After

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Chapter 4: Reason and Judgement

I was out of breath, but Rose’s hand around my wrist kept me going. It felt like we’d been running forever, but every time I wanted to slow down Rose or Johnny would shake their head and mumble something about ‘mortal peril’.

That wasn’t a good enough excuse, but Roses’ hand was unyielding. So we ran.

And ran.

“Almost there,” Johnny stage-whispered over his shoulder.

And we were. I started to recognize the trees, the paths looked familiar. Soon, we were passing the boulder that led to the Sisters’ house.

Rose skidded to a halt - well, as much as she could whilst floating above the ground - stopping me with her. “We have to sneak.” she whispered.

I tried to gasp for breath as quietly as I could. Hard feat, that. But apparently I did it because we made it back to the beach that I’d appeared in when I’d died, with nobody stopping us and without seeing any Guards.

Rose rushed me over to the bridge and I tried my best to not look over my shoulder, less a Guard suddenly was to appear behind me and chop my head off. I failed. I probably looked about ten times before we were even half way to the Gate. Then I caught our reflection in the still water below and not even Rose’s grip could have made me move.

The absolute breath taking beauty of it left me floundered. It looked like glass, chilled to the touch and hard, but not cold. It sparkled in the light, like a diamond, casting rainbows across everything. I hadn’t realized I was leaning over the railing, reaching for the water, until Johnny wrapped his arms around me and started walking towards the Gate.

“What...?”

“It’s a trap,” Rose said, hurrying alongside us, “If you touch it, you’ll be sucked in.”

“In where?” I asked, my thoughts rearranging themselves, “Put me down, I’m fine.” I mumbled when Johnny hesitated. I straightened my sweater and tucked my hair behind my ears, trying not to think about what was waiting for me not ten steps away.

“We don’t know where it goes, only that every once in a while horrible screaming can be heard from beneath the surface.” Rose said.

“You know, for somebody who’s been here a while, you don’t really seem to know a lot about this place.” I said quietly.

She shook her head, a wiry smile on her face, “Nobody does. After always has, and will always be, a mystery. Just when you think you know all there is to know, it changes. I suspect it’s the Overseers’ doing; wanting to keep us on edge and all.”

We reached the misty Gate. Up close, I saw that it wasn’t the same black fog that made up the wall I’d come through, instead it was a deep blue, swirling with hints of silver and black. It was even more beautiful than I’d imagined. The intoxicating scent of coconuts and sweet jasmine floated from the mist, wrapping around me, drawing me in. I found myself taking a step towards the mist, reaching out to touch it.

The mist seemed to have the same idea, for it swirled and reached towards me, like an invisible hand propelled it forward. It stopped mere millimetres from my hand, I could feel its warmth and electricity travelled through the mist, shooting into my fingertips - but it didn’t hurt. It surged up my arm, through my heart and down to my stomach. Then it hurt, enough to make me gasp but not enough to say, send me too my knees. Invisible fingers prodded around the edges of my wound, the plunged inside for one earth-stopping moment. I probably would have screamed, had I been coherent. I might have anyways, I couldn’t hear anything.

Cold suddenly infused me, starting with where the fingers probed. The warmth turned to ice, so cold that it burned me from the inside out. The electricity turned harsh, no longer taking care not to harm me. The once inviting smell of jasmine and coconut clogged my throat, halting any attempts at breathing. It retreated, taking the same path the warm electricity had come, ripping its way through my veins.

I would have collapsed, had Johnny not caught me and lowered me to the bridge’s floor.

“Esmeralda!” I heard Rose yell in panic, “Esmeralda!”

I tried to speak, but my jaw wouldn’t move. I tried to breath, but my lungs weren’t with the program.

“Alright, Essie,” Johnny whispered to me, “Just relax, I’ll have you better in just....” Another electrical surge zapped me, this one not harming but not exactly comfy. It jarred my brain back into working, my heart into beating. I took what felt like my first breath in an hour.

“That hurt,” I said hoarsely.

Rose smoothed my damp hair from my face, “Poor Esmeralda. You’ve seen the worst of After, so far.”

Johnny laughed, his beach bum beauty appearing beside Rose, “I don’t think death agrees with you.”

I nodded, but thought better of it at the twinge of pain caused, “Well, I don’t like it so much right now either.” Rose grabbed me beneath my arms and helped me to sit up, “I don’t understand what happened.”

“It fried your ass,” Johnny said, one golden brow arched.

“Ha. I meant, why did it turn cold? It had been warm and ... intoxicating. I felt like it was suffocating me, like it was choking me.”

“It was judging you,” Rose said, she looked up at the mist then back at me, “It was reading you.”

“And?” I looked from her to Johnny and back, “What did it decide?”

It was Johnny who answered, “You have to try to walk through to find out.”

I worried my bottom lip. On one hand, I’d really like to know if I’d been killed, it would mean I’m one step closer to closure, to peace. But ... on the other hand ... what if I had been murdered, if I’d been betrayed by somebody? How could I live (er, you know what I mean) knowing that somebody had gotten away with killing me?

What would I do? I’ve never been the type to sit around and idly twiddle my thumbs when there was something that I could be doing, some wrong to be righted. But there was only so much a girl can do while she was dead. There was no changing that, no getting around it. I am dead.

I’d thought I’d gotten used to that. After the attempt with the Sisters hadn’t worked I’d figured that there was no use to cry over it, not when I couldn’t change it. I had thought that I’d come to terms with my death. But now, as I stood facing the mist, Johnny on one side, Rose on the other, I felt my stomach clench, my palms began to sweat.

“I don’t know if I can,” I whispered.

Rose took my hand, “We’ll be here, Esmeralda.”

Johnny took my other hand, “It’s okay, Essie.”

I met both their eyes, tried to absorb their surety through our connecting palms. I felt Wren brush up against the backs of my legs in comfort. I nodded. I could do this. Before I could take a step, Rose pulled me into a tight hug. “I’ll miss you,” she whispered in my ear. I hugged her back just as hard.

We hadn’t known each other long, not even a week. But some friendships don’t take long to form. Like when you’re in kindergarten and you meet another kid, and you one or both of you tells the other one that your now best friends for no apparent reason. That kind of friendship lasts until you die, probably longer.

We pulled back at the same time, both our eyes watery. Clearing our throats, we smiled at each other. “Me too,” I said.

Johnny winked at me, “Do I get a hug?”

I shrugged. “Why not? It’s the least I can do since I dropped you on your ass.”

“Hey, that was all me, baby.” He pulled me close, my face pressed to his shoulder. “You’re a good girl, Essie. A touch of light in this otherwise cruel world.”

The tears came back, clogging my throat.

His hands rubbed my back, “Wherever it takes you,” he said, “You’ll survive.” He pulled back and smiled crookedly, “Well, you know, as much as a dead person can.”

We all laughed, defusing the tension of the moment.

Wren bussed his head against my leg, and I bent down to enfold his large head against my chest. “You’re alright for an over-grown house cat,” I said to him.

His cold nose pressed to my neck, his way of hugging me back.

“Do you think it will be cold?” I asked, trying to stall for time.

“Everybody has an idea, but none of us are sure because we’ve never crossed over.” Johnny ran a hand through his hair, “Some claim that it will be dark, and you’ll be alone forever. But, then some say it will be a searing light and you’ll hear voices but see no-one.”

Rose frowned over at him, “But, it’s also said that it’s a beautiful place, that you will be surrounded by all those you have loved. Or that you will re-live your happiest memories for the rest of eternity.”

“Or at least until your soul is reborn.” Johnny added.

“If you choose to be reborn,” Rose corrected.

“You don’t have to be reborn?” I asked, peeking over my shoulder at the Mist warily.

“No, of course not. There’s two sides to being reborn. The good side, you have another shot at life, you can do it right. But, on the downside...you can’t remember anything from your previous lives. You are literally born again, all your memories gone.” Rose rubbed her arms, “It’s a beautiful thing, but also...a dark thing.”

Johnny snorted, “It’s not something I’d choose. I’d prefer the dark and alone scenario to rebirth.”

“Why?” I asked, honestly intrigued. Johnny always seemed so full of life, so real and big. Why would he choose to stay as he is now or in the dark forever?

“We like to think that we control our lives after death. And for the most part, we do. But there’s a catch. Just one, but it’s big. We all started in one form, not all of us, we all had our own. And it was what we refer to as First Life. That life, that entire being, has determined how we live and how we die.”

Rose’s lavender eyes looked back at the shore with sadness, “The Lost that are here know this. We all do. And it doesn’t help with their sanity. They know that they are destined to die ... forever.”

I shook my head, “But you said the Lost that are murdered can’t cross over.”

“They can’t,” Rose frowned, “But once they go totally and completely Lost all that is left is the memory of who they were, and even it fades. When it’s gone, when they can’t remember even their name, their soul gives up. It cries out, and it leaves the body of the Lost. The essence, the part of the soul that made up the Lost is reborn. And they are destined to die again. And again. It repeats for all of eternity.”

“You can’t stop it?” I asked, coughing to cover the catch in my voice.

“People with a strong will can put it off for an additional thousand years or so, but eventually it takes us all.” Johnny said quietly.

My heart wept for the tragedy of the Lost. The living thought they had problems, even I thought that growing up without a mother had been a problem, but they have nothing on the dead. At least the living can fix it, take a different path and avoid it. But the dead? They know what’s coming, they know that no matter what, they die.

It’s no wonder they go mad. Could you imagine having a thousand years to think of your death - your murder? And know that as soon as your emotions and memory goes, as soon as you forget, it will happen all over again. And there was nothing you could do to stop it. It’s no surprise then that emotions are highly coveted thing among the Lost. I was starting to understand its importance myself.

“There has to be something we can do,” I began. But Johnny cut me off.

“Essie, you don’t understand the miracle that has happened today because you haven’t been dead long. You weren’t killed. You died on accident or by natural causes. You get to be reborn, and not because of your souls’ cry. Because fate has chosen you to ignore. Be thankful for that and step through.” he jerked his chin to the Mist. “We’ll handle our side, and you go handle yours.”

I opened my mouth to argue, but closed it almost immediately. He was right. I was being given another chance at life. To go back, not as myself, who I am now, but reborn again anyways. Who was I to pass that up? I was standing on the edge of a place where people bartered their emotions for a chance to regain their memories so they could be reborn.

I nodded, “Right.” I took a deep breath and met both their eyes, “If I had a choice, I wouldn’t forget you. Any of you.” I gave Wren a watery smile as well.

Rose nodded, her own eyes filled to the brim, “We know, Essie. Now go.”

I turned and took the last two steps up to the Mist. There was a subtle scent of jasmine and coconut, but it didn’t last long. A cold breeze flitted out from the twisting folds of mist. I looked on last time over my shoulder in time to see Johnny pull Rose close to him, both their eyes filled with tears.

I wondered idly if anyone had mourned my death as well. Then I closed my eyes and took a step forward, into the Mist.

It happened suddenly, with no warning. The cold grabbed me, held me close and promptly froze me to my bones. This wasn’t right. This couldn’t be right. I tried to move, to get free but the cold had frozen me to the spot. My eyes were useless, the clogging darkness not revealing anything. I opened my mouth, to scream in pain or for help, I didn’t know - only that I had to make a noise.

I felt the breath leave my body as I screamed, my ears popped and I felt my lungs protest the drain of its oxygen - but I heard no sound.

White spots flashed across my eye lids, there and gone, as I grasped my throat. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought that it was unfair to die again just to be reborn.

Was this how it was supposed to feel?

Hands grabbed me, pulling me, I couldn’t be sure of the direction, my senses all but useless.

Warmth pressed against my back, and as if through a tunnel, I heard voices yelling. I couldn’t make out the words, but it didn’t really matter. The cold dug deeper into me, holding me prisoner. It was too much, the pain was too great. I felt oblivion flit around the edges of my mind, and with a sigh I gratefully slipped into the darkness.


“-she breathing?”

“Faintly. Jesus, I’ve never seen the Mist do that.”

“Me neither. Look! She’s waking up.”

Cool fingers smoothed over my brow, rousing me from unconsciousness. When I opened my eyes I thought I was still blind, but my eyes adjusted and I saw shapes take form in the dark around me. Two faces appeared over me, one with hair the color of a golden sunset, the other with a faint hint of pink.

“Essie?” The pink one asked, brushing my hair from my face.

“You alright, darlin’?” The golden one asked.

I blinked stupidly up at them, trying to recall what they were talking about. I shifted on the hard ground, and my body tensed with pain. Then I remembered. Cold, so cold. Dark, so dark. I started to shiver violently, my head banging off the bridge.

Rose shifted until my head was in her lap, while Johnny shrugged off his leather jacket and tucked it over me. “Guess that’s a no,” he said wryly.

My teeth chattered together, sending stings of pain through my already bruised jaw and sore head. “W-what ... ha-happened-d?” I managed through tremors. “I t-t-thought...”

“That you could get through?” Rose said in her ever-calm voice.

I nodded, or rather, I shivered and they took it as a nod.

“Grim is never wrong,” Johnny said, stroking his long fingers over Wrens head.

“Must h-have been,” I said, warming slightly as the leather coat kept what little body heat I had left inside me.

Rose shook her head, lifting her eyes to meet Johnny’s. “He’s never wrong,” she frowned.

I’d stopped shivering, only the occasional tremor moving down my spine, “He said I wasn’t killed,” I avoided the word ‘murdered’ not wanting to go there just yet, “Obviously he was wrong.”

Johnny sighed, “No, Essie, you don’t understand. Grim is never wrong. He lied.”

It was my turn to frown, “What? Why would he lie?”

They both shrugged, “I don’t know,” Johnny said, “We could go ask him, but something tells me that even if I push you off a cliff again he won’t let us in.”

“Is there another way?” I glared.

“Just admitting your fear out loud, without being forced might be enough. But knowing Grim, it has to be a deep, dark fear.” he said. “A secret that causes you fear might work too.”

“What’s with all the fear?” I asked, rubbing my forehead.

“He’s a Reaper, Essie. They feed on fear. Though, Grim has been starving himself since, like, forever.” Johnny shrugged at my startled expression, “Relax, it doesn’t hurt. It’s just an emotion.”

“I’ve seen the way emotions are taken,” I rolled my eyes up to Rose, “No thanks.”

“That was special circumstances,” Rose said, “The Sisters enjoy taking emotions like that, and they get a mix of pain in them that way. Reapers can take emotions from the air, mostly they don’t do it on purpose.”

I frowned, “What does that mean?”

“They are bred to feed on fear. When you feel it, they can take it from the air. They don’t do it on purpose, it just sort of happens. Like breathing.” Johnny supplied, “It’s odd, I know, but it’s just the way it is.”

I sat up, closing my eyes when the world spun, “You said he’s starving himself?”

Johnny nodded, “He doesn’t agree with a lot of what being a Reaper is. Ever since the Overseer took over, the Reapers have lost a lot of their power anyways. Grim refuses to fight for it back.” Johnny leaned closer, “Between us, I think -no, I know, Grim could take power back from the Overseer if he wanted to.”

“Why doesn’t he?”

“Don’t know. Whenever I ask him about it, he just changes the subject or stares at me until I do. Chayne just gives you a run around, making you forget all about your questions.” Johnny said, sliding gracefully to his feet.

“Who is Chayne?” I asked as Rose helped me up.

“Grim’s brother. Well, his best friend, but they’re like brothers.”

Rose said, almost to herself as she took my arm to steady me, “It’s strange to think they didn’t come from the same woman. That Grim was just created.”

“Woah. What?” I felt my eyes bulge.

“For a ghost, your get very surprised about the weirdest things.” Johnny said, leading the way off the bridge, Wren at his side.

“Reapers aren’t born,” Rose told me, “They’re created when the previous Reaper has been compromised, killed or has out-lived his usefulness.”

“And it’s always males,” Johnny said over his shoulder, winking.

I felt the woman in me bristle, “That’s unfair.”

“It’s punishment actually. Reapers are made from the souls of the Damned. It’s a line of people, from one family. So they’re all related. Back when The First life was formed, the first male of Grims’ family committed the first crime and his decedents are damned to be made into Reapers because of his crimes.”

“What did he do?” I asked.

“Nobody knows. He doesn’t talk about it, neither does Chay, and I’ve just never really asked.” Johnny told us.

“It’s all still a bit harsh, don’t you think?” I objected.

“Just the way it is,” Rose said, “We can’t change it.”

“I don’t believe in destiny,” I said, “Things change.”

“Not here. We’re frozen. This whole place is frozen.” Rose replied solemnly.

I shook my head, “No. I don’t accept that.”

Johnny smiled over his shoulder, “I knew I liked you for a reason.”

“Trying to go against Fates’ plans doesn’t end well for anyone.” Rose insisted primly, “It just gives you false hope and pain. Remember Will?”

“Who’s Will?”

“He thought he could get through the Gate even though he knew he’d been killed. Spent an hour every day for a hundred years trying to get through the Gate. Eventually the Gate had enough and poof! No more Will. His soul just ceased to exist.” Johnny frowned, “Yeah, but he was a loon before he spent most of his after-life trying to get through. He doesn’t count.”

“You’re both going to get poofed out of existence and I’m going to yell a big fat ‘I told you so’.” Rose said.

Johnny turned to walk backwards over the white sand, “When we change our fate and end up living forever as millionaires, we’ll send you a postcard.” his smile was infectious and I found myself laughing despite the nagging pain in my head, my back, my everything.

“I bet Grim knows how to change fate.” Rose said, “But he’s smart enough to leave it alone.”

“Hardly, he’s just too bitter to do anything,” a voice said to our right.

We all turned to find Chayne striding towards us from the forest, his long legs eating up the distance easily. He’d changed into a fluttery white pirate shirt, open at the neck to show off his collarbones, and a pair of tight royal purple jeans, tucked into black shitkickers with red skulls for buckles. He looked ... fabulous. Figures.

“Grims’ a bitter fool who’s too scared to change the future because of shit that happened in the past,” Chayne stated, stopping before me. He reached out to tilt my chin with two long, elegant fingers. “How are you feeling, doll?”

“Like I was just suffocated, blinded, and frozen.” I said bluntly, not feeling too warmly towards Grim and therefore, by default, his best friend.

He nodded, tucking his hand in his pockets, “I’d say that he didn’t know what he was doing, but the bastard seems to know everything about everyone.”

Rose wrapped her arm around my shoulders, “Why did he lie?”

Chay shrugged, “Who knows. And you’re right, by the way, Johnny. He won’t let you through the barrier. But luckily for you, you know me.”

“Why would you help us?” Rose asked, brow arched, “He’s your best friend.”

“And you hardly know me,” I added in.

Something that looked like sadness flittered through his moss green eyes, but was quickly replaced by a more natural looking emotion; mischievousness. “Who says I’m doing this just for you?”

“Then why are you doing this?” I demanded, hands on my hips.

Lush lips pursed before he admitted, “I want Grim to be happy, alright?”

“What’s that got to do with Essie?” Johnny asked, arms crossed, eyes narrowed in thought.

“Everything,” Chay said ominously. He rubbed his hands together, “Are you done grilling me? Can we go now?”

“Back to the Reaper House?” I asked, “No thanks.” I stepped around Chay and walked towards the still waters’ edge. I sat down and pulled my knees up to my chest. I’d had enough with people who tried to kill me.

“Is she serious?” I heard Chay ask.

Johnny answered, “She just found out she was killed and then Grim almost got her sucked into whatever is on the other side. Can you blame her?”

“Sure, but -“

”No buts, Chayne,” Rose said. “Maybe you should just go back on your own.” I heard her approaching, which terrified me, on account of she wasn’t touching the ground. I didn’t know how I heard her just that I could. I was becoming more and more like the Lost. Goody.

She lowered herself gracefully to the ground beside me, a thoughtful look on her face.

I sighed, “You think I should confront Grim, don’t you?”

Rose shrugged, a small shift of her small shoulders, “I didn’t say that.”

“I can see it in your face.” I rubbed my cheek against my knee, “He tried to kill me, Rose. Or at least send me to wherever that Gate would have spat me out.” I said in disgust. “I’ve never been a violent person, Rose. I’ve always been the middle ground when my friends fought, the one who solved the fights with cool, calm rational. I never raised my hand to anybody, let alone my voice. I’m not submissive, I actually quite controlling, but I just kept it to myself. I stayed away from cliques when I was in high school, and in college I’ve stayed to myself. I’m tutoring-“ I stopped, sucked in a breath and corrected myself, “I was tutoring this guy, Nash Stone, who dated the bitchy most ridiculously popular girl, or whatever they call themselves, but that’s as close as I got to that side of people. I don’t have the stomach do be who, what, they are.

“But when I think of the person who did this to me,” I gestured to my stomach, “And when I think of Grim... I want to do more than just raise my hand or my voice. I want them to hurt, like I’ve hurt. I want them to feel exactly what this has done to me. I want them to know what they’ve taken from me, and dish it back times ten.” I felt my eyes well up, “And I think that vindictiveness is what really gets to me. Death has changed me, and not in a good way.”

“So take yourself back, Essie.” Rose wedged her shoulder against mine, a silent comfort, “Take back who you are. Confront Grim, tell him exactly what you feel. If you can’t tell whoever sent you here, at least you can tell Grim.”

I was torn. I wanted to yell and rage at somebody, Grim would do nicely. But he wasn’t the reason I was here, and it wouldn’t be fair to take it out on him. But he was the reason I was just frozen and suffocated. He’d hurt me, and regardless of what I’d said out loud to Rose, inside I knew that I’d never in my life let anybody get away with doing me an injustice. I wouldn’t say I’m vengeful, I don’t hurt them back, but I make them aware of what they did and who they were dealing with. My father taught me that I had a voice, how to stand up for myself and I’d never forgotten it.

Until now.

I leapt to my feet.

I would not disappoint my father. Not even in death.

I strode away from a startled Rose and up to Chay, where he was talking quietly with Johnny, “Let’s go.”

“I knew you had spunk,” Chay said and linked arms with Johnny, “She’s a keeper.”

Chay led us through the forest, Rose, Wren and I stumbling after him and Johnny. When we reached the boulder to the Sisters’ house, instead of turning right, we continued on into the thick forest, where the path refused to stray. I looked over my shoulder at the path Wren had led us on earlier. Hadn’t we just continued on straight from where we’d met up with Johnny?

“Where are we going?” I asked Chay.

“Grims’ entrance is locked. We’re going to use mine.” He said over his shoulder.

I shrugged and we continued on.

It didn’t seem to take as long to get there this time. The dark green trees died out, leaving vibrant, lush ones in their place. Bright, cheerful flowers covered what seemed like every inch of the forest floor. Some I couldn’t even identify, I’d never seen them before.

Butterflies flittered past, birds sang beautifully.

“Where are we, Wonderland?” I asked, not totally joking.

Chay let out a crack of laughter, “I got sick of the doom and gloom of After and made some adjustments.”

It really was beautiful. One couldn’t help but to be charmed by the little bunnies hopping about, the flowers and birds. A butterfly landed on my shoulder, its delicate blue wings brushing against my cheek and I couldn’t help but smile.

It stayed there as we walked along the cobble-stone path (when had that gotten there?), brushing against me every now and then, sending a calm wave through my mind. I probably should have thought it strange, I did, but I just didn’t care. I was content.

We reached the base of a mountain, and I felt a spike of fear go through me, “You’re not going to push me off that, are you?” The butterfly brushed against me, but I didn’t feel it this time.

Chay turned to me, a curious look on his face, “Of course not. I’m not a Reaper, Essie. I don’t feed on fear.”

“What do you feed on?” I asked, leaning my cheek towards the butterfly almost involuntarily.

A brilliant smile lit up Chay’s face, “Love.” he said and gestured to the rock wall behind him. A cave was there, one that had not been there two seconds ago. I stared at it in wonder. Curious.

“It’s okay, Essie. It won’t hurt you.” As if to prove it, Chay stepped forward and put one foot inside the darkness. Then he reached out a hand to me.

I felt a flutter against my cheek and felt safe. Putting my hand in his I let him pull me into the cave, all the while concentrating on the delicate creature on my shoulder, as if it could keep me from harm. It took flight just as I stepped into the darkness and a clench of panic constricted in my stomach.

The next thing I knew, we were stepping into a stone room, one with familiar tapestries, pictures covering the walls and a large brown couch/love-seat/arm chair combination.

And there, with his head in his hands, was the root of my most recent problem. The panic turned to anger.

He looked up at we entered the room, his brow furrowing. Surging to his feet, he glared at Chay. “I should have you killed.”

I tore my hand from Chay’s and walked up to Grim, ignoring the voice in my head telling me it was a bad idea. He wouldn’t look me in the eyes, which was fine with me, I didn’t particularly want to meet his anyways. I didn’t stop until there was only a foot separating us. Then I did something I’d never done before.

I slapped him across the face. Hard.

I heard Rose gasp in a breath and Johnny mutter an “oh, shit”, but I didn’t care about either. All I could think about was the man-and I use that term loosely- in front of me, a hand-print rapidly forming on his cheek.

And he still wouldn’t meet my eyes. I could practically hear him grind his teeth together and still, nothing.

“Maybe we should give them some privacy,” Chay suggested and pulled a resistant Rose from the room. Johnny hesitated then he and Wren strode after them.

And Grim still didn’t meet my eyes.

“There are no words to describe how much I hate you right now.” I told him, my voice surprisingly calm, “I’ve never hated anybody and it makes me hate you more for making me start now!”

Nothing.

“You know, the least you can do after trying to kill me is look at me!” I practically hissed.

His eyes shot to mine, their navy depths tormented, but I forced myself not to care. “I didn’t try to kill you.” he said quietly.

I crossed my arms, “Oh, and I’m just supposed to believe you didn’t know what the Gate would do to those who’d been murdered?”

Grim’s eyes were intense, “Yes.”

I scoffed, “Well, I don’t.”

Grim closed his eyes, like he was in pain, then said, “I didn’t mean for you to get hurt. I just ...panicked.”

“I don’t care what you ‘just’. I almost got sucked into whatever the hell comes after this place. And let me tell you something, it damn well hurt!” I said, my voice raising with every word.

Grims’ shoulders sagged, it wasn’t until then that I realized how wound up he’d been. I made myself remain unaffected. “I’m sorry,” he said as he sank back onto the chair.

“That’s not good enough.” I told him, “I have never felt anything like that in my life. Not even my death hurt as bad as that Gate made me feel. And all you can say is that you ‘panicked’ and that you’re ‘sorry’?” I shook my head, “No. Sorry doesn’t cut it. It doesn’t even come close.”

“What do you want me to say,” he asked softly.

“I don’t know,” I threw up my hands, “But you’re not saying it.”

All of a sudden, Grims’ hands flashed out, wrapped around my wrists and pulled me towards him. Even though he was sitting down, he came up to my shoulders. One hand went to my neck and tugged gently. I was to stunned do to more than just let him move me like a puppet. His lips met mine in a clash, halting any speech and all thought.

My hands went reflexively to his shoulders, my fingers curling into his sweater.

For balance, I told myself. It was a lie. I shifted and told my conscience to shut up. Grims’ lips were soft, like the brush of a butterfly’s wings against my lips. I’d heard all my life about kisses that made woman fall to their knees, that stole their breath, but I’d never had a guy wow me with his skills. Until now. Of their own accord, my arms wrapped around his shoulders, locking us together. His heat seeped into me, warming me to my bones in a way I hadn’t expected to feel since I’d died.

It felt good, it made me happy. And also scared the ever loving shit out of me.

I pushed against his shoulders and broke away, our faces inches apart, our breath mingling warmly between us.

Part of me applauded my self-control, the other part of me was raging and throwing its hands in the air, calling me every bad name in the book.

I stepped back from Grim, distancing myself in hope that I’d be able to slow my rapidly beating heart before it jumped right up out of my throat. When I didn’t work, I turned my back on him and paced across the room.

“That shouldn’t have happened,” I said quietly, pressing trembling fingers to my tingling lips.

I could hear Grim getting to his feet behind me, but I still didn’t turn.

“Okay,” I said to him, “After I can think again, I’m going to yell at you.”

“Okay,” he replied, calmly. I turned to find him standing with his hands in his pockets, a big grin on his face. He had dimples. It was charming.

“What?” I snapped.

“Nothing.” he said, the grin still in place.

“Wipe that smile off your face or I’ll do it for you,” I warned him.

He straightened his face, but the corners of his lips twitched, like it was lurking right below the surface.

I crossed my arms, “I think I liked you better when you weren’t looking at me,”

His humor faded, his eyes dimmed and he took a step back from me.

I missed the smile immediately.

I sighed, “I change my mind.” But he didn’t smile, his navy eyes went to my feet and didn’t move.

“You should go,” he said quietly.

“What?”

“You should go.” His brow furrowed, like he was warring with himself internally, “I said I was sorry. There’s nothing left to say.”

Nothing left to say? I don’t think so.

“How about an explanation to what just happened?” I demanded.

Grim turned away from me, his face impassive, “Forget it,” he said as he made his way towards the door up to his room.

I raised a brow, “That’s not good enough.” I repeated.

“It’s all I’ve got,” He disappeared up the stairs.

I was right on his heels, not about to let him sneak off. “Try again,” I told him, my footsteps echoing around us as I stomped up behind him.

He said nothing, just kept his head down as he trekked up the staircase. Pushing open his bedroom door, he went right to his closet and pulled out his leather jacket. “Tell Chay I’ll be back later.”

I moved to stand between him and the wardrobe, “No.”

Grim turned away again, he moved to his desk and sat down. Reaching under his desk he pulled out a pair of shitkickers.

“You know, if you hadn’t of had your tongue in my mouth, I’d say you didn’t like me very much.” I noted. “Wanna tell me why?”

Grim pushed his big feet into his boots and stood up without bothering to tie them, “I don’t hate you. But I can’t be around you,” he admitted. “Will you leave now?”

“No.”

I thought I heard him sigh.

“You cause me pain, Esmeralda. Please...just leave.” he ran his hands through his already tangled hair. His voice was hoarse, like he’d been yelling but never once had his voice risen over his normal tone. But I had a hunch that, on the inside, he’d been screaming for years.

“Why? Before today, we’d never even met.” I shook my head, “There hasn’t been enough time for me to hurt you.”

“It’s not what you’ve done, it’s who you are.” he said so quietly, I almost missed it.

“Who I am? That doesn’t make any sense, Grim.” What the hell was he talking about?

“I can’t do this again,” he said and shifted restlessly from one booted foot to the other, “Not again.” He rushed to the window and threw open the glass pane.

“Grim!” I yelled, thinking he was about to jump to his death. I had an image of Grim wandering about the Gate for eternity, without anybody there to guide him across. Who would ferry the ferryman? “Don’t jump.” I asked of him.

A cold breeze whipped through the room, so sharp that it fried the lights and we were plunged into darkness. I looked up to see that Grim had turned to face me, the moonlight illuminating him from behind, like some kind of back-light. I had a sense of de-ja-vu, like I’d seen him like this before. But, before I could place it, he whispered a quick “I’m sorry,” and fell backwards out the window.

I rushed to the window, a scream caught in my throat. I had to pull my head back inside almost in the same second as I’d stuck it out, or else we’d have smashed foreheads. Grim shot into the night sky, his body but a black streak. When he was once again back-dropped by the moon again, his body started changing, and before my eyes, a huge raven took his place. It turned to spare me a look before it flew off into the night.

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