You’re catching glimpses of Noir. He’s fast. You’re faster, but he’s still fast.
He’s darting down hallways, and you’re only catching the heels of his boots as he turns around corners quickly. You almost hit a wall at one point, gripping the edge of another one to spin you around a corner and then dash down the long corridor, blood pumping and heart thumping as you see the black mass far ahead that is your target.
Any time you think you might be losing him, you grit your teeth and think of John. You think of John lying there on the throne room floor, blood pooling and streaked across parts of his body, the tears that were smeared across his face. He got hurt. He got hurt because you weren’t watching him.
You’re going to kill this man, and you swear that on your brother’s grave.
Noir throws down a pedestal holding a small statue, trying to slow you down. The clay shatters out against the floor in front of you and you react just fast enough to jump over it, almost tripping on your fall.
The end of the hallway is a dead end, just a stain glass window and some closets that are used for the servants. But Noir isn’t slowly down, and you know what he’s thinking. His arms cover his face as he runs straight into the window, the glass breaking with a shattering trail up to its edges, shards flying amuck as Noir disappears into the darkness of the night.
You’re careful to run over the broken shards, then stop at the open window, looking out. Noir is below, limping because of his hip and from his fall from the two-story jump. You sheath your sword and swing yourself out the window, gripping to the edge. You’ve scaled your way to John’s balcony many times, so you’re fast and unharmed as you carefully drop yourself down the wall until your feet connect with the ground again. With luck, you catch a small glimpse of Noir taking off into the trees.
You’re behind him in seconds.
It’s hard to follow him in the darkness of the trees since his all black clothes blend right in. But your eyes are like a cat’s, and all you need is the moonlight overhead to keep a good trail on him. He’s headed towards the cemetery clearing, not going any slower. You don’t mind, though. Your body is built for long runs like this, and you could keep going for quite a while. Noir on the other hand is injured, and you’re both sprinting at top speeds, so you know he’s not going to be in the best condition when he finally stops.
You burst through some bushes and into the open area of the cemetery. The moon shines down, giving everything a soft glow. You can’t see Noir anywhere, but you know he’s here. You can feel it. Your footsteps are cautious, crunching grass under your boots as you make your way through the area, eyes searching back and forth.
You spot him, sitting on the ground against someone’s grave. He’s panting some, holding his hip that’s staining his hands red. He notices you standing there, giving you a tired smile. “Glad you could catch up.”
Your hand goes for your sword.
“Now wait a minute, wait a minute. Look, kid. Honestly, do you think your brother could have beaten me if given the chance?”
Your hand is frozen, one finger on your sword hilt. But you answer, “Yes. He could have.”
“He was taken by surprise,” Noir says. “From his sudden need to keep you safe. But it’s just us here. You and me. One on one. Would you like to beat me fair and square? Or perhaps I could kill you fair and square?”
You don’t think very long. You glance at the few graves in the back of the cemetery. John’s father, John’s mother, your brother, previous royal family members. Then you look back and Noir, hand resting calmly on your sword hilt.
“You have one minute,” you finally answer.
You stare at him the whole time. He ignores you, tending to his wound while blood drips down his mauled face. He rips some fabric from his clothes, attempting to bandage his bad eye, then uses his belt that holds his sword as something to keep his skin together on his hip wound. After a minute passes, he stands to his feet and swings his sword hilt around his hand a few times.
“It’ll be quite a prideful thing to say that I’ve killed two Striders,” Noir says.
“Are you ready or not?” you hiss impatiently.
He holds his sword out. You slide your own out, holding it at the ready.
He gives you a malicious smile. “Whenever you are, knight.”
This is different from any fight, and it always will be, no matter the outcome. You suck in a deep breath. Close your eyes. Open them.
Noir makes the first strike. It’s quick, short, and you block it off and take a step back. You’re testing each other’s abilities, to check weak spots and strong spots. He takes a few steps to his left, so you follow in suit so that you’re facing him again.
He attacks again first, going over your head. You swords clang together as you block him, throwing the blade downwards and bending your body to avoid the tip as it slashes towards your stomach. He throws the sword back up, trying to slice your face in half, and you have to spin your body in a complete circle to avoid it, swords clashing together again when you face him.
He makes a swing for your neck, and you spin away behind a tall gravestone, hearing the metal of his blade bang into the rock, making sparks glow in the dim lighting. He hits the other side, right in front of your nose, and you close your eyes to avoid the sparks.
You throw your body out on the same side after the sparks dissipate, lashing your blade at him in a blind fury. Your hilt almost flies from your hand from the force he uses to parry you. The bottoms of your blades clash, grinding together. He shoves, your back hitting the tall gravestone, your own sword coming in towards your neck and Noir leans in close to your face, framed by two shining blades.
“Your brother begged when he died,” he mutters past grinding teeth, a grin growing that makes you want to gag.
Your jaw clenches in effort, trying to push him back.
“Begged like a little bitch for me not to kill you.”
With a scream, strength drives up your arms and thrusts out, shoving Noir back about six feet, stumbling for four more, and then going right on his ass.
“You shut the fuck up about my brother!” you yell, sword tip in his direction. “This fight is between you and me, not him! Now get the fuck up and fight me. We’ll see who’s the bitch then.”
You’ve lost your façade. You don’t care how un-ironic you are, you’re pissed, you’re pissed beyond fucking belief, and you’re going to kill this man even if it kills you.
When he gets to his feet, you’re on fire and flying at him. The old Strider speed your brother once spent months teaching you revives within your core, and Noir is having a hard time keeping up. You push him back with each loud strike, and each loud clang of your weapons is music to your ears.
It’s like every one of the dead people in the graves under your feet are on your side. It’s like the day John made you head knight in front of his kingdom. You can feel your brother egging you on, even John’s parent’s giving you courage.
Noir trips again on a low grave, going down on his back. You throw your sword down, ready to impale his neck, but he rolls over too quickly and swings at your legs while you’re trying to pull your blade out of the ground. You yank it loose and jump over his weapon, unable to avoid his next slice at your side, only able to try and use your knight’s cape to block it somehow.
It slices through the leather, cutting your arm, but you block the pain. You have to, you need to focus. The blood soaking your tunic isn’t real, the pain isn’t real, the dull ache running through your arm isn’t real.
Instead, you’re making yourself stress your new wound and attacking at Noir again once he’s on his feet. Your blades collide all over, down at your feet and over your heads, and you’re standing on top of stones to stay a few feet over him since you keep forcing him back, and you’re not stopping for anything. You leap from the rock, putting a huge force into your downward strike. The hit rings up through your bones, and you shove Noir’s blade so far back that your own sword puts a good slice in his shoulder.
When he stumbles back, he’s panting, weapon down. You wipe some sweat from your forehead, catching your own breath.
You want the fair fight. You want to kill him with equal strength. But he’s still badly wounded and kicking your ass. You need to step up your game. Need to kill him now, soon, before you’re too spent and don’t stand a chance.
You wonder how John is doing. If his wounds will get infected. If he’ll die.
Instead of waiting for you both to regain some strength, you let out a yell and slash your weapon at Noir’s back. He’s caught by surprise, but is just quick enough to block you and move back, getting into the fight again. But for some reason, he’s stronger now too. As if he’s come into a realization that gives him strength, just like you.
You can’t force him back, but he can’t make you move either. Both of your attacks are growing tired, more sluggish. You’re both loosing blood, red dripping off of your fingers and elbow. For a second, you think you can’t do this. That no matter how hard you try, you'll never be as strong as your brother once was.
The doubt ruins you, and he cuts your arm again, right over the previous wound. Your back hits another grave just at your knees, and Noir gives you a hard shove so that you tumble back over it. You block him as he tries to split your skull in half. He jumps on top of the gravestone, and then down, his boot landing on your right wrist. A sharp cry comes from your throat, feeling bones snap, and your eyes are wide in shock and disbelief. You’re done for. You barely ever fight left-handed.
Noir is laughing now, breathlessly. His sword barely moves, but he makes a fast cut down your face, across your brow, right over your eye, and then on your cheek. You only flinch, feeling the blood flow. Now you have a scar like him, a scar to match the one down your lip, too.
“Looks like you’re not a Strider. Even your brother fought better than you,” Noir says.
You pant, weakly reaching over to grab your brother’s sword with your left hand.
“Stop trying. Just stay still,” your enemy says. “It’ll just make it hurt more if you keep trying. I can give you a quick death.”
“Let me up and fight me fair and square, fucker. I thought we had a deal. You already tortured me. Too scared to end me yourself with my weapon up?”
You wipe blood from your face, grinding your teeth and holding his gaze. Your whole arm hurts. So much. Even your eyes are watering. But you think about all the torture he put you through, and as he lets you up you can feel every scar he gave you, each of them burning.
Your left arm feels weird and awkward, but your brother made sure to make you train with it a lot. You at least have a little skill with it. You’re still breathing heavily, hunched over as Noir makes a strike at you, and you weakly block it, dropping your arm after. He laughs, coming towards, and you back away and keep trying to block his strikes, anything to prevent more wounds.
I’m sorry, Brother.
He cuts your arm again. You almost fall, and blood is running down over your eye.
I’m so sorry, John.
He kicks you in the stomach, and you barely catch yourself. You’re done. You’re too weak.
You never told John you love him
He reels his arm back, going for an ending strike. A strike that will kill you.
Oh God, you love John so, so much…
Your broken wrist is numb. Noir moves in, sword coming for you. Instead of attacking, you greet it. You smile, blood streaking your face, holding your gaze with Noir’s one good eye and accepting it as Noir’s sword breaks the skin of your stomach. Breaks through, into you, and pops out of your back.
Noir’s evil eyes of pride and success change. They’re shock, and pain. Because he was so distracted with winning, he didn’t see your own sword mirror his stab. Dirk’s sword is through Noir’s middle, a blood-drenched blade sticking out of his back, the same way his is sticking out of yours. There’s mutual pain, and he grips your arm so stay standing.
“Good… good hit,” he says.
You rip your sword upwards, slicing all the way up to his ribs. He grunts, blood spurting from his mouth. “You too,” you complement, lost of breath.
You let go of your sword hilt. He lets go of his. His legs wobble as he looks down at the blade stuck in him, still in disbelief. Then he falls, blood pooling and soaking into the ground beneath him. When you’re sure he’s done for, you look down at his own black-hilted sword in your middle. You watch the red soak out in a darker color than your tunic. You look at the blood on your hand. You feel it coming from your mouth, dripping off your chin and clinging down your scar like a leading trail.
You go down on your knees. You cough, watching the red splatter on the grass. You try to rest yourself on your side, but the pain is too much, and you end up just collapsing. You stare at your hand again that’s lying palm up in the grass, studying the complex of red on your pale skin, watching the white shines in it from the moon that’s lighting you up overhead. Your vision is blurry. That sword feels sickeningly warm in you.
Your move your gaze up. You read the words on a grave in front of you.
You smile, so tiredly. “You see that…?” you murmur. “Did that shit… for you.”
Your chuckle is barely there. You close your eyes. Your sides feel warm with the blood flowing from you. But the rest of your skin is growing very cold. Slowly, you’re slipping, and it isn’t so bad.
Before you’re gone, you hear a familiar screeching overhead.
Death is like a very warm bath. Almost hot, but perfect. As if the temperature will always stay the exact way you need it. You float in it, carelessly and comfortably. There are no worries in death. No pain.
You’re waiting. It’s like a dream, but you’re waiting for the part where you see the other dead people. You’re waiting for the moment you stop floating in limbo so that your brother will come greet you. He’ll tell you he’s proud and kiss your head and walk you into the afterlife with him.
You keep dreaming. You feel like weeks have passed, yet perhaps only a few seconds.
You want to wake up.
It doesn’t sound like your brother.
Feelings are brought to your skin, breaking the water you were once floating in. Grabbing you, moving you. Something inside you is taken away, and there’s a painful emptiness there. It feels like your clothing is being taken off. Cold air rushes across your skin.
You’re wrapped, warmly. Air envelopes you and you’re carried.
You open your eyes. Are you still alive? Perhaps just a little bit.
“Stay awake. We’ve got you.”
Jake. Jake’s voice. He found you. Did he hear Ari’s crows?
You let go again. You don’t want to hold on.
“Dave… Dave, I’m here…”
You know that voice. It sounds far away. You reach out for it, but you can’t feel your limbs. You want to touch him, feel him, having him hold you and take you from this hell that makes no sense.
“Come back to me… please…”
It’s painful, but you open your eyes.
His eyes are blue, so close. You smile, try to speak, but your throat feels clogged and you just kind of gag. He touches your cheek and you dim your eyes. As long as he’s holding you, death shouldn’t be so bad.
Others are moving in the room, or wherever you are.
But John, he’s right there. Right over you. Touching you, kissing your forehead, his breath on your lips, hand caressing your face.
He begs you. Begs you to hold on, to live. For him.
You try to tell him you love him, like you promised, but liquid just pools over your lip and down your cheek. He’s pulled away from you, into blackness, and other people are hovering over you now.
You say his name, or you think you do. But he’s not there, and you’re cold, so you let go again.
Pain hits. Not horrible, but fuck does it hurt. Sensations wash you, like a calm beach. Vibrations of feelings running up your fingertips and then receding. Then they move up again with more force, just a little farther, and reach your knuckles. It goes on and on like this until the sensations reach your elbows. Your wrist is sore. Your eyelids are heavy. It feels like there’s water in your ears.
There’s something on your head. Moving. It starts at your forehead and runs back, parting your hair nicely and then doing the movement again. It’s nice, and it almost lulls you back into your dreams of floating in water forever. But you know that hand.
Opening your eyes isn’t so hard this time. The light is bad though, and hurts a bit, driving into your pupils. Once you get used to it, you make out the shape of the one who’s caressing your scalp.
He smiles, blue eyes glistening.
“Hey, you,” he murmurs softly.
Your hand shakes with effort as you move it. You reach out and touch his face. To make sure he’s real, so see if this is heaven or not.
He’s real. You’re alive.
A broken smile finds your face, only because you don’t hold the strength to smile any bigger than that. John smiles back, even as tears run down his cheeks, and both of his hands hold your face, thumbs rubbing your skin.
“I knew you’d come back to me,” he whispers.
Your body aches, but John gives you strength. You part your lips and take in a deep breath.
“I love you,” you breathe.
He lets out a short and quiet laugh. “Me too.” And then he kisses, and you’re more positive than anything that you’re alive.