Jack & Nosturi

11/11 yeah apparently drunk writing makes all my character relationships queer-platonic

Nosturi’s eyes contained a depth of sympathy I would never understand. He looked physically pained for my transgressions. He reached out and lay his soft, graceful hand on my shoulder, and it struck me for a moment the differences between us. Him slight and pale and beautiful, I tall and dark and striking. I bore his touch upon my shoulder and simply breathed for a long minute.

“I will add to this number if I must,” I said. “I do not care. That is something I have realized about myself, crane-masked man. I do not care. But there is one I do not wish to kill.”

“You must hold onto this,” he said gently, his fingers squeezing my shoulder. “I did not mean to strip you of your humanity, Jack. I only wished to help you.”

I laughed, a cold sound that I hardly recognized. “You did none of this, my friend.”

Looking askance again, I found his eyes and realized how worried his expression had become. I felt my own stab of sympathy. Nosturi took the burdens of the world unto himself, and he suffered for it. I wished, in that moment, to ease the suffering of another. Perhaps as some twisted recompense for the four names drifting through my mind.

“Nosturi,” I said quietly, and his eyes cleared as he turned his attention wholly upon me. “Nosturi, you must tell me how to make him forgive me.”

He shook his head slowly. “You cannot make him forgive you. You must not strive for such goals. You are not a god in his eyes, Jack. You are the man he loves above all else.”

“Still?” I asked, and the word threatened to choke me.

“Still.”

I did something I think neither Nosturi or I expected; I crumpled sideways and I lay my head on his slender shoulder. I knew instinctively what the crane-masked man would do and he did not disappoint. He leaned toward me and engulfed me with his slight form, gathering me close and holding me against him. I huddled inward in a pathetically fetal position, and I admit that I wept quite openly, the sobs wracking my body as Nosturi held me. But I knew above all else the god would not judge me, would not demean or deride me for this open display of weakness.

His hands tightened on my ribcage, pulling me closer and closer to him. I did not resist—instead I allowed my body to be pulled inward, until our chests rose and fell against each other, until I smelled the soft, pungent scent that defined him. Ocean water and sea foam and salt on skin—that’s what he smelled like. I breathed it in off of his skin and it felt like summer, being held against him. I felt his hair feathering against my face as I exhaled and I buried my face into where his neck and his shoulder met, almost overwhelmed by the weight of compassion I felt radiating from him.

Being embraced my Nosturi broke the burden of emptiness that had entrapped me. I wept into his white tunic, gripping his body against mine, feeling the rough plaster of his mask brushing against the top of my head. To be utterly helpless felt strange and welcome, and it took a solid few minutes before I felt ready to draw myself away from his presence.

I did, finally. I pulled away from the scent of summer and I sat sullen against the trunk of the tree and again stared at the dirt between my feet. I had my feet against the ground and my knees bent.

“For all I’ve done, I still thank you for bringing me here,” I said finally. “You have changed me. And in spite of everything, I believe you have changed me for the better.”

Nosturi nodded, a slow and solemn gesture.

“But Nosturi,” I said, and I felt myself so close to breaking. “I must know how to have him at my side again.”

He nodded.

“Apologize, Jack,” he said, his voice soft and consoling. “Apologize and mean it, and he will know. The world cannot keep apart such souls as yours, who were meant to be together.”

At that moment he looked away from me and I followed his gaze to Kurki, still standing beside Drex and staring off at some unseen destination while the demi-god of metal spoke. I think I understood, then—a fraction of their connection, of their separation, of their pain.

“That’s all?” I asked. I felt like some base vermin, crawling from the cellar to the light.

“I cannot know,” Nosturi said, turning back to me and tilting his head again. “I cannot know these things. They belong to you. You must own them and know them yourself.”

I rocked back and rested my back against the tree, frowning as I studied the valley before us. Overhead, the storm grumbled and tossed a desultory smattering of raindrops down upon us.

“That’s the problem,” I said. “I cannot know how he will react.”

“You can,” Nosturi said. He looked at me for a single, intense moment longer. “You must look into the eyes of another, Jack Immortal. You must feel what they feel. And then you will understand.”

I narrowed my eyes at him, and nodded. I thought I understood.

Razi’s Death

written yesterday, 11/10

This time I had no shame and I picked up a jog, which turned into a sprint as his taunting resumed in the sound of laughter and of rustling in the undergrowth beside me. My breath came shallow and ragged as I ran, dodging around trees that appeared jaggedly in the flashes of lightning. The rain began to pour down upon me, soaking me to the skin within moments—my theory was initially that the storm had intensified, driving more of the rain further through the trees. But upon looking up, I noticed that the canopy had thinned appreciably, and that now I ran through a thin smattering of trees. Then I noticed that the black wolf raced along right beside me. He turned his face to me, a mocking grin struck across his canine visage.

The moment I realized this, the trees ended and we went pounding out into a valley filled with tall grass, flattened by the wind. I reached out and the ground exploded before both of us. I was running too fast and too hard to exercise too much control over the action. The wolf and I went hurtling backward. I saw him hit the ground on his back as I dislocated my shoulder in the collision. Biting back the cry that threatened at my throat, I crawled to my feet and hit him again with a blast of fire, before reaching down and seizing the wolf by his scruff. It quickly turned into a handful of Razi’s matted hair.

I dragged him to his feet and then off his feet, so that I could stare into his dark eyes. The fear in them pleased me in a visceral, savage way that I had not felt since killing Vandr. What had I felt after I’d killed Vandr? I couldn’t remember, not quite. I lifted my other arm, my eyes going a little wild at the pain that screamed through what felt like every nerve in the appendage. My mouth opened in a pant after I thought I’d fought back the urge to vomit enough. Razi’s eyes moved to my lifted hand and in the moment before I closed my fist I watched his fear turn to panic, watched his mouth open in supplication.

I closed my fist and his voice fell silent. His mouth opened and closed as he struggled to draw breath. It seemed to go on for several minutes, this process of him suffocating—but I cannot be sure. His eyes rolled back into his head, the whites showing as he died. I dropped him onto the ground and allowed my arm to drop back to my side, once again battling back the bile rising in my throat.

I looked out across the valley, lit by lightning and torn by the wind. I did not know where to go from here. I did not feel—anything. I wondered if I had, in fact, felt this empty after slaying Vandr. Somehow I doubted it. Somehow I didn’t care.

I’d had enough of symbolic vengeance. I’d had enough of the gods and their trifling in others’ affairs. Razi had orchestrated All Names’ slaying at Huna’s behest. This knowledge made me feel tired.

I sat down where I’d stood and Drex emerged from the jungle, only he was not alone—I watched with dead eyes as Nosturi and Kurki stepped out from behind him. They seemed to practically gleam in the darkness, and both of them fixed me with their passive and impassive blue eyes.

“You start throwing fireballs at your friends, you get a motherfucking god intervention,” Drex said, looking darkly at me.

I laughed, and it sounded dry even to me. “I do not need an intervention, my friends. My work is done.”

Nosturi looked away from me and down at Razi’s still form. After I had killed Vandr, he had seemed relieved, albeit a little guilty for feeling such. This time he just looked sad.

“I’m sorry,” I said, and I surprised myself by meaning the apology.

prompts again whoo

11/2: “she throws away her body in battle”

(doing NaNo? let’s be friends)

Huna leapt forward another step and stabbed her hand toward Sathanus. The wraith’s expression distorted into one of surprise, and he flailed backward from the concussive force of her blow. Gritting her teeth, the witch felt her ancient power fighting against the restraints imposed by Savriel’s mortal form. She could not summon the full extent of her power. Her eyes glinting, Huna lashed out again with her hand, and this time Sathanus tumbled from the pulpit, smacking into the ground before his great wings spread again and once more bore him toward the ceiling.

As he went, she heard his voice become an immense chanting, thrumming beneath the level of her awareness. Shadows crawled from the spaces between stones. A shadow snaked out and pulled her leg from beneath her—the witch hit the ground and pain lanced through Savriel’s body. Huna dropped her mind to the nothing space, that place between waking and sleeping from whence true knowledge came. She dragged herself to her feet, her eyes staring and vacant, and thrust her hands down at her sides.

A seething torrent of birds poured through the cathedral’s great schism. Sparrows and ravens and hawks flooded the church, until their wingbeats sounded like distant thunder, like the wind through the trees on the wild mountain. Huna sent her mind out to them and she was three—the witch on the mountain, Savriel in the broken church, and hundreds of birds, all at once. She sent them upon Sathanus, and the wraith screamed as they tore into his wings and brought him back to the ground.

From between the birds, she did not see him clench his fist. But she did see the birds die. It tore her mind from the nothing space, and Huna screamed in Savriel’s voice as the entire flock dropped. The sound of distant thunder became the soft patter of bodies striking the stone. Again Sathanus laughed, and now his laugh was something of triumph—he opened his clenched fist and swiped his hand sideways. Once more, a shadow pulled Huna to the ground. This time, the shadow raced across her even as she cried out and sent the power from the wild corners of the universe rushing out against it. But her energy waned, and she felt Savriel’s body crying out from the abuse it had suffered.

The shadow covered her and Huna felt her mind go cold. Her breath stuttered, came hoarsely to her lips. With a last effort, she forced the shade back and pulled Savriel’s body onto its elbows. But the shadow came again. She could not contest it. And she could not die here with her acolyte.

Huna made a decision.

“I’m sorry,” she said, whispering the words to Savriel even as she reached out to touch the shepherd’s mind with her own. She felt the horror of realization and pulled herself back to the wild mountain before she could feel more.

Savriel blinked and felt the horrific vacuity within her thoughts. Huna had felt like—everything, like all the arcane knowledge of the universe hovering just within reach. She gasped, physically exhausted by the witch’s departure. Mouth open, she dragged herself onto her knees and faced Rha. He looked down upon her with that sickening gargoyle’s smile, his dead eye pointing straight ahead.

He said nothing. No valediction, no torment, no taunt. In fact, Savriel thought he looked a little sorry as he raised his hand with the shadow clinging all about him like some loyal hound. He closed his fist and the shadow rushed down upon her, and the shepherd had no time to even scream as the light left her.

a god’s weakness

novel excerpt, liked this conversation/dynamic

“Why does he care so much for the girl?” Rha asked me, his right eye studying me, then flicking past me to study Rha. Again I saw it—the flash of terror, mixed with suspicion and hatred. I recognized it then as a dangerous look. Like an ancient predator, who no longer knows how to identify threats properly, so he’d lunge at anything.

“They’re friends,” I said. It seemed the easiest way to dismiss the subject, and perhaps subdue the ancient predator look in the Black Pope’s eyes. He pulled back a little, the look fading somewhat from him.

“I do not wish to see him, any longer,” he said, frowning. “He is a scourge within my church.”

I lifted an eyebrow. “Till,” I said. “We shall take our leave. Please wait for me in the entryway.”

I did not immediately hear his footsteps retreating, so I turned to look at him. He stood right behind me, his arms crossed, his eyes defiant. I didn’t blame him. I also would not want to wait in the musty, dark, chilly space between the exterior doors and the massive, broken double doors leading inside. But I needed him to. My eyes narrowed and he glared a little sharper at me for a moment before turning on his heel and storming out, returning to his normal hunched posture in the process. I sighed, my breath manifesting in the freezing cathedral.

When I turned back, I found Rha staring at the ghouls where they had gathered behind the pulpit. They’d engaged themselves in some activity I couldn’t quite identify—picking through broken glass beneath the massive shattered stained glass piece at the head of the church. After a long period of silence, the Black Pope turned back to me, his gaze distant and distracted.

“Stormcrow,” he said after another interminable stretch of quiet. He spoke the word quietly and reverently, and in his smooth accented voice, it became a prayer. “When I was young, my mother would tell us stories of the Stormcrow. A great, dark bird that heralded the storm wherever he went. Mischievous but strong and noble at his heart. That is you.”

“Excuse me?”

He laughed his dry, humorless laugh. “You are the Stormcrow, Jack Immortal. You sweep in here and you bring your little knife-boy and I do not know if you come to help or harm.”

I lifted an eyebrow. “Little knife boy. Hm.” A cruel grin teased at the edges of my mouth.

“What other man seeks to begin a fight with no weapon visible in his hand? I notice these things, Stormcrow. I see the motion of a man’s hands toward a concealed weapon. I see the lines of an assassin because I must see them, if I wish to survive.”

I barked a mocking laugh. But the ancient predator look had drawn across Rha’s eyes again and now the look made me a little nervous. “Till is here because he travels with me. He has no other purpose. I promise you that.”

“So he tells you of all his contracted killings? He tells you of every man he must slay?”

I recognized the corner I had backed myself into, but that didn’t mean I had to like being there. When I did not respond to his goading, Rha smirked.

“You do not strike me as a man who enjoys having his weaknesses exposed, Stormcrow.”

“I imagine I would dislike that extremely, should I possess weaknesses to expose.”

“What is a man without his weakness? Boring things.” Rha made a dismissive gesture with his right hand. “So let me ask you this, Jack. What is your weakness? For you do not strike me as a boring man.”

I smiled a little. “I am not a man at all, but a god.”

His smirk slid into a wan, derisory expression. “No. Sathanus is a god. I am the vessel of a god. You are a man in the clothes of a god, Immortal. You have a weakness.”

My smile grew strained, my brow lowering dangerously over my golden eyes. Then I shook my head, waving my hand at him as though I couldn’t be bothered to be in his presence a moment longer.

“So find it, then, oh grand and glorious vessel of the one true god.” I rolled my eyes at him, before turning and walking away, shaking my head as I strode away from him. “Find my weakness, if I have one. I look forward to it.”

I stopped at the end of the pew, before taking one final step into the aisle between the rows and turning back to survey him, my face solemn and my eyes annoyed. He drew back and analyzed me.

“I will,” he said, before turning away and striding back to the small door in the side of the church. I watched him go with a smirk, knowing I would succeed in this. It wouldn’t be difficult. I had no weaknesses. And Rha seemed just paranoid and borderline stark, raving insane enough to be an easy crack. In turning toward the doors to collect my assassin, I noticed the ghouls with their eyes upon me. I paused to size them up, wondering what quarrel Rha had with them—and then I waved companionably at them and strode down the center aisle toward the doors. I threw them open and Till, waiting just beyond them, flinched so hard he almost fell over.

He regained his feet and glared at me in silence.

“He’s ruining her,” he said. “And you don’t even want to help.”

“Come on,” I said, grabbing him by the shoulder and pulling him out of the cathedral.

“Where?” he asked, but only after we’d gone a few footsteps out into the snow. I grinned back at him.

“What you need is a drink,” I said. He didn’t look convinced. But he also didn’t have a choice, and I think he knew that.

Jack and the Ghouls

Finishing this novel for NaNo so posting a few excerpts~

I had anticipated arriving at the grand cathedral for myriad reasons—the reason I had given Till couldn’t exactly be called a lie, but I’d describe it as a bit of a fib. Certainly the building cut an impressive figure, limned against the flawless white field surrounding it. Certainly, once we stepped inside, the immensity of the place humbled me. I can’t quite describe it—the true emptiness of the place. The spirit of pale grandeur that touched every surface inside. The ghouls and, I assume, the continual freezing wind blowing from without kept the place free of dust and cobwebs, aside from in the furthest darkest rafters. Upon entering, I almost heard the whisper of the past, lavishly adorning every corner, every wall, every facet of the cathedral. This church had been magnificent, once, in the truest sense. Voices filling it in song—exultant voices, raised in praise.

Now the cathedral echoed with their memory. It was the sort of building that you knew had a memory and a consciousness. I could feel pain radiating from the walls, where they had been cleft by the fallen pillar of stone. The snow that filtered down intermittently from the fractured roof felt like blood, trickling from a never-healed wound. The building reminded me of All Names—a strange, oblique connection, but one that remained fixed in the back of my mind, persistent and loud. It made me grave as we stood there, Rha having stormed into a side room, following Lily and followed by the woman we’d witnessed embattled against the ghouls.

That left us and the ghouls. Till proved himself fairly useless, preoccupied by the door where Rha and Lily had vanished in company. He hadn’t spoken a word to her when she’d darted into our midst—just stood there, mute and motionless, until she’d been called to heel. I, too, found this development rather disturbing, but unlike my emotionally complex friend, I didn’t allow it to interfere with my assessment of the current situation.

“Sorry to arrive at such a delicate moment,” I said, pleased in the way my voice rung out through the cathedral, as though it yearned to resound again with a strong voice such as my own. I stepped forward, walking between the rows of pews, my hands clasped behind my back. “We stumbled upon your church quite by accident. Funny, how coincidence will bring people together like this.”

I stopped a few feet away from them, in the open space between the pews and the steps leading to the pulpit. One ghoul—the one who’d been fighting the shepherd—stood at the front of their group, his arms crossed. At first, the guise of perfect blank infallibility fooled me—five ghouls, none of them emoting, all of them still and silent even following their battle.

And then I looked deeper. I narrowed my eyes and tilted my head at them, a slow smile curving my lips. The one in front—his chest moved beneath his crossed arms. Not deeply or overly fast, like any average plebeian member of society might exhibit while catching his breath. But his chest did move. And after that I began to pick out minute things amongst them. The slight flicker of a finger, the tiniest shift of a face, of the eyes. A slow blink. The realization proved almost overwhelming to me—they communicated. Constantly. The blank facade was just that—a facade. They held it in front of and around themselves. But I had glimpsed beyond the veil.

But they would not speak to me. I knew this much without having to test the theory. I’d heard the stories. I glanced back to Till and found him sitting down in one of the pews. I shrugged, and took two deliberate steps toward the ghouls, until I stared into the leader’s eyes from uncomfortable proximity. This close, I could see everything—the continuous, subconscious flicker of his iris as it took in every detail of my face. The way the brow of his mask curved downward to conceal everything aside from the eye itself. It shadowed what it could not outright conceal, so that I could not even discern the color of his eyebrows. Abruptly I found that I wanted to know the color of his eyebrows.

He had blood on the points of the horns that curved up from the top of his mask, and absent-mindedly I smoothed a finger over it, leaving the silver plaster shining beneath. Still his grey eyes did not leave me.

“I find myself immensely curious as to the quality of your lives,” I said, my voice soft and musing. I looked down to meet his eyes again—all of them stood a few inches shorter than I. “What must it be like, to live your entire existence behind a mask? They say you sleep in them, removing them only to eat, and then not even entirely.”

I moved my hand to the pointed chin of his mask and hooked a finger into the inside of the mask. At that point the ghoul broke his absolute calm—he flinched hard away from me, his hand moving so fast I never saw it. He smacked his wrist hard into mine, knocking my hand away. Numbness shot into my fingertips and I laughed.

“Sore point? My apologies.”

He studied me carefully, his eyes a little sharper now. Beginning to consider me a threat instead of a mere annoyance. Good. I stepped away from the gaggle of ghouls and walked toward the great rift torn in the side of the building—outside, the sun had begun to set, and I longed to experience the inside of the broken cathedral by night. Besides, it had become abundantly clear that something was amiss in the house of my nemesis, and I would not leave before discovering what this was.

Besides, I thought, frowning as I turned back to Till, still sitting on his pew and staring at his hands, Till would appreciate the chance to speak with Lily and discover what had happened.

“Will it be some great blasphemy if my friend and I were to spend the night, here?” I directed the question to the ghouls, although I spoke it loud enough to resound throughout the cathedral. I turned back to face them, and found that the lead ghoul’s eyes had not ever left me. I smiled at the thought, and dropped him a wink.

He tilted his head to the side, then shook it. I had the impression he exaggerated the gesture to make it more obvious to my myopic non-ghoul perception. I wanted to tell him not to worry, that I’d broken their precious code, that he could give me a tiny ghoul nod and I would perceive and understand. Instead I smiled at him, and conducted an ornate bow over arm and extended leg.

“My thanks to you,” I said.

the new Liam

A god and a trans serial killer walk into a bar…

At that point, I considered my course set: I would pursue Golshirazi into the wild mountains, I would find him, and I would kill him. I intended it all along to be Till and I who did the finding and the slaying. I wanted to spend every moment with him.

Hiking through the snow proved enough of a distraction. The trees thinned as we trekked higher into the mountains. Days passed, marked only by the markedly fast rising and setting of the sun. Most of our travel, it seemed, occurred in the dead of night, with the starlight gleaming across the fields of untarnished snow. And on one such night, we came across a marvel of marvels. We came across a tavern in the middle of the icebound mountains.

“Here it is,” I said with a grand gesture, following a lull in which both of us had stood staring in silence at the squat wooden building. “Just where I remembered. Now I can follow through on that drink I promised.”

Till gave me an unamused sideways look. “No way you knew this was here,” he said.

“When did your sense of wonder and gullibility die, Till?” I said, sounding wounded.

“Probably around the time I realized I was a boy in a girl’s body and needed to kill other people to feel okay.” He shrugged, but I sensed the beginnings of a smile at the corners of his mouth. “Can we just go inside? I’m freezing.”

And so with the moon reflecting off the snow, we approached the building—it had lights in the windows and smoke piling out of its chimney, and a companionable din ringing out from within. We pushed through the door and the atmosphere felt perfect: close and heavy and warm, redolent of alcohol and sweat and baking bread.

“Where the hell did they find this many people?” Till whispered as we pushed through the crowded tables and found one huddling in the back corner. Without any prompting whatsoever, a woman in coarse linens forced her way through the crowd to us, dropped two mugs onto the table with a resounding thud, then vanished before I could address her. I blinked after her, my hand half-raised.

“Wait a second,” Till said. “I think it’s midwinter, or—midsummer, or something.”

I raised an eyebrow at him. “Are you aware of the season?”

He lifted his shoulders in a long shrug. “Honestly? No. We’ve been in the snow long enough that it feels like winter. But I don’t know if it is.”

“So your point is—”

“—that it’s a celebration. Hence all the people. Hence the unexplained free drinks.”

A grin sprung across my face. “What fortune. Except I do not drink.”

Till mirrored my grin, a rare enough expression on his tight, drawn face. “Well, tonight you do. Hell if I’m going to drink alone.”

I looked dubiously at the mug on the table in front of me as Till lifted his own and took a long drink, polishing off an easy quarter of his own mug before lowering it and eying me expectantly. He folded his hands on the table and continued to smile patronizingly at me. I rolled my eyes and hefted the mug, and took a tiny sip off the top. It tasted about as revolting as I’d anticipated—like week old piss. I made a face.

“Do you want to drink like a maiden, or do you want to drink like a god?” Till hissed across the table at me. Lightweight he was, I could see it going to his head already. I narrowed my eyes at him.

“Perhaps you should demonstrate drinking like a god, so that I am not in the dark.”

He nodded, before downing another good portion of his drink, only lowering his mug once he’d begun to choke. I frowned and took another drink, and then another, and as I went I found a comfortable curtain of numbness drawing across my consciousness. As I went, I found that all of my elaborately crafted pretentiousness and pomp did not lapse, but rather grew yet more bloviating and dramatic. We sat and drank for the better part of an hour, with me regaling Till with every manner of story, making up songs and singing them to him, and with him for once not looking embarrassed by my very existence while all of this occurred.

“Do you know what I have just discovered? Do you know what has literally just popped into my mind and is the most amazing connection I have ever made?” I asked, leaning forward and staring conspiratorily at Till across the table.

“No,” he said. “I mean, no, Jack. I can’t read your mind, I’m not a mind reader.” A wide grin had appeared on his face and remained stuck there.

“I’m basically a ghoul.” I gestured broadly with my arms. “I mean, I am basically a ghoul, except the exact opposite.”

He nodded gravely, still grinning, put his hand to his chin and watched me carefully. “Do explain.”

“So I noticed when we were in the cathedral that the ghouls, they’re always still and silent, but it’s a mask. Just like their masks. You look past the mask, and poof. They have emotions and body language just like everyone else. So they’re all real people, just cloaked in this—masterful disguise.”

“Wait, then how are you opposite?”

Let me explain. I’m the same, you know? I’m a real person, Till. I have emotions and—and—anyway, I have a mask, too. I’m—eloquent, and nothing bothers me, and I’m elegant and pompous and all of that. But beneath it? I’m just like the ghouls, Till. Just like them.”

“Except the exact opposite,” he said.

“Yes. Except the exact opposite. I am an opposite ghoul.”

“You are so astute,” Till said. “It’s like—mind blowing to me sometimes. I mean. You are just so astute.”

The conversation continued along those lines for another hour, during which the silent woman brought us another round of drinks. This time I didn’t hesitate. I joined Till in drinking like a god. He crowed loudly at that, which might have been disruptive to the people sitting around us, except I suspected they had been drinking like gods for many long hours before we’d arrived. They didn’t appear to even notice us. We’d been sitting there for almost three hours, and I’d by this point lost track of how many mugs I’d drained, when the conversation took a turn.

“You’re my best friend,” Till said. It immediately reminded me of drunk Vandr, which chilled my blood. But then I looked at Till and I realized it didn’t remind me at all of Vandr, who had spoken the words casually and without real meaning. Till had gone abruptly silent, and now when he focused his eyes on me I saw they had gone bleary and weak. I wondered if mine looked the same. Till shifted forward and lay across the table, folding his arms and resting his chin atop them.

“I mean,” he continued, a blush rising in his cheeks. “Sorry if that’s weird. But I’m sitting here surrounded by people and I feel like if you weren’t here I would totally kill someone tonight. Probably shouldn’t say that so loud. Am I talking real loud right now?”

I smiled and nodded.

“Okay. I don’t care. My point is that I love you and I’m gonna say that now because in the morning I’m probably just going to hate everything, including you.”

I grinned and leaned back in my chair, although even that slight motion made the tavern begin to spin around me. I closed my eyes and it accentuated the spinning, so I opened my eyes and fixed them on Till.

“You’re like my new Liam,” I said. I hadn’t spoken the name in—I couldn’t even remember. It was a dead name, to me. It meant nothing and it meant everything.

“I don’t know what that means,” Till said.

“Well—see, I’m like an improved, more violent version of who I was, before, right?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I ignored him. “So if I’m improved, more violent Santiago, then you’re violent Liam.” Abruptly I laughed, loud and bitter. “You’re who I deserve, Till. I became a god and you became a serial killer. It’s perfect.”

He closed his eyes. “Okay. I’m probably going to throw up in three and a half seconds, now.”

I arched an eyebrow and sympathized with the notion.

“If I can get us outside, can you wait maybe three minutes instead?”

“Probably.”

“Okay. Here we go.” I pushed my hands against the table and stood up, staring at a fixed point between my hands to try and stabilize myself and the spinning room. “Here we go.” I took a step forward, trying to ignore the lurching floor beneath my feet. Till pulled himself up from the table and stared at me with his bleary eyes. I stood in front of his chair and swayed, opened my mouth as if to speak, and instead just stood there for a long moment until my body regained some of its equilibrium and I felt confident that I could stay on my feet.

I lowered myself into a crouch, and patted my shoulders. Till nodded, groggy as a child, and put his arms on my shoulders. I felt his hands on the back of my neck and reached out, hooking an arm beneath his knees and picking him up.

“Okay,” I repeated. “Here we go.”

I staggered the few paces out into the night, and once the door had banged shut behind us, I dumped Till unceremoniously into the snow and pitched forward. I lay in the freezing wet and listened to him struggle a few paces away before throwing up.

Truly a perfect night.