“Your spell’s a dud,” Jen informs Talbot as soon as she’s able to pick her jaw up off the ground. She gets out of the Flasher anyway, Talbot following suit.
The queen of Hell gives an ironic smile. “Have a little faith.”
Jen snorts. “You really think the First Blade is here?” She surveys the plot of land doubtfully. The little house in front of them is wooden- as in, better not huff and puff around it and say-good-bye-when-a-tornado-comes. The house has windows, and even more bizarrely, they’re open, despite the scorching heat. What it doesn’t have, though, are solar panels, and Jen doesn’t see any wind turbines in the unkempt, unnaturally green field next to the house either.
It’s the kind of place Jen’s only ever seen in pictures when history classes covered what civilization looked like before the Great Warming, before natural gases ran out and the weather turned into the enemy. She tends to like older things more than the next girl, but this place is so far beyond “old-fashioned” and “quaint” that it’s downright creepy.
“I think we’ll find what we’re looking for,” says Talbot.
Out of habit, Jen scowls at her. She doesn’t admit that maybe it would be fitting if the First Blade were hidden in a place that looked like it belonged in another millennium.
The one sign of modernity is the garage to the right of the house. It’s made of proper steel and doesn’t look like it will collapse inward at a strong breeze. At least, Jen assumes it’s a garage, even though it’s easily twice the size of the house. The house looks big enough for two people at most (it’s the size she used to imagine she and Kris could be comfortable in before they found the bunker, before she stopped letting herself daydream about settling down), but the garage could hold a dozen hovercrafts.
One of the doors is partway open. Jen can’t see far inside, but what’s parked nearest the entrance makes her do a double take: It’s a car. Not an ancient hovercraft but a real, honest-to-God car, like they made centuries ago and which now exist only in pictures and museums.
“It’s a 1967 Chevy Impala,” says Talbot, coming up behind her. The words are so foreign that it takes Jen a second to realize she’s naming a model.
“It’s a bit of a relic,” Talbot adds drily. “Not unlike yours.” There isn’t any spite in the words, but Jen still bristles. Sure the Flasher’s a little outdated, but a 47-year-old hovercraft in no way compares to a car from- Jen frowns. Wait. 1967? How is that even possible?
“Why is it here?” she asks, aware that there are much more important questions to be asking but settling on the simple one while she tries to wrap her mind around where they are. She thought the spell would bring them to a crypt or a dungeon or something. Not an archaic little homestead in the middle of nowhere South Dakota.
“Oh, masochistic nostalgia. Masochistic inability to let go of the past. Overcompensation. Take your pick.” Talbot starts toward the house. Jen waits for her stilettos to slip in the loose gravel, but sadly, the demon navigates the drive with ease. Jen strides after her in her own much more sensible boots.
“And,” says Talbot casually. “He probably still uses it.”
“Uses it?” Jen’s aware that she’s gawking, but she can’t help it. “What does it even run on?”
“Pigheadedness,” says Talbot.
“‘He’?” Jen repeats. “Who’s he? We’re here to get the First Blade!”
“Yes,” says Talbot. “And he can give it to us. Or tell us where it is.”
Talbot looks coolly at Jen, utterly unaffected by the hunter’s anger. “The First Blade is the weapon that Cain used to kill Abel. You do know who Cain and Abel are, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” says Jen. Christianity peaked a few centuries back, but she’d been familiar with that particular legend even before Cassie and her less-than-welcome brethren returned to Earth; not many people knew the origin of the names anymore, but Cain and Abel were still shorthand for family betrayal. She hadn’t read the actual verses in Genesis until a few years ago, though, after Michael claimed that their bloodline stretched back to Cain and Abel. Since then, Jen has done her best not to think about them; as far as adjectives in the family tree go, she likes “fratricidal” about as much as “biblical.”
“So?” says Jen, when Talbot just looks at her, like she’s waiting for a different reaction.
Talbot raises an eyebrow. “Who do you think wields the blade that killed Abel?”
For a minute Jen can only stare at her, refusing to believe the obvious answer. She waits for a stupid punch line, but the queen of Hell only looks at her impassively.
“That’s not…” Possible, she thinks, but doesn’t finish. Vaguely, she remembers something about God not letting Cain die as punishment for his crime. Her throat goes dry.
“What is he?” Somehow, she doesn’t think they’re about to drop in on a wizened, living corpse.
“After Cain killed Abel, he became a demon,” says Talbot.
“What do you mean ‘became a demon’?”
But Talbot ignores her and walks up the porch steps to the door.
Despite her best efforts to stay calm, despite the fury that seems to be always right below the surface these days, fueling her when she needs it to, Jen feels her stomach bunch into knots. They’re supposed to be through with evil, fratricidal, biblical maniacs. She doesn’t want to deal with another; not now, not ever.
What she does want is Kris. She wants her sister here so badly it’s all she can do not to call her this second.
But she can’t have Kris. Kris doesn’t want anything to do with her. And she can’t have Cassie either. Cassie’s busy fighting angels or leading angels or doing whatever the hell she thinks will fix Heaven this time.
Jen forces herself to take a deep breath. She doesn’t have time to feel sorry for herself. And there’s no reason to be scared. It’s not like Cain can be worse than Lucifer.
Clenching her fists, she marches up the stairs to Talbot. “You could have warned me!”
“I could have,” Talbot agrees, and raises her own fist to give the door several sharp raps.
Jen doesn’t realize she’s holding her breath until a minute passes and no one answers. She exhales, hoping it’s not obvious. “Maybe you should call ahead next time, jackass.”
Talbot doesn’t even roll her eyes. Nor does she look remotely defeated. In fact, there’s an air of excitement about her that Jen isn’t used to seeing. Smug delight, sure, but the sparkle in Talbot’s eyes goes beyond her usual superciliousness. Jen had noticed it on the flight here, too, but she’d assumed Talbot was just excited to get the First Blade and finally have a way to defeat Adam. Now she wonders just what the Blade’s owner has to do with that sparkle.
Talbot turns, staring past Jen’s shoulder. Jen turns, too, and doesn’t have to ask.
They walk to the garage in silence. As they get closer, Jen hears clinking sounds coming from inside. She’s filled, suddenly, with visions of torture: victims writhing on racks, their chains clinking but their screams silent, a skeletal figure bending over them with a knife-
The image is too vivid, skirting the fine line between imagination and memory. Jen can’t keep from stopping short a few feet away; she doesn’t want to see what’s inside Cain’s garage.
“Buck up, Pinky. Don’t go all wibbly-lipped on me now,” whispers Talbot.
Before Jen can retort, Talbot strides inside.
Jen curses. And follows.
To her relief, and no little surprise, the garage is filled not with implements of torture but with hovercrafts. Vehicles, to be more precise; here and there she spots more ancient cars that have never and will never lift off the ground; even the hovercrafts here are unusually old; her Flasher would fit right in. There are about a dozen vehicles altogether, and they vary in condition from good-as-new-looking to veritable scrap metal. Three are on blocks, clearly works in progress.
There’s no sign of Cain in the garage, and for a second Jen thinks that they’ll be able to search for the Blade without ever having to talk to its owner himself. But then there’s a scraping sound, and a man slides out from under a Zoomer from the 50s.
The man stares up at them without moving, one arm half-outstretched, holding a wrench; Jen guesses the clinking sounds were from his tooling the Zoomer’s underside. His face is oddly expressionless- he’s not surprised to see them, she realizes, and it makes her stomach clench. Could he sense them? She has no idea what Cain’s powers are, what he’s capable of- he’s the oldest demon she’s ever heard of, so it stands to reason that he’d also be the most powerful. More than ever she wants to strangle Talbot.
“Hello, darling,” says Talbot. Despite the sardonic tone, the smile that lights up the demon’s face looks completely genuine. “Did you miss me?”
Cain looks at her for so long, expression still inscrutable, that Jen feels her shoulders loosen despite herself. If only all demon confrontations were this anticlimactic. She’s about to whisper cattily that he doesn’t seem to remember her when Cain finally clears his throat.
“Bela, don’t take this the wrong way: If I’d wanted to see you, I would’ve looked you up a few centuries ago.”
If Talbot weren’t the only other person there, Jen wouldn’t have realized whom he was addressing. It’s just plain weird to hear Talbot called by her first name. What’s even weirder- in the best of ways- is how Talbot’s smile vanishes. Jen has seen her lose her composure in tight situations before but emotional vulnerability? Jen’s only seen that during Talbot’s junkie phase, so it doesn’t really count.
So Talbot and Cain have history. She can’t wait to tell Kris-
Except Kris probably wouldn’t care. Not if the news came from Jen.
“Don’t worry,” says Talbot, drawing Jen from her self-pity; the demon’s usual patronizing tone is back. “I wasn’t holding my breath.”
Cain opens his mouth but then seems to think better of it. He gets up from his slide, and if Jen didn’t know better, she’d say there was a trace of regret on his face. But then he’s looking at her instead of Talbot, and the blankness returns, his features swept clean of human emotion.
The intensity of his gaze makes her want to step back- far, far back- but she stands her ground and takes a good long look of her own. He’s younger than she would have expected; he looks like he’s in his mid to late thirties, not much older than Jen is. He’s solidly built, muscles evident even under the worn plaid flannel and faded jeans he’s wearing, and he’s tall, at least six feet. His hair is light, sandy brown and reaches his shoulders. He has a huge beard to match, one that looks unintentional in its scruffiness, like he forgot to shave for weeks or just couldn’t be bothered. His massive quantities of hair don’t hide a surprising number of freckles, though, or lips that are way too lush for whatever kind of monster he is.
He’s actually not bad looking for a guy, if hairy is your type. He's certainly not bad looking for a demon as old as time. The only feature that doesn’t quite suit is the cut of his hair- it’s too long and uneven; it reminds Jen of people who get their hair cut to look like certain celebrities, even though it doesn’t suit them.
Eventually, she meets his gaze. His eyes are a clear, almost pretty green. In fact, all of him would be really pretty, if it weren’t for the cold vacancy with which he looks at her. There’s a hardness about him that isn’t natural; isn’t human. He’s a nice-looking package, but there’s no warmth inside. His scrutiny makes her itch to pull out Ruben’s knife, but instinctively, she knows that making any sudden moves around Cain would not be in her best interest.
She doesn’t want him to think he frightens her, though, so she gives a curt nod, like he’s any other new acquaintance. “Cain.”
It feels odd to say his name just like that, like he isn’t a Big Bad of mythological proportion. From the way his eyebrows lift, he’s not used to being so plainly addressed either.
He glances at Talbot. “What’s this?”
Jen lets her lip curl. “I’m not a what. I’m-”
“You’re Jennifer Swan,” says Cain dispassionately.
She tries not to look rattled that Cain recognizes her on sight. “It’s Jen.”
“Yeah, I don’t care.” Cain turns to Talbot. “What is she doing here? What are you doing here? How did you find me?”
“You know, it’s generally polite to offer your guests some refreshment before you start interrogating them,” says Talbot.
“It’s generally polite to call ahead,” he shoots back. Jen starts at the echo of her own words.
Talbot throws her an indecipherable look before saying, “You’ll have to excuse his rough edges. His better half isn’t here anymore.”
It’s hardly the most threatening snarl Jen’s ever heard, but to her surprise, Talbot subsides. Jen looks at her curiously. Who the hell is Cain’s better half?
“How did you find me?” Cain repeats. After a moment of Talbot just looking at him, eyebrows arched, he huffs out a snort and rolls his eyes; it’s a surprisingly human-looking reaction. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, come on, Pinky.” Talbot’s voice comes out low, without its usual humor.
Jen starts again, and this time, she flushes, just a bit. She tries not to look nonplussed or, god forbid, offended, but it’s strange to hear Talbot call someone else the nickname that’s been hers since the day they had the misfortune of meeting.
“Ruler of Hell brings the biggest pain-in-the-ass hunter to see-” Talbot pauses. “You? Why do you think I’m here?”
His eyes harden. “No.”
It’s more growl than word, and Jen’s fingers twitch automatically for her knife.
Talbot doesn’t flinch. “It’s needed.”
“I said no.”
“Hey!” Cain looks at her, and Jen makes her own voice into a growl. “We came here for the First Blade, and we’re not leaving without it, whether you like it or not.”
She half expects him to hit her or blast her with demon magic, but instead his lips curve ever so slightly. It’s not nearly a smile, but it’s also not…well, not really evil. “You’re brave, little girl. I’ll give you that. But you’re not getting it. I’m retired.”
“Retired?” Jen repeats. “What, you retired from being evil?”
His right arm makes a sudden, aborted movement, like her words have struck a nerve. Jen tenses, but all he does is make a fist at his side.
She eyes it before adding sarcastically, “Wow, I wish more demons did that. Would make my job a helluva lot easier.” She throws a scathing glance toward Talbot, who simply rolls her eyes.
“From all of it,” says Cain stiffly.
Well isn’t that just peachy for him. Jen gathers herself, lets her own fists clench. She doesn’t have Kris, but she still has her bravado; that’s all she has.
“Good for you,” she snaps. “How’s that working out? The dentures and adult diapers fitting all right?”
Cain’s eyebrows shoot up. “You’re a complete brat.” But it’s mildly said. Now he seems surprised.
“Remind you of anyone?” says Talbot.
Jen doesn’t have time to wonder what the hell she’s talking about. “But while you’re out to pasture, there’s still a war going on, and the First Blade is what’s gonna win it.”
“We’re up against a Knight of Hell. The Blade is the only thing that can kill Adam, so you have to-”
“What did you say?”
Jen pauses, more confused by his sudden ferocity than unnerved. “Uh. We’re facing a Knight-”
“Did you say Adam?”
“Yeah. Knight of Hell. I take it you’ve heard of him?”
But Cain is looking at Talbot now, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that there’s some sort of silent communication going on, despite the fact that Cain’s frozen. If Jen thought he was motionless when he first saw them, it’s nothing compared to his stillness now; he might as well be a statue. Then, suddenly, his hand moves, too fast for Jen to react-
But it’s nothing threatening. He just clutches something against his chest. She hadn’t noticed it before and it’s hidden in his palm now, but she sees a cord stretching out of his fist to wrap around his neck.
The only other sign of life is a tic in his jaw. And in his eyes- they’re burning with hatred.
But not for Talbot, whose eyebrow is quirked and who looks deadly, uncharacteristically serious as she stares back at him.
Jen clears her throat. “So you’ve heard of him.”
It’s another long moment before Cain stirs and looks at her. “No.” But she knows he’s not referring to Adam. “I’m retired.” It sounds wooden; like a recitation. He lets go of the necklace, and Jen zeroes in on a small, ugly amulet. “Leave now.”
“What?” Fuck that. He can say no all he wants, but she recognizes the look in his eyes- he wants blood as much as she does.
“You don’t understand-”
“Believe me, I understand perfectly. And the answer is still no.”
“I’m not asking you to un-retire- you can keep fixing your fossils!” Jen jabs a finger toward the outdated, outlandish cars. “I’ll handle Adam! Just give me the Blade!”
Confusion flickers across his face. He throws Talbot an irritated glance. “That’s not how it works!”
“What do you mean that’s not how it-”
“I’m not helping you. This isn’t a negotiation.”
“What are you?” Jen sneers. “Scared of him?”
Talbot lets out a muted gasp. That, more than anything, tells Jen she’s gone too far. She grabs her knife hilt, not caring that he can see.
But Cain regards her levelly. “The First Blade is staying where it is. As am I. Now. I have errands to run. Get out.”
He tosses the wrench to the ground and brushes past Talbot. Jen wheels around to watch him go straight to the car- Impala- and get in. She can’t believe her ears when it starts, or her eyes when it peels out of the garage. Only when it’s disappeared down the road out of sight does she look back at Talbot.
Un-freaking-believable, Jen wants to say. Except the demon isn’t a friend; they don’t commiserate.
“So,” says Talbot, her tone mild. “Now what?”
Jen snorts. “Now we search the house and find what’s ours.”
* * *
The inside of Cain’s house is less antiquated than the outside. Marginally, anyway. There’s a replicator in the kitchen- an older model, but food is food- and half of one wall is taken up by a Screen, like in any normal house; the worn couch and condensation stains on the coffee table indicate it’s well used. But the kitchen also holds outdated appliances Jen’s only ever seen in museums, and all around the living room are books- physical books with actual pages. And so many of them. Jen doesn’t think she’s ever seen this many books in one place before. She wishes Kris could see it and plans to sneak a few photos with her phone when Talbot’s back is turned.
“So you and Cain. What’s that story?” she asks as she starts pulling out couch cushions. She doubts Cain sits on the Blade, but it doesn’t hurt to be thorough.
“There is no story.”
“Right.” Jen rolls her eyes. “And I’m a Martian.”
“You look like one.” Talbot bends over a drawer in an end table, so she doesn’t see Jen’s smirk. There’s a nerve here to be touched if that’s the best Talbot can come up with.
“What’d he do, love you and leave you? Or just leave you?”
Talbot closes the drawer with a sharp thud. “I’m not your bestie, Swan. And this isn’t a school-girl sleepover. I’m going to the study. You keep looking here.”
* * *
Talbot looks up from a book she’s perusing. She’s sitting at Cain’s desk in his study, which is filled with piles and piles of even more books, and there’s no little distraction in her eyes as she focuses on Jen in the doorway. Jen wants to point out that this doesn’t look like searching, but she knows it would be a waste of breath.
“What?” says the demon.
“He’s gay, right? That’s it? Doesn’t fly your side of the space corridor?”
Talbot stares at her. “What are you on about, Pinky?”
Jen holds up the photo frame she found on Cain’s bedside table. “This his boyfriend? His better half?”
Talbot goes very still. “Where did you get that?”
Jen glances at the photo, like something new might have appeared there to explain Talbot’s wide eyes and sudden pallor. The picture’s existence itself is weird, like half the objects in this house (why print a photo that could get stained or torn when you could use a digiframe instead?), but the photo itself seems innocuous. It’s Cain with another man, one a few inches taller with shaggy brown hair, friendly brown eyes, and the kind of dimples that would make even Jen look twice. He’s not holding hands with Cain or hugging him or anything, but Jen thinks they’re standing just slightly too close together to be just friends. Even more revealing is Cain’s matching smile; it’s a full-on, pearly white grin, and it’s amazing what a difference it makes. He looks younger; happy. He looks human.
“It was in his bedroom,” says Jen. “Why, who is it?” Clearly, Shaggy means something to Talbot as well as Cain.
“You went in his-” Talbot breaks off, the ridiculousness of the question apparently cutting through her outrage. Jen smirks; no history her ass.
“Who is it?” she repeats.
Talbot hesitates. “It’s someone who’s been gone a long time.”
Jen rolls her eyes. “Kind of figured that.” She studies the photo again and realizes whose hair Cain is imitating. Then she notices the amulet lying against Cain’s chest; it’s the same one he was wearing in the flesh.
“What did he really mean when he said he was retired?”
“It meant he gave up.”
Talbot gets up and grabs the photo before Jen can react. She stalks past her out of the study. “Everything.”
* * *
When he gets back, Cain doesn’t look the tiniest bit surprised to find them in his living room.
“Have fun?” he asks, walking past them into the kitchen. Jen’s on his heels as he dumps grocery bags on the counter.
“No,” she snaps, too frustrated to be maintain any semblance of calm; she finally found the thermo system in his laundry room a few minutes ago and turned on the air and closed his windows, but the house hasn’t cooled off yet, and she’s so sticky with sweat from tearing this place apart that she feels like she needs a shower. Who doesn’t use the AC in 110+ degree weather? Dumbass demon.
“Where is it?”
“Made yourself at home, I see,” says Cain, and she guesses he means the AC.
“We’re still waiting on the refreshments,” says Talbot.
Cain rolls his eyes and turns. But instead of heading for the hall and ditching them again, he goes to the replicator.
“Tea, Earl Grey, one sugar.”
The replicator spits out a steaming mug. Cain picks it up with a carefulness that belies his usual coarseness, so that nothing sloshes over the rim, and carries it back over to Talbot. He pauses with his arm half-outstretched, though. His beard doesn’t cover the pink spots that appear on his cheeks.
“Do you still…” he says awkwardly.
“Yes, that’s fine.” Talbot wears another genuine smile as she takes the mug, and there’s a matching flush in her cheeks as she blows on it. Jen hasn’t crossed paths with many old married couples over the years, but whatever’s between Cain and Talbot feels like a similar vibe. They certainly have the bickering part down pat, but there are also these moments of uncharacteristic gentleness and startling familiarity. It makes her wonder even more who Cain’s “better half” is. She’d pry if she weren’t so utterly pissed off.
“Cain,” she tries for the umpteenth time.
“Want one?” He pulls a six-pack from one of the bags.
Jen can only stare. The first murderer in human history is offering her beer.
To tell the truth, she could really use one right about now.
“Yeah, fine,” she says impatiently and grabs it. “About the Blade-”
“You brought company,” says Talbot suddenly, her head cocked. After a moment of straining, Jen’s human ears pick it up, too; there’s a whir in the air that can only be from hovercrafts.
“Not mine,” says Cain, as Jen swears; she doesn’t need his confirmation to know that Cain’s little plot of ancient history doesn’t get many visitors. “Yours.”
Abandoning her drink, Jen dashes back to the front of the house and peeks out the window through the curtains. Three crafts have just pulled over the drive, and demons are alighting, close to a dozen.
Talbot joins her at the window. “They’re Adam’s.”
“They followed you?” Jen hisses.
“Don’t look at me. Maybe if you didn’t drive an antique you’d be harder to tail!”
“It’s three to ten- ish- but we can take them-”
“Two to ten,” says Cain, and Jen whirls to face him. As she stares in disbelief, he twists the cap off a second bottle. He raises it toward her in mockery of a toast. “Retired.”
“Listen, you motherf-”
But she doesn’t get to finish because the door’s just been flung open, and knife now, talk later-
* * *
Jen stumbles back into the kitchen in time to hear, “-up to while you’ve been hiding?”
There’s a bite to the last word, but if Cain hears it, he doesn’t react. “I tried bee-keeping.” He smiles mirthlessly, but Jen doesn’t understand the joke. “Didn’t suit me.”
Like a beast with the two most annoying heads ever, they turn to her simultaneously, heads cocked as though to say, Finally?
Jen briefly considers using the knife on the pair of them.
“What the hell was that?”
“What was what?” says Talbot.
“You- we are supposed to be in this together! You just stood there!”
“I killed one.”
“Out of ten! And then you just stood there-”
“I had some catching up to do with an old friend.”
“Oh, friend, yeah, because that’s what you two are, clearly-”
“You got them, and that’s what matters,” says Talbot smoothly. “Well done. Didn’t need me to help tilt the scales.”
“Scales? What…” Jen stares between them, realization dawning. “Was that a test?” She’s almost too incensed to speak, but it doesn’t keep her from noticing that Cain doesn’t look nearly as smug as Talbot; not by a long shot.
“Yes, dear, and you passed with top marks. Congratulations.” Her approval is genuine, which should be worrisome in and of itself, but Jen’s past caring at this point; and even if she weren’t, it’s obvious that Talbot’s gloating is aimed at Cain. The fact that Talbot is so clearly using her in their lovers’ spat only fuels her fury.
“Yay me,” she snarls. “So give me my prize!”
“I told you,” says Cain through gritted teeth. “I’m-”
“I’m not asking for your help! Just give me the Blade!” She thrusts out her hand.
Cain’s eyes follow the movement and stay; instead of scoffing or refusing or plain old walking away again, he stares at her forearm as though transfixed. Jen checks to see if there’s something there, like a bug she can’t feel. She stripped down to her tank top when searching, but there’s nothing out of the ordinary about her bare arm.
The scrutiny is starting to make her uncomfortable, as well as annoyed. “Cain!”
It’s a decently authoritative bark, but he still doesn’t react. Reflexively, Jen looks at Talbot. The demon steps closer to him, well into what Jen would consider personal bubble space, and touches his arm.
Jen wouldn’t say Cain jumps, but he definitely starts. It’s enough to make Talbot’s fingers curl away. She stands there awkwardly, not quite touching him, and Jen thinks that if these two weren’t evil demons, it might be a little sad.
“Dear,” says Talbot softly, and it’s a very different ‘dear’ than the one she just used on Jen.
“You shouldn’t have come.” But instead of angry he sounds almost pained- with a tinge of longing.
“It was time,” says Talbot, still gently but with unmistakable force. “And it’s time for you to talk about it. There’s a pattern, darling. Surely you’ve noticed.”
It occurs to Jen for the first time that Talbot never addresses Cain by name. She doesn’t understand anything else Talbot just said either. If Cain does, he doesn’t show it. Jen looks at him, and he looks at her arm, and when his eyes snap up to hers it’s so sudden that she can’t keep from flinching.
“I don’t have it.”
It’s so blunt and resigned that it takes Jen a moment to comprehend; it’s the first time he’s spoken to her without sarcasm or anger or like he’s amused by some joke she doesn’t understand.
“What do you mean you don’t have it?” she echoes, trying to stay commanding but just sounding confused. “The spell took us here.”
Cain sighs. “Essence of Kraken?”
Jen knows the surprise on her face is sufficient answer.
“That spell takes you to the source of the Blade’s power. Me.”
He casts a reluctant look toward Talbot before rolling up his right shirtsleeve. On his forearm right beneath his elbow is a pattern of ugly red welts: one long curved figure extends over two teardrops. It looks like a brand of some sort.
Cain does a double take. “Really?” He looks again at Talbot, this time like she’s pulling his leg.
Talbot shrugs. “Christianity’s not what it used to be. Flying Spaghetti Monster really caught on. If you didn’t have your tail between your legs, you might have realized that.”
Jen winces, but Cain’s brow just furrows. He gives Talbot a long, searching glance before telling Jen, “It’s the Mark of Cain. The Mark and the Blade work together. Without the Mark, the Blade is useless. It’s just an old bone.” He yanks his sleeve back down.
“Okay…” says Jen, and notes that Talbot doesn’t look at all surprised by this information. “Then where’s the bone? Blade? If we get it back, you could use it-”
“I’m not using it.”
“What? Why not?” Are they back to his I’m retired shit? She tries to stay calm, seeing as how he’s finally talking to them at least. “You clearly have a bone to pick with Adam, so pick it!”
Cain frowns again. Talbot pinches the bridge of her nose, like Jen is an embarrassment.
Jen tries not to look sulky. If Kris were here she totally would have laughed at that.
“No,” says Cain.
Her temper flares. “But you have to! If you’re the only one who can use it-”
“He’s not,” says Talbot suddenly.
“The Mark can be transferred to someone who’s worthy of it.” Talbot looks at Jen.
“Worthy- oh. You mean a killer.” Jen looks between them, comprehension dawning. “That’s what the test was about? To see if I’m killer enough to hack it?”
Neither of them answers, but Jen thinks there’s a glint of approval in Talbot’s green eyes.
“Well, I think my work speaks for itself.” Jen gestures at the dead bodies all around the living room. “Give it to me.”
Cain hesitates. “No.”
“I passed your test!”
“It wasn’t mine! I can’t-!” But he breaks off and just glowers at Talbot, seething in a way that’s different from all his previous outbursts; this feels personal.
“You can give her the Mark,” says Talbot just as fiercely, her earlier gentleness forgotten. “That wasn’t your promise!”
“What promise?” Jen demands, when Cain just keeps glaring. He ignores her. “Let me guess. It was a promise to Shaggy.”
That gets Cain’s attention. He blinks at her, genuinely confused. “Who?”
Unexpectedly, Talbot laughs; it sounds out of place in the tense kitchen. “I suppose that makes you Scooby.”
“Who?” says Jen.
“What?” says Cain.
Talbot brushes past them into the living room, stepping casually over the corpses in her way, and picks up something out of their line of sight. When Jen follows, she realizes it’s the photo she filched from Cain’s bedroom.
“Where did you- give me that!” Cain’s voice is so angry, and so close to her ear, that Jen can’t keep from jumping. She stumbles against an old wooden desk when he pushes past her to grab the photo. He glowers at them both, and Jen feels a pang of alarm that this is the random, invisible line they’ll be evicted for crossing.
“Who was he?” she blurts, before Cain can yell at them. “Your boyfriend?”
It works; at least, from the way his forehead creases, it seems to change whatever he was going to say. “No.”
It’s curt, even for Cain.
Jen’s not sure she believes him; from the body language in the photo they are definitely more than friends. Jen thinks of whom she would pose like that with other than a lover and the only one is Kris; but Shaggy can’t be Cain’s brother because (a) Cain killed him, and (b) while Jen’s biblical knowledge might not meet Cain’s standards, she for sure knows that cameras didn’t exist back when Abel was still alive.
She looks at Talbot, but as before, the demon’s not giving anything away. “You retired because of him,” says Jen finally. “You promised him you’d stop killing.”
Cain doesn’t answer, but his eyes drop to the photo, which is really all the answer that Jen needs.
“Look, I’m…” She takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry for whatever happened to your…guy. But we need to kill Adam. You don’t know what he’s capable of-”
Cain’s head jerks up. His teeth are bared. “I know exactly what he’s capable of!” He grips the frame so tightly Jen’s surprised it doesn’t break.
Oh. Jen hesitates. “He killed Shaggy?”
Cain’s gaze slowly lowers back toward Shaggy’s image. It’s not really a nod, but it might as well be.
Jen feels the breath rush from her. “So give me the Mark, and let me kill him!”
“It’s not that simple.” He still sounds angry, but the pain is back, too.
“He didn’t want me to use the Blade! If I give you the Mark I’ll just be…” Cain grits his teeth. “Having you do my dirty work for me.”
He doesn’t say it rudely, but it’s an insult all the same. Jen feels her face redden, but she doesn’t know how to respond. Her reasons for wanting to kill Adam have nothing to do with Cain’s, so it wouldn’t be his dirty work; but she can’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that it would be Talbot’s. Talbot, who came up with this plan in the first place, who talked grandly about sharing common goals with Jen but really just needs Adam dead so she can clinch the throne for herself.
You’ll kill her, Jen reminds herself. You’re not handing Hell to her on a silver platter because after you’ve killed Adam, you’ll kill Talbot, too.
But that prospect doesn’t help much in the short-term, so she asks, as a distraction as much as because she’s curious, “Why didn’t Shaggy want you to use the Blade?”
Cain doesn’t respond. His brooding sullenness has returned, and while it’s encouraging that he hasn’t told them again to leave, Jen knows not to expect any more freebies.
“Was he a demon?” she tries instead. She might not have Kris’s finesse when it comes to coaxing stories from reluctant witnesses, but she still knows that a different angle might get her the information she really wants. And besides, she’s genuinely curious; she can’t picture a human falling for Cain, but she also can’t believe a demon would convince another to stop killing.
Sure enough, it gets Cain’s attention. “No. He was human.” His lips purse and he gives a half-shrug. “Mostly. He drank my- I gave him my blood. It let him live.”
“You dosed him?” It comes out flat and hard. She can’t keep from thinking of Kris and what she would say if she were here. She also can’t ignore the whispers in the back of her head about stones and glass houses, but that doesn’t stop her from glaring at Cain with new dislike.
“No.” Strangely, Cain looks appalled by the thought. “He wanted to.” Cain pauses. “He was willing to. In order to stay with me.”
“To stay with you?”
Cain bows his head again and doesn’t speak. There’s so much naked longing on his face as he looks at the photo that it almost makes Jen uncomfortable.
“It sounds like he was a great, um…pal,” she says awkwardly. Talbot snorts. “And a decent guy. Awesome intentions. But…” God she could use Kris’s tact right about now. “I’m sure he’d want you to avenge his death!”
“No, he didn’t!”
“Why the hell not?” Jen’s painfully aware that she’s on the verge of whining, and she hates it, but she’s reaching the end of her tether. She’s tried yelling and ordering and cajoling, and now she’s tried sympathizing with him, and the mercurial bastard is still running her around in circles. She’s embarrassingly close to throwing her hands up and yelling at Talbot to deal with him. As it is, she can’t keep from throwing the demon an irritated, helpless look.
“It’s a valid question,” Talbot prods, with more patience than Jen thought she possessed.
“Not if it’s none of her business!"
“You got an explanation, didn’t you?” She waits for his disgruntled look of tacit, unwilling acknowledgment. “Pattern.”
“Only because you’re making it one!”
An enigmatic smirk stretches Talbot’s lips.
Jen is still waiting for a sly retort when Cain lets out an irritated huff and moves to the couch, where he seems not so much to sit as to collapse. Talbot brightens, even though he hasn’t spoken, and sweeps past him to sit as well, much more gracefully. Jen sidles closer and leans against a table a little to their right. She feels gratified when Cain shifts toward her.
He rubs his unshaven jaw, clearly mulling over what to say. Jen wonders how long it’s been since he’s talked about…well, whatever he’s going to tell her. Despite all his belligerence and bellyaching, he hasn’t made them leave, and instinct tells her he could if he wanted to. So she can’t help wondering- hoping- that maybe, subconsciously, he wants this, too; maybe he wants to be convinced.
Finally, Cain looks at her. “What do you know about Adam?” He glances at Talbot, but the demon is poker-faced again. Annoyance surges through Jen; clearly Talbot is keeping more secrets from her.
“Knight of Hell,” she says brusquely. “Created by Lucifer.”
“Yes…but before that he was- we knew him. He and…” Cain grimaces. “Shaggy got trapped in the same place. Sa- Shaggy got out. Adam didn’t. And that’s how Lucifer got hold of him and was able to…twist him. Turn him into what he is now.”
What he is now. Which implies that before he was something else- something maybe not evil? Of course Jen knows that all demons were former humans, but it’s still mind-boggling to think that Adam was once anything other than a vicious, power-hungry monster.
“Adam blamed us,” Cain continues. “When he got out I wanted to kill him, but Shaggy thought we could…”
“What, rehabilitate him?” It’s a joke, kind of, but his grave look turns even dourer. Jen stares. “Seriously? Bang up job on that!”
Before Cain can retort Talbot says softly, “In Shaggy’s defense, it had worked before. Isn’t that right, dear?”
Cain’s glower returns in full force.
“Who can blame him for wanting two for two?”
That reminds Jen. “Was it your fault? Was he right to blame you?”
Cain’s face hardens. He looks back down at the photo. “Yes.”
Jen pushes off the desk. “So clean up your mess! Either kill him or let me do it!”
As usual, her fury has absolutely no effect on Cain, who looks at her stony-faced, like she’s nothing more than a toddler having a tantrum. She does throw up her hands this time and give Talbot the “he’s all yours” glare.
Talbot looks unsurprised, like she was expecting it to reach this point. She angles herself further toward Cain. “I know you don’t want to be involved. But that’s not realistic anymore. You, more than anyone, know what Adam is capable of. He’s back, and he intends to stay. He’s trying to take over Hell.” Her reasonable tone wobbles a little at that, anger spilling into the words. “He’s calling himself king. He’s trying to take my throne.”
“And how is that my problem?” says Cain.
In an instant, Talbot’s coaxing calm turns to naked shock. Color seeps blotchily across her face. Jen doesn’t think she’s ever seen Talbot this embarrassed, not even when she was jonesing for human blood. She looks like a jilted one-night-stand far more than a queen. If Jen weren’t so angry, she’d be sniggering.
Her amusement abruptly dies when Talbot slaps Cain across the face.
Jen has seen Talbot lose her temper before- she vividly recalls Talbot’s fury that time she caught a demon collecting early on deals- but never quite like this. Jen doesn’t know what she gets up to downstairs, but Talbot’s topside shows of force are typically via spell or henchmen; even when she does kill with her bare hands, it’s always business-like- ruthless and purposeful, never uncontrolled. Talbot’s always acted too refined for pure and simple physical violence, like she’s above it all. Jen’s not sure she can remember Talbot ever even hitting her.
A long moment passes in silence before Talbot hisses, “Think of it as alimony.”
Cain stares at her. He looks shocked rather than angry, but Jen still feels a flicker of apprehension, followed by confusion. If Cain retaliates…whose side is she supposed to take?
Slowly, like he’s not even aware he’s doing it, Cain’s hand drifts to his face. He rubs his cheek and jaw, still staring at her. He might even look a little impressed.
“If you won’t help me,” Talbot begins, and her voice trembles just a bit; she’s so tense that her knuckles are white where she clutches her knees, like she has to occupy her hands to keep from hitting him again. “Help all the people who are going to get in his way.”
Cain finally shakes from his trance. “What are you talking about?”
“He’s going to come after you eventually. You know that.” Gone is her odd patience and back is the regal scorn that Jen’s all too familiar with. “Sooner or later you’re going to have to fight him.”
“So I’ll wait,” says Cain, without the slightest hint of concern. “And whatever happens…” He shrugs.
Talbot sneers. “How enlightened! And how many demons will die before he gets to you? They used to be yours. But I guess that never meant anything to you, did it. How about the humans then? How many do you think Adam and his cronies will kill? Just for fun? That would have mattered, once upon a time. What was it, saving people, hunting things?”
Jen goes rigid. What does the Swan family motto have to do with Cain?
“Or do you not even remember what it’s like to care about anyone who isn’t Sam-”
“Enough!” His roar is loud enough to make Jen flinch, but she doesn’t miss his flinch, or the fact that he sounds like a wounded animal.
“No!” Talbot’s volume rises to match his. “You don’t get to tell me what’s enough! Not after what you did!” With a thrill of alarm, Jen realizes she’s blinking back tears- Talbot.
Never in a million years would she have expected their search for the First Blade to lead to a scene like this. For the first time Jen feels uncomfortable, like she’s intruding on something private. She looks at the photo so she doesn’t have to look at them. So Shaggy has a name. It suits him; he looks like a Sam.
“I did what I had to do,” says Cain, but it’s not aggressive. In fact, he’s very quiet now; he sounds almost guilty.
“You did a lot more than that.”
“I locked him up.”
“You locked them all up.”
“Because leaving me topside alone was so much more noble?”
Cain’s eyes drop to his lap yet again, but this time, Jen suspects it’s less about Sam and more about avoiding Talbot. He doesn’t speak.
It’s probably insensitive, but Jen can’t keep from asking; she has to make sure she’s hearing right. “You closed Hell?”
It’s pathetic how grateful Cain looks for the question. Jen thinks grumpily of his earlier reticence; clearly she should have tried to get them to start fighting sooner.
“Not officially,” says Cain quickly. “That requires specific Trials. And…demons can’t do them.” He sounds disgruntled enough that Jen guesses he’s speaking from experience. Which, what?
“Trials? You mean like kill a hellhound and bathe in its blood, save an innocent soul from Hell, etc?”
“You know about those?” Cain stares at her. “How? The tablets were destroyed.”
“Do not encourage her!”
“The ones with the instructions.”
“And they weren’t backed up?”
His brow furrows. “What?”
“Oh for God’s- they had a prophet!” Talbot snaps. “That’s how they found out!”
Bile rises in Jen’s throat, sharp and hot. She glares at Talbot, even though Kenna’s death is one of the few things Talbot isn’t responsible for.
“You do? You- did?” Cain falters. “Oh. Uh, about Hell: I couldn’t do the Trials, but I did what I could. It lasted a few centuries.”
It’s not often that Jen finds herself at a loss for words. “Good for you” is on the tip of her tongue- mostly just to make Talbot’s head explode- but it won’t come out; she’s having a hard time reconciling Cain, evil fratricidal murderer, with someone who would close Hell.
“You had no right!”
Cain whips back to Talbot. “I had every right! I was king!”
“And you gave up that right when you abandoned them. When you abandoned-”
She cuts herself off, but it’s too late. The silence is paralyzing. Jen finds herself holding her breath as she stares between them. This is better than Professor Sexy.
“I didn’t- I couldn’t stay. Not after…” Cain swallows visibly. “I had to lock Hell! I couldn’t leave and give them free reign on Earth. It would have undone everything we worked for!” There’s a tinge of desperation to his voice that Jen hasn’t heard yet; for all his standoffish posturing when they first showed up in his garage, it’s obvious that he wants Talbot to not hate him.
“I could have slaughtered them all just to end it. You know I could have. But I promised not to use the Blade, so what else was I supposed to do?”
“You could have trusted me!”
Cain’s mouth opens. Nothing comes out.
His gaze eventually lowers. Maybe it’s just cause he’s sitting, but Jen thinks his shoulders are slumped lower than they’ve been all afternoon.
She really can’t wait to tell Kris. Like, one-second-away-from-texting-her-about-it can’t wait to tell her. For a story this big, she’ll have to be willing to call truce on the silent treatment.
That thought sobers her, which makes it easier to focus. Entertaining as this all is, they still haven’t gotten what they came for.
She clears her throat. “So, back to Adam…”
Cain slowly turns to her, and if possible, the lines etched around his eyes and mouth grow even deeper. He seems to have aged ten years in the last few hours; ‘haggard’ suits him better now than ‘pretty.’ Talbot looks past her out the window, her eyes red but dry. In stark contrast, Jen feels more optimistic now than she has all afternoon; she doubts Talbot intended to go hysterical, especially in front of Jen of all people, but it’s had the welcome effect of wearing Cain out- and, hopefully, down.
She redoubles, firm: “Much as I truly hate to say it, Talbot’s right. He’s going to kill people. He’s already killing people. And worse.” Her gut clenches as she remembers what Kenna saw in her visions. She can’t keep her voice from shaking. “He’s stealing souls. He’s turning people into demons.”
She says it out of horror rather than because she expects a reaction, but Cain stiffens. For a second all Jen can think of is Talbot’s disgust when she found out, disgust borne not of sympathy for the victims but of contempt for Adam’s circumvention of the deal process, and she feels a small, entirely unexpected jolt of disappointment. It takes another second to realize that after all his strangely human feelings for Sam, after Talbot saying he used to care, she expected better of Cain than clinical distaste.
And then the other possibility occurs. She thinks fast to choose the right words. “He’s stealing souls to create a demon army. Without their souls, those people are turning evil. They're mutilating their neighbors. Killing their families. Adam’s turning innocent people into monsters.”
She pauses for emphasis, and to assess: Cain’s unease, in the tightness of his jaw and his hooded, increasingly wary gaze, is almost palpable. Even beneath his beard she can tell he’s gone several shades paler. Jen represses a smile. Gotcha.
“If you have the power to stop him and you don't, or if you don't let me do it, those deaths are going to be on your head! All the people that Adam kills and all the people his new demon minions kill, those lives are on you. Those souls are on you! All those people he turns? They never made deals, they didn't sell themselves- they never had a choice! They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now they're not even human! That's on-”
“Enough! I get it!”
Jen almost jumps. Not because it’s the loudest he’s yelled at her yet but because she was starting to rile even herself up. She pauses to catch her breath and catches Talbot’s eye without meaning to. Her injured pride apparently shelved for the moment, the demon actually looks impressed.
“I can lock,” Cain begins heavily.
“Do not,” Talbot snarls, and he falls silent.
“He would escape again,” Talbot continues after a moment, her rage controlled, but barely; she’s not yelling, but her tone’s venomous, accusation in every syllable. “And he would come after you. He will always come after you. And he will kill anyone who gets in his way. Sam wanted to give Adam a chance. Adam more than proved he didn’t deserve it. Sam wouldn’t spare him again at the cost of all those other lives.”
Jen jumps in, purposefully softening her voice. “If you don’t want to use the Blade, you can give it to me. You won’t be breaking your promise. And you’ll be helping to save people, the way Sam would have wanted.” Technically, that’s a bit of an assumption on her part, but one she’s confident of, after everything she’s heard about Sam. Sure enough, Talbot nods in approval. Crap, they really are acting like a team. That’s almost as weird as playing the good cop.
Cain looks down at the photo, his hand straying to the amulet again, and Jen holds her breath. She doesn’t dare look at Talbot.
“Fine. You can have it.” Cain looks up, and Jen quickly smothers any sign of triumph. “I’ll give you the Mark.”
“But you have to make me a promise first.”
Jen can’t help glancing at Talbot. The demon looks perturbed suddenly, but that doesn’t tell Jen anything. “What is it?”
Despite his obvious weariness, the look Cain fixes her with is wholly uncompromising. “After you find the Blade, you will come back here, and you will kill me.”
Jen stares. “Uh…okay?” She can’t keep it from sounding like a question. Not cause she has any qualms about killing him, but if she’s ever met a suicidal demon before, she can’t remember it.
“The Blade is the only thing that can kill me,” says Cain, one side of his mouth lifting bitterly. “And I can’t use it on myself.”
Jen nods, like it isn’t creepy that he obviously tried. She checks Talbot again; the demon’s lips are compressed into a thin line, her eyes narrowed to slits. “Fine. I’ll kill you, no problem. Where’s the Blade?”
“It’s at the bottom of the ocean. Atlantic.”
Talbot snorts, loudly and unexpectedly. Jen tries to catch her eye for some confirmation that this is not the insurmountable hurdle it sounds like, but the demon is back to staring out the window, thoughts clearly elsewhere.
“Fine,” Jen repeats coolly, and bites back the pathetic follow-up, Any chance you could fetch it for us? God forbid that any part of killing Adam be easy or simple- persuade the first murderer in the history of humanity, who also has to be one of the most ornery bastards in the history of humanity, to give up the Mark; find the Blade at the bottom of the freaking Atlantic; then actually fight the dick…it’s almost like another set of Trials.
Which reminds her…
She clears her throat, feeling no little awkwardness; it feels wrong to help a demon, even if that help is with, well, killing itself. “If you know about the Trials to close Hell, you must know about the cure. For demons. Since you want to…you know.”
Cain raises an eyebrow.
“Off yourself,” she clarifies, and the other eyebrow joins the first. Whatever; when it comes to tact, he’s not one to judge. And neither is Talbot, who’s suddenly giving her the stink-eye. “Maybe you could die if you were human.”
For a moment his expression’s inscrutable and she thinks she shouldn’t have bothered. But then he says gruffly, just as awkwardly, “The cure doesn’t work on me. But- thanks.”
“Yeah.” It comes out automatically, which is good, cause she really doesn’t know what else to say. Other than, wow, that sucks. For the first time she considers the reality of his situation, that he’s been living centuries without his loved one, whatever kind of loved one Sam was. Her mind shies away from it; she barely survived Kris being dead for a year. It’s no wonder he’s a miserable, crabby hermit.
“So how do we do this?” she asks, as much to change the subject as because it is, after all, the point. She steps closer and holds out her arm. “Am I gonna need to bleed?”
“No.” But he doesn’t get up. His conflicted look is back, some new inner turmoil making him glance at the photo and fiddle with the amulet yet again. Jen tries not to tense, at least noticeably. If he’s reconsidering…
Cain opens his mouth, closes it, and finally, with a disgruntled sound, opens it again. “Before you take the Mark, there’s something you should know. If you die with it, you’ll become a demon.” He looks her straight in the eye. “Still want it?”
A knot twists deep in the pit of her stomach, her body reacting before she’s even fully registered what he’s said. The first thing she does is look at Talbot, and of course she doesn’t look surprised, which means she knew about this little catch. Jen briefly contemplates the hefty punch she’s going to deliver to Talbot’s front teeth the second they’ve left Cain’s.
Does she still want the Mark…well, it’s not about wanting, is it; it’s about needing. She needs to kill Adam, and for that she needs the Mark.
But if she takes it and dies…
Distantly, she remembers the horror (then terror, then despair) that filled her all those years ago when Ruben admitted how demons were made, when she first learned what her sacrifice would really be. She feels only an echo of it now, removed and almost alien, like she’s recalling something she heard about rather than experienced herself (or like it happened 40+ years ago…).
“Is there a way to get rid of the Mark?” she hears herself ask.
“Maybe if you’re human.” His bitter twist of a smile reappears. “I wouldn’t know.”
The knot in her belly tightens.
It’s not a death sentence, she tells herself (or rather, something altogether worse). Just because Cain couldn’t find a way to get rid of the Mark doesn’t mean she wouldn’t be able to. She has something Cain never had- Cassie. Surely an angel would know something about removing the Mark, from a demon or human. And she has Kris. Maybe Cain could have saved himself if he had a partner to help him, if he hadn’t murdered his own brother.
(Kris would tell her not to do it. Kris would say it wasn’t worth the risk, that they’d find another way to kill Adam.)
(Kris isn’t here right now. Kris isn’t speaking to her, and Kris wanted to die and stop fighting and give up, so Kris doesn’t get a say.)
After she kills Adam they’ll find a way to get rid of the Mark. And if, god forbid, she gets herself killed, they’ll still find a way to get rid of the Mark, and then Kris will cure her. Either way, they’ll find an answer; they always do. She’s not going to end up a demon.
Besides, she has no intention of dying anytime soon anyway, so the risk really isn’t worth worrying about, not compared to what’s at stake if Adam isn’t stopped.
(And as long as there is a risk, as long as she needs to get rid of the Mark…Kris won’t leave her.)
“I’ll take it,” says Jen.
His eyebrows shoot up like they’re about to fly off his face. “Really.”
“I’m not scared.”
To her surprise, he chuckles. “You are brave,” he repeats.
Jen shrugs, allowing a small smile. “Well-”
“And reckless, and stupid, and arrogant, and you will get yourself killed. Believe me. I know.”
For a second Jen thinks she must have misheard; it’s so- specific; almost personal. The next second her face- her entire body- feels like it’s on fire. Her hands curl back into fists. “Listen, asshat-”
“But! Regardless!” He’s grinning- grinning. “As long as you promise to come back and kill me, you can have it!”
“Oh, I’ll kill you, you can count on it!”
Cain blinks. “What the hell does that- you know what, never mind, I don’t care. Let’s do this!” He shoots off the couch.
Jen forces herself not to step back. “What are we waiting for?”
Despite her glare, he still looks amused as he rips his sleeve back up to reveal the Mark. Jen doesn’t have a sleeve to posture with; she hesitates, arm half-outstretched-
He grabs her forearm, fingers digging in tightly enough to leave bruises. Jen feels a surge of heat-
The heat vanishes. Meeting Cain’s eyes, Jen doesn’t know which of them is more surprised by the interruption.
As one, they look at Talbot.
“Why?” He draws the word out slowly, the way Jen would.
Talbot cocks her head. “Do you know who she is?”
“She’s the one who’s going to kill me.” The way he says it makes Jen’s skin prickle. He still sounds happy, for the first time all afternoon- almost jubilant.
“And besides that?”
Mouth open slightly, like he’s just waiting for an excuse to start yelling, Cain gives Jen the same irritated, confused look she’s given Talbot too many times to count.
“She was Michael’s vessel,” says Talbot.
His nails dig into her forearm. Jen grits her teeth, expecting heat-
But instead Cain lets go, like she’s the one on fire. Jen gives him her what the hell? look, but he’s too busy looking at Talbot to notice. Or, she realizes, suspicion blooming when he takes a small step away, he’s avoiding looking at her. A tic pulses in his jaw.
“Oh, don’t try a poker face on me,” snaps Talbot. “I know you know they came back! And I know you know about Miss Swan. You’ve been hiding, not dead.”
Jen waits for him to deny it, but instead he says stiffly, still not looking at her, “So what if she’s Michael’s vessel? That doesn’t change anything.”
For a brief moment, a smile full of genuine mirth lights up Talbot’s face. It’s more unsettling than her smuggest smirks and in Jen’s experience, bodes much worse. She glances at Cain to see if he’s wise to his ex-lover’s tricks. He looks just as taken aback as Jen feels, which is the exact opposite of comforting.
The smile fades quickly, though, and Talbot’s voice dips lower, without softening a jot. “You know in all those years, that’s the only time I ever thought you actually might be? Dead? I thought maybe you’d finally found a way to do it. That’s how sure I was that I’d see you. I knew you had to know they were coming back; all the signs were there.”
One look at Cain’s nonplussed expression and Jen isn’t so sure Talbot’s on the mark with this one, but the demon continues anyway: “I was so sure you’d want revenge. Now that you weren’t so impotent.”
Jen can practically hear his teeth grind. She expects a snarl, but he just says tightly, “How long have you been waiting to use that line?”
“Or even if you were somehow zen enough to let bygones be bygones-” He does snarl now, and Talbot smiles back with all her teeth. “I thought maybe you’d feel…charitable enough to help the next generation of brave little toasters. You know, for solidarity’s sake.”
His anger loosens to a smile more terrible than hers. “I know it’s been a while, Bela, so let me clue you in: I gave up the family business.”
“Right, silly me. Because in order to have a family business, you need a family.”
Jen’s still stuck on the last thing Talbot said (what’s a toaster? Why are they brave?), so she doesn’t exactly see Cain move. He’s more of a blur, and the next thing she knows he’s crouched over Talbot. Jen feels a familiar lurch in her chest (her automatic, visceral reaction whenever men assault women in front of her, right before she tears them a new one) before she remembers what Talbot is, that she can handle herself.
But Cain doesn’t hit her. From the way he white-knuckle grips the couch’s backrest, effectively trapping Talbot with his arms, Jen bets he really, really wants to, but he just leans in close, so close that Jen can’t get a good look at Talbot’s face to see if she’s scared- close enough to kiss.
“Make your point, and get out. I have business to finish with Miss Swan.”
He doesn’t move until Talbot plants a hand on his chest and shoves. Then he straightens without losing his balance, so Jen knows he didn’t have to move, and glares down at her.
Jen expects answering anger, maybe even a little fear, but Talbot looks up at him with equal parts contempt and amusement. “Family business is my point, sweetie. Namely, the fact that you didn’t help yours. Honestly, I expected more loyalty from you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Michael and Lucifer’s vessels?”
Jen recalls the supposed bloodline. Before Cain can react, she lets out an annoyed, disgruntled sound that makes clear in no uncertain terms what she thinks of that implication. Cain glances at her. It’s oddly comforting to see that he looks just as repulsed by the notion.
“That doesn’t mean anything. They always had other options. Those weren’t my concern.”
Talbot makes a shocked noise. “You did lose whatever broken bit of soul you had left when you lost Sam. Not your concern…you’d like to tell yourself that, wouldn’t you? What did you tell yourself? Too many once-removeds in the family tree? I shouldn’t be surprised. Even Adam wasn’t good enough for you.”
“What? What about Adam?” Jen looks from one to the other, but they both ignore her. Cain’s gone stiff again, though, so she knows it means something to him.
“They didn’t have anything to do with me.”
“What are you talking about?” Jen demands. From the look on Cain’s face, he’s as clueless- and annoyed- as she is.
“I’m talking about you, dear!” Talbot rounds on her, eyes alight in the way that usually makes Jen reach for her weapon. “Two sisters whose father burned up on the ceiling when the youngest was six months old! Who grew up hunting monsters with their neglectful, revenge-obsessed mother! Who have died for each other too many times to count because they are psychotically co-dependent! Does any of that ring a bell?”
She flings the last at Cain, who’s white-faced. “Coincidences,” he breathes.
“When the oldest is literally on your doorstep demanding the Mark of Cain? Really?”
Cain doesn’t speak.
Can’t speak, Jen thinks, and feels a thrill of- not fear exactly, but definitely something in the realm of anxiety. What the hell kind of game is Talbot playing?
“Well, you know me,” says Talbot blithely. “I like to do my due diligence- not do things half-assed. So I decided to run a little background check.”
“Background check?” Jen repeats stupidly, picturing Talbot in a precinct, hunched over a Screen.
“A spell. To trace your ancestry. It wasn’t difficult once I had the right ingredients. Although I did have to modify the spell a bit to give it some extra umph.” Talbot shrugs, but a smug smile belies her feigned nonchalance. “I had to go back quite a ways to find what I was looking for in your family tree. Incidentally, dear, you might want to consider a haircut; you shed all over the place, and you never know what an enterprising sort of villain might do with your DNA.”
“You-!” But Jen’s anger fails to find any adequate words. How dare you is on the tip of her tongue, but even in her head it sounds ridiculous; from the amused look Talbot is giving her, she’s thinking the same thing: after everything Talbot’s done to them over the years- kidnap, extortion, grievous bodily harm- is invasion of privacy really what she’s gonna complain about?
“What did you do?” she snarls instead. “Why were you looking up our ancestry?”
Instead of answering, Talbot turns to Cain. “Before you start planning your funeral, you might be interested to know more about where Miss Swan and her sister come from. I can’t say how many generations it was- too many to count- but I went back about a thousand years. You’ll never guess whom I found in their family tree right around then.”
But Talbot ignores her splutters; she only has eyes for Cain. Despite her conversational tone, there’s a triumphant glint in her eyes that Jen recognizes from the card table; this, whatever this is, is her ace in the hole.
“Jennifer and Kristen Swan are direct descendants of one Benjamin Braeden, whose mother was one Lisa Braeden. And his father- would you like to take a wild guess who his father was?”
Cain is so still for so long that Jen thinks he must not have heard. Then, as though a switch were flipped, his face crumples.
“No.” The sound is barely human.
“No, she lied!”
Cain’s mouth opens, but nothing comes out. His eyes are huge and such a bright green that it’s difficult to imagine they could ever be black or red or yellow or whatever brand of demon he is. Jen feels a swooping sensation in her stomach. They’re too bright. Demons aren’t supposed to look like he does.
“Who can blame her?” says Talbot. “She was just protecting dear little Ben. Waiting to make sure his father was in it for the long haul instead of- well. Doing exactly what you did.”
Jen blinks. Is Talbot implying…
“I don’t believe you,” Cain finally manages, but it doesn’t take hearing the tremble in his voice to know that he’s lying. The devastation on his face is unlike anything even Sam conjured.
Talbot shrugs. “Fine. Then give her the Mark and continue to let history repeat itself. What do I care? Three siblings, two true vessels, one Mark…yes, three,” she says, when Cain’s forehead creases. “There’s a half sister rotting in the Cage as we speak. Eve.” She smirks. “Get it?”
Cain blanches, which is pretty much how Jen feels. She tries never to think about Eve. And considering she can’t remember the last time she did, she’s pretty good at it.
Cain looks at her then, and Jen feels her face grow hot- but if he does know anything about the half-sister they abandoned, there’s no sign of condemnation in his features. He’s just studying her, more intently than he has all afternoon, like for the first time she actually matters. The way his gaze moves down her makes her skin tingle, but not like in bars when assholes try to pick her up; there’s no lechery in his scrutiny. His eyes are still too vividly, terribly bright. It’s worse than when he scowls.
When he moves toward her again Jen can’t help it: she backs up a step. He doesn’t look offended, though, nor does he crowd closer. He just keeps drinking her in, and when he does speak, it’s not a question she ever would have expected.
“Do you have an angel?”
By the time Jen realizes how taken aback she must look, she knows it’s too late: she can see in the minute softening in Cain’s face that the answer is writ across hers.
“We have a friend,” she says stiffly. Friend. She pictures Kris’s smirk.
He nods, just a little, and his lips tremble, like he’s about to smile or cry or both. A bolt of panic shoots through Jen (evil demons she can handle; crying ones, not so much) before he abruptly turns away.
He braces himself against the desk in the corner, shoulder blades sticking out through his plaid shirt. His head is bowed- like in prayer, Jen thinks, before immediately dismissing the idea. He probably just doesn’t want them to see him cry.
She looks at Talbot for a cue, but the demon seems unconcerned that Cain is losing it. In fact, a cat-that-ate-the-canary smile plays around her mouth. With her ankles crossed and her hands folded neatly in her lap, she’s back to looking like her usual haughty, collected self.
What about the Mark? Jen wants to say, but she bites it back. Given his current state, she wouldn’t be surprised if Cain reacted to “nagging” by changing his mind and just telling her to get out. Assuming he hasn’t already changed his mind.
If Talbot’s not worried…not that she can trust Talbot, since Talbot’s the one who stopped him from giving her the Mark. Why the hell would she do that after all the trouble it took to get him to agree in the first place?
A hoarse, choked sound breaks the silence. Without seeing his face, Jen can’t tell if it’s a sob or a chuckle.
“Whatever you do, you will always end up here.”
Her heart skips a beat. “W-what did you say?”
The photo frame hits the desk with a very final sounding thud. Cain spins around. His eyes still gleam, but he’s not crying; he looks manic.
“We will always end up here. Except we won’t, because you’re going home.”
“I’m not giving it to you.”
“But you said- no!” After what he just said- quoted? But how could he know?- there’s a jumpy, panicky feeling in her breast that makes it hard to focus. She tries to channel it into outrage. “You can’t just let Adam live!”
“Oh, I won’t.” He turns to Talbot. “You’ll find the Blade?”
“If you ask nicely.” She stands, smoothing her skirt.
“I’ll make it up to you.”
She eyes him. “I’ll hold you to that.”
He inhales like he means to respond, but instead they just end up looking at each other in a very private sort of way. Jen so does not have the patience for this anymore. She sticks a hand between them and waves.
“Hold up. You’re going to kill Adam? What happened to being retired?”
He drags his eyes away from Talbot. “I guess I’m making a comeback.”
“What about Sam?” She points at the photo on the desk behind him, expecting him to turn and get misty-eyed again.
“I think,” says Cain slowly, his gaze never leaving her face. “He would consider it the lesser of two evils.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
But instead of answering, he strides out of the room. Jen hesitates only long enough to shoot Talbot a very nasty look before chasing after him. She doesn’t have to go far; he’s just yanking open the closet in the hall.
“Okay, fine, you’re going to kill him, that’s great,” says Jen, and means it. Hopefully it doesn’t show on her face, but the fact that she doesn’t have to take the Mark is actually a relief. There is, of course, the question of how she’ll kill Cain without the Mark (somehow, centuries-old lovers’ quarrel notwithstanding, she doesn’t think he’ll take it lying down when she kills Talbot), but she’ll cross that bridge when she comes to it. “What do I do?”
He swings around, a worn duffle bag in hand. “Nothing. You’re going to go home to your little sister. And you’re going to apologize.”
“I- w-what?” The bottom drops out of her stomach like it does when she accelerates upward too fast in Baby, only this doesn’t feel nearly as pleasant.
“You heard me.” His sudden sneer makes the hair on her arms rise; there’s no question now that it’s personal. “You can play dumb all you want, but I know- I know- you have something to apologize for.”
Her mouth is too dry to speak, even if she knew how to respond. It’s impossible. He can’t know about the demon blood. No one knows that she was dosing Kris except for Kris and Cassie and-
She cranes her neck without thinking, looking for Talbot, ready to snarl-
“She didn’t tell me anything!”
Her heart races uncomfortably fast, like he’s chasing her instead of staring her down. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Jen flinches, and his lip curls even more.
I don’t have anything to apologize for. I was saving her life.
But no matter how loudly the argument rings in her head, she can’t make it come out her mouth. He watches her like he knows, like he’s waiting. Eventually, she can’t help looking away.
Cain snorts out a short, bitter laugh, like she’s proved him right, and stalks past her back into the living room.
Jen hasn’t even geared herself up to follow when she hears, “And about your angel!”
Turning, she braces for more condemnation (you should never have let her try to close Heaven. You should have given her a reason to stay on Earth when she still had a choice).
“You take care of him! Her?” He glances at Talbot, and she nods. “Her! Don’t you ever let her Grace burn out!”
It’s a relief to note that while his eyes are alight with the same fervor, he sounds more desperate than angry.
Then his words sink in.
“What? What are you talking about?” She strides toward him, her heart rate picking up again. What’s going to happen to Cassie?
“I’m talking about stolen Grace.”
“How do you know-”
“I know because it happened before.” He pauses, and his face tightens, like he’s about to get glassy-eyed again. He does, a little, Jen thinks, but when he speaks his voice is anything but shaky. “But it not’s going to happen again. You’re gonna go home. You’re gonna take care of your sister and your angel- you’re gonna take care of each other- and you’re gonna leave this behind. You’re gonna to be normal. And Adam’s never gonna bother you again. I’m gonna deal with him. You hear me?”
It makes her hackles rise, this new resoluteness of his, but it also makes her recoil, despite the fact that he hasn’t actually done anything, that he’s not even yelling now. It takes only a second to realize why his unwavering self-assurance is so unsettling, so familiar: he’s just like Michael and Lucifer.
The phrase “sleeping tiger” springs to mind from some long ago history class, as does the unshakeable, instinctive feeling that they’ve just woken it.
He’s looking at her, clearly expecting a yessir, and for a second she wants to give it to him; let him take care of Adam, let someone else take on the burden.
But she’s Jennifer Swan. She didn’t become the thing that monsters have nightmares about by listening to demons.
She squares her shoulders and steps forward, getting right up in his face. “I’m not going to just sit around and trust demons to take care of it.”
“You can, and you will.” Despite the steely tone, his face softens. She thinks he means to be placating, but the smile that replaces his scowl is too limp, like he’s forgotten how. “Go to your sister. Make amends. Trust me, there’s nothing more important than she is.”
“I don’t need you to tell me that!” Jen glares at him, more affronted by this, absurdly, than by anything else. “What would you know about being a good sibling? You killed your brother!”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Of course you did! You’re Cain.”
It’s so abrupt, so open, that Jen knows in an instant he’s telling the truth. She jerks toward Talbot.
The queen of Hell smiles.
The bottom drops out of Jen’s stomach all over again; she feels her heart rate double. She’s going to kill Talbot. Truly, seriously kill her. If not Cain, just who the hell is she dealing with?
“Not the one you mean anyway,” he amends, like that does anything but raise more questions. He looks Jen square in the face. “I didn’t kill my brother.”
With a familiar click, his eyes turn pitch-black.
“But I’m going to.”