Shepherding in the newly elected wasn’t bringing the lambs in to meet the lions as much as it was dumping a barrel full of piranhas into a shark tank, but Loki saw incredible potential amidst the sharply tailored suits and glittering jewelry. Potential to do good; potential to serve their fellow men. Most would fail and fall to the wayside, wholly corrupted, but some would persevere with only tarnish and stains on their souls. Even if he couldn’t keep any of their patent leather shoes on the straight and narrow, he could keep a few of them from diving headlong into the Pit.
He wasn’t the only angel in the luxury hotel ballroom, from Above or Below. They were visible to the mortal men and women but as unnoticed and unremarkable as the serving staff. Each had their charge or their quarry; a nudge here and a whisper in an ear there, steering their chosen through the twisting paths of political intrigue. Alliances were forged over vodka martinis; trade bargains struck with the crack of ice in a tumbler filled with gin. Bright smiles, wide with newly bleached teeth and porcelain enamel, hid betrayals and damning secrets.
There was no innocence in the ballroom, but he looked out over the crowd and he saw something far less fragile than innocence; he saw hope. Not for anyone in the room, they were all damned, but for the greater whole that might rise above the pettiness of a man’s greed. For those better angels of their nature to be revealed.
Although, Loki thought, hope seemed to be going out of fashion, traded in for fear of anything unknown or different. He swallowed down a tired sigh and started through the crowd toward the first term underdog Senator who’d won by a margin no wider than a schoolgirl’s hair ribbon. This one showed promise. He had the righteous fire of a true believer in justice and human dignity. Loki had seen a hundred others like him and watched them all fall, but he had to try.
He stuck close to the Senator for much of the evening, reaching out to touch an elbow or brush his fingers against a shoulder. Just enough to keep the Senator from falling into the most obvious of the trappings around him. The bribes, the favors, the seemingly bottomless pocketbooks of those who moved mountains and countries as if they were no more than numbers rising and falling in the Stock Exchange. As if every one of those numbers wasn’t the sum of hundreds of thousands of lives, of hopes and dreams stitched together across a thousand weary nights with tears and blood and loss. He made no attempt to sway any of the sleek, corporate sharks who came circling around the Senator; they had long since given themselves to the Pit.
With his attention on the fledgling Senator, he only belatedly noticed when the Senator's wife drifted away from his side. It wasn't unusual. The men often ran in different, if adjacent, circles, and the women were often far more ruthless. They had to be, he supposed mildly, scanning the room for the soft, robin's egg blue dress she'd been wearing. A small town girl; the Senator's high school sweetheart. Loki knew she didn't stand a chance. Her husband might see a second term, but he doubted she would even see the end of the first.
A flash of blue caught his eye. He left the Senator to his own devices, gliding through the crowd easily. When a huddled group of men in dark suits drifted to make way, Loki gritted his teeth, huffing out an irritated breath as he saw who had caught the wife's attention. He was tall, impossibly broad shouldered in a perfectly tailored suit of such a deep blue that it seemed to shift into midnight black as the man moved. His smile was all perfect, white teeth, and he had blond hair styled to look just messy enough, as though a woman had run her fingers through it only moments ago. It was a ridiculous ruse, but an effective one.
Loki approached the Senator's wife and her companion, raising one eyebrow archly. "Los Angeles too cold for you this time of year?"
The man holding the Senator's wife's hand looked up briefly, blue eyes twinkling, but seemed to think better about kissing her knuckles and merely gave her a small nod. "The pleasure has been mine," he said smoothly, straightening up but only reluctantly letting go of her hand. She swayed toward him unsteadily, eyes glazed and cheeks flushed.
Loki let his hand settle on her upper back for a moment. She visibly shook herself, blinking and looking around before she excused herself and hurried away.
"Loki. I was hoping I'd bump into you tonight." The man caught two champagne flutes from a passing tray with ease and held one out. "Are you working?"
"Washington DC is my territory, Steve," Loki answered pointedly. He took the offered glass gingerly. "Did you seduce all of California and run out of victims?"
A wide grin spread over Steve's lips before he threw his head back, laughing. He had a deep, infectious laugh that brought color into his cheeks in a way that was positively indecent. Renaissance painters had, in fact, modeled far too many angelic figures after the demon in the deep blue suit.
Steve ducked his head with exquisitely practiced modesty. "You flatter me."
"Hardly. There isn't a soul in this room who wouldn't fall prey to your charms."
"Oh, I think there might be one." With a mischievous grin, Steve winked. "You should come out to LA sometime. Get out of this rat race. Put your wings up for a bit. I'll take you to Disneyland."
"As tempting as your offer may be, I have responsibilities here." He glanced back to ensure the Senator's wife had returned to her husband with no further detours.
"The offer stands." Steve raised the champagne glass to his lips, his eyes never leaving Loki's and somehow, he managed to smirk and swallow champagne at the same time.
Loki sighed. "Spare me the seduction routine, Hellspawn."
Pouting, Steve took a step closer. "Name calling? Rude." He made a tsk-tsk sound against his teeth, which somehow managed to sound alluring. "How about a bargain?"
It was Loki's turn to laugh. "I know better than to take anything you offer."
"Just a little one. Teensy." Steve grinned, all reckless charm and the thrill of the forbidden.
"If you dial it back a notch or two, I will hear you out," Loki ceded. It unnerved him how effective Steve was. Better angels had lost their charges to Steve's golden good looks and skill. "You've no need to waste all that effort on me. Though if you've come for the woman you attempted to ensnare a moment ago, I fear I will have to make it difficult for you."
"I love a challenge." Casually, Steve eased back a few inches and the intense sexuality of his presence diminished, if only slightly. "Not a bargain then, but there's a penthouse suite with a minibar. And a hot tub. If you're worried I might cause you trouble down here..." He let the words trail off, his expression bright with innocence and boyish hope when he looked at Loki. The pretense was so skillful that Loki caught himself wishing it were real. There was a moment of hunger, of bone-deep longing for everything Steve seemed to promise with that look, so strong that it shook him.
He was surprised when his voice stayed perfectly calm. "You will not return to this gathering so long as I'm with you and you will tell me what your Liege sent you to obtain."
Steve sucked in a breath. His eyes narrowed momentarily and some of the charm faded, but only for a moment. "Deal."
"Temporary alignment of our objectives," Loki correctly primly.
The smile Steve gave him then was one hundred percent the Devil's charm. "That's why I like working with you, Loki. You keep me honest."
"Honest? You're a demon."
"Fallen," Steve mimicked Loki's polite tone.
"You were never one of the Host of Heaven."
"Semantics. Demon has such negative connotations." As he spoke, he turned gracefully and steered Loki toward the elevators. "People expect a pointed tail and cloven hooves. Or worse, some sort of black mist going around infecting people, which is frankly unsanitary. I blame television. All these unrealistic expectations. I can't be everything to everyone, you know? You probably feel the same, right? People expecting the halo and the wings."
"I do have wings," Loki pointed out, although he wasn't currently using any of his winged forms.
"And I've got horns." Pressing the elevator button, Steve pivoted to the side, bringing himself in much too close for Loki's comfort. "It's gotta be hard. Being a pillar of virtue and goodness. A lot of pressure. A lot to live up to. Day in, day out. For eternity. It must be lonely." His breath washed over Loki's jaw, warm and soft as a rose petal.
Loki deliberately looked at the elevator doors, waiting for them to open before he responded. "I imagine it's not so different for you." He thought he saw a flash of surprise in Steve's blue eyes. "You seduce, you bargain. You take innocence and dreams and tie up their mortal souls with your honeyed words. That must be a great deal of pressure as well, I suppose. All those beds you leave behind. All those broken hearts. So much sex and lust and yet, you will never know love. Never know what it is to be loved. It must be lonely." The doors slid open and Loki stepped inside. For a moment, he thought Steve would refuse to step inside. He squashed the rush of relief when Steve took a step forward and slid a black keycard over the sensor before pressing the button for the top floor.
"This is why they put us on opposite coasts," Steve said lightly. The corner of his lips turned up as he looked over. "We'd spend too much time together and forget what we're here for."
"Fraternizing with the enemy is not exactly encouraged."
Steve leaned in, his voice a low whisper, as though confessing a secret. "But I'm so charming."
"You won't corrupt me."
"And you can't redeem me."
The words jarred Loki, without being able to put his finger on why. "If you seek His grace," he began.
"Oh no, thanks," Steve chuckled. "Horns, remember? They come with the Do Not Get Out Of Hell Ever card. I'm a demon. It's what I'm good at. Or bad at, depending on which side of this game you’re standing on."
Loki winced at casually calling the battle between good and evil, the battle for the souls of mankind, a game. It sounded a lark that way, like a good time was had by all and no one got hurt. He knew better; it was no game. But then, a small, reasonable voice in the back of his mind reminded him, that might not have been what Steve had meant. For them, one angel and one demon without their charges or victims present, it could be seen as a game.
When the elevator doors opened at the short hallway leading to the penthouse suite, Loki thought he’d never felt farther from both Heaven and Hell, as though he’d found the one patch of truly neutral ground that all of the Earth was supposed to be.
“Mind if I slip into something more comfortable?” Steve strolled into the open living area, heading for the bar. “Feel free yourself, of course.”
He didn’t wait for an answer, Loki noted, before the dark blue suit began to shimmer like a heat wave. Fabric faded to smooth, tanned skin and perfectly sculpted muscles. He supposed that he should’ve known Steve’s comfort preference would be nudity. Keeping his eyes respectfully averted, Loki looked instead at the two curved horns sprouting from Steve’s temples and the flicker of hellfire burning in his blue eyes.
“You really should take a good look, you know. I’m pretty much perfect.”
Loki turned his face toward the wide wall of windows and looked out at the view of the city across the river. “No doubt your Liege has done excellent work in crafting you to be an instrument of seduction and debauchery.”
With a hum of amusement, Steve plucked up a bottle of tawny scotch and poured out two glasses. “You know, I’ve never fucked an angel.”
“Quite certainly an ill-advised pursuit,” Loki said shortly, bristling at reduction of love and intimacy to a crude word. He risked a glance at Steve’s face when he accepted the glass of alcohol, seeing the dance of firelight behind Steve’s eyes and thinking it looked like mischief. “Do you mean to try to seduce me?”
Steve raised his glass slowly but paused, a sly smile playing over his lips. “Do you mean to try to love me?”
“Love is the angel’s burden, and our gift,” he answered by rote, like a prayer oft recited. Love saves , he thought, keeping that to himself. Demons weren't looking for salvation.
“Seems to me, we could both get what we want out of this, with a little cooperation.” Steve’s skin was golden even in the cool, silvery light, making Loki wonder if it would be tinged red in bright daylight, stained with Hell’s own ink.
Turning back to the expansive view, he sipped at the smoky scotch, wrinkling his nose as it burned his throat and sinuses. Imported, most likely, from Hell itself. He doubted Steve would try to poison him. Providing a beverage that tasted foul and undrinkable to an angel would probably be considered a joke.
"Relax." Steve's voice was a low purr behind his left ear and Loki could feel the infernal heat radiating from Steve's skin.
Perhaps to prove himself equal to Steve's earlier trick, Loki made a small motion with his right fingers and his suit vanished, replaced with a pale, lightweight tunic fastened with a clip over his right shoulder and loosely tied at his waist. It was an older form, traditional, but comfortable. Rather than complaining, however, Steve sucked in a sharp breath.
"If you were hoping that I would also be naked-"
"It's gorgeous," Steve murmured. He settled a hand on Loki's right hip, his fingers drifting along the angles of Loki's hips and lower back. "The fabric is amazing. It's so light and smooth. The way it slides over your skin is incredible. The Greeks would've carved statues of you and never have done it justice."
Loki swirled the scotch in his glass. "I see you don't intend to give up on your attempts to seduce me."
"I can't help it." Warm breath washed over the back of Loki's shoulder, followed by the press of Steve's lips, even warmer. "You're too beautiful. Too perfect. I bet every inch of you is perfect, but..." Those warm lips brushed a line up the side of Loki's neck to his ear. "I should probably check. Just to be sure." Steve's fingers were on the tunic's clasp, searching out the mechanism.
He could have stopped Steve from undoing the clasp, stopped the tunic from sliding down to pool around his feet. At any given moment, he could have stopped Steve from pulling him away from the wall of windows and toward the bed. The pleasure of Steve's experience and skill, honed over centuries of seducing women and men, wasn't enough that Loki could claim his mind was too muddled by temptation to put an end to what Steve was doing.
He could have stopped each kiss and every caress. He could have done more than close his eyes, breathless and holding tight to Steve's hand, as Steve demonstrated, quite thoroughly, how to give a man pleasure with his lips and tongue. Even reeling from the new and unfamiliar sensations of physical climax, he could have stopped Steve from getting what he wanted. He thought he saw triumph burning in Steve's eyes, as though the culmination of their blasphemous coupling was a victory for him to claim over the hosts of Heaven.
He could have stopped Steve from rolling away and stretching out on his back with a satisfied smile on his lips. The throbbing Loki felt, either from the physical act itself or the demon seed left inside him, was one more strange, new sensation for him to study and categorize. Not unpleasant, he thought, distantly aware of Steve's breathing gradually shifting into the steady rhythm of sleep.
The fatigue was also strange. It crept over him, heavy and clinging, until he could no longer keep his eyes open. He fumbled with the blanket to cover them both and rolled against Steve, letting his arm drape over Steve's chest.
What would come, would come.
Whether it was the first light of dawn that woke Loki or the movement of the bed as Steve pulled away, fighting with the blanket, he wasn't certain. Blinking sleepily, he tried to focus on the confused sounds Steve was making.
"Doesn't make sense," Steve muttered. He rubbed at his temple with the heel of his palm. "Something's wrong...I don't...what the fuck is going on?"
"Water," Loki said. His voice came out like a croak. "You need to drink water."
"What?" Steve barely seemed to recognize him. His expression was drawn in pain, eyes squinting despite the dim light. He kept working at his temple and the back of his neck. "What does water have to do with anything? Something's wrong. Did you do something to me last night?" The last was a clear accusation and he glared at Loki with suspicion.
"It's a hangover," Loki explained, keeping his voice low. "Nothing more sinister than that."
"I can't get hungover," Steve snapped back. "I'm a demon."
Careful not to jar Steve or cause too much shifting of the bed, Loki pushed himself up to sit against the headboard. "You may find that you...aren't. At the moment."
Suspicion turned to horror as Steve understood what Loki was saying. Color draining from his face, he fumbled for the bedside lamp and switched it on, turning his hands over and over, trying to find minute differences in his skin. He reached for his temples as though only just realizing his horns had vanished. Loki watched quietly. He noticed that Steve's eyes were no less blue than before, but they no longer burned with hellfire. Perhaps Steve would see differences in Loki as well, if he bothered to look.
"I can't," Steve choked out, "I can't be mortal. This isn't...this can't..."
Leaning closer, he thought to reach out, hoping to reassure. "Steve." He had no chance to say anything further before Steve spun wildly away from him, nearly knocking the lamp off the small table. His elbow caught Loki's lower lip and the pain stunned him.
"I can't...I can't feel Hell. It's gone." Steve paced back and forth at the side of the bed. "How is this even possible?"
Gingerly, Loki brought his fingers to the spot where Steve had inadvertently hit him. There was bright red on his skin when he lowered his hand. Blood. He'd never bled before and could hardly believe it. The cut on his lip stung when he ran his tongue over it, tasting his own blood for the first time. He stared at his fingertips, mesmerized, and barely heard Steve's ranting.
"Did you know this was going to happen?" Steve demanded, loud enough to get Loki's attention. "Did you?" He saw Steve's brow furrow, then his eyes went wide. "Is that? You're...bleeding." His throat worked as he swallowed and he sat down heavily on the bed, his voice barely a whisper. "We're both mortal."
"I don't think it's permanent," Loki said absently, still fixated on his cut lip. "An angel and a demon, our natures can't coexist. I knew it was a possibility but I wasn't sure." He smeared the blood on his fingertips with his thumb. Suddenly conscious of his nakedness, and inability to simply materialize clothes at will, he pulled the covers a little tighter over his lap to ensure his modesty. "It could've simply been a myth. I don't know of any angel who has ever bedded a demon. Didn't, I suppose. I am, perhaps, the first."
Whether that made him a fool, whether that would cut him off from Grace and damn him to Hell; those were all questions without answers. He'd known there was risk, but he'd hoped - he'd had faith - that even this impossibility could fall within His plan.
"But it'll go away?" There was a note of desperation in Steve's voice. He shuddered, rubbing at his temple again. "This feels like dying."
Loki tamped down the urge to smile. "Perhaps all mortals feel that way after drinking."
Steve shook his head. He was rocking now, arms wrapped tight around himself and his jaw clenched so tightly shut that Loki could see the muscles working. When he looked in Loki's direction, his eyes were wide and unfocused, glazed over with shock. This was reason for concern. He'd understood Steve's anger and confusion, but the raw terror in Steve's face was unexpected.
Cautiously, he eased forward enough to reach out a hand. "Steve?"
"Don't touch me!" Steve recoiled as though Loki's hand was a venomous serpent readying to strike. He kept his arms tight against his stomach as he stood up, stumbling toward the closet doors. After a moment's rummaging through the contents of the closet, he pulled out an enormous fluffy, white robe bearing the name of the hotel spa. He hurriedly tugged it on, tying the belt with a complete knot and pulling the collar so high that it nearly reached his chin.
"I'm sorry. I didn't think to warn you. I should have," Loki said quietly. He had mentioned that it would be ill-advised. "I thought you were aware that there might be consequences." Surely Hell had the same whispered myth as Heaven?
His words barely seemed to register with Steve, who had at least gone to the bar for one of the bottled waters and was gulping it down. Less encouraging was Steve reopening the bottle of scotch. With a heavy sigh, Loki slipped from the bed. There was a second robe in closet. He was distracted by how soft the fabric was against his skin. Or perhaps his skin was more sensitive now than it had been before. It covered him, at least, and he didn't wish to alarm Steve any further.
"I believe you shouldn't drink on an empty stomach." He watched Steve rock back and forth in one of the armchairs, a glass half full of scotch clutched tight in his hands. Blue eyes were still wide, but the fear had turned hollow and haunted.
After a quick search, Loki found a basket filled with snacks of questionable nutrition in one of the cabinets and a room service menu. The snacks would be a start until he could order breakfast brought to the room. Less than an hour according to the clock on the bedside table, at which time he had no doubt Steve would be considerably drunk and possibly ill. It wouldn't harm him; he would recover completely once his infernal nature returned. Still, Loki didn't want to see him suffer.
"At least eat one of these. Please." He held out a granola bar. Steve's eyes met Loki's, but he couldn't be sure Steve was truly seeing him. Gently, he tugged the glass of scotch from Steve's fingers and pressed the granola bar into his hand. Steve shuddered, fingers twitching nervously.
"Are you alright?" Loki wrinkled his nose at the pungent smell of the scotch.
Steve's voice rustled like dry autumn leaves. "Am I going to change?"
"Go back to...what I was. Before. I wasn't." He looked down at himself. "I didn't look like this. When I was mortal."
Loki stared. He hadn't considered that at all. "What do you mean?"
"I was small. Sick." Steve clutched the granola bar tightly and Loki heard it begin to crumble. "I was dying when He...when I..."
Of course, Loki thought sadly. He'd been vulnerable, as so many were when they met the Prince of Hell and believed all his honeyed promises. "I'm so sorry, Steve. I don't think you will change. If you haven't already." He bit his lip, wishing he knew more. He thought to help Steve open the granola bar and reached out tentatively, watching for signs of distress. Steve cringed when Loki's fingers brushed the back of his thumb.
"I'm not going to hurt you," Loki soothed. He caught the end of the granola bar and ripped open the plastic just enough to make it easy for Steve.
"It's not that." Steve's shoulders slumped.
"Try to eat. It will help. I'll get you some more water. When the kitchen opens, I'll order breakfast."
Steve peeled back the plastic and took a bite. He kept his gaze downcast except for quick, furtive glances at Loki while he chewed. On the second bite, Loki considered what to do with the glass of scotch and settled on leaving it on the small table beside the armchair. There was another full water bottle and the one Steve had nearly emptied. Loki refilled that one from the tap in the kitchen and brought them both back to Steve. He made no comment when Steve reached for the glass of scotch rather than either bottle of water. So long as Steve was eating and drinking water along with the liquor, that would have to be enough.
Silence made room for his curiosity. He wondered when Steve had lived, how long ago, and what deathbed bargain he'd made with the Devil. Those were intensely personal questions.
"You don't have to stay," Steve muttered, taking another bite of the granola bar.
"I can hardly leave wearing this." He gestured to the robe. "Comfortable as it is. Once I'm able to return to my true form..." He hesitated to commit to leaving, although he doubted Steve would have any interest in him staying longer than absolutely necessary. It stung, a little, in a strange, new way, that Steve barely tolerated his touch now, after how intimate they'd been only hours earlier. "It would seem you're going to be stuck with my company for awhile longer. If there is anything I can do to make this easier for you." He stopped when he saw Steve's expression twist into a grimace. What had he said wrong this time?
"I fucking hate sex," Steve said abruptly, chewing as though he meant to grind the granola bar to powder.
Loki blinked, then stared. "How are you-"
"You wouldn't understand." More angry chewing. He finished the granola bar and began to twist the plastic wrap between his fingers. "Angels are immortal, created. Demons are made . We all start as something else. Someone else." He stopped, staring into the space over Loki's shoulder, his eyes focused a thousand miles, perhaps a thousand years, away.
"Go on," Loki prompted gently.
A twitch at the corner of Steve's lips might have been an attempt at a bitter, sardonic smile. "You know what Hell is? It's being someone you're not. It's being something you hate. Forever."
"Then you didn't ask to be what you are, when you made your bargain?"
Steve snorted as he tossed the crumpled wrapper onto the coffee table. He leaned back in the chair, holding the glass of scotch close to his chest. "I wanted to hurt the people who'd hurt me. Wanted to make them pay, make them suffer. I wanted the power to do that. To make a difference. For once. Didn't read the fine print though. No one ever does. He gave me power, alright. I brought down kings, destroyed lives, started wars. I made them suffer. I took everything from them, like they took everything from me. I ended up no different than them, in the end." The haunted look was back. "But suffering's part of the deal, isn't it? Even if you're a demon, Hell's still Hell."
Loki's heart ached. He yearned to give Steve comfort, but doubted it would be accepted. Steve's story, in its tragedy, could hardly be unique. There were likely countless scores of souls who had made foolish, inescapable deals for love or power or revenge. Nor was it unexpected that the bargain would have been twisted around in such a way as to pierce the soul who made it.
He knew all of that, but it had never made him angry the way it did now, as he watched Steve rocking, eyes blank and all but collapsing in on himself. So long as he was mortal, he couldn't heal or bring Steve peace. In all his millennia, Loki had never felt so helpless.
"What do you need?" Loki resisted the urge to reach out and take Steve's hands.
Steve's blue eyes were bloodshot. He blinked as he focused on Loki. "What?"
"What do you need?" Loki repeated. "You mentioned a hot tub last night. That would help ease the pain in your body. I will take care of ordering food if you tell me what you'd like. I won't ask that you stop drinking that foul liquor, but I will insist that you drink water as well. It may be some time before we are ourselves again."
Eyes narrowed suspiciously, Steve took another sip of scotch. "You're not an angel anymore, you don't have to be nice to me."
"I'm currently mortal, yes, which means it's my choice." Loki smiled as he left to consult the room service menu. "Mortals get to choose, good or evil. Every second of their lives, it's their choice. You know that. I choose to stay and to care for you."
Love is the angel's burden , he thought automatically and knew Steve would reject that answer.
After a moment, Steve continued, "what do you get out of this?"
Heat flooded up back of Loki's neck and into his cheeks. He kept his gaze on the menu, trying to read through the various options. "Angels don't...experience physical pleasure the way mortals do. Typically. It's not forbidden, as such, but it isn't a priority. Those who have sex with mortals, do so to serve a higher purpose, not because they’re seeking pleasure. For an angel with my duties...I would not be called on to pursue such a purpose."
He felt a shiver of what might have been fear, what might have been doubt. It was a new and unpleasant feeling. Did mortals spend every waking moment in doubt?
"So you're being nice to me because I fucked you."
Loki sighed and squashed a flare of irritation. "There's no need to be crude. Do you want the Southwest omelet or the Eggs Benedict?"
"Omelet. There's no point pretending it was anything special. It's just sex."
"Well, I found it enjoyable and it's unlikely I'll ever experience it again, so...thank you. I am grateful for the experience." Loki picked up the phone receiver and dialed the number. It gave him an excuse to turn away and time to calm the storm of conflicting emotions stirred up by Steve's attitude. He ordered one omelet, one Eggs Benedict, and a bowl of fresh fruit with bread. Steve was watching him through narrowed eyes when he returned the menu to the desk and Loki had the sudden desire to keep busy, as if that could stave off whatever awkward conversation might happen.
"Then you've never..." Steve let the question trail off.
"No." It took Loki a moment to figure out the latch to the door leading out to the small patio area where the hot tub overlooked the city. He determined that it was at an acceptable temperature and pulled off the cover to inspect the water.
"Not anything?" Steve asked from the doorway behind him. "Not even kissing?"
"Have you ever wanted to?"
"No." He tightened the belt of the robe, making sure he was as covered as possible. There was barely a layer of dust on the two wooden slat chairs set up beside the hot tub but he brushed at them anyway, clearing away a small dried leaf. "If you'd like to get in now, I can bring your omelet to you when it arrives." Politely, he averted his gaze in case Steve decided to disrobe.
"Never. You've lived thousands of years and you've never wanted anyone?"
Another flash of irritation. He looked up, meeting Steve's gaze. "Why do you hate sex?"
Steve's mouth went tight and a muscle in his jaw ticked. Glass of scotch in hand, he moved to the side of the hot tub and dipped his fingers into the water. "I don't want to talk about it. I just want to know why."
Loki didn't have a ready answer.
"You could've chosen anyone. Someone you could have sex with and not end up mortal. Unless that was the point." There was a wry note in Steve's voice. He set the glass down long enough to untie his robe. Loki looked away quickly, suddenly very aware of every sound and splash of water as Steve sunk into the water and let out a long sigh. "Did you want to be like your beloved humans that badly? I could've told you it wasn't worth it. To be weak and powerless. Pointless."
"They are more than their faults." He kept his gaze focused on the outline of the city, resisting the urge to look at Steve. "You are more than your faults."
"I sold my soul to get revenge on men who would've died anyway and now I'm the Devil's favorite whore until the end of eternity. Exactly what more do you think I am?"
"Right now, you are simply a man with a hangover and a broken heart."
Steve's brow furrowed, deep lines appearing as he frowned. "My heart's not broken."
"It was broken long before you chose to serve Hell and I doubt any in Hell have knowledge of healing, do they?"
"Broken is better than foolish."
He would make no headway with that topic of conversation. "Soak. It will help. And drink more water. I will go in and wait for the food."
"Alright," Steve continued, his voice punctuated by small splashes of water. His questions followed Loki into the penthouse suite. "What was the higher purpose then? Making me mortal, was that the goal? What does that get you?"
He paused in the doorway and risked a glance back. Steve was reclining in the water, immersed nearly to his chin and eyes half closed. The hot water brought color to his face, which only served to make Loki realize how pale Steve had been before. He retrieved the two bottles of water and carried them out, setting them beside Steve's glass of scotch.
"Is it a secret?" Steve sounded amused. "I thought I was the one seducing you, but maybe it was the other way around."
Since Steve's eyes were closed and he couldn't see, Loki rolled his eyes at the suggestion that he'd come there to seduce a demon. "You never did tell me what your Liege sent you to do. I am hardly a devious mastermind if I don't know what plot I'm attempting to foil by bedding you."
Steve hummed before he opened his eyes just enough to reclaim his glass of scotch. He took small sips, appearing to be deep in thought. The crease in his brow gave Loki the urge to reach out and smooth it away.
"Your Senator is a sheep walking into a den of wolves. There are those who would see him fail. Preferably, they would like to see him take the fall for others' crimes. It hasn't come together yet but they'll close in around him soon enough. I was testing his wife to see if she was a viable way to destabilize him. She is, by the way." Steve's lips twisted into a mirthless smile. "Not many can resist me. Not even angels, apparently. Although that has turned out to be a phenomenally bad idea."
That was more information than Loki had ever gotten out of a demon. Certainly, it was the first time he'd gotten any information that hadn't been tangled up in riddles.
"Here." Steve held up his now empty glass. "I'll trade you. And I'll drink one of those bottles of water if you bring me another drink."
"Do you intend to spend your time as a mortal drunk?"
"Abso-fucking-lutely. I'm still hoping this is just a really bad dream."
Shaking his head, Loki took the glass inside. He watched and waited until he saw Steve pick up one of the water bottles and begin to drink. If Steve wanted to spend his precious few hours as a mortal drinking himself into oblivion, Loki wasn't going to judge. He refilled the glass with a generous portion of scotch and left it on the ledge of the hot tub before slipping back into the suite. There was a copy of the previous day's newspaper folded on the desk to occupy him until the food arrived and a quick search turned up a pen he could use to do the crossword puzzle.
He was trying to think of a seven word letter for 'passed quickly' when there was a sharp knock on the door signaling the arrival of room service. The man at the door was pleasant enough, cheerfully greeting Loki and identifying the food beneath each covered dish, making sure there was nothing else needed for the meal. It took some arranging to get the rolling table situated near enough to the armchair to sit and eat.
"Something smells amazing."
Loki glanced up. Steve had gotten out of the hot tub, dressed once again in the robe, although it was tied much more loosely this time. His skin was still flushed and his hair was damp.
"You didn't have to get out."
"I'm getting back in after I eat." Steve pulled up one of the lids to check the contents. "This one looks like mine." He set his glass down and pulled over the chair from the desk. "You should get in with me. Hell, you should have a couple stiff drinks. Might be your only chance to get drunk."
"Recreational poisoning isn't the appealing part of being mortal for me." His stomach clenched at the smells rising up from the plates. Part of him wanted to ask Steve if he could try the omelet as well, just for the experience.
"There's an appealing part of this?" Steve said dubiously.
Loki considered the question as he laid his napkin over his lap and tried to determine the best way to eat the Eggs Benedict. "Everything is different. In small ways. Details are sharper, perhaps? Colors seem brighter, shadows are darker. The feel of this garment against my skin. It's as if...as if my skin is more sensitive than it was before." He wondered how different Steve's hands would feel against his skin and felt his cheeks flush. Studiously keeping his gaze downward, he began cutting the stacks of biscuit, egg, and meat into bite size pieces. If Steve's beauty had been distracting before, it was a thousand times more now. "There is more depth in everything. Every sensation and experience has more layers. If that makes sense."
Steve didn't respond. He looked thoughtful as he began to work on his omelet, occasionally stopping to wash down a bite with scotch. "It's been a few hundred years. For me." He swirled the scotch in his glass a few times, staring at it as though he expected it to change colors or perhaps disappear. "It was pretty shitty then too. At least I'm not." He stopped abruptly and turned back to his food.
There was no way for Loki to understand how Steve's previous existence as a mortal man might loom large in his memory. He determined to pay attention, hoping to glean insight from any small changes of expression Steve might show. That strategy, however, backfired spectacularly before Steve was even halfway through the meal. Loki had nearly forgotten to eat, becoming distracted by Steve's lips closing around the fork or licking away bits of egg and sauce. Finally, he forced his head down, trying to concentrate only on his own meal.
Steve finished eating well before Loki. He settled back in the chair, fingers tapping lightly against the side of his glass, and watched Loki with an expression between amusement and speculation.
After swallowing the last bite of egg and biscuit, Loki cleared his throat. "Yes?"
"You're attracted to me," Steve answered, a slight crease in his brow, as though he found this strange.
"I would've thought that to be obvious."
"I thought it was just the glamour. People always want me, but it's never real." He eyed Loki, clearly still thinking. "But you said angels don't work that way. So you didn't want me last night, when I had the glamour, but you want me now that you're mortal."
"I, um." Loki cleared his throat again, feeling distinctly trapped by his own words. Everything that had always seemed so clear before was now muddled and tangled, no doubt the result of losing his connection to the Divine.
A single eyebrow raised, Steve slowly lifted his glass to his lips. "Interesting."
"I don't...I won't," Loki fumbled, his face heating with embarrassment. "I have no intention of pressuring you into doing something you hate. I would never. But I cannot deny that I find you physically arousing."
Steve's expression turned serious again and he sighed heavily. "I don't hate it. Sex. I mean, I do. It's awful. But...I don't. It's not...I don't know. It's hard to explain."
Making a face, Steve swallowed down the rest of his scotch. He got up to refill his glass and Loki was glad when he retrieved a bottle of water as well. Thinking to clear away their breakfast, he moved the fruit and bread to the desk before wheeling the small table out into the hallway where it could be collected. Movement might lessen whatever pressure Steve might feel to talk about his worries, might put him at ease. He was thinking to resume his crossword puzzle when Steve spoke again.
"The glamour is Hell's power. His power." Steve took a seat on the end of the bed, elbows braced on his knees and the glass loose in his fingers. "It's temptation turned up to a thousand. Everything you've ever wanted and more besides."
"It's quite intense," Loki commented.
Steve watched him with that inscrutable gaze again. "It's different for everyone, I think. A superhero, a good father; adventure, security. Whatever's buried so deep people don't even know they want it most of the time. What did it make you want?"
You , Loki thought. Love. To see Steve smile at him as though he held all of creation in his hands. The fleeting moments where souls connected that only mortals were capable of experiencing. But those thoughts felt too fragile, too vulnerable to admit. He abandoned his crossword and went to the bar to pour his own glass of scotch, shaking his head when Steve laughed.
"I had a lover. Before. A real one. Not what I do now." With a deep breath, Steve sat up straight. "Someone I loved. It was different with him. Special. Wonderful. I loved him and I loved being with him. What I do now isn't anything like that."
"And now you hate it," Loki finished for him. "What happened to him? Your lover."
Steve didn't meet his gaze. "He was killed. I haven't thought out it in so long. It was horrible. It wasn't fair and it was stupid. Some stupid pissing contest over a piece of land by the river and he wouldn't give it up. Guess they thought they'd teach him a lesson. They were already there when he got back from the fields and I wasn't...I was fucking useless." His hand clenched into a fist against his knee. "They made him watch. What they did to me. Which was fucking awful. Not sure what happened after. I don't think they came there to kill him and I wasn't too lucid, you know. Next thing I know, I'm lying there covered in blood and shit and watching this pool of blood under him get bigger and bigger. The side of his skull was caved in where someone hit him. I wanted to die with him. But more than that, I wanted to make them suffer."
Careful to keep his distance, Loki took a seat on the bed beside Steve. "That's when He came."
Steve nodded. "Made me a deal I couldn't refuse," he said with a dry laugh. He took a long swallow from his glass. "I tracked them down. Killed every one of them. And their families. Anyone who got in my way. I didn't care. Demons are strong and I'd never been strong, never had power like that. To kill, to hurt, to destroy. The whole village was deserted for a near a century after I was done. They still say that part of the forest is haunted, they just don't remember why."
"I'm sorry," Loki whispered. Both Steve's pain and the pain he'd caused others made Loki's heart ache.
"Do you know," Steve faltered, rubbing a hand over his face. "Could you tell me if he's in heaven? I haven't...I didn't dare look. In Hell. Didn't want to know if he was."
"I could. Not right now, but yes, I could look for him."
"I deserve Hell, I know that."
"Don't." Steve shook his head quickly. "Twelve hours ago, I would've told you the same story except I would've been laughing about watching them die. This is just. Temporary." He rubbed at his chest. Something about the gesture made Loki think it was an old habit, long forgotten until now.
Aching with sadness, Loki shifted a few inches closer. "I can see how sex would be complicated for you. And I can see why He made you what you are." It would've been like pouring salt into Steve's wounds, over and over, for eternity.
"It's not Hell if it's not a double-edged sword," Steve murmured bleakly. "Don't know why I'm telling you any of this. Fucking angels. You and your hope ."
"I'm not an angel right now." Loki leaned close enough to bump Steve, very gently, with his shoulder. "Perhaps, right now, I am simply a friend."
A sad smile flashed across Steve's face. "I haven't had a friend in about six hundred years." Pulling back, he gave Loki a quizzical look. "I thought fraternizing with the enemy was frowned on."
Loki shrugged. "I suppose friendship is the lesser evil in comparison to what we did last night." Unexpectedly, that got him a loud, genuine laugh from Steve.
"Yeah, I'm gonna be so busted," Steve mused. "Hell coulda warned a guy, you know? About the whole...fucking an angel and becoming mortal. How does that work anyway? What did it?"
"I, uh, I believe it's, uh, the exchange of fluids." Loki thought his face must be bright red. Again.
Steve blinked. "Damn it. So this was avoidable."
"Well, yes. I suppose."
"And if we just kept having sex, without being careful, would we stay mortal?"
"I, uh, I don't..." Loki frowned. "I doubt that would be allowed. I'm not entirely sure why we've been left alone even this long. It can't be that they aren't aware of what happened. Something like this." He made a vague gesture between the two of them. "It upsets the balance."
"Well, next time, I won't swallow."
Loki choked. "Next time?"
"Just because I don't ever want to be mortal again doesn't mean I don't think it's hilarious that you are." Steve grinned at him and there was a glint of mischief in his eyes that made Loki think their small window of mortality was beginning to close. "And you want me, don't deny it," he continued. "You keep looking at me like you can't decide if you want to cuddle me or ask me to bang you like a screen door."
Rolling his eyes, Loki took his scotch and went to collect his crossword. "If you're going to be a brute about it."
"You want me to make sweet love to you?" Steve sounded like he was trying hard not to laugh.
"There's no need to be patronizing either."
"Alright, alright. I won't patronize. If." Steve's head lolled to the side as he leaned back onto his elbows. "If you come back to bed and we get good and drunk and fool around. Or we both get in the hot tub. I'll accept the hot tub option. With hand jobs."
Loki threw the newspaper at him. But he also went back to the bed with his drink and discovered that Steve's hands did indeed feel even better on his skin now that he was mortal. Everything felt better. He pretended not to notice how careful Steve was, how he was gentle in a way he hadn't been the night before. Pretended not to know that it must feel just as different for Steve too.
Special and wonderful , he thought, were exactly the right words for it.
The return of his true nature was a sudden breath of air. Loki's eyes snapped open and he inhaled, filling his lungs. All of the cluttered emotions, the questions and the doubts, that had piled up in his head and his heart were swept away in a moment, replaced with perfect calm. Slowly, he turned his head to the side. Steve's eyes were closed and he was still breathing in a deep, steady rhythm. Deep red horns spiraled out from his temples.
Loki slipped from the bed as carefully as possible, hoping that if Steve hadn't yet awoken, he would remain sleeping a little longer. Out of Hell's influence a little longer. He summoned casual, human clothes as he let himself out the patio door to the wide balcony and stepped up to the corner edge of the rooftop. It was evening and the sky was layered with pinks and blues all the way to the edges of the city. His wings were a solid weight at his back, silver white feathers ruffled by the breeze.
He could feel Heaven, feel its presence patient and waiting just beyond his reach, and he hesitated. A moment's uncertainty as he wondered if he would be cast out because of what he'd done. Fallen. Briefly, he considered reaching out with a plea for forgiveness, but when he finally did, the request in his heart wasn't for himself.
The answer was immediate. A spread of warmth inside his chest, of love and affirmation.
Behind him, the patio door squeaked as it opened. Steve stood in the doorway, naked and utterly unashamed by it. His expression was serious. The unspoken question hung in the air between them.
Loki smiled. "He's there. In Heaven." Steve took a visibly shaky breath and then nodded in silent gratitude.
His wings unfolded as he stepped off the corner of the building, catching the air and riding the currents as he flew out over the city. He was not fallen; he wasn't being called home. There had been a higher purpose, although he didn't know what it was. That would be left to faith.
He returned to his watch over the Senator as an invisible presence, nudging events and people in small, subtle ways. Steve's words were a constant reminder to be watchful of everyone around the Senator, knowing there was a net closing in around the young Senator and his wife. He discovered that he still enjoyed crossword puzzles.
Months passed and there was no sign of Steve, though Loki encountered several lesser demons working within the offices of the politicians. They scurried away from him as quickly as possible, their eyes wide with fear and loathing.
Perhaps Steve had returned to Los Angeles.
He was seated at a small table in a coffee shop, looking for a seven letter word for ‘friends’, when a folded newspaper landed in front of him. Glancing up, he saw Steve slide into the chair across the table, a sly grin playing across his lips. He looked tan and sun-kissed, with streaks of such pale blond in his hair that they nearly glowed.
"Hey, beautiful." Steve's perfect, white teeth all but sparkled. The hum of his glamour buzzed at the edges of Loki's senses.
"It's good to see you."
Steve raised an eyebrow. "I doubt that. I'm never up to anything good."
"Then I'd rather keep you within my sight. Easier to undo your damage that way." Loki tapped his pencil lightly against his paused crossword. "It is good though. I'd wondered where you were."
"It may surprise you that the City of Angels has a remarkably small population of actual angels and they are all completely boring. No sense of humor," Steve huffed, sounding both irritated and disappointed. "But yeah, I was...called home. For a bit. Refresher training. Then back to LA."
Loki winced, certain that 'refresher training' was most likely a misnomer. "I'm sorry."
Looking away, Steve shrugged. "You still have your halo so I guess the Boss wasn't too pissed off."
He was about to open his mouth to say something about forgiveness and compassion, but stopped when Steve reached out to flip open the newspaper and the headline caught his attention. Breaking scandal in the Senate; corruption, bribery, collusion with foreign governments. Frowning, Loki reached for the paper, scanning over the article. The trap he'd been expecting to close around his Senator had indeed been sprung, but it had ensnared those who had laid it instead. These were familiar names. There was even proof that they had planned to use Loki's charge as a scapegoat for their crimes.
Loki looked up, searching Steve's face for a clue as to why he'd brought the paper to Loki's attention. "Did you do this? How?"
"Not sure you want to know," Steve said, give him an exaggerated look of concern. "You would not believe who I had to sleep with to pull this off."
Loki held up a hand. "Alright. Keep your secrets." He glanced over the article again. "Thank you for this. Whatever part you played. I am grateful. He's a good man. He will do good things. Help people."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Don't go getting any ideas about saving me."
"Of course not." He couldn't help smiling and he knew that the love he felt, for Steve and the good Steve had done, was spilling out and would be lapping up against Steve the same way Hell's glamour brushed against him. Love was the angel's burden and their gift. It was also their weapon. He thought he saw Steve shiver.
"It's been great to catch up but I've got souls to corrupt, you know the drill." Steve flashed another too-bright smile and stood up. "Might see you around though."
"I hope so." Loki neatly folded the newspaper, holding it as though it was precious. Maybe it was. He nearly let Steve go at that, but the words slipped out before he could stop himself. "Who did you have to...you know." He gestured to the newspaper.
Steve's smile softened into something almost shy, almost human. "An angel."