FANFIC: For the Ones We Leave Behind – D is for Dionysian (Gossip Girl)

I. PROLOGUE
II. B IS FOR BYZANTINE
III. U IS FOR YOU
IV. D IS FOR DIONYSIAN

Dionysian |ˌdīəˈniSHən|
adjective

1 Greek Mythology: of or relating to the god Dionysus.
2
of or relating to the sensual, spontaneous, and emotional aspects of human nature.

  • dark, grand Dionysian music

 

i.

The walk back home is a long one. 

D doesn’t even remember The Archive being this far away when he was first taken, but at least the lengthy journey gives him time to think and reflect. Home. It’s a funny word. He doesn’t even know what might be waiting there for him anymore. 

Just when he’s starting to think that he’s been tricked, that they’ll be walking around blindly forever, his escorts stop abruptly in their tracks. One by one, D hears deadbolts sliding free of their constraints. Clink, clink, clink. A heavy door opening. The world around him brightening. Then the hands that grip him by the elbows push him forwards towards— 

All at once he’s enveloped by the familiar sounds and smells of his childhood, sensations that no words in the dictionary could ever adequately describe. Pinpricks of light shine in through the holes of the burlap sack on his head. Even the air moves differently above ground. He hadn’t realized how much he’d grown accustomed to life in the Archive until now. It turns out nine months is a long time to be gone. A lot can change, both on the surface and beneath it. And yet somehow, the “real world” suddenly feels false.

He doesn’t realize his legs have stopped working until he feels a forceful pull and a gruff voice: “Keep walking.” Those are the first words they’ve said to him since this journey began.

He hears hushed whispers as they make their way through the city, and he tries to block them out. He knows what this must look like: the boy with the bag over his head, the boy who needs the law to guide him home, the boy who was chosen to take over the most prestigious position in this community. He imagines the people pointing and staring and gossiping as he walks past. Then he imagines the same people looking past and ignoring him, as if he’s already a ghost.

Overwhelmed with memories and emotions, D wills himself to focus on the task at hand: counting steps and marking turns. Before long, he’s emptied his mind of everything but this mental map. It’s the one thing he has that can maybe save them.

 

ii.

The twists and turns pile up until his brain is straining, but just when he feels like it might explode, he senses, with immense relief, an atmosphere that is distinctly home. His escorts from the law enforcement brigade bring him to a halt, yank off the sack, and deposit him at the front door of the loft. 

They’re gone before D can say a thing, and Rufus opens the door immediately afterward. He must’ve been waiting right there on the other side for them to arrive, doesn’t even wait for his son to knock.

D doesn’t realize till now how much he’s missed the comfort of his father’s arms wrapped around him.

Rufus says, “I’m so glad you’re home, son,” and his voice is filled with such emotion that D nearly starts weeping right then and there. Till the day he left, his daily pill had kept on coming down The Archive’s chute like clockwork, but he hasn’t taken it in months. 

I was just about to make breakfast. You want something to eat?” Rufus’ eyes are hopeful as he finally releases his son from a tight embrace.

Actually, you know what Dad, I’m not feeling very hungry.” D fidgets, recognizing the need to lock this map down somewhere before he loses it all. But Rufus looks crestfallen and D knows how much his father just wants to spend the morning with him, to catch up. They have so little time left. “But maybe later? After I’ve had a few minutes to…” He gestures helplessly towards his bedroom.

That’s alright. You get some rest.” Rufus pats him on the shoulder. “Take as much time as you need, D.”

In the closet, D finds a display board and a sheet of adhesive dots. He spreads them out on his desk and gets to work. Over the next half-hour he gets lost in mapping out the city, starting with his present location and working his way backwards until he thinks he has a good idea of how he might get back to the Archive.

Suddenly he feels someone’s eyes on him, and when he looks up, his sister is standing in the doorway.

J,” he says. He tries to keep the surprise from his voice. “Um, what’s up? You startled me.” He tries to shield the drawing he’s created on his desk by angling his back towards the door.

Your hair looks like a bird’s nest.”

He rolls his eyes in her direction. “Thanks for that insight, J. That’s very helpful.”

She tries her best to suppress a giggle. “What’re you doing over there?”

Nothing much.” He should probably leave it at that, but he can feel the words coming like a flood, and then it’s too late: “It’s just some stuff…that I was supposed to do for school before I left, or actually I was supposed to do it after I came back, which now I have, so…” He trails off and immediately makes a face. Shut up, D.

She doesn’t move from the doorway, just stands there twisting sections of her long hair around an extended finger like she doesn’t know what to do with her hands. “Well, welcome back.” She turns to leave, but calls over her shoulder, “And don’t worry, I didn’t touch your precious Cabbage Patch.”

His eyes fly to the shelf in the corner of the room, where his childhood Cabbage Patch doll sits along with a few trinkets and mementos, amid nondescript decor. After his map is complete, D retires to his bed and looks around at the plain walls and the empty shelves. No typewriter on the desk, of course. Already, he sort of misses his other bedroom, the one down in The Archive. He misses the endless rows of books, movies, and music, available for borrowing at anytime. 

He’s startled out of his daydream by the familiar sounds coming from the kitchen. Rufus is going about his daily morning routine. Drawers open and shut. Wooden spoons bang against metal pots and pans. The tea kettle squeals, and silverware jangles. 

And all at once, it dawns on D that this isn’t just noise: His father is making music. All the little movements and gestures Rufus has always made that generate sound, however mundane—they’re what D once thought of as odd, idiosyncratic behavior, but he can see now that it’s much more than that. They’re steady beats, rudimentary melodies, musical instruments hidden in plain sight. He lays there on his bed for a long while and just listens to the cacophony of sound as it drifts to his bedroom. Appreciating its existence.

Somehow, he thinks idly, as he drifts off to sleep, TPTB got it all wrong. Well, all except for maybe one thing. The irony of that doesn’t escape him.

 

iii.

The following Monday, D is forced to return to school like all the others his age. He’s officially behind on his lessons. He hasn’t been keeping up with whatever everyone else is learning in their last year of schooling, but after his nine-month foray into the hidden history of this world, he’s sure most of what they’re teaching is garbage anyhow. 

When he gets back to the usual Classroom, he’s surprised to find that B isn’t there. In fact, their old table is now completely deserted: no A, no B, no C, no D. Seeing the empty seats makes their absence feel devastatingly real. What exactly went wrong here?, he wonders. Who let this happen? And most importantly, can he really be the one to fix it?

That morning, the usual GG blast never comes crackling through the loudspeaker. D hears murmurs all around him, curiosity brewing in its absence. 

He finds out quickly that B has been in the infirmary all weekend. “Treatments,” their teacher says, as if this is all a normal occurrence. “Rehabilitation.” No one will elaborate beyond those one-word answers. 

Finally, S comes up to him during lunch. “You want me to take you to her?” She seems almost shy around him, and that’s new. It’s so unlike the S that D remembers. But all those old notions he had about her are fading, too. He’s looking at the world through a new lens, and that includes the people he used to think he knew. “Of course she’d never admit it to me,” S says, “Or to anyone really, but I think she’ll be really glad to see your face.”

He finds it hard to hide how glad he is to hear those words.

 

iv.

D catches a glimpse of B through a narrow window in the door while they’re still standing in the corridor. Her back is facing them, covered by a plain white gown, dark wavy hair falling across her shoulders. It’s the standard dress code for everyone during their stay in the infirmary, but on her, the normally drab clothes look like they could be decorating the pages of yesteryear’s fashion magazines. She actually takes his breath away a little.

At the sound of the door opening, B turns her head.

Hey, B,” S says. “I brought a friend this time. I hope that’s okay.” 

And D stops in his tracks when her eyes meet his across the way. The way she looks at him—it somehow seems softer than before. Less severe. But then she speaks and when she says, “Look who finally decided we were worth coming back for,” he’s relieved to find her trademark haughtiness still remains. She looks him up and down but her eyes settle on the top of his head. “No scissors down there in The Archive, D? Or just no mirrors to aid you in keeping up with your personal hygiene? How primitive.” But a teasing smile plays on her pink lips. He’s noticing for the first time how beautiful they are. How much he suddenly wants take them between his own.

But D just chuckles. He knows she doesn’t really mean any harm. “How are you, B?” 

I’m…about as good as I’ll ever be. A model patient, I think they called me.” She sighs and forces a smile. “But lucky for you, that’s not really anything you need to concern yourself with anymore, is it?” 

Is it just his imagination or is her comment laced with disappointment? It must be his imagination. “How can you even say that?” he asks.

Well, I’m not wrong, am I? You might be here now, but you’re going to leave again in another few months. This time for good. Off to be pretentious, self-important, and all-knowing—doing whatever it is you people do down there.” She rolls her eyes. “Tell me something, D. Did you find out who TPTB really is while you were away? They’re not exactly looking for new members, are they? No, let’s face it. You lucked out with the only one-way ticket out of here for the next fifty years. So…congrats!” Her sarcasm is more than evident. “No need to bother with the rest of us little people between the walls.” 

Her piercing eyes dare him to argue with what must seem like foolproof logic to her.  D holds her gaze but doesn’t confirm or deny her fears.

S looks back and forth between the two of them and quietly excuses herself. “I’ll—leave the two of you alone.” She tiptoes back out the door. It closes behind her but he barely notices the sound.

I saw what C did,” he says finally after the quiet becomes too much to bear. “I saw the whole thing. I’m really sorry, B.”

She glares at him. “No you’re not. You’ve never liked him.”

That may be true, but part of being a human being is having compassion, even for those we don’t necessarily like or understand.” D remembers his argument with U, about whether they can truly call themselves humans living inside this society. He knows they have to start doing better.

There is so much more he wants to say to her. The letter he wrote back in The Archive is still sewn into that old pair of pants back home. He’s been paralyzed with fear since his return. Most of the time, he doesn’t know if he believes he can carry out the plan after all.

So is that why you just left us here?” B finally asks, her voice breaking into his thoughts. “You know, S isn’t as strong as she pretends to be,” she adds quickly, and it occurs to D that the person B really means might be herself.

He thinks maybe he loves her.

 

v.

D could feel his mother drifting away even before she actually physically left them. That started about two years ago. She just began spending less and less time at the loft with the family, little by little, until one day he realized she was hardly ever home at all. 

She still shares a bed with Rufus every night, of course, but it’s like they don’t really occupy the same life anymore. She never says much at the dinner table. He’s not sure how she spends her time between work and sleep, and she doesn’t offer any explanation. He only knows that her clothes are often stained with mysterious splashes of color that won’t come out in the wash. He only knows that she spends a lot of time staring at their empty white walls. He thinks that her head must be filled with pictures of whatever she imagines could be hanging there.

…  

These days, D also sees his father differently. Actually, he sees everybody differently. Every thing. During breakfast, Rufus hums a tune softly under breath. His fingers tap the kitchen counter as if willing it to become a piano with working keys. And D hears it again, this time up close: The gas burner comes to life with a series of clicks. Blue flame blooms underneath the pan. Something inside sizzles. It’s music. It’s like D’s been given backstage passes to a private concert, right here in the kitchen.

Between mouthfuls of homemade waffles, D has the sudden courage to ask what’s been on his mind. “Dad, I’ve been wondering, and you don’t have to answer this, but did you ever—“ He stops and starts again. “Let me put it this way: Did you ever think you might want a life with someone, well, other than Mom?” It’s a bold question, and probably comes out of the blue. D’s essentially asking something that isn’t allowed. He’s asking his father to admit to something scandalous. Rufus knows it. He could never say yes. 

But his father’s slight hesitation still gives him way. “What makes you ask that?” he asks, finally.

D chews in silence, not answering immediately. He can think of more than a few lasting memories, especially old ones from his childhood, that suddenly make sense. Stolen glances in public between Rufus and another woman, an unspoken longing that he once thought he’d imagined: in front of the deli counter, in line at the bank. But now he just looks down at his breakfast and tells Rufus, “Nothing. Forget it.” What he really wants to say is: You can have that life, if it’s what you still want. We don’t have to play by their rules. What if we didn’t? What if we stood up for what we believed in? The things we’re passionate about, the things we love?

He doesn’t know if his father is able to infer all that subtext from his terse response. But when D raises his head again, Rufus is pensive, a look of wonder apparent on his face. “What happened to you out there anyway? Why all the questions, the sudden curiosity?”

D’s mouth opens, but the words don’t follow. He wants badly to say something, to tell his father what he found underground. The plan. But he can’t say it. Not yet. “You know that I can’t—that I’m not allowed to talk about any of that.”

A flicker of disappointment in Rufus’ eyes. “Yeah, of course. I know all that, but I just thought…”

D doesn’t let him finish his thought. “I gotta—“ he searches for the right way to put it “—I need to think about my next move first.” And he downs the remainder of his orange juice in one gulp before standing up. “Someday, okay? I promise.”

Rufus nods almost imperceptibly, not quite believing, his mind already lost in another song only he can hear.

 

vi.

In the safety of his room, D cuts the threads that bind the paper he smuggled out of The Archive to his jeans, and re-reads the words he wrote on his rusty typewriter (an open letter to B, to anyone who will listen), finally having the courage to do it out here. What happened down there all those months—it seems faraway now, like a hazy dream. He wishes U were here to give him another pep talk he so desperately needs. 

Dear B,

I think I made a mistake. This isn’t anything like I thought it would be. Being the Archivist isn’t what I thought it was. Writing isn’t as easy as it always seemed. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Tell me what to do.

If this were a movie, like those black & white ones they used to watch together at her family’s apartment, B would be shown reading the letter to herself on screen as he spoke the same words out loud in voiceover. That was just how movies worked, D realizes now. Movies have a way of constructing bridges across time and space, connecting two people who are physically apart. That was why stories, and the many forms they took, were so invaluable to our society.

He remembers watching a suspense film with B when they were younger: the tense music that emanated from the speakers, the dark shadows crawling across the screen, the promise of something frightening about to reveal itself. Instinctively, he reached across her lap and took her hand in his. She let him keep it there for a long moment, until the terror on film had subsided, before pulling her hand away. Their eyes never left the moving pictures. They never talked about it afterwards.

Now, in his bedroom, D continues reading his letter:

The more I learn about this place, the more I think I’m not supposed to be here. I think I understand now why they keep the past hidden from us. Why they banned all those books and movies. Why they won’t teach us how to write. Something bad happened here. They don’t think we can handle freedom. But why do a handful of people get to decide what’s best for everyone? They’ve erased everything that’s beautiful about our lives. There’s so much outside that we don’t know about. Do you ever wonder what’s out there? Do you ever look up at the sky? You’re the only one I can talk to about this stuff. Please take care of yourself.

I miss you.

Seeing those typewritten words outside the safe confines of The Archive is enough to rattle his nerves again. It all sounds too personal. If he gives it to her, she’ll just read it and laugh, or make some biting remark, as is her nature, and this time he doesn’t know if he can take that when he’s poured his heart and soul onto this piece of paper.

He turns the letter over in his hands and notices something that wasn’t there before. A series of five faint numbers, printed on the back. U’s handwriting. He thinks it must be a code. And he thinks he knows what it unlocks.

 

vii.

A week passes, slower than he’d like, and then D finds himself facing the first Sunday of a new month. As usual, there’s a Letter Party scheduled for tonight—his first since he’s come back home. He’s looking forward to chatting with Dorothea again, just like old times. He’s not looking forward to the stares. 

D gives his curly mop of hair a trim in the bathroom mirror, doing the best he can with a comb and bottle of gel to sculpt it into something neat and presentable. He takes a deep breath. Tonight’s the night, he thinks, as he stares at his reflection in the mirror. Do we dare disrupt the universe?

Now that he’s back above ground and confined in this city, he is fast realizing that everyone who lives in New New York is different. Nobody quite fits into the immutable box that TPTB demands of them. On one end of the spectrum is S’s little brother, E, who D suspects will ever be happy with his chosen mate—and for reasons entirely different from his father’s.  And then there are people like his kid sister, who is so talented that D thinks what a shame it would be if she isn’t allowed to pursue what she’s most passionate about. Why should someone else dictate who we love? Why shouldn’t we get the power to make life-altering choices for ourselves?

He finds J in her room as she’s getting ready for her own Letter Party, cutting up old clothes with expert precision, a large pair of scissors in her hands. She stretches the fabric between two hands and after the resulting strings elongate and curl, braids them together to create shoulder straps. She holds up the new garment against her body as she admires her reflection from different angles in front of the mirror. He can only guess at the wild ideas she must be imagining in her head.

D clears his throat and tries to sound nonchalant. “Hey, I’m heading out. We’re having a little celebration tonight at the Party. I just saw Dad already left, so tell him not to wait up, okay?” He has a hard time getting out the last few words. This is going to be harder than he thought it would be.

J looks away from the mirror and lowers her new dress to her waist. Her expression is melancholy. “You’re not coming back tonight, are you?”

He doesn’t know when his little sister became so perceptive. Well, no use denying it now. “I don’t think so, J.”

She nods, as if she’s been expecting this. “Do you think you’ll ever come back?”

I don’t know. I hope so.” He bites his lip. “I don’t want you to be mad—”

She cuts him off. “I’m not. I know you have your reasons, big brother.”

Yeah, I do. I hope someday you and everyone else will know what they are. In the meantime, take care, okay? Tell Dad not to worry.”

She laughs a little. “You know he’s going to worry anyway, but I will.”

D looks at her again, his little sister who has already grown so much in the ten months since he left last time, both in height and maturity. He’s so proud of her. “I don’t know anything about clothes, but whatever you’re doing looks amazing. I really mean that.” He turns to leave.

Thank you,” she says. “D?”

Yeah?” He looks back at her.

Nice haircut.” She grins to let him know she’s only half-teasing, and just like that, he’s gone again.

At the party, Dorothea rushes toward him immediately, thrilled to see him after the long absence. She and her husband had been chosen to conceive right before D left, and they just welcomed their first child, Z, a couple weeks ago. In all the commotion of his final days underground, D had completely missed the birth, which of course should’ve been caught by the hospital cameras. 

Dorothea beams when he asks about the baby. “I cannot wait for you to meet her. You will love her.” She talks excitedly for a few more minutes, then lowers her voice: “But now we need to discuss the important things…”

What could be more important than your newborn baby?” D is genuinely confused.

Well, B, of course! You know, she always keeps heart locked, like inside a cage. So, it’s not easy to know what she is really thinking. But I tell you a secret.” Dorothea leans in conspiratorially so her mouth is inches from his ear. “She is much happier now that you’re back. She’s making such progress. Please do not leave again, D. I do not like to see her so lonely.”

He takes another deep breath. “Well, I won’t be going back. At least not for good. So you don’t have to worry, Dorothea. Actually, do you think you could take me to her after the Party? I’d really like to see her tonight.”

Dorothea looks around the room at the others before turning back to D, her dimples deepening. “Yes, I think this is something I can arrange.”

When D arrives at her family home with Dorothea, B is getting ready for bed. She still has on the flowery dress she wore to her Party that night, but her hair is down and cascading down her back in waves. She nearly knocks over a bunch of toiletries when she notices D enter the room.

D, what in the world are you doing here?” B looks sharply at her aunt, who’s following close behind. “Dorothea, have you lost your mind?

Please listen to what he has to say, Miss B,” is all the woman says before she leaves the two of them alone and shuts the bedroom door tight. 

B throws up her arms, first in confusion, then in resignation. She looks to D again. “Fine. What is it you want from me at this hour exactly? And this better be good because believe me, I have had a very difficult night…”

There’s no time to wait for her never-ending monologue to complete. “B, I just need to know one thing—do you trust me?”

He holds his breath as he waits for her to scoff at him, or worse, burst out into full-fledged laughter. But maybe she reads between the lines and realizes the gravity of the situation. Or maybe she’s just honest with herself, because she only nods, her eyes curious.

Then please come with me tonight. There’s something I need to show you.”

To his surprise she takes his hand and follows, no questions asked. His letter is still safe in his back pocket when they escape out her bedroom window with only an overnight bag and a change of clothes, the imprinted words he once wrote weighing heavy.

You cut your hair,” she says as their feet hit the ground with a soft thud. It doesn’t take a mindreader to know that it’s her way of paying him a compliment. He’ll take it.

 

viii.

As it turns out, his memory map is impeccable. They reach the tunnels without a major crisis, and when D hears that familiar clink, clink, clink, he knows he was right about the numbers U had written down for him on the back of the letter. They prove to be the key to entering the darkness underground.

The slope of the path is so negligible that he can barely feel them descending. For a while, they don’t speak at all as they make their way through the narrow passageway, but D is the first to break the silence.

This is going to sound like a weird question, but…are you still taking your meds?”

B kicks at a stray pebble along the path. “Not anymore. S taught me how to hide them, but it turns out I’d been puking them up anyway. That’s why they were so concerned about me. About what I was doing to my body.” She looks up at him through darkened lashes. “It wasn’t because they actually cared. Obviously.”

He decides not to react to the tears that are obviously welling up in her eyes. She wouldn’t want him to call attention to it. “No, you’re right, they don’t,” he says. “But you know what? I wouldn’t take it personally. I don’t think they care about anyone.” I’m not even sure “they” exist. But he doesn’t say that, not yet.

Where are we going?” she asks, but it’s a rhetorical question. There’s only one place he could possibly be taking her.

The darkness seems to deepen the further they travel underground. Their bodies cast long shadows across the walls. Their footsteps fall in sync and echo down the long tunnel as they continue walking. She doesn’t say anything else, but wipes at her eyes surreptitiously when she thinks he isn’t looking.

Did you have pizza for dinner?” she says, unnecessarily. “‘Cause you know you smell like onions.”

He can’t help but smile.

D knocks when they reach the entrance to The Archive. When there’s no answer, he tries the door. It opens easily.

U isn’t there waiting for them, as he had expected. But on the table near the door she’s left a stack of paper, bound together by a dark blue thread. Somehow he knows before opening to the first page that this is her final written masterpiece. More than that, it turns out to be like a scrapbook, brimming with illustrations, found images, and cut-out magazine headlines.

He doesn’t read it all at once of course. There isn’t time. But as B wanders around, taking in the incredible space, D flips through the small book and catches a few sentences here and there. Some of it is difficult to read. There are secrets inside that she’d kept for almost half a century. He can’t begin to imagine how much bravery it must’ve taken to write it all down. 

Quickly, he skips to the last page, where he finds these words at the bottom: D, please know that you were the best thing to happen to me since I first came to The Archive. You gave me the strength to believe that change was possible. By the time you get here and read this, I’ll be gone. But maybe I’ll see you on the other side.

At first, it sounds an awful lot like a suicide note.

No!” he cries, in shock or maybe horror. He doesn’t want to believe it. He can’t believe it. “No, no, no. Not yet. This wasn’t the plan.” He races across the vast library in search for any hint of her, expecting the worst: a pool of blood, or a limp body dangling from the rafters. He finds none of that.

She’s not there at all. She isn’t in any of the other rooms either. Maybe he’s jumped to conclusions? I’ll see you on the other side. That’s when it dawns on him. Maybe she already left without him. But then the question is, why?

D, this place is—it’s amazing. It has everything.” B finds him sitting in an aisle filled with old movies, and she slides down to sit next to him. “Where’s your friend?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t know.”

Something catches her eye, and she pulls a movie off the shelves. “We used to love this one.”

D squints at the box she’s holding up, recognizing the figures on the cover. “Yeah, I remember. That is a good one.” He can’t quite muster up the enthusiasm. 

He gives her the grand tour, much like U did on his first day here. He even shows her the Screening Room, where he used to watch streams from the cameras around the city and take notes on all the inhabitants. All the screens have been switched off though. He’s thankful for that. Part of him still feels ashamed. He doesn’t want her to see that much right away.

He shows her the typewriter in his bedroom, inserting a fresh sheet of paper and demonstrating the gadget for her. He can tell by the look of awe on her face that the machine doesn’t seem so scary to her anymore. Now it almost feels like magic, the same as it did for him at first.

D still remembers spending weekend mornings at the park when he was a kid. He’d write messages in the dirt with a fallen tree branch when his father wasn’t looking, quickly stamping out the words with his feet before Rufus turned his head back. Sometimes his father seemed distracted. And of course there was that woman again, weaving in and out of his memory like a specter. Now that he really thinks about it, she was everywhere. D can’t remember her name now, but he’s fairly sure it was one of the flowers. And B would often be there at the park as well, sitting with Dorothea on the one of the wooden benches overlooking the lake and feeding the ducks with a stale loaf of bread. Back then, he never considered the possibility that she’d noticed his secret and kept it all that time.

Now B eyes the typewriter again, then looks back at D. “So what exactly did you write when you were down here all those months? Dreams? Love letters?” She smirks a little. “Grocery lists?”

He’s quiet for a few moments. She’s teasing him again, but he doesn’t know if that means she’s about to break his heart. She seems genuinely curious.

I mean, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” she says, backtracking. “I guess that’s probably a really private thing to ask someone.”

No, that’s not it.” He has his left hand in his back pocket, ready to pull it out and give it to her. “It’s just—you have to promise not to laugh.”

So you weren’t creating comedy routines. Got it.” She holds out a hand, but still he doesn’t relinquish the piece of paper.

I’m serious, B.”

Fine. I’m not going to laugh at you. Really, I’m not.” 

He hopes she can’t see his hand shaking as he gives her the letter. It’s exhilarating and nerve-wracking all at once. He watches as she reads silently, mouthing the words with those lush lips as she tries to sound out each syllable. He sits back and examines her face. He’s already memorized the entire letter by now, right down to the punctuation.

When she’s finished, she looks up at him with a question in her eyes. Finally: “So did you write this for me, or are you trying to tell me you’ve met another B? Maybe that girl I’ve seen at those obnoxious Letter Parties with the long blond hair? She seems like your type.”

He doesn’t say anything.

No, I’m sorry. That’s not fair. I guess I’m just a little scared because—“ B takes a deep breath,”—as hard as it is for me to admit, you’re the only one I can have a conversation like this with, too.” A shrug as she looks away. “It’s insane, right?”

Yeah, well, I don’t get it either.” He’s overcome with warring emotions suddenly. They hit him one by one, like heavy bricks. “Look, I’m not going to spend the rest of my life alone down here,” he tells her. “Okay? We’re going to find the way out.”

She nods, like maybe she actually believes him. Like maybe she actually believes in him. Time slows to a crawl. He barely knows what he’s doing as he reaches out to brush a stray strand of hair out of her eyes. He lets his hand linger there afterwards, cupped around her cheek.

And before he’s had time to overthink it, he’s leaning in. Or maybe she’s the one who starts moving towards him first. All he knows is they’re slowly getting closer to each other, in more ways than one. And when their lips meet for the first time he almost feels like one half of a couple in an old black and white film. 

 

ix.

They watch a movie from The Archive that night, a series of flickering frames projected onto the cream-colored wall of his bedroom. They’ve never seen this particular one before, but D and B both recognize the two leads from other films. Neither says what the other is thinking: On the surface, what seems like a paranormal thriller with psychic visions and untimely deaths, might secretly be a romance hidden underneath all the mystique and tragedy. 

But it gets chilly down there at night. Just a few minutes into the film, and without so much as another word, B joins him under the covers and curls up against him like it’s the most natural thing in the world. 

He soon realizes that it’s supremely hard to concentrate with her body pressed up against his, foreign feelings of desire gathering somewhere inside of him. To be fair, it doesn’t seem as if she’s paying too much attention to what’s happening on screen either.

There’s a steamy love scene halfway through the picture that catches them both by surprise. Normally he wouldn’t be embarrassed by such a thing, especially after spending nine months dutifully tracking cameras placed inside bedrooms. But with B beside him, he feels his face flush immediately. She swallows, avoids his gaze, the silhouette of her throat rising and falling perceptibly. 

The movie plays on. 

Reaching over, D fingers the strap of her dress, skims the curve of her bare shoulder with his open palm. She looks down at his hand, gives his face a quick glance, but doesn’t say anything. His heart is beating so fast he thinks it might burst right out of his chest. He’s hyperaware of how his breath quickens. He’s hyperaware of how the rest of his body reacting, too.

The strap slides down past her shoulder as he reaches around her and starts unzipping the back of her dress as slowly as he can. His eyes are trained on her face the whole time, but in his mind, he pictures the metal teeth of the zipper parting on the other side. She barely even blinks. 

The movie plays on still, but by now the sights and sounds are only a blur in their periphery.

D reaches the end of the zipper, her straps falling a bit further down her arms. She doesn’t protest. He presses his mouth first to her neck, then travels down to the hollow formed by her clavicle before moving south past it, the tip of his tongue leaving a trail in its wake. 

She moans a little when he reaches the valley between her breasts. From her mouth he hears his letter and a soft hum: “D…”

He responds with a B, perhaps incoherently.

She doesn’t seem to care. Her hands move to his chest as her fingers work the buttons on his shirt before grazing his belt and unfastening the buckle at a maddeningly unhurried pace. He’s brushing aside the fabric of her dress with the tip of his nose as his mouth opens to claim another part of her. 

Neither of them has any idea what they’re doing, but they’re content in letting their bodies take the lead.

D?”

Hmm?” He pulls back, his parted lips hovering over exposed skin, and all she can feel is his hot breath in the cool air.

Nothing. Don’t stop. Just—do that again.”

He obliges, of course.

When they were younger they were always surprised and confounded that GG never called them out on their illegal film screenings. That TPTB never broke into the apartment to confiscate the tapes. Now they’re half-expecting the law enforcement brigade to storm into their hideout and break them up before the credits roll, but of course nobody comes. It’s only them inside that room.

When the movie’s over, they lie awake side-by-side, thinking, wondering.

D loves seeing this new side of her. It’s one he’s rarely been privy to till now. But bit by bit, she’s allowing herself to be vulnerable in his presence. And that makes him feel more brave, too. Now, even without a typewriter in front of him, he starts writing again.

She giggles a little at the sensation of his fingers brushing against her skin. “D, stop.” But she doesn’t seem to mind when he continues. “What are you writing?”

Well, that’s a B, of course.” 

Yeah? And what does the B stand for?” A wry smile. “Bulimia?”

No. The B—“ he writes it again, across her left shoulder blade, “—is for…bossy.” He traces each letter emphatically as she tries to stifle more involuntary laughter. “Brave.” He writes that, too. “Beautiful.” Her lips turn up at the corners—a broad, genuine smile—and he knows it’s true. Despite everything, he can’t quite think of anyone more beautiful than her. 

Well, you know, there are a lot of words that start with the letter D, too,” B says, her eyes full of mischief as his face hovers over hers. “So two can play that game.”

Oh yeah?” It’s a challenge, and they both love a challenge.

Yeah. I may not be the new Archivist, but do I know a thing or two about the alphabet. Let me see—“ She rolls onto her side so she can return the favor, and starts by tracing a large D along his ribcage. “D is for deranged.” She gives him a wicked grin. “Disturbed. Demented.”

He smiles, too, in spite of himself. “You have to write it out or it doesn’t count.”

Not fair! I can’t spell yet like you can.” Yet. She says yet.

Well then, you’re not allowed to call me any of those things. Those are the rules.”

Okay, D is for…” This time she searches for the right word before landing on it. “Dependable. How’s that? D-E-P…”

…E-N-D…” he continues, and she traces the letters onto his skin.

U?” 

Actually, it’s an A. But that’s not a bad guess. Vowels are tricky. A-B-L-E. Able.” He lets out an exaggerated sigh when she’s finished writing it out. “Dependable, huh? That makes me sound like some trusty kitchen appliance that never breaks down.”

No, it makes you sound like a great person. And a great friend. Which is what you are.” She thinks for a moment, contemplating what’s just been said. “But, you know, it’s not all that you are.” 

No, i guess not. We’re all a lot more than one thing, aren’t we?”

Yeah.” She holds him close, running a hand up and down his side as if trying to erase away the D she’s just written. Eventually, they doze off in each other’s arms. 

 

x.

They spend another week down there together, simply exploring the never-ending shelves of The Archive, before plotting their escape using the diagrams U had uncovered long ago.  

D shows B his favorite records and leaves them to spin on U’s abandoned turntable. They fill the expansive hollow with rich music that plucks at their heartstrings, then makes their bodies want to dance. He wishes his father could be there to hear it. He even lets B experiment with his typewriter, which they plan to pack up in its case and take with them when they leave. She quickly learns to construct words, then sentences, whole paragraphs. A natural, D thinks.

Their official Naming Ceremony is still a month away, but they both understand now that they won’t be attending. And so they rebel by christening each other with the names they’ll use for the rest of their lives. When they each say the other’s name out loud for the first time, it feels foreign, like a new adult tooth as it’s growing in. But for the first time in their lives, they also feel complete. Fully-formed.

Dan, she says.

Blair, he replies.

Merged together, the two names sound like a challenge, an act of courage, a risk taken.

Dare.

… 

At first, he’s naturally suspicious every time she excuses herself to use the bathroom, but overall her mood seems to have lifted immensely, at least temporarily. Her eating habits don’t raise any red flags. For the remaining days, they live off the non-perishables stored away in the kitchen cabinets. No new food appears in the chutes, no new ribbons of ink. Not even any more pills.

During the nights, he finally has the opportunity to read U’s manuscript, cover to cover. It’s good, really good. There’s no denying that she has a gift for storytelling. Gut-wrenching at times, heartbreaking at others, but she still had a sense of humor hidden somewhere inside that tough exterior, and it shines through in her writing.

When he finishes the final pages, he sits for a minute trying to absorb what he’s just discovered. He finally understands now why she didn’t wait for him. At first he doesn’t quite believe it. It’s too far-fetched—there must be some mistake. But she’s pulled the clips from deep within The Archive, a short newspaper article that proves her fears aren’t unfounded. The evidence is all there.

“Well, shit,” Dan says out loud to no one in particular. It’s the first time he’s ever cursed in his life, but the new word feels appropriate for the situation. He glances across the room at Blair sleeping soundly in his bed, still oblivious to the lie. He looks around their surroundings for hidden cameras inside cracks or crevices. He thinks of the fucked up world they’re living in, and about the people who must be watching from somewhere far away. He thinks, again, about the essence of humanity. He thinks about consent versus naïveté. Idealism versus realism. And he thinks about what happens when the big bad he’d thought he was fighting takes on another form entirely. When what reveals itself as the truth is even more terrible than any fiction he could ever create.

______________________________

A/N: Once again, I have to thank everyone who has been keeping up with this story, who has favorited or left kudos, and who has taken the time to leave such kind comments. I also want to thank you all for your patience. I really didn’t intend to take so long between chapters yet again, but the first half of this year seems to have gone by so quickly. Unfortunately, we’ve also come to the penultimate chapter of this story. There’ll be one more full chapter after this, and there might also be a short epilogue after that—I’m not sure yet. It all depends on whether I can fit everything I want into the next chapter. (I had to cut a couple scenes from this one, since it ended up being way too long, and I’m not sure yet where I can rearrange them instead.)

When I first started writing this in 2011, I had basically outlined all the major plot points through to the end of this chapter. In the years since, I just couldn’t ever figure out exactly how I wanted to conclude it, until now. That said, there were so many pockets of this world that I never got to explore along the way but wish I could’ve. I think the story could’ve been a much more fleshed out and drawn out narrative, but the fact is that I would never have time to finish something like that. If given the choice, I’m sure most of you would prefer a more condensed finished fic than an unfinished and meandering novel.

Hope you enjoyed this chapter. Feedback is always welcome and appreciated. 🙂

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