Your headache had never really gone away.
Since the moment you awoke alone in the hospital, the ringing within your skull only ever seemed to ebb and flow in tides. On good days, the ache would retreat to a dull buzzing behind your eyes—an annoying, albeit tolerable inconvenience.
But today was not a good day.
You weren’t sure how long you’d been lying here, spread-eagle on the floor beside your open balcony. When your eyes were open, pain blurred the edges of your vision; when you closed them, sparks flashed behind your eyelids in time with every aching throb. Having already exhausted your stock of pain medication, you had little energy to move, let alone hunt around neighboring apartments searching for more.
You were lying perpendicular to the balcony’s sliding door, angled so that your view of the outside was upside-down. The hardwood floor was cool against your skin, the morning breeze soft and welcoming. You watched through narrowed eyes as your flowers swayed in the wind, their freshly-misted petals glinting in the cloudy sunlight. They were holding up well, all things considered—they were weaker than you would’ve liked, but they were surviving. Existing.
That was the best you could do, for now.
With great effort, you sat up to grab a small bag of chips from your scattered piles of scavenged supplies. You probably shouldn’t have been eating these, sick as as you were, but junk food would help you feel better in all the ways Ibuprofen could not.
You lied back down on the floor, and as the upside-down vision of the outside returned to view, you realized a familiar feathered form had appeared on the flat of your balcony.
“Still alive, gravedigger? You’re more stubborn than I thought.”
“Oh, hey,” you brightened up. “You again.”
“In the flesh!” he said, puffing up. “Miss me?”
“Like a pebble in my shoe.” You popped open the bag of chips on your chest. Several spilled onto your shirt. Your life was an abyss. “Not dead yet, sorry to disappoint. Come back in a few hours, you have full permission to chow down on my rotting corpse then.”
You had no idea a bird could look so offended.
“Do I look like some kinda vulture to you?” he snapped. “Rather starve than resort to eating your nasty ass, thanks. I happen to have a very refined palette.”
(He was definitely eyeing your chips.)
“Don’t you have anything better to do than come up here and pick on me?” you asked, possessively hugging the snack to yourself.
The way you closed the bag on him seemed to ruffle his feathers. “Don’t flatter yourself, treefucker. Wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t V askin’.”
“...you know V?”
“Did he not tell you about me? Figures.”
Though he was clearly trying to shrug it off, the smallest hint of disappointment tainted his voice.
All at once, you felt terrible.
You reached into the crumpled bag on your chest. Stretching an arm out above you, you held out a single, nacho-cheese-flavoured olive branch, and you told him your name. “What’s yours?”
The demon’s beady golden eyes glanced at you, then at the chip. Wary, he waddled forward a few steps to approach your outstretched arm. You found his caution hilarious, as he was the one with the serrated, razor-sharp beak that could tear your arm clean off in half a moment’s notice; dangerous as it was to have your fingers anywhere near the demonic bird’s mouth, he took the snack from you with a mindful gentleness that was damn near adorable.
“Name’s Griffon,” he mumbled, holding the chip between his beak. “I’m one of V’s familiars.”
“The most handsome one, I’m sure.”
“You’re goddamn right.”
You continued feeding him for a while, offering one chip at a time. Griffon really was a gorgeous bird, in a terrifying, haunting sort of way, like a cryptid from some forest folktale told to frighten children. A ‘familiar,’ he’d called himself. Like the kind witches had. At this point, your theories regarding V’s identity had ranged from vampire to angel to warlock—and after the taste of supernatural phenomenon you had thus far, you no longer wrote anything off as impossible. Had V sent Griffon to see you the first time, too? Why send him again, several days later?
“Y’know, gravedigger,” Griffon said, mouth half-full, “maybe I had you pegged all wrong.”
You sneered. “Food changed your tune pretty quick.”
“Not as fast as yours did when you found out I knew V.”
Your surprise must’ve been obvious—he responded with a sinister chuckle filled with too much mirth for comfort.
“Oh sure, I know all about that awkward fiasco. Sharin’ your tragic backstory, makin’ goo-goo eyes at him over your little tea party. ‘Will you read to me?’ Eugh. Like Shakespeare needs any more enabling.”
You were mortified. Where could Griffon have possibly been hiding at the time? Had he overheard everything? And what of the impression you made? Had you really been so transparent, egregiously outing yourself as some sad, lonely weirdo desperate for human contact? Just because it was true didn’t mean you had to be so obvious about it.
Ignoring your reaction completely, Griffon approached the bag you let slide off to the side of you. “I mean, don‘t get me wrong, he’s a good kid—but what you see in him, I do not know. Maybe all that pollen’s finally gone to your head.” He nudged through the bag’s contents with his beak. “Anyway, V ain’t the brightest bulb in the toolshed when it comes to this kind of stuff, so I spelled it out for him, nice and clear. You’re welcome.”
“...what did you say?”
“That you’ve got the hots for him, what else?”
That’s what you were afraid of.
“This is ridiculous,” you said, unsure of who you were trying to convince. “We’ve had one conversation. He wouldn’t give a shit what I think, he’s got more important things to deal with.”
“Then why the hell’s he been standing outside your door for the past ten minutes like he’s forgotten how to knock?”
Paling, you bolted upright. “Why didn’t you open with that??”
Griffon had his head fully in the bag, now. “Just wanted to watch you panic!”
The mental image of V standing nervously outside, so reluctant to bother you he sent Griffon up first, made your heart race in way that only worsened the painful pulsing in your head.
As you scrambled to your feet and approached the door, you became hyper-aware of the sleep in your eyes, the chip dust on your shirt, and the general dishevelment of your entire being. You tried to get your act together as quickly as you could without a mirror—patting off your shirt, adjusting your floor-flattened hair—all while trying to suppress your headache through sheer power of will.
Taking a deep breath, you opened the door.
The dark-haired stranger had indeed returned to your doorstep. The soft shadows around his eyes made him look slightly more tired than before, but he didn’t look like he was anxious to knock, and certainly not like he was any the wiser of your heart’s premature betrayal. As you stood there before him, flushed and flustered for no apparent reason, the most obvious questions sprang to the forefront of your worry: did V not know, after all?
Had Griffon made all that stuff up just to mess with you?
As if on cue, you heard a nasty little cackle from behind you.
To think you shared Doritos with him.
You tried to keep your tone nonchalant. “Good morning.”
“Salutations,” V said, because of course he was someone who still used that word. “Glad to have caught you at home.”
The blatant sarcasm put a smile on your face. “You know, I was just about to head out.”
“Ah, a pressing engagement? Shall I try again later?”
“No need, I should be able to reschedule.”
A slow smirk graced his lips at your banter, doing nothing to ease your still-quickening heart. You felt an unexpected, overwhelming sense of gratitude towards Griffon, of all creatures, for having known of your inclinations but choosing to keep his mouth shut. You didn’t want V to think differently of you.
You didn’t want to scare him away.
V shifted his weight, leaning more heavily on his cane. “I was hoping you would grant me the opportunity of repaying you for your hospitality, the other day.”
You laughed, going a little red around the ears. “You don‘t have to, it was just a cup of tea.”
“A cup more than I had prior, nonetheless.” He stepped aside and gestured beside himself, making room for you through the doorway. “Will you walk with me?”
“What—you mean like, outside?” The thought alone made you take a step backwards into your apartment—your safe, well-stocked, demon-free-except-for-the-one-bird apartment. “Yeah, no, I—I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“The surrounding area is safe, for now.”
Griffon swooped over your shoulder and into the hallway. “Oh, yeah. We made sure of that.”
As V walked away, he shrugged his head, motioning for you to follow. “Come.”
The instant rise of panic was at odds with the sudden urge to follow his lead. Had you heard them correctly? Had they killed a bunch of demons together for the express purpose of walking with you? Was this some kind of trap—trying to get you to a secondary location, maybe? But if they wanted you dead, why go through all this trouble? Were they just being nice? To what end?
You swallowed, hard.
Only one way to find out.
As you had barricaded the main entrance to the apartment building, the fire escape was the only way in or out.
From the moment you stepped foot onto the winding steel staircase, your internal switch flipped back into frantic survival mode, a behaviour you hadn’t adopted since the night you escaped the hospital. You made as little noise as possible. You checked your corners before rounding them. You kept your eyes and ears strained for signs of movement in your peripheral, almost too afraid to blink in case you missed something.
V seemed to pay your high alert frustratingly little mind; leading with his cane, he strolled at a leisurely pace without a single care in the world, as Griffon kept watch from overhead. At one point, Griffon snuck up and scared the shit out of you, cackling madly and gliding away when you weren’t fast enough to smack him in retaliation.
You stayed close to V at first, following his flat-sandaled footsteps through crushed streets of rubble and exposed wires. However, as several minutes passed and the complete absence of enemies allowed your mounting caution to ease, V noticed you straying further from him.
He watched with careful interest as you processed the wreckage of your new reality.
Gradually, your attention shifted from your own frenzied survival to the extent of the damage done to the city, taking in the scale of chaos you hadn’t yet seen beneath daylight. These were places you knew well, streets you crossed every day, rendered unrecognizable by the carnage of recent events. He watched you drift through broken alleyways like sections of a museum, from the frantic graffiti of the now-dead to the hollow, blood-drained shells of the civilians left behind, as you maintained a silent reverence for the destruction all the while.
You spotted a crowbar sitting on cracked cement, beneath the broken window of a shop you’d passed by often but never had the chance to visit.
“Where are we going, anyway?” you finally asked, crouching down to pick up the length of metal.
“You tell me.”
You weren’t sure when you’d taken the lead on this excursion, but V had given it to you, willingly, curious to see where your legs would take you without you knowing.
A glance across the street made your blood run cold.
The nearest landmark was a single-story brick building, half-collapsed and lifeless, a large section on the far end somehow still on fire. Colourful drawings lined what was little was left of the tall windows. Papers and textbooks layed scattered and singed around the grounds. Though the field was slightly uneven, the playground out front was surprisingly intact.
Noticing you’d stopped and stared, Griffon flew down and hovered next to you. “Little old for fingerpainting, ain’t you?”
“Quiet, you,” you mumbled, and you headed for the swings.
As you took a seat, Griffon landed on the support pole above you, his talons sounding heavy as they clasped around the metal bar. You hadn’t expected V to claim the swing next to you; he leaned on his cane for support as he sat down, retrieving his book from his coat and reading from it in silence. You were side-by-side on the swingset in the middle of a half-ruined field, facing the flaming wreckage of an elementary school in all of its still-blazing glory.
And it was peaceful, somehow.
“Are you feeling better?” V asked, not looking up from his book.
“I am, yeah.” You didn’t bother questioning how he knew you’d been ill. “Do I look that bad?”
“No, but I cannot imagine forced isolation does one’s health any favours.”
“I think I just needed some fresh air.”
Griffon scoffed from above. “Fresh air ain‘t gonna cure what you got.”
Embarrassed, you thought he was taunting you, making a sly reference to what he knew, but you noticed V’s expression had gone rather stern.
“A moment of privacy, if you would be so kind.”
With those words, V raised his arm and withdrew Griffon, dematerializing the bird into a cloud of black particles; the vapour then redrew itself onto patches of his skin you hadn’t realized were barren, with the demon’s swirling sigils camouflaging effortlessly within the rest of his tattoos.
You didn’t even bother trying to look away. “Woah. Just when I thought I had some part of you figured out.”
He smirked, returning to his reading. “You are in no danger of that, I assure you.”
Tearing your eyes from him, you prodded the rocks beneath you with your newfound crowbar, rocking gently back and forth in your swing. Every moment you spent with him seemed to raise more questions than answers. Who was this guy? And why was he here, with you? From what you gathered from his demeanor, you knew he wouldn’t be inclined to answer any prying questions from a complete stranger he’d met all of twice. Besides, he hadn’t asked you anything too personal yet, either—who were you not to extend him the same courtesy?
You enjoyed his company, even if most of him was a mystery.
“How goes the demon-exterminating?” you asked, trying to make conversation with what little you knew of him.
“I have been gathering as much information as I can about the current plague,” he said. “Extermination is endgame, but we are still far from finding permanent resolution.”
“Anything I can do to help?”
The question seemed to amuse him, more than anything.
He was just about sure what to make of you.
Since the attack, V had spent the majority of his time assisting with citizen evacuations and military efforts, as futile as the latter continued proving to be. And here you were, one of the final living civilians in Red Grave, a human who escaped a hospital and traversed a demon-infested city to barricade themselves in their apartment and live on stolen rations, asking if they could help with his quest. The past two weeks had given him much experience dealing with humans in terror, humans in grief, humans who believed being bold and trigger-happy was enough to keep them alive, but he hadn’t yet met anyone quite like you—someone so desperate to survive, yet so indifferent to the prospect of their own demise.
He chose his words carefully, keeping his eyes to his book as he spoke. “You have no intention of leaving this city, do you?”
Your initial silence spoke volumes.
“Can’t,” you settled on, finally. “I’ve got a garden to tend to.”
“Those flowers must be very important to you.”
“They’re all I have left.”
He did not pry further.
Your passive suicidality already confirmed his suspicions. You only fought to survive because you wanted to die on your own terms. It was something he recognized quite clearly.
It was something he saw in himself.
Even though it was barely noon, you already felt like the day had gone on for far too long. You weren’t sure what you were expecting from this walk, but you certainly hadn’t expected V to read you so goddamn clearly, outlining your existential crisis while you didn’t even know if he had a last name. What you wouldn’t give right now for one minute without a headache. One shower with heated water. One good meal that didn’t come out of a can.
“God, I miss french fries,” you said.
That seemed to get his attention. “Pardon?”
“French fries,” you repeated. “I would kill for some french fries right now. What’s your favourite food?”
(Did he even need to eat?)
“...I must admit, no one has ever asked me that before.”
“...you don’t really talk to a lot of people, do you?”
“Not if I can help it, no.” V considered your initial question, even taking a moment to look up from his book and focus on some indeterminate point in the sky, like he was recalling something long-forgotten. “Chocolate, I suppose.”
“Yes.” He returned to his reading and flipped the page—his expression was somber, as if the memory he’d uncovered was bittersweet. “I remember quarreling over it, as a boy.”
Though you figured you should’ve known better than to assume anything about him, you didn’t expect him to have a sweet tooth. You tried not to think about just how adorable him liking chocolate was. You failed.
“Is there anything else you miss about your old world? Other than food?” he added with a smirk.
‘Your old world,’ he’d said. Such detached phrasing. As if he hadn’t been a part of it.
“Of course,” you replied. “They’re...not the things I thought I’d miss, though. Everything before the accident—everything I stressed over and worried about, every day of my life—it’s all so meaningless, now. I’m not thinking about my job, or my debt, or my future. It’s all the little things I’ll miss the most.”
“I don’t know,” you muttered, your hands tightening around the chains of your swing. You suddenly felt sheepish. “Late-night trips to the corner store? Hanging out with my neighbor’s cat. I miss listening to music. I miss how the rain used to be. It used to make me feel happy, excited for the start of a new day—now whenever it rains, it feels...dangerous. Like it’s hiding something.”
“Some things are not shown proper recognition until they are gone,” he said. “Having such experiences to miss in the first place is something worth cherishing.”
Your brow furrowed—he was using weird, abstract language again, like he had nothing tying him to this world. “There must be something you miss, too.”
Closing the book in his lap, he nodded, wearing the same forlorn look as before. “I used to play the violin.”
His dark green eyes drifting shut, V straightened his back and positioned his arms just so; he tilted his head onto an unseen rest, fingers poised around a non-existent bow and ghosting over invisible strings. You could tell it was a resting position he was intimately familiar with, his form and posture practiced and precise, and the ease with which he transitioned into the stance was mesmerizing.
“I would study the same piece for hours, days on end, until I was confident enough to perform it for others,” he whispered. “It was something I was good at. Something that was mine.”
Getting a glance into something so important to him made your heart swell beneath your chest.
“Sounds wonderful,” you said, trying not to make yourself so damn obvious. “I’d give up french fries to hear you play.”
The sentiment put a smile on his face as he eased his posture. “My past is not a destination I seek to visit often, but speaking with you appears to have brought back memories from...better times.”
“...is that good?”
He turned to look at you fully, now; the crowbar still in your hand, the hospital band still on your wrist, the gentle expression of genuine concern no one had cast his way, before now.
‘The little things,’ as you called it.
“I daresay it is.”
By the time you were escorted back to your building, early afternoon had arrived. Griffon was back out on surveillance, gliding around closeby. You and V were walking side-by-side now, contrary to your less-than-fearless formation from when you first set out.
The fresh air had done you good, as your chronic headache had graciously retreated to its mild, manageable buzzing within your skull. You were still carrying your fancy new-but-slightly-used crowbar; you’d been dragging it across random surfaces the entire way home, as you would a very large stick.
“Thanks again for walking with me, you two,” you smiled. “I didn’t realize how much I needed this.”
Griffon hovered by your head. “I didn’t have much of a choice, but you’re welcome.”
“Do not attempt to repeat this on your own,” V warned. “Some demons have been known to respawn from time to time. I expect they will continue to do so until we destroy the source.”
You held your hands up, placating. “Trust me, I’m not going anywhere. You let me know if any of your friends aren’t pulling their weight, though. I’ve got a weapon, now—I can take their places, easy.”
He eyed your crowbar with a sarcastic little smile. “I may take you up on that offer. My allies are not in town for another fortnight.”
“So you are here by yourselves.” When he mentioned his allies before, you assumed they had already set up some kind of camp or headquarters in the city, somewhere. “Wait, so where have you been sleeping?”
“When night comes, I‘ll go, to places fit for woe; walking along the darkened valley, with silent melancholy.”
Griffon made an exasperated noise. “Translation: wherever’s horizontal and not covered in blood.”
“Why don’t you stay with me, then?” You paused for a moment and shook your head. “Not with me with me, but my entire building is full of empty bedrooms. Electricity’s out, but all the water still works—you could shower and wash your clothes and everything.”
“Holy fuck, score!” (It was the first time you ever heard Griffon sound so pleased.) “Finally, some proper compensation for all the shit we do. A dead human ain’t gonna miss their condo. C’mon, V, whaddya say?”
“...I’ll consider it.”
You weren’t sure who was more surprised by his answer, you or the bird.
“Are you kidding me??” Griffon snapped. “Free room and board and that’s all you gotta say?? I can’t even remember the last time I saw you drink water! When have we ever found a place with a friggin’ blanket, for crying out loud?!”
Seemingly accustomed to Griffon’s outbursts, V was already walking off in the other direction, twirling his cane in his hand. “Come, now. We’ve work to do.”
You watched the two of them take their leave, the echoed sounds of Griffon’s loud complaining following them all the way down the block.
You climbed back up the fire escape, now on a mission.
The crowbar would come in handy sooner than you thought.
Someone was bound to have one.
Twelve hours of searching. Twenty-nine forcibly-opened locks. Thirty-seven abandoned apartments turned inside-out.
By sheer chance, you found what you were looking for.
You leave it outside your front door, in case he returned sometime during the night.
You awaken in the early morning to the sound of a nearby melody.
Anticipation yanked you from the confines of your bed like Christmas morning excitement. Still half-asleep, still half-hugging your pillow, you rushed out from your bedroom to make sure you weren’t just hallucinating the music; not wanting to alert him of your presence, you pressed your back to the wall nearest your balcony, sliding to sit on the floor.
The violin sounded beautiful in his hands.
Music spilled in from the balcony next door, the notes crisp and prolonged; he was practicing what sounded like a set of advanced scales, sequential in tone, but embellished enough to form a simple melody.
“Soundin’ a little flat there, Shakespeare.”
“It may require further tuning.”
Sitting with your back to the wall, you hugged your pillow and smiled.
Out of all the rooms in the building, he’d chosen the one next to yours.