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In, and Out.

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The softest, softest silk, so fine, woven into tight braids, shining, and beautiful. He was young, then, terribly young, a man grown, but only just, and so far from even his first century that, looking back, the memory is only moments after the dawn of time.

“It’s because we’re forever…” his mother said, and she looped the cord then, and tightened it.

Time stood still and flew simultaneously.

He was only shock, and panic, and fear.

He didn’t understand, had no idea what she was doing. “Mother!” he cried out, before he reddened and his tongue became swollen inside his head, his lips dried in the desperate panting which became breathless, and she let him fall.

She left him there, eyes rolling, saliva running from between quivering lips, left him to lie there and fight to right himself. She didn’t comfort him then. He lay there and wondered what he was being punished for, why she would…why…

She didn’t mention it for days.

“Mother,” he said, time later, one evening, just the two of them and delicacies spread out ahead of them, plans to make and worlds to enjoy. “Before, when you…” and he gestured at his throat, at the mark that remained, because this was long, long ago, and it scarred.

“We have such a gift,” she said, placing a hand lightly on his shoulder. “Such a gift, my boy, and I know you don’t understand it yet. Worlds stretch before you, and you have no idea of absence. No idea of real power.”

“But still…” he says, and she can see he doesn’t understand.

Her fingers creep up his shoulder, caring, gentle touch. They rest at the back of his neck. Her hand is cold.

His breath stops.

“Darling, we can become eternity. And that is not something one should take for granted.”

She encircles the back of his neck with the span between thumb and middle finger, and massages, so gently. So gently.

He looks at her.

She smiles, all warmth and love as she brings the second hand up to the front of his neck.

Her hands knead as they squeeze, his breathing growing faster, his pulse rocketing and face flushing with anticipation? Fear? With everything.

Things are happening to him that he barely registers.

His mother’s eyes stay fixed on his, and she is speaking, kindly, kind words and kind thoughts and telling him that the two of them – just the two of them, never mind the others – will rule this universe together, claiming everything, experiencing everything.

He is perfect, she tells him, and he will understand this again, and again. Again and again, as the world swims around him, and the sound of his own veins failing him is all he can hear.

This time, when he comes back, she is beside him. They lie together on the floor, so unusual, so uncouth, surely. Out of sight? He hopes so, looks about in panic, and his neck protests, bruises forming in a perfect shape of his mother’s hands.

“Shhh…” Seraphi tells him, laying a hand, the same hand that took so much from him before, on his chest. Warmer now. She holds it firm, over his heart, and it thumps in gratitude for her, for now, for breath and life itself.

“I didn’t…” he says, and she shakes her head.

“Shhh. This is something you don’t learn by talking about it. Breathe with me.”

And he does. In, and out.

In, and out.

In…and out.

*****

He comes to her next.

Shyly, discreet.

He promises himself he can see her cheeks redden in a flush of…embarrassment, or, perhaps, excitement.

Seraphi lets him come to her, as if she doesn’t know what it is he wants. Whenever he opens his mouth, she lays a finger on his lips, and feels his breath stagger against it.

It is delicious how excited he is for her touch. She had not meant for him to be so…pleased by this. But it is, she decides, natural enough. There is so little excitement in their lives. Certainly, she remembers the way his body is rigid, then slack, and afterwards, shaking against her, when the nights are long and dark and infinite.

Balem takes the scarf from around her neck, and there is a second where she fears he will try to return the favour, as it were. But there is no such desire. He offers it about his own neck, the soft, soft silken femininity of it a fine complement to the cut of her son’s cheekbones, and his delicate, pale skin.

As it tightens, it feels both more cruel and kinder. The scent of his mother’s perfume is in the last breath he draws before he disappears.

The disappearance is momentary, and he does not fall this time. He clutches at his throat, involuntary, unable to do anything else, and his body is stronger than he has ever known it to be. He grips his mother by the wrists, and she freezes in his hands, just once, a change.

She loosens his grip, and, as the scarf falls to the floor, he whispers to her that she is beautiful.

*****

“That is a fine collar,” she says to him, the first time he wears it.

“It reminds me of something,” he says, leaving everything else unsaid.

It’s thicker on the inside. The constant pressure keeps him on edge. If he leans into it, it heightens his moment.

It takes him back, every time.

And it does remind him of the possibility that forever is not the only way.

Occasionally, that excites him, even if the threat has left him.

There were so many times.

When he was older, when they vied for one thing and another, when he argued with her, when she belittled him, their game might still be played. He would hide, and she would find him, or he would ‘send’ her to some room, some palace, some world, and seek her out there, and kneel, lie, wait before her, offering her the weapon, or none, as he mood took him.

Since she…died, since her hands lay still for the last time, the collar is all the true excitement he has known. Games with others, never that, never that at all, that was theirs, but those other games Balem tried to play, they never came close to the feeling of being on the very edge of life itself.

Jupiter Jones has awoken something he thought was gone forever.

Such possibility.

He looks out the rope, that first rope, treasured, hidden deep amongst a scraped universe of possessions.

It is as soft as the day it first graced his neck. He bites it in excitement, feeling it in memories, love, honesty, the truths of existence itself, just as ever he was promised when she was still here with him. When the promises were good, and he had no plans of his own. When the world still had new things for him.

He winds the cord about his wrists, tightens, slackens, plays with the bloodflow in his limbs. The power against himself doesn’t give the thrill. Only the memory of his mother’s eyes looking back at him as her thumbs pressed into him…

An opportunity has arisen.

He experiences hesitation, doubt, for the first time in a very, very long time.

*****

He steps towards Jupiter, the rope along both palms.

She turns her head to the side and screws up her face. “I…”

He shakes his head. She’ll ruin this, with her indelicate speech, and unaccustomed understanding of the body she inherits.

He was hoping for a smile. A recognition. The reincarnation made flesh.

He raises his palms, rope resting on his thumbs, a gesture, wait wait, maybe this… and he undoes the collar about his neck, fumbling with it, for his clothes are usually administered, rather than put on. The fabric is stiff and it’s tight about his neck and the excitement that comes with the pinpoint focus of the moment doesn’t help him open it, although it does help to excite him still further.

Jupiter watches.

Balem reveals his throat, the look in his eyes a hunger that she can’t match to what he’s doing, not for a moment, not until he yanks at the top and it splits down the middle, revealing smooth, smooth flesh up and down, except for around the collar, a redness, chafed and sore.

He takes the rope and catches it behind his neck. The silk slides over the irritated flesh, and his smile is all teeth and pleasure.

Lowers his hands, spreads them, open palms again, here I am, come on, come on...mother, are you there?

“So this is…unexpected,” Jupiter says, taking a step towards him, and then another. A pace apart, she searches his eyes.

He’d as well be naked for how deeply she sees him.

She takes up one length and he stands frozen, save for the eyes which are wildly alive.

Jupiter feels a memory in her motions, a recognition, but whether it does come from that genetic line-up or is something propelled, commanded of her understanding by Balem’s desperate, demanding eyes, which describe a depth of excitement and need she’s never seen, never having seen such feeling in one so old, there isn’t time to say.

It doesn’t matter.

Such power.

Such vulnerability.

She loops the rope about his neck and his lips part, breath teasing from them, the cusp of wish fulfilment.

It tightens.

Her face is inscrutable. He looks, looks, looks and looks for a sense of his mother, teaching him a lesson. For the young woman in front of him, playing a new game. For the prompted assassin, psyching herself up for her first true kill. For a story he can read. He sees nothing.

His body spasms with excitement before constriction even begins.

He doesn’t fight her. Not knowing doesn’t matter.

It would be curiously perfect, would it not? A completing of circles. Would it matter, if these were his final breaths? Would it be…fitting, somehow?

It would be his choice.

It is relaxing, calming to his mind, to feel his body react just as it used to, that sense of panic, the elevated heart rate, the empty struggle of his lungs. He looks past the stars that fly through his gaze to see Jupiter, to see Seraphi, to see cold and love mixed together in authoritative blankness, and it is as beautiful as anything he’s ever known.

If it isn’t the end, then, it is yet another beginning. His legs buckle, and he reaches for her, and she catches him, as he does her. The noose loosens a little and he gulps, reflexively, for oxygen, drawing it deep into desperate lungs.

The world catches fire inside him.

Alive.

She supports his fall, but keeps both ends of the rope tight in one hand.

She kneels beside him.

His face is pale, sweat-streaked, tears leaking involuntarily from his eyes.

“Mother…” he rasps, all love, all hope, all life itself.

The cord tightens once more.