Fresh silver lines glisten along the edges of the knight of swords card Gerry has just started painting, and he gingerly sets his brush down to lean back and study them. Oliver’s hand rests solidly on his shoulder, heavy but gentle.
And then it tightens, just perceptibly enough to snap Gerry back into the present moment. He tilts his head up to glance at Oliver, concerned at the sudden shift in presence, and sees an ashen face with eyes focused on the Keystone’s door.
Following Oliver’s line of sight, Gerry finds himself looking right at Ria – an unsettling presence, to be sure, but a familiar one by now. The Casualty, as she calls herself, has become a regular part of day-to-day life at the Keystone, to Oliver’s and his own continued unease.
“What are you doing here, Ria?” He fixes her with a questioning gaze, drawing as much on the Eye’s insight as he can. No new Knowledge leaps out at him, and Ria herself just gives a sardonic smile.
“I’m here to see my friend,” she intones brightly, eyes flitting away from Gerry to focus on Oliver.
A pang of unease rings through Gerry’s core, and he continues to study Ria’s appearance, searching for anything that might explain the haunted look on Oliver’s face.
She seems no more out-of-the-ordinary than usual – still the same marks, skull design supernaturally etched into the soul fabric of her forehead and outline of bones visible through her skin. There’s just one blank space – at the hollow of her neck, where a jeweled skull pendant attached to a tightly woven choker necklace usually sits.
She radiates death. It’s unsettling. He almost died himself, once, saved only by a treatment that deeply scarred him. Left behind by the world he’d grown up in because he almost fell to a threat that wasn’t even supernatural. Every close call beforehand firmly rooted in otherworldly terror, the closest of them all a result of not paying close enough attention to the mundane.
Gerry glances away from Ria and back to Oliver, whose hand is still shaking almost imperceptibly upon his shoulder. He brings one of his own up to cover it. Oliver looks at him with eyes wide as saucers, teeming with fear in a way they usually only are after he wakes up from a dream.
“I – uh – I need to talk to Ria. I’ll be right back.” His voice is bright and conversational, but the attempt at reassurance falls on deaf ears. Gerry can see the clenched teeth behind his words. He raises one eyebrow – really, you think that’s going to convince me you’re okay? – then lowers it abruptly when even more color drains from Oliver’s face in response to the unasked question.
“Okay,” he concedes. “Just… don’t die on me.”
Oliver gives a faint smile before turning to leave. Gerry presses his lips lightly to the back of the hand that’s been on his shoulder before letting go.
London teems with life and death alike as Oliver and Ria make their way down the sidewalk. The minute he’d approached the Keystone’s door, she had spun around and started walking down the boulevard, motioning for him to follow.
He hadn’t wanted to follow, but he’d felt like he had to. Now, he’s walking side-by-side with her in silence. The little smirk on her face tells Oliver that he’s going to have to be the one to bring up the change he’s seen in her.
“I don’t suppose you’d like to tell me why you’re suddenly covered in veins?” He poses the question as offhandedly as possible, knowing that the quicker he regains outward composure, the quicker she’ll move on from cryptic gloating to actually giving him answers.
She isn’t fooled quite yet. “You know exactly why I’m covered in veins,” she says with a laugh. “Don’t play dumb. I know you dream about them. I know you know what they mean.”
“They mean you’re going to die soon.”
“Ria, you told me you die at least three times a day.”
“… And your point is?”
“I’ve never seen the veins on you before – not when I gave your reading, not when I first saw you die, and none of the following times you’ve been at the Keystone.”
“Oh, that.” Ria’s casually teasing air is beginning to grate on Oliver’s nerves, but he forces himself to stay calm.
“Yes, that.” He hopes his reply hits as dryly sarcastic, internally sighing with relief when Ria coughs out a little chuckle in spite of herself.
She nods her head, as if to signify he’s given the correct response to advance the conversation, before saying, “I’m touched by more than one entity, y’know.”
“And?” Oliver gives an overexaggerated sigh, playing into the dramatics of Ria’s stilted answers.
“I wore a Web artefact the first time I came into the shop, and all the times after that. Didn’t want to scare you right off the bat.”
“Hmm. I don’t believe you. I think you wanted to startle me.”
Ria raises her hands in mock surrender, almost swinging her left arm into a passerby. “You got me! It worked, didn’t it.”
“Oh, it worked alright.” Oliver gently tugs her away from the passerby she almost hit, who has stopped the middle of the sidewalk to glare at her.
They walk in relative silence until Ria’s voice rings out with a question that catches Oliver aback: “What do they look like on me?”
“What do… what do what look like on you?”
She tosses her ponytail with a sigh, rolling her eyes as she turns to look at him. “The veins .”
“They’re…dark. Pulsing, bit of a crimson sheen.”
“You’re not even looking.”
“Corner of your eye doesn’t count, Oliver.” Ria tries to dodge into his line of vision. He very pointedly turns his gaze to the side.
“I don’t need to look. I see them enough.”
“Yes, but do you ever see them on another End avatar?”
“I don’t know any others – just you.”
“Case in point! Aren’t you curious?”
“Curiosity got me into this mess. If I had just stayed at the top of Canary Wharf in that dream…” Oliver trails off. No point in talking about it now; what’s done is done. “Going back over it won’t change anything.”
“Exactly. So, why not move forward?”
“That’s what I’m doing.”
“It isn’t, not really.” Ria’s voice comes from the opposite side of Oliver than she was previously on. Startled, he looks to his right to see her walking along the edge of the curb next to him. She turns to him with a knowing smile, balanced on the edge of the busy street. “Moving forward would be accepting the role you’ve found yourself in.”
She gives a little twirl, stance even more precarious than before as she lifts one foot in the air. Oliver has to clench his jaw to keep from shouting for her to stop, to be careful.
Ria raises an eyebrow at him, as if daring him to say something. “I can feel your fear, you know. Imagine how much easier it would be if you could feed on that instead of exuding it.”
There’s another spin, a slight tumble out of it, a little giggle from Ria at Oliver’s following involuntary gasp. “It’s everywhere, the threat of death. The reality of death. There’s no escaping it, Oli.”
Oliver flinches at the familiarity of the nickname - at the notion that the person in front of him considers him a friend, is speaking conversationally to him as if she didn’t introduce herself by bleeding out on the Keystone’s floor.
Ria’s balance on the curb wavers, the ground slipping out from underneath her as one ankle turns the wrong way. She falls towards the street, flung into the path of oncoming traffic. Oliver has a moment to think about crying out in warning - and a moment to realize it doesn’t matter - before the car hits her.
All hell breaks loose in an instant, civilians screaming and the driver of the car slamming on their brakes too late and the veins along Ria’s neck expanding with each wave of fear the sight of her body inspires. When he catches her eyes, glassy and undoubtedly dead, he almost jumps at the conspiratorial wink she gives him. As if he’s a part of this. As if he’s ever wanted to be a part of this.
Ignoring the horror that churns in his gut, he grits his teeth and slowly backs away, transfixed in spite of himself by the sight of people crowding around her. He draws on every last reserve of calm within him not to scream as she gets up off the ground and walks towards him. Cries of “don’t move” and “you’re injured” and “call 911,” all directed at Ria, surround Oliver in a wave of harsh, grating sound. He tries his hardest to block it out, turning around to head back towards the Keystone and away from this waking nightmare.
As he walks, trying to steady his breathing as the world before him remains hazy, he’s pulled back into himself by a cold hand on his shoulder and a whispered, triumphant, “How do they look now?” The words are gritty, spoken through a voice box that should be shredded given the natures of the injuries Ria sustained, and Oliver has to force down a shiver. He continually wills himself, with varying degrees of success, not to look at the tendrils of death that surround her head, but they don’t do him the courtesy of ignoring him completely.
As she walks next to him, he feels them wrap around his arms, colder than ice. Patient is the word that comes to mind, like the thin line between a frozen-over pond and drowning.
Before today, despite all of the marks of death Oliver had seen, he had been able to assert that he’d never touched a corpse. He supposes that’s no longer the truth. That realization chills him to the bone as veins continue to engulf him, as they weave themselves around his neck and his fingers. Vaguely, he registers Ria sewing herself back together with the strength given by newly consumed fear. He doesn’t try to get away from her. He doesn’t think he could.
“What the hell was that?” he hisses eventually.
“You weren’t paying attention. You weren’t looking at me.”
“So you decided to run out into traffic?!”
“Yes. And you’re talking to a corpse while walking through the streets of London.”
She’s not wrong. Oliver huffs in disapproving agreement and falls silent, letting the bustle of the world around him fade as he tries to slow his heartbeat down. At one point, he looks to his side to see Ria perfectly intact again – albeit still absolutely covered in blood.
Shakily, he reenters the world in full, and is immediately struck with the realization that there are still veins on Ria. This time, they stem from her stomach. Right. She has at least three deaths a day. This was only the first.
“The veins look different now, don’t they?”
Ria laughs, as if this is some delightful game – this dying and coming back, playing I-spy with marks of imminent demise, flippantly disrupting the peace of civilians… and something in Oliver hardens.
As they reach the Keystone, he rushes inside, slamming the door behind him. He barely hears the start of a gasp as it shuts completely.
Gerry’s head snaps up from his painting, and he momentarily brings one hand up to his temple with a wince before fixing Oliver with a gaze equal parts concerned and questioning.
Oliver opens his mouth to speak, but the only sound that comes out is choked and incoherent. So he dashes into the shop bathroom and locks the door behind him, bringing his hands to rest on either side of the sink with a shuddering breath.
As the bells above the door of the Keystone jangle in cacophony, Gerry turns his head from where Oliver has just locked himself in the shop bathroom to where Ria stands wide-eyed in the doorway, covered in dried blood.
Rising slowly to his feet, he walks towards the front of the shop until he stands a few feet away – far enough for safety, but close enough to speak without yelling. Keeping one hand braced on the marble of the counter, he draws himself up to full height and looks her dead in the eye with a pointed, “What did you do?”
He almost winces at how accusatory his voice sounds. Then he remembers Oliver’s face from minutes ago – terror-stricken and helpless, even in the presence of someone he knew would support him – and feels any regret he might have had go up in flames.
“I just died. You’d think he’d never seen it before.” Ria’s tone is casual, as always. Gerry has no patience for her grotesque levity.
“You died? While out walking in the middle of London?” He knows the answer to this question, but he still wants to hear her say it. Still wants proof to support his suspicions about the reason Oliver ran from him.
“I do it all the time!”
“Not when you’re with someone else!” Gerry gives a frustrated sigh, raking a hand through his hair as he feels his grip on the counter turn whiteknuckle tight.
“What, you just thought ‘oh time to die’ without considering the impact it might have?” Gerry’s voice rings unpleasantly harsh as it resonates in his ears. He can’t bring himself to care.
“I thought he’d be able to handle it! I’m sorry he couldn’t!”
“What made you think he’d be able to ‘handle it’?” Gerry barely stifles a cold laugh at the thought that Oliver - compassionate, careful Oliver - would ever react with nonchalance to someone’s life ending right in front of him.
“I said I was sorry!” Ria’s pitch is frantically escalating, eyes turned crimson as she tries to make her presence intimidating. “He has to learn, though.”
Unimpressed by her attempts at justification, Gerry gives a disbelieving shake of his head. “There are some things he doesn’t want to know. If you saw him as a friend, you’d respect that.”
“I tried.” Ria’s arms are crossed defensively as she tries to keep standing tall, chin tilted up in defiance even as fear brims in her eyes.
A part of Gerry wants to prod at that fear, to unwind and examine it until he understands what Ria wants with Oliver. He leans into the instinct for a moment. “How, exactly, did you ‘try’?”
Ria’s mouth opens and then shuts. She looks at a loss for words, trapped in the headlight beam of Gerry’s gaze. Then, she seems to steel herself once more, glaring daggers to hide her unease as she feigns a false offensive. “What have you ever done to help him, to keep him away from things he might not want to know?”
She’s not going to give in; of course she isn’t. And he’d rather not engage her in a shouting match when he could be doing something to help Oliver instead.
“Just go,” he sighs on an outbreath, forcing himself to look away from her.
With a look equal parts incredulous and frustrated, Ria stands staring at him for a moment before spinning on her heel and storming off. Gerry watches her retreat in the periphery of his vision until she fades from view. Then, he turns over his own heel and crosses the floor of the Keystone once more to tap gently on the bathroom door.
“She’s gone, Oliver,” he mutters against wood, wincing at the hoarseness in his voice. “It’s okay, she’s gone now.”
Hearing hesitant footsteps approach, he backs a few paces away and waits. The door opens at a painstaking crawl, but eventually, Gerry finds himself face to face with Oliver – still ashen, still haunted, but resolute in the way he stands tall. His eyes warily scan the shop, as if checking for death hiding in the corners, before he breathes a small sigh of relief and refocuses on Gerry.
Tentatively, Gerry opens his arms, an offering of shelter that can be taken or left. Oliver all but falls into them, his own arms curling around Gerry’s shoulders in a gesture equal parts protective and vulnerable – both soaking in and shielding his source of support.