Chapter One Hundred Twelve: Rock Bottom
Princess Azula turned to face Prince Zuko for what she believed would be the final time. "I'm sorry it has to end this way, brother," she sneered while casting away her cloak, spitting out that last word as though it were profanity of the lowest order.
"No." Prince Zuko stoically faced his sister from the opposite end of the royal plaza, preparing for the fight of his life. "You're not."
Smiling, Azula unleashed a withering jet of focused blue flame towards her older brother, who immediately defended himself with his own inferno of yellow-orange fire. The two columns of flame crashed into each other and exploded, roaring hundreds of feet into the air and temporarily blotting out the sky.
As the scene transitioned to Aang locked in his titanic final duel with Firelord Ozai, Gwen Twymann looked away from the humongous white sheet acting as a projector screen and observed the enraptured crowd of Dersites.
Two days ago, when Gwen set up her makeshift projector screen in the middle of Greenflame Plaza and started binge watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, fewer than twenty curious onlookers came over to see what was happening. Word must have spread quickly. By the end of Season One, the crowd swelled to more than three hundred. Now, at the end of the show's penultimate episode, nearly a thousand people had come to find out how Avatar Aang could possibly defeat the Firelord without taking anyone's life.
Even Iris, who now sat next to Gwen on the edge of a stone fountain, had emerged from the Orchard to experience her first Human tv show.
Gwen planned to binge the series again next week, after those who had already seen it were given the opportunity to tell everyone they knew. Turning her head, she looked towards her apartment and smiled at the sight of Cass sitting on the front stoop. It was a remarkable sign of progress. She had not expected Cass to set foot outside.
"Zuko must use his legs," commented Iris. "His leg sweep is unstoppable. It works every time."
Gwen smiled, unable to remember the last time she had seen Iris this animated about anything other than plants. "If you say so."
"I know so," insisted Iris. "It worked on Admiral Zhao. It will work on Azula."
Argo, sitting silently on the other side of Iris, yawned and looked bored.
Glancing over at Cass, Gwen stood up and stretched. "Enjoy the next part. It's the last time you'll ever see it for the first time."
Without looking away from the screen, Iris asked, "Is something amiss?"
"No, I'm just checking on Cass. I didn't expect her to come outside." Gwen started making her way through the crowds towards her apartment's front stoop.
For the most part, none of the Dersites acknowledged Gwen, enraptured as they were by Avatar Aang's increasingly desperate fight against Firelord Ozai, but there were a few exceptions. Several Dersites waved at her, which she acknowledged with waves of her own. One Dersite whom Gwen recognized, a landscaper and fellow Greenflame Plaza resident named Ido who had recently taken up quilting as a hobby, even asked if the events of Avatar: The Last Airbender were based on a true story.
"Also," continued Ido, "which of the four nations did you live in?"
"It's fiction, Ido," chuckled Gwen. "It's all made up."
"Ah." Although Ido did his best not to appear crestfallen, he did not fully succeed, and several of his friends sitting nearby proved unable to stifle their laughter. "I see. But you did live in a nation, yes?"
"Sure." Gwen politely circumvented Ido's group on her way towards Cass, making sure not to block anyone's view. "It was called the United States."
Ido's curiosity only intensified. "Did your United States have a defining element? Fire, perhaps? Or Earth?"
"Oil." A cynical laugh escaped from Gwen's throat. "And grease. Bacon grease, burger grease, pizza grease; you name it. Any kind of oil or grease."
Ido frowned in profound confusion as Gwen walked by. "None of these things are included among the four classical elements."
"She is clearly joking," snickered one of Ido's friends. "You would believe the ground is the sky until one of us told you that you were upside down."
Gwen grinned as she heard Ido asking, "But what is pizza? And how does it generate grease?" only to be shushed angrily by multiple irritated Dersites sitting nearby who had grown weary of the chatter.
Making a mental note to bring a stack of pizzas to the next watch party, Gwen continued on her way through the crowds, joining Cass on the front stoop just in time to see a seemingly defeated Aang plummet into the ocean, overwhelmed by the Firelord's relentless attacks. Haunting, melancholic violins filled Greenflame Plaza as the scene switched back to the climax of Zuko and Azula's fire duel, and the murmuring crowd of Dersites fell completely silent.
"Thank you." Cass surprised Gwen by speaking first.
Cass, unable to pry her eyes away from the big screen, did not look at Gwen as she spoke. "This is the first time I've ever seen Avatar."
Gwen's eyes nearly bugged out of their sockets. "How've you gone this whole time without seeing ATLA? Did you live under a rock?"
"Didn't watch much TV in my old life." Cass shrugged, scratching the back of her neck. "I prefer books."
Cheers erupted from the Dersite audience as Prince Zuko used his signature leg sweep to knock Azula off her feet. Gwen glanced over at the fountain she'd just left and saw Iris animatedly talking to Argo while pointing at the screen, crowing no doubt about how right she had been.
"No lightning today?" taunted Prince Zuko. "What's the matter? Afraid I'll redirect it?"
"Oh, I'll show you lightning!" snarled Azula, haphazardly summoning a bolt of lightning and preparing to unleash it on her brother, only to notice Katara standing in the background.
Cass frowned. "Why is Katara standing in the splash zone during an Agni Kai?"
"Not her smartest moment," agreed Gwen.
Hundreds of exasperated groans rose from the Dersite crowd as Princess Azula switched targets at the last moment and unleashed her lightning at Katara, forcing a horrified Zuko to throw himself into the lightning's path.
Cass's frown deepened. "Did Zuko just run faster than lightning?"
"He sure did." Gwen looked at Cass. "Did it ruin the entire show for you?"
A faint smile tugged at the corners of Cass's mouth as the scene switched back to Aang, on the brink of defeat, crawling out of the ocean onto a beach and turning to face the oncoming Firelord.
"I'm glad you came, you know." Gwen leaned to her left, bumping shoulders affectionately with Cass. "I know it isn't easy for you to have open sky over your head. How are you holding up?"
"You were in my dream last night." Cass took a breath, looking up at the void sky. The ever-present golden glow of the Great Beacon did little to soothe her rising panic. "Adam, Tami, and Gino were on the other side of a river and needed my help getting across. But I couldn't remember how to swim. I was scared of the water, so I sat under a tree and pretended the river wasn't there."
"Where was I?" asked Gwen.
"You found me sitting under my tree and asked where the others were. I told you I couldn't see them. You asked me how I expected to see them when my back was turned to the river." Cass looked away from the empty void sky, taking carefully measured breaths. "I told you I was afraid of going into the water, that I didn't know how to swim. Then you took my hand, turned me around, and suddenly I remembered that I had swum before. I was the one who brought you across the river. How could I have forgotten?"
Gwen waited for more, but none came. "Was that all?"
Cass nodded. "I woke up."
Silence fell between the two friends.
As the credits rolled across the projector screen and the crowd prepared themselves for the final episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Gwen quietly reached over and held Cass's hand, fingers interlacing.
Fluffy cyan clouds rolled serenely across the soft amber sky above Anna Carrero's quest bed.
Then came a ear-rending screech: "NOT THE BEES!"
Anna appeared suddenly out of thin air, holding the ankle of her dead past self who lay upon the quest bed, accompanied by Lightbulbsprite and thousands upon thousands of swarming honeybees. "Fuck! Fuck!" She backpedaled away from the quest bed, swatting desperately at the bees crawling on her skin and clothes, trying to shoo them before they added to the dozens of welts already dotting her arms, legs, and neck. "Fuck off!"
Even while under bee siege, Anna managed to glance up at the sky and see that the Dersite Royal Navy frigate which had very nearly blown her to smithereens was nowhere to be seen. The sky was empty of everything except clouds. But any relief she might have felt quickly gave way to fury as an enterprising honeybee evaded her flailing hands and stung her on the left cheek.
At that same moment, brilliant white light poured suddenly from the dark orbs mounted atop each of the quest bed's four bedposts. Anna tried to hit the bee which had stung her cheek, but the bright light had already startled the honeybee away, so all she accomplished was slapping herself in the face. "Fuck!"
Eager to escape the sensory overload, the honeybees mercifully dispersed, sparing Anna further torment.
The quest bed's light subsided gradually, revealing Lightbulbsprite hovering over Dead Past Anna's body.
"You're still here?" Anna glared at her sprite, who had done nothing to shoo away the bees. "Some help you were."
"To be fair, you prototyped your sprite with a lightbulb," remarked a strangely familiar-yet-unfamiliar voice from behind Anna. "What did you expect?"
"Fuck." Startled, Anna spun around and found herself face to face with Cruz. Or so she initially thought. "Cruz?" Even as she spoke the name, Anna knew the stranger was not Cruz. The resemblance was uncanny, but the nose shape, jawline, and cheekbones were different. And the eye color was wrong.
"The honeybees are usually quite friendly." Cruz's doppleganger stood at the edge of the flattened summit of Anna's quest bed mountain, at the top of the trail leading down to the bottom. "You must have gone out of your way to agitate them."
"Um." Staring at Cruz's cyan-eyed doppleganger like he had eighteen heads, Anna asked, "Who the fuck are you supposed to be?"
"You're early," replied the boy with cyan eyes. "I expected you a year from now. And I didn't expect you to be alone."
"Huh?" Anna needed a drink. Shaking her head, she closed her eyes and caressed the timestream around her, but none of her familiar temporal landmarks came into view. Wincing as shock wore off and her bee stings began to burn, she asked, "When am I?"
"You are right now. In the present moment." The cyan-eyed boy took a step towards Anna, gazing at her as if she had stepped straight out of a dream. "How many years you have just traversed, on the other hand, is a separate question."
"Don't fuck with me. How many years?"
"Ten thousand," replied Cruz's lookalike. "Well, ten thousand one, if you want to be precise."
"Oh." Anna felt herself go a bit weak in the knees. "That's…a lot of years."
"It is only a number."
For the first time, Anna took a moment to compose herself and look around, noticing drastic changes in the landscape.
Skaialight sparkled on the surface of Lake Colossus in the distance. That much was the same, but everything else?
Where only moments earlier there had been ruins and dense encroaching wilderness surrounding Anna's quest bed mountain, there now thrived a city of vibrantly painted stone buildings and immaculate gardens with flowers of every color. Neat rows of cypress and oak trees lined the flagstone roads, providing limited shade for thousands of iguana-consort citizens who went about their business.
Anna's quest bed mountain rose from the very center of the great metropolis. Small groups of iguana-consorts, wearing colorfully dyed togas, began to congregate at the base of the mountain, no doubt wondering what had caused the searing flash of light.
"Why is your past covered in vomit?" asked not-Cruz, frowning at Anna's dead past self lying upon the quest bed.
Anna looked away from the city. "She poisoned herself."
"She thought her life was meaningless." Anna closed her eyes for a moment, trying and failing to ignore the pain spreading all over her body. All the stinger welts felt like hundreds of little knives stabbing deep into her skin. "Look, I just got stung to fuck and I'm having a real hard time focusing on anything except screaming, so if you have a point to make, you better-"
"There is something you need to see and hear," said Cruz's doppleganger. "May I show you?"
Not-Cruz walked up to Anna and placed his hands on both sides of her head. The moment his hands made contact, Anna's eyes rolled back and she crumpled to the ground.
A victorious Prince Zuko glared through prison cell bars at Ozai, his defeated father. "Banishing me was the best thing you could have done for my life. It put me on the right path. Perhaps your time in here can do the same for you."
The disheveled Ozai, sitting atop a pillow on the floor of his cell and wearing only a simple brown robe, narrowed his eyes in suspicion. "Why are you really here?"
"Because you're going to tell me something." Zuko crouched down to his father's level. In a deadly quiet voice, he asked, "Where is my mother?"
Whispers and murmurs spread throughout the Dersite crowd gathered in Greenflame Plaza. The scene transitioned to a tea shop in Ba Sing Se, capital city of the Earth Kingdom, where Uncle Iroh played his tsungi horn while Zuko served hot tea to the other main characters, and Cass frowned. "This is the end, right?" she asked. "Series finale?"
"I don't understand. Why bring up Zuko's mom when there's no time to address it?" Cass looked at Gwen. "What happens to his mom? Is there an epilogue?"
"The writers sure are teasing the possibility," said Gwen.
While the other main characters laughed and reminisced together in Uncle Iroh's tea shop, Aang and Katara shared a touching moment on the balcony outside, after which point the credits began to roll and Avatar: The Last Airbender came to a much-anticipated end.
"I'm gonna go thank everyone for coming." Gwen stood up. "I'd love to hang out afterwards, though, if you're game."
"That would be lovely," said Cass.
Hundreds of Dersites exploded into energetic chatter as they processed and discussed what they had just experienced. As Gwen made her way through the crowd, she gleefully eavesdropped on whatever fragments of conversation she could discern. "Katara and Zuko are clearly the superior pairing," said one Dersite within earshot, only to be countered immediately by another who said, "Oh. You're one of those."
Gwen loved hearing every word. Dersites really weren't so different from Humans. Upon reaching the front of the crowd, where her laptop rested on a small chair next to the projector, she accessed the computer and closed out of the Avatar video file.
"This cannot be the end!" exclaimed a Dersite in the front row. "Tell us, Witch, is there more?"
"What happened to Zuko's mother?!" shouted another Dersite.
Dozens more audience members took up the call until Gwen unmuted her laptop mic and announced, "Yep, that was the end. Thank you all for coming! I'm planning on doing this again next week, so tell all your friends."
The crowd did not take as kindly to Gwen's announcement as she had expected, with several of the rowdiest audience members shouting their refusal to leave until they knew the fate of Zuko's mother.
"You really want to know?" Gwen asked, her amplified voice booming throughout Greenflame Plaza.
"YES!" thundered hundreds of Dersites.
"Alright, sheesh." Gwen accessed her Youtube database, which contained every video ever uploaded to Youtube before April 13th, 2009. Finding the video she wanted, Gwen routed the file through her projector to put it on the screen before pressing play. "This is gonna clear everything up."
Hundreds of Dersites stared in utter bewilderment as a red-haired human appeared on the movie screen, dancing in various indoor and outdoor locations to groovy synthetic music. After about twenty seconds, he looked at the camera and began to sing, "We're no strangers to love. You know the rules, and so do I! A slow commitment's what I'm thinkin' of. You wouldn't get this from any other guy!"
"I…" Gwen joined her voice to Rick Astley's, clapping her hands and spinning. "…just wanna tell you how I'm feelin'. Gonna make you understand," she sang, stomping to the beat while belting the chorus to the Dersite crowd. "Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna run around and desert you!"
Gwen's improvised dancing proved infectious to the crowd. A few Dersites started swaying to the music, which spread gradually throughout the crowd until at least half of those gathered had broken out into unrestrained dancing. By the end of the song, some in the crowd had even managed to memorize the song's chorus.
As the crowd settled down again, someone standing near the front shouted, "Where's the epilogue?"
"Epilogue?" asked Gwen, wiping the sweat from her forehead. "What epilogue?"
"Surely this was a musical prelude to the epilogue about Zuko's mother?"
"Nope." Gwen shook her head. "No epilogue."
"I don't understand!" exclaimed another voice in the crowd. "What did that dancing human have to do with Avatar?!"
"Absolutely nothing," replied Gwen. "That's the whole point."
The crowd fell gradually into a dejected silence.
"Hey, don't blame me!" Gwen raised her hands in mock surrender. "I have no idea what happened to Zuko's mom. No one knows. If Skaia's meteors hadn't wrecked my planet and killed everyone, maybe a new show would have been made, but I guess that's just life. C'mon, don't let your experience be ruined by the extinction of my species! The show was fucking amazing. Maybe some of you can get a camera, figure out costumes, and you can decide for yourselves what happened to Zuko's mom."
The crowd began gradually to disperse. People picked up their blankets and snacks. Milder fans comforted their more extreme friends who struggled to accept the absence of any further Avatar content.
Distant bells began to ring from their towers in neighboring districts. Then the Greenflame Plaza clocktower joined in, which made Gwen frown because it was not the beginning of a new hour. She glanced back over at her adopted apartment building just in time to see Cass hurrying back inside and disappearing behind a slammed door.
Noticing several people in the crowd pointing at the sky, Gwen looked up and time seemed to stand still.
A tiny point of scarlet light, bright enough to be seen through the golden glare of the Great Beacon, had appeared in the darkness above and was expanding slowly into a full sphere.
"That'll ruin Cass's day," murmured Gwen.
For the first time in nearly a century, a new dream bubble approached Our Home.
Darkness, like ink through water, seeped rapidly through the Skaian clouds, thickening until all of Skaia's light disappeared underneath it.
Anna watched the darkness consume Skaia whole, but she did not panic. She had seen this before. Many times. This moment was the furthest forward in time she had ever traveled. The moment Skaia went dark. None of her visions had ever revealed anything beyond this moment, and when Anna tried to look, all she saw was more darkness. With one exception.
On each of the many times Anna had descended into a nihilistic mood and time traveled forward to get drunk and watch Skaia go dark, she remembered a titanic explosion of fire eventually piercing the veil of darkness from underneath, allowing a glowing ship to sail through to freedom. A ship bearing something bright enough to force Anna to squint even though she observed from a great distance.
This time, however, something felt different. No fire appeared and no ship emerged. Could it be that Skaia had gone dark more than once? Anna waited for the fire and the ship to appear. She waited, and waited, but there was nothing. Only darkness.
Then Anna heard it.
Music resonating in the dark. An indescribable symphony of life which filled Anna with ecstatic joy, unfathomable sorrow, and laughter.
The vision ended and Anna awoke with tears streaming down her face.
Opening her eyes to the sight of not-Cruz looking down at her in mild concern, Anna realized she was lying on the ground. "What the fuck did you just do? Seriously, who the fuck are you?"
Why was she crying? What had she just dreamed about? Anna frowned, trying to remember. Skaia had gone dark, and then…? There was more, but she had great difficulty focusing on anything outside of the stabbing pain of dozens of bee stings.
"Do you remember the music?" asked not-Cruz.
"Music!" Anna snapped her fingers, wincing as she agitated a stinger welt on one of the fingers she used. "That was it! There was music. Singing, I think, and…" The music nearly came to Anna, caressing the edges of her memory, but then it slipped away. "It's gone."
"Every time I wake up from that vision, I forget the music within seconds. It's maddening." Not-Cruz offered a hand to Anna, helping her back up to her feet. "Skaia will go dark very soon, and I can't see anything beyond that, but we must have found a way to fix it. Otherwise, the future you're visiting me from would never have existed. I think the music is crucial. Do you know anyone from your time who might be able to make sense of it?"
Anna, although intrigued, could no longer ignore the growing agony of her bee stings. "We're gonna have to circle back to this," she said, preparing to launch herself forward in time. "I really need to get myself healed."
"Of course." Not-Cruz stepped back from Anna. "I suspect it will be very dark when we meet again. You might consider bringing a lantern."
"Hold that thought." Anna closed her eyes and held her breath, diving forward into the timestream.
The last thing Anna heard, as the world dissolved around her, was not-Cruz saying, "Don't forget the music, maravillita."
Gwen's toaster dinged, springing up two slices of toast from its twin slots just as someone knocked on her apartment door.
"One sec!" Gwen snatched the pieces of toast and quickly deposited them onto the kitchen counter before they burned her fingers. Shaking off the crumbs, and ignoring the sizable pile of dishes in the sink, she then walked over to the door and opened it, allowing Iris to enter. "Thanks for coming."
"It is the least I could do." Iris gave Gwen a quick hug before crossing into the den, where she looked through the window at the religious ceremony taking place outside. "If I can help you lift Cass's spirits, that would be a great service."
A cleric of the Faith of Eight, wearing a simple black suit emblazoned with the symbol of eight white stars arranged in a tight circle around a ninth golden star in the center, stood behind a makeshift lectern and proselytized to a crowd of hundreds of worshippers who had gathered in Greenflame Plaza. As the cleric implored his followers to spread the faith to their neighbors, Gwen did her best to ignore the spectacle, but this was easier said than done.
Ever since the scarlet dream bubble's appearance three days ago, adherents of the Faith of Eight had taken to the streets to celebrate, filling every public square and plaza and major intersection to the point of preventing trolley lines from operating. Although the crowd size fluctuated from day to day, and even though clerics took breaks and swapped out with other clerics, the Faith had maintained a continuous presence on the streets which showed no sign of going away anytime soon.
"They prayed for their Great Beacon to keep shining, and now here comes another dream bubble," observed Iris. "Never mind our failing power grid and dwindling food supply; they think their prayers have been answered."
Gwen bit into her toast and closed her eyes, chewing slowly to savor the flavor. She no longer experienced thirst or hunger, but sometimes it was nice to go through the motions of her old life. The blackberry jam was exquisite.
Iris picked up the open jar, sniffing it and tasting some of blackberry jam that had accumulated on the jar's rim. "This was not made with our berries," she remarked.
"No, this came from Earth." Gwen took another bite. "Plucked it out of a random grocery store."
Iris glanced back out the window at the crowd. "Did you know Atrex is preaching in Memorial Park? Right on the Orchard's doorstep. And his crowd is several times the size of this one. What would you do if he told his followers to set my home on fire?"
"It won't come to that."
"It has already come to that," declared Iris. "You know the drain on our power supply is killing our crops, but you still haven't turned the Great Beacon off. Why? Perhaps because you know Atrex's most extreme followers would turn violent and you're too afraid to protect Our Home from them?"
"What do you want from me?!" snapped Gwen. "Cass needs to go back into the void. If she gets lost in that dream bubble for a while, how will she find her way back without the beacon? She'll get lost out there. The timing sucks."
"Timing," scoffed Iris. "Don't you dare talk to me about timing. We could have turned the beacon off decades ago. Decades of healthy crop growth. Decades of amassing power reserves to prepare our grid for eventualities like this in which the beacon needs to be turned back on. All wasted."
Fighting the urge to scream, Gwen inhaled deeply through her nose and released the breath gently through her mouth.
"Sorry." Iris took a deep breath of her own. "Arguing is not what I came here to do."
"Maybe violence is unavoidable. But we have to try everything before it comes to that. You spend so much time in your gardens that I think you lose sight of how fragile Our Home really is. All it takes is a spark. A reaction. A single rushed choice."
"If avoiding war leads to everyone dying and embracing it leads to only some people dying, then is conflict truly the worst choice?"
"That's a false ultimatum and you know it," interrupted Gwen, standing up and walking to her apartment's entrance door, opening it and stepping into the stairwell outside. "One thing at a time, Iris. Let's get Cass up to that bubble and back. Then I'll go talk to Atrex myself and we'll get this sorted out. Okay?"
Although Iris nodded, she looked neither reassured nor convinced.
Whatever. Gwen could not fix all the world's problems in a day. She led the way upstairs to Cass's apartment on the third floor, balling a fist and knocking on the door, but there was no response from within. Pressing her ear to the door, Gwen could hear the muffled hiss of Cass's shower, but nothing else.
Iris listened as well. "Perhaps we should wait?"
Gwen shook her head, opening the apartment door and stepping inside. "She's been in the shower all day. Something's up."
Cass's apartment was slightly cleaner than Gwen remembered on her last visit. Clothes and open books remained strewn across the floor, but the kitchen appeared tidy and all the dishes had been done. How about that? Good for her. No one likes doing dishes.
Thick blackout curtains covered every window. On her better days, Cass would sometimes leave the curtains open and practice looking into the sky, but today the curtains were all closed.
"Cass?" Gwen knocked on the bathroom door. "Hello?"
There was no response.
"Are you okay?" Gwen knocked again. "Don't make me come in there."
"Fuck it." Gwen opened the door, only to close it immediately after seeing into the bathroom. "Iris? Could you head back downstairs and make sure no one else comes up?"
"What is it?" asked. "Are you expecting anyone else?"
"Just go and make sure." Gwen spoke with less patience than intended. "Trust me. I'm going to need privacy."
"I thought you wanted me to help."
Frowning at Gwen, Iris exited the apartment.
Gwen turned to face the bathroom door. Of course she was not expecting anyone else to arrive. But Iris didn't need to know that. Nor did she need to know what awaited Gwen on the other side of the door.
Taking a deep breath and swallowing, Gwen opened the door and entered the bathroom.
Cass sat fully clothed in the bathtub, soaking wet underneath the running shower, elbows resting on her knees. She stared wearily at the bloodied knife held limply in her left hand, barely even acknowledging Gwen's arrival.
Gwen, trying her best to ignore the bloodstains which had landed outside the shower's splash zone, closed the bathroom door and looked at Cass. What should she say? Was there anything to really say? She glanced at the shower and considered turning off the water. Then, following an impulse, she instead joined Cass in the bathtub, allowing herself to get soaked.
Cass and Gwen sat together under the running water.
After a long silence, Gwen held out her hand, and Cass wordlessly gave her the knife.
Stowing the knife safely into her sylladex, Gwen offered her hand again.
Cass, hesitating initially, accepted Gwen's hand.
Beads of condensation gathered on the walls and on the fogged-up mirror until compelled by their own weight to stream down in thin rivulets.
Gwen broke the silence by asking, "What did you do to yourself?"
"Doesn't matter," Cass replied. "I keep waking back up unblemished. Not even a scar for my trouble."
Gwen squeezed Cass's hand gently.
Cass did not squeeze back, but she did not let go either. "I know why you're here."
Gwen said nothing.
"I can't do it." Cass made eye contact with Gwen for the first time. "I can't go back out there."
"You said the same thing when I invited you to the watch party."
"Then I won't go." Cass looked away. "You were with me in the dark. Imagine being stuck out there all by yourself with no way to escape. Literally no way. Have you ever fully contemplated the existential nightmare of immortality combined with endless nothing?"
Gwen caressed the back of Cass's hand with one of her thumbs. "You never told me what happened out there."
Cass shuddered at memories she would have preferred to forget. "It was Gino."
Gwen froze at the mention of Gino's name. "Is he…?"
"He's not dead," said Cass. "But he's not exactly alive, either. He's looping."
"He moves through random memories for a while until something reminds him of you. When he starts thinking about you, he remembers your death and relives it. Then he forces himself back to sleep and the dream bubble resets. It's sad." Cass took a deep, shaky breath. "So very sad." She had forced herself for a long time not to conjure these memories. "One time, he actually became lucid at the end of his loop. He saw me."
"How was he?" asked Gwen.
"Well, he screamed at me to go away, attacked me with weird black shadow fire, and fled with so much force that his entire dream bubble left me in the dark," replied Cass. "That's how he was." She frowned, suddenly remembering the last thing she'd heard Gino say. "And he was hearing voices."
"The Outer Gods." Gwen scooched over slightly and leaned against Cass's shoulder. "Horrorterrors. Those…things we saw in the dark. When the lonely star was born. Gino never told me what they said, but you didn't need to read his mind to know that it wasn't anything good."
"You were easy to resurrect." Cass rested her head on Gwen's shoulder. "But even then, I couldn't force you to leave. I had to convince you to come with me. Do you remember? And you did. How can I wake Gino up from his nightmare if my very presence in his mind makes him hostile? I don't know if I can wake someone up from that."
Gwen reached over with her free hand and turned off the shower, allowing the bathroom to settle into a quiescence broken only by dripping water. "Gino isn't the one in the sky right now."
"C'mon. Let's get out of this tub." Gwen tugged on Cass's hand, standing up. "I'm not spending the rest of my life in this bathroom. And neither are you."
Cass said nothing.
Gwen threw one of Cass's arms over her shoulder, hauling her upright and walking her out of the tub. "There we go." She grabbed a towel and draped it across Cass's shoulders. "Dry yourself off."
While Cass started toweling herself down, Gwen opened the bathroom door and headed into Cass's bedroom.
After grabbing a tank top, sweatpants, socks, and some underwear, Gwen heard sobbing from the bathroom. "Fuck." She hurried back to Cass and found her on the floor, curled into the fetal position. "Okay." At a loss for what could possibly be said to alleviate her friend's suffering, Gwen simply knelt down and curled up next to Cass, acting as a big spoon to Cass's little spoon and holding her close. "That's it. Let it all out."
"Sorry," Cass managed to gasp out between sobs. "I'm sorry I brought you here."
"Do you think I hate it here?"
"What's the point?" Tears streamed from Cass's eyes, but she did not bother to wipe them. "There's no point."
"My watch party was pointless?" asked Gwen. "The hundreds of people who enjoyed it are pointless?"
"They'll all be dead soon," wept Cass. "The lights will go out. I'll be alone in the dark again. And so will you." Another round of sobs burst forth. "There's no exit. No exit."
"Okay." Gwen allowed the crying to continue unabated until she sensed Cass beginning to relax a bit. "You didn't condemn me to anything. I took your hand and chose to leave my bubble with you."
Cass shook her head. "But you didn't know all of the ramifications. You didn't have the context-"
"Doesn't matter," interrupted Gwen. "Anything is better than being stuck in my own memories forever. You gave me new life and helped me find a new purpose. Sure, Our Home has its problems, and don't get me wrong, they are major problems, but in no way is this experiment doomed to failure."
"There are millions of people here living otherwise ordinary lives," continued Gwen. "Every day is filled with countless moments of love and joy which are so easily missed and overlooked. And none of it would have been possible without you. Do you think this place would have survived its infancy without your leadership? Cass, you built this place. And if you want me to let you give up after we've come this far, well, that's not happening."
Cass's sobbing tapered off and gradually ceased, giving way to stillness and steady breathing.
"We don't need to do anything about the new dream bubble today," said Gwen, holding Cass tightly. "Let's get into some dry clothes and have some fun."
"I'd rather be alone."
"Pssh. I wasn't asking," declared Gwen. "We're gonna have some fun, and that's the end of it."
Cass sniffed and started to wipe her nose on the back of her hand, stopping only when Gwen interrupted her with a tissue. "Can we at least stay inside?"
"Well." Cass took a deep breath. "What did you have in mind?"
"You've never seen my basement workshop," said Gwen. "Why don't you come check it out with me? I've got some cool stuff down there, but there's one thing in particular I know you'll enjoy as a lover of history."
Cass hesitated. "What does history have to do with your workshop?"
"Dry off and get changed." Gwen smiled, glad to finally get up from the bathroom floor. "I'll show you."