The Bloodied Land 3 — Steve


He lay curled into her, watching her sleep, her warmth snuggled into the curve of his body. She stirred, smiled, and he leaned over, kissed her, encircled her with his arms, pulled her over on top of him, sighing as her warmth covered him.

The warmth went cold, heavy, soil, mud, pressed him back, into cold rough stone. He gagged for air, as the cold settled over him, pressing into his mouth, crushing his throat, piercing his belly, entangling, searching, clammy and wet against his skin. Somewhere above him, light flickered, red and dim in the dark of the chamber. Bodies, he was surrounded by bodies, stacked, rotting, gaping open, the rough stone of the floor deeply carved with a quartered circle, stained brown and glistening, wet and damp.

Someone grabbed him from behind, pulling his arms back, hands around his throat in a cruel parody of a lover’s embrace…

He jerked free, fled, running through the stone maze that stank of blood, from something he couldn’t see, but it was there. He could hear its heavy breathing, its slow, measured tread of footsteps just behind him, and it wanted him dead, it wanted him more than dead. He had to find something that would stop it, anyone that could help him, but no one would, no one even believed him.

He rounded a corner, and pulled up short. A man stood there, garbed in black, a hood hiding his face.

The man pulled the hood back.

Himself. He was facing himself.

Then the other tore open the black tunic to reveal a gaping, bleeding hole where the chest should be…

Steve jerked awake, shivering, staring into darkness, his hair hanging in lank, sweat-soaked tangles around his face as he gulped air, watching the track of street lights through the grimed windows, listening to the clank and rattle of the ancient radiator against the near wall. Slowly, slowly, the sounds penetrated, the sight sunk in, rhythmic, everyday, normal…

He’d been dreaming again.

He’d woken up. Again.

Nothing was clear, nothing, nothing except the terror, the remembered feel of hands crushing his throat, the smell of blood. Whenever he tried to focus on any one image, any one memory, something tightened around him, chased it firmly away, and Steve would sit, staring, trying desperately to hold onto whatever pieces surfaced from the rolling grey that engulfed him whenever he wasn’t ready for it.

I was a king.

No. He was a singer, in a band called Karma, in San Francisco, hiding out in a little ratty apartment in Hunter’s Point. Rafe’s apartment, Rafe god-fuckin’-dammit Hollen, their guitarist, and Steve couldn’t figure out why. And Jonathan Abel was here, too, their keyboardist, and while that was somewhat normal, Steve was certain that the extended sleepover was not.

A murder. There’d been a murder.

There was a burn-hole in the old couch, the rough tweed black and crumbling, the stained foam stuffing underneath poking through. Steve picked at it, worrying it with his fingers.

I was a king, dammit.

He stopped, staring at his hands, then his right arm, following the pale line of skin up, flexing his hand uncertainly. For a moment, just a moment, an image flashed, something not right, something really not right with that arm, and Steve stared —

There.

— and clenched his jaw against his own scream, the shock, the sudden sight of livid, raised scars traveling up his arm…

— They’re not gonna find your body when I’m done —

The raw memory hit him full-force, himself, blinded by blood, choking, the sudden slash, metal slicing into him, over and over…

“Carvalo.”

Steve startled. Rafe stood at the edge of the hallway, his stance, his face angry, exhausted.

“Take your pills,” Rafe said.

Steve said nothing, only stared at his hands. The other scars were gone, vanished as if they’d never been. His right hand was stitched and bandaged, from where he’d slashed it on the glass of a knocked-over lamp.

No. I broke it.

“Carvalo,” Rafe said again, his tone edged.

A hand thrust into his line of sight, Rafe’s hand, holding the bottle of pain pills.

I broke it, and used it.

“I’m fine,” Steve said.

“Take the damn pills,” Rafe said, and the air was suddenly alive, tightening, and Steve couldn’t breathe, choking —

He thrust up from the couch, towards the door, blindly fumbling for the knob, to get out, to get away. But hands were on him, pulling him away, shoving him back down on the ratty couch. All resistance evaporated, fled, drowned under an onslaught of rolling, soft grey.

I used it. On Rafe.

The pills were in Steve’s hand, and a glass of water, and Rafe was standing over him. Slowly, Steve raised his hand to his mouth, took a long swallow of water, kept his head down and his gaze turned away. Finally, Rafe muttered something, and the sense of presence faded, followed by the firm snick of the bedroom door.

Steve raised his head, spat the pills out.

Quietly, keeping an eye to the hallway and the bedroom door, Steve got back up and to the door, slipped outside, onto the entry landing, to sit with his face pressed against the cold iron railing of the stairwell. He wasn’t about to go further; he wasn’t stupid, he knew what the Point was like, especially at night. It wasn’t a quiet night — Rafe’s ‘hood never was, bright with harsh streetlights that pooled against covering shadows. Across the street, a group of teens in gang colors hung around a battered Pinto, their voices hard against the soft fog of the night as the bass thumping of rap rattled the car frame.

It was normal. It was real. It wasn’t comforting at all.

I was a king.

Steve clung to that thought, repeating it over and over. It made no sense. He was born here, outside Milpitas, for christssake. His dad raised horses, had called Rafe only yesterday, again, demanding to speak with his son, and Steve had answered, had reassured his dad that he was okay, that he was just…working things out…

Working what out?

Steve watched the teens, tiny gang wannabes from the look of them, saw without really seeing that one was a girl, lanky and awkward and dressed far too tight for her age. She was getting poked and teased by the fascinated boys; her hair was dyed neon-red, which clashed horribly with her chocolate skin. Steve stared at her, that red hair…

Sun warmed his back, his bare skin, the smell of rich plowed earth and crushed weeds, deep green eyes gazing up into his…

“Elena,” Steve whispered. He closed his eyes, trying to hold onto that memory, the feel of the sun and the warmth of her belly and breasts under him, her mouth claiming his, pulling him down, pulling him in.

But it faded, slowly, drowned beneath bass thumping and cold iron pressed against his face, the rotten smell of trash left out on the landing below, leaving him alone. Alone, on chilly, foggy streets, on a concrete landing outside a shithole pretending to be an apartment in Hunter’s Point…

Either I’m crazy or the other shit’s real. And I don’t know if I want to be crazy or want it to be real.

That’s the scary part.

Movement stirred on the street, and the timbre of the voices changed, tightened, enough that Steve re-focused. Someone was walking down the street, someone whose skin and black leather were wrong for this ‘hood, disastrously wrong, someone with pale skin, short-cropped white hair, and the bearing of an assassin —

Steve froze, suddenly unable to breathe.

Darkwater.

Beside the man, a smaller shadow, a black woman in gold-threaded white, and both the pair watched the street, studying each building, each shadow. But the teens had gone from casual hang-out to the predators-in-training that they were, surrounding the trespassers who were out of colors, out of territory, and now out of luck.

One reached for the woman.

It happened fast, too horribly fast.

Screaming. Blood. The collapse of two to the ground, one gagging as his throat sprayed his life out, the other crumpled around his spilling guts. The rest of the teens, running, yelling, save for the red-haired girl, who’d fallen back against the Pinto, arm upraised, pleading, as, unheeded, the bass thumping went on and on.

The pale man stood calmly, wiping his long knife clean. His companion, the small black woman, hadn’t moved, save for her gaze, which now stared up into the shadows of the landing…

Steve scrabbled away from the railing, away, just away, back to the door, all but falling through it, slamming it behind him, made it to the phone. His hands were heavy, his right clumsy with bandages, as he tried to remember how dial 9-1-1, the cops, anybody…

“What the fuck you doing?”

Hands were on him again, Rafe’s, pulling the phone away, but Steve yanked it back.

“Darkwater’s out there,” Steve snapped, grabbing the phone back, and for an instant, Rafe’s expression changed, then hardened to his usual don’t-give-a-shit.

“You’re talking crazy again,” Rafe said.

“Rafe,” said a quiet voice. Jonathan leaned against the corner of the hallway, pale, exhausted, his shirt hanging loose and open.

The phone was pulled away again. “Dammit, Carvalo —”

But Steve was staring at Jonathan, and his heart pounded, hard, sick fear, as he saw it, all of it, the twisted hands, scarred arms, and worse, Jonathan’s bare chest…

Oh my god.

“Go back to bed, Jay,” Rafe said, and suddenly, the sight was gone, completely, Jonathan’s skin smooth, unmarked. “I got it.”

“Doesn’t sound it.” Jonathan limped over, took the phone away from both of them. His gaze was on Steve. “What did you say?”

“Darkwater,” Steve whispered, trying to keep his gaze on Jonathan’s face, fighting to keep his voice calm, trying to ignore what he couldn’t have seen. “There were these kids — they tried to start shit — and — oh, god, he killed them, they’re out there, they’re dead, they’re —”

“Jesus,” Rafe said. “You were gonna call the heat because some cholos jacked a buster. Over a fuckin’ gang bang. Right. I’m going to bed.” He turned away, dismissively.

Steve stood numb, then tore around and out the door, back onto the landing, the chill night slapping his face. He’d seen it, he knew what he saw —

The street, dark and harsh, stripped of life, bright red blood against the pavement, the red-haired girl screaming, bent over one of the dead, others now milling around, watching, doing nothing —

Rafe wrenched Steve around, shoved him back inside. “Don’t,” Rafe snarled. “Don’t never go out when shit’s going down. Don’t never.”

“Fuck you,” Steve snapped. “He killed those kids!”

Jonathan was out on the landing, taking a long look at the scene below, before limping back in and quietly, firmly, shutting the door. He snagged the phone up, pushed it into Steve’s left hand. “Call,” Jonathan said.

“Dammit, Jay,” Rafe said, “don’t snitch. You’re asking for shit!”

“No,” Jonathan said. “I’m asking him to call the cops and report those dead kids out front.”

Somehow Steve managed 9-1-1, under Rafe’s glare and Jonathan’s gaze. The dispatch was calm, the cops dismissive, the surrounding bystanders watching with dead eyes — just another murder in the ‘hood, just another trash disorderly…

Shivering, Steve stood, stammering out what he’d seen to the cop, a bored Hispanic man who dutifully jotted down the details, as the ambulance lights flickered below, red and orange strobes harsh against the foggy night. Jonathan stood behind him, watching the scene on the street; Rafe had slipped down the stairs earlier, easing his way through the dead-eyed bystanders.

Finally the cop closed his notebook with a papery rasp, nodded, left, just as Rafe came back up the stairs. Rafe waited until the cop was out of earshot, jerked his head down towards the street.

“A couple Norteños,” Rafe said, to Jonathan. “Out of their ‘hood, coming down to dust Big Block. That’s what the set’s saying. A drive-by.”

Norteños — gang members. Definitely not white, definitely not in black leathers, definitely not Darkwater. Steve breathed into his hands, eyes closed, as he started to shake, reaction and exhaustion setting in.

“Norteños,” Jonathan said, his gaze on Steve.

“Straight up,” Rafe said. “And I’m not poking in further. They’re talking war down there.”

“That’s not what I saw,” Steve whispered.

“It is what you saw,” Rafe snapped. “Unless you’re callin’ the whole damn ‘hood liars.”

“Come on,” Jonathan said to Steve. “You need sleep.”

But Steve resisted the gentle pull, and Jonathan didn’t force it, instead pushed Rafe away and back through the door. Steve stayed out on the landing, huddled against the cold iron of the railing, staring at the bloodied pavement under the strobing red lights below.

“I know what I saw,” he whispered.

Darkwater…

Had he seen that? Rafe wouldn’t lie to Jonathan; Steve had known them both long enough to know that, knew enough of Rafe’s story from Jay to know why. Rafe would keep quiet, or not tell the whole truth, but would never directly lie to Jonathan, ever.

However, the rest of the world was another matter.

Norteños is what the whole damn ‘hood’s saying.

And he’d seen scars on Jonathan, angry, extensive scars that weren’t there, scars on his own arms that — Steve braced himself, glanced down quickly — weren’t there…

…and I have memories that aren’t there.

None of it made sense, none of it, scars, Darkwater, or even why in the hell Steve was staying at Rafe’s rat-trap in the Point. Maybe, maybe, it almost made sense in the wake of Kev’s murder at their studio —

— blood, too much blood, splattered over their instruments, Jonathan’s keys and Ian’s drums at crazy angles on the ground, Rafe’s Strat lying in glistening red, Kev sprawled face up —

His breath caught; the image hung in front of his eyes, strong, certain. He’d forgotten that, somehow. He’d been there. He’d seen it.

I know what I saw!

Steve was on his feet, staring down the stairwell, out into the street, breathing hard. He didn’t want to be stupid, not here in the Point, but…but…

He could still see the blood on the street, splattered over the Pinto, the bodies gone in the ambulance, the red-haired girl led away by neighbors, the cops still talking to bystanders, or trying to.

I have to know. I have to.

He eased down the stairs, half-expecting Rafe to burst out the door and force him back inside. But Steve hit the bottom of the stairwell and stood there, gripping the corner of the wall, his heart suddenly pounding, his legs unwilling to move. There was odd pressure against his chest and shoulders, ghostly hands pulling him back.

Something snarled, deep in his gut. Like hell.

He focused on his legs, forced them to take one step, then another, and another. He stayed close to the buildings, hunched over and hands in his pockets, trying to stay inconspicous but feeling suspicious eyes on him, the idiot white-bread Latino way out of place. Hopefully they knew he was with Rafe, and would leave him alone.

Hopefully.

He didn’t know where he was going, for that matter. Just…

Darkwater…would be looking for me…

Steve stopped as that thought struck him, and turned, looked back towards Rafe’s building. Something about that, that thought…

“Your Majesty.” It was a low voice, behind him.

Steve jumped, inhaled on a gasp, spun, backed up.

…ice-blue eyes stared down into his…

“Now?” said another voice, female and deep — the black woman he’d seen earlier. Her hands were glowing, faint blue.

Darkwater’s the Blood Guard
— his mind was screaming at him, but he was frozen in certain, knowing fear — the fuckin’ Blood Guard

…you are not Faolán…

“Not yet,” Darkwater said quietly. Before Steve could react, a hand wrapped around his throat, gripping his jaw and yanking Steve back, hard. Darkwater’s voice was in his ear, low, deadly. “You are too far from safety, idiot —”

ohshitohshitohshit

Instinct caught up, and Steve twisted, shoved, broke free and fled, barrelling past the woman on legs rubbery with fear and adrenaline. His heart hammered in his ears, he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t hear pursuit, he couldn’t…he wasn’t…

He hit the stairwell, half-scrabbled, half-staggered up, made it to Rafe’s door, fell through it, only to be caught by Rafe before he hit the ground.

“Carvalo, what’d the fuck is it now?”

“Darkwater,” Steve gasped, and managed to slam the door shut, pulled away from Rafe only to collapse to his knees on the floor. “He’s out there. He —”

“Fuckin’ christ,” Rafe muttered. “Not this shit again.”

Steve glared back, opened his mouth…

…the words died, unsaid. Steve swallowed; he was staring into Rafe’s face, trying to focus past the wave of grey that eclipsed his sight, pressure squeezing around his head in a tight band of pain…

“Rafe,” he heard Jonathan say quietly, “go check.”

With a muttered curse, Rafe let Steve go, dropping him unceremoniously back to the sofa, and disappeared back into his bedroom for a moment, to reappear with a pistol in one hand. Rafe aimed carefully at the door, yanked it open with his other hand, then went out onto the landing. After a few long seconds, he came back in, shut the door, locked it, and remained leaning with his head against it for several long seconds.

“Okay,” Jonathan said.

“Nothing,” Rafe said, “yet,” and just as carefully, laid the pistol down. He hauled Steve up, glaring into his face. “You son of a bitch, what’d you do, go out lookin’ for those Norteños?”

Jonathan was there, beside Rafe. “Enough. Let him go.”

“Bullshit,” Rafe snapped. “If those Norteños saw him, they’ll be after his ass next, and ours.”

“They let me go,” Steve whispered. The words made no sense through the grey, but they were certain, and suddenly he was shaking. “They let me go.”

“Who let you go?” Jonathan said, before Rafe could get anything out.

But Steve only stared up into Jonathan’s face, unable to answer, not even sure what he meant.

“Jesus,” Rafe muttered. “Just what we need. Just what we fuckin’ need.”

Steve pulled away, over to the grimy sliding glass doors, staring out at the fire escape; he just wanted to be left alone. He heard Rafe mutter something to Jonathan, and the snick of the bedroom door, then limping, halting steps shuffling over the worn carpet, towards him.

Wait…since when does Jay limp?

“If it makes you feel any better,” Jonathan said quietly, “Rafe’s got the .45. And the ‘hood watches out for their street-rat-done-good. We’ll know what’s coming, if it makes it this far.”

“I want,” Steve whispered, “to go home.”

Jonathan was silent for a long moment. “I know,” he said. “I know.”

Steve stared at him; the answer made no sense, none at all. But Jonathan didn’t seem to notice, pushed away from the wall.

“Get some sleep. Shut your head down for a bit.” Jonathan’s grin was odd, half-hearted. “You got enough air in there already.”

Steve wasn’t listening. He was staring out the grimy glass doors, at the street that ran behind the building, through the railing of the fire escape. Two figures stood across the way, just barely outside a street lamp’s circle of light. A man, and a woman, their features indistinct with shadow and distance.

But he knew them.

Steve shivered, backing away from the glass.
————-
prior chapters:
1; http://zenfrodo.livejournal.com/160433.html
2: http://zenfrodo.livejournal.com/163734.html
pic: http://zenfrodo.livejournal.com/157632.html

This is not Journey. Don’t try to read "Journey" into any of this. This tale hasn’t been Journey for years.

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