A/N: Originally posted to Tumblr, this was based on a concept that one of the later Skulduggery Pleasant books played with (Resurrection, if anyone's interested) that I just couldn't resist borrowing. The original version of this ficlet was split into six short parts, which I'm combining into a single chapter here. Posted here by request.
It doesn't surpass the T-rating, but it is fairly dark, with themes of manipulation and hurt.
EDIT: Cover art was done by the ever-lovely lin-iva, on her tumblr blog. Go check out her amazing artwork!
Beware the Midnight Witch. Beware her charms and beware her gaze. And, above all else, beware her touch.
Baron froze, his head tilted to one side and his mouth open midway through his reassurances. The witch withdrew her hand from his arm, inky black smoke spiralling between the contact. She whispered something to Baron, and vanished.
"Oh… crud," Muta said.
Toto landed uneasily on Muta's shoulder. "You know, I think this is one situation you're okay to swear in."
"But I have such a good streak going." Muta grabbed Haru's shoulders as she took one shaky step towards Baron. "Hold up, Chicky. You do not want to be doing that."
She glanced to him, and then to the too-still Baron. "But…" she said, "it's Baron."
Baron exhaled slowly, the first seeds of movement since the witch's hand had found his arm. His shoulders relaxed. His head tilted to one side, and Haru caught a glimpse of those warm green eyes.
It was almost enough to make her forget the villagers' warnings.
He smiled. "No, Muta; it's still me."
Haru shrugged off Muta's hold and started a step towards him. "Baron…?"
He turned, and Haru faltered.
It would have been easier if she could sense something was wrong. If his eyes had been black or his smile had been cruel. But it was only Baron. Her Baron.
He tipped his hat - a painfully familiar motion - and with one smooth sweep, he brought the blade of his cane free from its sheath.
Muta grabbed Haru's shoulder again and hauled her back. "Run."
As Haru stumbled towards the door, Baron locked eyes with her. "Yes," he said, amusement in his voice. "Run."
She turned a corner in the old stone ruins and there before her was the exit. She buckled over, gasping in long, erratic breaths.
She shouldn't be this tired. She had run further, faster, more injured in the past, but her body had never ached the way it did now. The adrenaline she needed was gone, replaced only with the pained, heavy beats of her heart.
"Now, where do you think you're going?"
Baron strode smartly into the room, his cane tapping out that ever-familiar beat to the sound of his feet. It was ridiculous; there was no way he could have reached the exit before she did and yet, there he was. Looking like he was taking a morning stroll.
She straightened slowly to face him. "Muta… and Toto…?"
Baron gently set aside his top hat and jacket on the crumbled edge of a wall. Neither showed any signs of blood.
"Alive," he said.
"That's… that's good. That means you're fighting her influence."
He chuckled. "Ah, I'm afraid you're at a misunderstanding. It's not that I don't want to kill them. It's simply that I want to kill you more."
Haru took a shaky step back with each step he made forward. "No, you don't."
"I assure you I do."
"No, you don't. This is the witch's doing. She's manipulating you so you only think you do."
"I suppose there is that." He shrugged. "But, as temporary as this may be, it doesn't change the fact that I really want to do this right now. I'm sorry, Haru."
"If you were, you wouldn't be doing this."
He only smiled. "Well. I'm not that sorry." He turned away and carefully set his cane against the wall. His gloves followed suit and were gently set atop the crook of his cane.
"What are you doing?"
"I may be out to kill you, but that doesn't mean I'm not a gentleman. This will be a fair fight."
"You have seventy-plus years' experience in fighting," she pointed out.
"Would you prefer it if I used my cane?"
"No. I'm just saying that if you really wanted to make it a fair fight, you'd put one hand behind your back or something."
He smiled. It was the same smile he gave to reassure clients. "You're scared. I understand."
"I'm not scared."
"You're making jokes. It's what you do when you're frightened - it's a funny little quirk of yours. You forget, Haru; I know you."
"Actually, I'd just really like it if you fought with one hand behind your back." Baron stepped closer, and she backed into the wall. "I'm not going to fight you, Baron."
His step didn't falter. "I figured you'd say as much."
"You're not going to fight someone who isn't fighting back," she said. "It's like you said: you're too much of a gentleman."
He stopped a foot's grace from Haru. Too close. Too close with eyes so painfully familiar. He leant in. "Are you sure?" he whispered.
He grabbed the front of her jacket and threw her across the room. She slammed into the opposite wall and the world spun.
When she blinked her eyes back into focus, she saw Baron calmly pacing towards her. His fingers tapped a rhythm along his cane, the same tune he'd had playing back at the Bureau only an hour previous.
She pushed herself back to her feet.
Baron let her.
"I'm only really doing this for you, Haru," he said. "To give you a chance of winning."
"I'm not going to fight you."
"Not yet. But you will. You're too human to stand back and let this happen. It's the survival instinct. Sooner or later, you will defend yourself." He stood back and began to roll his sleeves up. "You need to understand, Haru, that I am going to kill you. If you refuse to fight, I'll simply resort to more efficient methods."
He moved in with a punch and Haru dodged, veering to one side before she could stop herself.
Baron's smile widened. "There we go."
He lashed out again, faster than before, and Haru only had a split-second to register the fist before it hit. She dropped to the ground.
"Really, Haru. I thought I had taught you better than this."
Hands curled around her coat collar and hoisted her, not unkindly, to her feet. She could taste blood on her lips.
"I'm just full of surprises," she rasped, and she slammed forward, smacking her forehead into his throat. The hands released her. She pushed off against the wall and lunged with a punch of her own.
He staggered back, but did not fall.
"Well," he said eventually. Haru watched as he thoughtfully ran a hand along his jaw. "I certainly have to agree. I wasn't sure you had it in you to land a hit. But I'm afraid I'm a little hardier than that."
"I was kinda hoping that would recalibrate your brain or something," Haru mumbled. "It always seems to work in the movies." She offered a weak, slightly bloodied smile. "I don't suppose you're feeling any less murder-y?"
"I'm afraid not. My turn now."
Baron lashed out with a speed and ferocity that betrayed just how much he'd been holding back before, and Haru had to stagger back to avoid the blows. Her feet caught on loose bricks and she tumbled back.
The air rushed from her lungs and she rolled to one side before the pain could set in. To her surprise, Baron didn't take advantage of her fall; he just kept advancing.
Maybe even like this he was too much of a gentleman to kick an opponent when down. That didn't mean she was about to play by the same rules. She slammed her foot into his knee and stumbled to her feet while he faltered.
And she ran.
He was already following her, his feet tapping out that same clipped beat, and it hit her just how much stronger and durable Creations were. Her kick should have sent him down. It would have done that to any ordinary person.
She wasn't going to win this fight.
She ran for the exit and grabbed Baron's discarded cane. Stone floor gave way to stone plateau and the path ended at a rocky drop. At the bottom rested a deep lake; she stopped just in time and watched as pebbles were knocked from the edge and plummeted into the clear waters.
She turned to see Baron step out onto the plateau, that same smile still in place. She fumbled with the cane and the blade clicked free. She bared it between them just as he neared.
Amusement trickled into those green eyes. "What are you going to do now, Haru? Are you going to kill me?"
"Just stop," she gasped. She kept the cane between them. Her arm was shaking. "Stop and think about what you're doing for one moment, please."
"I have. I think I want to kill you."
"You're not a killer, Baron."
"There's a first time for everything."
"People say that for abseiling or cooking a new dish. Not murder. And what about afterwards? What about when the spell wears off and you have to face what you've done? It'll destroy you."
"It probably will," he admitted. "But that's an issue for future-me."
"I won't let you do this."
"How? You're smart, Haru, but even I can't see a way you can stop this from happening. You're not strong enough to fight back, not if you're scared of hurting me while I have no such obligation. You can't reason with the spell. You don't even have the rest of the Bureau to help you. What else do you have to try?"
"You're not the one with the sword."
"Which would only give you the upper hand if your opponent had any suspicion that you were capable of using it." His gaze travelled along the blade and to the shivering hand that held it. "It's funny; you seem to think your bluff has any chance of fooling me, Haru, when I've known you for too long."
"I'm scared, alone, and desperate. Is that a combination you want to test?"
"Let's see." He stepped up to the sword's edge until the blade was only a hair's breadth from his neck. "How much do you value your life, Haru? Are you thinking that perhaps it would be a kindness to stop me from becoming a murderer, even if it means you have to take up the mantle instead?"
"What do you think?"
"I think you are scared and alone and desperate - but most dangerously, you're still clinging onto hope, even in the face of everything you've seen. Even though you know that the Baron I was would rather perish than lay a hand on you, even though you know that your death will destroy him, you still hope that you'll find a way out of this. And how can I fault you for that, when you've seen such last-minute plans save the day more times than you can count? But, if you want to prove me wrong, then now's your chance. I won't even try to stop you."
For a long, torturous moment, Haru didn't move. Her heart was hammering but every beat made her feel sick. She looked into those eyes - eyes she had fallen in love with, eyes she had trusted her life with, eyes she had always believed would outlive her mortal span - and the blade faltered.
She dropped it to her side.
"No," Baron said. "I didn't think so."
He moved too quickly for Haru to stop him; he knocked aside the sword, and the cane went clattering across the plateau. An elbow followed through into her gut and she dropped.
She should get up.
She should move.
And yet, she couldn't.
The ache spread up from her gut and engulfed her heart and lungs until each laboured breath and beat was an agony. For a long moment, the fear washed over her.
Had she failed?
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Baron move to retrieve his cane.
"This was fun. But I think that's enough fair play."
The sword's edge whispered along Haru's jaw and she instinctively shied away. The blade gently followed the sweep of her throat; no real pressure. Just a warning.
"You can't do this, Baron." The words barely made it past her lips; her throat was painfully, acutely aware of the cool metal against her skin.
"You keep telling me that," he said, "despite everything I've said to the contrary."
"And yet I'm still here."
He tilted his head and watched her as he swept the sword from one side of her neck to the other, careful not to draw blood. "I see," he said eventually. His eyes dimmed. "You think I'll stop myself."
"You're Baron. You're my Baron," Haru rasped. "And the Baron I know would never hurt me - would never hurt anyone. I don't care what the witch has done; there are some things that can't be changed. And you were created to help, not harm."
Several laboured heartbeats passed. The blade didn't move from her throat. For a moment, she dared to believe she'd won.
"I really had you fooled, didn't I?" he said, but the words were quiet and Haru wasn't sure if they were addressed to her. He met her gaze and there was a heavy apology in his eyes. "'Would never hurt you'? Haru, if I was really so committed to such a task, do you think I would have allowed you to join the Bureau?"
"That was my choice-"
"And this is my Bureau," he said. "I should never have allowed a mortal human to join it, but I ignored the risks. Look at what it has done to you - look at the scars, both physical and mental, that it has given you. And now you're going to die alone and far from home and it's all because I was too selfish to refuse. Does that sound like the actions of someone who truly cares?"
Haru huffed, and then immediately regretted it as her throat brushed against the blade. "This again?" she muttered. "Baron, I thought we'd covered this. It's my life, my choice. You or anybody else don't get to feel guilty over my decisions and frankly it's just insulting that you're not letting me take ownership of my mistakes."
"Only this time, the mistakes will cost you your life and the rest of us will be the ones to live with that."
"No, because you're not going to do this, Baron."
"You still think I'm strong enough to break this spell. That's heartwarming, but foolishly misguided. What is going to stop me?"
"You love me, Baron."
The words hung in the air for a long, weighted moment. Haru's heart was playing havoc in her chest, but the words were out now. The truth she'd felt for longer than she dared admit lingered between them, a confession she had been waiting for him to give.
Baron considered this. "Yes," he said. "I did." He gave a sad smile. "I kept promising myself that I would tell you - when the next case was finished, when the next danger was dealt with, when we next had a moment together - and I kept backing out. How ironic that I would only find the courage to admit it when those feelings are gone."
"They're not gone," Haru insisted. "You can still remember what it felt like; you still remember who you really are. You talked about your guilt for agreeing to me as part of the Bureau-"
"Oh. I'm sorry if I was giving the wrong impression there; I don't care. I just thought you ought to know the truth of the matter." He tilted his head. "I'm sorry, Haru, but I can see what you're doing and I should warn you this won't work."
"Trying to distract me. You think that if you keep me talking, the effects will fade enough for me to spare you."
"If you fight it-"
"48 hours, Haru. That's how long the spell lasts. Do you really think you can keep me here long enough for it to weaken to nearly a fraction of what would be needed? Please, I'm trying to be kind. Don't bolster yourself with false hope."
"You're a stubborn ass, Baron. Too stubborn to allow yourself to be manipulated so easily."
There was a faint smile at her words. "Such language. And I'm not the only stubborn one, it would seem."
"Guess where I picked that up from." She glanced down to her ruined trousers; the knees had been worn out and bloodied and the rest was marred by dust from the ruins. "Can I at least stand?"
"I won't deny you that dignity."
The blade withdrew from her neck and she tucked her foot under her. When she went to move, her legs shivered but didn't hold her. She rocked back to the ground and hissed as her knees smacked into the stone beneath.
A hand appeared in her line of sight. She took it. Baron pulled her to her feet and suddenly she was closer to him than she had been through this entire ordeal. At this distance, it was almost possible to momentarily forget the thin line her life currently trod.
"Do you remember the Cat Kingdom?" she whispered. "You swept in with a mask and cape and stole me from right under the Cat King's nose."
"That was fun."
"I think that's when I first started developing a crush on you."
"That would explain the whiskers."
She blushed. "I was kinda hoping you didn't notice. Anyway, I was at a slight disadvantage. You can't just sweep young ladies off their feet like that. It's embarrassing."
"I didn't feel particularly embarrassed."
"For the lady, idiot." She bit her lip and suddenly lost the ability to meet his gaze. "We had a good run together, didn't we? I mean, I know there was a lot of running and screaming and last-minute-plans, but it was good."
"These last few years have been some of the best in my very long life."
"Now try and say that with actual emotion."
He smiled and his eyes softened with something that could almost have been mistaken for love. "I shall miss you, Haru."
"Then don't do this."
The smile shifted to a gentle, pitying gaze. "It doesn't work that way."
"So you keep claiming." Her eyes flitted to Baron's. "I want you to know - when you return to normal - I want you to remember that I don't regret a single moment with you. With the Bureau, but also with you. Mostly with you. If I had the choice, I'd do it all over again."
He nodded. "I will remember that, for what good it'll do. But you're still stalling, Haru."
"Wouldn't anyone under these circumstances? Anyway," she added, "I'm not stalling."
He smiled. "Then what precisely are you doing?"
"I'm building up the courage to do this," she said and she wrapped her hands around his shirt collar and brought his lips to hers.
He froze, and Haru felt that knowing smile drop. Her arms curled around his neck and as she broke away she felt her blush begin to grow.
"I've been wanting to do that for a long while," she whispered. She dropped her head against his shoulder and fought back the sob starting in her chest. "Please come back to me."
Hands gently loosened her hold and prompted her back. She looked up to see Baron brush curious fingers across his mouth, as if to trace the ghost of the kiss. Haru could barely breathe.
"Interesting," he finally said. "I thought there might be something, but… nothing." His attention slid to her and he grinned. "Was that another attempt to 'recalibrate my brain'? You'll have to do much better than that."
He retrieved the cane from where it had been hanging off the crook of his elbow just as Haru stumbled back.
"Did you really think that would work, Haru? Love can't conquer all." He tapped his head. "She's in my brain, flicking switches and crossing wires. Whatever care I felt for you has been erased."
"I suppose it was worth a try."
Baron eyed the drop behind Haru as she took another faltering step away. "Haru, I highly recommend you don't try anything foolish. You're only delaying the inevitable."
An idea clicked into place. Reckless. Unproven. But she was running out of options. "It's a shame that you've been such a bad influence then," she said and she leapt off the edge.
For several erratic heartbeats, she was weightless. For several erratic heartbeats she had all the time in the world to regret her decision. It was long enough.
Then she slammed through the water and sank to the bottom.
Baron followed a second later, as she had predicted. She lashed out with her feet and caught him in the chest. Air rushed out of him. Suddenly, she was the one with a full lungful of air and he was already having to consider returning to the surface to breathe. It would possibly be enough to give her a head start.
Then he smiled and she felt the magic ripple through the water.
Wood rippled over flesh, paint replacing fur, but those green, green eyes remained startlingly alive. Now freed from the restraint of such issues as oxygen or lungs, he moved through the water with an easy determination.
"This wasn't how I intended this to play out," he said, and Haru could feel the magic rolling off him as he burnt through it to keep his wooden form moving and enable speech even underwater. Because of course he would use it to speak. He wasn't done yet. "Drowning is such an ugly way to go. Not the worst, obviously, but far more stressful than it needs to be."
He advanced, and Haru pushed herself back.
"My cane would have been far less traumatic. Quick and painless. But there's little to be done for that now."
Haru kicked off from the lakebed and a hand caught her ankle before she could break the water's surface. She was hauled back down and her lungs ached in protest.
"I think this has dragged on for long enough, hasn't it?" he asked. "It's time to bring this to an end."
She thrashed out, catching his hand with her foot and freeing herself. She started for the surface once more but her strokes were weakening. Her arms felt like lead, and it took Baron little effort to bring her down again
"I'm sorry it had to work out this way. You can't even argue back - but then again, perhaps it's better that way," he continued. "You were causing yourself so much distress in trying to reach through to me. You should have believed me; I would never lie about something like this."
He reached out, and Haru no longer had the strength to kick back. Her head was pounding, her lungs screaming, and all she could think was she had miscalculated. This had been her last chance. Baron's last chance. And she'd thrown everything away on a theory.
The word please escaped her lips in bubbles.
"It would have been better if you had stayed away from the Bureau." His voice filled the water and she clung onto the familiar voice. "You should have had a human life, Haru. It would have been better for both of us."
Her sight was fading and she wanted to embrace it but her body wasn't done fighting. Wasn't she meant to float peacefully off? Instead of this, her body clinging onto life even as her mind faltered.
"Was it worth it? Was the adventure and wonder worth the heartbreak and pain and, eventually, this unextraordinary ending? Is what you said earlier still true, now you're facing death? Are you having any last-minute doubts? If you had the chance, would you do it… all… over… again…"
The voice and outstretched hand hesitated. Through the haze, Haru saw Baron blink and something changed. His eyes widened.
Hands grabbed her and she was being dragged upwards. She broke the surface and instinctively gasped. The water she'd inhaled threatened to fill her lungs and she was drowning even in open air.
Those hands hauled her to a grassy bank. Familiar furred hands. She was deposited into her side and her lungs fought to expel regrets lake's waters. The coughs racked through her until her raw throat caught air.
"Haru?" She finally heard his voice. "Haru!"
She jolted her shoulder back, throwing off the hand reaching for her. She crawled to a sitting position, aware that if she tried to stand she would fall.
"Did it work?" she rasped.
He knelt some distance off; perhaps at the place he'd initially brought her to shore. His waistcoat was rumpled. His cane was absent. Orange fur was rippling back into life across his face.
"I am me, Haru."
She searched in his face for any sign of deceit and only found sincerity. Then again, he had been sincere since this whole thing had begun. "How do I know you're telling the truth?"
"Before, I…" He hesitated, and Haru wanted to believe it was really shame shadowing his face. "I had no reason to lie," he finished. "All I wanted to do was kill you; no tricks involved. I…" He looked away. "I felt nothing for you. Not even hatred. Simply put, I didn't care enough to want to hurt you beyond a quick death. But the witch's influence is gone now."
They waited for a long moment in silence; Haru staring at Baron, and Baron barely able to meet her gaze. She had no desire to speak. She had spoken enough in the last half hour.
Baron eventually breached the silence.
"How did you break the spell?"
"She controls your brain," Haru said. Her voice was still raw. She kept her legs crossed in front of her, her posture small and tired. "Creations in their inorganic forms don't have brains. You run purely on magic. So all I needed to do was to force you into a situation where you'd turn to wood."
"It was a long shot. But I didn't have much else left."
"Haru… I'm so sorry."
She looked away and her legs tucked in closer around her. "She could have enchanted any of us. You were just unlucky."
"But still… what I said and did-"
"And I stopped you." She met his gaze suddenly. Fear and stubbornness swirled in her eyes. "I stopped you before you did anything you would regret and let's just leave it at that."
She was breathing fast, her heart galloping at the same pace it'd been keeping before. She stared at Baron, her hands flexing as she fought back the panic. She forced herself to calm, and uncurled her fists. She tried not to see the pain on Baron's face.
"Please," she whispered. "Let's just go home."
Baron slowly rose to his feet, moving as if trying not to scare birds from feeders. He nodded. "Okay, Haru. We'll find Toto and Muta and then we'll head back." He stepped forward, beginning to offer a hand, and then froze as Haru flinched away. He dropped the hand. "Are you able to walk?"
He didn't confront the lie. He merely turned away and began to plan their ascent back to the ruins. He heard Haru struggle to her feet, but kept his back solidly to her.
After several long moments, she walked to his side. There was still a good yard between them, but she caught his eye and didn't immediately break the contact this time.
Her eyes softened, as if she was remembering how to smile.
"It's good to have you back," she whispered, and she started up the path alone.
He couldn't move. The longer he stood, the more the memories weighed down on him, and the more his heart broke.
What he had done… Haru was telling herself that it was only due to the witch's spell. She had to believe that. She had to believe that his actions were the result of him becoming a puppet. Of course she did. After what he had done… it was the only way she'd be able to keep her sanity. He knew that. He understood that.
But it wasn't true.
Because the witch didn't rewrite an entire personality; no, that would take more than a mere touch. Instead what she did was twist a few points. Turn love into apathy, the desire to protect into the desire to kill. Leave the rest in place and let a person's nature take its course.
A couple of twists in his nature, and he'd almost killed Haru.
"Baron? Are you coming?"
Haru was lingering at the forest's edge, all nerves and tiredness, but still waiting for him.
He followed after her.
It was going to be a long climb back to normality.
For both of them.