Extended Absence by Djinn
"How's tricks?" George slid into the booth at Der Waffle Haus, grinning at the look Rube shot her. "What? Only Roxy gets to be a smart ass?"
"Roxy's gone." Rube went back to scribbling. "Paid up her soul quota and disappeared."
"Oh. I didn't know." That was fast. Why did some reapers hang around forever and others get to move on after only a few decades?
"Yeah, well, you've been off working in a new city. You're all grown up now."
George knew she still looked eighteen to other reapers. But she didn't carry herself like a teenager anymore. She'd lived--or un-lived--ten long years.
Rube went on with his rant. "I mean how would you know?" He seemed to be pressing down with unusual force on the Post-it. "Hell, why would you care?"
"I guess you missed me?"
"Don't recall those words passing my lips. Miss you, Peanut? Sure, I missed you. Like I'd miss a bad case of athlete's foot."
She couldn't help it. It was such vintage Rube, she had to laugh.
His expression didn't change. "Glad you're enjoying yourself."
"Well, I missed you."
"Uh huh." He finished up his Post-its and shifted to sit the way he used to. Up against the end of the booth, arm over the vinyl back. "What are you doing here, George?"
"Guess you didn't get the memo?"
He made the face that meant he didn't know what she was talking about.
"I transferred back."
"Count the Post-its. You were a little distracted."
He sorted through them. There were five--one for him, one for each of the three reapers she knew was on his crew, and one for her. "Damn," he muttered.
"Yeah, I'm glad to be home, too, boss-man."
He counted again, then checked his ledger. "Why didn't I notice this?"
"Because the powers that be are scared shitless of you? Or maybe they just wanted to fuck with you and let my arrival be a surprise." She held her hand out. "One of those is mine, I believe."
He took a deep breath, passed her the stack. "Take your pick." He wasn't looking at her, was shaking his head in that way he had when he wasn't sure what to say, but if he did think of something to let fly, it was going to be sharp and ugly.
"What's your problem?" She dug through the stack, found one that was in a neighborhood she liked. "I thought you'd be happy to have me back."
"I'm turning cartwheels, Peanut. Can't you tell?" He took the stack back from her.
"Actually, no, I can't." She sighed, then smiled at the waitress who came over. "I'll have the Banana Bonanza."
The woman left, and George watched her go. "I miss Kiffany."
"Kiffany's still here. It's her day off."
"I wonder if she'll be glad to see me." George knew that she would look older to a non-reaper. Or at least wouldn't rouse any suspicion. She didn't understand how their gig worked a lot of the time, but it seemed to function pretty well.
"She'll just shit, George. It'll be like Elvis walked into the joint. Jesus, get over yourself already." He got up. "I gotta make a sissy. If the crew shows up, tell them to cool their jets till I'm done."
The crew. Like she wasn't part of it again. "Is Mason still here?" At his glare, she said, "I'm just curious."
She thought Rube was going to ignore her, but then he turned back, leaned over her, hands splayed wide on the table. "Ten years, Peanut. Ten years and no word. You don't get to be curious. You don't get to be anything."
He straightened and walked to the bathroom. A moment later she heard laughing voices coming from the main door.
She looked over, saw three strangers heading her way.
"You're in our booth," an older Asian man said to her. "And are those Rube's Post-its?"
She slid out of the booth. "Yeah. He's in the can, said to cool your jets. You know how Rube is. I'm going to go now." She clutched her Post-it note to her chest.
"Who the hell are you?" This time it was a woman. Young--college-aged, George thought.
"I'm George Lass."
"You're George?" The third reaper grabbed his Post-it and ran for the door.
"Don't mind, Pete. He's just a chicken-shit." College girl sounded like Roxy when she said that.
George glanced over at the bathroom. "So am I." And she fled before Rube could come out and regale the others with stories about how badly she'd messed up when she was new. The sad thing was, most of them would be true.
The water glinted off the bay, and George was glad she'd worn her sunglasses. It was a warmish morning, warmer than the reception she'd get at Der Waffle Haus. She leaned her head back on the bench and closed her eyes. Then she sensed someone coming up. Heard the soft sound of sneakered feet. She smelled Rube's unique mix of old-fashioned aftershave and the hand soap from Der Waffle Haus. "How'd you find me?"
"I don't know." He sat down, not close, she could tell that even with her eyes closed. "I just did."
"Wow. New reaper talent?" She smiled, the way she knew made him crazy, like she had a secret--one he didn't know.
"I'm pissed at you, Peanut. Do you know why I'm pissed at you?"
"Because you're always pissed."
"I'm not always pissed. I'm just generally pissed around you."
"Oh. My mistake." She opened her eyes and turned to study him. "So enlighten me, oh great one."
"Don't take that tone with me, Georgia. I can still make your life a living hell."
"You did that already."
For some reason the joke fell flat. His lips tightened, and his hands clenched, and he stared out at the bay as if his salvation lay there.
"What? What did I do?" She reached out, saw him flinch. "Rube?"
"I'm pissed at you because I'm pissed at me because I actually care that it's been ten years, and this is the first I've seen of you."
She wasn't sure what to say. But he saved her, rising quickly, striding down the path and back to the main street.
She let him go as she sat and tried to make sense of how it felt to be home, thinking about Reggie and her mom and dad. She wondered how they were doing, and had to fight the urge to go home.
She'd promised herself she wouldn't do it. Not again.
Slowly she got up and followed Rube, making her way eventually to Der Waffle Haus.
Kiffany--still with the same sweet smile--beamed when she saw her. "Aren't you a sight for sore eyes?"
"Hi, Kiffany." George surprised herself and the waitress by pulling her in for a hug, nearly getting burned by the pot of coffee the woman held. "Sorry."
"Oh, hon, it's okay. You know what you want?"
George smiled. "Surprise me." She saw Rube and his crew in the booth and walked over.
Pete got out and let her slide in next to Rube.
"What the hell did you do that for?" Rube didn't look up from his Post-its.
"I don't know. She just...she's back and I thought..." Pete abandoned his breakfast and ran for the bathroom.
"Like I said. Chicken shit." College-girl grinned at George, and the Asian guy sort of smirked.
"Watch your fuckin' mouth, Lindsay." Rube was in fine form.
Lindsay mouthed his words back to him, and George had to stifle a laugh.
The Asian guy held out his hand. "I'm Dan."
"Hey." She thought he seemed the sweetest of the group. "You're new, aren't you?"
"How'd you know?"
"You've still got that glow of innocence."
Dan smiled. "Thanks. I'm trying not to get hard." He mouthed "Like Rube."
And, of course, Rube caught him. "Yeah, how's that working out for you, Dan-oh?" Rube handed him a Post-it. "Better get a move on. Time waits for no man, and neither will this guy's soul."
Dan looked at the Post-it, then grabbed a last piece of bacon and hightailed it out of there.
"Nice to see you're still the same sensitive Rube." George winked at Lindsay.
"Get lost," Rube told the younger woman, and handed her two Post-its. "And give that to Captains Courageous, will ya?"
Once she was gone, Rube looked pointedly at George. "There's a whole booth over there going a'wastin'. Why not move your ass?"
With a dramatic roll of her eyes, she slid out and took the other seat. She sat the way she used to, knees up, back to the wall. Rube stared at her.
"No Post-it for me?"
"One for you and me. Tandem souls."
"Awww. You want us to work together?"
"God, you're annoying. I'd forgotten how annoying you are, but thank the Almighty, you are here to remind me. Kiffany"--he looked up as the waitress brought George's food--"is this girl not the most irritating thing you've ever seen?"
"Not irritating. And not a girl anymore." Kiffany winked at George, and then left.
"She can't see the real you."
"Neither can you, Rube. I'm still that eighteen-year-old girl to you."
"Oh, and you're all grown up now?"
She took a bite of her waffle and sighed happily. Tiffany had chosen well. "You said I was yesterday."
"That was before I looked closer."
"Hmm." She decided to ignore him and just enjoy her meal. When she finished, she pulled out a twenty and left it on the table. "Let's go, then."
"You don't need any change, Ms. Vanderbilt?"
She shook her head, pouting her lips in the "so there" way she knew he hated.
"Came into some money, did you?" He sounded like he was going to reprimand her the way he used to Daisy.
"I did, as a matter of fact. Nice stockbroker I reaped in Miami. Took a liking to me and turned me onto some real cushy deals before he hit the cosmic light show. I made a fortune." She leaned back. "I don't have to work for a living. Just reap."
"How nice for you."
"I think so."
He leaned forward. "Peanut, this isn't going to work. You need to work in someone else's town."
"Because I said so, and I'm the boss."
She pretended to think about it. "I like it here."
"Why? What the hell is here for you? Mason's in London. Daisy's in Atlanta. Betty never did come back. Are you here for your sister, George? Because you know I will lay a world of hurt on you if that's why you're here."
"I haven't seen my family."
"Keep it that way."
She reached over and gently took one of the Post-it notes. "You're still here."
"I'm always here." He sounded suddenly very old. Very tired.
"Aren't you even just a little bit glad to see me?"
His face scrunched up in a funny way.
"Just a teensy tiny bit?" She laughed as she let her tone go to cajoling.
"Oh, knock it off."
"Am not." He slid out of the booth. "Come on. We've got work to do." His voice was gruff, but he waited for her to slide out before heading for the exit.
"Are, too," she said.
He shook his head, but she could tell he was fighting a grin. She suddenly, finally, felt like she was home.
George and Rube walked, two reaped scientists trailing after them, arguing about who had been at fault in the explosion that had torn their lab apart.
"So you still living in the same place?" she asked Rube.
"Still covering your furniture like a little old lady?"
"I hate dusting." Rube turned to the spirits. "Look, you're both jackasses. Let's leave it at that, all right? The young lady and I are trying to have a conversation."
"Wow, your people skills may actually have improved."
He laughed, and she smiled, not expecting that reaction.
"I have missed you, Rube."
Any levity died. She wondered where he went when he got that weird, cold expression. What had happened to him to make him just turn off?
"Why was that the wrong thing to say?"
"It must have been. Look at you, all somber and shit."
He didn't answer.
One of the spirits caught up with them, leaned in and whispered loudly enough for Rube to hear, "Intimacy issues."
"I have no intimacy issues, you yahoo."
"Afraid to love," the guy went on. "My wife's a psychiatrist. She always tells me I'm that way, only I'm not, but this guy...? Oh, yeah. Classic case."
Rube turned on him. "You want the God's hard truth, my friend? Let me tell you that truth. People you love leave. They go away. They never come back. Just like you're never going to go back to your wife."
"Rube. Jeez, chill." George pulled him bodily around. "Way to make the dead guy feel bad."
"Sorry, Peanut." Rube turned to the dead guy. "Sorry, sir."
The guy looked upset until the light show started in front of him, then both souls laughed and ran for what looked like a giant slip-and-slide next to a big rock-climbing wall. They slid and climbed their way into oblivion.
"Ever figure out where they go?" George watched until the last of the light faded away.
"I think about Betty sometimes. How she jumped. How it looked like she became something else."
"Yeah, I think about her, too."
George took his arm, earning herself a glare. "It's a nice night. Let's walk a while."
"Why are we walking like this?"
"You object to being touched?"
"Maybe." He pulled away.
"You do have intimacy issues." She shook her head. "I'll see you tomorrow."
She'd taken two steps when she heard him call her name.
"It is a nice night," he said softly.
He rolled his eyes and held out his arm. "Don't think I don't know when I'm being manipulated."
Smiling, she took his arm. "I just think it's good for you to actually connect with someone."
"You're the last one I want to connect with."
She ignored the comment. He turned for the park, toward the overlook on the bluff. There was a homeless guy sleeping on the bench, so she pulled him toward the next bench a few yards away and pushed him onto it. Then she sat down next to him. Very close next to him.
"Peanut, what the hell?"
Reaching up, she pulled his arm around her, holding tight until he relaxed and let it rest on her shoulders. "You may not need to connect, but I do." She took a deep breath, let it out slowly. "I asked for this transfer. I wanted to come home."
"I know. I checked into it this morning."
"I was lonely."
"Word is you had quite the time in Miami. The old familiar is a tried-and-tested cure for heartache."
"You heard about Jay?"
"I left him." She looked over, saw him frown. "He tells everyone he broke up with me. And I don't want to make him feel worse, so I let him. But I left him."
"He wasn't the right guy." She exhaled loudly, leaned her head back on his arm. "He kind of looked like you."
"I know him. He doesn't look like me."
"Yeah, he does. Around the eyes. They go dead like yours do."
"I am dead, so it follows."
She felt his hand cup her arm, rubbing gently. She wondered if he even knew he was doing it. "He's not you, though."
"And you should thank your lucky stars for that." He seemed to realize he was caressing her arm, pulled his hand away quickly. "It's getting late."
"Yep." She got up, not waiting for him.
He caught up with her in three steps. "So where are you living?"
"Nice place. You wanna walk me home?"
"Don't try to seduce me, Peanut." The Rube she knew was back. "You couldn't handle the result."
"Wouldn't dream of it." She took his arm again, channeling just a little of Daisy as she did it. She thought Rube could tell what she was doing.
"Smart ass." But he walked her all the way inside and to her door.
She didn't invite him in. He didn't ask to come in. But they both stood, she in the doorway, he a few paces back.
"This is stupid, Rube."
He smiled at that. "It's very screwball comedy. I like those. Do you like those?"
"They're all right." She leaned her cheek against the doorframe.
"They're reassuring in their predictability. The guy gets the girl. Goodness prevails. All is right with the world."
She smiled, could feel it turn bitter. "And we know that's not the case."
He looked down. "It wouldn't have been my choice, George. To make you a reaper. I'd have let you go on--if anyone had asked me."
He stepped in and smoothed a wayward lock of hair away from her face. "I'm glad no one asked me, though. The selfish part of me is glad. Because I got to know you."
She didn't move, just waited while his finger rested on her cheek. Then he pulled away and she smiled. "Good night, Rube."
"Good night, Peanut."
George checked the address, making sure she was at the right place. For once the Post-it she held didn't have Rube's writing on it. This was a favor from someone she'd worked with in Miami. Interdepartmental rotation--for the day, anyway.
She knocked, smiled at the woman who opened the door. "Hi. I called. I'm Millie."
"Come in. I'm Ann. From Hospice."
"She's so excited that you're in town." Ann moved aside to let her in.
George stepped inside, was immediately hit by the combined smell of potpourri, cat litter, and death. She had a feeling Ann was used to the death part of it. A little champagne cat with big green eyes came up, standing up and patting at George's knee until she picked it up.
"You used to work with Delores, Millie?"
"She hired me. And she recommended me for an opening in Miami. You could say she changed my life a couple of times." Her unlife, but same thing.
"Millie?" A voice, out of the bedroom in the back of the apartment. A voice that used to be big and perky and full of the life George had spent eighteen years running away from.
A voice that was thin now. Sick.
"If you want to take a break...?" George smiled at Ann.
"You're sure? I could use one."
"I'll be here." George waited till the woman had left and then swallowed hard and walked into the bedroom. "Hey, Delores."
She blinked, trying not to tear up at how frail--how nearly transparent--Delores looked. George was used to death. Violent, sudden death. That was her department and, while the corpses might look pretty horrible after they were dead, the people usually were hale up to that point. She didn't work sickrooms. She didn't visit cancer wards.
And she'd never reaped someone she loved.
"She likes you," Delores whispered.
George realized she was still holding the cat. "Yeah, I guess she does."
"I got her after Murray died. I called her Millie."
George put the cat down and went to sit in the chair by Delores' bed. "That's sweet."
Her friend looked a little embarrassed. "I really missed you after you went to Miami."
"I really missed you, too." It wasn't a lie, and George was glad she'd grown up enough to realize how important Delores Herbig had been to her.
She took Delores' hand, could feel the weak thread of life left.
"I'm so tired, Millie."
She ran her hand over their linked ones, saw the familiar faint glow that meant she'd released the soul. "It's okay to rest, Delores."
"But you just got here." Delores seemed to be fighting sleep, then she gave up, closing her eyes for the last time.
George let the tears that welled up fall. Ten years had taught her to save them for times that mattered. This was one of those times.
"It'll be all right, sweetie."
She turned to see Delores. Not the woman she'd known, not full of life, but more so than the woman in the bed had been. "I know. I'm just sad."
"I'm not." She gave her the luminous smile that George remembered. Then Delores looked down at the little cat who had jumped on the bed and was nosing her dead body. "Would you take her, Millie?"
George realized Delores was still seeing the girl she'd known, not the real George. She felt something inside her sort of catch, realized that her bosses knew she was doing this--and they were giving her a gift to make it as sweet as possible.
Every now and then, they did that.
George looked at the cat. The apartment she'd rented took cats. She'd made sure of that. "I'll take good care of her."
And then the lightshow began. It was set out like a scrapbook: the happy times of Delores's life.
"Well, will you look at that?" With a giggle, Delores reached for the nearest light and was gently sucked up into it until she disappeared.
George heard the door open, sat down with the cat and waited for Ann to come in.
Ann took one look at the body on the bed and said, "She's gone?" It was asked matter-of-factly, but with compassion.
"She's gone." George cuddled Millie. "She wanted me to take the cat."
"She told me she wanted you to have her. She made me get the carrier down and make a package of her food and toys and things." The woman shook her head. "I guess she knew she was going to go today."
"I guess she did." George leaned down, kissing Delores's cheek. She never touched bodies normally. But this wasn't just a body: this was her friend.
She left Ann to her post-death tasks and found the carrier, easing the little cat into it and picking up the heavy bag of supplies. She managed to get the door open and got down the stairs, but the bag was getting heavier by the minute.
"Need a hand with that?"
She looked up, saw Rube leaning against the side of the building. "Just to my car. It's on the next block."
He took the bag from her, peeked into the carrier. "Pretty cat."
"She named her after me."
"That was nice of her."
They walked slowly, the little cat mewing at first, but then she seemed to settle down.
"You ever have a cat? You have any idea what to do with one?" He checked the bag. "You're going to need a litter box. There's litter in here, but no box. Stop on the way home and get a box."
He sighed. "I could read you the riot act for doing what you did."
"Then read me the riot act. You can't make me feel any worse."
"Then anything I do would be superfluous."
She wasn't sure what to say, so she opted for silence.
"I did it, too. For my daughter."
He nodded. "She was my Rosie. How could I not take care of her? One last time." He checked on the cat. "Is Delores the reason you came back?"
George looked away.
"Because if she is, that's fine. I know I've been a shit--not that I'm saying you don't deserve some attitude--but I am happy to have you back. Whatever your reason for darkening my door again is."
"I'm not sure why I came back."
"That's all right. You're home now."
He shifted the sack around, and they walked awhile, the kitty making little cries every so often. She didn't sound like about-to-go-nuts cat. She seemed to be taking things pretty well.
"You going to call her Millie?"
"She's used to it. I don't want to confuse her." She smiled up at him. "Remember when I told you not to call me Peanut?"
"Yeah. I listened real well, as you can tell."
"You did. Back then." She met his eyes. "I don't mind it if you call me that anymore."
"Good. Because I wasn't going to stop this time." He gave her a real smile. Gentle and sweet and not one she'd seen very often. Then his face twisted just as she caught a whiff of something foul.
"Your new cat just unloaded on you. All barrels by the smell of it. I do not envy you the cleaning you'll have to give that carrier." He moved away a little. "Where is your car, Peanut--Tacoma?"
"This is me." She stopped in front of a mustang. Like the one she'd had before, only blue this time.
"Nice wheels," he said, as he loaded the bag into the back seat.
"You want a ride?"
"With the stink-o-cat?"
She laughed. "Rube, the top's down. It won't smell."
"I'm good, Peanut. You just get your cat home." With a gentle smile, he took the carrier from her and settled it on the front seat, then shut the door and took a step back.
He nodded, his eyes extraordinarily gentle, then he walked away.
George stared up at the building that housed Happy Times, remembering all the happy and not-so times she'd had there.
"Contemplating becoming a useful member of society again, Peanut?"
"Not really." She snuck a glance at him; he was staring up at the building with a puzzled look, as if trying to figure out what the hell had captured her attention. "What are you doing here?"
"The question is what are you doing here?" He showed her his Post-it. "I have business here. Gimme a minute to finish up, and we can go grab lunch."
"At Der Waffle Haus?" She mentally scanned the menu.
"There are other restaurants."
"Well, I know that. But you've never seemed to think there was anything better than our old standby."
He shrugged. "Not better. But... more private."
"For catching up without the junior league hanging on our every biting word. Jesus Christ, Peanut. I'm offering to take you to lunch. Why are you giving me a hard time?"
"Oh, were you going to pay? Sure, then. I'll just get a coffee and hang." She bought a latte and took it over to a bench in the sun.
Rube strode off, toward a young man getting ready to skateboard down the stairs. She could picture the kid going right into traffic. Rube obviously thought so, too, because he stopped to talk to the kid, pointing to the wheels and probably asking all sorts of bizarre information-laden Rube-style questions. Like if the kid had ever tried whatever the latest skateboard wheel material was. Rube knew the weirdest stuff.
He patted the kid on the shoulder and left him to make his final run on his board. "This is not going to be pretty," Rube said as he took a drink from her coffee.
He seemed to realize what he'd done and stared at the coffee. Then he scowled and took another sip. "It's not like you're going to catch anything from me, dead girl."
She smiled. He hadn't called her that in forever.
There was the screeching of brakes, a scream from a woman walking on the sidewalk, then a loud crunch. George didn't look.
"Since when are you afraid to look?"
"I just think it's a nice day, and I'd rather not ruin it." Of course, she had to look at the guy as he soul-walked his way over to them. If he'd survived, his bruises would have had bruises.
"Nice effort, Marcus." Rube nodded at George to get up. "Let's walk awhile."
"Is that me?" Marcus looked over at his body. "Oh man. Ewww."
"Think of how we feel," Rube said, smiling in his self-sacrificing, "reaper putting up with gore for the mission" way.
"Man. Sorry. My total bad." Suddenly the skateboarder perked up. "Now that's a ride!" And then he ran off, leaping onto a skateboard made of light and disappearing into the brightness.
"So, lunch?" Rube took the coffee from her and finished it, then tossed it into a trash receptacle. "There's a steakhouse down this way I've always wanted to try. You think they're open?"
"How should I know? I didn't exactly frequent steakhouses when I lived here."
"I bet they're open." He looked over at her. "So how's the puddy tat?"
"Millie's fine. Thanks for asking." She grimaced. "And you weren't wrong about cleaning that carrier."
"I'm never wrong, Peanut. That's the beauty of being me." He was grinning as he said it, so she resisted trying to come up with a reply. "How are you?"
"You mean about Delores?"
"I'm okay. I did what I needed to do. What she needed me to do. I'm good with it."
"That's great." He didn't look at her as he said, "So, you said you hadn't gone home."
"I did say that."
"Was it a lie?"
"Nope." She moved closer. "You told me to leave it alone. Isn't it just possible I'm finally listening to you?"
"You'll forgive me if I have trouble with that concept?"
"It's not that I don't want to check on them. But...that's sort of why I transferred. And why you encouraged me to transfer, remember? I was getting too caught up in them?"
"I remember." His voice was hard. Gruff.
"What? I was only doing what you told me to." She tried to read his expression. Failed. "I'm sorry, okay. Whatever it is I did, I'm sorry."
"You didn't do anything, Peanut. Forget about it." He stopped walking. "You know what. I'm not even hungry. Let's just--"
She grabbed his arm as he turned. "I want a steak and I want it now. We can work out your latent angst over dead animal flesh, okay?"
He looked like he was going to pull away. Then all the fight seemed to go out of him. "Fine."
She didn't let go of his arm the rest of the walk; he didn't try to make her.
Fortunately, the steakhouse Rube had in mind wasn't a fancy place, or she'd have probably been kicked out for wearing jeans. Then again, they were very nice jeans. She was enjoying being able to buy pretty things instead of pillaging her old closet or stealing them from dead people.
Rube ordered for her, and she remembered how old he really was. Back in the 20's, men did stuff like that. Presumptuous, but also a little comforting. Especially since he managed to order just what she liked even after ten years away. He also ordered a bottle of what she was sure was a pretty expensive red wine. The waiter didn't ask her for I.D.--one of the side bennies of being an agent of death was that she had too much of a world weary look in her eyes to be carded anymore.
She sipped at the wine, felt it go to her head. Why were they made this way? They could be hurt, but they healed and nothing killed them. They could feel pain, feel sadness, feel the euphoria of uppers, the calming numbness of downers, and the mixed bag of alcohol. They didn't age physically, but their spirits grew old on overtime. What power had thought this was a good life? Especially when no one knew when they were on their last reap. One of her last jobs in Miami had been with a guy who'd only been reaping for twenty years. But he went to capture the soul on his Post-it, and then boom, he was gone, and the soul was there for her to take back to their boss Nannette for breaking in as a new reaper.
George had been exempted from training him since she was leaving in a few days. But she remembered the confusion on the young man's face when he found himself stuck in this godawful life. She'd shoved a wad of cash into his hand, told him to spend it slowly. She could have done more--hell, Nannette could have, too. But she supposed getting used to being undead--and the struggle to make a new life--was all part of being a reaper. A shitty, suckfest part, but still a part.
"What are you thinking about?" Rube asked softly.
"A new reaper. How it felt to watch him try to adjust." She met his eyes. "I was a lot nicer to him than you were to me."
"Well, that's because you're a lot nicer in general than I am." He played with his napkin, finally folded it on his lap. "Although you know the others used to call you 'Rube's pet,' right?"
"They did not."
"They most certainly did. Not to my face--or yours apparently--but I heard them say it." He sipped his wine, seemed content to lose himself to a happy assessment of the bouquet and taste. "They weren't wrong, Peanut."
"You used to call your daughter Peanut, Rube. I guess I reminded you of her? That's why I was your pet."
"I guess it follows."
"I always knew you were fond of me. You mattered to me, too."
He just grunted, so she went for the question she really wanted the answer to: "Were you...attracted to me back then?"
"I never said I was attracted to you now." He went back to his wine, then he looked up. "I felt protective of you. You were still just a kid back then."
"I'm not anymore."
"So I should probably stop calling you Peanut."
"Don't. I like it." She stopped talking as the waiter came with the salads, and they ate in silence for a while. But it was an easy silence. The salads were so good they didn't demand conversation to make them better. The steak that showed up as soon as they were done with the salads was even better. "Rube, can I ask you something?"
"If I say no, will it stop you from doing it?"
She laughed. "No."
"Then, yeah. Ask away." He put a bite of steak in his mouth, seemed to go to an ecstatic place as he chewed it. "My God, this is good."
"It really is. But you're not going to distract me. How long has it been since you dated?"
"That, Peanut, is none of your business."
"Is this a date?"
He didn't answer immediately.
"Because if it is, that's okay."
"What if it's not?"
She really thought it sort of was, but she knew he'd play it safe. "That'd be okay, too, I guess."
"You want this to be a date, Peanut? You want to date a man old enough to be your grandfather?"
She shrugged. He could interpret that how he wanted.
"What the hell are you doing, George? I'm not sure how to play this. And I always know how to play things."
"For the record, you don't look old enough to be my grandfather, just my father." She grinned at his expression. "Rube, I don't know what I'm doing. I just know what I feel, and when I was in Miami, I felt lonely."
"You had Jay." He sounded very sour.
"You don't like him?"
"I really don't, Peanut."
"Yeah, well, that makes two of us, then." She lifted her glass to him. "To...realizing what and who is important."
He didn't clink her glass, didn't even pick his up. Just stared at her as if he was trying to figure out what the hell to do with her. Sort of the look he'd had the numerous times she'd tried to outsmart the system and all hell had broken loose.
She put her glass down. "What?"
"You didn't just decide I'm important to you."
"You've always been important to me. Just because I never wrote or called or actually came back doesn't mean that..." Man, she sounded lame. She really hadn't thought about Rube that much in Miami. At first, she'd compared Nannette to him--mostly because Nannette didn't swear as much. But then she'd let her old life fade away like Rube had told her to. It had been when George had taken up with Jay that she'd started to think about Rube again. Jay had been such an imperfect copy.
Maybe that was when she'd decided she wanted the original? Maybe she'd wanted that all along and just hadn't realized it?
"Earth to dead girl."
She smiled. "I missed you. Trust me on that."
He stared at her, his eyes holding a strange mix of resignation and tenderness. "Do you want some dessert? They have creme brulee here, and I really love that."
"Can we share it?"
He gave a longsuffering sigh. "Fine." He ordered when the waiter came to clear their plates. They took turns digging into it. He let her have the last, delicious bite. They sat in a strange silence--not tense, exactly, but full of something. Expectation, maybe?
"The talk's all been about me, Rube. What do you feel? You said you were glad I'm back."
He didn't look at her as he paid the bill. A nice fat wad of cash going down to cover the tip. He'd always been a good tipper.
"What is it you're feeling?" She leaned in. "I know you have feelings."
"I'm far too glad you're back. Maybe you should consider relocating again. L.A. might be nice."
"Or maybe I should stay right here in Seattle."
This time he shrugged, and she decided it meant that he wanted her to stay in Seattle, but he'd never admit it. She studied him as he sipped the last of his coffee. His eyes could get so stormy, so dark. She loved that. It scared her a little. It made her feel safe, too, in a weird way, because it was familiar. She saw how strong his hands looked, wondered what his lips would feel like on hers. Was he good in bed? She imagined he was. She imagined he'd be very focused on his partner.
"What are you thinking?"
"You don't want to know." She grinned at him, was relieved to see the dark look fade. His smile wasn't a full one, but it was sweet.
"I have to get back to work, Peanut."
She dug in her bag for her Post-it. "And I have a job to do in West Seattle."
"Okay." She walked with him to the door, squinted as the light hit her, and slipped her sunglasses on. "So...until breakfast, then?"
He nodded, but he didn't make any move to walk away.
"Okay." She stared up at him.
"Okay." He still didn't move. "I could make you dinner tonight?"
"At Chez Rube?"
He nodded slowly.
"I could go for that."
"Be there at six."
"Okay." She knew she should walk away, wondered why he didn't.
"Peanut, this may not be the greatest idea."
"Rube, it's just dinner. It'll be fi--"
He pulled her to him and kissed her.
Holy shit, the man could kiss.
When he finally let her go, he looked pissed at her, at himself, at everything. But he touched her face, and his fingers were gentle. "It's not just dinner, Peanut. You come over and things are going to happen. Maybe we should just forget that we had lunch today. Maybe we should forget that I just kissed you. Maybe--"
She kissed him. She knew she was none too shabby in the lips-on-lips department. When she finally let him go, she whispered, "I'll see you at six. Wear something sexy."
"I'll wear what I always wear, you little pistol." But his look was lighter. He seemed...happy.
It was a good look on him.
She didn't smell anything cooking from outside his door. She'd interrupted him before in the middle of cooking dinner, and she'd always been able to smell it from the door. Suddenly a little nervous, she slid her hands down the teal velvet blouse she was wearing, ironing out imaginary wrinkles. Her black pants fit her like a second skin, and she resisted wiping hands gone suddenly damp on them.
She knocked instead.
He didn't open it right away, and she wondered if he really was halfway across the room or just standing still and counting to five so he wouldn't look like he'd been standing by the door.
He opened the door, and she thought that the black shirt he was wearing looked new--or newish. He'd dressed up for her after all.
Moving aside to let her in, he gave her a tight smile. "Peanut."
"Rube." She felt as though they were diplomats, starting some big negotiation. Deciding to ignore her butterflies, she wandered his room, peeking under the covered furniture. "Nice to see you fixed the place up for me."
She heard him laugh softly, then the sound of wine being uncorked. Turning, she saw that he did have the ingredients for something laid out on the little table he had his hotplate on. "What's for dinner?"
"Italian. And this is a very expensive Pinot Grigio. I splurged and I know not why." He poured her a glass, and she walked over to take it.
"Salud," she said, holding it up.
This time he finished the toast. "Salud, Peanut." He turned away from her, and she studied his back--it was a good back, sturdy. She thought he was used to carrying the metaphysical weight of the world on it.
He was moving things around on the table, but he hadn't started the hotplate, hadn't poured the oil in it.
"So. You said things were going to happen if I came over. What things?"
"Maybe I was just trying to scare you. I should have known better." He abandoned the table, turned to look at her, sipping at his wine as if it gave him courage. "I'm not a spontaneous man, Peanut. Spontaneity leads to regret."
"You're a planner."
"I am. Without a doubt."
"Hmmm." She smiled, then moved over to his bed. "Funny how this is such a prominent feature here. Why don't you have a normal apartment with normal rooms? Like a bedroom and a kitchen?"
"I've considered it. But I like it here. I have a few decades before my persona becomes too old to keep up." He moved closer, stood at the end of the bed, watching her. "I should start dinner."
He met her eyes.
"Or it could wait a little bit." She smoothed down her top. "I bought this with you in mind. I don't know why, but I thought you'd like velvet."
"You look lovely." He took a step toward her, then another. A third got him to her side. He took her wineglass, put it with his own on the bedside table.
"You look nice, too." She ran her hand down the arm of his shirt. "Got all gussied up for me?"
"It's possible." He put his hand over hers, pressing hers into his arm. "I've missed you." He moved slowly, as if he was afraid he'd scare her. Pulling her close, smiling as her arms twined around his neck. "What now, Peanut?"
He didn't hesitate. And her memory had not made his kissing ability better than reality. The man definitely knew what he was doing. She felt him falling back onto the bed, went with him, landing on top of him. They never stopped kissing.
He moaned, his hands exploring under her shirt, warm against her skin. Then he rolled them so he was on top, pulling away to look down at her. He smoothed her hair back, slowly kissed her cheek, then her forehead, her nose, her chin, her ear. She giggled as he nibbled softly, shivered as he blew on the wet spot.
He pulled back, sighing--but it was a different sigh than his usual. This one was slow and sexy, and he was staring down at her with such desire. "I want you, Peanut. I told you to go away and you did, and the minute you were gone, I realized I missed you."
"This way?" She leaned up, kissing his cheek, working her way to his lips. "In a kissing way?"
"No. I just missed you. But then you came back and you weren't a kid anymore, George. And the love I felt for you, it just sort of rolled over into this. And I wasn't sure what to make of wanting you like this." He slowly began to unbutton her blouse. "It's been a long time since I've felt this way."
She lay still, let him do what he wanted, sensed he needed that from her. Her acceptance. Her willingness to just let him do things. But once he had her blouse off, she grabbed his shirt, tugged it off roughly.
Because he needed that, and she did, too. This couldn't be something he did to her. It had to be something they did together.
"I love you, George," he murmured as he undid her pants and pulled them off, then got rid of her underthings.
She returned the favor, leaving him as pleasantly nude as she was. He crawled up the bed, pulling her with him, getting more comfortable, making sure she was, too, before he moved over her. Staring up at him, she realized this was what she'd expected to see with Jay: Rube's face. Rube's hard eyes that softened for her. Rube's fierceness tamed as he moved into her and moaned.
"I love you, Rube." She ran her nails down his back, urging him on.
He fooled her. He rolled off, playing with her, making her plead for more of his touch and then easing away to lie on his back with a mischievous expression. She had to crawl on top of him before he started to touch her again, a satisfied expression on his face as she claimed him, as she made him cry out and hold her tightly.
"Holy shit, Peanut."
She lay next to him, smiling in what she knew was sort of a drunken way. "Who knew we'd be this good together?"
He caught her hand in his, twined his fingers around hers. She cuddled in close, felt a strange sense of serenity fill her. Something she hadn't felt in years--maybe ever. Being with him felt so right.
Then her stomach growled.
Kissing her hair, he whispered, "Are you hungry?"
She nodded, but held him tighter. "I can wait, though."
"Good." He moved so that he was holding her leg down with his. Then he started to touch her while he kissed anywhere he could reach.
The man had a magician's fingers. She was soon groaning and arching, and he was chuckling softly in a way she never heard.
"You like that, do you?" His voice was gruff, full of emotion he usually kept bottled up. But also full of the surety he brought to everything. Rube: master of all.
She worked herself free of his leg and showed him that she wasn't unused to getting her own way, too. She wouldn't have thought he could make the sounds he did as she got to know Rube Junior on a very intimate level.
When he finally lay still, he said, "I repeat, Peanut. Holy shit."
She laughed. "So what's the junior league going to make of us?"
"I don't care what they fucking think." He kissed her hard. "But don't expect me to treat your any differently on a reap."
"Wouldn't dream of thinking I'd get preferential treatment." She curled against him. "Any more than I already do as your pet, I mean."
"Very funny, dead girl." But he was holding her against him, and his hands were running over her, and he seemed unable to get enough of kissing her.
She knew that she was going to get preferential treatment, and that the others probably wouldn't expect anything else. It didn't suck to be Rube's pet.
"Morning, Peanut," Rube said as she slid into the booth next to Dan. Rube sat across from her, glaring at her as if he hadn't woken her himself in a very special way.
"Morning, Rube." She tried to sound sleepy sulky but was afraid it came out sleepy sexy instead.
Rube glared harder at her, and she knew she'd better tone it down. She saw a small smile playing at his lips, and looked down before she broke out in a grin.
Damn, she felt good. Tired since they'd gotten very little sleep. And hungry 'cause he never had gotten around to cooking whatever Italian thing he'd been planning on making. But other than that she felt fucking terrific.
Millie hadn't been so happy when she'd rushed in to feed her on the way from Rube's to Der Waffle Haus. George realized it was sort of funny that she'd managed to rent an apartment that was so convenient to both places. It seemed her subconscious knew what--and who--she wanted long before she did.
Lindsay was sitting next to Rube and she stretched dramatically. "I had the most surreal evening."
"Yeah, and we want to hear all about it, because our lives are that dull." Rube handed her a Post-it. "Just tell me you didn't do anything I'm going to have to deal with later."
"You're too old to hear all the things I did."
He pretended to clutch at his heart. "Yeah, kid. I shock easy, so choose your words carefully." He looked up as Pete walked over to the booth. "Where the hell have you been? Your reap's in half an hour across town."
"You know you could have given that to someone else," George said, not looking at him.
"Like you, Peanut? I'd appreciate it if you could cut short your beauty sleep and make it here on time in the future."
"Sorry." She mumbled it and looked down, resisting the urge to look at him because she knew she'd start laughing. "Asswipe."
Dan giggled, and then he started to cough and had to drink his juice to stop.
Rube glared at her again. "What was that, George? My hearing's going 'cause I'm so damn old. Speak up."
"She called you an asswipe, Rube." Lindsay held out her hand for a Post-it. "About time someone called you that." She glanced at the note. "Fuckin' Tukwila again. You hate me, don't you?"
"You are not one of my favorite people, Lindsay, that is true."
She got up and left.
"That just leaves you, Ranger Rick." Rube handed Dan his Post-it.
Dan looked at it, then stuffed it in his pocket. He looked over at George and smiled.
She wasn't sure what the smile meant, but she returned it.
Dan smiled even more when Rube ordered her breakfast without asking her what she wanted.
"What?" she asked.
Dan shrugged. "Just nice to have you around. I know Rube thinks so too."
Rube made a sound that said the opposite.
"Yeah, Rube likes having you around." And then Dan waggled his eyebrows. Fortunately, Rube missed that.
She poured maple syrup onto the pancakes Kiffany brought and tried not to laugh.
"Let me out. I'm on a deadline." Dan slid out as soon as she was up, lifted a hand and said, "See ya later," and then was gone.
"So. Alone at last." She slid back into the booth, slipped out of her shoe, and ran her foot under Rube's pant leg.
She took a bite of her pancakes. "Man, I'm hungry. Why am I so hungry? Hmmm, maybe it's because this wild guy I was with wouldn't feed me."
"I fed you a good lunch. And I don't recall you complaining last night." His stern look shifted to something sweeter and sexier and just a little bit dangerous. "I remember you making a whole lot of other sounds, though."
"Right back at you, boss man." She pulled her foot away.
"You can keep it there. I don't mind."
"You'll tolerate it?"
"I'll humor you if it makes you feel good to do it." He was grinning. It was a damn cute look on him.
"Always giving so others might be happy. That's our Rube." She took a sip of her coffee. "No Post-it for me?"
"Another tandem job. I hope you don't mind I didn't pair you with one of them."
"I think I'll survive the disappointment."
"I figured you would." He motioned for more coffee from Kiffany. "Was Millie mad at you when you got home?"
"Yep. Lonely, I think." She studied him. "Maybe we could trade off locations?"
"What? You think that's going to happen again?" He captured her foot between his legs, holding her captive, as if to make sure she knew he was kidding.
"Oddly enough, I do think it's going to happen again. You can't get enough of me." She felt him ease his hold and slid her foot up and up and--
He grabbed her foot and pushed it back down. "Behave yourself, Peanut, or I'll put you over my knee."
"Promises, promises." She went back to molesting his ankle. "So where's our reap, today?"
"U District." He pushed his now empty plate away. "There's a Japanese place I really like up there. You're buying today."
"Okay." She reached for the syrup, felt his hand cover hers and looked up. "Everything okay?"
He squeezed her hand for a moment, then he let her go, his face the one of the consummate middle-manager of death. "Everything's fine, Peanut. Everything's just fine."