It wasn't uncommon for people to argue with Death. It was one of the reasons she so rarely reaped souls personally now. After the first century or two it becomes predictable and tedious.
I have a family, I have so much yet to do, it's not my time, I can change.
As if they were so very, very special. But each death carried the same significance: Everything and nothing. After all, no one notices when one of a billion candles is snuffed, but everyone notices when an entire world is destroyed. And that was death, time after time.
But this man dying on a battlefield, chest cracked open like a walnut, he didn't argue. Only later would she find how unusual that was for the contentious fool. But for now, gasping for each strained breath, he wasn't querulous.
He was curious.
"Are you the angel of mercy, then? Come to take me home?" He laughed; blood speckled his lips. "Bit of a busy day for you, I imagine. I'd quite appreciate it if you'd focus your efforts on the chaps dressed like boiled lobsters."
She ignored his babble and bent her head to deliver the kiss that would send him to the beyond. But he circled a grimy hand around her wrist – not to stop her, not to fight her off. Merely to get her attention.
"Is it difficult for you?"
She cast his hand aside, wiping the mud and the blood clean. She should end this now. He was right; there was much work to be done.
But there in his eyes, shining through the pain, was something she had rarely seen when mortals gazed upon her.
Empathy. Compassion. Understanding.
"Is what difficult?" Her disused voice creaked like a rusted gate.
"Sending all these boys to their rest. I know it's your job, of course – not quibbling with you on that account, you do what needs must. But still, man after man, unending slaughter … it must wear on a person."
"I am no person."
"Of course not. Beg pardon."
"Why do you care?"
He grunted and gasped, face contorting, fingers scrabbling at the ruin of his chest. But without her permission, there would be no release for him. He would answer this question and then he would die. "I have been at war five years, madam angel. I have seen men die of disease, of cold, of cannonballs that cut them in two. Five years changes a man. I cannot imagine how an eternity would change a … you."
At the flickering moment between life and death, this man did not think of himself. He thought of the woman come to slay him. How his death might wound her. How the bodies, stacked over the centuries, might cause her pain.
She considered taking him now. He would be her subject, utterly subservient to her whims. But the dead were tiresome. They lose that vital spark that makes humans so infuriating and so intriguing.
And she has no use for a slave. But a companion…
She passed her hand over his chest and he was whole once more – though with a scar to remember her by. "We will meet again, you and I."
He didn't blink. Did not gaze down at his miraculous return to health. "But you did not answer."
"Farewell, Ichabod Crane."
She watched him as he fought and won that war. Watched him as he forged a new nation. Watched as he spent long nights reading crumbling scrolls and moldering books about her many names and faces – Ereshkigal, Izanami, Kali, Baron Samedi, Hades, more. He searched for her. And she waited.
Once, twice, perhaps a dozen times, she curved the path of a bullet, tamed roaring seas, instructed a servant not to let Crane eat the crab puffs at Monticello. Was it cheating? Absolutely. But the world was a more interesting place with him in it, for now.
But the lady of the dead has many responsibilities – making sure death comes at its appointed time, sending souls to their proper afterlife, stopping insurrection in her kingdom – and she could not watch this stork-man all the time. And so he caught her unawares until she heard Cerberus' mighty growl.
She took her time dressing. Wore her finest robes of spider's silk, her tallest shoes, her crown of obsidian and ruby and bone. She ringed her eyes with black and painted her lips as blood and took up her wicked scepter.
She wished to look every inch the dread queen she was.
"Good dog. Yes, that's a good pup. Just – just step aside. I would rather not hurt a dog, even one with thrice the proper number of teeth," the man cajoled.
She stepped beside her faithful hound and placed a hand upon his back. The beast calmed at once, flopping onto his back for a belly rub. She resisted the urge to oblige, staring at Crane in stony silence.
"It's you," he said wonderingly.
"Why have you come?" Her voice shook the cavern; diamonds fell at her feet.
The man was not afraid. "Because you never answered my question."
Her eyebrows rose. "You came to the very gates of hell because you wished to know my feelings on performing the duties I was made for?"
"Yes, well. Curiosity killed the cat and all that," he said with a hopeful smile, revealing a flash of prominent front teeth.
"And satisfaction brought him back," she murmured. She let her frightening façade slip away – her face scrubbed clean, her hair falling soft and loose about her shoulders, trading her robes for a simple shift. "Come," she said.
They walked in the jeweled gardens of the underworld, hard and glittering. And the goddess and the man talked. She answered his question, in bits and pieces, in half-revealed truths and partially-concealed lies. He asked dozens more. But to her mounting surprise, he was less intrigued with her power and more concerned with her. As if she were, indeed, a person.
They spoke of him, too. Of a fight for freedom and a thirst for knowledge. Of being betrayer and betrayed.
For the first time since she could remember, she laughed. And when she did, his face glowed with pleasure.
And she knew this must end.
With a wave of her hand, the rock cleft in two, creating a door. "Go."
"But I've only just arrived."
"You do not belong here." Laughter did not belong here. And it certainly did not belong to her.
"I should have been dead three years ago. Only because of you that I'm not."
"Would you like me to revisit that decision?" she hissed, goddess once more.
He shrank back a step. So he was no fool. But still he did not flee. "I have no death wish, madam. But since our meeting, you are all I see. Everywhere, I think I see a glimpse of you, on the edge of a crowd, off in the distance, when I close my eyes. My fate, insignificant as it is, seems quite caught up in yours."
This was no destiny she would wish for him. Unending darkness and damp and the dreary company of the dead. He knew not what he said. Not what it meant.
She whistled. Cerberus, ever faithful, appeared by her side and chased the man back to his world.
She sat beside the river and let her fingers dabble in forgetting.
He came twice more. The first time she remained as smoke and vapor, never letting him lay eyes upon her. He wandered the depths of her realm for days. She sent ghosts to torment him – his father, the unborn sister he never knew, his comrades at arms. He wept, but still he searched until at last, she took pity and let his mother guide him to the surface once more.
The third time he came, he wore a garland of flowers about his neck. Daisies, all whites and yellows. As he walked, he brushed his fingers through them, pressed the blossoms to his nose.
She had to know.
"Why would you bring flowers to the place where nothing grows?" she asked, perched on a stone outcropping far above him.
"For the journey, to remind me of who I am and from where I come," he said. Then he removed the chain from his neck and held it aloft. "And, I had thought that if you were kind enough to show your face, perhaps you would accept them as a token."
This was no funeral offering. This was something vitally alive.
And it was for her.
She drifted down from her perch. "You know what I am," she said.
"I've several guesses, yes, though I don't know by which name to call you."
She ignored the obvious question. "You know where this is."
"The three-headed dog was rather helpful in that regard."
"And you know what this would mean."
"Would it mean being by your side?" An emotion she hadn't a name for caught in her throat. She nodded. "Then yes."
She withdrew six seeds from her robe, shimmering like garnets in her outstretched palm. "I will not condemn you to this place before your time. If this is truly what your heart desires, take these, and for half of every year, you will rule by my side. The other half, you will stay in the world you deserve."
He watched her carefully. Then he extended his flowery necklace to her once more. "I will accept if you will give me the same. Half our lives in your world. Half our lives in mine. One whole life together."
Half her days in the light. Half her days pretending she was alive.
All her days with the one who brought curiosity and laughter to her after so, so long.
She bent her head and he crowned her with flowers. She placed the seeds into his hand. One by one, he ate.
When they kissed, she tasted pomegranates on his lips.
He tasted sunshine on hers.