"What the fuck are you doing here?"
Okay, so she's not exactly happy to see me. I don't blame her. Love the hair though. We talked about it for so long, I'm glad she finally did it. It looks good. Um... really, really good. Yeah... Wowzers. What was I going to say again? What did she even ask? "I, um..."
She scowls. "I, um..? Still Max Caulfield, I see. What, did all your Seattle friends not make you all confident and shit to deal with the friend you fucking abandoned to swan off up there, huh?"
I open my mouth to respond, to say... something, when another voice irritably cuts through Chloe's completely justified tirade with a sharp bark. "Chloe Elizabeth Price! Will you stop yellin' at the customers in the middle of the damn diner? You've really gotta-"
I look up, straight into the face of Joyce Price, Chloe's mother. Wow. She looked great. Exactly like I remembered her. It was like last five years had never happened.
I tried to say something to that effect, but what came out was "You look exactly the same. It's weird."
Joyce chuckles. "Like I'm still a waitress in a crappy diner after all these years?"
I shake my head. "No, like you're still pretty. And this place isn't crappy. You make the best bacon and eggs in two states. And I should know, right?"
She smiles fondly at me. "Nice save, kid. Good to know you're still smart."
She puts a hand over Chloe's shoulder, which my once-best-friend quickly shrugs off. "Yeah, smart enough to get outta this shithole while she could. What the fuck are you doing back here?"
"Um. I go to Blackwell?" I offer hesitantly, still having no idea what'll set this... angry blue-haired version of my best friend off.
She scowls again. "So you come back for a fancy school but not your best friend? Fuck you're a selfish bitch now."
Jarvis, finally getting over his intense anxiety at drawing any attention (he was almost shaking with it), butts in. "Miss Price. I don't know what you think entitles you to talk to Miss Maxine that way, but-"
Chloe flips him off. "Go fuck yourself, Goat Boy, this bitch-"
"Hey! Don't you fucking dare, Chloe." Before Joyce can speak up like she obviously wants to, I jab my finger at Chloe's chest, growling out each word. "You don't call him that, ever, got it?"
She doesn't respond, just stares at me, gobsmacked.
I try again, this time without the jab. My voice is still just as steely though. "Got it?"
She nods. "Got it." She blinks, and one of her hands go up to run through her hair as she finally grins at me. It's barely open, minutely friendly, slightly lopsided, and so familiar it fucking hurts. What was I thinking, putting that memory charm on myself? "That's more like what I was expecting, dude. Congrats on actually growing a pair."
I avert my eyes, landing them instead on Jarvis'. I stop looking at him when I see the astonished gratitude in his face. That's just... he shouldn't be grateful. Not for that. No-one should ever have to be. They just... No.
Joyce looks quickly between Chloe and I, coming to some conclusion in her head before walking over and wrapping her arms around me. She mutters in my ear, quiet enough that Chloe can't hear. "Be kind, Max. She's a terror, but she could use a friend again."
After a quickfire exchange of sharp glares and sharper words, Joyce retreats back to her job and Chloe watches her leave. I watch all the fight drain out of her, to be replaced by hurt. It quickly vanishes again behind snark and smirks.
"So, what the hell brings you back with the assistant, anyway? Daddy Death want you to make an appointment for family time again?" She flashes a grin and slouches back, quirking one hip. The sudden change from battle positions to... lady-killer Lothario was... well, it was really freaking hot, that's what it was.
Jarvis looked like he was about to have a heart attack as Chloe blathers loudly on about the supernatural in the middle of a decently crowded diner. Honestly, with that hair and that roguish grin in front of me, she could've been giving every secret my family had ever had away and I would've barely noticed. Luckily for Jarvis' health and my libido, he managed to pull himself together and hiss at Chloe "Can we please take this somewhere more... private?"
Chloe frowned at his request in confusion. I could practically see the cogs turning behind those pretty blue eyes of hers as she wondered what the hell Jarvis was talking about. The whirring stopped when she realised. She shrugged. "Whatever. I wanna hear what the fuck her excuse is, so if we gotta go somewhere less full of shitheads, let's go already."
She turned and started walking to the door before she'd even finished speaking. It took a moment for us to adjust to the sudden change in direction, but we quickly scuttled after her. Joyce didn't watch us leave.
I suspect Jarvis wanted to be sure she wouldn't spout off any more secrets.
I just wanted my friend back.
Chloe's truck was very... grunge. Too damn tall, though. I had to fucking jump - only a little, before you fuckers say anything - to actually get in the cab. Jarvis just waved a hand and floated into the middle seat. Flashed me a smug look when he'd sat down, too. Asshole. There were spots of rust all over the truck's bodywork and where there wasn't rust, there were doodles. Some of them were actually pretty good. Seeing she'd kept that up, and gotten better, made me smile. I tried to make conversation as Chloe took another corner at ridiculous speeds - Jarvis was looking very nauseous at even the thought of another corner - by asking about it. "So, when did you get the truck?"
She shrugged, and the entire vehicle wobbled as she did. "Found it in the junkyard a couple years ago." With a small, proud smile, she stroked one hand along the dashboard and the truck lurched again. Jarvis was looking very unhappy. "Repaired it myself and everything."
She repaired an entire truck herself? Dog, that's cool. I blink away the inevitable flash of mechanic Chloe, with sweat running down her... ahem - and focus on her face. "That's cool."
She smirks proudly. "Hella cool."
I raise an eyebrow. "Hella?"
As Chloe lead us through the old, barely-functional gate, she twirled and spread her arms proudly. Heh. Like a Queen surveying her kingdom. "Welcome, to American Rust!"
It was a junkyard. Probably the same one she'd found her truck in, knowing her. Chloe always did like constancy.
I quite liked the place too, actually. It was very... steampunk. Though, while I liked it, Jarvis still had the 'nearing heart attack' expression. He, in his tailored coat and expensive glasses, looked very out of place here. His dainty steps - and distressed squeaks - through the refuse-strewn site were pretty freaking hilarious. I give Chloe my best, most sincerest look. "Thanks, Chlo'."
She stumbles a little when I use the nickname, but hid it (very, very badly) with a swagger and another twirl. I smile again. She's still just as... frenetic as ever. When she was little, she'd apparently been just as reserved as me, but after she hit puberty and grew two feet in a year, she'd been filled with a kind of nervous, irrepressible energy. That was when the chaos began.
She guided us across the junkyard, past the barrels, past the - is that a bus? - piles of discarded needles and rusted metal, past the towering structure of an old boat, all the way up to an old, dilapidated cinder block shack in the back. It... didn't have windows. I eyed Chloe sceptically.
She didn't seem to notice, instead striding straight up to the shack - of course - and shoving open the door. After exchanging a quick look of wariness with Jarvis, we followed her in. The room inside was... homey? Yes, I think that's the word. The walls were covered in posters, assorted doodles like in the truck, and on one wall sat a small dartboard. One of the darts was in the bulls-eye, the other two were in random points on the wall. All in all, it was what my dad probably would've called a 'real welcoming place'.
Yeah. Death is kind of a dork. Who would've guessed it?
Chloe swaggered over to a comfortable looking couch and flopped down across it. Her wave to the other two chairs (a crate and a small pile of cinder blocks) for us to sit down on was remarkably less regal. Jarvis and I share another look, this time of competitiveness, and race for the crate. I almost made it first, but the little bastard kicked me in the shins. As he sat down on his new chair and gave me a smug look, I swore vengeance. "I like what you've done with the place. It's pretty cool."
Chloe scoffs, pulling a couple things out of her pockets and fiddling with them. "It's a shithole, but at least there are no assholes about to yell shit at me." My eyes widen as I realise what she's fiddling with is a lighter and a joint. Don't get me wrong, I'm not straight edge, but I never expected Chloe to be doing... that. Honestly, after the wine, I'd barely touched anything but water.
She caught me staring at her and, after a moment of thought, pulled another joint out of her pocket and offered it to me. "You want one?"
I kept staring, then managed to pull enough thought together to shake my head. "No thanks, I... think I'd prefer to keep a clear head for this."
She shrugged and took a drag from the joint, looking supremely unbothered by our existing in the same space as her. "Suit yourself."
There were a few beats of silence between the three of us. It was... uncomfortable, really. I didn't know what to say, Jarvis had nothing to say, and Chloe was just... radiating anger. Now I was slightly less distracted by her hotness, I couldn't unsee it. I was surprised that I hadn't already. Her jaw was clenched and the hand that was holding the joint was almost shaking.
"I'm sorry, Chloe."
Her snort was immediate. "You're sorry? Oh, well that's all fucking fine then. Guess my dad won't be dead anymore and my mom will divorce the step-douche and we'll be best friends again and everything will be okay." She turned her eyes to me and I flinched at the force of the scorn in them. "Did you seriously think that would fucking fix this shit?"
I stay silent for a few seconds, trying not to cry. She was right. It really wasn't much, was it? But... "It's all I've got, Chloe. I'm sorry your dad's dead, and I'm sorry I left, but I couldn't do anything about it then. I can do something about it now and... and..." Fuck. I feel a single, solitary tear roll down one cheek. It's very dramatic. "I need you."
"You need me? What the fuck do I care? You've still got your dad, your mom, your friends." She scoffs, sliding around on the couch until she's sat upright and glaring. Then, it's like a dam exploded and everything comes pouring out. "Where were you when I needed you? Where were you when I didn't have anybody, when my mom chose that fucking fascist asshole over me, when I got fucking expelled? My Dad left, you left, Mom left, Rachel..."
That one, dramatic tear becomes a big, ugly flood.
Chloe seemed shocked.
Jarvis, probably in some bizarre supernatural reciprocity for the goat-boy defence-rant, very carefully handed me one of his treasured silk handkerchiefs. I took it and wiped my eyes. It didn't help much.
Chloe was utterly disarmed by my bawling and just sat staring at me. "What's..."
She shut up when Jarvis glared at her. "Be quiet. She saved your life, and you treat her like this?"
"She what?" That was as far as Chloe got before Jarvis glared at her again.
I'm not sure how long I was crying, really. It's kind of hard to tell when you're crying that hard. I wasn't even sure what I was crying about, not really. Was it my Dad, and knowing he was stuck out there somewhere and his only hope was me? Was it Chloe, and hearing all the crap she'd had to deal with alone? Or was it just knowing what I still had to do?
Whichever option, I just let it all out. At some point, Chloe had stepped up and awkwardly put an arm around me. I'd latched onto her like a tiny limpet and buried my face in her neck as I cried. As the sobbing died down, she asked, softer than I thought this new her would be capable of "What did he mean you saved my life?"
"We... we were in the bathroom."
She swears. "The fire alarm..." I nod and she leans forward, dropping her head into her hands. She sounds utterly perplexed. "Where were you? You gotta have been invisible, right? 'cause I checked everywhere."
"Not everywhere. We were in the back, by the cleaning stuff."
She leaned back, running a hand through her hair. "Shit. I didn't even notice." A few beats of quiet pass as she contemplates what could've happened if we weren't there.
"I think that was Jarvis." I give him a questioning look.
He nods. "Yes, I put a camouflage charm on the space we were hiding in. It wouldn't do to have someone like Nathan Prescott seeing us there."
Before I can really think about stopping myself, I comment "Yeah, especially after what we saw at the board meeting."
Chloe's face flashes around to stare at me. "Board meeting? What fucking board meeting?"
She still hates not being told things. Good to know. I really don't know how to tell her Nathan freaking Prescott is the Devil's Apprentice though. Not that she wouldn't believe me, but... How do you even start a conversation like that? "We had to meet with the board of Death Inc."
"Because my father is missing."
"Someone kidnapped him and every executive in the company."
"We have no idea. They're just... gone."
"Yep. Also, I'm Death now."
Her expression dropped.
I gave her a slightly chagrined look. "Well, sort of. That meeting with the board? I've got to do these three tasks, and they don't even tell us what they are except for this stupid parchment thing, and-"
"But how are you Death?"
I glare scathingly at her. "Well, when a Mommy Death and a Daddy Death love each other very much and designate an heir, then disappear, apparently someone has to do tasks before they'll let them take the position."
She sits back, ignoring the sarcasm and look. Honestly, she just got so much freaking hotter. Wowzers. "So, you gotta do some hella complicated, hella difficult shit to get the job until they find your dad?"
I shrug. "Pretty much."
She stares at me for a few quiet moments before bursting into laughter. When she eventually calms down, she gazes at me and repeats her words from the diner. "Still Max Caulfield, I see. Your luck still fucking sucks."
I chuckle wryly. "Yep."
"So, what's your first task, anyway?"
I tell her.
"What's a Cerberus?"
I just look at Jarvis. He glares back.
"Cerberus is the three-headed dog dude who guards the North Gate of Hell."
Her eyes widen. "And you've gotta get one of his puppies? Why the fuck..?"
I shrug, drawling gamely with just a dash of sarcasm. "Because that's what the Parchment says."
Jarvis chuckles at me mimicking his early sarcastic response. I glare at him before checking back on Chloe. She was sat upright now, both feet planted on the floor, staring off into the distance. "Wow. That is some hella intense shit."
I grin. "Don't you mean wowzers?"
Her answering scowl was glorious. "Fuck no. You still say that shit?"
She groans, and my grin grows to almost split my face. Jarvis just looks annoyed at her language. His face was all creased up like he'd bitten into something sour. Again, hilarious, but I was just glad Chloe was distracted. No way I wanted her worrying.
After a few moments of silence, she chuckles.
I didn't get the joke. "What're you laughing at?"
"Do you remember the last blow out we had when you left?"
I feel like my smile should drop, but she's still laughing through her words. I have no idea where she's going with this. Man, people are still confusing. "Yes..?" I say, cautiously.
"I told you to go to Hell, and now you literally have to!" She chortles.
It's not that funny, Chloe. Whatever. I owe her one (or like, a billion). I guess I'll let her have this... schadenfreude.
Her laughs die down and she dropped and stamped out her joint before standing up. "So, are we gonna go?"
I stared at her in... well, disbelief. And not a small amount of hope. She just snorted. "What, you think I'm gonna let you do this shit on your own? Mom always said I was going to Hell for the shit I'd done." She grins that lopsided grin again and my heart beats just as hard as the first time. "I think it'd be okay if I was going with you."
Even Jarvis was staring at her now. He dropped his head into his hands, shaking it in equal disbelief. In a dreadful tone, all he said was "Oh dear."
I beam and dash forward, throwing my arms around her again (and pushing her back onto the couch until I'm basically lying on top of her. Unintentionally, honest.). "This is going to be great!"
Against my better judgement, I'd decided I was going to see this thing through. It was going to be a little easier with a friend along, though.
Hell... is hell. Who'd've thought?
It's hot, in that sticky, humid, totally uncomfortable sense of the word. The ground beneath our feet is a weird combination of marshy-squelch and sandy-slip-and-slide. It also smells vaguely like rotten eggs.
Chloe seems delighted. "I'm literally in Hell! This is hella cool."
Jarvis had been looking at her with the same disbelieving expression since we stepped (got vomited) out of the wormhole he'd opened. We'd ended up, whether deliberately or by Jarvis' planning, somewhere on the outskirts on Hell rather than inside it. Which was good for us, considering we were here to kidnap one of it's guardian's kids. We'd been following the River Styx (one of five or six rivers of Hell depending on who you asked, according to Jarvis) along to where it ran under the North Gate and into Hell.
The Faun had been teaching as we walked. Honestly, he was pretty good. A better teacher than most of the ones at Blackwell, anyway. He was definitely into his topic, so it was okay listening to him and I didn't drift once. I was actually enjoying myself. Even Chloe was listening intently. So, here's the cliffs notes. Hell was built as a collection point for evil souls when they 'depart Earth'. Depending on their beliefs and their transgressions, they were sorted into different bits of Hell for their punishment before being resorted into the system once the demons overseeing them thought they'd learnt their lesson.
Jarvis' example was about a homophobic preacher who'd been abusing children. His punishment was sewing sequins on all the gaffs for the Devil's favourite cabaret, The Gay Minority Demons' Drag Show. For those who don't know, a gaff is an undergarment used to conceal a drag queen's, uh... 'private parts'. Chloe and I didn't know that, but Jarvis did.
The most interesting thing about Hell, and something that really made a lot of things about the Board of Death make sense, was that as Humanity changed, so did the Afterlife. Every time we stopped worshipping a god or started joining a new religion, those different bits of Hell appeared and disappeared too. The gods and goddesses, however, didn't die with their believers. Instead, they just took a step back and went into a Hell of their own: Management. That was what Kali, Wodin, and Persephone did, and according to Chloe that probably explained the 'hella bitchiness' I got when I met with them.
I still hadn't worked out how to bring Nathan up. I was probably going to end up just yelling it at her when I got tired of holding it in. So, I tried to distract myself by looking around at the scenery. Not a good idea, but it was definitely distracted. Back in Seattle, when I was feeling alone and hated being stuck in my house all the time, I'd gone walking around the city until I ended up at an exhibit for a painter called Mark Ryden. He was a pop surrealist known for pictures of creepy, doe-eyed doll girls doing weird things. The entire exhibit was just... unsettling. That was the same feeling I got here. Unsettled.
The forest around us was very thick, full of oak and birch and tall pine trees that loomed over us. I couldn't see anyone around us, but every so often I could hear the crunch of someone - or something, the Chloe in my head helpfully ominous-ed - in the shadows of the trees. So, to distract myself from that, I started asking Jarvis questions. "What's Cerberus like?"
Chloe nodded in interest. "Yeah, how big a dog we talking?"
Jarvis merely sighed. "This is no canine mongrel, miss Maxine. Cerberus is a demon, after all. A very large - dare I say, gargantuan - demon with three heads and three sets of very large, very sharp teeth."
Wowzers. That's... scary sounding. "How am I supposed to get one of his pups?"
"Finally, the girl shows something more than a smidgen of interest in her present situation," Jarvis muttered under his breath, though fully loud enough for me to hear. "If you would like to ask for my advice, I would be more than happy to tell it to you."
I really didn't want to. Jarvis was just so... just so... bossy. If I gave in now, it was tantamount to telling him he was the boss of me until this thing was finished. I really, really didn't want to do that, but... I don't really have a choice, do I? So, I gave in. Dogdamnit. "Okay, Jarvis. You win. What's your advice?"
Jarvis was silent for a moment, then he spoke some very calm, very measured words. "Take it for a walk."
I blinked. "Seriously?"
Jarvis' advice bounced around my head like the logo on my TV standby. What the hell kind of advice was 'take it for a walk'? How was I supposed to get a 'gargantuan' demon dog to go for a walk in this heat, anyway?
At first glimpse of him, gargantuan was definitely the word to describe Cerberus. He was as tall as my family's house, wider than the entry hall of Blackwell, and about as long as a bendy-bus. From where we were crouching, hidden in some bracken-like bushes barely a few hundred yards from the demon dog himself, we all had a very good look at Cerberus' three heads. His left and right heads were both being used for... self-cleaning, while his middle head snarled and glared at passing souls with it's one big, yellow eye.
Chloe's face was the same look of delight she'd had the entire time. I don't think it'd really occurred to her that I could die during this. It'd definitely occurred to me. A lot. She suddenly snorted, then looked puzzled over at Jarvis. "So, where are these puppies anyway? That thing is definitely a dude judging by the balls between it's legs, so are the puppies, like, in a cave with the mom somewhere or something?"
Jarvis grit his teeth, and I could almost feel him counting to ten in his head before he answered. I thought that was kind of a dick thing to think. I mean, I'm an idiot for not knowing this stuff, but how the heck was Chloe supposed to know any of this? "The male of the species watches the young, while the female hunts for food."
"Oh, okay." I take another look at the massive dog in the near distance and sigh resignedly. "Well, here goes nothing, I guess."
I make to stride out of the bushes, but Jarvis' hand flashes out and grabs me and yanks me back to my sitting position. "Wait! You cannot just got out there without a plan!"
"I have a plan," I retort. "I'm not an idiot."
Total. Freaking. Silence.
"I'm not! Look, I have powers, right? Like I used to summon you in the meeting room thing?"
Jarvis nods, unsure of where I'm heading with this train of thought. Honestly, I have no idea either, but at this point it's sink or swim and I was improvising. A lot. "So, if I want something, I just have to ask and the ether will try to give me what I need, right?"
Jarvis nods again.
"Cool. Okay, so..." I suddenly realise I have no idea how this works. "Do I have to ask out loud, then?"
Before Jarvis could answer, a loud snapping sound echoes through the hellscape around us and I was suddenly lying underneath a huge dog harness and leash. It was pink. Dogdamn universe.
Jarvis and Chloe both snickered at me as I frantically wriggled and crawled out from under the Cerberus-sized doggie gear. I glare at them, blush, then look back to the harness and leash. "Well. I guess that answers that question."
Chloe raises a hand. "Yeah, Chlo'?"
She smiles happily at the nickname again before dropping her face into something deadpan serious and I just know something is coming. "So, how're you gonna get this thing on that dog?"
I hadn't thought of that.
So, I stick my tongue out at her, getting another chuckle and grin. "Just watch and see, smarty pants." I reply, doing my best Victoria impression, grabbing the entire thing and dragging it behind me as I trudged really, really slowly toward my 'prey' all the while wondering if I was right with that first thought back in the bathroom: am I going totally crazy?
I was so focused on my inner dialogue that the loud snap coming from some twig I stepped on really took me by surprise.
Cerberus turned its giant head toward me, and the giant yellowed eye trained itself on my face. It stared, never blinking, then narrowed. The other two heads quickly joined it, raising until they were all level and staring right at me. We stared at each other for a few achingly long seconds before, with no warning, the middle head swooped forward with it's teeth bared, intent on making me lunch.
And I was stuck lugging a giant dog harness and couldn't do a thing about it.
Honestly, the worst part - even worse than my impending and short stint as doggie kibble - was knowing that Jarvis and Chloe were sat back in the bushes freaking out: Jarvis thinking he was right to believe I was an idiot; Chloe just upset to lose me again after we only got back together a few hours ago.
Welp. So much for winging it.
[END OF ACT I]