She gives life, and she’s looking at the sun.
That's how a god becomes but a man, and how a man from the bottom falls further.
She seems like a simple girl, from what Luka can see at The Border, lyre in hand. And he is nothing if not a god fond of simplicity. He’s come to be used to it, since he was given his assignment all those ages ago. When you’re left with the dead and a third of the Earth, you get used to anything, once all the grim grey and solitude settles into your bones. And that’s why he’s here at all, really. To survey, between what is his completely and what is his partially, all the colors and the fresh air, the bright blue of the sky and the grass that pokes at his ankles where he dares to step out from the caverns. To get away from the grey for once.
At least, for a moment, he can afford himself that. And what a blessed moment it is.
Luka doesn’t dare step out into the meadow or anywhere beyond where light touches dark and life touches death; The Border, and the darkness he can easily recede into, are too familiar for him to venture past it. And he’s sure the sun would boil him besides. He doesn’t dare interrupt either, especially with the company the girl keeps around her. But he can watch to his hollow heart’s content as she weaves bright flowers together and hums to herself, as she adjusts the layers of her pale pink robes and her dark, dark hair to fit a crown of them upon her head. The other girls—nymphs, to be sure—coo and praise her handiwork, but it’s not what mesmerizes him in the end. It’s a little bit of a lot of things: the way she takes their compliments in quiet, modest stride and returns to her own devices with the softest smile; the way she reaches for the grass and the earth and lets fresh blossoms sprout to replace the ones she picked before; the way she closes her eyes, and tips her head up, and lets the sky kiss her face and all the warmth of midday seep in.
It’s as though she embodies spring itself, and would find withering away inconceivable.
How often does she come here? Does she ever come alone?
Why hasn’t he come more often, if it means seeing someone like her, even if from a distance?
Would she…? Could she…?
Before Luka can even think about plucking out a melody on his lyre, a couple of the other girls point upward, and the one he has his eye on follows their gaze, her crown sliding just a bit backwards. She looks curious, and peaceful, and… and almost hopeful, with her hands clasped to her chest. It only takes a flick of his own gaze toward the sky to see what they’re all so excited about: a pair of fiery horses, with Adrien at the reins.
Of course. Adrien. The golden boy who only got the sun because his father gave it to him.
At least in death, Luka finds a little comfort in spite.
From his chariot, Adrien leans over and greets the girls with a delicate wave and a wink. To his credit, he’s never been particularly flirtatious—just overly friendly in a way that only comes off as flirtatious—but perhaps anyone would feel that way if they were practically untouchable. One would never guess that he held any kind of kinship with Gabriel in the heavens, or that the far-too-serious Félix, who carried a quiver like his life depended on it and only ever showed his face at night, was his twin.
The girl blushes, healthy and demure and beautiful, while the others call to him and wave back, and she has to shade her eyes to get a good look at him. Within moments, Adrien is gone again, though he’ll return in a day’s time, and the girl tears her eyes from the sky and lets her hands fall limp in her lap. The others poke at her, play with her hair, even joke around and make fun of her, and if she laughs, it sounds weak to his ears. The commotion dies down, and they each return to their play, and the sadness of something untouchable in the curve of her lips isn’t lost on Luka.
In fact, it’s mesmerizing. Almost as much as the curl of her hair over her shoulders, the contrast of light and dark. It speaks to him. It must, when he’s known melancholy well enough to know its language on a regular basis.
His heart and his fingers speak before his mouth—which, really, has always been the case, though he’s never known anyone else to know it. Little by little, he cradles his lyre to his chest and plays a slow tune, rife with an eerie, tempting air, for no one but himself.
The girl looks up, and catches his eye.
It almost startles him, though not enough to stop the tune in his hands. She wasn’t supposed to know. She wasn’t supposed to see.
And yet she’s still looking.
And yet he’s still playing.
She breathes in slow—he’s acutely aware of things like these, right down to the last one everyone draws—and clutches the blossom in her hand to her chest. She moves as fluidly as he plays, and it’s like nothing he’s ever seen in any spirit, or nymph, or perhaps even in the oceanic power of his mother. It’s so cautious and purposeful all at once, and he can see everything, every shift of bone and muscle, every slip of her robes over fair skin. Even the hard, enthralled glitter in her eyes and the parting of her lips as she begins to crawl toward him. Like she would dare, over all other beings, to come so willing to meet him at The Border. Like she would dare to—
She jerks back, perhaps suddenly aware of where and even who she is, or who he his. She staggers away, falls into the company of friends who console her and coddle her and remind her that anyone could take her if she strayed too far, and haven’t you heard how Death waits for us at The Border and steals us away?
Which Luka takes in a quiet stride of its own. And he can’t quite tell if it’s modest, or prideful, or if he takes offense. Somehow, he’s learned to find all three in his reactions.
The shifts in her expression are something even he can’t describe. It feels like something that he’s seen in hundreds of mortals as they cross into his realm: a shame with layers of intrigue hiding underneath, waiting to be seen by those really looking for it. It’s evident, at least, in the way she keeps looking to him as she continues to weave the flowers around her, or grow more among the grass, and as he continues to play. Even more so when, as she’s retreating for the day, she finds his gaze at The Border and holds it, just as deeply as she holds her own breath, until her name is called again.
What he wouldn’t give, he thinks, to touch the immortal petals in her hair without consequence.
“You must have something bad in you,” his sister told him, “to have a look like that on your face.”
He sneered—because that’s what Death does instead of smiling, and what did Juleka know anyway, beyond commanding the waves of La Haine and collecting coins under the tongue and rowing his clientele toward him?—and said, “You must have forgotten. Everything in me is bad.”
He doesn’t know what kind of look she was talking about; she never deigned to tell him, only rolled her eyes and took her trusty oar back to the river. He has little time for mirrors besides, when his element discards appearance and decorations and takes everyone as they are, without discrimination. Whatever it is, it’s a look he’ll swear to wear only in his own company.
He does know this: it’s worth going to The Border again, and again, and again, to see Marinette with the life in her hands and the flowers in her curls.
He doesn't go every day at first; that would be desperate, and he knows better. He knows patience. And it’s easy to keep his distance anyway, to nudge her from afar and make his presence known every so often with little more than the pluck of a few strings. It’s worth the way she meets his eyes in the middle of the day, when the sun leaves her bittersweet and the flowers and fruits seem to do little to console her. Everything in the way she carries herself, from the pastel colors of the robes she gathers around herself to the almost-perpetual apple blush that lives in her cheeks to the effortless way she kneels and moves around the meadow, screams of curiosity. Betrays intrigue. Tells him she’s looking for a moment to toe the line, because all this distance and giggling is getting monotonous no matter how many colors she can blend together.
There’s nothing wishful to think about it. Nothing to doubt. Wordless observation always lends itself to spotting these sorts of nuances.
But the more he sees of her, the more he wants to see her. And the more he finds himself toeing lines, to. Just for a few moments a day. Just to play a song after the sun passes her over.
It’s the day she comes alone that has his stomach churning—which until now was something he thought only mortals were capable of. And if she’s come to see him, and him alone, she makes no indication of it, and looks much more like she’s come to find peace of her own, or create it herself. And if there’s one thing he knows, from observation alone, it’s that she could create most anything, if it could please her.
She makes her place in the grass, tends to the flowers around her and tucked in her hair, takes in the touch and the scent of them like she’s never seen them before. She looks to the sun when it calls to her, and when she smiles her whole face shines far more brightly than he knows it ever could. Two fingers touch her lips, like she’s considering blowing a kiss toward the sky—and she holds back, and her hands slip down to her lap again, and she sighs. And for someone who’s nearly tuned out the moans and cries and pleas of the dead after all these ages, Luka would swear it’s the saddest thing he’d ever heard.
Then she pauses, and begins to braid her hair, and she hums to herself. And for the first time that he’s at least aware of, his breath catches, and his grip on his lyre tightens.
It’s the melody he’s been playing for her, all this time.
He dares to stand out in the entryway to his realm, with his hand on the cavern wall—dares to come out into the sun—and clears his throat to get her attention. It startles her, and her hair unravels in her hands. But as soon as she meets his gaze, she seems rooted to the spot, unable to move. Her eyes go a little wider, and she sits up a little straighter, and she dusts away all the wrinkles and weeds in her dress, like she’s presenting herself for royalty.
Well. He supposes he is. He’s just never been made to feel like it.
Finally, finally, she gets to her feet, looks around her at every angle, and then takes the first step forward. And then the second, and the third, until she’s made her way to The Border. She’s… small, up close. Delicate like a doll, like the beautiful souls he allows into his Paradise. And her eyes are so much bluer, and her skin so much like porcelain, and all the blushing little colors in her come to life. One touch, it seems, and she could waste away before him.
She’s still looking up at him, dead-on, where most would know to tear their eyes away. “You were watching me,” she says. Such a birdlike voice, full of all the calm of the West Wind and all the purpose of the East.
Such quiet defiance. How fond of it he is. “You heard my song,” he tells her. “No one ever does.”
It seems to surprise her; she scrambles for the right words to speak. “Then what does it mean that I do?”
“Perhaps that the Earth is no longer meant for you. Perhaps that your time is coming. That’s what it means for most.”
Fear shifts something in the way she stands before him, or maybe it’s simple uncertainty. “Are you going to take me away?” she asks, soft and low and dangerously curious. “Isn’t that what you do? Wait until the perfect time and steal souls away?”
Luka inclines his head, and shades his eyes. “Is that what you desire?”
She stumbles over her words, and the first hints of a smile curl the corner of his lip. “I don’t take the dead, and certainly not before their time,” he tells her. “I only rule them, and they come to me. But I suppose mortals have their own ideas of me to make themselves feel better.”
“And if I told you I wasn’t mortal?”
He looks her up and down, to the splashes of color in her robes, to the pale columns of bone and ichor that must keep her together. “Of course not,” he hums. “No mortal commands spring quite like you do. Not even if they tried.” He takes a step forward, almost towers over her. “And it means you must have as little to lose as I do.”
She gasps, inaudible to anyone but him, and leans back on one foot. But she doesn’t look away. And she certainly doesn’t run. It’s pleasantly disconcerting. “Marinette,” she says, soft and musical. “That’s my name.”
“So I’ve heard from your attendants,” he says. “Luka,” and the gaze he holds might be far more intimate than a simple kiss on the back of her hand.
“Luka,” she repeats. His name isn’t supposed to sound so vibrant; what kind of power does she hold, to inject even a name with the life it doesn’t deserve? “Why don’t you ever come out into the sun?”
He looks past her, out into the empty clearing where it seems the flowers trail close behind her, eager to sprout around her ankles. In the space between them, he holds out his hand, black-gloved and sharp with claws, and curls each finger in one at a time under the sunlight. “I think you know.” He says it more to his fist than to her.
Marinette looks almost guilty about it, in the moments that she finally averts her eyes and stares at his hand, like she must be responsible for what her attendants tell her and warn her against. For never venturing to find out the truth until now. But blame is a complicated thing when preconceived notions weave themselves into the everyday, and leave the source near-impossible to trace. “Were you banished?”
Luka shakes his head. “Not banished. Assigned.”
“Is that so…” She hums in thought. She must be thinking of Gabriel. “Then… will you come here again? To see me?”
“Have I not come faithfully?”
She blushes, as pink as her dress, and bends down to pick a flower at her feet. “Then, would you take this to remember me by?”
He lowers his lashes, and doesn’t dare to touch it. “I’m afraid it wouldn’t last in a world like mine.”
“Then I’ll leave it here.” She leans again, and lays the blossom at the entrance to the cavern, a splash of white against dull greys and browns. “So it will last. And so you think of me when you come.”
His gaze drags up her form, until he meets her eyes again. “Why would I not?”
Her cheeks bloom from rosy pink to deep scarlet, and she tells him she has to go, even when he asks if she can’t stay a while longer. Her father will worry if she’s gone away for too long, she says despite the want in her eyes, and she doesn’t want to find out what would happen to the grains if he did. There’s a certain grace to the backward way she walks, the way she refuses to turn her back on him. Whether it’s fear that he might take her away, or fear that he might disappear if she looked away and back again, or the simple pure desire to keep her eyes on something that intrigues her so, she never discloses.
But there’s a playful hazard in getting to guess. And Luka supposes he might like to take his chances.
It’s something like a dance between them, these times they meet and yet do not. When Marinette has her usual company doting on her, he lingers in the entryway, with the lyre in his hands and a tune at the ready, and never steps further than the flower she left behind. Whether or not it’s meant to be a boundary between them, he treats it like one. He only makes himself known with the music he knows only she can hear, and watches for the curve of her smile, reserved only for him, when the melody floats her way. She still looks to Adrien when he passes them by, and there’s still a touch of something sad in her expression when he leaves again, and Luka has the odd feeling that he’d never be able to persuade that away. Not for a girl who stands on her toes for the sun, looking like all she would ever want in her stretch of endless time is to touch it.
Luka knows what happens to people who come too close to the sun. They end up roaming The Medium, in the end, because they never learned to take the middle road when they were alive to try it. So far it’s only the one, but who is he to warn those who would spite him or run away?
He knows the conflict in her eyes, too, whenever she looks his way through her lashes. He can see how she reaches up for the sun, and how at the same time she’s somehow delightfully aware of how close to the ground she is.
Sometimes, she naps in the company of her attendants, with the warmth of the sun on her skin and her head in the lap of a tan girl with auburn hair. He finds himself wondering, more than once, how she must feel to be so close to a brother of his, and so close to him without their ever touching. And whether she would ever tell her attendants of the time she skirted with Death. And whether she would ever tell them about all the times she must be willing to do it again.
And whether she knows she would find a partner in him to dance, most every time.
On the few blessed occasions that Marinette is alone, she waits for the sun to hang low in the sky before she comes to him at The Border, with all the buzzing excitement of a girl breaking the rules and none of the sense of consequence. It can’t be more than an hour that they meet on days like these, but it seems to stretch far beyond that, and feel like a fraction of a second, all at once. But perhaps that’s only the immortality talking. She brings more flowers to his doorstep, leaves little sprays of blossoms there, reminders in her wake. They might even be attempts to cheer him up; as far as he knows, he’s only smiled with his lips the one time, but he must have done it a thousand times in his heart.
She carries conversation well enough with him, too; her questions are hardly ever too intrusive, and it seems not to matter what they’re talking about so long as they’re able to do it at all. Or so long as she’s able to keep him company, if the quiet that hangs between them while he plays melody after melody is any indication. If the way she inches ever closer, never crossing the threshold her flowers have set, is any indication.
Just before the sun sinks into the dark and he recedes into his own, she bids him goodbye with her usual spring smile and a crown of fresh petals upon her head, and she walks backwards out of the meadows. And every time he wonders if it might be the last time he ever sees her. If someone, somewhere, is catching onto her adventures or his daily temporary neglect of his realm, and if they might snatch her away the way everyone seems to think he does in the blink of an eye.
For an afternoon, he thinks the last time comes sooner than he anticipated. The meadow is empty, even as Adrien drives his chariot overhead. There are no girls to speak of, no new life, no giggling attendants. Only the grass and the dirt and the blossoms of yesterday, the echoes of a youth he’s tried so hard to grasp for. And for those hours when it’s only him and The Border and the white flower by his foot, the world seems to lack a little more color than usual.
Luka waits until the sun is gone and the wedge of the moon makes its appearance among the stars, and even beyond then. He’s dipped down into the Underworld every so often to make sure everything is as dull and dreary and finitely infinite as usual, and that Juleka’s getting the pay she’s owed, that the good are at peace and the bad are left in their well-deserved torment. And he’s sat at The Border played for no one for hours otherwise. He wouldn’t be surprised if the wind carried his music all the way out to the sea for only his mother to hear, and to long for him over the distance between them.
It’s as he’s gathering himself up to find solace in a darkness all his own that there’s a rustle in the grass, not quite animal, not quite unexpected guest. He turns toward the Earth, and there is Marinette, in the middle of the meadow, huddling under the light of the moon and sauntering toward him all the same. She drops to her knees, drinks in the sight of him like she’d never get full with her delicate little fists in her lap. So innocent, she looks. So ripe, if she would ever let herself be taken.
“You waited for me,” she breathes, like she’s only just remembered how to speak.
“Of course I did,” he tells her, so soft and unassuming only she’d be able to hear, and he’s acutely aware of how close she is to touching him, if he only let himself inch forward. “And you came back.”
Marinette frowns. “Did you think I wouldn’t?”
“I think most sensible folk wouldn’t, mortal or otherwise.”
“Then I suppose I’m not very sensible.” She smiles, as much at him as to herself, and brushes her hair away from her eyes; the moon does well to light up her skin and let the night complement her just as stunningly as the day does. “Being young forever allows me that, doesn’t it? Or, if mortals console themselves with their own thoughts as much as you say they do, perhaps most who only think they’re being sensible would avoid you. Isn’t there more sensibility in knowing what’s really worth being afraid of?”
“And what,” Luka says, “is ‘really worth being afraid of?’”
Marinette pauses to think. “I don’t know,” she admits. “I don’t know that I’ve ever been afraid of anything. I think I’m too curious for that. Or maybe it’s that I’m a little afraid of everything, because I’ve never really had the chance to find out.”
“You’re an odd girl, aren’t you?” Luka moves with a cold fluidity, the kind that threatens and comforts all at once, as he steeples his fingers together under his chin. “I can’t tell if you’re utterly foolish or clever beyond your years.”
“I’ll take the benefit of the doubt if you’re willing to give it.”
“Oh,” he says from somewhere deep in his chest, a smile hiding somewhere in the layers of his voice. “I’m in the business of parting with things.”
There’s a relative silence between them, and then Luka speaks again; he doesn’t know what prompts him to, but perhaps it’s all this dancing around and almost-but-never-quite touching that gets to him, opens him up. “I thought you might be. I thought you were at first. Most beings are. Something like this…” He reaches for one of the blossoms around them, brushes it with little more than a black fingertip, and watches it shrivel and rust under the contact. “Who wouldn’t be afraid of it? Who wouldn’t think someone who deprives his surroundings of life isn’t evil? Do you know the kinds of sacrifices mortals make for me?” He laughs, almost breathlessly. “They’re few and far between, and only from those seeking revenge, or out of spite.”
“I don’t,” Marinette says, so soft he’s sure the wind’s already carried it away before he’s had a chance to hear it in full. “I’m not afraid of you, and I don’t think you’re evil. I think…” She pauses, touches the same blossom to revive it again. How cyclical. “I think you were just given a certain lot that almost no one wants to deal with. And maybe you didn’t want to deal with it, either. But you do. You’re in the business of it, you said. And it’s… admirable, how you bear it.”
“And what,” Luka says, “are you in the business of?”
A smile spreads slowly across her face, and she glances up to the top of his head, where a crown of carved bones has weighed heavy for almost as long as he can remember. She sits up straight, full of grace and purpose, and reaches for the crown, laying it down on the dusty earth, and he holds his breath the whole time, like he might sap her strength, too. And yet there she is, lifting the circle of flowers off her own head and setting it upon his. He didn’t think it was possible for her eye to glitter any more. “Revival. Cycles and second chances. And for what it’s worth, I think life suits you just fine.” She shrugs one bare shoulder, lowers her gaze out of respect, though she shouldn’t need to. There’s something so refreshingly honest about her words, and about how she adds, “If you want to take it.”
How she gives him a choice.
Luka can’t remember the last time his face burned so hot. It must have been centuries ago.
In the days that follow, he doesn’t know what she looks like when she looks at the sun anymore, so seldom does he come to The Border when it’s still out. He’s only there long enough to meet Marinette’s bright spring eyes, and pluck a few strings, and make a promise with a hand to his heart. And then he dips back into his own world to survey all the life he doesn’t have, and to glance once or twice toward the flower crown that withered as soon as he descended into the dark, that he keeps in his chamber all the same, for nights to come. That he wishes were still as alive as she is.
She seeks him out more often in the night, comes to the meadow when the moon is waxing and the stars are shining, practically floats to him once he plays the notes that tell her that he’s here. They talk in hushed tones for an hour or two—just long enough to enjoy one another’s company, but not so long that she would worry about her father discovering her absence. She shows him the blossoms in her clothing, how she weaves color and fragrance so easily into everything she is and does; he plays his lyre, sometimes somber, sometimes dreamy, to fill the empty spaces between them, to find some joy in the way she relaxes before him. He tells her, once, about what happened to her crown, while staring at the new one on her head, and rather than mourn it, her eyes light up with the relief that he kept it at all.
And every time she shifts closer, he draws back, chest tight and hands clawed and tendons bulging through his skin. Every time she reaches for him, he pulls away.
“Why do you do that?” she asks one night. She doesn’t seem offended, but she doesn’t seem delighted, either. It’s the unique, timid sort of curious he’s seen so much in her. “Why do you pull away from me when we’re together?”
At first, Luka doesn’t know how to answer. It’s not that he doesn’t have the words, or how to say them. He simply isn’t sure that she wants to hear it, for all of her thoughts and opinions and businesses. So he hesitates, his eyes still fixed on hers, before he tells her, “You have so much life to give. I won’t be the one to take it all away from you.” He glances behind him, down into the blackness that takes him home. “There are rivers down there. A place that bears fruit and happiness for some. But I’ve surrounded myself with plenty of death, in the end. That doesn’t mean that you have to, too. It doesn’t mean that I have to take you down with me.”
Marinette considers him for a long moment; he’s aware of how her gaze drags over him, up and down and up again. “I won’t go down with you yet,” she agrees. “But I’m too curious, I’ve told you. And I couldn’t go home tonight not knowing what your touch feels like.”
“Not Death.” Her eyes flash. “You, Luka.”
She says his name so rarely, if at all, that it feels almost too intimate to hear. It catches him off-guard, and he’s never known his hands to twitch or tremble—he’s always had to be too certain of everything to ever falter like that—but they do now. Still gloved, his fingers brush her cheekbone, his knuckles caress the line of her jaw, his palm skims her shoulder and the column of her neck. She’s soft, and warm, even through the fabric, and he doesn’t realize he’s holding his breath again—that he has the breath to hold—until he draws his hand back.
She’s still alive. She’s still intact. She’s immortal, to be sure, but he touched her, and she’s alive, and the girl who heard his music still surprises him at every turn.
Marinette catches his hand, as he releases her, and holds it by the wrist—not too gentle, not too firm. Her thumb presses into his palm, and she watches him as if to ask him for permission. He nods, just faintly, unable to tear his eyes away, and little by little she peels his glove back to reveal pale, almost ghostly-looking skin. She could probably see every pulse of his ichor in the veins in his hands, if she looked for them.
“This is what I want to feel,” she whispers, almost breathing, his glove a void in her otherwise colorful lap, and she raises his hand in both of hers to caress her cheek. Her eyes flutter shut, and she inhales like she’s been born all over again, and she gives him the freedom to trace her bones, touch every hollow and smooth plane and perfection. And she’s alive as he squeezes her shoulder, alive as her pulse quivers under his fingertips, alive as he carefully fits his thumb into the curve under her lips.
He thinks, as she brushes his hair from his eyes and unpins his cloak and dares to feel out the ridges of muscle in his arms with her body so close to his own, that he must be alive as she is.
“Come,” he tells her once, with a glance tossed behind him. “Would you spend a night with Death?”
There’s a difference, that is, between a stolen hour or two in the night, and the entire night itself. The former’s become commonplace by now, and time is such a fraction to a soul like his that he can’t quite tell how much of whether merely days have passed. The latter is an adventure, something they’ve only touched on in conversations and among fleeting brushes of bare hands. Something he knows she’s wondered about, if all the times he’s caught her peeking past him into the darkness he knows so well is any indication. If all the morbid curiosity that bleeds into her voice and the sparkle in her eyes is any indication.
So it’s only fitting that, eventually, Luka asks.
He’s holding out his still-gloved hand to Marinette as he rises to his feet, and he wouldn’t be surprised if she rejected him. After all, she’s said more than enough with a single not yet, and he’d hardly consider it a risk worth taking, whether she’s afraid of him or not. But she looks down, and back up again, and she lays her hand in his, ever a contrast against all his black. Even despite the rustle in the bushes a ways off, which startles her and freezes her in place for a passing moment. It must be nothing more than an animal, because that’s all they ever hear of it.
“Just one,” she says, at once cautious and eager, “so long as you have me back before sunrise.”
“For someone like you,” he says, “I can promise that.”
He helps her to her feet and over The Border—which is a more anticlimactic crossing than he expected—and her hand never leaves his as he leads her down the winding stone steps. He adjusts to the dark easily, perhaps more so than most, but he’s painfully aware of every careful step she takes, every instance she could slip on the rocks or lose her way. Every time he thinks about it, he gives her hand a squeeze. And she squeezes right back, even if she doesn’t know why he’s doing it in the first place. That, alone, gives him comfort.
He could tell her to close her eyes and trust him, to open them only once they’ve hit flat ground. But he knows her to be too curious to adhere to that, and he couldn’t possibly punish her if she didn’t. He wouldn’t want to, anyway. So he keeps her near, and lets his hand slip to the small of her back as they approach, and dignifies every figure lining the pathway to the gates of the Underworld with a nod. Grief, Anxiety, Fear, War, Discord, Fury, Sleep, and everything in between—he’d be a fool to disregard those he keeps. They avert their eyes from his guest, out of respect, and even the trees with their leaves of false dreams and fluttering regrets, and the murky rivers on either side of them, seem to shrink away from his influence.
“Who are they?” Marinette asks, shifting ever closer to him.
“Everything one has ever felt about death,” he murmurs, “and every reason one could die.”
He can hear and feel her shiver. It’s utterly delightful.
The gate to the Underworld is immense, and made of stone, but he only has eyes for the round seal in the center, which is decorated with the winding bodies of snakes. He traces the seal clockwise, anticlockwise, clockwise again, and the gate separates with a glowing light—the most he ever gets to see down here.
“Come,” he whispers in her ear as he leans over. “There’s so much I’d love to show you.”
So much, and yet he doesn’t know where to start. Or he wouldn’t, if they didn’t come upon Juleka waiting along the bank of La Haine. Her boat, big enough for her to stand and a passenger or two to accompany her, is tethered to the dock nearby—as though someone like her even gets a break in the business of the dead, or grasps the concept of waiting to begin with—and she stands with her oar at her side and all the dignity of a soldier with their sword. It fills him with pride, though he knows she wouldn’t want any of his.
“My sister,” he says to Marinette, and realizes he’s still holding her hand. And that he has no intention to let go just yet. “Don’t take offense; she rarely speaks to anyone. Even me.”
“What is she doing here?”
“She’s my conductor. She brings every soul my way. Old or young, man or woman or neither or both, of whatever persuasion and whatever status. So long as they’ve been dead and buried, they all must get here through her.” He winks. “For a price, of course.”
As if she’s overheard them, or merely sensed his presence, Juleka turns toward them. Hair as black as night shades her face, and the most she does in the space they share is look to Marinette, and then to him. She holds his gaze, and then sighs and turns away like she must understand everything. Like now he should know what looking like that exactly means.
All this time they had—all this time they will have—and there are only tangents where he’ll understand her exactly.
“Are you scared?” Luka asks, out of Juleka’s earshot. “It’s… lacking, compared to what you’re used to.”
Marinette pauses, kneeling down on the bank but not getting too close, and never once letting her fingers slip from his grasp. She shakes her head. “Are there… other rivers?”
He nods, a little surprised, though he probably shouldn’t be. “Five more.”
“I want to see them all.” She looks up at him with all the wonder of a child, as though she left every bad feeling at the door with his tenants. “I want to see everything, Luka.”
He smiles, grimly, and helps her to her feet again. “Not everything.”
The land Luka surveys is dark and deep, tiered and never-ending and full of dull greys and too-dim lights. Around them both, inky rivers come together, surrounding them on almost all sides, and he guides her over them with her hand in his and her skirts lifted to her knees, as though one touch from them would keep her here forever. She watches the spirits the most, in their quiet tour—those with nothing left to lose anymore, those with no sense of progress or self-importance, or self at all, because there are no hierarchies after a life full of obsessions with them. Perhaps it’s the most equal she’s ever seen humanity. Which, Luka might say, is the only perk of ruling the Underworld. She doesn’t seem to pity them; instead, she seems to look for understanding in them. How they’ve been judged, how they spend the endless rest of their days. And where Luka might find kinship in them.
As far as he’s concerned, there’s always some kinship in the consequences of assignment.
Any time he speaks, his words echo into some oblivion. Any time Marinette takes a step forward, the flowers she leaves in her wake wilt almost instantly. She notices it on more than one occasion, when she turns back to the world she’s left behind and when she reaches to touch the fresh crown on her head, and stops to bid such fleeting life goodbye with a sad smile.
“Doesn’t anything grow here?” she asks.
“Not here,” he says, and points into the distance. “There.”
She follows with her eyes, and squeezes his hand.
They follow the path to Paradise along the river that Luka knows borders the land. All the rivers circle his land and converge in the middle—he knows it from all his years surveying the Underworld. But he also knows all the twists and turns, all the minute details, what makes each of them unique. How La Haine and La Douleur intertwine and split off, so that Juleka rows them both to make her transports. How Le Sanglot, misty and rife with salt, is the second farthest out, attracts only those souls who have been lost—spirits turned away by Juleka until their bodies have been properly buried and respected. How he’s never thought to give the farthest one a name, because all it’s good for is surrounding the world and reminding him that The Medium exists. How L’Enfer boasts the hottest, blackest waters of them all, and surges off the cliffs into Torture—a land he hardly ever deigns to visit, and for whose residents he holds no pity, even as Marinette tries to peek into the abyss. Even as the screams and moans of anguish and terror and eternal frustration make her tremble.
And how the one they follow prides itself on water so clear she can see into the bright white sands of the riverbed, so that she’s tempted to let go of his hand and kneel for a drink.
On instinct, he grabs her by the elbow and yanks her back. “Don’t—”
She gasps, wide-eyed and inches from only touching the water, and stumbles backward. “Why—why not?”
He doesn’t realize how tightly he’s grasping her until he lets her go, sees the dregs of imprints from his fingertips on her skin. It’s… exhilarating. “That’s L’Oubli,” he says. “If you drank from it, you would forget. Anyone would, and most… do so, to be reborn. To have another chance at life.”
Marinette glances behind her, a smile twitching at the corner of her mouth. “Then this river and I will get along just fine.”
“I… I’d hate for you to forget everything.” Luka’s never known himself to fidget, but he does so now, even as he clutches faintly at the back of her robes. “I’d hate for you to forget me.”
They make it to Paradise together, hand in hand. It’s the one place here that boasts anything close to sunlight, to gardens and nature and peace, and Marinette is enthralled. She even takes off her sandals to feel the land under her feet, and the instant she does, she almost sinks like she’s at home. No wonder anyone would strive for this, if it made them feel half as wonderful as she looks.
Luka takes her through the fields and orchards, lets her bask in all their growth and potential and everything she was looking for, and lets her pick whatever she likes. When she comes to him at the edge of a nearby lake, her hands are empty but for a single pomegranate. He hums in thought, takes it from her, balances it on a finger for all of three seconds. “My favorite,” he says. “How did you know?”
She laughs shyly, and looks to two swans idly swimming across the lake. “Lucky guess.”
“Come,” he says again, and pockets the fruit for later. “I haven’t shown you the best part.”
The best part takes a while to get to—partly because Marinette can’t help lingering in Paradise in short bursts of just a little longer, and partly because she takes her time quietly celebrating or pitying every soul she sees, and partly because, along the way, she points all the way out to the horizon of the Underworld and asks, “What’s that over there?”
Sometimes, it seems, death has as many detours as life does.
They wind through the space, side by side, and all the awe that once lived in her expression fades away once they reach the unnamed river—and the empty-looking land that lies beyond it. She doesn’t shake this time; no fear lives in her eyes. In fact, she’s standing stock-still, hypnotized, unsettled. “What… is this place?” she asks, almost hollowly, and her hand slips away from his grip as she sways in place.
He tries to hold her steady as best he can. Why is she… reacting this way? And how is he supposed to stop it? “It’s The Medium,” he says. “The end of the world. The resting place for those who have done neither good nor bad, or too much of each—so much so that their actions even out. Or simply for those who have done good, but not enough of it. They’re too far away to land themselves in Torture, and too far away to forget and try again. They just… wait. And wander. With all the dying stars, and silence, and the sun and the moon, once a day, to accompany them.”
Marinette stares out into the void, the river all but silent as it flows, and her whole body seems to crumple and cave in under its own weight. “I don’t think I like it here,” she says, distant with a latent horror, like she might faint at any moment.
“You don’t have to,” Luka says to console her, and takes her by the hand again. Perhaps the touch will ground her. “We’ll go somewhere better.”
The forest of the Underworld is closer to the south, away from Paradise and Torture, and not too close to the end of the world. The land opens up to a thicket of trees, all of them made of wire and stone and gems that glow in the dimness, all of them steadfast against the occasional chilly breeze that rushes through and raises goosebumps on Marinette’s arms. But the awe has returned to her face, and the lights of the gems glitter in her eyes as much as they do on their wire branches, and she sinks to her knees almost in reverence once they’re in the thick of it. “It’s the closest thing we have to nature outside of the gardens,” he says. “Precious stones like these, they live under the ground, so they bend to my will, too. It’s… fascinating, what you can make when you have too much time on your hands and a sense of imagination.”
“It’s beautiful,” she breathes.
“More beautiful than Paradise?"
“Maybe.” She looks around, at these makeshift leaves, to an artificial sky that barely pokes through the branches, to his own face. And she smiles, so affectionately that he’d melt on the spot if he weren’t so cold. “But it’s certainly more beautiful than home.”
It gives him pause, to her her say something so bold, so sure of herself. He kneels beside her, takes care to drape his cloak over her shoulders to keep her warm, and busies himself with prying the pomegranate into quarters with his thumbs.
The other thing about a deep acquaintance with Death is that he knows all the hospitality that lives within it. The courtesies of escorting the newly arrived, the customs of judgment, the admittance to eternal homes. He knows how to extend these kindnesses. So with the dark red juice staining his fingers and dripping down the side of his hand, he presses a few seeds to her lips, one by one, and offers her one of the sections of the fruit. She looks surprised at first, with her eyes so trained on his, but her eyes flutter shut, and she accepts each seed he feeds her. It isn’t until she takes the fruit and sets it aside that they both notice the droplets of juice staining the front of her dress.
But Marinette doesn’t mind it. In fact, she looks entranced by it, and she catches his hand in hers to drink the rest of it from his skin. And then she pays him the same intoxicating kindness, with her thumb at his mouth and the stains all over her hands and the seeds bursting against his teeth.
She looks… dangerously regal, with flesh and blood on her lips and a crown of withered flowers on her head. Like every touch is a destruction that only she commands, and it thrills her far more than it kills her, and her startled but pleased gasp is better than any note he could play.
Like he could keep her here forever, if only she wanted to stay.
“Do you have to go?” he whispers halfway through the fruit, watching her carefully as he presses his mouth to her wrist and sucks the juice away. It’d be a shame to waste any of the sweetness.
“I have to be back by morning,” she tells him, and it echoes off the stones. “They can’t know I ever left, they’d worry.”
“Then come back. As many nights as you want. As many times as you want to see me.”
“Every night I can,” she says, like she’s suffocating and the promise gives her life. She downs one last handful of the seeds the way he knows some mortals knock back pills, and she presses her palm to his lips, and it’s as he’s sucking away the rest of the juice, his mouth and chin stained dark red, that he thinks this is worth more than mortal sacrifice or blood promises.
Luka longs for her in her absence. Which, really, is only during the day when he doesn’t resurface to steal a glance or two at her, and only very rarely at night. But it still feels impossibly long when it’s the one thing he’s waiting for. When there’s actually something worth waiting for. It’s the closest he comes to even vaguely understanding anyone confined to Torture. To the man who reaches for the fruit just too tall for him and the water that recedes from his touch, or the one nailed to the wheel of fire he thought he’d have no use for, or the girls who, night after night, try to purify themselves in an empty tub.
Understand them, yes. He might. But he still doesn’t pity them.
It’s weeks after Marinette comes back to the Underworld, dress clean and feet bare, that he takes her back to the trees made of gemstones and wires, back to the place where they sat and shared the fruit so sacred to him. With a swelling sense of pride, he shows her the single blossom—just like the one she left at The Border, but ruby red instead of stark white—that sprung up from where the pomegranate juice dripped onto the forest floor.
“Did I do that?” she asks, like she can’t believe it even though the evidence is there.
Luka gives her an amused smile; he’s been doing it more often these days, the more he gets to see her face. “Is that really so hard to believe?”
“Well, I thought…” She fumbles for words. “You said nothing could grow outside of Paradise.”
“I did.” He looks at her too long—like he could either kill her or kiss her—and does neither. “I think you could change that.”
If Marinette is flustered by his words, she’s doing a very good job of not showing it. She only gathers up her dress as she kneels beside the flower, brushing a fingertip over the petals. It shudders and blossoms under her touch, looks like it clings to her for life, and blushes a deep maroon. It gives—nothing like the stone he’s so used to seeing around these parts. She gasps, freezes in thought, reaches up to touch the flowers woven into her hair.
They’re still alive, and refuse to budge.
“Why…” she breathes, not terrified, and yet not satisfied, either. “Why now? Is it some kind of omen?”
Luka purses his lips. “It’s like I told you all that time ago. It may be that you belong here now, if that’s what you choose.”
At first, Marinette says nothing, like she must be thinking too deeply about it as she cups the flower in both hands. It seems to throb with fresh life, wants more and more of it every second she’s near, and gradually, whatever unsettling, unreadable feeling lingers in her expression fades away. “I think I might like to see things grow down here for myself,” she finally says. “It would feel like I had something for me. Something I could finally call mine.”
His brow furrows, and he tilts his head, and he slowly kneels beside her, his cloak a curtain to them both. “Marinette?”
She’s still holding the blossom, cradling it like it might slip through her fingers like sand, like she might lose it if she lets go or looks away for too long. “I’m starting to think,” she murmurs, “that you were right about the Earth. That maybe it isn’t meant for me anymore.” She smiles weakly at the blossom, doubles over to grace it with a loving kiss, and for a flicker of a moment Luka wishes he were those petals. Just to know what it would feel like. “I’ve been feeling that way for a long time.”
With a cautious hand, Luka turns her face toward him, and on instinct she reaches up to curl her fingers around his wrist. Settling into his touch, she lets her eyes fall shut, and sits more properly on the ground, and he has to wonder if her comfort comes from being right that he can’t kill everything, or from the fact that she’s the only one who knows all the tenderness Death has to offer.
“It’s beautiful up there,” she tells him, still holding onto his hand, “but it’s become so… boring, to me. It’s the same thing every day—laze around in gardens and meadows and make everything too pretty to touch, sing and dance and learn every new way to decorate my hair and my clothes. All while making sure I’m never too far away from the nymphs that take care of me, or that my father has nothing to worry about when he’s tending to all the grains and making sure all those mortals are fed every year.” She sighs, all but nuzzling his hand with her cheek. “I guess you could say growing runs in the family.”
“But you love them, don’t you?” Luka asks, daring to press his thumb to her jaw, mindful of the lone flower as he moves closer to her.
The only time he isn’t touching her face is when she leans back to peel his gloves away, and a pleased expression flits across her face as soon as dark nails scrape over her skin. It’s only momentary, though, and gives way to something more somber. “I wonder if I do,” she says, “or if it’s just something I feel because I see them every day. If it’s something I feel because living my life the way I do is no better than being a bird in a cage, or an animal in a box.”
“And…” Luka hesitates. “What about the sun?”
Marinette goes tense, and her fingers dig into the back of his hand, and his eyes might be playing a trick on him, but it almost looks like all the flowers around her shrivel up just a bit, and unfurl as she releases the breath she’s holding. “I thought I was in love with him once, from the moment I saw him. I really believed it. I’ve pined for him for as long as I can remember, even after his brother—Félix, you know?—found out and swore not to tell. He could have, for all I know… I swear they tell each other everything. Even Kim offered to shoot him with one of his arrows, to make something of it. But I… how do you really fall in love with someone you only see from far away, for a few beautiful moments of every day? What happens when the sun is gone and he’s all that’s left? Would I still feel the way I do? And besides, I…”
She has to pause. Luka can’t help meeting her eyes; it’s the only way he can tell her, without saying anything, that he’s still listening.
Eventually, she pulls her hands away, and rests them in her lap, defeated. “We’ve always been so far apart. With everything he’s responsible for, how I only ever see him when he’s in the sky… I don’t think we’re as fated to be together as the people around me would have me believe. They’ve always encouraged me to have hope—and it’s not a stupid thing to have—but why hope for something that, the less you see it happening, the more certainly you know it won’t ever come true?” She bows her head, the flowers in her hair curling inward almost wistfully, and a teardrop or two trickles down her cheeks and lands on her dress.
Luka’s heart sinks, and he takes her face in his hands, even as her tears drip down his wrists and drop to the ground. “Come on…” he tells her. “You know salt isn’t good for the plants.”
“They’re all so far away.” Even she sounds distant now, wiping her eyes with the side of her hand, and she refuses to lift her head. “They aren’t for me. They wouldn’t even miss me.”
In the forest, everything is silent except for the way Marinette cries. Even the way he presses his forehead to hers and lifts her head so their eyes can meet. Even the way he thumbs her cheek and permits her to look away if she needs to, and delights when she doesn’t. The only thing that breaks the silence is how he whispers, “I miss you, you know. I miss you all the time,” just before he pulls her mouth to his own.
The kiss is as sweet as he always imagined it, soft and tender and so loving it makes him dizzy with all the ichor that rushes to his head. He can’t help unraveling her hair and threading his fingers through it, or clutching at the silk of her robes wherever he’s able, or skimming his hands over what bare skin he can find, because winter kissing spring is invigorating, and he never wants to stop now that he’s had the taste of it. And, if the way she crawls into his lap and settles her hands around his neck is any indication, neither does she.
He almost doesn’t want to open his eyes when he pulls away. No, he wants to keep holding her hands, lay her back, press her to one of the trees and let her have every loving way she pleases with him. But he wills himself to look at her, the flush in her face, her hair in disarray, her lips shimmering pink and aching to be kissed again. She’s wrapping his cloak around the both of them now, locking herself in with him, and he’s always had the feeling that black suited her, but it’s never looked so beautiful on her before now.
“Look,” she whispers, so hoarse he can barely hear her, and before they can meet in another kiss he catches the blossoms beginning to sprout around them, pink, gold, white. The red one alone is the only one of its kind, and it sticks out like a sore thumb. “Now you can’t miss me anymore.”
He smiles, his laugh little more than a breath against her lips, and draws her down with him.
“I have something for you.”
Luka mentions it offhand, when more time has passed and the night isn’t quite young, when Marinette is busy putting together a makeshift garden close to the entrance of Paradise. She said she wanted to start off small, in a place that might be a better guarantee for things to grow. There are only sprouts for now, the beginnings of crocuses and orchids and cliff roses, but she seems to have so much faith in them, and already she’s been talking about experimenting with fruits and vegetables, if he’d let her.
But not grains. She’s joked on more than one occasion that it’s out of her jurisdiction, and that she’s tired of it besides.
Honestly, he doesn’t blame her. Browns and beiges are so drab compared to what she can bring here, and for the Lord of the Underworld, that’s saying something. And besides, he’s having much more fun admiring her as she works, recreates life with her hands and cares very little about getting them dirty. Hearing her hum one of his songs—the first one he ever played for her, in fact—only serves to make him more certain in his decisions.
And so the words come from him, rip away from him, without his ever intending to say them out loud—at least, not yet. And he has no choice but to live with them. But he would choose to anyway, in retrospect, and that makes all the difference.
Marinette pauses both work and song, turns and smiles up at him affectionately, still spring among all this indescribable season, and claps the dust and half-stale earth from her hands as she stands up straight. “What is it?” she asks, as sweet and musical as the day she first came to The Border to speak to him.
It warms him, on the inside, and he lifts her knuckles to his lips before taking her home.
In all their time exploring the Underworld together—following the timeless routine of the dead and walling off eternal punishment from earshot and discovering things even he had never known—Luka’s never taken her up to his palace. He’s never needed to, and she’s never been particularly fascinated in it, except to ask about “that building up above their heads.” She’s always been a woman of the open air, for as long as he’s known her. And for that same span of time, she’s had an inexplicable hold over him, a charm he wouldn’t give up anything, not even for the assembly and company of his fellow deities.
It isn’t as though they’ve done him much good these last few centuries, anyway.
He has to take her through a winding passageway and up a staircase, far above the imprisonment of his inmates. But her soft little hand never leaves his, even with the leftover soil on it, and she trusts him just as deeply as the first night he invited her in. Only when they reach the palace—a somber black void of a building, supported by columns of iron and steel—does she let go of him. She cranes her head to stare in wonder at the grand entrance, which is engraved with the familiar snake emblem from the front gates, but she doesn’t tremble or cling to him the way she did the first time she overheard the Torture, or came upon those weeping, wandering souls along Le Sanglot.
She stands like she’s ready for whatever may lie beyond the doors. Like she’s allowed to own it, mesmerized though she is. And she touches the seal for herself.
Luka smiles, and presses his palm to his heart, and allows the doors to open for her.
Their footsteps—the only ones in this vast, lonely place—echo off the walls, except where they’re muffled by dark maroon carpet, and almost instantly, Marinette seems taken with it all. She doesn’t stray very far from him to explore, even though it’s exactly what brought her down here at all. Her robes billow behind her as he takes in the dark pillars, the grey stained glass, the single chandelier of perpetually lit candles that brings out her shadows more than her highlights. It’s the instant she lays her hand on the simple bone banister and looks at him over her shoulder, though, that he stops, rooted to the spot, and stands up a little straighter. And his mind goes hazy.
His teeth sink into his lip.
She belongs here after all.
“Where are we going?” she asks.
Her words are soft, and command equality—Where are we going? instead of Where are you taking me? But he feels like he could hear them from ages away. Like he could, would, fall to his knee at the drop of a hat for her. He’s at her side in an instant, with a hand splayed over her back, and he guides her up and up. “Come,” he whispers, and he takes her to his chamber with his fingers curled into her robes.
Once the heavy door closes behind them, Marinette hangs back, giving an almost nervous stare around the dark room, at the heavy brocade draperies, the iron and velvet lounging chairs, the low table with its steel platter of pomegranates, the bed that needs no introduction or formality. Luka lights the candles around the room with a swirl of his fingers, and the flames dance, illuminating their faces and their clothes, though his seem to swallow it all up. It’s after he’s unpinned his cloak and laid it aside, and as he’s rummaging through a nearby drawer, that she takes first one hesitant step, and then another. Her footsteps betray her, and he can still see her out of the corner of his eye.
“Why…” She pauses, starts again with her hair twisted around her fingers. “Why did you bring me here?”
“Because,” he tells her, and coaxes one hand away to press his lips to her palm. “It wouldn’t be right for me to give you this so publicly.”
In his hands is a rose gold crown, light and adorned with diamonds and pink sapphires and dark red rubies, all of them shaped to form flower blossoms all around. With his eyes on hers, he holds it out to her, and takes a step closer. “A choice,” he says. “Your choice.”
Marinette’s eyes go wide.
“I wouldn’t ask for anyone’s permission but yours,” he tells her in the almost-dark like he’s rehearsed it countless times. “I don’t keep much company with me—you know that as well as I do. But yours, I’ve enjoyed. Yours, I want. You’d be able to do as you please here, whatever you feel gives you purpose. You could try to make as many things grow as would make you happy. If they won’t have you above, then I’d have you below. And with your consent, I wouldn’t be in the business of parting with you. So, come…” His breath hitches, and he holds out the crown a little further, enough that he could lay it in her hands if he wanted to. “Would you rule this place with me? Would you honor me, and be my queen?”
He’s not so close that his eyes would cross if he tried to look at her, but he is close enough to hear her shudder, to see the pinpricks of tears at the corners of her eyes. He’d wipe them away if he good, but gives her the power to do it herself. Slowly, and by the light of every candle in his chamber, she kneels before him, closes her eyes, and bows her head, loose curls spilling over her shoulders.
“Crown me,” she murmurs, “My Lord.”
For someone who gives life, again and again, she must have snatched all of it from him in this moment. With every drop of caution and precision, Luka fits the crown upon her head, and lifts her chin to meet her gaze, and helps her to her feet again. “A queen of mine,” he says, “stands on equal ground. And sometimes higher.”
She blushes a bright, shimmering pink, and finds his hands to hold. “You really are mine?”
“All of this is yours,” he says, and squeezes gently. “All of me is yours.”
He seals it all with sections of pomegranate, thumbs and palms pressed to mouths as they feed one another, and he kisses the juice from her lips. Their hands are still stained red from the fruit, and he’s more than sure it’s smudged across her robes when he holds her close, but it’s hard to care about when he’s setting their crowns side by side and mouthing hungrily along her neck to the music of her sighs.
“I said I would have you,” he whispers against her jaw, one hand firm at the small of her back and the other coaxing away the strap of her dress. “Will you have me, too?”
It might be the dark, or the candles, or the high of such an intimate wedding, but her eyes have never looked so blue to him before. She swallows, and shivers, and reaches for the front of his clothes, pulling him close as he lifts her and walks her backward. “I brought you life,” she whispers back, with her hands closing delightfully around his neck. “Now bring me death.”
In his bed—their bed—his queen draws the curtains around them, and unravels above him, and fills his room with music and bright red blossoms.