First, a storm wrapped around them. Dark bolts of lightning wreathed Bedevil. Technicolor tempest. She made out shapes in the swirling clouds of maroon, submerged beneath sheets of sickly green rain. Bedevil fell through winds that would strip the bones off her flesh if they were real. She slipped through the huge, amorphous shades within the storm.
Second, they dived into an ocean of ink that would have flash-frozen their bodies down to the core if they were in the physical universe. Gabe’s face, her own face, all the faces she’d met and more she hadn’t bubbled up through the dark sea as Epione pulled her through the black.
Last, they touched down on jagged cement that would have cut Bedevil’s feet apart, if only they’d been in the waking world. A broken vista awaited her. A shattered Houston; the skyscrapers in splinters and the roads busted to their foundations. The entire city busted. Bruised. Bloodied.
Epione’s hand squeezed Bedevil’s wrists. Her voice rang out like a bell. “I’m going to buy you time. Find Gabe. Let him know we’re coming to get him.”
Epione let go of Bedevil and slipped up, sinking back into the blighted ocean. She struck it as a brilliant white spear that red-shifted into invisibility.
Bedevil found she was in the middle of the city, on top of the dream OPI tower. The building shifted and warped as she walked across the roof, water inside the glass of Gabe’s memories. “Okay. Where would you be, Gabe Babe?” Bedevil entered the tower through the OPI entrance.
Sterile, bleach-laden air wriggled into her lungs. Despite the storm, the atmosphere strangled sound so that Bedevil couldn’t even hear her footsteps. The tiles changed color in random intervals. The doors shifted from metal to glass to wood.
Up ahead there was a room that did not shift at all. Bedevil peered through the window.
Gabe paced around an empty lab room. A single cot was his only furniture and company. “Why don’t you ever show up when I need you to? Why do you only show up when I’m happy?”
A speaker screeched into life, carrying Nero’s voice like a messenger bearing bad news. “Maybe if you beg a little harder, he’ll come crawling out of your head.”
“Fuck you!” Gabe shouted.
If she could cry in this place, she would have. Instead, dark silver light wafted out of her body, out of her mouth and her nose. The silver tufts resembled warm breath on a cold night.
She tried to open the door but couldn’t.
This room was the only one not shifting out of the entire tower. If this place was made out of Gabe’s memory, if this was really the manifestation of all this thoughts and his consciousness, then maybe the rooms that were solid were the rooms he’d been to most often.
Where could Gabe have gone? If the places he’d been to were where he stored his strongest memories, there were a few options. The closest being Bedevil’s apartment.
Journeying there was not as simple as going from point A to point B. Bedevil wandered through the streets, found herself going in circles as the roads traded places or reversed directions. She focused on her high rise building, saw the one apartment that did not shift because Gabe had set it in stone in his mind.
Without really understanding how she got there, she found herself at her front door. Carefully, she opened the door and looked inside.
This memory was Gabe meeting Pawpaw.
Bedevil remembered that. Gabe had barely been able to contain his excitement. Pawpaw did what Pawpaw did best: amble up to him for eager pets. She watched, glad to see there was something pleasant in this place.
The memory glitched, shifted. Pawpaw bit into Gabe’s hand. Gabe shouted and retreated.
And then the memory replayed. Each time Pawpaw bit Gabe’s hand.
“That’s… not right…” Bedevil let herself into her apartment.
The memory shifted. She saw herself begging Gabe to let her help. Not a memory she was proud of, but at least it wasn’t out and out horrible like the others.
Another glitch. For an instant, the Bedevil of Gabe’s memory was replaced by some pale, gaunt creature, moaning into his ear. “Mega…. Mega…”
Before Bedevil could say a word, the memory shifted back to normal. Back to Bedevil begging to help Gabe before he relented.
“God,” Bedevil whispered. “Did I really… just ignore him?” She doubted her own recollection of that memory. She thought she wasn’t that pushy. That she hadn’t really forced herself on him.
She approached the pair kneeling on the floor in front of her TV. As she did, they vanished. Gabe now stood at the threshold of her kitchen. Bedevil saw herself floating by the microwave, blitzed out of her mind.
More dark silver wisps drifted from her lips. Another memory she was not proud of, and worse, one she couldn’t remember herself. This was Black Out Bedevil, not her.
“What are you doing?” Gabe asked.
Black Out Bedevil broke apart and reformed. She glitched into the thin creature from the previous memory. Her golden mane of hair became an ugly patch of straw. Vomit covered her clothes. Her hands scrabbled at the microwave, her black nails now sharp claws that scratched on the glass and sounded like a screeching chalkboard. “…Fuck… me…” the creature moaned.
Like she was having an orgasm.
Bedevil squeaked. This was how Gabe saw her.
The gaunt mimic jerked its head toward Bedevil. The rest of the mimic’s body contorted to face her. Bones cracked and realigned.
Gabe vanished from the dream but the mimic did not.
“Oh… Mega… Oh my Gooooooooodddddd…” The mimic flew toward Bedevil in stuttering movements. It opened a jagged mouth of knives. Golden eyes buried deep in the sockets burned through Bedevil’s forehead with their greedy stare.
Bedevil was frozen in place.
The creature dropped to the kitchen tiles and charged at her.
The onslaught spurred Bedevil. She fled through the apartment door and slammed it behind her, and jumped off the apartment balcony to the streets below. She dropped through the mutating buildings, through Gabe’s memories. She saw Gabe trying to get Kitsune to join their mask brunch. She saw Kitsune telling him that was for losers.
No, she hadn’t done that. She was just scared of getting to know him. She was scared of what she’d always known; that he was Megajoule underneath that mask.
Bedevil glanced over her shoulder. The mimic scrambled down the apartment walls after her.
Memories folded together, mixed like someone threw them into a blender. Houston’s landscape groaned, bubbled, shifted up and down. Bedevil couldn’t make heads or tails of where she fled, only that she had to keep moving and keep the mimic behind her.
Gabe’s apartment. The place he knew the best. He had to be there.
She focused in on it and found the building static in the undulating city. She drove hard for it like a port in the storm.
Bedevil slipped through the memories crashing down around her. She washed up against the door to his apartment. She opened it and closed herself inside.
His apartment was stable physically but full of ghosts chattering and arguing. Doc screamed out, “You’re a failure!” Dustdevil jabbed her finger in his face. “You’re a coward!” A ghostly Bedevil weeped. “You’re not him.”
Gabe only saw the worst facets of everyone around him.
Every breath she took scattered silver clouds from her. She stumbled through the ghosts, down the hall. His room. “Please,” Bedevil whispered. “Please be here.”
She gently opened the door.
Bedevil’s heart collapsed. Gabe splayed out on the bed, completely nude. The mimic astride him, grinding down hard as she fucked him. The mimic moaned out in ecstasy. “GAAAaaaaayeeeeebaaa! Meeeeegaaaaaa…. Oh my God….. Gooooodddddddddd…..”
Bedevil couldn’t take it. She refused to let this creature represent her to Gabe. She refused to let it live. “Get off him!” Silver fire ignited around her body as she tackled the mimic off Gabe.
They rolled from Gabe, clawing at each other in wild fury. The flames surrounding Bedevil hissed against the mimic’s skin. “You won’t touch him again!”
The mimic could not pierce Bedevil’s aura. A grating shriek tore from the knife-mouth, a desperate, agonized howl.
Bedevil did not relent. If this thing was poisoning Gabe’s mind, she’d rather it poisoned hers. She wrestled with the creature and thought of her happy place.
They were torn in half, two places at once. One foot in Gabe’s bedroom, one foot in the sunny shore of Bedevil’s Affect. Bedevil felt the wet sand beneath her feet and pulled the creature in with her.
Before she could pull it further and close the portal, Gabe’s room exploded in fire. A shining, bronze elemental ripped through the wall, holding a half-broken sword in his hands. “Bedevil!”
That was my voice.
The mimic retreated across the wall like a spider, but I was faster. “You’re not her.” I ripped her in half with my hands. A simple motion. “But I’d wondered where you were hiding. Corrupting my memories.”
“Gabe?” Bedevil asked, still partway in her happy place.
I turned toward her, and then back to the bed. Bedevil looked as well.
Again the memory played. The mimic riding the past Gabe until she had her pleasure. She sneered down at Gabe as he wept. “That’s not right, is it?” I asked.
Bronze light filled Bedevil’s vision.
When she could see again, the apartment was whole and the gaunt mimic was gone. Instead, past Gabe and past Bedevil made love on the bed like nothing was wrong. They were passionate and intimate, and she saw no pain between them.
That wasn’t right either, but it was a damn sight better than the horrible memory that was there before.
I acknowledged her at last. “It’s good to see you. It’s been a while.” Hard to say how I felt in that moment, other than driven to end the battle once and for all. That drive stoked my flame until I was aglow. Bedevil’s own fire responded in kind, silver and bright.
She reached out and took my hand, unburnt by my molten fingers. “Epione is buying us time.”
I frowned. “I don’t want to let her fight it for long. It’s a cruel joke of a fight.”
Bedevil felt bad, too, but Epione had brought her here for this purpose. “She wants you to rest.”
“If I rest, it takes my body. Every moment I relent, it gains control. If she falls for a second, then it could kill someone with my power. I should help her.”
The scars of my fight were evident. Even though I seemed a god to her, bruises and stripes still dotted my skin.
“I’m here to help. If you say we go and fight, we go and fight,” Bedevil said. “All three of us.”
I stroked her hair, the softness of my face clashing with the metallic sheen. “You can’t. Epione can because of her power, but I can’t bring you. You wouldn’t be able to do anything and you’d only get hurt.”
Bedevil drew me back into her happy place. She faltered at the threshold, where the world split into my room and her beach. She hesitated to force me. “Epione brought me here to help. I want to help you. I want to comfort you so you have something in all this shit. Would you like that?”
I looked through her. I could feel things rumbling beneath the surface, deep in my psyche. A place that only I could hope to navigate, speaking a language that only Epione, myself, and the Fear knew. “If I feel Epione start to falter, I’ll have to go, okay?”
Bedevil nodded, overjoyed I was agreeing. I followed her to the beach and laid the sword down. My bronze raiment melted away until I was just Gabe, naked and broken before her. Weakness took me. I stumbled on the sand, dropped to my knees, and spat ink form my mouth. Bedevil cried out and caught me. She pulled my head into her lap.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled over and over. “I’m sorry I put that thing in your head.” The mimic version of her, that’s what I saw. She was to blame.
“No.” I reached up and stroked her cheek. “That wasn’t you. That was the Fear. It corrupts all my memories to become worse than they were.”
“If there wasn’t something to twist, you wouldn’t be dealing with this.” She had to own up to what she’d done. “I hurt you, badly. I overwrote you with Megajoule and I never really apologized for that.”
“You’ve more than made up for it.” I gathered all the strength I had for a smile. “You’re the best girlfriend I’ve ever had.”
Bedevil couldn’t really laugh, not now. Maybe later, when she was alone and thought about me fighting this thing for however long its been (my god, it’s been so long) and still cracking a dad joke, but not now. Not now with my head in her lap, the warm sand on my back, and the gentle waves lapping at my feet.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you, too,” I replied.
The first time I’d ever said that to a girl and it was in a dream.
“Gabe, you have to believe in us.”
“I don’t… what do you mean?” I asked.
She grabbed my hand and pulled it to her chest. “Epione told me what was wrong. I mean, how the Fear took you.”
I paid attention.
“She said it’s because you don’t believe in us. You don’t believe in anyone. Not yourself, not me, not even your friends.”
What I really didn’t believe was what I was hearing. “I believe in you all. I’m fighting to get back to you.”
“We’re coming for you, too.” Bedevil’s expression was earnest. Full of love. Full of fire. Silver light caught and shimmered around her. “You aren’t alone. Believe in us, Gabe. Please.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” I reached up for her face but she took my hand and held it against her chest again.
She was exasperated. “You disdain us. Everything… everyone… looks worse to you than it is. You see people once and you hold them in that spot forever. You don’t let them grow. You don’t let them become. And you don’t let yourself grow, either.” She felt on the edge of an ugly cry again. “You’re holding yourself back, even now.”
“I… I don’t disdain you,” I said. “That’s the Fear.”
Bedevil wanted to beat me around the head for being thick-headed. “Baby. It’s your Fear.”
“I believe in you. You’ve been there for me since Houston. I love you.”
“But you don’t believe that we can make the world better,” Bedevil said. “You don’t believe anyone can.”
“But I’m changing my memories to be better. It beat me because it made all of my memories worse, made me doubt my sanity. I’m going the reverse direction. I’ll burn it out of my mind with love and joy, all the positive emotions I have. How is that not believing in you?”
Bedevil wasn’t quite sure how to answer that. Yet, something deep down told her that was wrong. But how to voice that? When I was going to face a nightmare she couldn’t fathom, she felt she had no room to say anything. Instead, she rubbed my head, stroked my shoulders. Her touch, I’ll admit, was relieving.
“I’m not sure your memories are the problem,” Bedevil said at last. “We don’t even really remember what exactly happened in them, just how they made us feel. Has the Fear changed how you feel?”
“I don’t know.”
Bedevil didn’t have an answer for that.
I wanted to say more, to stay longer with her, but at that moment I felt Epione stumble against the Fear. The beach shook with an earthquake as she weakened against its assault. “It’s time.”
Bedevil stifled a silver sob. She bent down and kissed me. “I love you, Gabe. I love you.”
I sat up with all the effort in the world. I rose to my feet, took up my sword once again. I could see the broken city beyond Bedevil’s shoreline, the portal back into my Affect. The storm raged again over the skyline.
I turned back to Bedevil one last time. “I love you, Ruby. I will come back. I promise you, I will break the earth if I have to, but I will find my way back to you.” Bronze light shone from me again. I became the fire, a torch ready to face the darkness once more.
The city erupted into chaos. Dark colors exploded through the buildings and across the highways. They ran their foul fingers across everything, chasing after a single point of brilliant light. A particle named Epione.
“I will come back.” I crossed the threshold.
Bedevil shuddered as I left. She knelt there in the sand, and when I was gone for sure, she let out a hideous wail. The sight of me, as busted as the city of my mind, had almost destroyed her. I was so busted and it killed her.
Even so, she didn’t give up hope. She believed my promise. She made a resolution. She would not kill me.
“Give ‘em hell, babe,” she whispered.