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Eric never dreamed before Alan fell ill.

All reapers are afraid of dreaming, because sometimes it’s a precursor to their own end. The playing of a cinematic record is far too similar to a dream, a story that unwinds itself. Dreams, like lives, are short intervals of memory and fragments of sensation; and in death, like waking, they all blur together.

Reapers also don’t have dreams of the ambitious sort. Humans strive for things, want things: a better job, an attractive mate, a bigger home, a better wage. It’s as if they know their lives are so short that they need to hurry up and get it all in when they can, or maybe it’s just greed.

Humankind has silly notions about death, how it supposedly reveals all of life’s secrets, upon reaching the other side. They even have phrases and fanciful interests – “life after death” experiences, séances, spirits – all romanticizing the process, when in reality in the driest profession in all of creation. Every experience is savored and sensationalized for a human, every case of need or desire is urgent. There is much urgency to living; there’s very little elsewhere, though.

Eric knows, as a grim reaper, that humankind’s tendency to sensationalize death is a load of bollocks. Eric and his kind don’t know much more about what happens to the souls after they process them than the dying themselves. They’re entrusted to be demigods, or in other words, glorified secretaries with a some grunt work involved; but lurking underneath each one of their immortal skins there are flaws, cracks in the veneer that everyone pretends not to notice.

Not all of them live this way, but Eric finds he has to. His mind is far too active for someone in his position, and so he sates himself with books, sex and liquor. It’s not a bad existence, and he lives as fast as he can, paralyzed by the slow, lazy pace of never ending life. He has one job to do, and he’ll be doing it forever. Some reapers go a bit mad, though not in the Grell Sutcliff way. They end up driven to insanity by monotony. Grell, in fact, is highly valued due to the fact that, regardless of his rather severe antics, he never grows bored, his skills never diminish, and he genuinely enjoys their work.

When Eric meets Alan, though, all of that fades away. It’s just a blur, like a memory of a different life, and Eric finds himself daydreaming. He should’ve known, at the time, that it was the first step down the road to his own destruction. But in reality, even in hindsight, he wouldn’t have changed any of it.

Eric daydreams about Alan when he’s not there and when he is. He remembers things that Alan’s said to him, and he imagines things he wants Alan to say. He laughs at the memory of a debacle involving a spring chrysanthemum, and then loses all train of thought when he thinks about how Alan sounds when he sighs in fatigue, quiet and secretive. He thinks about what it would be like to have Alan sigh like that while pressed against him.

The first night Eric dreams is the same day they find out. It’s also the same day Alan no longer only inhabits a daydream, and he’s clutched in Eric’s arms, asleep and sweaty, a little smile on his face regardless of the latest revelation about his health and freak illness. He smiles in his sleep as Eric holds him, regardless of the fact that the Thorns that are snaking through his body toward his heart.

Eric dreams of a forest covered in snow and white birch trees without birds. Everything is so quiet, he’s afraid to move, as if he’ll disturb the perfect stillness.

When he wakes up, it’s because Alan’s roused him, and he doesn’t realize there are tears on his face until Alan is kissing them away.

= = =

During an unremarkable day of reaping the following spring, Alan finds robin’s eggs inside a fallen nest, and turns a worried gaze on Eric. He frets over the strangest things, but they venture into the adjacent park, and Eric uses the advantage of his height to put the nest back into the tree where they think it came from.

After darting a furtive look around, Eric pushes Alan against the tree, kissing the life out of him as if they themselves are about to be reaped.

Some time ago, Alan would’ve disapproved of their very public surroundings; now, given how the frequency of his attacks have increased, he simply kisses back with the same enthusiasm, hands tracing over Eric’s back and waist as they press against each other.

Eric’s hands, normally so steady, tremble to get Alan’s jacket and shirt undone, to touch his skin. These frantic bouts don’t always end with an orgasm, so much as a desperation to touch, and this particular time doesn’t.

Eric stands with his arms around Alan’s shoulders as Alan leans his face against Eric’s chest, breathing quietly.

The park is small, but has enough large trees and bushes that no one would see them unless they stumbled upon them; and even then, there’s enough of a metaphysical cloaking aura that’s always around them that it would be easy to go unnoticed.

Alan buttons his shirt back up, and Eric’s heart beats harder than ever at the sight of the slight blush coloring Alan’s cheeks. It’s been some time since they first did this, but there are some things about Alan that will never change, and it’s one of the few comforts Eric has found after everything else has.

There’s a small pond nearby, and Alan says he wants to wait to see if the robin returns for her eggs. They wait for quite a long time, staring into the glassy shimmer of the water since it’s technically their lunch hour, but she doesn’t come.

Eric doesn’t want to know what becomes of the unhatched fledglings.

= = =

The next time Eric dreams, he’s back in the forest, only this time, there are a series of footprints behind him. He knows they must be his, because his feet are cold, but what’s strange are the dead birds on the hround all around him. They’re all gray and stiff, wings outstretched in unnatural positions; something vacant about them, even though there are no marks to indicate what brought them to their deaths.

A robin unexpectedly swoops out of a tree in a brilliant streak of red, and Eric is so startled he actually lets out a sharp sound. It’s more terrified than he thinks, and he crouches on the ground with his arms over his head in the universally defensive position.

This time, when Alan wakes him up, he can’t tell him what he saw. He can’t tell him about the dream, and can’t even let on how scared he was, how utterly empty and dead that place is.

Alan doesn’t ask, though. He simply tucks Eric back into the sheets where he’s kicked them off, straightening the bed clothes over both of them and curls up next to him.

Eric can’t sleep for two reasons after that: one is that he’s afraid to return to the forest, and the other is that he simply doesn’t have time with his newest nocturnal activity.

Alan doesn’t ask immediately why he’s always in so late – possibly because Alan is frequently ill now and doesn’t have the extra energy to worry – but he always looks sad, almost resentful. Eric can’t even bear to look at himself in the mirror, because he knows he looks like a shadow of himself. They don’t speak of it, but Alan doesn’t leave.

Eric brings him things, since Alan can’t go out so much into the living world. His workload has been substantially scaled back, and he spends half the week in Eric’s flat now, doing the bulk of their paperwork and insisting that he wants to make himself useful.

Eric brings little tokens of the natural world he finds: the delicate shells of hatched bird eggs, feathers, flowers, oak leaves, chestnuts. Anything he can find that reminds him of living things and parks and greenery.

Alan tells him one night he looks haggard, asks him what’s wrong, and Eric won’t tell him.

Instead of getting angry, though, Alan pulls Eric down next to him, twirling an acorn between his fingers that Eric had brought him a few days earlier.

“You haven’t been sleeping,” he says simply, “you’re going to sleep tonight. No arguments.”

Eric has so many more tasks before he’s finished, but for just this one night, he agrees. He lies next to Alan in dim light as Alan reads to him; he chooses Eric’s favorite book that’s so often read it lives in the bedside drawer. His voice is hypnotizing, and for the first time in a long time, Eric falls off to sleep in complete relaxation, listening to the reassuring beat of Alan’s heart.

= = =

The final time Eric dreams, the robin has a hole in its wing and it’s leaking blood over the snow. There are red trails from where it’s tried to fly and careened in different directions, blood over the pile of dead, gray doves, over the trees, over Eric himself.

It calls out a woeful death rattle, and Eric realizes there are tracks all around him. The robin lands and flounders across the muddy snow; Eric blinks hard, his shoes crunching in the silent forest, and he calls for Alan.

Finally, Eric sees Alan lying nearby, a hole in his chest, blood seeping out onto the ground; in his hand is a broken, blue egg, and he’s gasping.

Eric goes to him, and he can’t seem to wake up.

He curls up in the snow, lays his head against Alan’s bloodied chest, and he swears he can feel a set of fingers brush his tears away as a flock of a thousand gray doves sail overhead, fleeing the dead ground.