. "Because I had just realized then, the power I had." He approached his younger self, and ran his fingers through his hair, that wretched pity in his gaze again. "I had no control over it. Because he had control over me. And when we were nineteen?" He laughed, wrenching himself away, turning his back to them. "That was the worst—but it wasn't the last time. Oh no!" He laughed again, hysterically this time. "It never ended with Virgil. I was just getting started."

"What do you mean?" mumbled Virgil, too tired to appear angry.

"I could take you," said Deceit. Roman gaped at him. Said side swallowed, somehow emptier than before. "I wasn't as vulnerable as Vee."

"Which made you a funner toy for me, and a shittier corpse-trophy for him." That brokenness wasn't just in Deceit's gaze; it now lived in Remus' too. The something… Guilt. "I was always scared, you know," he added, as an afterthought. "Scared shitless of myself. Just...less than with Virgil. You handled me, and I always stopped myself, stopped him, before it was too late. We never came close like...then." He turned his head, not really looking at anyone. He simply smiled at the ground, a touch of old mischief widening the tired grin. "You'd be proud of my self-control if you knew how fucking loud he was."

Deceit hummed, smiled wryly, a new bitterness in his amused eyes. "You didn't get close thrice after I actually fucking set you free."

Roman sensed the other shift in his tight embrace, turning his head to stare at Remus, and Roman allowed the other to turn around and move more freely; but he couldn't let him go just yet. Roman needed to hold his younger brother more than the other needed to be held. And it was obvious just how much he needed to be held. He was so quiet, his shivers calming slightly. Roman sensed a question blooming in his mind, recognizing it to be the youngest's. But the Remus that belonged to the present smirked, glancing over his shoulder to the past one. 

He was asking for directions, Roman realized. Laughter bubbled in his lungs, but he clamped it down before it broke free. Everyone was shaken enough as it was—and he wasn't about to give Remus control after all of this hell. He wasn't going to laugh when he felt like sobbing. But he had to admit, it was pretty fucking funny to think that there were directions here. That there was a destination here.

Both Remuses shared a conversation with their eyes, and right on cue, the younger one threw his head back, against Roman's chest, and cackles tore from his throat. They were shrill, hysterical, long, painful cackles, before he stared with wide, deranged eyes at himself with a dead whisper. "You want to go to the center?" He wrenched himself away from Roman—and the Prince hadn't felt colder in his entire life, hadn't felt emptier with his arms outreached in vain. But young Remus turned to the others, sneering mockingly, eyes flashing dangerously. "I don't think you could handle it! You're barely holding it together as it is!" He shook with laughter again, suddenly inches away from Deceit, sniffing, and his grin threatened to crack his face. "I can smell your fear."

Deceit's eyes emptily stared back, only moving to breathe slowly, shallowly. His features were impassive, until he smiled. "Can you now?"

"Oh, Dee!" Remus gripped the other's jaw in a painful, clawed grip. Deceit somehow held his head high, solemn. "You know I got your little lies memorized!" But then his grin fell, and only pure, seething rage remained, barely reigned in under his glower. His next words were the deepest murmur, this time a true threat rather than the usual invitation to play. "Nothing some pain won't fix."

Either Deceit remembered, or Remus knew him that well; or Remus knew Deceit would remember, or Deceit knew Remus never stopped intimately comprehending him.

Either way, there was a second of silence. Deceit's eyes widened, and Roman heard his breath subtly hitch. And then there was the morningstar in the wild one's hand. Virgil immediately positioned himself to tackle Remus, murderous scowl on his own features, contrasting his scared eyes. Roman's hand found the hilt of his blade, as he prepared his mind and aura to take control over the other.

"Nope." His true twin simply yanked the other by his shoulder, handling him with such a visceral violence Roman felt tempted to reproach him. It was worrying, to say the least, the way Remus now snarled at his younger self, dragging him away like a ragdoll. "We don't have fucking time for this, and we tortured Dee enough, didn't we?!"

"No," growled the youngest, swinging the morningstar blindly, somehow knowing where the other Remus would be—without taking into account that the oldest would know when and where to dodge while still holding violently tight. 

"No," blurted Deceit in a murmur, left hand reaching to his scales, before it slowly clenched into a strained fist, and he struggled to lower it to his side. 

Roman wished both had lied.

"Right! Well." Remus nervously glanced at the distance, and suddenly, Roman's stomach twisted. His rattling energy and numbness finally began to fade, as soon as the adrenaline from the fall, the attack, and the renewed connection left his bloodstream. And the agitation of the host of this mind, coupled with his younger self's restless need to harm, made perfect sense.

They were still within the pit, below the hurricane, still inside Remus' mind. Roman looked around, hand stuck upon his sword's hilt. Indeed, blades of glass took the place of actual grass, and Roman looked down to see blood blooming on his side, staining his white suit, somehow in pattern with his aesthetic. That made another uncontrollable giggle bubble in his lungs, and this time it rose through his throat, escaped his lips. The sky was dark, stained with crimson gore, and there was no sun. There were no clouds either, nor stars, nor a moon. A cold draft settled in his bones then, and he gripped his sword tighter to compensate for the exhaustion that made his hands quiver.

"What does this place mean?" he asked, his voice weak as before, but not plagued with stutters anymore. He kept drinking in his surroundings. "Are we in your subconscious, or…?"

He froze when his gaze dropped. There was a forest before them. Blackened, rotten, full of fog, with veins of ink running through the cracked, dry ground. 

"I have a weird feeling that we'll have some answers down here," answered present Remus, watching in unbridled wonder, even though he grunted with effort to keep his animalistic, younger self still.

Virgil breathed in through his nostrils, then exhaled sharply, though his lungs gurgled as he did. He crossed his arms. "I want to know who he really is." He sniffed, running the back of his hand over his nose. The hand came away even more stained, somehow.

Deceit fiddled with his fingers coldly with one hand, seemingly ignoring his surroundings. Roman winced at the strong wall Deceit created after young Remus' failed stunt, isolating the facetious side from everyone else. The reminder of who Remus used to be was enough to leave Deceit shaken, coping the only way he knew how. "Storms were quite enough to hold your trauma. It didn't run deeper into madness." 

"This...place explores what occurred after you turned nineteen, then," Roman realized. He dismissed the strange presence in his mind. "But why is it so...mellow?"

The youngest snarled, roared. The one who belonged to the present had a sheen of sweat on his forehead, brow furrowed in concentration. "I know you're tired, brother. Go to sleep."

Roman furrowed his brows, but a thousand small details took his focus in milliseconds. Remus had been distracted, at least slightly, the whole time they've been down here. And Roman couldn't hear his voice, not like up there. 

You'd be proud of my self-control if you knew how fucking loud he was.

Roman's confusion cleared in a second. "You're in control?"

"Not for long." Remus grunted again, glaring at the younger one with sheer hatred, and Roman realized with a start how infinitely more exhausted he looked compared to five minutes ago. "He really wants that control. It's like I'm fucking nineteen again." Remus struggled to swallow, and took a breath. "Dumbasses, ain't it obvious? Sleep, for death's sake. I'll take watch."

"Don't you need to rest?" Virgil murmured hoarsely, rubbing his arms.

Remus scoffed, smiling wryly at the sky, holding young Remus' arms up high as he stretched. "I'm the only one who can't, or we're gone for good."

"Alright," Deceit sighed, features pulled in a scowl, but he cautiously crouched to the ground, eyes wide open. "The slower, the better. I'm helping—serpents know how great you are with his impulses."

"Ah, ah, ah," sang Remus, shaking his head playfully. "I can see the truth, remember? Even this asshole can." He nodded his head to the other one below him. "I've never felt you more sick in my entire life, and that's saying something. You're fucking sleeping."

Deceit sighed heavily this time, seconds away from seething.

"Hey, Ro," Virgil called quietly, coughing weakly. He was already curled up on the grass, eyes half-lidded. "Can you conjure somethin'? Like a blanket? A fire?"

Roman closed his eyes and concentrated. His insides and the air around him warped, and he opened his eyes. There were dying fireflies weakly casting light along the grass, embers levitating in the air, and dead leaves surrounded them. Roman gave a grunt of frustration. The control was definitely not his tonight.

"Close enough," Virgil slurred, coughing wetly once, pulling some leaves under and around him, and falling limp. He finally breathed slowly, deeply, but there was an audible struggle in it. Comprehension dawned on Roman—Virgil had been silent, or at the very least, hoarse and susurrous, this whole time. The ink in his lungs must have left him breathless and utterly drained. Apart from everything else, of course.

Deceit slowly crawled towards the already sleeping side, brushing the greasy, drenched locks from his forehead. He took one last look at the struggling Remuses. "Are you sure, Remus?"

"Yeah, sleep." Remus growled.

Deceit hissed, but lay on his back atop the many leaves, beside Virgil, eyes wide open. Roman neared the two, and settled beside Deceit, watching the sky that was frozen in time. He shivered in the cold, felt the warm pool of blood at his side and in the leaves he lay on. He closed his eyes and furrowed his brows, but he could barely concentrate his muddled thoughts. He could only stop the blood flow of all their wounds, and take away some of the sludge still rattling in Virgil's lungs. The actual wounds would have to wait, and…

Strikhedonia came over him, just for tonight. 

"To hell with it," he whispered, and turned on his side, curling against Deceit's own side, clenching his eyes shut. He was...so tired. Tired enough to sleep for millennia, to give up his duty as protector, to just let Remus—or him—take over his mind. Courage had been fleeting for quite a long time, but now it was non-existent. There was no reason to pretend for now anyway. Tomorrow…tomorrow Roman would be as vibrant and courageous as he could be. Tomorrow he'd unsheathe his blade. Tomorrow he'd fight and protect, and not fail like he did today and all the days before today.

Roman felt the unstable rise and fall of Deceit's chest, until the other shifted closer, one arm arching around his frame as well. Roman figured it was easy to feel like Remus right now, easy for Deceit to pretend he was his brother. Broken, fixer; the words of Remus from so long ago washed over him. If Deceit would feel more stable by comforting Roman, then the Prince would accept a night...or however long time, of vulnerability. 

If it helped them sleep…

We will face the odds against us

And run into the fear we run from

 

It has begun