[the great ones and the general ]
“I’m not acknowledging that statement or apologizing,” I hurried to add. “But let’s just say that we both suck. Deal?”
“Deal.” He pretended to shake his own hand, then looked up and grinned like an idiot at me.
I wished I had a smile to give him, but I didn't. My skin crawled just being here, with him.
“But I’ve got to ask,” he continued after the moment was over and his smile slipped away. “Are you done being stupid?" His smirk was infuriating. That I could work with.
"Yeah," I admitted. "Being stupid is too much work. I don't know how someone as lazy as you manages."
"It's taken years of perfection.” He was practically bouncing on his tiptoes; happiness literally oozed from him. Until now, it hadn't hit me how hard it was to survive without his smart-aleck remarks and doggish loyalty.
I was too far gone. I didn't matter. I was the bullet in this suicide story.
I didn’t deserve to matter.
The moment I pushed past the door into the hall someone attacked me. Not my parents, armed with mental health flyers and car keys ready to cart me away, but my sister. She wrapped herself around me, not caring about the no contact rule, and breathed heavily into my shirt.
“What are you doing?” The back of my neck itched, and every time she twitched or moved, I felt it with an anxious rush.
“Smelling you. Holding you. Keeping you with me.” She shrugged, and we moved together. “Whatever it takes to keep me from crying.”
“So why does Colt hate your uncle so much?” Shiloh curled up in the front seat, wrapping Colt’s hoodie around her bare shoulders comfortably.
I heaved a sigh from the back of the car. When had she stolen my place in the driving hierarchy?
Colt chuckled. “He doesn’t really hate my uncle. He just hates what my uncle does for a living.”
“No, I hate your uncle too,” I said, kicking the back of his seat and scowling.
“But why?” Poor, clueless Shi. She glanced between us with wide eyes, completely unaware of what the future held.
I raised my eyebrows. “In a word?” She nodded. “Goats. Lots of goats.”
“He only had one,” Colt protested as Shi sat back in confusion. “And it’s probably dead already.”
“I hope,” I said darkly.
I rolled my eyes and pull at my seatbelt, anxious to get out of this death trap. After the accident, I wouldn't ride in cars. I walked everywhere, once I left the house. My parents hadn't understood at all. “He didn’t die in an accident,” they shouted at me every time I refused to drive to school or to a doctor’s appointment. “You shouldn’t be afraid of this.”
I never found the words to explain to them that you didn’t choose your triggers. They chose you, and then they hunted you down until they ruined your life, because you simply couldn't escape them.
“Ahoy there!” The way Colt waved his arms wildly at the strangers made him look like one of those crazy balloon men that snapped up and down in a neck-breaking dance. Shiloh smacked her palm to her forehead, peeking at me in embarrassment between her fingers. Ahoy there? What are we, pirates? The pirates of Penzance? The pirates of panic attacks?
A tiny chuckle escaped my anxiety riddled mind, and I wondered at just how idiotic I felt in the moment. Carbonated fear rushed through my bloodstream. Terror pounded against my eyes, feeding the mother of all headaches. I could breathe, but my lungs still caught and resisted every breath. And yet, here I was, laughing at a stupid joke. The human brain on the drug of anxiety, indeed a wonder to behold.
At first, his eyes showed nothing, but I blinked, and suddenly his mouth twisted down at the corner—like a sarcastic lilt at the end of a sentence. “You don’t know everything, Matt. Feelings lie. Your brain lies. You're stuck in the thick of it all, and because you that, you can't see anything else. To you, there is nothing else.” He gnawed at his lower lip as he swallowed. “This isn’t the end, and you deserve to get better, not matter what your brain tells you. There's more to your life now than punishing yourself for something you didn’t do. You have to admit it when you're wrong."
I looked at the dinghy, and the dinghy looked back at me, straight into my ripped up soul.
"Sucker," it said.
"I know," I replied.
And then the shutter clicked and I turned to ask for her name but all that was left of her was a whirl of red hair caught in the waning light.
[ cor ]
She'd seen it all before, but something about the warm, inviting sand, the flash of mental under the sun, and the cry of her name echoing all the way to home filled her with fresh excitement every time. The rush never grew old in her mind.
She pulled her thick brown hair back, quickly plaiting it into a heavy rope that fell halfway down her spine. Hade still watched, lips thin and white. His sandy hair stuck up haphazardly, slick with sweat, and he had to be exhausted, but he didn't say a word. He never did. He would do anything for her.
And she loved him for that.
“Ready?” she asked eagerly, already anticipating his answer.
His lips twitched—Hade's version of a smile. “Very.”
“Say, Hade, when will you step into the arena? I warrant you're a mighty force—not a spear, like your tiny girl, but maybe a long sword?” Ripper wiggled a wiry eyebrow at the two of them.
Hade didn't bother correcting him; no matter how many times they did, the men still assumed Bryony was Hade's and not her own. “I'm not really a fighting man,” he said, instead. The man blinked in confusion as he tried to process such a foreign concept.
Some hundred feet away, in a box filled with silk, rich food, and more money than she could imagine, Milo Proditor, prince of the province of Cor, stood and spread his arms for silence. An unwilling hush fell over the crowd. As usual, Milo dressed in absurd finery; he wore a bronze breastplate that shone brightly in the sun, as well as a deep cobalt cape, contrasting with the red feather hanging from the crown of his head. He was a spectacle, a monkey in a parade. It made Bryony sick to watch him fool around on that stage like this wasn't a life or death situation. It wasn't, for him. The closest Milo ever got to battle were these matches, just like Bryony only ever saw his wealth from afar.
Later that night, when everyone was asleep and all the lamps dimmed, Bryony slipped out of the bed she shared with her sisters. The packed earthen floor cooled her feverish skin, and the night air burned her lungs as she gulped for breath.
If only there were a way to sleep without dreaming.
Shan looked up at her with fire in her eyes. “Do you even care about anything other than your stupid fighting? Haven't you ever wondered what it's like to have a life, away from this desolate hellhole?”
Bryony lifted her pin hold a little as the guardsmen drew near. “No,” she said, completely honest.
It was the first time she'd spoken to Shan in two years.
“Then maybe you should consider it,” she spat, rubbing the blood from her streaming nose on her expensive clothing. "Maybe then you'd understand that I didn't do it to hurt you.”
The guards were at their heels, shouting at Bryony to let the other girl go. “Then why did you do it?”
The rage slowly slipped away from Shan's face. “I don't know...” she said softly. “Maybe I wanted to save myself this time, instead of letting you be the hero like always.”
He dropped the pouch in her waiting hand. “Happy?”
She handed the money to Hade, who reluctantly knelt to put it in his pack. “No.”
“No?” Milo's dark eyebrows quirked, suspicious.
She took a step closer to him, so their noses would've touched if she were taller, and stabbed him in the chest with a finger. “If I EVER find out you're that host's patron, I will break into your shiny palace or find whatever scumhole you hide in when you aren't harassing me and my family, and I will slowly and painfully castrate you. Understand?” She stabbed him again for emphasis.
His adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed hard. That was all the answer she needed.
Her head tipped back as her thoughts muted...her eyes slipped open...all she wanted was to see the night sky and feel safe, like the arena made her feel...but instead...
In all black, with no tacky finery dragging him down. Dark hair, messy and child-like. Wild, terrified eyes.
Holding her with cold but sweating hands.
She was awake now.
“What are you doing here?” she snapped after her voice found its way back. She wrestled to escape his grip, but she was still too wobbly, and he was stronger than he looked.
He looked scared.
“He's just here to see Hade, Mam.”
“Well, why isn't he at Hade's?”
Bryony sighed. “Because he's too lazy to walk that far.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Milo's head snapped up. A scowl threatened his impassive mask. So he could hear her.
Something about the way he squirmed under her family's eyes gave her great pleasure. Almost enough to make her smile. Almost.