A/N: Thanks, everyone, for the lovely reviews, alerts, favourites and such! It has made me immensely happy :)
- Chapter One –
The Bird and the Worm
"Why does the eye see a thing more clearly in dreams than the imagination when awake?"
- Leonardo da Vinci
It is very difficult, as I'm sure you undoubtedly understand, to reign in your temper when someone is blatantly insulting you to your face. Why once, in 1432 if I remember correctly, I had a drunken sleaze-ball of a man leer at me in the streets as I waited for him to die in order to take his soul and do my job. He said some very…rude things about my body, and what he would like to do to it exactly, and so I punched him in the face, as ladies do when insulted. I broke his nose with ease and almost cracked his skull open on the concrete ground. I wasn't the cause of his death, oh no. His constant drinking was the murderer in that particular case. I just bought some nice knick-knacks from a nearby market while I waited. I love knick-knacks. And while the man in front of me was neither drunk nor leering at me – at least, not all the time – he was certainly being insulting.
"Godric tells me your kind are not to be trusted."
"He did, did he? Hm. I find that highly pompous coming from a vampire, of all creatures. If I recall correctly, 'your kind' aren't exactly high on the list of trustworthy people."
He nodded, seemingly accepting this. For at least ten minutes, he had listed every nasty trait he think of about Reapers. Cunning. Over-confident. Bad-tempered. Very sneaky. Death-bringers (well duh).
I wanted to ask if vampires just run through the pretty flowers all night, singing about their feelings and caring for injured animals in the picture-perfect little woodlands while faithfully going to church each week to pray for their (if they even have any) souls. As memory served, vampires were vicious, blood-thirsty, cruel and brutal killers. Reapers don't kill the humans who's souls they come to take. We're like Angels compared to them, but Eric clearly didn't think so.
"You report to me, Nero, and no one else, understood?"
"Oh, let me just tell Grim I'm not working for him anymore, shall I?" I snarled sarcastically.
Eric's jaw clenched, and he was trying very hard not to let his fangs come out, I could tell. "You knew what I meant. You report to Alliyah, of course, but I meant out of the vampires. You'll tell me who's name is on that list, even if they vanish before you get here." I had explained the concept of a human being saved from Grim by another human to him, and though he found it a nuisance just like the Reapers did, he accepted it. "You realize this means you're mine, right?"
I blinked, my anger evaporating quite suddenly, being replaced instead with confusion. "Yours? Why would I be yours?"
He didn't seem insulted by the snort I let out in disgust; instead, he clasped his hands together, entwining his fingers and smiling like he held another secret. Eric always seemed to smile as if he knew something the entire world was ignorant about. Even as I sat here spiting him, I couldn't help but admire his handsome features. They don't make vampires like that anymore, that's for sure. I sighed as he kept smiling. "Mine, Nero, in the sense that no other vampire can lend a hand on you. If they do, they have me to answer to."
I narrowed my eyes suspiciously. "If I don't want to be yours? I've never heard of a Reaper bowing to a vampire."
He rolled his eyes. "Honestly Nero, forget your damn pride of being a stupid Reaper. If you are caught Reaping the soul of a human owned by a vampire, the Magister will punish it for you."
"The Magister can't kill me. There are only a few things that can truly kill a Reaper Eric."
"As I am well aware," he replied dryly. "But he will torture you instead, to teach a lesson to you and all the other Reapers."
I wanted to protest, saying Grim would help me out. But then when I thought about it, why would he? He thought that every person was solely responsible for themselves, from what Alliyah had told me about him. Destiny is dealt depending on what the person does. If I intentionally walk into a cage containing an angry, blood-thirsty lion, before taunting it, mocking it and poking it in the eye with a stick, I am more than likely going to regret such a decision. If I stay away from the cage and merely watch the lion from a distance whilst playing with the stick instead, I should stay safe. At least, that's the way Grim sees it. Think of the lion as the vampires. Enter their territory, pray the price.
And I did not want angry vampires plunging their fangs into my neck. Reapers would want retaliation against vampires if they began attacking us for doing our job. It would start an all out war. The humans would notice. Our identities would be revealed. The entire balance between life and death would vanish, all because I couldn't hold my tongue and be 'his'. Ugh. This sucks. I don't want to start a war, but I don't want to belong to a vampire. I'm a Reaper, for crying out loud! I've never heard of such a thing happening before.
"Nero?" Eric prompted. I stared at him for a few more seconds. This was a real contract. And he was obviously enjoying it.
"Yours?" I repeated to myself, because saying it out-loud made it seem less crazy.
"Mine," he grinned.
"Alright. We have a deal."
"Wonderful. Now, as part of that deal, why don't you tell me who is on your List that is causing such problems?"
Eric didn't care very much, it seemed, for he simply leaned back in his chair and nodded. "Alright Nero. It has been very" – he dragged his eyes up and down my body again, just like he had when I first came here – "pleasurable, seeing you again. I assume you'll be visiting very soon again."
I chewed my lip, thinking it over. "Well, assuming Maudette dies within the next two days, I'll visit you after that. Good for you?"
"It's a date."
"Would you like cheese on the hamburger, or maybe I could get you some extra fries, if you're really hungry? Our chef Lafayette makes such good burgers he-…"
"Just get me whatever you like, sweetie, I really don't mind."
The blonde woman currently harassing me bobbed her head up and down, but instead of rushing off to hastily tell this Lafayette person what I wanted to eat, she stood staring at me, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. I swear, she had the most demented smile on her face I really thought she was just gonna yank the cutlery in my hands and stab me frantically with the knife. My eyes drifted to the bar, where this 'Sam' man she spoke of – she had pointed him out to me while talking my order – was watching this waitress with a nervous expression. He smelled of something funny, something I hadn't smelled in a while. Shifter, perhaps? He wasn't a werewolf, that's for sure. Smelled like an animal though.
The blonde lady was staring at me. I waited for her to say something. I know I'm attractive, but this is downright ridiculous.
"Can I help you?" I asked, maybe a little harshly.
She blinked, as if forgetting I was even here. "Oh, I'm sorry. I'll go fetch your order right away."
Off she scuttled, her insane smile still on her face. She said something to the man I suspected to be a Shifter, and though he smiled at her, it was a timid, nervous kinda smile. Then he looked right at me. I gave him a wink before re-reading the menu. Christ, that waitress was bonkers. The moment I sat in a booth, she came buzzing over like a bee, staring at me, barking out things I could order before I had even picked up my menu. I don't even eat human food much. I just need an excuse to sit around here.
"You sure you don't want anything else?"
"Maybe a nice batch of cyanide if you keep bothering me," I whispered under my breath. My blonde stalker was back, apparently. Maudette was due to die tomorrow, and she was sitting right across from me chatting to a very, very attractiveblond haired man. Would he be her killer? I never knew for sure how my souls died, I just turned up at the scene of the crime and did what I had to do. For all I knew, that blond man was her killer. The blonde waitress followed my gaze.
Cheerily, she smiled brightly and said, "That there is my brother Jason! You know him?"
"No" I said through gritted teeth. "Can't say that I do."
"I'm Sookie Stackhouse."
"Good for you."
"Aren't you gonna tell me your name?"
"Not really," I sighed. "Look, Miss Stackhouse-…"
"Oh, you can call me Sookie, I don't mind."
Narrowing my eyes at her, I bit my tongue and said, "Well, Sookie, I don't know you. I only came here for a damn burger."
From the corner of my eye, I saw Maudette stand and walk out of the bar with that blond man hot on her heels. If she knew who I was, seeing my face wandering around and following her would make her wet her pants – what little there were of them, seeing as she likes to dress sort of like what most would call a 'skank'. Just to get male attention. I looked back at Sookie, who was still staring at me like I was walking on water or something. A-huh. I always find the crazy ones, don't I?
I slid out of my seat. "Forget the burger."
"Oh, no I didn't mean to make you wanna leave, I just…I think you're interestin' is all," she smiled manically. I guess she does that when she's nervous. It is highly unnerving if you ask me.
"Yeah, well, I think you're real interesting too, but I've gotta go. Maybe I'll see you soon," I said. Like when I come to take your soul. You freakishly scary, staring soul. I wanted her to stop staring at me like that, like she was staring right inside my head. It freaked me out. She didn't seem to be anything other than human. She smelled sweeter than most of the humans here though. Maybe because she isn't drunk like the rest of them.
"Bye," she said.
I saw the deflated look in her eyes when I made to leave, and it made me stop in my steps. Alliyah wanted me to get on with the humans for once. "I'm Nero, by the way."
"Nero?" she repeated. "That's a funny name. I've never met someone called that before."
Funnily enough, neither have I. "I could say the same for you, Sookie. I'll see ya around."
And I left that bar before crazy-waitress Sookie could stare at me for any longer.
Thankfully for me, there were no demented waitresses lying in wait within the Pickens home on the night Maudette died. Her soul was just waiting for me, and I gladly did my job. It felt refreshing. And while I was there, well, I breezed around her home, looking at her pictures and enjoying knowing that Alliyah would lay off me for a while. I had done what I had to do. I pulled my List out of my pocket, and checking that there were no more names, quickly put it back.
"Poor Maud," I muttered, frowning at her body on the floor. Oh well.
I looked at the pictures on her wall again, before doing a double-take. My, my. Looks like Maud has visited Fangtasia, because she's wearing a shirt with the name on the front, and Eric has one arm around her in the picture. Oh this is hilarious. Eric takes pictures with his customers? I bet they have to pay! Oh, I cannot wait to rub that in his face. The thousand year old vampire, posing for pictures with the fanatics who thought vampires haunted graveyards, preying on the innocent when in fact a vampire will prey on anything with a damn pulse.
When the deed of taking a soul is done, it leaves a Reaper feeling content, but somehow empty. As if we're missing something. Alliyah once said that we feel empty because we know we don't have souls of our own. I scoffed at her, but sometimes I wonder if she was right. I spotted a mirror hanging on the wall of Maudette's living room, and I made my way over, patting at my hair. Well, I don't look half bad today.
Alliyah's voice echoed in my ears, 'You're far too vain for your own good, Nero.'
I scowled. Get out of my head, Alliyah. Jeez, now I'm beginning to hear voices. I have pink hair, which I admired very much. Although red is my favourite colour, pink isn't too bad on me, especially when it's my hair. It was wavy, luscious, full of volume. I had nice, full red lips and chocolate brown eyes to match, with honey-coloured skin. I'm petite, a little curvy too. Even Eric's progeny, Pam, had been watching me with interest when I first went to Fangtasia, but I didn't pay her much attention. I'm more into men, if I'm honest. And they are very into me, I might add. A fearless, hopelessly beautiful Reaper. What's not to like?
Alright, alright, maybe I am a little bit vain. Just a little.
I don't mean to be. I've always been what people call 'arrogant', whereas I like to call it 'confident'. See, there's a difference in there somewhere, I'm sure of it. There are enough people in this world to put you down, so I chose not to let them. Trust me, a few have tried. Alliyah, so used to people praising her for her wonderful skills as Grim's Secretary, seemed to forget what it felt like to be told you were useless at the one thing you exist to do. I was told once that I was a horrible Reaper because I lost a soul. It stuck with me ever since, and whenever I thought about it, my heart did this weird thing where it seemed to clench up in my chest and hurt. So I refuse to let anyone tell me I'm not a good Reaper, because I try hard at my job. Grim should really give me a raise.
Deed done. I'll go and see Eric. I'll put up with his offending comments about 'my kind' and how utterly evil we all are, coming from the man with vicious fangs that could rip a man's throat out if he liked. Yes, I definitely need a raise.