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But Just Ourselves

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I slammed my hand down on my alarm. "Graah..." I rolled over and pulled the pillow over my head.. "Too early..."

Then my head shot up. "Oh, shit!" I look at my clock. My lesson started fifteen minutes ago. Wowzers, I'm so late! I jump-stumbled out of bed and started getting ready.

Shoot. Where's my other sock? I really don't have time for this! "Socky?" I poked my head under my bed.

Eh, whatever. I went over to my drawer and pulled another one out. Who cares if I don't match, right? I snort. It's not like I'm not already a total loser to these people.

I looked down at my plaid shirt and hoodie. I can already hear Victoria's "Much pathetic, such hipster" comments she'll be sending my way the rest of the day. I don't understand why she's so mean. The girl literally has everything, why does she have to pick on us 'mere mortals'?

Ugh, whatever. I have more important things to worry about. Like getting to lesson clothed and as soon as possible.

I check myself over. Ok, socks, shirt, hoodie, pants, I'm done. I grabbed my bag and was halfway out when my stomach rumbled. I looked down at my stomach in shock. Wowzers, that was loud.

Dog, I know I have something to eat around here somewhere. Normally, I'd dip into my cookie stash (Mom sent me a care package full of them my first month here and I'd developed a teensy tiny ever so slightly all consuming addiction to them. What? They were delicious.), but they'd started disappearing recently. Kate thought I'd started sleep-eating, but I don't know. Anyway, Mr Jefferson had assigned a literal BUTTLOAD of homework recently, so I hadn't had time to get a refill.

I scavenged around for a couple of minutes, trying to find something until...

Result!

There was a breakfast bar sitting on my dresser. I'd probably bought it for lunch a couple days ago and forgotten to eat it. However it got there, it's my breakfast now. Omnomnom. I ripped open the packet and wolfed it down.

I coughed and spluttered crumbs freaking everywhere.

Wowzers, thats awful. Ok, maybe a bit longer than a couple days ago, jeez. Always check the dates, Max.

Then I caught sight of the clock again. Wowzers. Mr Jefferson is going to KILL me. I ran out the door.

--

"...and that's why I say, timing is vitally important to..."

Of course, that's the exact moment my dumb ass decides to fall into the classroom. Literally. I end up butt over teakettle over the floor, bag landing on the back of my head. (AN: Do Americans actually say Ass Over Teakettle? A friend of mine insists you do, but I don't believe them at all.)

Damn it.

I poke my face out from under my bag and look up into the resigned face of Mr Jefferson. I grin, sheepishly. "Sorry I'm late, sir."

He snorts. "Just go to your seat, Max. We'll talk about it after class."

I nod hurriedly and pull myself up, skittering over to my seat at the back. I caught a snide comment from Victoria on the way, ducking my head and flushing. Damn it. The girl is a bitch, but seriously, I so envy her confidence. What I wouldn't give to be all tall and free and tall and not give a crap what the world thinks of me and tall.

Anyway...

I pull my pad out and start paying attention. Sort of. I make some notes, anyway. Ok, so I doodled some kind of weird goo monster thing, but that was sort of work. Wasn't it?

The minute class is over, I launch myself at the door, only to be stopped by a stern and scary voice from behind me. "Max... Remember me?"

I stop. Shit! I pull myself together, surprise the urge to... ulp. Barf. and went back to talk to Mr J. He frowns as I scuttle up. "Come on, Max. Thirty minutes late? What happened?"

"Sorry, sir. I was up late studying." This was... almost true. Sort of. Ok, so I was watching Final Fantasy: Spirits Within, but that technically counts as pictures!

Mr Jefferson tilted his head and stared at me. I was pretty sure he knew something was off with me, but couldn't for the life of him figure out what. Luckily, before he could spend any more time speculating about me, Victoria coughed behind him, calling out for his attention.

He focuses on me for a couple of seconds. "Fine, Max. You're a good student, one of the best I've ever had." Me? Seriously? "So, I'll let you off this once. Just make sure it doesn't happen again."

I nod. Thank dog for that. "Of course, sir."

"Right. Now, you can go." He just shakes his head and wanders off to answer whatever 'oh so interesting' thing Victoria had to say.

I nod again and throw him a grin. "Thanks, Sir."

I rushed out of the classroom, barging past - more like through - a few people in my rush to get to the bathroom before I barfed or something else that would make me look like even more of a loser to my classmates.

I slammed through the doorway and cannoned straight into one of the stalls, falling to my knees and tightly clutching the porcelain god as I vomited.

"Oh, you poor dear. I do hope you're not feeling too bad." I... I recognised those cultured British tones, but I couldn't for the life of me work out where from. Whoever it was, it was a guy and I'm in the dogdamn girls bathroom.

I whirled, to tell whoever the dude was that he was in the wrong place, but to my surprise, there was no-one there.

Oh, dog, I'm hearing voices. The craziness had really set in. Wait, hearing weird, disembodied voices? Wasn't that a sign of schizophrenia?

Oh, frell. Its finally happened. I've gone crazy. All the stress of all the months at this school, amazing as they'd been, had finally caught up to me.

I felt my legs go out from under me and another bolt of pain lanced through my skull. "Oh, dog, my head..." I held it in my hands, trying to get rid of the stabbing pain lancing through it.

I turned and stumbled out of the cubicle, catching myself on the sinktop. I planted both hands on either side - for stability - then looked up into the mirror. Oh double-dog, I look awful. Such a frakking loser.

Pictures started flicking back into my head -- well, more memories, really -- and I whimpered. Whatever was happening to me, it really frakking hurt!

I whirled and ran back into the stall to throw up bile. It was pretty much the only thing still in my stomach I hadn't thrown up already. "Oh dog, it's food poisoning. That shitty breakfast bar has killed me!"

"I really am sorry about this, but it was the only way to reverse the spell." The voice had come back and it was being sympathetic! And talking about spells! Oh, shit, I really am going crazy...

But that was bullshit, and I knew it.

Dog, I'd have loved to have been crazy. It'd have been so much better than what I finally admitted to myself I knew had happened.

My memory was back!

The fucking Forgetting Charm I'd put on myself a few months earlier so I could actually live a normal fucking life had been reversed! I'd put so much effort into putting all that behind me and now it was all back in the blink of a fucking eye! All because of an enchanted breakfast bar.

I sighed and called out the name that had been instantly been in my head the minute I admitted the truth of my situation. "Jarvis..?"

No response. I had a vague iota of hope that I might have been imagining it.

But, I knew it wasn't true.

It couldn't have been.

I tried again.

"Jarvis?"

There was a deep, long suffering sigh and then a tsking sound and the faint whiff of vanilla as someone wormholed in.

"It is you!"

Jarvis was small, even more than me and exactly as I remembered him. Short, impeccably dressed in a double-breasted suit jacket, dress shirt and cravat, sporting a Tom-Selleck inspired moustache. He took a careful bow, bending as low as his goat-legs would allow. You see, Jarvis was a faun and one of the proudest I'd ever met. If you ever want a free tooth removal, just call him 'goat boy'. "In the flesh."

I stared at him for a second, then narrowed my eyes. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Mistress Maxine, I..."

I cut him off. "Oh dog. Nope. I asked you not to call me that, Jarvis." I'd given up on getting him to ever call me Max, but I wouldn't bend on the mistress thing. That was just so... weird.

"Fine, mistress, I mean miss Maxine, but if you would just listen to me for one moment I..."

I cut him off again. There's no way I was listening to anything he had to say. It'd taken years of arguments, plus the forgetting charm, to get myself out of the organised insanity I called my family. I was not going to let him pull me back in, not now I was finally normal! "No, Jarvis! I think you should just disapparate back wherever the hell you came from and leave me alone! Dad and I had a deal! So long as I was under the forgetting charm, you had to leave me alone!" I jabbed an accusing finger at him, convinced I'd won some kind of point. "As far as I'm concerned, you can go back home and tell him that!"

I turned and stormed to the door, but something happened just as I started to push it open.

Jarvis sniffled.

That stopped me cold. I'd never seen Jarvis lose his composure, not ever. In the years I'd known him, he'd barely ever shown any emotion beside disapproval and now he was sniffling? Something was very, very wrong.

"I... I can't tell him." Jarvis said, his voice wobbly and pinched.

The bottom dropped out of my stomach and went all the way out the other side of the Earth. Oh, frakk... I turned and stormed back over to him. "Why can't you tell him, Jarvis?"

He whimpered and shook his head, miming the whole locked lips thing and throwing away the key. I caught it and immediately mimed unlocking his lips. "Jarvis! Tell me now!"

He shook his head again, way more frantically than before. "No, no, no, no, no! I should never have done this. I should have told your mother this was a bad idea."

I blinked at that. My mother sent Jarvis? But she never spoke to Jarvis... Not out of any spite or anything, it just wasn't done. Jarvis was my dad's man, through and through. I took a look back at the door. Crap. This was very, very public. I picked Jarvis up and dragged him over to the corner, hoping that whatever random person walked through the door next wouldn't be able to see him. "Mother sent you..? What's wrong Jarvis? Did something happen to dad?"

"He... He's been kidnapped!" Jarvis wailed.

I slumped back against the stall wall behind me.

My dad... got kidnapped?

"Who the hell would kidnap the frickin' Grim Reaper?"

--

Yeah, so... Cards on the table time.

Might've exaggerated the whole 'normal college girl' thing. Like, a lot. Much as I hate it, the truth is, there's nothing normal about me. No small house in the suburbs with 2.5 siblings, a dog and a white picket fence in my childhood. Even my name isn't normal. My full surname is Reaper-Caulfield. I... usually drop the Reaper. Obviously. Nope. My life, not normal at all.

Instead, I grew up in a disgustingly large old mansion right on the coast called Fallowcrest that I loved with all my heart. It was perfect. Designed way back when America was like, my age, Fallowcrest was finally built about a hundred and fifty years ago by this crazy socialite named Marianne Whitehall who wanted to create the Crown Jewel of Seattle or something. The place had fourteen bedrooms, nine bathrooms, a formal dining room, a ballroom, two kitchens and a twelve-car garage. Twelve! We barely even used three quarters of the house. Oh, and my parents added in a swimming pool when I was five. And the whole place was surrounded by the most amazing views an aspiring photographer could dream of.

The only thing it lacked was my best friend.

Growing up, I'd only spent my summers and school vacations at home. The rest of the time, I was attending this stuffy academy down in Oregon, Prufrock Prep. I hated every moment I spent there. I was pretty much a loner, bullied or ignored by everyone else.

Until I met Chloe.

I knew her name before, but most people did. She was in the year above me and scared pretty much everyone, including the teachers. I was getting pushed into my locker by this older girl. I can't actually remember her name now. Chloe pulled her away, helped me out of the locker and invited me for breakfast at the diner.

We'd been friends from that day on.

Until five years ago, when I left her in Arcadia Bay. Something had... happened. Something bad. And I had to drop out and go back home. Chloe was furious. She'd told me to fuck off and die and sworn never to talk to me again.

I... well, I'd been back for three weeks and I still hadn't gotten up the courage to go talk to her yet.

--

Jarvis shrugs, avoiding my eyes. "I don't know, Miss Maxine. There's been no demands, no communication of any kind."

"Alright Jarvis, so..." The door opens with a thunk, and I pull Jarvis further into the corner.

I lean out of the dark and take a peek at... Nathan? Nathan Prescott? Sheesh, can he not read a sign? Whatever. There was no way I wanted to get on his bad side, or let him see Jarvis, so I'll just hide here until he's done... whatever he's doing.

Wait. What's the leader of the Vortex Club doing in the girls bathroom?

Huh. Talking to himself, apparently. He was pacing up and down in front of the mirror, stopping every so often to turn and talk into it. I couldn't really blame him. I did the same when I had to psyche myself up for something. I did it in the right bathroom though... "Okay, Nathan, okay. You've got this."

Five long minutes of Jarvis and me staring at this guy from the dark later, someone else came in. A girl with electric blue hair and an... interesting fashion sense swaggered in, talking before the door had even closed. "Hey Prescott, you made it! Fucking good choice, dude."

I nearly had a heart attack when she started pushing open stall doors, starting at the other end and going along the line to me. Ohgoddon'tletherseeus! "I hope you checked the perimeter, as my step-ass would say?"

I held my breath and... she stopped! Yes! When she'd checked all the stalls, instead of checking the corner me and Jarvis were hiding in, she turned and glared at Nathan, all tall and lanky self-confidence. "Now, let's talk bidness."

He retorts immediately, almost spitting at her. "I got nothing for you." Whoever this girl is, Nathan obviously hates her. And bidness? Wowzers...

"Wrong." She smirks, swaggering up to his side. "You got hella cash."

Wait... Cash? Is she trying to blackmail him or something? Nathan Prescott? That's... that's crazy.

"That's my family. Not me."

"Oh, boo hoo." She grins mockingly. "Poor little rich kid." She circles around him, getting right up close to him. "I bet your respectable family would help me out if I went to them. Man, I can see the headlines now..."

He spins and glares at her. "Leave them out of this, bitch."

The blue haired girl ignores him, continuing her taunting. I blink at her in shock. She's so rude! "I can tell everybody Nathan Prescott is a punk-ass bitch who begs like a little girl and talks to himself..." Her grin grows and she opens her mouth to say something else.

That's when Nathan just... snaps. He pulls something out of his jacket and... dog, is that a frakkin' gun? Oh no... This is bad.

He shoves it up against the girls stomach, pushing her up against a wall by the door. I have to lean a little out of the corner to keep them where I can see them.

The blue haired girl is babbling now. She's so scared. "You're gonna get in hella more trouble for this than the drugs!"

Nathan laughs and leans in close to her. "Nobody would even miss your punk-ass, would they?"

Oh dog.

He's going to kill her.

He's really going to kill her!

Jarvis was leaning out behind me, mouth open in horror. "Jarvis!" I hissed back at him. "You've gotta do something."

He frowned, looking between me and the two arguing near the door. "What would you have me do?"

"Help her!" I waved my hands about vaguely. "Magic something up!"

He raised an eyebrow. I could almost feel the sigh of derision implied by it like a slap across my face. "Magic..?"

I nod urgently, too focused on what was possibly about to happen in the room for diplomacy. "Yeah, Magic! Please? You've got to do something or he's going to kill her!"

Jarvis nods, then waves a hand, muttering to himself for a second. I wait for a second. Then another. Then... another. I turn back to Jarvis. "Jarvis, what did..."

That's as far as I get before an ear-splitting wail echoes through the room. Wowzers, the fire alarm here is so freaking loud!

The blue haired girl shoves at Nathan, pushing him back surprisingly far. Dog, she's really strong!

Nathan falls over and hits the ground with a thud and the girl takes the chance to scramble to her feet and dash out the door. Nathan stays lying on the ground for a second, then swears and pulls himself up too. I catch a muttered "Another shitty day..." as he heads out the door too.

I sigh in relief and turn to Jarvis. "Thank you."

He frowns at me. "Did you think I would just let that happen?"

I... did I? "I, um... No? I don't think so. I don't know." I give him a little smile. "But thanks anyway."

I take a deep breath, almost sighing with relief. That was so unreal! Heh. I know that sounds insincere coming from Death's fricking Daughter, but I've never even seen a gun before, not even when I actually talked to my family. Speaking of...

I look back up at Jarvis. "Can you pull up a wormhole? We should go see Mom. This firealarm is really frickin' loud."

He smiled and nodded, waving a hand and muttering for a second. There was the familiar scent of vanilla and then... woosh.

Wormhole time.

How to describe the sensation..? Hmm... Well, it's kind of like Alice in Wonderland? You know, where Alice falls down the Rabbit Hole and everything is just wooshing past her? That's pretty much exactly how it feels, I guess, but let me tell you, Carroll never said anything about your stomach jumping up to your ears or your toes feeling like they're gonna literally explode.

Dog, I'd been kinda tempted to ask Jarvis to call home for a helicopter or something, but time was of the essence, right?

Still. Exactly as bad as I remembered. Eesh.

--

Jarvis pushed open the gilded door to my mother's bedroom and went inside. I stopped at the doorway and took a breath. Come on, Max. You can do this! I can do this! I can, I can, I...

"Maxine?"

I resisted the urge to glare. Max. Never Maxine. I took a deep breath.

Oh, dog. This is not gonna be pretty...

I take another deep breath - I can do this - and head inside.

My mom and Dad hadn't slept in the same bed since before my sister was born. They didn't hate each other or anything, or only pretended to get along 'for the children'. It was like, completely the opposite, actually. They were madly, passionately, head-over-heels romcom-style in love with each other.

Honestly, they'd kind of have to be madly in love for my dad to petition both God and the Devil to make my mom immortal, and for my mother to renounce her mortality to stand by my dad's side for eternity. If that sounds heavy, believe me, it was.

Anyways, the reason they slept apart was entirely my dad's fault, even though he didn't know why til waaaaay later.

After my older sister was born, mom stopped sleeping. Literally everyone thought it was just the stress of motherhood or, dog, some shit like that. I wasn't there, 'cause of not being born. After two months of insomnia, it was a pretty sure thing everyone was wrong. Whatever was happening, it was more than just shitty nappies and breast milk that was causing it.

My dad was horrified, watching Mom basically just wither away like my plant, Lisa. Damn, I forgot to water her again. He paid for specialists of all types to get flown in from all over to check her out, but not a single one could help.

Finally, in an act of pretty much 100% wild desperation, he brought in Madame Papillon, the scariest little old lady ever. She was an aura specialist, meaning she had this weird third eye she could use to look at spiritual conditions and that sorta thing.

Kinda cool, really.

She'd taken one look at my Mom and announced that she knew exactly what the problem was. It's a weird side effect of being immortal. You get one weakness, sort of like your personal Kryptonite. Only, instead of just taking away your powers, it kills you. Really dogdamn unfortunately, you don't start off knowing your weakness.

It seriously sucked. You could be just going about your day, then suddenly wham! Dead as a Dodo. Sucks even more if your weakness was intimately bound up with something you cared about.

Turned out my Mom's immortal weakness was...

Snoring.

Her immortality hadn't been granted until after my sister was born, so in all the time Mom and Dad had been together, she'd been mortal and she'd slept fine.

Nobody had expected Mom's weakness to be so domestic. It'd taken Madame Papillon to make the connection.

So, after getting Mom immortality so they could be together for all eternity, my parents instead found themselves separated for all eternity. I had just two words for that.

Total. Bummer.

Anyways, due to her weakness, Mom had her own set of rooms just down the hall from my Dad. Honestly, I think she was kind of grateful for the space. My Dad's personality could be kind of... overwhelming sometimes. I mean, he was Death...

As I stepped into her main room, I saw her sitting in one of the two huge, ridiculously fancy chairs that had been in her rooms for literally longer than I'd existed. They kinda reminded me of her, actually. Neat and delicate, but strong enough to manage the heaviest of asses (That's my Dad, FYI).

"Maxine!" Mom said again, closing the distance between us and wrapping me up in a light hug. Wowzers, she seemed even smaller and more delicate than I remembered. I leaned into it anyway. I might've made the decision to cut her out of my life, but she was still my mom. I did miss her. Or I would've, if I'd remembered her.

She pulled back and looked me over. She smiled and her eyes did this peculiar 50s film star watery thing that made her seem even more frail and delicate than before. "I'm so happy you came. I was afraid..." she stammered, and forced a thin smile. "I was afraid you wouldn't."

Ok, not gonna lie, that kinda hurt. I mean, I know I said a lot of stuff before I left, and I mean A LOT, but he's my dad. Wowzers, how could I not come? "Yeah, I get it. But you're my family. It's like a law that we have to stick together in times of crisis, right?"

"I'm very glad you see it that way."

I turned to see a tall old guy in a black cassock (AN: A cassock is a priest robe, like the one Neo wears in the later Matrix movies, only with less leather. It's amazing the kinda weird shit you learn growing up Irish Catholic.) walk out of the door from my mother's ensuite.

"Father." I smiled up at him, oddly comforted by his presence. Father McCready was my dad's mortal human lawyer. Also, my childhood priest. We were that sort of family.

He hobbled over and took one of the fancy chairs. He moved delicately, like he was feeling his age. Dog, he had to be close to eighty-five by now.

That's when I thought a second time about what he'd said. "Wait. What do you mean, you're 'glad I see it that way'?" I sounded warily hostile, even to me. You wouldn't blame me, if you knew the stuff my family had tried to pull sometimes. Sneakiness was like our family hobby. Plus, with my memory back, I was apparently doubly hostile.

"Well, you see..." My mother and McCready shared a glance. "We're in a bit of a bind here."

I raised an eyebrow, feeling the wariness increase even more. Dog, there's always an agenda in this damn house. "A bit of a bind?"

My mother stood, wringing her hands and beginning to pace in front of the chairs. "You see, sweetheart, it seems that..." She slowed, but McCready took up right where she left off.

"With your father missing, and no heirs to take his place, the Devil wants a recall."

My mom sagged against the back of one of the chairs and began to cry. "They want to kick us out of the house, Maxine! Strip us of our immortality and let your father rot, or worse, in whatever cesspool his captors have thrown him into!"

"Wowzers." I didn't know what else to say. I mean, it's a crappy thing and I want Dad back out as much as anyone, but I had no idea why this recall thing was serious enough for Mom to send Jarvis to me. It seemed totally obvious who Mom should call. My older sister, Sophie, would probably wet herself to take over the top spot at Death Inc. "What about Sophie? She's way past the age of consent and I'm sure she's, like, salivating to take the reigns while they look for Father." I focused on Mom, now sure I'd found the solution to whatever this was. "Just go ask her."

That's when Mom dropped the second bombshell. "Your sister is missing too. So are all twelve key executives in the company. The kidnapping happened right in the middle of the annual Solstice Meeting."

What. Oh dog. This... I blinked in shock. This is way bigger than I thought... "Why didn't..." I turned to Jarvis. "Jarvis?"

He shrugged and opened his mouth to reply when Mom cut in. "I asked Jarvis not to say anything." She took out a little silk handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. "I didn't want to upset you anymore than we had to."

I... you... what? Dog, this is all happening too fucking fast. I pulled out every thought I could to try keep myself from freaking the hell out.

"It's not an easy decision for you to make, Maxine, we know. But we know you will make the right decision." Father McCready intoned, sounding more sombre and funereal than I'd ever heard him.

The right decision? Oh, no. Ohnononononono. He is not saying what I think he's saying. "The... the right decision?"

McCready nods. "Yes. The right decision. Only you have the power to save your family from certain doom. You have to take the reins of Death."

I immediately backed up, skittering away from them both like a spider from a rolled up newspaper. "Uh uh, No. Nyet, nah, nien. No way, jose. I'm not doing that."

"But Maxine..." Mom started, obviously trying to guilt trip me into doing something totally stupid that would never work because I'm totally not cut out for this oh god why are they asking me isn't there anyone else wowzers they want me to be Death oh dog... I'm seeing spots.

I just stuffed my fingers in my ears and started to hum the Katamari Damacy theme loudly and slightly off-key. I thought it might be shocking enough to shut her up and I was right. She closed her mouth and stared at me, lips pursed and a very disapproving look on her beautiful face.

And when I say beautiful, I mean beautiful. Like Sophia Loren AND Audrey Hepburn, plus whatever Victoria's Secret model you can think of all rolled up into one. She was a direct descendent of Helen of Troy and she lived up to the bloodline.

I couldn't believe we were talking about the business when we should be trying to make some kind of plan to get Dad and Sophia back! "Look, I just think you're focusing on the wrong thing, we need to go and work out what we're going to do about Dad and Sophia..."

Mom sighed. "We don't have any say in whatever rescue attempt is planned if we've been thrown out of the supernatural community, Maxine." She snorted. "I can't imagine the new Grim Reaper would deign to consult with his predecessor's family, can you?"

But I wasn't about to give up that easily. I pulled up what little backbone I had and looked my Mom directly in the eyes. "There has to be another way. Can't we just petition God or something?"

I could hear my voice rising as the panic started to overwhelm me, but I pushed down on it and tried to concentrate on getting this terrible idea out of their heads.

McCready stood up again and glared, veins pulsing in his head. "Impossible. There is no other way." He snorted. "You're the only answer we could come up with, Maxine. Believe me, if Clio was of age, I would've barred your mother from contacting you at all."

"Wait, what?" My jaw dropped. "Not even contact me? Wowzers, it's good to know that the only reason you're dealing with me at all is that you need something from me, thanks for that." I slumped, feeling the anger drain out of me as I realised the ridiculousness of what was happening right now.

Wowzers. I'm standing in my childhood home having an argument with a half-dressed goddess-runner up and a priest. My life has turned into a literal joke. We just need a bar and a guy with a long face.

This is exactly why I never wanted to go into the family business.

I watched as Mom's face crumpled and she slumped back into the chair with a sigh. She didn't move and I was pretty sure she was channelling most of her energy into not crying. That's when I started to feel like a serious jerk. "Sorry, Mom..."

I moved to her side and wrapped my arms around her shoulders. She didn't flinch, letting me give her a good 'ole Reaper-Caulfield family bear-hug (Or as close as I could get with my tiny body), which I took as a good sign.

"Look, Mom... I know this is hard and I'm sorry I'm being such a dumbass, but you're barking up the wrong tree here. I'm really not right for this, and it's the worst plan ever, and..." I went on for a while, until I just trailed off and... dog damn it. "If this is what you really want me to do, and it'll get you on the case for rescuing Dad and Sophia faster, I guess I can... think about it."

She looked up at me, eyes so full of pathetic hope that, well... I did something very stupid... "Fine. I'll do it." I stuck a finger out warningly at her. "But you better be finding someone else to take over ASAP."

Mom nods, grinning at me. "Of course, Maxine, Max. Thank you, I... I... Thank you!" The gratitude in her voice made me faintly sick, in addition to my pounding ears and the voice in my head screaming "What are you doing?!?" loudly over and over. "I knew I'd be able to count on you to do the right thing in the end."

I really, really tried to be positive about what I'd just done, but I had the sickening feeling this was just the start of a very, very bad situation. A situation that I'd seriously struggle to get out of.

--

My little sister grinned when I'd finished filling her in on the whole thing. "Man. Max, they totally conned you. Did they pull the good-cop, bad-cop thing?"

I was lying on her bed, staring forlornly at the little blobs in her lava lamp, letting myself drift into the hypnotic lava-lamp blob-world. There was just something so... calming about watching the little blobs of whatever the stuff in a lava lamp actually was go up and down, pushing the boundaries of their little glass home. It was so easy to get sucked in. Same with cheesy TV shows. I can't even count the number of times I'd turned on the TV and lost a whole afternoon to General Hospital or Buffy reruns. "What are you talking about, Clio?"

Clio throws me one of her patented "you can't be that stupid" looks. I usually was. "Did one of them cry and the other yell? That's about as simple as I can put it for ya, sis."

Clio was kind of a super-genius, and she knew it. She likes to play with the latest physics and maths papers and write seriously cool computer programs in her spare time. Like, half of the things installed on my laptop were hers. She was kind of insufferable about it sometimes. "I don't know. I guess? I was kind of distracted."

She snorted. "Yeah, I bet. How are you gonna run things if you can't even tell when you're being manipulated by Mom of all people? She's really not..." She pauses, her face turning thoughtful. "subtle."

I sigh. "I... really have no clue. I'm so out of my depth here. I wish you were older, Clio. You'd be way better at this job than me." She really would.

She smirks. "Probably." Her face drops. "But I'd never want it. The stress alone is killer."

She's right. I've only been Death for an hour and I already know this is going to suck majorly. I take a deep breath. Come on Max. Focus on the afterward. This will all be over soon, then you can go curl up in bed with Evangelion. I'd just downloaded the entire thing last night, but then all... this happened.

I went back to staring at the lava lamp. Clio was quiet for a second, then I heard her stand up and wander over to her desk and sit down at her huge computer. It was kind of her baby. She'd spent years upgrading and adding to it and now it was like a patchwork Frankenstein's monster of a thing, just... perching on her desk. Creeped the hell out of me.

I tilted my head and looked at her. "What are you doing?" Even when I'm panicking, I can't stop being nosey.

"Checking something."

Dog, I hated short answers like that. They just made me want to know even more.

"Checking what?"

"Your probability of success." She looked back at me, answering my unasked next question. "Of running Death and not getting thrown into Purgatory before your first day is up."

I pulled myself up so I was sitting upright. "Well? What's the bad news?"

She turned in her chair and started working on the computer again without saying anything. I stared at her for a second, then rolled over and stared at the ceiling instead while I waited. A couple of minutes later, Clio chirped up again. "Better odds than I would've thought."

"Oh?" I asked, almost smiling for the first time today. I could do with some good news right now. "How am I gonna do?"

"The computer gives you a seventy-two percent chance-"

I grinned. That's seriously reassuring. If Clio AND her computer thought I could...

"-of failure."

Wait.

What?

"Failure?! I thought you said it was better than you thought it'd be?" I could feel the panic growing in my head and I desperately stamped on it to keep it back.

She shrugged obliviously. "I gave you a 90% chance of failure. Guess the computer's just a sap." Her face lit up. "I'm going to play around with it, see what I can come up with."

Seventy-two percent. I thought about it, and it wasn't that bad. It wasn't, right? That's still nearly a thirty percent chance of me actually succeeding!

I sighed.

Maybe I could find some way to improve that.

Now that I was the President and CEO of Death, Inc., Jarvis had become my Executive Assistant. He'd have some sort of advice for me.

So, I left Clio happily punching buttons on her computer and went out to try find him. "Jarvis? Jarvis!" Wait, didn't Dad used to call Jarvis magically somehow? I tried to remember what he did before Jarvis popped up. Nothing. So, I waved a hand and loudly called the Faun's name, trying to think magic thoughts. Maybe the perk had transferred over to me.

Two seconds later, the little guy just appeared in front of me, looking sort of shocked. "Mistr..." He stopped himself, took a breath and forced a smile onto his face. I smiled back, trying to show how grateful I was. "Miss Maxine. You called for me?"

I nod. "Yeah, I'm, uh... I'm trying to work out what I should do, now I'm... you know." My shoulders sag. "Death."

Jarvis' face splits in a huge, pleased grin. His little moustache twitches like a weird electrified caterpillar. "Miss Maxine! I'm so pleased to hear you're taking an interest. Now, let me see." He magics up a little notebook from the air and flips through it. "You are expected at the offices for a meeting with the Board." He stops and looks at me.

I stare back. "Okay..? Anything else?"

He shakes his head. "Not yet. I'm sure you will be called upon for more after the meeting."

I open my mouth to ask something else, when I suddenly remember something. "Uh, what about school?"

"School?"

"Blackwell." I tilt my head. "They're probably wondering where I am, right? I've missed a ton of classes."

Jarvis wafted a dismissive hand at me. "Oh, don't worry. That will be taken care of. Apparently I gave them..." He frowned, then flipped through his little notebook again. "a sick note, whatever that is." He shrugs. "They seemed pleased by it, whatever it was."

I let out a long breath. Okay. So that's taken care of. Now what do I worry about? Whenever I don't have a specific thing to stress about, I just end up getting vaguely worried about something non-specific and that's kind of even worse.

I open my eyes to see Jarvis peering at me with concern. Not for me, mostly just like I was going to explode or cry all over his suit or something. "Are you..?"

I nod, mutely, not trusting myself to speak. He peers at me harder, so I smile in an attempt to comfort him. "I'm okay. Just need to sit down or something. Take it all in." That's a thing, right? Right.

He tilts his head in acknowledgement. "Fair enough. You can use your father's study. I will let you know when we need to leave for the meeting.".

--

There was a quick rapid-fire knock on the door. I shuffled in my dad's chair and tried to sit straighter. I'm a CEO now, right? I should sort of look the part. I looked down at my hoodie and jeans. Well. Act the part, anyway. I waited for the door to open.

One second passed.

Then another.

Someone outside the door coughed loudly and knocked again. I frowned. What? Why aren't they coming in? Am I missing something? I thought back to when Dad had taken visitors in here before and...

Oh.

"Come in!" I called out. The door swung open immediately and Jarvis walked in, followed by a weirdly tall guy in a suit. He looked like a rookie detective from a cop show. I could see Jarvis carefully controlling his look of disgust. The faun loved fashion, so someone dressing like that was bound to bug him.

Huh. That's probably one reason why we'd never really gotten along. I wasn't really the most fashion-conscious person, I guess.

"Miss Reaper-Caulfield. This is Detective Davenport from the Psychical Bureau of Investigations. He wants to talk to you about the situation with your father and the board."

The guy smiled blandly at me. It was one of those professional smiles you used to handle people you didn't really need anything from. Even I could tell this guy thought being foisted off on one of Death's kids was a waste of time.

I nod for a second, then think more about what my dad used to do. I wave him over. "Hi, I'm Max. Max Reaper-Caulfield. Please, sit down."

He stepped into the office and took a seat in one of the big leather chairs in front of the desk. He pulled out a notebook and pen as he sat down. "Alright, Miss Reaper-Caulfield, I'm just here to ask you a few questions and try to gather as much information about what happened as I can. Now, can you tell me where you were when the kidnapping occurred?"

I blinked. "Um. I don't know? Nobody's said when it actually happened. School, probably."

He nods, writes something in his notepad. "Two days ago, mid-afternoon. Around 3-5 pm, we think."

"Definitely school then. I was in English from 3-4, then I went back to my room."

He nods, writes something else. "Okay, can you tell me what happened between then and now?"

I shrugged and went through everything that'd happened. The normal lesson stuff, feeling sick, Jarvis appearing in the bathroom, the whole forgetting charm situations, everything. He listened and took lots of notes, only making occasional 'hmm' sounds to keep me talking. It was so weird. I'd only ever seen this happen on TV, so actually being interviewed was so surreal.

When I told him about Jarvis appearing, he finally looked up. After a second looking at me, he asked "So, your father's Executive Assistant was directed by..." He flicked back through his notebook. "your mother to escort you here?"

I nodded. "Yeah." I tilted my head and quickly amended, "Well, he's my Executive Assistant now, not my Dad's."

The detective's head shot up so fast I was surprised it stayed attached to his neck. "I'm sorry? Excuse me, did you say he's your assistant now?"

I nodded again. "Yeah." I frowned. "I did mention that, didn't I?"

He swallowed and I noticed he'd started to sweat. "You're... you're Death?" That's when I realised he didn't know that I was the new boss around here. 'Interim Boss', the little voice in my head added.

I shrugged, offered him a self-deprecating smile. "That's what they tell me."

His mouth dropped open a little and he completely stopped blinking. "I... I... Oh God," He swallowed hard again and licked his lips nervously. "Please, please forgive me. Had I realised... what... who..."

I shrugged, trying to hide how completely unnerved I was seeing this guy so scared suddenly. "Forget about it. It's okay. Nothing to apologise for. You're just doing your job, right?"

When he didn't respond, I focused in on his face, noticing for the first time that he wasn't. His entire body was shaking, and I every muscle I could see had tensed up. His eyes were what freaked me out the most though. They'd gone glassy and numb, like he'd just hidden away in his head to try get away from what had scared him so much...

Me.

I reached over and poked him, trying to bring him back.

The moment the detective dropped, I'd screamed for Jarvis, who'd burst through the door like a movie hero. He looked over the situation and worked out what to do in a second, crouching by the detective and checking his pulse. "Thank God you hadn't received all your powers yet, or this man would be dead."

I blinked at the little Faun, who was wafting some smelling salts under the detective's nose. Dead..? "What the hell are you talking about?"

Jarvis snorts. "You can't just go around scaring people to death, Maxine. Of all the irresponsible..." I tune out then. I really can't listen to another Jarvis lecture. I'll let you fill in the rest. He goes on for a while.

I felt myself getting more and more angry by the minute. "Hey, don't yell at me, Jarvis! Nobody told me what the hell I'm doing here! It's not like there's an instruction manual or anything that I..."

Jarvis interrupted my rant without batting an eyelid. "Second desk drawer on the right."

I... Wowzers.

I opened the drawer and immediately found the book Jarvis was referring to. It was smaller than I expected, maybe a little smaller than those Bibles you always get in hotels (AN: From a Brit to everyone else, I've always been curious how many countries this sort of thing happens in. Pretty sure Gideons is American, so I expect it happens in the US, but I'm not 100% on that. Anyways, if you get religious texts in hotel drawers in your country, please let me know, I'm hella curious.) and plain black, except for five golden-embossed words on the front cover.

Death: An Annotated Rule Book.

Chapter Text

I'd always hated waiting rooms.

The one at the offices of Death Inc. hadn't changed that fact. It was cold, sterile, and without any personality whatsoever.

I was seriously lucky Jarvis had insisted on an outfit change. Apparently my hoodie and jeans weren't 'professional attire', so he'd magicked up this... suit-thing for me. I hated wearing it, but at least it was warm. I'd be freezing in here in my clothes.

I sighed and leaned back in the little chair-loveseat thing I was sat in while we waited for the elevator to come down. We'd been waiting for a while, which was kind of annoying. After the Detective I'd sort-of-maybe-nearly-killed had left, Jarvis had rushed me out the door crying about how we were gonna be late like he was the freaking White Rabbit. After a short bickering with the receptionist, he'd brought us through to here, sat down and pulled open a magazine without saying a word.

That was fifteen minutes ago.

"So, um. Jarvi?"

He looked up, his expression as poised and professional as usual. After a small pause, he sighed. "Yes..?"

"I was just wondering who we're going to see." I said and, figuring I might as well get all my questions out at once, added "And why is it so freaking cold here? Don't they have radiators?" I shivered slightly to demonstrate my point.

Jarvis paused for a second, eyeing me with approval. He tilted his head, thought it over, then started talking. 'When the office of Death was first created at the beginning of time, God gave its commission to one of the Seraphim, but after the Christian Fall-"

"You mean Adam and Eve?" I offered hopefully, trying desperately to remember our Sunday school lessons with Father from when I was a kid.

Jarvis shook his head. "No, the Fall when Lucifer decided to wage war against his God, lost, and was sent down to Hell. That Fall."

"Oh." My shoulders slumped. Dogdamnit. Another loss for my cruddy memory.

After another pause and a shake of his head, Jarvis continued. "So, after that Fall, God decided it would be better to have an impartial creature running Death. So, instead of an angel or demon having dominion over this place, he appointed an earthly being to the office. Someone impartial, who could govern Death without favouring one side over the other."

I blinked. Huh. "Okay, so, um. Who's up there now?"

Jarvis gave me a little smile. "God's not an idiot. He knew that no matter how impartial a human, or other earthly being, could be, they could still be swayed. So, he created a Board to keep the office of Death in check. That is who must bequeath the power of the office on you so you can run the business properly."

"Okay, that's not so bad, right? I can just go in, get bequeathed, and then I can go home?" I said, hopefully, knowing there's no way it could be that simple.

Jarvis, as I expected, immediately shook his head. "It's not that easy. You have to prove your worth to the Board and fulfil a series of three tasks,"

I felt a sinking feeling in my chest. Of course. Prove my worth... There's no way I can do this. I'm just a photography student. Who the hell did I think I was, trying to be the freaking Grim Reaper? "You... didn't say anything about any tests..." I mutter.

Jarvis smiled, oblivious to my sudden anxiety, and weirdly tolerant of my interruption. "You're quite lucky, actually. There used to be twelve tasks and-"

Oh Dog. My chest starts to feel like someone's sitting on it, and I take a desperate gasp of air. I manage it, but it's seriously difficult. I tried to pull out every calming thought I had, like I did with my Mom, but it didn't help at all.

Omidog. I can't breathe. Oh dog, oh no, oh shit! I need some air, I... I need to get out. What the hell am I doing here anyway? I can't do this. I need to get out. I have to get out.

I hop to my feet, blurt out what I kinda think might have been "Is it hot in here? I'm gonna go get some air, back in a sec." but could have just been garbled noise for all I knew, then, loosening my tie and ignoring Jarvis' frantic questions, rushed for the door out of there.

I was two steps from the exit when suddenly the elevator doors slid open and two large, jackal-headed men in Men-in-Black suits stepped out. My feet freeze and my chest loosens. They turned their heads in unison, like a weird dog version of the Stepford Twins, and looked over at me. "Maxine Caulfield," They intoned. "You are summoned."

"Dogdamnit." I muttered under my breath, as my feet did a little do-si-do and turned me back around. As I stepped into the elevator, I thought about telling them that it was Max, not Maxine. One look at them told me they wouldn't have cared.

The last thing I saw as the elevator doors closed was Jarvis, still sat in his chair, hands clasped in what, to my panicked brain, looked like prayer.

--

The ride in the elevator was pretty uneventful. We rode up in complete silence, which wasn't comforting at all, so I tried to distract myself from my anxiety by studying the other two people in the lift. I spent most of the trip with one thought going round and round inside my head.

Dog... Why is everyone taller than me?

Two minutes later, finally, the elevator chimed and the doors opened. "The Penthouse," Jackal Brother Number One said, still not looking at me, as the two of them stepped out of the elevator. Whoever had made the Foyer we went into clearly shared tastes with my Mom. I was pretty sure they had the exact same ridiculously fancy chairs as she did.

Jackal Brother Number Two gestured for me to follow them through the foyer toward some big double doors in the far wall. We stopped just before them, and one of the Jackals (I think Number Two?) reached out and knocked three times with a huge gold-coloured knocker. I could feel each knock in my bones, travelling up from my feet to my head like ripples in water. It was... weird.

We waited in silence for about a minute. I opened my mouth to ask why we were waiting when the knock suddenly sounded again, only without the Jackal Brother knocking. Someone on the other side was answering and apparently it was the answer the Jackals were looking for, because they reached out and pushed the doors open.

There was a hissing sound, like when they open sealed doors in movies, and a bright light filled the doorway as it opened. I have to admit, I might've gasped when the light disappeared and I actually got to see what was on the other side.

"Welcome to Atlantis." Jackal Brother Number One said, stepping through the doorway.

When I was a little kid, Chloe and I used to play pirates. I know that seems like one hell of a non-sequiter, but bear with me here. We always dreamed of travelling, sailing the seas together, destination wherever. We used to look at maps and read books about all these faraway places we could go to. Chloe's last pick for a destination was the Caribbean. She always picked real places, somewhere she could go if her parents could get enough cash together to take her. Me, I always picked the... imaginary places. My favourite one, the one that always belonged in my imagination alone, was Atlantis.

Needless to say, I was freaking out a little bit at getting to be there. It was right here in front of me, and it was way more beautiful than I'd ever imagined. We had a beautiful view of the ocean coastline, the sunlight hit the trees at just the right angle to be perfect, and oh dog the architecture was freaking incredible! I, just... Wowzers.

My hand immediately went down to grab my camera, then I realised I'd left it... somewhere. Oh, dog. I didn't know where I'd left it! I still had it when I left class, but... after that is a blank. I blink tears out of my eyes. I really loved that Camera. It was the first thing I'd bought that was all mine, and not just my parents buying me stuff, y'know? I'd saved up money from a summer job for three freaking years. And now it was gone. I sighed. "Jesus Christ!"

One of the Jackal Brothers looked up. "Where?" His voice was deadpan.

I burst out into giggles. That definitely distracted me from moping about my camera.

Then I realised he wasn't joking. Oh, great. The Jackal Brothers were more... literal-minded than I was. I shook my head. "Figure of speech."

The Jackal Brother stared at me for a second, then turned and continued off through Atlantis. I watched him for a second, then shook my head again, this time harder. No, Max. Don't think about it right now. You've got stuff to do, right? Yes, you do. Great, now I'm talking to myself and-

A hand clamped down on my shoulder and it took everything in me not to scream. "You will come with us."

I nodded, noticing the first Jackal Brother had stopped a little way down the hill from us. "Okay, s-sorry." I took a deep breath, and followed them down towards a white marble pagoda at the bottom of the hill. I could feel the sea spray on my face, hear the waves crashing into the bottom of a cliff somewhere below us. It was warmer too. I took the jacket off as I walked, cradling it in my arms.

We walked closer to the Pagoda, and I got a closer view of what was inside. It was an open-air building, held up by four pillars with dozens of intricate little carvings that I found myself following with my eyes as I walked. They were beautiful. There was something kind of... hypnotic about them. I tore my eyes away from them to look at everything else there.

A long table had been placed along the middle of the pagoda. Three people sat on the other side of it, waiting.

For me.

Oh. Dog.

I only had a second to feel overwhelmed before we were right there in front of them. The two Jackal Brothers bowed deeply to the three people behind the table. "We have brought the one you requested."

The older guy sat in the middle of the three nodded. "Thank you, Brothers Anubis. You may return to your own business."

The Anubis Brothers bowed again, then disappeared. Literally, I mean. The second they straightened after their bow, they both just vanished. Then, the Board's attention turned to me.

"Please, have a seat." The older guy waved a hand towards a little wooden stool that had magically appeared behind me.

I smiled gratefully, "Thanks." and sat down. My nerves were as close to the edge as I could get and having something to stop myself falling down was nice. I took a look at the three of them, too. The old guy had long, thick, grey hair and a long, thick, grey beard. The woman on his right was Indian, wearing an orange sari. She looked young, maybe a little older than me? As I focused on her face, she winked back and flashed a flirty smile.

I flushed and my eyes immediately flicked to the other woman, who was in some kind of toga, I think? She was much older than the woman in the sari, and as beautiful as my Mom. Her eyes met mine, and she smiled. There was something strange about her. You know when you close your eyes, and you can still feel the sun on your face without seeing it? That's what I felt when I looked at her. Wowzers. That's frakking weird.

"Maxine Reaper-Caulfield." The old guy intoned.

"I... Um..." I paused. "Yes?"

The three of them stared at me in shock for a few seconds, until the woman in the sari snorted. "For the daughter of such a great man..." She shook her head. "You speak like an idiot."

I blinked. "What did you just say to me?" My mouth just dropped open. And Jarvis talked to me about being the rude one.

She smirked. "You heard me." Is she... Is she enjoying this?

"Ladies." The old guy didn't actually shout, but he put just as much emphasis on the word as if he had. His eyebrows bunched together and he stared pointedly at me. That annoyed me. I hadn't even done anything!

"She started it!" I jumped up from the stool and jabbed a finger at her.

Before the old guy could restrain her, the girl in the sari leaned forward, almost crawling over the table at me. "I totally did not, you... you Dipwad!"

My head flicked up and I burst into giggles. "Dipwad? Wowzers, where did you get that one from?"

She shrugged sheepishly. "It seemed good at the time."

The old guy sighed. "Ladies, please! We have very limited time here, so if I might continue?"

The girl in the sari and I both nodded and sat down. The old guy shook his head in annoyance before taking a deep breath and looking straight at me. "I am Wodin of the North. I, and the rest of the Board, Persephone and Kali-" The woman in the toga, Persephone, nodded when her name was called.

The girl in the sari just grinned. "I'm Kali." She said, like I hadn't already worked that out myself.

I mouthed back, "No, duh.", which got a smirk and an eyeroll in return.

It was strange, which was getting to be a pattern today, but it was kind of like talking to... Chloe. I get the feeling Kali actually liked me and this was her kind of... odd way of trying to make friends.

Wodin started talking again, trying to regain control over proceedings. "As I was saying, the Board cannot bestow anything upon you before you complete the tasks set for you and prove your worthiness as the new Death."

My worthiness...

Wodin didn't give me any time to worry, immediately handing off to "My colleague, Persephone, who will now set forth your tasks." He nodded to her, and she opened her mouth to speak.

As I listened to her talk, tears started to roll down my cheeks like a waterfall. I couldn't understand a word of what she was saying, but somehow it was making me cry more than anything else. After a few sentences, Kali frowned at me, then elbowed Persephone in the side. "Knock it off, 'seph. You're making her cry like the baby she is."

Persephone shrugged, then cleared her throat with a rough cough. "Sorry about that," she said, this time in an actually human sounding voice. "Forgot I was using my Goddess voice."

"I, uh... Oh dog. I mean, it's okay." I wipe at my eyes, muttering. "This is so frakking embarrassing. Where's Jarvis with a Kleenex when you need him?"

There was a small popping sound, and suddenly Jarvis was standing there, holding a tissue in his outstretched hand. "You... you called for me?" he squeaked, confused.

Wait. That's not confusion. He looks shocked.

Wodin's mouth dropped open. "What..?"

Kali stared at me, her eyes wide. Even Persephone looked kind of freaked out. I could feel whatever confidence I had start to disappear. Kali shook her head and focused on me. "How'd you do that?"

"H-how'd I do what?" I didn't look at any of them. I tried, but honestly I was struggling not to run away from the three of them and I knew the island was probably dangerous.

"Summon your servant," Kali waved at Jarvis. "into this realm, dipwad."

I blinked. "I... I..."

Wodin smiled genially, probably noticing my panic, and tried to reassure me. "It's okay, Maxine. We just want to know how you did that."

It didn't really help. I took a breath, counting backwards from ten under my breath, like Doctor Marqois taught me. "I... whew. I just wished Jarvis would be there. And... he was?"

Persephone snorted. "That's impossible. No-one just summons beings into other realms like that. She has to have someone helping her." Thankfully, she still wasn't using her Goddess voice.

I felt a little twinge of pride when she said no-one else could do it, but this whole situation was confusing me. "Um, I don't kn-know what you're talking about. I didn't have anybody helping me!"

"She really didn't."

Jarvis stepped forward, having finally regained his voice, Thank Dog. "If I may have leave to address the board?"

Wodin nodded, and Jarvis stepped forward further. "I have known my mistress since she was but small,"

"Small? Who's small? Still freaking taller than you." I muttered, until a sharp look and a raised hoof from Jarvis shut me up again.

Mollified, Jarvis continued. "and she has forsworn all magic-"

A voice finished off Jarvis' sentence. A voice I recognised. "Until Now."

I turned, and my mouth dropped open. "Nathan fucking Prescott?"

I realised that Persephone had also shouted his name, just without the swearword. Her Goddess voice sliced it through the air like a knife I'm pretty sure she wanted to stab him with. I immediately found myself getting so freaking ANGRY at Nathan and I had no idea why. Before I could even think about it, I clenched my hand into a fist, pulled back and punched Nathan in the face.

Instead of dropping like I expected, he reached up and felt around for blood, then calmly set his nose back into place. Then, he did something even more unexpected.

He grinned, "Hey classmate." then reached out, took hold of the same hand that broke his nose, and gave it a weirdly lingering kiss.

Oh dog, was that flirting? I think that was flirting. What the fuck is happening right now? As my confusion trailed into nothingness, I had a sudden, weird revelation.

I'm hot for Prescott. [A1]

Wowzers, okay. Where the fucking hell did that come from? He's a lunatic who nearly killed a girl and... oh. I blinked. His eyes are really blue, the kind of piercing blue that old movie stars had. I hadn't really looked at him much before. Surprising, I know, given my thing for staring blankly at people, but staring at Nathan Prescott at Blackwell was just looking for trouble.

Now, I just didn't care about that. I... I ogled him. I wanted to throw myself at him and do things I... uh. Hadn't done with anyone else before and... Oh dog.

When he noticed me staring, he winked.

I heard Persephone yelling behind me. "How dare you come here, Nathan!" and the weird out-of-freaking-nowhere arousal turned back into anger and I pulled up my fist again. Nathan caught it in his hand, then looked over my shoulder. "'Seph, please. You're gonna make the poor girl break a nail."

I looked back to see Persephone looking very embarrassed at trying to use me as a human battering ram to beat Nathan up. Kali, on the other hand, was back on her feet and looked like she wanted nothing more than to leap over the table to give Nathan a piece of her mind.

With her fists.

Nathan took the opportunity to wink at her as well, which just seemed to make her angrier.

Wodin sighed. "To what do we owe the pleasure of your company, Nathan?" Only he and Jarvis, who had been rolling his eyes the entire time, seemed to be immune to his charms.

Siren blood! That had to be it. Clio, my little sister, had it too. We think. Well, I did. No-one else in the family agreed with me. Nobody wanted the Sirens associated with their family tree. Anyway, after Clio's hot, twenty-something substitute biology teacher had proposed marriage to her while she was a highschool freshman, I'd been convinced something other than my Mom's genes had to be in play there. Maybe Nathan had something similar. Which totally explained the... attraction.

The sexual craziness hadn't been me just being a miserable horn-dog, I'd been charmed by magic. And by the looks of things, so had Kali and Persephone. At least I was in good company.

Nathan stepped forward. "I've come here to protest..." He waved a hand. "This. The Board knows that I should be the next Death. And here you assholes are, giving some mortal wannabe a chance at my job?"

His bitchy tone let me finally get my libido in check, and the arousal turned back to anger again. This time though, it was all mine. "Hey! What do you mean, 'mortal wannabe'?"

He turns to me. "Everyone knows you left your family, fucked off to the mortal world. Everyone knows your greatest desire is to be a stupid mortal yourself. What kind of recommendation is that for the job?."

"You're already a mortal and-" I retorted.

He snorts derisively. "-and I'm the Devil's Protege, Maxine," He emphasises the name and I glare at him. "I'm as mortal as you are, dumbass, and-"

"-And," I interrupted. "If you're gonna be Death, don't you kind of have to have an interest in the mortal world, being in charge of all those silly mortals after they die? Also, it's Max. Never Maxine." I threw a glare back at Wodin, who shrugged sheepishly.

Kali grinned. "Couldn't've said it better myself, sister."

Wodin gave Nathan a shrug. "The girl, Max," I nodded gratefully. "Does seem to have a point, and she is a blood member of..."

Nathan scowled.. "I don't give a fuck if she's the next Queen of the Universe. It's my job, the Devil promised it to me."

I stepped forward, ignoring Nathan. I was tired, stressed as Hell (and believe me, Hell is very stressful.) and I just wanted this meeting to be over. "Look. I don't know if I'm the right person for the job, but I owe it to my father and my family to give it a try. Wowzers, I'll do whatever Herculean SATs you've got, just... please tell me what you want me to do?" I trailed off and immediately fixed my eyes on the floor, breathing deeply and trying to slow my heart rate. I could see Jarvis giving me a surprised smile out the corner of my eye, which kind of helped.

Kali looked at Wodin. "Look, I'm just gonna give her the fricking parchment..." He nodded, and she pulled a rolled up parchment out of her sari. I was still trying to calm myself down, so Jarvis immediately moved over to get it.

Nathan reacted immediately, shouting "No!" and trying to intercept Jarvis.

Did I mention Jarvis was a Faun? He was also my Dad's bodyguard.

Nathan yelped when Jarvis' hoof collided with his shin, falling backwards away from the table. I hid a grin, finally looking up. Both Kali and Persephone looked very pleased. I think Jarvis had eternally endeared himself to the both of them. When he'd gotten the parchment, he walked over to me. "Miss Maxine? Shall we be off then?"

I nodded, reaching out to take his arm. Nathan growled. "You're not going-"

That was last thing I heard before Jarvis clicked his fingers and I felt the familiar sensation of a wormhole.

--

Jarvis looked kind of annoyed to be sitting in a roadside diner. I guess this place didn't really meet the little faun's high-dining standards. But I liked it, and right now, I was annoyed enough to actually make a stand for what I wanted. I ran my hand over the little carved heart in the table.

Max & Chloe 4-eva 2008

This place held so many good memories for me and... I just really needed that right now. Plus, we bought a few... necessities.

I picked up the huge mug of coffee and took as long a drink as I could, my eyes fluttering closed as I raised the mug. Coffee is the elixir of the freaking gods. When they talk about Nectar and Ambrosia in old myths, they totally mean coffee. It spreads through my system and I can feel my muscles loosen and my stress just... melt away. I pause for a second, then let my eyes drift open.

With a happy sigh, I put down the mug and focus on Jarvis. "Okay. Now tell me what these tasks are."

I watched as Jarvis pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and draped it over the table, rolling the parchment out onto it. He handled it way more carefully than my clumsy ass could've. Considering he treated this thing like it was the Declaration of Independence (Which Jarvis had actually been alive to see signed, so...) I was really glad the Board had given it to him and not me.

I craned my head, trying to read upside down. It wasn't my thing, really. I'd tried it with Brooke's notes in Ms Grant's science class and ended up getting everything mixed up. Literally all I learnt in that class was that the Mitochondria is the Powerhouse of the Cell, and I still have no idea what a Mitochondria even looks like.

After a second of reading, Jarvis sighed. "You have to go to Hades and get one of Cerberus' pups." He looked up at me, a weak smile across his face.

Silence...

Jarvis was looking at me more sympathetically than I'd ever seen him. Which made me kind of sad that I had no idea what he was talking about. I mean, I knew Hades was Greek for Hell, but that was about it. I had no clue what a Cerberus was, other than a terrorist group from Mass Effect. What? I'd tried to stay out of the family business, remember? And I'm an Art Student now. My history credit was spent learning about Early Photographers and their work, not Greek Mythology.

But I'd decided I was gonna do this thing, so I had to ask, right? "Um." I started. "What's a Cerberus?"

Jarvis immediately rolled his eyes. I could tell by the look on his face that he thought I was an idiot. "Ugh. You know who Cerberus is!"

He frowned when I shook my head and insisted "Jarvis, I really don't know. So, would you just tell me please?"

"Well, Cerberus is the three-headed dog who stands guard at one of the Gates of Hell. The North Gate specifically. He ensures those who belong inside stay inside and those who do not stay out." He tilts his head.

So, I have to get one of this guy's puppies? But... why? That seems kind of... well. Dumb, honestly. "Um, Jarvis? I'm kind of... confused. Why do I have to go get one of Cerberus' puppies?"

"Because that is what the parchment says," Jarvis shot back. He was definitely getting annoyed with me. "And if you want to help your family and keep the balance between Heaven and Hell equal for all mankind's sake, then you will just have to..." He sighs. "Endure."

That's when I realised I was actually going to go through with this. Against what better judgement I had, obviously, but still. If I was going to do this, no more whining Max! I was going to suck it up, and get this done. "Okay then." I looked up from the parchment and met Jarvis' eye. "One Cerberus Pup, coming up!"

I stood up to go pay, sliding out of the booth and turning to walk over to the counter. I didn't make it far. The second I turned out of the booth, I ran straight into someone, knocking both them and me to the floor. The other person swore loudly as I frantically whimpered apologies at them. "Oh dog, I'm so sorry! Wowzers, I'm so clumsy!"

The other person stopped talking suddenly and looked up at me, her mouth dropping open. Wow. She's so tall. Her eyes are really pretty too. "Max..?"

I blinked. What? How does she-...

Oh. Fuck.

I smile awkwardly. "Uh. Hey Chloe? Long time no see."

--

AN1 - I know Max would never talk like this, even in my AU, but the rhyme was too amusing to pass up.

Chapter Text

"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?"

"Shut up."

--

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."

"Why?"

 

"Because my father is missing."

"What?!"

"Someone kidnapped him and every executive in the company."

"How?!"

"We have no idea. They're just... gone."

"Woah."

"Yep. Also, I'm Death now."

Her expression dropped.

"What."

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?"

"Wowzers."

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."
Chloe gulped.

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?"

Crap.

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]