A Second Chance

Part 5 of Not Alone

Click-click-click-click. I’m pulling the trigger, but the chambers are empty. My ungloved hand is too small to wrap around the stock. It’s slick. Why is it slick?

Still carry that blade-oil?

Oil and wax.

Definitely oil.

I moan, half-awake now. Damn, that was a hot dream. I gallop after it. Oh, yeah. I mounted his lap and we maneuvered into position.

If something interrupts us this time, I swear…

I know. He laughed. You’ll come first. I promise.

My eyes shoot open, heart racing. It all comes back to me. Oh, God.

I’m lying on top of the ridiculously inadequate bedding made up of War’s leather coat, with my scarf as a pillow, covered with his cape. He sits hunched over a brazier, making the noise that woke me. His broad back is turned to me, its shadow humongous. I blink some more. The light is warmer than I remember it, almost like from real fire. But the air and the stone are so much colder.

“What are you doing?” I mumble.

“Mending my belt.”

Mending. Belt. The words carry absolutely no meaning. Then it dawns on me. “Did I…?”

“No. Go back to sleep.”

“I’m cold.”

“I’ll join you soon.”

I nod contentedly, trying to coil myself into a tighter ball so more of me would fit under the cape. It smells foul. Of smoke and dust and horse. I love it.

“War?”

“Hm?”

“Did I really say that aloud?”

His shoulders shake. “Yes.”

“Oh, God.” I bury my face. It wasn’t a dream. “And did you really say what you said after that?” I half-hope he won’t hear as I mutter into the scarf. It smells foul too.

“Yes.” Click-click-click-click. “I’ll say it again if you’ll shut up and go back to sleep.”

“Deal.” I rise on my elbow to hear better.

He lifts his head and turns so I can see the outline of his profile. “I smile when I think of you.”

I fall back with a grin so wide it’d go all the way around my head if not for my ears. It’s not exactly what he said. He said it was the one memory of the Redoubt that could make him smile even in the darkest hours. That, of all things! Apparently, he thought I’d been joking to lift the mood, and later found it quite amusing.

But what he said now is even better. My heart thumps slow and hard. It wasn’t a dream. It isn’t a dream. It’s as real as the “real life” we’ll have to return to, and though I know I don’t deserve this, I vow I will, eventually.

Sleep doesn’t come back, but I keep my word and wait in silence, shivering from the cold and the excited jitters. At last, he lays his sash and satchel down and joins me. Oh, the bliss! He puts an arm under my shoulders, and I snuggle up as close as physically possible. His hair tickles my face when he kisses my forehead.

I prop myself up so I can look at him. “Gonna ask you something silly.”

He traces my ear and jaw with his fingertips, watching me lazily. “How unusual.”

“Right. Well, sillier.” I clear my throat. “Would you mind if I cut a lock of your hair to carry it with me?” I’ve already twined one around my finger.

His eyebrows go up, though not half as high as I expected. “As a souvenir?”

“You make it sound so cheap and dirty. As a memento. Something to remind me of you. Of us.” I swallow. “Please? No one will know. I’ll keep it in a pocket inside my jacket. And even if someone sees it, they’ll think it’s from some angel lover.”

The eyebrows drop flat, and I feel his chest muscles tighten. “You have many of those?”

Nice work, Strife. Well done. What was it the godhead said? You are all that is unsettled in the hearts of those who live and love? Nailed it that time.

“I had,” I enunciate. “A few. Over the thousands of years before I knew you.” I manage to bite my tongue before I go on to add how my preference is rather for demons. “There’s been no one since the war.” Then it hits me. “Wait. Are you… jealous?”

He snorts. “Of course not. It would be futile.” And there it goes, the gritting of teeth. “I have no claims to stake, even if I could promise to always be available myself.” His gaze has drifted aside, but now he focuses on me again. “What?”

I realize I’m grinning like an idiot. “Is that a yes on the lock of hair?”

“Yes,” he growls. “Take it. Cut it whole for all I care. It will grow back twice as long by the time we meet again either way.”

“Aw.” I stroke his cheek. “You know it doesn’t have to be that way, right? We can meet whenever we’re not doing other stuff.”

He grunts, unconvinced. When it becomes clear he won’t reply, I sigh and lie down on his shoulder again. For a while we rest in silence.

“Strife.”

Something in the way his voice has turned to a whisper makes me brace myself. He takes my hand, but I can’t find the strength to squeeze it in return.

“We must go back. Samael awaits.”

I press my forehead into his shoulder. Dread claws at my guts. I force myself to breathe, breathe deeply, and endure it. The pain is a physical thing, familiar, a freshly stitched wound being pulled apart again.

“It will be different this time,” he says. He’s reading me like an open scroll.

It only occurs to me that he’s not comforting me, but himself, when I feel a tremor in his stomach.

I blink, chewing over this revelation. He feels the same? It’s not exactly a surprise; I kind of assumed it. But I never spared a single thought to the possibility that by languishing in my misery, like I did back then, I’m making it worse for him.

I’ve just discovered that I can, in fact, weather my pain and keep breathing. But I can’t weather his.

“You know what’s gonna happen, right?” I purr, rising on my elbow. “Samael will want to take the lead. Which, honestly, doesn’t sound completely wrong. He is kinda impressive. And then later, he’ll claim our victory for himself. It’ll boost his popularity sky-high.”

War lets out a long hum that rumbles in his chest. I can feel it more than I can hear it. “I’d like to see him try.”

“A demon with both brawn and brains.” I shake my head. “We better watch out.”

His brand flares. “One day, I’ll split his skull, and then we’ll see about the brains.”

I laugh. It’s a bit forced, but it’ll have to do. “C’mon.” I hop up and extend a hand. “The sooner we’re done with him, the better.”

We dress in silence, but not of the foreboding, suspenseful kind. I help him tie the sash around his belt—neatly, not all in tangles and knots like it was when I helped untie it—and he helps me find my right glove, which has somehow ended up on the adjacent island.

Finding the serpent hole proves a trivial task. We traversed the whole labyrinth already and only two islands—that which we came from and that which we thought we had marked, but didn’t—carry no bulletcrumbs.

We stand within sight of the shimmering portal, staring at it, deep in thought.

Eventually, he puts a hand on my shoulder. “Are you ready, brother?”

“Almost,” I lie. I’ll never be ready to wake from this dream, even if it is real. “You still owe me that lock of hair.”

War clears his throat. “I may have… something better.”

He rummages in his satchel while I wait, unaccountably nervous. Weird things cross my mind. A scrap of his loincloth? The canine of some demon that gave us more trouble than usual? A feather from Astarte’s wing?

What he offers cuts me in half.

It’s a toy horse. Chiseled from some… glass or obsidian. Crude, all vertices and edges and flat, reflecting faces. The front and hind legs are one structure each, with no gap between the left and right, and there’s no eyes or mane or tail. Yet it’s immediately and unmistakably recognizable. And it’s the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen in my long, long life.

“Take it,” War says, extending his hand further, and I remember that I have a mask, and that he can’t see me melting with adoration, and that he’s perhaps reading my stunned silence as shunning. There’s no way I can push anything through the lump in my throat, but I step forward to take his gift.

As I reach for it, War’s hand closes around mine, with the glass pony between our palms. He shuts his eyes and takes a deep breath. And when he exhales, I feel heat spill out of the toy like lava.

He lets go, then, and I open my hand to find the horse aglow with fire. War’s fire.

“It will keep your hands warm,” he mutters. “Though you may find it difficult to summon its power. I’m no good with magics.”

“You made this,” I finally utter. Click-click-click-click, he chipped while I slept. “From abyssal ore?”

“I assure you, more than enough remains for our needs.”

Because of course I’d be concerned about that.

I watch the glow recede by degrees, though the warmth lingers. “How do I make it glow again?”

The shadow of his cowl is too thick for me to decipher his expression, but I would bet the muscles of his jaw are flexing. “Think of us,” he says in a quiet rumble. “Remember.”

My eyes swim. I close them, and do as he says. I remember. The brush and slide of his kiss. The delightful contrast of his pale skin, flush against mine. His soft, barely voiced groans. His face when he’s about to—

Startled, I almost drop the horse when it ignites. With actual flames licking up from its crystalline facets to form a fiery mane and tail.

“Seems to work just fine!”

The white of War’s teeth betrays his quiet snicker.

“I better keep this away from ammo,” I mutter, still stricken. When the flames die down, I wrap my hand around his gift and press it over my heart. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Say I won’t find that in some demon’s hoard.”

I shake my head enthusiastically. “You won’t. I swear. I’ll treasure this till death parts me from it.”

His eyes widen in the closest approximation of panic I’ve ever witnessed on him. “If but a whiff of this reaches him—it is no laughing matter!”

Too late. I laugh, long and loud, and it comes from a place of genuine cheer. Though I’m still not quite myself—or that other self, the one who lives and kills outside this dream made real—at least my insides are no longer twisted in a knot.

“Insufferable,” War grumbles, and jumps into the serpent hole before I can say wait, let alone thank you, brother, for kicking that door open and trusting me to keep it that way.


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