Cold – that is all this place has been and all that it will ever been, but unlike his voluntary ventures into a dimension of such unsurpassed darkness, it doesn’t bite quite as badly anymore. It doesn’t sink into warm, living flesh like screws of ice bored into his bare skin and nails hammered into bones splintering from a deep-seeded frigidity; and it isn’t because this place, this expansive void that covers both everything and nothing, has changed, but because Henry has in a clear distinction of what had been and what was now – living once, now dead.
Still, he feels it, flicking at the lingering sensations of life that remain not in physical touch, not in solid form, but in the memories of those not so inclined to forget him as soon as the coffin door was closed. He knows it is too soon for that second death, that moment in time where everything, all-encompassed, has been forgotten and his name is just as ghostly as the rest; but he wants the feeling of pain to pass as quickly as it had come sweeping in and he wants those in mourning to stop, understanding that death is not the end.
He supposes everyone at some point in their shuffle off of the mortal coil has an opportunity to see their funeral come to fruition, family gathered under the roof of institutions not so readily visited in life to pray to deities that find themselves forgotten amiss the woes of the living world in solemn celebration of the life that had once been; and his family had been no exception, a father forced to bury a son he never thought would face his maker before him and siblings suddenly without that quiet, almost invisible protector they argued they may have always argued against in youth. They’re all missing a piece of themselves now, locked away in a shell that no longer looks like the person they once knew because aside from an appearance in a familiar frame, made of traits shared by them all, there is no part of their son and their brother within.
Henry finds himself in the wings, sentry and silent, as he watched the procession of funeral goers – many familiar faces while others he could have stood to know better – pay their respects in a queue he, beliefs on death withstanding, never wanted to see. His sisters cry, his father pretends he doesn’t, and his mother isn’t really his mother at all, but a fictitious representation dressed in black of the only parent that Ben Hargreeves had ever really known; but they’re his family now, the blood-related and the counterfeit strings of fate that tied strangers together. Neither status matters so much as the joiner, the one person to bring them all together in such a moment, who suddenly finds himself regretting all that had been left unsaid.
It’s late before the last guest leaves and his sisters begin to tend to the disorder left behind in their wake, leaving father and son together in what may have once been nervous, anxious tension; but there is none of that now – not in the cold chill of the air that adorns his presence or the weight of a heavy heart that threatens to bring down the very world around them. There are only two words he can think to say, two words that go unheard with that veil between the living and dead, two words that he knows deserves to be heard among failed resolutions to be there more, to check in more, to be a proper son and not that which could easily be called “stranger”.
But he can’t hear him, Henry makes it so – not because he doesn’t want to, but because he knows that now, when the only thing he has left are memories of a life raised by his and his departed wife’s hands and the belongings he had left behind, it is too late and some things are better said in person, alive and well, when there is still time to make good on words through action; and action is something he has very little of.
In fact, he has very little of anything: A corporeal form, floating around in ethereal cold, not sure of where to go or what to do or if there is anything he can do without being conjured by someone else – by Klaus, by magic, by someone with some function to call on the dead, but it isn’t like he wants his father or his sisters to see him as something other than what – than who he had been despite a not-so-secret identity and growing distances between them. If he could ensure good memories through that, well, then perhaps he had been able to do something after all.
Though there had been other reasons to visit the hospital, other people to drop in on unexpectedly, time had become a meaningless construct that flowed, but without reason to someone who found no change, no difference in existence, despite it. “Stuck” had been the word for it; stuck and bored and waiting for absolution he couldn’t be sure would ever come as he passed through haunted halls, avoiding the confused shambling of the recently lost when there had been no way for him to help them.
There were spots of silence though, spaces that weren’t filled with lost life as they were new, and that was there he had found some reprieving in waiting for time to pass, sitting back in a chair that belonged not to him with a set of keys in tow for a car that he equally held no ownership to; but what did it really matter? What did anything? They were set somewhere new, different from where they had been found, as he adjusted the name plaque on the desk to read it.
Dr. Stella Sawyer.
She'd barely been gone any time at all, or at least that's what it felt like. Stella's heels clicked against the hard flooring of the hall as she made her way back to her office, unlocking the door and letting herself back in, coffee cup in hand as she started around her desk then stopped. Taking a step back, as if that would change things, she slowly slipped her office keys into her pocket while looking at the keys on her desk. Her keys, definitely, but not where she'd put them. She knew that because they went in the same place every day, as Stella was an organized creature of habit.
Her gaze swept back to the door, then to her desk again, eyes narrowed with scrutiny as she took stock of everything else there.
In a ward of children, he had certainly been childish, looking over to the good doctor as she walked back into the room to take stock of everything that had been in there and just how out of place a few things had been. Some people had a knack for that – everything in its place and a place for everything - and he had recalled being the very same, perhaps not dead set on maintaining that status quo, but making no effort to disrupt the organized chaos it had inevitably created; and now, it simply didn’t matter. Organizational living had been thrown out the window, if not upon death than certainly with the tumultuous shift his life had become since the Hargreeves had intruded on his life.
So he moved the keys again when her back was turned, during that sweeping gaze towards the door where out of place movement couldn’t be misconstrued as invisibility or even to have happened at all. They, in his own swoop out of the chair he had been sitting in, had been set clear across the room where he had ultimately took to leaning against the filing cabinet they rested upon.
Stella absently straightened her name plaque, fingertips lingering on it as she frowned, a pinch in the middle of her brow. Keys. They weren't on her desk anymore - had she been imagining they were there in the first place? Was she losing her mind? Anything felt possible in a world where she could turn invisible. She set down her coffee, looking around her office like she might be able to see what was going on. Maybe someone else could be invisible too, and they were fucking with her. If that was the case, she had more questions she could think of but they started with: Why?
"There you are," she murmured to herself, crossing to the filing cabinet and snatching her keys from on top. That wasn't where they were supposed to be either, definitely not where she'd left them, and she kept a tight grip on them like she was expecting them to disappear or relocate again as she moved to her desk and shut them away in a drawer.
Though “crazy” wasn’t exactly the intention – not as much as it was to simply enjoy the invisible intrusion he had become – he supposed it was all fine, well, and completely considered that one might have been going crazy when things weren’t where they had left them. There didn’t have to be a why. There didn’t have to be an answer either and Henry wasn’t inclined to give one, simply moving away from the cabinet as if being in his immediate vicinity would give off more than a cold chill. There was no reason she should have thought it a ghost, was there?
Stranger things had, naturally, happened.
But he could set aside the games with the keys, letting them stay clenched in her hand while she shut them away, intent on keeping them where they perhaps belonged or maybe it had just been one place where she could be sure they couldn’t disappear. No matter. There was always something else to move – a framed license or degree to shift to the side where it hung on the hook, a light to click off when it had been on only to click it on again in rapid succession, a chair to spin over and over again with a gradual increase in pace; and all had been possible at once given the invisible protrusion of tentacle limbs, each acting on their own accord to build what might have been an actual haunting.
Her gaze shifted to the movement on the wall, then up when the lights started flickering, her heart rate jumping. She didn't believe in ghosts, and even if she did the hospital wasn't old - okay, it wasn't brand new, but not so old it would be haunted. Right? Probably not the most logical train of thought for a place that had a morgue. Stella couldn't think much more on that once her chair started spinning.
The chair she'd been about to sit in. Just spinning around on its own. Stella took a step back, cautious, not sure what else might happen, then another, until she'd backed up enough to reach the door behind her and let herself out. She could freak out once she wasn't in the room anymore, but she wasn't about to stay in there and be subject to who knows what any longer than she had to.
The discourse would stop when she had exited the office, some care taken to return everything to where it had once been – at least as close to where it had been. While pictures and chairs and desk plaques could be easily moved back into place, it wasn’t like he had taken full stock of where items had been prior and, amusement befalling him readily enough, perhaps a part of him simply didn't care. Some things would end up misplaced even in his best attempts, but that was something he was sure the good doctor could address when she eventually returned to find not a haunted office, but nearly how she had left it.
Except for the keys, pulling them out of the drawer to place them, once more, somewhere else as he phased through and out of the door.
This had been just his luck, which was to say he was forever unlucky, that he had landed in this situation, stuck between a rock and a hard place while waiting for something to happen; and while he wanted to believe he had some familiarity with it, that a teenaged death would have prepared him for one much further down the line – though, truth be told, he had anticipated it being much, much further down the line – he had forgotten just how terrible it was to be dead and how lonely it was to be dead.
Unfortunately, terrible and lonely didn’t prepare him for this.
Of all the ghosts in the world, why this one?
There were others who had been able to see him, others who were floating around the void while caught up in their own misunderstanding of the situation and the tragedies that had befallen them – a woman in a car accident didn’t know she had passed on, wandering the halls of the morgue with an expression that suggested “deer in the headlights” while another simply stalked the streets of San Francisco for a few blocks before finding his final resting place and starting the loop all over again, searching for something – but very few of them knew who he was, who he had been, perhaps even who he would become in the shift of energies that had come with starting anew, assuming, of course, that the cards he had laid out spoke the truth.
Sitting in the quiet of the mansion, on the layers of existence that very few could see, Ben stared ahead at the imposing figure that sat right where Ben had always remembered him to be. Monocle perched precariously in his eye as if shifting the dour expression on his face would knock it out of place, hands laced in front of him on the desk as if to undo them would break apart any authoritative poise he had, Sir Reginald Hargreeves looked just as Ben had remembered him fifteen, sixteen, maybe more years ago; and much like it had felt then, to die in front of everyone, Ben couldn’t help but feel the sharp pang of disappointment that it had happened once again.
The difference was that this time there hadn’t been anyone else to blame.
“Number Six,” he said sharply, Ben’s face still resting in a subtle frown, indignant towards someone who hadn’t been much of a father at all – not to him, the child who had always been viewed as a study of otherworldly curiosity; not to Klaus who he had thrown into such nightmarish situations to test just how readily he could communicate with the dead, pushing him towards drug problems later in life to try and erase them all; not to Vanya who he had only ever been told she was nothing spectacular, unpowered and unimportant; and not to the others who, perhaps more useful in his eyes, weren’t without their own issued carried, one trapped on the moon waiting for something that never came, another trying to constantly prove himself to his father, and the last, someone who could have everything she wanted and yet not the one thing she actually did.
“So…” He didn’t wait for a lecture or a lead in, not inclined to take orders from someone who, just like him, was only a ghost, long dead and long buried, shifting in his seat for far more defiant posturing. If the world wasn’t made out of rules, only chances – something that had so readily come out of his father’s mouth – perhaps it was time to start taking them, starting now. Even something as simple as opening his mouth to say something without being a push over as, frankly, he had only ever been.
He didn't want to be a push over anymore.
“Is this where you tell me just how much of a disappointment I am?”
This was perhaps the one place he could feel something akin to home. It was a house, for all intents and purposes, one owned by his father that now served as an empty memory to all that had happened in the last year or so, lived in, but only just, giving it a hollow sort of existence without bodies to fill it. There had once been so many of them, all of his brothers and sisters underneath one roof, their father devoid of interest, but still present enough to forge his own legacy of eventual and dysfunctional failure, and their robotic mother, picturesque in nature with all the programming hallmarks of someone who so deeply cared about those around her that made it hard to consider her, mannequin form and all, anything other than human; but it had never been a home.
“I guess this means history always repeats itself, doesn’t it?”
A question to no one among the living world rather the stone effigy that stood as the chimp’s replacement, Ben’s hands dug deep into his pockets, hood over his head, as he looked up at the statue now in his space. Pogo – by all accounts, he had been a caretaker as much as Mom had been, but considerably intelligent and even more so when one considered his experimental origins, and unfortunately as dead, if not more so, than Ben had been in this place. Just like the rest of his siblings with the exception of Klaus, he hadn’t seen hide or hair of him, and he supposed it was for the best in some ways. Pogo, after all, never had to see himself cast in stone from unexpected death, able to rest in peace at the tail end of a long life no matter how unfair the end had been.
It was the intrusion of his mother that had brought about a draw of his attention, stepping away from the statue as she crossed in front of it, oblivious to his presence. He was a ghost, she was a machine, and he highly doubted there would be come recognition feature in her build that would have clued her into his presence; but he didn’t necessarily need her to see him – maybe didn’t want her to see him in such a state though, sure enough, she had been there for the first time around to bury the coffin of a teenager with plenty of life left to live had the cards not turned out so wrongly.
It didn’t do well to promise, least of all to a robot, that it wouldn’t happen again when it had, but Ben still felt compelled to do so – not only to her, but to Klaus, to his friends, to people who probably knew better in this life to believe that anything was so permanent and good intentions, no matter how devoted one had been to them, didn’t always come true.
So he didn’t say it wouldn’t happen again, almost humorously landing on a quote from a movie that appropriately enough had to do with artificial intelligence; a cheesy utterance had there ever been one that, set deep in pop culture, might have come off as insincere with an accent attached, somewhat innate, despite Ben meaning the words spoken, but otherwise unheard. It wasn’t like anyone was listening, at least no one who could reasonably hear a ghost without some sort of sibling conduit to bring him into the realm of the living more readily than normal.
Though inclined to believe the most haunted of Victorian Mansions in the San Francisco area, born of sibling strife and brutal murder, might have belonged rightly to his own family in a mansion that saw the likes of a drug addict rock stars and cult members among its ownership once upon a time, it had been a similar story to plague the mysteries of the Chambers Mansion – old and Victoria, haunted by a ghost trapped by a death most foul with nothing but mysterious circumstances and rumors to create an elaborate ruse of a story that passed through generations. There had to be a draw, something to bring people in, and frankly, there was no other reason for anyone to venture inside the halls of what were now two separate townhouses with recording equipment, set ups made for internet television and viral fame, unless it was to track down ghosts.
The Chambers Mansion had been a far better place than the lived, however barely, halls of the Hargreeves Mansion, a story built not necessarily on the mansion’s start as built by a wealthy silver baron from the Midwest who had moved to San Francisco in the late 1880s, but the nieces that followed his demise, a wild penchant for the dark arts and rumors of a deranged relative living in the attic fueling the mysterious circumstances of one of their deaths by way of bisection from farm equipment while in the house.
Whether an accident – though how could anyone readily believe it would have been anything of the sort was beyond Henry – or intentional by a sibling that couldn’t stand to get along with the other – far more believable had records not proven the nieces never owned the mansion to begin with – the tale had been constructed of a wildly imaginative grapevine that, much like a game played from one ear to the other, could skew the facts so far from the truth, it was far more fascinating that anything he could provide; and the perfect fodder for something believable, no matter how falsified a haunting it truly was.
So he had waited, concealed, ever-watching of those within for the perfect moment not to necessarily strike, but to scare, conjuring all the standard tricks of the ghostly trade he might have readily watched on television shows of a same concept – dark shadows around suspicious corners, creaking floorboards in the middle of the night, questionable voices that could have very well belonged to someone who might have lived in the house some time ago; but none of those things were of any viable proof that there was something foul in the Chambers Mansion.
It had taken twenty takes to get the introduction right, but once it was completed Damian finally felt able to breathe and just relax. It wasn’t really like he had some super professional production going on here, but he needed the right energy to keep the viewers coming back. It had to be interesting. The amount of haunted locations Damian and his crew had visited couldn’t be counted on two hands. Honestly, he had lost count at this point. He went to a new place every week and tried really hard to capture some abnormal or paranormal activity on film in the course of one evening between the hours of midnight and four in the morning. He was a night owl, it just made sense.
He had his cameras and emf detectors, his ghostbox, his thermal cameras, set up all over the property where he had heard of activity. “Hey ghosts, its me, the dude Damian. I’m here. I’m waiting for you my guy… or gal. Can you do some cool stuff for me?”
The directive had been “do some cool stuff” which Henry could very reasonably do, but what had still been the question. Walls could squelch with the abyss and halls could become coated in a paint of blood, there could be some strange knocking from somewhere in the attic to lend credence to the story of someone locked in the attic, and he could become some ghostly form easily enough, but he still couldn’t be sure it would have been what the audiences wanted.
But if there was going to be a show promised to the audiences – something good, something terrifying, something that would draw audiences in and never leave them long after they had turned off the video for the night – Henry felt it proper to deliver, not just because of his corporeal state, but the Yellow Ring that had once sat on his finger, since dispersing into the atmosphere upon his passing. It had to be something unnerving, something that would never quite settle in their minds to a point where it could be compartmentalized and disappear from conscious memory; it had to be something lasting, a mark on a world he had yet to confirm his return to.
Baby steps – it would have to be in small form first, a limb reaching out to launch a vase across the hall where it hit the ground with a shatter in hopes of garnering some attention from the cameras and not necessarily where he had actually been standing.
Damian waited and wait and moved around the room, messing with things here and there. He wasn’t really what one would call ‘respectful’ of the spirit world. He believed, but at the same time he liked to provoke. He wanted concrete evidence and sometimes that meant playing a little dirty. He sat in a rocking chair and threw himself back and forth until it tumbled over backwards and him and his crew chuckled before the most reasonable one of the group told him to knock it off or he’d ruin all the audio. “Fair enough, I’ll be quiet.” Running his hand through his hair, he cleared his throat and started to get more serious. “Hello ghost… did you die here?”
It seemed like just as he finished his question he heard the sound of something shatter in another room near one of the tripod night vision cameras. The group all went running from their room to that one to see the broken vase on the ground.
“You guys locked the door behind us right?” It wasn’t really fear in his voice, but it was definitely an unnerving feeling. They all agreed as Damian bent down to pick up on a piece of the vase. “Well.. it was ugly anyway. Hey ghost, I got a ghost box if you wanna talk to us. How did you die?” The broken vase made him take the situation a little more seriously, but not too much so.
There were plenty of tricks, he imagined, that a show host could do on their own to ensure there was some semblance of paranormal experience to record. They were nothing more than parlors tricks with specified angles or cuts of the camera which would have made the audience woefully unaware of the nuances that went into to, but a shattering vase in an area of the building that was occupied by nothing more than cameras and other devices could have been something — right?
It could have been someone who had come into the building behind them or someone on the crew taking the lead on making it interesting, but the confusion seemed genuine when everyone had made a rush for the room and Henry, in turn, stepped out of the way to avoid drawing too much heat away from the area. He’d seen enough shows to know that much about spirits and he’d known enough spirits to know it true.
The ghost box was peculiar though, Henry regarding the object carried for a moment as he attempted to figure out what to do. He decided to pull them on a chase, moving towards the access point to the attic with what could have been a woman crying. Really, it was just a throw of his voice, changed in pitch and tone, at uncertain technology meant to pick it up.
Ghostbox, Spirit box, they were interchangeable terms for a paranormal device that was basically a radio meant to pick up the frequency that ghosts or spirits supposedly put off and thus allow them to communicate. damian wasn’t sure how much of it he believed in, but every now and then they’d use it and get some results from it. the brought it with him to this location believing that maybe they’d get some results. the radio picked up what sounded like a faint crying noise and damian quickly shush’d everyone around him. “hear that? bro that so crazy.” the group’s whole mood started to change from skeptical to surprised while some also moved to fearful.
they moved from room to room trying to strengthen the signal and as damian walked into a cold spot in a room, he got a chill and nearly jumped out of his skin. “oh shit, its freezing right here, feel this!” his friend with the camera flipped around and tried to capture both damian and the thermal device reading the temperature. “lets see if we can get the big one, a big scare. like.. dude, do something to piss it off.” he didn’t really have a plan, but he figured he’d come up with something. “alright, let uh set up in the room. it’s almost 2 am anyway and we can try to get it to maybe move the creepy kids doll.” the group moved to the room with all the children’s toys in it and damian took a seat in a rocking chair. he didn’t rock, he just sat in it. “alright my friend, you are clearly willing to communication, can you do something for us here? wanna play a game?”
Oh, how it already was a game, Henry watching those who had some near-palpable fear of the situation that, so far, had presented itself: An angry and upset ghost that was stalking through the halls of one of the townhouses, presumably that of the deceased Claudia, who, through the spirit box, continued to moan and wail in her sadness – even if it came with the occasional roll of his own eyes while attempting to keep up the charade. Was there a bisected ghost in the building? Not at all. Was there a ghost who didn’t mind terrifying a few people even if it was sure to bring the ghost conspiracy theorists out of the woodwork? Absolutely.
Children’s toys were definitely terrifying, even Henry himself disinterest in getting anywhere near it. In fact, maybe he should have tossed it down the hall instead of a Victorian vase, but it was too late to go back on that, shifting around the room as the ghost hunting team went through set up. Naturally, any sound through the box had stopped and the look on his face one of distaste as he glanced at the dolls in the room, almost muttering an audible “Are you kidding me?” before he thought better of it. Drawing on those limbs form the unknown, the doll was picked up, levitating in front of the cameras as its head twisted about, around and around and around, before being unceremoniously popped off and both pieces were tossed onto the ground.
It was when one had decided to pick up one of Damien’s friends that his presence might have been known more readily, even if just as an incorporeal spirit, hoisting the cameraman up into the air despite his screaming and flailing.
He was doing this for research: That was what he had to tell himself as he looked over the slab, arms crossed on the other side of it opposite the coroner, some stranger in small glasses who loomed over his body with a peculiar interest to the gaping cavity that resided where his stomach had been. Sunken in, empty, void of any and all life and organs as if the eldritch beings once within had eaten him from the inside out to make their escape. It wasn’t everyday that someone came in with such a gaping wound, unsure of orientation – had it been entering or exiting – but Henry could easily say it hadn’t been what killed him. They might not have been his friends though they were certainly some of the closest to be considered, but no, they hadn’t done that.
Where a tape recorder might have taken down all the information in years prior, a phone sat with the microphone recording away as the medical examiner took note of his subject, his steps, and his findings. “Henry Lee, 30 years old, Korean male; thin, but in good health. Negative toxicology, cause of death: Unknown.”
It wasn’t his fault he was only going to get it wrong. The only person who might have gotten it right had been Nick, but “conflict of interest”, they said, citing the desire for “impartial findings” as if he wouldn’t have been able to get the answer straight from the ghost’s mouth, and it had done little to Henry from taking an almost insulted affront to being an unknown – something that registered well enough with his better half who, spotlight and all during his days as a childhood superhero, had been readily forgotten, preserved in a statue that had been left to waste, broken in pieces, replaced by a memorial to a fallen friend of a simian variety; but that hadn’t been Pogo’s fault either, had it?
Incisions made and organs drawn, removed, weighed with stomach contents sampled – a means of gauging the time of death in practical examinations, though suffice to say, Henry hadn’t eaten much of anything since the day, even morning, preceding that Sunday had there been a stomach to be found – there came a fever pitch of tension, of worry, as the medical examiner’s attention turned to the one organ that, aside from skin and sensory structures, remained intact. There had been little in the way of wounds, little that would have suggested blunt force injury given the magical origins of his untimely demise, but that hadn’t been the concern. The concern had been the bone saw as it spun to life, teeth ready to gnaw through the bone of his skull for the bodily structure within.
His brain – all his thoughts, all his talent, all his deeply laid secrets and memories; and though unnecessary, uncertain if there were ever a chance he would actually find himself in human form again, in his ethereal state, his reaction was a short fuse, pulled to full tension and waiting to snap in an explosion that was far less fire and far more the fount of frigid darkness at his fingertips.
It was a roil in his stomach from the abyss – literally, a burp of dark fluid that seemed to bubble and churn as it filled the open cavity where the now-sleeping lied, spilling over the sides of his stomach and pooling onto the examination table until the slight rim of the metal could no longer keep it from splashing onto the floor. The buzzing had stopped, the saw foregone for the unexplainable phenomenon until it twisted further, bending, molding, stretching into a human form that seemed to match the spirit behind it and, in limited detail, the body on the table. Any attempts to speak came out garbled, words unable to form without developed vocal cords, but the intent had been received when the medical examiner raced from the room.
Mornings – he didn’t like them even when he was dead and the timeline of the day’s events didn’t matter whatsoever. He could come and go as he pleased. He could sleep, if there was some comparative to it when one was dead and sleep was technically all that his body was doing, or he could bother those who hadn’t gotten a good amount of it, something he was woefully all too familiar with. He had been a night owl. He hadn’t slept well. He really hadn’t slept well after that first October that the shifts started happening. He especially hadn’t slept well when Ben Hargreeves, through no fault of his own, had outright intruded on his life and the line that had once been between them had blurred so much, he didn’t know where Henry Lee ended and Ben Hargreeves began.
He was sleeping well now – dead – though that didn’t mean he wasn’t up and about, gently harassing patrons of a Starbucks with any number of small tricks he had up his sleeves now that he could. Much like his interaction, however indirect it was, with Stella Sawyer, it had been something to quell boredom while he waited, though for what he couldn’t say. What came after someone died? When did he figure out which side of the boundary of good and evil he fell? Was he saved? Or was he about to suffer from eternal damnation?
Likely the latter, but it wouldn’t be because of stirring sticks that seemingly moved on their own, flipping cups upside down when they had just been right side up, or managing to steal a Sharpie marker from one of the employees to start changing the names on the orders. Yes, it would tick some people off, but no, Henry wasn’t too fussed about it since it wouldn’t be his mess to clean up as orders became backlogged and the baristas bottlenecked in their delivery.
Naturally, he didn’t know Liam Sawyer, just like he hadn’t known his sister, but his had been the next in line as the ghost grabbed the cup only to scratch out the name just called. What had once been “Liam” was now “Mali” and what was “Mali” was quick to shift into “Lima” as the names were called out, apologies ushered out as quick as they came, and when there had been no more anagrams to figure out from four simple letters, the explosion of artwork onto the cup came quick as if traced with invisible ink, activated by the heat of the coffee in the cup.
The comic book shop had been a regular haunt while he had been alive, so it made sense to haunt it while dead, a subtle sense of curiosity prompting his postmortem perusal of the shelves for something of interest - to read, to see, to hold in his hands even though the physical sense of touch had lost some meaning in its sudden corporeal complication. It was subpar to the real deal, taking far more energy to do so, Henry not without his attempts to interact with the world veiled from that of the dead which meant that it ultimately had to count if he was going to reach out, reach through that mist, to be something of form again without someone magically or metaphysically pulling him into it - not that he was entirely sure how Klaus was able to do it short of swallowing a crystal ball.
But then something - someone - had stopped him in his tracks when he had thought he had narrowed the selection down, attention shifting from the book he had considered to the door that had just swung open and the new customer who, as far as he had noticed in his meager amount of visits since his public outing as The Horror, hadn't been as regular a fixture; and, curiously, he took to following Aiden around, watching as he took stock of the issues, flipping through them and the bold, bright colors of characters on the front, as if contemplating any number of theories about something. There had been no knowing what might have been spinning around that head of his, cranking the gears of thought into action, but surely it had to do with the shifts when that had been something to plague all of their lives.
Had that meant he was coming around to the notion, to the absolute fact, that there was nothing entirely normal about San Francisco and many of the residents that lived within? Perhaps, and it extended far beyond odd sightings on the street that could have been found anywhere. All things took time, he knew that, but it still didn't stop the indignant click of his stongue as he stood back, arms folding across his chest when a single thought pressed against his head: Seeing was never quite believing, and Aiden had seen the things that happened in San Francisco, had experienced some of it as his own limb, so what had changed? Why now?
He leaned forward, peering over his shoulder to the issue that he had in hand and close enough to his ear to whisper something. Even if the words didn't carry, the chill in the air remained long after the words had been said and he stood up straight again.
"You're getting colder."
It had been a while since he had been in a bookstore. Even more seldom so, a comic book store. Still, he found himself there, surrounded by the single issues, the compounded volumes, and countless merchandise that would be prizes to have on any avid collector's shelf. The trip itself had been mentally draining, his mind continuing to fight the actions of his feet even as he crossed the store's threshold. His as-confident-as-they'll-ever-be strides pushed against the bull of a nag that was his brain as he moved from one aisle to the next. A pivot of his foot around a corner shoved the broken record of a notion that there was no possible way that anyone could have superpowers. The shift of his eyes from one corner of the store to the other looking for the proper section avoided the ghosts of Logic that wanted to drive him back out the door, persistent in force feeding the rationale that there was no way this was possible; that he couldn't possibly be anything remotely close to superhuman.
He had allowed those thoughts and ideas to drown him before and if he were honest with himself, he might have been on the verge of allowing such a pest to torment him enough again - to make him believe that this research he was attempting to conduct was going to be fruitless - but what kept him planted had been those unreal memories and the shared experiences. Those could not have been imagined. Jeff could not have been imagined, still swimming around in the marina where he now called 'home.' That life-sucking alien plant could not have been imagined. The shadows on his walls still a haunting reminder of that particular night. Whatever happened to what friends he had could not have been made up. The other worldly fights that he thought he could bet on in exchange for information, the strange creatures that appeared and disappeared from beaches, the show of powers at a summer camp... All of that he could no longer deny didn't happen when remnants of that time were still with him today.
Standing before the rows of compounded volumes with tables of filed single issues in boxes behind him, Aiden turned over the tiny plush in his pocket, a charm gifted to him by a girl with fiery red hair, and scanned the spines with no real direction other than the idea - if the words from past conversations affirmed anything, it was this - that he was supposed to be someone else. Who that someone else was, he hadn't the faintest idea other than the fact that he was supposed to be strong enough to throw a left hook that sent a much taller and stronger guy clear across a field, and that he didn't tire. Staring a little longer at his current shelf selection, he frowned, nudging his glasses up along the bridge of his nose, turning the charm still within his pocket. "That narrows down nothing," he muttered, sidestepping to check another section before he reached for volume - a random one - and read the back cover, the mere grasp of it within his hands almost warding away Logic to allow Curiosity a chance to wonder and make room for Belief.
Flipping the book open, he began to read through the panels, admiring artwork and storytelling as he let the scenes literally unfold before him. Silently, he took in what he could of his findings; the character's mannerisms, the sorts of weapons he had, overall costume, and of course, what kind of powers were exhibited in the pages that followed. Cheeks puffed, Aiden scrunched his nose. "Don't all superheroes have super strength by default?" He asked no one, glancing up as if to remind himself of how intimidating the selection before him really was. Uncertain, still with very little to go off of to start, he replaced the book, swapping it for another that seemed a little more promising. "What about this guy?" He asked no one again, squinting at the page. "Do they all have to be so muscular?" Briefly, he glanced down at himself in stark comparison, pouting before continuing to read through the pages until he felt a cold chill by his ear. Immediately, Aiden's shoulders hunched and he shook his mop of hair to try and shake the chill. Quickly, he turned about himself for anyone that might have walked by only to find the nearest person to be no where near where he stood.
It was a good research angle: Go to the comic book store with an itemized list of super powers to attempt to figure out just who might have been sitting on the other side of oneself, of friends and family if Ari Saylor and The Corinthian was something to consider; but there had been one problem Henry could see presenting itself in the constantly rotating cycle of new release issues, reprints stuffed in boxes, and trade paperbacks only further illustrated by statuesque paraphernalia: The expanse of it all.
Had it not been in the number of issues that one could have pulled from, it had been in the number of characters that had seen such a wide fluctuation over the years. What started out as a group of five had turned into a mutant nation, and the utterance of a single inhuman with magic at her fingertips had cut down their numbers into just over one hundred. What started out at one individual with a penchant for breaking the fourth wall had turned into a corps of individuals from different timelines, made up of different genders and different animals, and he really wouldn’t have been surprised to find out there was a dinosaur in the Deadpool Corps had he given the issues the time of day to read. Spider totems had come from all corners of the known universe, branching into medias further, and symbiotes could very well take over the world with the right hive-mind codex leadership behind them. Timelines split only to converge again if they weren’t crushed under the weight of their maligned parts as they were in the Dark Multiverse, and in every single one of these, the number of possibilities only grew exponentially even if there was a categorized list.
His existence had been easy to find out for one reason: There had simply been no super heroes he could recall that had tentacles erupting from their stomach, something that only grew more and more complicated as the bits and pieces fell into place, memories still not entirely whole of what had happened to Ben Hargreeves the first time he had died. This time, well, he knew well enough what had happened; but on present matters, the ones to do with the comic shop patron attempting to make connections to the pages, it was no small undertaking, he supposed, to figure out who one was with what could often be matching or even mismatching information and the comparison of oneself to the characters drawn in panels left much to be desired – be it in realistic expectation of appearances or representation in an often all-too-white-washed world, problems he supposed the industry had been working out in some ways.
Still, Aiden had said it himself: It narrowed down nothing.
What existed of a former frame in appearances matching that of the departed leaned back against the shelves behind Aiden as he continued to scroll through the selection, flipping through the pages for something that might have matched the rather curious individual he had met over half a year ago as this point, Henry watching curiously as he asked himself questions Henry couldn’t possibly give an answer to though he had run into his counterpart. There had been some key differences in the doppelganger that had come from another dimension, from a timeline that he recalled was born in someone’s imagination – but then again, weren’t they all? From a rock star-turned-comic book artist from the infancy of his band’s budding career to the penman behind an interesting turn of fate that had made a new and improved super genius with a radiation problem, the pages had only dictated existence from the minds of others. It was the rest, whatever these shifts were, that dictated such personal presence.
“I don’t think that’s right either,” he said once he had straightened himself up again, reaching out to grip his hands on Aiden’s shoulders as if to guide him towards another selection of books, but incorporeal as he was, all that remained of the pass through was bitter cold. “You’re still cold.”
Cultists were funny things, a selection of individuals defined by its unusual religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or a common interest, object, or goal that, just like its predecessor in definition, was just as unusual in method. They had particular figures beyond the expanse of the predominate religions and even some of those – all of those – could have been considered one of the same at some point: A bunch of strangers with the eye of the social normalcy looking down on them with disregard and discreditation of something alternative to their own statement of beliefs.
In the case of the Darkholders, he had just been a temporary figurehead and he had made sure of it with whatever cutthroat efficiency he could muster in order to stop a future that served no one, not even them, and would bring them no closer to meeting their perceived maker. At that point, he had cared about being the vessel for something else, something more than he could have ever been, and easily used as a pawn that wanted to be something other than dead in the ground; and look where it had gotten him – dead and in the ground, the exactly place he had never wanted to return.
But in the case of these people, these individuals who had found themselves on the precipice of something new after witnessing the battle in the Bay, seeing with their own two eyes just what powers lied sleeping in the deep expanse of the cosmos, he found himself curious, intrigued, and they had found themselves equally so, if not celebratory that the universe had finally given them a foothold to the often considered fictitious thoughts and theories that came with eldritch depths. Belief imbued power and power – power would keep him from being burnt out too quick by those who had more and no longer would six be attributed with uselessness; but why be six when one could be one?
How it had taken some time, he didn’t know, but it had taken some time to cut through the fog to get to the Saylor Residence from where he had been in the ether, a struggle perhaps born of magical barricades he hadn’t necessarily been prepared for or his own dispelled energy from his fumbling through the seas of existence, frightening ghost hunters when he didn’t need to and toying with doctors who, for all their degrees, had been none the wiser to the curious case of one dead Henry Lee. He hated to admit it and likely never would, making it something to be read by those who had some sort of knowledge on the matter than outright said, but the act of interacting with the world around him from a state of limbo was tiring.
He was tired - tired and stubborn and, for reasons he couldn’t quite comprehend in that cold plane that seemed to numb everything from the outside in, unwilling to succumb to that dark pit at the end of whatever perverse tunnel he had been walking down, no light at the end of it to welcome him in pearly gates with a herald of angels to guide him to those parts even the clairvoyant couldn’t go. It was a sink, a quicksand meant to drown his soul in and never let go; but what happened when there were other forces at play that could work against such a permanent thing? What if someone fought so readily against it, so hard and with changed intent if they just got one more chance, and somehow managed to break free?
What if someone managed to cheat death?
Molly had been that chance, had experienced that chance time and time again, and though the outcome had always seemed to land Madelyne Pryor right back where she had started, each had been an extension of life, precious time that she had been able to get back, no matter what she had decided to ultimately do to it; and perhaps that was something he wanted enough to work through whatever trouble might have come when Death, deciding he wasn’t going to let another soul slide through boney fingertips, came knocking for him again. It was selfish. When was it ever not selfish, but just as there were times to be humble, there were times to go after what one wanted, to grab it, take it, and simply not let go until it was pried out of cold dead hands; and even that wasn’t so permanent these days.
But the household had been quiet when he had appeared, some vague curiosity given to where the rest of the family might have been – there were enough kids in the household to have some sort of noise on the fringes, found in rooms where teenagers shut themselves up to play video games and generally struggle with the inherent act of growing and children could play, unhindered and unworried about the world around them while in such personal space; but there had been so little energy picked up on in the throes of sleep, Henry given a moment of pause when mother and daughter had been found, Lily so readily wrapped up in her arms.
He’d wait. He could wait for this, wait until she was awake and the magical energy in the air was stronger as the lines that separated the lands of the living and the dead became far closer together with the light of the moon, his withdrawal from the grounds nothing more than a few foot falls to the porch where he would otherwise not be a disturbance to those within as they went about their autonomy, comings and goings observed, but uninterrupted as he allowed patience to set in. Eager as he might have been to find himself on the other side, sometimes it was a good thing to be.
Had it been anyone else, anyone other than the one person he had been close to of late and for some time, through the thick and thin of forging magic shops on ley lines and scaring unwitting drunk teenagers from their practices and enacting war on the very mutants who had denied her a valid place among them, Henry would have turned them away. It didn’t matter that it had been Nick to call him, the one person with the power to do so in a more corporeal form than he had been able to conjure of his own energies, and it didn’t matter that there had been others caught in the undertow of malfunctioning time travel technology, as soon as he had connected the dots back to the woman with even a sliver of Hecate’s magic under her fingertips, Henry would have ignored the call, ignored the request for assistance, ignored it all.
“Find them yourself,” he would have said. “Draw on the power of Hecate to do it for you,” he could have suggested. “Conjure up a super powered ghost from somewhere else,” he might have demanded, but the fact remained that there was little he wouldn’t do for Molly Saylor, based not on favors or demonic exchange, on creating dues and ensure their prompt return when the time came, but, so simply put, camaraderie in that which, in one way or another, didn’t belong – at least not by the definition of someone else, whether that had been the genes they had been created from, the beings that shared the same alternative factor to make them something special, or one’s own father who saw it fit to be believe they were nothing more than spectacular failures and birthed a lifetime of compounded familial issues.
No, it didn’t matter that he knew she had the power to return of her own volition, not so constrained by the laws of time and space or dimensional being as others might have been, but that wasn’t to say there couldn’t have been trouble or complications, something that could have kept her beyond the time and place she should have reasonably been; and while he couldn’t help with those, may have known someone who could but was otherwise unavailable in a way only the shifts or Five’s own hubris could manufacture, he could at least give them something to go off of.
That had been the reason he appeared in a more concrete form than he had in the past week since his death. That was why he had allowed those lines of communication through the conduit that, on the flip side of strange weeks, had been his brother. That was why he had bothered to listen and had bothered to reach out into the cosmic forces of the universe that magic could access for some sort of clue that tied into some sort of location that could be used to narrow down her place in time in space. That was why he had helped without much hesitation, because he wasn’t doing it for himself; because he had some stake in her well being in one form or another, recognizing where he might have been able to call on more concrete powers for a return compared to a zombie slowly manifesting life back into his bones; because, had the tables been turned, he hoped she would have done the same for him where others had only taken.
Not that she had been so innocent, but it failed to matter by the time they had called upon his, his brother’s power ripping him from the darkness and into a light blinding, but devoid of the warmth he might have found when among the living. What mattered had been finding her.
Perhaps it had been his own lack of one that had drawn him to this place where childhood was still lived, enjoyed, no matter what might have been going on behind the scenes. She didn’t need to know that her mother had been a superhero. She didn’t need to know that men in suits were watching her every move, approaching only when they had found it conveniently only to be turned away. She didn’t need to know that there was a whole new world existing beyond a portal born of a living Earth, so different than his own living abyss, that welcomed her with open arms; and she surely didn’t need to know that he had once attacked it, drawing lines in otherworldly sands as he stood on the side of the Goblin Queen and her armies.
All she needed to know was that there had been a companion for a tea party that her mother couldn’t see, the thoughtful pours of invisible tea just as invisible and intangible as Henry was while sitting on the chair across from her, a small assortment of dolls – American Girl scientists and conservationists with their koala friends – occupying vacant spaces elsewhere. They seemed a little interest, however, compared to the ghostly stranger, small in form as he mimicked his much more youthful and age-appropriate form, buttoned up in a private school uniform he had once thought retired until it had, in an adult size, landed on his hospital bed.
If there had been anything to be buried in, Ben suspected it would have been this as one of Reginald Hargreeves children foot soldiers for a war against the end of the world – even if it was something so often of their own devising in a repetitive self-fulfilling prophecy of destruction; but this had just been tea, something that wasn’t so dictated by the pomp and expectation of an alien father, softened only slightly by a robotic mother, and endured by six other children all born on the same day, at the same time, at the time of a pile driver sent into the gut of an octopedal wrestler.
It was peaceful even when animals, pets, seemed to take notice that there wasn’t something quite right about the seemingly vacant chair that was at the table. They were always keen to such energies. Throw in something even posthumously magical, and he was sure he was absolutely radiating without intention; but Marley hadn’t seemed to mind – the magic nor the company.
“Would you like another cup?”
“Yes, please,” he said, the his “empty” cup extended not by arm, but by tendril curved carefully around the handle of the tea cup with care not to dump it’s invisible contents as she poured from a matching teapot. It was brought back just as carefully, set back onto the table before his arm jerked away at the sound of the door and Lola stepped out; and instantly, there had been questions. Would she see him? Would she know he was there? Would she know anyone was there? While it might not have come with an immediate clap of lightning, struck down from on high and directly into the chair, there was a succinct worry on his face that something so innocent as a tea party with someone who, even in such a young form, had wrought plenty of destruction in life.
He had found his opening for exit in the shift of Marley’s attention, Lola’s presence ushering her out of her chair so she could run over and explain everything – the tea party and its visitor from locations unknown; and the fun they had, she and this invisible friend he had been resigned to, over light conversation that spoke not of the troubled world around them, but answered questions about their comparable unknowns – Ben and that which was considered normal and Marley, that which, with super powers and tentacles limbs, was not.