Dusk falls, and the braziers are lit. The wind, howling like a starving dog, bites at exposed throats. Safiyah raises her lantern and watches the trickle of survivors pass through the Iron Lords' gates. Some are wounded. Some lie on makeshift stretchers. She gestures to a tent, its interior glowing with warm firelight. "They will freeze out here," she says. "Take them inside, quickly." Her hospital, such as it is, is humbled by the stone structures which surround it. But she had overseen its construction when she first arrived… stocked it, served it. It was all she could do. The gates close behind the Iron Lords. Unhurt, alive. Zavala is among them. She knows him: the one stubborn enough to argue, but not stubborn enough to ignore her. He speaks to his companions. "—coordinated attacks by the House of Devils. If we take this opportunity to retaliate—" "Retaliate?!" Zavala turns to look at Safiyah. She stares him down. "We have wounded here! We don't need violence. We need supplies!" The others break off, leave him to it—the same fight with the same woman. "Excuse me?" She doesn't flinch. "I was clear," she says. A drone—Ghost?—bobs in the air just behind Zavala's shoulder—Targe, his name is Targe. "I'm not a part of this," Targe says. Safiyah stands on her toes and catches his eye before he ducks away. "Moving against the Fallen will ensure your safety," Zavala says. "Like I've told you before." "You want to protect us?" Safiyah points towards the meager hospital. "This is how: by ensuring we have what we need to live." "She isn't wrong," Targe says. "Are you a part of this conversation or not?" Zavala asks, glancing sharply at his Ghost. He turns back to Safiyah. "You don't understand," she says, walking away. "Where are you going?" he asks. A silly question. She ducks under the tent flap. Zavala follows, strung along by their argument. He always wants the last word. Safiyah washes her hands in a basin, then glances at him. She will make him useful. "Wash your hands," she tells him. He hesitates, but does so. "Take this," she says, and hands him a fistful of clean rags. She moves to one of the cots, her head down as she inspects a fresh wound, still bleeding into the dirty bandage. She removes it carefully. "Come here," she says and guides him to press the clean rags into the wound, staunching the flow of blood. He opens his mouth to speak again, but she raises her hand. "I understand the situation," she says. "Do you? Do you know how hard it is to survive in this world?" "Yes," he says. He eases the pressure—she points, snaps her fingers, and he presses down again. "Without your Ghost?" He says nothing. That one will need sutures, Safiyah thinks to herself. She calculates their dwindling stores as she fetches antiseptic and gloves. "It's not just Fallen. It's not just Warlords. It's sickness. Starvation. Cold." She motions for Zavala to stand aside, and he does. The wounded man, regrettably awake, shivers, stiffens, bites down on a scream as she cleans his wound as gently as she can. "We don't walk away from these things the way you do." There is a note of pity in her words. She thinks that he will argue with her, push back, raise his voice. But he says nothing—he is pensive, quiet. She looks up and sees the way his eyes shift, how his jaw stiffens. He wants to speak. She turns away from him, pulling off her gloves at the wrist. Another patient, a woman with a dressed wound across her temple, had shifted in her sleep, her blanket fallen to one side. Carefully, Safiyah picks up the blanket's edge and pulls it up so that it covers her again. She passes a hand over the woman's brow, feeling for fever, and finds none. Safiyah smiles. When she looks up, she sees Zavala watching her. "The wounded look to me." She does not lower her eyes, does not bow her head. "Not you."
Safiyah knits by the remainder of the afternoon light, seated outside her tent. It is early spring, her fingers red from the cold, her breath misting in the air. Zavala leads training exercises in the courtyard, sparring with civilians. Some stand awkwardly, holding weapons too heavy for them to wield. Others move with more confidence. Safiyah's eyes drop to her needles. Then she hears a cry of pain. Blood runs down a civilian's shoulder, staining his front. Safiyah can see the wound from her seat. Rising, she takes quick steps toward them, her knitting forgotten. "Do you think your enemy would stop at one wound?" Zavala's voice is a sharp bark. The other man picks up his blade again, despite his shoulder. Safiyah approaches and snaps her fingers. "What are you doing?" Zavala turns to her. Here, an opportunity: Zavala's sparring partner jumps forward, catching him by surprise. The blade slices Zavala's forearm, skin opening in a spray of bright blood. The others gawk, as if they hadn't expected a Risen to bleed. Targe rises up, ready to heal the wound. She raises a hand to stop him. "Don't," she says. The Ghost bobs in the air, looks at her, looks at Zavala. "What do you want?" Zavala barks. He pinches his forearm closed, but the blood runs hot and steaming over his fingers. Safiyah ignores Zavala's retort and gestures to his sparring partner. "Come with me," she says. "Targe," Zavala says to his Ghost, but Safiyah snaps her fingers again. "You too. I want to teach you something. Come inside." She walks into the hospital tent, knowing she will be obeyed. He obeys. Once inside, Safiyah inspects Zavala's wound. It is nothing serious, but deep enough for her attention. Her assistant sees to the sparring partner, who looks away sheepishly when Zavala glances at him. "What are you doing?" he asks her. "I think that's obvious," she says. Zavala and his Ghost observe in silence as she cleans the wound. "This isn't necessary," he says, but lets her continue. She produces her hooked needle, the hemostat, the polypropylene thread. Tools that fit easily in her hands; precious resources for an immortal man. "I'm going to close the wound," she says, and touches his arm lightly with a gloved hand. "I will make six sutures. It will take four days, maybe five, to heal." His features soften. Perhaps he sees that her mind is set. He looks away in a sheepish expression. "I will make sure your supplies are replenished," he says. "Simply tell me what you need." Safiyah feels a flutter of surprise at this promise. Now she will answer his first question. "You need to know what it's like for us," she tells him. She waits for consent; he nods. She pierces the wound and draws its edges together. He doesn't wince. "Where did you learn this?" Genuine curiosity. The first suture. "My mother," she answers. "And books from the Golden Age." She gestures to a ramshackle shelf holding a dozen books. Old, crumbling, but cared for. "I'd like to see them," he says. She smiles, pleased. Second suture. "I'll show them to you," she says. When she raises her eyes, she sees that he is looking at her with an intensity she can't place. Despite herself, she feels a warmth creep into her skin. "We traveled," she says, too quickly, her eyes dropping back to the third suture. "Very far. Village to village. My mother, father, sister, and me." Fourth suture. "Father killed in a raid. Mother died from disease. Sister a way's west of here. But I kept to my travels." "Why?" he asks, softly. She passes the needle through its fifth suture. "There are always more people to help. I will move on once I finish training him." She nods to her assistant. Safiyah brings her shears to the thread of the last suture. The wound is closed. She winds a taut bandage around his arm. "Where will you go?" he asks after a stiff silence. Safiyah realizes she doesn't know how to answer. Her thoughts don't stretch beyond this moment. She tucks the bandage beneath itself. "Finished." He flexes, winces, stills. She smiles. "True healing takes time." *** That night, she hears voices in the empty courtyard: Zavala and Saladin, standing by a brazier, talking in low tones. She peers from the flap in the tent to watch, to listen. "She is a skilled and formidable woman," Zavala says. Saladin stands with his chin raised in near disdain. Zavala is a silhouette in the firelight. "I'm not stupid," Saladin growls. "I see the way you look at each other." Safiyah's breath catches. She almost doesn't hear his next words over the sound of her heart. "I have nothing but respect for her," Zavala says curtly. Saladin rolls his eyes. Both men stare each other down for a long moment. "We live in different worlds," Saladin's voice softens. "You can try to abandon ours, but theirs will reject you." "I don't believe that," Zavala says. "Believe what you want. But whatever life you make with her will be too fragile for you to hold onto." Saladin puts a hand on Zavala's shoulder. Safiyah could almost mistake it for compassion. "It will break," he says, his voice low. "And you'll both be hurt." Safiyah lets the tent flap fall. She does not see if they hear it.
"Like this," Safiyah tells him, and she makes a loop of yarn around his index finger. He holds the needles too tightly, and she gently places a hand over his knuckles until she feels him relax his grip. They sit together outside her hospital. Safiyah teaches him to knit under the late spring sun. "This is complicated," he says. "Only when you aren't paying attention," she tells him. Their eyes briefly meet. She looks away, smiling, at the afternoon sky. "Look," she says in a tight breath. Smoke plumes on the horizon. They both jolt upright, Zavala awkwardly untangling his fingers from the yarn. The smoke muddies the sky. Fallen, or Warlords. They have found new victims. Safiyah looks at the growing grim resolve on Zavala's face, then makes for the hospital tent to gather her kit. A siren blares over the encampment as Safiyah emerges. She makes for the gates as the Iron Lords ready themselves; Zavala takes her by the arm. "You can't be serious," he says. His expression hardens when he sees that she is. "People are in danger," she says. "It's not safe." "That is why I have to go." "At least wait until we've secured the area." Safiyah pulls her arm from his grip. She leaves through the gates before he can argue. The Fallen have ambushed a caravan. Safiyah races through black smoke belching from an overturned sledge, the wreckage crushing the spring flowers. Safiyah rushes to a woman cowering behind a wagon, blood seeping from a wound at her temple. A man lies on the ground behind her, clutching at his stomach, his spilled entrails. A Dreg lunges for them; Safiyah drives a knife into its neck. Zavala leads the main charge to the caravan. The Fallen, screeching at each other, turn their attention to their attackers as bursts of Solar energy roar through the air. Zavala rushes to Safiyah's side, putting himself between her and a charging Captain, its Arc spear raised, and it pierces Zavala through the chest. He coughs blood, falls to the ground, goes still. Safiyah screams, horrified at the sight. But she scrambles for Zavala's weapon and raises it just as the Captain bears down on her. She fires three rounds through its chest and throat. She sputters as the Ether tears from its body. The corpse lands heavily on her; she pushes it away. Targe sweeps his fallen Guardian, and with a hard breath, Zavala rises again. The sight of him startles her—a man come back to life. He gets his bearings, sees the Captain dead on the ground. "Are you all right?" "Yes," she says, her voice trembling. Safiyah turns back to the unlucky man who will not rise again, and the woman who weeps at his side. It's in the quiet of the aftermath that Safiyah hears an infant's cry. She jumps to her feet, searching for it in the wreckage, and finds a dead man curled around a squirming bundle. She turns him by his shoulder; the corpse holds the infant so tenderly and tightly that Safiyah has to break his fingers to take the boy from his embrace. She brings the child to her chest, holding his head delicately, and the boy's cries turn into whispered gurgles. Safiyah begins to cry. For the child in her arms, the dead man who held him, the scent of blood and Ether. For those whom she could not save. Her tears are soft, and she shivers. She feels Zavala's palm touch her shoulder and move down her back in silent comfort. She heaves a sigh, then straightens and looks to him. "We'll keep him safe," Zavala says, and she nods. They return with the child. Safiyah feeds him, bathes him. Zavala smiles, holding the child in his arms. The boy reaches for him with tiny hands and looks up at him with wide, brown eyes. "The boy needs a name," she says. She thinks for a moment, remembers her father with fondness. "Hakim," she declares, and it is so. *** Hakim grows. Months pass until summer comes and the cicadas sing. Zavala visits Safiyah between his duties, and Safiyah soothes Hakim's cries when Zavala is absent. Resources are thin. They do their best. In the evenings, Safiyah holds Hakim's warmth to her chest. She feels the rise and fall of his breath. Bowing, she presses her lips to the curls on the crown of his head. Zavala is beside her, a hand at the small of her back. The cicadas sing—she gestures for Zavala to listen. The cicadas sing. "The ancient Greeks thought that these insects lived forever," she says. "Reborn each time they came from the earth." Zavala puts his arms around them both. "They spend 17 years underground. They almost went extinct. Then the Collapse… and now they thrive again." She coos at Hakim for a moment. "I will take him to my sister's village," she says. Zavala's features soften. "We will take him," he answers, and she smiles. This is how he tells her. Zavala speaks to Saladin the following morning. When Zavala finds her again, he has left behind the pendant with the Iron Lords' sigil.
Safiyah's sister greets her at the gates of her village with an incredulous stare. "Amani," Safiyah says stiffly. There is a moment's silence before the sisters embrace. She is welcomed. Then Amani looks to Zavala and Hakim. She simply raises an eyebrow. Days pass. "I don't think she likes me." Zavala speaks softly over Hakim sleeping in the makeshift cradle in Amani's home. "She definitely doesn't like me," Targe says, emerging. "Why do you say that?" Safiyah asks. "She said, 'I don't like you,' " Targe answers. "To both of us." Safiyah frowns. "She likes Hakim," she offers. That will have to be enough. Her sister's village is small, but well-fortified, a wall of wooden stakes around their homes. They scrape vegetables and bitter rye from the earth and keep livestock in the barn. Safiyah and Zavala build their home there. Years pass. Hakim grows. Zavala holds his hands as the boy toddles on young, unsteady feet. Clack, clack. Safiyah knits in her favorite chair, something once precious she had left behind. Through the window, she sees Zavala and their son spar with wooden swords in the field behind their home. It is play. Their son is nine. Safiyah can hear the clack of wood on wood in the autumn air. Her eyes drop back to her yarn. Clack, clack. Their son is twelve. She sees Zavala correct Hakim's stance, raise his arms, straighten his back. The boy only comes up to his father's elbows. Targe circles around them. The yarn shifts around her fingers as she passes it from needle to needle. Clack, clack. Their son is fifteen. The sleeve of the sweater she works on lengthens. It is summer, but she knits for the colder months ahead. Her sister sits beside her, cleaning a rifle and counting bullets. "We're overdue for a raid," Amani says, as if she were remarking on a low crop yield, bad weather, or a stillborn calf—just another hardship, inevitable. Bullets clink together in her lap. Safiyah spreads the woolen sweater over her knees. "For Hakim?" Amani asks. Safiyah nods. "He outgrows them every two months. He needs new trousers too. I can see his ankles." The final clack of the swords clatters out, and she looks up. Safiyah sees the flash of a metal blade in Hakim's hand. She throws down her knitting and runs to them. The knife is at Zavala's throat when she reaches them. "What are you doing!" It is not a question. It is an admonition. Zavala steps back and gestures to the knife in Hakim's hands. "I'm teaching him how to defend himself." Safiyah reaches for her son, holds Hakim to her chest. She kisses the crown of his head, whispers softly into the curls of his hair. But he pushes her away, steps back, stares up at her defiantly. "I can do it," he says. "It's just a lesson!" Safiyah looks to Zavala, shaking her head in disbelief. "He needs to be prepared to take a life." He speaks gently, as if he had not just asked his son to slit his throat. "He is a child," she says. Hakim takes a breath, frowns, begins to speak. Zavala touches his shoulder. "Do you think that matters to the Fallen?" His voice is dark. Safiyah takes the knife from her son's hand and holds it by the flat of the blade. An edge for harming, not healing. She knows Zavala is right, and hates it. *** That night, Safiyah's sister stays up with her, talking by candlelight. "It's been years." Amani clicks her tongue. "He'll never see the way we do. They can't." "I don't believe that." "I know you don't." Amani laughs, but Safiyah is silent, frowning. He must understand. Her sister sighs. "He loves you." Safiyah nods. "He loves Hakim." She nods again. "Then maybe that is enough." When she returns home, Safiyah finds Zavala watching over Hakim as he sleeps. Zavala rises, pulls the blanket a little higher over Hakim's shoulder, then brushes his fingers over his son's cheek. Safiyah realizes then that in all the Risen's long, unenviable years, they were never once children. She reaches for Zavala, and he takes her into his arms, a silent question of forgiveness. "Let him be a child for a little longer," she whispers into his ear. "You will miss these days when they have gone."
Safiyah hears the trade of gunfire. Tap-tap-tap, like birds pecking. But too quick. Too sharp. Zavala stands abruptly. "The Fallen!" A shout of terror from outside. The House of Devils. Zavala is through the door before Safiyah can speak. She gathers her kit. The gunfire grows louder, quicker. There are cries of pain, of death throes. Hakim is seventeen. "Stay here," she pleads. "Stay safe." "I can fight," he tells her. He is taller than she is now. "Please," she says. Reluctantly, Hakim nods. Safiyah puts her arms around him, holds him for a moment, tries to quell her fear, and then follows her husband into the fight. Fallen clamber over the village's gates, disorganized and led by a Captain too vicious and too eager to be where the fighting is thickest. The friends and neighbors Zavala trained raise their weapons and hold their ground as they are swarmed. Safiyah sees her husband leading the defense, shouting commands over gunfire and screams. A farmhand with a gun falls when a bullet pierces his thigh; Safiyah is there to drag him from danger, tourniquet and dressings in hand. She keeps low, time and again reaching the wounded as the Fallen are pushed back. She hears a voice—instantly familiar, now threaded with terror, piercing through the fray. Safiyah turns and sees Hakim deflect a swipe of the Arc spear from the Fallen Captain. The blow unsteadies him. Safiyah screams his name. Hakim steps back, his eyes wide. The Captain draws the spear and jams the weapon into her son's body. Zavala is suddenly there, knocks the creature down with two shots, finishes it with another. Safiyah runs to Hakim and skids to her knees beside him. Slick redness coats the back of her hands as she presses hard on the wound, edges singed by Arc energy. Blood wells from Hakim's mouth as he tries to speak. His grip loosens on his weapon—a sickle, a tool to cut down stalks of rye—and his eyes go slack. The scent of her son's death settles into the pith of her lungs. She does not hear Zavala's footsteps. She does not hear anything. Her bloodied palm is at her son's cheek, wiping away the cold tears that had stayed behind on his unfocused eyes. Her breath falters. Slowly, she draws her other hand from Hakim's wound and puts her arms around him. She feels her son's body against her chest, the weight in her arms. She remembers, briefly, when he had finally grown so heavy that she could no longer cradle him as she once had. "Safi," she hears, at last. She turns to look at Zavala. He stands as a silhouette against the rising sun, the new dents and cracks of his armor shimmering in the light. He comes toward her, his face horror. She wonders if he had died as well. She turns to look at Hakim again. There is no Ghost for her son. Zavala kneels beside her. Shaking, he takes Hakim's body into his arms, and they bring him home.
Zavala lays Hakim down on his bed, supporting him so that his head comes to rest softly on the pillow. Safiyah pulls his blanket up, trembling, stopping short of drawing it over his face. When she reaches for her husband's hand beside her, she realizes she is stained up to her elbows with her son's dark, blackened blood. The blood of a deep, interior wound. Zavala reaches for the edge of his son's blanket, adjusting it to cover Hakim's shoulder, carefully, as if he is afraid to wake him. *** "What will you do now?" Amani has a way of cutting to the heart of things. Hakim has been buried for a month. Flowers on his headstone. The sisters sit, overlooking the graveyard. The night air is thick with summer warmth. All is silvered in the moonlight. The cicadas sing. The world does not stop and witness her grief. Safiyah shakes her head, silent. Her sister puts an arm around her shoulders. "You will have to decide." The silence grows heavy. She feels Amani draw her into an embrace. "He was a good boy," her sister says, and Safiyah hears the quaver in her voice. "Stubborn and brave, like his father." They part, and Amani clasps Safiyah's hands in hers. Her sister gives a sad smile; Safiyah does not return it. Her grief is solitary. Inward. She cries when she is alone. "Zavala is at Hakim's grave most nights," Safiyah says at last. But not tonight. "Sleep," her sister says. "Sleep, and think about your future. Here, or elsewhere." "You want me to leave?" Safiyah asks. Amani shakes her head, squeezes her sister's hands. "No. Never. But I want you to find your joy again. I don't believe you'll find it here." *** "Bring him back." Safiyah hears Zavala's voice when she returns home. She follows the sound to their bedroom. "Bring him back," he demands again. There is a tremor in Zavala's voice. Safiyah peers through the slip of space offered by the unlatched door. Her husband faces away from her, speaking to his Ghost. "I can't," Targe says. Targe stares up at Zavala. She can see the Ghost shivering. "Take my Light and bring him back." He struggles at every word. "You know I can't." "Would you?" Zavala asks, something clawing into his voice. "Would you bring him back, if you could?" If Targe speaks, Safiyah doesn't hear it. But she hears the scrape of Zavala's gun on the nightstand. "Find a way. Bring him back," Zavala pleads. Safiyah doesn't hesitate when she sees Zavala raise the weapon. She swings open the door. Her husband flinches, turns, sees her standing at the threshold. Careful, she walks to him, puts a hand on his arm, lowers his gun. Zavala falls to his knees, the gun clattering to the floor. Safiyah reaches for Targe, and he floats to her. She holds him in her hands. There is a thrum, a warmth, in her palms. The Ghost's singular eye, pale blue, looks up at her. She remembers all the times he hovered just out of Hakim's reach, teasing him, playing with him. In that moment, she knows that Targe loved him too. "We cannot change what happened," she whispers to her husband. "This will not change who we are." She thinks he will turn to her and ask, Who am I? But he doesn't. Targe leaves her embrace to hover beside Zavala. "I can't stay here," she says. He says nothing. He knows himself—and he knows who she is too. She is certain. Safiyah searches his face. She sees Hakim when she looks at him. She sees her own pain, reflected in his eyes. And she sees his pain as well, just as endless as the years he will suffer beyond her own. Safiyah looks away. "I can't understand eternity," she says, sadly. "I don't know if you can either. But you will live it. I will not." Zavala takes a hard breath, and the sob drags itself from his body. She looks at him again. "Don't forget us, Zavala." Her voice breaks. "For all your years. Please." "Never."
The village is behind them, faded into the colors of a late summer sky. When they departed, Amani had held fast to Safiyah's hands until she promised to come home again, in time. To Zavala, Amani gave only a nod and a sad smile. Soon, the stone structures of the Iron Lord encampment rise on the horizon. Zavala and Safiyah pass where they first found Hakim. The bodies are gone, the blood long soaked into the earth. The burned trees have new growth around their wounds. But the fragments of rusted wreckage along their path, picked over for any useful pieces, are still half-buried in the soil. At the gates, Safiyah presses her knitting needles into his hands. "To keep you warm," she says. He nods his head and thanks her, his voice small. "You will survive this," she tells him. She knows he has no choice. Safiyah departs to find the people who need her. She feels Zavala's gaze cling to her until the gates of the Iron Lords disappear into the horizon. *** The gates of the encampment open for Zavala, alone. Saladin says little, passes no judgment, tenders no admonition. All he says to him is this: "Love is a moment in time. We are not." Zavala wonders, for an instant, if Saladin speaks from experience. He does not ask but simply takes a breath and follows Lord Saladin. *** It is decades until a message arrives from Amani—half crumpled and discolored from the uncertain journey it took to reach him in the Last City. "Come quickly," it reads. "Before it is too late." But he arrives too late. Amani stands at the grave among the mourners, stooped, old. He nods to her, catching her eyes for a moment. A sad, familiar smile crosses her lips again before she returns the gesture in silent thanks. He waits until most have left before he approaches the headstone. He holds a flower, picked on his journey. It was fresh when he found it, but its petals are bruised now as he gently places it on the churned earth of her grave. Zavala rises and sees a woman standing beside him. They have the same eyes, warm and kind. Her daughter. "How did you know her?" she asks. His breath catches, unsure of how to answer a simple question from one mourner to another. "I'm an old friend," he says, unable to keep the weariness from seeping into his words. The woman looks at him askance; he wonders, briefly, if she knows of him, his history. Her brother. But she simply nods and thanks him, and nothing more is said. Years later, he visits the woman's grave. Then her son's. Her son's son. The graveyard grows thick with headstones. He makes the journey each time. They do not come to the Last City for 10 generations. The Hidden tell him when they are born, when they are sick, and when they die. He never speaks to them when they are alive, but at each grave, he leaves a token and a question: Can you forgive me? The Red War does not claim them, but when the City grieves for those lost to the Vex and the Endless Night, Zavala grieves for the last of Safiyah's descendants. This time, there is no body for a grave. Now, Zavala sits at his desk. The knitting needles are worn with use. He holds them carefully, remembering how she had placed his fingers so that he could follow her movements. He casts on a length of yarn and begins again.