“Rooftop’s closed tonight, Rigel. No one comes up. Not even servers.”
Rigel gives me a casual salute and wipes down the bar. He knows what’s going on, having witnessed everything this morning. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover he’s guessed who Thanatos is, either. Rigel grew up on the streets. In the hood, Death hits doorsteps like the morning paper, and everyone is yesterday’s news.
I wend my way through the crowded bar and head upstairs where they’re waiting for me: Death, the Dead, and the Soon-To-Be.
I step out onto the rooftop and lock the door behind me. Louis and Andrea are standing face to face, whispering, making plans. Louis is telling her all the things he wants to show her. His face holds all the excitement of a hundred years’ haunt made new again. Can’t say I blame him.
I close my eyes, feeling for the moment the sun slips below the horizon. A few seconds later, night thrums through my immortal body. It’s time.
“Are you ready to go into the Between, Andrea?” I ask.
She steps forward with a nervous smile. “As ready as I’ll be, I guess.”
I point towards a chaise lounge tucked behind a folding screen at the far corner of the patio. Andrea goes first, followed by Louis, then me. Thanatos brings up the rear — he’s a gentleman like that.
“You should lie down,” Thanatos says. “A deadweight fall means nothing to a corpse. The dead are done with their bodies. You aren’t. This will be hard enough without a broken leg as a homecoming present.”
Worry overtakes the anticipation on Andrea’s face as she lies down. “Hard how? Is it going to hurt?”
Thanatos arches an eyebrow at me, making sure one last time that I meant what I said. I nod. I meant every word. I want this to hurt.
“Yes, it will hurt,” I say, owning it. “It doesn’t have to. Thanatos can reap souls as softly as Morpheus weaves dreams. But I’ve asked him to make sure it does.”
“Why on earth would you do such a thing?” Louis gives me an angry look, not that I care.
“Because dying is painful. If Andrea is going to make a choice to kill herself for love, then she needs to be aware that the pain she feels departing her flesh is nothing compared to the pain she leaves behind her.” I turn to Andrea. “Do not be under any illusion that the choice you are considering is the most selfish you can make.”
Andrea unwraps the words I’ve spoken and swallows the truth inside. Eyes glassy with tears, she nods. “I understand.”
“Very well, then. Once Thanatos has removed your soul, your body will remain here at rest, under my protection. You must be back at dawn, no exceptions.”
“Or Cinderella becomes a zombie?” Andrea grins.
I stare at her so hard she presses herself back into the chaise cushions. “Or Thanatos will hunt you down and shove you back in your corpse, and the choice to live out the rest of your incarnation at Louis’ side will be off the table.”
Andrea glances up at Louis, who refuses to look at me. He’s still mad at me. I suspect that won’t change until the moment his phantom arms wrap around her newly spectral flesh. Andrea motions for Louis to kneel beside her, which he does.
“Are you ready?” Thanatos brushes a lock of wildly curling hair away from Andrea’s face.
Andrea takes a deep breath and presses her lips together. I watch her knuckles whiten as she grips the sides of the chair.
“As she said, this will hurt.” His night-hued eyes soften. “For that, I am sorry.”
Thanatos traces the crescent of her ear and the arterial line of her neck, then trails his hand down the open front of her shirt. With a grace I find myself envying, his fingertips splay over her heart. Andrea looks at Thanatos and gasps — or tries to — but there’s no air left for her to breathe. Like gossamer clouds racing across a moonlit sky, the whites of Thanatos’s eyes recede, leaving nothing but the void all mortals must face at the end.
Stark light blooms beneath his hand as Andrea’s soul rises to his silent call. With a cry of pain, she arches her back and thrusts her chest towards his gentle summoning hand.
I sigh. Mortals always create more pain than they’re meant to feel. “Don’t fight him, Andrea. Surrender.”
Tears leak from the corners of Andrea’s eyes. Her hands let go of the chair as her body lets loose of her soul. She slumps back, muscles slack, life miraculously paused.
Thanatos lifts his hand from her chest. Cradled in his palm is an amorphous ball of shimmering white light, glowing like a newborn star. He steps away from Andrea’s body and releases the life he has reaped. Her soul-orb hovers for a moment, wavering, then begins to unfold itself into something Andrea-shaped.
As her bare feet touch the cold tiles of the roof, a spectral solidity ripples up her body, fixing the details in place. Louis clambers to his feet and watches her take form from the tips of her pink-polished nails to the spiraling ends of her chestnut hair. Emerging from her coma of flesh, Andrea opens her eyes and stares in wonder at a world her living eyes have never seen.
Her eyes go wide when she looks at Thanatos, at me. Unbound by the limits of her mortal body and the mortal disbelief that comes with it, Andrea sees us as all the Dead do — terrible and shining. When she can pull her eyes away, she sees Louis and chokes back a sob of joy.
Thanatos steps aside, clearing a path between the lovers, as Louis crosses the rooftop to stand in front of his love. He reaches up to brush her cheek with the back of his fingertips. Gasping at his touch, Andrea’s hand flies up to cover his. She presses the side of her face into his palm and kisses his wrist. Louis loses what little control he had and buries his hands in Andrea’s hair, claiming her lips for the first time.
I feel a stab of jealousy watching Andrea coming to life in Louis’ arms. Five thousand years and nothing is new for me anymore. But for Louis and Andrea, the world in which the dead reside has never been more wondrous, never been more alive.
It’s a myth that spirits cannot feel, or hunger, or any of a hundred other things reserved for the flesh. Souls are simply less dense, less tethered, less… physical. Every whisper-like touch that Andrea could barely feel while connected to her body hits like a hammer here. Thanatos and I give the lovers their space — not that they know we are here. All that exists in their world right now is them.
Thanatos sees the look on my face and leans closer. “Should I arrange for Eros to pay a little visit?”
I huff a laugh. “Not unless you want to test the theory about whether Death can die. So, when she comes back, what will you need to do?”
“Nothing.” Thanatos smiles at the sight of Louis swinging Andrea around. It’s a movie moment if ever there was one. “As long as you’re keeping her body in stasis, her soul will stitch itself back to her flesh the moment she lies down.”
“And if she decides she wants to make this…condition permanent?”
Thanatos leans over to brush a kiss across my cheek. “You know where to find me.”
As Thanatos passes the couple, Andrea’s hand snakes out and grabs his wrist.
“Thank you,” she says, tucking her head under Louis’ chin.
Thanatos smiles at the couple. “I hope you have a wonderful evening.”
And three steps later, Death has left the building.
I whisper a quick spell of cloaking over Andrea’s interrupted body, then head for the door leading into the bar. “Come, you two. The night is young, but it will be over quicker than you think.”
Andrea marvels at the way the moonlight seems to glow from inside her skin as she and Louis follow me inside. Things have picked up in the short time we’ve been upstairs. I cast my eyes about the room, looking for Spica.
Hmmm…no Spica. Vega will have to do.
I catch sight of Vega’s ponytail weaving through the crowd and send out a silent message. She looks up as though I’ve called her name aloud and heads my direction. She waves at Louis and Andrea. Inside Darkstar, they look like regular patrons. Outside, though…
“I need you to do me a favor,” I say, pulling a pendant from thin air behind my back. It’s a rectangular lozenge of bright silver, stamped with sigils no one has seen in three thousand years. That’s ok — she doesn’t need to know what it does. I do.
Vega sets down her tray and pulls Antares over to ask him to cash out a tab on table 9. Antares gives her a surly look but agrees.
“Alright, what do you need?”
“You know Louis here. And Andrea. I just need you to wander around with them tonight. Show them around, give them their space, but make sure they’re back by dawn.”
The intensity of that last request sends a chill up Vega’s spine. She crosses herself. Like that’s going to do anything.
“Sure,” she agrees, pulling off her apron.
I loop the necklace over her head.
“What’s this for?”
“Just a charm. Something to help you see better in the dark. Make sure you keep it on.”
Vega raises an eyebrow, then shrugs and tucks the pendant inside her shirt. “You two ready?”
Louis breaks away from nibbling on Andrea’s ear and clears his throat. “Yes. I’m sorry, yes.”
Andrea hugs me tightly and whispers in my ear, “Thank you. So much.”
“Don’t thank me just yet,” I say, as she pulls away and retakes Louis’ hand. “Go on. Live a little.”
They laugh at my joke as I shoo them out into the night. I watch from the promenade, as they weave a love-drunk path down Royal Street and turn toward the river.
“On second thought,” I whisper, “live a lot.”
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