To Nash, it seemed like some people never learned.
Learning was important. It was one of the ways humans dealt with the world. They became more able to survive as time went on, because they learned from their mistakes. It made recruits into veterans, it made novices into maestros, it made amateurs into professionals. Learning was a wonderful thing.
But it had its downsides. Sometimes you learned the wrong thing. You learned that you were helpless, and you stopped bothering to fight. You learned that violence was the solution to your problems, and you turned to it too quickly. Or perhaps, you learned that killing someone hurt like hell, and you swore to give people another chance. And there were a few people who didn’t learn. They refused to learn from their mistakes, making them over and over again. That could make them weak, or it could make them strong. Nash had been hurt by his trust, and he’d refused to learn from that pain. He’d made that choice, and it seemed to make him stronger. Unfortunately, Jack was the same way.
Nash’s jaw ached, and the air was like an oven. The swirling stormclouds were shot through with streaks of fire that grew wider and more vicious by the second, baking the air until it was difficult to breathe, so dry that it rasped at the throat. Nash had no idea how Jack had pulled that off. The windstorms, fine, he could understand that coming from Ariel’s power. But fire?
He twisted in the air currents as a massive gout of flame lashed past him. His skin tingled painfully from the near miss, the heat unbearable as the long spiral of fire looped into the air. It condensed into the shape of Jack, human once more. His eyepatch was gone, and a blazing sun glowed in his missing eye socket. Wings erupted from his back, flickering flame that seemed to carry him aloft with each furious flap.
“We don’t have to do it like this, Jack!” Nash shouted. “You were wrong! You didn’t have to kill people! You can still return Ariel’s power! You don’t-”
The flame lashed out, and Nash shifted his body. He was barely able to maneuver through the air currents, dodging the blast of flame before it could barbecue him, while losing another couple of layers of skin to the heat. He wasn’t touching the ground. He couldn’t summon Gene’s superhuman strength, the endurance she offered him. He didn’t have Ariel’s power, the speed and the tirelessness she’d given him.
But he still had Bella, and that meant it didn’t matter what disadvantages that Jack laid against him. He tried to shout something into the gale, but it was swallowed up in the roar of the wind. Jack descended, and slammed an elbow into Nash’s back while he spun, sending him tumbling wildly through the air. He spread out his arms and legs, slowing the spin, maneuvering. This was unfamiliar, but some distant memory of Ariel’s power must have stayed with him, because he could feel some lingering instinct of how to move. Or perhaps that was something he was taking from Jack. The details didn’t matter. It meant that he wasn’t helpless. Not entirely.
“Why won’t you fucking die?” screamed Jack, and the storm screamed with him. “You fucking prick, why do they all believe in you so much?! Why do they trust you to save them!? Where were you when my mother really needed you?! What took you so fucking long?!”
“I’m not God, damn it!” yelled Nash. “I’m a guy who can fight well! I didn’t know your mother was in trouble, and if there was anything I could have done-”
Jack let out another howl of rage, and the storm twisted. Nash was flung through the air on a horizontal angle, Jack flying after him, the ferocious hurricane winds tearing at him. He struck the water, hard, and skipped off of it like a stone. At that speed, it was more like striking concrete than anything else, and his left side went momentarily numb as he was hurled back into the air, spinning wildly. He pulled all of his limbs in tight, and then flung them out as Jack approached, landing a stinging kick on the madman’s cheek, hard enough to make an ugly crack fill the air.
The winds stopped for a moment, and Nash twirled through the air on an upward trajectory. His spinning slowed as he kept adjusting his arms and legs, and saw Jack, his expression stunned, a hand on his broken jaw. Jack’s eye met his, and then the man was consumed by fire.
“No!” Nash screamed, and dove, forcing himself through the stream of wind, body straightened like a missile, hurtling towards the man, aiming towards the sea. Maybe if he got there in time, he could put out the fire, save the man from self-immolation. His stomach fell, from a combination of sick horror and the rapid freefall.
The fire died abruptly, and Jack smiled. Both of his eyes glittered, his body whole and untouched once more, as he brought his foot up, slamming it into Nash’s jaw. Nash spun and whirled through the air again, his head ringing from the sheer force of the blow. Jack’s expression was full of triumph as his wings swept down, ascending on a stream of superheated air towards Nash. Another blow lashed out for Nash’s stomach. He barely caught it on his palms, the blow propelling him further into the air, the wild jetstream of air continually forcing Nash higher.
Then Jack vanished. Nash opened his eyes wide. There was a moment of silence as the winds swirled, and then the boot struck Nash in the side of the head, sending him spinning again. Jack flew alongside him, grinning, the gun visible in one hand.
“It’d be easy, you know? I could shoot you right now. No speed, no strength, no resistance to the bullets. I’d like to see you dodge them now. But you don’t deserve it quick. I’m going to prove to you, to everyone, that you’re not the hero who’s going to save the world. I am!”
Nash met his eyes. And he let a smile spread across his lips. “I’m not a hero.”
Jack let out a scream of inhuman rage. The emotion swirled around him. And Heather’s gift surged up in Nash, letting him feel it. The gun swung up, inhumanly fast. It barked a single shot, and then Jack disappeared, appearing behind Nash, firing another shot. The entire clip was emptied in the space of a couple of seconds, from a dozen vantages. A rain of lead.
It was, in fact, very much like the fight in the ballroom. Surrounded by foes who could change their position instantly, who could attack him from unseen angles. The same, but more so. But not more than Nash could handle.
He tumbled effortlessly between the bullets, and not one of them grazed him. He could feel the gathering power, the inertia, swinging in his favor. Drawing from Jack. The eyepatched man let out a growl of rage, and lunged for Nash. The swing came faster than sight could follow, but Nash could feel the flow of his movements. He caught Jack’s hands between his wrists, and spun him away, following the jetstream higher, into the burning clouds.
The burning flames roiled and baked the air, leaving it so dry Nash could barely breathe. He was feeling the loss of Ariel’s power, the fatigue growing intense as he flew higher, the air getting thinner. If he’d struck the clouds directly, he would be cooked alive. But the jetstream propelling him, the fury of Jack’s anger, kept the clouds away, driving them out in a wide circle, as he flew higher. And then, the clouds were below him.
It was like some twisted melange of hell and heaven, above the storm. The massive clouds rolled serenely, churning and shifting with deceptive slowness, burning ferociously, a great heat counterbalancing the chill of the atmosphere. The sun shone down from the clear blue sky. There was peace, for a moment, as Nash felt Jack’s presence disappear. Then Jack reappeared. His rage was gone, his anger, his fear. Nash felt nothing, and there was a moment of disquiet, as Jack smiled serenely. “You know, Nash, I have to wonder. You go to such lengths to not strike a blow. Always turning attacks on others.”
“It’s the difference between you and I, I think. You react. I act.”
“It’s a bit poetic. And it’s just the way I was taught. The first person to strike a blow leaves themselves vulnerable. That’s the whole point of Aikido, that it’s about not striking the first blow.”
“Yes. And yet…” And there was a very dark current in Jack’s voice as he smiled. He withdrew a small satchel. Nash’s eyes widened. He’d left it on the table, a few days ago. The postcards. Forgotten. He’d been sure nobody would care enough to search for it. The people he cared about. “If you aren’t there… You can’t do a thing to stop the people you love from being hurt, can you?” He reached into the satchel, and withdrew a card. “Hmmm. Izanagi. She must be heartbroken that her son was killed. Perhaps I should let her join him in whatever oblivion the gods find when they die? No afterworld for her this time, I fancy.”
“If you do it-” Nash began, and gritted his teeth. Jack smirked.
“You’ll what? I can just leave you, Nash. I finally realized it. I don’t have to beat you, because you’re really, truly helpless. You can’t be everywhere. You can’t even be the places you need to be. You aren’t a hero, Nash. You’re a natural disaster. Sure, dangerous to those who can’t get out of the way, but mindless.” He flicked the postcard into the air. “Helpless.” The postcard burned, and Nash saw the smiling old woman’s face disintegrating. “I could kill every one of them, and there would be nothing you could do.”
“Why?!” Nash asked, gritting his teeth. “You just want to hurt me? You just want to see me pissed? You can kill me, if you really want to! I’m lying about being invincible! You could roast me like a fucking pig on a spit, right here, right now, get your revenge, be the hero, whatever you fucking want to do, and you wouldn’t have to hurt any of them, Jack! What the fuck do you hope to accomplish?”
“I want to make you feel the way you make me feel,” murmured Jack. “Helpless. Hopeless. Worthless.” He reached into the satchel, and drew out another one. “Ahhh. I think I heard about this one. You did so much to save these five, didn’t you?” He flicked out the card, showing the smiling faces of the Constantinou family, Harry, Megara, Dean. Isabelle and Susan stood together on a beach in Greece. “I could take away their happy ending. All that suffering you went through to save them. And you would be helpless to protect them.”
Nash gritted his teeth. His thumb was spasming, his eye shaking. “You really-” His teeth chattered, not from cold or fear, and he took a deep breath, steadying himself. “You don’t want to do this.”
“No, Nash. I really think that I do.” He drew out another postcard. And a smile slowly spread across his face. “Well, look at that.” He turned the card around, and Cassandra’s smiling face shone in the serene sunlight. “She looks just like Jill. So, how about her, first? You can’t stop me, Nash. You can’t protect her. You can’t protect anyone. Don’t you see that? You’re wrong, Nash. Your whole fucking faux-pacifist philosophy is horse-shit. Because when it really counts, you can’t save the people you love.”
Nash wasn’t even aware of pulling on Pearl’s power. His tie came off easily, unknotting, and cut through the air, wrapping around Jack’s wrist. Nash yanked hard enough to dislocate Jack’s arm, pulling the man close. Jack began to burn, but was stopped with a merciless blow to the nose, blood spraying through the air as they began to fall back toward the clouds. Nash moved his arm in a tightening spiral, winding the tie around Jack’s neck, pulling the man’s fist up against his throat, and pulled, as hard as he could.
Jack erupted into flames, and they bit into Nash, but quickly died in the thin air. They erupted again, and again, but weaker each time, as they plunged downwards, racing through the clouds down towards the ground. They emerged from the cloud cover, and slammed into the ground, as hard as a meteor. Nash didn’t even feel the impact, though his arms and legs were shaky as he stood up. Jack erupted in flame, and rose at him, trying to regain his momentum, the tie incinerated in a moment. Nash’s hand went around his throat, and slammed him back into the ground, cracking the back of the man’s skull. The flames erupted again, and burned at Nash’s hand. He was aware of nothing more than the painless warmth, a numbness spreading across his reddened fingers.
“How do you do it?” asked Jack, rasping, as Nash adjusted his grip. “How can you be stronger?”
“I gave up everything, Jack. I gave up my happy ending, I gave up the chance to be a normal person forever. You never did. You didn’t leave Jill behind. You kept her by your side, because you couldn’t bear to be alone. I couldn’t, either. But I decided to be, anyway.” Nash wasn’t feeling much of anything. Just a cold, mechanical certainty. Like a clockwork engine, his hand raised into the air. It was like being back in hell, alone. “Give up the power, Jack.”
His fist rose, and fell. Jack burned and scrabbled at his face.
He’d made a pledge, once, that he’d use the soft martial arts. Turn people’s violence back on them.
“Give up the power, Jack.”
His fist rose, and fell. Jack burned and struggled with the hand around his throat.
He’d been certain that it was the right thing to do, to always give people a chance to stop.
“Give up the power, Jack.”
His fist rose, and fell. Jack burned and lay still, helpless.
Look what giving people chances had done for him. Look how it had hurt him.
“Give up the power, Jack.”
His fist rose, and a knife slashed at his side.
He turned, his fingers still wrapped around Jack’s throat, and crushed Jill’s knife in his free hand, the harmless gash in his clothes letting a cool breeze run across his skin. It was all he felt. She stared up at him, terrified. “You promised,” she said.
Bella stood behind her, her face impassive. Ariel was next to her, barely standing, leaning on Bella for support. She had a hand outstretched towards Nash. “Please, don’t, Nash.”
“Do you hear that, Jack?” Nash asked, turning back towards the man. This wasn’t the fugue. There wasn’t really a fugue, he suspected. This was just Nash. Just the anger, and the hatred, and everything that was worst about him, so eager to come out and play. “Even you. There are people in this world who even care for you. After all you did to them, after all the harm you’ve done, after all the lives you’ve taken, all the pain you’ve caused, they still want you to be a part of this world.” He raised his fist again. “I would rather a world with Ariel in it than you. Do I have to rip the strength from you? All of it? Every last erg of power, and leave you helpless, or will you make the right choice for once in your life?”
Jack opened his mouth, and Nash loosened his grip on the man’s throat. He spoke. “Fuck you.”
“Jack.” Jill spoke, and she fell to her knees, tears in her eyes. “Please. Please, we’ve fought for so long. We don’t need to keep fighting. We can be free of all of this. We don’t have to keep walking down this horrible path. We’re getting a second chance here, to do something that’s more meaningful than just murdering people. Please.” She wrapped her fingers around his.
“What about your revenge?” asked Jack, his voice hoarse. “What about being a hero?”
“I don’t want any of that. Please. I know it’s selfish, but all I want is to leave all of this behind, with you.” She buried her face against his hand, the tears running down her cheeks. “Please. You need to save me. I can’t take this anymore. And I can’t face the world without you.”
Jack opened his mouth, and sighed. And Ariel let out a breath of relief, before slumping sideways against Bella. Unconscious, but her skin was looking healthier already, her hair regaining its color and luster. Bella rolled her eyes. “Finally. I didn’t want anyone being able to blame me for her dying.”
Nash stood up, letting go of Jack. The man sat up, rubbing his throat, eyes weak. The clouds were dissipating. The fire was gone. “So that’s how it ends?” he asked, and coughed, his voice rough. “You’re just going to… let us go?”
“Yes. You’ve made blood enemies of two pantheons of gods. They know your faces, now. The Sisters know how to find you. You’ve surrendered. And you know that I can beat you. Your powers rely on you being able to ambush others, on being able to surprise them, take them without being expected. Now, everyone will know how to stop you. If you ever make trouble again, you’ll die for it, and I won’t be there to save you. This isn’t a second chance, Jack. It’s a last chance. You’re going to live the rest of your life as an unremarkable soul. The best you can hope for might be to be a good man. Something mundane. Something forgettable.” He turned away, towards the tower. “You’re going to have to rely on me, and people you’ve hurt, to be strong enough to protect you. You’re not special anymore, Jack. And you’re going to need Jill to stay by your side, to protect you, forever, from the consequences of your actions, because she’s probably the only one who can and will.” He let the silence fill the air for a moment as the burning clouds gradually died down, the hurricane gradually dispersing around them, and listened as Jack wept bitter tears into Jill’s shoulder, the two of them slumped together. “You’d better treat her well,” he said, and took a step.
His leg collapsed out from under him, and the ground rushed up. Bella’s hands intercepted him, catching him, helping him to straighten up. She rested an arm around him, and helped him stand. He looked around. “Where’s Ariel?”
“With her sisters. She’ll take a while to recover. Could be days, months. Even years. That took a lot out of her. It’s not something that’s ever happened before.” Bella carefully held him up, as he walked towards the tower. Everything hurt. The fights were catching up with him. The conflict in the Bloody Crescent, the possessed Loa, the mad run through Hell and its attendant aches and pains, and the fight with Michael and Jack. He was one big mass of pain and suffering.
But he didn’t have time to recover. He could see the writhing chaos on top of the tower. Betty needed him. He took a step forward, removing his arm from Bella’s shoulder. The two of them walked in silence towards the tower.
“Thank you, Bella,” he said, softly. “You protected Ariel, didn’t you? Kept her out of the fight. Kept her safe.”
“I did everything I was able to. It was less than I’d want,” she said, softly. “I wish I could help you more, Nash. I wish it was in my nature, I wish I could, just once, fight alongside you-”
He turned, and kissed her softly on the lips, quieting her for a moment. The faint scent of battlefield flowers filled the air around him, as he broke the kiss, and smiled. “You’re always with me, Bella. Come on. We’re almost through with this. One last fight, and then we’ve got some peace and quiet.” His smile widened. “We can do something nice, you know? Something that doesn’t involve a life-or-death struggle. Have a meal together. Play some laser-tag. Watch a movie. Be like two people, drop the whole ‘force of nature’ thing for a night.”
There was a moment’s silence from her. Then she smiled. “Sure, Nash. That sounds great.” She walked alongside him for a few more steps. “You stopped. You let him go. You really don’t think you’re a good man, Nash?”
“You saw what I did. The rage, the fury. I didn’t do it because it was the right thing. I did it because he threatened the people I care about.”
“That is the right thing, Nash.”
He shook his head, letting his eyes drift down to the ground. “It sure as hell doesn’t feel like it.”
“That’s because you are a good person. You don’t like hurting people, even when you need to. You don’t want to take pleasure in harming others. The difference between a good man and a bad man is that moment of hesitation, the instinct that what you want to do is wrong. A little self-doubt is good for the soul.” She rested a hand on his back. Then she let out a harsh breath.
The surge of adrenaline flooded him. The energy returning to him, wounds closing. And at the same time he saw the way she limped, the blood dripping down her side, as she took the pain, and the suffering away from him. “You can do that?” he asked, slightly stunned.
It wasn’t for nothing. He’d been healed, a few times, through the years. It was costly. It was the kind of thing that only existed among very specialized gods, and monsters. To be able to take the suffering and the pain of someone else away, to remove it from them, was an act that cost more than it gained back. It was a sacrifice that he’d never expect her to make.
“It costs me. It’s not something I’d normally do. But it’s Judgment Day.” She smiled at him. “It’s the time to play every last card, and to let go of instinct and caution. Time to be something different. Please, Nash. I don’t want you to ever feel like you’re alone, again. And after all of this is done… I hope that you’ll open your heart up.” She rested her hand on his shoulder, as they stood at the base of Prester John’s ruined tower. Then she was gone, but the warmth of her touch continued on, sinking through his skin.
She thought she was so subtle. She thought that the little words wouldn’t get through to him until it was too late. That he wouldn’t see what she had planned. That he would let her go without a fight to whatever she thought was going to happen to her. She had come to him intending to die, and there was still a part of her that had never accepted otherwise. That had never believed he would do what he said. She believed in the idea that her death had been preordained.
It wasn’t the most unreasonable belief. Everyone’s was, to some degree or another.
But whoever tried it would learn the same lesson that Jack just had.
The building shook under the impact of a blow, and he ran up the stairs, as quick as he could manage. Betty needed him.