Author’s Note: This is part of a collaborative project. You may want to read the other part first, although each portion is meant to stand alone. If you’re signed up to view the yeah write coffeehouse, we’ll be discussing the process by which these stories came to be.
It won’t be dark here for another two hours, he thinks, staring at the sunbleached sky over the jagged teeth of the mountains. At home – no, in Chicago, he reminds himself – the last light will be leaching from the skyline, the top of the Sears Tower (or whatever the fuck you’re supposed to call it now) still illuminated as the rest of the city fades away beneath it into the greys and blacks where he’s spent his life.
The New Mexico sun doesn’t fuck around any more than Chicago snow does. Angus’ stable’s worth of new vehicles are tarped down, safe from sun and sand and the dry feet of desert predators. They’ve found coyote prints on the tops of the cars some mornings, and Jack wonders what the coyotes think of these new landmarks intruding noisily on their turf.
The coyotes come and go like gangs, yammering at each other and scuffling for territory that doesn’t mean anything to anyone but them, leaving urine graffiti on chaparral, agave, rocks. Jack doesn’t mind them any more than he minds the gangs back home now; what can they do to his body that hasn’t been done? Nothing he can’t survive.
Survival used to occupy him full-time, he thinks, tearing open a packet of ramen and crunching the dry noodles between his teeth. It’s an old habit, from a time before he had access to ovens, hot pots, electricity that wasn’t stolen from a neighbor via holes in the wall. Now it’s something that just happens to him. He supposes he could starve to death if he tried, but it seems pointless. His gifts will just bring him back, gasping, into the world. Somewhere, in that no-space where he usually keeps a gun, knives, less obvious weapons, his car keys, there are eight bullets. Eight rounds of .357 tipped with artificial hind’s blood or basilisk venom or whatever the Golden Crown finally found to kill immortals.
He won’t use them, of course. He has responsibilities. It’s possible to have responsibilities and make promises without caring. Like so many others before him, he fathered children out of wedlock. Fine. God, he’s even starting to talk like them. Angus and Cuchulainn and Lugh, and.
He pushes the heel of his hand against the bridge of his nose, hard, and rocks it back and forth until his eyes stop stinging. Like any of them give a damn actually. All their talk about family and love and all any of them do is walk out. He’s better than that, at least. He won’t walk out on his children. And he won’t shirk his responsibility to their mother, even if she’s pissing him off.
I would take Katie, he thinks. If she weren’t nursing. I would take her out of that place.
But with Katie comes Kyna, and while he’s certain he could walk back into her life and just say ‘let’s go home’ and she’d follow him back, he can’t bear the thought of her waking up every morning next to someone who can’t give her what she wants. He’s dead inside already, he has to be. If he weren’t, he’d scream every time he thinks of Tre la Paz dropping Angus’ head in the grove. Every time he imagines Kyna held captive. What if Walker hadn’t been willing to help? Walker’s gone. Whatever favor the god felt he owed Jack because of some other Jack in some other place, he burned that.
The burning impulse is strong. He never understood the pyros, the creepers, kids that would light insects, masturbate with matches, who wanted to watch the skin peel off the chicken in the barbecue. The ones they had to keep separate at the ‘special’ schools he attended. He doesn’t understand the desire for flames. But he understands the need to burn everything down, to tear it out of your life before it can be turned into a weapon. The scorched carcass of the Jaguar Kyna picked out, Angus bought, can be the tombstone for his life. He never wanted that car; she did, and he tried to want it because she got it for him, because they were trying to make him happy.
But all it was, was one more misunderstanding. One more broken thing. One more way to make him look like them on the outside. Burn it down. Burn it all the fuck down.
He glares back at the house. If it wasn’t sitting on a huge gas tank. If it didn’t have the workroom portal that’s his ticket home. If it wasn’t Angus Bloody O’Sonnell’s, that’s never meant him harm, for all the harm that’s come to him on Angus’ behalf anyway.
He burned Angus’ car, too, back when. Angus never blinked. Angus understands, sometimes. Like he understands now that it’s been long enough, that Jack’s reached the limits of his own heart and head.
The gravel shifts behind him as Jack scoots over on the wool blanket he folded onto the fence. His thin hips and worn jeans are no protection from the hard, splintery rail. The fence is weathered, dried up, and fallen down in parts but the bit between the house and the garage is ok.
Jack doesn’t look up but the set hunch of his shoulders shifts, waiting.
Angus joins him there, careful to not break the fence with his weight. “I told Michael Lee once that boys don’t cry. He didn’t understand the depth of what I meant by it.” His voice is soft, although Jack knows from experience that you can scream here if you want, yell, laugh. There’s no-one for miles but the lizards and coyotes and the occasional road wraith. “I know how much it hurts. It hurts more than you let yourself admit. Because if you had to look at even a fraction of it, you’d break down in tears. And everything would shatter. It’s part of why I showed you this house. It’s a safer place than the base to be yourself.”
Jack starts to say something, chokes on it a little. Nods.
“I’ve been worried about you, and all the hurt welling up inside. But I also trust you to be able to handle it.” Those words. I trust you. Was Angus the first person who said them to him and meant it?
“Of course, I’m here if you need me,” the big man goes on, raking unruly hair back from his face. “We’re both immortal now, and we have years and years and years to be together. But how much time do you have to be with the ones you love who aren’t immortal? We all love each other in a different way. There is no hard set form of love.
“We do make ourselves vulnerable with our love. But love should be worth the risks, no matter how abundant. I know you love them. You are still taking care of them from afar. From arms’ reach. You’re still worried for their well-being and happiness. That is love.
“We killed Paz for what she did to you. Just like we’ll do it to the next bad guy that comes along to threaten the ones we love. It’s what we do. It’s who we are. And we’ll never stop being us. No matter what. And that, that is love too.”
Angus’ voice rumbles to a stop as Jack slides off the rail, turning to enter the circle of his adoptive father’s arms. The older man doesn’t push, doesn’t even really wrap his arms around his son until Jack’s shoulders start to shake.
“I don’t know who I am,” he mourns into the fabric of Angus’ shirt. “I knew, always, what I wasn’t. And then Kyna knew for me. And then they took her away, they took you away, and I couldn’t. I couldn’t. Who am I?”
Angus’s soft, chuffing laugh shakes them both. “You are Jack O’Roe, of the proud House O’Sonnell. Chosen of the Aetherian Creed and Bane to the Chthonic Horrors. And you are my son. And it’s okay if you forgot all that in the chaos.”
Jack pulls back, looks up at him with startled, red-rimmed eyes. “It’s that simple?”
“No one ever said it had to be complicated.” Angus straightens Jack’s tangled forelock, brushing blond hair away from his face. He tries again, gently, to penetrate the mask of protest and anguish he sees there.
“You start with the basics, and build up from there. Do you like pizza? Do you hate cupcakes? How do you feel about those Cubs? Do you love your wife and child?”
“Pizza’s good, except olives. Cupcakes are fine but not at parties. Cubs always.” He answers automatically, without thought. And then pauses. “I don’t know.”
“You sort out questions like this, and then who you are unfolds before you. Of course, you might have to suss out what love is first before you know if you have it in your heart for them.” Angus pats the railing next to him and Jack hops back up onto the blanket. He’s lost some weight, this past month, and he barely shakes the decrepit fence. He can see Angus noting that, one small thing to take back to Peg, who will feed him. Is that love?
“I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if I can feel that.” He frowns, thinking of his anchors, what makes him sure. “I know loyalty. I thought that was enough. But it’s not. It’s not what she needs. And. And this might be better. For her, you know?” He looks at the faded knees of his jeans, his scuffed workboots. “She doesn’t know who the hell she is. And if something happens to me, well. It’s better, if they don’t know the difference.”
“You have never disappointed her before,” Angus reminds him. “Your way of loving has always been acceptable to her. And maybe she doesn’t know who she is, but she’s had a lot of soul searching to do. She’s making progress towards it. Perhaps she is a new and improved Kyna.”
He pauses, shifting his weight. “If something happens to you?”
“If. I mean. Stuff happened to you.” Jack hunches his shoulders uncomfortably.
“And stuff happened to her,” Angus says heavily. “But I don’t want to give up my time with those I love just because of what might come to pass. This is the courage that I have to dig into, to face each day. And some days are just harder than others.”
“I’m not brave like you. Maybe in a thousand years, I could learn it.” Jack sniffs something back – surely not tears – and goes on. “Fucking Renee.”
“Courage is being afraid, but doing it anyway. You can’t have one without the other. Like a seed needs dirt. I’m terribly afraid of losing Peg, now more than ever. Someday I will lose her. The way I lost Moira. Time is without mercy. But I want to live in the time we do have together. Even if our understanding of each other isn’t perfect.”
“She asked where I was going.” Jack keeps picking at the scab of his conversation. “Where. And I started to just blow her off. Say Home.” He bites down, because he didn’t say it. Couldn’t have said it. Home, always, was where Kyna was. It didn’t matter what they called it, the apartment. A car would have been enough, and a place to drive. Home. The word he lost with love.
“Renee worries about you like a friend should. Another person to love. Another thing for which you are asked to be courageous.” Angus raises his bushy eyebrows.
“I get Renee,” Jack insists, to Angus or himself. “I just don’t get why she’s pissed. Fucking nothing has changed.”
“Not between her and me.” He thinks – hopes – that’s not a lie. He would die for her still, can feel her blood beating in the scar on his palm when he clenches his fist. Blood and promises. These are things he’s sure of, when he’s not sure of love, heart, truth.
“She’s not worried about that. She’s worried about you and Kyna. And by right of kinship, she claims that as hers to worry about.” Angus waits for him to get it. Finally he does.
Jack sighs heavily. “I can’t fix Kyna. All I can let her do is lie to herself and get close enough to.. to… I don’t know if I could lose her. Lose Katie. Lose… whoever the new baby will be. Can’t I just do my fucking job, and take care of them?”
“You don’t have to fix Kyna. I’ve got people on that already. And they are doing a bang-up job. The hard part was getting Peg to let go.” Because of course, Jack kicks himself, of course Peg didn’t want to force Kyna to leave her apartment, live with Sarah, whose reputation still precedes her even as she insists it’s behind her. Of course Peg didn’t want her granddaughter there. For a moment the old jealousy surges back, for Kyna’s family, the ease and depth of their love for each other. He thought he could live within the circle of that fire once. And then he remembered that fire burns.
“Yes, you can just do your job and take care of them from afar. If that’s what you truly want. If that’s what you need to be happy. If you do not want to be part of their lives except by finance, that is absolutely permitted.” Angus, always, understands. Understands that it’s safer in the dark outside, stripped down to only yourself and the things you’re really sure of.
“I only ask the question: Will you be happy alone? Or will you merely be surviving?”
Jack stares at the jagged teeth of the mountains, the pinhole brightness of the sun that’s bleached out the sky like the earth, like the house behind him and the fence. And then he drags his torn and bleeding thoughts free, says the word. “Surviving.”
He tries to explain the thing he can’t, the thing he’s never needed to, with Angus, but there’s an urgency now. If he can outline it, hem it in with words, fence it, it can’t get to him. “It was all I could do, some days, you know?”
“Those days are behind you for the moment. You may be called upon to just survive again. But for now I would rather you live and enjoy the time you have.” Angus knocks down his careful construction, opens the gate he’s trying to close. “I only have this wisdom: Life hurts. We just need to make sure that the good outweighs the bad.”
“But it hurts so much!” the last two words are screamed into Angus’ shoulder as Jack clings to him, shaking.
Angus holds on tightly, making a safe place in the circle of his strength. “I know,” he croaks out around his own tears. “I know.”
Boys don’t cry. Angus even said it. So it must be someone else who clings to his father, shrieking out the anguish until snot runs down his face and his eyes are so swollen he can barely see. Angus’ palm makes circles between his shoulderblades, soothing. He finally makes the connection, hundreds of nights walking Katie back and forth in the old apartment, hand on her back, making circles. Writing I Love You with the palms of his hands and her against his shoulder like this.
“I would never,” he finally chokes out. “I would never leave them, not while I had breath in me.”
“Then you should be with them.”
“I told her I didn’t love her.” It’s barely at the edge of Angus’ hearing.
“Oh aye? Did you now? Well then. Was it a true thing you said then?”
“I don’t know,” he whispers, voice raw. “Nobody ever taught me what love was, if it wasn’t you and her.”
“Then that’s what you need to figure out next. Everything else can wait until you do. And I’ll help you as much as I am able.”
He nods against Angus’ chest. “She scares me. She wants me to act in ways and, and to want stuff like the stupid Jag, and. And I don’t want.”
Angus sighs- Jack can feel it all through his body, being this close. “Maybe she’s not really asking you to be someone else if you can’t put your finger on what it is she wants you to be. Or more frightening, maybe you already are that thing she wants you to be.”
“I don’t know. How can I know?”
“Ask her maybe? Talk to her. You might come away surprised by what you hear. You still have time. And mind you, I still expect you to be true to yourself, if nothing else.”
Jack nods again. “I’m trying.”
There’s a long silence in which the mountains catch the sun, finally, and chew it up, spitting color into the sky.
“Hey.” Jack wipes his nose with the hem of his shirt, furtively. “You, uh. You wanna go for a drive? Sun’s almost down.” He tugs a sawed-off shotgun out of hammerspace and offers it to Angus, stock first. “In case of wraiths.”
“Ah, thank ye. This’ll do nicely. So very thoughtful ye are, my son.”
“I aim to serve.” It’s not quite the good Aetherian grin, but it’s trying to be. “And you better aim for the wraiths, old man.”
Sparring, they walk from the fence to the Camaro.