This is a few-years-later sequel of to The Latest Becoming of Death. Both stories were born from a What If? moment about one of the characters from Winter Follows. What if Noah, the contract killer, was the embodiment of death itself? What if time, which he has an uneasy relationship with, also existed as a personified concept? The two stories can be read in order, or completely independently of each other, and it isn’t necessary to have read Winter Follows for context.
He’s a mountain with a funeral smile, fingers made for pulling triggers and the kind of face people should remember, but no-one ever does. He knows how to be invisible when it suits him. Being seen is a hell of a thing to give up, but he has his reasons. Don’t we all?
I followed him to work one night and he was so elegant, so efficient about it. There was no reluctance, not anymore. There was nothing at all. He just did it, like breathing. Something in the tension of his forearms, in the veins in the backs of his hands, made me stop in my tracks and everything slowed down. Maybe no-one else noticed, but he did. I know he did. I felt it.
Honestly, this is not how I thought he was going to turn out. I mean, I knew what he was getting into when he stayed. So did he. But this full-circle cliché? This, I did not expect. At least he still has that face. It would be a tragedy if anything happened to that.
So he does what he does and sometimes I find him, but he never acknowledges it first. Or at least he hasn’t before and I don’t feel like tonight’s going to be any different. It’s just how we’ve been, wandering wide circles around each other, trailing fingertips softly along boundaries. Respectful. Occasional. Things get shaky when we don’t keep enough distance, but it is what it is. What we are.
And now, here. “Oh, sweetness, not even a drop of blood on the ground these days. You’ve become quite the professional.”
He doesn’t turn towards me yet, but we can see each other in the mirrored wall behind the bar. “Yeah, and you’re still turning up in places you’re not meant to be.”
“You’re starting to sound like him.”
“Whatever he’s calling himself these days.” I drink.
So does he. Delaying. “You get too close. You’re too close now, Chase.”
“So move, Noah.” I stare at him in the mirror and our reflections cut through the grease of strangers’ fingerprints, all those smudged identities, dispensing pints of comfort and shots of courage, knowing when to look away.
He stares back, full force, and someone at the table behind us clutches their chest for an irregular heartbeat until the pain subsides. “I was here first.”
“But you’re the one it bothers. I’m fine with it.”
Outside, both sets of traffic lights turn green at the same time and the only two vehicles at the junction collide in a place they weren’t supposed to occupy simultaneously. People panic. We don’t. He turns to face me now. No words needed. And my god, he is a sculpture.
I give in to what he wants though, because of course I do. Getting up to leave, I pause, just for a moment, just for long enough to touch him. A few feet away, a glass falls from the bar.
He almost leans into my hand, almost, but he blinks the impulse away. “Why now?”
“Because I had a dream about you, gorgeous. Something about the ocean and your arms. I don’t remember what, but you were beautiful and it made me need you. You are, I mean. And I do. Still.”
He looks me up and down, an icy sliver slicing the space between us. “It’s pointless though.”
“This. You finding me. Us being here, being anywhere, together. You can’t stay and as soon as you leave, I forget again.”
“But as soon as I come back, you remember.”
There’s a tender stillness, a blessed inertia, as we watch each other. Again, he tries to make himself remember something he’ll inevitably forget. Again, I try to believe that this time, he’ll manage it. We both know we’re lying to ourselves, but we let it happen. If I try hard enough, I can make this last. I can stretch it out almost enough to get us through the unavoidable loss that always follows. He knows what I’m doing and he stops me from doing it. Again.
“I’m sorry, Time.” He bows his head away from me so I don’t even get to see how my true name looks in his eyes.
My fingers hang in the air where they rested against his face a fraction of a second ago. Maybe we both deserve recognition. It’s a cold gift, but it’s a gift all the same. “Me too, Death.”
Across the bar, the glass hits the floor.