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Through a Glass Darkly

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Bilba hated taking cases in asylums.

First, there was the fact of being effectively locked in and forced to rely on her contact for aid in moving about and, most importantly, getting out. Putting that much trust and faith in a veritable stranger was a fantastic way to get killed, and that was before she got to the thing that wanted to kill her.

Then there was having to split her attention between the reason she was there (also known as the thing trying to kill her) and the other patients (also known as the people she was trying to help). Not all of the patients were a threat obviously but, unhelpfully, the ones that were didn’t come with nametags.

Either way it meant she had to watch her back from multiple angles and ensured she wouldn’t be getting a good night’s sleep until she had completed the case.

Neither of those things, however, were the main reason she hated cases in asylums. That honor went to the guy sitting across from her.  

"It wasn't me.” The words came from a man about her own age, with greasy dark blond hair and an unkempt beard. His eyes were shadowed and, when he spoke, his voice trembled with emotion. "I don't care how long I'm forced to stay here.” His hands dug into his knees and he leaned forward in his seat to punctuate his point. “I didn't kill my father!"

Dr. Towns, a middle-aged woman with short black hair and a tone that bordered on patronizing, smiled. “We’ve discussed this,” she said in the gentle but firm tone Bilba had heard mothers use to refuse their child a treat,” "the cameras--"

"I don't care what the cameras showed!" he cut in sharply, fingers bunching the cotton of the ratty sweatpants he wore. "And I don't care what the DNA said. I didn't do it!"

Bilba studied him with mild interest. He certainly seemed sincere, but Bilba had more than learned the lesson that sincerity did not necessarily equate to veracity. She’d met people who could be caught in the act and would argue their innocence with just as much passion.

Some of them even believed it, and usually wound up in a facility exactly like the one she currently sat in.

So he could be lying.

He could be insane.

Or

There was a one in three chance he was telling the truth.

Bilba had seen people who belonged in that third class, over and over and over again. They sat rotting in prisons, hospitals and asylums. They were angry, traumatized, lonely, despairing.

Innocent.  

The thing was, everyone always thought they knew what a monster was. It was the thing under the bed, the darkness in the closet, or the strange creak in an empty room. Monsters, they would tell you with all the confidence of the ignorant, lived in the shadows and were only a threat to the unsuspecting, the unprepared, or those stupid enough to stumble into their embrace.

Bilba supposed it helped them sleep at night to think all monsters were the same, that they all followed the same rules and could easily be avoided. Just…don’t look under the bed at night. Leave the closet shut. Stay out of abandoned places and, above all else, never, ever go check out the strange noise you just heard downstairs.

The truth wasn’t quite so cut and dry.

In reality, the so-called “rules” were arbitrary, and not all monsters chose to follow them.

Some chose not to live in the shadows.

Some had a desire to kill more than those who simply stumbled into their way.  

Some actively sought out their prey and some…killed simply because they enjoyed it.

Some liked the suffering. Not just of their victims, but the people surrounding them as well. They got a kick out of causing pain to as many as they could, and of knowing that, somewhere, someone was paying for what they had done.

There was a long list of reasons why. Some believed they were getting revenge against a world they felt had wronged them. Others had a goal in mind and didn’t care who got hurt in their quest to achieve it.

And then there were the ones who were simply assholes.

No matter the cause, it always led to the same result. Pain, loss, and the broken husk of an innocent victim staring down at the remnants of a destroyed life.

She hated it. Hated it because there was nothing she could do about it. If she’d been there before, known what was going on then, then she might have had a chance. Then she could have maybe, possibly stopped the darkness from taking another innocent.

But arriving after? After was too late. What could she do after? Tell the police or the doctors and nurses that “hey, you’ve got it wrong? That was a werewolf/vampire/revenant/monster of your choice. This person doesn’t belong here. They did see what they said they saw; they didn’t do what you’re saying they did. It wasn’t them. It was a monster.”

Yeah, that would go over well.

She couldn’t help them, had to leave them, decaying in a cell, staring vacantly at a padded wall knowing all the while they’d set foot in a world they could never understand, and she could never explain.

She hated it.

“Celeste? Celeste!”

Bilba barely flinched. She’d been staring, she realized, at the blond for more than a few minutes. He’d noticed and was staring back, a challenge in his eyes.

She flashed a grin at him, and then allowed her head to tilt to the side, eyes shifting to Dr. Towns. “Yes?”

Dr. Towns’ lips twisted in exasperation. “Why don’t you introduce yourself to the group?”

Bilba rolled her eyes and slouched in her chair causing the cheap plastic to creak under her. “My name is Celeste Bennet,” she lied easily, “and I’m here because I supposedly have ‘anger management’ issues.” She used air quotes just in case her tone didn’t properly convey her supposed disdain over the supposed accusation.

“Now Celeste,” Dr. Towns said, studying her notes. “If you did nothing wrong then you wouldn’t be here, would you?”

Bilba shrugged. “I don’t know.” She pointed toward the blond. “He’s here and apparently did nothing wrong.”

Snickers came from one or two of the other participants only to quickly shut off as Dr. Towns sent pointed looks at them. Personally, Bilba thought the woman should be thanking them. They’d been sitting in a circle in a small, cold room on uncomfortable chairs for nearly an hour. According to the clock anyway, which Bilba was half convinced was simply wrong. It said an hour, but it felt like a few days. There were twelve others, counting the doctor, and, aside from the blond, they all seemed half asleep.

Dr. Towns called on someone else to speak and Bilba gladly slouched further in her chair. Her reasons for hating cases in asylums was rapidly mounting. She’d been forced to trade out her jeans, comfortable shirts, boots and leather jacket for a crappy t-shirt and sweats. There wasn’t room for more than a few weapons and it had been torture deciding which to bring and which to leave behind.

She studied the ceiling overhead, idly counting the large tiles. Maybe she should dye her hair, she thought idly. Tauriel had talked her into a layered pixie cut with a weird side bang thing but had threatened death if Bilba did anything to the chestnut color.

Chestnut. That was Tauriel’s word for it to try and spruce it up. Bilba was far more practical and called it what it was, mousy brown. Maybe she’d go lavender with silver highlights. That’d be pretty. Her hair wouldn’t stand out as much as Tauriel’s scarlet locks but at least they’d…

Someone cleared their throat and Bilba opened eyes she hadn’t realized she’d closed.

Mr. May-Or-May-Not-Be-A-Lying-Murderer was standing over her.

Bilba casually pushed up from her slouched position and then stood when she realized the rest of the room was empty. On her feet, the top of her head came to just under his chin, but she simply lifted her chin and gazed up at him with a defiant expression.

“You were going to get a crick in your neck sleeping like that,” he said. He had a deep voice. She hadn’t noticed it earlier. Now that she was closer to him it occurred to her that there was a second thing she hadn’t noticed, though she couldn’t very well be blamed given the layers of grime and general dishevelment.

He was hot.

Hot and fit to be exact. The lines of his body under his shirt and sweats were lean and fit and his arms – she’d always had a thing for arms and his had probably just because the standard by which she would judge all others.

He cleared his throat, pointedly. Bilba forced her eyes away from admiring the Lord’s work and up to his eyes…which were blue and piercing and down, girl. He might be a lying murderer. Remember. Lying. Murderer.

A really, really, pretty lying murderer.

Life was simply unfair like that sometimes.

She frowned at the empty room. “I wasn’t aware the session had ended.”

“Clearly,” he said dryly. “You’re lucky I woke you up. You could have been in here for hours.”

Which would explain quite a lot about this place, Bilba thought, including the fact that no one had apparently thought anything of leaving her alone in a room with a fellow, male, patient. “My hero.”

She started to leave but stopped when he spoke behind her. “You never did say why you were here.”

Bilba spun on her heel. “I did so. Anger management, remember?” She put her hands up to create air quotes again. Did he have the memory of a goldfish? Or maybe it was just a case of beauty and no brains, the universe’s way of balancing out someone who was clearly too pretty for his own good.

His eyes narrowed. “Anger management for what?”

Bilba smirked. “I set my boyfriend’s car on fire a time or two.”

At least that’s what her file said. She’d had fun coming up with that cover story.

One perfectly sculpted eyebrow rose, and she suppressed a sigh. She wasn’t twelve for heaven’s sake. Behave hormones, she ordered firmly. “A time or two?”

Bilba shrugged. She started to spin back toward the door, but stopped halfway, eyes focused on the far wall instead of back at him. She should really leave well enough alone. She knew that. Tauriel was always telling her that. Even so. “Where were you?”

“Excuse me?” he asked.

Bilba kept her eyes on that section of wall, away from him. “You said it wasn’t you, so, where were you?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” She heard him move, but he didn’t come any closer.

“Who says I believe you now?” Bilba asked. She turned her head finally, toward him. “Where were you?”

He crossed his arms. “In the sewer,” he said flatly. “I went out to my car to go to class, someone hit me over the head, and I woke up tied up in the sewer. It took me awhile to get free and find a way out. By the time I got home –” His eyes darkened, and he shook his head. “The police were there.”

Bilba nodded. “Did you show them where you’d been in the sewers?”

“I couldn’t find it again,” he replied with a scowl. “I’d been more concerned with getting out, not remembering how to get back in.”

Bilba started to move slowly toward the door, stopping only when her hand was resting on the knob. Leave it alone, she mentally ordered herself. Nothing he said, or didn’t say, made a lick of difference. It was already too late for him. The most he had to look forward to was being declared mentally competent to stand trial. Having him answer her questions did nothing other than give her more guilt and regret to carry around and she already had that in spades. “Did you see anything strange when you woke up?”

“It was a sewer.”

“I know that,” Bilba said in exasperation. Her hand tightened on the doorknob. “Did you see anything you wouldn’t expect to see in a sewer? Anything that was just…weird?”

He was silent, for so long she thought he wouldn’t answer. Then he shifted his weight onto his back foot and let out a short breath. “There were these…puddles or…piles of…I don’t know what it was. Like something spent ten minutes vomiting in one place and it’d all just…congealed. It smelled worse than the actual sewer did.”

Bilba chewed on her lower lip and idly tapped her fingers on the doorknob. Then, coming to a decision, she turned on one foot and walked back to him. As she got within arm’s length, she reached under her collar and tugged a necklace out. It had a long chain and the pendant at the end was in the shape of a large, ornate cross.

She unclipped it and held it out toward him. “Do you like it?”

He frowned in confusion but obediently held his hand out when she offered it to him. As he took it, Bilba slid her hand behind her, under her shirt and around the hilt of the dagger she kept pressed against the small of her back.

Blondie held the necklace easily in one hand, the chain wrapped loosely around his palm and fingers. “It’s nice, I guess? Does it mean something to you?”

Bilba studied him for a few minutes and then slowly released the hilt of the knife. She lightly plucked the necklace from his hand and clipped it back in place, dropping the silver pendant under her collar. “You should take a shower.”

He blinked in confusion. “What?”

“Shower,” Bilba repeated. “You know that small room with running water and soap—”

“I know what a shower is,” he broke in. “I haven’t been interested.”

“How can you expect anyone to take you seriously?” Bilba asked. “If you don’t even take yourself seriously?”

She gave a forced smile and, before he could respond, turned toward the exit yet again.

Don’t think about it, she told herself firmly. On the one hand it meant she wasn’t infatuated with a murderer, or a shapeshifter which would just be gross, and it also meant he wasn’t the one she was looking for on this case so yay on that.

On the other hand –

She shook her head.

Don’t think about it.

It was already done, had been done long before she’d arrived. There was no turning back time and beating herself up for not being able to save everyone did no one any good.

“What was that all about?” he asked from behind her.

“Shower, Blondie,” Bilba repeated, pulling the door open. “And a washing machine wouldn’t hurt. No one can hear you protest your innocence if they’re having to stand twenty yards downwind.”

“Fili.”

She stopped; eyes fixed on the hall outside the room. Her fingers tightened on the doorknob and she let out a sharp tsk. “Shower, Blondie,” she repeated again, finally.

Then she walked out without looking back. There was no reason to know his name. She’d be leaving and he’d be staying, and that was that.

She had a job to do, and the faster she got it done the sooner she could get out of this place.

***

Bilba lounged against the back of the elevator. It stopped with a shudder and the door slid open to reveal an older man with craggy features and salt and pepper hair. He wore the white coat of one of the staff members and had a name badge on identifying him as Dr. Timothy Chambers.

He stepped on and the door closed, leaving the two of them alone. For a few seconds there was silence as the elevator started to slowly move upward again, creaking gears and grinding machinery suggesting the car was in desperate need of maintenance.

“You know one of your patients is innocent, right?” Bilba finally asked. “The blond one who keeps insisting he didn’t kill his father.”

“Fili Durin,” Dr. Chambers said. “I’m aware.”

“And?” Bilba asked with a raised eyebrow.

“And,” Dr. Chambers said with a frown, “I ensure his medication is replaced with placebos and he’s kept safe from the other patients.” He scowled at her. “You know there’s nothing else I can do.”

“I know,” Bilba grumbled. “It just sucks to see it.”

“Agreed,” Dr. Chambers said.

The elevator slid to a slightly jerky stop and Bilba pushed off the wall. The door opened to reveal construction tools littering a hallway covered over in plastic sheeting. The smell of sawdust and fresh paint hit her nose and caused her eyes to water.

Cold washed over her and Bilba’s limbs locked in place. Her breathing grew harsh and she reflexively began to open and close her hands into fists at her sides. “You didn’t tell me the place was being renovated.”

“Does it matter?” Dr. Chambers asked.

Yes, Bilba wanted to scream.

“No,” she lied. “Of course not.”

She pasted a sick smile on her face and forced her feet to take her forward and out of the elevator.

Go back, her mind ordered. Go back, go back, go back, go back.

A laugh, low and sinister echoed through her mind and she fought the urge to simply curl up in a corner and cover her eyes.

“Stop it,” she whispered. “You aren’t twelve anymore, and this isn’t that place.”

“I’m sorry?” Dr. Chambers asked as he stepped off the elevator behind her.

“Nothing,” Bilba managed. “Where is it?”

He motioned and she wordlessly followed him down the hall. Plastic crackled under her feet and each step seemed to echo through the hall, alerting anything and everything to her arrival. Bilba drew her knife and held it in one hand, fingers curled so tight around the hilt it hurt.

“How did they get up here?” she asked, fighting back a flinch at how loud her voice sounded to her own ears. The silence in the corridor was heavy, almost as if something were listening. Bilba had no doubt something was.  

That was the problem with her line of work. She wasn’t being paranoid, and there were things in the shadows. There were always things in the shadows.

Waiting.

“There’s a service elevator that runs up from the kitchen,” the doctor said as they stopped in front of a small room. “We think they must have snuck in through there.”

“Idiots,” Bilba muttered. “They never learn.”

“In this case,” Dr. Chambers said solemnly as he shoved the door open. “They didn’t live long enough to get the chance.”

Bilba grimaced. The room past the door was splattered with blood. It ran up the walls, splashed across the ceiling and coated the ground so thick in spots it was nearly black. Bits of broken metal and pieces of shattered furniture were scattered among torn bits of clothing and a cracked flashlight, testifying to the level of sheer violence that had taken place in the room.

“Were they all killed?” She stepped over the threshold and crouched to study a wide streak of dried blood, evidence of someone being dragged across the floor. There was no sign of what had done the dragging and Bilba felt her disquiet increase.

“Yes.” Dr. Chambers stayed in the doorway, unwilling to come any further. “The police decided they must have gotten into a fight and killed one another.”

Bilba raised her eyes to study the room once again. It always impressed her how people had the ability to simply ignore or outright deny whatever didn’t fit into their narrow view of the world. Three best friends, unarmed, with no history of violence or anger issues brutally slaughtered in a room with no evidence of anything else being inside?

Must have been a fight.

What else could it have been?

She started to stand, only to freeze as her eyes caught on something on the other side of the room. Crap. Her mouth ran dry and her hands suddenly felt clammy. Slowly, she pushed to her feet and, in an almost trance, moved to a small table splintered in a darkened corner.

Please don’t be what I think that is, she thought. Be something else, anything else.

Her fingers, almost on their own, reached out and lightly brushed the black substance coating one of the broken legs of the table. The substance moved under her fingers, sticking to them and coating them like tar.

In Bilba’s mind, an old door she hadn’t opened in a decade shuddered. An ancient, guttural laugh that haunted her in her dreams crawled out of her memory.

“Well?” Dr. Chambers asked from behind her. “Do you think it’s something supernatural? Was I right to call you?”

“You were right,” Bilba whispered, eyes fixed on the ectoplasm still stuck to her fingers.

The laugh sounded in her mind again and Bilba let her eyes slide close with a sigh.

She really hated cases in asylums.