"Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why does thou thus
Through windows and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?"
All these things were noted quietly and filed away mentally by the young man swinging his legs over the ledge of the roof of the Subreality Cafe. The barely-warm, not-dry and not-wet wind moved his straight, light-brown hair only slightly. He pushed it out of his eyes distractedly with long, nimble fingers made so by years of typing and Writing longhand. Even now, black ink stains covered the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. The right was marked only by a small blotch, as he was primarily left-handed. The Writer did not notice, as this had been the state of affairs for so long that he rarely tried to scrub the stains away anymore, especially given how quickly they were replaced by new ones.
This morning, the sunrise stretched on to abnormal lengths. The reasons for this were not investigated very far, since generally, such things were actual omens, precise to a fair degree. And any sentient within Subreality possessing any amount of common sense had acquired, in his or her time here, the sense that trying to know the future in Subreality was at best a futile exercise, and at worst, a dangerous one.
He ran slender fingers through thinning hair again, lifting his head to see dawn waltzing leisurely across the sky towards him. The half-disc of the sun peeking over the mountains in the distance seemed to mock him, knowing in its own egotistical way that it was the last of its kind he would ever see. For more than one reason, he was glad of the fact, as well as that it would be here, in Subreality that he would end rather than in cold, lonely Reality, where his only company was the dismal bleeping of the heart monitor. He had been asleep for so long that no one came to visit anymore; his family was long dead, and he was left, alone, indefinitely. Until now.
He pushed those thoughts out of his mind now, focusing completely on the waxing light as if trying to burn it indelibly into his memory, until a hand touched his shoulder. He did not start, exactly, because he was too old to be startled, much older than he seemed, but merely slipped back from his fervent concentration and looked up into the face of his visitor. One blue eye and one brown stared down at him through wisps of soft, gold-brown hair, and the lean, sun-browned face showed both concern, which she showed in favour over something that might have been grief, or the beginnings of it. She was tall and lean, and everything about her had always been more of the dark, of the quiet of unintentional and unconscious strength and power, virtually the polar opposite of everything her tall, pale, thin Writer had ever been.
They had been together for so long that it seemed simply natural for their differences to balance each other out, and they worked well together, so well in fact that there had once been rumours, whispers years ago when they had both still been young and well-known, that there was more to their relationship than just friendship and Inspiration. Perhaps, the whispers had said, even something less appropriate to the Writer-Muse partnership. Back then -- and it had been long ago -- that sort of thing had been frowned upon. Not exactly taboo, but not encouraged.
Though if such a facet had ever existed in their relationship, it didn't now. Now they were friends -- albeit the closest of friends, the deepest of friends, the most intimate a friendship could be without crossing the line into the romantic.
Such loyalty they had for each other, in fact, that even when he had become sick, when he could no longer Write, she had stayed with him, Inspiring him to simply live on through the next day, always telling him that one more day, one more week, some time soon, he would be well -- it was a lie, of course; one that they had both told, to each other, and to themselves. They had both know he had no hope left, and little time -- and even now, here, at the end of it all, though he could no longer Write, she had helped him gain such focus, such peace that he was able to create, here in Subreality, with the ease and precise discipline that few had ever mastered; that which did not require the framework of pen and paper. He had theorised that it was because he was so close to the end; everything had been building to this point.
Neither Writer nor Muse were certain of how they felt about the fact that it was about to end; he was dying, and there was nothing, even in Subreality, that either of them could do about it. All he had now was the choice of where, and when.
"Are you sure about this?" she asked softly, and it was only then that he noticed how utterly still everything was. Even her soft query didn't disturb it as it might have, but rather emphasized the silence, the peace of early morning.
"No." It was the first answer, the only answer he could give. "Should I be?"
"No, I suppose not," she answered with a grim smile, and a quavering note to her voice. "But all the same, I wish--"
"Don't wish, love," he said, laying a hand atop the one on his shoulder. "Don't wish for things you can't have; that I can't have."
"But you realise that this way, this path, might keep you away from --"
"I know," he said, and she fell silent. "I would rather it were this way, this path, even if I'm wrong. It's better that I chose."
"Yes; it is."
For a moment, both were silent again, watching the streets fill with cool grey light and the slowly-receding Mists become enveloped in bright flame, burning away, slowly, to the edges of the City.
"They have go somewhere," he murmured, watching the play of colours like nowhere else in the Multiverse. "Like bones to the earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It's a sound principle. And if everything comes from the Mists..."
"...everything returns to them," she answered quietly.
He nodded. "I have to take the chance; the last one, or I'd never forgive myself. We know, we have to know that there's something... so I will take the chance."
She smiled crookedly down at him. "I knew you would as soon as I thought of it," she said, sighing.
He turned his head and returned the smile. "How could I do anything else?"
"You couldn't; it wouldn't be you. Are you ready?" She held out one hand to him; he nodded, and with some difficulty and her help, climbed to his feet. A moment later, he had moved toward the ladder at the edge of the roof, but she stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. He looked at her in surprise.
"But I..." He trailed off as she smiled and shook her head, then held out her hand again.
Hand in hand, they walked together to the edge of the roof overlooking the street. he shot her a vaguely uncertain glance, a bare instant before they stepped off into empty space.
His hand tightened convulsively around hers, but she merely smiled at him as their descent gradually slowed, until finally they were falling as slowly as a windblown feather, touching the cobbles of the street as if the leap from the roof had been simply a long, slow stair. He looked at her when he could again feel ground under his feet. Though her eyes were closed, a faint and fast retreating shimmer about her head and shoulders made him wonder, and not for the first time, whether his Muse might just be more than she'd been leading him to believe for all these years.
But when she opened her eyes and saw him looking at him, she merely smiled and squeezed his hand, silencing his whispered "What--" by way of a gentle, calloused finger on his lips.
"Not yet, love," she cautioned him. She gave his arm a tug, and they moved off down the street.
He was wondering about a lot of things these days, and one of them was the fact that after almost seven decades with her, he still knew slightly less than a hundredth about his Muse than she knew about him. He had always supposed that this was just the way of things, but over the past few years, things like that had been changing. It had never occurred to him, for instance, to ask her about her family, if she had any, or about her past Writers. Really, it had never seemed to matter before -- there was just the joy of creating together, and nothing outside was important enough to trifle with.
But now...it made him feel abruptly again like the young, foolish boy he had been when she'd first come to him, and for the first time, he felt some sadness for what he would soon leave behind.
"There's so much I never got around to doing," she said suddenly, echoing his thoughts. He looked up.
"What?" he asked, confused. She turned her head and stared at him.
"With you, love. So many things we never finished." She was silent and thoughtful for a moment, and he squeezed her hand.
"You can always finish them -- with your next Writer, right?"
This time, she looked surprised. "How did you -- how do you know about that?"
He shrugged. "I'm not completely senile, you know; I have been paying some attention these last few years. I got the impression that that's what's done when a Writer... I expect your Queen is quite insistent on that point." He tried to smile encouragingly, but settled for staring at his moving feet instead.
"I..." She actually seemed uncertain, in a way he hadn't seen or heard since the War.
"Can I ask you a question?" he said, not looking up.
"Always." The answer was a moment in coming.
"Do you have any family?"
This silence was the longest yet, and for a few seconds, he was afraid he'd upset her -- though when he looked up, the eyes looking at him were just perplexed.
"You never asked me before," she said quietly.
"I never wondered before. So?"
She considered momentarily. "I have two sisters; one younger, one older. Neither of them are Muses."
"What about your parents?"
"They died when I was little -- my grandmother raised us." She looked at him, arching one eyebrow. "Why the sudden curiosity?"
He shrugged again. "I just...felt like I should know. Thanks."
They had been walking a long time. The sun had climbed halfway into the sky, and shone brightly down on their heads, though neither of them noticed. The early morning chill persisted, as did the uncanny still and quiet, as if Subreality herself was waiting respectfully for him.
They were nearly at the edge of the City now, and the desert stretched out before them to a distant and blurry horizon. As they passed the City limits, he took one last look over his shoulder, and kept walking.
By nightfall, he was growing tired, regardless of the forces sustaining him from outside. His avatar was fading, and his Real self was hardly as strong or healthy. He turned to his Muse and gasped: "I'm running out, I--"
Without a word, though with a pained expression, she clasped his hand again, and he could immediately breathe easier, walk with less pain. He looked thankfully at her, and they went on.
At length, they both realised that the surroundings were changing. The coarse, uneven ground of the desert was gradually becoming darker, smoother, more even. Instead of the harsh sound of gravel beneath their feet, each step now sank a little into fine black sand that slipped back into each new footprint, virtually erasing every trace of their passing. Soon they were so far past the desert that all they could see in any direction was plain, uninterrupted black sand.
It was getting slowly colder, too, and he felt goosebumps rising on his arms. At some point, what seemed to be a solid wall of fog loomed up ahead of them, tendrils snaking along the ground to meet them.
He realised suddenly, though, that the Mists weren't waiting for them -- only for him.
He stopped walking, and she stumbled to a halt next to him.
"You have to stop here," he told her, as the tendril of Mist reached them, touched him. It writhed a little, and a near shiver ran through the whole mass before it bag to glow faintly, the light spreading out from the first seeking limb that had touched him. An instant later, both Writer and muse were lit palely from the looming wall of Mist, beyond which nothing could be seen. She turned to look at him, and felt a pang as she saw that the light cast shadows onto his face that accentuated his pallor. She saw it now, the dark circles under his eyes, the unhealthy thinness, the pain of long illness written in every line of his face, even in avatar form, which even now was fading steadily away.
As more Mist reached out towards him, beginning to surround him, he tilted his head to one side and looked at her curiously, for the glow from before was here intensified, and she looked rather as if bright summer sunlight were beaming down on her from above.
"You're glowing," he told her, and she shrugged.
"It happens, this close to the Mists -- look at you."
He obeyed, looking down at his hands. Tiny specks of what might have been water, and might have been light, were crawling over his skin like thousands of tiny insects.
"You're about to change," she said softly. "You see, you're more substantial than me, because you're a human being, and all. Any Writer that comes this far out into the Mists is changed in some way, loses something gains something. It's dangerous."
"What about you?" The light on her shoulders was all around her now.
"The part of me that was a part of you is leaving," she said. "Most of it needs to go with you, or you wouldn't be complete. It happens differently for everyone."
"But without you, I--"
She silenced him again, with a faint smile. "Part of me goes, for part of you," she told him, "so you...never really leave..." Her voice was quieted at the end, and she lowered her eyes.
"I know," he said, and at that moment, both lights emanating from Writer and Muse faded away. The Mists receded, waiting.
Both had expected him to appear, after this, as he was as his Real self, but instead, he stood there as before, his avatar mended, all the signs of age and illness and pain gone.
"You see? You're you again -- like you used to be, like you have to be to--" She stopped with a quickly-stifled sob, and he looked at her in open-mouthed shock.
She shook her head, scrubbing at her eyes, but he caught her wrists and forced her to look at him, then pulled her into his arms. "I won't be gone forever; you know that, and it's not really me that's dying. You know that, too."
"I know," she said, and for a moment they simply stood there holding each other. Then he pulled back and looked at her.
"I'll miss you," he said.
"Me, too," she answered, closing her eyes as he leaned down and placed a soft kiss on her forehead.
Then he stepped back from her, dropped his arms, and turned toward the Mist.
"Everything comes from them..." he murmured.
"...And everything returns," she finished.
He finally smiled, and without another word, walked forward into the Mists. As he touched them, they flared brilliantly for an instant, momentarily blinding her. When she could see again, she watched his departing back until even his silhouette was no longer visible. Finally, even the glow of the Mists themselves had faded away, and the only light was from the rising sun behind her.
She clutched her hands to her stomach as she felt, with a semi-painful gasp, the silent snap within her that meant the connection between Writer and Muse had been severed. It hurt, more than she remembered, though differently here than before. But slowly, as the pain faded, she felt from outside herself a distant sense of wonder, of contentment, and she smiled.
"Goodbye," she whispered, and disappeared.