Loved and Lost by Schroering1 November 24, 2020

Chapter 9

TRAVIS

DECEMBER 26

I’m beginning to see the appeal in ant farms. A tiny, miniaturized world, full of harmless little creatures. They don’t know any other world but their own. I can look inside and admire every little innocent action that they perform, and yet, they may never even know that I am there. A three-dimensional world that traps its weakest members in a two-dimensional looking glass.

My rebirth brought a lot of revelations, but one that I had glossed over was the realization that we were ants in the grand scheme of things. Unmatchable power, and it was just locked inside me? …I wouldn’t even know where to start trying to comprehend it. Philosophy was never my strong suit, I was the wisest man I knew.

I couldn’t think of much that I excelled at. I didn’t succeed in any sort of athleticism, my intelligence was decent at best. I was just a budding singer from a tiny town, and I never even booked a single goddamn gig. When I died, nobody gave a damn. The only impact that I would’ve left on the world would have been an engraving on a tombstone. So why the hell did fate pick me?!

The moment I was most doubting my resolve was when it finally came time to tie up one last loose end.

…I put it off as much as I could.

I distracted myself. I kept myself preoccupied and made up so many damn excuses, but diversions were finite. Time was finite. But my ambition was limitless, and it wasn’t long before my sights were set once more on the wooden dwelling that I was raised in, the snow piling up on its rooftop.  

My approach was criticised from every possible angle, courtesy of my own skeptical subconscious. But given the circumstances, nothing, not even my own objections, would keep me from fulfilling my destiny.

Knock, knock, knock.

Each strike was more forceful than the last. For this specific detour, the Auburn Demon was forced to the back seat as Travis Montgomery hopped to the controls once more. I at least wanted a taste of what I was missing since I abandoned it all… If nothing else, it would make everything else so much simpler. No wings, no purple hair, no heterochromia.

…Why was my heart beating that fast…?

This wasn’t hard! This wasn’t stressful! Just another victim of equity, no different than each and every other person I put six-feet under!

…But when I saw the look on my father’s face, it certainly didn’t feel that way.

The shout was practically instantaneous, “TRAVIS?!” 

“I would’ve thought you’d be excited.”

“I-… I-… T-Travis, a-are… Are you real…?”

“As real as they come. Pinch yourself if you don’t believe me.”

“I… W-we thought y-you were d-dead!”

“So, it seems, did everyone else.”

“P-please… C-come in!”

I didn’t come for idle chit-chat, I came for answers. And yet, once I had returned myself to the house I was raised in, the nostalgia of it all clashed with reality, and halted me dead in my tracks. Before I would leave the house for the final time, one or both of my parents would be dead. That realization hit me harder than it had any right to.

“C-Cynthia! Get in here! Quick! O-our son! H-he’s here! He’s r-returned to us!”

“No need to make a big deal out of it.”
“‘Big deal’?! Travis, we’re ecstatic! W-we thought you were gone! A-Ava saw you die!”

“Ava is… Not as diligent as she looks.”

“I guess not!”

It wasn’t long after that my mother joined us in the living room. What followed next was an exceedingly long group hug that I reluctantly participated in, my eyes held tightly shut in some attempt to escape from the scenario.

“Tell us everything!” My mother demanded. “What happened after, what you’ve been doing, where you lived, everything!”

“I’ll have plenty of time for answers later,” I responded. “For now, I’ve come only with questions.”

“Ask whatever you’d like!” My father indulged, sitting me down on the couch and taking a seat directly next to me. My mother sat on the other side, effectively boxing me in their little trap.

“…Avalonia.”

“What about her?”

“Have you spoken to her at all? Since the incident?”

“On, yes, plenty!” My mother beamed. “She comes by every once in a while! I’m sure you’ve told her, right?”

“…”

“Wha-, Travis? You haven’t?! You have to talk to the poor girl, sweetie! She’s been so sad, I’m sure she would love to have you back in her life!”

“…Did she tell you that she left me to die? That she didn’t even hesitate before abandoning me at the moment that it mattered most?”

“W-well… N-not in so many words, b-but… I-it’s over now! You’re back! Everything is going to go back to normal!”

“Normal?” I snapped up from my seat on the couch, looking at my startled parents still on the couch. “You think anything is ever going to be ‘normal’ again after what happened?!”

“N-no! Travis, we just want-” My mother stopped mid-sentence, interrupted by an instinctual gasp. I didn’t even fully comprehend that I was holding the dagger in my hand, but once I had drawn it, there was no going back. 

“T-Travis, is that…? Are you…? W-why…?”

When I shifted my hair color right in front of the couple, I lost any hope of deniability. I was the Auburn Demon. And there was nothing that could change that. No one that would be safe from my scrutiny.

Afraid to turn around and see the looks on their faces, I kept my back to my parents, and choked out, “…You’ve not changed a bit. Either of you. I wish it didn’t have to come to this, I really do, but…”

I held my blade up high, making sure they got a good long look at it. “You need a motivator…”

Tears were streaming down my face, but it’d be a cold day in hell before I let that show. I couldn’t believe myself, the mighty Auburn Demon… Crying like a baby! It was unacceptable… I was still a human at heart, meaning I was still weak… Still prone to that same goddamn sympathy that struck me down.

I locked eyes with my target for a brief moment, before the knife pierced its way through…

I watched my father die that day. I watched as the life drained out of his face. The last action he ever took was outputting a single word with his dying breath: “…Travis…”

…Why was I still crying? I had done it… He was gone… I had won. My mother would live such a better life separated from him, and I would live knowing that my mission was a success, but… Seeing the man who raised me, reduced to a soulless husk… The feeling was irrepressible. I allowed it to get the better of me.

I didn’t stick around for my mother’s closing thoughts. I didn’t even give her the satisfaction of seeing my face for the last time before I sprinted out the door, down the sidewalk, and mobilized my wings. I flew away from it all, not turning back for a single second. The memory of what I had done lingered for longer than my other victims. My father had never hurt a soul.  He loved my mother, and he loved me. That was his only sin.

…But it was still enough to justify his death…! Those that wasted their lives didn’t get to keep on living…

That was what I told myself. Over and over and over again, until finally, I remembered that it was true.

 

AVALONIA

DECEMBER 27

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. Despite having both feet safely planted on the flat ground, my stomach churned with what I’d always assumed was a slight fear of heights. Being out there, looking up into the vast sky and getting simple instructions on how to fly, was enough to prove me wrong.

Trying to swallow my nerves, I let Tockman lead me further into the field he’d driven me to, his back staying faced toward me. He kept going on about being completely calm when I started and maintaining that composure where I was up there or I’d fall and risk hurting myself. He really wasn’t helping.

“Understood?” he asked once he was done, finally turning to face me. Of course, I hadn’t been paying much attention, but I already knew what I had to do, anyway.

My eyes closed as a sort of response, my head bowing so I could concentrate on my emotions. I’d gotten a lot better at this since I started all those months ago. Even though I was so emotionless after the incident, keeping myself in check was hard to do… Somehow? I must’ve gotten softer after meeting the others.

If I thought of any of that while I was up there, I could die. That might’ve seemed like the easy way out, but fathoming how many innocents would lose their lives from that hurt the most.

I took a deep breath. In, out… In, out…

"You have five minutes to start flying before I take you to a skyscraper and we do this the old-fashioned way."

Tockman’s comment barely registered as a pair of feathery, bright orange wings sprouted from my shoulder blades, flapping once as if to prove their worth. I popped my eyes open to look at him, my expression blank. “Didn’t know you wanted me dead that badly.”

If I was completely honest, even I wasn’t sure if I was joking or not, but I walked further still into the field anyway. If Tockman was gonna be so impatient, then I’d figure out how to work these damn things myself, even if I knew my life depended on him.

“Remember, Avalonia: you must keep yourself calm. Focus on nothing but the movement of your wings,” he reminded me, as if he hadn’t just rattled off the same thing to me a bunch of times. Something about the silent car ride over and the sudden barrage of information rubbed me the wrong way, but I physically couldn’t worry about it.

With a simple hum in response, I closed my eyes again, my chin rising up this time to point at the sky. Sure, I’d summoned the wings plenty of times before, but never had I ever succeeded in actually using them, spare for floating an inch or two off the ground every now and then. Tockman’s lab wasn’t a very open place, and you can’t get much more open than a field.

The gentle breeze on my face helped me clear my mind. Every so often, my wings twitched, as if in anticipation. I heard something move behind me but chose to ignore it. Tockman must’ve been flipping to a clean page in a notepad or something.

Slowly but surely, the wings began to open more, eventually flapping once or twice. The next time I heard something behind me, I turned around.

Tockman was scribbling in his notepad and I took a look at myself to ensure his reason why. Sure enough, I had been lifted off the ground—apparently not enough for me to notice. “Well, there we go,” I half-joked, flapping my wings again and moving further from the ground.

As I moved away from everything, a smile began to grow on my face. It was genuine. It was actually real, more real than any I’d put on in a while. After all the tests, all the trial and error, it finally felt like we were getting somewhere.

Of course, this made me excited. It made me fall back to the ground and lose my balance, dematerializing my wings in the process.

“Well, that wasn’t bad. Perhaps you’re not as determined of a soul compared to Travis, but you’re getting there.”

Much of the time spent in that field was taken up by similar events. I made the wings, got them flapping, lifted myself into the air, and eventually made my way back to the ground. Tips and pointers were called out to me every so often, and I followed them all to the best of my ability. When I was eventually able to get up to about three times my own height, the fear came back.

Tockman looked almost too small. He was suddenly too far away. I felt too vulnerable. The wings froze up along with the rest of my body, and I fell with quite the lack of grace. Thankfully, I was able to stick the landing… Somehow.

“Excellent. That’s enough for today. I have more work to do at the lab. Come on.” He turned around, heading back to the car…

…And making me take off once again.

“I wanna try something,” I told him, my attention now on his car. It wasn’t anything special, but I still would’ve felt bad if I damaged it. The risk was worth it to me, though.

Back at three times my height, I started moving forward, following Tockman’s own path. He must’ve either not heard me or didn’t care about what I said, but either way, he quickly learned my plan.

I hovered above the car’s hood, slowly lowering myself down onto it in an attempt to land. My foot slipped slightly, making me stumble out of the sky, but I managed to stay on top nonetheless.

If I wasn’t mistaken, Tockman seemed almost… Impressed with it. 

“You’re more in control than I thought,” he admitted, almost incredulously as he slid into the driver’s seat.

I used both the hood of the car and my wings to slide back to the ground. They dematerialized partly through thanks to my nerves, but at least that landing was smooth. Claiming shotgun, I glanced over to him. “That’s a compliment, right? Thank you. It actually means a lot.”

That wasn’t a lie, either. Tockman wasn’t usually the kind of guy to be anything but cynical, so hearing something nice from him honestly felt… Well, nice. I actually smiled through his explanations for our next tests on the ride back to his shop.

 

Guess I really was getting the hang of things.

 

TOCKMAN

DECEMBER 27

“In 1783, Josef-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier built a balloon out of silk and paper, before raising it thousands of feet into the air for all to see.”

“In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright saw their seven year long venture finally pay off, as their flying machine took off from the sandy shores of North Carolina.”

“In 1969, Wernher Von Braun’s rocket, along with three of the most capable men to walk this Earth, landed on the surface of the moon, propelling mankind to a brand new frontier.”

“Today, Dr. Timothy Tockman successfully deployed the very first winged human being into the clouds, negating the need for flying machines at all. This is extraordinary, Ava! They’ll parade you around the entire world!”

“Tockman, please… Can you not treat me like a show dog for five minutes?”

“Do you doubt the importance of this moment?”

“No, no, of course not, but I didn’t do this to be put in a circus!”

“You won’t be put in a circus if people know what’s best for them. You’d most likely be put in a lab.”

“That’s even worse!”

“Ava, you need to think about the bigger picture.”

“The only picture I care about is the Auburn Demon! We can’t just call the news stations and let it fly away!”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because it’ll kill people, doctor!”

“Fine, fine, fine… We’ll kill your demon first.”

This demon was throwing a huge monkey wrench into everything I held close. Since Ava had arrived, I had gained an amazing opportunity to further our understanding of the entire universe, and yet, the very key that could unlock that path was the same exact key that locked a chain around my foot.

The idea of confronting the Auburn Demon sent a shiver down my spine. Travis could absolutely destroy Ava. She seemed to break down at the mere mention of his name, and now she had the absolutely insane thought of confronting him face to face. This creature which could end any human life in the blink of an eye? Absolutely not.

I couldn’t bear to lose that opportunity. Unfortunately, if I refused to let Ava go off and get herself killed, she would flip me off and go anyway. Well, looks like anything that actually mattered was going to have to wait until Travis is dealt with. I had spent the past month or so training Ava to fly, to summon weapons, and more recently, even some basic fencing.

…Wow, I can’t believe I threw myself under Ava’s thumb just like that. Nobody said that success was easy. Sacrifices were almost mandatory, and I’d give up everything to just strap her to a machine without anybody throwing a hissy fit. Fighting a demon was complicated work, and unfortunately, it couldn’t be solved with a calculator. Luckily, I had trained with a blade as well.

I didn’t fence for long, only as a way of self-defense in case I would ever need it. You see, the kid who liked clocks typically wouldn’t be the popular type. I still kept a few swords at the shop for sentimental reasons, though Penny quite annoyingly took a liking to them. Her brain placed “This’ll be fun!” at the front of the pack instead of anything that made a lick of sense. How about “Don’t break these important blades?”

I kept three of them tucked away, hidden in a grandfather clock’s compartment. The largest of which was a battle-ready spear, joined by a shorter sword, and a much smaller dagger. Not one of them had ever seen an actual fight outside of training, and for good reason. The hands of a clock are not to be removed from their casing, for that would defeat the entire purpose of having them at all. 

Penny and I took turns sparring with Ava. She was starting to get the hang of it, but was still not able to hold a candle to either of us, and I doubted that the much more sadistic Travis would fall to her either. The powers required extreme focus to display and master, and focus was something that Ava just did not have, but something that Travis most certainly would.

We had been at it for a while, and Ava had just barely calmed down enough to get a few feet off the ground. Travis had a months-long headstart, had god knows how long to practice without impediments. I didn’t think Ava had it in her to take him on, and I don’t think she had enough confidence to prove me wrong, either. It didn’t help that her general mindset seemed to be much weaker than the demon’s. Whether she just actually thought she had a chance or if this was just some form of overcomplicated suicide…

“Hey, Tockman…?”

“Hm?”

“I… I was just wondering. Do you… Have, like… A girlfriend, or something?”

I had to do a double-take to make sure I had heard that right, and it almost stopped the car dead in its tracks.

“Why on Earth would you ask something like that?”

“I just… Nevermind, nevermind.”

“No, I want to know.”

“Well, I…”

She hung her head in shame.

“I just wanted to know if you could understand what I was going through…”

“Well, I can’t. Even if I could, the demon would’ve struck one of us down by now. Pointless.”

“So… You’ve never been in love?”

“And I absolutely do not want to be. They’d just drag me down.”

“Tockman… What happened to you?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I… I mean no disrespect, you’re a brilliant man. But it must’ve taken something huge to shake you up like this…”

“That is nothing that will concern you. I’m only keeping you around out of the goodness of my heart, and the next time you start prodding into my personal life with a jackhammer, I’m throwing you out on the concrete. We’ll see how good you fare against your angry ex-boyfriend then.”

“…”

She didn’t speak another word for the rest of the ride back to the clock shop. Once we got out of the car, she didn’t even look at me in the eyes as she returned to her own vehicle. Well, I cut deep enough to shut her up, but whether I penetrated her skin, only time will tell. She’d come back in due time.

I hoped…

 

PENNY

DECEMBER 29

Zinovi’s alarm went off, much to both of our dismays. We had managed to spend the day together without anything happening the day before and I had slept over at his apartment. He had his arms around me as we slept, and I was hugging one of his arms to my chest. I was curled up in a little ball with him snuggled around me. For someone who not only loved cuddling but loved warmth, it was perfect…

Until the alarm went off, that is. Zinovi groaned and sighed, moving to sit up. He didn’t move much, though—I still had his arm. “…Babe, I need my arm…”

“Nnnnnno.”

“…Babe, I need it to go to work.”

“You have another one.”

“I need two to make video games.”

“You have ten toes to work with, too!”

He stared at me, still half-asleep obviously, and blinked. His lazy expression soon turned into a playful smirk.

“While I would love to stay in the embrace of the most beautiful woman in the world…” I blushed and giggled at his words. “…I need both arms so I can go work and come back to please my lady another night.” I bit my lip and giggled some more, finally giving in and letting go. “Get dressed, you dork!” He grinned and pecked me on the cheek before getting out of bed and going to get dressed.

I followed suit, picking up around the room as I went. Once I was dressed and had fed the cats, I made the bed and cooked us breakfast. We decided to keep the news off so we could enjoy each other’s company a bit more. I was focused on the man I wanted to marry, not any stupid love-hating demon. We helped each other with the dishes before I adjusted his collar and such, handing him his jacket. “Go make something amazing, hun.”

He smiled down at me. “I will. I love you.”

“Love you, too.” We shared a sweet kiss, Zinovi waving goodbye with an “I’ll call you on break!” I watched him go and sighed, smiling. I made sure the cats would be fine until Zizi got home later before grabbing my things, scooping Cine up, and heading out the door. 

Putting my bag on my shoulder, my jacket and scarf on, and putting Cine’s harness around his torso, we started the walk to Doc’s shop. We took walks of roughly the same length at the same time every day in-between the time I set aside for my writing. Sometimes people would give me a weird look when I went on walks with my cat, especially during the winter, but there wasn’t any snow or ice on the ground today and it wasn’t too cold for his widdle kitty paws! I’d like to think there were weirder things going on nowadays, anyway. Besides, despite his growth spurt, Cine still had tons of kitten energy, and the walks helped keep both of us calm and in shape.

I wondered if Ava had much luck with her powers… Doc was working with her a lot recently. Part of me hoped that he found a friend in Ava too, but he’s probably just obsessed with her cause’ he can use her to be famous… I sighed and pressed the crosswalk button, waiting to cross. Cine sat and licked a paw, cleaning his face as he waited. I smiled at him. He had become quite the handsome little devil since I adopted him. And Doc said he was just a mangy stray…!

When the crosswalk turned, I hummed as I made my way across the street and towards the alley where Doc’s shop lay. I saw Ava’s figure in the window as I got closer and I beamed. I hadn’t seen her in a few days. Doc met with her at different times then when I came in, apparently. Walking inside after scooping Cine up, I smiled at her. “Heya, Ava! How’ve ya been?”

The sight of not only me but my cat seemed to make her perk up a bit. She walked over and scratched behind Cine’s ears. “Eh, I’m ok…”

“Have you figured out how to fly yet?”
“Actually… Yeah. Kinda.”

I beamed and hugged her with my free arm. “That’s awesome! I’m so happy for you!” Ava blushed at the compliment. Doc came down to join us once he heard me. He was wary of Cine, but seeing as he had his harness this time and he was in my arms must have made him a bit less upset at him being in the shop. “…Penny. Right on cue. I need you to power something for me.” I nodded and looped the handle of the harness on a coat hook on the wall, putting Cine down. I gave him a water dish and some toys, letting Ava play with him as I went to help Doc. 

I was bringing Cine to the shop a lot more than I did when he was little. He was healthy and stable enough to go out after constant care from me and the vet after a while, and Ava asked me to pet him a few times once she met the little guy. He always managed to put a smile on her face. Animal therapy really worked wonders, ya know? I did as Doc asked, watching Ava play with Cine downstairs since the cables let me stand in the doorframe and look down the staircase. 

Doc seemed a bit surprised at the energy I gave this time. I wonder why…? The lights flickering in shades of blue only shocked him the first few times it happened. I mean, it’s not like my good mood made the energy stronger or something… Or did it? Well, whatever. Doc’s really the one to ask about that.

I spent the day at the shop with Ava, Doc, and Cine, switching between running the shop and powering machines. Ava was in a good mood, Doc wasn’t being snippy as he ran around like a psycho working with my inexplicable energy spikes, and I had spent the previous night with the best boyfriend a girl could ask for. Everything was just absolutely perfect for the first time in months! 

When we were all gathered together in the shop for lunch, my phone rang. 

“That’s Zizi! I gotta take this!” I beamed and zipped into the storage room, leaving the door to the small crowded room open so I could breathe. Ava and Doc remained unchanged at my announcement: Doc didn’t care to begin with and Ava was too busy having her sandwich and giggling at Cine, who was chasing after a laser light she was controlling. 

“Hey, babe. How’s your day?”

“It’s good, hun. Is the office busy?”

“A little. We’re starting to finalize some things for the latest project. Lots of running around and meetings and stuff.”
“That’s good that it’s getting done, though. Are you on time?”
“Early, actually. Which is good, because we started off being late.”

We kept talking for a good half-hour, short breaks every so often for either one of us to take a bite of our respective lunches. As I went to say something else, though, I heard a bang and some crashes on the other end. Followed by screaming. I frowned. “Zizi, is everything ok over there? What just happened?”

His breathing had picked up. He paused before answering. “I dunno… It was way louder than anything that I’ve ever heard around here…” I heard more screaming and crashes, along with scuffling, as if lots of people were booking it. Now I started to get really worried. “Zizi, what’s going on…?! Are you ok?!” 

“There’s—” He was cut off as the sound of glass shattering rang through the speaker, making me wince. “…There’s someone in the office…!”

“WHAT?!” Ava and Doc looked to me, Ava looking worried and Doc with an eyebrow raised. 

“…Penny… Are you ok…? 

I turned away from them, plugging my other ear. “Zinovi, if that place is dangerous, then get out of there!” I heard more sounds and my boyfriend’s heightened breathing. He sounded just as scared as I was. “…I gotta go. I love you, Penny.”
“What?! Nonono! Zizi, don’t—!” The call had already ended. I slowly put my hands down, trying to slow my breathing down. 

“Penny, what is going on? Why did you yell?” I turned and went to answer Doc before I stiffened as a thought occurred to me, all color disappearing from my face. 

There’s someone in the office.

It couldn’t possibly be… But my gut hadn’t been wrong before. Without a word and without thinking, I bolted out of the room and out of the shop without my jacket or the others, sprinting to Zinovi’s office. This couldn’t be happening… This couldn’t be happening… This couldn’t be happening…

Wiping away my tears as I ran, I used my emotions to fuel me as I forced myself to run faster and harder, just barely hearing Ava and Doc behind me yelling for me to slow down and stop as they evidently chased after me.

I had to be wrong…

If I was right… I didn’t know what I would do.