94 Cancel Camouflage
The wave of nostalgia washes over Kara, and she's suddenly twelve years old again, teaming up with her best friend against a sea of monsters on a vintage console.
It hurts, remembering.
But for the first time in years, the pain is tempered by a welcome warmth, and she allows herself to enjoy the memories of another life.
'Why now?' she absently wonders.
Then her gaze locks onto gray eyes bright with mischief and joy, and she knows the answer lies with this boy, this stranger who feels like anything but.
He is haunted by shadows, but it's his light that haunts Kara.
Her own ghosts ride the curve of his confident smirk, the almond shape of his expressive eyes, that particular shade of gray—all features she's only ever seen on one other face.
Riding high on inspiration long buried, refusing to overthink it, she lets habit take over.
No Skill is so special it can't be cancelled. No Spell is so perfect it can't be abandoned halfway through its cast. The more the Kelpie rages in frustration, the higher she feels and the smoother she moves.
'Revel in their confusion. Soak up their despair. Sow Chaos, and strike.'
The words echo in her mind, blocking out all else.
She delivers on the mantra, and somehow, Erebus does as well. He's not simply keeping up; he is as much an active part of the chaos as Kara is herself.
And it's right at the edge of her grasp, the knowledge of who this human incarnation of chaos must be, but something (fear, guilt, anguish, pain) holds her back from making that final mental leap—
"Xiuying?" he chokes.
The name she's refused to acknowledge for over two years, even in her own mind, acts as a slingshot, flinging her headfirst off the safe cliff she'd hidden atop ever since that night.
The night when fire lit the sky crimson and blood soaked the ground black beneath a towering Space Needle.
Suddenly, there's not enough air, and there's no more noise or Boss or Dungeon, nothing but those piercing gray eyes.
"Eric," she gasps.
Anything else she might want to say is cut off then, by the Boss's final attack. Except she's not the one holding aggro anymore.
Gleaming teeth chomp down on Erebus'—Eric's—arm, and he's stock-still, agonized shock freezing even his glistening wings, and Kara's heart is in her throat.
Not his arm. Not again.
"No!" she thinks she screams, but her voice is choked by horror, a hoarse whisper at best.
Blood-streaked thorny vines whip the Kelpie before he can inflict any damage, and the Boss goes flying, exploding into a burst of blue fractals mid-air.
The Ass-Ass-In strikes again.
Arachne strikes again.
Yet another truth Kara hadn't wanted to believe settles upon her. It really is her.
Arachne is here.
Of course she is. This world is tailor-made for that remarkable woman.
Arachne is here, keeping Eric safe.
And Arachne will never trust Kara to do the same.
Kara can't keep anyone safe.
Notifications fill her vision, a tug in her navel signals teleportation, and then she's blinking at a bright, sunny sky outside the murky Bog. They've set a Dungeon record, one that will likely stand for years, but the run still took over three hours, so the sudden appearance of the Sun is blinding.
She's grateful for that. Yet another distraction she can use to her advantage.
Eric will be just as overwhelmed, will need time to regain his bearings before he can speak again. It gives her the precious seconds she needs to process and then cancel the feelings and words threatening to spill from her lips. Ruthlessly, she shoves the tumult of emotions crashing within her chest back, down into the deep recesses of her heart.
She doesn't deserve to feel them.
She doesn't deserve Eric.
"Is it possible? Xiuying?"
Eric still sounds halfway ready to pass out. She's out of time. She's not ready, but she never is.
Good thing lying comes easy as breathing.
The cheerful, unconcerned smile on her face might be the biggest lie she's ever told.
Cancel Camouflage at its finest.
"Should've realized it was you from the get-go. Haven't changed a bit, have you?" She pokes the forehead wrinkle of his surly frown, knowing the harsh expression is simply a mask for his anxiety and inner turmoil.
His skin is warm, and soft, and she immediately regrets the instinctive touch.
Distance. We need distance.
It's for his own good.
She pulls her hand back, hides the trembling fist behind her back. Her voice is light, gently teasing. "Just as cantankerous an old man as ever, huh?"
It's stunning, watching the confusion and trepidation coiled so tightly within his handsome frame suddenly snap and fade to nothingness, leaving him lighter and looser than she's seen him since the beta. Recognition brightens his entire face, and a genuine smile crowds out his usual smirk.
Eric Lieu is not the darkness.
Eric Lieu is light and joy and warmth.
Just like his sister.
...Just like his sister used to be.
Before Kara made a mistake, and Xiuying's light was snuffed out, and Eric's light was dimmed to almost nothingness.
"By the Gods, Carmen Rose!" Eric/Erebus shouts, overwhelmed by the surprise reunion. "I never thought I'd see you again!"
Strong arms encircle her, and Carmen/Kara allows herself this moment, pretending it's to keep up appearances, but really it's because she's weak. Always has been.
But no more.
She breathes in the spicy, warm scent of the man she knows now she could have loved, and promises herself, and Xiuying, and the universe itself, that she won't make the same mistake again.
She'll stay away from Eric Lieu.
She'll make sure his light never dims again.
Carmen Rose is the real darkness.