30 Nights and Tomorrow On

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Life is shortest in fall, in snow; I know I’m going to miss you, I know (Coldplay – Everglow)

Elizabeth shivered to the late-winter air when she pushed open the door, greeting the world anew. She pulled neatly her blazer, sighed, and walked out of the lane, to the main road where she had to search for an early morning bus. Still wearing her yesterday’s attire, she’s covered in Gilbert’s sandalwood soap she borrowed on her quick shower, and tasted like Gilbert’s peppermint mouthwash that she got from the ‘see you later’ kiss right before she excused herself out of his room.

She smiled at the memories, though bile raised up to her throat, remembering how strange Gilbert had acted when she woke up. Seemed like he didn’t sleep well last night, the dark circles under his eyes looked awful that Elizabeth felt miserable enough even though she didn’t know the cause. He offered her an escort, but she declined and told him to get some quick naps before his first case.

The early morning bus was empty as it headed toward her apartment district, the sound of an old engine stretched the silence between those vacant rows. Elizabeth made a quick mental note on what she had to do: changing clothes, applying her skincare, filling her water bottle, made herself a quick cereal, and combing the tangled part of her hair, perhaps. She skimmed through her agenda, noting those clocks and places she had to plan for the most effective route. An hour before her first schedule of the day; she might be retiring soon but if anything, she would like to spend her remaining days as a stamper doing her best.

Speaking about doing her best, she might also grab a cup of convenience store coffee on the way home to keep her spirited. Gilbert offered her a while ago, but he only made those bitter espresso he didn’t bother to dilute, and she liked her coffee sweet and mild. So she made a stop right before her district, to drop by the convenience store that was a few meters away from the bus stop, mind’s already aiming for the coffee machine right next to the cashier counter.

Thanking the driver, Elizabeth quickly made her way down the bus, only to be greeted by a bark on the bus stop. A dog, wagging his tail, tongue’s out, eyes gleaming upon seeing her coming out of the bus. What made Elizabeth flinch was how dirty its fur was, and how thin it was—despite clearly having an owner to be taken care of, judging from the loose collar he’s attached to.

“Him, again!” yelled the bus driver as Elizabeth hesitantly took her last step from the bus stairs. “She’s not your owner! Just go home!”

Him?” Elizabeth turned around, tilting her head to the driver. “Do you know his owner?”

“Some guy that lived around this district.” The driver scratched his nape, his expression shifted into something uneven. “He had night shift work and only came back in the morning. The dog—” he pointed at the dog, still barking excitedly “—always waits for him in this place.”

“Where is that guy now?”

“I don’t know. He stopped taking my bus since last week so I figured out he might change jobs or shift. But there’s that dog, still here.” He took a deep breath before placing his hand back on the gear stick, eyes traveling back to the road ahead. “Rumor said he’s dead.”

Elizabeth felt sickness rising to her chest, it felt tight and she had to exhale to let go of the weight in a forceful manner. The driver, surprised to see such a reaction, was about to say something before Elizabeth quickly collected her composure to smile at the driver, bidding him a real goodbye this time.

The door closed and the bus was gone. Elizabeth eyed the dog back, taking a closer look on the wounds around his slumped ears, wet furs on the legs, shivering body, and those several flies mocking around him even though it’s practically still winter.

What a stupid loyal creature, Gilbert probably said if he’s with her now. This is why I hate attachment.

Elizabeth shook the image out of her head and walked inside the convenience store, grabbing what essentials for her while waiting for the coffee machine to do its job. It made quite a crazy crying sound as it sprouted out cheap latte into the paper glass; the morning shift staff winked her a silent apology behind the counter. Elizabeth smiled at the younger boy back, and he blushed.

“You know that dog?” Elizabeth pointed at the front window, where the stained glass was transparent enough to get a direct look on the dog. He was now sitting facing the street, unmoved from the previous spot.

The cashier boy quickly worked on her bill when she spilled the coins from her purse, warm coffee stung in her left hand. His immediate reaction to her question was a surprised face, followed by overflowing pity. “Cooper, you mean? Everyone working here at these hours knows.”

“Does everyone working here at these hours know Cooper’s owner, too?”

“Well, that’s—” He darted his eyes when Elizabeth shot him a sharp gaze. “Not really. But we do see him a lot coming from the bus in the morning, Cooper would be waiting for him patiently as he bought breakfast here before going home together. Cooper is… a good boy. He’ll always wait twenty minutes early and sometimes I go out to feed him free sausage. He likes it.”

Elizabeth hummed, snatching the bill before the boy ever had a chance to give her, let alone a chance of brushing their hands together. She didn’t let go of her gaze, though. Not yet. “And the good boy is left by his beloved owner now. I guess you can’t really count on anything in this life, huh?”

“It’s not like that, Miss!” the boy retorted. “I—I don’t know what really happened. But some rumors and news said, well, you may be familiar with the ongoing serial killer cases around the neighborhood district, don’t you?”

Her mind clicked on those short memories when Gilbert complained about the dilemma of whether or not to tell the police about the dead bodies at the dumpster located close to his place. She hadn’t heard of any follow up, so figured out he still had his hands out of it for some time now.

“It’s sad. Because it’s not like he has numbers as a reminder to patch things up. He was murdered, and anything he left behind is totally uncalled for, including Cooper.”

“Who is taking care of him now?” Elizabeth said, the bottom of her stomach twisted into a knot upon the truth the boy spat out. “Tell me he still has a home.”

Elizabeth was met by a shake of head.

“He stays in the bus stop since then.”

The dog—Cooper—had stopped barking when Elizabeth stepped out of the store, now that he realized Elizabeth wasn’t the one he’s looking for. The wagging tail stopped as round eyes dropped solemnly, he backed down when Elizabeth crouched down before him. It took her a second to decide if she’s going to dirty her hand with whatever this dog had to offer, but it’s not like she got many things to lose, right?

So she reached out and patted his head, running her free hand down to his neck as she chased away those flies. Cooper flinched under her touch, trying to get free from her, even barking a threat of bite when Elizabeth tried to pull him closer. In the end Elizabeth gave up, putting down her hidden card in front of Cooper as her last attempt to make him trust her.

“Here, I bought you a sausage.” She pushed the convenience store sausage to him, in which Cooper went to investigate carefully, smelling it intensely before deciding to take a full bite. He wagged his tail again and Elizabeth slowly made another step forward until she considered it safe to put her hand back on his head, watching him chewing and devouring the sausage in no time.

“It may seem like that, but it’s not,” she muttered low, petting his neck and back. “You are not abandoned. Things like accidents happen often for sure. I’m sure your owner died thinking about you. He’s watching you now, so don’t disappoint him and live your best.”

It’s stupid. Elizabeth laughed at herself afterward. Cooper wouldn’t ever understand her, she’s not even sure why she pep-talked a dog here. As if, she’s trying to talk to someone else that wasn’t here with them.

That couldn’t be. Elizabeth’s really slipping into crazy.

“I’ve called the rescue center to pick you up. They should be here at any minute.” She got up, batting a smile for the last time at the barking Cooper, now hungry from the tease of sausage Elizabeth gave him. She should be going home now.

“Continue your life at ease. To me and him, you’ll always be a good boy until the end.”

***

Gilbert couldn’t possibly be more distressed than this. He knew he shouldn’t dwell too much on things he couldn’t control, but the more he tried to swoosh the thought away, the more suffocating the air around him, the less likely he could get things done.

In all its fairness, he had descended into a state everyone had been worrying him for. And there’s no way Gilbert could tell himself that, after all the boasts that he’s going to be alright. Deep down, it’s still hard. He wondered if Elizabeth’s also facing the same storm now.

Or no. She could be carrying a bigger storm. Or it had passed already and now it’s calm after the storm. Or it hadn’t passed already and now it’s calm before the storm. Or it—

“Watch out where you’re going!”

Gilbert shut his eyes, feeling throbbing pain slowly being transmitted down to his spine. For a long second, he forgot he was strolling in the neighborhood when his train of thought flew away to the neverland; there’s a guy shouting and calling at him before his head hit this electricity pole and unconsciously face-planted himself in the most idiotic way possible—the guy probably thought he’s losing it right now. While a part of it was true enough, Gilbert didn’t bother to immediately pull away from the pole and just laughed at himself.

Get it together, dumbass. He could even hear Elizabeth’s disapproval everywhere in his mind, already acting like a ghost in him.

He had like two or three other things to be worried about in the short run: the late delivery of his next week schedule, whether or not he’d make it in time for his client, and this… not-so-pleasant aura coming from the dumpster at the back of his apartment that had been bugging his conscience over the past couple days. It’s still fairly cold in his area that the smell barely traveled at all, but from the deserted can on the corner of an abandoned basketball field, Gilbert could almost imagine the state of the dead body that was shoved hurriedly there. It’s been 4 days since then, the image of blood leaking from his wound, eyes, ears, nose… possible maggots and body parts bursting into the tiniest crack of the can—

I think you should tell the police,” said the soul Gilbert was tasked to send off on that very day. A young woman, around his age, someone Gilbert often bumped into when he jogged through the neighborhood. “Despite, well, the fact that no one should have figured it out yet.”

“Not really against my policy, but—” Gilbert sucked his lips, studying the surroundings, his nape hair standing up in one chilly dusk. Perhaps he shouldn’t be showing much of that attitude if the soul before him who was previously and brutally murdered didn’t at all bat an eye to where her body was shoved. “I’ll think about it. Should play it clever at least.”

“Good. Wouldn’t want another fallen victim to whatever this devil has on his mind, of course”

He sent her off, easy and all, though he had never been much easier later on. He didn’t usually overthink about cases like this when he could just let the police work on their procedures (which most of the time were just painfully slow). It’s not even his job to play witness and detective, even if sometimes he might as well come to one of the station and spill out impossible details his client had told him—all to ease his frustration and boredom—but he’d probably get into trouble later with Azrael for violating the foremost rule: don’t get too caught up in human’s business.

This time, though, he couldn’t help but to use his humane side, for he had the right to be concerned. He could be jogging the other day and bumped into the murderer, who knew what’d happen next. Not all murders were numbered.

And as he grabbed a quick sandwich at Subway, the show on the idle monitor flashed a breaking news, informing another murder located in the next district of where he lived. The girl who picked up Gilbert’s order shrieked in fear, clumsily dropping his lettuce everywhere on the counter.

Fuck, Gilbert muttered under his breath. None of his problems were going well, except the fact that he might actually make it in time for his next client.

Mr. Ho, 44 years old, died because of a traffic crash. Gilbert walked his feet toward one of the main streets in the city, low apartment buildings turned into offices and officials the more he stepped into the central district. Looked like the crash would be a big one; as he’s getting closer and closer to where the scene was supposed to happen, the more fellow reapers he spot coming together to the same place.

He greeted a few of them once and walked past, trying to secure his client first because no one wanted to embarrassingly introduce themselves to the wrong soul. Mr. Ho, on the other hand, wasn’t that much hard to differentiate according to the photo attached to his schedule. He’s a middle-aged man, wavy hair fell long to his shoulders, pale skin and cat eyes, a Latin tattoo at the side of his neck—all criteria definitely matched with the guy sitting next to Gilbert on a street bench close to one of the city’s busiest crossroads.

Gilbert made himself comfortable as he observed the surrounding. The sidewalk they’re chilling right now was quite crowded with people crossing by, coming in and out of the buildings behind them, or with people waiting for the light to turn green and finally gave them a safe pass across the section. There were several reapers, already had their hood on, observing the area in the similar hawk eyes Gilbert used now to determine when was the time to draw away and save himself just before the crash happened.

Then again, this Mr. Ho sitting with one leg up next to him, still vibing with his headphone, head banging and wrinkles dancing to possibly old school rock as Gilbert anxiously waited for his death. He should have his numbers at zero by now, yet he just didn’t give a fuck. What a role model.

Mr. Ho caught Gilbert staring at him after his solid attempt of making it not that obvious. Before Gilbert could pull his eyes away and explained that he was only curious with his music taste, Mr. Ho grabbed his wrist tight, making it impossible for Gilbert to ignore the attention, locking their eyes unintentionally along the way. The older man smirked a winning face, not sure what he meant by that.

“U-Uh?” Gilbert blinked, pulling away his wrist from Mr. Ho’s weakening grip. “M-May I help you?”

“You are the one, aren’t you?” Mr. Ho put out his headphones, giving his full focus to Gilbert who was becoming uncomfortable under his blunt scrutiny. His eyes glinted as he thrust deeper and deeper to Gilbert’s eyes. “You are the one assigned to send me to the after world, right?!”

Right off the bat. They said human’s hunch improved when the time drew near, and Gilbert’s been facing similar problems since he learnt about that theory. He tried his best keeping his face still, mind racing to choosing the rightest decision.

Well, they only got around 10 minutes before the accident happened. It’s not like anything would change just because he got busted early. “Yeah, I am. Hi.”

Mr. Ho made an ‘o’ with his mouth, as if he’s surprised from figuring it out by himself. He went ahead and shook Gilbert’s hand, even though the initiative itself was supposed to be Gilbert’s job. “I’m Ho Huynh. Pleased to be in your care.”

Outside, Gilbert smiled and squeezed his hand back. Inside, he’s screaming. “I’m Gilbert, your assistance onward.” He scratched his nape, alarmed by the crowd passing them. “Your time is still minutes away. How did you find out? What is it in me that gives it away?”

Mr. Ho chuckled, turning off his headphones. He shifted his position until he’s facing straight to Gilbert, slightly leaning closer and mirroring his action. “The truth is—” he whispered “—I can see the future.”

What?”

I saw into your eyes and then from your perspective, I saw me being thrown off by a slipped truck. Then you approached me and said you’re going to send me off.”

This time, it was Gilbert who made the surprised ‘o’. He heard countless stories of other gifted people, but never really believed the one who said they could see the future. Until now, apparently. Because it sounded legit since Gilbert had already known the outcome.

He smirked, sweeping his stares back to the street. The pedestrian light had turned green, cars stopped in front of him as a wave of people crossed the junction. The repeated beeping put Gilbert on sudden alert. “You’re one step ahead of me then. I don’t even know what type of car is going to crash you!”

“Surely!” Mr. Ho laughed with his whole body, clapping his hands as he bent forward to contain the amusement on his stomach. Had he lost it? “Gosh, now it actually puts me at ease to know how I’m going to die. Been putting on music since this morning to get rid of the anxiety!”

Even the man who could see the future felt anxious, too, huh? Like a normal human being he was supposed to be.

Gilbert relaxed his back, leaning to the bench and released a chunk of breath he’s holding inside his swollen lungs. “So how does it work? You have to look the person in the eye to get the vision?”

“Not just all people. You see, I can only tell my death because I look into the right person.”

“And then the vision plays from said person’s point of view.” Gilbert tapped his fingers to the bench. “Cool, I guess.”

“I’ve accidentally looked into the future of this nation too, you know. From the perspective of a congressman I met him when he’s out campaigning. Seemed like a genuinely good guy.”

“And then? What?”

“Turned out he became one of the biggest corrupters ever after he’s elected. I really wanted to tell people not to vote for him, but…!” His laugh stuttered, voice’s croaked. “Well, like someone’s going to believe me!”

The dumpster. The body. It all circled together again.

Gilbert swallowed, glancing at his watch. Seven minutes left. He could spend the rest of it casually chatting with Mr. Ho, talking about the myriad possibilities of catastrophes in this world and got away in time before whatever truck came to crush them. Or he could be a little fussy and took advantage of his ‘gifted’ client, making his death even more worthwhile.

’“Like, how long of a span can you see?” Gilbert said, slowly and hesitantly. “Can you see what will happen to me at the end of the week?”

Mr. Ho scratched his jaw, carefully locked their eyes again. “Do you want me? I don’t usually give my service for free but—”

“I—It’s not—” Gilbert coughed “—I mean, I’m fine. Just curious. If you don’t feel like it, then it’s okay.”

“No, at second thought.” Mr. Ho moved to lean in, cat eyes darkened as they burnt into Gilbert’s view. His brows were arched together and after a few seconds of awkward ‘analyzing’, he drew away with this worried look on his face, his jaw clenched into a knot. “Gilbert, isn’t it? You’re going to have a rough week, looks like it.”

The beeping stopped, the light turned red and the other one turned green. Cars were moving again while the pedestrian left on the other side of the street grumbled about having to wait for the next chance.

Gilbert straightened his back, feeling his heart drop to the bottom of his stomach, which was also the source of his sudden nausea. “Looks like what, exactly?”

“I’m not sure…” Mr. Ho continued scratching his jaw, tilting his head a little. “It’s hard to get a vivid view. One thing for sure is that you’re troubled.”

“Can you give me less vague commentary—”

“And you seem to spend a lot of time with a certain woman.”

Gilbert felt bile rising up his throat. He didn’t notice how cold-sweaty his hands were when he went to get his phone out of his pocket, fingers racing to scroll the photo gallery and to find a particular saved image with a particular person. He showed Mr. Ho one of them, the one he took back in the theme park. Elizabeth’s head rested on the crook of his shoulder, smiling as she shoved Gilbert a piece of blue cotton candy, completely ignoring Gilbert’s countdown to his camera phone shuttering before them.

Almost too sickeningly sweet when he looked back at the photo, seeing himself baring honesty like that; his heart was clear on his eyes and so was Elizabeth’s.

“Do you mean this woman?” He pointed at Elizabeth, biting his lips hard until they tasted copper when Mr. Ho nodded in excitement. “Can you also tell me what will happen to her?”

“That’ll cost a double!” He tapped Gilbert’s shoulder lightly. “Well, consider this as my humble free-last-service. You’re lucky, Gilbert, to meet me today. Can I take a look at the photo once more?”

“Sure.” He handed out his phone. “You can look through the eyes of a jpeg, too?”

Mr. Ho pushed the screen closer to his eyes, too close to be considered normal. Though he was grinning the whole time to Gilbert’s disbelief statement, he remained concentrated to tracing whatever he’s trying to find in the photo, cat eyes now narrowed to anticipate the screen brightness. “I, too, wish magic—or whatever this thing called—goes along with the technology improvement. Sorry to disappoint you, however. I’m just trying to find a connection between this woman and the sequence of vision I got from you, since it seems you’re trying to aim for a specific type of result.”

Gilbert couldn’t convince himself that he understood, but he nodded in pure agreement anyway. In between Mr. Ho’s weird procedures, he kept switching his focus to Gilbert, back to the photo, to Gilbert, and back again to the photo, several times until Gilbert’s heart couldn’t take it anymore that it blasted intense drumming behind his shrinking rib cage. Three minutes, he cursed under his breath, come on, old man!

This had to be the longest minute ever stretched by God to keep him crazy. Gilbert knew he probably shouldn’t do this. No matter how right and rational it might look to him who was drifting away from his sanity everyday, no one should ever look into one of God’s greatest secrets that was the future of someone. This man perhaps should have kept the ability to himself, instead of playing god and trying Him when he’s about to knock in mercy at His door later. And Gilbert, being a life-sworn servant, should have known better than anyone.

But in the end, he chose that he had to. As a flawed human, a desperate one, wishing impossible things like the certainty of forever with someone that would soon become unavailable. All’s fair in love and war, they said.

Two minutes left.

“She looks lovely,” said Mr. Ho later, after tugging too long at Gilbert’s patience. “She’s seeing you with her feelings on her eyes, smiles that made you feel invincible, urging you to do a lot of things with her—”

“Can you jump to the worst part? I’m sure there is, if you look closely.” His tone came a little harsh, but just to shove away the inevitable blush that’s creeping to his face.

“Okay, okay, young man. Patient, please! I’m going there!” He broke his eyes away from the phone to stare at Gilbert’s more intensely than before, as if he’s trying to look what lied way beyond. “She looks sad, though, at some point. You’ll notice it too. I think it has to do with the fact that she’s numbered. Yep, there’s no mistake about it. You guys are having quite an argument on the due date, and then—”

Mr. Ho flinched, shutting his eyes forcefully.

“What happened?” Gilbert went up to shake him when Mr. Ho didn’t react directly to his question, sweats cold against the late winter breeze. “What happened afterward?!”

“There’s…” Mr. Ho gulped, averting his eyes. “Sharp knife. You see a knife pointed at you.” When their eyes met again, the man’s voice cracked. “Then you see her in front of you as the knife charges.

And then you’ll see blood.”

An immense force, deafening, sent both of them flying forward, smashed to the display glass of a building behind where they had sat before—the bench was completely destroyed along with everyone that was on that sidewalk. Screams coming from in and out, all direction that was possible, muffled by the ringing inside his ears, as pain blaring from all over the right side of his body. Heat’s rushing according to whatever signal his brain had sent them to, stinging and stinging, heart ran fast fast fast he couldn’t keep up anymore, his body couldn’t move move move, blood flowing out out out and pooling with the shattered glass on the floor next to him, breathing hitched as it’s interrupted by people’s shrieking that the longer it went, the further they strayed out of his grasp and senses.

It gave up and went numb. The world stopped spinning, going black and eerily quiet behind his shutting eyelids.

.

.

.

Good night, it said.

.

.

.

A stubborn one, wasn’t he?

Gilbert gasped an air, knocking himself out from surrendering to his body mechanism. He pushed his back, pain stung his right shoulder all the way to his hip and pelvic. There’s blood dripping from his arm, not that serious as glass remnants sticking into his skin. He plucked it off, biting his tongue as hard as he could to contain the hiss.

He blinked away the black spots in his view and looked up, to find himself sitting in a lobby of a foreign building, people were running there and here, giving him a horrid look though no one was brave enough to step in and help. He wasn’t concerned about that, for now. What he wanted to concern now, was to find Mr. Ho and get a hand of his soul—to pull the remaining piece of his vision out of his tongue before worse could happen.

So he got up, putting the last push of his energy to move his legs, even though it hurt as hell, running back and stumbling to the front door. There he leaned on the ruined column and saw calamity.

Indeed, it once again reclaimed its title as the busiest road in the city, with a loaded truck fell over to his side on a previously peaceful and alive sidewalk; its bumper crashed flat into a boutique building, dragging everything underneath it along the way. Streetlights, benches, glass, clothing sheets, people. As if it couldn’t get any worse, the container of the truck was detached from the crash, releasing smaller containers that were still heavy enough to be struck into the street; forcing any car that were driving behind to slam their steering wheel aside, anything to avoid being wrecked by the spilling doom, even if it meant for their car to hit the nearest building or electricity pole, for their airbag to inflate late and sent electrifying shock to their heads—or when the sudden hit of brake caused them nothing but a rough prompt to their trunk, whose effect went domino all the way back; making the whole street look alike a setting from a world-ending hits movie.

And there was smoke from all the cars and the tripping truck; busted cars and infrastructures; trails and splashes of blood mixed with the crawl of oil on the street; mass panic attack on the left and right; honks and honks of the still-functioning cars from the other side of the intersection, now got stuck together in an unfortunate queue whereas the whole line up covered up the crossing point completely. The beeping sound of the blinking traffic light which had never sounded that terrifying before, now with people’s screaming in the background to fill the rhythm—and souls. A massive crowd of souls were standing in confusion throughout the sidewalk, eyes scanning the scene in both horror and empty stares—mouths agape and itching to cry but nothing came up could travel through the dimension as one after another being approached by their respective reapers.

Dizziness floated him alight, but Gilbert pushed through, using his intuition to find his client among the sea of his lookalike. Mr. Ho shouldn’t be that far from where his body was thrown. Judging from the direction of the projectile, he should be in a building before him, looking confused over his dead body, probably searching for Gilbert to be sent off.

Like hell Gilbert would let him go that easy.

His heart pounded so loud, it felt like it throbbed inside his head when he tried to drag his feet outside, into a pile of fuming engines and scattered metals. His fellow reapers gave him a quick side glance before deciding how pathetic Gilbert looked right now. Gilbert pushed through, admitting that he’s just this sad.

If anything, Elizabeth had always brought out the worst of him—and he’s not sure if that’s a good thing to be applied in the situation they’re in.

Mr. Ho’s soul was standing in the archway of the building next to Gilbert’s, catching Gilbert’s eyes as easily as the other. He waved his hand, gesturing to his dead body—bloody from the broken glass and collision. He chuckled, waiting for Gilbert to make his way into him. “Ya know, boy. That was surreal! Never been thudded for real and now I do! Though the price itself is a—”

Words trailing off, Mr. Ho’s eyes widened when Gilbert grabbed him by his collars, instead of mouthing the usual formality. Gritting his teeth as he lifted him up to the tip of his toes, Mr. Ho struggled frantically in his hold. That’s odd, he never tried this before; to hurt a soul, to threaten them when they got nothing left.

“Tell me,” Gilbert muttered, between the baring of his teeth. “Did she really?”

“Really…?” Mr. Ho panted.

Really died protecting me, Gilbert choked on his own words, throat tight and chest burnt. “Where will it be? Where the fuck will it happen?!”

“Y-You mean where does the death take place?” Mr. Ho gulped, eyes scanning Gilbert hesitantly before opening his mouth. Gilbert braced himself for it.

Nothing ever came out. Mr. Ho remained agape, yet his attention shifted.

“What…?”

It shifted to look past his shoulder.

“What?!” Why is he ignoring me—Gilbert curled his hold tighter and shook him until he yelped, words tangled incoherently until they clashed with Gilbert’s curses. “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU TRYING TO IMPLY? ANSWER ME NOW! YOU’RE ALREADY DEAD AND WE DON’T HAVE ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD TO—”

The soul was quaking under him, jaw’s dropping even further in such fright Gilbert couldn’t comprehend until the man raised his finger to point whatever things happening behind Gilbert’s back.

And Gilbert would need to piss at himself if he still couldn’t tell the change of atmosphere that began to wrap the whole scene like a blanket of storm. The air didn’t feel like a streak car crash accident anymore, with the smell of the scorched, honks being banged from every direction, and temporary cries from the victims. It had gone quiet all of a sudden, except the temporary cries had begun to sound more like a tortured lullaby that was everlasting in Gilbert’s head, playing static in high volume like his favorite record when it’s not. Blue crawling into his sight and the smell of copper suddenly became stronger as an existence approached them from behind. This, an inkling that was so foreign yet so close, certainly felt like death.

Heavy steps never sounded this loud before, echoing in harmony with the static—and never felt more than an eternity to stop. Had time stopped….?

Gilbert loosened his hold on Mr. Ho, after finding himself in tremor. Moving in fraction, he held his breath and turned around.

Their gazes scratched each other for a second—because Gilbert only needed that one second to drop his fist completely off Mr. Ho, letting the last bullet of his arsenals go catch his breath as the old man ran away with unspoken information.

Because Gilbert only needed one second to identify the solemn man who only had his attention at him right now.

Walking through the tapestry of hell was a tall, hooded figure wearing a long dark robe that hung loose to his knees, the lurid air blowing the hem of his clothes made him look bigger and menacing at the same time. On his left hand was an enormous scythe that looked freshly sharpened, the tip glimmering to the nonexistent sun which had vanished into the thick, heavy clouds above, growling in impatience. For a second, Gilbert thought he had to be imagining things—but he could certainly see a trail of dried crimson marking the curvy length of it.

And Gilbert couldn’t make out the face of the man; under the shade of his rusty hood, hiding perfectly even the slightest wrinkle of his face. His steps, as heavy as it looked, knocking the earth underneath until it synchronized with Gilbert’s loud pounding, drawing closer, approaching him in firm intent—the scythe swung from his left to the right—and before he knew, Gilbert’s body grew numb as if he was frozen there, senses skittering away from his control while air running out of his lungs in the last bit of his panic streak, wide eyes forced to watch the man stopped in front of him.

The man pushed out his hood. The last thing Gilbert saw before he was strangled—was deep onyx eyes cutting through Gilbert’s, destroying his skin wall and rummaging his inside until he wanted nothing but to throw up—but he couldn’t because this man, no mere man, had his life in the tip of his left fingers, wrapped around his neck. He lifted him up like a boy trying to fly a paper plane, except that his nails were too long, too sharp, too cold to dig into the soft skin of Gilbert’s nape, clogging his throat and his ability to think.

And he saw him smirk, all teeth so terrifying, savoring the image in front of him delightfully like a pretty painting.

This man was the person who was supposed to attend their graduation ceremony back at the doomed church, the man who said yes lightly to whatever the heaven told him to, the man whom Elizabeth jokingly called handsome, the man who commanded and broke Yuriko into doing the last thing she wanted to do.

The Angel of Death.

Azrael.

Gilbert gasped for a breath, to which Azrael didn’t allow him so. The grip tightened as he raised him higher, punching the last bit of air out of Gilbert’s lungs; laughing when Gilbert choked on his own saliva, face’s probably going blue while still not being able to lay a hand on the Angel.

“Poor kid,” Azrael finally spoke, voice’s deep and graving, piercing through the thin air between. “What did I tell you about taking your job seriously? We wouldn’t want to see you get hurt like this. Ah, what a pain.”

The truth was, Gilbert really wanted to scream. Even with his throat on a dead-end like this and an asphyxiated brain threatening to turn the body off, he wanted to let out all the pent up curses and swears to his killer right here, who had his mercy and lifeline all at once just by his words. And if Azrael really wanted to drive Gilbert to his grave, he should have done it without making quite an entrance—since that’s what he’s good at.

Taking away things from people.

Instead, tears escaped the brim of his eyes. Gilbert let loose of his lower body, to which he couldn’t feel more than nothing anymore, surrendering completely to the empty feeling of not being able to do anything.

Azrael chuckled, eyes darting away to land on the shaking soul of Mr. Ho who was hiding behind the dented pole of traffic light, the red had shifted back into green, still blinking like it’s nobody’s business.

“Why didn’t you send him off already?” Azrael took a step closer and brought Gilbert closer to him, until he took up all his view. Breath’s hot and poisonous against him, didn’t help Gilbert at all to snatch his slowly rolling away consciousness. “He is your client, isn’t he? Instead, what did you make him do…?”

“I—” He tried inhaling and it came out like a sob “—fuck—”

Azrael peered him dead, with both glares and his left hand, scythe sat by his right like a dog ready to shred him later. “Hmm? What’s wrong?” He sighed, mocking the free oxygen he got to taste and waste. “Tell me, son. It’s not about your lovely girlfriend, right?”

Like being punched to the gut, even while being stoned like this, Gilbert couldn’t hide still his reaction. His eyes went wider and the urge to fight back surged up when he knew he wouldn’t win.

“So it is?” Azrael sneered, voice dived even yet sharp at the edges, adding the unsettling aura into his entire presence. “It is what it is, it’s that what you want to say?” He yanked him right and left, pulling out a long cry from Gilbert, face went paler and paler until it was almost the same color of his hair. And suddenly he hated the color of his hair even after Elizabeth told him she liked it. “So you don’t care about taking the high road just to get the outcome you want? You don’t care about smearing your sacred job to fulfill your selfish desire, when you exactly know your position and the consequences. You have a slight advantage to your misfortune and suddenly you think you can fight God?”

Yes. Gilbert breathed out, knowing it would only fume the wrath more.

Yes. Perhaps if he couldn’t make it out alive, then it’d be better too. He only wished he could say a subtle farewell to Elizabeth first before parting into a different dimension.

Heaven and hell didn’t seem too far away, now that he took a glimpse of them.

“Should I teach you from the basics again, then? What should I do for a lost cause like you—” Azrael gritted his teeth, his arm pulled Gilbert to his side, teasing the cold edge of his scythe into Gilbert’s chin, drawing a straight slit that would definitely scar later “—Lord, what should I do for an ignorant brat like—”

Gilbert shut his eyes when the momentum reached its peak; Azrael was ready to swing his scythe for real this time, to hurt him, to kill him, to end his fear—the draw felt like the most dragged murder story Gilbert had ever watched; never had he realized how thirsty he was to feel death so close, closer than what he had ever been doing so far, to embrace it and let the invisible number on his collarbone hit zero.

What’s there to live anyway, if not with Elizabeth at the very end.

Fleeting, the image of Elizabeth smiling at him floated behind his eyelids. He wondered if she’s doing okay.

“AZRAEL!”

Gilbert’s eyes snapped open to the scythe halting midway, centimeters away from stabbing his chest and sliced him open, and to the familiar voice traveling through the tension between them. Azrael was already looking away from him, the grip around his necks loosened up, gazes fleeing to the source of the shout that came from the other side of the street.

Yuriko, with several people in similar formal attire holding her arms back from running toward them, her cheeks were puffed red and glasses knocked askew, anger written all over her face though a half of it was covered by the messy fall of her hair.

“DROP YOUR HANDS OFF!” she managed to scream, croaked and—after all the things they went through, Gilbert never heard her sound this terrified. The people behind her, probably her co-workers from the headquarter, pulled her back, muttering to her to stop and returned to her post.

That, in all of its recklessness, made Azrael cackle, the long fingers squeezed the last bit of Gilbert’s oxygen before dropping him off completely to the ground. And suddenly time had moved again, forcing Gilbert to realize it surroundings as he fell to the knees in a loud thump that caused an alarming pain on his patella, his hands supporting his entire body by crawling at the pavement beneath while he tried to grasp the whole air around to fill up his rotting lungs again, choked saliva dripping to the ground and Gilbert couldn’t just stare at how disgusting it was when the pain circling his neck stung him like a curse, the deafening ring from earlier merged with the pounding beats of his heart; too big for his chest, battling with the sound of ambulance siren coming near.

Gilbert closed his eyes, pulling himself into focus and heard more of the background; the cries of people, the consistent beeping of the green light, car honks, his own breathing. He felt more on what happened; the smell of smoke and oil mixed with late-winter air, the turning of his stomach twisting his lunch up to his throat, cold sweats pervading his undershirt while some other free-falling to the ground with his saliva and tears—his tears. He opened his eyes again and saw pairs of curious gazes from fellow reapers pinning and judging him, and Mr. Ho observing from afar, still hiding behind the pole and clutching it like his life depended on it even though he’s dead already—and that he had to send him off, that he was responsible for him on top of all Gilbert’s attempt to use him to the very last end.

The heavy knock on the ground now drew further from Gilbert as Azrael decided to approach Yuriko, still amused by her interference.

Don’t, Gilbert’s voice was too weak to reach them.

“What is it now, Yuriko?” The Angel asked. “Didn’t I tell you to watch over him? What do you have to say to a guy who threatened his client to get a bit of confidential information that wasn’t his place to know?”

“I’m not—!” Yuriko yanked the restrain around her, frowns turned flat as the uneven part of her voice grew determined “—the same goes to you. There’s no reason for you to get physical with anyone, even to your own subordinate. Remember your place, Angel.”

Gilbert couldn’t see what kind of face Azrael made after the direct blow, but he could see his shoulders shaking and a trail of laughter followed bitterly, his fist went clenched and loosened up and clenched again. “Who do you think you are, telling me this sort of thing?”

“Your leash?” Yuriko blurted, earning a raise of stares from her colleagues as well as the remaining reapers around the scene. “Someone has to, given your unpredictable temperament.”

“And of all people I can count on, it’s you…?”

Yuriko winced, eyes meeting Gilbert’s halfway. She shot him a look before returning it quickly to Azrael, deliberately looking away when Gilbert coughed more of liquid that had been smothering his throat. His head throbbed, arms impending to fall off, and the burnt around his neck left a bluish to purplish scars, circling like a ring as a grim reminder.

“Sir, remember we have things to be checked.” Vaguely, as he drifted more and more to the black spot of his sight, Yuriko’s rambles traveled loud enough to keep him at bay. “I’ll take care of this mess. You and the others just go ahead.”

Azrael said something in a deeper voice, and Yuriko nodded through almost all of it. The rest of the crew seemed to be on guard to her command, already heading off the scene. He expected the same went for Azrael, instead he walked toward Gilbert and crouched down, going as low as Gilbert’s level who was still shaking from the shock. Black, dead eyes once again suffocated Gilbert in an invisible lock that got him desperately searching for air again even when there’s no hands wrapped around his neck this time.

Azrael leaned closer, his free gloved hand rested hot on Gilbert’s slumped shoulder, as light as a feather yet Gilbert felt like he was being crushed to the ground by a force. Scarred face was all flat lines, unlike how it’s burning inferno with rage and condemnation last time. That didn’t mean Gilbert felt a little more dauntless to rise head to head with him.

“Son, next time you’re about to act, remember today. This exact moment you realize you are nothing, you’ll soon get a grasp on life. So stop defying when you know it’s futile,” he muttered, breaths went as sharp as the disappointed scythe gripped loosely by his other hand. “I’ll let you go this time. No trials or whatever judges. Just remember that your reckless choices haven’t yet to affect your people. Lucky enough you’re friends with Yuriko, or else I have snapped your neck sooner than you expected.”

Only if I’m not careful enough,” Gilbert found himself spitting it out loud, in between his severe coughs and pants. “Try me, you piece of shit.”

Like a mother nature being mocked, it could be his imagination as ever but the ground was grumbling and creaking—Azrael’s face turned hollow, with those eyes taking almost his whole face, blood’s flowing down his eyes, noses, and mouths, the world around melted in fire—and it’s hot hot hot Gilbert was burning in those literal flames, but never into ash for the torture was supposed to continued forever—

“Azrael!”

Gilbert’s eyes snapped open, the world didn’t melt and there’s no eternal fire to burn his bones alive. Azrael was still there, holding to his shoulder slightly tighter, greeting Gilbert with a smile that… wasn’t there before.

So this was how the real grim reaper smiled, Gilbert thought, noting the unusual curl of his lips like he wasn’t ‘created’ to accommodate such expression.

In the background, Yuriko was staring at them. Gilbert could picture easily the anxious wrinkle that she had swallowed down earlier, now slowly surfacing back under the urgent tapping of her watch, gesturing Azrael to leave.

“Well, okay. Time parted us, apparently.” He sighed, pushing to his feet, swinging the scythe from his right hand to his left before leaving Gilbert stoned in the same spot, feeling worse than just a minute ago. He offered him one last glance of emotion before walking away, scorched robes swaying in the air, untouched by the dirty smoke surrounding him—until his presence disappeared in between the land of massive dead cars, leaving only the hellish atmosphere behind that Gilbert had slightly tasted it more than anyone on the scene.

Yuriko moved almost immediately, striding the street to bend down next to Gilbert, supporting him with her not-less trembling arms as she commanded the rest of the reapers to flee away and continue their work, except the closest one from them whom she order to send off Mr. Ho on behalf of Gilbert.

“D-Don’t be, he’s mine to—” he exhaled, not realizing how long he had been holding it. His weight unwillingly rested on Yuriko, limbs finally giving up. She startled, caught him in alert, eyes wide and red at the brim, glasses were fogged up by Gilbert’s breath. Even so, Gilbert felt so naked as she easily pinpointed all the bleeding spots and wounds littered on his body, and notably the bruise on his neck.

Idiotic ass, this is no time to argue! You… you need to get treated!” she said fast, skipping some air too while she examined the run of dried blood along his arm. “Leave the alibi to me, you need to get on one of the first ambulances to ever arrive. Fuck, they’re late.” She lifted her eyes to stare at the surprised reaper who somehow had not moved to do what she was ordered to. “What are you looking at?! Send him off!”

“Y-Yes!” The reaper, who was a younger girl, ran in panic toward Mr. Ho, still spellbound behind the pole. She bowed to him and quickly introduced herself, missing some of the details like when and how he died while jumping straight to the you may relish everything and move on to the next stage of life.

Before the girl could lay her hand on his head and said the final word, however, Mr. Ho took a step back and smiled at her, lips twitching uneasily when he turned to Gilbert, who’s side-eyeing him from meters away. Knot forming in his stomach upon the ugly realization that he would never—ever—get to know from this man what’s at the other side of the reality.

“According to my vision,” Mr. Ho said, slowly yet loud enough to race with the ringing inside Gilbert, “you are the one who was supposed to be sending me off.”

Gilbert stayed still, his jaw tightened.

“But it changed. You aren’t the one anymore.” The man shut his eyes, sourness tasted strong in his tone. “That’s exactly what happens if you try to change the future. You’ll often get the most unexpected.”

So be careful.

It is a must.

Yuriko shifted her weight until her legs were flat against the ground, still giving her side for Gilbert to lean as she bowed to Mr. Ho. “On behalf of him, I apologize for what you have gone through. You deserve to be sent off peacefully, always remember the fallout is never yours to blame.”

“Well, I’m at fault anyway, for trying to test him.” He shrugged, taking a step forward to where the reaper could reach him now, smiling a genuine for the last time and asked her to do the chant.

Crystals disappeared into the heavy clouds; the flash of siren haunted Gilbert for the rest of his day.

***

It was raining when Elizabeth gulped down her lemon tea, the scent soothed her aching head and the warmth flushed away all the worries down to her throat. It’s nice, she thought, as she sat in her apartment windowsill, watching droplets blurring the evening hue beyond, pouring hard enough for the ground and the roof hissing loudly.

Someone knocked on her door, snatching Elizabeth’s attention right away. Double, rapid knuckles tapping on the wood, and then silence. She got up, setting down her cup on the sink before crossing across her room to greet her guest, somehow already had a guess in her mind.

It was a correct guess, for at least all the other things Elizabeth had failed to guess.

Gilbert was leaning to the corridor wall, shoulders slumped in a slant lazy way, half-drenched clothes folded messily as it hung around his right arm, his cheeks were catching dirt and mud while the fresh bandage wrapped around his left arm remained stood out, along with the splintered purplish scar marking his neck like a disgusting collar.

It didn’t suit him at all; the way he’s looking like a punished dog right now.

He gazed at him with half-lidded eyes, slightly widened to register her presence when she had opened the door in a hurry.

“Well, well.” Elizabeth sucked her teeth, scanning him again from head to toe. “What kind of car ran through you just before?”

Gilbert gave her a sloppy smile, the boyish charming one he used to flash back when they’re still teenagers. “A truck, actually.”

“What—”

Words falling back as he hunched forward, hugging Elizabeth slightly too tight for being just a greeting, his jacket dropped to the floor as he wrapped his right arm around her back to push Elizabeth closer to him. His head’s resting on the crook of her neck despite their painful height difference, breath’s stuttering warm through the material of Elizabeth’s sweatshirt.

Elizabeth sighed, giving in to him, pressing her face to lean on Gilbert’s shoulders, soft taps onto his back creating a looping motion that she hoped would calm him down. She inhaled, expecting to find sandalwood and peppermint—but all he reeked was the strong odor of hospital antiseptic.

“What happened?” she muffled against Gilbert’s old, thin shirt, which probably had seen enough to answer her question.

She felt his head shifted, only to pull himself closer to her. “I just realized,” he mumbled, “that I never hug you properly until now.”

Elizabeth let out a chuckle. “I hugged you all the time in that church, every time I found your eyes red in the middle of the night as you kept saying crying is for the weak.”

“That was involuntary—” he hiccupped “—I-I didn’t ask for that! And I wasn’t crying.”

“Yeah, keep telling yourself that.” Elizabeth burst into a complete laugh this time, vibrating under Gilbert’s hold. “I’ll hug you anyway, as always.”

She ran her hand down through his spine to rest on his waist when suddenly his breath hitched and Gilbert pulled away abruptly, hissing in pain. His right hand ghostly tapped on his left side, stuttering a whimper as he did so.

And Elizabeth was left hugging the air, quickly shoved her stiff arms down when she realized they were still in the corridor. She grabbed his jacket that sprawled on the floor, stepped back into the room, clearing her throat as she nervously picked up her remote to turn the television on, a singsong soon washed over the prior silence in the room. The door was let wide open for Gilbert to come in, still groaning about his wrecked left side when he crouched down to untie his shoes in the hallway.

“Do you need help?” Elizabeth felt her voice echo distantly inside her head.

Gilbert, sounding horrified, hands shaking to do the simplest pull over the lace of his shoes, frantically shook his head. “I’m fine! Just let me be.”

She arched her eyebrow. “Okay. Make yourself at home.” And then proceeded to hang his jacket near the windowsill where she sat earlier, praying for it to be dry by the time Gilbert decided to leave.

Elizabeth was preparing two glasses of water to be set down on the table when the television screen was cut into a flash news, the anchorman’s speaking quickly in regard to the bold, capitalized headline appeared at the bottom of the screen.

DOWNTOWN TRUCK STRIKE!

14 DEATHS, 37 INJURED.

Elizabeth’s mouth agape when the news showed the current situation of the scene, with piles of cars being parked in the wrongest way possible through one of the streets she often passed, she remembered her favorite bakery was just across the intersection. Possibly untouched, but imagine the horror in the old lady’s face when she witnessed the aftermath of the accident.

She didn’t notice Gilbert who had been standing at the end of the hallway after successfully stripping off his shoes and socks, eyes blinking wearily to the flashing light of her television. He flinched, when the camera switched to shoot a particular spot of the scene, where a truck had originally crashed the sidewalk and possibly caused some other men to fly forward; shattered glass from the two buildings behind told the entire story.

“Ah—” Elizabeth, swallowing down a lot of questions, reached her remote and turned off the television. The cold silence from earlier stretched again, now somewhat explained in between their distance. Elizabeth kindly raised a smile at him, inviting Gilbert to sit on the carpeted floor next to her, with his awaiting glass of warm water.

Gilbert reluctantly followed where she gestured to him to sit, carefully seating himself as he didn’t want to worsen his wounds, draining the water as soon as he grabbed the glass. “Thanks,” he said roughly, probably shocked himself with how aggressive he drank the water.

“Don’t mention it.” Elizabeth dragged herself closer to him, exchanging a bit of her warmth in where their arms to hips were pressed together, not so firm to cause him another blaring pain, both of their backs were leaning into the wooden frame of Elizabeth’s bed. “Have you eaten dinner? I have one earlier outside, but I don’t mind ordering a delivery—”

“Yuriko bought me a takeout at the hospital.” He coughed, briefly meeting Elizabeth’s curious eyes, before departing to linger at his empty glass. “And yeah, I don’t have much appetite either.”

“Yuriko knows?”

“She was… at the scene too, helping me work through the hospital procedures. By helping, I mean, scolding me. Really.” He chuckled. “She didn’t stay, though. Busy office lady.”

“Why didn’t Yuriko tell me straight away? I mean, I get it that you would have troubles contacting me with that condition of yours, but—at least I could watch over you in the hospital if someone were to let me know! You look like you shouldn’t leave that soon anyway.”

He hissed, cutting through whatever Elizabeth had to continue. “I told Yuriko not to say anything to you. And I don’t think the higher-ups would like me to stay more than one day, so I better be preparing from now if I don’t want to be kicked tomorrow.”

“Why?”

Elizabeth had his fingers twined with hers, holding him with so much certainty that made Gilbert’s eyes sail back to hers. “Why, do you mean the first point of the second?”

“Both.” Gilbert’s eyes winced and Elizabeth did nothing but to pierce through. “I believe both answers are linked, am I right?”

“Duh, how am I supposed to tell you if you’re already this worried? Like I said before, it’s nothing really. Just another consequence came true. Nothing special.”

“You didn’t…” Elizabeth ran her tongue along her teeth, considering her words for a second. “You didn’t upset anyone from the higher ranks, did you?”

“No!” And that came a little bit too fast than Elizabeth expected. “Definitely not.” He let out a stuttering breath, throwing his head back to the soft sheet of Elizabeth’s bed, eyes shut tight. “Listen, I’ll tell you somehow. But not today, okay? It’s already too much for me to process.”

Elizabeth ignored the aching from her chest when Gilbert slipped his fingers out of her grasp, pulling his fine arm up to cover up his eyes, shoulders chasing with his breathing.

Moment like this, moment that looked like they were defeated, Elizabeth hated it the most. The push and pull that never seemed to go anywhere, almost a setback to everything they had worked on together. Like the way they would never tell each other the truth—lovers or not—pretending that everything’s okay when it’s clearly not. They said I love you the other day, but not I trust you, even though it’s supposed to come in one package.

And at the end of the day, they would meet a dead end and laughed it off like it never happened, somehow found another way to get through both of them, only to meet another dead end.

The lightning struck, white smite appeared in Elizabeth’s window and followed by a hammering growl that traveled into the static atmosphere inside. Gilbert kept still, though he’s shivering through the sound, wet white hair blended into Elizabeth’s gray plaid sheet. Elizabeth let her frustration simmer low behind her mind now, she pushed on her feet and rummaged her bedside drawer, immediately finding what she’s searching for.

When she turned to Gilbert, he already had his eyes on her, staring at her in between his eyelids with his brows knitted together upon recognizing the tube in her hand.

“How many of those do you have?!”

Elizabeth flicked the tube open, shoving the thought of straddling him to avoid resistance, and gently moved to his other side—his left side—and rolled up his shirt until the reddish spots that gathered in the line of his hips came apparent in contrast of his overall pale skin, earning a whine from Gilbert.

“How’s the one I gave you?” She applied the white cream from the tube to the spot right under his rib cage, carefully making circular motion and pressed as light as possible. Gilbert quivered, biting back whatever curse he wanted to spit even though his face said it all. “You don’t lose my ointment again, do you?”

“Perfectly placed next to my DVD player.” He hissed when Elizabeth moved to the next bruise. “I’ll make use of it when I come back.”

“Great.” She tapped mildly at the bruise, where the blood had flowed and trapped beneath. “That’s what I like to hear, in exchange for your blockhead telling me to stop asking questions.”

Gilbert didn’t respond to that, his right arm shifted to help Elizabeth keep his shirt rolled up, rattling his teeth instead of making noises every time Elizabeth found a new spot. When she’s done, her gaze trailed up into his neck, her finger stopped midway upon Gilbert’s sleepy eyes widened in alarm, flinching away from Elizabeth until his back was fully pressed against her bed frame.

“No good?” Elizabeth asked, and saw emotions flashed across his eyes before he shook his head weak. It’s yet again the silent vulnerability Gilbert had let her see, though how far she was from understanding him. Like what she always did again and again, Elizabeth nodded in retreat. “Okay.” She closed the lid and tossed it back into her drawer. “Make sure to tend it when you get back.”

Gilbert hummed in response, eyes glued to his jacket hanging by the window, still wet and dripping a little. And when he’s looking past to the window, if he truly did, he should have known that the pouring wouldn’t last until the next sunrise. Not to Elizabeth’s much surprise to see him being an idiot when he got up and tried to grab his jacket, face’s determined to leave.

“What are you doing?” Elizabeth had stopped him, as she got a hold of the jacket first before him, dampness tickled her fingers.

“I should go,” he said with a deadpan. “I shouldn’t have come, really, if it’s going to make you bewildered so much.”

“Cut that out. We already had this conversation before.” She exhaled, registering the returning headache. “You should have told me about the freaking accident in the first place. And no, I’m not going to let you drench your wound again, trying to push your luck home into the rain.”

Gilbert’s jaw clenched, and his next excuse got cut out right away when it’s already on his tongue.

“You’re letting me stay at your place last time. Should I return the favor? Stay here, if you don’t get it already.”

Something in Gilbert’s cold eyes cracked, his hand reaching for the jacket dropped to his side. Elizabeth felt relieved rushing through her veins when he stepped back to sit on her bed, the frame was so low that he could almost stretch his entire legs into the floor. He then chuckled, though it stuttered between his trembling wound. “You do know what happened the last time this happened right?” His finger pointed between him and her, until Elizabeth caught up what he meant, the warmth in her cheeks turned hotter while the red probably deepened to the point Gilbert just smirked in victory. “I got assaulted—there I said it!”

“You absolute moron. I just had to, okay? Because nobody did anything when they’re supposed to!”

“Yeah, yeah. Are you going to assault me now too, hm?”

Elizabeth took a step forward, fist clenched as stares pinned grimly at him. She really planned to straddle him until there’s a beg of mercy heard—if not for his wounds. So Elizabeth just pushed him into her bed, until his head hit her pillow, too gently and so undeserving of Gilbert’s shocked face. And she let herself fall to the other side of the bed, the force bounced the startled Gilbert. Her giggles filled the room, easing the tension from earlier.

“Pervert,” Gilbert muttered, but snuggled his way closer to Elizabeth anyway, closing the distance between until they’re facing each other with his right side pressed to the sheet, curling his feet to fit the length of Elizabeth’s bed. Elizabeth mirrored him, without having to curl her feet, keeping their gazes locked in the shadow of each other. The dim light flickered from the dining room, whistling a hidden code. “What do you want from me now?”

“I don’t know,” she replied fast, whispering to the air they exchanged in the small bubble they created. The rushing downpour outside kept time for both of them. “Just… staring at you, I guess?”

Pervert.”

Elizabeth snorted, silently taking notes on how flawless Gilbert’s face was, even with those unshed dirt and mud. She reached out to sweep the soft skin under his eyes, where the dark circles had formed. “I want to cuddle you all night, but you’ll scream in pain anyway so nope.”

“I’m not that weak, you know.”

“Yeah, but you’re that in pain when I tightened my hold earlier.”

“I…” His left arm, the bandaged one, moved to rest just above Elizabeth’s waist, slipping underneath her arm. Warmth traveled from the point of contact, and it triggered an involuntary smile from Elizabeth as she leaned more into the touch. “I can only do this for now. Is it okay?”

She nodded weakly. “It’s the best… for now.” Her finger stilled on him, Gilbert’s long eyelashes tickled her knuckle while they wavered in sleepiness. She grew sleepy too when listening to their even breathing, with Gilbert’s firm hand keeping her safe from all the possible nightmare for tonight. She watched as his eyes fluttered shut, barely keeping it open the moment Elizabeth retreated her finger.

She muffed her laugh by biting her lips; decided to tease him a little longer before one of them gave in to their exhaustion.

“Can I ask something?”

He grumbled, not bothering to open his eyes.

“Do you think…” Elizabeth licked her lips, mischief written across her tone. “Should I be your guardian angel instead?”

That definitely snapped a nerve or two on Gilbert because his eyes opened way too wide from almost drifting to sleep. He swallowed, voice’s thick and hoarse around the edge, tottering in visible panic. “Why would you?!”

“Well, I mean, you’re always getting yourself injured! At this point, you might as well die not long after mine! Clumsy little guy, getting hit here and there when trying to send off souls.”

Gilbert looked at her, like he never looked at her before. Frowning, he spoke slowly for Elizabeth to grasp the whole of it after considering it in a long silence. “Serious question, but have you found someone you want to protect?”

Elizabeth, not expecting it, hitched from the statement. She didn’t mean to bring it serious, but with Gilbert—snapped open thanks to her jokes—staring at him with all the wonders he had for her, Elizabeth couldn’t think of any better way to play it off.

“Yeah.” She gulped, lump’s big on her throat. “What about it?”

She expected him to ask who, but the question never arrived. Instead, Gilbert smiled and shut his eyes close again, pressing the side of his face more into the big pillow they shared together until his lips brushed against it. “Nothing. I’m just glad to know you already got things figured out.”

“Huh?” She pouted, a little sad that Gilbert couldn’t see it. “But I meant it, you know! Stop getting yourself hurt. I can’t guard two people at once. Also, I don’t think it’s possible and allowed either.”

“Then don’t,” he retorted. “Just do your job lawfully and make your life at ease.”

“Not if you continue being reckless after that.” Elizabeth huffed, and Gilbert chuckled to her angry breath. “I’ll do my job lawfully and have my life at ease, if you do the same too. How about that?”

“Fair enough.”

“I’m serious!”

“Yeah, yeah. Surely.”

“You’ll have to pinky-promise me in the morning.”

“Childish!”

“I changed my mind.” Elizabeth grabbed Gilbert’s unoccupied right hand and forcefully intertwined their pinky fingers together, pulling out a grunt from Gilbert, eyes half opened and body’s half raised to counter Elizabeth’s abrupt move. “I want it to be right now.”

“Seriously?! It can’t wait?”

“So, Gilbert Bernhagen. Promise you’ll take care of yourself more and stop getting me worried!”

Gilbert stoned, glaring at their linked pinky fingers together before sighing and slamming his head back to the pillow. “Anything for you, Miss Elizabeth.”

“Say it like you mean it!”

“I, Gilbert Bernhagen, swear to God with the remaining consciousness I have now, that I’ll do anything this lady said, uh, Miss Elizabeth A… Almi… Alussy—”

“Oh my God. You are literally the worst.”

“Thank you!”

“Never a compliment.”

After a moment of just watching him battling himself to stay asleep, Elizabeth exhaled, sending a warm puff of breath as a good night to their longest day. Their fingers remained laced loosely on each other; another touch they could hold on—at least until the night’s over.

***

The jacket was mostly dry by the next morning, with the leather part still being moist from overnight drying. Elizabeth had woken up earlier when she heard shuffling steps against her carpet, limbs cold for the lack of any warmth source other than her faraway heater.

It’s five in the morning, sun’s out of sight, dew’s barely bubbling in her potted plants’ leaves, yet Gilbert had already worked on his attempt to slide his left arm safely into the sleeves of his jacket, stifling ouch, ouch every now and then.

“Can you just…” Elizabeth yawned, stretching her sore arms from having to sleep sideways. “Can you wait until the sunrise, at the very least?”

“Would love to.” Gilbert let out a louder groan when his left arm finally got in, probably bleeding along the way. “I’m supposed to work on new schedules today, yet the damn envelope sure takes it time arriving.” He pulled out his phone from the pocket, eyes squinting to the rush of small texts he scrolled through. “Well, my landlord notified me someone stuffed a letter into my box last night. Gotta check it quick, or I’ll be screwed if I were to miss my first case today.”

Elizabeth got up, turning on the master light until her studio apartment lit up to the details. She might look like a lion whose sleep schedule was disturbed right now, judging from Gilbert’s odd stares—but as if he was any better with the growing eye bags that cast his eyes like a weight of unwanted shadow. The headquarter should have granted him a day off or two, given they knew how bad yesterday went, but from what Elizabeth grasped out of their futile conversation last night, that wouldn’t seem to be the case. Otherwise, Yuriko—well, she knew exactly what happened—had already worked on getting him a permission from the higher-ups.

“Is there something on my face?” Gilbert tilted his head, jolting Elizabeth awake from blanking out further. She shook her head, running her hands through her hair to untangle the split-ends, making herself at least look presentable for the morning.

“You still have dirt from yesterday,” she said, thankfully not as wavering as she expected. “I have clean water, you know? In the bathroom.”

Gilbert laughed, pocketing back his phone. “Okay, okay. I wish I could say similar things to your amazing bed hair.”

“Shut up.”

When Gilbert returned from the bathroom, water slightly dripping past his jawline, he was greeted by Elizabeth leaning next to the bathroom door, in the hallway leading to the exit. In her hand was a red, wool-knitted scarf, looked thick enough to be worn during late-winter months. She startled him again by wrapping the scarf around his neck, tying it into a neat knot that was not too tight to choke his neck, but firm enough to cover the bruises beneath.

“This is too warm for March, isn’t it?” Gilbert tugged on the scarf, caressing the soft material with his hand. His pale cheeks beamed up despite his idle comment, and it was enough to make Elizabeth’s glow too. “I still have yours from last month—”

“You can keep them.” she said, taking notes on how perfect she tied the knot. “Consider it as a gift.”

“I never ask for a g—”

“Come on! Don’t girlfriends and boyfriends exchange casual gifts once in a while?” She grinned, while Gilbert gave her a puzzled look. “It may be too warm for now, but you can always wear it next winter!”

“Next… winter?”

“Yeah. Isn’t winter—uh— a yearly thing?”

“Well, right.” He looked away and went to scratch his cheeks, the flush crept further to his ears. “What about you? Will you be fine next winter?”

Elizabeth didn’t register the question and only laughed, until something big and overwhelming settled in her stomach—to the realization that there wouldn’t be a next one for her.

“Of course, dummy!” She swallowed, washing the sourness at the back of her tongue. “Angels can’t catch a cold. Have you seen one wearing a scarf?”

“Not really. They’re difficult to spot.”

“Are they?”

“Yeah.”

Perhaps the conversation itself was a mistake, because Gilbert’s voice grew thick and cold, and Elizabeth couldn’t bring herself to look him in the eye. She only wished for him not to take off the scarf and refused it. He liked it, after all, and Elizabeth just generally worried over him and his lack of self-preservation.

Before the air could get heavier, Gilbert broke the tension and turned to where his shoes were left last night, untouched and damp, sliding his feet one at a time and bent down to tie it. He stifled a hiss, continued working sloppily on the lace until it’s proper enough not to fail him during his way home.

“Text me when you’re home.” Elizabeth walked past him, turned on her heels and got on one knee to poke on his shoes before fixing the knot for him. “And get enough sleep.”

She moved to his other shoes, pulling the edge of the lace and redid the tie. She tightened it, testing the ribbon knot by stretching it, tucking the loose end of the laces in between the cross section so Gilbert could not trip on it somewhere in his walk. Looked pretty neat, and safer too, Elizabeth felt quite pleased with her work.

When she looked up to see whether Gilbert liked it or not, a pair of dark eyes stilled on their level, like they’re trying to search for something in Elizabeth’s. And Elizabeth was left searching for the ‘thing’ too, if that’s what needed for both of them right now.

He blinked, and the intensity didn’t leave, crawling its way into Elizabeth’s heart and craving a scar there, as a reminder that once in a moment of their lives, they had this. In all of its imperfection of two young souls trying to learn how to give their best shots of loving each other in a short, impossible time they’re given, they actually went somewhere and stayed, even after a long row of bumpy rivers with no certainty when they would reach the ocean. They actually grew a garden between them, watering flowers that would just wither next season. But if anyone’s looking for a lifetime beauty—a lifetime love—then they would have trouble searching for their whole lives, because the right time to enjoy beauty—to enjoy love—was no other than at the moment they saw it.

“Liz.” His gaze softened, lips ghostly caressed her forehead. It was real when Elizabeth opened her eyes again, because his fingers still lingered to push her hair away from her face, sliding a handful of it behind her ear. “Thanks.”

“It’s nothing really. I was just making sure you don’t step on your lace or something—”

“—for everything.”

She felt her chest tight, and the number on her collarbone suddenly weighed more than the world, chaining her down to the bottom of the ocean where she couldn’t breathe.

“No, it’s—” her eyes burnt, and the beat of her heart stung “—stupid, don’t make it sound like one of us are going to die today.”

Gilbert only chuckled to that, like he totally didn’t catch on the wave of emotions Elizabeth allowed to cross on her face.

“I’m serious,” he continued, finger moving to smooth her frown, the exact spot he had kissed her earlier. “Thank you for trying. With me, I mean. That you think I’m worth enough to try for, even when you don’t have much time left. Even when… I’m being too difficult sometimes.”

His words echoed a few times in her ears, ringing like an emergency alert she never wanted to receive. Elizabeth had waved him a goodbye when she watched him disappear into her apartment’s lift, not having the slightest idea that Gilbert would not ever return as the same person the next time they met.

***

Heels knocking on the marble floors as clean as a mirror, Yuriko made her way fast through the empty corridor, navigating her way into a certain room she had in her mind. It’s barely morning, and she’s already dressed for work with files on her hands and watch digging to the skin of her wrist, worn a little too tight because she was rushing to leave her house this dawn, not bothering to care about that.

She just had to meet someone in this very time, for that person was known for being the busiest man in the headquarter.

Skipping the polite ‘knocking on the door’ part, she barged into the room and found Azrael sitting on his office chair, legs stretched on his desk as he thrust back and forth the wheel of his chair, undercut hair combed messy at the top, fingers playing with the pen he’s supposed to use to sign piles of paperwork. His robe was hung somewhere near the floor lamp, revealing the neat formal attire he wore underneath much like anyone else in the headquarter—just with the addition of tailored waistcoat and flashier silky tie that clearly set a line between him and his underlings.

Azrael raised an eyebrow, upon watching Yuriko scanning the whole room and noticed they were just alone.

“I thought you would come to me faster than this, like last night maybe.” He smirked, tossing the pen to the desk. “Well, I know you’ll get me eventually. So I just wait.”

“You’re being overboard yesterday,” Yuriko claimed, adjusting her glasses before approaching his desk, silently judging the tall piles of unsigned paperwork that was supposed to be due today. “Some other workers did worse than Gilbert, yet you never went as far as choking and… manipulating them, or sort of.”

Dark eyes peered her down, and Yuriko had to tighten her gut not to tremble under his scrutiny. “Just because you’re friends with him doesn’t mean you can condone his deed.”

“I didn’t!” Yuriko curled her first that she hid under the pocket of her blazer. “I’m just asking what in the world were you trying to do with him yesterday since it seemed so unnecessary. And you’re not putting him on trials or giving him any sort of punishment. That’s odd, considering he crossed the line. And the fact that you were so angry about it.” She ran her tongue to the back of her teeth, tasting sourness instead of the flavor of her toothpaste. “You must be up to something.”

“No, no. I don’t, Yuriko. Why?” He put on puppy eyes, as if it suited his whole demeanor. Yuriko clicked her tongue, earning a croaky laugh from Azrael. He was laughing, but the atmosphere got heavier, the same way it got darker yesterday on the street where the accident happened. Yuriko, having to deal with similar things over years, certainly disliked that. And she hated it more than ever now that her friends were involved. “Why are you distrusting me now? Shouldn’t you be thankful that I go easy on him? I told you last time to watch over him in case things like this happened. And see what you did now, blaming me for something that’s ought to be directed to yourself.”

Yuriko let out a stuttering breath, not sure if she’s mad with herself or Azrael. This thing shouldn’t even happen; the whole fucking deal between her and him. It dragged them for so long, making her relationship with Elizabeth miserable, got her into a fight with Gilbert, ruining her peaceful office life with the raising stake. And now that Azrael actually made a move to hurt Gilbert, Yuriko let her blood reach the boiling point, pouring over her when she’s this close to snap, only to be reminded again that she’s, in fact, powerless to one of the Archangels who looked nothing like what she looked up to.

And when she’s back to her house again, alone with the drumming silence of her thoughts, she’d drop to the floor and cry, blaming everything to herself of all the misfortune that had befallen her friends. The worst thing was, she couldn’t ask for help. Not when Gilbert on his hospital bed making her swear not to tell Elizabeth anything, stitched left arm and clearly traumatized as he absently touched his neck several times between finishing his takeout meals and talking with her. Not when Elizabeth was available to talk to even if Gilbert hadn’t asked her anything. And not that… Yuriko had anyone else other than both of them.

Sometimes, she’d stop herself from trying to live and look back to all the decisions she made, accusing herself out of guilt that nothing would ever happen between them if she hadn’t accepted the seat offer in the headquarter in the first place. That perhaps there would be a world where she could still be together with the two of them, teasing them about dating each other without having to worry of it coming true—because she’s sure as hell would gladly accept being a bridesmaid one day, or doubling as a best man if that idiot Gilbert didn’t have any friends.

Instead, here she was, keeping herself from crumbling apart, continuing to play as a pawn in someone else’s game. The moment she lost, she got discarded.

“Worry not, sir. It won’t happen again.” And being a robot, apparently. Yuriko straightened up her posture, putting herself together again as she dared to look directly into Azrael, now observing her back with an amused grin. “So you’re just letting him go like that?”

“Like that,” Azrael replied, pressing the vowels and savoring it like a supper. “I like him, don’t you know? I told you before. The rebel, the bite more than he could chew, the typical kind of guy who will never give up until he tastes his own medicine. I think he’s an interesting dynamic to our boring work circle. That’s why—”

Yuriko’s eyes widened when Azrael reluctantly handed her a piece of file. It looked normal at first, a week-worth schedule for a day-shift reaper, typed and printed nicely so the reaper could comprehend their tasks easily. The one she received was a copy though, and boy, Azrael had to love the horrified look on Yuriko when she realized she was holding and reading Gilbert’s copy of his one week onward schedule.

“That’s why I give him a little gift; the exact one he wants right now.”

***

It’s over.

Gilbert had fucked up.

Things went perfectly fine the morning he left Elizabeth’s apartment. The weather was too good to be true; breezy enough to cool him down, warm enough to let him breathe. A pattern of droplets dripping from roofs, creating a clear pool within the pavement he’s strolling, and the streetlights guiding him home. The smell of after-rain soil was calming, and for once Gilbert didn’t mind filling his lungs with it after a whole day of burning them.

Elizabeth’s scarfs, and the smell of her home, made it ten times better.

It wasn’t until he arrived at his door, hands rummaging the inside of his mailbox, finding the one he needed to start the day. Without thinking, he ripped the envelope open and slid out the paper with his two fingers, the other hand turned the key to his room as he barged into his private space, not bothering to take off his shoes because he knew it’d take another two hours to get it done.

Pushing the door shut, he hurriedly turned the light on, the flickering washed over the previously obscure space into a more recognizable room. It’s 6 AM, Gilbert sat on his bed and read the first pile of the documents he received, aka the schedule for today, pounding hearts breathed in relief as he read 9 AM, local hospital for his first client. That indicated he still had around two hours to goof around before the first work of the week.

With twitching eyes, he scanned another pile of documents, for tomorrow, the day after, the next one, and so on, already taking mental notes on the route and action he’d need to take. Frankly, this week’s schedule wasn’t as bizarre as last week, he smirked a victory grin and marked some of the ‘more relaxed’ days, thinking all different date scenarios with Elizabeth.

It was going alright.

He was almost happy.

The last page of the document, however, the last day of the week—once again took everything away from him. Like another crash of disaster waiting for its turn to cross with Gilbert’s destiny, another grim reminder that his and Elizabeth’s happiness were something fragile; easily broken, easily vanished, easily shattered.

Gilbert’s heart sank to the bottom of the doom, this time might never float back.

Time: 7 PM

Location: District 8

The text had said in bold printing, definitely wasn’t a moving text coming from a futuristic technology-like digital magazine at all, though the more Gilbert stared at it, the blurry it got, the quicker it spun, until he felt like the words were flying out of the paper one by one.

Cause of death: blood loss.

He still had not realized that he was the one shaking. That his sense was the one leaving out of his body. That he gripped the paper so hard, he almost tore it apart.

Name of client: Elizabeth Almássy.

.

.

.

.

Her last name tasted strange in his tongue. If this was how he finally learnt her last name, it’d be better if he never knew at all until the end, he thought.


Time remaining: 6 days.

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