The girl is different. She is tiny and insignificant in her hospital bed, pale as the sheets that swaddle her. Her mother's cries are pathetic weeps of regret and helplessness. Her father is stoic, though the cracks still show. The doctor is old and greying and says, "Terminal," with a heavy resonance. The mother's cries gain volume.
Two-seventeen in the morning and the father is gone. He's drinking in a bar, somewhere, though that is unimportant. Their lives are unimportant. The mother sleeps fitfully.
He comes into the room and stands at the foot of the bed. The hospital is not a place that offends him, that causes him fear; it is the closest thing to a home he will ever know. At the head of the bed, he looks down at the girl. She has no eyebrows or eyelashes; no hair at all. The skin under her eyes is bruised. It's her time.
Incredibly, impossibly, her eyes open. She takes a breath that makes her chest rattle and looks up, looks through-
She looks at him and, though she should know better, though it shouldn't be possible in the first place, she smiles.
It is the smile of a seven year old girl and it is the only thing that makes him hesitate. He draws back and her eyes follow him.
"Are you an angel?" she asks, in her faint rasp of a voice. Even if he could speak to her, he would have no words. He feels something that might be fear curl up and take residence in his mind. He fears that she can see him, that she can recognise him- He fears that he can feel at all.
He leaves her, flees from her curious eyes and her carefree smile.
When the cancer goes into remission and her father is too busy welcoming her home to be involved in the car crash that should kill him, he realises he has made a mistake.
Her name doesn't come up for more than a decade. He hasn't forgotten her - because he can't forget anyone - but when he sees her name he feels that sliver of fear again and forces himself to remember his purpose.
She's twenty-two, celebrating her graduation with her friends. It's an accident, this time. She'll drink too much, will walk home alone, will trip on the pavement and hit her head- Then he will pick up her wisp of a soul in gentle hands and take it with him.
Only, she sees him again. In a dark corner of a dark club, her eyes pick him out effortlessly. She excuses herself from her friends, drinks forgotten. The music pounds and she approaches, her steps sure. She's so close he can hear her pulse. It's louder than the music; the only thing that fills his ears, until she speaks.
"I remember you," she says. He doesn't - can't - reply, but she continues anyway. "I told my parents I saw an angel and they didn't believe me, not until the cancer went away. Did you save me?"
He supposes she might see it like that. He shakes his head - what she'll see as a head - and her brow furrows. She doesn't understand.
"I think I'm going crazy," she says, mostly to herself, so he takes it as a cue to leave.
He still waits though. Waits until he sees her say goodbye to her friends and get into a taxi. She makes it home with nothing more than a confused encounter. It feels less like a failure, this time.
The third time her name comes up, he thinks he's going crazy. It occurs to him at some point that he shouldn't be thinking in terms of feelings at all, but impatience brushes that aside.
He remembers the way her hair looked, shining in the strange lights of the club, her eyes still the same then as they had been when she was a child. It's only been eight years.
This time, it's murder.
The thought makes something unpleasant churn, inside. A fierce, burning need to protect her is something he should probably report, but doesn't. He's spent the last eight years trying to catch a glimpse of her, though it's unnecessary. From the moment her name first appeared on his list, he's known every facet of her life.
He knows it's wrong. He still goes, arriving outside the house an hour before her husband is due back. He doesn't know exactly how it will happen - has it been building for a while? Will he snap? Will they fight and scream, or will he sneak up and-
She glances up from the kitchen window and it doesn't matter anymore. She walks out onto the back garden and stands opposite him, a summer breeze blowing through her hair.
"Something's going to happen to me today, isn't it?" she asks.
He nods. She presses her lips together in a thin line and he can see the tension in every line of her body; he wants to ease it, to help, but he doesn't know how.
She smiles at him then and it's strained at the edges, but he can see the truth of it in her eyes. "Thank you," she says quietly, and reaches for him.
Her hand tightens around an arm - his arm? - and he feels sparks, a low burn that travels up and to where his heart might be, maybe. When he looks back at her, she removes her hand and stares at it for a moment, like she felt it too.
She turns and runs back into the house. He watches silently as she packs her things and drives away, eleven minutes before her husband arrives with the gun in his pocket.
His howl of disappointed rage is somewhat satisfying.
The years pass, but the feelings never fade. He takes the other souls as he always has; he picks them up or helps them up or stands by and lets them walk themselves. He occasionally finds himself astounded by their strength, by the traits they carry with them from their lives, but for the most part he remains entirely unaffected.
He sees her name for the fourth time and thinks, sixty-three is still too young to die.
She's sitting on the porch when he arrives, her eyes half-closed in the sun. She smiles and raises a hand in greeting and he walks across the grass to meet her.
"Again?" she says, a laugh bubbling up behind the words. "I think we see far too much of each other."
Or not enough at all, he thinks, but doesn't say it. There is no one inside the house. She has children, he knows, but they're grown. She never remarried, after last time. She seems unsurprised, maybe even expectant.
"I finally figured it out," she says, leaning forward in the chair and pointing a finger at him. "My beautiful angel of death. I'm pretty sure warning me isn't in the rules."
He doesn't want her to know the rules. She sits back again and studies him for a moment.
"I'm ready now," she says. "I'd rather not have a messy death, you know, but I've had, what, fifty-six extra years? Half a century." She stares wistfully into the sunset. "Half a century more than I should have had. I don't know how to thank you."
There is no way for him to express this - this grief at her acceptance, at her justification. It swallows him for a moment, a rush in his ears and a chasm in his heart, but she stands and reaches, placing her hand on his shoulder. Bewildered, he finds himself looking into her eyes. There are memories in there that shouldn't be, but they're still the same pair he first saw so long ago.
"It's time," she says. He knows she's right. He reaches up and takes her hand, leading her back to the chair. She sits but doesn't let go. He can feel the warmth of her skin and wonders what his hand feels like.
She closes her eyes and he feels her hand tighten a moment. "Will it hurt?" she asks, in a little-girl whisper.
He leans in, presses his lips against her ear. It takes a force of will that he's never managed before, but he finally says, "No."
A tear escapes down her cheek and as the sun dips finally below the horizon, he waits. The moon rises and he waits, listening to the steady sound of her breathing.
At eleven-nineteen he hears her heart stutter and then stop entirely. Her head lolls to the side and he slips his hand out of hers, reaching for the soul he knows lies sparkling within.
She comes easily, shedding her body like a skin she has no need for. She's beautiful as she ever was in life, her smile honest and weightless, the bad memories no longer a weight on her.
He almost doesn't want to let her go.
"Where are we going?" she asks.
His hand tightens around hers, both as insubstantial as the other and yet still managing to grip, still feeling like the warmth and softness of skin. "A quiet place," he says.
"I was expecting - you know, a white light, a tunnel, all that sort of thing. How will we find it?"
"I'll take you there," he says. They move and her face is, for a moment, delighted.
"Will you leave, after?" she asks. "You always do."
He feels the press of her fingers and shakes his head.