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One Equal Temper

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

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.

The treason.

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.”

“Chocolate?”

“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.”

“Such as?”

“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.”

“Really?”

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.

Chapter Text

V stares at the violin.

He stares at it for a very long time.

The instrument was beautiful: 4/4, full-sized, made from a polished, glossy brown wood which was now reflecting light from the early morning rays. There were no fingerprints or nail scratches along its neck, nor was there any wear on the chin rest; the only indication it had ever been touched at all were the three strips of masking tape spaced out near the end of the neck, marking basic finger positions for a beginner.

Whoever owned the instrument had been learning how to play.

Griffon flew into the vacant apartment where V had taken refuge.

“You were right,” he said, perching along the balcony railing, “broken locks on every floor. Must’ve turned the whole damn building upside-down looking for that thing.”

“But why waste the time?”

“Only you would figure someone doin’ you a favour is a waste of time.”

Cruelty knits a snare and spreads his baits with care.

“Or—here’s a crazy friggin’ thought—maybe they were just being nice.”

V lifted the bow from the violin case. On instinct, his fingers fell around the end of it in perfect positioning, his hands full of memories that did not belong to his body. “Perhaps returning here was not such a good idea.”

“You’re killin’ me, V, you know that?” Griffon scowled. “May I remind you that you’re the one who hasn’t told the human why we’re here, yet? Who’s really ‘cruelty with a snare,’ here, huh?”

V tensed. At once, Griffon could feel him bristling, a sudden rush of static in the air that whipped the demonic familiar back to humility.

“Uh-oh, did I hit a nerve?” Griffon gave an apprehensive little chuckle. “Sorry, boss. Didn’t mean anything by it. You and me, we’re in this together. I’m behind you whatever you wanna do. Even if that means not showering for another week.”

Keeping silent, V twisted the screw at the bottom of the bow to tighten it. He retrieved the chunk of rosin from a pocket inside the violin case, and glided the small amber brick along the now-taut length of horsehair strings.

From the moment he was given life, V had conceptualized himself as half of a whole, the opposite side of Urizen’s coin that minted the currency of Vergil. Every waking moment was dedicated to a paradox, righting wrongs that were somehow both his own, and not his own. But you, in all of your panicked, twitchy, lone-survivor glory, ended up showing him a kindness he hadn’t come to expect of anyone before or since.

Such gestures were afforded to the living, and living was not the reason for V’s existence.

(What would you think of him if you knew the real reason he knocked on your door?)

Your unexpected gift was based on the ghosts of his memory, an unintentional parallel to the contradiction of his own reality—V knew how to play the violin, but at the same time, he had never held one in his hands.

You said you missed music.

Could he give you that much?

Standing at the balcony, V rested the violin on his shoulder and drew the bow across the strings, adjusting the pegs every so often until the notes of his scales felt proper.

“Soundin’ a little flat there, Shakespeare.”

“It may require further tuning.”

V could sense your presence in the neighboring apartment. You were around the corner, hiding from him, and that’s where he thought you would stay...until several minutes later, when you emerged onto your balcony holding two mugs of steaming liquid.

As your balconies were only an arm’s length from each other, you reached over your side’s edge to hand him his cup. He took it, and the brief, gentle caress of his fingers against yours marked the first physical contact with you he’s ever had.

“It’s hot chocolate,” you said, shyly. “I remember you saying you liked chocolate, so...”

Another small token. Another kind gesture.

The feeling of your hand beneath his touch lingered long after you pulled away.

-

V came and went all hours of the day and night.

Military efforts to take back Red Grave did not seem to wane, in spite of their consistent, predictable failures. V helped as much as he could—clearing the most densely-infected pockets of the city, advising those in charge time and time again that traditional artillery would do nothing against the plague—but the armies continued to be sent in waves, as if throwing more bullets, more guns, more bodies at the problem would eventually prove itself a viable solution.

The stagnation was frustrating, but V couldn’t accomplish much by way of progress until Nero returned.

In the meantime, V strategically controlled clusters of demon spawn before the herds became too much for him to handle alone. He tore down creeping Qliphoth roots to prevent them from branching outside city bounds. He fought alongside military personnel whenever he found them, until they fell back or were wiped out trying.

Through it all, he cannot keep his mind from the memory of his fingers against yours.

The walk back to the apartment building became his respite, the six-floor climb up the fire escape as good a reprieve as any. Regardless of the day’s events, regardless of whether or not he had yet slept, he would go out to his balcony and pick up the violin, every morning without fail. Playing for you was like rousing a bird from its nest. You would be drawn out by his melody, curious and weary, and you would listen.

You would not ask him where he had been. You would not ask him where he was going.

You would just listen.

A routine was birthed within this small sanctuary, a routine that started with music and ended with you reaching out to him, a warm mug in hand—sometimes tea, sometimes chocolate, depending on what you could find.

He ignored the way his pulse would quicken whenever your hands touched.

You were an indulgence, he rationalized.

Nothing more.

-

Shadow was growing unsettled, V could feel it.

Due to the nature of their contracts, inactivity would sometimes cause his familiars to grow restless, especially if one was being summoned more frequently than the others. As of late, Griffon had rarely been dismissed; if he wasn’t at V’s side in exploration or battle, he was in the apartment, napping on a pet bed he’d found in the corner and claimed for himself. Naturally, this made Shadow jealous.

There was no danger in calling upon Shadow outside of battle to appease her agitation. Though she was far more primal of a demon than Griffon was, she never acted out of alignment with V’s motives—his familiars were extensions of himself, which meant they were always in-tune with what he wanted.

So, when the panther burst forth from her sigils and ran out to V’s balcony to leap onto yours, to say V was surprised was an understatement.

He barely had time to process what had happened before he heard you screaming.

“Holy SHIT—NONONONONONONO—”

In the moments it took V and Griffon to reach you, you had already been pinned to the ground—you looked horrified as Shadow stood on top of you, nuzzling her face against yours hard enough to keep your head pressed firmly to the floor.

“What is happening?!” you shrieked, your voice shaking with terrified confusion.

Griffon wasted no time laughing his ass off.

Having a fully-grown black panther charge through your sixth-floor window was quite low on your list of expectations, but it didn’t take you long to regain your bearings.

You sat on your couch as Shadow loafed in your lap, the feline familiar big enough to take up all the remaining seats. Within minutes, you went from a state of shock to burying a cheek right into her fluff, using the vibrations of her deep purring to try and alleviate your perpetual headache.

You could tell something was wrong with V, be it from how he hadn’t moved from your balcony, or the expression of deep concern he wasn’t containing as well as he would’ve hoped. He was emanating an aura of unease you’d never felt from him before. You couldn’t shake off the feeling you’d done something wrong.

“So,” you started, trying to lighten the mood and getting a mouthful of fur in the process, “any other familiars I should know about?”

“...perhaps in due time.”

Griffon chuckled. “Oh man, you’re gonna love Nightmare.”

“Nightmare,” you repeated. If the giant demon bird was named ‘Griffon’ and the giant demon cat was named ‘Shadow,’ you tried to imagine what nature of creature ‘Nightmare’ could have been. Your overactive imagination combined with your chronic headache shorted out your brain. “Cool. Cool cool cool cool cool.”

Shadow chuffed in your lap. You jumped at the noise.

V kept watch from afar, leaning heavily against his cane.

There had never before been such egregious dissonance between V’s expectations and Shadow’s actions. Shadow existed in light of V’s best interests—she acted on what he wanted—and though you were blissfully unaware of the implications, being confronted by the sight of his own longing disgraced him in a way he didn’t think possible.

His familiars were extensions of himself, after all.

Instead of Griffon, V imagined being bold enough to have visited you first.

Instead of Shadow, V imagined himself spread across your lap, your hands through his hair, you smiling down at him as you were now.

Only then did V realize the depth of the problem.

-

V did not touch his violin the following morning.

In his entertainment of idle pleasantries, he had forgotten himself, and why he was here. His purpose in life was to reunite with Urizen to become whole again, to salvage what remained of Red Grave, to earn some semblance of atonement by purifying what he himself had poisoned. He was a splintered fracture of Vergil—he was not meant to have desires of his own, as he was not his own.

He was not his own.

V yanked the length of his silver cane from the demon’s flesh, tossing its mangled carcass aside with graceful ease.

From the break of dawn to the glint of twilight, he made rounds throughout the city, reminding himself with every battle what he was responsible for unleashing upon the world. With the demons’ current respawn rate, he knew his efforts were an exercise in futility, but he continued the onslaught without pause, until every demon type in existence blurred together in a bloody palace of blades and wings and carapaces.

He would find catharsis. Eventually.

As he felt his vision blur and his power begin to wane, V unearthed a massive nest of dormant Furies, crowded behind a hidden wall of rubble and debris.

“V,” Griffon warned, still trying to catch his breath, “I don’t know what’s going through that head of yours, but we’ve been at this all damn day. You sure you wanna keep goin’?”

V’s hand tightened around his cane.

This is why he was here.

This is all he was good for.

-

It was curious to see where his legs had taken him without him knowing.

Griffon’s talons wrapped tight around V’s shoulders as he carried him over the fire escape railing. Shadow supported V’s lethargic landing on the metal grates, propping him upright with her own body. All three of them were covered in blood.

“Up and over,” Griffon groaned, dragging V in through the open window. “C’mon, kid, on your feet—”

V collapsed into the hallway, falling into a tangled heap on the ground.

“—alright, close enough.”

Shadow hopped in after him, once more letting V use her as leverage to stand until he could right himself with his cane.

Whatever came next was a haze.

Footsteps from down the hall. Muffled conversation. Someone rushing to his side, slinging his arm around their neck to support his weight and help him find his footing again, like a bird on his wings for too long.

Of course it was you.

Who else but you?

The two of you made it to his bed, eventually, and V landed on the mattress with a heavy sigh.

“Are you guys hurt??” you asked in a panic, looking over the blood on all three of them.

“Don’t freak out, gravedigger, the blood’s not ours.” Visibly frustrated, Griffon nestled on his bed atop the nightstand. “Shakespeare bit off more than he could chew tonight and now he’s payin’ for it.”

“I overexerted myself,” V corrected. “I simply need to rest.”

Your brows drew together. “You want me to just leave you like this?”

“I will be fine.”

“Let me help clean you off, at least.”

“I will take care of it in the morning.”

“Look—I know you’re pissed at me, but you’re not going to get any proper rest passing out in your own filth.”

The frustration in your voice was sobering. From your point of view, he had slighted you, somehow—yet, you were still seeking ways to help him.

“What makes you believe I am upset with you?” he asked in concern.

Confusion flickered across your face as you spoke. “When Shadow came over yesterday, you spent the whole time standing on my balcony looking like someone pissed in your cereal. And this morning—I made you tea, but you didn’t show up to our...”

You stopped yourself, not knowing what to call it.

“Rendezvous,” he offered.

“...yeah.”

“I am sorry for misleading you,” he said, softly. “I assure you, you have done nothing wrong—my quandaries are purely my own. There was an urgent...dilemma that required my attention.”

“Did you figure it out, at least?”

V turned to examine you, seeing one side of you stained red from where you held him as you helped him walk. The moment you saw he was in trouble, you had no reservations about getting blood all over yourself, and even now, you had no hesitation in getting even more of it on you. You had no idea you were at the heart of his predicament.

You had no idea of the predicament in his heart.

In the face of every apprehension sounding alarms within his head, V stood resolute, and asked precisely what he wanted to. “May I be so bold as to request your assistance?”

You lit up in surprise, and you nodded.

You pulled the bedroom chair towards his bedside and took a look at what you were dealing with. Upon closer examination, he wasn’t so much drenched in blood as he was heavily splattered, like he was on the losing end of a particularly nasty paintball ambush. He didn’t seem to have any injuries, but you didn’t know what an overnight soak in demon blood would do to a person, and you had no intention of finding out.

“I need to take your jacket off,” you said. “Is that okay?”

“Such polite bedside manner,” he smirked.

You rolled your eyes, but he was pleased to notice the shade of red he brought to your cheeks. With steady hands, you untied the string at the front of his coat; he could feel your fingertips brush against his bare skin, and the contact made his stomach flip.

“Can you sit up for me?” you asked, not having noticed a thing.

Still exhausted, V trembled slightly as he lifted himself on his elbows and gathered the strength to follow your request—then your hand was on his back, above his coat, helping him move upright. Your other hand tucked along each collar bone, sliding his jacket from his shoulders, one arm at a time. You removed his glove and unclipped his bracelets from his wrist.

Then your hands were off him, again.

You left the room and returned with some supplies: a large bowl of water, several small towels, and a flashlight you stood up on a nearby table to cast light towards the ceiling and illuminate the room.

You rolled up your sleeves and pushed your hair back before setting to work.

With V covered in his mess and his familiars as soiled as he was, the bedroom was thick with the stench of demon blood, rotten and strangely acidic—thankfully, it seemed to wipe away easily with a damp cloth.

There was a clinical detachment in the way you moved around him, aided by the fact you would not meet his eyes. Even so, V was painfully aware of every gentle motion your warm hands made against him, clearing bright red smears from the pallor of his skin. Cloth in hand, you made soothing, repetitive movements down the lengths of his arms, across his palms, between each of his fingers, careful and thorough. You moved down the dip of his collar bones and travelled across the width of his chest; you reached the hollows beneath his ribs and he wondered if you could feel his heart beating.

He could tell how hard you were trying to detach yourself from the moment, but your worry was obvious in your tenderness, your care evident in your gentle attention.

As his eyes drifted shut, he did something he hadn’t since the day he was forced onto this plane of existence.

He let himself feel safe.

Your every movement against him felt deliberate and reverent, as if the demon’s blood had vandalized his canvas and you were working to restore the artwork underneath. Even you, in all your modesty, couldn’t tear your eyes from the artwork spanning the length of his body, studying the maze of ink tangled across his skin as if he were a masterpiece.

He felt you work your way back up his neck. As you took a fresh cloth to the blood across his nose, you used your other hand to touch the side of his face, trying to turn him towards you. Keeping his eyes closed, he instead took it as an invitation to lean fully into your palm, until you were cradling his face in your hand.

When he finally glanced up at you from beneath his dark lashes, he realized you were holding your breath.

He felt you brush your thumb along his cheek to move his hair away from his eyes.

And in that moment, you were everything.

“I made the mistake of denying myself the possibility of new experiences,” he said, voice drowsy with exhaustion. “I feared having purpose outside of my calling would prove to be a distraction, and I feared it presumptuous of me to interpret your acts of kindness as anything more than gracious gestures. I hope for nothing more than to be wrong on both counts.”

Your heart was mounting beneath your chest. His words felt dizzying, even after you remembered how to breathe.

“I have been granted a short breath of time to rectify transgressions resulting from my selfish desires, but during this quest, ironic as it may be, I will dare to be selfish.” He held a hand over the one you had against his face. “If you would indulge me.”

You could think of nothing you wanted more.

You turned your palm over to hold his hand, threading a few of your fingers between his own. You hadn’t realized how tense he was until your acceptance seemed to make his whole body sigh, a breathless smirk tugging at the edge of his lips as he gazed at you with half-lidded eyes.

Like the morning star arising above the black waves, when a shipwrecked soul sighs for morning,” he breathed, beaming. “No matter where I go, I am drawn back here, to you, like gravity.”

He pressed a kiss to the back of your hand.

“Thank you, starlight.”

His hand was still wrapped in yours when he finally drifted off to sleep.

After some time, a beak gently nudged your shoulder from behind. When you turned around, Griffon’s eyes were shying away from yours, as if he’d just witnessed something he wasn’t supposed to to.

“We can take it from here, gravedigger,” he said, shrugging his head. “You go on, get some sleep.”

Your heart fuller now than it had ever been, you smiled back at him, not wanting to move your hand a single inch away from where it was now. “Would it be alright if I stayed?”

Griffon snorted, knowing he should’ve known better. “Yeah, kid. You do you.”

-

V was surprised to wake with you by his side. You were still sitting in the chair as you slouched over his bed, your arms and clothes still blood-stained from the previous night’s events. Griffon appeared to have preened himself and had stuck random damaged feathers in your hair throughout the night as you slept. Shadow was curled on the floor at the foot of his bed. Both of his familiars were fast asleep.

You hadn't let go of his hand.

As he stirred, you roused from your slumber, and the first thing you did was smile at him.

“Good morning, starlight.”

Your eyes lit up, but the tremendous guilt behind his own must have been obvious, as your expression fell at once. “What’s wrong?”

He squeezed your hand a little tighter.

“I fear I have not been honest with you.”

Chapter Text

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 had grouped up but hadn’t made it out alive, such as 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.”

“Injured?”

“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. Though this was the first instance of Qliphoth poisoning they discovered so far, the nature of the situation didn’t come as a surprise. Civilian evacuation may have once been a priority, but two weeks into the disaster, most people 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—they were halfway to their deadline, and they needed to optimize their time wherever they could. However, V couldn’t ignore his curiosity about the stranger in the apartment. They were 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 over.

Griffon flew in place. “So...we move 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 had woken by V’s bedside with your hand in his, and your hair full of bloody, bent feathers Griffon 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 echos 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.

A smile ghosted across your face. “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 just to buy some time for a then-stranger 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 green depths of his eyes on you, and you really, really wished you couldn’t.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” you muttered, “but I think I just...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, and the electricity of your anxiety settled to a 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 on top of your 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 back, “about the ferryman of Hades.”

“If I give you a quarter, will you let me pass?”

“You are not dead, starlight.”

“Not yet.”

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.

Why?

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 days 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 placed within 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—something that was 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 suddenly felt tight. You turned away from him, lowering your head and pressing your palms into the corners of the balcony 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.

Somehow, the weight of his hand felt heavier than before.

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 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 way he was looking at you now made your heart sink. The concern in his eyes was uncompromising.

“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?”

He smirked. “Who, indeed?”

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 without demons closing in on your position. For you, dying 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 had arrived with the evening and it made you feel as unsafe as it always did since the attack. Being unable to see or hear anything beyond the storm sent your 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, and 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 to her steps 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 you all 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 tattooed across V’s skin.

The streets around your building were still a destroyed mess, with large sections of pavement a rough puzzle of split pieces beneath your feet. The pouring rain was cold against your skin, but still warmer than your earlier shower; it didn’t take long for you to get completely drenched as you walked alongside V.

V ran a hand through his sodden hair, flipping it back and out of his face, and the sight of him had you hypnotized. His eyes drifted to meet your stare before sliding down to take in the sight of you—and you were suddenly very aware of how your soaked top was clinging against 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 of you as you continued your leisurely 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 a 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 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 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 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 your pulse thunder more than normal within your head.

You rested a hand against his cheek and he leaned into your touch as he did the previous night, 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 and filled with questioning—that same innocent curiosity from your very 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 in your hands.

He hadn’t realized his eyes were shut until he opened them. He was not sure if he forgot to breathe, or if you simply took his breath away. Multitudes of experiences lingered within his memories, but few had been realized by this vessel; this felt far more powerful to him than any single memory he came equipped with, for this was a moment he 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.