Her arms came tightly around me, still lying on the ground and numb with shock. I was still in the maze, still in my prison, worlds away from 'home'. Yet there was no mistaking her long-familiar scent of cinnamon, vanilla, lilacs and carnations, her raven black hair, her face, and her green eyes, brimming with tears when she pulled back to look at me.
"Valerie?" I whispered, hardly daring to believe it. "Josh?" I said, though I did not look. "Are any of you awake?"
I heard Chris answer, sounding neutral but taut. "How could we not be?"
"Then I'm not dreaming? Prove to me I'm not dreaming," I said. Valerie did it for me, pinching my arm and then feeling around at my belly, a few tears spilling forth as her fingers touched my face and then her lips followed.
"Oh my god!" she cried, falling onto me again. This time, I hugged her back, sitting up and clutching her to me. She was real. She was there, with me!
"Oh no..." I muttered, freezing. She is here. In this prison. I held her out, away from me, looking around. "How did you get here? You have to get out, go back!" I said loudly, ignoring the conversation I could barely hear behind me. The others were crawling quickly out the other side of the lean-to.
"I will," Val said, smiling through her tears and sniffling - red-faced. "But you are coming with me."
"But...how...?" I saw, then, and she pointed just to be sure.
Against the wall opposite the lean-to, parallel to it, in fact, was a shiny, metal elevator, somehow looking very in place blocking the entryway to the next corridor over.
And standing in the doorway of the elevator, holding what looked like a large crowbar against the doors, was a man standing in a strict business suit of black and white shades, brown hair neat, and eyes centered on me, half pulled by Valerie outside the shelter of the lean-to.
Daniel was there, in the elevator, and Valerie was there, at my side. I felt like my mind was trying to churn through honey or tar. I had accepted the demise of my maze quickly enough, because otherwise I wouldn't have survived. But when it came to accepting that my best friend, who had never met Daniel, was here with the man who had betrayed me into this hell... It was just so...so much more ... impossible.
"How?" I said to her, and then, more loudly with my own tears behind the words, "Why?"
I didn't know if Daniel could hear me, but he didn't move, and neither did his eyes. Jessica, Chris, and Josh were approaching him cautiously, each holding something that could amount to a weapon if the need arose. I saw their mouths moving, but couldn't hear their own conversation over my pathetic sobs.
"Here, here," Valerie said, rubbing my back smoothly as I leaned my head into her neck. As I stayed there, she explained the answers to me. "I worried about you the moment you were late. You are never late, not unless it is someone else's fault. I waited it out, though, calling you a gazillion times and getting the message that the call could not be completed as dialed. It was … really, really weird. When you didn't show up at all that night, and... and didn't call either, I knew something was up. I came in the next morning. The person in the lobby said you had filed for vacation, but I knew that wasn't true, so... so I told him that you had wanted me to pick up something from your office. The fool believed it." I saw Val roll her eyes as I pulled my head back, sniffing and wiping my eyes on the backs of my hands, still dazed by the events. "When I came up, the others gave me the same story, but your secretary didn't look so convinced of what she was telling me anyway."
"Sravya," I said, nodding, and thankful that she had at least the intelligence and apparently the loyalty or innocence in this portal matter.
"Well, I told her what I told the man at the lobby on the first floor, and she got an intern to take me to your desk. Ahk-something... and he had that same look that Sravya had - that they didn't quite believe that you'd simply left on vacation. I told him that I was surprised, and when he agreed, I asked if there may have been anything to prompt it. He said I should talk to someone else, and then took me to see Daniel."
Ah. I was still sniffling, but I took her hand as she got me into a standing position, outside of the lean-to.
"Well, he … he asked me who I was, Ahk-man left, and when he seemed like he could nearly trust me, he told me... all of this... this crazy stuff about... about-"
"Yeah," I said. "It's true. The elevator, the thirteenth floor, the weird places - an estate, a primitive sea village, and... well..."
"This," Valerie said, still holding my hand but looking around with an awed expression on her face. "He didn't know, Liz," she said, then, taking my face softly in her hand and looking at me. "He told me that one of the upper levels had asked to meet him first thing in the morning. Apparently, the guy asked him a lot of questions about the elevator and the thirteenth story, like whether anything strange had happened and such, and when Daniel wouldn't tell, the man actually seemed... pleased. He complimented Daniel for some things and some other bullshit."
Daniel... he... he ...hadn't told. Daniel had not betrayed me. I walked with her back to Daniel, like a person in a dream, to the lift, where Jessica stopped speaking with Chris and Josh and my colleague to look at me, a strange look of ...compassion? Empathy? I wasn't sure, but I was just looking into the gray eyes of Daniel, where I saw ...so many things.
"You didn't... you didn't tell them?" I asked, unaware that one of my hands was reaching out to his arm. He didn't say it at first, just shook his head, swallowing obviously. His eyes seemed to be latched onto mine, refusing to let go, and my hand did find his arm, holding onto it tightly.
"No, I didn't tell them," Daniel answered, finding his voice at last, and I hardly cared or noticed as his hand came to to my waist, reaching around my back and clutching me to him. It wasn't quite the same as when Valerie had done it - Valerie, whom I had known and loved and whom had known and loved me for just as long. But it was the embrace of someone who ...was relieved, compassionate, and perhaps even a tad remorseful. "I'm sorry... It was what put you in here, and I would have come sooner, but I-"
I stopped his speech with a kiss, pulling his face down to mine softly as I released his arm, one hand still laced with Valerie's. I wouldn't let my saviors go.
It surprised him, to say the least. It was pretty chaste and gentle, but his lips moved with mine nonetheless. It was also short, and our eyes locked just after, an unspoken message between them.
"How romantic," Chris said, and I saw that he was fingering a pin stick nervously. "Now can we please get out of here?"
The thought of actually being able to escape this prison was... inconceivable, and yet, there it was. Present. Existing. Just as impossible as what had brought us here, and yet clearly possible. I was still half-convinced that the ground would turn into cotton candy and my mother would appear, berating me for my appearance and other strange, dream-like events.
"Do you need to get anything?" Valerie asked us. I snapped into logic, looking back toward the lean-to.
"Just my purse, and my boots," I said. I was as barefoot as I had been since the first night.
Then I saw Josh, looking at the home corridor with what looked like longing. "Josh?" I said, approaching him as I began to walk back for a bit. Daniel remained faithfully in the elevator, crowbar poised in order to prop the doors open if need be.
"It's just... just I've been here so long, ya know" he said, looking truly old in that moment, quite unlike his vibrant nature. "I kinda think I belong more in this world than the other one. Part of me... just... really doesn't want to leave. No. Come on. Get your things, Liz."
I stared at him, searching his eyes and seeing something there that frightened me a little. I thought about it as I walked quickly back to the lean-to, grabbing hold of my purse and slipping on my boots, which felt awkward on the soles of my feet. Jessica had walked silently beside me, as had Chris, but as they looked around, I don't think that they saw anything worthwhile to grab. When I returned to the elevator with them, Josh still had that look in his eyes.
It was the wild look of a lion, reluctant to be caged, to leave his territory. That spark took away the years of age embedded in the wrinkles of his face, to my eyes.
"You aren't coming back with us, are you?" I said, and could see Chris's expression flicker. His thoughts were probably a sarcastic, For once, she catches on.
Then Josh's expression was milder, more like a father than an animal. "There is no longer anything for me, I think, in that world. Home is where the heart is, and all. Everything there has changed - I know it. I don't want to try surviving in another place, not now that I've survived so long here. This is my home."
I could have cried, but I knew Josh was right and the tears were already pumped out of me after seeing Valerie. The world had most definitely changed for me, and I would bring my strength back to the other world. As much as I had grown in this place, it was not my home. I looked at Valerie, and she shared an expression with me. Let's go.
"All right," I said, looking at Josh and hugging him. He held me close for a moment, smelling like dirt and sweat, and then released as if I would be seeing him again soon, though I knew that I probably would not. And, since he was in this place, also hoped not.
"Josh..." I heard Chris say thickly, and he and the old man embraced, both stiff with emotions, though Jessica cried freely. When she took Chris' place in the embrace, I saw a shine at the edge of the younger man's eyes as well. The three exchanged words, holding hands or squeezing shoulders, patting cheeks, hair. They were a family that was separating, but it needed to happen. I didn't think Jessica or Chris belonged here yet either, no matter that they were better at surviving it than I.
"Take care old man," I heard Chris say, and I repeated the first half after him, the whole thing still seeming like just one long, wild dream. Just a week or so ago I had been a normal citizen, walking, working in the modern, real, civilized world. Then, in a blur of events, I was about to reenter my world, after this prison, this maze. I stepped into the elevator, next to Daniel (his eyes were like a hawk's over me and the surroundings – he knew the temperment of the elevator), turning to face outside as Valerie stayed beside me. Then Chris came in. Then Jessica. Over the threshold, into the elevator.
Days for me, years for them...
We were going back to the thirteenth story.
Back to Infinity Inc.