strangeallure: (dead like you)
[personal profile] strangeallure
Dead Like You, Part 2

About half an hour later, they're in front of a large apartment building, and Genevieve lets herself and Jared in with a code. She leads him to apartment number 109, where Loretta answers the door.

"Hey Loretta," Genevieve says with a contrite smile. "I'm so sorry to do this, especially on such short notice, but something's come up, and now I can't look after Jared tonight. I need you to cut the connect."

So she 'can't look after' him, Jared thinks with spite. She sounds like she’s talking about a babysitting job or a dog, and it bugs him. It's not like he asked to be here, like he asked for any of this, and now Genevieve makes him feel like a responsibility she wants to get rid of.

"It honestly can't wait," Genevieve tells Loretta. "You know I'd take him along if I could."

He also really appreciates being talked about like he's not even there.

Jared still can't fully believe Genevieve's ditching him, especially without giving him a reason why. She kept apologizing on the way, but refused to explain what happened. It's obvious it has something to do with the phone call, but she wouldn’t talk.

Unlike Jared, Loretta seems unfazed. "If you say it's that important, it's alright," she says and takes both their left hands.

When the connect is cut, Genevieve gives another apologetic smile. "Thanks, Loretta – and I'm sorry, Jared. I really am." She turns around and starts to walk back out. "See you two tomorrow."

Jared's still standing there, rooted to the spot.

"But," he starts, realizes he doesn't even know where to begin, and tries again: "Where am I supposed to go? Where am I supposed to get food? Where the hell am I supposed to sleep? She can't just leave me here."

He's almost shouting the last words, but Loretta doesn't seem concerned at all, and it only irritates Jared more.

"I'm sorry, Jared, but that's how it is around here: sometimes, you just have to improvise. Especially when you're death."

"So, what now?" he asks, his voice harsh and expression pinched. "Do I stay here?"

"I'm afraid that's not possible, sweetheart." She looks at him. "None of my reapers are allowed in here. It's a policy. But I'm sure we'll figure something out." There's a twinkle in her eyes when she adds, "If all else fails, there should be some empty cots at the shelter on such a fine day."

And Jared knows she's kidding, of course he knows, but still he feels his hands stiffen and curl into fists, feels his nails dig painfully into his palms. He's dead, for Christ's sake. Without his family, his friends, his life – and now he doesn't even have a place to sleep for the night, let alone the means to buy himself dinner. And Loretta seems to think it's all a big fucking joke.

He glares at her, anger bubbling just beneath the surface, and it takes all his willpower not to shout, not to reach out and shake her, make her understand.

Instead, he takes a deep, angry breath and huffs, "Thanks a lot," before he turns sharply and starts running.

She calls after him, and he's glad when the door falls shut behind him and he doesn't have to hear her anymore.

--

A couple of hours later, another door opens in front of him, a body blocking his entry. "Genevieve ditched me, and Loretta told me I should try the shelter."

Jensen snorts a laugh, but he lets the door fall open all the way.

"Sit down and wait on the couch."

After trying for hours to find his way in a city he doesn't know with no money and daylight fading fast, Jared doesn't even try to argue.

Within five minutes, Jensen is back with two bottles of beer and last night's warmed-up leftovers stuffed into some kind of pita bread. Damn, Jared almost forgot how hungry he was.

"I fucking can't believe this shit," he says when he's halfway done with his food. On the one hand, he's feeling better because his stomach is filling up and he has found a place to sleep (or so he hopes). On the other hand, now that his main thoughts don't center on finding Jensen's apartment and getting something to eat anymore, his anger is rising again.

"What?" Jensen asks and takes a drink from his beer.

Jared swallows another big bite. "I didn't sign up for this, you know? I mean, it's not enough that I had to die at twenty-one. Twenty-one, man. Or that I have to live in a city I don't even know my way around. Or that I can't even go to heaven or wherever, but have to hold down a fucking job as a grim reaper. A grim reaper, for fuck's sake – and it doesn't even pay."

He's feeling angrier with every word, mad, feels his jaw tighten, his eyes narrowing and his hands squeezing tight around the remains of the pita bread. It's all so unfair.

Jensen's just sitting there with an unreadable expression, but it's not like Jared even wants his input at this point, so he just goes on.

"No, I also get pushed around like a piece of furniture. I have no money, no nothing, I'm fucking forced to completely rely on the person I'm shadowing, and then Genevieve gets a phone call and ditches me because of 'something important'. How fucking important can it be? I died yesterday. Fucking died. I should be the top priority here."

Jensen raises his eyebrow, but still doesn't say anything.

"And Loretta acts like it's okay for her to cut me loose, like it's no big deal to fucking leave me stranded."

He's getting so worked up that he feels the rest of the stir-fry squeezing out of the bread in his hand, making a mess of his fingers. He doesn't care.

"Oh yeah, and of course I can't stay at her place either because it's fucking policy. Which, by the way, is an excellent reason for sending someone away who's, you know, fucking homeless. Not to mention recently dead."

He glares at Jensen, who's simply looking, holding his gaze, who doesn't seem to react at all, doesn't even blink. Bastard.

"And then she makes a quip about the shelter. The motherfucking shelter, you know? Hilarious, Loretta, fucking hilarious."

Jared throws the remains of his food onto the plate and angrily wipes his hands on his jeans. He looks up at Jensen, a taunt in his eyes, but Jensen stays quiet until Jared can't stand it anymore.

He looks at his hands instead, sees how his knuckles stand out, his fists are clamped so tight. There's a bit of sweat he can feel at the hollow of his throat, his breathing a little out of control and his face a little too hot. Even as he catalogues this, as he realizes the tense state he is in, he involuntarily begins to calm down, at least a little. Hard to stay mad without fuel.

It seems like a long time before Jensen breaks the silence.

"Are you done?"

Jared's not sure what he expected him to say, but that sure as hell wasn't it. "What?" he asks, and immediately feels stupid.

"I said: Are you done?" Jensen replies, voice level.

"Yeah, I got that," Jared says. And okay, just like that, Jared's back from slightly confused to definitely pissed off. "Sorry if my problem with being shoved out onto the streets with no place to go is taking up your precious time. Sorry if me being upset because, oh, I only fucking died yesterday is raining on your parade. Sorry if I took advantage of your precious hospitability."

Before he knows it, he's up on his feet again, crossing the small space of Jensen's living room. He feels hot, his heart hammering, his breathing so ragged that it shakes his whole body.

"I'll just go. Thanks for the meal," he spits without turning around and reaches for the door knob.

And suddenly, Jensen's there, gripping hard at Jared's shoulder, spinning him around and pinning him against the wall next to the apartment door.

"Let me go," Jared shouts and tries to push at Jensen's arm, tries to get away, but he just can't shake him; the guy is stronger than he looks. All lean muscle and determination. He's close, too, his body right in front of Jared, blocking out everything else, holding tight as Jared tries to squirm away, to twist out of his grasp.

"Get off of me," he demands, but Jensen's grip doesn't loosen.

Jared wishes he were taller, bigger, more muscular; that he were still himself. Nothing of this would have happened if he were still himself. There's a wet burn licking inside his nose and he grinds his teeth, pushing his chin up in defiance as his body grows still. He's not giving up, he's not, but he knows that right now, with the iron grip Jensen has him in, there's no chance he'll get away. Might as well save his strength.

Jensen takes a step closer, getting toe-to-toe with Jared. His voice is low, his mouth close when he says, "Snap out of it."

"Fuck you," Jared hisses, straining against Jensen's hold again. It's still no use.

"Would you take a second and actually think here, Jared?" Jensen's voice is so calm, collected – it's fucking infuriating. "You're not the only one this has happened to, you know? We're all dead, we've all had to leave our lives behind. Every one of us has had to deal with this shit way longer than you have." Jensen's lips press together for a moment, and he gives Jared a pointed look. "And it's not like any of us has a clue what's really going on here. It's not our fault that you died, it's not our fault you didn't get your white lights – none of us did – and it's not our fault that life after death isn't well organized enough for you."

"Genevieve ditched me, she fucking left me to fight for myself," Jared says through clenched teeth, his back still pressed against the wall. He doesn't want to hear what Jensen has to say, doesn't want to hear or care about the other reapers right now.

"No, she didn't." Jensen shakes his head slowly. "She left you with Loretta because something came up. She left you in good hands."

"Yeah, great hands," Jared says, voice dripping with sarcasm. "Leaving me with a woman who wants me to try the shelter."

Jensen cocks his head, his eyes holding Jared's gaze. "You said yourself that it was a joke."

"Yeah, so what? It was a bad fucking joke." He doesn't want to let go of his anger, doesn't want to calm down and think more clearly, but in spite of himself, he starts seeing where Jensen's coming from.

"Maybe it was," Jensen concedes, "but a bad joke is not the end of the world. I know Loretta would have helped you find a place. And you know that, too."

Jared wants to deny it, but he can't. He barely manages to keep himself from nodding, but he still has his pride. He doesn't want to just give in, give up.

After a long moment, Jensen's hands fall from Jared's shoulders and he takes a few steps back. This is Jared's chance to turn around and leave, to run like he wanted, but somehow, his body won't move.

The way Jensen looks at him is almost sympathetic. "I'm sorry you died. I'm sorry," he gestures at Jared's torso, "you're not yourself. I'm sorry things don't always work out." His gaze cuts away from Jared, and he scratches at the hair behind his ear. "Just don't take it out on the others. Gen and Loretta are good people. Even Misha is. We're all trying."

This time, Jared doesn't keep himself from nodding in response.

Slowly, Jensen steps back into the room and waves for Jared to follow.

"Halo or Madden?" he asks as he gets out the controllers for his old, battered Xbox.

When Jensen hands him his controller, Jared takes it with a small, lopsided smile. He catches Jensen's eyes for a moment. "Thanks, man."

--

When Jensen and Jared arrive together at the Waffle House the next day, Genevieve greets them with a wide, relieved smile.

"I'm glad you found a place to stay last night," she says. "And I'm sorry for leaving you hanging. Honestly."

Jared waves her off. He's kind of embarrassed about last night, even if Genevieve wasn't even there for the worst of it. He kind of hopes Loretta didn't say anything. "It's cool. Just buy me a muffin or something."

The person he's really embarrassed to see is Loretta herself. Taking it out on her like that yesterday when she obviously just wanted to ease the tension – that wasn't exactly Jared's best moment. An apology is the least he owes her.

Misha has just started one of his more elaborate, When Harry Met Sally-style orders when Jared catches Loretta's eye. "I'm sorry for last night," he says in a quiet voice. "I was just …"

"It's okay," she cuts in when he doesn't continue. "But you're alright now, are you?"

"Yeah." Jared gives her a small smile, right before Robert asks what he'll have for breakfast this morning.

They're waiting for their food, and apparently Jensen can no longer keep himself from teasing Genevieve about disappearing last night. She still won't talk, though, which only serves to pique his interest further. He starts making a string of suggestions that become more and more outrageous as he really gets into it. Jared doesn't even try to hold back, and it's entirely possible that his inappropriately loud laughs spur Jensen on.

Finally, Jared can no longer resist and jumps in with his own ludicrous story. Jensen just gives him a look. "Honestly, Jared? That sounds like the lovechild of a Lifetime movie and Halo 2."

Jared opens his mouth to protest, but hesitates. Jensen's not wrong. At least about the Halo part. But hey, they spent several hours playing last night. No wonder it's still on his mind.

Jensen uses the pause to add smugly, "Just leave the theorizing to the professionals."

There's no way Jared can let that slide. "Whatever, man. You're just bitter 'cause I owned your ass last night."

Jensen doesn't have a smart comeback for that, only huffs in response, so Jared counts it as a win. He also doesn't try to help Jensen with his theories anymore. The truth is, the guy's just much better at making shit up than Jared is.

When Jensen gets to an elaborate scenario involving double agents, caviar smuggling, drug cartels and high-class call girls (to his credit, Genevieve is not one of the call girls in this setting), Loretta's at the end of her tether: "Shut your mouth, boy, or I'm going to whack you with a spoon."

"She's not kidding," Misha says, grinning at Jared as he deliberately licks clean his own spoon. "Jensen gets hit a lot."

"Only because he deserves it, though," Genevieve adds.

"That's true." Jensen nods proudly. "I have to work for it every damn time."

Jared wouldn't necessarily admit it, but he's a little disappointed when he gets paired up with Misha for the day.

--

"Yes, Sherman, your mother is waiting for you on the other side. She's looking forward to seeing you very much." Misha's voice is low and soothing as he talks to the little bald man who just choked to death on a Cinnabon.

"But … but what about what I did? Isn't she still angry with me?" Sherman's voice sounds small, and he looks up at Misha with wide eyes, still clutching at his baseball cap.

"Of course she's not mad, Sherman. Of course not. She's just glad to see you again. She loves you so much." Where Jensen and Genevieve had this sort of authority when talking to the souls, Misha has an air of complete and utter serenity. It really seems to have a calming effect on Sherman, who was shouting and crying only a couple of minutes ago and kept trying to reenter his old body.

"Accept it, Sherman. Accept and embrace the truth." Misha smiles. "Then you can go and see her. You can see everyone. They all look forward to meeting you again. They all love you."

Sherman bites his lip, eyes a little watery.

"And they forgive you," Misha adds.

Sherman takes a deep breath and squares his shoulders, smiling gratefully at Misha. In front of them, the double doors of The Gap begin to glitter and sparkle like the surface of a lake on an especially sunny day. Sherman walks over there a little reluctantly, but when he looks back and Misha gives him an encouraging nod, he enters, doors flittering like liquid, and then he's gone. The light and sparkles disappear with him.

When Jared looks back at Misha, Misha grins and asks, "Cinnabon?"

He gets a well-worn black wallet out of his jacket pocket and waves it in front of Jared. "Sherman's buying."

Jared looks at him in disbelief. "You stole his wallet?"

"Sure did." Misha just smirks wider. Jared can hardly believe this. It really doesn't go with the 'I'm here to take care of you' speech Misha gave Sherman only minutes earlier.

After his conversation with Genevieve, he doesn't want to risk coming across as judgmental again, so he simply asks, "How did you do it? I didn't notice anything."

"Practice, boy, practice." Misha says as he leads Jared away from the Cinnabon stand and towards Auntie Anne's on the other side of the food court. "When I was kneeling next to his body and convinced him to stop trying to reenter the remains – that's when I snatched this. I mean, we're unnoticeable until they go into the lights, so you usually have plenty of time. You can even swipe other people's wallets while you're at it. Get out the cash, then put them back. It only takes a couple of seconds." He brings the wallet next to his face and raises his eyebrows questioningly. "Pretzel?"

For a moment, Jared doesn't know what to say, but in the end, his stomach wins out. "Almond with caramel dip please."

It shouldn't bother him that Misha took the wallet. He has heard Genevieve's arguments, and they make a good deal of sense. It's not like Sherman still needs money where he's going (or at least Jared assumes he doesn’t) – and he didn't mention a partner or spouse or whatever, so ... Still, Jared's not sure he wants to do that. And the fact that Misha uses the unnoticeability thing for picking people's pockets? It's just another thing Jared would rather not think about.

After they get their pretzels and sodas, they sit down at one of the tables. "So," Jared asks, "how did you know all this stuff about his mom and his relatives?" He's really curious about that one.

"I didn't," Misha sucks some sauce from his index finger. "I made it up, told him what he wanted to hear."

"That means no one's waiting for him? He won't see those people you were talking about?" Jared's kind of shocked. Misha seemed so sincere.

Misha simply shrugs. "How should I know? He might – or not. My job is to make them accept their death and get them into the lights. I'll say everything that helps to get that job done." He gives Jared a look. "I mean, what's the alternative? Not convincing him that he's dead and should go into the lights? Not getting him into the lights? And what would happen then, huh?"

"Yeah," Jared says, feeling stubborn all of a sudden. "What does happen then?"

Misha remains calm. "I don't know, Jared. What does happen to souls that don't pass over and just roam the earth? I really have no idea, but it doesn't sound like a good thing, somehow. I mean, that's why we're here, I guess. That's why they need reapers."

Jared thinks about this for a minute. It's true; Sherman's soul/body connection had already been severed. It's not like he could have just gotten back. And what should he have done without a body and a purpose? It really doesn't sound so good.

"I suppose you're right. It's just ... it's a lot to take in, you know?"

Misha's grinning again. "I know, I know. I mean, it's been a while since I died, but I still remember how it was at first." He stuffs the rest of his pretzel into his mouth. "I thought I was on a bad trip after Loretta had reaped me. She had to shake me out of it – emptied a can of Dr Pepper over my head, too. That finally sobered me up a little, but I smelled like soda all day."

"When did you die?" Jared blurts out. He's not sure whether it's bad etiquette to ask a dead person that, but it's too late now anyway. Until this moment, he hasn't really thought about how long the others might have been doing this job already. He doesn't even know if reapers still age in a physical way, but he doubts it.

"Late seventies." Misha sighs fondly. "Man, good times. I think I jumped ship right before things got complicated."

--

In spite of his money-making advice earlier, Misha doesn't seem as good at getting cash as Genevieve because he still has to work five days a week. Today, it's his turn as guide for the Universal Studios afternoon tours. They take a bus that stops right at the entrance and Misha smuggles Jared in. Thanks to the whole living-people-don't-really-pay-a-lot-of-attention-to-you-anymore thing all reapers have going, it's not as hard as it sounds.

Since they can't be too far apart, Jared just finds a seat in the corner of one of the trams and goes on tour after tour with Misha. Misha's nice enough to give him a thriller novel someone left in the employee locker room, so when the initial excitement of the tour wears off, Jared has something to keep him occupied, at least. He'd much rather be checking out some of the other attractions, but the memory of the connect turning his guts inside out makes him reconsider. Maybe Dean Koontz is not so bad.

When Misha's shift is finally over, it's already past sundown.

"Oh god, all I want to do right now is lie down," Misha says. "My vocal chords really need a break after all that talking."

Earlier, Jared made Misha swear that he could stay with him no matter what before Loretta formed the new connect. He really doesn't need that kind of surprise again.

Misha leads him to a park not too far from the main studio entrance and walks through some hedges. There's a clearing where someone seems to have set up camp with a camping mat, sleeping bag, a small fireplace and a big canister of water.

Misha opens his arms wide. "Mi casa es su casa."

Jared takes a moment to process this. "You've got to be kidding me."

"What's wrong?" Misha seems honestly baffled.

"This is not where I'm supposed to sleep tonight, right?" Jared's voice might be squeaking a little, but he doesn't care.

"Of course it is. I love being out in nature, with the sky as my blanket and the wind as my lullaby."

Jared can't believe the guy just said that. Even for someone who died in the seventies – and from a bad acid trip, as it seems, – that's a little too new age-y.

"There's no bed. There's not even a second sleeping bag." Jared does his best to stay calm; he's not doing so well.

"You can have the camping mat," Misha offers. "It's nice out here, I promise. Sometimes, one of the homeless finds me here, and most of them are okay. Not very social, but some have really good stories to tell, especially once you get a few drinks in them."

Homeless people who are 'mostly okay'? Spending the night in a park in the middle of L.A., one of the cities with the highest crime rates in the country? Jared’s watched The Shield before – he definitely doesn't want to take that risk.

Okay, so Jared's dead now, and maybe that means that he shouldn't worry as much, but dead or not – he really doesn't want to become the victim of a violent crime. He also wants an actual blanket and four walls around him, and a bathroom he can use. This situation is unacceptable. There's no way he's spending the night here.

Jared doesn't care how much Misha wants to lie down after work. They're definitely off to see Loretta.

--

By the time Jared knocks on Jensen's apartment door, he seems to have been asleep already, if the state of his hair and his rumpled t-shirt and boxers are anything to go by.

"If you keep showing up here, you should start paying rent, buddy," is all he says as he lets Jared in.

Jared just grins and takes his spot on the couch. Once Jensen's back in his own room, Jared sneaks into the kitchen and steals a pop-tart.

--

All in all, Jared seems to be doing okay with the reaping apprentice thing. After only one day with each of his colleagues, Loretta is going to take him with her today, see for herself how well he does, and then flesh him, hopefully.

That's good news, as far as Jared's concerned. He's looking forward to getting his own body back, feeling more comfortable in his skin. In the shower this morning, he didn't even dare to jerk off because it felt wrong doing that to a body not his own. Well, at least without buying the guy dinner first.

The job Loretta takes him along to turns out to be harder than the ones before. Jared's felt genuinely sorry for all clients he's met so far, especially for Allison, who seemed so nice and down-to-earth, but for Sherman, too, who was so scared – and even Paul. He might not have been the sharpest tool in the shed, but it was still touching to see how he tried to make his peace before going into the lights.

This time, though, it's a little girl. Maybe eight years old. Jared sees it coming, even before Loretta touches her.

They're at a small fair, and the girl, Melinda, loves this ride called Mediterranean Waves. It has cars in five different colors, and Jared overhears her making her parents promise that they'll ride every color once ("At least once, mommy!").

The yellow car seems shabbier than the others, in need of repair, and when looking closely, as Jared does, you can see how the security bars for the middle seat don't really engage properly. The ride is never full, though, and somehow, no one chooses the yellow car.

When Jared realizes what's going to happen, he tells Loretta. "It's probably just a loose screw or something. We can just tell the operator, you know?" he says, but Loretta doesn't look like that's an option. Jared goes on, "We can fix this, easy. She doesn't have to die, not like this. Not if we can help it." It seems so pointless, stupid.

Loretta puts her hand over his arm and looks him in the eye. "I know how you feel, Jared, I do. But it's not that easy. We're not here to prevent accidents. We are here to help those who won't survive them." It reminds him a little of what Jensen said, that they're not here for the living, but it's still hard to process.

"But this one would be so easy to fix for us," he pleads. "Loretta, she's only a kid."

"I know. I know and I'm sorry, but it's her time." Her smile is small and wistful, but clearly there. "We all have our time. Your friend couldn't have saved you, you know. No one could have. The time comes and then it's here. The only choice is between accepting the lights or not. And even that choice is not ours."

Jared takes a deep breath, but he feels himself nodding ever-so-lightly.

"Our job is to help with the transition, help with the choice." Loretta pats his forearm and then goes over to Melinda and her parents, who are just climbing out off the pink car.

She smiles brightly at them. "Now that looks like a fun ride, young lady."

"It is," Melinda says loudly, almost shouting, and smiles wide with a gap in her teeth. "I want to go again."

"Sorry," her mom says and gives Loretta an apologetic shrug, "but she really loves the Waves."

"No worries," Loretta says, "she seems like a wonderful child." She quickly strokes her hand along the girl's shoulder. "Have fun, darling."

A few minutes later, the safety bar snaps open right on the sharpest turn of the ride, and Melinda gets thrown from the car like a rag doll. Her soul leaves her body pretty much the second she hits the ground, so Jared guesses her neck snapped immediately on impact. Small mercies, he thinks.

"Come here, sweetheart," Loretta says and holds out her hand.

--

Almost two hours later, Jared and Loretta sit on a park bench much like the one Jared came to on the first time they met.

Jared's quiet, but it's not like he's really thinking. It's more that he's trying not to think, to keep his mind blank. He has to admit that Loretta was great with the girl. Nice and calm and careful. She was great with Jared, too, pulling him into the conversation, making him part of the process, not letting him be just an observer anymore. It's the first time he's really interacted with a soul.

They answered Melinda's questions together, Loretta helping him out whenever he needed it. The girl was sweet and not as upset as Jared would have expected, but she seemed to sense the weight of the situation. She had a lot of questions, and even though she was just a child, Loretta didn't try to move things along and pull the grown-up card. She didn't resort to lies or sugarcoating like Misha either. Instead, she made sure that they gave Melinda time, answered her questions earnestly and let her talk about her parents and her school teacher and her aunt who was already in heaven.

Jared's always been pretty good with children. He’d been a counselor at a summer camp all through college, and at times, talking to Melinda felt a bit like he was explaining the water safety rules to the kids. Loretta made it all seem so … okay. Almost normal.

After an hour or so, Melinda put on a determined smile, gave Loretta a short hug and touched Jared's hand before jumping right into a giant bowl of glittering, sparkling cotton candy. And then she was gone.

Jared kicks at the grass under his shoes, his hands gripping tight around the wood of the bench. It all feels so pointless.

"I know it is hard," Loretta says quietly. "But I'm proud of you. I'm proud that you accepted the job that needed to be done, and that you held back your own feelings. That's what makes a good reaper."

And isn't that something to be proud of? Being good at taking people's lives from them.

"What," Jared taunts, glaring at her, "not feeling sorry when a little girl has to die?"

Loretta doesn't rise to the bait. "No, Jared. You should feel with the clients; it's good to be sorry about their deaths. After all these years, I'm still sorry every time. What makes me good at my job – and what I think will make you be good at it, too – is that I can push my own feelings aside." She turns a little, so she can look at him fully. "You didn't cry in front of her, you didn't say that you thought it was unfair. I saw how you smiled at her when she looked at you. You were friendly and kind. That's what the souls need. They need to feel that we're their friends." She nods emphatically. "Because we are."

"But she was only a kid!" Jared shouts. "I mean, how old was she? Seven, eight? What about her parents?"

"Yes, Jared," Loretta says. "She was a young child, and everyone thought she had her whole future ahead of her. It's a tragedy. It's a tragedy for her parents, for her relatives, her neighbors, her friends – for everyone but her." She puts her hand on Jared's thigh, just like the first time they met. "Because she is where she needs to be, because she's at peace. And all these people, they'll find their peace, too, eventually."

"So we can't save anyone? Never? Not a single one?" he asks and hates how small his voice sounds.

"Believe me, Jared. We save them by what we do."

He smiles derisively at that, but Loretta surprises him with what she says next. "You know what? You could have prevented it. You could have gone and told the ride operator about the defect."

Jared just looks at her, confused.

"But do you know what happens to souls that aren't reaped when it's time? Souls that get to stay in bodies that are no longer meant for them?"

He shakes his head slowly.

"They ... deteriorate. Like milk or fruit. They go bad. It's not something you wish for anyone. It's definitively not something you wish on a little girl and her parents. When it's time, it's time. We're here to help by what we do. When we break the rules, the natural order, we don't serve the souls anymore; we just serve our own selves."

They sit there in silence for at least another half hour, and Jared's relieved when Loretta finally takes his hand and cuts the connect. He wants to just be by himself for a while, take a walk, clear his head.

By the time he knocks, Jensen's already home. He doesn't ask questions when he sees Jared, just feeds him some chili and finds an action flick on TV later.

Jared's glad he doesn't make him talk about it.

--

"What can I get everyone?" Robert the waiter asks, but – as always – he's only really looking at Loretta. It's a little ridiculous how he's trying to flirt with her. He even said she looked 'fetching' yesterday.

Before anyone can get out their order, Loretta announces, "It's Chad's last day, so I'm buying."

After that, they all orders a lot more than they usually do – and Loretta herself gets a full breakfast platter with double waffles, double hashed browns and double bacon.

When the food arrives and everyone's digging in, Jared remembers that he had a question. "Now that it looks like I'll be here permanently, I thought about getting a job. But I don't really know how. I mean, I don't have a social security number or even a driver's license anymore." He looks around the table and thinks that he sees Jensen nodding slightly, like he maybe thinks Jared's making a good choice here. "So, how do you guys do it?"

"You already know how I do it, mostly," Misha says, and puts another forkful of scrambled eggs with Worchester sauce into his mouth.

"Likewise." Genevieve shrugs.

"But if you're looking for an actual, morally unambiguous job, Misha knows a guy who can help you with the paperwork." Jensen glares at Misha a little. "Isn't that right, Misha?"

Misha's still chewing, but nods.

Jared looks over at Jensen and smirks a little. "And by 'a guy' you mean a forger, right?"

"Damn straight I do." Jensen grins back and spears a piece of sausage with his fork.

--

Once everyone's finished, Loretta hands out their assignments for the day, and Jared gets his very own client for the first time. It's weird to finally have his own little Post-it note, and suddenly he remembers that he doesn't know his way around L.A. at all. He doesn't even have a map or anything. How is he supposed to find the right address, let alone get there in time?

Loretta seems to pretty much read his thoughts. "Jared, don't worry about your assignment too much. I’ll only hand out double assignments for you and another reaper for a while, until you're more comfortable with the job and have a better idea of the layout of the city."

Jared's embarrassingly thankful to hear that.

"Now off you go, everyone." She makes a shooing hand gesture. "Jensen, you and Jared come with me."

--

Loretta brings them back to the building where her office (Or is it her apartment? Jared's not entirely clear on that.) is located, but instead of following the corridor to 109, they take down the stairs to the basement and walk into a small, square room with white-washed walls and absolutely nothing else in it.

Loretta holds both of Jared's hands in hers this time and asks him to close his eyes. He does so and waits. He hears her breathing grow louder, feels her grip tightening and her palms getting damp. Other than that, he feels nothing.

He wonders if he's supposed to do something. Maybe concentrate on what his old body looked like? Remember how it felt to stand and walk and sit and lie down? Imagine being back in it?

There's a wisp of wind, a feeling like going weak in the knees, like his plane hits an air hole and his stomach bottoms out, and then Loretta lets go of his hands.

When Jared opens his eyes again, Loretta seems a little smaller, and when he looks over, Jensen does, too.

For a moment, Jensen looks at him strangely, his eyes travelling down Jared's body, assessing him, and Jared thinks there's something more than just surprise on his face. When Jensen notices Jared looking back, his features take on their standard bored-with-a-side-of-snark expression, but he doesn't look away.

"Okay, boys. That’s it. Go ahead and leave now. I'll need a moment here," Loretta says, sounding exhausted, and ushers them out.

When they walk out into the sun, Jared finally takes the time to examine his new old body. He wiggles his fingers, stretches his arms and kicks out his legs. Everything's a little longer, a little more muscular, a little more like he's used to.

Soon, he notices something else that's familiar. "Hey, that's my Longhorns t-shirt," he almost shouts, "and these are my jeans, too. Even the sandals are mine."

Jensen grins. "Yeah, when you're being fleshed, you usually get some of your favorite clothes with it. Don't ask me why, I don't know how it works either." He gives a light shrug. "Sophia – the girl who got a transfer – wound up wearing a snuggie."

Jared burst out laughing. "For real?" It feels good; the laugh is louder, more booming than before, more like his own. The sun feels better on his skin, too. He's glad to have his body back.

"It had starships on it."

When Jared rummages around in his pockets, there's even a couple of twenties in there. He holds them up like a trophy.

"Lucky bastard," Jensen says, but he's smiling.

--

"What can I get you this morning?" Robert asks with a big smile. After almost two weeks, Jared's still amazed by how much the guy's face changes when he smiles. He's even more amazed that Robert honestly doesn't seem to mind wearing lederhosen and striped knee socks to work.

Jensen takes the Bavarian Waffle Works while Jared goes for the Oompha Oompha Breakfast Special and an extra blueberry muffin.

"Sorry, blueberry are out." Robert shrugs apologetically.

"On the one day I'm here early," Jared grumbles, but they have vanilla streusel ones on the menu, too, so it's all good.

Just as Robert brings their coffee, Genevieve and Misha arrive, and after they've placed their orders, Jared finally remembers a question he's been meaning to ask. "You know, I noticed that all of you seem to be touching the clients a lot." Genevieve gives him a 'yeah, so?' kind of look. "I guess I'm just wondering if there's a special reason for that, if it does anything."

Misha stabs his finger in Jared's direction. Jared's already figured out that he does things like that sometimes, but since he's usually mellow to the point of comatose, it still comes as a surprise. "That's a good question. I've been wondering the same thing."

"Here we go." Jensen rolls his eyes.

"It's Conspiracy Theory Day again at the Waffle House," Genevieve says in a disturbingly good imitation of the Jerry Springer voice-overs.

Misha doesn't acknowledge either reaction, and just leans across the table, closer to Jared. "I think these bodies they're making for us, they give off a drug, something like an anti-depressants," he says in a low voice, "something to make the souls complacent and go along with everything." He gives Jared a meaningful look. "Something to keep everyone happy and inside the system. A little like in The Matrix."

Jared looks at him skeptically, but before he can point out that the bodies in The Matrix were exploited for energy, not manipulated to drug people, Misha continues, "Only that they don't need the client's bodies, but their souls." He whispers more urgently, "And because we are in these bodies, we can't break free, because the drugs are within ourselves."

Suddenly, he slaps both his palms on the table. "That's why we don't mutiny. That's why we just bend over and take it."

That's the moment Jared realizes how great this other-people-don't-really-notice-us-the-way-they-do-regular-people thing really is because otherwise Misha's little outburst would be kind of embarrassing. Surprisingly, it's also over as soon as it began, and when Jensen says, "You really shouldn't be taking your first hit before you come to work in the morning," Misha's already slumped back into his corner.

"Good morning, everyone," Loretta says and takes a chair to sit down at the table. "Sorry I'm late. I had some business to take care off."

Right then, Robert shows up with their orders. "Good morning, Loretta. You look especially lovely today, if you don't mind my saying so," he tells her, and Jared has to give him props for getting everyone the right plate, even though he's only looking at her.

"Thank you, Robert," she says, smiling coyly, her eyes cutting away as she straightens out a non-existent wrinkle in her flowery dress. After a moment, she adds, "I'll take the usual."

Since her usual includes a blueberry muffin, Jared warns her that they're out.

"Don't worry," Robert says in a conspiratorial voice. "I saved you the last one."

Loretta's face lights up. "Oh, thank you, Robert. That's very kind of you."

"This is so unfair," Jared mumbles around a forkful of hashed browns. "I was here first."

"That's what you get for not looking especially lovely today," Jensen cackles. Jared reacts by punching him in the arm.

--

Jared's assignment later that day is together with Jensen. It's no surprise since he's mostly been paired up with Jensen so far. Not that he minds.

They have over an hour to get to the scene of the accident, so they walk.

After a while, Jared asks: "Did you mean that earlier? Does Misha really still do drugs?"

The question earns him Jensen's patented eyebrow raise. "Jared, think about it: The guy is, like, king of thieves, and he still looks like a bum, works at Universal and sleeps in shelters or outside. What does that tell you?"

When Jensen puts it like that …

"Wait a minute. So you knew he didn't have an apartment when Loretta paired us up?" He gapes at Jensen a little. "You knew and you didn't even say anything, you fucker." Jared pushes at Jensen's shoulder, hard, but he has to laugh in spite of himself.

"Sure did." Jensen grins, pushing his tongue between his teeth as he does. "Let you sleep on the couch, though, right?"

And yeah, Jared can't argue with that.

--

"Don't push before I say so, idiot. You just punched me in the throat there," Jensen hollers down the stairwell.

"I'm real sorry, asshole. It's not like this thing is heavy or anything," Jared pants from the foot of the stairs.

Earlier at Goodwill, it had seemed like such a good idea to get a bigger couch – a sofa bed, to be exact – so Jared wouldn't have to curl up into a ball every night. An hour and four flights of stairs later, Jared really doesn't think so anymore. In fact, he's just about ready pull the damn thing apart and set the pieces on fire. But they're almost there, only a couple more steps to go, so he tries to calm himself down and not turn into the Incredible Hulk.

"You good now?" he asks, keeping his voice down this time. "Can I start pushing again?"

--

Ten minutes later, they're done. The old couch is shoved into the corner – because, seriously, there's no way they'll try and maneuver another huge-ass piece of furniture through that tiny staircase any time soon – and the 'gently used' (as the clerk at Goodwill put it) new one is positioned at the perfect distance and angle to the TV set.

Jared takes a deep breath and falls back into the cushions, closing his eyes. He's sweaty and a little gross, but he doesn't even care. All he does is look forward to not waking up with kinks in his back every morning. Thank god for his first payday.

He's about to shout something to that effect in Jensen's direction, when a cold beer bottle is pressed into his hand. A second later, the other end of the couch dips, and there's a long exhale. He glances over at Jensen, who looks just as winded as Jared feels, his head leaned back against the couch and his legs stretched out just like Jared's. They click their bottle necks together and both gulp down half their beers in one go.

"Thanks, man," Jared says. His head's lolling to the side, and he takes the opportunity to look at Jensen, who has his eyes closed, thick lashes dark against his unnaturally pale skin.

It's weird to remember that not even two weeks ago, he thought the guy was a complete douchebag. Since then, Jensen's given Jared a place to sleep, fed him and even helped him get a job as a bus boy at the Italian place across the street.

And when Jared got his first pay this morning (cash, fortunately, because he doesn't even have an account for cashing checks anymore), it was Jensen's idea to get some more clothes and a sofa-bed for him at Goodwill instead of Jared paying his full share of the rent.

So yeah, Jensen's still snarky and a little too smug and full of himself sometimes, but when Jared calls him out on his shit, he can take it. Of course, he uses every chance he gets to call Jared out on his shit in turn. And when he's got Jared good, when Jensen's right and he knows it and he realizes that Jared knows it, too, his eyes turn brighter and his grin grows so real and wide that Jared can't help grinning back, even though he's losing the argument.

And that's when it always stops. That's the point where Jensen's face falls and he coughs and gets more beer or puts in another DVD or has to take a leak all of a sudden.

But Jared doesn't dwell on that. He thinks too much about Jensen as it is.

Like right now, when he can't think of anything else. Jensen's face is a little damp with sweat and there are beads of it gathered along his hairline. He doesn't just look worn out, though. No, he looks strangely relaxed, about ready to fall asleep from the exhaustion of moving that monster couch around. His mouth is slack and his whole body is molded into the soft sofa cushions. There's a sliver of sunlight cutting right across his cheek, and Jared can see a few freckles there, faint and barely there.

He wants to reach out and touch Jensen's face, wipe the sweat away and maybe trace the shape of his mouth with his fingers.

Instead, he burps loudly. "Sorry, man. That's the beer talking," he says and knocks the top of his fist against his chest for good measure.

Jensen opens one eye and looks at him. "How about you get us a couple more and find a take-out menu somewhere? I'm definitely not gonna cook tonight."

--

After about a month, Loretta gives Jared his first solo assignment.

He's reaped plenty of souls at this point, so it shouldn't be a big deal. It still feels like one though.

He has some time until the ETD, so he decides to walk. Truth is, since their assignments are usually no more than a couple of miles from the Waffle House, he and his colleagues walk most of the time. For Jared, it's partly that he doesn't feel comfortable being cramped into the small space of a rail car or bus compartment anymore. It's never bothered him before, but now it feels wrong to be so close to the living.

He arrives at the square where his next client is supposed to be with plenty of time to spare. The place is busy with people, many of them obviously students. There's some kind of info fair going on, and people have put up banners with animal rights slogans and set up tables where they give out brochures and pamphlets.

Jared wanders around for a while, passing the time and signing a couple of petitions. In college, he used to help out at the shelter, took the big dogs for regular walks. He went to a couple of animal rights rallies, too. But that was before.

Man, he suddenly misses those dogs.

When he checks his watch, it's still half an hour till the ETD, but he should probably start looking for his client anyway. He hopes she's one of the volunteers here and not just a passerby. Those are always a pain to identify, and he hates not knowing until the last minute.

He's just started looking for someone of Asian descent when he hears a male voice shout, "Hey, Mimi, what's cooking?" right next to his ear. He startles and turns and almost crashes into a short guy with a sunny smile standing in front of an info table.

"Hey, Mig," the girl behind the table says, laughing, "don't scare the customers." It's a good laugh, friendly and a little too loud, and it makes Jared like her immediately.

"No worries. I don't scare easily," he says as gives her a quick once-over.

She's tall, 5' 10" at least, with shiny black hair in a pixie cut that seems more practical than hip, bright eyes and a mouth that looks like she laughs a lot. She also has a nametag reading, "Midori Ayuhara – Volunteer."

Looks like Jared's found his client.

--

In retrospect, it was probably not a great idea to have a real conversation with a client before she'd died. But hey, it's not like anyone ever warned him about this or like there is a rule book where he could look up this stuff.

The thing is that Midori – Mimi – is pretty awesome. She's clever and funny and passionate about the no-kill animal shelter she's representing as well as about becoming a vet someday. She also reminds Jared so much of himself it hurts.

Everything seems to fit: they're the same age, love dogs, are both a little behind on the credits for their bachelor's because of extracurricular activities. Hell, she even has an older brother and younger sister, just like him. If Jared were still alive, he'd want to meet her again, check out the shelter, make a new friend.

Instead, he's about to take everything away from her, destroy all her plans for the future with a stroke of his hand. It seems so pointless, so wrong, so completely unfair, and suddenly, he doesn't think he can do it. Sure, he still remembers what Loretta said about souls going bad, spoiling like food, but he also realizes that's all it is: something Loretta told him.

The more he thinks about it, the more he convinces himself that that doesn't mean anything. Why should Loretta know all the answers? Who told her about all these rules? Why should he take everything in good faith just because she told him? Where are her credentials? How's he supposed to know that all this is not just a cruel game with randomly chosen players?

Jared's done playing. He won't let someone as full of life as Mimi die just because Loretta tells him it's the right thing to do. He won't put her family through what his family is probably going through right now. He just won't.

So instead of cutting the soul/body connection, he retreats into the background, but stays close enough to watch out and analyze the situation, find possible hazards. Once you start looking, there are a surprising number of scenarios. Jared imagines Mimi being pushed into the table, spearing herself on the promotional ballpoint pens. He sees her being knocked dead by one of the metal rods which hold the shelter's banner. Or maybe the driver of a passing car will lose control over the vehicle and crash into her stand. And wouldn't it be almost ironic if she would be attacked by one of the many dogs people are walking around with here?

Yeah, being a reaper's definitely made Jared paranoid, but at least he's pretty sure he's covered all his bases. He'll be able to stop it. If push comes to shove, he can always throw himself over Mimi to protect her. It's not like he still has a life to lose.

There's a strange, loud swishing sound and suddenly, small pieces of debris are raining down fast all around him. Before he can make sense of any of it – of the sound, of the speed of the fragments – he sees a large oval object hitting Mimi in the head. She goes down right away.

Turns out, there's one thing he didn't account for.

| Part 1 | Masterpost | Part 3 |
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strangeallure

March 2011

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