"Is that blood?" Charlie asked as she saw Sam come into the hotel. Alastor was still chuckling richly from somewhere deeper in the lobby, and the imp outside had finally stopped shouting before storming away.
"Yup," Sam said as he crossed the lobby.
"Whose?" She asked.
"Don't worry, its all mine," Sam said.
"Sam, you shouldn't be..."
"Rent," he said, holding out a bar of gold. Charlie was pulled to a halt, then stared at the Sinner in the eye.
"We... Where did you get that?"
"Payment for services rendered. And I didn't pay first and lasts when I came in, so... yeah. Rent," Sam said.
"We don't charge rent here," Charlie said. Sam leaned back at that. "This is a place to foster your better angels, and if you're constantly afraid of eviction, then you're going to take morally compromising choices. This place is supposed to be safe, so you have the luxury of becoming better."
"If you don't charge rent... where is the upkeep for this place coming from?" Sam asked. Then he paused. "Right, daughter of the Devil, what am I thinking?"
"How did you get a bar of solid gold?" Charlie asked.
"Like I said. I stood behind a guy and got shot a few times," Sam said, tucking the gold bar away. "Why do people even bother with guns, considering how they can't even keep me down for five minutes?"
Charlie guided him toward the still-abandoned kiosk where Husk should have been on duty, and took his place behind it. "How dangerous is your work with the Goat of the Apocalypse?" she asked.
"Honestly more boring than dangerous. Today was the first time somebody actually put up a fight," he gave a chuckle, scratching at the smoldering embers that dotted his arms. "I guess most people lose their will to fight really quickly once they realize that yes, the rules actually do apply to them, and no, they are not getting another chance to wheedle out of it."
"You seem to enjoy the work," Charlie said.
"I enjoy making things fair," Sam said, leaning against the pillar. "Too many people around here seem like they consider themselves 'the grand exception', never mind the fact that we're all Damned assholes down here. They're not uncrowned kings, they're freaks on a leash. And all I do is give that leash a jerk when they're out of line."
"You sound like you should work for the peacekeepers," Charlie said. Sam frowned at that.
"Hell has police?"
"Not police, as such. People working for the Department of Order under Sallos. They're doing what you describe, but all across Pride Ring, and with jurisdiction over all Sinners," she said.
"And I'm guessing most of their people are hellborn?" Sam asked.
"Actually most of them are Sinners, too!" Charlie said. She then remembered a few of the recent... scandals... and her smile wilted a bit. "I mean, some of them are even good at their job!"
"And from the look on your face, they're about as corrupt down here as they are up on the Mortal World," Sam said. Then, he laughed. "Isn't that an indictment of law-enforcement in the living world, that it's just as bad up there as it is in literal Hell?"
Charlie sighed, and had to nod. "Some years it seems that there are more bad apples than good. It's discouraging," she then forced a more cheerful look onto her face, even if she didn't feel it. "But you can't let that discouragement stop you. There's potentially unlimited avenues for your redemption!"
"And yet I still don't even know why I'm here in Hell in the first place," Sam's voice had a note of bitterness to it.
"Could you tell me about it? Your life up there?" Charlie leaned forward on the desk that doubled as a bar.
"Cold," he said. "Damp. Stressful."
"Saaaam," She said.
"How do you even briefly describe a life lived in fear and strain?" Sam asked. "My family was on the verge of homelessness my entire childhood, and when I was kicked out, 'the verge' became 'about five years of it in actuality'. The police were so corrupt that they'd hand out fines and beatings for being homeless itself, as though it were innately against the law. The drug-dealers went on violent sprees every time they dipped into their own tainted product. Support structures were non-existent, or else underfunded to the point of uselessness. Other poor people, desperate and angry, stabbed and beat each other over any slight, even if it's one they imagined."
"What city was this?" she asked.
"Does it matter?" Sam asked. "I moved a few places. Some warm, some cold. Some hippy-polluted, some jack-booted. And I saw the same thing everywhere I went. Pressure, crushing the humanity out of everyone who didn't have the luxury of being the one to press down on the millstone."
"You must have had some happy memories?" Charlie pressed. Something to call to mind positive emotions was important, a touchstone for him to remember why he wanted to be redeemed. But Sam was silent for an uncomfortably long time.
"Not really," he whispered with a look of melancholy. "Once my family was two cities away, my 'friends' were a blur of convenience associates, hookups, and disappointments."
"So you weren't close with your family?" she asked. There had to be a hook to salvage this...
"Maybe. Once. That faded," Sam said. He puffed out a breath that had oily black smoke in it. "Even blood cannot stand against acid rain."
"Well, what did you do for a hobby, back when you were alive?"
"At what point did it seem to you in all of what I've mentioned that I had any time or resources to have keep up a hobby? The apartment I died on the floor of had a threadbare chair that I slept in, and no other furniture. I came home from a shitty, soul-and-body-killing job every day exhausted to the point where some days I didn't even have the energy to eat before landing in that chair and going to sleep."
"Wow, that's almost as bad as Wendy," Charlie said, unable to keep the sadness from her voice.
"Hrm?" he asked.
"She's a climate-catastrophe refugee," Charlie said.
"Clima... that hasn't happened yet," Sam said.
"Well, the Damned end up in Hell from all kinds of places on the old timeline," Charlie said. "I think she said she committed suicide in... twenty fourty? Maybe fourty one?"
"Should you be sharing this with me?" Sam asked.
"This feels like it ought to be confidential information," Sam said.
"Oh, she said she doesn't care who knows how she died. She's been in hell for more than four decades, after all."
"She's from the future and she landed in the past. That had to be culture shock for her," Sam said.
"Well, Armageddon will do that," Charlie gave a 'what can you do' shrug. Sam pulled a face at her.
"What do you mean, 'Armageddon will do that'?" he asked slowly.
"Oh, Armageddon started back in 2019, on your calendar," Charlie pointed out what was clear to her and likewise to anybody who had the information sources she had. "And ambitious humans you are, you're doing it all by yourself!"
"I think I would have noticed the sky opening up and Angels coming to smite the wicked. I'm pretty sure a couple of politicians would have gotten the lightning bolt at least," he said.
"Like I said, this Armageddon is entirely Man-Made," Charlie explained. "Something about 'elevating the Deadly Sins of Glutton and Greed above the worship of God', and 'rendering your only biosphere uninhabitable to ninety nine percent of the creatures living on it'.
Sam stared, then gave a couple abrupt laughs. "Figures. God doesn't need to wipe us out, 'cause we're doing His job for Him just fine."
"And with Armageddon speeding up, the Arrow's getting a bit... umm... bendy. You do know about the Arrow, don't you?"
Sam nodded. "Don't break it or I'd answer to your father," he said.
"Good. I usually have to spend an afternoon explaining that rule to people..." she said.
"Apoc said the exact same thing to me," he said. At that point, he reached past the desk and pulled out a brace of canned drinks. He plunked them down, and started to discard through the variety pack. "The end-times coming explains why there's a Sinner who thinks he might have been here for months or centuries, and can't determine which. But it puts an extra timer on your endeavor, too, doesn't it? Because soon, there's going to be no new Sinners to come to Hell, on account of my species rendering itself extinct."
"You'd think that," Charlie said, as he pushed aside cans of Sulfur-Cola, Diet Sulfur-Cola, I Can't Believe Its Not Sulfur-Cola, Mammonade, and finally settled on Fuck You This Is Rootbeer. He turned a look to her. "It's complicated, and Mom explained it kinda badly, so..." She shook her head. "And even still, the timer's a lot shorter than that. We've only got three hundred twenty days to get you into Heaven."
"Why? Somebody visiting and you need my room?" he asked with a smirk as he popped the tab out of the can to the drink. He was a man after her own heart. FYTIRoot was her favorite as well.
"Well, every year, there's this thing where..." she began.
"The Purge, right," he said. "How defensible is this place, if worst comes?"
"It's a hotel, Sam," Charlie pointed out the obvious.
"There is literally a ship embedded in the hotel's wall," Sam gestured to where the vessel was entombed in plaster and iron. Charlie hung her head for a moment then shrugged.
"Honestly, I don't know. This building's about as old as I am, and in those two centuries, it's had lots of owners. Maybe there's something in there I haven't found when I was snooping."
"I thought ladies never revealed their age," Sam leaned back, taking a drink from his can.
"This is Hell. Age is a badge of honor," Charlie said primly.
"I s'pose so," Sam said.
"So about your life, before you died," Charlie tried to round the topic back into focus.
"Why are you so focused on that?" Sam asked.
"Because I care why you're in Hell," Charlie said.
Nobody Cares About Your Problems
Honestly, this was damned good rootbeer. It was bubbly, pleasant, and didn't have an aftertaste of battery-acid that the most common ones where he'd died had shared. Funny how Hell managed to get it right, despite the notable problems that come from being in a place where most people deserved a shitty existence. He'd always thought that a good rootbeer was a little bit of sunshine in otherwise shitty days.
"I'm starting to think I'm here as a clerical error," Sam said, as he shifted on the stool. Charlie giggled a bit. "That's not a pun."
"Yes it is," Charlie said. "Cleric..."
"Then it's a pun I don't get," Sam said. Charlie schooled her features, and cleared her throat.
"Alright. So that means one of two things. One, you did something that you've repressed," she said, trailing off and looking at him for a moment. "Do you think you've repressed any memories?"
"No, I've got too many vivid memories for anything to have been repressed," Sam said.
"Well, the other option is that you're a squeaker. Somebody who juuuust barely didn't get into Heaven," she said.
"So it's that binary, huh? Just piss off the man at the door and you're in for as much as an eternity in Hell," Sam said.
Charlie seemed to be the kind to wear her heart on her face, because her wince was very evocative. "It's actually more than that. You see, if my father's right, Heaven is the default, these days. And ever since Purgatory was lost way back when, it's one or the other."
Sam's brow drew down. "Purgatory is gone? As in it was there, but now isn't?"
Charlie shrugged. "It's complicated. Not that it matters for you, but there used to be two more Rings to Hell as well. But they're gone, too."
Sam leaned forward. "Tell me something... do you know anything about the cosmology of Heaven?"
"Just what Dad used to talk about," she said.
"And he wouldn't paint it in the kindest of terms, I imagine," Sam said, taking another drink.
"Oh no, according to him, Heaven is AMAZING!" she gushed. "It has plenty and it has warmth, and people are safe and they're kind and..."
"That just sounds like a community that isn't in collapse," Sam said. She scowled as much as her smile-prone face could manage.
"What you're describing as 'heaven', is literally a town or city that has it's shit together and has working infrastructure. You could literally build your version of heaven right here. It'd be tricky, make no mistake, because it's the equivalent of trying to build an actual rail-bridge out of matchsticks and glue what with the people who live in Hell, but it is achievable," he said.
"And here I thought I was the utopian," she said, reaching across the bar and pinching his cheek. He waved her off. She then tapped her cheek with a fingernail. "Although, you might be right; if I can get enough people who actually care to do it, we could expand the Hotel into a whole borough. That sound's incredibly–"
"Unlikely to happen, Hon!" Vaggie shouted from across the office.
Sam tilted a glance toward the office where the most human looking Damned this Hotel hosted was currently sitting. "She has ears like a bat," Sam said. "Does she always do that? Knock the wind out of your sails?"
"Oh, it's not like that," Charlie said. She looked like she wanted to prevaricate on something, but a flat stare pulled the next sentence out of her. "She's kinda the reason why I decided to do this whole thing. I figured if there was anybody in Hell who didn't deserve to be, it'd be her. And there had to be some way to get her out of it."
Sam nodded, pulling from the can as he did. "How in the name of the madman upstairs did you manage to grow up in Hell and be like you are?"
"I've just always had a sunny disposition," Charlie said with a big smile. Sam turned a look around the lobby, and found other portraits that hung on the walls beyond the one that he'd seen when he first came in. They showed her at various points in her life, from her childhood through adolescence and into her maturity. True to her word, she was always the biggest grin in any of them. Admittedly, her father's grin was wide as well. His was not as... pleasant, though. Even in paint, Lucifer smiled like he was about to push you into a snake-pit.
"And Hell didn't manage to take that away from you. That speaks to character as much as anything else," Sam said, finishing his can.
"I'm all sorts of characterful," she said.
"Yes you are," he said.
"So about your Damnation..."
"Back to that so fast, are we?" Sam asked. He shrugged. "If I'm a squeaker, that's on the system more than it's on me."
"Maybe. Or maybe the kind of sins you committed were subtle," she said. "Subtle enough that even you didn't realize you were making them. Do you mind if I ask you some personal questions?"
"More personal than why I'm in hell? Sure, why not?" he asked.
"Would you say you have an addictive personality?" she asked.
"Nope," he said. "Didn't drink. Rarely smoked. Didn't use drugs of most descriptions."
"Were you... um... licentious?" she seemed uncomfortable asking that question.
"No," he answered simply.
"Did you have an anger problem?" she asked.
"No," he said. She turned a clear 'oh really' look at him. "My hand to god, I used to have a mile-long fuse. I could stomach almost anything and not blow."
"Did you take things which weren't yours?" she asked.
"That would be a good way to get myself gutted with a steak knife," Sam said. She leaned back from that. "There was a guy. Fucking crazy. Didn't like people taking the things he had, even though he got them by stealing from others."
"Oh. Is there a chance this maniac of yours is here in Hell?" she asked.
"Unlikely. Evil men do not die young in the mortal world, and the 'maniac' was younger than me. A cancer like him? He'll outlast the sun," Sam said.
"Well did you leave anybody you cared about behind?" she asked.
"I..." Sam mulled. It wasn't an answer easy to put to words. "There were some who I was closer to. I think we were all too tired to call each other friends, or lovers, or anything. And the best we could do is circle the wagons when the Maniac, the Pig, and the Slumlord decided to take out their sadism on the schmucks like us who couldn't fight back. It rarely worked."
"You sound like you're holding onto a lot of resentment, there," she said.
"You'd be resentful of them, too," Sam said. One a lunatic who was so violent as to be effectively above response. The next a bully and a thug who shielded himself from consequence behind a badge. The last a miserly old fuck who extracted money and pain from those dependent upon him in equal measure. "Do you know how soul-killing it is, to see people like that just... allowed? That they're free to do whatever the fuck they want to us, and nobody will even bat an eye, let alone raise a hand. And I didn't have the worst of it by far; Toby was gunned down for driving-while-black, Alle suffered brain-damage because he didn't beg for his life sufficiently. Lulu had to literally sell her pain so that she would have a roof over her head so she could qualify for her medications. That was the world up there, Charlie! As bad as Hell, in every measure. I'm thinking I might be better off down here. At least in Hell, everybody admits to themselves that they're assholes."
"Wow. That's... not what people usually say about the world."
"Then they died from somewhere north of the bottom of it," Sam said. "I'm beginning to think that all of the realms are fundamentally the same. I wouldn't be surprised if Heaven had its gutters, just like Hell does."
"Don't say that! Heaven isn't..." Charlie began.
"You've never been there. You've never even been where I was!" Sam snapped at her. Then growled and wiped a hand down his face, feeling the shit-head for seeing her sudden expression of alarm and pain. "Shit. God damn it I'm... I'm sorry. I shouldn't have..."
"You probably shouldn't have, but you're entitled to your pain," she said.
"Entitled to pain. How fucking fitting," Sam said, and pulled another can of the obscenely named rootbeer from the variety pack. "Well, if nothing else, I'm in good company at the hotel. Everybody here is walking wounded except for you."
"What do you mean?" Charlie seemed to have recovered herself more fully.
"Wendy's obvious. Suicide out of hopelessness for a world doing its damndest to shake humanity off. Alastor feels trapped and is probably worried that if he doesn't get out of his rut, he'll end up like every other Demon out there that he hates," that seemed to shock Charlie, but he was on a roll, so kept going, "Angel Dust is terrified of somebody out there and is using this hotel as a shield. Husk doesn't want to care about anything because he lost something too dear to his heart. Vaggie stands like Sisyphus with his rock, knowing how hopeless the task she has is, but too stubborn to stop shoving. And Niffty probably led a lifetime of rejection that moulded her into the hyperactive hyperfeminine goblin that she is."
"Would you mind explaining how you came to these conclusions?" Charlie asked.
"I looked and I saw," Sam said.
"Sam, the things you've just said vary from clinical insight to outright speculation," Charlie said.
"You can't be serious. It's all right there," he said, gesturing to the doors to the inner hotel. Charlie just shook her head. "Don't pretend it's not obvious."
"It really isn't, Sam," Charlie said. Her eyes narrowed, and she leaned in closer, staring into his eyes. "Sam... do you know what kind of Elemental you are?"
"Flame, from the look of me," Sam said.
"Yes, but, flame has a lot of meanings. Inspiration, knowledge, technology, refinement, even revelation," she said. "And the one that people talk about the least; hope. Do you think you're seeing the hopes in them, and that the rest is you trying to understand it?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Sam said.
"I think that's what you're doing," Charlie sounded surer of herself, now. "You can see other people's hopes, not like an expression or a color, but at a level like feeling the shivers when a great evil is born, or the hellhound's ability to know the true forms of people even if they're hiding. It might be part of what you are, now. Somebody who can see the hopes of others, and see what is crushing them."
Sam stared at her, then. This was lunacy. The signs were clear to him. Just as it was clear that Charlie was terrified that she was the failure that her father always said she was.
He thought back, to try to prove her wrong even to himself. And the most vivid recollection he had of late was that imp with the very long horns holding him at gunpoint as he outright burned with righteous outrage that somebody had dared both belittle him like everybody else in his life had, and far more importantly caused harm to his child.
Hold on a second.
He hadn't said...
"Well, I guess that's a thing I can do, now," Sam muttered, as he cracked his can.
"This is amazing. I never knew a Demon could have a power like that before. It was all just supposition," Charlie clapped her hands in happiness. "You could be so incredibly helpful to so many people with a talent like that!"
"You want me to what? Diagnose the crushed dreams of people?" Sam said.
"Dreams are resilient things," she said, and he could goddamned see how honest she was being at that. That her dreams had been stomped so repeatedly and so thoroughly that he could have forgiven her for callousness at the least, and cruelty at the worst. And instead, she took those broken dreams and chose to be kind. God damn it stop proving her right, brain! "Sam are you alright?"
He pulled himself out of his own head and looked at her. "I'm fine. Why?" he asked. She gestured to him, and he glanced down, to see that the bullet-holes in his shirt were flaring with yellow light. He watched, his mind calming, as the light dimmed and its color returned to sullen red. "See? Fine."
"Are you sure?" she pressed. He stared at her, and she made a relenting motion.
"So I know what makes everybody else tick but not myself. Typical," Sam said.
"And if you are willing, I'd love to have you help with a few of the other issues our other guests are having," Charlie pressed.
"The other two guests you have," Sam said dryly, taking a sip.
"Two of the first three guests we've had," she countered gamely.
"How would it even work?" Sam asked. "I just tell you what's obvious and you do therapy at them?"
"That's probably an oversimplification, but yes," Charlie said.
"Starting with who?" Sam asked.
"Well, let's see who's up," Charlie said, not skipping per se to the buzzer board near the kiosk, but very nearly skipping. She buzzed on Angel Dust's room for a while. When that didn't work, she buzzed Wendy. "Wendy? Could you be an angel and come down?"
Whatever answer Wendy gave was muffled by distance, so Sam couldn't get much out of it. But he still sat there, drinking rootbeer and waiting as Charlie primped herself into proper fettle for her self-appointed task. The chime of the elevator landing at the lobby was, as usual, discordant and lingered a bit too long, before the elevator doors finally parted and Wendy stepped out.
Her eye was green.
Sam stopped drinking, watching as the now-mostly-grey woman emerged, still silent, still hunched, but her eye no longer looking like it was just a charcoal-blob smudged to a different saturation than the rest of her. It was a few shades darker than emerald, and while it was obvious she was still looking around, it wasn't the disinterested ennui of not caring what would come. More like the quiet concern of what was already there.
"Welcome down, Wendy! You're looking better," Charlie said.
"...right," Wendy leaned away from the chipperness radiating away from Charlie like heat from a stove. She distrusted the obvious enthusiasm that the princess of Hell offered because she'd been burned too many times since she landed in hell, let alone before. And again, Sam felt he had to reel himself back in, because it was starting to feel like he was looking into some part of her that he wasn't allowed to. Damn it all, it was going to be hard to get used to this.
"Have you met Sam? Oh, wait, of course you did, you were there when he arrived!" Charlie said.
"Yeah. He looked different," Wendy said. She was stir crazy. Sam just looked away from her, holding his can at arm's length and pointedly reading its ingredients so that he didn't keep passively violating her privacy. And even as he noted that sassafras was the first ingredient after water. They had sassafras in Hell? Just literally sassafras? Weird.
"Well he stabilized into his new form really fast," Charlie said. "Did you have a chance to talk to each other since he got here last week?"
"...briefly," she said. Cane sugar, too. Man, Hell had all the best agricultural products. Some day he was going to have to go to Wrath and try some of their food, if Apoc's descriptions of the place were accurate.
"The walls of the shower are paper thin," Sam said, still reading ingredients. Shockingly, none of them sounded like they came from a chemical supplier. Did Hell actually have all-natural rootbeer as one of its standard food products, where Earth was mostly preservatives and artificial sweeteners made out of corn? How did that make any sense?
"Excuse me?" Charlie asked.
"Yeah. You can talk through that wall real easy," Wendy said.
"Is that a problem?" Charlie asked. "Sam? Is that a problem?"
She wanted his attention. He looked to her, and saw Wendy beside her. He gave a shrug, not looking too deeply. "Not on my end," he said.
"He's nuts. You know that, right?" Wendy said to the hotel's current owner.
"Don't be rude," Charlie said.
"She's right. I've learned that insanity is a survival trait down here," Sam said. "Which I'm sure you're aware of."
"I learned that a long time ago," Wendy said. Sam gestured to the stool next to him. Even catching a glimpse told him that she wanted to grow something. Until he got a handle on his invasive gaze, he was going to have to keep his blinders on.
At that point, he took another sip of his remarkably natural rootbeer and thought back. Alastor was cagey, but Sam could see the seams of him. Apoc, on the other hand, was an utterly closed book. Sam had no idea that Apoc was throwing him into the deep end the first day in Hell by asking him to walk through a barrier which, under supposedly most circumstances, would make him burst into flame. He had no concept of what Apoc did, or had to give up, to get his formerly angelic weapon. In fact, Sam had no idea what Apoc wanted in general, other than that which he directly said, or revealed through his actions.
So why were everybody else's books wide open, while his was slammed shut and nailed closed?
"Sam are you paying attention?" Charlie asked.
"I'm sorry, I had a thought and it kinda brought me into the reeds," Sam said. "Where were we?"
"We were talking about productive hobbies, something to encourage you to spend your efforts to create something instead of the, um, usual things people do," Charlie said, giving an uncomfortable glance to the bar that the two of them were technically sitting at.
"I don't know," Wendy said.
"I'm already up to my elbows in the guts of this hotel whenever I'm not working for Apoc," Sam said.
"That's not an excuse. I didn't ask you to singlehandedly rebuild the Hotel, just help where you could," Charlie said.
"And I choose to put my effort into making a home that's better for myself, now that I have some confidence that I'm not going to get kicked out of my room by an asshole slumlord," Sam said.
"That happened to you, too?" Wendy asked.
"I fixed my pipes and they punted me out so they could raise the rent for the next idiot," Sam said with a nod.
"Your landlord was an asshole," Wendy said.
"I'll drink to that," he said, holding his can idly toward her. She clinked a glass of something against it.
"Well, if that's what brings you contentment, I won't stand in your way," Charlie said. And she was actually right. He was content doing that. Because he was making a positive difference in a place which wasn't innately rigged to undo it, his actions were permanent. It was making a difference. "But there must be something for you that gives you some contentment, some joy," the princess then turned to Wendy.
"I don't... really... do joy," Wendy said.
"Well, I did see that there's a big abandoned conservatory out back," Sam cast a thumb over his shoulder.
"Yeah, we're not sure what to do with that room," Charlie said. "So many broken windows."
"There's a conservatory?" Wendy asked.
"A building like this, not having a conservatory? Are you nuts?" Sam asked, lightly.
"It's not exactly safe in there. There's a lot of broken glass, and a few of the surviving specimens are a bit, um... feral."
"Surviving specimens?" Wendy asked, life coming into her voice for the first time since she offered that incredulous laugh in the shower.
"Oh yes! A few cuttings from one of Dad's underlings. I think it was Prince Stolas's flora-creche that was back there," Charlie said.
"I... well... I could..." Sam turned a glance at her, and he could tell she was already killing her own enthusiasm with bitter thoughts and catastrophization.
"I could help, but any plant I touches dies, so it'd only go about one way," Sam said. That seemed to relight the fire in her, just an ember of it.
"I'll do it," she said. "I'll look after the plants. At least that way they won't all wither away."
"You're welcome to it," Sam said, hands splayed in a 'you got it' gesture.
"That's great, we've all got something to get us started," Charlie said. She then glanced to the elevators. "If I can just find something to spur Angel Dust, we'll be on a roll."
"Good luck with that," Sam said. If his read on Angel Dust was right, that dude had some problems going on, even above whatever monster had him hiding in the Hotel.
"I'll... just get started, then," Wendy said, and started away from the bar. He offered a glance, and that glance turned into a stare. Her hair was faintly green. Just at the roots, but it was there. Sam got up, draining the last of his can and setting it down beside its brother.
"And if it's all the same, I've probably got some irrigation pipes I'd need to fix so that she doesn't have a bunch of thirsty begonias," Sam said.
"A thirsty what?" Charlie asked, but didn't stand in his way.
The lower floor of the hotel looked like a less mad version of the upper floors, no hallways that twisted themselves sideways, or paths that shrunk to the point where you needed to belly-crawl to get into a room. The whole place seemed tired, like it had been a bold endeavor, started with almost unlimited spirit, only to have the realities of Hell chip away at it, one blood-stain in the carpet, bullet-hole in the wall, or door marked with a biohazard warning at a time.
He wasn't entirely sure it wasn't his new, uncomfortably invasive vision that made him replay a few of the tableaus he saw as he followed in Wendy's wake. A person kicking at a door until it splintered, firing a gun through its barely cracked-open threshold and staining that threshold with black-powder residue. Inside, a bed had been stripped down to its frame, too stained to reclaim. Another place, where the plaster had fallen away, revealing the lathes underneath. Hair stuck in the splintered wood, long and bearing a ragged skin-tag; somebody'd had their head smashed into the wall here. A couple of times, from the look of it. A door cracked open over a letter, still sealed with wax with a heart as its sigil. A love-letter never delivered, or delivered but never read.
This whole building felt sad. Not pathetic: it was grandiose and proud; but instead weighed down with generations of sorrow, of things that could have been.
The threshold to the conservatory was obvious even to somebody who didn't have his way of seeing things. It was overtaken by withered vines that clawed their way into the building, most dead and crumbling, but one of them adventurously reaching into a bathroom and vanishing down a toilet. Sam stepped through the emptied doorframe and on to the humus that crunched lightly under his shoes. The night pressed in, a pentagram-etched moon casting faintly red light over the skyline of the city obvious through the many, many windows that dominated two adjacent walls of the conservatory. The room had a chill in it, breeze running through full of the night-time cold – or as much cold as this city ever really got. Hell was not a place for snow-birds, it seemed. Within the rows of planters, though, were a dizzying array of dead or dying plants, some of which he'd read about as living in the truly obscure corners of the world, such as the massive corpse-flowers of the Amazon, these ones smelling not of rotten meat but instead of roast beef, or the fly-traps of exotic North Carolina, albeit sized to eat human prey.
Wendy was amidst them all, staring with unmuted awe at the pieces that still eked out a living in this forgotten nook. "Do much gardening when you were alive?" Sam asked. Wendy turned to her, her eye locking on him with a very guarded expression.
"Yeah. I did," she said.
"Hobby, or..." Sam asked.
"Both," She answered.
"You're very good at giving very small, unenlightening answers to questions," Sam said with a chuckle, as he shifted the slightly rickety ladder to a point where he could go up it and start looking at the sprinklers near the glass roof.
"Fuck you," she said, but without much venom.
"There's your spirit," Sam said. "See anything new and unusual?"
"Most of these were extinct for a decade when I started working," she said, her voice quiet. "All I ever did was catalog what the Earth was losing forever."
"Sorry to hear that," Sam said. When he finally prised the valve open, it sent out a blast of rusty water which sprayed thankfully away from him, before falling still. There were more problems with the line, obviously. He turned a look at her. She was scrutinizing him, now. "What?"
"Whose blood is that?" Wendy asked.
"Don't worry, it's just mine," Sam answered.
"And that doesn't bother you?"
"Not the first time I've had to wear a bloody shirt for a while," Sam said. She rolled her eye and turned back to the plants, gently shifting them, gauging which could be salvaged and which were only useful as mulch.
Sam didn't look at her for very long, lest he peer into somewhere he wasn't invited. But even then, she was... better, here. There wasn't much to say, so Sam just worked with his hands, and brought water back into the greenhouse.
"Well ho-lee-shit, look at this dump," a welcome distraction appeared in Angel Dust's world, turning him away from where he was petting Nuggs for all he was worth and trying not to go down old, dark memories. It slid into place like a mask, and just as quickly, as he turned to the window to his room and saw Cherri Bomb perched on the window's sill. She was all smiles and stank of marzipam and burnt powder – the vague and ever-changing smell of explosives, either awaiting a fuse or already detonated.
"Yeah, I told you it was worth 'playin' nice' for," Angel said. "Why'd ya come in the window for? Front door ain't good enough for ya?"
"And freak out the normies downstairs? Fuck that noise," Cherri said, kipping in and immediately dropping to her knees to get down on Nuggs' level. "Hey little guy! Angel Dust treating you like the beast you are?"
Nuggs gave a high pitched, stygian oink, and pushed his flank against her fingertips. She obliged, and scratched the tiny hell-pig. "Yeah, Nuggs is havin' a blast. All the food he can eat, nobody tryin' to make bacon out of 'm. It's great," Angel said.
"So I guess you didn't get into trouble after all?" Cherri said, now hugging the hell-pig against her face. Nuggs looked delighted. Angel just gave his cockiest smile, and she moved over to his bed, Nuggs in hand, and sat down. "You look good, Angie. Can't say you don't."
"Damned right I do," he snapped finger-guns at her. Cherri stared at him for a few seconds, her one large eye chipping its way through his bullshit as easily as her party favors went through door locks. And doors. And walls. "Alright, what's this all about? You soyt-en-lee didn't come here to to check my new duds, you you would'a done that weeks ago."
"I can't visit a friend?" Cherri asked. And now it was his turn to see through her bullshit. In a way, it was one of the greatest irony's of Hell that he was the way he was, because the two of them fit together like a ticket and its stub, a rare commodity here in hell, and the cornerstone of the most dangerous Overlords in general. If she'd been a guy, or he hadn't been a fruit, the two of them would have owned Pentagram City from top to bottom. Or both of them would be stuck in a bedroom somewhere. But that kind of thinking felt just... unclean... when it was about Cherri. She was his Bestie. She deserved better. And since he was relatively sober right now and relatively aware, he could see that she was skittish. She was nervous. Something was eating her. Something bad.
"What, you been too busy bein' a new Overlord to check up on me? I'm hurt, really I am," Angel feigned hurt, if only to keep this from going one of the two ways he thought it might. Let him have a couple more minutes with his Bestie.
"Yeah, Egglord's scuttled under a rock again 'since we put an asswhooping on him, and I'm pretty much the cream of the crop. I've got underlings taking my presents to all the people I don't like, money coming in hand over fist. It's great."
And now the bad part.
"Then why're you so crooked right now?" Angel asked. She glanced away, hugging Nuggs protectively. "Is... he... back in the picture? Cherri, I got your back if he's comin' outta the woodwork, you know that!"
"This isn't about me, Angie," Cherri said. "This is about you."
"Whad'ya mean?" he asked.
"Some of the other Overlords have been grumbling. Since I'm one of them now, I get to listen in. Angie... the Vs are pooling resources. They're casting a net."
If Angel Dust's blood could have pooled any harder in his legs they'd have turned to stone.
"Valentino's looking for you again," Cherri said. "And this time, he's not going to stop until he finds you."
"Fuck that guy. I'll just stay here till he gets bored!" Angel said with flippancy that he absolutely did not have. In fact, it was taking all of his bravado not to immediately start crying with fear. Cherri stood and grabbed him by his uppermost shoulders.
"Angie. He's. Coming. For you," she said. "I managed to find you 'cause of our little talk. But if a thug like me can do it, Velvet will be able to do it faster once she gets wind. And Vox can see out of any Camera in Pride. Unless you could leave Pride, you wouldn't be able to escape him."
"Kinda paintin' a fake door on the wall, babe; Sinners can't leave Pride."
"Somebody has," Cherri said. Angel wasn't sure why, but she gave him a shake, and then repeated herself. "Angel, a Sinner has left Pride. If one can do it, then it's not impossible, and that means there's a way to get you away from the Triarchs."
"That's impossible," he repeated.
"Then why are all the right people whispering it?" Cherri said. "Look, you can stay in this room, smoking and playing with Nuggs... which honestly doesn't sound that bad but anyway! You can do that, or you can do what you were famous for when you were still kicking, and put all your money on a hard six."
"It ain't my money I'm worried about, babe," Angel said.
The thought of being back in the Moth's 'tender care' shook him to his soul, withering and bleaching him. He didn't need to look in the mirror to see the stripes and spots of pink on his body were practically invisible, right now.
Honestly, he was so fucking tired of being scared. He was tired of always flinching when somebody said a word that sounded too much like the Moth's name. He was tired of nightmares of feeling bruised and battered, outside and in, crashing out of another drug binge to find himself naked in a pool of spunk and vomit and shit. He was tired of feeling weak. Of feeling small.
There had to be a way out of this. He didn't know how, exactly, but he had to find it. If there was a way into another Ring, a slut like him could live out an eternity doing what he did best – fucking and killing – and nobody'd be able to corner him. After all, the worst he'd have to deal with in the other rings were a bunch of Imps and Fiends; those guys were mooks compared to a Sinner like him.
"Alright. You got my number, babe. We find a way out of this shithole town. I bet the two of us could take over a whole Ring all by ourselves."
"There you go, Angie," Cherri gave his shoulder a slug. "You got your color back and you got some fire in your balls. You keep yourself safe, and get ready for a big fight to the Border. And me? I'm going to do something really fucking uncharacteristic and start talking to people."
"Damn, bitch, I wish I could be there when you do," Angel said.
"Nobody hurts my Bestie," Cherri said, simply. Sometimes, in Hell, things were no more complicated than that.
Honestly, for all the people who made this song were dull as dishwater, every now and then normies can produce an absolute bop. Octavia didn't so much nod her head to the rhythm that somehow magically erupted from the mediocrity of its creator, as have the music nod it for her, leafing idly through some of the truly gruesome stories that marked the arrival of Lucifer in Hell, and his immediate conquest over the Sins and assuming of the Throne of All Hell. It was shocking to read that once upon an eon past, apparently her parents hadn't been a pair of bickering nonces.
Either that, or the book had gotten a shitload of historical revision stuffed into it.
She passed by another woodcut image showing Stella, Duchess of Iron, about to launch a crushing blow against Satan, and Stolas, Prince of Flowers, petrifying vast hordes of imps as she did with a sweep of his gaze. She gave her head a shake. It had to be revisionism. While she could believe in Mum's bloodthirstiness easily enough, there was no way in all of Hell that her dad was anything other than a perverted ninny.
There was a faint breeze that interrupted her bop and her dismissal of history, and she turned to see faintly glowing eyes at the now-open window, long horns curving away.
"Where are you you thirsty biiiiitch?" the voice was low and ragged. Octavia gaped for a moment, then hit the lightswitch, which flooded her bedroom with lights. Revealed was that little red dickhead that her father lusted vocally over, suddenly blinking in confusion with something hidden behind his back.
"What the fuck?" Octavia asked.
"What the shit is this? You're not Stolas!" the dickhead pointed out the hopelessly obvious.
"What are you doing in my bedroom!"
"I'm pretty sure this was the right window," he said, scratching at his chin for a moment. "Eh,well, it's been a while. Guess I went up the wrong wall."
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN MY ROOM?" Octavia screeched.
"Oh, I'm here to fuck your dad," the imp said proudly, showing that what he'd held behind his back was a riding crop. In a heartbeat, her indignation transformed into disgust.
"...what?" she asked in a mortified whisper.
"Yeah, I figured if I'm gonna take out a decade's worth of backed up spunk I'mma need somebody who I know can take it. And let's be frank, you're daddy's got some STAMINA!"
"STOP TALKING ABOUT MY DAD'S SEX LIFE!" Octavia demanded.
"Prude," the imp derided. "So where is he, anyway? I'm kinda at full mast here, and that don't leave a lot of blood for the old brain."
"Gross. He's in the guest house, 'cause he just had another fight with Mum," Octavia said, now in a full-body flinch away from the freaky little goblin that shared the room with her.
"Thatta-way?" he pointed, and she nodded as much as her posture – leaning as far away from him as she could manage and not fall out of her chair – allowed. "Fantastic! Do your homework, don't do anything illegal, I'm gonna go fuck your father into a coma! Buhbye!"
And then, proud as the lord of the manor, he strutted through her room and out the door and into the halls. The imps, spotting him, immediately fled from the madness that they now knew was infesting the manor once again. He slammed the door hard, leaving her flinched in the light, and feeling like she just wanted to dig a very, very deep hole, and then bury herself in it.
God damn it, why couldn't she just have a normal family?