This story will make much more sense if you have already read Sparks and Carmarthen's Cry Havoc! and Let Slip the Spawn of War, being as it is a possible sequel to the one and intimately related to the other in various ways. You can't have one without the other, sort of thing.
Bob is Destruction, Pete is Friendly Fire, and Joe is Massacre. They belong jointly to me and Carmarthen.
* * *
A Strenuous Family
* * *
Pepper taught the boys to play football. They took to it like chickens to water, but she kept at it because she believed it would be good for them, and also because she hadn't got the chance to play football with someone else since she was thirteen. At least her sons couldn't storm off in a huff and refuse to play with her because she kept winning. There were advantages to being a mother.
Only Joe grew to love the beautiful game; Bob and Pete regarded it with the same uncomprehending horror that normal children reserved for piano lessons. Joe, though, went in for it with a typically single-minded passion. He played goalkeeper for the school team, and suffered crazed children to lob balls at him with a glad patience Pepper never saw in him anywhere else. He broke his nose three times, and Pepper got him patched up every time, reading ancient women's magazines at the clinic and wondering if she should have married a nice boy from Tadfield after all.
She and War both attended all his matches, though. Pepper wore Joe's team's jersey, even though it was red -- as a rule she stayed away from red clothes, but when you were a mother you had to make allowances -- and shouted enthusiastic encouragement from the stands. War refused to wear a jersey, even a red one, and indulged in hooligans when she thought Pepper wasn't looking.
She liked playing heated fathers off of each other best, but after the third time a match had been broken up by brawling parents, Joe forbid her to watch him play. His best friend's dad had a black eye, said Joe. It wasn't that he didn't love War, but. . . .
"That's what you get," said War later, when she was into her sixth vodka shot. "Sixteen years I've slaved for Massacre, getting the world in order for when he's grown, and what does he do? Tell me I'm not allowed to watch his matches! Me! His mother! And I always made sure that the fights were off-pitch!"
"They're growing up," said Pepper. "It happens."
"If I'd known this would be the pay-off, I'd've killed the little buggers when I spawned them," said War bitterly. Pepper put her to bed two hours later, reflecting that she couldn't complain, really. She had three beautiful boys and a -- someone who loved her with a wordless intensity, and if Bob was smoking pot and Pete was insisting on being called Friendly Fire, which family didn't have their problems?
When he was nineteen Bob announced that he was going to be an architect, and he wasn't going to design buildings that would collapse in on themselves, either. And Mum could just stop calling him Destruction, thank you very much. War and Pepper fought over it, and War stormed off to the Balkans, where she was so busy sulking that the region enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace.
Pepper stayed home and dyed her hair black, before deciding that she preferred red after all. She had a short-lived fling with a nurse who read Joyce and played competitive Scrabble. She contemplated old age, and decided she'd seen worse in her time.
She died earlier than she'd expected, of a disease that took her by the throat and shook her empty, so that she was left skin and bone, with nothing left to her but herself. She'd made up with War by then, but War was in the Middle East, where she generally liked to take her time, and their sons were scattered all over the world. She was alone.
It wasn't easy, but in a fight between Pepper and the world, anybody who knew Pepper well would back her, even at her worst. And Pepper knew herself.
She was angry, of course she was angry, but what could you do? Death was the one thing she couldn't fight, and if her boys and her beloved were all engaged in wreaking hell on humanity, blissfully unaware of her condition, well, she'd known it was a risky venture when she'd gone into it. The children she'd have had with the nice boy from Tadfield would have had a human conception of time, but they wouldn't have been these boys, her Bob and Pete and Joe she'd nursed through a more than usually troublesome infancy and identity crises the size of a solar system.
"Regrets," said Pepper to an empty room. "Who needs them?"
Adam came to her, just after she found out, and stood before her, helplessly angry. His problem had always been that he, more than anybody else, truly wanted to change the world, and only the fact that he could do it stopped him.
"This should never've happened," he said. "Do you -- do you want me to--"
"No," said Pepper, because he'd made a sort of promise, years and years ago. That much she remembered, at least. "Let it alone, Adam. You can't do anything."
"But I can," said Adam. "And -- this should never've happened, I should've known--"
"Just 'cos you're omnipotent doesn't mean you know everything," snapped Pepper. Adam's mouth twisted, but he didn't do anything else; just watched her, wretched in his power. Pepper forced herself to be gentle.
"Bugger off, Adam," she said. "I can't be bothered to have you around, leaving your rubbish everywhere and eating me out of house and home. Go on with you."
She loved Adam, but she didn't know if she could stick to her noble resolution with him around. Besides, he probably would make a mess, and while Pepper was not the neatest homemaker in the world, she preferred her own rubbish to other people's.
Adam had always been perspicacious for a man. He left.
"I could've done it without you knowing," he said before he went.
"No," said Pepper. "No, you couldn't."
The week after that Wensleydale was transferred at work, and he and Brian moved into the house opposite, because there were still some things Adam could do.
"We would have come anyway," said Wensley, holding her hand, while Brian shed cigarette butts in extreme embarrassment at the door. Pepper smiled, and smacked Wensley's hand away, and told Brian off for smoking, and never showed she knew they were lying.
Age or a sense of balance had given her kindness. Pepper wasn't always grateful for this, but she lived with it.
She needed it, though, before the end, when her family came back to her. Joe came first, running scared because "Mum's gone spare."
"The World Cup, Mum, one's allowed a bit of time off, isn't one? It's not like they won't keep on slaughtering each other anyway, but Pete says she's ready to flay me. . . ."
Pepper petted him, and sympathised, and could not repress a tiny spark of satisfaction at how horrible Joe was going to feel when he knew. If it had been Bob, she would have torn him a new one; if it had been Pete, she would have told him the truth bluntly, because that was the only way Pete would accept the truth. But Joe needed to be prepared; Joe needed tenderness. It would make him feel even worse when the full realisation of what was going on hit him between the eyes.
Pepper has never pretended to live up to the long-suffering ideal of motherhood. At least she's honest about it.
* * *
And it was a dark day when she died.
All over the world gruesome accidents did not happen; men did not shoot each other; terrorists took a day off; peace conferences got on without a hitch; particularly ugly examples of modern architecture remained whole and undestroyed.
Joe, who was soft-hearted, wept. Pete had a massive fit of the sulks -- he took every misfortune as a personal insult. Bob, who was no longer an architect, cracked his knuckles and talked, in a ceaseless dry monotone.
"She never wanted me to quit," he said. He tended to show up late at scenes of destruction and hang around in a shamefaced way, as if he were at a slow-moving party when he would much rather be home watching Neighbours, and was feeling very embarrassed about it. He always left as early as possible. "She told me once she'd tried to give us a normal childhood, but it was up to us what we wanted to do with it. But she didn't want me to quit. She thought I'd be happier as an architect."
He looked up. Joe was blowing his nose. Pete was still glowering at the wall, as if Death would give him back his mother just to clear up the atmosphere, the way his parents used to give him sweets to stop him sulking. Pete's sulks could clog up the atmosphere on top of Mount Everest.
"Maybe I would've been," said Bob.
"Where's Mum?" said Joe in a wobbly voice.
"She's in the morgue, where else would she be," said Pete, shooting each word out like a bullet.
Joe burst into tears.
"He meant the other one," said Bob. He glared at Pete, but it was a wasted effort. Pete never had the grace to feel ashamed. War was the only one who could control Pete when he was in one of his moods, and that only sometimes. She would have blown his head off for that one.
Bob wondered where she was.
* * *
She was, in fact, nowhere Bob knew. She was wondering how to say goodbye.
Death stood a little way off, his shadow stark on the ground. War didn't know where the light was coming from. She wasn't sure where she was, but she thought she probably knew people who had come here.
Lots of people.
One of them was standing right in front of her, all her weight on one foot, looking at her in that way that had always made War itch.
"Pepper," said War hoarsely, and she stopped. What could she say? She'd never had to deal with things like this before -- before Pepper, when everything had been simple. And once again, as it had so many times before, the horrible, clinging, human bonds around her heart tightened unbearably, and War felt that to be free of them would be indescribable relief.
But she was being freed of them, one by one, with every second that didn't tick by in this strange place. And it hurt like hell.
She had to say something. How many people got the chance to say goodbye? She wouldn't have been given the chance, if she hadn't been Death's colleague. And now she wasting it, and the time was going past her with an almost audible whoosh, and Pepper was dead. . . .
But Pepper touched her shoulder, and smiled a little, and something in War relaxed.
"It's okay," she said. "Really, War. It is."
Pepper spoke her name as she always did, steady and unflinching. Her hand was light on War's shoulder. She reached up and kissed War lightly on the cheek.
"Tell the boys I love them," she said. "And if they mess up my X-men comics collection I'll come back and make them vomit green goo." She patted War again, very tenderly.
"It's okay," she repeated, and then she was gone.
War did not speak to Death. She turned around and went straight home.
She did not realise until much, much later that while Pepper had been right when she'd said it was okay, she'd had been using a peculiarly human meaning of "okay."
She'd meant, this is what you'll do. You'll have loved me for a blink of an eye, relatively speaking, and you'll be devastated when I'm gone. You'll be hollowed out like a bombed building, and you'll feel more human than ever. And then you'll go to your children, and you will stay with them even though you never visited Pete when he was in hospital with appendicitis, not once; even though Bob swore at you when he was sixteen; even though Joe gave me his school team's jersey and not you -- and you're still angry about that last one. You'll stay with them for a little while, and maybe you'll leave them, but you'll see them again, and you'll love them forever. And they'll love you, even if they don't want to.
This is called family. It comes with being even just a little human, if you're lucky.
It means you'll never be free, but at least you'll always have someone to argue with over who was supposed to do the laundry.
By "okay," Pepper had meant, you knew the risks when you went in.
* * *
They buried her in Lower Tadfield. There was a noticeable absence of the clergy, but Bob read out a rather awful poem, and Joe sang a deeply heartfelt hymn he'd heard sung on a battlefield once. He ended the song with an unnervingly accurate death rattle, but after all it was the thought that counted. Pete had refused to attend the funeral, and only changed his mind when it was nearly over. He slunk into the cemetery alone, angry and embarrassed, and when Bob patted his shoulder he broke down and wept.
Adam and Brian and Wensleydale did not do anything but grieve, but when it was over Adam said to War,
"I wish I could have done something."
"You could have," said War.
"No," said Adam. "No, I couldn't." His eyes were wistful.
"She was . . . very brave," he said. "She was always so brave. And she loved you."
War looked over at her sons. Joe was attempting to comfort Pete, who was still sobbing, but Bob had got bored of Pete's moods and appeared to be studying the layout of the cemetery. He looked up when he felt her eyes on him, and went to her.
"Mum," he said in a low voice. He hesitated, glancing at Adam, who stepped away politely.
As if that made any difference, thought War. But Bob was talking, hastily, the words tumbling over each other in his rush to get them out.
"This is an odd time to say this," he said, "but I think you ought to know. I'm, um, I'm going back to school. To study architecture. It's what I always wanted to do -- you know I was never any good at this destruction thing anyway, it's just -- it's not my style, and Mum knew it, she thought I should, and maybe I should have before, and, and, and there's nothing you can do about it. Um. Mum?"
War was thinking about habit, and humanity, and everything she'd ever seen in her years on Earth. She thought about the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and about Heaven and Hell, and a rather nice little situation she'd been supervising in North America, which could do with a little random destruction, if Des -- Bob would only cooperate. He probably wouldn't. She thought about the ties that bind, and then she thought several very nasty things about Pepper.
"Pepper was a guerilla," she said over her shoulder to Adam. The Antichrist, damn him, smiled.
"She was good at what she did," he said serenely.
War wondered what battle he was fighting, but then a hand touched her sleeve, and --
"Mum?" said Bob, all forlorn.
"We'll talk about this. Later," said War, and was pleased to see the alarm in his face. Maybe she could extract a little honest work from him before he pranced off to his ephemeral buildings.
But for now. . . .
"Let's go home," said War.