Part 3 of Not Alone
When I woke, I thought it was dawn, but then I remembered that the sky had already been bright by the time we were done with sparring, and judging by recovery, I must have slept for several hours at least.
The beat of artillery had stopped, and all was quiet. War lay still like the slain. I washed in the pool, put my pants on, then climbed one of the pillars to reach the gallery and the windows. It wasn’t overcast outside. The day was darkened by vapors from the nearby battlefield and foul magics of the Nephilim. I couldn’t see anything through the fog.
A loud caw startled me. One of Death’s crows sat perched in a window two dozen paces to my right. I froze. How much had it seen? At the very least, it could’ve seen us sleep piled on top of one another with no clothes on. It wasn’t Dust—Death only sent him in emergencies. As far as I knew, Death couldn’t communicate directly with ordinary birds, but I wasn’t sure, and I wasn’t about to risk it. I didn’t want him to know what had happened, least of all before I knew what had happened. Feigning my most casual walk, I got within range and flicked a void-dart at the crow. With a shriek, it disintegrated in a flurry of feathers and a puff of purple smoke.
Death wouldn’t mind. He had an unlimited supply of those.
The noise woke War. He stood up, his hair in a mess, and rubbed his eyes. My stomach quivered when he looked up at me. We didn’t need to speak. He could see from my relaxed posture that there was no cause for alarm.
He shook off his underwear and detached the gauntlet, which hit the marble floor with an echoing clang and a small shower of sparks. I watched him dive into the pool and swim a couple of circles around it with remarkably equal strokes. He knew I was watching. When he climbed out and squeezed the water out of his heavy mane, he “dried off” by letting his inner fire out through a grid of hairline fractures over his entire body, the first stage of his transformation. The moisture evaporated from him in a cloud of hissing steam.
The whoosh of wings tore my attention away. Another crow had arrived.
“What news?” War asked when I somersaulted down from the gallery. Couldn’t have him overshadow me, could I? He had put on his pants too and now he stood next to the pile of his other clothes and armor, pretending I had interrupted his search for something in it. His cape hung limply from his right hand.
I struggled to pry my eyes from his left. I had never seen it without its monstrous prosthesis, not since the day the rest of it had been severed. The cut had been made just under the elbow. Four hooked implements and something that looked like a perfect sphere of glowing amber peeked under the tight brass ring that dressed the stump. My chest tightened. Although we all made light of it nowadays, War included, Death’s “lesson” never sat right with me.
“Absalom’s raiding party got entrenched,” I said. “Rooting them out will take a while. Another day for sure.”
He took a step forward and I forced myself to stop staring. But I couldn’t force myself to look him in the eyes, so I looked at the apple of his throat.
“We could root them out within the hour,” he said through clenched teeth.
“I know. But our orders are to stay put. Nothing changed.”
War puffed out an irritated huff through his nose. “I hate this,” he grumbled. “I can smell it. The smoke, the blood, the chaos. I hunger for it like a starved beast with prey within its sight but without its grasp.” His voice was low, but I could see the hand holding the cape ball into a white-knuckled fist. “I don’t take pride in it. But I can’t help it.” He tossed the cape back on the pile. “I know why you did what you did.”
I scratched my head. “You talking ‘bout the wrestling match? ‘Cause that sure beats cutting off hands.”
His brow flattened and he just stared, stunned. Not like, surprised-stunned. That kind of crap was anything but surprising, coming from me. Disappointed-stunned. Shame drove heat up my cheeks. “Sorry. Just making sure we’re on the same page here. ‘Cause the wrestling was the only part that had any purpose or forethought put into it.”
In the long silence, I became aware that my heart was racing like we were fighting again. His gaze drifted off to my left under a medium-sized frown while he mulled over my muddled response, and I didn’t dare move a muscle for fear of attracting its attention again. I had no idea what my face looked like and wished with bitter regret that I had put on my helmet instead of my pants.
“Why did you do it, then?” he said at last.
Damn. I spread my arms in an exasperated shrug, trying to hide the panic that oozed out of my palms. “No reason. I just told you. I didn’t plan it. I wasn’t thinking.”
He took a menacing step forward, squinting at me. “Is this a game?”
“Some sort of test?” His voice was rising.
“A test? Are you—”
“I just wanted to, alright?” I shouted to match him. The echoes of my words were hurting my ears and I winced.
In my defense, I only realized it then myself. That I wanted it. That maybe I… always wanted it? Oh, God.
He took breath to speak again, but I pointed a finger at him. “Nah-uh! No more ‘why’. I know that’s a shit answer, but it’s the only one I’ve got. So don’t push it.”
His frown deepened. After a moment, he nodded, then shook his head, turning his back on me with a quiet grumble, ostensibly to ponder his pile.
Half a minute passed. A whole minute. It looked like the conversation was over. A great weight settled on me, forcing me to take the shallowest of breaths. I couldn’t allow his rejection to flood me with emotion and compromise my judgment any further. I was already packing it all up to stuff it back into that room, lock the door and throw away the key.
But not before I finished what I started to say last night. “I’m sorry, War. I was wrong to spring this on you. It won’t happen again.”
I swallowed, barely breathing at all now, praying for a random serpent hole to open under me and suck me into some obscure pocket of the Void where no one will ever find me again.
War’s shoulders slumped. “That’s… regrettable.”
Yes. I nodded. Yes, it was.
His back heaved with a sigh. He turned around to face me again, but didn’t look up to meet my eyes. “The sparring did little to lessen the bloodlust. It but whet my appetite. What followed, however… It brought me peace.” He glanced at me, turning up a corner of his lips in an ironic half-smirk.
I blinked stupidly. “You mean… you don’t resent me for it?”
“Did I not reciprocate? I wanted it too.”
I exhaled like I’d been holding my breath for a month. Talk about relieved!
I was about to laugh out of the lightness of my heart when his gaze turned inward. “But I might have, had I learned that you did it on Death’s orders. I’m relieved it wasn’t so.”
I choked on the aborted laugh. “Death’s orders?”
For once, War had said too much.
“First of all—” I stepped forward, raising a finger at him again—”I agreed to serve the Council, not Death. We need someone to have the final say or we’d spend an eternity bickering over every god damn thing, and he is the oldest and the least hot-headed. But the day he’d dare ask for such a thing would be the day I’d test his alleged invulnerability with a bullet between his eyes.” I tried to loosen my jaw. This had struck a bit too close to home, and the other stuff packed up in that room. My brand was on fire, and my eyes, all of them. “Second of all—seriously? You really think I’d do that? What the hell do you take me for?”
“You said it yourself, brother.” His voice had gone icy. “It beats cutting off hands.”
It was my turn to be stunned. The splashed-with-cold-water kind. He jokes about this sometimes. We all do. But this wasn’t a joke. My stare got glued to his left arm and by degrees, a painful realization sobered me up. I’d betrayed him once before. I’d taken part in singling him out, bullying and damaging him, because I’d been too much of a coward to stand up for him and the shame still burned hot. Even though decades had passed, I remembered with unwelcome clarity the shock on his face. How he had stumbled and fallen, doubling up over the injury on reflex, too numb to feel the pain. And I, the big damn hero, had pointed my guns at him.
I had no right to demand higher expectations than those he had, even if that shit with “Death’s orders” was pretty damn low. If I wanted his trust and respect, it was my job to earn them; not his duty, or whatever, to just give them to me.
He shook his head, deflating. “My mind is clouded. I should not have spoken.”
“No, no. I had it coming. It’s been eating at me. All these years.”
Another long silence ensued.
“I don’t understand your guilt,” he muttered in the end. “I don’t understand why no one will speak of this. It was the right thing to do.”
He shrugged. “I was out of control. Not only the Council’s, but my own. My will was enslaved by the thirst of Chaoseater. I would’ve killed thousands before it was sated if you didn’t stop me. And this—” he raised the severed arm—“may well have been the only way to do it, short of putting me out of my misery like a rabid hell-hound.” He paused to reflect. “It doesn’t trouble me, and it needn’t trouble you either. What troubles me, and causes me to question your motives, is that everything I have done since, everything I can do, seems like a test. As if you are all just waiting for me to fail again.”
I met his unblinking gaze. “War…”
“I will not.”
I stood there, speechless. More than once, I took breath to reply, just to close my mouth with a click, having found no words worth pushing out. What could I say? That he was wrong? Was he? None of us had trusted him to execute his own tactics, or he wouldn’t have been here with me in the first place. And although I felt in the deepest core of my being that it had been us who had failed him, not the other way around, I knew my words wouldn’t sway him. Besides, I didn’t want to argue against being forgiven. Not now, anyway.
“Look.” I sighed. “I can’t speak for Fury and Death, but I don’t expect you to fail, okay? I don’t expect you to succeed either. It’s more than enough for me that you’re… always… doing your best. That’s so much more than I expect from them, and probably even more… more than anyone can expect from me. So, uh… for what it’s worth, there’s at least one Horseman you can’t possibly disappoint, whatever happens.”
I know. Not my most eloquent moment. But it came from a place of truth, a place of selflessness, and War picked it up alright. He squared his good arm on his hip and lowered his head, lips pressed together in a thin downturned arc.
With fists clenched to fortify my resolve, I approached him. His broad chest heaved with heavy inhales and rapid exhales that made his nostrils flare, like a frightened horse. He held his breath when I touched him. Under my clammy palm, his heartbeat was as violent as mine. It made me smile.
“Come here, you big oaf.”
I made that ultimate step and clung around his neck.
He froze. A few seconds later, he tapped my back awkwardly with his good hand. I chuckled. His hair tickled my face. It was fragrant from the bath in the angelic pool, silken and gleaming. I draped his other arm over my shoulders. Finally taking the hint, he embraced me in return.
For the first time since I woke, I allowed myself to recall the aftermath of our match. What it had been like to have him in my hand. The noises he’d made. How his face had looked. My stomach did that funny thing again. Up and down, it went, chest, gut, chest. Blood rushed up my neck, and elsewhere.
“I’m kinda—” I laughed to hide the tremor in my voice—“dying to kiss you again right now.”
His hand slid down my back to hold me in place as he ground into me. God. He was hard too. I lifted my face, shivering with anticipation, and he kissed me. Long and slow and deep, it melted me into boneless surrender. I didn’t even realize he’d lifted me off my feet till he set me back down.
And then he sank to his knees, eager to restore the balance that had been so heavily tipped in his favor the night before.