Steve felt hysterical laughter bubble up, and he tried to choke it down. Noise. He couldn’t make any noise. The chick wasn’t helping, either. The quirk stretched into a slight grin, and the expression looked so odd on her face…
But then her gaze turned serious and slid past him, her head cocked. She brushed past him, further into the cubbyhole, and Steve realized with a jolt that it wasn’t the small space he’d thought. The darkness behind him opened up into hollow silence.
Hawk laid her hand on the wall, feeling along it, and her fingers curled around a corner, just a bare foot from where Steve was standing. She stood for a moment, gazing into the darkness around the corner.
“You said this way,” she said quietly.
“No, I –” Steve stopped. No, he had said it.
What the hell did this chick do to me?
She took a step, the darkness sliding over her until she was only a grey, indistinct shape. Steve pushed away from the wall he was leaning on, reaching to touch the other wall to let it guide him after her. His hand slid along it, found the corner even as he stepped into the darkness. Blinded, he couldn’t see her anymore, could only hear breathing, and, struggling not to completely lose it, continued to feel around the corner, looking for the light switch, anything to end the darkness and get himself back in the light.
A hand gripped his wrist, stopping him. Startled, Steve inhaled on a yell, choked.
“Don’t,” Hawk’s voice said, right next to him. “It might not be a light switch.”
“Yeah,” Steve murmured. “Right.” He waited, as his eyes slowly adjusted enough to make out shapes in the darkness, things hanging down, shapes on the floor. There was an odd smell to the air, part chemical, part rot, sharp and sour, and he lifted his hand to cover his mouth and nose, trying not to gag or breathe too deeply. But he heard Hawk’s breathing deepen, and realized that there was faint light coming from somewhere below his line of sight, light that steadily grew brighter, the blue-white of a pure burning filament.
He looked down, saw Hawk’s hand. It was glowing. She was rubbing at her head with her other hand, her forehead and face squinted as if the light hurt her eyes.
“You okay?” Steve said.
She only raised her hand up so that the light fell in a wider circle around them, then she breathed in sharply. Steve only blinked up at that light, as he fell into step behind her and they moved slowly through the shadowy space. Less bright than an oil lantern, but steady, blue-white. He couldn’t see anything in her hand except for that light, casting its faint glowing circle around them, holding the hollow darkness at bay.
“How are you doing that?” He kept his tone calm, curious. It wasn’t easy. He was one step from freaking out, good and royal.
There’s a lot more to be scared of right now.
She kept moving, didn’t look back. “I’m a namer.”
Well, that was more than he’d gotten out of her so far. “Okay.”
“I talk to things. I tell them to be what they are. Or other than what they are.” There was an odd note to her voice, a tremor that hadn’t been there before. “Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes I need to do a little convincing.”
“Convincing,” Steve echoed. “Jesus.”
“Not much luck with him.” The tremor went to full shake. “Sorry.”
They brushed past one of the shapes on the ground, and Hawk flinched away violently. Steve glanced down; enough of the light fell on it for him to see.
His breath sucked in, sharp, cold. He couldn’t move, couldn’t get enough breath to scream, frozen, staring down at something that was definitely human, definitely not alive. He hoped. Humans couldn’t live as that, not with so much missing, not with so much inside on the outside, not with so much smeared wetly over that…that..
He couldn’t stop staring. He wanted to. He wanted to look away, as it suddenly sunk in what all the shapes were, around them, above them, suspended as so much meat. But he couldn’t stop staring, feeling his breath burning in his chest, his mouth open and gasping and…
Hands were on his shoulders, wrenching him around. “Look at me,” Hawk said, in a low, shaking voice. “Look at me, Stephen.”
Somehow he focused. Anything, anything to not have to look around him.
“Keep it in,” Hawk said in a low, fierce voice. “Swallow it. You let it out, you make any noise above what we’re talking right now, and they’ll hear. And then we’ll be there.”
“Christ,” Steve whispered. “You’re so goddam calm!”
She kept a tight hold on his wrist, turned, pulling him along with her.
“Are you even fuckin’ human?”
“I’ve seen three people I know.” Her voice shook.
“…and right now, I want to name this place ‘rubble’ and wipe it off the map.” Her grip on his wrist tightened. “But I do that, and we don’t get out.”
There were muffled noises coming from somewhere ahead of them, and faint light. Suddenly the light around Hawk’s hand was gone, and Hawk pulled Steve deeper into the darkness. She halted, and Steve stood trembling behind her, gradually becoming aware that they were right next to another one of the shapes, the hard plastic edges that encased it barely touching his right wrist. He jerked away, felt Hawk tighten her grip on his wrist again, managed to stop himself and stand, tense and shivering, his gaze resolutely turned away, towards the faint light.
I’m sorry. Whoever you are, I’m sorry.
The faint light ahead wasn’t moving, and Steve could make out an opening in the far wall, a definite, edged shadow against the light; the noises weren’t getting closer. Trying to keep his mind away from the shapes around them, Steve listened hard. Voice, the noise was a voice, muffled, high-pitched keening that had him trembling, feeling his teeth set and the skin of his back shudder, as if someone was scraping metal down his spine. He would not run. He would not.
Slowly, too slowly, Hawk eased forward, made it to the wall. She pulled him forward, then her hand was on his shoulder, pressing him against the wall, a definite, firm sign.
There wasn’t any warning. She was no longer gripping his wrist or shoulder. She stepped out, around the edge of the wall, and charged.
Steve stepped around the wall edge. Grey walls, bright overhead light, metal shapes with blinking green LEDs. Three of the things gathered around a struggling shape on a table; at least, two of them had been. Hawk was on them, dodging and striking out, her foot solidly connecting in one’s midsection even as her hand lashed out, but the third…
The third was edging towards an open space in the far wall. Steve didn’t think beyond that. He charged, tackled it before it even realized he was there, and bore it down to the hard floor. It flailed, trying to grab his throat, scratching at his eyes, writhing, struggling, slapping at Steve’s face. Somehow he held on, panic and fear driving him, and managed to shift his grip up to the thing’s throat, even as it got its hands under his chin, pushing up hard, its fingers crawling up towards his eyes, digging in. Steve jerked his head aside, tightened his hands around its throat. Light, it felt so light, delicate, and rage and fear had Steve lifting its neck up, pounding its head against the hard floor, over and over. There was a sound like wet chicken bones pulling apart; the long hands went limp, and greyish ooze was spattered and spreading on the floor.
There was another wet noise behind him, and Steve let go of it, twisted in time to see the last of the things collapse to the floor. Hawk spun, relaxed when she saw it was only him, and stepped back, wiping at her face with her forearm. She was spattered with ooze, and bleeding from a cut on her arm, and Steve saw she held long knives, knives that she wiped off on one of the bodies, then sheathed…somewhere. He hadn’t seen those before, strapped to her thighs, and even now, knowing they were there…
Hawk’s gaze moved to the thing on the ground next to him, then back to him for a long moment, before stopping to rest on the table. Her expression changed.
That pulled his own gaze up, to see the table from underneath, an ugly, mechanical thing tilted up at a rough 45-degree angle, haloed by the overhead light. Someone was on top of that table, their arms visible, secured and shackled to sidebars that were lowered alongside so that the shoulders were pulled back painfully tight, and then it sunk in that the hair hanging down from the edges was familiar, too familiar, curled, frizzed-out…
Shock brought Steve to his feet, before his brain caught up and he twisted away, not wanting to see, not wanting such a sight to be the last. He stood as that, shivering, unable to think, unable to speak, listening to the sounds of Hawk murmuring, low, soothing, and over it was that noise, that high-pitched, terrified whimpering.
That noise spun him back around. Alive…
From the angle he was at and the angle of the table, he could only see the top of Neal’s head. He didn’t want to come closer. He didn’t want to see the rest, what he knew had to be there, after everything in the other room.
Hawk suddenly grabbed his arm and yanked him over. Steve stumbled, caught himself on the edge of the table, seeing the whole of it before he could twist away. Neal’s eyes were closed tight, his mouth gagged by a metal brace that forced his chin up, exposing his throat; his breathing was harsh, loud. Other bands bound him to the table, around his upper chest, his thighs, holding him in place, and Steve saw that Neal’s legs were bent, his knees resting on pads at the other end, and between them, a stark, metal basin sat just below the table edge. Then Steve’s gaze was drawn up, to a small tray just to the side, glittering edges of metal lined up along it…
“Hang on,” Hawk said. “I’m on it.”
Before he could ask, she had bent down, below the table, and he heard the faint whispering start. Shaking from relief, Steve laid a hand on Neal’s shoulder. “Hey.” His voice cracked, even at a whisper. Steve swallowed, tried again. “Hang in there. I – we’re getting you out.”
Neal’s eyes stayed tightly closed, his throat pulsing with shallow gulps, and Steve could see the guitarist’s hands clench. Somehow out of the panic, the fear, the terror of the last hour came an idea that had him leaning down, closer. “Neal…think blue.”
There was a muffled noise from under the table. But Neal opened his eyes, stared at Steve.
“Yeah, I know,” Steve said, speaking to that scared, disbelieving gaze, speaking as much to himself as to Neal. “I feel the same way. But just think it. Like that blue sky, outside. Really clear. No clouds, just that bright blue that hurts your eyes. And…and that hawk we saw before last night’s show, y’know?”
Neal’s expression was easy to read. You are fuckin’ crazy.
Steve wasn’t sure he qualified as sane, either. But then there was a sudden click, then a metallic slither, and suddenly the bindings retracted. Steve’s breath hissed in, as he found himself holding the sudden full weight of Neal to stop him from falling off the table. He settled for turning it into a controlled slide, so that Neal ended up on his hands and knees on the floor. There was one, choked, gasping sob, quickly caught and inhaled, and Neal was bent over his knees, his hands clenched, his breath heaving. Steve said nothing, only knelt and wrapped his arms around the younger man and pulled him into a rough hug. Neal went limp, shivering, dead weight against Steve’s shoulder.
There was movement, out of the corner of his eye, and Steve looked back. Hawk was studying the body of the thing that he’d tackled, and then Hawk’s gaze moved to meet his. For a moment, her face looked odd, considering, then went blank. Casual, unconcerned.
She came over, knelt down. “Blue?”
He ignored that. “Neal?” Steve said softly. “This — this is Hawk. She helping us.”
Neal didn’t move.
“Neal,” Hawk said.
There was an odd note to her voice, a ghost of an inflection. It brought Neal’s head up.
“I know what you’re going through,” Hawk said gently. “But right now we need to get out of here. Once we’re outside, you can freak out. Deal?”
Neal watched her, his breathing still harsh, shallow. “Aynsley,” he whispered. “They had Aynsley.”
“I know,” Steve murmured. “Ross said –”
“No.” Neal closed his eyes. “No. They had him. Before me. I saw. They took him. They — I — oh… fuckin’… christ…”
“Where?” Hawk said.
Neal lifted his chin, towards the opening near where the third thing lay.
Hawk got to her feet, moved silently towards it, stopped for a moment at the edge, her head cocked. Steve saw her look down for a moment, eyes squeezed shut and lips compressed to a thin line, then she raised her head, stepped around the edge.
That brought Steve to his feet, pulling Neal up with him. He took a step, but Neal pulled away.
“No,” Neal whispered.
Steve opened his mouth to snap, saw the younger man’s expression, his eyes, and breathed out. “Stay here,” he said instead, as gently as he could, and turned. He’d only made it halfway when Neal caught up, staggering into him.
“Don’t leave,” Neal said.
Christ. “Come on, then,” Steve said, and made it to the edge, and that silence.
The smell hit him as he stepped around the edge, stinging, acid chemical that made his eyes water. He saw Hawk standing just a foot or so away, and opened his mouth to say something, when he saw the table in front of her, the same 45 degree tilt, another figure bound to it.
Then the smell really sunk in. Raw meat. Blood. Shit.
Steve stopped, feeling Neal behind him, the younger man shivering so violently that he had collapsed against the wall. Steve opened his mouth again, trying to get the words out, but his voice only croaked, and Hawk turned, her eyes glassy, bright.
At that moment, there was a moan from the table, a moan that sobbed up to a thin cry.
“Aynsley,” Neal whispered, and staggered past Steve, as Steve felt relief rush through him, even as he caught up with Neal…
Hawk grabbed them, wrenched them both around, away from the sight. Steve ended on his hands and knees, fighting not to vomit, listening to Neal swear in great, heaving gasps. The moaning cries continued, and Steve brought his hands up to cover his face, breathing in the earthy smell of his mud-smeared hands, trying to block the smell of the room, the sight, anything to get it out of his head. He was vaguely aware of Hawk kneeling in front of them, and he looked up. She was blurred, haloed in spots from the dim light from the other room, and he blinked, unable to get the blurriness to clear.
“Can you help him?” Steve’s voice was high, trembling, lost. “Please. Can you? Anything. Anything.”
Hawk bowed her head. “Yeah,” she said. “But I’ll need your help.”
Before he could resist or realize what she was doing, Hawk had hauled him to his feet, gently pushed him backwards until he could see Aynsley’s face, though out of the corner of his eye, just at the edge of his vision…
He started to shiver uncontrollably, and stared at the far wall. He would not look. He would not.
“Don’t turn around,” Hawk said quietly. She stood at the head of the table, her hand resting gently on the drummer’s forehead. “What’s his name?”
It took a moment for the words to get through the haze of fear and nausea. “Aynsley. Aynsley Dunbar.”
He saw Aynsley turn his head, and the moan choked into a wet, bubbling gasp. Steve looked away. He couldn’t face it. Not that.
Hawk was silent for a moment. “Talk to him,” she said. “Just talk. Anything. Like you did with Neal.”
That was it. Talk. He wanted to scream at her, couldn’t she see what was there, and all she wanted him to do was talk? Then it sunk in; she could see it, and she was facing it. And he couldn’t.
Steve swallowed, hard. Not an it. It was Aynsley. Not a friend, but at least someone he knew. Someone who now… His mouth was dry, he couldn’t breathe save in short, hard gasps, but somehow Steve forced the words out. “Ay — Aynes? It’s…it’s me. Steve. You — you’re gonna be okay. It’s gonna be all right.”
He could hear his voice, still that high, trembling quaver. He kept his gaze fixed on Hawk. She would fix it. She’d done everything else. She would. He could hear her whispering, the peculiar inflected patterns.
It’ll be okay.
“It’s okay,” Steve said again. He couldn’t keep his voice calm, not knowing what was just behind him, what he was refusing to look at. He heard Aynsley’s breathing speed up, shallow, fast. “It’s gonna be okay.”
Movement caught his gaze. Neal had stood up, staring at them with wide, glassy eyes. His arms were crossed, clenched around himself as if he was cold, and he was shaking visibly. Slowly, step by step, he came over, and Steve saw the younger man’s gaze briefly move past him, then flinch aside. But Neal didn’t stop until he reached the head of the table.
“Aynes?” Neal whispered.
Aynsley’s breathing slowed, deep, scary. Then, words, clear, soft, precise. “I’m dying.”
“No,” Steve said, too loudly. Conscious. Aynsley was conscious. With that…
Neal spoke over him. “Yeah.”
Hawk’s whispering went on, over and over, soft, compelling; her hand was on Aynsley’s forehead. Steve realized he couldn’t hear Aynsley breathing, and started to look, caught sight of what he’d been trying not to see, then turned away, resolutely, his eyes squeezed shut. Somewhere, off in the distance, he could hear another noise, a resonant, dissonant humming.
There was a deep, sudden breath. “Scared.”
Neal laid his arm across Aynsley’s upper chest in a partial hug, so that his hand cupped the right side of the drummer’s face, and knelt enough so that his head was level with Aynsley’s. “I know,” Neal whispered. “I’m here. I’m not leaving, Aynes. I’m here.” The breathing had gone fast, shallow, then stopped.
“Keep going,” Hawk said quietly. “Anything. Give him something to focus on.”
Neal paused a moment, looking lost. “We’re here, Aynes. Both of us. You’re not alone. I — I mean — yeah. Think of your drums, Aynes. That stupid solo you been doing for Wheel.”
Steve looked down. Aynsley’s eyes were closed, but a ghost of a smile traced across his face. “Light.”
“Yeah,” Neal whispered. “That.”
“Tell him to follow it,” Hawk said softly.
Steve stared at her, but Neal only nodded. “Aynes. Hey. That light. Follow it. It’ll help. Like the stage lights. Just follow ’em.”
Aynsley’s mouth was wide open, gasping.
“I’m here,” Neal whispered. “I’m with you, man. Follow the light, Aynes. I’m with you.”
There was a slow inhale. “Sky,” Aynsley breathed.
There was a moment, a long, long moment, the resonant, dissonant humming loud in the silence. Steve stared, and stared. Aynsley’s eyes were wide, staring at nothing. Limp.
“Let’s go,” Hawk said. Her voice sounded thick.
Steve looked up, shocked, feeling heat clawing at his gut. She was biting her lip, her cheeks damp. She looked young, too young. But anger had his mouth. “You killed him.”
Something stilled in her face, hardened. “And you ignored him and lied to him.” She turned away, then looked back.
Neal hadn’t moved, still knelt with his head bowed, his hands on Aynsley’s shoulders.
“Come on,” Hawk said quietly. “He’s outside now.”