Updated: Dec 15, 2020
Author’s Note: I decided to post this draft of “The Devil’s Hour” for you guys to have a little teaser for what the Dust short story collection will look like. The illustrations with this are just thumbnail sketches for now, since I plan to keep all the finished artwork exclusive to the book. Don’t forget to leave a heart if you enjoy the story!
Venatrix found Orion sitting at the table well past noon—their midnight. She crossed her arms and ventured to where he stared past his half-empty glass of water. She sat across from him.
“Can’t sleep?” he asked.
Venatrix shook her head.
“Yeah, me neither.”
The team’s dorm dulled in comparison to Orion. Even his plants that dangled from the ceiling, perched on shelves, or stood in corners shrunk in his presence—like servants bowing to their king. They also didn’t thrive too well when Orion suffered. Orion’s head hung, and the leaves that guarded the perimeter of the dark dorm wilted under the pressure of his sorrow.
Orion’s face blushed with splotchy red, and his eyes were bloodshot.
“Hey.” Venatrix noticed the shine of grease on his forehead, the stubble on his chin. He looked up, and her eyes caressed his almond shaped features. He leaned forward. The warm knobs of his knuckles brushed her arm. It reminded her of when they were younger and he snuck in through her bedroom window. It only ever happened once, she thought to herself, but that rainy night changed her whole life. It was the night she saw him for more than the gossip she’d been told he was; it was the first time she decided to care about someone other than herself. She remembered how his fingers slipped beneath her windowsill like kitten paws. Those same fingers—now more like the paws of a lion—kneaded her hands open and curled into her palms.
Corvun and Jayren slept without a sound. Snoring was about as infrequent as laughter; when it did happen, it was loud, boisterous, and daring. They’d had a rough week, and neither snoring nor laughter made the cut for the weekend.
She reached out and touched his jawline. “What’s keeping you up?”
“Nightmares,” she said back.
Orion took her right arm and turned it soft-side up.
Her compass brand burned and itchy, irritated red. It happened when they were restless.
“Want to talk about it?” he asked.
“Yeah, me neither,” he said.
The life of an assassin took its toll. Killing took its toll.
He looked at her lips.
Venatrix leaned in.
He did too.
Orion’s lips pressed to hers. He kissed her slow, as if she was water and he was a plant suffering a drought. He savored her for everything she had to offer. His hand darted to her neck when the vigor bled back into the soil of his heart. He knocked his glass of water over, and it spilled across the table. It dripped from the edge and soaked her shorts. She pulled away and laughed. Quiet. Unsteady. “Careful,” she whispered.
Laughter dribbled from his lips, too. His eyes glistened with tears. His chin quivered.
Venatrix held his face and planted a firm kiss to his forehead. “I love you, Rian.”
“I love you,” he said.
“Okay,” she sucked in a sniffle, “let’s get it out. Wounds always feel better when you wash the dirt out.”
“You first,” he said.
“I was back at school. Hell, it was stupid—you know those dreams where you leave the house naked?”
“Except it was here. We were on a mission, and I was buck naked. I was humiliated.”
“Except,” Orion told her, “that wasn’t your dream.”
She smiled at her bruised hands, thumbed the knife marks on the steel gray table. She lost the façade. The smile receded. She shook her head. She had her fingers crossed that the Nexus would’ve stayed dormant overnight, that their team mind-bond would keep her privacy, wouldn’t allow the boys to see her thoughts… She was wrong.
“I know it wasn’t your dream, because I saw your dream,” he said it gently, like coaxing an injured animal from the brush. Orion had that way about him—he could speak to the primal side of instinct, reach the nature beneath the emotion, and offer peace to that psyche.
“It’s why you woke up,” she guessed.
He nodded. “Just about the time you did.”
“Think they saw it?” she asked. She hoped Corvun and Jayren were sleeping too heavily to have heard echoes of the Nexus.
“Dunno,” Orion said.
She closed her eyes. The panic still clutched her. Her nightmare thrashed through the team’s bond, and her throat filled with water. She opened the floodgate of her consciousness into Orion’s willingly; his eyes bobbed through the emotion riding her face. “I got caught. You guys didn’t. They waterboarded me to give up your location,” she said. Wash it out, she told herself. Wash it out.
“You couldn’t do it.”
She shook her head.
He picked up her hand and kissed her knuckles. His green eyes welled with tears, but she could hardly see them through her own. Because it wasn’t a nightmare—it was a memory. “Nightmare” was a lie they all liked to use.
“I hate water,” she said.
“I know,” he said.
She could’ve puked. Acid burned her throat. “This isn’t helping,” she decided.
“Want to see my new plants?” he asked in a croak of a voice.
Orion stood and scooped her up. She didn’t usually let him; it made her feel weak and incapable. Yet, she buried herself into his chest and the earthy smell of his day-old flannel and his sweat and the cheap hotel soap they stole and used as sparsely and efficiently as possible. Orion carried her into his room and sat her on his bed. He flipped on his lights—Christmas lights, which strung half-moon shapes along the ceiling. They twinkled golden down onto the lively greens and pale succulents and a few peace lilies and ferns. Venatrix pulled his stiff, bleach-washed covers around her knees as Orion used a little watering can to water his friends.
“Uh,” he cleared his throat, “that one. That’s a sword fern. I named him Charlie, but Jayren insisted his name be Jay Jr. instead. You know, being War and swords and all.”
Venatrix smiled and thought of how Jayren’s eyes flashed when he got heated in arguments. Venatrix was sure that was exactly how it had happened—a quick, fervent, fevered debate in which Jayren won and Orion refused to hurt any feelings.
“So his name is Charlie Jay Jr.,” Orion said. He touched the big, leathery leaves that looked as if they were half-dipped in white chocolate of a floor plant that stood half his height. “This one I’ve actually been growing for a while. I got her when she was little and right off the bat, she wouldn’t get very tall. She grew out of that, though. She’s a Monstera plant.”
“Is she piebald?”
“The species is actually called Deliciosa var Albo Variegata. I stole her out of that hotel we visited. God knows I can’t afford her.”
Venatrix smiled at him, then pulled his cover up to hide it.
“Her name is Avery.” His eyes twinkled back at Venatrix.
“What about that one?” She pointed at a small cactus that sat in a tiny, metal pot that looked like a chair.
“Roger,” he said.
“Him?” Venatrix pointed to a succulent in a dynasty blue bowl.
Jeremy was missing the lower half of his extremities.
“He’s not doing well without the sun,” Orion said.
Venatrix held her arm out like a child. “Come sit with me,” she begged him.
He took the two short steps of the distance in the small room to collapse onto the bed with her. He scooted back till his spine hit the wall, and Venatrix latched onto his arm. She prided herself in being tall for a woman, but her hands still didn’t fit around Orion’s inhumanly strong bicep. There were reasons she should fear him, far more than just his unnatural strength. She found peace in knowing he was on her side. She rested her head in the crook of his shoulder.
He pulled a small pot off a shelf behind him. Inside it, he was trying to grow forget-me-not flowers. The bunches of light blue peered up at her with soft yellow eyes.
“What’s his name?”
“Her name,” he corrected, “is Diana.”
Venatrix felt fire on her skin. She hid her face behind his shoulder when he tried to look at her. ‘Why did you use my middle name?’ she asked through the Nexus. She couldn’t find her voice.
“To remind me of when we were teenagers,” he said.
She still remembered the handwoven, vine ring he’d given her—complete with a forget-me-not bloom atop it. He promised to marry her with it when they were older. Now, they settled for just being together with what little they had. Part of her craved normalcy and the sense of officialness that a court document would offer. They didn’t have the money. If they did, they were still blacklisted to society. It would never work. She wanted to be a teenager again.
Venatrix felt her own tears warming Orion’s shirt.
His chest quaked again, too. He held the small pot of flowers in his lap.
They sat until the sobs and sniffles quieted, until Venatrix heard her deep breaths through his mind and not her own. She tucked closer to him, securing all her limbs and emotions against the steady presence he gave her.
Far away, in the distance, she heard Jayren.
“I heard her wake up,” he said. “She must’ve just left the lights on.”
“Let’s go back to bed,” Corvun said. “I’m sure she’s alright.”
The lights snapped off.
It got darker.
Orion’s door creaked open, and it got a little brighter again.
She saw herself through a haze, through Corvun’s eyes, her fatigued body sinking into Orion’s side. She felt the pang in Corvun’s chest as he took in the scene, but it was so far away that it felt more like the jerk of her body as she slipped into sleep. Corvun took the flowers from Orion’s lap and set them back on the shelf. Orion’s arm fell slack at her side. Her eyes peeled open to look up at her leader.
Corvun offered her a small, sad smile. He pulled the cover over the both of them then ruffled the top of her hair. “Go back to sleep,” he told her. She searched his eyes for the answer—did he see it too? Did she wake him with the panic in her mind? The calm of his consciousness settled over her like a second blanket.
She closed her eyes.
The door clicked shut behind him.
“Is she okay?” Jayren asked.
Darkness rushed in.