JazzTeeth

My Name is Eri- Ch.9 "Born Under the Right Stars" (Finale)

Aug 28th, 2015
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  1. The drive could've passed for normal, despite being driven by a ghostly force. The bus pulled onto busy highways, obeyed traffic laws, and even made a stop to let you get out and use the restroom.
  2.  
  3. The ink-red sun faded as it set beneath the horizon. No one was around to tell you the estimated travel time. Perhaps the ride would last forever if you asked. That wouldn't be so bad, you thought. A comfortable purgatory felt shamefully preferable to the utter unknowns book ending both sides of the trip.
  4.  
  5. But a stronger aspect of you wanted to get wherever this bus headed sooner than later. Eris was at some sort of game. She could have opened up a hole in the ground and dropped you off wherever she pleased. The longer you sat idle, the more vulnerable to nibbling anxieties you became.
  6.  
  7. The bus jerked over a pothole.
  8.  
  9. Maybe she did have a little more respect for you than that, but the fact that she was luring you somewhere unknown and entirely on her terms could not be ignored. You felt wary. And weary.
  10.  
  11. Games, illusions, and tricks, tricks, tricks. You expected nothing but hoped for a bit of honesty and even that felt like a gambit, if not outright naive. But you didn't imagine she'd put on this show only to spin falsehoods.
  12.  
  13. You scattered the expectations from your head. Those carried danger. Expect her, and only her. Don't bother with a plan, because any plan would vanish into smoke the instant she looked at it. The whole situation was a funhouse without the fun. A maze with no exit or entrance, and you're the lucky mouse scurrying along knowing there's no cheese to find.
  14.  
  15. At least by playing your cards right, you might crawl out alive.
  16.  
  17. Without the need to bother yourself with expectations and half-bred ideas, you were left with nothing else to do but stare out the windows. Tilted fence posts lined green countrysides trailing either side of the road. You should've bought a magazine at the gas station.
  18.  
  19. Curiosity itched and you hopped into the driver's seat to play hell with the wheel and pulled on switches passengers weren't allowed to touch. Nothing happened. You thunked the horn, which did work. Not satisfying, but that was all the entertainment bound to be discovered.
  20.  
  21. The clock at the front of the bus showed the first sign of the upcoming weirdness. Red numbering ticked over the traditional way. Eleven o'clock. Twelve. One. Two. Zero. Zero. Dash. Dash. You frowned, but didn't find it surprising.
  22.  
  23. The roadside terrain shifted with each driven mile. It was April. Spring. The trees faded into ocher and auburns. Leaves tumbled over the road, lit by gloomy headlights in the night.
  24.  
  25. The sky cleared up. The stars shone with curious definition, as if the edges of their twinkling would cut your finger if touched.
  26.  
  27. You'd swear the horizon approached and became jagged, jumping inwards and upwards, or at least from what you could tell by the admittedly bright moonlight.
  28.  
  29. Something happened to the air. It prickled your skin and tasted sharp on your tongue, smelled crisp in your nose. The hairs on your arm stood on end and if someone touched you, they'd get the nastiest shock of their life. Snow began to fall outside, even though no clouds moved overhead.
  30.  
  31. The temperature inside the bus dropped to a chill. Not a bitter chill that makes your teeth clatter and knees knock, but a sleepy breed of cold. So you slept. You woke up. Still snowing outside and still the same oddities of the land in the distance.
  32.  
  33. No other cars drove up or down the lanes. No fences or signs guarded the roadsides. Only flat pavement rolled ahead, unending.
  34.  
  35. Pieces of the land fell away into canyons without bottoms. Gashes of ground opened up into nothingness, leaving long, long shards off snow-covered earth to flow into crooked streams and taper away. The bus drove ahead on a spear of highway whose breadth narrowed yard by yard.
  36.  
  37. The sky overhead changed from its clear night. Violets and clouded golds bloomed overhead and your hands tightened on the seat in front. But the sky opened in a more gradual flowering than the celestial fireworks display you saw before.
  38.  
  39. Auroras ribboned into view and trailed long lines of glittering cyans and limes over the window. You crossed your arms for warmth and watched in quiet.
  40.  
  41. Just when you swore that the road would pinch itself closed and send the bus careening over the edge into space, a building came into view.
  42.  
  43. A bus terminal, or a minimalist reconstruction of one, sat alone on the right side of the road. The structure carried the general shape of a bus station, but made of nondescript material, and lit not by bulbs, but stationary spheres of light that hovered between white and orange like trained fireflies.
  44.  
  45. The bus chuffed to the lumbering crawl of a pack animal after a long journey. The brakes whined and the vehicle stopped. The doors at the front end opened to a rush of cold air.
  46.  
  47. You waited, even though no rush of passengers risked cramming the aisle and no driver announced this place to be the last stop for the night. Time held still.
  48.  
  49. You left the seat and didn't bother grabbing the plastic bag that made up your luggage. At the end of the aisle, you looked behind to make sure no one remained seating. Of course, there was you and only you.
  50.  
  51. The air bit your skin the moment your shoes touched the ground. Snowflakes fell on your head. You walked through a basic door frame and into the so-called terminal. The gray building had no true roof or rooms. Only right angles, flat surfaces, and empty spaces where windows should be. Light glowed beyond them.
  52.  
  53. Soft snow gave way underfoot as you walked through what could generously be called an entrance.
  54.  
  55. The frame felt smooth beneath your hand, and cold. A forest, populated with dark trees powdered with snow waited beyond the terminal approximation. You looked at the lights and saw they hung in the air around a series of posts arranged in parallel lines that reminded you of the trucker station where-
  56.  
  57. She sat against the wall, off to the right.
  58.  
  59. Her body wrapped in a loose coil. A furred knee was drawn near her chest and her ringed, pebbled arm rested on it. Her other leg bent in an L shape. The point of her long face tilted up, by just so many degrees, unmoving. Snowflakes covered her wings and dusted her sweeping antlers.
  60.  
  61. You left the door frame with your hand trailing on the wall and took one step, and another, and one more. An appreciable gap of space remained between you and her.
  62.  
  63. The heat of her body reached where you stood. There wasn't a doubt in your mind that she didn't count on that.
  64.  
  65. You pressed against the featureless wall, hands in pockets, staring at the forest and not-trucker's station.
  66.  
  67. Neither of you spoke.
  68.  
  69. Her breathing had the steadiness of someone who hasn't moved for several hours. From the corner of your eye, you saw her black-tipped nose widen and narrow as winter air passed in and out. You could tell when she blinked, because her molten eyes almost glowed in the night.
  70.  
  71. She spoke first.
  72.  
  73. “I wish I smoked, sometimes. I could use a cigarette right now.”
  74.  
  75. You said nothing and only made a token nod, hardly perceptible.
  76.  
  77. “Or maybe one of those expired burri-”
  78.  
  79. “You hurt me.” The cold air frosted your breath as you spoke. It felt like an accident, but you kept going. “You hurt a lot of people. Made a big mess back there. Huge. If you're after social data, then you got loads to read on.”
  80.  
  81. Her head lowered an inch and her thumb and forefinger clacked their nails together. “Yeah.”
  82.  
  83. The long tips of her ears swiveled outwards. “Are you afraid of me?”
  84.  
  85. “Terrified,” you said. Her ears fell back and she looked at the powdered ground.
  86.  
  87. “And here you are.” Her wings shook off the snow and pushed her away from the wall. She walked towards you on all fours, moving one leg at a time, leaving deep prints in the ground, all from a different animal.
  88.  
  89. “I want to figure out some things,” you told the approaching Eris.
  90.  
  91. “Such as?”
  92.  
  93. “If I hate you or not.”
  94.  
  95. The edges of black lips looked amused, but not glad. “Small wonder, I want to figure that out too.”
  96.  
  97. Warmth flooded the air as she entered reaching distance. She bent her neck and her smoldering eyes moved across the injured skin on your arms and neck. The bruises had some time to fade by now, but her handiwork was plain to see as spots on cowhide.
  98.  
  99. She sat on her haunches and her hands reached for your arms, pausing just before the fingers responsible made contact.
  100.  
  101. You made no move to stop her and only asked, “Why's that?”
  102.  
  103. Tips of padded skin and pliable scales touched discolored flesh. Hot talons traced over ugly remnants of unfettered rage. It felt good. Better than all the hot water and vaseline in the world, and the disgust made you shiver.
  104.  
  105. “Because,” she said while drawing a dark fingertip around the red rings on your neck, “when I did this,” she held your throat in a soft caress between three fingers, “I wanted you to hate me.”
  106.  
  107. You stared into her eyes that did not look at you. “I did.”
  108.  
  109. “You still chased after me.”
  110.  
  111. “Kept up pretty well, right until I didn't.” You put a hand around her steely forearm but didn't move it away. “Can't say you play fair.”
  112.  
  113. Snow fell between you. “Why did you want me to hate you?”
  114.  
  115. She pulled her hand away and stepped off. Your skin tightened as the cold air returned. “Because if you cursed my guts and spat on my name, all that drama stuff, you'd run off and it'd just be me, like it's been for a long time. I figured the things I'm going to do don't have time for consultation and worrying whether or not so-and-so may approve. And maybe it'd be better for you, in the long run.” Eris shrugged. “Or better as things could be.”
  116.  
  117. You wiped snow off your nose. “Ah. You didn't want to feel guilty. Gave me indian burns to chase me off.”
  118.  
  119. “I didn't want to hesitate. Guilt, I can deal with,” she turned to face the forest.
  120.  
  121. “How guilty are you?”
  122.  
  123. Eris turned her head and her mouth stretched. “Pretty damn guilty. Tie me up and set me to the torch. I try not to lie to myself.”
  124.  
  125. “What about to me?”
  126.  
  127. She said nothing.
  128.  
  129. “I don't know anything about you," you said.
  130.  
  131. “Don't be that way.
  132.  
  133. “Is there anything about you that's true? This place,” you walked in a semi-circle, arms wide, pointing at the lights floating on the ground and in the sky. “How much of this is real? Or is all of this an illusion? Christ, I feel like I'm in a snow globe.”
  134.  
  135. “It's...real.” She shook her head. “Enough. The parts and pieces just come together. Like me, yeah?” Her tail lapped in shallow waves.
  136.  
  137. “Real enough. Real,” you laughed, “enough. That's perfect.” You shoved your hands in your pockets.
  138.  
  139. “I never said it was perfect. Or me. I'm only human.”
  140.  
  141. “No you're not.”
  142.  
  143. “Well I feel like it,” she spat, then pressed her lips tight. The wind blew her mane across her back. “I'm going for a walk,” she announced in a low voice. “Stay here or tag, I guess.” She stepped between a small divide in the forest, a snow-covered path.
  144.  
  145. You said a hushed swear word to yourself and followed.
  146.  
  147. For several yards you walked, silent, and avoided stepping in her foot steps. You fumed inwards and the anger kept you warm. Twisting branches formed an arching canopy overhead and kept the snow off your shoulders.
  148.  
  149. She spoke ahead of you. “If it means anything, what I did was -I know it wasn't the best way.”
  150.  
  151. “The best way to what? Are you trying to rule the world or destroy it?”
  152.  
  153. “Rule?” she almost sounded offended. “Rule is restriction,” she said. “Restriction is stagnation and, well.” She sniffed. “I'm not too fond of that. No, I don't want to rule the world, God, that's dull. And no, I don't want to destroy it, that's even worse.”
  154.  
  155. “No, no,” she said. “I want this place to keep spinning, just not necessarily at the same angle.”
  156.  
  157. “So what's your plan, then?”
  158.  
  159. She stopped and turned around, wingtips kicking up white dust. “Look, if you expect me to jump onto a stage and pull back a curtain and yell, 'Behold- My grand master scheme!' you're going to be severely disappointed, buddy. This isn't a cartoon and no heroes are going to come kick my ass every week, roll credits, tune in next time. I don't know what I'm going to do in a year, I don't even know what I'm going to do tomorrow." Her voice held no pride, only stating fact.
  160.  
  161. “Do you expect me to believe you're running on improv twenty-four seven?”
  162.  
  163. Her wings rubbed together. “I do what I can, but I don't know. Not beyond right now.”
  164.  
  165. “Sorry,” you shrug. “But I have a hard time believing this isn't a huge set up.”
  166.  
  167. “Why?”
  168.  
  169. “How do you expect anyone to believe they can just run into a girl like you? That I bought a cheap ticket onto a crappy bus and the one person I spoke to turned out to be,” you pointed to her, “you. You and all that you are,” you swallowed, “and all that happened. How in anyone's life does that happen by chance, completely by chance?”
  170.  
  171. “A girl like me,” she muttered to herself, walking again. “Chance,” she said with the tip of her tongue. “Life is nothing but chances.” Yellow moonlight fell over her face, broken in pieces between branches and her antlers. “Do you honestly think I planned any of this? I'm as surprised as you. Strange as it is, we're in this together.” The intersecting tree limbs lit her body in patches as she walked. “That's why I asked you to come here.”
  172.  
  173. The snow proved difficult to trudge through. The wind ran between the trees and the air whistled. You bunched your arms tight. Frost bite became a worry in the back of your head.
  174.  
  175. The trees eventually spaced apart into a small clearing. A trunk lay across the center, covered in snow and it's top end thrusting icy limbs into the air. Eris paused before it.
  176.  
  177. “I said I'm not going to apologize. But there is something I want to ask you. It's a big something, so-”
  178.  
  179. “I want to talk to Erica.”
  180.  
  181. Her body froze. She looked back over her shoulder, mouth opened.
  182.  
  183. “Come again?”
  184.  
  185. “Erica,” you repeated. “I want to know how much, exactly how much of her is left. You want me to deal with you, Eris, fine. We'll deal. But not until I speak with Erica.”
  186.  
  187. She stood tall and still. “And if you can't?”
  188.  
  189. “Then we're through here.”
  190.  
  191. The wind blew far away, low and uncaring. Your ears turned red and your arms shook more from fear than the cold. Eris's eyes looked across the snow, brow low and wings drawn tight against her body. Fur rippled along her neck. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she looked at you, they glistened in the dark patch of surrounding fur.
  192.  
  193. “Okay,” she said quietly, “of course you want to talk to her. Fair enough.” Maybe it was a trick of the light reflecting off the snow, but she seemed unnaturally small.
  194.  
  195. She stepped away from the log, you stepped towards the log. Her leg lifted and settled back into the snow, one limb at a time. Her chest fell and rose as she breathed through her nose, talking to herself under her breath. She took one last linger at you.
  196.  
  197. Eris spread her forelegs and lowered her head to the ground. Her silver mane spilled across the bright snow and they blended into each other. Claws dug into the ground. For a while nothing happened.
  198.  
  199. Then hand reached out from her curls and grabbed her antler. Another wrapped around her horn.
  200.  
  201. Your heart stopped.
  202.  
  203. The arms pulled on the blue horns and a tangle of red and brown hair emerged. Erica lifted her head from the back of Eris, looking towards the sky, eyes closed and mouth open, breathing. Legs swung out over Eris's long neck and Erica dismounted, knees shaking as if they were asleep.
  204.  
  205. She stood straight, still wrapped in the endless layers of hoodies, jackets, and windbreakers. The wind blew her curls across her shoulders. She opened the widest hazel eyes and flecks of green and copper glowed.
  206.  
  207. Erica ran a hand across Eris, raising her head from the snow. Her palm brushed her jaw and touched the bottom of her chin. The mythical creature she emerged from had half-lidded eyes that looked uncertain. Erica whispered to her briefly, to which Eris nodded, and walked towards you.
  208.  
  209. Eris swayed in the snow, alone.
  210.  
  211. The clearing was silent except for the snow crunching beneath Erica's heavy boots. She came to a stop in front of you and heat washed in front of her like a tide.
  212.  
  213. “Hey,” she said.
  214.  
  215. Arms and hands embraced, encircled, and pulled two bodies close. Your fingers entwined deep into her spiraling hair the color of late October. You kissed for a long time because you both knew you would never hold each other like this again.
  216.  
  217. Mouths parted and warm air was shared. You pressed your forehead against her chestnut skin.
  218.  
  219. The moment just might last forever, if you asked.
  220.  
  221. You asked if she was okay.
  222.  
  223. Her long fingers touched your frozen cheek and she said yes.
  224.  
  225. “I have no idea what happens next,” you said.
  226.  
  227. “Neither do I, but that's okay.”
  228.  
  229. “For you. I'm not like you.”
  230.  
  231. “That's why I'm glad you're here,” she breathed. “That's why I'm glad I met you. Even if you're a nervous wreck killjoy.”
  232.  
  233. You laughed. “I'm losing my mind, aren't I?”
  234.  
  235. “Lost it a long time ago.”
  236.  
  237. “Do you have to go back to her?”
  238.  
  239. “Yes.”
  240.  
  241. “Do you want to?”
  242.  
  243. “I wouldn't have left if you didn't ask.”
  244.  
  245. You accepted that in the same way you accept teeth falling out and best friends moving away.
  246.  
  247. She leaned closer, if that was possible. “Remember, guy. -I'm her. That's me. All of me, the good and the bad, times a thousand. Understand? Erica, Eris. Whatever's in between. My state of grace, even if it's flawed. It's a lot of power. Maybe too much for one person, but it is me.”
  248.  
  249. "That part of you is going to wreck half the world."
  250.  
  251. Erica frowned. "That part of me is trying to figure things out. Told you I can be a raging bitch."
  252.  
  253. Eris stepped forward and lifted a shaking paw from the snow. Erica looked back, then to you, eyes blinking.
  254.  
  255. This is the way things had to be, huh? You weren't sorry to have met Erica. You weren't even sorry for getting the crap wrangled out of you, but God, you wish life allowed you to meet differently. At a class, or circus, maybe a concert with twenty five dollar t-shirts. At better places in both of your lives so you could discover each other without rush and with normal worries. Without the monsters and storms. She'd meet your family and trash talk Rich, trade candy with Maddie and you'd meet her parents and her dad would scare the shit out of you and you'd find out to her annoyance that she went to a Catholic school for several years and still kept the skirt. Maybe you'd rent an apartment together and fight over the bills and screw in every room and then some, staircase included, and all kinds of mundane, sappy crap that you'd trade anything to have, and felt incredulous wishing for it.
  256.  
  257. Everything still might've sunk, but at least you'd face challenges no greater or worse than what anyone else ever dealt with. You didn't demand a happy ending, only asked for a fair shot. It felt selfish, somehow.
  258.  
  259. You told her as much.
  260.  
  261. “Hm,” she smiled and touched your ear. “Sounds lame, but...yeah...it could've been nice. I guess neither of us were born under the right stars for that.” Her eyes lowered and she bit her lip, thinking of her own fleeting wishes. “I'll be honest, though. I think we found each other just in time.”
  262.  
  263. “It's scary,” Erica bit her lip, “and wild. I can't pretend it's going to be all sunshine." She touched your arms. "But if you were wondering,” she whispered, “she likes you, too. You can love her, if you want. If you think you can take it.”
  264.  
  265. She took your hand and stepped away. You tried to say you could've loved her more than anyone else in your life, but as your mouth opened she called aloud, “It's a big universe. Find someone to stick with and have a good time.” Her smile shined against the snow and she winked.
  266.  
  267. She spun towards Eris. The furred half of the schism lowered her face their foreheads pressed together and their lips moved. They spoke too low to be heard. Eris lifted her head and her eyes shimmered. Erica looked towards you one more time, stroking Eris's mane. The lion paw touched Erica's back and her tail circled her.
  268.  
  269. You looked to the ground and turned away from them. Absent-mindedly, you dusted off a section of snow covered log and sat down, hunched over and head in your hands.
  270.  
  271. A few minutes later foot steps slid across the snow behind you. Eris lifted one leg after the other onto the log. She sat, back curved and her legs stretched out. You watched her toes dig into the snow. Her wings wrapped around her like a blanket and the fur on her cheeks looked wet. Snowflakes scattered over feathers and skin. Her eyes squeezed tight and her great body shuddered.
  272.  
  273. Your hands templed over your nose. She moved the curls from her eyes and you couldn't help but notice her elbow trembling.
  274.  
  275. The two of you sat side by side in contemplative silence, thinking about things gained, things lost, and things neither of you had to begin with.
  276.  
  277. “Eris?” you ventured.
  278.  
  279. “Yeah,” she whispered beneath the wind. “That's me.”
  280.  
  281. “Just making sure.”
  282.  
  283. Eris picked at the dead wood beneath her. “Do you love me?” she asked.
  284.  
  285. “Yes, yes, God, yes,” you wanted to say. “I've only known you a few days,” you said instead, voice hollow.
  286.  
  287. She took your answer with a quiet nod, not sure of what she expected, or what she wanted to hear to begin with.
  288.  
  289. “I'm gonna ask you something,” she began. “It's pretty heavy.”
  290.  
  291. “I don't know if I trust any choices I make.” Your hands gathered the snow between your legs. “How do I know you're not in my head, stirring things around in there?”
  292.  
  293. Her ears fell back and eyes widened. “Why would -I'm...look. Everything I can do, the stuff I make happen, wouldn't mean a single damn thing if it faked how people reacted. I'm not interested in tying strings around you and making you dance to my tune." Her hair bounced. "I'm a liar, okay? I'll cheat and I'll twist things around, but believe me, please believe me, when I say that I'd never hijack the choice you make. If that ever happened,” she shivered.
  294.  
  295. You tossed a loose ball of snow towards the trees. “Alright. Let's say I believe you. Ask away.”
  296.  
  297. “The things I'm going to do -I don't know what they are, so don't bother asking. But I know not all of them will be nice.” She glanced at you. “At the same time, I don't want to be cruel. I'm not an animal. I need...” Her tail brushed circles in the snow. “I'm not asking you to love me, because when it's all said and done we might hate each other most of all. But I'd rather be with a friend that loathes me than play in a world with a bunch of strangers who don't know my name.”
  298.  
  299. “Why me?”
  300.  
  301. “Because I believe you're trying to be a good person. I won't make excuses for myself. But I'll try my best. If someone's next to me who's trying too...” She shrugged. “Maybe it'll be better, that's all.”
  302.  
  303. Her white teeth clacked twice. “Or maybe I just don't want to do it solo. It's not as fun alone.”
  304.  
  305. You stared at the snow falling across your legs. “And if I don't want to hang around?”
  306.  
  307. Her arms stretched out from her wings and her claws rubbed together. “If you're not interested, then I can send you anywhere in the world. Name a place, bam, you're there. I'll do what I do, but leave your corner of the globe alone for as long as you're there. Won't put a single finger on the place. But once you're there, you're on your own. You'll never see me again, no questions asked, no hard feelings. No further interference. Cross my heart, or whatever's inside me.”
  308.  
  309. "So same thing you did to everyone else, except I get to pick where the dart gets tossed?" you sounded unimpressed.
  310.  
  311. Eris rubbed her wrist. "Don't know what to tell you. It's the best I can do."
  312.  
  313. She looked at you from the corner of her eyes.
  314.  
  315. “Or you can stay with me. That may be more dangerous, hell, what am I talking about, it is. But," she spoke slowly, "I'm not going anywhere for a long time. I know that's worth something to you. And if one day I wake up and you're not there, well. I'll know I fucked up hard." She licked her teeth. "I already did."
  316.  
  317. "You said you can see fate, lifelines, things like that, right?
  318.  
  319. Eris nodded, "Yeah, but don't make me sound like a carnival fortune teller."
  320.  
  321. "How am I looking right now?"
  322.  
  323. Her fingertips rubbed together and the red lights of her eyes followed a long trail. "Loopy," she said, thrumming an invisible line.
  324.  
  325. "Wonder why that's so," you rapped on the log beneath you.
  326.  
  327. "Indigestion, maybe. But no heads or tails to be found." She cupped her paws together.
  328.  
  329. She licked the bottom of her lip. "It's funny -I can do whatever I want, but this is all your call in the end.” Her golden eyes looked into yours. “That is, if you want this to end.”
  330.  
  331. Eris stretched out her bird claw and held it open. “So. Be my friend?”
  332.  
  333. You stared deep into the out held palm. Her eyes were gleaming and frightful, but reflected hope. You looked across her body, her proud wings, the keratin crown on her head, her tail that looped across the fallen wood. She harbored power beyond reckoning and a primal beauty that bewildered you.
  334.  
  335. “Is this how you ruin my life?”
  336.  
  337. “This is how we ruin each other's.” She smiled.
  338.  
  339. Truly, she asked for more than a friend. If you took her hand, you'd be wedded to her in conscience and bone forever and ever. Intertwined in flesh and destiny, if such a thing ever existed.
  340.  
  341. The wind blew between you. Her ears tilted back. She knew what she asked of you.
  342.  
  343. In that moment you couldn't tell if you were half in love or in hate with her, and unsure if knowing would make any difference. How long could you last with her, waking up day after day, staring into her eyes? How quickly would the human soul erode beneath the burn of whatever force powered her? How many times have you saved each other over these past scant few days, and how many times can you save each other still?
  344.  
  345. You decided on the only way to find out.
  346.  
  347. One palm touched another.
  348.  
  349. Fog rolled out of her mouth. Her shoulders loosened and she brought your hand to the tip of her muzzle, eyes closed. She kissed your knuckles, one by one. Her lips felt smooth and warm.
  350.  
  351. She opened her wings and moved close to you, hand-in-hand. Her thick lion arm grasped your torso and pressed you against her chest. Her wings wrapped around you. Soft blue feathers ran over your skin and kept the cold out. Eris pressed the tip of her muzzle into the top of your hair and you felt her breathe in and out.
  352.  
  353. You rubbed your fingers against hers. Touching her palm, wrist, claws.
  354.  
  355. “I can't think straight around you,” you whispered. “God, I don't understand what you do to me.”
  356.  
  357. The two of you locked eyes. Utterly alien to one another but that didn't matter, at least for the moment.
  358.  
  359. Eris's red tail waved across the fallen tree. “I can say the same about you.”
  360.  
  361. The kiss was inevitable. Could you ever get used to those pointed teeth, the long tongue, and steaming breath? That face of predatory calculation and sleek, forest-bound serenity? Mouths opened and strange tastes were experienced. If her kiss ever lost its thrill, Eris may consider it a failure on both your parts.
  362.  
  363. You shared each other, fingers and palms touching cheeks and necks, accepting the fact that the only guarantee in your lives were each other with each exhalation and caress.
  364.  
  365. Of all the ways you could have fallen, how was it this way and how so fast?
  366.  
  367. The tips of her antlers glinted in the pale light and hummed to themselves.
  368.  
  369. The trees fell away one branch at a time. Broke off from the world and drifted into nothing. The fur of her chin drifted over your brow. The ground crumbled apart where the clearing stopped. Snow still fell from the sky. Stars and moonlight glittered. Your thumb brushed the dark fur painted around her eyes. Clouds longer than the world and fixed with sapphires drifted above and beneath you.
  370.  
  371. You and Eris held each other on a island of snow in the middle of a state of mind, more real than a bus ticket, or motel room, or misgiving you've ever had in life.
  372.  
  373. The quiet was such that you only heard two hearts beating.
  374.  
  375. Eris asked to see your phone.
  376.  
  377. You pulled it out and held it up. She took it from your hand, fingertips grazing each other as she did so.
  378.  
  379. Nails pricked the cracked screen and it flickered on through split glass.
  380.  
  381. Eris found the song she liked and set the rest of the playlist to random. She set the phone in the snow, jutting out of the ground and singing to the void.
  382.  
  383. Neither of you knew which song would play next, but both believed it was worth finding out.
  384.  
  385. The End
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