High above the streets of the city, she clung to the rough metal rails of the tower. The pitted latticework of the structure was an easy climb even for humans, she had gone up it as easily as walking. And now, there she was, hundreds of feet above the ground, staring down at the world that she owed so much to. She hawked and spat, sending phlegm and spittle down to earth. She looked up, craning her neck to stare straight to the heavens. Near at hand, red lights flickered on and off to warn aircraft away from the tall stacks. Beyond those, stars. And beyond that, a mystery.
God? Heaven? Nothing?
She shook her head. Wondering was not good enough for her, she intended to get some answers. She leaped clear of the tower, thrusting herself out into empty space. Her hair streamed past her face, her powerful legs propelling her far out into the air. Then, there was that moment of weightlessness, that moment that always feels like it will last forever, but as soon as it was gone it was as if it had never happened. She tucked her body, jacknifed expertly, and began plunging down. Gravity took her, brought her down with ever-increasing speed. She used her hands to cut the air, holding her body in a single long clean line live a diver. The ground rushed up at her, she could see the shrubs only an instant before she could make out the grass, and then the earth slammed into her with all the force in the world.
Ribs shattered, her neck broke, every part of her body bruised all at once. Blood flew from her in a wide arc, her heart stuttered and died, then restarted itself with a strong stready beat. She took a deep breath and sat up, her ribs snapping themselves back into place and her joints relocating into their proper places. The bruises faded even as she stood upright, and by the time she had grasped the first rung of the tower’s latticework, she was not even feeling stiff.
“All right already, you’ve got my attention,” came a voice from behind her. She paused, listening to the wind howl across the metal rungs that led all the way back up, frozen for the moment of indecision. Part of her spent that second wondering if she was hearing things, if her imagination was playing tricks on her. She chuckled at the idea, and turned around. The wind came up and caught at her hair, whipped it into a devil about her face and shoulders, clouded her vision for that second. Her hands came up and clawed the wild black locks back from her face, pulling them back and tucking it behind her ears. When she’d been human, her hair had been long and dark and thick, but now it was blacker than a well shaft, and such an unruly mass that she could not even keep it in a ponytail. And sometimes, like now, it had a mind of its own. Like her eyes, like her voice, like her appetite.
The cloud of her hair pulled back, she could see him for the first time. Dark hair, long on top and longer over his face, short on the back and shorter on the sides. His skin was pale, as fair as human skin could get, almost as white as hers. His face ducked away from the moonlight and the far-off lamplight, his eyes fell into shadow, hollow under his sharp-boned brows. He was only an inch taller than her, and thin, but the fit of his clothes showed that he was packed with flat, hard muscles. “So, now that I’m here, what did you want?”
She lifted her chin as she stared at the shadow-cast figure. “I wanted answers, but I did not expect you to come so soon.” Her eyes should be able to pierce the shadows over his face,his eyes, but he kept his secrets. She should smell his scent, but there was nothing to smell from him. She took a step towards him, looking closer. “Are you who I think you are?”
He shrugged, turning into the light slightly. She could make out the quirked, ironic smile on his face. “Who else would I be?” He thrust his hands deeply into the pockets of his jacket, pulling the leather tight across his shoulders. The wind came up again, ruffling her hair back into a wild mane surrounding her face and shoulders.
“You could be anyone. You could be like me, my kind, playing a joke on me. You could be some crazy man in the right place at the right time. But you are not necessarily the one I was waiting for.” She let her voice challenge, let her eyes flash. She set her fists on her hips, glaring at the man.
He chuckled. “You know, I never would have thought you’d be so skeptical. Skepticism is for people that have never been turned upside down. Vampires have no business being so dubious. Besides, you’ve been trying to get my attention for half an hour, and now you’re surprised that I’m here! Your heart has stopped seven times in that time, of course I would notice something like that. Now quit being silly and tell me what you wanted.” He pulled a quarter out of his pocket and started flipping it in one hand.
She chuckled under her breath, a slow smoky sound. “So, you do see the fall of every sparrow.”
He shook his head, a sad gesture. “No, that’s God. He sees the fall of every sparrow. I’m the one knocking them out of the air.” He reached up with his free hand and flipped his hair out of his face, pushing it back from his face. The quarter never stopped its up-and-down circuit, uninterrupted by his other motion. The vampire startled at that, she wasn’t sure she had enough coordination to do that and make it look so easy, so casual. He’d moved his hand, his face, his eyes, but it had not affected his other hand’s catch and flip.
“So, you’re death, then? Or rather, you’re Death?” the challenging note was back in her voice. She stared at his eyes, and they were just eyes. With his hair flipped back, the light touched his face and his eyes were just eyes, nothing special, nothing extraordinary. Not pitted sockets or wells of darkness, just pupil, iris, and white. The iris was some light color, looked grey in this lighting.
He chuckled. “You should know me by now, we’ve been married for years now, even though you were playing around with that man, and others before him. I’m surprised you can still hold this pretense of not knowing me, it’s almost quaint.” Light flickered up and down his face, reflected light thrown by the spinning coin in his right hand. Whap-ting, whap-ting, the quarter fell into his palm and then flicked off his thumbnail into the air again.
“Married?” she demanded. “What the hell do you mean?”
He caught the quarter and held it. “Let’s walk while I explain. I feel like having some coffee.” He flipped the quarter down his knuckles, and then back across, rocking it over his fingers to dance in a slow spill of silver.
“I’m not going anywhere with you until I’m convinced,” she shot back.
His grin was childlike, charming, a flash of straight white teeth. “Why didn’t you say so?” he said with a laugh.
He was Death.
She shook herself, took a step back, her hands upraised in front of her face. She stopped, gasping. She could not say what had changed, but now there was no doubt. He’d done something, there had been something about him… but now it was gone, and there was no doubt left in her. She lowered her hands, staring at his smiling face. “There’s a nice little coffee-shop about three blocks from here, just opened up,” he said to her, “let’s take a walk.”
She fell into step beside him, and he reached out to take her arm in his own, a gesture from a bygone era. Nobody had held her arm this way since bustles and bonnets went out of style, and she felt a little nostalgia for the elegance, the simplicity of that age. “Why did you say that we are married?” she asked, trying to cover her silly emotions with that cold challenge.
“Aren’t we?” he sounded puzzled, looking at her sidelong. “You have my mark, do you not? You bear me children, do you not? Ever since that night you said ‘I do’, and let me into you, you’ve been my bride. And you have loved me so very well.” His smile was small, but secret and naughty.
Keelin was confused, as she walked alongside Death. Hundreds of years ago, she had been a proper lady, kept by men and protected, bustled and corseted, debuted and accomplished. And when she had been turned into a scion of the darkness and the mystery, she had been no less cossetted and cared for, her master maintaining her as an ornament and an entertainment. But then he had died, and the helpless young woman, little more than a child, had been thrust into the world in a matter of survival, of self-reliance. And not ten years later, woman’s suffrage and woman’s liberation had begun, leaving her stranded of chivalry and adrift amongst modern opinions, lost in the wilderness with no training, no experience and nobody to save her. She had survived. She had adjusted, and she had made it on her own. And, she thought, she had left behind all of that silly sexist nonsense many years ago.
All of this whirled through her head as she walked beside the grim reaper, arm in arm with a manifest image of death. And somehow he took her back through all of it, the loss and the self-discovery and the pride and the comfort of all her years. Now that he had revealed himself, she felt vulnerable and weary and bitchy and elated, she felt more herself than she could ever remember feeling. She had always been herself, but somehow that meant so much more around him, like he brought out every part of herself all at once. Of course. Your life flashes before your eyes.
She looked at him sideways, and caught a glimpse of his face. He was staring a bit to the side, watching through a window as college students chowed down on Chinese food. He did not seem to be at all conscious of her, really, the effect he had on her had nothing to do with any effort on his part. He slowed somewhat, his feet dragging, as he watched three big young men, athletic-looking, laughing at some joke. Through the glass they were silent, their joke meaningless, their laughter pale and fleeting.
“Planning some automobile accidents? Some embolisms? Figuring out how you’re going to take them down?” she asked, the words biting. But his smile was calm, and he shook his head. His eyes moved back and forth through shadow, the light came and went with the motion. His eyes leapt out, blue as robin’s eggs, then lost in pits of darkness. Blue, human, harmless, and then lost into deep impartial distance. He reached up with his left hand and pushed his hair back again, the same practiced gesture as before, and his eyes caught the light and dispelled the illusion.
“I don’t decide who, or when, or how. I don’t make their fates, and I don’t take them anywhere.” He nodded ahead of them, indicating the next doorway. “This is the place I was telling you about. I recommend the hazelnut, or maybe the mocha. You like hazelnut, right?” He opened the door and waited politely for her to step through, gesturing for her to lead. She tried to keep her face impassive as she stepped through the doorway. She ran a hand through her hair as she looked around the coffee shop, but nobody was paying any attention to her or her companion. Most of the customers had either books or laptop computers, and the rest were chatting quietly, or arguing some point or another.
“I… yeah, hazelnut is fine,” she said, accepting the chair that he pulled out for her. He pushed it in under the table seamlessly, no awkwardness at all. He walked over to the counter to order two coffees, and Keelin had a moment to herself. She found it so hard to think while he was around, he brought out so many feelings in her, but now she turned in her chair to stare at him, talking to the guy behind the counter with the shaved head. He looked so familiar, she tried to remember who he looked like. Maybe somebody from when she was alive and mortal? Maybe a cousin, a friend, a suitor? Or could it be that he looked like one of her old victims, or someone that she had nearly fallen for decades ago? There were so many people she had outlived, people who’s lives she had touched, whose lives had touched her, but she could not remember so many of them, though they’d seemed so important at the time…
But he looked so familiar, whose face had he borrowed? Whose likeness had Death cast itself in? She was certain that she had not seen that face in the last fifty years, those years were sharper and clearer for her, and she would remember his face. The smooth clean lines, the wide flashing eyes, and the tilt of his jaw, the angle of his eyebrows.. dozens of details rendered him handsome, striking. His face held her with fascination as much as with familiarity. He was so pretty, and so familiar, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. Frustration welled up in her, and she choked it back down. How can he do this to me? What is happening?
She was being antagonistic, confrontational, sullen, that was not her way. She was not normally so hurtful and accusatory, what was it about him that made her so resistant? It was like the way his courtesy, his old-world manners and chivalry grated at her. When she’d been young, she had taken for granted that she would not have to open doors or push her own chair in, and she had been comfortable that way. And then the world changed, and she had changed with it. But why did it annoy her so much that he treated her as she had been treated for so many years? Why was she finding so much fault with such a little thing?
He returned to the table, two cups in his hands, and hooked his chair out from under the table with one leg, flashing a smile her own. She was watching carefully, but the coffee in the cups, though nearly brimming full, did not slop or spill, did not slosh at all. The cups were completely steady in his two hands as he flicked the chair around backwards. He set the smaller straight-sided mug in front of her, and kept the large round bowl-like cup for himself as he sat down in the chair, straddling over its seat and lowering himself. “Sugar?” he asked, holding up the sugar bowl with its spoon.
“Please,” she responded, smiling slightly. Now that she was calmer, his attentiveness did not irk her so much. She clamped down on her reflexive resentment, that knee-jerk reflex that had kept her acting like such a bitch so far. “Two, please,” she said, and he tipped out two sugar cubes. Where the hell did he find a coffee shop that has sugar cubes? “So, if you’re Death, you know why I wanted to talk to you?”
He tut-tutted gently, spooning sugar into his own cup of rich beige mocha. “Coffee first, then we talk.” He lifted the cup with the fingertips of both hands, ignoring the handle altogether, and sipped long at it, his eyes closed. Keelin sat staring at him, her brow wrinkled with puzzlement. She looked down at her own mug, and saw it lifted between the fingertips of both her hands, a mirror of his own posture. She stared at the cup, and saw a different cup in a different era. I didn’t always hold my cup this way. I used to hold it by the handle. When did I change? And why does he do it the same way, is he mocking me, has he been following me?
“All right,” he said, licking foam from his upper lip, “Now you can get down to brass tacks. Tell me what question you had that was so important to you.” He pushed his hair back with both hands, smoothing it away from his face, his eyes sliding from out of the shadows.
“Fine,” she said. “I’m sure you hear this one all the time, but why do people have to die?” She was ready for any glib answer, any rhetoric or philosophy.
He stared at her, speechless. His mouth dropped open, then closed soundlessly. His eyes blinked rapidly, and then he quirked a smile. “I’m sorry, did you ask me why people have to die?” his voice was incredulous, disbelieving.
“Yes,” she said, “that’s what I want to know.” She was annoyed at his reaction, his leery words and innocent eyes.
He shook his head. “Wow. That’s a new one. Well, I suppose it’s because life is temporary, and dying is the most convenient way to end it.” He smiled at her, and saw something on her face that made him stop smiling. He pushed his hair back again, and sighed. “First of all, don’t look at me that way, I don’t do anything. I’m not like God or Fate or anyone like that, I don’t do anything, I just am what I am. And everyone, everything, comes to me sooner or later. Eventually, everything is mine. That’s how it is, and there’s no changing that.” He shrugged. “Why, is that really so bad?”
She growled under her breath, leaning forward slightly, her hair rocking forward to shade her eyes. “Yes, as a matter of fact, it is. Jeremy died, and he didn’t have to go that way. He did not have to wither, and wrinkle, and rot… he got old, and he got sick, and he died. It didn’t have to be that way. He was taken from me, and I want him back.”
The flashing blue eyes softened with sympathy, and his mouth was pulled in an unhappy line as he lifted his cup again and took a deep pull from it. “You miss your mortal, is that it? I remember Jeremy, he was an unhappy man. Why didn’t you turn him, if you miss him so much?” He stared at her, deep into her eyes, and she flinched away from what he might find there. She brushed her hair back again, and lifted her coffee cup, staring down into its surface for answers.
“It just wasn’t right, I couldn’t change him.” The words came easily, smoothly. The words were a lie.
He nodded, leaning forward to prop his elbows on the back of the seat, and crossed his arms. He rested his chin on the crossed wrists, a curious little-boy gesture, rolling his eyes slightly to look straight at her. “So, how did you feel about him? Like, when he was alive?”
Keelin shrugged. “I loved him, of course. He was my lover, my link to the world of the living, he was a breath of sunlight, and a reminder of everything that I couldn’t have. He was so much to me…”
“Hmmph,” the dark-haired man grunted, a thoughtful noise. His eyes swivelled down to stare at the table a minute, then he looked back up at her. “What if you weren’t in love with him?”
The look she gave him was sharp, hostile. “What do you mean by that?”
“What if you weren’t in love with him? What if you were really in love with someone else, but you didn’t want to be, and you made yourself love Jeremy because he was everything that the other person wasn’t? And you couldn’t turn Jeremy because that would make him just like the one you loved? The one you’ve loved for hundreds of years?” His smile was still innocent, bright, but now it was false, a façade over a knowing smirk.
She threw her coffee back in one hard gulp, and glared around the room. Nobody paid the two any mind at all, everyone was wrapped up in their own concerns. She wanted to turn to someone and catch them staring, she wanted to demand “What are you looking at?” She wanted a distraction from Death and his questions. Instead she looked down at her empty cup, and looked up at the young man across the table from her, and his damnable smile. “Why don’t we go now?”
He nodded affably, and stood up quickly. He was over behind her in a flash, but she still pushed herself upright, shrugging his hands away and standing on her own. Her refusal of his courtesy was rude, plain and simple, but she was feeling pressured, desperate. She turned to him to snap at him again, and stopped dead where she stood, staring at him. He was pushing his hair back from his face, and he froze under her gaze. They stood, locked in a stare, and she nodded slowly. “I know where I’ve seen you before. I know where I know you from. You were so familiar, and I could not place you, but I know you now.” She unzipped her leather jacket and reached into an inside pocket, pulling out a slender metal case.
She unsnapped the case without taking her eyes from him, and pulled out a laminated photograph, colored in sepia and caramel, weathered and cared for. She pulled a small mirror from her pocket compact, and snapped the case shut. She held up the photograph in her right hand, and the mirror in her left, sighting so that his face was to the left of the mirror. From the right, she saw herself as a mortal, herself as she was now, and him. “It’s you,” she said, quietly. “You’re everything that I am now that I wasn’t then. You’re the change I went through. You’re me, you’re the death inside me.”
He nodded, somewhat sadly. “Yes. I am your death. I am the difference between you and them. I am what made you what you are now. You are my bride.” He gestured for the door, and she did not complain when he held it for her. They hit the sidewalk at a fast pace, and she could not be sure if she was walking fast to keep up with him, or if she was walking fast to get away from him, and what he was saying. He kept talking, his breath untroubled by the length of his strides and the speed of his movements. “I am not just Death, because Death does not talk to people, even people of your sort, but I can speak to you through your death, because you are my bride.” Despite the force of their pace, neither of them made a sound on the pavement.
She scoffed aloud. “So, am I beloved of Death?” She rammed the treasured photograph back into its case, and tucked it into its pocket. She rammed her hands into her pockets, and tossed her hair to clear it out of her face.
“It is important enough that you love me,” he replied evenly. “That is more than enough.”
She barely heard him, shaking her head. “That’s why you looked so familiar. Your jawline, your eyebrows, your eyes, your hair, the way you hold your coffee cup, they’re all me. You appeared with my face, but a young man.”
He chuckled. “Do you remember how your face changed after you died? The way your eyes went from brown to blue? How much thicker your hair became? I did not borrow your face. Rather the contrary.”
She bit her lip as she thought about that. Her family had not recognized her after the change… “And that’s how you get inside me, how you get to me the way you do.”
“And it’s why I piss you off,” he replied with a grin. “All your resentment, all the anger you never really worked out of your system. If you were really comfortable as a vampire, you would not dislike me so fast.”
The sidewalk ended at the street, cars whizzing past. She stared at the rushing vehicles, her eyes lost many miles away. “You don’t really piss me off, you know. It’s just that you’re so… intimate. So close to me, and I feel like I’ve just met you.”
“You know better than that,” he chided gently, resting a hand on her shoulder. “You’ve known me longer than you’ve known anyone else. We could never be strangers to one another. Have you asked your questions?” His eyes were deep and serious, but she could not face them, she held her gaze on the street. The cars stopped, but she did not walk across the street. A small child stared out of a car, looking at the two beautiful people with their thick dark hair and penetrating eyes, their leather jackets and their black tailored clothes. The child watched them intently, watched them talking to one another, seperated from the city.
“Yes, I have my answers, thank you,” she said, her heart heavy. She had what she’d come for, she knew the truth now. She turned away from him, looking out at the moon. Her eyes glittered, and the little girl in the car wondered why the pretty woman was crying.
“I have questions for you,” he asked, “if you feel like answering.” She turned back to him, and saw his eyes still serious and intense. His hands were deep in his pockets, and she realized that his hands were bunched in fists, just like she did when she was nervous. She nodded, not trusting her voice, and he took a deep breath. He let it out slowly, then licked his lips and spoke. “Why did you commit suicide, earlier tonight? Why did you want my attention? You did not just want to talk to me about Jeremy.”
She shrugged, her eyes dropping. “I’m not really sure anymore. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
He reached up with his other hand, gripping both her shoulders to turn her towards him, gently. He dropped his palms down her arms, and grasped her wrists. The streetlight above them flickered and buzzed as he raised her hands, turning them so that the palms came up and the sleeves fell back. She stared down at her wrists as he exposed her scars. After hundreds of years, the old wounds still looked gruesome, dramatic, silver-red lines crossing her wrists just under the joint, intersecting a number of major blood vessels. She noticed that his wrists did not bear matching scars, and the observation cheered her somewhat.
He stared down at the scars, legacies of her attempt to end her life, marks of her suicide, reminders of her mortality. “Before you married me, you still loved me. Look at these, this is how you tried to kiss me. And tonight, you reached out to me again. Don’t worry, dear heart, I am always with you. We are joined, we are married, we are one. And now I am here.”
She looked up into his eyes, and the blue irises fell away into limitless caverns, the darkness of the essential, eternal end. The whites were sucked in after, and his eyes were lost in abyssal shadow, the eyes of Death staring at his lover, his bride. He reached for her, and she melted under his kiss.