So, someone asked me not so very long ago if I would ever be updating this story. At the time, I said no. Then it came round to that time of year when I open the floor to requests and the lovely Christina asked for a scene which became this epilogue. I think it finishes off My December in better form than I originally left it, and I hope you enjoy it.
The lyrics come from Pablo Neruda's Sonnet XVII.
Epilogue: January Frost
I do not love you - except because I love you;
I go from loving you to not loving you
from waiting to not waiting for you
my heart moves from cold to fire.
The winter sun was distant. It gleamed in the morning sky like a silver coin, dipping between the spiky branches as she walked through the woods. Light, persistent rain dotted her and did nothing to diminish the bite in the air. The way was treacherous, and so she moved from tree to tree, supporting herself as beneath her feet, half-thawed ice crackled and snickered, but she did not fall.
It wasn't her season – part of her felt the promise of spring locked up tight in the ground and hungered to drag it free. It would be cruel though, and pointless. Time would win that battle for her. However there were others that only she could fight.
It was one such that brought Chatoya back here, uneasy, with a New Year's night weighing on her mind.
"Good morning!" announced Cougar Redfern with brilliant cheer as he strolled into Jepar's kitchen.
The shapeshifter raised a haggard face and groaned in reply before his forehead hit the table with a thump.
"Oh dear," Cougar said with unholy glee. "Are we a bit hungover?"
From where she was placidly dropping two large aspirin into a cup of tea, Alisha shot her boyfriend a pitying look. "We aren't. He is."
"There was something in the mulled wine," mumbled Jepar into the table. Nothing was visible but a mussed crown of blond hair and a hint of greenish pallor.
"Yes, your face," Alisha pointed out. "Honestly, Jay, you were guzzling it straight from the jug."
"You took my glass off me. What was I supposed to do?"
"Oh. You didn't mention that bit." He twitched feebly. "Did you?"
"I did. I guess the acoustics in that jug just weren't good enough." She dumped the mug in front of him. "Or maybe you were too busy doing the twist."
"I twisted?" Jepar sounded slightly cheerier. "The night wasn't a complete waste then."
"Nah, you were just completely wasted," Cougar put in.
Alisha stared from one to the other, lips pursed. "Wait. What's wrong with this scene?"
Revealing gloriously bloodshot eyes, Jepar struggled from a flat-out slump into a mere slouch. "Cougar's never this chirpy before noon."
She gave a nod. "You're right. Where were you last night?" she shot at him so fast Cougar was tempted to duck. "You disappeared all of a sudden."
Part of him reveled in a secret, childlike delight. "I was otherwise occupied, babe."
He gave her a brief, dazzling grin. "Meaning it's nobody's business but my own."
"Oh…" Jepar said suddenly, as if he had twigged. But he couldn't have: Cougar had been careful to top up his glass again and again, equally careful in the list of requests he gave the DJ which ensured that the shapeshifter would be horrifying everyone with his dance moves, and the rest of his friends would be occupied with his antics.
Alisha raised her eyebrows. "Oh?"
Jepar's eyes met his for a brief moment – and Cougar saw that somehow he knew. Anxiety gripped him.
"Oh?" Alisha repeated, more sharply. "Oh what?"
Silently he pleaded with Jepar, hoping he understood.
A brief flicker in his eyes; and then the shapeshifter clutched his skull with a thespian groan. "Oh, god, my head."
Exasperation swept away her suspicion. "It's entirely your own fault."
Well, Cougar thought. Not entirely. "Why don't you get Toya to heal him?"
"She's gone out for a walk." Alisha slanted a dubious look outside. "Just before you came down, actually."
"In the freezing cold and the rain," he said flatly, hurt. She was avoiding him, wasn't she? "Where?"
"The woods. She said something about clearing her head."
Head. Heart. Whatever. The implication was obvious.
In former times he would have let the bitterness overwhelm him. Let her go then, he would have decided, sullen. If she doesn't want me, fine. The urge was still there, hard to ignore. But it was overruled by his determination.
I waited years for that kiss. I'll wait years for another.
And in the merciless daylight, that probably scared her. It was no small vow: he already knew how tied she was by obligations great and small, how fraught her life had become. But he hadn't meant it to hang over her with the intensity of a threat – it was the truth, that was all. To him, it didn't alter their friendship a whit, but she probably didn't see it that way.
Sorry, babe, he thought. You're not getting rid of me that easily. "Then she could probably use a hand," he decided.
"Cougar-" Jepar croaked, but not quickly enough: the door was banging on the frame before he'd finished. "Damn."
"What?" Alisha said.
He grimaced. "You got it wrong. She didn't say she was going to clear her head. She said she was going to clear the air."
"It's practically the same," she said, puzzled.
He gave her a look that was far too sober. "No, it isn't."
It was the difference between one and two. It was monologue versus dialogue; Chatoya wasn't seeking solitude. She was seeking someone. And Jepar had the troubling thought that he knew just who that someone was, and why she was seeking him.
Winter had stripped the secrecy from the glade. It was a towering cage, black trunks and bare ground, razed by the season. In it, he had the air not of a prisoner but of an executioner.
Blue stood in its center, his skin as colourless and bleak as the sky above, his eyes dark and glittering like the frost that coated the ground. His stillness served only to emphasize his fury; he had the contained energy of a bomb, and she didn't doubt he was just as close to such casual devastation.
And yet for the first time, she felt that she was the one who held the power. One simple fact legitimized her.
She had hurt him, and she did not regret it.
And so she stood, a very ordinary girl in her long cream coat, bundled up against the chill but calm under his scrutiny.
She expected him to speak first. But he didn't. He looked at her with a gaze as analytical and impersonal as if they had never met. Weighed, measured, and found wanton, no doubt. She tilted her chin up and gave him look for look, her eyes as green and shadowed as if spring was waiting within her, winter already vanquished in her heart.
At last she could bear the hush no longer.
"What did you expect?" she challenged. "You've treated me appallingly. I'm an afterthought in your life, and one you clearly resent. You've undermined me, you've used me, you treat me as if I'm some kind of crime you're desperate that no one finds out. Honestly, Blue, what did you expect?"
So soft and emotionless, the word struck her with a ferocity that all his anger could not have achieved. She gathered herself, not allowing it to rattle her.
"Me too. We were both disappointed."
"Only one of us, however, was unfaithful."
"Don't worry," she said sourly, "I'm just as surprised as you that it's me. After all, you saw the merits of infidelity as a weapon long ago."
Chatoya was easy to trace because among the myriad minds of Ryars Valley, she was now among the most powerful. Her presence had changed in the last few years, and far from the clear green wisp of power she had once been, time had added depth to her; she fell across the valley like a smoky green shadow, and he wondered how she had remained so little altered in character when her powers had become so vast and complex.
Cougar sped through the woods, need making him hasty.
He glimpsed her then. Stood tall, a blue scarf trailing down her back, her hair falling over it in a high, careless black ponytail. And beyond her…
Blue's eyes met his only for the merest moment, but it was enough to let Cougar know he had been seen.
He should have left then. It would have been smart.
"Is that what this is about?" he said coolly. His gaze skipped past her, as if the answer barely mattered. "Payback?"
"A kiss for a kiss?" She hadn't thought of it like that. It seemed so long ago now – it was so long ago. Years had passed since that simple, definitive betrayal. Yet one word would make this storm pass, because he had a killer's respect for revenge. One word, one lie. "No. It was a kiss for its own sake."
"Which was?" His voice had grown detached, lazy, and his eyelashes dropped over his gaze, shrouding his intentions. She felt a stab of fear.
"To taste what might have been." The metres between them seemed impassable. He was blade-slender, startlingly beautiful in the unforgiving light. No path she had walked today or would ever walk could be as simultaneously treacherous and scintillating. "To find out if it would have been enough."
He looked straight at her. His eyes were the deep, smoky gold of a furnace. He had never looked so like Cougar, and she had never felt the differences between them more keenly. "And would it?"
She hesitated, but only for a moment.
"No. Not yet."
For all that it was sweet and fierce, it was not you. Still you lull me in your moments of need, still you are vulnerable to me and me alone, and you are mine.
But not mine alone.
It was supposed to be a defeat, he knew. Mere confirmation that it was still Blue ruling her heart, he was still second choice and second best.
Cougar slid back behind the tree that shielded him and leaned against it, his bones watery. Fear had not driven her away this morning. He had not lost the friendship that he had come to treasure as much as any hope of something more. All the difficult conversations he had imagined dissipated beneath the reality: that almost nothing had changed.
Except, perhaps, that 'no' had become 'not yet'.
Two words that held a future in them.
"This is what I promised you," he said. His voice was quite even and controlled. "You knew it when this began. I told you no lies. I am what I am – and I am what I chose to be."
"And I chose you. Every day, I choose you again," she answered. "I even believe that you love me. But I don't think I'm your only love, and I don't think I'm dark or dazzling or cruel enough to make your heart my own."
Bemusement made his mouth soft, bending into a brief frown. "There is no one else."
"Yes," she said quietly. "I know that."
And unable to bear his derisive, uncomprehending eyes, she turned then and walked out of the glade. She did not look back – she didn't need to. The image of him burned on the back of her eyelids: a boy stood alone and fearless in a cage, unaware of the bars.
She was long gone, a patch of white vanishing among the darkness of the stripped wood. But Cougar hadn't moved from the tree that held his weight because he was waiting.
"I warned you."
The words were hard and sharp as chips of ice. He took a deep breath, then stepped out into the open and into the firing line.
"Yep," Cougar said as amiably as he could. Nothing was guaranteed to irk Blue more. "I ignored you."
Power swirled suddenly. He was hurled into the air – panic struck him, brief, chaotic, stealing all his instincts-
He smashed onto the rocky ground. The world was streaked with red and black and god, it hurt.
"Do you really think I won't kill you?" Blue said thoughtfully.
Cougar forced his eyes open. Now he had a headache to match Jepar's without the benefit of copious quantities of alcohol first. Under his blurred vision, his half-brother was pared down to an impossibly tall, black silhouette that loomed over him.
Light gleamed on a wooden blade.
It probably should have shocked sense into him. It only made him angry: he was getting very tired of being beaten up by his younger brother.
"You won't. You can't afford to." He began to get up. A foot slammed down between his shoulder blades and Cougar sprawled on the ground, fuming. "See," he continued doggedly, "if you kill me, you'll lose Toya. And you'll have to break your word, and it would seriously damage your reputation with the Furies."
"You're assuming any of those things matter to me."
And I'm right. I know it. You know it. "One of them does."
Blue's voice was right in his ear. Goosebumps crawled up his back at the thought of where the knife might be. "And if I were you, I would think myself exceptionally fortunate that is the case. You see, my witch was rather careless when she set the terms that protect you. She did not forbid me to kill you, maim you or even to hurt you. She merely forbade me to persecute you. So consider this, brother. You followed her here. You eavesdropped."
He felt the knife, slicing along his arm in a hot line that rapidly split into stinging pain. And then Blue had his arm, and was holding it flat against the unforgiving ground.
This was not good. Cougar shut his eyes, gathered his strength and aimed a mental blow at Blue that should have sent him reeling.
It vanished into nothing, as though his brother was a black hole with his own vast, indefatigable gravity.
"You," Blue continued as if he had hardly noticed, "did not listen."
The silence was ominous.
"You kissed her."
Agony exploded in his hand. He tried to jerk away, but couldn't – his palm was pinned by the blade.
"And you have forfeited any right you had to safety," purred Blue, smug, malicious.
The enormity of it sank in on him. He had good as handed himself to Blue to be used as leverage against Toya.
"Kill me then," he said flatly, hopelessly.
"And waste the opportunity? No, I don't think so."
The knife twisted with excruciating slowness. Cougar snarled, scrabbling to get up – and then it was withdrawn.
"I'd get to a doctor if I were you," Blue advised lazily. He spun the haft between his palms, and Cougar saw how rotten the wood was. "Splinters can be nasty things."
His hand throbbed unbearably. He felt an absolute fool. "Just like you."
"Do you think you could spare me the tedious insults?"
And then he knew just what to say, mimicking her down to perfection. "Not yet."
The look in Blue's eyes was empty and inhuman and bloodthirsty. And beneath the cruel January light, he saw the price of a kiss in the snow as if the future was laid bare before him.
He hoped it was worth paying.
She traced her path back through the glittering frost, quite oblivious to the cold or the passion she had inspired. Her mind was wrapped up with other, confused thoughts. Thoughts of the future lost, and the one left to her which frightened her so; which had driven her, for one fleeting night, to be loved without obligation, to be the wondrous world entire to one person as she could not be with Blue.
"There's no one else," he had said, not seeing what was manifestly true, perhaps unable to.
No, there is no one else. But there is death.
Only it can rouse the delight you find in cruelty and the call of blood, and inspire your calm, fond examination of murder in all its ugliness and its mystery. We two battle endlessly for you. There is no end. There is no respite.
And one day, I fear I will lose my battle. And I think – I know - that then, in the moment of my death, I will be the most beautiful thing in the universe to you, because at last your two great loves have met and reconciled. I will have lost, and you may feel some measure of regret, but you will never forget the moment when death and I were one and glorious, and so, ever chasing a second glimpse of perfection, hand it victory.
Grave, where is thy victory – with you, of course, without me.
In this part of the story, I am the one who dies,
the only one, and I will die of love
because I love you, Love, in blood and fire.
Thank you for reading! - Ki