When Thanatos woke up, he felt like his old self again. The blurriness was gone from his eyes and his mind just felt sharper. Stella was still asleep, so he grabbed a book from the nightstand and peeled it open. His eyes passed over the words lazily, and he bounced his foot absently, trying purposely to wake his dog up. She yawned widely and stretched her legs against his calf.
"Good morning." She licked her lips and laid her head back down in rebellion. He called her by name in warning, but her eyes remained closed. She always ignored him in the mornings.
"Fine," he said as he gathered his things, "you stay here and feed yourself until I get back." At the mention of food, Stella's ears pricked up. She cracked an eye open and looked at him pleadingly. "Up," he commanded.
She rose up and bent low to the ground with her front legs, yawning as she stretched. When he was satisfied that she wasn't going to lie back down, he continued to get ready. A biker jacket and jeans won't work today.
After procrastinating for as long as was possible, Thanatos let his body sag into the couch. On the coffee table in front of him was a small envelope. It was thick and stiff in his hands, and small; he could hold it by the corners and spun it between his thumb and his middle finger. Inside it, his brother's faithful hand had scrawled a name, and Thanatos knew he had to wait to read it. Reading the name was what took him away, and doing the job was what brought him back.
"Stella!" She came trotting from the left corner of their home. She moved with none of the reluctance she'd showed that morning, and her sharp eyes immediately took hold of the envelope in his hand. He sat up and played with the corner of the flap. "We could just leave it." His voice was playful, but his eyes were serious. Stella barked once.
He sighed and, with a sharp twist of his wrist, ripped a corner of the envelope open. He ran a thin finger along the inside seam and plucked a folded paper from inside. "Still a chance," he muttered more to himself than to his companion, even as he opened the card. Written in blue pen, as if it were an item on a long, rambling grocery list, was "Ezra Cole."
He tucked the name into his coat pocket as a corner of his mouth tipped up; the name Ezra meant aid, or help. Hypnos was mocking him. The type of help Thanatos provided wasn't the kind that most people prayed for. It was just the only kind he knew how to provide.
He opened the door and Stella ran out ahead. She knew what an envelope meant. He took his time on the road, wandering left and right in jagged lines to waste as much time as was possible. He put his hands in his pockets and ran his fingers along the edge of the note as he walked, making sure that Stella didn't stray too far.
"Come in," his brother muttered, stepping to the left to let his brother into his office. Thanatos looked into the large hearth and extended a hand into the fire; it felt like cool water running between his fingertips. From behind him, his brother heaved a heavy sigh. Mornings were always the hardest time.
"The doctors have done all they can," Hypnos exhaled in a deep tone. His voice was always low rumble; a looming thunderstorm. "You should be as quick as possible." It wasn't just a statement about any level of difficulty; it was a command. It was a warning. Hypnos waited for his brother's reply.
Thanatos drew his fingers out of the fire and turned around. He did not need to be told; the look in his brother's somber eyes said it all. He needed to get back on track and do his job without distractions or alternate plans. It was a simple job, and it should be done simply – that was why the job fell to him. It was what he could do.
Hypnos extended his hand into the air between them and Thanatos pulled the card from his pocket. It felt warm, and he was almost sorry to let it change hands. Hypnos moved forward, placing the card in the middle of his palm. Thanatos placed his hand flat on top of his brother's, and together they pulled their hands into the fire.
The children's hospital was one of Thanatos' least favorite places to visit. It was too dissonant – unlike the peaceful mountain air he'd been enjoying, the pediatric ward was stale. Some halls were filled with the noise of children playing games and watching television, babbling to their parents, but others were silent, save for the heartbeat of a machine.
Thanatos and Stella walked unnoticed through the halls and up to the fourth floor of the south wing, where a young boy lay in bed. They stood outside his door and listened in. A doctor was inside, speaking in hushed tones to Ezra's mother.
"He's been very strong so far. Six hours of surgery takes a heavy toll on everyone, and it's not unexpected for patients to regress, especially those who have gone through as much as he has."
Stella leapt up and put her front paws on the door to get a better view. Thanatos pushed her to the side.
"Rest assured that your son is receiving the best care this state has to offer, Mrs. Cole." The doctor threw a comforting glance her way before turning to exit the room. Stella hopped down from her perch and backed up as the doctor opened the door. They both slipped in unnoticed.
Audrey Cole sat on the right side of her son's hospital bed, which engulfed him. It made the boy look smaller than he was, and he looked tiny. Thanatos sighed; he couldn't be older than nine. His mother was stroking his hair to the side of his face, and she looked utterly lost. Thanatos took a seat near the window and Stella paced around the room, turning to lay down by his left foot. "Give it time," Thanatos whispered, glancing at the ring on his finger. Give it time.
Hours passed and Ezra's condition volleyed up and down. He was only allowed to take a life if it was certainly gone, and nothing was certain. Such a big war was going on in such a small body; all they could do was watch. Stella was getting restless.
"Hey," he whispered in the dark room. "Cut it out. You know we can't wander." As he spoke, Ezra stirred in his bed. Stella's ears twitched and she lifted her head to find the source of the noise; in turn, Ezra's eyes opened. He made a little moaning noise and looked around the room slowly. Thanatos sat up in his chair.
"Mom?" The boy's voice was sleepy and ragged; it sounded painful. He coughed harshly and the bed frame rattled. "Mom?" He repeated. This time it was more of a whisper.
What a little fighter. He didn't know whether to be impressed or worried. "Mom?" The boy called again, this time sounding more tenuous. Ezra's head turned to face the chair that Thanatos occupied. "Is that you?" His voice was stronger, and more anxious, than before. Another fit of violent coughs wracked his body, but he was persistent. "Mom!"
Thanatos chose worried; Ezra was never supposed to wake up. He was planning on letting the boy die in his sleep, with his mother at his side. The machines at the side of the bed began to beep wildly as the boy's heart rate accelerated, and in time a nurse rushed in, with Mrs. Cole at her side. She grabbed his hand and sat at his side as the nurse checked his pulse.
"Mom?" Ezra said weakly. Now that the lights were on, it was clear that the boy's eyes were unfocused. He'd been talking in his sleep before, but all of the rushing around had woken him up. Now when he spoke he was awake, and the coughing was worse. "I thought you were in here already," he said, confused.
"I'm here now, baby," his mother replied. "What do you need?" The pity and love in her eyes was almost overwhelming. Ezra began to cough again and his mother handed him a glass of water. "Just try to drink a bit," she urged when he shook his head weakly. Stella gave a small sigh and rested her head on the floor. The nurse touched Mrs. Cole's hand then, and the two women walked to the door. "I'm right outside if you need me," she promised her son. His eyes were closed again; he looked so tired.
As soon as the door clicked shut, though, he cracked his eyes open again. He used his thin arms to push himself into a sitting position and squinted, trying to adjust to the sudden darkness. His eyes landed on Stella first, and then on Thanatos himself. "Who are you?" the boy asked, his question laced with coughs.
So he can see me. That was a good sign. "Nathaniel," he replied evenly, rising up from the chair. The lie came easily; this name was easier for everyone to understand.
"Do you work here?" the boy asked. "When'd you come in?" Thanatos looked toward the door; any noise from the boy was bound to attract attention.
"Sometimes." This lie was a little harder. He wasn't supposed to talk to anyone, really. Get in, get out, get gone. No alternate routes, and certainly no bonding with the victim. What was the point?
"Okay," was all the boy had to say in reply. He let his body go limp against the pillow and shut his eyes again. "I like your dog." His voice was sleepy again, and Stella perked up.
"Not yet, Stella. Soon," Thanatos whispered, watching the boy. He walked closer to the bed and surveyed the room — it was one for permanent patients, that much was easy to tell. For starters, it was a single room that the boy didn't have to share. The personal items, toys and colorful cards scattered around the room were another sign. It was the bedsheets that confirmed it. Rather than a standard, scratchy set of hospital sheets, the boy was laying on a faded set of sheets that were covered in superheros. They were making him comfortable.
Thanatos turned around and put more distance between him and the boy, choosing to stare out the window instead. He pushed a finger between the blinds and pulled it down, staring out at the city below. It was pulsing with car lights and sound came muffled through the glass; alive. That was the difference.
In the morning he woke stiffly, having slept in the hospital chair the entire night. Stella was curled rigidly along the wall, and Mrs. Cole was perched on the edge of the bed again. Thanatos had watched her come in, and now he listened to the soft murmurs she spoke to her son. Again, she pushed the hair out of his eyes in a slow rhythm, more for her own benefit than his own. She traced his forehead with her finger, memorizing his every feature. The sun rose and doctors came and went, silently checking the machines at the side of the bed. They made no effort to speak with Mrs. Cole, but they shot her the same pitying look. She paid them no attention.
"It's almost time," Thanatos murmured softly to Stella, who yawned widely. "Before the day is —" He stopped when Mrs. Cole's back tensed. She turned in his direction for a moment and frowned. He stared at her tensely until she turned back around and continued to stroke her son's face.
Thanatos threw Stella a look. Did you see that? His eyes seemed to say. Stella's ear twitched in reply. He shook his head and sat back in his chair, refusing to say another word until it was time to leave.