Illumination 8.7: Eye to Eye

Seth tasted blood as he rolled with Ajax through the snow. Ajax had caught him in the face, smashing his lips against his teeth, but Seth had his hands around Ajax’s throat. All he had to do was summon his knives, and the battle against this berserk moron would be over. Instead, he pushed Ajax’s head into the snow, trying to push him under the crunching crust. Ajax arched his back, flipped Seth over, punched him in the gut, then wrapped his hands around Seth’s throat.

Blood from a cut on Ajax’s face splashed onto Seth’s cheek. It stung. A horrible howling echoed down the narrow corridor of the streets that they’d rolled into. Seth jerked, and then looked around. “Stop,” he rasped, then reached up to pinch Ajax’s nose closed and cover his mouth. Ajax’s fingers tightened on Seth’s throat for a moment, then shoved him away violently and pried Seth’s hands away from his face.

Seth scrambled backward, putting as much distance between them as the chain would allow, and rasped, “Stop,” again. His throat hurt. Ajax looked like somebody had been using his face as a punching bag. Between the burning on his knuckles and some vague, adrenaline blurred memories, Seth realized it had probably been him. He hadn’t done a very good job of bringing Ajax back to himself. But at least they hadn’t killed each other. That was a start.

The howling came again. It sounded closer this time. Ajax didn’t seem to notice it, watching Seth with wary intensity. The cat Cambion, who had been padding alongside their brawl, did. She looked around, then vanished into a shadowy alleyway.

Ajax lunged after her. “No! Natalie!” Seth dug his heels in and hauled on the chain with every aching muscle. Punching Ajax wasn’t working any better than stumbling along in his wake. He was going to have to try something weird.

“Ajax, man. Calm down. We’ll get her back. But not like this. We’re both trashed. And think of how Natalie would feel, if her Cambion ended up killing us because we couldn’t pick our time.”

Ajax stopped pulling on the chain. Seth stood up and put his hand on Ajax’s shoulder. “That howl means something’s hunting. Something even the cat doesn’t want to meet.”

Ajax shook off Seth’s hand. “Shut up. You were a burden to your sister, and you’re a burden now. If you weren’t here, the cat couldn’t have done this.”

Seth’s teeth snapped shut over his response. Ajax was patient with him for too long. And Ajax was better at it, just like Natalie was. Seth was too used to having it easy, much as it galled him to admit that.

But Ajax had grown up with monsters chewing on him, shuttled from one household to another. Seth had a family back in the ultimate stronghold against the monsters, a family he could ignore if he wanted because he knew they’d always be there. He’d grown up with everything Ajax had wanted. It wasn’t fair, and being patient was the least he could do.

So Seth kept his teeth closed over the words he wanted to say, until the urge faded. “Could be. Seems like we ought to save Natalie’s nightmare for her, though. Otherwise it will always be out there.” It was bullshit, the sort of nonsense he’d tell his younger siblings when they were afraid to go to bed at night. The words didn’t matter as much as the calm voice.

Ajax sat in the snow suddenly, as if his legs just given out. Seth scanned him. Had he cut Ajax somewhere during their maddened fight? But no new splashes of crimson crept out into the dirty snow.

“I wanted to do the right thing, you know? That’s what I told myself I was doing. She was being so nice to me and I wanted—” Ajax clenched a fist. “I wanted to let her. She really seemed to care about me. And I thought it was so clever to repay her for saving my life by being a bastard. Better now than later, you know?”

Seth kept his mouth shut again, but this time it was even harder.

Ajax went on, not really looking for a response. “But I was actually just afraid. It would have been so easy to get attached, and then she’d just dump me for something else.” He made an odd sound that Seth realized was a humorless laugh. “Got attached anyhow. Special girl, your sister. But I still wanted to play it safe. I wanted her to come after me. So at least I wouldn’t feel guilty when it all went to hell. But she deserved better than that. I want a second chance, dammit.”

Seth chose his words carefully. “Second chances. Yeah. I need your help, big guy. Ajax. I need to find Jehane. I don’t want to let her get taken. She’s kind of a second chance, you know?”

“Natalie isn’t gone,” snapped Ajax.

“No? But she’s not here. And Jehane is. I hope.”

Ajax met his gaze. For a moment, it seemed like they were truly seeing each other for the first time. Then he said, “Yeah, all right.”

Seth’s wrist tingled. When he glanced down, the red chain was fading away.

There was a heavy thump behind him. Seth looked over his shoulder to see Malachi and Jehane standing together in a drift, snow still falling from the roof they’d jumped down from.

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