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Exiles

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You see her again on a Sunday.

It's quiet, if you ignore the traffic from the street and the rain drumming on asphalt, or at least quieter than you've grown used to. It's a Catholic neighborhood, and most of your kids are at services, instead of kicking a deflating ball around the fenced-in playground or teaching each other old rhymes dressed up in new words. It's funny how much their noise can fill up a place, and make it seem so empty when they're gone. But you can imagine them fidgeting in church, passing notes and whispering jokes in Sunday School, bored and irreverent as only the innocent can be.

You haven't set foot in one of your Father's houses since you parted ways with your own children's father, and you're not going to start again now. Sunday finds you here instead, on your knees and bent-backed, pulling weeds up by the root because it's something that needs doing and you need something to do. You've learned that if you don't keep your hands busy, you end up veering dangerously close to nostalgia, and these days the work you fill your time with usually pulls you back to one blasted garden or another.

This garden is the administration's character-building exercise, meant to inspire bright-eyed generations of students to new heights of self-improvement. You're not sure it does, but at least it lets you send them home with fresh produce - zucchini, mostly, but even zucchini is better than nothing at all. If there's one thing you learned from tilling the hard earth after you first lost your home, it's that there's no thinking straight on an empty belly; if you could slip an apple or two into the lunches of some of your charges, you would, and not just in hopes that they might pick up some knowledge along with it.

There is an apple tree here, of course, where the garden fence meets the school wall, but it's a sickly thing, not at all like the ones you remember from the dawn of the world. The fruit it bears is mealy and full of worms, and you don't ever pay it much mind, except to keep the children from throwing fallen apples at each other, as children sometimes do.

Today, though, when you happen to look up, there's something in the shadow of that tree where there had been only empty air before, a deeper patch of darkness that resolves itself into human shape, or something like it. A moment of looking without seeing, and then you realize that it's a woman leaning against the trunk, standing beneath branches that seem to do a better job keeping the rain off of her than the ground around her feet. She's looking sharp: black skirt and snakeskin purse, smokey eyeshadow, red nails and red lips. Your eyes trace the delicate line of a collarbone beneath her thin cotton blouse, and you remember her – the heat of her hands on your hips, the teeth she keeps hidden beneath that sleek smile. You've missed her, forked tongue and all, but you know her too, and you're glad it's Sunday. She's got a hungry sort of look to her today. You don't quite trust her around your students.

"Fancy meeting you here," she says, as if she hadn't known exactly who she would find in this schoolyard garden, behind this chain-link fence. "But what are you doing?"

"Working," you say, and wipe a hand across your brow before you think to stop yourself, getting mud in your hair like a mortal fool. You've got blisters beneath your gardening gloves, soaked knees and mud up to your elbows, and she looks you over with amused interest, head to toe, slow enough to send heat curling through you.

"As you were charged," she says, with an edge of disdain, as if you do this to obey. As if it matters to her why you do what you do.

That's enough on its own to push you over into anger, rapid as a flash flood in a dry streambed. She might be firstborn, and you may have grown old in ways she never will, weathered hands and grey in your hair and lines at the corners of your mouth, but you are still what you are, and this is your ground.

"Mind your presumption," you say, and put a little more of yourself into it than usual. Your voice is cracked stone and barren soil, the bitterness of time and hunger, and when you meet her eyes, it's she who looks down.

You've changed, then. You knew it before, felt the change in your bones from mortal flesh and blood to something else as the world changed around you. But you hadn't ever thought to see the mother of demons step back before you, even for a moment, and the thought of it startles you into a laugh, strips the thunder from your voice and renders you plain and old and ordinary again. She lifts her gaze again at the sound, and smiles in invitation, back on steady ground and fearless even as she lets you win.

"Come here, at least. Get out of the rain."

"I like the rain," you say, and it's true. It makes you feel human, and alive. But your anger is gone, or settled back into slumber, and you do know her, and you have missed her. So you go to stand beneath the tree beside her, and pretend not to notice the way her body angles toward you, her hand half lifted to reach out before she changes trajectory, picks a wormy apple instead from the branches overhead. Water drips from leaves, runs in rivulets down your skin, and everything smells rich and green, like crushed grass and turned soil. It reminds you of the old days, even with the scent of asphalt mixed in, the gasoline fumes and smog. But you're not sure which old days you're thinking of, only that they had been sweet, and you hadn't been alone in your garden. Time piles up. It will get the better of you, one of these days.

She takes a bite of her apple, grimaces, swallows, then looks sidelong in your direction. "It's been – how many years?"

It hardly matters. A long time. You say as much, and her smile this time is a shade more cynical.

"The world is a different place now, eh? But we're still hanging around."

"Can't get rid of us," you agree. "We'll be clinging to this rock 'til the End of Days."

That thought, flippant as it is, leaves a veil of silence between you, and you think you see her shiver a little, though it's hard to say. She doesn't want the end any more than you do. Maybe less.

"Doing well for yourself, are you?" she says, looking around at everything you've taken on responsibility for. "Handing down your knowledge to the next generation?"

You can't tell if it's meant as mockery or not, but you give her a flat look and say, "it's a living. You realize that some of us get on fine without blood sacrifice?"

She shrugs languidly and looks at the apple in her hand with distaste, then throws it in a high arc over the far wall. Food for raccoons, maybe, or birds. Bacteria, if nothing else. Nothing ever really goes to waste, but you could have told her not to bother. She's a desert creature, howling and carnivorous, and she earned her own wisdom before your Father's hands shaped the bone and clay that made you. You know how little use she has for apples, even better ones than that.

"Oh, hell," she says, that single syllable brisk and sharply enunciated, just this side of vicious. "You know you don't have to stay here, right?"

She means it, then. And what else can you do but reply in kind?

"It won't make a damn bit of difference where I go. There's no going back." You study her, though you're not sure what you're looking for, or whether you'd know it if you saw it. "But you left on your own discretion, didn't you?"

"So I did." She casts another glance in your direction, then frowns and digs around in her purse for a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. "I don't regret it. Here. Smoke?"

She doesn't wait for your answer before she lights one up, takes a deep drag, then holds it out in your direction. You don't smoke, but this time, you pluck the cigarette from between her fingers and bring it to your lips, hold it there a moment, smelling smoke and remembering fire. You inhale, taste ash and menthol. Beneath that, something that might be blood. She watches, and her eyes are dark, assessing, with a trace of the wildness you remember from days when fruit was heavy on the trees and water was pure, and nights when the stars seemed so much closer. She's an ancient thing in a modern skin, cruel, ravenous. Not so different from you. You want to taste the smoke on her breath, the ash and iron on her tongue, and you have never, in all your centuries, been good at saying no to the things you want.

So you do it. You draw off your muddy gloves and let them fall, and then you reach up and drag her down closer, and she presses against you and covers your mouth with her own. Smoke, yes. Blood, when she catches your lip between her teeth and bites, and something serpentine in the way her hands slide up your back, the shift of her hips and the arc of her spine. You close your eyes and breathe in, and just for a moment, you're somewhere else and young again, and the earth is young around you, no such things as age or death. But even with your head tilted back, her hand in your hair and her mouth on your throat, that's an illusion that can't last forever. You let that cat out of that box long ago, and now it's too late to call it back. Your lot now is toil and gardens that need to be tended, and caring for those whose lot is the same, the ones your Father turned his back on before they were born. They need someone who will neither obey their Lord nor steal away their children in the dark of night.

And you – you need something to occupy your mind and exhaust your body until memory deserts you, and whether that means digging your hands into the earth until they bleed and crack or opening your mouth to the kiss of someone hungry and always half a stranger, you scarcely care. And she would say you need sweetness too, nectar and honey, the memory of Eden to keep you through the colder days. She's said so before, but even when they mean no malice, her kind are good at lying.

She pushes you back against the spindly trunk of the tree, and the weight of her body on yours steals thought and memory and leaves only sensation - rainwater seeping through the back of your shirt and her leg pressed up hard against the seam of your jeans, her teeth at your pulse and the way you arch up as she bites down hard. She draws curses from your lips, and prayers, breathless and blasphemous and so close to holy. She makes you forget the difference between them.

And then she steps back to look at you, held at arm's length, and says your name – the old one, the first one, which you've never been able to set aside completely. She has smears of dirt on her shoulders which your hands have put there, and you want to pull her back down to taste your own blood on her tongue, but you let her go with only a sigh. It's hard to say what she wants, beyond the obvious, or whether there's anything she fears or craves the way you fear and crave the earth's turning. But if there's one thing she needs, you think it might be someone who knows her, every scale and feather and jackal claw, someone who understands her and still won't turn away.

"I don't regret it either," you say. She purses her red, red lips like an old-fashioned film-star – and how strange it is, that you should think anything from this century old-fashioned.

"But?" she says, unrelenting.

"I'm tired." It comes out a confession, guilt or weakness or both, and she touches your cheek with a peculiar tenderness, all her claws hidden for now. You think she's going to laugh, at you or the universe, but all she says is, "no more than I am."

"It was different, then," you say, for lack of anything less obvious. If you were grading your words, you would mark them down for imprecision, but that's a thought that belongs to the woman you've made yourself into, not the myth beneath her skin.

"Better?"

"Easier." A whole universe in that word, and in the one you didn't say. "I dream of it, sometimes."

If she dreams, she says nothing of it. But she takes your hands and holds them still in front of you, frowning down at the dirt and the scars and callouses you're worn there, and she lifts your fingers to her lips and kisses them all the same.

"You have mud in your hair, daughter of exile," she says, almost kindly. "It's a day of rest. So rest. The world will still be here tomorrow."

"And you?"

"I'll be here, too."

That's not what you'd meant, and you think she knows it. But she knows you too, and what it's like to be cold and unholy and make your home in the cracks of the world because there's nowhere else for you to go, and she knows what it's like to remember. Her hands on yours hold the warmth of summers lost, and you realize that whatever you meant to ask her, she's given you the answer you want.

"Stay with me a while," she says, and eyes you like a serpent might, coiled about its prey. "Let me take you home."

You do.