A/N: Warning for brief mention of suicidal ideation, homelessness, and fantasy police brutality in this chapter
Roman wandered through a silent forest, feet treading lightly. He stepped over a toppled log then looked up at the overcast sky, visible through the leafless branches that shot like lightning into the sky. Roman’s gaze followed the line of branches down the trunks. They were scraggly and blue, nothing like the trees around Gallontea.
Dead leaves lined the trail beneath Roman’s boots, hidden under a light dusting of snow. The air was cold, the life of autumn surrendering to winter’s grasping hands. Mist gathered around his boots and hung low over the forest.
Roman had been many places. He knew many things, and these trees, he knew very well. He knew the path he stood on and knew just where it led. It was the last place he wanted to go, but he walked on anyway, compelled forward as if an invisible thread reeled him in like a fishing line.
A dark shape appeared in the fog, and before Roman was ready, the lonely cabin emerged out of it.
The cabin was made from the same pale blue wood of the forest— the wood of the ibal tree, so common in Troas. The cabin stood as Roman had last seen it, windows boarded shut and lonely shadows hanging in the open doorway. A shiver ran through him. It tilted precariously to one side, the roof, messily thatched with the long grasses that grew in nearby marshes, collapsing inward.
He stepped into the clearing. No grass grew on the frozen ground leading up to the cabin. Nothing survived in this cold place. Roman took another step toward the door, but a movement glimpsed out of the corner of his eye— the rustle of a skirt, the wave of a hand—made him stop. When he turned, all he saw was forest, the sickly trees affording little coverage for anyone hoping to hide.
Someone laughed behind him and he spun again, surprised to see a figure on the porch. She raised a hand to beckon him closer, but Roman couldn’t move.
“Mother,” he breathed.
Catalina Rosario smiled. Or rather, this distorted dream version of her did. It had been so long since her death that Roman had forgotten what she looked like. The Catalina that stood on the porch was a constantly changing blur, her features warping and shifting every few seconds. In the way of dreams, Roman barely noticed, just knew that she wasn’t real.
Some things about her were clear. Her eyes, lighter than his own. They were the honey-sweet tones of sunshine streaming through a bottle of whiskey. Her voice, always close to laughter.
Her clothes were wrong. His dreaming mind had put her in a modern Gallontean gown, complete with full skirts and stiff linen. But she’d always worn traditional Troati dresses, off-shoulder bodices and flowing, lacy skirts of bright hues.
“Amaimon!” She called, no longer looking at Roman. Roman started at the sound of his birth name: it had been so long since he’d heard it. But Catalina wasn’t speaking to him. She ran down the steps, passing Roman, and scooped a child into her arms. The child stared at Roman over his mother’s shoulder, cold black eyes boring into Roman’s own.
“Well?” Catalina asked, leaning back to examine the child’s face. The word, from a language spoken in only a few remote Troasian villages today, had bittersweet nostalgia rising in Roman’s throat like bile. “Amaimon Rosario, didn’t you miss your mother?”
“Yes,” the boy said seriously. “Don’t go away anymore.”
Catalina laughed and made no promises. “Can I make it up to you, sweet boy?”
Amaimon considered this. “Tell me a story?”
“A story, hmm? About what?”
“Tell me about a great hero.”
“Yes, sir,” Catalina said, wide eyes dancing with laughter. The boy seemed to know he was being made fun of and squirmed in his mother’s grasp. “Be still, now. I’ll give you your story, love. Must you be so serious?”
Roman remembered many moments like this. His mother knew a great number of stories, more than Roman knew even today, and was good at telling them. She spoke softly, sweetly, using her free hand to make grand gestures.
“I want to be a hero,” Roman heard his younger self say, the child’s voice only an echo.
They faced Roman now, oblivious to his presence. Catalina smiled, but Amaimon wore the same serious expression as before. She was right; he’d always been a serious child. He’d learned to stop taking his life so seriously when doing so only made him want to end it.
“Don’t be stupid,” Catalina said, voice suddenly flat. “Leave heroism to lesser men. You can do better.”
Roman followed them toward the cabin, but someone appeared in the doorway, hidden in shadow. All Roman could see of him was a pair of snakeskin boots, but it was enough to force a trill of fear through him. The boots stepped forward, and then came pain.
Roman cried out and fell to his knees, suddenly unable to breathe. Something burned in his chest, pumping fire through his body with every beat of his heart. It beat against his ribcage, trying to escape, drawn to the man on the porch.
He tried to shout, warn his mother not to go to the cabin, but pain seared through his lungs and up his throat when he took the breath. Distantly, he registered noises around him. Catalina screamed. Roman tried to look, but his muscles were locked tight.
As suddenly as it began, the pain receded. Roman stayed on the ground, folded in on himself. Even if he could, he wouldn’t rise. He knew what he’d see if he tried.
“Wake up,” he said to himself.
Even worse than that hot, burning pain was Roman’s loneliness. He’d been alone for so long— since this day. Since his mother became first in a long line of people who left him when he needed them most. It sat like a boulder on his shoulders, pressing him deeper into the ground.
He didn’t want to rise. He didn’t want the reminder that he was alone in a world where no one truly knows him. He wanted to lie here forever. He wanted to so, so badly.
Eventually, though, he pushed himself up and saw that the world around him had changed.
The cabin rotted, the trees darkened, the forest flooded with mist. Black ribbons of something alive and writhing convulsed across the dark sky. Some old memory – far out of reach – tugged at Roman at the sight.
Roman stumbled toward Catalina, now dead and bloodied at the bottom of the porch steps, and fell to his knees. Amaimon stood on Catalina’s other side with blood on his hands. The child touched his cheek, where the blood mingled with falling tears. When Amaimon looked up at Roman, his eyes were all black.
“I didn’t kill her,” Roman told the boy, told the dream, told himself.
“How do you know? You don’t even remember,” Amaimon said.
The kid was right. Roman couldn’t remember how Catalina died, no matter how hard he tried. And that just made him feel lonelier.
There was something missing. If only he knew what.
Catalina’s eyes were open, staring blankly at some point in the far distance. When Roman reached out to shut them, he saw there was blood on his hands, too.
And that was nothing new.
In Roman’s life, two things were constant. Only two: loneliness and guilt.
In Catalina’s eyes, Roman saw echoes of every person he’d killed, every person he’d failed to save, every person he’d left behind when he realized abandoning was easier than being abandoned.”
“I didn’t mean to,” Roman said. Something wet dripped off his chin to land on his hand, and he realized for the first time that he was crying.
Amaimon laughed, short and cruel. He still stared at Roman with all-black eyes.
Roman shut his eyes against the sight. “Please,” he said, not even knowing what he wanted. To wake and be spared from this dream, maybe. To never wake again and be spared from everything else.
“You’re no better than her, you know,” Amaimon said.
Roman opened his eyes. The boy was looking to the wood, so Roman followed his gaze. The last thing he saw before waking was glowing crimson eyes and a twisted smile fading into the mist.
Roman sat up, flailing in the sheets before realizing where he was— away from the cabin, away from Amaimon, away from his mother and whatever killed her. He reached for the other side of the bed, for the warmth of a lover to reassure him that he was really here, that he was safe, but he was alone.
At that realization, Roman fell apart.
He wrapped his arms around himself, hoping that might stop the shaking, might protect the raw edges of his soul, exposed like a torn-off scab after seeing those barracks again, after that awful dream ripped him apart and left the pieces to flutter in the wind.
He’d had that dream before, but never had it come with so much pain. Roman still felt echoes of it, like a poked-at bruise. Like it hadn’t been just a dream.
In time, the shaking subsided, but the wound didn’t close. Roman wiped his eyes. The wound wasn’t going to close, but he could ensure no one saw it. He pushed himself out of bed and went to find Dinara. As he was about to leave the trailer, a faint thump from above made him pause.
Forcing a casual smile onto his face first, he climbed onto the trailer’s handrail, then up to the roof. Sure enough, there Dinara sat, knees hugged to her chest, the moon hanging large and bright behind her.
“Star gazing, Di? You could’ve invited me,” he said, keeping his voice light and hoping it was too dark for her to notice his red and puffy eyes.
She turned when Roman joined her, expression betraying all of her thoughts and none of them at once. “What are you doing awake?” she asked.
Roman made his way along the roof to sit beside her. “I’m always awake at strange hours of the night.”
“I didn’t wake you?”
“You didn’t wake me.”
Dinara reached up to touch his still-damp cheek. “You had one of your nightmares again,” Dinara guessed.
“I’m fine,” he said reflexively. Though in the face of all the lies, he owed Dinara some truth. He could tell Dinara about his mother, how she haunts him and has haunted him since he was a child. But instead, he shrugged. If he said any more he might cry. “I’d ask you why you’re up, but I think I already know.”
Dinara looked away, the moonlight catching on her hair.
“You’re thinking about yesterday?” Roman guessed.
“About all the questions left unanswered,” Dinara confirmed.
“I’m sorry if I’m being evasive.”
“Evasive doesn’t begin to cover it, Roman. I feel like I’m worlds away from knowing you.”
“You know me better than almost anyone.”
“That’s not comforting. It’s sad.”
“Yeah,” Roman conceded, feeling the loneliness creeping in. “Dinara, if you really want answers, I can—,”
“Tell me about last time, then,” Dinara said, not even waiting for him to finish. “Last time you had to flee the Island.”
Roman’s mouth snapped shut. After a moment’s thought, he said, “Okay.” Dinara waited for him to continue, while he stared out over the quiet camp, lost in thought. “I was a prisoner on the Island. More in practice than in name.”
“Why?” Dinara asked.
“Why were you a prisoner?”
“Ah. I killed someone. Accidentally.”
Digging into the haze of his memories, he said, “I was friendless and homeless, at the time. I made the mistake of coming to Gallontea, naively thinking I could find a job, maybe save enough to finish my education. I had no idea what I was walking into, and the police then were even worse than they are now…a week in town, a group of them accosted me while I was trying to find somewhere to sleep. They were beating me, and I just…reacted. I was so sure they were going to kill me. I killed one, wounded two others, and was arrested immediately after.”
Ignoring Dinara’s horrified expression, he continued. “They kept me on the Island for a long time. Eventually, Ivey found me, helped me plan an escape.” Roman sighed. “I had a friend in the…the prison. Bellona. Barely more than a kid. She was supposed to get out with me, but when the time came, everything went wrong. The guards almost caught us, and we had to fight our way out. Bellona got caught and was carried away by the guards, and I…I just kept going. I had to get out.” Roman squeezed his eyes shut. “I think she’s why I was so keen to help yesterday. Maebhe reminded me of her— spirited, clever, scared. I wanted to do better this time.”
“What happened to Bellona?”
Roman shook his head. “I don’t know. I tried going back for her, but…no luck. I assumed they’d killed her.”
“Stop,” Dinara said, looking surprised at herself for speaking. She shook her head. “I don’t think I want to know any more.”
Roman sighed. “I don’t think I want to tell any more.”
Tears swam in Dinara’s eyes, but her cheeks were dry. Her voice was even as she said, “Where does that leave us, Roman? If you can’t tell me about yourself, and I can’t hear it? Yesterday, in all that action, I feel like you were more yourself than I’ve ever seen you, and if you can’t be that person with me…”
Roman rubbed his eyes. He was so tired. “I know. You deserve better.”
“Probably. But so do you.”
Roman wasn’t so sure.
“You’re still welcome to travel with us,” Dinara said. “You’re part of the family. That won’t change.”
“No.” He had to move on. He should be used to this by now. “I’m going to stay in Gallontea.”
“Oh,” Dinara said. Roman pretended not to hear the relief in her voice. “What will you do?”
Roman bit his lip. “I think I have to do something about Unity.”
“What? Do what?” Dinara asked.
Roman debated holding his tongue. Speaking the words into existence meant he would have to stand by them, and that was a terrifying thought. But he spoke, and the words flowed easier now that he needn’t fear scaring Dinara away. The worst had already happened.
“I had to work for Unity, when I was their prisoner. The things I did for them shattered me. You’ve caught glimpses of the broken pieces, but you have no idea how bad it was. It took years for me to be whole again, and I’m still a badly-patched vase one shove away from hitting the ground and shattering all over again. When I finally got away from them, when I rebuilt myself, I was so focused on not letting them get near me again that I missed them doing the same harm to others. I was selfish, but I’m finally ready to help.”
“Please be careful, Roman,” Dinara begged. “Don’t underestimate Unity.”
“I won’t.” He smiled at her, and it was almost genuine. “What about you? What will you do now?”
Dinara frowned, surprised at the question. It was assumed she’d stay with the Players, keep traveling, like she’d always done, but Roman saw the question ignite the possibilities behind her eyes. “I don’t know,” she said, again surprised at the words that left her lips. “Maybe I’ll try something new. I’d like to be a formal actor.”
“You should. You’d be amazing at it,” Roman said. “You shone at the Unity performance.”
Roman raised Dinara’s hands to his lips, kissed her for the last time. “I’m going to go,” he said. “I’ll come back for my things tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Dinara tried to say, but no sound came out. “Goodbye, Roman.”
Roman didn’t bother climbing down from the trailer, just jumped, landing easily on the balls of his feet. As he walked away, the pain returned. It was pain like a fire burning over his heart, like the pain from his dream. As he walked on, his eyes turned entirely to black and veins of hot-white light spread across his hands and face, setting him aglow.
Roman stopped walking, instead staring down at his hands. It wasn’t with shock or surprise, but something like frustration. With a growl, he pressed on, kept walking until the glow faded from his veins. He swayed slightly when it did, unease roiling in his stomach.
He didn’t know what the road ahead held. He was alone again, unknown to everyone— even himself. But Unity waited, and one thing Roman did know was that he couldn’t run any longer.