Looking back on this later, he decided that was probably the stupidest thing he’d done in a fairly respectable career of doing really stupid things.
On the other hand, since he was still around with the opportunity to surpass even his own record, he decided on the whole to take his death philosophically.
“Oh, bloody hell,” Fitz sighed as he surveyed the scene in front of him. A café, on a bright and sunny early morning, known for its outstanding mochas and quiches. It wasn’t too hot yet, the humidity was just bearable, and there was a nice breeze going. The café was absolutely jam packed, both inside and on the outdoor patio, and he was supposed to find just one person in the whole lot.
Fitz had never been very good with early mornings. He’d tried telling Ted that, time and time again, but did Ted ever listen? No. He just quoted something out of Shakespeare or Milton at you about time and went about his business. Bastard.
Fitz shook his head, rolled his shoulders, and strode into the melee.
He was a good listener. It came in handy, picking up tunes and picking up birds—well, usually, though he probably should have kept up the listening bit after he’d got the girl’s attention—and he’d learned very quickly that it came in handy in his new line of work as well.
So he mooched, buying a mocha and then wandering about, acting as if he were looking for a free table. He kept his ears open, though, and as soon as he heard one woman exclaim to another “Sandy Higman, I can’t believe you just said that!” he smiled a grim smile and managed to accidentally brush against the woman as he slid past, his hand just briefly caressing her shoulder as he gave her his most charming smile and thickest accent while he said “Sorry.” The American birds all seemed to like the accent, he’d found over the years and in his travels. He wasn’t going to argue with them.
Five minutes later, just as he was tossing his empty cup into the bin, he saw a graveling attack a skateboard, the skateboarder collide with the wrought iron fence around the café patio, go flying over it, and crash land amidst the tables. There was a lot of screaming.
“Oh my god,” Sandy Higman said, standing next to Fitz by the trash bin at the corner and staring in horror at the chaos. “Oh my god did I just die? By being impaled with a fork?”
“Yeah,” Fitz said. “Erm, sorry about that. Nothing personal. It could have happened to anyone. It has, actually. A lot.”
She turned to stare at him. “Why?”
“Dunno,” Fitz said. “The nature of being human, I guess.” He put an arm around her shoulders and gently turned her away. “If it’s any consolation, where you’re going? You’ll probably get as many quiches as you like.”
He watched her fade into the light and then he startled very badly when a voice behind him said, “Nice one, mate.”
Fitz spun around. A young man in a—purple? Red?—leather jacket and blue jeans, with short brown hair and blue eyes, stood before him, smiling a little. He looked very amused. “Hi,” he said, holding out a hand. Fitz automatically reached out to shake it, even though he was still a little unnerved. “My name’s Mason. You wouldn’t happen to be Theodore, would you?”
“Oh,” Fitz said in realization. “So you’re the new guy.” He shook Mason’s hand a little more firmly. “Come on, then; I’ll take you to meet everyone else.”
Fitz was tall, dark-haired, grey-eyed, and possibly the broody type. He hadn’t said much so far, anyway, and Mason was content to let the other man be while he got used to maneuvering around this new city. Fitz ducked in between the other pedestrians with an awkward grace born of long practice, or a highly cultivated ability at faking it, hands shoved deep into his jeans pockets, and Mason couldn’t quite decide how old he’d been when he’d died. At first he’d thought early thirties, now he was thinking he should add a decade to that count, and it was annoying because he was usually so good at figuring out reapers’ died-at ages.
“Oh,” Mason said, stopping in front of the restaurant Fitz had led him to in order to stare at its name. “So you have your own Der Waffel Haus then?”
“What?” Fitz frowned, looking up at the name as well, even as he twitched, probably at Mason’s awful German accent because that’s what most people did who hadn’t known him for years. “It’s called the Pancake House. It’s some kind of generic ripoff on IHOP, probably. Where are you seeing—what was it? Waffles?”
“Never mind,” Mason sighed and stepped inside. He turned back to Fitz. “Take me to your leader?”
Fitz gave him a look, at which Mason merely shrugged, and Fitz sighed and led him around the tables to one where somebody already sat. The man had tanned skin, sad brown eyes, a full head of dark hair starting to go gray. He was reading the paper, and he had probably died in his fifties. Whenever that had been, Mason couldn’t say.
“Ted,” Fitz said, and his boss looked up. “This is the new guy, Mason. Mason,” Fitz looked back at the other Englishman, “this is our boss, Theodore.”
“Oh.” Teddy’s face, already long in the same way that Eyeore was melancholy, somehow managed to fall even more. “So you’re Mason.” He looked Mason up and down. “I see.”
Mason looked between Teddy and Fitz, puzzled. Fitz leaned forward, his mouth twitching into a smirk, and whispered, “Teddy likes it when we look professional.”
Mason looked from his own outfit to Theodore’s dark pin-striped three-piece suit to Fitz’s hooded sweatshirt and jeans. “Oh,” he said, still confused. “Right.”
“Alright.” Theodore set his paper down, suddenly looking businesslike. He slid out of the booth and stood in front of Mason. “I’ve heard a bit about you, Mason, and I’d hoped that most of it was exaggeration but now I’m not so sure.” Mason could feel the other Englishman looking at him in interest, but Mason didn’t look around. Teddy stared him down, and Mason’s heart sank. “I expect you to treat this profession with the respect it deserves,” he said, and even Fitz straightened himself slightly, “and I expect you to treat your colleagues with that same respect. Is that understood?”
Mason looked sullen and felt wary and didn’t quite meet either of the other men’s gazes. “Yessir,” he muttered and slid into the corner of the booth.
After a moment, Fitz joined him on his side of the booth, reaching across Mason and snagging a menu from the rack at the far end of the table. He remained silent, and Mason had no clue what to make of that and wondered how he could have already fucked up within five minutes of arriving in Chicago. Then again, he probably should have expected that. He wished he had George’s reputation. Toilet Seat Girl probably wouldn’t have gotten that lecture right off the bat, Mason decided. “Rube didn’t request your transfer,” Teddy stated.
“You know Rube?” Mason was both guarded and surprised.
“He and I go back,” Ted sounded a little nostalgic, and Fitz looked up with narrowed eyes. He seemed surprised at the slight smile playing around Ted’s mouth. “Chicago was a different city when he was around. You didn’t request the transfer either?”
“No,” Mason said, playing with a straw wrapper he’d found on the table. “Rube just gave me the train ticket. I barely even got a chance to say good-bye to George or—Daisy. Didn’t see Roxie at all.” Fitz glanced sideways at the other man when he heard the catch in Mason’s voice, and Mason cursed himself for giving himself away that fucking easily. He looked up and smiled at Teddy, a half-smile that he hoped looked cool, smooth, wryly in control of the situation. “Always the way these things go, innit?”
Theodore nodded. “Ours not to reason why,” he quoted. “It’s best to be philosophical; sometimes they simply transfer us on a whim.”
Before Mason could reply—and it’s not like he had any idea what he would have said—somebody else joined the group.
“Hello,” the woman said, sitting down next to Teddy and looking across the booth at Mason. She was tall, big, Hispanic, dressed in almost as formal a trouser suit as Theodore’s. She offered Mason a wide, warm smile, teeth dazzlingly white against her red lips and brown skin. “Are you the new boy?”
“Yeeees, I’m the new boy,” Mason rolled his eyes but he couldn’t help grinning back at the woman. He held out his hand. “Mason.”
“Julia,” she said, shaking. “Another Englishman, huh?” She looked between him and Fitz and blinked. Just as she opened her mouth, Teddy picked up his briefcase from under the table and set it on the table, opening it. He handed out three post-its.
“Fitz, your second reap is late this morning, and Mason’s isn’t until this afternoon. I want you to go with him, if you wouldn’t mind, just to see how he’s doing.”
“Er,” said Fitz, looking over at Mason’s yellow sticky. Mason also glanced at it before slipping it into his inside jacket pocket. “Wouldn’t Julia or Susan be a better choice for that? I haven’t been doing this that long, you know that…”
“No, I think you’re just the man for it,” Teddy sounded brisk. “I’m sure it will be good for both of you, see a new reaper’s style. Always a useful learning experience.” He looked up when a young woman dropped a chair at the end of the table, turning it so she could sit in it backwards. “Ah, Susan, took you long enough.”
Susan was already fighting Fitz over his menu. She tugged at it, while he held it down with the flat of one hand. Neither contestant actually looked at each other, their entire attention devoted to the menu itself. “Hi Teddy,” she said without looking up. She was a classic sort of twentieth-century beauty, long straight blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail, blue eyes and pale skin and dressed in jeans and a nice flowery blouse; she’d probably been about nineteen or twenty when she died. She didn’t remind Mason a bit of Daisy, or so he told himself. “Anything interesting today?”
“You’ll have to tell us later,” Teddy replied, and they all watched the silent battle of wills being conducted over the menu.
“Hi,” Mason said, just to see if that might catch the young woman’s attention.
“You two aren’t related somehow, are you?” Julia suddenly asked. She’d looked away from the menu contest when Mason spoke up, and her gaze had immediately gone back to Fitz again.
Both men looked up at her, and Susan took the opportunity to grab Fitz’s menu. “Sorry?” Fitz said at the exact same moment that Mason asked, “What?”
“Never mind,” Julia shook her head.
“I hate to eat breakfast and run,” Teddy announced, “but I really must be going. I have an appointment. Excuse me, Julia.” She stood up so he could leave the booth, and he dropped a post-it next to Susan, who sat looking down at the menu, left leg fidgeting. “Good day, everyone. Susan, you might say hello to our new colleague, Mason.”
And with that, he was gone.
“Hi,” Mason said again. He waved a little. After all, he was the optimistic sort. Sometimes.
“Hi, Mason,” Susan said, and still she didn’t look up.
“I wasn’t very hungry anyway,” Fitz said and tugged at Mason’s shoulder as he slid out of the booth. “Come on. Let’s go reap some souls.”
“Ted’s been doing this for ages,” Fitz explained as he and Mason shuffled down Dearborn, winding their way through the other pedestrians. “He was a doctor back during the ’18 influenza epidemic and he died in something he likes to call ‘an incident involving a nurse and a needle.’ He refuses to go into any more detail than that. He’s still a doctor now, which must be a bitch to organize when you think about it, but it does seem to make a lot of his reaps easier. ‘Coming through, I’m a doctor!’ and that sort of thing.”
“He seems a bit…” Mason hesitated. “Like a complete tosser who could verbally rip your balls off when you weren’t paying attention.”
“Yeah, I know,” Fitz said. “You get used to it after a while. Sort of.”
“So what about Julia and—Susan, was it?”
“Julia died back in the mid-90s sometime, I think. She’s always been in social work; I think she works for the county or city now with equal opportunity employment or something.” Fitz shrugged. “Susan died in 1951. I still don’t get her,” he added. “What’s your story?”
Mason shrugged. “Oh, you know. Looking for the permanent high. I missed a little.” He frowned. “I also missed the Summer of Love, which was a bit more of a disappointment.” Fitz blinked. Mason looked up and smiled. He had an unusually sweet smile. “What about you?”
“I’ve only been doing this a year or two.” Fitz was huddled in his sweatshirt, even though it wasn’t cold outside. “I’m still getting used to it, I guess.”
“How’d you die?”
Fitz looked a trifle embarrassed and pulled his post-it out of his back pocket. “I think we turn right at the next intersection.”
Fitz hung back to watch Mason take his soul. He’d learned a lot from watching Ted and Julia and Susan; they all seemed to have a particular style about how they did things. Ted was discreet, Julia always made her people laugh, and Susan—well. Susan was Susan.
Mason wandered among the people in the street market, stopping to look at the goods on sale, occasionally speaking to somebody. He smiled, he admired, he looked fairly harmless. Fitz was impressed. Eventually Mason hit pay dirt, clapping a younger guy on the back, and Fitz watched the shimmer.
Mason ambled back to him. “No problems,” he said. “Piece of cake. It probably helps that I’m completely sober right now. I’ve found the clarity when sober is extraordinary.”
Fitz blinked, thinking back to Teddy’s lecture in the Pancake House. He’d never heard Teddy sound like that, not even when particularly pissed off with him or Susan. “Are you usually not sober?”
“Still looking for that permanent high,” Mason grinned. “Go on, don’t tell me you’ve never done anything.”
“I prefer my vices to be legal,” Fitz couldn’t believe how ridiculously prim he sounded. “Christ, I must be getting old.”
They started navigating their way out of the street market. “How old were you when you died?”
Fitz scratched his head. “Erm, around forty, I think?”
“You don’t know?”
Fitz sighed, even as he heard an ugly squelchy sound from behind and then a lot of shouting. “It’s complicated,” he said, as their new soul appeared nearby, looking confused.
Fitz didn’t really mind being a reaper. It was sort of a relief, actually, to think that somebody was there at the end to help you along a bit, that nobody really died alone. He didn’t like having to continue to witness all the death—and some of the death was definitely pretty silly, or gruesome—but, if he was going to be stuck undead for who knew how long, at least it gave him something to do.
He’d been a lot more weirded out about it at first. After about six months, Ted had taken him aside and gently told him it was okay to touch people, he really could control taking a soul out of a human body. And yeah, it was a deliberate and conscious choice when you brushed your hand against somebody and felt that almost subatomic shiver, but Fitz hadn’t wanted to take any chances. He’d seen and caused too many accidents in his time; and the fewer people who had to suffer the deeply weird things in life, probably the better.
Sometimes he still didn’t shake people’s hands.
“Fitzie,” Mason said, plopping into the booth. “Fitzie, Fitzie, Fiiiiitzieeeee.”
Fitz raised his eyes from his scrambled eggs. “Mason, Mason, Mason?”
“I need a new place to live. The digs you found me were fabulous,” he added hastily when Fitz frowned, “but the realtor has come already and I had to ditch the place rather quickly. Have you got anywhere else lined up that you know about that you would be willing to share, hmm? Pretty, pretty, pretty please?”
“I work with hooligans,” Theodore muttered into his newspaper. “Hooligans, cutthroats, and thieves.”
“I might be a hooligan,” Fitz said with dignity, wiping his mouth with his napkin, “I might even on occasion when necessity calls for it be a thief. I am never a cutthroat.” He turned back to Mason. “And I have no idea about any new place for you to go. Sorry, mate.”
“What’s up?” Susan said, pulling up her usual chair, turning it the wrong way round, and throwing herself into it. “Somebody need a new place to live?”
“Yes,” Mason swung around to look at her pleadingly. “Have you got anything? Please?”
Susan looked at him, actually looked at him, and he suddenly looked a lot smaller and more uncomfortable. He scrunched back into his seat. “Yeah,” she said, “come with me after breakfast.”
Julia shook her head. “You could actually get a job, guys,” she said. “Or have any of you ever held a job before in your lives?”
“I worked in a plant shop once,” Fitz volunteered, buried in his eggs again. “But then my mum died and I went traveling.”
“I was a waitress,” Susan said, looking around the restaurant. “At a drive-in. For a couple summers. And then I died and decided that taxation without representation wasn’t my thing.”
“You weren’t represented even then,” Julia objected, narrowing her eyes at the younger-looking woman. “You were only 19 when you died, weren’t you?”
“My point exactly,” said Susan.
Theodore neatly folded his newspaper. “And I have patients to attend to,” he said. “So, if you wouldn’t mind, all of you, I shall leave you to your morning repast.”
“Morning repast,” Mason repeated in a faux-public school accent. Fitz rolled his eyes, even as he stood up to let Ted out.
Ted stopped by Susan’s shoulder. “After you’ve finished showing Mason where he can squat illegally, you might take care of this.” He gently laid the post-it next to her menu before walking away.
“It’s people like you I used to help at one of my old jobs,” Julia said.
Mason raised his eyebrows and pulled his legs up onto the booth seat. Fitz wondered if he’d taken an upper that morning. He usually wasn’t this energetic this early in the day in Fitz’s limited experience, though Fitz had heard quite a lot about the various drugs, booze, and other substances Mason used. “Undead people without anywhere to live?” Mason inquired.
“Low-income people in need of housing,” the Hispanic woman retorted. “When I was still alive in Phoenix.” She looked thoughtfully over Fitz’s shoulder out the window. “I can’t say I miss the summer heat, but I can’t say I like this humidity either.”
Susan laid her menu down. “Housing,” she said decidedly.
Fitz didn’t know how he ended up tagging along with the other two, but there he was, following behind them like a flipping puppy. He had hours to go till his reap, anyway. And it wasn’t like he had anything better to do since—unlike Ted or Julia—he had no job.
Maybe he should find a plant shop in need of some help.
Susan was shorter than the two men but she set the walking pace, striding quickly, her blonde ponytail swinging out behind her with each step. Fitz had never tried to pull her, even on the rare occasions they’d gotten drunk together, sometimes with Julia, sometimes without. It was a bit too creepy. Even if technically she’d been alive longer than him, she still only looked about half his age.
The trio breezed into a tall, narrow apartment complex. Susan led them up the stairs. “Last time I was here, the elevators weren’t working,” she said over her shoulder. “I wouldn’t rely on them if I were you.”
“No problem,” Mason huffed. “I am a lean, mean physical machine.”
“Sure you are,” Fitz muttered under his breath, still last in line. Cigarettes didn’t really affect undead lungs, but he was glad he hadn’t lit up in a few weeks. He didn’t bother smoking much anymore, except as nervous habit. It just didn’t taste the same.
They stopped at the fifth floor. Susan brought them to #512 and, after a casual look up and down the hall, knelt in front of the door, slipping a slim lock pick set out of her back jeans pocket. She unlocked the door and swung it open.
“Nice,” Mason said, impressed. “How much practice you had at that?”
Susan glanced back over her shoulder and grinned. Fitz was always amazed at her grin; it completely transformed her face from an unreadable teenager into a mischievous minx. Mason stared open-mouthed. “I’ve been dead longer than you, remember?” she said and walked into the apartment.
Fitz clapped Mason on the shoulder. “Oi, fish boy,” he said and nodded to the doorway when Mason turned to stare at him. Mason nodded and walked in, closing his mouth.
They stood in the middle of the room, appraising. Whoever had lived here had erred on the side of neatness, but not overly so. Probably a guy, judging by the lack of girly things. Barely any furniture but a good TV and stereo system.
“One bedroom,” Susan said, “upright shower instead of a bath, and as you can see the kitchen is really more of a kitchenette but”—she looked Mason over, coolly—“you don’t seem the cooking type.”
“I cook,” Mason protested. “I cook loads. I know how to turn on both an electric and a gas stove.”
“I think this one’s electric,” Susan told him. “The guy slipped in the bathroom, cracked his head on the sink, but there wasn’t too much blood, and the lease is paid up through the end of the year. Will it do?”
“It will do brilliantly. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Susan,” Mason said, wrapping his arms around her. Fitz had never actually seen anyone touch Susan, except maybe Julia, who didn’t count, did she? But Susan didn’t explode or kick him out the window, so apparently it was alright.
“You’re welcome,” she said, and Mason stepped back. He clapped his hands together. “Right,” he said. “Time to go take somebody’s soul before I settle in, I think.”
“Englishman! What happened to you?” Julia exclaimed. Fitz slid into the booth, looking weary.
“Unexpected Baking Incident,” he said. Mason peered up from his Coke, in which he still had his nose pressed down into the glass.
Susan tilted her head to one side. Her left leg jiggled constantly under the table. “Cakes or muffins?” she asked.
Fitz looked down at his clothing, scratching absently at some dried batter or icing. “Cakes, I think,” he said. “It was all a bit too hectic for me to pay attention.”
“That happened to me once,” Mason said, emerging at last from his soda glass. “Only it involved a small poodle and some Valium I accidentally gave to one of the baking staff. It wasn’t very pleasant.”
The others glanced at him and then went back to looking at their menus. Mason often produced such peculiar tidbits of information. They’d learned mostly to ignore him.
“Sorry, sorry,” Ted rushed in with his briefcase, looking harassed. “Emergency with a patient. Here are your assignments and I really must get back to the hospital to check on him.”
“What? No breakfast even?” Julia pushed her plate toward her boss. “At least take some of my orange slices.”
Theodore frowned down at the plate, the briefcase halfway open. “You’ve already touched it.”
Julia rolled her eyes. “And when was the last time you saw a sick reaper?” she asked him.
“Hmph.” He finished lifting the briefcase lid and dug out three post-its. “One for you, one for you, and one for you. I take it this morning went alright?” he turned lastly to Fitz.
Fitz shrugged. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to buy me an apron? Or a very large paper bag?” he asked.
Ted smiled. He had a rather kind smile, which Fitz supposed help take the edge off for his patients when he was telling them bad news. He knew he wouldn’t want to see Ted’s long face coming toward him if he were sick. “Sorry,” he said and left as quickly as he had come in.
“It’s alright,” Mason said. “Uncooked cake batter is much easier to wash out of your clothes than blood. Or you could just steal some from your next corpse.”
Susan daintily bit off a piece of bacon. “Only if it’s not a woman,” she said. “No offense, Fitz, but I don’t think you’d do drag very well.”
“I have no intention of ever finding out,” Fitz said.
Julia stood up and paused by Fitz, leaning down to swipe a finger down his t-shirt. She licked her finger. “Huh. Dark chocolate. Not bad,” she said.
“Fitz?” Mason said, watching Fitz drink his tea.
“You are a deeply weird person.”
Fitz rolled his eyes. “This from the man who wears the British flag on his underwear.”
“There is nothing wrong with being patriotic,” Mason protested.
“There is when it’s on your underwear,” Julia said under her breath.
“Why am I weird?” Fitz said interrupting before Mason could start arguing with the woman.
“You just are,” Mason said. The tea had brought the thought on—even Mason had never seen anyone so, so ritualized in the making and drinking of their tea, and Mason had known some pretty serious tea-drinkers in his time, admittedly mostly before he came to America—but there were other things. He knew Julia had noticed stuff too, because they’d talked about it one night when they’d gotten pissed together in a bar Julia knew, where nobody spoke English and Mason had to rely on her to order his drinks. Weird things Fitz said, or how he seemed to have trouble with the oddest bits of technology sometimes, or how he seemed to have intimate details of 1950s London or the 1960s music scene that nobody else Mason had met in years had known because they were all too bloody young or too bloody American.
“We are all of us peculiar in our idiosyncrasies,” Ted said, polishing off his pancakes. “And you, Mason, are definitely not one to talk.”
“Do not mock my proud English heritage,” Mason glared at their boss.
Fitz looked between the other three people at the table. “So,” he said. “Any assignments for us today? Or are the gravelings taking the day off?”
Theodore looked at him, and Fitz felt sorry for even suggesting it. “No,” he said. “We’re waiting for Susan.”
“Here,” she said, scooting Mason over into Julia so she could sit down. “Sorry. Slept late.”
Theodore looked at her over his glasses. “Did you indeed.”
She looked back at him, with a tiny enigmatic smile, and he sighed, unlatching his briefcase. “Very well, everyone, today’s a busy day.” He started handing out post-its.
“Bloody hell,” Fitz said. “Some sort of disaster, is it?”
Mason counted post-its. “No, only a catastrophe,” he said. “Oh goody, I haven’t had a catastrophe in months.”
“You have to come with me,” Fitz tugged at Susan’s arm, pulling her out of the booth before she barely had a chance to sit.
“No,” Susan said, dragging them both to a slow-but-inevitable halt, “I don’t.”
“Please,” Fitz said, looking down at her with the best pleading look he could summon up, which had worked on Trix for a while before she started ignoring it and had never, ever worked on anybody else except possibly the Doctor and only when he was already feeling guilty.
It didn’t look like it was going to work on Susan either.
“My reap’s at one of the universities,” he explained hastily, taking her arm and oh-so-casually walking her out of the Pancake House. “I need you to give me my cover.”
Susan raised her eyebrows and looked up at him under her fringe.
“You look like a student!” he said. He gestured at her, trying not to let it look like a flail. “You’re the right age and everything.”
“There’s such a thing as non-traditional students,” Susan pointed out, but at least she was still walking with him. “Or you could pretend to be a professor.”
“Yeah,” Fitz snorted. “And what sort of professor would anyone take me for?” He gestured at himself this time, in his jeans and scuffed sneakers.
Susan considered him. He kinda hated it when she did that; it felt like she could see into his soul and found it a little lacking. “A music professor,” she said. “Or one of the other subjects in the arts and humanities. I never went to college,” she added suddenly.
Fitz glanced at her. “What were you doing when you died?” he asked cautiously.
“Living with my parents,” she said, sounding thoughtful. “In Topeka. Just—waiting, really.” Her lips quirked into a smile that almost showed her age. “Maybe it’s a good thing I died when I did.”
Fitz didn’t speak again until they got on the bus. “Why a music professor?” he asked her when they’d found seats in the back.
“Why not?” Susan shrugged. “I think you’re overthinking this. Unless you want to make it a game? You could be the music professor, and I could be the student you’re having the affair with. That could be fun.” She put an arm around his shoulders, sliding in closer and grinning up at him. “What do you think, Professor Fitz?”
“I think that’s a really, really bad idea,” Fitz said, slipping out from under her arm. “Maybe I should’ve asked Julia to come with me. She could’ve said she was doing statistical research or something. She probably already does that sort of stuff.”
Susan sat back, crossing her legs and folding her arms. “You have no imagination,” she sighed.
“I have loads of imagination,” Fitz corrected. “I can just imagine what the library personnel and security would say if you went around telling them I was your professor and compromising you.”
“Oh, it’s at a university library,” Susan said. “Even better. All those dark nooks and crannies where the Dewey decimal books lurk forgotten. Awesome.”
Fitz stared at Susan. “What?” she shrugged, her arms still folded in front of her. She looked out the bus window at the streets passing by, bored. “I’ve dated my share of university students.”
Fitz nodded. “See? This is why I brought you along. You can fake it at least.”
Eventually they made it to the campus and then found their way to the main library. “Basement,” Fitz told Susan, slipping his yellow note out of his pocket and looking around nervously, as if he expected the library staff to recognize that he didn’t belong there and kick him out immediately. Susan confidently walked toward the stairs.
“Right,” she said, looking around at the stacks and tables. “Who are we looking for?”
“M. Kumar,” Fitz said, looking around as well, in dismay in his case. “Oh god,” he said, “this place is huge. And full of aisles. At least they’re not corridors,” he added in an attempt to cheer himself up.
“What do corridors have to do with it?” Susan asked.
“Very little, so long as there’s no running involved,” Fitz replied. “What if we split up? You take that half, I’ll take this half?”
Susan put her hands on her hips and looked up at Fitz. “How did you get through your life on your own?” she asked.
“I didn’t,” he said, “why do you think I died?” And with that, he turned to the half of the basement he’d assigned himself and started searching.
He looked over students’ shoulders at their notebooks and laptop screens; he hung out in aisles of books listening to conversations or staring hard at students perusing the stacks. Eventually he came to an entire section of movable shelving and glanced at his watch. He was getting more and more frantic as he ran out of time. Susan hadn’t come to fetch him, either, which hopefully meant that she hadn’t found his guy and not that she’d forgotten what she was supposed to be doing. Dammit.
Wait. There was barely anybody in this section of the basement, but here was a lanky Indian boy pulling journals off a shelf in the middle of one of the moveable aisles. What the hell, Fitz decided and strode down the aisle. “Kumar?” he said. “That’s your name, isn’t it?”
“Yes?” The young man looked up and frowned at Fitz. “Do I know you?”
“Uh, sort of,” Fitz said and quickly glanced at the journals the boy was looking at. “You’re in my, er anatomy class,” he added when he read Annals of Anatomy on the bound covers at eye level. “I sit in the back,” he added with a weak grin.
“Oh,” the boy said, closing the journal. “Yes, my name’s Kumar. Mahinder. What do you need?”
“Oh, I didn’t quite catch all the assignment from the other day,” Fitz hedged. “What were we supposed to do again?”
Mahinder still looked a little suspicious. “Research articles on the respiratory system and write about a particular aspect of recent research that interests us. I’m not going to use these journals if you wanted to look for articles…?” he added, holding out a couple of the bound journals.
“Great, thanks mate,” Fitz said, taking the books and holding his hand out. “You are brilliant, Mahinder.”
The other man shook Fitz’s hand in confusion and never noticed him taking his soul. “No problem,” he said, and Fitz grinned, walking out of the aisle.
He turned and dropped the journals on the nearest empty shelf as soon as he was out of sight, and he looked around in time to see a graveling hop up to stab at the buttons on the electric movable shelving unit. The same section that Mahinder Kumar was in.
“Oh god,” Fitz said, turning away so that he wouldn’t have to watch the unit trundle slowly-but-inevitably inward. He still heard the quash and the cursing.
Ten minutes later, he found Susan flirting with a coed. “Come on,” he said, taking her elbow and steering her back toward the stairs, “time to go.”
“Fitz,” Susan hissed, “I was busy.” She looked back over her shoulder at the boy.
Fitz looked over his own shoulder. “Sorry,” he said, “she’s my student and I’m already having an affair with her. You’ll have to find somebody else.”
Julia had this laugh. It was a full-body thing that probably started at the bottom of her feet and worked its way all the way up to her thrown-back head, and it was so full and rich and honest that everyone else had to laugh with her, even Ted, who usually it was all they could do to get him to crack a smile. She turned heads in public when she laughed, and even if they didn’t get the joke, most people smiled at her.
Julia was laughing now, as Fitz attempted very badly to swing dance with her. He’d tried at first to remain solemn and serious, mostly because he didn’t want any of these old geezers to give them any more weird looks than they had already given the couple when they crashed the VFW dance, but you really, really couldn’t help but laugh along with her.
“Oh come on, Fitz!” she said, as the tempo of the music changed and she suddenly led him into a very good foxtrot. “Life is supposed to be lived. Enjoy this!”
“I thought the guy was supposed to lead?” Fitz said by way of answer. She was always saying something like that. None of the other reapers ever felt like reminding her that they weren’t really, technically, alive. Not when she was like this, so vibrant and joyful that she should have been alive.
“Only if he knows what he’s doing,” she smiled sweetly and let her hand flutter down an old gentleman’s arm as they danced past.
It was four-oh-six a.m. Fitz knew this because when the pounding on his door startled him upright and breathless in his bed, he glanced at the clock, as well as around the rest of the room, in a panic. He’d half-expected to be lying in a cell, the Doctor pacing and muttering to himself as he came up with a plan of escape, Anji sitting against a wall.
It was four-oh-six a.m. and somebody was attempting to knock his apartment door down. There were two possibilities. One was the police. The other was the opposite of the police.
“MASON!” Fitz bellowed, and the pounding ceased, leaving behind a silence as startled as Fitz’s. He hadn’t yelled like that in years, and he was sure he’d only been able to produce the sound because of too-close memories of cells and the Doctor. He untangled himself from the covers and staggered to the front door, throwing it open.
“What the hell?” he said, standing in the doorway in boxers and t-shirt.
“Hello, Fitzgerald Kreiner,” Mason said, over-enunciating. “Would you mind very much if I collapsed in your door?”
Which he promptly did.
Fitz stared down at the drooling man at his feet. “Git,” he said at last and reached down to drag Mason all the way in so he could close the door. None of his neighbors had come to investigate; but then, whenever Fitz heard doors slamming and screaming matches around the building, he never investigated either. Sometimes he felt a bit guilty about that, thought the Doctor would prod him to investigate. But the Doctor wasn’t here, was he? And Fitz had gotten very good at keeping his head down. And at dialing 911 if he thought anything was getting too out of hand.
Mason was giggling on the floor and had a hand wrapped around his ankle. “Mason,” Fitz said. “Please let go of my ankle.”
“I shall call it Frank,” Mason said distinctly and dissolved into giggles again.
“Mason,” Fitz said. “Please let go of Frank.”
Mason rolled away into a little ball, still laughing uncontrollably. Fitz jumped onto the bed while he had the chance.
“Mason,” Fitz said. “Shut the fuck up and go to sleep.”
Mason was gasping for breath between laughs. “Can’t—stop—laughing,” he explained and waved a vague hand. “Go—back—bed…”
“I can’t do that if you’re laughing on my floor,” Fitz pointed out. “What did you take tonight?”
Mason just shook his head, tears streaming down his face as he wheezed and guffawed.
“Mason,” Fitz repeated, patiently, “what did you take?”
Mason stopped laughing. He stared up at Fitz, curled into himself, fingers jutting out of fingerless gloves pressed to his lips. Fitz wanted to blink but found he couldn’t. The tears were still on Mason’s face.
“Don’t you ever want to see the world differently?” he asked.
“I’ve seen different worlds,” he said quietly. “And we’ve both seen a lot of people die.” He sighed and tucked his feet under his legs. “It’s a good thing you’re already dead,” he added, looking Mason over critically.
Mason nodded in agreement, hair scraping against the wood floor. He had started sucking on his thumb. “Undead metabolism,” he said, and the fact that he didn’t slur once on the words indicated how well it was working. “Pro and con.”
Fitz snorted and rubbed at his face. “Are you ready to go to sleep yet? ‘Cos I sure as hell am, and Ted’s still going to expect us there tomorrow morning at seven. This morning at seven. We are so royally fucked.”
“Completely,” Mason agreed, not sounding particularly worried. He squinted his eyes, staring up at Fitz in sudden surprise. “You really do look a lot like me, don’t you?”
“Oh god,” Fitz said. “Why am I here? How does Teddy get out of this sort of thing? How come he never ends up in these situations and I always do. Huh?”
“Shut up,” Susan suggested, handing him a shot glass of something frothy and probably disgustingly fruity. “Drink. My treat. This time.”
Fitz looked around the club. Julia and Mason were already laughing uproariously on the dance floor, somehow keeping their glasses upright. Fitz sighed and tossed back the shot. “Thanks,” he said to Susan, covering up most of his discomfort and trying to keep his eyes focused on Susan’s face rather than letting them drift any lower.
He was in his usual jeans and t-shirt, and so was Mason, though Mason’s t-shirt had an obscene gesture on it and he’d accessorized with a little white daisy stuck in his ear. Julia had just come off work before meeting up with them at the Pancake House, still in her trousers suit. Susan, though, had come to the restaurant in a sparkly top that showed more midriff than concealed, dangly earrings and glitter eyeshadow. “Wanna come on my reap?” she’d grinned at the other four. Two had readily agreed. Theodore had declined. Fitz had tried.
“Come on,” Susan took his hand after he’d put his glass down. “Let’s dance.”
She pulled him onto the floor and started moving to the beat. She was older than him in every way—she’d been born before him and she’d died before him—but she still looked like a nineteen-year-old, and she danced like one from the early twenty-first century. Fitz felt every single one of his years, and he never had quite managed to figure up how many there were.
“I need more alcohol to do this!” he yelled close to her ear, and she grinned up at him and then draped herself around him.
“Here,” she said, speaking directly into his ear, “let me see if I can loosen you up.”
“Oh Jesus,” Fitz said and closed his eyes, holding Susan around the waist.
“Oh Jesus is right!” Mason yelled as he and Julia whipped past. “You lucky dog!”
“Excuse me,” somebody else yelled, and Fitz opened his eyes to see a bulky, blond-haired, twenty-one-something boy putting his hand on Susan’s shoulder. “Mind if I take over?”
“Depends,” Susan said over her shoulder, still plastered to Fitz. “Is your name K. Hoffman?”
“No,” said the boy.
“Then fuck off,” she said and turned back to Fitz.
“You,” Fitz said to her, “are such a dick tease.”
Susan looked at him for a moment—he thought he might have seen shock, behind her typical unreadable expression—and then she threw back her head and laughed. Fitz grinned a little himself, mostly in relief, and cautiously moved Susan around to the beat, relaxing into the music. It always took him a while to warm up to this sort of thing, these days, and he really hated feeling old.
A half-hour later, she let him lead her off the dance floor and buy her a rum and Coke. “You weren’t like this back in the ‘50s,” he said, still half-yelling to be heard over the music, “were you?”
Susan shook her head, her long blonde hair and earrings swinging. “I was your typical goody-two-shoes bobbysoxer,” she said. She glanced up at him and grinned again. “And then the ‘60s came along and I requested a transfer to San Francisco.”
Fitz raised his eyebrows. “And they actually gave it to you?”
Susan shrugged, her fingers holding her straw in place as she sucked on it, and if it hadn’t been for the sparkly top and glitter, she could still have been the spitting image of that typical goody-two-shoes bobbysoxer sitting at the soda fountain with her clean-cut American boy. “Why not?” she said and swung around to the deeply tanned young man who came up to the bar for drinks. “Is your name Hoffman?” she demanded. “You look just like a Hoffman I knew in high school.”
“Uh…yeah,” the boy said. “Karl.” Susan jumped up from her bar stool and kissed him on the lips, framing his face in her hands. As she stepped back, a gold shimmer faded away.
She smiled at him. “I always liked that Hoffman boy,” she said.
“Huh,” he said, looking a bit dazed. He grinned, stupidly. “Cool.” The bartender gave him his drinks and he walked off.
Later that night, the four reapers staggered out of the club; the evening had only been slightly interrupted by Karl’s unfortunate death in the alley next to the building. Mason and Julia clung to each other, walking on ahead, while Fitz kept pace with Susan, who had her hands stuck into her back jeans pockets. Mason had taken off his leather jacket and slung it over Susan’s shoulders as they left the club; fall was settling into the city, and the nights were frosty. Fitz hummed something under his breath, a snippet of one of the last songs they’d heard playing, his head nodding to the nonexistent beat.
“D’you ever wish you hadn’t died so young?” Fitz asked suddenly, thinking about that boy, Karl Hoffman, back in the bar; thinking about Susan in a poodle skirt and black-and-white saddle shoes, waiting for her life to begin in Topeka.
Susan shrugged. She’d loosened up a little in the bar, or at least appeared to, and now she was back to her usual inscrutable, unreachable self. Fitz thought that if he’d known her for decades he probably still wouldn’t know her.
“Innocence is overrated,” she told him.
“Bugger shit bollocks balls and fuck,” Fitz whispered through a constricted throat, staring up at the overgrown apelike creature that was towering over him and Y. Batalova, who was jabbering in Russian and tugging at Fitz in the universal body language for “we need to run like fuck away.”
“Fitz! Fitz, are you down here?” a familiar voice was calling down the darkened alley, and Fitz’s heart sank even further. “Shit fuck bollocks,” he squeaked.
“Mason!” he yelled. “Get out of here!”
“Jesus wept! What the fucking fuck is that?” Mason said. Fitz could just see him around the Ogron, standing frozen near the entrance to the alley and staring up at the alien in terror. “What the royal fuckety fucking fuck is it?!”
“Mason! Run!” Fitz shoved at Y. Batalova, momentarily forgetting that the little bald-headed man was supposed to die tonight, pushing them both past the massive, angry, and thankfully very dumb alien. He snagged Mason’s sleeve as they dashed past.
“What the hell!” Mason said as all three men pounded down deserted streets, clinging to each other and panting heavily. It was drizzling, and the pavement was shiny with water in the lights, and they didn’t bother trying to avoid the puddles. “What the fucking hell, Fitz! What is that thing? Is Roddy McDowell going to appear? I want to be warned in advance if Roddy McDowell is going to show up!”
“Shut up,” Fitz said through gritted teeth, sucking in breaths and wishing that just because you were undead that would make the stitch in your side less painful. “And run.”
Eventually they ran down the wrong alley, bricked up and blocked off as the Ogron lumbered into view. Fitz pounded on a side door set into the concrete wall of some commercial building, but the door was solid and nobody answered and the alley was dark except for some distant street lights. Y. Batalova was wheezing and sobbing, bent double. Mason was almost dancing in his panic.
“Fuck! Fuck fuckety fuck McFuckfuck! We are so completely, totally, utterly, and entirely viciously fucked! Jesus fuck! There’s got to be something else we can do!” he gabbled. “Can’t we—can’t we throw bananas at it or something?!”
“Bananas?” Later, Fitz decided, he would laugh hysterically over this. He wondered why he and Mason were so worried about the Ogron, come to think of it; he was pretty sure it couldn’t actually kill either of them since they were already, y’know, dead. Irrelevantly, he wondered what it would be like to reap an Ogron. He didn’t think he was going to find out tonight.
“Fitz! Fiiiiitz,” Mason whined. “What do we do?”
Remembering that he was, in fact, no longer completely human—ha, actually, how long ago had he last been completely human?—Fitz stared up at the approaching Ogron and said, “We do this.”
And he reached inside the Ogron.
First point: Ogrons did in fact have souls. Second point: Ogron souls were kinda…sticky. All three men stared up in a sort of fascinated awe-slash-horror at the ghostly apparition Fitz was holding up in his hands. And then the Ogron’s body, with nothing to hold it up, toppled backwards.
Right onto Y. Batalova.
“Oh shit,” Fitz said, hastily dropping the Ogron’s soul back into its body. The alien remained limp and unconscious, its systems probably too overcome by the ordeal to recover quickly.
“Er,” Mason said, pointing down at the short Russian’s hand, the only visible body part under the Ogron. “He was supposed to die tonight, right?”
“Yeah, I already reaped him,” Fitz said, digging into his jeans pocket. “Shit, shit, shit.”
“Fitz,” Mason said, crouching down next to the alien and reaching out to poke at it. “What the hell is this thing?”
“In a minute,” Fitz said, scrolling down his mobile’s short contacts list. “Look, would you—just help him, would you?” he pointed at Y. Batalova’s soul, standing in despair and confusion near the alley entrance. Fitz found the phone number he was looking for, punched the call button, quickly doing the timezone calculation. It was already morning in Cardiff, no problem.
“Jack,” he said as soon as his call connected. “Jack, have you got any mates in Chicago who could help me out with a little problem? Okay, scratch that, big problem?”
Mason had helped Batalova on his way and now stood between Fitz and the Ogron again, staring fixedly at Fitz. “No, not Weevils,” Fitz said. “Ogron. By itself. No, I don’t know why it was here; maybe it felt like a flipping vacation? Would you just bloody get somebody over here to clean up this bloody mess so I don’t have to worry about it rampaging all over the city?” He clapped a hand over the cell. “Mason, get away from there; it might wake up, and Ogrons only ever wake up cranky.”
Mason squeaked and jumped forward toward Fitz. “Ta, Jack, yeah, thank you,” Fitz continued into the mobile. “Yeah, yeah, you know I never get a day off and when was the last time you were in the States anyway? What? Oh, piss off,” he said and hung up, but he was grinning. No matter how infuriating the Yank was at times, he still managed to make Fitz feel better.
“Fitz,” Mason said and pointed down at the Ogron again. “That’s an alien, isn’t it.”
The last hour or so was catching up with Fitz. He hadn’t run so hard in at least five years, and he hadn’t seen an Ogron in longer, and he kept remembering Mason hysterically saying something about bananas.
Fitz started laughing.
“This is not funny,” Mason said. “Fitz! Stop laughing, you bastard!”
“You’re an undead grim reaper who takes other people’s souls every day,” Fitz said finally, wiping at his eyes. “You’ve been alive—to use the term loosely—over seventy-five years and you don’t look a day older than, what, twenty-six? And you’re asking me about aliens?”
“Oh,” Mason blinked. “Okay, yeah. Good point.”
Fitz put an arm around Mason’s shoulders and swung him around, leading him out of the alley. “Now let’s go find an all-night liquor store and get smashing drunk.”
“That,” said Mason, “is the most sensible thing you’ve said all night.”
“Have I ever told you about Daisy?” Mason asked later that night, or perhaps more accurately the next morning, curled up in the lone easy chair Fitz had in his studio apartment. He and Fitz had been singing the Animals and the Lovin’ Spoonful too loudly and offkey until other apartment residents had started pounding at the walls, ceiling, and floor. They could probably go back to the singing, since most of the rest of the building residents should surely be getting up soon for work, but Fitz had become monosyllabic and Mason thought he might be incapable of ever moving again. Fitz was a great drunken-singing partner, though, knowing all the classics, unlike anybody else in their group. Except maybe Susan, who was both old and young enough to truly appreciate good rock’n’roll, but she wasn’t much of a drunken singer. She tended just to get sleepy. Julia got broody, or belligerent, and who knew what Ted did under the influence of alcohol. “Daisy Adair?”
Fitz was spread eagled on the bed. He frowned vaguely up at the ceiling. “I think you called me that one night right before you passed out on my bed,” he answered after thinking it over carefully, patting the piece of furniture in question. “I had to sleep on the chair that night. I had a crick in my neck for days afterward. Bastard. I shall never let you pass out at my apartment again.”
“Daisy was wonderful,” Mason said, unheeding of Fitz’s complaint. “Beautiful; really, really, really beautiful, and a little bit broken. Just like all of us, I s’pose,” he added with a sweet smile over at Fitz, and Fitz struggled to sit upright because he had a feeling this conversation was significant somehow and he should be paying better attention.
“When did you know her?” he asked. “Before or—after?”
“Oh, she’s a reaper too,” Mason said, curling himself up even tighter into the chair. He didn’t know why he was bringing Daisy up tonight, but Fitz categorically refused to talk about the incident with the extremely large ape man, and Mason was drunk anyway. “I knew her back in Seattle. I suppose she’s still there.”
“You haven’t talked to her?” Fitz said. “Since you left Seattle?”
Mason blearily looked up at the other man. “Reapers aren’t always very good at keeping in touch with people,” he said. “Especially once they’re transferred.” He looked away, sad. “I loved her, Fitz.”
Fitz nodded, completely sober. He slithered off the bed and walked across the room to pat Mason on the head. “Yeah,” he said, “I know you did. C’mon,” he went on, pulling Mason out of the easy chair. “Time to get you back to your place so you can be sick in the comfort of your own home.”
Mason slung both his arms around Fitz’s neck and leaned his whole weight against the other man. “You’re brilliant, Fitz. I think I love you too.” He breathed sour alcohol breath in Fitz’s ear.
“Yeah,” Fitz sighed, shoving Mason around until he was in a relatively easier-to-move position. “’Course you do.”
“Bullshit,” Julia snorted. She poked Mason in the arm as they and Fitz walked down the street toward Julia’s reap. “You talk such bullshit, Englishman.” She looked to Fitz, trudging on her other side, and rolled her eyes. “I’d think it was a national trait but I know it’s just men being men.”
“I am not talking bullshit!” Mason exclaimed. “I pinky swear. Rube argued with the fucker the entire night. It was an amazing thing to behold. Finally the sod just wandered off to his afterlife out of sheer pigheadedness, and that was how Rube got rid of him.”
Julia laughed, Mason laughing with her, and some other pedestrians glanced at them. Fitz blinked, rousing himself. “Wait, what’s going on?”
Julia shook her head and gently slapped the backside of Fitz’s head. “Wake up, boy,” she said. “Mason at least has the excuse of usually being stoned; what’s yours?”
“Hoi!” Mason said.
“What do you mean?” Fitz sounded defensive. “I was just thinking, that’s all.”
“You two are slowing me down,” Julia told them. “My lunch break’s almost gone; let’s get this over with.” She strode further down the street, pulling her post-it out of her purse and glancing at it. She looked up to match street signs and slowed as she reached the park where children were playing and parents were watching. It was a grey day, winter hovering in the air though there was no snow on the ground yet.
Mason and Fitz caught up with her, and she was staring at all the children. “Shit,” she sighed, under her breath, and Fitz took her hand almost absently. She looked up at him and squeezed his hand. “Thanks, sweetie,” she said. Mason watched the pair of them, hanging back a little, feeling somewhat like an intruder. Julia took a deep breath and let go of Fitz to walk onto the playground.
She started calling out a name, acting as if she were searching for her little girl. Mason joined Fitz. “I hate the kids,” Mason said, watching Julia questioning the parents and children, slowly digging out the person she was looking for.
“Me too,” Fitz said. “Not as much as Julia, though.”
Something happened by the slide—somebody fell, or got stuck, and it dragged everybody’s attention away from Julia. She snagged at a woman’s arm, just as the woman turned away to see what was going on, and then Julia turned and hurried back to the two men.
“Shit,” she hissed. “Shit.” She took Fitz’s arm, wrapping her own around it, and then she surprised Mason by doing the same thing to him with her free arm. “This? This is worse than the kids. This sucks.”
Five minutes later, Julia walked up to the young woman who had just died, putting an arm around her shoulders. The woman was sobbing over her son. Julia looked back at the two Englishmen. “Fitz?” she called. “Call my work, please. Let ‘em know I’ll be late.”
Fitz wondered sometimes how much reapers got stuck. They were all imprinted with the times they had lived in, no matter how many decades ago they had died. Theodore was inherently old-fashioned, a courteous gentleman out of his time; Mason would forever be looking for his permanent high. Susan reinvented herself every decade—Fitz had seen some pictures at her apartment, once—but in some indefinable way she would always be an example of a teenager, circa 1950. Julia had a certain fondness for the Talking Heads and Journey and Des'ree, and would forever swear about the rising price of gasoline.
And Fitz, Fitz might have spent a large part of his relatively short life traveling through time and space, but that had just taught him that some part of him would remain forever 1963. It made things a little awkward with his fellow reapers sometimes, when they all expected him to be the most thoroughly modern of the lot, but over the past decade and more he had gotten very good at covering.
“What?” Mason exclaimed, looking between Ted and Fitz, who sat pushed as far into the corner of the booth as he could manage, pushing his forehead into the palm of his hand. “Why doesn’t he get any reaps today? Why does everyone always getting a fucking day off but me?!”
“Because sometimes some people deserve a day off,” Theodore snapped his briefcase shut and glared at Mason, “and other people don’t.” He stood up, dropping some cash on the table. “Good day, everyone. Fitz, I paid for your breakfast, so you don’t need to worry about it.”
“That’s so not fair,” Mason said after Teddy had left.
“When have you ever known anything to be fair?” Julia said in an unusually bitchy tone and Mason looked at her, hurt. “We’re all dead reapers, remember? Sometimes, honey, I wish you would just learn to stop being so fucking selfish and chill.” She stood up, leaving some cash on top of Teddy’s, and walked around the booth, placing a hand under Fitz’s chin and insistently tugging it upwards so she could look him in the eye, even though he didn’t want her to. “Have a beautiful day, sweetheart,” she told him and kissed him on the mouth before leaving the restaurant.
“Julia doesn’t kiss people,” Mason said, scrambling up to kneel in the booth so he could watch her leave. “She’s never kissed me.”
“She’s kissed me,” Susan said. She hadn’t stopped eating her fruit or reading the leftover Sunday comics she’d found at their table, all her focus on Get Fuzzy and Beetle Bailey.
“That doesn’t count,” Mason objected, turning around and sliding back down into a normal sitting position. “That’s like lesbian sex.”
Fitz looked up and looked sick, pushing his plate of mostly-untouched food away. “Some things you don’t actually say out loud,” he said. “Didn’t anybody ever tell you that?”
“Probably,” Mason nodded. “But considering how many brain cells I fried in the intervening decades, it never stuck.” He nodded to Fitz’s plate. “Are you going to finish those hash browns?”
Fitz pushed the plate all the way across the table. “Have them,” he said, sliding down the length of the booth. “I’m…going home.”
Susan placed her hand on his wrist just as he was about to lever himself upright. He looked down into her serious, thin face. “Let’s go somewhere later,” she said. “I’ve got a reap this morning, but this afternoon. A movie. Pool. Something. Okay?”
Fitz managed a tired smile. “Your version of a kiss?”
She tilted her head to one side, and her left leg was still jiggling under the table. “Sure,” she said with a flash of a grin, “if you want.”
He put a hand on her shoulder and nodded and walked away and had only just gotten into the grey world outside when Mason ran up next to him, somewhat like a puppy with boundless energy, which probably meant that he’d taken an upper that morning. Fan-bloody-tastic, just what Fitz needed today.
“You’ve got a day off!” Mason said and clapped him on the back, and Fitz winced. “How are you going to celebrate today?”
“I’m not,” Fitz retorted, trying to slip away from the other reaper. “I’m going to go back to my flat and I’m going to sleep. That is my plan for the day.”
“That,” said Mason, “is a very stupid plan. What’s wrong with you?”
Fitz didn’t think he could cope with this conversation right now. Not with Mason of all people, anyway, Mason in blindly jubilant mood. He stopped on the Clark Street bridge and dug around in the inside pocket of his trench. Surely he still had a pack of cigs in this coat? He knew he had a lighter in one of the outer pockets; he’d felt it earlier that morning when he’d trudged to the Pancake House.
“I don’t feel good,” he told Mason as he dug around, and there were the cigarettes.
“How can you not feel good?” Mason objected, jumping up so he could sit on the bridge railing. Fitz saw him out of the corner of his eye and hurriedly averted both eyes, tapping a cigarette into the palm of his hand. “I think you should buy me a drink today, since you’ve got the day off.”
It was raining, or maybe sleeting considering how cold it was. Fitz cursed as the lighter refused to burn and twisted his body to protect the light from the wind, his hand cupped around the flame. “I think you should go take care of your reap and I should go home,” he said around the cigarette.
“That doesn’t sound very fun,” Mason said, wrapping his legs around the railing and flapping his arms in the air. He made strange, happy “woo-woo” noises.
“It’s not supposed to,” Fitz said. “Oh balls.” He dropped the already-soggy cancer stick onto the sidewalk and ground at it with the heel of his boot.
“Oh my god,” Mason said suddenly and jumped off the bridge railing to stand next to Fitz. He poked Fitz in the chest. “Oh my god it’s your death day, isn’t it? Isn’t it, Fitzie? You died today. How many years has it been?”
“Two,” Fitz snapped. “Two years, okay? So would you please piss off and leave me alone about it?”
“You should not be alone today,” Mason shook his head and looked the most thoughtful Fitz had ever seen him. “Not today of all days. You should come out with me for a drink this morning and go out with Susan this afternoon and Julia this evening. This is very definitely what you should do.”
“How did you die?”
Fitz glared at Mason silently. Mason folded his arms and tapped his foot and stared right back at him.
“A car crash, okay?” Fitz flared. “A stupid fucking car wreck. I was just the stupid, innocent pedestrian who got in the way. It wasn’t lung cancer, it wasn’t heroically saving some posh bird or my best friend, it wasn’t even a stupid alien monster. It was just a car. In this city, on Earth, no less. How fucking ridiculous is that?”
Even the lung cancer would have better, he sometimes thought. At least he could have expected to die that way. Anji could have told him “I told you so” and he would have been embarrassed but it would have been fine.
Mason was still looking at him, and he still looked thoughtful. “I did tell you I drilled a hole into my head, right?”
Fitz blinked, and then he started laughing. Quietly at first, and slowly, but it built up, and eventually he stopped when Mason began to look offended.
“Okay, fine,” Fitz said. “You have a point. I still just want to go home and sleep through the rest of this day, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“I do mind,” Mason said. “It’s your death day and you need to celebrate that. I’ll buy you a drink, how does that sound?” When Fitz continued to hesitate, he added, “I know of the very last bar in this entire city that still allows smoking on its premises.”
Fitz looked down his nose at him. “And it’s open at,” he glanced at his watch, “nine o’clock in the morning?”
Mason grinned and clapped him on the back, turning him around to start walking. “That’s one way it can still allow smoking. My reap isn’t till tonight; that gives us plenty of time to get as drunk as it is possible for two sexy dead reapers to get.”
“Oh fine,” Fitz threw up his hands in surrender. “Do they have pool there as well? Susan will insist on at least a couple games of pool. She likes to pretend she’s a shark.”
“Pool, and alcohol, and cigarettes,” Mason assured him. “I shall give you the best death day anyone has ever had.”
In the end, it did turn out to be a pretty good day.
“Hill,” Fitz muttered to himself as he practically bent himself in half in order to climb what was in fact a relatively short, if steep, hill. “I thought they didn’t have hills in this part of the country.”
The hill would have been fine on its own, but the fact that it was nighttime, he was in the middle of somebody’s dead cornfields, and that the ground was slick, all made Fitz wish he could have persuaded one of the other reapers to join him, if only so there would be somebody around to pull him upright when he broke his neck.
He reached the top of the hill, just in time to see somebody scampering down the other side of it. “Wait!” he called, jogging after. “Wait, are you A. Bell?”
He stopped at the top and saw the dark shape standing still, unwilling, a few feet below. “Who are you?” she said at last.
“My name’s Fitz,” Fitz said, and he couldn’t think of anything else to say. Oh, good job, that will really keep her around. “I just moved in down the street,” he improvised, remembering the SOLD sign he’d seen outside one of the houses at the bottom of the subdivision in the glare of the headlights. Driving here had not been a pleasant experience. Fitz didn’t drive if he could help it, and he’d never driven in the American countryside before, and he was surprised he hadn’t completely wrecked Teddy’s hybrid.
It had been so vast. And dark. Very dark. They didn’t believe in streetlights, apparently.
It was still very dark. “I was hoping to meet some of my new neighbors,” he went on, wishing he could see this woman.
“At night in the middle of a field in the dead of winter?” the woman—girl? Her voice was young—still sounded wary, and just a little sardonic.
“You’ve got to start sometime?” Fitz said.
She sighed and turned, walking back up the slight incline. “Yes, I’m Ashley Bell,” she said, stopping in front of Fitz. She had hair under a hood that looked like a pale shade of brown, maybe, and pale skin and hazel eyes, and she probably wasn’t much older than sixteen or seventeen. “How did you know where to find me?”
“Oh, somebody said you like walking around back here,” Fitz said vaguely. “I wasn’t really looking for you, just taking a walk myself.” He hugged his coat a little closer. “It’s a bit nippy out here, isn’t it?”
“At least it’s not snowing again,” Ashley sighed. “So you’ve just moved in, huh. What brought you here?”
“Job,” Fitz replied promptly. “Do you like the neighborhood?”
She snorted. “I have lived here all my life—Fitz? It’s not so much a matter of liking it as waiting until I graduate so I can get out.”
Fitz grinned in the dark. “Where will you go?”
“I don’t know yet,” she said. “I’m looking at colleges. I want to get out of the Midwest. Somewhere that requires a plane trip. I’ve never ridden on a plane before. I guess you’ve traveled a lot?”
“What makes you say that?”
“Your accent,” she sounded like a smart arse, and Fitz laughed. “Do you like planes?”
“They’re okay,” Fitz said. “At least on a plane you feel like you’re going somewhere. The same with cars. It depends on if you want the journey or the destination, really.”
“I want both.” Ashley sounded moody, and she kicked at a clump of dirt. She looked up, then, craned her neck all the way back till she looked up at the sky. Fitz followed her gaze. The moon was out, nearly full, drowning some of the starlight but not all of it. It was the only light all around them on the hill; Fitz knew there were some houses behind him, before the fields started, with families and lights and life, but that all seemed very far away from this silent, freezing landscape.
“I want to go to the moon someday,” Ashley said. “I don’t care if it’s just a big dead rock; I’ve always wanted to go up there.”
“The moon’s colder than this,” Fitz said. “But the view is spectacular.”
Ashley looked at him, startled, and she took a cautious step backward. “How the hell would you know that?”
Fitz shrugged. “You’ve been to Chicago at least, right?” he said. “I mean, it’s only an hour away.”
“Field trips,” Ashley shrugged back. “The occasional trip with my mom. She wants me to go to school there, nearby, but I just don’t think I can take Illinois anymore. I want—I want mountains. Some kind of different geography.”
Fitz nodded. “They say traveling broadens the mind,” he whispered.
“Well?” Ashley replied. “You feel broadened?”
Fitz grinned at her, sidelong. “I have been this side of the universe and back, seen the end of civilizations and saved others, and I have eaten breakfast with kings and plebs. Yeah, I’d say I feel broadened.”
Ashley shook her head, buried inside a hood and scarf. He thought the tip of her nose might be red. “You’re on some kind of drugs, aren’t you,” she decided. “If you turn into a complete freak, the Schultzes live in that house right there and they will hear me screaming, just so you know.”
“Not a freak, promise,” Fitz held up his mittened hands. And then he held his right hand out. “It’s not just the traveling,” he told her seriously. “It’s the people you do it with. Remember that, okay?”
“Okay.” She hesitated before shaking his hand, and he very gently coaxed her soul away from her body. “Did you bring your family with you?” she asked curiously, just as he turned, about to leave.
He stopped and looked back at her. “No,” he said. “No, I didn’t. I’m very sorry, Ashley.”
He started back down the hill.
He saw a graveling running up the hill, and he wanted to stop it, wanted to hurl it across this desolate, dead field, but he didn’t. He heard the shout, cut off, and the slick, secret sound of a body slithering down the side of the hill. He stopped and turned around, shivering in the cold.
Ashley Bell hurled herself down the hill at him. “What the fuck,” she gasped. “Whatthefuck whydidyoudothat.”
“I didn’t.” Fitz caught her and held onto her, even though she squirmed and tried to get away. “Wait, hold on, Ashley, I didn’t do that to you.” He pulled back a little, so he could look her in the eye. “I take people’s souls when they’re about to die, yeah, but that’s all. I don’t choose who dies, where or when or how. I’m just—I’m just the bloody messenger.”
She was hyperventilating, despite the fact that she was no longer breathing. He pulled her back in for a hug. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m really, really sorry you didn’t get to go away and travel.”
“This isn’t fair,” she said. She was crying, but it almost seemed incidental. “This isn’t fair.”
“I know it’s not.” Fitz felt helpless. He wished Julia had come with him, or Susan, or even Theodore or Mason. Anybody, so he wouldn’t be alone out here in the middle of a dead field in winter in Illinois with a lost soul.
A soul that was just barely old enough to drive and had never left home and Christ, why did Teddy have to saddle him with this?
“I don’t understand,” Ashley said. “I don’t understand. Why are you here?”
“To help,” Fitz said. “Honest, I know it sounds daft, especially since I’m not being very helpful right now. But that’s what we do. We take people’s souls so they don’t die in pain, and alone.” He looked around, feeling with his boots for any bit of earth that might still be dry, and he sat her down, gently, sitting down next to her and silently promising to send his dry cleaning bill to Ted. “I guess you could think of it as a public service, sort of.”
“So if you hadn’t been here tonight?” Ashley sniffled and wiped at her face, her hood falling back from her hair. It was, indeed, a pale brown, and it blew about in the wind. “Would I still have died?”
“Yeah.” Fitz shoved his hands as deep into his coat pockets as he could and tried not to let his teeth chatter. “Yeah, Ashley, you still would have died, and you would have been in pain and alone. That’s no way for anyone to die; believe me it isn’t.”
“Who are you?” Ashley looked up at him. “How come you’ve got this job?”
“Dunno. I don’t know how they pick us, I just know I died one day and was still here.” Fitz snorted. “You know, I lived through a bleeding time war; I should have expected that nothing could kill me, completely.”
“You’re really weird, Fitz,” Ashley said and sniffled again.
“Yeah, sorry about that.” Fitz dug a hand out of a coat pocket and wrapped it around Ashley’s shoulders, bulky because of her coat and sweater. “Look, I don’t know where you’re going. We’re not privy to that kind of information. But I think you’ll be okay there. Maybe you’ll even get the chance to do a bit of traveling.”
“I’d like that.” Ashley suddenly buried her face in the side of Fitz’s coat. He heard a muffled sob. “Oh god,” she said, “I’m fucking dead. Oh god. My mom, my dad, my cat! Oh god.”
Fitz wrapped his arm around her more tightly. “I know,” he said softly, and he found himself rocking her back and forth. “I know. It’s scary, and you don’t know what’s coming. It’s okay. I know.”
Eventually her tears ran out, and she sat up and wiped at her face again. Fitz fumbled in his pockets, sorting through lighters and crumpled cigarette packets and a copy of On Liberty and old post-its until he found a couple unused tissues. She laughed a little when he handed her one, and then she blew her nose.
“I wouldn’t expect so much snot when you’re dead,” she stated.
“Yeah, it sucks,” Fitz said. She shoved the used tissue into her own coat pocket and took a deep, shaky breath.
“You can put your head back on my shoulder if you want,” he told her.
“You’re not some kind of perv, are you?” she asked, even as she rested against him.
“I have never in my life gone for jailbait,” Fitz promised. “An alien on occasion, but never somebody less than half my age.”
“You don’t normally talk to people like this, do you? I mean, you would’ve been locked up by now if you did.” Ashley was looking up at the stars again.
“Nah. I’m giving you special treatment. You should be flattered.”
“Are you trying to tell me that you’ve traveled in space? That you’ve really been to the moon?”
“I have,” Fitz said, his voice steady. He put his arm around her shoulders again, brought her in a little closer so she wouldn’t get too cold sitting on the ground. They could have been completely alone in the universe. “The moon and a lot further. Other times, too.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Ashley was quiet, and she sounded a little angry, even though she didn’t move from his side.
“Because there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,” he replied just as quietly. “Because I’ve been to other worlds and seen things you couldn’t even think to imagine, but I still don’t know what’s coming next. It’s a kind of hope.”
She sat up so she could look at him on the same level, and then she nodded and wiped at her eyes a final time.
“Okay,” she blew out. “Okay. Now what?”
Fitz stood up carefully and held out his hand. “Now you go to the next part.” She looked up at him, and then took his hand to lever herself upright.
“It’s up to you,” he said and stepped back from her.
She took another deep breath and looked out, around the moonlit field one last time. “This was always my favorite spot,” she said, her words slow and careful. “This was always home. I think it always would have been, no matter how far away I went.” She looked straight ahead, then, into the front hatch of a shimmering blue airplane. “Okay.”
She headed for the airplane, and then stopped to look back over her shoulder. “Fitz?”
She smiled at him; there was just enough moonlight that he could see that. “You did help.”
She boarded her plane and flew away.
“What does taking a soul feel like to you?” Fitz asked Teddy. It was one o’clock in the morning and they sat in a hospital waiting room, the only ones there. They were waiting, and the silence had begun to bug Fitz.
Teddy looked up from a journal about archaeology. He was in a dark grey suit tonight, his reading glasses balanced on the tip of his nose, his thick wavy brown hair unusually ruffled. He’d found Fitz in the waiting room a couple hours earlier and said he’d wait with Fitz while one of his own patients went through an emergency surgery. Fitz didn’t know why he’d stayed. Teddy never hung out with his—team, Fitz supposed he should call themselves, even though the word fit oddly for what they were.
“I’m sorry?” Teddy asked, closing the journal and setting it down in his lap.
“Taking a soul,” Fitz repeated and ran a hand through his hair. He felt a little embarrassed and blamed the stupid question on being tired. “What does it feel like to you, when you do it?”
Theodore considered the question the way he considered everything—with caution and thought before committing himself to anything. “Static electricity,” he said at last. “I even notice that the hairs on my arms stand on end. I’ve always wondered about that phenomenon but haven’t come across any literature that would explain why that happens.” His mouth tightened, and his tone turned wry. “Not that I find much respectable literature about reaping, of course.”
“I suppose you’ve read a lot about the subject,” Fitz said, sounding a little wry as well. Ted read about everything. Even when he’d been alive and a physician with a thriving practice, Fitz had the impression he’d read everything he could get his hands on, never limiting himself to medicine.
Fitz never got irritated with Teddy when he brought up some obscure factoid about the lifespan of butterflies or lectured them on common literary symbols found in Jacobean theatre. He secretly liked having another doctor around who completely outclassed him when it came to random knowledge about everything. It was strangely comforting.
“Death, the anthropomorphization of it, and the evolution of the idea about a Grim Reaper?” Theodore said. He gifted Fitz with one of his rare, gentle smiles, the ones that made Fitz think of clichés about chaps in university punting on the Cam on long summer afternoons wearing boaters, despite the fact that Teddy had been born to Jewish parents newly arrived in the States from Russia 150 years before. It was probably his only bit of bedside manner, Fitz had decided over two years ago when Teddy had smiled him out of hyperventilating after finding out he’d died and was going to be a reaper. “I have a bit, yes. The subject is, after all, so near to my heart.” He sobered, looking at Fitz thoughtfully. “What does it feel like to you?”
Fitz hesitated. It was an important question, made more so by being asked at one o’clock in the morning in a hospital waiting room, and Fitz wanted to give it the proper consideration it deserved. “Like a bunch of tiny butterflies,” he said after closing his eyes and reliving as many reaps as he could. “So many wings flapping.” He opened his eyes again and flushed when he found Teddy staring at him in surprise.
“That’s rather poetic, for you,” Ted pointed out after a pause.
He couldn’t tell Teddy about a room in a nonexistent space that contained a thousand different species of butterflies, and he couldn’t tell him about a day when a hundred of those butterflies had all flown past him at once, enveloping him in color and flight, and he couldn’t tell him about whooping with unexpected, candid joy at the experience. He couldn’t tell him about a young girl with cropped blonde hair—so entirely different from Susan, or from Polly, another blonde-haired girl Fitz had met once in another life—laughing in delight with him, who later told him that was the most honest and un-cynical she’d ever seen him and decided to like him a little bit more that day, when they hadn’t known each other very long yet.
“Isn’t it?” Fitz said instead with a weak smile. “Moment of weakness. Won’t happen again.”
Ted was still looking at him, and Fitz slunk lower in his uncomfortable couch. “Do you remember dying?” the doctor who had died in 1918 asked.
Fitz squeezed his eyes shut. “I’m sorry,” Teddy said, “never mind, I didn’t mean—”
“No, no,” Fitz opened his eyes again. “It’s okay.” He laughed, a little shakily. “Honestly, it’s no big deal. I mean, my life, I almost sort of got used to almost dying every other day—”
And for all that, he’d never really spent much time in hospitals, not after 1963, anyway. Even these clean, immaculately sterile places in the twenty-first century still made him uncomfortable, a solid steel ball of dread in the pit of his stomach, a fear that he’d turn into a room and see his mum lying in the bed.
Theodore frowned and took off his reading spectacles. “I make it a point never to inquire about my reapers’ living lives,” he said. “It doesn’t really seem fair if they don’t want to volunteer the information, and for some it’s best not to stir up the old memories. I do wonder what on earth you could have done with yourself in your relatively few years, though,” he added candidly.
Fitz laughed but kept his hands stuffed in his trouser pockets, his body sunk low in the couch. “I can’t remember,” he said, after so long a silence that Teddy had picked his journal up again. At his words, the doctor looked up and met his gaze and kept it there. Fitz was glad for that, in a weird way. Teddy’s eyes were brown, not blue, but it almost felt like making a confession to the Doctor, and the Doctor had always been his best friend. “I’ve tried, over and over, to capture those last few moments after whoever took my soul and before I—died. And I can’t. They’re a complete blank.” He looked at Teddy. “I was in there still, some part of me, wasn’t I? I had to be, to keep my body moving; there had to be some part of me there to keep the meat warm and breathing. But I don’t remember a single blessed bloody bit of it.”
Teddy nodded slowly. “Do you know something, Fitz?” he said, and Fitz sat up. “Neither do I.”
A member of the cleaning staff came into the waiting room, pushing a rolling bucket and mop in front of her. “Oh,” she said, stopping, “I didn’t think anybody was in here.”
“No,” Fitz said, jumping up and walking toward her. “No, it’s no problem—Melissa?” he read the nametag on her scrubs. He smiled at her. “What’s your last name?”
“Sanchez,” she said, looking a little confused.
“You keep working, Ms. Sanchez,” he said, placing a hand on her shoulder and feeling the release of a hundred tiny butterflies. “We’ll get out of your hair.”
He turned away, leaving her looking mystified, and found Teddy standing waiting for him, briefcase in hand, journal already put away. They walked down the corridor at a thoughtful pace.
“You don’t really like being called Ted or Teddy, do you,” Fitz said suddenly, stopping in the hallway. “You just let us call you that.”
Teddy stopped too and met Fitz’s eye and gave him another gentle smile. “I know my bedside manner can be terrible,” he said. “I always let my youngest patients call me Teddy, when I was still alive. I gave teddy bears to some of the smallest of them. I don’t really mind it.”
Fitz nodded, and they heard a distant crash and a cut-off yell of pain. “You have a patient,” Theodore said, nodding down the hall back the way they had come, and he lifted his briefcase. “So do I. See you tomorrow?”
Fitz grinned, and he clapped Theodore on the shoulder. “Good night, Theodore,” he said and went back to help a lost soul find her way home.
“Oooh,” Julia said, reading her post-it. “Reap in the park.” She looked up, grinning at the rest of the group. “Who wants to go with me?”
“It’s snowing again,” Fitz objected, “and it’s February. I hate February. I am philosophically opposed to the month.”
“That’s just because you never have a date on Valentine’s Day,” Susan said, perusing the obituaries. “You should really work on your dating style.”
“I’m perfectly happy with my dating style, thank you very much,” Fitz muttered.
“You have a dating style?” Julia sounded innocently surprised, and Mason snickered into his Coke. He started coughing.
“Serves you right,” Fitz glared, even as he thumped Mason hard on the back. Julia jumped up, buttoning up her thick woolen coat. She tugged gloves over her long hands and then grabbed Fitz’s hand, almost dislocating his shoulder as she pulled him out of the booth.
“Oh, come on,” he whined, “I haven’t even finished my tea!”
“I’ll buy you hot chocolate later,” she promised. “Please, Fitz?”
“Oh, go on, Fitzie,” Mason said from the comfort of the booth. “How can you disappoint this lovely woman?”
Julia flashed a smile over Fitz’s shoulder at the other Englishman, and he basked in it. Fitz sighed and tugged his trench closer around his throat. Julia put her arm through his and led him out of the restaurant.
It was Saturday, and Julia’s day off, so even though her reap wasn’t for a couple hours she insisted they head over immediately. The snow was still falling steadily and thickly, muffling the sounds of the traffic around the park. Not many other people were out; they almost could have had the place to themselves.
Julia started a snowball fight, which Fitz didn’t mind since it kept his joints from freezing into place, and then she flopped backwards into the snow to make angels. Fitz stood by, watching her and looking around to make sure nobody bothered them. He burrowed deeper into his coat.
“It reminds me of Siberia,” he said, almost to himself, and Julia sat up, holding her hand out imperiously. He helped her stand, and they were both careful not to disturb her snow angel. “But with more trees.”
“When were you in Siberia?” she asked, brushing snow off her coat.
He couldn’t very well tell her the exact year so he hedged with “A long time ago.” He presented his arm, and she grinned, taking it. They ambled down one of the sidewalks, just visible as a slight depression in the layers of snow.
“I don’t think I’ll ever not love snow,” Julia sighed, sticking her tongue out to let some flakes fall on it. “I spent too many years in Phoenix.” She snugged in closer to Fitz, leant her head against his side. “I suppose you hate it.”
“Nah,” Fitz shrugged, “what’s the point in hating the weather? It’s just there.”
“And that, Englishman, is why I love you,” Julia said. “You’re just so—chill.”
Fitz smiled a little. “Groovy,” he suggested.
Julia rolled her eyes and pointed at a dark, heavily-coated figure stepping carefully through the snow a few feet in front of them. “Think that’s my boy?” she said.
“Or girl?” Fitz squinted through the snow. “I don’t see anybody else around, do you?”
“Nope.” Julia let go of Fitz and strode up to the other figure in her high-heeled boots, laying a hand on their shoulder and turning them to face her. Fitz hung back, watching. They stood in conversation for a while, and then the other person was laughing with Julia, and then Julia shook their hand and took their soul, and it was all over very quickly and gently.
Fitz watched the graveling trip the person on the already-slick ground as Julia walked back toward him, and he watched her stop to turn back and help the soul on their way. When the blue light was still fading he rejoined his fellow reaper and put an arm around her shoulders.
He’d always noticed the sad, distant look on her face after a reap; didn’t matter how much she and her soul had been laughing before the person died. No matter how much life she seemed to contain, Julia was just as undead as the rest of them.
“Hey,” he said softly, squeezing her shoulders. “How about that hot chocolate?”
“Oh, honey,” she sighed, and they started walking again, “you always know just the right thing to say.”
“Mason, you wanker,” Fitz muttered to himself as he hung about lamely by the hippos’ area. None of the hippos were actually outside yet, as it was still too cool for them, but he hadn’t actually wanted to go through the interior of their habitat. “Where the hell are you and why are you taking so long?”
Fitz didn’t really like zoos. He was sure the Brookfield Zoo was a very nice one, all things considered, but he wasn’t comfortable with all the caged animals. He wondered, once again, how Mason had managed to drag him here. Something to do with wanting company on the train ride out.
He shielded his eyes from the relatively weak sunlight overhead and looked around in vain again for the other reaper. He heard some strange noises from the inside of the hippos’ area behind him—squawks, and yells, and a lot of splashing. Even as he swung around, Mason appeared through the glass doors, sprinting and sopping wet and mud-streaked.
“Fiiiiiiiitz, we’ve got to gooooooo,” Mason said, pausing to jog in place next to Fitz. “Come ooooonnnnn!” He started running again when they heard more bellowing from inside.
“What happened?” Fitz puffed, running after the other man.
“Hippo angry,” Mason said. “Zookeeper sort of flattened. Completely not my fault.”
“Sure,” Fitz said. “Anyone ever tell you you run really stupidly?”
“All the time,” Mason assured him.
“Are we there yet? Are we there are we there are we there yet?” Mason bounced on his side of the back seat.
“Shut up shut up shut up,” Fitz said through gritted teeth, pressed as far back into the corner on the other side of the car as he could. The seat belt holder-thingy was jammed painfully into his back. Between Mason’s bouncing around and Susan’s leg constantly jittering, Fitz thought he was going to be seasick before he got carsick.
“I’m bored,” Mason said. He peered out his window, out Fitz’s window, tried to check his hair in the passenger-side mirror. Julia glared at him through the mirror, and he sprawled backwards. He tried to put his feet up in Susan’s lap, and she pushed them back down again.
“Children,” Theodore sighed long-sufferingly from the driver’s seat, stopping at a red light. “I should have made you all take the bus instead.”
“This? This is almost as environmentally conscious as taking the bus,” Mason enunciated ‘environmentally conscious’ very carefully. “Carpooling, it’s a wonderful thing. And much more comfortable than the bus.”
“That’s what you say,” Fitz muttered under his breath. Susan patted his knee comfortingly and stared straight ahead through the windshield.
“Shut up,” Julia sighed. “Both of you. Please.”
“I am in the mood to reap somebody,” Mason announced. “And I think I should make use of this productive feeling since it will not last. Are we there yet?”
“Almost,” said Theodore. “Thank all that is holy.”
Fitz stopped at the address Susan had given him; it turned out to be a dance studio. He wandered inside, glancing at his watch, and slouched around the studio.
Susan was in one of the smaller spaces, set up for more advanced and smaller classes. She was in tight, stretchy pants and a tank top, frowning in concentration as she watched another young woman perform something complicated involving falling to the floor and rising again. They were both barefoot.
“Watch your left leg when you come up,” the instructor said, demonstrating a graceful and slow rise. “You’ve got to keep it steady or you’re likely to topple over and sprain a muscle. Okay? Now you try it with me.”
Susan followed her lead, and her instructor watched her in the floor-to-ceiling mirror that covered one entire wall of the small room. “Good,” her instructor said, “very good.”
“Thanks,” Susan said without smiling back. “Would you mind helping me stretch out my hamstrings? They’re really tight today for some reason.”
“No problem,” the other woman said. She and Susan faced each other and raised their right legs, each grasping the other’s leg in order to hold themselves steady on their left legs. “That help?”
“Yes.” Susan let go of the woman’s leg, and Fitz watched a pale gold shimmer drift away between them. “Thank you, Kathy. Thank you very much.”
Kathy smiled. “No problem. You’re doing really well; are you sure you haven’t taken modern before?”
“I’ve done some other stuff,” Susan said, running through a couple other quick stretches before picking up a duffel bag. “Looks like my friend is here; I’ve got to go now.”
Kathy looked up at the door, and Fitz waved a little. “I don’t suppose you dance?” she called at him.
He thought about the last time he’d danced, with Julia to a foxtrot while she took some old geezer’s soul. Or had it in fact been Susan, in a club wearing glitter eyeshadow? “Uh,” he said. “Not really.”
“Ah well,” the instructor said. “See you later.”
Susan and Fitz started heading out of the dance studio. Just outside the building, Susan stopped and turned to Fitz. “You go on without me,” she said. “I’ll wait here for my reap.”
“You sure?” Fitz said, looking down at her. Of all of them, he considered Susan the most—cavalier about her reaps. Julia and Ted took their job seriously, Mason indifferently or thoughtfully, but she always seemed like she could take it or leave it.
Susan looked up and met his gaze directly. “Yeah. My responsibility, remember?”
Fitz nodded. “I’ll see you later?”
Susan gave him a little push. “Shoo.”
Mason was eating cherries. He had a bag of them, and Fitz was afraid to ask whether he’d actually bought them or swiped them out of somebody’s groceries. They sat on a park bench in the late afternoon spring sun and waited to find an A. Yoshi.
“There is nothing genteel about eating cherries,” Mason was pontificating, spitting a seed out onto the ground. The pigeons and squirrels had gotten very interested in Mason, and Fitz kept edging away from him on the bench. “Can you imagine trying to eat one of these around Princess Di? You’d look a complete wanker.”
“She’s been dead over fifteen years,” Fitz objected. He knew that for a fact, due to an embarrassing faux pas he’d made once soon after he’d died.
“Oh yeah,” Mason said and dug into his bag for another piece of fruit. “I forget these things sometimes. Would you like a cherry?”
Fitz watched the two kids playing Frisbee, and he watched the approaching jogger, and he watched the collie dog barking and running around its owner, and he watched the graveling watching the Frisbee game in apparent fascination. “No, thank you,” he said, distracted as the graveling caught the Frisbee and threw it with all its strength. He jumped up and brushed his hand along the jogger’s arm as the young woman ran past.
Even as he heard an ugly crunch and a thud from behind, Fitz turned to survey Mason. “Don’t choke on a seed,” he advised.
It was another typical morning at the Pancake House, and Theodore was handing out assignments. Susan sat in her chair at the head of the booth, left leg swinging absently under the table, still reading the menu because she’d come in late; Julia poked at the remains of a blueberry yogurt, and Mason built intricate castles out of the little plastic creamer containers. Fitz was thinking about giving up tea and drinking coffee in the morning instead.
“Mason, try to make it to your reaps on time,” Theodore said. “The same goes for you, Julia.”
“Hey,” Julia protested, “I only have so much flex time built up, mister, and I only get so many breaks during the day. You try explaining to my boss where I have to rush off to in the middle of the afternoon every other day.”
“I have,” Teddy said, “on more than one occasion. Susan, are you in fact going to join the group today or not?”
“I’m here,” Susan said, not looking up from the menu. “Did you need something in particular, Ted?”
“Apparently not,” her boss sighed. “Fitz, I suggest you leave shortly; I know your reap is early this morning.”
“Yes sir, Theodore sir,” Fitz murmured, trying to sketch a police box in the leftover maple syrup from his pancakes on his plate. The syrup kept re-congealing the way it wanted to. “Whatever you say, sir.”
Theodore looked around at the other four reapers and shook his head. He stood up, picking up his briefcase. “Have a good day, everyone. Try not to fuck up, please?”
The other four looked up and blinked at each other. “Did he just—?” Julia said.
“He doesn’t,” Mason said, accidentally toppling his creamer castles. “Does he?”
“Nah,” Fitz said.
“He swears about once every five years.” Susan was still immersed in the omelets and skillets section of the menu. “To shake things up. Ham, green peppers, and onions,” she added, slamming the menu shut.
“Huh,” Julia said, dropping her spoon into her yogurt cup. “If you’ll excuse me, lady and Englishmen, I’ve got a soul to take before my boss notices I’m late again.”
Fitz ambled after her a minute or two later, and Mason caught him up outside, shielding his eyes against the sunlight. They walked down the street in silence, heading in the general direction of Fitz’s reap.
As they passed a packed café on this bright and sunny morning, known for its mochas and quiches, Fitz said, “Hey, didn’t you arrive here about a year ago?”
“Did I?” Mason looked around the city, as if only just then noticing he was in Chicago now and not Seattle. “I suppose I did. Care to buy me a drink later in celebration?”
Fitz shook his head—Mason took any excuse for a drink. And then Fitz laughed. “Yeah, alright. I suppose I’ve done stupider things than that.”