Human Shed Skin: Inhuman | Vers. 5 (Jan 2021)
Chapter 3: The Farce of Normalcy
Word Count: 3,662
Content Warnings: None
Jean returns to business as usual. Or so it seems. No one is taking what happened well, him least of all.
Jean's visible eye stared forward, listless and gazing distantly while his mind drowned out the sound of Verne's voice. The soft murmurs were background noise, a dull, low drone in his ears. After a moment of staring, sitting on the sickbay bed, he softly sighed.
He glanced over at Calvin, who was sitting upright in his bed as Verne gave him one last checkup. As Verne gave them one last checkup. They were both on the mend after two days of bedrest and there didn't seem to be much reason to keep them bedridden anymore. Jean couldn't be more thankful for that. Bedrest never ceased to make him feel invalid, useless, and irritable.
Turning from Calvin, Verne nodded at them. "You are both fit for hunting again." He softly huffed. "All I ask is that you don't push yourself too hard. Particularly you, Jean."
Jean nodded and stood from the bed. He didn't feel a sting in his left side, anymore. He felt surprisingly fine, but that was no longer anything new.
Across from Verne's office within the sickbay just before a pair of doors was a large bathroom with accessible showers. Jean took a change of clothes resting atop the bedside table and entered the restroom to wash up. A few seconds after entering, he heard the door open behind him. He glanced back to see Calvin who apparently had the same idea as he did
He eyed the nasty patchwork-like and nearly hypertrophic scar on his comrade's bare chest, then exhaled before entering a shower stall. He closed the curtain and stripped himself of his clothes, then turned the water dial to hot.
He needed to cleanse himself, rid himself of his touch.
A shudder went through him, and he stepped into the scalding barrage. It hurt, but he had felt—was feeling—far worse.
The sound of another shower running reached his ears, and he took a moment to let himself wallow in the feelings that had continuously threatened to overcome him.
First, there was nothing. His head held low, he stared between blond locks at the shower floor. No matter how hard he tried, Celezar had remained on his mind over the past two days. He had stopped fighting it after a while, becoming numb to the clenching of his heart and the stinging of his eye. But this time, as his eye stung, moisture began to roll down his face and mixed with the water beating down on him.
For the umpteenth time, he thought of it. Why couldn't Celezar just be dead? It would hurt, yes. It would be so painful. But it wouldn't be this. All these six years with him...They were lies.
Shuddering again, he shakily exhaled, placing a hand on the wall. He bit his lip to prevent himself from sobbing, then shut his eye. He felt at the ugly raised scar on his face. It would be a reminder of what he did. It was a good punishment, to be disfigured. But maybe it wasn't good enough.
Before he was aware of it, Calvin was leaving the bathroom. He heard sounds of movement even with the beating of the water upon him. Shortly, the bathroom door closed.
Only then did he sob. The tears fell unbidden down his face, the taste of salt slipped into his open mouth along with hot water.
He was tainted. He was filthy. No amount of washing would ever rid him of all they had done.
Lowering to the shower floor, he curled into himself, holding his head with his fingers digging into his scalp.
How...? No inhuman could have remained under the radar the way Celezar had.
Why...? If only Jean had known, if only he had known.
It hurt. Losing the Celezar he loved, losing a close friend...and he felt ugly. So painfully ugly.
Was this punishment? He was told, it was hammered into him, that homosexual relationships were immoral. Was this his punishment for going against that, for being selfish?
There was no answer.
Of course, there was no answer.
He felt he could have stayed in the bathroom forever, but he eventually stood and turned the water to a lukewarm temperature before washing his flushed skin. His movement was automatic, his eye half-lidded as he stared forward at nothing. Steadily, he made the water temperature colder and let it linger, then left the shower.
After drying, he dressed into his usual clothes with the addition of a black eyepatch and left the stall. He threw his other clothes into a hamper, then took a moment to look himself over in the mirror. He looked about as bad as he felt, but at least his skin wasn't nearly as red.
He left the bathroom, donning an outward mask and forcibly quenching his emotions, at least for the moment.
Verne was inside the office, and Jean's bed was already neatened. No doubt the servants swooped in and did their job. He glanced around at the feeling of tingling in his veins from their receding presences, then walked down the aisle between the hospital beds until he reached the double-doors. Even after all these years, the hold his blood had over the servants was unnerving and now all the more so.
Past the doors was a slightly raised hall leading to a large anteroom with an open entrance and fencelike floor-to-ceiling windows lacking glass. There was a bar to the left where some of his men were. The moment he was spotted, warm smiles greeted him.
It was different to take everything in with one eye. He felt that colors were slightly warmer. His vision also wasn't as good as he would have liked. Quietly, he vowed to righten that. He managed a small smile at his men, allowing them to scrutinize him as he approached the center of the anteroom.
The man who then approached him was his brother-in-law, Hugh, who placed a hand on his shoulder. "It's good to see you on two feet, Jean."
Jean gave a small nod. "Yeah. It's about time."
Winces were made at the sound of his voice. Jean noticed Calvin, who was also their designated barman, already behind the bar counter. He shook his head at him for going back to the alcohol, and the platinum-blond caught the look, returning it with a shrug and a smile.
"What did Verne say about your throat?" Musa asked as he stood near the counter.
Led to the bar by Hugh, Jean sat between him and Gulliver, who sat on a stool. "It probably won't heal if it hasn't yet. Everything else has started to, so..." At the sounds of remorse, he gave a nonchalant shrug. Injuries were expected in their line of work. He would have been in lesser spirits if he had lost an arm or leg.
Calvin's lips pursed before he beckoned to the drinks behind him. "Fancy a drink, at least?"
"Ah...I'll pass. It'll probably only aggravate my throat, anyway. Where are the others?"
Gulliver, the man at his left side, tapped his fingers on the counter. "All the men but Nicholae are hunting. He's around here, somewhere."
Jean's head lowered in thought. "How have things been?"
"Not the same, of course," Gulliver answered with a slight scowl. "We've...had time to take it all in."
"No sign of him since?"
They each shook their heads or gave irate huffs. "No idea," said Hugh. "Not so much as peep of him since that day, even with the sudden increase of attacks and sightings of Infernals. None of the other outposts have seen him, either. He's still out there, doing Creator knows what."
"We took everything of his and purified them," Gulliver informed. "The entire Cellar was purified, too. Everyone took tests—even his horse. We all passed, which is odd."
"Makes you wonder what the hell he was up to for six years." Hugh beckoned to a bottle of alcohol for Calvin to pour for him.
"There has to be something we missed." Jean stared at the counter. "If not to infiltrate and influence us, then what?"
No one answered.
He glanced at Hugh. "How are Ulrich and Tristan handling the rise in attacks?" he asked, mentioning his brothers.
"As well as you can imagine," Hugh sighed. He waved a hand, holding a glass of whiskey in the other. "They've had to start working with the government to keep media coverage to a minimum if it can be helped. It's just overwhelming them."
At the mention of the government, Jean frowned. It was best not to think about that, either. "No casualties?"
"None, thank goodness. Not on their front nor ours."
Satisfied, Jean went quiet. Idly, he brushed his hand over the scar on his neck, feeling some eyes examining him. There was much he wanted to talk about, but at the same time, he wanted a considerable amount of time alone.
Turning around on the stool, he slipped down. "I've some reports to read over, I reckon."
Only hesitant acknowledgements were made behind him. Not minding, he walked into his office at the right side of the anteroom and a staircase leading downstairs. The office was a generously-sized room with a long couch against the left wall, several bergères facing it, a rug in-between and a large coffee table atop it. At the wall straight ahead and to the middle of the room was his desk.
He moved to sit behind it, noticing a Manilla envelope with his cousin Artie's handwriting on it that read, "Reports". Thankful for the diligence as his second-in-command, Jean sat down and opened the envelope. He could use a healthy distraction from what had been haunting him for the past two days.
The smell of food brought him out of his nose-deep dive into the reports. His stomach cramped angrily, but he didn't want to get up at the moment. For a few minutes more, he returned to taking notes and reading.
Shortly after, there was a knock at the door.
Blinking up from the paper-covered desk, he glanced at the clock over the couch. Several hours had passed since he entered the office. His attention then diverted to the door as the brown eye belonging to Nicholae peeked inside. Beckoning him in, Jean stood from his desk.
Nicholae slipped in, keeping the door in its formerly cracked position. Upon his face was a sad smile. "Ah, Jean," he sighed. Reaching up, he brushed a finger along the patch over his right eye. "You've finally joined the ranks of us who lost body parts."
Moving from the desk, Jean gave his uncle an embrace that was warmly returned. He made a small grin. "It was always a possibility."
Humming, Nicholae slightly tilted his head to the side. "It was, yes. It's a miracle you're alive. When we came upon your body, you were..." He eyed his nephew's scar. Slowly, his head shook with disbelief and he blinked a few times. "Half your body was beyond recognition."
His expression dropping, Jean glanced away as his mind unwillingly returned to that day. For the first time in many hours, he thought of Celezar. Against his will, he wondered where he was, now. Was he behind the recent killings by and sightings of Infernals? Was Celezar an Infernal...?
His eye briefly closed, and he shook his head. "Sorry." He reached up to rub his forehead.
Frowning, Nicholae placed a hand on his shoulder. "You should take it easy. Have you eaten anything today?"
"No. I was caught up in the reports. Maybe Celezar has something to do with the attacks..."
The warm gaze in his uncle's eye bled to a calculating expression. "You think so?"
"Why not? He disappears and then this happens?" He glared at the reports upon his desk. "It's a possibility."
Nicholae slowly nodded in agreement. "Indeed."
Stronger smells of food wafted through the room, prompting hunger pangs to brutally attack Jean's insides. He grimaced, then patted his uncle's arm. "We'll talk about it later. I'm starving," he said, and Nicholae's demeanor relaxed as he smiled.
They left the office, leaving the door open behind them. The smells of dinner continued through the anteroom, and as they traveled down the left staircase and through the hall to the dining room, Jean could have started salivating.
The sight of the room's lavish decorations never ceased to be a jarring contrast to the rest of the Cellar to him. Beige curtains draped the corners of the room above small tables with light sconces between them. A long, rectangular brown table covered with a cream tablecloth stood in the center of the room.
While there were no windows, there was a ventilation system, and its soft drone was drowned out by the noises of voices as men entered the room. Calvin and Trevor were already seated, and the sound of chairs moving along the wooden floor resonated beneath their chatter.
At the far end of the room was a large banquet table adorned with sizable white doilies. Servants with glowing yellow eyes entered from swinging doors leading to the kitchen to place food upon it. Varieties of comestibles began to fill the table, ranging from Alkebulan to Zhōngguó cuisine. Nearer to the banquet table at the left side of the room was a fully stocked bar.
Jean and Nicholae were not immediately noticed when they entered the room, but a man named Raphael's hazel eyes which bore a magnificent yellow shine glanced over at him.
A smile immediately broke out on the man's face. "Boss! You're up!"
Instantaneously, heads and eyes turned into Jean's direction, followed by looks of relief and smiles upon beaming faces.
Smiling back, Jean walked further inside. He accepted the claps upon his shoulders and pats from his men. His gaze roamed around the room to take in the many faces, including that of his cousin, Artie. Everyone had returned from the hunt, making it a full room with a total of fourteen men.
"Jean-Luc, my man!" Artie laughed, giving him a hearty hug. He looked his cousin over. "Good to see you out of bed. How are you feeling?" A serious expression crossed his face.
Taking a moment to answer, Jean made a light shrug. "Well enough."
Artie looked somewhat morose at the sound of his voice. "Define 'well enough', Jean, you were split in half."
Relenting to this, Jean recanted, "I feel perfectly healthy, but...uneasy. All things considered."
Artie pursed his lips in understanding. He then sighed and beckoned to the table. "I doubt you've eaten yet."
"I have not."
"Speaking of which," said Verne from the table, "Calvin and Jean, please don't engorge too much."
"Sent, doc," Calvin said with a two-fingered salute.
Jean gave the doctor a nod, then moved towards the table. "Let's eat, men."
They didn't need to be told twice. Steadily, not all at once, they approached the banquet laid out for them. Food piled on plates; glasses filled with liquids. Conversations began around the room, laughter barked out at inside jokes.
As Jean sat back down at the head of the table with a full plate, he couldn't help but smile a bit. He always enjoyed the company of his men, who were far more like his family than his own biological one save for Friedrich, Nicholae, and Artie. For a moment, he took a look around the room, patiently waiting for everyone to sit before eating.
His gaze then lingered on the spot just a space over at his right were an empty chair stood. Once upon a time, Celezar sat there. There were once fifteen of them, and most to all traces of Celezar ever existing in the outpost were gone. With a huff, Jean tore his eyes away from the chair. He wasn't going to let his emotions get overcome him, not now.
Shortly, everyone was sitting at the table. Conversations continued, interrupted only by brief moments of prayer from a few of the men before dining began. Jean ate in silence. It was also difficult for him to truly engage in any conversation with his voice so low and hoarse. He would be drowned out by the other louder, boisterous voices. Perhaps if the table were quiet he could be heard.
A flash of hazel-yellow caught his eye and he looked at Raphael. The younger man sat some seats away on the other side of the table and was looking at him.
Once their eyes met, Raphael asked, "What's the plan of action, Boss?"
At first, Jean blinked. He didn't quite understand the question, but there was something in the other man's expression that helped him piece a meaning together. He glanced down, looking for an answer within himself. A gradual silence settled at the table as more awaited his response.
Once there was a near-perfect silence at the table aside from the sounds of dining, Jean looked up at them. "Firstly, can everyone hear me?"
At the farthest end of the table, some eyes squinted, their owners clearly unable to hear him. He sighed to himself, then watched Trevor pass something down the table.
"Modified an earpiece for you while you were on bedrest, Boss," the technician explained with a smile.
The item reached Jean before long, passed to him by Friedrich at his right. His eyes roamed over it while taking it between his fingers. It looked identical to the normal communication devices they used. It was roughly five inches long with a piece that went into the ear, hooking over the helix, a flat side that acted as the control panel, and the longest piece that served as the microphone. However, there were a few small dials that weren't there before.
"The blue dial is an amplifier," Trevor continued. "If you hold it, it connects to the radio, and to turn it off, do the same thing."
Putting it over and into his ear, Jean turned it on and pressed the blue dial. A soft sound buzzed in his ear before going silent. "Can everyone hear me?" he asked again, only to be surprised at how much louder his voice was. It was just a bit louder than his old voice, and without being told, he turned the knob upwards by a bit. "Thanks, Trev."
A wide grin was given to him. "My pleasure, Boss."
Jean focused back on everyone. "Right, then. I've read the reports," he said, his voice still painfully hoarse, but clearly audible. "Four attacks in five days is unprecedented. It barely gives us time to rest between hunts. I am truly thankful you've been able to take on this challenge while taking only mild to moderate injuries. As for the other side of things, I want your thoughts on the matter."
A wave of varying expressions overcame the men's faces. Some were irritated. Others were contemplative. There were even some neutral expressions.
"I think Celezar is involved with what's been happening," said Gulliver. He raised a hand. "The timing is perfect."
The youngest of a pair of twins, Robin, made a face of disagreement. "I don't know. He was with us the whole time."
"Except when he wasn't," said his brother, Lucas, who sat beside him. "He went to the mainland quite a bit."
"That's not exactly grounds for suspicion," Musa said, "considering he has alibis for several of those times."
"That doesn't make up for the times he was off the map," Lucas pressed.
"I still doubt it..."
Nicholae gave a single but somewhat reluctant nod. "I agree with Lucas. We simply don't know."
"Yeah, there could be any number of things that were going on when he wasn't with others," Calvin added.
Friedrich huffed, his eyes focused on his food as he cut into a steak. "I think—I'm almost certain he has something to do with this mess." He looked up to address everyone. "Why else would the demoness awaken after he came in contact with its location?"
"Agreed," said Butch. "And what about his radio silence before reappearing again?"
Jean took this into consideration as conversation continued around him. These were excellent points. Why did the demoness appear when Celezar arrived at its location? Could it be mere coincidence? Why did Celezar engage in radio silence prior to saving his life? Shaking his head, he ignored the tightening feeling that began to grow in his chest.
He glanced at his men. "He was behind the attacks, then. The question is why."
"Aye," said Nicholae.
Other voices of agreement sounded off, save from Musa, who raised his hands while shaking his head as he conceded.
"Whichever way you look at it," said Verne, who sat with his arms crossed, "we have to wait. There's nothing we can do from our end at this point in time."
Jean nodded, his eye tightening. "But he will appear again..." He settled back into his chair and raised his utensils to continue eating.
With a sigh, Raphael returned his attention to his food. "I guess."
"No, he will," said Hugh, who looked entirely irritated to be speaking of an inhuman at all.
Steadily, the conversation drifted from talk of Celezar's whereabouts to talk of any possible time he may have showed his inhumanity.
Jean really didn't want to hear that. Because, from his very intimate experience, there were plenty possible times Celezar did. The very thought made Jean feel wretchedly self-conscious and sick, and so he shut his eye in the attempt to ignore the conversation going on around him.
Celezar had to make a reappearance, eventually. Something simply told Jean he would. If not for any logical reason...maybe for an illogical one. His hand clenched tightly around his fork at the throb his heart made.
His traitorous mind privately hoped for that illogical reason.