1. Worm Food
Plague wakes up to the sound of something creaking. It sounds like floorboards moaning about a weight that's too much for them. He turns his head to try to see where he is, and the creaking shadows his movement. He almost groans as he realizes he's in pain, but another sound stops him -- a door closing a little too forcefully.
"Where is he?" the Boss asks.
Ice water floods Plague's veins. He holds his breath.
"I don't know," Death says. His voice is familiar. Plague struggles to place it, ignoring for the moment that Death is lying to the Boss.
"He couldn't have gotten far. Find him."
"What if I don't?"
The Boss says nothing. Plague can picture the look that he's giving Death.
"You'll be the first to know," Death says.
The door slams again. Death mutters something under his breath and steps into the office where Plague is lying on the floor.
Plague tries to sit up. Burning pain spears his gut. His wounds throb. He rolls over instead and struggles to get his feet under him. He makes it to his hands and knees and no further. Drops of blood splash onto the floor.
"You're only making it worse," Death says. He hasn't moved from the doorway.
Plague looks up. "I'm supposed to lie still while you kill me? Yeah, right."
"I'm not going to kill you."
"Then why'd you lie to the Boss?"
"Because I have things I want to say to you."
Plague puts one hand on his wound and forces himself to his feet. The dim room spins and gets dimmer. Cold arms wrap around him, steadying him. He blinks his eyes into focus on Death's face. Now he knows why Death's voice is so familiar. "Owen," he says. It's not quite a declaration, not quite a question.
Death smiles with a dead friend's mouth.
* * *
"Do you think about it?" Owen Reese asked. "About death, what happens after we die. Not the physical part but the spirit."
Neil kept his eyes on the fresh mound of earth beside Owen's grandfather's grave. He thought he could see worms slipping through the dirt, and his stomach coiled into a cold, oily knot. "I thought you were an atheist," he said.
"I was. I am. I don't know. The science of life makes sense, but the rest ... it's not pleasant to think of Grandpa as just worm food. I want him to exist somewhere, in some form. I want him happy."
"Does that make him happy or you?"
Owen said nothing for a while. The rest of the funeral guests were trickling away. Owen and Neil were sitting on a stone bench under a weeping willow a few feet from the grave. Neil was ready to leave. He was entirely too aware of the presence of his mother's grave in a plot some fifty yards behind them. It was an uncomfortable pressure at the base of his skull.
"Look, the body is just meat," Neil said. "The thing that made your grandfather who he was is gone. Did you see him after he died?"
"No." Owen looked vaguely disgusted at the thought of viewing the deceased that way. The body, with or without a soul, was still the only tangible representation of self people had. To display it after death seemed rude. "What does it matter? You don't believe in God either."
"No, but that doesn't mean I don't believe in spirits or souls or whatever. And it doesn't mean I'm right."
"What's your point?"
Neil and Owen had known each other since freshman year of college, nearly ten years by the time Owen's grandfather passed away. They had always had an uncanny bond, and there were few things they hadn't shared. Yet Neil had never talked to Owen about his mother's death, not in detail. To say anything of it, to think of it, even so many years removed from it, made him tremble. "I watched my mom die," Neil said, willing his voice not to fail.
"Jesus, Neil. You were only ten. That's ..."
"We knew she was dying. We wanted to be with her. That wasn't the hard part. It was when I saw ... I don't know. Something changed. There was her body, but she wasn't there. Whatever it is that makes us who we are doesn't stay with the body when the body stops working."
Tears shimmered in Owen's eyes. "Even so, we don't know what happens to a soul when the body dies. The body is the only thing we have to make that essence something we can relate to."
"The body is ephemeral. You just have to make peace with that."
"Have you made that peace?"
For a long time, Neil said nothing. He couldn't find words to express the thoughts, memories and nightmares that rolled through his mind. The worms ... no, not worms, maggots, hundreds of thick, white maggots ... began to multiply in the earth at the graveside. They slid over each other as they bored through the soil, knotting themselves together and pulling until they tore each other apart. He closed his eyes, but that did nothing to shut them out. He could smell them, the soil, the maggots, the way his mother smelled when she died.
"No," he said.
* * *
When Plague returns to consciousness, he finds the world moving around him. It takes him several seconds to realize he's in a car. He looks over at the driver, hoping it's Gershom. It isn't.
"Where are we going?" Plague asks.
"Somewhere quiet," Death says.
Plague stares out the window and watches the scenery whip past. It's still dark, but the sky is beginning to pale ever so slightly. He recognizes the route Death is taking and can guess where they'll end up. He starts to say something about it but changes his mind. Instead, he says, "I'm sorry."
Death gives Plague a brief glance, his expression hard to read in the darkness. He looks away, opens his mouth, closes it again, pressing his lips together and setting his jaw so that whatever he was thinking about saying has no chance of escaping. "That's not what I want to talk to you about. If there's time, we can reopen old wounds."
"What about my fresh wounds that happen to still be bleeding?"
"Try not to get blood on the upholstery."
Death grins. "I won't let you die, Neil."
Ten minutes later, Death stops the car along a gentle curve in a path that hugs the bottom of a small hill, at the top of which are a weeping willow, a stone bench and the Reese family plot.
Plague struggles to get out of the car, which he doesn't fail to notice is a Mustang in a shade of green so pale that it could be silver. Death merely stands by and watches from a few steps up the hill. Plague steadies himself between the door and the frame and looks up at Death.
"I'm not sure how I'm supposed to take the fact that you've brought me here," Plague says.
"Sometimes a cemetery is just a cemetery," Death says.
"When it's this one in particular?"
"It's hallowed ground. The Boss can't get to us here. He can find us, but he can't enter."
"Then how are you here?"
"I'm Death. Good or evil, you can't bar Death from the place where the dead lay."
Death trudges up the low hill and disappears behind the curtain of drooping willow limbs. Plague follows. It's a taxing climb. His wounds spread open even wider. He's covered in blood from armpit to knee. He bats aside limbs and stands before the stone bench. Death looks up at him.
"I think you need to make this a short conversation," Plague says.
"I told you I won't let you die."
"I'm still bleeding."
"There's an awful lot of blood in a human body. Ten pints. It doesn't sound like it would be a lot, does it? When it's all running out of you and you can't stop it, it looks like oceans worth."
"I said this isn't about us." Death shakes his head. "But when I see you, I can't help thinking about it."
Plague presses his hands against his wounds. His blood is cooling, and he's getting dizzy. He sways on his feet, trying to think of something to say.
"Come here," Death says.
Plague lurches forward and collapses on the bench. He doesn't protest when Death tugs him into position with his feet on the ground and his head in Death's lap.
Death knots his fingers into Plague's hair and pulls his head back firmly, locking Plague into eye contact that Plague would rather avoid. "I'll try to make this quick," Death says. "I think you already have some idea of who the Boss is."
"I don't understand."
"He was never human. He was sent to pick out horsemen, and that's what he's done. He's almost got another Famine lined up, and War won't take long at all. He's good at his job. There's really only one qualification, but he knows how to pick the right people for the position. I mean, who better than a sociopathic virologist for Plague?"
"I'm not --"
"You are. I'm a psychologist. I know a sociopath when I see one."
"When you fall in love with one?"
Death goes on as if Plague hadn't spoken. "The one thing that makes you -- all of us, really -- special is that we've watched someone die."
"How does that --"
"I don't know. It's nothing definable. But it changes you. Tell me watching your mom die didn't change you. Go on."
Plague shakes his head as much as he can with Death's fingers still tangled in his hair. "I didn't know you'd had that misfortune."
"The drunk driver who killed me died before I did. I don't really remember it, but I do remember that the moment she died was unmistakable, even at a distance."
"So it's not that I'm special. I just happened to have the right qualification."
"No, you are. The Boss wouldn't need you back if you were like the rest of us."
"How am I different?"
"I wish I knew."
Plague is sure Death has at least one theory on the matter, but he doesn't ask. He's not sure he wants to know. The important thing is that the Boss wants him back and isn't going to stop coming after him. "What about the Boss's boss?" he asks.
"I only know one thing about it. The Boss's boss isn't a demon."
* * *
Neil had chosen years ago to be oblivious to love and lust. Sex was nice but ultimately unrewarding, and as for relationships, well, he had his viruses.
Yet he knew that Owen was dangerously close. He thought that ignoring the situation would make it go away. It didn't. If anything, his silence on the matter had made it worse.
They sat on the couch in Neil's apartment, sharing a six pack of beer and a bowl of popcorn. They watched the hockey game with only token interest and talked about other things instead. They got quiet after a while. Mild beer buzzes and boring hockey had made them sleepy.
Their hands touched on the way to the popcorn.
"Sorry," Neil said.
Owen said nothing. He put the popcorn bowl on the end table beside him.
Neil didn't ask Owen what he was doing. He knew, and he didn't want it to happen. He didn't want to hurt his best friend. He knew he needed to stop it, but his heart was galloping. His lungs felt empty. He couldn't do anything but sit there and stare into Owen's eyes.
He thought that when Owen kissed him, he would be forced to act. He appreciated the aesthetic beauty of men, and Owen was a fine example of that, but he had never considered such appreciation an indication of sexual appetite.
When Owen kissed him, though, the lizard brain took over. The taste of beer and salt on Owen's soft, full warm lips. Owen's tongue on his. Owen's hands sliding up his chest beneath his tee shirt. He absolutely could not stop kissing his best friend because no one had ever kissed him like that before, because no one had ever been in love with him.
Neil wasn't sure what broke the spell, and for the rest of his life, he would wish he'd ignored whatever it was and slept with Owen that night because it would have felt good; it would have been easier to wake up together and say that it might have been a mistake because he could have saved his best friend's life.
But he didn't ignore it. He stopped the kiss, and Owen, realizing his mistake and the horrible mess it would make, left Neil's apartment without even saying goodbye.
* * *
Plague tries to reason through what Death is saying. If the Boss's boss isn't a demon, then it's a ... what? What's worse than a demon? Not much. Lucifer? But Plague's thinking is getting hazy. The blood under his hands is pumping out slower and slower and getting colder and colder. "What is it, then?" he asks.
"You'll have to figure that out on your own. I've told you what I know."
"Why? You're one of them."
"I can't change?"
"I kinda hope you can, actually."
"And switch sides like you did? I don't know if I can. I had so much hate in me when I died. I hated myself. I hated you. I hated all the boyfriends I couldn't love because I was in love with you."
"It wasn't fair, you know."
"That you kissed me like that, that you loved me. I almost ..."
Death doesn't need Plague to finish that thought. He knows very well what could have happened that night. "And that would have made things better?"
Plague closes his eyes. He so tired now and so cold, and he can't bear looking into Death's eyes any more. "No," he says, almost a whisper. "You'd have thought I felt more than I did, and when I told you there was no chance, you'd have been hurt even worse. It was just ... it was never going to have a happy ending."
"No, it wasn't."
"But if I had, just for one night ... maybe you'd still be alive."
Death's fingers loosen in Plague's hair to become a caress. He bends closer. "You'd have thrown our friendship away to keep me alive?"
Plague barely hears Death's voice. Everything is distant, cold and fading. He opens his eyes but sees only vague shadows. "Yes," he says, hopes he says.
"And you wonder why I loved you."
Plague blinks at the shadows swimming in front of him. He can no longer make out Death's face or even the shape of Death's head. It's all just grey and white, bunching and pulling apart. He closes his eyes again, for the last time, he thinks. At least this time he won't die alone.
3. Sealed with a Kiss
Owen was dead. He died on impact, the police said, but Neil didn't believe that. Death might have come so quickly on the heels of the impact that it was pointless to count those intervening seconds, but Neil was all too aware that those seconds had passed.
Owen was dead. For days afterward, Neil refused to believe it. He would think, Owen is dead, and then, He can't be. He was just here. And then he would wait for Owen to call him because they had to talk about that kiss at some point. Didn't they?
The extent of his grief must have seemed strange to Owen's family. They didn't know what had happened that night, and Neil wasn't about to tell them. He didn't offer any speculation when they asked him why Owen seemed to have been heading for his apartment at two in the morning. He could only shake his head, tears quivering in his eyes, and pretend he didn't know.
He didn't want to go to the viewing, but he did. He passed the hours in a daze, avoiding the coffin at the back of the long room. The profusion of plants and flowers made his eyes water, and he rubbed them until they were red and swollen and blurred. No, he wasn't crying. Allergies. Damn flowers. These days, the dead don't smell as bad with all the embalming. Why fill the room with pungent blooms to mask a stench that didn't exist?
He muttered and mumbled his way through conversations with Owen's family and other friends, some of whom he knew and some he didn't. There was a tall, slim, dark eyed man in a grey suit who went to the coffin, stood there, mercifully blocking the body from Neil's sight, and then, when he turned away, his eyes red rimmed and shiny, he made a bee line for Neil.
"I'm Tim," he said.
They shook hands.
"I know who you are," Tim said. "Sometimes you were all he would talk about."
The realization of who Tim was to Owen broke something in Neil. Tears gushed. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm so sorry. I'm ..."
"Stop. It's not your fault. Look, I can't stay. I wish I could." Tim drew a business card from his pocket and handed it to Neil. "Call me when you feel up to it. I'd like to talk. I think it would help us both."
Neil slipped the card into his pocket without looking at it, nodded dully and knuckled tears from his eyes.
At some point, late in the evening, most of the visitors gone and the family clustered near the door, Neil found himself mostly alone in the room with the open casket. He couldn't remember walking up to it, couldn't imagine why he'd want to after spending the whole night avoiding even the merest glimpse of it. But there he was, staring down at Owen's serenely still face on the white satin.
The undertaker had done a fine job covering up and filling in all the contusions and lacerations. The killing damage had been internal anyway. Owen, pale and slightly waxy, looked perfect. But still, just as it had been when his mother died, Neil couldn't see his friend in the slowly decaying meat that lay in the coffin. He bent down and kissed the cold white lips that had once kissed him with such passion.
* * *
"No!" Death shouts.
Plague snaps awake at the sound, and suddenly, nauseously, clarity and strength return. The back of his head cracks against the stone bench as Death is knocked away. Other hands grab the front of Plague's shirt and yank him to his feet. He blinks, his head throbbing.
"So you thought you could hide from me here," the Boss says. "Nice try, but no, you can't keep me out of graveyards. This hasn't been truly hallowed ground in centuries."
Death gets to his feet and takes a few steps forward. "Let him go," he says.
The Boss laughs. "Why would I do that?"
"You don't need him. You have Pestilence."
"Pestilence is hardly what I need in a horseman. Oh, he enjoys his job. He's good at it. But there's no beauty in it."
"What could you possibly offer me now that'll make me come back?" Plague asks.
The Boss grins, wide and dazzling. "There's nothing I can tempt you with now. You're all angel now. You were never a bad man. Deep down, you were one of the good guys all along. Just a bit ... off. But I can tell you that right now, there's a very sick archangel in Heaven who's going to die a slow, painful, ugly death if you don't come back to me."
"What?" Plague wrenches himself out of the Boss's grip and staggers back a few steps, nearly tripping on the bench. Death catches his arm to steady him.
"It's simple. You come back or Ely dies."
"What did you do to him?"
"Nothing. I let Pestilence take care of it." The Boss shrugs. "My instructions were rather vague."
Plague has never been so angry. His hands go cold as he knots them into fists. His stomach feels like it's full of frozen, buzzing insects. He could, he knows, if he could make himself move, tear the Boss to pieces with his bare hands.
Death's grip on Plague's arm tightens briefly. "Neil, don't," he whispers.
Before Plague can even turn his head to look at Death, Death lunges at the Boss. The Boss is ready, though. He catches Death by the throat and twists him to the ground, his thumbs pressing against Death's throat. Death struggles as hard as he can to buy Plague time to escape, but escape is the last thing on Plague's mind.
Plague pulls his shirt off and twists it until his blood drips from it. He doesn't let himself think about what he's doing. If he did, he would only remind himself that he's not a warrior, that he doesn't have the strength of body or of mind to be a warrior and that physically attacking the Boss is probably only going to get him killed. Instead he thinks about what he sees in front of him -- the Boss is trying to kill Owen, and Neil will do anything for that not to happen.
He steps up behind the Boss, looping his blood-soaked shirt around the Boss's head and pulling it tight against the Boss's mouth. He pulls as hard as he can. The Boss lets go of Death and flails for a few seconds before he starts clawing at the gag. Plague pulls even harder. His arms burn with the effort. The Boss begins to cough and sputter as Plague's virus-laden blood seeps into his mouth. Finally, the Boss manages to reach back over his head to claw at Plague's eyes.
Plague instinctively lets go of his shirt to protect his face. By then, it doesn't matter. The Boss is infected. Plague is vaguely stunned by his own actions and wonders why the hell it never occurred to him to rebel before.
"You son of a bitch," the Boss mutters. He gets to his feet, swaying and sputtering. Then he laughs. "You son of a bitch! You give as good as you get. I did underestimate you on this one." He yanks Death up to his feet. "But this is far from over." He kisses Death, smearing Plague's blood across Death's mouth. The Boss laughs and vanishes.
Plague starts towards Death, but before his foot even hits the ground, he's engulfed in rings of blinding green fire. "Gershom, wait," he says.
"No time," Gershom says. "Ely needs you."