A True Love of Mine

August 27, 2018:

Angela is briefly reunited with her dead love Sera. Neither of them are very good at emotions, especially after several decades of assuming the other was gone forever. Sera reveals the grim bargain she accepted to make this moment happen. Angela offers a pact of their own.

A hotel in New York City

Characters

NPCs: Sera

Mentions:

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Several days ago, Angela marked her seventh week on Earth.

It has not been hard on her in the way it would be for others in her position. No documentation, hunted on several levels, few resources. She has endured such difficulties before. When one has journeyed as much as she, one learns much about the hardships that inevitably befall travelers.

What resources Angela does have are exploitable. Her skills and knowledge are valuable on any market she knows of, and Earth's is no different. She has traded her services well, building ever upward, making a foundation for herself in the shadows cast by every civilization. There are always people outside of the rule of law, and they always find a way to survive.

Now, Angela survives with them.

Not that many would use such a word. Thriving, perhaps. Angela has moved from hotel to hotel on an irregular schedule prescribed by the complicated rules of her stealth protocol. As she gained access to those who could set her up with temporary false identities, a finer class of establishment has opened to her. There is an amount of elevated risk here, but there is a similar risk in becoming predictable with a string of disreputable lodgings. She already has enough trouble with becoming a familiar face wherever she goes.

Secretly, Angela also misses her mansion. She lives in it for a reason.

It will almost be time to move again. She has stayed here for four days thus far. It is a mid-tier, multi-story establishment for business travelers who expect affordable luxury but perhaps have some freedom on their company card. It means a balcony and enough height for it to be worthwhile, which are two things Angela found sorely missing from the lower-profile options in the past.

Angela is out there now, leaning onto the railing and looking out down the long street that runs alongside the hotel. The view across the street is blocked by further towers, but this constitutes prime balcony real estate within this context. The lights of cars crawl beneath her, red in one direction, white in the other. Just orderly enough.

She came in from 'work' thirty minutes ago. Her things are strewn on the bed — keys, a nondescript billfold, a burner phone — and she is dressed in a set of local fashion that she has found pleasingly agreeable: a dark-gray dress shirt (the sleeves bother her enough to roll them up), white slacks, and a brown belt with matching Oxfords. She is still unsure if the Allspeak is translating 'menswear' correctly.


Today, we come to you with a tale bittersweet. A love story. A fight story.

Like all good bittersweet tales ought to be.

Once, there was a lone, beautiful, kind-hearted, generous, intelligent and cunning maiden. So beautiful, kind-hearted, generous, intelligent and cunning was she, that she was locked away from the rest of the world, denied the freedom to be herself. But the maiden would never not be herself, and so she learned the secret ways her jailers forbade her from learning, spied the secret things her jailers forbade her from spying, and generally led a interminably insolent life that frustrated her jailers to no end. Also there may have been a bit of murder here and there, but that's not relevant to our tale.

One day, while still caught in her caged conundrum, the maiden (who was still beautiful and cunning, though of debatable purity) and her people were set upon by a murderous beast. Who was itself set upon by a murderous warrior dashing knight come to save them all. Of course, the maiden, cunning as she was, needed no saving, and proved that forthwith by thusly smiting the monster violently and saving the day. But it's the thought that counts, and the debonair hunter was so (literally) indebted to the maiden that she settled her account by giving the caged woman the one thing she always dreamed of:

Her freedom.

And so did knight and maiden go on many a fantastical adventure the natures of which are too grandiose to be scribed on such a paltry span of words as this, and they did enjoy themselves to an equally grandiose degree, even when one could make a strong argument for an adventure solely being the fault of the maiden and her sometimes overly-cunning nature. Which is not a humblebrag, it's simply the way it was. But one day, the maiden was taken from the knight, and dragged into a torturous existence of loneliness in a darker, deeper cage that she had been promised she would never see again. And though the knight tried valiantly to tear the maiden free from those deep, dark reaches, it was simply not meant to be, and rebuffed, the knight and the maiden remained separated by the eternal gulf of life and death.

And so our story would end. If one wanted to be boring, anyway. But the knight, stubborn as she was, wouldn't be deterred by something so laughable as the afterlife. And the maiden? Well…

The maiden, as is well established, was a truly cunning sort. And also all the other strings of complimentary adjectives, as aforementioned.

And so it is that as the knight - heretofore known as ANGELA - dressed in her finest of armor known in the mortal realms as 'androgynous fashion,' she might well hear the soft sound of music flitting its way towards her ears, and hers alone. They float towards her balcony like they were the cool midday breeze, bringing with them the notes of a song most familiar in its capricious strains. One taught to her, many years ago, by a cunning maiden who lamented her knight's woeful inability to carry a tune:

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme…
Remember me to one who lives there,
For she was once a true love of mine…

Someone sings that familiar song, in a familiar voice. Weaves little musical notes of magic like a trail to be followed out of Angela's room, out of her floor. Upstairs. High above. Towards the very rooftops. As if some cunning soul had been thusly dropped there.

Straight out of the heavens. Or the Hels. Whichever you might well prefer.


Angela blocks out another ten minutes for brooding time before she must move onto her next activity. It is important to reward one's self with these small indulgences from time to time. It aids morale.

She leans forward further, dropping down from leaning palms-on to the railing to folding her arms and resting her weight on her elbows. The wind shifts, aligning just right so that a breeze comes down the street from the other direction. Her hair is briefly blown into her face until, accepting the change of fate, Angela turns her head and lets the wind tidy her red tresses up.

Angela closes her eyes. It has been some time since she has flown. Really flown, without care for being noticed. The wind on her face in this moment is enough for a memory.

Perhaps too much of a memory. Angela curls her fingers in toward her palms when she hears the first few notes — and they are the notes. The notes that play in her head in quiet moments, the notes that conjure up too much meaning to disentangle, those notes. Her mind leaps to chastise: was her brief brush with hope making her disorganized? Making her delusional? She's no use to anyone undisciplined, least of all Sera —

Angela's eyes snap open. She straightens, shifting her pose to look upward. That voice. If she is far enough gone to hear that voice, then she is far enough gone to believe in foolish hope.

Angela moves in strides. She clears the balcony in a moment, slamming the sliding door shut behind her and deviating from a straight path toward the door only enough to grab her keycard from the bed.

Down the hall, past the damnably slow elevators, into the stairwell. Stairs two at a time because she's tall enough. Three at a time. There's no cameras in the turns. Angela vanishes, flickering gone and reappearing in a rush of wind at the roof access.

It's locked. Angela looks down at the disengaged pushbar preventing her from moving through in a civilized way. It's not that it is stopping her. It's that this is the final barrier between her and the truth.

The roof access door swings open, its bolt snapped off in the doorframe. Angela lowers her hand, stepping down from the stairwell onto the rough flooring of the rooftop HVAC park. The wind is harsher here. The muscles of her hands ache with tension. If she had nails at all she'd have squeezed them through her palms by now.

Sera?

She should call that out. She's had time enough to construct plausible scenarios. An astral projection. She escaped herself. A rebellion freed her. Something. Her voice refuses to obey her. Her expression remains flat. Wishful thinking blinds.


And look! With those haunting strains the knight springs with hopeful life anew, broken from her brooding. Which is a good thing, for as endearing a quality as it might surely be, she does tend to indulge in it a little much at times. But, shh. Don't tell her that.

And haunting the melody might be, in a woefully literal sense. Growing in volume like the sirens tempting their unsuspecting sailors towards their death-by-tired-and-problematic-literary-devices-and-also-rocks.

Ask her to do this, of her will and free,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme…
And ask for a like favor from me,
And then she'll be a true love of mine…

Louder and louder. A game of hot and cold with no cold, only worries. Only fears. What lies on the other side of the gates? Truly? Can she muster the nerve to confront what lies just beyond that lone, locked door?

Of course she can, and does. She's Angela. And shame upon you if you thought different. So sweet a maiden deserves no less.

Like it was the Gates to Hel itself (not quite, but the symbolism is appropriate), the brave knight bursts through towards the open world of the New City of York. Winds rush as if they had the strength all on their own to push her back. But the music doesn't. It carries clear through the stronger winds, clearer now as if the knight's maiden was right beside her.

"When she has done and finished his work,
"Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme…
"Oh, tell her to come and she'll have her shirt…"

She's not, of course. She's actually about fifteen feet out, perched on the edge of the roof.

It's just a figure of speech.

And yet, figurative as that might be, the wondrous maiden looks as real sitting there as the day they first met, as the day she first taught Angela that song as the mortals of Midgard once so, so far away would sing it. Playing upon a lute composed of shimmering violet magic. Dressed in the same armors and leathers as the day Angela lost her. As the day the maiden was thrown back in her cage. She wears it well, but of course she does. We'll not linger on her impeccable fashion sense overlong. After all…

"… And she shall be a true love of mine."

This is a story about reunions.

Black hair flows like liquid strands rough and wild around her face against the backdrop of the winds as her head tilts upward. But even that veil of tresses can't hide who she is. Nothing could.

"Angela," she utters, the name in a voice that has not uttered it in one could only be lucky enough to only be able to imagine in how many years. A smile cants faintly at her lips. Charming, of course. And cunning to a fault.

"I still play a mean lute, don't I?"


Loneliness has long been Angela's companion. They met when she was a child, forced together by circumstances of her birth. They grew close as they grew older, one chasing the other, never sure which pushed first. Did loneliness drive Angela to obsessive, isolating perfection, or did Angela distinguish herself from her peers so that she would be alone?

Those scarce few ages together. At first it was payment. It was only fair that Angela provided a safe haven from the Anchorites as a part of their bargain. Only something like that could drive Angela to allow someone that close into her life.

But then, somewhere, someplace blurry and ill-defined in an uncomfortable way that Angela recognizes only emotions can be, it became pretense. They had both known. Angela wanted her there, but she needed a reason. She wanted Sera. In cold nights, Angela has searched her memories to find that moment where it all changed, to find where she was finally pierced by sentiment.

It was a small thing. The smallest esteem, kindled over time to something so much larger and wilder than itself.

Sera was more clever than Angela in ways Angela had never thought to be clever. She made Angela feel clumsy and unfamiliar — and, somehow, by some warm twist of personality, it never felt like a threat.

Only wonder.

Angela takes steps forward. Her racing mind has numbed her body to the point that she cannot clearly feel her feet falling upon the roof. Her hopeful little scenarios have become too plausible to be trusted, and from their ashes new grim data points arise: the man who visited her in the Endworlds, pretending to be Sera until Angela pulled the truth from him. The power of the Hel, enough to twist Angela's senses and make her doubt the veracity of everything she could possibly experience. The cruel duplicity of the Asgardians, perhaps descended from their starry perch to torture her like in the stories.

The ribbons coil in her mind. Her hand burns. Her sword has want of her grip.

Angela takes another step. She is mere paces from the edge of the roof. She looks up at Sera, her hard expression softened only fractionally by the lost hopelessness of being confronted with something she cannot comprehend — something she's afraid to comprehend. A slight sorrow in her brow. Eyes a little wider than usual. Jaw not set so tightly. To know Angela is to know how much these tiny gestures can mean.

"How?" she says. "How are you here?"


Loneliness has never been a companion of Sera. Even when she was so alone as a child thanks to the circumstances of her birth, she never courted loneliness' fancy. They would have her know she was caged. She would never accept the bars they tried to hold her in. She sang to create her own songs. She made art to create her own story. She was never lonely. But she was always alone.

But then she came. The one who changed everything in a way Sera, even with her uncanny gift at the forge of wordsmithery, could never truly put spoken sentiment to. It was not quite that she saved Sera from her cage — eventually, she would have found her own way out, or she would have perished in the trying, for she was nothing if not determined to make sure the world take nothing more from her than it already had. It wasn't even that she stayed with her, when others would have just as easily abandoned her, their debt repaid and the scales rebalanced accordingly. No.

Angela was the first — the only — to genuinely offer Sera a choice.

And she chose Angela. Angela, who showed her the world in a way she never thought possible. Angela, who gave her so many thrilling stories (even if some of them were perhaps ever-so-slightly caused by Sera's own precociousness (which is, again, a matter of heated and frequent debate in which the fair maiden Sera is certain she has come out the winner of the majority of the time)). Angela, who never got mad when she hogged the covers.

Angela, who braved Hel to try to save her from the fate she feared more than any.

She was the road Sera chose. And she has never once found cause to regret it.

It is a fact that one can see quite clearly on the — perhaps not fair, for a given value of the word, but at the very least lovely, for all values of the word — maiden's face. She's a story all to herself, using her expressions to paint the tale these words cannot quite; in the whimsical quirk of her smile, to the upward tick of her brows. To the relief of seeing her knight that speaks entire epics of just what she has endured to get to this very moment, to see those faint shifts of Angela's expression that always told her so much more than taciturn turns of phrase ever could.

It's an expression that is, of course, both bitter, and sweet.

And perhaps that says so much more about the tale that must be told today.

"I can see it, you know," are the words that come first after that pair of very pertinent questions. Skirting around the main issue with an impish glint that says she'd prefer to dance. "Even though they're not there. I can see the ribbons. I don't even have to close my eyes. It's right in my head. Kind of still, like they're not sure whether to do that cute little wagging thing they do, or to seize up threateningly like a snake about to strike!" She wiggles her fingers here as her lute breaks apart into so many violet shards whisked through the wind, the dissipating points of light even carrying the hints of her presence.

"You'd lose, either way. I always thought they both looked adorably dangerous."

She stays there, at the edge of the roof, like there was some sort of boundary she couldn't cross — or maybe she simply likes the symbolism of hanging off the edge of a very precarious perch. She's been caged longer than she can think. She gets her metaphors where she can. Don't judge. Her head cants towards her left, her right hand lifting to push through the wild strands of her hair, the very perfect picture of a most fetching (and cunning, lest we forget) damsel.

"… I guess you have a choice, though. Do you want the short, boring version? Or the long, exciting version with a respectable Metacritic score and filled with breathtaking twists and turns and — spoilers! — at least one death?"

To know Sera is to know which version of the tale she'd prefer to spin for the knight she has worked so very hard to see again.

What with how terribly subtly she hinted at it.


The only reason that Angela is known to be a creature of immense control is that people are unable to see all the ways in which she is unable to help herself. Her mind wanders the painful moments in which the imposter Sera came upon her, desperate for useful information despite the associated pain. Were there tells? Visual, audible? The sick little word game they did — answer me these questions three. It was so close. He was so close. If not for that little mistake, he might have —

Angela shoves the memories down now that she's through with them. Perhaps if people knew her thoughts, they wouldn't judge her poorly. It does help her be a very thorough hunter.

But that is all Angela could ever hope to be.

Until she met…

Angela forces the tension out of her hands, focusing on one finger at a time. She gently uncurls the claws they have become. The ache radiates into dull acceptableness. More than anything, Angela wants to believe. She is too bloodied for another double-bladed truth.

Another step forward. The fractured light of Sera's magically-dismissed lute catches brief illumination in Angela's pale eyes and on her proud cheekbones. Her ribbons, hidden in a pocket dimension but never truly gone from her, twist and coil through her mind and then freeze again in unsure alarm. They're being talked about.

This one speaks as Sera. Her words try to pull a smile from Angela, and they would if not for the choking weight of everything else. Angela decides that she would like nothing else quite so much as Sera coming down from that ledge. Another step. She is close enough now. Angela lifts her hand, tentative, halting, but an offer to help her down nonetheless. The ribbons, after all, learned from their mistress.

Angela waits in needled anxiety. The puzzle continues to bedevil her, that damned question. It won't leave her until it has its out:

"Sera," Angela says, her voice slow and strong and only a little dangerous. "What is a Metacritic score?"


Belief. It's more than just a Grammy-nominated single by John Mayer. It's vulnerability. It's letting your shield lower for just a moment — even just a sliver — to put yourself in someone else's hands. A higher power. A higher love.

It's pushing past the fear of letting yourself be vulnerable, for that very split of a second…

… and hoping it will reward you, instead of cost you.

And so, Angela chooses to believe. Chooses to lower the shield. And what are her rewards? What are her costs? A hand wraps around hers, knowing well the strength behind the hunter's grip. How deadly it can be, and how tender, and how poorly it could wield a flute despite how masterfully it brandished a sword. Here it is hesitant, more hesitant than she has ever felt before. And here, as if to be the sharp contrast, other side of the coin, the Gabrielle to her Xena, Sera's grip is so very tight, so very eager — as if, if she did not hold that hard, if she did not grasp onto Angela like she were her lone lifeboat, she might very well just disappear entirely.

Or maybe it's just an assurance. I'm here. I'm real. Well…

As real as she can be.

Sera, says Angela, and as her brilliant damsel watches her in a way most expectant.

What is a Metacritic score?

Her lips part. Bloom into a grin. And Sera…

"Hahahaha!"

… Sera laughs. Not at Angela. Never at Angela. Well, sometimes at Angela. Shush. Sometimes she says the cutest things. She's only human-like. But this? This is laughter of relief. Of complete and utter satisfaction.

How could she not?

"I've waited so, so long to hear you ask me that," is her decisive reply, between the laughter, through the smile. Yes. Of course she waited for that, specifically. Because it reminds her of how things were, versus how things are. Because it lets her fade, at least a little bit, into the good ol' routine.

Because it reminds her she's here. She's really here. With her hunter.

"It's an invaluable tool of the fabled mortal internet, Angela (though I don't know if it's one you should explore without supervision, I wouldn't want you losing faith in humanity). It's the value of a story, as told to you by other people. And our story's one for the ages. Universally acclaimed! The tearjerker to end all tearjerkers!" Slowly, from her position, she reaches up. Fingers unlace from Angela's grasp. "But I know what you're thinking now. Wavering there, before excitable waggling and bringing out the big guns. Still unsure. But still wanting to believe, so much." She stands, just a bit, on the toes of her feet, up and up, until her fingertips can frame the angel's face. Until her head can cant, one brow cocked.

"So. Am I me, or am I not me? Am I here, or am I not here?

"Am I the one you'd walk through Hel to find?"

Is she the Sera who'd walk through life to find Angela?


Angela knows the sharp line in Sera's laughter. All the awkwardness of misunderstanding had time to bleed out during the ur-days of their time together. It was a slow process, accounting for Angela's sensitivity to being challenged or denigrated and the very, very unhumorous cohort with which she was raised.

Yet, there was time, and there was willingness. The difference between laughing at a situation and laughing at her, and how laughing at her could be alright anyway, and how sometimes, if Angela truly wanted, she could trick someone into laughing with a well-placed bit of playing oblivious.

When Sera laughs, Angela's expression softens. As Angela must always bring balance, her grasp becomes firm. Hand in hand, warmth, real warmth, real flesh. Not even a shade. The Asgardians become shades when they perish, unclothed by flesh save for when they are given a boon. What is true for angels?

With Sera safely helped onto firmer ground, Angela is struck again by uncertainty. Flashes of impulse briefly take her, and then are cast off just as quickly by a grim alliance of nerves and propriety. Whatever ache she forced from her hands has settled in her heart. That was the price, of course.

"Ah, yes," she says, stalling to choose her words. She has Sera's hand and isn't sure what she should do with it other than hold on. Holding on is a good start. "I have encountered this network service."

Fortunately, Sera has ever been the woman of action when it comes to troublesome social perils. Angela occasionally becomes snagged when she cannot stab her way out of something. Sera's artful semi-soliloquy is welcome to take all of the spotlight that Angela can manage to cede.

The other woman needs to a little insistent to get her hand free — one tug alerts Angela that her grasp need not be so inviolable, and then the second will do it. Angela is once again left in tactical error as she becomes unsure of what to do with her hand. Hands. There are two. You're slacking, Angela!!

Sera reaches on tiptoes. Angela is still too tall. This has always been a two-person maneuver.

Am I me?

Am I here?

Am I the one?

Angela moves with gentle deliberateness. Her hands slide over Sera's. She guides the other woman's hands. Not just fingertips. Hands to the sides of her face. There is a person here.

When Angela speaks, her voice is hushed, mingled with the rasp of the wind. In quiet, it is harder to hear the desperation that she cannot hide.

"Tell me. Tell me everything."


They meet halfway. They always do. Or at least, they learned to along the way to always.

Which is as much an artful flourish of wordplay and double meanings as it is completely literal. Because Angela is so very tall. Sera is so very not. She prefers the term 'adorably diminutive.'

It's more than fine. She likes it this way. After all, it plays so well to her love of metaphor.

One tug, two tugs, brings both of Sera's hands to Angela's face. Where Angela is uncertain, Sera springs to action, in so many words. It isn't a tearful reunion, because it's not time for that yet. It's not an enthusiastic tackle, because that's not their way. It isn't an amorous embrace full of purple prose fit for the highest of quality one dollar romance novels, because Sera doesn't want to spend her slice of time here learning about Midgard's decency laws. No; Sera slides into familiar roles and actions like a day hasn't passed since she was parted from Angela, pressing palms to cheeks and feeling her stalwart knight's grasp layer over her own until her fingers are scratching at red hair. Until she fully feels the flush of that real, living, flesh and blood against her touch. Because it's what they need. Because it's what she needs. To be able to act like she's not in a cage, even for a day.

She might be alone, but she refuses to be lonely.

Tell me everything, says the knight, whispered voice carried in the wind so perfectly it is practically a part of it. And the damsel holds on to her knight, tilting upward. Her smile says that's the right answer as she leans in. Her kiss? Well, there are a lot of things the clever things the clever damsel could say about the kiss she offers her knight that would seem incredibly clever. But the truth is, she just wants to. Some things really are just that simple.

"Alright," she agrees afterward, the warmth of her voice hushed as if explicitly to match Angela's lowered tone. "Everything it is."

The voice keeps the whimsy. It helps to mask the note of sadness.

"But you know, while the roof made a great dramatic entrance for me, I could really use a location with better acoustics for spinning tales. Sooo…" And here, the wise and canny Sera invokes the greatest time-saving spell of all:

"Smash cut to-" ANGELA'S HOTEL ROOM

"And so we bring to you today a Strange Tale of Exciting Exposition!"

Sera of Hel (née Heven) has settled herself comfortably into the confines of Angela's temporary home away from home, after taking a suitable amount of time to explore the place that could be her home from home and making sure to note how lacking she found the coffee machine despite the fact that she's never had coffee (that's how she could be sure it was disappointing as a coffee machine, was her wise insistence). Now, the storyweaver settles herself comfortably near the balcony, as if to see a glimmer of the great outdoors and the vast openness that is, reassuringly, just a pull of a glass door away. Her hands wrapped at her midsection, her head tilted towards Angela just enough for black hair to spill over the right side of her face like a veil, she quirks a smile. It could be impish. It's certainly within her wheelhouse. If it weren't touched by the slightest edge of melancholy.

"… Our story today is a tale bittersweet. A love story. A fight story. Like all good bittersweet tales ought to be.

"Once, there was a proud and perfectly capitalistic knight. She made a name for herself. She mastered the art of the deal — the real art, not some tacky knockoff. She found herself an uncannily captivating and extraordinarily eloquent maiden…

"… and then she lost her.

"It was the end of a tragedy. But the end of one tale is the beginning of another, especially for someone as remarkably persistent and also genre-savvy as our maiden was. She was told for most of her life that the end was the end, that there was nothing but nothing for her at the end of her long road.

"But what was waiting for her was something worse. A curse, eons in the making, hurtled the maiden not to nothingness, but to the deepest, darkest bowels of Hel. She was to be a slave, to be tormented — the lot of all her kind. To be the pitiless plaything of Hel's queen, a fact that said queen was generous enough to tell her personally.

"'To your undying days, you will suffer here for the crimes of your ancestors, and never shall you see the sun nor know anything but toil and turmoil ever again,' hissed the vile Queen.

"'I won't work for anything less than minimum wage!' cried the pure maiden.

"And the queen, not knowing what minimum wage meant but knowing full well when someone was giving her the business, took deep and special offense, and decided to lock the maiden and her clever tongue away in a deep, dark place where no one would ever be lashed by it ever again. To be fair, the maiden might have said a good deal more than that to earn the Queen's ire, but we'll not go into that because you simply had to be there for some of the jokes, and in her defense, she was a bit cranky — things hadn't quite been going her way for some time."

Sera pauses there, if only for a moment. She looks at Angela, and that glib mask melts just slightly with the vexed knit of her brows. She can't hide it. She isn't sure she wants to.

"… and so, the maiden was lost in the empty depths of a cage. The last place she ever wanted to be. Ever. Again."


Angela learned so much about metaphor under Sera's tutelage. A part of Sera is lodged firmly within Angela now, a part that Angela held more tightly when she thought it was all she had left. It whispers to her when things pass that only Sera would have noticed. A metaphor. A pleasant rhyme. A color used well. Life's little flourishes.

There's the obvious ones, like Angela being tall and Sera being short and the two of them collaborating to achieve various pleasant arrangements. Or Sera teetering on the edge of the rooftop, blown in by the wind. The inverse abyss of the night sky, endless space yawning out above them.

A touch like a waking memory.

A look like a falling hourglass.

A kiss like —

like —

Angela has never been clever with metaphors. Words often fail her.

Alright.

Angela rests her forehead against Sera's as the other woman speaks. The cruelness inside her still has a voice, but she is too far gone to let it have sway now. If this is a mistake, then Angela will pay its price when called.

The hunter opens her eyes slightly, half-lidded.

"We could go to —"

IT'S ANGELA'S HOTEL ROOM

Home away from home for now, Angela was careful to point out. She must move often to avoid suspicion. She could, perhaps, if Sera wanted, if she would be sticking around, and it was a thing she desired, possibly, Angela could find someplace more to her liking.

If desired.

Angela has left untouched the coffee maker. In fact, Angela has also left untouched coffee. She files away Sera's judgment in her head for future use, should coffee judgment be required. One never knows.

There's an upholstered chair near the balcony, along with a reading desk. Angela elects to stand for now, because she likes to be physically prepared when she's anxious even if there's nothing to physically prepare for. She crosses and then uncrosses her arms, and then — with a glance toward Sera's impish smile, yes, Angela can spot that and render conclusive appraisal — remembers to sit down during storytime. It's polite. She chooses the edge of the bed because it's there.

That this story is familiar to her does not lessen its sharpness. Angela is further away from home than anyone may be able to put to actual numbers, on a suicide mission to be reunited with the very woman with appears to have gone and taken care of the problem for her. It would be surreal if this flavor of abstract didn't tend more toward horror.

Angela copes how she always does: she retreats inside herself, leaving that cruelness mentioned earlier — albeit tamed — to hold the defenses. People have called her cold-hearted. It is easy to have a cold heart when you render everything mechanical: numbers, facts, consequences. Motivations and capabilities bouncing off each other in a comprehensible plane.

In this way, Angela crashes through the recap. She makes it through the recounting of Hela. Unfortunately, she cannot smile at the joke because she's working right now and emotions are prohibited on company time. But then —

A deep, dark place. Angela, she who is faster than lightning, faster than thought, knows what is coming before Sera's expression cracks. She does not move.

Sera can't hide it. Angela can't run from it. They both have their damage.

"Sera," she says, her voice thickened by sorrow and shame dressed up as vicarious anger. Angela knows that Sera knows her well enough to see, but she cannot stop her reflexes. Already the gears of her internal accounting are grinding to a painful, shuddering halt as she attempts to reckon with a broken promise.

But that's just the subtext. The actual text seems like she's cautioning the other woman that she needn't proceed if she doesn't want to. It is a poor bluff that doesn't even match narrative consistency considering Angela was asking for the whole story just earlier.


Sera.

THE INTERMISSION

And now we take a brief break from our story within a story to focus upon the way that single name spills from Angela of Heven's lips, choked with grief dressed up in a pretty little wrapping of anger for things lost. For things broken without knowing they broke. Sera's gaze lifts from the interesting patch of floor it had fixated on to stare at the angel so very far from home. There is a warning in that single name.

But there's also so much more.

And yet she still chides nonetheless, "Angela, the scene change wasn't nearly long enough for you to be contradicting yourself already." The tone is teasing, but it lacks a certain something that somehow makes it ring with a somber note. She waits there a moment, as if put on pause against the edge of the balcony's entrance, or reluctant to abandon it.

But abandon it she does after that moment passes. Pushes off that wall. Walks to Angela. And, for once, short as she is, she looks over the sitting angel, looming in a way hard to discern the immediate intent of.

"Everything has to be everything," she insists quietly as a finger tucks under Angela's chin, to urge it gently upward until their eyes may meet. "Or else it's not much of anything. You…"

And here, for a rare moment that shall never be accounted or retold ever again for fear of death, the lady of loquaciousness loses her voice. Her eyes squeeze shut; her jaw sets tight. By the time she finds it once more, she refuses to let herself or Angela take heed of the tiny tremor that prefaces it.

"… you promised. Never again. But here I am. Waiting, in the dark. With nothing but my memories." Her free hand clenches, until fingers dig sharply into her palm. Like an impulsive, guttural instinct she cannot suppress.

Eventually it relaxes. Slowly. Eventually, she bends just slightly at the waist…

"You're already trying to do the numbers for something incalculable, aren't you? Trying to weigh the price for the priceless. You always were the best of us."

… so that she may loop her arms around Angela's neck, to draw the sitting angel close against her.

"… And I was always the worst. What a pair we make, huh?"

Silence passes—

"'But then,'" she recites, a quiet whisper, "'the knight, brave and determined and maybe a touch insane — the charming kind of insane that matches perfectly with a motorcycle and a loose cannon attitude a maiden could go head over heels for — decided the end should not be the end. And, in a shocking twist to the expected narrative, she carved her way through Hel to save her love… and she failed.'"

Her voice, barely audible even within the room. As if she wanted nothing, not even the walls, /nothing/ except Angela to hear the words. To hear the meaning behind them.

"'… but she still tried, all the same. She tried and she tried and she would try even more still, preferably this time with that motorcycle we mentioned previously. Like one that could be on the cover of a glam rock album.'"

She smiles. A tiny, hurt thing. A damaged thing. To go with their narrative.

"Should I continue? We're at the real interesting stuff."


The most Angela is willing to venture in protesting Sera's chastising words is briefly parted lips that soon find their way shut. Angela lowers her head slightly in acknowledgment of the point. That she also has a subtle gesture for 'you win' has certainly made arguments interesting over the years.

Her downcast eyes notice Sera's feet approaching before the chintouch. She is already inclined to look up. Every time she looks away, a nasty thought creeps into her head: she won't be there when you look back.

Yet Sera is there, finger under her chin, lifting Angela's face. Angela looks back with her strange, white-irised eyes. They're unusual even among angels, but Angela has a well-established history of being a tragically special snowflake. Sera is right, of course. Everything has to be everything. It all has to add up. There can't be any changes to plain deals on account of hurt feelings.

Angela hardens her heart. She must. She must because Sera has lost her voice to tremors. She must because she promised. She must because Sera is waiting, with nothing, nothing, nothing save what she could conjure from the past.

Angela, across the universe did the same, but she did it free a winged thing. She made all her choices when another could not.

She must because this is all her fault.

Sera bends in, the tension leaving her body. Angela becomes aware of the interesting feeling that she has torn holes into the mattress by gripping it too tightly. She gingerly removes her fingers.

She is caught in two ways — her hands speaking for her because her ribbons aren't here, and Sera once more reading her mind. Angela doesn't answer. Sera — please, this must be her — would know that she's right, and that Angela would realize the same. Words often fail Angela, but Angela just as often fails them.

What Angela remembers about metaphors is that they become trite if overused, but can be freshened by subversion. It is such that slighter Sera takes the larger Angela into her arms. She lets her hands speak again, wrapping her arms around Sera's waist. With a turn of her head, her ear is against Sera's chest. Angela could hear the other woman's heartbeat before, but it's different this close. Here, you can feel it, and the senses mingle together to something greater than the sum. A little threat to Angela's devotion to accounting.

Silence passes. Then, the story again. Angela listens. The words, the beat. A little faster when she breathes in. A little slower out. A subtler rhythm alongside the content of the story.

Please. This must be.

Angela stares at the far wall with hard eyes.

"Please," she says. "You were right. Everything must be everything."


Learning the intricacies of the language of Angela is an exciting tale all its own. Words lose meaning in too great a volume — even Sera knows that much, and would be the first to point out even her great volume of words are tailored to a perfect point that rides the line of superfluous and eloquent to exhausting perfection. But in Angela…

In Angela, every rare word is important. In Angela, even the slightest gesture can be a story. The downward tilt of her head makes Sera beam with pride, because she may now mentally make a notch of victory in her column (of course she tracks arguments won and lost, she's not so bad an angel she's lost her competitive streak). The stare of her eyes by color alone makes dark brows soften just thinking of how many years the Best of All Angels spent apart and unappreciated.

The stiffening of her body against the evidence of her failings gives Sera private relief. Because it means the fire is still burning in her knight.

It means that she's still ready to rage against the heavens and the Hels for her sake.

Fingertips find red hair and curl there. She finds comfort in the feel of the strands sifting between her fleet fingers, the reminder that this is real enough — enough for Angela's more verbose partner to spin her tale anew.

"The maiden was trapped in her own hell, because the mistress of deathly punishments was nothing if not as clever as she was cruel. And the maiden… no matter what the cage, the maiden was still as cunning as she was captivating. She tried a number of ways to reach her knight, to varying levels of success, but she was still caught inside her cell. Still trapped by the dark. Alone…

"… until she wasn't.

"One day, a magpie spied the lone maiden, trapped in that special slice of Hel made just for her. If someone had been cast to so special a place that none other would dwell in it surely they must be of some import, thought the magpie; and if not that, then they had to be incredibly good at greatly upsetting Queens of Hel with their charming irreverence, and either one would suit the magpie's needs quite expertly. And so the magpie came to learn her story, and how best the talented and delightful maiden might be best put to use making problems for people. They talked of a great many things and found they had much in common - and though they disagreed very strongly over whether 'The Man Who Sold the World' or 'Ziggy Stardust' was the very best of Bowie, somehow the maiden managed to find it within her generous heart to forgive the magpie's poor taste… and she struck a deal. Bad angel though she might have been, the maiden was still an angel, and she still knew how to make a strike up a good bargain when the opportunity presented itself."

And here, she pauses, just for a moment. Angela looks to the far wall; Sera prefers to close her eyes, to visualize what could be.

"The magpie would allow the maiden to make use of its body like a middleman between the living and the dead. Her mind could be in the world of the living; the magpie's words, her words. Her touch. Her will. So that the maiden could find her knight… and at the very least, see her again, with her own two eyes. At the very best, help her get all the cheat codes she needs to hack her way through Hel's Hard Mode and help her get the girl. Who was her. Narratively, it was all admittedly a little confusing, but if it's not a great story if it was an easy read, right?

"… But… there was a catch. Because there's always a catch." Her expression softens; dark eyes crack open in tiny slivers. Her sad smile paints her expression, and her fingers curl a bit more tightly into that red mane. As if the second she let go, she might simply disappear. "I told you this was a bittersweet tale, didn't I? The maiden couldn't stay on the mortal plane forever — she was just renting the body, after all, and she didn't technically belong… and every day she stayed was another day she risked being discovered by the Queen, who was not overly fond of charm and solid wit, as has been previously established. She could only borrow magpie's body every now and then, for a day…"

Angela can feel it. The hard vibrations of a heart working excitedly. Nervously. She puts on a good face, but there's no hiding from Angela the way that pulse hammers, the way it ramps. She wishes she could just stay like this forever.

"… but eventually, at the end of every night, she would have to return. Return to her cage, in the deep, empty dark."

Hands pull away from Angela; for a split second, one might think Sera was about to fade then and there… except she simply seeks to crouch before her angel. Her knight. So that the maiden can offer up her sad, sardonic smile.

"A pinch of Persephone in your Eurydice."

Am I me?

"I'm me, but not me."

Am I here?

"I'm here, but not here."

Am I…

Her head tilts. Her hands that are hers, and yet not hers, reach out. But not all the way. And she repeats that last, important part:

"Am I the one you'd walk through Hel to find?"


Angela keeps a list as well, of course. Periodically the two must be reconciled and balanced, which always makes for a spirited evening.

The both of them take the small pleasures they can in this tense, unexplored vignette. As Angela listens to Sera's heartbeat in a hopeless quest for some incontrovertible material proof of what she's experiencing, Sera threads her fingers through Angela's wavy red tresses. Fiery — that's how they're often described. They flow like something living when she moves, and the vibrant shade invites the obvious comparison.

Those who don't know her well enough (or know her too well, in Sera's sadly solitary case) can run with that symbolism. Fiery is her battlelust, fiery are her convictions. Fiery is her judgment when the scales invite her hand. The stiffening is fire, her musculature coming alive in that skillful, intentional way that only she can manage. Angela's art, if she has art at all, is in this realm; when she tenses, it is no crude bracing. She coils and prepares, loose and tight where needed, ready to move with predatory certainty. Holding onto her is sometimes like holding onto a wild animal.

And those who know her just well enough, of course, call her cold. We've explored that cold-hearted bit already. That cruelness in her observes with sharp-toothed patience. A prison in a deep, remote place. A magpie — a magpie? — who wanted something. A magpie who now knows their story, albeit told by Sera, and perhaps may also be the cause for Sera knowing the arts of 'human internet' and 'human coffee,' and also apparently 'human bowie.'

A pause. Angela feels the edge. She cannot yet look down its length, but she can sense the depths of it. Sera must first guide the way, and from experience Angela knows it will be a mindful, scenic trip down.

Angela doesn't move. Her arms do not leave Sera's waist, neither her head her chest. Her gaze, fixated on the wall. She forgets to blink. The magpie. The magpie, the magpie

And a racing heart. Angela's cares come into focus. The magpie and its body and bond are small things. Everything is small compared to this. Sera, her Sera, here. Years of empty, years of painfully hopeful effort, years of numbness, a legacy of longing stretching back across the decades of parting. Angela's breath quickens. The heartbeat is like thunder in her mind.

The dire spiral is softly broken when Sera disentangles herself. Angela sits up, returning her gaze to Sera. The other woman crouches. Angela's curls her fingers into empty palms.

Am I…

There is no hesitation when Angela moves. She takes Sera's hands into her own, gently pulling them closer. If Sera desired nostalgia, this is it. This is an Angela who knows where her heart lies.

"Sera," she says. "My love."

Her name. No one else. Angela's eyes gleam, transforming by reflection the dull appropriateness of the hotel room light into a silvery and fey intensity.

"There is no place for me in all creation save by your side."


Sera knows her knight too well.

And Angela knows her maiden too well.

It's why they can tell their tale even in the silence that decorates the space between words and actions. In the fire that is Angela's grip. In the cold that is her sharp, unblinking stare. In the thunderous uncertainty that is the beat of Sera's heart.

In the electric tempest that is her anger she cannot wholly control.

But in the time between the flowing words of the storyteller's tale, there is none of that. None of the concern for a future — their future. None of the anger for her lot. None of the slyness that only an accomplished bard of a most silvered tongue could bring to bear. In those scant few seconds before Angela makes her answer, in words and in deed, Sera is simply… exposed. A raw nerve, whittled vulnerable by a moment in time she waited so very long for. Her eyes searching, her expression ready for everything, just like they agreed.

Is she the one?

She gets her answer before her answer in the firm grasp of a hunter's hands around hers, and three simple words. Her hands lift, happy to generously give Angela the reins to guide them towards her. Her smile brightens, exposing pearly white teeth in her grin if only to match the inspired glow of Angela's gaze. This is what she needed:

Angela and Sera, the Greatest Hits.

"Then we have a lot of work to do, my love, because my side is still very far away. As is my front, my back, and all the other best parts of me."

Nevermind the clearly clever wordplay, for once. For once, let's focus on a much more important qualifier:

'We.'

As she speaks, as she's drawn in, her grin remains. Her forehead finds Angela's once more, if just to feel the warmth of her so close. A sweet reprieve from what awaits her. And her voice, so close, whispers its way towards the conclusion of her tale.

"And so the knight and her maiden were reunited without being united. And they did agree to kick much ass together and concoct a most righteous plan to liberate the maiden that would be best set to the strains of Led Zeppelin. There were still many things for them to discuss, many important plot points to exposit upon at length, not the least of which the nature of the maiden's avian helpmeet. But for this, her first day on Earth, her first day amongst the living in her fancifully new loaner? The cunning and wise maiden pointed out that they would be much better served worrying about the future in the future, and spend this day, their first day, doing other things: indulging in some Midgardian coffee and the Bucks of Stars. Or maybe a little Netflix and chill. Or anything. Anything at all."

Her hands squeeze. Tight.

"Anything with you."

She waits for a moment. Just long enough. Just long enough to be considered the perfect timing for a dramatic pause, for the maiden was in all things, if nothing else, the dramatic to the knight's stoic. The perfect Odd Couple. Just with more emphasis on the couple.

"And the knight, now filled to the brim with swoon-able levels of resolve and knowing her maiden's only flaw was her great impatience (which only served to make her more captivating, according to some highly regarded literary analysts), turned to the maiden, and offered her a deal. The big one. The deal to end all deals. And so the knight said…"

Her eyebrows, here, pointedly lift. As if to say,

'That's your cue!'

But in a subtle way, as Sera is nothing if not subtle and nuanced in all her dealings.


Nothing like this can be healed in an evening. The two of them were wounded before they met. The blessed time they were given together is greater than the time death forced them apart — and, dangerously blossoms the hope, perhaps will grow greater still — but what happened to them pierced deeper and more keenly than either has made attempt to describe this evening. How could they? How could words serve such incoherent, jagged-clawed pain?

Sera could make them serve. That cruel voice in the back of Angela's mind knows this. It is a veil of kindness between them and the looming enormity of the ongoing trauma. A part of Angela isn't sure that she deserves to be spared.

Angela's expression, having grown hard again in one of those little moments where the world caught up to her again, softens once more when Sera graces her with a smile. Maybe. Maybe Angela can make this alright again. No — the both of them. They both want to try. The cruel huntress in her cannot see it, but she is not Angela. Angela knows. She must trust something. She can trust this — she can trust love.

And she can focus on work. Work is a language in which Angela is sure of herself, and through it is perhaps the only way that she feels sure she can communicate her feelings. Angela squares her posture and gives Sera a challenging look. She's ready. Ready for the end of the tale, right now, and for whatever comes after it, and after that, and after that, forever onward —

The two press close once again. This time, Angela closes her eyes.

The story winds its way to a neatly-tied ending. All themes accounted for, all grim dread balanced with irreverent reference. One day Angela will have them all explained to her and her appreciation of the tale will increase. She can feel the shame in her receding, easier enough now to pack away with the rest. She needs this. She needs these moments, these quiet moments and gentle whispers of new stories, and she needs for Sera to have them as well, to tell tale under the sun, as free as if she had wings.

Sera pulls back. Angela lifts her gaze and listens. Her expression slides slowly from attentiveness to bemusement.

And so the night said…

And so…

Angela can hear the orchestra pit fall silent.

"Ah," she begins. "I…"

A short silence passes. Angela briefly casts her gaze down, and then moves to stand. She never lets go of Sera's hands. When she is done, Angela once more looms over the other woman, holding her hands between her own, pressed to her chest.

"I am sorry. I was given every reason to abandon hope, but I was wrong. There is nothing that matters more to me. I should have… I should have tried harder. I should have tried until life left me."

Angela squeezes her hands. Now they've both had a dramatic dialogue break involving hand holding.

"I will now. I give this promise to you, if you would take it. Everything I am. I will free you. In exchange…"

Angela furrows her brow. Her mind reaches and finds nothing. Her heart slips her the answer instead.

"In exchange for the flute you made me."

Her voice quiets, tamed by the memory.

"When we were young. When love was new."


Sometimes, wounds just don't disappear. They don't fade. You don't forget them. You don't tend to them the way they ought to be tended to. And they leave a scar.

And the decades that she has been left alone in a pit have made sure the wound of abandonment would make for a nicely bitter scar. But that's always the thing, isn't it? The scars, they're inevitable. No one can save everyone. Not even a strapping knight in shining bikini armor. Eventually you'll let someone down, hurt someone, scar someone, be scarred by someone.

Whether you own that damage or let it own you, that's what you can control.

It's a question even Sera, in all her certainty, is uncertain of the answer to right now. Maybe it'll take time. Maybe she won't forgive. Maybe the scar is too great. She could form the words now that could damn them or save them, flick them as casually off the tip of her tongue as she would any of her sublime soliloquies…

But Sera is more hurt than she'd like, more vulnerable than she'd like, and right now?

She'd just like to indulge in the fairy tale remembering the way things were, rather than ruminate on the gritty real life drama speculating the way things will be.

For now, this is enough. It's enough — more than enough — to watch with the glimmer of amusement touching dark eyes as their positions change anew, perfectly timed for all things to come full circle. It's enough to feel the beat of Angela's heart tell her a story against her hands as if they could somehow convince her they could race fast enough to make up for all the heartbeats she's missed until this day, and will continue missing the day after.

It's enough to listen to that heartfelt apology from a woman who so often does not let 'feeling' or 'heart' enter the equation of her words, and let that be a balm for her old wounds. Let herself believe that, 'Yes.'

'Everything is going to be fine.'

But with Angela so graciously taking over the mantle of narrator to allow Sera a proper moment to indulge in her own rare moment of deep, internal reflection, the dead girl of living flesh and blood is left to take the role of the quiet watcher. The expectant audience. Waiting to hear the end of their story.

I will free you. In exchange…

Waiting to hear the heart in their story.

In exchange for the flute you made me.

And just like that, they come flooding back. Memories. Her only companion, for so long, more precious to her than words can describe. The way things were. The way things could be. Her eyes widen… before her expression settles into something rare for Sera of Hel(-for-now):

Something startlingly subdued.

"You remembered," she says. A moment passes, a little slice of eternity for her to bask in that fact. The right corner of her lip quirks up, in a perfectly Sera smile, lopsided just so. "The perfect price for the priceless."

And, hands clasping all the firmly to Angela's, Sera lifts her way back up from her crouch.

"Alright. Then the deal is struck. Now we can start a new story. A better story. I'm a little tired of bittersweets, and my Orpheus is a way better upgrade over the original anyway. But for now, let's end it like this:"

She leans. She closes her eyes. She tries not to think of what waits for her at the end of the day.

"'To be continued.'

"Postscript: I like the menswear. I never knew slacks could look that good.

"Post-postscript: I'm serious about that motorcycle, Angela. A good one. Glam it to Hel."

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