Chapter 10

"In Like The Flynn"

I – 'In the garden.'

Anastasia and I were never friends.

We never sat down to have a heart to heart, never hung out after work more than the unavoidable. I never knew anything about her more than what I could learn by superficial observation and some casual chatting.

I would love to say that in spite of this, I still was like a big brother to her, that I was her distant protector, or simply the strong shoulder she could cry on. But that would be a lie.

I knew she had issues, that her boyfriend was a massive a-hole, and that she should have gotten the heck away from him to start anew. But I only know one way of dealing with that kind of problem: punching it until it breaks. When I suggested her to let me have a word with him, I didn't pretend very hard that by "having a word" I meant "dunking his head into the toilet bowl until he promised to behave."

For some reason, she refused my offer. She nearly stopped talking to me altogether from then on, too. I should have been more subtle. I should have insisted again, or more strongly.

Maybe she would have listened to me and left her boyfriend. Maybe I could have sit down with her and convinced her to try making a better life for herself somewhere else.

Maybe she would still be alive if I had taken five minutes of my busy schedule of doing nothing but commiserating to care about her.

"It wasn't your fault," she says to my chest, as if she could read my mind.

One of my hands is on the back of her head, I stroke her hair and lie. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Anastasia pushes herself away from me, looks up with a smile. She rarely smiled when she was alive, and she should've had. It made her look very pretty.

"Such a terrible liar." She seems amused. "Like when it was your turn to split the day's tips and you added yours to mine, and then you pretended nothing was wrong."

I arch my brow as we move to sit on the rim of the fountain, side by side. "You never said a thing."

"I needed the money." She shrugs, then smiles again. "And you looked cute trying to be a gentleman."

"I should've done something more than sneaking you a few bucks here and there." I look away from her, trying not to think how weird it is to be called cute by a girl that looks like a thirteen year old but has the voice of a grown up. "Maybe you wouldn't be here if I had."

She rolls her eyes. "Here we go again. As if I wouldn't be responsible for my own life decisions."

"And yet here you are." I turn slightly towards her. "Stuck somewhere between death and the next step. What's going on, Ani? What's wrong?"

She darts a glance at me out of the corner of her eye. She leans forward, resting her elbows on her knees. "What's the most amazing thing you've ever done?"

"I once rode on the back of a dragon, shooting down angels and demons with an M-60 machine-gun." I say deadpan. "That was pretty amazing. Or horrifying, depending on your point of view, I guess."

"And so Heavy Metal," she awes at me. "Is the life of an angel always like a Judas Priest album cover?"

"Not really, usually it's more about parading around in shiny armor and congratulating yourself for your own awesomeness. Why are you asking?"

The girl sighs. "I ran away from home when I was fifteen. It was not that my life was horrible or anything, you know, it was just so dull. I just wanted...something more. Excitement, romance, adventure."

I can't help but to smile. I can relate to that, although I didn't need to go anywhere to find all the excitement I could possibly want or need in a thousand lifetimes. It came looking for me.

"The most amazing thing I ever did was hitchhiking all the way from Ohio to The Brook." She makes a face. "Can you believe nothing exceptional happened? All the people that picked me up were the nicest guys you could come across."

"Guess that's better than being the meal of some highway serial killer," I observe.

Anastasia nods pensively, her young face so serious. "I had so many dreams, Nick. To be a singer, or a famous actress. To be somebody, instead of just anybody. But all I got was the same stupid waiting job I could've had back home, the silliest goth styling in town, and the lamest boyfriend ever."

"I'm smacking the crap outta him as soon as I return home, just so you know."

She laughs, but it's not a merry sound. "Don't bother, it was never what you thought. He never did really beat me up." I guess that my expression is doubtful enough by itself for me not to need to speak it aloud. "He used to pass out from his highs on the floor of the toilet, and when I went to help him get up, he would grab me by the forearms so I could pull him up. But he was always more there than here; he would squeeze me so hard that he would leave marks. I never mattered to him enough for him to actually get angry at me."

I look at her, she gives me a new small smile, but this time it seems full of shame. "I'm still gonna punch him, on general principle."

Neither of us says another word for a few minutes, until the silence goes from comfortable to awkward. She's the one breaking it first, though. "So, you're an angel."

"So I am." I nod. "But don't hold it against me, I was born this way."

"I think it's way cool. It suits you." I roll my eyes dramatically, she laughs. "You're different from the ones I've met here, though. Less..."

"Stiff-necked?" I suggest.

"Yeah," she agrees. "I was gonna mention asses and sticks, but that will do too. What are you doing here, Nick?"

"I thought you might help me with something, and I've been told I could help you too." I have no reason not to be sincere. "I've no idea how to exactly do it, though."

"You want to know what happened at the restaurant, right? When I was..." She lets the thought go unfinished. Guess none of us really needs to say the words out loud. "Why?"

I open my lips to respond, but no sound comes out of them. I realize I can't really formulate a clean cut answer to her very simple question. "For great justice?"

"You don't sound very convinced."

With a sigh, I look away from her. I scratch the back of my ear as I consider what to say. "Don't you think whoever did this to you and the rest should be punished?"

Anastasia only shrugs. "What do I care for justice, Nick? What need or use could I possibly have now for revenge? I am already dead, remember?"

I can't meet her gaze, so I continue staring ahead. "Should I just the matter go, then? That doesn't seem like the right thing to do."

"I am not saying that." She lays a slender hand on my shoulder, the dead comforting the living. "I'm just saying that you might want to have a good look at the things you do before doing them. Be sure your reasons are the right ones."

I sink my hands in the pockets on my leather jacket as I muse. My fingertips touch something hard, plastic. The Spider-Man figure, I kept it without even realizing I was doing so.

With great power comes great responsibility. Great complications and great suffering, too.

When I was fifteen, I was told I was basically a superhero myself. And you know what? I couldn't have been any happier. In spite of all the warnings, of all the 'Caution: Dangerous Road Ahead' signs, I jumped at the chance. And I didn't do it only because I had this great calling to help the weak and the innocent. I didn't do it only for the thrill of adventure, or the rush of danger, either.

To know I was different than the rest, a special, unique snowflake in a world covered by a growing ice blanket. To believe myself better than the rest of my peers, not just a cog in the machine, that was my sin.

Pride and Hubris. Those should be my middle names.

But still, there's not quite a voice, but a noise inside me that resonates shrill and unsettling, like nails on a chalkboard. Like a splinter in my brain, like a small wound at the back of my throat, there is something I just can't put down.

"It wasn't fair. What was done to you, to Manuel, and all the others should have not happened." I say it and I sincerely believe it. I turn my head to look straight at the little girl. "Not merely because you didn't deserve it, not just because you were all innocent. It was wrong, Ani. Something happened on the restaurant that night, and I can feel in the very marrow of my bones how inherently, fundamentally wrong it was. And I can't stop thinking that it happened on my watch."

"I never asked you to help me, Nick," she softly objects. "In fact, I even refused your help when you offered it."

"Doesn't matter." I shake my head. "You don't help people because they ask you to. You do it because they need it. There is a balance to everything and it's now upset. If I, having both the chance and the power, don't do my share to even it up, who will?"

The little dead girl contemplates me for a few seconds of silence. Then, she asks, "How can I help you?"

I reach for her face with both my hands, cupping it gently and staring deeply into her brown eyes. "Don't fight this, Ani. Just let it happen, let me in."

She chuckles. "If you'd used those very same words when I was alive, I might have some amazing memories now."

I mock a shudder. "Don't say that while you look like a One Direction groupie, alright?"

We both share a laugh. Then, using the gates that are his eyes, I call for my divine power, for that radiant spark that lives in every cell of my body. It's instinctive, like flying, like breathing. I grow larger and smaller. I'm everywhere and nowhere. I'm all and nothing.

And then, I'm in like the Flynn.

II – 'A million miles in her shoes.'

You never really know somebody until you walk a mile in his shoes.

I walk all the miles in Anastasia's life in the blink of an eye. From birth to death, through pain and happiness, in joy and sorrow, I am there. I am her.

Sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Emotion and mind. Thoughts and wishes, longings and regrets. I experience them all.

I am her being born, taking her first steps, held in her loving mother's safe embrace. I grow up the third of four daughters. It is not a bad life, but I feel disconnected from the rest of my family. We're not rich, money is tight, and both parents have to work long hours to support me and my sisters.

I don't really own anything as I keep getting older. My clothes, my toys, they all come passed down from my older sisters as they outgrow them, and I have to pass them in turn to my younger one as time goes by.

Nothing is new, nothing is special. There's always somebody who has been already there, done it, and told me about it.

My first day of school, my first period, the first time I kiss a boy, and the first heartbreak. Nothing is surprising, everything is second hand.

I am loved, but not intensely. My parents, my sisters, they care for me, but life has always more pressing matters. I wish I could be a rebel, raise some mayhem, maybe they would pay me more attention then. But I can't even be original about that. I'm the third, and my next older sister has already gone down that route herself. Not even my feelings are unique.

At school I'm invisible. Not the smartest, not the prettiest, not the crazy, or the funny one. I'm not popular or unpopular; I'm just a living ghost of a girl.

I can't take this anymore. I need to do something, be somebody, or I know I'll just simple fade away into nothingness, and no one will remember I even existed.

So I run, heading for a life of adventure. But I end up in a town not unlike the one I was born in. I try to reinvent myself, be cool, be different, but I have neither the money nor the imagination to turn myself into something better than last year's fad. I find a boyfriend, a guy in need, and I think that maybe that's my chance. I might never be special for everybody, but I might be special for someone.

But it doesn't work. I'm not the first one in his life, his drugs are. He doesn't want my help to overcome that habit; he just wants me to help him get a warm roof over his head so he can continue enjoying it.

Then this guy comes to the place I work at. Oh my God, but is he gorgeous! Mysterious too, to boot. And he's so the opposite of me, that I feel like we are mirror images of each other. Special where I'm ordinary, pretending to be just a no-one when I would do anything to stand out. I can see it in the smooth way he moves, how he controls everything and everyone with his eyes, how he listens to every word spoken around him even when he acts like he's not paying attention.

He is troubled, that I can see as well. He plays like he's a geek, a bit of a clown. He keeps everyone at an arm's length, but aches to reach out, to be the man he's really inside, not the shadow he tries to fancy himself as. He tries to, for me.

But it's scary. After all this time, I realize I am in a comfort zone alone with my mediocrity. He's not interested in me romantically, just intuits that I'm as lost as he is. That also hurts. So, I keep him at bay, pretending there's as nothing wrong with me as there is with him.

And then that night comes. My last night.

"...but they'll never take...our freedom!"

I see Nick doing his doofus act, acting like he doesn't care he's been fired, like the pain is not plainly visible in his dark blue eyes. Then turning and almost crashing with the newcomer customer, the one wearing the shiny yellow raincoat.

I turn away as he leaves the restaurant, fighting to hold back my tears. I have work to do, food to deliver to the tables, a miserable life to continue living.

Minutes pass by, I serve a couple tables, refresh some drinks, hear the unmistakable loud noise of Nick's motorbike leaving the parking outside.

The guy in the yellow raincoat is standing by one of the tables, the one with the woman and the two little girls, talking with the lady. There is something weird about him, but I can't put my finger in it. He's...stiff. It's not that he has a weird body language; it is that he doesn't have any.

I frown as I approach them with their table's order. He's looking down in the woman, arms at his sides. When he talks, only his lips and jaw move. There's no expression in his eyes, they are like the ones of a doll. Not even when the woman becomes clearly agitated, and the girls so upset that they begin to cry, any emotion surfaces in those dull grey orbs.

I dart a look at Mr. Hollingsworth's office door. Maybe I should go get him. This looks like some family feud, and I wouldn't like—

"You're a monster!" the woman suddenly screams, standing up and moving to get to her children. "Go away! Tell him to leave us alone!"

The man in the yellow raincoat tilts his head to the side, staring at them with the same vacant expression, seemingly unaffected by the woman's angst. He starts raising his hands, and they...

...they are shining.

"It's OK, I understand," he says, his voice weirdly clipped and as emotionless as his face. "We can't be a family. You don't want me. You won't change your mind. I understand. But he's hurting. Incomplete. That is unacceptable."

His hands grow brighter and brighter, seem to pulsate as if whatever was causing that glint was beating along with his heart. The tray with the food slips from my hands, hits the floor.

I start to feel weird. I'm sweating. My skin feels...swollen, sensitive. I look down at my hands. My palms are wet, their backs red, like I've been sunburnt.

My heart begins to race.

Somebody screams. Somebody cries.

I raise my eyes. The light coming off the hands of the man in the yellow raincoat is blinding.

My hands. Oh my god, what's going on?! My skin bubbling! It...hurts! It hurts!

It hu—

III – 'Save me.'

"Nick? Can you hear me? Nick?"

I see a vaguely human shape standing over me. Little by little, it clears up as I regain conscience of my surroundings and of my situation. I am lying on my back, on the gravel-covered ground. Anastasia is on top of me, my arms wrapped around her lithe form.

The figure hovering over me belongs to Azrael. I can't see him clearly, because my eyes are full of tears.

"Is it...Is it always like this?" I ask with a thread of a voice.

The Angel of Death kneels by my side. Very gently, he takes the embodied soul of the dead girl in his strong arms and, with the same care as if she was the most precious thing in the entire world, lifts her away from me.

Anastasia whimpers, curls into his embrace and against his chest like a kitten in search for warmth.

"No," he shakes his head as he takes a seat on the rim of the fountain, "sometimes you get a really bad one. A Jack the Ripper, a Ted Bundy, or a Joseph Mengele."

I try to stand up, but my head is spinning badly, so I settle for staying on my butt, and hug my knees to my chest. I groan, "On the other hand, Valentino, Casanova, and Elvis."

He chuckles, but with little humor. I lean my temple on my knees as I look at him. He's rocking the girl softly, lovingly.

"How long have I been out?"

"Merely a few seconds." He darts me a glance, and I see the tiniest gleam of worry there. "The replaying of a soul's life is nearly instantaneous."

"A bit of a warning would've been appreciated." I give him the stink eye.

Azrael shrugs. "I didn't want you to get tense about it. It's better to be relaxed, let everything flow in. Are you OK?"

I give my head a shake. "Yeah, um, I'll be as soon as everything stops spinning around. For Goodness' sake, do you this for everyone? For every single soul? How can you take it?"

"Such is my duty, my honor, and my privilege," he says seriously and without a hint of phoniness.

I finally stand up to my feet, brush myself off the ground gravel, and wait a couple seconds until the nausea settles down. I have so many questions for my father that I don't know where to start.

Doesn't matter, there's something else I need to do first.

"How is she?" I ask, taking a step closer to them.

"Mmm'kay," comes Anastasia's voice, muffled by my father's chest. She turns her head to look at me. "Did I help you?"

I smile down at her, reaching to brush her sun-kissed hair with my fingertips. "Yes, you did, Ani. Now I think it's my turn to help you."

She frowns, Azrael arches his brow, I shrug. "I've an idea."

I take a step back and flash to my angelic self. Anastasia's brown eyes go wide in wonder. "Wow, that's so cool."

Unfolding my wings, I lean forward to scoop her form from my father's arms. He lets her go without resistance, but being immensely careful with her. Her eyes are incredibly wide as she looks up me, her hands lean on my bare chest, and she melds herself to my form, once again a kitten in search for comfort.

"What are you doing?" she mewls.

"Giving you something new, something no one else that I know of has ever experienced before you." I wink down at her. "Ready?"

She smiles, and it's beautiful. "Ready."

I hold her tight to my chest, flex my knees to give myself impulse, and then beat my dark wings with all my divine strength. We soar towards the skies above Sheol, higher and higher into the eternal twilight of the land of the dead, both of us laughing like children.

I circle around and around, feeling the air currents on my wingtips, avoiding the dangerous turbulences that border the fortified city of my father. I climb and dive, roll and turn, all the while holding a joyfully crying Anastasia to me, sharing her surprise and seeing the world through her eyes.

Together, we share this unique experience like it is my first time again. Through mists and clouds, we bask in the beauty of Hades, dance weightless with the whole world at our feet. For minutes that are as long as your life, and as short as your first kiss, we live.

We live, and everything that is, it is ours and ours only.

Then, I feel Anastasia's soulform become limp in my arms. Lighter, too.

I catch a warm updraft and curve my wings for maximum sustentation. We float, slowly and lazily spinning around as I look down at her.

Her smile is peaceful as she looks back at me. Her eyes seem sleepy. Accepting. Fulfilled.

"You are beautiful, Ani," I whisper, softly kissing her brow. "Thank you for being in my life, I shall never forget you."

She reaches for my face with one hand that is becoming slowly translucent. She smiles, as she traces my jaw line. She weights next to nothing in my arms.

"Go now and be in peace, Anastasia Kincaid." I choke on my tears, forcing myself to smile back at her. "You are saved."

And then she softly bursts into a cloud of sparkling fireflies around me, with the same gentleness of a dandelion under the lightest of breezes.

I sense her passing around and through me, ascending in the soft glow of the eternal evening, shining with the pure beauty of the Lord's grace.

And I don't feel like crying anymore.

IV – 'What you think of me.'

We stay silent, my father and I, as we walk back to his quarters.

I'm back again into my flesh mask, and I dump myself onto the reclining chair as soon as we get into his mess of a living room. Both physically and emotionally exhausted, I have to fight with myself not to just curl up and go to sleep.

"Coffee," I growl at Azrael, who is already brewing a new batch. When he approaches with a couple mugs, I offer him the inside of my extended arm. "Directly into the vein if you please, garçon."

He doesn't quite smile as much as he looks down at me with bemusement. There's something else there, but I'm not quite sure what it is. Amazement, maybe?

I accept the offered mug with a nod of thankfulness and wrap both my hands around the china. This is one of those times when I wish I could experience heat and cold the same way humans do. They always seem to find so much comfort in the simple transference of warmth when they are hurt or in pain, it's one of those little things they take for granted, and that I would give everything for.

I sip on the coffee. It's scalding and it doesn't mean a thing to me.

"How are you holding up?" Azrael inquires, still towering over me.

"Fine, fine." I nod, feeling anything but. "I, uh, I'm sorry if I overstepped any rules. With Ani, I mean. It seemed the right thing to do."

He squeezes my shoulder, reassuringly. "You did well, son. You did well for that girl, and for yourself. You honored my house and my name today, don't let anyone tell you the contrary."

We look at each other for silent seconds. I can't help myself, "Who is stealing from old George now?"

Azrael cocks an eyebrow. "Actually, I've always been more of a Terry Pratchett kind of guy, myself."

I suffocate a laugh in my hand. Then, as he moves to lean his shoulder against one of the window frames and peers outside—obviously giving me space to compose myself—I lose myself in the fragrance and the taste of the bitter brew. I might not find any comfort in its warmth, so I squeeze every nickel and dime out of the rest of what it offers me.

Answers, those it doesn't give away.

"You already judged all the people that were in the restaurant that night," I bluntly hit Azrael, too tired to tiptoe around the subject. "And you went through all their memories like I just went through Anastasia's. You know who killed those people, and why."

He turns his head to look at me, genuinely surprised. He seems to consider it for a second, reflexively caressing the handle of his mug with his thumb as he does so. "Yes, I think I did."

"You did?" I lift my eyebrows. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"Nick..." He sighs, not quite succeeding in wiping the embarrassment off his face. Funny enough, I only notice it because I purse my lips the same way when I've screwed up and I know it. "I, ah, I don't remember any of it."

I open and close my mouth as I struggle to find a way to answer to that. "What? How can you not remember that? There was a guy with frickin' glowing hands setting people on fire, Azrael! I'd say that should be quite a memory!"

We swap stances as I get up and he takes a sit on the unmade bed. Azrael licks his lips, considering his follow up. "It might be a day or so for you, but it's been months for me, Nick. Do you have any idea of how many thousands of souls I've had to judge since then? The lives I've had to live through? The horror and atrocities I've experienced like I was their victim, or their perpetrator? I'm sorry, son, but powerful as I am, I'm still not my Father. Even I would go crazy if I had to keep all those memories in my head. So, I purge myself of all that knowledge every single time, after I save or damn a soul. There's no other way to maintain my sanity. And all this happened, at least from my perspective, before you were arrested. I had no idea you would be in need of such information."

"But those were people I knew, Azrael," I grind my teeth. "Didn't it occur to you to, I don't know, write a note down on a Post-It or something? 'Johnny Smith killed Nick's friends'? Something like that?"

He gives me a sideways look. At first I think he's going to chastise me for being goofy in the face or drama, but then I see there's no impatience, or annoyance in those eyes that are so similar to mine. There is shame.

And it dawns on me, like a million bricks falling right onto my thick skull.

"You didn't think I would care," I breathe out in horror. He winces and I know I'm right. "Great Scott... That's why you've been so easygoing, so conciliatory with me. You thought I would not give a damn that people that I knew would be murdered. You didn't expect me to show up here with questions, so you didn't bother having any answers. I caught you frickin' off guard, am I right?"

My butt falls back on the seat, my arms hanging limp at its sides. I feel numb all over.

"Is that what you really think of me?" I whine.

"Nick, c'mon, that's not fair," he protests.

"Aw, I'm so proud of you, you're becoming such a super-duper guy," I mock his earlier words, not listening to him now. "Jeez, daddy, and you have the balls to tell me I'm full of bullcrap?"

"Dammit, son!" He jumps to his feet too. Thunder rumbles outside, shaking the windows. He clenches his hands into fists, visibly shuddering to control himself with a deep breath. "I swear by my Father. Not even Lucifer, in his worst day, can make me lose my temper as quickly as you can. And you got that from your mother, boy."

I get off the recliner. "Thanks for the coffee."

"That's it? You give up?" His angry, but also disconsolate, voice stops me on my way to the spiral staircase and out of my father's house. "Why does it have to be always the same with you, Nick? Why do you have this need to turn away and run from what hurts you?"

I turn around very slowly to face him again. "Are you seriously calling me a chicken to make me stay? You do realize I'm neither thirteen nor Marty McFly, right?"

Azrael opens his arms in surrender. His eyes are tired, his mouth a sad smirk of exhaustion. "Whatever works, son. Look, I know—no, the truth is that I have no idea, Nick. I don't know what it's like being a father. I don't know what I'm supposed to do, to say, even to feel. I've lived uncountable lives, but they've all been somebody else's. I've raised endless children, but none of them have been you. When it comes to you, son, I am clueless."

I hold his gaze, say nothing. He continues, "You told me you wanted to be on your own, to be left alone, and I respected your wishes. I respected them because I honestly didn't know what else I could do. And for five long of your years, centuries to me, I've watched you wasting, wasting your life away."

"Being human is not a waste!" I raise my voice. "If it was, nothing of what you do here, nothing of what happens up in Heaven or down in Hell would make any sense, or be worth a darn!"

"But you are not trying to be human, Nick!" He closes the space between us, slowly, as if trying not to scare me away. "You might be telling yourself that you are, but you're just going through the motions. So yeah, I was shocked that you showed up. Maybe I should've reached for you earlier. Maybe I should've, I don't know, knocked one day on your door and say 'hi, wanna grab a beer with your old man?' But, would have you said yes? Or would you have sent me packing?"

I uncomfortably evade his eyes. We both know that's exactly what I'd have done.

"I stand for what I said earlier: I want you to be happy. If that implies not being a part of your life, fine. If it means giving you time, fine as well. But don't you dare thinking, for a second, that I will stop caring for you, even if I don't have the slightest idea about how to show it to you."

This sudden idea pops into my head. Is this why God got so angry at Gabrielle and him when they fell in love? Because there's nothing a father fears and hates most than seeing his children get themselves into something for which they have neither the tools nor the skills to deal with? Angels aren't human. It sounds like such an understatement, but it is a trap I always fall into. They don't think, feel, or love like humans. They were never supposed to.

What right do I have to blame Azrael for not being the man he was never designed to be in the first place?

Still, shouldn't love be such a universal constant that even the simplest organism should understand its concept? Shouldn't that be what ultimately makes us free to overcome the flaws in our blueprints?

Is not that what God pretended with Man, not to create a perfect machine, but one with the possibility to improve itself to perfection? Can angels do the same?

Can I?

"Kevin was not a perfect father," I say, so suddenly out of topic that it's obvious Azrael is thrown off. "He, ah, he never understood my geekiest obsessions, y'know. He was this huge jock of a guy, all-star quarterback when he was in high school and all that. He always tried to steer me to sports, and stuff like that, even though it was plainly visible to everyone I neither cared nor I was suited for them. I mean, he wasn't a jerk about it, or anything, but I always felt he was a bit disappointed we couldn't connect at that level. I guess it's very common for human fathers to want their sons to be two-point-zero versions of themselves, right?"

"What—?" Azrael shakes his head. "What are you trying to get at?"

I shrug, not really sure myself. "I guess that you don't need to think somebody is perfect, or to agree with them about everything to love them unconditionally, y'know? And, maybe that's a lesson I forgot myself."

I rub my forehead energetically, sighing. "Crap, I'm not really good at this mushy stuff. Look, what I'm trying to say is that you are right. I always cut loose when it starts hurting, maybe, I don't know, maybe it's time to change tactics."

"So..." Azrael arches his eyebrows with expectancy, right now proving his aforementioned cluelessness.

Not that I have a road map myself, but I guess if there is an angel out there with any notion about what actual family life is all about, that's me. "So, if you wanna pop up on Earth for a beer... That'd be cool. Or I could, I dunno, come here now and then. Y'know, nothing radical, hang out a little, learn a bit about your business... We could... Get to know each other, I guess."

"I'd like that." The Angel of Death nods, trying to prevent a smile, not quite succeeding.

"But you have to burn these, man." I reach for one of the Celine Dion CD's. "The other kids will never stop picking on me if they find out my father listens to this kinda crap."

He chuckles. "I don't promise anything."

I roll my eyes, mock-growl, "We're off to a bad start."

This time I am the one going to get refills for our coffees. While I'm pouring the brew, I ask, "Let's talk about something lighter, alright? Mass murder, for example. What can you tell me about Holy Fire?"

Azrael frowns as I pass him the mug. "What do you want to know?"

"I only know it was a thing once." I shrug. "How does it work?"

He considers his answer for a couple of seconds, sips on the black brew. "Well, it doesn't, for starters. At least not anymore."

"Because it is a power granted by God, and God is missing," I elaborate for him.

"Temporarily," he adds, as if he has the need to specify it. He leans his back against the window frame, crosses his arms and tries to look casual.

I give him a look, but decide not to press that particular subject. "Maybe so, but while he is gone, no one can use it, right?"

Azrael tilts his head up, seems to be reorganizing his thoughts. "It hasn't been used since, well, Old Testament times. Angels were free to use it back then as long as the reasons were righteous. You know, Sodom, Gomorrah, all that."

"Fun times," I mutter under my breath.

"In any case, after the, uh, incident, my Father forbid the use of all those powers. Closed the tap off, so to speak."

The incident in question happened two thousand years ago in Jerusalem. I guess I don't need to draw a picture of it, right? Don't ask me for details, in any case. That was way before my time and no one, no one will talk to me about it. The J-word is never spoken aloud, even.

Except for Charon, I guess that because he's just a jerk.

"OK, OK, here's what I don't understand." I take a second to gather my own errant thoughts. "That power cannot be used, or should it not be used? I mean, all divine power comes off the same well, right? If we can still use it to travel in between the realms, or to do stuff like swapping bodies and the like, what does stop anyone to use that way?"

Azrael stares at me with a befuddled expression, as if the explanation was obvious. "God told everyone not to do it."

I stare back at him, blinking quite in the same way as him. "Well, he also told you not to play doctor with Gabrielle, and yet," I do jazz-hands for him, "hellooo."

He narrows his eyes at me. "That was not the same thing."

"Why not?" I try to hide my grin. "C'mon, I've been long enough in this business to realize you guys sometimes play reeeally loose with His orders. There's you and Gabrielle, there's Lucifer's rebellion, and then there's my favorite: Raguel's 'let's fix everything by tearing it down to pieces first' wacko plan. It looks to me like the word of God is not as adamant as you pretend it to be."

Azrael rubs his forehead pensively. "That is not exactly right. You see, sometimes God says something and it is open to interpretation, like what Raguel did. She got into cahoots with Moloch, started the whole war, yes, but her intentions were misguidedly good, so no one knew until it was too late. Now, if you straight up refuse God," he makes a face, "like not bowing when He tells you to, or telling him 'I can't promise I will love you over anyone else, because my heart is already taken,' then it is a very different matter."

"In what sense?"

"Well, for starters, everyone would know," he explains. "Before you say it, no, we don't get a mass mail or anything like that. You know it and that's it, no way to hide it."

"Even now, with your Father missing and all?"

He shrugs, "They are standing orders, no one has revoked them."

I continue perusing the matter, turning it this and that way in my head. Crap, this is not something I'm used to. Back in the day, it was all busting hidden cells of rebel angels and demons, sabotages, assassinations, and the like. You know, punchy-punchy, stabby-stabby stuff. I never had to do much real thinking.

"What if a human does it?" I ask. "I mean—"

"Whoa, whoa, what?" Azrael looks truly amused. "A human? What in Heaven are you talking about, son?"

I make a serious face. "Well, saints perform miracles, right? And they are human, so..."

"No, no," he shakes his head, "God performs miracles. Saints pray to Him, or people pray to Him through them, but it's Him who does the deed in the end. Humans can't tap into the well of divine power. Period."

I rub my mouth pensively. "In that case all the rest is a moot point. The guy I saw at the restaurant, the one I saw committing the murders in Anastasia's memories was human. But, how the heck did he do it? His frickin' hands were shining! What was that? Magic?"

Azrael lets me rant to that point. "There's no magic. Or vampires, werewolves, or witches."

"No, but there are demons that drink blood, with wolfish forms, or that use sex to corrupt mortals." I offer. "Hellfire?"

"Mmm, highly improbable for mostly the very same reasons." Azrael cringes his nose. "You'll have to ask Lucifer, though. Just to be sure."

I suck air through my clenched teeth. "I wasn't planning to go to Hell this week. Do you have his cell number?"

Azrael digs into the pocket of his jeans and pulls out a phone that he carelessly tosses at me, obviously unaware of my uncanny ability to drop nearly everything that is passed to me that way. I fumble with it, as per standard procedure, and let it fall down. Luckily, I'm close enough to the bed that it harmlessly lands on it.

"You know I was joking, right?" I grunt, trying not to look too embarrassed as I retrieve it. Then, I can't believe my eyes. "Seriously? A frickin' iPhone? You don't even go to Earth, what do you need a smartphone for?"

"I rarely go to Earth," he points out, "but when I do, it's useful. Did you know you can buy movie tickets and all sorts of stuff directly with it?"

"Yes, I'm well aware of the advances of technology after the invention of the wheel, Mr. Jobs, thankyouverymuch." I sarcastically smirk at him. Then, under my breath as I get into his directory of contacts, "I swear that if I find any porn in here, I'm killing myself."

At least the contacts are stored in a rather direct manner, and not under cutesy nicknames that I need to decipher. I scroll to Lucifer's and pull out my clamshell to copy both his numbers, which are listed as "personal" and "work". I'm not sure how that's supposed to be. Does Hell have a branch on Earth or something? It would explain SONY's customer service, I suppose.

Azrael barks a laugh as he sees the RAZR. "What is that?"

"It is a phone. You know, for calling and stuff?" I'm getting red in the ears again. Darn. "I don't know how you kids get anything done around here, with your Candy Crushes and your Angry Birds."

Azrael wipes tears of mirth from the corners of his eyes. "You should get yourself one of them, still. We could add you to the family's WhatsApp group."

"OK, that's it, I'm leaving before the vortex of silliness has me in its gravitational pull." I toss the iPhone back at him. "I, ah, I've put my own number there, by the way. In case, y'know..."

He smiles but doesn't laugh anymore. My father just nods quietly. "I will."

"Cool, cool..." I nod as well. "Well, uh, see soon, then."

"Go upstairs," he remarks, standing up as I move to the spiral staircase.

"Uh? Why I would go Heaven now?"

He points up with a finger. "No, I mean literally upstairs. Do you think I travel all the way to the mountains every time I want to go out for a malt?"

Azrael bypasses me and begins climbing up the stairs. I follow him, puzzled and inwardly praying that "going out for a malt" is not fifties slang for "getting nookie." There are things I'd rather be kept in the dark about.

When we get to the top level of the keep, I find myself in a slightly-smaller version of the room downstairs. This one is, however, a lot more tidy and free of trash than the bedroom. There are no walls dividing the space here, either, but it still seems to be separated in four distinctive areas. As I guessed earlier, there is a washing area to one of the sides. With a frickin' hot tub. Well, I imagine you need to unwind somehow after spending the day sending people to Hell.

A second area is clearly a wardrobe/dressing space, while the third houses a training tatami and several racks with enough hand-to-hand weapons and blades to outfit a small army.

"If you want to, we can have a sparring session," Azrael offers, noticing my interest.

I recall detective Cho and his punches to my ribs. Cambion or not, that's something I wouldn't have allowed to happen a few years back. I'm out of shape.

"Mmm, maybe another time." I have enough pressing matters to deal with. But that reminds of something else. "Hey, have you ever heard of an Archdemon mating with a human? I mean, having kids and all?"

Azrael frowns. "Is that a joke? Why are you asking?"

"Just curious." I shrug. I feel reluctant to elaborate, although I'm not sure why. Call it a hunch, if you will. "Is it possible?"

"I don't see how, Archdemons are forbidden to leave Hell by Lucifer's decree."

"And we all know how obedient they are," I snark. "There's this guy, what was his name... Oh yeah, frickin' Moloch, remember?"

"I do remember him. Heard he's several inches shorter nowadays, isn't he?"

I give him a scowl. I remember standing atop the parapet at the Pearly Gates, in front of the armies of Heaven and the legions of Hell fighting on that day. I remember forcing Moloch to his knees in front of me as I held his head by one of his bull horns. Most of all, I remember his bellows of horror and pain as I hacked at his neck with Final Judgment again and again, and the arterial spurts of his blood spraying over my shining armor under the bright Heaven's sun.

Beheading somebody is never as fun and easy as they make it look like in the movies, trust me.

Azrael seems to catch my mood and wipes the humor off his face. "Look, Moloch didn't actually escape Hell, alright? It was Raguel who extracted him out, for her own reasons. And they had to conspire for, literally, ages to do it. Kidnap Lucifer, and take advantage of God being on the lam, as well. The series of conditions that would have to happen for an Archdemon to be out of Hell and no one knowing about it... They are mind staggering, son."

"And why would any of those jerks want to sire any offspring, anyways?" he adds. "The way your uncle's Realm works, it's daytime soap opera on steroids. Everybody constantly vying for position and power, conspiring with and against everyone else. A scion of an Archdemon would be both a possible rival, and a weak point for the parent. It doesn't seem like a viable possibility to me, Nick."

Maybe so, but I still saw what I saw, and now there's something eating at the back of my mind. Did Cass not notice that Cho was Abbadon's offspring because she can't see as deeply into a human's soul as I do, or did she just choose to keep mum about it?

Argh, why do I even care? Is this my business, after all?

"Whatever." I tiredly wipe my face with one hand."It was just curiosity, anyway."

Azrael looks at me through squinted eyes. "Yes, I'm sure that's all it was."

We move to the last area. The only thing on it is a Daleth, a small-scale version of the one atop Solitude Peak. No angel statues on this one, just the stone triangle with the angelic runes around it.

"Oh, your own private teleporter, sweet," I observe. "And how convenient. You know, in case you want to receive or pay visits discreetly. Like, say, from a certain red-haired Archangel?"

"As you are very well aware, Gabrielle is not supposed to leave Heaven without permission," he objects, "unless there are extenuating circumstances."

"Interesting that you say 'supposed'." I grin teasingly at him. "Must be one of those things open to interpretation, I guess."

He gives me this expression, like saying 'drop it', and I comply, raising my hands in surrender. Not sure how I feel about my old folks doing the hanky-panky, anyway.

"Is this a good idea, though?" I change the subject. "I mean, aren't you worried about uninvited guests with nasty intentions popping right into your bathroom?"

Azrael points at the angelic runes scribbled around the triangle as if it was obvious. "It is warded."

For all that I know, the runes could be the lyrics to "The Shoop Shoop Song" by Cher. "I have no idea what that means."

He rolls his eyes, reads, "Behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high." Azrael looks at me, notices my blank expression. "I can't believe you don't know the Scriptures."

I shrug helplessly. "Action Comics #1, Detective Comics #27, Amazing Fantasy #15. Sorry, but those are my Scriptures."

The Angel of Death raises his left hand, shows me the seal on his ring finger. "It means that you can only have access to this Daleth if you have one of these."

I instinctively reach for the bulge on my T-shirt caused by my own ring. My own ring? Crap, gotta stop thinking about it that way.

"Will it work with me, though? I'm just holding this temporarily."

"Yes, yes, I bet you are." Azrael's smirk does nothing but piss me off. "I guess the best way to find out is by giving it a try, right?"

Still, I shut my pie-hole as I climb onto the Daleth. Well, as much as I can, anyway. "If I end up like the guy from The Fly, it will be in your conscience."

"Oh, don't you worry, son," he taps my shoulder amicably. "I will still love you, blistering pustules and all."

"Har, har, don't quit your day job, alright?" I turn to face him. We stare at each other for a few moments of silence.

I wonder what to do now. Should I give him a hug? Should I say something nice? Judging by the expression of his face, Azrael is pretty much in the same spot as me. Awkward.

"So..." I sink my hands in the pockets of my jeans.

"So," he does exactly the same.

"See you around then, I guess," I lamely offer. "Thanks for everything. Really."

"It was nothing." He dismisses it with a small shrug. "It was good seeing you, Nick. Seriously."

I nod, consider what to say, and realize I don't have the slightest clue. "You know where to find me." I finally say, just to say something at all. "Goodbye, Azrael."

"Goodbye, son." He pulls his right hand off his jeans to give me a small wave.

I gather all that there is divine within me into a tight ball of power until it shines like a star. Then, I look at my father. He seems...sad. And that hurts.

So, I smile, wink an eye at him, and click my heels together three times.

The last thing I heard before I explode into subatomic particles and propel myself through the gulf of emptiness in between the realms is the sound of the Angel of Death's laughter.

V – 'Overshot.'

I fall on my ass as soon as I return to Earth.

Just before departure, I conjure a mental image of my apartment as my chosen point of arrival. But something wrong must have happened on the way to Earth, because instead of the familiar surroundings of my cozy little habitat, I find myself reintegrating into a small toilet room illuminated by the red light of an emergency bulb.

With one of my feet inside the toilet bowl.

"Aw, crap!" I shout half in surprise, half cursing out as I lose my balance and crash down on my butt in between the bowl and the white-tiled wall.

Grunting, I struggle to get up, but I am in such a twisted posture with my foot stuck in the bowl that I can barely find a handhold to pull myself up.

Then, the door of the room opens right in front of me and somebody switches the light on. I look up, still on the floor, and find an elderly black man staring down at me from the doorway.

"Son, I don't know what you're exactly trying to do here," he says with a voice so calm and mesmerizing that it should belong on some documentary's voiceover, "but whatever it is, I'm quite sure you're doing it wrong."

I purse my lips together and give him an annoyed glare. "Help, I've fallen and I can't get up. Bet you never expected to be on the other side of that line, did you?"

He cocks a white-haired eyebrow, but leans over to offer me a helping hand. I accept it and, with me pushing and him pulling, I finally manage to get up.

I extract my foot off the bowl and shake the excess of water off my drenched low-top. "Thanks, old man."

"Always a pleasure to help the young and the clueless," he remarks without missing a beat.

He walks out of the room and, just as I'm about to follow him out, I realize how small it actually is. Also, it only has the toilet bowl and a washbasin, so it dawns on me that it does not belong in a home.

Great, just great. My foot is drenched in water from a public toilet.

I come out behind the elderly man, my foot making a wet noise as I walk, and to my shock and wonder find myself in the 7-Eleven in front of my apartment building. Looks like I somehow overshot my target, but not by that much.

Well, that's weird.

The elderly gentleman—lean and spry, trimmed beard, and with a head mostly full of curly white-grey hair in spite of probably being around seventy years old—ignores me as he opens a door labelled "Private" and gets a bucket and mop out.

"Hey, where is Jude?" I frown, looking around. There is no trace of the night cashier, although his turn should have already started.

There's a Miller Time publicity clock on the wall that tells me that, even if I've just spent several hours in Hades, only about ten minutes have passed since I departed from the warehouse district.

"Jude doesn't work here anymore," the man announces, coming back to me with the mop and bucket. "I'm Eliah, it's my first night. Here you go."

I look down as he offers me the mop. I notice he is wearing black leather gloves, for some reason. "What?"

"You are leaving a trail of water on my floor like you are some gigantic snail. This will help you fix it so nobody slips and falls." He speaks calmly and amiably, but leaving no doubts that I have no other option than to comply.

I open and close my mouth. Then, I sigh and grab the mop. My life really sucks sometimes.

As I begin wiping the floor under Eliah's watchful eye, I ask him, "Is Jude alright? How come he's been fired?"

The elderly man—I would call him grandfatherly if it wasn't for the hard flint-like gleam of his eyes—appraises me for a few moments before answering. I'm not sure why, but I feel like scrubbing the floor a bit more energetically.

"Not fired, quit," he finally says.

"Uh? That doesn't sound like Jude." I halt my mopping to look at him with surprise. "His family needed the money."

He arches his snowy brow, pointedly looking at the floor. I resume my wiping, drying up the wet footprints as I leave them while I walk backwards towards the exit of the store.

"I understand the boy was granted some kind of scholarship," Eliah comments with a shrug. "I guess that he didn't need the job anymore."

"Oh, how...fortunate," I can only say.

"Yes, well, sometimes good things happen to good people."

We finally reach the exit of the shop and I stand under automatically sliding doors. "So you're the new cashier? Aren't you a bit too old for the job?"

He gives me an amused cocking of his eyebrows. "Guess I am, boy. But if there is something I can't do because of my old age, well, I can always get some dumb kid to do it for me, right?"

I hand him the mop back while looking at him through joyless, heavy-lidded eyes. "Welcome to the neighborhood, old man. Try not to break a hip while you walk back to the counter, alright?"

"A pleasure to be here, young man." He smiles at me pleasantly. "Now get the hell off my lawn."

I roll my eyes, only half-try to hide a smile, and turn around to walk out and onto the parking lot.

It's already full dark out here. As I stop by the decimated Dodge van, I realize I'm not really sure what to do next. I should probably call Pierce immediately, but she must still be dealing with the fallout of our little adventure with the suited goons. I also should get in contact with Lucifer, and set up some kind of meeting so I can ask him about the possibility of Hellfire being used by non-demons. Improbable as that might be, I don't want to rule it out until I know more.

Or I could just get into bed and sleep the night away, something I'm starting to forget how it feels.

The decision is taken off my hands as I feel my clamshell starting to buzz in the pocket of my jeans. With a small frown, I pull it out and check the screen.

Unknown Caller.

My heart skips a beat as I quickly flip the phone open and hit the call button. My mouth is suddenly dry and my hand shaking as I take it to my ear and gasp, "Ariel?"

At the same time, a GMC van with airbrushed panels depicting a bad interpretation of a Frank Frazetta illustration rolls into the parking lot, terrible and garbled Death Metal blasting through its rolled-down windows.

I frickin' hate Death Metal. It's like the Star Wars prequels, something that should be epic and thrilling, but instead is unintelligible garbage.

"Ah, I'm not sure who I'm talking to?" a hesitant male voice says from the other side of the line, sinking my hopes.

Frowning, I have to pop a finger into my free ear to silence the blares about Satan being so cool coming from the van's speakers. "Who is this?"

"It's—it's, ah, this is Louie. Oh, damn!" There's the sound of something breaking loudly, then somebody cursing out loud in the background. "Shit, man!"

My frown becomes even deeper. The van stops a few meters ahead of me, and a massively muscled dude with a green Mohawk and wearing torn jeans and nothing but a leather vest on his bulging torso descends from the passenger's side.

"Man, I don't know any Louie," I tell my caller. "I think you got the wrong number."

"No, no, I know you don't know me," my interlocutor rushes to say before I can hang on him. There's the alarming noise of something large and made of glass shattering. "Holy shit! Not the mirror! That's expensive!"

This is starting to be amusing, to be honest.

The lateral door of the van slides open, parting the bad Barbarian-chicks-in-chain-mail airbrushed scene, and three guys come off the GMC. Two of them are dressed like extras from a bad cyberpunk movie. The third is my old friend Hoodie Boy from last night.

All four newcomers are Cambions.

I lean my back against the dilapidated Dodge, cocking a curious eyebrow at them. Louie is beginning to sound desperate in my ear. "Look, man, I need you to come pick your friend up before she trashes my bar completely!"

"Friend? What friend?" This is becoming a dialogue from a Marx Brothers' movie. And one featuring Zeppo, so not even a really good one. "What are you talking about?"

Mercifully, the Death Metal finally shuts up along with the GMC's engine. The driver of the vehicle gets off and circles around it, exchanging a look with the big green-haired punk. He's a Cambion too, and a little bull of Moloch like the rest. Unlike the others, though, he is dressed up very much like a cosplay version of Han Solo in the original trilogy.

I have to make an effort not to laugh. I never thought I would see the day I would be outnerded by a guy with a demon inside.

"The crazy chick!" Louie moans in my ear, his nervousness increasing along with the struggling noises in the background. "Some guy made a pass at her and she took it the wrong way, and now she is wiping the floor with him and his friends! And tearing down my bar along the way, man! Now, I don't want no cops sniffing at my place, so I got her phone from where she had left it at the counter, and yours is the only number in her memory, so you need to take her away! And you need to do it yesterday, man!"

In front of me, the Cambion Gang is talking among themselves in hushed tones. None of them seem to be older than twenty, not even the large shirtless punk. Hoodie Boy looks like he's the center of attention, and not being very happy about it. He's very stressed as he gets jabbed in the chest with a finger by Han Solo Part Deux. He shakes his head in denial and points at me with his trembling finger.

The other four turn their heads to look at me.

"Tell me, Louie, this chick you're talking about... About five ten, but looks taller 'cause she is on the highest heels you've ever seen? Blonde super model looks? Talks with a cultured British accent?"

"Like goddamn Mary Poppins, man!" he confirms.

I look up to the heavens above, and inwardly curse it all to hell. Ariel.

The Cambions advance on me as one, Punky Bruiser taking point. "Yo, man."

I point at my clamshell and mouth "on the phone" at him. He exchanges a confused look with Han, then with the others. I speak on the RAZR, "Dude, you gotta believe me, I'd love to help you, but I have no idea where you are."

Louie speaks American English, but for all I know, Ariel could be anywhere in the fifty states. Guess I could do a quick pop-to-Hades, followed by a pop-back-to-Earth, but I don't know how I will manage to traverse to someplace I've never been in, when apparently I can't even travel to my own apartment properly, but I'll cross that bridge when I reach it.

"Louie's Place, man! We're off the town limits, by the interstate!" he exclaims. His alarmed voice muffles somebody else's high-pitched scream and the sound of a lot of glass breaking. "Shit! My bottles!"

"Yo! I'm talking to ya!" Punky leans closer to me, trying to use his height threateningly.

I shove my palm on his face in an exasperated talk to the hand gesture. To Louie, I say, "That tells me nothing, Lou. You gotta tell me what city you're in!"

"Argh! No! Leave him, you crazy bitch! Not in the family jewels!" I can only arch my brow at that. "Southbridge! We're right off Southbridge!"

"Wait, what? Southbridge? You mean in The Brook?" I can't help an astonished expression from covering my face. "Are you in Heaven's Brook, Louie?"

I only get a beep for an answer as the call gets cut. I mute a curse. The guy with the green Mohawk shoves at my shoulder, forcing me to face him, and pushes me against the graffiti-covered side of the Dodge van.

"Pay attention, you little priiiiiiiiii-!" His tough tone goes into a piercing falsetto and then dies into a gurgle.

I don't know, it might be some secondary effect of steroid abuse, or it might be because I've just kicked him in the balls, I'm not sure.

Punky Bruiser holds his tenderized testes with both hands, eyes bulging and tearful as he slowly falls to his knees. I sigh, flipping my phone close and keeping it in my pocket.

I place my hands on the back of his head and viciously knee him in the face, causing him to fall on his back with a spray of blood spurting off his broken nose.

The other four Cambions take an instinctive step back away from me as I walk over the fallen body of their friend.

"So, you got my attention." I candidly smile at them. "Now what?"

End of Chapter 10.