[FRAG] The Poison Well
A story within the Psi Timeline, in some ways the story of Psi, moment-by-moment the lives of its Fragments. But every moment and every story has its own sheen of realizations and growth, as Beginnings and Endings comes to realize.
= PSI: THE POISON WELL =
“Exactly the same as the last,” came the tired response.
The hum of the ship’s engines cut as they neared the island, the pitch-black murk of the water rippling gently. The air was muted, stuffed, rotted with mildew and age - a sign of the danger they’d trespassed on.
Neither Frag spoke as Smudged to Sulfur Horizons reached out with a long pole and gingerly freed a bright tarp from the heaping of trash, lifting its soggy mass.
A familiar-looking cartoon emblazoned it, in bright swirls and colors, proclaiming some product in a language neither recognized. Scattered overtop were scrawled letters, drawn panicked and quick, tinged with desperation and fear.
“Do you think that’s the only thing today?” Beginnings and Endings asked, voice quiet. He stood at the boat’s helm, but still hadn’t put his hands on the panel, instead ghosting overtop.
“I hope.” with the gruff response, Horizons lifted the tarp up and shook it free of algae and water.
Thick black droplets splattered across the other garbage surrounding them like sharks, sprayed against the side of the boat. But it made the tarp clean enough when it draped over the deck.
Beginnings tore his eyes from the scene back towards the panel. None of its few screens had lit up in alarm or panic since they’d sniffed out the tarp and pointed the duo in its direction. The readings were average, normal, simple, comforting, soothing.
He reached to flick the engine back on. The machinery within the boat grumbled, then spluttered to death. He frowned.
“Sounds like something’s stuck in the propeller,” Horizons said, glancing back towards the rear. “It doesn’t matter. If not now, there’d be something later.”
“Should I get the oars?”
“Help me carry this belowdeck. I don’t want to levitate it.”
That made sense. Interfering with its natural magic made it harder to discern what Timeline it had been stolen from, and that only resulted in frustration and resentment.
Beginnings scurried to Horizons’ side. In the low light of the pale moons, he could see the other’s quiet and irritated face, gray light against their muzzle and flashing in their eyes.
But he busied himself with the tarp instead - with its cold and clammy waterproofed-not-quite-well-enough texture, wrapping up fistfuls of it and shifting by sidestep towards the stairs in tandem with Horizons.
They wrapped it around a pole of some sort and tucked it against a fiberglass wall. It sagged in sadness, but remained there inert and contained, a memory of someone else’s.
They both stared for a long moment.
“Can’t believe this thing was setting off the alarms so bad,” Horizons finally said, throwing an arm up in exasperation.
“That makes it potent, right?”
Horizons huffed, averting their eyes. That meant they weren’t so sure, themself. “Something like that. Ask Tower; I didn’t make the instruments.”
He wasn’t going to ask Tower. The very thought chilled his stomach into fear, but he squared his shoulders and tried to breathe it out instead.
“At least we have an operative, today,” Horizons said, more of a comfort to themself than a statement.
“Yeah,” Beginnings said.
“Hopefully they’ll have some idea of where we’re getting all this shit.” Horizons made to kick the tarp, but thought better - retracted their foot guiltily.
The COR was good at catalogs. He had to give them that. Somewhere in one of their huge binders and books and computers, they’d cross-reference the atoms-magic-soul of the tarps and the colorful symbols and shapes strewn over it and hum and click their tongue and somehow discern its home Timeline.
And then they’d whisk it away, and patch up the holes in its home like a motherly seamstress, and they’d never hear of it again.
Or, said the cynical part of him, they just incinerated the confiscated artifacts and lied to Psi’s face raw just to keep them placated and busy.
“Let’s get the oars,” Horizons said.
“Okay,” he replied.
The oars were resting, stalwart, against the far wall. They were light but strong, made of enchanted wood, and did not protest as they plucked them.
Little grooves had worn where he normally held his, little imprints of his slim fingers. He traced them as they emerged back above deck, and Horizons split to peer at the panels again.
Beginnings stared out over the waters, over the murky ocean. It choked the continent they lived on like a noose, wrapped wholly around it, eating at its coastlines every day. A dozen magic circles, of Tower’s make, were not enough to fully hold it back.
It swelled and throbbed with stolen trinkets and gifts, wrenched from their homes by Psi’s hungry maw. Did it know what exactly it held? Did it care?
He’d heard stories of Timelines of flesh and bone, fashioned from the insides of spongy bone and the criss-cross holes and tunnels of sinew. He’d heard how they twitched and pulsed, alive and gravid with blood, wrapped cells around mortals and disappeared them into its cavities.
Maybe they were something like that, in a metaphysical and abstract way. Maybe they were some sort of living and breathing creature, little parasites in its belly, and how could he say Psi was wrong for that?
But he shook his head and cleared his mind of the scrawled, fearful writing of the tarp, and the stench of the uncollected and old trash - memories and remnants of their panic and struggle in the early days, a collection of everything they couldn’t and didn’t bother returning.
Not every thing had a Timeline to return to. Where else would they put it?
“Do you want to sweep again?” Horizons asked, lighting a cigarette with a tiny flame on the tip of their finger. They waved their hand to dispel the magic and rounded on him with an expectant eye.
“Um.” words died in his throat like mice in a trap. He glanced down at the quiet control panel, screens dull but computing away.
A part of him wanted to go home. But the part that choked up when he stared at his superiors’ frowns choked him.
There was a pause, and Horizons’ stare softened. Beginnings shrunk away, but didn’t protest - relief filled his chest at the incessant reminder that, of the rest of Psi, Horizons probably knew him best.
“I just want to do one more sweep,” they said, and took a deep swig.
Beginnings stared at the way their lips closed around the end, the way their chest rose. The pose was familiar, but not on Horizons - he had the calm swagger of Clarity of the Wheel, who held his head high and his expectations higher.
Something in the way the wind tugged at their jacket and the forlorn look as they stared at the sea roused the image. He supposed that all lovers began looking like each other eventually.
“I don’t feel good about the damn tarps,” Horizons continued, unperturbed by his silence. “I know, I know I don’t feel ‘good’ about any of this shit. But the writing’s....”
It was concerning. Beginnings nodded, his best approximation of agreement. Horizons nodded back.
Another deep draw of smoke. “Whatever. At least there’s an operative coming today.”
If only he could ask Horizons the thousands of questions that swirled in his mind, the hundred curiosities. Was it scary, was it terrifying? Was it surreal and strange, unbelievable until the limit? What would it be like, to have the fragments of a world fall into the well at the bottom of reality?
But as he thought of them, Cradle of Life’s disappointed expression appeared in his mind’s eye, and he remained silent.
“I hope they’re timely today,” he offered.
Horizons snorted. “They’ll do anything in their damn power to avoid this place. I’m expecting them to be five, six hours behind schedule. That gives us time for another sweep, though.”
Are you doing this to impress Clarity...? The thought occurred to Beginnings, but he remained silent, instead gingerly plucking one of the oars.
“Eager?” a smile had appeared on the other’s face. “Or you just want to hurry home that bad?”
“...Mostly the latter,” he admitted under his breath, wringing the oar back-and-forth.
“Well, let’s be fast about it, then-”
A crackle of telepathy lit up the ship’s comms. Horizons reached for the knob to spin the radio on.
Beginnings startled, turning towards it - a feeling of anxiety budding in his chest and blossoming into nausea - but stilled when Clarity of the Wheel’s stern voice broke through the muggy air.
“Anything?” curt, direct, resolute. The kind of resigned authority that everyone under his orders craved; a verbal mantling of responsibility that comforted.
Horizons involuntarily grinned, a smidge of blush across their face, in spite of themself.
“Another one of the tarps,” they replied, “tucked it in the ship. Nothing else, I don’t think, but well, you know.”
“I see. Unfortunate. Was that all?”
“We were going to do another sweep to be sure, but the instruments didn’t pick up anything else.”
Beginnings cleared his throat. Horizons looked to him, but nodded - permission to speak.
Though he steeled his shoulders and took a deep breath, his squeaky voice wavered: “Do you think the COR operative will be able to discern which Timeline we’re getting stuff from recently?”
The comms crackled as Clarity sighed and fell silent. For a second - two, three - the silence held pungent in the air, sickly-sweet like rot. Little prickles of tension crept up Beginnings’ spine as insects, skittering little legs prodding the muscles under his skin.
His gaze flicked to Horizons, who too had begun to eye the radio with a tense sort of apprehension, fingers curled around the oar. The stillness was choking; what could have-
“-There’s a building.” Clarity’s tone was low, almost ashamed.
“No there fucking isn’t,” was all Horizons said.
“Yes, there fucking is. And it’s sitting in the middle of the North Coast Overpass, because of course it fucking is. Crashed right through it like a rock to glass shortly after you two set out.”
Horizons bristled. “You didn’t say anything sooner?”
“To what end? Have you fret yourselves even more out there?” Clarity’s huff brought forth another wave of static. “Just finish up and get home.”
“It’s going to take us an hour to row through the debris. There’s no wind. We’ll destroy the propellor if we turn on the engine.”
“All the better, then,” Clarity grumbled.
“And if we miss the COR operative?” Horizons challenged, their hackles raised, wielding the oar more like a weapon than a tool. It was the kind of rage that Beginnings had always feared in them.
An octave of anger resonated in Clarity’s voice as he shouted, “There isn’t one! They didn’t fucking show!”
“Oh, they didn’t?” now Horizons was acidic, like a snake coiled before prey, frustration and venom alike in his hunched pose.
Beginnings slipped away from the panel, and back towards the sails. Sure, he considered himself naive - but a fool he was not. Space was integral.
“No.” firm, resigned.
He tried to busy himself with fiddling with the thick ropes, but truthfully they needed no upkeep - enchanted beyond imagination, they responded to shouted commands even during the din of storms.
“Let me guess,” his colleague hissed, tongue flicking fangs, “Cradle is just going to roll over and nothing’s going to come of this. Despite - how many times?”
“Don’t start this,” Clarity responded.
“Beginnings!” Horizons howled. They snapped to turn to him. “How many times!”
He balked, but managed, “Uh... five they’ve been late, I think. Not consecutively.”
Horizons’ tail lashed the floor, and they practically threw their head back in anger. “Five times! Five fucking times!”
“You can call me back when you’re done throwing a tantrum. I’ve got actual work to be doing.”
“Oh no,” Horizons spat, “you’re not going to just leave us here in the dark like that. How many are alive?”
“Not a soul’s in it.”
“You expect me to believe that? A whole building falls in, and there’s no one in it?”
“We aren’t sensing anything, and we aren’t hearing anything.”
“Bullshit,” Horizons spat, but didn’t protest when the buzzing of telepathy ended and the radio returned to dull static.
For a long moment, the only sound was the bobbing of the boat in the algae-ridden water, the soft tinks of random bits of garbage bumping into it.
Then, a light hiss of a whisper - a tickle at the back of the neck, a faint sensation in the base of his skull. Words congealed like blood, desperate and empty, confused and broken, knocking on his spine polite and clean.
He instinctively reached to rub his neck as Horizons let out a snakish hiss and flicked the radio off. The whispers stopped.
Horizons cursed something under their breath, but dipped the end of the oar in the water, sending the boat lurching forwards with a powerful motion.
And into the inky darkness they sailed.
“You two are back rather quick-like,” came the familiar nigh sing-song tone.
Horizons didn’t react, still pulling off their wetsuit, but Beginnings turned towards Milk and Stone, the Tower. The other’s serene smile was only disrupted by the mischievous glee behind his eyes.
“Clarity told us about the building,” Beginnings explained, quietly, though the pit of unease in his stomach rumbled. “So we made it back as fast as possible.”
“Hmhm,” came the affirmative noise, Tower gliding to the boat. “There was another tarp?”
Tower slipped onto the boat and down the tiny set of stairs. Only the light of his blinding halo signaled his presence, casting a faint glow on the rest of the deck.
Horizons audibly huffed, dumping the wetsuit on a hook to dry. They magicked a more typical outfit on - something utilitarian, simple, and clean.
Reminded, Beginnings squirmed out of his own - the material sticking to his fur, hairs on edge. He didn’t fear it, not truly - it was protective, a heavily-enchanted layer between himself and the more acrid corruptions within Psi. It was just... heavy and uncomfortable, in the safety of their capital.
The steps creaked as Tower re-emerged, the tarp draped between his arms like a baby. “Interesting glyphs,” he toned, stare flicking over the various symbols.
Beginnings watched him from the corners of his eyes. To say he admired Tower was... wrong. But there were aspects of his skill that one could be... envious of, maybe.
“ ‘No help inside’ ,” Tower translated, reaching to unfurl more of the tarp, tracing the letters, “ ‘No honor here’.”
“Sounds like they were having an ongoing problem on top of the stealings,” Horizons said, gruffly.
Tower’s smile widened imperceptibly. “Indeed. It may explain why we haven’t found any living beings from them yet.”
“Any idea what Timeline it’s from?”
“Hmhm, it’s not that simple. Many places within Timelines have disasters, of course. And there are many places within Timelines.” still, he rolled the tarp up and magicked it away somewhere. Likely to the warehouse. “It’s a shame the COR seems to be losing interest in helping us.”
Horizons tensed, and caught Beginnings’ concerned expression. They pulled lips back to show fangs, in some sort of reply, but it would be a lie to say he understood them.
“Is that what Cradle thinks?” was all they said.
Tower smiled, lifting a hand to cup his chin. He averted his eyes, though in amusement rather than avoidance. “The implication is there, sweet Sulfur. It’s crackling in the air like static. I’m sure you’ve suspected as much.”
“It’s not like they’ve been useful,” Horizons hissed, mostly comforting himself. “Always just dumping documents on us and telling us to figure it out. You’d think they’d care more. Protection my ass.”
“It’s tiring work. It never ends. It never improves. If I could shunt my duties off elsewhere, I would too.”
“That’s a coward’s talk,” Horizons spat.
“You’re picking up Wheel’s intonation. Charming.” Tower’s smile grew teeth.
“Whatever,” Horizons hissed, tongue flicking, and stormed towards the dock’s building. Beginnings watched their tail disappear as the door slammed behind them.
Did he think Horizons was gaining Clarity’s gruffness, his turns of phrase? Beginnings tilted his head. He was remiss to try to pick at the others, try to discern the details they didn’t explicitly tell him. Who was he to presume to know them better than themselves, after all?
But he supposed he could recognize some similarities. In his mind’s eye, he could perfectly see the two wrapped around each other - Horizons trembling, Clarity’s firm grip, as their faces pressed together, both blissfully unaware of his presence a room over, boring down on them through the doorway. He supposed he’d always been forgettable.
Except, the fur on the back of his neck had ruffled. Aware, he turned to Tower - who was staring down at him with keen and awake interest. Even though he’d intuited the source of discomfort, Beginnings still flinched away, ears pinning back.
“You’re still very scared of me, Endings,” Tower said, plainly, though his tone held glee.
“It - it’s not fear,” he managed.
“I - I just-”
Tower stared, his smile evident.
“I-I should go.”
Now, finally, Tower looked aside - biting his lower lip, eyes refocused onto the boat. “Well, then, don’t let me keep you. Off you go now.”
Beginnings scurred into the dock’s building.
Down a hallway, turning to the left, he could hear faint and familiar voices. Another turn, and he caught glimpse of Clarity and Horizons - standing a step too close, Clarity’s arm around their shoulders, almost pressed close enough for a kiss - but peeled apart at the sight of Beginnings, as if they were embarrassed.
A beat. Beginnings stared, then averted his eyes. The faint humming of a machine in the corner filled the silence for him, but it did not alleviate the tension; the smoke from Clarity’s cigarette made his stomach churn.
“Did Tower want anything else?” Horizons asked, finally - though surely it had only been a moment. “Or say anything new about the tarp?”
A huff. “Damn cryptic nonsense. And now here, you, not telling us about the building soon enough.”
“Like I said, letting you two fret during the excursion wouldn’t do any good,” Clarity grumbled back.
Hm. Yes, they were picking up each other’s tone. How long had Tower noticed for?
“I’m still not convinced there’s no one in it,” Horizons continued, “how do you have a structure that big come through and there’s not a soul onboard? It defies belief.”
“It could’ve been abandoned.”
“It’s intact. Nobody abandons intact buildings.”
Horizons scoffed right back. “There’d be squatters! Or animals. Good, sturdy buildings like that don’t just get abandoned. Either things are living in it or it was deliberately cleared out by someone.”
“You’re that eager for a sweep, are you?”
“It’s something to do,” Horizons protested.
“I guess we shouldn’t keep Cradle waiting, then.” Clarity snuffed out the cigarette on an ashtray nearby. “And - Beginnings, for the stars’ sake, do you want to put on some clothes before we go?”
“Oh,” he said, looking down at himself. “Right.”
Shards of steel and rock had scattered across the fields and the road, great jutting stalactites of wrought metal twisted into inhuman shapes and forms.
They were ugly, disgusting, but not in the way of the intrusive slog far beyond their meager civilization. No, they were simply disgusting in the way of being bent from shape.
There were no bodies - not anymore. They had been cleared and cleaned, the only reminder of their presence the splotches of red that had gathered near the metal, under a large boulder, reminders in crimson.
It was stilling. An uncomfortable sort of stilling. What, precisely? The alienation of a place of safety? Perhaps that he knew what this place once was, and could not reconcile what it was now?
Beginnings wasn’t so foolish as to wish to be back in that boat, adrift on and in the deep darkness, the light of the stars unable to breach that pool of blackened corruption. But he knew, at the same time, that he didn’t belong here either.
There wasn’t a place in this Timeline for him. Not when he looked at Horizons, their stalwart work ethic; Clarity, his authority and leadership; Tower, his magery and skill; Cradle, their guidance and wisdom. Where did he fit? Merely a sludge of glue, squeezed between the cracks at best?
He quietly drew his coat tighter around himself.
No one spoke as they picked their way towards the impact site, careful steps between smears of blood and the glittering shards. Magic hung in the air, acidic and heavy, throbbing like a heartbeat.
It was a welcome distraction from his musings. Beginnings licked his lips, the slightest taste - but guilt settled in his stomach at the grin Tower shot him.
“There’s Cradle,” Clarity gruffly spoke, his voice soft against the silence.
He’d pointed towards the shattered foundations of the enormous, brutalist building they were heading towards - to a figure draped in the white robes of mourning.
Tower’s nonchalant walk morphed into a quick stride morphed into a jog, closing the distance between he and Cradle. The figure turned as he approached and Tower’s wings perked up, mouth chattering away at something.
As they approached, snippets of words drifted into his mind. He caught building, sweep, excursion, tarp, hope, attempt, operative - and then they were upon the Cradle of Life, who turned to face all three with a gentle sort of smile.
“Anything from the sensors?” Clarity jabbed a thumb at the enormous machines next to Cradle, as if they couldn’t see them.
A slight shake of the head. “The same as any ambience.”
“It’s still good to check in person,” Tower said, smiling broadly, almost genuinely, “If for nothing else but to soothe Sulfur.”
“Was your trip into the ocean safe?” Cradle inquired, turning his head in a soft motion towards Horizons.
“Nothing was alive, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Cradle hummed. “It wasn’t, but I’m glad to hear that.”
“Wouldn’t want you to have to do another exorcism!” Tower laughed. Cradle smiled.
“You two can flirt later,” Clarity cut in, “let’s get the sweep over with. It’ll be quick.”
“You only think it’ll be quick so long as you’re convinced there’s nothing in there.” Tower tilted his head.
“There’s fucking nothing.” definitive, certain, as Clarity’s lips pulled back defensively.
“Unless you know something we don’t,” Horizons cut in.
Tower hid his smile behind a sleeve of his robes. “I haven’t checked the place. How would I know anything?”
“You’re a crazy mage hopped up on magic all the time. I’m sure you can sense shit we can’t.”
“Please - let’s have a little more faith in the sensors,” Cradle said, voice commanding attention despite being little more than a murmur. Their eyes were closed, brow creased, but not squeezed shut.
“Your headache must be severe,” Tower said.
Cradle’s small smile tinted guilty. “It’s a large wall to maintain.”
“We’ll get this place cleaned out in a flash,” Tower said, leaning as if to kiss Cradle’s forehead - but paused, and shot the others a conspiratorial grin. “Won’t we?”
“If you ever shut up,” Horizons hissed.
The air in the building was old and dead and suffocating. Dust flitted through the air like flies, illuminated by the light through broken windows and fractals of glass.
The rooms smelled of rot and age, mildewed floor tiles discolored and sagging. Beginnings kept his steps careful and light, sweeping through each area with a quick glance and a wave of the little machine in his hands.
When he returned to the vast hallways, he glanced down at it - marveling at its simplicity and meager size, turning it over and over between his palms. He fiddled with the dials on it, watching the sensitivity number on the tiny panel wriggle. But even as he tuned it, it remained silent - picking up no great quantity of living magic.
It was, of course, more precise than the giant machines they’d already scanned the building with. Those were swift, but sweeping - used to discern how much of a disaster they were dealing with. But they hadn’t sniffed out even a faint trace of magic.
So what was the point in checking manually, then?
His tail swished at the thought, and he ducked into the next room.
The stench of rot reached him first, his eyes narrowing in on a small lump in the corner, a blanket stretched over it.
His instincts told him to turn, but his legs carried him in and his fingers pinched the edge of the sheet, lifting it.
Red and white mixed with bulbous black growths - just raw, rotted meat. No insects, though. He prodded it with a nearby piece of wood. Not a single maggot.
Was that concerning enough to report? Beginnings waved the sensor over the chunk, but it was silent. Did that make this meat a recent deposit? Why was it so molded, then?
He glanced around the room. The smell of dust permeated the air, but it did not have the weight of decay behind it yet - and the floor here looked steadier, sturdier. The furniture was sparse, but cleaner than expected.
His mind flicked to Horizons’ words. Nobody abandoned a sturdy building. Vagrants, homeless, whatever - someone would find it as a home. He picked at the couch’s cushions idly. Was this evidence of someone living here?
Maybe they hadn’t been in the structure when it’d been stolen. That was a comforting thought, though he knew it was a foolish one to have. How terrified would they be, upon returning to the site of their home - only to find a hole where it once was, and nothing but the empty stars and specks of light of voidspace beyond?
To peer through at the fabric that tethered their reality together and know it was unthreading before their eyes?
It must be strange, he thought, to first realize that. To truly understand and know one’s meaningless existence, even if for a second; to comprehend the inevitable decay of it all.
He supposed that perhaps everyone here had long accepted such a thing. Had he?
Maybe that was what set him apart from the others. Maybe he still imagined they could fix all of this, and maybe live a normal life. Maybe... like the people in Eta, like the people elsewhere.
He remembered their faces, the carefree dancing, the incessant pouring of fruity alcohol and music vibrating in his bones. He hadn’t wanted to go on the vacation.
But Cradle insisted. Health. Happiness. Pleasure. Fun.
By sending everyone to Eta to experience those, hadn’t they directly implied such ideas couldn’t be found in Psi? A sobering thought. Part of him didn’t deny it - almost accepting. But some prideful part wanted to bite back, wanted to spit on the others who derided them as the world’s garbage dump.
Was it a dump? Or was Psi just trying to preserve what it could? He’d poured over so many documents. How many Timelines had collapsed after Psi pulled something? How many had already been on the brink before Psi freed whatever it could? Was it really so bad? In a way, weren’t they archivists?
It would be nice to not have an ocean of rancid water and rancid garbage surrounding their settlements, though. Maybe the COR would visit more if they had a nicer Universe Core. Maybe the operatives wouldn’t find excuses not to arrive, and could keep the looks of uncomfortable disgust off their faces better.
He didn’t blame them. Not in the way Horizons did. It hurt something in his soul to see the way they stared at Psi, like a pitying authority. Clarity and Cradle both never pitied them - they simply rolled up their sleeves and directed and got into the dirt and cleaned it.
But the distance between he and the COR made it hard for them to understand what it was like, here. They saw it as a well of despair, a well of poison, a well of corruption - something that stole and degraded, violated and debased, hungry and starved.
That couldn’t be the whole story, though, could it? There had to be something redeeming about this place. It had to be trying its best.
Or was it just a culmination of Genesis’ frustrations, near the end of the line - the last of the Originals, twenty-three in a line of repulsive failures, doomed to bleed rot and mold?
Or did he just tell himself lies to comfort the fear in his chest, the incessant heart-squeezing memories of being fished out of that ocean to Horizons’ horrified expression?
He sat on the couch to a small flurry of dust. The part of him that held his pride screamed to get back up and resume his sweep of the fourth floor, but he shook his head - to no one, to himself.
If the others knew he was slacking, they’d never mentioned it. Maybe they just kind of accepted that he was useless and bad at his job and not like them. They never spoke of fanciful ideals about Psi. They just looked at the reality, nodded, and got to work.
There was much to admire about that line of thinking. Especially if one lived in a hellhole.
He wondered, slowly, briefly, if Horizons and Clarity would ever admit their quiet affair to the others. As if it wasn’t an open secret, as if it wasn’t on everyone’s mind. If even he knew, then Tower knew; if Tower knew, then Cradle absolutely knew. Simple as that.
Maybe they, too, had shy little feelings they didn’t share with the others. Maybe they, too, found it hard to admit to those thoughts and ideas, scared they were too precious and beautiful to come out of Psi and her people.
Maybe he wasn’t so wrong for having his own, then.
The walkie-talkie on Beginnings’ hip sparked with telepathy.
He glanced down at it, to Clarity’s somber voice.
“I’ve found something alive.”
The sound of his footfalls on the stairs echoed throughout the huge concrete superstructure. Up and up he went, back and forth between the two sets, the blood pumping through his arms and legs.
On the fifteenth floor, Tower emerged - blinked at him, then beamed and pointed up. Beginnings nodded and the two sprinted up the last few storeys, to the hallway. Voices echoed from a room only a few doors down.
“He’s tight-lipped,” Tower whispered, as they approached, “what do you think it is?”
Beginnings bit his lip. Was it wrong to say Tower intimidated him? It always felt like he conjured the wrong answer when speaking to the other.
Truthfully, he hoped it was just a little simple animal, maybe a predator, and that’d explain the meat he found. But instead, he didn’t speak, and they rounded into the doorway and into the room.
It was bright, brighter than the lower floors, the windows intact. The wallpaper and flooring had long faded, but there were clean blankets strewn across the room in patterns of pale blue and pink.
Both Horizons and Clarity looked to him in recognition, the former tense and the latter resigned - but Beginnings’ eyes slid down to the small form sitting in the center of it all, criss-crossed by the light-beams and blankets alike.
“It’s a little baby,” was all he could muster.
The toddler babbled something else, wholly distracted with the paper and crayons it’d been offered.
The scribbles it produced could, perhaps, generously, be called art. It was quite enamored with them, chirping little sounds and ferociously dragging the colors across parchment.
“Come in,” Clarity said, gesturing.
Beginnings entered, but kept himself to the wall - out of fear, trepidation? He couldn’t say, but he kept his eyes transfixed on the baby regardless, hands shaking.
Tower, of course, merely strode in and bent over to inspect it, his usual smile plastered over his features.
“It’s from the original Timeline,” Horizons said, definitively, after a second. “It has to be. Fuck. How the fuck did we miss it on first sweep?”
Clarity bristled, shooting Horizons a stern glare. “It was eighteen floors up.”
“So? It’s a fucking baby! It’s alive!”
“It’s - You realize it’s more difficult - children generally have lower-”
“There’s no use arguing,” Tower cut in, picking it up from under the arms. Horizons made a strained noise. “However, this is fortuitous! I’ll be able to reconstitute its magic and discover its home Timeline through-”
“-You are NOT dissecting a fucking baby!” Horizons snatched the infant. The air in the room had become cold; the baby had taken on a look of uncertainty and confusion.
Concern painted itself on Tower’s face. He offered a placating hand. “It’s not as if the tarps you’ve been finding have been of much use. They’re far too drained and sullied.”
“What are you planning on telling the residents, huh? We peeled apart your baby to return some stank-ass building back to you? Some old tarps?”
“Are you suggesting we wait for the operative?”
Now a flicker of frustration was plain on Tower’s face, and Beginnings flinched. The alien way his mouth drew back in a snarl, the way his fingers clenched into a fist - the baby burst into tears, wailing loudly again.
“You’re literally scaring the baby,” Clarity muttered.
“Is there something Cradle doesn’t want us to know?” Horizons pressed, squeezing the baby closer to their chest. “Did the COR communicate something to you both?”
“I don’t communicate to the COR,” Tower said, calmed again - though the typical manipulation had drained out of his voice.
“You’re avoiding the question!”
Tower’s frown sagged. “Can you shut it up? A calming spell or another?”
“You want me to taint it with Psi magic?” Horizons’ voice breached a new octave.
“Like the COR would notice,” Tower rolled his eyes, “like anyone here would care.”
“Something did happen with the COR. Is that why the operative didn’t show up today?”
“You know it’s simpler than that,” Tower said, gesturing, “frankly, we’ve all been waiting for you to come to terms with the fact that the COR hates us. We’re nothing but a source of problems to them, really.”
Horizons hissed, tongue flicking, as they stroked the baby’s back. It seemed comforted slightly, its wailing dropping quieter, more subdued.
“Give it to me,” Clarity said, offering his arms.
Horizons obeyed, and the other sat on a nearby chair, rocking the infant back-forth. Its whimpers turned to quiet babbling, grabbing fistfuls of Clarity’s uniform without precision.
How were they going to take care of a little baby? It wasn’t like a person they could just talk to and explain, and none of them handled children before. Those had always just hidden behind their terrified and enraged parents.
Well, maybe Clarity had.
“You could stand to be more direct,” Horizons said, sitting across from Clarity - though they kept their glare on Tower, “we’re not enemies here. I don’t know why you fucking treat us like we are.”
“Do we have to go over this now?” Tower sighed, draping an overdramatic sleeve over his forehead.
“I’m just saying you and Cradle talk a big talk to each other about all sorts of bullshit and maybe you ought to tell us peasants once in a while.”
“We’re not peasants,” Clarity grumbled.
Horizons bared fangs. “Really? Could’ve fooled me. You really think Tower doesn’t know shit about the operative? Or why they’re not here?”
Beginnings glanced to Tower’s face. He was watching Horizons’ expressions with a mixture of... disinterest, maybe? Like he was appraising a mess that he’d have to delegate cleanup, and needed to analyze it in-out before committing.
That wasn’t really disinterest. But there was something in Tower’s expression that distanced him from the argument, like he was walking away but only mentally, only in his head.
“Well.” Tower said, both hands now on his hips. “If you’re quite done, I can go tell Cradle about the findings.”
“What if there’s more?”
“I can tune the machines to check for children,” Tower said, with an eyeroll and a wave of his hand, “I just didn’t account for it before. It’s not like they’re coming in droves without adults!”
Half of Beginnings wondered if he just wanted to leave physically, too. Like he’d stepped too close to a landmine and needed to regroup himself, check for any wounds, breathe a sigh of relief. That was a bit of guilt, then, wasn’t it? Tower absolutely knew something.
But no one spoke as he glided out of the room. Only Beginnings could catch a glimpse of the foreign scowl on his face.
Footsteps on the stairs dimmed into nothingness.
Horizons spoke first. “I’m not crazy.”
“You’re not,” Clarity said, though he looked tired.
“I just wish they’d fucking talk to us.” their hands were balled into fists, shaking on their thighs. “Holed up in that stupid fancy little obelisk of theirs, doing god knows what.”
“They’re doing each other,” Clarity said, perfectly blunt.
A snicker squeezed out of Horizons, who slowly unclenched their hands and slowly lowered their shoulders. “I know. But it still bothers me. Because they’re keeping secrets still.”
“Cradle has Psi’s best interests at heart. I still trust them.”
Horizons huffed again. “I don’t think your trust is misplaced... I just wouldn’t trust them as far as I could throw them. And Tower? Ugh.”
“He was tense,” Clarity affirmed, “you got under his skin.”
“I don’t even know what the COR could’ve said. Oh, they’re not helping at all anymore? We’re all expecting that, so why would they keep that from us? Or maybe that these stealings are a lot bigger than we thought?”
“Speculation is only going to upset you more.”
“What can I do EXCEPT fucking speculate? Tower’s a brick wall.”
“Maybe he’d tell Beginnings.”
Horizons startled, and swung around to Beginnings - who stared back with equal surprise. They turned as one to Clarity, who only offered a shrug.
“I think he underestimates you, you know. He underestimates a lot of people... control freak that he is.”
“You think he’d tell me?” Beginnings squeaked.
“It’s worth a try, isn’t it?” Clarity shrugged again, this one looser. “Pop down to the base of the building and try to catch him before he’s made it to Cradle.”
Cradle had gone home to recover. And Tower was paranoid enough about tainting ‘his’ magic with other Timelines’ to not teleport within or near the stolen building.
It was plausible. Was it plausible enough for him to take a risk?
But his eyes fell on Horizons’ desperate face, and he swallowed the lump in his throat and nodded and ducked out of the room.
“I’m sorry!” Beginnings shouted, cupping both hands around his muzzle, “I’m sorry - please hang on a moment!”
His voice echoed down the bottom-floor hallway, out the shattered windows, and into the emptiness beyond.
Tower tensed, visible in the way his wings stilled and the feathers stuck out at all directions. But when he turned, his normal grin was plastered over his features, and his shoulders settled.
“Endings!” with a nod, “I didn’t expect to have you chasing me. Was that you I heard tumbling down the stairs? I thought it was a dreadful beastie of some sort.”
“It - it was me,” he managed, kneeling over to gasp for air. He righted himself a moment later. “Sorry.”
“You’re animated today,” Tower chuckled, “or is it just surprising to hear you talking so many words to me?”
“I actually, um, had a question for you.”
Tower’s face fell into irritated, somber resolve. Beginnings nearly flinched at the sudden change, at the strange way the frustration marred his ethereal, pretty features.
He could already feel the apologies welling in his throat, the sickening feeling of nausea and regret and guilt. He hadn’t meant to offend. He hadn’t meant any harm. He hadn’t-
“-You don’t have to listen to the others when they tell you to do something,” Tower said, slowly, as if explaining to a child.
“It feels - it feels like you’re talking past me a little,” Beginnings whispered, despite himself.
Tower frowned. “A little, yes. It’s just the way of words, you know. Better to dance around an ugly subject than speak it.”
“Is that why - is that why you and Cradle are -”
“Endings.” curt, with a finality to it. “I’ll reiterate - you’re not their pawn or plaything. If they want information, they can be polite and patient.”
His mind churned blanks like printing paper.
Tower sighed, tilting his head back and squeezing a hand into a fist. “You only speak to me when you want something for them, Endings. Have you considered I might take offense to that?”
“Yet you keep doing it! I’m not as easily convinced as they think.”
Beginnings simply stared up at the other.
“Don’t give me such a look.” Tower’s voice drew quiet. “I know you spent most of your hours with them. But perhaps you should nurture some gratitude for the one who brought you back from the brink?”
“I have gratitude,” he whispered.
“Then you’ll keep what I’ll tell you to yourself, yes?”
His heart flipped in his chest, nauseating. “You’ll tell me?”
Tower sighed, rubbing his forehead. “It’s not - things are more complicated than those two would have you believe, you know. Not to say they’re deliberately keeping you in the dark, of course! They’re just wary, paranoid, and distant.”
“What I’m trying to say is that you won’t convince them of what I’ll tell you, nor do you want to try. There are layers to everything here - and unraveling them is a tedious, tender task.”
“I think you’re, sort of, talking past me again....”
Tower stared for a long few seconds, then looked back towards the staircase. No noise had come from it - the other two were still on the eighteenth floor, probably taking turns soothing the baby, waiting for Beginnings to return.
He hoped there was something he could tell them. He didn’t want to think about Horizons’ hisses if he came back empty-handed... or worse, carrying a secret of his own.
“Actually, I don’t even know that the truth would help you,” Tower said, subdued and gentle. When he looked to Beginnings, his expression was almost that of Cradle’s. “But you already feel alienated, don’t you?”
Beginnings didn’t respond.
“The COR is hesitant to help, of course,” Tower said, looking aside, “it’s no secret, really - their resources are drawn elsewhere, to places that can return to a state of fixed. They haven’t given up, yet, but they’re... very frustrated with Cradle and I.”
Tower smirked. “I had a hunch a bit ago about... well, frankly? You. I took a sample of your magic, and....”
His stomach churned.
“Well, you’re steeped deep in Psi magic now. There’s no question that you’re one of us. But... hm. Let’s just say that there was a reason you were fished out of - actually, do you hear that?”
Beginnings jumped slightly, then untensed - trying to unwind the muscles that had subconsciously been drawing tighter and tighter. He swiveled his ears, but only the deafening emptiness of the building greeted him.
Tower had tilted his head, eyes glazed over in thought, ears pointed off to the east. Beginnings looked; there was nothing, only rotted hallway and mildewed doors.
“What is it?” he whispered.
Tower held up a finger. His stare flicked to a particular section of the ceiling, then followed it as it came towards them - a near-silent shuffling noise as it passed overhead - and kept on towards the far side of the hallway.
Beginnings stared, wide-eyed.
“That’s going to be a problem,” Tower said. “It didn’t seem larger than... hm, maybe a big cat.”
“Sh-should I tell the others?”
“...Yes, actually.” Tower flicked a hand, lit with magic, casting some sort of spell. “It’d be best if you made haste.”
With that, he took off towards the stairs, wind in his ears and blood in his bones.
Listening to the clack of Clarity’s keyboard was comforting, quiet, soothing.
The sunlight filtering in through the old windows tinted the office a fine orange. It was a long cry away from the weeks-ago trip through the dark and dreary ocean, or the suffocated and molded building.
But it still felt alien and distant, sticky and uncertain. Like time wasn’t moving right for him, instead spinning and swirling and leaving a twist of wind and snowflakes in its wake.
Beginnings willed the thoughts away and dangled the toy again.
The baby babbled away, reaching up for the colorful little plastic shapes, drakes and wyverns. Beginnings lowered it enough for its little hand to wrap around the leg of one, squeezing and pulling.
If he looked out the windows, at the bulbous setting sun, he could make out the silhouette of the stolen building, stark against the rest of the flatlands.
And he found himself, again and again, turning towards that window, and letting his eyes slip over the building, and feeling a forlorn sense of fear fill his chest.
But no matter. No matter. He dangled the toy, and the baby chirped.
“Hungry, yet?” he asked the baby, but of course, it didn’t respond.
The incessant typing stilled. Beginnings glanced over, finding Clarity had leaned to the side of the monitor and had settled his tired stare on the toddler.
After a moment, he sighed and returned to his typing.
“You holding up okay?” Clarity asked, gruff but quiet.
Beginnings lifted his head. “Huh? Oh. I’m fine.”
“It’s okay if you need a break from everything. I can take the baby for a while.”
“No, I’m fine, I think.”
Clarity hummed, eyes flicking to inspect Beginnings - but he didn’t turn away from his computer. His hand alighted on the mouse and he clicked away for a few moments.
Beginnings swallowed the lump in his throat. Duly, he handed the set of toys to the baby. It accepted with glee and instantly shoved one of the plastic toys into its mouth.
“Did you hear about the play they started doing in Universe Two?” Clarity began with a hint of reigned amusement.
“Oh, um, no. I don’t really - I’ve never seen a play. Is it good?”
Clarity shrugged, “I wasn’t really fond of it, no. It’s a comedy of some sort; lots of humor. I think it’s implied to be a retelling of Psi’s history, but modified to be funny. It’s kind of obscured, though - doesn’t use the same names, but the history’s there still.”
He guessed humor was good for coping.
“I bring it up because part of it did make me laugh,” Clarity continued, “the actor they had for Tower - by the stars, he was chewing up the scenery like a goat. Fitted him perfectly.”
A small smile broke over Beginnings’ face. “Really?”
“It was a bit of a mess, lots of inaccuracies. But he stole the show a little. Horizons and I went and saw it together.”
The implication hung in the air, but Beginnings didn’t snatch it.
“We could take you sometime, if you’d like to,” Clarity offered with a smile.
It was sweet. Well-intentioned. But it rolled in his gut like simple platitudes, like he was an uncultured and ignorant little insect they were taking care of because they had no choice.
He was a mistake. He didn’t belong here, did he? The whole time, he’d wandered about, feeling alienated and empty, and all he could think about now was Tower’s words.
“That could be nice,” he said, in spite of himself. He wanted it to be nice.
He liked Clarity. He liked the other’s calmness, the way he held himself, the way he spoke and directed. It was soothing to bend his head and obey the other’s commands, let Clarity take the brunt of decisionmaking.
Maybe that made him a follower. Was that so bad? Wasn’t it better to obey and listen, if he wasn’t truly of this place?
He could remember, white-hot fire against his chest, when his hands curled around the pole and he breached the water, the gasp of air into his chest, hacking up mold and sludge, pulled onto the boat and left trembling like a beached fish.
The air had smelled so sweet, so fresh. The wind pulling at his hair, the way it filled his lungs, the sensation of being alive and real and existing had filled him with a bright heart-bursting wonder as he forced himself to sit, and looked upon Horizons’ face, confused and concerned and wary all in one.
Maybe he was its memories, its ideas. Maybe he was clobbered together from a dozen of the stolen magics, formed into something resembling life. Maybe he was Psi itself, given legs and arms and thoughts to conjure an excuse for it to exist.
Wouldn’t that be a nice alternative?
He looked down. The baby had crawled towards him and was gnawing on the hem of his shirt. He idly patted its back, gentle and careful, and it babbled back at him, an innocent smile adorning its face.
“Tower will get you home,” he said to it, trying to mimic Clarity's resilient optimism. He swallowed. “I hope he’s alright.”
“He’ll be fine. He’s made the trip to the COR dozens of times.”
Beginnings squirmed. “What if they... they’re... hurt him?”
Clarity paused to regard him with solemn seriousness. “The COR might be a house of liars, but they’re not interested in murder and violence. Especially not for a Frag of the Originals.”
“They won’t hurt him. At most they’ll give him the bureaucracy run-around, and he’ll come back complaining.” Clarity clicked away at the keyboard for a moment. “Besides, you know he can hold his own.”
It was true, of course. But it didn’t settle the sick in his stomach.
He looked over.
Clarity’s face softened. “I promise it’ll be alright. Of any of us, you don’t need to worry about Tower-”
-A sudden thud, from a floors up. Both of them, silent and in unison, looked up. Quiet footsteps, too quiet to be any of Clarity’s subordinates, across the room just above them.
Clarity cursed, summoning his rifle to his hands and standing swift enough his chair rolled back some feet.
Beginnings lunged to wrap protectively around the baby, who had frozen in fear.
“Come out, motherfucker,” Clarity shouted, pulling some sort of lever on the gun - it emitted a steady low-pitched whine - and took aim near the vent.
The sounds stopped.
Clarity crept forwards, the barrel still trained on the vent’s opening. There was no fear, no hesitation in his stance - only wariness and readiness, the marks of true authority. Envy stirred in Beginnings.
“Get it out of here,” Clarity hissed to him, jerking his head at the baby. It had begun to sniffle. “Tell Horizons that the thing’s made it back to the office.”
Hopefully that would make it easier to trap. The dozens of cages and contraptions they’d tried danced in his mind, but he still stood, scooping the infant to his chest, and made a dash for the door.
He was halfway down the hallway when the vents clattered loudly and he heard the sounds of a scramble, on all fours, thundering through the ceiling towards him.
Instinctually, he ducked - in time to hear the burst and feel the hot aura of a beam of magic from Clarity’s gun blast through the tiles above his head.
The wailing of the baby ached in his ears, but his footfalls remained sure, vaulting him towards the staircase.
There was no time to think, to process - just the push-pull of his legs and the screech of strained muscles.
Another shot tore into the ceiling in front of him, hungry and starved. A splatter of blood sprayed across the floor. His legs adjusted themselves, side-stepping without losing speed.
He could hear the creature scramble into the recesses of the in-between of the floors, though it made no cry of pain or fear. It was intelligent, then, wasn’t it?
But he willed other questions into the back of his throat, taking the steps three per stride, down to the vacant ground floor, out into the setting sun’s gaze.
“Endings!” Tower’s voice, astonished and concerned, “Was that Clarity’s-”
“-The thing’s made it back to the office,” he managed, breathless, even if Tower wasn’t exactly Horizons. Then, recognition. “Wait. You’re back?”
“I’m back,” Tower affirmed, then grimaced at the infant’s crying. “You should take that thing to Horizons. I’ll help secure the building. What floor were you in?”
“It’s - it’s in between the walls and stuff,” Beginnings said, standing upright. “But we were - it was in the ceiling of the second, but I don’t know where it is now. Clarity shot it.”
Tower nodded and brushed past him, steps hurried but sure of themselves. Beginnings watched him disappear into the building, a hand lit with magic - and then forced himself to turn back towards the quiet road, and let his legs carry him towards the obelisk.
The priests blustered as he burst in, but he paid them no mind - vaulted over the feeble rope blocking the spiral stairs, and went up like a rocket, the familiar path more muscle memory than thought.
“Beginnings,” Cradle’s voice, soft and surprised, “are you alright?”
“The - thing’s in the office,” he panted.
Cradle offered their serene arms, and he placed the baby in them, shaking. A hand on his shoulder steered him to a plush, comfortable chair, and pressed a glass of water into his trembling grip.
He sipped, slowly, watching as Cradle set the toddler down in a large crib. Its crying had stopped as soon as they’d set hands on it, and it instantly busied itself with the few toys scattered about. He let himself breathe.
“It’s unfortunate that Milk isn’t back yet,” Cradle said, sounding more disappointed than worried, “though I can contact Horizons swiftly.”
“Tower’s back, actually,” Beginnings said, near-silent, past the cup.
Cradle perked up. “Oh? He hadn’t seen me yet.”
“I-I think I bumped into him just as soon as he’d made it back....”
A beat. Cradle tilted their head. “Did he have a COR member with...?”
“Not that I could see....”
“No matter,” they said, serene, calming enough that even his anxiety stilled, “Let me see about alerting Horizons.”
A tiny part of him wanted to ask Cradle if he’d done good, if he’d made them proud. But the rest suffocated that little part, and he drowned it with the rest of the cup.
A creaking awoke him.
He bolted upright, still curled in Cradle’s chair. There was a soft, warm blanket draped over him in a comforting weight, and a pillow tucked under his head.
Beginnings blearily rubbed his eyes. He hadn’t remembered falling asleep... though, if he were honest, it wasn’t hard to drift off when Cradle was around. Their presence oozed safety and protection, like some sort of divine shard of Genesis was watching over him.
He rolled onto his side, sighing. The room was quiet, the baby deep in its own sleep, Cradle nowhere to be found.
Had they gone to the office, maybe? Met up with Tower, spoke to Horizons, rooted out the little beast?
Well, if they hadn’t come and fetched him again, then it was likely handled. Maybe they’d even captured it, and were poking and prodding with sticks, Tower inspecting its magic, trying to discover its origins, its home.
Maybe they’d have a long and detailed report to hand to the operative when they arrived, another sheet for their endless binders, and they’d record it swift and sure, and they’d congratulate Psi on holding itself together for another year, another event, another fraction of a Timeline falling into theirs.
Fanciful thinking, he derided himself. His chest squirmed in concern and forlornness, his hands itched for a walkie-talkie. He reached for his hip, even though he knew it was empty.
In the quiet moments between now and tomorrow, he could always feel a creeping - but gentle - sensation crawling up his spine. And, like clockwork, it returned, fading in at the edges of his mind and consciousness.
Determined but small, it diligently dug little spikes into his back, into the vertebrae, up into his neck and into his head, and he could feel its venom dripping just a hair’s breadth away.
He closed his eyes, and for a moment he could smell the pitch ocean again, the feeling of the algae clinging to them, the feeling of meat being pushed together and into the shape of legs and fingers and a mouth and a heart.
It’d been weeks since they’d fished out the tarp. Weeks without seeing that sea of rancid remains and empty memories again. Weeks without looking down at his birthplace and breathing it in, and feeling the water spray against his face, the familiar taste against his tongue.
He didn’t want to blame the baby. But he still looked at it, with a twinge of frustration. Too busy taking care of it, chasing the COR, desperately trying to piece together this puzzle. No time to do the sweeps.
And yet, at the same time, he knew he was lying to himself.
The ocean terrified him. Its waves and crashes and rumbles stirred a primal fear in him, and in his mind’s eye he could picture plunging into the encompassing water, feel it bleed into his lungs and choke him and lacerate him and bring him back to the nothingness he’d been long before, the primeval nothingness.
He always begged Horizons to go home. Always volunteered to sweep, always cut the trips short. Like he couldn’t handle the intensity, like he wasn’t built to feel emotions, like he wasn’t pieced together quite right.
“You’re causing a lot of problems, you know,” he said, quiet, to the baby. It didn’t stir. “I feel bad for you, though. I wish you could go home.”
And then everything could go back to normal. But he didn’t say that.
Maybe he just needed to sleep more. If the others needed him, Cradle knew where he was. They’d come and fetch him... or they’d leave him here, handling it themselves, no faith in him or his skills or his place here.
He couldn’t blame them, though. He wasn’t much of a fighter or a hunter or a tracker or a mage or a leader. He rubbed his forehead and tried to still his mind, glancing up.
In the vaulted ceiling of Cradle’s foyer, shadows danced in splatters and threads, moving like spiders across enormous webs of nothingness.
Beginnings’ eyes followed them, watched them turn and twist, stretch and thin. They crept down in drips of ink on the walls, forming little droplet-claws, stretching as if they could grasp at the chairs and the bookshelves, tear documents from the tables and inspect them.
He watched, quietly, as they touched the edge of the crib, and they dribbled down the back wall and they ate at the corners of his vision, and the hand stretched itself open all teeth and talons, and reached into the crib.
Tension shot into him, rough enough that he jolted upwards.
“Hey!” he shouted, sitting up.
The baby startled awake with a gurgle, and the hand snapped back - the very real hand that was not a shadow, and now with the clarity of wakefulness the umbra painting he’d been engrossed in disappeared, leaving behind only a darkened hand, which had frozen.
Beginnings threw the blankets off and scrambled, but the hand lurched into the crib again, closed around the baby like some sort of wrap.
His hands itched for something, anything - a pole, Clarity’s gun - he gestured wildly as it yanked the baby upwards, towards the darkness, and a bolt of magic blasted out of his open palms.
It severed the hand at the wrist, which plummeted - but with a tackle against the edge of the crib, the baby landed in Beginnings’ arms. He heaved a breath, staring wide-eyed as the infant burst into crying. After a second, he hurriedly brushed the dismembered hand off.
It twitched, leaking blood, and then stood itself up. Beginnings let out a yelp and clambered back, clutching the baby close to himself. The hand skittered up the wall, up to the unseen ceiling. A wet, sopping, quick noise implied it had found reconnection.
There was a pause, Beginnings panting, staring up into the emptiness. And then two stark eyes, reflecting the meager moon’s light, bore down on him.
“What are you?” he managed, voice cracking.
They narrowed. A hand unfurled again, empty and expectant. When he didn’t move, they pointed at the baby.
“You - you can’t have it,” he managed, “we’re taking care of it until we can take it home!”
“I AM its home!” they yelled back in a hoarse and unfamiliar voice, slamming a fist into one of the pillars. Dust shook from the rafters. “You stole my house! You stole her - you stole my BABY!”
Beginnings blinked, shifting to wrap the infant in the blanket, tuck it closer to his chest. “I-I don’t know what you are, but you’re not i-its parent, there wasn’t anything alive when we-”
“You don’t know anything,” they hissed, but slid down into the light enough that he could see their face and muzzle and arms - eerily personlike, though the way they slunk about was water, not flesh. “You don’t even know her name. You’ve barely been feeding her. Have you never seen a baby in your life!?”
“No,” he said, weakly.
They startled, ears spun forwards. “No? Then what the fuck makes you think you can take care of Yeirin?”
“Who else would we give her to?”
“You’d leave her at home!”
“In that abandoned d-derelict building? It - it wasn’t safe! She’d starve!”
Their eyes narrowed to near-slits. “I was taking care of her! Like I’ve been since - since-”
The doors burst open in a flurry of magic and light. The newcomer flinched, throwing hands up, and now Beginnings could see the neat clothes strewn over their body, the pristineness of their skin.
But he didn’t register much else, as Tower’s blast of magic rendered the newcomer against the wall. They splattered like goo, and Beginnings shrieked.
“Beginnings!” Horizons yelled, at his side in a second, “Are you - did that fucker hurt you?”
“No,” he near whimpered, presenting the sniffling baby, “I-”
“-You did well,” Horizons said, quickly. Beginnings’ head snapped up. “You did so fucking well, listen, I - we didn’t-”
Unable to formulate words, Horizons substituted by wrapping their arms tightly around Beginnings instead. He squeaked, body stiff and tense and unsure in the hug, but let out a tiny breath, somewhere in relief and concern.
A wet squelch signaled the goo peeling off the wall, pressing together to reform the newcomer’s body. Beginning stared, heart skipping a beat, faint memories yanked into the forefront of his mind, meat piled into meat and melded together with fish and algae-
“Don’t reform,” Tower threatened, voice low and dangerous, both hands alight, halo sparkling.
The goo paused.
“I don’t want to taint your magic any further,” Tower continued, “so don’t give me a reason to, understood? We won’t be able to discern your home Timeline without its traces on you.”
Though it had no mouth, the goo spoke. “Timeline?”
“I’m afraid you’re the most recent victim of a phenomenon outside all of our control.” Tower could explain things so simply, so comfortingly. “You and your daughter both. I’m sorry.”
There was a long pause. The goo did not move.
Tower’s hands lowered, the color fading, the buzz of Magninium silencing. The goo hesitated, but pulled itself together into the same form as before.
“How do you do that?” Beginnings asked, in spite of himself.
They shot him a wary stare. “Have you never seen a Beaut before?”
“It’s a lot,” Leytis said. They’d rested their elbows on their knees, chin on hands, pensive and thoughtful.
“And if you hadn’t been sneaking around the fucking vents,” Horizons continued, still almost-shouting, “you’d radiate less of Psi! More of home!”
Despite their tone of voice, baby Yeirin cooed and babbled, waving her little arms at Horizons. Beginnings glanced at her from sorting notes. Some part of him was happy, he thought, that she’d grown so attached to Horizons so quickly.
“What’s done is done.” Tower rolled his eyes with an amused little huff, turning another page in the thick binder he’d been given. “You know how the coin rolls, Sulfur.”
“Still. This could’ve been resolved so much faster,” they grumbled, crossing their arms.
“How was I supposed to know any of that?” Leytis responded, with an aggressive shrug.
“Ignore him,” Tower advised, “he’s always wound-up.”
Beginnings handed the stack of papers to Tower. He hummed, gave it a quick inspection, and teleported it away. With that, Beginnings turned back to the table, reaching to thumb through another layer of the COR’s abandoned documents.
It wasn’t like he supported thievery. But, well... Tower had his ways of attaining things. And it was probably easier this way. Right? Simpler, and they didn’t need to rely on any outsiders for help.
In a way, he supposed that made Leytis and Yeirin the test subjects. The first true stressing of their brand-new independence, to see if they could return them in one piece, safe and secure.
Hopefully there was somewhere to return them to. In the pit of his stomach, he still wondered - still let the feelings run through him as a river - that maybe Psi was just saving whatever it could. And if he was some sort of creature, born of Psi and made of its thoughts, was he wrong?
Or were those just the lies Psi told itself? Did it, too, live in delusion and emptiness, hoping beyond reason that it was more than a poisoned well?
Leytis coughed into a hand. “Well. Thank you for... taking care of her. I guess. She’s lost some weight.”
“It’s charming, how much you care about her,” Tower said.
The Beaut leveled a steady glare on him. “Of course I care about her. She’s just a fucking baby. She’s just - a fucking baby, abandoned and - of course I care.”
Tower didn’t respond. He merely offered a knowing grin, and flipped through several more papers. Beginnings could barely make heads or tails of them; tiny print and a dozen shorthand descriptions and not a single image in sight. He was, honestly, grateful that Tower was the one handling the admin.
Yeirin squirmed, almost violently. Leytis hesitated, as if they didn’t want to let her go - but sighed and set her on the floor. She scurried off the rug and to Horizons’ leg, which she clung to and unsteadily attempted to lift herself.
Tower smiled. “You know, we have a few programs for single parents here. Especially for refugees.”
“I’m not interested. I’ll be going home soon,” Leytis said, with a look that could kill someone of weaker heart - which is why Beginnings averted his eyes swiftly. “I’m not going to take resources away from your citizens or whatever.”
“Well, for the time being, you’re our citizen.” Tower marked something in the binder with a pen.
“You’re being awfully friendly,” Horizons toned.
“Hm, am I? Maybe Cradle’s rubbing off on me,” he responded, with a wry grin. “You’re being awfully gruff, considering you have a toddler trying to climb you.”
There was a knock from the doorway. Clarity gave the group a little wave, then dangled a set of keys. “I got the temporary housing squared away for you, Leytis. It has a separate bedroom for your daughter, too.”
Leytis stood, reaching to scoop Yeirin. She shrieked, fingers wrapping tighter into Horizons’ shin. A flicker of a hurt frown flashed on Leytis’ face.
“Sounds like you won’t be a single parent much longer!” Tower chirped, and both Horizons and Leytis rounded on him with shouts of offense.
Beginnings smiled to himself as he turned back to the desk, somewhere between relieved and embarrassed and happy. He supposed, in the end, it didn’t really matter if they couldn’t get Leytis home.
People adjusted, people found new lives, people forged something out of Psi. If nothing else, their home rewarded resilience, adaptability, change.
And someone as ‘off’ as a Beaut that willingly adopted someone’s neglected, stranded baby... well, in the end, they’d fit right in.
Good. He was glad for that. He was happy to be here, surrounded by his friends. His friends? His friends. Horizons’ hug resonated in his mind, warm and snug, curled against his heart.
They’d all learned to love Psi, to care for it, to cherish it despite its blemishes and mistakes and struggles. They’d learned to care for him, in tandem and in sync, one and the same.
Maybe one day they’d figure him out, and his identity would be laid bare. In that moment, he hoped they’d wrap around him in another hug, warm and safe.
Was it so wrong for a Timeline to crave its Fragments’ love? Was it so wrong for him to exist, piecemeal thoughts and feelings and wishes from deep within Psi’s heart?
He hoped they’d say no. He hoped they’d throw arms around his shoulders and hold him close and say they’d be friends forever. Part of him feared that moment - tearing his skin back in vulnerability, letting them see who he really was.
And the other part of him relished in it, readied for it, begged for it to arrive and for them to truly see him for him.
But he was happy to stay right here.