“Nice to meet you,” Austin says automatically. He can barely feel his lips moving around the words. The unpleasantly familiar feeling of dissociation is washing over him, tugging his mind up and outside of his body, away from the conversation. He clenches his hands into tight fists, feeling his nails bite into the crescents they left earlier, using the pain to anchor himself.
“Austin?” Morse asks, giving him a strange look. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” Austin lies. His whole body feels warm in a way that makes him want to methodically tear off his skin. “I think - uh, it’s really hot in here, actually. I’m gonna go get some air.”
He takes off before Naberius or Morse can force him to stay, and briefly hears Kesi laughing derisively before the noise of the crowd swallows it up. Whatever. Not my job to deal with that. I didn’t sign up for any of this political shit.
A door off of the ballroom leads to one of the mansion’s large terraces, overgrown with flowering plants and creeping ivy that winds around pillars and marble statues. Austin makes a beeline for one of the benches among the flowers and starts to undo his jacket as soon as he sits down, loosening its tightly-buttoned pressure on his chest. He tilts his face to the sky and gulps down air, touching his palms and finding them sticky, realizing he’s made himself bleed. Something inside of him twists loose, and the tears he’s been holding back since the night he arrived in Hell start to spill out full force, shaking his body with loud, embarrassing sobs.
I might die here, he thinks, pressing the sleeve of his shirt to his eyes as though he can stop the tears as easily as a nosebleed. I might never see any of them again. Jacob. Dad. Otter. Landis. Mac. Monty. Everyone. What happens when you die in a duel in Hell? Do you become a demon? Do you just forfeit living on Earth forever?
He thinks about Gen, Kesi’s champion, smilingly introducing herself. Could I kill her, if it came down to it? If she was going to kill me? I was raised to be an agent for the Department, trained to kill people if my life depended on it.
You’ve done it before, a second, nagging voice in his head reminds him. You put the revenant out of its misery. You were prepared to mortally wound Otter if it meant getting the lake - getting Crocell out of him. So why is this any different? It’s self-preservation.
It’s different. Austin sniffles, can feel snot dripping down his face. I only killed monsters before, when they were killing other people. This is killing for sport. Killing for someone else’s fucking political agenda. For entertainment.
“Shit,” he says to himself, his voice thick, and balls his jacket up in his hands. I wish Dad was here.
“Hey,” a voice from above him says. It’s husky, with an accent Austin can’t quite place. “Do you mind if I sit?”
Austin looks up. A demon he doesn’t recognize, one even taller than Naberius, is looming over the bench. He’s dressed in fashion that looks suspiciously human compared to everyone else Austin’s seen this evening - slacks, a button-down shirt, a pinstriped vest with a watch chain dangling from one pocket. His skin is so pale it seems to give off an ethereal glow in the relative dimness of the terrace, and he has golden blond hair slicked back into a pompadour, cut slightly shorter on the sides to accommodate the ram’s horns that curl out from his temples. Austin wipes his face with his hands, knowing he should be mortified to be caught crying, but doesn’t really feel much at all.
“Yeah,” he says finally, to the demon.
“You’re Naberius’s human, right?” the demon asks, sitting down as soon as Austin scoots over to make room on the bench. He rolls his knuckles like a magician performing a sleight-of-hand trick, and a cigarette appears in between his fingers. “Ashley or Ashtin or something? Aubrey?”
“Austin, that was it!” the demon exclaims, snapping his fingers. A tiny flame appears at the very tip of his thumb as he does so, and he uses it to light his cigarette, held tightly between his lips. Once it’s lit, he takes a long drag on it, blowing smoke out through his nostrils. “I’m fucking awful with names. You smoke, Austin?”
“Sometimes,” Austin says, cautiously. His face still feels wet and tacky with tear tracks, and he scrubs it with his jacket.
“I think now counts as a sometimes,” the demon next to him says producing another cigarette from thin air and offering it to Austin. It looks hand-rolled.
Austin takes the cigarette, instinctively patting down his pockets for his lighter before realizing it’s already lit and smoldering at one end. He puts it in his mouth, tries to copy the demon’s long drag, and nearly chokes, coughing up phlegm and smoke. The taste is much stronger than any cigarette Austin ever remembers having on Earth, the smoke much thicker in his mouth and nose and lungs. Austin takes another, smaller drag, and finds the aftertaste of brimstone coating his mouth.
The demon chuckles. “You’re a good sport, for a human. I like that. How come you’re out here all on your lonesome?”
Austin thinks about lying. It certainly would be in keeping with the way most of the demons here have treated him so far - like he’s insignificant, just an extension of Naberius. Like he doesn’t matter as anything except a tool, a pawn to be pushed around on a chessboard. But something inside of Austin warns him against being untruthful, something in the way the demon on the bench carries himself, his clear, blue eyes devoid of any predatory intent.
“I was thinking about being Naberius’s champion,” Austin says, “and all that fighting to the death stuff.”
“Yeah, I can see how that would get to you.” The demon smokes his cigarette pensively for a long moment, pursing his lips and blowing smoke rings up into the night sky. “Kesi was doing a whole posturing act with his human, yeah? You shouldn’t pay any attention to him. He’s a prick.”
Austin sighs, his breath shaking up out of his throat. “I’ve never killed a person before.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that,” the demon says, chuckling again. “You humans have been killing each other since fucking Genesis. Only now it’s even easier than knocking each other on the head with a really big rock. Just stab in,” he makes a stabbing motion with his free hand, as though driving a knife into a body, “thrust up.”
The demon jerks his hand up demonstrably. Austin’s stomach turns - he can’t tell if it’s from the cigarette, or from how casually demons seem to think of murder. He takes another drag on the cigarette, less to calm himself, more to give himself something to do.
“You know, I’m not supposed to pick sides,” the demon next to him says. “So don’t tell anyone. But I’m rooting for you.”
Just as Austin opens his mouth to respond to the demon, Morse appears out of the shadows, sounding considerably out of breath.
“Gods, you can’t just run off like -” His white eyes flick quickly to the demon sitting next to Austin, and Morse freezes in place. It looks almost as if he’s short-circuited - it takes him a few seconds to start moving again, and when he does, he sinks down onto one knee on the ground, head bowed. “Your Highness!”
A chill shoots through Austin’s entire body, the hair on his neck and arms standing on end. He looks at the demon next to him out of the corner of his eye, suddenly afraid to turn his head.
“Oh, please let’s not do titles. Just Samael is fine,” the demon says, stretching lazily. “And there’s really no need to kneel on my account. I just came out to have a smoke.”
Morse straightens up dubiously. Even once he’s back on his feet, he keeps his eyes deferentially turned away from Samael, boring a hole in the ground. Samael stands up from the bench, the cigarette between his lips vanishing suddenly as he does so.
“Well, I should get back to Paimon before he starts any arguments.” He winks conspiratorially at Morse, who makes a strained, gargling noise.
“Wait,” Austin says, his voice cracking. His face feels hot, his heart hammering unpleasantly inside of his chest. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
Samael looks down at him curiously. “Excuse me?”
“Austin -” Morse hisses, and Austin ignores him.
“You’re the Devil,” Austin says, even louder than before. “I just bummed a cigarette from the fucking Devil. Are you kidding me?”
Samael laughs so hard that he has to sit back down on the bench, wiping tears from his own eyes as he catches his breath. Morse stands stock-still throughout the whole thing, eyes wide. It’s hard to tell, but Austin thinks he looks a little paler than usual.
“Holy shit,” Samael says finally, his voice hoarse with mirth. “Christ, that was good. You’ve got chutzpah, kid.” He stands, shoving his hands into the pockets of his slacks, and looks over at Morse. “Make sure Naberius actually trains him. I’ll be sad if he dies right off the bat.”
Morse nods wordlessly, and Samael lopes off towards the ballroom in long, bouncing strides. Austin watches him go until he vanishes back into the faraway crowd, barely even noticing when Morse sinks down shakily onto the bench.
“Are you gonna finish that?” Morse asks.
It takes Austin a moment to realize he means the cigarette. He shakes his head, holding it out and offering it to Morse, who takes it gratefully. They sit shoulder-to-shoulder in silence as Morse smokes the rest of the cigarette, waiting until it’s burnt down almost too small to hold before he flicks it to the ground and snuffs it out under the toe of his wing-tipped shoe.
“This is why I fucking hate throwing parties,” he says.