Wesley coughed a grey breath of smoke from his mouth. They splashed ankles deep against the creek, swatting away the pink clusters of pollen drifting in the air. The Foster girl had been clenching his hand with such trust, but he did not know why.
“In here, quick,” Wesley told her, peeling low-hanging vines from her path. He ducked into the crevasse as the plants draped back down. The warmth filled the marrow of his bones. “Whoa,” she said, releasing his hand.
Turquoise steam rose off the surface of a shallow pool. Kelp weeds sheened blue just beneath the surface. Dizzy tracks from a baby deer printed the salt crusted ring around the waterline. The Foster girl knelt with her knees together and dipped a hand in the water; and as if her touch had melted a perfect glass, light wobbled up the dirt walls.
“This place is—”
“I know,” Wesley said. Blue roses grew down from the ceiling and sweat with musky dew. He took a deep breath of the flowery steam, held it tight in his chest, and exhaled a long drawn sigh. He plucked a rose off the ceiling. “Ever seen a blue rose before?”
“If it’s blue it ain’t much of a rose.”
“If it hates flowers it isn’t much of a girl,” he said.
She paced around the outskirts of the pool, twirling the cutlass absentmindedly in her hand. The water shined light-blue up in her grey eyes. Awful bruises darkened both of her temples. Her expression was locked on the glowing weeds. A black catfish poked up to the surface, gulping air in its wide mouth, the tips of its whiskers were a gentle blue glow.
“The fish aren’t afraid of people?” she asked.
“Not yet,” Wesley said as he stepped out of his boot. He stripped down to his shorts and waded into the water. He could never quite feel the warmth on his feet and ankles; but he could sense the tingling and buzzing numbness that seemed to bloat in his bones. “It’s an underground spring,” he told her. “My first memories are from that chapel. The other kids all said the Banshee lived here. I was the only one to ever come look. I think it’s fitting that we’re hiding here while we’re on the run.”
She stopped walking mid-stride.
“We are not on the run. That’s a term for outlaws. We are strategically retreating. The law will win.”
He dipped his arm into the water. Salt fizzed white into the cut where an arrow had stuck. He splashed water on his face and scrubbed the dried blood from his nostrils. Gunpowder washed off his face and floated black on the water around him. He sunk chin deep, letting the water cradle the weight of his body, and then dunked his head beneath the surface.
This, he could feel.
The water droned in his eardrums and let his shaggy hair float weightless around his scalp. He ran his hands back through his hair and basked in the stillness. No sights. No sounds. Nothing. It felt as though his muscles and veins were opening and untangling. Only when he needed air did he return to the cold surface. He peeled hair from his eyes and saw her looking down at him through the steam. Her eyes jumped away to the ground. He looked up her legs at her and grinned, strumming his thumb down the ridges of his abdomen.
“You should get in,” he said, flicking water towards her.
She wiped a glowing droplet off the side of her cheek. A brown colored bruise ran all the way from beneath her left eye to her jaw. Her bottom lip was split and just beginning to scab over. She realized he was staring.
“What?” she finally asked, reaching instinctively to brush hair behind her ear, but there was no hair to brush. Adorable. Bristles of hair had grown back to the point where she wasn’t bald anymore.
“You look good, Foster.”
When he’d first seen her, he thought she wore makeup around her eyes. But it was just her eyelashes, they were so thick. He thought of how absurd it would be for her to wear make-up; he was more likely to wear make-up than her. The thought made him laugh. Ripples curled out from his chest.
“You’re in no position to mock me.” She sat against the opposite bank and peeled wet socks from her little pale feet. They smelt awful, even through the mint and roses. He leaned his head back against a spongy bed of moss and just let the steam rise from his body. A pair of fenflies buzzed around the ceiling without purpose, but not lost. They zipped in illegible paths through the roses and orange hanging roots. The occasional drip-drop of calcium salts above plopped into the pool.
“Why didn’t you just leave me in the fire?” he asked. He listened to the droplets hit the water. “That’s the first time in my life anyone has not wanted me dead.”
“Why did you give me back the photograph of my family?”
He lifted his head.
“At the tavern? How did you know I even took it?”
“It was placed at the top of my bag. You were the only person in the caravan. That was…decent…of you,” she said as if the words tasted bad in her mouth. “That photo was all I had to remember my family.” She hugged her knees with her back against the far wall. “My mother and father were killed when I was eight-years-old—I walked into their bedroom and they were just bodies. Some coward knifed them in their sleep. And you,” he could barely meet her brimstone eyes, “bringing you to the Kingdom will get me the money to find the villain. I can open a full search. That’s why I need you alive; it’s not because I like you.”
“It was me,” he said.
She forced a laugh.
“You couldn’t have been more than nine or ten years old when they died. Oh no, the world doesn’t birth ’em that cold.”
He lifted his hand from the water and let it spill slowly from his palms back into the pool. His fingertips were pruned. He stood. Her eyes were strained, as if the chords strung behind her eyeballs had been twisted to hypertension.
“Is the unsympathetic wench okay?” he asked.
It was her turn not to meet his eyes as she rubbed at the bruise with two fingers.
“I’m the one who backed the carriage up against the chapel, I almost killed you. Killing in the name of the law is just as bad as unlawful killing, it’s just different sides of the coin.”
“Welcome to my world.” He slouched down beside her, staring up at the tangled citrus roots on the ceiling. “I could only imagine what’s on your mind.”
“Those monsters have my brother,” she said, “And the Sheriff.”
“You agreed to marry him.”
“Yep.” She slouched beside him. Her head rested in the crook of his armpit, against his chest.
“And then there’s me,” he said.
“And then there’s you…”
“And the rude inconvenience of my execution.”
She was staring at a patch of moss, where two flytraps grew side-by-side with nothing to wrap around but each other, both their mouths clamped together in either a kiss or cannibalism. He cradled her face in his hand, and pushed it up towards his. She let him. Some ridiculous gravity lowered his lips to hers. He gently gripped her head in his hands and pressed himself into her. Her mouth opened with his and her fat tongue was in his mouth, tracing circles around his lips. She was panting into his mouth like a dumb animal. He opened his eyes. Her eyes were open. He sat back up.
“You’re an awful kisser,” he said.
“Who are you?” she blurted out, her cheeks blushed behind her green bruises. “You have no fingerprints. You can hold coals in your hands. You don’t feel pain.” A gentle echo followed her words in the grotto. “Is it true what they say? That you can’t be killed…”
He rubbed his thumb up and down her cheek.
“Rumor has made me something I’m not. I was born an orphan. I was raised by wolves that called themselves nuns.” He rubbed his smooth fingertips together. “The nuns at the abbey pressed my hands to a hot iron kettle when I misbehaved. And when I didn’t scream, they did. They said I was the Devil for not feeling pain. I was barely old enough to talk and the whole abbey was already calling me the Devil. It was Chester Hemlock who named me. He was the Head Priest—or at least he was pretending to be at the time.”
“That’s it?” she asked.
He turned his palm upwards for her to touch.
“That’s bizarre, prisoner.”
“Why don’t you ever call me by my name?”
Her fingers skated across the pale skin on his wrist.
“You don’t name a horse you’re going to kill.”