The house was quiet when I got back. I crept out of the study, down the hall, and to the living room. It was empty, but I could hear people talking in the kitchen. I tiptoed up the stairs, keeping close to the wall so the steps didn’t creak and feeling like a ninja.
I was just in the middle of the hallway when someone behind me said,
"You don't look like any cat I've ever seen."
Before I could bolt, Mathew’s grandmother grabbed me from behind, one hand on my right ear, the other wrapped around my left wrist. I immediately tried conjuring up a plague, but she squeezed my wrist and the fire died before I could get anything solid out of it.
“No you don’t,” she said. “And quit squirming, will you? Ah! No biting or I’ll bite back.”
“I’ll let you go when you tell me what you want with Matty.”
I stopped wriggling. “What, the kid? Nothing.”
She yanked my ear. “Tell the truth or I’ll rip it off.”
“Ow shit! No, really, I don’t care about Mathew! Can you please let me go?”
She did. “I know what you are,” she said.
"Did my boss tell you?" I stood back and rubbed my ear.
"He says you're on the up and up now. Says you gotta card."
I relaxed a tick. "Yeah. I’m totally a good guy now. Got paperwork and everything."
"Let me see it then."
"Uh. It's in my room-"
"Then I'll go with you."
I was not about to piss the magical grandma off, so I did the polite thing and led her to my room. I started digging the card out of its super special secret spot.
"Can you help me lift this?" I said.
She went around to the other side of the bed and lifted. "You hid it under the mattress?"
"Not just under," I said, reaching out for it. "Okay, got it." We set the mattress down. "See?" I said, showing her. "I put it in a sock first."
She was unimpressed by my security sock. I could tell.
The front of the card was the same as ever. Like a yellow Monopoly chance card with the Monopoly guy was crawling out of a pit and looking mischievous. She took the card from me and immediately slid it out of its case.
She glared at me, and I shut up. Then she flipped the card over, read the back, and paled.
"Did you write this?" She showed me the back.
The words were still the same:
A Get Out OF Hell Free card, signifying that the bearer of this card currently is unclaimed by either the forces of Heaven, Hell, Faerie, or other Accepted Parties.
So heaven doesn't want you, and hell spat you up?
The Second Chance is your Last Chance!
But the picture at the top had changed. Instead of the monopoly guy being booted out of the pearly gates, it was the monopoly guy laying down in the cloudy grass near the front of the pearly gates while a couple of Powers looked straight ahead, managing to look both stoic, and disapproving.
"No," I said, not mentioning the change in the picture. I remembered how violently Riley had reacted when he saw the card a few months ago. "I think I see something different than you do."
She nodded and gently tucked the card into its plastic case. "Alright," she said. "I believe you."
"And I'm happy to hear it."
"Don't sass me," she said.
"I wouldn't dream of it."
I slipped the lanyard on. I didn't want to leave it lying around now that someone other than me knew where it was.
"I'm a God-fearing woman," she said suddenly.
"A good person to fear as any."
She gave me the hard eye. "So what do you want with Mathew?"
"Nothing! Really. The dog followed me home and Mathew said he wanted a puppy. Now he won't stop breaking into our house."
She went quiet for a moment. "Yes," she said eventually. A small smile played at her lips. "He can be a bit clingy sometimes. I'll have a talk about it with him later."
I exhaled. "Thank you. He's a nice kid, but he makes me antsy."
The smile grew. "He has that effect on people. My name is Odilia. I don't expect you to give me yours, but are you at least going to go out there and properly introduce yourself?"
"I'd really rather not. Not to be rude, but I'm sort of in the middle of something."
I felt the faintest trace of a spell brushing against my consciousness. A very discreet one. Passive: not one to make me tell the truth, but just to let her know if I was lying.
I usually make a point not to respect humans as that only encourages them. But I was liking her style. After dealing with so many witches and wizards like bossman who had all the discretion of a rabid elephant, it did my crusty heart good to see someone so sneaky.
"I'm going to find an old friend," I said. The cobweb spell wafted serenely.
“Is that what that’s supposed to be?” She nodded her head towards my locator charm on the floor. Tentatively, she nudged it with her foot.
"What are you doing?" I said.
"Seeing if it will walk off on its own. This thing's a mess."
"Hey, I worked hard on that!"
"You worked hard to make a mess. What is it supposed to be? There’s a bit of a communicator I can make out, and I think that’s a time dilution-"
"Locator. Well. It was supposed to be a summoning, but now it kinda teleports me to the people I'm looking for. Only badly."
"Anywhere between a few blocks and a few miles."
"Could you please stop touching it? You'll jack it up."
She kept on poking it. "You really aren't any good at human magic, are you?"
I scowled. "Not my fault all your stuff is red-tape, rule infested-"
She put her foot on the spell, just so the tip of her shoe was touching it, and then snapped her fingers. About half my spell vanished in a multicolored burst of light. The charm looked like someone had gone at it with a scalpel or something, cutting away all the messy bits until all that was left was a clean, functional-looking spell.
"I fixed it," she said. "I'm sorry I tried to blast you the other day."
I bent down and examined the charm.
"Will it work?"
"I'm almost offended that you asked me that. But yes, it will take you to where you need to go, and ensure you don't pop up between a wall or on top of a bed of nails or anything. Consider it my apology."
"Well all is forgiven, then."
"Good. We're even, then." She turned to go. "Have fun."
"You too." I waited until she was out of view before cutting a bit of my finger and using the blood to trigger the spell. The sign hummed and lit up oh so prettily.
Just as I was going, I saw bossman look in through the open doorway. The last thing I heard before stepping into the miniportal and going off to wherever the heck Ruroi was was him asking, "What's that stain on the floor?"
* * * * *
It didn't hurt.
The last few trips made it feel like my insides had been run through a blender before being poured back into me. This was like taking that last, unexpected step down a flight of stairs when you thought you were already at the bottom. A bit of a jolt, but not specifically unpleasant.
When I opened my eyes, I saw a house.
The place was small and tidy, with the grass neatly trimmed, the hedges cropped to rectangular perfection, and the picket fence so white it probably glowed in the dark. The yard was divided in two by a walkway down the middle. In each side of lawn was a tree- both old ones with big leaves.
The Ruroi residence was, I have to admit, quaint. There was no other word for it.
Ruroi seemed to be doing well for himself.
Something cold nosed my leg. I looked down and groaned.
“What are you doing here?“
The hell hound barked and headbutted me for pets.
“You’re not going to help with the first impressions,” I said, scratching him behind the ears. “I don’t think he’s going to appreciate me showing up with a pet.”
The dog gave no reply.
I hopped the fence, ignoring the gate not even three feet away, and walked across the grass to the front door. The dog spent all of thirty seconds running back and forth the length of the fence before suddenly appearing behind one of the trees.
I took a deep breath. I was not going to blow this like I had with Chaz. I was going to be calm, and open minded, and polite. I was going to accept the fact that maybe I wasn't wanted and that- based both on the trend of utter rejection I'd been seeing, and the nice niche he'd carved out for himself here- Ruroi probably wasn't going to drop everything he was up to and come with.
But I was still going to try.
I knocked on the door. Someone shouted, "Just a second!"
The hell hound began to whine. He sniffed and pawed at the base of the door, trying to burrow his way in.
"No," I said. "You're still in trouble for eating that schnauzer."
The door opened, revealing a pasty, heavyset bald man in thick glasses and soft plaid clothes I could only assume were his pajamas. Despite the utterly bland outer shell, my nose told me the inside was bubbling with rich, celestial filling loaded with angst and daddy issues.
"Hello?" he said. He looked down, saw me and my little puppy dog, and smiled. “Can I help you?”
I allowed my glamour to slip off, giving the man a glimpse of the real me. His eyes widened. He took a step back.
I gave a little wave. “Hiya, Ruroi.”
He promptly slammed the door in my face.
“Ruroi! Open up!” I pounded my fists on the door.
"Oh come on!"
The hellhound whimpered.
"Fine," I said. "Your turn." I took a step back and pointed at the door. "Go on. Do your thing."
The hell hound looked at me and tilted his head.
"Come on," I said. "Break through and drag him out. Go on, boy. Go fetch the angel, go on."
The dog whined.
"Pathetic." I kicked the door.
I kicked harder.
"Hello?" said a small voice behind me. I turned to see a little girl. She was probably around Mathew's age, if not a little older, and had her ginger hair tied back in a ponytail, where it poofed out like it might try to eat her head.
"Hi," I said. I wrinkled my nose. There was something about her smell that was sending off the alarms in my head. The dog yipped happily and went to greet the girl.
"Jessie?" said Ruroi through the door. "Jessie get away from there! Go around back!"
"Why?" said the girl, looking confused. "What's going on?"
"Oh craaaap." I said. "Ruroi, you didn't."
The girl backed away a few steps, off the porch. "Who're you?"
I didn't answer, and instead turned to bang on the door. "Ruroi how could you?"
The door flew open and Ruroi came out wielding a two-handed sword taller than I was.
"Is that a fucking claymore?" I backed up until my back hit the porch fence. He leveled the point of the sword under my chin.
"Jessie," he said. "Get inside. Now."
The girl ran in, the hellhound on her heels. Ruroi watched them go from the corner of his eyes.
“I almost couldn’t tell, you know," I said. "She’s got the whole aura thing going on, but I almost passed her for a regular witch.”
"Did Lucifer send you?" He pressed the blade a little harder. His hands were shaking. "Did Gabriel?"
"Hell, you really don't recognize me at all, do you, Ruroi?"
"No! For fucksake, put the sword down!"
“Who sent you? Why are you here? Who are you?”
“Why don’t you close your frigging eyes and look!”
He eyed me suspiciously before tentatively checking me out on the spectral side of things. "I see demon."
"Look another layer down, genius. Beneath the meatsack."
They shot open a split second later.
I opened my arms wide. "In the flesh."
He stared at me slack jawed for a full second. Then, before I could say or do anything, the sword was on the floor, and I was engulfed in a bear hug that lifted me off the floor. Things creaked. Things that weren't him.
“I can’t believe it! Bri! How long has it been? I haven’t seen you in ages! Do you still work for Lou? How come you're up here, do you get vacation time down south? Have you seen any of the others around? How've you been and why haven't you visited all this time?"
"Can't. . . breathe. . ."
“I mean I heard you were working for Lou and while I guess I understood why you did I can’t say I liked it and then when I tried to get in contact these cacodemons showed up and said you were under contract and I wasn’t allowed to talk to you and then I was so mad I almost hit one of them but I didn’t want to make a fuss-“
“Ruroi. . . “
“And then I called Chaz but he was wandering around China and said he was trying not to dwell on the past and so I guess I figured that maybe you were trying to do the same thing so I stopped calling but I was worried about you, honest-"
I need to breathe. It’s one of those pesky physical limitations that comes from living inside a body. Lack of breathing tends not to agree with me. Bad etiquette as it was, I kicked Ruroi in the shin.
"Ow! I- oh. Sorry." He let go, dropping me back onto the porch. I gasped in a lungful of air.
"Good t'see you too," I wheezed.
"Would you like something to drink? We have water- or juice. I think Carla bought some apple juice- Oh! You have to meet my family." He stepped partway into the house. "Jessie?" he called. "Jessie, it's okay! I want you to meet someone!"
Kids. He had kids. A kid, at least, but I knew my comrades. Save for a few exceptions, they couldn’t keep it in their pants. If there was one kid, there was bound to be another six or seven running around.
"Carla's not home yet, she went to pick Caleb up from school-"
"But she should be back soon."
The girl poked her head out the doorway.
“Jessie! I want you to meet an old friend of mine. Come out and say hi.”
The girl did not come out. She remained in the doorway and grudgingly waved her hand, still obviously unsure about this latest development. “Hi.”
"Hi," I said.
The girl, apparently having had her fill of being social, scooped up the hellhound at her feet and ducked back into the house.
"She's just a little shy around strangers," Ruroi said.
"Is she yours?"
"The kid! Ginger Snaps over there. Is she yours?"
Before he could answer, the bay window shattered and the hellhound, now in its 'motherfucking hellbeast' form roughly the size of a Volvo leapt onto the front lawn. Clinging to his neck and looking happier than a barnacle about it was the girl, Jessie. I winced.
"I can pay for that."
Ruroi gaped like a fish before shouting, "Jessie!" and running after them. "Jessie get down from there!"
"Don't worry, Ruroi. The hellhound loves kids." Usually with a side order of fries.
The mongrel caught sight of a squirrel with the misfortune of being on the lawn at the time and went tearing after it. The squirrel took one look at the bundle of black fur and teeth and zipped up the nearest tree, where it proceeded to voice its dissatisfaction via screeches, chattering, and those weird-ass squirrely screams.
“Hey, stop it! Bri, get him under control!”
“They’re fine. Quit trying to change the subject.”
“Get him off of there!”
The dog got to his hind legs in order to reach the squirrel. The soft soil tore, and his paws uprooted a good chunk of the flowers at the tree’s base. His paws kept sliding on the freshly watered ground, until he was tearing up part of the lawn, too.
Ruroi went over and tried desperately to pull him off. It was clear I wasn’t going to get any answers until this was settled.
“Dog!” I said. “Mongrel! You, the one with the fur. Get down from there.”
He, of course, ignored me.
"Dammit, dog!" I said. Which was Of course exactly the wrong thing to say. Flames immediately consumed the tree and died within the second.
I really have to remember not to say that when he's around.
Ruroi shouted and the girl giggled and the dog looked dejectedly at the pile of ash. I decided not to point out the slightly-singed squirrel darting across the street.
"Jessie, are you okay?"
"I'm fine," she said. She leaned forward and scratched the dog behind the ears. He immediately forgot about the lack of squirrel and started happily kicking his leg.
"Whoosagooboy?" she cooed. "Whoosagooboy?"
"Jessie get down from there this instant."
"Aww, do I have to?"
"Yes! Get down now or I'll tell your mother-"
"Oh Ruroi," I said, shaking my head. "That's pathetic."
The kid apparently agreed with me, since she kicked the dogs sides like someone would a horse, and shouted "Giddy-up!" The dog shot up and ran down the street.
* * * * *
Fifteen minutes, a lot of shouting, and three spontaneous combustions later, all four of us were sitting in the shade of the tree that hadn't been destroyed. The girl was leaning against Ruroi on one side, I on the other, dog now tiny again and on my lap.
Us three humanoids in the pile were looking at the half-crumpled car sticking partway onto the street and partway onto Ruroi's lawn.
"Sorry about your tree," I said.
He waved it off. "Don't worry about it."
"Sorry about messing up your yard."
"It will grow back."
"Sorry about the car."
"I'm sure the insurance will cover it. I'll explain it to the owner once we find out who it is."
"Sorry about your neighbors."
"They'll get over it. And I'm sure Mrs. Johanson will be fine once she wakes from her faint."
He sounded so cheerful. Good old Ruroi.
The girl pulled the mongrel onto her lap. He didn't fight it. "Uncle Rory can I have a puppy like this one?"
"No," he said.
"Aww come on, Rory," I said. "Just go ask Uncy Lou. I'm sure he'd give the kid a whole pack of puppies like this one."
The hell hound yawned and rolled over, opening himself up to some face-on-belly action.
Ruroi glared at me. I grinned at him. He sucked at glaring. Sure enough, a second later a smile was starting to break out. He lightly shoved me with his shoulder.
"Shut up, Brick Head. Jessie, no dogs. You still have Toaster to take care of."
She pouted and got up. "Fine." She went inside, carrying the snoozing dog with her.
"You might want to get him back," said Ruroi. "Otherwise she'll try to keep him."
"He pretty much goes where he wants. Toaster?"
"Ah. Okay. I wouldn'tve said that, if I were you, though. You're going to wake up tomorrow and find the hamster dead of mysterious circumstances.”
"I doubt it. Then that means she can't handle the responsibility of having a dog."
Before I could comment on this diabolical display of parental deviousness, a little blue car pulled into the driveway. A tall, skinny, bushy haired ginger woman who was obviously the girl's mother stepped out from the driver's side. A little ginger boy laden down with a backpack probably outweighing him dragged himself out of the back.
"Rory?" she said, jogging over to us. Ruroi gave a weak wave.
"Carla." he said. "This is Bri. Bri, Carla."
I gave her a casual upnod. So this was the woman who'd corrupted my bud.
"Rory, what happened? Whose car is that?"
"You know, I don't rightly know. I walked out here and found it like that."
"What happened to the tree?"
He waved a hand. "Oh, just some thing. You know how it is."
"But you loved that thing!"
"It's okay," he said a little too loudly. "Really. It's fine. I think the yard looks a little better without it, anyways. More sunlight. Maybe we can put in a koi pond."
"Okay. . ." she said. The look on her face read loud and clear, 'Bullshit!' but she wasn't going to say anything.
The little girl- Jessie- stuck her head out the door and held up the dog ala The Lion King. The dog didn't seem to mind in the slightest.
"Caleb there's a puppy!"
She ducked back inside.
"We have a puppy?" He ran into the house after her.
Carla looked at Ruroi. "We have a puppy?" she said. Her voice was much less enthusiastic than the boy's had been.
I raised my hand. “He’s mine. Though if you want him-"
"No. Does he bite?”
Something porcelain sounding inside smashed.
"Jessie!" she barked. "Caleb!"
"Excuse me, I have to go check on that. It was nice meeting you. . . ?"
"Brian," I said, my face completely straight.
Again came the look silently expressing her desire to call attention to the verbal bullshit in the vicinity, but before she could something else smashed and she was off.
"Brian?" Ruroi said.
"You get a boring fake name, I get a boring fake name."
"You don't look anything like a Brian."
"So? You don't look anything like a malakhim. Where did you pick up that body? That's not your old one, is it? Or did you just say, 'eh, fuck it' and let yourself go?"
He grinned and elbowed me. "I wouldn’t talk if I were you, short one. How did you get demoted to imp? I thought Lou was giving everybody who joined him cushy jobs.”
I flushed. “ I refuse to speak on the grounds I may incriminate myself. Talk.”
“I found it in a morgue, maybe twenty years ago? Haven’t aged a day, but once you hit middle age, it's like people stop noticing if you get older or not. They just say you've aged well. I'll probably have to switch it out in another decade or so to keep things fresh."
"And what will your Carla say to that?" I bit my tongue. That sounded far too catty for comfort.
Ruroi didn't notice. "It'll probably be a shock, yeah. But she’ll have to know sometime. She and Jessie and Caleb. Maybe not the whole truth, but something. I’m sure Carla will understand.”
“She seems nice.”
“She is, yeah. You just caught her at a bad time: she hates dogs.”
“She has good taste, then.”
He grinned. “I admit I was surprised to see you with one. Didn’t you used to be afraid of-?“
“I wasn’t afraid, I just didn’t like them.”
“You used to tell the newbies to scare away any dogs they saw because they’d eat them in their sleep.”
“They would’ve if they had the chance.”
He laughed. I relaxed. For a moment, things felt normal for the first time in a long time. So of course he had to go and spoil it.
"So you never told me why you came to visit."
I found myself reluctant to meet his eyes. I looked at my shoes.
"Shemyaza's back in town." I risked a quick glance at his face.
His jaw dropped. "Shem?"
"Back. On Earth? And he's okay? He's alive? Where has he been all this time?"
"He says Faerie. Says he was hobnobbing with royalty."
Getting mad doesn't come natural to Ruroi. When it does happen, it's usually pretty funny, whether he likes it or not. Right now he wasn't mad, but set firmly in flabbergasted.
"He left us all down here worried sick about him and us and father and everything alone while he was playing with fairies? Without even trying to call?"
“Apparently somebody upstairs had us all cloaked. He only found me by sheer accident.”
“What does he want?”
I shrugged. “To take over hell."
He just looked at me. You know the look. The 'I can't believe what I'm hearing so I will just continue to stare, mouth agape, until it makes sense' look. So I took it as an invitation to go on. "Apparently there’s a war going on. Faerie's in the mix, too. I’m kinda fuzzy on the details, but he wants to get as much of the old gang back together as he can.”
"He's serious about trying to take down Lou?"
He stared for another second, then sat back and smacked his forehead.
"Of all the pig-headed, short-sighted, immature-"
"Tell me about it."
"Did he say why?"
"Nope. I didn't ask. Something stupid, I'm sure." I stretched and laid back.
"Wasn't there a time when people in our family used to get along? I'm not just hallucinating that, am I?"
He sighed. "I think it started when Gabriel got his chocolate in Samael's peanut butter. It was all downhill from there."
"Our big brothers are snots," I said.
“Yeah. Good thing we turned out all right." He sat up and breathed loudly. Not enough to be a sigh, but loud enough for me to hear. "I’m not going.”
“I figured as much.”
“No hard feelings?” he said.
“Nah. You’re not the only one to duck out." I got to my feet. "I guess it's probably about time for me to be heading off."
He got to his feet as well.
"You sure you don't want to stay for dinner? I think Carla's making spaghetti. . . "
"Nah. I've got to get home. Thanks, though."
“Bri,” he said slowly. “I don’t need to tell you not to tell anyone upstairs, right?”
“You’d think I’d rat you out to those assholes?” I was genuinely offended.
“Of course not. It’s just, we’ve been doing well without anyone paying us any attention, and I’d like to keep it that way. But if you’re involved with whatever Shem’s cooking, then that might draw their attention. . .”
He trailed off.
"Ruroi. . . "
"Please." He put his hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eyes. "Don't tell Shem. He'll want me to go, and I can't leave them. They're my family. If he let's slip to anyone that they exist, and then the news get's back to Gabe- I can't let anything happen to them." He took my hand in his. "Please?"
A pit opened up in my stomach. A vast, aching chasm a mile deep and filled with sharp, pointy spikes sticking out of my stomach lining.
"Fine." The words pried their way out of my mouth. "Fine."
Before I knew what hit me, he'd engulfed me in another bear-hug.
"You're welcome," I gasped. "Leggo."
He did. "Sorry."
"Well," I said, suddenly feeling awkward. "I wish you the best of luck. You have a nice house, very healthy children, a lovely wife free of parasites-"
"What?" I said.
He was laughing. "Carla's- you think Carla's my wife?"
"She's my granddaughter! Great, great, great- there's a few greats in there, actually. Jessie and Caleb are her kids."
Well do I feel stupid. He gave me another hug, this one not at back breaking as the other.
"Listen, once the whole Shem thing is over, you've got to come back, alright? I've missed you, squirt."
"I'm not sure if-"
"Tuesdays are taco night."
"I'll be there."
He grinned like an idiot and I grinned like an idiot back. I pulled the return charm snappers out of my pocket and gave a low whistle.
The dog came galloping out as fast as his tiny legs could carry him, the two kids hot on his heels.
"Bye, Ruroi," I said.
The dog crawled between my feet, tail wagging, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. Ruroi had to hold the kids back from tackle-diving after him.
There was a snap as I broke the stick and triggered the return charm. The world melted away and we went home.