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Purgatory

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Although they ascribed great battles with fists full of lightning, winds knocking each other about and a deluge of everything that could be made into a deluge. Plagues, curses, fires and floods, in the end it always came down to a choice. A series of choices. Robert Burns was the first to speak of man's inhumanity to man, but it has always been the case that the greatest evils were never wrought by any hand other than man himself.

Management didn't blame God for his current state. Unable to survive on his own or fend for himself, confined to a box in the physical world, his crippled life was a result of the inhumanities of war, which men had brought on themselves. Killing each other, destroying each other's bodies, tearing apart each other's souls with the atrocities they either committed, had committed upon them or forced each other to perform. By comparison to some he had it very well; his mind was intact. Healthy and strong while his body withered around him.

When he opened his eyes he stood in that barren town they had used, representative of the small towns that had withered on the vines of roadways all over the country. Disuse caked the windows of the diner in front of him and cracked the paint on the storefronts up and down. He shook his head, opened the door and went in, knowing what he'd find.

Scudder looked up from his slice of pie. "You're early."

"No, I'm not."

"No, you're not," he agreed, nodding affably and forking off another bite. A cherry burst under a tine in a sluggish spray of red. "Have a seat."

The Russian settled into the opposite booth, feeling the leather creak and give under his weight. He had been Management for so long it felt strange to have all his limbs again, at first. He leaned back, resting his arms on the table and considering what he would say while he went through the pretense of ordering food whipped up special in the kitchen from memories and imagination.

"It's getting worse," he said.

Scudder nodded, his mouth full of pie. Chewed, swallowed, and then spoke. "I know."

His food came, and he started cutting into it without paying much attention. "This time, it might finish it off for good."

The other man made a face. "I'd bet you a dollar they said that before us. And the ones before that, and the ones before that. This doesn't finish easy, or quick." But Scudder avoided his eyes and kept pushing around the last couple of bites of pie on his plate. He didn't believe it any more than did the Russian.

Which reassured neither man. "Things are moving faster," he mused. "Everything's going faster these days. Everything's changing and no one can keep up."

"Maybe what's happening now will slow that down," Scudder offered, and the Russian glared at him half-heartedly. They'd fought that battle, the outcome had been determined. Old news.

"No..." He looked down at his food, then out the window. The dust had swirled up again, obscuring everything else in the dreamscape. "It won't. It's not."

Scudder sighed, his shoulders slumping with the disappointment. "Then we're lost."

"We're not lost." The Russian scrubbed one hand over his eyes and poked at the last couple pieces of chicken, swirling them round and round in the sauce without any intention of eating. It tasted of home, and he wasn't in the mood to twist that particular knife right now. "We're suffering a few setbacks."

It should have seemed strange that they were working together on this. And then again, if they had destroyed the world there would be no battleground left for their Princes. And neither of them wanted to destroy the world; most of the time they just wanted to go their way in peace. When they had been only men, men with abilities slightly above the ordinary, granted, but men nonetheless, they hadn't imagined it would come down to this. Neither of them had ever believed their choices were evil ones.

"Your son..."

The Russian stabbed the air in front of him with a fingertip. "He is not my son. His mother abducted them both and taught them nothing of their inheritance, he was raised by a priest, he is none of mine."

Scudder held up his hands, not pressing the evident sore point. "The Dark Prince is still trying to find his way. He doesn't yet know the full scope of what he is, you could use that. You could teach Ben before..."

Before Scudder died. Before the power turned over again to a new wielder, before things got completely out of control. He tapped the bottom of his fork against his plate and thought about that.

"Ben Hawkins is a stubborn boy. He doesn't care to hear what he doesn't understand, and he's very angry about being made to understand it."

His opposite smiled. "That's my boy."

"That's not a compliment. There are certain things he needs to know before he takes on his opposite. He needs to be prepared. If he were to come up against him today he would lose, and the world would fall deeper into the darkness and we might all suffer for it. And not be able to return."

"Listen to you," Scudder coughed. "You sound as though you've given up."

"I'm worried, that's all."

"Stop worrying. You're making your side look bad."

It got him to crack a smile at least, give a dry chuckle. "Our sides are not so simple as light and dark, you know that. Good and evil."

"Hope and despair."

"Mm." Tap tap tap went the fork against the china. Not so simple, not so neat, even though Ben was young enough to want things to be that simple. They never were. The world, God, whoever first engendered this warped and world-spanning system of sibling rivalry had spat them out to choose between one and the other, but the longer he lived in this half-dead shell and half in dreams the more he decided that there was little to choose from between them. "I'll see what I can do about Ben."

"And Justin's doing well enough on his own." Scudder agreed. Then rose, easing out from the booth and heading to the door. "It's good to see you, old enemy."

"Mm," the Russian nodded.

Preferring not to return to his body just yet, Lucius sat in the diner and chewed his last piece of chicken, thinking. About the past, the future. The choices he'd made and had yet to make. Out of all of them, perhaps the one he regretted most was not coming to know Ben as he was, learning how to talk to him. It would have made this so much easier.

There was no time for that now.