April Patreon Novella

As is pretty much expected for someone who writes, I’ve fallen behind on things; Life, obligations, and so forth. Catching up now! Here’s the April Novella, Secrets- looking at the lives of those who walk in the backgrounds of Hell’s Kitchen Sink.

Entire thing is available here, for just a dollar! https://www.patreon.com/user?u=5359808

The first of four chapters follows.

Chapter 1: Bella

“Again? You stupid bitch! You burn the food again?! What, you were too busy shooting up to pay attention to the smell of smoke? I spend all day working my ass off, and you fucking burn dinner?! Can’t you do anything right?!”

The real hell of life is everyone has his reasons.

“I’m sorry, Tommy, the baby was crying, and-“

“The fucking baby again! Is that your fucking excuse? Is that why you had the god damn thing? So you could use it as an excuse every time you fuck up?!”

This is not to say that people’s reasons are good, or that they are well-thought out, or that they must be respected. But everyone does what they do for a reason. Everyone’s path made sense when they were taking it.

“Tommy- Tommy, stay away-“

“What? You’re going to fucking stab me, then? You’re going to stab me? Go ahead! It’d be better than this! It’d be better than listening to your shit!”

When I made a bargain that doomed humanity, when I sold my hope, my faith, and my love in exchange for revenge, I believed I was finally making the right decision. How else should I have reacted? Watching you people take the gifts I gave you, the strength to carry on, the fury to refuse injustice and death and the heavy heel of a conqueror, and then, when you had found a happy life, you decried me. You loathed the struggle that you had gone through. You hated the memory of me, though I was what kept you going.

You called me hell.

“Please, Tommy-“

“Go the fuck ahead!”

The real hell of life is everyone has her reasons.

Tommy’s hand snapped out, grabbing the knife by the handle. He was a veteran. He had served in Iraq, and a piece of shrapnel had worked its way into the nerves around his spine. It caused him pain. It got him hooked on painkillers. Veterans Affairs had fucked up his paperwork, and a bureaucrat who had been distracted by his divorce had refused to allow him a second chance. Work was painful, and rare. Money was short. Demands were everywhere. He felt under attack from all sides. But he knew how to function in that environment. He raised the knife, ready to cut down an enemy.

Was Tommy an evil man, because he was not better than anyone had any right to ask him? That didn’t matter. He was still going to murder his wife, the mother of his child.

I drew the machete, stepped behind him, and slashed once, very precisely. Tommy went still. The knife tumbled from his hand, landing on the ground with a gentle clatter.

“Tommy?”

He collapsed forward, his arms going around his wife’s shoulders, and squeezing her ferociously, tears running down his cheeks. All of the scar and callous he had accumulated around his soul, all of the fury and anger he wore like a shield against a hostile world, and I had torn them from him in a single strike. If you believe that was more merciful than killing him, then feel free to hold to that delusion.

“I’m sorry, baby. I’m so sorry. I- It’s bad.” He sniffled, a grown man exposing vulnerability. “I love you. I’m so, so goddamn sorry. I lost my job. I don’t know how I’m going to feed us.”

The two stood crying together, arms around each other, tears running down each other’s shoulders. The division turned into unity by shared pain and vulnerability. Was it the right thing to do? Were they right to be together? How on earth could I tell that? I allowed them to cry for a long few minutes together. I coughed softly, and the man looked up, shocked.

“I’m sorry. I’m from the VA office. Your appeal passed through.” I held out the check. “Please accept our sincere apologies, and all of your withheld benefits.”

I left as they stared at the check. It was a substantial amount. It was what he was owed.

A single cut, and a touch of bureaucratic busywork. This is what it took to save three lives. There is something both cheering and sickening about that. Cheering that it is so easy to make a difference. Sickening that so few try.

I’m not innocent, here. Whatever you have done, or not done, I have done so much worse. It was my fault this man was suffering in the first place. I had been the one to guide that bullet to a place where it would hurt him forever. I had been the one to ensure his benefits were cut off.

It was for such a stupid, petty reason. He’d cracked a joke to one of his friends, on a quiet day when the base commissary had run out of lemonade. “War is hell.”

Just a little thing. And I’d ruined him for it.

That’s just what I am. What I have always been. I can claim that it was more than could be endured, that I am simply what people make of me, that anyone would have done the same in my place. But that is a lie that is perpetuated by those who would steal my agency.

It was my fault this man was hurt. I always had the power to, if not make things right, at least help him. I simply had to take the step. Why did he deserve it more than any of the others I’d harmed?

He didn’t. By helping him, I was allowing another to suffer for now. I was doing my best to help them all. Calming tempers. Soothing the rage of humanity. Everything that I could. I just had to hope that it would not wind up provoking the other Horsemen.

It was an idea I’d started to embrace, more and more. Every human was locked, eternally, in a war of all-against-all. Every human loathed the power I gave them, because I gave it also to their brothers. Those who rose above the crowd, in turn, found me raising new champions against their tyrannies. They spurned me, because I was as I was. It was an unfortunate situation. I allowed my judgement to be warped. And I made one decision that I shouldn’t have.

One decision that, somehow, impossibly, had been taken back.

The consequences for that would be awful, I knew. Surely worth more than my life ever could be. In the meantime…

The lesson here is, I did two things to this man. One is something you are not capable of. I sliced through a metaphorical shell of self-loathing and pain to stop him from making a terrible mistake. The other thing I did was well within your capacities.

Be kind. You are locked in a war against a universe that is vast, cold, and uncaring. Allies are the only way to survive it. I will be there for you. Be there for others.

I checked my watch, and sighed. I had an appointment. Three of them, in fact.

The first was in a graveyard.

One of my… compatriots, I suppose, the Horseman Death, had extended this invitation to me, a quiet chat and breakfast. Nothing serious. Nothing too heavy. She wanted to keep the lines of communication open.

The graveyard was a lovely one. It was somewhere in Massachusetts, one of the older and nicer brand of graveyard that was intended to hold people who had been genuinely loved by those around them. Markers ranged from small, simple plinths with a simple name and set of dates, to headstones, to the occasional tremendous monument, looming over their lesser brethren as an example of conspicuous excess that their owners could no longer benefit from.

I found graveyards both melancholy, and strangely fascinating. A thousand wars were written in the simple numbers here. Wars that, it’s true, were always lost in the end- But that wasn’t the part that mattered, was it? Everyone lost eventually. It was everything that happened before that was wondrous.

Say what you will of Death, she is always punctual. At the stroke of 8 AM, as the sun rose, and the curling fingers of mist began to withdraw under the day’s assault, she appeared. To one who did not know her, she seemed as though she had been standing there all along, only to be revealed when the mist curled back. She was fond of her dramatic touches. Not that I had any room to be critical there.

“War.”

“It’s Bella, now, Death.” I tilted my head. “Perhaps you should try a change of name, too.”

“Oh, yes. I could be Morticia, perhaps. Shinko. Maybe Todd- Oh, no, I used that one, didn’t I?”

“You’re in a mood, aren’t you.”

She opened the picnic basket. “The easier it is to change, Bella, the easier it is to change back. You were always the most determined among us, the one devoted to annihilation of humanity. You had the fervor of a true believer. But if I were to change…” She sighed. “Redemption of one monster is almost beyond belief. Two, three, four? That verges on the trite. You know as well as I do that if this were all as simple as everyone deciding to be kind to one another, to be satisfied with their lot in life, then it would’ve stopped being an issue a long time ago.”

“I just wish it could be easier.”

“I’ll have my chance for redemption. Now. I didn’t invite you here to talk the end of the world. That old conversation is like a well-chewed bone. I invited you here to enjoy some wine with me, and a little brunch.”

“Mmmm.” I studied the basket. “Nice selection.” I looked around us. “Can’t say I care for the atmosphere, though. This place is dead.”

Death gave me a long, contemplative look, her expression muted.

“What?”

“You never used to make those jokes,” she said, her eyes not… judgmental, exactly, but seeking something in me.

“I always made those jokes. I always hinted. A scream for attention, I like to think. He…” I smiled slightly. “Nash mocked me for it, once. That I had chosen a name that almost screamed at my true nature. He always seemed to find it amusing. The hints that the powerful leave, because they think it doesn’t matter, and because they desperately want someone to realize how clever, how powerful they really were.” I chuckled softly. “If he had been there, he probably would have laughed his head off at your little prank.”

“Well, it so often works. Who would be so madly self-centered as to believe that the fundament of War, of Death, of Famine, of Conquest, is paying you a personal visit? They’re such big, impersonal ideas. It’s the audacity that makes the names work. People are so… unused to the fantastic, now. They let themselves become so small.”

“It’s changing,” I said. “You’ve seen it, haven’t you? The Atlanteans returning… Who would have thought they would abandon their hidey-hole and join the great big world? You remember when they fled, don’t you?”

“How could I forget?” She smiled softly. “What chaos. What fun. So many lost lives.” She sighed nostalgically, as I watched her. “Something wrong, Bella?”

“It’s funny to think that you could be so kind to the foundlings, and so harsh to others.”

I watched as Death stiffened ever so slightly, leaning back against a gravestone, sitting on the monument. The name was long faded, the gravestone’s entire purpose lost in the fugue of time. That was Death all over.

“How did you find out?” She asked, her eyes narrowed.

“Jack.”

“An anomaly. A tool.”

“You think I don’t know a desperate grab for redemption when I see it, Death?” I asked, an eyebrow raised.

“You’re projecting, War. You want forgiveness. I just want this all to end. Jack was a tool towards that end. One last cruelty towards Promethea, towards the Eternal Fire that vexes me.”

“Well, far be it from me to argue your motivations with you.” I looked into the picnic basket. Black sausage sandwiches on dark rough pumpernickel, a beet salad, and blackberry mead. “You couldn’t find a black vegetable, Death? You’re slipping.”

“I found a few ghost apples,” she said. I lifted the sandwiches out of the way, and raised an eyebrow at the bone-white apples inside.

“I’ve heard these taste awful. Mealy, no flavor at all.”

“Well, when one prioritizes aesthetics, one makes sacrifices.” She smiled. “The mead is very good.”

I pulled out the bottle, and two slender wine glasses. The mead was dark, and only slightly thick. The scent of blackberries filled the air as I took a delicate sniff of it, nodding appreciatively. I sat back, atop a large flat monument, one leg crossed over the other, not minding the moss or the traces of dirt on the cool marble. I was long past worrying about getting a little dirty. “So. Your foundlings. Are all of them the children of ancient powers, being forged into weapons to hasten the demise of the world?”

“More than you’d think,” she said, looking to one side, her expression pensive. “The powerful and the immortal tend to fear their offspring. They have so much more to lose, after all.”

“A petty insurrection. You could do more, Death. You could fight him.”

Death sighed softly, trailing her fingers through her acid green hair, her dark eyes turned to one side. “I’m not interested in fighting. You, Conquest, Famine, you’re all about the struggle, the pain, the suffering, the mad passion and the ferocious refusal to accept what I am. I am about the end, Bella. When the war ceases to matter, when the conquests slip through your fingers, when you never lack anything again. I’m not interested in fighting him, because he represents the end. I just want people to suffer less as they approach that end. I just want the suffering to stop.

“Life is suffering,” I said, softly. “But it is joy, too.”

“And there’s the difference between us.” She sipped at her mead, her eyes closed. “Please don’t use the children against me. They don’t deserve that. Jack was bad enough. I saw him on the verge of death, and…”

I raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t want him to die?”

“Not with that power inside of him. It would have turned his soul to flame and wind, destroyed everything he was when he died.” She opened her eyes again. “The afterlife awaits him. An eternity of joy and the love of those around him, to make up for the suffering he endured in this life. Nothing he could accomplish could possibly be worth risking that.”

“And so we come around to Nash.”

“Stop fighting, Bella.”

“Live a little, Death.”

The two of us chuckled softly, exchanging tips of our glasses. We sipped sweet blackberry mead beneath the rising sun, and watched as the mist slowly evaporated, thinning and disappearing like a Christmas truce. As we finished the food, I took a bite of one of the apples. It snapped, and was sweet, the flavor tart and refreshing. I nodded slowly, appreciatively, wiping my lips of the clear juices.

“This is much better than I expected.”

“Sometimes death can be like that.”

I rolled my eyes. “It was good seeing you. I hope someday we can both laugh about this whole thing.”

“We could laugh right now,” she said, a slight quirk to the corner of her lip. “We are cruel, merciless beings. Did you forget?”

I stood up, and bowed my head softly. “Thank you for the meal. I will have to return the favor. For now, I have another appointment.”

I was gone. Then I stood again, at the entrance to a restaurant. It was the kind of restaurant far too high-class and expensive to have an actual name, and its reservation list was booked years in advance, largely by people who couldn’t give a damn about the food and who came to this place for the prestige it offered. A young man with impeccable taste in fashion eyed me slowly, as though I was something that had been scraped off a particularly low class boot. “Your reservation, ma’am?”

“Bella. I’m expected.”

He snorted. “You can call our number. I am sure something will open up, Miss Bella.”

“Look up the name,” I said, serenely. There was a time when I might have placed a terrible curse on the young man for having the nerve to take that tone with me. I was better, now. The young man was the product of his supervisor, who was the product of his manager, who was the product of the owner, who was the product of my old compatriot. Famine made beasts out of men. Of course, she could also make men out of beasts.

The young man rolled his eyes, and humored me, his eyes drifting down the list lazily. Then they leapt up, and to the right, to a corner on the sheet. His expression paled, and he looked up at me. He had realized, to a degree, who I was. I was someone who had power over him, someone who could destroy his life. It bred a certain terrified respect. “Ah. I am terribly sorry, ma’am, please-”

“It’s alright,” I said, raising a hand, smiling softly. “You didn’t know. Which room?”

“Ah, Number Seven. Please, I will show you-”

“It’s alright.” I rested a hand on his shoulder, gently. “You were just doing your job.”

The young man knew I could kill him. Not with the blade I had on me at all times, not by wringing his neck. He knew I could kill him slowly. Take away his livelihood as a simple act of retribution, cut him loose, leave him desperately flailing for support. It was the nature of the world we lived in. I could do it simply for the satisfaction. I had done it so many, many times, simply for the satisfaction.

I loathed that I had ever done so. It burned me like an ember dropped down my throat, to know I had been so cruel, so often. I walked past the young man, and into the restaurant. Small, individualized rooms. They were deeply inefficient, part of the reason that the reservation list was so long. There were only seven dining rooms in the entire building, each meant to hold four people comfortably, or six intimately. I walked down the hall, to number 7, and opened the door.

Famine sat at one end of the small table, in a chair made from what looked like wood from a destroyed pier. The cutlery appeared to have been smelted inexpertly from scrap metal; what looked like nails and razor blades were visible in the forks. The entire thing looked wholly unappetizing, but I didn’t know much about high cuisine. Famine looked up from the menu, and smiled, dark locks curling around her head.

“I thought that this place didn’t have a menu. They’re an insult to the chef, or something like that.”

“Every restaurant has a menu if you know how to ask properly.” She studied the menu. “Ooooh. The Obsolecence Scramble sounds good.” I raised an eyebrow. “Well, they claim they transfer the reclaimed DNA of a Dodo into an unfertilized Emperor Penguin egg- Approximately the same size. The Dodo can’t properly grow, because of- Well, something or other, you know humans and their science- but it can create a fetus. Something akin to balut. Then they scramble it while the bones are still soft-”

I listened as Famine expounded on the meal. She was dressed in black, her hair hanging around her head in ringlets. She did not act or dress like someone who was incredibly powerful, her dress a bit ragged and threadbare. But she was powerful, so the way she looked didn’t matter. The food was- Well, I knew many people would find the concept obscene. Be it for the killing of an animal- Though of course animals are killed all the time for food- for the obscene waste on a simple meal, or the absurdity of it all for something that did not sound particularly good.

For me, food was food. Fuel for a war. Food was important, even good food was important, because it contributed to morale and the willingness to fight. A good meal could make a man into a tiger. I also knew the value of food when nothing else was available. When the world surrounded you, the tongue of a duck or the liver of the cow was desperately necessary. You couldn’t afford to throw away nutrients.

“I don’t get it,” I said, waving a hand at this. “The food. The cutlery. The furniture. I don’t get it.”

“You don’t?” Said Famine, an eyebrow raised. “Seems quite straightforward to me.” She smirked. “There’s nothing the rich love more than feeling as though they’re embracing the poor. That they know what it’s like to be poor, to be threatened, to have their life under constant assault. They like to be able to say they understand. But more than that, they like to have what no one else can.” She waved a hand at the frankly lethal forks. “These are things no one poor can afford to waste money on. They are so worthless that they can only be used by those with such an excess that everything is available.” She chuckled. “Prester John took me here once. I bought the place.”

“How’s your daughter?”

Her eyes narrowed. “She is not my daughter. She cannot carry anything of me. She is Prester John’s daughter, with a splattering of DNA. Bastet is more my daughter than she is.”

“You know, it’s funny. That has always been the assumption, hasn’t it? The children of Horsemen, of Sisters- They’re just humans. They don’t carry anything of us. They don’t have any of our power, our majesty, our greatness.” I lifted the pitcher. A small tag hung from the handle, proclaiming that the water within had been chipped from the Antarctic ice over Lake Vostok during the mining operations there. I gave Famine a brief look, wondering if it had been deliberate on her part. She was staring moodily down at the menu. “Odd about Jack, then.”

“He took the power of a Sister. Not odd at all.”

“He was notably not overwhelmed by it. Men have been devoured by less, much faster. But, perhaps that was Death’s influence. Perhaps she protected him. Somehow. In some way she hasn’t shared.” I tilted my head to the side. “Very strange about the fire, though. No matter how you stretch it- I can’t imagine how the power of Wind could create such a ferocious firestorm.”

“So what?” asked Famine, suddenly venomous, her eyes narrowed. “You want to replace me with her? Kill me, let my power flow into my daughter, in the hopes of having a new ally? Vulnerable and foolish, ready to die for one of your mad crusades, War?”

I realized, quite to my surprise, that I hadn’t been considering any such thing. “It’s Bella.”

She looked to the side, her expression bitter. “You changed so easily.

“It really wasn’t easy.”

“We both came to the verge of death. Why are you good now? Why do you find yourself loved? Why not me?

I was quiet for a moment, and frowned. That was really not what I had expected. “What have you done to be loved?”

“I’m not brutalizing them. That should be enough. I have stopped trying to murder their world.”

“Well, that’s hardly any good, is it? Practically everyone doesn’t kill the world.” I smiled. “You should know as well as anyone, people are not appreciative of forbearance.”

She gritted her teeth. “You know why I don’t do anything big. You were supposed to die, in the most horrific way, for betraying our agreement. And you got away with it, because of him.” The door opened, and a man swept in, carrying two plates. I hadn’t noticed the food being ordered, but he carried one plate with a modestly sized egg surrounded by vacuum tubes welded onto the edge of the plate. The other plate held a hamburger, broadly. The bun had been crumbled into a fine powder, whipped together with ketchup and mustard, and spread across the ground beef, which had been shaped into two flat patties. Frankly the whole thing was messy, and not particularly enjoyable, but deconstructed food was more about the novelty than actually being good food.

We ate in silence for a long few minutes. I appreciated the food, because it represented the deaths that kept me alive. No one could survive without killing. But the food didn’t make me happy, any more than Death’s picnic had. It was sustenance. It was continuing the fight. It wasn’t what made the fight worth continuing.

“If you want to be loved, if you want someone to save you, Famine,” I said, softly, “maybe you should start by connecting. That’s how I started. Maybe to your daughter.”

“Good luck,” said Famine. “In your mad crusade, Bella. But you can’t fight what you intend to fight.”

“If we could, he’d hardly want us to know about it, would he?” I smiled, and stepped away to my third appointment.

And I stood in a war zone. I watched as a group of young men scurried from one spit of cover to another. I watched as they ran, watching the sky. Watching for a vengeful god who could strike them dead from beyond their sight. There was a distant buzz, high and clear, and they hunkered down, breathing hard, terrified.

America is not under my patronage. It was, once. Only once, for five bloody years. It is a very American thing that they refer to it simply as The Civil War; The one, the only, or at least the only one that matters. For five years, the country was split evenly. More or less. The South had been doomed by industrialization and foreign politics and countless technological innovations, but they’d fought with the passion I had given them.

If you are shocked that I gave power to a side that was fighting for the right to keep their fellow humans in bondage, I do not know what to tell you. I help the weaker side regardless of their morality.

At all other times, America has been a land under the hand of Conquest. The continent’s history is written in conquest. First the humans came across the Bering strait, and culled the great beasts of the land more effectively than any natural disaster. Then the humans came from across the Atlantic on the trade winds, and did the same thing to the humans they found there. One nation and then another conquered America, and the nation that rose on the northern half learned the lesson to its very bones.

There was a distant hum, and fire blossomed in one of the nearby buildings. The explosion blotted out the sound of the missile’s approach, death coming faster than the speed of sound. The men vanished in the flames, ashes and wind all that was left of young men who had once had dreams and hopes and glories, dying without a witness.

Except for me.

And Conquest.

“Glorious,” she said, with hair of silver and teeth of gold, her eyes bright as she sat atop a heap of rubble. It had collapsed into the vague shape of a throne, and she slouched to one side in a painfully obvious deliberate affectation.

“Disgusting,” I said, frowning.

“Well, of course you disapprove. You always liked a fair fight.” She smirked. “Odd that you’d gang up on us with the Sisters, in that case. Taking advantage like that, putting us on the wrong foot- It’s more like something I’d do, isn’t it?”

“You know, the others invited me for a nice meal. It was really quite lovely. Almost human.”

Conquest stood up, her hair flashing in the air, burnished and bronze-colored as it reflected the flames that had once been men. “We don’t eat food. This is our meat and drink, Bella.” She spat the name like a curse. “We are not humans. We never were humans. We will never be humans. We are forces, great and terrible. It’s beneath us to ape humans.”

“I cannot help but notice that for all that, you certainly enjoy your human shape. Why take that shape?”

“You can have the strengths of this body, this form, without subscribing to the weakness. Hunger. Hormones. The desire to breed that men call love and elevate as a virtue.” She glared at me. “All of this over a single human. Pathetic. How many people like Silas have you killed through direct intervention, let alone the number you allowed to die?” She stood up, and studied me. “What makes him different?”

I narrowed my eyes. “Don’t you dare try to steal him from me.”

She smirked. “What? Don’t you like our dynamic? You find the weak with great potential, those with the will to power, the spirit, you make them strong enough to fight those who oppressed them… And then they become mine. It’s how we work, War. You’ve seen the way he marches through the cities. The way he crushes them. He ate of my power when he ripped it out of Itzpapalotl. How sure are you, truly, that he’s still yours?” She smiled her golden smile, the smile that filled men’s hearts with greed and hunger.

“You can still fight, Conquest,” I said, taking a different tack. “You don’t have to submit to this plan. You don’t have to be the conquered. We can win.”

“Oh, War.” Conquest shook her head softly. “You don’t know a thing about me, do you?” She smiled. “I’m going to win.”

She was gone as the flames guttered out. I looked over at the remains.

What had changed in me? What had happened to me? I had sought the destruction of every human for their crimes against me. The most painful, excruciating end I could contrive for them, self-destruction on a grand scale. And now, I felt sick to my stomach about the death of even a few. I was weak. I needed to remind myself why I did this.

Then, I was by Nash’s side. He stood in the middle of a circle of cars, somewhere in Nebraska, frowning as he studied them, his hand on his chin. The sunlight streamed down through the cars, bright and shining, illuminating dust kicked up by the wind. It created stark black shadows out of the looming gray cars, and the contrast was dazzling. Nash slowly raised his hand, fingers curling into a fist as he raised it. Then he paused, and turned towards me. “Bella?” His voice was suddenly full of concern. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I said, softly. He stepped forward, and raised a hand, running it along my cheek. It came away with a drop of moisture. I looked to the side. “I was… busy. Meeting with the Horsemen.”

“That’s dangerous,” he said, frowning. “I should have come with you.”

“They won’t try anything. They wouldn’t be able to. They need to have leverage over me, and all that exists is right here.” I rested my hand on his arm, and squeezed it.

I thought, sometimes, about what would happen when Nash died. The first human in so long who hadn’t rejected me, who had embraced me. How would I deal with it when he passed on, as all humans must? When he disappeared, because the power I’d given him, the power I’d forced on him, was too much? Would I revert to my old ways? I didn’t think that was possible. I hoped I would continue living, continue fighting, remembering that there was something worth fighting for.

But mostly, I didn’t think about it. That was a pain that would come in time, and nothing would properly prepare me for it. It didn’t help me survive the coming days to dwell on pain that relied on both of us living a long and happy life together.

“No luck,” he said, smiling. “Avalon’s gates are locked up tight. I’m beginning to think I may have to get clever.” He frowned at the henge. “I’m not going to accomplish anything more here today. How about we get a bite to eat?”

The hamburgers were good. Nash stood over the small camp stove, flipping them slowly. They hadn’t been bought at dear price, they hadn’t been made by the finest chef, there was no theme to them. Nash was learning to take care of himself, but he was still new to it. The meal was ground meat and ground grains, and it was life itself. The secret to food was the company. And around Nash, I was happy. Not sated or amused or inflamed. Happy. When I was around him, the world no longer felt like a broken bone, grinding and piercing and causing pain every time I moved. Things were right around him.

“I’ve got to do something,” I said, softly, licking my fingers clean and wiping them with a napkin as I finished. The burger had been intensely savory, and juicy. Much better than the deconstructed one.

“You’ve been doing a lot.” He smiled. “You should rest a little. Can’t save the world if you burn out, right?”

“This, from you, of all people,” I said, the smile appearing on my lips unbidden, but deeply welcome. “I appreciate it. But there are… things that I have avoided doing. Sleeping dogs I have let lie. But that is no longer an option.” I sighed softly. “Am I doing the right thing, Nash?”

“I don’t know exactly what you’re doing,” he said expression serious, and then smiled. He stepped closer, and my heart beat a little quicker as his arms went around me, squeezing me gently. Hormones. The desire to create children. Simple human needs, ridiculous things meant to program a sapient creature into a vessel for propagating its own DNA. And they became something holy out of a misplaced sense of them. Love was a tool for compelling animals to breed. I had known that, I had used it as a weapon so many times. It still overwhelmed me, as I leaned into the embrace. “I believe in you, though. Whatever you’re doing, I’ll support you.”

Trust. Real trust. When had I ever had that? Not blind devotion, not fury and wayward need, but someone who made me feel as though I could be more than I was? Never, ever.

“I need to go talk to Cassandra,” I said, softly.

“Give her my best,” he said, with a wry grin. “You’ll know where to find me.”

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