Rafael’s mocking laughter was still ringing in Zlatan’s ears as he slumped against the door and looked about the place. He was half-heartedly muttering curses, but he knew none of them were going to touch that bastard, and anyway, even if one did, Rafael still was headed upstairs to the mortal plane. He could always take it out on some humans, but Zlatan was trapped here, in this dark chilly room in Hell, and all because…
Because it was unfair, he viciously thought, and kicked out at the floor just to emphasize the point. Of course pain immediately exploded in two of his toes so he hissed and dropped down, clutching at his foot, but at least that was a distraction. He could be angry and hurt, and snarl at all the fucking morons and unappreciative assholes who’d gotten him here, and ignore the fact that he actually was here.
But of course it was hard to hold onto that. Demons healed fast and he was quicker than most for everything including that, and then also there was the fact that this was Hell and it just didn’t allow for distractions from itself. That was the whole point of it.
“Fuck,” Zlatan finally sighed, sitting down. He slumped against the door, slitting his eyes against the darkness, but the low throb in his foot got too annoying so he leaned over to rebreak and properly set his toes.
Then he fell back against the door and took a proper look about the place. It seemed to be reasonably good-sized, which was actually a worse sign since that meant they’d expect him to live in the place as well as work in it, and so he wouldn’t get to at least take coffee breaks in the more wild, less regimented parts of Hell. The darkness was a bit much even for his eyes, but at least when he muttered a spell, nothing happened except what was supposed to happen: flames appearing in the irregular scoops in the walls. So presumably this was indeed an office, and he didn’t have to worry about anything besides the usual bureaucratic tortures. Pity, since disarming somebody else’s traps would have been a little interesting.
The place was furnished as if the last unfortunate to get demoted here had come straight from the Dark Ages, which was ridiculous since Zlatan knew they kept up with the technology down here. Half the time they invented it, like automated call-screening, and then planted it upstairs, but…well, that was part of the punishment, probably. Though as Zlatan stared at the straw piled up in the corner, with the ratty blankets thrown over it, he wasn’t any more reconciled to losing his penthouse with the luxury three-sixty shower system by knowing that.
No bed. He had a desk, which was massive and heavy-looking and which had probably been used more like a butcher’s table, given the huge gouges and strange stains on its dark wood. From where Zlatan was sitting, he couldn’t see too much beyond the damn thing due to its size, so he finally dragged himself to his feet and found that he had a chair as well. A broken, three-legged thing, lying on its side behind the desk like a half-rotted animal corpse, and then there was some kind of grating behind the desk. The bars were set nearly a hand’s-span into the wall so he hadn’t been able to see them right away, and they started about knee-high and went on to stop just short of the ceiling by the same amount.
They got him all excited since he thought maybe, just maybe, he’d lucked out with a window to something, but he hadn’t walked halfway over before he realized the darkness before ruled that out. But then he wasn’t sure what they were for, so he kept on going till he was standing in front of them.
The bars were only the front, and behind them extended a deep space that was big enough to qualify as a decent closet—a cage. The iron of the bars was black and shining so it looked fresh from the forges, but the hollow in the stone wall looked as if it’d been hacked out with little more than claws. It was uneven, with bulges and dips, and near the very front the rock had been scraped away from the base of each bar so they sat within holes that went down nearly a finger’s length. Nevertheless they looked solid enough, but just out of curiosity, Zlatan hit one with his palm.
A moment later, the blazing pain in his spine and the back of his head subsided just enough for him to remember which side was up. He took a deep breath, staring at the spinning bars, and pushed himself up…up the desk. He was on the floor, where he’d fallen after being thrown into the side of the desk, and his hand felt as if someone had wrapped a live wire around it. Which, when he looked down, could’ve been a plausible cause: his skin had blistered away nearly to the raw muscle where it’d touched the bar, and spreading away from that strip, it was rapidly turning red and swollen.
Zlatan gingerly flexed his hand, then bit down on his tongue and felt that bleed as an intense wave of agony washed over him. He breathed his way through it, then carefully pulled off his coat and wrapped one sleeve around his hand, which was probably going to take a couple hours to heal. And then, cursing his luck, he got back to his feet and approached the bars a little more warily.
This time he picked up on the little frisson of power around them, but he decided he wasn’t going to feel embarrassed about that, since whoever’d done the work had been very, very good. The warding spell wasn’t just powerful, but also seamlessly unobtrusive so nobody could be expected to notice it. Unless they found out about it the way Zlatan had just had, or if they knew it was there in the first place.
But good as it was, it was still a weird thing to do for an office that was supposedly reserved for punishing “insubordinate” demons—kind of blaming the cat for killing the bird, Zlatan thought—and it definitely was too complicated to just be a joke. Unless this was going to be worse than Zlatan thought and it really did result in that sort of insanity.
He frowned and looked past the bars, into the space. He’d thought that it was empty, but as he squinted, he saw that what he’d taken for just the shadows cast by the irregular walls actually had too much substance for that. Something…someone, he corrected, was back there, curled up against the far wall. And looking at him, but the light wasn’t angled correctly to hit them so he couldn’t see any details. Probably because he was standing in the way, he abruptly realized, and so he moved and a shaft of reddish light stretched past his shoulder, over the dark grey rock, to skim over a pair of eyes. Black at first, but then whoever it was rose a little and came further into the light, and the eyes turned green.
Man-shaped, and very nicely so beneath the torn clothing. He had cheekbones that swooped gracefully beneath his eyes and longish, curling brown hair, and distinctively arched eyebrows. His clothes appeared to be the remains of a black shirt and black trousers, and their cut was modern enough so that Zlatan took him for a damned soul. But then he dropped his shoulder as he put his hand down to push himself up and something rose up behind that shoulder, something stubby and ragged. Zlatan’s nostrils flared and then he recognized the smell of ichor—and very, very faintly beneath that, the smell of the celestial.
The angel sat up on his heels. He held himself with his head high and his arms loosely at his sides, but his hands were tight against his knees and lines were worn in around his eyes and mouth. He stared silently back at Zlatan, expressionless.
“Huh,” dropped out of Zlatan’s mouth, for lack of anything better to say. He tilted his head and took a step closer. Then he glanced belatedly down to make sure he didn’t bump his hand again into the bars, wrapping his coat-sleeve more tightly about the burned spot.
Zlatan looked back up and the angel hadn’t moved, except maybe his shoulders had slumped a little. Beneath the grim, soundless pride, he looked exhausted. The gaunt in-curve of his cheeks, while fashionable in many parts of the cultured mortal world, wasn’t entirely natural, and streaks of dried dirt and sweat—which answered one question Zlatan had always had about angels—were apparent on his throat and jaw.
“You’ve been here aw—” Zlatan started.
He was interrupted by a knock at the door, so of course he turned. Not that the door opened, of course. That would’ve been too nice. No, instead five huge stacks of paper suddenly dropped from nowhere to land on the desk, making the floor under Zlatan’s feet tremble. Dust rose in thick, choking clouds. A couple sheets bounced back up into the air, only to float down and knock more to the floor in what Zlatan suspected wasn’t a chance mess. So Zlatan opened his mouth—
--and a pen dropped onto the middle stack. A cheap one with the clear plastic sides, and it definitely wasn’t going to make it through all the paperwork.
“Fuck,” Zlatan said, forgetting all about the angel. “Fuck.”
* * *
Zlatan remembered him only a couple moments later, but didn’t waste any more time or thought on him since all that work was sitting there, saying enough with its own silence. Not that he just sat down and started trying to get through it either, like some mindless idiot. Doing that just guaranteed that he’d never get out of the damn room, and he damn well wasn’t letting that happen.
The one real advantage he had was that Hell, though originally meant as a refuge from Heaven, had been mostly taken over by its soul-torturing aspect, and that meant that everything in it was designed to bother people. Which in turn meant he’d already run into a lot of its ideas upstairs, and seen how people got around them. And they were pretty damn good at that, and Zlatan was pretty damn good at paying attention.
Resources, however, were a lot more limited. What would’ve been easy to do upstairs with a computer and a quick inhaling of some programming-tutorial books was a pain in the ass to figure out with the little power Zlatan still had. And okay, magical theory had never really been his strong suit, but it wasn’t like what he was doing was within the traditional realm of that anyway, so he probably didn’t lose that much more time with his crapshoot improvisational style. He did eventually get things to work, after all.
“Hah,” he said as he stepped back and the paper began to fly. “Assholes.”
He let it run through a couple iterations before picking up a finished sheet and checking it out. Everything looked fine, though—no, that wasn’t right but that was easy to fix. So he did that, and the whole procedure slowed by about fifty percent. So Zlatan fiddled with things some more, and a couple hours later he sat down on the floor, tired and frustrated, and glowered at the whole mess.
It was working. It just wasn’t doing everything, which meant he’d still have to read through some of that fine print crap himself, and what it was doing, it wasn’t doing fast enough. He hadn’t gotten the next dump yet so maybe it’d turn out all right—
“Never mind about that,” Zlatan muttered, staring at the brand-new gigantic stacks on his desk. He’d just about gotten through half of the first batch, so he needed to be…three times as fast. Somehow.
Zlatan pushed one hand through his hair as he tipped his head back, letting it rest on the wall. Then he frowned and pulled down his hand to look at the palm. The big, damp black smears of ink on it mocked him.
After one disbelieving second, Zlatan wiped the clean back of his hand over his face, then looked at that. And yes, he’d just gotten ink all over his cheek, and this was just such—he kicked at his desk, thereby discovering that that didn’t even make the monster thing shudder, and then rolled his eyes and sighed. It was just ink, and if he got pissed off now he’d never figure out how to get through all the shitty paperwork.
He reached up and hooked his hand over the ledge above him, then began to pull himself to his feet. An idea had occurred to him and he was a little busy thinking through it, so the sudden hiss caught him by surprise. He started to spin around, but then finally remembered that his hand was still scabbed over from those damn bars and belatedly yanked himself away from that. His good hand had been a hair away from touching them.
And the angel was still up. Closer, actually; he was still well beyond Zlatan’s reach, should Zlatan be stupid enough to try and fit his arm through the bars, but he’d moved up to about the middle of the cage. He met Zlatan’s eyes for a moment, some flash just dying away in his own eyes, and then half-turned so he was gazing instead at the rightmost bar.
“That bored, huh,” Zlatan said. He glanced over, then carefully leaned against the wall beside the cage. The papers continued to fly over his desk at way too slow a speed.
He chewed at his lip, abruptly recollecting his idea, and after a moment he figured he might as well try it. So he leaned forward and began pulling and twisting at threads of magic, and things did speed up—way too fast. Zlatan cursed and yanked something hard, and suddenly everything settled into granny pace. He made a face and was going to pull that thing again, but then he thought the better of it and instead hooked it round, and that…that seemed to work better. Now he was at…seventy percent of how fast he needed to be, just eyeballing it.
“You know, if you’ve got any ideas, I’m bored, too. You have shit like this in Heaven, or does everything just fly around and file itself to choral music?” Actually, while he was in the middle of everything, Zlatan spotted an obvious disconnect he’d stupidly left, so the panic attack wasn’t completely worthless. He promptly fixed it and the system sped magnificently up. Zlatan grinned. “Oh, I’m good.”
Another noise from the angel, but too soft and vague for Zlatan to even guess at what it meant. He still glanced over his shoulder, but his hands were still full of magic so he couldn’t turn that far. Also, the angel had moved, so Zlatan had to hastily disentangle himself before he could completely twist about to see what had happened.
The angel had slipped all the way to the back of the cage and was no longer looking at Zlatan, though he was still facing forward. He was in the middle of lying down, and Zlatan thought he detected a couple winces there—the angel definitely was careful about where he put the stubs of his wings, but he couldn’t hold himself up at one point and one of those grazed the wall before he jerked away. It left behind a faint gleaming slick of ichor on the stone.
“Hey.” Zlatan took a step forward, then put his hands on the ledge before the bars and leaned towards those. “Hey, if you think I’m doing it wrong, you could say so. You’re not so much better that you can just—”
That brought the angel’s head up sharply, and for a moment Zlatan thought he was going to speak. His mouth parted a bit and his eyes were almost snapping, so he definitely had something to say. But then he grimaced and just laid down, resting his head on his arms and curling his legs tightly against himself.
“Or, you know, you can just not talk, and this can be really boring,” Zlatan muttered. Normally he would’ve hit something, but the bars of course were out of the question so instead he looked around. His gaze happened to fall on the empty plastic casing of the pen, which was lying on the floor, and he picked it up and then on a whim, poked it between the bars.
Nothing happened. He hadn’t really thought that anything would, but the bars were so odd—usually in Hell the idea was to work on keeping people in, not out, of things—that there had been a chance whoever had made them had been that anal. Of course there wasn’t now, and he proved it to his heart’s content by sticking the pen between all the bars and then waving it up and down in the spaces. Nothing.
That went for the angel too, who did turn his head to look, but otherwise didn’t move. His forehead furrowed slightly, so maybe he was just a little curious about what Zlatan was doing, but the rest of his face was hidden by his arm so it was difficult to tell.
Anyway, he wasn’t really the most important problem, and he clearly wasn’t going to be of any help, so if he didn’t want to give Zlatan the time of day, that was fine. Neither did Zlatan. “Maybe you can’t talk. They chop out your tongue as well as your wings?”
Zlatan withdrew the pen and took a step towards the desk, then glanced back. Still nothing, just that damned hooded stare, and finally Zlatan turned around completely and put the angel out of his mind. He still had to go through all the papers to do part of each—unless he could figure out something for that, too…
* * *
One of the weird things about Hell, which Zlatan had completely forgotten about, was how slow time moved in it. He still had a sense of time on the mortal plane and to him it felt like he’d been up for a day and then some, but the clock on the wall said only three hours had passed.
Zlatan stopped in the middle of his pacing, then went back to the clock and stared at it. Then he pivoted on his heel and looked all around the room, but nothing else had changed. If there’d been a change in the first—he looked at the cage and the black smudge tucked into its far right corner. “Hey! Was this clock here when I got here?”
He didn’t wait for an answer because there wasn’t going to be one. Over the last—day, it’d been a day, and fuck whatever the clock said—he occasionally threw a question the angel’s way because he needed some noise besides the rustling of the papers, but the angel never bothered answering. It was kind of annoying and sometimes, when Zlatan’s little super-processing system broke down and he couldn’t figure out what was the matter, he really wanted to just--do something. Reach in there and make the damn angel talk, since he was stuck in here with Zlatan. Or even just throw the empty pen casing at him.
But he hadn’t so far, which mostly was due to him just trying to get through the paperwork so he could figure out how the hell to get himself out of this mess. He was sort of done with step one, but step two wasn’t so easy since frankly, he didn’t have a clue about how to go about it.
Somebody knocked at the door. Zlatan sucked in an annoyed breath, about to tell them off for interrupting his thoughts, when he realized somebody was knocking at the door. And then spun and grabbed at the knob—which opened--with ridiculous eagerness. Yeah, he really hated this. He hated it and its mindless tasks and its creepy hollow silence that fell whenever he didn’t make some noise himself, either by talking or by walking around, and he just…he’d just be glad to see Rafael for a second, to be honest. He’d only been here a day and if it hadn’t been for the angel in the cage, he might’ve been wondering if somehow the rest of the world had vanished and he was all that was left. It was that distorting and mind-bending in here.
Actually, it wasn’t Rafael. It was…“Henke?”
“Ibra,” Henrik sighed. He began to poke his head in the door and Zlatan automatically stepped back before remembering and snapping his fingers.
The auto-processing system collapsed just as Henrik looked towards the desk, so the only signs of it that he could’ve seen were a few flapping sheets and maybe a tiny trace of magic. Maybe. Henrik raised his eyebrows as he glanced at Zlatan, Zlatan pulled an innocent face, and Henrik sighed again. He looked down at something he was taking out from under his arm, then handed it to Zlatan, who immediately opened the little box. And immediately afterward, made a face at Henrik.
Henrik’s back, actually—the other demon was at the desk collating sheets of paper before stuffing them beneath his suit-jacket. He was dressed in what looked like a tweed suit, which would briefly bulge before slimming back down as the papers disappeared…somewhere. “Stop making that face, Ibra. You’re going to need those pens, even if it looks like you’re finding ways around the chronic shortage of office supplies down here.”
“If you say so,” Zlatan shrugged, wandering over. He happened to glance towards the cage as he did and didn’t see the angel. Which made him suck in his breath so Henrik looked at him and he almost sprained something making his face smooth. “They do that on purpose, don’t they?”
“The shortages? Of course.” The last completed sheet vanished into Henrik’s coat, and then he leaned back. He tugged at his lapels to set them straight again, then turned to look oddly at Zlatan. “What?”
Zlatan snorted and shook his head. “You like this librarian job too much. Don’t you miss upstairs?”
“I can go whenever I can make myself some spare time,” Henrik said after a moment, slow and low.
It was nice that he cared, but it didn’t really help with the jealousy that flared up in Zlatan’s chest. He bit his lip and concentrated on remembering he liked Henrik.
“I volunteered to check over your work, so I’ll be around at the end of every day to see how far you’ve gotten. If you’re good, you’ll get out sooner.” Henrik flicked a look up at Zlatan, then eased away from the desk and towards the door. “They don’t lie about that, not with us. Just…just don’t get anyone else mad.”
“It’s not really like I c—fuck!” Zlatan had begun to follow the other demon, but the moment he tried to cross the threshold, some invisible barrier snatched him back. He stumbled, then caught himself against the wall. The center of his chest, just behind his breastbone, twisted viciously, and then an awful harsh sourness filled his mouth.
He spat. The gobbet was trailing smoke before it even hit the floor, but when it did, the thin grey trail turned into a sizable sulfur-stinking plume. He stared at it, slumped against the wall.
Then he looked calmly back up at Henrik, whose eyes were still recovering from their sudden widening. “It’s not like I can leave, so they’d have to come here,” he said. “So that should make it easy.”
“I have to go. I’ve got to—” Henrik made an apologetic face as he gestured towards the hall “—I’ll be back tomor—”
The door swung shut on him without either of them touching it. For a moment Zlatan almost spat more brimstone, but then he thought the better of wasting good poison and instead continued to lean against the wall. “Tomorrow. Yeah. Which takes forever to come around here.”
Zlatan flinched, then pointedly didn’t look at his desk. He just snapped his fingers, and in a moment the sound of shuffling paper rose into the air. Then he wiped off his mouth on the back of his hand, and then he…he sat down on the floor and looked at his box of pens. He slowly tipped forward, forward, forward till his nose and mouth were stuffed into the open end and one pen was shoving up his left nostril, and then he closed his eyes and groaned into the box.
There might’ve been a noise from the cage, but Zlatan didn’t bother looking there, either. He just dragged himself up to his feet, and then he went to the desk and started cracking open pens to feed the ink into the synthesizing spells.
* * *
The clock on the wall, whenever the hell it’d shown up, said that it was now nighttime. And Zlatan didn’t need to sleep as much as humans did, but he’d kind of gotten into the habit so he was nodding off as he tried to scribble out ideas for making the auto-processing spells better on the floor. He put up with it for a little while longer, but finally gave up.
Zlatan briefly considered the hay in the corner. Briefly. Then he got up and grabbed a handful of straws, and a couple minutes’ creativity later, he’d managed to turn them into a decent airbed, some blankets and some pillows. A lot of pillows, actually: he’d kind of lost control of that spell for a few minutes. “But a lot more useful than spinning gold out of it. What was the point of that, anyway? Any kid could tell you gold’s pricy because there’s so little of it. You have a ton and then who cares? You’re tossing it around like confetti.”
“That wasn’t the moral of the story.”
After a long, long moment, Zlatan looked up and to the left, towards the cage. The angel was at the halfway point again, one arm wrapped around himself as he leaned his shoulder against the wall. He wore the same opaque expression as always, his lips pressed together so they were slightly flattened, so to be honest, it was hard to be believe in the obvious conclusion. Besides, that voice had been so thin and high and raspy that Zlatan couldn’t connect it with the angel, who might’ve been banged up a lot but who still looked like he’d been something, in his day.
They stared at each other for a while. Then Zlatan decided that that was a really stupid game and swung himself around to stand right before the bars. He absently kneaded the pillow he was holding. “So what was?”
“Don’t deal with demons.” The angel tipped his head so its side rested against the wall. His arm tightened around his chest. “I think, the original, that that was what he was.”
“I have no idea, but come to think of it, probably. That sort of deal does sound like the crap some of the old grandpas around here would try. It’s like humans never invented lawyering, the way they go about damning souls,” Zlatan said. He paused, rocking back onto his heels and then letting his weight fall squarely on his feet. “So you do talk. You sound like somebody took a saw to your voicebox.”
The corners of the angel’s thinned-out lips twitched, though he didn’t lose that wary tightness about him. “I haven’t bothered in…” he had to swallow “…in a while.”
“Why? Because nobody was in here?” Zlatan squished the pillow, then twisted his hands. He clapped them together to trap the straw as the pillow changed back.
The angel betrayed a little disbelief mixed with exasperation. “Generally jailors and…prisoners don’t…converse. Unless it’s to insult them, which is…hardly conversation. And…then it seems a waste of time…to keep inviting abuse.”
“Oh.” Then Zlatan raised his brows right back at the angel, who could pull a pretty good superior face despite looking half-starved. “What? Yeah, I know, I’m the traitor who’s going to get his at Armageddon and you’re the paragon of goodness and light who’ll get to kick ass. So that’s pretty fucking far off still. In the meantime, it gets boring if nobody talks.”
“To what point?” the angel said.
“What’s that supposed to mean? What, do you…oh. Oh, okay.” Zlatan snorted as he slouched back on his trailing foot. “Yeah, act all huffy while we’re talking. Look, you heard me with Henrik. I’m stuck in here, not here specially to see you. Actually, I don’t even know why they’d give me an office with an oversized canary in it, so probably they’ve forgotten all about you and didn’t mean to do that.”
No flinch, really, but the angel did sink down a bit. His chin went up and his shoulders dropped, and then he turned around and started towards the back.
For a moment, Zlatan just stared at him. Then he jerked his hand towards the bars, and remembered and just as quickly jerked it back to instead slap it against the ledge. “Hey! I was talking to you!”
The angel stopped, then sat down and looked back over his shoulder. “All you’re doing…is proving my point.”
“But you didn’t have one. You were asking—oh. You meant that one.” Zlatan twiddled the straw between his fingers, mentally reviewing the conversation. “Well, look, I am a demon. And anyway, that’s not just insulting you. That’s probably the truth. You’re being oversensitive.”
A little tremor ran from the angel’s hands, pressed hard against the stone floor, up to his shoulders and then up his neck to wrench back his head. His eyes snarled.
Then he dropped his head, and after a little rearranging of his limbs, began to lie down. “I am in a cage. So…forgive me if I’m not…inclined to put up with…the little I can…control.”
“Oh, for…I was just trying to…” But the damn angel had a point, and Zlatan was…sort of annoyed that he felt so embarrassed, but there that was. He rubbed the straw between his forefinger and thumb, then looked down at it. Then he shrugged and tossed it between the bars.
When it landed on the other side, it was a pillow again. The angel stopped with his head almost on the ground, staring across the floor at it. Then he raised himself on his elbows to stare at Zlatan.
“I’m just bored. Like I said, I’m not here for you. And I wasn’t around here when…you and whatever…so it’s not like we really have anything between us. Okay?” Zlatan said.
After a very long silence, the angel sat up again. He pushed some hair out of his eyes, frowning. “Do…do you do this…normally?”
“What, talk to angels? Well, you know, normally they see me and they try to kill me before I can even pay for my fucking coffee. That kind of starts us off on the wrong foot right there.” Zlatan judged the distance between them, then stuck his arm through the bars just long enough to give the pillow a shove towards the angel. He could get in his arm to just above the elbow, he noted. “I did have one pretty long talk once with another angel. We were in this chocolate shop, and some wizard lived upstairs so all the magic flying around sort of fucked up your senses so we couldn’t tell what the other was.”
The angel pursed his lips a few times. He looked at the ground right before him, as if thinking about lying down anyway, then grimaced and lifted his head. It looked like he maybe hated himself for not being able to just stop. “What’d you talk about?”
“Oh, football. It was in Rome, and some Lazio match was on the radio—” It briefly occurred to Zlatan that maybe the angel wouldn’t get the reference, depending on when he’d left the earthly plane, but the angel didn’t look confused or anything so apparently…he did get it. Interesting. “Of course, then we walked outside and he got mad the moment he realized. You know, I wasn’t even going to do anything. I’d just bought a pound of really good raspberry truffles and I wanted to eat them instead of getting them crisped in the middle of a fight, but he just wouldn’t—it was annoying.”
“There is a war going on,” the angel said. Rather mildly, all considering. “And souls at stake.”
Zlatan rolled his eyes. “Come on. Do you really want to get into that?”
The angel looked at him.
“Look, I know all that’s important. I mean, that’s why we’re here—somebody’s got to be the cannon-fodder,” Zlatan snorted. Something pinged off to him and he turned around to find that the auto-processor had hit another snag. “But then we do that all the fucking time. Don’t you ever want to just talk about something else? I mean, we’re in Hell here. It’s just redundant to talk about it.”
Nothing. By then Zlatan had pulled apart the spellwork and was elbows-deep in that, trying to fix it quick so he could take a nap without getting backlogged in work during it, so he didn’t notice for a couple minutes. Then he did, and he was momentarily irritated because there went more wasted—
He glanced over his shoulder. The pillow was gone. So Zlatan looked further into the cage, and the angel was curled up in the back, in his usual spot. Except this time there was a little sliver of white visible between his arm and his head…which moved a little, letting his eyes show above his forearm. He looked at Zlatan for one second, then pressed his face down and tightened the knot of his body.
Zlatan sucked in his lower lip, then thoughtfully pushed it against his teeth as he went back to fixing his spells.
* * *
“Oh, now you’re answering again,” Zlatan grumbled, raking his hand through his hair. His fingers snagged on several knots, making him wince, so he stopped. Then he more carefully began to tease the snarls apart as he sat up on his mattress and squinted at the top of his desk. It looked like he’d gotten another load while he’d been asleep, but thankfully, the auto-processor hadn’t gotten fucked up by it. But it was running a little low.
Above him, in the cage, the angel made a low, grating noise. Then he did it again, more loudly, and then again. The third time, it blossomed into a full-blown rattling cough. “I didn’t hear the first time. I was sleeping.”
Zlatan had been reaching for one of the sheets on the completed stack, but now he paused. Then he twisted on his knees and sat up, resting his arms on the ledge as he looked into the cage. “You really sound horrible.”
The angel was still deep in the back. He’d uncurled and was lying nearly full-length, his head propped up on his crossed forearms, and the pillow was sticking out from under his stomach. “I know,” he said dryly.
After a moment, Zlatan stopped stifling his chuckle and just let it work itself out. He picked up the sheet and scanned over it, then began reading it again more slowly. Then he cursed and knocked his head back against the wall. Which hurt, but not nearly enough to match the headache he’d been beginning to get before that.
He flicked the sheet back onto the right pile, then dragged himself up and snapped his fingers. The paper stopped being processed, Zlatan shoved up his sleeves, and then…and then he said fuck it and went back over to the hay-pile, which was still pretty decently-sized. But it was always good to have more, so he’d have to ask Henrik if that tweed coat could bring in as well as take out.
In the meantime…Zlatan picked up a few straws, had a few false starts, and then finally had a nicely-stocked breakfast tray sitting in front of him. He carried that back over to the desk, and after shifting all the paper to the floor, put that on the desk and then began munching on food from it as he dismantled the processing spells.
A light shuffling noise made Zlatan glance over his shoulder. Then he half-turned, pulling a bit at the magic so he could still work on it. “Can you believe this? They went and changed the fucking format. Now I’ve got to rework this and then redo all of that on the floor.”
“This is…Hell, after all,” the angel said. He’d moved up as far as the halfway point to watch. His voice hadn’t gotten any better, and actually it looked like it hurt him to talk. He kept rubbing at his throat and swallowing.
Zlatan thought about that, then shrugged and got his right hand free so he could grab the glass of orange juice from the tray. He stretched out his arm and set the glass inside the cage, then moved back to continue working. But a couple minutes later he hadn’t heard anything, and when he turned around, the glass was just sitting there.
He looked at the angel. “Just take it. I made it for myself, so there’s nothing wrong with it.”
The angel kept staring dubiously at the glass. His stubs rose and fell a little behind his shoulders, flicking a few drops of ichor to the ground.
“Nothing was wrong with that pillow, was there?” Zlatan added.
“I’ve been here for a while,” the angel finally said, forcing his words past the places where his voice wanted to give out. “I know better than to just trust that.”
Zlatan raised his eyebrow. “Then—” a piece of a spell abruptly shifted and he cursed, quickly putting it back into place “—then why’d you take the pillow?”
He looked at the angel again, who lifted his gaze from the glass to meet Zlatan. Then he looked away, the muscle in his jaw flexing. “Because stone is very hard to sleep on, and I’m very tired.”
The angel continued to stare at the opposite wall. His feet and occasionally his hands restlessly shifted about, and once he jerked his head around as if to start back, but then he made himself stay put. He finally glanced over at Zlatan again, his mouth a flat whitened line.
“You sound like you’re very thirsty, too.” Then Zlatan suppressed a grimace at himself; that had come out too much like a coy invitation, and clearly that wasn’t going to work on the angel. Anyway, he didn’t like coy. “Look, I just want someone to talk to, so that’s why I want you to be able to talk. I hate this place. I mean…they don’t even give me breakfast. I had to make it.”
“You don’t need the food,” the angel said.
Zlatan rolled his eyes and leaned his hip against the desk so he didn’t have to pull against the spellwork so hard to keep it where he could see it. “Yeah, well, supposedly I don’t need to do anything but this stupid paperwork either. And if I listened to that, I’d be here till the Four Riders came out to play. I want the damn food. I want to get out of here. You’re right, this is Hell and nobody, not even the demons, actually wants to be here.”
He twisted one string of magic around his finger, then let two drop from his other hand and waited a moment to see what that did. Then he rapidly freed his hands from all that, letting the magic snap down, and bent to pick up a piece of paper. After the spells had settled down and were ready, he fed in that to see if he’d get anything usable.
There was a clinking sound behind him, and then a long, slightly slurpy swallow. Then the angel gulped the rest of the juice down, quick and messy, so when Zlatan turned about, he had to grin at the juice dripping down the angel’s chin. A little red touched the angel’s cheeks, but he kept up his head and leveled his gaze at Zlatan as he wiped off his mouth and jaw with his hand.
He’d moved all the way up to just behind the bars. This close, the remnants of his wings weren’t just ragged wedge-shaped things sticking out from behind his shoulders: there was a garishly white knob of bone sticking out from one, and raw red patches of unhealed flesh, with grotesquely gleaming membrane strapped over them. Ichor was constantly beading up from their edges, then running down to leave a slow-dripping trail behind the angel wherever he went. Part of his shirt was stuck to his side due to that, and then…
Zlatan didn’t really think about it, just moved to see better, and the angel promptly skidded backward a good yard. He also dropped the glass, which fell out between bars to shatter back into the piece of straw. His head and shoulders dropped, but he kept his eyes up and on Zlatan.
“Do you know how long it took me to figure out how to make that?” Zlatan finally said. He stooped to pluck the straw off his disheveled bedding, then sat back on his heels. His eyes just about cleared the ledge.
The angel pursed his lips a bit, just staring at Zlatan. “Does it ever occur to you that you’re not really eating toast and jam? Considering where that came from?”
“Hey, that really helped with your voice.” Zlatan grinned as he flicked his fingers against the straw, and presto! glass again. He got back up and topped that back up, then drank some himself as he glanced over the first completed sheet, which had just been spit out. “Well, technically I’m supposed to thrive on mother’s shit and all that, but who wants that when you can have pizza? Or something that tastes like pizza, anyway.”
After another long stare, the angel apparently decided he was fine where he was and began settling into place. He seemed to prefer a modified sphinx pose, propped on his arms with his legs folded to the side. “It’s still not pizza.”
“It tastes like it, my body thinks it’s pizza, so that’s good enough for me. What it really is—well, I already told you I think theology’s pointless. It’s kind of the same thing.” The sheet looked okay, but Zlatan didn’t want to get caught out again, so he checked the second sheet before he finally started hauling the big piles back onto the desk. “I’ve got friends who like worrying about that kind of crap. Their version of a good time, so…well, whatever they like’s up to them.” He paused, then looked at the orange segment he’d been about to pop into his mouth. “Damn it, this isn’t pizza. And I don’t know how to make that, and now I miss it a lot.”
“That’s a shame,” the angel said. His voice had smoothed out and deepened a little, but not by much, so apparently he was naturally on the tenor end. And possibly naturally understated in his sarcasm. He raised his brows at the look Zlatan gave him. “No, really. The simplicity of the wanting makes it all that more terrible.”
Zlatan ate the orange piece anyway, and then began working on the bits of crust. His stomach was still a bit sore with hunger, but he looked over at the hay-pile and told himself he’d have to watch it till he knew he could get more. Whatever the hell the food was, once it’d gone into his mouth, it still was gone. “The only reason you can pull that off without sounding like a pompous moron is because you’re an angel. If you were a person, I’d be laughing my head off right now.”
The angel fiddled with his fingers. His lips briefly pushed out at one side, like he was moving his tongue around in his mouth. “Then it’d be an interesting question, if we were in that chocolate shop you mentioned earlier, whether or not you’d laugh.”
An answer wanted to burst from Zlatan’s lips right away, but he had a feeling it wasn’t that easy and restrained himself. He finished the bread, then picked up the pitcher of juice he’d conjured. Then he looked at it, thought, and then filled up the glass again. That left about an equal amount in the pitcher, which he kept to himself as he walked over to the cage and stuck the glass in through the bars.
“On second thought, I think I’d laugh either way. It’s just right now I’m mad you went and started talking about pizza,” he said, still holding onto the glass.
It was a lot harder to give something up than to keep giving it up, and that showed in the way the angel twitched towards the glass. But he held onto himself, though he had to dig his fingers into the stone to do it. “Arguably I could be just as angry that you have a chance to work yourself out of this, and so that experiment in the shop isn’t so theoretical to you.”
The glass flexed a bit in Zlatan’s hand, alerting him to the fact that he was clenching it too tightly. He made his fingers slacken—the glass wasn’t broken, somehow—then pulled his arm back through the bars, but stayed where he was. “It’s not my fault we’re what we are, and this place is what it is.”
“No. No, but it does bring us back to the earlier discussion about whether either of us can ever ignore that,” the angel said after a moment. Slow and thoughtful, but his fingers curled down till their tips whitened.
“Okay.” Zlatan shrugged one shoulder as he stepped back. “Okay, valid point. But about the laughter…were you laughing at me before? When I was having problems with that crap?”
He hooked his thumb over his shoulder, but the angel didn’t look there, and instead continued to gaze straight at Zlatan. “Possibly.”
As Zlatan smiled, he felt his teeth beginning to elongate a little. Just a little. “So why, exactly, can’t I laugh at you just for sounding like you’ve swallowed a couple prime ministers? Can you give me a good reason?”
Silence wasn’t a good reason in Zlatan’s book, so the angel wasn’t disagreeing.
“Then if we can laugh at it, then we’re not taking it seriously, and if we’re not taking it seriously, then we’re thinking about something else, aren’t we?” Zlatan continued.
The angel shifted slightly so an angular shadow veiled one eye and cheek. “Of course we are. We’re thinking about how much we wish we were somewhere else. But you can think about that all you want and it doesn’t change anything about what you are, or where you are.”
Zlatan drew in a breath, held it, and then let it out when no good reply came to mind. He absently glanced at his feet, then caught what he was doing and irritably jerked himself around to stick one hand in the auto-processor, thinking that at least he could get that working faster if he wasn’t going to—damn it. “You know, I never liked logic much.”
“I can tell,” the angel commented. That dry undertone was back in his voice.
“Funny,” Zlatan snorted. He belatedly pulled up his sleeves so they wouldn’t get burned by the magic, then plunged into the spells with both hands. A scuffling noise and then a clinking sound made him cock his head, but he didn’t turn around. “So what’s your name? Is it something really long and ridiculous to match?”
The angel sucked a bit at what had to be his last swallow, since immediately afterward, Zlatan heard him setting down the glass. “It’s Paolo.”
“Oh. Short. And doesn’t end in an ‘el.’” The auto-processor briefly sped up, then dropped to a snail’s crawl, making Zlatan snarl at it. He let his fangs come all the way out for that, but snapped them back afterward, since the damn things were so long he had to hold his mouth open while they were out. “Zlatan.”
“That’s not very demonic.” Paolo moved away, probably back to his corner with the pillow Zlatan had so nicely given to him. “Doesn’t it mean ‘gold,’ actually? So why wouldn’t you like a story about spinning straw into that?”
“If you were named ‘shit,’ would that mean you love that stuff?” Zlatan asked.
A moment. “Point. Even if I’d say the situations are slightly diff—”
“Hey, demon, remember? All the time, it’s gold. Gold, gold, gold…and is it fun? Not really. You give the shit away, watch the people be idiots over it, and then you take it back to hand it over to the Finance hardasses. It’s—”
“Boring?” When Zlatan looked back a moment later, Paolo was lying on his back so all Zlatan could see was the top of his head. The angel himself hadn’t sounded insulting at all, which made his remark all the more suspicious.
Zlatan twiddled his fingers and the papers leaped up all around him, then froze like one of those bizarre stop-motion photographs. He adjusted a spell and the papers fell, then began to proceed properly through the sequence, each one quickly filling up with neat “handwritten” script. “Doesn’t it hurt when you lie on your wings like that? What’s left of them, anyway.”
Paolo, or what Zlatan could see of him, stiffened. Then he twisted in on himself, pulling up his legs towards his chest, and didn’t answer.
“Sensitive point?” Zlatan asked.
Nothing. For a moment Zlatan stood there with his hands all wound up with magic and was—just was irritated, frankly, because none of this was his fault. But it was funny he wasn’t more than annoyed.
And then another shitload of work fell from the ceiling, and knocked his breakfast off the desk. He hadn’t been done yet, and now it looked like he wasn’t going to get back to that any time soon—he bit back a curse and, shaking the hair out of his eyes, shoved his hands deep into the spellwork. “You’re ever so welcome for the orange juice, by the way.”
* * *
Zlatan’s back ached, with a deep soreness pulling the muscles between his shoulders taut and another huge patch of that at the base of his spine. When he sat down behind the desk and leaned against the wall, just that much pressure felt like somebody taking a hot iron to his back. But he couldn’t do more than grimace and hiss because his feet were killing him from standing so long, and he couldn’t push himself into a more comfortable position because his hands were covered in blisters and burns from finally wringing the spellwork into functioning shape.
“I really hate this,” he sighed, staring at the desk. He’d gotten a third load while still reworking the auto-processor—he was pretty sure now that they were speeding up the deliveries—so it wasn’t likely that he’d be done by the time Henrik showed up again. And the last time seemed like it’d been literal eons ago, with nothing in between but this fucking busywork. “Why does it take so much work to put souls through eternal torture? Come on. This is ridiculous.”
“It used to have a purpose. Everyone had a tailored punishment, so it wasn’t safe to rely just on general rules to stay out. You truly had to look at yourself and your life, and think about whether you were being a good person.”
After a long moment, Zlatan slouched down so he could push back his head and look up. All he saw was the blurry edge of the ledge, but it was the principle. “Oh. So you’re talking to me again. What, you thirsty?”
Paolo sounded like he was within a decent distance of the bars, though if Zlatan got up, the angel would probably be huddled in the back again. He looked like shit, but he still could move when he wanted to. “Does it sound like I am?”
“Yeah,” Zlatan said.
Eventually there was a scratching sound, as if Paolo was running his nails over the stone. When he spoke again, he was a lot closer, almost right up against the bars. “Don’t ask me about my wings.”
“And then we can talk? You’re not in the best position to bargain, you know. And yes, I do realize you’re in a cage. I can see that.” Zlatan put his elbow against the wall, began to think the better of his idea, and then shrugged and pushed himself around and up.
He popped his head over the ledge and found himself maybe a hand’s width away from Paolo, who was crouched down on his arms again. The angel’s eyes widened, and then Paolo began to rear back, but he caught himself in the middle of it. But he didn’t move back down either, and instead stayed in a tense half-hunch, staring hard at Zlatan.
“You want to tell me why you’ve been demoted this far?” Paolo finally said, voice just a little arch. His left eyebrow jumped a bit. “I’ve been here long enough to know what paperwork duty means.”
“Well, yeah, sure. We can talk about that.” Zlatan gave Paolo’s surprised expression a close-lipped smile. “What? It wasn’t fucking fair how I ended up here, so I don’t really care about telling people what bastards did that to me.”
The surprise and confusion cleared up to be replaced by a bleakly amused look. Paolo snorted, his head tipping forward slightly, and sank down a bit. Enough to get his weight back on his forearms, and he seemed to need the support, from the way his shoulders were shaking. “I think I can guess, actually. Normally demons don’t consider bribing where they could just use force. You must have been something of a…an oddity.”
“You’re funny,” Zlatan said, showing that angels didn’t have a monopoly on dryness. He moved his arms to lie along the ledge, then rested his chin on top of them. “I thought angels didn’t have senses of humor.”
“We don’t.” Paolo tipped his head, then leaned over more as he lifted a hand and pushed the hair out of his eyes. He shrugged. “It usually seems at odds with taking things like charity and benevolence seriously.”
“Then Heaven must be incredibly depressing, if it’s like that all the time. Who would want to go there? You can’t even kid St. Peter about working so hard for so long and still just being a doorman,” Zlatan snickered. Something pinged behind him and his laughter choked to a stop, but when he turned, he saw to his relief that the auto-processor thingy had just switched to a new pile. Nothing wrong.
He turned back and Paolo was lying full-length on his belly, slightly curved so he could still look at Zlatan. His wing remnants were resting their jagged ends against the floor and little pools of ichor were forming around them, but Paolo didn’t seem to notice. The bleeding wasn’t that bad, but it was constant and so it was a little surprising that he didn’t seem to be impaired by it too much.
“It’s not. It’s…” Paolo abruptly pushed his face into his arm, then rolled over onto his side. The exposed bone of one wingtip scraped against the floor and he hissed; a shudder went through his whole frame. Then he settled down, his brown curls slowly going limp against the stone as he gazed at the opposite wall. “So what happened? With you?”
“You really interested? Or do you just want to feel better by knowing that we get fucked over by each other?”
Paolo’s hand crept out, then curled its fingers. Then those uncurled, then recurled. “We’re not supposed to take pleasure in anyone’s troubles, either.”
“Really?” Zlatan said skeptically.
The curls dragged over the stone, collecting flecks of dried ichor, as Paolo looked up towards Zlatan. His expression was back to emotionless again. “I’ve been away from Heaven for a long time. It’s a little difficult sometimes to remember what I’m supposed to do, when I can’t do it.”
“That’s a nice excuse, I guess.” Zlatan couldn’t really help saying it, but a very tiny part of him maybe said he shouldn’t because Paolo was going to get offended and sulk again, and then what would Zlatan have to do? So he added more, and quickly, so he didn’t have to listen to that part. “It wasn’t even a big deal, what I did. I just killed my boss.”
Those fingers went flat against the floor. Then Paolo pushed down on them to turn so he could face Zlatan without having to crane his neck. “That’s not a big deal?”
“Well, usually you get promoted. No, really. I got up to the mortal plane that way. I wasn’t due for, I don’t know, a couple more centuries of Hell-time, but that jackass pissed me off and…” Zlatan made a couple illustrative motions with his hands, then laughed at the way Paolo instinctively wrinkled his nose “…Mammon liked my style, so up I went. I have no idea why it was different this time.”
Paolo looked at him, and even though the angel’s expression didn’t change, he still somehow gave the impression that he not only didn’t believe Zlatan, but that he also knew Zlatan didn’t believe Zlatan.
“Okay. Well. Maybe the asshole was fucking around with my friend,” Zlatan allowed.
A faint trace of perplexity passed over Paolo’s face. “Demons make friends? Isn’t that contradictory to your…well, your whole motivation?”
“Motivation? What, to defeat Heaven? If you even want to call that a—” Zlatan cut himself off before he accidentally said something that might, just might, be bad enough to get him really screwed over. He rubbed at his mouth, then at his nose. “I put in my time, all right? Get the souls, tweak angel wings—” he paused a little late; Paolo twitched, but let it pass “—whenever they show up, blah blah save a spot on my calendar for Judgment Day. But after that, nothing says I can’t have friends. I mean, if you really want to argue about it, it’s a good thing. It’s selfish, since time I spend with them is time I’m not spending on Lucifer’s crap, and selfishness is very demonic.”
“I suppose,” Paolo reluctantly conceded. He obviously still was having trouble wrapping his mind around the idea. “But other demons—”
Zlatan sighed. “Who said they were demons? Seriously, most other demons are just looking for ways to get leverage out of your death. Like I said, that’s how we get promoted. Well, usually.”
Now Paolo looked truly puzzled. “You’re friends…with humans.”
“They have good senses of humor. Probably because they die so quickly, so they don’t want to waste their time on being bored,” Zlatan said. His arm was starting to get sore where his chin was gouging into it, so he turned his head on its side. “And they make really good meatballs. Fuck, I miss those. I know I wouldn’t be able to get those right, so none of that till I get out.”
Paolo made an odd noise. It started out like he was just inhaling to speak, but then it stuttered off into a low rumbling, almost angry, as he jerked his head aside. He abruptly shoved himself up, then back till he was sitting against the wall, his one visible hand kneading his knee. The lines around his mouth were a little deeper than usual with the tension there.
“Come on. It can’t be that weird—I bet you all have favorite humans. And you angels aren’t so worried about getting up the ladder, so you don’t fight with each other,” Zlatan added, flapping a hand at him.
The angel flicked his eyes towards Zlatan and there was enough heat in his gaze to make Zlatan lift his head, feeling a little wary. But then Paolo pressed his lips together and dropped his head, looking at his feet. The stumps of his wings slid down along the wall, leaving wet trails in their wake. “We shouldn’t. Favor certain people. It’s unfair. And we may not fight with each other, except for the Morningstar, but…it’s love of God. It’s supposed to fill us completely, so we never feel like we need it from anywhere else. So there’s no motivation for friendship, really.”
His tone was difficult to read—not flat, but not giving anything away either. Or at least, trying not to: it vibrated and rasped at times, and Zlatan could see the muscles in Paolo’s throat working far too hard than they needed to in order to just produce words. He sank down a bit, thinking that over, and his gaze naturally fell downwards. It passed over the hand Paolo had on his knee, then came back to look more closely at that, at the bruised tips with their thick scabs and the badly-cracked nails. Then Zlatan looked at the base of the bars again, with those deep gouges hollowed out around them.
“It’s pretty far from Heaven, down here,” he eventually said.
Paolo closed his eyes and put his head back against the wall. “I know.”
“And that just seems like a pretty stupid way to run things. God. Well, He never loved me and I feel fine.” Zlatan pulled his arms off the ledge, then pushed the hair out of his eyes. “Kind of proves that’s a whole bunch of shit, doesn’t it? You all don’t love us, even though you’re supposed to, or at least supposed to give us a chance to redeem ourselves. Not that I’d bother, because I really liked my life up till I got sent here, but still. It’s your fault too if I don’t.”
After a moment, Paolo slightly turned his head towards Zlatan. His eyes slivered open. “I was down here when you were making all those choices, so I don’t see how that could possibly be my fault. Like you said, we didn’t know of each other.”
Zlatan blinked, then cleared his throat. Then he cleared it again, but that weird sensation in it wouldn’t go away and finally he let it turn into what it wanted: a laugh. He turned away, shaking his head. “Hey, you do have a sense of humor.”
“God help me,” Paolo muttered. He could’ve meant it either as a prayer or as a sarcastic remark. Though when Zlatan looked at him again, he was crawling towards the back again, apparently tired. He didn’t answer Zlatan’s next question, and so Zlatan shrugged and left him to that; the damn papers had run into a snag and that was a little more foremost in Zlatan’s mind.
* * *
“You’re doing really well so far.” Henrik seemed a little less happy about that than he could’ve been. He tugged at his coat; from the amount of effort he had to put into that, it looked like the papers’ weight hadn’t vanished when he’d stuffed those into his clothes. “Honestly, it seems a little suspicious. I’ve been holding some back so I don’t think anyone’s caught on to how you’re doing it, but if they do, they’ll make you stop.”
Zlatan rolled his whole head along with his eyes, then finished by falling against the door. “Are you serious? Has no one ever thought about this before? Honestly?”
“Ibra, most demons who get thrown back to Hell are absolutely terrified, and especially about doing anything else that’ll get them into trouble. Since they’re risking being ripped apart if they don’t do well enough,” Henrik said, looking up at him. Then the other demon sighed, his pupils briefly going to cat-slits. “Oh, never mind. You always do it however you want. But anyway, next time I’ll bring you some erasers.”
“But you’ve been giving me pens,” Zlatan replied, frowning.
“Exactly. I’ll pretend you’ve been bothering me for correction fluid, so then me giving you erasers instead seems natural. I can’t get you straw, but you should be able to get a lot out of those; they’re dense enough.” Something Zlatan couldn’t see or hear made Henrik stiffen, then look down the hall. Then the other demon stepped away from the door. “I’ll—”
At first Zlatan was just going to let him go, since he didn’t want to lose Henrik and get some hardass as his supervisor, but then he remembered a thought he’d been mulling over and pushed out his hand. He hit the barrier, of course, but it got Henrik’s attention. “Wait a second. Listen, the angel in here…”
Henrik blinked. Hard.
“Behind the desk. In the cage.” Zlatan frowned again and leaned against the doorway, peering as far as he could to make sure he wasn’t being overheard. “Henke, you’ve been inside. The wall behind the desk—”
“It’s just stone,” Henrik said. He still looked nervous, but he came back to stare closely at Zlatan’s face. “What do you mean, angel? Any angels that—they wouldn’t be here, anyway. Not in a junior secretary’s office.”
After he’d made his face at his so-called “title,” Zlatan began to correct Henrik’s misimpression…and then changed his mind. “Forget it, I’m tired. But listen, if you’re in the mood for a research project…angel named Paolo? Maybe got caught and brought here a while ago and had his wings cut off. Not all the way. There’s some left.”
“I’ll think about it.” Which was Henrik’s way of saying one, he didn’t believe Zlatan’s brush-off, and two, he was really going to look into it now.
Sometimes that wasn’t a good thing, but frankly, Zlatan didn’t have a lot of options now. And he was lucky to even have this one. “Thanks, Henke. Have fun in the library.”
“I’ll try,” Henrik said, and left.
Zlatan closed the door before it could slam itself, then leaned on the knob for a minute or so. Then he gave himself a shake and went back over to the desk; they’d made the format even more complex so he’d had to completely take apart the spellwork and had been only halfway done with putting it back together when Henrik had interrupted him.
“Is he one of your…friends?”
At that Zlatan looked up a little more sharply than he had to, but Paolo just seemed curious and didn’t look like he’d overheard Zlatan and Henrik’s talk. So Zlatan shrugged and plunged his right hand into the magic. “Henrik? Yeah. Well, he’s more like an older brother who’ll get in trouble if any of his spawnmates gets permanently eliminated.”
Paolo leaned against the wall so he was nearly touching the bars, his forehead furrowing as he tried to figure that out.
“There’s some responsibility—we can’t all be killing each other at once, or we’d die out. Henrik was first out, so he’s kind of got to make sure the others in his spawning get to a certain level of posting, or else he gets demoted. But he’s a lot better about that than some of the idiots around here,” Zlatan said. He paused, staring at his hand. Then he turned around. “You know, I’ve been wondering about that for forever. How do you get new angels? Do you hatch them, or something like that?”
The look on Paolo’s face was…well, it was hilarious, and Zlatan laughed full and long at it. It was also an amazingly complex mixture of disbelief, irritation and very, very cautious amusement. “Did you have a pet bird along with your pet humans?” he said. “You seem to have this fixation with those.”
“The humans or the birds?” Then Zlatan twitched his shoulder, signaling that he didn’t really want an answer to that. “No, I don’t, but it’s just you look so much like chickens sometimes that I can’t help it. No, really. You get this haughty look on your face when you don’t know a damn thing, just like chickens when they see food and everything else goes out of their peabrains, and then your wings spread out and you lunge at me, and honestly? I’d think you all would be a little better at knowing that trying to fly in a crowded room is—”
He stopped. Then he glanced over his shoulder, and to be honest he almost rolled his eyes. He didn’t think that that had been—well, fine, Paolo was touchy about those, but he was an angel. It was kind of hard not to mention them, and Zlatan had been trying to limit that to the innocuous ones when really, he could’ve been taunting Paolo all the time with it. Sometimes he thought he should, when he stopped working long enough to think about the fact that he was still stuck and he was so desperate for conversation that he was being nice to some ragged angel who, if whole, would’ve speared him through without a further thought.
“I have no idea where angels come from. We’re made,” Paolo eventually said. He still sounded like he was fighting back a fit of rage.
“You really don’t ask a lot of questions up there, do you? Doesn’t that ever bother you? I mean, don’t you ever stand around and wonder if you really know what you’re doing? If it’s really worth it?” Zlatan began to immerse himself in his work again.
He was just throwing the comment out there, not really meaning anything by it, and so he nearly jumped the desk when the explosion came from behind him. As it was, he hit his hip against the edge, then stumbled so he nearly impaled himself on the broken chair, which he’d stuffed under the desk to keep it out of the way. The threads of magic unraveled from his hands and slipped from them, and he had one damn crazy scramble to get them all back before he accidentally blew anything up himself. Then he secured them, and then he turned around to see what had happened.
Paolo was half-sitting, half-lying a good yard back from the bars, his one arm pressed over his chest and presumably his other hand, since Zlatan couldn’t see it. He was staring at the bars as if—the bars were smoking, and Zlatan honestly thought for a moment that that was due to Paolo’s glower. He took a step back, but realized that Paolo wasn’t nearly strong enough to work something like that, and then he put it together.
Zlatan edged forward and Paolo’s gaze snapped between the bars to him, and it actually stopped him, it was so forceful. Then Paolo snorted, the sound nothing but contemptuous, and abruptly flopped about to present his back to Zlatan.
“Hey. Hey, look, I forgot, all right? I didn’t…” Zlatan started.
“It’s not about my wings, you…complete fool. My wings have been like this for—I don’t even remember, I’ve been here so long. I can’t tell how time’s passed here.” Every word was grated out from between Paolo’s teeth, and they all had a different quality of sharpness. “I’m used to the damn things.”
“Oh, really? Then why do you keep getting mad at me? It’s not like I need to cut back on the comments. And I have, and what have I gotten from you? A lot of crap, that’s what. You’re not even a good distraction,” Zlatan snapped. He began to reach for the bars himself, but he remembered and he pulled away his hand in time. “Hey. Hey.”
Paolo didn’t move. His wings dripped their fucking ichor, and his head stayed stubbornly pressed to the floor.
“You know what, you’re an asshole just like all the rest. It doesn’t matter that you’re from Heaven, that you know what God’s voice sounds like…that hasn’t made you good. You’re just…pathetic.” Zlatan slammed his hands on the ledge and pushed himself nearly into the desk, then spun about to angrily begin yanking at spells. “I told you what was wrong with me—”
“You told me some self-serving story. I can watch you—I see you walk around talking to yourself, pretending you’re planning a way out when really you’re just trying to convince yourself you’re as brave and independent as you like to think you are. But you’re young. And you haven’t been hurt in a way that matters yet. You don’t know how you’d come back—if you could come back—from that, and you’re scared that this might be it,” Paolo abruptly said. He shaped his words more carefully this time, so they bit even deeper.
“Oh. Oh, really…” Except Zlatan just couldn’t come up with something that sounded like a decent retort, and that meant—he flinched from that conclusion. Rebounded into a snarl and tore at the magic instead, uncaring of how it burned his hands. “You—”
But Paolo wasn’t quite done yet. “And you’re a fool, too. You really think a few bribes are going to make me forget everything else I’ve gone through down here? No, never mind that—you think anyone actually cares about you? Is friends with you, and never mind that you’re a demon and you can—you probably do—stack things in their favor. Will talk to you just because you’re entertaining--”
Zlatan clenched his fingers around the spells, then just ripped them with him as he spun around and roared at the cage. “Shut up.”
Paolo’s teeth clicked together, and then his lips pressed down over them. He stared at Zlatan, then closed his eyes and went back to his huddle.
There’d been more, but it didn’t come now and instead Zlatan just breathed, fast and shallow and heavy. He bit at his lip, then snarled again and turned back to the wrecked spells. Fine, he thought. He hadn’t been done, but he wouldn’t bother wasting the effort now. He wasn’t the only fool around here.
* * *
That eerie quiet came back, and even when Zlatan set the spells to work even faster, the crackling of the paper flying about didn’t seem to do much to dispel it. Instead the noise was absorbed into the silence, making it weigh even more heavily.
Getting mad had focused Zlatan’s mind so he’d done a ridiculously good job on the auto-processor the first time around, and consequently hadn’t had to adjust anything in forever. And it was almost like somebody had noticed too, since the paper dumps got bigger, but there weren’t any more formatting changes that would…well, would give him something to do.
He took a nap, and that took up more time than he’d expected, surprising him with how tired he was. But then he had to wake up—he wasted some more time fine-tuning his transformations of the hay. Got himself some water to splash over himself, and a light snack. And then he tried seriously thinking about getting himself out and back up to the earthly plane, which he did need to do and which he had sort of been ignoring in favor of talking to Paolo. But he had barely anything to work with, so he just…he had a hard time—okay, he didn’t have a single idea about where to start with that.
So when the knock at the door came, Zlatan leaped for it. He didn’t even bother to check the time, and of course that immediately turned out to be a stupid thing to forget.
The vise around his throat put him to his knees at once; he instinctively grabbed at the thing that was choking him instead of digging in his heels or anything like that, and so he couldn’t do anything to stop them from dragging him into the—
--hall, right through that fucking barrier, and that was another level of pain right there. When the vise dropped him, Zlatan crumpled and didn’t feel bad about it for a second. He was too busy trying to remember if he had lungs.
“You fucking shit. I knew you’d get your ass kicked back here eventually, and—”
Zlatan closed his eyes, silently cursing. He pulled in his legs and pressed his face against the ground.
“Oh, that’s just…you lousy piece of shit. So much for your famous balls.”
And then, when the bastard leaned over, he lashed out with a foot. Then he threw himself up, ripped his claws through something, and scrambled away, slashing and kicking at whatever else he could. He looked up and the empty hall…
…but no, he wouldn’t be able to get out of Hell before they caught him again, and then it’d be worse. So he turned back towards the door, only to find the damn thing starting to swing shut—if it closed all the way, he’d be just as stuck, and never mind that he hadn’t gotten out by himself. They weren’t about to listen to him.
Zlatan lunged. He landed with both hands over the threshold, then rose up on his knee to push himself the rest of the way over, only to have that knee yanked out from under him. His hands skidded even though he snapped out the claws again—fucking stone, it ripped off a couple of those—and he just barely got hold of the raised threshold with his left hand. Then he kicked like mad, but the door was shutting, and fuck, fuck, fuck no. He was not getting slammed for someone else’s dumb idea.
The bastard paused to secure his hold, which gave Zlatan the chance. He made himself go slack, then grabbed the threshold with both hands and pulled himself forward with all his might. He was almost there when the weight began to shift against him, but he managed to jam his elbow over the edge of the doorway—the door bumped his head, paused, and then continued its inexorable swing—and got a new hold that way. Then he gritted his teeth and heaved.
His head jerked forward, through the doorway. His legs jerked back, the joints in his hips and knees popping, and then—then something gave, but it wasn’t him. Zlatan hissed and jerked himself in through the closing door, then twisted quickly so only the asshole’s arm and head would get caught between the door and the jamb, and not also his leg.
So much for balls: the bastard screamed and then kept screaming as he was crushed. The acidic blood splashed up, burning Zlatan’s eyes, so he wrenched himself away, then mustered up the effort for one last push. And then he was through.
He collapsed on the ground, every muscle in his body feeling as if it’d been shredded to ribbons. Behind him the screaming kept going on and on and on—till it abruptly stopped. For a couple more minutes he heard a wet, messy crunching sound, but then that stopped, too.
Stone was really hard to sleep on, he dazedly thought. And he had a bed. Somewhere. But when he tried to move—that hurt, Zlatan thought, and passed out. This being Hell, of course he just woke up a second later, and he still hurt just as much. He breathed in, then swore and pushed himself forward another few inches. Passed out again, woke up again, did the same thing.
Eventually he did stop passing out, and before he got to his pallet. But he still hurt, and…and he just hurt. He couldn’t really think of anything else.
“Zlatan?” The voice was soft but close, nearly on top of him. “Zlatan?”
“What, damn it. What now?” Zlatan mumbled.
Paolo sucked in a breath. “Are you…”
“Well, I’m not dead. Kind of hard to be that here, and just fuck off and stop pretending if it bothers you that much. You lying asshole. You took what I gave anyway, never mind why I gave it. Not so high and mighty yourself, are you?” Zlatan rolled over, thinking that maybe that would hurt less, and was proved spectacularly wrong. He ground his teeth till it was…bearable. “Are you even real? I could just be making all this up, though I’m not sure I could come up with something as lousy as you.”
Silence. The room blurred in and out, and sometimes that went along with how bad the hurt was. It was nice to know that at least Zlatan got the demon’s privilege of being able to float on the pain when it got too bad; the damned souls didn’t get to black out or anything like that, and instead had to suffer in perfect clarity.
A pale spot gradually formed above Zlatan’s head. It wavered with the rest of the room, but had the same general elongated shape, which didn’t really go with the angularity of the place. He squinted at it and the thing resolved itself into a hand, palm towards him and fingers slightly spread.
Zlatan must have made some noise, since the hand snapped back till only the fingertips were showing over the ledge. Those whitened under pressure, then regained some color. Then they edged out a little, just up to the first knuckle.
“I’m real,” Paolo said. “I know, I’ve been here—”
“A while, a long time, whatever you want to say this time,” Zlatan muttered.
Paolo’s fingers withdrew again so only a sliver of them poked over the edge. “Zlatan. I. This office hasn’t been used in—I haven’t had anyone to talk to.”
“I know.” Like it was sympathetic to Paolo or something, the pain suddenly spiked and Zlatan hissed. Then he relaxed, and even felt a little better as a ligament twisted back into place. “Well, I mean, I guessed. You’re weird for an angel. Figures. I don’t think I’d come up with a normal one.”
Another sucked-in breath, and then the hand pushed purposefully out over the ledge, bending at the wrist to curl its fingers at Zlatan. He stared at the scabs, the gnarled, mangled nails, and they flexed desperately at him. “I’m real. You’re not imagining me—you’re not crazy, damn it. If anyone would be, it’d be me.” Pause. “Does that make you feel better?”
“Not really. It’s not my mind that’s hurting right now,” Zlatan eventually said. He looked at Paolo’s hand, at the raw tips, and then—then he grimaced at himself and turned over, groaning at how much that hurt. “Oh, get that out of my face. You’re just reminding me of your wings.”
He couldn’t see Paolo’s hand, but he could hear and it was a while before Paolo finally shuffled back from the bars. Zlatan chewed at his lip and scraped his chin against the mattress, then pointedly shut his eyes. Paolo had been a bastard earlier, and Zlatan had a long memory, too. And also Zlatan hurt, and he thought maybe it’d be better when he woke up. Right now it just was…he just didn’t want to deal with it.
* * *
After his sleep, he wasn’t fully healed but he was a hell of a lot better. He managed to limp over to the straw, make himself some soft oatmeal for breakfast—disgusting, but his throat was still tender—and then he went to check on things.
The door had a stain over the lower part of the frame that trailed onto the floor beneath it, but otherwise no traces of the fight remained, almost as if the room had eaten up the gore. Which, frankly, was an unpleasant thought even for Zlatan, so he abruptly went over to the desk. The paperwork was going fine, so…he lifted his head and looked towards the cage.
Paolo was up. He was pressed against the right wall, just a little too far for Zlatan to have touched him through the bars, his bright, watchful eyes set in an impassive face. His right hand was lying across his belly so Zlatan could note the deep burn across the backs of its fingers.
“You can be a real jerk, you know,” Zlatan finally said. He picked up the pitcher from the desk, then poured a glass of grapefruit juice. Then he put the pitcher down, but held onto the glass, just looking at Paolo.
In the end he did put the glass through the bars, and after a moment’s pause, Paolo unwound himself from his guarded pose and scooted forward to pick it up. He didn’t wait this time for Zlatan to move out of range, so if Zlatan had wanted, he could’ve reached through the bars again and seized a good handful of Paolo’s hair.
“I think I’ve lost a lot of my manners down here. You don’t get to talk to anyone, you end up thinking too much about yourself.” Paolo only took a couple sips before he rested the glass on his knee and looked up at Zlatan. “So you don’t think you’re imagining me anymore?”
“Well, it doesn’t really make a difference, does it? Either way, I do have someone to talk to, and that’s what matters to me,” Zlatan shrugged.
That didn’t go down well with Paolo, who started a bit before clamping his mouth shut. He ducked his head and drank some more juice—he lifted the glass with three fingers and the wrist of his other hand, which made it awkward—before glancing at Zlatan again. “Maybe I feel a little insulted by that.”
“Why? It’s my problem if I’m crazy.” Zlatan began picking some of the dried blood off his cheek so the itch wouldn’t bother him so much.
“Well, I’ve been forgotten so long that—” And Paolo clammed up right there, his eyes going a little wide, like he’d just revealed something he shouldn’t. Which, frankly, didn’t make much sense to Zlatan, since it wasn’t anything much. “Look, I’m real.”
To which Zlatan snorted and raised a brow. “Prove it.”
Paolo went very still for a moment. Then he shifted his hands around the glass, his shoulders hunching as he glanced at that. His head came back up, and then rose a little more as he stared long and steady at Zlatan.
It took a second. Then Zlatan warily swung his leg forward. He eased his weight onto it, moved the rest of himself, and then took another step so the ledge was pressing into his knees. At the same time Paolo pushed the glass forward so it was almost touching his side of one of the bars. Zlatan lifted his hand, then crooked it and slid it through on the right side of the bar. He waited a moment, but though Paolo’s hands were shaking now with the strain, he didn’t move. So Zlatan turned his hand and took the glass, and as he did, Paolo let go. But their fingers overlapped for a moment, Zlatan’s fourth and Paolo’s little; Paolo’s lashes fluttered, then snapped up as he quickly pulled his hand to his chest.
Zlatan took the glass out and drank the rest of the juice, then swung it thoughtfully in his hand. “I was pretty sure that demons can’t go insane, actually.”
Paolo’s gaze sharpened. Then he irritably jerked his head to the side, slumping back against the wall. “I suddenly understand why someone would come down here for the sole purpose of trying to kill you, when you’re already in trouble.”
“Yeah, I got around before I got upstairs,” Zlatan grinned. “You know, I’m not even sure who that was. I recognized the voice, but I can’t really place it—well, I’ll tell you this. Alcohol doesn’t do it, but there are things demons can get drunk on.”
“And I’d imagine you discovered what those were early on,” Paolo remarked wryly. The corners of his mouth quirked a little.
Shrugging, Zlatan put the glass down and began to set about cleaning himself up: scraping off blood, putting tendons and muscles back into their proper place, all that. “Only so I could figure out how to not to be vulnerable to them, believe me. I’m not that easy to take out, so you’re stuck with me till I do figure out how to leave.”
He had second thoughts about saying that a moment later, and looked at Paolo, but the angel just had a slightly sour twist to his mouth. Paolo raised his brows at Zlatan, cradling his burned hand close to him. “I’m overjoyed,” he said tonelessly.
“Well, thank you.” Zlatan smiled, though he honestly didn’t really feel like it. “So anyway, did you see that asshole? What’d he look like?”
* * *
This time, Henrik wasn’t wearing the tweed. Instead he had a tan suit with an actual, real sweater-vest beneath it, and he had closed Zlatan’s hand around the boxes of erasers and pens before Zlatan finally managed to stop staring. “You really like being a librarian.”
“There are some very interesting books in Hell. You realize we get every book ever burned? Sometimes I almost think we should send the Vatican’s banned-books department a thank-you note,” Henrik said, smiling. But then he pulled something else from his pocket and his expression sobered. “Ibra, I found out about this Paolo you mentioned, and—and what are you up to?”
“Getting up,” Zlatan promptly said, jerking his chin towards the ceiling.
Henrik looked at him.
Zlatan sighed and dropped his shoulder against the door. He glanced towards the cage, but Paolo wasn’t up against the bars so probably he was still asleep. Then he looked at Henrik. “I’m not trying to get you in trouble, okay?”
“I’m not worried about that. No, really.” Though the faint wince that passed over Henrik’s face said otherwise. He seemed to realize as much and lifted his hand to rub at his temple. “Ibra, I’ll be fine. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and whatever you do, I can see to myself. And you’re the last one, so frankly, I just care about getting you back upstairs. The rest of Hell can go to…you know the joke.”
“Where have you been reading? In the Armageddon stuff?” Zlatan asked, a bit alarmed. “You sound like—”
But Henrik was shaking his head. “No, no, I just meant…” he gave Zlatan a long, judging look, then nodded to himself “…I got tired of the war a long time ago, actually. To be honest, I’m here because of you and because of the library. I like taking care of it, and…it likes me. It’s got enough knowledge in there so that I could withstand basically anything but Judgment Day. If that ever comes.”
Zlatan flinched, then opened his mouth.
“I’m not talking about your ideas, though yes, I did know you were going along that line. I’m not about to rat you out to anyone, trust me,” Henrik said, grinning. “But that’s why I want to know what you’re doing. Because I can take care of myself, but I can’t do much for you now.”
“Well, I’m not running around jumping into pools of burning sulfur anymore, so you don’t have to. And really, I’m just trying to get out of here right now. I just asked you that because—because look, I’m not imagining things and there’s really an angel in here, and I want to know what’s going on. Especially if you can’t see him and I can,” Zlatan said, lowering his voice. He’d heard a little bit of noise from Paolo’s direction.
For a long time—so long Zlatan got nervous about the door cutting them off—Henrik gazed at him. But finally the other demon dropped his shoulders and handed over the folded paper from his pocket. “It’s all in there, but the important things—Paolo is…was one of the greater generals. He was tricked into giving up and then imprisoned here. Then he drops out of the records, as if they didn’t want to bother with him anymore…and Heaven hasn’t, either. Nobody ever came to get him back.”
“That’s not usua—” A creaking warned Zlatan, but he stepped in to let the door hit his shoulder anyway, trying to slow it. “Why not?”
“I don’t know,” Henrik said. He made as if to step away, but then swiftly leaned in to scrub his hand through Zlatan’s hair and then curve it down to briefly cup Zlatan’s cheek. “Watch your step. They used to send him after our Dukes.”
And then Zlatan had to slide back into the room, or else be crushed, and he wasn’t interested in that. Especially not when he had what sounded like some fascinating stuff to read.
“Is anything wrong?” Paolo was up now, and looking curiously on as Zlatan wandered back towards the desk.
Zlatan almost made the mistake of jamming the paper out of sight, but at the last minute he turned the movement into him casually sticking it in his pocket while bending over the completed paperwork, like he was checking that. He shook his head. “No, just me trying to see if Henrik knew what that attack was all about. I really hate that door.”
“At least it opens,” Paolo said.
After a moment, Zlatan straightened up from the desk. He looked over. “And it shuts.”
Paolo moved a shoulder, then rolled from kneeling into a prone position on his belly. He laid his head on his arms so he was looking off to the side. “Even if I stopped talking, you’d still have your friend.”
“Henke comes once a day, and those are really damn long here,” Zlatan muttered. He frowned as the paperwork suddenly stuttered, then snapped to a mid-air stop as something in the spellwork snagged. “What, did I annoy you again? What’s with the pouting?”
“I’m not pouting.” The stumps of Paolo’s wings lifted a little, then settled back against his shoulderblades. He idly rubbed his fingers over the stone floor. “Angels don’t pout.”
Zlatan snorted. Then he laughed, even though he was elbow-deep in stupid fucking uncooperative magic again. “You’re kind of fun for an angel, actually. Henrik’s cool, but he’s so…he just doesn’t do sarcasm, really. He kind of just knocks you out and hauls you off to soak in an acid pool for awhile.”
Paolo moved his head so he could just look at Zlatan. “Must be terrible for your complexion.”
“Fuck, yes. Why do you think I hate coming down here?” The snag didn’t look like a problem Zlatan could solve in a few minutes, and by now he’d gotten the rhythm of the paper dumps, sort of, so he had a feeling he was going to get another one soon. Damn it. “Fuck, I have to get out of here.”
He’d said that last bit under his throat, but Paolo twisted about and his expression said he’d heard. And, for the barest moment, he looked extraordinarily bitter and sympathetic and exhausted all at once.
Then he put his head on his arm again, and closed his eyes. For a few moments, he was still and silent, almost like a statue save for that constant drip of ichor from his tattered wings.
“What is all that paperwork?” he eventually asked. His voice was very different from before; Zlatan would’ve called it disinterested if Paolo hadn’t also looked up.
Zlatan paused, then craned his head around so he could really take a look at the nearest sheet. “Um. Progress reports? Oh…oh, hey, I know this guy…oh, he is shitty at that. I can testify to that.”
* * *
Actually, there wasn’t that much talking since Paolo tended to sleep a lot more than Zlatan did. The angel always retreated into the back of the cage for that, so Zlatan couldn’t even see him that well and was left with either fiddling with the paperwork or trying to think up quicker ways to get out as a distraction. And well, now he did have Henrik’s little write-up.
Which definitely was interesting, if irritatingly old-fashioned in its language. Sometimes it was hard for Zlatan to believe Henrik had ever gone into a proper battle, with all the ranks of demons and angels and the trumpets and the ridiculous get-ups, the way he wrote. But it did eventually yield up some details about Paolo’s running fight with some Dukes of Hell, and the surprisingly crappy way that had ended—no big last battle, just some rather commonplace trickery and…and if Zlatan was reading the right things into Henrik’s weird phrasing, maybe something about another angel who’d accidentally fucked things up for Paolo.
But that wasn’t a name he recognized—for that matter, he’d needed a couple minutes to realize the report was about Paolo, since Paolo’s full name was nothing like his “everyday name,” as Zlatan usually called it. Predictable enough, since if Zlatan ever used his actual name, he’d be burning down everything in sight—and every ballerina in the world would simultaneously break a leg; he’d never figured out where that had come from—so it didn’t surprise him that angels apparently worked the same way. But still, not that helpful for trying to figure out if he’d ever met the other angel. He would’ve thought he had, since it seemed like every single one of them had at one point or the other gotten in his face about something.
Anyway, that wasn’t really important. The stuff that had gotten Henrik all twitchy was a little later, where the write-up was summarizing Paolo’s known and suspected powers. It was a long summary. And it explained a lot about the bars. Less so about why Heaven had apparently just given him up for lost and why everyone in Hell was okay with leaving him in some unused office, but there was a tiny bit about Paolo’s wings.
Zlatan had been wondering why those hadn’t healed, with how long Paolo had been around. The stuff that kept the damned souls from healing shouldn’t have worked on him, and as strong as he was, he should’ve at least managed to grow some scars to cover the raw flesh, if not completely regenerate the full wings. But instead he was still bleeding, and that more than anything was probably what kept him so…docile, compared to his history.
“We had that problem early in the beginning, before you began to change so much that you weren’t like us anymore.”
Cursing, Zlatan pulled his elbows around and rubbed at where they’d banged the wall when he’d started. He’d dropped the paper and it had floated away, but it settled now near his left foot. He promptly pinned it down with his heel, then dragged it to where he could grab it. Then he looked up.
Of course all he saw was the ledge; shaking his head at himself, Zlatan got up onto his knees and popped his head over the edge—and then he was face-to-face with Paolo. He’d spread his one hand on the ledge and its fingers had landed so they were just a little short of the bars, and right across from those, Paolo’s fingers were lying against the stone.
His other arm was balanced on its elbow so he could prop up his chin, which was how he’d apparently managed to read the report. He blinked a few times, slow and deliberate, before sighing and dropping his head so he could put two fingers against his nose. “I just still don’t want to think about them, to be honest. Though that’s stupid and I can hardly ignore the truth.”
After a moment, Zlatan let go of the ledge. He slowly relaxed, letting the tense muscles in his arm and back and thighs uncoil, and shifted so he was in less of a crouch and more of a sitting position. “So what happened? It says they couldn’t be cut by—”
“Anything but another angel’s…whatever they happened to have. It made sense in the beginning, since of course we’d never fight each other. And then we did. The later angels, they don’t have it that way, since otherwise they…they’d rely on it to protect them, and we know now that the Fall wasn’t an end to angels turning on each other.” Paolo turned his head to the right, almost looking behind him. Then he tipped his head back into his hand, rubbing at his temple. “But these…they were an accident. He didn’t mean to. He thought he was—it was all illusions, we didn’t know what was what.”
Now he did look at them; the corner of his mouth jerked, and then his lips whitened as he flattened them. His fingers slid into the hair over his ear, then slowly curled till the tendons in the back of his hand were standing out. The right stump rose as he twisted, elongating a little as if it were trying to open, but of course there wasn’t enough left to it for that. Ichor stains, old and new, encrusted the edge of the hacked places and trailed back towards his shoulders, but now Zlatan could see that that wasn’t the only reason the stumps looked so bad: they’d also lost nearly all their feathers, leaving behind only the thin, prickly skin.
“I bet that made you feel better. Knowing it was an…accident,” Zlatan said. He let his disbelief flavor his tone. “He apologize?”
Paolo jerked his head back around, his eyes almost glowing with sudden rage. Then he slammed his palm down and shoved himself up, like he was going back.
“Oh—what? What did I say? You know, at least I live up to the fact that I put myself here. I still don’t think I deserved it, but hey, okay, I did the crap that—” Zlatan snapped, pushing down on his own hands. He lunged to his feet, then yanked himself back just as a few stray hairs of his began to sizzle against the bars. Then he dropped over to the side to lean against the wall by the bars. “And stop acting like you’re not bitter, you—”
“He didn’t apologize because he didn’t have time to, you—honestly, can you not put it together? Your friend put enough in there for you to figure it out,” Paolo hissed back. He’d ended up just rocking himself onto his hands and knees, but every muscle in him was tensed to the point that he was actually shaking. “There are rules. They’re old, and can’t be changed, and arbitrary—you hurt another angel, you’re a rebel. You fall. You—”
“But you’re the one here.” Zlatan stopped. He dug his shoulder harder against the wall and crossed his arms over his chest, thinking. Then he did get it, and he looked up at Paolo.
Who settled back, the shaking in his limbs dying away just as the fire in his eyes died. He glanced down, the apple of his throat slowly moving up and down, and then he raised his head to show a razor-thin, close-lipped smile.
“I know,” he said. He dropped his hips, leaning only on his arms. His fingers scratched at the stone, and after the first few times, a trace of wetness began to form in their tracks. “It was an accident. He couldn’t…it wasn’t fair. So I traded for him. You’re not supposed to trade with the fallen either—I suppose that’s why I’m still here.”
“That another rule?” Zlatan said slowly. He raised his brows, then tugged at his nose. “You know, I never liked those either. From anybody.”
Paolo’s smile tightened a bit. Then he looked away, his curls falling over his eyes so they were hidden. His fingers kept scratching, smearing their bloody tips over the rock, and suddenly Zlatan knew why the cage was so unevenly-shaped.
He looked at the asymmetric walls again, then at the hollows at the bottom of every bar, and briefly wondered how big the original space had been. “You know, it’s okay to be bitter.”
“For you.” But then Paolo sighed, his shoulders dropping from their stiff high posture. He abruptly pushed away his bloody hand so his head dipped low, and then lower as he slumped to the floor. “Oh…I wasn’t even thinking. I have to admit that. You don’t—think. You don’t have the time to, or really want to, since your head’s so filled with God. It was just unfair to me and you can’t leave things to be unfair, and—I never thought I’d be down here so long.”
“Well, that did give you a lot of time to think, didn’t it? Make you change your mind about anything?” Zlatan snorted and flipped his hand at the snarling look that began to surface on Paolo’s face. “Look, for the last time, fuck the war. You think I’m so eager to get back upstairs because I want to go back to following the orders of some tentacle-headed jackass who thinks because he gets to eat Lucifer’s shit, he really knows what to do? Forget that. I just want to go where it’s interesting. Souls—come on, most of the time we’re just collectors after they’ve already decided to fuck up. We actually could just automate that, like I did with the paperwork.”
After a moment, Paolo pushed himself back onto his elbows and looked at Zlatan. He was smiling again, but there was a little amusement in it this time. “How is it they let you go on as long as they did? You…you’re just a terrible demon.”
“No, actually I’m really, really fucking good. And that’s why.” The edge of the wall was beginning to bruise Zlatan’s shoulder, so he shifted to put himself more on the flat side. That swung him dangerously near the bars and he put a hand down to steady himself. “And you seriously aren’t bitter about the idiot that did that to you? I mean, he could’ve at least cut cleanly. That’s a butcher job.”
Paolo stiffened a little, his right hand starting back as if to shield the stumps. He clearly spent a moment thinking about getting upset, but in the end just dropped his hand and sat up a bit. He craned about to look at them—he flinched a little—before shrugging. “It doesn’t look that bad to me.”
“What? Don’t be—look, come out into the light where you can see that properly, and then tell me that. That’s just…it’s crap, is what it is. He went through the middle of the bone and not the joint, and now you’ve got that bit hanging off…” Zlatan wasn’t thinking, just trying to explain, and so he frowned when Paolo abruptly jerked backwards.
Then he looked down and saw his hand through the bars, and then he was a little taken aback at himself. He began to withdraw his hand—but something moved at the corner of his eye and he froze instead. Then he looked up, and Paolo was coming towards him.
Slow, hesitant, from an angle instead of straight-on. The angel circled wide till he got to the bars, then sort of edged himself sideways so he led with what was left of his wing. He had his eyes on Zlatan the entire time, and more than once the wariness grew in them to the point that he stopped and Zlatan thought he was just going to whirl about to sulk in the back…but no, he kept going. Till he was just short of Zlatan’s hand, which was still between the bars.
“What’s hanging off?” Paolo said after a long moment. He suddenly dropped down to lean on his hand and his wing swung back from Zlatan’s fingers, then slightly came forward again.
“He splintered the bone. You’ve got little fragments of that all over, still stuck in you.” Zlatan pointed, Paolo tried to look, and the wing instinctively pulled back as Paolo turned. A wave of irritation rose in Zlatan. “It’d help if you didn’t move.”
Paolo looked tiredly at him. “They hurt. It’s hard to help it.”
“Yeah, well, pain’s just there. It’s not going to leave just because you’re nice and good,” Zlatan muttered. He leaned forward and pushed more of his arm through the bars, till he could almost touch the wing.
It jerked from him, then stilled. He started to look at Paolo’s face, but then just got on with it and stretched out his fingers that little bit more. His arm was in nearly to the point that its thickness alone would knock it into the bars, so he had to hold it at a really awkward angle, but he just—made it. His two fingertips touched that one bone fragment, pieced through a hanging flap of flesh.
A low, long hiss came from Paolo, underscored by a sudden, high scratching. The wing shuddered a little; Zlatan bit at his lip, then quickly pinched the end of the bone sliver between his fingers. Then he flicked his wrist—the bone resisted a moment before pulling free.
Paolo went in the other direction, nearly smashing himself into the wall in his haste. A splatter loudly graced the stone above him and to his right, and his wings snapped back so Zlatan couldn’t see them anymore. He stared at Zlatan, breathing hard through his mouth, his eyes huge and brilliant.
Zlatan did hesitate a second, but he dropped the bone. Then he backed up a little, because his arm was really beginning to cramp the way he was holding it. “Listen, I just thought—”
Paolo rocked forward. Then he grimaced and put his hand down, and then came the rest of the way over. He twisted as he did, his wing rising so it was back within Zlatan’s reach, and so he wasn’t looking at Zlatan when he spoke. “That…actually feels better.”
After a moment, Zlatan just turned his wrist so he could wipe his slick fingers off on the wall inside the cage. Then he moved his hand so it was hovering over the next obvious splinter in the wing, but didn’t touch it. “Well, this is going to hurt.”
He waited, but Paolo didn’t move. So Zlatan pulled out that one, and flicked it over Paolo as the angel sucked in a sharp breath. The wing dropped slightly, then rose, but with the next one Zlatan pulled out, it fell and didn’t lift so instead he had to slouch some. Paolo started trembling with the fourth one, and that was the last easy one: all the rest, Zlatan had to dig out a bit with a claw before he could work them free. He did it cleanly—even if he’d been interested in prolonging that, he wouldn’t have since he’d been insulting that idiot angel on his messiness—but even so, it had to be pretty bad for Paolo.
And Paolo did look like it did, too. He dug his nails into his knees for a while, but eventually he was just shaking too much and he had to lie down. Then he pressed his chin against the stone, but as Zlatan reached over to work on the other stump, he shifted so he was instead grinding his forehead into the floor. His breaths got louder and rougher, almost to the point where it was a hoarse scream, before abruptly dying away into…well, if he hadn’t still been trembling, Zlatan might’ve thought he’d stopped breathing.
After each fragment was pulled free, the ichor would well out of the puncture left behind, thick and plentiful and fragrant. It ran down the wings to soak Paolo’s shirt, sticking it close around his back and sides; the breadth of his shoulders tended to disguise how thin he was, but now Zlatan could see his ribs molded in the black cloth. It started getting in Zlatan’s way. He couldn’t see what he was doing.
He pulled his hand back out, then began to turn. “Wait,” he said to Paolo, who’d begun to move. He searched around till he’d found his suit-jacket, which he’d never bothered wearing again since he’d first gotten here, and then tore strips from the silk lining. Some of them he used to wipe off his claws, but the rest he carried back and stuffed against the fresh rips in Paolo’s wings to keep the bleeding at bay so he could finish.
After Zlatan had spoken, Paolo had put his head back on the ground, but so he was facing Zlatan. He watched, blinking only rarely, till Zlatan was done, and then his eyes tracked Zlatan’s hand as Zlatan pulled back through the bars.
Zlatan looked at his sticky hand. His nostrils were flaring repeatedly and he became aware of the fact that he was chewing hard on his lip.
“Could you not do that?” Paolo said. Raspy, with a little pleading in there.
“It tastes good. I know that,” Zlatan muttered. He stopped chewing and just bit down hard on his lip.
Paolo heavily pushed himself onto his elbows, his hair stuck to his sweaty face. He lifted a hand and its fingers curled as it rose, so it almost looked as if he meant to knock on the bars. “You probably think you taste good.”
Zlatan looked at him, brows raised. “I do.”
The muscle in Paolo’s jaw twitched, and his eyes momentarily widened. Then he ducked his head to the side, his raised hand going back to rub its knuckles along the curve of his neck. Both sweat and ichor had dripped down that, so he just ended up smearing it along his throat. That damn ichor smelled almost painfully delicious.
Then Paolo looked up, and stiffened a little at whatever expression Zlatan was wearing. He tightened the set of his mouth, but the glint in his eyes was slightly mismatched. His knuckles pressed harder into his neck, digging in till Zlatan could see the flesh whitening beneath the darker film of ichor.
“It’d really bother you,” Zlatan said. He made it a statement.
Paolo didn’t contradict him in words. The angel did go even stiller when Zlatan put his hand between the bars again, but he stayed in place as Zlatan reached around and pulled off the rags from his wings. Zlatan began to pull those through, but then stopped, staring at them.
“I think you’re clotting.” He touched one of the semi-solid globs on the rag with his finger. Then he looked up, craning his head to try and see over Paolo’s shoulder.
His hand was still in the cage. He went still when he felt something graze it. Then it fluttered over his knuckles before drawing tight; Paolo leaned forward, letting Zlatan watch the trickles of ichor dry up on his wings, and carefully rubbed at Zlatan’s hand with the tail of his shirt. At some point he teased the stained rags from Zlatan’s half-closed fingers as well. He was methodical about his cleaning, working between the fingers and scraping off their webbing and beneath Zlatan’s claws—nails. Claws, as Zlatan decided he’d allow this but he’d make the point that he was allowing it. Paolo paused as those extruded themselves, then resumed his rubbing. He was very careful: his fingers never moved past the cloth onto Zlatan’s skin. He never looked up.
He did when he finally backed off, the soaked tail of his shirt dangling limp and twisted from his hand. Then he gathered up all the bone slivers and the rags, and carried them off to the back of the cage.
While his back was turned, Zlatan lifted his hand to his mouth. Then to his nose, and found that if he sniffed deeply enough, he could still smell it.
Paolo stayed back there, crouched over. The hunching didn’t really suit him when he wasn’t intending it to be a prelude to something aggressive, even if it was just a pipe-dream of leaping at Zlatan. He glanced at Zlatan, then began to lift his hand to his wings.
Zlatan turned then, and just in time for a mound of papers to be dumped before him. Oddly enough, he was actually glad for it. For a moment—then he was just annoyed. “You’re welcome, by the way.”
Nothing from Paolo.
“Idiot,” Zlatan muttered, and went back to work.
* * *
“Oh, hell,” Zlatan said, and was damn glad he’d remembered to open the door at arm’s length.
Rafael smirked at him as he withdrew the pitchfork. An actual fucking pitchfork, with who knew what crusted onto its tines. “You’re no fun, Ibrahimović. I was expecting you to—”
“Spear myself on you? Please. If I’m going to let myself be fucked, I’d go with somebody who’d be big enough to make it worth my while.” Zlatan leaned against the door and dug up a much brighter and bigger smirk.
And it got even bigger when Rafael’s smugness fell away and the other demon nearly twitched himself through the doorway. Only the pitchfork saved him, since its end tripped Rafael up and by the time he’d righted himself, he seemed to have remembered that Zlatan had kicked his ass every single time he’d come at Zlatan with less than…actually, even an army hadn’t made a difference. Just made it take a little longer.
“Well, I’d start primping if I were you. You’ve been doing enough good work that you’re getting a small promotion.” Rafael paused, his stiff mask of bitterness briefly melting into curiosity. He looked past Zlatan, then frowned and shook his head. “Don’t get all excited. You’re not getting out of here just yet. You’ve just lucked out because we’re overflowing right now and we need temporary cells.”
“Cells? Wait, overflowing? Did I miss something?” Zlatan said.
He’d walked into that one, and so obviously that even Rafael couldn’t miss it. “All the time, Ibrahimović. All the time.”
Zlatan made a face. “Funny. I seem to remember you forgot about having that Black Mass right as—”
Apparently the door would slam early if anyone outside asked it to; Zlatan barely made it out of the way in time. He picked himself up off the ground and looked up, but of course Rafael was already gone.
He did give the door a sneer as he dusted off his knees—that damn thing had no taste, honestly. Then he went back over to the cage, where Paolo was pressed nearly up against the bars, staring hard at Zlatan with a set, tense expression on his face.
“I don’t get it. They can hear you, but can’t see you?” Zlatan said.
“Congratulations,” Paolo spat out. He winced right afterward, but didn’t bother not slumping against the wall. “Never mind.”
“Oh, no, you don’t. Never mind? I heard that, you asshole, so don’t pretend I didn’t. What, did you think I was going to—”
Paolo flung up his hand, then jerked it away in a gesture Zlatan thought he recognized from the more colorful parts of Italian cities. Then he sighed and fell back against the wall, sliding down till he was sitting with his knees pulled nearly to his chest. His hands he put between them to grab at his shins. “No, of course you weren’t. You were always going to get out. You’re the kind who would.”
He didn’t just mean Zlatan was a demon, it seemed. He breathed out, slow like a groan, after the last word, and put his head back against the wall. His eyes closed, then squeezed shut so the lines around them drew taut and deep.
“I’m not out yet. I’m not even out for…whatever I’m doing now,” Zlatan said.
Paolo’s head turned a little towards him, and the angel’s eyes slivered open. “Don’t you find it odd to be trying to reassure me?”
“I’m weird. Get over it already,” Zlatan retorted, too quickly.
Not that Paolo, if he caught it, looked as if he were going to push the point. “I think it’s the room,” he muttered. His eyes opened a little more. “Why they can’t see me. They could, when I first…when I was put in here. But then nobody came for a long time, and when somebody did again, it didn’t seem like they could sense me at all.”
“It’s kind of like somebody really wanted you forgotten.” Zlatan looked at the bars again, putting up his hand so he just began to touch the magic around them. He frowned, prodding a bit, and then hissed as his fingertip got scorched. “And these are just bizarre…I keep looking at them and some of it I recognize, but some of it doesn’t even seem demonic…”
“I don’t recognize all of it either. Though for a long time, I thought it looked a little like what we—what angels can do, but that can’t be it,” Paolo said, twisting around. He put out his hands to catch himself, then leaned against the wall again, his face just inches from the bars. His eyes closed, then opened and focused on Zlatan, exhausted and dull. “I hope you get out.”
After a moment’s trying, Zlatan gave up on understanding and just asked. “Why?”
“Because.” Paolo tipped his head forward to stare at the base of the bar right before him. “You don’t deserve to be caged up. Even if you’re fighting on the wrong side.”
Zlatan lifted his hand to the bars again. He looked at the top of Paolo’s head, the way Paolo’s shoulders dragged forward. “Your wings still haven’t started bleeding again.”
Though they didn’t look much better than that, he thought, and distracted himself with that thought as he turned his hand to fit it between the bars. He reached out just as Paolo was raising his head—Paolo stopped, his head jerking a bit as Zlatan’s fingers touched his ear. Then he stayed like that, head tilted towards Zlatan’s hand, as Zlatan slowly, carefully fitted his hand to the side of Paolo’s face.
Paolo’s eyes went up and locked on Zlatan’s. His mouth parted a little, so close to the inside of Zlatan’s wrist that the skin there began to dampen from the moisture on Paolo’s breath. And then neither of them moved.
Zlatan jerked his hand back, accidentally grazing a bar as he did. He cursed as he whirled around, lifting the burned spot towards his mouth, but then dropped his hand to jam it into his pocket when he saw the door bang open. He snapped his fingers to make the auto-processing spells stop, then glanced over his shoulder—Paolo was out of sight, probably way in the back again.
By the time Zlatan looked forward, Rafael was halfway through the door. And, oddly enough, seemed to be stuck there. He kept rocking back and forth, snarling at something in the hall, his fangs fully extended and his tongue flapping wildly about in the air. Which looked pretty stupid, actually; Zlatan made a note to transmute a mirror from the straw later to make sure he didn’t do that.
He eventually wandered up to see what was going on, but he’d barely gotten there when something gave and Rafael came tumbling in, followed closely by a clanking chain and a…Zlatan jumped back, then ducked as the huge wings slammed about the air.
“Damn it, give me a hand here!” Rafael whined. He was somewhere beneath all those white feathers, and sounding like he was taking a hell of a beating.
Zlatan thought about it. A loose chain swung towards his foot, then fell still. He poked it with his toes.
“You bastard, do you want to get out or not?”
Sighing, Zlatan grabbed the end of the chain. He got it wound his hand, then braced his heels, and then he yanked. The moment the angel staggered up, he ducked under the damn wings and went for the throat, aiming for the loosened iron collar around it. And the angel bit him.
“Oh, fuck, Sandro?” Zlatan said, staring at a very familiar, very furious pair of eyes. And those damned sharp teeth—almost sharp enough to do a demon proud, actually. “Wow, I really did miss a lot. Don’t tell me you let Rafael take you—I really thought you were better than that.”
Some noise came from the cage and Zlatan reflexively started to turn, but Sandro attempted to beat in his skull with those fucking wings and so instead he jerked down his hand. In which Sandro’s teeth were still firmly planted, and so Sandro’s head went down, too. He caught on and spat out Zlatan’s hand, but not before Zlatan had cracked an elbow into the back of his head. Sandro staggered, but didn’t fall—he was tough, even if he was an ass—so Zlatan got hold of a wing fast and sank his claws into it.
That stopped the frenzied flapping long enough for Rafael to get out from wherever he’d gone and get the damn collar snapped shut around Sandro’s neck. The wings promptly vanished and Sandro slumped as his power drained off, leaning hard on Zlatan. Not that he appreciated Zlatan’s efforts to hold him up: he had an impressive ability to come up with non-blasphemous insults.
“You are a fucking moron when it comes to handling prisoners,” Zlatan told a breathless, bloody-nosed Rafael. “How’d his collar get loose anyway?”
Rafael made a face, then winced and grabbed at his nose. “Go fuck yourself.”
“Every Sunday, same time as Mass,” Zlatan cheerfully said. “So—”
Sandro twisted hard, throwing Zlatan back onto his trailing foot. Zlatan’s hands slipped on him and Sandro tried to take full advantage of that, but Zlatan rammed up his knee into the angel’s stomach, then got his free hand hooked about the chain between Sandro’s wrists. He used that to wrench Sandro around before yanking the angel’s back up against him, pinning Sandro that way.
“So we’re busy preparing a proper place for him, but in the meantime, you get to share since you’ve got that barrier on the door anyway.” Rafael looked highly unpleasant as he smiled. “Make sure that collar doesn’t come off again, Ibra. If he gets loose, you and he will just have to fight it out.”
“Thanks, Rafael. It’s really nice to know you—”
Zlatan stumbled again, briefly caught off-guard by Sandro’s hard buck. He tightened his grip on the angel, but in the process he slewed about so Sandro was facing the desk. So was Zlatan, but he couldn’t see past Sandro’s madly-tossing head.
And then he could: Sandro stiffened, then slumped so deeply that he nearly slipped out of Zlatan’s arms. A long, low moan came from the angel, making both Zlatan and Rafael stare.
The sound had an echo—then Zlatan realized what that really was and jerked his head up to look up at the cage. He stared for one second before dropping Sandro, who fell without resistance, and spinning about to slam his hands into Rafael’s shoulders. The other demon fell back, exclaiming in surprise. Then his eyes widened and he dodged Zlatan’s follow-up lunge before running pell-mell for the door. “See you on—oh, sorry, I forgot!”
“You—” For a moment Zlatan was actually, truly furious.
He took it out on the door, which deserved it anyway. The damn thing promptly shut on him, but Zlatan gave it a couple kicks just because. Then he swung back, catching up on his breath and clenching his fists till he felt the residual anger settle down, waiting for when he could really run down that ball-less bastard.
Zlatan took a last deep breath, scrubbing at his hair, and then turned around. Sandro was still on the ground, his legs sprawled under him with the choke-chain trailing from his collar to snake around him. He was looking straight at the cage, his face white and his eyes wide.
And in the cage, Paolo was right up against the bars, his hands pushed through to grip the edge of the ledge, equally white and wide-eyed. His mouth moved a little.
No sound came out that Zlatan could hear, which meant that Paolo really didn’t say anything, but Sandro reacted as if there’d been a shout from the sky: he jerked back, then rose in a jangling scramble.
When Zlatan hauled him back by his chains, he never even looked to see what was happening. He just tried to keep going forward, blindly and then with increasing desperation. He wrestled against Zlatan till the ichor began to drip from beneath his collar and manacles.
“Zlatan.” Paolo, at least, was looking at him. Less surprised now, but because that had been replaced with a need that was so strong Zlatan felt it grabbing at him. “Please.”
After a long moment, Zlatan slung his arm around Sandro; Paolo’s mouth opened again, his lips pulling back from his teeth. Then Zlatan walked the angel up to the bars and Paolo closed his mouth, but still looked as if he wished he could strangle something. It wasn’t too clear what something he really intended that for.
Zlatan loosened his grip a bit and Sandro all but threw himself at the bars. Then he finally got himself together enough to snarl, which made things a little more normal, but which also was just stupid. “Don’t touch the bars, you idiot,” Zlatan snapped.
“Don’t.” Paolo’s gaze dropped from Zlatan to Sandro like it was weighted with lead. He shifted, settling low on his belly with his hands thrust out as far as they could go, and Sandro tried to follow him. “Don’t touch—it’ll burn.”
Sandro made that moaning noise again, going so limp that Zlatan just lost his grip. The moment he did, Sandro was down on his knees, his hands wrapped around Paolo’s wrists. He pressed his forehead to the backs of Paolo’s hands, then lifted his head to fervently kiss Paolo’s fingers. Then he buried his face against Paolo’s palms, which were trying to cradle his head, smooth back his tangled hair. His shoulders started to shake, and then to shudder.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” he whispered. Feverishly, voice choking and thin like Zlatan had never heard it—like Zlatan honestly had never thought Sandro could sound, given his usual iron attitude and fiery temper. “I’m sorry.”
“No. No, you didn’t deserve it. You didn’t deserve this.” Paolo stroked his thumbs across Sandro’s cheeks, then back again. He spread some wetness over them as he did. “No, Sandro.”
“I thought you’d been killed,” Sandro said. “That’s what they—I didn’t know, I swear. I didn’t know. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Oh, are you serious? You fucked up that badly?” Zlatan leaned against the desk, picking at his sleeves. “No wonder you were always such a hardass, Sandro. I knew you had to be compensating for something.”
But Sandro ignored him and just kept pushing Paolo’s hands against his face. Paolo didn’t pay attention either, but instead continued to murmur to Sandro, trying to get him to stop crying, or kissing their hands, or something. He didn’t look so bitter now, all his words about not easily forgetting the past apparently just…nothing.
The desk rattled behind Zlatan as he back-heeled his foot into it, but that didn’t make the other two look up. Which, frankly, was just—he pushed himself off the desk, then stalked off into the corner. Then he came back and yanked his blankets and pallet out from under Sandro, who just lifted his knees to allow that. Zlatan carried those over to the side, figuring he might as well get some rest rather than listen to that nonsense. After all, it didn’t look like Sandro was in the mood for getting at Zlatan—which at least would piss off Rafael.
That didn’t make Zlatan feel as pleased as he usually would’ve been. He irritably flopped onto the pallet, then rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. Well, not like he should’ve expected much else—angels were just damned hopeless, with the way they said they were good and selfless and all that, but really were worse than anybody else. All they cared about was…
Zlatan paused. He frowned, running that thought through his head again. Angels cared about God, nothing else. They didn’t really care about the people they said they helped, and…technically they shouldn’t care about each other. Actually, Paolo had said something about that—and Sandro had always seemed a little temperamental when he really should’ve been plain coldblooded in his “goodness.” And Sandro could see Paolo too.
It wasn’t the room, Zlatan realized. He sat up. Then he couldn’t help but glance over, but Sandro and Paolo were still busy with each other…well, nice to see they still had that obsessive approach to things, Zlatan sourly thought. He grimaced at himself, then picked up a straw and made it into a pencil. Then he started drawing hypothetical spellwork.
* * *
Luckily for everyone, though of course Sandro didn’t see it that way, Zlatan heard Rafael coming back. He went over and pulled at Sandro’s shoulder, and when the angel didn’t react, yanked him from where he’d been slumped over Paolo’s hands. Sandro fell over, flashing a startled expression, and then tried to knock Zlatan’s feet out from under him.
Zlatan jumped over that, then got hold of Sandro’s collar and dragged him up. “Knock that off, they’re coming to get—”
“No.” Sandro stared at Zlatan, then threw himself against the chains. “No, I’m not going—”
Paolo had been a little slower, but he was fully aware now. He sat up, eyes bright. His hands were curled hard against the stone floor. “Sandro. Stop fighting.”
That gave Sandro enough pause for Zlatan to get a better grip on him before he started fighting again, and then it was to turn to answer Paolo. “What are you talking about? If I go out there, they’ll kill me anyway. I’d rather—”
Zlatan adjusted the collar-spells that were dampening Sandro’s power and Sandro promptly collapsed. Which to be honest was actually a little more drastic than Zlatan had intended, but when he’d hauled the angel back up to check, he didn’t find much harm done. So he hefted Sandro and turned, and Paolo was there, pale and still, staring at the other angel.
“He’s fine,” Zlatan said, sighing.
Paolo slowly let his lower lip out of his teeth. The marks in it stood out, white against the bruised red around them. He looked up at Zlatan. “For how long?”
“No idea.” Zlatan sighed again. “Look, I’ve been stuck here with you. I don’t know what they’re doing out there.”
At that Paolo bit his lip again. He looked at Sandro, then at Zlatan. Then he opened his mouth.
“You care a lot about the idiot who got you stuck in Hell,” Zlatan told him. It came out sounding a little rough.
“He’s not an idiot.” Paolo’s nails began to scrape at the stone. He dropped his eyes to Sandro again. “I just—he should be free. Never mind me.”
Sandro stirred a little, and Zlatan wasted a good ten seconds just looking disbelievingly at him. Then he put the angel under a little deeper. He started to answer Paolo, but the door opened before he could, and so he just turned around.
“Oh. You’re not shredded.” Rafael’s face screwed up in disappointment, but then he got elbowed out of the way by the real soldiers around the place, which was briefly fun.
He disappeared back into the hall as they came up, took Sandro from Zlatan, and then left. The door shut behind them, and after that it was very quiet. No new paperwork had come in, so Zlatan hadn’t started up the processing spells again and there wasn’t even that noise.
“I can’t leave the room,” he said after a while.
He turned around, and Paolo was turned to the wall, his fist pressed over his mouth and his forehead to the stone as he squeezed his eyes shut. The angel took a long, shuddering breath, pinching his eyes even more tightly closed.
“He put you in Hell,” Zlatan said.
Paolo let his hand fall, but didn’t look up. “I asked for it,” he quietly replied. “I love him. I remember that now—I’ve been angry, because I forgot what it was like. But I’ve seen him and I remember. I’d go again.”
“Hasn’t it ever occurred to you that you shouldn’t get stuck here for that?” Zlatan pressed his lips together at the way Paolo’s head snapped up, but didn’t flinch from the burning look Paolo gave him. He didn’t smile either, though honestly, it was so ridiculous it was funny, in a brutal kind of way. He just stood there, looking back.
And very slowly, the outrage faded from Paolo’s face. He looked aside, then back at Zlatan. Then he dropped his head, but his hand pushed out between the bars. He spread his fingers, curling them upward, and when Zlatan eventually moved over, he lifted his hand so his fingertips just grazed Zlatan’s chest. Then he pressed his hand down, flattening his palm over Zlatan’s ribs and breastbone.
“Thank you,” he said.
“For what? Just now—” Zlatan started.
Paolo looked up, and his face alone told Zlatan those assumptions were wrong. He moved his hand over, sliding it around Zlatan’s side, and Zlatan bent forward till he had to turn his head to have his nose miss the bars. On the other side of those, Paolo drew himself up so he was on his knees and parallel to Zlatan, his head about level with Zlatan’s shoulder. He twisted that aside so he could move as close as he could; his other hand slipped out and curved around Zlatan’s back as far as it could. Zlatan hesitated, then put his hands through and rested them on Paolo’s shoulders. His arm pressed against Paolo’s mouth and Paolo pressed back, just for a moment, before ducking his head to lay his brow against Zlatan’s wrist.
Zlatan looked at him, and changed his mind.
* * *
Henrik pursed his lips. “What is it?”
“The door just opened!” Sometimes Zlatan really, really wondered what had happened when he’d been too young to remember what Henrik was doing with him. Maybe Henrik had planted some sort of mind-reading thing in his head.
“And we don’t have long, so out with it,” Henrik said. He rubbed at his temple, already looking like he had a headache. “This have something to do with that angel you asked me about before?”
Zlatan glanced over his shoulder, then took a step back to make sure Paolo was really not paying attention. Though that was more likely than before; ever since Sandro, Paolo had been uncommunicative and prone to stay curled in the back of the cage, like when Zlatan had first shown up. Except when Zlatan was trying to sleep, and then Paolo would come up and talk. About Sandro, about old battles, places he’d been, other angels—mostly about Sandro.
“Well, if this works, you might be able to meet him. But actually it’s another one. Sandro. Where is he?” Zlatan asked. He waited a few moments. “Shit. They haven’t killed him yet, have they?”
“I thought you hated him,” Henrik said, blinking. “No, he’s not. But he’s…you want out, too. Don’t you.”
“Just for an hour or so. Call it a friendly visit.” The other demon’s stare got a little too penetrating, so Zlatan pretended like he had something on his sleeve. He jiggled his foot. “Look, I have this idea, and I need…can you do it?”
After another long moment, Henrik dropped his face into his hands. Zlatan started to grin, but then stopped himself. This was one time he really didn’t want to get too far ahead and screw up.
“I’ll be back in five hours. Exactly. And it’ll be exactly an hour, so don’t be late.” Henrik took a step away, then paused. “And make it work.”
“I always do,” Zlatan said. Now he grinned.
* * *
Paolo stirred, then lifted his arm and peered blearily under it as Zlatan sucked his burned finger, cursing around it. He rolled over and frowned at Zlatan. “What are you doing?”
“Talkative this time. With all the good you’ve been to me lately, I don’t know why I even bother with shit—and it’s shit, all right. You fuck up, you really do it good,” Zlatan muttered, pulling at the spellwork with his other hand. He squinted, found the next bit he needed to do, and then did it.
Apparently everything came together for Paolo at once, since his eyes suddenly widened and he came up to the bars in a rush. “What are you doing? You’ll get killed that way. Those—”
“Are fucking weird because they were made by a demon, but they’ve been picking up on your power for who knows how long, so now they’re some fucked-up crossbreed. You’d think they’d just annihilate each other, but no, everything has to be complicated.” Zlatan undid another part, then cursed and hastily stuck in his free hand as a huge section began to unravel. He managed to get it slowed down to a controllable rate, but then took a look at the clock and let it loose again.
The gamble worked, since it undid itself to where he thought it would, then stopped so he could work on the remainder. Paolo watched, a little less panicky now. “But…then that means I…I’m not getting that back. I can’t feel it come back.”
“Well, I’m not really sure you’re an angel now, so that makes sense,” Zlatan muttered. He glanced up, then shrugged at the perplexed look on Paolo’s face. “I have this theory. See, I like to get to know people, so I noticed that some of them just don’t seem to go anywhere we know about when they die. I had this atheist friend, and I figured he’d come here, but no…so there’s not really a war going on. God and Lucifer—when’s the last time anybody saw them? They just started it all and then they fucked off, and everyone’s been too dumb to ask about it. But maybe if you do ask, you can end up elsewhere.”
“But what—where is ‘elsewhere’? What is it? There has to be something,” Paolo said.
“Really? Well, I don’t know—look, I told you, theology’s not my strong—” The last bit seemed to come loose and Zlatan held his breath. He slowly let the threads of magic slip from him…and they fell apart. Which hurt unbelievably for a second, but then it all worked out and Zlatan let out his breath in a whoosh. Then he grinned. “But breaking and entering is.”
Paolo’s mouth fell a little open. Somehow he didn’t look stupid like that, but instead…his eyes were shining too, and as he watched Zlatan work loose two of the bars, he started to smile. It was a different one from the ones Zlatan had seen before, free and joyous. “You mean exiting?”
“Oh, stop criticizing,” Zlatan grunted. He dropped the bars onto the floor, then stepped back to eye the gap he’d made. “Henrik’s going to be here in a minute. Can you fit through that?”
The smile left Paolo’s face, but not because he’d gotten all depressed again. He sized up the hole, then scooted so he was presenting himself sideways to it. Then he very carefully slipped his left leg through it. His hip seemed to pass fine, but then he stopped, frowning. Zlatan began to reach for the next bar, but saw that that wasn’t the problem and instead moved to duck under Paolo’s arm. It curved around his neck and Paolo turned to look questioningly at him, only to drop that in favor of surprise as Zlatan pulled him the rest of the way out.
Paolo nearly fell right to the floor, not able to take the weight on his knees. His fingers dug hard into Zlatan’s shoulder as Zlatan grabbed his waist, steadying him. He tried to help, swinging his other arm around Zlatan’s neck and then pulling on that, but it rapidly became clear that Paolo wasn’t going to be able to walk on his own. Zlatan briefly wondered just why the fuck nothing ever came easy, but then shrugged and shifted his grip so he could hold Paolo up better. They didn’t have a lot of time.
He started to turn them towards the door, but for some reason Paolo resisted that. So Zlatan looked to see what was the matter and found Paolo gazing at him, sober and unblinking. The arms around his neck shifted, one pulling down, and Zlatan thought Paolo was trying to move over so he was only clutching Zlatan’s shoulder—so he was surprised when instead Paolo put a hand against his cheek. And leaned in, still looking up.
“I’m a little shorter than I thought I’d be, standing next to you,” Paolo said.
Zlatan had no idea what to make of that, to be honest. Except maybe that Paolo wasn’t exactly standing next to him, but that was just nitpicking. And he didn’t do that, even if he didn’t know what to do now. He restlessly drummed his fingers, but then realized he was doing that on Paolo’s waist and stopped. Paolo shifted a little, leaning harder on him, too bony but still fitting oddly well. “You’re really…thin.”
Then he grimaced, but Paolo just shrugged and smiled. His thumb moved along Zlatan’s cheekbone. “I know.”
He tipped his head back, adjusting his arm so his elbow wasn’t gouging so deeply into Zlatan’s chest. His fingers traced back around Zlatan’s cheek, then down the side of Zlatan’s neck. He was warm, so warm Zlatan became aware of how chilly the room actually was. His clothes were stiffened with accumulated filth, especially around the wings, but beneath them and around the angular bones he was pliant.
There was a knock at the door. Paolo stiffened, and that felt much more rigid than it even looked.
“Zlatan? Two minutes.”
“Okay, go ahead,” Zlatan said. He blinked, then shook his head, recollecting just what he was doing. Then he tried to shift Paolo into a position that would let them both walk, but Paolo fiercely resisted that. “What, it’s Henrik—no, I asked him to help me.”
Paolo paused, then looked warily up. “To do what?”
“To get out. No, listen—it’s not for good. That—” Zlatan jerked his head at the cage “—I can’t keep down for very long. I’m holding it apart with myself right now.”
“So if I don’t go back, you die?” Paolo said after a moment. He still felt as if his body had turned to lead, but when Zlatan nodded, he turned abruptly limp. His face pressed into Zlatan’s shoulder for a moment—his hands clutched at Zlatan’s back—and then, very slowly, he pushed himself back. He didn’t look up. “All right. But then what are we doing?”
Zlatan chewed at his lip as he pulled Paolo towards the door, which was starting to swing open. “That idiot you like so much. You get an hour.”
Paolo stumbled. Then he somehow got himself to the door before Zlatan, even though that effort alone nearly put him on his knees. He let Zlatan give him a hand at the threshold, but then he was trying to make them go faster so they almost barged through Henrik.
“Slow down,” Zlatan hissed.
He pulled at Paolo, then almost let Paolo collapse as the angel turned much more quickly than he’d expected. Zlatan caught Paolo under the arms and began to turn him back around, but Paolo grabbed his hands.
“Thank you.” Paolo looked up at Zlatan, then twisted about. Then he was off again, and Zlatan barely had time to nod a thanks to Henrik.
* * *
“Time’s up,” Zlatan said.
He wasn’t expecting that to do it, so he was startled when Paolo began to get up. So was Sandro, who nearly let it happen before he seized Paolo. Then he gasped and shuddered, his wings rattling loudly in their chains.
Zlatan grimaced, looking quickly about, but it looked like Henrik was still distracting the guards. “Quiet, damn it. Or else they might remember Paolo’s still down here.”
“It can’t—” Sandro’s head dropped and there was a wet hacking sound. The puddle of ichor around him grew a little.
Paolo glanced at Zlatan, then bent down over the other angel again. His visible hand laid itself very gingerly on Sandro’s bloody back, and he whispered something. Of course Sandro had a very sharp answer for it, but Paolo whispered again, not any more forcefully, and Sandro cut himself off. His wings drooped, then tried to pull themselves in towards his back. A small, choking, protesting noise came from him.
The stumps of Paolo’s wings flattened against his back as he drew in over Sandro. Then he forced himself back about a yard. He stopped there, eyes fixed on Sandro, and when he didn’t move after a moment, Zlatan reached down to take him by the arm. After the second tug, Paolo came, but he had a face like his insides were being ripped out of him. Though for some reason he slumped towards Zlatan, his hand scrabbling at Zlatan’s shoulder before closing on it.
Zlatan left him outside with Henrik. Paolo was so busy trying to control himself that he didn’t seem to notice when Zlatan ducked back inside.
Sandro had collapsed back into the gory heap in which they’d found him, but he did make the effort to flutter a wing-tip in Zlatan’s direction. “Come to gloat?”
“A little,” Zlatan admitted. He squatted down by Sandro’s head, where the angel could see him without having to raise his head. “Hey, I do remember the time you nearly killed me. I took a long time to heal from that.”
“You deserved it,” Sandro muttered.
“You’re a lucky bastard.” When Sandro deigned to look at him, Zlatan pulled out the knife Henrik had brought him. He balanced it in his hand. “I wasn’t going to bother with you, but I owe Paolo and he likes you that much.”
For a moment Sandro stared at him. Then the angel snorted and let his head fall limp. “If I had killed you, I would’ve done it cleanly. You—”
“Oh, I’m not doing that. I—you are so damn narrow-minded sometimes, you know? Not to mention you did a lousy job on Paolo. He was bleeding the whole time thanks to your hacking,” Zlatan snapped. He watched Sandro’s reflexive snarl and attempt to lunge at him, then waited for the rattle of the chains to die down. Then for Sandro to be conscious enough to hear again, though listening…well, nobody could say Zlatan, at least, hadn’t tried. “Look. Paolo’s not going back to Heaven, no matter what happens. He’s too good for Hell, but he chose to leave Heaven. They’re not letting him back in. So there’s just one place left.”
Sandro wasn’t dumb, anyway. He started to get it and his eyes widened. Then they slitted. “You’re taunting me, you piece of shit. Since when were you a do-gooder?”
“Since never. But I think, you know. And I think you’ve got a way out of this, and you’ve also got a chance to get Paolo out of this, and maybe I’m going to screw you over for it, but can you really afford to pass it up?” Zlatan said. He tapped the tip of the knife against the ground, right in front of Sandro. “No, Paolo’s not going first. You are. But before you argue more, think about the fact that I don’t like you and I like him.”
And wonder of wonders, Sandro did think. He pressed his lips into a thin line and stared at Zlatan, and once he started to look towards the door. His enraged mask fractured a little then, and when he looked back at Zlatan, he hadn’t quite put it back together.
“What do you want?” he said.
Zlatan grinned, and shifted so he could reach over Sandro. “Your wings.”
* * *
Laving his tongue over his hand one last time, Zlatan stepped outside. He didn’t see anyone and stiffened, but then he heard a clearing of the throat. He looked over and Henrik nodded; Paolo was still huddled on the ground beside him, one fist rammed up against his face so his eyes weren’t visible. When Zlatan grabbed his arm, he turned his head away.
Well, they didn’t have any time, if Zlatan wasn’t going to implode from temporarily freezing that spell on the bars. He hauled Paolo along, then slung Paolo’s arm over his shoulders when he realized that that would go faster. Henrik stayed behind, but caught up just before they got back to the room.
Oddly enough, he didn’t say anything. He just tapped Zlatan on the shoulder, and when Zlatan turned around…stared at him. For the longest time, and then finally he lifted his head and tapped Zlatan’s cheek with his palm. His mouth quirked.
“You always were a pain,” he said, affectionate but tired. “Too unpredictable.”
“Speak for yourself—I never saw the librarian bit coming. Tweed?” Zlatan raised his brows.
Henrik shrugged, then touched Zlatan’s cheek again before quickly turning and walking off. “It can be on the cold side here, believe it or not.”
Zlatan didn’t have time to reply since the door had swung open and he and Paolo had to get in before…well, before that nasty clawing sensation in Zlatan’s gut developed into true intestine-ripping. He pulled them over, then gasped as a sudden stab almost doubled him over. Paolo inhaled, then made a surprised noise as Zlatan shoved him into the wall.
With him temporarily out of the way, Zlatan could spare the hands to grind hard into his stomach. He hissed, then fell shoulder-wise against the wall so he could expend the energy he normally put into standing up into keeping his guts inside his damn body.
The pain went on for so long that Zlatan seriously thought maybe—but then it began to die away, thankfully, and he knew it was just a warning. They were already in the room, so he wasn’t too worried about that, but still. Fuck, that had hurt. A lot more than he’d thought it would.
“You need to go back—” he started, lifting his head. And two hands went around his face, and then Paolo was pressing fiercely against him, face turned into the side of Zlatan’s neck. Zlatan touched Paolo’s shoulder and the angel shivered, then pushed harder forward, as if he were trying to merge them.
Paolo breathed in, shuddering. His right hand shifted down, hooking over Zlatan’s shoulder, and then his left one went back around Zlatan’s neck, twisting in a few stray hairs. “I know. I know, I…give me a moment. You can’t imagine…nothing in there but you, and sometimes you do wonder if you’re still real. You don’t have anything but stone and bars to tell you—you don’t have anything to touch and know differently.”
Zlatan sucked on his lip and looked at him. He’d been thinking that Paolo had heard something, after all—even though the most sound Sandro had made had been a slight hiss after the first one, when Zlatan had ground the heel of his hand into the long slash to staunch the bleeding after lifting the wing away. But apparently not. Apparently Paolo had just…sort of shut down for a while, and now he was back with it, except not doing too well. At least, if the way his shoulders were shaking was any indication.
He stilled when Zlatan put two fingertips against one of them, then slumped as Zlatan began to move his fingers along the line of that shoulder; Zlatan had to jam his other hand under Paolo’s arm to keep him up. Then he pulled at the angel a little, trying to stay on his own feet, and Paolo’s fingers scraped hard across the back of his neck. They actually drew some blood before jerking away. Then they came back, flattening gently over the cuts. Something that might’ve been an apologetic noise was stifled against Zlatan’s shoulder.
Then Zlatan bent down, far enough so that his shoulder ended up under Paolo’s chin, and pressed his nose to the side of Paolo’s neck. He smelled the stale, acrid scent of Hell, the filth of years of anger and bitterness, but beneath that…beneath that, he still smelled that something else. So much more faded than even Sandro, with all that ichor staining the air with its odor, but still there.
Like roses, he thought. And then he thought no, it wasn’t like that. It was cleaner, sharper, without that tendency to get cloying and oppressive. Maybe more like green summer grass, not so fresh but what it lacked in that, it made up in intensity.
He moved his nose up the side of Paolo’s neck, and that bent towards him, Paolo’s breath tickling his ear as the angel pulled at Zlatan’s shoulder, trying to shift with Zlatan’s movements. He let the tip of his nose drag through the matted curls at Paolo’s nape, then pulled back so it circled over Paolo’s ear and across the temple. And at the last moment, just before he pulled completely off, Paolo lifted and turned his head so his mouth just missed touching Zlatan; his sucked-in breath seemed to scrape long fingers over Zlatan’s face towards it.
After a moment, Zlatan turned away. He took off his hands, but had to put them back when Paolo immediately began to stumble. But he put them on Paolo’s elbow and upper arm, and kept them there till he was letting go so Paolo could climb back into the cage. Paolo managed that by himself—Zlatan stooped to lift the bars, and by the time he had them up, Paolo had already flopped down inside.
He turned to watch as Zlatan fitted the bars back into place, sealed the rock around them, let the spellwork lace itself back together. His face was awful to look at, but it wasn’t really like Zlatan could see anything else.
Zlatan finally finished—found that too easy, to be honest, and snapped his finger against one of the bars as much out of disbelief at that as out of plain ire. Then he snatched his finger back, hissing: the bars burned again, just as bad as they had before.
Paolo’s eyes went to them, and then he dropped his head into his hand. He held still like that for a moment before his hand began to rock over his face, faster and faster. When Zlatan finally reached in and grabbed his wrist, he jerked up his head with a look like he was going to kill Zlatan.
But then that crumpled, fell away, and he was just sitting there, staring back. His fingers loosely curled around Zlatan’s wrist, then slid further to wrap over the back of Zlatan’s hand as Zlatan stepped in a bit and put his fingers against Paolo’s wet cheeks. He curved them round the side of the angel’s face, rubbing down the wetness towards his palm, and after a few moments, Paolo turned his head into it. His eyes dropped, fixed on something, and then he lifted his own hand to twist Zlatan’s fingers so his mouth grazed against the burned one.
Zlatan bit at the inside of his mouth. For once he didn’t feel so comforted by the idea that he was at least getting everything out of the situation he could.
“What’s going to happen to him?” Paolo eventually asked, of course.
“I don’t know.” Which was technically the truth. It was all theoretical and Zlatan still wasn’t sure exactly how it’d go.
Paolo looked up. His eyes swept over Zlatan’s face, and then he moved Zlatan’s hand so it was pushing against the side of his jaw. “Can you kill me? Before you leave too?”
For a while Zlatan stood there, looking back. But then he tugged at his hand, working it free of Paolo’s reluctant fingers. He licked the tears from his fingers, thinking about it, but in the end he just sat down on the floor beneath the cage, his back to the wall. He flinched at the long, low breath that came from above, then snarled at himself and put his hand up, over the ledge.
It was immediately grabbed. Then Paolo sank a bit so his arm was resting on the floor and his hand was a little lower. Which eased the strain for him, but not for Zlatan. But Zlatan wasn’t thinking about that anyway.
* * *
Wham. Zlatan winced, then rolled over, groaning. Holding the spell on the bars at bay had taken a lot more out of him than he’d figured on, and he was still tired. He squinted through the little space beneath the desk, staring at the feet that were angrily striding towards it. And him.
“Zlatan! Zlatan, you fucking shit, you—you let him go! Where’s Sandro? Where is that fucking angel, damn you! What did you do, you fucking—”
Rafael was, without a doubt, a moron. He got right within kicking range as he tried to lunge at Zlatan, and so Zlatan dropped him as easy as cutting a slice of bread. Then he grabbed Rafael’s neck, and while the other demon was trying to snap his fangs into Zlatan’s hand, he hauled them up and threw Rafael into the bars.
The sizzling that immediately started up was painfully loud, and accompanied by a lot of oily black smoke and a horrible stinging odor. Zlatan slitted his eyes against all that and tried not to breathe in much. He counted to ten, then let go of Rafael.
The other demon dropped to the ground and instantly curled up, trying to reach at his crisped back. He groaned and whimpered so even Zlatan had to grimace at it—Zlatan would’ve preferred a straight fight, but magic was sadistic that way. And well, at the end of the day, Zlatan was going to do whatever he had to. So he stepped over Rafael and reached for the spells on the bars. A quick tug to unravel them, and then he started prying at the bars.
He’d already gotten the first one loose when Paolo finally unfroze and crawled up. A couple things seemed to be fighting for control of Paolo’s face, but finally he settled on shock. “What?”
“Well, I put the spells back together, so I thought at least I could make them easier to undo for the next time. Which doesn’t mean that it hurts me any less, by the way.” Zlatan tossed the second bar to the ground, then stepped back and looked at Paolo. He shoved his hand through his hair. “I gave Sandro a knife and—well, it was his hand on that, even though I had to help a lot, believe me. So his wings are off, he’s not an angel, he’s not a dead person either, no human goes to Hell before they die and all these stupid rules are arbitrary, right? Anyway, Hell technically couldn’t hold him anymore.”
Paolo was still staring at Zlatan, somehow looking stunned even though he clearly understood everything Zlatan was saying. He scrambled out of the cage—accidentally stepped on Rafael, which made Zlatan laugh and Paolo reflexively mutter an apology—to fall towards Zlatan. His hands caught in Zlatan’s shirt, then dragged the rest of him up before Zlatan could get a hand on him. “But then—”
He stopped, his brows drawing down. Then he turned his head, but not quite to the point that he could see Zlatan’s hand on the stump of his left wing. The muscle in his jaw tightened, and then his nails sank through Zlatan’s shirt.
“I needed to wait for Rafael. I need a body in there, and I’m not climbing in there. I’m not a fucking saint,” Zlatan said.
Paolo took a long, shaky breath. His fingers spread out against Zlatan’s chest, nudging at the gouges they’d just made. He leaned closer, a tremble starting in his shoulders and rapidly spreading to the rest of him.
“This is going to hurt.” Zlatan lifted his fingers just enough to let his claws come out. “I don’t have time for a knife.”
So Zlatan put his claws against the joint where the wing fused with Paolo’s back, feeling around till he knew where he’d have to wedge in to crack the bones apart. He raised his arm, ready to do it—and then had to pause. “You know…I don’t know if he is human, or something else, but either way, you aren’t ever getting back to Heaven.”
“Or Hell, I think,” Paolo said. He raised his head and stared at Zlatan, his eyes a startlingly transparent green. His hand flexed against Zlatan’s breast. “My theology’s a little better than yours.”
“So? Who wants to come back here? Believe me, when I leave this time, it’s going to be for good,” Zlatan snorted.
And then, even though he could hear Paolo’s sharp intake of breath, he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Talk about it, think about it—he just snapped his claws in, hard and deep, and then he twisted them till the bones popped apart. And he ripped off what was left of Paolo’s wings, one after the other.
* * *
The barrier on the door didn’t work against Paolo, but it still held against Zlatan. He shoved the limp body through it, as far into the hall as he could, and then let the door swung shut before he could watch Henrik pick up Paolo. That scarifying pain was starting up in his gut again and he had to hurry.
He went back over to the desk, where Rafael was slowly trying to sit up against the wall. The bastard fought Zlatan a little over going into the cage, but he was still too burned to put up much of a fight. Which, frankly, was a relief since Zlatan had barely gotten the bars into place before his guts really started to scream. He staggered, then drove his elbow into the ledge and made himself stay up long enough to get the spellwork back into place.
And then it didn’t hurt, but Zlatan still didn’t feel like standing. So he slid down the wall to flop on the floor. He put his hand down without thinking, then jerked it up as he felt wetness: the bloody pieces of Paolo’s wings were still lying around. Zlatan kicked at one.
He closed his eyes for a couple seconds, then opened them and reached for the piece he’d kicked. Then he reached for the others, and made a stack of them beside him. He absently wiped off his hand on his trousers and stared at the ichor-splattered paperwork on his desk, which could just sit there for all he cared. He wasn’t doing any more of that.
* * *
Eventually they came. Maybe they’d lost track of Paolo, with all the determination he’d put into trying to forget everything around him, but they hadn’t lost track of Zlatan or Rafael. Hell was annoying that way.
They weren’t amused when they figured out what had happened. Which did amuse Zlatan, but only for that second before they yanked him over the desk and began remind him there were other tortures in Hell than the bureaucratic kind. And those hurt--hurt--and they went on and on, and Zlatan began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, he’d wasted his chance.
But then they left him with Rafael, who was healed in everything except his utter fury at what Zlatan had pulled on him, and that was just so…so Hell. All about revenge and meaningful punishments, and just so damn predictable about that. Really. Though okay, it did grate on Zlatan a lot to have his face smashed into Rafael’s shoe, even for a moment.
Then he opened his mouth and got Rafael really mad, and Rafael performed beautifully, just like Zlatan knew he would. He ripped out Zlatan’s heart without thinking about it first, and—
--nothing. Just the echoes of pain, still shuddering through Zlatan’s body, but even they faded when he rolled over. He blinked, then looked up at the bright, full moon. And then he started to laugh.
* * *
It was good enough soup that Zlatan was considering actually paying for it when the chair across from him was pulled away. He looked up, then accidentally bit on his spoon.
Sandro glowered at the bent thing Zlatan pulled out of his mouth. “I’m adding that to your bill. There are people here, damn it—can’t you leave your fangs at…at…”
“This nice little bed-and-breakfast down the street,” Zlatan filled in. He put the spoon down and leaned back, making himself comfortable against the richly-upholstered seat. “Good to see that you’ve still got that sparkling sense of humor.”
Normally Sandro would’ve launched himself at Zlatan right then, but instead he sat there, stiff as a ramrod, with his hands pressed against the edge of the table. He wasn’t really human—he pinged on Zlatan’s senses too much for that—and it was pretty clear he hadn’t lost everything with his wings. For one, he should have been getting some gray in his hair by now.
“How?” he finally asked. His finger flicked towards Zlatan.
“Rude.” Zlatan arched his brows as he smoothed out the spoon’s bowl with his fingers. Then he dipped up some more. “Well, it’s not like demons have anything like your wings. We’re tearing at each other all the time—pulling out a claw or something doesn’t mean that much to us. So I had to tear out something that did. Or fine, Rafael did it for me, but only after I’d had your blood and his tears. Otherwise I wouldn’t have fell just from that. Or risen? It’s all opposite for us.”
He shrugged, then ate more soup. And Sandro watched him do that, thin-lipped and silent, like he was just waiting for Zlatan to fuck up. But Zlatan just sipped at his soup, and so Sandro’s brows drew lower and lower as nothing happened. Finally he exhaled in exasperation and pushed himself back in his chair.
“It’s just ridiculous. It shouldn’t work that way,” he muttered.
“You’re just mad you didn’t think of it first,” Zlatan grinned.
Sandro looked sharply at him, then pointedly turned a shoulder to Zlatan as he got up. He paused there, his hand on the back of his chair. Then his head fell a little. “He’s in the back. He doesn’t know you’re here…he’s still recovering, so he can’t sense as well as me.”
After a long moment, Zlatan put down his spoon. Of course Paolo was around, but…Zlatan chewed his lip. Then he glanced at Sandro. “So you going to get him?”
“Do I need to?” Sandro snapped, low and harsh. He abruptly stalked off, his feet thudding dully on the thick, soft carpeting.
Nice place, Zlatan thought again. He fiddled with his spoon, looking at the wide windows and huge skylights, the rooms that flowed into each other, with only as much wall as necessary to hold up the roof. Then he sighed and put down the spoon, and got up to walk after Sandro.
It wasn’t the kitchen doors they went through, but a smaller one at the side that probably led to offices or something like that. Of course Sandro didn’t hold the door for Zlatan, and he was far enough ahead so that when Zlatan pushed through, he was nowhere in sight.
Paolo was. He was just stepping out of another room, half in light—there were skylights here, too—and he looked up at the sound of Zlatan’s footsteps. Then he stopped, his eyes widening. His hand slipped on the doorknob so it jittered away from him to close softly into its frame.
He didn’t move when Zlatan took a step forward, which frankly was a little eerie. Zlatan put his hand on the wall, his next step more sideways, and then sort of slouched the rest of the way till he was standing across from Paolo. He stopped there.
So Paolo finally moved, edging his foot forward. Then taking a decisive step, his hands rising through the square of light that separated them. They touched Zlatan’s chest, then slid upward, fitting against the sides of Zlatan’s throat and lapping over his jaw, and after a moment, Zlatan elbowed himself off the wall so they were standing nearly against each other. He half-lifted his hands, then dropped them to Paolo’s waist, and Paolo closed his eyes and tipped back his head so Zlatan could bend to his mouth.
Slow and steady, the gentle warmth of the sunlight streaming over them. Zlatan half-shut his eyes, lulled by the languidness of it but not wanting to miss the way Paolo looked when he was properly enjoying himself. He tipped his head, rubbing his cheek against Paolo’s, and then let his mouth slip back; Paolo lingered a little, his lips briefly touching Zlatan’s jawline before he moved away.
“You put on weight,” Zlatan said after a moment. He paused to swallow the thickness in his throat, then grinned against the side of Paolo’s face. “You’re a lot nicer to hold this way. Less bones.”
“Thank you.” Paolo mostly meant it. That dryness edged his voice, but his eyes, when he leaned back to look at Zlatan, were good-humored enough.
Their amusement deepened, turned darker and more molten. His fingers stroked over the back of Zlatan’s neck, light and quick, and then he turned up his face again. He was considerably more aggressive this time, pushing as hard as Zlatan pushed him, to the point that Zlatan staggered backwards into the wall for some support. Paolo winced, but then was pressing into Zlatan again and Zlatan delightedly took advantage of it.
Well, till he casually dropped his hand to cup Paolo’s buttock and Paolo abruptly twisted, rearing back with a startled look on his face. Zlatan lifted his hand, but then Paolo, brows slightly furrowed, settled back against him with a half-sheepish, half-hopeful look on his face. “Sorry. That’s still new.”
Zlatan needed a moment. “But—Sandro—you two damn well acted like you—”
“Well, yes, we cared about each other, but—” Paolo looked pained “—angels aren’t lustful beings. They aren’t intended for that, so they aren’t really…made for it. It was all theoretical till recently.”
“Oh.” That did make sense, actually. And made sense of a lot of loose ends, too. Even if…oh. A smile spread across Zlatan’s face that made Paolo start a little, though he didn’t protest when Zlatan held him still. “No kidding. So you don’t know anything?”
Paolo bridled. Just a bit, and he was still so slack against Zlatan that he looked more like a peeved cat than anything else. “Sandro and I have been up here for a while. We know about each other, more or less. It’s just—”
Zlatan bent and kissed him, sliding one hand up Paolo’s back as Paolo stiffened, then went boneless. He threaded his fingers into Paolo’s hair, lightly rubbing circles with their tips, and dropped his other hand between them. A moment later, Paolo made a ticklish protesting noise and bucked hard, his fingers digging into Zlatan’s shoulders. Then he gasped, and then he slowly sank against Zlatan, moaning.
When Zlatan pulled away, Paolo’s eyes were still closed. He watched them flutter, then snap open. His finger caught in a curl at Paolo’s nape and he twisted it, then drew out the strands with that finger and his thumb, wrapping them around his fingertip.
Paolo looked up. His eyes were surprisingly bright, not hazy at all, and there was a little wetness gleaming at the corners. “Come upstairs,” he said, smiling.