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Daniel dies in his brother’s arms. All things considered, it could have been worse.

“It also could have been better,” a voice points out.

Daniel opens his eyes to see an impressively mustachioed man in a waistcoat and cravat standing over him. Fuck. It’s true then.

“Jesus Christ, I’m dead. Can’t it just be over?”

Le Bail raises an eyebrow. “You really don’t want to see how it ends?”

He really doesn’t.

But he's only a ghost now and there’s not much else he can do. Leaving his body behind, he follows Le Bail to the games room.

Alex and Grace are there, both with Daniel’s blood on their hands. Alex steps towards her and she flinches back.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry too.” He sniffs, voice choked with tears. “Daniel’s dead.” It’s almost enough to make Daniel wish he weren’t.

Grace just stares at him, wide eyed and ready to run.

“You won’t be with me after this, will you?” Alex says.

She doesn’t answer.

Alex moves towards her slowly, reaching out to touch her face. She doesn’t flinch this time, even relaxes a little against his palm. He brings up his other hand and Daniel watches with growing horror as his little brother makes his decision.

“Alex. Alex, you’re hurting me,” she gasps.

“I don’t want to see this,” Daniel says, backing away, shaking his head.

Closing his eyes doesn’t stop him hearing it though - Alex shouting for the rest of the family and Grace screaming, fighting like she has been this entire fucking time.

“Atta boy,” his father says when he enters. He's got that gleam in his eye reserved only for Alex. The others have rushed in too, staring in horror, but not at Grace.

Daniel hadn’t even noticed his mother dead on the floor at their feet.

“Where’s her ghost?” he asks Le Bail, looking down on the smashed ruin of his mother’s face. He’s pretty sure he ought to be feeling something, sinking to his knees with grief like his father and sister. Maybe being dead himself he’s beyond that now. Or maybe all he’s got left is caught up in Grace’s screams, muffled by Alex’s hand over her mouth.

Le Bail doesn’t answer, just takes his seat at the head of the table as Aunt Helene directs Emilie to get the kids for the ritual.

 

It’s a slapdash version of the first go around and this time Daniel’s too dead to stop it. All he can do is watch as they get Grace up onto the table, each using their weight to pin down a struggling limb. Alex takes his place at the head, knife in hand. It wasn't meant to be this way. Daniel was supposed to protect him from this.

They’re all chanting, even the kids. Alex stares right down at Grace, who’s looking up at him desperately. Daniel searches for any sign of his little brother, the good brother, the one who does the right thing and gets the fuck out, but there’s nothing. Alex raises the knife and plunges it down.

Daniel has no idea how she does it, how she’s even moving after everything she’s been through, but Grace wrenches one of her hands free and moves just in time for the knife to strike her shoulder instead of her heart. She pulls it out and brandishes it at his family as she scrambles off the table, screaming all the while, her voice hoarse with it. She looks and sounds like a wild thing, daring anyone to come close to her. They back away.

With a despairing screech, his aunt throws open the curtain and the light of day washes over them all.

His family flinch away from it like fucking vampires and then... nothing.

“Nothing?” he asks Le Bail as his family slowly comes to terms with their continued existence, stuttering and confused. “You were real this whole time and you’re not even going to do anything?” He lets out a disbelieving laugh. All those broken hearted newlyweds, all those bodies in the goat pit for nothing.

“We’ll see,” says Le Bail.

“What should we do about her?” asks Fitch, nodding to Grace in the corner, trembling and ready to stab anyone who comes near her.

“I know it is too late,” Aunt Helene says to the chair holding Le Bail. “But I will not fail you again.” She grabs her axe and screams, “The girl still dies!”

Le Bail shakes his head and with a twitch of his finger, Aunt Helene explodes.

“Jesus,” Daniel says, staring in awe at his family’s blood splattered faces.

“What the fuck!” screams his wife. Well, his widow.

Le Bail gets up and starts the record player, that old timey hide and seek song playing jauntily as one by one his family just fucking explodes.

Grace begins to laugh, the white of her teeth bright against her blood soaked face. Daniel laughs too. It’s all so absurd.

That is, until it’s his brother’s turn. He’s the last one left and Le Bail doesn’t make a move, back in his chair and watching intently as Alex turns to Grace.

It hurts to see him so terrified and hurts worse how pathetic he is in it, calling Grace honey and sweetie like he didn’t just have a literal knife over her heart, apologizing and insisting he isn’t like the rest of them. In that moment, Daniel hates him.

“He’s not taking me! Right?” Alex says, manic and condescending. “I get a do over sweetie, and that’s because of you, yeah?”

Daniel can’t even blame her when she takes off the ring. “Oh Alex," she sighs. "I want a divorce.”

With a final twitch of the finger, Alex explodes, just as the tossed back ring hits him. Le Bail’s got timing, he’ll give him that.

Grace is soaked in his little brother’s blood and there’s absolutely nothing on her bright expressive face. No triumph, no heartbreak, fucking nothing. Daniel knows the feeling.

She looks toward Le Bail’s chair, toward Daniel standing beside it, and for a second it’s almost like she can see them.

“Fuck,” she says shortly, then turns away, picks up his mother’s cigarette case from a pool of blood, and leaves.

Daniel watches her go, only turning back to Le Bail when there’s nothing left to see. “So is that it? Do I go join my family in hell now?”

“If you’d like.”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“I’d like to offer you a deal.”

Daniel snorts. “And what? All it’ll cost is my immortal soul?”

Le Bail raises an eyebrow in amusement. “I thought you didn’t have one of those.”

“Touché.”

“Here’s the deal. You get a chance to change the outcome. To do the night over again.”

“Why the hell would I want to do that? She already won.”

“I told you, it could have gone better.”

“It also could have gone worse.”

Le Bail nods. “That is the risk, yes.”

He’s about to tell Le Bail to fuck off back to hell, he has no interest in saving himself or his fucking family, but then... he’d died in Alex’s arms. And Alex had looked so distraught talking to Grace afterward. He didn’t know what had happened, he probably thought Grace had killed him like she’d obviously killed their mother. He didn’t know. It’s not Alex’s fault he’d fallen back in with the family, not when Daniel had worked so hard to shield him from the worst of them.

And now he has the chance to protect him one last time, to save Alex from himself. If Alex hadn’t betrayed Grace, he would have lived. They can both survive, get away from the rest of them and live happily ever after like they were always supposed to. And if Daniel has a chance to help them, how can he not take it?

“Why me?” he asks. “Why do I get a do over?”

“You’re the one who broke the cycle.” He quirks an eyebrow. “Burned it all down.”

Daniel hadn’t even noticed the flames flickering into the room and whooshing up the curtains. Right. His father had said something about fire. He brushes a hand through one and doesn’t feel a thing.

“I’d say you’ve earned it,” Le Bail says.

“And what, maybe I fuck it all up and you get your sacrifice after all?”

Le Bail just smiles at him. “Do you want to play the game or not?”

Daniel sighs. “Alright. Do we need to shake on it or-”

 

 

Who wants to play a game? It’s time for hide and seek.

He’s still in the games room, that creepily cheery song tinkling out through the record player, but the morning sun is gone. Holy shit. He’s alive. They all are.

His father hands him a rifle and he accepts it automatically, just like the night before. Last time he’d been drunk and dead inside. Now he’s still drunk, but his mind is racing. He stupidly hadn’t expected to be thrown right in with no time to strategize, or even just to warn Grace. But of course that would have been too easy. He looks at Alex, sitting alone on the couch as their father arms the rest of the family, one by one. Alex alive. And somehow, he’s gonna keep him that way.

The music ends and Daniel hangs back as the rest of them file out, hoping to talk to his brother.

“Come on son,” his father barks, urging him out with a jerk of his head.

Their mother has stayed to talk to Alex anyway so Daniel resigns himself to circling back once everyone’s spread out.

He walks upstairs, struggling to piece together everything that had happened the last time. It must have been at least half an hour before anyone spotted Grace, where had she been hiding in the meantime? And when had Alex escaped to the security room?

A head peeks out of a doorway in front of him then ducks back. It’s the newest in the long line of beautiful women his father hires as “maids” - Daniel can never remember their names. He does however quite vividly remember dumping their bodies in the goat pit a few hours before dawn.

“Hey,” he says, opening the door and pulling the girl out. “Where are the others?”

“What?” she says, trembling.

“The other maids.”

“Um, Clara’s in the nursery with the kids and Tina’s... uh, I um...” she struggles under his impatient gaze before finally spitting out, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

“Alright, that’s good enough. Come with me.”

Luck is with him and they catch Tina coming out of the guest bathroom. He drags them both to the kid’s room, waking Clara, who’d evidently fallen asleep on babysitting duty.

She springs to her feet when they enter, stuttering an apology that he cuts off, pushing all three of them back from the door.

“Alright, I don’t know what you’ve been told, but for the rest of the night, you’re staying in this room. No matter what you hear, no matter what you see, you do not leave, got it?”

Whether it’s his uncharacteristic seriousness or the very large gun on his back, they all nod intently.

“What about Georgie?” Clara asks with a worried glance at the empty bed.

“Don’t worry about Georgie. What matters is that you don’t leave this room. Not for anything.”

They nod again and he turns to leave, then pivots back, remembering. “Unless the house is literally on fire,” he amends. “Then get out.”

At that he does leave. All right, possibly three lives saved in the first five minutes. He’s got this.

 

He rushes back downstairs, slowing as he nears the games room. Charity is standing guard, touching up her makeup in the mirror.

“What are you doing here?” she says, eyes narrowing as she catches sight of him over her shoulder.

“Thought I’d come keep Alex company.”

“Isn’t there something more useful you should be doing?”

He snorts. “Come on. You really think I’m gonna be the one to catch her?”

She almost smiles at that. “I suppose there’s no harm.”

Daniel gives a mocking nod in thanks, then enters the games room, closing the door behind him.

Alex turns, already halfway in the secret entrance to the servant’s corridor. Of course he got out through the servant’s corridor, Jesus, how did none of them think of that when they shut him in?

“Don’t try to stop me,” Alex warns.

“I’m not,” Daniel says, advancing slowly. “I wanna help.”

“Help,” Alex repeats skeptically.

“Yeah. You are going to find Grace, aren’t you?”

“I’m not just gonna lead you to her,” Alex says, the set of his jaw stubborn.

Daniel supposes he can’t blame him. At this point in the last go around he had undeniably been helping with the hunt for Grace. But come on, he was never so gung ho about it that he’d try and manipulate her location out of her husband. Who does Alex think he is, their mother?

“I’m on your side, Alex. You can trust me.”

Alex hesitates. “I trust you not to follow me,” he says gently. And he’s gone. Shit.

Daniel doesn’t follow him. Alex needs to find Grace and warn her about what’s happening, like he presumably did the last time, and Daniel doesn’t want to distract from that. Still, he’s going to have to find them somehow.

“Back so soon?” Charity says when he exits.

“Yeah, a bit too depressing in there, even for me.”

“Hmm, poor thing,” she says, syrupy sweet.

“An attempt at human sympathy!" he marvels. "The sincerity needs work, but a decent effort.” It’s automatic, the shit talking, and he feels a bit bad about it. You really don't care if I die, she’d said before she shot him. If he could have believed it of her, he’d think she’d sounded almost heartbroken. And she’d been right. She’s his wife and here he is with a second chance, not even trying to save her.

She scowls at him.

“That’s more like it.”

“Can you please attempt to take this seriously.”

“Oh believe me, I am.” She knew what she was getting into, he reminds himself. Plus, she had fucking killed him.

She rolls her eyes at him and he sets off back upstairs. That’s where they’d first seen Grace the last time, while they were moving Clara’s body, something that hopefully won’t be repeated. Her dress had been shorter, he remembers, she hadn’t had to lift it when she ran, and her shoes - right her shoes. At some point she’d traded her wedding heels for yellow All Stars, which means she must have gone to her suitcase in Alex’s room. That’s where the maid had died too so he might as well be there anyway, just in case.

The door is open and at a glance the room looks empty. He walks in, searching for a sign that she’s been there already. Rounding the corner of the bed, he gets an answer.

“Shit,” Alex breathes, looking up at him from where he’s sitting on the floor next to Grace. Her eyes widen at the sight of the gun slung over his shoulder.

“Wha-” she starts before Alex claps a hand over her mouth, peeking over the bed towards the door through which the sound of heels comes skittering down the hallway. He looks back up at Daniel and shakes his head, pleading.

“Who’s there?” their sister’s voice calls. A second later, she hurtles through the door.

“Don’t shoot!” Daniel yells.

She stops dead, gun already raised. “Oh my god,” she says, arm dropping. “Daniel, I almost shot you.”

“Do I look like I’m wearing a giant wedding dress?” It takes a conscious effort not to look down at Grace as he says it. He can feel her sharp intake of breath.

Emilie pouts. “I’m sorry, okay? I’ve never done this before and I’m all jittery for some reason.”

“Hmm. Think it could be the drugs?”

“I needed something to help me stay up all night,” she whines. “I didn’t think we’d actually have to kill her.”

“Okay, well maybe it’s time for some downers, huh?”

With a bratty huff she turns and leaves. Daniel waits til she’s gone then moves to the door, making sure no one’s in the hall before closing it carefully.

“Thank you,” Alex says once he’s turned around.

“I told you, I’m on your side.”

Alex bends down to Grace, still sitting by his feet. “Okay, sweetie, we’ve gotta go, we’ve gotta get you out of here.” He hauls her up and goes to her suitcase to rummage for shoes.

She slowly turns Daniel, a hundred questions in her wide eyed stare.

He shrugs. “I did tell you run.”

Alex is muttering about Grace’s phone, which has apparently already been confiscated, grabbing her shoes and returning to her as she finds her voice.

“Alex, what the fuck.”

“Hide and seek,” he says, like that’s an explanation. “You pulled the one bad card. They think... they think they have to kill you before sunrise.”

She looks back at Daniel and he nods in confirmation, gives her a little shrug like what can you do?

Alex pulls Grace into the servant’s corridor and Daniel follows, shutting the door behind them.

They walk a ways down, Grace’s questions growing increasingly frantic as Alex goes on about shoes, finally sitting her down so she can put them on. She fumbles with the laces, pulling herself together as she ties them tighter. When she’s done she looks demandingly at Alex, crouching beside her. He sighs.

“Okay. They think that if they don’t kill you, something very bad will happen to the family. I had to play along so I could get you out. The house is on lock down now so it’s gonna be really tricky.”

“You... you knew what would happen if I pulled that card,” she says, wavering between shock and fury.

“I didn’t think they’d actually go through with it! No one ever pulls it, it never fucking happens!”

Never is a strange way of saying, not since we were kids. But of course, Alex doesn't really remember that night, Daniel had done everything in his six-year-old power to make sure of it. Daniel's the one who remembers everything.

“Yeah but you knew about it!” Grace yells.

“No, no I didn’t!”

“Hey guys, maybe keep it down,” Daniel suggests.

They quiet, echoes dying in the corridor.

When Grace starts again her voice is trembling with the effort of staying calm. “Why would you bring me here, why would you let me pull a card if-”

“If I didn’t, we’d both be dead,” Alex says flatly.

She stares at him in disbelief.

“When you marry into this family you have to play a game and if you don’t, you die. I know that sounds crazy, but you have to believe me, it is real. It happened to my great uncle - he got married, he didn’t play a game, next morning, he died, his wife too. Same thing happened to my cousin Rachel, same thing happened to a bunch of people I never even met before.”

He looks for Daniel to back him up and Daniel nods confirmation. “You have to play the game. If you wanna get married, you have to play.”

Grace looks between them, shaking her head. “So what, so they think if they don’t kill me, they die instead? I mean, that’s - they can’t really think that.” She turns to Daniel. “You don’t think that.”

“No, I don’t.” It’s true. He doesn’t think it, he knows it, but telling Alex that is only going to make things harder. “The rest of the family does though and even if they have doubts, they’re not gonna take the risk for you.”

She’s still shaking her head, or maybe just shaking. “You said your family was fucked up but you didn’t say psycho killers, you, you, brought me here, you didn’t warn me...”

“You wanted to get married,” Alex says with a helpless shrug.

“So it’s my fucking fault, are you serious!” she shrieks, shoving at him.

Daniel groans. If this is going to end with them riding, or at least limping, off into the sunset together, Alex is going to have to do better than that.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, shh, shh.”

The back and forth devolves into barely audible, but no less angry, whispers until Grace has a hold on her rage again.

“You didn’t even fucking talk to me,” she says. “You could have told me, we could have... you just...”

“If I told you, you would have left,” he says simply.

She doesn’t deny it. She doesn’t say anything. For Alex’s sake, Daniel hopes she’s thinking of how much he must love her to have not been able to risk losing her rather than what he's thinking, which is, You should have let her.

“You’re everything to me,” Alex says, taking her by the hands, “And I promise you, I’m gonna get you out of here.”

Well, that’s more like it.

Alex pulls her to her feet. “Alright, it’s straight down this hallway to the service kitchen, there’s an exit there. The house is on lock down, but I can unlock the doors from the security room.”

“I’m on it,” Daniel says. “You stay with Grace, I’ll unlock the doors.”

“You sure?” Alex asks.

Daniel gives him a reassuring smile. “I got this.”

To his surprise, Alex catches him in a hug. “Thank you. I- thank you.”

Daniel hugs him back. Alex is not going to die tonight. He swears it.

His eyes meet Grace’s over Alex’s shoulder. Her cheeks are tear stained but she’s still startlingly clean compared to how she’d looked when he’d last seen her. A picture perfect bride. Hopefully this time she gets to stay that way. He gives her a little nod and she nods back.

“Alright, good luck,” he says, giving Alex a pat on the back as they part. This is good. Grace is pissed at Alex now but he’ll be right there with her, protecting her, and they’ll get through it. Together.

She looks back over her shoulder at him as Alex leads her by the hand down the hallway into the dark. He raises a hand in farewell. If all goes well, he’ll never see her again.

 

All does not go well.

It starts fine; he gets to the security room without being seen, able to use the servant's corridor almost the entire way. Figuring out how to unlock the doors is the hard part - unfortunately it’s not just a matter of flipping the clearly labeled switch. He accidentally turns on the cameras instead, just in time to see the butler, Stevens, walk in on Alex and Grace in the service kitchen and start yelling for the rest of the family, which is distracting to say the least.

“Fuck,” he breathes as Grace runs back into the servant's corridor, Alex staying behind to hold off Stevens. The two are still struggling against each other when the family begins running in and it doesn’t take long for them to subdue Alex, his father knocking him over the head with the butt of his gun. Aunt Helene leads Stevens and Charity into the servant's corridor after Grace while his parents and Emilie drag Alex away.

“Fuck, fuck,” he says, renewing his efforts to unlock the doors. Finally, he sees the fucking post-it note with the instructions on it and presses the required sequence of buttons before flipping the switch again. The lights in the room change from red to white and he lets out a breath in relief before turning back to the security screens.

There are no cameras in the servant’s corridor so at first all he can see is Alex being carried upstairs and Fitch on his phone in the study. Then he spots her, peeking her head out into the upstairs hallway and carefully closing the door behind her.

“Shit,” he mutters, realizing that his parents are at the top of the stairs and will see her as soon as they round the corner. Fingers clumsy with haste, he takes out his phone and calls his father. Thank god he’s too old to have his phone on silent and the ringing alerts Grace, who darts through the nearest door. He watches his parents argue before his father drops Alex’s legs and answers.

“What?” he barks.

“Hey dad, I just got the security cameras turned on and I can see you carrying Alex. What happened, is he okay?”

“You what?” his father yells, turning to glare into the nearest camera.

“Yeah, yeah, I know it’s not tradition, but we weren’t getting anywhere and I really don’t think great-great-grandfather would give a shit.”

“So?”

“So what?”

“SO WHERE IS SHE?”

Daniel watches as Grace, trapped in a bedroom with his father shouting outside, goes to the now unlocked window and disappears outside.

“Uh,” he says, trying not to let his relief show in his voice, “Hm, I’m not sure... I don’t...”

The group that had been chasing Grace reappears in the hallway, quickly colliding with the group carrying Alex.

He hears the background noise of his family all talking over each other, words unintelligible until his father cuts through with, “It’s fine! Daniel’s got the security cameras on and can tell us where she is.” The group turns to look at the camera, staring up at him through the screen.

“Uh, I don’t see her. Maybe she’s in the servant’s corridor?”

“She’s not in the servant’s corridor!” Aunt Helene screeches, loud enough to reach him through the phone.

“Well the cameras have blind spots, I’m sure she’ll come out eventually.”

Fitch, who must finally have heard the commotion, joins them upstairs and says something, causing all heads to turn towards him.

“YOU UNLOCKED THE DOORS?” his father roars into the phone.

“What?” Daniel says, trying not to laugh.

“You-” his father storms back downstairs to confirm then yells again. “YOU FUCKING MORON.”

“Shit. Sorry, I was pressing all these buttons trying to turn on the cameras and must have done it by accident. Should I relock them?”

“No you idiot, we have to go out and find her!”

“Oh, right.” He’d worry he was laying it on too thick but his father’s belief in his incompetence knows no bounds.

“Get out of there, we’ll have a family strategy meeting and then I’ll send someone whose brain isn’t rotted by alcohol to take your place.”

“Can’t wait, see you soon.”

 

By the time he joins the rest of the family, they’ve got Alex handcuffed to his bed upstairs. They all turn to glare at him when he enters.

“My bad,” he says, raising his hands in mock surrender.

“Could you at least pretend to care?” his wife snaps.

“Do we really have to go outside now?” Emilie frets. “It’s so dark out there.”

“There’s no point sending all of us out to get lost in the woods,” their mother says. “She may have just found a hiding spot inside; we need to keep searching and guard the doors.”

“We can’t all stay inside,” their father says with a pointed look at Daniel.

“I would be happy to start searching the grounds, sir,” Stevens volunteers promptly.

“And I guess I’m going too,” Daniel says at everyone’s expectant looks.

He leaves to let them sort out the rest, grateful for the head start. Once outside, he begins a circuit of the house, searching for a figure in white standing on a ledge. He doesn’t see her, which means she either went back inside or jumped. Knowing Grace, he’s guessing she jumped. It’s not a crazy fall from the second story but still. Jesus.

She could be anywhere by now but Stevens had managed to catch her the first time around and there’s no guarantee he won’t do it again. Daniel needs to find her first. There’s a huge chunk of time between walking in on her in the study and finding her crawling out of a car wreck where he has no idea what she’d been doing. He himself had spent that period alternately drinking and carrying the bodies of dead maids to the goat pit in the barn.

The barn. Georgie had seen her there. Georgie had shot her there.

He heads in that direction, steps quickening to a run as he goes.

“Georgie?” he calls, as the door creaks open. “You in here?”

He steps inside, closing the door behind him as he scans the darkness for his nephew.

“Daniel?”

It’s Grace, her voice echoing a little through the dark. It sounds like it’s coming from - oh god.

He makes it to the goat pit in a couple of strides, leaning over the edge to look down into the darkness. “Grace?”

She’s filthy. Not quite as beat up as when he’d found her in the woods the first night, but getting close. He can see the white’s of her eyes, open wide with fear, as she looks up at him from halfway up the ladder. She’s holding on with one hand, the other clutched against her breast, soaked with blood.

“Why the fuck does your family have a pit full of dead goats?”

He laughs before he can stop himself. “Ritual sacrifice.”

Her answering laugh is bordering on hysterical, the white of her teeth gleaming against the dirt and blood.

“Can you make it up?”

She nods and continues her climb, grunting with the effort of going one handed.

“Almost there, you got it.”

The ladder ends several feet before the top of the pit and he holds a hand down to help pull her up. Right as she reaches for him, the ancient ladder crumbles away beneath her.

She grabs his hand just in time, biting back a scream as her feet swing.

“I got you, I got you,” he says tightening his grip. The hand she grabbed him with might be the whole one, but it’s still slippery with blood and he doesn’t have a good enough hold on her. He reaches out his other hand and with a grimace, she swings her injured one up to grab it. He catches her by the wrist and pulls.

Overbalancing, he falls back onto the floor, her practically in his lap. He holds her there, heart pounding. “I got you.”

He can feel her heart pounding too, her breath coming fast. It reminds him of when he found her in the study that first time, terrified and breathing so hard she was shaking from it.

She buries her face into his chest, either laughing or sobbing, he can’t tell, and he holds her tighter.

“You smell terrible,” he informs her.

She punches against his shoulder, but now he’s sure she’s laughing.

 

Once they’ve both calmed down enough, he looks at the mess of her hand, so bloody he can barely see the hole.

“Your nephew shot me,” she says.

“He’s got shit aim,” he observes.

She laughs again, a little less hysterical this time.

He removes the bow tie that’s been lying loose around his shoulders all night and attempts to wrap it around her hand. The fabric is stiff and bulky and no matter how he tries he can't get a tight knot. Wordlessly, she rips off one of the lace sleeves of her wedding gown. It’s disgusting, more gray then white now, but it is easier to work with.

“You’re going to get an infection,” he says as he ties it off.

“If I’m still alive tomorrow, I’ll keep that in mind.”

He huffs a laugh as she inspects the bandage, wincing as she pulls it a little tighter.

“Hey, don’t you have a flask or something we can use to disinfect it?” she asks, brightening a little.

“It’s in my jacket back in the house.” He thinks a moment. “And I’m pretty sure it’s empty.”

“And here I thought being rescued by an alcoholic might come in handy.”

“Sorry to disappoint. I’m trying to keep a clear head.”

She looks at him quizzically. “Yeah? How’s that going for you?”

“Awful, thanks.”

She shakes her head, still fingering the bandage. “Where’s Alex?”

“They’ve got him handcuffed to one of the beds upstairs,” he tells her. “Don’t worry, they won’t hurt him.”

She looks up at that, looks him dead in the eye. “He didn’t fucking tell me.” It’s flat in a way that makes his heart sink. He wonders for a moment if it was over before it started. There had been no chance to talk to Grace, to insist Alex warn her before she drew the card. Wouldn’t it be just perfect for Le Bail to have sent him back to a point too late to actually change anything?

“He didn’t think it would happen.” The excuse sounds especially weak now that she’s got a hole in her hand.

“Did you tell your wife?”

He snorts. “Yup. She didn’t even blink. Couldn’t fucking wait.”’

He waits for the obvious follow up - would he have let it happen if she’d drawn the card. The truth is, he wouldn’t have married her if he hadn’t thought he could, which is the shittiest possible reason to marry someone, worse than doing it for the money. But then, he’d thought he could let it happen to Grace too and here he is. He doesn’t know what he would have done.

But maybe Grace does because she doesn’t bother asking. I knew you’d help me, she’d said that first go around. Baffling as it is, she seems to have faith in him.

“Alright,” he says, grabbing her good hand to help her up. “You think you can run?”

She nods and he leads her to the door.

“Little fucker,” she mutters as they pass Georgie, knocked out and mostly hidden in the shadows.

He opens the door slowly, peering out into the night.

“So, where are we going,” she asks, looking over his shoulder.

“Uh, I don’t know. Where’d you go last time?”

“What?”

“Nothing.” He withdraws from the door and runs a hand over his face, trying to think. “I mean, the further from the house the better, right? If we get you off the grounds it’ll be riskier for them to follow.”

She nods and he looks back out again, checking that the coast is clear. “Okay, it’s pretty much a straight shot from here to the fence line. You better go first.” At her questioning look he explains, “If anyone sees, they’ll think I’m chasing you.”

She rolls her eyes a little, squeezing his hand before letting go. He’d forgotten he was holding it. She takes off across the lawn and after a second, he follows. Christ she’s fast, especially considering her recent gunshot wound and second story fall. Or maybe he’s just slow.

They reach the fence without incident, black iron bars like a cage.

“Come on, I’ll boost you up,” he says, bending down so she can put her foot in his hands.

She does, holding a bar of the fence with her good hand to steady herself.

“Okay, one, two, three.” He pushes up, lifting her high enough to reach the top of the fence and pull herself over. It’s a challenge with only one hand and she ends up falling with a startling thump, but she is successfully on the other side.

“Shit, are you okay?” he asks as she struggles to her feet.

“Haven’t been for awhile,” she points out, “But my legs still work if that’s what you mean.”

“You’re bleeding,” he notices. He points at the new cut on her side before she can remark that yes, she’s been bleeding for awhile too.

“Oh.” She dabs at it, not seeming too concerned. “Must have been one of the spikes at the top. It’s not deep.”

“I guess it’s all relative.”

Their heads turn at the roar of an engine coming down the road. With an excited look back at Daniel, Grace runs towards the headlights, waving her arms and screaming for help. The car actually slows, which is more than Daniel would have expected, only for the driver to yell at her to get out of the road.

“WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU!” she screams after it, streaming curses until the car’s out of sight before marching back to Daniel at the gate. “Fucking rich people.”

“Impressive,” he remarks, meaning it.

“Are you gonna be able to get over on your own?”

Daniel does try - in his defense, the thing was designed to be hard to climb. He feels like he makes it a decent way, though the drop back to the ground when he gives up is depressingly short. “Uh, no.”

She tries to smile, though she’s getting jittery. “What are the chances someone stops for me?”

“In this neighborhood? Basically zero.”

“Right, so-”

“So... so, I’m going to go back to the house and get Alex. You stay off the road, hide in the trees, we’ll grab a car to come get you.”

She nods. He’s not sure how she’s still standing, after everything.

“It’s almost over,” he promises, and then she’s off into the woods.

 

He’d dropped his rifle in the barn in his haste to get Grace out of the goat pit so he heads back there, rolling up his sleeves as he walks in an attempt to hide the blood she left there when she’d clutched at him.

Georgie is still passed out on the ground when he gets there. Daniel stands over the little body with unease. He doesn’t have much to compare them to, but he’s pretty sure that as kids go his nephews are both unequivocally little shits. Still, they are just kids and he’s doing everything he can to ensure they’ll be dead come morning.

They’re already dead, he tells himself. They all are, himself included. Only Grace and Alex are real anymore.

He picks Georgie up to carry him back to the house, less out of concern and more because at this point he’s not sure they’ll let him back inside empty handed.

Most of the family are gathered in the study when he arrives, half of them freaking out and the other half trying to calm them down. Emilie, who was definitely on the freak out side, screeches when she sees Georgie.

“Oh my god! What happened?”

“I found him in the barn,” Daniel says, depositing Georgie in his sister’s lap. “I don’t think he’s hurt but I couldn’t wake him up.”

“Any sign of her?” his aunt demands.

Daniel shakes his head.

“Mommy?”

“Georgie! Thank god! What happened, honey?”

“I followed that lady to the barn,” he starts and everyone eagerly gathers round him on the couch.

Daniel takes the opportunity to slip away unnoticed. He doesn’t need to see the kid be praised as a hero for shooting an innocent woman - once was bad enough.

On his way out, he spots his wife’s handbag abandoned on a side table and snags it. Out in the hallway he looks through it and triumphantly discovers the gun she’d killed him with still inside. Thinking about it, he probably would rather get shot than explode, but he doesn’t want to give her the satisfaction.

 

He makes it upstairs undetected, ducking back into a doorway when he reaches the hall and sees his mother exiting Alex’s room. He tries to remember if anyone else was missing from the study who might be guarding Alex but he hadn’t even particularly noted his mother’s absence, so it’s a futile effort. Once she’s past, he decides to take his chances and enters.

His brother’s awake now, furiously wrenching his handcuffs against the post they’re looped around in an attempt to break it loose.

“Daniel!” he says, stopping at the sight of him. “Thank god! Where’s Grace?”

“She’s outside the gate in the woods,” he says, rushing over to examine the handcuffs. They’re not real ones that have to be unlocked or anything, which is not something he wants to think about too much, so it’s a simple matter of popping them open.

“Come on,” he says as Alex gets up, rubbing his wrists. “Let’s get you to the garage. You can take a car and go meet her, I’ll stay behind and keep them from following.”

“Daniel, I can’t thank you enough.”

“No need,” he says, clapping him on the back. “Oh, and here.” He hands him Charity’s gun. “Just in case.”

Alex takes it, grip unsure, then nods and tucks it in his waistband.

Once downstairs, they’re distracted by excited sounds coming from the study.

“Uh oh,” Daniel says.

Alex looks at him, panicked.

They sneak towards the study, peeking around the doorframe to see the family gathered around their father, his phone held out in front of him so that they can all see the screen.

“Where are you?” his father asks.

“We’re approaching the rear gate, sir,” Stevens replies, voice hard to hear over the classical music he’s got playing in the car. “We’ll be there shortly.”

“Alright. We are back in business,” their father says, turning his head to grin at the family.

“Come on,” Daniel whispers. “If we hurry we can intercept them.”

He gets a few feet down the hall before realizing Alex isn’t following, stuck staring at their family all gathered together, faces full of relief and joy at the impending death of his wife.

“We have to go,” he says, going back to grab Alex by the arm, jolting him out of whatever state he was in.

They break into a run as soon as they’re out of earshot. They can't afford a detour to the garage, sprinting instead across the grounds towards the rear gate, just in time to see the car swerve off the road, hit a ditch, and flip into the trees.

Fuck, not again.

“Jesus,” Alex breathes.

Daniel recovers quicker, he had after all known this might be coming, and starts running again.

He arrives to see Grace, stumbling to her feet after crawling from the wreckage of the car, miraculously unharmed. Well, relatively unharmed. Deja vu.

She shies away at the noise of his approach, relaxing when she sees it’s him.

“Daniel.” She even smiles, or the best approximation of one she can manage.

“Grace, oh my god.”

She stiffens at the sound of the new voice, even if it is a familiar one, but when Alex sweeps her into a hug, she hugs him back.

Daniel leaves them to their reunion, bending to check on Stevens in the car. He’s hanging upside down, held in by his seatbelt. Blood is trickling from his neck down his face.

“Jesus, baby, what happened?” he hears Alex ask.

“What happened?” She begins to laugh. “What happened? Hmm, let’s see, Alex, I was looking forward to my wedding night when you told me I had to go play a game which, surprise, meant your entire fucking family-”

“Okay, okay,” Alex says hurriedly.

Daniel hears, or maybe just remembers, a movement in the woods. He straightens and points his rifle into the darkness. “You can come out dad.”

Grace and Alex startle, Alex moving to shield her. Daniel moves in turn to shield him.

“Jesus,” his father says, stepping out of the woods, his own gun in hand. “Both of you?”

“Sorry to disappoint,” Daniel says. He wonders who's the bigger let down - Alex, the favorite, or Daniel, who doesn’t even have the excuse of being married to her.

“What the fuck are you thinking?” their father asks, almost desperate. “Choosing this little nobody over your own family? You realize if she lives, you’re dead too, right? We’re all dead.”

“We don’t know that,” Alex insists, and Daniel wonders if there’s something wrong with him, that he does know and doesn’t care.

“Please,” he scoffs. “You remember what happened to the Van Horns, right? It’s happened before and if you do this, we’re next!”

Their father raises his gun, lowers it, raises it again. He can’t shoot them, Daniel realizes. If it was just Daniel, maybe, but if he shoots him now he’ll lose Alex and any chance of capturing Grace with him. “I can’t just let you go,” he says finally. “If you want to take her, you’re going to have to kill me. It’s what you’re doing anyway.”

“Is that all?” Daniel says, finger tightening around the trigger of his own gun. Funny, he’s spent two nights lugging this thing around and never once fired it.

“Daniel,” he hears Alex reproach, shocked.

“You won’t do it,” his father says.

“Wanna bet?”

“Stop!” Alex yells.

Daniel hears movement behind him and Grace’s voice. “Alex, wha-”

In front of him, his father’s eyes brighten. “Atta boy.”

“No! NO!” Grace screams.

And Daniel’s heart breaks.

He doesn’t want to turn around, knowing what he’ll see there, but he can’t stop himself, the arm holding his gun dropping.

It’s just like last time, Alex holding Grace tight against his chest as she struggles and screams, only this time Daniel is still alive to do something about it.

“Daniel,” she gasps. “Daniel, please, please help me.”

He doesn’t move. Somehow he’d never considered that the only way to save Alex would be to let her die. That he would have to choose. It didn’t have to come down to that, so he’d pretended it never would. And now it has and he can’t fucking move.

Her eyes widen at this second betrayal and she begins screaming again, legs lifting from the ground in her effort to get free. With a few quick strides, his father crosses over to her and hits her in the head with the butt of his rifle, knocking her out. The woods are suddenly deathly quiet.

Their father clasps Alex on the shoulder, pride and affection beaming from him. “I know this is hard. But you’re doing the right thing.”

He bends to pick up Grace’s feet but Alex stops him. “No. I got her.”

He nods and steps back as Alex repositions Grace so that he’s carrying her, bridal style. Turning, he walks back to Daniel. “Now. You’re not going to cause any more trouble for us, are you?”

“I was just trying to help Alex,” Daniel says, trying to figure out where he’d gone wrong. “I just wanted to help.”

His father searches his face and softens a little. Loyalty is loyalty after all - he can respect that. “Come on,” he says, starting back towards the house. “Less than an hour til dawn and we still need to prepare her for the ritual.”

Alex starts to follow but Daniel stops him as he passes. “Why?” he asks. It’s all he can manage.

Alex looks down at Grace in his arms, his eyes shiny with tears. “I can’t risk it. I thought I could, but-” he looks back up at Daniel with a helpless shrug.

You were supposed to be the good brother, he wants to say. You were supposed to save her. But he lets Alex go without another word.

 

They’re all overjoyed of course, though they try to act somber for Alex’s sake. Only their mother seems sincere, pulling Alex into a hug once Grace has been taken away and stroking his hair as he cries into her shoulder.

Daniel drinks. He hasn’t had one in hours and his head is pounding.

The family splits to begin the preparations and Alex pulls himself together, wiping away the tears, his face going hard. Daniel remembers being six years old and watching his Aunt Helene do the exact same thing as they dragged Uncle Charles away. He wants to throw up.

 

Despite the addition of Alex, the ritual proceeds just as it had the first time; the robes, the chanting, Grace’s terror filled eyes. Just another night in the Le Domas household. Well, there is one change - Daniel ups the dose of hydrochloric acid in the ceremonial chalice. They recovered way too quickly last time.

“Poisoned!” Aunt Helene shrieks, clutching at her stomach.

“You son of a bitch!” His father swings a wild punch at him before falling over while Daniel works at the poorly tied knots around Grace’s wrists and ankles.

“Come on, up and at ‘em,” he says, pulling her off the table as the rest of his family coughs up blood.

“Did you...did you just kill them?” she gasps as they rush from the games room.

He’d considered it. Knowing now that they’re all going to die anyway, he would only be hastening the inevitable. But if he gave them too much then someone might start showing symptoms before everyone had a chance to drink. That was the excuse anyway. Really, he’s just too much of a coward to do it himself.

“No, I googled it, they’ll be fine.” For the next however many minutes til dawn anyway.

They hear stumbling footsteps coming after them and duck down in the shadow of the staircase.

“You chose me over Alex,” she says, a question in her surprise.

He looks down, unsure how to put the jumbled mess of his thoughts into words. Alex and Georgie, Helene and Charles, all those wedding nights, past and future, that ended on that table. Of course he wants to save Alex, that’s the only reason he’s fucking here, but what’s the point if it just turns him into another Helene, obsessed with upholding the family he’d sacrificed everything for. The point of saving Alex was to save him from all of it, not trap him forever.

But the shameful truth is that when he’d made the decision, he hadn’t been thinking of Alex at all. He was thinking of Grace, haggard and blood stained and so, so alive as she’d walked out of the house and into the daylight. She’d won, faced them all down and survived to see the dawn and there is no fucking way he could ever take that away from her.

“Well, you’re prettier than he is,” he says. A joke, like all those times he used to hit on her at Alex’s parties, trying to make her laugh at him, look at him, anything.

She gives him the same look she always does when he does this, that little smile like she knows he’s full of shit and she’s not going to let him get to her.

So he tells her what he had the first night, shrugging as he says, “At some point, somebody had to burn it all down. Never thought it'd be me.”

He leans out to check the coast is clear then takes her hand to pull her up. No Charity waiting for them this time but he can hear them all moving through the house, their desperation pushing them through whatever’s happening to their stomachs.

He leads Grace into the drawing room, intending to cut through on the way to the garage, and suddenly feels like he’s been punched in the shoulder, stumbling back a step into her.

He hears Grace gasp. There’s an arrow in his shoulder, an actual fucking arrow, the shaft of it sticking out a foot and a half in front of him. Daniel laughs. He’s had this nightmare before, had it for years after that night. How fitting that he should die like Uncle Charles. He looks down, half expecting to see the second arrow in his gut already. But no, it’s still in his mother’s hands, being placed against the quiver.

“Oh Daniel,” she says. “I know you don’t care about us, but do you really not care about your own life?”

I do,” he says and it’s sad how surprised he is to find that it’s true. He doesn’t want to die, not now that he’s actually fighting for something. Figures he’d only realize that at the end.

“Then you best move out of the way, sweetheart.”

He doesn’t. At least, not of his own volition. Grace tackles him to the ground just as his mother looses the second arrow. He can feel the whoosh of air as it passes above them.

He yells as the shaft of the arrow in his shoulder hits the ground, pushing it against his flesh at an angle. Rolling away from the pain, he sees Grace, already back on her feet and rushing at his mother. She tries to notch another arrow but isn’t fast enough. Grace grabs the old kerosene lamp off an end table, one of the ones his father had insisted they light out of tradition, and swings it at his mother, knocking her down with a satisfying thump. She doesn’t get back up.

Breathing heavily, Graces tosses the lamp to the side and comes back to Daniel. Behind her, the lamp pops open and fire immediately begins licking up the curtains. Jesus, those things are dangerous. No wonder no one uses them anymore.

“Are you okay?” Grace asks, falling to her knees beside him.

He laughs, hand going to where the arrow meets his body, the area already sticky with blood.

“You’re not gonna try to take it out, are you?” she asks doubtfully.

“Fuck no.” It hurts enough as is, the thought of actually pulling it is enough to make him want to pass out. Good thing he’ll be exploding soon and won’t have to worry about it. The thought of the arrow clattering to the ground in the pool of blood where he used to be standing is enough to make him laugh again.

Grace eyes him with concern. “Daniel? We need to get going.”

“Yeah.”

She helps him to his feet and turns, stopping when she sees the fire. “Shit.”

“Don’t worry about it. This place could use a cleansing fire.”

The skirt around the edge of the room, making it through the opposite door, which puts them just down the hall from the garage.

“Almost there,” Daniel assures her, taking the lead again. He digs his keys out of his pocket and tosses them to her. “You better drive.” His shoulder’s a convenient excuse but really he just doesn’t want to explode behind the wheel.

 

When they enter the garage, Alex is there waiting for them. Of course he is. He was always supposed to be there with them.

He’s holding the gun Daniel gave him, the gun Charity killed him with last time. Unlike Charity, he’s not pointing it at them, but Daniel reaches back to make sure Grace is shielded behind him anyway.

Alex tracks the movement. “Why?” he asks, sounding much like Daniel had when he’d asked him the same thing in the woods.

“Because it’s the right thing to do,” Daniel says, wincing at how cheesy it sounds. “You know that.”

Alex shakes his head. “I gave her up to save you,” he says, tears in his eyes. “You more than any of them. To protect you, like you’ve always done for me.”

It feels like getting shot again and he has to catch his breath. “I’m not worth it. God, don’t you know that?”

He takes a couple steps forward, trying to explain, trying to save him one last time. “It’s not too late. You and Grace can still go, get out of here and never look back. You don’t have to worry about me, I’m telling you, that is what I want.”

“Won’t be much of an escape if I die at sunrise,” Alex points out.

“You won’t.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes, I do,” he says firmly. “Even if it’s all real and the whole family dies, you married out of it. You’re part of her family now. You’re safe.” It’s impossible to prove but the truth of it is plain in his voice if only Alex can believe it.

And for a second he thinks he will, sees the spark of hope in his eyes.

Then Alex looks at Grace. “He’s wrong, isn’t he? It is too late.”

Daniel turns to her and when he sees her face, he knows Alex is right.

He looks back at his brother. “Alex, don’t.”

Alex raises the gun. “They’re in here!”

For the second time, Grace pushes him down. He at least has enough presence of mind to fall on his good shoulder this time. They crawl behind the nearest car, a gunshot pinging on the metal above them. Somehow, it’s still a surprise that Alex would actually shoot at him. But he knows now what Grace had already figured out; Alex may have wanted to save Daniel, but when it comes down to it he’d turned her in for the same reason he'd brought her here in the first place: for himself.

Grace hits a button on the keys and his car beeps. Crouched down, they run to it, bullets following them as they go, shattering glass and ringing off metal. The gun only has a few shots but by the time Alex runs out, the rest of the family has begun to arrive.

Grace makes it to the car and throws herself into the driver’s seat. Daniel has further to go to the passenger side but makes it too, a crossbow bolt flying wide and missing him by several feet.

Grace locks the doors once he’s inside, like that’ll do anything against his Aunt’s axe. They’re all gathering around as she starts the car with fumbling fingers. He hits the button to open the garage door in front of them and prays.

They all stop at the mechanical whir, turning to stare as the door ever so slowly slides up to reveal the cold gray light of dawn.

His family scrambles away from the light as it creeps into the garage, foot by foot, until they’re all huddled against the back wall.

There’s a pause, just like last time. Even Grace is frozen, staring in the rearview mirror. And then, “Um, nothing’s happening.”

The ensuing squabble is much the same as it had been the first time around but Daniel can’t help hoping anyway that this time they’ll let it go. He’s not sure Le Bail would spare them if they did, but at least they’d die with some dignity.

Of course they don’t. Their eyes turn to the car and Aunt Helene rushes at them, axe held high.

Grace slams the acceleration, but even that’s not fast enough to escape the splatter of blood on the windows as Aunt Helene explodes for a second time.

“What the fuck?” Grace says, letting the car slow as she looks back over her shoulder. Through the blood dripping down the glass he can see his father start after them, yelling something, only to explode too.

Grace turns the wheel, the car making tracks on the immaculate green lawn as it spins around and comes to a stop. She watches wide eyed as they burst, one by one, just like the last time. There’s almost some comfort in that, like no matter what he did, it was always going to end the same. He sits quietly and awaits his turn.

Finally, only Alex is left, striding towards them across the lawn, splattered with blood. He puts his hands on the hood of the car, staring in at them, wild eyed.

“You were right,” he says in a rush, trying to get it all out before one or both of them explodes. “Daniel, you were right. I should have listened.” He turns his manic stare on Grace. “It’s not too late, right? Right, honey? We’re family now, so... so we can just go, do whatever you want, just... just...”

He stutters to a stop under Grace’s hard stare.

“Look, honey, I’m sorry,” he tries. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t wanna die.”

Grace laughs in disbelief. “Neither did I, you selfish fuck.”

She hits the gas and the car lurches forward. Apparently that’s all Le Bail needs to send Alex splattering all over the windshield.

The car comes to a stop again, Grace staring blankly ahead. After a second, she activates the windshield wipers, sending them squeaking across the glass as they clear the blood away.

“Well,” Daniel says. “Guess it’s my turn.”

He gives her a little smile and gets out of the car. She’s been through enough without him exploding on her too. He takes a deep breath as he eyes the trail of red leading back to the blood soaked garage. Was it kindness or cruelty for Le Bail to give him more time than the others? He could have done without seeing Alex die again, but in a way it’s good to be sure. To have seen it through to the end.

Grace steps up beside him, eyeing him warily.

“Oh come on, you’ll ruin your dress,” he complains.

She snorts as she looks down at her tattered gown. “Yeah, that’d be a real shame.”

He wants to say something, proper last words that she can think upon fondly apart from the horror of the rest of the night, but before he can think of any, she comes up on her toes and kisses him.

It’s a fleeting thing, like the obligatory sister-in-law kisses she’s given him on the cheek in the past, and yet not like that at all. Funny, how the few inches from cheek to lips changes everything.

“Was that goodbye?” he asks.

She shakes her head, looking a little embarrassed. “I just thought - that’s how it works in the stories, right?”

Right. Princesses turning monsters into men.

He laughs a little, looking out over the grounds. There are three figures running across it, away from the burning mansion. The maids. They made it.

Thus far, despite all his efforts, it had ultimately turned out the same. He’d thought that was the point, the joke: watch him struggle and fight only for Alex and all the rest of them to die anyway. But seeing the three girls, alive when they had not been, makes him think for the first time that his fate may have changed too.

He knows from his front row seat last time that to say something like Huh, maybe it worked, would practically guarantee his explosion. Le Bail loves his comic timing. So he doesn’t say anything, just sits down on the bloody hood of the car.

Grace sits next to him.

“I’m sorry about your family,” she says after a moment.

He snorts. “No you’re not.”

“No, I’m not. But I’m sorry if you’re sorry.”

Daniel’s not sure what he feels. It’ll probably take years to process it all, if he’s got that long. He hopes he does.

“I’d do it again,” he tells her, because that at least is undeniable. “If I had the choice, I’d help you again.”

“I know.”

There’s the faint sound of sirens in the distance, growing steadily closer.

“Fuck, I hope one of those is an ambulance,” he says.

“Hmm, I can ask them if my hand is infected,” she says dryly.

He laughs. “Yeah, that’s definitely our most pressing concern.”

He takes her hand (the one without a hole in it) and she rests her head on his shoulder (the one without an arrow it) and together they watch it all burn down.

All things considered, it could have been worse.