She felt like she was floating in slow moving water. Images passed her. People she thought she could have known if things had been different. There was a boy smiling up at something she couldn't see. People were spinning and dancing up on a stage. A couple was walking together, holding hands. Then a familiar face loomed up in front of her.
"Hello, flower." He smiled at her.
"Deacon, what's going on? Where am I?"
Deacon smile widened to a grin. "That's not the right question. The right question is how; or what may be an even better question." He let out a breathy laugh. "Sorry to break it to you this way, but you're dead flower."
"Dead, what do you mean dead?"
"Well, technically your body's still alive, but the soul isn't in there; because it's here, you're here."
"Well, where is here?"
"The River Styx, the 'other side', this is where the dead go, or at least a good number of the dead. But Charon, the ferry man, isn't coming for you."
She frowned. "If-if I'm dead, does that mean you are too?"
Deacon chuckled quietly, "no, not really. Remember what your sporty friend called me that day at lunch?"
She thought back. Sarah, what had she called Deacon? "She said you were the king of the undead wannabes. You're undead?"
Deacon shrugged, "for lack of a better word."
"Why isn't that guy, the ferry guy, coming?"
"You sure ask a lot of questions for a dead person." He scowled at her. "I took this," he held up a coin, flipped it was a 'ting' and caught it. "All dead of the Styx need a coin, payment, for Charon to pick them up; I've taken yours so he won't be coming."
"So, I'm stuck here? Why would you-? ... I get it; this is payback for-for whatever it is I did to you in school, right? Now I have to float here for-."
"No, no, that's not it." He waved his hands at her. "I don't want that. I'd never want to make you stay here. I want to keep you." He smiled again, not in the self satisfied way he had before; it was a little kind and more than a little sad. "I know it doesn't make sense, and you want to know why. My last companion was taken, so my boss said I could take time to find a new one." He pointed at her, "I've picked you."
"What? Why me? I-" Juniper stopped, squinting at him. "Did you kill me?" She asked, suddenly angry. "Did you do this to keep me like some kind of-of pet?"
Deacon's eyes widened and his mouth popped open in shock. "No, no I'd never do that. You were supposed to die like you did. I would never kill someone before their time. That upsets the balance. I just- I don't want to be alone anymore flower. I can't be alone anymore, not like the others. Please, please, come with me." He reached out a hand to her.
She didn't know if she should believe him. It didn't make sense. Maybe what was going on wasn't real, maybe she was just dreaming and would wake up soon. But it didn't feel like a dream. In fact, it felt more real than anything. But then, that meant she really had died. That also meant Deacon was basically handing over a chance to live, for nothing in exchange. She didn't know whether it was real or not. Or whether or not, if it was a dream, she should agree, let the dream continue. What it came down to was a single question. Did she believe Deacon? After a little hesitation, she took the hand in front of her.
Deacon smiled with relief. "Thank you."
"What did you mean others?" Juniper asked as he pulled her slowly from the water of the Styx, like it was a difficult thing to do. "Deacon, what are you?"
"Well, I'm not Deacon Cappello; you can call me Grimm. It's s-"
"You're the Grim Reaper. You're death, aren't you?"
"Yes," he said with a short laugh, "that's right. I thought you didn't know." She bumped into him, and he wrapped his arms around her, one hand pressing her head to his chest, the other went to the small of her back, and they floated away.
Juniper closed her eyes, feeling a little sick, and realized how cold she had been. "It just made sense when you said Grimm. Everything clicked into place in my head."
"Ah," he answered very quietly as they slipped, quickly over dark land and the murky river. One of his hands left her back and he said, "Look, there's Charon."
Juniper turned her head to look where he pointed. A man piloting a modern looking ferry boat lifted a hand to wave at them. People, or rather souls, sat around on the small deck. A few even lifted their heads to stare at them. "I see you finally found who you were looking for," Charon said. It was strange; despite the distance Juniper could hear his gravelly voice as if he was right next to her, even though he wasn't shouting.
"Yes," Grimm answered in a conversational tone. "It took a long time, but I finally found her."
Charon looked up at them for a few silent moments. "Take care of each other, and get her a good body, she went through a lot in life. I'll be seeing you soon."
"I will; goodbye."
"How did he know that?" Juniper asked.
"Everyone on this side can either see or sense what souls have been through in life, or specific things about each soul. Charon has a special place in his heart for souls who've been hurt; he can see how much pain a person went through." Juniper nodded. "We're going to see my boss now, in case you're wondering. I have to tell him I've got you."
"Oh, ok. Who's your boss?"
"Hades, you know the Greek god of the underworld and the dead."
"Wait, he's real? How is he real?" Juniper looked up at his face in disbelief.
"Yes, he's real, you'll see just how real in a little bit. People made Hades real, when they started believing in him. I'll explain more after we get you a body." They descended to the strange dark land. Grimm kept a tight hold on Juniper, with a hand on her waist, as they walked to an enormous gate. Suddenly, there was a loud barking and a giant three-headed dog came bounding towards them. Grimm skittered to the side, away from the monstrous hound, pulling Juniper with him.
"Cerberus, heel," someone shouted. The huge dog stopped, and a boy, who didn't look to be much older than his early teens, walked out of a door beside the gate. He patted the dog, Cerberus' leg and turned to look at them. A tattoo, or possibly a birthmark, of a butterfly spread over his left cheek. "Hello, Grimm. Lord Hades is waiting for you."
"Thanks, Thanatos, is-is she with him?"
"Of course she is. It is late fall, you should know this by now Grimm." Thanatos turned back around and made a small shooing motion to Cerberus.
Grimm skirted around the huge dog, as it growled softly, and led the way to the gates. "Cerberus has never liked me. But Thanatos keeps him in check."
"Oh, who is 'she'?"
"Persephone, it almost always gets mushy when she's around." They went through the gates and instantly the scenery changed. Instead of dark craggy rock walls, which Juniper thought would continue, the gate led into what looked like the lobby of a high class office or apartment building, complete with cheesy music. Grimm led them to an elevator and poked at the single button.
"I always thought hell would look different." Juniper murmured.
"What?" Grimm gave her an astonished look. "This isn't Hell, we're nowhere near Hell. The Underworld and Hell are very different. This is where the people who weren't religious or evil go. The Catholics got it wrong with Limbo, the place for the 'righteous un-baptized sinners,' but they got a lot of things wrong. Hell, on the other hand, is reserved for truly evil people like Hitler and Jack the Ripper." The elevator 'ping-ed', the doors slid open, and they stepped inside. Grimm punched at one of the buttons, none of which were numbered, and the elevator started moving down.
"Where do all the really good people go, Heaven?"
"Basically, Heaven looks different for each person, based on how they see it. It's reserved for people like Mother Teresa and Gandhi, and Christians. The Christian God is in charge of it, nice guy, loves everyone, and his son's really cool."
"Wait, wait are you saying you've met Jesus?" Grimm nodded to her. "The Jesus Christ, he's real too?"
"Yeah, I actually owe him a favor or two; he helped me with a few things a while ago. Probably the coolest guy I know. You know, his name's actually Joshua or Yeshua in Hebrew. He goes by a lot of different names and titles, but he prefers Jesus, or Joshua."
"I guess that means Vanessa was right all those times she tried to shove her Bible down my throat."
"Technically everyone was right, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Rastafarians, the Mayans, Chris-"
"Ok, ok I get it; my head's starting to hurt." The elevator 'ping-ed' again, and they stepped out into a large office. The room was furnished with colorful sofas and chairs, modern looking tables, and flowers everywhere, from pictures and paintings to real fresh-cut lilies in vases. A pretty woman, with long hair the color and texture of corn silk pulled up in a loose bun, sat curled up in one of the chairs reading a magazine titled 'Hearth and Home'. She looked up and a wide smile split her face.
"Hello Grimm," she stood and walked over, giving Grimm and Juniper hugs and pecks on their cheeks in turn. Juniper found she smelled like wildflowers.
"Hi Ms. Persephone," Grimm said, smiling sheepishly.
"Dear, Grimm is here!" Persephone called over her shoulder.
There was a crash and a deep voice shouted, then there were quick heavy footsteps, and a man all but slid around a half wall in the back of the office. Paint was splattered across his T-shirt and hands, a green color was smeared over his nose, and there were a few different colors in his dark shoulder length hair. His dark eyes were wide as he stared at Grimm. "Are you-? Is she-? Did you-?"
"Yes, yes, and no," Grimm said with a smile.
The man, who must have been Hades, grinned, dashed over, and hugged Grimm fiercely, lifting him off the floor, half-yelling, "I'm so happy for you!"
Grimm's spine cracked with the strength of Hades' hug, "gah, th-thank you sir. Would you mind putting me down please?" Hades let go. "Thanatos said you were waiting for me?" Grimm asked, absentmindedly rubbing his arms.
"Yes, yes, I have to ask," Hades sobered. "Are you alright? Last time you waited too long, it's been almost 30 years already."
"I'm alright this time. I promise."
Hades nodded, "alright. I'll go call my brother so we can get Juniper into a body." He quickly left.
"30 years," Juniper whispered. "What does he mean?"
"That's how long I've been searching, not including my 5 year break." Grimm explained quietly. "Last time I was looking for about the same time and I was almost fried. Lord Hades kind of made me different than other Reapers. I can't be alone for too long, or else bad things happen."
Hades returned, "He said to give him a little bit; just wants to make us wait. Where is Thanatos, we need him?" The elevator 'ping-ed,' the doors opened and Thanatos stepped out. "You have perfect timing, as always Thanatos."
"Thank you, sir," Thanatos looked at Juniper. "Congratulations, not many are awarded the chance that has been presented to you." He smiled slightly.
"Thank you," Juniper said, still clinging to Grimm. She didn't feel right, like her head was full of fuzz, and her eyes wouldn't focus. "Grimm, I don't feel so good." She whispered.
"I know. It's ok, you'll feel better in a little bit." He pulled Juniper closer.
After a while, the phone on the desk rang, and Hades went to answer it, tucking the phone between his shoulder and ear. "Hello … yes … no, we need her now. I told you it's not good to make her wait … If we wait she could- … It'll take you less than a minute …" He crossed his arms. "Don't make me call mom … Yes, I would … I'm older that's why! Got it? … Alright … Yeah … Make her pretty … yes very." He glanced back at Juniper with a small smile. "Mhm … better … no, I'm serious… yeah … Mm … Alright; I love you … ok buh-bye." He hung up the phone. "It'll just be a little longer, get ready."
Grimm turned Juniper by her shoulders and said, "This is going to hurt, flower, but it'll be over quick; I promise."
Juniper nodded as Thanatos stood to her left and Hades to her right. One hand went over her eyes, another over her heart, one over each ear and holding her hands. Then they waited. The silence grew heavy, only the sounds of quiet breathing to break it. Then the whispers started; very quiet, rushed whispers, in a language she didn't know. Juniper tried to pull back from the hand over her eyes, and when one of the voices hushed her, she realized the whispers were coming from Thanatos, Hades, and Grimm.
Pain invaded everything, the kind of pain that's so strong you can't find your voice. Juniper felt it in her chest, like something was trying to rip her ribcage open from the inside. She felt a strange shift, the hands left her, and she opened her eyes in a bright room.