Armageddon's independant contractors want closure. Written for Yuletide 2004.
"And what rough beast," Mr. Holston announced, in what he imagined to be a thunderous declamation, "its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"
Ever since the spot of unpleasantness at Tadfield airbase - the specifics of which nobody remembered, but which had certainly been unpleasant, and it was a good thing everyone had come through without anything blowing up - Mr. Holston's choices of poetry for English class had gotten steadily more esoteric, more difficult, and more concerned with Armageddon. No one asked why.
"Well," Pepper said, without raising her hand, "he's not /rough/. Not exactly what you'd call /rough/. He's quite nice, /actually/. And he wasn't born in no Bethlehem."
She had to go see the principal when she couldn't explain what she'd said, or what it had to do with the poem.
It was a nice day.
It was, to be perfectly accurate, a nice Saturday. It was September, it was summer, the birds were singing, the bees were buzzing, the world had been scheduled to end fourteen days ago, and Pepper was bored.
This was not an uncommon scenario. Pepper, also named Pippin Galadriel Moonchild, was an eleven year old and thus easy to bore. Under normal circumstances, she would have gone down to the Pit, where one could typically find Wensleydale (also named Jeremy) and Adam (also named the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of this World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness, though very few of said names were any longer applicable) and Brian (who, oddly in such illustrious company, had no other names). But her mother insisted she eat breakfast, and one had to be civil, even if one didn't quite understand civility and would probably spell it with an s three times out of four.
The breakfast was primarily granola and yoghurt. Pepper stared at it moodily.
"That Tyler's written to the Advertiser again," Pepper's mother said, chuckling. "He's complaining about motorcycle gangs down in Lower Tadfield. Says they keep making noise at night. Have you heard any motorcycles at night, Pippin?"
Pepper shook her head. "No, mum."
"He'd have to go looking for them. Listen to this. It is nothing but the height of disrespect to the fine young soldiers who serve at our airbase, let alone the respectable citizens of Tadfield, to treat the roads of our fair town as some kind of velodrome, and yet the police - whose wages we pay, we, the taxpayers - say that the situation is out of their hands. Do they consider themselves civil servants or civil masters? Just has to poke his nose into everyone's business. Who made him Defender of Public Values, is what I'm asking?"
Pepper pushed her chair away from the table. she rather feared the word 'patriarchy' would show up in her mother's vocabulary again before long, and then it was a bare few steps from incense and clothes with too many colours and that horrible music she played sometimes. She hadn't finished the granola. "Can I go down the park?"
Pepper's mother sighed a little, indulgently, and nodded. "Be back by one for lunch or I'll hunt you down and drag you back here."
"I mean it."
And so Pepper headed out.
She didn't go to the park. Nor did she go to The Pit, where Brian and Wensleydale may well have already been waiting. Adam wouldn't be there yet, because Pepper wasn't there yet. The Them always appeared in the same order: Brian and Wensleydale first; then Pepper; then Adam. Pepper wasn't at The Pit yet, therefore, neither was Adam. Pepper didn't know the term "circular reasoning", and she didn't let it bother her.
She went down to Lower Tadfield instead, and sat by one of the main roads, and watched the cars pass. There weren't many of them. Even on its main roads, Tadfield remained tiny and quaint. Sometimes, Pepper wondered to herself why that was, and then she had to ask herself why wouldn't it be?
R.P. Tyler, that paragon of the middle class, had apparently been quite correct in his observations of Lower Tadfield behaviour. Four motorcycles passed by Pepper, going far too fast for the area and appearing as little more than a white and red and black and pale blur. A few months ago, Adam had seen a feature on some old stunt cyclist, and had immediately decided that motorcycles were the best thing ever, and had named the Them the Daredevils. That had lasted three days. Adam's attention had waned, as it always did. Pepper continued to think that motorcycles were pretty cool, really.
The colours reminded her of something, but she didn't know what.
The cycles came around again - moving slower this time when they came near Pepper, and then speeding up - and again. Pepper knew, of course, that she should be frightened of adults on motorcycles taking an interest. Still, she didn't move.
Finally, the four riders came to a stop and dropped their kickstands. Pepper didn't move, staring fixedly at a spot on the horizon. She wasn't lookin'/, not /lookin' as such. No one could really say she was /lookin'/, she just... had to put her eyes somewhere.
The rider on the red bike - all in red, Pepper noticed, all the way up to the helmet, with even a red scabbard for what looked like a sword - dismounted, and headed over to her. The rider's leathers had writing all up the sleeves, Pepper noticed, which would probably usually be the brand names of the manufacturers. Pepper didn't believe there had ever been a manufacturer of motorcycle equipment with a name like Rev 6:4 or /Come And See/.
And she was a girl - well, woman. Pepper looked at the cycle she'd been riding, all in red and slanted like a blade, and mentally compared it to the nice girl's bike she'd gotten for her birthday. This was not a girl's bike. The way the rider walked suggested quite strongly that anyone who gave her a girl's bike would do well to run away and apologise profusely, probably in that order.
The rider took off her helmet, uncasing waves of red hair that Pepper privately would have killed for. Pepper's own hair, while strictly speaking red, was really more a pale orange that looked like it had seen too much sun, and also that birds had nested in it. The woman smiled, with extremely red lips (those, Pepper reasoned with all the skill of a liberated eleven-year-old, she could probably do without), and said, "Hey, kid".
As a form of address, Pepper considered "Hey, kid" only slightly superior to "young lady". She scowled.
"You know an Adam Young?"
Pepper looked up, with some shock. "What d'you want Adam for?" she asked, more than a trifle suspicious.
"Just to chat," she replied, with another smile. There was something very predatory in that smile, which paradoxically made Pepper trust her a bit more. There was something to be said for honesty, after all. "He's very important to me and mine."
Yeah, well, same to me, Pepper almost said and didn't. Still, she had a point. Adam was the leader of the Them, after all, which made him much more important to Pepper than to some random biker woman. "You look familiar," she said instead.
"We've met," the biker responded, sounding like she genuinely enjoyed the memory. "Which is why I came to talk to you."
"Don't remember you."
"You will," she promised, and her voice momentarily reminded Pepper of her mother's knife-sharpener. Back when her mother had owned a knife sharpener. A few days ago, she'd sold it, muttering something about getting back to nature and whetstones.
"I dunno if I should tell you about Adam," Pepper said, and played her trump card. "Stric'ly speaking, I'm not s'posed to talk to strangers. And, I mean, you could just be sayin' we've met before."
"Yeah," she replied. "You're right. So how about this - we head off, and you head off. If you remember who I am by tomorrow, come back here."
Pepper considered this. It didn't sound /unreasonable/. Besides, she could just pretend she didn't remember and not show up again. And she kinda wanted to talk to the biker some more.
"What's your name?" Pepper asked, as the biker walked away.
She turned back, her helmet on, visor open. "Red? Carmine? Scarlet? Pick one."
"Those aren't your /name/," Pepper said, righteously.
"You've got a point," not-Scarlet smiled. "OK. My name's War."
Pepper watched her get back on the bike, and ride off with her companions.
Part of her had wanted to say that War was a stupid name. But... for one thing, it kinda fit. It made sense for the woman to be called War. It was a better name than most of the names Pepper knew, and really, how was that stupid?
For another, someone named Pippin Galadriel Moonchild was really in no place to criticise.
On her way home, shoelaces dragging in the dirt, it all came back to Pepper. Which was really no surprise.
She'd been a Horseman of the Apocalypse.
She kicked a rock into a nearby gutter, with an air of deep awe at the mysteries of the universe.
The rock skittered on its way, collided with another rock, and fell down a storm drain.
Well. Not really of the Apocalypse, she supposed. But "Horseperson of the Anti-Apocalypse" didn't have quite the same ring to it.
If she'd driven away War, Pepper thought to herself, kicking a can pensively in the direction of the rock and not even thinking of the 5p deposit, did that make her Peace?
She doubted it. It had only been a week ago that Brian had said something stupid and she'd punched him in the shoulder, and she didn't think Peace did that sort of thing. Besides, if she was Peace, that made Wensleydale Feast - Pepper could pick him up and throw him, and she knew that from experience - and Brian Cleanliness, which was more ridiculous than anything else. And Adam...
...actually, she s'posed that bit sorta made sense.
The can, too, had fallen into the storm drain. It was almost sweet, in a way.
"Right," Adam Young said, squatting on his haunches in front of Dog. Dog was in rare form that day, more than usually scruffy, probably completely covered in dirt, one ear so inside-out it could be considered a pinnacle of inversion. In Adam's mind, there could be no finer dog anywhere in Creation. "Now, I know this prob'ly seems pretty stupid to you, but Dad says you hafta learn to do tricks so that people stop callin' you a public menace."
The experiment had so far not been successful. Adam had needed to fudge the facts a little - he could, indeed, persuade Dog to heel, stay, and roll over, but "heel" involved trailing a chew toy behind him, "stay" meant "stay at this bowl of food", and "roll over" was best accomplished in a mud puddle, hence Dog's glorious squalor.
"So." Adam held out a hand. "/Shake/, Dog."
Dog shook, dislodging dust and clumps of mud into the air around him.
Adam looked down at the filth covering his new T-shirt, and figured he could accept this as a win.
"Good Dog," Adam said, rubbing vigorously at Dog's neck, and Dog leapt up and down and yapped through canine joy. This was a far cry from Hell, and to Dog's admittedly undeveloped mind, it was sheer bliss.
Adam turned around, one hand still absentmindedly patting Dog, to check on the progress of the dam he'd singlehandedly built in the nearby stream. It was a work of architectural wonder, he knew, and they'd send down people from the Advertiser to ask him questions about how such a young boy could have performed such engineering /miracles/, and he'd look down and polish his right shoe on his left trouser leg and say that he couldn't have done it without the Them - even though he plainly could have, since Brian was mowing his dad's lawn and Wensley was finishing his homework and Pepper was he didn't know where - and they'd all become internationally famous and rich and prob'ly movie stars...
It had fallen down again. Adam sighed, but wasn't too disappointed. It had been fun to build the dam, after all. It'd be fun to build it again.
"Stay, Dog," he said over his shoulder, and Dog - reacting more to the intent than the words - remained obediently motionless. If Mr. Young had been there, he would have been quite taken aback. He would have then told his son that he decidedly could not hike up his trousers and head into the stream to repair the dam, and so it was a very good thing for Adam that Mr. Young wasn't there.
He was stacking a wonderful looking long, flat rock that he hadn't seen the first time on top of a proper piece of sod when Dog started growling. Adam turned around, to note that Dog had sunk down low, raised his hackles - Adam hadn't even been fully aware that Dog had hackles, they certainly rarely raised in his presence - and was making a noise deep in his throat like a forge at the heart of an inferno.
"Dog, you stop that," Adam commanded, and turned to see what he was looking at.
It was just ol' Pep, and a tall woman who could be a sister or a cousin or something. Adam had thought that Pepper had only had one sister, who'd been most unhelpful during the three hour reign of terror of the British/Spanish Inquisition. She certainly wasn't almost six feet tall, and not the kind to dress in red leathers and wear a sword at her side and generally set the half of Adam that was an eleven year old boy to strangled speechlessness.
The other half of Adam, however, was a decidedly different creature. He drew himself to his full height and narrowed his eyes, the dramatic effect of such rather ruined by the facts that he was still knee-deep in the creek, one leg of his trousers had fallen into the water, and his dam had just fallen down again.
"Hi," said War, waving an arm.
"I thought," Adam said, splashing his way to the bank, "that I wasn't going to have to deal with people like you any more."
"Careful who you're calling /people/," War said, with her sword-edged smile.
"She wanted to see you," Pepper said, shrugging. She didn't add /and I sorta wanted to see why/. Adam knew anyway.
"Besides," War said, "if you mean Heaven and Hell, that's not exactly us. Think of us more as independant contractors."
"Well, I thought I was well out of all that. And so were you." That last was spoken with a censorious edge.
"That's what we wanted to check up on. We may not be riding out /yet/. We just want to know when the big day is. What's the good of the power to take peace from the world if you're never going to use it?"
"You started three fights on the way here," Pepper reminded her.
"That was just hobby stuff," War replied, dismissively.
"Far as I'm concerned, there won't be any ridin' out." As Adam said that, the other trouser leg collapsed, letting a stream of water onto the grass. Somehow, this didn't affect his gravitas. "Not /ever/."
War inclined her head, as if to suggest that she knew better. "Anything you say," she said. "If you change your mind, we'll be around."
She slinked away, like a particularly dangerous cat, and it was possibly a response to this image that made Dog growl again. As she crossed the road a few hundred metres away, two cars - the only two cars on the road - collided, and their drivers came out and started shouting at each other in a manner that suggested violence would soon result.
Their voices didn't carry to Adam and Pepper, though, who were considering Adam's dilapidated dam with grave import.
"I didn't remember her," Pepper said.
"Well, you weren't s'posed to," Adam replied. "No one was. I wasn't. Didn't work."
"Huh," Pepper responded. "Speaking as a supporter of individual freedom and choice, I think that's prob'ly a good thing."
Adam took this revelation with a "Huh," of his own, followed by; "She looked a bit like you, I thought."
"She didn't /really/," Pepper muttered, scuffing the grass with her shoe. "Not /really/."
They stared at the dam again.
"You seen Brian and Wensleydale?" Pepper asked.
"Not for /ages/. Not /ages/. Not since this morning at /least/. Brian's got duties and Wensley's got homework. I wanted 'em to help me with my dam," he said, with an air of sulkiness.
"I could help you with your dam," Pepper volunteered.
Adam turned to her, with a smile that was brilliant in its simple charisma. "Thanks, Pep," he said, and hiked his trousers up again. Pepper splashed into the river after him a few seconds later. Dog watched, and scratched his inside-out ear, dislodging a large clump of dirt.
It was another nice day.