sholio: Highlander quote: "What were you thinking?" "I wasn't thinking, I was IMPROVISING." (Highlander-wasn't thinking)
Sholio ([personal profile] sholio) wrote2011-04-21 12:28 pm

Highlander remix fic: Things Fall Apart

I finally got around to writing something for [community profile] remix_goes_wild! (List of authors offering fic to remix is here - including me; prompt list is here.)

Title: Things Fall Apart (The Center Cannot Hold Remix)
Fandom: Highlander
Pairing: gen
Rating: R
Word Count: 2300
Contains: one scene of graphic violence; references to canon sexual assault
Original Story: Sands of Time by [ profile] keerawa
Primary Prompt: 8 (remix a drabble into a longer story)
Summary: The millennium is upon them, and Cassandra's in the fight of her life ... again. Takes place between seasons five and six.
Also crossposted to AO3.

It begins with a dream, as things often do.

Or perhaps it began a millennium ago. Two. Three.

Things fall apart. The world moves on. She moves on. But not far enough.

It begins and ends with a dream.


Cassandra stands on a field of bones. She's been here before, too many times. She can feel the hard, awkward, and all-too-familiar shapes under her bare feet, rolling and cracking when she shifts her weight. Though she knows it's superstitious, she does not want to take a step -- doesn't want to feel the remains of long-dead men and women shatter beneath her soles. It seems disrespectful to them.

Evil stands before her, wearing a familiar skin -- a painted skin. "Hello, little witch," Death says through lips that are painted half blue. The eyes, however, are red; they are not Methos's eyes.

"Hello, old one," she answers calmly. To show fear to the Horsemen is to die.

Death bends and picks up a skull with long, graceful fingers. His fingers. Hooking his knuckles obscenely through its eye sockets, he holds it up for her inspection. "Was this a friend of yours, Cassandra? Perhaps a lover?"

"The person who once inhabited those bones no longer lives there," Cassandra says quietly. "You hold clay and dust in your hand, nothing more."

"Dust it is, then." Methos's long fingers flex and twist, and the fragile, ancient skull shatters to powder. She schools herself not to flinch. Clay and dust.

He drops the fragments with casual indifference; they scatter on the bonefield with a series of tiny clicks, like the sound that wind-driven sand once made against the skin walls of her tent, many years ago. "All these bones, young Cassandra. So many dead friends, dead lovers. Do you remember that little orphan child you adopted, among the Iceni? What was his name?"

"Aethri," she whispers.

"You held him as an infant and you held his knotted hand as he died an old man -- old at fifty, of course, in those days. What was the time between those moments, Cassandra? A lifetime for a mortal. An eyeblink for you." Death steps closer. Bones crunch under his feet, and she can feel each fracture, a popping and crackling under her skin. "Your long, long life will always be paved with the bones of those you love." He smiles. "Such is the nature of creatures like us."

"I am nothing like you," she tells him, and she is not sure if she's speaking to the ancient evil or the skin it wears. Perhaps both. "I defeated you once. I can do so again."

Another step, and he is almost near enough to touch her. She does not draw back. To show fear to the Horsemen is to die. "Ah, but you were young then, little witch, and strong, with many friends around you. Now your friends are all dust, and you are old, tired and alone. Your Champion is driven into exile. You are an old woman, feeble and bereft."

She forces herself to smile, the fierce grin of a desert warrior. "You are wrong, ancient one. I have grown strong and secure in my power, while you withered in the empty halls of a desert tomb, abandoned by your worshippers. This place is not my prison, Ahriman. It is yours, the one where I and my friends locked you all those years ago."

The use of its name is deliberate, an insult. To name a thing is to bind it. She was one of those who first learned its true name, who brought that name into the world and, with it, bound a great deal of Ahriman's power, giving others the tools to bind it further still.

Ahriman leans closer, until its long hair brushes her shoulder, and she can feel its warm breath on her cheek. "Cassandra," it whispers. She knows its name, but it also knows hers. Fear and loathing and hate swamp her, but the worst betrayal of all is the molten desire curling in the pit of her belly.

And the demon knows this. Knows her. They have come to know each other too well, Ahriman and herself, throughout their long dance. This scene has played out too many times. When she wakes -- if she wakes -- she is not sure whether she will wake to walls of clay brick in the desert, to a thatch-roofed hut in a forest village, to the frame and plaster construction of a twentieth-century house. Sometimes it seems that the entire world is this field of bones, this war against evil that she never seems to win.

Ahriman's lips brush her cheek and, as she feels her body respond to it against her will, she tries not to wonder who she might be if she had not had that cruel awakening, born into her new Immortal life in blood and pain and cruelty. Maybe in another lifetime, her first death might have come from disease, from drowning in the river, from a bad piece of meat or an infected cut. She might have woken again in the arms of people who loved her. She might have been revered as god-touched, a healer, a miracle reborn.

Instead she was torn from her warm, safe life, to be forged into a new shape in a crucible of violence and abuse. She was murdered again and again, until the absence of pain felt like love to her, and she hung on the every whim of her cruel, capricious god.

All the humans she has ever met, Immortal or not, for all their infinite malleability, are products of the cultures and experiences that shaped them. She can hate it or accept it, but she knows that the abuse is part of her, and the things it has bred in her soul -- the damage and the strength -- are part of her too.

She reaches out her hands and places them on his face -- on its face, feeling the high planes of its borrowed cheekbones under her palms: one side slightly gritty with the dust of the desert, the other greasy with paint. The corners of Ahriman's mouth twitch in a tiny smile that cuts through her like a blade; it is his smile, then as much as now.

She leans forward as if to yield, to kiss him --

-- and twists, instead, digging her thumbs hard and fast into his eye sockets, using her weight and all the strength of desperation to drive him to his knees on the field of bones. He screams and fights her as blood runs down his face. The edges of his shape are blurred, unclear; it's like wrestling with water. Sometimes he looks like Methos, and sometimes he is something else entirely.

"I bound you once, Ahriman. Ahriman. Ahriman. By your name and your blood I bind you again."

And again.

And again.


She wakes on the floor. She hurts down to the ends of her hair, and her mouth is dry as sand. For long moments she breathes, putting herself back together, from the tips of her fingers to the ends of her toes -- she makes herself feel everything: every ache in her cramped limbs, every stabbing pain in her hunger-shrunken belly. It is the only way she knows where she is -- or thinks she knows where she is; she's no longer as certain as she once was.

She has no idea how many times she has died, of late. Once, death itself would have awakened her -- or rather, the shock of returning to life. Now, it may or it may not. She runs her tongue across her gummy lips, and guesses that she's died of dehydration at least once or twice since the last time she woke.

But it is her choice now. Always, always her choice.

Slowly she drags herself upright, struggles to the sink and turns the water on. She gulps it by the handful until she has slaked her thirst enough to relax, gasping, supporting herself on the edge of the counter until she is strong enough to stand unaided.

Slowly she begins to register things other than the width and breadth of her own body. Sunlight through the kitchen window makes a warm patch on her skin. She becomes aware of the stink of spoiled food; washing dishes is not exactly something that's high on her list of priorities these days. This reminds her that she needs to eat, but first, she checks instinctively to be sure that her sword is close at hand -- and it is, leaning against the side of the refrigerator where two quick steps from any part of the small kitchen can bring it to hand. The Game goes on, that almost religious calling of the younger Immortals, even though she is engaged in a much different and older game. Cassandra could tell those children that she remembers a time before the Game, that there is no Prize awaiting them at the end, but she doubts they would believe her. Perhaps there is no one still alive in the world who remembers that life existed before the Game except for herself and Methos.

Another thread binding them, that she wishes she could cut.

Despite her awakening hunger, she goes through a simple regimen of stretches, getting the blood flowing back into her cramped limbs. Then she goes looking for something that hasn't spoiled. Campbell's soup it is, eaten from the can -- salt and calories -- while she sits in her doorway and watches the sun set beyond the high ramparts of the mountains. This is not her beloved cottage in the Highlands, but it's another such retreat -- a small house on twenty acres in Wyoming. She's paid up the utilities for the next five years. Her mail, any she might get, is delivered to a post office box in the nearest town. It's pretty and serene and private, a good place for the latest battle in an endless war.

She leans against the doorframe, drowsing, but not allowing herself to sleep yet. It's in dreams that Ahriman reaches out to her, and she is not yet strong enough to go another round or ten with him. She wonders where Duncan is, her Solstice child -- Champion and betrayer and lover and friend. Then she wonders how much time has elapsed since she last saw him on that terrible day in Bordeaux. She's had other things on her mind besides keeping track of days -- guarding herself from Ahriman, keeping him busy and as constrained as possible given his current position of advantage. Perhaps it's been a month; perhaps ten years. Perhaps, while she's winning one small battle at a time, the war has already been lost.

It's all she can do, though. Ahriman is right in some ways. She helped to defeat and bind the demon once before, two thousand years ago, but she had strong friends, and many were lost in that battle. She cannot win alone. And the Champion is just a man, a boy really, only four hundred years of accumulated knowledge and strength. The last time they saw each other, he hurt her more deeply than he will ever know. Which is not to say that she doesn't understand why he chose the side he did. Perhaps, in time -- if the gods grant them time -- she thinks she can forgive it. For he has suffered too, and, she knows, suffers now.

We are both wounded animals, Duncan MacLeod, she thinks, licking the last of the soup from the plastic spoon. Wounded animals, harried by our enemies, gone to ground.

She wonders where he is now. His dreams are closed to her. There is another she might seek, another whose dreams were once more open to her than even he knew -- dreams in which she sometimes found herself reflected. But she will not ask him for help. Not yet. Not unless there is no other way.

She closes the door and locks it. She washes the dishes and takes a shower -- the water is cold, but it feels good to be clean. The world is clear and sharp. She is not entirely sure of the year, but she feels very here, very present in this place and time. She makes a pot of coffee, carefully turning off the machine -- she never knows how long she'll be out when Ahriman gets his claws into her, and it wouldn't do to burn down the house by mistake, and wake in the smoldering ruins. She takes a steaming cup and her sword into the little bedroom off the kitchen, places the sword in easy reach and the half-empty cup on the bedside table. In a clean robe, she stretches out and finally stops fighting her exhaustion, her body's cry for sleep. Of course, there is no peaceful sleep for her, not at the turn of a new millennium. But these are hard times.

As all times are.

She closes her eyes and allows herself to see some of the beloved faces that she's known and lost, reaching out over the years to gather them close to her heart. Beautiful Octavia in Rome. Clever Dakhras in the Caucasus Mountains. Aethri and Thomas and May-Ling and Hakon and Lydia and Darius and Rhea and Duncan ...

And perhaps a desert horseman that she loved once and hated always.

Wherever you are, Duncan MacLeod, Champion, we need you. I can only buy you time. The victory, in the end, must be yours.

She draws her tattered strength about her like a cloak -- the hard-fought, hard-won strength of the ages, the things she's survived and the things she's done and the things she will do; the people she's loved and the people who have loved her. And she falls back into the maelstrom, and lets the dream swallow her whole.


Notes: The original drabble is, let's say, a radically different take on Cassandra than my own. But when I went looking for something to remix, I found it interesting to take this vastly different version of Cassandra and find a way to make it work with the character as I know her. What could possibly be enough to unbalance a woman who retained not just her sanity but her spirit, her fire, and her sense of self through rape, torture and brainwashing, and even through being imprisoned once again by the people who raped and tortured her the first time? The solution that occurred to me could also explain why Ahriman seemed so defanged in season six, if he had problems elsewhere as well.
scrollgirl: lady rebecca (hl girls)

[personal profile] scrollgirl 2011-04-21 09:25 pm (UTC)(link)
HELL YEAH CASSANDRA. Excuse my language. THIS. This is exactly what happened to Cassandra, and to Ahriman. Thank you so much for writing this.

And wow, that's some fantastic writing there. What an image: a field of bones, brittle and snapping and clay and dust. Of course Ahriman would come to her as Death. There's a palpable sense of sick-wrong-evil as she confronts him and feels an unwilling attraction. And maybe I'm just a bloodthirsty reader, but I love that she gouges out his eyes and binds him with his own blood. *g*

But I think the second half of this story is my favourite. I love the physicality of her spiritual battle--she's been unconscious, died, half-starved, dehydrated. I love how she views time, with little distinction between a month, 10 years. She's very like Methos in that way. And I love that, here's one of the ancients, one of two Immortals still alive who remember a time before the Game--and she's eating Campbell's canned soup with a plastic spoon. It's such a wonderful contrast. She's firmly entrenched in modern 20th century life while reaching back through the ages for the memories of loved ones and old magic to help fight Ahriman. And that's exactly who Cassandra is.

I really need a Cassandra icon...
scrollgirl: ceirdwyn with iceni warpaint (hl ceirdwyn)

[personal profile] scrollgirl 2011-04-22 12:04 am (UTC)(link)
not only writing outside the fannish mainstream but messing around with canon a bit, as well.

Yeah, I get that. I'll admit to enjoying SGA fandom now that most people have left for precisely that reason--freedom to write outside the mainstream. (Kinda mainstream. I'm still writing a lot of boyslash.) You certainly aren't flinching from stirring things up, though, writing Cassandra and Ahriman, neither of them particularly popular.

Methos and sexual desire are probably incredibly intertwined in her "love map" or whatever psychologists call it, so even though she doesn't want to feel an attraction, she can't excise him entirely. It's a lot like Joe, and Ahriman tempting him with his legs. Old wounds and phantom limbs.

Yes, exactly, that contrast of ancient and modern is what I find so interesting about Methos and Cassandra. In many ways, they're very alike, with experiences no one else (still alive) shares--and I don't just mean the Horsemen. The world has changed in 5000 and 3000 years.

I haven't had a chance to read your HL/Sanctuary fic yet--I keep thinking I should watch more Sanctuary before I try reading the fic. *g*
Edited 2011-04-22 00:06 (UTC)
copracat: dreamwidth vera (Default)

[personal profile] copracat 2011-04-22 12:29 am (UTC)(link)
That is quite, quite an awesome look at Cassandra. What implacable strength.
calime: (four horsemen red)

[personal profile] calime 2011-04-22 05:20 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh, this is a rare treat indeed - I absolutely adore good Cassandra ficcage (and it's so rarely done in HL - her character deserves better, but I admit the actress kind of did a bit of disservice to her, IMO)
This is deep and thoughtful and, well, it could - and should - be canon. It's alive and cuts to the bone and leaves and impression.
You've handled both Cassandra and the Ahriman thing much better than the TPTB:)