The blood was very, very warm. You’d felt blood before. You’d ripped out hearts and livers, painted walls with the crimson mess.
But when Asier coughed, blood and spit splattering your face, the heavy liquid coating your hands as you pressed desperately against his destroyed stomach, all you could think was how warm it was. Like placing your hand near a fire.
He whispered to you before he died, but you couldn’t hear anything above the ringing in your ears. Part of you wants to believe he said, “I love you,” but Asier never said that. Mostly, you wish he weren’t dead.
His body slipped out of your hands, tumbling into the river. The water turned brown all around you. Mircea stood, holding his stomach, and you were grateful that the bullet that stole your lover would steal your brother too.
His blood was white, and you didn’t touch to find out how it felt.
You just held onto the gun in your hand.
A few months later you’d be consumed with questioning who pulled the trigger.
Revolt is not pretty. You’d see it a hundred times on earth. (When they make you a god you’ll see it even more, feel it in that deep place you can’t run away from, and of course no one warns you about that.) Apart from the planning and in-fighting, there really is nothing beautiful about standing up. Oh, they’ll glorify it, years on, but the truth is that fighting back is a mess.
(How many of your kids won’t talk to you because you went ‘too far’? How many of your kids won’t talk to you because you had to bury them?)
So when your therapist asks if you regret shooting Asier, you say, “I don’t know.”
Her hair is cut in a stern line along her chin, and it flows when she tilts her head. You fidget in your seat. (It’s okay, you tell yourself. You’re not a god yet, so it’s okay to need therapy. But you’ll still come when you’re a god, because being a god doesn’t fix anything.)
“I just know the gun went off,” you stammer, picking at the denim of your jeans.
“The gun went off in your hand,” she points out.
You cough. “Our hand. Hands.”
“He was holding the gun too. At the end, he – he grabbed my hand and held the gun.”
She leans back, her gaze even and bland and robotic, and says,
“Tell me what happened.”
The fight wasn’t supposed to happen in the river, but it was fitting. Mircea had drowned you there, and you wanted to return the favor.
But by the time the plan was shot to shit and you made your way to the water, the place was a mess. the Ophelia was risen up like a sea monster, dragging men into the water, wringing life and liquid out of others. Your friends were dying. The gunfire was endless. It was fucking ridiculous that in the mess you only had one gun and one bullet.
When you found Mircea in the River, Asier was already there. Asier’s giant wings were torn to shreds and his hands were coated in blood, and he had Mircea in a headlock.
You could have let your lover kill Mircea right there. And it would have been fair – Mircea had ripped your lover to pieces, had turned him against his own people, had made a bird of fire and glory into a destructive oppressive force.
But you stepped into the River, and Asier looked up at you.
(His eyes always searched for you, as though he feared he would lose you again.)
His grip loosened, you raised the gun, and Mircea moved.
You tried to get there soon enough, you did. Mircea grabbed Asier and pulled him around, and the shield worked because you couldn’t shoot him, you couldn’t shoot your lover. The gun was right there but you hesitated.
And then Asier grabbed the gun and – it went off.
Someone pulled the trigger, but you were a little focused on your lover coughing blood into your face.
A little preoccupied with how you’d made him die for you all over again.
You just wanted life to change.
She sends you home, but you go to a bar and drink until you black out. When you wake at dawn in a park, smelling like piss, a cop is standing over your body and holding out a hand.
Life hasn’t changed, not really.
On the ride back to your apartment, riding shot gun to a cop whose name you don’t remember, you look at the city and wonder what happened. Because you won, you all won, and nobody is starving in the streets anymore. No one has to sell their organs or limbs for a bite of food anymore. No one has to choose between life and love anymore.
Except you. Your lover is buried in the ground.
You could find someone new. Didn’t you spend centuries forgetting about Asier, your friends say. This isn’t like you, they say. Move on, they say.
But you still visit his grave every day. His mother is building a house near the grave, and her eyes turn hard when she sees you. She didn’t like you when he was alive. She likes you less now that he’s dead.
(She was the one who recommended the therapist though. She was the one that helped you find Asier’s body. She’s the one who whispered, “You’ve given enough for this world.”)
The cop drops you off. You could invite him up to your room, start ‘moving on’, start ‘adjusting’, but you just say goodbye.
You spend the day on your balcony smoking, not even realizing you haven’t eaten by the time the sun sets. But the kitchen doesn’t feel right and the whole apartment looks wrong, and you gave up sleeping in your bed ever again a while ago. You fall asleep on the flimsy plastic chair on the balcony and don’t wake up until your phone rings on Monday.
The organizer for the public transit meeting is upset and angry, but the meeting goes on without you. This is the first time you’ve skipped on your job, though. If something doesn’t change, it won’t be your last.
You slept for the whole weekend, but you’re still bone tired. You can’t sleep on the balcony again. You can’t sleep in your bed. The apartment is too small and dark and quiet and you just want it all to stop.
You don’t want to feel the warmth of his life dripping through your fingers. You don’t want to see him in the kitchen, laughing and wearing only an apron. You don’t want to know what his eyes looked like when he died. You don’t want to know what he sounded like in the morning when his voice was thick with sleep.
When your cell is charged you call your therapist. You’re sitting in her waiting room half an hour later.
(So what if you had a shot before you left? So what if it’s only nine in the morning? So what if that’s your ‘normal’? So what?)
She lets you in her office with barely any greeting, and then she just sits and stares. Your skin feels too tight. There’s a clock ticking somewhere in the room. She doesn’t say one fucking word.
“I shot him!” you sob into the silence. “I shot him!”
She feeds you and buys you a hotel room, and then she just sits with you until you’re ready to go.
When you dream, you dream about him. He laughs as you feed him homemade chocolate. He throws his drink in your face on your first date.
He says I love you when he thinks you’re asleep, and you wait until he says it to your face to say it back.
You fell in love with him centuries ago, and you’ve been falling in love with all the new pieces of him since.
The dream ends with your hands covered in blood, though, and you remember that you’ve been leading him to his death for centuries too.
“What makes this death different?” your therapist asks the next day.
She brought you lunch – fried chicken, coleslaw, mashed potatoes; comfort food from when you were in the American South. You become ravenous at the sight of it.
Her question catches you right as you bite into a chicken leg, and it gives you time to think.
“the Laetha has died before,” she says before you can answer. “He’s a god. They make a game out of resurrection, many of them. What’s different?”
You put your plate down.
“I shot him this time. I killed him,” you say.
“And you fear how he felt about that?” she asks.
“No,” you sigh. “I know he would have – I did the right thing.”
She stares at you with those colorless android eyes, and you can hear all the questions you’ve asked yourself.
Why not let Asier kill Mircea?
Why not wait until you could get Asier out of the way?
Why shoot through him?
“Your god will be reborn,” she presses on, not voicing any of those damning inquries. “Why are you so distraught?”
Your breathing is loud and heavy.
“What if he doesn’t?” you whisper.
She blinks. “What if he doesn’t?” she repeats back.
You’re not hungry anymore.
the Clarene is tending his grave when you arrive. She’s pulled weeds and disposed of offerings, and she sits at the grave dripping blood from a cut on her hand onto the ground.
You stand far enough away you won’t catch the scent of it.
“What do you want, Pallis?” she asks. Her voice is like crushed autumn leaves.
“Is he ever coming back?”
the Clarene stands, and the earth under your feet shakes.
She doesn’t look at you.
(“I don’t know if I can love you,” she’ll say when she places a crown on your head. “I don’t know if I have it in me.”)
“Go ask your mother,” she snaps.
So you walk to the River.
You expect her to smell like blood still, but all you sniff is lotus flowers. Your mother sits on a rock near the bank, watching over a few young water faeries. Of you all, she’s the best adjusted. She even smiles, on occasion.
You stand by her side as she babysits the teenagers, and even in all your sorrow your chest lightens seeing her spine relax when their parents come for them. She really is atrocious with children.
the Ophelia looks at you immediately after, and all the tension returns.
“What do you want, little star?” she asks.
You glance at the River. The water is clear.
The water took everything away.
“I want my lover to come back,” you murmur.
She takes your hand and walks you into the River, deep enough the waves lap at your thighs. The water that had been so brown is now blue and clean. The water always washes everything away, no matter how bad.
“What would you do to get him back?” the River asks.
“Everything,” you whisper.
Hard metal presses to your chest. “This will hurt,” she apologizes.
Being shot always does, but you’re drowning soon enough.
You wake on a frozen lake.
You came here the first time you died in the River. A safe haven, a world crafted to be ever-winter. You lived here for an age, mapping the snowy hills and painting the bleak landscape.
The cold is everywhere, but being made of starfire keeps the danger at bay.
All there is to do is stand up and start walking. You don’t know how long it takes to reach the cabin you built all those lives ago, but the house is exactly as you left it. The door takes some force to open.
Decay and rot assault your nose when you manage to crack open the building. You cough, pressing a desperate hand over your face to muffle the scent.
You know your lover is in there, and you go in anyway.
Nothing grows on his body except for foul rot. No elegant fungus, no blood-loving moss. His skin is a patchy husk, his lips all but gone and revealing crooked white teeth. His hair is dirty with dried mud and sticks, and blood covers his whole chest. No flies swarm, no maggots writhe in his body, and that only makes the scene worse. His body shouldn’t smell by now. Nothing about the decay is right.
But you remember you already buried his body, above where winter doesn’t hold so tight, and you wonder what exactly you’re gazing upon now.
(Later, you will realize that neither you nor the Clarene ever asked the Ophelia permission to take the body. Neither of you recognized that those who die in the River belong first to the Ophelia, and so all you ever buried in the world above was a body, leaving his soul to rot.)
If this is what is left of your lover’s soul, you’d still want him back.
You reach for his hand.
He catches on fire when your fingers touch him, like a match to paper.
There’s no gasp of life, no shriek or song. There’s just the fire as it eats what’s left of him, fire as it consumes the cabin, fire as it consumes you.
He turns to ash in your hands.
You wake in your hotel bed. Your therapist is by your side, helping you sit up, giving you water and bread until you’re strong enough to sit up on your own, strong enough to stand, strong enough to walk around the room.
You pay her for the hotel room and call for a cab. The day is cloudy and grey and crackling with thunder, but you spend every minute in your apartment. There are six garbage bags full of the life you lived by the time your phone rings at midnight, and the house is an empty clean slate. You tape a note to the door and throw your phone in the trash.
Maybe you’re finally ready to ‘move on’.
You buy a new place on the other side of town and every Sunday spend two hours with your therapist, and on Mondays you go to his grave and put roses on the ground, and you’re still drinking too much. You don’t black out, you don’t wake up in strange beds or stranger parks, but you’re buzzed constantly, and the organizers you’re supposed to be working with don’t want to be around someone that smells like booze 24/7. So Sundays become therapy, Mondays become death, and Fridays are full of shitty coffee and plastic chairs arranged in a circle while people talk about what got them so low.
He doesn’t come back, and every day you get closer to ‘moving on’.
There aren’t pictures on your walls, and your fridge is empty, and you don’t get up at two in the morning to make chocolate for someone that isn’t there anymore. But life doesn’t feel as grey. You start smiling at your therapist, even though she never smiles back. You find new friends, and the lights of the city seem bright again. You start singing again.
Your bed is still too cold, and your apartment is still too empty, but you’re not suffocating.
And then Monday comes and you’re standing in front of his grave with a bouquet of roses, and you decide to move on.
It’s six in the morning on a Thursday when your cell phone rings. Spencer – that officer from months ago, the one you tripped into again and got the courage to ask out – groans, grabbing a pillow and covering his ears, and you shuffle out of the room with phone in hand as quickly as you can.
“Hello?” you yawn.
“You may want to come to the Orchard,” the Clarene’s rich voice says, static from the phone hissing. All traces of sleep vanish from your mind and body, and your spine is ramrod straight. She doesn’t call you. She never calls you or talks to you, unless.
“…what happened?” you say, your voice much softer and weaker than you want it to be.
“I’ll send a car for you,” she says instead, and then there’s the firm click that lets you know she’s hung up on you.
You wake Spencer up, but once his cherry colored eyes are open and looking at you, you don’t know what you want to do. You can’t breathe. He stares at you, confused, then brushes a hand against your cheek.
“You’re crying,” he observes.
“I have to go to the Orchard,” you tell him. His shoulders stiffen. He looks at you, looks through you, then swings himself off the bed and gets dressed in the same suit he wore last night. You stay on the bed, naked, crying silently and lost. More lost than when he first died.
Spencer fixes his tie and turns back to you, eyebrows scrunching together.
“Aren’t you going to get dressed? We need to go, right?”
You make some awful strangled animal noise in your throat. He’s not leaving. You won’t be alone.
You can face whatever happens if you’re not alone.
When the car pulls up in front of your apartment complex, you’re ready and able to breathe and able to think. Spencer holds onto your hand like a vice on the ride through the city, through the fields, through the trees and to the plot where Asier is buried.
You tell yourself you’ll be composed, but when you see his hand sticking up out of the ground you’re not. Tears start pouring down your face, and you run to the grave and dig. You hate dirt, and you hate digging, and you hate the smell and feel of it, but you shuck dirt away from the hand and uncover an arm, and then a chest, and then he’s there, breathing shallowly, covered in dirt and roots but whole. His body isn’t decayed, isn’t bone or rot, isn’t fungus or flower.
the Clarene is standing near the grave, but it’s Spencer that helps you pull Asier out of the ground. (You’ll realize later that she wanted you to be the one to dig up your lover, wanted you to have a hand in bringing him back. Maybe she was tired of doing all the dirty work. Maybe she knew what it meant to you.) Asier is breathing, but his eyes are closed, and there’s nothing for you to do now that you’ve pulled him out of the ground.
He coughs up dirt and beetles and gold.
His eyes open.
“Asier!” you cry. He coughs again, spluttering as more earth and bugs pour forth from his mouth, and while Spencer slaps his back you hold onto his hands.
His gold eyes fall on you. He doesn’t look anywhere else. He touches your face, not believing you’re real, and you throw yourself onto him because you can’t believe he’s real, and then he’s laughing and telling you how awful it was to be buried in the ground for so long. You apologize, over and over again.
His fingers hurt when he digs them into you, clamping on, but you don’t mind.
You realize you never really moved on.
the Clarene steps close to the three of you, and she towers over you all, but her expression is calm. She points at the empty grave.
Mostly empty, you see. A small glowing white sprout peeks up from the dirt.
She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t comment on the plant, and she doesn’t comment on Spencer. She just takes the three of you inside the cottage she built and washes you all off. Spencer’s suit is ruined, but he laughs it off. You all end up laughing.
Spencer drives you home to your apartment, and Asier walks into the room with silent awe, turning to look at the sparse walls and dark drapes. Spencer hesitates near the door, staring at your old lover.
You’re ready to start your life over again, but you don’t want to throw everything away.
“Can I make us dinner?” Asier says, turning back to you. His gold eyes fall on Spencer. “Can I make dinner for all of us?”
“I don’t have anything in the fridge,” you mumble.
Asier shakes his head at you and reaches for your hand. “Of course not,” he grumbles. He throws a crooked smile at Spencer. “Want to get dinner?”
Spencer stands stiff, at attention, like he’s at work. “If you would like to.”
“I would like to.”
His hand is so hot in your hand, hotter than his blood was, and he’s alive, he’s back with you, he’s returned to you. And he’s happy, he’s alive, he’s happy and smiling and accepting of everything, like he’s always been. He holds out a hand for Spencer, and the three of you go to dinner, and life has changed. Life has finally changed, and you don’t have to choose between life and love anymore.