He didn’t really remember being swallowed, so that was all right.
“It’s not all right,” said Dis.
He also didn’t remember before being swallowed. That was maybe less all right, but there was nothing he could do about it. So.
“Bullshit,” said Dis.
Sisters talked a lot.
He did remember love. That was why he helped the dead. Someone had to, and his job was to gather the souls, so he did it as best he could.
Death knelt down, his heterochromic gaze steady on the soul sprawled before him. It had been flayed, shredded into suffering ribbons, and he had to think carefully how to handle it right.
Thinking took time, of course, which was why he froze time while collecting.
If time moved while he did his job, there would be dead souls floating everywhere, unable to move on, so he simply pushed time aside like a curtain and held it there until he was done and could let it go again. It was so easy he barely thought about it.
As one does.
Dis shook her head. She often joined him when he froze time, peering with dire curiosity at the monochrome air and striped sky. “You’re scary sometimes, big brother.”
It wasn’t a question, so he did not answer. She knelt beside him, weirdly mirroring his coloring—purple-gray skin, a shock of white hair, amethyst eyes—but he was entirely less vivid, less rich, as if he had been bleached.
And his eyes didn’t match. Not anymore.
Dis pointed at the shredded soul. “What are you going to do with this mess?”
He considered. Answering, like thinking, took time. “First, find all the pieces.”
“Solid,” approved Dis, with absolutely no sign of sarcasm.
“Second, I will bring the pieces together,” said Death slowly.
“Good,” she encouraged, and patted him on the back.
“Third,” he said slowly because the third step was hard, “I shall try to reform them into the shape they once had.”
“And how can you be sure of the shape they once had?” said Dis, completely deadpan.
Death knew she mocked him sometimes. It wasn’t personal; siblings did that, and interaction with the world had taught him that sometimes he was meant to be mocked. “I am sure.”
Dis sighed. “The kinder course would be dissolution. Even if you return its shape, it’ll remember its scars. It’ll be ruined.”
Instead of answering, he began.
Each sliver of shredded soul felt like nothing, like a breeze on lips, like gentle water over on skin. He exerted will, and the shreds did not tear, but lifted with his hand to let themselves be gathered against his chest.
“A lot of dead here,” observed his sister.
“Yes,” Death agreed.
“It’s going to take you a while if you’re this slow.”
Dis rolled her eyes and vanished, letting herself be caught back up in the river of time.
Death let her go.
He didn’t remember being swallowed. He didn’t remember the one who’d swallowed him, either—Cronus, his father—other than the fact that Dis somehow bled Cronus until he died.
That saved Death. Dis had saved him. And although his thoughts were now slow and he felt just a little melted all the time, not quite solid wobbling-jello barely held together, he could still do his job.
It was a form of love: souls needed to be gathered, restored, and taken to their next place. After that . . . well, he couldn’t remember what happened to them after that, either, but that was all right. He could still do what he needed to do. What they needed him to do.
The shreds of soul seemed to sense one another and twisted in his arms, slowly, like undersea things, and he held them together and willed them whole with silent tears like priceless adhesive. If this wasn’t love, he wasn’t sure what was.