Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings.
Noah treats memory like a map. He steps into footprints that look like his own and does his work diligently, faithfully.
But if faith is like a twig on the forest floor then Noah's snaps it cleanly in two when he takes just one step out of the path dictated for him and he realises with a sick, sinking feeling that his family is as distant as the past he can barely remember.
It's a nightmarish feeling, adding two more people to a list of faces he can't clearly remember.
So he stands – faith broken – and stares at the blank space in his memory. A blot on the map, as black and wet as freshly spilt ink.
Clearly Noah isn't the only one stepping out of line and this realisation clears some of the numbness out of his mind. He turns on his heel and the forest watches, silent and eternal, as he marches back towards the church.
The air is hot and heavy with the buzz of insects, the rustling of the canopy of leaves above and the distant, eternal roar of the sun.
After the cool silence of the church, the noise and heat feel almost comforting and Noah sets off, treading a familiar path away from the exposed timber frames and blank, sightless windows and into the protection of the forest. The trees seem to bend around him, creaking quietly and shielding him from view.
He quickens his pace and reaches the grove and the dark maw of the caves in the blink of an eye.
What he finds is Jonas – the boy who will one day become the thing hiding away in the unfinished church – standing over the body of a second young man who Noah recognises with only mild surprise as his younger self. He's sprawled out, unconscious but not dead.
Jonas drops the large, heavy stick he had been holding and it hits the ground with a muffled thud. He looks distraught, hollowed out by the horrifying reality he had found in the caves. There's fresh blood dotting the bandage wrapped around his throat and his chest is heaving, mouth working soundlessly no doubt muted by panic.
Noah looks into the blue eyes, blown black with hysteria and tries to think of something to say.
There is no script for this meeting. No map to guide him.
The black ink in his memory spreads a little further with every second they spend staring at each other.
"I just—want this to stop," Jonas says, almost cries and his voice breaks on the last syllable. The sudden noise disturbs a couple of birds high in the trees around them and they flutter up into the sky in a twittering swarm, briefly casting uneven shadows on the leaf-strewn ground.
Jonas is nothing like the versions of him Noah knows. He isn't jaded and angry like the Stranger and not delusional in his knowledge and power like Adam. He's just a seventeen-year-old boy. The Jonas Noah is standing in front of now is the key.
It doesn't feel as groundbreaking a realisation as it ought to, but that might be because it's been sitting in the dark, selfish, faithless corner of Noah's heart all this time, waiting to rise to the surface.
"You can," he says simply and takes a step towards Jonas who starts to move away but stops. "You can stop this."
He knows Jonas has listened to Claudia, who is as wrapped up in her own delusions and arrogance as Adam and Noah knows that if he let him, Jonas would listen to Adam as well. Because he's just a boy, and he's lost and he's close to giving up all hope which is why Noah knows he will listen.
"Leave." He forces the word out in one harsh breath and it sits between them, ugly and blunt.
Jonas stares at him, lips slightly parted. He's listening and, encouraged, Noah takes another few steps until he's just a couple of inches away from his younger self's unconscious body. There's a bruise forming on his forehead, it's a nasty shade of purple and bleeding lightly.
"Leave," Noah repeats, "leave now and never come back. That's the only way you can stop this."
But Noah interrupts him, stepping over the younger Noah's body. "You knew," he hisses, "you knew that following him to that church would not stop this. You can't fix this by going back. You are the key to this and if you go back the wheels will keep turning and nothing will be fixed; nothing will stop. They can't be saved if you go back."
He grabs Jonas by the shoulders, willing him to understand a truth that he himself had already subconsciously made peace with.
"This is the only chance you get," he says, fingers digging into the dirty, sweat-soaked material of Jonas' shirt, "it's either now or never. Save them or continue this spiral that will lead nowhere. Leave before it all starts."
Do what I was too blind to do is what goes unsaid.
"What will happen to them?" Jonas asks, wide-eyed and helpless.
"Things won't get worse," he says, "that's what I know."
"But will they get better?"
Noah lies; does it easily, almost without thinking. "Yes," he says forcefully. "Eventually."
And with that, the little seed of doubt and hopelessness sitting firmly somewhere under Jonas' skin blooms into numb acceptance. Noah watches until he can see the shadow of it flicker across his face and an ugly, selfish feeling of triumph blindsides him for a second. Jonas has gone limp in his grip, eyes on the ground between their feet.
"What—what are you going to do?"
Noah is going to do what he's always done. What he's done from the beginning and apparently will continue to do until the end. He may have lost faith, but not entirely, not completely. If he's going to do this he may as well do it properly.
Intercepting Lucifer in the sky between heaven and hell and catching him before he can reach it.
It's an act of selflessness to cover up the inexplicable need to keep those chalky blue eyes fixed on him and only him. And it might be an ugly emotion, but it's one that Noah has decided to accept.
He isn't a good person, hasn't been for a very long time, but a good act for a bad one is fair in a way most things in life aren't.
Resisting the urge to grab Jonas by the chin to make him look, Noah says, "If I go back into that church I will die. It doesn't matter if I go or stay, I will never see those I love again—at least not in the way I'd like—so if it's all the same to you, I would come with you."
Jonas looks up at him on his own accord, eyes shining with an odd mixture of hope and trepidation.
"That is—if you'll let me," Noah adds, inclining his head.
And as the ink spreads, blurring past and present into something indistinguishable Jonas nods, silent but resolute.
They follow a wide, dirt road out of Winden.
Behind them, the sun sets, distorting their shadows and casting everything in red, unholy light. The wheat fields around them rustle and sway in a gentle breeze that brings little relief from the oppressive heat and still they walk.
Jonas is lagging behind quite a bit – has been for almost an hour – but Noah finds it difficult to slow his pace. Worry is eating away at him.
He's never left Winden, in all the half-lives he's lead, leaving Winden had never been part of it, never even come to mind. He knows Jonas has never left Winden either, not like this at least and he knows Jonas is worrying about the same thing when the boy calls out:
"What if we can't leave?"
Noah stops but doesn't speak or turn around.
"What if—what if we just circle back?" It's difficult to make out Jonas' tone, half misguided hope, half panic.
Squinting against the horizon where a dark indigo is eating away at the fiery red of the setting sun Noah says, "We won't," because he can't think of a lie good enough to comfort them both. All he has, once again, is blind faith.
"Come on," he says, turning around.
Jonas is framed shadowy black against the gold and red of the sunset behind him and Noah has to lift a hand to shield his eyes to see the grimace of pain and determination twisting his face, which is still grimy with sweat and dirt. He shouldn't look impressive like this, but he does; broken and dirty, his limp more pronounced than ever.
"Go," he grits out when he realises Noah is waiting for him. "I'll catch up."
Noah doubts this, but he nods anyway and sets off again, making a deliberate effort not to march too far ahead. He can hear the uneven rhythm Jonas' feet on the dusty road and knows that Jonas will follow. Desperation has brought him this far and it will take him further.
Minutes pass in heavy, heat-soaked silence. The road they're on starts to slope upwards, the fields of wheat and corn fall away and are replaced by plain fields of grass that stretch on until the advancing gloom swallows them. It's very quiet without the constant hum of some distant road or motorway and the sky is empty of anything except for a few shy stars speckled across it.
At the top of the hill which they are now climbing Noah sees a signpost, framed against the darkening blue of the sky.
He speeds up and then stops abruptly and turns around.
Jonas is struggling up the hill behind him, bent almost double with the effort to keep moving. He's dragging his left leg and in even in the unreliable, grey-ish light of dusk Noah can see that the provisionary bandage that had been wrapped around his calf and the bullet wound is soaked with fresh blood.
With a twinge of pity, Noah starts heading back down the hill to help him, because what would be the point of escape if one of them dies in the attempt.
He's about a foot or so away when Jonas notices him and looks up, eyes wide and startled. Then recognition flickers across his face and he freezes. He makes no attempt to come closer, the line of his shoulders rigid and guarded.
It's with a heavy sigh that Noah steps forward and wraps an arm around Jonas' middle, helping him lift some of the weight off of his injured leg. The gasp of both relief and pain is enough of a reward and so, together they continue their way up the hill.
"You should've kept that stick," Noah says over the sound of Jonas' laboured breathing. "Could've used it as a crutch."
Jonas doesn't reply and Noah's almost settled with the heavy silence between them when he speaks, "That was you in the forest, wasn't it?"
"Yes—yes, that was me."
Their progress is slow but after a couple of agonising minutes, they make it to the crest of the hill.
Noah can feel Jonas' skin under the thin, sweat-soaked material of his shirt; hot, almost feverish and when he loosens his grip and pulls away he's met with glazed pale blue eyes and a face that's deathly pale underneath the grime and blotches of colour high in his cheeks.
Then his gaze trails higher, up to the sign hanging above Jonas' head.
Holdstein (2 km)
"That doesn't look like Winden," Jonas mumbles and Noah follows his gaze down the hill where a town, a little bigger than Winden sits nestled between a forest to the West and miles of fields to the East. It's complete with red-tiled roofs, wooden barns, narrow cobblestone streets and the modest spire of a church.
"That's because it's not Winden," Noah replies and because he isn't entirely cruel, asks, "You think you can hold on a little longer?"
And even though he's flushed with pain and fever Jonas' mouth thins into an expression of grim determination. It looks familiar on him, making him look both younger and older; even more like the all-knowing martyr, that Adam had made him out to be.
It's a wonder how far a clerical collar, a worn, dog-eared Bible and an apologetic smile can get you.
They're in the low-ceilinged kitchen of the town's biggest inn. It's lit sparingly – darker than the bar and dining area which had been alight with noise, life and laughter; people relaxing after a long tiring day – there are gas lamps, three large stoves and a fireplace the size of a children's playhouse. The windows are small, the glass thick and warped letting in what little light the sky has left to give.
Jonas is sitting on a little stool, blearily clinging on to consciousness.
He's there because Noah put him there, followed easily when Noah's hands pushed him down and has stayed quiet, swaying slightly under Noah's watchful gaze from the flickering shadows.
A loud creak from the door leading to the bar interrupts Noah's contemplation and he straightens respectfully as the inn's matriarch – the eldest of three generations – marches back inside, armed with rolls of gauze, linen, a bottle of brandy, a smaller brown bottle of ethanol and a fierce maternal energy that makes Jonas look up.
She places all of these things on the scrubbed wooden counter that dominates the room and rounds on Noah.
"What happened to him?" Her tone isn't accusing as such – she has more sense than to accuse a priest – but her gaze is steely.
"I don't know," Noah lies easily, "he won't speak."
This makes the old woman's face crumple into an expression of muted sadness. She wears it well, it looks familiar on her face and Noah doesn't doubt that she's seen plenty of boys who gave their voices to the muddy fields and trenches and forgot to ask for them back. Heimkehrer even now.
As she turns away Noah catches Jonas' eye, raising an eyebrow to see if he heard the instruction hidden in his lie.
The little nod of understanding that he gets in return eases some of the tension in his shoulders and moves back into the shadows to watch as Jonas' unfocused gaze flickers from the elderly woman now heaving a pot of hot water off of a nearby stove, to the fading light outside before finally settling on Noah again. It seems to calm him a little, a familiar face amongst all this strangeness.
Things go relatively easily until the woman tries to remove the dirty bandage around Jonas' throat. He flinches away, almost toppling off of his stool. It's a violent, seemingly involuntary movement and when the old woman reaches out again he moves away, shaking his head, eyes damp and desperate.
His gaze slips over her shoulder and as understanding dawns Noah pushes off the rough stone wall and says, "Maybe I should try?"
He steps forward and she moves aside, passing him the washcloth. Jonas' eyes follow every movement, follow as Noah crouches down in front of him and – as a test – runs the damp cloth along the vulnerable underside of his jaw. He tenses under the touch but doesn't try to move away.
A few seconds pass and seemingly having deemed him trustworthy enough the woman says, "I'll arrange a room for you two."
She leaves, letting the door fall shut behind her.
"Take this," Noah says after he's wrung out the cloth and put it back into the pot of hot water. He grabs the bottle of brandy from the counter, unstoppers it and holds it out for Jonas to take. "Just a sip," he adds when Jonas just stares at it, "it'll help."
Ignoring Jonas' coughing and spluttering Noah sets to work on the bandage still wrapped around Jonas' throat. The wound underneath is still relatively fresh and raw and Jonas' spluttering peters off into a pained whimper when Noah starts peeling it off. It's dirty with grime and sweat and the dark, tacky blood gives more resistance than Noah expected.
In the end he has to cup the back of Jonas' head to keep him still until the bandage is gone.
Next comes the antiseptic soaked into a wad of clean linen and Noah doesn't warn Jonas of the incoming stinging pain.
He bears it well, clearly accustomed to it; more than a boy his age ought to be. Noah only stops when – after a couple of agonising minutes – Jonas reaches up to grab him by the wrist, fingernails digging red crescents into the back of his hand.
"Stop," he rasps out, "please."
Removing his hand from Jonas' grip Noah reaches over his shoulder and retrieves the bottle of brandy.
"Here," he says, forcing it into Jonas' trembling hands, "drink." The bullet wound on his leg looks bad – worse, actually, than Noah had anticipated – it's swollen, red and raw. The skin where the bullet had hit is torn, revealing the flesh and muscle underneath. Blood, dark in the unsteady light of the fire and the surrounding gas lamps, oozes over the pale skin of Jonas' leg as Noah starts tearing at the trouser leg.
He looks up, just once, from where he's kneeling between Jonas' splayed legs and Jonas meets his gaze briefly before looking away.
By the time he's managed to clean, disinfect and dress the wound the elderly woman has returned and is standing in the doorway, watching silently as Noah works. Noise and light from the bar beyond spill past her, framing her as a black matronly shadow against warm golden light.
"We're a bit overcrowded at the moment," she says once Noah's straightened up to admire his handiwork and the dazed expression on Jonas' face. "Harvest and all—lots of people coming in to help, but I've managed to clear something out in the attic."
Then she casts a concerned glance at Jonas and asks, "Do you think your boy can make it up the stairs?"
Noah glances at Jonas, who's staring blankly into the fire.
"We'll manage, but he will have to rest. At least for a few days," Noah replies.
The woman nods curtly and they both pause to look at Jonas who's swaying ever so slightly in his seat, one hand gripping the edge of the counter. His knuckles stand out white against the grime on his skin and Noah briefly entertains the idea of carrying him upstairs until he meets Jonas' glassy-eyed stare and seeing some vestiges of determination there, decides against it.
He turns away. "How can I repay you, Frau... ?"
"Kehrer," Frau Kehrer finishes with an accomodating little nod. "As for how you can repay me? Don't be a nuisance, help with the harvest if you can. You look fit enough and some of the men here are—" she stops abruptly, glances back at Jonas, then continues, "—well, we could use every helping hand that's available."
Fever washes over Jonas for three, excruciating days.
The attic is roomy but hot during the day and only slightly cooler at night, drafts and noises creeping in at odd places. But up here the sounds of the inn and the town are distant and the fields and sky feel closer, pressing against the warped old windows and skylight in a way that narrows the world down to just that room, just that bed where Jonas is lying, restless even in his sleep.
Noah stays up at night, pressing flannels soaked in lukewarm water to his overheated forehead and cheeks and forcing him to eat and drink whenever he can. He cleans and redresses the wound in Jonas' leg every few hours and when there's nothing left to do, sleeps in fits.
In the morning he leaves Jonas in the care of Frau Kehrer's daughter-in-law, Margot, and makes himself useful in the fields.
The people here are all simple, reserved and hard-working folk, who ask very few questions. A helping hand is a helping hand even when they're the hands of a priest who seems more comfortable holding a shovel or a mattock than a bible. His hands are far too rough, calloused and scarred for him to have spent half his life getting papercuts from God's word. They don't ask questions, but they make assumptions. Assumptions that they then say out loud in a backhanded way of getting confirmation of their suspicions and Noah adapts accordingly.
When questions do come it's in the evening and Noah lies willingly, easily.
He lies about his name, leaves his old one in Winden but keeps the name given to him – not by the mother he can't remember – but by the older, more twisted version of the man-made god currently sweating out a fever in the inn's attic. He speaks about the war but doesn't talk about it, like most men who survived it do.
He pieces together a life out of the scraps they give him until they're eating out of his hand.
He talks and listens and in just three days he manages to become the person they'd imagined him to be.
Noah doesn't dream.
Hasn't in a long, long time. There's nothing left for him to dream about.
He used to dream about his wife, about the pudgy, grabbing hands of a baby daughter whom he never got to really meet. But their faces have blurred over time, occasionally coming back into sharp, unbearable focus only to fade away worse than before.
At night, on the floor of the Kehrer's attic, he stares into the black void of what used to be his past and future and waits for sleep.
He knows that Jonas dreams. Sometimes when sleep feels completely unattainable Noah sits up and watches Jonas writhe and twist in his sleep. The thin blankets twist around his legs, his hands reach out blindly and his mouth moves soundlessly, begging and pleading. In the first two nights, Jonas mumbles half-forgotten names of people who might not exist anymore. Of people who won't ever exist.
And when they fade he's left with nothing.
For some, a dreamless sleep must feel worse than one filled with nightmares.
But there's always the relief on his face when he wakes up in the morning – especially the mornings when his fever has started to wane and his gaze is clearer – to find Noah sitting on a stool by the windows with a bowl of hot gruel balanced on his knees.
Noah says, "Good morning."
He holds Jonas' searching gaze until they've committed each other to memory and Jonas looks away, a little colour in his cheeks.
It feels like a triumph. The colour in Jonas' face that has nothing to do with his fading fever and the knowledge that he is and will remain to be the only truly familiar face in Jonas' life. The only link they have to a past and future they don't remember is each other. Give and take.
Margot leans with her arms crossed against one of the wooden beams supporting the sloping, aged ceiling and watches in silence as Jonas carefully tears off a piece of bread and drags it around the half-empty bowl of soup balanced precariously in his lap. Jonas' fever has finally waned but it's left behind a paler, weaker boy than the one Noah met so many years ago. He looks almost transparent, even when he's shrouded in the warm summer light spilling in from the skylight.
But his eyes are bright, alert and the lines around Margot's mouth and eyes have softened.
"There's a train station two towns over—in Wöhrlingen. You could head east."
Jonas tears off another piece of bread and wordlessly holds it out for Noah to take, which he does, reluctantly putting down the map, watch and the envelope of money to take it. It's good bread, soft and airy. The taste reminds him of something now beyond his grasp.
The small community of Holdstein had really come together when – the night before – Noah announced their intention to leave.
Their generosity has given them money (not a lot but enough for food, travel and accommodation that will last them for a few days), a relatively up-to-date map of the new Weimar Republic, an old watch since Noah had none and a bundle of clothes for the both of them. The clothes aren't new but they're clean and in reasonably good condition.
"East?" Noah asks, pausing the methodical destruction of his piece of bread. "Why?"
Margot shrugs. "There's more work there. More work your boy could do since he's in no fit condition for hard labour. And for you—they could always use more priests in places like Berlin or Hamburg."
He considers this for a moment. Then he turns to Jonas and says, "Hamburg? What do you think?"
It's all about the illusion of choice. He's had time to think about this and Noah has already made up his mind; Hamburg is ideal, the old streets make it a perfect place for two people like them to live and the ships will make it a perfect place to leave once things go bad.
A shadow passes over Jonas' face, so quickly that Noah almost misses it. Then his gaze settles somewhere to the left of Noah's face and he opens his mouth as if to speak but closes it again. A pause, silence that's broken only by the distant sound of voices down below and the quiet buzz of a fly. Noah watches him. His blue eyes dart frantically around the barren little room and his hands twist in his lap, trying to remember why he doesn't want to leave. When he can't his shoulders sag, the agitation drains out of him all at once, replaced by defeat.
They don't exist anymore. Only here, only now. They're anomalies in time, set adrift without a past.
The realisation seems to weigh Jonas down. Being trapped by time and being set free from it feel like similarly dreadful fates.
Noah reaches out and takes one of his hands, squeezing it in a way he hopes looks reassuring and fatherly to Margot's beady grey eyes. One day that defeat will turn into acceptance and one day Jonas will stop trying to remember a future and a past that no longer exists. There is only the present, Jonas' thin boyish hand in Noah's bloodstained one.