dedication: to Dicey, who is a butt, and to Emily, who is not.
notes: hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh la muerte take me sweet queen of the underworld
notes2: yo, if I've said anything offensive as fuck in this, spray me with cold water and let me know. I know very little about Day of the Dead traditions, but I'm an Italian white girl—if you think I need to be schooled, please sit me the fuck down and school me.
title: the graveyard crown
summary: Would that you could pick your teeth with his bones. — La Muerte, Xibalba.
The veil between worlds is thin, but never as thin as it is on the Day of the Dead.
It is an ephemeral time, when the brown earth is bare of the autumn's last harvest: passing is easiest now, when there is so little separating the different worlds. The living may remember the dead without worry, may feel their presence, for the Dead of the Dead is a time for remembering. Before the long cold winter months, families may be together once again.
This is the way La Muerte likes it.
This is the way La Muerte keeps it.
This is the way La Muerta will keep it, and damn any who dares stand in her way.
She was human, once.
All the Gods were. Human and vulnerable and able to die, just as any other. They were not invincible, once. They were not deathless.
She had been human and beautiful and full of light and life and righteous fire. Her hands had been clawed when she made fists, carrying her candles in her skirts and her mother's love in her breast. Her laughter had been a terrible ringing over the plains. She had been so loved, and so feared, and so alive.
Ah, how very, very alive she'd been.
But that was a very long time ago, and these days, La Muerte wears her wide-brimmed hat dripping crimson flame and ruby-red fiesta silk, a cigarillo burning between her fingertips. Smoke never hurt a corpse, and her teeth part white and even behind lips the same colour as her dress as she exhales.
Her breath crawls over the center of the universe, settles in like fog.
It is a few days shy of the death of the year. Her people rest for now, signing songs and telling tales of Manolo and María and Joaquin, the three children that La Calavera Catrina favoured above all others.
They do not call her by that name, of course. Catrina is lost to history, merely a girl in a revolution long since passed.
La Muerte, on the other hand, endures.
She tips her head back, hair hanging long and dark down her back, held back by pins made of the bones of her sisters. They rest, too, though there is very little true rest to be had in the Land of the Remembered. Truthfully, there is very little true rest that is wanted.
Her people love to party. She would laugh, if the irony were not so very cruel.
An owl hoots softly in the distance.
"So you've come," she says, to the empty air. "I thought the banishment was a hundred thousand years long, this time. Something about trying to take over all of heaven and earth?"
"I snuck out," he drawls as he draws near. The play of eerie green light casts long shadows over her skin. "I had to come see my favourite girl, didn't I?"
"The Candle Maker's getting sloppy," she says instead, fingers tangled through the chain of her necklace. It is long, hangs down far beneath the neckline of her dress, down between her breasts, and even now, even now, she hides the pendant carefully—her own personal hourglass, turning always. Her beginnings and her endings, all wrapped up in strong wrought silver. "His wax prison didn't hold you very long."
"It wasn't made to hold long," the words slid out of his mouth like thick oil over dirty sand. "He can't keep me. No one can."
"I don't know why anyone would want to," La Muerte says, feigning a yawn. She is lovely and dead, flowers in her hair, and he has no power here. They both know this.
And still, his words are poison.
"Care for a wager?" he says, heavy with it.
She laughs, and echoes his words from another time back at him. "You have nothing I want. Keep the Forgotten Realm, there's no one there, anymore."
His teeth are all sharp points in his mouth, skull-eyes red for a flash of a moment as his claws close around her wrist. He drags her closer, too physical. He always was, always is; they have played this game so many times, and La Muerte is not afraid.
"Not much of a ruler without anyone to rule, are we, Balbi?" she says, softly, softly, all dust and sweet things on her tongue. Her breath hazes ashes across his cheek and down his neck.
"You awful woman," he says. He sounds almost impressed.
And La Muerte laughs again, amused despite herself. "Your people are gone, because they've been remembered. My boy was a good choice, no? Not scared of anything but himself, and even that's gone, now. So tell me, my love, why would I make a wager with you? What do you have to offer?"
He stares down at her, breathing. Breathing.
"Myself," he says. "My own soul."
"Oh, darling," La Muerte says, red lips curling up like a satisfied cat. "What on earth makes you think I'd want that?"
She shoves him in the chest, hard. He stumbles backwards, trips over the hem of his frock, bewildered at her sudden turn of face.
"What on earth," she continues, takes a step towards him at a time and the world shakes with every one, with her growing power, "makes you think you are worth anything to me? What makes you think—"
And here she pauses, to look at him.
The man she'd fallen in love with had died as long ago as she. Of course it was impossible that they'd ever have a chance—this creature is not her husband. This creature is nothing at all.
"What makes you think," she says again, smiling pityingly now, "that I want anything to do with you at all?"
"Catrina—" he says. It sounds like a plea.
"I should have killed you when I had the chance," La Muerte says.
"Catrina—" he says again.
"Rest, my darling," she replies. "Everyone else is, and I'm taking a break. Death needs some time to herself."
She tipped her hat in his direction, gloved fingers gentle. He stayed where he was, on the ground, trapped behind bars of his own making, and this, this is fitting. He offered himself, his own soul, and now he kneels, the candles on his shoulders gone out. They were hers, her mothers, hidden in a skirt long since decayed.
He is going out with them.
And La Muerte is so hungry.
Her hat, glowing fire and ruby, is her crown. She wears it like a death in the family, like smoke over water, like a graveyard in the night. The Day of the Dead is coming; it is always coming.
She turned on one heel, a slow graceful line of music, wind chimes an coloured confetti and fireworks, all wrapped up in thick make-up and fire-eyes.
"Don't wait up," she says, flicking her fingers. The lights go out around her, and his eyes widen then narrow, darken.
"Are you really going to leave me here?"
"Don't wait up," she repeats, throws a smile over her shoulder.
And she goes.