One of Edward's ears flicked just slightly as he heard a sound behind him. Usually, nothing moved in the small cell he called his space within the Astral Plane. He refused to call it home. Home was a place he hadn't seen in, well, centuries. It certainly wasn't this squalid place with the bed he refused to use and its lone table.
The sound had been the door opening, it seemed. The voice belonged to one of his jailers, the Reaper called Barry Bluejeans, one of the two who galled him far more than did their supervisor. Kravitz was understandable. Some sort of servant of the Raven Queen who had died in her service and earned an eternity at her hand, no doubt. These two were liches, just the same as him. And yet, somehow they had gotten a forgiveness he was never offered.
"What do you want?"
He didn't turn, didn't even open his eyes. Why bother? All he really wanted was to be left alone.
"I just wanted to talk. Maybe play a little chess, if you're up for it."
Chess. Edward could have laughed. He did finally turn at that, turning bright eyes on Barry and looking him over from bottom to top. Did the man even realize what he was saying? Did he remember what he and his sister had done to his friend with the staff? Edward leaned back, half lounging so he could look up at Barry with his head tilted to the side and legs crossed.
"Fascinating. The last time I played chess with one of your little bunch, it didn't end so well for her."
He expected the Reaper to get angry, to tense up, to react somehow. Anything. They were the good guys, the ones who constantly talked about bullshit like compassion and friendship. Shouldn't he be the one to care about hurt to a friend? Instead, he held out a chessboard and grinned.
"I think you'll find I'm a lot better at the game than Luce is."
That got a mirroring grin from Edward and he gestured expansively at the floor.
"Well then, Reaper Bluejeans, why don't you pull up a piece of the delightful stone floor you have here and we'll see if you're as good as you think you are."
Laughing, Barry dropped to sit opposite Edward and began laying the pieces out. None of this made any sense. Eyes slightly narrowed, Edward watched Barry in silence. Somewhere here, there was an explanation if he just dug deep enough. Maybe this was Lydia's latest trick? Was the man being compelled or possessed? Not as far as he could tell. Then Barry glanced up at him and raised an eyebrow.
"Can I help you?"
Edward chuckled quietly, almost surprised Barry had even noticed him watching.
"Just trying to decide what your long game is. After all, why else would you be in here? You must have a game."
Barry didn't even flinch.
"Only game I've got is chess. And you've got the first move."
They had been playing like this for a few months, with Edward trying to poke and pry to get a clue to what was happening and Barry managing to stay just one step ahead of him somehow . It was frustrating, really. If someone had told him a year before that he would be spending his days trying and failing to sort out the inner workings of a middle-aged human, he would have laughed himself silly. Now he was just shy of grinding his teeth in frustration while trying his level best to outwardly appear calm and comfortable and in control of himself.
Then out of the blue, Barry leaned forward with curiosity on his face. Edward noticed but ignored him, instead refilling his glass from the pitcher of fruit juice sitting beside them and taking a sip. Then Barry took a breath and spoke.
"I don't understand. I mean... I know what you and your sister did, I saw it first hand. But here's the thing that doesn't make any sense. Why? You had each other and... and your bonds. Even if that wasn't enough, you had memories right?" Edward's ears pinned back as annoyance and something uncomfortably like guilt shot through him, but Barry plowed right on. "Unless... was your lich ceremony that different from mine?"
Edward shook his head, looking down at the chessboard. He could just not answer. That was entirely within his rights and it would serve Barry right for all these damn questions. Except then he looked up again and saw the way Barry was looking at him, eyebrows knit with concern. That was ridiculous but... Edward answered, his voice soft.
"It was Lydia's idea, if I'm being perfectly honest." He moved one of his pieces and examined the board again. "We had thought that between our bonds to each other and... and our love for our brother, that we would be alright. We discovered that other emotions would work by accident just when things were looking bad for us. You saw for yourself just how powerful suffering can be."
His voice pitched up despite himself towards the end of what he was saying. Dammit, he was supposed to have control. But just as he started to look down to exert control over himself again, he realized that Barry had reached over and put a hand on his arm.
"Hey, it's okay. You made a mistake. And it was a pretty shitty one, but that's in the past. It's not like you don't have the chance now to move past it."
Edward stared meaningfully at Barry's hand until he pulled back. Then he shrugged.
"I suppose, but really, one sideshow event full of torture and one very near apocalypse doesn't usually lead to a path of forgiveness. Particularly not when you're stuck in death prison."
For a long moment, silence hung between them and Edward thought that would be that. Barry would give up whatever he was trying to do and they could just go back to the game. Edward didn't need any sort of forgiveness or validation from Barry Bluejeans, that was for certain.
"Then what do you think I'm doing, Edward?"
Edward opened and closed his mouth several times. What the hell was that supposed to mean?
"You- you think- You're trying to-"
Each time, he cut himself off again, his ears flicked up in surprise and confusion. And then Barry had the gall to give him a smile. A smile . As though they were friends or something.
"I mean... yeah. At bottom, you did what you did for... for a lot of the same reasons I did. For your family, you know? And I figure, if you'd risk your soul for them, you can't be all bad, right?"
Edward's jaw tightened. Not all bad? Not all bad? Did Barry even remember who he was? Did he even remember what Wonderland was? And anyway, if they really were anything alike then Keats would have-
He picked up one of his bishops and moved it across the board, setting it down with a decisive tap.
"Check and mate. So I suppose that's it for today, isn't it? You'd best be going, Reaper Bluejeans."
He shoved the board towards Barry and stood, heading back towards his usual meditation spot and the blankets he'd folded there as a mat. He could hear Barry moving around behind him, gathering the scattered pieces up, no doubt. Well, fine. Let him.
One of Edward's ears flicked and he responded without turning.
"You'll be back again tomorrow, won't you, darling? Delightful. But until then ."
His voice turned icy and a moment later he heard the door open and close. Once it was closed, his shoulders slumped and his ears drooped. What the hell was he doing?
Edward Elmenda sat alone in his cell once some days later, ears resting at a comfortable neutral while he closed his eyes and settled into a trance. He was trying to work through a puzzle. It was patently obvious that there was more going on here than there appeared to be on the surface. He was as sure of that as he was of his sister. The real question was, what was going on? Sure, on the surface it seemed like Barry was just being friendly, but he was a Reaper. Reapers were not kind and friendly fellows who came and visited their death criminal prisoners to play chess. That just wasn't how things worked. Which meant that if it was happening, then Reaper Bluejeans was up to something.
He kept having to remind himself to think of the man only as Reaper Bluejeans. Despite several weeks of socializing, they absolutely were not friends. This was... was... fantasy stockholm syndrome. That was it. That was the only reason he was even remotely willing to be charitable towards his captor . As if they had anything in common.
But the twins had heard and the Story and Song just the same as everyone else, even if they had taken that opportunity to escape from the Astral Plane. And he knew perfectly well that Bar- Reaper Bluejeans had become a lich as he'd said. And he'd done it for his wife, for his family. Edward's throat felt tight and he squeezed his eyes together more tightly. Could they even really say they'd done this for Keats any more? They had discovered their affinity for necromancy trying to save him, certainly, but they hadn't become liches until... until after. No, he was nothing like Reaper Bluejeans who had somehow subverted this dark ritual and powered himself on love. Edward and Lydia Elmenda had only fought against death because they had seen mortality firsthand and found their fear.
The door pushed open slightly and he grimaced, one ear flicking slightly as he tried to decide which of the Reapers it was today. Had one of the others come to take him to task for upsetting Reaper Bluejeans? No. No, those steps were too heavy to be either an elf or a half-elf. Which meant Bar- Reaper Bluejeans, dammit. Which meant that Reaper Bluejeans was back.
"Uh... hey. Edward. I... I don't know if you're up for playing again today but I thought... uh... I brought some leftovers if you wanted some chili and I wanted to... to apologize."
Edward did turn at that, ears suddenly flicking up. Barry stood in the doorway, not in his uniform suit and cloak but in jeans and a battered old IPRE t-shirt of bright red. Held in his hands was a small container of chili with just a bit of steam rising from the surface. It smelled delicious. Raising an eyebrow, Edward got to his feet.
"In case you've forgotten, Reaper Bluejeans, we're both dead. Do you even eat?"
Barry shrugged a little, an almost boyish expression on his face.
"I mean, I'm alive...ish? It's complicated and involves a cloning tank. But uh... You can eat here. I asked first so it wouldn't be like... insensitive to bring you food, you know?"
A noncommittal hum of acknowledgment was the only response Edward gave him. Barry's shoulders slumped and he set the little container on the table by the bed before retreating towards the door.
"Well, if you want it, it's there. I'll just... go, I guess." He paused in the doorway for a moment. "I mean it, though. I don't know exactly what I did wrong, but... but I know something I said bothered you, and I'm sorry for that." His hand was on the door, pulling it closed behind him as he stepped out into the corridor. "I'll come back later to grab the dish."
Edward waited for a moment, watching Barry retreat from the room. Then he went to pick up the small clay bowl. It was pleasantly warm to the touch and a spoon had been left beside it. Inside was a thick and hearty chili, dark brown and aromatic. Sitting on the floor with his back against the heavy wooden door, he tentatively tasted it. It was rich with flavors, each spice blending with the others in brilliant ways. Had Barry made this? Then he remembered another bit of the Story and chuckled. No, of course not. Not the man who had managed to boil water wrong. Probably Lup then. Which implied that Lup was also involved in this so-called apology.
He took another taste, savoring the way it warmed him up from inside. Being warm was such a novel concept after so long as a lich. The undead simply were not warm. His mind briefly went back to Barry's hand resting on his arm and Edward's jaw tightened. Just because he was cold didn't mean he needed to chase someone else for their warmth. He would eat this and then nothing else. He didn't need Reaper Bluejeans coming here and pitying him. He had ruled Wonderland with his sister for centuries. This human lich was nothing compared to him. And he certainly didn't need anything the man had to offer.
When he'd finished, he set the bowl and spoon back on the table and went back to his corner to meditate. Maybe this time, he would find a solution to his Reaper problem.
He hadn't come back. Well, alright, he had come back to grab the bowl just like he'd said, but he hadn't even said anything to break Edward out of his trance and that was just rude. Who comes into your room and doesn't even say hi ? Honestly, the nerve. And it had been over a week since then, near as Edward could tell. It was, admittedly, hard to gauge the exact time in this eternal twilight world where the sky never changed. Not, of course, to imply that his suite in the fantasy Ritz here afforded him an actual view of the sky. That would be a luxury that clearly he no longer deserved.
No, he'd been counting the hours, going through his meditation routines until he had them clocked perfectly. It had been at least ten days, he was certain of that. And he hadn't seen hide nor hair of the Reaper known as Barry Bluejeans. It would've been annoying if it wasn't unnerving. Which lead him to the next question, which was why this was bothering him so damn much.
Edward stopped in his pacing and turned to face the door. His ears were pinned back in anger and frustration and he grabbed the little table beside his bed. With a growl, he flung it at the opposite wall as hard as he could, taking some brief glee in the sound as it shattered to pieces. And then, only a moment later, it reformed beside his still unused bed. He dropped to his knees, just staring at the place where those shards of wood had been.
Once, he had been the lord and master of Wonderland, the architect of the suffering of hundreds, thousands even. Now? He couldn't even reshape his own bedroom. He hadn't had freedom since Keats had died, but at least he had control. Now he had neither.
And then the door opened.
Barry stood there in his dark suit, just a few shades off from black enough to be a deep blue, and his raven feather mantle with the dark cape falling beneath it. He looked like a hero from a tale in that moment with the light behind him. Or at least, he would've if he wasn't a middle-aged human who was more than a bit pudgy around the middle and clearly graying.
"Ed? Is everything okay?"
Was it a slip? The concern in his voice, the use of a nickname. Was it a slip? Was it calculated? What did it mean?
He wished he could talk to Lydia. Not just about this. About so many things, really. How long since he last saw his twin? They were never meant to be apart, had never been apart before they had been brought to the Astral Plane the first time.
Barry closed the distance, leaving the door open behind him as he walked up to Edward. He put his hand on Edward's shoulder, worry in his eyes.
That was about when Edward realized he hadn't responded. He couldn't respond. His throat was choked and he didn't know what to say. What was he supposed to say? How did you say everything was alright when you were alone when you were supposed to be half of a set? How did you say it was fine when you were trapped, lost in the darkness of your own creation and of the prison they'd thrown you in.
"Reaper Bluejeans, I thought I said-"
There was no heart in it, the snap behind the words gone. Worse, Barry seemed to know it. He smiled, the expression soft, and Edward felt his stomach do flip-flops like he was only a hundred again.
"You can call me Barry, you know. And you didn't answer the question. Are you alright? I heard the crash."
They stood there like that for a long moment, Barry's hand on Edward's shoulder and Edward's mouth just slightly open as he tried to find the words he needed. He had lied so many times in his life, he could do it again. He could brush all of this off. He could say it was nothing. He could throw Barry out again. He could laugh and say he'd done it for fun. It was nothing.
He leaned forward, resting his forehead against Barry's shoulder.
"I don't know." The stark truth and nothing else. "I just... I miss my sister. You understand, don't you?"
Barry hesitated visibly, almost tensing. Then he put an arm around Edward's shoulders in a loose hug.
"I... I do, actually. Maybe not the same but..." He inhaled sharply, trying to make a decision. "I can talk to Kravitz. You have to understand, we can't leave you two alone. Not after... well, you know, last time. But I can at least try to let you talk to her."
Edward hadn't been expecting compassion. How long had it been since anyone offered him compassion ? Since so very long before Keats got sick, at least. After that, everything had by necessity been about Keats and even then, no one actually gave them compassion. Pity, certainly. And scorn. And so many other things that had failed to help them where compassion could have.
Barry was rubbing his back gently and Edward wasn't quite sure when he started shaking. Dammit, he couldn't show this kind of weakness. And yet. And yet.
And yet, for the first time quite literally in centuries, there were tears on his cheeks. Edward closed his eyes against them, trying to deny that it was happening. He hadn't cried since... since... Had he even cried when Keats died?
No. He hadn't.
His tears had dried long before then, when the healers had told them there was nothing they could do. After they had put everything they had into trying to save their brother only to be told it was fruitless. And now he was shaking and silently crying with his face buried against the shoulder of... of what? His captor? A friend? He wasn't even sure anymore.
Edward pulled away. Barry let him. Something hung in the air between them and neither was sure of the other, neither was sure what that something might be. Whatever it was, though, they both knew it was important. Barry started to open his mouth and Edward cut him off.
"I would appreciate that. Seeing Lydia, I mean."
There were still tears in his eyes and on his cheeks but he didn't raise a hand to wipe them. Not yet. He refused to acknowledge it until Barry was gone. Barry nodded.
"If I can find a way, I will. I'll... I'll be back tomorrow and I'll let you know. I promise, Ed."
He stood there for a long moment and then headed out the door.
Reaper Barry Bluejeans was not back tomorrow. Nor was he back the next day. Or the day after that. It was nearly a week before he finally came back. And when he did, it was all Edward could do not to stare at him. Something had happened in the intervening days, that much was patently obvious. Barry stood sheepishly in the doorway with one arm in a sling and a long, shallow cut running from his above his right eye and almost all the way down to his mouth. It was pinkish but had obviously been healed and Edward's hands itched to reach over and touch it, to ensure himself it wasn't going to scar. And he had no idea why he cared.
Instead, he arched an eyebrow and crossed his arms over his chest.
"So, you finally decided to come back, did you? It certainly doesn't seem like tomorrow, but who’s to say, really?"
Barry sighed softly and looked down.
“I’m sorry.” His voice was oddly quiet. “We had a bounty. It... it was a rough one. I did mean to come back sooner but...”
That quieted Edward slightly and he took a step forward. That put all of the injuries into a new light. These were intentional. Someone meant to kill Barry. Alright, yes, he was unkillable but that was besides the point.
"Barry, what happened?"
He started to raise his hand and forcibly dropped it again. What was he even trying to do? And yet... and yet he couldn't stop himself from questioning if the injuries he could see were the only ones. There were bruises on Barry's arm, just barely showing when his sleeve shifted. The green sort of bruise that meant he got hit hard with something or else hit something hard. Was that the worst of it? Was there more he couldn't see?
Why did he care?
Barry shrugged a little, finally meeting Edward's gaze again.
"There's a... a new necromantic cult we've been dealing with and... I don't know, they've got ideas. Some of their ideas even work." He rubbed at his arm, the one in the sling, and Edward wondered if it was broken or if it was the shoulder. Neither was good but just a broken arm would probably heal better, he thought. "We've been dealing with them for a while. It's... it's nothing."
He gestured to the chessboard tucked under his good arm and gave Edward a little smile that made his stomach do flip-fops.
"We can still play, if you wanted. Don't need both hands to whoop your ass at chess."
Barry had gone home for the evening a few hours before. Gone home to his wife and left Edward alone in the relative quiet of his cell. All he could think about was the shallow cut on Barry’s face, the bruises that could be seen, his arm in a sling. Someone had tried very hard to kill him. A lucky thing he was a Reaper and a lich, then. Still though, thinking about those injuries sent waves of fear through him. He'd never thought about what it was that Barry did when he wasn't here playing chess or down in the workshop he had doing whatever research he felt like. Somehow, Edward had completely ignored the fact that the Reapers fought and that fighting would mean injury. At least though, for them, it would never mean death. He had to believe that.
With a sigh, he got up and went to lay on the bed. He didn't use it much, having never gotten into the habit when he was alive. Back then, beds had been for humans or the very ill and he was assuredly neither of those. But it was a comfortable place to lay in a place that offered so little comfort to him. Leaning back, he let his head come to rest on the pillow and closed his eyes. He would just lay here for a bit, then go back to his usual meditation spot.
Just as soon as he stopped thinking about Barry Bluejeans. It was so much more than just the cuts and bruises catching his attention. And right now, Edward couldn't stop picturing the man's eyes behind those glasses of his. Barry had these pale blue eyes, almost like ice but far too full of... of emotions to be called anything near so frigid as ice. And when he turned them on a person, they felt, well, noticed. He exhaled slowly, the sound turning into a sigh. Why was he even thinking any of this? Barry was a human. A middle-aged, overweight human with gray in his brown hair. And it wasn't even an exciting brown! It was the definition of mousy brown. And it curled when it had been too long since he last got it cut. Those curls always looked so soft, like they would be so nice to tangle your fingers in and-
Why the FUCK was he thinking any of this?
Edward sat up, eyes snapping open. What the hell was wrong with him? There was no way he was fantasizing about Reaper Bluejeans. That was impossible, ridiculous even. First off, again, human and middle-aged and certainly not his type. Second off, he was married. And Edward was a lot of things but he was certainly not a homewrecker. At least, not when the wife in question was one Lup Bluejeans, scariest evocation mage in this or any planar system who had killed him with an umbrella and dropped a snazzy one-liner while doing it. And third off...
Third off, he was probably just horny. How long had he gone without some sort of release? Trying to remember back, he grimaced. Exceedingly long. He'd been a lich for most of that, sure, but that didn't mean he didn't still have needs. And obviously, his needs just weren't being met. That was the only reason he kept thinking about Reaper Bluejeans and his soft curls and his little smile and those pale blue eyes and...
That was the only reason.
And that was the only reason he glanced towards the door of his cell to ensure once again that it was closed before kicking his pants off and shifting so he was sitting on the edge of the bed. Taking a breath, he closed his eyes. Then he let it out again, trying to decide exactly how he was going to do this. That was when the image sprung unbidden into his mind: Barry, on his knees in front of Edward, gazing up at him with that same little smile playing over his lips. Gods, he would be so pretty like that.
Edward licked his lips, following that fantasy along as he ran his hand down his stomach and over his thigh. He was half hard already, just from the idea. Wrapping his hand around the base of his cock, he tried to imagine that it was Barry touching him. It would be so different, not just the angle but the feel of him. Barry's fingers were shorter, thicker, marked with scars and burns. And he was strong, surprisingly so considering his general appearance. And... and gentle.
It was so easy to imagine him taking Edward's cock in his hand, gently stroking it as their eyes met. He would lean in, his breath against Edward's skin a tantalizing promise of what was to come.
Outside of his daydreams, Edward bit his lower lip, trying to suppress the whimper that was threatening to escape him. He couldn't make a sound, nothing that anyone might here. Gods, if he got caught at this... But he didn't want to stop. Gods, it felt good. Long, slow strokes, all while imagining Barry moving closer, running his tongue over the length of Edward's shaft. His mouth would be warm and his touch soft and Edward was so certain that Barry's curly hair would be perfect to tangle his fingers in. Maybe the Reaper even liked having it tugged, pulling him closer, guiding him into place.
Edward's breath hitched, his head going back. He'd been rocking his hips forward, meeting the motion of his hand, and those thrusts stuttered as he reached his climax. For a moment, he just sat there in a pleasure-filled haze. Then he looked down at the sticky mess he'd made of his hand and the guilt settled over him. What was he doing? He rattled off the incantation for a prestidigitation to clean himself up and then sighed when nothing happened. Of course, he'd almost forgotten they were cut off from their magic here meaning that he was left with the evidence of his shame. He wiped his hand on the blankets and tugged his pants back on. No one needed to know that he had been fantasizing about Barry Bluejeans. No one. He didn't even need to think about it again in the future. That had been a mistake and not one he was about to repeat.
He stood, going back to the blanket he'd folded on the floor. He sat cross-legged on it and took a few breaths, trying to drop into his usual meditative trance. He wanted to let the patterns he'd learned as a child fill his mind and take away this... this... whatever it was that he was feeling. Instead, he was left sitting there staring at the wall with a rock of guilt and shame weighing him down as it warred with the fact that he had, in fact, enjoyed that little fantasy very much.
He tried not to think about it at all over the next few days. The only thing that made it easier was that he also didn't see Barry. Instead, he was left more or less to his own devices. He vaguely understood that Barry was spending some time healing after his last little ordeal but it was still vexing being alone. He paced the space within his cell, wondering what was going on beyond the door. It was so quiet. Well, quiet save for the agonized wailing of the other inmates, but they were always like that. He couldn't fathom why. Did they think it would get them something?
They should know by now, there was nothing in the Astral Plane that was for them, not really.
Then he stopped, staring at the door. Was that true any more? He wasn't sure. Not really. Not to imply that he wanted to see more of Barry in any particular way, of course. But... but perhaps it wasn't all that bad.
No, no, that was ridiculous. They were his jailers, that was all the Reapers were and-
And Barry seemed so genuine.
Edward wanted to scream. It was like there was a war raging inside of him and he wasn't sure which side he was on any more. He needed Lydia. He needed his twin to help him work all of this out. And at the same time, he had no idea how he could explain it to her. What was he going to say? Oh yes, dear sister, I might be attracted to one of our prison guards but I'm not sure. That would go over like a house on fire. Probably his house and she would be the one holding the match.
He laid down then in the center of the room, feeling the cold stone against his skin. It grounded him, pulled him back to himself and let him center. Maybe he just needed some time, just need to reflect and work this out on his own. And maybe he needed to spend some more time with Barry instead of waiting for the Reaper to come back and see if these... whatever they were... matched up to the light of day and the reality of the man. That was it.
The room they were in was a small one, just large enough to accommodate the table they both sat at and the Reapers standing behind them against the walls. It had been made abundantly clear before Edward and Lydia were even brought here that any attempts to escape would be met with force and that anything even remotely out of line would be taken as an attempt to escape. At least, that was what Kravitz had said. Barry, with one arm still in a sling from his last bounty, had just told Edward that everything was being taken care of and all he had to do was keep out of trouble and it would be fine. Not, of course, to imply that Barry was allowed to oversee this little meeting. No, he was stuck on desk duty thanks to his broken arm and Lup was keeping an eye on things with Kravitz. Which, Edward supposed, was all to the good. He had had a hard enough time looking the man in the eye for the few minutes it had taken him to explain the terms and conditions. He didn't think there was a way he could handle being in the same room as him for longer and not combust.
Edward leaned forward across the table, smiling at his sister. She was grinning too, expression confident, self-assured. She leaned forward and patted his arm gently.
"I don't know how you pulled it off, dear brother, but whatever you're doing, keep it up."
That set him back a little and his ears flicked up.
"What are you talking about? All I did was ask."
Lydia met his eyes, a slight frown on her face.
"You... asked. Just like that. Nothing else?" Then she brushed it off and Edward knew she was probably justifying it to herself somehow, assuming he'd done something to convince the Reapers to let this happen. "Anyway, how have you been, darling? I hope your accommodations are as breathtaking as mine."
There was amusement in her tone now and he laughed, relaxing once more. There was the sister he knew and loved. He waved one hand airily.
"Of course, of course. I'm just loving the penthouse suite they've put me up in. Five stars on Fantasy Yelp, you know." He grinned, his ears flicked up with his amusement. "I will say, though, I didn't think that extracurriculars were a part of the usual Astral Plane experience."
Lydia quirked an eyebrow, looking her brother over skeptically, as though she was trying to decide which parts of that were true and which were part of the elaborate game they always played.
"Tennis, then, dear brother?"
Edward blinked. Once. Twice. Three times. Then he laughed a little.
"Don't tell me you don't have a chess partner popping by, darling sister of mine. I can't possibly be the only one getting that treatment... Can I?"
He looked up again, meeting his sister's eyes and realized the truth. He was. She had no idea what he was talking about. Whatever Barry was doing, it was just between the two of them. Part of him wanted to glance at the other two Reapers, see if they showed any recognition of what he was talking about. He didn't though. He was fairly certainly Lup knew, but he had no idea what Kravitz knew. And Kravitz was the one to worry about with things like that. If Kravitz didn't want Barry seeing Edward, it would stop. And his chest felt tight at that. He didn't want it to stop.
Lydia laughed then, clearly deciding to take his words as a joke.
"Chess, dear brother? I much prefer spending my days out by the pool. There's a lovely cabana girl who holds grapes for me. It's just delightful."
And with that, his strange feelings about being singled out vanished. They were still twins, they would always be twins, and they would always be there for each other, the only one the other could rely on. He laughed softly and leaned in. They didn't have all that long here, but he was just grateful to get this time to talk.
Becoming a lich had been, it turned out much later, been the easy part of their whole operation. The hard part, the hardest part, was not losing himself in the process. And now that Edward was laying on the floor in a cold stone cell, he began to wonder if they had even succeeded at that a little. He'd had one trick that worked for a long time, a particular meditation but he wasn't even sure he could do it any more, wasn't sure the memories would be there if he tried to pull them up. With a sigh, he sat up and closed his eyes, dropping instinctively into the pattern of breathing required for meditation. The memories snapped up and into place almost immediately, the little cottage with its vegetable garden tucked off to one side and the flowers out front. There was a curl of smoke coming from the chimney and it smelled delightfully of fresh baking bread. He could hear Lydia inside singing to herself as she went about her daily chores. He could feel the rough wood of a basket handle in his own hand. It was a singular moment captured in time, a day before the end of all the things that had truly mattered. He could hear footsteps racing around the side of the cottage, small footsteps that pounded the dirt with barefoot enthusiasm.
He turned towards the sound, ready to embrace his brother and swing him high into the air. Instead he was launched back out of the trance.
His face. Keats’ face. It had been blank, utterly devoid of features. Edward pulled his knees up to his chest, the cold inside him turning to bitter ice. He couldn’t even remember his face. They claimed it had all been for Keats and he couldn’t even remember the boy’s face. What kind of a brother was he?
When Barry stepped into Edward’s cell that afternoon, Edward had given himself completely over to his grief. He had let Keats die a second death, had let the boy’s memory fade to the point that even he, who should have held Keats in his heart forever, had let him slip into the darkness of eternity.
“Edward? What... what happened?”
Edward looked up, his face streaked with tears and his ears flicked back.
“Why does it matter, Reaper?”
He spat the word, frustration and grief and bitterness all coming to a head here and now. He didn’t want to be here. He wanted to be with his sister, he wanted to go back to Wonderland where he didn’t have to face the truth of his own existence. But that wasn’t an option now and it was their fault, the Raven Queen and her Reapers.
Barry recoiled and the knotted ball of guilt inside Edward tightened. Was there anything he could do right? Anyone he could keep from hurting? No, apparently. No his brother, not his sister, and not this man. And then he came and sat down next to him on the floor.
"Ed, it matters because I'm worried about you. What's wrong? You look like you've been crying."
Edward took a breath and then squeezed his eyes closed again.
"I can't remember his face."
Barry was silent and tense, enough that Edward turned to look at him. The man was pale, looking like a corpse against the dark of his black cloak, and he looked like he’d just watched someone he loved die. Edward could relate.
“Do you want to... to talk about him? You mean you brother, right?” Barry hesitated, almost like he was afraid to misstep. “I only know what your sister said in... in Wonderland? But uh... Would it help if you talked about him?”
Edward snorted something that was almost a laugh or maybe a sob. Even he didn’t really know.
“If that’s the direction you want to take this, I’m going to need an entire bottle of something very strong.”
Neither of them had really talked about their brother since they’d created Wonderland. Not until Lydia explained their story to Barry’s friends that fateful day. Before that? Nothing. Not even to each other. It was hard to draw up the words, to even say his name without Edward’s throat feeling tight with bitterest grief.
Barry shifted slightly in how he was sitting.
“I mean, it’s not the healthiest coping mechanism I’ve ever heard of but uh... but I’m pretty sure you’re past the point where liver damage matters. So... let’s say I did get my hands on something strong for you, would you tell me about your brother?”
Edward shrugged. Then he thought the better of it. It wasn't like he actually had to talk about anything, he could just take the drinks, get blissfully drunk, and maybe lose a day or so of his time here.
"Sure, why not?"
Barry nodded and reached into the back pocket of his jeans, pulling out a stone of farspeech. He grinned at Edward and dialed Lup's frequency, each press of the runes making a soft, musical chime. After a moment, Lup's muffled voice could be heard from the other side of the stone.
"Hey Bear, what's up?"
Barry smiled the moment Lup spoke and Edward turned away, something twisting his gut in ways he didn't appreciate.
"This uh... this is gonna sound kind of wild, babe, but could I talk you into making a pitcher of that blue shit? You know what I mean, right? Just uh... bring it by Edward's room. We're having one of those vodka hard talks."
There was a pause and Edward's ears swiveled as he tried to listen in. Glass clinked in the background before he heard Lup again.
"Yeah, natch, babe. And we've got all the ingredients so I'll be there in like ten minutes." Pause. "You okay?"
Barry's smile was soft and for a brief moment, Edward wanted to grab the stone of farspeech and fling it across the room. He didn't though, he just clenched his hands into fists and stared at the floor.
"Yeah, I'm good. Promise. I'll see you soon, okay?"
"See you soon, babe."
As promised, Lup arrived around ten minutes later with a pitcher and two wine glasses, one of which had a skull with little heart eyes painted on the outside. The other one was just plain glass and that was the one Barry passed to Edward once it was filled with an electric blue drink that seemed to fizz. He eyed it skeptically for a moment before taking it sip. It was pleasantly fruity with more than just a hint of lemon, orange, and sugar. And there was a definite kick to it. He took another sip and looked up at Barry.
"What is this thing?"
Barry took a sip from his own and grinned broadly.
"Electric lemonade." Then he sat back on the floor, leaning against a wall. "We learned about it back on uh... Cycle 5, I think? Early on. But it took Lup and Taako about ten more years to figure out how to get the uh... the blue color and the orange flavor without completely fucking up the balance, because nobody on that world would share the recipe."
It did taste good. And as he drank more and more of his way down the glass, a warm feeling started to settle in Edward's stomach. He sat beside Barry, eyes closed for a long while as he just enjoyed the drink. It was Barry that broke the silence between them as he was pouring Edward's second glass.
"So, about your brother..."
Edward's entire body tensed and his ears flicked back. Hands shaking, he took another long swig, silently apologizing to this delicious drink for downing it like cheap beer. He wasn't nearly drunk enough yet to approach that particular level of his backstory.
"What's there to tell? You already know the story. He was younger than us, he got sick, he died, we became liches. End of story."
Barry shifted uncomfortably and then sighed.
"Don't tell me about how he died, Ed. Tell me about how he lived. What was your brother like?"
Edward downed the next glass just as quickly, the sweetness in it cutting the alcohol taste in a way that would have been dangerous if he was still alive. Then he shrugged.
“He was a kid. He was...” His throat tightened as he thought back, trying to remember details. “We were so much older. A lot older. He hadn’t even grown into his ears.”
He gestured out beyond the length of his own, trying to convey what elven children even look like. Ridiculous is what. With those long, floppy ears they haven’t learned to control yet and those huge eyes, both too big for their face. And Keats had always liked to wear shirts that were a bit too big. Or was it that he was wearing Edward’s shirts? No, that was it. He’d like to steal Edward’s clothes and joke about how big he was going to be when he grew up.
Except... Except that he never did.
Why the hell had he agreed to this conversation? He could’ve said no.
Barry’s voice was soft, almost the same tones he’d taken on his brief call with Lup before. Edward wanted to snap that he didn’t need cosseting or pity. But when he turned to look at Barry, the expression there was genuine. He cared. It was confusing.
“He was twelve. Just... just twelve.” And there it was. His throat tightened and tears blurred his vision. Why why had he agreed to any of this? “We were responsible for him and... and he...”
It had been like that since the fire, since the one frantic, terrifying night when Edward had woken up to find his sister shaking him awake, her eyes full of fear.
“Eddie, come on! It’s- I can’t get to Mom and Dad and Keats.”
He hadn’t understood but he’d stumbled out of his trance and to his feet. That was when he realized that the darkness around the ceiling was smoke. Lydia grabbed his hand, tugging him towards the hall down to their little brother’s room and their parents’ room beyond that. Keats was just a baby and they could hear him crying. He was awake. Worse still, the hallway was full of flames. It almost seemed like it had come from their parents’ room at the end of the hall, or maybe from their workroom beside that.
The origin didn’t matter though. What mattered was that they needed to get to them, to Keats. Edward focused for a moment, trying to remember the meager magic lessons they’d gotten so far. Most of it had been focused on theory and not much application but he had learned enough to create a ray of frost and he shot one at the flames. A path opened and he charged into it, yelling to his sister.
Lydia gritted her teeth and followed him, casting as bright a light as she could in the air. It did almost nothing against the smoke but it got them to Keats’ door. Edward grabbed the sobbing toddler out of his cradle and turned to yell at Lydia. She wasn’t there, she was back in the hall trying to get further, trying to get to their parents.
“Mama!” She flung raw magic at the door and it splashed over the wood. “Papa!” Another unshaped bolt of power careened towards the door. “Wake up!”
Edward balanced Keats as best he could and grabbed his sister.
“Come on, Lili. We need to go!”
They’d made it outside, of course, and stood there shivering in the darkness as they waited. Waited to see if anyone would come to help, waited to see if their parents would come out, waited to see what the dawn would bring.
It changed all three of them and left the teenagers alone with a baby. Lydia moved faster after that, made decisions faster and often without consulting him first. And Edward? He learned not to rush in, to hesitate, to wait until he was sure. They would never know if a different course could have saved their parents but for a long time, they both thought about it. At least, they didn’t until Keats got sick and gave them something new to worry about.
The memories had rushed back so quickly, the heat, the noise. Most people don’t think about the sound in a fire, but the flames roar almost like a dragon. A younger Edward had lived in fear of that sound. At least, until he’d ripped out his own soul and declared he wasn’t afraid of anything. What a crock of lies.
He downed a third and fourth glass, trying to get something like an equilibrium back under him, trying not to feel like he was sitting on top of a pile of sand that made up his world and was slowly slipping away.
“We had to take care of him after that. And he was a good kid. Smart, funny, the whole thing. He was real big on helping people and... and he was a cute little guy. And...”
Edward stopped, his voice trailing off. And they had forgotten everything Keats had ever been. They had always been selfish, sure, but that was important when it was just the three of you against the world. But somehow Keats had never fallen into that. They had watched out for him, made sure he never had to worry, that he could help people like he wanted without any sort of trouble.
And the moment he was gone, they’d turned completely inward and forgotten everything.
Edward held his glass out again and downed it the moment Barry filled it.
“He was the best of us, you know."
Edward's words were slightly slurred now and he gestured haphazardly with the empty glass. Then he froze as an arm settled around his shoulders and he realized he’d been crying. Not just his eyes watering a bit, but actual tears streaming down his cheeks.
“Ed, if... if you wanted, I bet I could find out where he went. If he reincarnated or whatever.”
Edward looked at him, ears flicking back and forward.
"You would do that? For me?"
Barry smiled back at Edward.
"Yeah, of course."
There was a bit of pink in his cheeks, Edward noted. But that was probably just the alcohol. Just like it was the alcohol making Edward feel warm and soft and languid and like he wanted to turn and press a kiss to Barry's lips.
Thankfully for both of them, Barry turned away before Edward's drunken mind could make a decision.
"What'd you guys used to do? For fun, I mean. Did uh... did you always play chess?"
Edward looked up again.
"My father taught me, when we were young. I didn't play much though. Until... For the most part, Lydia and I used to go to parties, host them ourselves. Things like that."
Barry smiled and took a long sip from his own glass before he responded.
"Color me surprised that you two were throwing parties."
Edward's ears flicked back and for a moment, he looked almost indignant. Then another bubble of vexation fizzled in his stomach and burst. There were so many other people he could hear say things like that and they would be assuming the worst but Barry somehow made the teasing shot friendly. There were no barbs in his words.
"Lydia was also quite the baker. She found all sorts of ways to substitute and make things look fancy as could be even with what we could afford. I used to spend hours in the woods finding just the right berries for her."
Barry smiled and started to open his mouth to say something, once again leaning towards Edward. Then his stone of far speech beeped in his pocket and he frowned slightly. For a moment, he looked like he might ignore it. Enough that Edward was hopeful. Then it beeped again and Barry sighed softly and pulled it out.
"Hello? Oh, hey Taako. Yeah... yeah just... Angus? Sure, just give me a minute. I'm at work." He pushed himself back up to standing before turning to look back at Edward. "I'm sorry, I have to go deal with this. I'll see you later though, I promise."
With that, he headed towards the door, leaving Edward alone in his small room with half a pitcher of bright blue alcoholic lemonade and his own thoughts.
Edward had long since finished the last of the pitcher before he stumbled to his feet, leaving glasses and pitcher behind. He was pleasantly warm, his mind just muddled enough that the edge had been taken off entirely. For the first time since his first death so long ago, he felt truly relaxed. He flopped onto his back across the bed, humming to himself. Then his mind went back to that moment when they had been sitting so close, their faces bare inches apart. It was so close that he could have leaned forward, closed the distance between them, and kissed Barry. He could have. He wanted to. It was dangerous but, gods, he wanted it so badly.
Barry Bluejeans looked like a man who knew his way around a proper kiss. He looked like the sort of man who had strong arms, gentle hands, and would absolutely push him against a wall to kiss like he meant it. Maybe even grab him by the collar of his shirt and hold him there, throw him around a little. It was moments like this when Edward wondered if he really was a switch or if he was just an assertive bottom. Either way, the image was delicious. Enough that heat was curling in his gut and he let his head fall back onto the pillow.
It would be so easy for Barry to shove him up against the wall, to kiss him, to mark him, to pull his trousers down and run one calloused hand over his cock. Edward chewed his lower lip, a brief flash of guilt shooting through him. He couldn't keep doing this. He shouldn't keep doing this. Except...
Except that he wanted to. And really, what was the harm in it? There was none, he was sure of that. And anyway, he wanted it and it was something he could have, unlike everything else he wanted. With soft growl of frustration, he tugged his trousers down and kicked them off. Why was he even taking the time to acknowledge something like guilt? What did he have to be guilty over? Certainly not over the fact that he wanted some Grade A beef.
Now then, where was he? Oh right, shoved up against a wall with Barry's hand around his cock. Fuck, that was a good image. Edward ran his hand down his stomach, taking himself in hand. And he could reach down and undo those jeans, let Barry's cock come out to play. Edward licked his lips. Maybe if he was lucky, he could even get his mouth on it. He could sit on his knees in front of Barry and watch the man come apart for him.
His even strokes stuttered, his hips rocking up as he thrust roughly into his hand. His back arched as a low groan escaped his lips and he spilled over his hand and stomach. Then, for a long while he just lay there in the quiet.
What the fuck was he doing?
Edward sat up a little, wiping his hand on the blankets. Then he grabbed one to clean himself up. This was a mistake. All of this. Trying to be friendly, letting his emotions get the better of him. All of it was a fucking mistake and he needed to stop before... before...
Before Barry found out. Before he took a step he couldn’t undo. Before he got hurt. Before there was no coming back. He tugged his trousers back on and redid the ties with the efficiency of long practice. Then he got up, pacing the room. The glint of light from the pitcher off to one side caught his eye and Edward strode towards it, grabbing it in one hand. For a long moment, he considered it. It would be so easy to fling against the wall, the let it shatter to pieces. And it would, it was no part of the magic of this room that was his whole world. The glass would even stay, glittering on the floor and reflecting the light.
He weighed it in his hand, feeling the solidness of it. Then he set it back down. He couldn't just smash it. Not when he kept picturing the worried look on Barry's face the last time he threw a fit. And it drove a spike into his core that he cared this much. He wasn't supposed to care. He was supposed to be one of the two hosts of Wonderland and that was it.
Who even was he now?
He sat back down in the corner and closed his eyes, trying to relax his mind enough to meditate. He failed and sometime late into what he guessed was the night, he was still staring at the wall. That was when the door opened and Barry stepped back inside. He moved quietly across the room, gathering the pitcher and glasses to head back. Edward's ears flicked and he opened one eye.
"What? Not even going to say hello? What sort of manners are those?"
Barry nearly jumped at Edward's voice and he set the glasses back on the floor.
"Oh, hey Edward. I uh... I didn't think you were awake. So I didn't want to bother you. You... you seemed like you could use the rest."
He frowned slightly, looking around, and for one guilty moment, Edward wondered if Barry somehow knew what he'd been up to. Then the man's smile returned.
"It is late, you know. You should get some rest."
Edward stretched out languidly, legs crossed at the ankles.
"What if I don't want to?"
Barry let out a startled laugh. It was always nice catching him off guard like that, Edward thought. Nice seeing the man's expression unmistakably genuine. Not that it wasn't the rest of the time, but sometimes it was nice to be extra sure.
"Well then, you're gonna be pretty tired tomorrow, don't you think?"
Did he even know how ridiculous that sounded? Edward raised one perfect brow, a little smile playing at the corners of his lips.
"My dear Reaper, did you forget? I'm dead. The dead don't exactly get tired."
Barry mouthed the words 'my dear reaper' back and Edward felt his stomach drop out, regret instantly coursing through him. What if that was too much? What if it made his interest obvious? No, dammit. Not interest. He wasn't interested in anyone or anything. He was just lonely and gay and that was it.
A little smile crossed Barry's face then and Edward couldn't even lie to himself now. Instead, he looked away. Better to admit defeat than to let Barry figure out the truth, after all. And he certainly didn't want to risk word getting back to Lup.
“Edward?” Barry had his head tilted the side just slightly, worry in his eyes. “Are you alright?”
And how the hell was he supposed to answer that?
“I’m fine. Just take the glasses and leave.”
Barry hesitated for a moment and then scooped up his things.
“I’ll see you tomorrow then, I guess.”
He lingered in the doorway for a moment, long enough that Edward almost wondered if he was waiting for something. If he was waiting for Edward to call him back. He could too, call the man back and tell him everything. Grab him by the collar of his uniform and kiss him firmly, taste those lips and get as drunk on them as he had been on drink.
He said nothing. He just watched as the door closed and once again he was left in the darkness of these four walls and his thoughts.
Tomorrow came, of course, and Barry stepped quietly into Edward’s cell and closed the door behind him.
“Hey Ed. Sorry about... well... large chunks of yesterday, honestly.”
Edward looked up at him from where he sat on the floor in his usual spot. He didn’t have anything like the energy he would need to be annoyed with Barry today. He could but what would be the point? All that would come of it would be Barry leaving him all alone again. There certainly wasn’t any fun to be had in that.
Instead, he waved it away, a relaxed smile on his face.
“Think nothing of it. Entirely water under the metaphorical bridge.”
Barry was quiet for a moment, then he shrugged and went to sit on the edge of the bed.
“If you say so.” He paused for a moment. “Did uh... did you want to play chess today or maybe just... maybe just talk?”
Was it just him or was the Reaper nervous? Had he finally gotten in trouble for his fraternizing with the enemy? Not that they were really fraternizing, that would be far more fun. But still, the Raven Queen was sure to have rules about that sort of thing. Or else the far more likely and far more terrifying potentiality: Lup had found out.
He got to his feet, moving to sit by Barry on the bed. In for a copper, in for a gold. If this was going to be the end of things, he might as well enjoy it while it lasted.
“Talking sounds delightful. Assuming, of course, you don’t want to talk more about my family. I’m rather afraid we’ve exhausted that topic for now.”
Barry turned away but he didn’t get up. No, instead he scooted back so he was leaning against the wall behind the small bed. Edward looked him over, taking the image in and practically willing his ears and cheeks not to redden as he thought about the times he’d laid on this bed and thought about the things he would like to do with this man on it. Oh yes, even if this was the end, he was going to have fodder for his fantasies for months, at least.
“Well, no. I sort of... I figured you wouldn’t want to after everything.” Barry was still looking away, his voice oddly distant. “I guess I just wanted to ask about... the bell. How did you get it? And... how long? Was... did you have Wonderland before that?”
Guilt. Edward’s ears flicked up as he was struck with that realization. This was guilt he was hearing in Barry’s voice. And of course he was. Barry had made the Animus Bell, after all. It would make sense for the man to feel a little guilt over that.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Knowing we had Wonderland long before we got our hands on that little toy of yours.” Edward laughed softly. “You’re right, of course. It was a bit harder, the prizes less 'your heart’s desire' and more generic treasure, but it lured in plenty of adventurers.”
Barry nodded at that, just a bit of a blush coloring his cheeks.
“It’s not the way you make it sound. I know I made something awful. It... it wasn’t supposed to be like that but... I guess nothing ever is, you know?” He paused for a long moment, long enough that Edward wasn’t sure he was going to pick that thought back up. “I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t my fault you became that.”
Edward snorted. As if they’d needed temptation to skip merrily down the road of evil. Oh, no. They'd managed that one all on their own.
“Don’t you worry about that in the slightest, we were already ruling Wonderland when some adventurer brought the bell to us. Idiot thought he could use it to win our game and ended up killing himself with it.”
Barry made a face at that.
“Of course... Dammit, well, I don’t know what I was expecting. Nothing we made ended well.”
Edward had missed the vast majority of what was known as the Relic Wars, so caught up had he and Lydia been. After all, they had Wonderland to rule. Why would they notice anything going on outside. He did know a bit about the aftermath from the Story. About cities laid waste to with fire and candy and storms, about wars fought with and to control weapons of uncontrollable power.
It was uncomfortable to think about, even for him. And to think that someone as sweet as Barry had made one of those weapons. Now Lup, Lup he could understand. Of course she made an implement of fiery destruction, of course she made a way to raze cities. There was a poetic irony to it, really.
And then he looked at Barry again, ears flicking back. And Barry carried that guilt, for all of it. Not just the bell.
“Did you want to talk about something else? I could tell you all about the inner workings of Wonderland, tell you everything you’d need to know to set up your own franchise even.”
"You know," Barry leaned back against the wall, turning to look at Edward next to him with an expression that was almost thankful, like he was relieved for the topic change even though he’d started it. "I do have one question. I always wondered, why the game? Was it just the attention or something else?"
Edward glanced over again, this time examining the Reaper's arms while he tried to figure out how to answer that question. Barry was finally out of the sling but the cut hadn't healed all the way yet and he could see the lines of it against the man's pale skin. Then he shrugged.
"Partially that, partially because people are more likely to come when they think they can win, and partially to get their consent." The way Barry's eyebrows shot up meant Edward had surprised him again and he sighed softly. "Surprised we were getting consent? It makes the spell casting easier."
But Barry shook his head.
"No, no, that's not... I was just sort of considering the ethics, you know?"
"Ethics." Edward's tone was deadpan and he couldn't help but turn completely so he was sitting cross-legged on the bed instead of leaning against the wall behind it. "You're talking about Wonderland, darling, there's no ethics in Wonderland."
Barry chuckled quietly and Edward's ears flicked up. Barry thought he was joking, didn't he? He actually believed there was something ethical to the torture they'd inflicted on so very many people. It had been centuries. Bloody centuries of death and suffering and what for? Bright lights and infamy.
"No, no, I mean like... degrees of ethical behavior. There's like... levels to it? And it's really interesting to think about the uh... the sort of ramifications of the different levels in different scenarios, magically speaking, I mean." Barry held up a hand, counting on his fingers as he spoke. "So at the top you get like informed consent, right? Where they know exactly what they're getting into and willingly do so. Then you get uninformed assent, which is like... That's where Wonderland is. They don't know exactly what they're getting into, but they agree to some form of it and maybe they get what they were expecting and maybe they don't. Then you get dubious consent which is... honestly sort of similar? But where something is being actively withheld or the situation isn't what it looks like and..."
Barry kept going and Edward tilted his head to the side, a small smile playing across his lips. He couldn't help it. There was something about the way Barry lit up when he was excited, something about the way he got so involved in what he was saying that his hands were moving in the air and he stumbled over his words, repeating some and stammering others. At some point, Barry had turned as well, facing Edward straight on.
And then he stopped talking suddenly, a blush coloring his cheeks as he met Edward's eyes.
Barry moved first and their lips met.
It was awkward at first, but not in a bad way. It was simply awkward in the way of two people who are coming together for the first time and need to learn each other, to know the cadence of each other's movements, to find the way they fit together. But soon they were tangled in each other, laying across Edward's small bed. Edward was pleased to discover that Barry's curly hair was just as soft as he'd always hoped, perfect for running his fingers through.
Somewhere down the hall, a door slammed and Edward sat bolt upright, quickly trying to fix his hair so it didn't look mussed as he pulled away from Barry. Barry sat up more slowly, running nervous fingers through his own hair.
"Did I... I mean... What... what's wrong? Is something wrong?"
When Edward looked up again, he was even more pale than usual and he almost looked like he was shaking. Barry slid off the bed, going to him with his hands out. Edward pulled away.
"Barry, if she sees, if she finds out. I'm not going to be the one getting us in trouble, do you hear me? This existence may not be all that great but at least I'm still existing and if- if she finds out about this then..."
Edward couldn't meet his eyes. Gods, how much had he wanted this? How close had it been to so many of his illicit fantasies? But if Lup caught wind that any of this was happening... if she even thought... And what the hell was Barry doing? It wasn't as though Edward had made the first move. That would've been suicidal, but at least it would've made sense. Wasn't there literally a Story that had been beamed into his head about how their love was decades in the making and so perfect that it had defined and redeemed him and about how devoted they were to each other? Barry had literally spent a decade dying repeatedly just in the hopes that he might find her again, so what right did he have to be kissing Edward right now?
"I... I mean, I guess she might mind if one of her Reapers got involved with a Death Criminal but given Kravitz's stellar track record in that department, I don't think My Queen will-"
Edward shoved Barry away from him, panic in his eyes. Stumbling slightly, Barry ended up falling back onto the bed.
"I don't mean the Raven Queen, Barry! I mean your wife."
Barry blinked a few times, mouth open in pure surprise. He was quiet for a moment but then he reached for Edward's hand, but didn't actually take it.
"Ed, she knows. I promise, she knows everything. I told her the minute I knew how I felt about you. I... I... I would never do that to either of you."
Edward slowly met Barry's eyes again. He knew Barry wouldn't lie, not about that of all things. He and Lydia had heard the Story and the Song just the same as everyone else. He knew exactly what sort of love he was competing with here. But from the way Barry made it sound... maybe it wasn't a competition.
"She's alright with anything that happens? She knows?"
He wasn't sure he believed that just yet, but if Barry was going to make the claim, then he was going to go along with it.
"More than that. She supports whatever happens, Ed."
He held out a hand and Edward took it tentatively before closing the distance between them far more confidently. If there was nothing standing between him and this man, then he was going to have what he wanted. Barry wrapped his arms around Edward, holding him close. Then he lifted the startled elf into his arms as he moved towards the bed again.
"Now then... Where were we?"
Edward hesitated only a moment more before he pulled Barry in for another kiss, fingers once again tangled in his hair.
Edward’s hair was thoroughly mussed by the time they separated once more and he rested his head against Barry’s shoulder. This was... it was good. It was potentially one of the best things that had happened to him in a long, long time. But there were so many questions left in his mind. He sighed softly, closing his eyes. Then he felt Barry shift against him.
Barry’s arm had settled around his waist at some point and Edward leaned into that contact. Then he spoke, his voice uncharacteristically small.
“Barry, what are we doing?”
The silence hung between them for a long moment before Barry spoke, words stilted.
“I... what... what do you mean? Like... right now or like...?”
Edward had to laugh, even if the sound grated in his ears and choked his throat. Ridiculously adorable man.
“I’m talking big picture. Listen, Barry, I like you. A lot. But I’ve got too much self respect to be your... your side bit of amusement that you play with before you go home to your wife. So... what’s your angle?”
Barry turned, cupping Edward’s cheek in one hand. His eyebrows came together, his eyes meeting Edward’s.
“That’s not... Edward, that’s not what I want at all.”
“No?” Edward all but snapped the word, disbelief. “Even if she knows, that doesn’t make it... equal. I’ve seen arrangements like that. Something where the husband wants some dick on the side and the wife goes along with it because at least it’s not another woman and let me tell you, I’m not about that life.”
Barry pulled back slightly as Edward sat up straighter. Then he did something that surprised Edward more than nearly everything else that had happened today. Nearly, because nothing would surprise him more than that kiss. But now, he reached to put his hand gently on Edward’s and smiled at him.
“First off, if that’s all I wanted, Lup has a strap-on. Second off, she and I sorted this kind of thing out decades ago. We’re poly. It’s not cheating, it’s not a side thing. If... if you want to do this, it would be a real relationship. Not any more or any less than what she and I have, just newer.”
Not less, just newer. The entire idea sounded mad. The idea that somehow, anything he could have would be at the same level as... as... Then he met Barry’s eyes again and felt a mirroring smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Edward continued to hesitate for a long moment, not really sure if he believed all this or not. Well, no, that was going a bit far. He knew Barry was telling the truth. Barry wasn't the kind of man to lie about these things. But the real question was whether or not Edward's heart was ready to believe it.
The next time the door to his cell opened, Edward was halfway to his feet with every intention of moving to meet Barry when he realized it very much was not Reaper Barry Bluejeans standing in the open door. It had been a long time since he had seen this beautiful dark haired woman, her features obscured as they were behind a mask much like the skull of a raven. He managed to check his forward motion, pulling up hard as the door closed behind her.
“Edward Elmenda. Your crimes are many and you have many times defied My will, refusing to enter the Astral Plane at the end of your mortal life, attempting to remove souls from My keeping.”
His false pulse hammered in his ears, overloud in the silences between her words. This sounded like a judgment being rendered, one where he really wasn’t going to like the outcome. He swallowed hard, forcing himself to meet that crimson gaze.
“You have tortured and killed, wielding the arts of necromancy in pursuit of power and amusement.” Then she tilted her head to the side, looking almost like a bemused raven herself. “And yet, despite all of that, my Reapers insist there is good in you and a chance for your very real betterment.”
She gestured at a wall and a seat formed of the stones there. Settling in and adjusting the many layered skirts of her gown, she nodded to him.
“I would have speech with you, Edward Elmenda. I would know the lich that my Reaper has become so enamored with. I would see if you are worthy of the favors he begs for you.”
Somehow, that was better and worse than what he’d been expecting all at once. Edward licked his lips nervously, trying to figure out what it was she wanted to hear. What would get him out of this, out of here?
She was waiting for him to say something and the words were all but screaming in his head, lodged in his throat and threatening to choke him. Everything felt too loud in that lingering silence. Then he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, not needing the air but desperately needing the calm it brought with it.
“Lady Raven Queen, I...”
It would be so easy. So easy to tell her he deserved this, that he deserved his freedom, that he deserved so much after everything he’d been through. To make the same kind of blithe promises that had gotten him through so much of his life. Instead, his shoulders slumped and honesty poured from his lips.
“I don’t know what he sees in me. I’m exactly what you said I am and he… he’s so much better than that.” He paused for a moment. “A month ago, if you’d come here, I would have told you that everything we did could be laid at your feet and at the feet of Istus. That it was your fault for taking Keats from us.”
The Raven Queen leaned forward, hands folded in her lap.
His gaze fell.
“And now, I’ve seen that none of what we did was for him, not really. We were scared and hurting and lashed out. And that doesn’t make it right. If anything, that makes everything we did worse.”
Shaking his head a little, Edward had to wonder if he was even the same person he had been; when his brother was alive, when he ruled Wonderland, when he was thrown in here the first or second time. Were any of these people the same Edward Elmenda who stood here now? He wasn’t sure.
The Raven Queen nodded slowly, gaze still impassive but there was something there that almost felt she was pleased. Almost.
“So then, it would seem that, for now, his assessment is at least a potential truth. Very well. I will remind you of something then before I leave you.” She stood and for a moment, Edward felt a weight forcing him down and heard the cacophony of a flock of ravens so loud that he couldn’t even hear his own thoughts. He dropped to his knees, unable to fight against the force of her power that she was exerting on him. “Should you forget what you have learned, should any of My Reapers come to harm as a result of your actions, remember, Edward Elmenda, that your continued existence is at My sufferance.”
And then she was gone. He fell forward, bracing himself on his hands and knees as he gasped, trying to fight past the feeling like he was being mobbed. Slowly, so slowly, it passed, leaving him laying on his side on the floor with tears in his eyes and a pain throbbing in his chest.