”Is this seat taken?” asked Lev.
A sharp silence. They were remote enough that even the city couldn’t be heard.
He cleared his throat. “Is this seat taken?”
Only the rustling of bare branches and leaf piles answered him.
“I was...that was a joke.” He furrowed his brow. “You were always better at telling them.”
It had rained not long ago and the gravestone was still wet, water drops hanging from it like pearls, sparkling in the rising sun. Lev patted the grass for a dry spot before he sat. It was soft and strangely enough, warm. The gravestone was placed in just the right spot to break the rushing wind.
Seeing that there was nobody around to see him, Lev let loose his mask. It was the least bit of respect he could offer. “You wouldn’t believe the stuff that’s been happening. It’s just crazy. Maybe not crazy for you, but definitely for me. Crazy enough that I’m sitting here talking to an empty grave.”
“So where do I start? I wear a lion mask and go around beating up gangsters.” Lev laughed a little, a small sound, humourless. “I’ve got a reputation for it now, actually. They call me the Black Lion. Gave me a pretty high bounty too, but compared to yours, I’m just a speck of dust.”
“In the past couple weeks,” he continued. “I’ve been hunted by one Crown and allied with another. If you can believe it, I’ve fought and beaten Metahumans. Used a Cerafex. Do you remember Priscilla? Priscilla Marinton? Robert Marinton’s daughter. She’s here too.”
A sudden breeze carried leaves across the sky, painting it in lush strokes of orange and red. Lev glanced at the leaves as they passed. The air was light with the pleasant scent of damp earth. “Turns out Mr Marinton wasn’t all he looked. He hired Vulpes to kill her but I stepped in before that could happen. I saved her.”
“I saved her.” Lev repeated it a few more times. The phrase felt bizarre on his tongue, as if he was speaking a foreign language. “I didn’t even think about it that way. I’ve been so caught up in everything else I’ve barely had time to think. I saved someone’s life. You’d be proud of me. I should be proud of myself. I did something good, right?”
He looked down at his hands, calloused and scarred where the flesh had been soft just weeks ago. It felt like it’s been longer. “Then why don’t I feel like it? I feel like I messed up. When you disappeared, I promised myself I’d do anything to get you back. I’d dirty my hands as much as I needed to, even if that meant doing something unforgivable. Especially if that meant doing something unforgivable. If you’d asked me at the start if I’d be willing to kill a child for you, I’d have said yes.”
“But at that moment I panicked,” Lev admitted. “I couldn’t let her die so I called Quill. I took a huge risk and it all ended up working out, but what if it hadn’t? Now I know there’s a line I can’t cross to save you and that terrifies me. It makes me feel like...like I’ve betrayed you. Betrayed myself.”
“That’s not all either. There was someone I met here who helped me. Her name was Astri and she was...kind. Kinder to me than I deserved. She stuck with me through a lot, never asking for anything in return. I think she saw me as some path to redemption. Forgiveness.”
“And because of me, she may never wake up again.” He reached for the gravestone, about to touch it, when his hand jerked back. “I keep thinking how if I hadn’t flipped that coin, would things have been different? Could we have escaped? Would Astri have been fine? I don’t think it was my fault, but I can’t stop myself from feeling guilty. There’s so much I was too prideful to thank her for and now I may never get a chance.”
When the wind died down, Lev pulled out a single cigarette from his pocket.
“Yes, yes, I know. Smoking is bad for you.” He stuck it between his teeth and tugged for a lighter. “I’m just trying one, alright? Just one. I really need something to just...take the edge off. Not a drink though; I need to keep my wits.”
He drew in a small puff and immediately stifled a cough. “Jesus.”
For some time, Lev sat in silence, tasting the smoke and awkwardly coughing.
“I can’t believe people like this,” he muttered. He lifted the cigarette close and let it linger in front of his eyes, watching the dash of light at its edge flicker ever so slightly. What a common sight that’s become.
“I know you’re Nabi,” said Lev finally. “I always knew you were badass, but not this badass. Not ‘brought the Seven Crowns to their knees’ badass. I mean, a fifty million dollar bounty? You didn’t even have fifty dollars in your savings.”
“I just don’t understand why you never told me. I guess a part of me gets it: you’re a murderer. You’ve probably taken more lives than I could ever comprehend and they speak of you like the boogeyman. I know they were criminals but at the same time, I think to myself how some of them might’ve been people like Astri. People that might’ve deserved more. Were you afraid I would judge you for that? Did you think I cared about you so little that this truth would make a difference?”
Lev breathed deeply. “I’ve never killed, but I’ve been close. I’ve hurt people, hurt them badly, but by some luck, my hands are still clean. Really, I think it’s been more about circumstance than morals.”
Some of the cigarette’s ash dripped onto the grass, leaving a splash of orange on its blade. “I don’t care if you’re a murderer. I don’t care what you’ve done. It doesn't change how I feel about you, and if that makes me a terrible person, then so be it. I’ll always be here to forgive you and if the sin is unforgivable then I will carry it with you. Even if everyone else has given up on you, I will always be here. ”
Lev waited again for the headstone to reply. He knew it wouldn’t, but the silence felt comfortable. Natural, even.
Sehyun Seok, 1996 - 2021, Forever Beloved.
The words stared, empty. Lev leaned back against the gravestone. It was cold and wet but if he closed his eyes, he could almost pretend it was Sehyun. His arms were gentle marble and his voice the sweet lull of dry leaves.
“I miss you so much,” Lev whispered.
There was the rustling of leaves crushed underfoot. He pressed his mask on and reached for his weapon.
“I didn’t mean to startle you.” Quill walked out from under the naked trees, holding a bouquet of flowers. “I thought I’d find you here.”
“How?” He regretted the words as soon as they left his lips. “Wait, no, don’t say it.”
Lev sighed, dropping his arms to his sides as Quill approached. The King laid the flowers on the gravestone, its sapphire blue foiling the amber ground.
“I wanted to talk about Pierce with you, but I thought it’d be weird if I just showed up out of nowhere, so I got these on the way. I hope they help.”
Lev paused. “They do.”
He reached for a petal and it came off between his fingers. “Ovlenche. It means eternal remembrance. To never be forgotten.”
“I’m glad. Honestly, I know jack all about what flowers mean so it’s lucky it worked out.”
“In Greek myth,” Lev started. “When Patroclus died, the hero Achilles mourned for seven days and nights. On the seventh, Achilles, fearing that history would forget Patroclus, ordered that these flowers be planted on his grave. It was said that in the afterlife, the dead drink from the River Lethe so that their memories will be forgotten and they may reincarnate, but when Patroclus was tempted by the river, he saw Ovelenches planted along its bank. They quelled his temptation, and he refused the drink, instead choosing to wait an eternity for Achilles.”
“I can’t tell if that’s touching or stupid.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think you’d have to be stupid not to drink.” Quill put his hands in his pockets. “Nothing good comes from holding onto old pains. If nothing can be done, best to move on with your life.”
“Sometimes there’s nothing to move on to.”
The King made his signature laugh. “I get what Astri meant now.”
Lev watched him with narrowed eyes; he couldn’t tell if he was being mocked. “You’re calling me stupid.”
“You are and so am I. We’re all stupid, all of us. Every gangster, every Crown. That’s what separates us from the regular people. We all refused the drink.”
Pierce was browsing through a fashion magazine when Quill and Lev came down the basement stairs. Pages and pencil sketches of dresses were taped along the bars of his cage and he studied them with a fierce concentration.
“King,” he greeted, ripping out another page. “And the Black Lion too. What’s the occasion?”
“What’s with the pages?” asked Lev.
“Bit of study. I want to be a fashion designer.”
A gangster designing clothes? Lev raised an eyebrow.
“I want to make a dress one day,” Pierce explained. He stretched his page against the light, analysing its lines and colours. “Dresses are elegant. Dynamic. They’re beautiful.”
“It’s always good to have dreams,” said Quill, unsheathing a machete.
Pierce’s eyes dipped to the suitcase in Quill’s other hand, rimmed with an intricate gold pattern. He edged away. “Is that…”
“Can’t believe you’ve actually taken it out. How did you manage to fix it?”
Lev cut in. “What did you say it’s called?”
“Salt Shaker,” Quill repeated. “My Cerafex.”
“Does everyone name their Cerafex?”
“It’s tradition. Astri’s is Honeybadger.”
“Okay, see, that’s not quite as strange.”
“Mora calls hers the Slut Shooter,” said Pierce.
Quill tapped the wood bars with his machete. “Let’s talk more about this another time. Stand back.”
In one smooth slash, Quill cut out a face of the cage and the severed bars clanked onto the ground. “Come out slowly with your hands raised.”
Pierce obeyed and Quill tied his wrists together with a length of rope. He pulled the knot tight. “You know the gist: if you run or try to use your powers, you die. You know you can’t outpace me.”
“What’s going to happen to me?” asked Pierce, still staring at the suitcase.
Quill pulled him along. “We’re returning you to Khan.”
Pierce’s head shot up. There was the slight hint of a smile. “Really?”
“Yep. Just don’t make me regret it.”
“But how? What did Khan do?”
“You know how it goes. Just the good old fashioned Khan charm.”
They led Pierce up into the barbershop, then outside where a car waited for them. Lev didn’t recognise the driver.
“If the car veers off track even slightly,” said Quill. “I’ll be assuming you’re using your powers.”
“I know. I got it.”
Quill got in the back with Pierce while Lev sat in the front. The driver saw the King nod in the rear-view mirror, and they were off. It was a cold day where the skies were grey, always on the precipice of a storm and yet the rain would never come. It was early morning, though it felt like the late evening.
They drove for a while in silence; the roads empty and the journey easy. Mile by mile, they got further from the concrete jungle until they escaped the unblinking eyes of the neon signs and billboards.
Pierce was the first to speak. “I’m sorry about Astri. I know that doesn’t mean a lot.”
“It means plenty,” said Quill. “Thank you.”
Lev looked at him in the mirror. “How did you know?”
“The King doesn’t trust anybody except her to drive. Only reason she wouldn’t be here is if something happened. Is that why I’m being released?”
Quill glanced outside the window. The car rumbled as they moved from asphalt to dirt. “Khan threatened my gang.”
“And the Black Lion is okay with this?”
“Khan wasn’t going to tell me anything, so you’re useless as a hostage,” said Lev. “If need be, I’ll just capture you again. I’ve done it once, I can do it twice.”
Pierce is quiet in the creeping sun. His cheek was still purple where Lev had punched him, his chest still bandaged from where the knife had cut. Lev unconsciously touched his own scars.
“I’m sorry,” said Pierce again. “I didn’t mean for any of this. I didn’t realise Khan would go this far.”
“But you’re happy to be going back to him,” said Quill.
“Then stop apologising. Life’s too short to be spent worrying about whose toes you step on, especially in this profession.”
The exchange point was on the horizon, parts of the Projects visible behind it. They had chosen a scrapyard, away from both Vulpes and Veragreen turf, its decayed piles of junk standing like mountains even this far away.
“If you’re giving me back,” said Pierce. “Why did you bring that?”
Quill’s grip on the suitcase tightened. “As a reminder.”
“Of Jet’s betrayal?”
“Does every newbie get a history book on this or something? Yes, of that.”
“The first time you lost a coin flip.”
“That’s the flashy part everyone likes to remember. Of course that’s part of it, just not the part I remember.”
The car slowed. Two excavators sat on either side of the scrapyard’s gate, their arms extended as if to beckon welcome. Wrecked vehicles were stacked high around them like walls of brown-red and when they got out, the ground below was an ocean of metal.
“That your friends are the most important things in the world.” Quill left the suitcase in the car. “And sometimes doing what’s best for them means going against their wishes. Stay in the car until I let you out.”
Lev watched from just outside the car, one hand around Pierce’s arm. Khan was waiting for Quill, sat amongst the metallic graveyard; the king of rust and rot.
“Where’s Pierce?” he asked immediately. There was no attempt to hide his desperation.
“No welcome speech? I let you into the VIP suite of the best casino in Minerva and now all I get is a scrapheap?”
“Both places for the dead, Quill, now that’s enough bullcrap. Give Pierce to me.”
“I want you to tell me something first.”
“Don’t waste my time.”
Despite Khan sitting on a looming throne, Quill seemed to stand just as tall. “What did Astri say before you shot her?”
Khan laughed. “She said nothing. She was too busy drowning in her own blood.”
Quill was silent for a long time. Lev couldn’t see his expression until he turned back, his face utterly still, and gestured. Bring him over.
Immediately, Pierce began to walk, tugging at his leash. His eyes were already searching for Khan and he found him easily, his gaze latching on the crimson paint. Lev had to pull on the rope to make him stop just behind the King.
“Pierce!” Khan’s voice broke with relief so sincere, even the mask could not hide it. “Are you okay? Did they hurt you?”
“I’m fine!” Pierce tried to step forward but Quill lifted an arm to block him.
“Are you going to keep your end of the deal?” asked Quill.
“Yes! Yes, of course.” Khan showed the casino chip he took as a souvenir at their last meeting. “You can have this back.”
“No, keep it.”
With that, Quill cut Pierce’s bindings and he ran. Khan got down from his throne and crossed the distance between them. Their hands touched and Khan reached to pull Pierce into a long embrace, their arms having never forgotten each other’s shape.
Then, Pierce stumbled. His face was frozen. Khan shifted to catch him, the chip falling to the ground.
“You’re safe now,” he breathed.
A sharp silence.
Lev realised after that Pierce didn’t trip. He couldn’t see where the bullet came from, but he heard it: the echoing bang and Pierce’s sentence falling quiet. A ring of flesh flowered behind his head and a stream of red flew through the air. His neck craned back: a final glance at the cloudy sky before he fell.
Khan didn’t realise it either, and those few moments of numbness were mercy. He pressed the body tight and shook it. Pierce? Lev could imagine him whispering, his voice gentle and breaking.
“I’m sorry Astri,” Quill muttered. “I don’t think I can keep my promise.”