"If you were a woman, you wouldn't fight, and if you weren't a man, you would've lost," Grell's father said as they watched her dress burn. He always did had a way with words, and she could find no flaw in that statement. Grell Sutcliff was no woman, she knew. What she didn't know was who she was if not that.
The dress had been ruined anyway by a handsy drunk wandering where he had no business being, so she shouldn't have cared anymore as she was instructed to cut and tear it into smaller pieces fit only for kindling. She had spent hours by moonlight and candle light refitting it from her sister's petite figure to her own, getting it just right. It had taken all of five minutes to undo all her work, to tear down the illusion she had built up around herself since she was young.
Like some shapeshifter, when the moon rose and the town slept, she had been able to slip into her proper skin of farthingales and boning that gave the illusion of curves she'd never have, and flee to the woods just beyond her family's home. In Shakespeare's plays, forests were mythical places where society didn't matter, so it was there that she retreated to. She hadn't needed the scripts to know the lines, and her imagination supplied the rest of the cast as she played Juliet, Miranda, Imogen, Portia. From innocent to clever, graceful to crass, she played the roles perfectly. She loved the ladies, envied the actors, and here at least she didn't have to abide by the rules.
The shades of the forest were a far kinder audience than the man who stumbled through one night. He recognized Grell, though she didn't know him, and the ensuing fight had drawn her father.
Grell knew the seams and textures of her dress better than she knew herself, and as the embers ate away at the fabric, Grell knew then what it was like to die. While her dress offered what warmth it could against the chill with its death, her father imparted his fatherly wisdom and that was that. The contradictions of her fiery temper, feminine being, and masculine body were buried along with the ash of her dress, in the hopes that she'd just forget.
They hadn't talked about it afterwards.
So Grell Sutcliff became an accountant for one of the larger merchants in the city. He had a wife waiting at home with their beautiful newborn daughter. He had two brothers, a sister, and a father who had helped get him to where he was today, despite his tendency for distraction and those few rather colorful incidents everyone swept under the rug. It had never been just one fight, or one dress. They knew he was never going to be like his brother, Anton, whom everyone loved and held as the highest standard. The best the Sutcliff family could do for Grell was hope he settled down and carried on the family name.
She had had a daughter so hadn't even managed that correctly. Katharina was going to be upset, a widow so soon after becoming a mother. Grell found it hard to care, even before she'd taken a knife to her wrist, because she could never become a widow or a mother.
Only out here in the woods where she'd danced in moonlight and recited verse had she ever been alive, so it made sense to return this night and kill herself a second time. The forest hadn't changed in the years she'd been gone.
Blood, turned black in the moonlight, painted Grell's skin like clawing shadows. She'd cut long and deep into her arm, as though digging for where she was in all this unfamiliar flesh and bone, to carve out her so that only he remained. Then Grell could wake up, kiss his wife, watch his daughter grow, die an old man, and never once feel like an actor cast in the wrong role.
One needed blood to do all that, however, and hers was currently splattered all across her trousers and the grass. Grell slumped back and looked up through branches laden in summer-thick foliage. The forest was warm, and quiet, and not at all the worst place to die. But it was taking longer than she'd expected, though she'd long gone numb to the pain. Time was thick and slow, and the moon quivered between leaves and clouds and stars. Oh, were those tears causing it to tremble? Grell hadn't thought she could cry anymore, and she didn't feel sad, just resigned. But crying she was, and she couldn't even wipe away the tears.
Maybe she should have stuck with poison. It seemed more delicate, more feminine. None of this stabbing and aggression she was so fond of despite how it clashed. Poison was how they did it in plays and stories, but that was fantasy so they could gloss over the seizures, the vomiting, the discoloration. Death wasn't pretty, but she didn't have to go above and beyond to make it hideous. Grell had done her research and exsanguination seemed best.
If she couldn't be beautiful, at least she could be dramatic.
While she hadn't had expectations on her death, exactly, she nonetheless found waking up to not be what she expected. Grell's first thought was that somehow someone had saved her. The idea clenched at her heart, and she wasn't sure if it was in terror or relief.
She was groggy, and felt a heaviness in her limbs that dragged her down. Someone touched her arm - the one she'd sliced open. Her head lolled and through a tangle of unkempt brown hair, she saw fingers tracing a faint, white line that ran from her bicep to her wrist. She followed the fingers up to a man's face, eyes hidden behind the glare of brown-rimmed glasses. He shifted when he realized she was looking at him, the glare falling away to reveal alien, green-gold eyes. Strange, but she found herself unable to rouse up any stronger a response. The fact that she wasn't dead overwhelmed all other thoughts. She was supposed to be - she thought she'd been thorough - she couldn't even manage that -
"Grell Sutcliff?" the man asked, his voice echoing behind a deafening silence in her ears. She said something, she didn't know what, and he nodded then turned away.
Grell let her head fall back to the pillow as she brought her own arm up to investigate. All her fingers worked, and despite the exhaustion of too much sleep, she felt fine. In fact, she felt too alive to be dead. With some effort she raised herself up and looked down at her body. It was still hers, the shirt gone and the pants different, but still male. Not a drop of red to be seen.
She fell back and bit her tongue to distract herself from the tears. She was so damned tired of crying, but there were few options left to express herself. Grell couldn't go back to her life. Even if she didn't always feel wrong, her family must know what she'd done by now. And if her family knew, so did everyone else in their circle. Any chance of just trudging through life until she died of old age was ruined. She'd be institutionalized.
The man was back, and Grell steeled herself. Fighting against the fatigue, she sat up and put a strained smile on her face.
"Already up, Mr Sutcliff?" he asked, brows raised in mild surprise. "Are you aware of your surroundings?"
She nodded, looking around for good measure. Everything had a curious blur, as though a film had been lain over her eyes. "I appear to be in a bedroom of some kind."
"Good, good," he mumbled, writing something in a file. "And do you know what happened to you?"
"I, ah. I suffered a rather grevious injury, I believe," she said delicately. There was no point hiding the wound, but if she could come up with some other way it happened, perhaps she could go home. The stories she'd heard of asylums were enough to scare her into saying anything they wanted if it got her away from one.
"You know you did. You killed yourself." The man gestured toward her arm. "You have a very steady hand, I noticed. The cut was one of the cleanest I've seen."
"Thank you, I've always entertained the notion of being a - " Grell fell silent as the man's words sank in. He stood there, simply waiting, letting her take her time.
"I'm dead?" she asked. It was a silly question, because wasn't that what she was striving for? But while she believed in God as anyone did, she'd only ever considered Him real enough to curse during those times when she could no longer handle the feel of her own skin. She'd thought death would be just nothingness, not a man in a suit with paperwork and somewhat sloppy bedside manners.
"It happens to everyone," he said with a dismissive shrug. "You're just a little early. Are you comfortable in your ability to read and write, or would you like an assistant assigned to you?"
"I can read and write," she said vaguely. When the man handed her a small case and a thin, black book, she looked at it as though she'd never seen a book before. Her fingers ran over the embossed, golden seal. The Chi Rho. "What's this?"
"That's your glasses and reaper's handbook, the Christian-Catholic edition."
"Oh." The man scratched his neck awkwardly, and Grell couldn't help but to smile a little at the gesture. It was so normal. Even here, bureacracy wasn't perfect. "Eh, it's close enough for now. I'll have them get you a Protestant edition later. There's a form in the front for you to fill out. Those're all the same, so just hand it to the attendant when you're done."
"Thank you," was all she could think to say as he began to leave.
"No, thank you, Grell Sutcliff, for volunteering your services. We're always in need of new employees."
Grell took to being dead with an ease that probably should have disturbed her.
She checked herself in the wash-stand mirror as soon as she felt comfortable enough to move, and decided it could be worse. It was disappointing to find her looking just as she did when alive, all dull brown hair and male features. Her will-o'-the-wisp eyes were much nicer than the hazel, though, and the glasses weren't horrible. She just had to remember to put them on.
Being a reaper wasn't quite the same as being a human. She didn't know what it was like to like her own body, but she'd grown accustomed to the discomfort. Now she wore her skin a little lighter, a little looser, like maybe one day she would simply crawl out of it. Everything seemed an inch too low and a bit too hazy even with the glasses. Grell kept knicking herself on furniture and knocking over dishware after misjudging their distances or expecting them to vanish into mist. Despite these obstacles, she slowly began to acclimate as she always did to the slight wrongness of the world around her.
Her attendant's name was Joan, and aside from a few questions toward her, Grell spent much of the first few days in her room, reading the handbook and adjusting to the fact that she was dead. No. Grell Sutcliff was dead. She'd killed him herself. Even though her body was the same, nobody knew her as anything but a name. She didn't have to be Grell Sutcliff: son, husband, father. All the rules were notably unisex, and nothing said she had to be a man. Having the gall to kill herself gave her the gall to suppose she could be whatever the hell she wanted, now. Even Joan, though she seemed confused, agreed that there wasn't anything a man could do that a woman couldn't.
She finally left her room to join the other newcomers with a smile on her face, and didn't even mind the oddly cut, ill-fitting suit she'd been given. Everyone wore them, including the women. Grell saw her man around, but she never caught his name despite that he would sometimes sit with her out on the lawn, or at the tables, for just a few minutes here and there. She assumed he worked as a greeter of sorts, as there was always a few old people gone, a few new people come. Despite what he said about needing new employees, Grell thought there was a sad abundance of them from around the world.
And that, she learned, was almost always the topic of choice: "How did you get here?"
Some were happy to share, and overshare, while others were more reticent. Grell fell into that latter category, even moreso as she listened with sympathetic ear to abuses and crimes brought down on these poor people. She didn't feel she had any right to kill herself after hearing how one woman spent her life under her father, or how a man thought demons crawled in walls and just wanted to get away, or other stories of grey thoughts and grey days that never went away. Her life had been good, for the most part. She'd never felt she belonged, but was that really enough to throw away her life?
The handbook treated this like a punishment for such vulgar disregard for God's gifts, and so did a lot of the others. If they had just held out, if they had just been murdered instead of killed themselves, if they hadn't been cowards, they could be in heaven right now. If, if, if... Some were endlessly undone by just the notion. That likewise made Grell stay silent, and stop smiling, at least where others could see. Nobody else she spoke to seemed to see this as a chance to reinvent themselves, and just talking to them made her question herself. Maybe her body wasn't the only thing wrong with her, or maybe it'd always been her mind that was off. Grell had often suspected, but that wasn't something one talked about while alive, so like everything else it was buried under false faces and false words.
She eventually moved away from the groups, finding again that she didn't really belong, and instead turned her attention to the new reaper lodging's small instructional library. It was all guides on adjusting to the afterlife, or duties and expectations. No poetry, or prose, or plays. Grell wondered what sort of stories reapers had anyway, knowing what lay after death. Romeo and Juliet would certainly be a different piece with that particular coda. She grinned to herself, thinking of all those tragedies she'd loved to watch at the theatre.
"I didn't realize Scythe Care and Maintenance was such a funny read," her man from before said, walking over to stand beside her.
Grell looked down at the book in her hands. Death scythes had immediately struck her interests, and she couldn't wait until she got her own. "I find the section on polishing the handle particularly amusing," she said automatically.
"Oh, I'm sure you do," he replied just as lightly, passing her to sit down and grin up at Grell.
It took her some seconds to process what he said, but then her dirty mind caught up and she hid her face behind the book. For slitting her wrists, Grell had a lot of blood left to color her cheeks. "I didn't mean it like that at all! There really is a chapter on polishing handles. An entire chapter - not - oh -" she stuttered to a halt when she realized he was still grinning at her. Was... was he flirting? Grell had never had a man flirt with her before, despite her own shy, tentative forays and wasn't sure what to make of it. Had he been flirting all those times before, too?
"I don't see you talking to the others anymore."
"All they want to talk about is how they died, or why." Grell sat down across from him. She could be direct too. What would the people in charge do if she overstepped, kill her? "It's so morose. So what's your name, anyway?"
The man hesitated, as though tripping over the sudden change of topic, then gave a short laugh. "Charles Hine, at your service."
"I never got my Christian-Protestant edition of the reaper's handbook, Mr Hine." Grell held up her book, which she kept in a small pocket in her jacket that seemed designed specifically for it, and wagged it at Charles.
"What a shame. Now you won't know just how badly you should feel about killing yourself."
Grell was relieved that it seemed only the new arrivals treated their deaths so seriously. She had never been particularly religious, and it was working to her advantage. "There you're wrong. If you want guilt, nobody does that better than the Catholics."
He laughed again, deeper and more rounded than before, and caught Grell's wrist to gently remove the book and toss it aside. Then he leaned forward, and Grell felt her blush returning with a vengence. Charles definitely must have gotten tired of waiting. Then again, he had likely seen her record, so knew it was safe to be so forward. As she'd learned in the library, cinematic records were things that reapers used to watch your life play out from begining to end, and they would judge accordingly. It did make things easier that he already knew who she was.
Up close, Charles Hine was also fairly easy on the eyes. He had hair so dark it bordered on black, that fell haphazardly where it lay, and a strong jaw accentuated by dark stubble. His hands were gloved, but Grell could feel the firmness of his fingers where he'd wrapped his hands around her.
"I'll let you in on a little secret, Grell Sutcliff," Charles said quietly. "Once you're dead, God doesn't care what you do."
"That's good to know," she said just as softly, trying to keep her heart in check. This was a lot to take in. But as with everything, so long as she acted like she knew what she was doing, he'd never have to know about the tightness of her throat and knots in her belly. "Because I'd like to do some things He definitely wouldn't approve of."
Charles smiled at Grell, and Grell smiled back at Charles, and they seemed very much of the same mind.
"No, no, sorry," Grell said, pulling back.
They had moved to Charles's rooms, which were much nicer and more private than the new reapers', and quickly got to knowing each other more biblically. While sometimes Grell thought she was making up problems and just acting out when she tried to be a woman, having a man's hands on her and his lips on her, stubble scratching at her throat, felt so much more right than her doing this to Katharina. She'd never been with a man before, or anyone but her wife, but had imagined what it would be like when she was alone. This was close. This was very close.
Until his hand slipped into her pants, and arousal quickly gave way to nausea.
Charles sat back at her sudden protests, unclothed and clearly still interested. Grell curled her hands into fists and pressed them into her lap, as though willing away her own erection.
"I thought you liked men. Your record -"
"I do, I do," Grell said immediately. "I just... I just don't like me."
"You like pretending you're a woman."
Apparently the records weren't as all-encompassing of information as Grell had been led to believe. Grell chewed on her lip, thinking back to the shame she'd felt even as she furtively applied makeup and held dresses in front of her. Those predilections had gotten her into trouble before, fights with drunks weren't the only ones she'd been in, and instead of stopping she'd only learnt to be sneakier. If she'd just been pretending, it would have been easy to stop, wouldn't it have been? Just choose not to feel like a woman anymore? But she tried, and she couldn't.
"I don't pretend. I am a woman." When faced with Charles's look of disbelief intermingled with a bit of disgust at the idea, Grell sighed. Maybe only another woman could understand. "Just - I'm sorry."
At the ensuing silence, Grell inched her way toward the edge of the bed. There was that guilt. She shouldn't have done this, went too fast, expected too much. She was lucky to find a man who wanted her, then she had to go and mess it up by being herself.
Without another word to Charles, she gathered her clothes and left. He made no attempts to stop her, and she didn't dare raise her eyes to his. She wasn't getting beaten, so Grell supposed it wasn't that bad. Just disappointing. A lot of things here, after the initial shock wore off, fell into that category. Everything was too faded and dulled to garner any stronger a reaction than disappointment. It settled inside with a deeper ache than true sorrow, something that couldn't be expunged with tears or violence only tolerated, and Grell wondered if it would ever go away.
The walk back to the lodgings gave her time to compose herself. Even here she was a deviant, and she couldn't get away this time. Grell was consigned by her own hand to stay for eternity in a place where, while she wasn't being attacked or killed, she was still alone. This must be what they meant by punishment. Perhaps it was impossible to truly escape who she'd been, to reinvent herself, because this was how she was supposed to be, despite how she felt.
Grell looked up at a familiar midnight sky that quivered just slightly.
Charles didn't talk to her after that, except for the occasional acknowledgement of her existence at the lodging. After several nights crying about it and one broken mirror, she realized that if her body had been a woman's, he likely wouldn't have even shown interest. She'd never seen him talking to the women that came through. Grell decided to take it as a compliment, in a very roundabout way, that a man who enjoyed the company of other men didn't want to sleep with her. Because she was a woman, not because she was wrong. She just had to tell herself that for the rest of eternity, and maybe she'd believe it.
When she had the thought to ask Joan about sexual interests, since Charles - Mr Hine, as she was probably no longer on a first name basis - seemed so open, Joan just confirmed it with far less confusion than Grell's earlier questions produced. So long as everyone agreed, Joan didn't see an issue. Reapers came from all times and places, and it was hard to be too judgmental. Grell bit her tongue on the sarcastic comments to the contrary that wanted to well up.
"Don't worry," Joan had offered unprompted when Grell fell into silence. "A lot of reapers get a little enthusiastic when they first arrive. It's, well, it's a lot to take in. You hear 'you won't be punished for doing a bloke' and suddenly all the blokes look do-able. I spent a month in my rooms after I jumped into the first bed offered. And the second. And the third - I was a nun before."
Grell tried not to laugh, because it sounded dreadfully witchy, but once one little cackle slipped, it was hard to keep the rest at bay. She wasn't even laughing at Joan's story anymore, or anything in particular. It had just been so long since she'd really laughed, even if it wound up intermingled with crying. 'You won't be punished' was fine, so long as you weren't in the wrong body. Herself was punishment enough, but it was a hair shirt she'd learnt long ago to live with (well, until she couldn't). She could manage again. She'd have to.
Feeling a little better after her outburst, Grell returned to the library and the comfort of the books. She found them better company than most of the people here. She didn't know when she'd be whisked away to her duties, whatever those would be, but wanted to know as much information as possible before it happened.
While searching through the shelves, she came across a book tucked away almost as though it were hiding. When Grell pulled it out, she realized why it was so far back. Old, spine broken, and cloth-bound cover fraying, this was a very, very outdated version of the Guide to Reaper Abilities. It was much larger than the newest one, and a quick flip of the soft, worn pages revealed lovely hand-written script with large letters, ornate illustrations, and a general feel of antiquity that lent a sort of mystique to the idea of being a reaper. The current volume was nothing but simple diagrams, clean lines and typesetting. Lovely, but lifeless.
Books weren't something that she'd had a lot of while alive, and most she did keep were ledgers and tax law, boring things that kept her employed, but brought little satisfaction. If she was going to be here forever, this guide was the sort of book Grell wanted to keep. It had a weight and scent she was hard-pressed to come across elsewhere.
She soon found some other differences between the new edition and this one beyond formatting, and they were much, much more interesting. Grell settled in a nook with the book carefully balanced on her knees, and began to read in earnest. Nobody else seemed very interested in lingering, if they came in at all, so she was left to her own devices.
As she read the excluded portions, a thought struck her. Why weren't these in the new editions? Grell checked her handbook for any restrictions on - she didn't know what to call this. Spells? Magic? Glamours? - anything that looked like what she had found, but came up with nothing. It was like they had just been forgotten, not forbidden.
Joan had mentioned a lot of the books here were older, like how scythe care didn't mention anything about mechanical scythes, or how some of the maps were woefully outdated and lists of divisions were missing a good handful of new ones and contained many now defunct titles. This must have just been a victim of time and change, when whoever decided these things decided reapers didn't need to know them.
As it had been ignored for so long, Grell didn't bother checking if she could take it to her rooms. She just tucked it under her arm, left like she was allowed to, and ran into no confrontations.
Back in her room, she closed and locked the doors, then turned to her wash basin. The mirror was back in place above the bowl, and she pulled a chair over to sit in front of it. She set the bowl and carafe on the floor, and opened the book to the marked pages.
Reapers are not beings of flesh, but of soul. Our bodies are simply shadows of what we were before, and as such attain a certain malleability. Through concentration and mental construction, reapers are able to alter their outward appearance. With enough skill and practice, it is possible in theory to change form entirely, or even disguise one's presence as a human, angel, or demon. This skill has few practical uses, though, due to the reaper's inherent invisibility when on the mortal planes...
Grell didn't want to go so far as to disguise her presence, whatever that meant, but if she could look even just a little less like this, she'd be happy. Any tiny difference was a difference more than she'd had while alive. She found her own gaze in the mirror, and tried to picture who she wanted to be, who she was under this skin. It was about visualization and creating a character. Grell found it a little ironic that the role she was trying to adopt was who she actually was. She just had to figure out how to show it.
Grell sighed, both hands on the table, and looked herself over with a critical eye. She had shaved her tidy little beard before she died, not wanting that very visible sign of masculinity to mar her funeral. Grell had grown used to the ugly thing, as she had everything else, but liked that there was no pressure to grow one back. The scar from her suicide peeked out from under her shirtsleeve, and she thought on how her blood had looked, like black garnets spilled across her lap. Wasn't that the ultimate sign of femaleness? Blood marking when you became a woman, when you became a wife, when you became a mother?
Reapers still bled, as Grell had found out when she'd been picking up glass slivers from the previous mirror, but it was like old parchment, faded and stale. If she couldn't have it in blood, then... Grell brought her hands to her hair, felt the coarse strands, and thought red. Red as rouge, as lipstick, as blood.
There was an intensity required, a focus Grell had never managed in life, to change even just her colors. But she wanted - no, needed this so badly, failure didn't work itself into the equation. Bitten lips and blushing flesh, because she was a woman, broken noses and blackened eyes, because she didn't believe in fighting fair. Red inside, and now outside, too.
When Grell risked opening her eyes, she had to cover her mouth to keep from shouting. She kept the back of her hand pressed to her lips even as a few tears slipped free, making it a little hard to see her work.
It wasn't perfect, and it wasn't long or feminine in the slightest, but her hair from tips to the perpetual worried tilt of her brows was now red as blood and wild like fire.
If she could change this, she could change so much more. Grell didn't have to be who God and others said she was. She was whoever she decided: an actress, a fighter, and above all, a lady.
Let this mousy brown man with sad eyes and shapeless body be the marble from which she carved out her new self.
A/N: This came about because I was wondering why Grell was wearing her butler disguise in front of the reaper council in Book of Circus. So it's kind of a jumble of a bunch of different things. Also, trans issues aren't topics I've delved much into in writing, and any feedback is appreciated! Especially if I messed something up, because while it's something I'm familiar with, I can't say I'm up-to-date on all the literature or terms. So feel free to point out anything awry.