Collateral Damage

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     Raines perched in a tree on the edge of the Avalons. He snapped his wings idly back and forth to pass the time it took for Bragg's ships to come. The bandage across his stomach was soaked through again, but he didn't have the gusto to change it just yet.

     His tired eyes found the shambles of the canoe left burning off the beaches. Raines watched pieces of a flaming farewell bob to shore. He decided then to spend the day gathering planks along the sands. He dug a pit for what remained of Mabel, ash and bone too strong to dissolve. When she was under, he built a wooden prism of charred wood. He tucked the hardiest blue flowers from the outskirts of the forest into the cracks.

     "I never meant..." Raines mumbled.

     "A true conversationalist spars with himself," Bragg's voice rumbled in his pocket.

     "And the dead."

     "Don't fault yourself for Mabel," Bragg surprised him, "Not a damn thing about this has gone straight. A ship will be there for you by night."

     "And you?" Raines answered.

     "Just arrived in Silvereach," said Bragg, turning his engine quiet at the dam. "Let's see if I have better..." He was speechless at a sight even his seasoned eyes couldn't believe. "Stand by." Bragg Boneblade stood with a small squad, five against two-hundred Reachers with cloths across their faces. Every one of them wore a poorly sewn, homemade mask of shark teeth.

-

     Quincy couldn't help the pang of satisfaction at Levi's face when he saw him in the Rouge Bolt. Days later, Quincy's only pangs were in muscles and ribs. Every day became a repeating, blurry cycle.

     "Detaunt?" the trolley driver knew by Quincy's face.

     "Another day at the office," he'd say. Quincy stopped by a bar down the street every morning to drop off May with Corman. He stopped again every afternoon to pick her up and wash down the sting of hot, healing medstop goop over his wounds. It was a wonder what one tube of the Strand-issue medical mud could seal up. On the fourth day of the cycle, Levi said,

     "You're holding your blades backwards."

     "Excuse me?"

     "You use them like hooks, with the nose pointed away from you. Snare your opponent's weapon and throw it away," the stressed word came with the bite of Levi's jeweled blade. Quincy put up an instinctual block, which bounced back at him. "Now with the blades reversed."

     "You waited four days to tell me?" Quincy switched them around in his grip. When he caught Levi's next strike, his blades, rolled away naturally, like a marble in a pipe.

     "I wanted to measure your intuition," said Levi, "That's the feeling, the natural curve that'll keep you safe. But Bragg isn't going to aim for your blades. This time, you find my strikes, and throw them away!"

     Quincy put up his blades. His left arm was clumsy, and he was still getting the hang of the Bolt. Its fibers gripped different muscles each way he moved, throwing him hard into a dodge or bracing him if he tensed. He tossed three strikes away before the Bolt wrenched him off balance.

     Quincy scrambled upright. He hooked away two swipes before the jeweled blade clipped his shoulder. Levi swooped down, but Quincy bounced the hit with his arm pad. He clipped the jeweled blade away again, but a hasty counter-strike left him open. Levi buried his blade in Quincy's side, up to the jeweled hilt.

     "Damnit Levi!" Quincy folded on his knees.

     "Review for today: use those hooks to throw me off balance, and Bragg will stick you where it hurts- get used to it." Quincy thought about slicing his hand right off when he offered it.

     "Why... do you hate me? Is it because... I'm useless to you?" he took the hand and wobbled to his feet. Red splattered around Quincy's shoes.

     "I don't hate you, Quincy. I need you to be what people think you are." Redwing... Blackstar... Quincy turned counterclockwise through memory, to a boy, his dad, and a bandana. Be the bigger monster. First, he had to know the monster he was being measured against.

     "Tell me... about Bragg."

     "You spill blood, I'll spill secrets," said Levi, "Get to the medstop before you bleed out, or you will be useless to me."

-

     Over a few days, Quincy lengthened his chain of parries by three. He started to sway with the force of the Bolt. But something grew in Levi, something like rage. In the middle of their second week, he flung himself at Quincy with more ferocity than ever. Blows arced at Quincy from ever-shifting, uncomfortable angles. He reflected a few strikes with his padded arms and thighs, until Levi dealt him one so brutal it knocked his blade from his grasp. It rattled across the floor. A slice of his opposite wrist unhinged Quincy's second blade. When Levi had this ultimate of openings, he threw down his weapon. Quincy pushed away the first punch, but the second pulsed through his gut before he got a grip on Levi's wrists.

     "You can dance around my strikes, but you will never win if you avoid your deepest concern," his iris' swirled open to fill his eye with green, "You're damaged, Quincy. Every time you feel powerless, you go back to that moment," his arms creaked down on his shaking foe. Those eyes mortified Quincy right back to a child, in the blinking headlights of an overturned car.

     "Stop..." he wheezed.

     "You were wounded. The longer you hide from it, the wider it tears."

     "S-stop..." all the warmth fled Quincy's water-lined face.

     "We're all damaged, Quincy! You don't bury it. You don't overcome it. You can only come to terms with it!" Quincy doubled over. Blood and tears pooled on the knees of his pants. Levi let him go.

     The first time in a week he left without a mortal wound was the time he was most hurt. Quincy's cycle broke when he skipped the trolley and ran home, squeezing May in his coat.

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