Duty Comes First

Part 4 of Not Alone

The following two days, as you can imagine, passed in anything but boredom. In the armory, we discovered an assortment of discarded angelic weapons as diverse as demon bloodlines. They were in various states of disrepair, but usable for training. War mostly let the gauntlet lie and practiced with one hand. Even after decades of swinging Chaoseater (which weighs almost as much as me) with his right arm, his left shoulder is still larger. Not a difference one could notice under his armor, but we let that lie too.

I taught him a few of my dirty tricks, including the one I’d used to bring him down in our first match—though I never confessed that I’d used my magics against him as well, and I never intend to. He wrinkled his nose and swore he’d never sink as low as to fight that way, but we practiced it anyway, in the name of “expanding his acumen”. In return, he taught me a selection of power moves that I could adapt to short blades, and would soon find a use for in the close quarters combat of a crowded battlefield.

We’d dance till our bodies glistened with sweat and every muscle burned with exertion. Then we’d bathe in the pool. And then we’d make love.

You need to understand, though, that I can only call it that now, in hindsight. I didn’t think about it that way then. I didn’t think about it in any way at all, and that was the beauty of it. Once we overcame that initial friction, it was all incredibly simple and easy, with transitions from lighthearted teasing to wordless immersion in sensation as smooth as Lilith’s skin.

Saying that we made love might also give the wrong idea of how far we went. We touched and tasted and stroked and sucked every point of interest on each other’s bodies and explored every viable orifice with fingers and tongues, but we never made it to that last step. Not that there was anything holding us back. We just took our time, even though we were well-aware of how soon and how suddenly it could run out. This is another thing I often ponder on in hindsight, but never gave a single thought to at the time. Our pace was what it was, and neither of us bothered questioning it.

Still, I insist that it was lovemaking. It was closer to it than any other experience of this kind that I care to remember, and if there’s something above and beyond what bloomed between us in those three days, sprouting out of loneliness deeper than the Abyss and alienation from everything and everyone else in Creation—if there’s something more that comprises “true love”, then I don’t know what it is, where it might be found, nor have I ever witnessed it in all my travels and adventures, which, not to brag, aren’t few.

But before you jump to any conclusions, I wouldn’t say that we “fell in love”. Not in that stupid way that makes one idolize the other beyond recognition so that the other can never truly live up to that image despite their best efforts. That stupid way that’s necessarily followed by a matching “falling out of love” which either brings about the grim acceptance of the other’s less attractive traits together with one’s disappointment, or, more often, doesn’t. No. War and I couldn’t idolize each other because we had been friends and brothers in arms for a century. We had long ago recognized one another’s flaws at least as well as—if not better than—we knew each other’s strengths.

Which isn’t to say that there was nothing new to learn. We told each other our names of old, and a few tales from before we were Horsemen. War remembers little of that time, being of the youngest—and the last—generation of Nephilim. I chose my tales with care, though no spark of recognition flickered in his eyes when I revealed who I used to be. Perks of youth! Of course, I know now, as I should’ve known back then too, that he would not have judged me.

We spoke of the pain and exhilaration of the transformation, comparing notes on the sustainability of different phases, of Ruin and Mayhem and their myriad moods, of getting lost in the Void and a dozen other things we had in common but had never talked about before with one another or either of the other two.

He told me about the blessings and the burdens of wielding Chaoseater, and how the constant effort he must invest to keep its bloodlust in check exhausts him. He let me study the device adorning the stump of his left arm till my curiosity was sated and told me what he could recall of its making. How feverishly Death toiled to craft the gauntlet and imbue it with power, a curious fusion of his own necromantic magics and War’s fire, racing against time. The injury wasn’t fatal, but the pull of the withdrawal was. Indulging Chaoseater’s bloodthirst had been intoxicating; the shame that ensued, devastating.

I hadn’t been around to witness this—Death would sooner die, heh, than let me inside his workshop—but when Fury and I met in the Council chambers, to try and get War back into their good books, she told me in a hushed voice that War had not spoken once since the foul deed. That his flame had wilted to embers, and that it would go out if something wasn’t done. She’d been unable to hide her dread. Not me, though. I’d been much better at packing things away at that time.

But in the Redoubt, while War spoke, I consciously let my guilt surge and ebb, carried by the unwavering current of his voice, until I almost felt at peace with what we had done. Almost.

When, satisfied and exhausted, we’d huddle up together to rest, we sometimes talked of our lovemaking too. It is how he knows that he can insert as many fingers as he pleases; that the piercings are absolutely there to be tugged on; that if there’s pain, I’ll relish it just the same as pleasure. And how I know that he prefers the latter without the former. I loved how he approached it all without so much as a hint of embarrassment, scruple or judgment. If any of my cravings sounded odd to him, he never let on, and was willing to try anything. And when he paused to ask questions, he went about it in such a frank and unveiled manner that I found myself answering with more consideration than I had ever given this subject even in the privacy of my own head.

On the third day, we finally resolved to fuck. After foreplay long enough to make me leak and tremble with need, while War glowed and steamed, he pushed up on his knees from lying on top of me, flipped me face-down with a grunt of urgency, then pulled my hips up. He wore the gauntlet, as he wanted the use of both hands. And to make things balanced, as he likes them, I let out my tail. It coiled around his armored hand, the sting resting safely on his shoulder. I felt the hot swell of his massive erection brush against my hole, and I begged. I begged for it, like the slut I turn into when he lays his hands on me, every single time.

And that—that is when we heard the distant call of trumpets. Barachiel had finally arrived. The trumpets were equally a challenge for Absalom, pretending to boast with typical angelic arrogance; and a message for us, that it was time to ride.

We froze.

The trumpets sounded again.

I laughed, resting my sweaty forehead on the cold stone floor. Of course Barachiel had to arrive just then. No other time could’ve possibly been so perfectly and utterly wrong.

And then I sobbed, my self-control torn to shreds for that one exquisite moment by the pull of opposing emotions too complex for me to grasp, but easy enough to express.

It was a single sob. I didn’t weep or anything unmanly like that. Though I admit I wanted to.

“I don’t suppose—” I rasped—“that we can, maybe, finish what we started before going out there?”

Before facing the world again, the terror and the exultation of combat, the violent delight of riding in force with my brothers, the dreadful prospect of slaughtering my countless other brothers. Before leaving this unexpected, undeserved haven and the peace I found, absurdly, in the embrace of War.

“No, brother,” he said, as I’d known he would. “Duty comes first.”

I’ll come first, I promise! I almost whimpered.

He extricated the gauntlet from the tiny bit desperate clutch of my tail and stood up, his warmth and glow receding like a dream. I swallowed hard and groped around on my hands and knees for my mask while my tail retracted. Shallow breaths, the mantra repeated in my head, shallow breaths. But it wasn’t working. I felt like someone was pulling my guts out hand over hand and it wouldn’t stop.

I swear, it was only then that it occurred to me what a wicked game I had played on myself. Probably on War too. I couldn’t begin to guess how he felt. A part of me hoped, while another feared, that he would be happy the long-coveted battle was finally upon us. But it didn’t look like it. He wouldn’t as much as glance in my direction while we prepared in sepulchral silence. His skin was ashen, his expression stony, without even a trace of his usual scowl, in thoughts so deep not even their echoes reached his features.

Death sent Dust to relay the final instructions. I passed on the scrap of parchment to War without a word. It was evening. Enshrouded by my magics, we stood behind the rampart, waiting for the signal. A pressure grew in me to say something, whatever, to rekindle our communication as it had been before, in sudden fear we’d end up leaving not just the love but also the friendship here. But no words would come, no jokes, no nothing. My heart had sunk so low it scraped the bottom of my belly and I felt sick. When I looked at him, turning overtly so he couldn’t miss my movement, he didn’t return my gaze.

His brow furrowed, though.

I’d never been so relieved to see him frown.

He sat on his heels in front of an embrasure and laid Chaoseater across his knees. The hideous blade lit up with a faint orange glow at the same time as the brand on his forehead, and I saw him close his eyes and take a deep breath that seemed to feed the unseen flame.

“Good idea,” I muttered, finally able to break the silence, and knelt beside him to try and center myself. Shallow breaths. Shallow breaths. This time it worked. It always works in the end. I don’t recommend it, though. See, you can’t pack up just the bad and keep just the good. You pack it all up and you’re left with nothing. In my not inconsiderable experience, it’s mostly a perfectly acceptable tradeoff. But it’s also how you cheat yourself out of anything worth living or dying for.

I wish I hadn’t packed up the Redoubt. But I had to. Or I’d have to keep the Genocide too.

It’s fucked up.

When time came to ride out, War put a hand on my shoulder and it looked like he would speak, but he didn’t. Didn’t need to. I heard him just fine. I nodded.

He was majestic that night, in his element, at the peak of his power, and enemies fell in droves under Ruin’s fiery hooves. Not that the rest of us were far behind, but open battle is War’s domain, and no one can compete with him in it.

So many fell. So, so many. That was the first time the four of us rode together against the Nephilim army and Absalom quickly realized he was on the losing side. Had he not had the wisdom to begin his long retreat before sunrise, the war would’ve been over by next sunset.

But he did retreat, and we pursued, and the carnage seemed without end. In the days and nights to come, War and I didn’t speak, nor seek each other’s company. With our combat roles as different as our personalities, we scarcely even fought together.

I watched his back, though, and he knew it. Every time I’d take out an opponent charging at him while his attention was engaged elsewhere, he’d turn in my direction, spotting me with no apparent trouble through the insane melee, which was how I knew that he was watching over me too, and I’d smile. You’re welcome, brother.

And on that one instance when I lost sight of him in the chaos, an explosive crunch of bone and squelch of flesh made me swivel in the saddle to witness a Nephilim berserker as tall on foot as I was on horseback get impaled on Chaoseater through the chest just as she was about to swing her burning cudgel at my back. She fell forward when War jerked his blade free of the corpse with a triumphant bellow. His brand burned bright enough under his cowl to paint his entire face red. But even as he galloped past me, we exchanged a glance and I saw his lips curl. Thank you, brother, I thought, heart thudding. I know he heard.

During such brief moments of respite that we had between relentless fighting, sometimes I’d feel his gaze on me, but when I’d look, he’d avert his eyes. Just as I stared at him when I thought he wasn’t looking, then pretended a keen interest in the dirt caught under the claws of my gloves when he’d turn my way. I couldn’t bear to think about what had happened in the Redoubt. It was torture, especially when he was within sight, within reach. The rift between that dream and our reality was too wide and threatened to tear me in half.

At last, it became clear that the Horde would manage to escape the trap and regroup. We were assigned to different contingents of angelic forces and only rode as Four again during Absalom’s last stand.

By the time it was all over, I had long reached the bottom of the black pit of guilt and despair and I took the first chance to split and leave it all as far behind as my modest world-hopping ability allowed. I didn’t meet War once since then until the Council paired us up for the current task. I never consciously avoided him, but I never sought him out either. And he was wise to do the same.

As he said, at the start of our journey, I thought this memory, like all memories of that time, was best left behind, and I went out of my way to show him just how “over it” I was, and what a non-entity he was to me outside our grim duty. But then the journey took us back to the site of Nephilim slaughter, and within sight of the Redoubt; and coming full circle, that rift, that infected, gaping wound, was finally cleansed, and started to close.

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