“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.
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.”
“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