SLIVER


The smoke stings his eyes and scrapes at his lungs with every harsh, labored breath he drags in, but as they race toward the exit - two men in front and Robert, still holding Jane's sword, bringing up the rear – Gunther can't help but notice a rather strange thing.

The scene playing out around him… it's hauntingly familiar.

It's just like in the story he'd told Jane, the memory that wasn't a memory… how long ago had that been? Only hours? Maybe even less. It feels as if ten lifetimes have passed since then. Still, he remembers it clearly, the picture he'd painted for her with his words – and is astonished to see it all coming to pass before his eyes with eerie, unsettling accuracy.

The tapestries are alight, the furniture, the rushes… he even sees, in passing, a burning cloak fall off its peg onto a pair of boots below. It's surreal, dreamlike, to watch his imaginings brought to life in such a way. There's just one problem, though. One single, but very sizable, problem.

He actually glances to the side for a second, almost expecting to see her there, torch in hand, keeping pace with him… before remembering that no, she's not there, of course not. She's hanging, pale and cold and lifeless, in his arms.

"You were supposed to be walking next to me," he tells her, and his own voice sounds impossibly far-off to him; echoey and unreal. His tone is flat, affectless, almost dead. "You were the one who was meant to light those fires, Jane."

They are crossing a cavernous space that appears to be the building's main hall, in sight of the exit, when Gunther hears –

(we mighta been great friends, the two of us)

– something that brings him up short. It's a voice he recognizes, a voice he knows

(hold her still, now)

– and it causes the hairs on the back of his neck to stand up –

(sweet dreams, little girl)

– causes his lips to pull back from his teeth in an animalistic snarl. Suddenly panting with rage despite the fact that the air in here is barely breathable anymore, he looks wildly around for the source of that voice, his eyes alight with the force of his wrath, his all-consuming fury.

He is incandescent with it, burning as brightly as anything around him in this blazing inferno.

And...THERE.

The man is being held at swordpoint by another member of Gunther's company, not far from the exit – apparently having been intercepted whilst trying to escape, and forced back from the door. He's alternately wheedling and cursing; lank, greasy hair hanging in his eyes, arms outspread to show that he's weaponless. One side of his face is purple, his nose at a slight cant and his eye swollen almost shut from where Jane hit him with her water jug. He's coughing and sniveling, pleading his case.

Gunther has never felt such raw, seething hatred in his life. He's dizzy with it, the room suddenly swimming before his eyes, the ground lurching beneath his feet.

The knight who has apprehended this – this piece of human filth – is ordering him to turn around and face the wall; place his hands flat against it, in clear view. But he's not going to do him actual harm; the members of Gunther's company don't kill without cause, and they certainly don't kill unarmed men who are begging for their lives.

Ironically enough (but not at all surprisingly), no one is a more dedicated champion of this policy than Jane.

The intent, most likely, is to check him for concealed weapons, bind him, and take him prisoner.

Then two things happen at once.

The man, perhaps feeling the weight of Gunther's stare, suddenly meets his eyes across the intervening space. Gunther watches the play of emotions across his face; blank non-recognition, followed by dawning comprehension – (his eyes flicker down to take in Jane's limp form before rising, more slowly, back to Gunther's own) – and then total, abject terror.

At the same time Robert, who has been bringing up the rear of their little party, actually knocks into Gunther, who has stopped in his tracks. "Gunther –" his friend's voice is hoarse from the smoke, and urgent nearly to the point of being frantic – "we have to g–"

But he stops mid-sentence when he registers the expression on Gunther's face. His eyes follow the line of Gunther's gaze, and then he clasps Gunther's shoulder again, just as he had back in the cell.

"That one?" he asks quietly.

Beyond words at this point, Gunther gives a single, jerky nod.

No further communication passes between them. No further communication needs to. An instant later Robert is crossing the room with terrible, grim purpose - and it kills Gunther that he can't be the one to do this, but that would entail letting go of Jane, which is not an option. At all.

So he has to resign himself to simply watching.

Their compatriot sees Rob coming, eyes widening in surprise at the expression on his face. Then he glances at Gunther... does a double-take... stares horror-struck at Jane, makes the connection – Gunther sees it click in his mind – and steps back to let justice take its course.

Jane's attacker is now positively cowering against the wall. It's difficult to tell for sure - it could just be the smoke – but it appears as if he's started to cry. Gunther can't hear what he says to Robert, his quivering, last-ditch pleas, but Rob's voice, when he answers, carries clearly across to Gunther's ears – doubtless just as intended.

"My friend Jane would probably counsel mercy, or at the very least… due process. She has more integrity than anyone else I have ever met. Unfortunately for you, however, she is unable to plead your case at present." And he drives not his own sword, but Jane's, through the man's stomach with enough force to skewer him, briefly, to the wall.

It's a lethal wound, but not one that will kill quickly. It will be a lingering, excruciating death; perhaps he'll even live long enough to be consumed by the flames, burned alive.

As the impaled man lets loose a gibbering howl of agony, Robert twists the blade with a vicious wrench of his wrist, before yanking it free again. And as the man clamps his hands to his stomach in a desperate – though entirely futile – attempt to staunch the sudden gout of blood, and begins sliding down the wall, leaving a streak of gore on the stones behind him, Rob strikes once more; targeting, this time, a point slightly lower on the dying man's frame.

A sobbing, wavering shriek rends the air.

He's not the only one who… who had… hurt Jane. And so this isn't enough justice, it's not even close - but it will suffice. It will, because it has to. Under the current circumstances, Gunther has no means of identifying her other attackers; he'll just have to hope that they have been, or will be, killed in the fighting.

And so he's seen, and heard, enough. Adjusting Jane in his arms, he makes for the exit, carrying her out into the daylight. They're free.

They're free.

But there's no joy in it, no relief. How can there be? Jane is broken. And Gunther, Gunther is simply… numb.

The day is overcast, with low, heavy clouds filtering the sunlight – but it's still nearly more than Gunther can take. He has to squint against even this grey, diffuse light after almost a week spent in near total darkness. Skirting bodies, debris, and still-smoking patches of scorched earth, he carries Jane several paces away from the building. Dragon is nowhere to be seen, although Gunther can hear him still roaring his vengeance on the other side of the now partially-crumbled walls.

When he feels he's gotten her a safe distance away he stops, and simply… stands there, holding her, at a loss for what to do next. All of his purpose, all of his… direction… has abandoned him, because the focus of every last bit of it had been to try and save Jane, and he's failed.

He's failed.

Any last lingering shreds of hope have abandoned him. Jane is going… if she isn't already gone.

He gives a shuddery gasp of dismay; then, without any conscious intent at all, without really even realizing it, he starts to sing to her again, his voice little more than a raw, choked whisper.

He's still singing a moment later when a warm, heavy weight settles over his shoulders; Robert has come up from behind and wrapped a blanket around him. Startled, Gunther jumps a little –

And Jane moves against him; a small, corresponding twitch in his arms.

Gunther's breath catches, his heart suddenly racing… but no. She's slipping again, that's all it is, slipping slower in his grip. His arms are giving out; he's so tired, so tired.

"Gunther," Robert says, still right beside him, "if you will give her to me for just five min–"

But Gunther shakes his head. No. No. Give her away? He'd rather hack off and give away one of his own limbs. He's not letting go of Jane.

No.

He tries to pull her back up, redistribute her weight, settle her higher against him. But he hasn't eaten anything or drunk anything or even really slept in… well. A while. It's a losing proposition. His arms are going watery.

It's a bad idea to sink down with her – he knows it is. This is still an active battlefield and they will both be extremely vulnerable on the ground; he'll be unable to scoop her up and escape quickly enough should sudden danger threaten. But such a concept seems distant and unimportant to him now. Jane has passed beyond any need of his protection at this point. The worst has happened already. And if she truly is lost to him, then he couldn't care less whether he lives or dies. So he does sink down with her, cradling her in his lap again.

Robert hunkers down across from him. He has a second blanket in his hands, and he tucks it gently around Jane, then reaches out as if to brush her hair from her face. He draws his hand back though, looking almost afraid to touch her, his face twisted with grief.

"Just… stay put, all right?" he says. "I am going to find Sir Ivon, and get more blankets too. I will be back as… as soon as I can." He lays Jane's sword down beside Gunther, then stands and heads back toward the fray.

Swallowing hard, Gunther does what Rob had not, and pushes the spill of coppery hair out of Jane's face, tucking it behind her ears with shaking fingers. She is, thanks to Dragon's rampage, filthier than ever; coated in a liberal layer of stonedust and ash.

And for the second time since getting her outside, Gunther's heart leaps – because her face is streaked, clearly streaked, with tear tracks. They cut sharply through the dust that clings to her skin.

And corpses don't cry.

No, not at all.

"Jane!?" His voice is an awful, unrecognizable caw. "They came, Jane. They found us. Dragon is here, you are safe now, please do not cry. Jane..."

He traces one of the streaks with the calloused pad of his thumb, smudging it as he strokes her skin, marveling at how even now, dirty, broken, and statue-still, she can be so beautiful, so achingly

"Perfect," he whispers. "You are. I swear it, Jane. I swear."

There's no response, but those little streaks on her face, they're fresh, and surely that means… surely that means…

And that horrid bluish tint her lips had taken on, is that gone too? Gone, or at least… much reduced?

He bends more fully over her – then jerks back in perplexity as two new streaks appear on her face. But they're not from Jane, he'd been watching her closely, so closely, and she hadn't… what… what is…?

Then understanding clicks and his despair is complete.

Jane isn't crying, he is, his tears splashing down on her cheeks. He's creating those tracks, and he hadn't even realized he'd started to weep again. And his fanciful notion about her lips… doubtless it's just wishful thinking. They're as covered with dust as the rest of her, that's all.

That's all.

Oh, Jane.

He's studying her face, still gently rubbing the dirt away, trying to make out her familiar smattering of freckles beneath all the grit and grime. He needs to commit her to memory now, he understands this. He needs to map her features to the best of his ability, tuck them away in some safe, deep place… he needs to ensure that later... that later... he can see her... even when he can't. Through all the days and weeks and months and years, the empty, aching wasteland of a life that's stretching out before him.

Because when Rob comes back, when the others make their way over, they're going to take her away from him.

Well.

They're going to try.

The thing is, though, all false bravado aside, he knows that if enough of them gang up on him, they will succeed. He's too weary, too beaten, too utterly and profoundly… empty... to be able to mount much of a defense.

So they're going to take her away from him, they're going to be convinced it's for the best because she's –

(no, she is not, she cannot be, no please no)

– DEAD, she's dead, and they will disregard his protests, write him off as being crazed with grief, and they won't be wrong. This is it, it's over, it… Jane...

Absently playing with her hair, wrapping one of her curls around and around his finger, he thinks that he should snip a lock of it to keep. He should do it now, before… before they…

JANE...

What is there left to tell her? What does he need to say? Because this is the time to say it. His window of opportunity is closing quickly now, he can feel it.

In the end – at the end – the very, bitter end – it's pretty simple, really.

"I love you, Jane," he gasps. "I love you, and I am so... so sorry I could not –" (he chokes on the words) – "save you. Or even be the one to kill them for you. But I will take you home. I will take you home, and... I love you. I love you. I love you."

He presses a kiss to her forehead and then covers his face with his hand, the one not wrapped around her shoulders, supporting her.

And cries slow, hot, quiet, awful tears.


What is he going to say to Sir Ivon when Rob brings him over? God in heaven, what is he going to say to Dragon!? How is he supposed to face her parents when he brings her back to them in a… in… in a – wh…

...wh...what?

He scrubs his palm across his wet, reddened eyes. Strange… but for a second there, it had almost felt as if…

Yes.

Again. There it is again.

But he can't be feeling what he thinks he's feeling… it's not possible.

It's not, it's only some final, desperate attempt at self-delusion produced by his own tortured mind, and so he really wishes she would just stop it already.

It's distracting.

It's making it difficult to focus properly on grieving.

He takes a juddering, tear-choked breath, and –

She moves again, not behaving at all as a dead person should.

Even in circumstances as extreme as these, she is apparently incapable of being proper, of observing even the most basic societal norms.

Her mother would despair.

Caught between exasperation (why must she make everything more difficult, even this, even this!?) and endearment (her flat refusal to be defined by convention is at the very core of his love for her, after all) – Gunther opens his eyes.

They're so blurred with tears he can hardly make out a thing, so he almost dismisses the next shuddery little movement as a trick of his faulty vision… except that he can feel it too, can feel her starting to shiver against him, that's why he'd opened his eyes in the first place.

He doesn't really believe it, though, the input that his own senses are giving him. No, far more likely it is simply an indication of his full and final descent into madness.

Although if this is what the irretrievable loss of sanity looks like, he'll take it, and gladly. Because that little crease is back in her forehead; the one he knows and loves so well. Usually it means concentration, although in this case he's pretty sure it means pain… which twists him up inside but still (selfishly, so selfishly) he thinks it is the most astoundingly gorgeous thing he's ever seen.

And then her lips part in a shallow, hitching breath, and he's moving his free hand to cup the side of her face, and –

open your eyes. Come back to me. Come back to me. Come back

– he's falling, tumbling over and over - up, down, and sideways, flying apart in a thousand directions at once, sure that he really has lost himself, his fractured mind scattered beyond any hope of repair…

Only to be pressed back together again in the very next heartbeat, by a whispered "...Gunther?"

And a tiny, yet infinite, sliver of green.


/ - - - FIN - - - /