A gaping wound opened in the earth, a hungering maw desperate to consume. Nothing could stand against it, not even two angry, vengeful archangels. Lucifer fell in first, but only by fractions of a second as he pulled his elder brother in with him. Or perhaps he wasn’t the one doing the pulling, or the falling. It was a little hard to tell, considering how closely entwined grace and soul were in the vessel. Regardless, the Prince of Heaven and the Morningstar disappeared down, down in to the Cage. The Key of the Four ceased its magic, and the chasm in the world closed itself up again. Stull Cemetery was quiet and whole once more.
All the while, Tessa stood in the field nearby and watched, silent and invisible. No one died, but it still paid to have a reaper around in these situations. It was a monumental occasion, regardless of outcome. The Balance would be forever altered by it.
Just as the thought crossed her mind, a cold presence formed beside her. She didn’t even technically have skin anymore, not since becoming a reaper, but she still felt the prickling of goosebumps. She didn’t have to turn to her visitor to know it was her boss. It wasn’t often that Death deigned to go out in the field himself, but the genuine biblical Apocalypse certainly warranted it.
“Tessa,” he murmured. His quiet voice sent a fresh round of shivers down Tessa’s spine; it may have been soft and smooth, but it didn’t need to be anything more than that to make someone sit up and pay attention.
“What’s up, boss?” she asked. She was glad her voice wasn’t as shaky as she felt, but it hardly mattered. Death could see right through everyone, even his own reapers. Especially his own reapers.
“I have an assignment for you – one outside of the usual requirements of your job.” He paused, and Tessa heard the slurping of some kind of soft drink, or maybe a slushie. “An old friend of mine has been meddling in the narrative.”
Tessa’s eyes widened slightly as she turned to Death. He had not yet turned to face her, and stood watching the now vacated cemetery. “You mean God?”
“I could hardly imagine it would be anyone else.” He glanced at her from the corner of his eye. “He’s been pulling the strings, taking pieces from the board before their time, changing the Natural Order. Whichever metaphor you’d prefer to use.” He took another slurp of his drink.
Tessa’s eyebrows inched towards her hairline. “Those two?” She motioned with her head towards where the portal to the Cage had closed.
“No,” Death said. “These were… less cosmically significant individuals. Their deaths occurred well before now – one a year ago, the other about six months ago.”
“So why didn’t you give me this assignment then? Why wait until now?”
“Because,” Death emphasised, “The Apocalypse was too crucial of an event to interfere with, too significant to the Natural Order that any attempts on my part to put back what He changed, even if it didn’t directly affect Judgement Day, could still have had drastic consequences. Now that the choice has been made, and Reckoning has been averted…” He trailed off with a raised eyebrow and a tilt of his head towards Tessa.
“I understand.” A thought occurred to Tessa. “But why send me? Why couldn’t you do it? Or any other reaper, for that matter?”
Death turned back to look over the cemetery. “If I were to do this task myself, I’d show my hand. Better to allow Him to believe that he can do whatever he wants with this world, for the time being. A single reaper, acting outside of orders and abusing their powers, however?” He shot another look at her from the corner of his eye. “Not even worth His attention.”
A small paper bag rustled, and Tessa watched as Death started munching on onion rings that were more grease than food. She stared at it, mildly disgusted as she fought the urge to demand answers. Death would reveal what information he wanted to, when he wanted to, and not a moment before and not a syllable more.
“Certainly, any reaper could accomplish this task,” Death said after a long moment of eating junk food. “And perhaps certain reapers would be able to complete it quicker or with more subtlety.” He levelled her with a look that was entirely too knowing for her liking. “But I get the impression that you would appreciate it more than they would.”
He crumpled up the onion ring bag and tucked it into his pocket. He clapped a hand on Tessa’s shoulder. His ring, now removed from the Key and back on his finger, glowed with a faint grey light.
“I can give you just enough of my power to reach the first. She’ll be able to take you to the second, once you restore her. Good luck.”
Tessa felt a cool core of power strengthen her own and a foreign weight settle on her wrist, and an instant later her vision went black.
Tessa stepped carefully through the broken glass and splintered furniture in the wreckage of the cabin. Judging by the décor, either this place had been abandoned for decades, or more likely, she’d been sent back in time.
“I thought you said they died six months ago,” she muttered under her breath. She stretched her leg out to step over a coffee table, broken and splintered in half. She could feel a tension in the air, kind of like the feeling of a soul trapped in the limbo of the Veil. It felt different from a human soul, though – warmer and sharper, in a way.
She turned around the corner of a doorway. In the centre of the room was surely her quarry. She grimaced at the sight of the body; it was more a pile of ash and charcoal than anything else, burnt beyond recognition and crumbling apart before her eyes. She saw a bright orb hovering above it, held unnaturally still in stasis by Death’s power. The power radiating from it made what Death had told her click into place.
She straightened out her shoulders with a huff and walked over to the body. She knelt down and, with just a moment of hesitation, began the long and delicate process of restoring it.
Tessa carefully picked out the genetic information of the body and began reconstructing it, skin layered over muscle layered over bone. As she worked, the orb of grace hovered over her, bathing the scene with light and warmth. As Tessa worked, now deliberately placing each strand of hair on their body, the combination of the grace’s proximity and the depth at which she analyzed their DNA revealed their identity to her.
Soft red waves fell from the woman’s head, and Tessa grasped her hands to replace her fingernails. Anna’s grace buzzed near her head, passing along information about its owner as she worked. She saw the way that the angel met her end; she winced at the memory of the flames. She wouldn’t wish being burned alive by Michael on anyone. She saw glimpses of her time in Heaven, the moment she chose to tear out her grace, flashes of her second life as a human as she shaped each individual tooth.
Tessa saw, as she weaved the nerves of Anna’s eyeballs, the moment she became Anael once more. She saw, as she connected the first eye to her head, the months she spent on the run from Heaven. And she saw, as she connected the other eye, the months she spent after being caught strapped to a chair in a stark white room, another angel standing over her as she screamed and thrashed, a strange metal instrument coming towards her eye.
The orb of grace flared and dove into Anna’s mouth. Tessa covered her eyes and winced as it flared, bright white light and blue-hot heat filling the room. Just as quickly as it began, the light and heat receded, and after a moment Tessa decided it was safe to chance a look.
She lowered her arm to see Anna sitting up, now clothed and awake. She stared forward at nothing in particular, an indiscernible expression on her face. A thin trickle of blood leaked from the corner of one eye – the same one that Tessa had seen the instrument go into in her memories.
Anna took a deep, gulping breath, then another. She glanced around the room, twitchy and uncertain, until her gaze landed on Tessa. She sucked in a startled gasp, then relaxed a moment later, presumably as she realized that Tessa meant her no harm. Her eyes flared with grace for a split second.
“I didn’t think reapers escorted angels to… wherever it is we’re supposed to go,” she said softly.
“We don’t. You’re a special case, Anael.” Tessa pushed herself to her feet. She extended a hand down to Anna to help her up. Anna stared at it dumbly for a moment, still disoriented from her resurrection, before slowly reaching her own hand out to grasp it. Tessa pulled her to her feet, catching her as she stumbled slightly.
“Easy there, Red. Give yourself a second to adjust.”
Anna leaned heavily on her, her eyes darting around in a way that suggested she was remembering what had happened before she died. She stared over Tessa’s shoulder as she lifted her hand and wiped the blood off of her cheek.
“Oh God,” she said, voice quiet but edging towards hysterical, “what have I done? I didn’t want – I didn’t mean –”
“Shhh.” Tessa cupped her cheek and wiped away a stray drop of blood with her thumb. “It wasn’t your fault. You weren’t in control of your actions.”
She stood there for a while, just holding Anna as she broke down and put herself back together again. She rubbed her back comfortingly, hoping that the gesture would help soothe the storm inside of her.
“Why did you bring me back?” Anna asked, her voice rough and raw.
“Because Death told me to.” Tessa watched Anna pull back and stare at her incredulously. She felt her expression go soft and pitying against her will. “It wasn’t yet your time – you were being manipulated by forces larger than yourself.”
“Larger than an angel?” Tessa just raised an eyebrow and waited. She watched Anna’s expression twist, first in confusion, then in dismayed realization.
“I’m sorry, Anna.” She was actually sorry, which surprised her a little. Her emotions were a little different since she became a reaper, and sometimes they didn’t happen at the same time or intensity that they used to when she was human. That didn’t seem to be a concern now. Anna may have chosen to fall, disillusioned with Heaven’s rigid order, but that didn’t mean that she had lost faith in God, and that certainly didn’t mean she deserved to be treated like just another pawn in His chess game.
Tessa blinked, startled by how fiercely protective she felt of the angel in her arms. She felt a pulse of power on her wrist and glanced down, drawn out of her reverie. Three bracelets hugged her wrist, each one a simple black cord with a large onyx stone. Even as she carefully removed one of the bracelets, she thought she was starting to understand Death’s plan, and why he chose her for this in the first place.
She wrapped the bracelet around Anna’s wrist and fastened it. The onyx pulsed again, but this time a slight blue-white sheen glistened over the gem along with the pale grey glow it emitted.
“I need your help, if you’ll offer it,” Tessa said. “There’s one more who was manipulated, like you were, and was killed before her time, also like you were.” Her eyes left Anna’s wrist and she looked up at her through her lashes. “I believe the two of you have met before.”
Anna studied her face for a moment, then nodded slowly. Without a word, she turned her wrist to capture Tessa’s hand with her own, and in a flutter of feathers, the two of them vanished.
Tessa and Anna’s heels clicked on the stone floor of St. Mary’s Convent. Even more so than the wrecked cabin, the walls of the church radiated with the remnants of power, like the cosmic equivalent of radioactive waste. The two of them stepped cautiously through a set of large wooden doors, hanging halfway off their hinges and the back sides of them burnt and cracked.
The chapel looked as if a hurricane had torn through it, furniture splintered and burnt and thrown about the room. A large sigil of blood made a circle in the centre of the room, and a trail of blood led away from it towards a mound of ash against the altar. The air was heavy with power and an acrid scent, grace and hellfire and a stinging, bitter cold that cut straight to the soul.
None of that was what they were after, and so Tessa ignored it all.
She glanced around the room, not seeing the body – or what remained of a body – of the woman she was supposed to resurrect. She felt a gentle touch on her shoulder, and Anna leaned over her, pointing.
“There,” she said. Tessa craned her neck to follow where she was pointing. On the floor, halfway tucked under a ruined pew, was… well, it was probably a body at one point. It was at least still vaguely human-shaped, but it was blackened and blistered like Anna’s had been. The biggest difference between them was the thin layer of frost covering this body. A small ball of black smoke swirled over the body, held in stasis like Anna’s grace was. It occasionally flashed with a flare of orange, like a tiny storm cloud with lightning.
Tessa kneeled down next to the body. She cupped her hands underneath the smoke and pushed it up gently towards Anna.
“Look after this while I work, would you?”
Anna took the demonic soul from her, and Tessa began the process of restoring its owner’s body. A tendril of smoke curled away from the rest of the soul and touched itself to her temple. As she restored the body’s flesh and bones, she saw memories of herbs and tomes and Latin incantations as the woman practiced witchcraft. As she threaded new hair into her skin, dark like ink, she saw flashes of teeth and claws as she was slain by hellhounds. And as she crafted new eyes and teeth and nails, she saw blonde hair and black, a red leather jacket replaced by a black one. She saw black eyes replaced with white, and she saw a metal rack, glowing scarlet with heat and covered in spikes. She heard cries of pain and whimpers, begging to be let go. She heard a voice, cloyingly sweet and utterly false, telling her that the pain would end, provided she played her part in a very important plan.
Tessa’s vision blurred as she worked. She blinked back the unshed tears as she continued building Ruby’s body, all the while being assaulted by the memories of her torment. She heard the cloying voice again, telling her she was special, that she was better than the rest, that she was the only one who could do this. She could feel the moment it stopped sounding like a lie and started being a lifeline.
Tessa blinked roughly and shook her head to pull herself out of the memory. She saw the ball of smoke start twitching and flashing orange violently out of the corner of her eye. She heard a quiet whooshing sound, and a curtain of plum-coloured feathers wrapped around both her and Ruby’s soul.
“It’s okay, Ruby. It’s over. You don’t have to fight anymore,” Anna reassured the distressed soul. Tessa hurried to complete her work in restoring Ruby’s body. Just as she finished, she felt one more memory pulse through the smoke – one of recognition at the sound of Anna’s voice. A memory of a heart, believed to be black, now cracking in the face of one who had faith in it, letting the warm glow through.
A split second later, the smoke swirled out of Anna’s hands and plunged down Ruby’s throat. She woke just moments later, shuddering and sobbing. Anna knelt down on the opposite side of her from Tessa. The two of them each grasped one of Ruby’s hands and eased her up into a sitting position. They held her there, offering strength where she was weak and kindness where she had only known cruelty.
Tessa didn’t know how long they stayed like that, but it hardly mattered; St. Mary’s was a wreck, and even ordinary people could feel the dark energy radiating from the church. No one would disturb them. Anna wrapped her free hand around Ruby’s back, and her wings came in even tighter around the three of them. She carded her fingers through Ruby’s dark hair as she hummed softly. Tessa wasn’t familiar with the song, but the sound was soothing nonetheless.
Eventually, Ruby pushed them away. Her face was flushed in embarrassment and she avoided making eye contact.
“Alright, enough with the Kumbaya-touchy-feely crap,” she groused, but her voice was still watery. “Get off of me.”
Despite her protests, Tessa and Anna helped her to her feet. She stumbled a bit as she stood, just as Anna had, but this time it was Anna who caught her. She brushed a strand of hair from Ruby’s face and brushed her lips against her temple in a gentle kiss. Tessa watched, a flare of some kind of emotion settling in her stomach. She wasn’t quite sure what it was.
“You’re alright now, ol hoath. Just take it easy for a moment.” While Anna helped Ruby calm down and adjust to living once more, Tessa removed a second bracelet from her wrist. She took Ruby’s hand and clasped in around her wrist. As the clasp closed, the onyx flared with pale grey light, and an orange light flickered across its surface before dimming once more.
Ruby looked down at the bracelet. “What’s with the bling? You gonna ask me to be your date for the prom, Death of the Endless?”
“Only if you want me to,” Tessa shot back. She took secret delight in how Ruby’s cheeks flushed. She glanced over at Anna to see the angel watching the two of them with a fond look. Whatever passed for her heart fluttered at the sight. She turned back to Ruby.
“Death made them for me.”
“Death? As in capital D, Death?” Ruby demanded. She crossed her arms. “What does that old geezer want?” She was silenced by an elbow to the side from Anna.
“Sorry about her – she’s not great with people.” Ruby stomped on Anna’s foot in retaliation, but the angel ignored it. “But I’m also curious about what Death would want from us.”
“Honestly?” Tessa shrugged. “I don’t think he wants anything from us.” She bit her lip and glanced down at her own bracelet, the onyx stone’s grey light pulsing softly. “He knew that the two of you should be brought back, but he gave this assignment to me for a reason.” She looked back up at the other two women. “An angel on the run from Heaven, a demon on the run from Hell, and a reaper who spends as little time in the Endless Library as possible. I think the three of us have a lot in common.” She felt her face grow warm, for the first time since she became a reaper. “And I wouldn’t mind getting to know the two of you better.”
“Awww,” Ruby drawled. She earned a cuff upside the head from Anna’s wing, but she just snickered in the face of her girlfriend’s admonishment. Anna shot Ruby an unimpressed look, then turned back to Tessa.
“I think that sounds wonderful.”
The next few months were a bit of an adjustment period; Ruby had to get used to letting someone in other than Anna, Anna still reeled from the brainwashing she had undergone, and Tessa struggled with balancing reaper work with recreational time off. There were large chunks of time when either Ruby or Anna, or both of them, had to cut off contact and go into hiding from Heaven or Hell. Those were the worst times, as Tessa sat and worried endlessly that they’d be caught.
The bracelets connected the three of them. Even when Anna or Ruby were in hiding, or when Tessa was busy reaping souls, they could feel one another through their bracelets. A simple pulse of grace, or a flash of orange, or a cold mist, and the others knew they were okay.
Tessa pushed open the door to the café and stomped the snow off of her boots as she entered. It was the first time since their initial meeting that all three of them were actually able to sit down and spend time together without fear of interruption. She glanced around at the tables and booths, and spotted Ruby sitting in a booth in the back corner by the window.
“Hi Ruby,” she said, breathless both from the weather and the sight of the demon before her. In their time separated from one another, she’d forgotten just how beautiful she was. Ruby turned her gaze from the window to Tessa, her lips curling into a soft smirk as she slid into the seat across from her.
“Hey yourself,” Ruby replied, the words themselves brusque but the tone in which she said them fond. Tessa smiled and reached across the table to tangle her fingers with Ruby’s. Ruby scoffed under her breath, but didn’t even attempt to pull away.
A couple minutes later, the bell over the door chimed again, and Anna was joining them at their booth.
“I’ve missed you both so much,” she said, leaning down and depositing a kiss against Ruby’s cheek. She turned to Tessa. “I’m sorry I couldn’t have been in touch more, but Heaven’s been in an uproar since the Apocalypse was stopped, and I had to be more careful not to be caught.” She slipped into the booth beside Tessa and pressed a kiss to her lips, her own mouth still a little chilly from the early winter air.
“Look out for yourself first, Red,” Tessa replied. “We can wait for you as long as we need to.”
“Ugh, speak for yourself,” Ruby grumbled. “You sure there’s nothing you can do to keep them off your tail, babe?”
“Nothing I can do without the aid of another angel – and I don’t know if there’s any I can trust right now.” Anna ignored Ruby’s continued grumbling as she reached for a menu. Tessa could feel her wings fluff up in contentment beside her, even if she couldn’t see them at the moment.
“So! What are we having?”
“Fuck you, what are we having. You always steal whatever I order.”
“I don’t need to eat.”
“Yeah? Could’ve fooled me.” Ruby jabbed a stir stick at Anna accusatorily. “And it’s not like I need to eat either. Get your own shit and stop taking mine.”
Tessa chuckled and propped her chin up on her hand as she watched her girlfriends lovingly bicker with one another. The snow fell lazily outside the window, the final rays of sunlight slipped down below the horizon as day turned to night, and she was happy.