Lev found him after the funeral, sitting in the old oak tree. His suit jacket had disappeared, his shirt was untucked, and his tie was loose within his palm. It was the first day of Spring and they were seventeen.
“I’m sorry,” said Lev.
“No, you’re not,” said Sehyun, eyes kept on the stained glass of the church. “I’m not even sorry.”
“She was important to you.”
“Important? Yes. Loved? No. Too many kids, too little funding, and she still skimmed off the top.”
Lev was with him as he vented. The breeze was gentle through his hair and his eyes held all the world’s light.
“She had a strong backhand that she wasn’t afraid of using.” His hands gripped tighter around the branch he sat on. It began to splinter from the force. “She was crass and petty. Drank, smoked, probably shot herself up with god knows what in the bathroom. I think she has a gambling debt too.”
“But you know what was the worst part?” he continued. “There are twenty of us. Half of them aren’t even ten yet. I talked a lot of shit but at the end of the day, I’d rather they have someone than no one. Now though? Now that bitch has left us alone in the world.”
He glanced away, shielding his face from Lev. There was the sound of breaths, drawn slowly, a shallow attempt to hide his crying. It was a desperate trick. Lev knew, because he had done it once himself.
“So why do I feel this way?” Sehyun asked.
Lev held his hair back as the wind howled. “Because she was your mum.”
Sehyun rubbed at the side of his eyes, his voice thick. “That’s stupid.”
Lev said nothing. He stood there under the tree, listening to the sobs, the faint ringing of church bells in the distance.
They remained there for what felt like eternity. It may have been minutes or it may have been hours. Maybe the sun had begun to set, maybe it was already night. It didn’t matter; should Sehyun have asked, he would’ve gladly waited forever.
Sehyun leaned back and the branch he sat on shivered. “Have you felt like this?”
Lev thought about it. “Never.”
Lev closed his eyes. “I’ve never lost anyone before. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”
The wind grew to a whipping gale and the oak tree shook. The branch, already weakened by Sehyun, cracked and broke. Sehyun’s head slapped the dirt with an awkward plop.
“Gah, ow.” He massaged his head, matted brown. Then, he laughed.
It was his laughter, Lev knew, and his sorrow. His joy and his grief. Whether he laughed or cried, he did so with the same lustre; different chords but the same melody. It would be impossible to love one without loving the other.
Poseidon swung with all his strength and for once, his opponent did not crumble. His might, the flashing torrent of a thousand maelstroms, swept in and out like the tides. The boulder cracked and dented, but never broke.
The mercenary backed off, snapping his trident close. He rested his polearm and its pommel crushed the ground. “I didn’t expect such a worthwhile fight.”
MP dropped to one knee, breathing deeply. “I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself.”
There was a shift in the air. Poseidon stepped right and a sudden knife-stroke missed him by a hair’s breadth. Arc changed direction and thrust. He didn’t account for the ice that extended from her blade and it tore into his bomber jacket, cleaving off a patch of fabric before he twisted away.
“You should’ve stayed down,” said Poseidon.
Arc, face drenched red, continued on. Poseidon dodged another stab, then weaved out of the trajectory of an ink grenade from behind. He spun away, right into MP’s falling axehead. It smashed against the shaft of his trident and the two Cerafex screamed.
Relentless, Arc came again while he was pinned under MP’s hatchet. Poseidon’s boot flashed out, hammering the Half-Giant in the chest. Despite his size, MP stumbled and his weapon lightened.
Unrestrained, Poseidon turned to meet Arc. Just as he sent his prongs darting forward, the air filled with black. Through the haze of ink, her frozen blade bloomed twice as long, the shrouded slash cleaving his arm.
Don’t make the same mistake. He broke into a sprint and with his trident, vaulted across the armoury. The wind ran through his clothes, and he burst out from the edge of the smokescreen.
Vein stood below, unaware. Poseidon raised his trident and sunk all his strength into this strike. It would’ve cleaved the Squid from neck to stomach, but MP’s hand reached out, pulling Vein aside. The prongs crashed into the concrete and lodged there when he tried to pull it free.
Another charge from Arc, curved fangs in closed fists. Gripping the handle of his trapped polearm, Poseidon swung his body upwards and kicked. Arc dived and rolled under his leg. Poseidon swerved around again, the shaft his axis, stopping her as she scrambled up. His boot flung one of her knives to the ground. Her free knife thrust and he twisted behind the trident, the blade clanging off harmlessly against the pole.
His arm snapped out. His fingers snared her hair and yanked. Arc slammed into the Cerafex and there was a sweet sharp crack. Her nose burst and the drying blood on her face ran wet once more.
A quick punch to her throat won him enough respite to heave his trident loose. There were footsteps and he turned on his heels, his trident blurring; his prongs whipped out. MP managed to stop just before he charged right into them, but he was too late to dodge. The three tips kept to their path, ready to dig into his jugular.
And then Poseidon saw him. Vigilante. Immortal. Nabi.
No. Poseidon shook his head. It was a trick of the light. The Black Lion punched into empty space and a bolt of pressurized air blasted from his gauntlet. The mercenary stepped away from MP, the wind-missile whizzing between them.
“Poseidon!” the Lion shouted. “This war is over. Khan is dead.”
Khan is dead. Poseidon swerved his trident into a resting stance.
It wasn’t unexpected; from the moment he shot Astri, it was clear that either Khan or Quill would be dead by the end of the war. It wasn’t just the Crowns in Minerva either. Every battle, every war, he could see the same events repeat themselves verbatim.
Yet, there was still a melancholy in death.
“A shame,” he sighed. “I was looking forward to fighting him.”
“Leave,” said the Black Lion. “There’s nothing left for you here.”
Poseidon glanced around; MP had fallen to one knee, saved from the brink of death by pure luck. Arc was struggling to stand, the wounds on her thigh bursting with blood each time she tried. Vein, the least injured of the three, was barely strong enough to be considered a foe. This fight was no longer a challenge or duel: it was a slaughter.
Every time, he had hope. Hope of a thrilling battle, something to make him feel alive again. And every time, he came short.
“Is Quill hurt?” asked Poseidon.
The Black Lion paused. “He is.”
“I’m not sure. He was stabbed through the torso.”
“I see.” Poseidon laid the trident on his shoulder and held it by its pommel. “Tell the King this: once he is healed, I’ll be back to challenge him.”
He turned to Arc. “And you, too. I hope you improve by the next time we meet. Nothing’s more tragic than wasted talent.”
Arc stiffened, her lips drawn back to show clenched teeth. She opened her mouth and spoke only a tangle of noise, a semblance of profanity boiling up out of her throat.
“Don’t take it as an insult.” Poseidon walked away. There was a patch of darkness in the armoury that the flames didn’t touch, and he returned to it. The darkness, too, seemed to reach out to Poseidon, wrapping their shade around him as if to welcome their God home. His final words parted the black waves. “To even have talent in the first place is an accomplishment to be proud of.”
Barely an hour after they had cremated Pierce, they laid Khan on the same pyre. It was fitting, they thought: some of Pierce’s ashes were still trapped between those branches, waiting for their other half.
Vynn watched one of the Veragreen soldiers kneel by the wooden heap and light it. They were the last of Khan’s legacy, those who remained loyal to the bitter end, untempted by greed or fear. There were only a handful of them, a few dozen at most, yet they were good men. The best. Should Vulpes have been merciless, they would have each been willing to give their lives for their Warlord.
In a city where gangs and Crowns come and go with the wind, where nobody ever stayed in one place for too long, to dedicate oneself to any single thing was like finding a blue rose in a desert.
And Vynn wasn’t one of them.
“Veragreen will never be forgotten,” MP declared. His voice was naturally booming, and unlike Quill’s, always sounded genuine. It was lucky that he was the one to speak; if it hadn’t been, they might’ve not listened. “But Veragreen is gone. Even if one of you takes charge, they ain’t no Khan. At best, y’all survive for another few months, having your turf eaten up by hungrier gangs until you’re back to selling pot to high schoolers. Is that any way for a Crown to fall?”
“Join Vulpes,” he continued. “There’s a place for all of you here. You can go back to your homes and think it over. You can accept or you can not, but the option is there. The point is, let Veragreen die and be proud that you’ve worn the colours of a Crown, but nothing more. It was what it was.”
The soldiers murmured amongst themselves. Some would inevitably join Vulpes, some would join other Crowns. A few would try to leave Minerva and this life behind, but they’d be back in time. Nobody ever escapes the city of dreams, except in a casket or behind bars.
Vynn kept his eyes on the fire, dancing and waving. The flames turned to embers and the embers to sparks. Soon, the sparks would burst into nothing, leaving only orange echoes.
“Do you think it was worth it?” Vynn mused.
The Black Lion was next to him, eyes also trained on the pyre. “What was worth it?”
“Maybe I’m just an optimist or naive, but...isn’t life beautiful? Isn’t there some value to it all? Even if it’s just the little things. A hearty meal, a funny joke. The nice evening breeze. Hell, maybe even a good shag. We only have one shot at all this. Why would anyone give it up so easily?”
For a moment, the only sound was the crackling flame.
“Have you ever loved someone?” asked the Lion. “Really loved someone.”
“Oh, you can piss off with that bullshit.”
“Doesn’t even have to be someone. Something. Somewhere. A country, an idea. Is nothing sacred to you?”
“He wasn’t a soldier giving his life for his nation.” Vynn watched Khan, now just a silhouette amongst the fire. “Ever since we were monkeys in caves, we’ve loved and lost. People have grieved, but they were able to move forward. Not all loss has to end up this way. He was sick and he could’ve gotten help. He could’ve gotten better.”
“In the end, it makes no difference. Vulpes wouldn’t have let him live.”
“Vulpes could’ve tried.” At last, Vynn turned away from the fire to meet the Black Lion’s gaze. “You’re still new to Minerva if you think they’ve never lost a war. It’s been done before: it can be done again.”
He revealed a crumpled pack of cigarettes, the same pack that Khan carried on him. The Warlord was dead, but that was no reason to waste perfectly good cigarettes. Vynn grabbed a stick for himself, then offered the pack to the vigilante.
After a moment’s pause, the Black Lion accepted. He took one and the rest Vynn chucked into the fire.
“Don’t be selfish, Khan,” said Vynn. “Make sure you share them with Pierce.”
They lit them against the pyre and smoked in silence. Soon, they would finish, dropping their cigarette butts into the blaze and walking away without another word. Yet, both knew the next time they met, they would be enemies again.
The girl reached to knock, only to pull her hand from the door. She knew once it opened, a decision would be made– one she could not go back from. Her life right now, though hindered, was still ripe with opportunity. There was enough normalcy left that whatever future she wanted, she could still grasp.
It didn’t have to be like this. She could be a doctor. A lawyer. Who knows, maybe even a singer. The point is, it wasn’t too late to turn back. Yet, if she didn’t do this, she could never truly look at herself again. Maybe this was meant to be.
Breathing deeply, Priscilla Marinton thrust open the door.
There was the gentle hum of machines, their tiny blinking lights the only things illuminating the room. Priscilla could only see glimpses of Astri under those red and green flickers. Her hair was well-groomed, even in her slumber, though the blue dye had begun to dull and her natural walnut-brown rushed to her roots in fragments.
It took a moment to notice the shadow sat beside her, black and silent. He was hunched over, both his hands tight around one of hers. His head popped up as light from the hallway flooded in behind Priscilla.
“Ah, the Princess,” said Quill. It was hard to tell in the dark, but his cheeks were wet and reflected the light like crystals. He rubbed them away and the King of the Crowns spoke. “Come in. I’ll be leaving soon anyway.”
“No,” said Priscilla. “I wanted to talk to you.”
The King studied her. The same light that seemed to shrink away from him left Priscilla bare to all the world. A quizzical smile curled at the corners of his mouth. “I’ve seen that face before.”
“The face of the dead.”
“Is...is that bad?”
“No shit.” Quill tucked Astri’s hand back underneath her blankets. “But I don’t think you care about that anymore, do you?”
You already made your decision. Priscilla held her head up high. “No.”
“Good.” He stood. Another flicker of light caught his hospital gown and the fresh bandages around his arms. “Well? Do you want to be a soldier?”
“Oh?” Quill feigned surprise. “Then what?”
“I just want to be strong,” said Priscilla. “Stronger than Vynn. Stronger than that man with the trident. I want to be able to fight. With a sword, with a gun, even my own bare hands.”
“You can learn to fight anywhere, kid. Coming to a Crown means you want to learn to kill. So, little princess, who do you want to kill?”
The cocky sneer of his lip, the fevered hazel of his eyes. The hatred ran so deep it threatened to tear through her skin. “Robert Marinton.”
The King’s smile grew. “Your father?”
“He’s not my father.”
“Would it surprise you to know that’s a common phrase around here?” Quill ate up the space between them until he towered over her. “You should also know that learning to be strong and learning to kill are completely different things.”
“I don’t give a shit.” She forced herself to meet his glare. “Just teach me.”
“And what do I get out of this? You have nothing to your name.”
“I’ll do anything you ask. Scrub the floors, wash your dishes.” Priscilla made a noise in her throat. “Give you my body.”
Quill stepped back. He threw up his hands. “Alright, alright, I get it. You don’t have to go that far, I’m not a creep.”
“So you’ll do it?”
His eyes darted to bed, then back to her. “Now that Astri’s out of commission, I’m going to need all the help I can get.”
Before Priscilla could even celebrate, the King’s arm blurred and she was on the floor. Cold to her skin, but firm. Solid. It hurt, but nothing more than a light bruise.
“Get up,” said Quill. He was faster wounded than she was healthy.
“We’re doing it right here, right now?”
“Astri’s bored out of her mind just lying there. We gotta entertain her somehow.”
Priscilla got to her knees, only for his sudden motion to knock her down again. The back of her head made a clean smack against the wood. “Can you at least let me throw a punch first?”
“Not for a while.” Quill changed his stance, ready to hit her the moment she stood up. “Before you can learn to punch, you have to learn to fall.”
“Lev.” The voice was soft and warm against his ear. “You should get up. It’s morning.”
“You think I don’t know that?” he replied. “I can hear the passerines outside.”
“And I can smell the waffles.”
“Don’t be stupid. Ana doesn’t cook waffles.”
Sehyun laughed. “She will if you ask her.”
“The Zaytsevs’ prodigal son does not eat waffles for breakfast.”
“Maybe not, but Lev does. Or do you prefer the Black Lion these days?”
“Please don’t remind me.” Lev groaned and dug his head deeper into the pillow. It smelt crisp, fresh out of the wash and soaked deep with the sunlight filtering through the window. There was also Sehyun’s scent: something between freshly-peeled oranges and old antique books. “I didn’t pick that name.”
“You sure ran with it though.”
Sehyun kicked at him, their legs tangling in the bedsheets. He tackled Lev by the waist, arms wrapped tight around him, and fought to flay him from the bed. They wrestled like that for some time, laughing and panting. It might’ve been minutes, it might’ve been hours. Perhaps it was even the lull between one breath and the next. Lev couldn’t tell anymore.
When they finished, Lev was on top of him and their faces were close. He could feel Sehyun’s chest, rising and falling in a gentle rhythm.
Lev leaned forward, kissing Sehyun down his neck. “For a little while, I tried to not think about you.”
“How hard was that?”
“Impossible.” He stopped at his shoulders. “I saw you everywhere. Heard you in every song. You were in Astri’s laugh, in Quill’s smile. When Pierce spoke of Khan, you were there too.”
A chuckle. “Maybe I should file a restraining order.”
Their lips met and opened to each other. His were gentle and sweet like honey and swelled beneath Lev’s tongue. It was Sehyun who finally pulled back. “You have to get up.”
“Let me stay in this lie,” Lev begged, his cheek against Sehyun’s. “For just a moment longer.”
“We both know I can’t do that.”
“You’ve already come this far, Lev. You’ve found the next breadcrumb. Eidolon Limited.”
“And how much did I have to go through?” They came to him in vignettes of reality, cleaving through the drowsy haze. An eternal sleep. A hole through the head. A neck, split through the centre. “How much more do I have to see?”
“Lev.” Sehyun’s voice was already beginning to slip. His last syllables were the final cusp of an echo before it became silence. “You will find me. I know you will.”
Lev sat up, breathless. The room was warm, bathed by sunlight, yet his sweat kept him cold. His bed was empty, but the pillow still held the shape of Sehyun’s head, and the bedsheets his smell.
He looked at his palms, calloused and empty, then at his alarm clock. Nine in the morning.
Lev Zaytsev sighed. “Fuck.”