“Is it done?” Thoth’s words were soft as he stepped out of the shadows of the doorframe.
Anubis didn’t look up, didn’t move, didn’t breathe. The god of death just stood there silently with his head down, one hand resting on the chest of the corpse. The one corpse that wasn’t lying on the shiny clinical table at the center of the room. While the three bodies on the metal table had been fully cleaned and prepped for their respective funerals, this last body was untouched by the magic of Anubis.
No coffin waiting to be filled.
As fresh as could be expected without the embalming so carefully done to the other patrons of the T&A Funeral Home.
Thoth had been watching. He’d descended the stairs into the morgue basement more than forty minutes ago, taking the chance in the shadows to enjoy Anubis at his work. The precision of his hands and furrow of his brow. The same look on his face whether he had been putting organs in canopic jars when they were still worshipped by the Egyptian masses or when he injected the formaldehyde that still clung to his skin when they went out for dinner.
But Anubis hadn’t moved for the last 6.34 minutes since placing his hand on the fourth body’s chest.
The untouched body.
So Thoth had to speak up. His question echoing through the clean room as he walked forward with his notebook under his arm and his head full of questions. All leading to one question. The same question as all the times before.
He wanted to understand.
He crossed the room to place his hand on Anubis’s broad back and the funeral god finally looked up at the touch.
“It’s done,” Anubis said.
Thoth considered his original question and rephrased it to it’s more important form, “Are you ready?”
Anubis clapped him on the shoulder and held on, big hand almost overwhelming Thoth’s slight frame. Eyes searching Thoth’s face. As always the investigation was the same, quickly sweeping over the facial features to eventually come to rest on the eyes. And holding. This pair was brown. The last set had been green.
But Anubis said it didn’t matter.
He said they stayed the same.
As expected, Anubis locked in on his eyes as the hand on his shoulder tightened.
Then Anubis sighed and said, “As ready as I ever am.”
Thoth nodded once and Anubis stepped away. Turning to an ancient stone box, he slowly lifted the lid. An action Thoth knew he hated.
But there was no point in offering to delay, to wait longer, to get someone else to do it. Thoth had suggested them all over the millennia and Anubis always turned him down. More than angry the one time Thoth had gotten someone else to help him.
Nothing had hit Thoth as hard in the chest as the look of anger that had come to settle on Anubis’ face that day.
First had come the terror. He had seen it sweep Anubis’ face when Thoth walked in the door in a new body. Anubis grabbing his face for days after to just stare at his eyes. As though a stranger might have been masquerading through their home.
He still had no idea what Anubis had said to Osiris but it had been made very clear that Osiris would not help him again.
So Thoth said nothing as Anubis picked up the dagger adorned with the head of a jackal.
A part of him still wishing that he didn’t need to ask Anubis to do this. Because it hurt. Both of them. Inside and out. The deepest friendship. And yet more. And yet not.
Definitions floating just beyond his grasp.
A part of him thankful that Anubis knew him so well as to never ask him to stop doing this. Knew that he had to understand. Was driven to understand. Always had been. Always would be. The god of knowledge.
“Which one first?” Anubis asked.
Thoth quickly swept his gaze over the three bodies on the steel table. The order didn’t technically matter but he knew the routine was important to Anubis. Always had been. Always would be.
On the table lay a young boy that hurt his heart to see so still and silent, an elderly man with a bald head, and a young woman who looked as though she should have been dancing the night away instead of lying on a slab. All had been hastily dressed in blue scrubs. Their formal funeral attire waiting.
Slipping his notepad and a pen into the young boy’s cold hands, Thoth nodded at Anubis.
He held Anubis’ gaze as the man stepped forward, one hand holding the dagger that would send Thoth away as the other hand held the charm that would bring him back. A golden amulet with an ibis emblazed across the metal as the chain looped through Anubis’s thick fingers.
Magic was already dancing up and down the chain. The purple sparks so dark they were almost black. Familiar as his own green sparks. Constant. Regardless of body or time or distance.
The dagger hit him square in the chest, breaking his ribs to pierce the heart below. Pain minimal. Familiar. If one had to die, it was best to do so at the hands of a god of the afterlife.
Not to mention Anubis’ medical degree probably helped.
The the world went black and Thoth fell out of the body he had claimed as home. Falling through darkness as nothing more than an incorporeal soul. Some feared the nethersphere. Gods trapped here for centuries with no-one willing to exert the effort to bring them back. Find them a new body. Left with nothing more than their own hopes and feelings.
Immortal soul carrying on until a new mortal body could be found.
Hoping that humanity wouldn’t forget them. Hoping they wouldn’t fade away forever. Unable to do anything about it regardless.
There were those who broke free of the nethersphere after years of careful planning and battle. Most gods didn’t even dream to attempt it. He only knew of one who was currently going through the process, thrown in the nearly blackest reaches of the nethersphere. A neighbour to the truly terrible things that lurked in the darkness.
If Set made it back, there would be hell to pay for the demi-gods who trapped him there and the gods who left him to rot.
But that was tomorrow’s problem.
Thoth never had to even consider trying to break out. Intellectually the idea intrigued him but he could already feel the call to come back. Come home. The dark purple sparks of Anubis jumping through the darkness to touch him at the center of his being, dragging him back by winding a net made of memories around him.
Anubis’ memories. Laughter at the pranks played on Isis. Consolation after Osiris stole his role as god of the underworld. Figuring out the exact scientific weight of a soul and how in the world a feather could measure that.
The memories pulled him back and pulled him in until his new eyes opened and the world was bright and so much bigger than it had been.
There was a charm on his new tiny chest, pulsing with purple magic, as Anubis hovered over him. Thoth spared just a moment to meet his eyes. Reassuring that he was still here. Then he fell away. Fell into the memories of the boy.
It was a delicate process. Gods had never known anything but body jumping. The process was designed to erase the majority of the memories of the previous soul . Sure, they were imprinted in the brain even after the soul moved on but the vastness of the immortal form pushed them aside quickly. Occasionally saving a useful skill set. No need to be wasteful.
Three bodies ago, he’d picked up killer set of fly fishing skills.
But Thoth was focused on the moment before the memories were erased.
When he could still see them. Almost feel them.
When he could try to understand.
Gathering data like he was playing a movie in his head.
So he searched the memories of the young boy. So young that he didn’t even have to filter for what was relevant to his research, just taking everything in.
The boy, Jaxon, had been happy. So happy. Smiling faces of parents looking back at him in almost every memory. A chubby younger sister joining the picture with flailing arms and drool-filled grins. Jaxon loved her. Loved her even when she gummed at his trucks or broke his castle.
That he understood. There was no mystery there.
There was no mystery at all to Jaxon. He loved the same as Thoth did. Loved in a way that was achingly familiar.
The boy loved it when his Dad threw him in the air and always caught him. Loved it when his mom snuck into his room when she thought he was asleep and kissed him on the forehead. Loved his best friend as they tried to build a raft and launch it in the pond. It ended up sinking so that they had to walk back home coated in pond scum.
That was love.
He understood but his hand still swept. Writing across the page with tinier fingers than he was used to.
When the memories died away to be replaced by his own, the pen finally stilled. Then he looked up at Anubis.
The knife came down again.
The tugging. Pulling him until he opened new eyes. Carried back by memories of their first experience of a movie theater. Anubis’ jaw dropping down as the pictures moved. Their toasts after a great battle on the edges of the desert. Late nights talking to no-one but each other around a campfire.
These new eyes were old where Jaxon had been young. Fritz. This soul’s name had once been Fritz. Here, he searched for what he needed. Filing through memories of days in a welding shop for moments spent at home.
Until he reached the face of a woman that the memories told him meant everything. Sitting together over meals and laughing over the stories of the day. The brightness on her face when she spoke of her plans for the future, hands whirling through the air. Holding her close, tugging her in as though he was a shield to keep anything else from hurting her as his sweater turned wet against his neck. Her hands around his back doing the same as his own tears splashed onto the top of her head.
That he understand. Intimately. Immediately.
That was love.
But the rest. The rest was the mystery that made his hand write faster. Scrawling to capture everything on page. The romantic candles at dinner. Soft touches across her skin that turned into something more. Hand holding that was for more than just comfort.
Love of a different kind than he knew.
Some told him it was a better kind. He saw only different.
And when the memories of the man faded away, he still didn’t understand.
His gaze popped up, the old bones creaking at a movement much faster than they were comfortable with. Finding Anubis. Still waiting. Watching. Constant.
Anubis smiled at him but he couldn’t hide the tremble in the hand that held the knife or the way his thumb traced over the head of the jackal. Blade of the knife pointed anywhere but at Thoth.
“You know you don’t have to do this.” Anubis said, “It doesn’t matter to me. I’m happy.”
Thoth ran a finger over the raised vein in his hand, “I need to understand.”
And so the knife came again. Falling into darkness once more.
Pulled back by memories of endless days spent in the Underworld pouring over texts for only the few moments when Anubis was on break. Of the decades they’d lived as nomads herding cattle across the vast plains. Of the time they’d managed to make a game of chess last nearly 3 years before Thoth accidentally knocked the table over.
This time he woke in the girl. Eden. Caught just as she was beginning to bloom.
He found the love he understood. Hugs and laughter and comfort and cuddles.
That was love.
But there was so much here that he didn’t understand. Still so fresh within her mind. He found the second kind of love where butterflies danced in her stomach at smiles. Where picnics were more than another place to eat food and watch people. Where dancing was more than simple fun.
First dates causes for panic and giggles and romance.
The third kind of love was here too. The other form he didn’t understand and that was only briefly glimpsed in the memories of Fritz. Not even whispered in Jaxon’s mind.
This was something else entirely. Something that he knew went beyond the realm of the love he was trying to understand. But data was data and his hand swept anyway to record it all.
Here, he found more than butterflies. Here, he found fire. A passion pulling in the gut at a certain kind of touch. A moan extracted from lips that were pressed one to the other.
He couldn’t feel it but he could feel how she felt about it.
And he could not understand the appeal.
The memories faded but he kept his eyes closed, trying to understand. He tapped the pen against the pad of paper and then swirled it in loose spirals. There was a lot to take in and so much data to process. He had spent lifetimes trying to understand something that he did not feel. Was okay with not feeling. He still had lots of other feelings.
Anubis told him he was perfect and he believed it.
He wanted to understand. The definitions unclear, lines blurry where one started and the other began. Familiar bleeding into unfamiliar and back again. No constant set of guidelines to which was which.
He had spoken to every love god who would see him and gathered so much data and yet he still could not put the pieces together.
Something pulsed in his head.
The world went dark. The light filtering through his eyelids disappearing as he felt himself fall. Back in the nethersphere before he could even open his eyes.
His core pulsed. Fear trickling through his soul as it never had before at the darkness.
There had been no knife.
No hand of Anubis.
He was simply gone. Drifting. Alone.
And he still did not understand.
But the magic came again. The purple sparks raced forward, faster than he’d seen them appear before, and practically leaping towards his core. Not jumping. Grabbing.
They washed over him with more memories but something unfamiliar. A set of memories that he’d never seen before. Watching himself curled up on the couch with a large book fallen across his face as the pen was slowly removed from his hand. Watching himself leaning over a desk, spectacles perched on the tip of his nose as he leaned in so close that he could have licked the paper. Watching himself pace across the floor of an ancient temple, hands flying and mouth moving at a rapid speed.
And then he was back. Eyes opening.
Immediately connecting with the pair of brown hovering just overhead. So close. Constant.
They bore into his own for a moment, just long enough for him to see the fear blazing through them. Fear to more than match the terror he’d seen when he’d walked in with a new body.
Anubis gave him no time to adjust to the last body, the one untouched and separate from the others, squeezing Thoth in a crushing embrace before he could analyze anything. Thoth’s new body was a little bigger than he was used to but the breath on his neck was the same as it had been for millennium.
The same hug given across battlefields and underworlds and skyscrapers.
“You never opened your eyes,” Anubis said into his neck, “you just disappeared again. You went silent and still and I never even got to check that it was you in there.”
Thoth squeezed a little tighter, “I think there was something wrong with her brain.”
“Should’ve done an autopsy,” Anubis mumbled.
“You hate doing autopsies,” Thoth said.
Anubis shrugged, holding on just a little longer. Then he took a deep breath and stepped back, “You’re okay?”
Thoth raised his new hand and wiggled the fingers in front of his face, “It’ll take some getting used to but this body should be just fine for long term use.” He looked down and then back up, “I think I’m taller.”
“You’re 6’1 now,” Anubis said automatically. Then softer, “Did you find what you’re looking for?”
He always asked. Part of the routine. Just a little bit of hope that they’d never have to do it again. Constant.
Thoth always wished he could give a different answer, “I still don’t understand.”
Anubis’ shoulders dropped. Almost imperceptibly. But there was very little that was imperceptible after all the years they had spent together. Still, all he said was, “Maybe next time,” and turned back to the box that held the knife.
But it wasn’t. This time had been different. He had gone away unexpectedly and nothing could hold a candle to the fear he’d seen on Anubis’ face when he’d come back. As though he hadn’t expected him to return.
“Do you know what I’m trying to understand?” Thoth said.
Anubis slowly put the knife back in the box, closing it with a decisive click, “You said it was love.”
“In a manner of speaking,” Thoth said, “but that’s more a necessary analysis for the larger question.”
Anubis turned, back against the counter. Waiting.
Thoth’s new fingers dove into the pockets of his scrubs before popping right back out. Then he said, “I know you’re still scared. That I scared you and it’s still running through your head.”
Anubis opened his mouth but Thoth kept speaking, “Don’t deny it. I can see it. I can see that your shoulders have an extra 1.4 degrees of slump and your fingers are shaking which is why you’re hanging onto that counter so tightly and your eyes are trying to blank. But they’re not. Not to me.”
He paused, searching his endless memories, and then continued, “I know that you’re still a little bit mad at Osiris for taking your place in the underworld even when you pretend to be over it. I know you secretly feed the coyotes behind that abandoned shed in our farthest field. I know that sometimes you dream that we would move to LA and you could try to become a movie star.”
“Apollo made it look easy,” Anubis said, hand coming up to rub the back of his neck.
“I know so much about you,” Thoth continued, “but there’s a piece missing. Always a piece missing. Not a piece that I need to feel but a piece that’s a part of you. And I want to understand it because it’s a part of you.”
Anubis’ hands unclenched from the counter.
“I want to understand you.” Thoth finished.
With a single step, Anubis was back in front of him with his hands on Thoth’s shoulders. Where they belonged. Constant.
Catching his gaze and holding it, Anubis said, “What do you think about me?”
“You’re everything.” Thoth said.
Anubis smiled. It was small and had no teeth but it always made Thoth wonder how people could ever believe that gods of the underworld were somber and dark. Because that smile would prove them wrong every time.
He’d written a paper on it.
“To understand me,” Anubis said, one hand shifting to the center of Thoth’s new chest, “all you need to know is that I think you’re everything too. It’s that simple. No additional data required.”
When they had dinner that night there were no candles on the table. No fire or butterflies in the stomach. No touches that turned into more.
And it was everything.