In a dingy London flat that looked as though every bit of Britain's history had battered it, a man sat quietly on an over-stuffed chair, balancing a cruel-looking blade on his lap. The woman trembled in the bed, occasionally sniffling into her handkerchief, sometimes slanting him a look of maladjusted hatred.
She was ill, she was scared, and he was all she had in the world.
"Why don't you just kill me already?" Her voice trembled, but not with pain or with anger, but a forced bravado that made Alan think of Eric on those rare occasions where the man seemed scared of something, where he seemed to stare at shadows with distrust and keep his scythe close enough to slash at anything that so much as hinted of movement. It was odd to see him so frightened Eric never did like showing fear but when he did, he always spoke as though he was braver than he felt.
It always made Alan feel better. That's why he did it.
"I can't," he apologized, on behalf of everything that had brought him here, and set the cleaver aside to balance it against the side of the sofa. The flat was decked out in theatrical reds and yellows, a festival of gay colours hard enough, bright enough, to take the mind off the fact that it was about as comforting as a tomb the walls moaned like broken men, the floor was cold even through shoes, and he could hear the rattling of water in the pipes, and the drafty, angry shriek of the wind. When he'd been in the academy, he'd had a problem distinguishing between the screams of angry souls and the wind.
Silly, as there was a world of difference between them tempo was off, the pitch was a few octaves lower when it concerned the wind. But on a cold night, on a night when he'd spent most of the hours tossing and turning and twisting the sheets into silk chains around him, his overactive imagination had painted the wind into the position of the huge, dark monster of his childhood.
Here comes the Butcher, to chop off your head!
Alan trembled, but it wasn't noticeable. The woman staggered to her feet, swayed, but refused the hand he offered her.
"I'm sick, you know," she told him, fumbling a robe around her. Her mouth was dry as sand dunes, cracked at the corner, caked over with long-shed blood. Her eyes were unfocused, the pain in her head making her dizzy, but she walked on her own and she walked with a hint of the sway that had made her such a popular, eye-catching choice for the men looking for a little bit of a good time. "Might make you ill."
"Oh, that's okay... I can't get what you have." Alan smiled slightly, standing up to follow behind her.
The woman muttered something unintelligible. Sounds of retching echoed and echoed and echoed, and Alan hurried to kneel by her side, holding strings of pin-thin blond hair behind her ear. His free hand moved to rub soothing circles on her back. Every bone felt as though it was outside the skin, not in.
"You're okay, you're okay." Eric said that to him, when his stomach would drag him out of bed. It always made him smile, because they both knew it was a lie, but he said it anyway, with his voice soft and convincing, and it made him stop because it was so very rare that Eric was convinced of anything. His lover was a terrible cliché, but he was what he was a rebel, a bad boy, a man more prone to sinning than saintly duties and he loved him, for all his clichéd attitudes and his recycled thoughts and his inevitable raging against society.
The woman raked the back of a bony hand over her wet mouth and collapsed against his side. Humming quietly, Alan drew his arms around her and pressed her to his chest, unable to say a word as her fingers the points felt like knives, they were so thin, so bony sought out his chest and pressed to his heart.
"Nothing." She sounded disappointment. "Why are you comforting me?"
"Everyone needs someone in their final moments. Giving people a good memory before they die, it, ah... makes the soul happy."
"Is it really that simple?"
Her scepticism was coloured over with an endearingly hopeful upbeat.
"Sometimes it is. There's nothing as simple as death."
Gently, Alan drew his hand back and nudged her hair behind her ear. Those eyes, glass-smooth, deep blue, stared through him like he was merely a ghost. "You close your eyes and go to sleep and wake up somewhere better afterwards."
Her fingers were locked into shirt. The wind made him shiver, though the sound came from outside. All he wore was a thin button up and a vest. He'd forgotten his coat on the way out, and turning back to get it had seemed a damn bit more troublesome than just leaving home without it besides, he'd been late, and rushing to get to a collection was never something he liked to do. Showing up panting, red-faced and clearly having run a distance often, also coughing and wheezing didn't make the best impression and made talking his way into homes quite difficult.
"What if there's nothing after this?" Shivering fingers gripped tighter, and her voice melted into that of a child's. All bravado gone, all bravery diminished, now she was just scared and lonely, and seeking comfort. She knew. Her end was nearing, her life was starting to dwindle down to, not years, not months, not days, but minutes and seconds.
"There is." Alan nodded his head. When she didn't respond, he moved his hand to stroke her hair again, and spoke, but with his mind on death, "there's a place after this; I'm sure of it" right now, the germs in her were frothing into the lungs, making it difficult to breathe "all those souls wandering lost wouldn't be very nice. Part of my job is to take your soul and ferry it to somewhere nice" her heart beat was speeding up as she panicked, clawed at her throat, "and to see that you're taken care of afterwards"
The woman hauled herself away from him and towards the toilet again. Alan let his voice drift into nothing, watching her narrow shoulders shake with the effort, hearing those blade-like intakes of breath as though they were his own, watching her clutch at her aching ribs. Slips of rabbit-scared prayer fell between hacking, grating coughs, and then she drew back and curled up underneath the sink a childhood habit, he'd read the records and closed her eyes and cried and cried.
When her crying stopped, Alan retrieved his death scythe from the other room and gently pressed it to her chest. It went through as though the woman was made of paper. Her life and dreams and hopes and wishes glinted in front of his eyes, lighting his face up with a ghostly pallor that made the mirror mock him.
"Rita O'Brian, twenty-five, died of cystic fibrosis in her London flat." The wound seeped shut in front of his eyes as he read form the book he'd taken from his back pocket. The words seemed to jump on the page, to move like spider legs, but he kept his voice from falling into uncertainty she deserved a strong reaper to help her memory move on. "Street prostitute."
He hesitated. Strictly speaking, the record should end there, but he added, hurriedly, more words: "She wanted to be a singer, and never stopped trying, even when nobody believed in her. Judgement complete."
The book vanished from his hands; the scythe clunked heavily on the ground as Alan lifted it over his shoulder and walked outside. Just at the door, he stopped, looking back towards the bathroom and the dead woman, and debated carrying her to the bedroom, just in case.
The movement from so many rules didn't frighten him as much as it did Eric had helped him relax a little but he still let her lay where she had died. There was a certain comfort in that, maybe.
. . .
The wind slapped at him the instant he walked out, and made him wish he could materialize things at will; his coat sorely missed, the dark-haired reaper carefully made his way down the stairs, holding onto the rickety railing to combat against the slippery, snow-decorated stone steps and stopped to adjust the length of his scythe it could shrink, like Will's, but he had a devil of a time getting the bloody thing to obey him.
"Now what's a pretty boy like you doing out here without a coat?" Eric grinned as he watched him struggle. Alan tried to pretend like it wasn't cute of him, since the word 'cute' had been met with many a wrinkled nose and grumbling beforehand. "Here, have mine."
Before he could open his mouth to disagree, Eric had tugged his own coat off and layered the heavy, body-warmed fabric over his shoulders. It was a bit too big for him, and the buttons were ice underneath his fingers, and he couldn't do them up properly, but the fact that Eric had given it to him made him smile and hug the sleeves close to his body as he watched Eric easily snap the scythe down to half its length and hang it from a makeshift strap over his shoulder.
"You know," Alan said, thoughtfully, huddling into the offered arm, "I don't remember you ever wearing coats in school. Even in winter, you used to go around in shirt sleeves and get yelled at by the teachers for not wearing the uniform properly."
"In school, I didn't have anyone to hog me out of bed," Eric shot back, with complete solemnity.
Alan laughed, slipping his arm around Eric's waist. "You exaggerate so much. I can't be crowding you out of bed, I'm tiny in comparison."
"Which is why it's so bloody surprising."
The street lamp's comforting glow diminished the further they moved away from it the roads twisted ahead, treacherously icy, universe-dark; hundreds of houses with the potential to hold ghosts stood between them and home, and a hundred narrow little streets with the far more true potential for holding serial killers, perverts, murderers and rapists kept them separate from safety. Despite everything, Alan had never felt safer.
Any monster real or perceived would fall in front of Eric.
As cliché and feminine as it was, the man boasted all characteristics of a knight in shining armour.
"You're thinking again. I can hear it," Eric smirked as the brunette rolled his eyes, but pulled closer. "There you go again. Stop thinking for a moment, Alan."
"Can't. Then I might not start again, and wouldn't that be a pity. You'd have to go through the rest of your life without being corrected once..." Alan paused mid-way down the road, turning to lock his arms gently around the taller reaper's neck. The scythe banged against Eric's back, thumping dully, like a body falling down stairs. Quietly, Alan pushed himself up to the tips of his toes, straining against Eric's body.
He brushed his lips gently to his, shared the cold. In a moment no, something shorter than that, in a blink, Eric's fingers were in his hair, and his mouth was moving silently, his tongue was brushing heat into him with every slow, teasing taste of his own.
His knees shook; he was dimly aware of falling against something hard and strong and warm, and then of Eric's free arm tucked around his waist and supporting him up against him. Oh, his tongue his mouth. The cold, the screaming wind, all the slippery roads and horror-movie situations, faded. There was warmth and there was love and there was safety; and there was him at the centre of it all, pulling him irrevocably towards him like a planet in orbit.
Eric had never been afraid to love him because he'd get hurt. He'd always loved him without thinking of himself first.
"Love you," Alan gasped against his mouth when the other reaper's hand dug cheekily into the back pocket of his trousers. Stifling an improper giggle, he whacked his hand against Eric's shoulder, trying not to overbalance. "He-Hey! Not in the middle of the street!"
"Aw, come on... It's right there, Alan! I can't resist grabbing it."
"That's such a stupid reason," Alan pointed out, and snorted as the blond just shrugged, "that's like saying 'well, there's chocolate in the fridge, so I might as well eat it'."
"What else are you going to do with it?" Eric lifted a brow, his lips curving up as Alan's little fingers locked tight around his wrist, trying to keep his hand from sliding further down. "Waste of chocolate. I like melting it all over you. Taking my time licking it off. You never, ever get through an entire chocolate bar without, uh..."
Alan coloured, and narrowed his eyes.
"You," he spoke very slowly, "can't see me dressing without an unwanted visitor popping by."
"Awww..." Eric glanced down at the sliver of light between their bodies, and he looked so dejected that Alan couldn't help but soften a little. "... It's not unwanted. Very much wanted. Besides, that's not the same. You're gorgeous, I can't help it. It's like having chocolate and not melting it all over you."
He said it so easily, like it was true.
It wasn't, but Alan didn't really mind. Not as long as Eric believed it.
"Anyway, we're going to be late. Ronald's already there, I bet." Eric continued. He wound the scarf tighter around Alan's neck, since the other reaper hadn't realized he'd done it up loosely, "best not keep him waiting. I promise, we won't stay too long. I've got something planned for us afterwards, too, so..."
"I'm sure we can do both," Alan murmured. He sighed, giving up the fight to keep his arse free of Eric's grip and tried to start walking again, but the reaper tugged him back and into another kiss, one long, proper one, with bending him back and all. Then, after he'd pulled his mouth away and buttoned up the coat for him, he snuck his hand into his and held tight all the way to the pub.
Alan didn't really say anything, but he thought it was especially cute how Eric kept holding his hand, even as they walked into the pub.