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Strangers In The Night

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The first time Bela meets Ruby, she's sitting in a cocktail bar in London, checking her watch and tapping her manicured nails because her client's go-between is late.

She's twenty-one years old, with the confidence that comes with four years of professional cat burglary, a seven-figure profit in the last year, red lipstick, five-inch heels and a nine-millimetre pistol in her handbag. Of course, she's also experienced enough to know that while on a normal evening she is the toughest individual in any given room, when meeting with demons it is prudent to assume otherwise. After all these years the rest of the supernatural may have lost its intimidating mystique, but demons are another thing altogether.

Since she was fifteen years old, and a demon turned her from frightened, broken little Abigail, into Bela, she's understood this about demons: you can deal with them, work with them, and even double-cross them if you're clever enough, but you never, ever let your guard down around them. Everyone and everything in the whole damn world will eat you if you let your guard down too much, of course, but demons are apt to literally eat you.

It's a demon she's supposed to be meeting with tonight – not one of the A-listers, of course, some grunt acting as Lilith's earthly proxy for business purposes. On the one hand that should be a relief, but on the other, low-ranking demons are just boring. They all seem to think that a flash of black eyes and a few references to the Legions of Hell is enough to make anyone faint with horror. No sense of the dramatic, no sense of fun.

People (and things) periodically attempting to kill her is an occupational hazard in Bela's line of work. At least attempts with flair are entertaining.

And it's just as she's thinking this that the door swings open, letting in a wintry gust of wind, and in stalks a girl – except, if Bela's intuition is right, she's not really a girl anymore. Blonde hair halfway down her back, shiny black leather jacket, motorcycle boots, cheekbones sharp enough to cut a man, ice-blue eyes with the promise of danger in their stare –

Well, Bela thinks as she lifts a hand in greeting and the demon-girl strides over, smirking a truly X-rated smirk, this isn't exactly going to be a chore.

She throws herself down onto the barstool next to Bela. "I'm Ruby," she says – American accent – and snaps her fingers at the bartender. "Double Jack and coke."

"And another martini here, please," Bela says smoothly, laying a tenner on the bar. She extends a hand to Ruby. "Bela – I'm assuming you're Lilith's representative?"

Ruby looks her up and down, eyebrows raised, still smirking, and after a moment's consideration, shakes her hand. "Yep, for tonight at least." The drinks arrive, and she knocks hers back, grinning when Bela takes a delicate sip of her martini. "Gotta tell you, you're not what I expected from a contract klepto."

This is the moment when she normally pulls out one of her well-worn euphemisms (antiques dealer, specialist in supernatural artefacts), but the demon-girl's grin is somehow infectious. Bela flashes her best sweet-seductive smile over her glass, and looks up through her lashes, all who-me innocence. "You'll find I'm full of surprises."

At that, Ruby laughs out loud. "I just bet you are, honey." She drains the rest of her drink in one, lets out a deep and satisfied sigh, flips her hair back. "Anyway. Let's talk business."

Business, yes. A swift glance around the bar tells Bela no one's watching them too closely, no one's listening in. This is what makes decent cocktail bars such a gift for negotiations – neutral ground, enough people around that no one's going to break out their superpowers or try to kill her (learnt that lesson the hard way), but classy enough that the other patrons tend to mind their own business.

"Excellent, well ... As I informed your superior, I believe I will be able to procure the Cup of Lethe within a fortnight." She opens her handbag, pulls out a slim manila folder and hands it to Ruby. "An estimate of my expenses, plus, of course, my fee."

The demon opens the folder, looks inside, raises an eyebrow. "Got a pretty high opinion of yourself, don't you, honey?"

And Bela grins, because damn right she does. "Well, I am the best," she says archly, taking another sip of her martini.

Ruby slaps the folder onto the bar, smirks. "You are my kind of klepto." She signals for another drink, leans back on her stool. "The money's yours – if you deliver the Cup by the end of the month."

"That won't be a problem. So do we have a deal?"

Now both of Ruby's eyebrows are lifted. "A deal?"

"A deal. I've found it prudent to formalise arrangements when working with ... your people," Bela says, pert.

Another whiskey-and-coke arrives at Ruby's elbow, and she takes another mighty swig of it. "Aw, don't you trust me, hon?"

"What, a demon, untrustworthy? Never let it be said."

There's that infectious smile again. "Damn, you're good." Ruby gives her another up-and-down look of appraisal, and shrugs. "Alright. We have a deal." And before Bela can move – before she even processes what the demon-girl just said – Ruby grabs her by the lapels of her silk blouse and yanks her in for a kiss.

Ruby tastes of clove cigarettes and whiskey, and sulphur beneath that, raw and sweet and rancid all at once: intoxicating. Winding her hands in that luscious blonde hair, melding their lips together, using her tongue to deepen the contact – it's all instinctual, reflex, because God that demon knows how to kiss. Then teeth close on her lower lip, tugging, and Bela can't help but moan –

Then Ruby pulls back, and Bela is gasping all of a sudden, a drowning woman suddenly surfacing. There's an imprint of her lipstick, blood-red, on Ruby's lips, and the sight of that mark is enough to make her feel light-headed.

"Pleasure doing business with you," Ruby all but purrs, and she finishes her drink, tossing her head back dramatically, before turning on her heel and – there is really no other word for it – swaggering out of the bar.

The door slams shut behind her, and Bela presses her finger to her lip, feels the lingering imprint of that bite.

If only making deals with demons was always like that.

The Cup of Lethe is an easy job, relatively speaking: breaking into a private collector's house in some ironically Stepford-esque London suburb, deactivating the burglar alarm system, disarming the protective blood-magic hoodoo, a spot of by-the-book safe cracking, and she's home and dry. One thousand-year-old enchanted chalice, another five million in the old Swiss bank account, bread and butter for anyone in the business of acquiring unique items.

Bela Talbot eats these babies for breakfast.

She's whistling as she makes her way onto Tower Bridge, sun on her back, light breeze lifting her hair, swinging a Harvey Nicholls shopping bag containing this month's stolen treasure. It's been too long since she's spent any length of time in London – America has its charms, but there's nowhere quite like it. Still, there's enough time before her plane leaves Heathrow airport to maybe take in a West End show, stop in at a wine bar somewhere for a celebratory drink, toast another successful caper.

Who knows, maybe even grab another kiss off Lilith's go-between while she's at it – one without strings, this time. Hell, she's on a roll.

It's as she's leaning on the parapet of Tower Bridge, gazing down the River Thames and barely having to put on the wide-eyed I-love-this-city tourist look, that Ruby arrives, walking out of the crowds to stand beside her. "Enjoying the view?"

Bela looks around at her, smiles languidly. "Not bad."

She gets that to-die-for smirk again. "That so?" Ruby's eyes are bright, dancing, and coupled with the smirk, it's the most human expression Bela's seen on a demon in a long while.

"I've seen worse," Bela says, and that makes Ruby laugh aloud.

"Definitely my kind of klepto, honey." Then she stops laughing, shakes out her hair, and all of a sudden the more familiar I'm-a-cat-and-I-think-you're-a-mouse expression Bela has seen on a dozen demons slides into place. On to business, then. "So, I take it everything went smoothly?"

Of course it did, she's not an amateur, for heaven's sake. "Piece of cake," she says, and holds out the shopping bag. Ruby looks at it sceptically, then takes it and peeks inside, like she actually expects Bela to have the damn Cup sitting there without a few dozen layers of bubble-wrap protecting it. "You can unpack it and verify you have the genuine article at your leisure. Of course, as for payment –"

"Oh, it's genuine alright," Ruby says with utter conviction, one hand in the bag, eyes slightly glazed. Apparently the girl has some sort of enchantment-sensing demon mojo, which would be one handy gift in Bela's field, but you can't have it all. "Don't worry about payment, you'll get your money."

"Brilliant." And that's the upside to working with the minions of hell – kiss 'em, hold up your end of the bargain, and they'll always, always cough up. If only humans were that reliable. She lets Ruby take the Harvey Nicholls bag, takes a step back and stretches, catlike. Completing jobs, handing over stolen occult objects, it almost feels like a literal weight lifting from her shoulders. As she stretches, she sneaks a quick look at Ruby from under her eyelashes, and is gratified to see Ruby watching her, the glazed-over expression replaced by something more – appreciative.

Bela is definitely on a roll.

"Now the business is out of the way – why don't we get a drink?" She's brisk, matter-of-fact, always is, whether it's a boy or a girl she's asking, she's never been one to beat about the bush. Once upon a time, Abigail might have blushed and stuttered, but she's been Bela for six years now, and when she wants something, someone, she goes after them. Life is too short to waste on pining and hinting.

"Hm, tempting." Ruby tilts her head, grin showing a lot of white teeth. Suddenly, Bela is hit by the realisation that's she's never been to bed with a demon, has to swallow hard, push down the distracting heat that thought wakes in her. Then Ruby glances at her watch and sighs. "I've got a flight to make, or else Lilith will shish-kebab me for being tardy."

Well, the less said about Lilith, the better, as far as Bela's concerned. That particular demonic queen bee holds her contract, and every time the grape vine offers up details on her – how to put it? Her methods – it sends chills up Bela's spine. Brings up thoughts she tries never to think, like how quickly her years are passing –

No, she's not thinking about that.

"A shame," she says to Ruby, crisp, unruffled. She reaches into the pocket of her jacket for one of her business cards, holds it out. "Another time, perhaps?"

Ruby rolls her eyes. "I know how to get hold of you, you are kinda notorious." She takes the card before Bela can put it away, flips it over, scrawls something on the back in eyeliner. "Here. Now you can get hold of me, Little Miss Klepto."

A flick of her wrist, and the card is flying through the air. Bela manages to snatch it before it ends up in the river, or lost in the crowds, and by the time she's pocketed it, Ruby is walking away. She looks back over her shoulder, and Bela catches a smile, beautiful and dangerous, and a wink, then she's disappearing into the throng of people with a ripple of blonde hair.

Bela watches her go, pats the pocket where she stowed the card with Ruby's number, shakes her head ruefully. Can't help smiling as she says to herself, "Oh, you are good."

Initially, Bela had intended to leave it a couple of weeks, give herself time to get settled back into the swing of New York City, and then call Ruby to see where a bottle or two of Bordeaux and a five-star hotel suite might take them. Sleeping with a demon – one of Lilith's demons, at that – probably isn't up there on any lists of the world's wisest choices, but what are they gonna do? Send her to Hell? The thought of that grin, that intoxicating kiss, the liquid, languid grace of her – well. When Bela wants something, she has a way of getting it, and she doesn't see why gorgeous blonde demons should be any different.

It doesn't go like that.

She spends a relaxing fortnight at her apartment in Queens, spending every night she isn't flirting her way through Manhattan's bars in the front row for a Broadway show. She's young and she's rich and she's living as hard and fast and bright as she can, and if sometimes she screams herself awake at night, it doesn't matter, because she's Bela Talbot and that's just brilliant.

Then she picks up the trail of a certain medallion – enchanted such that whoever wears it will always know when they are being lied to – and heads off on what she estimates will be a five day trip, all told, to relieve an old Argentinean witch of a family heirloom. Said witch turns out to be by far the canniest Bela has tangled with. Most witches are half superstition and half hollow ego, too used to easy-prey sceptics and wide-eyed idiots to know how to deal with a pragmatic Englishwoman with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the occult, a gun, and a lock-pick. Consuela Otero, unfortunately, has a knack for diabolically creative magical booby-traps, and a troupe of nine rough-necked grandchildren to act as her minions.

She gets the medallion in the end – Bela always gets her prize in the end – but it takes her nearly two months to manage it without getting smacked by some ghastly obscure curse. By that point she's been bitten half to death by mosquitoes, and is about ready to sell her soul all over again for some air conditioning and decent wine.

Thankfully, the paranoid but exceedingly wealthy businessman who buys the wretched thing (for a cool eight million, take that, Consuela) also flies her out to Dubai for ten days in a hotel that is, even by her standards, ridiculously luxurious. It's the first time she's been in Dubai for longer than a few hours in an airport between flights, and she falls a little bit in love with the place. Even considers splashing out and buying herself a flat there – she could do with a convenient bolt-hole on the other side of the Atlantic.

That idea gets quashed when she has an unexpected run-in with an old hunter acquaintance of hers in one of the city's markets. It's a pity, she does like Fitzroy, but when they last saw each other, she stole a rather valuable cursed blade he'd been planning to kill some monster or other with, so she's disappointed but not altogether surprised when the situation gets ... out of hand.

And maybe she hadn't evaded all of Consuela's tricks, because she has a run of bad luck on jobs for the next four months, culminating in having to fake her own death (or at least, of one of her aliases', which amounts to the same thing but with less paperwork after) in St. Petersburg. Somehow she still ends up making money after that one, but it's been a rough half-year, and after that, dalliances with demons slip her mind for quite some time.

The next time Bela sees Ruby, she's standing in the dining room of a mansion in Boston, batting her eyelashes and putting on her best oh-you're-so-overwhelmingly-handsome-and-clever-I-think-I-might-faint smile for the benefit of the rich bastard she'll be robbing blind tonight. She's surrounded by sharp-suited men and bejewelled women, pretending the champagne she isn't actually drinking has gone to her head, and Ruby walks in and suddenly her blood is humming.

It's the end of March and her birthday's soon, coming up on twenty-three, and three days after her birthday, the anniversary of the day she went down to the crossroads. It's not a time of year she likes, funnily enough – always makes sure she's got a job in her sights, so she can spend that week concentrating on the thrill of the chase and not the sand slipping through her fingers.

This year, she tracked down Daniel Whyte, a pseudo-intellectual would-be ladies' man who went to law school on his family's money and makes a small fortune every year by schmoozing judges and putting shitty clauses in the small print. He was also a Harvard friend of the late (and much un-lamented) Gregory Talbot. As far as Bela can work out, the two bonded over being irredeemable sleazebags, and collecting rare old books, particularly those pertaining to the occult.

It's a source of some small, black-hearted amusement to Bela that it was one of her father's so-very-beloved books that was the source for the ritual that led to his untimely, tragic death.

She looked up Whyte a couple of weeks ago, span him some dewy-eyed story of how much she missed her parents, how her father had always admired him so, told her so much about him, how she had always loved her father's library, and could she see Whyte's? (Call me Daniel, he'd said, and she'd feigned a bashful giggle and planned how best to screw him over.) Only she felt so close to her father in the library, and perhaps he could explain some of the books to her, she'd never really understood philosophy or such – and, oh, thank you Daniel, you darling –

The blithering idiot was so caught up in her flattery and pencil-skirt-high-heels combination, he never hesitated. Never even asked why she hadn't been in contact before, where she'd been when she dropped off the radar at fifteen years old, where she'd been living or what she'd been doing. Just pressed a glass of red wine on her (excellent vintage, she'd give him that) and showed her up to the library, gave her a guided tour, regaled her with anecdotes about the good ol' days, smiled and squeezed her arm solicitously when she blinked back tears and asked for a moment alone. It was almost too easy.

As it turned out, Whyte had as good a selection of antique demonological works as Bela had ever seen. There was a copy of Lyon's Reliquary, and the Testament of the Pit, which you didn't come across every day, and even what was, as far as she could tell, a genuine copy of The Black Grimoire, one of only seven ever written.

What sent her heart-rate flying through the roof, though, was a tiny, battered volume, with faded letters stamped into its leather spine proclaiming it to be A Necromancer's Redemption, or The Life-History of Robert Welles. Robert Welles, a name she'd heard whispers of, over and over, any and every time she'd put her ear to the ground and sent out feelers, searching for a way out of her contract. The sixteenth-century sorcerer who claimed to have defied Hell.

For a moment, she had thought she might faint, dark spots wheeling across her vision the way they used to when she was fourteen and no doctor could see what was wrong with her – but no. No. That had been Abigail, and she was Bela now, and Bela did not faint.

Composure reclaimed, she had slipped on a pair of glasses (a particularly special pair, a pair that a witch in Prague had made for her in exchange for a vial of dragon blood), looked again at the bookcase, and set her teeth. It seemed that Daniel Whyte, unlike Gregory Talbot, actually had some measure of belief in what he read from his books of curses and hellfire. His collection was magically protected, wrapped in layer upon layer of blood-spells. All in all, he had the damn things locked into what amounted to a demonic safe.

Walk away with any of those babies, and she'd call down a hound-and-devour curse on herself even nastier than anything Consuela Otero dreamt up. Damnation.

She'd left the library lost in thought, let him flirt at her a little more, managed with a modicum of effort to extract an invitation to a party he was hosting the following week, and drove back to her hotel. Once in her suite, she kicked off her heels and started pacing.

Breaking, or even bypassing, a spell of that complexity was quite beyond her. She wasn't ignorant of magic, but knew only the basics and the most functional aspects. All the theory and research and study – well, life was short and she'd rather plan a heist or watch an opera or find herself someone pretty to kiss. But somehow – somehow – she had to get that book.

A couple of the others wouldn't go amiss either, the money she could get for the Testament alone was appropriately unholy, but Robert Welles's book, that was the thing.

After three cups of coffee, a nip of sherry, and what must have been ten miles paced up-and-down the hotel's faux-Persian rug, she remembered the number programmed into her phone. Need a demonic safe cracked? Asking a demon has got to be your best bet.

An hour later, she had a partner in crime and a second invitation to Daniel Whyte's little shebang. A celebratory slice of the hotel's excellent Black Forest Gateau, Breakfast At Tiffany's on the pay-per-view, and she fell asleep with a grin on her face. It had been a good day.

The night of the party, the night she meets Ruby again, she's in her element. Bela's travelled the world, she's gone paragliding and horse-riding and rock-climbing, she's drunk £500-a-bottle champagne and taken the finest china-white cocaine, but there is nothing that makes her feel so alive as this. Nothing's ever beaten the rush of knowing she can smile sugar-sweet and wrap some rich idiot round her little finger, then walk away with his most prized possession in her pocket. She's the best there is at what she does, and she's the best because she loves it.

Whyte is opining at her, a sweaty hand on her elbow, and she giggles and nods at him, pretends to sip her champagne, all the while savouring that glorious, glorious feeling of being in control. Being so much herself – diamond earrings and a floor-length dress in her favourite midnight blue and her eyes on the prize. This man, so full of himself and panting at her like a dog, he might think he's impressing the girl he used to call Abigail, but it's Bela he's brought into his house, and she's got everything right where she wants it.

She's hiding a grin at that thought when she looks up, and there she is.

There she is, blonde hair swept over one shoulder, dress short and silky and blood-red, killer heels, rings glinting on her fingers, show-stopping and she knows it. Their eyes meet, and there's that smile, as bright as Bela remembers, teeth flashing, humorous and dangerous all at once, and Bela's grinning back before she knows it.

Ruby walks towards them like she owns the place, letting the crowd part around her, and Whyte is saying something but Bela doesn't register it. Too distracted by long, long tanned legs and a ferocious smile, and tonight is going to be fun.

"Long time, no see." Bela leans in to kiss her cheek, and that scent – sulphur and cloves all intermingled – hits her again, bringing with it the memory of another, decidedly less chaste kiss. She wonders for a moment what it really is that brought Ruby here. Getting her claws on a copy of The Black Grimoire, as Bela had offered, that had to be incentive, but it's never wise to think you truly understand a demon. They have their own motives, their own strange rhyme and reason, and there's a light of hunger in those icy eyes.

"Ah, you must be Miss Talbot's friend," Whyte says. He sounds sceptical and lascivious at the same time, and his eyes look like they might fall out of his head at any minute. Predictable, so bloody predictable.

Before Bela can reply, Ruby is grinning at him. "Oh yes," she says, letting her voice caress the words, a purr that goes straight to Bela's head. "We're very close." She presses herself against Bela, sliding an arm around her waist. Bela's dress is backless, and Ruby's fingernails trail down her spine – and she should probably be frightened, should probably push her away, tell her that these days she knows better than to tangle with demons, but, well. That smell, that soft heat where Ruby's skin moves against her, the curve of her breasts, the line of her throat, it all adds up, and common sense be damned, Bela knows what she wants.

She lets her arm slip around Ruby's shoulders, holding them together, and gives Whyte her most innocent butter-wouldn't-melt smile. "Old friends."

The dirty old man's flushing now, and it's quite a job not to laugh in his face. He opens his mouth to say something, probably some innuendo he thinks is the height of sophistication and humour, and she's almost looking forward to it just to hear Ruby's retort – but someone calls his name from across the crowded hall. "Ah, I'm afraid I shall have to abandon you lovely ladies," he says, runs his meaty hand down Bela's arm, and attempts a smile that comes out as a leer. "Have a good night."

"Oh, I'm sure we will," she tells him brightly, even waves as he starts making his way towards the dining room.

"Wow, where'd you dig up that charmer?" Ruby asks, and snorts a laugh.

"Old family friend," Bela tells her, letting Ruby take her untouched glass of champagne.

The demon knocks it back, then tilts her head and looks up at her through her lashes, smiling slyly. "This would be the same family you went Lucrezia Borgia on eight years ago?"

All of a sudden her skin is rippling with gooseflesh, as though Ruby dumped her in ice-cold water. There are things Bela doesn't think about, things she's become very practiced at putting to the back of her mind, things she never lets out in the light of day. Especially not at this time of year, when the clock that ticks away inside her, under every waking thought and through every nightmare, seems to pick up its pace and threatens to drown anything else out. Being reminded, by a demon at that, it's like ripping away the curtain she keeps over that clock, and the dark dread that gets closer with each passing year.

But she shows none of it, if there's one thing Bela has been practicing every moment of her life it's lying, and she shows nothing on her face. Doesn't even let herself pull away from the too-hot skin and the faint scent of sulphur. Just tilts her head, says calmly, "Actually, I didn't do anything. That would have been your colleague."

Ruby bursts out laughing. "Colleague? Honey, I'm glad you think we're so ... civilised." Her eyes are glinting, her grin predatory, and if Bela might have forgotten for a second that she is talking not to a sexy girl, not any kind of girl, but something old and wild and violent, she couldn't make that mistake now.

She'll be damned (well, technically she already is, but figure of speech) if she lets Ruby think she's intimidated, though. So she just brings out her I'm-in-control smile, languid, and says, "Oh, I don't. Just being professional." And she plucks the empty champagne glass from Ruby's hand, sets it down on the table beside them. When she turns back, she steps away, just a little, just enough to put some space between them, and offers her arm. "Now, shall we?"

The demon looks at her for a long moment, eyes hooded, sizing her up. Then she tosses her hair, and there's a hand at the crook of Bela's elbow. "On to business, then."

Yes.  This is what Bela came here for, and as they weave their way through the hall, between the huddles of chattering socialites, utterly oblivious to the demon and the thief among them, her heart is racing, her skin tingling. If it wasn't for the need to blend in, she'd be whistling as they started up the overly-grandiose staircase toward the library.

"Having fun?" Ruby asks, voice low with amusement.

"I enjoy my job," Bela says archly. She wonders for a moment if Ruby is one of those demons powerful enough to read minds, or if she's just reading Bela the ordinary way, but it doesn't matter. However tonight ends, however attractive Ruby might be, they're not going to be spending enough time together for it to matter. Bela's not that stupid.

But when Ruby says, "Oh yeah, that's my little klepto," she sounds teasing, fond, almost human, and Bela's stomach does a little flip, like she's a starry-eyed thirteen year-old again.

She ignores it, leads Ruby down the corridor until they come to the right door. A quick glance right and left, and then they slip inside. As the door shuts behind them, the noise of the party below cuts off to just a vague murmur.

All to the best. Breaking spells – particularly those involving blood magic – sometimes causes a bit of a ruckus, and on a job like this, subtlety is the name of the game.

"The demonological section is over here," she tells Ruby, gesturing over at the bookcase in the far corner, standing slightly apart from the others.

"Yeah, I figured." Ruby's already walking over, abruptly losing her air of mischief, amusement, as her eyes roam over the bookcase with hawk-like focus. She reaches out her hands tentatively, fingers spread, testing the air, running over the dark wood, the stained leather spines. "Oh yeah, he's got you wrapped up but good, hasn't he?" she murmurs, talking to the enchanted bookcase in the tone Bela's heard mechanics use when they talk to cars, or collectors their favourite antiques. Easy and affectionate with expertise.

So close now, so close – she can see the little book, the book that might hold the key to her salvation – close enough for her to touch. But not, alas, to remove, not without calling down all those rather nasty curses and tracing spells, not yet. Hence, of course, the diabolical blonde.

"Can you break it?" she asks, her voice quavering only very slightly.

"Oh, please." Ruby tosses her hair, and throws a smirk at Bela over her shoulder. "This guy, he's read a few books, knows the theory, thinks he's hot shit. I was playing this game when the printing press wasn't even a gleam in some German geek's eye. I've got this, honey."

"Glad to hear it." Only years of living by trickery and looking eternally plausible keep the calm facade in place.

Ruby moves closer to the bookcase, and Bela digs her nails into her palms, resisting the urge to pace. She hasn't been wound this tightly on a job since she was eighteen and that thing with the berserker in Finland got hairy, and this time there aren't even any meat-hooks or bears involved. It would seem that having a personal stake in the outcome (one beyond filthy lucre, that is) changes things rather.

The demon is all intensity now, hands stretching out, moving in a series of rapid contortions with inhuman fluidity, meanwhile muttering in a language Bela doesn't recognise – not Latin or Amharic, conceivably some Hell-dialect of Sumerian. The guttural singsong rises to a crescendo, and Ruby slides a hand up under the hem of her dress. Before Bela has time to do more than blink, she draws out a knife, with a wickedly serrated blade, and slices it quickly across her wrist.

Blood beads out along the cut, smeared across the bright blade, and suddenly the smell of sulphur is strong in Bela's nostrils, so strong she almost gags. Ruby picks up the thread of her incantation again, her voice seeming to echo impossibly in the confined space of the library.

Then the air – constricts – and all the hair down Bela's back stands on end in a shiver of static as the lights overhead stutter and spark, the last syllable of Ruby's spell ringing out, overlaid with phantom echoes. The lights flare over-bright, and Bela winces, throwing up her arm to shield her eyes, for a moment afraid they'll explode.

Then the moment passes. The lights are back to normal, leaving violet after-images dancing behind her eyelids, and the foul sulphurous rotten-eggs smell vanishes, as if it were only her imagination after all.

"All done," Ruby says, her voice smug but otherwise normal, with none of that incantatory reverberation. The ice-blue of her eyes has been swallowed by oily void-black, and for a second Bela's breath catches in her throat. Then Ruby blinks, and the black is gone, and she could be nothing more than any other party-going young woman, but for the sharp, fierce edge to her smirk. "Aw, did I scare you, honey?"

Bela chooses to ignore that. "The wardings are broken, then, I take it?"

"Yup." Ruby stashes the knife back in its little thigh holster (and it's the first time Bela's seen anything quite that James Bond in real life, now she really has seen it all), licks the tip of one finger, drawing it along the cut on her forearm. The wound seals itself in the wake of the touch, leaving only a smear of drying blood.

Apparently demon saliva has some kind of healing properties. Now that is a little titbit worth remembering for a rainy day.

Bela digs in her handbag for a tissue, hands it over. "You should probably clean that up." Blood tends to garner a little too much attention at a fancy do like this.

She steps past the demon, glances at the books – and yes, there it is. Just where she remembers. Small enough to fit into the palm of her hand, so aged she's half-afraid it will come apart when she touches the cracked dark leather. But it holds together as she picks it up, turns it over in her hands, pulse racing as she flicks through the pages, breathes in deep, and oh, that old-paper smell has never been so sweet.

The little volume that may prove to be the source of her salvation fits snugly into her handbag, just as she'd planned. Walk in, walk out, by the time anyone's caught on, she'll be on a flight out to Switzerland booked under another name entirely. Her favourite kind of job.

When she turns around, Ruby is watching her, head tilted to one side, a faint amused smile playing at her lips. "My, my, trying to get out of that contract, are you? Very naughty."

Bela doesn't flinch. Never show weakness, never let them smell fear on you. She meets Ruby's eyes, lifts her chin in a challenge. "Are you going to tell tales on me, then?"

A pause, then the faint smile breaks into a vivid, toothy grin. The intensity of before, the raptor's stare, has vanished, and that strangely human laughter is in her eyes, the way it was when they teased each other on Tower Bridge. "Nah, I don't think so," she says lightly, and then she's brushing past Bela to inspect Whyte's copy of The Black Grimoire.

At least with the finger-rubbing, moustache-twirling type of demon you know where you are.

"Yeah, looks like this is the real thing. Gotta hand it to this guy, he's got a collection here to die for." Ruby crouches to pull the Grimoire off its shelf – and how she's going to get that out of the house surreptitiously is quite beyond Bela. It's massive, a veritable doorstep of a book, the corners of the leather cover capped with tarnished silver findings, thick parchment pages stained with what looks to be blood. Certainly not going to fit into a handbag. She'd warned Ruby, was told briskly not to worry about it, and she can't help but wonder how exactly they're going to pull this off.

Glancing up, Ruby catches the sceptical look on Bela's face, and winks. "Oh, calm down, Little Miss Klepto. I always come prepared." She twists a signet ring off the index finger of her left hand – gold, engraved with some kind of insignia, not that Bela's near enough to get a clear look at it. The ring is placed on top of the book, and Ruby utters another quick run of words in that strange language, clicks her fingers – and both ring and book vanish.

Making things disappear outright isn't your everyday trick, even for demons. Ruby probably had to have some sort of help to pull that off, and given that the room suddenly stinks of sulphur again, Bela's guessing she sent it straight to Hell, and Lilith. She has a thousand and one questions she's dying to ask Ruby about what makes this sort of demon magic tick (know thy enemy and all that) but she's probably already revealed a little too much about what she's up to for one day. Instead she just raises an eyebrow, and says, "Very nice. If I fetch a top hat, can you pull a rabbit out of it, too?"

Ruby just rolls her eyes, and stands up, smoothing down her dress. "Well, that's that – what now?" She's smirking at Bela, biting her lip, eyes glittering, an expression of pure giddy filth.

Which, to be perfectly honest, is something Bela can really get behind. "I think celebrations are in order, don't you?"

After a moment of consideration, Ruby ignores the arm Bela's holding out, just lunges forward to kiss her.

And yes – there's that sweet-raw taste, and oh damn she can kiss – deep and fierce, nipping at Bela's lips, one hand kneading at her nape, the other running down her exposed back, pulling them closer – one of those delicious long legs pressing between Bela's. It's dizzying, a rush better than wine or cocaine, feeling the press of smooth firm skin, sleek hair spilling over Bela's shoulders, lips and tongue and teeth and their promise of more, enough to take her out of herself –

But not entirely. She's still a professional, after all.

It's a force of will to pull back from the kiss, and then to resist how Ruby looks at her, reddened lips pouting, glaring out from under long eyelashes, a fuck-me stare if ever there was one. "Not here," Bela tells her, and if she sounds a little breathless, well, who can blame her? "I have a hotel room, we can go there. If Whyte walks in on us, it's game over."

"Or, I could always just slit his throat."

She's utterly matter-of-fact, and Bela has not a shadow of a doubt that she means it. There's something feral in her eyes now, not just sultry but savage, too. Bela's pulse is suddenly throbbing in her temples, her throat, between her legs, can't tell if she's afraid or turned on or both. The sensible thing would be to walk away now, chalk it up to post-burglary adrenaline and call it a night.

But, fuck it. Her birthday's coming up, with it that cold dread that threatens to consume her, like a little death in and of itself (a preview, perhaps), and sensible be damned, Ruby makes her feel alive, and when Bela wants someone, she gets them.

"That's kind of you to offer, dear, but I personally don't find blood a turn-on," she says smoothly, and takes half a step back, just enough to clear her head a bit.

This time, when she offers Ruby a crooked elbow, the demon links their arms, lets herself be lead out of the house and over to Bela's rented car. "This better be a decent hotel," she says, smirking just a little.

She licks her lips when Bela replies, "I'm sure you'll enjoy it."

As it turns out, sleeping with a demon is a little like bedding a thunderstorm.

The door to Bela's suite closes behind them, and almost instantaneously Ruby has them pressed up against the wall, her knee pressed between Bela's legs, nails scoring lines down her naked back. Bela kisses along her jawline, down the long graceful arc of her throat, a hand tangled in the long blonde hair, pulling her head to one side so she can bite at her neck.

The demon moans, breath hot and damp at the side of Bela's face, and grinds against her, gripping her hips with bruising tightness, driving the breath from her lungs. She runs her free hand down Ruby's side, savouring the way she shudders as Bela brushes over her breast. Then further down, slowly down over the red silk to trace the hem of her dress, the taut skin of her thigh, teasing at first, then sliding up under the skirt.

She's hot to the touch, Bela realises, heated and feverish, and maybe that's why Ruby is so – well – Ruby. Inside she's burning up.

Then Ruby grabs the hand that's twined in her hair, pulls it down to the puller of the zip that runs up the back of her dress. She lifts her head to grin at Bela, licking her lips. "C'mon, honey, let's get this show on the road."

There's a bruise blooming at the base of her neck – violet and red – and Bela feels a rush of hunger, desire rolling through her, sharp and fierce. The zipper is cold in her hands, and Ruby arches back into the touch as she slides it down, the dress falling to the floor with a soft rustle. Bela's caught between wanting to just step back and admire all that tanned-gold skin, the curves and arcs and planes accentuated to perfection by the scarlet lace lingerie – and the need to touch, let her hands and mouth devour

Ruby's little laugh breaks the spell as she pulls Bela in for another kiss, deep and raw, and that tongue should not be allowed, it is altogether too good to be allowed. She's scraping trails down Ruby's back, her thighs, her stomach, up over her breasts, while her partner's hands fumble at the clasp of her dress. Bela breaks off for a moment to help her, shrugs out of the gown while Ruby watches, cheeks flushed, swollen lips parted in anticipation.

And then it's just skin on skin, rubbing up against each other, the wall hard against Bela's back and Ruby soft and supple and pressed against her front, biting at her lips and breathing sulphur and cloves into Bela's open mouth as she slides a hand between Ruby's thighs. It's been far too long since she's done this, or at least since she's been so swept away by it, felt her nerves come alive with desire so strong the outside world seems to fall away.

She moves her hand, setting up a rhythm, slow at first, speeding up as Ruby bucks her hips, moving with her. The fingers at her hip and her breast dig in almost painfully, and the kiss is all teeth and tongue, savage, like Ruby's trying to devour her.

For a moment, it's almost frightening, the force behind those hands, those kisses, but to hell with it all, Bela wants. She wants so much, and she lets it speed her movements, pick her up and sweep her away.

Then they're stumbling over to the bed, kicking off shoes, peeling off underwear and that knife in Ruby's thigh-sheath, all without ever breaking contact, lost in kissing and biting and stroking, high on the heady pleasure of touching one another. And that too-hot mouth is sliding over Bela's collarbone, toying at her nipple till she's near mad with it, then trailing down over her stomach and coming to rest between her legs, and the slick heat and that clever tongue have her gasping and moaning and she's lost, lost in it for what she wishes could be forever.

After, Ruby slips back into her clothes, gives Bela one last fierce kiss, and leaves, a smirk on her swollen lips. Bela watches her go – admiring those superb legs, that strut, the casually arrogant tilt to her head – propped up on her elbows on the bed, smiling a lazy afterglow smile.

She takes a few minutes to rest, and then, when she's sure her legs will carry her safely (there hasn't been a workout invented that can match a really decent fuck) it's into the shower. There's a ticket in her handbag for a flight to Switzerland, and spending a transatlantic flight with makeup smeared all over her face and smelling of sex is not exactly her cup of tea. The hot water also helps take the edge off those whole-body aches that come when you've been enthusiastically using muscles you normally forget even exist.

Then it's off to the airport, stolen book stowed in the rucksack that acts as her hand luggage. She runs her fingertips over the spine, again and again, a child with a comfort blanket, all the way to Switzerland.

Bela's spent most of the last eight years restlessly criss-crossing the globe, and she's never been one to get too attached to any particular place, or feel sentimental about leaving – especially not when she's headed out to spend a fortnight skiing in the Alps. But this time she feels a little wistful as the plane lifts off. Watching the lights of Boston fall away into the night, her mind keeps circling what ifs. Wanting to call Ruby again, wishing she'd grabbed her hand at the hotel and told her to stay.

It's absurd. Not just because of the demon thing, although that is certainly something of a drawback. Not just that, but – well.

Back when she was a little girl, back when she was still Abigail, she'd dreamt of finding her one true love, of getting married in some absurd white dress. Then she got a little older, got a few more scars, went down the lane to the crossroads and became Bela. And somewhere along the way she realised that you can't trust anyone without handing them a knife to slide between your ribs, the same way you can't love anyone without coming to lean on them, to rely on them, to need them.

Honestly, giving up love isn't that much of a sacrifice to make in order to be able to stand on her own two feet and know she needs nothing and nobody but herself. There's always long-legged girls and bright-eyed boys in bars, and the freedom to flirt with whoever she wants is one of the great joys in life. Being tied down to one person, needing them, having to share her life with them – just not her, really, is it? Never has been.

Still, sometimes she wonders.

Bela reads The Life History of Robert Welles cover-to-coveron her first day in Switzerland. The rest of her fortnight in the Alps is divided between skiing, enjoying the combination of good French wine and good-looking ski instructors, and doing some online digging into the account Welles gives of how he escaped his contract.

It takes her nine days to accept that the evidence is overwhelming: Welles was a fake and a charlatan who fabricated his whole story.

She has two years and five days to live, and she's back at square one.

The last time Bela meets Ruby, she's twenty-four, with two months, one week, and three days to live.

It's three in the morning, and she's wending her way back to her flat in Queens after yet another day digging through museum archives and buying smug witches drinks in a futile attempt to find a solution to her problem. Her head is pounding and her throat is raw and it feels like there's crushed glass under her eyelids, and she just hopes to God (hah) that the anti-nightmare charms work this time.

Fitting the key to the lock takes a couple of tries – she's so fucking tired, can't remember the last time she got a good eight hours or even a passable five – and she punches in the code on muscle memory alone. Then she's inside, dumping her bag and coat on the floor, staggering toward the kitchen, debating making a sandwich, no, just a glass or two of the pinot grigio, that ought to hit the spot. Help her sleep, too, and all.

She flicks the light on and only just swallows her scream – because Ruby's sitting there, cool as you please. Larger than life in a red leather jacket and high-heeled boots, sprawled out long-limbed in one of Bela's kitchen chairs, head tilted expectantly, mouth quirking up in a half-smile. Her eyes are tar-black.

Bela grips the doorframe, hard enough it's cutting painfully into her palm, and swallows hard. Tries to sound calm, unafraid, not-to-be-fucked-with. "How did you get in here? I've got the place wrapped in every anti-demon ward I could –"

Ruby laughs aloud, throwing her head back in a ripple of gold hair. "Ways and means, honey, ways and means."

And that's just great. "What, has Lilith decided she can't wait to get her hands on me? Might I remind you, I had – have – a contract with your bitch of a boss, and the terms –"

In a single fluid motion, Ruby's on her feet. She blinks, and just like that, Bela's looking into the icy eyes of whatever poor girl that body once belonged to.(And, fuck, that makes her feel sick to her stomach, somehow these days she can't ignore any facet of exactly what demons are, the way she used to for the sake of sleeping at night.) "I'm not here on Lilith's say-so, Bela."

It's the first time Ruby's ever said her name, and that hits Bela in places it really shouldn't. She crosses her arms defensively across her chest, lifts her chin. "Then why the fuck are you here?"

"I have ... let's say, an anonymous tip-off. One that could get you out of that little deal of yours."

She's got that subtly predatory expression, the look Bela first saw on the little red-eyed girl she met at a crossroads in the Home Counties, and has seen more times than she cares to remember after that. Nothing about this situation is right, every instinct she has is screaming at her to tell Ruby to leave, and then grab her protective charms and salt and goofer dust and run.


Slow and reluctant, she says, "Start talking."

Ruby grins wide, all white teeth and flashing eyes. "You heard of Samuel Colt's magic gun, honey?"

"Non timebo mala. Of course I have." The 1835 revolver that can kill anything is a legend, a Holy Grail, among those who know of the world beneath the surface of the everyday, the world of witches and demons. There's been constant rumours and urban myths, but no reliable word of its whereabouts since 1944, when the last verified holder of the thing was shot down with his Spitfire over the Atlantic Ocean.

It's valuable beyond imagining – valuable enough, perhaps, for demons to break contracts, or to risk the wrath of Lilith, over it.

Suddenly Bela's heart is pounding so fast it's painful.

Whatever emotion slips past her poker face makes Ruby's grin even broader. "Well, what if I told you the Winchester brothers have the thing?"

"You're joking – those idiots?" The thought of Colt's priceless weapon in the hands of that pair of self-righteous amateurs would be hilarious if it wasn't so aggravating.

"'Fraid so. Wasted on them, honestly." Ruby digs a herbal cigarette out of her jacket pocket, lights up, takes a deep drag and exhales in Bela's direction, eyebrows raised. "Well, don't thank me, honey."

She ignores the cigarette – not like she needs to worry about passive smoking at this point. It's just about feasible the Winchesters somehow got hold of the 1835 Colt. Those two dunderheads seem to land themselves in more trouble than any other hunters she's ever known, and the elder brother in particular has the right kind of bloody-minded doggedness you'd need to track the thing down. So it's not that she thinks Ruby's information is obviously false, or even beyond the realms of possibility, that's not what's worrying her.

"And you're telling me this why, exactly?"

The demon's smile doesn't falter, not for a second, a perfect mask. "I have my reasons."

Bela's absolutely certain she won't like said reasons. Best case scenario, she'll steal the magic revolver and manage to barter her way out of her contract, only to find hellhounds at her door another ten years down the road, albeit sent by a different master. Worst case scenario – well, she can't really think how her current predicament could get any worse, but she's sure Lilith is much more imaginative.

"Do you really expect me to trust you? Do you think I'm stupid?" Because she'd have to be an idiot not to see that she's being used as a pawn in some impenetrable game of Hell-politics. Demons have been getting more and more restive these last few years, she's seen the evidence herself, and heard it from every source she has. Just her luck to get caught up in the middle of whatever bigger picture Ruby's working on.

Ruby shrugs, and walks out of the kitchen, smirking as she brushes past Bela. The charms and hex bags Bela set up don't even make her flinch – first order of business is going to be triple-checking all her protections – as she opens the door of the flat. She pauses with her hand on the door handle, looks back over her shoulder at Bela. "No, I don't think you're stupid. I think you've got no other choice."

Another heart-stopping smile, and she's gone.

As soon as she hears the click of the front door, Bela sits down, right where she is. She's trembling, feeling a little light-headed, and trying to make it to an actual chair seems a fool's errand at this point. Fingers pressing at her temples, she closes her eyes, forces her thoughts to coalesce and crystallise.

First things first, go through all the wards on the flat. Can't be too careful.

After that? Well. She's got a pair of brothers to find.