A/N: Greetings once more! Not much to say about this one, other than it is a death!fic, although it is meant to be a bit of a lighthearted one. But if death bothers you, then don't read it. Easy as that.
Warnings: Death!fic - one of the Seven
Disclaimer: Not mine. All Greek mythology is gleaned from my limited memory and Wikipedia. The title isn't mine, either - that would belong to the very talented Emily Dickinson. Oh, and it's in a differnt POV than you may be accustomed too. Just roll with it, okay?
"Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
- Emily Dickinson, "Because I could not stop for Death"
Young people. The curse of his career.
Some would call him jealous – jealous of youth, of vitality, of the actual instinct to go out, live, and give a damn about something. That was absolutely ridiculous – he had no desire to be young; he didn't even remember a time when he could have been considered youthful, whatever that meant. True, he had often been called dull, tedious, monotonous – pretty much every antonym of "lively" under the sun. But then, that only made sense, given his career. Actually, it was more of an identity – he was Death, after all, both in name and vocation.
And yes, he was considered to be mildly neurotic about his work – but that was only because it was a tough job to be Death. He wasn't like Dionysus, who could party every hour of the millennium – he actually had a job to do, and he did it well, as his peers grudgingly admitted. His work was important, and far from easy. The fieldwork alone was exhausting – the human population was high enough now that someone was kicking the bucket virtually every moment of the day. And the amount of paperwork he had to fill out for each individual was absolutely ridiculous. It was a struggle just to stay caught up on the normal workload.
As if that weren't enough, the humans had to go and pick up the nasty habit of killing each other over ridiculous things like land, love, and honor. Honestly, Death didn't see the point in such battles and wars – human life was already short enough, so why fight and make it even shorter? Not to mention wars increased his workload practically tenfold, and by the time he would make it back to his office at the end of the era, the backed-up paperwork flooded out the door.
Death hoped that people felt the same way he did once their governments started forcing them to fill out forms for taxes, jobs, college educations, and standardized testing. Maybe then they'd cut him some slack.
And that brought him back to the problem of young people. Most young people thought they were on top of the world, that nothing could touch them, and that they could even beat Death. It made them reckless, irresponsible, and more often than not they got themselves shot or stabbed as a result and thus were killed before their appropriated time. When that happened it made dragging their souls to the river Styx and handing them over to Phlegyas that much more exhausting and annoying, since most of them never knew when to shut. Up. Any pity Death might have had for them was effectively extinguished when they opened their mouths and whined the entire trip down.
Death had proved several times over that yes, humans could perish only once. Pity, really.
Of course when he did that, Phlegyas always got pissed off at him for "mishandling" the souls and gave him three extra forms to fill out, even though they were already dead and therefore couldn't really be mishandled. The one time he brought it up to Hades, he'd been sent over to the Claims Office (Underworld Department) and had been presented with a stack of forms four inches thick.
By Zeus, he hated paperwork.
And to top it all off, his constant struggles with the souls of young people always put him behind, and it often meant he had to warp to keep up with the workload. He hated warping through time to gather multiple souls in the same instant – it hurt, it was disconcerting, and half the time it made him nauseous. The other half of the time his nausea was immediately relieved when he vomited on the soul he was picking up. Then the soul in question would complain even louder and by the end of the trip Death would have a migraine. And more often than not Phlegyas would give him more forms for mishandling the soul. Then he'd get behind in his route because of the paperwork, and he'd have to warp again. It was a vicious cycle.
Contrary to popular belief, Death wasn't heartless. But he wasn't charitable, either. Most of the time, the youthful souls he collected deserved their punishment. But, to be fair, sometimes they got the short end of the stick. And cases like that did tug faintly at his rather minute heartstrings. For a split-second.
And there were times where foolish people – men, especially – threw themselves in front of a threat to save another – women, generally a "true" love. Such valor, while annoying because it came with an extra sheet to fill out, was commendable. For the most part, those kinds of souls were quiet and thoughtful on the journey to Styx. Death often found himself enjoying the conversation with them. It was as close to a vacation as he would ever get, and proved to be much more stimulating conversation than any talks he'd had with Dionysus or the others gods he happened to encounter in his daily life.
Too bad those kinds of souls were few and far between.
There did seem to be a strange collection of this particular brand of valorous souls in the middle of the United States, though. An odd bunch to be sure; a bunch that frustrated Death to no end, but intrigued him for the same reason they annoyed him.
They simply. Wouldn't. Die.
The first time Death had run into them had been in a little Seminole village. He'd simply been following his Collection chart – which listed the name, age, and gender of the souls he needed to pick up and the manner of their death. The names only appeared on the chart when it was practically certain they would die. Occasionally the soul proved to be a little tougher than the Collection Agency originally thought, and Death had no other choice but to let them go. Most of the time those souls earned a little of Death's grudging respect and a lot of his annoyance, because even souls that didn't make it down to the river required paperwork.
(Death was pretty sure the Fates were out to get him ever since he'd wiped them out at the lone poker game he'd attended. He decided that they therefore gave him as much paperwork as possible in retribution.)
Death knew this particular pick-up would be difficult when he saw a few of the names on the list – four of the lawmen had defied him a few times already. Larabee and Wilmington had narrowly avoided the trip at least twice; Sanchez, by all accounts, should've crossed the River as a mere lad; and Standish…
Well, Death had given up on taking Standish before his appointed time ages ago. Stubborn cuss always managed to get his sorry ass in trouble and then dig it back out just to do it again a little while later. Standish had an entire file devoted to him back at the office. And a dartboard. Death had discovered Standish's face was a good outlet for frustration – he'd already replaced his picture three times.
Still, even he was surprised when he stopped by the village after the second battle and came up severely short on souls. His list showed he should have taken the entire village plus six of the gunslingers and several of the soldiers, but instead he ended up leaving with fourteen village members, practically half the regiment of Confederates, and not a single lawman.
And the astounding thing was that it was all thanks to Standish. The self-serving conman who (in Death's opinion) practically lived to try and kill himself had defied Tyche and returned to the village to save the other gunslingers' lives. Death had taken a few futile tugs at Wilmington and Sanchez, but he knew how stubborn they were and didn't really try.
His trip back to the office after that incident had been chaotic to say the least. Tyche was furious, demanding how someone could dare to defy destiny – as if Standish hadn't done it a dozen times before. The Collection Agency was out of sorts at such an unexpected number of survivors, and Death had an extra-large stack of forms to fill out as a result.
The next few times Death visited the gunmen, the outcome had proven to be much of the same. Jackson turned out to be an excellent healer and in several instances pulled his comrades practically from Death's grip. At one point, Death had Dunne in his grasp only for Dunne to buck against him and get pulled back by Jackson and Wilmington.
Time and time again the seven lawmen defied him – most often in ridiculously lucky fashions. Lucky shots, near misses, an exploding armored wagon (definitely Standish's work), and other such near-misses had created so much doubt and disbelief at the office that Death had been pulled off of a job several times to explain to Hades just what was going on in this little dirt patch in the Middle of Nowhere, USA and why he was apparently failing at his job. He'd nearly been put on probation after Standish was saved from a bullet by wad of cash, until the Collection Agency came out of their Dionysus-induced stupor long enough to realize Death was their only agent and promptly put him back in the field.
And after the entire Gaines fiasco, Death had thrown in the towel, so to speak. Once again Larabee and Standish had been on the list to die; but after Standish survived because of a diamond and Larabee because of his grit, Death had had enough. Trying to collect the lawmen's souls was more trouble than it was worth, he decided. The Seven became his prime example of the dangers of youth and valor for his line of work, even if some of the members weren't all that youthful anymore.
For the next few years, every time one of the Seven's names came up on his list, he ignored it. He was repeatedly rebuked by the Agency, but Death really didn't care. It wasn't like he could ever be fired, and he knew without a doubt that Chris Larabee and his men would not give up on one of their own without a knock-down drag-out fight – something Death did not have time for in his busy schedule. Those seven gave him plenty of business as it was.
There were a few times where he stopped by because it seemed plausible (but highly unlikely) he would be taking one of them with him. Larabee and Sanchez were both badly injured in a massive gunfight. Tanner got hit with a severe case of pneumonia after diving into a river in the middle of winter to save a drowning child. Wilmington had taken a bad fall trying to prevent a gunman from killing Tanner. Dunne had taken a bullet to the back trying to protect his young paramour. Standish had been stabbed in the chest protecting the local Mexican barmaid.
But every time he got close to one of them, the others had pulled them back. The closest Death had come to succeeding was when Jackson stepped in between Standish and an irate loser at the poker tables and had taken a bullet to the stomach that was intended for the gunman. Again Death had been defied – Sanchez and Wilmington had tracked down a nearby surgeon and Standish had given up a year's wages plus all of his poker earnings in the previous eight months to convince the Southern-bred man to operate on Jackson, thus once again snatching one of the Seven right out of Death's rather bony grip.
After awhile, it got to the point where Death dreaded the day when he would actually succeed in taking one of the infamous Seven to the river Styx. As annoying as it was, he rather liked their grit and determination, and he had to admire their efficiency at stopping any threat that approached their town. He had to grumble and complain about the stacks of paperwork the group caused him in front of his peers to keep up his façade though – no need in letting them think he was going soft. He was Death after all, and he had a reputation to maintain.
Then one day the inevitable happened. Larabee's name appeared on his list with two little initials – a.t.
Appointed time. No getting out of that one.
With a sigh, Death handed a few souls over to Phlegyas before heading once more towards the dusty town. This was more than likely going to be one of the toughest trips in his career – he figured that Larabee would fight tooth and nail to keep from crossing the river.
The dust from the latest gunfight hadn't even settled when he arrived. Death glided silently over towards where Larabee was destined to die from a gunshot to the lung – payback from a man who had been hunting him for nearly a decade to avenge his brother's death. He took his time – Larabee was a stubborn pain-in-the-ass and would probably linger to spew out a few last words. Death hated to watch people give their last words – they got too emotional. It was pathetic, really.
But the scene in front of him wasn't quite what he expected, and Death wondered for moment if Dionysus had spiked his water again. The soul was calmly standing there, waiting for Death to arrive as he watched the chaotic scene around him. And it wasn't Larabee.
It was Standish.
Death tilted his cloaked head to stare in shock at this startling new development. On the other plane, which both he and Standish could see but not hear, the others were gathering around Larabee and Standish. Larabee was awkwardly lowering Standish's dead weight down, most of the conman's upper body resting in the gunslinger's lap as he wrapped one arm around Standish's shoulders while pressing his other hand firmly to the hole in Standish's chest, just above his heart. His mouth was moving as if he was yelling, and Death knew he was uselessly ordering, "Damn it, Ezra, don't do this!"
Standish twisted slightly to glance at Death, his green eyes bright and knowledgeable. His soft, calm voice echoed through the silence as if it had been magnified. "Is it always this surreal?" he queried, twisting back to watch his fellow lawmen.
Death remained silent, still speechless by what had transpired. He double-checked his list to make sure Standish hadn't been on it as well, and frowned when he confirmed that only Larabee was supposed to die. He looked back up at the gambler, a migraine already beginning to pulse softly behind his forehead. No one had ever escaped when it was their appointed time, and quite frankly, Death wasn't sure what the protocol for this situation was. It wasn't like he could just return Standish to his body – the bullet destined for Larabee's lung had pierced the shorter man's heart. No coming back from that.
"That is rather repulsive," Standish commented dryly as his body's head flopped back limply over Larabee's arm. "And I do wish they would close my mouth. That's just impolite, having it gape open in such a manner. And my attire is simply atrocious. I do hope they remedy that."
Death finally found his voice. "What the hell did you do?"
Standish glanced at him before focusing his attention back on his friends. "I merely turned around at the most inopportune moment, I'm afraid. Dreadful luck, I suppose," he drawled. He clucked his tongue as Larabee started yelling something at Jackson. "Now, now, Mr. Larabee, there's no need for such foul language. There was not a single thing Nathan could have done, and I believe you understand that," he scolded. He tilted his head as he watched Larabee refocus his attention on Standish's body, and the lines on his face softened. "Ah yes. You do understand."
Death stared open-mouthed at this man before rubbing his forehead in frustration. "Do you realize what you've done?" he demanded angrily.
"I'm fairly certain I have passed on. Handed in my chips. Expired, as it were," Standish replied with a one-shouldered shrug. "Mr. Wilmington, I believe you should – oh, yes, thank you," he sighed as Wilmington grabbed Dunne in a hug before the younger man could collapse to the ground. "I'm afraid our young sheriff is taking this harder than I had anticipated."
"You deliberately took that bullet for Larabee, didn't you?" Death interjected, moving to block Standish's view of the other plane.
"Now why would I go and do something so foolish?"
Death shoved the list under Standish's nose. "Look!" he exclaimed, tapping at Larabee's name. "See those letters after the name? That means it was Larabee's appointed time!"
"Good Lord, you have lists for this sort of thing? I suppose you probably have a ledger then? And my, how disorganized if you can't get the right name on the list," Standish replied dryly. He took a step to the side to glance around Death and look at his friends. "Now, now, Mr. Jackson, I do believe there are others who are in need of your services. Do move on, my friend."
"Do you realize just how much you've messed things up?" Death cried, moving to stare Standish in the face again. "Nothing like this has ever happened before! Ever! People always die at their appointed time or earlier – never later! By Zeus I've never had a more frustrating soul!"
"As I recall, I was not the miscreant who pulled the trigger," Standish shot back.
Death tugged at the hem of his hood in frustration. "The Collection Agency's going to have a heyday with this. And all that paperwork! Do you know how much extra work this is going to give me? I'll have to warp for years to catch up!"
"You have paperwork? How tedious. I thought being Death would have been depressing enough on its own," Standish clucked sympathetically, tugging at the sleeves of his green jacket. He frowned as he fingered the hole in the fabric above his heart. "This is most fascinating– here's the hole but there is no blood."
"Why? What the hell would possess you to do something like this?"
Standish was silent as he watched his friends. Larabee had finally settled the gambler's limp body into the street and was issuing orders. Jackson and Sanchez had moved to attend to some of the other wounded. Wilmington was leading Dunne away from the scene. Tanner had grabbed Standish's hat up from the dusty street and was gently securing it on the conman's head. Together Larabee and Tanner lifted Standish's corpse, each with a hand under Standish's shoulders and lower back, and slowly moved down the street towards the undertaker. Dunne broke free from Wilmington's grip a moment later and moved to help support the conman's legs. Wilmington moved around to the front of the procession to keep Standish's head from rolling around limply, one hand holding the low-crown hat in place. Jackson and Sanchez materialized out of nowhere, each slipping unneeded hands under Standish's body, unable to let the procession carry down the street without them.
"This is for the best," Standish replied finally as his body was carried out of sight by each of his friends, leaving behind Larabee's black hat where it had fallen unnoticed near the massive pool of blood. Standish watched the crimson liquid settle into the dust for a moment before he turned to face Death again. "They'll be moved – hurt, even – by my passing, but they will have Mr. – they will have Chris to help them through this trying time."
"They would've had you to help them through Larabee's death," Death pointed out.
Standish chuckled and shook his head, his fingers moving up to finger the hole over his heart. "Mr. Larabee has the strength and leadership to get them all through this. He has passed through fire before, and he knows how to lead them through it now. I have had no such experience, and therefore would have been entirely useless to them should he have passed on first. We would have inevitably gone our separate ways. This would have proven to be a terrible disservice to the town."
Standish turned again to stare at the doorway where his friends had disappeared and where several townspeople were now beginning to congregate. When he spoke again, his voice was considerably thicker and his accent was more pronounced. "Yes, it is better this way. If Larabee is the next one to pass, they will be able to survive without him."
Death sighed again and thrust his clipboard up under his arm. "I'm never going to see the end of this. Hades will probably be chewing my ass out for decades. There'll be an inquiry, and I'm sure I'll have to write up new protocols and procedures, which I have not had to do in several millennia," he groused under his breath.
"Perhaps you should hire a personal assistant," Standish commented smoothly, his voice loosing all former emotion. "From the sounds of it, you could use one. I can imagine that miscreants and individuals such as my compatriots only compound to your duties."
"You have no idea," Death muttered. He sighed once more. "We'd best get going, I suppose – the sooner I get this over with, the better."
Standish nodded, his gaze still focused on the doorway to the undertaker's. Larabee stepped out a moment later with slumped shoulders. He ran a bloody hand through his hair before looking over in the pair's direction. His head tilted slightly and he took a step forward.
Curious, Death followed his gaze and saw that he seemed to be looking directly at Standish. The conman smirked and tipped two fingers to the brim of his hat. The lines on Larabee's face softened slightly and he nodded back at Standish. Wilmington stepped out onto the boardwalk a moment later, and Larabee turned away to talk with him.
"Well, my good sir, I do believe that's our cue," Standish declared finally, turning his back on the town. He tilted his head thoughtfully as he looked up into Death's hooded face. "And you really must consider hiring that personal assistant. Perhaps you would not be so tense. I myself have considerable skill in organizing and drawing up paperwork, and for a small fee…"
Death snorted as he gripped Standish's shoulder with his bony fingers. Standish continued to prattle on as they began their journey towards Styx, and Death shook his head with a sigh of exasperation. He concealed his faint grin in the shadow of his hood as Standish laughed at his annoyance.
A/N: I had originally intended for the ending to be much more light-hearted, but Ezra decided to wax profound at the end. Ah well. I would greatly appreciate any feedback you might give me - it's always nice to hear opinions, both good and bad. Until next time!