Nathaniel looked around the beige waiting room in confusion. The last thing he could clearly remember was his father holding a cleaver and smiling at him cruelly so he was going to take a wild guess and assume he was dead. He hadn't really expected there to be an afterlife but if he had been hard pressed to say what he thought might be waiting for him he would have guessed that there would be more flames and torment and less nondescript, unobjectionable decor.
At least the fate that he and his mother had been trying to avoid had finally caught up with them so he could relax. It probably couldn't get any worse.
He studied the other occupants of the waiting room. All of them were looking around curiously, except for a short blond teenage boy who looked both bored and unimpressed. There were four others: two girls - a small one with Korean features and hard eyes that made Nathaniel nervous and a glamorous bottle blonde who could probably use a sandwich or two - a tall, dark-skinned boy with an open, friendly expression, and Kevin Day with his stupid number two tattooed on his cheekbone. Nathaniel was avoiding looking at him for too long, not wanting the other boy to recognize him.
"So," he said, breaking the silence and drawing everyone's attention. His voice was rough, as if he'd been screaming for hours. He cleared his throat. "You guys all dead, too?"
Dan nervously smoothed their hands along their pants and then shuffled their files. They'd already memorized the files of these particular six individuals (Matt Boyd, 18, drug overdose; Kevin Day, 20, sepsis following an improperly treated shattered hand; Andrew Minyard, 17, car crash; Allison Reynolds, 18, combination of starvation, diet pills, and alcohol; Natalie Shields, 17, stabbed in a knife fight; Nathaniel Wesninski, 17, murdered by his father) but this was their first solo assignment and they wanted it to go perfectly.
"Nervous?" their boss and mentor, Wymack, asked.
"No," they lied unconvincingly. "Everything's going to be fine."
"Just remember," said Wymack, "they are sullen, uncooperative teens who have had difficult lives. They're not going to make this easy for you."
"It'll be fine," repeated Dan stubbornly.
"Also remember that not all of them will succeed and that if they don't it's not a reflection on you."
They squared their shoulders. "I can do this," they declared. "I will be the best architect ever."
Wymack smiled warmly. "I know you will. You're going to be great."
Dan nodded and quit procrastinating, striding purposefully into the waiting room. All their new charges looked up at them expectantly.
"Hello," Dan said. "I'm sorry to tell you that you're all dead."
"Yeah, we already worked that out," said Allison.
"This is the Afterlife," Dan continued their set speech. "Your placement here is dependent on your actions during your lifetime."
"Like whether we go to Heaven or Heck?" asked Natalie.
Dan shook their head. "There are no religious affiliations in the Afterlife. We call them the Good Place and the Bad Place. Now, I have some exciting news for you-"
Nathaniel snorted loudly. "You don't expect any of us to actually believe that we made it into the Good Place, do you?"
"Why not?" asked Dan.
He jerked his thumb in Andrew's direction. "Well, before you came in, Exhibit A over here had just finished telling us that he died when he crashed a car on purpose in order to kill someone."
"I told her what would happen if she touched him again," said Andrew.
"What's the cutoff for how many murders committed before someone doesn't qualify for the Good Place anymore? Is it more than zero?" asked Nathaniel sarcastically.
"Speak for yourselves," cut in Kevin. "I think I deserve to be in the Good Place. I have a large number of devoted fans and am very talented."
Nathaniel was quiet for a beat, before pointing at Kevin. "Exhibit B."
"You're a mouthy little shirt, aren't you?" said Dan in exasperation.
"That's another thing: why can't we cuss?" asked Matt.
"There is no cursing in the Afterlife," answered Dan. "In the Good Place no one wants to and in the Bad Place the staff find it funny to prevent it."
"That's bullshirt," said Allison.
"As I was saying, I have exciting news for you," said Dan, soldiering on. "Sadly, none of you got into the Good Place as Nathaniel so kindly pointed out, but you all did qualify for our second chances program. My mentor started it: it's for those who had potential to be good people but whose life circumstances prevented it. All of you died before you could earn your way into the Good Place or, at the very least, into the Medium Place."
"The Medium Place?" asked Allison.
"It's where people who don't make it into the Good Place but aren't bad enough to deserve a lifetime of torment are sent."
"You probably could have figured that out on your own," said Natalie.
"What is the second chances program?" asked Matt. "What do we have to do?"
"You'll go about your days in Neighbourhood F0XE5 of which I am the architect and administrator. After a period of time you will again be assessed to determine your permanent Afterlife placement. The neighbourhood is full of staff who are there to help you realize your potential. Although they, like me, will appear to be human, you six will be the only actual humans there."
"Why were we grouped together?" asked Nathaniel, with a glance towards Kevin. "Did we all die at the same time or something?"
"No, nothing like that. You didn't even all die in the same year, time has very little meaning here," said Dan. "You were placed together based on a complex algorithm. Which brings us to the next bit of exciting news: soulmates!"
"Soulmates?" repeated Nathaniel, nonplussed.
"Yes, each of you has been paired with someone in this room. This person was chosen as the most similar to you in interests and personality and is therefore the person who can help you be the best version of yourself. So, without further ado: Andrew, your soulmate is Natalie."
Andrew and Natalie glanced at each other. "I'm gay," they announced in unison.
"Soulmates are most often platonic," Dan explained quickly. "Because of how similar soulmates are they rarely work well as romantic partners."
"I'd rather have the hot blonde as my soulmate," said Natalie, winking lasciviously at Allison. "No offence," she added as an aside to Andrew. He shrugged.
"What if I'm not into girls?" asked Allison archly.
"Are you not?" said Natalie, with a filthy grin.
"I thought so," said Natalie, satisfied. "How about you?" she asked Andrew. "Which of these guys do you want?"
Andrew studied the other three silently. "The small, mouthy one, I guess," he said with a sigh.
"You're calling me small, you munchkin?" said Nathaniel.
"That's not how this works," interjected Dan.
"Good. I don't need a soulmate," said Nathaniel. "Or, if you're really insistent, my soulmate can be... exy."
"Wait, exy?" said Kevin. "You didn't say that our soulmate could be a sport!" he accused Dan.
"That's because it can't," said Dan angrily.
"I want my soulmate to be exy," said Kevin. "I'd be a much better soulmate for exy. My mother invented exy. I was killed by exy equipment; obviously we have a deep bond."
"You died because you didn't seek proper medical care after breaking your hand," sniffed Allison.
"I think we've had a misunderstanding," said Dan trying to get back on track. "Exy cannot be your soulmate."
"Exy is the only soulmate I'll accept." Kevin was silent for a couple moments. "Or Jeremy Knox."
"Your soulmate is Nathaniel," said Dan, quickly losing their patience.
"No fair, I want Nathaniel," said Matt.
"I already claimed him," said Andrew, in a bored tone. "I don't particularly want him but he's mine now. You can fight me for him."
"You can both fight me," added Nathaniel.
Matt stared incredulously at the two diminutive teens before shrugging and giving up. "How about you?" he asked Dan. "You're an attractive woman; can you be my soulmate?"
"First of all, I'm not a woman," said Dan, almost at the end of their rope. "I'm a genderless eternal being. Second of all, no, I can't be your soulmate."
"But I don't want anyone else now that I've met you," said Matt.
"This whole system seems flawed," said Natalie.
"Can I have a Porsche as a soulmate?" wondered Allison.
"You know what? Fine," snapped Dan. "I'm now Matt's soulmate. And Natalie you can have Allison. Nathaniel-"
Dan pointed at Andrew. "You chose him so you have to deal with him. He's your soulmate now, sucker."
"What about me?" asked Kevin. "Exy?"
"No!" said Dan sharply. "Nicky!" they called.
The informational assistant popped into being beside Dan, causing everyone in the room to jump. "Hi, I'm Nicky!" it said, smiling benignly.
"What the fork?" exclaimed Allison. "That's one super creepy man."
"Thank you!" said Nicky. "But I'm not a man."
"You're a… robot?" guessed Matt.
"Not a robot," said Nicky.
"Then what are you?" demanded Allison.
"Hi, I'm Nicky," repeated Nicky. "I'm the information assistant here in the In-Between Place. I can answer any and all of your questions and manifest most items you may need."
"Get me a dog," commanded Dan.
"Okay!" said Nicky cheerfully. A dog suddenly appeared beside Dan, wagging its tail and panting happily.
"Kevin, this is your soulmate: a golden retriever," said Dan, holding up their hand to forestall Kevin's protest, "who I've just named Jeremy Knox."
Kevin considered. "That's acceptable."
"Great," said Dan aggressively, wondering how everything had already derailed so badly. "Let's go see your houses."
"I will only accept a castle," proclaimed Allison.
"I want to live on an exy court," put in Kevin.
"Is killing our soulmate frowned upon?" asked Andrew.
"I hate all of you," said Dan.