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One Equal Temper

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The flowers kept you going.

Kneeling on your balcony, you pressed a finger to the soil, ensuring the loose earth was damp enough to the touch. Every flower had been misted, their white petals bright against the backdrop of a half-ruined landscape. Their stems were more frail than they were the last time you checked, weakened by a lack of sunlight; the thick fog of clouds blanketing the sky only seemed to be getting worse by the day.

An occasional sound would pierce the silence—the unearthly reverb of a demonic roar, the thunderous collapse of another distant structure to rubble and dust.

The earth had her orbit. You had your routine.

The city could be destroyed if it wanted to be.

Eventually, you looked up from your handiwork, only to be met by a massive demonic bird perched atop your balcony railing.

“Hello,” you said, dumbstruck.

“Heya,” it said back.

The bird’s beak split into three as it spoke, its masculine voice laced with an unnatural echo. His dark, iridescent plumage shined a royal azure beneath the polluted sunlight, boasting stripes of electric blue bright as beetle shells across the length of his feathers.

You tried not to panic. All you had was a spray bottle, and unless you wanted to spritz at him like an unruly housecat, not much could be done if he suddenly decided to tear your face off.

“You’re very beautiful,” you observed.

“Yeah, wish I could say the same about you.” He cocked his head, his eyes a pair of gold beads behind a bony crown. “Soooo. Whatchya doin’ down there?”

“Gardening.”

“Gardening!” he cackled. “Trimmin’ the hedges, even in the apocalypse. Talk about priorities. Look, pal—not sure if you noticed, but your entire city’s gone straight to hell. Last place on earth a human like you should be playin’ around in the dirt.”

You offered an uneasy smile. “You’re not gonna kill me, are you?”

“Ohoho, someone thinks highly of themselves! Nah, you ain’t worth my time. You’re as good as dead hangin’ around a place like this, anyway. Might as well be diggin’ yourself a little grave down there.”

“A grave, huh?” You looked back at the flowerbed with mock concern. “I’m gonna need more soil.”

“You’ve really got no sense of self-preservation, do ya?”

“Now you sound like my surgeon.”

“Whatever, buddy. It’s your funeral.”

With that, the bird took from your railing, sinking away from view with several beats of his great wings.

As you returned to your work and daydreamed about the hypothetical dimensions of a planter large enough to bury yourself in, there was a knock at your door.

Your stomach dropped.

There was a knock. At your door.

You rushed to the kitchen, grabbing a knife with the blind, reckless determination only shown by those who had no idea what they were doing.

More knocks followed—slower, louder than before. You could tell they were using some heavy, blunt object to tap against your apartment door.

You kept several feet between yourself and the locked entrance, as if it were liable to implode at any moment.

“How did you get past the barricade?” you demanded.

“I used the fire escape,” a dark voice answered, with a lilt that sounded almost playful.

You spat out a curse. You’d forgotten about the fire escape.

“Pardon my intrusion,” the stranger continued, “but I couldn’t help but notice those delightful flowers adorning your balcony.”

“You climbed six stories to talk about my plants?”

“Of course. They are deserving of proper compliment, though such curated beauty would not have survived unaided. And, as demons don’t typically make a habit of keeping gardens…”

“You knew someone was here.” You ran a hand through your hair. Not blocking the fire escape, leaving your greenery out in the open—you’d been careless about your continued presence here, and now you were going to pay for it. “You here to kill me, then?”

“What makes you say that?”

“Par for the course for everything else in this fucking city.”

“I assure you, I mean you no harm. I am simply...curious.”

“You know, curiosity didn’t do any favours for the cat.”

“And yet satisfaction still brought it back.”

“What would satisfy you, exactly?”

“A proper introduction.”

The nerve.

Ignoring the pounding of your pulse in your ears, you approached the door to sneak a look through its peephole. The fisheye lens gave you a muddied view of a man in black; he held an open book in one hand and a steel walking stick in the other, the handle of which he must’ve been using to knock on your door.

Whoever he was looked human, at least.

You took a deep breath.

Slowly, carefully, you unlocked the door, keeping the chain lock in place as you inched it open.

The man stood taller than you, slender and well-postured, his dark, sweeping hair looking impossibly soft. Though he was wearing a pair of black jeans, he was shirtless beneath a sleeveless leather coat, showing off tattoos swirling across the pallor of his skin like ink bleeding in water.

You stared up at him through the gap in the door. “And you are?”

Drifting from his book, his eyes met yours—a green so deep they were almost black.

My name is Wonderful. Inquire not after it, seeing it is a secret.

“I...what?”

“Just kidding,” he smirked, snapping his book shut. “Call me V.”

You felt like he was telling some kind of joke you weren’t in on.

Trying to hold your nerve, you introduced yourself in return. He repeated after you, and hearing your name in his voice made something warm stir inside your chest.

“Thank you for indulging me,” he said, giving a slight bow of his head. “My apologies for the disruption.”

To your surprise, he turned heel, using his cane to lead himself back down the hallway.

“Wait,” you sputtered, still trying to peek after him through the two-inch gap of the chain-locked door, “where are you going?”

“I’m on a timeline, I’m afraid,” he called back.

Panic set in at the prospect of being alone again, the sudden fear of it rattling like ice in the hollows of your ribcage. You hadn’t seen or spoken to a single living person since the catastrophe started, and the powers that be were gracious enough to dropship you someone who spoke like a poet and dressed like a victorian harlot—who were you to not welcome the distraction?

A fleeting thought had you wondering if vampires were real, too.

(Was that what the ‘V’ stood for? It was a little on-the-nose.)

You unchained the door and swung it open, half-stumbling into the hallway, catching him before he rounded the corner and disappeared from your life, forever.

“Would you like some tea??” you shouted after him.

V stopped in his tracks and turned to face you—you, with your hopeful expression, your knife by your side, your fingertips still caked with garden soil.

He smirked at the sight of you, and your heart skipped a beat.

-

The electricity in your complex had been out for quite some time, but the plumbing was still fully functional: you could fill a kettle with water and light a burner of the gas-powered stove without issue.

“Sorry for being an asshole,” you said from the kitchen. “I’m a little...well, you’re the first thing with the right number of limbs I’ve seen in a week.”

“Do not apologize for your caution,” he replied. “It is what has been keeping you alive, after all.”

V looked a little out of place on your living room couch—such elegance and proper posture sitting amongst a dragon’s hoard of supplies you’d stolen from neighboring apartments. He was surrounded by small hills of plastic water bottles and canned food, but he didn’t seem to pay the mess around him any mind. You noticed he was wearing sandals. Who wore sandals to the apocalypse?

“Have you been here long?” he asked.

You took a seat across from him and tried not to look at his feet. “Since a few days after the incident, I think.”

“Is there a reason for not evacuating with the others?”

“Oh. I, um.” Hesitating for a moment, you pulled back your sleeve and held up your arm, revealing a band still wrapped around your wrist. Why you hadn’t removed it yet, you didn’t know. “I guess you could say I missed the boat.”

He glanced at your wristband, putting two and two together. “You were in the hospital.”

“Car accident. I remember an ambulance, being taken to a room...a lot of it’s hazy, but by the time I came to, everyone was already gone.”

He raised an eyebrow. “And you figured simply getting up and walking home was your best chance of survival?”

“I needed to get out of there one way or another.” You tried to laugh it off, but you just ended up sounding terrified. “Those creatures weren’t as rampant then as they are now, but I was still dodging hellspawn armed with a hospital gown and the worst headache of my life. Felt like I was in a fucking horror movie.”

“Impressive. For a civilian,” he amended.

The qualifier annoyed you. You thought it was pretty damn impressive for anyone.

“Only people who aren’t civilians use the word ‘civilian,’” you said, irritated. “Who are you, anyway?”

“I am many things,” he explained, and you wondered if he was being deliberately obtuse. “For one, I am tasked with purging this realm of the evil that’s befallen it.”

“Yeah? How’s that going?”

His expression flickered. “There is...much work to be done.”

“No kidding.” Glancing away, you tried to keep your anxiety about it from being too obvious. You’d still get the occasional mental flash of the monsters you encountered during your escape—too many eyes, too many legs, too many goddamn teeth. “Is it like this everywhere?”

“No, the breakout has been contained to this city alone.” He tilted his head towards you, a sudden glint in his eyes. “Which is precisely what makes your survival so remarkable.”

“Lucky me.”

After your recent series of unfortunate events, suspension of disbelief was a luxury of the past: if this guy had dropped in telling you he was the King of France, you would've swapped his pronouns for ‘Your Majesty’s without a second thought. Deep down, you knew the true, supernatural, cataclysmic magnitude of the situation was far beyond your understanding, but you still couldn’t help but wonder about the man sitting in front of you. With the way he spoke, the way he carried himself...if he really was ‘tasked with purging evil,’ as he put it, maybe he was an angel of some kind.

If demons existed, angels did too, right?

“Thank you,” you started, feeling a sudden wave of humility, “for taking the time to talk to a complete stranger. I’m sure you’ve...y’know. Got more important things to do.”

“You seemed like you needed the company,” he said. “I imagine it gets quite lonely.”

A nervous laugh escaped you. “I just never knew how quiet the world could be.”

You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough. The sentiment resounds doubly for silence.”

You could tell by his tone he was quoting something, but wherever it was from was lost on you.

Until this point, the disasters you witnessed felt like an adrenaline-induced fever dream, mostly because you’d experienced them alone—but being seen, being acknowledged by someone else gave it all a gravity it didn’t have before. As your state of constant terror and survival began to fray at the edges, the full weight of your catastrophe settled somewhere between your shoulder blades, and you felt as if you’d aged the entire week’s events at once.

Eventually, you met his eyes again, and there was a warmth in them that wasn’t there before, as if he, too, had heard the quiet of a barren world and knew just how loud it could be.

“Are you alone?” you asked, finally. “Doing the whole demon-killing thing?”

He shook his head. “Not exactly. With regards to the city, my allies and I have chosen to divide and conquer.”

‘Allies,’ he called them. Fellow hunters. You wondered what they were like. Did they all dress and speak like he did? They probably had matching tattoos. And motorcycles.

“And what of you?” he asked. “Do you know anyone who may have escaped the city? Friends? A loved one, perhaps?”

(The way your eyes flickered to your balcony did not escape his notice.)

“No,” you settled on. “Do you? Have any loved ones, I mean.”

He hummed. “Love is but one of many luxuries time has not seen fit to afford me.”

The weight of his statement gave you pause. A handful of words birthed a hundred implications, none of which could be clarified in any marginally polite manner. You hadn’t even known he existed fifteen minutes ago—it wasn’t any of your business, if he’d ever loved anyone before. If he’d ever been loved in turn. If time itself was a mitigating factor, or if he was simply running out of it.

“You seem surprised,” he said, snapping you from your reverie.

“A little.”

“Why?”

At this point, you were sure he was teasing you, just a ploy to trick you into a compliment—you’re impossibly attractive, V, how could you not have the world at your feet—but you found his expression of earnest curiosity catching you completely off-guard.

Did he not recognize himself as someone who could be loved?

The kettle whistled.

You were quick to your feet.

The way he’d looked to you for an answer—it wasn’t a matter of low self-esteem or self-deprecation, it was a moment of sincere confusion from someone who had never considered himself in that light. He was ethereal. Alien. An entity from some other world, some alternate plane, naive to his effect on mortal beings on this earth, and by some horrible twist of fate, the universe saw you fit to be the first to bring it to his attention.

Heat rose in your cheeks.

If he were an angel, there would a very special place in hell, reserved just for you.

You busied yourself in the kitchen for much longer than necessary, in an effort to put as much space between you and the conversation as possible. As you had no milk or cream to speak of, and the sugar was already in its own little jar, you spent an agonizing four minutes rifling through the cupboards, pretending to decide between tea mugs as if it were the single most important decision of your life.

By the time you returned to the living room, V was reading. You could see his book more clearly, now, bound in brown hardcover and embellished with gold embroidery.

“Is that your journal?” you asked, setting a mug down in front of him.

“A collection of poetry.” He smiled a little, pointing to his initial on the cover. “Fifth volume.”

You couldn’t tell if he was joking. You found yourself returning his smile, anyway.

Keeping your cup in your hands, you slid back into the seat across from him. “Will you read to me?”

“No need to fear, I will spare you the tedium.”

“No, I mean.” You looked everywhere, anywhere but him. “I—I’d like to hear it.”

He glanced askance at you from above the edge of his book, but your slightly-flustered look of interest eased his suspicions at once. To his pleasant surprise, you were being serious.

“Well then,” he teased, a slight smirk curling at the edge of his lips, “since you asked so politely.”

You wrapped your fingers around your steaming mug to keep yourself from fidgeting. You watched his slender fingers turn the pages, slow and deliberate, until he found what he was searching for.

And he spoke.

Love seeketh not itself to please,

Nor for itself hath any care,

But for another gives its ease,

And builds a Heaven in Hell's despair.

He continued on, speaking as if his voice wouldn’t still your heart to silence, glancing up between verses as if the deep green of his eyes wouldn’t make you feel like you were drowning.

He was enchanting.

And you were in trouble.