A/N: There are a few things I want to clear up before we get started.
1) Trigger Warnings: Death, murder, mentions of suicide. Rated M for later chapters.
2) This is an AU. It's actually the plot I've been planning to follow when I write my first novel, so I figured I'd 50 Shades this shit.
3) To fans of Streetlights: this is not Streetlights. Other than being in first person, this story will be nothing like Streetlights.
4) This is not 'realistic' fiction. I guess it would be classified as fantasy. It takes place on a realm between the living and the dead, so if that kind of thing doesn't tickle your fancy, I'd suggest you go read something more suited to your tastes. Or, you know, give it a shot. You might like it!
6) Yes, I heard that Victorious is being canceled after this coming season. As much as I'm bummed about it, I'm confident that the fandom won't disappear anytime soon. Let's all enjoy it for as long as it's fun.
7) Feedback is always appreciated. Especially with something like this, which I've never published here on ff, constructive criticism is more than welcome. I take every piece of advice into deep consideration. I want to be the best writer I can be and I can't do that without you.
All that said, I hope you guys like it. Thanks for being awesome!
Most of them die in car accidents. Teenagers, I mean. Having died one, I remember what it felt like to be alive at that age; there's a sickening amount of false invincibility in them. They do reckless things just for the sake of it and more often than not it ends in a deadly mess. A boy drinks himself into oblivion and convinces his friends that he's the most suited driver or a girl taking her little sister to dance class decides that the text she just received is much more important than watching where the center line is. I'm never surprised when I approach what looks like a large ball of crumpled aluminum foil wrapped around a tree or flipped onto its side by a bigger vehicle. It's a typical, even daily occurrence for me. I heave my usual pitiful sigh for the lost cause of the human race and then find what remains of the poor kids who didn't survive.
Suicide is the next common end for this age group. Those pick-ups are some of the worst. Unlike big accidents where there's a hundred people running around making all kinds of noise and paramedics are heroically but futilely trying to revive an empty shell and there's lights and words and so many colors it's absolutely blinding, suicides are almost always quiet and empty. The person is alone. It's just you and their body and the diluted light of their energy. In the hollow silence that follows a suicide, there is nothing but the sad truth: this being didn't want to live anymore.
Sympathy isn't something I try to cater to in my line of work. It gets in the way and makes it even more difficult than it already is. If I allowed myself to feel grief for every pick-up, I'd have passed on a long time ago. Usually I just bite the inside of my cheek and think of the colored sphere I guide out of them as a package. I'm just a mailman for the dead.
Murder, though, that one is a lot less seen, especially in high school kids, and, as seasoned as I am, I can't help but feel truly bad about it. Most homicides in my area are crazed husbands who should have never been given a firearm in the first place, some fatal robberies, a few hired kills. Each Reaper's designated area isn't very large, so murders are few and far between. When they do occur, it's almost exclusively in older people. Thirties, forties - hell, I had to clean up the mess from a completely nutty ninety-seven year old who choked one of his nurses.
Not kids. That's just not fair. Not that Death is ever fair, really, but sometimes it's just totally bogus.
Honed edge piercing the dirt, I lean against the closed handles of my shears and rest my chin on the top of my hands. She's probably sixteen or seventeen, Filipino or Spanish, judging by her dark hair and bronze skin. Pretty, really. Her jacket, the color of blush, is zipped to the middle of her still chest, jeans scuffed at the knees but fully on. Long legs are stretched in a straight line with the toes of her perfectly tied shoes pointing upward. Her arms are bent at the elbows, lifeless hands placed one on top of the other as if she were being prepared for her casket. There isn't a moon tonight, so she is only shadows and stars.
If it weren't for the violet, bruising ring around her throat, she could have passed as dozing to anyone else. Though it is ten at night on a Wednesday and it looks like it's about to rain, so that would be kind of peculiar. Besides, her color's been dimmed the way it does when it can no longer sustain itself in the body, so she's definitely dead. On the plane Reapers exist, living people look like walking light bulbs. That's why it sucks when someone has a heart attack in the middle of a crowded shopping mall because getting to them is a real pain in the ass and makes my eyes burn. Once they die, though, and all of the strings that hold a soul in place slip free, they're reduced to a slight glimmer - a smoldering ember where a fire used to be.
Hefting my shears over my shoulder, I take a few steps forward. The leaves where I had been standing readjust as if my presence had never been there, a kind of reflex the universe has to make sure all the realms remain independent of each other. I drop to one knee at the girl's side and frown as I watch an ant skitter through the field of her hair. Despite her peaceful position, there's clear evidence of a struggle. Other than the dirt smudging her clothes and the abrasion on her left cheekbone, her fingernails are torn. Leaning close, I can see blood caked beneath them, like she had clawed at her attacker's face with everything she had. A bead of rain lands just below her closed eye and leaves a wet trail across her temple. Even in Death, one can weep.
My hand hovers over her torso, just above her sternum. The difficultly of the summoning depends on what the death was like - really old or sick people hardly need any coaxing at all. Children, too. They don't know how to fight yet. Once you start getting into unexpected pick-ups for healthy young people, things start to get a bit more challenging. Their energy is at its prime strength and the instinct to stay alive is still very much working at full speed even after the body's vital organs have failed. Life is a stubborn Force.
I can tell this girl was a fighter, too. Her soul is strong, trembling with effort to pulse its light again as I slowly extract it from her shell. The resistance is so durable that her chest momentarily rises from the ground and I have to put my feet into it. I'm afraid I might have a potential Phantom on my hands when her lifeline - the string that holds her Soul in place until it's picked up - finally coils out like a long, wispy tail. My free hand opens the silver blades of my weapon and gives a quick shhhk, officially separating her Soul from her body. With a slight thump she rests on the Earth again and spinning before me like a wingless firefly is a yellow dome.
Everyone has different shades of different colors; the colors tell specific things about what the person was like. Earlier today, for example, I had to pick up a baby who didn't survive his birth. The orb I pulled from him was white - untainted, untouched, completely pure. He hadn't lived yet. Those are Souls in their most raw state. But from birth on, beings go through both negative and positive experiences, are conditioned to do and believe certain things, and eventually they meld all of them together to make an internal mosaic; red people are angry or afraid, blue are tired and sad, and so on. Orange is usually the shade teenagers get to when I pick them up. It's a vibrant and busy color with too much confidence for its own good.
For her to have a yellow one is interesting, though. Cupping my hands around it, I guide it forward until I can feel its soothing warmth on my face like a flickering candle flame. Yellow is more common in children. They're beginning to learn right from wrong but have still maintained their innocence. The world hasn't inflicted permanent damage yet. Curious, really, that a girl this age hadn't turned orange or even pink yet. Whether it's a good or bad thing isn't up for me to decide; she was either a deliriously cheerful person or she was awfully ignorant.
I'm still impressed, though. Even now, severed from the body, her Soul is quaking with surprising strength between my hands. A fierce one indeed, I muse, holding the orb in one hand and swinging my shears over my back with the other. I stare down at her body for a few moments longer, rain now pelting against the shell and soaking her jacket into a deep maroon. I'm sure she must have been even more beautiful with life burning a wildfire inside of her.
I've seen people kill for all kinds of reasons: jealousy, revenge, sometimes out of sheer impulse. It comes from humans' more animal side, I suppose. It's hardly uncommon in this world and I've seen it a hundred times before, so I'm not sure why I linger so long, looking at her. Well, not her, really - what made her her is in my hands, which I eventually move to store in the pocket of my robe. What's left behind is little more than an abandoned house.
No, I think, turning my back on the girl. Abandoned suggests that they wanted to leave - this girl was evicted. Smoked out.
A brisk breeze passes through me like wind in a screen door and it feels wrong to have to take someone so resilient away from this plane where it's such a rare thing, but I remind myself as I walk away that Reapers don't kill people. People kill people. I'm just the delivery girl.
Cat is someone you hear long before you see. The sound of her laughter comes from some distance behind me and then she's shouting my name, but I pretend not to notice. She's nice enough, but being around her is like chewing really sugary gum; there's only so much sweetness I can handle.
"I said wait, Jade!"
Huffing, I throw my shears across my shoulders and hook my arms on either end. I still don't slow but she catches up eventually - a flash of ruby red hair and a smile bright enough to light up a small town. She died after me but was about my age and I know without the slightest doubt that her soul was probably the color of fresh cotton candy. "Hey, Cat," I address shortly, keeping my eyes on the approaching iron gates. I had few friends when I was alive and the ties I had to them were slack enough that I've already forgotten their names and faces. It's clearly a skill I don't have and not one I ever cared to perfect. There's a reason I excel at reaping.
But Cat is as persistent as a starving mosquito and since I can't exactly escape her in this realm, I've learned to put up with her.
"Hey, hey!" She twirls a shimmering baton in her fingers, flipping it once in the air before catching it like an agile cheerleader. It's not the most threatening weapon of choice, though for a person as animated as Cat, it doesn't really surprise me. She became a Reaper somewhere around five years ago and even knowing she had died didn't damper her bright spirits any. "Pretty slow night, isn't it?"
I shrug. There is never a shortage of pick-ups - people die every minute of every day - but since each Reaper has a specific area to cover, sometimes hours can pass between them within those borders. I hate those lulls because it leaves me with nothing to do but tap my foot and wait and I absolutely hate the thought that I might be wishing for someone to finally die just so I don't have to be bored.
The area Cat reaps is just north of mine and we both have to travel east to make it to the Doorway. This is usually the only time I see her, or any of the nearby Reapers for that matter. Our job is a solitary one and I prefer to be as far away from everyone as I can be, anyway. My tendencies of secluding myself is a trait that followed me in Death.
My teeth clamp together with a sudden breath of cold air. Although this plane is invisible to the living, we can still smell the fog curling from the ground, be chilled by the breeze and warmed by the sun. When it rains, our cloaks keep us dry. Apparently the Force of Nature doesn't give a shit about planes.
Cat is still chirping about something or another when we pass through the gates, the bars casting striped shadows from the dim streetlights. Together we ascend a steep hill and, once at the top, we both pause to stare down at the dark, quiet cemetery below. It seems like such a cliche place for a Doorway to be, surrounded by a bunch of dead bodies and all, but it's also the safest for everyone. Living people aren't too much of a concern here save for the occasional group of kids daring each other to sleep propped against a headstone. For the most part, though, us Reapers are alone in our element and we can focus on the more peaceful aspect of our job. The drop-off.
By the time Cat and I weave our way down the hill, the rest of the Reapers that use our Doorway are already there. Midnight is damp with darkness but it's easy to see the dozen or so figures gathered. Some stand in groups, others in pairs, a few alone. There's a pretty wide spectrum of ages - the youngest is fourteen, I think, and the oldest was probably in her sixties when she died. I figure she must have been a workaholic in real life to continue busting her ass when she died instead of going on to eternal peace or whatever. If I had lived as long as she had, I'd be too tired to keep going.
"Good evening, hello!" Cat bounds ahead of me, red hair sailing behind her like a flag. You'd think dead people would be more of a bummed out bunch, but she receives plenty of waves and smiles as I follow behind a little less enthusiastically. I hover at the edges of the circle pretending to look awfully interested in the blades of my shears while we wait for Sikowitz to show up. He's a Grim Reaper, and only people of that status and up can open Doorways. The whole Death function works a lot like a company - workers, managers, the big boss. Sikowitz is the 'manager' of our precinct. He makes sure we're doing our jobs properly - fully extracting Souls, not going out of our way to tamper with the living realm, and, most importantly, making sure Phantoms are taken care of as needed.
I don't own a giant pair of scissors to trim my hair, you know.
"Can this guy ever be on time?"
Glancing sidelong, I internally cringe when I find the source of the voice. I plant my shears in the dirt and lean on them with folded arms. My gaze drops to the ground. "Not if his life depended on it."
Beck snorts. He's a tall guy with copper skin and has the most useless weapon in the history of Reapers. Strapped to his back is a guitar and even though I've never actually seen him use it, I'm positive that he can't do much damage with it. What's he going to do, play a lullaby for the Phantoms?
That isn't what annoys me most about him, though. It's the fact that he's been hitting on me relentlessly since he became a Reaper a few months ago. Once he even strayed into my district and tried to woo me on a date. Like, what the fuck, we're dead. Dead people don't date. Our Souls might exist on a different plane now, but we're not alive. We don't eat or dream or have heartbeats anymore. We certainly don't go on fucking dates.
Fortunately, Sikowitz got on Beck's ass for leaving his designated area, but that hasn't stopped the flirting when we meet every night to do our drop-offs. As if on cue, Beck swings his leg forward and adjusts the strap to his guitar. "So, when's your next vacation?" He asks, dark hair slipping from his brow.
It physically pains me to keep myself from rolling my eyes. What, exactly, would he intend to do? Take me to a movie? Hold my hand in the park? Casually scoop up a Soul in the middle of a grieving family, all romantic like?
"I don't take vacations." 'Vacation' is a pretty poor word choice here - it manifests images of palm trees and sipping margaritas in the sand whilst lounging naked on some deserted beach. When a Reaper goes on vacation, they don't really go anywhere, they just take a break from dead people. This job can be exhausting in more ways than one and some need to take a few days every once in a while to clear their heads. It's also a time to reconsider - most of the time, when a Reaper is having a break, they're trying to decide whether or not they want to hang up the old cloak and scythe, you could say. Pass on.
Reaping isn't a permanent job. We can leave whenever we want to but some - like Sikowitz, like Cat, like myself - can't imagine doing so.
"Wait." Beck frowns at me. "Like, never? Haven't you been around since the eighties or something?"
"Are you saying I'm old?" I click my tongue. "Back in my day, young men had manners."
He flushes. "No, that's not at all what I -"
I raise a hand and have to resist smirking when his mouth instantly clicks shut. "Kidding. About the manners thing. Not about the vacation thing." Shrugging, I meet his eyes. "I've never taken a day off. I have a job to do."
Beck's eyes narrow slowly, gauging me up and down. "Yeah, but ... doesn't it get to you?" He raises a hand to touch the tip of his guitar. A frown is claiming his lips. "It gets to me."
Another shrug rolls through my shoulders. "We're dead. You really can't let things still get to you like this."
I know I've hurt him by the kicked puppy expression that swarms over his features. Sometimes I forget that I've been dead longer than most Reapers. The average deathspan (get it?) of a Reaper is a about a year, making Cat, Sikowitz, and me oddities. People who are given the opportunity to reap - particularly notable Souls that a Grim Reaper decides should be asked - just jump at the opportunity to not have to face the great unknown for a little while longer. The novelty of reaping wears off fairly quickly, though, and passing on becomes more of an attractive option. At least, that's what I hear - I wouldn't really know because I never want to stop doing what I do. I didn't live at all until I died. This is my calling.
But most people like being alive, I remind myself with a sigh, pinching the bridge of my nose. Beck enjoyed living and is trying to cling to a piece of that. Things like this do still get to him. And it's hard to blame him for it when his death was so heroic - he saved a little girl who got caught in the violent currents of a canal. He's a proper fucking saint.
"Sorry. I was a bitch when I was alive, too." I give a wince of a smile that Beck doesn't return. I deal with dead people all day - comforting semi-living ones isn't exactly my forte. Turning away, I give up and hope that the conversation is enough to stop any other attempts to pursue me.
"Hello, hello, Reapers!"
Thank Death for small miracles. I loop my arm through one of the gaps in the shears' handles and walk away from Beck, toward the approaching figure of Sikowitz. He emerges from the shadows like a class A chaperon of Death. His hood is up and his robe is tied closed, giving the illusion that he's floating rather than walking. Swinging from his right hand like a pendulum is a comically huge ax with a silver edge just sharp enough to open a Doorway.
The whole facade Sikowitz has going on would probably spook the piss right out of a living person's pants, at least if he kept his hood drawn over his face. But, as he approaches, he tugs it down from behind and reveals the goofy balding head of the former acting teacher. With an all teeth revealing grin, Sikowitz flourishes a dramatic bow. He twirls the massive axe in a quick circle before letting it pierce the ground at his feet.
I'm not exactly sure how long Sikowitz has been dead, but I've seen him every day of my undead life since I got here. He's the one who offered me the job and trained me in, and not a drop-off has gone by where he doesn't try to make the most theatrical entrance he can.
Old habits die hard.
As we gather around the Grim, I heave a sigh of relief when I notice Beck moving far on the opposite side. My luck ends there, though, when Cat nearly topples me after careening into my shoulder. A venomous glare kills the apology on her lips.
"How was everyone's day? Good? Yes?" Sikowitz clasps his hands together and spins in a slow circle, meeting each of us in the eye.
"Lovely!" Cat, typically, is the only one who vocally responds. "How was yours, Grim Sikowitz?"
A laugh not dissimilar to a bass drum rumbles from the man. "Heart-stopping, as usual!"
I can't help the sharp look I cut toward Beck at the dark joke. Not surprisingly, he isn't laughing.
"Now, now, business, business." Sikowitz waves his hands, bends at the knees, and pulls the axe out of the ground with a grunt. Watching the large gash it had left behind fill is like seeing the universe work in reverse. "I've got a precious elderly woman to pick up. Let's not keep her waiting." His chest swells with a preparatory breath, grasping the axe's handle with both hands and wheeling it forward.
Like rocks striking each other, there are white sparks. Reflexively, I step back from the blinding kaleidoscope of colors that bleeds through the opening. Beyond that is a whole different plane. Heaven, hell, a channel for reincarnation, I have no clue. Just like the living realm doesn't know about this one, Reapers don't know a thing about the next one, only that it's there.
Starting with Sikowitz, the Reapers step forward, emptying their pockets. Souls pass through the Doorway like rainbow bubbles, two words I hate using on their own, let alone in the same sentence. Cat blows kisses as she releases hers, waving as they disappear into the unknown. Beck's expression is sober as his hands uncurl. I try not to think too much into it as my hands dip into my bottomless pockets, the heat of Life burning my skin.
I'm the last Reaper to drop off. I push my shears into the dirt and step forward with my eyes squinted. My left hand withdraws first, a thread punctuated with Souls like a strip of Christmas lights lead by the white orb of the baby I had picked up this morning slipping through. I've brought thousands of Souls to this Doorway - I don't remember all of them. Hell, I try not to remember any of them. I only know their colors, not their names, not who they were or who they loved or who they were loved by. My job isn't to make a special place in my dead heart for each and every one of them, it's to get them safely to the 'other side'. That's where my feelings are supposed to end.
But as my right hand leaves my pocket, the first thing I see in the warm bundle pooled in my hand is the small sun of the Soul I pulled from a girl who fought so hard to stay alive.
I hesitate for the first time in twenty-seven years.
I ignore Sikowitz, taking the yellow globe in my free hand and releasing the others. I step back, covering the Soul like it's a flame the wind might snuff out.
"What's this?" Sikowitz appears in my peripherals. I don't watch, but I know he's closing the Doorway the same way he opened it, the swipe of his axe working like a zipper. The next realm drapes closed. "Has our very own Jade finally been impressed by someone?"
I pull my eyes away from the girl's Soul. Sikowitz is grinning like he knows an absurdly funny joke he refuses to share. Rolling my eyes, I thrust the Soul out to him. "Hold her. You'll see why."
Like he's accepting a great gift, Sikowitz spreads his hands. Carefully, I place the golden ball into his palms, almost reluctant to release it. Sikowitz gasps. He draws the Soul close and his smile widens, if that's at all possible.
Grim Reapers have an ability to Know a Soul. It seems a little intrusive to me - a Grim can learn anything about a Soul that they want to when it's in their hands. Sikowitz did it to every Reaper in our precinct, which gives me the fucking willies, to tell you the truth. That man knows way too much about me.
His eyes are closed and his ear is craned close, like he's listening to a voice only he can hear. Nodding slowly, he gives another loud laugh. "Yes, yes. Jade, this is excellent. She is marvelous." He tilts closer. "Tori." Sikowitz's eyes open, holding the Soul level with his chest. "Strong, yellow Tori." He looks at me with sickening glee. "We could use an ambitious Reaper, don't you think?"
I try not to look interested. Tearing my gaze from the Soul, I pull my weapon from the ground and throw it across my shoulders. "Do whatever you want, Sikowitz. I just figured I'd let you take a look before she passed."
Sikowitz looks like he's about to burst with sunshine. "You have no idea how long I've waited for this, Jade. You've finally chosen your first pupil!"
I had started to turn around but his words instantly grind me to a halt. "What?" I whirl to face him again. "What did you say?"
"Jade, Jade." Sikowitz sweeps forward, his cloak rustling the ground around his feet. "I remember when I asked you if you wanted to become a Reaper. I knew even then that you'd grow enough to begin training your own someday."
"Woah, woah," I swing my blades forward. "No, I didn't say I wanted to train anyone - you're the Grim, that's your job."
"It is." Sikowitz nods, still holding the girl's - Tori's - Soul close to him. "It has been for a very long time. But, well." He turns in a slow circle, looking at each of us with a warm smile. "I suppose now is good a time as any. I've decided to pass on."
Cat's gasp sounds like a dog toy being stepped on. She bustles forward, knuckles paling around her baton. "But, but - who, who will open the Doorway? Who will be our Grim?"
Dread coils in my gut like lead when Sikowitz turns his beaming gaze back to me. "I wanted to wait until our most suited Reaper found a potential student to offer her the position." He raises his eyebrows. "Of course, I'd remain the Grim until you successfully trained the Reaper and show you the ropes of my long-held job here. Unless you wanted to pass on, in which case I'll remain until another -"
"Fuck no." I feel more than see the death glare (oh, I'm hilarious) coming from the older Reaper woman across the circle. "About passing on, I mean. I don't want to pass on."
"Then, what do you think? How'd you like to be this precinct's Grim?"
My mouth falls open. I hadn't even considered the possibility of becoming a Grim before. I've been a Reaper for so long, much longer than I was alive. This is more my life than my living one ever was. Moving up never crossed my mind. I guess I'm still more of a teenager than I'd like to be, believing that things in this realm would never change, that Sikowitz would be the Grim for the rest of time. It's natural that he'd want me to take his place. I've been here the longest. I've never failed to bring a Soul to the Doorway and every Phantom that's crossed me has been cut down.
I was born to die to become a Reaper. Why not be a Grim?
"I'll get to meet Death." My weapon falls pointed end to the ground. "I'll get to see Death face-to-face."
Sikowitz nods. "You will be able to open Doorways. Know Souls. Communicate with other Forces outside of Death. Nature, Fate, Love. Your weapon's power will be magnified beyond what you can imagine. You'll be able to take on several Phantoms at once!" In his excitement, the Grim is shaking his clasped hands, Tori's Soul jostling between them. I bite my tongue to keep myself from telling him to quit it.
I frown. "This is kind of sudden, don't you think? I mean, can't I think about it for a while?"
The Grim's face tightens. I so rarely see anything other than pure amusement on Sikowitz's face that it catches me off guard. His shoulders slump and he leans on the handle of his axe and it occurs to me that he died an old man. There are lines branching from the corners of his eyes and mouth like the wilting limbs of ancient trees. He's been tired for a long, long time. Besides, he gave my death meaning. I owe him much more than I could ever give.
Rubbing the heel of my palm against my forehead, I sigh. Everyone's eyes are on me and it's not exactly comforting, especially since Cat's are the size of saucers and Beck looks torn between fear and disgust and the old lady still looks appalled that I swore in front of her.
I look at Sikowitz and his goddamn goofy looking face and throw my hands in the air, the blades of my shears opening and closing with a sharp, crisp sound. "What the hell. Why not? Sikowitz, don't you dare start crying on me -"
"No, no, of course not, I'm just relieved! Proud! Ecstatic!"
I half expect the man to jump in the air and click his heels together with excitement. Thankfully, he brings the Soul close to his mouth instead, beginning to take a breath.
"What if she says no?" With a nod of my head, I indicate the Soul.
Sikowitz pauses, the yellow waves of the Soul reflecting in his eyes when he shifts them to me. "She won't," he replies, lips splitting into a wide grin. "Tori," he whispers, focusing on the sphere in his hands like it's the center of our universe. "I have a proposition for you." His chest swells.
The Grim breathes the breath of Death into her and it's like watching the sun explode.