Disclaimer: Jim Ellison belongs to Pet Fly, or at least it did, once, long ago, not that I’m annoyed or anything, oh no. Death belongs to Terry Pratchett. Sort of.
DAMN. I HATE IT WHEN THIS HAPPENS.
Very, very slowly, Jim raised his head.
Annoyance radiated from a seven-foot-tall skeleton draped in a hooded black robe. The skeleton was tapping its skeletal foot on the sand and holding a scythe, the blade of which was so thin as to be transparent. There were no eyes in the gleaming, white face, but two blue stars glared at him from the fathomless sockets.
YOU ARE NOT MEANT TO BE HERE, said the skeleton. RETURN. IT IS NOT YOUR TIME.
A tiny voice in the back of Jim’s head was going, okay, look, you’re a cat at heart, so there’s three choices now, you can run, shit, or fight, or any combination of those three, but running’s a good idea, it really is—
But Jim was angry, too. He was angry at everything, at himself, at Blair, at Alex Barnes, at Fate. He didn’t know where he was, nor did he care. If a university courtyard decided to turn into a wet, steaming jungle and the wet, steaming jungle decided to turn into an infinite desert under a jet- black sky, well, he was cool with that, the Universe could do whatever the hell it wanted. It just couldn’t. Take. Blair. From. Him. On that subject, the Universe could go screw itself. So he said, “Who the hell are you?”
The skeleton glared at him harder.
“Stupid question.” His voice was perhaps an octave higher than it should have been. He cleared his throat. “But still. He’s not dead yet, so you can just... go away...”
HE IS DEAD. The skeleton was tapping its foot again. I AM SOMETHING OF AN EXPERT ON THE PHENOMENON, YOU KNOW. I PRIDE MYSELF ON MY PUNTUALITY, JAMES ELLISON; HIS TIME HAS RUN OUT.
Jim was aware that he was hunching over his Guide, cradling the face that shifted back and forth under his hands, paws, neither and both, and his tenacious grip on reality was slipping away from him. All he was sure of anymore was his anger, and hard, crazy thoughts were settling in his head. They couldn’t take Blair from him. They wouldn't. This was his objective, and he would achieve it or die trying.
“I say it hasn’t.”
The skeleton waved a bony hand impatiently. YOU ARE OF NO CONCERN AT THIS JUNCTURE. PLEASE ALLOW ME TO DO MY WORK.
“You really think I’m going to just let you come over here and kill him?”
The skeleton looked honestly baffled. I DO NOT KILL, JAMES ELLISON. THAT IS NOT MY FUNCTION. I AM ONLY HERE TO... SEND HIM ON HIS WAY.
“He’s not dead!”
HE HAS STOPPED BREATHING, HIS HEART HAS CEASED TO BEAT, AND THE COMBINED EFFORTS OF YOURSELF AND SEVERAL OTHERS HAVE DONE NOTHING TO REVIVE HIM. HE IS DEAD. YOU WERE TOO LATE.
I AM SORRY, Death added. From his vantage point of tunneling vision, Jim could have sworn the skull looked almost... sympathetic. The Grim Reaper took a step forward, and hefted his scythe.
It felt like he was on the bottom of the ocean. A terrific weight had settled on his shoulders and stomach and head; he couldn’t breathe, and all was dark and cold and silent. “Wait!”
In the silence, it rang. Death stopped short, looking expectant. Jim breathed hard, mind whirring, looking down at Blair and then up again. “Can’t I make a deal?” he croaked. “People can do that, right?”
Death cocked his head. YES, he – it – hedged.
“You have to take a life? Any life?”
IT’S NOT A MATTER OF REACHING A QUOTA, JAMES ELLISON.
“But... if you haven’t taken him yet, then he’s only... halfway there, right?”
Death cocked his head. Jim could have sworn he saw the blue sparks glittering. GO ON, Death said. He sounded practically encouraging.
Jim felt reckless. He lifted his chin defiantly, and stared straight into those twin stars, and said in a more or less level tone, “Well, if you take half of me as well, doesn’t it work out the same? Two halves make one whole, right?”
YOU ARE SUGGESTING I GIVE HIM HALF YOUR LIFE?
“Yes. Whatever you have to do. Would that work?”
Death stroked his chin, tapped his foot, swung his scythe idly. ONLY, he said, ONLY IF YOU ARE BOTH WILLING TO BE BOUND TO ONE ANOTHER COMPLETELY. YOU WOULD BE ONE, OR YOU WOULD NOT BE AT ALL. IT IS A HARD DECISION, JAMES ELLISON. YOU MUST CHOOSE WISELY.
It is said that dying makes the world at once both very complicated and very simple. The walls are brought down; all the little lies a person fabricates through life so they can sleep at night are stripped away – in essence, the argument of life is stripped of any unfounded opinions and brought down to its bullet points.
YOU KNOW, Death added in a conversational tone, NOT THAT THIS HAS MUCH TO DO WITH ANYTHING, BUT IT IS EXCEPTIONALLY RARE TO MEET ANYONE HERE WHOSE SANDS HAVE NOT REACHED THE BOTTOM OF THE BULB. AS IT WERE.
NOT THAT IT HAS MUCH TO DO WITH ANYTHING.
For the first time that night, Jim smiled. It was very small, and private, and it was the smile of someone who immediately knows they’re not going to remember this when it is over, but he smiled. The sludgy muddy gunk of incomprehension, misinterpretation and self-doubt had drained away to reveal the bedrock of truth, which was:
1) Blair was his Guide
2) Jim needed a Guide
3) Jim was very unwilling to break in a new Guide.
Jim thought about it for a moment, and as he did, other facts seeped in to compliment this, and they were:
4) At some point, it had stopped being Jim’s loft and started being Their loft
5) Blair was responsible for Jim not being dead right now for any number of reasons
6) Jim actually loved Blair more than anyone he hadn’t had sex with
7) Come to think of it, Jim loved Blair more than anyone he had had sex with, though that matter was still a fuzzy area
8) And it was this or death for both of them.
TELL ME, said Death, HAVE YOU EVER MET A WOMAN NAMED ESMERELDA WEATHERWAX?
“Not that I can remember,” said Jim, his heart ridiculously light.
AH. A PITY. SUCH A MEETING WOULD BE INTERESTING TO WITNESS.
Death swung his scythe. Twice.