Even in high concentrations, Qliphoth pollen was hard to see with the naked eye, but V could still sense the thick of it in the air. It was heaviest wherever civilians grouped up but hadn’t made it out alive, like traffic-jammed roads and community buildings used as safehouses. Where there were corpses, there was pollen.
Where there was pollen, there were demons.
V traversed the shattered streets of Red Grave while Griffon scouted overhead for more enemies to hunt down. In the near distance, a shred of lush green and stark white interrupted the dreary landscape of dust and haze. It sat on a small balcony several floors up an intact apartment building, the plant’s colours standing out from its dull surroundings as bright as Christmas lights in the dark.
Nearly two weeks had passed since the first attack. Without proper maintenance, something as insignificant as a personal planter should have withered away days ago.
Someone must have been taking care of it.
V pointed at the balcony with the tip of his cane. “There.”
“You got it,” Griffon said, and he was away.
V waited for his familiar to return, offering an arm for him to land on once he did so.
“Well, it’s a human.” Griffon perched and shook out his feathers. “Ain’t gonna last much longer, though.”
“Nah, but humans ain’t supposed to be around Qliphoth pollen for this long. Whoever’s up there reeks of it. Fully infected with the stuff. Might have another few weeks—a month, tops. That’s if the demons don’t get to ’em first.”
V made a thoughtful noise. The nature of the situation didn’t come as a surprise. Civilian evacuation was once a priority, but two weeks into the disaster, any humans they found were either dead or close enough to it.
“Let’s get goin’, V,” Griffon said, shrugging his head. “We shouldn’t bother with this one. Ain’t nothin’ we can do.”
Logically, V knew Griffon was right—being halfway to their deadline, they needed to optimize their time wherever they could. However, V couldn’t ignore the nagging pull of his own curiosity. The stranger in the apartment was someone who managed to survive this long on their own. Someone who didn’t know they were terminally contaminated by the very resources keeping them alive.
Someone who took care of flowers in their spare time.
Letting go of Griffon, V retrieved his book, as he often did in times of indecision. The words of William Blake held no prophecy for him, but it was a far more elegant solution than a coin flip.
“A flower was offered to me; such a flower as May never bore. But I said I’ve a Pretty Rose-tree; and I passed the sweet flower o’er.”
Griffon flew in place. “So...movin’ on?”
“On the contrary,” V smirked, shutting his book. “This means it is within our best interests to have a closer look.”
A few minutes ago, you woke by V’s bedside with your hand in his, and your hair full of bloody, bent feathers Griffon had crowned you with while you were asleep.
Now you felt like you were piloting a body that didn’t belong to you.
The two of you were standing on your balcony, watching the rising sun slip between spaces granted by the half-demolished buildings across the landscape. Dark clouds hovered ominously in the distance. Under the weight of V’s words, you went from gazing at the sky to glancing down over the railing in front of you, thinking that if you jumped from this height, you would only be saving yourself some time.
The headaches, you realized. The constant waves of pain that ebbed and flowed but never disappeared, were just forecasted echoes of your own death rattle.
Bile rose in the back of your throat. Your vision drifted from the dizzying heights to the planter by your feet. The flowers there were tall and strong and so very much unlike you.
“I am sorry I did not tell you sooner,” V said.
Your smile was empty. “Not really something you can bring up in casual conversation, is it?”
“I am not one to shy away from death. I have seen much of it during my time here, helping others escape the city.” Lowering his head, he pinched the bridge of his nose. “I feel guilty for never having extended you the offer.”
“You didn’t help me escape because I was sick?”
“I do not know the nature of your condition. If there was the slightest chance it could result in further pollination of the Qliphoth, I could not risk having you leave city bounds.”
Understandable, you thought. When you first met him, he mentioned the disaster was contained to Red Grave—jeopardizing that made no sense. You were a ticking time bomb, poisoned by the air you breathed and the water you were once thankful to still have running through your building. Be it death by demon or by hell-plant, you realized there was nothing you could have done to survive this ordeal. Your fate was sealed the moment you woke up in the recovery ward.
You fidgeted with the hospital band still around your wrist. “I think I knew.”
The words escaped you without thought. You felt the weight of his gaze on you, and you really, really wished you couldn’t.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” you muttered, “but I think...deep down, I knew something was wrong. That’s why I told you I wasn’t interested in leaving the city. Because I knew I wouldn’t be able to.”
The thought filled you with a graceful sense of finality that eased your dissociation. The electricity of your anxiety settled to a simmering crackle within your bones; the trembling world around you still didn’t feel like your own, but at least it was starting to jitter back into place.
You folded your arms atop the balcony railing. “You know, sometimes I think I died back in that car crash and woke up in limbo, and you’re some psychopomp sent here to take me home.”
V rested both hands on the grip of his cane. “His eyes, like hollow furnaces on fire; a girdle, foul with grease, binds his obscene attire. He spreads his canvas, with his pole he steers; the freights of flitting ghosts in his thin bottom bears. He looked in years; yet in his years were seen; a youthful vigor and autumnal green.”
Amused, you cast him a sidelong glance. “A little pompous to make up poems about yourself, don’t you think?”
“It was written by a Roman poet named Virgil,” he smirked in reply, “about the ferryman of Hades.”
“If I give you a quarter, will you let me pass?”
“You are not dead, starlight.”
You continued looking out across the distance: the morning sun, the broken buildings, the grey clouds approaching on the wind. There was sure to be a storm tonight, and only one question left on your mind.
“...why did you knock on my door?”
You didn’t need to explain yourself further.
After Griffon’s first visit, V knew that you were alone and irreversibly poisoned by the demon tree. At that moment, he could have walked away without a word, knowing your infection would die in isolation with you, and you would have been none the wiser of his existence.
But V hadn’t done that.
Instead, he chose to visit you, finding your building’s front entrance completely barricaded with anything on the first floor you had strength enough to move. He chose to climb six flights of fire escape stairs up the side of your complex—he chose to knock on your door, to introduce himself, to accept your half-crazed invitation for tea.
It was your turn to keep your eyes on him now, and to your surprise, he would not look at you. He seemed reluctant to respond, but yours was the first truly personal question you asked of him in the time you had known each other. You would not back down without an answer. He owed you that, and he knew as much.
“I felt a kinship with you,” he settled on.
“You had no idea who I was.”
“Perhaps not at first.” More hesitance graced his features, drawing his brows together and wrinkling the corner of his nose. He gripped the railing before him tightly, as if he were bracing himself to speak. “As I have told you, I was cast into this realm to serve a purpose. What you do not know, however, is that if I am successful on my quest, I will...cease to exist.”
Your thoughts glazed over as you felt your stomach drop.
“When I learned of you, I saw myself,” he continued. “Frightened. Alone. Not long for this world. I believed helping you would assist in the navigation of my own shadows. Alas, I did not expect to find an evening star within the darkness.” With a somber smile, he turned to look at you. “My reasons for finding you were less than altruistic, I admit. In my selfishness, I withheld something important from you—a matter of life and death. I understand if you are unwilling to forgive me for that.”
For the first time since the conversation started, you met each other’s eyes.
For the first time since you met, you understood that you and he were the same.
“Do you know why I came back for the flowers?” you asked.
He tilted his head ever-so-slightly in curious attention, his dark bangs brushing along the side of his face.
“Even before all this went down, I...didn’t really have anyone. I was alone. Being alone got hard, sometimes. So I, um.” You started fiddling with your wristband, again. “I bought some seeds. I learned how to plant them. How to take care of what grew. It probably sounds stupid, but...it was nice, you know? Having something that counted on me. When things got really bad, I would just think, ‘I can’t kill myself now. Who would take care of my flowers?’ And after everything that’s happened...I didn’t want to give up on the one thing that needed me. If they somehow managed to survive, I couldn’t leave them to die alone.”
Your throat felt tight. Turning away from him, you lowered your head and pressed your palms hard into the corners of the railing. Everything within you felt like it was welling up at once, but you willed yourself not to cry. Not here. Not now.
“You could’ve left me, back then.” You tried to keep your voice from wavering. “You could’ve left me to die alone, but you didn’t. You don’t have to be alone, either. I can be here until the end of us, if you’ll let me.”
You felt a hand rest on top of yours.
“The privilege is mine,” he said simply.
Letting your eyes slip shut, you took a deep, shuddering breath, focusing on nothing more than keeping yourself from breaking down. You wanted to turn around and reach out and hold him—he would be a much better anchor than the railing, you were sure of it—but the headache still flashing lightning behind your eyes was blinding, an unholy, chaotic mixture of demonic migraines and unprocessed grief.
“Can I have some time alone?” you asked. “Not long, I just. I need to think.”
“...I do not think it wise to leave you to your own devices at the moment.”
“I’ve made it this far, you really think I’m gonna throw it all away by killing myself? How boring of an ending would that be?”
You meant for the joke to lighten the mood, but the concern in his eyes was uncompromising, and the way he looked at you made your heart sink.
“I can’t kill myself now,” you said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Who would take care of you?”
V released your hand to tuck your hair behind your ear, and the sweetness of his touch was almost enough to dull the pain.
It took some convincing to assure V you weren’t a danger to yourself, but he eventually agreed to give you space that afternoon—on one, non-negotiable condition.
The idea of being babysat by a demon didn’t sit right with you, but you appreciated the concern.
With Shadow never more than a few paces behind you, you tried to go on with the rest of your day, rumination over the morning’s events serving as background noise to the idle buzzing of your headache. You changed out of your soiled clothes. You took a shower to rid yourself of last night’s blood stains. The water was ice-cold like always, as you had no electricity to warm it, but you sat on the shower floor and stayed under the stream until you were as numb as the thoughts bouncing around your throbbing skull made you feel.
You were going to die.
You were going to die and there was absolutely nothing you could do about it.
The revelation didn’t affect you the way you thought it would. You felt like you should have been sadder, angrier, more indignant about the whole situation—but the truth was you came into this mess pre-saddled with learned helplessness. In the weeks before V arrived, you thought the chances of being rescued were slim to none, and you held no illusion about being able to survive indefinitely. For you, dying here wasn’t so much a matter of if as a matter of how.
Now you knew.
The rest of your day was spent curled up in bed, your head buried beneath your pillows as Shadow kept a watchful eye on you from her guard at your bedroom door. Rain arrived with the evening, making you feel as unsafe as it always did since the attack. Being unable to see or hear anything beyond the storm sent your paranoid mind reeling, imagining what manner of hellish creatures could be closing in on you without your knowledge. Every clap of thunder seemed to rattle the hive inside your head. You wondered how long the infection would take to eat away at you. You wondered if you would lose your memory.
You wondered if it would hurt when you died.
This is how V must have felt, too, you realized—knowing the end was coming, like a stormcloud on the horizon, keeping you resigned to the inevitability of its arrival. Still, where you were once terrified, trying to survive behind barricades and stolen rations, it was almost freeing to know nothing you did mattered anymore.
Shadow gave a quiet growl at your door. You poked your head out from beneath the covers. She looked at you, took a few steps from the doorway, then glanced over her shoulder to look at you again.
She wanted you to follow her.
There was no urgency in her pace as you took the familiar path through the dark hallways to the fire escape. The window was open when you arrived, letting rain pool on the floor. You recognized the figure standing outside long before he came into view.
V leaned against the window frame under no cover from the rain, fully soaked from head to toe. His skin and leathers alike were slick with water, and his wet hair stuck to the sides of his face, the black strands appearing a deep blue beneath the moonlight.
He reached a hand through the open window. “You told me you missed the rain.”
Your knee-jerk thoughts kicked into overdrive—this was absurd, you’d get drenched, you’d catch a cold if you went out in this weather—but you noticed the carefree glint in his eyes and you were reminded of the briefness of your shared timeline.
(Nothing you did mattered, anymore.)
Charon offered you his left hand, and you accepted it, with vigor.
“Hold tight,” he said.
Your first mistake was assuming you would take the stairs.
With your still hand in his, V leapt over the fire escape railing. An embarrassing shriek tore from your throat as your guts gave a sickening dip during the six-story drop. Shadow morphed into a cloud of black smoke and shot out beneath you, faster than anything, her form a dense fog beneath your feet that guided your fall and allowed the three of you a soft landing. You landed with far less elegance than V did, but his hand within yours kept you steady on your feet.
“Jesus christ,” you chuckled nervously, near trembling from head to toe. “Warn me before dragging me off a fucking building next time, will you?”
“Now, where’s the fun in that?”
In a billow of dark vapour, Shadow returned to her sigils across V’s skin.
The streets around your building were still a destroyed mess, with the pavement a rough puzzle of split pieces beneath your feet. It didn’t take long for you to get completely drenched—the pouring rain was cold against your skin, but still warmer than your earlier shower.
V ran a hand through his sodden hair, flipping it back and out of his face, and the motion had you hypnotized. His eyes drifted to meet your stare before sliding down to take in the sight of you; you suddenly became very aware of how your soaked top was clinging to your skin.
“The rain suits you, starlight.”
“That makes two of us.”
A sly smile, and he turned away from you, again.
V kept several paces ahead as you continued your stroll. He began twirling his silver staff in his hand and placing one foot directly in front of the other, heel to toe, as if he were walking the length of an invisible string. There was a sudden bounce in his step you weren’t sure what to make of, at least not until he started strutting along low walls and uneven chunks of debris with perfect balance. Spinning his cane between his fingers with practiced ease, he performed choreographed steps to some silent rhythm playing in his head, moving confidently beneath the rain as if he were the star of his own showtune.
You couldn’t believe your eyes.
He doubled back to quite literally dance circles around you. You couldn’t hold back your laughter, and the sound was music to his ears.
You applauded. “All you need is a top hat and you’ll be ready for Broadway.”
“Indeed.” Coming to a stop in front of you, he gave a gentle bow as he offered you his hand. “Care to join me?”
Once again, your immediate thoughts were of embarrassment, rejection, impracticality—but once again, you thought better of it, and you took his hand without objection.
V guided your arm, holding your hand up and a little off to the side of you. The hand that held his cane rested closed-fist against your waist; you could feel the length of steel along your back, and it kept your posture straight.
“I’ve never really done this before,” you mumbled.
“Not to worry,” he replied, guiding you closer to him. “Just follow my lead.”
(Didn’t you always?)
Without warning, V started to move.
Step, one, two. Step, one, two.
The moves weren’t complicated. He took you on a slow, informal sort of waltz, his swaying steps back and forth simple and easy to follow. Though you somehow managed to keep both your left feet from stepping on his, there was an effortless fluidity to his movements that made you feel clunky and square-wheeled in his arms.
“Shouldn’t there be music?” you teased, trying to hide your self-consciousness.
“Ah, I knew I was forgetting something. Let’s see, now...”
And he began to hum the first few notes of Singin’ In The Rain.
You could not stop yourself from shying away, from pressing your forehead to the crook of his neck to hide your embarrassed smile against him, for the way he looked at you as he hummed the melody was enough to set your cheeks on fire. Not one to be deterred, he rested his chin on top of your head and continued the song in its entirety, syncing your gentle, swaying motions to the tune. You could feel the resonance of his voice vibrating beneath his chest.
He sounded happy, or something like it.
In a moment of bravery, you stepped back and raised your held hands as far up as they could go. Laughing, V took your cue and twirled; at his height, you had to tiptoe and he had to bend down for him to make it all the way under your arm.
The sound of his laughter, the sight of a smile that actually reached his eyes—knowing you were responsible for both made the thunder of your pulse louder than that of the sky’s.
You rested a hand against his cheek, and he leaned into the cradle of your touch as he did once before, affectionate and undeniably cat-like.
“...can I kiss you?”
The words fell from your mouth, rushed and uncertain, emptying all the air from your lungs. The confidence in his eyes flickered with questioning, filling with the same innocent curiosity from your first meeting, as if he were surprised to be seen this way.
As if he’d never done this before.
“Please,” came his whisper, gentle and sure.
So you tiptoed.
Soft was the first word that came to mind. From the careful press of his lips to yours, to the feeling of his rain-soaked skin beneath your fingertips, to the way he eased so completely beneath your touch. It surprised you, how someone who seemed all sharp angles and rough edges could feel so delicate within your hands.
He was not sure if he forgot to breathe, or if you simply took his breath away.
Multitudes of experiences lingered dormant within his memories, but few had been realized by this vessel; this felt far more powerful than any single memory he came equipped with, for this was a moment he had made entirely for himself.
He may not have been his own, but you, you were—his and his alone.
Holding his face in your hands, you laughed softly with a happiness you hadn’t known yourself capable of, the sudden tears spilling down your cheeks indistinguishable from the rain.
However much time you had left together, you swore you would make the most of it.