you make a fool of death with your beauty - Anonymous (2024)

The difference between Edwin and Charles was simple really, nothing to do with brains or brawn. Charles wanted to be alive. Edwin didn’t.

It was not that Edwin had wanted to die. His death had been horrifying; what had come after was beyond description. It was more that Edwin had never been especially attached to the experience of life itself, which meant he had been very open, immediately, to the possibilities of a post-mortal existence. As a real boy, to crib from Pinnochio, Edwin might very well have been willing trade the ability to grow grey hair for the trick of escaping from trouble into a mirror, if it had not come with the trapdoor catch of the maw of Hell.

There were things Edwin did miss from being one of the living. The smell of paper and ink had always been comforting, from even before he was old enough to read. The sensation of getting warm by a good fire on a cold day, a hot bath, a bracing cup of tea. But Edwin had always been something of an ascetic, the kind of student who lost himself in his books and forgot to eat or sleep. When he was aware of what he was feeling, it was generally some variation on miserable, so really it was better to bury himself in good words and not think about any of it.

He was not entirely successful. It was impossible to attend a school of volatile, hormonal youth and be ignorant of the compulsions of flesh and blood. At St Hilarions, there had been boys who slipped away to meet girls outside of school or collected dirty pictures to hide under their mattresses. There were boys who crept out of bed in the middle of the night to entertain themselves in another fellow’s bunk. Edwin had lain awake in the dark listening to the sounds they made, his face burning and his thighs clenched, obscurely humiliated. Was this what he wanted, the animal grunts and groans of it, barely friends in the morning? Was this all there was? If he were a girl, he’d thought, he might hope for something – kinder. Women were, after all, the fairer sex, to be cherished and protected.

Boys at St Hilarion’s were not expected to need or show kindness, and there was never going to be any form of protection. There was only the grind of day after day of large and small cruelties and then Simon with his game of sacrifice turned real. But it had always been real, hadn’t it? Simon was the one who could hide what he was, and Edwin was the one who could not, so he had to pay for it. At St Hilarion’s, someone always had to pay.

Edwin had paid for seventy years.

Hell had broken him. It had taken him to bits and then smashed them smaller, put him back together only so it could break him again, and again, and again. In the decades since his escape, he had rebuilt himself – from books and spells, maps and disguises, games of Clue, neat notes on cases successfully solved. Where the cracks still showed through, there was always Charles.

“Edwin will back me up. Edwin? Mate, are you listening?”

Charles was looking at him expectantly. Edwin stared back, a deer in the headlights, trying to work out where he had been roped into a conversation that had most definitely not included him up until this point. They were in Crystal and Niko’s new flat, a few streets away from the agency office. Charles and Crystal had been trying to put together an IKEA flat pack sofa and for a while Edwin had tried to help by reading out the instructions, pointing out where they were going wrong, until Crystal had threatened to throw the half built mess out the window if he didn’t stop, so he’d obeyed disdainfully and retreated into a book. Niko, who had wisely not even attempted to touch the allen key, had gone out to get groceries because Crystal had once again forgotten she was alive and needed to eat.

From deep in his book, Edwin had vaguely registered Charles and Crystal swearing every so often and arguing over the instructions between themselves, which was apparently all right if Edwin wasn’t doing it, but now the sofa was finally built and Crystal was lying full length across it with a cushion over her eyes while Charles leaned on the top above her, a smile on his face.

He was, as ever, devastatingly beautiful.

Edwin had not expected to gain anything by his confession of love, but had he really expected to lose anything either? Could he have imagined anything like cruelty from Charles? Of course Charles still loved him. Not in the way Edwin wanted to be loved, but it was love all the same, a warmth and goodness he could barely have dreamed of back when he was a living boy. And if he couldn’t suppress the bite of jealousy when he remembered Crystal kissing Charles, so completely sure she would be allowed because she had been allowed, well, they had forever to figure out the details. Perhaps in time Edwin too would see other people, when the thought made him feel less like ripping out his own hair.

“Has Edwin gone catatonic?” Crystal said, without taking the cushion off her face. “I have too. Charles, we’re never going back to IKEA.”

“I don’t know, it’s a nice sofa,” Charles said, with the particularly sunny voice that was him being deliberately annoying. “Maybe you want a matching armchair, eh?”

Crystal threw the cushion at him. “You keep that up, I’ll ask the Night Nurse to help me set up the rest of the flat. I bet she’s got interesting ideas about décor.”

“It would certainly be more orderly than…this,” Edwin agreed, toeing at a box full of geodes. Apparently Crystal had collected them for years – she had been happy to rediscover them when she moved her things out of her parents’ London apartment. Her parents themselves were not in London and it seemed, had no plans to be. Based on the state of the apartment, it had been that way for a while. Crystal had stripped the place ruthlessly of all its appliances on her way out. “Mom’s secretary orders new ones every couple of years anyway,” she’d said, shrugging. “They might as well come with me.”

This new place was much smaller and was already crowded with things. There were books stacked against the wall, mostly horror classics and ghost stories. Various items from Crystal’s wardrobes old and new were spread across the kitchen counters: boots with buckles and chunky heels, short glittering club dresses, a pair of jeans embroidered with skulls and foxgloves on the back pockets. Crystal was in her own state of reassembly, piecing together who she had been, who she was, who she would be. Personhood in flux. Edwin understood. He might even be gracious about it, if she would only let him organise something.

He was cleaning the already spotless, and empty, fridge when the front door opened by itself and Niko floated in, loaded with bags that did not seem to weigh anything whilst in contact with her hands. Being a minor goddess came with these sorts of perks. It suited her.

“I got us fairy lights!” she said excitedly. “Charles, help me put them up?”

Edwin watched as Charles lifted Niko up to sit on his shoulders, up high enough that she could put in the hooks and string the fairy lights all around the ceiling. It was an image. Charles had stripped down to his tank top while wrestling with the recalcitrant sofa which meant the play of lean muscle in his bare tan arms was very visible. His head was tipped back as he teased Niko and she was laughing down at him, their faces bathed in the soft gold shine of the new lights. Edwin was aware that he was staring and was counting the moments until he would have to stop. There was Charles, the best person he knew. There was Niko, alive, alive, alive.

“Niko, did you get any groceries?” Crystal said, poking through bags of throw cushions, suncatchers and wind chimes.

“Ohhh,” Niko said, guiltily. “Sorry. I got distracted.”

Crystal shook her head, smiling. Niko could get away with murder at present, they were all so glad she was back. There was more to it than that, though – Niko had managed to reclaim some of her things, but a lot of them had already been sent back to Japan, to her mother. Niko had not spoken to her yet. Edwin supposed there was not a simple script for explaining how it was you were a minor deity instead of being dead as previously supposed. So Niko, too, was in the process of rebuilding. Her new clothes were mixed in with Crystal’s, her manga piled up alongside the ghost stories. If fairy lights filled the cracks for her, then as far as Edwin was concerned, she could have all the lights in London.

“I’m ordering take-out,” Crystal decided. She turned to Edwin. “Are you guys sticking around? I’ve set up the TV. Tonight could be the night you learn about streaming services, Edwin, I can show you Bridgerton. It’s right up your alley.”

Charles, who evidently had some idea of what Crystal was talking about, snorted with suppressed laughter as he put Niko down. “We should probably get back to the agency. We’ve got quotas, now, remember.”

Edwin scowled at the thought. The Night Nurse’s idea of managing them was arriving with even more frequency than the ghost postman, dropping case files on the desk and then hanging about the office drinking tea and complaining if they did not solve things fast enough to suit her standards. Edwin and Charles were taking her quotas as suggestions rather than requirements but that did not reduce the sheer gall of it.

“Yes, we had best return to the office,” Edwin agreed grudgingly. “Now that you have the mirror up, we can return any time anyway.” He nodded to the full length mirror hung on the living room wall. There was one in the bathroom as well but Crystal made it clear that there was no way either of them were ever permitted to use it.

“Maybe I can learn to do that,” Niko said thoughtfully. “It’s not just ghosts who can, right?”

“It’s mostly ghosts,” Charles warned her. “”Cause it can’t kill us, if it goes wrong.”

“With care and practice, you may be able to learn,” Edwin said, seeing her disappointment. He remembered being in her shoes – revelling in an unexpected existence, with newfound abilities and a desperate hunger to learn what he could do with them. “I will teach you.”

Niko smiled. “I don’t think you’d like Bridgerton,” she said. “I think you’ll like Poirot.”

They traded books, their usual goodbye. An encyclopaedia of minor deities for Niko as part of her ongoing journey of self discovery and for Edwin, for his own research, the fourth volume in a manga about a vampire prince and a warror reincarnated into a forensic pathologist falling in love while preventing supernatural murders. The mysteries were quite well written, the rendition of the supernatural was not so egregiously inaccurate as to be offensive, and the more…amorous scenes were certainly eye-opening to things Edwin had never considered before.

He knew precisely what a ‘hand job’ meant now. Sinking through the floor would hardly get him away from Charles, who could do it too, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t tempted every time he remembered asking the question. In front of Crystal, what’s more, who had shown incredible self restraint by only throwing it in his face the one time.

Edwin waited by the mirror while Charles hugged Crystal. Charles said something inaudible into her ear that made her grimace then smile, blowing him a sarcastic kiss as he stepped backwards through the glass. Edwin swallowed, a pointless reflex leftover from his brief, awkward life, and followed Charles through to the office. They were friends; they were all friends, but Crystal had tasted the inside of Charles’s mouth.

It had no right to hurt.

The office was dark and quiet. The Night Nurse was nowhere to be seen, though from the scattering of empty tea cups, she had been waiting for some time so the next time they saw her, there would definitely be a lecture on their time keeping. Edwin cleared the cups away with distaste and settled behind the desk. Charles sat on the edge, his usual spot.

“I see Charlie has picked out a new case for us,” he said, nodding to the file on the desk.

“I admire your persistence but she will never answer to that,” Edwin said without looking up, opening up the file and scanning down. A young ghost sighted in Kensington Gardens, stealing toys from children passing through. Reports of unearthly noises. Poltergeist tendencies, perhaps, unsurprising in a ghost of such young age. Edwin thumbed through the few papers in the file rapidly, then handed it over to Charles for him to read too. Their fingers brushed.

“Can’t call her the Night Nurse forever,” Charles argued. “Besides, she’ll warm up in the end. Everyone likes me eventually.”

“Your smile is convincing,” Edwin said drily. “Yes, I have heard.”

And, well, it was. Charles had been convincing Edwin to do all sorts of things Edwin otherwise would absolutely not have done by himself for over thirty years so who knew, give it a decade or two and it was quite possible the Night Nurse would cave and accept a nickname. It wasn’t happening any time soon though.

The case looked straightforward enough. The first step was to assess the length of time there had been a haunting, to better judge the ghost they were dealing with. Charles had been messing about on the Google with Crystal, delighted with a new toy, and was able to access a back catalogue of newspapers from the comfort of their office using the phone Crystal had given him. Edwin did not find it nearly as comfortable reading from a screen as he did from real paper and proper printing, but could not deny how useful the contraption was. Unfortunately, Kensington Gardens were a public place in London, which meant all sorts of strange activity going back as far as they could look. This case would require shoe leather – that was, the metaphysical equivalent, given that Edwin’s shoes really only existed as a projection of his psyche.

Charles started piling books into his backpack, waving them at Edwin to double check he was choosing the right ones. Edwin was busy making notes, glad to lose himself in the familiar task.

“We will go tomorrow, with Crystal and Niko,” Edwin decided, “and assess the situation.”

Charles grinned. “Told you a psychic would be useful to the agency, didn’t I?”

“Let’s not start a tally of who’s been right and wrong,” Edwin said briskly. “Also, I believe technically it was I who invited Niko to join the agency and she is a goddess. I will need Nine Bells: Voices of the Dead, it’s the small green volume to your left. And the book beside it may come in handy, the dark red one, bring that too.”

“I don’t see why you won’t just let me put them all in here,” Charles said, exasperated. “Wouldn’t that be easier?”

“While on a case, yes, while in the office, no. I would prefer to access my own books without you navigating your bag of tricks for me, thank you very much.”

“I could show you how to navigate it,” Charles offered, not for the first time.

The bag unnerved Edwin. He understood the concept and trusted Charles implicitly, enough to actually follow him inside the thing, but nonetheless, the way that space worked inside its deceptive confines made his skin crawl. He had as much interest in learning how to operate it as he did in learning how to throw a punch or swing a bat; some things were Charles things and always would be. “I could teach you the spells,” he counter-offered, not for the first time either.

Charles made a face. He liked Edwin doing magic; he had always had a curious resistance to learning how to do it himself. “I’ll pack the books.”

Once they were ready, there was an odd pause. It was taking some getting accustomed to, this waiting on mortal schedules to follow up on a case. Charles did annoying tricks with his newly repaired bat for a while until he got bored and retreated to the sofa with a pair of headphones, and Edwin opened Niko’s book. The first page showed the demon prince lounging on a bed in high heels and lingerie. Edwin snapped the book shut with a little gasp.

Charles glanced over at him. “You all right, mate?”

“I think I shall read on the roof,” Edwin announced, and made a hasty retreat.

What little education Edwin had received during his life on the performance of the human body had come from anatomy lessons when everything was described in the comfortingly distant Latin terminology that made it all sound quite safe. He had known what it really was though, even before he went to school. Edwin had heard enough cautionary tales whispered by his mother and her friends about girls who gave in to their urges and got themselves in trouble, and the men who might or might not do right by them – he’d heard the dirty stories from his cousins about what they wanted to do to girls, what some claimed they had already done with a kitchenmaid back at the pater’s pile in the country or a waitress in town who didn’t mind lifting her skirts. It had all been enough to make Edwin’s skin crawl. He remembered what some of his classmates had called when he walked past. Look, it’s our own little Mary Ann! Bend over and flash us those petticoats!

In the book, the vampire prince wore a corset. Black ribbons over lace. His long legs looked even longer in sheer black stockings. He didn’t look like a joke. He looked beautiful. Edwin lingered on the page, fascinated, and embarrassed by his fascination.

Whenever they wore disguises, Edwin was the woman. Charles had never needed an explanation – he noticed what Edwin wanted and just kept doing it. They didn’t talk about it. Edwin had mostly played the same role, someone middle aged, sensibly dressed. Tweed was involved. Theoretically, he could look like this instead. Or…the shoes currently on Edwin’s feet were just a projection of his self image. He could imagine something else. His feet in those sleek, spiky shoes, his legs looking a mile long in black nylon…

He turned a page idly and oh, that was spanking, that was – good Lord, that was a lot.

Edwin clapped the book shut and sat quite still for a moment, staring off into space. Ghosts could not feel heat, as such, but Edwin felt like his face must be burning anyway. That was enough education, he thought, for one day.

They all ended up at Kensington Gardens the following afternoon, Crystal holding a waxed paper cup of coffee between her hands to keep them warm in the allegedly freezing winter air. Niko was wearing a brightly coloured coat that was probably more to do with aesthetic than necessity these days and was looking around the park with interest. Though she had been in London for a couple of weeks now, they had been busy enough that she’d had very little time for sight-seeing. Edwin had played tour guide on the bus ride over, pointing out interesting landmarks and telling her the history of them. Charles had been messing around on his phone again and had had to be physically nudged before he looked up, blinking, to find them all waiting on him.

“Teenagers and their screens,” Crystal had said sadly, shaking her head.

“An iPad kid,” Niko had agreed. “Are you playing Tetris?”

Charles had stuffed the phone into his pocket, laughing along but not answering the question. He was checking the phone again now, Edwin was deeply irritated to see, even while they were on a case. What if he was called to action and was too distracted by the wretched device to do his part? Edwin heaved a pointed sigh and Charles, rolling his eyes, pocketed the phone again.

“I think we should split up,” Edwin announced. “Crystal, with me please.”

Crystal looked surprised, as well she might. When they split up as a group, it was something of a given that she’d be paired with Charles, but she followed along without debating it when Edwin picked a direction and started walking at a brisk pace. Once they were a sufficient distance from their friends, Edwin leaned towards her and hissed, “What is Charles doing?”

Crystal looked at him sideways. “If you want to know, we can go back and ask.”

“I mean with that device of yours.”

“Well, it’s not mine now, it’s his. That’s how gifts work,” Crystal said patiently. “And I don’t know, because it’s not my business, but he’s a teenage boy so I’m guessing either he’s looking at p*rn or he’s found a game he likes and wants to play it until his eyes fall out. Which isn’t going to happen, because he’s dead, so that’s nice for him. Is it bothering you that much?”

Charles kept up with the world of the living, more or less. He was interested. Edwin researched what was necessary to solve a case and otherwise immersed himself in the other side of London, the stranger side, inhabited by ghosts, witches, dreams and deities. Of course Charles would be enchanted by new technology, the kind of thing that he would be using now had he lived.

“He needs to focus,” Edwin muttered.

“Tell him that, not me?” Crystal suggested. “Why are we going towards the river, anyway?”

Edwin had picked this direction at random. He was not going to admit that. “Drowning is always a probable death. Perhaps our poltergeist met their end there,” he said. “We may find evidence of their activities.”

They didn’t. They saw families enjoying a sunny Saturday afternoon out in the park and tourists snapping selfies with their backs to the river. Eventually they saw Charles and Niko, walking from the other direction with the aimless air of people who had not met with success either. Crystal acquired ice creams for herself and Niko and they sat down on a bench to eat them while Edwin and Charles regrouped.

“The file said there had been incidents during both day and night, but perhaps we will have more luck after dark,” Edwin said, flipping back through his notebook to refer to his case notes. “If only the records were more precise about a location within the Gardens.”

“Don’t let Charlie hear you saying she’s imprecise,” Charles warned. “You know how she gets. This ghost is a kid, yeah? Where would a little kid want to be?”

Edwin looked at him blankly. He did not remember his own early childhood well and was not nostalgic for it. He knew what he would have done; found a quiet spot in the shade where no one would bother him while he read, but he suspected Charles was getting at something else.

“We should look for other kids,” Charles said. “Can’t hurt, right? Didn’t it say in the file that this ghost was stealing toys?”

This time they retraced their steps through the Gardens as a group. There were a lot of children, when you were looking for them. Small sticky persons holding the hands of different caregivers or being pushed in perambulators. Crystal trailed behind the group, doing brief readings on railings and park benches, but there was too much ground to effectively cover with her abilities and she was getting visibly bored. Niko, though, was enjoying herself. She smiled and waved at a little girl holding a large stuffed walrus. “Tragic Mick would like that,” she said, which Edwin personally doubted.

As it started getting darker and colder, the families thinned out, heading home with tired children napping on their shoulders or, because children experienced a terrifying spectrum of emotional variability, screaming blue murder because they wanted to stay at the park forever and ever. One little girl was actually clinging to a railing with one hand, the other holding onto – oh, it was the walrus chid again.

“What in the world is she fussing about?” the mother groaned.

“Mine, mine!” the child screamed. “Mine Wally!”

“Sweetie, it’s all right, no one is trying to take Wally.”

But someone was. Tiny hands were clawing at the toy, trying to drag it away from its owner. Charles lunged forward and there was a scream that put the little girl to shame – a scream that echoed through the park so loudly that even the parents could hear, going slack-jawed and horrified as they looked around in a panic and tried to convince each other it was only a fox. In a matter of moments they were gone, taking their daughter with them.

“Charles,” Crystal said slowly. “Did you get the right kid?”

The problem was that this child was meant to be dead. It did not look dead. It was very small with unkempt dark curls and grubby overalls, and was writhing around furiously in Charles’s arms, trying to bite him. There was peanut butter smeared on its hands – at least, Edwin hoped that was peanut butter – and its feet were all muddy from being down by the water, and crucially, it was heaving for breath after all the screaming.

“Oh no,” Niko said in a small voice. “Have we kidnapped a baby?”

The child finally successfully bit Charles. “Ow,” he said reflexively, shaking out his hand. Then he stopped shaking it and took a closer look. They all did, leaning in warily. There was a perfect imprint of tiny little teeth in Charles’s palm, which should really not be possible.

“I think,” Edwin decided, “that it is time to report to the Night Nurse.”

The Night Nurse was unhappy.

This was a mostly permanent situation. For someone as dedicated to her job as she was, she did not seem to like any aspect of it very much, particularly the part where she had to interact with children. She stood staring at the not-ghost child, whom Niko’s Google search indicated might be between the ages of two and three and was still being held by Charles, since no one else was quite willing to risk touching it. It had mostly stopped snapping and snarling like a little feral beast, but those teeth looked very sharp.

“This child is alive,” the Night Nurse said. She sounded a bit disgusted.

Charles held up his bitten hand as evidence. “You sure about that?”

The Night Nurse frowned and flicked open her rule book to refer back to the child’s file. “Paribanou Jones,” she said, watching the child for a reaction.

The child giggled. Edwin’s legs tensed in reaction.

“Paribanou?” Charles echoed, looking down at the child, who was clawing up his jacket in an effort to escape over his shoulder. It giggled again and Edwin jolted. He wanted to bring his hands up to cover his ears but that sound was the first warning he’d get, the shrill giggle of the hunt, and then there would be scratching of many legs moving at once. The creature did not have to be quiet, of course. It was Edwin who had to be quiet, so quiet…

Niko took his hand. Edwin realised he had been locked in place, his legs braced to run.

The Night Nurse had pressed a hand to her temple. “There will be,” she said, in a thin voice, “so much paperwork.” She disappeared, presumably going to glare witheringly at other people until someone explained how they had f*cked this up. The child began to cry, very loudly.

“Is she…she’s not taking the kid, is she,” Charles said.

Niko flexed her new goddess powers to create little sparkling lights to distract Paribanou, who flailed to try and catch them. They drifted through the air like bubbles, popping with a tiny musical note when the child managed to get one. Crystal seized the moment of distraction to touch her fingertips briefly to the back of Paribanou’s head.

“Jesus f*ck,” she said, pulling her hand away quickly.

“What is it?” Edwin demanded.

Niko looked anxious. “We did kidnap a baby?”

“Guys, the kid is possessed.” Crystal shook her head like she was trying to clear it. “There’s something else in there. I think it’s a ghost? Yikes, that was strange.”

“Do you know where she came from?” Charles asked. “Anything to find her parents?”

Crystal tried again. It was clearly not a comfortable experience. Edwin was deeply grateful that he was not the one with psychic powers. Crystal snatched her hand back in time to avoid being nipped by Paribanou’s teeth and said, “Okay, I’ve got something. I think I can find the right place.”

“How do we get the ghost out?” Niko asked, bending at the knees so she could look the child in the eyes. She wiggled her fingers and sparkled rained down. Paribanou giggled again.

Edwin managed to not to shudder this time. “It is a reasonably straightforward process,” he said, pulling himself together. “Once it is done, we can give the child back to her family and if the Night Nurse wishes to take further action, then she can do so herself.”

He should have realised that absolutely nothing about this case was going to be straightforward and saved his non-existent breath. There were a number of different ways to remove a ghost from a living body and Edwin tried all of them, applying spells and salves, lighting candles and ringing bells. Nothing worked. The only result was the child beginning to scream, which was an especially terrible and unnerving sound because there was an odd, faint echo. As if two children were in the office, both crying.

Charles rocked her against his shoulder until the noise died down to muffled sniffles. “You have to stop, I think it might be hurting her.”

“It shouldn’t be!” Edwin said, deeply frustrated. “The ghost should have been expelled. None of this makes any sense.”

“Maybe she’s just hungry,” Niko suggested. She produced a little packet of crackers from her pocket and offered one to the child, who snatched it instantly. “She is hungry!”

The child grabbed another cracker and Niko’s eyes went wide.

“Um,” she said. “Did the baby have claws before?”

“Crystal,” Edwin said tightly. “Are you quite sure it is a ghost in there?”

“Well, it’s not a demon,” Crystal snapped. “I know what a demon feels like.”

“Let’s focus on getting hold of the parents,” Charles suggested. “They must be freaked out, and maybe they know something that could help.” He winced as the child’s little claws dug into his arm. “Hey, Pax, calm down, we’re trying to help. Niko, do more sparkles?”

“I think these parents will be very interesting,” Niko said, from under a cascading rain of ephemeral pink glitter. “Do you think they’ll have claws?”

The woman who answered the door did not have claws. She did look horrified.

“No,” she whispered. “No, you can’t bring it back, you can’t.”

Well, that answered the question of whether she could see the child. She did not seem to register Edwin or Charles. She tried to close the door but Crystal had wedged it with one of her thick boots and Charles shouldered it open the rest of the way. The woman backed up, tripping over boxes that had been stacked near the door. One tipped over, spilling out children’s clothes and toys. That answered another question. Paribanou, in Niko’s arms this time, made a happy gurgling noise and stretched out her hands.

“I’m sorry,” Crystal said, not sounding sorry at all. “You’re Paribanou’s mum, right?”

The woman looked cornered, up against a wall. “That’s not mine,” she said fiercely. “They were supposed to take it, why is it here?”

If Crystal looked dangerous, Charles looked murderous. “Tell her to explain that.”

“You weren’t looking for her?” Niko said in a small voice. “But she’s your baby.”

“Who the f*ck are you?” the woman demanded. This, Edwin had to admit, was reasonable.

“We’re the Dead Boy Detectives,” Crystal said, crossing her arms. She seemed to realise that this did not explain anything, since all the woman could see were two very much alive teenage girls, and bulldozed past the question with one of her own. “Who the f*ck are you?”

Paribanou was cooing and clapping. The woman reacted almost as badly as Edwin had done, wrapping her arms around herself and averting her eyes, refusing to look at the child.

“I didn’t understand what I was getting into,” she moaned. “It wasn’t fair. Tell him it wasn’t fair. I thought he was beautiful. He looked beautiful, like the stories. Like…f*cking Shakespeare. He was supposed to be my Oberon and I was his Titania. But he wasn’t. He was a monster and that’s a monster and I don’t want anything to do with it.”

Edwin wanted to kick himself. Kensington Gardens – he should have understood at once.

“The child’s father,” he said. “Ask her, Crystal. Was he one of the Fair Folk?”

Crystal gave him a quick, incredulous look, then relayed the question. The woman nodded miserably. “If I tell you what happened,” she said, “will you go the hell away and take it with you?”

It was as Edwin had suspected. A girl meets a boy; he looks a boy. He spins her a wonderful story about himself, one that she wants to believe. She wants a baby with him. The baby, unlike the boy, cannot hide what it is. The boy, faced with the possibility of consequences to his actions, disappears, and the girl is left to decide what to do.

This girl liked the classics. She had read Peter Pan. She thought, leaving her child in Kensington Gardens, that the fairies would come and take her away.

Only they hadn’t.

“What about the ghost?” Niko asked. “Um. Did you know? About the ghost?”

The woman stared at her blankly. “The what?”

“It doesn’t seem like this is going to make a major difference to you either way,” Crystal said coldly. “But your kid is possessed as well as being half fairy or whatever, so if you know what that’s about, please tell us.”

Paribanou was reaching for Charles now, making little frustrated growls. Niko handed her to him. The woman’s stare transferred to Charles as well. Her eyes went very wide. “She’s floating,” she said tremulously. “Oh my God, why is she floating?”

“She’s not floating,” Crystal said impatiently. “She’s being held by an invisible dead teenage boy, keep up.” She snapped her fingers. “Let’s get back to the possession thing.”

“She…” The woman looked so frightened. It made Edwin feel helpless, the same kind of helpless he had felt in the Devlin house. There was hurt here that would sink into the walls and he could not fix it. “The birth was hard. There was…she had a twin. He didn’t make it.” She huddled into herself. “Is that what you wanted to know?”

“She’s being possessed by her twin?” Crystal looked at Edwin. “Is that possible?”

Edwin nodded slowly. “I have not seen it before, but yes, it’s possible. We had best leave now, I think. There is nothing else we can gather here.”

“Yeah there is,” Charles said. His voice was harsh. “Pax was looking for a toy, right?”

He stooped. Among the contents of the spilled box, there was a stuffed toy horse. Paribanou began to shriek excitedly, clapping her hands. “Dissy, Dissy!” she cried. The lights flickered. In the brief moment of darkness, the child’s eyes shone golden as lamps.

The woman covered her face. “Get it out of here.”

Charles walked out without a word.

An hour later, the four of them were sitting in a circle on the floor in Crystal and Niko’s apartment. Paribanou curled up asleep in the middle, surrounded by empty takeaway boxes, her horse clutched to her chest.

“So,” Crystal said, “have you guys had much to do with fairies?”

“Not really,” Edwin said. “And it is immaterial. She is not one of the Folk.”

Crystal frowned. “Hold on, this was your theory. Her mom had the whole sob story of how she’d fallen in love with a fairy king, and she wasn’t lying, I can tell you that much.”

“I am sure he heavily implied that he was of the Folk,” Edwin conceded. “But there are two difficulties with that as our answer.”

Charles chimed in. “One being, the fairies didn’t come to get her.”

“They would have, placed in an obvious location like that,” Edwin explained. “Their population has been on a sharp decline for centuries now. They are not what they were. New blood is always welcome, to strengthen their bloodlines. That brings us neatly to the second issue, which is that the father knew about his child and did not take her with him. The way she spoke, it implied he was not particularly interested in having the child at all, didn’t you think?”

“Yeah,” Charles said flatly. “Sounded that way.”

“If he was of the Folk, his primary purpose would have been to achieve a successful pregnancy with a mortal woman, then to take the child home with him. No, I don’t believe he was Folk, but I don’t believe he was human either.” Edwin tapped his open notebook emphatically. He had reasoned it all out while the girls ordered food for Paribanou and Charles stepped outside with his phone. Always that damned phone. “I think that we are dealing with a demi-goddess.”

Niko lit up. “She’s like me?”

“Not quite. If I’m right, she is a god’s child, which could really mean anything.” It could mean that Paribanou was, indeed, the monster her mother claimed her to be. How many lovers to gods had found that out the hard way? “What complicates our case is that the ghost of her twin is also a god’s child.”

“Oh, that’s the complication,” Crystal said, with heavy sarcasm. “Good to know. Here’s my question, how is the Lost and Found department such a mess that they didn’t have any of this in the file? They even had the wrong name. I’m guessing that’s because the ghost kid never got a name.” She raked her fingers through her hair. “sh*t, this case is depressing.”

“Someone must be writing down the records,” Niko said. “Maybe they get things wrong. Everyone makes mistakes, even entities that work for Death and live in another dimension.”

“Well, that sucks, because now we have to deal with it,” Crystal said. “What do we do?”

They all looked at Edwin expectantly. He was supposed to be the one with the knowledge, the one who had a solution. Ghosts could not get stress headaches but they could remember them which was almost the same thing.

“I will conduct more research,” he said. “There must be a way to expel the ghost. Paribanou has been host to it for as long as she has been alive. It is all she knows. I think at least part of the problem is that she is, in some instinctive way, holding onto him. We will have to weaken her hold in order to remove him.”

“Okay,” Niko said slowly. “Do we have to? I mean, he’s not hurting her, is he?”

“Do you think the Night Nurse cares?” Charles demanded. “She just wants her quota.”

“Could she get him out?” Crystal asked. “With her minor functionary powers or whatever it is she does? This is her thing. She can fix it.”

“I am sure she could do it,” Edwin said quietly. “I do not know what it would do to Paribanou. I would prefer if we could come up with a solution ourselves.”

“Yeah,” Charles said. He met Edwin’s eyes. “Me too.”

They batted ideas back and forth for a while. In the early hours of the morning, Crystal and Niko called it a night and Edwin and Charles walked home to the office, Paribanou asleep against Charles’s shoulder.

“Do you think the Night Nurse would just take her?” Charles said, in a hushed voice. “If she couldn’t get the ghost out, I mean. Even though she’s alive?”

“I do not think so.” Edwin tried to sound reassuring. “There are rules, many rules, and I am sure that would break them. Paribanou is of the living, Death cannot claim her.”

“If we do solve it, though,” Charles said tightly, “what are we going to do with her? She can’t go back to that house, Edwin.”

“I know.” Edwin ventured squeezing Charles’s shoulder. He always found that grounding, when Charles did it to him. He did not say, we cannot keep her, Charles, because Charles already knew that. “We will think of something.”

They walked on for a while in silence. It was starting to rain.

“You are very good with her,” Edwin offered at last.

Charles smiled. It did not look at bright as it usually did. “Who knows, if things had worked out differently, I might have been a dad now,” he said. “I mean, I hadn’t thought much about it. It was just what you did, wasn’t it? Grow up, get married, have kids. Not so different from back in your day, yeah?”

Edwin stared ahead, at the light mist of rain shimmering through the streetlights. He remembered his own father as a distant figure who, really, might as well have been a god, handing down edicts that must be obeyed. He had respected and admired him; he could not say he had known him. He tried to imagine himself in that role. There would have to have been a wife, too, a nice girl from the right family.

“It was the expectation, yes,” he said dully. “I would have done what was required of me. Badly, I imagine.” He tried to shake off the discomfort. “I am sorry you never had that choice.”

“Not your fault, is it?” Charles knocked their shoulders together. “None of it is.”

Sometimes it felt like Edwin’s fault. As if by wanting Charles so much, needing him the way he did, he had wished his death. He remembered something one particularly odious client had said, many years ago. You’re not brains and brawn, you’re a princess and her knight in sodding armour. It had been meant to humiliate Edwin, of course, but it was also true. Charles had needed somewhere to put his anger and he’d made it into a shield between Edwin and anything that wanted to hurt him, and it felt so good. It satisfied the hurt, desperate little piece of him that had spent seventy years longing for rescue.

When Edwin was with Charles, he felt safe. Wasn’t that what all the fairy tale princesses wanted, as they fled from towers or woke from curses, shattered and afraid in an unfamiliar world – who would not want to feel safe, to be protected, to know someone believed you were worth protecting?

The answer came to Edwin shortly after sunrise. He was on the roof again, because Paribanou had woken up and was giggling as Charles spun her in circles. Edwin had been pacing about restlessly, feeling unreasonably trapped, and the feeling had brought this idea to the surface.

Charles was going to hate it. Edwin would need support.

Unfortunately, Crystal hated it too.

“You want to bring in the Cat King?” she demanded, disbelieving, as if he had not just laid out this precise plan in detail for her. “The same guy who put on a caging spell on you?”

“How many Cat Kings do you think I know?” Edwin retorted, indignant.

“One is too many,” Crystal snapped. “I’m going to say it again, slower this time. He put a caging spell on you. Yeah, he wasn’t a complete dick right at the end when Esther took you, but up until that point he had nothing going for him.” In true Crystal fashion, she went for the jugular. “Have you talked to Charles about this?”

“Niko,” Edwin said quickly, “what do you say?”

She was looking at him with her chin propped on her fist, with that clear-eyed consideration that meant she was really thinking about it. “He liked you,” she said. “Seriously liked you.”

“In a creepy way,” Crystal said pointedly. “With a caging spell.”

Edwin saw what she was getting at and resented it. “I am not allowing him to possess me. I merely think he might have useful contacts or at least an insight into the situation.”

“If we’re bringing in random dickhe*ds, why not ask Litty and Kingham?” Crystal suggested. “They’re actually gods.”

“Um,” Niko said. “I don’t think we should bring them in.”

Crystal threw her hands in the air. “No kidding! They’d be no help, and neither will the Cat King. Let’s leave our Port Townsend problems in Port Townsend, huh? We’ve got plenty of new ones in London.”

Edwin folded his arms. “All right. What is your solution to our problem? Are we to await the Night Nurse and her promised paperwork? Are we going to drop Paribanou off to some unsuspecting mortal foster parents as she is, ghost and all? Oh, I know, do you have any clue whatsoever as to who her father might be?”

Crystal glared. “If you want another bracelet from the king of hairballs, go for it,” she said. “But I’m not backing you up when Charles loses it. I know he’s been a bit spacey lately, but congratualtions Edwin, you’re about to get his full attention.”

“Oh, you’ve noticed that too?” Niko asked, leaning in. “He’s not himself, is he?”

“Cases involving children are always hard on Charles,” Edwin admitted. “Now, after the Devlin house…” He tried to think of a way to end the sentence that Charles would not object to if he were here to hear it. “Now it is harder,” he finished unhappily.

“You could ask him about it,” Niko said softly. “Maybe he needs a little push.”

Edwin thought of the cliff top beside the lighthouse, Charles on his knees on the ground, weeping with rage and grief. He had not wanted to talk to Edwin about it; he had not wanted even to be touched. Later, he had spoken a little about his father and Edwin had been able to offer some comfort, but no good had ever come of pushing Charles to talk before he was ready.

“I will talk to him about the Cat King,” Edwin said. “Perhaps he will see my point.”

It did not go well. Charles’s expression darkened at the first mention of the name but he was very quiet while Edwin stumbled awkwardly through his reasoning. Being given the time to fully explain himself made Edwin doubt his own reasoning in a way that Crystal had not. When Edwin was done, Charles was looking down at the floor, working his jaw in a way that meant trouble.

“This is what you want to do?” he asked.

“Yes.” Edwin sounded more certain than he felt.

“Fine,” Charles said. “If he tries anything, I’m knocking him out with the bat.”

Edwin had thought it out carefully. He did not want to talk to the Cat King in Port Townsend. That gave the Cat King the upper hand automatically, framing Edwin as a supplicant, which was not at all how Edwin wanted to present himself. The Cat King was altogether too good at finding vulnerable spots and exploiting them. He had seen, before Edwin had fully understood it himself, that Edwin wanted very badly to be wanted. Not only that. Even a fascimile of Charles’s lazy, smiling flirtation had been enough to shatter Edwin’s composure; the last thing Edwin wanted was any kind of repeat of that incident, let alone in front of Charles himself. No, if this meeting was to take place, it needed to be on neutral ground. Edwin sent a message, an invitation really, and waited by the mirror to see if he would get a response. He was not very sure he would get one. Perhaps he was not so fascinating any longer.

His gaze drifted to Charles, who had acquired a stash of lollipops from somewhere and was using one to coax Paribanou out of the games cupboard. She had realised that this was forbidden territory in the office so it was obviously the only place she wanted to be. “Dissy stay,” she told Charles in a growling voice, retreating into the shadows with a stolen lollipop.

Dissy. Edwin frowned. Was the child’s toy named Odysseus? If so, that implied the involvement of the Greek pantheon, which was just the icing on this dreadful cake.

There was movement in the mirror and Edwin turned quickly to see a cat slip through. It sat on the floor and washed a paw judgementally as it stared at him. It looked quite familiar.

“Oi, I recognise you,” Charles said. “You’re the sardine cat.”

“And you’re the dead cricket bat boy,” the cat retorted. “Name calling is fun, huh, punk?”

“Do you have a message for me?” Edwin asked, shooting Charles a reproving look.

“I don’t know. Do I?” the cat mused. “I’m feeling very insulted. Not good for the memory.”

“We don’t have any sardines,” Charles said. “Only lollipops.”

“Oh, well, in that case,” the cat said, more briskly. “Yeah, the boss says he’ll swing by for a visit some time when he’s free. Keep your calendar open.”

“The sooner the better,” Edwin said. The thought of keeping Paribanou around for much longer made him feel almost panicky, and then deeply ashamed, because the last thing he wanted was to echo the prejudices of her mother. He did his best to explain the situation, hoping that it would pique the Cat King’s interest. “I would like to see him tonight, if possible.”

The cat scoffed. “Wow, don’t ask for much, do you?”

“I truly don’t intend to impose,” Edwin began, but the cat had already loped off into the mirror with the message and Edwin trailed off into silence.

“I think I have blundered,” he said.

“No, he’ll come,” Charles said shortly. And he was correct. A few hours later, another cat arrived with the address of a nightclub where Edwin could go for the meeting. It was in London, as Edwin had been careful to specify. No one else was invited but there was no chance of keeping any of them behind so Edwin decided to hope for the best.

That left the question of what to do with Paribanou while they were out with the Cat King. They were nearly at the point of drawing straws about it when Charles said, sounding very pleased with himself, “Of course, Hob,” and Crystal said, relieved, “Of course, Hob.” They left together with Paribanou and returned empty handed. “He says we owe him a beer,” Charles said. “Since he owns a pub, I think he really meant we owe him a favour, but we owe him a lot of favours so what’s one more? Pax really seemed to like him.”

“What he means is, she didn’t try to bite him,” Crystal clarified. “Also, he gave her food.”

“He gives everyone food,” Edwin said distractedly. “Everyone living, anyway. Crystal, are you sure you can locate this club with your GSP? I am sure I could find it through my maps.”

“Most of them weren’t even made in this century, so I doubt it,” Crystal said. “And it’s GPS. We don’t need to worry about either of those things, because we are getting an Uber.”

She was dressed for a party. Her dress was short and crimson and clung to her skin in the places that would attract the most attention. Charles had given her a little whistle when she had arrived and she had smiled at him, and just because people broke up did not mean they could not get back together – it was not as if they were divorced. Niko looked delightful as ever in something floaty and blue that shimmered on her skin like sunlit water. The Uber driver looked entranced ar the sight of her and Edwin was inclined to think he drove very badly, too busy sneaking looks in the rearview mirror, unaware of two ghosts sitting in his cab staring at him disapprovingly.

“I should have messed with his head a little,” Crystal said, after they’d piled out of the car at the other end of their journey. “What a creep.”

Niko shook her head uncomfortably. “I don’t think he could help it. It’s my powers, once I started using them, it’s…kind of like they’re on all the time? I need to figure out a goddess dimmer switch or I’m going to start stopping traffic. Not in a fun way. Remember how you looked at me when we first met and I had Litty and Kingham about to burst me open?”

Crystal went quiet. “It’s not the same,” she muttered.

“No, you’re my friend now and I’m not about to die,” Niko said cheerfully, taking Crystal’s arm. She looked at the club. “This place looks really cool but also scary?”

It was called the Bacchanal and from Edwin’s extremely limited experience, it looked expensive. There were a lot of people lined up outside but when Crystal went up to the bouncer and gave Edwin’s name, he was very willing to let her and Niko inside without another word.

“Ohhh so there’s name-dropping privileges,” Crystal said, giving Edwin a meaningful look. “He wants you in there. Probably in multiple ways.”

Edwin thought it best he pretended he had not heard and lengthened his stride to keep ahead with Niko. It was an easy pretence; the music was very loud, with a heavy thumping bass. The building was designed like a temple with high arched ceilings and intricate carvings looking down on the dancing revellers. Satyrs, fauns and nymphs for the most part, in various poses that had Edwin looking away very quickly. Niko’s books had nothing on this.

“Can you see the Cat King?” he asked Niko, leaning in close for her to hear.

She was swaying to the music. “Hmm….is that him?” she asked, pointing across the room. The movement caught eyes and held them; a little circle of stillness formed around them as dancers stopped to stare at Niko. She waved awkwardly and slid away through the crowd.

She was right, though. The Cat King was lounging at the bar wearing something that was more like a half-formed thought about wearing a shirt along with a pair of knee high riding boots. In a club full of provocatively dressed people, he certainly knew how to stand out from the crowd. He’d already spotted Edwin and was leaning back with a charming, faintly predatory smile.

“I don’t remember inviting all your friends on our little date,” he said. “Is this an orgy thing? Because I can be about that but I want it to be special.”

Edwin resolutely did not look at Charles. “Thank you for coming,” he said. “I appreciate you making the time at such short notice.”

“Well, when a beautiful boy shows up begging for a second chance, I can be generous,” the Cat King said, and he was looking at Charles, his grin widening. “What an interesting case you’ve taken on. Have you considered just…dropping it?”

Edwin felt a rush of disappointment. “You can’t help us?”

“Oh, now you’re getting ahead of yourself.” The Cat King held up a finger, waited until Edwin had gone quiet, then pointed at Niko. “I’m glad you’re okay, dollface.”

She smiled, “It was really nice of you to come to London.”

“It was,” the Cat King agreed, “it really was. I guess I was curious. You know what they say about us cats and our curiosity.” He looked around. “So where’s the kid?”

“We didn’t bring her to a club,” Charles said disgustedly. “She’s not even three.”

The Cat King had a long sip of his drink, holding eye contact. “You sound,” he said, when he was done sucking on his straw, “so hostile.”

Edwin thought he might have been able to take control of the situation from the Cat King if it were just the two of them but throwing Charles into the mix as well had been a dreadful mistake. Charles was already in a sharper mood than usual and had used up all his patience on Paribanou trying to eat his badges, which left none for tolerating the Cat King.

“Do you have any information that could be useful to us?” Edwin asked, trying to forcibly wrench them back on track.

“More than I could say,” the Cat King purred. “But about this specific thing, all I can give you is a little advice. Don’t mess with a pantheon kid. The last century was rough on the gods. Not a lot of worship is going around these days. The Greek gods are getting by better than most, at least humanity still remembers who they are, but they want devotion and they’re not so picky about how they’ll get it. Seducing mortal daydreamers into a little personal worship will do in a pinch.”

“Wow, this is just like Percy Jackson,” Niko said. “I wonder if he’s real.”

Edwin made a mental note to ask about who that was. “The child needs assistance,” he said firmly. “We must make the effort.”

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” The Cat King shrugged. “As a favour to you, Edwin – this is a special favour, since we’re special friends – I’ve brought you here on a night that the lord of revelry himself is in the house. Upstairs on the balcony, see him? Blow a kiss to Dionysus, master of madness, god of a good time. He’s a fun guy on the scene, we go back a ways. Ask very nicely, and he might answer your questions. Or…he might not.”

Edwin craned his head back to look up at the balcony, which was positioned high at the back of the club, overlooking the dance floor. However collected he wished to appear, he had to admit to nerves. The agency had had a few cases over the years that briefly intersected with various deities, but there had been no direct contact. Though the gods were much diminished these days, they were still as inventively cruel and petty as they had been back in their heyday.

“Your indefatiguable Charles could handle this,” the Cat King suggested. “You could stay and have a drink with me.”

“You could,” Charles said quietly, into Edwin’s ear. “If you want.”

Edwin felt a mixture of annoyance at being given permission and a second, thornier kind of annoyance that Charles was willing to give it. He suspected that Charles had weighed up the risks in his head and had very grudgingly decided that of the two options, the Cat King was less of a threat to Edwin’s safety, but that didn’t help.

“I am on a case,” Edwin said coldly, to both of them, and tried to ignore Crystal and Niko exchanging looks in his peripheral vision.

It was concerningly easy to gain access to the balcony. There were no guards or obstacles of any kind, only a bored god and the overwhelming reek of mind altering substances that even a ghost could detect. If the Cat King was verging on the indecent, Dionysus had somersaulted over that line and set up camp there. All he was wearing were mirror shades, silver nipple piercings and leather hotpants that concealed absolutely nothing. He was very tall and lean with long curling dark hair and a bored mouth, and was lying sprawled across a long velvet sofa, surrounded by empty shot glasses and overflowing ash trays.

“If you have a complaint about my fine establishment,” he drawled without turning his head their way, “please direct it to the nearest trash can, which I’ll then set on fire.”

That was not a promising beginning.

“Hello,” Edwin said, inadequately. “Apologies for interrupting your evening. We are here to investigate a missing child case on behalf of the Lost and Found department.”

Dionysus did turn his head then, slowly. Though Edwin could not see his eyes, he had the distinct impression of being given an unfavourable once-over. “Oh, just what I wanted. Endless business. Who are you?”

“We’re the Dead Boy Detectives,” Charles said.

“Cool gender bending,” Dionysus yawned. He fished around among the glasses and produced a half empty bottle of wine, lifting it to take a swig. “There’s a doozy of story going around about you. A soul rescued from Hell – that doesn’t happen every day.”

“The details are probably exaggerated,” Edwin said, a little hopelessly.

“So the pretty one with the earring didn’t blow up a Babbler with a molotov co*cktail? Because that’s what I heard.” Dionysus pointed at Charles with the bottle of wine. “That’s the kind of story that puts all sorts of noses out of joint.”

“It’s your story too,” Niko said, “isn’t it?”

Dionysus looked at her sharply. “Say that again, dandelion girl.”

Edwin twitched with the need to pull Niko away from that empty reflective stare, but she held her ground. “I’ve been reading about goddesses because I am one now and I don’t know what that means and goddesses are cool anyway, I mean, Lilith seemed cool from everything I heard and I lived in Sedna’s dream for a little while, though I guess that doesn’t exactly count as meeting her? Anyway, I read about your wife. Ariadne started off mortal and became a goddess, like me. Children from Athens were being sacrificed to the Minotaur and she helped Theseus kill him, which must have made things really hard with her family, because the Minotaur was her brother. I bet she was sad, even if she felt she had to do it. Theseus was supposed to take her with him when he went home but he didn’t, he left her behind. He didn’t really love her. You did, though.”

“Not all stories are true,” Dionysus said. “Love stories most of all.”

Niko twisted her hands. “I can stop if I’m upsetting you.”

“No. You might as well keep going.”

“The story says you found Ariadne alone, and you got married, and when she died you went down to the Underworld to get her back. Not even just her. You brought your mother back too and you made the gods grant them both immortality. How did you do that?”

Dionysus leaned forward. All the shot glasses shivered with the movement, a soft ringing of glass on glass on glass. “I am the god of revelry. I am also the god of madness.” He lowered the shades down his nose. His eyes were the same impossible clear silver, showing nothing, reflecting everything. “You’re a gang of children playing dress ups, little flower. You’d run screaming if I told you what I’ve done, and how much I don’t regret it. I haven’t spoken to most of the family in a very, very long time. If the world doesn’t end in flames sometime soon, we’ll probably have millennia to not forgive each other.”

Niko stared at him with very wide eyes. “Oh,” she said. “That’s just like Percy Jackson.”

Dionysus laughed. Apparently unnerving laughs were a genetic thing among gods because that was an objectively pleasant sound that Edwin did not want to hear again. “Let’s talk terms, Dead Boy Detectives. You’re in my temple. I’ll play this game but I’d better get some worship while we’re at it. Dandelion girl, you’ve got your own problems, you’re off the hook. Your friends, though? Someone needs to participate. Go out there, have a drink, have a dance, have a shag.” He pointed at Edwin. “Not for nothing, Thomas downstairs would be more than willing to help you out with any of those. It’s nauseating. Put him out of his misery.”

Edwin felt rooted to the floor with a wave of humiliation. He threw Charles an instinctive panicky look and regretted it immediately when Charles said, “I’ll do it.” He passed his bag of tricks to Crystal and gave Edwin a comforting pat on the shoulder. “I’ll go dance, you get our answers and come get me. Yeah?”

“I’ll go too,” Niko said, taking Charles’s hand. “I like dancing.”

“All right,” Edwin said, but it wasn’t. Everything in this case had been going awry. He did not like letting either of them out of his sight. And there was something else, something just as disturbing.

“What do you mean, Niko has her own problems?” hem demanded.

Dionysus made an expansive gesture. “We are gods in the 21st century, in the time of heathens. Our world is changing. Even the Endless are not untouchable any more. Haven’t you heard? There have been dreams and nightmares roaming the streets for over a century, doing what they do best. In your line of work, you may have heard of the Corinthian, at least. Dream of the Endless, our very own Oneiros, who slummed it on Mount Olympus back in the day, was captured and caged by humans. His once-wife Calliope was enslaved by mortal men. One of the Endless has disappeared altogether and it is beginning to look as if he has no intention of coming back. I can’t blame the bastard for that.” Dionysus stood up, walking to the edge of the balcony. The lights danced across his bare skin. The glass flutes chimed again, louder, high and sweet. “There are more stories, if you know where to press your ear to the ground. The world should have ended, fire and brimstone, angels and demons, the whole spectacle – and then it didn’t. I have heard of a demon who loves an angel, and an angel who loves a demon. I have heard that the four Horsem*n have returned from banishment but not as they were, because humanity is not as it was. Change is in the air. The world gone mad.” He grinned, wide and sharp. “And I’d know.”

“I don’t know any of those people,” Niko said in a small voice. “Sorry?”

“Of course you don’t, you were born yesterday.” That sounded almost sympathetic. “New gods are not so difficult to make but they’re harder to maintain. It’s unlikely you’ll ever be more than you are now. Still, who knows what’s coming next? Maybe I’ll fall and you’ll rise. Let it all go, dandelion, you go dance.”

“It’s a new god we’re here to talk about,” Crystal said, which was exactly what Edwin should have said instead of standing frozen with fear, his eyes tracking Charles and Niko until they were out of his sight. “There’s a little girl, her name is Paribanou Jones. We think her father is a god, which makes her a demi-goddess?”

Dionysus made an equivocating gesture with his wine bottle. “Sure, probably.”

Crystal outlined the rest of the situation in broad strokes. Dionysus’s brief moment of engagement had passed and he wasn’t even looking at her, his gaze drawn by something below on the dance floor. Edwin felt any hold on the conversation slipping away.

“Please,” he said. “If we can just find the child’s father…”

Dionysus blinked. “Then what? He’s going to care? Look, this kid could belong to the pantheon. She could even be a little half-sister. My father is diminished but he hasn’t changed much otherwise. He’ll take whatever worship his dick can get.”

“Charming,” Crystal said.

Dionysus laughed. “I do enjoy the judgement of mortals. As if we are not your reflections on a grander scale, both dread and aspiration. This contract work you’re undertaking for Death, I’m assuming it’s new? Don’t rely on it. Among the Endless, Death likes humanity most. She is kindness and mercy, and she will do her duty, even if it means claiming one of her own siblings. She’s done it before. She stood by doing jack sh*t while poor stupid Orpheus chased his Eurydice into a tragedy, and that was her brother’s beloved son. If in her wisdom she thinks it is best – on a cosmic scale, you understand – to take you, she’ll feel bad about it for two minutes and you’ll be gone forever. Never trust in the kindness of the Endless. They don’t really know what it means.”

“What about the kindness of gods?” Edwin said quietly.

“Oh, we know,” Dionysus said. “We just don’t care much.” He took a swig of wine and glanced over the balcony again. “Your little god-child, her father might be Zeus. Then again, Apollo and Poseidon don’t have the brain cells to figure out condoms either. Really, it could be anyone. Her father is not going to fix this. Clearly, her mother is not going to fix this. Death’s lackeys might be stamping their feet over it but Death herself, I promise you, is not. The only people who care what happens to the child are you four.”

It was true, Edwin thought bleakly. No one cared; no one ever did. The world turned on, grinding the bones of the forgotten to dust as it went. You could run and run and run, and it didn’t matter – it would catch you in the end.

“We do care,” he said, his voice hard. “How do we extract the ghost from her?”

“You don’t. She’ll outgrow it,” Dionysus said. “When she’s older, I expect she’ll let go and her twin’s ghost will finally go to whatever afterlife awaits. When in doubt, the answer to almost every question is time. You need to give her time.”

“There’s nothing we can do?” Edwin said hopelessly. “Just wait?”

Dionysus made a rueful face. “Whether she’ll get there or not is another question, there’s a lot of things out there that hunt little godlings. Rogue nightmares enjoy eating them. Mortals catch them and carve them up for power. She’s going to need all those teeth and claws if she’s going to grow up.” He glanced over the balcony railing again. “I’ll be honest, I feel pretty good about this deal on my end, your two are lighting up my dance floor. A nd now Thomas owes me a favour, which is always nice.”

“Oh,” Edwin said, struck by guilt.

“Grab a drink on your way out. On the house.” When they turned to the stairs, Dionysus added, “Edwin Payne. Wait.”

Edwin glanced at Crystal, who was shaking her head, and said, “You go. It’s all right.”

“It’s not,” Crystal hissed.

“Please,” Edwin said, which was a dirty tactic because he so rarely said it. Crystal reluctantly started down the stairs and Edwin went back to stand in front of Dionysus.

“You have Hell’s marks on you,” Dionysus said thoughtfully. “And in your eyes. I remember that look. Ariadne used to hate the sound of rain…It won’t always be like this.”

“Are you telling me,” Edwin said, incredulously, “that it will get better?”

“You’re a bitch, aren’t you?” Dionysus grinned. “Pretty face, f*cking attitude, this is what had Thomas all worked up, isn’t it? You are a cute thing. Too young for me by a long, long way, but I see it. The answer to your question is, yes. I am telling you it will get better. It will also get worse. That’s immortality for you.”

“How helpful.” Edwin was shivery with rage. “I am sure that your wife takes great comfort from these words of wisdom.”

“I hated Orpheus,” Dionysus remarked casually. “My Maenads, my wild dancers, they killed him. Did you know that, ghost boy?”

Edwin swallowed. The rage went cold. “I know.”

“They tore him apart. I didn’t ask them to do it, but I can’t say for certain I would have stopped them if I’d known. I hated him.” Those silver eyes reflected Edwin’s terrified face back to him, like a mirror to Hell. “And then…there I was, walking in his footsteps. I hated that too.”

“Why did you do it?” Edwin choked out. “You must have had enough worshippers.”

“I didn’t need a wife for worship.” Dionysus dropped his hand. “I saved her, not so that she would belong to me, but so that she would continue to exist in the same world I did. I demanded that she be granted immortality, so that she always would. I brought her up those steps because Orpheus, poor stupid Orpheus, trod them first, so in a way he saved her too.”

“Did she leave you?”

“She goes where she wishes, as do I. Sometimes we are far apart. Sometimes, when the tides are right, we find ourselves together again. The love changes. Time will do that. She is in the world – that’s what matters. You are one of us now, Edwin Payne, and so is your own Orpheus. You will have to find your own peace with that.” Dionysus ran his fingertips down the side of Edwin’s face, where the claw marks had been, down in the Dollhouse. “If anything could leave a bigger mark on you than Hell, it’s that boy.”

“I want him to,” Edwin whispered. “You are telling me what I already know.”

“Then know it,” Dionysus said impatiently. “Go away now, before Despair catches a whiff of you and I have another Endless bothering me.”

Crystal had a lot of questions when Edwin rejoined her at the bottom of the stairs. He didn’t know how to answer them. He saw that the Cat King was still at the bar, toying with a martini glass, waiting for him. “Good talk?” he asked, as they approached.

“Not really,” Edwin said. The Cat King and Dionysus, he thought, inhabited the same type of existence as each other, would speak the same language. Theirs was a world of easy sensual decadence, where a body was a malleable, enjoyable tool instead of an alarming mystery and desire was one of many games to play, and Edwin was still the boy lying in the dark. The sick misery was an almost physical presence inside his chest. He should not have called on the Cat King. He had thought of it as asking a friend for help but the Cat King did not want to be his friend, and Edwin had unthinkingly applied pressure to a bruise. Was this how Charles felt, being his friend, hurting that it was not enough, wondering every time they spoke if he was hurting Edwin?

“The vibe here is just fantastic,” the Cat King said irritably. “It really says, we are so grateful to the Cat King for introducing us to his knowledgeable f*ck buddy with the very trendy night club, we’d love to stop moping around and join the party.”

Edwin looked to Crystal for some kind of support, but it didn’t look like she was listening. She was staring into the crowd with a soft, slightly dazed look and when Edwin followed her gaze, he saw a small space had cleared in the middle of the dancefloor. Niko was out there, pale hair whipping as Charles spun her around. Edwin was unsurprised that Niko was a good dancer. She had told him, during one of their late night Scooby Doo marathons, about years of ballet lessons before moving to boarding school. Her feet was not quite touching the ground, shaking off the constraints of gravity like an ill-fitting shoe.

Charles, though. If Niko was air, Charles was fire. He had stripped down to his tank top, and though he could not sweat, he was practically shining with the revelry of the moment. His arms were flung out as he spun, the disco lights catching in his eyes and hair and occasionally shining directly through him with flashes of pink and purple and blue. He couldn’t seem to stop smiling – of course he couldn’t, he was Charles, he was everything vibrant and electric and even here, in a club full of living, breathing souls, to Edwin he seemed more alive than anyone else in the room.

Wow,” drawled the Cat King, drawing the word out with a little bit of a growl underneath. It could have easily been mrrrow. “Rude.”

Edwin jolted back to an actual awareness of his surroundings, including the Cat King swiping an unattended shot glass off the bar. Glass tinkled against the floor.

“This is what I get for all my trouble,” the Cat King said. “This is why chivalry’s dead.”

“Edwin isn’t a slot machine,” Crystal snapped. “You don’t pop in a favour and get laid.”

“I am very grateful for the help you have given us,” Edwin said, trying to soften the blow. He could see, behind the dramatics, the feeling was genuine. “It has been invaluable on this case.”

“Yeah.” The Cat King smiled crookedly. “I know. Oh, I think this is my cue to exit stage left, loverboy is on his way over.”

Edwin looked around quickly and sure enough, Charles and Niko were making their way over through the crowd, Niko clutching two vibrantly pink drinks and making a beeline for Crystal, Charles glowing with undimmed energy and reaching out for Edwin.

“Niko’s called it quits,” he said. “Come on, mate, this is brills. Give it a shot, please?

Edwin could think of many, many things he would prefer to do. He had not liked dancing when he was alive and it seemed pointless now that he was dead, but Charles was smiling, and Charles could convince a steel bar to bend with that smile.

“All right,” Edwin sighed, and allowed himself to be pulled onto the dance floor.

He felt it then, what Charles was talking about. The ebb and flow of the dancers, a collective heightened state of awareness. The joy and abandonment that was worship, to Dionysus, power that fed back into itself to grow stronger and stronger. It was, even to Edwin, a little intoxicating.

Charles slid his arms around Edwin’s waist, swaying them together. Edwin thought, giddily, of Charles jumping about on the balls of his feet, trying to persuade Edwin to box with him. This was not dissimilar. Except for how it was. Charles was very close. He was rolling his hips to the beat of the music, chin tipped back and eyes half closed as he listened to the first bars of the next song. “Ohhh, yeah,” he said, and that was all the warning Edwin had before they were really, properly, dancing.

Edwin was awkward. It didn’t matter. He didn’t know how to keep to the rhythm. It didn’t matter. Charles was everywhere, turning him, spinning him, dipping him with an infectious gurgle of laughter at the look on Edwin’s face, dancing back a little only to draw Edwin inexorably back into his arms. All around them, people were dancing too, everyone anonymous, everyone beautiful. The thump of the bass reverberated through the floor like a cosmic event. Charles was singing along, the words inaudible even though his mouth was dangerously close to Edwin’s ear. He danced and danced, and Edwin danced with him, looping his arms around Charles’s neck because this was allowed, pressing close to Charles’s body, because they were dancing, and Charles wanted it, pulled him even closer, until their chests were touching and their cheeks were brushing and if Edwin had still been capable of really breathing? This is when he would have stopped.

Time stopped being a thing. Edwin existed in this perfect, glittering moment, and would have happily stayed there forever, but fairy tales end at midnight – or in this case, in the early hours of the morning, when the DJ called it quits and Crystal called across the mostly empty dancefloor that she and Niko were getting a ride now, if they wanted to…stick around.

The pause before ‘stick around’ told Edwin everything he needed to know about how all of this looked. He shivered back into reality, which was kind of disgusting with drinks spilled and sticky across the floors and the lights shutting off. Charles was coming down from his high a lot slower, looking tired but happy, flinging an arm around Edwin’s shoulders to tow him towards the door in the girls’ wake. “That was aces,” he sighed. “Do you think we could come back?”

“Are you drunk?” Crystal teased, elbowing him. “Are you ghost drunk?”

“I’m both drunk,” Niko said happily, clinging on to Crystal for dear life as she tottered across the pavement towards the waiting Uber. “I don’t usually like people looking at me, but that was different, that was so good. I feel like I could do anything. Like I could go through a mirror!”

“Don’t,” Edwin said, immediately.

Niko stopped and took his face in her hands. “You’re sad,” she said, her eyes filling up with tears. “I just want you to always be happy but that’s not fair! Sometimes people aren’t happy and that is valid! But why are you sad? You are…so….amazing.”

“Okayyy,” Crystal said, gently steering her away. “Let’s go home and have some water.”

After seeing Niko safely to bed and sitting with her for a while, stroking her hair as she drifted off to sleep, Edwin returned to the office through the mirror. Charles was already there, on the sofa with that damn phone.

Edwin sat at the desk, and thought about the case.

When the Night Nurse inevitably returned, expecting results, he had nothing to give her. He did not know what would happen if the Dead Boy Detectives failed to solve an assigned case; up until now that had not even been a concern. It would be pleasant to think that the Night Nurse would see, as Edwin saw, that the little ghost inside Paribanou was doing no one any harm, but he remembered the Night Nurse on a cliffside, dragging Charles through the trauma of his own death because how dare he refuse the afterlife appointed to him? How she had shrugged off Edwin’s own assignment to Hell because well, who cared if a terrified boy went to damnation as long as the correct paperwork was filed. This, Edwin knew, was all a part of the machinery that was Death. Yes, Death herself was kind. Merciful. But Dionysus was right. There could be no trusting the kindness of an Endless, and Edwin had no trust at all for the Night Nurse. If he did not serve her purposes, why would she baulk at sending him back to Hell?

He could not go. He could not, he could not. He couldn’t even f*cking bear the innocent giggle of a little child because in his mind it sounded like – and if Charles would not be separated from him, if they were trapped down there together – there was pain, and then there was that.

“Edwin?” Charles said softly. He was sitting up now, watching him.

“I’m all right,” Edwin said, which was a terrible lie.

He wanted, very badly, to be held. It was one of those new cravings that had been pestering him since Port Townsend, where so many things had changed. Charles had always been the touchy feely one who hugged Edwin around the shoulders, patted him on the back, poked him and pushed him and pinched his cheek once in a while when he was teasing. It should have been enough and it wasn’t, not nearly enough, Edwin had discovered that he wanted to be touching Charles all the time. One brief kiss with a crow boy and now Edwin was insatiable. This was why he was so resistant to change. Once you started these things, there was no end in sight.

There was no not loving Charles, for example.

There was no being with him, either, which Edwin was going to come to terms with properly one of these decades, when he had a bit less recent trauma on his plate to contend with. There was sweet in with the bitter though. Every time he started squirming with shame, remembering that Charles knew, he remembered thumbs rubbing gently against his collarbones and Charles on the steps of hell, telling Edwin there was no version of this where he didn’t come for him. That moment was still and pure, untouchable, a lodestone. In amidst all the horror, there was Charles, as bright and warm as the lantern he’d held, as ferocious as the bomb, a hero fit for myth. Was that what Dionysus had been getting at? That it didn’t matter if Charles loved him, as long as Charles existed in the world?

Edwin wanted to be held. He sat there at the desk, staring dully into the distance and thinking about how it would feel, and then he got up and walked to where Charles was waiting on the sofa and pushed his face hard into his shoulder.

Charles turned and wrapped his arms around him, emphatically, like they’d been having an argument and had finally agreed on what really mattered. Edwin’s face slid across Charles’s jacket into the crook of his neck and rested there, where it was safe.

They stayed like that for a long, long time.

It was just after sunrise when the Night Nurse returned.

“Where is the child?” she demanded, looking around as if Paribanou might have been shelved conveniently alongside Edwin’s books.

“She is not here at present,” Edwin said, from behind his desk. Charles was leaning his hip against it, arms folded. “Have you straightened out the error in the department’s paperwork?”

“Yes, of course. She was muddled up with her twin,” the Night Nurse said impatiently. “A clerical oversight, now corrected. Have you managed to remove the ghost?”

“No,” Edwin said. He was not going to try and soften this. “And we do not intend to remove him. He is a part of Paribanou, it will hurt her.”

“So,” the Night Nurse said, “you have made no progress. At all.”

“Lay off,” Charles warned. “We looked into it. That’s what you asked us to do.”

“No, I asked you to solve the case, which involves there being a solution,” the Night Nurse snapped. She sat down, holding a cup of tea that she had not been holding before, and took a long bracing sip of it. Edwin watched her, remembering the sensation of warmth and comfort. He would quite like a cup himself, to deal with today.

“Well, you gave us the wrong case to start with,” Charles said, clearly gearing himself up for the argument. “So actually, we’re trying to solve two cases. And we have answers, they’re just not the answers you wanted to hear, which makes it not our problem.”

The Night Nurse gave him a pinched, exasperated look. “Of the two of you,” she said, “I really did expect the one assigned to Hell to cause me more trouble.”

“I know we sort of decided not to talk about it, but I am the one who kicked you off a cliff,” Charles pointed out, which Edwin did not feel was helpful at this time. He reached out, curling his fingers around Charles’s wrist to try and reign in whatever he might come out with next. The Night Nurse brought out his temper.

Edwin looked at her, small and neat and angry, and realised she could tell him something.

“Is Death kind?” he asked.

She looked at him, startled. “What?”

“I have seen her, and heard her, but I could not say we have met, of course. You must have met her. Did you think she seemed kind?”

The Night Nurse seemed incapable of speech for a moment. She put down her cup on the desk and sat back, folding her hands on her knee. “I did meet her. The once,” she admitted. “I suppose…yes. Yes, she was kind. She offered me a job. It was this, you see, or I could have gone to the Dreaming if I wanted to be one of her brother’s ravens. She recognised my dedication.”

“Then,” Edwin said slowly, “what would she do? For Paribanou?”

“What a question!” The Night Nurse threw out her hands. “She is exceptionally busy at all times and created this system to keep the afterlives organised, it is for everyone’s own good. That is kindness, though I do not expect rebellious children to see it that way.”

“Have you seen Hell?” Charles snarled. “Not much kindness there.”

“Hell is its own jurisdiction, her authority only goes so far,” the Night Nurse said defensively. “Paribanou Jones is not being sent to Hell. What, might I ask, do you plan on doing with her? Is your intention to be teenage parents and raise her? What an upbringing that would be.”

“What is your plan for her?” Edwin asked.

The Night Nurse did not reply. She frowned and picked up her cup. There was more tea in it.

“Tea is a pleasure of the living, isn’t it,” Edwin said, watching her. “I always thought so.”

“It’s nice enough.” She sounded suspicious. She was always suspicious. Edwin wondered what kind of life she had had, before Death had come to offer her a job. Perhaps if he had received an offer like that, before Charles, he would have accepted; he might be sitting there, cold and impatient, seeking out one of the few comforts he had missed.

“Would it be enough,” Edwin said, “if we maintained an eye on Paribanou, until such time as she released her twin’s ghost? It’s likely to only take a decade or two. A blink, to all of us.”

The Night Nurse sighed. Dealing with Edwin and Charles was obviously always the most exhausting part of her day, cups of tea notwithstanding, and this case had proven a trial in every possible way for her as well.

“It will have to be a close eye,” she warned. “I expect you to report back regularly. There will be forms to fill out, mark you.”

“We understand,” Edwin agreed quickly.

The Night Nurse stood up. “Well, then. I suppose you may have your way.” She raised a threatening finger. “Do not get used to that.”

“Thanks Charlie,” Charles said, beaming.

“And do not call me that, Charles Rowland!”

Edwin was in a good mood when he walked through the mirror into Crystal and Niko’s flat. Yes, there remained the problem of what they were doing with Paribanou permanently, but he had managed to successfully reason with the Night Nurse, which felt like a victory. Crystal and Niko were sitting at the tiny kitchen table, bleary eyed, eating cereal, only awake because they had a train to catch to get out to the New Inn. Crystal had not removed all her eyeliner before she slept, leaving dark smudges around her eyes. Niko looked like Niko always did, stirring the sugary milk left in her bowl with a contemplative expression. It swirled beneath her eyes like a miniature cosmos.

“Where’s Charles?” Crystal asked, squinting at Edwin. “Is he okay?”

“He’s unpacking my books from the bag of tricks,” Edwin said. “He will meet us here when he’d done, and we’ll go to fetch Paribanou.” He came to sit with them at the table and explained how the meeting with the Night Nurse had gone. Niko had questions, having only the vaguest idea of what had been said during the meeting with Dionysus, so Edwin caught her up on that too while Crystal went to take a shower.

“Does it worry you, what he said?” Edwin asked. He had been worrying over it himself. “About you never gaining more powers than you have now.”

“Mm.” Niko tilted her head to one side, thoughtfully. “I guess that sounded really bad to him, but I don’t know what powers I even have right now. I’m figuring it all out. Maybe just doing little things is all I need. If I’m not something…scary…maybe I can go see my mom.” She pushed aside her bowl. “I guess I’ve been wondering what Paribanou might be like when she grows up. Do you think it’s different if you’re born part god? Will she just have claws when she wants them? I think that’s great. Everyone needs claws sometimes.”

Edwin thought about that, and acknowledged it to be true.

“And if we’re staying around in her life, as supervisors or whatever, I could be like a cool aunt,” Niko said hopefully. “I can learn how to be a goddess and then we can do fun goddess things together. Or, I don’t know. Go to aquariums and do escape rooms.” She squeezed Edwin’s arm and added, “She’s not going to laugh like that forever.”

Edwin glanced away, ashamed. “It is my fault, not hers.”

“It’s neither of your faults,” Niko corrected. “It sucks, but that’s not on you. You don’t have to punish yourself.”

“I’m not punishing myself,” Edwin protested, though perhaps he had been. Perhaps the process of rebuilding was an ongoing thing. Old habits died hard.

“Charles has been worried,” Niko began. As if her words had summoned him, Charles stepped through the mirror. He was slipping his phone into his coat pocket as he went and that, Edwin felt, was actually the last straw.

“Charles,” he said, “what are you doing?”

Charles blinked at him. “What’s wrong? You look upset.”

“Never mind that,” Edwin said, drawing himself up. “Why are you perpetually attached to that device? What is it that has so completely captured your attention?”

“Oi, come on, I don’t look at it that much – ”

“You kind of do,” Niko said apologetically.

“Of course you do, and it is not like you,” Edwin said. “I do not believe that this is a game.”

Charles looked cornered, which proved Edwin right in a way he did not like. “Fine. Yes. There’s something I've been meaning to talk to you about. Just…don’t make this into a big deal. All right? Promise.”

“I cannot promise,” Edwin said, bewildered. “What if it is a big deal?”

“Then you’ll have to try.” Charles turned as Crystal came into the room and said, “Might as well get this over with. You’ve been pushy about it too.”

“What, are we talking about your phone addiction?” Crystal asked. “Finally?”

Charles sighed. “My dad’s in hospital.”

Edwin knew, intellectually, that Charles’s father was alive. It seemed profoundly unfair that a man who had so badly failed at parenthood should live to old age while his son died at sixteen, but the world was unfair in an infinity of ways. Edwin always thought of him in the past tense anyway, a long and ugly footnote to Charles’ existence.

“I’m sorry?” he said, not because he was, but it seemed the appropriate thing to say.

“Is he going to be okay?” Niko asked.

“He had a heart attack,” Charles said matter-of-factly. “He’s getting better, but it was pretty bad. I wanted…I knew something was wrong last time I checked up on my parents, and I figured out which hospital he was in. I wanted to see how he was doing.”

Charles.” Edwin knew he shouldn’t be scolding right now but the risk Charles had taken…”Hospitals are full of the dying, if Death had seen you…”

“I was careful! Anyway. While I was there, I met this nurse. She could see me. A car accident a few years ago, she said. She sees ghosts come in to check on loved ones pretty often and when she can, she finds ways to keep us in the loop. I asked Crystal for the phone so I could give her a number and she’s been texting me updates.”

“You said you wanted it to do research.” Crystal looked hurt. “Why didn’t you just ask me, I could have looked in on him for you. I know he doesn’t know me, but I could have figured out something. It would have been safer for you.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Edwin asked. He had thought – they had started talking about it all. I don’t want to be a bad guy, Charles had said, and Edwin had held him. Had Edwin said something wrong then?

“It’s my dad, isn’t it, I know what you both think of him,” Charles said miserably. “You’d worry. I hate you all worrying about me. What was it you said last time, Crystal, that you were walking on eggshells? I don’t want you to do that. It’s easier if I just deal with it.”

“Easier?” Crystal shook her head. “No, no, the whole problem last time was that you wouldn’t talk about it, you just bottled all those feelings and blew the f*ck up, which is what it looks like you’re doing now, if I’m honest.”

“You could be less honest,” Charles snapped.

“We want to help,” Crystal said, frustrated.

“Yeah, I know. I also know that you both love an ‘I told you so’ and if anyone is going to be making me feel like sh*t right now, I’d really rather it was just my dad.” Charles took a ragged breath and covered his face with his hand for a moment. “Sorry. I didn’t mean that. This is why I didn’t want to talk about it. My mum’s on her own and I’m getting updates on my dad from a stranger, and it’s just…it’s a mess. It’s all a bloody mess. Nothing’s changed there.”
Edwin was unaware of getting up until he was beside Charles, his hands hovering, longing to touch and comfort and not knowing if he would be allowed. He risked putting his hands on Charles’s shoulders and Charles gave away like a collapsing tower, crumbling into Edwin’s side. Crystal made a little pained noise and she came up behind Charles, wrapping her arms around his waist. Edwin felt Niko beside him, joining in the hug, as if it were a magic circle that could keep Charles safe.

Charles gave a wet laugh. “You don’t need to do that.”

“Of course we do,” Edwin said, holding onto him. “Of course we f*cking do.”

“We still think your dad is a horrible person but we’re here to support you,” Niko said. “Also I was way off. I’m sorry this wasn’t about Tetris.”

“Do you want to see him?” Edwin asked. The thought horrified him and he tried not to make that too obvious. Charles didn’t need that.

“I don’t know. I just – I didn’t want him to die, and find out later. He’s my dad. He’s a c*nt, but he’s my dad.” Charles scrubbed at the tears on his face. “I’m sorry. I should have told you.”

“You worry about me all the time,” Edwin said, trying to pull himself together. He straighted Charles’s shirt. “It is grossly unfair that you refuse to let me worry about you.”

Charles smiled at him. “Wouldn’t want to be unfair.”

“You would not,” Edwin said. He was losing track of what he was saying, in the face of that smile. “Whatever you wish to do, I will support you.”

“I’ll judge you,” Crystal said. “But I guess I’ll support you too.”

“Um, guys,” Niko said. “I think we’re going to miss the train.”

Edwin had not been out to the New Inn in some time. Hob deliberately kept only mirrors too small for mirror travel in the house and Edwin did not like travelling the slow route, but it now meant he was travelling with Niko and Crystal, so the pace was more tolerable. He sat next to Charles, who didn’t want to talk but let his head rest on Edwin’s shoulder the whole way.

When they reached Hob’s pub it was closed, which was unsurprising at nine in the morning on a weekday. What was surprising was how quiet it was in the street outside. What was, from Edwin’s memory, usually quite a busy area with a lot of pedestrian traffic was practically deserted. He hoped this did not indicate a negative change in the area that would impact Hob’s business. Though he knew the man less well than Charles did, he had always liked him. He was reassuringly unphased by anything Edwin or Charles could say about their cases, their pasts or their deaths. Sometimes Edwin would talk about a remembered place or a lost book and Hob would remember it too, and in an odd way it was like a family reunion, except no one was adding gin to their tea or trying to poach the butler.

He was occupied with these thoughts when Crystal stopped dead on the pavement, a little way from the New Inn, and said in a strange voice, “Who’s that?”

Edwin followed her gaze. There was someone outside the New Inn. That wasn’t surprising, a lot of people came to talk to Hob outside of the pub’s normal opening hours, but he too came to a stop as he looked at the…man? Was it a man? It wanted to look like a man, maybe, and to the perception of a regular human it might look like a man, but the illusion was so thin, rippling over the surface of something that went deeper. Like dark water that had walked from the silty, polluted depths of the Thames because it needed something to drown.

“Nightmare,” Charles and Niko whispered at the same time. “I saw them,” Niko added. “On the edges of Sedna’s dream. They were waiting to eat me. They were weirdly chatty about it.”

“Well, that is not happening,” Edwin hissed. “We can retreat now and –”

“Paribanou is in there,” Crystal whispered. “And Hob. Do you think…?”

Charles had his bat in hand in a heartbeat. The cracks gleamed where it had been repaired with magic, made stronger by breaking and being remade. Edwin had no idea if the bat would do much good against a Nightmare. They were notoriously difficult to kill, and insatiably driven by whatever force was at their core. Destroyers. Delusions. Devourers. Edwin searched frantically through his mental catalogue for an applicable spell.

“Smash and grab?” Charles asked him.

“I can distract it,” Niko said. Before anyone could stop her she had bolted, directly into the Nightmare’s field of vision. She was not forgettable no matter what but she was shining now, surrounded by a rainbow of sparkles that fluttered and flickered around her like ethereal, effervescent birds. She was a lure. Humans would follow just to stare at her. The Nightmare followed, hungering.

Charles and Edwin exchanged one brief look and that was enough. Charles darted towards the Inn, Crystal at his heels. Edwin sprinted after Niko.

The reason for the quiet in this part of the city was now very clear. Humans would not immediately understand what they were looking at when they saw a Nightmare but they would feel the wrongness in the air, an unseen, unknowable threat that made the lizard brain scuttle for cover. Edwin could do more than feel it. The Nightmare had lost most of its skin of humanity – quite literally, the skin now being torn across the void of its true self. Edwin could see the disturbing coil of its movements as it pursued Niko, groping into the air with something that had never been an arm, trying to catch stray sparkles of her power.

Niko was very fast. She was not human any more; a limitation was gone. The Nightmare, though – the Nightmare had never been human. A Nightmare was the thing that always caught her, no matter how fast you ran, no matter how hard you tried.

Edwin was faster than both.

He had been trained for this in Hell and never mind that he had never been intended to do anything with that terrible, blood-stained skill, never mind that it had taken death after meaningless death to teach his unliving body just what he could make it do. It was enough. When the Nightmare hit, crashing down in a roiling wave, it did not hit Niko; it hit Edwin’s fire spell.

The Nightmare coiled back, not so much hurt as speculative, so far he could tell. There was nothing resembling a face amidst the darkness. It was more of an impression of thought, a feeling of being summed up. Niko came up behind Edwin, looked carefully at the flame above his hand and pushed the tip of one finger into it. The flame rocketed upwards like her touch was fuel. The light caused an oil slick shimmer across the Nightmare’s ambivalent self.

Its limbs were longer and there were more of them, braced against the ground as it shifted from side to side. Edwin enchanted the fire higher and hotter, backing up with Niko behind him. He was not even sure if the Nightmare was afraid of the fire or merely curious – he had never faced a Nightmare directly before, though he had seen them before, and the aftermath of them. He wondered, sick with dread, what Charles and Crystal had found in Hob Gadling’s flat.

“It’s a shapeshifter,” Niko whispered into Edwin’s ear. “You know how sometimes dreams are memories, but worse?”

“I don’t really remember dreaming.”

“Okay, well, sometimes dreams are memories, but worse. A Nightmare like this takes what hurts you and reflects it back bigger, distorted. It’s made out of people’s memories.” Niko’s voice dropped so it was barely audible. “Litty told me. They scared her.”

“Excellent recall as ever, Niko,” Edwin whispered back. He took another cautious step backwards and the Nightmare crawled a little closer. It looked taller, its long torso swaying sinuously. “Do you know what might repel this one?”

Niko lifted her hands, mimicking the way Edwin had raised his for the fire spell, but instead of a flame her hand overflowed with tiny firefly sparks. They cascaded down to the ground and seemed to bounce upward, filling the air with distracting, disorienting sparkles. The Nightmare was so big now it was looking down on them from above, swaying back and forth like a snake about to strike. Niko reached out blindly with her free hand and Edwin gripped it hard. “Trust me,” she breathed.

He squeezed her hand. “Absolutely.”

The next moment, Edwin was blinded. The air was full of lights, dancing and shimmering like a fever dream, and there was a bright ringing sound in his ears. The only thing that told him which way was up was Niko’s hand in his, and when she tugged hard, he ran blindly after her. It took a few minutes before his sight started coming back in patchy bursts, everything he saw glowing strangely.

“I hope this works, I hope this works,” Niko chanted breathlessly, pelting past a barbed wire fence that was glittering like it was made out of diamonds. “Edwin, can you hear me now?”

“I didn’t know you could do that,” Edwin panted.

“Neither did I,” Niko confessed. “Oh, oh, we’re here!”

They stumbled into the courtyard outside the New Inn and veered around the back. Edwin crashed directly into something solid and he yelled, but even as the sound left his throat, he recognised the feel of Charles’s coat under his hands. Relief was almost as much of a shock as dread. He gripped Charles’s lapels to steady himself and searched his face.

“Paribanou’s fine,” Charles gasped, clinging to Edwin just as hard. “Edwin, she’s fine.”

“I’m fine too, if anyone’s concerned,” Hob said from behind him. He was barefoot with rumpled hair and a deep frown, and Paribanou was propped on his hip, gnawing on a teething ring. A sword was swinging from Hob’s free hand. “My car is parked just down the street, this way.”

As Edwin followed him, he did a quick head count. Charles, glancing over his shoulder, bat in hand. Niko, of course, still bright and blurry around the edges with the after wash of her power, rapidly explaining about the Nightmare to Hob, who was nodding along like this all made sense to him. Crystal, hands pressed to her skull, shaking her head.

“Crystal,” Edwin said, dread overpowering the relief, “what is it?”

“I. I can’t. Think,” Crystal was saying, when the Nightmare hit.

It had dropped from the air, wings folded back as it dove, and as it struck Crystal she started to scream. Charles slammed into the Nightmare a moment later, his bat connecting and going through, dragging him with it. Then he was screaming too and Edwin didn’t have a spell for this, he didn’t have a weapon, he was useless, useless –

Hob shoved Paribanou at Niko and stepped forward. He reached for the whipping edge of something limb-like and gripped hard. His whole body tensed with what was obviously pain, but his grip was iron.

“I know exactly what I am,” he ground out. “This is how it feels. Feel it with me.”

The Nightmare twitched and hissed softly. It put Edwin in mind of a captive snake, still longing to bite and feed, but made wary now. There were things out there that had never been challenged by something that did not fear them and this Nightmare was one of those, thrown off course when the teeth came out and the prey bared their own. Hob’s arm was shaking and Crystal wasn’t moving and Charles wasn’t making a sound anymore -

Edwin jumped onto the Nightmare’s back.

It hurt. It was being dragged through fire, into the depths of Hell. It was being torn apart and at the same time, impossibly, watching himself be torn apart, one pain laid on top of another pain into infinity. But Edwin knew hurt as intimately as he knew his own self. He had become himself by hurting and he could see through the frantic, thrashing efforts of a silly nightmare, trying to outdo his memories. “Enough of that,” he said.

“Just embarrassing, really,” Hob added, through gritted teeth.

It was too much. Edwin was too much. The Nightmare recoiled, breaking Hob’s grip; Edwin tumbled off its back and landed hard on the ground where Charles and Crystal lay unmoving. He crawled to Charles, calling his name frantically, rolling him onto his back. Charles moaned, his eyes flickering open. He saw Edwin and Edwin saw the moment when the unreasoning panic of the Nightmare drained out of him, bringing him back to the world.

Edwin looked over at the Nightmare. It had backed away from them, looking smaller, quite pathetic. Hob followed, standing over it. He did not look like the kind-faced, good-humoured professor Edwin knew. He looked old, and cold, and murderous.

“Your lord will not be merciful, when I tell him about this,” he said. “But he’s going to be a f*cking picnic compared to what I’ll do if I ever see you around here again.”

The Nightmare made a sound. Edwin pressed his hands over his ears, trying to block it out. He did not know if it was a threat or a plea, but Hob didn’t seem to care either way. He leaned in.

“Go on,” he said softly. “Make it worse.”

Between one blink and another, the Nightmare was gone. As easy as waking up. Crystal was curled into Niko’s shoulder, her hands clawed into the back of Niko’s coat. Charles had not sat up yet. He was lying on the damp pavement, staring at Edwin like he was the only fixed point in the world. His body was still jolting with involuntary tremors. Edwin hauled him up and wrapped himself around him, turning his face into Charles’s cheek. I saved you, I saved you.

Strange changeling child, Paribanou wasn’t crying, just standing there amongst the wounded with her horse tucked against her chest and her lamp-like, inhuman eyes fixed on Hob. He put down the sword and walked back to her, smiling.

“Sorry about that, sweet girl,” he said. “No more of that nonsense, eh?”

“Hob,” she said, in her tiny growly voice, and climbed up his leg with her claws. He winced and laughed, and lifted her up to sit on his shoulders.

“Sound off, who can stand up?” Hob said. “I’m going to make some tea.”

“Adoption?”

The Night Nurse was having another difficult day. They were all difficult days, out here in the mortal world, and Edwin felt a little bad for her, since she was going to have to fill out all the paperwork to make this official and he was not.

“Yes. Paribanou is being adopted,” he said patiently. “Hob Gadling has claimed all responsibility over her. When she is older and her twin passes on, he will ensure it is reported to the appropriate authority.”

“Hob Gadling is a reprobate,” the Night Nurse spluttered. “I have heard of him.”

Hob was going to get his way, and there was nothing much the Night Nurse could do about it. “What is your plan for the child?” Edwin inquired, steepling his fingers.

She glared at him, recognising her own words turned back on her. “You are more trouble than you are worth, Edwin Payne,” she said. “Why Hell even wanted you, I don’t know. I’m not sure even a demon deserves to deal with you.”

“I think she’s getting to know us,” Charles stage whispered into Edwin’s ear.

Edwin smiled.

When the Night Nurse was gone, Edwin turned in his chair. Charles and Crystal seemed mostly recovered from their experience with the Nightmare, but Edwin understood them both well enough not to trust in that any more. Crystal had started talking to Niko about it, he knew; a slow release of the memories that had been used to hurt her twice over. It was time to drain the pain out of them. Charles had told Edwin he needed to think, and Edwin had been trying very hard to respect that, but now there was a look of resolution on Charles’s face.

“I want to go to the hospital,” he said, abruptly.

Edwin was confused for a moment, then it clicked. “To see your father? Is he worse?”

“Couldn’t get a lot worse,” Charles said, with dark humour. “That’s what I thought, anyway, until that Nightmare. Now, I…I want to see him like he really is. I don’t think I ever did that. He was always bigger and scarier than me and he always had to be right and I don’t want to think about him like that any more.” He swallowed. “Come with me?”

“What a silly question,” Edwin said, reaching for his coat.

In the end it was the four of them who went to the hospital. It was a very old building, perhaps even older than Edwin himself, and terribly busy. Charles found the nurse who could see them, a small exhausted-looking woman who spared him a smile and convinced her co-worker that Crystal and Niko were Mr Rowland’s granddaughters. They went through a mostly empty room. There were three beds, two empty, one occupied. The man in that third bed was very old. He did not look much like Charles.

“That’s him,” Charles said quietly. “Meet my dad.”

Mr Rowland’s head turned. He was frowning, but then he looked at Charles and his face went slack, jaw dropping. He had seen him.

“Charlie?” he said slowly. His voice was like Charles’s, but deeper, rougher.

Charles stood frozen. Whatever he had expected, this was not it. “Hello, Dad,” he said at last. “Been a long time, how are you?”

“Am I dying? Am I…” The old man looked around doubtfully. “Is this the Judgement Day?”

Charles looked to Edwin for help. Edwin, whose overriding impulse was to say yes, and what a judgement it is, did not trust himself to speak.

“Come on boy, answer me!” Mr Rowland struggled to sit upright, squinting at the group of them. “Christ, it’s really you. What is this? What’s happening?”

“It’s me,” Charles said, smiling a little. “I’m a ghost, Dad. I’ve been a ghost a long time.”

Mr Rowland point a finger at him. “Is this because of those funny pills that nurse with the daft blue hair gave me? I said I didn’t want ‘em, didn’t believe in all these bloody drugs.”

Charles sighed. “Dad, you had a near death experience. That’s why you can see me now. The pills are because you had a heart attack and the nurses are trying to keep you alive.”

Grumbling, Mr Rowland lay back on the pillows. He must have been a big man once, before age had begun hollowing him out. This was where Charles got his height, Edwin thought.

“What about your mother?” Mr Rowland demanded. “Can she see you?”

“No. No, Dad, just you.”

“That’s rot,” Mr Rowland said forcefully. “All these years she’s talked about you, wondered what you’d have done with yourself, now she can’t even see you? Bloody hell. And here’s you the whole time.” He studied Charles. “You look the same.”

“Well, I died,” Charles said, holding onto patience.

“Doesn’t make sense, though, does it.” Mr Rowland’s face seemed to fall into the grooves of a frown as a default expression, which made the underlying emotion difficult to read. His eyes had moved from Charles to the rest of them, hovering awkwardly in the background as moral support. “She’s not dead,” he said accusingly, pointing at Crystal.

“These are my friends,” Charles explained. “Crystal and Niko are alive, they’re just…not the same as other people. Don’t worry about that right now. Edwin’s like me, he’s a ghost. We’ve been friends since I died.”

“Hello, Mr Rowland,” Edwin said politely. “Charles has told me a great deal about you.”

Mr Rowland looked at Edwin and Edwin saw at once that he had done the split second assessment that every boy at St Hilarions had done over a century before, taking in the way Edwin dressed and spoke and stood.

“Oh, a ‘friend’, is he,” Mr Rowland said darkly. “Seems like you still need your old man’s advice, even now, Charlie. You’re better off without friends like that.”

“Wow,” Niko said sadly. “That is a really awful thing to say.”

“Don’t you talk to him,” Charles said, his tone turning dangerous. He shifted, standing between so his father could not look at Edwin directly. “He’s worth a thousand of you.”

“Jesus Christ,” the old man said disgustedly, “did I raise a bloody poof of a son?”

Edwin flinched. Of course that was the first assumption: he was standing next to Charles, and he had never been able to hide what he was, and Charles had never tried to hide that he loved him more than he loved other people. He saw the words hit Charles, the way his fists clenched, his arms tensing, his jaw working against the words he very clearly wanted to say.

“You don’t get to know what I am,” was what he did eventually say. “Not like you ever did anyway, while I was alive. Doesn’t seem like that’s going to change now, does it?”

His father thumped a fist against the pillow and started to speak, but Charles wasn’t done.

“I was murdered by boys who talked like you.” His voice was quiet but jagged, meaning to cut, and it did. His father’s mouth snapped shut. “Do you want to know what they did to me, Dad? You want to hear how I died?”

His father started shaking his head. “The school said – ”

“I know what the school said. They called it an accident. It wasn’t.” Charles’s voice shook, steadied, rose. “It was November, the lake was freezing. My friends, they forced me in. Threw me in, really. Then they stood on the bank. They threw rocks at me. They had good aim, too. We were all in the cricket team, weren’t we? All bloody athletes. So the rocks hit. They hurt, Dad. I was so cold, and it hurt. And you know what I thought, when I got out, while I was running for my life? I thought, well, I’ve had worse.” There were tears dripping down his face as he talked. Edwin couldn’t stand watching him, listening to this, without doing something, and pushed against him unthinkingly. Charles groped around for his hand and gripped it hard as he kept talking. “If I’d lived, I’d have let the school cover up what happened. I’d have lied. You taught me all about that. Oh yeah, miss, walked into a door, what am I like. Oh no, sir, tripped down the stairs, that’s how I got the bruises.”

“I wanted what was best for you, boy.” Charles’s father was crying too; it didn’t look like he had realised it yet. He looked angry. He was, Edwin thought, the kind of man who only knew how to be angry. Every other emotion had been buried so deep he’d forgotten what to do with them. “I was hard on you, I’ll say that, maybe too hard, but I provided for you and your mum, didn’t I? You never went hungry. Always had a good shirt on your back. That was because of me, wasn’t it?”

“Congratulations,” Crystal said, venomous. “You didn’t starve your kid. Be so proud.”

Charles’s father ignored her; quite possibly, he didn’t hear her. He was only looking at Charles. The look on his face might have been imploring, from a different man. “Spare the rod, spoil the child, that’s what your grandad always said. He was a hard man, a brave man, had medals from the war. He raised me knowing right from wrong. I respected him.”

“You hated his guts, Dad,” Charles said tiredly. “You drank yourself blind at his funeral and Mum locked us in the bedroom because she wasn’t sure what you’d do when you came round. Look at us now. It’s no different, is it? Only I’m the one who’s dead.”

“Don’t say that, boy,” Charles’s father shouted. He was thrashing around with the blankets on the bed, trying to get up. Something in the medical equipment was beeping loudly.

“Goodbye, Dad,” Charles said, and walked out through the wall.

Edwin followed him, throwing one last look over his shoulder. Charles’s father was sobbing, still shouting, “Don’t you walk away from me, boy! Don’t you walk away!” But Charles was already gone, and he was not coming back.

Niko and Crystal met up with them outside the hospital. Crystal looked ready to right hook someone. Knowing what he did about her past, Edwin was impressed by the restraint she had shown in that room, and gave her a pained little smile out of solidarity. Then his full attention went back to Charles, who was walking along with a blind look, so deep in his own head that he walked through two lamp posts and several pedestrians before Edwin found the nerve to take his arm and gently guide him along. Charles blinked a bit, looked at him, managed something approximating a smile and slowed down a bit, visibly coming back to himself.

“Sorry about that,” he said.

“Which bit, the one where your dad made your death all about himself or the bit where you read him to filth?” Crystal said, coming up on Charles’s other side. “Because I think you were great the whole time.”

“I shouldn’t have let you in there,” Charles said grimly. “I knew how he’d be.”

“Charles,” Edwin said. “There was no version of this where we didn’t come with you.”

Charles tipped his head back, blinking tears out of his eyes. His mouth had crumpled. “I wasn’t going to f*cking Hell, mate, I’d have been all right.”

It might have been, though. Edwin had seen what the personal corners of Hell looked like. Simon, for example, and his book stained with blood. Little pockets of despair like that. Hell made you small, made you hurt, made you hope just enough to make it hurt more. If there was a place made for Charles, that old man would have been in it for certain, the same way he had been in the Nightmare’s distortion.

But Charles had never been destined for Hell. Charles was Orpheus painted in better, bolder colours; he had walked down the long stairway and then back again, taking Edwin with him. If Charles was meant for any afterlife that Edwin could imagine, it would be something like Valhalla, a hall of heroes.

It couldn’t have him, though. Edwin found him first.

When they reached the office, Crystal hugged Charles for a very long time. Before she pulled back, she kissed him on the cheek, hard, like she was making a point she needed him to understand. Edwin watched them from the doorway. It did not bother him in the same way as it used to, seeing them together; it felt good, really, to watch Charles being loved, because Charles should always be loved. When Crystal finally let Charles go, she went to Edwin and hugged him too. “That was brutal,” she whispered. “Watch him, okay?”

“I always do,” Edwin whispered back. “Take care, Crystal.”

“Yeah. You too.”

She went downstairs to rejoin Niko and Edwin looked out the window to see the pair of them walking away down the street, small from this height but no less fierce. He had been lucky to meet them. He had been lucky, lucky beyond belief, to meet Charles. There was optimism to be found in all this, however bleak his current mood. He turned away from the window and saw Charles was the one watching him.

“Come here,” Charles said.

There was virtually nothing Charles could have asked at this moment in time that Edwin would not have done for him. He was across the room without thinking about it and when Charles took his hand, tugging, he went with it. He ended up sitting awkwardly on the sofa amidst Charles’s legs, one still stretched out and one drawn up to make room for him.

“The stuff my dad said,” Charles began. “Don’t let him get to you, all right?”

It took Edwin a moment to understand what he meant. “Charles, it was aimed to hurt you. I’m only sorry I gave him an opportunity.”

Charles shook his head hard. “No, stop it, don’t do that. There could never be anything wrong with you, you hear me? He’s a dick. You’re perfect.”

Edwin didn’t need to breathe; it was only an ingrained habit that made him go through the motions. The breath that caught in his throat then, was only in his imagination. It felt real, though.

Charles sat up. It brought their faces close together and his long legs bracketed Edwin. For a brief, dizzying moment, Edwin wondered how he managed to go thirty years without realising what an impact Charles could have on him, simply by existing in the same space. There was wilful blindness and then there was this. But perhaps he had only been trying to protect himself. The feeling, now that he had looked at it directly, was never going to go anywhere. You don’t get to know what I am. What Charles could do, with just a few ambiguous words, that couldn’t possibly mean what Edwin’s wishful thinking wanted them to mean. He was going to feel this way about Charles as long as he could feel anything.

“I’m glad I died,” Edwin said.

Charles stared at him incredulously. “Run that by me again?”

“If I had lived, I would not have met you,” Edwin said. “That is not acceptable.”

“Oh.” Charles looked a little dazed. “Is that right?”

“I mean it,” Edwin said. He needed Charles to know. “Truly. As long as you exist in the same world as I do, I will be happy.”

Charles dropped forward, his head settling into the space between Edwin’s shoulder and his throat. He could feel the pressure of it, and something like warmth, however unlikely that seemed. Why not? Charles was warmth personified.

“I’m glad you came with me,” Charles said, very quietly, against his neck.

“I always will,” Edwin promised.

“Yeah. I believe you,” Charles said. Edwin could feel his smile against his neck.

“I love you,” Edwin said.

Charles lifted his head. He looked at Edwin carefully, as if he was trying to take in every detail of him. “I thought you were moving on,” he said. “The thing with the Cat King.”

“That was for the case.” Edwin’s hand found the shape of Charles’s cheek and shaped it, wonderingly. “I told you before that I loved you, Charles, I do not change my mind easily.”

“Isn’t that the truth.” Charles leaned into Edwin’s palm, his eyes heavy-lidded. “I can feel that. You touching me. It’s – it’s not the same as when I was alive. But I can feel it.”

“I can feel it too.” Edwin’s fingers slid down Charles’s cheek to his mouth and traced the curve at the corner. “I thought you loved me but did not love me back.”

“I’ve been thinking about that.” Charles turned his head just enough that his mouth was against Edwin’s fingers. “If I want to spend all my time with you. If I can’t bear the thought of anyone splitting us up. If I want you when I’m happy and when I’m sad, and when I don’t want anyone else. I might still screw this up. But I have to try, don’t I?” He pressed a kiss to the centre of Edwin’s palm and it was more than the memory, because Edwin had no memory of anything as sweet as that.

“You love me?” Edwin was whispering, terrified of breaking the spell of this moment. “As more than a friend?”

“You’re everything,” Charles said, and kissed him on the mouth, light and soft. Just enough pressure to show he meant it before leaning back to check Edwin’s reaction. Edwin did not allow him to get very far. He chased after Charles’s mouth, clumsy and urgent, too eager, and Charles needed no persuasion – he gasped into Edwin’s mouth and his hands came up, cradling Edwin’s face between them. His tongue dipped into Edwin’s mouth and Edwin gave a whimper through the kiss, overwhelmed, unable to stop. His nerve endings, that did not exist any more, were singing the phantom song of Charles, Charles, Charles. He felt Charles’s fingers in his hair and that meant, that meant he could touch too? He curled his fingers experimentally in soft curls and heard Charles moan. Edwin needed to be close, closer. He climbed up on his knees, kissing until there was not a thought left in his head, until he was tumbling backwards and Charles was braced over him, whispering in his ear, Edwin, Edwin. There was heat and need between Edwin’s legs and he was arching up, kissing, kissing, needing to be closer still somehow. He hitched blindly into Charles’s weight above him and Charles moaned again, Edwin, Edwin. They were pressed and tangled in ways Edwin could not fully comprehend except in fragments. His leg hitched up around Charles’s hip. Charles’s arm around his neck. Edwin’s hips pressing up. Charles’s hand between them, grinding down. They were rolling together like an oncoming tide and Edwin could feel it, a rise of pleasure that hit a sweet, sharp peak that had him crying out, clinging on to Charles in the aftermath as he felt him trembling.

Oh. Oh. Not a virgin sacrifice any more.

“Probably best we didn’t do this on the steps of Hell,” Charles murmured. “Might have slowed us down a bit.”

Edwin could kiss him to shut him up, and did. He intended to do that all the time.

The sun was coming up outside. A stray line of gold made its way from the horizon to the place where they were tangled together. This, Edwin thought, was what Dionysus had meant. Charles was here, in the world; everything else would happen as it happened and it might end in tears, or Hell, or a love unspooling in golden light across decades that became centuries. Whatever came, there was this moment. There was this love, in the halfway space between living and dying, the impossible place where they had met.

There was this kiss, and forever before it needed to end.

you make a fool of death with your beauty - Anonymous (2024)

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