Demonstrably terrible at making concessions
And a dozen other mawkish sentiments
The memorial looks vaguely incongruous, in light of it being the only structure in the cemetery that isn’t slightly blackened. Nathaniel sits in a heap at its foot, heedless of the dirt.
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I just hope you’re aware of that.”
A beat. He takes a moment to swipe at his eyes with his sleeve. Tears are hardly of note; they’ve been flowing more or less freely since his arrival, and seem unlikely to cease anytime soon. Seven years prior, he thought he’d learned how to stifle that impulse: to let loss callous, rather than inflame. Now, he’s not sure how long it’ll take to re-establish control. Maybe this is it, and he’s lost it for good - maybe he’ll always be a little raw and prone to emotionality now, and this is simply what you get after years of hacking at scar tissue.
When his parents died, it took months to so much as accept the veracity of it. Perhaps it was seeing it this time that made all the difference - or seeing it happen on the heels of his uncle’s death; maybe there’s only so much you can lose before even denial becomes an impossible refuge. Regardless, with Marika, he thinks he felt the impact of loss even before the blow itself; he’s sick with inevitability - awareness hangs on him like a disease, and there’s nothing to soften it.
“Maybe one day I’ll be grateful - maybe I’ll even be happy that I was the one who lived,” he continues, looking up at the inscription. “But I don’t want to be happy. I don’t want to be anything if it means feeling this any less keenly, or forgetting you even a little.” His nails bite into the dirt. “I don’t want to survive you. I want you to haunt me. I want any part of you that’s still mine to grasp, and if that means reliving the moment you dropped to the floor till I’m a thousand years old and half my mind is library, then so be it.”
He has the odd impression of being full: of brimming with remembrance - almost frightened to move, lest it all overflow. As if focusing on anything real or present might mean losing even more of her than he has done already. There’s a thread of salvation in that, if he had the will to follow it: a hint, at least, that he can survive this too - but that means loosening his grip on the grief that chokes him. It’s not a choice he’s prepared to make. Not yet.
“I’m never going to see you again,” he says - and it’s an admission of sorts, as well as a statement of fact. “This was it. End of story. It’s not like I don’t know where souls go when they’re done, or that either of us was under the illusion that this wasn’t permanent. Even saying as much is meaningless.”
His palms push flat against the ground. He rises to his knees.
“And, even if I were to rely on some higher power to salvage this monumental shitfest, it wouldn’t work. I can’t believe in God any more. Not because I’ve seen proof positive that there’s evil in the world, although I have; I never figured God was supposed to give a fuck about that anyway. But what’s the point of faith when there’s no eternity? Where’s the purpose when I can’t even carry the illusion of someday getting something back, after everything that’s been taken away from me? People aren’t supposed to survive this.” He’s half-shouting now, spitting the words past the thickening in his throat and the scrape of his own breath. “It’s too much to ask of me. Not now - not when I can count the amount of people I still have to lose on one hand, with room to spare.”
Sinking back onto his heels, he forces himself to pause, and breathe - as deeply as the restriction of his corset will allow. Slow. Measured. Until the roaring in his ears gives way to silence.
Softer now, almost inaudible: “Love was supposed to be enough. It was supposed to matter that out of all of the things we could have had, we chose each other.” But of course, it had mattered. For her. At the end of the day, she’d had both love and a choice - but what kind of freedom is that? What kind of solace?
“My entire adult life, I’ve been fighting things I don’t understand. And at the end of it, just as I thought we’d managed to wrest some kind of - meaning - some kind of salvation - from the vast, incomprehensible madness of it all - in the end, I’m still here. Fighting things I still don’t understand. At the mercy of what I was always powerless to change.”
Numbly, he traces the letters of the headstone. He gives another long, shuddering breath.
“No. I’ve less to live for than I’ve ever had at any point in my life, but I can’t just curl up and refuse to recover. You saw to that. You knew it wouldn’t be easy, but you trusted I’d do it anyway - and, of course, because you trusted me, I have to. Anything less would be an insult. Anything less would make a mockery of what you did, and I can’t -” he swallows “- resent you for that - for placing faith in me. I can’t begrudge you any part of that sacrifice, because it was the best and purest thing anyone has ever done for me.”
His breath catches.
“Your father would be proud.” Proud in the same way that his uncle might be, someday, if he makes things right, and manages to choose well enough to bring his soul back to some semblance of life - but thoughts like those are so precarious that even thinking in hypotheticals feels dangerous, and so he pushes it to the back of his mind. “I’m - no, proud doesn’t do it justice. There aren’t words for what I feel. You loved me. And you understood that I loved you, and even knowing that, you trusted me enough to put me through this, because - because, for whatever reason, you thought it was worth it that I live, and -” it’s too much, and he breaks; he can’t not - not when he’s realised - “no-one’s ever had that kind of faith in me. Not ever.”
He forces his fingers to unclench. “That’s not why I loved you. Not because you somehow managed to sidestep the borders of my lifelong inferiority complex - but because you knew me, down to the bones, just like I knew you; just like we knew each other’s fucked-up likes, and understood that what both of us liked the most was a challenge. Because you were ferocious, and funny, and magnificent. And yes, damn it all, Marika, I can get through this - I can even help save the world in the bargain - but that doesn’t mean I’ll ever be the same.”
It doesn’t mean he’d want to.
“So that’s it,” he says, into the stillness. “That’s it. I’m done. I can’t fault you for anything, because what you did was beautiful. And I can’t forget, because I think it would kill me if I did. Can’t die, because that would be appalling, given what you sacrificed - and anyway, if I’m lucky, there’ll probably come a point where I won’t want to.” He swallows again, hard. “It’s the perfect trap. All I can do is live.” A shaky, inchoate sound. “And love, because ironically, that’s what I’m good at.”
And he tips back his head and laughs - laughs the way he’s always laughed in the face of the inevitable, when he can’t breathe for pain: laughter like knives, when the only thing left is one final burst of defiance. “I concede. You win.”