Blood and Ashes – August 2016

*Heavy trigger warnings apply – gore, horror, violence and scenes/concepts that may distress or offend*


Blood.

There was so much blood.

He’d seen a lot of it in his time, growing up as he had amongst the famed Fundays of old – death and decay and destruction everywhere…but this.

There were no words for this.

He hadn’t meant for it to start this way…there had been a plan, but as with all of his plans, his zeal and instinct had gotten in the way.

And now…blood.

Nikolai Katorga stared at the nurse laying in a pool of said blood at his feet…her co-worker sprawled beside her, crimson pouring from their arteries, their juices mixing across the floor.

“Claudia…” he murmured after a moment, “I made a mess…”

Claudia Lyra Monére trotted over from nearby to have a look, almost slipping over in the mess and laughing gaily as she near-collided with him.

“Oh…well, yes. That is an understatement,” she slid a hand across his shoulders, “It’s such a pretty colour…” she mused quietly, “Where is her ar…oh…I see. Cool.”

Her lips curved into an appreciative smile as she surveyed his handiwork. They’d been hunting together through the halls of Oakleaf for at least an hour, their pace eerily in sync as they’d silently stalked the shrieking nurses from room to room, the one baiting, the other cornering…the one holding and the other slicing…

-The things we could do…-

The things they had done, already.

Claudia wiped her knife against her dress before tucking it into the holster at her thigh, her green eyes flickering to study her companion. He was tilting his head and wrinkling his nose, a sigh escaping him as he pouted.

“It’s missing something…” he muttered, a bloody hand rising to brush his hair back, leaving a crimson stain across his forehead. Making a face, he turned on his heel and walked away, stalking further into the facility, keen eyes searching for…something.

Crouching down next to one of the nurses, Claudia studied her thoughtfully for a moment before bounding to her feet and following him, slipping her bloody hand in his as they navigated the hallways.

“Did you see my sculpture? I carved him…” she said proudly, pointing to a doorway as they passed. It was decorated by a slumped male form – one of the younger orderlies – who had been effectively tied and stapled to the wooden panelling, his skin carefully cut and peeled back to form raised floral patterns.

“I call him ‘Lotus Dreams in Red’,” she said, sounding thoughtful…then cracking into a childlike giggle. Niki paused to look at the man, the body jolting at Claudia’s laugh, the unfortunate soul clearly still alive.

More or less.

“Very nice,” he breathed, making a show of appreciation before taking off again, swinging his hand as it clutched hers and he dragged her further down the hallway.

“Do you feel like someone is missing?” he mused, his gaze flashing at her, then to a fire axe mounted in emergency glass on a nearby wall. Claudia followed his eyes, her brows rising as a smile spread across her lips, her face lighting up.

“Oh! That’s right! I have something for you! Part of your birthday present…”

Wordlessly Niki let go of her hand, smashing the glass with his elbow and drawing his prize out from amongst the shattered fragments. He stared at it, turning it this way and that to catch the light before he grinned at her.

“Bernard…” he guessed, and Claudia clapped her hands, nodding and beckoning him closer with a finger.

“Poor Bernard…” she sighed melodramatically, slinking an arm about Niki’s waist as he moved to her side, “He got stuck in one of the Braidleigh rooms during a routine check…suddenly his passcode didn’t work….” her eyes glittered with terrible delight, “He must have heard the screaming…I hope we didn’t scare him.”

Taking his free hand she drew Niki down the hallway, walking backwards so she could keep her eyes on him. He hoisted the axe onto his shoulder, pressing his cheek against the cool metal and watching her as they went, half trailing half stalking her through the halls. There was shrieking and crying in one of the nearby walkways…the sounds of a woman pleading…someone was raping her. Or murdering her.

Or both.

Neither Claudia nor Niki seemed to care or even notice, the latter chuckling and following the former indulgently, his lips curved in a soft smile as she waltzed up to a secure room and punched an override code into the panel.

“I wonder if he’s shit himself,” she mused aloud, drawing her knife out again and peering in through the viewing window in search of Bernard. Niki sidled up behind her, pressing his body against her back so she could feel just how aroused he was by her impeding ‘gift,’ his teeth grazing her neck as he waited for the door to open. She moaned softly, taking a moment to lean back into him before rapping on the door sharply.

“Bernard?” she called, trying to keep the amusement out of her voice, “It’s Doctor Monère…are you ok? The police are here. I’m coming in…” her breath caught as Niki bit her again and she stifled a laugh.

“Oh, thank god…thank god…” came the muffled voice from within.

Pressing down on the handle and swinging the door open, ‘Doctor Monére’ sauntered into the room, her green eyes falling on Bernard, who was cowering under the small metal bed. He looked at her from his hiding place, the relief in his eyes dying slowly and his face falling as his eyes raked over his boss’ appearance.

Cool, calm, methodical Claudia stood in a once-white lab coat, now stained in deep red smears and splatters, and a long evening gown. Behind her, swinging the axe and letting it dangle from his fingers to drag across the floor came Nikolai, a childlike grin on his face.

“Hiya Benny!” he exclaimed, waving at Bernard.

“Oh god…oh god…” the terrified orderly scooted back further beneath the bed as the blood-covered pair swept in.

“It’s bedlam out there,” Niki went on, “Seriously…you should see…someone let out the high risk patients and they’re running riot…but all the doors are locked…and I think the damn security system is on the glitch again…” Shaking his head, he moved to the bed, leaning over to peer under it and giving Bernard a pretty smile.

“How you doin’?” he asked coyly. Bernard whimpered.

“You look pale, Bernard,” Claudia tutted, crouching and reaching out a hand towards the cowering form. “You need some colour in your cheeks…” she ran her hand over his face, leaving a red smear, “Hmm…better.”

Bernard lashed out a hand to slap her away from him, and in an instant her knife was under his chin.

“Now…that was rude. We dislike rudeness, don’t we dear?” she asked Niki with a wink.

“Mmm, classless,” Niki replied, nodding his head, blue eyes flashing in disappointment, “Disrespectful…and after all I’ve done for you Benny…” he watched the terrified man, the pretty smile never leaving his face, “But don’t let us keep you if you have to go…I mean…you could run…you’re a big burly manly type…surely the two of us couldn’t take you down…but…”

Bernard didn’t feel the needle going into his flesh until it was too late…the sedative that Claudia had drawn out of her coat pocket and jabbed into his neck spreading through him in an instant.

“But there goes that plan…” Niki finished with a smirk, straightening and moving to lean against the opposite wall.

“Whoops,” Claudia giggled, shaking her head and rising. She circled over to Niki, winding an arm around his waist as she pocketed the syringe and looked back to Bernard, “I don’t like liars,” she mused to her companion, “And Bernard here – well…he lied to me…” She watched the man as his body went limp, nudging Niki playfully, “Shall we call this an employee disciplinary meeting?”

“Court is now in session…” Nikolai murmured, smirking. Claudia sighed and shook her head at Bernard, gesturing to the young man beside her.

“First blow to the injured party, my heart…” she said with a mock pout, placing her hand flat over her chest. Niki made a tsk sound, his arm rising to lock Claudia to his side as the pair stared down at the quivering man. Bernard gave a low moan, his body jerking as he attempted to crawl out from under the bed – presumably towards the door.

“Shame on you Benny,” Niki clucked, stepping closer to him with Claudia in tow, “Shame…shame…you hurt my Claudia…don’t you know that’s against the rules?” he blinked, then kicked out with his foot, catching the fallen man sharply in the chin.

“Pay attention…” he snapped.

“You should do as he says, Bernard… I don’t think he is quite sane…” Claudia laughed in delight, kissing Niki on the cheek as he grinned at Bernard and nodded.

“They say I’m unstable…” he agreed, sniggering before letting go of Claudia and lashing out again, slamming his heel into Bernard’s face and laughing at the sickening crunch of his nose, “I just think I’m enthusiastic…”

“Neuroatypical,” Claudia suggested gently, circling to the left of the figure on the floor and planting a sharp stiletto into his rib cage before using her foot to nudge him onto his back, “I am not good at the brute force,” she said as if apologising, crouching over Bernard and drawing the knife to glisten in front of his face, “I am more the artistic type.”

She tucked the blade in between Bernard’s lips, relishing the momentary stillness before shoving it downwards and slicing his cheek. Niki leant against the bed, watching her as she knelt over their prey with a small smile.

“You see Benny…” he said nonchalantly, “When I told you that I would make you pay…when you shoved your cock down Baelian’s throat and made him cry, remember I said to you afterwards that you’d better enjoy it while it lasted because the price would be steep? You thought I was joking…I don’t know why you thought I was joking…I mean…” he held out his hands, a thoroughly arrogant smirk painting his features as he indicated himself, “Don’t you know who I am?”

Niki burst into laughter, shaking his head as his eyes shifted to Claudia and he offered her a wink. Her predatory grin turned into a genuine smile as she caught the glance, pride flickering over her face before her attention was drawn back to the task at hand and she gestured to Bernard’s spluttering and severed mouth.

“Look, he’s smiling! What a terrible person!” she mocked, “Perhaps he doesn’t understand his crime…it is quite complex, after all, he doesn’t know what it’s like to have his cock in his mouth…” she looked to Niki as if she’d just suggested a wine to go with dinner, “What do you think?”

Niki ‘thought’ she was the best thing since sliced bread. It was written all over his face…his expression changing into one of awed reverence as he nodded slowly.

“I think it’s a good beginning…but wait!” his hand shot up, halting her and then gesturing to Bernard, “You keep carving…I gotta do something…”

He was out the door before she could say anything in response, whistling a happy tune as he strode down the corridor, then humming, then singing at the top of his lungs throughout the complex.

“TIPTOE…TO THE WINDOW…BY THE WINDOW…THAT’S WHERE I’LL BE COME TIPTOE…”

Claudia wrinkled her nose and looked down at Bernard’s wide and frightened eyes, her lips curving into a pretty smile.

“He’s young…” she told the quivering man, lifting the knife again.

_________

Nikolai was gone for almost half an hour, the bellowing singing and laughter echoing throughout the facility matched only by terrified screaming and begging…and the gurgling sounds of the dying as the Katorga heir went about his work.

Within the small room Claudia was creating chaos of her own, Bernard’s cries rising in crescendo to match and mingle with Niki’s tormented choir. She chewed on her lip as she carved, listening to her counterpart clattering up and down the hallway, her lips curving into a small and indulgent smile.

-As subtle as a tank rolling down a hill…-

Finally, with a skipping step Nikolai returned, peeking through the doorway at Claudia and giving her a devilish grin when she looked up. His face was covered in blood…as were his clothes, his hands slick with crimson as he waggled his fingers at her in a wave.

“Okay, we’re ready for you both…” he called, beckoning Monére over, “Come and see…”

Claudia glanced down at the naked and skinned foot and the ‘sock puppet’ show she had been putting on for the weeping Bernard, then scrambled to her feet and followed Niki as he sashayed back out into the hallway, pointing proudly to the line of severed heads sitting in a neat row along the far wall. There were seven of them, their faces twisted in horror and the final throes of agony and death, bloody stumps still leaking vitae and juices across the polished floor.

“We needed witnesses…for…you know…the things…” Niki’s words trailed off and he frowned, moving forward to adjust one of the female heads slightly to the left.

“Oh my….that is so…” Claudia looked impressed, “Seven? Why seven when we are four? There should be three…”

“Because Clau-di-a,” he sing-songed, shaking his head as if she had said the daftest thing, “We’re not THEM…we can’t be counted as witnesses…” he frowned for the briefest of moments before she brought out the puppet to show him, “Hi Niki! Help Claudia get Bernard!” she chirped in a squeaky voice, moving the ‘sock’s’ gaping maw in time with her words. Niki’s eyes lit up like a child’s.

“Oh hi!” he exclaimed, excitement filling his features, “What’s your name? I can help…I’m very helpful…my father told me so once…” Turning and bounding into the small room like an obedient puppy, Niki skidded to a halt at Bernard’s side, slipping in the blood, “Benny…whoa! Benny…” he giggled, falling to his hands and knees over the man’s shuddering body, “You gotta come see what I did in the hallway…your audience is waiting for you…” Bernard moaned and sobbed pitifully as Niki took hold of his arms, standing and trying to drag him towards the door, succeeding only in tripping himself up, “Claudia! Bring your friend and help me move Benny’s fat ass!”

Claudia, who had been standing in the doorway watching him fondly and chuckling, shook her head. With a melodramatic sigh she took off the puppet, tossing it aside and kicking off her shoes, skidding along the floor with a shriek as she ran over.

“Whee!”

She collided with Niki, giggling and gripping his arm to steady herself before straightening into a more regal posture, smoothing back her hair.

“Classy,” Niki commented and Claudia poked her tongue out at him before bending to hook her arms beneath Bernard’s knees.

“Ok…on one, two, three…” she said, pulling the man’s bloody body towards the door, “His name was…Cinderella…” she huffed as she helped Niki manoeuvre their limp cargo, “Cos the shoe fit him perfectly, and he fit like a glove…right?” she paused and frowned, “The puppet. Not Bernard…” she clarified after a moment.

“Noted,” Niki nodded.

When they finally managed to drag the body out into the hallway, Claudia dropped his legs, ducking back into the room and returning with a pillow to lay under the whimpering man’s head.

“Don’t want you to bang your head while we work,” she said kindly, fluffing the pillow and tucking it neatly beneath his neck. Nikolai stared at her, looking from the pillow to Claudia and back again with a thoroughly confused expression before he shrugged, smoothing down his clothes and wiping his hands on his coat before settling to his knees.

“Okay…so…ladies and gentlemen…friends and fuckwits blah blah blah…” he waved a hand at the ‘audience’ of severed heads, his blue eyes glimmering madly, “We are gathered here today to join this man…” he pointed to Bernard, then paused, “Claudia…where’s the blade? We…there needs to be a blade here…” he looked at her expectantly, clicking his fingers impatiently until she handed it over, dropping to her knees beside him, “I’m sorry, this man…and this blade…in…” his words trailed off and he made a face, “…fuck it…” Swinging his arm, Niki jammed the knife deep into Bernard’s belly.

Claudia cackled and clapped her hands as a spray of blood choked its way out of Bernard’s mouth. She edged closer and frowned, clicking her tongue.

“Ooh. Stab wound to the umbilical region. Very bad, Bernard…very bad. It’s ok though, you’ll live a little longer….well…” she looked at Niki, reaching out to touch his face, “If you want him to linger…?”

He stared at her wide-eyed, blinking as the slightest of dark shadows flickered through his gaze at her touch. He almost flinched.

“Did I do it wrong?” he asked, frowning, “Have I ruined it?”

He seemed genuinely concerned for a moment, looking back down at Bernard with a disappointed expression, as if he’d done something to mar the entire experience. Claudia shook her head, shuffling closer until she could wrap herself around him reassuringly, her fingers curling around his on the knife as she pressed her chin to his shoulder.

“No, not at all…Mon Coeur,” she murmured in his ear, “You are doing magnificently…you just need to decide if he dies fast and covered in his own entrails, or slowly, bleeding out?” she smiled at his thoughtful pout, then chuckled – her breath tickling his ear, “Go with your gut instinct.”

Nikolai’s face tilted into hers as he stared at their hands, his brows furrowing. He thought for a moment longer, then nodded.

“Slowly…” he said, “The audience would be mad…if we did it too quickly…” his gaze flickered up to the row of heads and he smiled almost prettily, then exhaled and steadied himself, flexing his fingers on the blade, “Show me…you know medical things…”

Studying the position of the knife carefully, Claudia drew his hand away from the blade, sliding to kneel beside him once more and reaching for her thigh holster, retrieving her favourite scalpel. She hadn’t used it since…

-Since the Professor-

“I think…a little payback is required,” she mused, pushing thoughts of Kreutz from her mind and grabbing Bernard by the belt, undoing it roughly and swiping at the limp hand shakily reaching for her knife.

“Uh uh…he said no, so…we make it slow….” she scolded the victim before glancing at Niki, “Remove the patient’s trousers please…” she instructed, watching as he did so without a moment’s hesitation. Pressing the scalpel to the base of Bernard’s cock, Claudia scowled as the man cried out and jolted away, pulling her hand back in disgust at his gall for ruining her neat surgical cuts.

“Hold his shoulders please, I have a standard to uphold here…”

Sliding forwards and out of the way of her scalpel, Niki pressed his hands against Bernard’s shoulders, bringing his face closer and listening to the man’s shallow breathing.

“Benny, you don’t sound so good…” he crooned at him, “This might hurt a bit…you may want to brace yourself…” he winced as Claudia slid the scalpel around the base of Bernard’s flaccid member, blinking when she sighed irritably at the slight twitching in his legs.

“Should have injected you with more sedative…oh well…”

Shifting to kneel directly on his thigh, Claudia continued her work, carefully peeling back and cutting through flesh. Nikolai watched her in fascination as she carved, his expression somewhere between wonder and horror…his face pressing against Bernard’s cheek until she held up a perfectly severed penis, her lips curved into a smile.

“Open wide,” she grinned at him, waving the cock in front of Bernard…who promptly fainted. “Fucker!”

Claudia pounded on his chest with a balled fist, turning to grab his pants and yanking them to raise his knees. She watched him intently, her eyes furiously searching for signs of consciousness. “There we go…welcome back,” she said as her patient moaned, his lashes fluttering, “Open up Bernard…”

When she pressed the dismembered appendage against the orderly’s mouth, Niki collapsed into peals of laughter, watching as she struggled to pry his lips apart and shove it past his teeth. Tears rose in his eyes, spilling over his cheeks as he shook his head.

“Here comes the aeroplane Benny…” he called, making plane noises.

“Gotta take as good as you give,” Claudia purred to the whimpering mess that had once been one of the few people she’d trusted in the entire institution, her teeth grit as she choked him on his own cock, “You don’t hurt my brother. I will kill every fucker in the world to keep him safe…” she snarled, suddenly viciously angry, “And they will be lucky if…” she cut herself off as she noticed Bernard’s colour changing. Pulling the cock from his mouth, she snorted in disappointment, throwing it across the hallway, watching it hit the wall with a wet splat, “Jesus, work on your deep-throating, Bernard…”

A look of disgust crossed Niki’s face and he sighed, sitting up and shaking his head, his laughter dying on his lips.

“You know, Benny, I didn’t complain when you shoved that thing down my throat…it’s not really that big, I don’t know what the fuck your problem is…” scowling, Niki stared down at the dying man, something flickering in his gaze as his attention fell to the knife still protruding from his belly. His lip curled, a hand moving to grip the handle. Bernard groaned, then cried out in pain, his body thrashing as Niki pressed the knife deeper into his gut, twisting it slowly, then drawing it out and wrinkling his nose, completely ignoring the pained wheezing coming from its host.

“Red…” he whispered, “it’s so red…”

Claudia sat back and watched him, studying the way the light played over his blood-covered features and glinted off the blade, the exit signs and light from various rooms creating erratic pools of illumination, making the blood seem almost black in places. There was noise echoing from down the hallway, a whimpering or moaning, but mostly the institution felt quiet. Her mind felt quiet. It had felt quiet since the night before the merge.

The peace unsettled her.

Only golden orbs watched her now.

Nikolai’s eyes widened as he stared at the knife, his lower lip trembling for the briefest of moments before he plunged it back into Bernard’s gut. And then he did it again. And again.

Soon he was puncturing holes up along the man’s chest, laughing as he went.

Claudia sat in silence as Bernard panicked and flailed with the last of his life’s breath, then gurgled and spluttered his death rattle. She felt sad suddenly, not for her dead employee, but for the naive person she’d been when she’d trusted him.

‘Stupid, stupid girl,’ she thought to herself, ‘Optimistic and stupid.’

She put a hand on Niki’s shoulder lightly to steady his zeal, her fingers plucking at his shirt thoughtfully. He was wet with blood…he felt warm.

-Red suits you as much as blue did.-

He paused at her touch, panting…he’d worked himself up into quite the fervour with his little blade. Eyes swung towards her and he gave her a quizzical look.

“Too much?” he asked. There was something different in his eyes now, something that she hadn’t seen before…a wavering…an unsteadiness that whispered of a tumult of emotions clamouring to find purchase from within. And how not, with four people now melded into one?

“No, my heart…”

Remembering her own reaction as she’d knelt over the Professor’s body, Claudia shook her head, carefully reaching out to take the knife from his hands, tossing it aside as she shifted to sit in front of him. She fanned out her dress, draping it behind her to block the sight of Bernard, sliding her arms around Niki protectively and pressing her head against his.

“You are perfect,” she assured him, her voice soft with affection as she tucked his hair away from his face, kissing his cheek.

Niki’s lashes fluttered slightly as his fists unconsciously clenched and unclenched. His hands were slick with blood, the smell of it filling the hallway, almost nauseatingly now…

-…warm…so warm…-

“I’m perfect…” he echoed softly, his eyes glazing over as he stared at her. Slowly red fingers rose to press against her face…his hand was shaking, though his expression remained blank, if not calm.

You’re perfect…” he added after a moment, blinking at her.

“So I am told,” she joked softly, not without a hint of bitterness. Her hands stroked over his cheeks and down his neck, fingers shifting to check his pulse before dropping to his shoulders. His heart was racing.

-Adrenalin. That explains the shaking hands too…-

Claudia consciously slowed her own breathing, taking his hand to press against her chest so he could match her, just as she used to do with Baelian. His brows furrowed, confusion and bewilderment filling his features at the contact. He seemed all at once at a loss for what to do…then the lines on his face smoothed, his expression brightening in recognition, his fingers twitching against her skin.

He knew this. This was textbook. This was easy.

Bowing his head forward, Niki caught her lips in a hungry kiss, the hand at her chest gripping the fabric of her clothing and yanking it downwards as he pushed her back over Bernard’s mutilated body. Claudia responded without pause, her hand sliding down and into his pants, fingers stroking him softly as he grew hard against her touch.

“Better?” she breathed, nuzzling her face against his. She felt the mush of flesh that was Bernard squelch against her shoulder blades, warm and wet, the metallic smell of blood strong in her nose as the touch of her beloved counterpart danced across her skin…and all at once she was so far from numb she almost felt peaceful.

Niki’s hands scrabbled up her dress almost desperately, his fingers dragging at her underwear as he climbed ontop of her.

“You’re so clever…” he whispered, “You’re so beautifully clever and perfect…you can’t even imagine…you beautiful insane thing…”

His kisses became almost desperate, his tongue licking at the blood on her flesh, trembling hands raking over her skin. Claudia laughed, pulling his belt free as her legs curled around him.

“That’s the pot calling the kettle…” she cut off in a gasp as his hand clamped about her throat tightly, surprise registering in her emerald eyes.

“Katorga…” he hissed at her, “I’m a fucking Katorga…” His breath had quickened, coming in short gasps as he fumbled with his pants, his arm slipping on the pool of blood beneath them, “I’m not…one of them…”

Blinking, Claudia seized his little finger and pulled it back, levering his hand from her throat. In a swift movement she bucked her hips, using the momentum as he regained his purchase in the blood to roll on top of him, holding fast to his body and flipping him onto his back. Niki’s features contorted in momentary rage, lips curling into a snarl that was silenced seconds later as her finger pressed to his mouth.

“No,” she purred, “You are nothing like them. I’m sorry…” she replaced her finger with her tongue, licking at his lower lip, “Let me apologise…”

“Claudia…” he murmured, further words silenced by her lips, his body responding in kind. He let his head fall back against Bernard’s mangled stomach, the stench of death engulfing them as blood soaked into his dark hair. Claudia made a contented noise against his mouth, sliding her body along his fluidly.

“Don’t be angry,” she whispered, guiding his hands to her hips as she finished loosening his trousers, her fingers struggling slightly with the blood soaked fastenings, “You are a King…you were then, you are now…and always. My clever gypsy boy…” her breathy voice was laced with admiration as she drew up his shirt and raked her nails lightly over his stomach, making his body arch. He stared up at her, a myriad of conflicting emotions swimming behind his wide cobalt gaze.

“Nikolai Katorga…” she let his name play over her tongue, her lips quirking in a soft chuckle, “Clever as the devil, and twice as pretty…”

-My beautiful scientific achievement…-

Lowering her face to his, Claudia kissed him deeply, biting at his lip before straightening and sliding him inside her with a soft moan.

Ya by umer za tebya krasivoy demona…” Niki gasped, turning his face so that his cheek pressed into the torn flesh of Bernard’s chest. Claudia smiled softly, enjoying the sound of the unfamiliar Russian…she knew ‘demon’ but the other words spilled from his lips too fast for her to grasp.

Not that she cared at this point. She had what she wanted.

-And since when do you crave someone physically?-

Claudia bit her lip, the immediate answer making her nose wrinkle as she pushed the thought from her mind. Her insides still ached from their earlier sex games, the burning from within heightening her senses, the friction causing her nerve endings to zing.

-I’ll do what I want. I’m a Monére-  

She touched his face with gentle fingers, tracing a bloody trail down his jaw.

“Pretty,” she echoed, tilting her head. Niki’s eyes rolled back as she rocked against him, his fingers digging into her hips and his body rising to meet hers. The thick blood beneath them caused limbs to slip and slide as they moved, skin slapping against the crimson stained linoleum.

“They said that…” he whispered through ragged breaths, “…pretty…cry baby…”

And then he was giggling again, his head falling back as peals of almost hysterical laughter spilled from his lips, blue eyes shifting to stare at the severed heads bearing witness to the madness.

Claudia studied him for a moment, then turned her gaze to their ‘witnesses,’ her features twisting with vicious loathing.

‘They make him weak…they’re holding him back,’ she thought, ‘I’ve already killed two of you…why won’t you stay dead?’

Niki kept giggling as Claudia pulled free of him, clambering over his body and sliding across the horrible mess as she scrambled towards the heads. Pressing his face into the stickiness on the floor Niki curled into a ball, his breath coming in fast gasps, his entire body shuddering as maniacal and uncontrollable peals of laughter fell from his lips, tears filling his eyes and spilling down his painted face, drawing grotesque patterns through the blood.

“Clau…clau…dia…don…don’t…touch…leave…them…th..” turning onto his belly, he started to crawl towards her, sliding through the blood, his soaked hair sticking to his face.

Drawing herself up to tower over him, Claudia shook her head.

“Why?” she challenged, “This is evolution, Niki. I won’t perform for Neanderthals. They made us, but that’s it. They had their time. And now it’s our turn…they don’t get to play,” she took up one of the heads by the hair, “Give me one good reason not to gouge their fucking eyes out.”

Scrabbling over to her, Niki grabbed her dress and tried to drag her downwards, his knees sliding on the wet floor.

“They are not…Neanderthals…they…are the…jury…they…put it down!” he demanded as he rose to his knees, his hands lashing out to grab at the head…as if it were suddenly the most precious possession he had. Claudia stared down at him, then slowly lowered the bloody prize.

“Breathe, Niki….” she murmured softly, her reluctance at having to look after him again so soon dancing briefly through her features.

‘Don’t complain. You can’t live for yourself. He said it himself, the Professor said it….’ came a growl in her mind.

“Just once…” she started to reply aloud, then shook her head in disgust and shrugged. Glancing around the hallway, she listened to the screams and shouts echoing from other wings of the institution.

“Just like old times,” she mused as Niki snatched the head from her, moving to put it back in its place carefully. She blinked, remembering all too well when the screams were her own…when the Professor and his associates had stripped away every bit of her being and pieced it back together again and again for ‘science’. Lowering her eyes to her companion, judging and weighing up her options as he adjusted his clothing and refastened his pants, she sighed and softened.

“I shouldn’t have let you come here,” she murmured, reaching a hand out for his matted hair, “You can’t do this. It’s too much. Make your way to the car…I’ll finish our work and we can go for a drink.”

“Don’t you dare…” Niki dragged himself up to stand before her, blue eyes blazing, “Don’t you…dare…Claudia…” His hands seized her face, fingers sliding into her hair and tangling through bloodstained tresses, “I’m…not him…you don’t get to…tell me…” words trailed off and he stared at her suddenly, his eyes narrowing. “Where…is he?” he demanded all at once, “You…you’re…trying to hide…him…aren’t you?”

Something twisted inside her and she frowned.

“Him? What are you..?”

“You know who I’m talking about…” Niki hissed, “You’re trying to get rid of me…provoking me so I’ll forget about him…”

Releasing her, Niki whirled and almost slipped in the blood, steadying himself before stalking across the hall to retrieve his discarded axe.

“When I find him…he’s fucking…dead…”

“That’s not what I was…” she watched him storm down the hallway and away from her, shaking her head before collecting her knife and scalpel and following him, leaving Bernard completely forgotten.

Page-Divider-3

Three hours earlier.

“Are we there yet?” Nikolai teased, slumping in the soft leather seat of Claudia’s town car, giving her a mischievous sideways glance as the world zipped by outside.

The sun had set almost an hour earlier, the roads becoming more and more deserted as they’d left civilisation and city behind.

“Exactly five minutes closer than when you last asked,” she sighed, going over the plan in her head.

-Everyone you want alive is out…right?-

Her mind fell on Simon for the hundredth time and she shoved the thoughts away, smiling at Niki.

“It will be worth the wait- promise.”

“Of course,” he nodded, his gaze narrowing as he stared at her, his head tilting as he watched her face, “So what was that?”

“What was what, my heart?” she bit her lip and ran a hand up his leg, “I’m sorry the ride is taking so long…” she added, lowering her eyes.

Almost on command his breath drew in sharply, the touch of her fingers playing him like an instrument, eliciting the response that she was no doubt aiming for. Lashes fluttered, a fine tremor running through his form before his hand slapped down onto hers, fingers gripping her delicate digits tightly.

“You flinched…then there was a really fake smile…so what was it?” his blue eyes fixed on her intently. Claudia frowned and shrugged it off, not moving her hand from his grasp.

“Residual sentimentality,” she replied, sounding vaguely annoyed and wriggling her fingers in the hope that he’d grip them harder, then relenting further to his intense gaze, “Behavioural conditioning that I need to shake,” she admitted.

Niki’s nose wrinkled as he turned his attention to the darkness beyond the car window.

“I see. Interesting,” he murmured, “Does it have a name?” his fingers squeezed hers briefly before dragging her hand further into his lap, pressing her palm against his crotch, “Or are we not sharing?”

“We can share…it’s nothing really,” she reached over to push his hair off his face with her free hand, smirking at his suggestive movement and nuzzling into him, “Just someone who reminds me of you, a bit,” she leaned over and kissed his neck, tilting her head and raising an eyebrow, “But the original is much, much more fun…and it won’t be a problem after tonight, right?”

Niki froze momentarily, his jaw tightening.

“You have a backup of me?” his eyes widened, his fingers moving to seize Claudia’s chin and tilt her face up, “You didn’t even wait til I was dead…” His pale features twisted into a scowl…for three seconds, before he collapsed into giggles at Claudia’s expression, “Oh my God you did! What’s his name? Is he pretty? Have you fucked him yet…oh this is amazing…”

Claudia slapped his hand away lightly, scowling.

No, I didn’t. He was a gift,” she paused, then relented again, “His name is Simon…and yes of course he’s pretty…at least on the outside. His mind isn’t as fun…”

“Mmhm, and where did Simon come from, pray tell?” came the response, blue eyes glittering with amusement, “Don’t tell me he’s another one of your orphans…” Reaching over, Niki drew a decanter of bourbon out of the small bar in the back of the car, pouring himself a glass and sipping it with a thoroughly amused look on his face.

“I found him at the end of a riddle,” Claudia replied with a sad smile, “The Professor hid him away to see if I could find him…and then to see if I had the guts to use him…” She plucked a glass up for herself and held it out for him to fill, suddenly desperately needing a drink.

“You’re aware that I’m going to murder him, aren’t you? I don’t fancy little imitation me’s running around stealing my thunder…” Niki told her as he filled her glass, watching for her reaction. She kept it as stoic as possible.

“You won’t leave him for me for when you decide to stop playing?” she asked, sounding mildly disappointed, “He is used to being in storage…he won’t mind.”

“He’s a loose end Claudia,” came the sharp reply, “We don’t leave loose ends…besides…” Niki’s pleasant smile returned and he winked at her, “We need someone to blame for all the mess…”

He clinked her glass in a toast, throwing her a conspiratorial wink.

“To Simon,” he smirked. Claudia lifted her glass, watching him carefully as he drank…then shrugging and bringing the bourbon to her lips.

“To Simon,” she echoed, “May he burn cleanly…” she chuckled and downed the glass in one gulp.

“Indeed,” Niki replied, watching her as he sipped his bourbon slowly, “And rest in pieces.”

Page-Divider-3

Three hours later.

“He’s going to love meeting you,” Claudia enthused, her voice sounding distant as she followed Niki down yet another hallway, “We talk about you all the time. He asks me if you are worth what I do to him…’of course’ I tell him…Colder…” she added helpfully when he turned down a dark corridor, stepping back as he moved to head in the opposite direction, “Perhaps I should grab some Valium while we’re here…you don’t seem to be coping well…but if you have your heart set on this, it’s the least I can do to help…” she eyed an abandoned meds trolley in the hallway.

“NO!”

The axe was unexpected, swinging and narrowly missing her by a few inches as it imbedded into a wall. Claudia stared at him, her stance frozen by the crumbling gash in the plaster, her eyes narrowing slightly as she read the situation like a wounded tiger, nerves tingling and heart pounding.

“No meds, you…are not drugging me…” Niki’s eyes narrowed as he struggled to wrench the axe free, turning the moment he succeeded and pivoting sharply to the right, “Don’t…patronise me…Doctor…” he hissed as he scoured the hallways, ignoring the frightened whimpers of the fallen and dying as they passed.

‘An axe is swung at your head and you feel more awake than you have all year….’ she lectured herself, ‘Perhaps you should see someone…a doctor maybe.’ She smirked at her own joke and followed Niki quietly as he stalked through the facility. ‘He’s searching the patients rooms…’ she realised, ‘Gods, he must be angry…he knows me better than that…..doesn’t he?’

Eying his back as she walked, Claudia plucked up a syringe from the meds cart, reading the label and dosage carefully.

“Well…that would have been handy for you…” she commented to the maimed body of a nurse as she went by, tucking the needle in her pocket. The pair wandered on for a few minutes more, Niki kicking in doors as he went, cursing and muttering under his breath as if he were arguing with someone…then he halted and whirled on her.

“Where is he?” he asked her flatly, blue eyes blazing. His body was still trembling and he seemed anxious and angry…his eyes had glazed over, making them glimmer in the flickering light, “Don’t hide him from me Claudia.”

She stared at him and shook her head, slight disappointment in her tone when she finally replied, “Staff only – record storage.”

‘This is better,’ came the soft rumble of the Jackal, ‘Your games always got you in trouble. This will wipe clean the slate.’

She nodded reluctantly and moved to walk ahead of Nikolai without hurry towards the project that she had given her humanity for. He followed her in silence, keen eyes watching her carefully, the axe slung over his shoulder as he sauntered through the complex. They passed the security room…the door wide open and the equipment within smashed to pieces. It had been on the blink for weeks, finally and conveniently succumbing to obsolescence and a well-placed hammer in the hours before the massacre had begun. The security staff hasn’t fared much better than the machines.

“…and if I kiss you…in the garden…in the moonlight…will you pardon me…”

Sing-songing as he strode after her, Niki’s spirits seemed to lift again, his step barely an inch or two behind Claudia’s as they walked. She stopped sharply before a door labelled ‘Record Storage – Staff Only’ in simple black lettering and knocked lightly.

“Knew you’d come,” came a male voice from the other side.

Claudia looked to Niki, her expression unreadable. His eyes darkened as he stared back at her, his head tilting as he studied her, the blood stained creature that was his saviour and colloquial partner in crime, his mistrustful mind wondering how long it would be before she ultimately betrayed him.

It wasn’t paranoia…it was merely a matter of time and circumstance. His childhood had taught him that. Childhood had taught him a lot of things.

And yet…

Something within him was compelled to stop her before she opened the door, a bloody hand reaching out to her, fingers entwining with her own as he slid to her side, his lips pressing against her cheek.

“The things we could do…” he whispered in her ear.

Claudia relaxed into him instantly, pressing against him, the warmth of his body pushing away the internal conflict and fear of abandonment that followed her like a black cloud wherever she went. She lifted a hand, running it down his cheek.

“Could do….will do,” she corrected softly, turning to pull him into a bloody kiss, her arms moving about him, drawing him into her with an almost loving gesture. For a moment, just a small moment, she allowed herself to feel her affection, concern and admiration for him. Niki, too, seemed to calm at her touch, the axe slipping from his shoulder to dangle from his fingers, hitting the floor with a thud. He slipped an arm around her waist, his lips parting beneath hers in a moan.

“I’m here…” he whispered against her mouth, “I see you…”

She nodded lightly, biting back a sickly sweet sentiment, though she was sure her emotions showed in her face. Tracing her hands down his body, she wrapped her fingers about the axe handle, lifting it between them and pressing it to his chest.

“Ask anything of me…I will give you the world,” she whispered to him, “But I request that he dies painlessly and looking as he does now…” she paused, her forehead creasing, “I can’t hurt you, even if it’s not you.”

Niki took the axe and held her gaze as she spoke, unspoken thoughts swimming wildly behind deep blue.

Finally he nodded.

“He’s our scapegoat Claudia…it would be stupid to make his death look anything but self-inflicted or accidental…” he replied without emotion. He thought for a moment longer then added, “I won’t touch him.”

Claudia pushed open the door, looking almost ashamed.

“After you,” she breathed, reaching out for him apologetically as he passed.

Inside the room, Simon was sitting patiently on his bed, his legs folded beneath him. He gave them a vaguely expectant and gloomy look as they entered, blue eyes peering out from beneath unruly black hair. Niki sauntered in, his bright eyes drinking in the sight of his doppelgänger in silence, lips pressing into a line as he stood waiting for Claudia to shuffle in behind him. They must’ve been quite a sight, painted in blood as they were…yet Simon looked anything but surprised at their state.

“Doctor,” he said simply, smirking wryly, “You are uncharacteristically unkempt. Is something wrong?”

Claudia shook her head.

“Just cleaning up,” she said, sounding hollow. Niki’s expression remained unreadable as he watched the exchange between doctor and patient, his jaw tightening somewhat when Simon addressed Claudia…his Claudia…

“Guess you are Jasper,” Simon said, flicking his head to shake his hair from his eyes, his icy blue gaze raking over Niki.

“Not exactly,” Niki replied, lashes fluttering as his fingers shifted on the axe. Simon nodded.

“Baelian or…Nikolai…?” he looked carefully at Niki, then stood cautiously and hobbled over with a slight stoop that spoke of aching joints. Squaring his shoulders, he looked over the man before him in curiosity, “You’re different to what I imagined…” he commented.

“Simon….” Claudia looked tense, “Enough.”

“What?” Simon turned icy eyes on her, “I don’t get to see the man you sacrificed me for? Every day of agony was to serve your devotion to him…you made me a tool…” he returned his gaze to Nikolai, sneering, “A toy to be tried and tested, then discarded…”

“The only thing you are trying now is my patience, Simon,” Claudia said through gritted teeth.

Niki said nothing, watching the man square off with him, drinking in Simon’s reactions to him with something akin to fascination as he stood and waited. Somewhere deep within he knew and understood the words, his keen mind piecing together the puzzle pieces quickly and efficiently. This person, this ‘Simon,’ had clearly been an experiment of sorts that Claudia had used during her seclusion. And apparently she’d made no bones about the fact that it had been for him.

How could one not be a little smug…no matter how the poor home-brand boy tried to bait him?

-She’s mine, not yours.-

Simon made a show of sizing Niki up then shrugged and circled back to his bed, a small gesture from Claudia seeing him reluctantly rolling up a sleeve, exposing an arm clearly used to medical testing. His cold eyes moved to Claudia again.

“Tell me he was worth it…” Simon challenged her, his gaze locking on her as she drew out the needle that she’d grabbed from the nurses cart, “Tell me he was worth the torture you put us both through.”

Claudia fixed him with a solid glare, then smiled and flicked the needle confidently.

“He was. He is…” she picked up Simon’s arm and slid the needle under his skin, “I have told you this. I’m sorry our paths crossed Simon, but I will never apologise for the sacrifice of you…I won’t tell you that if things had been different I would have made a different choice…because it would be a lie.”

“I wouldn’t get too attached…” Simon replied coldly, his eyes on Claudia but his voice rising for Niki’s benefit, “You’ll only be thrown away when you’re no longer useful…”

Biting his lip, Niki resisted the urge to mutter something about disposable wet wipes and their use, choosing instead to stare at Claudia, his eyes lowering to drink her in from toe to tits and back…his breath catching the longer her looked at her. So beautiful, she was, slathered in blood and dishevelled. He’d never seen her look so appealing. His fingers tap-tap-tapped absently against the handle of the axe as he stood there…obediently if not patiently.

“This will sedate you, you won’t be conscious for the fire, so…” Claudia trailed off, waiting for emotion to hit her, but as she looked at the boy in front of her she felt nothing. Squeezing the chamber, she watched the fluid pushing into Simon’s veins.

“I’m not going to throw him away…” she murmured after a moment. Simon gave her another wry smile, his lashes fluttering as the chemicals took effect.

“I was talking about you…” he whispered, his words slurring as his eyes slid closed, “He’ll leave you…one way or another…” Claudia’s forehead creased and her eyes moved to Niki as Simon slipped into unconsciousness, whatever she might have felt fading away as she walked over to stand before him almost awkwardly.

“You should leave the axe,” she said after a minute.

“I plan to…” Niki replied matter-of-factly, his eyes slinking to Simon, “In his hands…where one would expect to find the murder weapon…” Cobalt hues turned back to Claudia and he stared at her, his piercing gaze fixing on her as if he were waiting for something…a reaction, a reprimand…or a breakdown. “Is this hard for you? Were you attached to him?” he asked after a moment, his tone completely devoid of feeling.

Claudia shook her head slowly, thinking it over.

“Maybe? Do you think I should have been? I was upset when I first found him. It was horrific to me, the thought of a human test subject. Then I was worried what it would do to me…but I made a choice, for something I wanted more than anything else…” she blinked at him, “And that outweighed the cost a hundred-fold.” She was unsure if that was answer enough.

Niki blinked, mulling over her words as again something shifted within his eyes, his lips parting as if he would offer some kind of comfort or acknowledgement. Then his jaw tightened and he shrugged, sweeping past her and stalking towards the door.

“Great…what’s next?” he asked, moving to toss the axe on the bed beside Simon, leaving it for her to deal with. Sighing, Claudia turned back to the unconscious man on the bed and began to arrange the weapon in his grasp. Her hands shook slightly as she closed them around his fingers. She wanted to apologise, but she had nothing in her.

“Elora will be sad you are gone,” she said quietly, finally. It was the truest thing she could say that sounded kind. “I wish I could shed a tear for you, but I haven’t cried since before she left…”

Patting Simon’s hand, she took a deep breath and steeled herself before turning to duck out of the door in Niki’s wake. She found him leaning against the wall just outside, a strange look on his face.

“I’m ready to see this place in a new light,” she smirked at him, offering a nod of encouragement, “Have you got the matches?”

Niki perked a brow, tossing her a box soaked through with crimson wetness.

“Is blood flammable?” he asked, “I can never remember…” His eyes skittered to the doorway and his lips formed something of a scowl, “Did you say your goodbyes? All sweetness and kisses and see you later..?”

“Why does it matter?” Claudia sounded irritable, “You were interested to see him, then you wanted him dead…and now you care about my feelings?” she threw a hand to indicate the open doorway, “I don’t want him. He isn’t you. The only thing I have ever wanted for myself is you, and the only person I would ever sacrifice you for is for yourself. Does that help? Knowing how weak I am? Does it bring you satisfaction?” she sounded haughty, but her words hitched with a stifled sob.

Again he stared at her, lips poised to retort, brows furrowing as something instinctual and nasty played over his tongue. But then he clamped his mouth shut and shook his head instead.

“Not really,” he muttered, moving forward to grip her hand and turning to stalk away seconds later with her in tow. He dragged Claudia through the main hallway, making a sharp left and slamming a door open, pulling her into the brightly lit bathroom beyond. Without a word he released her, moving to the open showers and turning the regulated water on full…pulling off her medical coat and shoving her under the warm flow, dress and all.

Claudia swatted at him, making a playful show of objection, and giving a squeal of “DRY CLEAN ONLY!” but as soon as the water hit her she made a contented noise and turned towards the shower head, closing her eyes and ducking under the spray, her fingers running through her hair as the water turned a deep pink. She stripped off her dress, throwing it aside and grabbing the soap, working a thick lather over the caked and cracking red on her pale skin.

Niki leaned against the tiled wall beside her, watching her as she bathed with a curious expression, his cheek pressing against the white porcelain as steam filled the room. Wide eyes ran down her bare body, following the path of the blood as it was washed from her flesh and down the drain. And then he reached out, pulling the soap from her hands and stepping behind her, moving the sudsy bar over her back slowly, scrubbing the blood from her an inch at a time.

Claudia leaned back, her eyes closing as a small content smile formed on her lips, marvelling over the strange tenderness of the moment.

‘Safe is an illusion,’ she thought, almost mocking herself.

‘So are most of your conversations,’ came a reply.

‘Touché.’

She lifted her face to catch some water before turning to Niki.

“Well?” she asked, her hands coming up to curl about his lapels. He didn’t reply, continuing to wash her in silence, fingers running over her mostly naked form smoothly, then rising to tangle in her hair. His thumb rubbed over her cheek in small circular patterns, hands tilting her head back as blue eyes ran over the curves and contours of her face.

-What is that look in your eyes, mon Coeur?-

Dozens of playful jibes and quips disappeared before they found voice and she was surprised at how nervous she suddenly felt. No one had touched her like this, not ever…and certainly no one had looked so closely at her unless they’d been paid to do so and were wielding a makeup brush.

-Or a scalpel-

Slowly, hesitantly, she relented to the urge to nuzzle her face into his hands. Niki froze, staring at her as she nestled into his palm. His breath caught as he watched her, his thumb brushing over her lips. When he finally kissed her, it was almost too gentle, as if he were suddenly afraid that he might break her. Claudia leaned into his touch, carefully running her hands down his arms and drawing his arms about her waist.

Which turned out to be a good idea…she nearly slipped over when a sudden noise outside the bathroom startled her. He jumped when she gasped, the pair of them almost toppling, her green eyes wide as she clung to him.

“I….white rooms make…they set my teeth on edge is all,” she mumbled, regaining her footing and shooting a look at the door, uncertain if she’d imagined the noise, “We should…” looking at Niki, she frowned. Blinking at her as if jolted out of some kind of reverie, he nodded.

“We should go…” he agreed, moving her out of the way of the spray and stepping beneath the heated flow, his head tilting back as he let it soak his clothing, the water beneath his feet turning dark.

Claudia wavered on the sidelines for a moment, watching him with a strange expression before moving to collect her dress. The sodden mess fell limply into the hand basin and she wrung the blood from the fine material, squeezing as much water as she could from the garment before wriggling back into it. Her face was a picture of discomfort as she writhed to get the cold fabric to sit ‘right’.

“This is the last time I take a Chanel piece to a massacre,” she mumbled irritably.

Nikolai, on the other hand, didn’t even bother taking his clothes off, simply letting the water soak the blood from him as he stood. His eyes followed her while she fussed about the bathroom, brows furrowing as his hands moved to rake back his wet hair.

“You look fine,” he muttered, turning to face the wall, fingers splaying against the tiles as he leaned heavily. His head bowed and his eyes slid closed as the water ran over his back, a heavy sigh falling from his lips. Claudia frowned and approached him slowly, reaching out a hand…then thought better of it and pulled back, deciding to let him have his moment of peace instead, quietly excusing herself and ducking from the room. She returned a few minutes later carrying two large canisters she’d retrieved from the janitor’s closet.

“If we cover the lower floor, the second will burn easily. It’s an old building after all…” she told Niki as she pushed back into the bathroom.

He turned the shower off and stood dripping in the centre of the room, rivulets of water trailing down his face. Most of the blood had been soaked away…what remained dripped from his sodden clothing in pink little droplets.

“Fine. Start with Simon…” he said to her flatly, “then work your way out…”

Claudia blinked at him, nodding and disappearing again with her cargo, leaving him behind to wring the excess water from himself. When she reappeared some time later, she looked a little worn, standing and waiting until she caught his gaze before lifting a hand to show the small, garishly orange cigarette lighter she held.

“I figured the matches were a bad idea….given their ‘state’,” she said carefully. Niki nodded in acceptance, flicking water from his hands. He’d hosed down the bathroom in her absence, along with any sign that they’d been in there…save for the tiny pink dots he left behind as he walked.

“After you, my lady,” he gestured, offering her a sweeping bow and waiting until she led the way before following her out of the bathroom and into the hallway. “Is it done?” he asked casually, his nose wrinkling at the smell of smoke permeating the air. Claudia flicked the lighter between her fingers, nodding with a distant expression. She’d always liked fire…even though it featured in some of her worst memories, there’d always been something beautiful about the way it danced. One such recollection flickered through her mind now, a moment of grief between them from long ago…their fingers entwined as a candle hovered above their hands, hot wax dripping over their skin with a pleasant pain that was part penitence, part comfort.

“We only have a few minutes,” she told him, her lips curling into a smile as her expression became viciously manic, “We should make our way outside and find a good spot to watch from.”

Niki smirked as he inclined his head.

“I’ll follow where you lead Clau-di-a…” he crooned at her, giving her a coy wink as he slunk closer, the awkwardness of earlier moments forgotten, “Which way sugarplum?”

She laughed and shook her head at his boyish grin, heading towards the door and beckoning that he follow with a smile. Pausing in the hall, she glanced at the golden light spilling out from distant rooms.

It’s so terribly pretty, she mused, then frowned, something changing in her stance as she turned away from the fire, heading towards the main entrance. Niki followed her determined strides as they took the pair away from the front of the building and towards the staff quarters, another sharp turn bringing them to a large door with the name ‘Dr. C. Monére’ emblazoned on the brass plaque upon it.

Claudia paused at the entrance to her office, a hand coming up to press against the dark wood, pushing it open slowly, her eyes becoming shadowed as she absorbed the sight of the space within. It had been her workspace and prison, this place…with a door that so many ‘family’ members had walked straight past in their hurry to visit Jasper.

-How did I fail to get the forgiveness and love that you earned with just the bat of an eye…when I tried with every breath to make things better for them all…?-

Stepping into the room, she let her gaze lift to the far wall, where a portrait of the previous head of Oakleaf hung. Professor F. Kreutz’s disapproving expression had been perfectly reproduced in oil paint, the likeness so lifelike that it made her skin crawl. Niki’s eyes lifted to study the glowering face of the Professor as he stared down at them, like some fabled demigod passing judgement.

Moving closer, Claudia’s lips finally curved into a cruel smile.

“I did it,” she snarled softly, “I did what you couldn’t. I beat you. AGAIN…and soon it will all be ashes. Everything you wanted and I achieved…” her smile faded into uncertainty, her words trailing off as she stood staring up at the painting. Niki chewed on his lip.

He felt something – though he wasn’t entirely sure what it was – standing there and staring at the imposing artwork. It sent him sauntering across the room and to her side, his soaked form pressing against her back once more, that ever-possessive hand slinking about her waist as the other slowly moved down her arm, his fingers curling about her clenched fist to take the lighter she still clutched tightly.

“Burn it…” he purred in her ear, “This is evolution…Claudia…”

“What…you don’t want him as a witness?” she almost sneered, the words stopping on her tongue and fading quickly, his touch centring her against an unproductive argument and focusing her on what would be better…the pretty colours of an oil painting burning. Looking at the lighter indecisively, she leaned into his touch.

-Where do we go…without someone’s work to carry on or defy?-

She bit her lip as his arm tightened around her, his face nuzzling into her cheek.

“Burn him Claudia…” he murmured again, a hand straying between her legs, “They only made us…they don’t get to play…isn’t that what you said?”

Curling into him with a soft moan, she pulled the lighter from his hand. Drawing away and circling her desk, she pulled a small flask from one of the drawers before making short and slow measured paces towards the painting. She splashed liquid over the canvas and frame, then took a deep draft of the flask’s contents, quietly toasting the figure glowering at her before tossing the flash away.

“To evolution…” she smirked, flicking the lighter again and waving it under the painting until blue and yellow flames began to lick up the portrait. Her eyes glinted with malicious joy as her hand reached out for Niki, who came as she beckoned, his fingers curling around her own as he stood beside her.

In silence they watched the painting burn, Claudia’s face filled with glee and Niki’s devoid of emotion, his lips parted slightly – as if he were an awed child watching something it didn’t understand.

After a moment he squeezed her hand.

“Breathe,” he murmured softly to her.

Claudia frowned, realising that her breath had become uneven and shallow.

“I don’t belong here,” she said suddenly, shaking her head and taking a step back, “This world…they have cat videos…and French fries, and casual days…they don’t want to turn everything into a science experiment or a fight for survival. They don’t hunt things, talk to things that aren’t there, or babysit grown fucking adults who are determined to self-destruct…” she watched a hole form in the canvas as it burnt, her words becoming a soft whisper, “What good am I in a world like this?”

“Ironic isn’t it?” Niki murmured, watching the painting as it melted before their eyes, “They spent so long forging us into weapons against the world…and by the time we got out into the world it had all changed anyway…” his head tilted and he blinked, something dark filling his eyes, “We could make it like it was…” he mused, “We could just do it all over again…we’d have a place there…” He glanced at her, brows furrowing, “The things we could do…”

Claudia looked at him carefully, weighing up his words.

It sounded good…a place to belong, and a companion. Even if this beautiful creature stayed with her for only a short time before he got bored, it would be worth more than the years of numbness and lies that she had lived so far.

-I wouldn’t get too attached…you’ll only be thrown away when you’re no longer useful…-

“We should throw a party,” she said, her voice honey-sweet and dark as she pulled him around to face her, “We need to see who can still stand….who will grow….”

Nikolai smiled at her, that appreciative and genuine smile that he only ever gave her when no one else was near.

“I like parties…” he replied, a hand rising to smooth back her damp hair, his thumb brushing her mouth. Claudia smiled and parted her lips, gently trapping his finger between her teeth.

“I guessed that,” she said, her words muffled around his flesh.

“Ah, that’s because you’re clever,” he told her, cobalt eyes glimmering with mirth. His hands moved to her hips and he pressed forwards into her, pushing her back against the desk, “So very…very clever,” he added, leaning in to lick at her lips.

“Top of my class,” Claudia murmured, kissing him suddenly and deeply, shifting her body on the desk and dragging him down on top of her, knocking a pile of files and a coffee mug to the floor in the process, “But you…you are an entirely different sort of clever…” she breathed, stroking his hair back and curling her legs around him before diving on his lips again.

“It’s my gypsy blood…” he whispered between kisses, hands moving to drag her dress up, his nails raking over her thighs, “We’re very cunning…” he moaned and ground hard against her, teeth grazing her lips as he laughed softly. Claudia stifled a whimper, hunger and desire overcoming her…hours of interrupted coitus driving her to distraction, her pale hands tangling in his damp clothes as she tried to work them out of her way.

Niki moaned, moving to help her…until blue eyes swung upwards and he perked a brow, his lips quirking in a strange smile.

“Claudia…” he began, lashes fluttering at the friction their bodies caused against one another, “How long did you say we had to get out of here?” His head tilted and he gestured with his chin to the door…which had black smoke pouring in from beneath it.

“What?” she looked at the door, then laughed in horror, “Oh shit…” Glancing back at him, she blinked, unsure if she should be amused or horrified at the threat of burning alive, “Whoops.”

Kissing her roughly, Niki pushed away from the desk, skirting around it and striding towards the door. He’d yanked it open before she could call out a warning to stop him, the cloud of noxious smoke that poured in seconds afterwards making him gag and hit the deck.

“Fuck!” he spluttered, face-planting on the carpet and erupting into peals of hysterical laughter.

“What the fuck Niki?!” she stared at him, baffled, dragging her dress collar up and over her mouth and nose before hurrying over to slam the door shut again, dropping beside him and sighing as he continued to laugh and cough.

“I’m guessing you’re fine?” she commented wryly, his infectious ausememt making her titter, even as she looked around, her eyes scanning for possible means of escape. A gasp fell from her lips as Niki made a grab for her, dragging her down into his arms and kissing her neck.

“Fuck me…right here…” he murmured to her, chuckling against her skin, “We can die on this floor…to hell with them all…” His mouth sought hers, his hands creeping up her dress again.

Giggling girlishly, Claudia straddled him, their lips locking even as her brain ticked quietly over. She wasn’t particularly fazed about their impending death…but a puzzle was irresistible to her, and escaping from their current predicament would be quite the challenge.

-Window is toughened glass…will need a small point of impact to break it…if we had a gun, maybe? Crawl spaces? Air conditioning…no…no…oh god…you feel so good…-

She ground against him, her mind blanking momentarily as she tangled her fingers in his wet hair, gasping in the dry air as she began to fumble eagerly with his clothing. Niki laughed at her, his childish chuckles petering off into a coughing fit as he lay back on the plush carpet, his body arching beneath her. His fingers scrabbled with her underwear, an expression of blissful hunger smeared across his features…the slow asphyxiation only heightening his lust.

-Blood and ashes…-

Smoke continued to billow beneath the door, that golden light flickering from beyond it as the fire outside pressed slowly in. As for the painting, it had by now completely disintegrated, the flames licking up the wallpaper and plaster fittings.

Drawing in a delighted breath as he clawed at her, Claudia gagged and broke into a spluttering cough, a look of frustration contorting her features as she shook her head and pulled free of him.

“That’s it,” she fumed, “I’m sick of these distractions…”

She was annoyed at the constant interruptions to their impending sex. She was not addicted to fucking like he was, not by any stretch of the imagination – in fact her file read ‘demisexual’ – but she was more than a little frustrated now. It was getting ridiculous. The whole situation had become ridiculous.

Storming over to her desk and rifling through the drawers, she shoved aside pens, papers and miscellaneous odds and ends as she searched, her fingers finally curling around a heavy silver paperweight. Clasping it in both hands, she turned to the window and drove the heavy object into the glass.

The window made a sickening ‘tak’ noise and refused to yield.

Gagging, Niki began to crawl across the floor towards her, making it a few feet before collapsing. Gritting her teeth, Claudia tried again, driving the paperweight down over and over into the glass. Eventually, a spiderweb crack appeared, tracing its way through the pane.

“Ni…nice knowing…you…Claudia…” Niki spluttered, “I’ll miss…”

The sound of shattering glass cut him off, blue eyes widening as she hit the window a few more times, breaking it completely and steadying herself on the desk as she coughed and gestured for Niki.

“Your jacket…” she insisted, waving him over.

“Ooooo…” he breathed, crawling the rest of the way to her feet and holding up his hand, flopping it at her to indicate that she should take his jacket herself. Jerking the garment off him, Claudia wrapped it around her arm, knocking the glass shards from their precarious perch and breathing the fresh air in deeply as it rushed in.

“Shit…” she hissed, green eyes moving to study her hand as blood pooled from a shallow cut. Unwinding her protective layer, she threw the jacket over the window sill and awkwardly gestured for Niki to climb out.

“Ladies before gypsies…” he drawled at her, smirking and shaking his head. His palm pressed against the sill, eyes moving to the blood on her palm. Plucking it up, he smirked and licked the red smears away, moaning softly and punctuating it with a cough.

Claudia wavered, heat rising in her face as she stared at him, momentarily considering allowing them both to die…if only to steal the moment for another kiss. Shaking her head, she wrenched herself away from the blue-eyed demon, moving to climb out of the window and jump the few feet to the ground.

Niki followed suit, clambering out over the broken glass and tripping over the fabric of his clothing, face-planting unceremoniously on the lawn beyond and promptly bursting into laughter as he lay face down in the grass.

“Nikolai, get up…” Reaching out her uninjured hand to help him rise, Claudia dragged him away from the burning building, putting a safe distance between them and the scene of their crimes before turning to brush his hair from his eyes for the hundredth time that night. Cupping his face, her fingers leaving sticky streaks over his pale skin, she kissed his cheek.

“It’s done,” she said, grinning at him like an idiot, “And it’s so, so beautiful…” she gestured to the building, now a blanket of brilliant red and gold.

Niki smiled at her, his eyes shifting to study the flames slowly engulfing the building before them and the black smoke billowing out into the night. The orange glow cast flickering shadows of light over them both as he coughed, then shivered at the cold night air.

“Hey Claudia…remember your Oakleaf..?” he sniggered, blue eyes flashing at her.

She looked at him in disbelief, lips parting in surprise…then she laughed, mirth mixed with spluttering coughs tumbling out of her as she sank to the lawn and pressed her face against the ground, giggling manically like a tickled child.

Letting his eyes slide closed, Nikolai fell to his knees beside her, chuckling and watching her writhe about madly. Hands rose to rake back his hair and he rolled onto his back, laying across the grass and watching the flames leap higher and higher into the sky.

“Hey…is that…” a brow perked and he pointed at a figure moving beyond one of the reinforced windows, a large swathe of a person waddling madly back and forth, arms flailing animatedly…her mouth gaping in unheard screams, “Wow…sucks to be you Janet…”

Claudia looked up and shrugged at the shape, uninterested. She took a moment to enjoy the feel of the well-kept grass against her skin, the smell of smoke thick in their clothes, the pain of her hand, the aching in her lungs…and the throbbing between her legs.

“Remember this,” she told herself, licking the blood from her cut hand.

Crawling over to lay beside her, Niki pressed his head against hers, staring up at the night sky.

“It’s fucking freezing…” he murmured, “you’d think with an inferno as a bonfire it’d be warmer, but no…”

Shaking her head, Claudia closed her eyes.

“It’s perfect. That place killed me. The people in there killed me. I’d rather feel freezing than nothing…” holding out her hand to show him the blood, she sighed, “It reminds me that I’m real and alive…” she sounded slightly awed by the basic information.

“Oh you’re real…” he replied, nudging her with his arm, “I’m pretty sure, anyway…”

Claudia smiled thinly.

“You ‘imagine’ so…do you?” She drew back her hand and considered it as the sound of sirens began to echo in the distance. Shivering suddenly, Claudia lashed out, smacking her injured palm against the ground and sending another wave of grounding pain through her body.

Turning on his side and propping his head up on his hand, Nikolai watched her assault the lawn, his expression blank.

“Breathe,” he murmured to her, reaching out to touch her face, “And then cry…” His eyes shifted back to the burning building…the flapping shape inside had gone, “It’ll look better if you cry.”

She shook her head, pulling her face away from his touch.

“I can’t cry. I haven’t cried since…” she stopped, trying to remember the last time she’d shed a tear, “Vernon…I teared up. Does that count?” She looked up at the stars, “I used to cry all the time…” she mused.

Niki sighed and shook his head.

“You should be crying, it’ll be more believable…” he told her. Claudia sat up and scowled at him.

“I am Claudia Lyra Terese Monère,” she snapped, “Not only will I not be forced to cry…but a professional and flustered appearance will be much more acceptable to first responders despite your outdated gender roles and typecasting.”

Niki stared at her, his features twisting in confusion, then amusement, then…

“Ooo…” he grabbed her arm, sitting up suddenly, “Trigger me.”

“What?”

“Trigger me…one of us has to cry and if you don’t wanna take one for the team…”

Claudia stared at him, then shrugged, pausing slightly as she rifled through her memory bank of Funday triggers before lifting a finger before his face.

“Eeper Weeper, chimney sweeper, had a wife but couldn’t keep her…” she began. Niki stared fixedly at her finger, his lips falling slack as she spoke, his breath catching in his throat.

“Had another, didn’t love her, up the chimney he did shove her.”

Niki whispered something that sounded like her name as she finished…and then he fell apart. His body started convulsing and he doubled over, a low keening sound escaping his lips. His breath came in short and sharp gasps, wide eyes glazing over with tears which spilled over his cheeks in hot rivulets.

Seconds afterwards, a row of fire trucks screeched over the asphalt across the lawn, a small army of firies spilling out like ants, shouting to one other.

Claudia wound her arms around Nikolai comfortingly, waiting until the first responders approached before releasing him and turning weary eyes on them. She got shakily to her feet and swallowed hard, accepting the thermal blankets and water they offered with exhausted grace.

“I’m alright…yes…thank…thank you…”

She watched as some of them checked Niki over, telling him to breathe and asking question after question. Ambulance staff quickly joined them, adding more chatter to the din. She turned her attention to the person who seemed to be most senior, drawing herself up.

“I am Doctor Claudia Monère. That is Jasper Baelian Black, a previous inpatient and my…my companion. We will be suffering smoke inhalation, and I have a small laceration to my left hand that will need attention….”

She spoke every flowing word as if she were in shock, her eyes unfocused. Pertinent information jumbled its way out of her mouth…yes there were others in the building…no she had no idea who was still alive…yes it had all happened so fast…they’d soaked themselves in the showers before trying to navigate the fires…yes they’d broken the window…no…she didn’t see how it had started…

Finally she stalled, her green eyes moving back to Niki as they fussed over him with oxygen and blankets. He met her gaze, cobalt hues glimmering at her.

She wavered, then collapsed.

Page-Divider-3

Nine hours earlier.

Claudia burst into his bedroom, barely registering the late afternoon sun that poured through the windows as she closed in on the form sprawled in the bed.

“Want to go for a drive?” she purred, tossing a packet of matches at him, her eyes raking over his body appreciatively, drinking him in, “You have a promise to keep.”

Lazy cobalt hues turned upwards at her from the mattress, his veil of dark hair obscuring most of his vision as Niki squinted, groaning. The matches had fallen beside his face on the mattress, making that rustling sound that matches often did when jolted against one another within their box. His gaze flickered to them briefly, lips curving into something of a smile before his attention returned to the well-dressed, groomed and utterly refreshed Claudia Monére.

He, by comparison, looked like death…completely naked beneath the tangled sheets, face-planted upon the king sized bed of his penthouse city apartment.

“It’s still daytime…” he murmured, not moving, “I don’t do arson during the day…” he paused, brows furrowing, “And when the fuck did you leave the bed without me noticing?”

She laughed lightly and clambered on top of him, straddling his back like a child wanting their parent to wake up on Christmas.

“I’m an insomniac, and I’m sure you can do afternoon arson…for me?” she bat her eyes and grinned.

Turning his face into the mattress, Nikolai moaned, his voice muffled into the bedclothes as he uttered a curse.

“Do you have any idea how much I drank last night…” he whined. Shifting, he pushed himself upwards, turning over slowly beneath her and wriggling until he could stare at the highly energetic blonde on top of him.

“What time is it?” he asked, squinting again at the all-too-bright sunshine streaming into the room.

Claudia tilted her head.

“4pm-ish,” she replied, her eyes tracing over him fondly, “Security evening shift starts at 5…” she added, leaning in to smell his scent.

Niki’s chin lifted as she bent over him, his eyes closing as he breathed her in in return, lips parting to exhale slowly. His hands slid along the mattress, running up her thighs as he shifted beneath her again, a dark look of desire sparking in his gaze.

“It’ll take just under 5 hours to get to Oakleaf…” he mused, “No afternoon arson for you…”

Claudia nodded and wriggled in delight, waving away his nit-picking.

“We arrive mid-shift, when they are tired but not jumpy…minimum staff is on – most are…” her words trailed off and she bit her lip at his movements, “Don’t be distracting Nikolai…”

He smirked, his head shaking.

“Five hours Claudia…are you gonna stop on the side of the road? Is that where you want to fuck me? Because, you know, I thought you were classier than that…” his fingers dug into her thighs and he chuckled, arching beneath her, “Besides, I want breakfast. I don’t see a silver tray of French pastries anywhere…did I miss it when you came in? Did you throw that at me too?” he looked around.

Letting slip a whimper, Claudia reached down habitually, pushing his nails into her skin.

“This is your place, shouldn’t you be serving me breakfast in bed, rather than the other way around?” Leaning down, she brushed her lips against his lightly, “Besides, if I were to walk down to the patisserie and buy you something and it somehow followed be back here…I would need to hear some manners before you got any of it.”

Niki’s tongue snaked out to lick at her lips and he smiled, batting his baby blues at her.

“I can be good,” he breathed, “My Doctor says that I’m progressing nicely…did you hear I’m a scientific achievement?”

“So they say…unbelievable turn around. Ground breaking….how lucky of you to have such a brilliant Doctor,” she smirked, then her smile faded somewhat, “Do you really want to do this?” she asked, a knot of anxiety forming within her stomach, “We don’t have to…if you think it’s too soon…”

Niki’s finger pressed against her lips and he sat up, arms wrapping around her.

“Shhh…” he whispered, drawing her down and rolling on top of her, tangling the sheets between them, “It’ll all be fine…you’ll see…” he kissed her, then drew back to offer a smirk, “And as for my manners…when I’m done asking you, you’ll need to buy me the whole damn bakery…”

Claudia laughed, grinning up at him.

“As long as you don’t eat it all in one go,” she murmured. “The bakery, I mean…you need to save your appetites for later…”

“Baby…” Niki replied, his eyes gleaming with mischief, “You can’t even begin to imagine the extent of my appetites.”

“Oh I don’t know about that…” Claudia laughed, “But I suppose we shall see…”

Her mind wandered to Oakleaf…to the staff and the patients remaining there…and to Simon. It had only been a few days since she and Nikolai had walked those halls together…and yet so much had changed.

“I’m looking forward to it…” Niki purred at her, tilting his head. Staring up at the striking creature above her, Claudia nodded.

“So am I,” she murmured, kissing him.

-So am I-

Written by R. Quin and Natalie Ristovski.

All characters and story lines remain the property of N.Ristovski and the Underground. All character writings within the Underground are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2016. Natalie Ristovski.

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