Written for BBB 2009; reposted here. (Basically, if you read it on LJ, you’re not gonna find anything new.)

your grievance
by gale

SUMMARY: In which we learn that the price of vengeance is, occasionally, worse than hell itself; or: your grievance shall be avenged. Just not in the way you were thinking.


i. be still my heart

"Eat this."

"No."

"Eat it."

"No."

"Come on! Eat iiiiiiiii--"

"Pete!" Patrick smacked his hand away. "I said no. I said no twice."

Pete put down the soup spoon and looked at him.

Patrick sighed and leaned in, taking it into his mouth for a moment. He let the flavors roll around his tongue. "Um. Maybe a little more salt?"

Pete took a taste himself, then nodded. "Salt it is. Good job on the pepper, though."

They were in Pete's new apartment--new to Patrick, anyway; Pete and Bill had been there for almost seven months now--and Pete had insisted on making dinner. Patrick wasn't sure why, since it wasn't like he had to eat, but he appreciated the gesture. On some level, anyway. The rest of him was curious as to why Pete was going to the effort.

Remembering to be human was taxing, sometimes.

--well, no, remembering to act human was taxing. Patrick, strictly speaking, wasn't human, not anymore. He was an emissary of vengeance, serving...actually, he wasn't entirely sure what he served, but it wasn't necessary for him to know, so that was all right. He did his job, he did not overstep his boundaries too much or too often, and he asked no questions.

And sometimes, like now, he snuck away for a few hours before midnight and tried to remember what he had been, once.

Even on his best days, it was difficult. The last time he had been alive, it was decades ago; another century. Things had been different. Men didn't have dinner with other men unless they were family or it was for business. They certainly didn't make each other dinner at their apartments, unless one was married and trying to set his friend up with someone his wife knew. He'd walked through the dreams and thoughts of mankind for decades, learning what angered and hurt and ruined them, but something as simple as remembering to feel temperature could almost undo him.

Speaking of which-- "Is it cold in here?"

"Not really," Pete said. "Sort of warm, actually." He unzipped his hoodie and spread it over the back of a chair. "Did you want wine with dinner?"

"If you're having some," Patrick said, "I will too." He stirred the sauce and hummed under his breath. "Bill's not joining us?"

Pete shook his head. "He's working on his thesis," he said. "He's maybe halfway done, and it's giving him rickets." He poured two glasses of wine and put one next to Patrick. "How's, um. How's work going?"

Patrick looked at him.

"I know, I know, you can't tell me," Pete said. "Not even a hint?" He held his fingers an inch apart. "Weensy little hint?"

"'Weensy' is not a unit of measurement," Patrick said. He checked the sauce again and turned off the burner. "It’s going well, I suppose. There have been others like Brendon--"

"Others?" Pete's face lit up. "They called it off?"

Patrick nodded. "A surprising number. I don't want to say it's any kind of a shift in the attitudes of mankind, but--"

"Patrick," Pete said, "please dumb it down for me."

Patrick sighed and moved the sauce away from the burner. "It's going better than I'm used to," he said. "I'm pleased, and cautiously optimistic." He reached out and take a sip of wine. It was good, he thought, though the alcohol had no effect on him at all. It was like drinking water.

"Good." Pete leaned in and kissed him. "Now grab the sauce and let's eat."

*

After dinner, Patrick found himself cleaning up. His memories of doing such a thing Before were dim at best--he was fairly certain he'd had a mother, or a sister, or possibly a dewy-eyed fiancé to do such things for him--but as soon as Pete handed him a plate, freshly rinsed, he'd stacked it in the sink, natural as anything.

Muscle memory, he decided, and didn't worry about it overmuch.

"So how was everything?" Pete asked.

Patrick shrugged. "It was fine." He glanced up and saw Pete's face, the hint of disappointment, and sighed. "I mean that literally. My taste buds aren't like yours. You *know* that."

They really weren't. His existence on the physical plane was temporary, tenuous at best. Standing here, in Pete's kitchen, cleaning up after dinner, was an act of will; his real body, the one he'd died in, had been buried long ago. It would be mostly-decomposed bones, if anything at all; most likely it was compost in a rotted-out coffin. It was easier for the Others; their bodies were designed to walk among humans and pass without comment, but garner no attention. They had taste buds--and nerve endings, and everything else. So did he, right now, but it was only temporary.

"I know," Pete said, quietly. "Sorry. I didn't mean--I'm sorry."

Patrick sighed again. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm not trying to make you upset. I just. I can't appreciate everything the same way you can."

"Not yet."

"Not yet, no," Patrick agreed. "And I can't say for certain when I'll be able to. Or if. I don't know how this works, Pete."

They didn't talk about it a lot. The unspoken agreement was very simple: service until such time as twelve people chose forgiveness over vengeance. It sounded very simple, but some things never fell out of fashion, and revenge was one of them. He'd been doing this a very long time, and until recently only one had decided to let go of his pain and save his soul.

In the last two years, three others besides Brendon had done it.

Patrick wasn't letting himself be optimistic; it was too close to foolishness, in his opinion, in his situation. But sometimes, just for a few moments, he let himself hope.

"I know," Pete said. He nudged Patrick with his hip. "Come on, I'll teach you how to load a dishwasher."

*

"I can do it," Patrick said, slapping Pete's hands away. Pete laughed against the back of his neck.

"I'm sure you can," he murmured. "I just want to help."

Patrick quit messing with his belt and turned around, holding his hands up and out of Pete's way. He usually let Pete do this part; one of the first times he'd tried it, he'd just made the clothes and the body all one piece, nothing to undress. Like a child's toy. Pete would never let him hear the end of it. "You mess up one time—"

"You mess up spectacularly," Pete said, unzipping his fly. His own clothes were strewn around the bedroom. Patrick was pretty sure that was Pete's shirt on top of the ceiling fan, and his pants—

Pete slid to his knees and mouthed Patrick's stomach, hands spreading his thighs and shoving him down against the mattress. Patrick stopped worrying about clothes.

It was strange, how fast he'd adapted to sex. He didn't have muscle memory for this, for another man's hands on his skin, another man's mouth. He'd cheated and watched videos on Pete's computer, but most of those weren't really good as far as advice went. They were baffling, yes, and laughably bad, and occasionally horrifying, but not terribly good at explaining things. Experience was better.

Experience had taught him that Pete tended to laugh in bed, though not at him. Experience had made him buckle down and, grimly determined, try to give Pete a blowjob, even when the first few attempts invariably ended with Pete yelping--not with pleasure--and insisting he try again at a later date, "when my dick isn't throbbing, dude, oh my God, tomorrow you're learning about teeth."

Experience, and its lack, had made Patrick a more than willing student.

He groaned and dug his fingers into Pete's shoulders, savoring the feeling of a warm, wet mouth on his cock. The world of the living was a thousand times more vivid than the sunless lands, as its pleasures went--everything was brighter here, sharper, stronger. Pete had kissed him, in the sunless lands; kissed him and touched him, made love with him a hundred different ways. They’d all been sweet, but none as purely, blindly pleasurable as holding someone’s hand in the land of the living.

"Yes," he said softly, tilting his hips. Speaking during sex was still strange to him, so he tried not to do it too much. "Pete, yes, that--keep doing that."

Pete stopped for a moment, whuffing out a laugh against his thigh. Patrick twitched. "That's what I like about you," he murmured. "You always let me know what you want."

"I'm sorry!" Patrick said, irritated. He never knew when Pete was edging into actually making fun. Not that he ever had, really, but--it was a feeling. Part of the deal with wanting to become human again, with experiencing things, was that you had to take the bad parts with the good ones.

"No, hey." Pete's eyes were very dark. He kissed Patrick's thigh, making a slow trail up with his tongue. "That wasn't a knock, okay? I'm being serious. I like that."

"...really?"

"Really really." Pete bit down a little, making a pink mark against his skin. "Do you—what do you want to do?"

It only took a second to run through the options in his head. They'd yet to attempt anything that Patrick hadn't at least wanted to try again, but he had a few favorites. "Fuck me," he said breathlessly, reaching down and touching Pete's face. "Will you? Please?"

Pete's eyes lit up. "Wait," he said, scrambling to his feet. Patrick didn't try to hide his grin. He rolled onto his back and spread his legs, stroking his thigh with one hand. He watched Pete look for whatever he needed. "Wait, just a couple seconds—"

"I'm waaaaiting," Patrick sang out. He moved his hand up and rubbed at his belly, watching Pete with hooded eyes.

"God, stop being such a whi--" Pete turned around and stopped, lubricant in one hand, mouth dropping open a little. He stared.

"Such a what?" Patrick said lightly. He stroked his cock, shuddering at the sensation, digging his toes into the sheets. "If you're not going to move fast enough, I'm just going to have to get started without you."

"Okay, that's cheating," Pete said. He crossed to the bed and kneewalked across it, settling himself between Patrick's legs. "You didn't even have sex a couple months ago--"

"I had an excellent teacher." Patrick leaned up and bit at his mouth.

"--and now you're lying on your back, looking like some of those dreams I used to have. The really inappropriate ones." Pete eased Patrick's legs further open. The lube was cold when Pete reached down to open him, but it always was, and it warmed up soon enough. Patrick let out a long breath. "What were those like for you, anyway?"

"Strange," Patrick said, shivering a little. "Pleasant. This is better." He wrapped his hand around Pete's erection and brought him closer. "Don't go slow."

Pete made a noise Patrick couldn't identify and thrust inside him to the hilt. Patrick gasped and gripped the mattress in both hands.

The sex was almost always good, a couple of non-starts notwithstanding. Patrick got that; it was designed to be pleasant, after all, to ensure that the species kept going. Even better than the sex was the way everything came down. When he was awake, Pete wasn't so different from everyone else; he kept walls up to keep from feeling too much, to keep himself sane, to not be hurt. Sex made the walls thinner, almost translucent. He could hear the undercurrent in Pete's head as he moved above and inside him: mine and yours and yes, a lot of images that went by too fast to properly track but felt, to the center of Patrick's borrowed chest, like happiness.

And then Pete's hips were snapping against his and he was panting, and it was doing something to Patrick's body, there was a technical name for it but he only knew it as oh God YES; and then Pete was still above him, shaking inside him. He wrapped a hand around Patrick's cock and rubbed the thumb along the head--and maybe Patrick had been close for longer than he'd realized, because he was biting Pete's shoulder and coming in wet, messy spurts against their stomachs.

"Love you," Pete was breathing into his skin. "Love you, Patrick, I love you so much--"

"Shhhh." Patrick licked at the bite and breathed in Pete's smell. Humans smelled so good. Even in the sunless lands, the scents were flat and still. He didn't even wince when Pete slid out of him. "You don't have to say it. You don't."

"Yes I do," and maybe Patrick had missed something, the way Pete was looking at him. "I love you. You only get to visit, and it fucking kills me—"

"Pete!" And that was sharper than he'd intended, but Pete could lose himself, sometimes, when he started with that. "I know, all right? I know all of it." He touched Pete's mouth. "Just. I want to sleep with you, before I have to go. Is that all right?"

Just that fast, it was gone. Pete curled against him. "You're mine," he murmured. "You don't have to ask."

"I kind of do," Patrick said, petting Pete's hair. "It's polite. We—Pete?"

But Pete was already dozing against his chest, come-sticky and skin prickling in the post-sex chill. Patrick sighed to himself and drew the blanket up over their shoulders.

*

Just before midnight, Patrick got out of bed and started looking for his pants. He could always vanish them and create new ones, but that sort of thing was a waste of energy, and he only had so much to spare while he was h—

From behind him, Pete said, "'s midnight already?"

Patrick stopped for a second, then bent to pick up his jeans. "Yes." He put them on and turned back towards Pete.

"Dammit." Pete sighed and sat up, bleary-eyed. "I hate this."

Sleep hadn't been the distraction he'd hoped for. Patrick cursed inside. "You say that every time, as if I'm eager to leave." His voice was sharper again. "You're not the only one unhappy about this, you know." He fumbled himself into his jeans. "You get to stay here and have a life. I get to go back for – for whatever mindless reason I was chosen—"

"Patrick—"

"—and see the same little human dramas played out over and over again, unceasing, unchanging—"

"Patrick!" Pete reached out and gave his shoulders a little shake. "I'm sorry, okay? I wasn't trying to be rude, and I didn't mean to yell."

Patrick looked at him. After a few seconds, the tension started leaching out of him. "Neither did I," he said quietly. "I'm sorry."

"I just." Pete started rubbing his arms; Patrick doubted he even knew he was doing it. "Every time you're here, I let myself forget you have to leave until you actually go. Then it's--it's like I'm losing you all over again."

"You're not," Patrick said. "You never lose me."

"Don't I? You leave, you go someplace I can't follow, and I don't see you for days or weeks. I'm not allowed to go near you when you're at work—"

"That's for your own safety," Patrick said. It was an old argument. To be fair, Pete had been really good about not interfering with Patrick's work since what had happened with Brendon, but that didn't stop him from doing his damnedest to pry.

"--I know that," Pete said tightly. "I just think it sucks, okay? I'm allowed to think something sucks." He wrapped the sheets tighter around his waist. He looked mulish, Patrick thought uncharitably.

"Fine," Patrick said. "Is that all?" He went back to looking for his shirt. "We have this argument every time, as you said--"

"I kissed Ashlee."

Patrick looked at him for a long time. Pete just watched him.

"And?" Patrick finally said. "Is that all?"

"Is--" Pete goggled. "Is that all? I just told you I kissed someone else."

"Yes." Patrick sat on the end of the bed, still looking at him. "Am I supposed to be angry now?" he asked, curious. "I think so. That's what usually happens, anyway."

Pete kept goggling. "You're...not angry."

"No." Patrick shrugged. "The two of you are friends. I cannot be here with you as often as either of us would like; she can. I'm kind of surprised Ashlee would want to do something like that, but I'm not angry. I'm glad she was there for you. I can't always be."

"Seriously. Not angry."

Patrick shook his head. "I would appreciate it if we had a discussion before you did anything more than kiss, if you’re planning on it. But no, I'm not angry."

Pete just looked at him, shaking his head. "I--huh. I don't intend to, but I can't entirely say it won't happen." Patrick nodded; he'd expected as much. "I can promise that as soon as you're free of this...whatever this is, it's done. You full-time? I don't need anything else."

"Good," Patrick said. He took a breath. There were a hundred things, a thousand, that he wanted to say, but he was close to being late already; it'd have to wait. "Stay in bed." He leaned down and kissed Pete's mouth. "I'll let myself out."

"You always do," Pete muttered, and burrowed under the covers until only his head from the nose up was peeking out. He looked like a cartoon character. "Be careful. Have a good day at work. Try not to kill too many people."

"If they don't make me," Patrick agreed, and kissed him again. "Love you too."

*

He found his shoes in the living room--not surprising--and was turning to go when a sound behind him made him jump. He whipped his head around, looking for the source of it.

"Hey," Bill said. He was sitting at the kitchen table, backlit, and reading. He brushed his hair out of his eyes, the light glinting off his glasses, and gave a little wave.

Patrick hesitated a moment, then said, "Hey."

It was always a little uncomfortable around Bill. Pete remembering what had happened was one thing; that seemed, somehow, fair trade for the dreams and thinking he was slowly going mad. But his roommate remembered too, which was just odd. No one had ever come into the sunless realms before, save the damned--those who summoned him, and those he ferried away--and the mere fact that two mortals walking among the living had been there, remembered their time there, made something ancient in him shiver.

The rest of him, however, had been just 19 when he died, and was in love. And for all that, it wasn't like Bill was hard on the eyes.

"Are you--is that schoolwork?" Patrick winced. He was still finding his tongue around mortals; it tended to skitter away from him.

"Yeah," Bill said. "Research. I have a paper due in a few weeks. I like to get this kind of thing done early rather than later." He glanced up at Patrick. "Are you going?"

Patrick nodded.

"Sorry I didn't see you before," Bill said, "or say hi." He looked a little abashed. Patrick preferred to think he was a bit ashamed about the lie: Bill would much rather see Patrick's back, if he saw any part of him at all. Patrick couldn't blame him.

The easiest, and kindest, thing to do was pretend he believed it. "It's all right. There'll be other moments." He put his shoes back on and made sure they were laced. "Good ni--"

"Do you love him?" Bill asked suddenly.

Patrick blinked. "If I didn’t," he said, "it’d make everything we've been through a bit cheap."

"That--" Bill shook his head. "I know you care about him. That's obvious. I mean do you love him."

It was a fair question. Patrick thought about it for a moment.

He'd never really thought about it. Pete had been a nuisance, and then a familiar nuisance--and then he’d come to the sunless lands, under his own power or not, and tried to save the life of someone he could at most count as an acquaintance. If he'd feared for his own life or soul, he hadn't let it show; he'd been too furious at circumstances to be scared. He was passionate, if sometimes ridiculously so, and he fairly demanded the same level of passion from Patrick. He made Patrick irritated, and furious, and very occasionally angry; more often, he made Patrick happy. Nothing had made him happy in a very long time, certainly not since he'd begun his duties.

"Yes," he finally said, focusing on Bill. "I can't really explain why, but--" He frowned. "If something happened to him, I...it would be very wrong." And oh, that was close to admitting things he was all but expressly forbidden to feel—

If you accept, you must not put emotions before your duties--not anyone else's save the accuser's, and certainly not your own.

--but he was here now, and it did not affect his duties, and he wanted nothing more than to go back and sleep in Pete's bed. Saying as much was just the truth.

"It would be very wrong," he said again, and shook his head. "I--it's a poor explanation, I know."

"No." Bill's expression was unreadable. "That's a good sign. Thanks." He offered a brief smile. "Um. If you wanted, we could all go do something the next time you come by."

"I'd like that," Patrick said, and was pleasantly surprised to find he meant it.

*

He stepped through the doorway to Pete and Bill's apartment and emerged, as ever, back in the sunless lands. It was sunset there, the way it always was, and there was a shadowy shape on the front porch. Patrick most definitely didn't look directly at it as he passed by.

As he passed, It called, "It's almost midnight. You're cutting it awful close."

(That was not, strictly speaking, what it said. It did not speak a mortal tongue, or perhaps all of them. But whatever it spoke, the ear of the listener translated as their own tongue. It was also far more formal in its own speech, but Patrick thought he'd been spending too much time with Pete; sometimes, what he heard now was more colloquial.)

"I'm sorry," he said. He did not need to glance down to know he was in his work clothes again: black with occasional touches of red. He turned and went into the house, studiously not looking at the shape on the porch. He did not think it would break him, seeing Its true shape, but he would rather not risk it.

The Others were, unsurprisingly, nowhere to be found. This was his duty and his alone; they would not be needed until later, if at all. Not every night was busy.

Patrick sat down before the computer and watched the screen, and waited.

A minute later, perhaps two, and the screen pinged. He sighed and reached out, looking at the name written there: ANGIE RUTHVEN.

It was going to be a long night.

*

There was little time to wait; the boy who had summoned him pulled Bob's cord within the hour, and he and the others went forth to claim Angie Ruthven. She was maybe seventeen, corn silk hair and dark green eyes, and wept as they bore her away. This did not surprise Patrick overmuch. Many of the ones they took cried, or pleaded, or threatened. They all begged for their lives back, as if he had any say in the matter whatsoever.

Times like that, he was glad he was—mostly—proscribed against speaking. Most of the guilty ones confessed when they were taken, but they still asked for leniency. The words always echoed in his head: "Why should I set you free? You have done so much harm to this one, or to so many, and you ask that I let you go? You demand it? You showed no mercy to your victims; why should I do any less for you?"

Worse yet were the times when the fairly innocent were taken. They begged for their lives back, but what was he to say to them? "I'm sorry this is happening. It's not fair. If I had any power, any say in such matters, I would let you go." How would that be a comfort? The world was unfair; even small children knew that. Hearing pity and sorrow from their escort would just increase their torment. In those instances, it was better to give them a blank slate to rail and rally against. It could, occasionally, be a comfort.

"I hate this part," he heard Ashlee mutter to Bob, as Patrick and the barge returned alone. She'd never say that to Andy, Patrick knew; Andy saw this as part of his duties under heaven, part of a greater plan none of them could ever fully understand. Some days, Patrick envied him that.

"Everyone hates this part," Bob muttered back.

"Not him. I bet he likes it—"

"I don't like or dislike anything," Patrick said, making sure his voice carried. Ashlee had the grace to wince, at least. "We're not here because we enjoy what we do. It needs to be done."

"So?" she snapped, near tears. Patrick stifled a noise. Ashlee had been dead nowhere near as long as he had; her emotions were still far closer to the surface than his own, and she voiced them with irritating regularity. He didn't know whether to chastise or admire her. "This isn't fair. This isn't justice--"

Chastise it was. "Justice?" Patrick heard himself, incredulous as anything. "Who told you we were meting out justice? Tell me that person's name, because they lied to you. We deal in vengeance, not justice. We don't ferry people to the land of the dead for judgment; we don't spirit people to Valhalla or Heaven or any of the lands under Heaven's auspices. We deal in revenge. We avenge grievances. It's not easy, and it's certainly not fair, but I didn't design the system. None of us did. But we're a part of it, and we do our jobs."

She was quiet for a long time. Patrick stepped onto the shore--he never parked the barge; it was another function of his job he had no say in, like the clothes he wore or the words he said as he bore the damned along--and started back for the farmhouse.

"I'm sorry," Ashlee finally said. Her voice was muted. "I was thoughtless and rude, and I apologize."

Patrick nodded. He knew the truth when he heard it. "I don't like it either," he admitted. "What we do. I do think it's necessary, especially for some of them, but not always. I feel bad when we do it to innocents."

"But we still do it."

"Yes," he said. "We still do it."

Ashlee walked next to him, hands shoved deep in her pockets. "That's not fair," she said quietly.

Just as quietly, Patrick said, "No. It's not."

*

Sometime the next day, Patrick realized he was seeing the inside of one of Pete's classrooms.

It was odd, but not unheard of; Pete did his best to keep himself and his dreams away from Patrick when he was working, so now Patrick peeked through Pete’s eyes in the waking world. It could sometimes be pleasant, but he'd much rather someone had asked him before it happened. He always felt like he was spying. It had started happening more and more the last two or three months, for no particular reason Patrick could find.

Hello, he told Pete, the same as he always did. I'm here. Try to ignore me, you're in class.

Like that's gonna happen, Pete said, the same as *he* always did. Besides, it's speech. I can zone out in speech.

They make you take classes to learn how to talk? Pete knew perfectly well how to speak. Patrick’s memories of being alive were practically nonexistent, but he was fairly sure he hadn't had to learn how to talk except when he was a toddler.

No, it's--never mind, it's a graduation requirement. Pete never looked away from the front of the room, except to occasionally glance down and scribble something in his notes. How was your day?

Patrick was quiet for a long time. Finally: Did you know an Angie Ruthven?

The name's familiar, Pete admitted. I think I might've had a class with her a couple semesters ago. Wh... He was quiet for a second. This morning?

Last night, Patrick said. After I left you. I don't think he was someone she'd dated. It...it's hard to explain. It didn't feel personal enough.

Shit, Pete said, and was silent for a long time.

Patrick resisted the urge to say anything. Pete already knew he felt bad, or as close to bad as he'd let himself feel; saying something right now would most likely prompt a fight. Pete always took Patrick's job seriously, though not exactly in the way Patrick would like.

Should've been there this morning, Pete said, trying for levity. I missed you, so I—

Now you're just being mean.

Little bit. I’m really just teasing. Pete's voice was soft. I miss you.

You always miss me, Patrick murmured back. Would you be upset if I came by tonight? If you already have plans, it's not necessary—

No! Pete's eyeline changed; Patrick guessed he was sitting up straighter. But not looking around, which meant Pete was probably surprised. He certainly sounded pleased. No, that's. I'm just surprised, that's all. It's usually weeks between, not, like, a day.

Don't get used to it, Patrick said back, amused. I told Bill we all could do something together, if that's all right.

When the hell did you talk to Bill—never mind.

I-- Patrick started to answer, and then he was back in the sunless lands, looking at the wall of his room. He blinked, startled at the suddenness of the change, and resisted the urge to sigh. He'd just have to tell Pete over dinner.

*

Pizza, he supposed, counted as dinner.

"What is this again?" Patrick asked, leaning in to yell in Pete's ear.

"It's called Whack-A-Mole," Pete yelled back. "You don't think it's awesome?"

"I think it's hitting a plastic rodent with a mallet," Patrick said, a little doubtfully. He stood back and watched the kids in front of them give it a try.

They were in Chuck E. Cheese, which was apparently a children's restaurant and...amusement factory, he supposed. It was loaded with games and small, shrieking children. Patrick wasn't sure whether to be irritated or charmed; he split the difference and decided to be both.

Bill was across the room, talking to a skinny guy with short sandy hair. Patrick still wasn't great with body language, but he'd seen enough of Bill over the years, in fits and starts, to know what it looked like when he was flirting. "It was his idea," Pete had said, a little apologetic, when Bill suggested this place for dinner. Patrick wasn't sure *why* he was apologetic; apart from the screaming children, it seemed pleasant.

Also, they had a ball pit. Technically dead servant of vengeance or no, Patrick loved ball pits.

"That's the idea," Pete said. He was practically bouncing. Patrick could almost see him willing the kids in front of them to move, though that wasn't so much a psychic connection as it was knowing the way Pete thought. "You hit him and you get tickets--"

"--and you trade the tickets for prizes," Patrick said. "Yeah, I got that. It seems fairly simple."

Pete just shot him a look.

Patrick frowned. "Did I get it wrong?"

"You really have to work on this," Pete said mildly. "You sound so--so I don't know, fucking Vulcan when you're explaining stuff. This isn't Robert's Rules of Order, it's Whack-A-Mole at Chuck E. Cheese."

Patrick flushed and started to turn away. "I'm sorry," he said tightly, "if you--"

"No, hey." Pete linked their fingers together. "I'm just saying, it might be hard to transition back if you're always acting like a transfer student from Saturn or something."

Patrick was quiet for a moment, just enjoying the feeling of Pete's fingers through his. He'd thought about it in his free time, more than once: what would it be like to be human again? Would he always feel this way, like he was watching the world through faintly frosted glass?

"I don't think so," he finally said. "I hope not, anyway, but--I really don't think so. I'm already less formal than I used to be. It might be hard, on occasion." He smiled. "We really could tell people I'm a transfer student. It's not so improbable."

Pete looked at him for a minute, then tugged him forward when the kids in front of them left. "You just take the mallet," he said, "and time it so--there!" He smacked the mole; a loud thwocking sound came out of the speakers, with a little light flashing underneath it.

"This doesn't seem so hard," Patrick said. "I could--"

"I'd like you to meet my parents."

Patrick looked at him. He wondered, briefly, if Pete had sustained some kind of head injury when he wasn't looking.

"I'm not crazy," Pete added. "I just—I’m working on that stupid research project--"

"What project?"

The way Pete blinked was probably an indication that Patrick should have been listening. "For my speech class," he said, slowing his words. "The one you popped in on today? We were assigned topics. I have to do a brief overview of my family tree, going back at least three generations."

"And that...somehow made you think I should meet your parents."

"Yes." Pete didn't look away from his confused stare. "I—you're important to me. They're important to me. I'd kind of like the two important parts of my life to meet, you know? Shit, right now I'm pretty sure they think I made you up."

"I—Pete—"

Pete searched his face for a moment, then glanced down at the game. "Forget it," he said faintly, shaking his head. "Never mind. I didn't say anything, okay? We--let's just try to hit the mole."

Patrick watched Pete try to focus on hitting the plastic rodent. He was putting in more effort than was strictly necessary. Patrick's stomach, traitorous and absent thing, twisted again.

"You couldn't tell them in advance that I was coming," he finally said. "It wouldn't be fair. If something came up—"

"That--no, no problem," Pete said. His eyes were wide. "I wouldn't expect you to. It's not like you can just call in sick." He paused. "Can you?"

"I really can't," Patrick said. "If we did it, we'd just--go there, I suppose. Drive up, maybe. You'd have to drive back by yourself," he added. "I'd--"

"--yeah, yeah, turn back into a pumpkin at midnight," Pete said. He looked like he was trying very hard not to smile and failing miserably. "Same as every other date, except for the driving part." He glanced at the game, absently trying to hit the mole. "And, you know, the part where you meet my parents."

"And that part," Patrick agreed. He held out his hand. "Can I try?"

Pete, looking bemused, handed over the mallet. Patrick watched for a few seconds, timing it out, then smacked the mole when its head popped out.

Beside him, Pete said solemnly, "Oh pitiful soul, lost in the darkness--"

Patrick burst out laughing. Pete grinned.

*

Patrick fell backwards on the bed, bringing Pete down with him. "Come on," he laughed, "get them off—"

Sometimes, like now, he could let himself forget he wasn't entirely human anymore. He could stop worrying and freaking out about whether or not he was doing it right, or too hard or too fast or too--whatever, and just do it: turn off Hell Boy and just be Patrick.

"You're in a mood tonight," Pete said. He struggled free and kicked off his shoes, working on his belt. "It was the Whack-A-Mole, wasn't it?"

"Oh, yeah," Patrick said, "hitting a plastic mole with a plastic mallet gets me crazy." He struggled out of his shirt and jeans, still laughing, and snuggled back under the sheets. "Come here."

Pete knee walked back over to him. Patrick took a couple seconds to just watch him, savoring the sight. He didn't remember anything at all about being alive--though the sight of Pete, and other men, without their shirts on, took his breath away, which was a pretty strong indication--but he knew what he liked, now more than ever. He liked a strong pair of arms, ringed with tattoos; he liked muscled legs and a flat stomach and a too-big smile.

It was other things, too: he liked waking up in the dead of night, snuggled against Pete’s side and listening to the noises he made when he was asleep. He liked it when Pete futilely cursed the TiVo for taping movies he didn’t want to see and taking up space, or when he accidentally made reference to things like meeting his parents or wondering if Patrick could still find him if he got a job and moved somewhere else—little things, things that indicated he was thinking about a future. Their future.

Pete knelt on his thighs, legs akimbo. "What are you thinking?" he asked.

Patrick just smiled. "Only good things," he said, and started tugging down Pete's boxer-briefs.

*

When Patrick got back, he was headed for the cabin when someone said "How was your date?" right in his ear. It was a young voice, and remarkably cheerful.

Patrick let out a long breath. "Hello, Katy,” he said, turning around.

Katy was – technically, Patrick didn’t know who, or what, Katy was. She’d just showed up one day, walking around like she owned the place and asking a great many irritating questions, but when Patrick had worked up the nerve to ask It about her, It had just paused and said that Katy was a guest, and that she’d be visiting from time to time. Every other question Patrick had asked about her was ignored.

"How was your date?" Katy asked again. She looked...normal, really. Her hair was a little too sassy for Patrick’s tastes, like a 1940s pin-up, and she wore a pair of jeans and a checkered blouse. Her eyes gleamed vivid blue in the perpetual twilight, almost purple if he looked too long.

"It was fine," Patrick said. He started back for the cabin. He was momentarily surprised to see that It was gone, but not too much; It had other duties besides keeping an eye on him, so odds are It was doing them. "Why are you here?"

"I was bored. Thought I'd come hang out." Katy kept pace beside him. "Where's everyone else?"

"Wherever they go," Patrick said. He went up the steps and inside the cabin, headed for his room. "I don't keep an eye on them. If I summon them, they'll come."

"Oh," Katy said. She stopped in the doorway and watched Patrick sit down, waiting, in front of the computer.

Patrick resisted the urge to sigh. "Is there something you wanted?"

"Do you ever feel bad for them?" Katy asked. "The people you send to hell, I mean."

"Of course I do." Patrick didn't look up from the monitor. "That doesn't mean I can't do my job."

"But how, though?" Katy frowned. "How can you feel bad for someone and still send them to hell? I don't think I could."

Patrick thought for a few seconds. It was a fair question. "I don't know," he finally said. "It's not a matter of 'they don't deserve this'. Some of them don't. Many of them do. The only fair way to do my job is to do it every time, as long as that's what the summoner chooses, regardless of how I feel on the subject. If I don't do my job as fairly and impartially as possible, the system breaks down. There would be chaos." He shook his head. "There's enough chaos in the world of the living as it is. I don't need to add to it."

"Huh." Katy shrugged. "Wouldn't it be easier not to feel sorry for them?"

Patrick looked at him. Katy, totally guileless, looked back.

"I suppose," he said. "That doesn't mean I can do it."

"Oh." Katy was quiet for a minute. "See, because—I mean, if it was me, I wouldn't worry about them at all, you know? Having opinions just makes your job so much harder. You feel sorry for them, maybe one day you let one of them go--"

Patrick eyed her warily. "I wouldn't do that." Apart from the fact that he wasn't entirely sure he could, much less how to do it, it would jeopardize everything he was working for. He hadn't cared about anything before he'd met Pete, so he didn't have any particular sympathy or impulses to let anyone go; now that he had something to work toward, he also had more to lose.

"But you might, though," Katy said. Her purple-blue eyes caught the light and gleamed. "It'd be a lot easier if you just didn't worry about them at all. Most of them did something to deserve it, right?"

"Right," Patrick said slowly. "But not all of them. And either way, it doesn't matter; I'm still going to do my job."

Katy shrugged. "If you say so."

"Of course I say s--" Patrick looked at him, irritation flooding him. He was being questioned. Bad enough Ashlee had done it the other day--it was a moment of doubt, they all had those--but by a child? "Katy, what are you doing here?"

"Asking questions," Katy said easily. "I get bored fast." And she turned and walked around the corner, disappearing from sight.

*

Tuesday, Patrick went to Oklahoma and took a deadbeat father of six, who had a desperate fear of drowning. He'd been extremely happy to see the boat, until he'd realized where he was headed. Then the screaming had started. Patrick had done his level best to block it out.

He hadn't felt at all bad about Thursday, watching a serial rapist—and happily married father with a good job—be slowly devoured by beetles until his skin looked something like Ashlee's. Times like that soothed him, made him feel like his job was even more necessary than he knew.

Friday, he'd crouched next to the bedside of a weak, frail man and watched him forgive his brother for killing their mother years before. The brother, an unbelievable asshole who'd never been convicted even with a great deal of evidence for the prosecution, spent the whole time on the phone with the family attorney trying to figure out her will. Bob had stood there, narrow-eyed and fuming, until it had been time to go. Not even taking a rock away from the cairn beneath the tree, cherry blossoms falling lightly around him, had made Patrick feel any better about what happened.

He spent Saturday with Pete, running errands and watching terrible movies on his laptop while Pete worked on projects for school, and was comforted.

*

Sunday, Patrick didn't go out. He stayed in and watched the perpetual sunset for a long time, then took up his pencil and sketchpad and started to draw.

It was the lone indulgence Patrick had allowed himself, before Pete. He would never be a great artist, only decent at sketching, but it was soothing. He destroyed most of them, gave away a few others--Bob had one, Andy two or three. Ashlee had several, mostly of landscapes: things he'd glimpsed, among the living. He was fairly certain at least some of them were memories, but he'd successfully repressed all traces of his first life, and saw no reason to go back and re-examine them.

He glanced down at the paper. It looked to be the beginnings of a man holding a young boy's hand, only their arms and sides visible; he couldn't see their faces to tell who they were. He'd scribbled "George" beneath the man-shape, and a question mark beneath the boy. Patrick frowned. He didn't label drawings. He'd name them, on occasion, but never label them.

"Sir?"

Patrick turned. Ashlee was standing in the doorway, watching him. "Is everything all right?"

He blinked, considering his answer. He'd never really stopped to consider the others, not even a little, until recently. They were, in their own way, as trapped as he was – worse, because he'd chosen them for this. He wasn't at all sure they deserved to be in hell, let alone in its service, but here they were.

"Do you like them?" he asked, curious. He put the pencil and sketchpad down.

Ashlee frowned. "Sir?"

"People. Mortals. Do you like them?"

She thought for a minute. "I don't like them or dislike them," she finally said. "They're people. That's like asking if I like--I don't know, boron or something." She paused, then added, "Boron's an element. I'm not really sure what it does, but I keep learning about it in school."

How many times had they attended school? A hundred times? A thousand? High school or college? Patrick just nodded.

Ashlee hesitated, then sat next to him. "Are you sure everything's all right, sir?"

"Why do you call me that?" Patrick asked. "Sir."

"Because--because you're in charge." She sounded baffled. "What else could I call you?"

"My name's Patrick. You could call me that."

"No I couldn't!" Now she looked honestly startled. "You're in charge. That's--you can't do that!"

"I'm not so sure." But she still looked startled. Patrick sighed. "Could you--you could call me by name when we're not in the world. When we're here."

"I could," Ashlee said slowly. She kept staring at him. "Um. Patrick."

He thought for a moment, then nodded. It sounded all right. Strange, but all right. "My thoughts drift, these days," he said. "I find myself thinking about things. Things I have no right to be wondering about."

"Like?"

"Like how humans sleep. They just--shut themselves off. For hours!" He blinked at her. "How do they do that? I don't sleep."

"Neither do I, anymore." Ashlee wrinkled her nose. "I think it's something you just...know how to do. Like breathing, or blinking."

"Breathing! I'd have to remember to breathe!" He looked at her, stricken. "And bodily functions! They go to the bathroom, and get sick--they age! We don't age!"

"No, we don't." She frowned. "Are--did you and Pete have a fight?"

"What? No." He shook his head. "I don't know why I'm thinking about all this. I told you, my mind wanders. It's very disconcerting." He smoothed out a wrinkle in his pants. "I wish it would stop."

Ashlee kept watching him. "But it's not affecting your job," she said slowly.

Patrick shook his head. "No. If it--no. I remain focused on our duty when we are summoned." The day he couldn't, he'd start to worry. Not before. "It's just strange."

Ashlee was quiet for a moment. Patrick smoothed out another wrinkle. "Is there some reason you--"

"I kissed Pete," she said quickly, not looking at him.

Patrick waited to see if she'd say anything else. Then: "Yes. And?"

She looked at him, eyes widening. "And?"

"He told me," Patrick said, "some time ago. I think he thought I'd send him to hell." That part still hurt. It was like Pete had no idea what he did, which he knew very well Pete did. "I--" He blinked at Ashlee. "Did you think I would?"

She looked embarrassed. "I--maybe a little--"

"You're thinking like a human," Patrick said coolly. He was more insulted than hurt; he'd been professional the entire time he'd been doing this, through everything, and now they thought he'd be wounded. Like a mortal. Like--like Katy. "What do I care if the two of you keep each other company? I'm not there. I can't be, all the time. You can."

"That doesn't mean it doesn't hurt."

"Of course it does. It's only sensible. Andy and Bob keep their own counsel, and you and Pete are friends. I would have been more surprised if you hadn't done something. I’m actually a little surprised you haven’t had sex.” He shrugged. "He and I are not married, and you have no chance of becoming pregnant, so what does it matter?"

She was quiet for a long time. Patrick sighed and turned to look at her.

Ashlee's expression was unreadable. "You should speak to him about this," she finally said. "I just. I wanted to tell you before you found out some other way." She got to her feet.

"Ashlee?" Patrick asked. She turned to look at him. "When I am human again—"

"Don’t worry," she said dryly, smiling. "I don’t want to be anyone’s second choice." Her smile was impish. Not a word he’d ever used before, but it suited her. "I can do better than that." She turned and walked back outside.

Patrick shook his head. "Everyone's gone crazy," he muttered, and turned the page to start a new sketch.

*

Most of Monday, Patrick spent in the small shed out back, near the river.

It wasn't anything much to look at: four walls and a roof, a neatly-packed dirt floor. It was just large enough to hold a table filled with unlit candles, and the pond where the lit ones floated. Maintaining it, adding to it, was part of Patrick's job, but he wasn't fond of it. He never let the others come with him, let alone—

"This is like church," Pete mused, "if it was really creepy. And looked like a set design from that crappy Amityville Horror remake."

It was only years of experience that kept Patrick from dropping the still-unlit candle to the ground. "What are you doing here?" he asked, glancing over. Pete was in a hoodie and pajama pants with little turtles on them; the turtles appeared to be wearing Santa hats.

"I have no idea," Pete said. "Went to sleep, had this really confusing dream about a train going through a tunnel, and now I'm here." He was looking around. "What is this? I haven't seen it before."

Patrick blinked. Pete was always doing that: asking him the names of things that didn't have names, just functions. "It's where we keep the candles," he said.

"And the candles are—"

"Each lit candle is someone whose bargain I have fulfilled." He lit the candle in his hand, turned it so Pete could see. It was neatly etched in English; he'd seen others floating down the river occasionally, in Japanese and a few other languages. Whatever language was written there, he could read; it was, after all, part of his job. "This is a guy named Shaant. You don't know him, he's in a band.”

Patrick felt Pete's eyes on him as he crouched and carefully set the candle in the water, watched it bob there in the haloed darkness.

"And he's going to hell," Pete finally said.

Patrick sighed. "Yes," he said, and waited for the fight.

But it never came; Pete just sat next to him on the ground and looked out at the water. "It's beautiful," he said quietly. "I mean, if you can ignore why there are a bunch of candles in the water, anyway."

"I can't," Patrick said simply. He sat down next to Pete. They really were pretty, if you stopped to look at them. He wondered why he hadn’t, before now.

"Do you have to do this?" Pete glanced at him. "It's—is it a contractual thing?"

"Not really." Patrick shook his head. "I think it's more make-work than anything else. If I never lit the candle, the person would still go to hell--and if someone happened to knock one over," he added, watching Pete casually reach towards the water, "it wouldn't break the contract."

"...dammit." Pete sat back. "Can I ask what happened? With the guy, I mean. Shant."

"Shaant," Patrick corrected. "He cheated on his girlfriend. She posted naked pictures of him online. He didn’t seem to care, let alone be hurt by it, so she opted for something a little more drastic.” He shrugged. “It’s not rocket science.”

Pete snorted. "What kind of baby can't handle their ex posting naked pictures of them online? My—" He looked at Patrick. "I mean. That's awful, no, terrible, that poor thing."

"It's not for you to judge someone's reasoning," Patrick said, but he was smiling. "Do you want to see the rest of them?"

"The rest of--" Pete looked at the water, the gently floating candles. "I thought this was it."

"Uh, not really." Patrick got to his feet and took Pete's hand, helping him up. "Come on."

He led Pete around the side of the building, still holding his hand. The shack was butted up against the water, with an opening near the back to allow water in--and candles out.

"Jesus Christ," Pete said faintly. His fingers tightened around Patrick's. "This is all you?"

The bay outside was filled with candles, each one a pinprick of light gleaming in the dull grey as far as the eye could see. There was just enough space between each to see water, but there were never too many, never enough to crowd each other. The far shore was a gray and distant shape rather than a sight to see on its own.

"Oh, no," Patrick said. "A lot of them are mine, but most of the rest are from Japan. Sometimes you’ll see one or two from other places, but I’ve never met any of their caretakers. I've never even met Enma-san."

"Enma-san?" Pete blinked. "That's--what, Hell Girl?"

"Enma Ai," Patrick said. He didn't have to fake the reverence in his voice; how could he not be reverent, when dealing with the first of them? "She's been doing this a lot longer than I have."

"Hota--um. Someone I talked to said she'd retired," Pete said. "Or been forcibly retired, whatever."

Patrick nodded. "It's possible; it's not like we get together for lunch or anything. But I hope not. She..." He took a breath.

How could he explain this? He'd been doing this for a long time, as he counted it; time had no meaning in the sunless lands, but over a hundred years could rack up a lot of souls. He'd done the math once, and it had worked out to a bit over forty thousand people he'd ushered to hell. Enma Ai had done it for a lot longer than that, and she'd never cracked, not once. And if she had, eventually, he couldn't exactly blame her.

Not that he would ever say it out loud, of course. He wasn't stupid.

"She did her job," Patrick finally said. He looked out at the water, at each softly floating light. "It's all anyone can ask."

They sat in silence for a while. It was late, there were a hundred other things Patrick should have been doing. God only knew what kind of rest Pete was getting by being here; it certainly wasn't REM sleep. But it was nice to be sitting here, holding his lover's hand and feeling his warmth, watching something lovely that came out of something awful. Maybe this was what people did, out in the world.

"I love you," he said quietly.

Pete leaned in and kissed his mouth. "I love you too."

*

Pete disappeared a few minutes later, in the middle of a conversation. "That's not rea—" he'd said, frowning, and vanished.

Patrick wasn't surprised; the rare occasions Pete had appeared in the sunless lands, he'd gone back to the waking world just as suddenly as he appeared. He was always apologetic about it the next time Patrick saw him, even as many times as Patrick had told him it was silly to apologize for something he literally had no control over.

"He's very cute," Katy said idly, popping up behind him. "I can certainly see why you like having him around."

Patrick shifted to look at her. This time she was in a black-and-white polka dot dress and black sweater, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. "You look nice," he said. "Though I do wonder what you're doing here, considering that it's got to be late where you're from."

She sat next to him on the riverbank. "What makes you think I'm from there?"

"Are you saying you're not?"

Katy just smiled and reached out, using one finger to push a candle away before it could bump into the shore. She was very careful not to touch the water, Patrick noticed; mortals didn't usually grasp that right away.

"A very nice boy," she murmured, "and polite besides. More polite than he used to be." Her eyes were innocent. "Unless I heard wrong, of course."

"How did you hear at all?" Patrick asked, baffled. "You've never really answered my question."

"You ask a lot of questions," Katy said. "If you want to narrow it down—"

"Who are you?" He frowned. "You can't be a mortal; mortals don't know this many things, this many of the rules, unless someone tells them. But you're not one of us; you disappear for days at a time, and I never see you here for longer than a few minutes at a time.”

Katy looked at him for a long time, then leaned in and brushed her mouth over his cheek. It wasn't a kiss, not quite.

"I'm someone who has your best interests at heart," she murmured. "I'm someone who loves you."

Then she was gone, too.

*

That night, when the waking world was starting to surge forward and begin its day, Patrick wandered the soft places.

Mortals would call it dreaming, he supposed; he experienced it more as a vivid daydream. He had them sometimes--more often when he'd found Pete, less often since. He spent most of his time peering at the waking world, now, instead of wandering off and into the soft places that existed between the two.

He was very careful. He went to the quiet places, the ones not populated by dreamers: farmland, or lost palaces and temples, exotic fairs half-remembered by children and the aged. He wandered around, taking in each sight in its turn, careful to never interact with actual dreamers.

He went to Japan first and visited a family's shrine, destroyed in a fire at least a century before. He was cordial to the small gods that lived there, as was only polite; they, in turn, were polite to him, because even the least of them knew it would be foolish to irritate the one they knew of as Jigoko Shonen.

He walked around a ren faire that had stayed one weekend in Virginia, eyeing the costumes and taking the cries of "you're dressed so strangely, visitor!" with good nature; it was, after all, part of the nature of the beast. He had cheesecake on a stick and a turkey leg, and watched a puppet show, and wished Pete was there when he caught sight of a group of men in kilts and nothing else.

Then there was the farmhouse.

It was nondescript--plain wood, room for animals out back, a well in the side yard--except for the scorch marks that marred it. It still stood, but it looked like a strong wind would make it list to one side; a firm smack, and it would collapse in a heap. Patrick frowned and took a step closer.

When he did, he saw the other buildings: a number of other farmhouses, just as small if not smaller, and a barn in the center of town. Next to the barn was the charred wreck of what might have, perhaps, been a gazebo.

Patrick looked at them for a long time, and wondered why he was shivering so much.

*

"—thing to remember is that good posture never hurt anyone, but bad posture can make your audience less interested in what you're trying to say. And what's the--"

You learn about posture in speech class? Patrick asked. The teaching assistant--the class didn't rate an actual professor, Pete had informed him solemnly one night over manicotti--was tiny and pretty, with short dark hair with bleached streaks in it. Her t-shirt was a little baggy, but her jeans were almost as tight as Pete’s own. That seems fairly pointless.

Not my idea, Pete said. He paged through his notes while Patrick peeked. Pete's handwriting was cramped, muddled. Cass isn't so bad, though. She's a junior, but you wouldn't know it to look at her.

Ohhhh, Patrick teased. Cass is a junior. I see.

Yes, she is, Pete said, and she's nice. And not my type. Don't be creepy. He started doodling in the margins of his notebook, eyes fixed ahead. You okay? You've been busy lately.

Fits and starts. You know how it works. Patrick let out a breath. Weird dreams. Or--not dreams, you know.

As long as I'm not riding a horse again, I'm all for it, Pete said. Tell me about it over dinner? I'll cook.

You always cook.

Because I have working taste buds.

Fair enough, Patrick said, smiling, and settled in to listen for the rest of the period.

*

Patrick was on his way out when Katy stepped into his path, blocking his way. "You should read this," she said seriously, and shoved a stack of index cards at him.

Patrick didn't take them; he was too startled for the grasping reflex to kick in. "I should do nothing you say," he told her. "I tend not to listen to random advice from complete strangers. Back away. Better yet, get out."

"Not until you read this," she said, mouth pinched into a little line. "It's important." And she reached out—reached out, like this was something she did every day, casually touching a dead man—and put the cards in his hand, folding his fingers over them. "Read this, and I'll leave. I promise."

"You'll leave anyway," Patrick said absently, and glanced down. The cramped handwriting was familiar, if not something he saw every day. He only saw one person actually write things down these days, and he—

He looked up at her, eyes widening. "These are Pete's notes."

"They are," Katy agreed. "I borrowed them."

"You stole them! How—what gives you the right—"

"I told you, I have your best interests at heart." Katy's eyes were soft. "Please. Just...just look at them."

Patrick let out a breath. "If it'll make you leave," he muttered, and glanced down at them again.

They were, in fact, Pete's index cards for his speech. The handwriting was a mess, but the idea was presented thoughtfully enough: Peter Lewis Kingston Wentz III, son of Peter Lewis Kingston Wentz Junior, son of Peter Lewis Kingston Wentz. He, in turn, was the oldest son of Eva and George Wentz, late of Chicag--

Patrick blinked. "That name's familiar," he murmured, and tried to think.

Not George, so much, but hadn't he known an Eva, once? Or--not an Eva, but her maiden name, Peppar, that stood out. He'd known someone named Peppar, once, a long time ago. An older man, tall for back then, with gray hair and darker eyes, and a penchant for expensive suits and cigars—

"Phil," he said softly, hardly aware he was speaking. "Phillip Peppar."

"Phil Peppar the Pepper King," Katy murmured. "Tell me about him."

"He was—I knew him," Patrick said, staring off. He'd been young, once, his glasses the most expensive thing he owned, cheap hand-me-down suits and two parents getting on in years. He'd had a sister who died before he was born, and a brother--God, what was his name?--married with kids of his own, out in Missouri. He was assistant manager of a textile mill, and his children were named Kenneth and Sara, and his name, his name was--

"Kevin!" Patrick burst out. "His name was Kevin, and he couldn't come back to Keep's Corner because he had a family of his own."

"And you were always the good son," Katy murmured. "What did you do there? I don't think you ever told me."

He hadn't, but that made sense; he'd never told anyone. "A bank," Patrick said. "I worked in a bank."

"Did Phil work in the bank?"

"Yes—no! He was the bank manager. It was him, and me, and Mrs.—Mrs. Henrie, she was in her sixties and had never gotten married. She smelled like my grandmother. I don't think she liked me much."

Katy made a disappointed sound. "Did you get along with them?"

"It was fine," Patrick said, staring off. He hardly noticed he was still holding the index cards. "She didn't like me much, but Phillip was always asking me about Chicago. He went there sometimes, on weekends or for bank business." He frowned. "He was there a lot, come to think of it."

"He was nice?"

Patrick smiled. "Not like that. He had a string of women in the city, dancers and singers and bored housewives. I--" He flushed. "I might've had a tiny crush on him, but nothing big, nothing I ever thought would come of it. I thought maybe when I got back to the city—"

But he hadn't, had he? Something had happened.

"Something happened," Patrick said faintly.

"Yes," Katy murmured, leaning in close, "something did." She tilted her head, cupping one hand around his ear, and whispered, "He killed you."

Patrick reared back—

--and remembered.

Katy stood up straight and handed him a dark green poppet with a thin red string around its neck. She was clad in white robes now, part of him noticed, and didn't particularly care. "Find him," she whispered. "You'll know what to do."

Patrick looked at her for a moment, then at the doll, and left.

*

He was waiting in Pete's apartment when he returned home.

"Hey," Pete said, putting his messenger bag down by the door. He carried a couple of bags over to the kitchen table. "Sorry I'm late. Traffic was a total cocksock, and I had to get a book I reserved at the library. But I stopped by the grocery store, and they had this really nice ricotta—"

Pete really did look like Phillip, Patrick noticed; at least, around the eyes and the sly way he smiled. Why hadn't he noticed it before?

"--so it should really f--" Pete stopped, frowning, and looked up at him. "What's wrong? You look like crap."

Patrick looked at him. Pete, startled, took a step back.

"You have sinned," Patrick said, empty as the ocean. "You deserve judgment."

And they were gone.


ii. doc, there’s a hole where something was

The doorbell rang. Bill looked up from his notes and yelled, "Pete! It's for you!"

That wasn't necessarily true--it could have been one of their neighbors, or maybe Adam had decided spur-of-the-moment to show up and ask him to dinner, please *God*—but odds were, it was for Pete. Probably Patrick, but maybe takeout. Maybe Thai or that really good Mexican place a couple blocks over—

"I'll get it!" Bill yelled, getting to his feet. His thesis was one thing, but he was starving. God, dumplings sounded great right about now, he thought, opening the door--

--and almost closed it in their faces. Okay, definitely not takeout. Fuck.

"Oh, God, not you again," Bill said. He peeked around the corner, then braced himself and opened the door all the way. "You know, one more guy and you could have a wicked good Paramore cover band thing going on." He nodded at Ashlee. "Granted, your hair could be a more vibrant red--"

"Can we come in?" she asked, arms crossed over her chest. She looked mulish, but Bill was okay with that; it was a dozen times better than the last time he'd seen her this close, when she looked like the Cryptkeeper's somewhat-hot daughter. Her hood was down, her hair drawn back from her face, and something white gleamed near her hairline.

Bill looked at her for a minute, then pointed to the side of her forehead. "You have, um. Stuff showing," he said, gesturing vaguely.

"Stuff", nothing; she had skullcap showing. And now that he was looking, her fingers looked—thin. No, not thin, skeletal. Like—

Ashlee reached up to check, then jerked her hand down. She tugged her hoodie down over the offending bit and scowled at him. "Can we come in or not?" she said tightly. "We'd rather not discuss this in your hallway."

"Do you need permission to enter?" Bill said, not blinking. Like he knew. Pete was remarkably vague about this shit, and frankly, he didn't want to know.

"No, we don't need permission!" she yelled. "We're not vampires!" She kept scowling. "It's just. Nice."

"Dead people have manners. Huh. Funny, I don't remember you having manners when you kidnapped me--"

"Oh, whatever, those were extenuating circumstances."

"You stole me out of my dorm room, you harridan--"

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Bob sighed, and brushed past both of them. "We don't have to be nice, Bill, it's just common courtesy."

Andy followed him in, looking at the two of them like they were idiots. Ashlee kept glaring for another few seconds, then followed the two of them in. The door hadn't had time to close all the way when she demanded, "When was the last time you saw Pete?"

Bill frowned. "I don't know. A day or so. He's working on something for his speech class, and I have my thesis, so we're both keeping kind of weird hours. Why?"

"We need your help," Ashlee started, but Bob cut her off.

"Patrick needs your help," he said, "whether he knows it or not."

"Yes, and to help Patrick he has to help us," Ashlee said, "so can I talk to him? Please?"

Bob held up his hands and backed off a step. Andy didn't say anything. That didn't surprise Bill, not really; even when he'd been their "guest", Andy hadn't seemed particularly chatty.

"Something's happened," Ashlee said, shoving her hood down. Bill was relieved to see that everything was covered up again. "He—he got some bad news."

"Katy told him," Bob said, narrowing his eyes. Bill reflexively started to feel bad for Katy, whoever she was; even if Bob had been a regular human, he couldn't imagine anyone being stupid enough to get Bob mad at her. Or him. "You know she did."

"If she did," Andy said, "we'll deal with it. If we can." He shook his head and looked at Ashlee. "If he's going to help us, we might as well tell him all of it."

"Tell me all of what?" Bill said. "Where's Pete?"

The three of them exchanged a look.

"That's the problem," Bob said quietly. "We're...not entirely sure." He rubbed the back of his neck. "We don't know where Patrick is, either."

Bill shoved his glasses back up on his nose. "What do you mean, you don't know where Patrick is?"

"Patrick's—gone somewhere," Ashlee said. She looked uncomfortable. "And we're pretty sure he has Pete with him."

*

"It started back in the last century," Bob said, holding a cup of coffee in his hands. He hadn't touched it; none of them had, but Bill had gotten them drinks anyway. Stupid sense of politeness. He'd sat all three of them down on the sofa, and perched in Pete's beanbag chair--perched, because if he leaned back, forget it, they'd just see feet--to listen to their story.

"Patrick Martin Stumph died in 1897," Andy said. He had a really nice speaking voice, Bill noticed, when he decided to actually use it. "He was murdered in his hometown of Keep's Corner, Illinois. I think--we tried to figure it out once, on a map. There's a naval base there now."

"Yeah," Bill said absently, "in Glenview." He'd grown up only a few miles from there, in Hoffman Estates. It was one of the reasons he and Pete got along so well, both being Chicago boys. "He was murdered?"

Andy nodded. "He was the youngest of three children: his brother was married with a family, out in St. Louis, and his sister had died when she was a baby. Patrick left to go to school in Chicago, but came home when his parents got on in years and needed someone to help take care of them. He got a job as a bank teller. Everything was fine for about six or seven months--"

"And then money turned up missing," Bob interrupted. "A lot of money. Translate it to current figures, maybe a million bucks."

"Jesus," Bill muttered.

"Keep's Corner wasn't a very big town, back in those days," Andy said. "It was mostly farms, the bank, and a couple of people who, at the rate of exchange back then, would have been considered wealthy. *Any* money going missing was a big deal, let alone that much. A bunch of people went bankrupt."

"Yeah, but that's not proof," Bill said. "Patrick worked in the bank, money went missing from the bank. I don't even know if that would count as circumstantial evidence. He’d be a suspect, but so would everyone else."

"If they’d used the rules of evidence back then, sure," Bob said. "But they didn't. It was a small town, and a bunch of money was missing. Only three people worked in the bank: the manager, the other teller, and Patrick. The other teller was in her sixties and looked like a bit player on Mad Men; she'd been in town forever. She'd never done something crazy like go off to Chicago and play music in a bar. She'd never done hash—"

"Shut up! Patrick did hash?"

Andy looked like he was biting back an eyeroll. "No. But that was what everyone thought. So, naturally, the blame fell on him."

Bill frowned. "Just for clarity's sake, who really did it?"

"The manager," Andy said. "Phillip Peppar, the Pepper King—that’s what his family had done for ages, spice importing. He was pretty heavy into the mob—in Chicago, of all places—and he saw his chance. Took it." He shrugged. "That was one thing. Embezzlement, you know, it's a monetary crime. In the grand scheme of things, it's bad, but not *bad*. The bad part—"

"The bad part was what the guy did next," Ashlee said quietly. She stared out the living room window, fiddling with her rings. "If he'd just taken the money and run, that would have been okay. I mean, relatively. But he didn't." She took a breath. "He got the whole town riled up. Said Patrick was a ne'er-do-well, that he had a taste for liquor and loose women--maybe even loose men. They didn't know which part was the most offensive—"

"I've got an idea," Bob said dryly. Ashlee didn't seem to hear him.

"—but everyone went sort of nuts." She looked back at Bill. "You know how in movies, or old episodes of the Twilight Zone, one person says one thing and everyone goes totally bugfuck? That's what happened here. They dragged Patrick to someone's farm, out in the barn, and they worked him over. Said they'd stop if he confessed and gave the money back, but--I mean, he didn't do it, he couldn't give the money back." She smiled a little. "And he's always been stubborn, so he refused to confess to something he wouldn't do." She fell silent, staring off again.

"So," Bill finished for her, "they killed him."

Ashlee nodded.

"But," Bob said quietly, "that's not really the bad part."

The three of them looked at each other for a long time. Bill couldn't be certain, but he was pretty sure they were trying to figure out exactly what they could and couldn't tell him.

"Look," he said, "your boss probably has my best friend somewhere. It's not like I don't know what you are. I'd rather not, if we're being honest, but I do. You send people to hell. It's not like you can't get any worse than that." He rested his hands on his thighs. "So just tell me already."

Another long look.

"It's different for everyone," Andy finally said. "It--Patrick was chosen for this. It's part of his punishment."

Bill frowned. "I thought he didn't--"

"Not for that," Bob said. "He didn't take the money. They don't send you to hell for something you didn't d—"

Ashlee looked at him.

"—they don't *usually* send you to hell," Bob corrected. "But...you have to understand. He was murdered. He was *murdered*, for something he didn't *do*, and everyone just—they acted like it was nothing. Like it was a really irritating chore. 'Oh, we've got to bring in the corn and the wheat, and murder that kid who works at the bank.'" His face was flushed. "They weren't even repentant."

"Some of them were," Andy said. "A few. The manager—"

"We're getting to that." Bob looked at Bill. "Hell isn't—you know how there are stories of people coming back and visiting loved ones after they die? Or people seeing spirits lingering where something violent happened?"

"Sure, yeah," Bill said. "Ghosts."

"Basically. That was what Patrick was. He lingered. He hung around, and waited to see if they were sorry. And no one was." Bob looked off into the distance. Bill wondered, not for the first time, what the three of them were seeing that he couldn't.

"So he came back one night," Ashlee said, "and he killed them."

"Starting with the manager,” Bill guessed, leaning forward a little.

She shook her head. "He moved away right after it happened. Went to live in Chicago full-time, got married, started a family. Patrick killed everyone else."

More blinking. "You mean everyone who was with him when--"

"Bill." Andy's voice was quiet. "No. She means everyone. It was a small town, so...maybe five hundred?"

Bill looked up at him, startled.

"Most of them died in a fire," Andy said. "The town wasn’t very big at all; it didn’t take long for it to spread from the mayor’s house to the surrounding homes and just...keep jumping. The month before had been kind of dry, which didn’t help." He rubbed the bridge of his nose. "The bank was the last thing destroyed."

"Jesus," Bill said faintly. He'd seen Patrick emotionless, and coldly furious, but when he tried to imagine him full of rage and hatred he just drew a blank. "His parents—"

"—died when he was killed," Bob said. "Broken hearts, though that's not really a medical condition. I don't think they're in hell; I've never seen them, but it is kind of big."

"So no," Ashlee said, "he didn't kill them. They were about the only ones he didn't kill, though." She ran her fingers through her hair. "The point is, the bank manager—the one who moved away—was ripped up about it for the rest of his life. Gave up gambling and sinning in general, made his penance before God. He married and had two daughters and a son, and died peacefully in his bed at the age of ninety-four. His youngest daughter, Eva, married a man named George." She took a breath. "Eva and George's first son was named Peter."

Bill wasn't stupid; the names were familiar. "Wait a minute," he said slowly. "Peter--"

"The oldest son of Eva and George Wentz was named Peter," Andy said. "Peter got married and had a son of his own, also named Peter. And that Peter married a woman named Dale and had three children, the oldest of which was--unsurprisingly--named Peter. Which means—"

"--Pete's the great-great-grandson of the guy who got Patrick killed," Bill said, burying his face in his hands. "Christ."

"It's not like Pete knew," Bob said. " I don’t think even Patrick did; he’s never mentioned it, and he knows how we all died.”

"Katy knew," Andy said, eyes narrowed behind his glasses. They gleamed in the lights, but not--it was almost too strong, too sharp. Bill blinked and shook his head. “She’s been around a lot lately, bugging Patrick, poking at him about something.”

"Okay, who the hell's Katy?" Bill asked.

"Katy is," Bob said, and stopped.

The three of them looked at each other again, puzzled this time.

"You know," he said after a bit, "I don't actually know? I know she's always around, and Patrick doesn't really like her—"

"Patrick didn't go and get her," Ashlee said. "Not the way he got us. He told me so." She bit her lip. "I think Grandmother might have."

"Don't talk about her," Bill said, shuddering. Being around Patrick was one thing; Patrick, especially when he was in the mortal world, was weird but all right, and he really did seem to love Pete. Even these three were okay, in small doses. The thing on the porch, Bill did his best not to remember.

She didn't seem surprised by his reaction. "Fair enough. She’s a girl, maybe your age or a little older. She has dark hair and—her eyes are sort of weird. I think they’re blue, but sometimes they seem purple. I don't know what she is. She doesn't wander around, like we do, but humans can't just get to where we are. Not in the flesh, and not without help."

Which Bill knew very, very well. "Okay," he says, "so this Katy might be involved. Can't you—I don't know, find her?"

Another look. "She doesn't...seem to want to be found," Andy muttered.

Bill goggled. "So? Like you guys have a problem finding people."

"We kind of have a problem finding her," Bob admitted. "We've been trying. It's almost like she doesn't want to be found, which—like you said, we shouldn't have a problem with this." He raked his fingers through his hair. "I don't like it. I don't like any of it."

Bill took a breath. He had an idea. It wasn't a good one, and just the fact that he'd had it scared the shit out of him. But if something happened to Pete because he pussied out—

"We could go ask Grandmother," he said quietly.

All three of them looked at him.

Bill looked back at them. "You can't seem to find this Katy, or Patrick, or Pete. It's like they've vanished. If Grandmother was the one who got Katy, who- or whatever she is, she—it might be the one who knows how to find him."

"Its ways are not our ways," Ashlee said. There was a narrow line between her eyebrows: a worry-line, Bill's mom had always called it. "It—we were human once—"

Andy coughed.

"—most of us," she corrected herself. "It wasn't. It's never been human. It just is. I asked Patrick, once, what he thought It was. He said he figured It was some kind of middle manager, maybe, someone to make sure we do what we're supposed to and keep others apprised of how we're doing."

"Others?" Bill asked.

Ashlee ducked her head. Bob reached out and touched her shoulder. "We don't talk about it," he said softly, and pursed his lips.

Bill wasn't stupid; he knew when something wasn't up for discussion anymore. "It might not help," he said, earning a nod from Andy. "The point is, it might. And unless we accidentally trip over any of them, it's sort of our only option. So unless any of you have a better idea, or any idea, we should probably get this done."

They exchanged another look. Bill took his glasses off, started cleaning them.

"Okay," Ashlee said. "We might as well give it a shot." She got to her feet and held her hand out to Bill.

Bill bit his lip and looked at it. What had happened that day sophomore year was the worst thing he'd ever experienced. The whole year had been sort of shitty, mostly for losing Gabe (not that he'd ever had him, and oh hadn't that been fun to learn), but that day had been the icing on a crappy cake. He'd done his level best to repress it with two years of therapy, but so far no success.

And now he was going back.

"Fuck it," he said faintly, "let's go," and took her hand.

*

In the space it took to blink, Bill was standing in the most familiar field in the world. To him, anyway.

He glanced around. Andy and Bob were already starting for the cabin they used as—base, or whatever; it looked like it was a few minutes' walk away, from wherever they were now. Bill remembered that shape, all right, down to the tire swing in the front yard. He shuddered.

Ashlee was next to him, slipping her hand out of his. "You're all right?" she asked, looking at him critically.

"Now you ask," Bill muttered, and took a second. He nodded. "Yeah. Just—it's weird."

"It can be," she agreed, and started walking. Bill was surprised; his legs were longer than hers, but he had to make strides to keep up with her. "Especially for mortals. You usually don't come here unless it's contractual."

"You mean unless you want to send someone to hell."

"Pretty sure that's what I said." Ashlee glanced at him. "You're uncomfortable around me." It wasn't a question.

Bill blinked. "Uh—yes?"

"Why?"

Bill stopped and looked at her.

"Why?" Ashlee asked again. "It's not like—" She stopped and turned to look at him, realizing he’d stopped walking too. "It's not like you were harmed. You're fine. Unless someone decides to send you to hell, our contact should be limited."

"You kidnapped me," Bill said slowly. Maybe if he said it slow enough, it would sink in. "You stole me to use as a hostage to keep Pete from Patrick—"

"This has nothing to do with who anyone dates," Ashlee said. "He was interfering with our duty. We don't take that lightly."

"So deal with Pete!" Bill yelled. He wasn't at all surprised to realize his voice was getting higher the further he went along. "Not that I want you to hurt him, but don't kidnap his friend and leave me alone with that—that thing--" He cut off, glaring into the distance.

Ashlee looked at him for a long time. He didn't look back at her, but she didn't say anything. Bill was grateful for small favors.

"I'm sorry," she finally said. "I didn't—it's been a long time since I was human. You...forget things." She walked over to him and reached up, standing on her toes, to brush her thumb across his forehead.

And just like that, it was—okay. He hadn't forgotten what had happened, any of the details, but the emotions behind it seemed...muted. Like they were a particularly vivid movie he'd seen, and not something that had happened to him.

"It's the best I can do," she said quietly. "Grandmother could make it so that you'd forget entirely, but I doubt It would do so. Patrick might be able to, but he's not here." She shrugged. "I don't regret what happened. It ended all right for everyone, with no loss of life, and as a result someone was able to forgive." She glanced off. "One step closer," she said, and closed her eyes for a moment. Bill had the urge to squeeze her hand, but managed to hold it off.

Ashlee opened her eyes. "I don't regret doing it. But I'm sorry you were traumatized, and I'm sorry I didn't think to do this sooner. It would have been easier." She blew her bangs off her forehead. It was still human, Bill was gratified to realize. The emotions associated with the memories were tamped down, but seeing a pretty girl with bones sticking out of her skin was still really fucking creepy.

"We should get going," she said. "The others will be waiting for us."

"Yeah," Bill said, "okay."

*

Bob and Andy were standing, arms crossed, and staring at a girl on the porch by the time Bill got there. She was dressed in white robes of some kind, belted with a black sash. "What are you doing," Ashlee said, "just—" She stopped and crossed her arms over her chest, too. "Katy."

Bill stopped dead, blinking at her. "I know you!" he said. "You're in my lit class! What are you doing here?"

The three of them looked at each other, then at Bill. "She is," Bob said, eyebrows raised.

"Yeah," Bill said. "My 402, Roles of Women in Eastern European Literature, 1600-1699. Okay, it's really more of a gender studies elective, but it also counts as a lit—"

"She's in the mortal world," Ashlee said slowly. "Like we were."

"No." Bill shook his head. "Not...Pete asked around, after you guys vanished last time. Nobody remembered you. I didn't remember you, though that wore off with the kidnapping—"

"Bill!"

"I'm saying! The point is, once you were gone, you were gone. You did what you had to do and got out. You're like a SEAL team or something: you get inserted, you get the information, you get out." He was pretty sure he didn't mean SEALs, but whatever, close enough. "She's been there for, like, a year. Maybe longer. She was in the glee club last year. I didn’t even know we had a glee club. She dated my e—um. A friend of mine.”

Ashlee whipped her gaze back at Katy. "Who are you?" she demanded.

Katy just looked at her. The red cast to the light really did make her eyes look purple, Bill noticed.

"No one of consequence," Katy finally said. "Just a guest—"

"Bullshit. You're here, and none of us brought you. Who are you?"

"No one of consequence," she said again. Now her eyes looked hard. "And it's very silly that you're worried about me when there are far more pressing matters at hand."

"Talk." Why Pete said Bob wasn't scary, Bill had no idea; Bob looked pretty fucking intimidating right now, and it wasn't even directed at him. "Now."

Katy took a few steps towards them, smiling. "Poor little assistants," she singsonged. "Your boss has gone away with his little friend and you don't know where. But I do."

"Where?" Ashlee started for him. "Talk, you little freak, or—"

"Be silent, corpse," Katy said, and flicked her fingers at her.

Bill didn't even have time to scream. One minute she was small and pretty, an emo kid with dyed hair and a pissed-off expression; the next, half her face was gone. The left side was normal, but the right side was dry bones and an empty eye socket. It was worst in the middle, wet like a fresh wound. Her fingers were tiny caps of bone, clicking against each other as she lifted a hand to her face.

"Why should any of you care?" Katy asked, sounding bewildered. "He is distracted. When his distraction is gone, there won't be any more doubting why you do your jobs, and when his doubt is gone yours will be too." She shook her head. "It's all for your own good."

"What do you mean," Andy said, "'when his distraction is gone'?"

"The human boy. He meddles. He interferes. He said he would not, but he does."

"No he doesn't," Bill said. He ignored the look Katy shot him. "He doesn't. He tries to keep away from Patrick when he's working. He doesn't seek him out, or people he's supposed to be damning—"

"He doesn't damn anyone," Katy said coldly. "He performs his duties as he is bid. The summoner is damned, if they choose revenge over forgiveness; the subject is damned, depending on what the summoner decides. And you should not be here."

He'd almost had a panic attack when he'd seen Cloverfield, not because it was a monster movie—pfft, whatever, like he didn't know worse—but from the scene near the end, where the camera guy had looked up and seen the creature looking back at him. Pete had had to help him to his feet and back to the car, and the whole time Bill had been pale and shaking. He'd gone home and tossed up his small popcorn and Coke, and shut his eyes when that scene came up on the DVD.

This was like that, but worse. Katy was gone; it wasn't a girl not quite his own age looking at him, but the same shape that had kept him company on the porch two years ago: a shadow passing over the moon, looming down on him, and he couldn't look away. Bill felt his stomach turn to water. "No," he said--no, whimpered; he could admit that. "No, please, don't--"

In the shadows, something was clicking. Not Ashlee's fingers.

And then said fingers—the human ones, thank God—were grabbing his shoulder, yelling "HANG ON!", and the world fell away beneath him.

*

Bill turned onto his side and vomited.

"It's okay," he heard Bob say. "It's okay, you're all right. We try not to do it that fast, it can make you barfy if you’re not prepared.” Someone was patting his back; not Bob, he guessed, he sounded too far away.

"Fuck," Bill said hoarsely. He spat, cleared his throat and spat again, rolled onto his back. "What the hell--"

"That the hell was Grandmother," Ashlee said, next to him. She helped him sit up. Bill glanced over, reflexively, and was relieved to see that she looked human again, no open wounds or bones to be seen. "Best guess? It's giving Katy power somehow, for—whatever reason, like I know. I don't know how It thinks."

"Can It do that?" Bill asked.

"It's doing it, so I'm guessing It can." She shuddered. "It didn't—It doesn't care, Bill. Not about any of us, let alone you or Pete. I think It might hate him, or as close as It can get to something resembling an emotion."

"But why? He's not—"

"It said why," Andy said. Bob was on his feet, if a little shaky, but Andy looked fine. The last couple of minutes might as well have not happened. "It thinks Patrick's not as effective because he's distracted. Because he's feeling things again."

"Yeah," Bob said, "that's really good reasoning for crazies." He started brushing his legs off.

"I don't think It's entirely wrong."

Bill looked at him.

"Think about it," Andy said. "Try to be impartial just for a minute. He's different. He worries now. He didn't blink when we questioned him before, let alone argue back, but now he does. He cares. He has opinions. That could get in the way someday."

Ashlee looked incredulous. "You'd rather he didn't think?" she said. "You'd rather he didn't feel things anymore? You liked him the way he was?"

"He was easier to understand," Andy admitted. "It's not the same for me as it is for you. I'm still getting used to having emotions, and you've always had them—"

"No I haven't!" she yelled. "None of us did! You know that! Bob and I walked around like statues, the same as the two of you, and now we don't. And yeah, maybe someday it'll interfere with the job, but maybe it won't. And if you start anticipating the worst, you might as well quit and go back to suffering alone right now. Do you remember that? Do you remember how miserable it was?"

Andy glared at her. "It's not the same—"

"It's close enough."

"The point is," Bob said, "It doesn't like Pete, and It wants Patrick to go back to the way he used to be." He looked at all of them. "So what's the easiest way to do both?"

Bill was still trying to figure that one out when Andy blinked and stared back at Bob. "That's not—It's not supposed to do that. It's not supposed to interfere."

"I don't think It cares right now," Bob said grimly. "And who's gonna say It did anything? Not us. If It's middle management and Patrick's the anonymous guy in the office, we're—I don't know, staplers or something."

"She's going to hurt Pete," Bill said suddenly. "Isn't she?"

Bob glanced at him. "Not directly, no," he said. Bill had the feeling he was trying to be nice. "It doesn't have to."

"How—"

"It's going to get Patrick to send him to hell," Ashlee said quietly.

Bill's stomach twisted. "What?"

"It's actually not a bad idea." Her voice was hollow. "As it is, Patrick's on the path to earning his freedom. It would have to replace him, and It would lose him--not to mention us. It's a package deal: he came and got us, so we go with him." She hugged her arms. "But if he sends Pete to hell, he earns the same punishment as anyone else: eternity in hell. Except he won't be tortured. He'll just...keep doing this."

"And so will you," Bill said. "Jesus Christ." And Pete would be in hell forever, for something he hadn't even done. "We—can we stop him?"

"We're not supposed to interfere—"

"Oh, fuck that!" Bill yelled. He got as far as his knees and had to grab Bob's leg; stupid still-shaky balance. "If you think I'm just gonna let my best friend suffer in hell for eternity without at least trying to stop it, you're crazy." He shook his head. "Where would they be?"

"They're still here," Bob said, "somewhere. Seriously!" he added, when Bill glared at him. "The sunless lands extend as far as the breadth and depths of the heavens."

"That's really, really far," Ashlee said. Bill was pretty sure she was mocking him, but gently; coming from her, it was like a hug. She didn't strike him as much of a hugger. "The land of the living has a defined area. The underworld doesn't. He's here, but that's like saying 'Well, I know the needle and thread we need is somewhere on the planet.' That doesn't tell us where."

"Do you have to do it in a certain place?" Bill asked. "The—the torture, I mean."

"Yeah, in hell—"

"No! I mean when you go to get them."

"...oh." She blinked. "We don't have to. There's no rule about it or anything. Mostly we do it at the scene of the crime: where all the torment was done. The psychic pain resonances seem to be stronger there, so it's easier to channel it." Off Bill's blank look, she said, "It’s shop talk, okay? But no, we don't have to."

"We tend to, though," Bob said slowly. "And if Katy told Patrick about Pete's great-great-grandfather—"

"He'd want to do it in Keep's Corner, where he suffered and died," Ashlee said. "Sorry, Glenview. But not real Glenview."

"The equivalent of it over here," Bill said, getting to his feet. "Real Glenview, psychic Keep's Corner. Can you take us there?"

All three of them looked at him.

He stifled an eye roll, but it took a second. "I pay attention when people talk, okay? And I'm minoring in Mythology and Folklore. I'm sorry I didn't catch onto the politics of dead people right away. Can you do it or not?"

"I--yeah," Ashlee said, shaking her head. "There should be less barfing this time, since we know where we're going. You ready?" She reached for his hand again.

"You didn't know where we were going?" Bill asked, but they were already gone.

*

Bill hadn't ever really been *in* Glenview, per se. He'd driven through it on the way downtown, or out of state, and on one memorable occasion he'd raced through the outskirts to get to a gas station so his sister Courtney, who'd been massively carsick at the time, could hurl in a gas station instead of just off the side of the road. He was dimly aware that it had had a naval base there, once, and that the base was now closed, but that was it.

He was pretty sure it didn't look like this.

"This is an Amish town," Bill said flatly, looking around. It was farmland--or what he thought was farmland, anyway; it looked like a set from one of those shitty Children of the Corn movies, which said "farmland" to him—for miles around, every direction he could see. There was a gazebo maybe five or ten minutes' walk away, but even from this far away Bill could see what looked like damage.

Scorch marks. They looked like scorch marks.

"It's just that size. Told you it was small," Andy said. He squinted off in the middle distance. "There, do you think?"

"No," Ashlee said, and pointed. "There."

Bill looked, not terribly surprised to see that she was pointing at a barn. It had scorch marks too, he noticed; just looking at it made his eyes throb. "Ow," he muttered. "I don't want to—I really don't want to look at it, okay? Just. Is this a psychic thing?"

"Probably," Bob said. "Tell you the truth, it makes the hair on my arms stand up to look at it too. My best guess, that's where they are."

"That's where it happened?"

Bob nodded.

"Okay." Bill took a breath. "That's where we should probably go, then." He took another breath and started walking across the field. "Are you guys gonna be okay to do this?"

"You want the comforting answer," Ashlee asked, "or the real one?"

Bill had to jog every few feet to catch up with her. Stupid underworld, making tiny girls outpace him. "Both."

She nodded. "Theoretically, yes. We can still do everything we normally could—I can, anyway, I don't know about the others. It should be enough to get Pete out of there."

Bill glanced at her. "But?"

"But," Ashlee said. "We were granted our powers by virtue of being Patrick's assistants. I don't know if we can go against him, even to get Pete out of there."

"But you're not going against Patrick," Bill said. "You're going against Katy. You're—you have to think about Patrick as the guy who's pulling Bob's string, not as...himself. We have to talk him out of it, not disarm him. Although if you can disarm him, maybe not a bad idea."

"Hadn't thought of it that way," Ashlee admitted. She walked for maybe half a minute in silence, then: "Look, I'm sorry about—"

"You already apologized," Bill said. "You still feel guilty when this is done, buy me dinner. Or get Adam Siska to agree to go out with me. Something."

"Oh!" Her face lit up. "Is he that guy with the hair? He's cute. You know, one time—"

"If you have any stories about almost sending him to hell, please don't share them."

Ashlee grinned. She really was cute, Bill realized, and tiny, and kind of fun to be around. If you ignored the part where she was really a skeletal demon-monster sent to investigate people who were about to be condemned to the depths of hell, she'd probably be really fun to go shopping with. Maybe for shoes. "He's fine," she said. "Never heard a bad word about him. I think you're good. We—"

"HEY!" Bob shouted, waving at them. "YOU MIGHT WANT TO GET OVER HERE!"

Bill and Ashlee looked at each other, then took off running.

*

Inside—

Inside was a warehouse. Bill supposed it was a barn, seeing as he'd never actually been inside one, but it looked like warehouse space he'd seen in every movie and TV show ever. He made a mental note to visit a farm when this was done, if he wasn't dead and it didn't give him nightmares. Everything smelled like smoke, and the bales of hay—four, maybe five—were sooty and charred, as were the walls.

Pete was huddled on the ground. He looked miserable: red-eyed, coughing, curled in on himself like he didn't know whether to barf or die. He was still wearing the clothes Bill had last seen him in, a day or so ago, but now they looked a hundred years old.

Terrified, Bill started towards him.

"Don't," came Katy's voice, and Bill stopped in his tracks. He didn't want to, but it felt like someone had hold of him, keeping him back. "This is not for you to interfere, mortal."

"Oh, cut the shit," Bob said, coming up to Bill's shoulder. He glared at her. "Don't do that. This isn't a movie. Stop with the cheap theatrics."

"But I like them," Katy said, pouting. She was still in the robes, still had hard purple eyes, but she looked—ancient. Bill was freaked, but not really surprised, to see faint shimmers of purple on her forehead in neat rows curving upwards. Like pimples, maybe. Or little eyes. "They're not necessary, I suppose. I still can't let you interfere." She beamed. "But you can watch."

"What—" Bob started, but Ashlee cut him off.

"It's like a police mirror," she said hoarsely. "I'm trying—Bob, I can't get through. She's keeping us out."

"Of course I am," Katy said. "If all of you'd been doing what you were supposed to do and chased the boy off, none of us would be here right now. This is a very unfortunate situation. I'm just doing what I must to make it better."

"By killing Pete?" Bill shot back.

"I'm not going to kill him," Katy said. "Neither is Patrick." She grinned at Bill; Bill, reflexively, leaned back. Sharks didn't have that many teeth, or that sharp. "He'll go to hell, as he's earned. He never should have interfered with something that does not concern him."

"He didn't ask for it," Bob said. "The dreams—"

"The dreams were a mistake. They happen, even here. If he'd come to me and explained from the start, I could have figured something out. Warded his dreams, or not let him wander those paths when he walked. It's not unheard of. We can correct these things."

"Come to y—" Bill blinked. "Holy shit," he said faintly. It wasn’t like he hadn’t heard Ashlee say as much, but the words made it sing in his brain. Plus, the eyes. "You're Grandmother."

Not channeling, not some kind of deal. She wasn’t backed by Grandmother, she was Grandmother—possession, maybe. It was almost comical: Bob and Ashlee gaped at him; Katy glared; Andy...was still watching Pete. There was no sign of Patrick yet, which was starting to worry Bill.

"That's not possible," Bob said. "You said you've seen her around before. That—we don't do that. We're not linear, we’re temporary. You know that better than anyone."

"Yeah," Bill said. "But Patrick's been popping into Pete's head for a while now. I don't think either of them asked for it; it's just another part of...whatever the fuck this is." He waved a hand. "And Grandmother's a lot stronger than Patrick. It wouldn't be that hard for her--it--to possess someone." He looked at Katy. "Right?"

Katy--Grandmother--smiled a little. "She wandered off the path," she murmured. "Not unheard of, but very foolish. Things wait in the dark places, little boy. You of all people should know that." For a moment, her eyes were narrow and inhuman: fly eyes. Bill shuddered.

"So you're seeking revenge," he said.

She shook her head. "Revenge is personal. I just want everything to run smoothly. If Patrick chooses to let the boy go, then there's no harm done. I will not count it against either of them; for the boy, it will be as if it never happened. A nightmare, perhaps, though a particularly vivid one. If Patrick chooses to condemn him..." She trailed off, her smile widening.

"Then you don't ever have to worry about a position opening up," Ashlee said flatly. "He's yours forever."

"Of his own free will." Grandmother looked way too pleased. "As it was, once."

"That's what happened to Enma Ai," Andy said. His voice rang out in the space, clear and sharp. "She started to feel again, so you replaced her."

Grandmother hissed at him. "No,” she said. “She earned her retribution—though not in the same way your master is attempting. But she got in the way and was removed. She did it to herself. It made me realize that servants who begin human, no matter what they are now, are ultimately flawed and must eventually be replaced." She relaxed a bit. "Unless they condemn themselves."

"It's a loophole," Bill murmured. "You figured out a goddamn loophole in your own rule."

"Of course I did," Grandmother said. "I am clever, and sly, and older than the winds, boy. I was old when the world was young. I stand for the darkness that crouches in men's hearts, and the hope that light will one day touch them. I—"

On the other side of the room, a million miles away, Bill saw Patrick materialize. He was all in black, in his work clothes, and his expression was unreadable. But he was moving with a purpose, and Bill knew—suddenly, painfully--that this was it. The denouement. He'd pronounce judgment on Pete, and unless someone got to him—

"Andy!" he shouted. "Bob! Ashlee! Scramble!"

He jerked away from Grandmother's grasp, and everything went crazy.

Grandmother was reaching for Bill, hands starting to shift into something inhuman, when Bob tackled her from the side. She screeched and clawed at him, but Ashlee swung in—holding an umbrella?--and pinned her to the ground, jabbing it through her shoulder. Grandmother shrieked.

"What the fuck--" he started.

"Get going!" Ashlee shouted. She was pressing down hard with the umbrella, her arms shaking with the effort. "I don't know how long we can hold her."

"How--where did you get an umbrella?"

"It's Andy," Bob said. "Get going. You don't have a lot of time."

Bill got to his feet and started across the room. He could feel it, like putting his hand into water. "Is this--"

"It's weak enough, you should be able to get through." Bob looked up at him. "Bill, for fuck's sake, go!"

Bill knew a pissed-off bouncer voice when he heard one. He dove through, and on the other side—

*

"—good reason why I shouldn't rip you apart!" Patrick screamed, just as Bill came skidding in, arms moving to cover his head.

Bill coughed, moving his arms away and gulping in air. "Fuck," he said faintly. Maybe he shouldn't have run at it quite that hard. He sat up and looked around.

"Bill." Patrick looked back at him. "What are you doing here? You're not supposed to be here."

"Yeah," Bill said, "I know." He shook his head. "That's not the point. Patrick, you can't do this."

"Of course I can." Patrick didn't blink. "And why shouldn't I? He hurt me, he hurt me—"

"No he didn't," Bill said. He started to get to his feet. Whoooo, dizzy. Not fun. "Pete didn't do a thing to you. He didn't kill you."

"Yes he did! He—they said I did it. They said I stole. I would never--they wouldn't listen."

"I know," Bill said gently. "And they punished you for something you didn't do."

"They didn't punish me," Patrick said, disgusted. "Punishing me would have been arresting me and sending me to jail. They took me out here and they beat me 'til I confessed. They beat me, Bill. The sheriff helped. Have you ever been beaten? Not gotten in a fight, beaten. Knocked down and pinned while a bunch of men hit and kick you until you're spitting blood. I kept telling them I didn't do it, but it just made them angrier."

"You could have confessed—"

"No I couldn't! Not to something I didn't do!" Patrick clenched his hands into fists and paced back and forth. "My parents were old, Bill. I was raised not to lie. I wouldn't do it, not even to save myself. It would have broken my mother's heart." He choked out a laugh. "They died anyway, less than a year before I--their hearts broke. I broke their hearts. I was a pariah, a thief and a liar, and I ki--I got them killed."

Bill looked at him. "You think you killed them," he said softly. "Don't you?"

"I--No!" Patrick glared at him. "Shut up! You should--I should kill you—"

"But the contract's not for me, is it?" He nodded at the huddled form on the floor. "It's for Pete."

Patrick turned his gaze downward. Bill could almost hear him freeze inside. "He got me killed," he said. "He lied to them, told them I did it—"

"No he didn't," Bill murmured. "You died in the nineteenth century, Patrick. Pete wasn't born 'til the twentieth—the late twentieth, no less. He wasn't the one who stole the money. He wasn't the one who lied. His ancestor—"

"The sins of the father," a soft voice murmured, "shall ever be visited upon the sins of the children. Don't listen to him, Patrick."

Bill closed his eyes and muttered, "Fuck."

Patrick was looking past Bill to someone over his shoulder. "Katy," he said, sounding dazed. "How did you get in?"

"Don't worry about that," Grandmother murmured. Her robes were black, now. Bill looked past her and wasn't that surprised to see the other three frozen in place and looking furious. Andy had even come back from wherever he was, though now the umbrella was missing. "Just do it, Patrick. Send him to hell."

"You're listening to her?" Bill was shocked. "Do you even know who this is?"

"I'm his friend," Grandmother said. "You're not. You're Pete's friend; of course you want Patrick to spare him. I certainly don't blame you." Her voice turned steely. "But he has to pay."

"Pay for what?" Bill snapped. "Making him feel things again? Falling in love? Yeah, because that's such a fucking hardship—"

"We do not love!" she shouted. "We do not care for the pain of others! We are absent all judgment, and now he is not, because he loves--"

"I love him," Patrick said softly. Grandmother and Bill stopped yelling and looked at him. "I...I love him."

"Yes," Bill said, before she could speak. "Yeah, you do. You love him, and we don't hurt the ones we love. So just--where's the doll? Do you have it?"

Patrick nodded, still dazed, and took it out of his pocket. It was dark green and had a red string wrapped around its neck, same as every other version of the doll he'd ever seen.

"Good. Give it to me." Bill reached for it.

"No!" Grandmother shoved him away, hard. "Patrick, listen to me. His ancestor hurt you. What makes you think it won't happen again? Humans are so fickle; we see it every day. They fall in and out of love in an eye blink, a heartbeat. You think he won't leave you? You think he'll be content with someone who never ages, who will always stay young and vital while he ages and rots away?"

Patrick shrank back. "Yes," he said, but there wasn't quite the strength in it Bill had heard a moment before.

"Then you're more trusting than I am." She leaned closer. "It happens every day. 'Send him to hell, he broke my heart.' 'Send her to hell, she stole my money.' 'Send him to hell, he cheated on me—'"

Patrick flinched. Bill shot a confused look at Pete, but he was still huddled on the ground. Bill wasn't entirely sure he was conscious.

"He did, didn't he?" Grandmother said, stepping closer. Her voice was so sympathetic, but her eyes gleamed. "He slept with someone else, held them, kissed them. And why shouldn't he? You're never there. You can't be. The two of you live in different worlds, Patrick. I can understand the impulse to fall in love with them: they're strong, they're vital, they shine against the pallor of this place." She shook her head. "But they can never love you. Not the way they can love each other."

Patrick looked at Pete again, then at the doll.

"It's so much easier this way," Grandmother whispered. "He can't ever hurt you again, Patrick. None of his line will ever hurt you again. And you'll be done! Everything you started so long ago, when George got away—it'll be done. The man who hurt you can't be punished, but one of his blood can. Old vengeance, the oldest kind.”

She closed Patrick's fingers around the doll. "Just pull the string," she said softly. "Pull the string, and let it be done."

Bill took a breath. He could hear Patrick waver. "Patrick, I don’t know what happened, exactly, but—"

"Stop," Pete said hoarsely, and started to push himself up.

Grandmother hissed, eyes glinting, and reached for him. It was Bill's turn to smack her hand away, this time. "No," he said. "If Patrick's going to send him to hell, let the man talk."

Grandmother looked at him for a long moment. “I missed you, boy,” she said, reaching out and twining a few strands of hair in her fingers. Bill bit back a shudder. “I’ll let him condemn himself. It should be…entertaining.”

Patrick kept a firm grip on the doll and looked at him, eyes widening.

"You never told me any of this," Pete said. His voice sounded like he'd been yelling for a while before Bill got there; yelling, or maybe screaming. "You never told me I was related to the guy—"

"I didn't know!" Patrick said. "You never told me you came from killers!"

"I didn't know either!" Pete shouted back. "My dad talks to his dad, and that's it. This...George guy died before I was born—before my dad was born. We've been in Chicago for as long as I can remember. I didn't know about the rest of it." He snorted. "Though being connected makes sense, now. You were probably subconsciously trying to keep an eye on the family of the guy who killed you."

"Yes!" Grandmother said, trying to lean in. Bill yanked her back. "The family of the man who killed you. He admitted it—"

"I'm talking," Pete shot back. "You've been really fucking chatty this whole time, lady, so shut the fuck up for two minutes and let me say my piece." He looked at Patrick.

"I'm sorry he did that," Pete said quietly. "I'm sorry he stole the money. I'm sorry he was a total dick. I'm sorry he lied and you ended up dead because of that. I'm so sorry for that, Patrick."

Patrick swallowed. "It hurt," he whispered. "They hurt me. They wouldn't listen, and I died. My ribs punctured my lungs, do you know what that's like?"

Pete shook his head. "No. I don't have to know what that's like. It happened to you, and it hurt you. That's enough to make me hurt, too." He managed to sit up, coughing a little. "That's what you were going to do to me, right?" He nodded at the doll. "You'd pull that and I'd get beaten to death?"

Patrick looked at the doll like he'd never seen it before. "I don't--"

"It's okay," Pete said. He got to his feet and stood in front of Patrick. The light wasn't strong enough for Bill to get a good look, but his face looked swollen and sore. It wasn't outside the realm of possibility for Patrick to have gotten a few smacks in. "It's okay if you want to send me to hell."

"No!" Bill yelled.

"Yes," Pete said gently. "It is. It's okay." He wrapped his fingers around Patrick's wrists. "But don't punish me for something I didn't do. Do it because I kissed Ash. Do it because I'm a whiny little pain in the ass who gets mad at your job. Do it because—fuck, I don't know, because you don't like my hair.”

"I like your hair," Patrick said, looking up at it. His eyes were red-rimmed. "You iron it."

"I kind of have to." Pete's smile was soft. "You do what you have to. It's not gonna make me stop loving you." He closed his eyes and waited.

Patrick looked at him for a moment, then down at the doll in his hands.

Bill couldn't breathe.

After what seemed like forever, Patrick slipped his hands free of Pete's grasp and turned to Grandmother. "Take it back," he said clearly.

Grandmother's mouth dropped open. "Are you insane? This is vengeance!"

"And I know what it will cost me," Patrick said. "And him." He looked back at Pete. "So I reject it. This man has done nothing to earn my wrath, or damn either of us for eternity." He held the doll out. "Take it back."

Grandmother stuck her chin out, arms crossed over her chest. "And what if I refuse?"

Bill goggled at her. He'd never asked for clarification on the process, but he was pretty sure you couldn't do that.

Patrick's eyes narrowed. "Then you won't be doing you job," he said coolly, "whatever that is, and you will face a harsher punishment than I. You want the old form? Fine. I cast revenge aside, now and in perpetuity; this man has done me no disservice that shall condemn either of us to eternal damnation." He stepped clear of Pete and leaned in, glaring at her. "Take. It. Back."

Grandmother looked at him, then shrieked and ripped the doll out of his hands. She disappeared.

And just that fast, the barrier was gone; the others came tumbling in like puppies. Bill, who wasn't aware they'd been standing quite so close, got smacked in the back by Andy. "What happened?" Bob shouted. "We couldn't hear anything, but we saw her go, and now we're in here--"

"It's okay," Patrick said softly. He looked at Pete. "I'm so sorry, Pete, you don't--"

"Please send me home," Pete said. His voice was a little stronger now, but still raspy. "Me and Bill, actually. Hey, B."

"Hey," Bill said. He waved.

Patrick's expression was miserable, but not surprised. He nodded. "Close your eyes," he whispered, and Bill did.

*

When Bill opened them again, he was back in the kitchen, standing over his notes. It was like he'd never left. A check of the clock on the stove told him he'd been gone maybe half an hour.

Pete was leaning against the sofa, hand to his ribs, looking wrecked. "Well," he said, "I've had louder fights with somebody I'm dating, but none that weird."

"Fuuuuuck," Bill breathed. This close, he could see Pete's face, already going bruise-dark and puffy, and the stilted way he moved. "Are you okay? Fuck, no, stupid question, of course you're not." He slung an arm around Pete's shoulders. "We're gonna get you to the hospital—"

"No you're not," Pete said. "I'm gonna go to bed."

"No, you're not," Bill said. "You look like shit, man. I don't care what kind of weird relationship catharsis—thing we're talking about, you need to see a doctor. You might have internal bleeding, or broken ribs."

"Not internal bleeding," Pete said tonelessly. "That can kill you. He didn't want me dead. I'm gonna sleep on it, see how I feel in the morning. If it's broken ribs, I'll let you know, you can keep me company in the emergency room." He started shambling towards his room.

"Pete--"

"Good night, Bill," Pete said quietly, and closed his bedroom door.

*

As it turned out, Pete had neither internal bleeding nor broken ribs, though he walked like Bill's grandpa for a couple of days and told everyone who asked he'd gotten into a fight defending his honor.

They didn't talk about it.

*

A week later, Bill was sorting through mail on the kitchen table—bill, bill, Pete's car insurance, book he'd ordered off Amazon—when Pete poked his head in. "Hey," he said. "I'm not gonna be here for dinner tonight, so you do whatever, okay?"

"'kay," Bill said absently. "Going to the library?"

"No," Pete said. "I have a date."

Bill looked up at that. Pete had been holed up in his room since they'd come back, except for classes. He'd gotten a B on his speech project, and hadn't said a word about what had happened before Bill got there. Bill was reasonably certain he never would. He didn't know whether to be upset or grateful. "Who with? Oh! Is it Victoria?"

"Quit shoving Vicky at me," Pete said, but he sounded like he was trying not to laugh. "And no, it's not." He cleared his throat. "It's, um—"

The doorbell rang. "I got it," Bill said, trying to tear open the Amazon package and hurrying over to open the front door. "Hey, m--" he started, and stopped.

Patrick was standing there.

"What the fuck," Bill said flatly. He glanced back at Pete and said, a little louder, "What the fuck."

"Bill," Pete said, "don't start." He was dressed up, Bill noticed: long-sleeved gray shirt, shorter t-shirt over it, skinny-but-not-girls' jeans. His bangs were dark red, and he was wearing glasses. Bill had called that his "preppies get laid" look, once upon a time.

"No, hey," Bill said. "You want to go out with the guy who tortured you, it's none of my business. Have fun, Stockholm Syndrome."

"That's not fair!"

"No," Patrick said from the doorway, "it's not. But it's not wrong, either." As mad as he was, Bill had to admit he looked good, too: dress shirt and jeans, wire-rimmed glasses. He didn't have a hat on, either. "I can't ever apologize enough for what happened. I let myself be swayed by old emotions, and Pete paid the price. He almost di—no." He shook his head. "It would have been worse than dying. I should know; I see it all the time. But I snapped out of it in time, and you're part of the reason." He offered Bill his hand.

Bill just looked at him. "Do I want to know what you did before we got there?"

Patrick didn’t look surprised, just put his hand down. "Not really, no."

"Fair enough." Bill let out a breath. "I--look, I'm not gonna be entirely okay with this. Ever. You get that, right?" Patrick nodded. "But...I don't have to be, either. I'm not the one you're dating." He wrinkled his glasses back up on his nose. "Have him home before curfew, okay? And in one piece."

"What the fuck," Pete said, "I'm not nine—"

"I think he means my curfew," Patrick said, trying not to smile.

"'s where I was going with that, yeah." Bill put the mail down. "Have fun."

"We will," Pete said. He jingled his keys and leaned in to kiss Patrick's cheek. They looked like—well, what they were supposed to look like, Bill supposed: two people in love. He couldn’t begrudge Pete that, even though he privately thought it was a horrible fucking idea. "Don't wait up."

"You know I'm gonna," Bill said. He waited 'til Pete was on his way out to ask Patrick, "Everything's been okay with your boss, right?"

Patrick--no, not Patrick, when he was like this--Hell Boy's expression darkened. "We had a talk," he agreed, narrowing his eyes. "I am in no position to command It, but I mentioned the situation to Its masters. They seemed...concerned."

"She's been fired?"

"Not at all." Patrick didn't blink. "It's not like they can post an ad for Its replacement on Craigslist, Bill. But the loophole It tried to use has been clarified. It will not do it again." He shrugged. "We tend to avoid one another, now. It seems best."

"And Katy?" Bill asked. He still saw her around campus, though her hair was now cut short and she wore clothes that seemed less like she was a poster girl from the 1940s.

“She remembers nothing of what happened,” Patrick said. “Mostly. The few dregs that stubbornly linger she chalks up to strange dreams—which, in a way, is what they are. She didn’t do anything wrong; I don’t see a reason to punish her for actions that weren’t even hers.”

"Okay," Bill said. "Good.” He fidgeted for a second. “Where are you guys going tonight?"

"Pete's taking me to a movie." Patrick paused. "I—" He stopped and shook his head. "Good night, Bill."

Bill looked down at a flyer for a Chinese place around the corner. "Ni--" he started, looking up.

Somehow, it wasn't at all surprising to see that Patrick had disappeared. Bill shook his head and walked over to close the door behind them.


epilogue. when our bodies finally go

Pete never gets married.

His parents pick at it occasionally, even after they meet Patrick ("Such a nice boy," his mom says, "and old-fashioned. I like him."), but they don't ever make him feel like he's a disappointment for not planning a wedding or giving them grandkids. It's not like his brother and sister don't do well in that department, and overall, he thinks he's a pretty good uncle.

("Dude," Pete says, holding Andrew's second son, "not that Nick isn't a great name, but you should have named him something badass. Like Bronx."

"I'm not naming my baby Bronx."

"What's wrong with Bronx? Bronx is an excellent name for a baby."

"Really no. And before you can say anything, no, I'm not going with Baloo, either. Don't make that face at me, I'm not.")

Patrick makes sure to age his human shape accordingly, all the better to not attract any attention. Pete figures it's fair warning for what he'll look like when he becomes human again and starts actually aging. It's a pleasant surprise to find that Old Patrick is pretty fucking hot, even with the receding hairline and the soft little belly. But then, Pete realized a long time ago that he was a sucker for the guy, so maybe it's just him.

He throws that idea out the window when he sees middle-aged woman at Chili's eyefucking Patrick, who's more interested in exactly what makes up the cowboy shrimp.

*

As it turns out, Pete goes into teaching.

He wouldn't have thought it either, but after four years of college, he realizes he doesn't want to leave. He gets his B.A., then his master’s and his Ph.D., starts teaching mythology and folklore at a small private college in upstate New York. Most of them cluck their tongues at poor Professor Wentz, whose partner travels around a lot for work. Patrick makes sure to be around when Pete has students over for dinner, or the friends he makes at work; he's charming and friendly, nothing at all like the spectre of vengeance that still hangs over America in its nooks and crannies.

Pete's been teaching for ten years when he sees the first student—a skinny freshman named Eric—with a doll sticking out of his bag. He calls Eric in for a conference, and steers the conversation towards his personal problems. As it turns out, Eric just broke up with his girlfriend of three years, who'd been cheating on him with one of her professors.

"I don't know what to do," the kid mutters, glaring at the desk.

Pete sighs. "No," he says, "but you know you have options. You just don't realize how shitty they are." When the kid turns the glare on him, he adds, "Do you know how long 'eternity' is, Eric? Because that's exactly as long as you'll be in hell if you go through with this."

Eric pales. "How did you—"

"Professor of Mythology and Folklore," Pete says. He waves a hand at his degrees. "I promise I know what I'm talking about. Look, Eric, it—do you hate her?"

"She's been sleeping with Professor Nelson for two years," Eric says. "Yeah, I hate her."

"Okay. Fair enough." Pete doodles something on his desk calendar. "But you have to decide which you'd rather have: both of you burning in hell for eternity, or getting over this and getting on with your life."

Eric mumbles what sounds like a promise to think about it, and flees.

A few nights later, when he sees Patrick—he does that sometimes, not come home between jobs when it's busy—Patrick idly asks, "Did you talk a kid out of going through with it?"

"I don't talk people out of stuff," Pete says, putting blue cheese on the beet salad. "We had that fight, like, fifteen years ago, remember? I might have had a very casual discussion with the guy."

"Uh huh," Patrick says. He kisses Pete and steels a beet, nibbling on it. "Well, he said no. Gave me Andy back."

"Really?" Pete tries for casual. "So how many is that now? I mean, if you just have an estimate—"

Patrick shoves a beet in his mouth. "No work talk. Your rule."

Pete thinks strongly about sticking his tongue out, then decides against it and nibbles at the beet instead.

*

After Pete retires, he buys a small house in the country. He buys a bulldog and names it Hemingway, takes up painting, lives quietly. He does his grocery shopping every couple of days and keeps his hair short, still writes the occasional article for folklore journals.

Sometimes months go by without seeing Patrick. He's stopped asking why.

He's lonely, a lot of the time, but he doesn't look back on what he's missed out on. He wouldn't trade this life for any other, though sometimes—more often than not—he gets cold at night.

*

One night, Pete goes to sleep, and wakes up in the sunless lands.

It's not the cabin; the sky is cool blue, like there's rain a few miles away, not the blood-red-pink of sunset. There's no cabin anywhere, no tree swing, no weird shape on the porch clacking something in an approximation of knitting. There are trees, and rocks scattered around, and a river.

Pete drops to lie flat on his stomach and look into the water. There aren't any fish--big surprise--and it's clear, rushing just fast enough to make little swirls of white on the surface. He can see things glimmering in the bottom, like dropped coins or jewelry, but he doesn't reach for them. He might be old, but some things are still clear in his memory.

He looks at his reflection for a long time, thinking.

And when he looks up from the water, he's different. He can feel it. The knees that have been bothering him for the last six or seven years are fine, like all the cartilage magically grew back or something. There's no ache in his back or his joints, no hands already touched with the first stirrings of arthritis. He flexes his hands anyway, just to be sure, and watches, a little awed, as they curl and uncurl easy as breathing.

Also: he can breathe easily again. And his hands aren't spotted and veined and gnarly, like tiny trees. They're just hands.

"I thought you'd appreciate it," someone says, an old familiar voice, and it's all Pete can do not to start crying. He turns.

Standing under a tree—no falling cherry blossoms, for once, just a little breeze—is Patrick. He's still in his suit, but he seems...different. The same kind of different Pete feels. For one thing, he's smiling.

"It seems like cheating," Patrick says. He starts unknotting his tie, lets it drop at his feet. Pete, who's confused but (apparently) not dead, manages a whistle a few bars of The Entertainer. "I don't know. I thought it'd take longer. I had contingency plans, I really did, but--you know, it worked out. So I’m going with Plan A. "

"I have no idea what Plan A is," Pete says honestly. His voice sounds young, too, raspy and sort of like he wants to start crying. Which makes sense, because he's tempted right now, he really is.

He just stands there and watches Patrick shed layers like a snake wiggling out of its skin: the jacket, the shirt, the pants. Somehow, he's not terribly surprised to see that when he looks away, the clothes are in a neat pile when he looks back--except they're not a suit, not really. They could be a suit, in the right light; they could be a tasteful funeral dress, or a woman's business suit, or a trench coat with some kind of wine-red blouse underneath.

"They get to stay here," Patrick says. "For my replacement."

Pete glances at him. Patrick's dressed fairly normally: godawful argyle sweater (and where in his years of service he picked up that particular affectation, Pete has not the slightest goddamned idea), faded jeans, green-and-yellow sneakers. He watches, somehow still unsurprised, as Patrick tosses his fedora onto the pile on the ground and replaces it with a trucker hat. The fedora, he knows, will be a veil, or a tasteful handbag, or a pocket square. They don't waste things in the underworld.

"Like a uniform," he says idly.

"Kind of, yeah." Patrick glances down at himself, then back at Pete. "You ready to go?"

"Go where?" It's not the craziest question he's ever asked. Legally, Patrick Stumph is dead—he got a wild hair a few decades back and visited his grave; spent the whole crying and half-drunk at the hotel—and he's pretty close; eighty-five might be the new seventy, but people still die. Especially cranky old bastards who meddle where they're not supposed to. Cranky old bastards who love who they're not supposed to love, who—

"Wherever you want," Patrick says simply. He holds Pete's hand. "Didn't you have something in mind once?"

Pete opens his mouth and starts to answer.

And promptly stops, when he sees the shapes near the back of the treeline.

"Are those—" he murmurs, and shuts up, because: of course it is. Like Patrick would negotiate for any less.

There are three of them, walking along like it's any other day. A tall, bearded shape that billows like an umbrella unfurled before becoming a man again; an equally tall, blockier shape that flickers into an older, distinguished man before flickering back to the guy who looks like the world's best sound guy; a relatively tiny shape, red hair brown-gold again, wavering between hoodie-clad scene girl and flower child.

Ashlee catches his eyes for a second, and beams. There's no malice in it, no irritation or moment of missed opportunity. She's just a girl. She's always been just a girl, but sometimes she forgot. Sometimes he did too. He doesn't think she'll forget anymore, wherever she ends up.

And then she's gone, too. They all are.

Pete's not even a little surprised to find that that's what's finally makes him start to cry.

"They'll--oh, don't," Patrick says, wiping at Pete's face with his sweater. "Seriously, they'll be okay. That was the deal; faithful service, and when I moved on so did they. Into whatever they wanted." He keeps wiping, which makes sense, since Pete can't seem to stop crying. "Bob will be okay. He actually—I cheated, I peeked. He's going to own some ridiculously well-known sound equipment company before he's fifty. Andy's really excited about getting people to go vegan. Or maybe he’s just excited about being people, I don’t know. He keeps talking about someone named Matt."

"Ash—"

"Ashlee," Patrick says dryly, "is going to be fine. She's the one I'm least worried about." His smile is crooked. "She reminds me a lot of you, actually. Flailing and yelling and irritating people into loving her."

"She doesn't really flail," Pete says, drying his face.

"She really does." Patrick picks up the fedora—nope, pocket square, right this second—and offers it to him. Pete blows his nose and doesn't feel all that bad for desecrating a mythological artifact; his nose is running. Priorities. "You'll find that out. If she doesn't show up at some point asking for two weeks on the sofa and bearing stories of whoever's broken her heart this week, I will give you a shiny coin to put under your tongue to—" He looks embarrassed. "Um. Sorry. Leftover shop talk."

Pete starts laughing. "I know one place you can put your tongue." He glances around and automatically feels bad. It’s like getting a boner in church. "Oh, fuck, are we not supposed to do this here?"

"We're really not," Patrick says solemnly, and drops in Pete's lap and kisses him hard on the mouth.

After that, Pete stops thinking. If this is the last time he's going to be here, he's going to take advantage of it as much as he possibly can.

Patrick feels just like he remembers on his lap, a soft weight pressing down on him like all the dirty thoughts he's had the last forty years. They fumble out of their clothes, laughing, and find surprises: Pete's knees haven't been this pain-free in a long time, and there's a faded scar on Patrick's side. Patrick giggles, then breathes out heavily when Pete moves his tongue over it.

"Stick pierced my side when I was a kid," Patrick says. He peers at himself. "That wasn't there before. It—they vanished when I took the job." He smiles, looking delighted. "It's all coming back."

"A lot of things are." Pete moves his mouth over and nuzzles Patrick's stomach, dipping his head low and sucks the head of his cock into his mouth. He hasn't done this in a while; Patrick's been away a long time, and his memories are dusty and thin. About most things, anyway. Some things are still very clear.

It's even more clear when he rolls onto his back and Patrick is on top of him, moving against him. It's not sex, exactly; Pete gets the feeling that outright fucking would do more than test the patience of…whatever's letting them do this. They move together in purpose—not solemn, because that doesn't mesh with the smile on Patrick's face or how Pete's giggling in his ear.

"Missed you," he breathes, holding on tight. Patrick feels as good as he remembers, rubbing sweetly against him and digging his hands into the top of Pete’s ass to get a good grip. "You never visited, why didn't you visit? You're the shittiest husband ever."

"We never got married," Patrick says, "remember?"

Of course Pete remembers. He'd always wanted to, but Patrick insisted it wouldn't be fair. "It's not like you can legally marry a dead man," he'd always said, and Pete had always, always followed that up by making him sleep (or nap, really) on the sofa.

"That's it, bucko," he says, laughing again, "back to the sofa—"

He comes, sudden and sharp, painting his belly and Patrick's thighs with it. Patrick makes a sound in his ear and ruts against him, hard and fast and not-so-nice in just the way Pete likes, 'til he's coming too. Pete holds on and doesn't let Patrick move away, not even when he's finished and trying to catch his breath.

"You know how long it's been since we did that?" Pete pants, looking up at the sky. It's a little brighter, now. Maybe. A fraction. There’s a little breeze, too.

"A very long time." Patrick kisses him, touching his face. "I know," he murmurs, "I know, I'm sorry. I just—you only had so much longer, and I didn't want to have to find you again—"

A man's voice says, "Oh, that's just disturbing."

Pete startles and tries to find his pants; even at his age, being found halfway through or even just after is like a cold shower. Patrick just looks up, not at all surprised. "Hello, Singer," he says.

"Singer", whoever that is, is just a kid, maybe nineteen or twenty. He's in a black dress shirt and pants, some sort of odd red charm on a chain around his neck. He's young, but he doesn't look it; he's got the same gravitas Patrick used to, back in the day. "Do you know where you are?" he all but yells, glaring at them. "This isn't cool, Patrick—"

"One day," Patrick says, calm as Pete's ever seen him, "if you're very lucky, you'll be free too. And whatever you want to do then will be your own business. Until then, I suggest you leave my business to me." He cranes his neck to look behind Singer. "This is Cash?"

"Cash" turns out to be a surly-looking blond kid maybe Singer's age. His clothes are nondescript in the way that only kids can manage, and he has a tattoo of—oh, Jesus wept--a dollar sign on his hand. Pete has the urge to kick his shin, and he doesn't even know why. "Yeah," the kid says, "I'm Cash. Who are you?"

"I used to be him," Patrick says, nodding at Singer. "Jigoku Shonen. But not anymore." He pulls his shirt on and starts looking for his pants. He smiles at Pete when he hands them over.

"You can't go," Singer says. "You--I mean, of course, you can, but—" And then he's not any kind of mythological creature, just a kid on his first day of work with no real training and no idea where the manual is. "What am I supposed to do? I don't—no one told me—"

“You’re supposed to do your job,” Patrick says gently, “and try not to make the mistakes other people made before you. No one likes repeats.” Pete has a vague idea what he’s talking about, with that one; he’d come home halfway through Pete’s fifth year teaching and cried for a solid week (when he was there) about Enma Ai and what had happened to her. Pete had never been able to get clarification, beyond “she’s fine. She’ll always be fine.”

Patrick zips up his jeans and rolls to his feet, touching Singer's shoulder. "You'll be fine," he says softly. "You'll find others, in time; until then, Cash will just be very busy. You know what your duties are?"

"I—yeah, kind of—"

"The rest will come to you as you need it," Patrick says. "It's a little scary, but surprisingly useful." He leans in closer and whispers something Pete guesses only Singer's supposed to hear.

Pete looks around, shimmying into his jeans and putting his shirt back on. The rocks he saw scattered around earlier aren't so scattered anymore; now they're loosely grouped together. Five bucks says in as many minutes, they're in a cairn. There are already cherry blossoms starting to fall in his hair, on the ground.

"Patrick," he calls, "I think we'd better go."

Patrick glances up at the tree and nods. "'kay." He hugs Singer—and Cash, who looks surprised—and walks back over to Pete. "You ready?"

"I--fuck!" Pete looks at him. "I can't go back looking like this. I'm—old me. I come back looking like this—"

"They're gonna think you're Peter Lewis Kingston Wentz IV," Patrick says, still not ruffled. "Everything’s already ready to go.” He looks at Pete’s astonished face. “You really think I'm going to leave any of this up to chance, Pete? Really?"

Pete wrinkles his nose. "No," he says, feeling sheepish. "Just—nerves, I guess."

Patrick smiles. "Totally understandable," he murmurs, and takes Pete's hand. "You ready?"

Pete looks at him for a long time. A long time ago--a lifetime, really--he'd had dreams about the most handsome man he'd ever seen. They were all different: a thousand times and places, a hundred thousand situations, an infinite variety of beginnings and endings. None of them had ever ended and they lived happily ever after, but that was okay; no one did. He didn't really expect that they would. They'd have fights, and some nights one of them would sleep on the couch, because no one was guaranteed to live happily ever after, and that was okay.

The important thing is, they're going to live.

"Yeah," he says softly. "I'm ready."

And they step away from the river, and the lands of the dead, and into the rest of their lives.


*


i knew, when i was writing on your behalf, that there was going to be a sequel; there sort of had to be, as the whacked-out alternate continuity i was working with hadn't even covered the entire first season, let alone two or three. and i kind of love the arc of season one, so there you go.

katy perry = kikuri. yes, it's kind of mean to make katy perry get possessed by the lord of hell, but it was originally going to be singer, so shush and be thankful for the edit. (for the record, i would imagine that katy has no memory of what happened when she was possessed. she has nightmares sometimes, like bill used to, like pete still does once or twice a year. but nothing particularly bad happens to her, except...she keeps dressing like kenley on season 4 of project runway. which is kind of punishment enough.)

there aren't cognates for singer or cash, but i'd like to think eventually they'll find a slew of alexes--fun fact: the name for a group of alexes is, in fact, a "slew"—and maybe an ian, and go around having adventures of their own, condemning people to hell.

i totally bs'ed with the assistants; as seen by the end of hell girl s2, they actually *aren't* tied to her via any kind of contract, and are, in fact, set free when [SPOILER DELETED]. but i diverged a *lot* from canon on this entire thing, so in this world, ashlee, bob and andy are, in fact, tied to patrick's fate: now that he's gone on to have a life again, so have they. if they'd wanted to just be dead, i imagine that would have been okay too. their lives, now and forever, are their own.

andy is, technically, a tsukumogami: an object that has reached its hundredth year and are now considered to have a soul or spirit. he was originally supposed to be a sword, but that seemed kind of trite. i can promise you that, despite my love for the comic, his being an umbrella didn't ping my "oh, shit, umbrella academy!" radar until i was editing. and i liked it, so it stayed in. i like andy, for all that he's not the chattiest character. also, for a former umbrella, andy gets a *shocking* amount of ass. no one look surprised if i tell you “matt” is mixon, okay?

i don't know if bob's backstory will ever be revealed in a story, so: bob bryar worked security in the 1940s and was killed in what he believed to be a kidnapping attempt on the daughter of a fairly wealthy family. as it turned out, the daughter was in on it with her boyfriend; bob did not take too kindly to this, and haunted the two of them for the rest of their lives. after their deaths, patrick found him and brought him to his service. bob seems like the kind of guy who would pick ashlee up like a kitten when she got pissed and just cart her away from whatever she was angry at. "come on, ash, it's not worth it."

for the record, this is my favorite ashlee simpson ever. cranky, emo, prone to kicking—but generally good-natured and happy, as long as you keep her away from stupid people. in that way, she's a lot like non-hell-boy patrick, so pete being drawn to her isn't too crazy. she's the ex you stay friends with, the one whose wedding you go to and whose fiancé you threaten at the reception when you've had one drink too many.

i refuse to hear shit about bill beckett. bill does whatever the goddamn hell he wants to, and he is nine feet tall and cute as a button and never entirely manages to wear a whole shirt, even in his old age. he watches cloverfield without incident, and kills spiders in his bathroom without having to breathe into a paper bag. bill never, ever goes to hell again.

yes, i sent shaant to hell, what of it? (just for the dick pictures *alone*, i'm not sorry. seriously, you guys, he looks like a hamster. dear gerard way: please don’t buy him.)

the candle thing is taken from hell girl. you see them sometimes floating in the water as the barge passes by, but nowhere near as heavily as they are here. (they're really stationary candles, with the condemned's name written in kanji at the base, but the water imagery works better.)

enma ai = hell girl, the first (and only). her fate as mentioned here is more or less accurate, subtracting certain things. i imagine hell doesn't have a really great gossip system, so you sort of have to guess for information. and in that regard, patrick's completely right. and completely wrong. i transplanted a lot of her backstory onto patrick, minus a few changes--she was a human sacrifice, *literally*, not just a victim of mob mentality and embezzlement. i left out the majority of the details of s3, because that would make this whole thing hilariously convoluted. and frankly, i don’t need help in that regard.

to the best of my knowledge, there are no embezzlers or murderers in the wentz family tree.

and last, but certainly not least, all credit and thanks go out to my fanmixer (and friend), [profile] adellyna, for her wonderful mix; and to [profile] agirlnamedrage, for the artwork that accompanies this piece. this story would be far less rich without their hard work, and i can never properly express my gratitude for what they’ve done.
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