“‘Closed eyes, heart not beating, but a living love,’” Jamie whispered, tears rolling down her cheeks. Zack looked questioningly at her, and she continued. “Avis Corea.” As if that explained anything.
Zack himself was crying too. Anyone who expected or asked differently was likely to receive a nasty wound for his trouble. That was just the mood Zack was in.
Burying your best friend, he’d learned, did that to people. Even monsters felt pain.
Blake was lying there, cold and dead in a cold wood box, a dozen feet under their feet. They’d had a hell of a time, choosing his stone. Or, more precisely, the engraving for it. Zack had wanted it to read something like “How dare you leave us, you selfish bastard.”
Ace had vetoed that, unfortunately. Though, Zack thought, the epitaph was certainly nice enough. There was a poetry there, a sort of echo of Blake’s life. Though it was very similar to his sister’s stone, resting only a few plots away.
Rest in Peace,
Your story ended much too soon,
But you will never be forgotten.
Sleep well until we meet again.
But they would never meet again. Because Blake was dead. And he’d left them all behind.
And now he had to be the one to tell Jamie, because no one else would be able to. No one else would be able to bear her pain. No one but Zack, because he’d been carrying so much his whole life that a few more drops couldn’t do that much damage.
“Come on,” he whispered, lacing his fingers through hers the way she’d held Blake’s hand for hours after he’d already died. It wasn’t that he had somewhere in particular he wanted to take her. No, of course not. But what he was going to tell her, he felt, wasn’t meant to be said over Blake’s body.
“‘Life is for the living. Death is for the dead. Let life be like music. And death be a note unsaid.’ Langston Hughes.”
Zack sighed, realizing he’d get nowhere while the girl was like this. “Mark Twain: ‘The fear of death follows the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.’ And Blake was ready. He’d lived every moment, ever since I met him. He was ready, Jamie.”
“‘Unbeing dead isn’t being alive.’”
“Yes, I know. E.E. Cummings.” Zack wondered what her fascination with poetry was, why he’d never heard of or noticed it before. Perhaps it was true, perhaps grief did change people. It certainly made them more honest. Though being honest wasn’t Zack’s strong point.
He stopped them at a small covered gazebo. It was a random spot, with Blake’s grave still within sight. An angel stood nearby, staring at the small cluster of infant plaques about her feet with sad eyes, wings spread to make a small cave, as if welcoming their souls inside. He studied the statue as he tried to find the words to say what he knew he must.
“Jamie, I went through the files Neuf copied before he died.”
She barely moved, didn’t look up. “So you want me to go back to my uncle then. To take some of the pressure off you. I understand. They know who I am. I’m a liability.” A monotone, the words strung together like they meant nothing to her. Maybe they didn’t. Maybe Jamie was too broken already, and nothing could hurt her further. Zack almost hoped that was true.
“No! Of course not. You are a part of the family, small as it might be. In truth, I think our days of ‘grandeur’ are over. There’re too few of us as it is. We’d never ask you to leave, especially not now.”
A silence settled between them, and suddenly Zack realized he’d never released her hand. He did so, and the cold air that touched his palm felt especially icy after her warm skin.
“He loved you, you know.”
“Yes.” Jamie nodded solemnly, a frown working its way onto her face. Zack looked at that face, wondered how it was that he’d thought it too narrow. Now that thin structure made her look cunning, shrewd. “Though I cannot understand why. I think it was the fever, probably.”
Zack shook his head. “No, I mean even before that. I think we all did. You remind us of what we were, so long ago. You were innocent and clean in a way few of us were, even when we first joined. You actually trusted us, saw us as human rather than as monsters.”
He took a breath. “But anyway, about the files…”
She looked at him then, and Zack almost stopped. He swallowed, almost choking, and continued, voice strained.
“I saw one. It was your birth certificate.” No flicker, no indication of understanding in those wide eyes. “Your real birth certificate.”
“I don’t have a birth certificate, Zack. My mother was paranoid. Now I can understand why. I think this life broke her. She wasn’t strong enough to handle it.”
“No, you do, even if you never saw it.” He paused again to choke back the knot forming in his throat. She was so close, unconsciously leaning into him, and Zack remembered then that this was where they first met, too. Ravensgate held so many things they both cared about.
“And what did it say? What is so important that you have to tell me right now?”
“It had your father’s name on it. There were other files too, old video clips. I recognized the people in them: you, as a child, your mother, and a man. That man, he was your father, Jamie. Your mother was his mistress, hidden away from jealous eyes, from hands that would harm you both.”
She was really looking at him now. No, not at him. Through him. Her eyes bored into his soul, laying aside the filth and the blood and the death to bare the man within. It was the first time Zack thought he’d ever really been seen before. The first time he’d wanted someone to find the truth he kept within his heart.
“Your father’s name was Adam Savage.”
Three heartbeats. No breaths. Another moment. Blink. Blink. Realization dawned on her face. Pale, slightly green.
Jamie leaned forward and dry heaved, retching and gagging. Zack understood. It was one thing to love a dying boy, a boy who’d shown you kindness and loved you. This was another beast entirely.
“So then, Blake… Ace… they’re both… both…” She couldn’t say the word through the hiccupping sobs that wracked her small frame.
“They are… were… your brothers. Well, I suppose Ace still is.” Zack tried to smile, tried to reassure her. “You really were born for this life.”
“But that means, when the Queen said those things about the last Ace leaving her, about him trying to kill his sons to clear the way for a new family… that was-”
“-Absolutely not your fault.” Zack grabbed Jamie’s shoulders, perhaps a little too roughly, and shook her. “It had nothing to do with you. That woman was deranged. If you forget, she was the one trying to kill them a few days ago. Besides, you were just a child. You had no idea about any of this.”
“Zack, I’m a horrible person!” She started crying again, and Zack wanted to scream. Why did this girl do nothing but cry? He pulled her close to him, wrapping his arms around her and feeling the hot tears leak into his shirt. “I… I kissed… I kissed my brother. Oh God, my first kiss was with my brother!”
“It’s alright, you’re alright.” And he held her, cradled her like a child, until she fell asleep on the bench.
Akera came for them about an hour later, running and panting, his breath fogging in the air before him. “It’s almost time for the ceremony!” he yelled, darting by. He probably had to tell the others.
Zack shook Jamie awake, instantly hating himself for it but knowing she’d hate him more if they missed this.
“Time to go. Come on, Tera.” He used the name to remind her of her duties. True, the position of Tera was almost useless now, but there was always a possibility of deceit, of betrayal. It never hurt to be cautious.
They walked into the small reception office at the back of Ravensgate Memorial Cemetery, pausing only to grab identical thick, black cloaks from the cabinet behind the door. Zack helped Jamie arrange hers so that he face didn’t show, then led her to the back room.
It was a storage area for coffins, a gruesome, chilling sight. Few wanted to look through those, especially when they knew some held the dead awaiting interment. Of course, the one near the back, with golden spirals across the polished mahogany sides, held something far more important.
Flipping open the lid, he led Jamie down, through the entrance hidden within, and into the basement. There were no electrical lights, but Ace’s torch allowed them to see fine.
The room was lined, almost floor to ceiling, with cards. Old and older, they were each pinned by a single tack, a row stretching all the way around the room, each card being a different picture.
“He always did like this room,” Ace said sadly, his eyes passing listlessly over the decorations. “We used to come here with dad. He thought it was so cool, like a museum or art gallery. Now he can join them, be here forever.” Ace broke down then, crying the tears he hadn’t been able to release.
Jamie stood there, awkwardly hopping from foot to foot, and Zack took pity on her. “He already knows,” the boy whispered in her ear, gesturing at the young man before them. “I think he’s just trying to work everything out. It’s hard.”
She nodded and didn’t speak. The silence stretched, awkwardly broken by the heaving sobs of unending grief that periodically punctured it, until the other three arrived. And then Ace was professional again, was strong once more.
“Today, we buried one of our own. Today, we celebrate a life, not mourn a death. Let us leave his token here, with those of his forbearers, so that generations to come will remember Vier’s courage, his honor, his dedication.”
And that was it. Ace drove the tack through Blake’s card, pinning the four-headed dragon there, where it would remain until their order died out entirely. Considering the hundreds of years’ worth of cards around them, Zack felt it unlikely that would be any time soon. As long as one survived, they all could.
They left together, in a group, a family. Even Vijf was subdued, and Zack thought she might have secretly loved Blake just like all the rest of them.
But then, at the top of the steps, they entered the world again, and went their separate ways. Splitting into two groups, half left the cemetery entirely, while Zack, Jamie, and Ace all stayed. They wouldn’t be leaving for a while yet.
“So, half-siblings, right? Is that weird for you?” Ace asked, forced cheer in his voice. His hand hovered over Jamie’s shoulder, as if unsure whether or not to touch her. She made the decision for him, reaching up to grab his hand.
“Not really, I guess. It’s just strange thinking that I might have family members I don’t hate.”
Zack actually laughed at that. He couldn’t help it. And god damn him, it felt so good to laugh again. He felt like he hadn’t even smiled in so long, like it had been bottled up inside him for ages, waiting to burst free. Soon the others joined him, and they all laughed together.
They made a strange family, walking there amongst the mausoleums and graves of Ravensgate Memorial. A teenaged boy, a little girl once thought to be a ghost, and a man who looked as if he were one.
But they were a family.
Zack reached down, wrapped his fingers through Jamie’s for no reason other than to hold it. And, surprisingly, she let him.
Glancing down at their hands – his so stained in blood it shouldn’t have looked like flesh, hers so innocent and pale it was almost white – he noticed something for the first time. Zack brought hers up, studying it closer.
“Samantha Burns,” he read on the little tattooed headstone.
Once, he might have hated this girl for presuming that she could do that.
Once, he might have hurt her for it.
Once, he might have killed her for it.
Now, however, he wanted to do no such thing.
Now, Zack felt himself smile through the newly renewed tears pouring down his cheeks, felt his cold, dead heart warm as the innocence of the girl reached down into him and stirred something he thought long gone.
And Zack realized he loved her, scars and all.