Illumination 10.5: Sleeping Beauty

“Wear this,” said Martin, passing Ajax an earpiece. “And follow any instructions I give you immediately; they may save your life.” They stood behind a decaying tenement, just out of sight of where Seth had convinced Natalie to wait, and the soldiers weren’t happy. They hadn’t actually argued with Martin when he decided to allow Ajax’s ‘little date’, but they were holding their weapons in worrying ways. Ajax could have explained the situation in a way that made the whole event a little more relevant, but he didn’t want to take the chance of Natalie getting shot. There was no way he could have explained it which would have let him escape to meet her unmonitored.

Ajax peeked around the corner. He could make out the distant silhouette of Natalie, but between them was Seth, walking slowly down the street. The other guy looked ragged, and Ajax wondered what the odds were of the worried soldiers shooting him instead. “I’m going to go talk to my friend,” he announced. “Keep an eye out for monsters.”

“Like the one with the girl?” asked one of the soldiers, looking through a scope.

“What?” said Ajax. Even squinting he couldn’t make out more than a crouched and shadowed figure. “No,” he added, “I’ll handle that one if it’s necessary.” He went around the corner and met Seth across the street.

“You brought friends.” Seth gave him the same awful smile he’d worn for days on end after losing Natalie.

“They were going to follow me if I didn’t. I figured it was best to keep them where we could see them. What’s going on?”

“She started out by attacking me, but we got over that. She’s still shedding Awakened Darkness, though. Now she wants—” He shook his head. “I remind her too much of what she doesn’t think she can get back again. Maybe doesn’t want back again. There’s a lot she doesn’t remember right now.” He shrugged and stretched. “Over to you. She can have a future with you instead of just a past with me. What do you want me to do with your bodyguard?”

Ajax frowned at Seth, trying and failing to see what was under the grin. “Talk to them, I guess. Keep them from shooting Natalie. Look harmless.”

“Oooh, harmless. I’ll do my best.” And he strolled past Ajax without a second glance, waving at the soldiers as he approached them with his hands in the air.

Ajax went to Natalie. She was crouched down, her hands in the fur of the cat cambion Ajax had once wanted to kill so badly. The cat was cleaning its paw, but Natalie watched him approach. Her eyes widened as he got closer, and his heart thumped. Even filthy and injured, she was beautiful: a wild, ghostly dream.

“You’re a black hole,” she said, wonderingly. “I remember you. I remember failing you. Why are you here?”

Ajax had been thinking about this: not the immediate answer, but the deeper one. “I’ve been helping your people. You see, I didn’t need you in order to stay after all.”

She smiled, her face lighting up. She stood up and the cat sat down as she stepped around it. Then her smile faded. “You’re not alone.”

“Oh, you’ve seen those guys before,” he said, as airily as he could while trying to keep his body between the soldiers and Natalie. “They’re just here to deal with Hatherly.”

It was like he’d flipped a switch. Her entire demeanor changed. She wasn’t a ghostly wild thing, but something hard and angry. She looked around. “Is he here?”

“Nope. They’ll make sure he stays away.”

She studied him. “You’re tense.” She was shedding tiny monsters, her anima flickering bright and dark like a photonegative of itself. She could do anything: lash out, run away, break down, and anything unpredictable was even more dangerous. The soldiers didn’t like unpredictable.

“Just ignore them,” he suggested. “Soldiers are everywhere now.”

“Are they?” Her brow wrinkled, then she shook her head. “What do you want from me?”

He wondered, then, if she didn’t remember him, despite what she’d claimed. “Do you remember our talk in the darkness, during Nightfall?”

She bit her lip. “I could if I wanted to.”

He moved closer to her, slowly and carefully. She stood still, but her gaze darted from side to side, and her breathing quickened. “Why don’t you want to?”

“There’s a fence. The stuff on the other side of the fence is there for a reason, even if I can’t remember what the reason is.” But she frowned, and backed up a step.

Ajax stopped moving. “Would you like me to go away?”

“Just… stay there for now.”

He crouched down. “I’m right here, baby.” A voice in his ear buzzed at him, but he tuned it out, concentrating on Natalie. She pushed her fingers into the fur of the cat.

“Who’s your friend? I met it once before.”

“They all found me out here. I made this one when— when— when—” She stuttered to a halt, her eyes going distant. He waited, his fist clenching behind his back. Finally, softly, she said, “After I came out of the box, he wanted me to demonstrate what I did. He… insisted. He kept one.”

Ajax stood up. Alarmed, she said, “What are you doing?”

“I’m going to go kill him.” But he didn’t move, watching the way her hands fluttered, then wrapped around herself. “Unless you’d rather do it yourself. Ladies first and all.”

“Don’t go!” The words seemed to slip out and she stopped hugging herself and hugged the cat instead.

He crouched down again. “It makes me furious that he hurt you. But I’d rather stay with you.”

“What do you want from me?” she demanded.

He gazed up at her. “I want to see you smile.” She took a step closer. “I want to listen to you talk. I want to keep you safe. I want to set you free. ”

She stood right in front of him, close enough to touch. She looked down at him, one foot on a hunk of stone between them. Slowly, he stood up and looked down at her.

Then, without a word, she reached out, twisted her fingers in his shirt and pulled him in to kiss her. As she did, the cat cambion dissolved into glittering light. His hands came up to steady her on her perch, one at her waist, the other sliding up her spine. Her mouth was soft but insistent, salty with old tears and sweet with the urgency of her kiss.

And when she pulled away, her eyes were different. Tired, and older, but present. The ghostly wild thing was gone. She pressed a finger to his lips. “I think,” she said quietly, “that I would like to find Hatherly. He has something of mine.”

“All right,” Ajax said, but he didn’t move.

“Um,” she said after a moment, and a smile touched her old eyes. “You have to let go of me for that to happen.

“Oh. Do I?”

And then a voice squawked in Ajax’s ear: “Repeat, tango incoming. Wake up, kid. Get the girl over to us before—”

Seth shouted wordlessly behind them.


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