“You’re wounded,” War says, startling me. We’ve both been quiet for so long, I’ve forgotten I’m not alone. I’ve forgotten where we are, and why, and when. Deep enough inside my head to drown.
I pull hard on the reins and May stops short, giving me a jolt. “Huh?”
War catches up, glances at me, then juts his chin at May’s rear, pointing behind me.
It takes me a moment to figure out that the bloody trail on the ground is somehow related to what he said. I look down. My saddle is slick with blood.
“Huh,” I repeat. Must be mine. I examine my chest and abdomen and — “Yeah, ok,” I say, wincing. Something there, just under the ribcage. “Damn. Didn’t feel a thing.”
War dismounts. “Let us rest and see to it. We cannot be sure what lies ahead.”
Just like him to state the obvious. I’m too dazed to think of some witty comeback. I realize I’ve felt the pain for a while now, but it was too distant to focus my attention. Nowhere near as urgent as the savage swing that ended Astarte before she could say anything useful. Before she could say anything, period.
And that cursed dagger, scrambling my brain from the bottom of the saddlebag as sure as if Ol’ Lucy himself was picking my ears with it. Should’ve left it in Mammon’s Vault to rust in peace. Now, it’s as if everything’s conspiring to make me remember. Think back about the guy who once used it to doom the last chance for salvation of our wretched race. The guy who, somehow, evolved to be me.
How did Astarte know?
Who else knows?
Sliding out of the saddle, I collapse, but War rushes in and braces his good arm around my waist just as my knees hit the dusty pavement. A part of me wants to shake him off with a stupid and inaccurate claim that I don’t need no help. Another part of me wants to cling around his neck and hide my face in his hair and sleep there, or maybe cry. But before they can fight it out, War walks me to a dry fountain pool with a statue broken beyond recognition presiding over the overgrown debris inside, and seats me on the pale grass next to it.
Silent and methodical, he rolls over a broken column and lifts my feet on it. Then he saunters back to where the horses are, rummages through his saddlebags, and returns with the worn leather pouch where he keeps the handful of his more fragile possessions. The weirdly feminine bone comb engraved with miniature, incredibly intricate decorations. The delicate vial of thin, translucent oil he uses to coat his blade. The assortment of sturdy needles and coarse thread for patching leather armor and horse equipment. Some writing implements?
No, my memory must be playing tricks on me. Or rather, my imagination. The oil I remember well enough, but now that I think about it, I’m not entirely sure about the needles, and even less about the comb. When I try to place these wannabe memories, I fail. No clue when I could’ve seen War take out his unmentionables.
Perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps I did?
That’s it, I realize, but there’s no time to form a solid image, let alone put together any semblance of the when and where or why. He’s back and kneeling next to me and when he says, “Take off your jacket,” his voice wakes me from shallow sleep. Although he is back and kneeling, he’s to my right, not to my left as the dream had it.
“Ugh.” Bending forward to grant him access to the spine of my armor actually hurts quite a bit. A squishy, poky pain that makes me vaguely nauseous. Moist warmth spills over my stomach. More blood.
“Pull on it,” I instruct after he’s been fumbling with the clasp for a while, hours in half-dream-time, giving me plenty of opportunity to soak up the heat of his hand through accidental contact with the clammy skin on my neck. When has he taken his glove off? I must’ve slept longer than I thought. “Just pull away from the back of my skull.”
Not the impressed gasp I was hoping for. My jacket unzips along my back and the chilly breeze sends a shudder through me. I cringe preemptively as I lean back, expecting the icy touch of the marble on my sweaty skin, but it never comes: War has arranged my scarf as a blanket behind me.
“Thanks,” I mumble.
“Thank me if I don’t rip the sleeves off your suit,” he grumbles, struggling to peel me out of my armor’s jealous embrace.
What I think is, that sounds kinda hot. What I say is, “It’s not that flimsy.”
Unexpectedly pleasant as this experience has been so far, I yelp when he tries to move my breastplate. More blood gushes out of the unseen wound and some seeps under my belt and into my crotch, hot like piss.
“Something is lodged here,” War mutters, feeling carefully between the grooves of the breastplate. “Do you truly not remember being struck? By a spear? Or an arrow?” Some of his habitual irritation has made it back into his voice.
“Dunno. I mean… you tell me, War, if you remember any of that stuff. Like, whether they even had spears and arrows.”
He looks at me and blinks with disbelief. “Of course I remember. The berserkers had axes and cudgels. The flying beasts she summoned had flaming arrows: too heavy to fly far, weighed with extra fuel to set the ground on fire where they landed. Hm. Those could not have pierced your plate. But the darts from those crossbowmen could. As could Astarte’s spear.” He blinks again. “What?”
I realize I’m grinning, and apparently, he can tell despite the visor. “I love it when you get all tactical like that.”
“Tactical? Is that what you call taking the most basic stock of the situation?”
He’s blushing. It makes me grin even wider. “That’s way more tactical than anything I ever do before getting into a fight.”
“Be that as it may,” he says, shaking his head at my exaggeration, “it is unlike you to permit enemies within melee range.”
He pulls some bloody little thing out of my body and frowns at it. “She clipped you. This is from the tip of her spear.”
The object is undoubtedly exactly what War judged it to be. Rubbing the blood off, I find a crystalline, dart-like shard, still buzzing faintly with echoes of angelic magic. I toss it over my shoulder with a disgusted grunt.
“I remember now.”
War pauses the systematic sucking of my blood off his fingers. “Oh?”
“It was when she charged at you the last time. I thought she got you. Rushed in. Wasn’t thinking.”
His hand drops on his knees. “How foolish can you be? Was it not obvious I was leading her away from you?”
“Didn’t look like you were leading anyone anywhere, bro. More like you were running as fast as Ruin could carry you.”
“It was a close one, War, and you know it. Could’ve been the last for either one of us, or even both.”
His brow furrows and his gaze wonders as he thinks about it, the blood on his lips like makeup smeared by kisses. But in the end, he shakes his head, as I knew he would. “No. Our victory was guaranteed. We have beaten the Horde once, and we will beat them again even if all of them should rise!”
I open my mouth to argue, but all that comes out is a tired sigh. Not waiting for a response, War slowly separates the breastplate from my blood-soaked skin. His face disappears under his cowl as he bends down to look closer and sniff the wound.
“How bad is it?” I ask, feeling lightheaded again.
Turns out, his pouch holds a small bolt of clean linen and a flask that spreads a strong alcoholic odor when he uncorks it.
“If I’m gonna need stitching, I want a drink of that,” I point out as he tears off a piece of the linen and soaks it with the booze.
“It’s not for drinking,” he murmurs. Without warning, he dabs at my wound.
I squeak, making more drama than the burn is worth, and judging from the glance War gives me, he knows it too. But he hands me the flask anyway.
A wiser man would change his mind after inhaling the vile humors rising from the mouth of the vial – but not me. I gulp and oh, God. Oh, my fucking God. “What the hell is this?” I rasp, barely holding back the coughs that would not only betray me as someone who, in fact, can’t hold his booze all that well, but also make the wound bleed, which would in turn make War dab at it again.
He chuckles, the white of his teeth gleaming from the shadow of his hood, and takes the flask away from me just as I was about to take another sip of that absolute poison against all reason.
Having cleaned the wound, he pinches it shut experimentally. The gash looks kinda neat when he does that: straight, clean and about a finger long. Probably twice as deep, though. “I suppose I could just bandage it up,” War says. “But it might reopen if we find trouble soon, as I expect we shall. It would be better to suture it. Half a dozen stitches ought to do. What say you?”
I’m drunk already, is what I wanna say. And I love the warmth of your fingers on my skin. But I just nod.
War gets busy threading a slender bone needle with twine so fine I can hardly see it. So, I didn’t make that up after all. He scowls fiercely, aiming and missing time after time. The needle is comically tiny between the fingers of his giant paw, each the size of a small tree trunk, I swear. His right hand, unused to precision, trembles with effort. I bite the insides of my cheeks to stop myself from asking him to just let me do it. If this is what he has to go through when he stitches his own wounds, it’s only fair I suffer through it with him now that he’s about to stitch mine.
He lets out a frustrated growl and switches hands, so that the right holds the needle, and the monster gauntlet does the threading.
He gets it with perfect precision on the first try.
Huh. And there he was acting all shy with the pressure plate in Mammon’s Vault.
“I see you’re still better with your left,” I say.
“Bah. Only for some things. Do you mind?” He gestures with the gauntlet. “The other might shake if you flinch.”
I smile. “The murder mitten doesn’t shake, eh?”
After staring at me a moment, uncomprehending, he smiles back. Sort of. Like, there’s this barely perceptible twitch in his cheeks and an immeasurably small upward tilt in the corners of his lips, but I like to think of it as a smile, ok?
“I don’t mind,” I say. And you should know better than to even ask, you big oaf, I think. Plus, this way I get to enjoy his touch on my nude stomach for a bit longer.
That single swig of booze – or whatever that thing was – hit me, but I’m not nearly drunk enough to zone out of the pain. I hiss at the first puncture and my fingers curl around… his scarf? Yeah, because he’s leaning so low over me. Forcing my fist to unwrap, I casually turn my hand up, so his hair caresses my palm. Drunk enough, I guess, to imagine that I need to endure the pain for him. That it would please him. This makes the pain sexy, and that makes me even more lightheaded. My fingers are playing with his hair and I can’t do shit to stop them.
“For future reference,” War says, startling me into pulling my hand back as if burned and sending my heart on a wild race – none of which he notices, fully absorbed in executing his delicate task, “should it ever appear again that I am ‘running’ from enemies in a direction opposite from where you are—”
Another puncture, and my hand is back with its bullshit.
“…try to remember that, unlike you, I do use my head while fighting—”
Another puncture. His hair, even this filthy, matted strand that gets into everything, feels so damn good in my hand. I’m drifting off again, or something, because more wannabe memories flood me. It felt so damn good—
“…and not just as a blunt weapon. So, chances are… I am, indeed, executing some tactics and not—”
Some sound slides out of my throat and fuck, it’s nothing like a cry of pain.
It’s a damn moan, that’s what it is.
War glances at me and stops speaking mid-sentence.
I can guess what he sees in my eyes alright. I didn’t exactly intend to communicate it, but now that it’s out, I let it be. No point trying to hide it. It’s the truth.
It’s longing. As vast as the cities of Heaven, as deep as the Abyss, as hot as the furnaces of Hell. I long for that warm, strangely clean and well-manicured hand to stroke my cheek, thumb my lower lip and pull my chin down. I long for those broken, blooded lips of his to latch onto my open mouth, for those white teeth to clink against mine. I long for his arms to lock me in an embrace so tight there’s no room to run, no air to breathe, no thoughts, just him.
He killed Astarte today, not because she was a threat, lying in a pool of her own blood amidst the corpses of her troops, killed twice over. Nor because his temper ran short in the face of her taunts. He killed her… forsaking his duty… to spare my feelings.
And here they are now, alive and well for the first time in decades, pouring out of me in pristine silence, in stillness so perfect I’m convinced both our hearts have stopped beating.
Whether he can tell my stare is glued to his lips, or by sweet chance, he licks them.
“You were saying?” I prod gently.
“Uh…” He swallows, his jaw muscles flexing, and looks down. I follow his gaze to where the giant paw holds the needle steady, lodged in my flesh. Heat blooms over my chest and neck, but it’s not a blush. At least, not mine. His brand is bright enough to outshine the setting sun.
“I was saying…” he rumbles, finishing the stitch, but it’s not until he finishes the next, and the one after, that he completes his thought. “That you should have more faith in me. And take better care of yourself.”
I’d put my life in his hands any day. He must know that. Right? No need to spell it out.
“I’ll be fine,” I whisper. What’s there to worry about, with him at my side? Victory is guaranteed, and all that.
Only when he looks away do I realize he probably meant something else.
He wets his lips again, then leans down to bite off the extra twine. I close my eyes, absorbing the moment. His lips on my skin. His searing breath. It lingers, long enough that I start to wonder if I’m dreaming again.
“Good job,” I say when he straightens up, sitting back on his heels. I try to grin. “It’ll make a sexy scar.”
But War’s good mood has timed out. He presses a bandage into my hand and marches away, leaving me to wrap this up on my own. Not quite ready for it yet, I watch him stand by Ruin and stroke his frizzy mane. Before he returns the pouch with the medical supplies to the saddlebag, he pulls out that dreadful flask and takes a long swig from it. I smile, betting with myself on whether he’ll cough. But he leans his forehead on the saddle, and I can’t tell.