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Your fingers; shaking from too much caffeine, not enough sleep, and raw nerves; tapped against your leg as the screen in front of you blinked from black to blue, the little meter in the center slowly filling bar by bar as it reset. You might have bounced on your toes to work off some of the energy, but you didn’t dare draw any more attention to yourself than necessary. Already you could feel the uncomfortable gazes of the doctors.

Not many women were kept on staff in Shambhala —the famed Asylum for the criminally insane— and those who were had to quickly grow used to the lecherous pressure of men who hadn’t gotten laid in a while. For the most part, your position kept anyone from getting any ideas. The mere fact that you were allowed into the lower levels of the asylum said a lot about the value of your skills. Besides, trust was limited here and you knew it would be an inconvenience for them to find another low-level techie as easy to keep in line as you were.

A nagging, distinctly masculine voice in your head mocked you for that. You only had value because you were subservient. Free will, thoughts of your own, agency —you didn’t have any of that. It was pathetic.

You winced, a distinctly physical recoil from the intensity of those thoughts. They'd been getting worse recently. Stronger. More intrusive. It was worrying, gnawing at the inside of your head when you laid awake through the night, eroding your nerves.

But there was work to be done, so you ignored it.

You did a lot of ignoring these days.

Trying to find something to distract you, your eyes landed on the patient laying on the cot beside the computer you were trying to reason with. Patient F1162, currently knocked out with an alarming concoction of sedatives. He was at the top of their shortlist for what you’d heard vaguely called the dream experiments. Shambhala worked on a need to know basis, but you could gather from the way the doctors whispered among themselves that he seemed to have great potential for success. You had no idea what success meant; it certainly didn’t mean rehabilitation, but it was leagues above your pay grade to know what they were doing.

No, you truly didn’t want to know. But you weren’t deaf, either. The doctors whispered amongst themselves about an epidemic spreading among the patients. It was the nightmares, they had begun spreading an infection. Men woke in the night screaming, blood coming from their eyes and ears and mouths as they clawed their veins out or swallowed their tongues. Madness oozed from the decaying walls of the asylum and when you were in the hazy state between wakefulness and dreams, you worried it was contagious. A quiet part of your mind, the one that hadn’t yet given itself up to the comfort of apathy, worried about that.

Another thing to ignore.

You focused again on patient F1162, shaking your head of those thoughts. He was actually, much to your dismay, rather attractive. Messy blond hair, nice skin, a sharp jaw, straight nose, not to mention his physique. Patients at lower risk for violence were allowed yard time. The only oddity about patient F1162 was the plain white medical eyepatch he wore, but it didn’t do much to spoil his good looks. Really, it only-

The computer chirped, letting you know that everything was back online. Disgust lurched through your gut as snapped back to your senses, quickly looking away. Ogling an unconscious asylum patient. That was a new low, even for you.

Forcing an air of focused professionalism, you entered the proper passcodes so the software could boot. The specifics of the program they used for these tests was as much a mystery to you as anyone else, but you and Shambhala's main operating system were old friends. Your ability to pick it up so intuitively was what had landed you the job despite the fact that you’d dropped out of university before graduating. At the time, you thought it was a chance for something better; after all, working for a place owned by the parent mega-corporation Agartha would guarantee you a job at your pick of programming job.

The part yourself that still sounded like Him laughed at your long-extinguished optimism. How naive had you been to believe that such a wonderful position would be offered to you without some catastrophic catch?

“Shut up,” you muttered under your breath, your fingers coming down especially hard on the keyboard.

“What was that?” the doctor standing behind your shoulder asked. You flinched, you hadn’t meant to say that out loud.

“Nothing,” you said sharply. Catching yourself, you continued in a softer, more respectful tone. “I’m almost done.”

Pressing enter with your pinky, the interface loaded, filling the various screens with a dizzying amount of information. F1162’s patient data, heart rate, vital signs, physical condition, and brain activity all synced up to the machine. It seemed to become alive through the consumption of the endless stream of his data, like a hulking metal parasite. You understood some of what was displayed, but the true mystery was what wasn't shown on the screens. Underneath lurked an equation of some sort, a hefty tangle of code that consumed processing power at an unbelievable rate. A recent addition to the system. Nemesis, it was called. As far as you could tell, it was the reason for the crash, heavily taxing the CPU as it took information from the system and rewrote itself in line after line of never-ending operations.  

None of the doctors or suits mentioned it to you. The head programmer hadn’t said a single thing about it. Even in a facility that was all hush-hush, the secrecy surrounding the project was odd. You couldn’t afford to be curious; you knew well enough how the suits treated employees who got a little too nosy for comfort, but it had been unavoidable for you to not get a small glimpse of it while trying to get things online. Not that it helped you to understand. What you did know was that it was a major breakthrough, something integral to the dream experiments. You knew that it’s importance made it dangerous; you knew that its optimization was going to be problematic which would likely make more work for you; and you knew that you were better off ignoring it.

“Okay, you’re good to go,” you said, very intently not looking at the patient, pretending to study the screens for a moment. A burst of color lit up on the brain scan. You frowned at it, recognizing the signal that something was off before you could logically understand why.

And then everything went wrong.

“Christ —he’s waking up!” one of the doctors shouted as the readings began going completely haywire, pushing you out of the way to hurriedly scramble in an attempt to attach a new bag to the IV.

You stumbled and went down flat on your ass hard, yelping in pain. But the sound was lost in the chaos as an alarm began blaring, your fall the least of anyone's worries.

From where you sat, all you saw was a hand shoot over the edge of the cot and grasp the doctor’s throat. The bag of light green fluid he’d been trying to attach to the IV dropped from his grip, the plastic bag splitting open like a water balloon when it hit the floor and splattering the viscous liquid in your eyes, over your mouth, onto your clothes.

In the same second, there was a terrible crash.

Someone grabbed your arm from behind, pulling you along in an awkward backward scramble while you were still blinded, wiping the green liquid clear of your eyes and mouth with your sleeve. They were trying to talk over the alarm, trying to get you to stand up, to get away from the patient, but you couldn’t understand, blind and dazed with confused shock.

When your eyes blinked open, tears streaming from them to ease the awful sting, Patient F1162 was sitting up on the bed, pawing off the wires and sensors he’d been hooked up to and pulling the needles from his arm in a graphic spray of blood and liquid without so much as a wince.

Whoever had been trying to get you to stand up cursed, scurrying back and away from F1162. Some of the doctors had congealed at the door, but it was locked as per security protocol. The others clung to the walls, trying to get as much distance between themselves and the patient as possible.

Panic seized your lungs, your head buzzing with the overstimulation of everything that was happening. There was too much going on at once, too many voices, too much motion, the screaming of alarms, and the flashing lights. Everything began to blur, your head dizzy and breathing shallow. You wanted to get up, but your limbs weren’t moving properly.

Pieces of the scene filtered into your focus, little by little. The doctor laying in a broken sprawl on top of thousands of dollars worth of shattered tech from where he’d been tossed like a rag doll, blood and that foul-smelling light green sedative blooming in a stark stain across the once-pristine white linoleum beneath him. The mess of blood on patient F1162’s forearm where he’d ripped out the needles, the way droplets of crimson and lime had splattered across his white scrubs. The pain of your tailbone, radiating up your spine. The stickiness of the IV fluid on your face, making your eyes water and nose run. It smelled of bitter medicine and vinegary plastic. Nauseating.

This couldn’t be real.

Patient F1162, free of the machine, scanned the room, taking in the chaos with an intensely icy expression, his body coiled and ready to attack. You stared, trying to make sense of it all, to understand. But then he turned his head and met your eyes, staring back. His gaze froze you to the spot. Where you had expected the wild look of a cornered animal, you saw lucid intensity. You’d seen madness and you’d seen rage and you’d seen the bleary confusion of people drugged out of their minds, but that wasn’t him. He looked at you with focus and recognition, that icy look shifting into something like surprise before intent took over.

Patient F1162 looked at you and you understood what it truly meant to be prey.

Only seconds could have possibly passed through this exchange, stretched out by the strange hyper-reality of terror. Nobody paid you any mind, nobody tried to get you up and to safety. They were shouting, demanding F1162 to stand down. Their voices faded into a background buzz, unrelated to the small pieces of reality that you could comprehend. It was like they weren’t even there. The only real, tangible thing was the seven feet distance between you and F1162.

You realized too late that he intended to close it.

Someone tried to grab F1162 as he stood and began to stalk towards you, but he threw them off with a wicked backhand. The guard dropped to the ground, his head turned at an angle that couldn’t possibly be natural, the skin of his neck stretched and bunched in bands like rubber.

It was grotesque in the most disturbingly unnatural way possible. It should have made you sick. But it didn't feel real, you could only marvel at the gruesome sight, shock keeping you from doing anything other than taking in the details, the littlest pieces that were easy to digest.

He wasn’t human. Regular men couldn’t do things like that, didn’t have that kind of absurd strength.

Then you were being wrenched upwards by the front of your shirt. F1162 wore an expression you didn’t understand. Something vulnerable, something desperate. Your shaking hands tried to push him off, acting on pure instinct. He released you to collapse on your weak legs only to catch you, his arms pulling you into a solid wall of man in a suffocating grip. He smelled like cheap laundry soap, the cheaper body wash they gave the patients, and the stale scent of sleep-sweat. You struggled and cried out, your body finally acting in an appropriate way to the danger, but it was pointless.

He was going to kill you.

That's all you could think.

You were going to die here, buried deep beneath Shambhala Asylum for the Criminally Insane in this awful white room where the sun had never and would never shine.

“My beloved,” F1162 said, his voice low enough that you heard the words more clearly through the rumbling of his chest than from his mouth. His breathing was so even. He’d just killed two men and his heart was pumping a steady, comforting beat against your cheek. “I always knew that one day… That one day you would find me.”

You couldn’t breathe. You couldn’t move.

His words triggered something buried deep in your mind and right then, you only half existed in that sterile white room, another part of yourself split into memory so vivid it was almost reality. Another man, another voice. Rumbling affection, the security of being held, of being loved. A craving so intense and so intimate and so overwhelming that you couldn’t even think to fight. The recurring dream that one day your father would come back and scoop you up in a big bear hug like he had when you were small, when your life made sense, when you were loved.

How long had it been?

Overwhelmed, you went limp in his arms, giving up into the embrace without resistance. The arms around you were warm, secure, strong. His voice was hoarse adoration. It didn’t make sense, none of it made sense, but this fragment of unreality wasn’t as terrifying as the rest, clouded with the confusion of something based half in memory and half in dream.

The body you were pressed to went stiff, his arms releasing you to push off another attack. Too late, all he could do was pull the empty syringe from his neck. Taking advantage of his confusion, several guards pulled F1162 away. He wasn’t struggling. You got a last glimpse of one blue eye widened with emotion, an expression of desperate need, the mouthing of three words, and then he was down.

Three words. A promise. I’ll find you.

Reality was harsh and grotesque. Two men laid dead on the ground. The alarm shut off, leaving an awful buzz to ring in your ears. The scent of the IV fluid was sickening. You stumbled a half step forward, towards the prone form of F1162 as they got him back onto the plastic sheeted hospital bed. Chasing a memory, a feeling, trying to soothe the daze of confusion.

Someone grabbed you, pulling you back. You didn’t fight, you barely registered it all. Even the unfamiliar touch of the guard, which normally would have made your skin crawl, felt numb. Unreal. Was this shock? You’d felt shock before, sitting in your tiny apartment bathroom staring at the empty wall while your lover muttered his apologies and pressed ice to your face, trying to fix bruising that no amount of makeup could ever seem to hide. Responding with hollow words as nurses asked how you broke your wrist, unable to feel anything as they stared at you with looks that didn’t believe your stairs story for even a second.

You made a broken life out of a broken childhood, you knew shock better than you knew anybody else.

Somehow, you got back to your room without breaking down, the guard hurrying you through the halls as per the instructions parroted over his radio. Somehow, you made it through closing the door of your room and turning the lock, through walking to your bathroom and undressing without paying too much attention to the stains on your clothes, turning the shower on the hottest setting, and you even got through pulling a fresh towel out of the closet.

It was only when the scalding spray of water was pounding against your back that it all caved in. Your legs gave out beneath you as you fell to sit beneath the water. Your tailbone ached horribly, but you could barely pay any mind to it.

You’d held out as long as you could, but now you cried, feeling your bones tremble with how hard you were shaking, the aftereffects of all the shock and adrenaline. When you closed your eyes, you saw a body lying in a pile of metal junk. You saw skin stretched like rubber. You saw his face, that single blue eye ringed in shadow and rimmed with red.

You saw your father’s face, morphed into someone unrecognizable because you couldn’t quite remember it; a child’s memory was too unreliable. It merged with the face of your ex, the features coming together in some awful chimera of emptiness and pain.    

Repression was a neat trick, but it was so fragile. Perhaps this was overdue because it wasn’t like you could forget, it wasn’t like you could move on. All you had ever been able to do was ignore the things you couldn’t face, the things that you weren’t strong enough to handle.

Curled up at the bottom of the yellowed shower floor, you wrapped your arms around yourself for comfort, hot water dying your skin a vibrant shade of red. Not that any of it helped to warm you up, to satiate your broken need to be held. Loneliness was a bone-deep ache, a debilitating pain, your arms a pitiful substitute for the embrace you craved so desperately. Someone to comfort you, to hold you, to tell you it was all right. Somebody to make it all right. In your life, you’d seen so many gruesome things. You thought yourself to be experienced in horror. But no, no. Not like this.

F1162 had killed with inhuman violence, certainly a result of their experimentation. He had brutalized two men in an impossibly cruel way. And then he had held you.

Savagery juxtaposed with tenderness. You knew all about that.

You couldn’t handle it, couldn’t organize your thoughts in a way that would help you process it all without the infection of fantasy. When you thought about the way he embraced you, the panic became lost, became tangled up with daydream and memory and surprise and relief and confusion. To be held when you expected pain. When you expected death. To feel the need of another person, it was so pressing, so real, so-

"Stop," you begged the pounding beat of water hitting the shower floor. But the thoughts didn’t stop, they churned and writhed and swelled in your head, squeezing your lungs. It was the memory of his expression when he looked at you, the soft, gentle lucidity of his words. The memory of being a child, of being loved. "Stop!" you cried, louder now because you couldn’t handle it. How were you supposed to? But nobody was there to listen, nobody was there to make it stop or to give you an answer. You were, and most certainly always had been, alone. You sobbed until your skin was pruning and bright red, until you were retching stomach bile into the drain, choking on your hiccups.

But, eventually, you had to get up.

Eventually, you had to do as you had always done, shutting off the water and getting dressed, and presenting a face to the world because it didn’t stop turning to wait for your pain to pass. It didn’t stop because of your fear, or your weakness. Out of any of the things you’d learned from love, you were most grateful for this.

Repression was a neat trick.

/

Doctor Tomas’s office was small, a relic of the upper wing’s addition from the 1960s. Charitably, you could call it retro. Really, it was just another place in Shambhala that showed the chronic lack of upkeep. It was the type of place where the brown carpet was worn and threadbare, patterned with an endless design of circles and stains that could very well have been older than you; the walls were lined with those awful textured green tiles, doing nothing to brighten up the cramped space; and the couch you sat on smelled like bleach cleaner and the sawdust they used to clean up vomit, a nearly omnipresent odor.

You’d been in here a few times. It was required that each of the employees was given a psych evaluation once a month. Doctor Tomas —a strange old man with unsettling air about him, seemingly always wearing a smile that was at once unnerving and friendly— was employed in Shambhala specifically for that purpose. As badly as you wanted to curl up in your bed and shut out the rest of the world for a few hours, it would have been a bad look if you refused to take one after all that had happened to you.

Throughout the process, you forced both your feet to remain on the floor rather than bounce your knee, you kept your hands folded in your lap so they wouldn’t fidget. You said all the appropriate things when asked. You were good at psych evals, knew exactly how much to give and withhold to get a clear check. Not like they cared much either way, as long as you could do your job. Still, it was good practice to get you back in a properly unconcerned headspace.

Doctor Tomas asked his questions, took some notes; you stared a particularly bad stain just beneath your foot. It had somehow filled up the entirety of the ugly yellow circle, making the already dirty shade of brown even more unappealing.

You didn’t intend to ask him the question after the test was over, you didn’t want to think that it had been on your mind. You didn’t want to care, or to think about anything that had happened ever again. But the words bubbled up in your mouth and you spoke them without thinking, staring at the ugly yellow circle with its ugly brown stain.

“Patient F1162… What’s his name?”

Tomas clicked his pen —you really hated that sound— before setting his notes down. “He was… excuse me, he is Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd.” Tomas laughed at the little slip-up, like it was a good joke. “The prince of Faerghus Industries." You could tell by the tone of his voice that the title was meant to be a playful jab to a name you were meant to recognize. You didn’t, but your mind was too focused on the next question to change directions.

“After what he did today, what are they going to do to him?” you asked before you could stop yourself. You didn't want to care. You hated yourself a little for asking. Patient F1162 —Dimitri— was unstable. He had killed two men, a doctor and a guard. Just like that. But when you thought about him now, it wasn’t the murders that you remembered. So why? Because he hadn’t killed you? Because he had hugged you? Because, in his madness, he'd believed you to be someone else? It disgusted you to think that you’d care.

But you did.

“He won’t get to you again,” Doctor Tomas said soothingly.

“Are they going to kill him?” you pushed, trying not to sound too concerned.

“He is still... a prime candidate for rehabilitation,” Doctor Tomas said carefully. “But I can assure you that he will never be allowed to do something like that again. He will face repercussions for his actions today if that eases your mind at all.”

No, it didn’t, but you didn’t want to think too hard about the reasoning of why you recoiled against the idea. Nor did you feel comfortable with the fact that you were relieved that he wasn't going to die. It was just that he had looked so desperate. So broken and sad and needful. When he held you, it hadn’t been rough or cruel or an attack. When he spoke, his voice had been nothing short of tender. And when you thought about it, the messy jumble of unreality and memory and thought and feeling mixed together and all you could think was that the person who had touched you was so incredibly human, you’d felt his heart beating against your cheek, the warmth of his body. Real and solid in a way so few things were these days, reminding you of all the things that were better left forgotten. But you couldn’t forget. You wished you could.

You placed your trembling hands flat against your thighs, trying to breathe steadily, to collect yourself before speaking again. “I think he mistook me for someone else,” you said.

“Hm? Oh, yes. Because of what he said to you. Well, I’m certain there’s no meaning to his ravings. Dimitri was rather unwell before he came here if you must know, but the death of that woman completely ruined the poor boy’s sanity. It’s not surprising he’d mistake you for her, patients who lose loved ones often do.”

“That woman?” you asked, looking up. Doctor Tomas blinked at you. Again, like he expected you to have some idea of what he was talking about.

“Are you unfamiliar with his case?”

“I am,” you admitted belatedly, feeling oddly as if that was the wrong answer. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Doctor Tomas said. “I just assumed that everyone… Well, it was all really quite a big deal when it happened. Dimitri took out an entire criminal empire in a span of about a week, it was all over the papers…”

“I lived on the other side of the country before coming here,” you said. “And under a rock, apparently.” Doctor Tomas laughed at that. Perhaps your nerves were just raw, but the sound felt forced. Too amused for the poor quip. “So he took out an entire… criminal empire?” you asked awkwardly. Saying it like that sounded silly, like a movie. “Why, did they kill his dog or something?”  

Doctor Tomas’s face sobered. “No. He, well, when he was brought to trial he alleged that they were responsible for the Duscur shooting, the death of his family.” You stared at him blankly. “Oh, right. Some people refer to it as the Duscur Tragedy. It was a gala in the Duscur building downtown. A team of hired men infiltrated and killed or injured nearly everybody in attendance.” He paused. “Nobody ever proved that the Hresvelgs were involved, but young Dimitri certainly believed they were.”  

“And the woman?”

“Yes, right, she was his accomplice. Professor Byleth Eisner. The two of them married soon after he left university. She was just as bad as he was, I think. I actually met her once, while she was still teaching. One of the most brilliant women I ever knew.” He shook his head regretfully. “They were a deadly pair, those two.”

Although you'd already known that Dimitri couldn't have possibly been speaking to you, that he'd mistaken you for another, confirmation of the fact was uncomfortably sharp. The words you couldn't get out of your head didn't belong to you, the feelings you felt were invited by a falsehood.

“What happened to her?” you asked, trying to choke down the vile mixture of confused emotions.

“She died the night they attempted to assassinate the Hresvelg princess. It was quite the scandal, you know. A beloved professor married to one of the wealthiest young men in the country… They could have done anything, and yet they threw it all away.” Doctor Tomas sighed. “But now is not the time to regale you with stories about these dark affairs, you needn’t worry yourself about any of it.”

Your shoulders slumped. There were more questions you wanted very badly to ask, but you already felt like you’d pushed it. You shouldn’t have cared, you shouldn’t have asked in the first place. “You’re right.”

“I didn’t earn my doctorate for nothing,” Doctor Tomas said in a playful way that didn’t at all suit the tone. “Go get some rest, you look tired. From now on, your work duty won’t take you anywhere near the basement.”

You bristled. “That’s not necessary,” you responded. Your value was your work, your ability to be a cog in their machine. “Today was a fluke, you said so yourself. I don’t need special treatment.”

Doctor Tomas frowned his almost-grandfatherly frown. Your skin crawled, sweat trickling down your spine. It took a lot, but you mustered a smile.

“Really, I’m okay. I just need some sleep then I’ll be good to go.” Out of all the lies you’d lived out lately, that one hurt the most. But he believed it. It was easier for everyone if he did.

You left his office and considered dropping by the mess hall to get something to eat, but found that the idea of food made you a bit queasy. The scent of that IV fluid had persisted even after the long shower, tickling your nose every once in a while.

To bed, then.  

Exhaustion had seeped into every cell of your being, dragging you down and crushing you up inside. It had been a whirlwind day of information and revelation that should have left you unable to stay awake, but you knew you wouldn’t sleep well. In some ways, you felt more awake than ever. In your head, over and over and over again, you heard what Dimitri had said to you, mistaking you as his dead lover. “I always knew that one day… That one day you would find me.” The pain in his eye when he had been dragged away, the desperation. The love. Even now, even after endless torture.

You wondered how you would react if you saw the man who had left you again. If you would have looked at him the way Dimitri looked at you.

Lifelessly, you pushed the button with a worn upwards arrow to call the equally worn elevator. Its ring was tired from too many years of use, the mechanism lowering at a snail’s pace as the cage trundled its way down the cables to you. As new and pristine as the sub-level floors were, the rest of the asylum was a Russian doll of decades past. The central wing had been built in the 1950s by some wealthy retired arms dealer from the war and his team of scientists, with the patient rooms having been long since converted into the staff wing. Discolored checkerboard floors, chipping gold detailing, wood-paneled walls, and the musty stench of a place that had never received the upkeep it required. From there outward were the additions to the central wing that had been built and abandoned to ruin, the money for the asylum funneled elsewhere and leaving broken-down remnants of nearly seventy years worth of generational aesthetic movements to rot.

Normally, you didn’t mind waiting. Sometimes it felt like the only reprieve you got were in the stolen moments when you waited for the thing. But there were too many thoughts you didn’t want to have to entertain, too much going on in your head without distraction.

You didn’t want to understand him. You didn’t want to think about the way you felt when he embraced you. You didn’t want to confront the things you’d realized that day. You wanted ignorance, repression. You wanted to listen to the ghost of your past who told you that you were only good for submission, to follow the rule of people more capable than yourself. But as the numbers ticked by as the elevator lowered, the deeper you fell into that mental hole. Why should you mourn for the death of the men Dimitri killed? Did they not bring it upon themselves? He was a sick man, but he didn't deserve to be tortured. After everything he had suffered, after everything he had lost. You had lost, too. You could understand, but you didn’t want to.

The doors opened, wafting out the scent of the ancient carpeting and rusting metal. Sometimes you wondered if the whole thing would collapse beneath you. But that was a concern for another day. You stepped in, inserted your access key to take you to the fifth floor, then leaned against the scuffed faux-wooden paneling.

If those men deserved death, what did it say about you? What punishment had you earned by being complicit in whatever Shambhala was doing? What would he endure now that Project Nemesis was up and running? How could you-

Your eyes opened in surprise as the cage jostled, another person slipping in before the doors closed and ripping you from your solitary thoughts.

Metodey, a guard at the asylum, smiled his snake-like smile at you. The doors closed behind him. He was, perhaps, one of the last people you wanted to see at that moment. Where other guards were guilty only of the occasional sexual harassment, he looked at you with something else glinting in his eyes. From the very first day, you wondered if he shouldn’t have been a patient himself.

“Long day, was it?” he asked knowingly as the elevator slowly worked itself up to begin rising, the rickety thing trembling slightly with the effort.

“Yes,” you said curtly, purposely looking away from him, your body stiff.

“I heard what happened,” he said.

You said nothing. A floor ticked by, the arrow above the door moving to point to the next number.

“Such a shame it happened today. I hear they finally got Project Nemesis configured.”

You finally looked at him, a jolt running through you. “How do you know about that?”

Metodey laughed, gleeful at finally getting a reaction. “You’re familiar with it, then,” he said. “That’s good.”

You flushed, looking away. Even just admitting that you knew it existed was dangerous. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” you said, a cold feeling seeping through your veins. Another floor ticked by, the arrow slowly moving to the far right.

“Come now, don’t be coy,” Metodey said, smirking. “In a world like ours, the only way to escape the fire is by being useful. If you’re actually as stupid as you seem, your life is forfeit. So will you be useful, or will you be cooked?”

At first, all you could do was stare at him, at a complete loss for words. But a beat passed and that faded, discomfort becoming fear. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” you said, trying to keep your voice steady. “Stay away from me or I swear I’ll-”

“You’ll what?” he asked, eyes alight. When you didn’t answer, knowing your threats to be empty, he laughed again. “I’m not trying to scare you. It won’t be long now before the plan will be put into motion, now that…” he cut himself off with a little laugh, shaking his head. “Well nevermind that. The only thing you should worry about is how you’ll prove your worth.”

The doors finally opened, your destination reached. You eyed him warily, but Metodey stepped aside to motion you through the door. With a rigid posture and held breath, you hurried past him. To your complete relief, he didn’t get out behind you.

“Rest well, now. Who knows how much longer you’ll be able to.”

You turned back to him, his words filling you with awful dread. The doors closed on his smiling face, and you were alone.

Shaking, you rushed to your room. It took a few times to get the door unlocked, but when you did you almost stumbled over the doorway in your haste to get inside, shutting and locking the door behind you. For a moment, you considered reporting Metodey’s behavior. Certainly, they could do something to keep him away from you. But the longer you thought about it, the more your thoughts lingered on the fact that you’d accidentally confirmed Project Nemesis to him. It didn’t matter that you barely knew anything about it, the fact that you’d essentially told him would be more than enough to cast suspicion over you.

But, likewise, you couldn’t think of any way that Metodey would benefit from tricking you for the sole purpose of spying for the suits.

Eventually, when your heart had slowed to a normal rate and you no longer felt the need to guard the door, you decided that he was just trying to scare you. He’d heard something about Project Nemesis and wanted to torture you with it. People did a lot of strange things when bored and isolated.

Heaving a deep sigh, you went into the bathroom. The floor was covered with water from your long shower, a mess you had no desire to clean up at that moment. Looking at your reflection, you felt a pang of disgust. Your eyes were shadowed and red, your lips covered with chapped white skin from biting them.

You already knew that sleep would be impossible without some aid. You were too wound up, too scared, too hurt, your head too crowded with thoughts you’d prefer to forget. But being awake any longer seemed unbearable. You were tired of your own mind, of your thoughts and memories, and all of the things you couldn’t control.

Hating yourself a little, you pulled a little bottle from the shelf behind the mirror and downed a few allergy tablets, washing them down with the metallic sink water. It was really pretty hypocritical to abuse medicine while working at an insane asylum, but you’d never claimed to be very strong. They would at the very least get you to sleep, even if you doubt you’d stay there very long.

Shutting off the lights, you trudged into your room, shedding your shoes, socks, pants, and bra in a trail to the bed. Laying down, the world finally stilled around you. It still didn’t make sense, but that was an issue for tomorrow.

Right then, you were content to simply lay and stare blankly upwards. The ceiling was cracked, you could see the lines in the reddish glow of your alarm clock, working their way in seemingly random patterns through the ancient white paint. Like veins, you thought. Like the cracked fault lines of a broken bone, you thought.

You’d come to Shambhala to prove that you could be more than what had left behind by everybody you’d loved, seeking a fresh start in the isolation of the mountains. At one point, you even told yourself that you were doing something good. But you weren’t. Everybody knew what this place really was. There was a reason your NDA had you locked up almost as securely as the criminals. There was a reason they hired guards like Metodey and people with skill but not necessarily accolades. It was so trite it made you laugh, but it was true. You were all a little mad here.

You told yourself that you didn’t have a choice. You had signed their contracts, you had agreed to work here, you had sold your soul to them. It wasn’t your fault, it wasn’t your responsibility, you could ignore it all. But coming here, you just traded one Hell for another, didn’t you? Cashed in your pain to profit off of the pain of others.

That was what you’d really been ignoring. Because you didn’t want to be wrong again. You didn’t want to have to face the fact that everybody who’d ever left you had been right, that you weren’t capable of choosing well for yourself. That you were weak. That you deserved it.

Eventually the drugged calm set in. The heaviness overtook your limbs, your mind. You must have fallen asleep because you dreamed. Your lover’s anger, insidious as it burned a wildfire behind his eyes. The memory of police sirens, deafening you as they drew ever closer, called because of you, all your fault. You dreamed of suffocation, a hand around your throat and crushing the life from you. That panic was what pulled you from the ocean of drugged unconsciousness. Not because of the strength of the memory, but because you were being suffocated. You woke up flushed and sweaty and helplessly sobbing and fighting in an instinctive flail against leather straps holding you still, you woke up because the deafening wail of police sirens as they came to arrest him were of the past, reality greeting you with the unholy screeching of Shambhala’s emergency alarm.

/

“She’s awake,” someone said in a dry voice.

Your body lurched forward, but you realized that the suffocation you’d felt was a strap across your chest that held you upright. It had kept you from slumping off of the chair. A wheelchair. You blinked, trying to make sense of the visual vomit that was the hallway in front of you. Red. Dark. Red. Dark. The lights had gone wild. From someplace far off, you heard screaming. When you tried to shout in panic, you nearly joked on the gag. Your hands instinctively raised to pull it off, but they were tied to the armrests.

“Obviously.”

That voice was familiar. How? What was happening? You were rolled into an elevator. Not the one from the main wing of Shambhala, but the fancy white and chrome high-tech ones that they’d installed in the lower levels. The friendly bell dinged, the doors closed, and someone pivoted the chair, finally allowing you to the speaker.

Three men. One wore a white lab coat, his back to you as he handled the elevator security. One big, beefy guard with his gun drawn. And a smaller man with angular features and brown hair, professionally neat save for the different color of the lock hanging in front of his face.

“Did you sleep well?” Metodey asked, smiling. “Forgive the gag, we couldn’t have you screaming and drawing the attention of anyone… Unsavory.” The elevator began its smooth descent. Down, down, down, descending into the depths of Shambhala. The sirens were deadened by the distance and by the time you reached your destination, you couldn’t hear them at all. The modern elevator doors slid open, hardly making a sound.

“We have… Three hours and twenty-two minutes,” the large guard said, his voice deep. You realized with a jolt that he must have received some kind of treatment at Shambhala, he had the telltale sores of men who had been given the injections but hadn’t taken to them. As if feeling your gaze, he pulled the collar of his security jacket up, glowering down at you.

“That’s more than enough time,” Metodey said. “Do a sweep of the floor. I doubt there are any stragglers, but you never know. Now, then, let’s go.” He got behind you to push the chair forward, following the thin man in the lab coat.

This floor… You’d been here, you realized. It housed the central computing. There were no sirens, but the stark fluorescents weren’t on, the white hallway illuminated only by the dimmer emergency hall lights and the flashing red arrows pointing towards the exit. It was calm, empty, abandoned. Silent. The squeaky wheels of your chair was loud in comparison. The three of you made your way down the hall, stopping at one of the many white doors.

But it was locked. Of course it was locked. All of these doors were locked with bio scanners and passcodes. For these doors, it was thumbprints, no way they could get-

The man in the white labcoat pulled something from his pocket. A second later, the bioscan chirped in acceptance, followed by the atonal beeping of the passcode being entered. The automatic door slid aside with a faint whoosh. He pulled a handgun from his other pocket, entering the room with it raised. Like in a movie, almost.

“All clear,” he called a second later, his voice lacking any sort of intonation.

Metodey pushed you into the room, the door closing behind you. He undid the strap around your chest first, then your wrists. As soon as you were free, you ripped the gag off of your mouth. It hit the floor with an awful splat, drenched by your saliva. Then you lurched out of the chair to stand up, trying to put some space between you and the men. But your body was uncoordinated, clumsy. You almost fell over before hitting the wall, using it to steady yourself. Metodey watched you with a lazy look. The man in the lab coat still held his gun. Not threateningly, but it wasn’t as if you needed to be threatened to be scared of it.

“What’s going on?” you asked, your eyes flicking between them.

Metodey’s head tilted slightly, regarding you with that awful smug smirk he seemed to always wear. “I have a job for you to do,” he said.

“No.” You didn’t even think about the answer, denying him without hesitation. “Tell me what’s going on. I heard… Screaming, and the alarm? What happened? Why did you bring me down here? Why is nobody… Where did everybody go?”

“The patients are rioting,” he said, obviously pleased about the fact.

It took a moment for those words and their full meaning to properly reguister, and another for the fear to sink in. “You’re lying,” you said, but your voice lacked any real conviction.

“Would you bet on that?” Metodey asked. “If so, I won’t keep you here.” He held his arm out to the door. “You have your own code for the elevator, no? I wish you well among the inmates. I’m sure they’ll have a grand time with you.” His eyes scanned your body, lingering on your bare legs. Not with lust, you wondered if he could even feel something so human, but with an awful form of sadistic cruelty.

You looked away, trying to reason this out. Trying to steady your wildly erratic breathing. Thinking clearly was difficult, getting too worked up was difficult. Even your body was affected, too loose, too heavy.

If he was right, if the inmates were rioting, death was probably the kindest fate you could wish for. Maybe if you were wearing pants or shoes, you imagined you’d even feel more secure if you had a bra. But you were near-naked and terrified and there was no way you could fight against these men, let alone a hoard of patients.

You swallowed hard against the lump in your throat. “What do you want me to do?” you said, your voice soft with defeat. Metodey smiled.

“I’d like a copy of the project they’ve been working on. Nemesis. If you can get it onto this hard drive,” he held up a simple external drive branded with Shambhala’s logo, “we can all be on our merry way before the chaos dies down.”

For the first time since entering, you took a moment to actually look around. This was the central computing room. Hastily abandoned. It was set up as many of these sub-level computer rooms were, with a tech-heavy console in the center of the room and one along the back wall, forming a spaceship-like nook of screens and processes. A table closed in one side of the nook, pens and papers scattered across the surface. Someones candy wrappers had been strewn from the table and across the floor. The main lights were out in here, too, the space illuminated only by the creepy emergencies with a wall of black mirror monitors reflecting the three of you.

“That’s what you were talking about,” you said, realization hitting you heavily. “In the elevator. But…” You looked back at him, shaking your head. “I don’t know how,” you said, holding your hands out towards him helplessly. Pleading, pathetic, shaking. “There are systems in place that will fight to keep me out, let alone from copying it. If I had more time, maybe, but I… I don’t know how.”

Metodey’s head fell slightly to the side as he considered you with his snake-like eyes. “Better figure it out, then. Or else I might feel inclined to offer a bit of... Encouragement. You only really need your hands and eyes to do what I need,” he said, his smile a crimson horror with only the emergency lights illuminating it. Reaching into his security guard jacket’s pocket, he flicked open a butterfly knife with a squeaky clack of the metal. A red flash winked at you, reflected by the sharp blade. He smiled. “Everything else is fair game.”

Fear; a fizzling, bubbly kind of terror; made your head dizzy. You wobbled on your unsteady legs. The air was cold enough that chills rose across your skin, visibly covering your legs.

“I’ve acquired many of the codes you’ll need to gain access to the system,” the man in the lab coat said.

“There’s more than just codes,” you said, shaking your head. “Security keys, scans, I-”

“As I said, I’ve acquired what you’ll need to access the system,” he said in his monotone voice. How could something so reedy, so lifeless, sound so threatening?

Slowly, you nodded. “Okay.” Your voice was soft. “I can… I’ll try.”

Metodey closed his knife with a sharp click of metal, making you wince. “Good girl,”

Approaching the console with great care and more than aware of the man standing at your back, you pressed the power button. It took a second for the machine to respond, but it did. It worked. Of course it did, all of these computers ran on several layers of backup power. Mechanically, you pulled the wheelchair through the small channel and into the nook so you’d have something to sit on. Metodey came to stand behind you, you could feel him hovering at your shoulder. The other man stayed leaning against the wall. But you couldn’t focus on that, couldn’t focus on them. Trying to steady your breathing and will your hands to cease shaking, you got to work.

It took longer than it should have. Every time you blinked, you felt the pulse of nausea in your throat, the exhaustion of far too many days with little to no sleep. You made mistakes you wouldn’t normally make, your hands shaking as your fingers danced across the keyboard. The text blended together more often than not, numbers and letters rearranging themselves right before your eyes. But you didn’t give up. You’d been working in their system for what felt like years now, although it couldn’t have been more than one. The days had all blended together, the hours becoming an endless slush of code and configuration and despondent apathy.

Lab coat came through with the necessary access keys, reciting them off in his dry tone or, making you nauseous all over again, pulling out severed thumbs and keys from his pocket. But you couldn’t focus on that, you had to ignore it. Push on.

And all that while, Metodey stood impatiently behind you. You could hear him messing with his knife, the metal clicking together as he played with it.

When you finally found Nemesis, hiding beneath the dream project, you felt your heart jolt hard and heavy in your chest. Three times you checked to make sure that what you were seeing was correct. From there, all that needed to be done was to save it on a hard drive the system already trusted. It was so easy you almost couldn’t believe it. But why would they worry about someone doing something like this? You were all trapped here. Besides, what would anyone do with a program that was so thoroughly encrypted? They were fools for trying. You were a fool to go along with it.

“When I do this, they’ll know what I’m doing,” you said, your voice hoarse and emotionless.

“That’s not a problem,” Metodey said.

You nodded, expecting that answer, and pressed enter.

This was the easiest part, finally. How long had you been working? The large man had said that you only had three hours, but you felt as if you’d been working for far longer. The computer clock said it was nearing two in the morning. Earlier than you’d have thought. There was no way you’d been asleep for over an hour before they kidnapped you from your bed. You slumped over the console, closing your eyes. Your head hurt. Everything hurt. You needed to think. You needed to fight, but you just felt so empty. So heavy.

“How long do you think this will take?” Metodey asked.

“Not long,” you said, still slumped. You didn’t want to move. You didn’t want to think. You just wanted to sleep.

There was a chance you actually did doze, against everything that was working against you. The human body did have to give out eventually. You could barely even care that it was right then.

Then the computer beeped; the backup was completed.

“Is it done?” Metodey asked. You sat up, stunned into awareness. Digging the heels of your palm into your eyes, looked at the screen.

“Yeah, it looks like it is.”

“Take it,” Metodey said. It took you a moment to realize he wasn’t speaking to you, but to the man in the lab coat. He disconnected the large drive and put it in the same bag he’d been hiding the various keys. “I’ll catch up with you in a minute.”

The other man looked from Metodey to you with a disproving look, but you only had eyes for Metodey, noting the use of the word I’ll.

“Hey, what is that supposed to-”

“Don’t forget the reason you’re here,” lab coat said, cutting you off. “Miasma was activated in the prison ward at two, it won’t take long before it reaches here. We’ll be leaving whether you decide to join us or not.”

Metodey just laughed. “You really are a buzz kill. This won’t take long.” Lab coat nodded, leaving.

“I’m not going with you,” you said, your voice oddly flat. Of course you weren’t, they had never intended for that.

“Your sacrifice will be remembered,” he said, looping the first armrest strap around your arm before you could even begin to struggle.

“But you said...” you cut yourself out of disgust at the childishness of haveing taken his words at face value, your voice hoarse as you flailed, trying to keep him from getting a grip on your other wrist. “Don’t leave me here, please, please-” He caught your wrist, holding you still with only a slight grunt of exertion.

“I was told to leave no witnesses. This is a, heh, mercy. After all, there’s a chance you could survive,” he pulled the second thick strap tight around your wrist, making you yelp in pain. “Not that I’d expect that.” You pulled at your wrists, but the leather bit your skin so painfully, cutting off circulation to your hands. “There,” he said, stepping back. “In any case, your suffering won’t be for long. They’ve activated the Miasma protocol, perhaps you’ve heard of it? It won’t be long before it makes its way down here.”

In the scramble of your head, it took a long moment for you to puzzle out his words. You’d nearly forgotten about that particular security measure. Miasma was something you weren’t meant to know about, something you had been ignoring since you learned of it. A drug that was meant to relax the mind, to make it more susceptible to suggestion. Testing groups had proven that the mild hallucinogenic components had an effect on aggression. It wasn’t security so much as it was a failsafe for if everything went wrong. They’d introduce it into the venting system and patients would all kill each other, cleaning up loose ends for Agartha.

“They wouldn’t,” you said, a new type of dread filling you. “Not unless-”

“Not unless the circumstances forced them to cut their losses,” Metodey finished for you. “The plan to destabilize the asylum has been in the works since before you even arrived, we’ve ensured that they have no other choice.”

“Please,” you begged again, meeting his eyes. “Please don’t do this.”

He frowned with mocking pity. “I’d love to stay and watch you scream, but needs must.” Metodey left, ignoring your senseless begging. He paused for at the door, giving you a silly, incomprehensible burst of hope. “Try to have some fun.”

The door whooshed closed.

/

Sweat beaded on your forehead while you waited, having long screamed yourself out. It was pointless, you were alone. After the computer screens went dead you couldn’t tell what the time was, but it had been nearing four the last time you’d been able to check.

There was a hollow sort of awfulness to it. The impending threat wasn’t violent, the fear was no longer so overwhelming. You had been abandoned to simply watch the vent as Miasma seeped into the room. And more and more, it was getting harder to care. That scared you, too, but not in the same way. It was just too difficult to get worked up.

Slow insanity. It truly did ooze from the walls. Your head fell back against the wheelchair’s headrest, eyes closing as your breathing picked up. It felt like dreaming, almost, even as you were painfully aware of the room around you.

Computers humming, the bruising, sharp ache of the leather wrist buckles, and the numbness of your hands, the discomfort of your posture, the dull throb of pain in your temple. That was all real, but so were the first tendrils of memory as they picked up and wound their way to the forefront of your mind.

At the best of times, you could only distract yourself from the past and call it ignorance.

But now you were vulnerable, and you knew that ignorance had only really ever been a bandaid on a bullet hole.

Memory shredded itself like it was torn right from the reel, the edges of scenes curled as they emerged from the dark. Like a flipbook, finding the things that would strike the hardest, the wounds that were the most painful to pick at.

Walking downtown with your parents on either side. So tall, towering over your toddling form. They both had one of your hands in theirs, picking you up and swinging you between them. Autumn leaves and the sun-warmed scent of late fall grass breezed over you, their laughter and love filling your heart.

Coming out of your room because of a terrible noise and he had her against the wall, her jaw locked as if to dare his raised hand. That was when you kind of realized that some things just couldn’t be forgotten, some things could never be mended. It smelled like the musty drywall of your unfinished hallway and the wet odor of an air conditioning unit blaring at full blast.

More, individual snapshots of the past flooded through your mind, colored with dull pastels and the distortion of sun-bleaching, your body engorging itself with the sensations of all of the people you’d been before.

New carpet from the house you and your mom moved to. A dirty, old car that stank of old McDonalds with widows you had to crank down and the taste of mint ice cream as your dad told you about his new family. Cigarette smoke with the friends you made in high school. Greasy eyeliner, waxy cheap lipstick as you licked it from your teeth.

Vague figures that lingered in your childhood became monsters, your skinny music teacher with the curly hair, your intimidating principal who yelled with a booming voice, your mom’s new husband with his shiny bald head. She never dared him to hit her, she never had to. He had no face, no voice, only violence. Just like your father and your ex, they all melted together.

And then they left. Left, left, left, they all left you.

Shiny and new and rendered in crystal clear high definition, you got the front row seat to the romance between you and Him. When you told him about your daddy issues, he said it was cute, that he was more than happy to be the man you needed. When you told him that you were scared of being abandoned, he promised he wouldn’t leave. When you said you wanted to get married, he bought you a ring. When he smiled, his face was burnt black by the light. You reached for him to keep you safe from the shapes as they writhed in geometric insanity behind your eyes and he melted like oil between your fingers.

It was thick and hot and present and you thrashed against it, fighting as you became aware of a sort of rocking, a give. You fell hard as the ground gave way beneath your feet, the ugly shag carpet of your first apartment turning to ash, consumed by the greasy flames when he put out his cigarette on your skin, crying out when your head smashed against the stained porcelain of the sink.

You couldn’t breathe. You couldn’t stop shaking. Cold, cold sweat covered your skin. The humming of the room, of reality, cut off all at once. Light flashed, burning your retinas so even when you blinked the shapes shifted in the dark. A kaleidoscope of painful light, sharp energy that crackled in your brain, sparks that tickled your spine. You were on the ground.

The floor beneath your cheek was cold and smooth. Your wrists screamed as you tried to get your hands beneath you to sit up. Buckled into the wheelchair, only now you were on your side. And it was your reality. And it was quiet.

He laughed at you in the silence and the dark, the man whose name you didn’t dare think. The only one who you’d ever loved, the only one who’d ever held you. He laughed and it was mean and sharp and his words were knives as he told you that this was your own fault because you were weak and useless. Stupid, silly girl. You were going to die here in the bowels of Shambhala and that was it, the snuffed out ending to your pathetic little life.

You sobbed and it sounded like laughter.

Then you closed your eyes with your cheek in the puddle of your own tears, dimly aware that your head no longer felt so vividly tainted by the drug.

/

From a great distance, you heard a door open. It took a moment to realize that’s what it was because it wasn’t like the type in your apartment or even your childhood home, but the automatic kind that made a faint whoosh as the mechanism pulled it aside. Familiar, sending an instinctual rush of fear through you.

You blinked, trying to get your eyes to focus. The world was… sideways. You were on the floor, your cheek mashed against the smooth floor and head held at an awkward downward angle.

The next sounds were easier to understand. Footsteps, bare feet leaving a tacky trail across the linoleum. A dragging sound accompanied them, a slow, heavy sound of something limp trailing across the floor. And you knew. He was back. He’d come back to kill you. Painful chills covered the skin at the back of your neck, the pinching urge to pee gouging your gut.

You began to struggle, pulling at the straps of the armrests. Tears gathered in your eyes at the pain as the leather dug into the bloody wounds, the bindings only getting tighter as you fought against them. It hurt. Everything hurt, your body heavy and aching from the muscle cramps and the position you’d fallen into putting all the pressure on your shoulder, the wheelchair’s side digging into your hip, the sharp pounding in your head. You’d seen men twice your size struggle against chairs like these, it was hopeless.

“You said she was in here,” a low, masculine voice said, cruel and accusatory. The footsteps were coming closer, followed by whatever he was dragging. Rounding the corner of the console and into the nook with the slow, steady inevitability of death. You closed your eyes.

“She is!” a pathetically keening voice responded. “Or… She was, I swear it, I left her right-”

For a single, wild second you were reminded of playing hide and seek as a child, the anticipation and exciting type of fear you felt as you watched a little towheaded girl —Mia? Madeline?— circle the room from your spot beneath the basement steps. Down here it smelled of musty wood and laundry detergent and the dust that gathered on the boxes of Christmas decorations and old things your mom always meant to throw out. Your hiding spot was clever, hard to maneuver into, but the cloying scent of synthetic pine and wet, rotting wood were so intense you felt the urge to cough build in the back of your throat. But if you coughed, you’d give away your position, she’d find you for sure and then-

You couldn’t hold it in, letting out a pathetic little cough to relieve your throat of that dry itch. But this time it was wet, painful from the cramped position you laid in. It jarringly pulled you back into reality.

“See!? Right there.” That was Metodey’s voice, you realized. He sounded different. Terrified. “I don’t know how she fell over, but I swear I didn’t so much as touch her, she should be fine. I’m not-” his shrill words cut off with a yelp, the cry followed by a sickening fleshy thump and a guttural groan of pain.  

“Silence,” the first voice demanded. Then softer, “Pray that she is as uninjured as you claim.” The footsteps approached you, a set of bare feet coming into your line of vision. Then the man attached to those feet grabbed the side of the chair, pulling you upright.

At first, you were far too dizzy to see anything, the change of direction making your head spin as the blood flow suddenly changed. You blinked a few times, black orbs floating at the edges of your vision. Eventually, things came into a sort of focus.

The room was dark, lit only by the vague ambiance of the dull emergency lights, a couple dozen green and red pinpricks from machines blinking with their varying degrees of functionality, and the muted blue of the error windows covering a few of the monitors. In the dim technicolor of malfunction, Dimitri was little more than a hulking ghost in white. A phantom with his pale skin, light hair, and the white starched pajama-like scrubs with his patient number ironed on the chest. An evil spirit with splatters of something dark sprayed across his clothes, drying on his hands and face, one eye covered and the other too shadowed to see.

The two of you had only met earlier that day —an entire lifetime ago— but that was enough for you to know exactly who it was. In some ways, he was the only person in Shambhala who felt truly real.  

“My beloved,” Dimitri said softly, his eyebrows furrowed. “Are you hurt?”

It took you a second, your head still spinning, but eventually, you found the words. “Are you real?” you asked, your voice hoarse and confused. Those weren’t the right ones, you knew that. But you couldn’t figure out what it was you were meant to ask. He pushed a lock of hair away from your face, cradling your head. That was real. Yes, he was real, his touch unendingly tender against your feverish skin before he moved down to undo the straps on your painful wrists. You didn’t struggle, didn’t prickle at his proximity. “How…. How did you…”

“This creature and his friends were attempting to leave,” Dimitri said, nodding to the side where the figure in a guard jacket laid in an unrecognizable slump. “They spoke about you.” He paused, the concern he had seemed to have disappearing as his lips pulled back into a sneer. “Filthy creatures. You can take solace in the knowledge that they will never hurt you again.”

“You killed them,” you said, feeling oddly dispassionate about the revelation. Wrung out, as if you’d already exhausted your supply of emotion, as if you were all emptied out. “Is he dead?” you asked, looking to the man on the floor. Dimitri’s head cocked, considering that question.

“You, beast,” he called, his voice slipping back into a growl. He left you to grab the man by his hair, holding him up to face you. Metodey’s face was broken, his angular features nigh unrecognizably. “So you still live. How fortunate,” Dimitri said. Metodey blinked his swollen eyes, his hands belatedly scrambling to fight off Dimitri’s grip with a whine of pain. “Apologize to her.”

“I was just following orders!” Metodey said, his voice broken and gurgling. “I-”

Dimitri wrenched his head up more, making the man howl in pain. “Do better.”

“I’m sorry! B-but she’s alive… Fine… So you don’t need to kill me.”

Dimitri looked at you, his expression was entirely calm. “Do you forgive him?”

You stared at the broken man. For months he had terrorized you. He had dragged you here tonight and hurt you more intimately than anyone else could. He had done all that, but as you stared at him you found that all you felt was disgust and shock, a certain type of horror at seeing the cruelty of man in full force. “Y-yes,” you said, nodding, emphatically while struggling to get to your feet, balancing against the console. “I do, I forgive him.” Dimitri stared at you a moment longer, as if surprised, but dropped the other man to crumple back onto the floor.

“Thank you,” Metodey said in his broken voice, looking up at you, bloody spittle flying from his lips and onto the dingy floor beneath him. “I swear-”

“Unfortunately, I do not forgive beasts,” Dimitri said.

Metodey struggled as he was pushed onto his back, but there was nothing he could do. Dimitri’s foot came down on his chest with the sickening, squishy give of flesh and the crunch of bones. Metodey didn’t even have time to cry out, or beg for mercy. Crushed like a bug.

You fell back a step, then another. The edge of the wheelchair’s seat pressed against the back of your bare thigh, nearly tripping you.

“What did you do?” you whispered from between the hands you’d raised to cover your mouth. The dead man’s eyes stared endlessly to the ceiling, his body broken and chest a squished cavity of blood and bone. Dimitri’s bare foot was covered with the crimson viscera, the hem of his white pants colored with it. “Why did you…” Your voice cut off because you couldn’t complete the thought, you could barely breathe, your lungs trembling with each panicked attempt.

Things had a hazy cast like they were formed out of the same material as memory was. A defense mechanism, a product of shock, an interpretation of the horror. Like that, but not quite because you knew, you knew.

“Creatures like him have no right to live,” Dimitri responded. “But you know that better than most, don’t you?” he asked, looking at you and tilting up his chin as he considered you in a way he hadn’t before, his expression more critical than before. Doubtful, even, like the question was a test of sorts. “It was you who taught me, after all.”

Oh. He still thought that you were… Oh no, oh God.

You swallowed hard. “No, that’s not… I-I don’t agree. You’re wrong.”

His expression hardened. “Was it not you who deemed the men who killed your father to be unforgivable?” he asked sharply, stepping around the body to move closer. “Was it not you who showed me that the only way forward was by the rightful slaughter of those who were beyond redemption?” Another step, he was leaving bloody footprints. You matched them, maneuvering awkwardly around the wheelchair. “You showed me how best to live. How to dispense justice those who will not face judgment otherwise.” He was so close now, looming over you, one eye covered in a simple white medical eyepatch and the other shadowed by the contour hollow of his skull.

Something about Dimitri’s expression and the smooth purr of his voice seemed so sane, so in control of himself. It was almost enough for you to believe him, for you to think that there was some sort of truth to his words, that they were more than the ravings of a madman.

“No,” you said, shaking your head frantically, raising your hands to ward him off, trying to take another step back, to get away from him. But you hit the counter-like table, the edge sharply digging into your back. Nowhere else to go. “Dimitri, no. I’m not who you think I am. I’m not Byleth Eisner. My name is-”

An incendiary flare of rage crossed his face as he took the final step to you.

Then the world flashed, the sharp sound of skin cracking against skin filling the small room. For a second you couldn’t register anything, not even the pain. Just the darkness as your vision blacked out, the stunning shock of impact.

It wasn’t a precise memory, but a collection of them. An imprint of all of the many hands that had bruised your cheek, left you reeling and crying.

Heat was the first thing you became aware of, your cheek searing red-hot as if he’d burned you. Dimitri held you upright by the front of your shirt, keeping you from sprawling to the ground with the force of the blow. Your ears rang, the dull thump of your frenzied heartbeat overpowering the whirring of the machinery and frantic breathing. Blinking watery eyes, you tried to grapple him to get his hands off of you but Dimitri just stepped in closer, leaning forward until his face was only inches from your own.

The memories were stricken from your mind with his proximity. Right then, the pain belonged only to Dimitri.

“Don’t lie to me. I won’t be fooled again,” he growled. Your left ear did a better job of picking up his voice than the still-ringing right, but the sound was still muted and tinny. Distant. “They tried to tell me you were dead, but I knew better. I know better. I knew you weren’t dead.”

“I’m sorry,” you said, the apology coming out as a nearly instinctive response to the pain. You’d never handled such things very well, always acting so tough until things got serious and the man who claimed to love you raised his fist, leaving you with nothing but tears and empty apologies to soothe his rage. Adrenaline jump-started your thought processes and blocked out some of the pain, brought back the lucidity you’d been lacking, but between Dimitri’s proximity and the oppressive weight of his anger, you were helpless. All you had was words, your last scrambling hope to placate crazed man. “I’m sorry, Dimitri. You’re right, she... She could... She is alive,” you lied, nausea gripping your throat like a vice. “But I’m not-”

“Stop lying to me!” he shouted, shaking you with the intensity of his anger, the sound so loud it hurt.  

You whimpered, wilted, even more tears pouring out of your eyes, sliding over your burning cheek, dripping down your chin. There was no memory to match this. Nothing. “I’m sorry,” you said. What else could you say? What else did you have? And why, against reason and logic, did it make you feel so guilty that you weren’t who he wanted? You were going to die and all you could do was hate that you were this. A nothing, broken down and weak. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you… I’m sorry, I won’t lie.”

Heavy, horrifying moments ticked by as you waited for him to hurt you again, an instinctual part of yourself knowing that it was coming. This game was achingly familiar, even if you hadn’t played in a while. But Dimitri just stared at you. He didn’t hurt you. The apologies that had only ever made your ex-lover angrier, disgusted even, made Dimitri hesitate. At first, it was in the slight easing of his posture, the hand gripping your shirt loosening somewhat. His gaze was piercing, searching. Concern drew in his eyebrows, something like regret making him frown. His tongue flicked out to draw across his chapped bottom lip and the faint glitter of tears formed in his eye, his expression becoming unbearably soft.

“My beloved,” he said, his voice soft. Hoarse, but tender. “My love, I am so…” The hand not keeping you upright raised to stroke your cheek. The cool, gentle touch made you flinch, but he seemed not to notice. “I didn’t even consider that you might have forgotten. I-I should have known that they would take me from you, too. That’s what they do. They infect our minds with their filthy lies, try to convince us of their falsehoods.”

“I’m sorry,” you said again, his words barely reaching you.

“I know,” Dimitri said, petting your hair. He let out a shuddering breath. “Once, you pulled me from the depths of despair and showed me how to live again. It’s only right that I do the same for you. If you can’t remember, I’ll remind you. Always. I will never stray from your side again. From now on, we will always remain together.”

You blinked at him. Once, twice, your mind whirling as it attempted to make sense of what he’d just said on anything other than an instinctual level.

But it was that word, that promise. That awful green solution had left you vulnerable, relaxed your mind. It faded your vision, made you so dizzy that you could hardly stand the weight of your head. Memories, a deluge of memories that left you drowning and helpless. The shapes were people. People who left you, everyone did. Your family. Your friends. Him. The man who never loved you abandoned you and you were alone. All alone, always, a pattern, an eventuality.

You didn’t want to be alone.

That was enough to shock you back into something like rational thought, or at least enough to recognize what he was saying and how absurdly wrong it was.

“Don’t,” you plead. That was the past, all of it lost to time. You were meant to forget, to get over it. That wasn’t now, he wasn’t Dimitri and Dimitri didn’t want you. The forever he spoke of belonged to a dead woman and a cruel murderer.

“I missed you,” Dimitri said.

“Please, no,” you begged. Begged who? You looked at Dimitri and felt his longing and his desire and his promises and it split into your chest like an ax splitting wood, prying apart your ribs to squeeze your heart and lungs and hurt you in a way the physical never could. Shaking your head, you finally succeeded in making him release you, lashing out as you backed to the side on unsteady feet. All the while you mumbled, cried, “No. No, no, no…”

“Is my love not enough?” Dimitri asked, his voice quiet.  

Inside your head, your voice layered over his. That question. Not enough. No, you hadn’t been. Not enough to please him, to make him love you. Not enough to stop him from hurting you over and over and over. Your love was not enough to make him stay.

The shock of those words stole your breath, froze your insides.

But you looked past him at the dead body on the floor, his victim. You had tried to rationalize murder before, but reality made it different. Made it impossible to accept.

The things you felt were a lie, a result of the drug and the fear and the panic and the trauma and the insanity that oozed from the walls, that infected your mind from a lack of sleep. It wasn’t real, you were in danger, and he was crazy.

“I am but a corpse now, I suppose.” Dimitri’s hand went to his eye, lightly touching against the white patch that kept it covered. “I must disgust you.” You said nothing, couldn't say anything, but he didn’t seem to care one way or another. “If you will not love me and I still take you for my own, would you understand? It was you who taught me about sacrifice, but we both know that you’re far stronger than I. And I… I cannot lose you again. I fear what awaits me in the dark.” His eye closed, a vulnerable expression drawing in his features. He looked younger like that, like he had the first time you saw him, lying unconscious and still. “They never left me,” Dimitri continued. “The ghosts of the dead still cling to me, whisper to me when I am alone. I cannot be rid of them. But you… You dampen their pleas. Only you can keep me from losing myself to them.”

“I can’t,” you whispered. You couldn’t breathe. You couldn’t breathe and you felt like your chest was constricting but if you broke down here, what would happen? When he realized what you were, a broken shell of a person, would he kill you? Or would he leave, continue his quest to find his dead lover. But could you really convince him that you were someone you weren’t just to postpone the inevitable?

You could hardly think, barely breathe, your limbs heavy and head aching and it was too difficult to sort everything out or know what to do.

Dimitri reached forward to grab your hands and you tried to pull away, but you didn’t have any strength, you couldn’t do anything as he pulled you close because you were shaking and gasping and tears were coming out of your eyes, your throat swollen with them. You kept shaking your head, lips moving as you tried to speak, but it was nothing, it meant nothing.

“I love you, you must know that. I cannot live without you,” his voice was so low, so tender. Your ears were still ringing, your cheek sore. But those words felt like they triggered something within you. They were a wrecking ball against the last of your defenses, the last of what you could call your sanity.

I love you was a lie, but it was your favorite lie and you were stupid enough to believe it every time.

Dimitri pulled you to him, leaning down until your bodies were pressed together. He meant to kiss you, you realized only in the surreal second before it happened.

You didn’t stop him, couldn’t stop him. At first, it was the shock, and then it was a simple inability. You pushed at him, sounds of surprise in your mouth, but he didn’t seem to notice. And his hands were in your hair, cradling your head, tilting it to the side so he could kiss you more deeply, and you still couldn’t breathe, couldn’t get away. The lack of oxygen only made it harder. You’d only ever been kissed by a lying mouth that was all hot, heavy tongue and mess and a means to an end. Dimitri was so heart-rendingly sweet about it. Dimitri kissed you like he was savoring it.

He said he loved you and those words didn’t belong to you, you knew that, but they wrapped themselves around you so tightly and you wanted to be loved. You really did.

Out of some remaining impulse to fight, you pulled at his hair. Dimitri groaned, taking that as permission to kiss you with more intensity. And some part of you liked that. The groan, the feeling of his tongue in your mouth, claiming you, taking you, his hands in your hair, his warm body pressed against your own. Another part of you spiraled. His need was impossible to escape, to deny. You were trapped. It was only when you tasted the salt of your tears that you realized you were crying again.

While one of Dimitri’s hands stayed on your head, steadying you, the other dove beneath the hem of your shirt, pushing it up while feeling your skin. His hand roamed over your stomach, feeling the curve of your waist, over the heaving cage of your ribs and you knew it was coming but when he palmed your breast, pulling the nipple in between his thumb and forefinger, you cried out in earnest. A kiss was one thing, but to be touched so boldly was another entirely. Things were real, had been real, but that was too much.

His mouth left yours when you pushed his hand away, pulling your shirt back down with force. Dimitri didn’t back off, but you had enough space to breathe and cry try to figure a way out of this because you knew where it was heading and you didn’t want that. Or maybe some part of you did, but you shouldn’t. It was all too twisted, too sick. Unreality threatened to give you an escape, but you had to force yourself to focus.

Focus.

“What are you doing?” you asked between gasping breaths, unable to meet his eye because you knew what was he doing, obviously, but you needed confirmation.

“Now that I have you back, I don’t intend to waste a single moment,” he said. You chanced a look at his face and saw that he meant it. Flushed cheeks, blown out pupil, red lips, Dimitri’s lust was as present as his need.

“Not here,” you said, looking away, over his shoulder. “We have to get out of here. Then we… We can...”

“I’ve waited long enough,” Dimitri responded. There was too much of that low, dark tone in his voice for you to trust that you could really, actually deny him. Deny this.

He was going to fuck you in a room where the fresh corpse of a man he’d killed laid on the floor. The thought made you sob. It was too horrible, too ridiculous. The breadth of human cruelty was something you thought you understood. But you didn’t.

“I don’t want you to cry,” Dimitri said softly, caressing the cheek that still burned from when he’d hit you.

Stifling every natural response in you that wanted to shove him away and run, you put your hand over his, trying to convey your emotions to him with your eyes. “Then don’t do this,” you plead, your voice soft beneath the pressure of the tears in your throat. “I’m not… Not ready.”

“I don’t want to hurt you…” he said, dropping his hand to change focus, getting you to sit on the table with a firm grip on your hips, lifting you like you were nothing. “I can… I can contain my lust… To remind you.” Dimitri seemed as if he was talking more to himself, ignoring your pleas for him to stop as he pulled your shirt off.

Air was cold, but that wasn’t why your skin crawled. You tried to cover your exposed chest with your arms, feeling an awful type of embarrassment despite all else, insecurity that was ground deep into your bones.

Dimitri knocked them aside, holding your chafed wrists with a touch tight enough to make you yelp. He didn’t seem to hear you, surveying your exposed body with an expression that was very nearly revenant. “Beautiful.”

“Don’t,” you got out, a sob making your chest hiccup.

“You have no reason to be shy,” he said. “I doubt there is any woman more beautiful that you.” Dimitri didn’t wait for a response, leaning forward to press his face to your skin. The air of his heavy inhales brought uncomfortable chills to your skin, the trace of his chapped lips down your chest before he finally brought a nipple into his mouth. Pulling at his hair did nothing. Pushing at his shoulders did nothing. He’d wound his arms around you, keeping you in place as he swirled his tongue over the sensitive bud. And you didn’t want it to, but your body responded.

How long had it been since you’d been touched? And like this, gentle and lovingly.

Even as your breathing deteriorated, as your struggling became more and more violent, you could feel your body responding. He left one breast for the other and the hot, wet feeling of his mouth made you gasp. It was only because of the shock, it couldn’t have been anything else, but it encouraged him. Your eyes closed, another act of denial, but it didn’t help. Nothing helped. There was no form of escape and you felt curious sparks of warmth ignite with each playful nip of his teeth. When you did moan they were little more than helpless whimpers, dotted with hiccups or sobs or whatever contradictory signals your body was being confused by.

“I wish I could taste you,” Dimitri said, releasing your nipple to let his breath splay over the ultrasensitive skin.

“Stop, I don’t… This is wrong,” you said, your eyes closed to avoid the image of the hulk of a man leaning over you.

“Is that so?” Dimitri said, straightening out so his face was near yours. One of his hands dove between your legs, making contact with the only article of clothing you had left. A squeak of shock left your lips, your body jolting in the hold of his other arm. “If this were truly wrong, what would that say about you?”

You tried to wiggle your hips away from him, your hands going to pull at his wrist. Pointless. “Don’t,” you said, your voice tight and quiet, your face turned away from him so he couldn’t see the humiliated flush.

He ignored your attempts to get away, dragging his fingers slowly over the fabric of your panties.

You felt like you were going to cry again, the tears bursting against the back of your eyes. You felt like you were going to be sick, your stomach lurching. You felt like you were going to pass out because of how ragged your breathing was.

But you didn’t do any of those things, an honest moan escaping your lips as he met your clit through the thin barrier of fabric. Dimitri was quick after that to pull your panties off, forcing one of your legs up to allow them to simply hang over your other ankle. You struggled, knowing full well what was going to happen next. He was going to fuck you. Rape you, because you didn’t want this. And you were chanting the word no, a mantra as your useless hands fought against him, but he didn’t go to work on his own clothes.

In the same second he pushed a finger into you, his lips were back on yours, swallowing your rejections and sounds of surprise. He wasted no time in licking the seam of your lips open to admit him, thrusting his finger into you with a surprisingly gentle touch. His was so much longer than your own, his fingertip calloused as it sought the most sensitive parts of your fluttering inner walls. When his thumb found your clit, you yelped. Finally, he let you turn your face away from the kiss.

“Don’t,” you said, gasping. “You don’t… You don’t have to.” Those weren’t the words you meant to say, the rejection you knew you should have given. But it was all getting tangled up in your head. Your lover had never wanted to touch you, to make you feel good. Sex was for his sake. Sometimes that was enough, but never like this and you felt embarrassed that Dimitri would touch you, would pleasure you. It made you feel guilty.

“Would you prefer I eat you out?” he asked in a voice so comically banal it would have made you laugh in other circumstances. Namely, if it didn’t make you gasp, the way that he was still touching you making you shudder.

“No,” you said, shaking your head quickly. No, because you didn’t want any of this. Because you didn’t want him to touch you. “You don’t have to.”

Dimitri made a sound that was almost a laugh as he pulled his finger from you, pushing you further up the table. The touch of his tongue against your sex was genuinely shocking, your entire body going tense. You said his name and it sounded like a squeal, like permission. You begged him to stop and the plea was cheap because you were already gasping, whimpering, writhing.

Nobody had ever done this for you and the image of Dimitri between your spread thighs was so breathtakingly lewd and the sensation was too intense, too much. He circled your clit with his tongue and it made your hips jump, your thighs closing around his head. But he didn’t stop. He pushed a finger back into you, then another. It should have been too much, but you were so shockingly wet, his fingers sliding in and out of you with ease while his mouth worked against your clit. Your hands pulled on his hair and Dimitri groaned, doubling down.

Everything was shaking. It was wrong, unforgivably wrong, but there was no escape from the sensations. Dimitri didn’t let up even as you cried or begged or tugged at your hair. Your trembling thighs spread and clenched around his head and it couldn’t have been comfortable, it couldn’t have been enjoyable, but he wouldn’t stop and it was driving you crazy.  

“Dimitri, no. I can’t,” you said, your voice high pitched and distant and ringing oddly. Dimitri didn’t seem to care when you told him that you couldn’t, that he had to stop, that it was too much. Nobody had ever made you come and certainly not like this and it was too much, too helpless, almost frightening to be unraveled by another person’s touch because you couldn’t control it, not when his lips closed around your clit to suck, his fingers continuing to fuck you without remorse.

So good, so frightening, so hot, so perfect, so disgustingly and absolutely wrong. You came harder than you’d have thought your tired and worn out body capable of and Dimitri worked you thought it even as you begged him to stop because it was so awful, so embarrassing, so terrible that he would do this to you, for you. You cried out for him as the tension fizzled out in liquid heat, your hips trying to push against him even as he held them down with a forearm across your pelvis.

Dimitri pulled away when you were all the way down from that high, standing up and straightening out. His hair was messy and he had to adjust the eyepatch back into place, but he was smiling, his cheeks flushed, his breathing as uneven as your own. Finally, he pushed his pants and underwear out of the way.

He was hard, which baffled you for a second. Had he enjoyed doing that? To the parts of your mind that weren’t panicking with how bad your situation had become, that was shocking. While you watched, Dimitri’s hand dropped down to stroke himself. You should have moved, but you felt pinned in place by his proximity, by the aftershocks of what had just happened. Your pussy tingled with the memory of his fingers, your clit swollen and wet, an uncomfortable reminder of what had just happened.  

Feeling some awful mixture of despair and embarrassment and fear, your hands covered your face. This was insane. He was insane. You were insane. This entire place was just so utterly wrong, unreal. This couldn’t be real, you couldn’t-

Dimitri pulled you back down the table until your ass was on the edge, making you yelp as your hands shot out to try and catch yourself.

He wore a look of intensity, of focus. Of excitement. Maybe it wasn’t a show, but you couldn’t help but watch with a transfixed sort of horror as he continued touching himself. You didn’t have expectations, you hadn’t entertained the idea, but the reality of Dimitri’s cock simply positioned over your pelvis was more than enough of a visual for you to realize that this wasn’t going to work.

Dimitri had to realize it too.

“This will be easier if you relax,” he said absently, focusing more on pulling back to line himself up with your entrance. You gasped, going tense because, no, he didn’t realize it and no, this wasn’t going to be easy. Feeling the smooth head of his cock poised against you only solidified the fact.

“Dimitri, n-” Your attempt to make him stop cut off with a cry as he pushed forward, sinking into you only a little bit before stopping. Even with as wet as you were, with as aroused as you were, your body had limits. “No, no, it hurts,” you got out through clenched teeth. He frowned, his eyebrows furrowing, and tried to push again, making you yelp, but it didn’t do much. Your body resisted his, physically barring him from fitting inside of you with anything less than forceful violence. “It won’t fit, please… Please-” you squirmed again, trying to get away. If it was this bad before he was all the way in, you couldn’t even begin to imagine how he thought you could take all of him. He tried a little thrust again, but it was no more successful, only getting another pathetic whimper from your lips.

“I suppose this was bound to happen after we were apart for so long,” he said, pulling out. You let out a sobbing sigh of relief. “You know that I don’t want to hurt you.” Dimitri caressed your cheek, meeting your eyes with such raw earnestness that you couldn’t help but wilt a little.

“I know,” you said, trying to return his affection, to shove down your pain and fear and disgust to figure out the proper words to say to fix it, to make him stop. “It’s been too long and I haven’t… I stayed faithful, so I’m not used to it. If we leave, I’m more comfortable…”

“That’s not necessary,” he said, pushing your legs up until your knees were propped almost flush to your chest. You pushed with all your might against Dimitri’s strong forearm that kept your legs pinned up, but he didn’t even seem to notice, too focused on lining up his cock with your entrance again.

“No no… Nononono,” you were saying it like a mantra, over and over again refusing him and what he intended, your body so tense you hoped it wouldn’t matter that you were better positioned to take him. But his solution worked. Now as he worked his cock into you with firm, incremental thrusts, your body accepted it. Your mouth fell open in a silent cry, eyes prickling with tears you didn’t even know you had left as the pain shot through your lower half, jolting as you were filled with more and more of him.

When you lost your virginity, you had been drunk. You didn’t remember much of anything from that night, just some awkwardness as he struggled with the condom. He’d never really bothered with too much foreplay but, out of all the things he’d ever done, sex had never been much of a painful affair.

Dimitri was going slow and you knew he was trying to be considerate but he was just so big and he just continued to press into you until his hips met your ass and you couldn’t get yourself to relax around him but maybe that wouldn’t help any because the pinching, tearing, hot pain was so intense and intrusive and you were powerless against it. Above you, his breathing was hard and unsteady, like it was taking everything in him to not move.

“Dimitri, please,” you whimpered. “Hurts... it hurts too much.”

“That will-” He gasped harshly when he pulled out. Not much, just an inch or two. “That will pass,” he said, easing himself back into you slowly. A squeak of a sound caught in your throat, then a low whine. Tears streaked down the side of your face, slipping into your hair. Skin meeting skin, the table creaking in time with his thrusts, Dimitri's stifled grunts, the hum of machinery, it was all too real, too present, too unavoidable. Pinching, splitting, aching, he didn't stop. He wasn't going to stop.

You weren't going to escape.

Reality didn't break over you all at once like the cracking of an egg, but became a slow focus as disbelief gave way to the understanding that there was nothing at all in the world that would make this stop, that would rescue you from these soft horrors. There was nothing you could do to get away, nothing but the helpless strain of your thighs and your useless arms and empty hands and the enormous, inescapable pressure as he continued to work a shallow, steady rhythm into you.

"My love…" Dimitri groaned. You could feel the coiling tension of how much self-control he was exerting to keep up the slow, shallow pace.

"It hurts," you said, those words the only ones you could get out through your clenched teeth. Whiny and pathetic and pointless.

"I know," he said, pausing. Breathing heavily, Dimitri leaned back, holding your thighs up with both hands so he could spread them further apart, make more room. He was trying to be gentle, rubbing his hands across the straining muscles of your thighs to massage them. The position opened up your legs enough that his pelvis pressed against your clit when he leaned forward slightly. It was too sensitive, aching from the memory his mouth.

And you were weak. You couldn't stop him, couldn't reason with the situation until it made sense. All you could do was what you always had done. Give in. Accept the cruelties you had never been able to stop.

All of the tension and fight left your body as a soft sob hiccuped in your chest, the deadened ease of submitting yourself to his will rolling over you. What use was fighting? You weren't made to be loved or cared for, you were made for pain, made to be used.

And it worked.

A helpless, surprised sound left Dimitri's mouth when he thrust into you without any resistance. It didn't hurt as much, but that wasn't why you felt the rush of curious warmth. A hot flush ran down to your core in response to such a raw reaction of his pleasure. He obviously realized it, too, moaning again as he repeated the movement. You echoed it, your shaking hands gripping onto his forearms. Not to push him away, you were behind that, but because you needed the stability.

“You remember this well, don’t you?” Dimitri asked, his tone warm with victory. Maybe he was smiling, but you didn’t want to see it, your eyes squeezed shut.  

But it was too late, now that you’d begun to accept him, all of the pleasure you’d been denying rushed in at once, overloading your body. And he didn’t stop. Dimitri continued to fuck you with deep, even thrusts and you were shaking, your inner walls clenching around him, trying to get as much out of the feeling as you could. Just like before, you felt the awful fear of being at another’s mercy for pleasure, the lack of control.

“I thought about you nearly every night,” Dimitri told you. His voice was strained, but soft.

It was maddening, now that you’d gotten over the initial pain. It was such a helpless thing, to feel your body yield to his like this despite everything. The aching awful split that had made you wail now ensured that you felt everything. Each pass of his cock against your sensitive inner walls was winding you up, the different type of pressure on your clit a nice compliment. There was no way to escape from the feeling, not when he was going so slow, working you up with such gentle cruelty.

“They could never take you away from me. I would never forget the way you feel around me, beneath me,” Dimitri’s voice was becoming harsher, slipping into something like the low growl he’d used in anger.

You gasped when he thrust harder, but it wasn’t just pain. You were too pliant, your head floating in some space beyond as the pleasure rebuilt itself on the sandy dunes of your collapsing sanity, your body surrendering no matter what.

Dimitri did it again in an experimental sort of way, his hips meeting your ass with a lewd slap of skin on skin and you should have cried out in pain, but you didn’t. It hurt, but that wasn’t the point because it made Dimitri groan, a low growl that began in his heaving chest and left his pretty red lips.

You whined, your back arching slightly. Acceptance, again, always. He chased that type of pleasure, picking up the pace. Truly fucking you, your tits bouncing and the table groaning and skin slapping and the machines whirling and this time you were okay with it all, it washed over you and lost focus.

“Say that... you... love me,” you asked him in a breathy stutter between thrusts, the words coming out with nothing more than a moment of insanity’s consideration. Dimitri groaned, leaning forward, putting your legs on his shoulders, his hips taking a frenzied pace and you could feel the way his cock hit your cervix and it hurt but he pushed your hands to the table and entwined your fingers with his and it didn’t matter.

“I love you,” Dimitri said, his voice no more in control than your own. You peeked through your lashes and saw his face and believed him. It didn’t matter that it belonged to someone else, you were okay with being a stand-in as long as someone would look at you like that, okay with being fucked like this if it meant you’d see the raw adoration and lust on his face.

“I love you,” you said, your voice softer. Repeating his words to savor them or to tell him you didn’t know. He surged within you, getting close.

You didn’t think you were going to come like this, not again, but the pleasure was there, coiled tight in your core and stoked to a blaze by each frantic thrust of his hips against yours, each stroke of his cock against your inner walls and, “God, you’re… Beautiful,” Dimitri gasped. “My beloved.”

That was all it took. It wasn’t as dramatic, as intense as the other one but feeling him fuck you through your orgasm made it heavier, more inevitable, more helpless. Your head fell back and his hands squeezed yours even tighter and he lost control, burying himself deep within you as he came, filling you with a nearly painful type of intensity. After the initial surge, Dimitri gave a few final, weaker thrusts. Not to go again, but to savor the moment before he pulled out.

The machines whirled. A headache pounded against your temple. Your pussy throbbed with a mixture of the pain and the emptiness and the aftershocks of pleasure. Your thighs and tailbone ached.

Dimitri took your legs from his shoulders gently, finally letting them rest. Your eyes stayed closed. You didn’t want to open them, you didn’t want to become aware again, you didn’t want to have to face this because as soon as you acknowledged this as real, you would have to deal with it.

You were too tired for that.

Too worn out.

Even opening your eyes seemed like an impossibility, let alone dealing with the mess of your life. A dead man on the floor, an insane man who believed you to be his dead wife, a rioting asylum run by a group of people who would see you dead for your betrayal, and a mountain of painful memories. You didn’t think you could walk, either.  

No, you couldn’t deal with any of that. You would sleep here. It wasn’t so bad, after all. You had actually grown used to the whirring of the computers, it was comforting in its own way.

“Are you… Asleep?” he asked. A voice you knew but no longer cared to identify.

Yes, I am, you imagined yourself saying. But your lips remained shut, your body still and heavy.

A sigh. “I suppose I should have expected that. I hope you don’t mind if I carry you. When you open your eyes we’ll finally be free.”