It has been fifteen years since the forging of the Seals. A tiny fraction of my life, but one of the slowest to pass. Never have our duties been more numerous, nor more tedious. Despite the indisputable import, enforcing the Treaties across the realms has so far been… unchallenging. Settling innumerable border disputes, silencing the warmongers and breaking apart the ceaseless skirmishing—mission after mission of routine, repetitive work. The fall of the Nephilim has driven a healthy measure of fear into the hearts of the ambitious. Sometimes it is enough to appear within sight of the combatants in the pathetic conflicts I am sent to resolve, for them to disperse before Chaoseater gets a taste of blood.
Yet even so, we are stretched thin. It’s as if the whole of Creation has set out to test the power of the Council, and of the Horsemen. And vast though this power may be… we are now only three. Death’s unexplained absence could not have happened at a more inopportune time. The Council, unsurprisingly, would not suffer us to question them about his mission or whereabouts nor offer any assurances of his continued existence.
As the next eldest, Strife was given the honor of temporary leadership. And for once, Fury and I agreed in judging it a poor choice on part of the Council. He does nothing to enact the role. The only decision he has made was the one guaranteed to result in the greatest dissent. He declared Earth his domain, to observe and protect from further incursions, letting Fury and myself choose what we want from the other, lesser tasks.
I did not argue. Strife is, after all, the best suited for remaining undetected by the fledgling humans while watching over their vulnerable realm. But Fury was… furious. She objected, and even attempted to sway the Council to alter their decision, saying that Strife was abusing his newfound power and was not worthy of their trust. When this did not bear fruit, she accused him of laziness, cowardice, and worse. They would’ve drawn weapons had I not stepped in as peacemaker.
And so it was that our meetings, more frequent than ever, also became more hostile than ever. She does not speak to him outside the strictures of our duty any more than she speaks to me. As I have no wish to fight over scraps with her, she picks the least unattractive assignment and departs immediately with barely a muttered good-bye—or something less generous—leaving Strife and me in silence of our own. One born not of hate, but even more difficult to bear precisely because of it.
It is always the same, the ritual of our parting. We walk down the stairs at the entrance to the Council’s chambers, in silence, and a short way into the charred plain, to the place where there’s room enough to summon the horses. There we stand a while, in silence, gazing at a horizon that wavers with heat from pools and torrents of glowing lava. I wait, knowing that he is waging a battle with himself. I refuse to be the first to speak. It must be his choice, his victory, or defeat. I might be at war with the world, but I am at peace with myself, and with what we have done.
Or so I like to flatter myself. He promised to try, and I, blinded by emotion, accepted it. But each time he summons Mayhem and departs, in silence, emotion gives way to our reality. For what does it truly mean, “to try”? At times, I admire his wisdom in giving a promise that cannot be broken even if it is never fulfilled. But mostly, I loathe the unfairness of it, and my own gullibility. How long am I to wait before I force him to admit he has given up?
My brow is heavy with the same thoughts, my chest tight with the same anguish, as we walk out of the Council’s chambers once again. Fury left though a portal of her own as soon as we were dismissed. And we were dismissed, this time, with no outstanding issues in need of a Horseman’s intervention. Perhaps it is a sign that the balance of power has finally stabilized. More likely, it is only a brief respite before the hostilities resume.
Should I speak?
Our footsteps echo as we pass under the tall arch of the entrance.
What if that is what he waits for?
Our shoulders droop as we step down the path, each stride slower than the other, as if under a spell.
What if my silence weighs as heavily on him as his weighs on me?
Our armored hands brush with a clink and as one, we steer farther from each other.
Damn you, Strife, for making me doubt myself, and you, and everything!
His masked face spins in my direction and I realize a low groan has escaped my throat.
No. I clench my teeth. I will not be the first to speak, even if it means speaking never again.
We have reached the plains. I am already certain that there is no point in lingering any longer, but as part of our ritual, I also refuse to be the first to leave. His whistle pierces my ears and splits my heart. Mayhem manifests in a cloud of inky smoke and he is in the saddle before it clears.
My head hangs in defeat. I will not speak, but I will not hide how this affects me. I will not suffer him to have the excuse that he did not know how I feel.
Mayhem whinnies plaintively as he turns her about. Goodbye, brother, I think, taking air for a lengthy sigh.
“Ride with me,” Strife says.
Tense and unprepared, I jerk, and reply harshly. “Is that an order?”
If there is annoyance or amusement at my startled reaction, they remain hidden behind his mask. “Please.”
No more needs be said. I nod and summon Ruin at once, helpless against the rising tide of hope and excitement. For all I know, he may only wish to make a distance from this place so he can tell me to stop waiting, stop hoping, in private. My head is light, and my spirit soars and sinks and soars again as we ride through the void. I like the way he said please. It reminds me of our time together and stirs up feelings I’ve kept suppressed for too long.
I don’t ask where we’re going. I don’t care. Even if all we do, even if all we can ever do, is just ride together, I’m happy to be in his company for as long as he will have mine.
But it isn’t long till we break out of the void. Even before I recognize the distinctive smells, sounds and the stars in the night sky, I know we have come to Earth from the brevity and smoothness of our transit. It is a path Strife has trodden so often it has become as familiar and comfortable as a well-worn boot.
We have emerged on a low, wide bluff above the seashore. The air is warm and moist, laden with the odor of salt and abuzz with the songs of insects. Small creatures scurry out of our way, invisible in the tall grass. The moon shines from atop the cliffs to the south, bright enough to read by, and paints a silver streak on the black of the sea.
Strife halts his steed after a few dozen steps, takes a deep breath, and exhales loudly. “God, I love this place.” He glances my way. “You can see it, hear it—feel it—everywhere. Life! There is more life here than in all the rest of Creation combined, I’d bet my saddle on it. It’s in the trees, in the water, in the air, even in the rocks. Wherever the sun reaches, something grows and thrives. It’s wonderful.” He sighs again. “It makes me feel young again.”
I hum in solidarity, though I do not share the sentiment. It’s true enough that there is no place like the Earth elsewhere in Creation, yet it is still but a pale image of Eden. But I do not wish to taint this moment with sorrow.
“I’m glad to see you in such high spirits,” I say instead.
He has dropped the reins and let Mayhem carry him where she pleases, grazing. I follow his example. The slow amble of the horses takes us inland. I glimpse a dark treeline ahead and catch a distant call of some nocturnal beast, followed shortly by an even more distant reply. Our silence is no longer oppressive, and I do not mind it, though I long for more. More words, more closeness, touch and taste and his weight in my arms. But I hold the excitement back.
“So…” he says at last. “Have you given up on me yet?”
My heart hammers so hard I fear my teeth will chatter. “No.”
“I haven’t broken my promise, you know. I forgot nothing, this time. I just…” He shakes his head and does not continue.
The world darkens, though there is not a cloud in the sky. “Brother,” I say, gathering courage. “If you have brought me here to make our parting final, I beseech you to do it now, and swiftly. I wish an end to this… uncertainty, even if it should be a bitter one.”
He looks at me. With the moon in his eyes, reflecting almost painfully off the rounded top of his helmet, my face is as hidden from him by the shadows as his is from me by his mask.
“Damn. You’d think that, wouldn’t you?” He makes a pained groan. “No, you big oaf. I didn’t bring you here to break up with you. Didn’t I just say I haven’t given up on us either? I need to work on my execution.”
My sigh of relief—only slightly exaggerated—makes us both laugh. The horses, perhaps sensing our mood, come close enough of their own accord to make our knees collide.
“I’m sorry… Israfil,” he says softly, whispering my name. Warmth courses through my chest. “I don’t know why it’s so difficult. I remember and it’s… it’s like fiction. Like a really sweet tale of someone else’s life. Someone who doesn’t exist. Like it’s not me. Like it can’t be real. It tears me apart.”
The wind rises, carrying the scent of pines. The horses lift their heads, nostrils flaring and ears twitching. I absently pat Ruin’s neck.
“Was I wrong to remain silent all this time?” I ask, though I dread the answer.
“Nope. Best thing you could’ve done. You spared me from coming up with a bunch of stupid excuses and yourself from hearing them. I… thank you. For being patient. I know I don’t deserve it.”
So, it is as I thought. I am both relieved and saddened. After Eden, I thought I understood his struggle, but I don’t understand him now.
“And in the future? Is there something I can do to make this easier for you?”
He sighs. “I don’t know, War. I mean… it would be a hell of a lot easier if we could just… you know. Have a quick fuck in the bushes now and again. Without…” He waves a hand between us, at nothing and everything. “But you’d never agree to that.” Only then does he look at me, cocking his head sideways. “You wouldn’t, right?”
I need a moment to collect myself. His vulgarity affected me in a way no common obscenity could. He means it, and the image drives heat between my legs in an unexpected surge. This is how I accepted his promise years ago, with lust coiling in my belly and fog roiling in my head. I mustn’t make the same mistake.
But how shall I respond? I don’t know the words for the affairs of the heart.
With unsettling clarity, I suddenly see how meeting might be easier if we never had to make this kind of conversation.
“I wouldn’t agree to have this…” I wave between us, mirroring his gesture, “reduced to—that, no.” I try to relax my jaw, knowing that I must sound angry even though I am merely embarrassed. “I am… fond of the bond we have wrought, and it is, first and foremost, a bond of companionship. But,” I add carefully just as he begins to nod at the confirmation of his own expectations, “perhaps that… can be part of it. So long as you won’t deny me the rest, now and again.”
I end up winded, as if I’ve been sprinting. Strife gazes at me for a long time, or so it seems, and for once, I am glad I cannot see his face and the pity in it. But then he laughs and hoots. “Damn, War! I should’ve asked sooner!”
I join him with a huff of relief. “I wish you did. The wait has been long and lonely.”
“Tell me about it.” Under his saddle, Mayhem stirs and nuzzles Ruin’s neck with her armored muzzle. Strife picks up the reins. “Oh, God,” he breathes. “Can we fuck in the bushes right now?”
A hand groping at my crotch could hardly have a greater effect. I can’t stop a groan from tearing out of my chest. Ruin nickers and turns to bite Mayhem in return, but there’s no more exposed hide on her than on her rider. Frustrated, he lifts his head, extends his neck and bares his teeth, snorting.
“Easy, easy,” I soothe, pulling the reins, but the beast resists.
“What’s gotten into them?” Strife says, struggling to calm his own steed. I have steered Ruin away from Mayhem, but she seems intent to pursue despite Strife’s protestations. “C’mon, May. Be a good girl, now. You’re embarrassing me.”
As if in reply, she rears up and he turns her about, letting her canter a distance before circling back.
“Brother,” I raise my voice above the neighing of the horses. “Could she be in heat?”
Strife laughs wildly, swinging one arm out for balance while gripping the saddle horn with the other as Mayhem tries to dislodge him. I’ve not seen anything like it since our very first days as Horsemen.
“Don’t think it’s the horse!”
Ruin prances, making to pursue. I hold the reins short and press my knees into his ribs, but he pays me no heed.
“Let us banish the beasts before they cast us down and—”
“And beat us to the bushes?”
“It is no laughing matter! Do you want a pregnant steed?”
He laughs like a madman. “The Horsemaster would be pissed!”
Grumbling at his refusal to take the situation seriously, I direct my attention to willing Ruin back into obeisance. When I’ve managed to gallop him away, I jump out of the saddle and bid him return to the void. But the beast refuses! He turns about and faces me, fuming, with fire streaming from his nostrils and smoke billowing under his hooves. And then charges at me. I stare, unbelieving, paralyzed with shock. In the last moment before he runs me down, I close my eyes.
A swoosh of scalding air pushes me back, but when I blink, I am still standing, and Ruin is gone.
I spin in time to witness a similar scene unfolding a few hundred paces away as Strife first tries to chase his mare into the void by flailing his arms in the air and shouting like a lunatic, then swivels and dodges forward in a vain attempt to flee when she turns around to give chase after him. I gasp when she runs him over, disappearing in a flash of violet thunder.
“Brother!” I bellow, running to his aid.
There’s no sign of him. The tall grasses sway in the breeze, unperturbed. The buzzing of the insects resumes. I call again, heart thumping, as a bolt of fear shoots through me.
But then I hear him laugh.
“Where are you?”
His helmet rises above the grass, making strange movements I can’t make sense of till I realize he’s taken it off and lifted it with his hand. I hurry towards it.
I must be near the spot, but he’s nowhere to be found.
Then something kicks my feet from under me and I sit back with a surprised grunt and barely time enough to see his form emerge from the shadows and fling itself at me before I’m pinned down under his weight. I tackle him, perhaps with more force than necessary, and the momentum sends us rolling down a gentle slope. The prancing of the horses has brought us to where the edge of the bluff tapers off to meet the beach. Cobblestones crunch under my armor and the regular splash of the waves drowns out all noises apart from Strife’s unhinged laughter. Fortunately, a large rock stops our tumbling before we reach the water’s edge.
Strife has ended up on top of me again. He throws his head back and cries, “Oh, God. I haven’t laughed this hard in centuries!”
“It’s not a thing to joke with,” I repeat. “I’ve seen skilled riders get thrown and trampled when their stallion catches scent of a mare in heat. What if this were to happen in combat?”
But my cautions only make him laugh even more. “Imagine,” he pants, unable to string words together, “Imagine Death’s and Fury’s faces… while our horses run amok… and we flail like idiots… with the legions of Hell and the hosts of Heaven all watching!”
I laugh despite myself.
Strife wipes the corners of his eyes and lets out a ragged sigh.
“You were right about this place.” I breathe my full of the smells of surf and wet sand. Directly above me, the crown of the Tree of Life appears as a misty band of stars marching across the heavens. It’s beautiful.
His handsome, moonlit face appears above mine, still graced with a cheerful grin. He pulls off his gloves. The metallic scent of his skin sends my mind reeling with memories. I taste salt and leather when he draws his thumb over my lips.
With a soft moan, he leans down and kisses me. He kisses me like he’s been thinking of nothing but kissing me these fifteen years. He holds nothing back and demands everything in return. And everything is what I give, my doubts dissolved by his vehemence like twilight mists in the rising sun. His hunger is as great as mine. Need, need, need! More, more, more! It is not unlike the silent litany of Chaoseater, always whispering at the edges of my consciousness. But here, at last, is a lust I can indulge without fear or shame.
Panting, he pushes up and starts to fumble with my belt.
“We have left the bushes behind,” I jest, breathless from his onslaught.
“There’s no one here to see us. The closest human settlement is three hundred leagues away.”
He is too preoccupied with his clumsy attempts at disrobing me to realize I’m not serious. “And what of travelers from other realms?”
“I placed 3141 surveillance wards around the world. No one, and no thing, can possibly surprise us.”
I strain to keep from laughing. “So few?”
“Hey, I place one almost every day. Did you know this realm is mostly made of water? I went through some epic trouble to get my hands on an angelic beast so I could cover the seas too. What?” He finally glances at me. “You think I’ve been idle? I actually like this place and I don’t want it to suffer the same fate as Eden.”
Unable to hold back any longer, I burst into laughter. Strife sits back, putting tantalizing pressure on me, and stares, slack-jawed. “You’re messing with me!” He punches me in the side, then shakes his bare fist with a hiss. “I can’t believe it. And there I thought you couldn’t possibly surprise me twice in one night.”
“Let us make that thrice.” I slap his hands away from my belt and snap the hidden buckle open.
Strife gapes. “Please tell me you couldn’t do that the last time we met. Undoing that bloody sash of yours scarred me for life.”
I laugh. “No. I added the buckle later.”
The three eyes above his brow light up and for an agonizing instant I fear he will reveal that his magics allow him to read minds as well as the future. But the sudden tension in his stance is a warning. Something is amiss.
A roaring whoosh, as of a great wave pulling in the sands, silences my question before I can voice it. Strife dashes back. I leap up and dig in my feet, bracing for impact. But nothing happens. No towering wave crashes down upon us, though the water is disturbed. Flat waves coming from the open seas mingle with curved waves coming from the south.
“What in the Nine Hells…?” Strife mutters, drawing his pistols. Although I cannot see or sense any threat yet, I draw Chaoseater too before I turn in the direction of his focused stare.
On the beach, a hundred paces away, half in the sand and half in the water, lies a behemoth easily as long as the walls of Bastion are tall, its smooth hide glistening in the moonlight and a single beady eye watching us from its side. Its head is round and blunt, with no nose or mouth I can see; its body is that of a giant fish. When it flaps its two-pronged tail, the waters under it burst up to twice my height, sending choppy waves through the shallows.
“What manner of beast is this?” I take a few steps closer. As I stare at the giant, it unleashes a geyser of foaming water from the top of its head. “Brother? Is it of this realm?”
“Uh… I think so?” I hear the light tap of Strife’s footsteps following a short way behind. “I’ve seen its kind—or something like it—from the air a few times, but never on dry land. They roam the depths far from the shores.”
“A sea monster?”
“A sea creature.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Seriously?” I can see him with the corner of my eye now, to my left, moving to flank it. “Monsters are evil, sadistic bastards. This is just a beast. It hunts for food, not for sport.”
Slay it anyhow, Chaoseater whispers, wordless, in the back of my mind. It imposes on me a vision of the sun rising a few hours from now to find the shallows crimson with blood as I stand, triumphant, on top of the giant, its hide crisscrossed with deep cuts and Chaoseater lodged into its massive skull.
I ignore it.
The beast is within the reach of my sword now, but it makes no move to attack or defend itself. The futile thrashing of its heavy tail is the only sign it gives of life. My instincts say it’s harmless. But I remain on guard.
“What is it you seek outside your domain, leviathan of the seas?” I call.
Strife, who has taken position on the other side of the giant, looks my way and shrugs.
I ask the same question in the dominant languages of Heaven and Hell, with the same result.
“Are the beasts of this realm without speech, brother?”
“No clue. Never tried to talk to any. Well, not counting that cat a few years back. Who didn’t reply. The humans talk to some of their pets and beasts of burden, though.”
“It may respond if you address it in a human language.”
“I guess. Lemme think.” He spins his pistols before returning them to their holsters, clears his throat, and utters some gibberish in a theatrical, albeit halting voice. Unsurprisingly, the beast does not react. Strife spreads his arms in defeat.
I walk a few steps closer, staring in the eye of the giant, until at last, I put Chaoseater away. “It looks helpless.”
“Yeah. A fish out of water.” Strife approaches too and regards it with arms squared at his sides. “What do you suppose brought it to the shore?”
“Perhaps it was defeated by one of its kind and driven into the shallows.” The vision of two such behemoths doing battle under the waves makes my heart beat faster.
“Doesn’t look banged up,” Strife points out. “Maybe it was lured into a trap by more cunning, and nimbler, prey?”
“I like my version better.” I stroke the beast, dragging the gauntlet gently along its slippery head till my boots begin to sink. “It’s magnificent.”
“Its ‘magnificence’ will be its doom. Look.” He walks a short way inland to a crest in the sands covered with flotsam. “This is about as far as the tide will reach. It won’t be enough to pull it back. These shallows go on for half a mile before the water turns deep, and the waves will only push it further out on the shore.”
“Let us help it back to the depths.”
Strife takes a step back, making a grimace of exaggerated surprise. “Okay—who are you, and what have you done with my brother, War, who is definitely into killing shit for fun?”
“I would never strike a helpless foe.” I lay my sword on the cobblestones above the tideline and begin to remove my armor.
“Uh… no? You want to be the guy who’d never strike a helpless foe, but you strike them alright. I’ve seen it.”
“What you saw was… a well-justified exception.”
“I’ve seen it more than once.”
I pause to give him a pointed look, and after a moment, he lifts his hands in the air. “’Ight. Droppin’ it. Ain’t no one got time to talk about the sins of the past when there’s wildlife to rescue.”
Busy fiddling with the straps and buckles, boots and gauntlet, I fail to notice that Strife has seated himself on a nearby rock, fully clothed and posing as royalty while he watches me idly.
“Won’t you join me?”
“Nah, I’m good. Enjoying the show.” He spreads his legs and shamelessly adjusts himself while his gaze traces up my thighs like cold fingers. In a sudden rush, I remember the conversation we had before the horses went mad, and the kiss we shared before the leviathan became stranded at our feet. What else will come between us and the long-coveted bushes before the night is over?
I lift his face by the chin—and a moment later realize that I’ve used the gauntlet for it. If he is alarmed, he hides it well even without the mask. I am a little alarmed. I do not fully trust myself to be tender with it. But then I feel the weight of his head as he relaxes into my hand completely, the glow of his eyes turning warm and hazy like when he’s about to fall asleep.
“I lied,” he whispers. “The cat did reply. When I scratched her neck, just like that. She would say—” And he makes a soft purring noise.
Though I’ve no inkling what a “cat” may be, what it could have uttered, in which language, or why he lied about it, the sentiment is easy enough to understand. I kiss him with smiling lips.
“Make yourself at home,” Strife says, tossing his helmet on the ground. I watch it roll down an uneven slope and into the dark mouth of some hole or crevice where, after a few moments, it clatters to a stop. We spent the entire morning searching the bluff for it. I set my jaw. I will not help him recover it this time.
“Like what I’ve done with the place?”
I look around in search for signs of habitation other than a blackened firepit, a collection of colorful animal furs strewn haphazardly around it, a dingy kettle, and a knee-high pile of small bones and assorted rubbish, but I find none. “The place” is a west-facing cavern in the cliffs above the sea not far from where we emerged out of the void last night.
Strife lives in a cave. Like most things about him, it is both surprising and not surprising at all.
“I’ve never known you to make an abode,” I say, taking a few steps in.
“Yeah. It’s been a while since the last time I grew roots. Here, lemme take that.”
I hand him the chain stringer with our catch, and he busies himself with hanging it above the firepit while I pull off my sodden boots.
He helped me rescue the leviathan after all. I hesitated to give the beast a proper shove from the beach for fear of harming it, and could not find enough purchase in the water to pull it free by the tail. So, in the end, I pulled, swimming, while Strife pushed. It took more effort than I had anticipated, but it was well worth it. The giant seemed to understand our intent and did not fret or resist. Once it could turn about and head into the depths on its own, we swam a way after it, and witnessed its grace and power under the waves. It bid us farewell with a song, and I thought I could hear the voices of its kin calling from afar. Of course it could speak.
We celebrated the triumph, and our reunion, not in the bushes, but among the rocks where we came out of the water, in full view of the setting moon and the rising sun. And after, we fell into a slumber so deep we did not wake till the tide crept up on us. Well above that flotsam-crowned crest. By pure luck, none of our things, littering the beach, were carried off by the sea. But all of them were soaked.
“Gimme a hand with the fire, will you?” He has brought an armload of splintered wood and filled the firepit. “The kindling gets soggy when there’s a humid southern wind, like now. Our stuff is never gonna dry in it.”
I spread the last of my garments on the stone floor, sensing the truth of his words. My hair is damp, although I dried it. The furs are damp too, and an unappealing odor whiffs from them when I take a seat. Coaxing the wood into taking fire proves to be an exercise in patience, one that exceeds my capacity. In the end, I coerce them. The explosion singes the furs and sends Strife’s kettle rolling after his helmet.
“Sorry,” I mutter, waving the smoke and cinders away from my face.
“Uh… No worries. We’ll just… eh, this thing wasn’t gonna work anyhow.” He breaks the Y-shaped branch he apparently intended to use as a makeshift rack for the spit, and skewers two of the smaller fish on the pieces instead. “Here.”
A companionable silence settles on us while we roast the meat. When have I last shared a meal with someone? I struggle to remember. While Strife and I travelled together, before the forging of the Seals? No—with Death, not long after. He told me a strange tale of an undying flame, somewhere within the Kingdom of the Dead. A beacon for lost souls. Having had too much ale, I wondered aloud if the souls of our dead brethren had flocked to it. It offended him. He denied it, of course, but our parting was not as cordial as our greeting. That was the last time I’ve seen him.
I hope he still breathes.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Strife says softly. “You look far, far away,” he explains when I give him a quizzical glance. “It’s nice to see you so relaxed.”
“Hmm.” I do not wish to mention Death, nor retell his tale. Instead, I say, “I always imagined your home would be a palace, wrought with gold and studded with gems. A place of every luxury I can think of, and many more I cannot.”
“Uh-huh. And—lemme guess—there’d be a dungeon under it, packed with treasure?”
“You are fond of treasure.”
“Hm. True. And I did, at one time, have quite a hoard of my own. But I gotta say, your assumption is a bit racist. Should I expect you to live in a nest, since you’re obviously more than half pigeon?”
It takes me a moment to decipher his meaning. I frown. “Angels don’t live in nests. And besides, my assumption wasn’t based on your features, but on your behavior.”
“Still can’t get over that thing with Mammon, I see.”
“Eh.” Busied with conversation, I have forgotten about my fish, and one side of it has gone black. “You know that is not how I meant it.”
“Yeah. But I’d kinda prefer it to you being massively disappointed by this obviously temporary arrangement.”
Ah. I have offended him too. I sigh. Nothing good ever comes from speaking my mind. “That is not what I meant either. I prefer simplicity to opulence.”
For a while he’s quiet, staring grimly at the fire. “Funny business, wearing your heart on your sleeve. I’m not used to it.”
I was unable to apologize when I spoke to Death, having convinced myself that it would be futile, as I couldn’t grasp the nature of my transgression. It is different now. I understand that I was… insensitive, but that only makes it harder.
“Forgive me,” I manage, studying my fish. Half of it looks edible, at least. “Do you want this?”
He laughs. “No, thanks. Got one here that looks exactly the same. And I’m eating it anyway. You can make up to me later.”
He winks at me. Can we fuck in the bushes right now? The flash of memory makes my blood rise. How can a wink, how can one word, arouse me so? I rip the fish from the skewer, tear off its head with far more savagery than my hunger demands, and stuff the rest in my mouth all at once. The crunch of charred skin and bones between my teeth sobers me a little.
Strife watches me from across the fire with an inscrutable smile, picking off morsels of meat with his long fingers and bringing them lazily to his mouth. I only realize I’ve been staring like I were hypnotized when his fish is gone.
“You look even hungrier now,” he teases, approaching on all fours.
I breathe a wordless reply, then stop breathing altogether when he sucks my fingers clean.
He mounts my lap, seating himself between my folded legs and folding his own behind me. His moist lips, parted just enough to glimpse the tip of his tongue when he runs it between his teeth, are what I’m hungry for. Starved! It has only been a few hours since I tasted them last. How did I live without this, all these years? It seems impossible. A sense of unreality washes over me. What was it he said? Like a sweet tale of another’s love. Like it isn’t me. Like it isn’t real.
“I missed this,” he whispers, leaning his forehead against mine as if to better read my mind. “I missed you.”
“One should not complain of pain from self-inflicted wounds.”
“One knows one’s been a fool, okay? No need to rub it in. Besides,” he grins, “when have I ever complained of pain?”
I lean in for the kiss, but he keeps his distance, allowing only the tips of our tongues to meet. It’s maddening. I put my arms around him, force him closer, and invade him.
It is exactly what he wanted. He baits me into a show of strength, as if he can only surrender when he is overwhelmed by it. And surrender he does, more completely than anyone I have ever held. Limber, languid, smooth and cool, he wraps around me and molds to me like water. And his abandon overwhelms me in turn.
“Oh, God, yes,” he whispers, and I come to my senses. To find that, in my passion, I have pulled on his lower lip with my teeth.
I let go and tilt my head back to assess the damage. But whether I hurt him or not, he plainly enjoyed it. His eyes are unfocused, and his hands clutch my shoulders like claws. I feel him pressing against my belly as he must feel me pressing against his bottom.
“Do it again,” he whispers hotly. “Please, do it again. Bite me, bite me, bite me.” It all comes out in a single breath, his lips working, voiceless, while he thrusts gently into me.
I hold his gaze a moment longer before I indulge him, a silent conversation that assures me he means what he says and knows what he’s asking for. I take his upper lip between mine, and then his lower lip with my teeth, and slowly bite down.
“Harder,” he mutters, the smell of fish on his breath fresh enough to taste. When I comply, his spine arches, his hips grind, and the cavern echoes with his moan.
I let go. His head falls back. My heart drums so hard that for a moment, it is the only thing I hear.
“So good,” he whispers, leaning his forehead on mine again. His face assumes a familiar ferocity. He grabs me by the hair and kisses me everywhere. My mouth, my cheeks, my jaw, my neck. His teeth graze my ear, then his tongue is in it. I groan.
“Do it again,” he whispers. “Eat me. Drink me. I want to taste blood.”
I shake off his grip on my hair and gaze at him again until his drunken stare gives me the assurance I seek. Holding the back of his head, I kiss him at my own pace, slow and tender. Then, with eyes open, I suck in his lip and bite, hard and fast. The soft flesh of his mouth gives in under my canines and I taste blood.
He moans, straining in my arms like a pulled bow. “Fuck, War, you’re killing me.”
A pang of panic makes my breath hitch. “I didn’t—it was too much? You said—”
“No, no, no. It was perfect. God. You’re perfect.” He takes my face in his hands, studies me a moment, then covers me with kisses. “Talk about a poor choice of words!”
When I nod, speechless, he presses my cheek to his chest. His heartbeat is wild, but not as wild as mine. I’m trembling.
“It was perfect,” he repeats in a whisper. “I was this close.”
The way he holds my head, I can see a thick strand of lubrication stretching between us. My hand shakes as I bring my fingers to it, coating them. Then I reach behind and slide them inside him.
“Oh, God. Oh yes.” He moves, down and deep, rushing against my efforts to be slow and gentle. “Do it. Just do it. Put it in!”
I put it in. Entranced, he rocks on top of me with the same vehemence that both startled and delighted me last night. Persistent, tireless, like the waves lapping at the rocks below. When I feel I’ve neared the edge, I move to grip him and drive him over it with me, but he stays my hand. A moment later, he cries unto a hundred echoes, as stars explode behind my eyes.
“Will you stay with me for a while?” he asks, I don’t know how much later. I’ve been asleep. Dreaming of silver fish darting under the sparkly surface of green shallows, too fast for me to catch. The setting sun has painted the irregular ceiling of the cavern in fiery orange. The scattered clouds outside are an inky violet.
I stretch drowsily. “By dawn, you mean?”
“No.” He rises on an elbow. “A longer while.”
“A week?” It seems petty, yet it would be more than we have ever had, so far.
His brow flattens with annoyance. “I don’t know, okay? Till the next summons, I guess.”
Now I’m silent.
“Which might come tomorrow, given our luck,” he says.
“Or not come for years.”
“It won’t be years, I guarantee.”
“What makes you think so?”
He lies back down with a sigh, and I roll to my side and rise, reversing our positions. “Nothing worth reporting to the Council,” he says. “More of a gut feeling. We keep looking at Hell for signs of serious trouble, but we should be looking the other way too. So above as below, right? The warmongers of the White City are more patient and more subtle, but just as dangerous. Barachiel held the banner for the conservatives but now they’re quarreling among themselves as much as they quarrel with the militants. I’d bet my boots we’ll have a new head of the Hellguard by the turn of the century and if it’s not Abbadon himself, it’ll be someone from his faction.”
This was my intuition too. I hum, thinking it over.
“Let’s not talk about politics, though. You were about to say you’ll be as happy to stay as I’ll be to have you.” He grins. “Again, and again.”
“Won’t I keep you from your duties?”
“Oh, I’m counting on it.”
“I’m serious. What use can you make of me? I can’t bear to be idle for long, and I can’t help you with the wards.”
“Hmm.” He has obviously not given this any thought till now. “You can help me feed the angelic beast? I can’t let it hunt for food on its own or it would start eating humans before long.”
I glance at him, unconvinced.
“C’mon,” he says. “Admit you’re dying to see it. Have you ever mounted one?”
“Never,” I breathe, caring little to hide my excitement. He is right. I’ve been hoping he’d let me ride it. Yet it still seems dubious. Despite his modest lodgings, what he proposes sounds like a life of leisure and luxury, and a part of me, disturbed by the notion, resists. I find myself grasping at straws. “What if Death or Fury come here and find us… like this?”
“What if they do? You scared the Council would disapprove?” He mimics me, and a spark of anger ignites in my chest. Not because of his mockery, to which I am well used, but because he has hit a sore spot. To say that I fear the judgment of the Council and of the other two would not be untrue, but it wouldn’t do justice to the complexity of my feelings about the matter. It is unfair of him to make jokes of it and impose on me his rushed conclusions after he avoided me for nigh on two decades.
But when he takes my harrumph as dismissive of his irreverent tone, I choose not to dissuade him. It’s a discussion for another time and more… friendly mood.
“Anyway, I told you no one can surprise us. Death could disable my wards, but I’d still know they were disabled. And Fury wouldn’t set foot here if we were to send her a gilded wedding invitation, as I’m sure you know. Look.” He takes a breath, clearly irritated. “If you don’t want to stay in my cave, just bloody say so. Don’t give me this crap about duty. We are, for the first time in for-fucking-ever, officially off duty. Anything I might do now to uphold the Balance—” he mocks my respectful tone again—“I’ll do because I want to, not because I have to, alright?”
I sigh. “Our duty never ends, brother.”
“Gah.” He rolls away from me and stands. “Alright, then. Leave. Go and haunt your old patrols, or whatever it is you do when you’re not on a mission, if that’s what you want. I can’t force you—” He freezes, then laughs bitterly. “Actually, I can. I can order you to stay. Would that help?”
I sit up slowly and stare at him. There’s no point in trying to conceal my outrage. My brand burns and pulses in time with my heart. Since the fall of Eden, I have wanted nothing for myself but this: to be with him. I endured the unpredictable tides of his affection, flooding me, then starving me, then all over again. I have suffered years of his doubts, yet I am not allowed to have a moment with mine?
I grit my teeth to make sure none of that gets out. But it reaches him, nevertheless. The glow of his eyes dims as his expression shifts from malevolent to horrified.
“I’m an asshole,” he mutters, covering his mouth. “I don’t know why I said that.”
I don’t trust myself to respond, so I turn my gaze at the embers of our fire. We should put on more wood before they go out. And bring some stones to arrange around the pit. And move the furs farther from it.
Damn you, Strife!
He kneels beside me. I’ve lost track of time and didn’t see him approach. He leans his cool forehead on my shoulder, and I find my anger has passed. I put an arm around him. “I’d like to see the angelic beast. I need to think about the rest.”
He nods. “Fair enough.”
His voice is thick, and it softens my heart. I look at him, then gently pull his lower lip down with my thumb. The small punctures are surely healing already, but the memory is fresh and breathtaking. I kiss him, feel him, taste him and there’s no doubt in me about what “this” is.
How it is supposed to work, however, is another question.