Shards of glass tumbled through the air, shattering upon impact on the broken tile of the floor. First, an echoing crash in the abandoned food court. Then, a shaky silence.
Diego turned to Max. He didn't know when he'd learned to read Max's feelings through all that fur, but his brother's anguish was scrawled across his whole body. His liquid eyes were staring at the skylight into the dark night beyond, through the hole where Malcolm had been taken by that thing. It had cackled as it rose from the ground, stealing Malcolm away into the night, a prisoner in his own body.
Diego had never been jealous of the attention Max paid Mal. Why would he be? Does a candle's light dim for shining out of two windows? Where had he heard that? Regardless, he knew his brother, he knew Max's heart was large enough for everyone in his life, except maybe for himself. And in this moment, Max was blaming himself for what that fucking thing had done. Castigating himself in that cavernous space he'd carved into his own heart, the space he reserved for himself, a special chamber he'd made where there was no mercy or forgiveness.
Max made a strangled sound. Diego watched his brother crumple, that awful tension leaking out of him as he dropped to his haunches. Diego rushed to his side, hands reaching to Max's shaggy shoulders.
"We'll get him, bro," Diego said. "Wherever he is, we'll find him, and we'll help Mal."
Max stared at Diego for a beat, his eyes empty and hopeless, searching Diego's face for answers. "How, Diego? How are we gonna get him back?"
The comforting words died on his lips. In that moment, Diego felt a matching helplessness. He'd always known he would defend Max to his own death, but how could he defend him from this? How could they find that thing? Even if they found it, how could they wrest it out of Mal without killing him in the process? And if they did, how could they defeat it? Could it even be killed? He had no answers. What the fuck were they going to do now? Diego met Max's eyes, struggling to keep fear out of his eyes.
Max, who'd been through so much. Max, who had nothing but kindness for this world, a world that seemed determined to tear into him and shred his heart. And now, it was attacking his brother. His fucking family.
Diego reached within himself, seeking answers -- and something whispered back.
Diego leaped back away from Max, eyes wide, staggering away from the others as they came together to comfort their friend, drawing a startled look from Mack.
What the fuck was that?
His breath came in shallow gulps, like he'd just run half a mile.
What the fuck?
Kneeling besides Mack, fingertips brushing her leg as she laid out the coupons on the floor, each inscribed with a runic geometry that made his head ache, Diego's thoughts weren't on his work.
There was a plan now (of sorts), a destination. But Max was still stalking around in the darkness of the food court, pacing back and forth, a picture of worry. And Diego wasn't by his side, he didn't know how to comfort him.
Maichiru huffed in frustration. "Diego, come on, help me, we have to get this done." She pointed at one of the coupons, inscribed with a glyph that didn't hurt his head quite so much. "Look, this one's declensions aren't in correspondence with its numina."
Diego shook his head, trying to center his thoughts on the here and now. This. He could do this to help his brother. Maybe. He squinted at the coupon. "Okay, yeah, I mean -- obviously. But, um... how do we declench its... nummies?"
Mack frowned at him, then giggled, then stifled it, all in rapid succession. "Fine, let's take a break." She found a bottle of water she'd scored from the fridge earlier, drank a couple of swallows, offered it to him. He made sure to draw his fingers across hers in a lingering, completely unnecessary touch, briefly grinning at the touch of a blush that spread across her cheeks.
As he took a swig, she poked him in the ribs, making him choke. He glared at her, sputtering. She glanced back, all cat-like innocence. He swallowed before coughing a couple more times. "Thanks a lot." Mack grinned, but it faded, a thoughtful look passing over her face.
"What was that, earlier? When you were first talking to Max and then you jumped away?" she asked.
Diego sighed. "Can't we pretend nothing happened and focus on Max?"
"I mean, yeah, you could," Mack said. "But I'm not going to." She leaned closer. "What happened, Diego? Talk to me."
Diego frowned. Mack was tenacious and never seemed content to let him handle his problems himself. Sometimes it felt nice that she had his back. Other times it could be stifling, intrusive. Right now, he wanted to focus on finding Mal and stopping that demon. But his thoughts drifted back to that feeling. He glanced at Mack, then sighed, defeated.
"I was watching Max, and he was so fucking sad," Diego said. "And then he looked at me, and I swear, it was like my heart broke." He looked down at his hands, fingers curled, wanting so badly to make fists but with nothing to punch. "And... it was like I -- I don't know, it was..." He squeezed his eyes shut, the delicate eggshell of his emotional control cracking.
Mack's fingers slid over his, twining with his own. He brushed his thumb over the calluses of her right hand, marveling at their shape, relaxing in the warmth of her trust.
The words came, stilted and halting. "It was like... I was looking down, like into myself, and... I dunno, like I asked a question? Something like 'what are we gonna do' -- wait, no, not that," he said, remembering. "It was 'what can I do'." He opened his eyes and looked at her, seeking comprehension. She stared back at him. "And I swear to fucking god, something answered."
Mack looked him in the eyes for a beat. "Diego --" she began, then stopped. Another beat. "What did it say?"
Diego drew in a shuddering breath, feeling that fear and hopelessness gnaw on his heart, remembering the gloating face of the demon as it catapulted through the skylight, remembering Max's expression as he tracked it. "It wasn't... words, exactly. It was like... like a sense, this deep sense, like it was inviting me to dive down and... pull something up." His words ground to a halt, mired in anger and hopelessness. None of this made sense. None of this helped his brother.
Only then did he look up and register her expression. "What? What are you staring at?"
Mack's face was neutral, her voice calm, a hunter's voice. "Your eyes."
Diego jerked his hand back, seeing the ready tension in her body, like she was preparing to... what, exactly? Mack's face remained neutral as she slowly, deliberately, reached into her nearby bag and produced her phone, her gaze never leaving his. She unlocked it with her finger, and her eyes flicked away for a moment, then back. She held the phone out to him, the camera app foremost. "See for yourself."
Diego's heartbeat quickened, and he took the phone, raising it to his face.
Each of his eyes was entirely white, a blank, glowing orb. Even as he stared, trickles of lightning played across their surfaces and squeezed past the outside edges and onto his temples before fizzling out.
Lowering the phone, he stared at Mack. She sat next to him, still, not coming closer but not moving away, ready to... to what? Catch him if he fell? Stop him? Stop him from doing what?
He stared at his now empty hands, the phone forgotten, almost seeing through them... to the jungle, always the jungle, the dark stone of the temple rising from the ground, the fetid air of its chambers, how could you do this to me? and what did I do to deserve this? and always the fear, every day, squeezing him, pressing him against an unyielding wall -- no, wait, an altar stone, rough and cold, already crumbling, cracking, a growing fissure... into a cavern, a cavern with a pool, and that encompassing, whispering voice, susurations in the moist air, a smell of ozone and flowers... whispering of life and death, or Suns past and present, of water... and of the lightning and thunder.
But I'm scared of this, he thought. I don't want this! Please!
But this is you, it answered. It always has been.
He looked at the crumpled coupon with its stubborn glyph. He reached out one hand and brushed it. The glyph righted before his eyes, one of its strokes nudging into place. It looked correct now, complete.
At that, something drained from him. He let out a breath. He glanced back at Mack.
The hunter was gone, in its place only concern. She searched his face, her gaze flicking back and forth between his eyes. "Diego?" she asked.
Inside of him, whatever he'd grasped didn't let go. The scent of marigolds floated on the air.
The car window slid into place.
The car window retreated downward.
The Mirror reached over and slapped his hand away from the controls. Or was it Mary?
He glared at her. No, it was definitely the Mirror. Of course. He rolled his eyes. Even Anubis couldn't make him feel like a kid as quickly as The Mirror could.
Leaving the window alone, Diego probed within himself again. His awareness of the night air, of Mack next to him, of Stellar's chatter with the Jacbos, of Max silent and dark, all clear, all present. But this new awareness was within him, some new space deep inside.
Mack was gazing at him, her expression neutral, her eyes flat. He nodded, squeezed her hand. She squeezed back, hard. An anchor, not letting go. Good.
He squinted into the wind spilling in from the open window, inhaling deeply. The night had been clear before, but clouds were rushing in. There was a smell of water out there.
It looked like rain.