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heaven is where you build it (hell isn't that bothered)

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Of Sameen, former Guardian of the Eastern Gate (cutbacks) and Root, who Fell but turned it into a dive.

 

 

Reno, NV USA 1985

 

Sameen looked at the run-down diner on the other side of the street and double checked the address on her phone. There was an enormous Harley parked carelessly half across the sidewalk with a small queue of pedestrians trying to squeeze past it.

Hell could often be subtle and insidious, but by the look of things Root had long ago stopped giving a fuck.

 

“You’re late.”

“Blame the traffic.” Root beamed. Her city planning had won awards.

They faced one another across the sticky Formica table top, by a window looking out on a concrete tower block with a few neon signs flashing feebly in the midday sun.

Barring variations of time and fashion Root usually looked more or less the same, except now the ends of her dark hair had been dip dyed bright electric blue. Sameen didn’t know whether it was due to punk rock taking off, or vice versa. She currently had her legs stretched out in the booth, looking for all the world like a grunge-chic advert for ethereal rebellion in the light filtering through the grimy window.

“So am I here for a reason or have you just run out of people to irritate on this continent?” It was an odd place to find Root, and she doubted the serpent was up to anything good. Technically of course she couldn’t be.

“It was here or Purgatory. Same ambiance, but at least there’s coffee.”

Root had ordered her a drink and Sameen cautiously poked the brown liquid with a spoon. “I don’t know what it is you’re drinking Below, but this is not coffee.”

“You know the worst part is I can’t tell anymore.” Root was staring mournfully into her own cup. “Downstairs it’s either whiskey or kale smoothies.”

Sameen closed her eyes and inhaled slowly.  “You really have no idea the things I would do for Scotch. To this day I don’t know how we got Prohibition through. John moved to Canada and sulked for a decade.”

That brought a tooth-baring smile from Root: she hated Canada, but the thought of John miserable obviously cheered her up. “That’s one thing I don’t miss; you people can’t enjoy yourselves to save your lives. Figuratively, of course.”

“And how would you know?”

“I’ve seen your guest list, so to speak. Harold, Lionel, two hundred dead Popes and chamber music. It’s hardly Woodstock. No wonder you spend so much time skulking around down here.” Her smile only widened with Sameen’s glare.

“Maybe I happen to like it down here.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“It really wasn’t.” She took a sip of her drink as an excuse for something to do, and instantly regretted it.

“Then what is it you enjoy so much? The cocktails? The consumerism? Your deep and abiding love of skim milk?”

“Shut up, Root. Are you going to tell me why you’ve dragged me here? Because some of us have stuff to do.”

“Don’t be so dramatic, Sameen, I hardly had to persuade you at all. It was quite encouraging, actually.”

Sameen’s sword hand itched. “Would it kill you to stop speaking in riddles for five minutes?”

Root shrugged, “Would it upset you if it did?”

“No.”

“Liar.”

The angel refused to bite and stared out the window to avoid the smug look on Root’s face. On the street a cyclist wearing headphones swerved to avoid a cat running across the road, and narrowly avoided being mown down by a sedan with tinted windows.

“You’ve got ten years.”

“What?”

“Until He is born. It was supposed to be earlier, but what with the backlog and paperwork and everything… I mean seriously, the beaurocracy down there is a work of art.” Her usual mocking tone was absent from Root’s voice and Sameen noticed, straightening in her seat.

“Huh.” It was funny how you could forget about things. The apocalypse was the whole point of course, but still, it seemed almost silly when you thought about it; five thousand years building a world for the purpose of smashing it to watch the pieces fall. Sameen wondered idly where she’d left her horse.

“It won’t all kick off in theory until he’s 18, so we’ve probably got just under thirty years.”

Sameen stared gloomily into the depths of her mug. There was something floating in it. For something with so much build-up she’d always imagined this moment would be a bit more, well, momentous. It was more like a dentist’s appointment that you’d made and forgotten about, hoping it would go away on its own. “Well that’s reassuring, I suppose I can catch up on my reading at least.”

“My, that does sound thrilling. Why don’t you learn to knit and go for something really off the wall?”

“Root, believe me when I say you would not like me with needles.”

The serpent reached out for Sameen’s hand, who moved it. “Now that really does sound like fun.”

Sameen stood up to leave. “Well the good news is you won’t have long to wait.”

“I hear that.” Root held out her fist expectantly. Sameen surveyed her pityingly for a moment then lowered her shades and walked out into the sunshine. Root shrugged and stole the rest of her coffee.

 

 

*

 

Poitiers, France 1170 AD

 

The boy, Richard, was sweating in his padded cloth armour as he drove his opponent back. He was tall for 13, Sameen noted approvingly, watching him deliver a well-timed slash and a lordly kick in the knee to force the other man to the ground.

Pragmatism was infinitely more useful than chivalry anyway. Far less prancing around to awful music and a much higher survival rate.

There was a light smattering of applause from the balcony overlooking the courtyard where his mother and her attendants were standing. One of them waved cheerily at Sameen, whose good mood evaporated in an instant. Even from fifty yards Root radiated breezy condescension and the vague air of one who doesn’t so much as know you’re bluffing but that the game’s over and you’ve already lost.

Scowling, she turned and stalked towards the darkened archway that led to the kitchens, stopping to wait in an alcove while cooks and servants bustled around the trestle tables.

The Serpent approached her calmly through the chaos, pausing only to upend a bag of salt into the tureen of stew on the fire, and snatch and apple from a fruit bowl.

Root reached her and bit into the apple with a smirk. “Well met, Sameen. Long time, no see.”

“The boy’s one of Ours; you can’t have him.”

Root looked at her pityingly. “Teenage boys don’t really do it for me, Sameen. Heads are completely empty apart from girls and swords – of one kind or another. I thought you knew me better than that.”

“His mother, then?”

“It’s funny really.” Root continued meandering down her own train of thought, ignoring the angel as though she wasn’t there. Sameen never missed her flaming sword as much as when she was talking to Root. “If Queen Eleanor is one of Ours, and the Prince is one of Yours, hasn’t Good technically been born from Sin? I mean, he hardly gets it from his father -”

Sameen rolled her eyes and cut the other woman off. “It’s not the family silverware, you can’t inherit Goodness -”

“Certainly not in his family. Maybe it’s something in the air.” She sniffed hopefully. “No, probably not, unless it smells like cremated offal. What do you want with the third son anyway? Is he going to be a really great priest?”

Sameen was in the habit of tuning out two thirds of everything Root said, because it was just easier, and made an effort to wrench her thoughts back around to the conversation. A smile crept across her face, but the expression still fell rather short of angelic. “Don’t you know? We assumed it would be your lot’s doing but maybe they don’t let you in on the big stuff - not when you’re kept so busy sabotaging cookery.”

Root waved her half eaten apple dismissively. “Jousting accidents not really my area. If his brothers are going to die as you seem to be implying, that would be my guess as to how. Any moron can spook a horse; we normally leave it to Hersch. He likes France. Blends in. The village idiots in England couldn’t be happier of course, all the competition’s gone out of the market.”

“So you’re on the side of the English now?”

“For the moment. They do it all themselves mostly, our expenses have never been lower. I wouldn’t have thought it would be your area though. Young Richie doesn’t strike me as an Edward the Confessor type.”

“He will further the cause of righteousness and win great victory against the heathens in the East.” Sameen explained. That was what the briefing notes had said anyway. Everything was run by committees these days, so no-one really knew what was going on. You just assumed it was part of the Plan.

“Good job, Sameen, you sound as though you almost have yourself convinced.” Root turned to lob her apple core into the fire and the orange glow cast strange shadows on her face. “Will he be divinely supplied with explanatory pamphlets to spread the Word?”

“He will do what is necessary.” Personally she wasn’t sure that it was, but the divine complaints procedure was Hell (literally – they’d gotten contractors in especially).

“Ah, will he now.” Root studied her. “You know, I always assumed the whole “Just War” idea was one of ours, but sometimes I wonder… This is definitely going to happen then, is it?”

“It’s ineffable, apparently.”

“Shit.”

 

 

*

 

 Rome, Italy c. 400 AD

 

The gate fell just before dawn and barbarians swarmed into the city. Sameen’s archers around her on the wall turned and broke, fleeing south to reach the river gate and the boats. She could make out the blazing figure of John on the ground bellowing at a group of pikemen with a whistle round his neck and waving what looked like a clipboard.

Technically their capacity for intervention was limited to Divine Inspiration (with good reason; ethereals against mortals would be like fighting grass with a lawnmower). One of the bowmen who’d evidently decided that he’d contributed all he could to the defence effort tried to push past her and found her knee inserted firmly between his legs. “Bless you,” she muttered as he crumpled to the ground.

She shouted a Word and the men around her forgot suddenly where it was they were running to. Drawing her (boring, plain steel) sword she bellowed a war cry and charged down the stone steps carved into the battlements, followed by her newly enraged and bloodthirsty backup.

There wasn’t much they could do in the end, other than buy time for the civilians to get out. Jocelyn stood over the gate attempting to direct the tide of people, and wearing an expression that said if she didn’t have to protect these people she’d happily murder them instead.

 

By dusk it was settled. The defence was broken and the countryside teemed for miles around with refugees, ignored by the invaders who were left with all of Rome to play with. She found Root looting a wine cellar in the artisans’ district. Her hellhound was tied to a post outside chewing happily on what looked like half a cow.

“Hold this.” Root waved a jug of wine in her direction without turning around. “The priests will have had the best stuff but you can guarantee that’s all gone now.”

“How awful for you.”

“I know. Come on.” She straightened up clutching a small barrel under her arm and let the way up onto the roof.

They settled on the low stone parapet and breathed the smell of cooking fires rising from below. The sound of drunken shouting drifted up, and the noise of a brief scuffle was followed by cheers. Root shivered happily next to her, cheeks flushed with something Sam didn’t really want to think about.

“Why so despondent, Sameen? Most of your civilians got out and I spread the word that the whores here all have the pox. For which you’re welcome, by the way.”

“Thanks.” It was about as grudging as an apology could be, but Root nodded silently anyway. “Anyway, I helped build this city - I’m allowed to take it personally.”

“I can’t imagine you being one for heavy lifting.”

“It was mostly in an organisational capacity.” Root smiled broadly as she refilled the jug and offered it to the angel, who eyed it suspiciously.

“I’m good thanks.”

Root rolled her eyes theatrically. “Oh come on; you do something once and suddenly everyone holds it against you.”

“Pretty sure once was enough.”

“Live a little, Sameen. It’s not as though anyone’s looking at us with that little sideshow going on.” On the other side of the river there was a deafening crash as the merchants' guildhall collapsed on its fire-weakened rafters, sending a small tremor through the ground.

“Is that what you said to her?” Sameen met Root’s gaze as she felt herself being scrutinised.

“You’re the one who’s read the official version,” Root replied coolly. “You tell me.”

“I’m asking you, because now you mention it I have wondered: what did you say to get her to take it?”

Root laughed suddenly, and looked at Sameen with an expression she couldn’t quite place. “I didn’t give it to her – have you not been listening? I offered, but the whole point is that she took it. Sin has to come from choice, otherwise it’s nothing.”

Sameen was shaking her head before Root finished speaking. “You can’t give a knife to a child then blame them when they hurt themselves.”

“Have you ever been offered something, Sameen?”

She didn’t like the thoughtful look on Root’s face one bit. “Of course.”

“No, you haven’t. Not something you really wanted. What could possibly tempt an angel?” Root’s hand was on her knee now, nails like talons digging down and Sameen knew under the fabric she would find five perfect crescent marks. “I offered her a bite, but she took the apple. Don’t you get it yet? The sin is in the wanting, of taking something on selfish impulse rather than abstaining for the greater good.”

“Then why,” Sameen asked in a low voice, her gaze fixed on Root, “did He punish you?” She prised the serpent’s hand away from her leg and made to stand up.

“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Knowing she would shortly regret it, the angel turned back. “What?”

“That’s one of yours, I believe. I’m asking, who are you to condemn her? How do you know you are better if you have never been tested?”

Root’s eyes with their vertical pupils gleamed in the reflected glow of unfolding anarchy as she stalked across the roof towards Sameen, who was transfixed half way to the stairs.

The angel found herself unable to move as Root reached out and pressed a thumb to the wet smear of blood congealing on Sameen’s cheek. The red liquid settled in the whorls of her thumb and she ran it gently over Sam’s lips painting them in the taste of iron and soot. Root kissed her then as lightly as dust motes on the air, mingling wine and blood and sinful promise.

 

The Greeks (heathens) believed that when Prometheus gave fire to the humans Zeus punished him by having him chained to a rock, and every day an eagle would peck out his liver and eat it in front of him.

Sameen’s sword is officially down as lost property and she still has her wings, but watching the sway of Root’s hips as she walks away Sameen can’t help thinking furiously that at least the fucking eagle couldn’t talk.

 

*

 

London, England 1941

 

“Why is it that whenever I see you something’s always burning?”

The worst of last night’s fires had been put out, but there was no wind and a pall of ash and phosphor lingered over the city.

“Not now, Root.”

Sameen let the woman’s hand slip from her grasp and pulled up the sheet. The dead were being laid out in a line stretching away down the street while the ambulances dealt with the living, and all the time more were being pulled out from the rubble.

There was a rumbling behind them and together they turned to see firemen and rescue workers scurrying away from the trembling unsupported wall standing alone over the wreckage of a tenement building. Sameen realised suddenly that Root was gone from her side, and before she had time to wonder where the serpent had gone the wall tremored and collapsed seemingly in slow motion, throwing up a cloud of dust where it smashed into the ground.

Sameen’s  vision slowly cleared to show Root handing over a toddler to a man with hair white from plaster dust who seemed to be crying and thanking her.

Sameen only stared as she sauntered over.

“What did you just do?”

Root shrugged. “He’s going to be a dickhead when he grows up.”

 

*

 

London, England 1612

 

Raucous laughter drifted up to the balcony as the crowds pushed their way into the stalls. The theatre was lit by bare flames in iron braziers fixed to the walls and the air was thick with burning sticks of incense trying and failing to disguise the sort of smells that typically accompanied large gatherings of unwashed humanity.

Sameen shifted uncomfortably in her seat turning to peer over her shoulder. “I really shouldn’t be here.”

“Well you made me sit through Doctor Faustus, and Heaven knows – or at least it will soon - this can’t be any worse. I mean have you people never heard of reverse psychology?”

It was a good point, which Sameen decided to ignore. She didn’t even pretend to understand humans these days. “I wasn’t worried about the theatrical quality. What if someone recognises me?”

“How are you supposed to protect the masses if you don’t know what it is you’re protecting them from?” Root reasoned, “And you did pay for a ticket – actually you paid for both of us - so technically you’ve already funded this so-called debauchery even if you leave now.”

“Oh that’s just great, thanks Root. And why is it always my turn to pay?”

Root sighed dramatically. “Why do you think, Sameen?”

 

-

 

 “This plot makes no sense.”

“Did you know the Third Circle is reserved for people who talk at the theatre?”

 

-

 

“That guy’s a dick.”

“You’re so insightful. I love your way with words.”

“Also the annoying woman reminds me of you.”

 

-

 

Root’s hand slipped onto her knee somewhere in the second act, and Sameen didn’t even notice until the scene changed a few minutes later.

 

-

 

“It’s ok, Sam, you can admit you enjoyed it.”

“It wasn’t completely terrible.”

“I bet you say that to all the girls.”

“If I throw you in the river will that make you feel special?”

“I’d appreciate the effort, but would hate to put you to the trouble.”

Sameen stopped and looked straight at her. “Let me assure you, it would be no trouble whatsoever.”

“Isn’t that against your code of conduct?” 

 

She watched from the shadow of the bridge as Root’s head surfaced in the flickering light cast from the torches on the riverbank, then walked back over the bridge into the dark, smirking.

 

-

 

When Root cornered her in Moscow two months later she announced her presence by bundling the angel unceremoniously into an alleyway, and smiled in a way that bared her (long, pointed) teeth and was not at all reassuring.

“Hello, Sameen.”

“Hey, Root. Not that I don’t love our little get-togethers, but the Kremlin’s due to fall in around twenty minutes, so could we make this quick?”

For the first time Root seemed to notice their surroundings; outside the mouth of the alley soldiers in steel and fur streamed past and the clear note of trumpets cut the frigid air. “Oh, you’re working. I thought…” She considered thoughtfully for a moment then turned to leave. “Never mind.”

“You thought what?”

Root was walking backwards away from her now, smile knowing and unreadable. “You’ll figure it out.”

They were playing again, a game that Sameen knew about only from the subtle variations in Root’s voice and the way she fidgeted sometimes when she had to sit still for too long. Root was restless, always restless, and although she hid it well Sameen could see now when she looked for it that projection of stillness as Root longed to tilt her head or clasp her hands, or cross and uncross her legs.

From what she could tell it seemed to be a response thing; Root would be whoever it was you were expecting (or more often wanting) to see when you looked at her, and her mannerisms would flash in time with your own blinking synapses as she moved back with every step you took forwards, enticing and alluring until you looked down and realised the cliff face was a meter behind you, and you were falling forever.

Someone once said that attack is the best form of defence, but Sameen had witnessed enough wars to know that that was essentially bollocks. Very occasionally these things would turn on a butterfly’s wing, when the wind changed at the opportune moment, or the guard on the gate had a sudden, inexplicable crisis of conscience at the last minute. But more usually all these things required was a hell of a lot more men, and a certain laissez-faire attitude towards their continued survival. If you’re fighting to defend, then you’ve already lost.

The point was that most of the time it was a forgone conclusion anyway, and perhaps there was a certain honour in negotiating terms of surrender.

Sameen surged forward pinning Root between her body and the rough brick wall. Her hand tightened on Root’s throat while the other woman’s hands tugged sharply at her hair, and lips were hot on her ear murmuring that a fall isn’t a fall if you turn it into a dive. After all, she would know.

 

 

*

 

Rouen, France 1431

 

Sameen watched gloomily from a tower as the young woman was led out into the courtyard. John loomed at her shoulder and together they looked on as the sentence was read out. There was a distant figure of a woman visible among the English noblemen and cardinals standing on a gantry opposite clutching goblets of wine.

“Any word from Upstairs? We’ve still got time if -”

“No. We did all we could and the war’s already won, so technically we can’t intervene.”

“And you’re seriously ok with that? Those bastards are executing her for wearing trousers, damn it!”

Hanging around on Earth for so many millennia had given her a fairly comprehensive view of humanity, and she rarely questioned her work knowing that it wasn’t any worse than the things humans dreamt up to do to one another. But something about this nagged at her. She didn’t like the idea of using children as soldiers, regardless of whether or not they actually handled a sword.

“We both know that’s not the reason, and of course I don’t like it, Sameen.” John didn’t raise his voice but there was something about his eyes that warned her not to push. “But there are Rules. If we break them for her then the Other Side won’t keep to them either, and we can’t condemn our own people to save one life. Not even hers.”

A man bent to light the pyre, and a sudden gust of wind extinguished the torch before it could catch. Sameen turned to look sharply at John, who didn’t meet her gaze, and suddenly she understood.

“You did everything you could, John.”

The pyre was lit on the second attempt, and a thin voice rose on the air with the curls of pale blue smoke.

“She’s praying.”

 

 

*

 

 

Paris, France - Bastille Day 1794

 

“Well this is awkward.” Root looked delighted.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

 

They finally found a table in an alehouse near the river.

“I’ll show you mine, Sameen, if you show me yours.” Root plonked two pitchers of beer down on the table. There was a large crowd around the bar but for Root queues were things that happened to other people. Just because Sameen didn’t approve, didn’t mean it wasn’t useful.

“Right. So Robespierre and Lafayette are ours. Who’ve you got?”

“Desmoulins and Antoinette.”

 “What about Louis?”

“Autocrat ruling by divine mandate? Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?”

“Despotic tyrant starving his own people?” Sameen retorted, “I don’t know, Root, you tell me.”

This happened sometimes, although no-one liked to talk about it. The ones that you would think had to be working for one side or the other turned out to be just human, with all the liberty and limitations that state entailed, and Sameen never knew whether to be alarmed or inspired. Mostly she was offended on behalf of her professional pride at being made redundant by a bundle of simian instincts and protein molecules.

“Nobody’s got Danton either,” mused Root. “Must be one of those anomalies. Ironic, though.”

“If you let us take the credit for this one you can have the next one, wherever it happens.”

“That’s oddly generous.”

Sameen shrugged. “Our sweepstakes are leaning towards America. You know anything over there is more hassle than it’s worth.”

“I think we’ll pass.”

“Your call. Shall we make this one a tie then, or what?”

“I have not put all this overtime into the grain markets for a draw, sweetie.”

“I can’t imagine you doing overtime for anything. What is the point of going to hell if you have to work for it? Liberté, égalité, fraternité! That slogan took us months to get right, especially after all the PR people turned out to be yours.”

“And for good reason.” Root ticked the points of on her fingers. “Anarchy is just liberty on a night out, fraternity is basically sectarianism wearing a white hat and our entire existence is based on the people we do and don’t consider worthy. If everyone was worthy then the whole lot of them are heading Upstairs anyway and we might as well just put our feet up, play scrabble and settle in with a crate of scotch for the rest of eternity.”

“You can’t play scrabble, it’s Ours. One of Harold’s actually, he’s very proud.” Sameen replied absently, watching her. She noticed that the beer mug was refilling itself: drinking vessels never stayed dry for very long around Root. She’d reluctantly left London a century earlier, after accidentally inciting a civil war followed by half the city burning down.

“I thought suffering was our purview?”

“Technically this Intellectual Elitism, it’s a new subdivision.”

The woman opposite her leaned forward across the table and her voice dropped to a purr. She caught a strand of Sameen’s hair and twirled it between two fingers. “I love it when you talk ecumenically.”

There was a point she was going to make, but for the life of her Sameen couldn’t remember what it was. She settled for batting the hand away and going for a simultaneous scowl and eye-roll, which judging from the lack of terror on Root’s face only succeeded in making her look angry and cross-eyed.

 

The pitcher of beer had refilled itself another four times, before the crowd around the door suddenly quietened and Sameen looked up blurrily to see John standing by the table, wearing his most hostile expressionless face.

“John.”

“Sameen.”

“John.” Until this point he seemed to have been deliberately avoiding looking at Root, as though hoping she’d take the hint and just evaporate already. She raised her mug of beer in a mock toast and winked at him. Sameen groaned inwardly.

“It’s fine, John, we’re just balancing the books.”

“That’s right, John, you have nothing to worry about.” Sameen kicked her in the shin and received a wounded look in return.

She could see his internal debate between curiosity and suspicion that he really would rather not know. The latter obviously won, and she was relieved as he turned away from Root again. “We need to go, they’ve started lynching the garrison.”

Sameen stood up slowly and concentrated very hard. Her head gradually cleared, and she looked up to see John watching Root. She tugged on his sleeve, and together they headed out into the blood drenched streets.

Root had followed them and as they stepped outside she lifted her head and sniffed. A severe looking woman waited on the other side of the road, and Root nodded once to Sameen, completely ignored John, and crossed to meet her. They were swallowed quickly by the crowd and John looked down at her.

“I’ve thought about it, and I have the impression that I would be happier if you don’t try and explain.”

“Well that makes both of us.”

He nodded, and she knew it was as good as forgotten. The sound of chanting drifted from ahead. “Shall we?”

 

*

 

 

New York, NY 1st January 2013

 

Sameen woke up in a hotel. The white bed sheet twisted around her like a toga was Egyptian cotton - although it hadn’t been when they’d first arrived - and the skin of her back lay bare in the grey light filtering through the half drawn curtains. The angel stretched and groaned. Her head was killing her.

Root stood by the floor length windows, wrapped in a hotel bath robe gazing over the waking city. “2013. This is it. This is the one.”

Sam flopped back down and pulled a pillow over her face. “Great. Happy fucking New Year to us. Should old acquaintance be forgot, the antichrist will get us all shot. I don’t suppose there’s any chance he’s died or anything?”

“I’m afraid not. We’d have noticed.” Root turned so that half her face fell in shadow. “Kinda ironic timing though, the humans have only just worked themselves down from a frenzy about the Mayan thing.”

“Awesome. An ironic apocalypse. Ain’t that just the cherry on the shitty five thousand year cake. I can’t think of a more embarrassing way to die.”

“I always assumed your lot would be morning people. You’re shattering all my illusions.” Sameen flipped her the bird and she grinned. “Anyways, shouldn’t you be more enthusiastic? Your big day come at last?”

“Does it matter? This thing’s gonna happen whether I’m wearing my fucking party hat or not. You got any aspirin?”

Root smiled, looking more smug than apologetic, “I’m afraid not, Sameen. Some of us don’t need them.”

“Huh. And suddenly I am looking forward to it.”

Root wandered back across the room, trailing her fingers across the comforter as she walked around the bed. She sat down by Sameen’s head and gently traced the four red lines running roughly parallel over the otherwise unmarked skin of each shoulder.

“Would you stop it? You know, if you could?”

“We can’t stop it. It’s ineffable.”

“Oh for crying out loud not this again. It’s just a word - you don’t even know what it means.”

“It means that we’re fucked. The actual definition is irrelevant.”

Root prodded her insistently until she rolled onto her back. Leaning down to press a kiss to Sameen’s collarbone she swung a leg over to straddle her so their skin brushed together under the bathrobe. She threw the pillow away and gripping one of the angel’s wrists in each hand brought them up slowly so they were pinned above her head.

“But if. You could. Stop it.” Root placed a kiss along Sameen’s jaw with each breathy syllable. “Would you?”

She stopped at the corner of the angel’s lips and ground her hips deliberately against Sameen’s stomach. Root’s lip curled watching her eyelids flutter. “You know, the whole point of war is that someone loses.”

One hand slid down and traced a circle around her nipple, then pinched sharply.

“Would you, Sameen?”

“Yes.”

 

 

Root was back by the window; she seemed to have a thing for heights. Sameen didn’t like to ask about it. Rummaging through the minibar she scooped a couple of scotch miniatures and considered for a second before knocking them back. Seeing no immediate exit from her hangover she figured she might as well go back the way she came.

She offered a bottle to Root who hummed in approval at the label.

The knotted scar tissue on Root’s shoulder blades still burned red and angry after millennia. Stretching in mirror images from the top of her scapula down to just above the dimples on her lower back they looked like closed brackets framing the delicate nodules of her spine. Slowly the other woman turned to face her.

“Does it – do they…?”

“Not anymore. I can remember it though. I don’t know if the memory’s worse.”

She took a step towards Sameen so they stood less than a foot apart. “Can I…?”

She reached out slipping her hand under Sameen’s elbow to caress the skin of her shoulder, and the angel stumbled back involuntarily. Root snatched her fingers away like she’d been burned.

Sameen could feel her wings straining under the skin; feathers pushing against the pores, and she closed her eyes.

It wasn’t right. Not here, not like this. Not with the way Root’s hair was mussed on one side and her smudged eyeliner ran in charcoal trails under her lashes. (She hadn’t bothered to fix it and Sameen didn’t know what to do with that.)

They burst outwards without warning to arch out and above both of them where they stood. Root grabbed Sameen roughly by the hips and yanked her forwards. She kissed her hard, demandingly, all teeth and tongue as though the Horsemen were on the horizon. Root’s nails drew blood where they dug into her skin and Sameen sucked Root’s bottom lip into her mouth and bit down hard.

Outside the skyscrapers burned silver in the first sunshine of the year, and Root tasted like apples.

 

 

*