Dan’s hands were over his head when his eyes flickered open.
Adrenaline flooded his sore muscles at the position, at the way the cuff at his wrist rubbed his skin, the way it tugged on his injuries, held him stretched out the way too-hot, too-gentle hands had less than a week ago. One hand was loose, still, but his fingers didn’t hit anything when he jolted half-upright. The metal cuff bit into his wrist and jerked him back down flat.
It didn’t really matter. What he had seen through the orange lights glittering in his periphery had been enough. He was still in the compound, though the ceiling was water-stained, the wood paneling on the walls crumpled inwards as if it was soggy paper and everything was covered with dust.
Somehow, Jerry had beaten him there in the present.
“You remember this, don’t you Dan?”
Jerry’s voice broke the heavy silence, his feet scraping on the dusty floor when he moved to lean over Dan. The years had not been kind to the youngest Kaplan. He had his father’s silky blonde hair and strong features, but right now his hair needed washing, and his otherwise handsome face was twisted in a strange, feral happiness. He wore an ill-fitting rusty red robe over his clothes. It wasn’t exactly like his father’s, but it was close enough to count.
“I didn’t at first,” Jeremy confided. “I had to have a little help.”
Dan turned his head in the direction Jerry glanced, and hissed in an instinctive gasp.
Jeremy Kaplan senior, lay sprawled on the floor, quite dead. Angry red lacerations, cut deep, made a horribly familiar pattern along his arms, his chest, and his legs.
“I told him that I found you, told him it was time…” Jerry sat on the edge of the table as he talked. He held an awfully familiar knife in his hand; he kept playing with it, tapping the blade against the table. “He thought I needed him to kill you, but really…I needed him so I could become him. Become the priest. It never would have been Hannah. She never would have killed him. It’s all about mantles, after all…” He paused. “But you should know that.”
“Why would I know that?” Dan asked, trying to keep his eyes off the constantly-moving knife blade. It kept flashing in the fire-tinged light.
Maybe if I time it just right I can grab it and…
And what? He’d still be cuffed to the table at the mercy of a man who, thus far, didn’t really seem to have any.
“Because you inherited your father’s mantle, didn’t you?”
“When I was a little boy, there was always an article in the living room.” Jerry looked around the room, almost fondly. “It would have been right over there…” He pointed with the knife. Dan reluctantly followed the motion towards the closet where they’d all hid the night of the F.B.I. raid. The article he’d noticed that night was gone – really, everything was gone – but he could remember the title.
“I didn’t put two and two together until I read what you wrote about my dad. Your dad followed my dad, now you’re following me. It all makes sense.”
It was entirely coincidence and strange happenstance brought about by time travel correcting things in his wake, Dan wanted to protest -- even if he wasn’t one-hundred-percent certain himself. Jerry, after all, had found him awfully quick. He’d never done this before, never tracked someone he’d met before the journeys started, never travelled to the present and right to where the person he’d been tracking waited. He was venturing into brand new territory. For all he knew, it did make sense.
He wasn’t about to say that, though - Jerry didn’t seem likely to listen.
“Man, I found that article and…just…man.” There was admiration in Jerry’s voice, at severe odds with the crumpled shape of his father, discarded in a puddle of blood on the floor. “That’s when I realized the old man was right all those years ago. ‘The Star King knows his deliverers, but knows not how to approach, knows not how to ask them to be freed…he treads on the edges of their lives, and they that learn not from his passing are swept aside…’” Jerry’s voice had an almost reverent tone as he spoke, clearly quoting something. He reached out with the knife blade to brush it along Dan’s shoulder.
“You’re like your father. You’re trapped in a mortal, dying shell, but you know that you’re more.” The knife blade pressed under Dan’s chin, tipping his head back, and he swallowed, free hand clenched against the edge of the table. “That’s why you keep coming back to us.”
“What’s that got to do with my dad?” Dan blustered, trying not to think about that blade so close. Trying to think, instead, of the pros and cons of grabbing for the knife.
“He left, didn’t he? Disappeared, left you alone…” Jerry traced the knife down across Dan’s collarbone. He seemed to be waiting for something, almost. The knife kept trailing over Dan’s skin, serrated teeth pressed to his flesh but never biting in. Never tearing. He was toying. Why?
“He never looked back, never came back…” Jerry rambled on. “That’s the way of the Star King. Your father disappeared, and the King became you.”
His bandages were gone, again. He could feel the brush of air on each of his cuts. His clothes were gone, too, other than his boxers. Apparently, Jerry wanted to see the tracks his father had left for him to follow. It felt worse this way; he felt more vulnerable than he had the first time, gooseflesh creeping up his chest and down his legs.
“So, when you die, the mantle passes to Zack. Your mind will be freed to return to what it’s meant to be…”
“Leave Zack out of this!” He tugged against the cuff, but there was no give. Nothing he could work with to pull himself free. .
Jerry shook his head. “You don’t have to worry about him anymore, Daniel. You don’t have to worry about anyone. You’ll be free soon. The Star King will ascend to a place of honor and I’ll be at his side.”
“Oh,” Dan snarled, tried to sound a lot more confident than he felt. “You’re making a New World Order, huh?”
Jerry disregarded his words, still talking with that reverent, dreamy tone, flipping the knife from hand to hand. “You’ll show your majesty, and the faithful will flock to my side in your name…”
“If they were the faithful,” Dan pointed out, voice shaking, “th-they never would have left, would they?”
Jerry tapped the flat of the blade against Dan’s lips, briefly, and for a split second Dan thought he was going to push it into his mouth, like his father had. He clamped his teeth shut as Jerry just kept talking.
“You don’t know what you’re saying. Your mortal husk fears death…” He leaned over Dan, pressing the edge of the knife’s blade to the center of Dan’s sternum, where his father had left the shallowest of the cuts seven days – or thirty years – ago. “You’ll be alright.”
If he craned his head, he could just see his pants lying discarded on the floor. His cell phone was probably still in the pocket. At least, that meant Jack and the reinforcements could still find him. If they were coming.
No, when. When they come. They’re coming. They have to be coming.
“What’re you looking for, Daniel?” Jerry asked, his head cocked to the side. His eyes followed Dan’s stare, despite the way Dan hurriedly looked to the ceiling. He chuckled, lightly, at that, the blade moving away from Dan’s skin.
“Were you looking for this, maybe?” Dan’s eyes flickered towards his attacker involuntarily; Jerry bent over and lifted a twisted mass of plastic from the floor.
His phone, stomped flat.
Dan stared at it for a second before his stomach plummeted. He lunged upright, jerked against the handcuff, and strained against the manacles at his ankles, his free hand outstretched towards Jerry and the knife. Movement hurt worse than anything – short of the actual wounding – to writhe against the metal, to pull against the bonds as Jerry just watched, but if the phone was gone…
If the phone was gone, there was no way to see if he had succeeded, if Hannah had listened and continued to fight, or if he was tied there like a sacrificial lamb, waiting for the voice of reason that would never ever come. Waiting to be carved open just like the older Kaplan, crumpled on the floor.
Jerry watched impassively from just outside of Dan’s reach, sitting on the dusty stairs.
He’s expecting you to tire yourself out.
That realization sapped the fight from him faster than anything. He collapsed back to the table, feeling the smooth wood pressing against his shoulder blades. And still Jerry sat. Still Jerry stared.
“Alright,” Dan growled, straining to watch him and trying not to think about his own fear. “So you got me, you’re gonna free me, rule the world, whatever. What’re you waiting for?” Jerry’s eyes skated the perimeter of the room, taking in the empty walls, the bare floor. Dan followed, trying to get a handle on what the unstable man might be thinking.
It’s still not…not perfect. There’s still something missing.
And Dan realized.
“It’s…too quiet, isn’t it? There aren’t enough people here, it’s not like you remember.”
Jerry made a soft noise in his throat – not confirmation, but not really an argument either. “The faithful will come.” His words were soft, careful. “I sent forth the call. They’ll gather here and they’ll see.”
“The faithful?” Just keep talking. “Who…?”
“Those who served as priests with him,” Jerry said, still soft and distant, “And…the rest of his children.”
Hannah. That’s how Jack’s going to find me. Jerry invited Hannah back. The thought wasn’t a complete relief, but it eased away some of the tension from his aching limbs.
He relaxed a bit too soon, though, because Jerry shook his head, as if he was coming out of a trance. He shifted the knife, letting its serrated edge flash silver. Dan, startled, grabbed for the hilt and Jerry’s hand alike.
He missed on both counts. The blade hit his palm and kept going, cutting deep into his hand in a gout of red and a deluge of new pain. He dragged the knife up Dan’s palm to the inside of Dan’s wrist, gave a sharp twist that sank fire deep into his skin.
“But,” he said over Dan’s surprised shriek of pain, “I guess there’s nothing wrong with starting a little early.”
Jerry yanked the knife free, and the blood flowed from Dan’s hand frighteningly quick. He started the rest shallow, started the rest slowly, but the razor-sharp blade still slashed over each of the old gashes, cutting through the bristly black stitches with a strange, pain-filled efficiency.
Dan didn’t bother to try to stay quiet this time. If the others were looking for him, the sounds might even help. Frustration flowed through him, coupled with fear and anger and pain, and he loosed it all at the man tormenting him in a constant stream of curses and insults, while one thought continued through his brain.
Come on, Hannah. Don’t let me down, don’t…
“Shh, shh, Daniel,” Jerry just crooned when Dan’s breath finally failed and he actually sobbed, curled in on himself as best he could. Jerry reached out and grabbed his sliced hand, pulled his arm out, and stabbed the blade into his wrist.
The red-smeared metal sank deep, the skin around it throbbing as it split. Dan jerked at the feeling, trying to pull away desperately. Jerry was just beginning to twist the knife deeper when the knock came on the front door. It was a gentle sound; Dan could barely hear it over the tattoo his heartbeat in his ears. He gasped in a shuddery breath when Jerry paused, pulled the blade away.
“Who could that be…?” His eyes brightened, and he wiped his bloodied hands off on his robe, adding more red to the rust already there.
“W-w-why,” Dan stuttered out, “Why d-don’t you go see?”
The knife slid through the meager space between the handcuff cuff and Dan’s wrist, and Jerry left it there, the blade just brushing his skin. “Stay put,” Jerry warned needlessly, stepping away from the table, heading for the back door, his feet scuffing up clouds of dust.
Dan tried to do the opposite, but his no matter how he moved his arm, his free hand wasn’t working quite right; it wouldn’t close around the hilt the way he needed it to. He could only watch the blood from the reopened cuts pooling on his skin, dripping down onto the table.
The security chain on the front door still worked, despite the fact that it seemed somewhat pointless, given the state of the front windows.
Jerry left it attached, regardless, when he pulled the door open an inch, peering out. Dan lay watching him numbly, stymied by his own body. His own wounds declaring, simply, enough is enough. He couldn’t see who stood outside the door, but he had his own suspicions, for all the pain tried to hold them at bay.
“Hannah?” The relief in Jerry’s voice was unmistakable, as was the excitement in his stance as he fumbled the chain off. “Hannah, you actually came!”
“Yeah, kiddo.” Hannah’s voice was unmistakable. “It’s me. Sorry…I am so sorry I didn’t come sooner.”
There was genuine regret in her words. It was echoed in her expression when Jerry hustled her into the house and into Dan’s line of sight, slamming the door and relocking it in his sister’s wake. Whether the regret was actually aimed at Jerry or at Dan or at six of one, half a dozen of the other, Dan could not say.
“No, no no no, it’s better late than never,” Jerry insisted, rubbing his hands on his robe again. “I didn’t…I almost didn’t think you’d come, the last time I wrote you…” A shallow reflection of Hannah’s regret danced across his face. “I wasn’t…I wasn’t very nice.”
“The past is past,” Hannah said with a shrug, reaching out to take his hand, doing a fine job of ignoring the red under his fingernails. “We can’t go back and change it, not like him…” She reached out, ghosting her other hand across Dan’s sweaty hair. Dan flinched away, not certain what she was doing, exactly. She laced her hand through the short locks and gave a little tug. “Not yet, anyway…”
“…you came around too?” Jerry asked, his apparent elation apparently overwhelming any doubts he might have had. “You see what Dad was teaching all that time?”
“Would I be here if I didn’t?” Hannah countered, letting go of Dan’s hair. “The others are still blinded, but…once the Star King’s true splendor is revealed they will understand.” Her lips quirked in a tiny smile as Dan let his eyes drift closed, just for a minute. “It’ll be just you and me. Just like old times.”
“…just like old times,” Jerry agreed, and by the scuffing of their footsteps they were moving away. Dan forced his eyes open. Jerry was, in fact, pulling his sister by the hand. “I need to get you your robe…”
The room fell silent as they disappeared.
Seconds later, the crunch of broken glass broke that silence. Dan’s gaze shot to the destroyed windows, his tired eyes focusing on the blessedly familiar faces of Jack and…
“Wh-what are you doing h-here?” He mumbled as Livia bit back a curse, already pulling her hair out of its elegant bun. She shoved the bobby pin she’d retrieved into the lock, twisting it with the ease born of practice.
“She’s keeping me from shooting him for starters,” Jack growled as he stripped off his belt, looping it around Dan’s other wrist, above the deep gash in his arm. He pulled it tight just as Livia pulled Dan’s arm free of the cuff, moved to start on his ankles. “Something about what I want to do not always being what I’m supposed to do…?”
“She’s right,” Dan mumbled dazedly. Livia muttered something – it may have been ‘finally, he admits it,’ or he might have been projecting that. “You remember Aeden? He was because I did what I wanted to do.”
And even after all he’s done, it still doesn’t feel like killing Jerry is what we’re supposed to do.
“Well, I’m not…I’m not like you; does that mean the same rules apply?” Jack asked as Livia helped Dan upright. Jack’s makeshift tourniquet had cut off the steady flow from the deep wounds, but he’d already lost enough blood - been hit enough times - that the simple little motion made the whole room spin. He was about to answer when Livia lay a gentle hand on the small of his back, stilling him.
“You know what’s going on, Jack,” She said, her voice stern. “That’s just about as good. You’re just going to have to trust us. We need this to end – just not with a bullet.”
Dan grunted when Livia and Jack helped him off the table together. He could feel their tension – he knew Jack had seen Livia at one point, but this…this was the first time he’d seen Livia and his brother together in the present. It was odd, to say the least – past and present colliding in a surreal way.
“Well,” Jack snarked back, his voice a harsh whisper. “I’m all for it ending. I need a break from the hospital.”
If Dan’s answering laugh was a little bit crazed, he felt it could be forgiven, given the circumstances. “You need a break? You need a break?”
“Yeah I need a break, the last thing I need is Theresa deciding to go to the police after all, or seeing you disappear and show up with something else wrong, or-”
“Boys!” Livia barked. “Now is not the time.”
Both men stopped whispering, gave each other a sheepish look, and looked as one to Livia.
Livia hmphed under her breath, and began to lead them back to the window and to the relative safety outside. Each step seemed to take longer and longer and they were only halfway there when Dan’s knees gave out. He hit the floor with a thud, and would have fallen flat on his face if not for the arms under his.
“Dan, get up, we need to move…”
“Leaving so soon?” The voice made Livia and Jack freeze, looking up, both of them poised to help Dan back to his feet. Dan just stayed on the floor, staring at the ceiling, almost entirely sure he had the whole thing memorized by this point: every water stain, every chipped tile, every little discolored speck.
“You always did like to leave in a hurry,” Jerry snarled as he strode between them and the window, Hannah trailing on his heels.
Gentle hands under his arms hauled him halfway upright before his knees shook again; they stopped pulling at his wordless gasp of pain, and he rested on his knees, blinking his eyes against the darkness at the edges of his vision. Hannah had changed; she now wore the robe they’d gone to find and in one hand she held a fairly large gun. She trained it on Dan as they watched, as Jerry continued.
“But this is where you’re from. You told us that yourself. You have nowhere to go…” His hand slipped into his sleeve; when he brought it out, he held a new knife. It looked just about as sharp as the last one. “And while he might want to shoot me, he can’t.” Jerry met Jack’s eyes then, speaking slowly and deliberately. “Because if you so much as reach for your gun, Officer Vassar, Hannah will shoot your brother. He’ll die either way.” He shifted a little closer, barking out a laugh when Jeremy and Livia both turned to glare at Hannah.
“She told me herself. She knows where her true loyalties should lie.” He paced in front of the windows, the knife glittering in the moonlight when he raised it, not noticing the way Hannah shifted behind him. His shadow was long on the bare stone floor. “You know, none of Dad’s prophecies say the King needs to be alive when I skin him free…”
Dan pulled free from Jack’s supporting hand, tried to scramble upright, out of Jerry’s shadow and path, but Jerry lunged toward him faster than he could get his feet to cooperate.
The blade was already arcing downwards when a loud, electrical crackle filled the air. The cultist suddenly jerked and began twitching, his fingers convulsing around the new knife’s hilt before he fell to the floor, flat on his face.
Katie stood outside the window, moonlight turning her hair into a silvery halo and reflecting off the main unit of Jack’s police-issue taser, still clutched tight in her shaking hand.
“Not today,” she snarled, glaring down at Jerry’s shaking form.
“Not today,” Hannah repeated as she hurried to her brother’s side. She reached out a hand, and Livia passed over the handcuffs that had bound Dan to the table. Katie shut off the taser. Hannah snapped the cuffs on before Jerry could move.
“And not ever.”
“Why?” Jerry asked, quietly, ten minutes later. The would-be cultist sat leaned against the wall, separated from where Dan leaned by several feet.
Several feet and Hannah, and Livia, and Jack, and Katie. Jack had called the police and an ambulance, and their sirens were getting louder in the distance. Dan –safe in Katie’s arms - strained to listen past them, to hear what Hannah would say.
“Because…” Hannah said, slowly, “…we all know this is not you.”
Katie snorted faintly into Dan’s hair; Jack appeared on the verge of speaking, but Livia just gave them both a look.
“Daniel never came to you, to us, so we could free him. He came so we could free us.”
Jerry blinked at his sister in incomprehension. “I don’t…”
“Don’t worry,” Hannah said, her voice reassuring and calm. “You don’t have to understand yet. You just…” She smiled, lopsided. “You invited me and I came. Now you have to take my invitation.” She reached out and nudged her brother’s shoulder. “I’ll take care of you.”
Grey eyes met grey eyes, searching for…something. Some hint of duplicity, some sign of an outright lie. As the red and white flashing lights of the police cars and the ambulance flooded the space between the street and the run down old house, Jeremy Kaplan, Junior gave his big sister a slow, solemn nod.
Dan felt the fist of tension that had clenched around his spine slowly loosen and fade, clamoring instincts dissipate into a hazy relief.
It might have been shock, it might have been blood loss, or it might have been the cosmic confirmation that they’d finished the job, but one way or another, it was all over.
A hand closed on his shoulder, shaking him out of his dazed reverie. He focused on Jack’s face.
“Now, just think. You get to help me explain this to Theresa.”