Henrik paused, clutching his side. His finger slipped on his gory clothes, then poked into—he grimaced and forced himself to slowly slide his hand back. Then he started to concentrate, to try and heal himself, but a distant noise caught his attention. He pressed himself harder to the side of the bookcase, listening more closely, and then he grimaced again.
The sound of his shirt tearing beneath his claws echoed quite a bit, even with the dampening effect of the huge shelves, each heavily laden with thick tomes, but at this point haste was more important than caution. He just wrapped up his side as best he could, trying to ensure he wouldn’t leave a trail. Then he bound up a handful of papers against his ribs, and then he jammed his claws into the side of the bookcase.
His whole body screamed in pain, but Henrik gritted his teeth and threw himself upwards. He’d only lost his right shoe so he had to force his toe-claws through the leather of his left shoe before he could kick those into the wood as well. A moment to get his weight settled, and then he was reaching, trying to claw his way up the bookcase.
He got about halfway to the top before he heard the first soft thuds, but that wasn’t anywhere near good enough. So Henrik scrambled faster—he cracked the tip of one canine biting back the pain—and so barely got to the top before the hellhounds slammed into the base of the bookcase. The force of it brutally shook the bookcase, making it tilt so far to the side that Henrik’s feet slipped off to leave him hanging by his arms. He sucked in a breath, then shoved down as hard as he could.
Henrik barely managed the leap to the next bookcase over before the first one toppled. As he flew over the intervening space, he just glimpsed the red eyes and the black, glossless coats of the hounds; he stuck out his tongue and one of them replied with a long, soul-draining howl.
Then Henrik was safely clutching a gigantic, chain-bedecked book, and down below the howls were suddenly becoming frantic whimpers. He took a moment to make sure the papers were still tightly fastened to him before looking.
That first bookcase had started a chain reaction, and now the toppling bookcases were rapidly running towards the hazy red horizon. The sound of them was like the thunder of Judgment Day.
It annoyed the books, and that was even before they were rudely knocked from their comfortable shelves, which Henrik lovingly kept dust-free and highly polished. Volumes great and small twisted themselves free of the wrecked bookcases, or lunged from still-upright ones, and came snapping fiercely at the hounds. And if anyone had ever doubted that the pen was mightier than the sword, then they only needed to look at the fast-growing mess of broken bones and sticky gobbets of flesh below.
Actually, looking at it made Henrik angry and sad all at once. All that knowledge getting ripped and slobbered over…he was going to have a terrible time recovering and sorting it out later. Terrible.
Well, that was later, he told himself. He looked up, towards the earthly plane, and an entirely different emotion began to sink into him as he contemplated the long trek ahead of him. “You’d better have gotten a nice place, Zlatan,” he sighed. “I’ll be needing a long shower at the very least.”
* * *
“Get that out of my face, Sandro. I was just using the staff shower. You know, trying to be nice and not track mud all over the floor,” Zlatan snapped, shoving aside the sword. He padded past the angel, roughly scrubbing at his still-wet hair, and turned at the stoves to head for the door to the apartment upstairs. Quickly, since it was a pretty cold night and ever since he’d gotten himself booted from Hell, he hadn’t been quite as blistering hot as he’d used to be.
Strictly and only in terms of body temperature, that was, and never mind the put-upon sigh that followed him. “Maybe I’d be a little less nervous if you didn’t break in when it’s the middle of the night.”
“Because I didn’t want to knock at the front door when I was covered in demon-blood. You know, attract attention?” Zlatan paused at the top of the stairs, then tentatively pushed at the door. When it swung inwards, he snorted and waved a disparaging hand towards it. “What’s this, anyway? You get all worked up about me getting in downstairs, and—ow!”
Sandro slid up beside Zlatan—the staircase was that narrow, unfortunately—with that sword now casually resting on one shoulder and a smirk on his face. He grabbed Zlatan’s hand, slapped it against the brand-new sigil carved into the doorframe, and then shouldered his way forward so he could go in first. His stupid sword nearly slivered Zlatan’s cheekbone.
“Oh, funny. And you wonder why I break in, when my fucking key doesn’t work,” Zlatan snarled. He tentatively touched the door. Nothing happened that time, so he smacked the door out of the way, stomped inside, and then kicked it shut. And sneered at Sandro’s double-wince at the loud noise. “Also, a sword? In case you haven’t noticed, we’re not rattling around in full armor anymore.”
“You never were that old in the first place, you thoughtless piece of shit,” Sandro grated out. He pressed one hand to his ear as he stalked into the next room. When he came back a moment later, he was without the sword but still had the pained expression. “Paolo was still asleep. Well, when I left him.”
Zlatan started to reply, but then paused so he could really take in the angel: loose gray sweats, a white cotton tee that was so thin the ridges of Sandro’s ribs showed, and bare feet. He grinned. “He got that bored, did he? Didn’t you read that book I left you two last time?”
Sandro’s face spasmed hilariously as his urge to rip off Zlatan’s face fought with his so-called manners. He sputtered a bit, then settled for a hissed whisper. “That thing was obscene.”
“I know,” Zlatan said, still grinning. He walked around Sandro while the wet blanket was still trying to figure out what to do, then got all the way to the bedroom before Sandro finally stopped the internal debating and came after him.
It was surprisingly bright in the room, courtesy of the skylights that let the moonbeams stream over everything. If Zlatan were inclined towards that kind of depressed musing, he’d read something into Paolo’s preference for so much light…but of course he wasn’t, and so after his eyes had adjusted, he came in and dropped down on the side of the bed with the lump on it.
Paolo was awake, actually, and from the looks of it, had been for quite a while. He was trying to sit up before Zlatan had even come in, but he had some part of him tangled in the blankets and so he had only managed to lift his head when Zlatan sat down. But that was enough to let him smile, his teeth even whiter than the full moon framed in the skylight right above him. “I thought you said you weren’t coming in till tomorrow.”
“Well, my ride was too damn slow, and a cheat into the bargain, so I killed him and got here faster.” Shrugging, Zlatan pulled off his belt, then undid his trousers and wriggled out of those. He threw both of them onto the nearest chair, which got him another unhappy grunt from Sandro, but Paolo just pushed himself back to make room. “And yes, I cleaned up and everything so if he actually has friends, they won’t come this way.”
“Except for the fact that you’re clomping about the place, like the biggest elephant of them all,” Sandro muttered. The bed trembled a bit as he climbed in on Paolo’s other side.
Paolo glanced at him, then braced himself on an elbow. “You had to kill someone? What happened?”
Zlatan blinked, then turned towards him, only to get a good look at Sandro slinging his arm around Paolo’s waist. One last baleful glance, and then Sandro was curling up to Paolo’s back, burying his face in Paolo’s shoulder. Paolo’s free hand drifted down to cover the fingers Sandro had pointedly splayed over his belly, but he was still looking curiously at Zlatan.
“Nothing really bad. Just I thought he was going to wait till the next time for the double-cross, and he didn’t. Typical demon asshole.” Though the bastard could’ve timed things better, since Zlatan hadn’t planned on getting into a knock-down drag-out fight on a fucking mountain in Tibet. He was still thawing from that on top of being wet and cold from the shower. “I already healed up, so I’m not going to get blood on anything.”
“You’re all right?” Paolo asked, reaching over. He put his hand on Zlatan’s side, then pulled it back as Zlatan twisted himself onto the bed. As he did, his knuckles happened to graze Zlatan’s cheek—Paolo hissed and snatched back his hand, then stared down at Zlatan. “You feel like ice.”
“Sorry,” Zlatan muttered. He moved his hands away from Paolo’s belly, then reached for the blankets to pull them over himself.
His fingers had just closed on those when something touched his other hand. He paused and Paolo’s palm slid completely over his hand, then curled as Paolo pulled it up to himself, warming it against his chest. He was wearing a cotton tee like Sandro’s, but it was barely anything between him and Zlatan.
After a moment, Zlatan flipped up the blankets over himself and scooted himself down. His nose brushed Paolo and startled the angel with its coldness, but then Paolo moved back, pushing as closely as…well, as Sandro would let him. Some of Paolo’s hair tickled Zlatan’s nose and he snorted them away, then lifted his chin to avoid them and Paolo promptly nested his head beneath it. Paolo’s warm breath was just as ticklish against Zlatan’s throat, but Zlatan put up with it. He threaded his fingers through Paolo’s, curling his nails away from the angel, and closed his eyes.
About a minute later, Paolo started and whuffed into Zlatan’s neck, and immediately afterward a couple fingers pointedly jabbed into Zlatan’s belly.
“Leave him alone, you insatiable pervert,” Sandro muttered. “We closed up early today.”
Paolo was a little more appreciative and hummed contentedly against Zlatan’s throat as he settled back. “In the morning,” he said.
“Gonna hold you to that.” Zlatan moved his finger off Paolo’s nipple and adjusted himself so his nose was over Paolo’s hair. The angel still smelled like…well, like an angel. Like wide peaceful fields of grass. Like something really fucking good, and it’d been a couple weeks since Zlatan had had that pleasure.
* * *
In the morning it was raining, hard and incessant so it sounded like nails being driven into the roof. Zlatan had never needed much sleep except when badly hurt, so he’d been awake for hours, but he hadn’t bothered getting out of bed. He very much valued the sin of sloth, and now that he didn’t have to spring forth at every damn senior demon’s whim, he was going to indulge in it whenever possible.
Funnily enough, Sandro at least seemed to agree with him there. The angel’s reaction to the alarm clock’s first beep was to grunt and clutch harder at Paolo, and on the second beep, he actually let go of Paolo to roll over and slap the clock off the table. Of course then he lunged to catch it before it hit the floor, and so there was no shattering of plastic and copper wire, but it was fun to watch his bleary, grumpy face drag itself out of bed and across the room to the bathroom.
Paolo somehow slept through all of that, though he did shiver as Sandro left the bed. His head and feet moved, but then the way the mattress adjusted to the lightening weight made him roll into Zlatan and that seemed to settle him. He dropped against Zlatan’s chest, his arms folded up between them, and relaxed again into a soft, warm, boneless heap.
Zlatan gave him a couple minutes and just stared at the rain pounding down on the skylight. Pretty amazing that it wasn’t breaking through the glass, he thought, and then he slipped his hand over and around Paolo’s thigh. No underwear, and from the way Sandro…moved…when he walked, none with him either. So why Sandro was all prudish was beyond Zlatan, honestly. And no, Zlatan didn’t believe in that crap about angels just not getting bodily modesty because they hadn’t gone through that crap with the fruit in Eden. If that was true, they wouldn’t bother with clothes at all.
“Mmm,” Paolo breathed, twisting slightly. His knees moved, bumping up against Zlatan’s thighs. He pushed his face further into Zlatan’s throat, his mouth opening a little. Then he arched as Zlatan rubbed two fingers over his balls, his lips sliding up and down Zlatan’s neck.
Not to mention they took to this pretty quickly, Zlatan smugly thought. He worked in his other hand under Paolo’s waist, then carefully rolled the angel so he was facing the other way. He didn’t let his fingers drop from Paolo’s cock, but instead kept lightly teasing it till Paolo’s hips were beginning to push into the touches, his heels digging restlessly into Zlatan’s shins. The nape of his neck bent up invitingly towards Zlatan’s mouth, and since Zlatan was never one to turn down that sort of invitation, he obligingly took a nibble. Ran his tongue around each bump of Paolo’s spine till he reached the collar of Paolo’s shirt, then went back up.
Paolo arched again, harder, and his hands dropped to cover Zlatan’s, to press them more tightly around his prick and his balls. His breathing grew more ragged and short, soft moans began to weave into it. He was awake now, awake and begging for more with every buck of his hips, every jagged inhale.
Zlatan pulled one hand free—and that was more about getting it away from Paolo than his own willpower—and sucked at two of its fingers, making sure he didn’t use the humanlike spit but worked up the thicker stuff from deep in his throat. Then he scooted himself back to get the space, dropped his arm between them, and when Paolo stiffened, lightly bit at the side of Paolo’s neck, just where the smooth skin sloped into the curling hair. Not hard enough to break the skin, but enough to make a prickle be felt.
A long, low groan came from Paolo. There was surprise in it at first, but as it went on, it smoothed out into pure pleasure and finally into a series of short, uneven pants. Likewise, his body had initially snapped tight around Zlatan’s fingers, almost to the point of pain, but then it loosened by degrees; Zlatan began licking at the bitten spot and Paolo went slacker, his hand stilling on Zlatan’s wrist. His head lolled, first forward when Zlatan pushed at his neck and then back when Zlatan moved away. His feet rustled lazily in the sheets, moving vaguely in time with the stroking of Zlatan’s fingers in him and on him.
They stopped when Zlatan pulled out his fingers, then kicked a bit as Zlatan slid his cock into Paolo. Then they dug in as best as they could, trying to brace Paolo against the rocking motion, but Paolo’s body wasn’t even tense enough to sustain that and eventually his feet slipped, and he never did recover his footing. He just let Zlatan roll him forwards, a little faster and then a little faster yet, until the end of it came about as naturally as water rolled down a hill.
Paolo sank down afterward, his hands loosely clasped over Zlatan’s wrist so that was pinned to the top of his thigh. He breathed in shallowly, then took a long deep breath before letting it out as a satisfied sigh. “Mm. Good morning.”
“Yeah,” Zlatan said, pushing himself up on an arm.
So Paolo didn’t see Sandro but he did. Leaning in the doorway of the bathroom, hand white-knuckled around the incongruous toothbrush, his shoulders tautly drawn back and his eyes fixed on the bed, resentful and longing. Then he looked up at Zlatan, and the longing faded a lot.
“Sandro?” Paolo murmured. His voice was still thick and rough with sleep and with satiation, and could’ve lulled anyone from paradise, never mind promises about knowledge.
A start, and then Sandro looked back down, his whole stance softening. He pushed off the doorway, then walked across the room so he was leaning over just as Paolo groggily lifted his head. He surprised Zlatan by not shooting a warning look then, but instead dropping immediately to give Paolo a kiss.
And it was long and tender and…and well, sometimes Zlatan could look past the fact that Sandro had regularly tried to kill him and admit the angel was very easy on the eyes. And at least did truly give a damn about Paolo, even if he’d fucked that up a lot.
Sandro didn’t quite hide a grimace as he moved back, and by then Paolo was aware enough to catch it. He moved a shoulder in apology, ruffling at his hair with one hand. “Sorry. I keep forgetting about the morning breath.”
Zlatan laughed, then gave the nearest of Paolo’s buttocks a good squeeze as he finally got up. “Oh, he’s probably just tasting himself. And speaking of that, I’m starving. Do I get to raid the kitchen before you open up?”
“You’d better. I really like our current sous-chef and I don’t want her scared off just because you can’t remember to keep your fireballs to yourself,” Sandro muttered. He stared at Zlatan, then wrinkled his nose and held out his toothbrush. “But first, go do something about yourself. We just got in some very delicate fruit.”
“And some wonderful sausages.” Paolo had bucked a bit at the grope, but he didn’t look offended when he rolled over. Rather to the contrary, actually. “So where were you? You were freezing when you came in.”
“Tibet,” Zlatan said. And made the mistake of taking the toothbrush at the same time so Sandro probably thought he was making the face at Tibet and not Sandro’s picky little ways, but it wasn’t too big a deal. The way Sandro was, Zlatan would get plenty more chances to remind the angel that he wasn’t the master of all things fine and fancy. “Fuck, it’s cold there. And the yetis definitely aren’t any help…”
* * *
The one good thing about Tibet was that it’d set Zlatan up for the rest of the year, so barring a minor hellhole developing somewhere near him, he wouldn’t have to bother with anything till the winter solstice. He wouldn’t go back to being a regular demon for anything, but he was annoyed at how much harder it was to keep up a decent lifestyle without Hell’s backing. It was like they fucking wanted people to—never mind. That was why he didn’t talk about theology if he could help it.
He really needed to get back to his apartment around the block at some point, if only so he wasn’t stuck trying to squeeze into Sandro’s clothes again, but after breakfast he instead lingered to watch the restaurant staff come in and Sandro do his…directing. Zlatan still wasn’t too clear on what exactly Sandro did, since sometimes he’d be expediting in the kitchen like a head chef, and sometimes he just showed up with truckloads of foodstuffs, but whatever it was when Zlatan was around, it was fun to watch.
“Gila.” Sandro whipped a huge knife around and through an entire side of a pig, then stepped back to let it fall into its parts. “Gila.”
“Sorry, sorry, I’m here.” A young man with gauzy light brown hair and eyes like a fawn on the verge of being run over hurried in. He tripped over nothing, bumped into one of the line-cooks who ripped him a new asshole for it, then finally skidded to a stop beside Sandro. “Four turns a table tonight except for the two VIP rooms, where we’ve got the—”
After an assistant had removed the chops, ribs, and all that, two more moved in to plop the next pig’s side down in front of Sandro. He took care of that one just as efficiently before turning towards Gila, who was frozen due to the little bit of raw pig Sandro’s knife had sent to plop at his feet. “Did anybody call ahead with diet restrictions?”
Gila blinked, then jerked back into action. “Oh! Yes, there are five ovo-lacto-vegetarians and—”
Sandro cleared his throat. Then he waited, and Gila waited, and finally a pained expression came onto Sandro’s face. “When and where are they?” he asked quite gently.
Probably Paolo had hired the kid, who stammered his way through the answer, looking miserable about his obvious shortcomings. He was new since the last time Zlatan had been around, and he clearly wasn’t that respected by the rest of the kitchen, if their mutterings were any indication. Of course, they had pretty good reason: Sandro stopped briefly to deal with a late supplier as incisively as he’d been dealing with the pigs, and throughout that whole nice look into Sandro’s hardass side, Gila’s face was the only pale one in the room.
That was the last vendor for the morning and so Sandro was just going to do prep work till opening time, so Zlatan took his coffee and went out onto the street-side veranda. It was still chilly, and a brisk wind was blowing from the north into the bargain, but the rain had stopped and the sun was out so it was tolerable.
The coffee lapped over the rim of his cup, then splashed onto the saucer Zlatan was now glad he’d bothered to get. It steamed there, turning black and sticky and foul; Zlatan muttered under his breath to keep the coffee still in the cup from going the same way. And then he turned around. “Freddie. How are you. I’m great, thanks. Oh, you’re busy? Well, I won’t keep you—”
“Hah hah, Zlatan,” Fredrik said, tone flat. He casually swung his legs over the ironwork fence that enclosed the veranda, then perched on top of it. “I couldn’t care less how you are. No, that’s not quite right—I’d be delighted if you were doing horribly.”
“Well, I’m very happy to disappoint you,” Zlatan said, smiling widely. Though he moved so he wouldn’t be hindered by any chair or table if he had to do anything. Even when they’d both been dancing to Hell’s tune, he’d never worried about Fredrik, but things were slightly different now. He only had his own power instead of all of Hell’s—which he could only invoke on special occasions anyway—but he didn’t have nearly as many restrictions on what he could do. “You want to leave now?”
Fredrik rolled his eyes. “Do I look like I’m leaving? I know you’re an idiot, but can you at least figure out that I wouldn’t come see you if I could help it?”
“Yeah, but it seems more likely that you’re here because you fucked up somewhere and you think I’m the problem when really, it’s you. You do realize we don’t work for the same jackasses now, right?” Zlatan followed that up with a close-lipped, smarmy smile.
The sky overhead suddenly clouded over and the distinct stench of sulfur filled the air. “Listen up, you cocky bastard,” Fredrik snarled. His eyes had gone as yellow as the air smelled, and his normally high-pitched voice was gravelly. The muscles in his neck were shifting in inhuman ways as he struggled to contain his temper in a human body. “You might be a free agent now, but you’re still one. And we are legion.”
“This really isn’t convincing me to listen to you.” After a quick glance downwards, Zlatan drank some of his coffee. It was still okay, except it’d gone cold. He really, really hated the whole constant-torment gig sometimes. “Look, what is it? I’m busy.”
“With what? Petting your pretty angels on the head?” Fredrik rocked a little on the fence, head cocked. Then he smiled, and nothing about it was very pleasant. Even by his usual standards, which were rather low in Zlatan’s opinion. “Or is it you’re out here waiting on them? Oh—that’s it. That’s just like you—you go and you make a fuss, but at the end of the day it’s nothing, really. It’s just you wanting attention, and not a real rebellion. You got out of Hell and jumped straight into a leash.”
Something popped. Then it happened again, and then Zlatan hissed as a burning wetness spilled over his hand. He dropped his cup, then looked down to see the coffee boiling over the broken white shards and the artisan tiles.
“By the way, I was just dropping by to let you know Henrik’s looking for you. I really don’t know why he bothers, but he’s somebody whose good side I care about staying on,” Fredrik said, smirking.
Zlatan snapped his fingers and the coffee flung itself off the ground at Fredrik’s face. So Fredrik dodged—right into Zlatan’s lunge for the smug little shit. That smirk disappeared and in its place was a beautiful look of shock…that vanished. And Zlatan ran into the damn fence and nearly fell over it before he grabbed hold of the rail and pulled himself back. He hit his stomach pretty hard during that, so when he did step away, he was a little breathless. He blamed that for why he didn’t hear Sandro coming up.
“What the--who was here?” Sandro nearly threw Zlatan out of the way as he went to the rail and ran his palms over it, sniffed at the air. Then he whirled to deliver a look that would’ve been fitting on Medusa. His hair certainly fit the part, all snarled curls in the misty air. “Who did you bring here, you irresponsible shit?”
“I didn’t—” Zlatan coughed, rubbing his stomach. Then he tossed his head and walked off while Sandro was still examining the rail. “Oh, forget it. Not like you ever listen.”
“Don’t you walk away, you—we open in half an hour and now I’ve got to resecure the whole perimeter! And you broke a cup, you damn piece of shit!”
Zlatan irritably flicked a rude gesture over his shoulder, then slid to the side as a shard of the cup came flying at his back. He watched it crash into the wall as he kept on walking. Though he did snap his fingers again just before he went inside, which cleaned up everything, but that wasn’t for Sandro’s benefit. That was for him, so he didn’t have to put up with any traces of Fredrik hanging about the place.
* * *
By the time Zlatan got to Paolo’s office, he was still in a bad mood and so he just kicked the door open. Not that he usually knocked anyway, but once he got inside and saw Paolo’s startled face, he did feel a twinge. Which then worsened his mood, because—because Fredrik was wrong and an idiot and a prick and just wrong. When Zlatan had gotten out of Hell, he’d left all that taking-orders and deference nonsense behind him, and the only tunes he danced to now were whatever hit he currently had programmed on his shower radio. That fuck didn’t know what he was talking about.
Paolo had been sitting on his couch, apparently reviewing purchase orders or something else that required a calculator, lots of printed forms, and a big red pen, but he’d jerked in a half-risen position at Zlatan’s entrance. Now he slowly sat down, his eyes still a little wide. He absently toed away some of the fluttering sheets that had fallen from the table before him. “Zlatan?”
“Some de—oh, look, I know him, okay? I wish I didn’t, but that’s demon life for you. And I damn well wouldn’t ask Fredrik to come around, and actually, I don’t even know how he found me. He’s supposed to be dicking around in the fifth circle,” Zlatan snapped. He kicked at the floor some more. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Paolo reaching out a hand and yeah, he kicked a last time just because of that. He could leave scuff marks if he wanted to—there wouldn’t even be a carpet to scuff if it hadn’t been for him.
Okay, maybe he was losing it. Just a little. His leg swung out farther than he’d expected and he temporarily…wobbled. That was all. The fact that he sat down right afterward on the couch was all his choice, damn it.
After a moment, Paolo detoured his hand to the floor, where it retrieved the fallen papers. He gave those an absent frown before looking up again. “That was a demon? I thought Sandro just was chasing off another mage.”
“No, it was a—” Then Zlatan thought about that. He blinked and frowned at Paolo. “Just how crippled are you? Shouldn’t you have healed by now? You were stronger than Sandro to begin with, weren’t you?”
The full-face twitch that overtook Paolo couldn’t quite be called a wince. Not with the way his eyes darkened and the deliberate manner with which he smoothed out the papers on his knee. His mouth moved a little as he gazed at them, as if silently repeating some of the words. “I was, but I don’t think strength really has much bearing in Hell. I was down there so long…I don’t know what to expect, and nothing Sandro’s found so far has given me much of a clue.”
“Where was he looking? The Vatican? They’re just really good at hiding things, you know—it doesn’t guarantee that what they’re hiding is worth anything.” Zlatan threw himself back against the couch, then shoved out his feet. One of them made it under the coffee-table all right, but the other knocked a bit against a leg, sending the papers fluttering again. He grinned humorlessly at them out of reflex.
Paolo glanced up and looked at the disarrayed papers. He pursed his lips, but only slid back so he could rest his elbow on the arm of the couch and his head on its back. “I don’t really know.” His lips quirked at Zlatan’s surprised snort. “I think, and I’ve told him this, that it’s better to just wait and see what naturally develops instead of trying to force it. Being alive in Hell was unnatural, and I more than had my fill of that.”
His voice firmed considerably towards the end, though he kept that deceptive musing expression. The dim light coming in through the skylight mixed with the brighter rays from the lamp beside him to cast strange shadows over Paolo, but nevertheless it was still easy to see that he looked older. Not old, and certainly not decrepit, but any idiot like that Gila would’ve assumed him for well into his thirties. Whereas when he wasn’t scowling, Sandro would easily pass for a university student.
Still better than how he’d looked behind those bars, pale and gaunt with mostly his willpower holding up the proud cheekbones, but not as well as he should’ve been, Zlatan thought. And fuck, but that did leave Sandro in charge of all the security. That was just fucking wonderful, especially when there were pricks like Fredrik running around.
“Hmm?” Paolo abruptly looked over, his eyebrow arched in query.
“You’ve got an Italian accent now,” Zlatan blurted. He blinked, not really sure himself where that had come from, but then ran from it. Because damn it, he was not on a leash and he damn well wasn’t Sandro, all frantic paranoia. “Even when you’re speaking…you know, whatever we speak. You even sound like you’re from Milan.”
Frowning, Paolo drew himself up as if about to object. Then he stopped, his head slightly tipped to the side. “You know, I do. And I think Sandro’s gotten one, too.”
“Not as much as you, but yeah,” Zlatan said after a moment’s thought. He shifted his weight about, finding the couch a little too firm for his tastes. Then he lifted his right arm up and back to lay it along the top of the couch, and pushed his feet out till his legs could properly sprawl. His left hip bumped into Paolo, who adjusted for it by moving completely into the corner so his elbow accidentally knocked the lamp into bumping against the wall. “And he sounds like he’s from Rome.”
“He does go there often for research, though I don’t know if it’s only the Vatican he looks at.” Paolo rubbed at his elbow as he began reading over the purchase orders again. Occasionally he’d make a note next to a price listing with the red pen. “So there was another demon? Was he only passing by, or was he here for a reason?”
This time Zlatan wasn’t pissed off just thinking about Fredrik, but he was still annoyed. He grimaced and pushed off the couch with his arm; his hip slid into Paolo’s again as he dropped his elbows on his splayed knees. “Why are you so much calmer than Sandro about this? You’re be worse off in a fight. Well, if you’re just looking at power. He’s kind of—”
“I’m not in a fight now, so I just think I should take the opportunity to be clear-minded about it and find out exactly what’s going on this time,” Paolo replied. There was a little bit of an edge to his voice, particularly with his last few words, but it wasn’t clear towards what it was directed. His brows also drew towards each other, but that lasted even when Zlatan pulled back, so it wasn’t from the hip-nudging. “Also you’re upset, and I don’t know getting upset myself is going to help with that.”
“I’m not upset. I’m just—irritated. Demons are assholes, I’m used to it, it’s nothing new.” Zlatan sat back and looked over Paolo. Older or not, the angel still was ridiculously composed in a way that made feeling young--younger a little…humiliating, actually. “The prick had a message for me.”
He waited nearly a minute, but Paolo didn’t ask for details. Instead Paolo just kept reading and marking his papers; he did glance over after about thirty seconds, but all that happened was that his brows rose a little. Then he went back to reading, as if the fact that some demon had shown up here specifically looking for Zlatan didn’t affect him at all. Or maybe he did acknowledge that, but he just thought Zlatan was going to take care of it for him. Like Zlatan had figured out all that complicated shit that had gotten them here in the first place.
Or Zlatan was just annoyed, and actually Paolo remaining calm wasn’t helping with the annoyance, but he didn’t feel like saying so because that would be admitting to things he didn’t want to admit to. Like that Fredrik maybe had had a point.
He kicked at the carpet again. Paolo didn’t do anything. So Zlatan pulled his feet out from under the table, which was so low that he had to bend in a way that hurt his back to get his knees beneath it. Instead he tried to stretch out his legs sideways, but that meant he had to slew himself towards Paolo so their hips bumped again. A little noise slipped from Paolo, but when Zlatan looked, Paolo was still reading. Head slightly bent towards the paper, hand balanced on his knee.
A little speck of lint dotted his dark trousers next to where his hand was. Zlatan reached out and flicked it off, which got Paolo briefly looking up. Briefly. And then again, when Zlatan didn’t pull away his hand, but instead moved around so he was leaning more of his weight on Paolo’s shoulder.
“What, don’t you want to know what the message was about?” Zlatan asked. It was kind of before he could help it. He made up for it by lightly drawing his fingers up the inside of Paolo’s thigh.
Paolo blinked a few times. His knee lifted as if he were moving from the touch, but really he just made Zlatan’s fingers slide further back. “Do you think I should know about it?”
“Do you have to answer me with a question?” Zlatan dropped his head so the tip of his nose just grazed down Paolo’s ear, then shifted back. He lifted his arm over Paolo’s head, then dropped it around the angel so his hand landed on Paolo’s other leg. Then he scooted over so he could get his right hand on the thigh he’d been teasing a moment ago.
“No, I suppose I don’t, but…” The last word trailed off in a questioning way as Paolo abruptly straightened up off the couch-back.
At the same time, Zlatan flattened his hands over the angel’s thighs and pressed his mouth against the back of Paolo’s neck. He left it there for a second, then pushed his head further behind Paolo as Paolo took a slow, deep breath. And fortuitously lifted his left knee so Zlatan could start wedging his leg beneath the other man’s. He let his fingers drift back and forth across Paolo’s inner thighs, rumpling the coarse cloth covering them. “Do you think demons show up just to chat?”
“You said he brought a message. And I’ve dealt with demons before you,” Paolo said, tone sharpening. He finally dropped his pen and reached for Zlatan’s wrist.
Zlatan promptly jammed his whole right leg beneath Paolo, then used it to lever Paolo up and onto his lap while the angel was still clutching at his wrist in shock. In the process Paolo’s neck rose towards Zlatan’s mouth, and well, he was always going to take that as an invitation.
He bent down and licked at it, catching a lock of hair, and when he lifted his head, that curl was thoroughly wetted, stuck against Paolo’s skin. Paolo’s fingers tightened about Zlatan’s wrist, but he wasn’t exactly leaping for the door as Zlatan nuzzled along the side of his face. In fact, his knees dropped open a little as Zlatan continued tracing patterns across his thighs. He abruptly sucked in a breath, then exhaled like he was starting to say something, but Zlatan ducked down and flicked his tongue across the underside of Paolo’s jaw first.
So instead of words, there came a long, raspy breath, and when Zlatan lifted his head, he saw that Paolo’s eyes had fallen half-shut. Right then Paolo turned towards him, but Zlatan ducked again and sucked hard at the side of Paolo’s throat, right over the pulse. Something batted lightly at his right hand—then the sheet fell away as Paolo grabbed Zlatan’s other wrist. And just as quick, Zlatan twisted his hands around so instead he had Paolo’s wrists.
He held onto them. He let his tongue flick out at Paolo’s chin, long and serpentine, before dragging the now-forked end back along the line of Paolo’s jaw. Breathing hard, Paolo first turned into it and then away, his eyes going completely shut as he tried to regain control of himself. He pulled at his hands.
And Zlatan tightened his grip. After a moment’s pause, Paolo pulled again, a good deal harder, and Zlatan shifted his hands so he was only encircling Paolo’s wrists with three fingers and his thumb. Which was more than enough to hold Paolo in place, and Zlatan could feel the angel stiffen as he realized that. And Zlatan could see it too, see how the tension pulled down Paolo’s shoulders and up his knees.
He traced its path with his freed forefingers, drawing them in wavy patterns along the muscles going taut in Paolo’s thighs. All the way back, and then he pushed both his and Paolo’s hands down, grinding their wrists hard against Paolo’s prick. Paolo inhaled sharply, his fingers snapping up to twist as best they could around Zlatan’s hands. His shoulders hunched more, but his head dropped as well so his neck curved up towards Zlatan again.
After a moment, Zlatan made himself ignore that and instead bent towards Paolo’s shoulderblade. His mouth just grazed the line of it where it stood out against Paolo’s shirt and Paolo jerked. Then again, breathing raggedly, because Zlatan had dug the heel of one hand up and down the line of Paolo’s prick. A slight moan escaped from Paolo’s lips. Then a shudder went through him, pulling his shirt more tightly against him so Zlatan could see clearly the thick, jagged line of the scar ripping over the shoulderblade.
He licked it. Then he licked it again, grimacing as Paolo’s fingers tightened nearly to bone-crushing around his hands. His fangs briefly extended, then snapped back in as he pulled away. He didn’t miss the relieved slackening of Paolo’s back at that.
Paolo went over easily when Zlatan pushed him, so easily he almost bruised his face on the far couch-arm because he was slow in bringing up his arms. He lay still for a moment, then began to push up on his hands and knees. But then Zlatan put his hands on Paolo’s hips and pushed down, and so Paolo merely moved so his head was resting on the cushions instead of the couch-arm.
Only for a moment. Then he tried to look back, but Zlatan had had enough with niceties and just extended a claw, which he touched to Paolo’s left buttock for a second. Just long enough for the tip to be felt—and then in two slashes he’d cut the side-seams down to the knees, and then he was looking at bare skin. Smooth and soft and unmarred. A little like Paolo’s composure, actually.
“Zlatan,” Paolo said thickly. He was still up on one arm, but his head was down so his forehead was pressed to the cushion. As Zlatan looked at him, he did twist a bit so his hip fell against the back of the couch, but he couldn’t have been able to see much past his own leg.
But just to make sure, Zlatan wrapped his hands around Paolo’s thighs and pulled them down. And Paolo went with a little hitched breath and a shiver that made things in Zlatan stir hungrily, whispering of all the possibilities. “You know demons?”
He leaned forward as he spoke, letting his words tickle over the curve of Paolo’s ass. Then he turned his head so he could rest his cheek on Paolo’s right buttock; his fangs were coming in and out, sometimes to full-length and sometimes only part of the way before they snapped back.
“I know—” Paolo gasped for a breath “—I know about fighting them. That’s all. I don’t—I don’t know th—I don’t know you. Not really. I’m waiting for you to tell me.”
That time, the fangs had been fully out, and when they went back in, they went back in so fast that Zlatan could feel his gums burning. He shut his mouth and rubbed his tongue hard along the tops of his teeth, then twisted up so he could look down at Paolo again. Shaking and prone, his shirt flapped up so actually Zlatan could see the way the rounded bumps of his spine diminished into the silky hollow at the small of his back, the shifting whipcord muscles in his legs, the white-gold fullness of his buttocks.
At the last Zlatan’s teeth ached again, but not in the same—he shook his head, then abruptly dropped. But at the last moment he drew up short, his open mouth barely a hair away from trembling skin. He started to grimace again, then pushed that away and…and he did bite Paolo. But with human, blunt teeth, without trying to rend the skin. Just trying for—and getting—a sharp buck of the hips. And then afterwards he licked at the reddish indentations till they faded, and after that he moved on, putting his teeth to the spot just to the left of the first.
He worked his way across to Paolo’s other hip, then dropped down. Through the vee of Paolo’s spread thighs Zlatan could briefly glimpse Paolo’s face—panting mouth, squeezed-shut eyes and then the eyes opened, stared back full of hazy heat—framed with sweat-slicked strands of hair. He kept looking as he flicked out his tongue, first human and then longer and thinner, and at the second time Paolo’s whole body hitched, nearly making his right knee slide off the couch.
Zlatan pulled that back as he flexed his tongue upwards, just so the forked tip flickered against the head of Paolo’s cock, teasing its swollen darkness. Then he ran it up the length of the prick before withdrawing, letting his tongue slap briefly against the inside of Paolo’s left thigh. Paolo hissed, rocking back towards Zlatan, and after a moment’s consideration, Zlatan rose to do the same thing to the pinkish band that now striped Paolo’s ass. This time Paolo sank down, shuddering, and moaned deep-throated into the cushion.
So Zlatan did it again, and liked the results just as much. And he would’ve done it a third time if he hadn’t felt an interruption coming, but anyway, he saved the knowledge for later. And instead dragged his tongue between the buttocks, briefly teasing the few coarse curls there—neither Paolo nor Sandro, from what Zlatan could tell, had gone human in that respect—before twining up to slide the tip inside Paolo.
Paolo jerked up and down, then dropped slack as a ragdoll against the couch, the most incredible noise issuing from him. It was rough and deep and raw, all desperate lust. His nails scrabbled audibly at the cushions as Zlatan worked in more of his tongue, then abruptly went silent. The muscles in Zlatan’s hands flexed weakly, then turned so pliant he had to hold Paolo up to get in the last inch.
He gave Paolo about five seconds. Then he started exploring, feeling about, getting to know the bumps and the bends and also the groans and the shivers that touching them provoked. He came to a few noteworthy spots, but then he found one that utterly ruined Paolo, stripped out the last of Paolo’s resistance and made him come apart in Zlatan’s hands. Crying out, his hands ripping at the couch, the rest of him just falling.
He could do that, Zlatan thought. And then he disentangled himself from Paolo and sat up, and looked down at the limp body lying before him, and had the same thought but with different feelings attached. Zlatan pressed his lips together till those hurt, then viciously rubbed the back of his hand over them. Then he pushed himself back into the corner of the couch, throwing his arms over the top, and stared at the far wall.
Eventually Paolo started getting up, but Zlatan didn’t watch till suddenly he had a flush-faced angel staring at him, pupils still dilated and sweat giving the tanned skin an extra gleam.
After a moment, Paolo put his hand down on Zlatan’s chest. He glanced at it, then looked up as he leaned up, pulling himself across Zlatan’s right leg. He started to say something, but a wince caught him off-guard and the red in his cheeks intensified, which Zlatan couldn’t help but smile at. Paolo snorted, then smiled slightly as he put back his other hand; his knuckles bumped at Zlatan’s leg as he rubbed at his ass.
“Are you really that worried?” he asked. Casually, quietly.
Zlatan looked at him, then rolled his eyes as he grabbed Paolo by the waist. He just meant to take some of Paolo’s weight, but Paolo tilted forward and kissed him, and before Zlatan really thought about it, he was responding. No teeth, just lips and a little tongue, and a lot of savoring.
“I don’t know demons, really. That’s something I’ve found since I came back,” Paolo said when they’d pulled apart. His brows rose as he settled his hands on Zlatan’s shoulders. “There are so many new ones, and even the ones I knew before…they’re not the same. Different goals, alliances…and I’m not inclined to meddle in what I don’t understand. I did that once and—” he sobered “—I would do that time again, but I’d rather not have a repeat of the general experience.”
“And you think I know demons better? You think I don’t know much, even if you’re nicer than Sandro about it,” Zlatan snorted.
Paolo slid his fingers into the hair at the back of Zlatan’s neck. He gazed at Zlatan, thoughtful and focused now. His thumb ran back and forth across Zlatan’s spine. “You knew enough to get me out of Hell.”
“It’s not all about Hell,” Zlatan snapped. He breathed in, about to say more, and then discovered he didn’t have more. Words, anyway—he had thoughts but they weren’t coherent enough, and even if he wasn’t entirely okay with Paolo’s compliment, he wasn’t going to destroy it out of hand. “Never mind. Look, Fredrik—my visitor—he’s my problem. So you’re right, and you should stay out of my business.”
“All right.” Simple as that, no eyebrow-arching or questioning tone. Paolo just looked at him and said it.
Then Paolo flinched and looked towards the door because someone had just knocked at it. The interruption, and for once Zlatan was grateful for Sandro because Paolo was still, somehow, getting on his nerves, and he had no idea why and that was pissing him off.
“Sorry, but—” Paolo started.
Before he could finish, Zlatan had pushed him off and gotten up himself. “No, I’ll get it. Besides, you don’t have any trousers on. I think that’d scandalize the customers as much as my teeth would.”
He opened the door and Sandro glowered back. “I have a file that’d fix that part of you,” Sandro said. “Unfortunately, I can’t do anything for the personality part.”
“Guess not. Otherwise you would’ve figured out how to be less of a nuisance by now, right?” Zlatan retorted, brushing by him. “Waiting long?”
Sandro’s face tightened, but oddly enough, he didn’t snap back. Well, till Zlatan was almost two yards away, and then there came a curt, low, “Yes.”
Zlatan slowed, then paused and looked over his shoulder. He found Sandro still by the door, tense as an overtuned harpstring, staring strangely back. The usual violent dislike was there, but it was tempered by something else, something somber and almost wistful—
Sandro abruptly turned and went into the room. After a moment, Zlatan shrugged it away and resumed walking. He had business to take care of, after all.
* * *
Getting in contact with a demon was actually a lot harder than the movies and books made it sound. All that fiddling about with pentagrams and grimoires was in reality more like a way of making a phone call, and unless you were really, really high up and could pull rank, it was like making a call to a helpline: whoever was available took it. And of course they lied about who they were—they were demons.
“I know you’re not him, you asshole! I’m related to him! We spawned from the same place!” Zlatan snarled.
The big, nauseatingly yellow pool in the middle of Zlatan’s living room let a few uncertain ripples cross its surface. Who are you again?
Zlatan opened his mouth, then slowly dropped onto his forearms to press his forehead against the floor. He pushed the heel of his right hand against his cheek, then against his temple. “Zlatan,” he groaned.
The ripples suddenly flattened away, and the pool turned an even more disgusting bile-green. Zlatan? Oh. Um, our unrepentant apologies, but we currently cannot put your connection through to the requested party and will have to disconnect you. Please don’t call back—
Before the call-taker could, Zlatan did. And sincerely hoped that the rough termination of the spell gave whatever asshole was on the other end of the line serious whiplash.
He also scorched the wood floor a little bit, but it was all natural-grain anyway so he just had to wait for the burnt aroma to disappear, then slap down some varnish and it should all be okay. Which was a great thing to be thinking about when Henrik wasn’t in Hell.
Shaking his head, Zlatan got up off the floor and began tidying up the place so it wouldn’t also end up stinking of chicken blood. And all right, because he temporarily wasn’t sure what to do, but he needed to do something. The one thing Fredrik had gotten right was that he’d only show up if it was important, and Henrik would only send Fredrik in the first place if he couldn’t get hold of Zlatan any of the normal ways—which actually meant trying a summoning was a pretty stupid idea, since that was one of those—so probably the world was fucked.
Zlatan paused, then grimaced and went into the kitchen to dump the leftover blood down the drain. He washed up the bowl before going back up to run over the floor with a damp rag, then burned that in a wastebasket. And then he got his coat and headed out.
A couple minutes later, he was back in his apartment, but only to get his umbrella because damn it, it was raining again. Miserable weather, as if there wasn’t enough…he stopped in the middle of the stairwell, thinking about that. Then he hurried the rest of the way down and hailed a cab.
Yeah, he could’ve just done something else to get there faster, but that might’ve scared someone and he did occasionally choose to be nice in order to get what he wanted. Just to vary things up, because given enough time, even threats and mind-games got boring. Besides, he liked Figo.
As it turned out, Zlatan could’ve spared himself the effort. He hadn’t gotten all the way out of the cab when he noticed the ripped wards on the upstairs streetfront windows, and by the time he got to the front door with its busted lock, his nostrils were flaring with the reek of brimstone and acid. He paused on the threshold, concentrating. Then he knocked open the door with the back of his hand, and stepped inside.
His foot initially landed on the spine of a book, which did its damnedest to slip out from under him. So he toed it aside, but beneath it was another book, and finally he had to just grab the top of the doorway for support while he dug with his toes down to the floor. Then he put his foot flat against that, and gingerly swung his other leg forward, only to run into the same problem.
So he’d only made it about a third of the way across the front room when the air around him suddenly tingled. Not in a nice way—it was the kind of tingle that meant probably somebody had some ridiculously big weapon or whatever pointed at his back. “You know, you could kill a guy with a paperclip, and that way you’d have more room in your pockets.”
“But I don’t want to kill them, usually. I just want them to realize I’m scarier than they are,” came a sigh from the far corner. Shortly thereafter, Figo emerged from the mess of toppled bookcases and torn pages with a gigantic crossbow dangling from his hand. “What the hell is going on? I just went out for milk.”
“I don’t know! I just got here!” Zlatan spotted a bare patch of floor about halfway between him and Figo and hopped one-legged for it. Then he pogoed onto half a bookcase, walked on it till it began to wobble too much, and then made a leap for the staircase, which was right next to Figo.
He landed on the railing, but only stayed there a second before dropping to the more stable steps. Meanwhile Figo had taken up a position against the end banister so he could look about his wrecked bookshop with a morose expression on his face. It was pretty bad, but not any worse than a human burglar could’ve done. And anyway, these weren’t the really valuable books; these were just the ones he sold so he could pretend he was a normal crazy collector/dealer who drooled for uncut incunabula and who most certainly did not spend his weekends half-naked with magical symbols drawn in herbal pastes all over him, hanging out with succubi and puttering about with recreations of Solomon’s spells.
“You didn’t just get here. You’ve been in town since yesterday night. Granted, that’s usually longer than it takes you, but…oh, I’ve got to cancel my vacation to Toledo, don’t I? And I bought the nonrefundable plane tickets,” Figo finally said, still looking depressed. He put up a hand and began to rub at the deep wrinkles in his forehead.
Zlatan glanced sharply at him, then went back to staring up the stairwell. Whoever had broken in had cleaned up pretty well, but he was picking up a little bit. “What do you mean, I’ve been in town? I didn’t even call to—”
“You were seeing those pseudo-nephilim or whatever Sandro and Paolo are now. Oh, don’t even try with the innocent act, Zlatan. Every single magus and witch and psychic for miles around knows when you show up. That restaurant’s a beacon of warding magic anyway, but when you’re around, it’s like having a supernova in the neighborhood.” Figo poked about the holster of the crossbow, then slung it over his shoulder after he’d disarmed it. He bent down and picked up the nearest book, grimacing when about a third of the pages immediately fell out. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, actually. Obviously you’ve got a valid concern, but there is such a thing as overdoing—”
“I didn’t do it. It’s not my—I don’t even live there, okay? Sandro’s the paranoid one, and if it bothers you so much, you go reason with him. He’s just looking for a reason to slice me up with that big chef’s knife of his,” Zlatan muttered. He leaned against the rail and drew a sigil with his fingertip on the wood, watching closely as the whole symbol briefly lighted up before fading away. Then he tried a couple more till he got one that didn’t fade. “Wait, how do you even know I see them? You just found out I got back from Hell last month.”
Smug was somewhat better than Figo’s increasingly annoying sighs, but…okay, sometimes Zlatan didn’t like the man so much. “Zlatan, everybody knows. It’s a ridiculously good piece of gossip, and moreover, Paolo at least admits it when you ask him.”
Figo didn’t quite suppress a smile. Luckily for him, he happened to look back at his shop and turned depressed again before Zlatan got too irritated. “He’s very straightforward about the whole thing, how you got out of Hell and all that. Look, give me a minute to fix the door and then let’s go into the back and figure out what’s going on.”
“‘All that’?” Zlatan repeated, staring after the man. He started to add more, but then remembered the spell he’d been doing and hastily dismissed it before the sigil burned itself into the railing. Then he looked up again, but Figo was busy jamming the door and muttering Latin.
He shuffled around on the stair-step, then stuck one hand in his pocket and used the other to flick at the railing a few times. Then he grimaced at himself and got off the stairs onto the floor. At first he had the idea that he’d go check on the office, where the really important books were kept, but then he realized that if Figo wasn’t raising lamias and all that, probably those wards hadn’t been breached. So it was kind of silly for him to go see, and he was just acting silly, and what the fuck did Figo mean? Everybody knew? It wasn’t like Zlatan had gone around blabbing to random strangers because hey, he thought finding a loophole out of Hell was probably something that would get him a lot of unwanted attention anyway, and he didn’t want to get sucked into another mess. And Sandro thought he was the troublemaker.
“Are you trying to think again?” Figo said, carefully picking his way back towards Zlatan.
“I’m pissed off. Don’t tease me.” Zlatan kicked at a book, then looked defiantly up to see the flicker of annoyance he knew was going to cross Figo’s face. He wasn’t disappointed, either. “I just checked and it wasn’t anybody I knew who was in here. But more importantly, I already had to see Fredrik today, and I can’t get hold of Henrik.”
Figo blinked, briefly pausing in the middle of some half-shredded paperbacks. Then his expression arranged itself more thoughtfully; he crossed the remaining space in less than a minute, then walked past Zlatan towards the office. “I’m trying not to give into the urge to curse somebody’s cock into rotting and falling off because my shop is a complete ruin, so that probably puts us on the same wavelength, Zlatan. You can’t get hold of Henrik?”
“Fredrik said he was looking for me, so I called in, but I don’t think Henrik’s even in Hell. I don’t know where he is, but I figured if he can get in touch of Fredrik, he could get in touch with you. And you’d make more sense—it’s not exactly guaranteed that I’m not going to rip up that bastard Fredrik the moment I see him,” Zlatan muttered. He gazed around the store, feeling a little more in sympathy with the frustration expressed in the wreckage than anything else.
Something creaked, so Zlatan looked over to just glimpse Figo disappearing through the back doorway. He tapped his heel a couple times on the floor, then gave himself a shake and went after the man. Those—stupid angels, they could wait, and then see how they liked that, with all their assumptions and wrong ideas about him. He’d had a life before them, and so far the only good thing about this day was proving was that he still had a lot of parts of his life that didn’t involve them.
“I haven’t heard from Henrik, but if he’s not in Hell…was he going to come up here anyway?” Figo said. His back was still to Zlatan because he was pouring himself a drink at the antique liquor cabinet he had in the left corner. He also poured Zlatan a little something before he came back to his desk, and handed over Zlatan’s glass before swigging his own. His eyes bulged and his face momentarily screwed up before relaxing into a slightly lighter expression. “If not, that’s really not a good sign.”
“Yeah, I know.” Zlatan snarled under his breath and jammed his right heel into the floor, deliberately making little dents in the thick carpet. Then he glanced up, but Figo was just looking faintly exasperated, like usual, and waiting. And actually, that made Zlatan’s temper cool a little, since Figo did have a point: he was currently more fucked by the situation, whatever that was, than Zlatan was. “Well, damn. He didn’t talk to you but he talked to Fredrik. That’s not—it means he’s in too much shit to use anything but demon channels, I think.”
Figo pursed his lips a couple times. He still had his free hand in the air from when he’d given Zlatan his glass, but its fingers were twitching and occasionally he’d look at him. After a moment, Zlatan noticed the slight glow around the man’s fingertips and realized Figo was still checking his protection spells. “Well, nothing’s missing from here that I can tell. But I didn’t have any big deals pending that’d attract this sort of vandalism.”
“So it’s probably connected. I wasn’t doing anything either—I just finished up something, actually,” Zlatan muttered. Some days he just wished he hadn’t woken up. “Henrik wasn’t doing anything that I know about. The last time we talked, he was all excited over this new cataloging system he’d worked out, so unless somebody got really mad about not being able to find the book they wanted…”
Figo lifted his brows.
“Okay, not likely. Even for demons.” Zlatan finally drank some of his stuff. A little more than he probably should’ve, given how good Figo’s stock usually was; he needed a moment to let the burn in his throat die away. “It doesn’t make sense, though. If Henrik’s in that much trouble, why did somebody check you out? No offense, but as good a mage as you are, you’re still human. This should be way over your head.”
“I’m not going to be offended by the truth,” Figo said. His tone was mild enough, but then he drew a deep breath, and when he spoke again, his voice had gone a little raspy. “You’re right, it is over my head. And when I find out who dumped me in this, I’m going to make that very, very clear to them.”
Grinning, Zlatan sipped at more of his drink. “You know, one of the reasons I put up with you is your temper. And your sense of humor. It’s hard to find somebody who remembers vengeance is fun--demons always take it too damn seriously.”
“You would like that.” Figo went back to the liquor cabinet, and when he returned, he’d left the glass and brought the bottle. He set that on the table as he pulled open a desk drawer, then took out a weatherbeaten, scratched-up grimoire and a fox’s skull. “Anyway, I think we’d better start looking for Henrik on this plane. Do you have any pig’s blood with you, or do I need to run down to the butcher’s?”
* * *
“It’s the third time this month, Paolo. Patience might be a virtue but I don’t think submitting to a wrong is,” Sandro said, jabbing his finger towards the side. His other hand raked up past his temple into his hair, then absently tugged the already-frizzed strands into more of a mess. “We need a new butcher.”
Paolo moved closer, curious as to what Sandro was pointing, and Sandro edged away. It wasn’t conscious, and the moment Sandro did become conscious of it, he froze in place and looked away, his lips tightening. Then he looked down, his shoulders hunching up and a little color touching his cheeks, before he took a deep breath and didn’t quite meet Paolo’s eyes as he raised his head.
Which was actually worse than if Sandro had given in and ranted about how he couldn’t understand why Paolo kept welcoming Zlatan into their home and bed, Paolo thought. Whatever effort was saved in avoiding that fight, which simply wasn’t winnable for either of them, was completely used up in the ache pounding behind Paolo’s breastbone and in his skull. “He called the first two times to let us know about his engine troubles, and then today the paper said a water main had exploded in his neighborhood. I really think we should give him a chance to explain before doing anything rash.”
“I think he should consider more seriously what effect his troubles have on others,” Sandro snapped. He took a step to his left, then twisted on his heel as he threw up his hands.
They traced oddly graceful arcs in the air before coming to press against the wall with a jarring abruptness. Sandro’s head dropped, and then he straightened out his arms so his palms flattened slightly on the wall. The tendons in his neck stood out in tense relief, and the line of his back curved in an implicit request not to be touched. He breathed in sharply, so loud that the echo of the sound seemed to cut the air, but his exhale was inaudible.
Paolo put a hand towards him anyway, but drew it back after a moment. The physical distance between them already made it a pointless gesture, but—well, somehow Paolo didn’t remember it being so damn difficult to communicate before. Concepts had been much clearer when he’d been an…a working angel. He didn’t like saying ‘whole’; it was correct in one way but wrong in so many others.
And he could have a realization like that, but he couldn’t bring himself to speak a simple sentence, he irritably thought. “Sandro…about earlier—”
“I wish there was something on it.” Sandro shoved himself off the wall. His eyes flashed over his down-swinging arm before he turned around, hands restlessly clenching around his upper arms, still staring off to the side. “There have been angels in Hell before, and then when they were brought out, they healed. But not—not as long, as I don’t know, maybe that’s part of it. As long as you stayed down there…it’s a poisonous environment anyway…”
“I feel fine. I’m not there now,” Paolo said after a moment. He rubbed his hand against his thigh, not particularly liking where this was going, but he let Sandro talk. At least Sandro was talking.
And looking at Paolo, though again it was only a quick glance. The other angel began pacing back and forth, the jerkiness of his movements accentuated by the narrowness of the hall. “I know, but…you were there so long, because I didn’t know…and I don’t know what that might’ve done to you. And I can’t even find out. I can’t find anything that tells me about how Hell might permanently…change…I mean, angels are made to be completely antithetical to everything that Hell is. The difference should be lethal over that kind of time-span, unless instead it causes some sort of—adaptation—”
“I coped. That’s all.” Paolo curled his hand into a fist and ground its knuckles against his hip. He could hear the anger creeping into his voice, but the more he tried to reason away his temper, the more it bubbled up. “Sandro, what happened can’t be simplified into this…either-or idea. It was complicated. But even so, I don’t think for a moment that it involved me somehow permitting—being corrupted, if that’s what you’re suggesting.”
“Paolo, he’s a demon!” Sandro snarled, whirling about. It was nearly a shout. “And not only that, but he’s one of the worst I’ve ever met! He doesn’t even get along with his own kind, he’ll betray his leader for—”
“For a fallen angel he barely knew,” Paolo interrupted. His palm began to hurt under the pressure of his nails. “And for that matter, Sandro—if you think that’s what’s wrong with me, you can’t blame Hell or Zlatan. I betrayed God before I ever got there, when I fell in love with you.”
Sandro flushed, then paled till he looked like one of the dead. Except for his eyes, which were alive with a pain Paolo could intimately feel—it was echoed in his own breast, which had tightened nearly to the point of cutting off his breath.
“I don’t think anything’s wrong with you. I think you’re perfect. I—always did,” Sandro said after a long moment. His lips barely moved and his voice was so soft Paolo could barely hear him. “But I don’t understand.”
“Because you don’t know what happened to me there. You thought I was dead.” Of course Paolo regretted the words before he was even done saying them.
But that was a poor excuse, as he did say them. And they had an immediate impact as Sandro somehow turned even whiter, then ducked away. His hands were down by his sides and they opened from and closed into fists as a tremble started in his shoulders, then rapidly spread through his whole body.
Paolo closed his eyes, then opened them. “Sandro, I’m—”
They both stiffened. Sandro’s head went up and he turned around, instinctively putting himself between Paolo and the source of the disturbance—Paolo bit his lip when he saw Sandro’s fingers angle back towards him—before abruptly sliding out of the way. He didn’t relax a bit.
“I was told by the chef that any compliments I had should be directed here,” Gianluigi said. He advanced up the hall at a measured pace, his shadow flowing ahead of him. It was far wider than it should have been, and when he passed beneath one of the skylights, the faint outlines of two arcs above his shoulders was visible. “Paolo. We need to have a discussion.”
“No congratulations?” Sandro asked, tone astringent.
The brightness of his eyes was Paolo’s fault, but the simmering rage wasn’t completely, and that made Paolo look sharply at him. Formerly Sandro had gotten along fine with Gianluigi. Not much warmth, but mutual respect.
“About falling from grace? I was under the impression that that was the cause of all misery.” Gianluigi didn’t look at Sandro as he proceeded onwards, only stopping when he was in front of Paolo. “Nevertheless compassion is part of holiness, so—”
“I detect a little more pride than compassion.” Sandro fell back against the wall on his elbows, but kept his chin up. The movement was liquidly eye-catching—deliberately so—and it reminded Paolo of Zlatan, oddly enough. “Which I seem to remember was the cause of the Fall.”
“I don’t know how useful you’ll find talking to me, but we can go into my office,” Paolo said. He also crossed between Sandro and Gianluigi to get to his office door, though the easier way would’ve been to go behind Gianluigi.
Who was looking at Sandro now, with that impassive face he always presented to something he felt was too in the wrong to bother pitying. His eyelids came down in a slow blink before he turned with a dismissive shrug.
He went ahead of Paolo into the office, which left Paolo and Sandro looking at each other again. Paolo parted his lips, then stopped himself and simply went through the door, which he left open.
Inside the room, Gianluigi had immediately come upon the couch and was looking at it with extreme distaste. Paolo had only had time to change into a new set of clothes and wipe down the cushions before his argument with Sandro had started, and of course that was hardly enough to get rid of all the traces.
“So that’s true.” Gianluigi blinked again, which with his half-shut eyes was more of a twitch than anything else. “This makes things more comprehensible, if not more pleasant.”
It wasn’t embarrassing so much as infuriating, Paolo decided. And he no longer subscribed to much of the doctrine, including the seven sins, so he didn’t feel more than a habitual echo of guilt at his flash of anger. “What is it?”
“You remember Asmodeus?” The way Gianluigi failed to look at Paolo made it clear it was a rhetorical question. “He’s broken free. For a while he sated himself in Hell, taking revenge on his fellows who left him in his prison, but he’s since made his way to the earthly plane.”
“I see,” Paolo said after a moment. He looked down at the couch—a reminder of another conversation that had gone wrong today—and then back up at Gianluigi, who seemed faintly surprised. “Anything else?”
Gianluigi raised his eyebrows. “You realize of course that though we will be striving to imprison him again, we can’t favor anyone in particular. You’re among the mortals now and get no more protection than they do.”
“I remember that well enough. I also remember how I locked away Asmodeus in the first place, and of course I’d be happy to explain that to you if you’d like to save some time,” Paolo replied. His tone was rather acid and frankly, he thought he was being very restrained. He also had a good deal more sympathy for Zlatan’s perspective on angels, if this was how they seemed to anyone besides a fellow angel.
“He broke free, so I doubt that that knowledge would be useful now,” Gianluigi dryly commented. “I’ve warned you out of my respect for your past, but I have to return to my duties now.”
He was turning towards the door before he’d even finished speaking. Another wave of irritation rose in Paolo, but he told himself it wouldn’t be worth the effort. Instead he sat down on the couch-arm…which in retrospect he should’ve thought more about, but he was a little preoccupied.
Paolo was still holding himself above the arm, trying to ease down his weight so the aches and sores were tolerable, when he heard a scuffing noise. He looked up and Sandro was halfway in the doorway, twisted away as the other angel watched Gialuigi leave. Then Sandro turned; his eyes were still narrowed in dislike, but they rapidly widened as he looked at Paolo, at the awkward way Paolo was positioned. And he understood why, of course.
This time Paolo couldn’t look at him, and instead gazed at the floor as he finished seating himself. He started to lift his hands, but then couldn’t find the words to accompany the gestures, so he put his hands on his knees. Then he pinched up the cloth of his trousers, rubbing it between forefinger and thumb.
He jerked his chin up a fraction when the footsteps started again, but didn’t actually look at Sandro till the arms had come around him, and then all he could really see were Sandro’s knees angling out to the side. And Sandro’s hands, their long fingers digging slightly into Paolo’s belly before lacing together. Paolo lifted his hands again, hesitated, and then carefully overlapped Sandro’s fingers with his own. Sandro shifted behind him, then laid his head against Paolo’s shoulderblade, some of his hair drifting over Paolo’s collar to tickle the back of Paolo’s neck.
“You know, I never realized how annoying Gianluigi can be. As if he was even created when you were fighting Asmodeus,” Sandro muttered. He moved his head, the bridge of his nose briefly outlining itself against Paolo’s back. His fingers flexed, then curled up and around Paolo’s. “He came because Asmodeus is going to target you.”
“Probably. I would be rather memorable to him, if my own experience is anything to go by.” Paolo grimaced and quickly pulled his hands back to wrap them around Sandro’s wrists. “Damn it. Look, you are right, in that I didn’t get out of Hell unscathed. I gained a temper and a very bad sense of timing, and some other bad habits. But Sandro, I don’t blame you at all. I want you to believe me about that.”
Sandro shivered violently, then pressed harder against Paolo’s back, craning his head so as much of their bodies as was possible was touching. “I know you don’t. But I…Asmodeus. How strong would he be now? Even at half-strength, he’d be too much for anything I could do here. Maybe we should close—”
“We’re not closing up, and we’re not running. That would just give the advantage to him,” Paolo said. He sounded firm enough, but even as he spoke, he wasn’t convinced himself. Staying was definitely what he wanted to do, but the sensible thing…well, he had to acknowledge he wasn’t in the shape he’d been in during that old battle. And there were other problems now. “You should have more belief in yourself.”
“Stop flattering me. I’m already in love with you,” Sandro snorted. His voice was a little unsteady, and both his snort and the way he shifted afterward were shaded with nerves. Then he moved up, putting his chin on Paolo’s shoulder. “You’re thinking about asking him about this, aren’t you?”
Paolo considered the sudden flatness of Sandro’s tone, but in the end he had to be honest. “I have to tell him. He deserves to know—he’s not a bad habit. He’s more than a habit, for that matter. And anyway…”
“Sometimes the only reason I don’t kill him is because he did that. He freed you, and I wouldn’t have you if it wasn’t—but damn it, I wish it’d been someone else.” Sandro moved restlessly at Paolo’s back, pushing his face against the side of Paolo’s neck. His hands began to knead at Paolo’s stomach. “I just don’t ever want to lose you again. And all right, especially to him.”
It took a moment for Paolo’s throat to unclench enough for speech. He stared down at their hands, watching his thumbs rub circles around each of Sandro’s knuckles. “That’s not a fear you should have. You’ll never lose me, not like that.”
Sandro didn’t speak. He just pressed himself against Paolo, so hard that Paolo could feel that Sandro was squeezing his eyes shut. His lips did move a little, and then he turned his head so he could just brush them against the top of Paolo’s shoulder. Paolo breathed in, sliding his thumbs beneath Sandro’s wrists so he could run them along the pulses. He tugged the other angel’s arms further around him, trying to convey reassurance that way if his words still weren’t good enough.
Breath tickled his shoulder, and then Sandro’s mouth came down on it again, this time staying long enough for its warmth to soak down through Paolo’s shirt. The heat spread with surprising rapidity through Paolo’s whole body before seeming to settle low in his gut—and then Sandro lifted his head, kissed the side of Paolo’s neck, and the heat spiked, making Paolo’s throat clench in an entirely different way. His hands jerked roughly at Sandro’s wrists.
Then Paolo stopped himself and blinked. Sandro stilled as well, then made a soft, puzzled noise that perfectly echoed Paolo’s feelings. “This still doesn’t seem like it should follow so close—I was just thinking about how much I want you, and then I…want you. It’s…it really feels inappropriate.”
“I know. If this is what humans have to put up with, their impulsiveness makes so much more sense,” Paolo said. He absently shifted on the arm, then let a pained hiss escape before he could help it.
Sandro’s stillness changed in quality. He sucked in a breath. “I don’t…”
“You can’t really judge it on how it looks on the outside. I am—I do enjoy it. Did enjoy it.” Paolo blinked again. “I have no idea why, but it was…it felt very good.”
“Really?” Sandro said. Very quiet, very low. Very uncertain. “It felt…?”
After a moment, Paolo reached back and loosened Sandro’s grip on his waist just enough so he could twist about. He braced himself this time for the pressure on his bruises and managed not to wince as he turned, then took Sandro’s face in his hands. He kissed the other angel, withdrew a little—the sight of Sandro’s half-shut eyes with their fluttering lashes made his gut hurt and warm at the same time—and then ducked down. And nipped at the side of Sandro’s jaw.
Sandro started so roughly that Paolo instantly regretted the experiment and hastily licked at the wounded spot. Then he started to apologize, but the sudden hard grip of hands on his waist made him stop. Sandro looked at him, eyes molten. “Do that again.”
Paolo bit his own lip, then, very slowly, lowered his head again. He chose a different spot, one over the cords of the neck, and nipped again. Above him came a sharp intake of breath, and below Sandro’s hands flexed, slid low onto Paolo’s hips. They tugged and Paolo lost his balance, sinking his teeth deeper into Sandro’s neck than he’d intended. He went still, but then Sandro moaned and in his surprise Paolo tried to suck in air without actually lifting his mouth. And Sandro pulled so hard that they fell off the arm and onto the couch cushions in a rather clumsy heap.
It took a bit of doing, given how they were tangled, but Paolo managed to get his arms free enough to prop himself up so he wasn’t crushing Sandro. He looked down, a bit breathless, and didn’t see anything because Sandro had actually twisted around to lick at the light bruising Zlatan had left on Paolo’s nape. The touch felt like someone had flooded Paolo’s body with fire and he dropped low onto his elbows, instinctively burying his head in the crook of Sandro’s neck. His hands seemed to move with their own mind, plucking Sandro’s shirt free of his waistband and then sliding beneath it, and then Sandro returned the favor, and then they both were lost.
* * *
“You know what? I bet it was an angel. They wouldn’t know the difference between a book of nude photos and a grimoire, since it’s all the devil’s work to them. They would’ve gotten confused and stopped at the front room, but a demon would’ve known to keep looking for the really good stuff,” Zlatan said.
Figo’s shoulders hitched a bit as he pulled the car to the curb. The bowl of coagulating blood in Zlatan’s lap sloshed and Figo glanced over, but went back to parallel-parking once he was sure his upholstery was still spotless. “What?”
“Your store. You know, who wrecked it?” The alley in which they were in looked pretty quiet, but nearby was a busy restaurant and so Zlatan wouldn’t be surprised if this was a delivery area. They’d have to watch it, since if anybody ran across them and asked what they were doing with blood and a withered human hand, it’d probably be Zlatan getting stuck with the body-disposal duty. “I think it was an angel. They’re such a pain in the ass. They could’ve asked—a demon would’ve asked before getting to the destruction part, but no, they’d rather just show up and fuck up your day.”
For the past couple seconds Figo’s lips had been twitching. He turned off the car engine, then pressed his palms against the steering wheel as he stared hard through the windshield. Then he sighed and reached across Zlatan to get the dead man’s hand and the human-fat candle from the glove compartment. “Why are you still thinking about that? I’m not even thinking about that, and I have to sweep up everything afterward. I’m a little more worried about the fact that that scrying bowl says Henrik’s holed up in an abandoned pasta factory.”
“Why? I think Henrik likes pasta,” Zlatan said. He shifted the bowl to the crook of one arm so he could get the door open, then levered himself out of the car. Without spilling a drop, and that was a damn impressive achievement, considering Figo’s car was built like nobody had knees. “Why can’t you get a bigger car? You can afford it.”
Figo got out a moment later, still trying to jam the candle into the dead man’s hand; the fingers had apparently stiffened up again and were giving him trouble. “Big just means more places you get stuck. I like being flexible.”
“It does not.” After putting the bowl on the seat and bumping the car door shut with his hip, Zlatan rounded the trunk and came up onto the sidewalk behind Figo. He looked up, squinting: the building was only four stories high, but this was one of the more historical districts so the walls were solid stone and gave the impression they were on the verge of toppling over on you. “There’s nothing wrong with size, damn it. It doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible—actually, it means you’re more flexible because you’re always having to adjust to others. Even though they don’t really notice, and just think oh, you need to bend a little more, I’m too crippled or good or whatever to change so—”
“Zlatan?” The look on Figo’s face was somewhere between confused and suspicious, and seemed as if it couldn’t settle on one end because the dead man’s hand was still being annoying. At least, Figo kept glancing down at it while hitting one stubborn half-curled finger with the heel of his hand. “What are you talking about?”
Zlatan opened his mouth. Shut it. Stepped away from Figo and squinted up at the narrow windows again. “I think I saw something move in there. And I definitely smell demons.”
“Oh, forget it.” That made Zlatan look sharply over, but Figo was talking to the hand. He irritably hit it a last time before digging a piece of string out of his pocket and just tying the candle to its fingers. Then he locked the car, struck a match off the lock, and lit the candle. “Last time I ever lend this out to Materazzi. God knows where he stuck it…demons? Not Henrik, I take it?”
“No—I don’t know.” Another sniff, and then Zlatan ducked his head and blew out his nose between two pinching fingers. He grimaced, wiping his hand off on his leg, and then concentrated. “Damn it. This whole street smells too much—all saffron and garlic and paprika. Maybe Henrik, but he’s not the only one. There’s more than him, definitely, but I can’t tell anything else.”
Figo angled his body so nobody walking on the street could see what he was holding, then waved the dead man’s hand at the building door. They waited a couple minutes. Then Figo waved the hand at the door a little more vigorously. The candle started to tilt and Figo sucked in his breath, but then he realized that that was because the stupid thing was going soft as the flame warmed it and was slipping out of the string. He shoved it up by the bottom, then made the greatest disgusted face as he realized he’d gotten drippings on himself.
Unfortunately, he was really cranky all of a sudden and didn’t appreciate the good humor. Instead he just glowered at Zlatan. “Do something useful, you oversized hellspawn. I bet you broke my seat-springs.”
“It’s a cheap car, so if I did, it’s your fault,” Zlatan snorted. He looked around, and when he saw nobody, sidled up to the door and put his palm against it. Which didn’t get burned and that ruled out a lot, but just in case he ran through a couple detection spells. Then he kicked in the door.
It swung easily open, which was weird since the dead man’s hand hadn’t opened it. Inside was…not much. A lot of stainless steel machines standing on tables, flour everywhere. Something that might’ve been another door in the very back of the room, but it was too dark for Zlatan to make out perfect details. He sniffed again, then walked in. Nothing attacked him, so he turned around and checked out the door-lock. “Oh. It’s all gummed up with something and that’s why it wouldn’t open…”
As Figo cautiously edged in, Zlatan poked and swiped at the slightly sticky, dough-like stuff. The light from the candle gradually spread over the back of the door—briefly retreated as Figo checked out something on the other side—till it threw a yellowish cast on the wad of gunk Zlatan had pulled out of the lock. It was mostly dough, actually—but dough should’ve been pale tan, and this was sort of iridescent green. And also the street should not smell the way it smelled, because Zlatan suddenly remembered the sign they’d passed and that restaurant down the street was a sushi bar. “Shit!”
Like a sensible man, Figo dove back outside. Zlatan stepped backwards and something dropped onto his head and shoulders, knocking him down nearly to one knee. But that saved him an eye, or maybe both, since the glinting claws missed his face and instead shredded his shirt as the bastard nearly fell off.
And Zlatan got his balance back first. He threw himself backwards, then slammed down his hand and caught himself on the floor so the attacker was flung off to the side. Halfway into the light streaming from the door, so Zlatan had just enough time to see black hair and ratty sneakers before he heard a tiny scuff behind him. He lunged forward, after the first attacker—who squealed and tossed up arms—and heard the second attacker thud heavily into the floor at his heels. One good kick at that asshole gave Zlatan enough time to slap aside the first one’s arms and grab them by the throat.
“Hey!” came a voice from a third direction.
Zlatan didn’t look up, but just jerked the one he had around into the third one. He took another swipe at his shoulder, but it didn’t go much past his shirt and so he pinned the third one fairly easily, right beside the first. Then he sat on them and twisted around, only to find Figo straddling the last one, a crowbar pressed hard against their throat and the dead man’s hand held high so he could see.
Young and small, and from what Zlatan could see, vaguely lupine. Well, no—way too small and sharp-nosed for wolves. More like foxes. Foxes who swore a lot. “You asshole! Get off of Xavi! And you, you gigantic fuck, you let me go or—”
And the little demonic shit somehow twisted his head around and bit Zlatan’s hand. Bit. Fucking Sandro, Zlatan inanely thought, and then he gave himself a shake—and also the two demonlets, hard enough so their teeth chattered. That quieted the one on Zlatan’s left, but the one on his right—the biter—snarled up in Zlatan’s face, his tongue quivering between his short needle fangs, and began kicking at Zlatan’s shins. Snarling himself, Zlatan tossed the quiet one to Figo, then hauled himself and the biter up.
Along the way the biter took a swing at him, so Zlatan let the annoying shit drop. Then he whipped around, grabbed the flailing wrists and pinned them to the demonlet’s chest before firmly tucking him up under one arm. Of course the tiny asshole was still trying to kick, but his feet were about a foot off the ground so it was sort of amusing. “No, you stop th—stop kicking in my knees, you stupid little shit, and tell me where Henrik is. That was his blood on the door—I know he was here.”
The demonlet curled up and Zlatan promptly tightened his grip to crush the effort. So instead the demonlet wheezed, those damn feet temporarily hanging still. Then he craned about to glower darkly at Zlatan. “Why should I tell you anything? You’re hurting Xavi and Andrés.”
Well, that crowbar had been blessed in Jerusalem, but unless Figo actually shoved it through a chest, it wasn’t really going to do more than give the demonlets a little scorching. And Figo wasn’t even pressing it that hard against them, since all three of them were watching Zlatan and his nuisance. “How old are you? Who the fuck do you think you are?”
Thick black brows drew together. The wheezing stopped as the demonlet looked silently, thoughtfully up at Zlatan. Then he grinned, showing a surprisingly big set of sharp teeth. “I am Cesc—who the hell are you?”
Figo snorted, then snickered. Zlatan didn’t find it so funny. “Oh, cute. First of all, I pulled that when you were probably still sucking on sulfur pebbles. Second—so you know who I am? So you should know you shouldn’t mess with me.” He squeezed the smartass demonlet again, watching as the grin faded, was briefly replaced with a determinedly stoic expression, and then went to severe pain. “Where is Henrik? You know, if he’s dead—”
“He’s not dead,” blurted out one of the two on the floor. “He’s not here.”
“Well, where is he? What happened to him?” Zlatan looked from one suddenly blank face to another with increasing annoyance. Then he sighed and looked at Cesc again. “If I don’t start getting some answers soon, I’m going to—”
Cesc somehow fought down the pain and pulled a big-eyed innocent look. “To what?”
“I’ll start by eating your face, is what,” Zlatan snapped.
He and Cesc stared at each other for a couple seconds. Then Cesc raised his chin. Just a little bit. So Zlatan opened his mouth, and let his fangs slide out. He snapped them a few times as his jaw muscles shifted to accommodate the longer teeth.
Cesc wasn’t totally stupid—his eyes widened and he went very still under Zlatan’s arm. But then he took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and jerked up his chin even higher. The expression of sheer resolve on his face would’ve been impressive if Zlatan had been in a better mood, but now it just annoyed him even more. He yanked up Cesc so his fangs just touched forehead and chin.
“Henrikwasn’therewhenwegothere!” The one directly beneath Figo squirmed, looking frantically between Figo, Zlatan and Cesc. “He wasn’t! We don’t even know him, really—we just found some of his—his—”
“His what?” Figo said.
Cesc made a protesting noise, then opened his eyes and began craning his head about, trying to hiss something to his friends. But they were looking meaningfully at each other, ignoring him. Then they started pushing at Figo, very gently; after a moment, he rolled back onto his feet and let them up. Though when one of them started shifting back, he flipped up the crowbar to point warningly at them. They stopped.
And looked at each other again before turning to stare up at Zlatan. The one on the left hesitantly flipped his hand. “Hi. Xavi. And this—” he pointed to the right “—Andrés. We were just hiding here, and we found some…well, it smells like Henrik’s blood on them. Some of his clothes. They’re upstairs. We didn’t touch them or anything.”
After a moment, Zlatan decided he’d believe them. He dropped Cesc, then rolled his eyes at the way the demonlet curled up and whimpered. “Oh, give me a break. At your age you’re like fucking Teflon, takes a whole lake of acid to get you to listen to anything…like commonsense. Honestly, if you’d just said all that in the first place, I wouldn’t have had to kick your asses.”
“You didn’t kick our asses. You just got lucky,” Cesc muttered. That hurt look flicked away like somebody had flipped a switch as he pushed himself up. “Besides, you didn’t even knock. You just broke the door down! How were we supposed to know you—you—”
“Weren’t looking for Henrik to hurt him more,” Andrés filled in. He shifted uncomfortably beneath Figo’s and Zlatan’s curious looks. “Well, we didn’t know him, but we’ve met him a couple times and he’s always been very nice. Which most older demons aren’t.”
“Don’t even look at me, you annoying shit.” Zlatan flipped his hand at Cesc as he turned on his heel, heading for the staircase. “I’ll check out upstairs and see if you’re lying. Even nibble on Figo while I’m gone and I’ll eat your face anyway.”
The saffron-garlic stench was explained by a huge stack of take-out containers with Spanish food stuffed under one of the tables Zlatan passed. He snorted his nose clear, then held his breath till he got to the stairs and could get a little above the smell. Then it was better—good enough for him to be able to definitely detect a trace of Henrik. But pretty old, and given the size of that pile, the three little fox-demons had been around for at least a week.
“So he and Henrik are friends?” he heard Xavi asking. “I always thought he hated Henrik, with the way he kept getting them into trouble.”
Zlatan half-suppressed his snarl and just went up the stairs faster. His feet thudded loudly against the steps, making the loose boards rattle long after he’d passed by, but he figured at this point, if there was anyone upstairs to kill, doing that would probably do him some good.
Henrik’s trail ended on a room on the third floor. It’d once been some kind of storage room, but had been converted into a sort of apartment with a makeshift bed laid out on a low shelf, some food stockpiled in the corner, and in the trashcan, some ichor-stained strips of cloth. After Zlatan had pulled those out and began arranging them on the floor, it became clear they’d once been part of a shirt.
He reconstructed enough of that to tell that the wound had been on the side, and had bled a couple times, judging from the layers of staining. But when he poked about some more, he also found some used bandages and the remains of an herbal paste in an olive jar, so Henrik wasn’t so badly off that he couldn’t tend to himself. Still, badly off enough so that he apparently had to keep moving—Zlatan didn’t think he’d been taken since he hadn’t seen any signs of a fight anywhere, and Henrik would’ve put up one.
Not much sign of anything else, Zlatan thought in disappointment. And then he went to leave and promptly had his foot slide on something.
After he’d gotten back up, he picked up the thing: a fragment of what felt like some kind of leather, and when he finally gave in and switched to demon-vision, he could make out markings on it beneath the crusts of dried ichor. He flipped it between his fingers, thinking. Then he snapped his fingers so the ichor-stained rags and the pallet went up in a flash of white. His whirl out the door pulled some of the remnant black dust after him.
“…and the portal was just there, and well, we didn’t really have time to think about where it might go. Things are such a mess in Hell right now, and anyway, we’ve been dying to get up here forever,” Cesc was saying, voice all burbly and excited. When Zlatan got far enough down the stairs, the first thing he saw of the group was Cesc’s waving hands. “So we went through and shut it behind us, and yeah, a pasta factory is weird. Why would Henrik go here?”
“I’m not sure.” Figo was still crouching on the ground, but now Xavi was half-curled before him, shirt pulled up so Figo could do something to his side that made Xavi hiss and Andrés look on with a worried, wrinkled brow. Cesc was on Xavi’s other side, helping to hold him in place, and occasionally he’d adjust Xavi at Figo’s muttered direction. The dead man’s hand was set on the floor by his foot, and Andrés was holding the crowbar, which was wrapped in Figo’s jacket apparently for his comfort. “What’s going on in Hell?” Figo asked.
For a moment Zlatan just stood there. Then he cleared his throat. Watched the demonlet foxes all jump and twitch, then squirm in on each other in some attempt to provide a united front. “Henrik was here, but he’s gone. He left something, though. Part of a book?”
He crossed the room and handed the piece of leather to Figo, who paused with one hand still on Xavi’s side to take it. While Figo examined it, Zlatan casually moved to see what he’d been doing. But he’d barely glimpsed the raw sore when suddenly Cesc was in the way, all pugnacious chin and challenging eyes. Zlatan thought about it, then decided it was too much trouble when Henrik was out there injured. The demonlet could live. For now.
“I can’t tell what this is from, but if we go back to my shop, I can probably…” Figo frowned. “Zlatan. You’re ringing.”
Cesc snorted and looked all superior, and so as Zlatan turned around to take out his phone, he purposefully kicked up his foot just a hair short of Cesc’s face. “Who is this and how’d you get my number?”
After a moment, a hesitant throat-clearing came over the line. *It’s Paolo, and…well, Sandro had your number. I’m not sure how he got it.*
Zlatan stopped. Then he made a face at the floor. “He probably dug around in my trousers while I was showering, that—never mind. Listen, don’t use this number again. This phone’s keyed to certain spells and—”
*I’m sorry, I wouldn’t have used it this time except—well, are you very far away?* Paolo coughed again. In the background were the faint calls of the cooks and the waiters as they bickered over delayed orders, so Paolo was walking around the kitchen. *I’d like to talk to you about something.*
“If it’s about Sandro, you shouldn’t be talking to me about his problems.”
*It’s not about Sandro,* Paolo said, a faint hint of exasperation creeping into his voice. He breathed in sharply, then sighed. *Look, it’s important, and I need to talk to you soon, so will you be coming back today?*
Zlatan chewed at his lip, then half-turned for no reason except he needed something to do. He rubbed his hand against the side of his face. “Do you even remember that I left because business came up? That Sandro yelled at me for?”
*Of course I remember. But this is business too, and you should know about it.* Now Paolo was being downright snappish. *All right?*
“Oh, yeah, all right. You think I should know, so fine, I’ll be back in an hour and then you can tell me,” Zlatan snapped back. Then he jammed his cell-phone into his pocket. He stood there for a moment, seething, before he snarled to himself and jerked the phone back out. And turned it off, and then stuck it into his pocket.
Curious noise from across the room. “What was that all about? Is Sandro that—hey, are you really fucking an angel?”
“I heard two angels.”
“I heard they weren’t angels anymore.”
“Shut the fuck up.” Zlatan spun around and took one step towards those irritating little shits.
Then he pulled himself back, but they’d already fled to hide behind Figo, who hadn’t even finished lifting his hands. He looked at them, still with their palms towards the floor. Then he looked at the three heads peeping around him, and then up at Zlatan. “Do you need a ride?”
Nice of him, Zlatan thought sourly. And then he felt bad about it, and then got annoyed at that. But fuck it, it wasn’t Figo’s problem. “No, I can get back myself. Listen, I have to go run an errand but I’ll come by later and help with figuring out what book that is.”
“All right,” Figo said, shrugging. He wiped his hands on his thighs, then grabbed up the dead man’s hand and the blessed crowbar. “Actually, I’m relieved. I wasn’t sure how we’d fit everyone in the car.”
Zlatan blinked. Then he narrowed his eyes at Cesc, who was looking distinctly smug. “You’re taking this lot with you? Are you going to be able to handle them by yourself?”
Figo looked faintly annoyed as he got up. Then he had to shake his arm to get Xavi to let go of it, and the ‘faint’ part went away. “If I can’t, the shop will turn into a giant sinkhole and suck them all back to Hell. So I think I’m covered.”
“Besides, we’re all for helping out. With Henrik, anyway,” Cesc piped up.
Xavi hit him, then hissed in his ear. And then those two got into a bit of a whispered argument, into which Andrés rapidly got dragged, and in all the discussion none of them noticed Figo gently nudging them out the door. The exasperation cleared up enough from Figo’s face for him to tip a wink towards Zlatan, who grinned.
But his good mood rapidly died, and by the time Figo and the rest had gotten outside, it was totally gone. Zlatan looked over his shoulder at the stairwell, then shook his head and followed them.
* * *
For all the ‘importance’ of whatever he needed to tell Zlatan, Paolo wasn’t waiting at the door or even working the dining areas to schmooze with the customers when Zlatan got back. He wasn’t in his office either, but upstairs in the living quarters. Back on another couch, lying on his side with his head resting on the arm and Sandro snugged up to his front, holding a sheet of paper above his eyes. And it smelled like they’d just showered, so they’d had sex, all right.
Paolo actually noticed Zlatan before Sandro did, dropping his arm and trying to sit up, and that made Sandro move enough for him to wake up. He protested with a grunt and a nuzzle at Paolo’s throat, but when Paolo kept trying to get up, Sandro finally gave in and rolled over. A funny little wince interrupted Sandro when he was about halfway through that so the landing of his feet on the floor was a tad off. He caught himself on the coffee table, then winced again and…and reached back and rubbed at his ass.
When Paolo saw what Sandro was doing, his eyes snapped to Zlatan and he flushed. Then he looked away, making some weird half-embarrassed noise, and Sandro looked quizzically at him before finally realizing Zlatan was there. Sandro’s shoulders went stiff and his hand froze. Still on his ass.
Then he jerked around and looked up at Zlatan, his lips thinned and jaw firmed but his cheeks very, very dark pink. “It’s been a little more than an hour.”
“I was busy. You know, trying to find out why that demon showed up this morning,” Zlatan drawled. So much for being amused. “Being responsible?”
Sandro opened his mouth, but Paolo must have nudged him or something, since he glanced over, then snorted and got up. The high carriage of his head was all wounded dignity as he retreated downstairs, probably to yell at Gila for not getting the waitstaff to turn tables faster.
“I’m sorry I had to interrupt…whatever you were doing, but this is important,” Paolo said.
“Yeah. You said so on the phone.” Zlatan moved a little closer, but didn’t sit down.
When it became clear that he wasn’t going to, Paolo pursed his lips a couple times, obviously thinking about calling Zlatan on it. Then he shook his head and put his elbows on his thighs, folding his hands together. “I had a visitor of my own while you were gone. Gianluigi?”
“Oh, him. You used to work with him—just what is it that’s up his ass? A harpoon or a pool cue?” Zlatan snorted.
Paolo blinked, then looked away as the corner of his mouth twitched. His hand came up and rubbed away the near-smile before he looked back at Zlatan. “I’ve never had the opportunity or the desire to check. But anyway, he brought a message. It seems Asmodeus has broken free, and has even managed to get to this plane.”
Walking back had reminded Zlatan that he had actually just gotten done with a very long and exhausting job, but he didn’t want to sit down since he had to get right back to Figo. So he shifted on his feet, then stepped back to lean a hip against an armchair.
A little crease appeared between Paolo’s brows. “Asmodeus and I—”
“You imprisoned him in the first place and if he’s out, then he’s probably got you on his shit-list. Yeah, I know your history, remember? And I can add two and two,” Zlatan said.
“Why are you so annoyed? If it’s something Sandro said, I’m sorry you’re offended but he’s got his own mind—”
Zlatan rolled his eyes, then pointedly looked at his watch. He pretended he didn’t hear Paolo’s slow intake of breath. “For fuck’s sake, that’s it? You’ve got some old enemy coming after you? Couldn’t you just have told me over the phone? I was busy.”
“It is not ‘some old enemy.’ And you said that you didn’t want me to use that line,” Paolo said after a moment. His eyes had hardened and his tone had gotten a lot testier. He glanced at the paper in his hand, then tossed it onto the coffee table and got up. “It’s Asmodeus, and I thought you’d like to know because you’re already busy, and this could end up involving you.”
“Well, of course. You can’t defend yourself, and Sandro’s not good enough either, so that only leaves me. Right?” Zlatan said. He put more of his weight on the armchair as Paolo got nearer, but didn’t cede any ground.
Paolo paused, pressing his lips together. His hands also curled into fists, but they partly uncurled when he started moving again. He stopped just a little short of Zlatan. “Why would you even assume that?”
“Why? Come on. You’re not stupid either, even if you still can be kind of a jerk.” Zlatan rolled his eyes, then stared off over Paolo’s right shoulder. He knew that the hurt on Paolo’s face wasn’t exactly justified, but somehow he still didn’t like looking at it. “Well, what else are you going to do? You don’t even know what you can do now, and Sandro does all the warding spells. But he can’t even keep me out—”
“I might be telling you because I’m worried you’d get hurt, and it wouldn’t even be your fight,” Paolo grated out. Then he grimaced and looked down between them. “It’s not, by the way. I’m why he’d be coming here.”
His head came up right away when Zlatan laughed, and he actually jerked forward, his hand rising as well. Then he stopped, but Zlatan smacked down his hand anyway. “Yeah, it’s all about you. You’re why I’d hang around and get hurt, because I’m just so desperately attached to you, and you’re why Sandro is so damn paranoid I have human mages telling me to calm him down, and—”
“Stop. Just stop--” Paolo slammed his palms into Zlatan’s chest.
He withdrew them almost immediately, staring at his hands like he didn’t quite know what they were. Then he gasped, his gaze flying upward, when Zlatan seized his wrists. His mouth snapped shut and his lips turned white under the pressure. He pulled at his arms, but Zlatan just tugged back till finally Paolo gave up.
A tired exhale parted Paolo’s lips. He looked down, then back up, and his eyes were just so damn confused and hurt and angry and everything that made Zlatan’s gut twist—it was annoying.
“What did I say?” Paolo asked, more quietly. “What did I do? Why are you mad at me?”
“You don’t even know how to fight now! You’re just standing here talking to me when you should be figuring out where the bastard is! You’re so—” Zlatan threw up his hands, realized he’d let go of Paolo, and then didn’t really care “—it’s like you were in that cage so long, you don’t know how to do anything anymore. You just sit there, and so far you’ve been lucky because others do things for you, but what happens when they aren’t there?”
Paolo lost a little color. He stared up at Zlatan, his hands still up where Zlatan had been holding him, fingers slightly flexing. He took in a half-breath, then paled even more. When he spoke again, his voice was nearly a whisper. “What are you saying? You—aren’t leaving.”
He didn’t seem to be sure whether that was a question or a plea. Frankly, Zlatan wasn’t sure which he wanted it to be either, or even if he—damn it, he hated not knowing what the fuck was going on, and he especially hated it when it was what was going on in his own head. “I don’t know,” he muttered, pulling at his hair.
Paolo’s hands dropped onto his chest, then clenched in Zlatan’s shirt as the angel continued staring up at him, now white-faced as a ghost. His mouth moved a few times without anything coming out, and then he shuddered. “Wait. Don’t—not now. You stayed before, in—”
“Not everything is about Hell, or even about this,” Zlatan said, running his hand down the side of Paolo’s leg. He glanced down when Paolo flinched from the purposefully rough touch, then irritably pulled the angel’s hands from him. “You could get it all from books, you know.”
“I don’t want books. I want you,” Paolo said. He wasn’t thinking about it, obviously. Couldn’t be, with the way he was trying to fight to get his hands back on Zlatan.
“Why?” Zlatan cocked his head, waiting.
And Paolo still stared at him, as if he couldn’t even understand the question. The angel moved his hands a few times, sometimes with his lips beginning to silently shape a word or two as well, but in the end he couldn’t come up with anything.
“Yeah.” It was predictable. It hurt, and Zlatan was pissed off that it’d taken him so long to work it out, but well, that was how it was for him. “Look, I knew you were in love with Sandro. I caught a ride on that up here. But I’m a demon, okay? You don’t have to do this gratitude thing with me. It’s just irritating.”
He took a step backwards, sliding away from Paolo’s limp hands. Then he turned around and headed for the stairs. Fucking angels and their fucking assumptions, Zlatan thought. And took a vicious kick at the door on his way out, hating demons and angels and deep down, hating himself a little.
* * *
And then it was over, and Paolo was blinking uncomprehendingly at the far wall. He breathed in.
Then he doubled over, grabbing at his throat and coughing hard. He spun away from the thick, stinging smoke, stumbled over something and then half-collapsed over the back of the sofa, still choking. The tips of his fingers tingled and his head was ringing.
He dimly heard something, a kind of regular thudding, and then he felt himself being pushed and jerked away without thinking. Paolo heard a muffled voice and couldn’t understand what it was saying, but he recognized it. The second time, he let them lift him up and move him.
The air was clearer wherever they went, and after a few minutes Paolo’s senses began to return to him. Too quickly—he remembered the conversation and then the end of it, and slumped down the wall. “Damn it.”
“Paolo?” Sandro knelt in front of him, hands beneath Paolo’s arms, looking terrified. “Paolo?”
Paolo grimaced, then put out a hand. He laid it against Sandro’s cheek and for one second, it felt like touching iron. Then Sandro sagged, dropping his head onto Paolo’s shoulder and tightly embracing him. He was shaking and for a couple minutes Paolo just stroked his back, trying at least to mend this—his fingers touched the scars over Sandro’s shoulderblades.
He pulled off his hands just as Sandro’s head came up. The other angel looked a little calmer, but his fingers against Paolo’s jaw were still trembling. “What was that? Was that Zlatan? Did he—”
“No. No,” Paolo said, and shook his head just to make it clear. He moved his knee out of the way, then tugged Sandro forward so they could both look at Paolo’s hand. “No…I think that was me.”
After a long, thoughtful moment, Sandro shifted to sit on the floor. He reached out and touched his fingers to Paolo’s wrist. Let them rest there while he looked at Paolo, and then slowly slid them up the back of Paolo’s hand. Paolo breathed in very slowly, concentrating—he didn’t want to hurt Sandro—and gradually a slight golden glow began to surround their hands. Sandro hissed, but the progress of his fingers didn’t so much as stutter: they drew up Paolo’s index finger, then into the air, and between their fingertips, the glow stretched into a long, gleaming thread of magic.
Paolo closed his eyes. Then he folded in his fingers, feeling the warmth dissipate, and when he opened his eyes a moment later, he saw only his hand.
“What happened?” Sandro asked quietly.
“He—I think he left.” Then the thickness in Paolo’s throat was too much and he had to swallow before he could go on. “I said I wanted him to stay, and he asked why, and I couldn’t—how do you put it into only a few words? That he was there, when I almost thought I wasn’t, when I almost hated you because I couldn’t remember what you were like, what you felt like, what it was like to feel. And that he’s still here, when I don’t know what I am, what I can be now. But he provokes feeling—all sorts of it, and I am something to him that isn’t—that is new, and isn’t limited by the old ways.”
Sandro had gone very still and silent. His head was turned so his hair hid his face from Paolo, and when Paolo tried to brush that away, Sandro shook off the hand. But then he seized it, put it to his lips and then his cheek, and that was forgiveness and love again, whether or not Paolo deserved it.
Paolo turned his head, resting it on the top of Sandro’s. “I still love you. That’s unchanged, even when I almost forgot you. But…”
“I know,” Sandro said. His shoulder slumped, then tipped towards Paolo as Paolo wrapped his other hand over it. “If you want him, if he’s that much to you…I’ll get him back.”
“I should have said I loved him,” Paolo said after a moment, quiet and careful. He watched Sandro stiffen, then shift so he could draw more of himself between Paolo’s legs. “It’s not correct, really, but he would have understood that, maybe, in something of the way that I mean.”
Sandro moved his head up Paolo’s shoulder a little, then relaxed again. “I’ll get him back.”
No, Paolo thought, and then wasn’t entirely sure why. He had too much on his mind—that moment of perfect clarity about Zlatan had vanished, leaving behind a hazy, tempestuous whirl of fragments of thought. And there was Sandro, still shivering a little in his arms, and his regained abilities, and behind that, the worry about Asmodeus. He couldn’t keep it all straight, and not for the first time, he wondered how humans did it.
“Sandro?” someone called. Anxiety distorted the voice so it took a moment for Paolo to place it as Alberto’s. “Sandro? Paolo? Are you all right? Is it—is there a fire?”
“Oh, damn,” Sandro muttered. He jerked up, then absently pulled at his hair as he leaned over to call down the stairwell. “It’s fine! Turn off the alarms!”
Paolo thought about that, then recalled the very large, scorch-edged hole he’d seen in the wall just before he’d had his coughing fit. He knew how it’d come about, but the thoughts about its…mundane consequences that followed just seemed absurd next to the idea that he might’ve had Zlatan walk out on him. They were just—disconnected. And yet it was difficult to get the knowledge that he’d just ruined part of the living room out of his head. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. I’ll figure out how to fix it later.” Grunting, Sandro leaned on one arm while he pulled the other out from behind Paolo.
He stopped when Paolo took him by the shoulders, looking puzzled, but as Paolo leaned forward he realized Paolo’s intentions and melted nearly before their lips had touched. His hands drifted down Paolo’s sides, then curved to Paolo’s waist.
“I’m sorry,” Paolo said again, whispering against Sandro’s mouth.
Sandro shook his head. Very slightly, so their lips never fully slid apart. “I love you.” He stayed a moment longer, then got up and put back his hand to help Paolo up. “All of you, even the part of you that likes him. Don’t worry about that, Paolo—I’ll bring him back.”
* * *
“Figo, did you get that frustrated or was it just that easy to figure out what the damn book was?” Zlatan called, walking through the door. “Downstairs looks cleaner than—”
Xavi jumped back from the lamp he’d been about to turn on, looking terrifically wide-eyed with guilt. Height aside, he was rather well-built, Zlatan absently noted. And those were Figo’s pants he wasn’t clutching quite high enough.
Zlatan stopped where he was and pinched the bridge of his nose. He closed his eyes, then opened them.
“Who’s yelling—” Andrés sauntered into the room, one of Figo’s dress shirts flapping about him, the sleeves dangling well over his hands. Then he saw Zlatan and lost track of his stride so he sort of fell over a sixteenth-century Mayan birthing stool. He flailed as he went down, and as he was only wearing the shirt, Zlatan got a good look at him, too.
“I am not supposed to be the responsible one,” Zlatan muttered to himself.
For some reason, Andrés was still thumping around. Then Zlatan looked and saw Andrés huddled red-faced on the floor, knees drawn up and decidedly not making that racket. And the inevitable came bouncing into the room still half-transformed, his fox ears perkily standing above a disheveled crop of black hair and a long, bushy tail holding up the hem of Figo’s dressing-robe so Zlatan could compare Cesc to the other two. As if Zlatan really wanted to, but there it was.
“Hey, don’t just run off and leave me to change the sheets! I always get—” Cesc paused, looking at Zlatan, and then continued onwards at a slightly slower pace to the kitchen. Which didn’t have anything to do with embarrassment, judging from the way his tail rose even higher. “—oh, you’re back. We figured out what that book was, and maybe why Henrik was looking at it. Still no clue where he is, but Figo says he can do a better scrying spell now that we’ve got something Henrik touched and bled on.”
As he talked, Cesc banged around in the kitchen, opening and closing cabinets till he found a banana and two apples. He tossed the apples to Xavi, who apparently had resigned himself to the whole situation and who now just hitched up the trousers before flopping down into the nearest chair, and to Andrés, who was still very red and very on the floor. And whose ears had also shifted to furry and triangular, only to flatten themselves against his head.
“But you know what he smells like, don’t you? If you’re friends, shouldn’t it be easier for you to track him? Why are you asking Figo to do it?” Cesc went on. He peeled the banana, then began stuffing it into his mouth as he looked brightly up at Zlatan.
“Because this is the human plane and formal magic like that comes more easily to humans. And also I’m pretty sure Henrik is trying his damnedest to hide from demons, and I’d have to get close before he could recognize me,” Zlatan muttered, walking off. More questions were fired at his back, but he ignored Cesc and went into the bedroom.
Figo stepped out of the bathroom, water still running down his arms and chest. He had a towel wrapped around his waist, but not that tightly; Zlatan flicked his eyes to the scatter of bite-marks over the man’s hips and chest, then sighed and slouched against the doorway. “Are you kidding me?”
“It’s bad news, Zlatan. I figured the least I could get for dealing with it was a quick orgy,” Figo said, shrugging. Tone completely matter-of-fact as he padded across the room to his desk to tap on a thick, medieval-looking book, complete with chains and padlock. “Xavi says Asmodeus broke out of his prison and rampaged through Hell, then somehow escaped up here. But first he tore up part of the library, and if this catalog’s right, it’s because there was a book in there that tells you how to kill him. For good.”
Zlatan had been not-thinking about the…that…the whole way over, and he tried even harder now, but his gut kept twisting up on him. Just angels, he told himself. Not his boss because he didn’t have one of those now. He started digging his heel into the floor. “Asmodeus?”
“I suspect that Henrik’s got the book, and that’s why he’s been trying to get in contact with you,” Figo added. It didn’t seem like he’d noticed Zlatan’s discomfort. “He must have escaped just ahead of Asmodeus, and been on the run ever since.”
“You think?” For some reason Zlatan’s voice sounded weak.
That got Figo’s attention. He looked up, frowning. “Of course. Paolo put Asmodeus away, and he’s somewhat less than he used to be, isn’t he? He’s probably the first one Asmodeus really would like to kill.”
Zlatan moved one shoulder and looked at the wall behind Figo. He scuffed his foot against the floor.
Figo stared at Zlatan, then folded his arms over his chest and assumed the usual exasperated expression. “You know, the proper reaction would be to get worried. At least a little.”
“Well, since when did I have a proper reaction? I’m so fucking tired of everybody expecting this or that from me, like I even—I don’t even work for anybody now! I do it for myself!” Zlatan said, throwing up his arms. He accidentally hit his hand against the jamb and swore, then jerked his hand back against his chest. In doing so he happened to turn and he glimpsed somebody peeking at him from down the hall. They promptly hid and Zlatan snorted as he fell back against the doorway. “Fuck. Everybody thinks I’m domesticated, don’t they? Lucky Paolo, he gets a fucking demon pet. He doesn’t have to fight now not because he can’t, but because he’s got me to do it for him.”
After a moment, Figo put up his hand and rubbed at his face while blinking disbelievingly. “Did you have some argument?”
“Yeah. No. I don’t know. I don’t even know what the fuck’s going on anymore, all right? I got out of Hell, I didn’t turn into God.” Snarling, Zlatan stalked inside the room, then kicked shut the door. If he was going to have a fit, and he kind of needed one, he wasn’t doing it in front of those stupid little foxes. “I mean, he didn’t even know who you were, right? And he tells you yeah, I’m getting fucked by Zlatan, and it’s great because otherwise I don’t know what I’m doing. And those twits outside, they think I’m fucking him and Sandro, when Sandro’d probably swear allegiance to Lucifer first—”
“Zlatan. Zlatan.” Figo pushed himself off the wall, absently hitching up his towel, and came over. At first Zlatan thought the man was going to grab his shoulder or something and tensed up, but then Figo just walked straight past into the bathroom. Still talking, though. “First of all, I did introduce myself to Paolo and mentioned that I knew you, and it seemed like he was happy to finally meet one of the human friends you apparently told him about. Secondly, I thought you liked him. You went through all that trouble to get him out of—”
“And that! Why is it still such a big deal?” Then Zlatan grimaced. He kicked at the floor again, then twisted about to flop down onto the—and then he bounced right off the bed as he remembered Cesc saying the sheets hadn’t been changed. Instead he opted for one of the chairs, sprawling out in it while Figo got on some clothes. “Okay, yeah, it was Hell, but I didn’t do it—that’s not everything, okay? I’m not ‘the demon who saves angels from themselves.’ I’m Zlatan. I like Paolo. I like Paolo for…you know, for things besides being the angel I dragged up to the earthly plane, okay? I mean, Sandro’s that too, but he annoys the shit out of me.”
When Figo popped out his head, his hair was a mess, half-up and half-down like he’d been in the middle of rubbing it dry, but his frown somehow managed to overcome that and make Zlatan stay where he was. “So you like him. That’s what I’m talking about. If you like him, and Asmodeus kills him, then you have a problem.”
“He called about that—he already knows,” Zlatan muttered. He did pull his eyes away from Figo’s keen gaze, opting instead to watch his toes wiggle. “He wanted to warn me.”
Long pause. Then Figo drummed his fingers against something, fast and hard. “Zlatan. That means he likes you. You, not…whatever it is you’re thinking he wants you around for. If he just wanted you around for some use—well, I didn’t see much of Sandro, but what I did see makes me think Paolo could talk him into just about anything. And for how to do the ‘anything’…there are books for that.”
“I know! That’s what I told him!” Okay, said a little part of Zlatan. He was being stupid. He wasn’t sure where or how he was being it, but he was. Thing was, he didn’t really want to track down the problem and see just how bad it was because…well, he hated stupidity.
“You…told him?” Figo rubbed at his nose, looking as if somebody was tweaking his balls, or something equally painful. “Wait a moment. I think I’ve missed something here. You both like each other, and more importantly, he’s been acting like he likes you, but that annoys you because…because what, it’s too nice? Do you think he’s trying to fool you?”
“No, I think he means it. I just—it’s just—it’s like he expects me to be nice right back to him. You know. All the time. Do that…the snuggling, and being happy to see him, and wanting to kill Dukes of Hell just for coming after him, and enjoying the sex…and…and I’m still kind of a demon,” Zlatan lamely finished. He was staring at his feet again because he knew what Figo’s expression was going to be like, and also he kind of had a feeling he was flushing up. He really hated himself sometimes. “Demons aren’t supposed to be nice. I’ve been nice and everybody’s been making fun of me for it.”
Wood creaked as Figo shifted about, his damp feet making soft slapping noises on the floor. “Zlatan, I apologize for making fun of you.” When Zlatan looked up, it was to find Figo standing right in front of him, looking terribly serious for somebody who still hadn’t buttoned his shirt or done up his fly. “Because really, I’m happy to see you happy with…well, whoever does that for you. As for the others, just eat their faces because they’re idiots. You’re happy. Who the hell cares what they think? They’re just demons, they’re too busy plotting nonsense to think of something simple like that.”
“Oh,” Zlatan said after a couple seconds. He sat up a little and ran a hand through his hand, then looked at his feet again. “Oh. Huh. That makes sense.”
“Of course it does. I think I’ve fucked enough demons to figure out how you lot deal with jealousy,” Figo muttered, snorting. He grabbed his hair and gave it a last good squeeze as he opened the door. “Go ahead and borrow my phone if you need it. I’m going to start setting up the scrying spell in the living room, so hopefully we can get hold of Henrik tonight and then have a plan for Asmodeus in the morning…”
Zlatan was still sitting, sort of stuck there while the storming muddle that’d been his mind for the past day suddenly cleaved apart into perfect, crystalline thoughts that flowed logically from one to the next. But eventually he realized Figo hadn’t gone out into the hall, and then that the trailing-off of Figo’s voice had been a little weird. And then he realized somebody new was pinging on his senses. “Shit.”
He got up, then slid in front of Figo and went down the hall ahead of him. When Zlatan got to the living room, he thought it was empty, but then he noticed the distorted shadows on the walls: the armchair’s had a long tail, while the TV’s shadow had an extra, much smaller and stockier pair of “ears.” Rolling his eyes, Zlatan reached into the armchair’s and yanked out a yelping Xavi, then tossed him at Figo.
If he’d had the time, he would’ve gotten the other two as well, but right then there came a thumping blow on the door. And to get that far, the wards on Figo’s entryway had to be pretty shredded, so Zlatan just went and opened the door before things got worse.
“You shit,” Sandro snarled. He slammed inside, driving his shoulder into the center of Zlatan’s chest, and then when Zlatan twisted from the blow, grabbed Zlatan’s arm. “If you didn’t care, then—”
“Oh, then what? I should’ve left him down there? You’d take him any way you could get him, every single time.” Zlatan peeked into the hall, assessing the damage Sandro had done. Then he slapped the door shut and turned on his heel to face up to the angel’s accusing expression. “You know what, how about you—”
“What’s the point of coming here if you don’t even want him? Just leave him alone, if it means that little to you!”
“Who the fuck said I didn’t want him? Him?” Zlatan rocked back on his heels and raised his brows. “He didn’t act that way when I had my tongue up his—”
Sandro lunged at him. Which was a little quicker than it usually took, back when they’d actually been fighting on opposite sides, so Zlatan didn’t manage to dodge in time. He did get his hands up to intercept Sandro’s fist, skewing it to the side—so instead the rest of Sandro’s bulk rammed into him, sending them crashing into the wall. The rug rumpled up beneath Zlatan’s foot, then suddenly slid out from under him.
He dropped about half a foot before his right elbow slammed down onto something hard. Hissing, Zlatan jerked away and just glimpsed Sandro pulling back from the wall, looking kind of dazed; the spot right above Zlatan’s head had a definite dent in it. Sandro wavered, then put his hand down on Zlatan’s leg for balance. He didn’t seem to realize what he was doing, and Zlatan didn’t give him a chance to: he yanked his leg away, then rolled over the angel as Sandro collapsed.
Zlatan tried to get at Sandro’s hands, but forgot about Sandro’s knee till it’d suddenly buried itself in his gut, driving him over. He wheezed, the room spinning dizzyingly around him. Then he swore and belatedly reached up, trying to knock away Sandro—except the angel suddenly disappeared, leaving Zlatan to bat at thin air. Though he wasn’t about to trust in that and quickly scrambled over onto his hands and knees, only to nearly get his back broken when a weight dropped on it. His left knee and right palm slipped on the bare wood—the rug had gotten shoved out of the way—and he went down, cracking his chin hard on the floorboards. “Fuck!”
“Get off!” Sandro was saying. Pretty much growling, to be honest. He was still nearby, and actually, that thing thumping Zlatan’s shin was probably his foot. “Who—”
Something clicked somewhere above their heads. Sandro shut up. Zlatan blinked, then gingerly turned his head, mindful of his bruised jaw, and squinted up into Figo’s Jerusalem-steel djinn-forged shotgun. “Oh…fuck.”
Figo had the other gun of the pair pointed at Sandro, who was flat on his back beside Zlatan with Xavi on his legs and Andrés on his chest and arms. Which meant…and right on cue, something furry smugly smacked Zlatan’s ass. “Hmpf. We’re smaller but we’re better organized,” Cesc said.
Yeah, well, everyone was ignoring him. Including Figo, who looked straight into Sandro’s furious eyes and smiled. Not too nicely. “Hello, I’m the property owner and I don’t really appreciate having fist-fights wreck my living room. There’s a perfectly good alley outside for that sort of thing. If you must.”
“I’m not here to fight.” Sandro had a struggle to do it, but he managed to swallow that enraged constriction on his voice. For a moment afterward he held up his head, but then he sighed and let that drop back onto the floor. “Oh, get them off. He just—” hand-wave at Zlatan “—pisses me off and I lost my…I just came here to talk to him.”
“Which is why you try to break my breastbone as a greeting?” Zlatan said, incredulous.
Figo looked annoyed, but that was nothing compared to the look Sandro shot at Zlatan. But then Sandro grimaced and half-closed his eyes. “You’re so damn annoying. But he loves you, all right? If he didn’t, I wouldn’t be here hoping to get you back, because…look, how much more has to happen to him? Do you want to be me all over?”
“What? Why would I be you?” And Cesc unfortunately echoed Zlatan with the confused sound he made, which reminded Zlatan that there were really way too many ears in the room right now, and anyway—fuck. What was it that made everybody keep losing track of the really big problems going on? Okay, they were demons and one ex-angel and whatever, but honestly. “Never mind. Look, I was—I wasn’t leaving. I was just mad and I was coming back anyway, except first I need to find Henrik, my friend. Who helped me get Paolo out, by the way, and who might know how to get rid of Asmodeus for good—fuck! Did you just leave Paolo? What the fuck is wrong with you two?”
“I didn’t leave him, you did, and he’s home with as many wards as I could do with the time I had, and anyway it doesn’t look like Asmodeus is here yet—” Sandro paused. His eyes narrowed. “You were coming back anyway? You knew that, and you said—”
Cough from Figo, who when they looked at him, pointedly hefted the shotguns. “Look, as the mortal in the room, I think I have a slightly better sense of relative dangers than any of you. So I’m going to put these away, and Zlatan is going to get off the floor and call Paolo who I suppose can come over if he’d like, and Sandro, yes? You can help me with the scrying circle so Zlatan can go home before morning. All right?”
Zlatan caught Sandro sizing up the guns and grinned. “That would kill you.”
“It’d kill you too,” Sandro muttered. He stared at Figo for a moment, then gave a reluctant nod of his head. “And get these idiots off me.”
Xavi went so far as to wrinkle his nose as he moved back, and Cesc definitely shot a glare at Sandro on his way over to his friends. “I heard you were a much better fighter than that,” he sniffed. “You just fell over and Andrés barely hit you.”
“You. Stop that.” Figo looked at Cesc, then looked at Cesc’s…Cesc flushed and hid behind an eye-rolling Andrés. With an exasperated sigh, Figo stomped off towards the kitchen. “Honestly. It’s like the teatime Apocalypse sometimes, nothing but sniping, sniping, sniping. I don’t know how the real thing’s going to be done, if this is what the practice run is like.”
* * *
Even if there hadn’t been the gnawing uncertainty about Zlatan, Paolo wouldn’t have been able to relax anyway. So after seeing Sandro to the door, he didn’t even bother trying to go to bed, or even upstairs except to retrieve his work. He briefly considered his office, but the next day was a bank holiday so they’d closed early and the staff had already gone home, leaving the place full of echoes and odd shadows. It was a cloudy night, but occasionally a moonbeam made it through the skylights.
The office would’ve been too small and isolated, so Paolo set up a temporary workspace in the kitchen, on the long counter where normally the expediter put the finishing touches on dishes before they went out to be served. He turned on all the lights, then began to work, but couldn’t concentrate even then. So he rummaged about till he found the cookstaff’s radio and plugged that into the wall. It was tuned to a station he didn’t particularly like, but at the moment he just needed the noise.
He regretted letting Sandro go now, and admittedly it wasn’t just because Sandro shouldn’t be doing what was really Paolo’s work. Even if it was true that his senses were still stronger than Paolo’s and he’d be able to find Zlatan faster…Paolo sighed, then put up his elbow on the counter and dropped his head onto his hand. He tapped his pen against the steel, listening to the way the soft pings undercut the poppy upbeat radio music.
Zlatan had made a good point about Asmodeus, though with some distance on that whole conversation, Paolo did have to wonder just how much Zlatan had thought about it, and if he’d even meant it to have substance. In retrospect his agitation had been only a more intense version of the morning’s nerves, and probably Paolo should have pushed harder and found out what that had been about. But he was aware, even if he did his best not to show it in hopes of further aggravating the tension, that Zlatan and Sandro would’ve happily killed each other if not for him. Sandro had chosen to tolerate Zlatan, but Paolo didn’t quite think that Zlatan had really thought through that, and to be honest, he was a little fearful of pushing the choice on the demon.
He didn’t want to fight now. He didn’t know if he could fight anymore; he had gained back some power, and more might return, but his wings were gone and with them, his old status. He was never going to be part of Heaven’s host again and outside of that he was uncertain of—not only of what he was and what he could do, but also why he would do it in the first place. Paolo wouldn’t have traded this new life of his for anything, even for the melody of God’s voice, but sometimes he did miss the sheer clarity of purpose he used to have. Now he couldn’t even explain a simple feeling without getting tangled in his own thoughts.
Then again, he couldn’t sit still forever. He’d been letting himself…vegetate, he thought ruefully. Vegetate while Sandro still struggled with their past, and while Zlatan restlessly fought to move beyond that. Sometimes he did wonder what they saw in him.
Paolo sat up, then pulled over a clean sheet of paper. He checked the back to make sure it wasn’t something he might have to pass off to a human later, then positioned it before him. After a moment’s thought, he put pen-tip to paper and drew a circle. He drew another circle within it, considered the figure, and then was in the middle of adding a pentagram within the inner circle when he heard something.
The back door, he thought after a moment. Somebody was trying to get in and not doing very well with it. The air seemed to chill a little, but then Paolo reminded himself that he at least had the memories of a fighter—and anyway, no alarms had gone off.
He put down his pen and slid out of the chair, then got one of the crowbars from the walk-in refrigerator. Then he slowly moved up one of the aisles, keeping himself behind various cabinets and counters till he was nearly to the door. The rattling noise had stopped, but it started just as he got close enough to touch the doorknob. Paolo took up a spot by the wall, then reached out and flicked the knob.
The lock immediately gave and the door swung towards him, temporarily blocking his view. Behind it footsteps hurriedly came inside, accompanied by loud, raspy panting. A moment later the owner of the heavy breathing staggered into Paolo’s view.
“Cold…” Alberto muttered, rubbing his hands together. He glanced down at something in his fingers, frowning, before turning around to shut the door. And then he saw Paolo and he…well, Paolo would’ve liked to spare the man’s dignity, but Alberto screamed.
Paolo winced and put out his hands. Then he remembered the crowbar and stuffed that beneath his arm. “No, no, it’s only me. I’m sorry.”
“Oh! Oh, no, I probably scared you.” Alberto looked embarrassed till his eyes fell upon the crowbar, and then his expression was downright sheepish. “I’m so sorry. I know I should’ve called ahead, but it was so stupid—I just—um, well, that fire scare earlier was keeping me up. And I kept thinking, ‘Did I check that all the burners were off before I closed up?’ and I couldn’t sleep, so I just thought I’d come back and…make sure, instead of waking you or Sandro up. But my…my key, it doesn’t work…”
Probably a side-effect from the new warding spells Sandro had done. Later Paolo would have to check over those; he probably could manage adjusting them by himself. “It was sticking on me earlier. I think maybe something got into the lock, maybe some syrup…I’ll be calling in a locksmith to look at it.”
“Oh, I’ll just do that when we open again,” Alberto said. He stood there, his shoulders still hunched from the cold outside. “Ah. So I suppose the burners aren’t still on?”
“I don’t think so…” Paolo replied. The crowbar shifted under his arm and he looked down to push it back up.
When he looked up again, Alberto had wandered over to the stoves to inspect them more closely. Paolo opened his mouth, then thought the better of it and let the man do that. It wasn’t hurting anything.
The wind blowing in through the door, on the other hand, was rather bitter, so Paolo grabbed the knob. He tried to push it shut, but found it tougher going than he’d expected. So he braced his feet and put his shoulder to it, and was just about to apply pressure when the phone rang. He looked across the room at it, then at Alberto, who had a puzzled expression on his face.
“Who’s calling at this hour?” Alberto frowned. He moved towards the phone.
“I have no i—” Paolo turned back to the door, then hissed and tried to throw himself backwards. But the wind suddenly reversed on him, sucking out, and he tried to dig his nails into the door, but his hand slipped. And the door slammed shut.
* * *
“You should’ve tried the kitchen number,” Sandro grouched. Of course his bad mood might have been due to having to share the backseat with two annoyingly twitchy fox-demons, but somehow Zlatan doubted it. “Paolo’s not going to be upstairs, and I can’t believe you just left a voicemail and didn’t tell me you didn’t get him.”
Zlatan absently elbowed Cesc towards Figo’s lap again, then grunted as his knees bumped up into the dashboard again. Damn car was really too small—he’d buy Figo a bigger one if this was going to keep up. “Look, I figured he was sleeping or something.”
“After what you pulled on him?” The death-heat in Sandro’s eyes bored all the way through the headrest and deep into the back of Zlatan’s head. “Besides, Paolo won’t be sleeping. He only sleeps when you or I are there with him.”
“Huh?” Then the blood in the bowl swirled in the exact opposite direction it should’ve gone, given the way the car was moving. “Take a left!”
Figo was nearly past the turn, but he swung the wheel hard and just made it. And also drastically rearranged everybody so Zlatan had to use magic to keep himself from getting covered in blood. “Are you sure?” Figo asked. “We’re heading towards the cathedral.”
“That’s what the damn spell says,” Zlatan muttered. He jammed the bowl up against the dash, dislodged Cesc’s foot from his shoulder, and twisted around to stare at Sandro. “What’d you say?”
Sandro had his cell pinched between his ear and shoulder as he wrestled with somebody’s elbow. He finally got that out of range of his head, then nearly let the phone fall as he straightened to look at Zlatan. “Damn—hello? Damn it, I just turned it off.”
“Oh, give me that.” The car swerved again, but this time it was in Zlatan’s favor. He snatched away the phone, then accidentally whacked Cesc’s head with his arm as he sat back in the seat. For a moment he stared at the phone because actually, he didn’t remember the kitchen number off the top of his head, and then he remembered about callback and hit that.
“He doesn’t sleep,” Sandro said again. A little quieter, though his annoyance was still coming through loud and clear as he dubiously eyed Xavi and Andrés, who were busily trying to pretend holding Figo’s shotgun cases was more exciting than eavesdropping. “If no one else is there. I used to go to Rome for the whole weekend to do research, but then I came back early once and caught him…he just walks around with all the lights on.”
Zlatan cursed and tossed up his arm as a pothole sent his head crashing into the ceiling. The phone was dialing now so he put it up to his ear. He swung around as Figo abruptly pulled up the car and glimpsed Sandro’s face, all dark watchful eyes and tightly-held mouth, before lifting the bowl up and stuffing it into Cesc’s arms. “See if sleeping pills work on him. If not, I’m pretty sure there’s something…”
“That’s not the damn problem.” The moment the car had stopped, Sandro was out the door. He yanked at his coat, looking up at the cathedral gates, and then marched towards them without waiting up for the rest.
Somebody finally answered, but it wasn’t Paolo—it was that assistant or whatever, Gila. And he was all babbling and not really making sense, and Sandro was fucking leaping over the damn gates now, like he was some superhero and not…not a really touchy wingless angel, and Zlatan was just abandoning that thought without even trying to find any sense in it. He told Gila to tell Paolo to call back, then shut the phone and stuffed it into his pocket. And then he ran after Sandro.
“Do you even realize what that means, or are you just too damn used to Hell, to all the—”
“I know what it means, and—damn it, Sandro, get back here! I don’t know where Henrik is in there and—and—oh, you fucking bastard.” Zlatan scrambled up the gates himself, then dropped down into a crouch. He promptly sprang back up into a flying leap and tackled the idiot angel to the ground.
The point was just to slow Sandro down, so he did let Sandro right back up. Though he was tempted. Severely tempted, and the way Sandro glowered at Zlatan as he got back, movements jerky with irritation, didn’t help. “He went through—”
“You know what? You don’t get to talk anymore about what Paolo went through. First of all, you’ve been in Hell for the shortest time of the three of us, and believe me, it’s not good to anybody. Secondly, I was there for some of what he went through, and it was fucking terrible. But that’s it—it was bad and telling me about how bad it was isn’t going to make it better. Or make him sleep,” Zlatan snarled. He belatedly remembered the others and turned around, but Figo waved him on ahead. Which was a good thing, because he really needed to hurt something right now and he was eying that chain on the side-door in front of them. “And yeah, I know sleeping pills or potions or whatever won’t fix it, but at least they’d make him get some rest so he’s up to fixing it. If he ever feels like getting around to it.”
He got to the chain a fraction of a second before Sandro and had it snapped. Too easily, and when he stepped back to drop it on the ground, he noticed Sandro looked as annoyed as he felt. Then Sandro’s face twitched, and for a moment he seemed embarrassed. He rubbed his face, then pulled at his hair and scuffed up the ground. “Are we getting your friend or not? I want to get back to Paolo, even if you don’t.”
“I do, okay? It just happens that I also have others I care about. You know, because they helped me out and didn’t accidentally get me stuck in a cage?” And no, Zlatan didn’t feel bad about the way Sandro whitened at his comment. The shit deserved it, with the way he’d been acting. He’d clearly been saving up this night for ages and he was letting it all hang out, and moreover, it definitely was all for him and didn’t have anything to do with Paolo, except for Paolo being the excuse. “Look, get it through your stupid chicken-brained head: demons can care. And I care about Paolo.”
“Then why did you do that to him?” Sandro snapped. He yanked open the doors before Zlatan had completely finished checking for obvious dangers, then stalked inside. He probably was back in warrior-angel mode, thinking the cathedral was holy ground was home ground. At least Paolo knew he was different now, even if he had all those other issues.
Not sleeping, Zlatan thought, and grimaced without really letting the why of it come into his head. Then he shook it off because honestly, this was not the time to be getting stuck in that sort of thing, and went after Sandro. Again.
The side-door led into a narrow hall, which went pretty quickly to the nave. Everything was strangely dark and quiet, and though Zlatan could still smell the earthy, sweaty odor of all the people who’d been through the cathedral earlier in the day, it was muted. But not because another strong scent was overriding it, and that was the really unnatural part. Odder even than the fact that Zlatan’s skin wasn’t crawling like he still half-expected it to.
He was so busy concentrating on that that he stepped on the back of Sandro’s heel. Zlatan shifted back, but not before Sandro had hissed and hit him, and honestly, did Sandro ever think about how much it took Zlatan to not kill him? And that was all Paolo’s fault.
“Where’s your friend?” Sandro whispered. His voice was still flat with anger, but the tension in it was slightly too edged to be from that: rage with Sandro always seemed to be a raw, wild thing.
Would’ve made more sense as a demon, Zlatan idly thought. He didn’t really want to, since it made him more detectable by others, but he switched to demon-vision. The lines of Sandro’s face suddenly came into focus, the few curves always leading to a sharp angle, and then past him, the long lines of pews. Zlatan squeezed past Sandro, just so he could get his head into the draft coming from the nave, and took as deep a breath as he could without making any noise. Then again.
Then he sagged back against the wall. “Shit.”
Sandro hissed at him and Zlatan started, having momentarily forgotten the angel in his disappointment. Then he—he just flapped a hand at the bastard, a little more concerned with other matters, but of course Sandro couldn’t let anything go. He eased right up to Zlatan, so their noses were nearly touching, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “I can’t believe you have friends, actually.”
“Why, because you don’t? At least, I never see any come by,” Zlatan muttered. He started to push at Sandro, then grabbed at the hand the angel shoved up. “Look, would you—stop this? Stop bitching at me, just for now? I fucked up, all right? I’ve been worried about Henrik all day and there’s this other shit, Asmodeus and all these demons showing up when I thought I was getting a damn vacation, and Paolo just talked to me at the wrong time. It happens.”
“It happens. Oh, that’s so—” Sandro started, all disdainful and disapproving.
Well, Zlatan just ignored him and walked into the nave. He couldn’t smell Henrik, but something was up—Figo knew what he was doing and he’d had Zlatan, Sandro and those damn fox demons to boost his power so his spell had taken them here for a reason. Maybe because Henrik had been here, and had just—Zlatan stopped. He stepped back, sniffed, and then stepped forward and smelled again.
“What are you doing?” Sandro had caught up, and when Zlatan looked at him, the movement down by the doorway from where they’d come said the others had finally made it inside as well.
“C’mere. No, just…look, if you stand here, you get nothing. You move over here, you smell…” When Sandro still didn’t move, Zlatan reached for him.
The angel flinched back, paused, and then stalked forward with a set look on his face. Of course the moment he crossed that invisible line and smelled all that ichor, his expression changed. He reached for his mouth—disgust and horror flicked across his face—before abruptly twisting past Zlatan. Sandro slowed briefly, then sped up. And up, till he was running down the aisle.
Well, it was angel ichor, but not any angel’s that Zlatan had had the privilege to scent before. And there was a lot, and their predictable idiocy aside, it did take something terrible to make an angel bleed that much. So Zlatan stayed back to make sure nothing was still around, and then to give Figo the news. And then he tracked Sandro down.
The wounded angel was stuffed behind the altar. Or had been stuffed; Sandro had gotten most of him out, but his wings were extended so Sandro was having difficulty with the last third. Not that that stopped him from snapping up his head and looking murderous when Zlatan approached, or from just turning somewhat confused when Zlatan reached up to pull the heavy altar screen out of the way.
That got whatever it was loose and the angel came tumbling out, limbs sprawling limply. One wing swooped about, making Sandro duck, but the other remained folded up. In the wrong way, Zlatan quickly noted. He squatted down and touched it, then grabbed the leading edge to pull it to where he could see it better, and the angel came to hissing, flailing life.
It was Gianluigi. Sandro gasped, then put out his hand. He went very still when Gianluigi flinched from him, making a small rasping noise. The wing tugged at Zlatan’s grip, but he held onto it as he shifted closer. Then he got his other hand on the joint, just where it flowed into the angel’s back, and carefully lowered the wing so he could take a look.
“Oh,” Figo said, coming up. His eyes were fixed on the splintered bone that was jabbing up out of the wing. “Oh, hell. Xavi! Go back to the car and grab the green bag in the trunk, would you?”
“Sandro?” Gianluigi tried to lift his head, but couldn’t quite make it. He shuddered as he collapsed again, then groaned as Sandro cradled his head in two hands. “Asmodeus—”
Zlatan dropped the wing, then moved out from under it and stepped over Gianluigi, who was telling Sandro something about a breach in some gate. He stuck his head into the narrow space where Gianluigi had been, then pulled it back out. “Wait a moment. Henrik was here. And there’s…that’s a manticore heart back there. Hey, Gianluigi. You haven’t taken up black magic, have you?”
Sandro glared and started to tell Zlatan off, but a rattling cough from Gianluigi interrupted him. He paused, mouth still open, before shifting to hold up Gianluigi’s head. Gianluigi looked at Zlatan, and then his eye rolled back into his head a little, but he—purposefully, it seemed—tweaked his own wing. Once he’d stopped clenching his jaw from the pain, his eyes went back to Zlatan.
“There was another one. He said he knew you. He was—he was trying to kill Asmodeus, but I didn’t realize—he’s gone.” Gianluigi took a deep, ragged breath. “Not dead. He just—I don’t know. He went. But Asmodeus—he’s out there too.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know? You idiots never know anything, you’re always barging in before you even figure out what’s…oh, fuck this,” Zlatan snarled, whirling about. He stomped down the stairs, then whacked the first pew with his foot. “Damn it, damn it, damn it!”
That wasn’t enough, so he smashed his fists into the top of the pew as well. He heard the wood creak, but it surprised him by not breaking. Then he really thought about what he was doing, and as he realized he’d been pulling both his kick and his punches, he was already swinging back. He stood there and stared into the dark of the cathedral, his arms hanging by his sides, and finally admitted he was fucking terrified. About Henrik, about Asmodeus, about Paolo.
“Zlatan, can you come over here?” Figo asked.
“He’s not going to. I’ll just—” Sandro looked up, then let his mouth close with an audible click as Zlatan knelt down beside him.
Zlatan ignored him and moved Gianluigi’s broken wing further onto Sandro’s knee, then put his hands where Figo pointed. He took a deep breath, waited for Gianluigi to brace himself, and then pushed down as hard as he could.
The bone slid back into the slash of ruined bloody flesh with a sucking pop. There wasn’t any snapping noise.
“Never mind, we can set it properly…” Figo paused, thinking “…I’m not sure if the shop will have enough room, even if we push all the shelves to the walls.”
“We can use the kitchen,” Sandro said quietly. “But he won’t fit in the car.”
He was staring at Gianluigi’s wing with a strange look on his face, like he was going to be sick except it wasn’t quite that physical. More like his mind wanted to vomit than like his stomach was heaving. Then he bit his lip and looked up at Zlatan, and that expression was even more puzzling.
“I can take down the wards just for a second. Just long enough.” Sandro swallowed hard, and tightened his jaw, and just generally made it obvious how difficult admitting the next part was going to be. “But I can’t—that’s all I can do.”
“If it helps, you don’t have to take me or the foxes. I can drive over,” Figo said to Zlatan.
Zlatan blinked, processing all that. Then he grimaced. “Damn it. This is going to hurt.”
“Your…wing…is not shattered,” Gianluigi said. Beneath all that pain, his voice was faintly acerbic.
And okay, Zlatan had to admire that. Even half bled-out and being held up by “vastly lesser beings,” Gianluigi could still be a shit. It was nice to find some consistency somewhere. “Shut up and don’t throw up till we’re there, okay? If it’s one thing I hate, it’s dematerialized vomit.”
After Figo got out of the way and Gianluigi had folded in his good wing, Zlatan and Sandro crowded close to stabilize the bad one. Sandro’s lips thinned when their hips brushed against each other, but he just bent his head and began muttering under the breath. Of course Zlatan wasn’t going to be shown up, so he focused as well, and—
* * *
“Oh my God!” somebody screamed.
Zlatan dropped Gianluigi’s wing, then rolled over. His guts heaved and he had to slap a hand over his mouth, but he managed to stagger over to a sink before it all came up. And given he’d made it that far, he didn’t feel bad at all at collapsing over the sink edge as he threw up.
Well, he could’ve done without his hair getting in the way. And still feeling as if somebody had tied knots in his intestines once he’d knocked on the water and rinsed off his hair. The only thing that really made him feel better was thinking about the first time those annoying yappy fox demons found out that magic didn’t work so easily on the earthly plane. No, it had to follow a whole bunch of stupid rules and even demons couldn’t just power through those without losing their dinner.
Same with angels: Zlatan finally turned around, vaguely annoyed by whoever was still babbling hysterically, and the first thing he saw was Sandro lying on the floor, slack-bodied and grey-faced. With the way the wards practically pulsed around them, temporarily pushing them aside had to have taken a herculean effort, Zlatan admitted.
Sandro stirred, then rolled over with a groan, his eyelashes fluttering. He collapsed onto his forearms, blinking weakly, his head nearly touching the floor. Then he took a deep breath and began to sit up. He glanced at Gianluigi, who’d apparently passed out, and then up at Zlatan, his lips pressed so tightly together it looked like he only had one.
Wait a moment. “Who the fuck is screaming?” Zlatan snapped.
Said screaming abruptly stopped and was replaced by a kind of hyperventilating wheeze. After a moment, Sandro scrunched up his face and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. He looked pained, but it wasn’t really related to any physical trauma now. “Gila? Is that you?”
The assistant again…it was kind of late, Zlatan thought, but there the man was, slammed up against a bank of cabinets with his hands jammed through their handles. His head kept whipping back and forth between Gianluigi and Zlatan. His eyes were about the size of eggs, and if he breathed any harder, he was going to have bits of lungs coming up.
Sandro made a visible effort to look less…scary. At least, he sort of made his face muscles twitch till it wasn’t so obvious he still really wanted to hurt something, and then he awkwardly reached towards Gila, the way long-time bachelors did with small children. “Gila? It’s me. Listen, it’s all right, it’s just…”
“Wings,” Gila hissed. He waved his chin at Gianluigi. If there were about five more of the angel, scattered about the kitchen. “Dark. Door. Monsters.”
Zlatan slapped his hand over his face. Then he slapped it down and grimaced, because he could still smell vomit beneath his nails. “Oh, honestly. Yeah, look, things kind of aren’t like you’ve been thinking they were. But stop screaming because it’s not going to change any—”
“Would you stop being an utter prick?” Sandro snapped, twisting about. “Honestly. It’s all fine and well for you, but sometimes others aren’t as thick-skinned as you are. And then—”
Sandro didn’t immediately stop; he was working up to a good rage and the momentum tried to carry on for a few seconds. But he heard, and it seemed like some part of his mind was always looking out for that red flag. So he stuttered a bit, his mouth’s movements almost disjointing from the words, and then went silent. And still, and pale again.
“He’s—the door.” Gila unwound one hand from a cabinet handle, then the other. He ran them through his hair, his fingers shaking so much that they jerked loose strands that then drifted down around. “He was shutting it and something—there was something out there. And then he went through it, and I went to go—I went to go get it because I thought it was the wind, but it snarled at me! It had teeth!”
“What?” Zlatan said. His elbow hit something and he reflexively glanced down, only to find he’d somehow sank nearly to his knees. He shook himself, hard, and looked back up at Gila. “What had teeth? Wait—you called me.”
If Gila’s eyes bulged out any more, he was going to lose them and even Figo on a good day couldn’t guarantee being able to fix something like that. “I called! I’ve been calling but nobody’s taken it, and now there’s—what the hell is that! On the floor! It’s got wings!”
It was moving, actually. Slow, considerably hampered by the way that broken wing was dragging, but Gianluigi managed to raise his head. “I am not an it. I’m an angel.”
“What? What the fuck are you talking about? Why do you have wings? Oh, my God…oh, my God…you were here before!” Gila babbled. His voice wasn’t so loud and shrill now, but it was still pretty grating on the ear. “Holy mother of God, what is this…”
“It’s going to be messy if you don’t stop blaspheming—” Something caught on something else and Gianluigi flopped onto his face again.
Sandro hadn’t moved yet, Zlatan absently noticed. He also noticed his fangs were slipping out and directly into his lip, so he pulled them back in, and then he pushed himself back up the counter, pressing at the side of his head. Paolo—gone. Shit. “Shit. Okay, Gila? That’s your name? Listen, calm down, Gianluigi’s an asshole but he’s hurt and anyway, you went to confession this week, right? I don’t think you could’ve gotten up to anything since then that he could get you for.”
Gila was still staring at Gianluigi, who unfortunately had not done them all the favor of passing out, but he seemed to be calming down. He wasn’t yanking out his hair and trying to will his eyeballs out of their sockets, anyway. “Huh?”
“He’s an angel. A real one. God’s personal chorus and all that. And Sandro used to be one, and so did Paolo, and anyway I don’t really have time to run through all that theological shit because Paolo’s in trouble, okay? You want Paolo to be in trouble?” Thankfully Gila immediately shook his head so Zlatan could get on to the actually useful part. “Okay, great. Neither do I. Go get some towels.”
All right, it wasn’t that useful, but he was hoping it was close enough to Gila’s usual life that reflex would get the man moving. And sure enough, Gila hopped up and went over to the other side of the room.
Zlatan looked over Gianluigi, but couldn’t see any new injuries and anyway, if Gianluigi could bitch about violations of the Third Commandment, he could wait a couple minutes. So Zlatan shoved off the counter and got down in front of Sandro, who did move enough to track Zlatan with his eyes, but otherwise was doing the statue thing. Which was fucking great, the one time Zlatan could’ve used the angel’s righteous viciousness…Zlatan snapped his fingers before Sandro’s face. Then he grabbed Sandro and shook him; Sandro’s arms felt like rubber and his hands swung forward to bang into Zlatan’s knees.
“Fuck,” Zlatan said in a heartfelt tone. Then he punched Sandro on the jaw.
And he didn’t enjoy it at all, to be honest. He just felt like…he just kind of wished he hadn’t gotten out of bed so fast this morning, to be honest.
Sandro dropped back so far that Zlatan started up, thinking the angel was going to go completely over and crack his head on the floor. But then Sandro turned into a blur, and the next thing Zlatan knew, his head was exploding from the crack it’d taken from the floor, and his back also was yelling at getting wrenched for the nth time today. Oh, and Sandro was trying to strangle him.
“You shit! You left a fucking voicemail! And then you didn’t call, and you—you—you—he’s gone, you shit!” Sandro was outright screaming as his fingers ground into Zlatan’s throat, his gaping mouth so close that Zlatan’s nose was actually inside it. He was shaking all over, so hard that that was actually keeping him from putting continuous pressure on Zlatan’s windpipe, and then he made himself lose balance. “He’s gone, he’s gone, he’s—”
While he could, Zlatan rolled them over. It was awkward. He was yanking as hard as he could at Sandro’s hands, since he was in serious danger of getting paralyzed and—well, he’d heal, but it’d take forever. And he’d just rather not, when—“Let me go—idiot! We need—can’t—waste—time—”
“He’s gone,” Sandro repeated, his voice suddenly small and shivery. He went limp before Zlatan had even slammed him against the floor, and when his head and shoulders snapped against the tile, he just winced, his shoulders hunching and his breath hitching, before going all slack and wide-eyed beneath Zlatan. “Again. I let it happen again.”
“Sandro—” Gianluigi grunted.
Big white spots were still dancing before his eyes so Zlatan couldn’t see things farther away than Sandro too well, but he could read Gianluigi’s tone clear enough. “Fuck off and pass out. I didn’t need or want to save your ass—Gila? Towels?”
“Gianluigi’s bleeding all over the damn floor,” Zlatan said, tugging at Sandro’s wrists. Once he’d gotten enough of the angel up, he grabbed Sandro by the waist and began hauling him towards the offices. He—he didn’t really know what he was going to do when he got there, because frankly the only reason he wasn’t having a fit was because everyone was so annoying, but he damn well wasn’t having another argument in front of everybody and…stupid fucking theology. “Do something about that, would you?”
Gila looked at Zlatan, absently trying to wring out the towel in his hands. Then he looked at Gianluigi. Then back at Zlatan.
And then Zlatan was in the hall, and not looking at that so it’d have to take care of itself. He stopped to adjust his grip, which was slipping, and then dragged Sandro into the first open door. Which turned out to be some closet, but it’d do.
Sandro was still breathing, and aware enough to occasionally twist or nudge his dislike of Zlatan’s dragging, but he wasn’t doing much else. When Zlatan finally let go, he did put out his hands to break his fall. Then he stayed like that, crouched over, his shoulders thrown back so the scars where his wings had been stood out beneath his shirt. His shaking made his fingertips drum against the floor.
“Stop that. Falling apart isn’t going to get him back, damn it,” Zlatan said. Then he coughed, since his voice sounded oddly raspy. He dropped out of his squat so he was properly sitting on the floor, becoming aware himself that he was breathing unnaturally hard and fast. “Damn it, I can’t—”
The shivering stopped. Then Sandro’s shoulders hitched once, hard and high so his hands were actually lifted off the floor by it. He sat back, but kept his head down, and with all that hair in his face, Zlatan couldn’t see anything of him. “How do you do this? How do you—do you know what it was like the first time? I had Heaven but he was gone.” Sandro’s hands came up, jittering so much Zlatan was surprised not to hear their bones rattling. Then, spasmodic, they jammed back a double handful of hair from his face. “I couldn’t—I almost had to forget he ever existed, or else I couldn’t have done anything. And—and now I can’t breathe, and it’s freezing in here, and my legs, they aren’t working—what is this? I can’t—I can’t—”
“Shit,” Zlatan muttered. He was staring at Sandro, not helping with the wasting of time, but his mind was thinking angels, they didn’t really have emotions because God supposedly had created them to feel how he wanted them to feel. All they did was just carry out orders, and Sandro had been going crazy—schizophrenic, really, between the overdone protection spells and the obsessive dedication to acting like a chef/restaurant owner, like somebody had ordered him to make everything easy for Paolo. And Paolo had been acting like he was stuck…
“He’s gone. I can’t—he’s—” Sandro jerked up his head, stared at Zlatan. Thick wet tracks were running down his cheeks, though he hadn’t yet noticed those.
Then he did; his hand brushed over the dampness, then came back as his whole body hitched. He wiped at his face harder, so that the skin flushed up beneath the pressure, and at that point Zlatan just grabbed Sandro’s wrist.
He started to pull Sandro over, but Sandro resisted. Mostly passive, digging in his heels and that sort of thing, but they didn’t have time so Zlatan grabbed Sandro’s other hand too and used both. That got Sandro over—he literally rolled over his own knees, he was that out of it—and then Zlatan had been going to…to go dunk Sandro’s head in the sink, or something like that. It was how Henrik, if the water was actually bubbling acid, tended to clear Zlatan’s head.
But something got to Sandro and he was suddenly trying to crawl into Zlatan, his hands jerking free to clutch at Zlatan’s back, his face burying itself in Zlatan’s shoulder. He pulled up his knees against Zlatan’s hip, then let them rock back and forth, sliding across the slight hollow in the top of the hipbone, as he…he was actually sobbing.
Zlatan started to swear, but ended up biting his lip instead and wasn’t really sure how or why. He looked at the top of Sandro’s head, then at the door. What was Gila doing, he absently thought, gingerly putting his hands on Sandro’s sides. Then he slid them around, not really sure—he tried out waist, shoulders, on top of the spine before finally settling on back of the neck and left side of the back. Once in a while, when absolutely nobody else had been around, when Zlatan had been too small to really remember well, Henrik had done this too. And the fuzzy memory still felt good to Zlatan, so he tried it.
The shaking went down a bit and so did the sniffling, but then that leveled out. Sandro’s fingers were kneading pretty hard at Zlatan’s back, and the day had put Zlatan through enough that even he was having a tough time suppressing his winces. He shifted around, covertly tugging at Sandro, but the angel just made a protesting noise and pressed harder.
So Zlatan…couldn’t believe he was considering it, but fuck it, this was close enough to Judgment Day, which he didn’t really believe in anymore anyway. He craned his head about and kissed Sandro’s temple.
Some of the wet-frizzled hairs stuck there transferred themselves to his lips, so he paused a moment to shake them off. In that moment, Sandro moved his head, turning it so his cheek was pressed up against Zlatan’s jawline. His mouth whispered against the side of Zlatan’s throat, then made a jerky jump higher, just grazing the point of Zlatan’s jaw. Zlatan flinched back and Sandro lifted his head enough for—he did not look good with bloodshot, puffy eyes. It didn’t even work with Zlatan’s private theory that Sandro had been a misborn demon from the internal affairs department.
Zlatan’s hand was still on the back of Sandro’s neck. So he moved it, pulling it forward to cup the right side of Sandro’s face. Sandro closed his eyes, sending a few drops flying off his lashes, and ducked his head down, towards Zlatan. After a moment, Zlatan pressed his mouth to Sandro’s forehead, right at the top of the hairline. He ate more hair, but Sandro pulled those out when he lifted his head and put his mouth on Zlatan’s mouth.
It wasn’t fun, or enjoyable, or well, anything but over-salty from Sandro’s tears and full of awkward bumps and nicks because Sandro was angled oddly across Zlatan’s body. But weirdly enough, it still made Zlatan feel better.
He stroked at Sandro’s hair, pushing it back over and over again from the angel’s face, but flyaways kept getting away from him. Sandro tipped his head into the touches, his palms flat and still against Zlatan’s back. His brows pulled down, pushing a furrow to life between them. Then he abruptly slid off to the side, his lips dragging a damp trail over Zlatan’s jaw before they went off completely. Sandro dropped his forehead onto Zlatan’s shoulder, shuddering again, but this time it was just a few shakes before he went still and tense.
“Because my life has been really shitty,” Zlatan said. He paused to swallow and clear up that odd unevenness in his voice, then licked at his suddenly-dry lip. “You get used to being fucked over. If you don’t, then you’re dead and that doesn’t really help, does it?”
After a moment, Sandro’s head rolled to the side. Then he lifted it, but at the same time he rubbed at his face so Zlatan still couldn’t see his expression. “You get complacent about mistakes, don’t you?”
“Oh, for—look, I don’t think I can avoid every single fucking stupid thing in the world. Even…okay, even the stupid things that are my fault, because you know what? I still have shitty days and I get annoyed and can’t think straight. But I think I can damn well fix them if I try hard enough—I’m complacent that way, yeah.” Zlatan scooted back so he had some space, then put his hand down and pushed on it. He twisted himself out from between Sandro and the wall. “Anyway, you get too worked up about them to even figure out what you did wrong in the first place, and that doesn’t help with not doing it again.”
“Oh, really? Then what was it I did?” Sandro asked. He took his hand down and his face was still blotchy and tear-stained, but the snarl was back in his eyes. “Tell me, if you know everything.”
Rolling his eyes, Zlatan reached up for the door-knob. He grabbed it and used it to haul himself to his feet, then pulled at his shirt since it’d gotten all bunched up at his shoulders. There was snot glistening where Sandro had smushed his face; Zlatan made a face, then snorted. Imperfect, all right. “The first time you fell in love, which is dumb if you’re an angel, but look, what are you going to do about that? And this time you just got distracted by me, but that’s understandable.”
Sandro jerked up on his heels, his hand rising. Then he stopped, and then he just hit Zlatan on the knee. Hard, but not exactly bone-crushing. “You shit.”
“Whatever. I’m about to go out there and figure out how to rip Asmodeus into little bits, but that doesn’t mean I can’t think Paolo could’ve done something about this, too. He could’ve come with you, or not been so fucking calm earlier today, or just…I don’t know, figured out how to use a gun. Figo’s got a couple that could at least slow Asmodeus down,” Zlatan said. He stared at the door-knob in his hand, then watched himself pull that. “So you going to help me or what?”
“You…you talk a lot when you’re upset.” Then Sandro got up, absently running one hand through his hair. He raised a long, considering look to Zlatan before slowly walking into the hall. “You really that sure of yourself? You don’t—don’t even know if Paolo’s—”
“Don’t say it!” Zlatan snapped. He jerked the door shut and went down the hall a bit, then stopped. His head hurt. Other things hurt. He shoved his hands up into his hair, then dug into his scalp with his nails, and then that hurt. “You…you collapse again and I’m just going to leave you there and get to it.”
Sandro came up beside him, then stopped and stared at Zlatan again. That thoughtful look was back on his face, and all in all he was weirdly calm now compared to his usual reaction. “That’s how you do it, isn’t it? You get to it and don’t really think about it.”
“And before you ask, I do fuck up a lot that way. I’ll admit it. But at least I’m doing something.” A couple more yanks at his hair, and then Zlatan made himself take out his hands. He irritably shook off the loose strands, then took a step towards the kitchen. “Sometimes I wonder why the fuck I just don’t kill you.”
“Why not?” Sandro asked, smoothly sliding into stride alongside Zlatan. “I could think you could justify it to yourself. You think you’re enough for anybody.”
Zlatan flicked an incredulous look at him, only to almost walk past the door when he found Sandro looking serious. “Are you kidding? Paolo loves you. You make him—you make him happy, okay? I can see that, and I don’t like him when he’s unhappy. He’s a jerk, and he’s—it just wasn’t fun to watch, all right?”
“All right.” When Zlatan looked at him this time, Sandro just raised his brows. So Zlatan kept looking at him, and eventually Sandro twitched away and made a dismissive, defensive gesture with his hands.
Which was more like it. Sighing in relief, Zlatan turned into the kitchen. Then he stopped.
“…explains why they made such funny faces when Rino was talking about The Da Vinci Code. We thought it was because Sandro goes to Rome and looks up things, so maybe he knows people in the Vatican, but that makes more sense,” Gila said. He paused, head cocked. Then a shy grin flashed over his face as he bent back over Gianluigi’s wing. “I can’t believe it does, but…but I still don’t understand why Paolo doesn’t like serving chicken dishes.”
Gianluigi had his face in the floor, and was mumbling to boot so Zlatan couldn’t make out what he said. Apparently Gila could, since he listened attentively, his expression now intensely focused as he pushed a needle through a flap of flesh. He had an extensive first-aid kit spread out on the floor around him, and then there were the various pliers and other tools that he’d stuck in Gianluigi’s wing to very professionally sort out the wound and hold bits in place till he got around to them.
“Well, I know I’m not that quick—I flunked out of veterinary school because they wouldn’t even trust me with people for medical school—so you’re not telling me anything new. But I did practice a lot on chickens, since they’re cheap, and their wings and your wing are put together just about the same.” Gila spoke as matter-of-factly about his supposed stupidity as he did about his actual knowledge, accepting both ideas without a hint of protest.
Or really, any thought about either, but the surprised, puzzled look on Gianluigi’s face as he turned to look up at the man probably had more to do with the first than the second. For a very, very brief moment, Zlatan was amused.
“Gila, what exactly happened to Paolo?” Sandro said. He pushed by Zlatan and went on past Gianluigi without even a look, which clearly pissed off the other angel.
Zlatan would’ve done likewise, but just then he heard a car pulling up at the back. He tensed and Sandro’s head whipped around, but then Zlatan placed the magical signature and shook his head. “It’s Figo. I’ll get it—I’m going to have a look outside anyway, see if there’s any traces.”
Sandro had been about to address Gila, but he looked up again. Which confused Gila and made him twitch something he shouldn’t have so Gianluigi hissed and jerked. Gila instantly looked stricken and put out his hand to touch Gianluigi on the shoulder, but that just made Gianluigi rather abruptly drop his head. After a moment of being utterly crushed, Gila sucked in a breath and went back to stitching.
“Fine,” Sandro said, curt and low. He half-turned back to Gila. “Don’t spend forever out there. I—I spent so much effort on the warding spells, I’m nearly drained right now.”
“Well, lucky for you, Figo was doing most of the work today so I’m still fresh for the fighting,” Zlatan muttered. He hesitated, then shrugged it off and went out the door.
* * *
“Hey!” Xavi skittered backwards and nearly knocked over the bowl of leftover paste. He looked apologetically up as Sandro nudged that out of the way, then twisted about to stare at Gila. “What were you doing?”
“Sorry. It’s just—are those your real ears?” Gila sort of overdid it when he shoved his hands behind his back, in Zlatan’s opinion. “They…did I hurt you?”
Then again, he had the harmless act down. After a moment, Xavi slid back over and tipped his head. He waited a couple seconds before grabbing Gila’s hand and tugging it up to his ear. “They’re real. See?”
“Soft,” Gila said, eyebrows rising. He gingerly rubbed at the furry triangle with his fingers and a blissful look came onto Xavi’s face.
“Such is the bed from which temptation beckons,” Gianluigi muttered. Up till now he’d mostly ignored the fox demons, even after they’d gotten over their initial wariness and had started flashing in and out of shadows, but now he was staring at Xavi with marked dislike. It was an interesting change from his usual non-expression.
“Oh, honestly. Nobody talks like that anymore, Gigi. No wonder the younger generation doesn’t take salvation seriously.” Sandro all but slammed down the bowl beside Figo, then leaped up to stalk across the room for the last of the candles.
Figo watched him go with a carefully placid expression on his face. “Getting antsy?”
“Well, this is taking so long Asmodeus could’ve gone to Hell and back by now,” Zlatan said. He squinted as he added that last stroke to the glyph, then sat back on his heels. Then he saw Figo’s expression and grimaced. “Look, is this going to even work? We’ve done it twice now and haven’t found Henke.”
“But we’ve gotten closer each time. I think I’ve got the right temporal range now, so this one should get him while he’s still at the place, and don’t make that face at me, Zlatan. It’s not my fault Henrik’s fantastically good at being untrackable.” After a hard, hand-to-chin look at the scrying circle, Figo nodded his approval and reached for the matches.
He stopped, then looked over again. Zlatan shrugged, waiting for Sandro to set the last candle in place, and then snapped his fingers a last time to light that one. “What?”
“Paolo won’t be dead yet. Asmodeus likes to toy with his victims,” Gianluigi remarked.
“He could toy with you forever, given your lack of a heart,” Sandro snapped. He flicked a look at Zlatan as he turned around. When he turned back, he had a knife in his hand. His chef’s knife, of course.
Zlatan took the dagger Figo offered him, then rolled up his sleeve. He didn’t like wasting ichor even for this, so he made sure he had a wad of bandages beside him. One of the fox demons turned off the lights and Zlatan needed a second to adjust to the dimness before he could find a vein.
“You want help?” Gila asked. To Gianluigi, as it turned out, and after a long moment, Gianluigi…didn’t move. So Gila squatted beside him and held his elbow and the knife over his bared arm, and Gianluigi didn’t exactly protest. “Um…Gigi? Is that…a nickname? Angels have nicknames?”
“No, move over a little,” Figo said to the fox trio, who were all huddled together at the fourth compass-point.
They obligingly did so, then stretched out their arms so they could all reach the blade of the dagger Cesc was holding. Given their size and youth, it’d take all of them to balance out Gianluigi.
“Wait.” Figo was watching the candle-flames. He bent down so his head was level with them and their reflected light turned his eyes yellow. “Wait--wait, damn it.”
The flames flared a foot-high, then flashed black.
Zlatan had been looking for it and didn’t need Figo’s hissed order to know what to do. He stabbed the dagger into the vein in his arm, then quickly twisted it so the ichor ran down the blade, which he angled so the drops fell onto the glyph directly in front of him. The thin brown lines turned a glowing red before they began to spread, smearing together. The red pooled inwards towards the center, rapidly covering the floor with a thin film.
That was about enough, so Zlatan took the dagger from his arm. He was careful not to drip a trail out of the circle’s boundary as he wiped off the blade, then jammed a wad of cotton against the puncture. Something bumped his foot and he glanced over, then moved aside for Figo, who was carefully positioning a bowl at the edge of the circle, balancing it on its rim.
The circle was completely filled. It glowed brightly, then went abruptly dull and brownish as it ran quickly into the bowl. By the time the last of it was in there, some clots were already gathering on the rim.
As he got up, Figo tapped the outside of the bowl so the clots fell inside. Then he handed it to Zlatan, who kept it swirling. Figo began to clean away the remnants of the spellwork—necessary unless somebody wanted their leg blown off crossing it in the morning—and the foxes made a weird squirming, squabbling production out of bandaging up their hands. Gila timidly poked at Gianluigi’s stitches, mumbling something about American tabloids and angelology and overextended tendons.
“We still have to drive there,” Sandro muttered. He’d disappeared for a moment, but now he showed up next to Zlatan and shoved his head over the bowl to see. His left foot jiggled along to an odd metallic scraping.
That was explained when Zlatan looked over Sandro and saw the sword. Then he had to jerk back to keep his nose from being broken as Sandro threw his head up. The angel stared at him, then raised his eyebrows in challenge.
“You remember we’re not fighting right now, don’t you?” Zlatan set the bowl down on the nearest counter, then flexed his hands a couple times. He glanced at the bowl, muttering under his breath.
Figo abruptly sat back on his heels, then started to turn. “Zlatan, don’t you even—”
Sandro’s eyes widening were the last thing Zlatan saw after he’d grabbed the angel’s arm and—
* * *
“What did you eat?” Sandro said, voice dripping with disgust.
Zlatan started to tell him it was his own cooking spewed in icky chunks over the ground, but some more gobs came up in the middle of that. So he had to spit them out instead while Sandro made a whole bunch of prissy little revolted noises, and honestly, he was just tempted to whack out Sandro’s ankles from under him. They were close enough, and the vomit was over enough of the grass.
But eventually even Sandro got tired of himself. He shifted around, trying to make out where they were. And then: “Zlatan! This is the—the football stadium! The San Siro!”
Wiping his mouth, Zlatan looked up, and…okay, it was. The sky overhead was completely black and the usual metropolitan glow wasn’t evident, but in demon-vision he could just make out stands around them. And that was grass under his hands, so…great. This didn’t make any…never mind, it did. And sometimes he seriously was embarrassed to be in the same species as—then again, he wasn’t sure that species was really the way to talk about it, so maybe he was okay. “Well, Asmodeus is old, right? So he’s huge, and all the old ones have those flappy bat-wings too. Where else was he going to land? The fucking airport?”
Two pinpoints of white slowly came into view about two yards above Zlatan. They flickered, flashed brilliantly, and then settled into a vaguely-irritated gleam. Around them, the lines of Sandro’s disbelieving expression gradually came into focus. “Are you telling me that you brought us to—”
“It’s where the spell said to go. Figo’s going to kill me for leaving him behind, but he drives too damn slow nowadays,” Zlatan said. He tipped himself back into a squat, careful not to sit in anything he’d just regurgitated, and rubbed at his nose. “You know, it’s kind of quiet here. And dark. And—”
He ducked, nearly slapped a hand in some vomit and ended up doing an awkward hop to avoid that and whatever had just been about to grab him. Zlatan landed already half-turned, but before he could go back to retaliate, he saw a long silver flash and rising from it, a shining arc. The arc quickly collapsed, and a moment later there was a thud. Then there were more thuds, much lower in volume but spaced closely together, and right about there Zlatan figured out Sandro was walking off on him again. Fucking bastard, he thought. And he would’ve said, except he wasn’t so stupid as to stand around in a dark stadium, sniping loudly while creepy things slinked about the edges. No, he was all for being one of the damn creepy things.
A couple minutes later, they’d worked their way to the edge of the field and Zlatan’s eyesight had adjusted enough for him to be able to make out in perfect detail Sandro’s gore-splattered snarl. It was…it was kind of impressive, actually. He could really pull his lips back from his teeth.
“Where are we going?” Sandro snapped.
Zlatan started to sigh, but didn’t have time to finish because something jumped him. After he’d pulled his claws from its brain, he took a good whiff at the gobbets. “These are perimeter guards.”
“I know, I’ve killed more of them than you have. So we’re not anywhere near the important areas, and that’s where—”
“Look, I didn’t have time to get a lot of detail, okay? Either we went or we got stuck with Figo, the foxes, and maybe your fucking assistant in the backseat,” Zlatan said, digging back into the demon he’d just killed. He scooped up a good handful of the brains, screwed up his face, and then ate it. “Fuck, what was he eat—oh. Okay, we’re going to the basement. And we need to hurry—they just told Asmodeus we’re here.”
Sandro was already gone. Which begged the question of if he knew where he was going, and if so, how he knew his way around a football stadium…and that wasn’t really that important now. Cursing, Zlatan dropped the dead demon and ran after the angel.
* * *
It was another cage. A wave of nausea heaved unevenly up from Paolo’s gut so he turned on his side, pulling up his knees and pressing down on his stomach with his arms. And he closed his eyes. He couldn’t—it was—
--no. This wasn’t Hell. He could smell dirt, could smell sweat and steel and rubber. People, living people, had been here. It was still the mortal plane.
Realizing that actually was the easy part; he needed several more minutes to fully convince himself, and even then a pinched feeling lingered in his gut. But he did manage to control his breathing, and once that was done and he could move without dizziness, he opened his eyes.
The bars hit him first, almost a slap to the face, but he made himself look past them and he saw another cage, but oddly enough, it was filled with footballs. Then he looked at his own again, and understood that somebody had just overturned a kind of wire crate to cover him. Well, a little more than that—they’d broken the very tops of the wires and then stabbed those directly into the floor so the crate wouldn’t fall over at a touch. And after a moment’s thought, Paolo didn’t immediately test the next obvious question, but instead pulled his sleeve up over his hand till he had a good few inches of hanging fabric.
When he let that graze against the wire, he felt an intense heat near his fingers—so much so that he’d jerked his hand back almost before he realized why. At the same time a hissing noise and a strong smell of scorched cloth had filled the air, and when he looked now, he saw that part of the sleeve had actually been burned away.
His gut hurt again, but Paolo did his best to ignore that and to instead reason with himself. There was magic on the bars, and obviously somebody had had to do that and to bring Paolo here, wherever that was, in the first place, and it was likely they were still around. His skin was crawling as if every nerve in his body wanted to jump out of it, so…well, he’d known it was Asmodeus before he’d been pulled all the way through the door.
Sandro was going to scold him for making such a careless mistake, Paolo absently thought. Then he grimaced, half-closing his eyes. Sandro. When he heard—and he’d been out on an errand he shouldn’t even have been running, doing it just because he thought it’d help Paolo.
Something skittered nearby, making Paolo’s eyes snap open. Nothing was in view, but the skittering noise continued till finally Paolo tracked it to a…a ventilation duct, which was blowing warm air into the room. He sagged to the floor.
Then he pushed himself back up, and he honestly wasn’t sure whether the pain in his stomach was from his fear or from his utter disgust with himself. He was better than this. He wasn’t—he wasn’t so good that Zlatan couldn’t justifiably call him on his laziness, or that Sandro even should feel like going out just to do Paolo a favor, but he was better than this. He was better than cowering in a little cage, wondering what was going to happen to him.
Paolo looked around himself again, rubbing at the side of his face. The cage was very small, not allowing him to even straighten his legs without touching the bars, but that was all the more reason to get himself out of it. So he examined the wire and the magic overlaying it, and…perhaps he was limited by the effects of his stay in Hell, but he had at least retained the memories of how to do things.
As far as that was concerned, it did help that Asmodeus apparently thought Paolo was without any power whatsoever, since the spell was actually rather basic. If Paolo was careful, he could probably use the little bit of power he’d recently regained to free himself.
And, he discovered a few minutes later, if he could remember his pain tolerance had used to be higher as well. He sucked at his burned fingers and peered at the half-unraveled spell, fighting down the urge to just rip apart the damn thing. His gut still hurt and now his hip and knees were making their aches known as well, and besides that the absence of Sandro and Zlatan was like a…a…it was like having his wings cut down again. But it wouldn’t help if he fried on the wires, Paolo irritably reminded himself.
He was just starting to attack it again when he heard a scuffling noise too irregular to be the ventilation. For a moment he was still, but then he went at the spell with a frantic effort, abandoning any attempt to hide what he was doing. He’d done too much to just put the spell back together, and if undoing one this simple was barely manageable, then he’d have no chance with a stronger one.
The last thread of magic slipped free just as someone appeared in the doorway, their shadow falling across Paolo as he threw himself against the now-harmless bars. The cage groaned and rocked…but then held. Hissing, he jammed his feet against the floor and threw his shoulder against the wires, and this time, they gave with a screeching crash.
He and the cage went over, then knocked up against something that pushed the wire down onto Paolo’s head and face. His eyes instinctively closed, but he continued shoving and kicking out till the cage suddenly twisted, then fell away from him. Paolo lunged in the opposite direction, scrambling onto his feet. A brighter patch blurred by him—the doorway—and he went for it, only to be dragged back by the arm. He flung back his hand and struck something, something hard and wet encased in soft flesh, and the grip on his arm gave a little, but then his feet were hit out from under him.
“Stop! Stop—I’m not here for you!”
Paolo didn’t exactly have a choice in the matter, since his knees had slammed into the floor hard enough for the pain to be temporarily incapacitating. But he still strained as far away as he could, even after he’d looked up and seen…he frowned. “You’re—that other one. You helped.”
The demon—Henrik, that was what Zlatan had called him—smiled slightly. Apparently in pleasure, but the innocence of that was rendered debatable by the ichor dribbling from his mouth. He noticed Paolo looking at that and let go of Paolo’s arm to wipe that off. “You just split my lip.”
“Oh.” A quick glance at the doorway revealed no…well, nothing and no one, which was beginning to strike Paolo as decidedly odd.
“Well, I probably should’ve introduced myself faster. I surprised you remember me, actually. Usually everyone remembers Zlatan,” Henrik said. He spoke calmly enough, but he held his body closely, ready to spring into any sort of action at any moment. “I’m Henrik, and I’m here to kill Asmodeus.”
He was between Paolo and the doorway, but something about the way he acted—both now and before, in Hell with Zlatan—made Paolo take the risk. So he got up, but slowly, and after another moment, pulled awkwardly at his clothing. “Paolo. I’m sorry about your lip…I believe I’m here for purposes of revenge, but I haven’t figured out whose quite yet. Why isn’t anyone down here?”
“Well, here is actually hard to get to from above, and there’s also something going on upstairs that has them all distracted. Except for Asmodeus, who I hope is still sleeping.” Henrik threw a wary look over his shoulder, then half-turned while delicately sniffing at the air. “He’s still recovering his strength—breaking loose took a lot out of him, and he’s only been acting in short bursts. In between he rests, and he rests very deeply. I’ve been trying to catch him at it, but so far…well, hopefully my luck’s changing.”
“Then don’t let me get in the way. Though—I don’t know what I can do, but if I can…” Paolo said.
After a considering look, Henrik shrugged and waved Paolo to follow him as he went out into the hall. He stopped to pick up a duffel bag just outside the door, then turned purposefully into a side-hall. Presumably they were in the San Siro, given the footballs, but they hadn’t been walking for more than a minute before Paolo understood Asmodeus’ presence had warped the place, altered time and space. For one, the hall in which they were was unnaturally long and winding, and had sharp twists in it that no human architect would’ve designed.
“Actually, I lied a little. I didn’t know you were going to be here, but I’m glad that you are since the easier version of this needs an angel.” Henrik kept his voice low and walked as softly as a cat, but otherwise didn’t seem to be taking any special precautions. “You should still be close enough—were you using magic to get out of there?”
“Some. If you’re relying on that, I can’t…I’m severely limited,” Paolo admitted. He started at a distant noise, then looked up at the ceiling as a low, vibrating rumble spread out over their heads.
More than a little surprise colored Henrik’s reply. “Zlatan said you couldn’t even sense him.”
“Yes, well…” Paolo’s lip hurt, and then he realized he’d bitten it. He made himself stop, but allowed the nervous pulling at the shirt-sleeves. “It’s only changed today. I—got upset, and apparently that’s what I’ve been lacking.”
Henrik hummed a little as a reply. He looked intelligent enough, and certainly his expression didn’t seem in the least bit confused, but he didn’t pursue that topic any further. Instead he quickly explained what needed to be done to kill Asmodeus, which was actually rather simple aside from its precise timing. And its requirement that an angel and a demon cooperate, which understandably would render it merely a dream in most situations.
Another thunderous boom reverberated over them, and this time it seemed considerably closer. Paolo instinctively looked up, and as he was lowering his head, he caught Henrik staring worriedly at the ceiling. “What is going on up there? I know the angels are hunting Asmodeus, but—”
“That,” Henrik said, his tone heavy with exasperation, “Is not an angel. Damn Zlatan, but he never could stay out of trouble. I shouldn’t even have bothered trying to send him a message to stay put.”
“You…sent him a message? He had a visitor, another demon. Early this morning, but it just seemed to upset him, and he’s been…” Paolo bit back some nastier words, a little surprised at himself “…touchy ever since. He’s been out, doing…things…”
The exasperation turned into outright frustration, and for the next few strides, Henrik moved stiffly enough for his footsteps to be audible. “Damn it. I knew I shouldn’t have asked Freddie—those two always argue so much they get distracted by it—but I hadn’t dealt with the hellhounds yet and nobody else was near enough…well, never mind. After we do this I’ll go and—oh, and I’m sorry for your troubles. I have no idea what message Zlatan actually got, but—”
“Wait. Are you saying—is he upstairs?” Paolo asked. “Did you tell him to come?”
Henrik looked closely at Paolo, so coolly measuring that an irrational prickle of irritation rose in Paolo. Then he turned away, his shoulders moving a little. “I haven’t managed to contact him at all. If he’s here, he’s here for you.”
Paolo stopped in his tracks. Then he realized what he was doing and hurried up, only to find that Henrik had anticipated him and paused as well, so he was actually ahead. But before he could think too deeply on that, the demon had shifted back into his smooth, distance-eating stride.
“I think he might’ve been looking for you,” Paolo said after a moment. “He’s been worried about something, though he’s tried to hide it.”
“Oh, probably. Ever since I took up the librarian job in Hell, I think Zlatan thinks I’m going senile or something like that.” It was a matter-of-fact statement, and the intense way Henrik gazed on ahead had more to do with keeping track of where they were going than anything else. “But he didn’t stay behind to keep my creaky bones company.”
Paolo’s brows went up.
Henrik likewise cocked one of his. “Demons can tell jokes that don’t involve blood and guts. And they can feel—they’ve the capacity to feel anything, but usually most of the lighter emotions get trained out of you, so to speak. If I’d been traditional, I would’ve done that with him. Though I don’t think it would’ve worked, he’s that pigheaded. Don’t tell him I called him that, by the way.”
“I won’t,” Paolo said neutrally.
“Still, your spawnmates aren’t all that’s involved in shaping a demon, and the rest has precious little to do with explaining what to do with any emotion that doesn’t have a vindictive foundation. You can still have the feeling, but you don’t know what to do with it, yes?” After another moment, Henrik turned away and sloped down another side-hall. The walls had been gradually getting darker, more grimy-looking, and now it was like walking in a deep underground passage. “Incidentally, I love that idiot more than I was really created to be capable of, but I could do with a few decades of having him out of my hair, metaphorically speaking.”
Henrik slowed, cocking his head. Then he put out his hand, signaling Paolo to stop, and carefully lowered the duffel bag from his shoulder before zipping it. He began pulling out jars and little pouches, some of which he kept to himself and some he handed over to Paolo when Paolo bent down beside him.
“Still, I put a lot of time into him. And he’s put a lot of time, and more thought than you’d think, into himself. So don’t take the surface for the whole thing,” Henrik added. He rummaged around in the bag, feeling for one last thing, before taking out a very…actually, Paolo recognized that dagger, and was instantly curious as to how a demon had gotten it. “That’s what he’s used to, others giving up on him.”
He looked up, and his eyes were flat and hard. They looked at each other for a few seconds before Henrik shifted his weight, suddenly turned smoothly unassuming again.
“He didn’t do that to me. Even if I was inclined that way.” Paolo hefted the objects in his arms, then glanced back at Henrik. “I’m afraid I haven’t killed anything significant in a while.”
“Oh, that comes back pretty easily,” Henrik said, smiling close-lipped. After a moment, he tipped his head towards the end of the hall. “Well?”
“I see it’d probably be useful to keep up that skill, since I don’t intend to let things slip so badly again.” Another look at the demon, and then Paolo got up and began walking.
* * *
It was one of those weird lulls that came even during the hardest fighting, if that went on long enough. Zlatan took the chance to clean some of the gore from his claws and between his teeth, absently flicking it at the nearest dying demon. “Shut up.”
“…traitor. Soft,” it hissed. “Like all the—”
After the gurgling had stopped, Sandro jerked his sword free of the demon’s throat, then stepped over it so he could lean on a cleanish part of the wall. He was starting to breathe hard, but still looked as if he could go a while yet. “Why do you all have such annoying voices?”
“Because you’re tone-deaf,” Zlatan muttered. He started to get up from the floor, but had to stop halfway because…he had a cramp in his back. Ridiculous.
Sandro looked at him. “I’m an angel.”
“But I’ve never heard you sing. Ashamed of something?” Instead of waiting for a reply, Zlatan staggered forward down the hall, stumbling over the bodies. They were a lot bigger now, and took a good deal longer to kill than the ones he and Sandro had first met. Which was good since that meant they were nearly there, but honestly, where were they coming from? Had those assholes down in Hell let Asmodeus bring a whole city with him? “Where is the end of this fucking hall? It’s like we’ve been—fuck!”
It wasn’t Zlatan’s fault. Really. These two particularly fat—and squishy—corpses had been lying right at the edge of the hole, blocking it from view till he basically fell into it. Well, fine, he just fucking fell.
He did have the reflexes to grab onto the edge and haul himself back up, but not before he’d taken a deep cut to the calf. Swearing and hissing, Zlatan swung around and lashed out: his claws stuck in something and he jerked back hard on them. And that should’ve ripped off the limb, but instead he lost his grip.
And fell again, and this time he didn’t manage to save himself. He did hear Sandro shouting something, but it was probably just to not block the way when his spine snapped and he—Zlatan landed softly on a back, which was nice. He promptly slashed down and broke it, then leaped high to avoid a swinging ax-head and came down on his feet on the floor.
Then he took a look around and he really was embarrassed to be a demon. High cavernous walls, dripping slime wherever the dim red glow was bright enough, rock floor—were they even in Milan now?—and hordes and hordes of monstrous demons, slithering and snarling and writhing in every corner. “Are you kidding me? This is so old-fashioned! What’s wrong with a boardroom? Fuck, even just a nice penthouse!”
Every head swiveled to look at him, and for a moment Zlatan was…actually, he’d been fucking terrified since they’d gotten here. Terrified that the spell had been wrong and they’d hit another dead end, terrified that Paolo would be broken down again or even worse, terrified that this would be one he couldn’t fix. Because he’d lied to Sandro, of course. He’d had tons of times he couldn’t fix things and had lost out, and all of them had been worth a lot less than waking up with the smell of Paolo’s hair on a rainy morning, and he’d really fucked up this time.
“You,” said the closest demon. “You’re the one who went astray. You helped an angel.”
“Oh—fuck off, you fucking son of a bitch! So fucking what! So I helped him! Well, I liked it and I’d do it again and I don’t answer to you, you piece of shit! I can do whatever I fucking want, and I don’t have to justify it to anyone! I can like angels! I can like them, I can be fond of them, I can make them fucking pizza if I fucking feel like it, and you can’t—”
At that point Zlatan lost his grip, and about a second later he realized he didn’t remember getting a grip to begin with. But by then he was on the floor with blades and tentacles and—he stopped trying to figure out what they were and just concentrated on fighting his way out from under them.
It was hard. Being utterly fed up aside, he was more than a little tired, and there was also the fact that he was so damn deep in flesh he was in serious danger of being suffocated. Things slid wetly around him, crushing his legs, and he took another slice on his forearm, and then somebody stuck something slimy in his mouth. Of all times—Zlatan bit that off, spit it back into its wetly-screaming former owner’s face, and then heaved himself up as hard as he could.
He broke into clear air. Just for a moment, and then he was dragged back down, but he managed to spit out a couple words, and when he fell, he fell…into a newly-created pile of steaming, bloody flesh. “Shit.”
“Pizza?” Sandro swayed into view, so covered in ichor and guts that at first Zlatan took him for a demon.
Though oddly enough, Zlatan’s instinct wasn’t to lunge for him. Luckily for Sandro, since then some wounded bastard attacked him and he moved way too slow. If Zlatan hadn’t hauled himself out and, well, fallen into the way so the demon had tripped, Sandro would’ve lost an ear. At least.
The angel did manage to whack off the demon’s head, but in doing so he turned so Zlatan could see a long, jagged wound down the side of Sandro’s left thigh. And then Sandro stumbled, his sword thumping down just short of Zlatan’s face as he used it for support.
“I like pizza.” Zlatan kicked his feet free of the corpses, then unsteadily rose. His shoulders hurt. His cut arm and leg hurt, and his back was seriously killing him. “Does Paolo?”
“He does—have you even looked at the menu? He chooses all the dishes,” Sandro rasped. He managed to push himself back into a standing position, but he was looking pretty ragged. His hair was so weighed with ichor that the waves and curls had been pulled out of it. “I think we’re here.”
Zlatan took another look around. More demons were crawling out of the shadows—so fucking many, he thought. He moved his foot back, but found it blocked by something, and when he looked over his shoulder, it was into Sandro’s eye. “Yeah.”
“But he’s not. Where is he?” Sandro said. He stepped back, then turned around as if they were completely alone. “Where’s—”
Something exploded out of the far end of the room, sending rocks and streaky plumes of bile-colored gas into the ceiling. Then those came down, and Zlatan couldn’t run, so he dropped to his knees and threw his arms over his head, and just hoped that if his spine got broken by one of the rocks, he’d pass out.
After a couple seconds he realized the clattering was loud, but not loud enough. He took his arms down, then looked up to see rocks falling everywhere but on them. One was coming right towards his face—but then it smashed on an invisible barrier, the fragments arcing away to scatter around him.
“I’m going to pass out right after this,” Sandro grated. He’d collapsed so at first Zlatan thought he’d stabbed himself on his sword, but then saw that Sandro was just leaning that heavily over the hilt. The skin around his lips was grey and his eyes were tightly squeezed shut. “If I wake up and I’m still here, I will hunt you down and feed you to Leviathan.”
“You know, I actually got along pretty well with him, the one time we met.” Zlatan lifted his hand towards Sandro, but then pulled it away as he made out something emerging from the clouds of dust at the far end.
A great, hideous bull-head suddenly shot up, fire pouring from its flared nostrils. It tossed horns that Zlatan could’ve hollowed out for beds, then champed furiously; its spittle sizzled when it hit the floor. Then another head, an eyeless sheep, and finally the third one, the man’s head, pushed themselves from the haze. Their eyes all rolled towards Zlatan and Sandro, and then Asmodeus reared towards them—and fell.
The impact knocked Sandro over, breaking the protective barrier, but by then the air was mostly clear so it wasn’t too bad. Except for Sandro going limp so Zlatan had to grab him to keep his skull from smashing on the floor, but that was Sandro. Always being…never mind that, Zlatan thought, blinking hard. It looked like Asmodeus was…dead?
The man’s head was closest. Its eyes were still turned on Zlatan, wild with rage, but there was a strange glassy aspect to them, and then of course the fact that they didn’t move anymore. Even when Zlatan put Sandro down and went over to stand right in front of them. He waited a little longer, then kicked at the eye.
His foot got stuck for a moment, but that was it. Asmodeus was dead. “What the fuck?” he said.
“Where is this?” said a familiar voice. “I don’t think the San Siro should actually go down this far…”
Zlatan looked up and saw Paolo. Alive and whole, covered in slime that matched his eyes—Zlatan’s mind stuttered a bit there. He shook his head, rubbed at his eyes with his hand, and then looked again.
He didn’t see Paolo, but that was because Sandro was in the way. Head jammed down, shoulderblades thrown out against his shirt because he was embracing Paolo so tightly, so tired his knees were buckling even as he tried to push himself up. He was saying something to Paolo over and over again—the same thing, it sounded like, but Zlatan couldn’t quite make it out.
So much for passing out, Zlatan thought. He watched a moment longer, then snorted and twisted around. Then he stared. “Henke!”
“Zlatan! I told Freddie to tell you to stay out of this! I was just going to come over after I was done, and shower at your place before I went back to—oof.” Henrik’s eyes bugged out. A creaking sound also came from his ribs so Zlatan slightly loosened up, but after a second Henrik’s arms went around him, so he figured it wasn’t too serious. “So how are you? You didn’t do too much looking for me, did you?”
It took a second. Then Zlatan gave Henrik a last squeeze before carefully setting him on his feet. “I am going to pop that smarmy little shit’s head right off.”
He threw up his hands for emphasis, but with how slippery everything was, the movement kind of skewed him so he was looking at Paolo and Sandro disentangling themselves. Sandro was scrubbing at his face with his hand, smearing it up more, but Paolo had his head up and was looking straight at Zlatan, his eyes wide and nervous.
Paolo glanced at Sandro, then stepped away from him and towards Zlatan. He put out his hand, then pulled it back and instead of whatever he’d been planning to do, took another step. Then he lifted his hand again, but didn’t really seem to know what to do with it; he kept his fingers half-curled and just kept staring up at Zlatan, pursing his lips and not saying anything.
“Listen, I’m going to make you a pizza,” Zlatan blurted.
“Pizza?” Blink. Then Paolo’s jaw firmed and he planted his hand on Zlatan’s chest. Shoulder. Chest. He made a face, apparently at himself, and settled on shoulder.
“Yeah. You like mozzarella and…what else? Basil? Chicken—what?” Zlatan cocked his head. “No chicken?”
At first he thought that Paolo was laughing, head tucked down, but then Paolo lifted his chin and Zlatan saw the damp cheeks and the bright eyes. He felt a tug at his shoulder, then one at the back of his neck—Paolo’s other hand had come up—and then Paolo was kissing him, fervent and hard, body sliding up against Zlatan. He slipped his hands over Paolo’s cheeks, rubbing off the wetness, and then back into Paolo’s hair. Then he remembered he wasn’t exactly clean—but then, neither was Paolo.
“No,” Paolo said. “No chicken.” He kissed Zlatan again, his eyes shut, and then pressed his brow against the side of Zlatan’s jaw. “You’re back.”
“Er. Paolo,” Sandro said.
Which was really unlike him, enough so for Zlatan to pull his hands back from Paolo’s waist and look over; Paolo paused, then twisted around himself. And all four of them stared out at the crowd of angry demons, who’d by now gotten over the shock of having their leader die on them and were pissed off at all the trouble they’d be in once Hell got to looking for them.
“Oh.” Henrik looked pained. “I can’t believe I forgot about them.”
Paolo hissed and grabbed at Zlatan, then threw up a confused look when Zlatan didn’t duck. Zlatan just grinned. “Well, I remembered.”
“Zlatan! You irresponsible shit!” Figo yelled. “If you ever do that to me again, I will kick you out on your ass the next time you show up at my door!”
While he was doing that, he was also unloading two shotguns’ worth of holy-water-laced pellets and all sorts of other nasty stuff into the rear of the demon mob. Then he tossed those over his shoulders, and another pair came flying the other way so he could catch them. His shadow stretched way out before him, and as Zlatan watched, the leading edge of it suddenly rippled. Briefly burst into solidity, and then again in a different spot. And then Cesc and Xavi were shadows again, flowing across the floor, and one demon had been sliced beyond recognition.
“You know, I actually find that a little disturbing,” Zlatan said. He pulled an innocent face at Henrik’s look. “Did you see the smiles on their faces? They were gleeful.”
“We’re going to talk about this later,” Henrik said warningly. Then he walked forward, rolling up his sleeves as he went.
Sandro stepped back, then slipped his hand under Paolo’s arm. “I’m tired.”
“You’re worried about your perm, is what you are. But okay, just give me a minute and we can go.” Of course, Zlatan hadn’t gone two steps before he heard Sandro’s enraged breathing at his heels. He just ran faster at the nearest demon, starting to laugh.
* * *
Sandro briefly looked up as Zlatan flopped width-wise over the bed, but then went back to staring at his hands. He absently tucked his knee further beneath his chin. When Zlatan hit his foot, his brows drew together, but that was it. Ever since they’d crawled out of the San Siro—or anyway, whatever the fuck was under the San Siro—he’d been like that: bizarrely quiet, keeping close to Paolo and sometimes Zlatan, though sometimes he also shot Zlatan strange looks before hastily hiding.
“I’m sorry Henrik couldn’t stay any longer,” Paolo said, coming out of the bathroom. He padded across the room, absently mussing his still-damp hair, before pulling himself over the mattress to sit by Sandro. “He’s an interesting personality, and he really helped with explaining things to Alberto.”
“Yeah, well, he and Figo were starting to get too…” Zlatan squeezed his hands together “…you know, I’d just walk in and they’d stop talking to look at me. It was freaking—okay, you know what? This whole silent thing is freaking me out, Sandro. What the fuck is it? You can piss me off, okay? I’ll just be mad at you, not Paolo.”
Paolo gave Zlatan a puzzled look, then frowned and turned to Sandro, who was rearing back with a denial on his lips. But Paolo put one hand on his arm, stopping him. “You have been quiet. What’s the matter?”
Mumble. Mumble, duck head and scratch at the back.
“No, I want to…I don’t want to have this end up the same way again. What is it?” Paolo said, more softly. He slid his hand up Sandro’s arm, apparently aiming to cup Sandro’s cheek, but Sandro flinched away. After a long, stunned moment, Paolo took away his hand.
Both of them had identical looks of pain on their faces, and it was as stupid as it was unpleasant to see, Zlatan thought. He pushed himself onto his elbow.
But for once Sandro had a clue and got it out before Zlatan had to do anything. “It—look, Paolo, when you were…gone again, I was upset, and I was—I was really upset.” He dragged his hand back to rub at his cheek, forehead, cheek again. “And I wasn’t…well, I did know what I was doing, in a way. But it—I—” uncomfortable shifting, then slapping the hand over his face “—Zlatan and I kissed. A lot. It was—what do the humans call it? Making out. We made out.”
“Oh.” Zlatan put his head back down. “Yeah. That. Um, we did.”
Sandro jerked the hand off his face, and just like that his embarrassed expression switched to bug-eyed desperation. “I’m sorry! It doesn’t mean I don’t love you, or that I was mad at you, but I was just—it was—I’m sorry.”
Paolo wasn’t moving. Well, he was blinking once in a while, but otherwise he wasn’t doing anything. He just sat there, his hand lying limply over his thigh, staring at Sandro. Though he was slightly turned away so Zlatan couldn’t quite get his expression, so Zlatan sat up to get a better look and saw that actually, Paolo’s lips had parted a little, and his eyes were sort of…glassy. Yeah. That was it. Glassy.
“It just happened! I was upset and he was not being annoying for once, and we sort of—did it.” The flailing hands abruptly dropped so Sandro could look thoroughly miserable. “And I liked it, to be honest, and that makes me feel even worse, because—”
“Sandro, shut up,” Zlatan sighed, and crawled over. Of course Sandro never shut up when Zlatan told him to, so he started hissing instead, going on and on about why wasn’t Zlatan taking this seriously and get off his feet and what did he think he was—and it was a fucking relief to kiss him, really. Just smash that mouth quiet.
It only lasted for a couple seconds. Then Sandro pounded on Zlatan’s chest and made this ferocious noise of protest that literally, all by itself pushed their mouths apart. He stared up wild-eyed at Zlatan. “What do you think you’re doing, you prick?”
“Look at Paolo, would you? You said we kissed and then he pictured it and now I think he’s stuck.” As Zlatan bent back down, he felt Paolo’s knee hitch against his hip, but he didn’t hesitate. Just ducked and sucked at the underside of Sandro’s jaw, hard and long till even Sandro couldn’t help a squirm.
Sharp breath from beside them. Zlatan shifted over, ran his tongue down the side of Sandro’s neck, and craned his head at the end so he could just glimpse Paolo biting his lip. Sandro had slipped a bit against the headboard, but he was turned towards Paolo, looking at him, and when Zlatan nuzzled beneath his collar, he didn’t resist.
The mattress started to rock a bit as more than Zlatan moved. He grinned and twisted over Sandro, letting his hand drift across the angel’s chest as he did. Sandro jerked up beneath his fingers, then slumped down; Paolo ducked his head, then slowly turned back, his eyes wide and definitely liking it, even with all the shock.
After a moment, Sandro pivoted his hips back, turning himself so Zlatan could drag that hand lower. Both Sandro and Paolo watched it, and when Zlatan abruptly stopped short, pulling his hand to Sandro’s hip, Paolo let out an audible noise of disappointment. Zlatan snorted against Sandro’s nape, then bit lightly at it when Sandro slapped his thigh. He grabbed the offending hand before Sandro could pull it away, then trapped it against the mattress as he ground up against Sandro’s ass, nipping his way up and down Sandro’s neck as he went.
“Paolo?” Sandro said, low and breathless and hesitant.
“Oh.” Paolo blinked, licked his lip without thinking—Sandro twisted against Zlatan—and then slid down onto his elbows so his and Sandro’s heads were aligned. His hands came around Sandro’s head, and then Sandro was pulling at Zlatan’s grip, trying to reach to drag Paolo closer. Making noises low in his throat, Paolo clenched his hands in Sandro’s hair.
Then one of them loosened, went further back, and its fingertips had just touched Zlatan’s face when Zlatan rose up. He wanted a look, and he got one: closed eyes, lashes long and silky and sometimes brushing together as their heads turned and tipped. Joined mouths, the occasional flash of pink something—tongue, lip. Teeth once, as Sandro—it would be him—hung on Paolo’s lower lip.
Paolo’s fingers stroked featherlight over Zlatan’s face, then sank into Zlatan’s hair as he bent down, still pressed up to Sandro’s back. He licked at one of the fading marks on Paolo’s neck, then at the inside of Paolo’s wrist as he dropped behind Sandro again, his hands now working Sandro’s sweat-pants down the thighs to the knees. Sandro groaned, rocking back and forth, rubbing himself against both of them in turns. His head sank lower, lower till Zlatan could see Paolo’s glittering eyes and red, slightly bruised lip over the top of Sandro’s head.
Then Paolo closed his eyes and breathed in fast and out slow, his hands kneading Sandro’s shoulders as the other angel’s head settled against his chest. Sometimes Sandro let a wet pop slip from his mouth as he moved it, and then Zlatan knew Sandro had come to a nipple when Paolo started, then went slack, his head lolling against the pillows.
When Zlatan first slid a finger between his legs, Sandro went still, but then he rolled back his hips, made his knees loose, and Zlatan slipped in his fingers so easily he almost didn’t need the lotion on them. He didn’t spend much time with that, just did what he had to, and then pulled Sandro over. That, Sandro took well enough, and even Zlatan climbing over to get behind Paolo, but he was a little less cooperative when Zlatan tried to separate him and Paolo just enough for a hand.
Paolo shut him up that time, did something to smooth the growl into a low moan, and at the same time spread his legs for Zlatan, waiting out the initial tension to get to the sudden gasping pleasure. He pressed back into it, whether that was fingers or prick, and then let Zlatan lift his hips and roll him up onto Sandro. Though it took him a moment to really get it, and at that point that was just too long so Zlatan just—nudged him. Hard, so he sank and then he sank, dropping his head into the bend of Sandro’s neck as Sandro’s eyes rolled back into his head. Zlatan needed a second himself, just to remember which way was up, which way was down, which way was Paolo. And then he had it, and had it good.
* * *
He was keeping this, Zlatan thought. Sandro messily sprawled over his arm, legs locking Paolo onto Zlatan even if Paolo’s hand wasn’t firmly fisted in Zlatan’s shirt. Keeping it, and everything and everyone else could go to Hell.
Paolo stirred, shifted closer. His mouth grazed Zlatan’s ear as he murmured a few words, sleepy but firm, like he’d been doing every night since the Asmodeus mess. All that came from Sandro was a grunt, but he was warm and boneless and non-irritating this way, so Zlatan would forgive him that.
Yeah, Hell. Zlatan snorted to himself and went to sleep.