Nash woke up with a start as the bad dreams drifted away. Panic fled with Pearl’s gift, holding away the nightmare visions. The last thing he remembered had been speaking to War. He felt a little stab inside of his heart. The memories of the pain she had been through. She had hurt him so many times, and she had wanted to do it every time she did. She had wanted to die, and she had pushed him to be the one to kill her. She was probably quite disappointed that he hadn’t picked that up. He blinked slowly. He was sitting in the clinic again. His stomach was bandaged. Nobody was there.
He grunted, and reached over to the table by the side of the bed, searching for water. He frowned. There was a significant amount of paperwork. Firearm discharge forms, incident reports. They had all been filled out in his handwriting. He shuffled through them quickly, studying them. They perfectly explained everything that had happened over the last five days, along with an injury report. He’d apparently sustained a bad fall during the riot, and had been cut while saving three teenagers from a storm-damaged structure. Dean had been in a comatose state that had been taken for death, and had made a full recovery. All the loose ends, tied. They had contact information for Pearl, to corroborate them. A sticky note was attached to the table.
“Hope this helps! Thank you for saving the world! – Pearl”
He sat back in the bed, and laughed. It was so perfect, he worried for a moment whether he was dreaming. Then his chest spasmed, and he grunted, bending forward. When he sat up, Doctor Smith was standing in the doorway, looking concerned. “Good god, man! I used enough tranquilizer to knock out an elephant so you wouldn’t injure yourself! What are you doing up already?” She clucked her tongue as she approached, fussing over him. The golden chain lay over her labcoat. There was a noticeable lack of gem hanging from it. She ran her fingers over his chest.
“Thank god. The stitches aren’t torn. You really could do with a little bit of knowledge of your own limits. You’ve been asleep barely twenty four hours, and your body was badly in need of it. If you try to move around before you are fully healed, I intend to put you into a medically induced coma.” He laughed, and turned it into a cough when he saw she wasn’t smiling. It was probably a joke nonetheless.
“How’s the city doing?” he asked, as she wrote down a few notes on a clip-board.
“Well enough. There were quite a few bad injuries, especially during the last few hours of… unpleasantness. Dio and I were caught outside. He very nearly bled out, but the tough old cuss managed to survive. The inhuman toughness of most of the people here, combined with their lack of focus while enraged, meant that nobody died, although there are a few people who will be crippled.” She sighed softly. “The city itself is dead. The seal was shattered when you broke the Keystone. Zion only exists as a fictional set of boundaries on a map, now. Nearly ten percent of the population have already left, spreading out. A great diaspora.” She had a haunted expression. “Just like before.”
“Not just like before. People got along here. Maybe it wasn’t magic or laws that did it. Maybe we can all get along, Megan. Ah, Doctor Smith.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “Well, it’s got to work better than just trying to bury the truth and staying away from one another did. If we can’t get along, staying apart isn’t going to fix that. This country’s tried that experiment a whole lot of times already.”
She snorted. “Well, there have already been some obvious effects. A veritable explosions of cryptid sightings, UFOs, and inexplicable phenomena. The CDC is reporting Black Plague in New York City. People are getting nervous out there. So far, no concrete evidence of the supernatural, but there has been a great deal of worry.”
“There’s always worry. And yet it never does any good.” He frowned. “I destroyed Zion.”
“Many here blame you for what happened. But from what Susan told us, you didn’t have any choice.” He felt a sudden spike of worry. “Susan is fine. She is young, nobody blames her for her actions. War is prone to preying on the naive and foolish. There are a great many who are angry at her, but she’ll survive that.” The doctor smiled. “In fact, she and her friends arrived here just a few minutes ago. I’ll go let them in, shall I?” She stepped away from the bedside.
Dean and Isabelle still looked a bit shaky, and Susan was downright miserable, as the three of them entered. But they also looked as though they were recovering. “I don’t think any of you three got stabbed. What the hell are you frowning about?” he asked, and smiled. This seemed to restore a little bit of their good humor. None of the three were looking at one another. He smiled softly. “Yeah. Not an easy experience, was it?” They shook their heads. “But you came through it all with your friends still alive. Nobody died. None of you are going to prison for life.”
“I died, sir.” Dean suggested.
“Oh, please. I died twice. You’re walking around now, so it doesn’t count. You know what was eating Susan, and I hope you have the wisdom to recognize that she was hurting pretty bad. I’m not always going to be around to save you kids from the underworld and your own stupidity, so you’d better get it in shape.” He smiled again. “A lot got sacrificed for you. That doesn’t mean you owe anyone a debt, but I know you’ll do great things.”
Isabelle rushed forward, and hugged him around the shoulders. His pain faded, suddenly. She winced a bit as she released him, limping a bit, but flushed. “It was the least I could do for you, sir. Thank you. For saving the people I love. Both of them.” She flushed, and looked up towards Dean, and then towards Susan. Neither of them met her gaze, but she smiled anyway. “You risked a great deal to save them. I will try to treat both of them well.”
“Ugh. You kids and your weird menage a trois. I don’t understand your generation.” He saw the confused expression on two out of the three faces. Susan just blushed. That girl was well-informed. “Don’t look that up. And don’t tell your parents I said that. I’m absolutely sure that they can and will kill me for it.” He rubbed his face. “Now get out of here, I’m glad you three are alright, but I’ve got better things to do with my convalescence time than talking with a bunch of kids. If I play my cards right with Doctor Smith, I might get a sponge bath.”
“Yeah, from Wendy.” Isabelle said, and then blushed. There was a moment of shocked silence from everyone in the room, and then they all burst out laughing, Isabelle wincing a bit as she did. It wasn’t that funny, but the timing was everything. Even a bad joke will get a laugh if people need to laugh.
“Thank you, sir.” Dean smiled. “For everything. But… do you know what you’re going to do now?”
Nash shrugged. “Oh, who knows. Probably go back to the exciting life of danger and uncertainty that is the FBI. It’ll make a nice break. I can’t wait to tell my superiors that it turns out the kid who was reported as dead was just in a mild coma, and how exactly I wound up discharging my service weapon eighteen times without hitting anyone. Going to be a really fun time of things. Maybe I’ll even survive being chewed out by the Deputy Director.” He grinned cheerfully. The three turned to walk away, but Susan hesitated. She waited until the others had left, before returning to his bed-side.
“You could have killed me. You could have let me kill myself. I would have deserved it, sir. I nearly got people killed because I was-” The dark-haired girl looked down at her hands, shame glittering in her green, slit-pupilled eyes. She brushed the tears out of them slowly. “I didn’t deserve a second chance.”
“Nobody died because of what you did. Not for good, anyway.”
“But what if they had?! The riot could have been much worse! Dozens of people could have died. Many more were put in danger. My actions were- Unforgivable.”
Nash was silent for a few seconds. Then, he sighed. “If I killed you, it wouldn’t have brought back the people who had already died. It would just mean one more body. It wouldn’t have been a happy ending without you.” He smiled. “I can’t change what happened in the past. I can’t keep you from having endangered or killed people. All we can influence is the future. If I’d killed you because of the past, it would’ve meant that you’d never had a chance to make things right.”
He looked up, face serious. “And trust me when I say that life is not going to be easy for you. You’ve got an entire lifetime of winning back trust, and doing good, to make up for the harm you’ve caused. Some people are never going to forgive you for what you’ve done. Some people are always going to look on you as… Well, as a monster.” He reached out to her, and took her hand. “It’s your job to prove them wrong, every day. Do you think that you have it in you?”
She was silent for a moment. Then, she nodded. “Yes, sir.” She turned, about to go, and then turned back to him, frowning. “Do you think that’s true of everyone? … Even War?”
“Bella?” He was quiet for a moment. There was no telling who could be listening. There was a reason she never showed her weakness where someone else could see it. There was always something watching. Something with silver hair. “Nah. That was just in her nature. You had a choice about being evil, which means that you could be good. She’s just a mad dog. When I get the chance to put her down, I will.” He smiled, a glossy, fake smile. “Don’t worry. When I get ahold of her, she’s never going to harm anyone again.” He didn’t lie. She seemed to regard him suspiciously for a moment, but then she nodded.
“Yes. I think that is just what she deserves.”
The next group to arrive were Megara, Harry, and Irayama, later that afternoon. Nash smiled as the three of them entered. “Well, you three all seem well enough. You going to join the Diaspora, or going to stay here?”
Irayama laughed. “My. Is that what they’re calling it?” She looked at the other two, smiling. “Many of my people are still here. We still have a strong community. I am happy to remain in this place for a while longer. Taking care of my foolish children, and seeing that they do not repeat their mistakes. Thank god they all lived. Death is a very poor teacher indeed.” She tapped her chin. “With the noticeable exception of Dean. Being a corpse has been good for him. You, on the other hand, managed to die twice without learning even to avoid repeating your mistake.”
Her smile grew softer, and the wizened old woman stepped closer, tousling his hair. “Thank you for rescuing Susan, as well. I did not think it was possible. But you did well.” She shook her head. “I hope that you never learn to be a different person than you are now, Agent Nash. It would be a terrible loss.” She laughed softly. “Even if you would most likely deserve it. I would tell you to stop picking fights that you cannot hope to win, but you seemed very determined to win them nonetheless. I’m rather impressed you made the Horseman stand down. She seemed ready to try to fight.”
Nash smiled, but he didn’t say anything. “And you two?” he asked, turning his head towards Megara and Harry.
“We’re going to wait until Dean graduates. Then, we were thinking of going on a trip, together with Susan and Isabelle; Dean refused unless we invited them along.” Harry grinned. “I was hoping to take them to visit Greece. Learning a bit more about Dean’s heritage. Then, maybe China.”
Megara nodded. “I was hoping that we might take the opportunities there to visit the two Cities, Avalon and Shambhala. Provide them with a bit of warning, so they know what the Horsemen are planning. An attack on one city is likely to be followed by an attack on the others. The world is vulnerable, Mister Nash. You could have killed Dean and Isabelle, and perhaps deprived the corruption of the energy it needed. It might have been the wiser thing to do.” She looked around at the others. “It would have been the logical way to stop her. But… I am glad you did not.” The admission that not murdering two teenagers had been the right move seemed to embarrass her somewhat. “I suppose I have become too soft over the years. We will cope.”
Nash’s face was hard. “It wouldn’t have worked. But even if it could, I wouldn’t have done it. You can’t make a better world by killing innocents.” Then he smiled softly. “Besides, if anyone’s convinced me that humans and monsters can get along, it’s the two of you.”
“Ah! That reminds me, dear. I think that your attempt while the two of us were maddened was the twelfth attempt on my life.” Harry was grinning cheerfully, particularly for a man celebrating an attempt on his life. “That means the twelve tasks are finished. No more chances to kill me.” Megara looked utterly crestfallen.
“What- But I was planning one for your birthday! I even found a poisoned negligee! It was going to be a special present! It took ages to find a poison that would work on contact with you, but which wouldn’t harm me!” Megara was actually pouting. “This is going to take all of the passion right out of our marriage!”
Harry sighed, rolling his eyes. “Oh, very well. How about another two chances, hmmm?” He grinned, and the two of them kissed softly. Irayama let out a bark of raspy laughter, and Nash quietly wondered whether he had made the right choice in letting humans and monsters live together. Then the kiss broke, and the two of them had nothing but warmth in their eyes. He decided that it was probably going to be alright. The two of them walked out of the room together, arm in arm, leaving Nash with Irayama.
“So. I take it that you are not going to simply settle down now that you have tasted this life, hmm?” She asked, smiling.
“No. I talked a bit about the other cities with Doctor Smith. She mentioned the Caribbean having one of the Cities.”
Irayama nodded slowly. “That would be Paradise, a part of the district of the Cayman Islands.” She frowned. “I suspect that it will be quite dangerous. Prester John is an… eccentric monarch. Are you prepared to deal with a situation in a foreign nation?” Nash smiled.
“I doubt it. But I’ll figure out something. We don’t have a long time to prepare for this insanity. I’m going to be heading out shortly.” He sat up, and winced slightly. “Still aching a bit, but we’ve got to move like hell if we want to save the world.” He stood up, and smiled. “The ground burns my feet.” He reached out, and hugged the woman. She went stiff at first, and patted him on the back, slightly awkwardly. She was smiling as he let go, though.
“Thank you, Nash. For everything. I only wish I could do more to help.” She smiled, and stood on her tiptoes, giving him a motherly peck on the cheek. “But… What about Cassandra? Are you not going to wait to see her?”
He was quiet for a few moments. “Cassandra saved me more than once. She ensured I was in the right place at the right time, and she did everything she could to make things end well. And I didn’t protect her nearly as well as I should have. In the end, I hurt her, just like my mother hurt me. I thought I was doing it for a good reason, but I…” he sighed. “I don’t think I could see her again. I just have to hope she’ll forgive me for all the bad that I did for her, and hope she grows up, happy and healthy.” He stood up straight, and smiled. “Besides, I need to leave this place. It’s too comfortable here. I almost feel happy. And I don’t have time to worry about feeling happy.”
“I think you should stay. You should see Cassandra. She has never been believed in before. She needed it, as much as you needed her.” He smiled, and shrugged, and turned his back on things. “Nash.”
“Irayama… do I have a soul?” She was silent for a moment. “War said the reason I could use the Sisters’ power was because I had no soul. Nothing to conflict with their power. Just an empty vessel. Is that true? Would that work?”
“A soul is our connection to others. The love we feel for those around us, the love of sensation and experience, and the love we are given in turn. I am given to understand you have lived your life terribly alone.” Irayama clucked her tongue. “If you died in such a state, I can see how there would be nothing left behind after the meat went rotten. I could… also, I suppose, see how that would give you that power. It would explain the discomfort people feel around you.” He turned to face her. “It is not permanent. You could have a soul again. You are growing one even as we speak.”
“What would happen to me if I kept the power of the Sisters, and had a soul again.”
She didn’t answer, which was its own kind of answer. He remembered what Megara had said. *That much power should burn your soul out through your eye sockets.* His eyes watered, and he wiped away the half-formed tears with the back of his hand.
“You could give up the power. You could live here, with us. Be a person. Be happy.” She frowned. “I am a goddess of death, Nash. I offer peace, and safety. Yomi is a dark realm, but I try at least to make it a refuge. Without a soul… The day you die, everything you are will be gone. That idea terrifies me. The end of you, utterly. Not merely being constrained to the safety of the underworld, or returning to the wheel of reincarnation. Perhaps that is even why you are so hard to kill. Everyone else instinctually knows they have a refuge, an escape from pain and suffering, in death. Whereas you… All that waits for you is oblivion.. Can power really be that important to you?”
“There are things that make it worthwhile. That power saved Dean. It saved Isabelle. It saved Susan. Think about all of the people who I’d be letting down if I gave it up.” He smiled. “I’m the only one who can do this. I’ve already suffered through for decades, just to be the person who could do this.”
“That’s some arrogance, Nash.”
“Hubris, Irayama. When I compare myself to the gods, it’s called hubris.”
She embraced him with her thin, bony arms. “I couldn’t stop you if I wanted to. You’ve certainly proven that.” She looked up at him sternly. “But don’t you dare die.”
“Who, me?” He grinned. “I hope I see you again.”
He found his rental car in the gravel lot, and climbed in. Pearl was sitting in the passenger seat. She hadn’t been when he’d approached the car. “It’s good to see you again, Pearl.”
“You did as well as I’d hoped,” Pearl whispered. Then she looked across the divider. “So. You saw into War’s head. What did you see there? It’s safe to speak, here. Nobody else can hear us.” He started the car, and reversed out of the small lot, beginning to drive.
“I saw someone who was alone, and trapped by her nature. I saw someone who’s helpless. She needs someone to save her.”
“It could be a trap,” Pearl muttered. She didn’t make eye contact. She hugged herself gently. “I’ve known the Horsemen for a very long time, Nash. They are terribly skilled at preying on human weakness. There’s a reason that War and her kind take the shape of women. It lowers the guard of those they interact with. It makes them easy to fool. She is not a damsel in distress. She is the dragon.” Nash kept driving, giving a brief look at the red-haired woman in the car, before returning his eyes to the road.
“I know that it may sound crazy. This may be me playing into her hands,” he admitted as he drove. “But I think that she can change. I think that she wants to change. She’s just trapped in that nightmare, with no way out. She can’t figure out a way to she can stop being a part of this self-destructive urge. She thinks that it’s what humans expect of her, and the worst part is, she’s right. But I think we can change the story.” He stared into the distance. “I want to save Bella.”
“Bella.” He insisted. “It’s important. If you refer to her as War, that’s just reaffirming that it’s who she is. That it’s all she is. Names means something to her.”
Pearl looked over the divider at him. “You sound a bit like you’re in love, Nash. It’s a dangerous thing, falling in love with something that powerful. It can end very poorly.” She folded her hands together. “But I’m with you.”
“Do you still love me, Pearl?”
She looked up at him sharply. “What makes you think I was ever in love with you?”
“I was told that all of the sisters were in love, once. That that was why they wound up giving away their powers.” He looked out through the windshield, staring into the distance.
“I was… very enamored with you, for a long time. But that was millenia ago.” She crossed her arms. “You were magnificent, though, Nash. When you first arrived five days ago, I was worried. You weren’t a bit like the man I remembered saving me. But you became that man so fast, it was a little frightening.” She reached out, and then did not quite touch his shoulder. “If I had known what it would cost you-”
“When I was five years old, I made a foolish request. I asked to be strong enough to give people happy endings. I regretted it every day of my life until yesterday.” He smiled. “I don’t care if I’m alone. I don’t care if it kills me. I don’t care if I fade away when I die because I don’t have a soul. I saved everyone. The world needs people who’ll give up everything.” She looked at him with a very sorrowful expression. “Do you think I’m wrong for believing that?”
“Not exactly. No. I’m just sorry that someone who would give up everything is the most likely to die. What will the world do when we lose you, Nash? How will we survive?”
“You’ll find some other damn fool who’ll give up everything just to feel like they matter.” He smiled. “I’m not that narcissistic. This may be a wasted effort. But if there’s even the slightest chance it’ll work, I have to do it.”
Pearl was gone without a sound. Then, sitting where she had been, War appeared. She looked over at him. He looked back. “Are you really here?” he asked, an eyebrow raised.
“No. I am in your imagination. You are mad, after all. Just talking to yourself.” She looked down. “You could have killed me. It never even occurred to you. You should have done it. It would have made life much easier for you. I cannot change who I am.”
“Why not?” She was quiet. “It doesn’t matter. You can’t change who you are. But I can. I’ll find you again.” He smiled. “Everyone deserves a happy ending.”
“You didn’t kill anyone, Nash. You don’t have a great sin to be absolved.”
“I thought I killed someone. I’ve lived with that. The fact that I didn’t succeed doesn’t change what happened. Besides, it’s not about atoning for my misdeeds. I can’t just let people suffer because I wasn’t the one to hurt them. I can make things better.”
“You don’t have to hurt. I did this to you, and you didn’t deserve it.”
“No, I didn’t deserve it. But that’s what makes a gift a gift.”
She leaned across the divider. Her hair was soft, and her head was heavy on his shoulder. It was a beautiful, crisp, September day. The sun streamed through the white pines, as she leaned gently into him, her eyes closed, as the two of them drove through the golden hour. Who could’ve thought that War could feel so soft to the touch. He reached out, and stroked her hair. It wouldn’t be easy to save her. He might well die again. And if he failed, he’d probably have to take her life. The stakes were terribly high. So it was rather strange that he couldn’t stop smiling. “I can do it, you know. Give you a happy ending.”
“I believe you, Nash.” And with that, she vanished, leaving behind nothing but the lingering scent of gunpowder.
Cassandra looked up. There was the distant rumble of an engine. She took a deep breath. Gene had tuned the brakes. Silas was no longer on the antipsychotics dulling his reflexes. She’d be fine.
God, she couldn’t even convince herself.
She stepped into the road on a tight curve. There was a screech of brakes as the rental car came to a suspension-ruining hard stop, less than an inch from her. The door opened, and Silas frowned down at her as he stepped out. “Oh, come on, Silas. You know this was the only way I was going to ever get in touch with you. You’ve spent your life avoiding people.”
His face was still butchered. His body was still maimed. His voice was still a horrorshow. He’d been healing, slightly. Now it was as though all of that was collapsing. He looked away, and spoke softly. “I’m sorry. I caused you a lot of pain.”
“You bastard.” She took a deep breath, to steady her nerves. Her eyes burned. She still remembered when he’d appeared, maimed and terrible, at the morgue. All of the strength and certainty that she’d had in Hades had evaporated away when she’d realized how badly she’d fucked up. How she’d thrown the one man who could have saved them into hell. How she’d doomed the entire city, and how he’d torn his way out of Tartarus. She’d been sure he was going to reach out and snap her neck, with all his careless rage and power. Like he’d broken Megara and humbled Irayama.
And then the anger had disappeared from his face, and he’d stared Madness in the eye and made it blink, saved her and everyone else. If anything, that had been more terrifying. Watching him forgive her for what she’d done was more frightening than all the terrible feats he’d performed before.
“I deserve that.” His head was lowered, a guilty expression on his butchered face.
“No, you don’t! I threw you into Tartarus, to die or be trapped there forever! I couldn’t stop thinking you were a tool of War-”
“No! You fucking overcame her! You believed in me, when nobody else did! You kept fighting, and you forgave me even though I’d done something unforgivable! You saved the city and gave us all a second chance! What the hell were you thinking?!”
“I’m sorry, what are you berating me for?”
“Take me with you!”
“What? No! You’re fourteen.”
“Do you know where you’re going, right now?! I can see the future! And do you know what I dreamt of, all night long?” She pointed at him accusingly. “I see you, at the end of everything! I see you, spending the rest of eternity fighting and suffering for everyone else, forgotten. I’m not going to let you be trapped like that!” She began to sob, the tears running down her cheeks, all of the tears she hadn’t shown, and wiped furiously at her face, trying to beat back the tears. “Please. You promised you’d trust me. You can’t go down this path.”
His hands gently rested on her shoulders, and he hugged her. The tears flowed free, staining his shirt. She could still see the blood there, even though it had been washed away. His blood. “I’m not going to lose.”
“That’s not what happens if you lose,” she whispered softly. “That’s what happens if you win.”
He was silent for a few moments. Then he tilted her head up, and smiled. “Sounds like a happy ending to me.”
“I’m not joking!”
“Neither am I.” He straightened up, and his hands fell away from her shoulders. “Cassandra, you’ve got your future ahead of you. I believe in you. You’re going to do great things. But first, I need to make sure that future exists. It doesn’t matter what happens to me after that.” He looked back towards the car. “I finally learned why I look the way I do to you. I don’t have a soul.” He grinned down at her. “So what do I have to lose?”
“Please,” she whispered softly.
“Cassandra, I took you into the world of the dead twice. I forced you to do something terrible to save Dean, even if I didn’t mean to. I don’t know if I can ever forgive myself for that. The most I can hope for is that you can live a happy and content life, and never have to sacrifice your happiness for my life again.” She let out a rough bark of laughter, which turned into a coughing fit.
“I can’t believe it. You’re seriously apologizing for the fact that I threw you to Hades to be killed or dragged into Tartarus.” She rubbed her eyes. “Can’t you let me help?”
“I’m sorry. I really am. There’s no one I’d rather have by my side, believe me. You helped me more than anyone else in this entire damn city, even including the Sisters.” He smiled, terribly kind. “But if there’s one thing I learned, it’s that I have to be alone.”
He got into the car, and drove away, leaving Cassandra standing in the road, eyes red and tears spent. She’d known her warning wouldn’t work, but she’d had to try anyway. It would have been easier if he’d been a callous, cold bastard. If he hadn’t trusted her, if he hadn’t believed in her, if he hadn’t fought to protect her, if he hadn’t saved her parents and her from a nightmare that would never end. She could just say that he deserved whatever he had coming, then. But he didn’t deserve the ending he was going to get.
She turned back towards Zion. She knew that wasn’t the only way things could turn out. She could save him. Silas wasn’t the only person who could give people a happy ending.