"Tell me a story?"
There's a woman sitting across the table from him. A framed picture of the Taj Mahal is on the wall directly behind her, its central dome a making a pale, pointy halo around her dark red hair.
She's very pretty. He wonders where he's seen eyes like hers before. They look like jewels.
"Please?" she whispers. He's only heard her speak a few times, but he thinks her voice is unusually hoarse. "Tell me a story?"
He's so mesmerized by the color in her eyes that he nearly misses the desperation in them.
He wonders why this is so important to her.
What was it they were doing, again? Maybe there was some clue on the table--yes, he recalls that there is.
At first, he notices nothing out of the ordinary. They each have a dish of food in front of them, but that's as it should be. Chicken tikka masala, he tells himself, pleased with himself as he pulls each word from memory in the right order. There are other dishes on the table as well. Aaloo mutter--potatoes and peas. Naan--pure buttery deliciousness.
Yes. Indian food. That makes sense. They had to have come to Brick Lane (yes, they came here together, that's right) for a reason, and he'd always come here for Indian food before...
He can't quite remember.
Her hand is resting over his (he is still looking at the table, looking for something, and he is drawn to her hand and how small it is) and she squeezes hard. She's stronger than she looks, and his fingers ache, distracting him from the itch on his neck.
Oh, yes. She had just asked him for something. A story. Another story. Right.
"Umm... okay. Once upon a time, there was this guy." He racks his brain for what's supposed to come next, and it feels like wading through ankle-deep mud. "He was just a guy. There was nothing memorable about him, not really."
He keeps looking all over the table, and his gaze finally stops sliding off the knife. He wonders why he didn't notice it before. It is not the kind of knife you would expect find on a restaurant table. It's far too big, for one thing. Light glints off the blade when he shifts his head, and the world flashes dark for a moment.
"He was..." he says, focusing on the sharp, sharp edge of that knife and the dark stain near its hilt. He fights to retrieve each and every word, but they're coming along easier now. "He was a warrior. And his name..."
She squeezes his hand again. This time, he feels bones grind together.
"His name was Richard May..." he grits his teeth and looks at the knife. He remembers now. He remembers someone putting it on the table. He remembers someone telling him to remember. "Richard Mayfair."
It's not exactly right, but it's close enough. It's enough to make him look up at her in triumph. He remembers.
"My name is Richard and your name is Door. And they were looking for..." He closes his eyes and concentrates.
"They were looking for a way in?"
"Door? Are we there? Did we make it?" Richard was exhausted, bent over, shaking, and dripping wet. At the moment, anything more than staring at his own feet and trying not to pass out or throw up was beyond him. The road beneath his feet came into focus--it was paved with tiny bricks in a complex zig-zag pattern that did nothing to help with the dizziness. If he closed his eyes, though, he would probably fall over.
"I don't know." Door's voice was tight and tense, but that was no surprise under the circumstances. "I know we made it past the Old Gate--thank you for that, Richard--but I thought..."
"You thought Richard having the freedom of the Underside meant you could waltz right up to the Chapel door and retrieve your sister." the Marquis said. "Unfortunately, free and simple aren't always the same thing. Did you completely fail to listen to the Wardens back there?"
"We have less than a day left!" Door was fighting to keep control of herself, but that fight had been going on for weeks and it was starting to show. "It took us six hours to get through the Old Gate--how much longer is this going to take us? Where are we, anyway? I've never heard of anyplace like this in London Below."
Richard finally was able to stand up without wanting to topple over. Getting to the Old Gate had been difficult enough, but he was going to have nightmares about the getting through for a while.
(He had vague memories of visiting the place's analogue in London Above, but there had been nothing more threatening there than a host of insurance corporations and skyscrapers.)
This place was nothing like he had seen in either London. What Richard had first thought was a road was more like a wide, terraced path with steps up every few yards. A nearly unbroken line of tall buildings on either side made the place look like a manufactured canyon, especially where the buildings leaned inwards over the path. A few gates and arches suggested that there were closes and mews off the main street.
The buildings ranged in style from Generically Medieval to something that was either Victorian or Edwardian, but every single one was made entirely of brick, even down to the doors and gates. Pale brick, ruddy brick, yellow brick, gray brick, burnt-black brick, even glass block for the windows--every possible variety of brick was there, but the colors were placed heedlessly, blending into an overall image of dull orangey-red.
"Welcome to Brick Lane," said the Marquis de Redundancy. He was looking up, down, and around just as much as Richard was, but more in the manner of a man eager to locate all possible exits.
"I've been there--not this there, of course, but the Brick Lane in London above," Richard pointed out. There were fewer actual bricks in that version. Also, the tops of the buildings in the Brick Lane he remembered didn't go up for twelve or so stories and disappear into an indeterminate and dimly glowing fog. "Good restaurants."
"And this helps us how, exactly?" asked the Marquis.
"We don't have time for this." Door reminded them. "What do we do now?"
The Marquis pointed up the street with his cane. "We walk. If I'm interpreting what the Wardens said correctly, the main road should lead straight to where we need to go."
"If? Should?" Door asked, and heard the cracks in her voice deepening and widening. "My sister could be dying and you're not entirely sure we're in the right place?"
"As you say, she could be dying right now. Or she could already be dead," the Marquis explained with cruel, maddening calm. "Either way, it seems to me that at the moment, you have little choice right now beyond 'up.' Unless, of course, you want to turn around and go back through Old Gate again."
Door turned away sharply and stalked up the street, hands clenched at her sides. "No. I already owe you far too many favors as it is."
Richard watched her for a moment. He recognized the hunch in her shoulders, the stiffness in her arms. There were so many things he wanted to say, but all of them would be wrong. She didn't need comfort right now, she needed to keep moving forwards. The Marquis gave him a look, then set off after Door.
Once they were ten or so yards ahead of him, Richard figured out what about this place truly unsettled him: to all appearances, the three of them were the only living beings on the street.
By now Richard knew better than to call attention to that fact, so he followed the others as they headed uphill in tense, uneasy silence.
It's easy and natural--and pleasant--to fall into companionable silence as they eat. They were talking about something earlier, but for the life of him, he can't remember what it was.
He decides it's not important, because she offers him a forkful of her aaloo mutter, and laughs when a trio of peas slides off and splat on the table. She has a wonderful laugh. He has a vague notion he hasn't heard it enough lately.
He bites into a piece of potato and gets a mouthful of scalding steam for his trouble.
"Good lord. How are you eating that without shredding the roof of your mouth?" he says, but he's laughing. His mouth hurts, but not as much as the itch on the side and back of his neck. It feels more like a burn. He scratches at it lightly.
"There's an art to it." When she smiles, it always starts in her eyes. He wonders if he has ever noticed that before. She reaches up to scratch her own neck, mirroring his earlier gesture.
It's good being here, just the two of them. Best of all, there's nothing they have to do, and nowhere they have to go. They have all the time in the world.
There's nothing else they could possibly want.
He reaches for a knife to cut her a small bite of chicken (he thinks he remembers she's not overly fond of meat, but it seems like the thing to do after she gave him a taste of her own meal). His hand closes around the hilt of a knife. It's much too large, and it brings with it a smell that doesn't belong in any restaurant. The smell brings with it a surge of fear--an old fear, half-remembered, and a new one, far more urgent.
They don't have time. There's barely any time left at all. He looks around for a clock or even a calendar, but there's nothing but framed stock photos of Indian landmarks and a long row of empty tables set for diners who have yet to arrive. There aren't even any waiters.
"Wait... I was telling you a story," he says slowly, as if figuring something out as he goes. "I was, wasn't I?"
She looks at him, puzzled at first, but then her eyes go wide in terror.
"Yes. You were. Go on. What were you saying? My name is Door, right? Are you sure that's right?" she says, rapidfire with anxiety.
He nods. "And my name is Richard." The name sounds foreign, and he knows that's a problem, but he can't remember why that's a problem. "Richard of Maybury and Door of... uh, Door."
There's a flash of white stone and rushing traffic, but it means nothing by itself.
Door nods. Her lips are pressed together into a thin line and her cheeks are pale. She waits for him to go on.
"Richard used to live in one place, but then he moved to another place. A strange place. He was scared all the time, but he was happier. Much happier." He knows that part is important and he knows he needs to look Door in the eye and try to keep hold of what happens next. "They had to go somewhere, together. They were... I think they were looking for something."
That was how most stories, went, wasn't it? People needed to do something, and so they went and did it. Or they tried and failed.
How was this story supposed to end? He's not even sure he ever knew the ending in the first place.
"They..." He licks his lips, he keeps his attention fully on Door, keeps reciting her name over and over and over in his head, praying he won't forget it again. "They... I think they met someone?"
Door thinks, then nods hesitantly. He can see that she's hoping, hoping so very much, and yet so afraid to hope. What for, he doesn't know. He should know, though. "Yes. Or maybe they found something? But... not what, no, not who they were looking for?"
"No. It wasn't." Then he picks up his fork again, because they're here to eat, right? They're hungry. That's why they came to Brick Lane. They have all the time in the world.
No, he tells himself before the chicken can even reach his mouth. They don't.
"The three of them went to Brick Lane," he says, fighting for each word.
"Yes. Three. You, me, and that's it." He rubs at his temples, as if it might jostle things loose. "We came to Brick Lane. It... it took us a long time to get there. I think there was, there was a tube incident or something. It was bad. It took us hours to get there. But they got there. Richard and Door."
In his mind he sees two different places. One is the white trim and tidy windows of the Bengal Village storefront. The other is of a long, wide staircase made of brick, going up and up into a fog. He remembers bells ringing as he and Door stepped inside the restaurant. He remembers the hunch of her shoulders and the stiffness of her arms as she set up the stairs. He remembers the presence beside him, but he cannot remember who it was.
In one version of the story, they're shown to a fake wood table set with bright orange plates and clean white napkins, and they're smiling at each other. In the other, the only colors are brick red and fog gray as they go up and up that long flight of stairs, and no one is smiling at all.
"They found something."
In one memory, he's pulling Door's chair out for her. In the other, he follows her through a brick archway.
He remembers a basket of warm naan was already on the table, waiting for them.
He remembers someone standing on brick steps leading to a brick door. She is dressed in gray and ivory. She is waiting for them.
"Or someone. There was a name."
He hears the echo of a voice--not his own--shouting a name in warning.
"It was a very pretty name."
He remembers the voice was too late.
"It was French, I think."
Too late and they're nearly out of time, maybe already out of time, but he can't remember.
The food smells utterly fabulous, reminding him that he's starved, but his neck hurts and there's still a trace of the foul, animal smell that came to him when he touched the knife. It's enough to let him reach out for a lifeline.
He looks at the woman again, this time in desperation because he's forgotten her name again, and he asks her something he suspects he's asked many, many times since they arrived here.
"Tell me a story?"
"What do you know about this place?" Door asked the Marquis. "Beyond what the Axe Wardens hinted about where the road goes?"
Richard had noticed that ever since they had left on their quest, none of them felt inclined to mention the place by name if they could avoid it.
"Bits and pieces," the Marquis said, in a way that told Richard he was not pleased with his lack of knowledge and even less pleased to part with what little he had squirelled away. "The place has been cut off from most of London Below for a long time, and no one has lived here for longer than that, barring the usual strays and relics. Of course, there's the odd mention of doors opening and closing, or lights going on behind some of those glass brick windows. Some say the entire place is just a prison."
"So maybe we should have been checking these doors or passages along the way?" Richard asked. For the past twenty minutes or so, he had been going from one side of the long stair to the other as they went up, checking gates and trying to peer through glass-block windows. He knew he wasn't looking so much as looking for something to do.
"Wait--are you saying Ingress might be in one of these buildings?" Door said. She stopped atop the next stair and turned to look back at the Marquis, twisting her hands together so hard that Richard felt his own hands ache. "Also, are you sure this is the main road that goes there?"
Richard thought of how far they had walked, of how many possible entrances they had passed, and he almost wished he hadn't said anything. But if he hadn't, and they missed their chance, he'd never forgive himself.
The Marquis strode right up to her, as stern as Richard had ever seen him. "The ceremony at that place everyone here is thankfully being smart enough not to name is taking place today. This day. Right now. Why would she be here? Did you forget what the Axe Wardens at the Old Gate said?"
Door looked to either side of her. There was an iron gate one one side of the street, an open archway on the other. "No, I didn't forget, but after what they did to us back there, can you really trust them not to trick us with another one of their riddles? They didn't actually say the ceremony was taking place there, did they? Not in those exact words."
"Lady Door, for someone who is in a huge hurry to rescue her last remaining family member from certain peril, you seem strangely eager to take a detour." The Marquis started to say something else, then snapped his mouth shut. He peered at Door the way a cat might peer at a mousehole. "When is the last time you slept? Really slept?"
The night before the day they found out where Ingress was being kept, Richard thought, but he said nothing.
For a second, looking at Door was like looking at a stranger. Her face was drawn tight with panic, and her pupils were so wide her eyes looked solid black. She spoke too quickly, voice sliding from soft to loud back again without warning.
"You don't understand, de Carabas, you don't understand at all. I need to... she's so scared, I know she is, I need to find her before it's too late." She had been so calm throughout all the planning. Even at the Old Gate, she'd been the most sensible of the three of them, and now it was all falling apart. "What if we just walked right past--ah!" She gave a sharp intake of breath, eyes wide and fixed on something off to the side.
"Wait!" she shrieked as she dashed through the archway. "Wait!"
Richard ran after her, not checking to see if the Marquis followed.
The archway led to a short tunnel that opened into a small courtyard of terrace houses. A woman stood halfway up the brick steps that led up to the brick door of a charming brick house. Her back was to them, but her head was turned slightly as if she was debating looking over her shoulder to see what all the fuss was about.
She was tall and looked strangely thin despite her voluminous dress of gray and ivory striped satin. She had a bit of her skirt lifted so she could go up the steps, revealing lace petticoats and ivory high-button shoes. Ash-blonde hair was piled up in elaborate curls and pinned with lace, but she was turned so that Richard couldn't get a good look at her face.
Door had stopped cold at the foot of the stairs, one hand extended to pull at one of the woman's puffed sleeves. Richard saw the change as she tensed, got ready to turn, got ready to run.
"Get away from her!" Richard ran toward them just as he also heard the Marquis pelting into the courtyard. Door started to pull away from the woman, her face contorted with horror.
It took less than a second. Before Door could run, she slapped at the side of her neck as if swatting away an insect. Then, she simply relaxed. The woman disappeared inside the house without further incident, leaving the door open behind her as an invitiation.
"Door! Are you all right?" When he got to her side, she was smiling sweetly, but something was wrong--her eyes were too unfocused. A trickle of blood ran down her neck and stained the lace of her collar.
"I'm fine, Richard," she said, and there was none of the fear, none of the strain of the past week, none of the panick of a minute ago. "I'm hungry, though. Are you hungry?" She sniffed the air and smiled blissfully, even though there was nothing to smell but damp brick dust. Then she trotted up the stairs to the door before Richard knew what was happening. He went after her.
"Stop her, you idiot!" the Marquis shouted, but Richard was already on it. "It's an--"
Richard grabbed hold of Door's jacket as she crossed the threshold, and that should have been enough to stop her, but he was expecting her to be pulling forward slowly. Instead, she went abruptly down as the floor vanished beneath her, and she took Richard with her.
He barely heard the last of the Marquis' warning.
It's an Oubliette.
"...Paris Below," she says dreamily. "It's a dangerous journey, lots of water in between, but I went there once about a year ago." She pauses, and there's a flicker of deep sadness in the reverie. "Someone took me there, as a treat. A woman, I think. My... mother?"
"Go on," he says, although he would really like to ask her name. He thinks he's met her before, but he can't remember.
She looks so tired, he thinks. And pale. She's naturally pale, of course, but her color right now strikes him as too pale. She picks at her food, and he wonders how much of it she's eaten--the plate is still full.
So is his, of course. The waiter must have brought him another helping when he wasn't paying attention.
"We bought cloth there," she says carefully. "Beautiful pink and gold cloth woven by the goblins--they hate being called that, though--but it wasn't for me. It was going to be a dress, I think. A present for..."
She's staring so intently into nothing that Richard instinctively turns to look behind him. Well, he tries to look behind him, but his neck is stiff, almost as if there's something clamping it in one place.
"A way in," she breathes, still staring into nothing. "We were looking for a way in."
Then she shakes herself as if trying to wake herself up.
"Remember!" she growls, thumping her temples with the heels of her hands over and over. "Come on, you idiot! You have to stop forgetting!"
He looks at her, and remembers there was something he wanted to tell her. What was it?
He remembers, but is distracted by a tickle of pain on the side of his neck.
"A way in, a way in. We were looking for a way in. I know that much, but it's not right, it's not quite right," she says, snapping out the words like bullets. She closes her eyes, and the circles beneath them are so dark they look like bruises. When she speaks again, she is painfully close to tears. "I'm so tired, Richard. Richard. I can barely remember your name any more, I can barely remember my own, and I'm so tired."
So is he. He swats at what feels like a bug crawling on his neck, then wishes he hadn't. He hisses in pain as he pulls his fingers away. His neck no longer itches--it is painful to the touch and sticky-damp, like a burn that has blistered.
He starts to worry, but quickly forgets what there was to worry about in the first place. He's here with Door, and that's what is important, right?
"There's something I've been meaning to tell you," he says. He hasn't said anything before, because he has all the time in the world, right? "I remember that it's important."
"But you don't remember what it is?" she says with a sad smile.
Even when she's exhausted, her smiles start in her eyes.
Of course he remembers what it is. He knows that he remembered it even when he had trouble remembering her name, or whether or not they had even met before.
"I remember what it is, but what I don't remember is why I haven't told you."
Her mouth curves, and that's the first he sees of her smile, because her head is bowed so he can't see her eyes.
There's no answer. He remembers why he never said anything as his fatigue is blasted away by cold fear.
He was always afraid. That's why he never said anything, but that fear is nothing to what he feels as her head lolls forward while something still holds her stock upright in her chair.
Everything hurts, and he can't dash heroically to her side because he's as creaky and weak as an old man. He fumbles and reaches out to grip her chin, to feel her breath, to make sure she's okay, and something swats his hand away and hisses at him. Then it throws him across the room.
The floor he lands on is not the polished hardwood of Bengal Village. It is a rough and unpleasantly slimy stone. Door is seated on a battered air conditioner box, and she is not alone. The woman in the gray-striped dress is hunched beside her, and when she looks at him, Richard sees she has no eyes and no mouth. Instead of a face, there's just a raw and blistered expanse of skin.
Before he can even scream, one of the blisters bursts, and a barbed tongue darts out, questing towards him.
Forget, she hisses as she staggers towards him. Her tongue is as long as her arm, and she rasps it along the side of his neck as she reaches down to haul him back onto his stack of pallets. Forget.
He tries to brace himself to stand up, but the hardwood floor is too slick. No wonder he slipped and fell when he stood up to go visit the gents' room. "Glad there's no one but you to see that," he tells the pretty woman sitting at the table. Odd. It looks like she's fallen asleep.
He tries again, and this time, instead of putting his hand on slippery hardwood, he puts it on something hard and sharp and unforgettable.
They didn't forget everything all at once. Their memories hung on just long enough for Door to explain what was going on.
"It's an Oubliette," she said with a blankness that frightened him. She was completely calm as she pressed her hands against every square inch of wall and floor she could reach as she tried to make a way out for them. "They move their lairs, so we could be anywhere by now. They're distant cousins to the Velvets, but they're not nearly as nice."
That was quite the understatement. Also, he thought as he rubbed the raw spot on his throat where the thing had fed from him, this thing wasn't as cold. He was glad he couldn't recall exactly how the thing had taken his blood along with a sliver of his life.
"Let me guess. They do something to your memories," he said. He thought he could detect the faint taste of chicken tikka masala lingering in his mouth, which was completely unfair because he was utterly starving.
Door nodded and slapped at another patch of dingy brick. "They don't just use their tongues to feed--they also use them to drug their victims and put them in a memory of something completely harmless or safe--someplace like a favorite food stall at the Floating Market--someplace where you don't notice that you're gradually being eaten away. And now we're stuck in here," she snarled, this time hitting the wall with her fist as the calm started to break again, "and we have less than half a day left, and I can't remember how to open anything anymore!"
Richard went to her and gingerly rested a hand on her back, feeling the tightness between her shoulders. There was so much he wanted to say, but this was hardly the time.
It's never the time, he told himself bitterly. Coward.
"We'll find a way out of this," he told her.
"You don't really believe that, do you?"
He almost let his hand fall away from her back, but he kept it there. "Not really, no. But I'm not giving up?"
She actually snorted with laughter. "That would sound more reassuring if it wasn't a question. But we'll fight as long as we can. Maybe the Marquis will find us in time."
"You don't really believe that, do you?"
She tried not to smile, but he could see the crinkle in the corner of her eyes. Then, she was deadly serious. "Richard, what he said, about my wanting to take a detour... he was right."
Door pulled away from him and walked around the room again, pressing each of the damp, slimy bricks in turn just as she had before.
"I'm not stupid, and I'm not naïve. I've always known there was a chance we wouldn't find her alive. But I kept telling myself that even if that happened, then at least I would know. I wouldn't always be wondering."
Richard thought back to a dog he once had as a child, and how one day the gate came unlatched while no one was paying attention. He and his mother had put up fliers, but they stayed up for weeks, and there were no phone calls, no leads, nothing. There were still times when he wondered about Pip, even years after the dog would have been long gone of natural causes.
"I understand," he said. "I think."
"But it wouldn't be okay, knowing. That's not what I want. I don't want to know--I want my sister. But..." She paused to wipe her eyes on her sleeve. "But I keep wondering if even if we find her alive, that it may be too late. I know there are ways we can take the memory of what happened to her away, but..."
"But you'll remember it happened," he said. "And you're as afraid of finding her as you are of not finding her."
Door stopped looking for a way out. Instead, she studied him for a moment, as if he was the portal that might get them both out of there.
"This is going to sound strange," she said, "but I'm glad you're here. Not that I'm glad that you're in a pit with me and that we're about to have our minds wiped and then be eaten, but you understand what I mean, don't you?"
She rose up on tip-toe and gave him a feather-light kiss on the cheek.
Richard beamed at her. She was lovely, and he knew he had met her somewhere before--what was her name? Strange, she seemed to be worried about something.
"Richard? Richard, did she come back? Concentrate, Richard!"
He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth. Door. Her name was Door, and they were trapped in a pit and about to be eaten by some sort of faceless vampire-thing.
"If we are going to have any hope of surviving this, we need to remember. Hold tight to everything you can, Richard. Tell me about yourself. Tell me your name."
He opened his eyes. "My name is Richard. Richard Mayhew." He smiled. Some memories were still there. "Dick. Richard Richard Mayhew Dick."
She looked at him, puzzled. The brick walls were fading into the white of the Bengal Village restaurant as pictures and tables popped into existence. He didn’t remember the Oubliette returning, but of course he wouldn't.
"Was that a joke?" she asked.
He felt something crack and crumble deep in his heart. "You don't remember that, do you? From when we first met?"
"I don't. I don't. Tell me," she begged. "Please. Tell me that story."
He started to gather the fact in his mind, but it was hard, especially when a plate of chicken tikka masala appeared in front of him, and the first forkful was already on its way to his mouth.
"No! Wait!" She got up from her chair, and nearly knocked over the neighboring table on her rush to get to him. He gave her a befuddled frown as she reached into his jacket and pulled out a knife. She slammed it down on the table next to his plate.
"Tell me how you got that knife, Richard! Tell me! Now!"
He put down his fork and stared at the knife.
"Hunter's knife," he whispered. "She gave it to me. It's mine, now."
"Yes, yes, that's right Richard! It's your knife. Now tell me the story!"
The knife is his.
It was given to him. He remembers that.
His hand tightens on the hilt, and for one second the terror and stink and muck of killing the Beast is far more real than the memory of a favorite restaurant.
If this were a proper story, he would have thrown the knife with great panache, hard enough to bury it hilt-deep in the Oubliette's back. Instead, he's so weak he just stumble-trips a few steps and gashes the monster's arm by sheer accident as he flails for balance. His free hand grabs a handful of gray-and-ivory satin in an attempt to keep from falling, but all that does is bring the Oubliette on top of him when he does fall.
The Oubliette weighs half as much as he does, even with all the petticoats, but that's enough to keep him pinned down. Pale blue blood drips from her arm and soaks her sleeve, and it's freezing cold wherever it drips on him. Her tongue rakes harshly across his already raw neck and he screams.
If this were a proper story, Door would have had a surge of strength due to terror for his life, and she would have bellowed "you leave him alone, you _____!" as she rushed dramatically to his rescue.
At first, it seems the best she can do is slur out "leave... oh, stop that... argh!" before flopping down on top of the Oubliette.
In truth, the best she can do is finally remember how to open.
The result is spectacularly and satisfactorily messy.
"Tell me a story," the woman asked. She had the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen, and her hand rested atop his where it lay on the table.
He scratched absently at his neck, and tried to remember what it was he was supposed to remember. It took a while, but it finally came to him. Keeping his hand on that big knife seemed to help.
"Once upon a time," he said quietly, "there was a brave warrior who was rescued by a lost princess."
She cocked her head, studying him. "Are you sure you're remembering it correctly?" she asked. "I think you have that backwards."
His brows drew together as he thought about that for a moment. "No," he said after a moment, relaxing. "No, I don't think I have it backwards at all."
They're exhausted, and they're covered in freezing-cold blood, but he holds her while she weeps and rages. It's not so much to comfort her as it is to keep her from trying to open another door in the wall of the pit.
Turning the Oubliette inside-out nearly killed her, and although her strength is returning quickly, it's not returning quickly enough.
"I can't give it more time, Richard," she hisses after he's been stupid again. "We don't have more time. It may already be too late! You know what the Marquis told us about the winter solstice and what would happen and we beat that thing, so why can't I open a simple door to let us out?"
He doesn't say it's because they're both nearly dead from exhaustion and blood loss. He doesn't remind her that if Oubliettes move their lairs, they could be anywhere right now. And he doesn't protest when she tells him to let her go so she can try one more time.
He can't. He can't because he loves her, even though he's too much of a coward to say it.
Door is just as afraid of finding her sister as she is of never finding her. That's fair. He's afraid of being rejection if he says anything, but it took him a long time to realize he's just as afraid of the opposite outcome.
He takes a deep breath and lets her go. Whatever happens will happen.
From his perspective, all that happens is that she places both hands flat on the wall and she leans against it for a few seconds. Then, her shoulders sag, and one hand clenches into a fist and thumps feebly against the bricks, just once.
He puts his hands on her shoulders, but waits until she sags against him to let his arms go around her once more.
He's trying to think of what he could possibly say when the outline of a door appears on the wall.
"That wasn't me," she whispers.
The door swings open, revealing a smug and unconvincingly calm Marquis de Carabas. There's a hint of motion in the shadows behind him. "Oh," he says, looking at the pile of pale blue goop and tattered satin over by the far wall. "I see your straits weren't as dire as all that. I don't appreciate being made to rush for nothing, you know."
"What the hell took you so long!" Richard snaps at the same time Door yells "How did you do that?"
The Marquis gives them a particularly insufferable smile. "I would have been here sooner, but let's just say that first I had to find a way in."
He steps to the side with a flourish, revealing a little girl in a stained, tattered dress. He can just tell that it used to be pink and gold. One look at her face, and it's painfully obvious she's eaten far too little and seen far too much in the past several months. It's also obvious that her short-cropped hair is dark red. Her eyes remind him of fire opals.
Door squeaks a breath and claps her free hand to her mouth.
"I... I found a way in," Ingress says shyly, but there is a spark of pride there as well. "I felt your door opening and I found the way in. I opened the door." She smiles, even though her legs are starting to buckle.
Door tears free from Richard's arms and crosses the room so fast she practically flies. She scoops Ingress into a hug that ends in a twisting fall that lands Door on her butt with Ingress in her lap.
"If you hadn't tried, we couldn't have found you, we couldn't have gotten out," Ingress sobs. "They almost got us."
"Well, maybe we did have reason to rush," the Marquis admits.
"You did it, love," Door whispers. "You finally figured out how to open. And you saved me."
Richard tries not to feel left out. And he feels bad that he has to even try in the first place.
That line of thought isn't going to do him any good. He clears his throat and turns to a very smug Marquis.
"How'd you free her from--"
The Marquis examines his fingernails, and he outright smirks. "Diplomacy. Bargaining. Shenanigans," he drawls. "Also, running. In short, the usual. Now, I think this calls for a really big favor in return, don't you?"
Richard is still trying to think of a retort when Door breaks open the hug with her sister, holding out her and beckoning him to join them. The smile starts in her eyes, but it keeps spreading and keeps spreading. Even though now is not the right time to say anything, he won't be afraid when the time comes. He won't be afraid of either answer. Not anymore.
He joins the embrace, but Ingress flinches away from him. Door strokes her hair and pulls her close.
"Who's that?" she mumbles, and Richard can tell it'll be a long time before everything will be truly all right again. He wonders if she even knows what happened to her parents and her brother. Still, she's here, and she's alive. It's a start.
"This is Richard, Ingress. He's okay."
"Hi." He's never been very comfortable around kids, but again, it's a start.
Her look shifts slightly away from fear towards suspicion. "Who's Richard?"
Door smiles. It starts with a faint crinkles around her eyes and then it blossoms beautifully across her face, just the way he remembers. "Well, let me tell you a story..."