Thank you for taking the time to be co-operative, Bastian,” said Vidya as she gestured him towards a seat in her office which had Bastian in awe because active Draphas usually never have the time to meet reporting officers personally, always moving from one assignment to another or enjoying their vacations.
“I think I should be saying that. I understand that the rules are being slightly bent for me,” he accepted gratefully.
“Anyone who gets retired goes through the initiation officially. We still have the ‘cooling off’ period but since you’ll have to finish your assignment, we’ll put that off for a while. I’ll have to guide you through your active duty so that you get adjusted slowly. Though I don’t have a lot of time right now, I just thought I’d start today. First, how are you feeling?”
“I’m..fine..” Bastian lied when the itch on the back of his head hadn’t exactly eased out. It was probably just an initial discomfort and didn’t want to trouble Vidya with it.
“Okay…” she replied as she looked at his face carefully. “Is there anything you want to ask me apart from what you already got to know?” she asked, indicating his meeting with Orfer. “I’m sure he has probably briefed you the important things.”
Bastian thought for a while, his mind had been trying to process a lot of things since last night and wasn’t sure where to begin. So, he decided he would pick things one by one. “This..may sound stupid…I’m not sure..” he said as he retied the knot on his head. “I always thought if we did our job, the human would eventually reach the state of salvation and only yesterday, I got to know that humans can also die unfulfilled. Do you know why is that?”
Vidya drummed her fingers on the table as she looked at an eager yet fidgety looking Bastian. “I’m going to throw it all out,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m cutting no corners, okay?” She sighed. “Frankly, it happens when a Drapha on duty has not done a job properly, has not researched enough about his or her or zir assignment properly.”
“Anyone could make those errors, then?”
“Yes, anyone can,” she affirmed.
“And these people, in turn, become Draphas, huh?” Bastian asked, confronting reality.
“So, this is just an endless cycle?” he concluded after some thought. “We die but if unfulfilled, we become a Drapha and then, the Drapha, in turn, is assigned..”
“But why? Doesn’t sound fair at all…” grumbled Bastian, as he tapped his feet.
“Like I’ve told a million others, I’m going to say the same thing to you,” she said, looking into his eyes. “Nothing was ever fair in the first place. If I ever get the time, I should probably explain how the HQ was formed in the first place. Though it may not solve queries, the very least is it would offer some consolation. Our ways are a lot better now, thanks to the previous generations of Draphas.”
“Yea…” Bastian dragged, not sure why that would matter. “One last question. So, somehow we mess up our jobs and they eventually become Draphas. How does this math work? What if people don’t mess their jobs and there are less incoming Draphas?”
“With our data at the surveillance team and some help from our friendly neighbours, the Grim reapers, we did try to measure that. It’s proportionate, more or less – the fulfilled vs unfulfilled. For some reason. There’s never a shortage of Draphas,” she said, shrugging.
“I..I think that’s enough for today,” Bastian said, getting up before Vidya could acknowledge. “Too much for my brain.”
He stretched his back as he went out, Slapping his cheeks in frustration, he leaned against the wall for a moment, absolutely blank as he looked left and right at other Draphas doing their daily job. Like it is just another normal day, like nothing hasn’t gone wrong.
“Well, someone’s growing old..” commented Waldo who halted the trolley carrying carefully arranged plates with leftovers.
“How come you keep switching jobs around the HQ?” asked Bastian as he yawned. “Now, you are clearing off plates?”
Waldo beat his chest energetically. “When you have retired, you get to pull strings to get what you want but until then you might have to suffer.”
“You mean this?” Bastian asked, casually propping out his Draphacon to show the shade of pitch blackness underneath his sign.
“Oh my..” Waldo muttered as he came forward, taking Bastian’s Draphacon out of his hand. “Too soon..I never expected this..”
“That’s okay..” he sighed, awkwardly laughing. “As long as I get the benefits you were talking about.”
Waldo’s eyes twinkled curiously as he handed back the Draphacon, carefully looking at Bastian’s expression. “How are you doing now?”
“I don’t know why people are making this such a big deal. Right now, I’m all like leave me alone, people! But…I’m kind of tired…I’m probably at the initial stages, I know, I’ll get over it soon. I do that. A lot,” he said, quickly waving off when moments before, he was doing the perfect enacting of a fire breathing dragon which got his nostrils flaring obnoxiously.
That’s what they all say in the beginning. It’s barely the end of pain. Waldo hit him on the head, a little too hard to get Bastian’s full attention. “What are you doing exactly now?”
“I’m yet to complete my assignment. I think after that, I’ll formally get initiated and then, think about my options. My first priority is to get a big ass villa overlooking the sea,” Bastian stated enthusiastically, fists pumped in the air at the idea of new prospects.
“Complete your assignment?!” Waldo gasped. “Why are you on active duty when you should be taking time for yourself??”
Wide-eyed Bastian placed both of his hands of Waldo’s shoulders and said in a calm tone, “I insisted on it, Waldo. I could never leave my job half-way like that and I’m not the one to put personal emotions first. I can manage that much.”
Yet Waldo wasn’t exactly listening, slightly dreading while only one thought ran through his mind. What the hell is Orfer experimenting with now?!
“Waldo? You there?” asked Bastian, clicking his fingers at the old man who seemed to have drifted in his own thought process.
“Yup! Here I am!” screeched Waldo, heartily to cover up his embarrassment of dozing off with his eyes open. “How did you get retired though?”
“What happened was I was at…” started Bastian only to trail off, not sure what excuse he ought to come up with. He didn’t want to tell anyone that he pushed Orfer to tell him, like he had brought his own downfall. “Ah...Quincy and Haruhi were talking something and I just kind of overheard them.”
“Hmmm..” nodded Waldo. “That’s how most of you young people get caught.”
“What about you, Waldo?” Bastian enquired, interested to know more about a veteran’s experiences.
“I…” sighed Waldo as more wrinkles formed on his forehead. Slightly laughing, he continued. “Mine was dramatic for no reason. Because I made it that way. So, basically, I flew to Italy often to visit a good friend of mine. He was on active duty at Amalfi, a small town on the coast. Amalfi, the place I had always thought I would retire to. It was like a gift locked away from the world. In the mornings, the cathedrals and lemon terraced gardens amongst pastel coloured houses were a treat for the eyes. When the sun sets, buildings along the coast would light up like a fire trail against the night sky, the breeze bringing the scent of the ocean along with. It was magic,” he explained as if it was his hometown. “Along with its magic, it also brought me Lucia who was my friend’s assignment, in short. A charming gal, she was- she was brains and beauty in one. She was a nurse at the local hospital, volunteering at an orphanage during her free time. I loved how humble she was despite her capacity and...you know what was funny, Bastian?” Waldo said, temporarily diverting from his own reveries to question the audience. “She desired to find true love and she did that. That…hurt, of course, because it wasn’t me. No surprise there,” he said as he nodded only to grow stiff. “What surprised me more was when her doomsday started nearing. I was a feeble man already when I held no place in her heart but to see her wither, Bastian….” Waldo closed his eyes as if he was trying to reminisce what his brain could gather of a love long lost. “I couldn’t do that and ended up doing probably one of the most stupid things a Drapha could ever do – prevent her death. I knew the dates through my friend, I followed her every move and interfered with what seemed like a possible accident. She lived and…”
Bastian knew how it was going to end. If an assignment was issued, death was inevitable. No one can change that. Even if the Heavens were to kneel, death would still have its way.
“I was caught. Both the Drapha and Grim reaper HQ locked horns over this delay. I would have been fodder at the High Court of Celestials if a deal wasn’t cut between both the HQs. The then Drapha Head Nkechi tried so hard to protect me that I earned the wrath of every Drapha alive around that time, after all, we leave no one abandoned. We are pretty vulnerable against the Grim reapers or Angels. Therefore, I was to never leave the HQ for the rest of my lifetime.” He sighed. “Me staying here forever is my punishment and all the money that I earned over my time as a Drapha were used for other purposes.”
“And…Lucia?” Bastian asked, unsure.
“Due to the delay caused by me, a harsher fate met her. I heard from someone that she had passed away with her husband on her wedding day just as they were leaving for their honeymoon..”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Bastian interjected. “But, how does this have anything to do with you getting retired?”
“See? I always forget the important parts!” he exclaimed nervously. “Not a lot of people ask about Lucia and neither do I share it with everyone. I keep switching the details around….I’m really sorry you had to hear all that,” Waldo apologized immediately. “It just connects, the whole drama. Because just as we are about to stray away, we get retired and the thing that we have been holding onto, we realize we are denied the permission and it just slips out of our hands….”
“That’s okay, Waldo,” reassured Bastian, embarrassed for having asked a question too rudely.
“Umm…I got bored of doing active duty and I pestered Nkechi to assign me something temporarily. Therefore, I accompanied the delegation to the Annual Celestial Budget Meet which was held at the Grim reaper HQ at that time. As usual, they mocked us for being ‘fairy godmothers’ and few of us weren’t going to let them be. So, while we were trying to follow them, let’s just say we saw something that we couldn’t comprehend. There is actually a direct passage connecting our HQ and theirs. We were so shocked we beat up those Grim reapers and forced the truth out of them. When our Draphacons turned black, some of us surrendered at their own time but I didn’t want to. It seemed all too sudden and I simply continued active duty, all this happened when I was still seeing Lucia. In the beginning, I simply admired her but as if in a rush, as if everything was coming to an end, I made some…bad choices…”
“May I ask what did you mean by you saw something you couldn’t comprehend at the Grim reaper HQ?” asked Bastian, rubbing his chin.
“You’ll understand when you go through the initiation formally. I don’t want to scare you right off the bat, okay? Just ease into it.” Waldo placed a firm grip on Bastian’s shoulder.
“It’s like everything we thought was true is no longer true…? Or rather we never knew anything about ourselves from the beginning…” Bastian groaned, shrugging. “Is it necessary for us to get to know all this anyway? Can’t we just have an off button? Can’t they at least fake our origins?”
“You’ll come to know that there was a time before our HQ came into existence, we weren’t called Draphas or anything in particular. We were under the Grim reapers and it seems our true origins were explained from the beginning – about how we were just dead humans. It created quite a havoc, duties would go half- baked and we were constantly slighted by the other celestials for being irresponsible. With every passing generation, few Draphas emerged to take control of the rest and fought for a separate HQ. Our name ‘Drapha’ was named after one such individual, her name was Draphana. And then, it was decided that it would be best to hide our true origins.”
“That..was quite a story,” said Bastian, unable to add to the groove of information that his brain was receiving. “But that still doesn’t answer my question. Can’t we hide it forever?”
“If you want me to put it as inhumanly as possible, Bastian,” he chuckled, “I should say that it is because we have to keep the path open for new Draphas or that after the age of sixty, we get tired of being active so this is just a great way to tie us down? I’ll be frank, Bastian. Somehow or the other it comes back to us. Something in us stirs to find it all out. Nothing can be kept under closed covers for so long because we wouldn’t want us going back to square one where our freedom is under someone’s control. This is just our version of controlling the pace, keeping with the times and making sure that we are able to do our duties as well as retire peacefully with our body and mind intact.”
Bastian’s shoulders drooped. “That’s some nice way to put it, Waldo. Makes me very comfortable with myself.”
“You’ll get used to it,” he said, hitting Bastian on the shoulder a little too hard. “We all have to or we will have to be stuck. It isn’t worth it. You can always talk to others, it helps a lot. You’ve got Quincy and Haruhi with you, yeah?”
“Yeah…but I didn’t tell them that yet..” Bastian replied, looking at the floor. “I don’t know why now that you say it, it sounds a lot logical than keeping stuff to myself.”
Waldo nodded. “I understand, we all go through that phase. You’ll overcome it but honestly, you are doing a lot better than Quincy. Boy, was he a mess!”
“Quincy, huh? He never really told me what he went through. Mind telling me what happened if you knew anything at all?”
Waldo stared off into the ceiling as if he was trying to remember a faint memory that took place decades ago. “I heard this from Miriam. She’s the receptionist at the Record Archive if you didn’t know. It seems that he was flirting with some reporting officer at the Archive which pissed off Miriam and she told him off to Orfer being the disciplinarian she was. Of course, dear Orfer wouldn’t let him go easily and banned milkshakes to be served to Quincy.”
“Dear goodness…that’s tough for Quincy..” said Bastian, looking actually worried.
“So, Quincy wanted to get back Miriam, probably pull a prank on her. She was with some colleagues from the Administration and Finance with whom she had a meeting after a long time….and Quincy probably heard a few things that he wasn’t supposed to…”
“If only Quincy could have kept to himself,” sighed Bastian.
“That’s the thing, right? He could have but that’s Quincy. We all could have but there’s nothing stopping us from chasing what we want intentionally or unintentionally. Whether we like it or not, what happens – it always happens, Bastian.”
“To the left, the left,” instructed Quincy, asking Erska to tilt her head for a more candid pose. Erska had traded her usual sweatshirt and sweatpant combo for a formal looking white palazzo and overcoat underneath a turquoise crop top with geometric earrings. She was sitting on one of the counters of Solitarie to the owner’s dismay.
While Fyre peeked from behind, all Haruhi could do was sigh. The troublesome duo consisting of Quincy and Fyre wanted her to close shop for a day so that they could take some aesthetic looking pictures of Erska for her social media accounts. Of course, it wasn’t for free. Quincy and Fyre had promised that they would take care of groceries for five months which she knew that they had agreed in haste, but it would give her a little more freedom to boss around. She rolled her eyes. If only these idiots were a little more serious…
“What are you guys doing?” Bastian asked as he covered his nose, coughing as he came out of the storeroom, startling the others.
“So, that’s where you were all day long?!” exclaimed Haruhi. “We’ve been searching for you all day long!”
“He was in the empty storeroom the whole morning?” enquired Erska, confused.
“Ummm I..what I’m trying to say is..” stuttered Haruhi, unsure how to manage.
“She had asked me to go to the grocery in the morning, I was too tired to do that so, I spent the time arranging these boxes,” Bastian replied, settling beside a curious looking Haruhi.
“Okay, okay. Let’s go back to what we were doing!” continued Quincy, quickly diverting the scenario. “Why don’t you sit on one of these chairs? Like you are looking at the display?” And Erska obliged.
“What is going on?” Bastian whispered to Haruhi who was glaring back in answer.
“They are taking pictures for Erska’s social media accounts. I think I should be the one asking questions, Bastian because you seem to spending an awful lot of time at the HQ.”
“It’s nothing, Haruhi,” he replied quickly. “Vidya wanted to check with my assignment personally. It seems it is her habit as a reporting officer to do that when it comes to the assigned Draphas under her. Whenever she feels, she’d call them to the HQ to check with them personally.”
Bastian rattled so fast that he didn’t give Haruhi any time to be intrusive and Haruhi didn’t want to prod any further. She had to do something though.
“Guys. Guys. Let’s take a break,” managed Erska as she stretched her back, grabbing the nearest water bottle. She yawned as she gulped in water. Rubbing her eyes, she replaced the cap on the water bottle.
“It’s not good for your health, Erska. You stayed up late yesterday. You’ve been staring at the laptop screen for too long,” commented Haruhi. “You need to slow down for a while.”
“If I slow down, Haruhi,” Erska said, yawning as she got up from the chair. “I won’t be able to finish it in time. Already, the Internet is buzzing with rumours for my next book. The time is ripe for me to release it. It’s like free publicity even if it is bad.” Two steps forward and Erska wobbled, staggering slightly which surprised the others.
“Erska!” exclaimed Fyre, holding her arm while Haruhi and Bastian jumped out of their seats. They forced her down a chair. Haruhi placed her hand against Erska’s forehead, she wasn’t burning but it felt wet due to sweat. Erska’s head was lowered, breathing in and out slowly. Suddenly, Erska’s fingers reached her coat’s pocket, fumbling for something. She took a table like thing and popped into her mouth while Bastian passed over the water bottle. Forcing it down her throat, she leaned against the counter for support. She crouched on the chair, hugging her knees while Haruhi rubbed her back slowly.
“Are you alright?” Haruhi asked to which Erska nodded in response.
Licking her lips, she said, “Thanks guys..it’s nothing though..I just forgot to take my medication for the day. That’s all.”
Bastian narrowed his eyes as he looked at Erska’s weak self. “Are those tablets for your blood pressure?”
“How-How did you know that?”
“Make sure she takes that,” Bastian said to Fyre which was more like an order. Then, he turned to Erska. “Did you forget the time when you passed out at the club? Who accompanied you to the hospital?” Saying that he marched out of Solitarie rather annoyed.
“What is wrong with him?” enquired Erska.
“He’s just being grumpy,” said Haruhi as she watched Bastian go. “You take care of yourself first, Erska.”