"Hello?" The frail voice is thin, quavering. It comes attached to a slim form wrapped in black, in whose hands is a string of white, spotted beads, clacking nervously as her fingers slip them in well-practiced motions, entering the room. Click. Click. Click. "Where am I? What am I doing here?" A short pause. "Is anybody here?"
A Man rises from the sofa, abandoning his book. He moves towards the hallway, hands open, body language as unthreatening as he can make it. his accent is very Pacific Northwest. "Hello? It's all right. Are you new? I won't hurt you." He is just barely above average in height, classically handsome with dark eyes, tawny skin, and black, curly hair. His features are strongly masculine, with high, aristocratic cheekbones and a cleft chin. A regal nose shadows full lips. He is impeccably groomed, freshly shaved, with a lingering scent of citrus and fougere aftershave. He is wearing a black dress shirt, a red and black patterned waistcoat with matching tie, and deeply pleated black trousers. His shoes are impeccably polished. There is a subtle grace to his movements. "I'm called Dare."
The woman almost lets out a shriek, but manages to stifle it by biting a knuckle, perfectly-painted crimson lips wrapping around her index finger as she shrinks back. She spends a beat with her coal-black eyes raking over Dare, checking mass, fitness, clothing, and mannerisms. The hand lowers as she visibly, forcibly, attempts to regain some degree of composure. Click. Click. Click. Her fingers work the beads with mechanical precision, lips moving silently. "I'm ..." That fear crosses her features again. "... I don't know. I don't know who I am. Where I am. Is ... am I in an institution? Did I break down?" Panic tinges the voice. "Am I going crazy?"
The Martyr is broad shouldered and well muscled, but clearly unarmed. His tone is kind, "You aren't mad. About half of us wake up with no memories and names. We call this the facility. The explanation of what's going on is complicated and involves a lot of speculation, though I will be happy to tell you what we do know. I know this is all very frightening, but you are all right. Are you hungry or thirsty? Some tea perhaps? Or something stronger?"
Calming words. Calming effect. The beads continue their clacking, but at a reduced pace, without the vigor. The relaxation is more thorough, less forced. The woman's throat convulses as she swallows heavily, standing up straighter, trying (and succeeding to a small degree) to regain dignity lost to her lost little girl behavior. The beads reach the end of the long strand and, 108 clicks after she started with them, she stops. In a well-practiced motion she winds the long strand four times around her left arm, leaving them there as a bracelet that makes subtle noises with every arm motion. "There was food in my room. I don't know why. And some water. Tea would be nice, yes. Do you have any biluoch..." She cuts off that word. Her eyes wide like dinner plates with a dollop of caviar in the center. "How do I know that word but not my name?" Panic is edging in again, but fades as she touches something beneath her black silk blazer and white silk top, holding it as she repeats nonsense syllables in a murmur. "Tea would be nice," she repeats, attempting a smile, but looking more like a crazed killer's attempt at a friendly smile. Or a woman so terrified out of her mind she's forgotten how to work her face. "You said you had some answers?" So much hope poured into that question.
The Martyr walks over to the dispenser, "Say the word again. I don't know it. Is it a kind of tea? People who wake up in their rooms the first time come with languages, tech knowledge, place knowledge, that we can sometimes use to figure out place of origin. Most of us are from North America, but I have a friend who is likely from Cape Verde, whom I'm sure you will meet. He didn't know place names Like Oregon, but did know African and some European place names. We narrowed things down from there based on things like languages. Do you know what a smart phone is? see if you know any languages besides English?"
He takes a deep breath, "The rooms tend to be a sort of... expression of the person who inhabits them. It can be a clue. so can your door sign, but that's a conversation for later. Some of us pick nicknames for themselves. Mine is dare, but some people might refer to me as finn or Kemen. Somethings can get pretty... mutable here. Names are one of them. I find it helps to hold on to things hat persist. Those beads are pretty important to you, I think. Can you tell me about them? They might be a clue to religion, for example." He doesn't seem at all alarmed or unnerved by her terror and her manner. he seems rather deeply sympathetic. "Everyone has it hard the first day of their first time. This really is normal. At least for us."
"Bi...luo...chun." She enunciates the words carefully. "It's green snail spring tea. It's ..." She pauses, her forehead wrinkling in consternation. "My favorite? Yes. It is. It's from Jiangsu province. I ... Wo xiang wo shi Zongguoren? I ... speak ... Putonghua."
Her eyes snap to the aforementioned beads as if she's noticed them for the first time. "Jiedi jiedi, boluojiedi, boluosengjiedi, putisapohe." I ... don't know what it means. But I say it. The beads ... they count for me so I..."
She clutches her head, pale brown fingers slithering between glistening black tresses that spill down well past her shoulders. "I don't know how I know all this! But I don't know my name!?" she wails. Countdown to waterworks in 10... 9... 8... ... abort. She freezes in place. Swallows again. Straightens her back and lowers her hands.
"I'm sorry. This is an unseemly display and it can only cause you distress without being constructive. I'm better than this."
Deep breath in. Loud expulsion.
"I'm terribly sorry, I just don't know what's going on and it's frightening me. I'm forgetting my teachings." Beat. "Teachings? I was taught something." Beat. "And who doesn't know what a smart phone is?"
The incongruity of that last question doesn't seem to cross her awareness.
He brings a tray with a pot of biluochun tea and four cups with a selection of honey, cream, or sugar in patching porcelin just in case. "Come sit down. have tea." He gives her a mile that is all dimples and sunshine, "Breathe I know it terrifying and confusing, but it's not so bad here. So those are likely clues to who you were. If you look like enough you'll find an atlas. Books in your other language. Your name, your history are gone, but who you are is still in there. Your personality, your favorite foods. You are still you." He sets the tea service on a coffee table and gives her another kind smile, "I didn't. I didn't know what a smart phone was until one of the people from 2018 showed me. I'm from 1989 originally."
The Healer perches at the edge of the sofa ... not looking like she's trying to flee, but rather like this is how she always sits ... turned toward Dare. The tea is accepted with a gracious smile and another ritual, seemingly as unconscious as the one she'd had with her beads earlier commences. Critical eyes examine the tea's liquor. The eyes then close as the tea is brought to the nose and a deep breath takes in its aroma. Something is mumbled quietly, then, before the tea is lifted to the blindingly red lips, an experimental, slurping sip, ending the ritual.
Then the smile. "Grade I. Wherever I am they're not taking the cheap rou..." She freezes again, eyes widening as she realizes another thing she knows. "It's good tea," she clarifies with a helpless shrug. "Hand-picked and rolled."
Then a calming sip that seems to have a miraculous effect on her mood. "You said something about answers?"
The tea is exactly what she wanted, perfectly steeped. Dare pours himself a cup, sitting out of arms reach so as not to crowd or alarm her. He sips it as is too. "It tastes delicious, though I doubt I'm in a position to appreciate it like you do. The machine will give us food and drink. Whatever we want, though sometimes it takes some persuading if you order something odd. It does give alcohol, but not other drugs, in case you're wondering. For those you need to go into one of the special rooms." He gestures towards the anything rooms, "You can be nearly anywhere in there, though you can't bring anything out that you didn't take in."
he sips, studying her over the rim of his cup, "Understand that none of us know the answers to who is doing this or why or where exactly we are. The... next bit is going to sound like madness, but it's not. When we wake up in the morning here, it is the same as it is every time we wake up during that stay in the facility. If we were wounded the night before, we are healed, that sort of thing. One day, we'll all go to sleep and wake up somewhere else, somewhen else, as other people, though there are certain... underlying similarities, but leave that aside. When we are out there, we don't remember here. When we are here, we remember out there."
The Healer listens patiently to the madness spilling out of Dare's lips, eyes watching him cooly, but not unkindly. She's paying attention. Close attention. But not, it seems, only to the words but also how he says them and how his body language works when delivering them.
"I ... see." Those are her only responding words after he finishes, after she allows for a short pause to ensure that he is, yes, indeed finished. "That is ... quite a ... ah ... revelation."
She's good. She's got the sympathetic part down. She's got even the believing act down pat. Except ... it's obvious she's saying, behind those black eyes, sparkling like diamonds with something made of two parts empathy, one part amusement, and one part fear, that she believes this is what he believes.
She finishes her tea in silence, savouring its flavour, before speaking further.
"I have some thinking to do. I shall try to find that room I came out of again. Thank you, Dare, for the tea and the ... ah ... information."
She rises with grace and poise, inclining her head, before heading for the door of the parlor.
It's clear why she's here. There's so much madness she has to cure...
Speaking of madness... okay, Briar is actually quite mellow at the moment. They come out of the hallway, into the parlor, and they're wearing leggings and an oversized sweater that drapes over one shoulder. Their hair is piled on their head and held in place with a chopstick. They look quite cozy, actually.
They also smile when they spy Dare. "Hello, darling. I was hoping I'd run into you today. We haven't been crossing paths as often as I'd like." They gravitate toward him, arms held out for a hug.
The Martyr perks up the instant he sees Briar. It is essentially the same outfit he has been wearing every day this time, only with a red and black patterned vest and tie. He looks so very hopeful as he rises, "I have what i am assured is very good tea by our new arrival." he hugs her without hesitate, "I know you need space and time to work on your marriage, so I have been trying to be good, Love. I miss you though."
The Addict's brows rise a titch. "I don't need space and time away from you. I was beginning to wonder if I'd put you off somehow." They kiss Dare on the lips. "Chance and I are doing fine, love. You don't have to stand in the wings." They pout, gazing at Dare with those big brown eyes. "How can I be coy if you won't give chase? I was beginning to think I'd lost my touch."
The Martyr kisses them warm and not at all stand offish. "Of course not. I adore you. Every night I find myself wishing I could come crawl into bed with you like we used to." He strokes their cheek, "I was trying to be sensitive to your needs. I know how important he is to you." He touches forehead to forehead, "We need a sock code or something." He gazes into their eyes, "You are incredibly important to me."
The Addict relaxes with a soft sigh. "I believe Chance and Senni are making up tonight. Why don't you come to bed with me? We have some making up to do, ourselves. It feels like it's been years, darling. I'd like to go on some romantic date with you in one of the rooms and do everything just right, but maybe first we just need a night to ourselves. You are one of my needs."
The Martyr kisses them slow and deep, "I think that sounds perfect, Briar Love. You are definitely one of my needs to." He bites his lip, "There are a whole lot of things I miss doing with you."
Briar glances from one side to the other and says in a low, but amused tone, "Behave, sweetheart." They grin, steal another kiss, and draw away. "I'm going to get something to eat. I'll be right back." They head toward the dispensary, returning shortly with a bowl of strawberry ice cream. They sit down on a couch and tuck their legs beneath them. "Come join me," they say, "and tell me how you're doing. How is the newcomer adjusting?"
The Martyr collects his tea cup and settles in next to them, "From her expression she has gone from terrified to considering a poor benighted lunatic, so that's progress. I remember Arcade going through the same thing in the beginning. I hope it helps when she has a chance to meet more of us, though the whole God thing might argue for shared delusion so I am hoping people roll out the who we used to be gods who ate people thing slowly for her. I wish I were better at this. The explaining."
"Yeah, we might not want to lead with cannibal monsters and gods," Briar says. They dip their spoon into the ice cream and scoop it into their mouth. "Mmm, this is my favorite kind. I should check in on Bik to see if he's settling in okay. I know he wasn't sure about eating, but we were going to try every kind of ice cream to see what kinds he likes." They sigh and add, "I wish we were delusional and that there was something normal about any of this." They offer some ice cream to Dare. "Here, try this. It's made with real strawberries, or about as real as anything is here."
The Martyr sips his tea, "He came out again? That's good, at least. I worry about him. Fizz is doing okay, by the way. Still getting used to eating again. I'm finding hard to adjust to our relative heights being the opposite of what they were. I'll look up at him and it's like vertigo." He strokes their hair and then slides the ice cream into his mouth, clearly pleased with it. "It tastes real! That's good enough for me."
"Oh, good. He bounces back pretty well, I think. Fizz, I mean. I should stop by and say hello next time I get a chance." They lean against Dare lightly. "I wish we had more time here," they say. "There never seems to be enough time before we're thrust into some other life. Two years gone, and while I'm glad we were friends that time around, I think of all the time we have to make up for."
The Martyr curls an arm around them, "I feel the same. I just want to curl up under your blankets and bury my nose in your hare until we drift off to sleep. I want to find all the ways we're different and the same. I want... to explore this new body with you. I know it's crass, but i do. there were so many things I could do or had to do different the last two years. I want to... break rules with you."
Briar smiles slowly and says in a low tone, "So tonight, we'll go to my room, and you can show me all these rules you want to break, you rebel." They eat their ice cream delicately, with an outward show of innocence, but the heated look they give Dare betrays some desire to do some rule-breaking, too. "I love you," they murmur. "I was so scared you didn't want me the way you used to. That maybe you and Cheer had grown so close..."
The Martyr's lashes lower seductively, "I love you too, down to my marrow." He cups there cheek with his hand and looks her in the eyes, intense and fervent. "That's never going to change, Love. I promise you, whatever happens out there. No matter who else we end up loving here or there, no matter what we do to each other or to other people out there. In here, I love you. I want you. You are home to me, the only real home there is."
The Addict leans over to steal an ice cream flavored kiss. "We're all we have in this place," they say. "You and Chance and Arthur are my everything. It would be so easy to give in to despair without you guys. I've never had a chance to feel unwanted or unloved. I've never been lonely or alone."
The Martyr strokes their hair, "I feel the same about, you, Love. I'm all right as long as you are here with me.... I like the way this tea goes with your ice cream when we kiss. Is that weird?"
The Addict grins. "It's not weird. Tea and ice cream go well together." They lean into the touch, their eyes lidding. "What if, someday, we just stopped living other lives? Would it be so bad to be stuck in here forever? With rooms we can turn into everything? No more death, no more pain, no more horror? Just us for the rest of our lives? Maybe even forever, since we don't seem to die. I know it's too much to hope, but..."
The Martyr's lips touch theirs, fingers tangling in their hair. He breathes "Yes. That would be all the paradise I need."
The Addict indulges in the kiss, then tells Dare, "Save it for tonight, love. And get a nap in if you're likely to get tired, because I don't plan on sleeping." Their cheeks color then, and they look around, lest anyone walk in on them. They're not as open as Sekmet and Osiris were, alas. "Tell me where you want to go after we go to Paris."
The Martyr kisses the tip of their nose, "I'm not planning on sleeping either." Then he demurely returns to his tea, thinking as he sips, "Is it weird i'd like to go to San Fransisco Pride in the days before the Plague. I... never got to go to Pride alive. I'm being stupid, aren't I?"
The Addict shakes their head and says, "Not at all. Let's go to San Francisco Pride after we do Paris. Then we can maybe visit other cities in some future when we don't have to worry about being seen. Chance said in 2018, we can even get married. That it's not perfect, but it's a lot better. I want to walk down the street with you holding your hand and not worry about anything."
The Martyr takes their hand and lifts it to their lips, "I want that too. I want to be in a future where we are truly free. I..." slowly he kisses their lips, "I'd marry you if we weren't... whatever it is we really are. If you wanted me to."
"I would, I think," Briar says, Their cheeks flush at the kiss, and they set their now empty ice cream bowl aside. "I'm going to take a bubble bath," they say. They steal another kiss, then get to their feet. "Tonight, though, you'll come to my room? I'll leave it unlocked for you. I'd give you a key if I could, but that'll have to do. Come whenever you want."
The Martyr looks at the eyes wide, emotions flitting across his face, "I will give you time for a good leisurely bath. Expect me after. Shall I bring champagne?"
"Sure," Briar says with a grin. "And strawberries, fresh ones. I'll feed them to you." They wink, then turn to make their way back to their room, blowing a kiss over their shoulder.
The Martyr grins, "I am going to see if I can get the dispenser to spit out a bottle of whipped cream.... I love you Briar. Always."
The Martyr still has a tea cup in his hand and is gazing longingly towards the hallway, even though briar has been gone at least five minutes.
A different figure appears in archway, one last seen only a short while ago. Indeed the one responsible for the tea. And what a difference that short time makes.
The outfit, for example, hits similar notes, but instead of being a basic black business dress of heavy China silk it has changed into a pantsuit, the eponymous pants of which are still China silk, of a rawer weave, but whose blazer is a black-on-black brocade depicting stylized moon emblems and some kind of large bird pattern. The underlying top is a tussah silk print with a peony design.
A larger transformation, however, is in deportment. The frightened woman is gone unless you know where to look at the corner of the eyes for the signs of stress. She looks calm and possessed of her senses and reason.
"Please tell me," she says with a slightly amused smile on her face, "that you weren't looking out after me for all that time and that your current gaze of one besotted is targeted at another?"
"Thank you for your earlier help, Dare. It was quite helpful." It gives me a purpose. Curing madness.
The Martyr's expression shifts the moment someone appears in the door, his warm smile returns and he rises, with that careful non-threatening body langue, "you look refreshed." He shakes his head, amused, "Briar was just here. You'll meet them soon, I'm sure. We've been together since Beaver lodge, which I know sounds like a dirty joke, but was an island vacation spot on a Lake in Oregon." There is something sympathetic and knowing in his dark eyes that suggests he knows perfectly well that she thinks he's insane. "We're only just back a few days ago, and a lot of them are staying in their rooms still. We were gone two years and people have... a lot to process and adjust to."
"I had a chance," The Healer says, "to meditate. Apparently this is something I do. It calmed me and it let me find a few more tidbits of ... what I am. Who I am." The face goes dark momentarily. "Not my name. That's ... nowhere to be found. But my avocation. Apparently I'm some form of physician." Not mentioned: she thinks she's a psychiatrist. Or maybe a witch doctor. That's not clear yet.
"My earlier conduct was not productive, but I plead shock and beg your forgiveness, Dare. I do not wish to be a burden on you." Your madness is burden enough, her eyes say. "It was very kind of you to make that tea for me. At some point I would like to be in a position to perform an act of kindness for you. Until then my expression of gratitude will have to suffice."
And the award for most stilted "thank you" goes to...
The Martyr's warm, "It is alarming to wake up without your memory. It generally takes people a while to adjust. I started out there instead of here, so the Facility and... some other things were a shock to me, but at least the faces were familiar. We do all have a core self. it's good you've found something to hold on to so quickly. Would you like more tea? A tour? Something to eat? Do you have questions?"
"Questions I have aplenty, but not enough information to formulate one that is sensible, I'm afraid," The Healer chuckles politely. "I was trying to figure out how to broach the next topic with you, but you very kindly did it on my behalf. Might I impose upon you for a tour? It would aid me in getting my bearings and figuring out how to ask questions later. And which to ask."
And watching your patients in their delusion is always a required activity.
"As part of orientation, it would be nice to learn how to acquire my own food and drink," she continues, "so I cease being a burden and start being ... an asset." The smile is warm and yet distant. Stand-offish. "It would also be nice to know how one acquires wardrobe, where laundry facilities are to be found, and where one might find items of ... ah ... personal hygiene and ... enhancement?" Pause. "Make-up, in short."
The Martyr nods and leads her to the dining hall. "We eat in here sometimes, but a lot of people end up eating in the parlor, their rooms, or in the Anywhere Rooms. This machine dispenses food and drink. You can generally get it to give you what you want, but if you want something really unusual it can take a while to get it to understand. you decide what you want, press this, and it comes out."
He leads her back out and towards the Hallway of Rooms, "You may have noticed that most of the doors have a sigil on them. Each symbol stands for the person who's room it is. When they pass the door with a symbol of a person hung upside down in chains above a broken scale. There is a spilled wine bottle to one side of the broken scale and a scattering of pills on the other, he presses his hand to the symbol. "This is Briar's room. Mine's further down with the severed heart etched in it. each room is furnished in a way that expresses the inhabitant's personality. You will find clothes that suit you in you closet and drawers. If you search likely places like a vanity drawer or in your personal bathroom you should have make up and bath products and the like. If the door goes blank, the person who's room it is, is gone. your room may have a hamper. If it doesn't, don't worry. Everything will be clean and new in the morning exactly as it was when you woke the day before.
The Healer gives all impressions of taking copious notes, though there is not a notepad in sight. The sigils on the door capture her instant interest, analytical eyes casting over them once, then looking more closely at the more ... esoteric ones.
She points to a door as they pass, a stylized monk before a lotus pond with a giant figure dropping a tear into the pond before him.
She eyes the sigil on her door critically, then glances at neighboring doors once more.
"The question here is which of those is me?" The question roots her in place a while as her brain visibly goes into some kind of fugue state, processing thoughts heavily. Then, like a light switch being flicked, she's back. "It's appropriate," she decides. Her eyes swivel to Dare. "This facility has interesting features. I look forward to meeting those who built it and who placed me in it. They know ... much of me, it seems. The room I thought was furnished in some standard way, but you say it was custom fit? If so, it's alarmingly close to perfection."
The Martyr studies it, "That makes sense, doesn't it? The meditation, the beads?" He contemplates the question of which is her in a way that suggests he takes it very seriously. "It could be both, or the tear could symbolize something in itself, or it could be that together they mean something... Let me show you Arcade's Door and maybe Cheer's." The door is a little past his own, "This is Arcade's." It shows a standard tsunami warning sign, though in this case the human figure is not fleeing, but rather carrying a surfboard towards the wave. "he makes the best of things. He's always hopeful that no matter how bad something is, something good will come out of it. The sign suits, but if you look at the figure without the context it makes not sense." He shakes his head, "We've not met them. We don't know the why of this, though I believe there must be one. A number of us would definitely like a word with them, but they haven't appeared yet. The rooms are very custom. Some are very... extreme. You'll see when you've met more people."
"Truth be told, I'm not sure I like my soul being bared like this for all to see," The Healer says, looking at the other doors, but then glancing back at her own. "I assume, however, that I willingly partook of this enterprise." The doctor, in short, willingly choosing to live among her patients. "So there is probably a reason for it."
Her hand clutches at her chest again, feeling something beneath the raw silk of her top.
"When you say 'meet more' ... approximately how many more pa... people are there here? I've seen you. I've heard you mention three others." How many patients strong is my workload? "From the sheer number of marked doors here, I'm going to assume each is a person you at least know of?"
The Martyr nods, "It can be unnerving at first but once you've been here a while you get used to... different privacy norms. I have no idea if any of us consented to this. I have no reason to think we did." He starts walking back towards the parlour, "I don't know some of them very well. It's possible there are people I missed, and people occasionally disappear and new people appear like you did now and then. You'll understand better next time you're back."
He flashes her a sunny smile, having caught the implication. Easy going he may seem, but there is a sharp intelligence underneath and he pays attention, "Arcade thought what you did at first. People often do. It's all right, I'm not offended." he gestures to the radio, "A bunch of people have trauma around Radio, so I've been leaving it off until people have time to decompress. If you are out here alone and someone panics about it, remind them it's okay to disable it if it makes them feel safer. It'll be back together in the morning whatever they do to it, and the important thing is to calm them down and help them get oriented. Just generality try not to do anything really rude in the common areas. As Briar says, "We all have to live here."
he lads her to the two unmarked doors off the common areas, "These are the Anywhere Rooms. Time moves quickly in there. They are what they sound like. You can pretty much go anywhere you can imagine. If you go somewhere and when you've been out there, there is a tendency to revert. You have nothing to revert to yet, but I thought I'd warn you in case one of the others takes you somewhere from their past and they look, sound, and act different. Think of somewhere, anywhere, and open the door."
That catches her attention. That doesn't fit any model she has of her perceived position here. Black diamonds in a pool of milk analyze Dare's face, looking for glimpses of humour. Laughter. Mischief. Anything that says this is not real. Her eyes narrow. She eyes the proffered door and grasps the handle. Pauses, steeling herself. Then opens the door.
On the other side is a colourful, loud courtyard, covered in banners, oriental-style buildings surrounding it, men and women in saffron robes walking through milling crowds with cameras.
The Healer reels back, letting slip the door handle as she turns so pale her lips look like they're bleeding.
"This isn't real!" she insists. "This can't be!" Her breathing is heavy and ragged, fight or flight kicking in before...
Her eyes close. Head bows. She murmurs something to herself. Repeating once. Twice. Thrice. The breathing stabilizes. Her colour starts to return.
"That is very ... impressive..." she mutters. "I wasn't aware that this technology existed."
She turns to face Dare, emphatically not looking through the door. "How long has that been there?"
The Martyr is sincere, calm, and entirely empathetic. He is, in his way, trying to be gentle, but he's also doing what he can to help her adjust to what passes locally for reality. he does not touch her when she reels, but he has placed himself in such a way that if she fainted, he could catch her. "This is only my second time here. Unlike you, I started out there, in Beaver Lake 1989." The cadence and accent of his speech shifts without him noticing from '80's Oregon to richly accented aristocratic Egyptian with just a kiss from British public school, "We are just back from two years in a Dust Bowl Carnival. The ones who have been here longer than I say these doors were not here before." He gives her a sheepish smile and shrugs, reverting to the accent of the civil rights lawyer he mostly sounds like, "So it's a matter of how you mark time. Does time out there count?" He meets her eyes, "Do you need to sit down? drink more tea, perhaps, or are you ready to see one more thing?"
That mask The Healer wears is threadbare at the moment, allowing things to leak. A complex interplay of emotions runs across her face, muted only slightly. Fear. Anger. Curiosity. She turns to face the doorway again, staring at what's behind it. Then, in an act of visible, physical courage, she steps toward it to grasp the door, slamming it shut.
Slamming. Some of her poise is still gone.
"Ready? I have no idea. But let's get this over with so I can meditate on all of it together."
Fragile she may seem, but there's a backbone at least.
"Please, lead on. You are an excellent guide."
The Martyr nods, deciding to rip the bandaid off all at once, one rational intelligent person to another. "I am going to reopen the door, and I am going to need you to step through it with me. Do you think you can do it?"
That shakes her. That visibly shakes her to the core. "Why?..." she asks, voice trailing off. Then ... "Yes. Yes, I think I can." That spine showing again. Though it's perhaps not quite as stiff as it was before. Her voice goes plaintive. "What will happen to me there?"
The Martyr's eyes are so very serious, and something about his gaze suggests he has survived some things many people wouldn't, "Nothing that will harm you. Mostly, I think it might help you to really understand what you are dealing with here. You don't look like the type who likes to pretend to herself that what is happening, isn't. In your place, I'd rather know." his hand is on the door, ready to open it.
There's a distinct trembling. Her eyes refuse to meet Dare's. They're fixed on his hand at the door handle. Then she steps up and opens it herself, her hand resting atop The Martyr's.
"What's going to happen?"
The Martyr says gently, "I'm going to show you who I used to be." And then he opens the door. The temple is gone, and instead it'ss a rather lovely park near the top of a hill, with an open space edged with wild flowers and a mix of deciduous and pine trees. So college guys are playing Frisbee off to the left, looking... very '80's pseudo hippy from their clothes and hair. There is a picnic set out on a blanket with the twin of the tea pot and cups on it." he bows in courtly fashion to usher her in.
There is a faint noise behind them, footsteps. Quiet, because those feet are bare, and also because the person who has them is carrying a tub of ice cream with a spoon in it. The black man, with glasses and a thoughtful smile, is in sweat pants, with a pink t-shirt on "Mmmf?" he says, lifting the spoon to his mouth "Oh, wow, wwwwait - Philomena?" He eyes the Martyr thoughtfully, then peers past through to the door "Whaf thaf?"
The Healer's hand is almost immediately removed from Dare's, moved to cross with the other before her chest, a half-step separating her from her guide. A practiced mask of calm detachment swoops down from the sky and plants itself on her face.
"This is one of the other ones you were talking of?" she asks The Martyr, casting a practiced, assessing eye over the man, noting size, stature, demeanor ... and the ... ice cream?
"I would introduce myself," she says with a disarming, very professional smile, "but unfortunately that little tidbit of knowledge has not yet manifested itself." She pauses and frowns. "I have no idea even what name to use."
The Martyr gives the Optimist a wave, "Arcade, I'm sorry, it's not Philomena. It's someone new. I'm taking her to Eugene Oregon in the '80's. Want to come? New person, this is Arcade, who I was telling you about. The one with the tsunami surfer on his door." Then he steps through himself and he.... stretches. Four or five inches. Rather suddenly the well built Latino is an extremely skinny white man. The subtle masculine grace of his walk is replaced with an awkwardness that matches his gangling limbs. He's now dressed in an Adam Ant tee and torn up black jeans. He's also younger. The man who had been showing her around was in his early thirties. This one is in his mid-twenties at most, though it's hard to tell because he's rather baby faced. He runs a fish belly pale hand through his straight black forelock, looking sheepish, "So this was me when I was Finn."
The Optimist is maybe a little taller than average, and fit. But mostly, he has a faintly bright smile on his face, dark brown eyes, and an open, easily readable expression. This is the kind of person for whom the glass is already half full "Oh, don't worry about that," he says "We pick our own names. Haven't a clue what mine was, assuming I'm even a real person. I've decided to call myself Arcade. But I was the giant serpent called Ouroboras, Philomena, remember, we were, umn. You know, romantically involved? Kind of. Er. Sort of." He shoots the Martyr a look, then looks embarrassed, and he says "Erm, oh, sure! Yes, er. I am. Ugh. Forget I said anything." He eyes the door, and then steps through himself. He? Does not change, at all. Same clothes. Same ice cream, same expression.
That forehead wrinkles and creases as brows practically knit together. The arms crossed before her get a little tighter. The Martyr will recognize her control slipping again, having seen that at least twice before.
"I'm sure we haven't met before, sir," she says. The body language is defensive, but her professional cool remains, leaving that little touch of warmth in her voice, so belied by the crossed arms and wary posture.
The Healer herself, naturally, does not change in passing the door. Still the almost crystalline Han face. Still the perfect make-up. Still the silk brocade blazer and China weave silk pants. And still the coal black eyes searching her companions--reacting with odd equanimity to Dare's change--and then her surroundings for ... clues. A lifeline. Anything to make this all make sense.
Then a slight grin at Arcade's discomfort. Apparently she's found it disarming. That hug of herself across her chest relaxes.
"I'm not sure I can forget what you said, but I won't hold a natural error against you," she adds.
The Martyr winces at the mention of Ouroboras, "I was hoping to hold off on the details about last time until I'd convinced her I wasn't a mental patient." he smiles gently at his friend, "you thought the same thing when we first met, didn't you." He turns to the woman and asks, "Would you like tea? I imagined the same kind you ask for on your arrival. I thought somewhere quieter to give you less to deal with while you adjust, but I wanted you to understand that this isn't a very good projection or the like and that... I am not delusional. A lot of people are going to tell you really strange things about places they've been and things they've done. It the long run, it will help if you... don't reject this. You're one of us now for better or worse."
"I miss her," says Arcade to the newcomer "Man, be prepared for a lot more boring sentimentality like that. I miss the person that probably wasn't even real, ughhhh, I don't know. Man, are we gonna get a counselor or what?" He digs a spoon into the ice cream, and then he says to the Martyr "Errm, well, she'll either come to accept it or not. We can ease the process, but we can't make that journey for h - sorry, what pronouns do you prefer?" He turns around to the Healer, and adds "Some of us here have different bodies from the ones we started with, so it's not a bad idea to ask." Then he wrinkles his nose "Yeah, it's all a giant collection of crazy, but I have my theories on why it exists. Man, is this an Anywhere room? I could show her what I really look like!"
The word "counselor" catches The Healer's attention, snapping her head around to look at Arcade with interest. "That rings a bell," she muses... She fingers the white beads at her wrist as her eyes roll back briefly. "I think ... maybe? ... that's what I do."
Like she didn't almost slip and call the people here her patients earlier...
"Dare, would you mind...?" She asks, turning attention to him again and not bothering to wait for an answer, grasps his hand. Which she released almost instantly with a shocked look on her face.
"It's different. It's ... not the same hand. You ..."
Again her eyes sweep her surroundings.
"This place ... it's ..."
She looks at Arcade. "This is why you thought I was this ... Philomena? Because nobody's the same?"
Yeah, there's that panic building up again. The realization is settling. This is real. "What is the real you then?"
The Martyr says softly, "I am sorry for you loss, Arcade. I'm going to keep hoping there is a second Facility somewhere, but we are left with hope alone." The the healer he says, "A lot of people here are often grieving or dealing with trauma. Things get complicated out there and here, we do our best to pick up the pieces as best we can." He smiles sadly at the Optimist, "I have often thought that, but the best we have been able do is help each other as best we can." Back to the healer, "When I was Finn I was a Civil Rights Criminal Defense Attorney. Mostly. A counselor, but people have joked I could have been the other kind. Almost is not really enough though."
He nods his acquiescence to the touch. He really has changed shape. "Not everyone. There are usually some differences between there and here. This scale of change though? This is new, except for what happened to Wendy. I'm now thinking that was a foreshadowing of what would happen to Cheer and I, and we aren't sure who else."
A crooked smile, "Real is a complicated question for us. This is what I used to look like. Then I was Egyptian. A few days ago I woke up like this. I would argue that the real me is in here." He touches his chest. "Love and sacrifice. A fondness for whiskey and a particular fashion sense. The relationships I have chosen for myself that endure when all else is in flux. Me. Not this face or Kemen's or this new one I had when we met."
"It's where he came from. I can't make a place like this, because I can't really remember enough - though if I want to, I guess I could tell the facility to imagine a Capo Verde. Who the hell knows if it would be accurate, since we're sort of beyond the boundaries of effective comprehension. I mean, definitionally, I guess we could always be forced to imagine we were in the right place and we wouldn't know." He spreads his hands, then grabs at his ice cream, holding it, and he says "Yeah, basically I don't know how people here operate without being total messes."
He nods to the Martyr, but there is a bit of an element of shrug at it too, and then he says "Mmhh. I think I'm the same whenever I'm in the Facility here, but frankly, I don't know _and_ I don't feel normal. This isn't my 'real' shape, to me. My 'real' shape is a big snake. That feels natural." He glances at the Martyr, and he says "Can I just _change_ in here? Or will I die or something? I don't want to do that..." Then he beams at the Healer, and he says "Lemme try!"
The man starts to shift, first faint scales arise, and then all too gut-wrenchingly quickly, he falls apart, into a massive coil of muscle and bone. The snake there is bigger than an anaconda from the jungle, with a head broader than a man's. It is black skinned, rainbow scaled, with golden eyes and it says to Dare "Hey, look, I'm me again! Lemme give you a hug..."
The breaking point has been reached. Someone with a frame-by-frame viewer could spot the microsecond when The Healer's mind snaps. She stares aghast at the transformation. The snake before her hits something primal and her feet freeze, rooted in the spot by pure, raw dread.
There's olfactory evidence of her fear and loss of control as well, but for courtesy of any present weaker stomachs the details of this will be left only hinted at.
Then she's stepping back, after a few seconds, after the THING turns its attention to Dare. One step becomes two, two becomes three becomes an ass firmly planted on the ground. Wild eyes stare. Mouth screams soundlessly ... open as if to scream but nothing beyond some choked noises escaping her throat. She continues with the retreat, scrabbling back across the grass, then through the tea set, heedless of the scalding water spilling across her.
The Martyr explains to the Healer, "If we die here, we come back alive ever morning at Reset, but I am told it still hurts by those who have done it. Injuries definitely hurt until reset." Rather than being horrified by the change of man into snake, he drops to sit cross legged, all bony knees and elbows, opening his arms invitingly, "I missed hugging you."
Then he's watching the poor woman fall apart with real concern, "See, Arcade? his is why I wanted to save the details of last time until she'd had time to process the basics.... I'm sorry, Miss. He was only man for a few days before he became a snake and he's not entirely adjusted to human norms."
"I dropped my ice cream -" says the Optimist suddenly, staring down at where it lies on the floor "Well, that's it. I can't hold a spoon now," he adds, flicking his tail and staring at it "It's not _that_ agile..." He does move forward and he twines himself around Dare, lifting the man up easily. He is monstrous, the Optimist is - there is no mortal serpent this large, and besides, the ridiculous rainbowed scales are clearly strange things. He then turns his head towards the Healer - snakes may not have the best hearing, but their sense of smell is excellent "Er...sorry," he says "I don't eat pe...I won't eat you!" The entire time, he is bouncing Dare down his length so that the man ends up sitting on a cushion made out of his own body "Sorry," he says to Dare "I find humans a little, erm. Difficult. I mean, erhhhh. Can we toss her in your bath? Yours is better than mine."
The blasé behavior of Dare with the ... THING! ... is not helping things at all. What he thinks as perhaps being calming and reassuring is putting the utter ALIENNESS of what she's seeing into sharp relief. She continues scrabbling back, choking noises from her throat until she's got a tree near her. Something solid she can use to ground herself.
"I ... what?" She babbles half-formed thoughts and questions. "He ... why? ... how? ... snake! ... talk! ..."
Time to visit Egypt. That wonderful river: da Nile.
"Jiedi jiedi boluojiedi boluosengjiedi putisapohe!" she starts chanting, clambering to her feet, then turning to face the tree, holding it as tightly as she clenches her eyes closed. "Jiedi jiedi boluojiedi boluosengjiedi putisapohe!" Just over and over again. Taking that nice trip on the riverboat.
The Martyr hugs the coil back, serene in a situation now sane person could be, "We can get you more ice cream." He chuckles, "Definitely don't eat me, I have a date with Briar I should go to soon and I do not want to piss them off." he presses his cheek to the rainbow snake's scales and murmurs, "See? Friends can hug." He sighs, "I think she's had enough of weirdness for one day, My friend. She would likely be happier with quiet time in her her own bath." He gives the snake another squeeze, and steps out of the coils, "We'll go to the Hot Springs outside of Truth and Consequences Arizona soon, all right? But I think we had better take her home." He says gently, "Miss? Would you like to go back to your room now? Maybe have a nap?"
"I'm not a snake, I'm a metaphor for the constant improvement of the self through the purging of the shadow nature," says the creature, a bit desperately "I mean, I _am_ a snake, a really big one, but I'm awfully nice, as long as - you know, never mind that particular bit. All is contained within the one! Errrr...I don't speak very much Cantonese? I mean, not after the fifteenth century. Oh, god, is it Mandarin? I don't mean to be racist." the snake then says to Dare "I won't eat you. I mean, here I don't feel that eternal hunger now. I'm nice. I mean, I'm sort of an eternal transformational force -" He cannot _look_ disappointed as Dare leaves him. The face cannot change. But the voice sounds that way "Oh, okay." There is a bit of a pause, and then the serpent releases Dare "She's going to have to get used to us."
The ... prayers? ... mantras? Something. They continue for a while as The Healer clutches to the (fake) tree with intense panic, eyes leaking water like a faucet in a cheap motel. They trail off into sobs of terror as she weakly repeats "no ... no ... no ... no ... no ..."
Finally she turns to regard the pair ... flinching with terror at the snake.
"I ... would like ..." she says, desperately trying to regain some semblance of composure, a task rendered difficult at her ... leakage. She pauses to muster more courage. "I would like..." she repeats, continuing, "...to return. To my room. If that could be permitted."
Haunted eyes stare with desperate pleading.
The Martyr says with sincerity to the giant snake, "We can lounge in the springs and I could rub oil into your scales and you can hug me all you want then. She will get used to us. It's her first day. She needs time to process things. Like you did when you first got back. Have a little empathy." he offers her his hand, "We'll go right now, all right? The door opens if we want it." A door appears in the middle of the field. A good bath and some sleep and you'll feel better."
"I can't stop you - if I step out of here, boom, I'm human vanilla flavoured again," says the giant serpent "Which is pretty awful, but I can't help it. Oh, you'd do that?" It moves, staring at Dare, and the coils loop and shift, and then he says "I'll go with you to the hot springs. I've missed being _me_ so badly. It's been terrible, Dare. I'm so weak. And I don't have the right feelings. But in this body, I'm what I'm supposed to be." He turns his head to stare at the Healer, and then suddenly he is slithering away, quite quickly "Yes, yes," he says, as he goes "I'm going. This is empathy, I'm working it out."
All pretense at composure is gone. The Healer sees the door, then looks at Dare and ... well she can only now think of him as the thing ... licking her lips nervously as she judges the distance to the door and the positions of the other two. Then she makes a run for it, sprinting in bare feet, shedding her low heels in favour of sure footing, across the grass to that door without a word.
Slight frame. Bare feet. Carpeted flooring beyond. It's impossible to tell from within the room how long the run lasts after exiting, but ... let's face it. It probably lasted all the way to her room.
Point in her favour. She didn't scream. That's something, isn't it?
The Martyr looks into the snake's eyes, "Of course I would do that with you, My friend. I care about you. I have since the beginning. We'll go back and be what we were then together." He watches her go in real distress, but he skritches the snake's frill. "Tonight I have promised all my attention to Briar, but after that, come find me when you want to go."