Slanting rays of light illuminated the room as Deuce pushed the door open. Ace sat there still, his head in his hands, staring numbly at the desk, but he looked up as his second approached.
“Were we ever such trouble,” Ace asked, and Deuce laughed.
“Always. But you provided brain enough for us both, so no one ever found out.”
“Yes, and you did the bloody work.” Ace grimaced and it looked poor on him. His face was not one meant to look so old, Deuce thought. Ace’s hair and eyes still shocked him sometimes, the one so white it shone, the other red and piercing as fire. But now both seemed dull, lifeless, exhausted. Already that face showed signs of worry lines.
“Come on, Whit. You need to sleep.” Deuce knew his friend had been awake all night, had spent hours worrying and then berating Zes. That child had probably misunderstood, as many of the others would have. None of them realized exactly how Ace thought. They did not understand that he cared for each of them, that even after Zes had left with Vier and Tera for school, Ace had sat there, head in his hands for hours.
Deuce understood, and it was what he loved most about his friend, not that he’d admit it to anyone. He could barely think about it without worrying that the Queen would learn of it somehow. Despite the debt he owed to Ace’s parents for raising him, Deuce feared the woman, just as he’d feared the man before his death.
As their personal executioner, both had seen to it that his hands were stained red, that his crimes bound him to them with chains stronger than loyalty. Stronger than friendship. Stronger even than the love of a child for a parent.
They had bound him with guilt, with fear, and with sin.
But that hadn’t stopped him from loving their first son as his brother, as a friend. Deuce thought they might be like Zack and Blake, brothers in all but blood. But the younger boys’ relationship was untarnished, unstrained by the boundaries pushed between them. And the Queen of Hearts had never quite managed to love her second son as she had the first. Deuce thought that might by why Blake was dying, would likely never see eighteen, while in all likelihood Whit would live to at least thirty.
But such things were for stronger, wiser minds. Minds unoccupied by the death he’d witnessed and caused, by the chore of a burden he could not carry, a chain he could not unlock no matter how he worried at it.
Deuce led Ace to the bed, practically pushing him into it, but as soon as he’d lain down, the young man stopped fighting, relaxing toward the cool embrace of sleep. “Jesse,” he mumbled, eyelids drooping, “I need to think about it more. He’s going back out tonight, whether I give approval or not, so I might as well help as much as possible. It’s my job after all.”
“That can wait. They’ll all be in school for hours anyway, so just relax. Sleep. I’ll take care of things until you wake up.”
Ace yawned and rolled away, burying his head in the pillow. It was times like these, when he finally relaxed, that Deuce could see the boy he’d been. He still looked almost as young, the white hair throwing the sight into strange contrast. But no one could mistake him for elderly. When Ace slept, his face was unlined, the furrows and shadows of the day smoothed into a pale expanse of cream skin.
“Did you tell her about Tera?” Ace asked suddenly, rolling back over. Deuce suppressed a sign, wondering if he ought to tell the truth or not.
Settling on the former, he answered in a soothing whisper. “Yes. Neuf would have told your mother if I hadn’t, and then who knows what she might have done. At least this way I could keep an eye on her, make sure nothing happened.”
“That’s good. You’re a good person, Jesse.”
No Whit. You are just a fool who can’t see, who can’t look past his own prejudgments and fears to see the man I’ve become. You still see me as that boy you met when you were a child, as innocent as you and striving to be loved. Deuce knew, though, that regardless of what his friend believed, he was far from that innocent child now.
Shaking his head, he left the room, closing the door softly behind him.