I awoke slowly, degree by degree becoming aware of the world around me.
A languor suffused my limbs, a sort of warm weariness. Better than sex. Better than drugs. It was a pleasant tension, as though every bit of me, every last particle, was being propped up, supported, by some kind of unseen wind. It was like I’d always been drawn in soft pencil, and now someone had traced over it with a pen, rendering permanent every kind and whirl of my design.
My eyes slid open, very nearly of their own accord. I took in my surroundings in a kind of daze, without curiosity or fear. It barely seemed to matter.
I was lying on my side on a king sized bed, Betty pressed against my back. I could see another bed, with Dale laying on his back in the center of it. I closed my eyes.
But my euphoria showed no sign of abating. After a few moments of blissing out, I slid my eyes open again, an ear to ear eating grin crossing my face.
A moment later I sat up.
Somehow, before I even saw her, I knew that Preventer was on the floor, sitting cross legged in a lotus position. I knew it the way I knew where my legs were as I slung them over the side of the bed. I knew it the way I knew where Betty’s second form was, curled up in a nearby closet.
Preventer didn’t stand up, but leaned forward towards me, stretching her hand out in the universal gesture for “up high”. I slapped her hand, wincing expectantly.
Another pleasant surprise. She tilted and dropped her hand back towards herself just a smidge as we slapped, relenting by conscious choice where her gift wouldn’t let her flesh cooperate. As a consequence, it felt much like slapping another person five, as opposed to smashing my hand into an invincible barricade.
It was eerie. We both chuckled slightly.
We’d moved with the same thoughtless coordination that you’d use to clap your own two hands together. Somehow I could tell that she hadn’t been consciously trying to protect my hands, any more than you consciously put more weight on one of your feet when the other is sore.
Above me, Betty’s human form made a cute *blurble* kind of noise. A sleep sound, I somehow knew. A slight pang of guilt slipped through me, it wasn’t cool to slap five when everyone else was asleep.
Preventer was having similar thoughts, presumably. She indicated the door with a head tilt.
We filed out, noiselessly opening and closing the door.
It was an oddly gleeful act, like a child slipping out of his parent’s bedroom after watching Mommy and Daddy ‘wrestling’. The joy of getting away with something we weren’t supposed to.
There were Knights in the hallway, standing backs to the wall next to our door as we stepped out of it. I nearly missed their existence.
I woke up a little more.
The presence of the Knights wasn’t heightened the way that Preventer and mine was. They were still other. I had no innate sense of how they were standing beneath their robes, or the expression on their face behind their masks. They were foreign presences, blank and hostile.
“Fuck off”, stage whispered Preventer to them.
They looked from one to another, clearly considering whether to obey. The moment lingered.
I was about to step to, to reinforce her command, when she reached up and tapped her throat.
As she did that, I could sense a feeling of satisfaction, of achievement. I could also tell that she could tell that I’d been about to back her play, and was appreciative.
Whatever the significance of the throat tap, it wasn’t lost on the Knights. They walked off in separate directions down the corridor as fast as they could, dignity forgotten in their rush to obey.
We waited a moment, as their footsteps echoed off. I could feel a guffaw building in my throat, but it caught me by surprise when it erupted from Preventer’s.
“Hehehehehe”, she gave a surprisingly girlish giggle. I looked down at her in dawning appreciation. I didn’t know exactly why, but I could somehow tell that she deserved congratulations. She’d done something that she’d been trying to do forever.
“Nirav,” she said. “We are Linked!”
The greatest insurance in the world. The power that protected the Fists. The power that had stopped the world from getting rid of goddamn Remover, of Pursuer and the rest. The power that some people thought of as the pillar that propped up Her reign. That power was shielding me.
I chuckled a little, suddenly realizing what this good feeling was.
I wasn’t afraid.
Not since the last days in Bany had I felt this way. Not since Condemner had crafted me, before I’d learned of the infero housed within me, the dreadful force that could take away my will at its whim.
I didn’t fear him anymore.
There wasn’t any explanation for it. The bright sensation that suffused me didn’t come with an instruction book, but I instinctively knew that it had to be, that it was to be shared.
I looked at Preventer, and was shocked to see tears glistening on her face.
She didn’t have her makeup on, and her gift’s gleams moved behind her flesh like fireflies, but I could still see them. I couldn’t have been more surprised, despite our newfound bond.
Preventer wasn’t a person who cried. She made others cry. When we were outside her presence, Jane and I had agreed that Preventer was beyond redemption. I’d heard of the things that she’d done, lives extinguished without a care, families shattered without compunction.
And still, relief or something very much like it brought tears to her eyes.
“Do you know?” she asked, and her voice actually quavered. “Do you know?”
I didn’t know exactly what she was asking, but it didn’t matter.
“Yeah” I said.
The next moment she was hugging me around the stomache, her body wracked by sobs.
I looked down at her. She seemed a gleaming rope, trapping me in place. Not so invincible after all. I’d bur…
I choked off the thought, feeling Condemner within me.
Perhaps it was the link. Maybe my newly forged ability to feel the presence of others extended to a greater understanding of myself. Maybe he’d just kept me around too long. For whatever reason, I could feel him rise.
An altogether different kind of warmth.
“You stupid fuck” I whispered. “I beat you.”
I didn’t worry that Preventer would think I meant her. The idea that one of us would misunderstand one another felt laughable, at this shining moment. I even patted her hair as I spoke.
Condemner pulsed within me, doubling me over in a momentary spasm. I bent down over Preventer, as though to shield her from something, but really I just needed her strength to stand.
It reminded me of the last time we’d been together, just the two of us. When she’d threatened Condemner on my behalf, fearlessly standing down a beast that could burn the world for a man who was nothing more than a fantasy.
“I am Linked,” I breathed. “Not you.”
I could feel the truth of it even as I said it. My identity, the whole idea of ‘Nirav’, was a blanket that my deeper self wrapped around it to hide. A mask that it used to shield.
But Linker’s power didn’t know that. It wasn’t built to link people with multiple identities around one another. It stopped at the first one it got to.
No way to prove this, of course, but right now I’d bet everything on it.
“You had every advantage, ‘Condemner’, you could have destroyed me at a moment’s notice. And still you lost. Lost to your own fucking delusion.”
I could feel him, me. Wrath like a mountain range, terror like a storm cloud.
“I’m immortal now, but you are not. You shred me, you pull me away from myself, and the Link will bring me back.”
Preventer glanced up, tears and gleams mingling on her face. She was smiling with pride.
“You did it,” she said.
I hadn’t realized that this would happen, not consciously. Condemner would have seen it in my mind. She was giving me too much credit. I could see the realization the instant that she had it, and I didn’t mind.
Condemner pulsed again, focused now. He wasn’t pushing to take over, or shredding me apart, just adding the idea of *pain* to my identity, making me suffer.
I stood strong, the Link holding me up even as he sought to beat me down.
“You do this,” I rasped, fighting to get the words out. It was important that Preventer hear them. “You fuck with me at all, and you are dead, you hear me? I’ll have the rest of the team kill you.”
Condemner maintained his assault, sending waves of anguish blasting through my flesh. Only Preventer kept me from falling, supporting me as my nerves were turned against me.
“They’ll kill you, Condemner. You’ll be gone. And the link will bring back me! Me, not you! I will be the fire, you will be ashes. Is that what you want?!”
I gasped the words out, not the passionate shout that I’d always fantasized about confronting my inner self with, but I knew that he understood. That I understood.
The part about me being the fire was what made him stop. I was Condemner, in part. I understood him to a degree. It was vitally important to him that the flame burn on and on. He wouldn’t trust it to another.
He relented, and I stood tall again.
I raised a hand up in front of my face.
“Now, Condemner” I said out loud, “sing for your supper.”
He resisted. I could feel his presence sinking down again.
“Preventer,” I said.
She looked up.
“Would it be hard for you to kill me?”
I asked the question without a qualm. I could tell, through the Link, that she would have trouble with it. Preventer was an armadillo, a hard shell around a gooey center. She could kill strangers, or people at a distance, as long as she could make herself afraid. I doubted that she could turn against me without sore provocation.
She nodded. I could tell that she knew that I knew that she didn’t mean it. This could get dizzying.
“If no flame appears…”
Before I finished the sentence, a bright candle flame was dancing in my hand.
I was entranced. The heat of Condemner, the warmth of the link…
I fought for lucidity. Reminded myself that he was beneath me, upstream from me, able to supplant me at a moment’s notice, that I’d bought this exercise of my gift with blackmail and trickery, and the help of my friends.
And still, I stared into the flame…until Preventer reached up and snuffed it out.
She put both of her hands over one of mine, pale flesh with gleams beneath it covering over my counterfeit form.
“Careful,” she said. “your power is finite. If you don’t refresh the fire, you could burn away your life.”
I nodded, although I sensed her surge of amusement on the word “careful”.
“And then I could die.” I continued, looking down at her. It was exquisite satire, both of us in on the joke, mocking the creature which could hear only our words, couldn’t understand the meaning beneath.
“And come back the next evening!” we finished together, to another round of chuckles.
How had I ever thought that Preventer wasn’t funny. Now that I was Linked to her I could feel the wry humor with which she regarded the world. The iron clad need for safety sprang from… well, it seemed like the Link wasn’t full mind reading.
Awkwardly enough, I also got the feeling that she was working herself up to kissing me. That snapped me out of the moment.
I took a step back, awkwardly pulling our hands apart. She did likewise.
“It’s not…” and all of a sudden the glee that I’d taken in talking where Condemner could overhear but not understand was gone, and he was just an unwelcome witness, an enemy eavesdropping on our communication.
“Hey, hey, no harm, no foul,” she said. She couldn’t possibly expect me to believe…wait, she was talking about the use of Condemner’s power. This was harder than I’d thought.
“Right, sure, I get it. Don’t want to use up my red friend, now do I?”
I felt Condemner retreating now, pondering this new development. I wasn’t sure that it believed what I was telling it about the Link, wasn’t sure that I could trust it to give me fire when I called for it, but it was a heck of a lot better than what I’d gone to sleep with.
“Let’s go wake up the others,” said Preventer, composed once more.
Only, she wasn’t. Through the link I could feel her embarrassment, the sting that she was feeling over my implicit rejection.
It wasn’t really a lack of attraction. It was…well, Preventer was evil.
I mean, in the final analysis she might have reasons for what she did, but she still did them. When I looked at her it was always with a shudder. The brand of Cain was always upon her.
She raised an eyebrow, some of that must have gotten through.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”
My voice trailed off. I was apologizing for my thoughts now? To Preventer, of all people? And what did I mean I didn’t mean. I definitely did.
“I’m used to it,” she said.
Once again, that sting over the link, recrimination somehow. She might be used to it, but it definitely bugged her.
I had to make an effort, had to fix this somehow. Today was, in a very real way, my birthday, my independence day from Condemner. I wasn’t about to spend it fighting with my own team.
“When you backed him down,” no need to tell her I meant Condemner, “you saved my life. I can’t say that I accept everything you’ve done, everything that I’ve heard about you, but I also can say that you didn’t have to save me. You could have gotten through perfectly fine on your plan to get Linked with just Condemner. You didn’t need Nirav. But you reached out, you helped me out. So, thanks for that, Preventer.”
She stood there for a long moment, looking at me without expression.
The link gave me nothing. She could probably use her gift to block it when she wanted to, just picture it as harm and it would swing mindlessly into action.
Finally, she gave me her hand again, but this time she wasn’t clasping mine, wasn’t stretching for a high five. It was a firm, businesslike handshake.
When I took it, her hand was the old invincible stone once again.
I nodded, accepting the gesture. We could be colleagues, partners. Siblings in the Fourth Fist. Nothing was between us, not for or against.
I didn’t believe it, entirely. My glimpse of her mind had shown a more complicated person than that. Still, for now, it would do.
“You can call me Rebeccah” she said.