Chloe bit in the curse as her coffee spilled all over her hand and down her skirt.
"You're twenty tomorrow and you still don't know where your mouth is," Mel snickered and dragged Chloe into the bathroom. The cold water was worse than the burning coffee.
"I think it's going to be one of those days," Chloe grumbled. She snatched her hand back and turned off the tap, then rolled the toilet roll until it cascaded onto the floor. She tore it off and wrapped it round her hand. "Thanks, Mel."
Her friend's face was red with suppressed laughter and her shoulders trembled. Chloe could even see those huge hooped earrings shaking. I swear everyday is 'one of those days,' with you. You'll probably trip into your own grave."
"That's a little morbid." Chloe grinned.
Mel shrugged and said with mock gravity, "You know it to be true." Lightening her tone she continued, "Come on, Danny's waiting for us with our suitcase."
"Dammit," Chloe said. She splashed water onto her skirt, then tried futilely to dry it with the hand-dryer. The coffee stain didn't come off, and the water only served to highlight the mark. Chloe sighed, "I don't know why I care."
"Do you?" Mel responded.
"Do you care?"
Chloe was silent for a moment, running her fingers through her short, blonde bunches. When she opened her mouth to speak, Mel interrupted her, "That answers my question."
Chloe idly wiped at the coffee stain. "I don't want this trip to be ruined."
"It's not as though you two ever went out. Just say it as it is, Danny will back off. This weekend doesn't have to be awkward if you don't let it become an issue."
"I don't know what I feel though."
"Then at least make sure she knows that, or you'll just be misleading her."
Chloe punched Mel's shoulder. "Stop giving good advice, it's not helping."
"Sure thing. Come one, you can sit in the front seat next to Danny." Mel smirked and opened the door to the coffee house. Some people stared at her skirt as she walked towards the exit, but Chloe refused to make eye contact with any of them.
Danny was leaning on her car, her long brunette hair moving in the wind. That car. It was at least forty years old, with peeling red paint and a rusted body. It was a heat trap, and the smell gave her a light headache. But it also reminded Chloe of night-time drives with Danny, of going to the supermarket and buying an armful each of junk food, of finding a secluded spot, climbing onto the roof, and watching the stars whilst stuffing their faces and laughing at the world. Whilst Danny had stroked her hair.
Chloe grimaced at the wonderful memories. Although even on those nights nothing had ever happened between them, she did feel as though their friendship could be more, like she might want there to be more. So how could she not care? Some days it was easy, for Danny was strange, she would be hyper one day, and the next be introvert, she would switch between being silent and yelling at her, would be over-protective and say that their night-time drive was too dangerous, then go for a walk in the middle of the night alone with no way to contact her. It was a tough friendship, and she didn't know if she could handle the mood swings if she were in a relationship with her.
Chloe smiled back at Danny. The brunette's smile was infectious, one that radiated with wrinkles of happiness covering her entire face. They embraced. Chloe felt Danny stroking her hair, and Chloe breathed in the musty smell of Danny. They squeezed each other mutually before they let go. Chloe felt a pang. It was a Good day. She couldn't let onto her grievances on one of Danny's Good days.
Chloe pushed the chair down for Mel to get in the back. Danny turned the ignition. The car sounded as though it wouldn't catch, then spluttered into life. They roared off. The weekend had begun. Chloe hoped she would still be friends with the girl sitting next to her at the end of these three days.
Mel complained about the smell of the car and wound the window down, grumbling that she had to do it manually. She then proceeded to question the car's ability to get them to their location - a little seaside house three hours away. Chloe and Danny looked to each other and smiled. Danny put her index finger to her lips. They knew the car would make it. They knew that - despite how it sounded and appeared - the car was a fighter.
"Stop worrying, Mel, and enjoy the journey," Danny shouted over the noise of the engine and the wind.
Mel's reply was drowned out, so Danny leaned down and turned the volume of the music up.
The drive was as uneventful as Chloe had expected.
The house was neat and clean. The flowery sofa smelt of suntan lotion. Maps and things-to-do booklets covered the little table in front of it. The carpet gave way to the linoleum of the kitchen, and they clambered the stairs with their bags to two bedrooms. They agreed that Mel and Chloe would be sharing the twin room and Danny would have the double to herself. Chloe swung her bag down onto the starchy sheets. "So, what do you want to do first?"
Mel collapsed onto her bed and put her arm over her eyes. "Rest. That car is horrid."
Chloe rolled her eyes. "Do you mind if me and Danny check out the area?"
Mel mumbled something, then rolled onto her front, making her big earrings jangle. Chloe turned to see Danny leaning against the doorframe. Her friend smiled. "It's just you and me then?"
Light snores came from where Mel lay. Chloe was jealous as to how quickly she could get to sleep. "I guess so." It wouldn't be too bad, she told herself. Today as a Good day, it needn't be ruined. She had three days to say how she felt and, like Mel had said, nothing had ever happened between them. There was no need to bring the issue up today. A voice in her head reminded her it was her twentieth tomorrow, and then after that time to go home. She couldn't leave it until then, things were different when you weren't at home. It would be easier to just say it now. "Let's go find a restaurant to eat at tonight," she said cheerfully.
Danny frowned. Walked up to her. Stroked her bunches. "You okay?"
That was the issue when you were so close to someone: they always knew what you were really feeling. "I'm just annoyed about my skirt. I'll meet you downstairs after I've changed it."
Chloe brushed out her shoulder-length hair, then tidied it back into bunches. She stared at the complimentary paper on the table between the two beds. Drew out the chair. Sat down. Wrote two letters, one in blue pen and one in black pen. She put both letters in her jean's pocket and ran back down to Danny.
The sun was low in the sky now. The seagulls were calling to one another, diving in and out of the orange-tinted water for their own dinner. A distinct waft of fish and chips made Chloe's mouth water. Her stomach rumbled. They'd been walking around for an hour now. As they talked and laughed, Danny had kept brushing her hand against Chloe's arm and stroking her bunches. Chloe did nothing to dissuade her from such actions, but made no advances herself.
Danny stopped Chloe outside a posh-looking fish and chips restaurant and said, "Mel looked exhausted. Want to get something together, then take some chips back for her?"
Chloe's heart jumped. She didn't know how to take that, was it just a casual dinner? Or did Danny expect something from her?
"We should get Mel," Chloe whispered.
Danny took Chloe's head in her hands. She stroked her bunches. "I want to have dinner with you, Chloe. Alone." Chloe's vision blurred and she looked away. "What's wrong? I thought you wanted this." There was an edge to Danny's tone, an intonation that only sounded on a Bad day. Chloe reached into her pocket, gave Danny one of the letters written on the complimentary paper, then ran back to the house before Danny had even peeled up the corner, and let Fate decide her choice.
Chloe burst into the bedroom, crying out Mel's name. But she wasn't there. Chloe walked across the room to the table, wondering if she had left a note. But a click made her turn. Who she encountered was not her friend, it couldn't be. Even though she had those same large hooped earrings and perfect complexion, this girl stood with a gun pointed at her with the safety drawn back and her finger on the trigger.
Chloe swallowed, but her saliva got stuck in her throat. Her eyes watered, but she was too scared to even choke. She stepped backwards again and again, until she hit the window. She couldn't speak, couldn't ask the simple question: Why?
But Mel did not answer the unasked question, and in the silence Chloe thought of the significance that it was Mel who had suggested the trip, Mel who had booked it all for them as a 'Birthday treat to Chloe'.
Without a warning there came a single bang. A burst of pain. A crash. Excruciating pain. Freedom. Falling. Falling. A hitch. Serenity. Something as soft as duck's down. Calm. Floating. Hard ground.
Chloe coughed and inhaled in a strange rhythm that embraced the sensation of oxygen entering her lungs. She pressed her hands down onto grass and glass. She looked up to see the window she had fallen from. She frowned, too distressed and confused to concentrate on anything but breathing.
When she had calmed enough to look around her, she nearly broke. For flying above her, with the aid of two huge, golden wings, was Danny. As well as having the ability to fly now, she also seemed to have grown.
Tears pricked Chloe's eyes. Her head spun. Yet all that came to her was a desperate, tearing need in her heart to tell her she loved her. With shaking hands, Chloe took out the other letter in her jeans. She opened it to see blue ink. Chloe snapped her head up as Danny crumpled a piece of paper in her hand. Chloe could almost imagine those black words seeping into her friend's skin, crawling up her veins, and entering her heart to fuel her better than blood. Danny threw the letter. As it floated down and mocked her with its black ink, Chloe spluttered,"No." Then, more forceful, "No! You have the wrong letter!"
She rushed forward. Danny put her hand up, and Chloe smacked into an invisible wall. What power did her friend possess? How badly had she taken that letter which was packed with frightened lies? How could she possibly explain any of this to her now? She didn't care that Danny had kept all this from her - she had never allowed her to get close enough to be able to tell her a secret as deep as this.
She slammed her paper to the barrier. But before Danny saw her blue-inked words, another winged girl flew from nowhere to land on the ground near her invisible barrier. She stood an elegant, obnoxious, eight feet tall. Her stance was turned slightly sideways, showing off her almost non-existent stomach, with her hands on her hips to reveal the muscles on her arms. But Chloe spent little time focusing on these small details, for she also had red wings sprouting out of her back. Her lips gave the illusion of a lop-sided smile due to the scar running down the left side of her face. Her heavy-lidded grey eyes held so little life that they may as well be made of stone, her short, choppy, mahogany hair swished in the wind. Her skin was paper-white, with blue veins pulsing all over her body. She wore a revealing black dress, which was made of too little material to be restrictive. She sauntered up to her barrier, but she swayed too much and her eyelids drooped too low. She looked like a hardened drug addict pretending to be attractive. She punched through the invisible barrier and clutched Chloe's neck. Sharp fingernails pierced Chloe's skin and squeezed. Another hand was placed over her face, blocking her nose, until she had no way to breathe. She couldn't even whimper. The red-winged girl jerked her hand back, and Chloe's head hit the invisible barrier.
The girl looked up towards Danny and said nonchalantly, "Seven years without you has been a long time. After this, we need to talk."
Despite the ringing in her ears, Chloe heard a scream. A thump. Then she was released.
She didn't want to look to where the sound had come from, but her morbid side couldn't help it. She looked. The red-winged girl was now leaning where Mel had landed. She took out a small cylinder - Chloe didn't want to know where she had been hiding that - and shook it. The cylinder elongated and changed into a scythe. Its smooth, silver blade reflected the moon. Its crimson handle glistened.
"Get away from her!" Danny landed heavily in front of Chloe, the ground cracking beneath her feet. She folded her wings and shook out a cylinder of her own into a golden scythe.
The girl looked up. "You know the rules, Danny. Do what I didn't seven years ago, and put your scythe away." The girl turned back to Mel, draw back her scythe, and swished it. Quicker than Chloe's eyes could follow, Danny rushed forward, and a clang rang out. Danny pushed against the girl's scythe, and forced her to the ground. "I've missed seeing you at this angle," the girl said.
"Who are you?"
"You know the answer to that, my Little Strawberry."
Chloe watched their exchange, and an ache rose within her. She needed out of this barricade, she needed to wrap her hands round Danny and declare her as hers. But no matter how hard she bashed against the invisible wall, neither of them came out of the world that only encompassed one another.
"Let me take their souls, Danny. Let me lay them to rest. Let me save you again. You can go on as you were, that girl you've barricaded will be reunited with her friend, and I will collect my ten dollars."
Chloe saw Danny tense and re-tighten her grip on that weapon. "Ten dollars? That's what my friends' lives are worth to the Cleaners?"
The girl replied clinically, "Five each, and you know the reasons are more than just the money."
Danny's face screwed up. "I can't allow you to do this. I will never be able to go on as I was if she met Death."
The winged girl Danny had called Anne was silent for a moment, then replied, "I know. But if you finish my work after you've done your deed, there will still be a chance to change everything back."
"If you could go back seven years, would you change the outcome of that day?"
"I have thought about my choice after every soul I've taken since then."
"What did you conclude?"
Chloe didn't hear Anne's reply, but whatever she said made Danny frown and lower her scythe. Danny turned to Chloe and said, "I'm sorry. For my past behaviour, for this. I should have told you. This is all my fault. I was not supposed to fall in love, I was supposed to take you and Mel to Death. So now the Cleaner has come to do my job." Danny twisted round. "But no matter your feelings towards me, I vow that she will not take you."
Danny raised her scythe. Chloe counted the times the blade sliced though the red-winged girl who had killed Mel:
Once. Her stomach was slash open.
Twice. Blood oozed out of a fresh scar on her face.
Thrice. Those red wings were swiped off.
The fourth swing made Danny's skin pale.
The Fifth caused blue veins to bulge all over her friend's body.
Then came the sixth, when those beautiful golden feathers turned scarlet.
Six times Danny struck Anne, turning into the thing she was trying to destroy as feathers danced with the blood swirling in the air.
Danny heaved and leaned on her scythe. Chloe pressed her hand on the barrier and called out Danny's name, called for her to stop and look at her.
Danny straightened up, stroking her red feathers with bloodied hands. Chloe imagined those hands stroking her bunches and blanched. Suddenly, Danny's eyes flicked to hers, and her breath caught. Those eyes…they were not the warm brown that had always looked at her with such adoration, but the cold, harsh grey of that girl. Danny took a step forward. The cold chill emanating off her was already too much, and Chloe stepped back. Danny nodded. She flickered a smile that was far removed from the sublime radiance Chloe had fallen in love with.
Danny bent down over Mel's body, took the now crimson handle of the scythe, and swiped it through their friend. But unlike the red-winged girl, the scythe flowed through her. A spectre, which held the image of Mel, seeped out of the body and disappearing into the blade, and the silver glowed red. Chloe was transfixed. But then Danny sheathed the weapon and gathered the now broken, wingless girl in her arms. She put a red-stained finger to her lips. Chloe looked away.
"If you didn't love me before, I know you can't love me now," Danny said.
Chloe whipped her head round as Danny launched into the air. "I'll be back for you, Chloe. It seems I should have severed the link long ago. To think I had a chance with you…" her words faltered and faded, and she beat her wings with terrible ferocity, forcing herself higher and higher until she was just a dot flying up through the clouds.
Chloe gingerly stepped forward, her hands out, but the barrier was gone. She picked up the love letter, then rushed to the crumpled letter Danny had thrown to the floor. She collapsed onto the grass.
Chloe didn't know how long she had sat on the ground, ignoring the broken body near her as she tore up the grass around her, then tore the black-inked letter to pieces. She watched those words disintegrate into something meaningless, knowing their impact had already etched itself into Danny's heart and erased that gorgeous smile which had lit up her world.
Chloe pressed her hands to her face, and saw the lies in that letter flowing before her, haunting her:
Just leave me here, in this cocoon I created out of regret and ignorance. I blinded myself to the way you saw me, to the emotions I saw within you. I put the needle's point to my eye. And pushed. I was never innocent. I always knew what I meant to you, but I couldn't handle that you would never mean the same to me. I will miss you, my friend, but it is the only way to save both of our sanities.
She had wanted Danny to go away, not because she didn't love her, but because she had loved her too much. She had been scared of what that meant, because Danny on a Bad day frightened her, and she hadn't known if she could handle a life like that. But now she understood why, now she was ready to accept her - whatever that was - however she could.
Chloe brushed out her hair with her fingers, then bundled it back into neater bunches. She stood, clutching the blue-inked letter in her left hand as the black-inked one fell like snow out of her right hand. She watched the sky for Danny to return to her.
She appeared like a bullet, plummeting down to the earth, getting larger, forming into a shape she could recognise. At the last moment, Danny stopped, and drifting to land on the grass. She shook out her scythe. Those hard eyes held no emotion as she swung.
"Wait!" Chloe choked. She felt the cold blade touch her face. She saw Danny's features crumple, those blue veins bulge. Then harden again. She shifted her stance. Shook her crimson wings. Drew back the scythe again. But before she swung, Chloe held out the blue-inked letter and said, "This is the letter which reveals the truth. That one," Chloe pointed at the shavings of white, "was a lie. Mel confused me, you confused me. Now I understand it all, and I don't want to let go of you."
"You're letting me save you?" Danny asked.
Chloe frowned at her choice of words, words which were so similar to what Anne had said. "What do you mean?"
"I can't kill you if you love me. I-I can't do it."
Danny sheaved the scythe. Then, before Chloe could comprehend what was going on, Danny took her in her arms, bent her knees, and jumped into the air.
Chloe took a moment to gather her thoughts as they glided on the thermals. She pressed herself to Danny, let her hold her even more tightly, and inhaled her lover's scent - a mixture of the stagnant stink of that red car and the fresh air. "Are you going to kill me?" Chloe asked, after what seemed like both an age, yet no time at all.
"You are not supposed to be in the mortal realm anymore. You and Mel, you were supposed to die two months ago. But I didn't take your souls like I should have, and the balance was shifted, so the Cleaner came to clear up my mess. If I kill you, I get my golden wings back, but I cannot kill you, and I cannot leave you on Earth. You no longer exist, and the world senses this, it will no longer acknowledge you, and you will fade away into a lost spirit."
"So what happens to me?"
"You will survive to become one of Death's Reapers. As did I, seven years ago."
Before Chloe could comprehend what she said, Danny change direction and rushed upwards. The air whooshed past her and our of her, higher and higher, until they were emerged within the clouds. Then, breaking through, Chloe became enchanted by how big and spectral the moon was.
"We are nine miles above the Earth. But do not fear," Danny said as she let Chloe go. Her stomach rising into her throat, Chloe grappled out for Danny, but her friend stayed out of her reach as she fell. Danny shook out that cylinder. The girl's blood on the blade gleamed in the moon's light as it swung. Unlike Mel, the blade did not go through her, but struck her. She felt herself stretching and fading, but though the sensation was strange and uncomfortable, it did not hurt.
Cold. Her watch ticked and ticked as the dark sensation of cold metal wrapped over her body. Then came the burning in her back. Cruelly juxtaposed to the freezing temperature, it felt as though her blood were exploding out of her. In a sudden wave of morphine-like relief, the temperature became neutral, and the darkness became an infinite void.
Chloe couldn't even see her own arm. Or perhaps she no longer had an arm. Perhaps she no longer had eyes. The thought made her want to hyperventilate, but she didn't have breath. The only thing she had - the only thing which proved some part of her still existed - was the ticking of her watch which may or may not be attached to an obscure wrist. She counted the seconds to keep her sane.
Upon reaching 300 ticks, there came a light, a warmth. After five minutes stuck in oblivion, it was like seeing utopia. She shielded her eyes and blinked and blinked until her eyes adjusted to the fantastic white that greeted her.
Slowly, the blur she was seeing became a face. Someone had their index finger pressed to their smirking lips. But their eyes were cold. They were cold. Chloe backed away.
"You okay?" Danny's voice broke through to her, and she instantly calmed. Until Danny reached out and stroked the golden wings that were beside Chloe. Icicles appeared on the feathers, and Chloe trembled as the freezing yet gentle touch reverberated through her. She backed off, and the wings came with her. Startled, Chloe ordered her brain to move them, and they did so. She stared at Danny, at those stark blue veins covering her white face which highlighted those concrete eyes. She tried to find her friend within, tried to make sense of how a three-day trip had ended with this. The trip which Mel had planned.
"What's happened to Mel? Is she here, too?"
There was a flicker in those hard eyes for a moment, before they became matte again. "I do not know what happens to the souls we deliver. But she was good, and as she was used. The events which transpired tonight will not be held against her. I'm sure she has gone to her paradise."
Chloe felt as though she were being ripped apart. Danny said it so matter-of-factly. Would she be so calculating after seven years of doing this? Did she want to?
"It gets easier," Danny verified, and the words both eased and terrified Chloe.
"Why has this happened?"
"It is a deal that was sealed when I fell in love with you - the same one that was struck when my own Reaper fell for me. For Mortals cannot coexist with Death's plans for his precious Reapers."
"Then why have you changed?"
Danny stood up, looking thoughtful. "The consequence of killing a Cleaner, is becoming one myself."
"Who are the Cleaners?"
"They cause the deaths for those souls the Reapers cannot handle to take. They can manipulate to take lives - as you saw with Mel and the gun - and thus the duty is only given to those who can handle the power. I never wanted it - I couldn't comprehend who would - but I'd always wondered how they were chosen. The Reaper who murdered a Cleaner for me never told me anything; she didn't want to look at me after she was changed." Danny frowned. "I wish that she had. But I understand now: Cleaner's duty is given to those who are the most averse towards it. Our sympathy means we will not abuse the power, but understand the gravity of what happens when a soul is not taken. For when I looked at Anne before I killed her, I knew this would lead me down the same path as hers, and you the same path as me. I tasted blood I should not have, I have learnt the price which comes at not taking a soul. I have taken the life of something already dead. I know now, this is my punishment, the punishment for all Cleaners. They are the most sentimental of us all. We were all in love, and in our need to prove it, we damned ourselves. So I wait to go back to Death, as has Anne, when vengeance calls another Reaper to fall as they protect the one they love."
Chloe couldn't absorb any of what Danny was saying to her. Her friend was distant, as though talking to herself rather than answering her questions. But there was something that was more important to Chloe than anything else that had been said: "Will you stay with me?"
"Cleaners cannot interact with Reapers, unless nights like tonight come to be."
"Then why save me, if you're just going to leave me here?"
"Because I will always be falling in love you, and if I had taken your soul, the regret would have eaten me. I would curse myself a thousand times over before I allow you to be grasped by our master."
"How do I know what to do without you?"
"You'll find your way, all Reapers do."
Chloe trembled, wondering if the fate Anne was going to deal her would have been better than this. Without Danny, she was dead either way. Which made her wonder, "Will I meet Death?"
"No. He never talked directly to me - and I never demanded it of him. He is the only one I respected, apart from you. There were silent speeches when I obtained a new charge. When blood ran over my hands, there was mute gratitude. He appreciates the power of wordless exchanges above mundane gossip, but you'll learn his ways."
"Will you stay with me just a little longer?" Chloe's voice was more desperate than she had wanted it to sound.
Danny reached out, and though the freezing sensation made Chloe shiver uncontrollably, she let her run her hands through her bunches. "I've stayed as long as I can. All we can do is hope that our paths do not meet again, for when Reapers and Cleaners meet on the field, it is only at the most tragic of events. Those where the amount of innocent lives to take to Death become to much for Reapers to bear. If such a thing occurred, our reunion would be one of heartbreak, in all aspects of the word." Chloe closed her eyes and let the backdraft of Danny's beating wings envelop her and dry the tears streaming down her face. She opened the letter she had written in blue ink, the one she'd never got the chance to show Danny, and read it out loud:
"My heart will never know love which cuts as deep as the love it feels for you."