New Horizons

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rt54It was a cool autumn day. The sun just peaked over the horizon as light splashed across the waves, reflecting again and again in shades of gold. The tips of the trees on the shore were burnished bronze, the leaves shimmering between shades of crimson and orange and yellow. It was the sort of morning that came only rarely near Old York—the sort of morning that you wished you could capture in your pocket and take out to look at again and again when the usual fog rolled back over the waters and the sky turned from cobalt blue to grey.

Alexa breathed in the morning air, tucking her short blonde hair back beneath the dark hat she was wearing. The small boat rocked beneath her as the man in front of her rowed quietly across the waves. The muscles of his thick arms tensed and relaxed again, moving beneath the tattooed skin. A stubbly beard covered his strong jawline, and his dark eyes focused on something behind her. She knew that he was probably listening for something—but all was quiet in the early morning. Hell, even the birds had finally shut up. Thank fucking saints.

They had flipped a ring to see who got to row. Mickey had lost, so Alexa got to sit while he worked. Normally, she would have teased him. And normally, he would have set down the oars and refused to go any further. And normally, they would have gotten into some kind of contest that would have wound up with at least one of them overboard and soaking wet. But this time, they were quiet.

Alexa raised a hand and, as discussed before they embarked, Mickey very gently placed the oars into the boat, allowing them to glide across the water silently for a few more feet. Water dripped off the wood, puddling in the bottom of the small craft as Alexa’s green eyes remained fixed on the object in front of them.

It was a ship, dark in color with furled sails. It gently bobbed in the water, its anchor weighing it to the bottom. Barnacles coated it near the waterline, and Alexa could see where the engine was likely located on the stern. Mickey put one scarred finger to his lips and then reached out an arm, placing a hand on the port side of the ship to prevent their boat from knocking into it.

The problem with ships was that they were pretty high up from the water line. Fortunately, there was the anchor line. Alexa grabbed the thick chain as Mickey began the climb, curling his legs around it to pull himself upward toward the ship. They had decided he would go first for a few different reasons—mostly that he wouldn’t have to scramble for a weapon when he boarded. He was simply better at punching people than Alexa was—and also more familiar with ship-to-ship combat. That, and Mickey was heavier. Alexa could keep the chain from rattling as he boarded and then follow after.

As Mickey climbed upward and she kept the chain steady, Alexa glanced at the weapons at her belt to make sure that they were secure. Knife? Swords? Drugs? Check, check, and check. She held the chain as Mickey boarded, and then quickly began the climb herself. The metal dug into her palms, scraping against her callouses as she swarmed upward. Her ab muscles strained as she turned herself over when she reached the top, then dragged herself over the side and slid onto the ship.

Mickey was already standing, arms up, brass knuckles glinting hard on his hands. Alexa unsheathed one blade and then the other from her belt, glancing around. It was obviously a cargo ship. Barrels and crates were piled high on deck and likely in the hold below. It was strangely quiet on deck—which wasn’t all that surprising. The two of them had made sure that an extra barrel of hooch “accidentally” wound up in the hands of the crewmembers last night. Most of them would be sleeping in or nursing a headache. (Mickey had said it was overcomplicated, but Alexa was paranoid. And besides, they’d only be out some hooch if they didn’t drink it).

Mickey jerked his head toward the ship cabin and Alexa nodded, moving forward. She eased open the metal door and stepped inside, quietly moving down the stairs. Everything seemed to echo, but she hoped that the noise they made was something that the crew would be used to—or that she was just being hypersensitive. For the moment, no one seemed to give a shit. Whether it was because the crew was hungover or just lazy—it didn’t matter.

They went straight toward the captain’s cabin. Mickey had gone over the general layout of the ship with her beforehand. Useful that he was a ship’s engineer. They checked the door and then swung it open.

The room was small and cramped, but relatively clean. A bottle was set on a small table on one side of the room. A few pictures hung along the walls—papers clearly drawn by a child’s hand. He probably had a son or daughter waiting at home. A tiny bed was shoved against one corner. It clearly belonged to a captain who wasn’t the richest man in the world, but made do.

The captain himself had just begun to sit up in bed. He was about thirty or so with a dark, scruffy beard and bleary eyes. He was heavier set—obviously a Yorker with his broader face, “What the f…”

Before he could say anything more, Alexa surged forward, punching him once in the wind pipe with the hilt of her blade. The man made a strangled, choking noise, one hand scrambling toward his pillow. Mickey followed after and simply grabbed the man’s arm, pinning it to one side.

“None of that now,” Mickey reached beneath the pillow and pulled out a gun, throwing it across the room casually. The captain’s eyes followed it before staring toward Mickey. The eyes then narrowed as recognition flickered across his features.

Alexa grinned. She knew her grin unsettled people—something about the eyes, apparently. Either way, it was useful, “So we tried to pay you to get passage on your ship…you remember us, right? The two from Hayven? You stopped in our port briefly.”

The man grimaced and looked like he was about to talk, but Mickey raised one hand and he fell silent. Alexa continued, “So we offered to pay more. And when that didn’t work and you called us…what was it, Mickey?”

“Oh, I think it was ‘filthy pocket fuckers.’”

“Yeah, that. And you said you wouldn’t let us on your ship for any price. Now, we’re a smart bunch. Normally we’d just get another ship. Unfortunately, you’re the last ship that was going anywhere near Hayven, so we had to improvise.”

Mickey leaned forward, “So this is what’re yer gonna do, Rust Monkey. Yer gonna get tied up here and we’re gonna have yer crew sail the ship. Anyone who says otherwise gets killed real quick. If you don’t do as we ask? We kill you. If you tell your crew to rebel, we kill you and them. And if you try anything stupid. We kill you. Understand?”

The captain stared at them for a moment and then croaked, “But this is my ship.”

Alexa grinned widely as Mickey spoke, “You mean our ship.”

~

Alexa glanced out onto the waves as the sun faded from the sky. The plan was to stick around the coast and then eventually come into the port once everyone returned to Hayven from Devil’s Den. The Yorkers would be a few weeks late on their shipping—but that was about it. And after they’d killed the first crewmember, the rest had pretty much fallen in line. No one wanted to come out of Hayven’s morgue right now.

She heard footsteps behind her and her hand quickly went to the hilt of her blade. She glanced behind only to see Mickey, who cautiously stepped beside her and looked toward the shore with her. He was wearing his armor, thick black plates shifting over one another. His kilt was a dark green in the fading light. He didn’t look at her, but instead stared at the shore.

Their relationship was far from romantic. Shit. She was pretty sure that one of them will kill the other one day. And love was pretty much off the table. You needed to love yourself before you could love someone else—at least that’s what most people told her. And Alexa was pretty sure they both hated themselves equally. But they worked well together—so it was a relationship of convenience if nothing else.

Mickey spoke, his voice soft, “It’s glowing.”

Alexa turned to look back at the shore. From here, they could barely see where Hayven was—the wooden structures mostly covered by trees. She squinted for a moment before her green eyes widened and she responded, “No…it’s burning.”

Acceptance

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Dark Room

It was almost silent in the tent. All you could hear were the pained gasps coming from the prone man in the middle of the floor, breath wheezing as the knife carved into him again and again. There was a faint groan, a sigh, and then a menacing voice.

“Where is he? How long have you been here?”

There was more silence, and then a faint chuckle escaped the man’s lips, burbling with the blood that coated his teeth. He shifted slightly, his legs twisting unnaturally as a broken bone popped out of the skin, “You…will never find him…” His breath wheezed again as he tried to keep from showing weakness. “You will never…”

Suddenly, there was the sound of something metal slamming down onto the ground, and something popping painfully. The man screamed and writhed as Alexa watched the torture. It’s necessary. They took Remmy. They took him, and they’ve infiltrated our ranks. Besides, he deserves it.

They had found a plant—someone who had taken Remmy’s face and had been spying on the town. He had managed to take down an entire room of gang leaders—or at least tried. Though if he really wished to succeed, why didn’t he wait until we were all alone? Why didn’t he pick us off one by one? Unless they expected other plants in that room. Unless they thought that other gang leaders would have died and been present…

Alexa pushed a pale strand of hair away from her face, feeling her features lock into the stony façade she was becoming so used to. I’m so tired of not knowing the truth. I’m so tired of this bullshit. Her eyes drifted toward the two others in the tent beside the plant: Sparrow and Smiles.

Sparrow’s face was locked into something vicious; his warped features twisted by peeling skin and exposed muscle. His dark coat made him all but invisible in the night as he reached for another tool—another way to torture. Smiles sat quietly nearby, her knife raised in case the plant tried to escape. The faint glint of glasses hidden behind her black mask flashed in the gloom as her small form shifted slightly.

Alexa gritted her teeth slightly, jerking her head into the night behind her, “The others want to talk to him. Finish what you’re going to finish, and let the others take him.”

Sparrow glanced toward Alexa briefly, his voice rumbling low, “You might want to be careful with that.” He reached toward the man on the ground, his fingers twisting in something. The plant gasped, crying out briefly. Sparrow spoke again, his voice quieter this time, “Very careful.”

Alexa watched for a moment, eyes scanning what she could see of Sparrow’s face, “I know.”

Sparrow shoved the man toward the entrance of the tent—a ragged sack of meat and bones and bloody cloth that fell into Alexa’s arms. She dragged him out, turning as dark figures approached across the open field surrounded by trees.

“Give him to me.” The voice was stern and rough, belonging to a Yorker with hunched shoulders, grey beard and hair, scars, and a ratty shirt. Alexa watched the old man for a moment before pushing the plant toward him. Chuck will get what’s needed.

Chuck grabbed the man hard, his mouth snarling as he shoved his hand into an open wound in the man’s back. The man screamed, jerking spasmodically as Chuck shouted, “Where is he?!”

“You’ll…”

“Where is he?!”

“He’s….with…”

“Where is he?!”

The man screamed again and then let out a low whimper, body still jerking, “He’s…Shambletown. He’s near…”

Chuck stared at the man for a moment and then shoved him to the ground in disgust. He glanced to the others with him, jerking his head toward one end of the field, “Let’s move.”

Alexa merely stood as the others walked away, her eyes fixed on the body before her. The man was shaking slightly, trying his best to crawl away despite his wounds—despite the fact that he was tied up. Alexa grabbed his arm and roughly jerked him to his feet, eyes flickering over his bloodied, mangled features. I wonder how long he’s been here. She set her mouth into a thin line. You could have made allies with the enemy rather than with a friend, Alexa.

Stars silvered the field in front of her, turning darkness into faint light. A cool wind blew through the branches of the surrounding trees as she started dragging him, following the others. He needed to be put somewhere safe for the time being.

His voice rasped out at her, hoarse from screaming, “Alexa, you’ve become what you…always hated, you know.”

She ignored him, continuing to drag him forward. Still as stone. Don’t listen. He just wanted to get a rise out of her anyway—probably wanted her to kill him.

“You’ve become what they trained you to be. Puppet of House. Puppet of Dantes. Puppet of Barnes. Puppet of…”

Still as stone. Alexa waited for that twist in her gut—that moment where she felt sick to think of what she’d done. Her brow furrowed as she continued forward. I do hate being a puppet—he has that right.

“You have become the perfect killer—just like they wanted.”

Alexa paused for a moment, glancing to the man she was dragging. A faint smile was on his face; he knew how to push the right buttons. He knew she would react. And shouldn’t I? She waited for that feeling—that tugging bit of conscience. She waited for the guilt. She waited for any type of feeling at all.

And then she slowly realized that it wasn’t going to come.

She looked down at him and murmured three words, “I don’t care.”

~

“Sometimes you have to embrace what you are. And I think I have finally found peace with myself—for good or ill.”

End Game

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Photo: Flickr/Cristian Bodnar

Photo: Flickr/Cristian Bodnar

“You gotta figure out why it is you do this.”

“Well why do you do it?”

“Well at first it was the fucked up need to make things better. And then it was to protect someone I loved. ‘Course, that didn’t work out too good—as y’all know.”

“Yeah, I was there for that show.”

“So what’s your reason?”

“…I guess it’s the need to help.”

“Why?”

“Because if it wasn’t, then I wouldn’t care about the reasons or the repercussions. I’d just do it. But I do actually care what happens.

“…Conscience is a bitch, ain’t it?”

“Yes, it is.”

~

There are nights when it is quiet in the town of Hayven. All you can hear is the whisper of leaves scuttling against the ground, the creak of branches and the chirp of insects. Your footsteps sound loudly in your ears as you walk down dirt roads; your only companions are the silver light of the stars and moon.

Alexa enjoyed those nights—the ones when she traveled alone in the darkness. Her heart would beat rapidly in her chest—not from fear, never from fear—but from the sheer exhilaration of relying on and caring for herself and no one else.

Tonight, though, was definitely not one of those nights.

Cries and shouts echoed through the darkness as Alexa walked down road. She kept the wrapped hilt of each of her thin blades gripped firmly in either hand, the worn leather rubbing against her palms. She was hunting—hunting for those that had gone through the grave and hadn’t come out quite right. She was hunting for those that could ruin the efforts of the town by killing. Unfortunately, she was sure she didn’t have the complete list of names. Just means you need to be more careful. Always be on your guard, Alexa.

Moonlight silvered the buildings and roads, creating an alien world as bulky shapes loomed in the darkness. A cool wind twisted her pale hair in front of her face, catching it before tossing it aside as she moved through the night. Quick. Quiet. She jogged down the side of the main road, turning off into the woods as she leapt over logs and branches. Green eyes darted around her as she looked for anyone hiding in the dark. Nothing.

As she exited the woods toward one of the smaller buildings, she saw him. He was a giant of a man with sword and shield at the ready. His stance seemed at once aggressive and unsure, as if he were afraid. Alexa glanced briefly toward the building—the Kennel—and then slowly took one step toward him, calling out quietly, “Stew?”

He cringed in response, his voice rumbling low and almost desperate, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Go away, Alexa. Please.”

Alexa frowned faintly, watching him and remaining still as if afraid of startling a timid animal. I thought there was something wrong at the morgue but…

She took another step toward him and he flinched, backing away. Alexa paused again and slowly placed her swords away. You should have questioned him when you saw him last. You should have stayed with him instead of letting him drive you away.

Briefly, his words echoed in her head as she remembered the way his hard eyes glittered in the dark. Go away, Alexa. You can’t help me.

She swallowed and then spoke calmly, “Stew, what’s wrong? Talk to me.” She watched as his back straightened, muscles shifting beneath his armor—tensing. His face remained shadowed in the night as he lowered it. As if he wants to hide it.

“I shouldn’t have…I shouldn’t have said what I did. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” his voice faded to a whisper as he turned away. “Don’t lower your guard around me, Alexa…please.”

She narrowed her eyes slightly, feeling her chest tighten. Still trying to be the protector—even after what I said to him. She took a slow step forward, holding up one hand, “It’s okay, Stew.” She took another step toward him as he crouched to the ground, clutching his head between his hands. He rocked slightly and she could hear him whispering over and over, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Alexa grimaced and then crouched down next to him, holding one hand out, “What are you sorry about?”

“You were right. I don’t deserve you. You don’t love me—how could you? You…Don’t look at me, Alexa.”

She forced herself to keep her eyes trained on his face, hiding what she was feeling. You stabbed him in the back—deeper than any other before him. Selfish? Yes. Harsh? Entirely. But you knew that about yourself already. You’re afraid—and that’s what ultimately controls you.

Her voice dropped slightly as she responded, “Just because I’m not with you doesn’t mean I don’t love you, Stew. I always will. I just won’t be with you.” She reached forward and grabbed his hand, gently holding it for a moment. “Come talk with someone, please. You’re not alone. And you deserve so, so much better. You always do what’s right. You always stand up against the wrongs. You’re a good person. Do you know how rare that is?”

He shook his head slightly, lowering it further, “I’m not.”

“You are. Will you at least come with me to talk with someone? Please?”

He was silent for a moment and then looked up at her, eyes glittering faintly in the darkness, “All right.”

~

The woman’s face was shadowed in the dark. Her long brown hair fell wild around her shoulders, partially concealing a face with markings etched on it. It was the kind of face that reminded you of water—smooth and calm until the storm hit. And then it could transform into something ugly—something horrific and terrible.

Alexa stared at her, unblinking—not quite believing who she was seeing. The woman’s voice sounded out in the darkness as they stood on the dirt road concealed by the ever-present trees that whispered in the night, “Do you remember who I am?”

Quite frankly, she didn’t—not really. She had a few guesses, but they were far from anything close to being accurate. This woman—whoever she was—could be anyone. There was only one fact Alexa was certain of: she was a killer.

Alexa shook her head briefly, glancing to the tall man standing beside her—Stew. He had his shield and weapon, his eyes trained on the surrounding trees. His muscles tensed as he tightened his grip, teeth barred slightly. Hunting. She recognized the look from him—the look of a predator. He’s deciding whether or not the woman is prey. He’ll soon realize she’s not.

They’d been walking in the woods for about half an hour. Though “walking” was used in the loosest sense of the word. It was more than Alexa had been chasing after Stew, making sure he didn’t kill anyone offhand while “hunting.” Fucking Gravemind. Messing with people’s heads. She’d kept him in check so far, but she didn’t want to test her luck. There’s only so much I can do to control a killer.

Stew’s voice rumbled from the darkness as his eyes continued to train on the woman, “What do you think, Alexa?”

Alexa didn’t bother looking at him. Instead, she pushed a few pale strands of hair away from her green eyes, “Predator. I wouldn’t bother.”

Stew snorted in response, his eyes drifting elsewhere. Still hunting. Alexa prevented herself from cringing. Never show weakness around a predator. Ever. That was one of the rules—eat or be eaten.

The woman tilted her head to one side slightly, long hair brushing the side of her face as she considered the tall man in front of her. A faint smile quirked the corner of her mouth, “I like this one.”

Great. Love among murderers. Alexa tilted her head toward the woods, “Why are you here, anyway?”

The woman turned once more, training her eyes on Alexa—eyes that considered her and went through her, “Walk with me.”

~

“You need to stop playing these fucking games. Just do the work.”

“I’ve learned my lesson. That’s what I’m doing. That’s what I’m going to do.”

“Good.”

Resurrection

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Photo by: Flickr/Kathy

Photo by: Flickr/Kathy

The morgue was cold at this time of night. The darkness had leached away any sort of warmth the winter sun had given it that day, chilling the bones of the earth and frosting the ground with ice. Heavy beams crisscrossed overhead, the dark wood sturdy and unyielding. The cracked bar could be seen as a dark shape in one corner of the room, empty bottles stacked on its surface.

Alexa shivered, wrapping her arms around herself as she tucked her head more firmly into the scarf wrapped around her face. She had come to this place to do something that was either insanely stupid or simply practical—she hadn’t decided which. What she had decided, though, was that she would survive it.

Her green eyes flickered to the others around her. Aladdin was standing with House, clearly nervous as he shifted his weight from side to side. Dark hair hung in front of his angular face, eyes shifting from one location to another. His colorful scarves were muted by the gloom, reds and pinks turning into browns. Bastion stood nearby, her short hair covered by a hood as her impossibly blue eyes stared seriously forward. She had left her shield and weapon behind; apparently, she didn’t think she needed them. Alexa bit her lower lip, placing a hand on the hilts of her sheathed blades.

House moved forward, a wide hood obscuring most of her face as she spoke in her calm, monotone voice, “Are you ready? Anything else you wish to say?

Alexa glanced to the others. They remained silent, and then she nodded, “Ready as I’ll ever be. We’re going to make it out. We’re going to be fine.” It felt like a bird was fluttering in her chest, making her lightheaded as she watched House’s solemn expression, set with eyes the color of the ocean. The Graverobber nodded once to her words in response and then turned toward the stone steps that led further into the morgue—further into death.

~

Dying is uncomfortable; not painful—uncomfortable. It’s the feeling of your body going cold as your nerve endings die—like when your leg falls asleep. Everything feels heavier. Everything is harder to move.

You suddenly realize you’re not breathing. You remind yourself to take another breath and suck in another lungful of air.  That’s when you notice that the sounds around you have become softer—fuzzier. People say things and you can’t understand them. You’re not breathing again—it’s too hard. The edges of your vision go dark. All you can see is what’s in front of you—and then it’s suddenly too hard to keep your eyes open.

Everything goes dark.

And then your heart stops.

Why can’t they see?

There was nothing in the ground—just darkness. Voices floated. Voices murmured. Voices said everything and nothing. Alexa opened her mouth—no, that wasn’t right. She didn’t have a mouth, did she? Was she thinking the words she spoke? Did it matter?

“Bastion? Aladdin?”

Why can’t they see?

There was no response. Panic gripped her momentarily and then she heard Bastion’s voice. Voice? Or thoughts? Which is it when you’re in the Gravemind?

“I’m here.”

Why can’t they see?

“Aladdin? Are you there? Aladdin? Aladdin, respond…please.”

His response came slowly, reluctantly, “…Here.”

Why can’t they see, Graverobber? Why can’t they see?

What was there to see? The truth? I’ve been wearing the mask for so long…no. Treat it like a puzzle, Alexa. Treat it like a problem that needs to be solved—and solve it.

Why can’t you see?

~

“Miss Rook….”

“I’m a monster.”

“Killer. Manipulator.”

“I’ve always run away. Mickey was right. I always run.”

“…Murderer.”

“I’m…”

Silence.

~

The first breath she took made her feel giddy. Air rushed into her lungs and if she had had breath enough, she would have laughed. She looked out into darkness, feeling her heart beat, feeling blood rush through her veins, feeling alive. She blinked back tears and glanced nervously upward toward the entrance of the morgue. Dim light filtered downward. The other two had already made it out; she was the only one left—but she was alive.

Alexa took another breath and walked slowly out of the morgue, stumbling. She had seen what lay beneath the mask. She had seen the truth; she had lifted the blindfold and saw what she had been running from all this time. In the end, it was nothing to run from at all. Alexa smiled.

It was time to stop being afraid.

~

“Are you done running?”

“Yes.”

What she didn’t tell him was that she had finally found a reason to stay.

Frozen

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Photo By: Flickr/LadyDragonflyCC

Photo By: Flickr/LadyDragonflyCC

“I know that it’s not much, but I wanted to apologize again.”

“Sure.”

“I treated you like an asshole. I know.”

“Yeah, you did. You made it perfectly clear at X-Mas that you didn’t want to have anything to do with me.”

“I was giving you a way out.”

“A way out? Fuck you. You weren’t giving me a way out. You were giving yourself a way out. You wanted to put this on me instead of you—fuck you. You were doing what you always do—run.”

“…Well I’m not running now.”

“Yeah, we’ll see about that.”

~

Alexa stood outside the building, staring at nothing in particular as snow whirled around her. It caught on her clothing, speckling her dark coat with white flakes and blending with her pale hair. She scanned the small, huddled buildings across from her and then glanced down a snowy slope to where men and women played some sort of game. Their laughter and shouts filtered toward her—she looked, but she didn’t see.

Everyone makes a big deal about fire—but it’s ice they should worry about. Ice can burn if it’s cold enough. And ice can lock away secrets in a vault harder than steel when the temperatures drop.

She felt sick to her stomach, her gut twisting as she swallowed hard. It was her fault, she knew. She pushed people away. She always had—maybe always would. But when I finally realized I didn’t want that…well, it’s a pity it’s too late. Her fingers clenched as more laughter sounded up from down the hill. His words echoed in her mind, a reverberation that sounded over and over and over again like some sort of sick mantra: You died for Barnes. You fucking throw your life away, and all I ever wanted was not for you to die for me—but to live with me.

Alexa turned to look away from the people playing in the snow, her breath shaky as she slowly felt her fingers and toes become numb. In a few moments, her arms and legs would follow, and then it would turn from numbness to pain. She closed her eyes briefly, fighting back the urge to scream. Stew left. Mickey doesn’t want anything to do with you. You’re used like a tool by everyone else. And you were stupid enough to not wake up to it until now. You allowed it to happen.

You’re an idiot, Alexa. A fucking idiot.

She opened her eyes again, watching her breath puff in front of her face—white in a white world. She wasn’t sure why she’d even come here to the Grove—to the small town north of Hayven. Perhaps she was seeking some kind of solace before going into the Grave. Perhaps she was trying to find answers. Who knew.

Her eyes blurred slightly and she glanced downward, blinking rapidly. He was the one that always had my back. He was the one that helped—and I was too ignorant to see. Quickly, she passed the back of her hand in front of her eyes. She took a steadying breath before breathing out two words to herself, “Fuck him.”

She didn’t need Mickey. She didn’t need Stew. She didn’t need D.O.C. or Barnes. She didn’t need their approval.

“Fuck them.”

She gritted her teeth slightly, her lips hardening into a thin line. She was done being a tool—done being a knife and a sword. She was done molding herself to others’ expectations. She was done with it all.

If they hate me, that’s fine. I’m done seeking fucking approval for what I do. I’m done being a fucking implement. I’m a fucking person—and I’m going to live on my fucking terms. I’ll take what’s mine. And lord help whoever or whatever stands in my way. It’s my turn.

The snow continued to swirl around her as she walked down the slope, her boots making small footprints behind her. She didn’t feel the cold now; she was used to it.

~

I never lied to you. And now? My only regret is that I didn’t wake up until you were long gone.

Cold as Ice

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Photo By: Flickr/ladybugdiscovery

Photo By: Flickr/ladybugdiscovery

“From far, from eve and morning

And yon twelve-winded sky,

The stuff of life to knit me

Blew hither: here am I.

Now—for a breath I tarry

Nor yet disperse apart—

Take my hand quick and tell me,

What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;

How shall I help you, say;

Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters

I take my endless way.” -A.E. Housman

~

The morning sunshine was partially blurred by the cold clouds that swept over the snowy landscape, causing patterns of dark shade within the forest clearing. A large building, covered in frost and hung with icicles, stood watch amidst the darkened wood. The wind whispered its secrets across the space, rattling bare branches and catching the pale hair that framed the face of one of the two figures standing there.

“I’m leaving.”

The words hung in the space between them, crystallizing in the frozen air. Alexa stared at the large, dark-haired man in front of her, green eyes tracing the partial mask that covered his lower face. She spoke haltingly, slowly, “What do you mean? How long?”

Stew’s brown eyes met hers for a moment, unwavering, “I don’t know. I can’t dog your heels forever, Alexa. I can’t…” He paused briefly and then continued, “I can’t continue like this.” He glanced downward and slowly reached toward the large bag at his side. Alexa watched as his hand fumbled in the pocket and then produced a small leather book. A brass clasp fastened its pages tightly together, keeping safe words that were never meant to be read.

He held the book for a moment, looking down at it, “It means a lot that you gave this to me. I know what it represents. I can feel your life here in these pages.” His eyes squinted slightly, and Alexa could tell he was smiling wryly beneath his mask, “Don’t worry. I didn’t read it. But I left something in here for you for when I’m gone.”

He handed the journal to Alexa, and she took it carefully with small, black gloved hands. Something tightened in her chest as she stared at him for a moment. She swallowed hard and then looked downward at the book in her hands, unable to speak. Her eyes traced the worn letter, the small bird etched into the front cover. Coward, Alexa. You’re a coward.

“I can’t tell you what to do, but if there is anything in here that you want to say to someone, say it. Don’t…” Stew paused for a moment, as if gathering his words. Alexa squeezed her eyes shut as his voice continued, “Don’t wait, Alexa. Don’t wait until it’s too late. People care about you. They’d be by your side in an instant if you asked it of them. Don’t leave them words on a page. “

Alexa’s chest tightened further, her breath coming in puffs in front of her face. The cold pricked at the corners of her eyes as her voice wavered. You’re weak. She swallowed again, “I’m not a good person, Stew.” She paused for a moment, turning away slightly and then quickly continued, “And don’t say that I am, because I’m not. I’m a good enough judge of character, and I know myself well enough to say that I…know exactly what I am.” You’ll always be Rook—in some form or other. You can’t escape that. Alexa shook her head and a short laugh left her throat, bitter as the cold around them, “Fuck, Stew. I kill people. You know that. And that’s the reason I push people away. Why I push you away. I’m a coward.”

She continued staring at the journal, her eyes blurring slightly.  Fuck. I’m crying.

“Alexa, look at me.”

She tried to steady her breathing and looked up at Stew, quickly wiping her eyes with the back of her hand as she sniffed. He gently pushed a strand of hair away from her face, “You’re not a coward. I’ve seen you. I know you. I’ve watched men try to turn you into a weapon, a tool—a sword, a knife. I’ve watched you time and time again stand up against them. Don’t let anyone control you. Not Dantes. Not House. Not anyone.”

Alexa blinked rapidly and glanced down again. It’s your fault. You put him through hell. You pushed him away, “Are you leaving partly because I…because of me?”

She heard Stew sigh, a heavy breath as he spoke softly, “No…No, Alexa. The time we spend together. The jokes we make. Fighting. Living. That makes me happy. There are those who are lucky to find one love in their lives. I’ve had the joy to find two. But I’m not my own person here. I need to leave…but know that if you asked me to stay, I would.”

He would stay if you asked, Alexa. He’d stay, and he’d work and do as you asked. She felt like she was choking, her eyes stinging. But he wouldn’t be happy. Her voice wavered as she spoke, “I won’t. I won’t ask you to stay because you’d be miserable here. I’ve watched you, Stew. I’ve watched time and time again as you stood up for others. I’ve watched as they took you for granted. And you…you’re the anchor, Stew. You’ve always stood fast for others, and for me. Whenever I waver, I always think of you and come back to the fucking bullshit code I live by.” Snow and branches swirled in front of her eyes as she continued, “If I were a better person. If I were less selfish, I’d wish you well on your way. I’d wish you happiness and for you to live your life. But I’m not. I’m not a good person. I won’t ask you to stay, but I love you.”

There was silence—silence except for the small hush of wind. Alexa sniffed, feeling Stew’s eyes on her, “Bullshit. No you don’t.”

“I do.”

“Then look at me when you say it.”

Alexa took a steadying breath and glanced upward at the man in front of her. His brown eyes looked back at her, unjudging. She closed her eyes briefly and then spoke, “I love you.”

She could hear his breath stop for a moment before he spoke the next words, “I love you, too, Alexa. You could come with me.” There was a hopeful note there—hope, but not expectation.

Alexa exhaled slowly, blowing the pale strands of hair in front of her face as icy tracks raced down her face. Her voice broke, “I can’t.”

He nodded once, looking off to the side as he spoke softly, “You know, it’s funny. I never look forward to the dawn anymore.” His eyes crinkled faintly, as if he were smiling, “It’s because we always seem to be around one another more during the nights. And we always look at the stars together.” He paused for a moment, and then continued, “A year from now, I’ll stand on this spot before dawn while the stars are still out. I’ll wait for you.”

Alexa quickly wiped her face with the back of her hand, taking a steadying breath. She looked up at him, unwavering, “I’ll be there.”

She didn’t tell him what she knew–didn’t tell him the full truth. How could she when she didn’t want it to be true, herself?

~

“These, in the day when heaven was falling,

The hour when earth’s foundations fled,

Followed their mercenary calling,

And took their wages, and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;

They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;

What God abandoned, these defended,

And saved the sum of things for pay.” -A.E. Housman

Starvation

Standard

Forest Winter

“People are starving. If we don’t act now, it’s just going to get worse. Winter is far from over, and it’s going to be hard enough as it is.”

“Whatever you decide, know that I’m here for you. Like I said before, I’d go to hell and back again for you, darlin’.”

Pause.

“I hate this.”

“What?”

“This—what I do. Making these decisions.”

“It’s your choice.”

“I guess it is.”

~

Hunger isn’t something you can dismiss. It constantly gnaws at your insides and turns your stomach. It claws at your strength so that moving seems difficult.  All you want to do is sleep as you drink water just to make it feel like you’re full. You find yourself mechanically going through the motions of day-to-day life—not thinking, not acting. Your entire mind—your entire being—is focused on the possibility of a meal. You chew on twigs and bark just to give your mouth something to do. Even then, you’re never satisfied.

And when you see food? Any food? Well, let’s just say that rationality goes right out the window with common sense.

Alexa stood in the rain, the damp clinging to her hair and slipping down the back of her neck and beneath her armor. She gritted her teeth as she glanced around at the others, assessing the body language of each—how they all leaned forward with predatory eagerness and with a bit of desperation. Shit. Shit. Shit. Things had gotten out of hand.

The two groups stood in the middle of the large open field in front of the Doubletap, the main building in town. Alexa could see the faint glow of candles glimmering at the dingy windows, casting their dim light outward into the fading winter afternoon. Clouds roiled overhead as water continued to pour downward, the patter of freezing raindrops drowned out by the harsh, gravelly voice that sounded out in the crowd.

“This is my fucking territory. You think you can come in my territory without asking me? This is Old York. Don’t pull this shit with me. I know Old York.”

Uncle Chuck was practically shouting at this point, his face twisted in anger. His grizzled brows were lowered over hard, brown eyes, and he held a notched blade in one of his veined hands. Alexa watched the Yorker carefully, trying to keep her face neutral as she glanced from him to the people he was shouting toward—the caravan of mercenaries with a large crate. Their faces were grim, unyielding. They were there to do a job. And they’ll probably see it through to the end.

Alexa’s eyes shifted to the others with Uncle Chuck. TJ stood near him, the Merican’s normally cheerful face now desperate and angry. His brown hair was damp, water falling into his eyes. Bastion was nearby, her cropped, reddish hair framing impossibly dark blue eyes that flickered from one person to another. Assessing which is the largest threat, most likely. The Remnant held her shield up, ready to defend.

“We’re just doing our fucking job! We’re the Iron Cross. We’re on the road. Now get out of our fucking way!”

The voice demanded Alexa’s attention. She quickly glanced toward the man speaking, the head of the group of mercenaries. His bearded chin was thrust forward in defiance. His armor was already scratched in places where the Hayvenites had struck him, and a trickle of blood seeped down his temple.

Alexa grimaced. The Iron Cross. There was no way she could do anything other than defend them now that they had announced themselves. The price of being part of D.O.C. I’m bound in contracts tighter than a fucking noose.

She shifted her weight slightly, turning to face the Hayvenites as she lifted her blades. She kept her face neutral as she watched TJ’s face fall; it was like watching a child being hurt for the first time—watching someone being betrayed.

It’s the best option currently. And you can fall easily—make amends.

At least, that’s what she told herself.

~

The sound of rain pattered down on the roof above, muffled as people clustered together within the small space. Bunks were spaced in even rows, pushed against the back wall. A table stood in the front of the room, strewn with small bits and pieces of metal and other odds and ends. The hum of conversation sounded through the small space, the voices of those who called the Kennel “home.”

Alexa remained sitting on a trunk shoved against one of the beds, green eyes roving over the faces in the room. She was too tired to stand at this point, too tired to do more than slump in her armor as she tried to remember to stay alert. Never let your guard down.

Someone sat down next to her and Alexa quickly jerked her head to look at the arrival. Dark, shadowed eyes stared back at her, unblinking. A hat perched on his head, casting part of his face in shade.

“Alexa.”

She felt her stomach twist slightly as she nodded her head in greeting before quickly looking back toward the front of the room, her eyes focusing on nothing in particular, “Barnes.”

“I have a Christmas present for you.”

Her stomach twisted more; it felt as if a dagger had been shoved into it and someone was slowly turning the hilt. She turned her eyes to look back at him, noting the calm way he observed her. As if nothing had happened. Anger bubbled upward before quickly receding once more—washed away by control. Instead of saying what was on her mind, she replied, “I have one for you, as well.”

A faint smile touched the corners of his lips as he reached into his bag. Alexa watched him, noting the care he took before pulling out a small, glittering object. He placed it into her hands as she stared at it. It was gold with five points. As she turned it between her fingers, some of the shine came off on her hands.

“There you are. Now you don’t have to run off into the dark to look at the stars.”

Alexa closed her eyes briefly before continuing to stare at the object. Her thoughts whirled, unable to form anything coherent.

“I have one more thing for you as well.” A pale hand suddenly came into her line of sight and handed her a small bag. Alexa swallowed hard as she took it from him, unable to meet his gaze.

“Thank you.”

“Merry Christmas, Alexa.”

~

Noise and laughter and warmth filled the room. The smells of cooking food still hung in the air, even though every last morsel had already been eaten.  The entire party crowded around the wooden table at the center of the room, strewn with now-empty bowls and dishes.

House with her long dreads and piercing blue eyes sat at one end of the table, a very faint smile tilting the side of her mouth as she watched a young boy with dark hair excitedly show off one of his new toys. Aladdin was near them, the Rover’s many scarves standing out bright against his patchwork clothes as he chatted with Tex. The southern twang of the Merican’s voice mingled with Aladdin’s polished accent.

Alexa found a smile crossing her face as she listened, her eyes focused on her pale fingers spread against the dark wood of the table. A copper-colored ring flashed on her right hand, glimmering faintly in the dim light. It’s nice—relaxing for once. She glanced up at the others once more, watching as they laughed.  It’s a pity it can’t last.

She turned her head to look at the profile of the man next to her. His dark hair was tucked up under a black hat, and his brown, hard eyes twinkled faintly as he grinned and joked. He’s as good with a mask as you are, Rook. For once, he had taken off his armor, a dark shirt and trousers lying beneath. She briefly noted that they looked far less worn than his usual clothing. Trying to impress? Or has he just had a windfall lately? She studied him for a bit longer as a faint twinge of guilt tugged at her chest. You shouldn’t overanalyze this—any of it. Can’t you accept that you’re not being used?

She lowered her gaze again to look at her hands. It had been a long few months—and they had barely seen one another. He didn’t know what had happened—didn’t know what the costs would be. You should tell him—even if you want to enjoy a few more minutes. It’s the right thing to do. You don’t know when you’ll see him again.

“Hey, Mickey?”

She could sense him turn toward her more than anything else; she could feel his eyes on her, watching her. She continued to stare at her hands, twisting the ring on her finger absentmindedly as she spoke, “I have something to tell you.” She paused for a moment, hesitating. How do I even say this? Don’t be such a coward, Alexa. “I…died again.”

There was only silence. Alexa fidgeted slightly as she heard a sharp intake of breath from Mickey. She felt a burning sensation on the back of her neck as an icy trickle of dread raced down her spine. Mickey finally spoke, the single, quiet word shaking the air with barely-restrained anger.

“How.”

She couldn’t look at him. Coward. She instead continued staring at her hands, swallowing hard, “I was in a situation where I had to fight to the death—or Barnes would die. I fought, and wasn’t strong enough.”

There was more silence from Mickey. You should give him a way out—if he wants it. It’s only fair, after all. Alexa turned her gaze to look at the wood of the table, closing her eyes for a moment, “I’m going to see about potentially doing a surgery. I need to speak with House first. Because not everyone makes it out, I…understand if you no longer want to continue this.” She gestured with one hand weakly, feeling her face go warm as she hurriedly finished.

Again, there was silence. Then she felt Mickey shift slightly, his head lowering near hers, “If we weren’t under the rules of hospitality, I would punch you right now. If you die…”

The rest of the words didn’t matter. Alexa lowered her head, still unable to look at him. How could she? You kill people, Rook—both outside and inside. You’re a killer—always have been, always will be. Creation was never for you.

She closed her eyes for a moment more, exhaling slowly.

Well maybe it’s time to change that.

~

“Here. This is for you. I thought you’d appreciate it.”

He handed a wrapped package to her. The faint scent of flowers hung in the air.

“…Thank you.”

Pause.

“Do you have everything settled to go in?”

“I need to explain why I’m worth it to House.”

Pause.

He leaned forward, gently taking the sides of her face in his hands and kissing her on the forehead.

“What was that for?”

“I might not get another chance.”

She hid the disgust that roiled in the back of her throat.