It is almost dark when I return. Ruin has wandered away after Mayhem, but I see that Strife had taken the lizard skin and leftover meat off his back and laid them on the stack of wood at the north side of the yurt. The flap is open, the faint glow of fire spilling out, a thin column of smoke rising from the top of the dome. Inside, it smells like home. Smoke and incense, leather, freshly brewed coffee. A small loaf rests on top of one of the flat stones encircling the firepit. I lift my eyes to find Strife pouring out a bucketful of water into the large barrel we use for bathing. The herbal aroma must be from his soap. I smile.
He must’ve seen me come in, but we each go about our business without speaking. I put away Chaoseater, take off my boots and cape, and detach the gauntlet, while he empties another bucket into the tub, dries his hands, and pours the coffee in two tin mugs. As I sit on my sturdy stool by the fire, grunting with fatigue, he lowers himself on the floor at my feet, and leans his head on my thigh.
“That was intense,” he says after a few sips of coffee.
I take another sip myself. “But my heart is lighter, now that he knows.”
“Kinda shit to leave Fury in the dark, with us three all in on it.”
“Go ahead and tell her, if you wish. I doubt it’s possible to be more shocked than Death was. But I’m sure she will be much less of an ally.”
“Maybe in a century or two, she’ll forget this drama with leadership, and like me again.”
I snort. “That is what I thought, six hundred years ago.”
We drink the rest of the coffee in silence. Fleeting thoughts and disconnected images pass through my mind, unbidden. Enough has happened in this one day to fill half a century of my life at its usual pace. I keep seeing Death’s face, dappled with sunlight. The mild glow in his eyes. I keep hearing Strife’s words. And though they were forced out of him, I’ll treasure them for as long as I draw breath.
As if he heard his name mentioned in my thoughts, he takes the mug from my fingers and climbs into my lap. He rubs his face against mine, like the cats of Earth, kisses my forehead and each eye, and my nose, and at last, my lips. Then he settles his head on my shoulder.
“I drew you a bath,” he says.
“You need it.”
I laugh. “I do.”
But neither of us moves. In truth, I could stay like this, wrapped in his arms and the warmth of his welcome, forever.
“You knew, right,” he whispers.
“What he made me say. It wasn’t news to you, right? You knew?”
I hold him closer, shutting my eyes. “I knew.”
He blows out an exaggerated sigh of relief. “Thank fucking God. Because, being the selfish little shit I am, I was terrified that you… died without knowing it, and—”
His voice has cracked, and his breath turned to a quiet sob. I rock him from side to side like a babe, marveling that we both had the exact same fear, the exact same thoughts. And yet, I’m not surprised by it at all.
“And you…” I whisper. “You know too, don’t you?”
“Yeah.” He laughs a little, coaxing a smile out of me as well. “Yeah, I know. But it’s good to hear it. Or not hear it. Or something.” He kisses my ear, then sits back, looking for something in the pockets of his belt.
Ah. The “horsie”.
“Make it glow again?”
I take it from his hand. It is as he said: black and icy, devoid of magic and life, like it was before I imbued it the first time—just a shiny stone. “I might need a hand.”
“Is that right,” he purrs, sliding his hand between my legs. I moan under my breath, and so does he, finding me hard already. It has been a while, and when we last met, there was no time for intimacy. Having him straddle me and speaking of tenderness was more than enough. We kiss, slowly, deeply, reacquainting with each other’s taste and texture and rhythm, till the world recedes to a faraway mist. It isn’t long before the “horsie” bursts to flames in my hand.
Strife exclaims and cheers, and I laugh, just like the first time. I didn’t truly believe, then, that we could make this work. But we have.
“Time for the bath,” he says.
I start to help him disrobe me, but he slaps my hand away. “No. I’m gonna serve you. Pamper you and spoil you, and there’s not a damn thing you can do to stop me.”
With mock exasperation, I hold my arms up and surrender to his attentions. Just being here, at home, with him, even without the coffee and the arousal, has restored and invigorated me, but I am grateful anyway. Taking off my armor with one hand is a chore even on the best of days. And the wound still aches, when I stretch or breathe in deep.
He pauses to study it. To touch it and kiss it, and when he sits again, tears streak his cheeks.
“Why the sorrow?” I ask gently. “I am here, am I not?”
“Lemme have it, ok?” He blinks, and another pair of tears rolls down his handsome face to hang from his chin. I lean forward and scoop them up with my lips. “When I thought you were gone,” he explains, “I was… pissed off, and confused, and horrified. But I wasn’t sad. It just didn’t… get to me, you know? It got to me now. I don’t know why I’m all backwards like that, but that’s how I am. And I’m sick and tired of burying my grief. Just let me have it.”
“Alright, alright.” I fold him in my arms, unable to stop smiling despite the gravity of his confession. “Have as much sorrow as you need—tonight. But tomorrow, I would see you be yourself again. Burying one’s pain is unwise, but so is wallowing in it. As in all things, one must find a—”
“Balance,” he says in time with me, and for once, it doesn’t sound like ridicule.
I lean back to assess the impact of my words. Strife sniffles, then nods. A moment later, though his eyes are still glazed with tears, he grins. “If you warm the water, I’ll join you in the tub.”
He doesn’t, though. Instead, he washes me, as part of pampering and spoiling me, with a piece of clean linen, the pitcher and his herbal-scented soap. He takes out half a bucket of water, so my wound wouldn’t get wet. He wipes my face and neck and back, cleans my hand and feet and trims my nails. He rubs my armpits and chest and belly and then his hand disappears in milky water, and he kisses me while he makes sure that I am clean, inside and out, between my legs too. At last, he soaps my hair and rinses it with fresh water.
We lie by the fire, then, and make love, and sleep, and make love again, till first light shines through the smoke hole, and his tears are spent, and the ache in my chest is but a dark memory.
“If I didn’t know better,” he muses as the fire dies out with a quiet sigh, “I’d say he’s jealous.”
“Hm.” I do not wish to think about Death now, or of what transpired between us, and Strife surely knows it from my tone, but he doesn’t give up.
“Don’t tell me you never thought about him that way. You two have chemistry.”
“I see you have thought about him that way,” I say, hoping to divert him.
“Who, me? He wouldn’t touch me with the shitty end of a stick.”
I can’t help laughing. “You’re not making it easy for him.”
For a while, we’re silent, but I can practically hear the turning of the busy wheels in his head.
“We should try to set him up with Fury.”
Strife laughs. “That’s exactly how he sounded yesterday.”
I realized it before he said anything and now, I fight in vain to stop the blush from setting my brand on fire. In the grainy twilight, it shines like a torch.
“Haha, I knew it! You’d be jealous of them.”
“Absurd.” I want to add, I’d be glad to see them happy together, as you and I are, but I find I cannot.
Strife lifts himself on his elbow, so that he can look at my face. The glow of his smiling eyes is gentle, not mocking, but somehow, that’s even worse. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of, you know,” he says. “These feelings. He’s a bit of a hero figure for you and Fury both. I get it.”
I think of Death’s face, and wonder when I will see it again, if ever. We were close enough to kiss, lying under that tree, and not only in terms of physical proximity. It didn’t occur to me even for a moment, then. It didn’t occur to me until our parting. Yet even now, when I make myself consider it, all I feel is an elusive sadness.
And, perhaps, the lightest touch of longing.
I swallow. “Does it not make you jealous?”
Strife gazes past me, searching for an answer within. “Weirdly enough, no?”
I grunt, surprised, though I’ve no doubt he’s sincere. Strife has proven to be fiercely possessive of me so far and I would lie if I said it didn’t flatter me.
“I think it’s because he’s been a part of your life as long as I have,” he says. “Now, if you were to meet some cutesy, buxom angel girl—”
“You’d retaliate by finding a brooding, lanky demon boy.”
He laughs. “I had something a bit more violent in mind, but alright.” Although the angles of his face seem strange in the half-dark, the mercurial glint in his eyes is unmistakable and I brace myself for some new embarrassment. “Suppose we bring them both home.”
“An angel and a demon? Here? There’s barely room enough for us, let alone two pairs of wings.”
“My place, then.”
“And what, watch them fight?”
He buries his face in my armpit, laughing. “You’re messing with me.”
“Ah. You had something a bit less violent in mind this time.”
I roll on top of him and look in his eyes. “Five hundred years has brought me no closer to tiring from you than the first fifty.” I kiss him, still holding his gaze. His body, naked under mine, responds with delicious eagerness, and I grind into it. “Perhaps in five thousand, we can have this conversation again.” He groans, biting his lip, then wiggles his brows. “It’s a date.”