Don't Fight Me Like A Man!
Ben wasn't sure what kept him standing there. His feet felt like they were rooted deep into the earth, like he couldn't lift them even if he wanted to try. He didn't want to try. He just wanted to keep looking into this girl's eyes.
It wasn't that they were especially pretty eyes. They were cold and dead, like a shark's eyes. Her cheeks were sunken, skin stretched tight over her cheekbones. She had a complexion that looked like it had been darker once, like she was used to living outdoors. Now she was as washed-out and pasty as anybody who lived in the city too long. Maybe more. Something looked a little wrong about her skin. Maybe it was the way it moved-- or didn't move, really. It looked kind of spongey, actually. Like the rubber masks Ben's classmates like to wear on Halloween. Or like the makeup they use in bad movies. Not like anything alive.
The attacker in red hauled himself to his feet. His head lolled uselessly on his shoulder, but he still tried to swing a punch. Nathan struck out blindly, letting go of the guy in green. He made a small, irritated noise in the back of his throat.
Ben couldn't look away. Not being able to watch what was happening was torture, but he just couldn't break that stare. The girl grabbed his face, bony fingers clawing at his skin. She was cold-- so cold Ben wanted to jerk his face away from the touch. He didn't. Nothing in his body was responding. He just kept looking up, trapped in those dead, empty eyes. Something deep and buried was squirming around in the back of his mind. He wanted to clamp his teeth shut, or even tighten his jaw. He wanted to keep her away from his mouth. Something about the way her fingers were pulling on his chin stirred panic he couldn't deal with, much less identify, and it made him want to keep his mouth shut. But he just kept looking at her-- that's all his body would do. A tear rolled down one cheek, then the other. His face remained peaceful, but his tears cut loose all the same.
The girl's expression twisted from quiet contempt to open disgust. She released his chin, and pivoted on her heels to watch Nathan. Her ponytail swished in the wind-- then kept swishing, even after the breeze died down. It seemed to have split into three distinct tendrils, which licked around her shoulders. Ben blinked. He had to be dreaming. That was the only way to explain it. This was all still part of the dream.
What a horrible dream it was. Nathan was behind the man in red, his arm hooked around the guy's throat. Nathan jammed a knee into the guy's back, and Ben could feel his guts echoing the squishy crunch that followed. The guy was literally covered from head to toe-- from the motorcycle gloves he wore to the baggy cargo pants hanging over his army surplus boots, but Ben could still see more than he wanted to. Against the contour of the guy's skintight shirt, bones pressed up where they hadn't before. It looked like the guy's ribcage was in wrong, like it was trying to poke its way out of his chest.
Nathan dropped him, but the guy still struggled weakly. Nothing below those shoved-out ribs was moving, but everything above was still twitching and trying to crawl. It reminded Ben of neighbourhood boys who pulled bits off of insects. Ben just wanted to smash it with a rock, so it would die and the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach would go away. Nathan stepped on the man's neck, his heel driving down sharply. The man in red finally stopped moving.
The man in green tried to stand. He staggered towards Nathan. Nathan scooped Green's head up between his hands, bracing himself. He yanked the man's head to the side and down, giving it a sharp twist that turned the man's neck like wet taffy. There was a squelching sound that made Ben's guts lurch. Then the man in green went still.
Nathan dropped the man, and dusted off his hands. His eyes fell to the first attacker, the man in purple. He seemed the weakest of the three; he had barely moved since smashing into the canal wall. Nathan put a foot across the man's throat, and crushed it as casually as he might grind out a cigarette. He examined his fallen attackers coldly.
"Even for puppets," he muttered darkly, "Their reaction times were pathetic." Nathan dropped to one knee beside the man in purple. He snaked his fingers around the mask and pulled on it, hard. Wet, greasy strands of gray-brown hair began to spill out of the mask. Ben caught sight of pale, bloodless skin. At first, Ben thought, the man was so old! How did he jump like that! There were deep, puckered wrinkles on his neck.
Nathan tugged again. The mask kept getting stuck onto the man's face. Every tug brought a new wave of squishing, suckling noises. A milky, grayish liquid began to seep out from under the fabric.
"All strength, no perception," Nathan mused. "How strange. As though they lacked any trace of mind at all." He gave the mask a sharp tug, and it let go of the man's chin with one last slurp. More greasy strands of gray-brown hair spilled out, falling away from a sunken face.
The man's mouth hung open, all the teeth long-gone. His tongue was swollen and purple. The man's nose looked as though something had eaten it away. There was barely any of it left. It was a little bit of lumpy flesh around two ragged holes in the man's face. The sight made Ben gag, but he couldn't stop staring. The man's eyes were rolled up, at first Ben thought they were pure white. There were bits of grayish, bluish irises just barely visible, and somehow, that was worse. The man's skin spilled out of the mask reluctantly, soggy and loose where it fell free.
Nathan gripped the mask, his fingers so tense the tendons stood out against his pale skin. His face pulled tight with rage. The air around him seemed to electrify, the air stirred around him as if he'd frightened it. The wind picked up, lifting his golden hair away from his face. His eyes narrowed. His lips peeled back from gritted teeth-- the most hateful expression Ben had ever seen.
The wind kept getting stronger, and Ben felt like it was pushing through him-- cold fingers of anger that chilled his bones. There were whispers in that wind, and Ben couldn't stand them. He brought his hands up to his ears, trying to shut them out. It was too much, it was all too much. He was desperate to close his eyes. He begged them just to move a little, to act like they even belonged to him at all.
"Sametet, Amqoh." The words sounded so fluid, such an oddly lovely sound coming out of the girl. She bowed, putting a finger to her forehead in a kind of genuflection. She was smiling-- smiling!-- when she looked up again.
"Mukat lasa!" Nathan spat the words at her, a sibilant hiss underpinning his silken voice. "In English." He stalked towards her, the wind billowing his coat out behind him. "The boy deserves to hear what you have to say."
"If that is what amuses you," the girl sniffed. How could she keep looking at Nathan that way, Ben wondered, as though he were nothing at all? Nathan's glare seared into Ben even when he managed to close his eyes. She kept talking, like it didn't even bother her. And when she spoke, Ben was transfixed by every word. Nothing in him would obey when he tried to turn away.
"My message is my mission," the girl told Nathan, "My master bears you no ill will." She tossed Ben a casual glance, her lips curled in a mirthless half-smile. "He simply sent me to retrieve what is rightfully his." Something in Ben's chest tugged at him. It felt like someone had reached into him, and pulled him off balance. He took an unwilling step forward. The whispers got louder. Ben clutched tighter at his ears, but he couldn't make them go away.
"The hell he did!" Nathan seized her by the shoulder, dragging her close to him. He hauled her up so hard, she had to stand on her toes just to keep from falling out of her jacket. "Your master is only concerned with appearances!" He shoved the mask in her face, drops of milky gray fluid still clinging to it. "Don't tell me you haven't noticed that by now." Nathan was shaking with rage, Ben realized, and an answering shiver ran up his spine. "Shameful," Nathan seethed, "Sending these pathetic creatures to me to die!"
"A lowly Malakh like yourself couldn't possibly comprehend--" Nathan yanked at her jacket, pulling her face nearly flush with his. Those piercing blue eyes seemed to choke the voice in her throat.
"That's why he's moved on to children, isn't it!" Nathan's voice was so loud, so demanding, that for a moment it drove the whispers from Ben's mind. "They last longer!"
Nathan let go of the girl's jacket. "How can you serve something like this?" Nathan's shout was so loud, Ben felt like it knocked the air out of his chest. With a flat palm, Nathan shoved the girl, sending her sprawling. She skidded across the greasy sand, into tufts of grass that remained from the canals' delta days. She stared up at him balefully, her expression defiant, her brows knit tightly. But there was nothing in those dead-cold eyes. Not even anger. Nothing at all.
Nathan flung the mask at her. It landed with a wet squelch at her feet, throwing cloudy drips into the sand. She looked down at it, gritting her teeth. She eased back from it, her hands digging into the sand.
"You're looking pretty dead around the edges yourself," Nathan challenged her, his voice dropping to a low growling tenor that scared Ben even more than the yelling had. "How long before you're nalamhe behind one of these?"
That struck a nerve. She struggled to her feet, still backing away.
"Cannon fodder?" She spat, and kicked the mask away. "Is that what you think? That won't happen to me." Nathan stepped up to Ben, putting his hand on the boy's shoulder, his eyes daring her to stop him. She sniffed, and straightened her jacket. "I'm a better class of soldier." She jabbed a finger at Nathan, and grinned, "Like nothing you've ever seen."
"No," The anger seemed to go out of Nathan, and his shoulders dropped. His bangs fell across his eyes and he cast his gaze low. "That's where you're wrong." He sighed, and lifted his eyes back to meet hers. "I've seen enough to know what I'm looking at." He shook his head slightly, as though shaking off a thought. "I won't bother trying to open your eyes."
Nathan sank to that odd perch again, until he was eye to eye with Ben. Ben's eyes were squeezed shut. The whispers were so loud now, Ben couldn't bear them. He dug his fingers behind his ears, as though gripping them tighter might help him quell what they were hearing. His palms smashed hard against them, but nothing could grant him quiet. Nothing could grant him peace. He just wanted the whispers to go away. He just wanted everything to go away.
"I just find myself wondering," Nathan bowed his head, his voice turning so soft it could barely be called a sound, "if the lies you hear are..." He closed his eyes, his hand resting on his right knee. Tightly he finished the sentence: "... all the same."
"You think you can just turn your back on me?" The girl shrieked. "I know what you are!" She braced herself, legs wide apart and fists clenched at the ready. "Face me!"
"Monkeys," Nathan sighed. He straightened, but didn't turn to face her. His eyes slid to look at her over his shoulder, but he kept his back to her with Ben before him. "Look, it's clear from what you've been taught that you're here to die," he said flatly. "However--" His voice turned hard, bitter, and he looked back to Ben. "YOU have a master. I don't. Now get lost."
"Arrogant prick!" The girl began to strip off her jacket, her white tank top clinging to a well-muscled frame. "I'll show you!" she screamed, "I'll END you!"
Nathan put a hand on Ben's shoulder, gently pushing Ben to move forward. Ben lurched, then began to drift alongside Nathan like a sleepwalker. His eyes half-opened, he fell into Nathan's pace. Ben's grip on his ears eased, and he let out a breath for the first time in what felt like ages.
"Stand fast, angel!" The girl's fury crackled around her, an electricity to the air that made those tendrils of hair thrash around her neck like angry snakes. Her cracked lips curled around words she seemed to know would land-- "Luwni maast!"
Nathan's coat whipped around, swept up in the motion of his sudden pivot. A blue-white light, blazing like the glow in his eyes, stretched into the air around him. Ben wanted to scream, to run. The shape of that flash reminded him of his dream. Two great shapes stretching into the air around him, burning so unbearably bright they made the morning sky look dark behind them. Even with his eyes squeezed as tight as he could, Ben could still see them, scorched into his retinas. They were ragged and indistinct, but they were wings.
Nathan slipped off his coat, and dropped it roughly into the sand. He gritted his teeth, his expression so hardened and cold it could have been hewn from marble. "So it's going to be like that, is it?" Nathan's voice was even colder, so chilling it froze the breath in Ben's chest. "Have it your way. You'll get your wish."
Panic began to bubble up in Ben's throat. The voices were crushing him, driving him down. The world blurred away before his vision, becoming vague and indistinct. There was too much, and he couldn't hold on to any of it. Nathan's voice was the only true thing left, and it terrified him.
"Let me teach you a new word to add to that nasty little repertoire." Nathan's voice was sharp as steel, cutting through Ben's fog. "Vitzqa." It echoed in Ben's thoughts, over and over, and it made him feel guilty. It made him afraid.
"Abomination," Nathan said, stalking towards the girl. "Enormity." Each word punctuated a deliberate, hostile stride. "Disgrace." He stopped, his lanky frame tensing. "And your existence as one is about to end."
He moved almost too quickly to follow. He closed the distance while she was still taking her stance. He jumped, as though to tackle her, then slipped beneath her answer, a roundhouse kick at his face. He put all his forward momentum into the flat of his palm, which smacked hard into her chest. He pushed her back and up while she was still off-balance, sending her into the air.
She twisted like a cat, her right hand clamping down around his arm. She whipped her right knee up, using her weight to pull his chin down into her kick. He grabbed her legs in the crook of his right arm, pulling a knee up to respond-- before he could, she whipped her arms back, and tried to lock her ankles around his neck. Despite himself, Nathan smiled-- with a childlike chuckle he released her, falling back and away from her as she tumbled into the sand. The sudden drop seemed to stun her, and she took a moment to recover.
"Cute," he grinned, pushing the blonde locks out of his eyes. "But gambles like that hinge on my hesitation." But there was something sad in his eyes now. Was Ben imagining it, or did Nathan actually feel sorry for her? "If you knew anything," he chided her, "you'd know those are sucker bets." He gathered his spindly limbs up, and started to stand. "Don't tell me that's all you've got. I'm trying to take you seriously."
The girl sprang to her feet, her fist whipping at his face. Nathan caught it easily by the wrist, and watched her dispassionately. There was definitely pity in his eyes now, his face was impassive but the anger had drained from it, leaving his features softer for the loss. "You don't intimidate me!" the girl screamed at him. "This is OUR time now! You're nothing but a reject, a leftover!"
Nathan dropped her wrist, and with the other hand hauled off and slapped her. She reeled, staggering back from the force of the blow. "We'll stop you!" She lunged at him, both hands striking at his stomach. The blows landed hard. "You'll see what we can do!" She followed them with more, one fist and then the other, hammering at his ribs and his guts. "You ruined our world!" Her scream rose to an ear-splitting shriek, "It's your fault, all of it!"
Nathan rocked back on his heels. He hoisted her by the throat, holding her above him. Despite her struggles, he held her easily, as though she weighed nothing at all. She brought her leg up, and kicked his chin so hard his head whipped back. He lost his footing, and they nearly fell backwards together. He swung her away from him by the neck, and threw his weight against the motion, using the force of her body's swing to regain his balance.
"Pathetic," he scoffed, watching her tumble across the sand yet again. "You don't know how many times I've heard this same lame-ass speech." He spit blood. His tongue poked around beneath his lower lip, feeling out where he'd bitten it. "Word for word." Nathan sighed. "None of you ever know what you're talking about. Let alone what it means."
The girl rolled to a sitting position, eyeing him suspiciously. "Why are you playing around like this?" She gathered herself, and stood unsteadily. "Why don't you fight me with your true strength?"
"Because I don't happen to be stupid," Nathan shot back. "I do that, and this party gets a whole lot less private."
"LIAR!" The girl threw herself at him again, slipped past him and shoved an elbow deep into his side. She swept a leg behind him, striking at the back of his thin legs. "You're wearing me down!" Fighting for his balance, Nathan tried to square off with her, but she kept getting past him, kept striking at the backs of his ankles and his knees. Every time he turned his attention to stopping her legs, she went back to attacking his midsection, trying to knock the breath out of him.
"You still think you can 'save' me, don't you?!" He remained on the defensive, blocking her when he could. She was quick, and he was clearly tired. He caught her arms and tried to hold them, but her feet were faster and hit him harder. Her center of gravity was just too low, and he was moving too slowly to do much good.
"Because to you and your kind, humanity all needs saving!" Nathan kept retreating, and she just kept screaming. "And thanks to your saving we have shame, regret, sin..." She feinted right, then swept from her left, nearly taking his feet out from under him. "Inquisitions and Crusades..." He'd ducked that one, but the next one was even faster. "We don't NEED you! We don't WANT you! And if I had to die to take just one of you out, then that's fine by me!" The next kick took a full spin-- Nathan tried to sidestep it, but she connected. This time he toppled. She bore him all the way to the ground, and put a boot across his neck. He lay there, eyes closed, and let his hands drop to his stomach.
"Ha!" Every time his chest heaved, she put a little more pressure on the boot holding his neck. "You won't fight me with your true self because you don't think I'm worthy." She watched his lanky frame sag against the sand, each breath drawing less air than the last. "Well you're the one who needs saving now, angel!" She wasn't even breathing hard. She smirked, jabbing an accusing finger down at him. "As long as you fight me this way I'll kick your ass up and down this field."
"Well you're right about one thing..." Nathan paused, fighting for a long breath. "I don't think you're worthy. Not by any stretch." He swallowed past the pressure of her foot, and gulped another breath. "A worthy soul would have more than memorized phrases..." A slight cough, and then another gulp of air, "... and a half-baked historical laundry list of bitching topics to throw at me."
His brows knit a little, and his eyes slid to the left, as though reading back through what he'd said. "Sorry," he croaked. "Let up on my air supply and I'll mix metaphors less."
A slow crook in his mouth began to slide into a half-smile, and he opened his eyes narrowly. "But, as for saving you..." He spoke softly, getting softer with each word, so she had to lean in to hear him. "Well, in the immortal words of John Travolta--"
His hands whipped up from his stomach, latching around her leg at the thinnest part of her tibia, the part that had been striking at his defenses all this time. His thumbs dug in between tibia and fibia, and he twisted, hard, pulling all her weight down into the bend he was putting on that stressed-out shin. His best Travolta impression didn't quite cover the snap of beleagured bone giving way under the pressure.
"I'm not that kind of angel."