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Chapter 10, Part 3



      Mephistopheles's first awareness was of something very cold through the thin cloth of his blouse. Very hard, also: a floor, with a repeating, geometric pattern. Then the pain shattered his uncertain concentration: not on his lower back, where the centers of feeling were blunted, but near the top where they clustered. He groaned.
      "Awake?" The sound of a robe dragging across tile, and the smell of almonds. Mephistopheles raised his head and saw an unfamiliar woman's face.
      "Who...?"
      "Chris. Your doctor. How do you feel?"
      "My doctor?"
      "Answer the question."
      Mephistopheles closed his eyes. "Where is... the priest?"
      "Sleeping in the living room. Do you want me to drag him in? Answer the question!"
      "Are you real?"
      She reached down and pinched his left arm. "Feel that?"
      He started. "Yes!"
      "Good. Then I didn't do a bad job. What about the wing?"
      Mephistopheles grimaced. "That I can feel all too well." He tried to extend it, managed only to spread two of the flight feathers apart before the nerve-fire dissuaded him from further efforts.
      "Fantastic! I didn't think you'd be able to move it so soon...." Chris rolled her hands under the wing near the shoulder and held it stable, examining it. "You're lucky you didn't fracture anything on the way down... wings aren't my specialty, and I'm not sure I could have set it correctly."
      "Treat it like any other appendage and you'll do fine," Mephistopheles said. "That hurts. Would you mind lowering it?"
      "Sorry." She looked at him. "I would have given you an analgesic, but I have no idea what drugs you can take. Are there any painkillers you know of that I can give you?"
      "I wouldn't mind something to drink. Alcoholic." Mephistopheles dragged in a breath. "And something warm under my chest, before my skin sticks to your floor."
      "Done." Chris disappeared into the kitchen. A few minutes later, a cabinet creaked open and a full bottle plunked onto the counter. The sound of her blowing the dust from it followed. "The priest and the kid are sleeping in the living room. They look like they've been through... well, Hell."
      "They have been. Just who are you, lady, if I may?"
      "Don't 'lady' me. I'm not that old or that feudal. I'm Marie's mother. Marie being the girlfriend of your youngest compatriot."
      "I see. A literalist." Mephistopheles gingerly drew himself to his knees, wobbling. "I'm sure Stephen's story went over well."
      He heard her stop. A few minutes later, her guarded voice reached his ears. "Let's just say it gave me a lot to think about."
      "I'm certain." Mephistopheles flexed his right wing back and his right arm up to his chest, fisting the hand to ease the cramp from it. When she returned with the bourbon and two glasses, he was able to hold his share.
      "God, look at you," Chris said, sitting across from him. Her eyes shone with a peculiar fascination. "You're interconnected all over. The control you've got over each feather! Can you fly?"
      "Not here," Mephistopheles replied. He sipped, rolled the smoke and wood-flavored liquor over his tongue. "My feathers and bones are solid." He lifted his left arm and ignored the pain, curling his fingers against his palm. "But there are benefits to being here."
      "How are you doing that?" Chris asked. "You were just on the floor ten minutes ago!"
      Mephistopheles chuckled softly. "God's presence is all around you, Doctor. It heals His creatures. I would heal faster if I were in Grace—or female, I suppose—but even so it is enough."
      Her lips pressed into a thin line. Mephistopheles ignored her discomfort and drank.
      "Female?" she asked.
      He nodded. "The female of the species is more sensitive to God than the male." He grinned. "Does that surprise you?"
      "I guess not," Chris said warily.
      "They seem to heal faster in His light... and appear to sicken more quickly without it. We have no female Fallen, so I have little experience with them. But so I have been told."
      "This business with God," Chris said. "I know it has to be true now that you're here. But...."
      "But you can't believe it? But you don't want to believe it?"
      Her hand tightened on her glass.
      Mephistopheles smiled wryly. "I've seen hundreds of thousands like you waiting to enter the gates of Hell, Doctor. All of them unable to maintain their faith in a greater power in the face of what seems to be His greater apathy. But there are more things in Heaven and Earth—"
      "Shut up. I've heard that before. I don't believe it."
      "Can you afford not to?"
      Her glass hit the table with a hard thump as she stood. A few minutes later she was gone, her shadow thinning and then vanishing from the stairs. Mephistopheles looked up after her, then finished the bourbon. Pulling himself to his feet, he staggered to the living room, following the smell of humans and demon blood. There he sagged to the ground across from Brad and Stephen, curved his one painless wing around his body, and closed his eyes.
      "Mephistopheles...?"
      The demon looked up. "I thought you were asleep."
      Stephen turned over on the couch, voice low so as not to disturb the snoring teenager. "I'm trying, but trying and doing aren't the same thing. You're on your feet a lot faster than I thought you would be. The good doctor's ministrations?"
      Mephistopheles snorted. "The good doctor is up in her room bleeding."
      "What?" Stephen hissed, pushing himself upright. He could barely separate the demon's outline from the darkness.
      "If you were ever needed as a priest, friend Stephen, I think you are now. Go. Upstairs."
      He paused only a fraction of a moment; then he cut silently through the dark to the carpeted stairs and walked up them, footfalls muffled. In the small and silent hall between rooms, Stephen stopped. No light spilled from beneath the doors to betray the one that belonged to the doctor. He canted his head and closed his eyes to listen.
      There... a soft swish, fabric against rug. Stephen knocked on the door at the end of the hall.
      "Yes?" Barely audible through the solid wood.
      Stephen leaned against the door, one hand braced on the jamb. "Ma'am? May I come in?"
      Silence. The door opened suddenly on her retreating back. "It's just Chris," she said over her shoulder.
      Stephen stepped into the room, surmising from its size with some confusion that it was not the master bedroom. A queen-sized bed with faded sheets in a geometric pattern faced the closet; between them, a desk sat beneath a window looking down on the front lawn. A Persian rug obscured the expensive Berber carpeting in the center of the room. The dim lamp on the night-table beside the bed provided the only illumination, a smoldering, hazy amber bleeding to dark umber in the shadows.
      Chris sat on the bed, pulling her silk robe around her body more securely. "Is there anything I can help you with?" she asked.
      "Do you mind if I sit?" Stephen indicated the chair, and when she shook her head once he pulled it from the desk and sat, facing her. Threading his fingers together between his knees, Stephen leaned forward and said, "I'd like to apologize for descending on you this way."
      "Descending!" She laughed. "That's a way of putting it." Running her hands through her hair, she lifted her head and glared at him. "The demon sent you, didn't he."
      Stephen hesitated before answering. "Yes."
      Chris jerked to her feet and paced to the window. The stiff muscles of her back creased the silk night-robe in sharp folds. "What does he know about us, anyway?"
      "He seems to know a great deal," Stephen said, pitching his voice lower. "Probably reasonable in someone who spends most of his time around dead humans."
      "Dead humans. Huh!" Chris folded her arms beneath her breasts, head dipping down. "And what's the deal with that, I wonder? How do you feel, oh-so-Christian-Catholic Father, to discover that you're going to Hell when you die?"
      "I don't know," Stephen answered, measuring the words before he spoke them. "It's too soon for me to know. I suppose I should feel relief that there are souls, and they don't just dissipate when we die. That we go somewhere after we die, after all. That's... some form of validation. Though how I feel about it, I don't know."
      "Validation!"
      "That God exists," Stephen says. "That He cares."
     "Oh does he," Chris said, acid. "What kind of God lets people die, Stephen? What kind of God lets people suffer? I'm not angry at you, really," though the heat of her words belied it, "but I was a lot happier before you walked in my door."
     "Were you?" Stephen asked.
     "Yes!"
     Stephen watched her. "And yet you healed him, when you could have let him die. That would have been the easy way out."
      Chris turned from the window to face him, hands tucked beneath her elbows and eyes narrowed. "Yeah, well, maybe I'm sorry now."
      He regarded her in silence until she fidgeted and looked away. Then, quietly, "Chris... what is it?"
      She walked around him to the desk, slid a picture frame from its concealing cloak of shadows, studied it. "Marie is almost seventeen."
      "She seems to be a lovely girl."
      Chris rubbed her thumb against the frame, then handed it to him: another photo of the teenager, laughing with her golden braid tossed over her shoulder. Her voice was husky when she said, "I'll be thirty-six this year."
      Stephen glanced up at her sharply. She walked past him to the bed, smoothed its edge with a hand. "I asked myself when it happened what I'd done to deserve it. I was a good Catholic girl, you know. I was even left-handed before the nuns rapped it out of me with a ruler. I was just beginning to understand that it wasn't my fault and I wasn't being punished for something when I found out... about Marie.
      "Just an idea. She was just an idea. A speck of a cell, dividing. She threatened my world. My planned career. Everything." Chris picked at some errant fuzz on the blanket. "I kept at it because I didn't know how to change my mind. If my parents hadn't helped, I don't know where I'd be today. I couldn't have an abortion... but I couldn't reconcile that God had allowed this thing to happen to me with anything I'd been taught."
      Chris slid a knee onto the bed and sat, looked over her shoulder at him; her eyes were hard. "What kind of God can watch a virgin get roughed up and then let her get pregnant? The same God that watches people suffer and die every day without any remorse, maybe. The kind of God I think is too vile to be real. That's what I think, Father. That's why I wish I could walk downstairs and rip the stitches out of that demon's shoulder, and watch him bleed to death."
      Stephen let her words sink into the silence, into the star- and lamp-lit room. After respecting them with his quiet, he said, "But aren't you glad of her company, now?"
      "Oh, no. I'm not buying that." Chris snarled. "That 'but wasn't it better in the end' bit! No, I don't think so! Where were God's tears for the innocence of His children, Father? He could at least have made it rain!"
      "Chris—"
      "No! No more. I'm done with all that. If He ever existed, He made it clear to me what kind of god He was, and I want nothing to do with Him." She shook her head. "Nothing." She brought her eyes up to his, and in them was something implacable, brittle. "You should rest, Father. You and yours have done enough damage tonight."
      Stephen stood, carefully placed the photo back on the desk. He walked to the door and opened it. "Good night, Chris."
      "Yeah. Good night."
      In the hall, Stephen set his back against the wall and stared at the ceiling, washed to a dim dark blue by the night-light. He sighed, pressed his shoulders back until his spine cracked, and headed down the stairs.
      He walked straight into a low, smoky orange light and the sight of Mephistopheles, drawn but steady, pouring two tumblers full of bourbon. Wordless, the demon proffered him one.
      Stephen plucked it from his hand and sank to the kitchen table. Leaning on his elbow, he sucked the fumes in through his nose and exhaled. "I remember now why I hate confession."
      "That good, was it?" Mephistopheles said, twisting the chair around and straddling it to allow his injured wing to hang freely.
      "Harrowing. I always tried to get out of it. I'd rather clean out stopped up toilets." He sighed.
      Mephistopheles lifted a brow. "You make it sound like you're never going back."
      Stephen sipped from the glass, eyes watering at the strength of the liquor. Blinking, he said, "I guess that's to be expected. We are talking about the end of the world in a few days, aren't we? It's hard to be... normal when your life's been turned upside down." He rubbed his forehead with the side of a hand. "Speaking of which, why are we still here? You seem fine."
      "I could use a few more hours to heal," the demon said. "I might be mobile, but I'm going to need full use of the arm before the new day is over."
      Stephen paused, looking at him. "I don't like the sound of that."
      "You shouldn't," Mephistopheles replied. "More importantly though, you need the sleep. So does Brad, for that matter."
      "I'm not tired."
      Mephistopheles simply stared at him until he looked away.
      "Okay. Maybe I am. But I'm too twitchy to sleep. This is my world we're talking about. It's beginning to sink in that I might not wake up to it in a few more days. As a species I don't think we're ready to meet our Maker."
      "He loves you, Stephen. Don't doubt that."
      Stephen fidgeted with the glass. "I don't, really. Not anymore. But it's not God who's going to come to Earth with flaming sword and battle host."
      "All these hundreds of years, my liege-lord has been taking care of humanity where Michael has not," Mephistopheles said, his voice softening. "Do not doubt that he will continue to do so, my friend." The demon let the silence gather across the table, then said, " 'Not anymore'?"
      Stephen smiled wryly. "I thought you'd pick up on that."
      "It seems a strange thing for a priest to say," Mephistopheles said, feathers twitching. He winced at the finger of fire that ran up the left arm, reached back to carefully touch the offending pinion.
      Stephen watched, fascinated through the combination of bleary exhaustion and sudden wariness that clouded his mind. "Maybe. You'd be surprised the kind of people you find in the priesthood. Not all of them have God first on their minds."
      "You do," Mephistopheles said, stopping to look at him with intent amber eyes. "I see it in you."
      "Yeah, well. I try to do well by people. That's what I care about."
      "There are easier ways to do that then in the priesthood."
      Stephen rolled his thumb around the lip of the glass. "Not tonight, Mephistopheles. Please. I don't know... if I could say anything—say it right—with so many things going on. God loves us, we suffer, we might be snuffed out forever, Satan's a good guy, God's Champion a bigot, Jesus is dead," his voice cracked, "And everyone I know is going to Hell. It's too much. I'm too small in it."
      Mephistopheles massaged the wing-arm with probing fingers. He worked the kink out of it, ignoring the fiery complaints of the healing muscle on his back. "Are you familiar with the original definition of the atom, Stephen?"
      The priest looked up, cleared his throat. "You mean Democritus's? The building block of all matter, the invisible, indivisible and ultimate particle?"
      "That one."
      Stephen canted his head. "Yes, I know it. We still haven't found it yet."       "I could tell you what it is."
      The priest leaned forward. "I bet you could, given what Lucifer does to get you around." He managed a grin. "That would put me down in history, too, if I could prove it. Granted a history to be put down in."
      Mephistopheles let his wing drop carefully. "So you want to know the smallest indivisible building block of God's creation?"
      "Yes!"
      The demon leaned forward. "One. Human. Soul."
      Stephen's breath stopped in his throat.
      "That's it. You are the smallest thing that God notices, Stephen. You are the smallest thing that warrants His personal attention. The plants and animals of this world do not need Him; they know Him already. Only humans have become separate enough from one another and from God that each individual can lift his or her eyes to the sky and question and doubt and love. Trust me when I say that you loom very large compared to the weight of the universe. You may feel small, but that's a lie your mind tells your heart."
      Stephen met his eyes, and for the first time let them rest there, let the demon stare into him as he stared back. Far from disturbing him, he found the unblinking regard reassuring.
     Standing, Stephen said, "I'll try and rest."
      "We have a long day ahead."
      Stephen tilted his head. "Do we?"
      Mephistopheles chuckled softly. "Oh yes. I've no gift for prophecy to tell you what we'll be doing, but we'll be doing something."
      Stephen grinned. "I guess that'll have to do. Good night, Mephistopheles."
      "God to your dreaming."
      The priest paused at the arch to the living room. "And to yours."
      "He is never far from it," Mephistopheles murmured.
      Stephen returned to the dark living room. On a whim, he stopped above the couch where Brad snored peacefully. His eyes picked out the curve of a jaw just dusted with stubble, a lock of hair obscuring a brow crinkled in sleep—an endearing combination of gawky limbs and growing strength. Stephen thought of the battle Michael was forcing, and one hand clenched against his side.
      He returned to the other couch and slept despite himself; but if God was in his dreams he did not remember His passing.



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