Winter in Binghamton had finally hit.
Characteristic of Binghamton, it hit like a shovel applied to an unsuspecting skull. The long heat wave had broken around the beginning of December, and the weather had transitioned from ‘unusually mild autumn’ to ‘savagely bitter winter’. It was below freezing out, snow coating the ground, and according to ominous NOAA phrases like ‘Polar vortex’ and ‘cyclonic systems’, it was just getting warmed up.
I rolled over, and clung to the sole source of radiating heat. Roy rumbled softly in his sleep, and his arms went around me. The cold air lingering in the bedroom was banished away. I snuggled in a bit tighter, resting my face against his shoulder. It was divinely warm, and it was amazing how waking up with him by my side made everything feel just a bit better.
“You’re on my arm.”
“Not that I mind, but I will eventually need it if I’m going to cook breakfast. You need breakfast.”
“’s’n urban myth,” I muttered softly, and squeezed a bit harder.
“I was going to make chocolate chip pancakes.”
“Pancakes?” My eyes opened. I was weak.
Roy grinned down at me, and softly stroked my hair. His fingers ran across my scalp, and it felt good to be touched. Slowly, reluctantly, I let go of him.
“Today’s the day, mmm?” I asked, as he climbed out of bed and got dressed. I held the blanket around my body.
“Yes. It shouldn’t be more than a week or two, I’ll be back not long after New Year’s.”
“Unless something happens,” I said, voicing the anxiety that gnawed inside of me.
“Things don’t happen to me,” said Roy, smiling. “You know this. I happen to other people.”
“Just in case…”
“If the worst should happen, I’ll return.” He smiles. “Survival is a matter of will. If I have you to come back to, what could stop me?”
“Hah. That’s flattering.” I smiled weakly. “So. What should I keep my eye out for?”
“Well. If anything unusual happens in politics… One world government, or that sort of thing… Well, don’t worry about it. If worst comes to worst, then humans will die, but…” He was quiet for a moment. “I hope you don’t disappoint me. You’ve done so well, so far. But then, others have made it further…” He sighed. “Just keep fighting, Atina. No matter how hopeless it seems. That’s what I love about you. Never stop fighting.”
“Is it okay if I take a break from the fighting for Christmas?” I asked, sardonically.
He chuckled. “Well, I suppose that’s fair. Tis the season.”
Jack was sitting downstairs. “Ready for your trip, kiddo?” I said, and smiled.
“Beats being here,” she grumbled. “The two of you are disgusting together. You can barely keep your hands off of each other.”
“Now, now. One day you’re going to meet a very special…” I studied her quietly for a moment. “Sheath, possibly. I’m not sure what gets swords excited. Got everything you need?”
It had taken me a longer time than I expected to actually get the appointment. The call had gotten me in touch with a journalist, who had agreed to tell whoever this guy was with the crazy ability to fix tsukumogami about it. Today was the day his representative was supposed to show up. I sat down for breakfast, and smiled at Jack.
“What if he’s a weirdo?” said Jack.
“Well, he works with objects, so he probably is.” I smiled. “You’ll be fine.” I dug into the chocolate chip pancakes, and closed my eyes, letting out a sigh of relief. I’d not been drinking in the last couple of months. A favor, for Roy. Trying to eat healthier, too. It was a pain, but the moments like this, when I could cheat for just a little bit, were well worth it.
The city had calmed quickly. The revelation of what had happened had struck everyone. In the end, it had opened closer connections between the Fairy Courts and the Night Court. The one thing everyone agreed on was that it couldn’t be allowed to happen again. There was some discussion of something more binding and unifying, an actual governing body for the three courts to deal with these situations in a way that didn’t lead to blood feuds. Prince Vassago had been involved. I’d stayed out of it for the time being. If anyone wanted my opinion, they could ask.
It felt… weird. Seeing how people had relied on me, expected so much of me. I still felt pretty goddamn ancillary to the whole issue. I’d mostly been around. Other people had accomplished very nearly everything. I tried not to let that get to me.
“I’ll write lots,” said Jack. “I know the journalist said you shouldn’t let the guy’s name get out-“
“I’m still not entirely sure I buy that whole thing. You’d think if there was someone capable of those kinds of miraculous feats, we’d have heard something about it.” I sighed. “But yeah. It’s okay if you don’t tell me his name. Just make sure he treats you right-“
The doorbell rang. I raised an eyebrow. “That must be them.” I stood up, feeling pleasantly full of pancakes, and walked to the front door, opening it.
They shoved their way through the door. I had a brief flash of Nordic features, and a pair of large, gray-furred ears as they pushed past me with callous ease, and walked over to the table. “You’re the knife, huh?” said the woman, as she flopped over into the seat, grinning as she grabbed my plate, and began to eat my pancakes.
“God, these are good. Hey, guy, more of these,” said the woman, snapping her fingers at Roy. To my outrage, he completely failed to strike her down with furious vengeance on the spot. Instead, he poured more of the batter onto the griddle.
“Please tell me you’re not the person who’s here to help Jack,” I said, sitting back. Roy placed a new stack in front of me, and with a speed I had to admire- however begrudgingly- the woman grabbed them onto her plate.
“Yep. The guy had work, the other snake wanted to keep an eye on him, the other cat was busy with killing something, and the crocodile was busy with the kids, so it was just me and the car.“
The door opened, and closed again. A woman walked in. She was blonde, athletic. Kind of made me think of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, for some reason. That kind of upper crust look. She grabbed one of the cat-eared woman’s cat ears, and twisted it. “Jormungandr, are you being inhospitable?”
“Gah! Hey! Bitch! Let go of my ear!”
The blonde bowed very stiffly at the waist, which incidentally pushed the other woman’s face into the pancakes. “My apologies for Jormungandr. She is not accustomed to hospitality, and is prone to pushing her luck. She is not indicative of the care of the household.”
Jack was staring at the woman. “You’re a Tsukumogami. A real one, I mean.”
I blinked at that, and then concentrated. I’d spent some time nearly every day at the Atlantean mission for the last couple of months, helping- in a very small way- to try to restore Dean Morton. Over that time, I’d picked up…
Well, I don’t know if I could call it ‘something’. It was like a heat shimmer. A distortion. A very, very small thing. Momi, bless her heart, reiterated that I didn’t have much natural talent for the whole thing. But I was fairly sure it wasn’t a hallucination.
The heat shimmer wrapped around both the blonde, and the woman with the gray cat-ears. It was impressive. Larger than the one around Jack, even, which was ragged, threadbare, and uneven.
I looked over at Roy. He caught my glance, and smiled, walking over with another plate. There was no heat shimmer around him. I hadn’t quite had the guts to ask him about that.
“Yes, an actual Tsukumogami. Though hardly any more real than you.” She smiled towards Jack. “Are you ready to go?”
“Can I finish my pancakes?”
Jack lingered. When she had finally finished, she stood up, and the two of us walked together out to the curb. The blonde woman blurred, and then was sitting in a car, an old and well-kept Ford Thunderbird that hadn’t been there a moment before. She opened the window, and peered at my car. “Huh.”
“Nothing,” she said, and shook her head. “Nice car. You take good care of it?”
“Good. Take care of your tools. They take care of you. Get in, Jormungandr. Back seat. I’m going to chat with Jack for a while.”
Jormungandr grumbled, climbing into the back seat. Jack stood, rather like a kid preparing to go off to college, half excited, half terrified, the large duffel bag hanging over her shoulder containing the clothes I’d bought for her, the books I’d given her to read, and the whetstone I’d bought her for her birthday, which I’d arbitrarily decided was around Thanksgiving. She carefully set it down in the trunk, and looked up at me. To my surprise, she ran up to me and threw her arms around my shoulders, squeezing me tightly.
“I’m going to miss you,” she said, softly.
“Heck, the feeling’s mutual. It was nice to always have someone around. But you’ll get over it.” I grinned. “Just remember to keep in touch. And don’t be afraid to come visit if you need to. I’m sure that whoever this guy is, he’ll help you out. You’ll do fine.” I smiled. “I’m really glad I was able to help you, Jack. For what it’s worth.”
“Thanks, Atina.” She smiled, and bit her lip.
“Go. Best to rip the bandage off quickly.” I smiled, as she opened the door, and stepped into the car. Conversation started as the car drove away, leaving me standing on the curb, wrapping my arms around myself to keep the chill at bay.
“They grow up so fast,” said Roy, resting a hand on my shoulder.
“That’s not remotely funny.”
“The best you can do for them is try to educate them properly, and hope they don’t cause too much trouble.”
“Like you’ve ever had kids.”
“Not personally, biologically. But I know how the process goes.” He smiled. “All you can do, sometimes, is let the people you love go out into the world, and make sure there’s somewhere safe for them to return to. You’d make a good mother, Atina.”
“Yeah, you’re pretty enthusiastic about that,” I said, cheeks reddening a bit, and not from the cold. “Come on, we need to get you to the plane.”
“The flight’s not going to leave without us. It IS a charter.”
“Yeah, but I hate dragging these things out. Might as well get it taken care of.” I sighed softly, and got into the car. Roy slipped into the seat beside me, and we were off.
Jenny stood on the steps of her apartment. Chaac stood beside her with an umbrella. It was a cloudy, gray, overcast day, but still bright enough that she needed it. And with the two of them stood the Half-Faced Man.
“It’s the right place for me,” he said, as I stepped out of the car. “Things are going to be happening there. I need to be there to witness them. Perhaps this time, things will be different.”
“Are they ever?” said Roy, smiling. This provoked a very odd expression from the Half-Faced Man, but it was gone before I could recognize it.
“Atina. Are you going to be okay with us gone?” he said, composed once more.
“Yeah. Things are calm. I’ll probably get some less catastrophic work done. I learned a lot about the fairy courts this year. Might even have made a few friends.” I sighed. “Still can’t believe Eric, of all people, won the right to be the Iron Knight.”
“I suppose you inspired him,” said the Half-Faced Man.
“Yeah, well, he said it’s temporary. Until Alfred comes back. A lot of people still think he’ll return.”
“And you?” said The Half-Faced Man.
“I trust you guys to do what’s right. If he can come back, he’s got the best chance in the world. And Jenny… I talked to Queen Wen.”
Jenny looked to one side.
“She’s given up her connection to Polly. She has said that whatever you decide to do, she’ll forgive you.”
“How much did that cost you, Atina?” she said, her voice soft. She had a gym bag slung over her shoulder. The wooden sword’s handle was visible emerging from it.
“More than you’d be comfortable knowing. But it was the right thing to do. Whatever happens… It’s your decision, your call. She was an actor. She fooled us.” I smiled. “I remember my therapist telling me, back when I was younger, that I had absolutely no tolerance for betrayal.” My lips pressed together for a moment, and I took a deep breath, finding that inner calm again. “The Morrigan and Athena killed Alfred because they thought it’d help save the world, or whatever part of it they wanted to save. I hate that kind of thinking. You can persuade yourself that anything’s the right thing to do for the sake of the world. I hope you prove those assholes wrong.”
We drove together to the airport. We talked small talk. I had a sense that the three of them wanted to talk about what they were going to face, but were holding back for fear of worrying me, and I let them hold it back, because I knew there wasn’t much I could do. I waved them off. And I left as they went to the charter flight, because I couldn’t stand to see them go, feeling the emptiness in my chest as I walked away.
I didn’t drive back home. The thought of that house, standing, empty…
Alfred. Polly. Jack. Roy. Jenny. The Half-Faced Man. I’d lost all of them. Not forever, not all of them. God, how I hoped, not forever. They would still be around. They were just… distant, at the moment. Christmas was right around the corner, and Li Fang Fen was busy with the treaties. She was proving instrumental in getting it off the ground.
I arrived at the Atlantean temple. Momi smiled. “Oh! Atina! Did you get our message?”
“Dean Morton has reawakened! Please, come, see him!”
Dean Morton, as it happened, was sitting in the building next door to the Mission, now host to the first Atlantean Fusion-Cuisine restaurant in Binghamton. He stared down at the bowl of steaming, well-spiced food.
“Hello. You may be confused. I’m not certain whether you’re Dean Morton-“
“Don’t come at me with that horse-shit, Atina. I have been Dean Morton for over a hundred and twenty years, I know damned well who I am.” He sipped at a large cup of tea. “Didn’t know the Atlanteans had tea. I was only gone a year, how the hell did I miss this?”
“Apparently, Atlanteans are very fond of tea. It’s something you can’t really get underwater. Atlantean cuisine is less things Atlanteans know how to make, and more things Atlanteans always wanted to make. Apparently going with no food variety for so long has inspired a lot of interesting thoughts.”
Dean Morton glared at the meal. “The Chocolate Chicken?”
“It’s tastier than you’d expect. Kind of like a chicken tender, but cold, and with spiced chocolate instead of breading.”
“Apparently eating kelp dust for decades will do that to you.” I looked him up and down, wishing that I had the sort of vision Momi did. “So it’s really you.”
“In the flesh,” he said, and grunted. “The act has consequences. My body is no longer… Well, me. I’m more book than human, though apparently, that will change over time. But for gods sakes, look at this.” He flicked his arm, tugging on the skin lightly. It pulled back, revealing type-face.
“I can’t imagine how you think that is appropriate to show someone in a restaurant.”
“Yes, well.” He sat back, letting his arm go. “I’m grateful, nonetheless. You found the truth. Found me.”
I considered saying something sharp. That I didn’t do it for him. That Alfred died because of his decisions to involve us. And I thought of Inanna and Irnini. The truth was, Dean Morton wasn’t actually a bad man. I didn’t think anyone who had room in their hearts for the people they loved, and whose crimes were mostly mild selfishness rather than active malevolence, could fairly be called ‘bad’. He was just trying to protect the people he cared about. The key was making him care about more.
“I’m glad you’re alive, Morton. Glad I got a chance to meet your family. Glad that we didn’t lose you, too.”
He nodded, slowly. “I’ve got the impression that quite a lot happened while I was gone. I heard about Alfred.” He reached out, and in an act unlike any I’d ever seen from him before,, he patted my hand. “The boy had a good heart. He didn’t deserve to die, particularly not because he got tied up in my foolishness. I’m sorry that I got him involved. I never truly imagined that he could die like that.”
“That means a lot to me,” I said, and I was shocked by how true that was.
“And I saw the video you made of my funeral.”
“Oh.” I looked away, a bit embarrassed. “Sorry about that.”
“What, the assholes I work with being ungrateful? I always knew that. I wasn’t planning on being loved at my funeral. It was the fact that you held it that really stood out to me. You didn’t have to.”
“I signed a contract.”
“Yes, and you followed through on it. That means something from humans.” He smiled a bit. “Working with those who are bound by contracts makes you appreciate those who are not. You didn’t have to go to the lengths you did. I’m glad you did, Atina.” He looked up. “What’s this?”
Momi smiled. “Desert. Sweet-corn custard.”
He stared down at the bowl, with an expression that was both intrigued and nauseated. Well, possibly more bewildered than intrigued.
“They’re big into sweet and savory mixes, I’ve noted. Salt was easy for them, bitter, even sour, but sweet and savory were very rare luxuries.” I reached out, and took a spoonful. It was actually very good. “They’re really passionate about food. I kind of admire it. All that they lack, and it just makes them embrace things. I kind of like their philosophy.”
“Well. I confess I would probably have been doomed if not for their intervention.” Dean Morton sighed. “I should be going to tell everyone I’m not dead, and get ready for everyone to start asking me deeply personal, searching questions about my past to prove to themselves that I’m still me.”
“Heh. Yeah.” I was quiet for a moment. “I just wanted to ask… What was with the Ishtar thing? The statue, your daughter…”
“I like hookers,” said Dean Morton, shrugging. “I even loved one, once. It’s really that simple.”
“Well. Fair enough.” I stood up. “I’m glad to see you’re doing alright, Dean. I’m sure I’ll see you around again soon. Please, give your best to your family.”
“Of course, Atina,” said the Dean, and smiled.
And then I was alone, in my home, sitting and staring at the bottle of tequila. It had been two months. I could just keep on not drinking. I hadn’t had any withdrawal symptoms. It was just… hard to be me, alone.
I looked down at the bottle. It was so easy. And it wasn’t like it would cost me anything. Nobody would even had to know that I was drinking again.
I put the bottle down instead. It was just a bit of depression. I’d gone for so long with the house full of life, and excitement. It had been a rough year, but it had also been one full of… people. Full of connections. Full of all that excitement, and all the people close to me. And now, the house was empty. That big, quiet house.
I’d been alone in the house before. But not for some time. How long had it been since I couldn’t look forward to Jenny, or Alfred, or the Half-Faced man dropping by? How long since I’d been without Jack’s constant presence?
I looked down at the bottle of tequila. To my surprise, it was slightly lower. Several ounces of it were now in a glass. I examined the glass, and the liquor sloshed in it.
It wasn’t as though I felt an overwhelming compulsion to drink, is the thing. It wasn’t as if it would signify some terrible loss on my part. It was just… What else was I going to do, with the holidays around the corner, and all of my friends gone?
I lifted the glass, and it was at my lips when the doorbell rang. I set it back down. It wasn’t as though I was in a rush. I walked over to the door, to tell them to go screw.
Queen Wen stood at the doorstep, in the ice cold. She smiled apologetically. “Atina. I’m sorry to intrude. You recall what I asked of you.”
My heart began beating quicker. “What’s happened? Is there something wrong?” The favor. She was calling it in already. I wondered what she would ask of me. What this would cost me.
“Yes. May I come in?”
“Of course. Please.” I opened the door, and let her in. “What is the favor?”
“That was it.” Queen Wen looked to one side. “I realized… how very lonely it was, being in my mansion. I considered how nice it would be, to spend some time with someone young, and vital. I know it is asking rather a lot of you, but do you suppose I might spend the evening here?”
I blinked. “Of course. You didn’t need a favor to ask for that.”
“I thought it only fair. After all the trouble I have caused you.” She smiled as she walked in. “You have done very well.”
“I didn’t do much of anything.”
“You made people care, Atina. Immortality makes it so very easy to become jaded, uncaring. It is only the young, the vital, those who are still raw, and fresh, who can help us overcome that.” She smiled. “Thank you for taking me in.”
And I poured her a drink. And that, somehow, changed the tenor of it. It was no longer me escaping. It was the two of us sharing a drink. I didn’t need to drink that much, I didn’t need to escape from everything. I wasn’t alone.
I’d lost things, this year. Alfred, foremost among them. But I’d gained things, too. Understanding. Faith and trust in the people I loved. And new friends. That was life, really. It was always going to take things from me, and I had to keep grabbing for them, and holding on tight, if I wanted to keep them.
I was alone, for a little bit. Detached from people.
But that, too, would pass.