And it’s funny how everyone around me thinks I’m clean
Baby, you’re the only on my mind…
Jesus couldn’t love me, even if he tried.
- “Jesus Couldn’t Love Me” by Chloe Lilac.
She looked as though she belonged in the glow of a fire; and if that said something about her, in spirit or in conflict or in ache, Zelda didn’t know what it was.
Night turned to deeper night as the house emptied its halls, no creature stirring save Lilith and Zelda, herself. The living room swelled with heat in the clutches of September, barely cold enough for a fire and rightfully said so — oh, but Lilith had jumped at the opportunity to strike a match, and Zelda couldn’t rip that from her. She’d smoked out the rest of them early enough, but Zelda held resistant, suffered the edge of warmth for the opportunity to be alone with her — though now, she could hardly manage to rip herself from the doorway.
She feared she’d done something wrong.
Lilith hadn’t touched her food that evening. Zelda loaded her plate, passed the salt, watched it stir in her hands; she asked for her day and pestered her knee, eager to hear her voice, and nothing, nothing, nothing. Lilith merely loaded down a glass of wine and then turned to scotch, nothing so gentle — picked at a pea or two, mocked up a smile, and excused herself to the den. To reach for her hand and watch her go was devastation incarnate.
Lilith hadn’t touched Zelda that evening, either.
It was silly to notice such a thing, but she had. Every attempt to get close to her — to reel her into an embrace first instant home, or to take her hand under the table, or to kiss her cheek at the offer of dessert — it was all failure, met with stiffness and brooding stares into nothing…
She hadn’t gone cold, necessarily, nor did she use distance as her weapon. She’d turned dead stone to everyone and everything around her, all day — mummified by her own thoughts constricting her throat, drawing her shoulders, rendering her every end tense and rigid.
Now, she sat in archaic beauty by the fireplace, close enough to burn her eyes or singe her nose but hardly seeming to mind. The firelight glowed tangerine on her skin, flickered over her shoulder and at the tips of her hair; her back remained turned, and her glass remained full, hung in her hand lightly enough to fall and doomed to do so, any moment…
And her fingers — she reached out into the fireplace, just above the flames, as if to touch them. She played with the fire like a friend, or a pet; she sought so much warmth that she seemed to radiate it, the sun in all her glory. Her mind was gone, hissed away. Her frame sat fragile.
She’d burn herself.
“ Ouch -”
She’d burned herself. Zelda shoved off the doorframe.
“Lilith, sit back a little. Goodness,” Zelda chastised as she marched across the black, barefoot to rug, softly though she didn’t care for it now. This caught none of Lilith’s attention, drunk and wavering still on her hand; even as Zelda reached her side, Lilith did not turn.
Zelda dropped to her worshipful knees. “Let me see.”
Lilith reflexively put her hand to her chest, as if Zelda would slice it open or something equally offensive. Hand to her shoulder, Zelda leaned forward until she caught Lilith’s wandering eye; sighed, sent her some comforting gaze. Lilith softened, and unwound her hand from her own clutch.
Zelda waned with relief. She took Lilith by the wrist — turned her over, inspecting at all sides. Angry red marked two fingertips, the bite of a threatened flame (of all the forces Lilith could manipulate, not quite fire). A deep frown settled on Zelda’s shoulders; she brought the fingers up to kissing distance, and eased the pain, one at a time.
“What,” Zelda began, cheek resting to Lilith’s knuckles, “in hell’s name were you doing?”
“Mm, dancing in hell,” Lilith replied in the dreamy way only a drunk Lilith would — utter nonsense, but with a hint of something meaningful, and sad. Finally, she lifted her chin from its stare-off with the fireplace. “Sorry to frighten you.”
“That’s fine, that’s- that’s all right,” Zelda stammered, not recognizing her own fright until she metered her breath and found herself drawing ragged. She bit her lip hard in thought, shook her head. “Scared me more at dinner than…”
“Hm?” Lilith started at Zelda’s murmuring, though her attention had returned to the fire — and now, close enough to breathe her air, Zelda could read her expression for a hint of longing. She stared into the flames as though they were looking back, whispering to her, telling secrets; and perhaps they were, or perhaps they used to do, and she waited for something vain. That tug of sadness did sit behind her lungs, dragging her breaths in all day long.
Zelda brushed Lilith’s hand lightly over her lips, back and forth in patient strides. She looked up through her lashes, considered not saying what she ultimately said.
“Do you miss it?”
“No,” Lilith shot back, sounding like a lie. She blinked her gaze down a telling inch, her knees shifting beneath her. “I… miss the heat, sometimes. Nothing else; nothing there, anyway.”
That, too, nagged at the corner of her sentence — something wrong, something cutting — something running her veins cold, pulling her to the fireplace. Zelda ached for more, just to pull her open and read her out; but Lilith held a heavy history, much to discover and much to lose. Zelda worked carefully.
“You don’t have to tell me everything,” Zelda began, measured in what she asked of her. She ghosted a hand over Lilith’s back, settling to hook at her waist. “But something, at least. So I can understand.”
Lilith’s gaze, glassy in the firelight, settled on the glow of her scotch. She knocked back a long drink, finishing off likely her third or fourth serving — sleeved at her mouth, and sighed into flickering flames.
“Were you ever tempted to the Path of Light?”
Zelda’s eyes flared at such a question, her immediate reaction intense; but she tempered it down to a simmer and cleared her throat.
“Not really,” she lied, and collected Lilith’s empty glass where it dangled from her grasp. It clicked to the hardwood, her finger slinking around the rim. “Why?”
Hand empty and reaching for something, Lilith took to stroking her hair in some anxious way, repetitive, like memorization. Zelda collected the strands and tucked them behind her ear — let her fingertips glide down the slope of Lilith’s neck.
“I’m ashamed of this,” Lilith admitted with a laugh choked back in her throat. Pierced, Zelda reached for her hand — squeezed her support.
“How recent, love?”
“Oh, ages ago,” Lilith assured her, sniffing. “Before your time, before our time. There was… a man.”
It surprised Zelda even, how high her own eyebrows bounced, candy-coated with disbelief. Lilith did notice, too — scoffed, as though her intimation was ridiculous.
“Not like that. Never like that.” Another sniff and Lilith sat back on her hand, stared dead into the flames, almost bitter in her expression. “No, he was just a friend. My best friend, for a while — long before I knew any better than that.”
Her brow furrowed. Zelda had half a mind to ask on that, but she remained silent, let Lilith continue. This was rare enough, to hear Lilith speak secrets of her past; Zelda wouldn’t stamp through it all.
“He was… the kindest man I’ve ever known. And I knew many men, intimately,” Lilith said on the cutting edge of slurring, a wan smile for accessory. She peered down at their entwined hands, as if she wanted freedom — so Zelda granted her that, in the trust that she’d come back.
A deep sigh, and Lilith continued, “ I was- well, I was tasked with keeping an eye on him. Popping in from time to time, playing as his little friend when he was a child — the only time I was a child, if you can believe it. It was fun, for a while. Frustrating, but no more frustrating than life otherwise, and- what am I saying? Where was I?”
The darling was difficult to capture while drunk, but she was working hard, Zelda knew. Zelda stroked lazy lines up and down her back, eyes wandering over Lilith’s golden image, sighing.
“Anyway,” Lilith decided, shrugging her shoulders. “Planting seeds, manil- manipulating him — but for his own good, be sure. I kept watch of him all his life, until…”
Her voice trailed off, but her mind was loud, shining through a pair of glossy blues she’d hidden from Zelda all day. She swiped her sleeve under her nose, swallowed; her eyes wandered, innocent despite the guilt in her tone.
“He died, and it was my fault,” she said, voice trembling as though someone were shaking her by the shoulders. “Well. Our fault, really.”
Zelda nodded slowly. “Yours, and… S-”
“Yes,” Lilith cut her off before she could even utter the name, while her eyes went slightly crossed on examination of her own burnt fingers — one by one, an easier place for her gaze to lock. “We tried everything — exhausted our efforts to change his mind, to tempt him away from the Path of Light. To…”
Her fingers wandered down to catch the trim of the rug, loose laces she could roll over her thumb absentmindedly. Red nails shone orange, flickered in the light, her own little flames.
“To free him, of that,” she explained with a blink, and a cleared throat. “But he wouldn’t be saved.”
The grief in her words far outweighed any detail she’d relayed so far — Zelda recognized it. She’d fought with it a time or two.
So, and with sweeping grace that couldn’t be denied, Zelda situated both arms around Lilith and drew her nearer. Lilith offered no resistance, sank into her like a sandbag and curled her legs up much the same; Zelda pulled her neatly into her lap. Lilith’s hands sat out to steady herself, but Zelda wouldn’t let her fall — held her securely until she’d found comfort and settled.
There, Zelda settled her hands in Lilith’s lap and straightened her dress. “I see,” Zelda whispered to her back. “And he tempted you?”
Lilith made a noise near to forlorn. “Every day, in small ways. He would… talk to me, when most people wouldn’t come near. He saw into me in a way no one else did. I thought- I wanted to attribute that to something — to understand why, I guess, but I just…”
Her shoulders sank under Zelda’s embrace. The fire crackled lightly in their silence, dulling to a few licking flames now. Zelda brushed Lilith’s hair back over her shoulder, something to do.
“What’s bringing all this up?” Zelda asked, the first question on her mind. She wound her hands in Lilith’s hair and slowly worked out tangles, stress signs of Lilith’s own raking fingers where they now twisted knots into the rug…
“He sacrificed himself, to the False God.” Lilith looked down at her work of the loose yarn, hand pulled to a fist, knuckles white. “Today… is the day they celebrate it, you know — you know that, you know that…”
She murmured to herself in a chiding way, as though she’d made some mistake; but Zelda’s brow drew tight. Mortal holidays didn’t come easily to her — like the names of distant relatives, rarely useful but occasionally extremely necessary to recall…
“Gruesome holiday, but who are we to judge, I suppose…”
Friday. Good Friday. That was the one.
Zelda’s lungs deflated.
Lilith drew a shuddering breath, tears now rampant in her tone and stabbing Zelda through. Zelda trailed one hand along Lilith’s arm and tugged her sleeve down, off her shoulder — and there, she planted kisses to the bare, heated skin — so damn warm, feverish even, surely enough to make herself sick…
“I miss him,” Lilith confessed, voice hoarse. “I miss him all the time — wonder what I could’ve done, or what I did do…”
“No,” Zelda protested softly, but it fell on deaf ears. She kissed her way up Lilith’s neck, the only comfort she knew to offer, arms wrapping tighter around her midriff…
But Lilith nodded her disagreement, and huffed a laugh. “I failed, and they celebrate my failure. His blood is on my hands and they… they take it as a victory.”
Her words sank pits in Zelda’s stomach, the weight of her shame flooding off her shoulders and into Zelda’s hands. She spoke as if she’d carried this for centuries — and she had, and she still did, as though this were all hers to bear.
“Lilith, you can’t carry this,” Zelda whispered into her ear, glancing up at her cheek. She frowned. “There wasn’t anything you could’ve done-”
“You don’t know that,” Lilith shot back, and tugged her sleeve up into place. “You just… blindly worship me, you… you and everyone around me, you all have this mistaken idea that I’m something beyond a failure and a waste , and I-”
“Lilith!” Zelda scolded, unable to stave off the reaction pulsing in her veins at that, at all of that. “Don’t you dare talk about yourself that way. Not while I love you, not while…”
Her voice trailed off, though, at the sight of Lilith instantly withdrawn. She’d gone rigid in Zelda’s arms and shrunken at the seams, holding her breath as if anticipating some greater chastisement. Zelda’s ears slowed in their roaring; her grip released on Lilith’s shoulders, so fervent in her love that she lost herself at times.
Now, and with considerably more patience, Zelda rested her head on Lilith’s shoulder and felt her go gentle underneath. She drew a deep breath, sighed it out into the muggy air.
Lilith’s expression said the exact same thing, though she buried it in Zelda’s shoulder much before it could be analyzed.
They sat still for a moment, Lilith in her lap and Zelda on her knees in every sense. The night turned quiet around them, air conditioning humming to a defiant start. Lilith didn’t seem to mind, except to inch closer to the flames, as close as Zelda would let her — and that wasn’t very much at all. Zelda had half a mind to hide the matches from here out.
“He died because of me,” Lilith muttered emptily, shoulders hunched like a guilty child. “He died for his Master, and by some grace, I didn’t.”
Zelda knew that. She meditated on it daily, Lilith’s familiarity with death, and the mercy it was that she hadn’t fallen to his sword — that Zelda had reached her in time.
“I was… nothing, compared to him.” Lilith bit her own lip to bleeding, glistening scarlet. “I’ll never forget that.”
“Hm. Neither will I,” Zelda agreed, to a totally different tone. She stroked up and down Lilith’s arm, stripes of contact along fabric — and drew her sleeve up to find skin there, to touch it, to brush along it. Burrowing into her shoulder, Zelda placed a blueprint of kisses over her neck, sighing.
Lilith, too, sighed and relaxed into her, finally. One arm reached back and took Zelda’s elbow in her hand, guiding her movements, rubbing circles over the freckles there…
“Thank you,” Zelda whispered, melting into her first real touch today, that saving grace — the thing she’d craved but couldn’t quite reach…
Lilith huffed. “For what?”
Her arms tightened around Lilith protectively, teeth clicking from how hard she pulled Lilith to her chest.
“For surviving,” she said with a shudder, lips catching on Lilith’s skin. “For getting here, to me.”
A silence passed, nothing but the hum of air and the popping fire and a low chuckle where Lilith considered herself, down into her lap. She peeked back at Zelda with teary eyes, though her smile was genuine if small. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I thought I was failing.”
“Mm.” Another constellation on her shoulder, and Zelda muttered in a buzzy voice, “Never once.”
Lilith hummed her appreciation, inhaled against a full nose and drew up at the shoulders, come to life again. Her hand came up to Zelda’s hair, tangled in the curls there; Zelda tickled her neck with kisses until she won a laugh, a half-hearted effort to get away — leaning to the far end of Zelda’s lap, Zelda chasing after her and catching their weight on the rug. Lilith giggled, turned to return her kiss with scotch and a sting…
And that was it — all Zelda had missed, all day. Just this closeness was all she sought, and getting closer every day, learning something new, unspooling Lilith. She inhaled Lilith’s air and tasted her tongue and felt nothing but closer, closer, closer…
Nipping at her lip, Lilith pulled away, eyes fluttered open and attacking all at once. A stuffy sigh down under Zelda’s chin, and Lilith caught the back of her head.
“I’ll take you there, sometime,” Lilith decided, and glanced back over her shoulder — stared into the fire pit, mesmerized. “Show it to you, properly .”
Hell . Zelda hadn’t had the nerve to ask, waiting for an invitation.
Hell would tell some sort of story about Lilith, certainly — an explanation where none other existed — another piece to the puzzle. It would say something about her that Zelda hadn’t said, herself, some definition to the indefinable. That was an incredible display of trust.
So Zelda aimed to appreciate that, and showered her appreciation over Lilith. She squeezed her closer, hummed a low note into her muscles and sighed it out like smoke, the scent of Lilith and fire filling her lungs in its place. Her lip bitten, her soul unguarded, her stomach a bit turned with excitement, Zelda lowered her voice to something appropriate for the hour.
“I can’t wait.”