No. No, no, no, no.
He asked her in absolute certainty that she could do it for him. She’s a killer now, with every bit of ability to do it. He’s killed no one, what right does he have anymore to life, sitting like a rock, unable to move himself? He’s got to have just a little control, he thinks. Something he can decide, and he’s decided this is it. This is his time to be done.
He grips her again, by her neck, presses his lips to her’s and pleads against them. A pain, dull like the shifting of sore muscles pushes him like he’s falling. His breath is hot against her. He can give her fire back if it means that she’ll take it all away.
“I want you to do it. Please god I need you to do it.”
His heart pounds in his ears and his voice is cracked and dry like stone. He thought she understood him. He thought that Cally Windheard was the one to understand. Thaddeus Mordre did not understand him. He liked him but what does that mean if he does not understand?
Five, six, maybe seven canons and he thinks there must not be a Thaddeus Mordre anymore at all.
Lyra is here and Cally is here. He wonders about Kalya and Ritter, who did not understand him and did not try. They are probably gone now, too. He should thank the gods, but an ache sharper than his mace splits through him.
We won’t let you live.
I’m still alive now.
“Please,” he says over her mutters. She has to understand. She has to be the one to understand him. His fingers brush through fiery red hair and fumble over her neck and he tries his best not to touch her with the bad one. “Please… I want to go home.”
He can’t go home, but District 2 was never very homey, anyway. No, and what’s left for him there?
His family is dead and now, as he finds the desire to join them, he can’t. His jaw shudders and he holds Cally tight to him. If she hears how hard his heart is trying to stop beating, she has to help it. But it betrays him, beating harder and faster than he even thought it could.
Not Cally. Lyra.
At first it’s a shock. It pins his breathing in his chest and he worries that the point will stretch through him and kill them both. He slumps against Cally, giving in to the pain that shears into his skin and rips his muscle and bone in two. His vision fades away and his sight, his taste, his feel becomes a cold, steel pain. It doesn’t feel like he thought it would, and his body buckles.
The tip of Lyra Reiser’s rapier is sharp and, slowly and shakily, it’s opening up a hole for him to escape through. A hole to go home. A chill runs over him and shakes his bones to the core and, just for a moment, his eyes flash open and he fights against the tip of metal in his lungs, through muscle and skin and bone.
He screams when it breaks his skin one last time, touching Cally’s thigh just a little from the front of him. He curls around the weapon and his body shakes. It fights back, and he can feel cold spread where his beating heart falters.
The voice is soft, hands softer. Lyra kneels in front of him. His hearing has swallowed all noise, and it’s difficult to make out her words. Maybe Cally is screaming. It looks like it, but he just doesn’t know anymore. His vision is closing in, a black netting like a funeral veil dabbling at his vision.
“Thank you,” she says slowly, touching his face. His eyes are wide and his breathing comes away in blocks, forcing him to keep living and keep wading through the pain that rips him apart.
He wants to die, probably, but he thinks to ask her if he can live. His hand grips at hers. He holds her tight like he was sure he couldn’t since they met. But she does not fight him away. Her spare hand strokes his jaw. Her voice is forced; cold, but she is trying to take away his fear.
“Thank you for being my friend.”
She kisses his cheek with ice cold lips that feel like fire to him. One beat. Two. No more breaths. Blood bubbles at his lips and he can feel his throat try to get rid of all of the excess. He chokes and it stains him red. He was cold before but he is freezing and cracking, now.
He reaches for Lyra again, or maybe he’s reaching for Cally, he doesn’t know. His hand will not cooperate, though. Nothing more for the dying boy. Nothing more for the cursed boy who didn’t fight his fate. The boy who got to control one thing so now he can have no more. It’s time to send him home, no more time for goodbyes or explanations.
He didn’t tell them, though. He didn’t tell them anything at all, and his story will burn away to ashes with him. He parts his lips and tries to scream. He has more to say.
One breath. He was a Mercer, a trained Career from District 2, the youngest child to his parents, one of the last Mercers. He has become a statistic, he thinks.
One more wheezing, gasping breath that falters to find a place to go. Five Mercers went into the Games. Make that six.
The fire crackles, sends sparks flying towards them. It is too far away, and she too cold. She shivers and her hands shake—she’s hell frozen over, covered in ice from the inside out. And it is all cracking open.
“I can’t,” she repeats, like a mantra, sounds whose meaning she’s almost forgotten. There is no warmth, no matter how far she runs trying to chase it. It’s gone. He pleads through cracked lips, pleads with words and without, pleads with everything he has left. “I can’t.”
District 5 is far behind, her mother and her brother and the man who killed him. The cracks that sprawl inside of her have eaten at them, forgiving nothing, turning them into distant victims of the cold and pain she feels. Only Candice remains in full relief—she’s watching now, isn’t she?—Candice and Darling, and she doesn’t know where one begins and the other ends. They were the same age, weren’t they?
It is so cold.
She can feel the cracks spreading, everything else splintering, unraveling.
Her eyes close in pain and grief and hopeless as it may be, she still tries to find warmth in Grayson Mercer’s arms, never mind his pleas, never mind his words. She wants to apologize, but she can’t. She wants to apologize for not giving him what he wants, but her lips seem unable to form any other words.
Cally’s eyes fly open and she sees Lyra, the Ice Queen Lyra Reiser with tears in her eyes and rapier in hand. She looks like she could fall apart, break and shatter where she stands, but Cally knows she won’t—she will do it, she will go through with it. Their eyes lock briefly and something passes between them in both directions, something that could be an apology or an explanation or an agreement, but is probably all and possibly neither. It doesn’t matter, because the moment is over and the point of Lyra’s blade has gone through the chest of Grayson Mercer.
Warm blood splatters all over her, all that warmth she couldn’t reach. She still can’t, and she turns her head and looks away from it. She will not see his eyes darken like Harris’ did because of her, like Darling’s on the screen, like Emmy’s and Carson’s both, somewhere out of her reach. Like Candice’s might have, and she wouldn’t have done anything to stop it. No, she will not look. To have his blood cover her is enough, to feel the heat that would not appear before, radiating off him as though it wants to break free through the cracks.
Maybe she’s screaming, but like before, it dies in her throat and there is no sound. It’s Grayson who screams now, but her eyes are closed, shut as tightly as she can manage. If she could cover them with her hands, if they were not stained with blood, she would. The blade pricks at her thigh, barely causing any pain, and for a fraction of a second, the three of them are joined by the sword.
Lyra says something to Grayson, but Cally can’t hear her over the sounds that escape her throat, whether they are whimpers or screams or something in between.
A cannon booms.
Everything is so cold, and she feels so small. She could curl up and draw her knees up to her chin, make herself smaller still, try to keep the cracks within her from spreading. Her eyes open—everything is blurry. Red like before. Red and white and Lyra sits there, still as a statue carved out of ice, and she’s melting. Tears fill her eyes once more. Breaking again now that he’s gone.
Now they are the same, aren’t they? One’s cracking and one’s breaking and they have no warmth left, neither of them. Grayson lies between them, warmer in death than they are in life.
Her voice breaks, like the rest of her. She wants to tell her it’s okay, but more than anything, she wants Lyra to say it to her. She wants to turn away from this. She wants to close her eyes and she wants to go back home. She hasn’t wanted it so much in a thousand years.
She stretches out a shaky, blood-stained hand, the same hand that wielded the sword. The sword that ended two lives, the sword that tore through Lyra’s districtmate without even meaning to.
Lyra’s eyes finally tear themselves away from Grayson Mercer’s lifeless face, her hands finally stop tracing his cheeks, his jaw. She turns her face towards Cally, glances at her outstretched hand, but the look in her eyes is too much. It’s burning and frozen and nothing in between; questioning and demanding and pleading without words. She will fall apart if she speaks.
But she does anyway, and her voice is less than a murmur, less than a whisper, less than any human word will ever be able to describe.
“I didn’t…,” she begins, but the words die as soon as they’re spoken. A sudden tremor goes through her, and she closes her eyes. Cally’s hand goes to rest on her arm.
The cracks within her grow larger and larger. She can almost hear them.
“No,” Cally says, and her voice hurts coming out, it strains her throat and burns it. “You didn’t…”
You didn’t. I didn’t. None of us did.
Her hands shake so much, and it is so cold. It threatens to seep through the cracks and spread itself all over her.
Not yet, though. Not yet.
“No, no, no…”
It echoes in the cave. It is all the same, isn’t it? It’s the same and they’re the same, everything is the same except she’s not alone this time, she doesn’t have to be, neither of them has to be.
“We didn’t…” Her free hand fiddles with a stray thread, where the fabric of her parka was ripped. The wound has healed and it doesn’t hurt anymore, it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t bleed… “I’m sorry, too… Harris…”
They are the same, aren’t they?
Lyra’s eyes widen in understanding. It doesn’t take any more than that.
The motion is quick, too quick—the rapier wasn’t even in her hand—and at first, it doesn’t even register. For half a second, it doesn’t even hurt, not like the axe. There’s just cold and blood. But the pain does come. It’s small and sharp and deep and precise, unlike any sort of pain she has ever felt. She could almost handle it, if it weren’t for the air.
Iliria Temper’s hands had choked her, bruised her neck, cut off the passage to her lungs. She thought she would die then, but this is different—no matter how much she breathes, it’s never enough. It becomes shallow and too quick, too quick in an effort to gather as much air as possible, in the hopes that some of it might go through—but to no avail. Her throat is closing and she almost feels Iliria’s hands on her again.
She tries to speak, to say something, anything, Lyra’s name, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, anything, but the sound that comes out is an unrecognizable gurgle. Clouds swim before her eyes and she can barely see anything else.
The cracks spread, the cold worsens. Pain radiates from the tiny pinprick in her chest and she has stopped breathing. There are two different kinds of pain, now.
She can hear the fire crackling, the sparks that fly. Another sound that might be sobbing, though she knows it can’t be her own. She tries to gasp for breath, but nothing responds.
Glowing embers, dying embers. It’s all the same.