It comes into awareness of the intruder in measured steps. Slithering along the silken threads of consciousness with as unobtrusive a touch as it can manage.
Foolish. Nothing ever truly fades from It’s perception, each and every corner of the realms and mindscapes that culminate in the being that is Thomas Sanders has its place in It’s web. And It is a careful, dedicated keeper. Maintaining each thread, testing their strength in equal measure. The serpent has no hope of going unnoticed.
A singular, far-reaching limb contracts, bringing its piercing fore down a mere whim from the serpent’s more beastly head. “Deceit.”
The lesser head strikes on instinct, baring fangs and lashing out to inject its poison into It’s limb, but it never gets the chance. It knows the denizens of the Dark and their natures even better than they know themselves, and a second great limb knocks the head off-course. The serpent tumbles through the black void and It shifts. Resettling its great form to give the side its full focus. One limb resettles at a more forgiving distance from the yellow snake while the second retracts, settling far and away where others cannot see it.
“Wasss that really necessary?” The serpent’s form shifts and grows until it coalesces in its human shape. The greater head forming half of Thomas Sanders’ face while the other keeps its reptilian origins.
It hisses in disgust. Such a glaring weakness to wear so proudly as Deceit does. No matter how clever, how discerning and silver-tongued. To any who care to take a second look, the side’s true nature is glaring for any to see. “Did you really think you could approach unnoticed?”
Deceit glares, serpentine tongue darting through the cracked and dislocated break in the lesser half of his jaw. Unable to perceive It’s true location, the narrowed eyes roam the dark without focus. “All in good fun, my old friend. I meant no harm.”
A lie. And not a very good one. It lifts its limb and brings it down hard enough to shake the foundations beneath them. Beyond, the web shudders and Thomas Sanders looks over his shoulder. It does not end the fit until Deceit lifts from the mock bow he has delivered. The shaking hands It notices brings it satisfaction. “Why are you here?”
In a rare show of deference, the snake removes the strange hat from his head and dips into a modest bow. “To make a request.”
A shiver of intrigue, and It’s many limbs begin to strum the threads around them. Absorbing every inch of data it can process for what situation would call for Deceit to make this supplication.
“We need your help.”
“We?” There could only be one Deceit is referring to, and with an impatient sweep of another limb It pulls the Duke from whatever inglorious pit of disgrace he is reveling in and deposits the discarded half of creativity into the space on Deceit’s left. The lesser half has poorer sight, and the two will be unable to communicate if the Duke can only send silent messages to the serpent-half.
The final side of the Dark struggles to his feet, the ever-manic glint to Thomas Sanders’ eyes spoiling with a note of fear. A roiling, slime-covered tentacle flops to the ground as the Duke loses partial control of his form. Setting aside revulsion for the moment, It settles two great limbs on either of the pair’s shoulders, reminding them of in whose presence it is they sit. Both shiver.
With a twitch, Deceit is pushed forward. For as untrustworthy as the serpent is, the octopus is so rarely focused or coherent. It will parcel the truth from the many lies instead. “Speak.”
“Well,” the snake begins. “Obviously we don’t need your help. Remus and I are fully capable of performing the duty of serenading our dear Thomas to the side of the Dark while you whittle away your time… eh- wherever here is.” The snake sniffs and makes a dismissive gesture the void around them.
“You suggest I am not fulfilling my purpose!” a third limb brandishes itself beneath Deceit’s chin, and behind him, the Duke sprouts a second tentacle out of fear. Jaundiced scales spread across Deceit’s human half.
“Of course not!” The side flinches as It hisses. “Merely that, with the three Light sides taking such active, vocal roles in Thomas’ conscience, we two,” a gesture to the Duke who nods with vigorous enthusiasm, ink dripping from his fingers. “Can only accomplish so much.”
An… interesting sentiment. It withdraws its third limb and pushes Deceit back to a more respectful distance. Then considers. As all-encompassing its influence… it destabilizes the thread leading to the realm of Logic. Beyond, Thomas Sanders second-guesses the answer to a question he has studied for many hours before.
The study-guide could have had a misprint, after all.
Nothing is beyond It’s reach, and yet… Logic reassures Thomas not a moment later and the Dark recedes. Is their power, impotent?
“What do you suggest?”
“Well, an actual body might be nice,” says the Duke, who renders down into his cephalopod form to escape the vicious lashing of It’s great limb. The moldy-green octopus slips away into the inky void and It allows the retreat. The limb follows, and the octopus will know better than to think It is not watching.
“As delicate as that was put, our lovely Remus has a point.” Deceit raises both hands as he garners the brunt of It’s attention. “You are more powerful than either of us. Perish the thought of what you could do if you took the fight to the Light directly.”
“A form is limited. It comes with… vulnerabilities.” The very inkling sends It shivering, limbs dancing along the web with unease. “Why should I risk it?”
“You mean you don’t care if your influence on Thomas is minimal?” Deceit gasps in mock horror. “I suppose we don’t all care about doing what’s best for him.”
Deceit is… right, oddly enough. It works the dilemma over fast enough to make Logic proud and comes to an uncomfortable realization. With great reluctance, it recalls its limbs. Leaving their imperceptible influence as eight great arms retract and sink in the pale, fleshy plane of Thomas’ back. The spider dislodges itself from its carefully crafted web and descends to the foundation of the void, now taking on the soft texture of carpeting. He shivers as his once great form shrinks and conforms to the shape of Thomas Sanders, reserving only the dark shadows under eyes that have never shown themselves to light.
He is to some degree shocked and disconcerted to find his new body to be smaller, frailer than Deceit. The serpent does not miss the detail and smirks, serpent jaw cracking in a silent, unnaturally wide, laugh. The spider hisses and one purple limb sprouts from the back of the hoodie clothing his human form to strike the lesser Dark side across the face.
“Careful, Deceit. Despite appearances, never forget what I am.”
The serpent groans, glaring through amber eyes, but nods. “Wait, you’re not actually going are you?”
A half-hearted shrug and he starts towards the newly formed stairs that will lead to the neutral space of Thomas’ mind. “Why not? You had a good idea, I’m taking advantage.”
“What about the Light sides?”
The spider considers. True, as his own aspect Creativity and almost certainly Logic will never let him get close enough to influence Thomas directly. He glances to the serpent who is eyeing him curiously. A tired grin creeps its way on Thomas Sanders’ face. “You’re not the only fount of untruth, Deceit.”
Something more neutral will serve his design. Something Dark, but not abyssal.
“Then what name shall I know you by?” Deceit asks.
The spider spins the first thread of a new web. “How about… Anxiety.”
Two years later…
As the venerable prince himself makes his swift departure, Virgil swallows back the bile in his throat. It goes down like rough hewn stone.
“Virgil? You okay, buddy?”
Thomas, ever the caretaker looks to the side with something like concern. Given the young man looks fit to keel over himself, Anxiety finds that even his cynical, embittered heart can appreciate the gesture. The unmanifested spider-leg Virgil has strewn across his host’s shoulders tightens its grip.
“Oh, uh yeah. I-I just… I’m a little,” he scratches at the side of his head and finds himself unable to keep his eyes focused on any one thing. The effort to hold the concerned gaze sitting across from him, too great a weight to carry. “I’m a little disappointed in myself.”
It dawns on the wayward Dark side that what he is doing here, confessing, is a potentially disastrous decision. Thomas looks confused, brow arched to an almost Roman-like display of confusion. It makes something in the spider’s heart stutter and the words come just a little bit easier.
“I thought that I would be able to… protect you from them.” He lets his shoulders drop, defeated and repentant. Never commit all your efforts to one task, he reminds himself. You only set yourself up to fail.
“Uh.” Thomas considers for a moment then asks, “the Dark sides?”
Something in the way his host says it stings. “The others,” he corrects, although he knows the term ‘Dark’ is the truer description. The parts hidden away, never to see the light of day. “I- I thought… I thought I knew how to handle them.”
The spider wonders when all the control had slipped from his grasp. The mere fact that the Duke -overgrown cephalopod that he was- had dared interfere in Virgil’s designs was bordering on disgraceful. How long had it been since the worm had appeared in his presence willingly? Deceit was one thing, but had the lesser Dark sides really been left to their own devices for so long that they no longer feared his reach?
It takes effort, but Virgil extends his perceptions to the other seven of his limbs beyond the one he has maintained guarded around Thomas. The farther he goes, the more dulled, numbed the sensations become. The leg anchored in the tar-like pit of the Duke’s hole of iniquity shudders and Anxiety is gifted with the fleeting awareness of the octopus absconding in a flurry of writhing tentacles.
The satisfaction is enough for him to let his presence shrink back in time to listen to Thomas’ encouraging words. “Oh, well, I-I think we’re all trying to figure them out for now. It’ll take some time to figure everything out.” He says it with such heartfelt camaraderie that somehow the good intentions loop back around to becoming knives in Virgil’s skin.
“Yeah, but I should know better.” He wants Thomas to understand without having to spell it out for him. But perhaps by Patton’s influence, or Roman’s contagious idiocy, it doesn’t seem like he will get what he wants.
“Isn’t that kind of unfair?” says Thomas. “Why should you be held to a different standard than any other side?”
It is his last chance to let the matter drop and go back to the same routine the spider has allowed himself to grow comfortably settled into. But the growing weight carried on his back extending to the far reaches of Thomas Sanders’ being act as a constant reminder that no matter what he chooses to let the others believe, one thing will always be true.
“Because, I was one of them.”
For an agonizing, endless moment Thomas’ face goes blank, and he says nothing. Virgil wills the eyeshadow under his eyes to darken, hiding the horror beneath. Then, he lets himself sink away.
He doesn’t need to see Thomas’ burgeoning trust in him die.
Dark Creativity darts through the inky depths of his corner of Thomas’ subconscious in a half-mad blur of fear and arousal. He didn’t know it could feel so… euphoric. Being so close to the full conscience of their host. To stand on equal footing with the spider itself before Thomas Sanders and survive. Ooh, the very thought sends quivers along his many tentacles, disrupting his path as he races to put as much distance between himself and the shifting arm of the spider as possible. Only when brackish mire gives way to the drifting sands of Deceit’s domain does the Duke allow himself to slow.
Sludge-covered limbs pull in around themselves until it is Remus standing in the octopus’ stead. A quick survey of his surroundings confirms that ‘Virgil’ had not maintained his awareness of the Duke’s movements, and Dark Creativity gleams. Without threat of impalement -as fun as that might be- hovering over his head, he can get back to the task at hand.
He wanders the shifting dunes of Deceit’s mindscape until he reaches the serpent’s miniature kingdom. A cracked throne, great stone spires extending in a sunburst pattern around a particularly uncomfortable looking chair where the side himself lounges, one leg thrown over the arm of the throne while he rests his head in the heel of an open palm.
A single, serpentine eye shimmers as it catches sight of Remus.
“Ah, my beacon of hope makes his triumphant return.” Deceit rights himself and claps his gloved hands, head tipped to shadow the snake-half of his face. “Tell me, how fares our fearless leader?”
Remus shrugs, tossing his hand and picking deodorant from between his teeth. “Languishing away with those wet blankets as always,” he says. “You’ve seen it yourself, don’t know what you wanted me to poke around for.”
“Call it a second opinion.” Deceit slaps his hands on his thighs and climbs up to his feet. “You know, I paid them all a visit not too long ago.”
“Almossst convinced Thomas himself to give in to selfish opportunity.” Remus watches with buzzing fascination as Deceit tilts his head up and hisses, his long, forked tongue fluttering in the air for a moment before slipping back into the side’s cavernous mouth. “Would have worked too, if not for someone’s better half.” A yellow snake eye glares in Remus’ direction to which Dark Creativity bites his thumb in return. “Think of what Thomas could have accomplished if he’d just listened to me.”
Both Dark sides sigh, wistful. But then Deceit’s expression darkens and his form gives way, scales engulfing both sides of Thomas Sanders’ face until the side resembles more snake than man. “And worssse yet, there’s Virgil parading himself like sssssome kind of paragon of light, dragging his feet to help me!”
Remus considers, twisting the length of his mustache. “You know I didn’t actually believe you when you said he’d chosen a human name.” Fitting in a way, Remus can find no fault with the choice though it wouldn’t have been his personal decision. It hardly matters besides.
Not like the spider ever asked or cared for his opinion.
Deceit however, appears to rankle. “I had to learn it second-hand while impersonating that buffoon, Morality.”
“And?” Remus was beginning to grow bored with Deceit’s tangential anecdotes, and mulling over Anxiety’s human name had given him all sorts of… wonderfully juicy ideas that were divinely comedic in nature. “What’s your point?”
“My point , Remusss, is that we have ourselves a situation that must be handled delicately. You must have noticed it, the spider is fading away.”
“The spider? Fade?” Dark Creativity blows a raspberry into the air. “Impossible. Anxiety’s spun his way into the inner circle of Thomas’ primary personalities.”
“That’s just it!” Snapping his fingers, Deceit’s unhinged jaw swings wide in growing agitation. “Anxiety has, not the spider. He’s pulling farther and farther from the Dark, Remus. And we’re losing him.”
The Duke blinks. “I still don’t follow.”
“Argh,” Deceit sighs and draws his hand along the length of his face, returning it to it’s normal half-human state. “Anxiety was only ever meant to be a clever facade. A glamour, if you will, to hide his true nature.” Deceit snaps his fingers and the wind picks up around them, blowing sand in an eastward gale until a new structure is revealed. The great spider limb, the one dedicated to monitoring Deceit and the threads of the Dark side’s web associated with such, appears seemingly out of nowhere.
Remus follows in mild fascination as Deceit stalks up to the limb and pulls the glove from one of his hands. Delicate, scaled fingers brush the length of the gargantuan leg and Deceit lays the human side of his face against the arachnid appendage.
“It hasn’t moved in almost a year,” he says, wistful and perhaps a little sad. Dark Creativity would feel like he were intruding, had he any sense of reverence or delicacy. “If this continues he’ll lose all connection to his true nature. We won’t be the three Dark sides any more, just the two.”
That has Remus sprouting a tentacle. Deceit may have inroads through the more dense personalities of the inner circle, but Remus has always ever fought the losing fight against Roman. If Anxiety were to truly turn, his intimate knowledge of Deceit’s nature could tip the scales of balance and erase the Dark’s influence on Thomas completely.
The Duke looks up to the towering limb, powerful enough to span Light and Dark, crafty enough to spin a web of influence too complex for a lesser side like Remus to ever understand. The Dark could not afford to lose him.
“I assume you have a plan, then?” Remus licks a trickle of oil from the corner of his mouth. The serpent of Deceit had hatched in the wake of the spider’s becoming, after all. Whatever plot he would scheme was almost assured to be as delicious as it was cruel.
Deceit lingers, embracing the dormant limb in his arms for a moment longer before turning to Remus. His serpent eye glows. “Simple. We remind the spider of what he is.”
“I have questions.”
Virgil watches with quiet humor as Logan’s brusk interjection kills Roman’s enthusiasm in its crib. Their fanciful prince halts in the midst of his wild gesticulating to narrow a glare at the cold face of logic.
“About what?” he asks, voice droll and shoulders already slipping. It shouldn’t entertain him so much watching the light sides bicker, but it does.
“In this, narrative, you’ve concocted,” Logan begins, adjusting the set of his glasses. “I don’t see the practicality of the antagonist taking such a large, cumbersome form. She was already performing at peak effectiveness. It was only a matter of time before the protagonist succumbed to her superior offensive tactics and as a humanoid she presents a much smaller target. As it stands, becoming a large reptilian beast with questionable motor control and peripheral vision-”
Virgil settles in as Logan continues on his narrative deconstruction. Despite the natural discomfort of spending any length of time in Morality’s room, he is finding this particular foray to be a great deal more bearable. He settles himself against the banister of the stairs, hood pulled up, and allows his eyes to slide shut. The weight of memories in the air always drains his energy, and he has to fight the urge to fall into a doze. With the sounds of Roman and Logan chattering away in the background, the fight gets just a little bit harder.
“Hey, Virgil. Kiddo, you doing okay?”
A hand to his shoulder startles him awake. At some point Patton has crossed the unspoken boundary of space between them to find a new spot sitting on the steps beside him. Their moral center has his legs drawn up and rests his chin on his knees, smile present as ever but small, content. “Looked like we’d lost you there, for a sec.”
“Ah yeah, sorry about that.” He rubs the sleep from his eyes with the cuff of his hoodie, careful to avoid smearing the dark shadows beneath his eyes. “Story time plus memory lane kind of spells bedtime to me.”
Instead of getting offended and generally annoyed as it is Anxiety’s nature to assume, Patton tilts his head back and laughs. “Aw, that’s adorable!” Virgil’s whole body breaks out in burning tingles when Patton reaches over and wraps him in a quick hug. “If it’s too much for you, you can go back to your room. I know being here can be hard for you.”
Fighting the instinctive pull to let his legs unsheath from his back and impale Thomas Sanders’ morality, Virgil hides the uncomfortable roll of his shoulders with a lopsided shrug. “S'fine,” he mutters into the heel of his hand. He is careful to keep his focus on Roman as he quite literally conjures his imagined dragon-witch for he and Logan to dissect. He lets out a slow, exhaling sigh when Patton finally lets him go. “I want to watch the fireworks.”
“They do get into it, don’t they.” Morality scoots closer, but this time is cognizant of Virgil’s discomfort enough not to touch.
“Logan’s got a point,” says Anxiety, eyeing the towering figure of Roman’s imaginary fiend. He stares into glowing green eyes, intent on malice, and wonders how the creature would fare against a figure with four more limbs and an even nastier disposition. “It’s kind of cheap isn’t it? Blaming the antagonist’s ego for turning into a bigger, badder form even though it’s less effective. Especially when they were winning too.” He shakes his head. “Doesn’t make sense.”
Logan crosses his arms and dips his head. “Yes, exactly. Thank you, Anxiety.”
Roman’s loses his breath in a sweep that sounds as if he’s been sucker-punched. The dragon-witch disperses and the prince holds his head in his hands for a moment before gesturing beseechingly in Virgil and Patton’s general direction. “Virgil! Whose side are you on?”
“Hey.” He lifts both hands and crosses his arms. “Not on anyone’s side. Just saying you could do better than the general plot synopsis to any Power Rangers episode.”
There is a snap of fingers and Logan clears his throat. “Incorrect. In Power Rangers, generally the weekly antagonist only increases their size after suffering a round of defeat. Roman’s progression of events skipped even this fundamental step.”
“Now kids, let’s be nice. This is supposed to be fun, remember?”
“Well, Patton, what do you think?” Roman gestures to their sweater-wearing side and taps his foot at a rabbit’s pace.
“Oh me? Shucks guys, I’m not much of a story-teller.”
“Hmph,” Virgil has to stifle back his snicker. “Not even bedtime stories… dad?”
For a moment the general density of giddy reverie intensifies in the room and Virgil shudders. It already feels like he’s sitting fully clothed in a sauna he doesn’t need the feeling like honey-soaked cotton is being stuffed down his throat too. But, Patton does look unspeakably happy so, there’s that he supposes.
“Did you just call me, Dad?”
“M’nope. Don’t recall that happening at all.” And there, he can breathe again as Morality wilts.
“Oh for the love of all that’s bright and sparkly answer the question, man!” Roman’s increasing distress is enough to draw attention away from Virgil, for which he is grateful. Patton starts his own overwhelmingly supportive assessment of Roman’s proposed story plot and for a while, Anxiety lets himself once again drift. He’ll need to spend some serious time in his own room after this to recover, but for the moment all the warmth around him almost feels like home. When it’s not making him feel like he’s sitting on hot coals, at the very least.
He catches Logan eyeing him at one point, but at least he knows Logic will wait to discuss the string of concern brewing behind those too-observant eyes in private.
“And besides,” Patton concludes as Virgil pulls himself together enough to pay close attention. He breathes in slow and begins the exercise that has become the norm for him. He holds it for seven seconds.
“Is a dragon-witch really the most terrifying thing the villain could think of?” Logic and Creativity both come up short and watch Morality with matching expressions of stunned confusion. Anxiety moves into an exhale.
“You- you’re saying it’s not scary enough?” asks Logan. “Just to clarify.”
Patton raises his hands and shrugs. “Well… yeah. A big snake with legs? Kinda reminds me Deceit, and he’s not all that scary.”
“The man single-handedly impersonated you for almost an entire video and nearly convinced Thomas that lying was good,” says Roman.
“Roman, you yourself said that Deceit was a very kind individual.” Logan and Patton share a conspiratorial look and Virgil isn’t fast enough to catch his snort of amusement. “However,” Logic continues. “I must agree with Roman that it seems uncharacteristic of you to fault the level of fear his creation inspires, Patton.”
“I only mean… that there are other things to turn into that are even scarier.”
Roman scoffs. “Like what?”
“Well,” Morality claps his eyes shut with one hand. “Like this.” Patton waves his free arm and suddenly, in the void of space Roman’s dragon-witch once occupied stands an equally gargantuan beast that looks something between Aragog from Harry Potter and Shelob from Lord of the Rings.
Both Logan and Roman shriek.
“See!” Morality says, still not lifting the hand from his eyes. “Like I said before, creepy-crawly deathdealers.”
“Okay, okay we get it just… disappear them already, gah!” Roman’s face twists in distaste and he makes a shooing motion with his arms.
Virgil would comment on the irony of the brave prince persona being too chicken to even look at something that came out of the darkest parts of Patton’s imagination, but he is too caught up in staring at the creature set before him. He imagines in his own mind that the soulless eyes staring down at them are alight in a purple sheen. That the limbs holding its great body upright are much larger, longer. Long enough to span the breadth of realms. And a perfect, inescapable web would be its throne.
Never forget what I am.
The spider stirs. Clicking massive fangs from salivating jaws the nightmare creature shifts its legs once, twice, before dispersing in a mist of sepia dust. Patton lowers his makeshift blindfold and snaps his fingers. “I think I’ve proved my point.”
Logan coughs into his hand. “Indeed.”
“No!” Roman shakes his head and brings his fist down against his open palm. “Something like-like that monstrosity doesn’t make a good villain at all!”
This earns him a thoughtful hum from Logan. “How do you mean?”
“Something so ghastly that not even the audience wants to look it's way is effective, yes. But no one will ever enjoy it.”
“Princey’s right.” And Virgil can’t believe he’s saying it. “The antagonist has to be intimidating, yes. And honestly Roman you can do better than a cliche dragon-type thing. That’s just the honest truth, buddy.” Roman looks like he wants to protest, but stops himself since Virgil is still technically agreeing with him for the moment.
“But they also need to be manageable, something that the protagonist can reasonably overcome. I think what Roman’s aiming for here is a monster that’s equal parts awe and terror.”
“EXACTLY. Thank you, Anxiety.”
Virgil holds up his hand. “This doesn’t mean I’m on your side.”
“Didn’t think that for a second, fence-sitter.” Roman turns to Logic. “Well?”
“I cede your point,” says Logan with a quiet sigh. “Though we still have yet to find a suitable compromise. Virgil, any ideas?”
“What, me?” All eyes go to Virgil and he forgets to hold his breath before releasing. He has to resist the urge to blink away and descend into his own room to escape the attention.
“Yes, you embody a great deal of Thomas’ understanding of fear. What creature would you suggest?”
“Why don’t we just let Roman do the whole imagination thing?” he tries, but even Creativity does not seem keen on the idea.
“No, no, I’m curious now,” says the prince. “Go on, give us your best shot.”
“Guys, I really don’t feel like doing this.” Virgil claps his hand over his mouth as his voice begins to turn. Yes, he’s definitely spent too long in Patton’s room. He needs to leave.
“Anxiety, you don’t have to if you don’t want to.” Patton at least is a saving grace, and their moral aspect pulls attention away from where Virgil is becoming one with the banister. “Let’s ease up, everyone.”
Patton flutters his hands and Roman and Logan each take an obliging step back. Virgil shuts his eyes and takes the opportunity to go through another breathing cycle. In. Hold. Release.
“You feel free to go if you need to, kiddo. We understand.”
Shaking his head, Virgil shudders as bile rises up in his throat. He keeps a hand clamped thoroughly shut across his mouth. “ M’fine .”
“You obviously are not," says Logan. "Gentlemen, I propose we table this discussion for another time.” He looks from Morality to Creativity and pretends not to send a side-long look to where Anxiety is trying very hard not to be sick. “Perhaps Thomas can serve as mediator whenever he decides to wake up.”
The sigh that Roman gives is enough to make Virgil roll his eyes even in his own state. “But I wanted this project to be a wonderful dream for Thomas to experience right before waking. Think of the inspiration it could stir!”
“Roman!” snaps Patton, bringing the prince up short. “Not now.”
It is at this point that Virgil’s resilience gives out. Unable to hold his presence in Morality’s room he sinks into the floor, letting the anchor of his incorporeal form lead him into a controlled fall. The last he hears of the others is Roman’s voice. Small, and unusually timid. “... Oh.”
The dark, looming shadows of his room are a welcome balm as Anxiety collapses in a heap onto the cobweb-infested mess of Thomas’ couch. His stomach is turning end over end and if he does not find a way to ground himself and re-energize quick, he’s afraid he’s going to vomit. Unfortunate that there’s really only one way for him to do that.
Cognizant of the Light sides still present in Morality’s room he sloughs off his purple hoodie, if only to give the illusion of more breathing room for his hidden limbs to sprout. He does so carefully, groaning as long-underused muscles begin to move. The immediate cramping forces a moan that Virgil smothers into the couch arm as first one segmented limb slides out from beneath his shoulder blade. Followed by another, and another, until all eight of his legs lay sprawled out in an undignified heap around him. Two holding the couch arm on either side of his head, another three draped over the back of the couch, and the remainder left to sprawl across the ground.
His whole body is shaking from the effort and sweat drips from his every pore. He can’t even bring himself to think of reaching for the incorporeal limbs. The eight great legs he put aside two years ago to wear the disguise of Anxiety. Besides the one that always hovers in Thomas’ shadow, ready to protect his host at a moment’s notice, the other seven he can scarcely feel. At this point, letting the spider settle into its web for a while will have to suffice.
The gothic persona of his room blurs and at the point of contact of each limb his legs flex, coating themselves in Virgil’s web. The touch is like cool water flowing up and into him to soothe the burning ache of Morality’s nostalgia. He forgets sometimes what too much Light will do to him.
He doesn’t know how long he revels in his little corner of the Dark. But when he startles awake it is to a presence similar enough to himself to escape detection until he spoke.
“Why my dear misery, would you like some company?”
Virgil squints one eye open, just to confirm who he thinks it is, then lets it shut again. “What do you want, Deceit?”
An icy, scaled palm settles in the small column of his back that acts as the junction for his limbs and Virgil cannot help but sigh. Self-delusion is such a familiar presence to the spider that the touch eases the remainder of his discomfort and lets him truly rest.
“Nothing at all,” the serpent says, beginning a soothing pattern of strokes from the nape of his neck down to the small of his back. He settles cross-legged on the ground, nestled between two of Virgil’s legs.
Virgil scoffs into the fabric of the couch arm, but cannot force himself to shoo the dark side away. “Liar,” he says in compromise.
“Maybe. But let me help you anyways. It’s been a long time since you’ve let yourself be Dark.”
“ Don’t need your help, ” mumbles the spider, but he is already drifting off to a much-needed sleep.
He fades as Deceit’s human thumb brushes the shadows beneath his exposed eye. “Now who’s the liar?”
Deceit waits for the spider’s breathing to slow to a rate more indicative of deep rest before he lets the cracked smile slip from his face. His thumb pauses at the corner of Virgil’s eye and, letting his breath go in a slow exhale, he shifts his hand up into the messy tumble of hair above. Here, in the corner of Thomas Sanders’ mind that wholly belongs to Anxiety the side’s hair has retaken the violet hue Virgil had once grown so accustomed to.
“What a sad sight you make like this,” he remarks to the sleeping creature beside him. Climbing to his feet, Deceit lets Virgil’s hair slip between his fingers and goes back to his careful ministrations. Massaging the knotted muscles of the spider’s back and easing each leg into a more comfortable position to encourage the flow of energy back into the side. When he wakes, Virgil will feel more rested than Deceit suspects he has been in some time.
Mindful of where he steps, Deceit maneuvers his way to the far end of the couch and settles himself near the opposite end, conjuring himself a copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to entertain himself while he waits for the spider to recover. He is only mildly surprised when the room’s cobwebs begin to latch onto him. They are followed soon after by the soft touch of hairy legs settling themselves on his shoulder. Out of the corner of his eye, Deceit spots the blinking, inquisitive eyes of an orange-and-black tarantula.
“Ah, Charlotte. So nice to see you again.”
The tarantula does not respond other than to crawl along the length of his shoulders to the side closer to Virgil. The arachnid looks to Deceit once, and thrusts a foreleg in the other side’s direction.
“Not doing well I’m afraid. Spent a bit too much time in Morality’s room.”
The tarantula makes a quiet hissing sound and the serpent laughs in return, tongue slipping out to taste the air before hiding away. Deceit offers the tarantula his palm. “Don’t worry, I know he doesn’t like to be defenseless. Between you and I, I’m sure we can keep watch until he’s ready to wake up.”
Charlotte climbs aboard, sitting patiently in the seat of his yellow gloves until Deceit lowers her close enough to crawl instead onto the nearest of Virgil’s legs. The tarantula offers him a parting hiss before making her way down the leg and then up to a pocket of space at the base of Virgil’s neck.
Deceit gasps, putting a hand to his chest. “Charlotte I’m hurt. What makes you think I have any ill intentions toward your dear Anxiety?”
The tarantula does little more than stare at him from her post.
“Well fine, believe what you will. But we dark sides must stick together, and I’m hardly going to let the man destroy himself trying to be something he’s not.”
He takes Charlotte’s silence as her reluctant agreement and smirks. “He may not want me here. But we both know he needs it.”
Whatever qualms the spider might have on acknowledging the past, Deceit was not one to ever forget. Together, snake and spider had once upheld the strength of Thomas Sanders’ self-preservation. They’d danced a waltz of self-servitude and Deceit had helped the spider to begin a web so intricate and divine it was great and terrible to behold.
Deceit grimaces to himself.
He did not stand at the spider’s side for so long to let Virgil simply throw it all away. And for what? The trio of undue optimism, dense pragmatism, and buffoonery? The spider was too great a being for such an ignoble end.
“You hungry, Charlotte?” Snapping his book away, Deceit leaps over the back of the couch and makes for what he knows will be a well-stocked refrigerator in the kitchen. The gleam of the refrigerator lights is shocking enough to the system to make Deceit hiss, but inside he finds everything he’d hoped for. Leave it to Anxiety to keep himself stocked with comfort food.
He forgoes the larger birds and hawks kept near the back and selects a plate of pinkie mice and a larger rat. The mice he deposits on the chair arm to the left of Virgil’s head so Charlotte will not have to climb far, and the rat he holds up in his right hand. With a half-stifled grunt he unhinges the left side of his jaw and lets the fangs of his snake-half descend. The rat passes his lips and with a few maneuvers of his tongue and throat Deceit manages to swallow.
“Mmm,” he hums in appreciation. “My compliments to the chef.”
Charlotte beats her legs in agreement as she makes her own short work of the mice deposited for herself. Deceit reaches over, intent on collecting her emptied plate to return along with his own when there comes an insistent knock on Anxiety’s manifested door.
Charlotte and Deceit still. The knock graduates into a more aggressive pounding.
“Anxiety, I know you’re in there. Be grateful I didn’t just descend straight inside and come out and talk!”
Deceit frowns, scales itching as he recognizes the voice.
Charlotte makes a distressed sound and when Deceit turns his attention to her she makes a vague gesture with her legs from Virgil, to Deceit, to the door and the prince standing on the opposite end.
“This isn’t good.” Deceit eyes the spider legs strewn about the couch around Virgil and grimaces. Clearing his throat, he arranges his vocal chords and imagines a storm-cloud over his head.
“Go away, Roman,” he says in Virgil’s voice. Charlotte does her best to bob her head in approval.
“Virgil stop being a Negative Nancy and come out here. I have some things I need to say.”
Rolling his eyes, Deceit mimics a chattering mouth to Charlotte before responding back in the same tired, vocalizations as before. “Beat it. I’ll see you in the next video.”
“Anxiety open the door.”
“I’m going to count to three.”
“What are you, my mom?” Starting to panic now, Deceit throws aside his hat in frustration and finds the first thing he can think of to cover Virgil up. Fetching a quilt from a nearby closet he collects Charlotte back onto his shoulder before draping the black-and-purple fabric over Virgil’s sprawled-out frame.
“You’re actually counting?” Deceit barely holds back his hiss and snaps both fingers, donning the visage of Anxiety, complete with hunched shoulders and deep eyeshadow.
“Geez, I’m coming.” Suppressing the urge to strangle the Duke’s better half, Deceit swings open Virgil’s door, setting himself solidly in the door frame to keep the prince from gaining entry.
There, standing with his hand on the hilt of the ridiculous sword the man insists on carrying, is Creativity himself. Upon seeing Deceit, Roman lifts his hand from the weapon and smiles. “There you are, Virgil. Had me worried there for a second.”
“So nice to see you, Roman. I really appreciate the concern but, now’s not a good time.” His smile feels unfamiliar on Virgil’s face as Deceit steps back and makes to shut the door. And it falls just as quickly when the prince sticks his foot in the way. The serpent sees it coming and takes extra pleasure in slamming the door with as much strength as possible, snickering as Roman flinches.
“Look-eesh, you’re stronger than I thought,” says Roman, shouldering his way inside. Deceit tries to hold him back, but he cannot fight Creativity’s superior strength. Comes with the ego and self-aggrandizement unfortunately. At the very least he takes some comfort in the way the prince eases up on his right foot. “I just wanted to say,” Roman looks everywhere but at Virgil-Deceit. “I wanted to… apologize, for not noticing how distressed you were earlier today.”
“Yes I-, I am capable of admitting when I make a mistake, alright?” If Deceit is not mistaken there is the slightest dusting of red on Creativity’s cheeks. Apologizing must not be a natural act for him.
“Patton sent you down here, didn’t he?”
Roman scoffs and his entire face bloats like a balloon in his attempt to muster up a plausible denial. Deceit arches one of Virgil’s eyebrows. “That’s what I thought.”
“Okay fine. But I still did it, so… brownie points to me.”
Deceit claps his hands a grand total of once. “Bravo. Can you go now?”
“Look, I just,” there are shadows beginning to creep beneath Roman’s eyes and Deceit doesn’t like the look of them. Light sides were not meant to be in the heart of Darkness just the same as those of the Dark weren’t meant to hang around the Light. “I wasn’t trying to be pushy back there. I really did want your input.”
Input? Unsure of how to respond, Deceit just nods, mute.
Roman looks as if the cobwebs hanging from the corner of the room are incredibly intriguing and lifts a hand to fidget with the sash across his chest. “I was hoping together we could come up with some fantastic quest for us all to embark on with Thomas.” For a moment Roman’s eyes go wistful and Deceit grimaces.
“Let me guess, you want me to play the bad guy?”
“What? No!” That brings Deceit up short. Roman rounds on the side he believes is Virgil and sets his hands on either of Deceit’s shoulders. They sit heavy and the serpent swallows a knot of apprehension. Thankfully however, the prince remains dense as ever. “Virgil the five of us. You, me, Thomas, Patton, and Logan. We’re a five man band.”
“That means we work together!”
“So I gathered.”
Roman grins. “And you will be my squire.”
“… Excuse me?” Deceit opens his mouth to let Creativity know exactly how he feels about the prince prescribing the spider with a role of subservience when someone behind him clears his throat. Charlotte leaps from Deceit’s shoulder and the serpent braces himself.
“Mind explaining what the hell you two are doing in my room?”
Roman’s expression goes from earnestness, to confusion, and eventually settles on horrified understanding as his hands snap from Deceit as if he were holding hot coals. “You’re-”
“Deceit, yes. Glad you could put two and two together, Princey.” Virgil appears out of the corner of Deceit’s eye with Charlotte cupped in one of his hands, quilt draped over his shoulders and face clammy. The legs are gone, and Deceit frowns. No way Virgil had recovered enough to pull them back in.
Game up, Deceit lets his disguise drop and leans his back against the wall, arms crossed. “Virgil, shouldn’t you still be in bed?”
Roman looks between the two dark sides with his hand back on his sword hilt. “Bed?”
Deceit turns his grin on the prince. “Yes, bed. Didn’t Virgil tell you when he left?”
“Deceit.” The serpent is careful not to look away from Roman.
“He needed to come down here to recuperate. Being around so much carefree giddiness.” He plays up a shudder. “It’s rather sickening, isn’t it?”
“Shut up.” Virgil steps between the two and sets a hand on either of their chests. His glare though, he devotes to Deceit. The serpent feels a level of satisfaction at being prioritized over the prince. “Roman,” the spider turns to the light side. “Ignore him. It’s not that bad.”
“Is that so?” Deceit lifts a hand and sets it on the wrist Virgil has pressed against his sternum. He gives it a slight tug and watches with a grim sense of achievement as Virgil staggers. Deceit catches him with a hand to the shoulder. “I guess you’re just naturally uncoordinated then.”
Roman takes a step closer, pushing past Anxiety’s arm. “Virgil?”
“So, I need to sleep it off. Big deal.” The spider snatches his hand away from Deceit and turns to Roman. “You need to leave.”
Creativity scoffs. “Not while that- fiend, still resides here. Simply allow me, Virgil, and I shall expel him for you.” The sword slides free of its sheath and Deceit recoils, scales darkening over his skin.
The serpent hisses.
The spider hisses right back.
“Deceit, back off. Let me handle this.” Letting Virgil spend any length of time with the moronic prince is the last thing Deceit wants, but by the way Anxiety’s eyes begin to darken into a purple haze, he decides to opt for strategic retreat. At least for the time being.
He raises both hands and turns his back on the pair, careful to maintain the scales coating his back and shoulders in case in Roman decides to take a stab at him anyway. “Fine,” he says. “Do what you want. I’ll just wait over there,” and makes his way back to the couch.
He hears Virgil call after him but ignores it. “By back off, I meant leave! Gah, whatever. I’ll deal with you later.”
Roman’s voice follows soon after. “Anxiety, how often does he visit you here?”
“It’s not that often okay, he just likes to invite himself over sometimes.”
Someone stomps a foot. “That’s just… not okay, Virgil! He’s a Dark side!”
“Hey, I’m not the one who let Thomas keep him around the last time he decided to show up in the mind palace.”
“That was one time! Princes make mistakes too you know.” Roman’s voice has steadily started to climb and Deceit is certain that if he were to look over, he would see eyeshadow thick enough to rival Virgil's on the prince’s face.
“Trust me, I know.”
“Why are you being so mean! This is like the Disney discussion all over again. I came here trying to be nice!”
At some point, probably escaping the argument, Charlotte makes her way from Virgil back to the couch and settles on Deceit’s knee. The snake strokes her stunted body with a finger. Behind them, Anxiety sounds tense.
“You’re getting overtaken, Roman. Time for you to go.”
“Like you said, Deceit’s a dark side. He can handle my room better than you.” Well, at least he acknowledges it. Deceit’s smile is cavernous.
“I’m not leaving until he is.”
“Not an option. Thomas will start feeling the effects of this soon if you don’t go.”
“OUT! ” There is a sudden clatter, a sound of protest, and Anxiety’s door slams shut, leaving the room in a ringing silence but for the rasping of Virgil’s deep breaths. Slightly concerned, Deceit abandons the couch and Charlotte and rushes back over. Virgil has two legs manifested. One hanging limp at his side and the other propped against the door where he must have swung it shut. The side’s mouth is ajar, and when he sees Deceit, he lets the rest of the limbs free. He looks slightly horrified, but at what Deceit is unsure of. Careful not to touch, Deceit crouches down beside his fellow dark side.
“Did he see?”
Virgil swallows and shakes his head. “Don’t- don’t think so. But it was close.”
“You’re going to need serious, uninterrupted rest if you want to appear in the mind palace again without letting the cat out of the bag.”
Virgil’s eyes snap to Deceit and narrow. “And give you the chance to impersonate me? Not likely.”
“Hey now,” Deceit gestures to the legs sprawled around them. “I only did that to keep Sir Dunce from walking in on you. I would never think of assuming your form otherwise, dear spider.”
Anxiety watches him a moment longer before sighing. “Whatever. Princey will tell the others I’m not feeling great and to stay away.” With a grunt of effort the spider hauls himself to his feet and starts making his way for the bedroom. “I really don’t have the energy to force you out, Deceit. So, if you’re sticking around make yourself useful and get me something from the fridge.” Virgil runs a hand through his hair and offers a limp wave over his shoulder. “I’m going to bed.”
Deceit preens at what is essentially permission for him to remain and dips into a sweeping bow. “At your service as always, Virgil.” His serpent eye gleams. Now, to see how long he can keep this game going.
Roman is unsure of how much time he spends staring at himself in the mirror after retreating back from Virgil’s room to lick his wounds. Staring at himself and, more specifically, the impressive bruise spanning from his left bicep, up and over the shoulder he’d clipped on Anxiety’s door frame as he’d been thrown out. He lifts a hand and brushes the purpled flesh, hissing as the tender skin protests.
He hadn’t know Virgil could be that… impactful.
Pushing aside thoughts of those last few seconds where his mission of conciliation had taken a turn for the more violent, the prince turns away from his reflection and conjures his jacket, hiding all evidence of injury. He’ll make a second attempt at an apology next time, no need to dwell.
That being said, perhaps it was time he sharpen his blade on the scuttling nightmares hiding in the scattered shadows of his realm. After all, if Anxiety of all sides could get the jump on him, he must be in dire need of practice. The prince could hardly be the bravest of them all if he couldn’t even protect himself. And then of course there was always Remus with his insufferable morning star.
Roman shudders and collects his weapon of choice from its stand beside his bed. Perhaps he’d even get lucky and come across Deceit wandering where he shouldn’t be. He was almost certain impaling that snake would make him feel much better.
“Did somebody say, impale?” A voice like dripping oil, interrupts the otherwise calming ambiance of the room.
Roman groans. “Remus, I didn’t say anything.”
“But you were thinking-hey wait. Hold the phone, why am I in a mirror!”
Shoulders held high, the prince turns back to his standing mirror and brushes imagined lint from his epaulets. “Like it? Came up with the idea myself.” He grins as his mustachioed twin slams his fist against the transparent plane he is trapped behind, achieving nothing but an impotent thunk. “A nice little tank for a nuisance like you.”
Dark Creativity snarls, spitting something green and viscous onto his side of the mirror’s surface. “You can’t keep me out, Roman. This is my room too.”
“That,” says Roman, gesturing to Remus. “Is an exaggeration. Now begone back to your swamp foul beast, I have more important demons to slay.”
“Oh?” Remus’ voice turns silky. “Like whatever did that to your shoulder?” When Roman turns a suspicious frown back on the mirror Remus giggles, eyes alight in mischief. “You should really close your windows when you change. Anyone could be watching.”
The prince shrugs, making a show of rotating his left shoulder despite the ache. “It’s nothing.”
“Poopy.” Remus runs a hand through his hair. “The brave, courageous Prince Roman injured over nothing? Come on, you can tell me… who did it?”
“Why for the love of Fantasia would I tell you?”
Remus sniffs. “Well if you don’t, I’ll just assume it was Patton,” he wiggles his eyebrows.
For the record, the prince knows he’s being baited. “...Virgil.”
“Virgil?” Remus tosses his head back and laughs. “That old has been? Oh Princey, you must have really let yourself go.”
Roman’s hand goes to his sword. “I’ll thank you not to besmirch the name of one of my boon companions, brother.” In retaliation, Remus pulls his morning star from whatever dark pocket he has stashed it in and strikes at the mirror. To Roman’s satisfaction, the barrier holds.
Pouting, the Duke tosses his weapon aside. “Well I’ll be a unicorn’s soggy left testicle, that old serpent really was telling the truth.”
“You mean Deceit?”
Remus shrugs. “Who else? Of course, he told me about your little tiff with the old bean, we Dark sides don’t keep secrets from one another.” He plucks a grey whisker from his mustache. “Deceit's been harder than a flatworm’s codpiece from the moment the old sad sack started talking to him again.”
Shaking his head to get that image out of his mind Roman takes a step back from the mirror. “You know what, I don’t care what you or Deceit thinks. This,” he gestures to his injured shoulder. “Was just an accident. Nothing to be concerned about.”
Somewhere above, Roman can hear a chorus of trumpets sound. Thomas is calling for him. “Looks like playtime’s over, Remus. Feel free to be gone by the time I get back.”
“In your dreams, Romano.”
Roman ascends to the mind palace. Settling in his corner of Thomas Sanders’ living room to join Logan and Patton who have already taken their places along with Thomas. Virgil, is nowhere to be seen.
“Wonderful,” says Logic. “Now Roman’s here. This should help us consider all aspects of the issue.”
Roman coughs and looks between his host and the two other sides. “What issue?”
“Sorry for the short notice, Roman,” says Thomas.
“Well,” Patton shrugs. “We were talking about Anxiety.”
“Yes.” Logan gestures to the empty space near the apartment stairs where Anxiety would normally reside. “Thomas revealed to us just now, that Virgil admitted to having once been a Dark side. And that he has found the admission to be quite troubling.” He did? Roman frowns at the thought, not sure if he likes just how much the dark sides have started pushing their way into the fore.
“Well okay then, we all knew that. So, why isn’t our morose Eeyore here to explain himself?”
“Um, about that.” Thomas isn’t making eye contact with him.
Logan fixes the cuff of his dress shirt. “Thomas is afraid to talk to him about it.”
Roman's head snaps to Thomas who makes a helpless gesture with his arms. “I- am… not.” Thomas’ laugh sounds painful. “Okay, maybe a little.”
“Afraid? Thomas that is absurd.” Roman stuffs aside his own apprehension and grasps for the intangible, bolstering strength that is his aspect to provide. “As your courage I am telling you, all you have to fear, is fear itself.”
Thomas claps his hands. “See, well. That’s kind of the point.”
“Indeed.” Logan sighs. “Roman, Virgil does embody a great deal of Thomas’ fear.”
“Okay, poor choice of words.”
“Now kids,” Patton frowns, setting his hands on his hips. “I really don’t think we should go on talking about Virgil while he’s not here.”
Thomas looks properly chastised, but when Roman turns to Logic, the teacher is as ever, unscathed. “On the contrary. I am almost certain that this issue is causing more than a fair share of anxiety for Thomas.” He looks to their host who nods back, emphatic. “Ergo, by all rights Anxiety should have appeared by now. The fact that he hasn’t suggests that he has no intention to, and we have every right to continue the discussion without his direct input.”
Patton’s face screws up in doubt. “Eh, that seems like a stretch. Besides, like I said talking about someone behind their back is still wrong.” He lifts his hands in a shrug. “Maybe he’s just busy?”
“Well, Roman.” Patton looks to Creativity. “You went down to see him last night. How was he then?”
“Um,” his mind fills with Deceit wearing Virgil’s skin. Sitting comfortably and without consequence in Anxiety’s room. “Taking a sick day.”
“Sick day?” Thomas’ eyes draw together in concern.
“We might have spent more time than was healthy for him in Morality’s room yesterday,” admits Logan, taking his glasses off to clean their lenses.
“Oh, he still wasn’t feeling well?” asks Patton.
Roman sets his teeth on edge. “Not the best, I’m afraid. It might be best to leave him be for now, until he’s ready to come out on his own.”
Patton nods his head fast enough to dislodge his glasses. “Of course, he can take all the time he needs.”
“I don’t know, maybe we should bring him up here so we can all check on him. In case he needs help getting out of his funk.” Thomas looks between the sides, unsure.
Logic shrugs. “Do what you think is best, Thomas.”
Before Roman can come up with a convincing enough excuse beside the pit in his stomach,Thomas clears his throat. “Okay, then.” He rubs his hands together and shakes himself out. “Let’s get this over with. Anxiety!”
There is a brief moment when the beckoning call of tension and hair-raising dissonance goes unanswered and Roman believes for a moment that Virgil will not appear. Then, because none of them can ever truly deny Thomas anything, reality catches up.
Anxiety appears out of the ether with a hand to his brow, facing away from the rest of them. “You know,” the dark persona says. “For someone dedicated to the propagation of lies, you seem to have an awful hard time keeping your mouth shut!”
It is at this point that their fourth aspect seems to realize he has been summoned from the depths of his room, and Roman watches as their shadowy counterpart’s shoulders tense. Virgil turns to face them, expression stark and exposed.
“Um,” Thomas is the first to try and break the heavy silence that follows in its wake. “Were we… interrupting something?”
“Ah, no?” Anxiety tries.
Logan blinks hard behind his glasses and cocks his head. “You were speaking with someone." Roman can see their logical side running through possibilities in his head even though he himself already knows the answer. Logan comes to a conclusion and recoils. "Deceit?” In response to which Anxiety rounds on Logic with a glare.
“Maybe. What’s it to you?”
“Now, kiddo. You know how we feel about him.” As Patton wags his finger in Virgil’s direction Roman cringes on their morality’s behalf. Their paternal aspect lacks the instinct to notice the hackles rising in Anxiety.
Patton goes on without pause. “He’s a bad influence. You shouldn’t be hanging around sides like him.”
“Oh that’s rich.” Virgil waves his hand towards the rest of them. “You guys, warning me about Deceit. I literally spent the entire courtroom video begging you all not to listen to him.” He ends his tirade with a lingering glower in Patton’s direction, who cringes back with his hands wringing against his chest.
“Ok, that’s fair,” says Thomas, nodding.
“No buts.” Anxiety makes an abortive gesture. “Now if you’d excuse me.” Virgil begins to sink. About to panic, Roman opens his mouth to speak, but is saved from doing so by Logan who acts first.
“You’re going back? Why?” Logan steeples his fingers.
Virgil’s eyebrow twitches. “We have unfinished business.”
Roman remembers Deceit's triumphant smirk and his jaw ticks. “Dark side business?” Out of the corner of his eye he sees Thomas flinch. Most likely, it was on Virgil’s behalf but Roman doesn’t like the look of it. And he still doesn’t know how he feels about Anxiety admitting to Thomas what he used to be. Emphasis on 'used to'.
Virgil’s focus narrows on Roman, and the prince straightens his spine in retaliation. He will not be intimidated by a Vitamin D-deprived goth with poor make up application skills.
“You implying something, Princey?”
Creativity turns his nose up at his opposing side. “I’m only suggesting that perhaps you spend a little less time cavorting with the likes of Deceit and a little more helping us be here for Thomas.”
“Cavorting?” Anxiety balks and shakes his head. “And when am I not here for Thomas?”
Logan clicks his tongue. “Well, there was that one time you tried to quit.”
“Yeah, please don’t ever do that again, buddy,” says Thomas, cringing.
Virgil groans. “That was different! I thought I was doing what was best for Thomas.”
As if neither Thomas nor Virgil had spoken at all, Logan continues unhindered. “And technically speaking, you were not here at the beginning of this video either, despite Thomas’ desire for you input. Beyond that, we were forced to summon you rather than appearing of your own volition.”
“Okay, I get it!” Virgil backs himself against the wall and Roman is reminded of the danger of cornered animals.
“So,” Patton jumps in, lifting his hands in a placating gesture. “Maybe we can all just agree that Deceit is not a good influence on any of us, and promise to keep him at arm’s length?”
“Done.” Roman nods. He'd rather end this distressing line of discussion and go back to their original purpose of determining the state of Virgil's well-being. But then, when does Roman ever get what he wants?
“This is stupid.” Virgil deliberately looks away as Patton gasps. “This entire conversation is stupid.”
“Hey now,” Thomas frowns in Anxiety’s direction. “Let’s not be mean.”
“No, you know what? I’m not sugar-coating this.” Virgil’s glare oscillates between the rest of them. “You guys, have no idea how to handle something like Deceit. I do.”
Logan coughs into his fist. “So, we’re just going to ignore your complete inability to contribute a measured response to the Duke, then?”
Virgil hisses, sending the other sides jerking back in surprise. “Did I ask for your opinion? No.” He turns to the rest of them. “So, how about you guys not tell me how to do my job and I won’t tell you how to do yours. Hm?”
Roman cannot help himself and breaks out into nervous laughter. The other sides and Thomas all jump at the sudden exclamation, but it at least gets them to shut up. He pretends he can’t hear the note of distressed tension in his own hysterics. “Ah,” he sighs. “It’s hilarious, you trying to be this paragon of anti-hero edginess, Virgil. You think you’re capable of handling Deceit better than the rest of us because you’re Dark but you’re not, not anymore.” As the words come out, Roman’s smile becomes brittle. “You’re as vulnerable as the rest of us.” He hopes so, at least.
Logan, Patton, and Thomas all shift their gaze from Roman to Virgil, Morality biting his nails while Logan has his arms crossed in tense intrigue. Thomas himself simply looks distressed and Roman tries to put on his best posture of confidence to bolster his host’s courage.
Anxiety looks across Thomas’ living room to Creativity with an expression Roman cannot read.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about.” Roman flinches, but before he can recover Virgil goes on. “You’re so incapable of handling the Dark, Roman, that Thomas had to split you in two parts just to rationalize your existence. So, don’t pretend you have any say in what goes on between me and Deceit.”
The mindscape goes silent as Roman reels. That’s not true. That’s not why-
“I’m done with this. You guys can finish this video without me.” Virgil's eyes go dark. "I have better things to do."
Thomas reaches out in protest. “Hey Anxiety, wait-” but Virgil is already sinking away and this time, he doesn’t stop for any of them. Roman stares at the empty staircase feeling oddly adrift. Somewhere distant, he can feel Remus’ oily presence seeping back into his room.
“I-I need to go too,” he says.
Patton looks aghast. “Roman!” he protests. “We shouldn’t end this video angry at each other.”
“Wait,” Logan blinks. “Is this another two parter? Thomas, this is hardly a satisfactory conclusion, nothing was settled.”
Thomas flounders. “Uh, sorry Logan. Doesn’t seem like I’m getting much of a choice right now.”
Roman does feel the fluttering tilt-a-whirl of guilt in his stomach as Patton turns a morose expression on him, but he doesn’t want the others to see the shuddering discomfort welling up inside him. So, he brushes it aside and offers the others his most charming smile.
“Fear not, dear friends. All is well.” He takes Logan’s eyeroll to mean he is nailing the bit. “Let Virgil have his sulk. I, the prince, have other important business to attend to.”
This gets Logic and Morality debating the validity of his claim and Roman takes the opportunity to sink out. He follows the hypnotic lure of imagination to its source and when he blinks, he finds himself once more in the warm, comforting haven of his aspect.
Comforting that is, except for the floor-length mirror that is once again offering Dark Creativity a window into his room. The Duke is lounging against the gilded frame, stroking the exposed stuffing of the front half of a unicorn plushie. Roman patently doesn’t think about where the rear half has gone.
“I take it your little team huddle didn’t go as well as you’d hoped?”
Roman rolls his eyes and snaps away the ink-like sludge dripping onto the carpeting of his room. “None of your business, Remus. Once again, you can go.”
“Well,” Remus leans forward toward the plane of the mirror, tapping on its invisible edge. “Maybe I don’t want to. It’s not like you or anyone can make me.” The tapping turns to scratching and suddenly the screeching caterwaul of tearing metal is stabbing into Creativity’s ears. He clamps his hands over them and shuts his eyes.
“Cut it out, Dukey!”
“Come come dear brother, hit me with your best shot!”
Sorely tempted, Roman snatches up the nearest projectile he can find, a golden apple he may or may not have requisitioned from Patton's room, and pulls back his arm to throw. Before he can however, the noise suddenly ceases.
Cautious, the prince peaks his eyes open to see his darker half staring at something out of view from the mirror. The already grime-ridden dark side is panting and pouring sweat profusely from his brow. “Oh,” Remus whispers in an exhale.
Roman is about to turn away and ignore the other side until he decides to find anything better to do, when the Duke is all at once torn from sight. Creativity catches a flash of something pale and long sweeping across Remus’s side of the mirror, catching the dark side under the arms. "Wait, wait, wait!" Dark Creativity flails, reaching out for purchase, but his hands meet nothing as he is unceremoniously flung from view and into the empty void of Dark.
Unsure of what he has just witnessed, Roman stares at the empty mirror until it is only his own reflection staring back.
Deceit's expression dips into a frown the moment he realizes Virgil will be whisked from the relative comfort of his room by the immutable call of their host. He hears the whispers of fear and doubt as they linger in the air and can see the way his fellow dark side shudders, trying to push them away.
“Ugh- not right now, Thomas.” Pressing a hand to his temple, the spider glares from his nest of blankets and quilts to Deceit. Somewhat recovered, his legs are retracted, leaving enough room for him to lean against the wall. “We’re not done here,” he says, glare piercing over his dark eye shadow. Virgil’s skin is like paper, and the curtain of his purple-toned hair makes it difficult for Deceit to look him in the eyes.
The serpent cannot help a small smile, despite the irritation it causes the other side. It has only been a few hours and the spider has not looked so healthy in some time.
“What are you grinning about?” The gleam of suspicion in Virgil’s side-eye makes Deceit giggle.
“Nothing, don’t mind me.” The whispers intensify, and Anxiety has to anchor one of his hands in his comforter to keep from blinking away to the mindscape. Taking a calculated risk, Deceit leans forward and takes the hand in his, grounding him. He can feel the cool touch of the spider’s skin even through his gloves. “You still need to rest.”
Virgil breathes out a slow exhale and tugs his hand away. “I’m fine.”
Deceit wags a finger, tutting. “Liar, liar.”
“Shut up. I wouldn’t be in this mess if it weren’t for you.”
The serpent scoffs. “Well, I hardly think that’s fair. Who was it who willingly spent an extended period of time in the stronghold of Thomas’ Morality?” He pretends to pick at a spot of grime on the walls. “All I’ve done here is offer my services to aid you.”
Virgil rolls his eyes. “That’s not what I mean and you know it. I’m talking about your stunt with the Duke.” The spider’s lip curls at the thought and Deceit catches a glimpse of gleaming fangs. It makes his mouth water and he bears his own needle-like set in return.
“It was all in good fun.”
“You set that rabid fish on Thomas! He nearly outed me-ngh…” Anxiety’s room blurs for a moment, but Virgil manages to push through another surge of Thomas’ summons to stay present with Deceit.
The serpent gives the spider a considering look, waiting for the veritable siren-call to fade before speaking. “An octopus isn’t a fish, Virgil. It’s a mollusk.”
“Like I give a damn what the mutated worm is called.” He sends Deceit his best unimpressed mien. The expression makes Virgil look very much like Logan and Deceit has to stifle a chuckle. Virgil ignores it. “And I would have thought you’d be more concerned about the idiot blabbing. Why didn’t you shut him up?”
Deceit shrugs. “Nothing came of it. The others already know you’re a Dark side, so what does it matter if Thomas does too?”
“The whole point of me being here was to get Thomas to trust me! How am I supposed to do that if he thinks I’m one of the bad guys?”
Deceit scoffs, gets to his feet, and goes over to stand at the edge of the bed, staring down his nose at Virgil. The spider glares back up at him. Serpent eye glowing, Deceit says, “Then we find another way. I might be your secret keeper Virgil,” he takes the spider’s chin in one hand. “But I won’t stay silent while you forget what you are. I won’t watch you destroy yourself.”
Virgil’s eyes go purple. “Hands. Off.”
Deceit snatches his hand back in an instant. “All I’m suggesting,” he says with his palms raised in placation. “Is that we hide our little deception under a veil of truth.”
“Oh,” says Virgil, sneering. “And you’re the best judge of what should and shouldn’t be revealed to Thomas?”
The spider shakes his head. “No,” he says. “This ends now. Either rein Remus in, or I will.”
A sigh. “Very well.” Deceit tips his hat. “Although I’m not sure how effective I can be. The Duke has always been swayed more by action than by words.”
“Figure it out.”
“I can only promise,” says Deceit, forked tongue dancing in the air between them. “To try.”
Virgil scoffs before dropping his head into his hand. He opens his mouth as if to speak when suddenly the echoing whispers grow into a frenzy and, all at once, Virgil blinks from existence. Deceit tastes the air with his tongue, tracing the scent of fear and apprehension to the mindscape.
Thomas is there, with the other Light sides. Testing the waters of his aspect, Deceit can feel their host searching for a more convenient truth. Under normal circumstances, the serpent would jump at the opportunity to encourage Thomas to indulge in his self-delusion, but in this instance he stays put, going so far as to leave Virgil’s realm and return to his own.
In this specific scenario, whatever inconvenient truths are uttered between the four most trusted sides of Thomas Sanders will only help his cause.
The serpent releases a contented breath as he returns once more to his realm of shifting sand. The arid heat of his conjured desert does wonders for his scales as he settles himself into his seat of power. He closes his eyes, soaking up the passing fabrications drifting in Thomas Sanders’ subconscious. It is only when the dripping, oily presence of Dark Creativity edges on the fringes of his realm that Deceit opens his eyes.
“Come on out, Remus. You’re hardly subtle.” A writhing tentacle edges around the arm of Deceit’s stone throne, squelching as it flops into the serpent’s lap. Deceit rolls his eyes and slaps the twisting appendage away. “As fun as that might be, I’d guess we only have a short time before Virgil loses patience with his little friendsssss. So, let’s not waste it, hm?”
The Duke whines and slinks out of the shadows. “You never let me have any fun.”
Deceit props his chin in the heel of his hand and arches his human eyebrow in the octopus’ direction. “That aside, how’d your visit with the prince go?”
“Princey? You should have seen him,” the Duke slaps his hands on his thighs. “The bite Virgil took out of him-ah! The poor thing, so confused.” Remus sets his hands on either of the arms of Deceit’s throne and leans forward. “And when I told him about you and Virgil- oh the heartbreak, the drama!”
Deceit’s tongue slips out and his human eye twitches. “You told him what?”
“About your little, spider problem,” Remus snickers and drifts one of his hands towards Deceit’s waste. The serpent frowns and, planting a foot on the Duke’s sternum, kicks the dark side away.
“Hands to yourself, Dukey. My body is a temple.” His eyelids flutter and Deceit sighs. “And I dedicate it to only one deity.”
Remus sticks his tongue out from where he sprawled in a heap of sand and sits up. “Prude.” Like the childish nitwit that he is, Dark Creativity forgets his disappointment a moment later and slinks forward yet again. “So, what comes next? Impersonating Morality again?”
“Nothing so redundant.”
“You declaring your undying devotion to the spider and challenging Princey to a duel to win his favor,” Remus tries again.
Deceit sighs. “Not quite.”
“We… send Thomas to a psych ward?”
“Getting colder, my friend.”
“We kidnap little Virgil, photograph him naked in an abandoned warehouse and leave him tied up for the rats?”
The look Deceit sends his fellow dark side is deadpan. “No.”
“Well then what’s the point!”
“We’ve done enough direct damage for now,” says Deceit, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Let’s just wait for our dear spider to come to us.” Remus looks ready to protest when Deceit cuts him off. “And if you’re bored… I suggest focusing on taking it out on Roman. There’s no harm in driving wedges where we can.”
“Ugh, fine.” Remus flicks the edge of his mustache and turns away. “I’ll go see if I can’t get brother dearest to take down that annoying barrier he erected. Aha! Get it, erect?”
The upward curling of Deceit’s lips would probably be better defined as a sneer than a smile. “Ssssso clever,” he says, punctuating Dark Creativity’s departure with a hiss. He cannot wait for the spider to make its return so he can spend his time in better company. He sits back and waits.
The dominoes are in place, and it doesn’t take long for them to be toppled over.
The Duke’s return to the serpent’s domain is accompanied by Remus’ screeching wail and the heavy thud of Virgil’s landing. Remus is sweating black sludge and his eyes are mad with panic as he scrabbles at the loose sand of Deceit’s realm to get away. Part way through the side loses control of his form, left arm going limp as it transforms into a squirming tentacle.
Deceit watches the pathetic display from his throne, chin propped on his fist.
Virgil makes the more impressive figure. He has two legs manifested as he stalks forward, the shadows under his eyes dark like pitch and eyes aglow in purple fury. One pale limb strikes out, pinning the Duke through his puffed clothing and drags him back. The spider is hissing and its other limb extends towards Deceit, accusing without Virgil ever looking away from his whimpering target.
“I thought I told you to control him.”
Deceit shrugs. “I think you’ll find I said I would try.” He nods in Remus's direction. "Clearly, I failed."
The spider limb shoots forward, driving itself a good inch into the stone of Deceit’s throne a hair’s breadth from his eye. The serpent’s adrenaline spikes.
“Don’t play games with me, Deceit.”
“Very well, my apologies.” Deceit gets to his feet and makes a slow approach to his fellow dark sides. He is careful to appear non-threatening as he nears the spider’s suspicious eyes. He steps within the range of both limbs and into Virgil’s space. The spider angles its head to listen as the serpent speaks into his ear. “But I think you’ve made your point.” He sends a glance down to where Remus looks fit to lose the contents of his bladder.
Virgil snarls but retracts his limbs, freeing Remus from his hold, and his eyes return to Thomas Sanders’ natural shade of brown. The Dark sides make a collective sigh, and Deceit takes hold of Virgil’s arm when the spider staggers.
Anxiety pulls away. “I’m fine.” Then, without meeting Deceit’s knowing look he glares around the serpent’s shoulder to the pathetic mess on the ground. “And as for you,” he shoves Deceit out of the way and takes Dark Creativity by the green sash. “Go anywhere near Thomas or the Light sides again, and I’ll throw you so far into a pit of repression you won’t remember your own name.”
The octopus blubbers and throws himself into convulsive nods before Virgil has enough and lets him go. Remus sinks away a second later, leaving a patch of sticky, wet sand Deceit does not look forward to expunging from his realm. But that inevitability will come later, for the time being he focuses on Virgil, who is looking slightly shell-shocked.
There is a sheen of sweat across the side’s brow. He can see the way Virgil’s limbs shake as if from great exertion and frowns. “As an impressive display as that was, it took a lot out of you,” he says, conjuring a yellow handkerchief for Virgil to wipe the remnants of Remus’ filth from his hands.
“Well, it wasn’t like you were being much help.” Virgil takes the offering and wanders over to the dais at the center of Deceit’s realm, taking a seat on one of the stone steps. Deceit’s tongue slips free to taste the air between them, and his serpent jaw cracks open in a wide grin at the heat of discomfort tainting the atmosphere. He watches Virgil make himself comfortable for a solid minute before speaking.
“Why are you here, Virgil?”
The spider glares through the curtain of his hair. “Did you forget already? To make a point, moron.”
Deceit rolls his eyes. “The point has been made. I mean, why are you still here?” He moves to sit a respectable distance from the other side. “You never stick around when you don’t have to. And yet, here you are.”
A dusting of red colors Anxiety’s otherwise pale cheeks and the Dark side looks away. “No reason. I just…” he doesn’t finish the thought.
Deceit considers. “Did something happen?” he asks, readjusting the set of his gloves to give Virgil the illusion that he is not paying too close attention. “When Thomas pulled you up there?” he makes a vague gesture upwards toward the mindscape.
Virgil props his elbows on his knees and lets his head drop. “I wouldn’t tell you if it did.” It is as close to an admission as Deceit would ever expect from the spider, and he eyes the yellow cloth still bunched in Virgil’s fist.
“Well, no rush. You know I’ll always lend an ear.” Weighing the risk, Deceit lifts his hand and sets it on Virgil’s closest shoulder. The spider stiffens, but when he is not immediately shrugged off he lets the touch linger. He can feel Virgil begin his breathing exercises.
When Anxiety makes it to his third exhale, Deceit is almost surprised to hear him speak. Quiet, so much so that Deceit has to lean in close to hear it. “I wanted…” says Virgil, hands shaking. “I needed to know I was right. And they were wrong.”
About what, Deceit would like to ask, but he refrains. He braves the silence another minute before the spider continues.
“I am a Dark side,” he says. “I know the Dark parts of Thomas better than the rest of them.” Virgil picks his head and looks Deceit in the eyes, both human and serpent. “I know you.”
Something in Deceit turns over. The look in Virgil’s eyes is familiar, gleaming in a way he cannot place. But then, he knows that perceptions are seldom what they seem. He won’t jump to conclusions.
But… if he knows Virgil, if he knows the spider… he might just dare to dream.
He holds Virgil’s eye contact until the side looks away, blinking out of view. The spider’s presence fades, leaving Deceit alone in his realm. The taste in the air is bitter, but the swelling disappointment in his chest ebbs when he sees that Virgil has taken his little gift with him.
The serpent sighs. “And I know you.” He whispers the spider’s true name into the air, letting the desert winds carry Deceit’s most closely guarded secret into oblivion.
“Roman, I must reiterate. My day planner is incredibly full at the moment and Thomas has a number of deadlines coming up. If you’ve called me here just to fact-check another fan fiction-”
Logan blinks as a stray droplet of spittle flies from Creativity’s lips to land on one of the lenses of his glasses. He pulls them free and wipes them clean with a slow-release exhale. “Was that really necessary?”
Roman begins a wild sequence of gesticulations before bringing a finger back up to his lips. “Would you just- shush!”
“Who are you worried would overhear us?” As Roman pulls Logan by the arm, Logic becomes aware of their host’s mind drifting and quickly redirects him with a sharp twist of will. Logan frowns when instead of returning to their laptop’s keyboard, the fingers of Thomas’ left hand continue their senseless tapping. He pulls his own arm free, forcing Roman to halt their progress half-way down Creativity’s grand hall of Disney. They pause between a poster of Merida from Brave and an oil-painting of Belle and the Beast. “And would you stop distracting Thomas!”
“I’m sorry, Logic. I thought you’d be interested in being made aware of a possible crisis!”
Logan crosses his arms. “Well, of course I would be. I just fail to see how such a thing would warrant secrecy to this degree.”
Rolling his eyes, Roman turns on his heel -huffing quite childishly, if someone were to ask Logan’s opinion- and trusts his fellow side to follow. “You never know,” he says. The prince casts a look about them. “The walls have ears.”
“No they don’t.” Logan trots after the prince, begrudgingly admiring the harmony of so many styles of artistry displayed along the two walls leading to Roman’s room. “They’re cinder block and plaster.”
Roman’s forehead meets his palm. “That’s not- forget it. Just follow me.” He pulls open the ornate double doors leading to their fanciful side’s more grandiose version of Thomas’ living room. He holds the door open long enough for Logan to pass through and shuts it swiftly after. “I don’t want the others to know about this. Especially not Patton.”
“Oh?” Logan’s eyebrow arches as he watches the prince pace, thumbnail trapped between his teeth. “If the situation is as dire as you claim, is secret-keeping really a complication you want to introduce to the scenario?”
“I-I get what you’re saying,” says Roman, lifting both palms without halting his stride. “But that’s why I brought you in. I need you to tell me, if this is as bad as I think it is.”
The corner of Logan’s lips tip down and he fixes the set of his glasses. He casts a look at Roman from head to toe. “Your pulse is elevated and your breathing is inefficient. You’re genuinely unsettled.”
Adjusting his tie, Logan clears his throat. “Very well. Explain the problem.”
Roman cringes. “Actually… it’s better if I show you.” Wiping the sweat from his brow, the prince puts a hand on the hilt of his anachronistic weapon of choice and moves toward the far corner of the room. Roman pushes aside the hand-carved dressing screen collecting dust in the underlit recess of Creativity’s sanctuary. "You see?" Roman gestures to a shadow that slowly begins to take shape. As he does so, the smallest hairs on the nape of Logic’s neck begin to rise.
“Roman, step away from it.”
He doesn’t. Lifting a hand in Logan’s direction, the prince instead begins to circle the object. “It hasn’t moved. I don’t think it-”
“Step away from it NOW!” This time, to Logan’s relief, he listens and retreats to Logic’s side. Together, they observe the monolithic structure. Logan leans forward, but steps no closer. “When did this first appear?”
Roman pushes the hair from his face and shrugs. “I don’t know. I only noticed it yesterday.” He draws his eyebrows together. “After something took Remus.”
“Something took him? What do you mean something took the Duke?”
Creativity throws his hands into the air. “I don’t know! He was trying to break in here and then all of a sudden some… thing appeared and dragged him away!” Creativity gestures to the empty floor-length mirror in the room and then back to the object in question. “But after that, I noticed this in my room.”
Beginning his own pacing, Logan brings a hand up to his chin. “You’re right. This is indeed disconcerting.” He snaps his fingers. “And you might have had a point. Patton can’t know about this.”
Roman nods, resolute. “Or Virgil.”
That halts Logan in his tracks. “Virgil? Don’t you think his input in this case would be rather insightful?”
Logan rocks his head back at Roman’s vehement shout. “... care to explain, why?”
“I just…” Roman scratches at the back of his head. “You know how our grumpy kitten can be about these things.” He makes a vague gesture to the corner. “He just admitted to being a Dark side to Thomas too. If we go interrogate him for answers so soon after, he could think we’re accusing him of something.”
Logan frowns. “But we’re not. We’re simply putting forward a question in the pursuit of knowledge.”
“Yes, I know that.” Roman raps his knuckles against his brow. “But he already stormed out of the last video because he was angry at us, I’m just trying not to make it worse.”
“I can appreciate that, Roman. But that hardly takes precedence.” Logan sighs. “Like you said, Virgil is a Dark side. He might know how this got here.”
“Look, can’t we just handle this ourselves? If we put too much more stress on Virgil, the effects might start to spread to Thomas.” Roman takes Logan by the shoulders and shakes him. Logic grimaces as his glasses are nearly thrown from his face. “Please?”
“Very well. If you insist.” Logan brushes the hands from his person and smooths his hair out. “I suppose there’s no need to cause undue alarm. Let me do some research.” He turns and makes for the door. “You keep an eye on that. And don’t let it anywhere near Thomas.”
Before shutting the door, Logan casts one last look over his shoulder to the arching spider leg mired in ragged webbing in the corner.
He marches back down the hall, thoughts streaming almost too fast for him to process. The most immediate, a deep unease that something so obvious and antithetical to Thomas’ common stream of consciousness could go unnoticed by Roman for who knows how long. And given the fact that the limb seemed crafted into the very walls of Roman’s realm, it suggested a presence far outlasting recent memory. There was also the unnerving consideration of the magnitude and dimension of a creature that could possess a singular limb of that size. Very disconcerting indeed.
Logan shudders at the thought of Patton’s reaction should he ever come across something similar.
Logic does not stop his trek until he is back in his own haven of knowledge and wisdom. Ignoring the complex array of monitors near his work desk and the subsequent arrangement of projects midway through completion, he instead makes for the wall-encompassing bookshelves filled floor to ceiling with journals. He goes to the topmost volume and pulls it free.
Setting aside his disapproval for the poor-penmanship and use of crayon, Logan parcels through the backwards ‘e’s and begins to read. The Complete and Accurate Recitation of the Life of Thomas Sanders Volume 1. He begins with day one.
The first several rows of journals are relatively uneventful, detailing little of relevant interest other than perhaps the first appearance of Imagination and Logic. He skims through adolescence and the birth of Morality, and only sits down in his thinking chair and puts on his cognitive cap when he reaches late stage adolescence burgeoning on the teenage years. There he finds the first recorded appearance of a Dark side.
Logan sends Thomas to an early and restful sleep, and devotes all subconscious efforts under his purview to the dissection of the years to follow. The conception of lies, fear, doubt, anger, bitterness, so many shadowy figures, many of which disappeared as the sides began to take proper shape. He lingers for a moment on an entry devoted to the split of Remus from Roman.
The entry sparks a thought. Logic jumps to his feet, snapping the volume closed and depositing it back in its proper place before scanning the shelves a few rows over, towards the newer entries. He skims the books, and pulls out a neatly printed dictation.
He flips through to the half-remembered conversation and finds the desired quotation.
‘Virgil (Anxiety): How would I be a Hufflepuff?
Patton (Morality): You are hard-working.
Roman (Creativity): Working hard to make Thomas-’
Logan’s focus is broken by a series of increasingly insistent knocks on his room door. He means to ignore whoever it is until they go away, but in looking up he notices something else even more distressing. A shadow in the corner of his room tucked behind his newly-installed Google nap pod that looks suspiciously similar to the spider limb Roman had pointed out in his own room. Something inside Logic goes cold. How had he not noticed such an unwelcome object in his own corner of Thomas’ mindscape?
The knock returns with even more force and Logan drops the journal in his hand.
“Hey, Logan. You mind if I hang out here for a bit?”
Legs almost moving on their own, Logic strides over to the door and opens it to find Anxiety. “Virgil, can I help you with something?” He turns the angle of his shoulders to block the strange limb from Anxiety's line of sight.
Virgil has his hood tucked over his hair and his hands stuffed deep into his pockets, looking anywhere but at Logan until he seems to forcibly redirect himself and focus. “Sorry to barge in, I just,” he shrugs and Logan is somewhat surprised to see that he is wearing his patchwork tie. “After what’s been happening the last couple days, I needed somewhere to block everything out. You mind if I-” he nods towards the collection of Tim Burton-themed bean bags Virgil has somehow managed to accumulate in Logan’s room.
Under normal circumstances the request would be a simple one to acquiesce to, Virgil is hardly the most intrusive of his occasional visitors, but in this instance Logan hesitates. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea right now, Anxiety.”
Virgil visibly flinches and Logan wonders if perhaps this would be an example of one of those times Patton tells him he should use more tact. But then, the worry-prone persona digs deeper into his pockets and pulls out something he all but shoves in Logan’s hands.
“I brought Crofters,” Virgil offers.
Logan throws caution to the wind. “Make yourself at home.”
That does make Virgil smile, and Logan puts an honest effort into lifting a fist to set against the one Anxiety offers to him. “You’re the best, Teach.” Virgil sidles past the logical persona and ambles his way towards his usual corner, casting a look around.
“Your wireless headphones are plugged in near the outlet. I took the liberty of downloading a few more audiobooks as well as several autonomous sensory meridian response compilations.” Virgil turns back around to look at him, eyes wide. “There’s also a two-hour guided meditation podcast I found for you if you’re interested.”
“Thanks, man.” Virgil collects his headphones and does indeed select Logan’s podcast before curling up inside a cocoon bean bag chair. Logan clears his throat and makes a note to control the swell of pride in his chest as he sets the jar of Crofters in the basket by his desk filled with more of the same. He hasn't had to conjure his own jam ever since he started letting Virgil visit.
Logan collects the forgotten journal from the floor and replaces it back on the shelves, watching Virgil as the dark side’s eyes begin to slip shut and the furrow in his brow eases. The very first time they’d done this Anxiety had admitted that where Morality’s room seemed to drive his instincts crazy, Logic’s had an almost opposite effect. Rather than a place swamped in memory and perception, Logan’s room was a place of pure logic, precision, and surety, grounded in the here and now.
He’d described it as an almost forced shut-down. A mute button. And in small doses, the restricted stimulation allowed Anxiety to ease both himself and Thomas. Logan had found the concept fascinating enough that he’d welcomed the experiment, and together they’d come to a comfortable arrangement. Hence, bean bag chairs and jam.
“You know,” Logan clears his throat. “You could always use my nap pod, if you want. Curling up in that thing can’t be good for your posture.”
Virgil peeks an eye open and frowns. “That thing somehow manages to both look like a thing out of Alien and like Pac-man’s going to eat my head. No way am I willingly getting anywhere near it.”
“Suit yourself,” Logan shrugs. “It’s there if you ever change your mind.” His eyes wander back to the nap pod and the gargantuan appendage beyond. “Say, Virgil.”
If he were at all daunted by such things, Logan might feel bad about breaking his promise to Roman. “Did you notice anything out of place when you came in here?” He observes as Virgil sits up, pulling his headphones down around his neck and doing a quick scan of the room. Logic’s heart rate ratchets up when Anxiety’s shadowed eyes pass over the corner of the room in question.
“Um,” Virgil raises an eyebrow and loosens the tie around his neck so that it hangs loose against his shirt. “Like what?”
Logan frowns. “Anything that shouldn’t be here.” He doesn’t understand how Virgil could not notice it. “Anything out of place.”
The Dark side licks his lips and scans the room again, eyes narrowed in focus. Once again Logan is bewildered by Virgil’s lack of reaction as he circles the room. “Nothing.”
“You really don’t see anything strange?”
Virgil huffs and runs a hand through his hair. “Logan, I’m Anxiety. If there was something suspicious going on, I think I’d notice.”
Logan arches an eyebrow. “Fascinating.”
Frown deepening, Anxiety turns back to Logic. “Is this your way of telling me to get out? Because there’s nothing that doesn’t belong here but me.”
“No, no that’s not it.” Logan raises his hands and urges his fellow side to sit back down. “I apologize if that seemed strange. You can stay as long as you like, Virgil.”
Virgil’s shoulders are hunched, but he does settle back in his favorite bean bag chair. “You sure?”
Anxiety nods and pulls his headphones back on, turning his attention away. Logan waits until the other side looks engrossed in his audio recording before glancing back to the spider limb. He frowns.
Virgil had not seen it. Logan had only spotted it after Roman had showed him the same thing in his own room. Was it possible that these limbs were only visible to those who had already been alerted to their presence? What kind of entity could have such power over perception?
He could test the theory, try pointing the leg out to Virgil now that he’d confirmed the other side could not see it? But then, what if Roman was right? He’d now seen two of these legs, it stood to reason there could be more. There was no way Anxiety would be able to rest easy knowing of their presence. And if their hypothesis was correct and these were the product of some intrusive force of the Dark sides, might making Virgil aware of them only put Anxiety in harm's way?
Logan clears his throat. “I need to speak to Roman.” And Patton, more than likely Thomas as well. They needed to get to the bottom of this. “You can stay, but don’t touch my desk.”
Virgil waves a hand without looking up. “Whatever.”
“I’m serious, Virgil. Thomas has a lot of work to get done, don’t mess up my efficiency program.”
This time Anxiety does sit up. “Okay, okay fine, geez. I won’t touch your stuff.”
Logan nods before turning for the door. “Thank you.” He leaves without looking back, and misses the forked tongue that slips from between Virgil’s lips as the Dark side watches him depart.
He knows Deceit is up to something. He knows it with the same assurity that tells Virgil when the leftovers in the fridge have been sitting there for too long or that Roman is telling Thomas to talk to a cute guy. He has a sense for these kinds of things. Impending doom, ill omens… food poisoning. And he intends to go hunt down the serpent for an explanation when a much more alarming siren starts in his head and he is compelled into appearing on the carpeting of Thomas’ living room floor.
“Oh good, Anxiety. I-ah! I was hoping this would work.” Thomas is sitting cross-legged in front of the television with a controller in his hands and Virgil doesn’t have to look up to know what their host is doing.
“Oh no,” he says, reaching for the controller. “No. Thomas, we are not- give it!” Thomas ducks his grab and throws his shoulder in the way to keep Virgil from interfering with the console.
“Guys, let’s not fight.” It’s the first Virgil notices of Patton, who he can now see sitting curled up in the fetal position in the corner of the couch. He is wearing his cat onesie and his hands are balled into fists under his chin.
“You dragged Patton into this!” Virgil’s eyes are wide. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Stop yelling at me!” Thomas selects a new game and the muffled sounds of a gravel road and a car radio render them all silent. All attention turns to the screen and they watch an as yet unnamed character pull into Mount Massive Asylum.
From the couch, Patton squeaks. “Okay Virgil’s here, can we turn it off now, please?”
“Yes, turn it off.”
Thomas hunches his shoulders and commands his character to open a typed letter on the screen. “Trust me Patton, I want to. But I’m eighty-precent sure if I did Virgil would high-tail it for his room.” The three of them skim the printed email. “Hence, Outlast.”
Virgil’s skin crawls as the letter is set aside and Thomas’ character collects his I.D. and video camera. Under his hoodie he can feel his unmanifested legs shift and he has to resist the urge to release them in a defensive posture. “Why is he getting out of his car? Thomas, make him get back inside.”
“Uh, I don’t think I can Virge.”
“No, don’t get closer to the gate!”
Both Virgil and Thomas jump when Patton sidles closer, curling up near their host’s opposite shoulder. “C-can we just talk this out now?” The gate creaks as the character walks through it and Virgil throws his hood up. “Shouldn’t he have a flashlight? He’s going to waste batteries just using his camera.”
“He should just go home.”
Thomas sets about exploring the outside of the asylum. “Okay, let’s. Virgil, we need to talk about what you told me after Remus showed up.”
The spider cringes at the sound of crunching gravel and shifts back a bit. “There’s nothing to talk about. And -oh look, the front door’s locked, time to go home.”
“I think there was somewhere for you to climb up around the corner.”
“Patton, you’re not helping.” Virgil shoots a glare around their host’s shoulders then turns his attention back to the screen. “Why do we need to talk about it?”
“Because for some reason you’re scared to,” says Thomas. He tries to make eye contact but Virgil ducks the glance. “Oh there, an open window. How do I get up there?”
Virgil glowers. “I dunno, try the ladder?”
“Right.” There is a sound of scraping metal and the three of them cringe. “Virgil,” Thomas grits out as their character climbs the rusted-out rungs. “It’s pretty obvious you’re avoiding me- oh god!”
The sound of the static television in the room they’ve climbed into swells and Thomas nearly throws the controller at the screen. Patton shrieks and Virgil pulls the hood of his jacket well over his eyes.
Virgil digs his nails into his skull through hair and fabric. “Because static televisions are cliche horror? Why does it matter, just leave.”
“No, I mean-” Thomas takes a deep breath as the sound dies down and their character exits the room. “Why are you avoiding me?”
“I’m not. I’m just giving you space.”
“But Virgil,” says Patton. “By not being here, you’re only hurting Thomas. We need to just air everything out and get things back to normal.”
Thomas audibly swallows. “Oh geez that’s-that’s blood on the ground. Oh, no.” Their character turns on his heel and heads back into the first room.
“But,” says Virgil. “Things can’t go back to normal.” He releases his grip on his hoodie and lets it fall from his head.
“Why not?” says Patton. “You’re one of us now. I don’t care if you used to be a Dark side, and neither does Thomas.”
Virgil’s expression goes deadpan. “Really, Morality? You don’t care at all that I lied.” He catches Thomas’ flinch and is torn between cringing himself and the satisfaction of knowing he was right.
Patton adjusts his glasses. “Well, it wasn’t really lying. Logan, Roman, and I already knew.”
“But Thomas didn’t. And lying by omission is still lying, remember?” As if he needed the reminder of Deceit masquerading himself as Patton. Virgil zips his hoodie all the way up and stuffs his hands in his pockets while Thomas’ character explores a work desk.
“Okay, so it hurt you were keeping secrets from me.” Thomas’ spine goes rigid as the three of them eye the blood splatter on the hallway walls. “But I get it. You are always trying to look out for me, and if I knew right from the start that you were a Dark side I wouldn’t have ever started listening to you.”
“That’s not much of a bar.” Virgil shudders at the audible dial tone coming from the screen as they find another printed email. “We’re your sides, dark or not. We all try to look out for you, even Deceit -in his own way.”
“Let’s just,” Thomas grimaces and shakes his head. “Let’s just leave Deceit out of it. Okay?”
Virgil frowns. He can read discomfort like an open book, and Thomas’ screams self-doubt. He knows Thomas does not want the serpent mentioned after how their last conversation as a group had gone. After Virgil had practically admitted to spending his time away with the other Dark sides.
Thomas clears his throat. “Why can’t things go back to the way they were? Just because the other Dark sides are making themselves known to me doesn’t mean the five of us can’t figure things out together the way we’ve always done.”
“Thomas is right,” says Patton. “Like Logan always says, knowledge is a good thing. It makes it so we can solve our problems instead of running away from them.”
Virgil buries his face in the palm of one hand while the other aggressively tears at the carpeting. “Some knowledge comes at a cost,” he mutters. “Like Pandora’s box. You take one peek and then-BAM!” He slaps his hand against his thigh and the others jump. “There’s no going back.”
“But this isn’t one of those times. Right, Virge?”
“Look,” Virgil is careful not to make eye contact with the others as his great limb curls closer around Thomas. He wishes he had access to the leg planted in Morality’s room too, but he will settle with keeping close to Thomas for now. “There are things you still don’t know. Even you Patton, and Roman and Logan.” Thomas’ character makes it to what looks like a break room and starts to climb into an air duct. “That’s a terrible idea Thomas, what if he gets claustrophobic, or STUCK-”
“Right, sorry.” Virgil clears his throat. “I need you to trust me when I say that being a Dark side is more complicated than you think. And if I need to stay away to deal with Deceit, or the Duke, it’s because I’m trying to protect you-AH!”
They all shriek as a figure bullrushes the door to the breakroom. High strings play and the three sit frozen until the inmate wanders back out. Patton is keening into his knees.
“You are definitely having nightmares tonight,” Virgil sighs, reaching over to give Patton a gentle touch on the back. Their moral side looks up.
“Are you giving me a pat- on the back?”
Virgil keeps the edge of terror away from the other side’s expression by offering their fatherly persona a small grin. “Sure am, buddy. You could almost say I saved you from the verge of tears.”
Patton’s face immediately brightens and he near vibrates with giddy energy. “You’re comforting me with puns? Thank you, kiddo.”
“Don’t mention it.” He reclaims his personal space.
Nerves apparently fried, Thomas shuts the game off. “That was very kind of you, Virgil. And I guess, I see your point.” Their host sets the controller down and shakes himself, Virgil pulls back his great limb to give Thomas some space. “None of us know what it’s like, so maybe there will be times when we can’t help you the way we want. But, I think those are the times when it’s most important that we’re honest with each other.”
“Just tell us this, Virgil,” says Patton and Virgil braces himself. “Do you want to keep being part of the group?”
Virgil blinks. “What? Yes, of course I do.”
Looking between his two sides, Thomas smiles. “Then that’s enough for now.” Virgil’s jaw goes slack and their host folds his hands in his lap and leans back against the couch. “Look, Virgil,” says Thomas. “I’m not going to push you. I just want you to know that, dark side or not, you’re just as important to me as the others.”
Patton’s smile is so wide it looks fit to split his cheeks. “Whenever you’re ready to talk, we’ll listen. And know that nothing you can say could make your good ‘ole dad love you any less.”
Thomas nods. “What he said.”
Something in the spider gives, and Virgil has to look away to wipe his eyes. “Thanks guys,” he mutters. “I just- I need to find the right words and then I promise, I’ll tell you everything I can.”
The promise is a thin one, and it disrupts a thread of self-delusion that Virgil knows will make its way back to Deceit. He makes a mental note to put those fires out when he can. There are some things he will never willingly tell any of them, of that, he and Deceit are agreed. But perhaps, just the right amount of knowledge could smooth the edges out and make it easier for Virgil to find a balance.
“Take your time, kiddo. We’ll be here.” With that, Patton sinks out, leaving Virgil alone with their host. Thomas doesn’t say anything, but offers the dark side a small smile and it is enough to make the spider’s heart flutter. He doesn’t think he will ever get used to it. Being seen, and wanted.
Virgil cracks out a half-smile. “Is it safe for me to sink back to my room? Or do I have to worry about you playing another horror game?”
His host laughs. “No Virgil, you can go. Thanks for talking with us.”
Permission given, Virgil descends from the mindscape with a small wave, as always leaving the spectre of his great limb poised on Thomas’ shoulder. As the cool wash of Dark surrounds him, he is all at once reminded of what he had been about to do before Thomas had summoned him. He can feel the echoes of Deceit’s influence through the very fabric of his room and his mood drops. Picking a spot on the web-infested mess of Thomas’ couch he waits. He knows Deceit will come to him, and he is not disappointed.
It is not a moment later that the serpent appears, seated on the first landing of the staircase where Virgil would normally perch. He arrives without announcement or fanfare, which is to be expected, but what causes Virgil’s hackles to rise is the face the serpent wears.
Virgil’s eyes narrow, eyeshadow emboldening as he takes in the way Deceit wears his skin. This is the second time now, and he does not like the implication. The spider only just holds back its hiss.
“You better have a good explanation,” he warns and gestures to the necktie around Deceit’s neck. “And take that stupid thing off.” Deceit rolls his eyes and wills the tie away.
Virgil glares. “What did you do?”
Pulling himself to his feet by the banister, Deceit drops the guise of Anxiety. He strolls forward and sits himself down on the opposite end of the couch from Virgil, propping his elbow on the arm. He spares the spider a cracked grin. “Nothing so sinister as whatever’s going through your mind, I assure you. Certainly nothing to sully your image.”
Virgil resists the urge to release his limbs. The last few days of recovery in his room, not to mention his little tussle with Remus have reminded him of how much he has missed the freedom of his true form. Instead he hides his discomfort with a slouch deeper into the couch. “Then tell me,” he grits out between clenched teeth.
“I was only doing my job, Virgil. You can’t begrudge me that.”
Deceit’s smile drops. “Covering your tracks.” In a move that forces Virgil to set his immediate animosity aside, Deceit actually looks away, resting the fist of a gloved hand against his mouth and staring into nothing. “In all seriousness, we might have a problem, Virgil.”
A wash of cold fear drives Virgil’s room deeper into his aspect. The walls blur and where Thomas’ furniture fades, tattered, neglected threads of the spider’s web begin to take their place. Anxiety’s hands grip the fabric of the couch, grinding the fabrication into existence. “What?” he asks.
"Roman and Logan," says Deceit, flicking his tongue out as if to dislodge an unpleasant taste.
Virgil hisses under his breath. "Yes, and?"
It only takes four words to destabilize all that the spider has spent the last two years delicately trying to build. Fists balled tight and face set in grim discomfort, Deceit’s serpent eye turns to Virgil.
“They saw the spider.”
Deceit can see the moment the words finish processing in Virgil’s head. His fellow dark side’s eyes blow wide and his fingernails sharpen into claws as they dig into the couch, shearing troughs of white cotton through the dark covers. There is more to tell, but the serpent waits, patient and observant of the other’s reaction. Virgil’s inhale is shallow and rasp.
“That’s not possible.”
Deceit can read Virgil’s desire for a response, but he continues to wait, serpent eye trained and marking each twitch of the spider’s face. Eventually, the other has enough.
“That’s not- a Light side can’t just see the spider,” says Virgil. “I made sure of it a long time ago. And it’s your job to make sure it stays that way.”
That stings a little. Deceit tosses his hat against the wall and watches it catch in the thickening webbing. He runs a hand through the flattened locks of Thomas’ hair and turns to give Virgil the full attention of both halves of his face. “Was it my job, Virgil? I had no idea.” He bares his fangs at the shorter side and tenses when Virgil displays his back with a low hiss. Deceit drops the posturing. “I tried,” he admits. “I swear to you, as soon as I sensed something was off I tried to track it down and cut it off. But by the time I got to Logan he’d already seen.”
“How?” Virgil picks at his thumbnail with his thickened left incisor, eyebrows furrowed. “Logic’s weakness has always been his straightforward perspective. There’s no way he just happened to notice the leg I had in his room.”
“He didn’t,” says Deceit. “It started with the prince, though I’m sure Roman would keep anything suspicious he saw to himself. There’s no way he’d ever share something as significant as a glimpse of the spider to any of the others.” The sarcasm drips from his lips like poison.
“Damn it, Princey.” Restlessness reaching its peak, Virgil gets to his feet and begins to pace back and forth before the couch. He stops in front of Deceit with shoulders hunched and hands tucked beneath his arms. “He must have seen something when I went after Remus. Shit, I was careless.” The shadows in the room grow darker and Virgil continues, “Do they know it was me?”
Deceit shakes his head and slowly lifts himself to stand directly before the wayward dark side. “That’s why I took your form. Logan thinks you can’t see them.” That startles a snort of amusement from Virgil and Deceit’s human half grins. “Ironic, isn’t it?” He is close enough to taste the fear that surrounds Anxiety like a cloak. His tongue slips out and it makes his breathing stutter when Virgil doesn’t flinch at their proximity.
“They can’t know, Deceit. This whole Anxiety-scheme only ever worked because they didn’t know.” Virgil glares at a point beyond Deceit’s shoulder and shudders. “If they figure out that I have anything to do with the spider…” Virgil looks fit for a panic attack. His shoulders heave and sweat beads on his brow.
Deceit sets his hands on either of Virgil’s shoulders and leans closer, forcing the other to meet his eyes “They won’t.” He can practically see the gears turning in the spider’s head, the brilliant mind of fear calculating out each possible worst-case-scenario. Running them through to their messy conclusions. A part of the serpent wants to sit back and watch the terrible beauty unfold, but he knows that action will serve him better. He smothers the downward spiral in its crib. “You and me, Virgil. We’ll fix this.”
Virgil takes a deep breath and a cool hand wraps itself around the exposed length of Deceit’s wrist, near startling him with the skin-to-skin contact. “I just settled things with Thomas,” he says. “I can’t -I won’t- lose him now.”
Deceit swallows a bitter pill of jealousy. He can only imagine what Virgil stands to lose, being the only dark side in close confidence with their host. Deceit would give almost anything for that kind of opportunity. “That won’t happen. We just need to find a way to make Logic and Creativity disregard what they’ve seen.”
“Good luck with that.”
The serpent frowns. “Thank you, Virgil. That is exactly the kind of encouragement I needed just now.” Deceit drops his hands and only feels slightly bereft when Virgil releases the grip on his wrist. “Anything else you would like to add to that? Maybe a little shake of a pom-pom?”
“Shut up and let me think. We need to figure this out quick before they think to tell Patton or Thomas.” Virgil begins his pacing again while Deceit remains in place.
“Can you recall the spider’s limbs? Just for the time being?” he asks, watching as the spider makes his rounds.
Virgil’s eyes go downcast. “No. Not the ones I have in the Light sides’ rooms, I can barely even feel them.” His eyes go narrow. “The only one I can move is the one near Thomas. And I won’t do that, it would mean leaving him defenseless.”
Deceit has to concede as much. Virgil’s true aspect, Anxiety aside, is a vital survival instinct and as much as he fears Virgil’s exposure, he shares the spider’s desire to keep Thomas protected at all cost. “That’ll make covering this up a lot harder, dear.”
Virgil clicks his tongue. “I suppose we could have the Duke hit Roman in the back of the head really hard, but I doubt Logic’s memory would be as fleeting.”
“Shame too,” says Deceit. “And I doubt you’d sanction Remus and I kidnapping Logan and letting me take his place until this whole thing blows over?” The look Virgil gives him is answer enough. “Worth a shot.”
“I’m completely fucked aren’t I? ”
Oh, if only. “Not yet. It seems to me you still have two options.”
Deceit braces himself for whatever reaction the spider might have to his suggestion and begins to walk in a slow circle around the couch, putting the bulk of the furniture between himself and Virgil. “Well, you can either stand back and watch as the Light sides destroy everything we’ve worked to achieve,” Virgil frowns and Deceit sets his hands on the back of the couch between them, leaning forward. “Or, you can reclaim your mantle, take back your power, and move the limbs out of sight until Logic and Creativity are forced to conclude that what they saw was nothing more than some ill-conceived day dream.”
Deceit holds his breath as Virgil stares at him, face blank. His heart is beating hard against his chest and the serpent can’t tell if it is fear or exhilaration. The very thought of their lost compatriot reclaiming his seat of power makes the serpent more hopeful than any dark side has the right to be. But then of course, comes reality.
Virgil’s expression turns to disgust. “No. I’m not doing that.”
Deceit hisses, bringing his fist down against the couch cushion in an impotent thump. “You don’t have a choice!”
“I said, no, Deceit.”
“Why not? Can’t you see what all this prancing about like a Light side is doing to you?” He throws an arm in Virgil’s direction, lip curling at the way he can tell the spider’s shoulders are hunched stiff with the effort to hide away his true form. “You’re weak!”
“So what!? Maybe I don’t need to be strong!” Virgil’s eyes go purple in his vehemence, but Deceit is unwilling to call even that a victory as his form remains small and fragile. The violet fades. “Not if it means becoming that… thing again.”
“You don’t mean that,” says Deceit, rounding his way back to Virgil’s side. “The very concept is antithetical to what you are. Virgil, just listen to yourself.”
Virgil squares his shoulders to glare up into Deceit’s eyes. “I know exactly what I am. I’m Thomas’ Anxiety.” He calls himself the false name like an honorific and it makes the serpent sick. “I make Thomas aware of risks and I’m there to help him get through them and survive. I might be his fight-or-flight response, but I’m not-”
“Don’t.” Deceit cuts the words off before Virgil can go any farther. He can feel the scales spreading across his human side and he welcomes the extra layer of armor. He watches Virgil frown and lifts his hand, palm out. “Don’t lie to me. Not you.”
“You are.” Deceit brings the hand against his chest. “I’m Deceit. I know when a lie is being told.” He lets out a slow, long hiss as he fights to control his own anger. “We both know Anxiety is not what you are. It never has been.”
Virgil glances away, for the first time beginning to look uncomfortable. “Deceit…”
The rage drains away. And when it goes, something heavier takes its place. “Do you remember?” Deceit says, stepping closer and tugging the glove off one scaled hand. “Oh, it must have been twenty years ago at least. Back when you and I first crawled our way out of the mire and the void.” The memory stirs like an ancient beast slumbering under a layer of silt. “We knew what we were and what it would take to survive in the Dark. We promised one another,” he cups the back of Virgil’s neck with cool, pebbled skin and runs his claws through the spider’s hair. “We promised we would triumph over all the rest. That meant something to me, did it mean nothing to you?”
Virgil still won’t look at him. “At the time,” he says. “It meant everything.”
“Either way.” Deceit pulls his hand back, pulse spiking as Virgil leans toward the fading touch. “It still means something to me. I swore I’d follow you through the pit of Dark or the heart of Light and I intend to.”
It seems to take physical effort, but Virgil meets Deceit’s eyes. “But you won’t respect my decision?”
“I respect the spider. Not whatever shadow you’ve become.”
Virgil flinches. Then slowly, so slow and deliberate Deceit knows the other side is trying to make a point, Virgil releases his limbs. The eight lithe spider legs slide free from the spider’s back, one going so far as to press itself against Deceit’s shoulder. “I’m still me,” he says. “I always will be. But what that means, it’s changed, Deceit.”
“Spare me the personal growth speech.” Deceit has to resist the urge to rest his hand on spider leg and cannot force himself to pull away from the touch. “Trust me, I remember it from last time.”
Virgil’s lips twist in a half-smirk. “Clearly, it didn’t take.”
“You know me,” Deceit grins back. “I can be quite set in my ways.”
“Then for now, we agree to disagree.” The spider bears his limbs in a proud display. It’s not the powerful, immutable show of strength Deceit wants, but at the moment it will have to do. “Back to the matter at hand.”
“Of course,” The serpent steps back and bends into an -only slightly- patronizing bow. “How shall we proceed?”
Virgil’s legs brace themselves on the walls and floor, absently tracing patterns and testing the invisible webbing of the spider’s realm as Virgil thinks. “You said you convinced Logan I couldn’t see the legs?”
“Then he must have put together by now that you can only see them once they’re pointed out to you.” Virgil snaps his fingers and slides his limbs away. “He’ll confirm that with Roman, then he’ll want to tell the rest of us.”
“That will include Thomas, and you know what they’ll see when they go to him.” Deceit watches Virgil frown. He is grateful at the very least that Virgil seems aware of how dangerous that could be.
Something tickles at the back of Deceit’s mind. The uncomfortable itch of his scales that comes with the threat of exposed secrets. His attention turns above their heads, where somewhere beyond the others are gathering in the mindscape.
He feels Virgil step up beside him. “What is it?” he asks.
“We’re about to run out of time.” With a twist of his wrist Deceit silences Logic before he can mention anything directly to Thomas. His other hand mirrors the motion when he feels Creativity move to speak instead.
“I need to get up there.” The spider gathers the shadows of the room about himself and prepares to depart. “Keep their mouths shut until I can-” Virgil’s knees drop out from under him.
Deceit’s focus snaps from the room beyond. “Virgil!” He goes to kneel at the other’s side when the spider is brought to his hands and knees, back arching.
“I can’t- ugh. What the-” his head bows and with an anguished scream that rocks the foundation of the spider’s realm, Virgil loses control of his form. Eight spider legs sprout, gouging holes in the ground in an attempt to stabilize Virgil as he writhes. Deceit is forced to dodge one leg before it can plunge its way through his skull.
Black blood drips from the corner of Virgil’s mouth to land on the back of one pale hand. Deceit seethes. “That stupid, self-righteous, ingorant, fool!” The serpent gathers the spider’s quaking form against him. “I’ll tear the prince’sssss ssssstupid head off.”
“N-nngh. N-no.” Virgil’s spine twists unnaturally and he lets out another unearthly cry. When it subsides, the side’s chest is heaving with the effort to breath. “Get up there, and make them stop.”
“I can't just-”
“Please, Deceit. Just make it STOP!” Virgil pushes him away and forces himself to unsteady feet. “They’re afraid. If someone doesn’t calm them down quick, they’ll summon me. I c-can’t show up like this.” He gestures to the trembling limbs at his back. “Just go, now!”
“Fine.” With a grim set to his mouth Deceit pushes down as much of his outrage as he can and wills himself take Anxiety’s form. “I’ll be back,” he promises in Virgil’s voice.
The spider nods. “I’m trusting you with them,” he says. “Don’t let me down.”
With a nod Deceit blinks himself from the spider’s realm and up. Following the taste of fear and confusion that would normally guide Virgil to the mindscape and riding its current for himself. The course leads true, and when he reforms, he is standing on the staircase of Thomas’ living room with Light sides set before him. Thomas is on the couch, huddled in the corner with his legs pulled off the ground while the other sides are all pressed against the walls in their corner of the space. All except Roman.
The prince stands at the center of the room, sword drawn and dripping a black sludge that gives off the faintest, iridescent sheen of violet ichor. And on the ground, twitching and writhing is a great, severed limb.
“What is up everybody- hey, wait a second. I’m not doing a video today, what’s going on?” Thomas’ voice drifts off as he flounders, presumably wondering how he got from the upstairs to his living room. Roman doesn’t try to hide his triumphant grin as Thomas looks around, searching for the other sides. Their host’s eyes find him soon enough and the prince waves.
From across the room Logan clears his throat. “Sorry to call you away from your work, Thomas. But we need to discuss something important.”
“Call me away?” Thomas’ focus shifts from one side to the other. “You guys can do that? I thought I was the one who called you.” He scratches at the back of his head and Roman shrugs.
“Yeah, normally that’s true. Poindexter and I had to use Autopilot.”
“Indeed.” Logan fixes the set of his tie and crosses his arms. “It was a rather trying ordeal.”
“Hold up. I have an Autopilot?” Thomas appears slightly horrified. “Since when do I have an Autopilot!” Their host starts patting himself down as if to find an antenna or some other control device.
“It’s not something that can be accessed easily,” Logan assures him. “But should the left and right brain act in synchrony,” he steeples his hands and gestures between himself and Roman, “we are able to influence your actions to some degree. Trust me, it is a rare phenomena.” Roman isn’t sure he likes the look Logan is giving him. Something between disdain and irritation that reminds him of why they don’t work well together.
“Yes, wonder-nerd over there is such a left-seat driver.”
“Me?” Logan gasps, hand to his chest and expression overwhelmed with offense. “I’m sorry, when would I have had time to influence your figurative handling of the wheel? I was far too busy compensating for your constant distractions.” He turns to Thomas, ignoring the indignant scoff Roman delivers to his back. “Honestly, it was a wonder you didn’t get a concussion walking down the stairs, Thomas.”
Thomas starts. “Wait, how would I have-”
“So, we took a little tumble. Big deal.” Honestly, it was a wobble on the last step, but Roman was not willing to call the trip entirely his fault. Logic had been the one to pull him back just before urging Thomas to slide down the banister the way he’d always wanted. Therefore, not his fault. “You had us going at a snail’s pace.”
Logan clicks his tongue. “I hardly believe my suggested rate of motion would be outpaced by a common garden snail. And maintaining appropriate center of gravity is an important matter of which you seem to hold little regard.”
“Okay, enough!” Thomas steps in and waves his arms, palms out to either side. “I get it, you don’t do this often -which I appreciate. But you did today, so I’m guessing there’s something important we needed to talk about?”
“Ahem,” Logan clears his throat and schools his expression as if he weren’t just in a shouting match. “You’re right, of course. Thomas, we need to discuss the possible existence of a malicious entity residing in your mind.” Geez, Roman coughs into his fist. No pulling punches or easing in, he supposes.
“Malicious?” Thomas’ face falls and his complexion goes pale. “But I thought… I thought you guys were all my sides and therefore here to look after me? Even if it’s not always in a way I’d prefer, like with Anxiety.” His eyes flick from Logan to Roman. “How can one of you be malicious?”
The prince gathers his breath and bolsters their host’s courage. It is not a topic of conversation he particularly wants to have, but as their creative spirit, it falls to him. “I’m sorry Thomas, I’m afraid I’ve let you down in allowing this beast a foothold in your mind.”
Thomas flinches. “What?”
“What Roman is failing miserably to explain,” says Logan. “Is that sometimes certain aspects of a person’s subconscious can become self-destructive. Harmful, that is, to their host.” He gestures to Roman. “These often begin as nightmares, which Roman, as your Creative spirit, has always worked to purge before they can become too influential. We have reason to believe that one such creature may have escaped his notice, and has since grown into a fully-realized entity residing somewhere in your mind.”
Thomas nods once, careful and slow. “So, I have another side?”
Logan shakes his head. “To call the entity one of your sides may be giving the creature too much credit. Think of it more as an invasive parasite.”
“Like a tapeworm,” Roman suggests, to which Thomas gives him a distrubed look. “What?”
“Tapeworm, Roman? Really?”
“Look, it was just a comparison. We’re not really talking about a tapeworm.” He straightens his spine and takes a breath. “However, Logan and I have both seen something in each of our rooms that definitely doesn’t belong.”
“... like what?”
Roman tries to keep his expression neutral, but his hand tightens around the hilt of his sword. “A spider.” He glances about the mindscape living room but sees nothing, to his utter relief. “Two legs of it anyway, one in my room and one in Logan’s.”
Thomas shudders. “And the others?”
“We’re not sure,” says Logan. “I myself was not able to see these limbs until Roman pointed them out to me, and when I tried to confirm if Virgil could see them, it became apparent he could not. I’d assume the same to be the case with Patton.”
A shrug from Thomas. “Yeah, somehow I don’t feel like Patton would be able to keep something like that to himself.”
“You called?” The sudden ascendance of their moral center is accompanied by an immediate upturn in the room’s general mood. The muscles of Roman’s shoulders ease as the soothing brush of Morality’s presence washes over him. It is like being wrapped in a warm blanket and the prince is grateful for the calming effect it seems to have on Thomas.
“Logan! You and Roman having a play-date with Thomas without me?” Patton shakes his head in mock disapproval, though the poorly hidden smile on his face ruins the effect. “Come on now, you cool kids too old for Dad to play too?”
Thomas’ neck twitches. “Still not my dad, Patton.”
“Or ours for that matter,” says Logan. “No Morality, we were discussing the appearance of arachnid appendages in our respective rooms. Do you have anything you would like to contribute to the discussion?”
Thomas pinches the bridge of his nose. “He wants to know if you’ve seen anything odd in your room lately.”
“Yes, quickly now. This situation is critical enough Logan and I used Autopilot.” Roman is not sure what about his statement moves Thomas to upgrade his pinched brow to a full facepalm, but he ignores it for the time being as Morality gasps, hands clasped with joy.
“Oh my goodness! You and Logan were able to use Autopilot!” Patton looks fit to burst with giddy energy as he bounces on his heels. “I’m so proud of you two.”
“Please don’t encourage them.” Thomas claps his hands and draws the other sides’ attention. “Patton, have you seen any spiders around lately?”
“Or specifically, spider legs,” says Logan, eager as ever to clarify.
Patton taps his finger to his chin. “Hm. Well there was the one hiding in the corner of the bathroom, but I made sure we stayed WAY clear of that one, yeah-huh.” Morality nods, self-assured.
“I guess we can take that as a no,” says Roman.
Thomas frowns. “So, only you two can see them,” he nods to Roman and Logan.
“It would seem so, yes.” Logan nods.
“Well, then why don’t you just show us? Virgil said anything I want to know about myself I can know, right?”
“You sure can, kiddo.”
“Well then,” Thomas rubs his hands together, looking somewhere between eager and apprehensive. Amongst the flurry of his thoughts, a stray branch of Roman’s mind formulates a stirring of curiosity. Considering the situation, his eyes drift to the stairs and he wonders why Anxiety has not shown himself yet. One would think their cautious persona would have appeared by now to warn them off such a scheme. Thomas clears his throat and opens his arms in a beckoning gesture. “I want to know. So, show me.”
Logan adjusts his glasses and flexes his wrist. “Very well. I propose we all travel to my room and I can-” the teacher goes still.
“Logan? You okay, man?” Thomas inches toward Logic only to have the side take an unsteady step back.
“Roman. Do you see it?”
Creativity follows Logan’s rigid line of sight and sees something that makes his instincts go into overdrive. His blood boils and his hand immediately goes back to his sword. The other he holds out towards their host. “Thomas, don’t move!”
“Steady now.” Roman swallows down bile as he takes in the immense, black limb sitting curved around Thomas’ shoulders. A gleaming, wicked end just dragging across the fabric of the carpeting. He doesn’t understand how it could have hidden from his view while they were all standing right before it. How could he have let something so vile get so close? “It’s here.”
“It is, where?” Thomas turns on his heel and Roman cannot hold back a shriek of alarm. Across from him, Logan shuts his eyes and tenses, unwilling to watch their host turn deeper into the creature’s grip. Creativity prepares to lunge forward, expecting the barbed spines along the leg to pierce Thomas from head to toe. But to his equal surprise and terror, rather than colliding, the great limb shifts; moving with Thomas so as to remain in contact, but not harm. Thomas completes a full rotation unscathed. “Guys, I don’t see anything.”
“Roman, Logan, you two sure you’re okay?” asks Patton.
Logan shakes himself off. “Oh sweet Galileo it moved. Thomas, there’s a-mmph,” he points towards the limb, but as he does so his other hand clamps down hard over his mouth. All that comes out after is an inaudible mumble.
Roman’s eyes narrow. “Deceit. What does he have to do with the creature?” He watches Logan try to pull the hand away from his mouth to no avail.
“What?” Thomas cringes. “But I already said I want to know! How can he keep it from me?”
Logan looks in Roman’s direction and makes an insistent mumble from beneath his hand. Roman takes a breath. “The limb is-mmhrm.” Deceit silences him before he can get the words out. Frustration burns in the prince as Patton scratches his head, shrugging when Thomas sends him a helpless glance. He can’t believe he’s thinking it, but he really wishes Virgil were there to help put the pieces together for Thomas. Anxiety was right, he was always much more adept at out-maneuvering Deceit than the rest of them.
And he doesn’t even want to think about what stake their snake-faced adversary has in this. As he watches Logan struggle, Creativity does what comes naturally and lets his instincts work. The wheels of imagination turn and idea after idea plays itself out in his mind, searching for a solution to their mute dilemma. His free hand balls into a fist in frustration, and the creak of wound leather sparks inspiration. Roman looks down.
He still has hold of his sword and he can still move. Beneath the hand that Deceit has seized, he grins. Taking a resolute step forward, Roman draws out his weapon and in response, the leg around Thomas shifts its grip, almost like it knows what the prince has in mind. He watches as the leg loosens, almost like it is considering fleeing, then tightens itself back around Thomas. Roman’s eyes narrow and he readies the blade. His shift in stance draws their host’s attention.
“Roman, what are you doing?” But of course, he can’t answer. Instead the prince rushes forward and, in a sweeping strike, swings the blade he’s tested on the nightmares of Thomas’ psyche. Steel meets crunching armor and wet, pliable meat to sever the leg clean through. “Roman-Roman, hey, wait a-WHAT IN THE HELL!?”
Deceit’s influence disperses in the wake of Thomas’ outburst and Roman and Logan both sigh. Patton’s arms pinwheel as he becomes able to perceive the writhing limb that falls away from their host to twitch on the floor. With a keening whimper Morality huddles against the blinds behind him, cat hoodie gripped in his hands.
Roman grins through the fire in his blood. “Aha! Take that, Deceit.” Roman strides forward and pins the leg in place with a downward thrust of his sword. Black blood flies from the stump to splatter against his pristine white pant leg. “Fear not, Thomas. I have freed you from it’s grip.”
Thomas staggers back and climbs up the couch until his feet are clear off the ground and as far from the spider leg as he can get. He points a shaking finger down towards the prince’s feet. “Are you saying th-that thing was ON ME!?” Thomas’ voice pitches up at the end, turning into more of a high-note rasp.
“Yes, you were quite solidly in its hold,” says Logan, who is trying his best to look undaunted whilst pressed up against a wall. “Well done, Roman.”
Roman sniffs, pleased. “You’re welcome,” and pulls his weapon free. “But the question is, what do we do now?”
“Burn it! Burn it with fire!”
“Patton, please calm down.” Logan looks like he wants to go over and offer grounding support to their quaking morality, but a glimpse towards the still writhing appendage keeps him still. “I believe our best course of action would be to find the main body of this creature while it is wounded.”
“Okay,” says Thomas. “But how do we-”
A swell of Dark rises up around them, and Roman recognizes the edge of fear right before their host is interrupted.
“What the hell are you guys doing!?” Roman is unable to help his sudden jerk as the newcomer's voice cuts straight across the room. But as the presence registers, the tension eases from his limbs.
“Virgil,” he sighs, “finally.”
“Yes. I was wondering when you’d finally appear,” says Logan.
Virgil however, completely ignores Logic for the time being as his eyes move first to Thomas, then zero in on the spider leg. Anxiety’s nostrils flare and under the over long sleeves of his hoodie Roman can see his hands ball into fists. “What did you do?” he grits, and Roman flinches at the acid tone.
“What did I do?” He strides toward Virgil, stepping over the limb, only to have the other side recoil at his approach. “Virgil?”
“Put that thing away!” he says, pointing to Roman’s still drawn and bloodied sword.
“Oh yes, of course.” He quickly wills the blade clean and sheaths it at his hip. He reassures himself, as Anxiety’s shoulders sag, that Virgil’s apprehension was due to his brandished weapon rather than anything else. “Can you see it?” he asks, nodding toward the limb.
"Yes. I can see that you maimed something Roman, bravo.” Anxiety’s sneer is pointed and the others flinch as he gives one single clap of his hands. The dark persona glances to Logan and Patton and scoffs. “Calm down you two, that thing’s obviously not going anywhere so quit freaking out.”
“You’re not disconcerted?” asks Logan, stepping away from the wall and edging slowly back to his normal place.
Virgil’s eyebrow arches. “Why would I be? It’s a severed limb, what’s it gonna do, bleed on me?”
“B-but. It’s a spider!”
The next deadpan is reserved for Patton. “You have seen my room, right?” The reminder of their brief entanglement in Anxiety’s cobweb-ridden abode sends the rest of them into a unified ‘oh’ of remembrance. Virgil then looks to Thomas. “Thomas, as your Anxiety I’m telling you to relax. There’s nothing to be worried about, you’ve got no complaints from me.”
“I suppose Anxiety does have a point,” says Logan. “Spiders are not necessarily always characterized in a negative sense. You even keep a pet tarantula, don’t you Virgil?”
“What!?” Patton chokes on his own breath. “Why?”
Virgil glares. “Her name is Charlotte and she’s a wonderful, beautiful angel,” he points towards their fatherly persona. “Don’t you dare say a word about her.”
Patton’s hands shoot up in surrender. “I’m sorry!”
Virgil rolls his eyes and with a snap of his fingers, wills the bleeding limb away. “There, now it’s gone.” He crosses his arms and picks at the nails of his left hand. “Can we all stop freaking out now? All the anxiety in the air is giving me bloat.”
Something feels wrong, and Roman can’t put his finger on it. He pays little attention as Virgil and Logan begin to trade miscellaneous tidbits on spider anatomy and proper care of tarantulas. Thomas is still sitting on the couch, but now has his legs crossed and seems far more at ease. Roman crosses his arms and drums the fingers of his right hand along his arm.
“Something’s wrong,” he says, bringing the others up short.
Patton frowns. “Roman? What is it?”
He would offer their moral side a word of comfort, but the prince’s attention is fixed on Anxiety, who arches an eyebrow in return. “See something you like, Princey?” Roman fights down the rush of heat in his chest and sets a hand on his sword. He does not miss the way Virgil’s eyes dart towards his hip or the moment he edges himself back.
“Anxiety, why are you being so calm about all this?”
Virgil’s lip curls and he hunches his shoulders. “I’m sorry. Would you prefer me to be a quivering mess?”
“Hey now,” says Thomas. “I don’t think he meant it that way.” But now their host is giving the dark side a considering look. “Virgil, don’t you think we need to find out why there’s an invisible spider hanging out around you all?”
“Don’t forget yourself too, Thomas.”
Thomas flinches. “I was trying to forget actually, Logan.”
Virgil shrugs. “Well yeah, but forgive me for thinking that chopping up the first thing you see that scares you is a little bit of an extreme reaction.”
Logan hums. “That is a fair point.”
“It was around Thomas!”
Their host nods. “True, that is pretty nasty.”
Roman is unable to help a shudder. “Gah, yeah I have to admit they’re pretty disturbing. Too many legs, ugh.”
Virgil opens his mouth as if to protest, but then goes still. Roman feels a drip of ice down his spine as something dark passes over Anxiety’s eyes. Their more cautious persona settles into a small grin. “Actually, I change my mind. Your right, Roman.” The prince blinks, surprised.
“Wait, he is?” asks Logan.
“Very right,” says Virgil. “We can’t know for sure what it’s intentions are. So kill it, kill it while you can.”
Thomas cocks his head to the side. “So, you think we should find the rest of the spider?”
“Go right ahead,” Virgil throws his arms wide and his lips stretch in a grin. “I’m all for it. With that sword of his, Roman should have no trouble hunting down the spider and cutting out its heart.” There is something tight in Anxiety’s expression and Roman finds himself holding his breath.
“But you said-”
“I know what I said. Listen to what I am saying now.” Virgil leans forward, rotating his focus between the rest of them and lingering just for a moment longer on Roman. As he does so, Creativity notices for the first time that Virgil’s hair is tinted the slightest shade of purple, just the way it used to be. The observation passes as Anxiety goes on. “I didn’t realize it before, but think about it. If that spider thing didn’t seem strange to me, then it must be part of the Dark side, right?”
Logan nods. “Yes, I had come to a similar conclusion.”
Virgil’s smirk turns to the teacher. “Of course you did, you’re the smartest one here.”
“Oh, well,” Logan fidgets with his glasses. “Thank you.”
“You're welcome. Anyway, we all know Dark sides can’t be trusted.” He starts ticking off on his fingers. “The Duke, Deceit, me. So, at the very least we need to find this thing and figure out what it’s supposed to be.”
“How do we do that?” asks Thomas.
Virgil shrugs. “Well, it’s not like you guys can just go waltzing around the Dark sides’ rooms to look around.” With a heavy sigh, Anxiety runs a hand through his hair. “I suppose I can snoop around a bit and-”
“Oh no,” Patton interrupts. “We are not sending you in on this alone, kiddo. Either we all go, or none of us do.” He punctuates the statement with a firm nod.
Virgil smiles. “Thanks, Dad.”
Morality practically beams. “Aw, you betcha.”
“That still doesn’t solve the practicality issue of traversing the Dark,” says Logan. “The fact remains, none of us will be able to maintain our equilibrium except Anxiety.”
Patton shrugs. “I guess that only leaves Roman’s room then.”
“Roman’s room?” asks Thomas. “What do you mean?”
The prince shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter what it means, it’s not happening.” He looks to Morality. “You know we can’t take Virgil there.”
“I’ll be fine, Roman.”
“No, you won’t!” He can’t actually believe Anxiety is considering it. “Virgil, you know the effect my room will have on you.”
Virgil shrugs. “Same as the effect it will have on Patton, I just need to make sure I stay close to either you or Logan. Don’t worry about it, I trust you.”
“Look, let’s just have Thomas decide.” Virgil turns away from Roman and gestures to their host. “What do you say, Thomas? Care to take a trip into the heart of your Creativity?”
Thomas looks torn between intrigue and concern. “I don’t know. Are you sure you’ll be okay, Virgil?”
Anxiety huffs. “Would I go anywhere I didn’t think I’d be safe?”
“No, I guess not.”
“Then you can bet it’ll be fine.”
Thomas nods. “Okay... if you say so, Virge.” Their host claps his hands and Roman feels like he’s let something important pass him by as Anxiety's dark eyes gleam. “Let’s do it.”
“So, how do we go about getting to Roman’s room?” Thomas asks. “Do I just… think about being creative?”
Logan shakes his head. “That’s not necessary. In this case-” he goes on, but Patton loses focus as his attention is drawn from their host and logical persona to Roman. Their Creativity is standing pressed against Thomas’ television with his arms crossed and a worried crease to his brow. Unable to leave any of the others looking so distraught, Patton lets Logan tackle the logistics of transporting them to the realm of Creativity and turns to its manifestation.
“Hey there, slugger. You doing okay?”
“Hey, Patton.” Roman rubs the side of his arm and shakes his head. “I’m fine. Just… concerned for you two,” he nods to Patton and then across the room to Virgil who is watching Thomas and Logan with a quiet sort of focus.
Morality’s heart flutters a little at the explicit expression of concern and he smiles. “Come on now, it’ll be okay. We’ll have our big, strong prince to protect us!” he waves his hands to encompass all of Roman’s person.
A small smile struggles its way onto the prince’s face, but it drowns as his focus lingers on Anxiety. “Maybe,” he says. “But my room can be dangerous, Pat. All it takes is one slip and,” he flinches without completing the thought. Patton frowns.
“Is it really that bad? But Logan goes there all the time when you need something.”
Roman makes a vague shrug. “Well sure, but he’s Logic. He’s practically immune to the effect my room can have on someone’s mind.” He looks down.
“Hey guys,” Patton jumps at the sudden new voice. They collectively turn to Virgil who offers a small wave. “If we’re really doing this there’s a couple of things I’ve got to do first. I’ll meet you there.”
“Very well,” says Logic. “But don’t take too long, Thomas has important tasks to get to. We can’t let this take all day.”
“Oh sure, tracking down a dark creature in the vast expanse of the imagination,” Roman makes a contorted expression and shrugs. “Shouldn’t be more tedious than a milk run,” he mutters.
“Be seeing you,” Virgil sinks out with a small salute.
“Now, Thomas,” Logan turns to their host. “Like I said, we need you to fall asleep. Once you’ve reached the ideal peak of REM in your sleep cycle, Roman will be able to access the full breadth of your unconscious mind.”
Thomas nods. “Right, sleep.” He turns to the wall clock above the couch. “Logan it’s three p.m.”
Patton winces on behalf of their logical side as Logan closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “Don’t remind me,” he says. “This little misadventure will throw off your entire circadian rhythm for the next two days. Which is why it is imperative we get this over with quickly.” Logan shakes himself off as Thomas lays himself down across the couch. “Now. Sleep.”
Their host flounders. “Wha- I can’t just sleep on command!”
“You could start by closing your eyes,” says Logan, foot beginning to tap an impatient beat against the carpet. Thomas groans and buries himself under a pillow. “Asphyxiation isn’t the answer, Thomas.”
Patton shrugs. “I could tell you a bedtime story?” he offers. “Or get you a glass of warm milk?”
“Don’t think that’ll cut it, Patton,” Thomas says, from under the pillow.
“Ugh, will you just let me,” Roman groans and turns to their host. “Hey, Thomas!”
“Think fast!” As their host looks up from the couch Roman conjures something resembling a semi-solid paper airplane into his hand and flings it across the room. Thomas flails, reaching up from a half-sprawled position to try and catch the sparkling fabrication, and misses completely. The paper plane swerves under their host’s arm to poke him in the head with a soft poof!
“Ooh,” Patton breathes out in awe as the airplane dissolves in a shower of sparks and Thomas’ eyes begin to glaze over. “So pretty… Roman, what was that?”
The prince shrugs, looking decidedly proud as he claps imagined dust from his hands. “Just a little day dream I cooked up just now. Should get his mind to drift just long enough to… ah, there we go.” Thomas blinks, eyes heavy as he tilts over. Patton rushes over and shoves the discarded pillow under their host’s head before he falls.
“Sweet dreams, kiddo.”
As Thomas falls unconscious, the stability of the mindscape begins to wane and Patton can feel the sudden compulsion to sink back into his room. He fights it and looks to Roman. “Okay, now what?”
Patton catches Logan’s eye roll.
“Hold onto your butts!”
Unsure why it’s important, Patton goes ahead and reaches back, mirroring Logan who looks somewhat affronted. Logic says, “I’ve never had to do this before? Roman, why-”
Logan does not get to finish as he suddenly begins to sink, disappearing into a swirl of misting energy that feels like adventure and smells like springtime. Patton giggles, unable to hold back his excitement. “I’ve got my butt!” he says, and lets himself sink down, following the same path that took Logan. He only just catches Roman’s groan before he departs.
“See… this is why we need Virgil.”
Patton shuts his eyes as Thomas’ living room disappears and lets himself drift through an unfamiliar yet comforting river that eventually floats him up to a version of the mindscape with many more bright colors and a definite upgrade in finery.
“Oh my gosh! It’s like the Cinderella suite in here!”
Patton rises up to find Thomas flitting excitedly between one piece of extravagant furniture to the next, while Roman stands beside a wooden dressing screen. “Wow! Roman I love it!” he says.
Logan rises up a moment later. “Good, you all made it.” The teacher looks around, adjusting his glasses. “Where is Anxiety?”
Roman breathes out through his nose. “He knows the way. I’m sure he’ll pop up any second-”
“Miss me?” The dark side himself appears in his normal place, sitting on the steps of an intricate, iron-worked spiral staircase, and leaning his weight almost entirely against the metal banister.
“My child!” Patton cheers as his first instinct dictates, but his bubbling enthusiasm is quickly set adrift when he takes in the way Virgil is holding himself. The sweat beading on his brow, and the eye shadow beneath his eyes so dark it almost reaches up around his eyes like a mask. “Virgil,” he starts, this time far more hesitant. The timidity draws the attention of the other sides. “You okay, pal? You put more makeup on.”
Virgil cringes under the scrutiny for a moment and Patton takes an obliging step backward, wringing his hands beneath his chin as Anxiety’s eyes dart away and he seems to debate with himself. “... fine,” he says at last.
Patton frowns, lower lip sticking out a bit, and puts his hands on his hips. “Now now, mister. What did we say about not expressing our feelings?”
Virgil turns a glare on him, but by this point Patton likes to think he is immune to his favorite shadowling’s knee-jerk hostility. He faces the look of disdain with a patient smile and waits, holding a hand up when he sees Logan about to speak.
It takes a moment, but the wall begins to chip. “I’m just…” says Virgil. “Really, really tired, okay?” Anxiety looks away and presses the heel of one hand against his forehead. “Everything aches and getting here took a lot more out of me than I thought it would.” There is a tinge of red against the pale foundation of the dark side’s cheeks and Patton feels a little bad for making the other side feel embarrassed.
“Perhaps you ought to stay here then,” says Roman. “The wild imagination is not for the faint of heart.” He claps his hands and suddenly Anxiety is surrounded by an array of comfort foods and the lilting music of a string quartet. “It could be like a mini vacation for you. My room can be an excellent host.”
Patton can see the moment Virgil’s eyes go wide, a bit touched by Roman’s consideration. But he can also see when their anxious bean’s own self-deprecating tendencies kick in and he banishes the proffered comforts away with a zephyr of black wind.
“No.” Virgil nearly gets to his feet before sinking -more like falling- back down. “This was partly my idea, wasn’t it? I’m going through with it.”
“I must agree with Virgil,” Logan says before the prince can offer any more objections. “We may need his help to navigate once we reach our destination.”
“Where’s that?” asks Thomas.
With a sigh Roman clears his throat. “Patton. If you will?” he gestures in Morality’s direction and Patton turns to see that he is standing before a bay window shrouded by a beautiful set of burgundy, velvet curtains. With an excited giggle Patton pulls the curtains back.
“Oh, wow…” he marvels.
“Wow Roman that is, that is amazing,” says Thomas as he strides up to stare out across the sweeping landscape of what Patton assumes is their host’s unfiltered imagination. Filled with every landscape, terrain, form of civilization, and environment Thomas could ever possibly conceive of. With a snap of Creativity’s fingers the windows open and Patton and Thomas can leat out of what they can now see is a tower and take in the endless world around them.
“Virgil! Come see this!” Patton says, waving behind his back without actually looking away.
“Nah, you have your fun, Pops. I’m good here.”
A little disappointed but undaunted, Patton sweeps the view until his eyes are drawn to something tucked in the shadow of a looming mountain, near the heart of a dense and vibrant wood. “Hey, Roman!” he calls over his shoulder. “What about that shadowy place?”
Thomas coughs and adopts deeper, more commanding voice. “That’s beyond our borders,” he says, grim and nodding with his arms crossed.
“You must never go there, Patton.” Roman takes up the warning with the same tone and Patton cringes back from the window.
“Huh?” He looks between their host and Creativity, unsure of how everything has gotten so serious all of a sudden. Morality frowns when there is no increase in Thomas’ overall epinephrine levels or subsequent unease from Virgil.
“I don’t understand,” says Logan. “That… that is literally our destination.” He nods in the direction of the dark patch of woods and frowns at Roman.
“They’re quoting Lion King, Logan,” says Virgil. The dark side stands to his feet, pale fingers gripping the banister beside him like a lifeline. “It’s the part of the imagination occupied by the Dark Sides.”
“Really?” Thomas leans forward again and jerks in surprise when a tripod telescope appears at his side. “Neat.” He peeks through the device and swivels it in the direction of the mountain. “But I thought this was all part of Roman’s room?”
“It is,” says Logan. “But the wild imagination is unique, unfiltered. As such, it exists across all realms.” He gestures at the area in question. “Think of it like squares and rectangles. All squares are by nature rectangles, but not all rectangles fit the definition of a square.”
Patton nods. “So, all our rooms exist in the wild imagination.”
“But not all rooms can access the imagination?” Thomas finishes.
“Was that a question or a statement, Thomas?” asks Logan.
The teacher sighs. “Yes. Because he is your Creativity, Roman’s room acts somewhat like a bridge. Here we are standing on one side,” he gestures again to the world beyond. “And out there is the bridge leading simultaneously to all the other rooms, and none of them.”
“This is the safest way for us to explore the Dark Sides’ rooms without becoming overwhelmed,” says Roman. “Now, if we’re all done,” Roman snaps his fingers and the simulacra of Thomas’ living room fades away. They reappear instead on an open field, a picturesque castle at their back. “Let’s be on our way!”
“Wha- just like that?” asks Thomas.
“Well, no,” says Logan. “Roman, explain the rules.”
“Oh, right.” Roman clears his throat. “Remember folks, keep your arms and legs inside the safe zone at all times,” he snaps his fingers and a trail of yellow brick forms at their feet, leading off into the distance.
“Oh! It’s a yellow-brick road!” Patton all but squeals in excitement. “Does this mean we get to link arms? Ooh, I call the scarecrow!”
Roman grins. “I like where your head’s at, Patton.”
Logan frowns. “Attached to his neck?”
“But not quite. Nope, this is just to help you three,” Roman waves his hand to encompass Patton, Virgil, and Thomas, “keep from straying too far away. Thomas, care to help demonstrate?”
“Oh, I don’t know about- okay!” Roman doesn’t wait to hear out their host’s protest before putting a hand to Thomas’ shoulder and giving a slight push. Thomas stumbles, recovering his balance only once he has cleared the road. Patton bites his lip, waiting.
“Thomas, you okay?” he asks, resisting the urge to reach out and pull their host back.
Thomas pats himself down. “Yeah, Patton. I’m-” his eyes are drawn away. Patton hears Virgil give a slight hiss and reaches out to grip the arm of Anxiety’s hoodie. He can feel the touch settle the other side and uses it to ground himself too.
Their host doesn’t answer, he is staring at something Patton can only just make out. It is all fuzzy, vague, but Morality can sense the way it makes Thomas’ heart flutter and fill him with a sense of longing. He begins to walk away.
“Roman, stop him,” says Virgil, now holding the edge of Patton’s cat hoodie where he thinks their fatherly side can’t see.
From the head of the group Logan sighs. “Fear not,” and strides outside of the safe zone. Logic sets a quick pace and catches up to Thomas before he can stray too far, taking their host by the hand and leading him back onto the paved road. The moment their host crosses the line, his eyes clear.
“Whoa,” Thomas says. “What was that?”
“A fantasy,” says Logan, fixing his glasses. “The imagination holds a great deal of sway here. If you allow yourself to lose focus, it will consume you.”
Roman clears his throat. “I’m a fluid part of the imagination, so it doesn’t affect me. And Logan is so incompatible with it, he acts like a deadzone.”
“What makes you incompatible?” asks Patton, quirking his head.
Logan sniffs. “Fantasies are nothing but insubstantial fabrications of the subconscious. They’re not real and therefore, hold no temptation for me.”
“Fancy way of saying you’re boring,” Roman mutters, only to be quelled by matching looks of disapproval from Thomas and Patton. “The important thing is, the two of us can hold of the effect much better if you stay close. You still need to avoid letting your mind drift too far but, if we get separated you’ll be on your own.”
“Stay on the path then,” says Thomas. “Got it.”
“Oh, and Virgil,” Roman calls out to Anxiety. Patton is a bit concerned to see that the other side has his hood drawn up and his hands stuffed firmly in his pockets. “I promise, whatever you see… just remember that this right here,” he gestures to their close knit circle. “This is what’s real.” He reaches out and takes Virgil by the crook of the elbow. Anxiety flinches, causing Patton to hold his breath in preparation for a fight. Except, instead of resisting the grip, Virgil lets Roman tug him up to the front. Patton feels a little swell of pride in his two kids for becoming so amiable.
“Stay close to me, okay?” says the prince, so quiet it’s almost a whisper. Patton doesn’t think Logan and Thomas even caught it.
Virgil’s eyes dip for a moment to the sword at Roman’s hip, only for him to shake his head and look up to meet Creativity’s eyes. He nods.
“Alright then!” Roman beams, slinging his arm around Virgil’s shoulders and waving for the rest to follow. “We’re off to see the wizard!"
“The wonderful Wizard of Oz!” Thomas cheers as they begin to move forward.
“Um… um, no. No we’re not.” Logan looks concerned as he takes up the rear and Patton lingers back to link arms with him. “Thomas, we’re here to look for the spider, remember?”
Patton giggles and rests his head against Logan’s shoulder as they walk. “Just let them sing, Lo.”
They walk until grassy plain gives way to shrub-filled meadow. Meadow gives way to forest, and forest draws close into dense wood. The canopy above their heads thickens to blacken out the sun and the even path of paved stone beneath their feet fades into an unsteady trail of autumn-crisped litter of yellowed leaves. The air grows chill and while the sides around him begin to see their exhales manifest before their eyes, Virgil finds his own breaths come easier. The persistent ache in his chest and the raw drain of energy from his severed leg begins to ebb as the Dark greets him like welcomed friend.
“Hey, is it just me or did it just get a heck of a lot creepier around here?” asks Thomas, quickening his stride to stick his head between where Roman and Virgil walk shoulder to shoulder.
Their creative side jumps, shoulders bunching beneath the fabric of his white coat and Virgil stifles a snicker of amusement. By the glare Roman shoots in his direction, the attempt is not well carried out. Not that he’d tried that hard, to be honest. “We’re getting closer to the realms of the Dark sides,” says Roman.
A half-decayed cedar tree eases its limbs as Virgil passes, allowing him to easily push its branches aside as he goes. Behind him, Roman takes his sword to a much stouter bough with far less luck. In the same breath, an unfortunately-placed tree root catches Thomas unawares and their host sprawls on the ground, the echo of an unpleasant twinge shooting through all the sides’ ankles.
“Ow! What the heck!”
Patton is quick to rush over, abandoning Logan who continues his steady stride and is already conjuring an ice pack and wrap. Morality bites the nails of his left hand while the right gingerly rolls up Thomas' pant leg. “Are you hurt, kiddo?”
Thomas does his best to knock his moral sides’ hands away while trying to suppress the grimace on his face. “M’fine, Pat.”
“Your subconscious is attempting to warn you off of continuing down this path,” says Logan, handing the ice pack in his hands to Patton without a word. Thomas hisses as the cold touches quickly swelling skin. “It may be prudent to halt here for the time being. Until your mind has accustomed to the idea.”
“So, the woods are literally attacking me?” Thomas asks, suddenly looking up as if he expects the pines above to start raining needles upon his head. It’s actually not out of the realm of possibility and Virgil is quick to extend his awareness out in a protective bubble around their host.
“Here, stay close to me.” He backtracks. Without realizing it Virgil finds that his easy steps have pulled him a good distance from the rest of the group. He jogs the rest of the way and sits himself down beside his host’s knee. “The trees like me here.”
“How convenient,” Logan mutters, pulling a stray maple leaf from his hair.
“Yeah, Virgey here’s like a friggin wood elf when it comes to dark side territory,” says Roman, who finally makes it back to the rest of the group with his hair a mess and an unfortunate stain of green across his chest. He combs his fingers through his mussed tresses with a huff. “Care to spread the wealth, emo?”
Virgil sneers back. “Maybe they don’t like you swinging your pointy stick around? Logan and Pat seem to be doing okay.” Patton actually has a twig stuck in his hoodie and Logan might have picked up a tick at some point, but Virgil forgoes mentioning those things for the time being. He’ll help them pick off the stray passengers later.
“Also, continuous use will dull the blade, Roman.”
“Logan, it’s a conjured sword, it doesn’t dull,” Roman says, using the clean fabric on the cuff of his sleeve to polish the sap-drenched steel. Even so, he does sheath the blade without further prompting and sits himself down in the loose circle they seem to have unconsciously formed.
“So, what? We’re camping here?” Thomas asks, peeking around. “I thought Logan said we had to do this quickly?”
“Never fear Thomas,” Logan appears from somewhere off the path with a pile of twigs and dry leaves in his arms. “Time passes differently in the imagination. A day here can mean as little as a minute in the real world.”
“Indeed! Our quest may be arduous, but through hell or high water, we will overcome.”
Virgil snickers as Roman’s proclamation is met by a slightly horrified look from their host. “Not feeling the adventurous spirit, Thomas?” He elbows his host in the knee.
“No, I just… didn’t really prepare myself for a ‘quest’,” he actually air quotes that and Virgil wants to frame a picture of Princey’s face as he says it. “What are we going to eat? Drink? … How are we supposed to do our business?”
“He means poop,” Patton says, clarifying to no one.
“There’s always a bush,” says Virgil, jerking a thumb in the direction of a nice mulberry shrub.
Thomas looks affronted and Roman is quick to step in before Virgil has time to fully bask in their host’s swelling anxiety. “This is all in your head, Thomas,” he says, and Virgil forces himself not to hiss in disappointment. He could have ridden that string of anxious tension for a while until Thomas figured it out. “You don’t need to do those things.”
“Unless you want to for some reason,” says Logan.
“Oh, good. That’s- that’s good.” Thomas seems to sag in relief and lays himself down on the bed of leaves beneath him. “Say-,” he breaks off in a yawn. “If I fall asleep in a dream, do I go into a second layer of dreaming?”
“Like Inception?” asks Virgil.
Roman taps his chin. “While that would be an interesting twist, I’m afraid not.”
“S’chill,” Thomas seems to be losing the fight against sleep and Logan conjures a field blanket that he drapes over their host as his eyes slide shut. Patton settles himself against a tree, shifting Thomas’ twisted ankle so it rests elevated on his lap.
“Why don’t we call it a night, kiddos,” he says.
Logan nods and pretends not see Morality’s grin. “I agree, Thomas needs to adjust himself to these surroundings. If he needs to sleep to do so, we should allow it.” He sits down against the same trunk as Patton and wills himself a book and headlamp, settling in to read.
The sky above the tree canopy darkens into full night and next it is Roman who prepares to bed down. The prince shifts over, leaving a clumsy trail of swept aside leaves as he moves closer to Virgil.
Anxiety arches an eyebrow as Creativity darts quick looks to the other sides and seems to confirm that they are not paying them any mind. Under his hoodie, a slithering, chord-like body shifts against Virgil’s torso.
“Speaking of adjustments,” Roman whispers. “How are you faring?”
Virgil frowns. “Fine, Roman. This place likes me remember?” The spider’s realm may loom in the stygian heart of the mountain beyond the forest, but everything Dark was still his home. The ground beneath him has changed itself from leaves to a soft carpeting of moss, and the chorus of owls and crickets in the air is almost as soothing as the ambient music Logan would download for him to listen to on his headphones.
“Just drop it, okay?”
Roman flinches back a little, and Virgil would feel bad if not for the insistent tug of a scaled coil around his left bicep. He sighs. “Look, thanks for the concern and all,” he says. “But right now, I’m okay. I promise.”
The prince looks reluctant to believe him, but does give Anxiety a small nod. “Very well. Just… stay close tonight,” he shifts his gaze to Thomas, then back. “For Thomas.”
Virgil nods, disappointed for reasons he does not care to examine too closely. “For Thomas.”
Apparently in agreement, Roman curls up right there on the ground, the bend of his spine pressing ever so slightly against the worn denim of Virgil’s jeans. Anxiety watches the steady rise and fall of Creativity’s chest until it slows to a pace more indicative of sleep.
A glance to the other side of the group reveals Patton to have his head tilted back against the tree, a small trail of drool slipping from the corner of his mouth. Logan, it seems, has also run out of steam. He holds his book by dangling fingertips and the headlamp strapped across his forehead bobs its circle of light in time with his breaths.
It appears Virgil is the last side standing.
“About time,” the yellow serpent-head peeking from his hoodie hisses into his ear. “Let’ssss go sssssomewhere a little more covert." The snake slides itself free from where it has wound itself around Virgil’s person and settles more comfortably across Anxiety’s shoulders.
Flicking the serpent in the head and then pulling his hand away before he gets bit, Virgil climbs to his feet. After sending a pulse of will into the trees, warning them to let Thomas rest easy, he makes his way to the edge of the yellow path Roman has set, and steps over it.
The effect is near instantaneous. Where within Creativity’s barrier the shroud of night had basked Virgil in navy blanket of comforting shade, the black weight of a starless sky raises the hairs on the back of his neck. The chorus of night fauna becomes the hunting cry of predators. Virgil takes a deep breath, and lets the flood of fear and apprehension flow through his every pore.
The last of his pain fades away as the serpent across his shoulders makes its descent.
“Feel better?” Deceit coalesces into his more human shape, a proud angle to his serpent jaw.
Virgil doesn’t answer right away, tilting his head up and letting the icy night wind brush against his face. He knows his eyes must be alight in their purple glow at the moment, seeing as the world around them goes stark and silent. The figments around them know full well that a greater predator stands in their midst.
“You were right,” he sighs and his eyeshadow recedes back to its normal state. “It doesn’t hurt now.”
Deceit leans his shoulder against a nearby tree, opening one palm in expectation when a bright red apple is dropped from up above. “I’m always right,” he says, taking a single bite before tossing the fruit away. Virgil watches the apple as it falls, rolling across the ground and decaying as it goes still under a looming shadow.
“Lie.” Virgil does his best to ignore the urge to wander off into the trees. He knows that the whispers in the wind are only figments conjured by this part of Roman’s realm, but he wants to follow. He catches sight of fluttering black wings in a nearby tree and his mouth waters. His fangs pulse within his mouth. Desperate to sink into living flesh.
“Focus, Virgil.” Deceit is at his side in a moment, wrapping a hand around his wrist and tethering him to reality. Or whatever counts for reality when inside the wild imagination. “Wouldn’t want you to wander off without your friends, now would we?”
The spider glares, even more so when it is met with nothing but a smirk from Deceit. He says, “I shouldn’t be here. You never should have let them decide to come here.”
The serpent shrugs. “Nothing for it I’m afraid. But at least you get something out of it.” Deceit does not try to hide his careful consideration of Virgil from head to toe. Virgil wonders if it says something about him that he does not find the gaze as prying as he might have in recent memory. “Tell me,” says the serpent. “How do you feel right now?”
Virgil rolls his eyes. “I feel…” Anxious, is the word that first comes to mind. It is the feeling he expects, that is his aspect. But… it does not make it past his lips. Virgil blinks and reevaluates and is surprised to find anxiety far from his mind. It is not apprehension he feels, standing here with Deceit. It’s, “anticipation.” The calm before the storm. The moment of stillness before the kill. The spider awaiting the fly from the safety of its web.
Deceit’s serpent eye sparkles and his tongue darts out in excitement. He does not even seem to notice that the forked muscle brushes Virgil’s cheek before he is stepping away, willing his normal hat and cape away in favor of a much more functional shirt and pants of the same color scheme. “Well then,” he says, dancing around the trunk of a sprawling oak. “Why not have a little fun?”
Virgil rails against the sudden spiking of his heartbeat. The instinctual urge to give in to the serpent’s offer. He can feel the limbs against his back shifting under his skin. They want to come out. They want to play. “I can’t,” he says instead. “I need to get back to the others.” He turns to go, but does not take more than a few steps. He needs Deceit to guide his way, or risk becoming lost entirely.
“Come on, Virgil. Just for a bit.” And oh if it doesn’t sound so tempting… The spider feels the conspiratorial brush of the forest’s shadows. They whisper that together they can win. That the night is young and Thomas will sleep a while yet before his subconscious allows the others any closer to the Dark.
They have time.
Without permission, the spider’s lips curl up in a predatory grin. His fangs descend, short and thick where Deceit’s hang long and thin, and drip with deadly poison. He lets his limbs slide free, finding purchase on nearby rocks and trees, and glances over his shoulder. Deceit bares his fangs back at him.
“Better get running then,” Virgil’s tempest tongue abides.
He doesn’t think he’s seen Deceit look so pleased. “Catch me if you can.” The serpent darts into the trees, sinking into the form of an amber anaconda that darts through the leaf litter and the trees. The spider gives chase.
He makes for the canopy, long spider limbs carrying him up and away fast enough to keep pace with the darting snake below. And as he reaccustoms himself to moving on eight legs instead of two, the spider’s mind begins to work. Mapping the woods and recording the serpent’s tendencies as it hedges left and encourages Deceit to make a break to the right. The spider laughs. Laughs and dances through the woods because it knows there is no escape.
He will catch the serpent. He knows it with the same assurity that tells the spider that Deceit has an agenda the side has not yet shared with him. But that will come later. For now, the dark sides revel in their game of chase, and Virgil delights in the ghost of what once was.
It has been a long time since Deceit has felt the cold shiver of fear that comes from being under the singular focus of a predator. His method of affectation has rarely necessitated such risk beyond carefully planned forays. But he finds, racing through the forest floor of the wild imagination, that with the spider’s shadow streaking overhead he does not mind it so much. It is a thrill he so rarely gets to feed. After all, Virgil may be the one giving chase at the moment, but in the grand scheme it will be Deceit who snares his prey.
He angles his serpentine body into the hollowed-out shell of a collapsed tree trunk and doubles back, tasting the air as the rustle of leaves gives away the spider’s position in the canopy. Deceit basks in the momentary victory before rounding back. As much as he wants to consolidate his advantage, he won’t let Virgil get too far away. The effects of Creativity’s realm can be swift to overwhelm and without Deceit to stave it off, the spider is almost certain to succumb.
Deceit begins an arcing loop, intending to flank Virgil’s leaping form when he senses something approaching with alarming speed. The serpent sidewinds to the left, torquing his body and darting to the side just in time to dodge a sprawling net of webbing that encompasses two full trees.
He must not have gotten as much of a drop on his spider as he’d thought. He encounters another webbed barrier up ahead and turns back into a forward dash, dropping his snake form in favor of opposable thumbs. Deceit digs his bare, scaled hands into the leaf litter and flings a collection of rock and soil backwards, using the accompanying distraction as cover to dart away.
He catches Virgil’s laughter as the spider comes colliding with the ground, glowing purple eyes catching Deceit’s gaze over the serpent’s shoulder. "You’ll have to do better than that,” he says, giving chase again, this time from the ground. Four of his legs have retracted, giving the other dark side more room to run on his human limbs. The grin on his face is all teeth.
Deceit tosses his head back and laughs, even as he has to drop flat on the ground to dodge another of Virgil’s nets. Brown hair obstructs his vision and the serpent brushes it aside with a puff of air as he scrambles up. “Haven’t caught me yet,” says Deceit. He makes a mad dash for a wall of thorny shrubs. Half aware that he stands very little chance against the fight-or-flight instinct when it comes to a foot race, he goes flat the moment he feels a change in the current of air at his back.
As a rush of purple and black flies overhead Deceit is almost assured that he’s managed to gain another few seconds of lead time when an arm like a bolt of iron encircles his waist. The pair of them go tumbling across the ground and when the world stops spinning, Deceit is flat on his back, a grinning spider perched up above.
They are both panting. Once it becomes obvious by the caging limbs spaced equidistant around them that Deceit is going nowhere, he lets his head fall back against the mess of leaves beneath him and sighs. The cool air of night is ambrosia to his burning lungs and he drinks it in. He can feel the brush of Virgil’s exhales flutter against the skin and scale of his cheeks. There are twigs and leaves tangled in his hair, but Deceit hardly cares.
“That has to be the most fun I’ve had in years,” he practically laughs into the air, letting his eyes fall shut to bask. He doesn’t particularly want to see Virgil’s expression in case-
Well… he’d rather let himself imagine.
There is a hand pressed against his sternum, and Deceit can feel the slight prickle of claws catching the fabric of his conjured black shirt. It is their only point of physical contact, but through it he can feel Virgil’s body lift and fall with his breathing. His more human hand might come up to press it more firmly against his chest, but who’s to say? Deceit can feel the pounding of his own three-chambered heart through both palms.
The hand is not pulled away.
“You’re a terrible influence, you know that?”
The words he barely registers, but it is the laugh behind the tone that draws the serpent’s gaze up. Virgil is still crouched above him, braced on four of his spider limbs and straddling Deceit across the waist. The other side’s pale cheeks are flushed from exertion and purple-toned hair dangles in a tangled mess to shadow half his face. His grin is lessened somewhat, but there is still an upturn to the spider’s lips.
Deceit swallows to give himself time to find composure. “It’s a gift,” he says, but is sure he misses the goal of cool amusement by a few degrees. He can’t stop looking at the sight of Virgil’s silhouette, spider legs arching from his back with severe grace. The cloak of Dark encompassing all from above.
Virgil huffs. “You’re such an asshole.” To Deceit’s immense disappointment, the spider rolls his shoulders and retracts his limbs, reclaiming his hand from the serpent’s chest in favor of tipping over to lay beside him on the ground. For a moment there is nothing the the air but their synchronized breathing.
“Thanks for that.”
Deceit turns his head to meet Virgil’s eyes. The spider makes a vague gesture to the space around them. “For the- you know, the chase. You were right, I haven’t had that much fun in a while.” A small chuckle slips out before the spider can think better of it, and Deceit pretends not to notice.
Taking a calculated risk, Deceit hums in reminiscence. “Reminds me of when we rooted out Malice.”
“Ha! Yes, I remember!” The angle of Virgil’s head tilts back as he laughs, full-bodied into the sky. “That stupid wolf thought he was so high and mighty- never thought to look up.”
“Hey!” Deceit protests. “I lost a few scales off my tail from that.”
Virgil’s smirk twists on a knife’s edge and he bares his fangs. “You lost those because you thought it was a good idea to swallow a nightmare right before. Not my fault you were a little slower than usual.”
Deceit may or may not toss a handful of leaves in the spider’s face. “Admit it, you were too busy enjoying watching me struggle to jump in sooner.”
“Fine, fine.” Virgil snorts and brushes the debris from his face. “It wasn’t like I was going to let you get eaten. Otherwise who else would I have to help me keep the Dark in order?”
Deceit pretends to think for a moment. “Remus?”
They both cringe a little at the thought.
The memories are as fleeting as they are joyful and the serpent joins the spider in a moment of camaraderie.
Too soon, Virgil sighs and sits up, burying a hand in his mussed hair. Deceit watches him from where he still lays on the ground. The expression of feral satisfaction is slow to die, but when it does the spider is left with a distant frown. “What’s wrong?” he asks.
“What am I going to do, Deceit?” Virgil doesn’t look at him, but the way he stares at the ground is like he expects to read the answer in the leaves. “About the others?”
Of course. It would be easy to forget, if Deceit were one to do so, the presence of the three Light sides sleeping not far off in their little protective bubble. But their host is slumbering among them too, and soon enough Thomas will wake, and Virgil’s absence will be noted. Disappointed but not surprised, Deceit sits up. Their shoulders are close but do not brush.
“Let them spin their wheels. We have time.”
“Not much.” Virgil picks a stray twig from his hoodie and chucks it away. “Patton and Roman might be oblivious morons half the time, but Logan’s going to notice if I start leading them in circles. Regardless they won’t stop until they find the spider.”
“And when they do?” Deceit watches Virgil cringe, one hand reaching over his shoulder to the junction where his legs would sprout. He can see the phantom pain of the limb Creativity had severed dance across the spider’s face.
Deceit draws the claws of his serpent hand through the leaves on the ground beside him, and pretends not to see the way Virgil shudders in fear. He plucks a knotted twig from the mess and holds it between two fingers. “You don’t need to be afraid of him.” With the sudden crack and tearing of wood fibers the twig snaps in two. “He won’t get another chance to hurt you. I promise.”
“Leave him alone, Deceit. He was protecting Thomas, he didn’t know.” The glare Virgil sends his way falls on unrepentant eyes.
Deceit tosses the remaining half of his twig over his shoulder and lets his tongue slip out in disdain. “He cut your leg off, Virgil. If he points that shiny sword of his anywhere near you it’ll be the last thing he does.”
“How about we focus on not letting it come to that.” The spider shifts around in his seated position and somehow ends up even closer, though still not quite touching Deceit. The serpent can feel the negative space where he would normally expect body heat coming from the other side. Spiders, like snakes, are cold-blooded after all. They just don’t seek heat quite the same way. Virgil continues, “I hope you had some kind of plan when you let the others decide to come here.”
“Half a plan,” says Deceit, turning his hand one way then the other. “For now, I suggest you lead them towards my realm.”
The confused tilt to the spider’s head makes Deceit smirk. “Even that simpleton Morality must know I tried to keep Logan and Roman from drawing attention to your leg. Tell them they might find answers in my realm and I’m sure Creativity will leap at the opportunity.”
“And then what?”
Unable to help himself, Deceit leans forward close enough that he can feel Virgil’s breath against his nose. The spider doesn’t twitch and the serpent hums in amusement. “Let me worry about the detailsssss,” his tongue dances a hair’s breadth from Virgil’s ear. “At the very least it will buy us more time.”
“Fine.” Virgil smirks and brings a hand up to hover between them. Deceit holds still as the spider’s delicate claws draw near to his face. A finger winds itself around a coiled lock of Thomas’ brown hair. He says, “You know, without the stupid hat, I can almost take you seriously.”
Deceit releases a breath of air. “Maybe I’ll leave it off then.”
“Nah,” Virgil releases the coil and leans back. “You’d look too much like Princey.”
Deceit grimaces, not quite able to parcel what the spider means by that before Virgil is climbing to his feet. He offers Deceit a hand, and he takes it without question. When they are both standing Deceit realizes that the dark pitch of night has begun to lighten. The leaves of the upper canopy have gone from a dark mossy color to deep emerald green. Dawn will reach them soon.
“We should be heading back.”
He isn’t sure if it’s the effect of the wild imagination or simply him misinterpreting, but Deceit is almost certain he can hear the bite of disappointment in Virgil’s tone as he says it. Not that he doesn’t share the sentiment.
With a twist of will, the serpent summons his normal attire, snapping the grime of their woodland chase from his person. A wave of his hand does the same for Virgil. “I suppose you’re right.”
“Well then?” Virgil offers his palm, a look of expectancy upon his face. Deceit sighs, settling his serpent palm in the spider’s hand and twining their fingers together. He lets himself melt into the sensation, abandoning his more human shape to follow the twisting coils of scale that twine themselves against Virgil’s skin. He shrinks, condenses, and then expands into his aspect, extending his body of chorded muscle along the length of the spider’s arm. He exerts a force of will to retain only a single head, appearing as a golden python as he hovers his face before Virgil, waiting for permission.
The spider hooks a finger in the collar of his hoodie and pulls it back. “Go on,” he says, gesturing with his chin.
Deceit bobs his head and descends into the space between Virgil’s jacket and t-shirt, coiling himself over one shoulder and then three times around the other side’s torso before angling back up. He curves over the opposite shoulder and settles with his head resting against Virgil’s collarbone.
“Comfortable?” the spider’s voice rumbles through Deceit’s entire being.
“Yessssssss.” He cannot help but let the affirmation linger, and tighten his hold ever so slightly.
“Good,” says Virgil, and Deceit can feel them start to move. “Stay put. Once we make it to your realm you can slip out.” The crunch of leaves beneath Virgil’s feet are only broken by the first calls of a mourning dove as they backtrack to Creativity’s pathway. They close the distance quickly, Deceit’s influence pushing back the misleading draw of passing fantasies like two matching magnetic poles. As they draw near however, a presence begins to hover at the edge of Deceit’s awareness. One that oozes drivel and makes Deceit’s scales itch.
It only takes a moment more for Virgil to notice the same thing and go still. “The Duke.”
Deceit shifts his head up and down in confirmation. The serpent can feel the tensing of muscle as Virgil balls his hands into fists and all at once they are racing forward, crossing the last few meters of dense tree cover to the Light sides’ camp. They crash through a thorny shrub and Deceit peeks through a patch of loose stitching at Virgil’s shoulder.
Above, the first light of dawn is lighting the yellow path Creativity has set though it seems their host as well as Logic and Morality have yet to be roused. The prince himself however, is awake and standing not far off from his twin, sword raised and fury on his face. That rage melts to something far less self-assured when both halves of Creativity turn to witness Virgil’s less than covert entrance.
Roman says something, but Deceit barely registers it as he watches the Duke grin. He is not sure what could have possibly possessed the octopus to show himself with the spider riding so close to the surface of Virgil’s being, but he does not like it. He can practically feel the walls going up in Virgil’s mind, undoing everything Deceit had worked to achieve in the last few hours. The serpent strangles a sibilant hiss. He and the Duke will have to have a word soon about professional courtesy.