It was all she could hear in her own head. And they did. As she moved. As she spun. She needed it. She thrived on it. So she didn’t let them see the falling.
Ever since Him she’d had to take her comfort elsewhere. Dutch comfort.
Faceless strangers, taking a piece of her soul with them as they went, leaving her with gaping holes that she tried to drown in toxic amber liquid, choking it down like a tasteless prayer.
She didn’t notice him for a while.
He was as faceless and out of focus as the rest of them, obscured in the haze that had followed her ever since Him. But he couldn’t stay that way.
The first day she saw him clearly was the day she knew that he would be her death. It was fitting.
She didn’t despise him for it; how could she when he would give her what she had been silently craving?
She’d never understood poetic justice until then.
She was alone.
She hadn't planned that it would be tonight. But now she knew she realised that it was obvious it couldn’t be any other night.
She saw him as she turned the corner, hidden in the shadow of the empty hallway.
She went to brush past him, the tiny human part of her left fighting for survival, but survival was for the weak, the clinging, desperate weak. She had never been weak.
“You should come in.” She pressed her hand against the rough wooden door for a moment, feeling the prickle of chipped wood and paint, before gently pushing it open.
“I’m on duty.” His words were clipped and sharp. The steel searched for vulnerability, and she almost wished she could still bleed.
“You are here to protect me, yes?” A splintered dagger had caught under her nail, and she pressed her fingertips harder against the door, digging it in deeper, deeper.
“What better place to keep me safe than from by my side?”
The words were there on her tongue, waiting for her to cradle them out into the bitter world. The script was already written, and neither of them could but play their part.
He moved mechanically past her, following the cues into her beautified cage. She pulled the door shut, though it was more difficult than it should have been.
She only wondered that it had not protested before at what it had been forced to hide.
“You will have a drink?” She was already pouring when he nodded his consent. Of course he did.
Ceremony always attended Death; the two were closer than lovers, though Death was by far the more faithful. She held out his glass, and he lifted it from her hand.
They sat opposite each other like convicts at death row, each sipping the merciful poison.
“So.” Up bubbled her question, a last request. “So, what is your story?”
“I don’t understand.”
That wasn’t the question. You don’t have to understand the story to know it off by heart.
“You, the super spy. I want to know why.”
He looked for refusal, but she already knew he would answer. It was scripted.
“I was in love with a girl.”
The corner of her mouth threatened a smile. “They always are.”
“I almost killed two people she loved. Now she hates me. Thinks I'm a monster.”
Monster. A word thrown around far too much for the weight it carried. She knew something of monsters.
“Perhaps.” He stared at his drink, forcing the word out as if its sharp edges had jammed in his throat.
“I believe that everyone is a monster,” she confided. Perhaps. Perhaps there are monsters. “At least a little bit.”
She didn’t flinch at the question. They were trading prayers now, spitting the invocations at one another.
“I killed a man.” She didn’t mind telling him. She felt that at least some part of him already knew. Had to know. “He was my fiancé. We loved each other desperately, which always means disaster.
I could not stay faithful.”
“Could not, or would not?” He baulked at the words flung carelessly between them, but she only shrugged. He already saw more of her soul than he should have.
“Is there a difference? He would confront me, command me, cajole me. But love had turned my heart to stone. I made it all about the art.
I told him how he smothered me, how he suffocated my dance, my movement. We could not live without each other, but we could not live with each other. He killed himself.”
“Yet you live without him.”
It was the first misstep he had taken. It was the first time she felt the disgust twist her face inside out, showing, however briefly, the face hidden deep inside.
“I breathe without him. My heart beats without him. My feet move, my hands work, and my mouth smiles without him. But I do not live.”
She took a shaking sip from her glass, forcing the ugliness back down beneath. She looked up at him, her fingers steadying.
“You are very handsome.”
“And you are very beautiful.”
This was familiar ground. But it would not stay steady beneath her feet.
“It is a pity that we are ugly on the inside.” Her own voice shocked her, but he didn’t argue. She leaned forward then. She had to know.
“Do you believe that I killed him? That I caused his death?”
He was still, and she almost wished the question back, before he replied, “yes. I believe that you did.”
It startled her. His honesty. But she idolised it. She would return the gift.
“And I believe that it was your own fault that your love knows you for a monster.”
“So do I,” he said simply. She took a deep mouthful of her drink, forcing herself to swallow.
“At least we are honest.” He started a little as she spoke, but she didn’t look up. “We may be the most beautiful ugly monsters, but at least we know. At least we do not lie to ourselves.”
There was a moment of hesitation, then his glass was hanging between them, the crystal weeping in the unnatural heat of the room.
“To honesty,” he said, and she gently tapped his glass with her own. They both drank till nothing remained, forcing the toxin into their bloodstream.
“You are very handsome.” She said emptily, recognising the end as it came and meeting it halfway. He did not speak.
“Would you stay, if I asked you to? Would you make-believe love with me? Would you pretend, just for a little while, that we aren't ruined?
” With these sentences she flung herself into the arms of her epilogue, tumbling towards the inevitable whilst he deliberated whether to reach for her.
“I used to pretend.” He stood up as he spoke, and she shook her head. Here it was. The Final Problem. At last resolved. “I used to pretend. But eventually you have to face reality.”
He was almost gone when she stopped him in the doorway. The act was almost played out then. Just one final line.
“You're a monster. But so is everyone. She’ll understand eventually.”
A comfort. Dutch comfort.
The crystal corrupted light in her hand as he left. She watched it, transfixed, but her fingers loosened, just so, just so.
The beautiful crystal shattered against the hard wood, and she sighed, almost in regret. But beauty was unmade every day. Tears were better left for more important things.
She brushed her fingertips over the sparkling shards, each one a death in itself. She found hers and squeezed it tight in her hand. There, at last, the red tears fell, staining wood, crystal.
She cradled it against the last vulnerability. A blue map fighting under a suffocating whiteness. Survival is for the weak.
She pressed down.