Bethany Sloane glared at the snow swirling down outside her car windows as if it was a personal affront--which, to a certain degree, it was. Two hours ago, it had been lightly flurrying, with the prediction of the radio weatherman being that this state could have continued indefinitely. The salt trucks and snow plows had made a perfunctory appearance, but Bethany had gotten the distinct feeling they were there more because of contractual obligations and to prevent lawsuits, or something. One hour ago, it had been snowing fairly steadily, but not in a manner to get really concerned about--just enough to give the snow plows and salt trucks some actual purpose. And now, in the middle of God-knows-where, she was inching her car along the road in a near whiteout, glaring into the snow, and looking for the barn. There would be a barn eventually, she was certain. After all, she was eight and a half months pregnant, and caught in a freak blizzard in the middle of November. There would be a barn, although possibly a donkey would come along first.
She felt fairly stupid, to be honest.
Normally she wasn't this dumb. In fact, she'd come a long way in dealing with the stranger aspects of the world since the Metatron had appeared in her bedroom to charge her with a holy crusade. She'd handled the zombie thing without even a blink. Plus, her obstetrician said everything looked normal, so she hadn't had any reason to expect problems, and she knew she didn't want to spend Thanksgiving with her mother, who had been pestering her to visit ever since she'd found out Bethany was pregnant. So she had figured it was just sensible to visit her now--especially since Bethany was due in December and had assumed that the Event would happen then, as seemed more traditional. No, what made her feel spectacularly dense was that she hadn't clued in when she'd stopped at the Days Inn twenty miles back and been told there was no room.
Really, this should have been obvious, even before the contractions had started. Blindingly obvious, even, which made her briefly wonder if she'd been... influenced, a bit, not to see it. Briefly she considered yelling the question skyward, but eventually she decided not to. After all, she might get answered.
Besides, if things were following convention, she'd come out of the whole event fine, if possibly with a closer appreciation of livestock than she'd ever really wanted. It still wouldn't be any worse than some of the things she'd lived through. So Bethany crept forward for as long as her car could run, grateful that at least she wasn't in any pain yet --she'd had periods worse than this--and peering through the snow, looking for the barn that she was sure had to be there.
As it happened, she was wrong. There was no barn.
There was, however, a Wal-Mart.
The Metatron ran into Lucifer in Aisle Eight--Snacks, Cookies and Fruit Juices. The Serpent of the Abyss was wearing a dark gray pin-striped suit and had just stolen a packet of Oreos, if 'stolen' was the right word for taking them off the shelf and casually breaking them open with the sense of entitlement only the very rich and the very evil seemed to have--though one condition often seemed to indicate the other. It wasn't really surprising to find him there, in the specific sense of in that section, since the Devil's sweet tooth was something of a known fact both Above and Below. However, given the other circumstances in play, it was surprising indeed to find him there the larger sense of in that particular store, or maybe even on Earth entirely, and the Metatron couldn't decide if it was a bad sign or simply meant He was Up to Something. Again.
"You," he observed, through clenched teeth.
Lucifer offered him a cookie.
"What are you doing here?"
The look of utter innocence on Lucifer's face wouldn't have been believable even if the Metatron didn't know exactly who and what he was; it was far too overdone. "Why, shopping, of course." At the Metatron's dramatic look of disbelief, he added, "Have you seen their business practices? Positively delightful. Wonderful, wonderful work. Wouldn't get my cheaply-made, affordably-priced, over-valued middle class goods anywhere else." Lucifer ate another cookie and stole a sidelong glance at him. "What are you doing here?"
The Metatron looked at him for a long moment, trying to figure out what game he was playing. "Trying to inspire better business practices."
"Really? Such a terribly important angel being used for such a minor task?" Lucifer gave him a sharp grin. "Must be a bit demeaning to the ego."
The Metatron gave him a narrow-eyed stare. "You're hardly the sort to handle such minor matters yourself, either."
"Oh, but that's not so at all," Lucifer said, in an expansive tone, making a wide gesture with his hands and spilling a few Oreos in the process. "True, I do plenty of delegation, but there are certain minor matters that I find benefit from a... personal touch. But you... what, did you finally tick Him off enough to be sent on milk runs?" When the Metatron's stare turned into a glare, Lucifer cocked his head and offered him the bag. "Sure you don't want a cookie?"
The Metatron ignored the offer in favor of some fast thinking. While strictly speaking what Lucifer said was true--the Devil was known for keeping his hand in world affairs, both in figurative and literal senses--it was hard to believe this was just a case of the Prince of This World getting the munchies at an unusually inauspicious time. Unless....
"You really don't know," the Metatron said, slowly. Lucifer kept his head tilted and ate another Oreo. "Which means...."
From the end of Aisle Eight, you couldn't really see much of the store, but when the Metatron strode over to look, he could still easily make out the set of front doors near the food entrance and all of the express checkouts, as well as part of the restaurant area. A number of snowed-in customers and clerks were lingering there, taking advantage of the fountain drinks, while a few more valiantly manned their registers. At Register 4, a pretty, dark-haired cashier was talking to a man who had one arm resting against the check-writing platform. The man had short, ruffled, dark-blond hair, eyes that looked soulful even from a distance, a long tan coat, and a vaguely grungy appearance, which didn't seem to put the cashier off at all, judging by the way she was flirting.
He was also dead, and furthermore radiated a sense of power that was easily perceptible to an angel at least--a sense of power that was very nearly the equivalent of sign marked "Mine" in Lucifer's handwriting hovering over his head. The Metatron wondered vaguely if either point would have caused the man's admirer to rethink her position, but decided that, in these modern
times, neither would really be much of a deterrent.
He closed his eyes briefly, fighting an urge to roll them, or to rub his face with his hands, then opened them and looked briefly Heavenward, silently asking God, in the politest way possible, what the fuck He was doing.
He didn't reply, but then, the Metatron hadn't really expected Him to. One of the minor annoyances of being The Voice of God was that God didn't really have very much to say, especially these days. Mostly He smiled--or She smiled, if Serendipity had been around and particularly talkative. Sometimes there were gestures. At any rate, He hadn't actually said, Metatron, hie thee to the Wal-Mart where Bethany Sloane shall deliver her child unto the world, and oversee the birth of the one who will be Lord and Savior, Again, but somehow the Metatron had gotten the impression that he was supposed to do so just the same.
And now this. Lucifer wandered up beside him, the bag of Oreos more than half-empty already, and asked, in a remarkably insinuating tone, "See anything you like?"
The Metatron gave him a superior, sidelong look. He was taller than Lucifer in these particular mortal forms, and liked the theoretical edge that gave him, though Lucifer didn't seem to be paying any attention to it. "You know, sometimes I wonder if you rebelled just because it was less tiring to be the Opposition than to try and figure out what He's doing at any given moment."
Lucifer turned and stared at him with a genuinely puzzled look on his face, and for a moment, the Metatron enjoyed having someone around who was even more confused than he was.
Just for a moment. Then the doors opened, and a very pregnant, completely snow-covered Bethany Sloane stumbled through them. Everyone in the store simply stared at her for a long second. If this were a play--and might it very well be someday, the Metatron reflected--a fanfare might have sounded, but since it was real life, the overhead music, a particularly dreadful rendition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, simply continued. Somehow it wasn't a surprise that the man who had been at the checkouts was the first to shake off his daze and go over to help her.
Beside him, Lucifer's gaze turned both appraising and amused. "Well well well well well well well well." He smiled beatifically and tossed the bag of Oreos on a shelf. "Christmas has come early." He snorted, and added, "Literally," in a far too amused voice, before slipping towards Produce and a better view.
The Metatron sighed and followed him.
Bethany had almost missed the Wal-Mart, not in the least because she'd been so urgently expecting a barn, or at least a shed--something more rustic, more... traditional. When she'd finally made out the faint gleam of lights through the swirling snow, and eventually picked out letters, she'd ended up blinking repeatedly at it, before asking, in a dazed sort of voice, "Excuse me?"
Then again, it was possible she should have made allowances for progress, and the modern age. In Biblical times, it had been a manger. In modern times, quite possibly sporting goods. The good news, Bethany decided, was that there actually might be a crib, always providing she could get someone to assemble one from furniture. Always providing there was anyone there.
That thought worried her more than anything else, really, until she almost hit another person's car in the lot. Then she stopped worrying about that and just focused on the more than difficult enough task of putting the car somewhere where anyone else, or snow plows, wouldn't hit it, and then the even more difficult task of getting her really rather ridiculously pregnant body through a blizzard and to the doors.
She was never, ever letting her mother talk her into anything ever again.
When she staggered in the sliding doors, bringing a drift of snow with her, she saw three things: that the power was still on, thank God--possibly literally; that there were a number of shoppers still present, she'd say around a dozen, all hanging out in the 'snack shop' area; and that there were three nuns, who were of course the ones to notice Bethany through the windows, and gasp. This seemed typical.
As she crossed--lurched, really--through the vestibule, her water broke. This also seemed typical. She managed to get into the store proper somehow, and then mid-wobble found her arm being gripped in a surprisingly supportive way.
She blinked what was either tears or snow out of her eyes and turned to find the cutest man in the whole world holding her up.
Or possibly he wasn't the cutest. It was just that something about Bethany's life lately had seemed to attract, if not the losers of the world, at least the misfits. After all, she'd saved all of existence with the help of a pair of stoners, a muse who had writer's block, and the thirteenth apostle, who had been removed from the Bible because of race issues. Her friends were all people who could put up with her bitter sarcasm, and even the life-changing event of being pregnant with God's child had mostly made her irresistibly attractive to the sort of people she would rather not know, like voodoo queens with hordes of zombies. She hadn't gotten laid in longer than she wanted to think about, and looking into a set of adorable brown eyes any puppy dog would have been proud to sport, the kind of eyes that swore up and down that their owner was not a loser, Bethany wasn't entirely embarrassed to admit that she had a brief but intense impulse to pounce on him and rip all his clothes off. With her teeth.
Fortunately, the impulse went away when the next contraction hit, this one hurting in a way that suggested her body had decided it was going to get down to business, and she staggered again despite standing still.
"Are you okay?" the guy asked.
The answer was, resoundingly, no. She was giving birth in a snowed-in Wal-mart, half-frozen, and still horny, which didn't seem fair, and the returning sensation to her extremities was making her dizzy enough to lose control of her mouth--or at least, that was the only reason she could come up with to explain why she blurted, "You're really cute but I'm in labor, so unless you're a doctor I'm mostly going to be screaming at you and you might just want to pass me off to someone else."
He blinked, and his brow furrowed slightly. It made him slightly cuter, remarkably. "Actually, I'm a cop."
"Oh." Wow, really not a loser. Okay, those eyes of his might be lying, and he could be a total bastard, but still. It didn't seem fair at all.
"I'm a midwife," came a voice from behind her. Bethany managed a wobbly turn--the cop held her upright as though the cold of her snow soaking into his skin didn't matter--and saw the three nuns there. The oldest one was in front, looking upbeat and determined.
Bethany opened her mouth and tried to think of something constructive to say. Eventually, she managed a very weak, "Great." The nuns beamed. "Can I sit down now?"
Once upon a time, Ezekiel Stone had been a perfectly normal guy, with a perfectly normal life. He'd had a loving, devoted wife. He'd had a good future. Some days it was really hard to see how he'd gotten from there to here, standing in a blizzard-locked Wal-Mart, dead, hunting souls that had escaped from Hell, and at the moment, helping set up things so that a pregnant woman could give birth in Gardening. Zeke wasn't entirely sure that the Devil had a hand in this latest event, but it seemed like an awful stretch of coincidence that had landed him here at the same time as the blizzard, much less the sudden appearance of a woman in labor. It could be just nothing, or maybe she knew an escaped soul, or any number of things, but it could also be that he was about to witness the birth of the anti-Christ, or something. Or maybe Lucifer was just jerking his chain. It was hard to tell, anymore.
He also wasn't really sure why they were in Gardening, but the nun who had taken over the preparations had decreed that she needed a nice, open space with certain things nearby, and somehow they'd ended up here. Christmas stuff was being set up already--like the overhead music, it really did seem to be turning up sooner every year--and the woman, whose name he thought he'd caught as Bethany, had taken one look at the fake pine trees, wreaths, and bows, and gone, "Oh God, what did I ever do to deserve this?"
The nun had patted her hand and said, soothingly, "There there. Look at it in a good way--after all, didn't the Baby Jesus get born into even worse circumstances?"
The look Bethany had given her didn't really have a verbal equivalent. One of the other shoppers had snapped a photo.
The nuns, meanwhile, had taken this all remarkably in stride. In fact, one of them had broken out their church's gold card--which boggled Zeke, but when he'd stared, the nun in question had only said, "The Lord does provide," which had made Bethany make another face--and started buying the things they'd need. The midwife nun had pointed out it really was lucky, because if you were stuck giving birth someplace other than a hospital, under makeshift conditions, why, a Wal-Mart really did have almost everything you needed! Then she had sent one nun off to find some decent tea from Aisle Six, and the other to procure a teapot and warming plate from Housewares.
Zeke, meanwhile, hovered around, did the heavy lifting--demonic strength came in handy sometimes--and generally tried to ignore the sense of nefarious presence emanating from Pet Supplies. If the Devil was lurking near the dog biscuits, he decided, he really didn't want to know.
"Well isn't this charming," the Devil observed. He was seated on a bale of kitty litter as if it were a throne, reclining on one elbow and watching the proceedings with an amused expression. For the most part, everyone was ignoring them, although Stone--if it was Stone, and the Metatron couldn't think of who else it would be--seemed to be doing so in a distinctly determined fashion, and every so often, when she wasn't occupied with other things, Bethany would shift her shoulders like something was itching her, and throw a puzzled glance their way, like she could tell there was something there even if she couldn't see it. Not really surprising from a Scion, though, particularly from this Scion.
"No livestock--I never did understand the attraction of that, really I didn't--and when the babe is born they can go right over to Infants and pick up everything they need. Much more convenient. And the three wise nuns are a particularly nice touch, though the lack of camels is a bit of a loss, I'd say."
The Metatron slouched against a display of bird feeders. "They arrived in a VW Bug van; does that do anything for you?"
Lucifer threw back his head and laughed. The Metatron was interested to notice Stone flinch, but very firmly not look behind him. "It'll go wonderfully in the nativity scenes," the Devil said, "and just think of the licensing opportunities for Volkswagen."
The Metatron turned to stare at him. "Honestly, are you really that much of a bastard? We're about to witness a major Event and you're going on about commercial opportunities?"
"Well, God's the one who decided to have it in a Wal-Mart. This certainly wasn't my idea. Why don't you ask Him if He knew the can of worms He was opening up?" Lucifer paused a moment, then continued in a remarkably snide voice, giving the Metatron a sidelong look as he did so, "Oh, wait, no. Silly me. That would be Questioning, and you don't do that."
In return, the Metatron gave him the sort of look he would give something he found under his shoe. "You know, I could very easily hate you."
"You don't already?" Lucifer's eyes widened, and he sat up. "I'm--Why, I'm hurt. The millennia of war and opposition--I'd hate to think all that and we could have settled this over a few drinks." Lucifer waited a heartbeat again, just long enough for the Metatron to open his mouth, then continued over him. "Oh wait, no, darn. God still has that silly ban against alcohol, doesn't He?" He gave the Metatron a too-bright grin. "Ever think about switching sides? The first bottle of tequila is on me."
"Oh, go back to Hell," the Metatron said, turning his gaze back to Bethany, who looked distinctly... pissed, actually.
"After everything God did to get me here?" Lucifer asked, glibly, snapping the Metatron's gaze back to him. "I think not. I want to stay and watch the show," he went on, leaning back again and pulling his legs up onto another bag.
The Metatron's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean, after everything God did to get you here? God certainly didn't-"
"Oh, but I think he did. After all, I wouldn't be here if Ezekiel weren't here, and Ezekiel wouldn't be here if he hadn't been following a lead I never gave him, and your little Scion here," he said, gesturing towards Gardening, "wouldn't be here if not for the timing, and none of us would be here if not for the blizzard, which suggests, in fact, that He wants me to be here. And what's really bothering you is that you don't know why, do you?"
"Oh, sod off."
Labor sucked. Labor really sucked.
In fact, labor sucked so much, Bethany was having a hard time remembering why this had ever seemed like a good idea. Why she'd ever been angry at God and the universe for making it impossible for her to do this. Why when she'd realized that God and the universe had directly corrected that mistake, and given her the bonus of getting pregnant without having to find a worthwhile male first, it had seemed like a wonderful thing. And in between wondering all that, she was desperately trying to figure out if it was too late to ask to take it back.
She had a feeling the answer was yes, it was too late. Some of this feeling might have been caused by the other feeling, which was that Someone--maybe not God Herself, but Someone--was watching her from the aisle between the end of Housewares and the beginning of Pets. Of course, when she looked, there was no one there, but that was pretty typical, really.
Another contraction hit, and she flailed around on her makeshift bed--a bunch of throws and pillows stolen from the bedding section, with a sheet draped decorously over her legs--until she grabbed something that let her squeeze it, stared at the ceiling--the smoke detectors looked like little bombs, about to drop--and wondered if the nuns would get upset if she started to scream curses at God.
Probably. And as much as this sucked to begin with, Bethany didn't really want to go through it without someone who at least knew what they were doing. When she didn't hate God, which had been about forty seconds total since this whole thing had begun, she had to admit it really was nice of Her to arrange for some help. And the gardening section was still better than hay and sheep.
She came out of the pain to realize that the something she'd grabbed was actually a someone--someone possibly with serious joint damage in his right hand, now. Sheepishly, she let go, muttering, "Sorry," before turning her head to look and see just who she'd been crushing--and realizing it was the painfully cute cop.
Wonderful. Bethany was sure there was some reason God had elected to have someone this wonderfully attractive peering over her shoulder at this, Bethany's lowest hour, but she couldn't see what it was right now, and so found herself generally resenting that, too. Sure, Jay and Bob were crass and useless, but at least she didn't feel particularly embarrassed around them.
"It's okay," the cop assured her. "I'm fine." At her skeptical look, he smiled and wiggled his fingers at her reassuringly. "I mean, I'm not saying I won't feel that in the morning, but isn't that one of the traditional duties of men in this situation?"
Bethany snorted. "I've never been that wild about tradition, really," she said, and felt the stare of the nuns on her. Why nuns? she wondered. Why couldn't it have been charmingly open-minded pagans? Why three nuns and not--
"Oh, you've gotta be kidding me," she muttered, ceilingward, and then considered repeating this comment in the direction of the cat food aisle. Really, the three wise nuns?
"Excuse me?" the cop said.
"What? Oh, nothing," Bethany said, trying to be light, and gesturing vaguely with one hand.
"Just... wondering at the whims of God."
The cop snorted. "Tell me about it." He held out a hand--not the one she'd grabbed, Bethany noticed--and said, "Zeke Stone."
She took it, meaning to give it a reasonable shake, and didn't get any father than the grip and, "Bethany," when another contraction hit.
When she came out of that one, the nuns were talking in excited little murmurs, and Zeke had a bemused expression on his face. She realized she was now crushing his other hand, and let it go hastily. "Sorry. Again."
"No, really, I'm fine," Zeke said, casually.
Bethany rolled her eyes. Of course he was. "Oh don't be so macho, I'm-"
Zeke looked puzzled. "It's not being macho, it's-"
She snorted and talked over him. "Just because I'm a woman and you're a guy doesn't mean-"
"It's nothing to do with the woman thing," Zeke went on, talking over her now, "it's the fact that-"
"Men always have to do this," she said, shaking her head, "they always have to act like they're-"
Zeke's expression suddenly went haunted, but his tone continued on nearly exactly what it had been before, overtop of hers. "Don't look at them or draw any attention but the nuns are staring at us in a way that makes me think they're considering marrying us off before you actually give birth."
"Because they always have to be--what?"
"The nuns. They're looking at us.... I know that look. That's a matchmaking look."
Bethany fought down an irrational burst of laughter, and cautiously risked a glance at the nuns, and damn, he was right. She sighed. "Christ, just because there's no ring on my finger...."
"It doesn't even mean anything, there's lots of reasons not to-"
"Yeah," she interrupted him, and this time he stopped talking, which was nice. "Like having your husband ask for it back."
"Ah." Zeke was quiet for a moment, and then asked, "Divorce?"
She sighed. "Yeah. Because I couldn't have kids, ironically enough."
"So this is...."
"Well, I was thinking of it as a miracle until...." Another contraction hit, and she grabbed his hand again, and didn't apologize this time. Instead she gasped out, "Until this."
Zeke laughed a little. "Yeah, I could see how this situation could do that."
She managed a weak smile. The nuns were twittering again. "You?" He looked blank, and she resisted an urge to roll her eyes exasperatedly, because Bethany wasn't sure that he wasn't right about the nuns being prepared to perform a childbed marriage if they had to. "Are you married?" she said, knowing she'd pronounced the words more distinctly than she'd really needed to, but unable to help herself, if she couldn't roll her eyes.
"I... kind of."
"Kind of? There's a 'kind of' to marriage?"
Zeke looked uncomfortable. "Separated. We... there were some circumstances we couldn't really... work out. I keep hoping we'll get over them, but...."
She sighed and leaned back into the pillows. "Figures." He raised his eyebrows and she gave him a tired smile. "The good ones are always taken."
"Well, look on the bright side--that means the nuns can't marry you off."
She turned her head and looked at the nuns for a long moment. "Under any other circumstances, I'd agree, but those... are some really determined looking nuns."
Beside her, Zeke sighed in agreement.
"They're cute together, don't you think?"
"Oh, absolutely not."
"Oh, don't worry, I agree. One of my most prominent people with one of yours... it would never work out. Besides, he's still hopelessly in love with that wife of his, and he has just the right elements to have a saccharinely happy ending with her despite all the odds. Utterly disgusting, but he's wonderful entertainment value in the meantime. Still, it's a bit of a pity."
"A bit of a pity? What, that you and a pack of nuns can't play matchmaker to a Scion and a Damned Soul?"
"You know, three nuns isn't really a pack."
"Nuns are like kittens. As soon as you get more than one around, there seem to be more than there actually are."
"Kittens wouldn't really form a pack, either. You want puppies."
"I'm starting to remember why we were so happy when you got the boot. You always were a bloody nitpicker."
"Well, they do say the Devil is in the Details."
The Metatron rolled his eyes.
"Besides," Lucifer went on, from his perch on the kitty litter, "the nuns and I both agree: they do look really cute," he said, pronouncing the word in a way that made the Metatron grit his teeth, "together. And who are we to argue with nuns?"
The nuns were worried.
They weren't saying as much, of course. But occasionally a shopper or clerk would peek in, only to get shoo'd away, and the tone of the shooing had changed, become sharper, a little more nervous, a bit more upset. Bethany wasn't sure why they'd decided to let Zeke stay, outside of the worrying possibility they really were planning to marry them at gunpoint before Bethany actually gave birth. She was keeping a close eye on the nuns in case one of them went to Sporting Goods to get a rifle, just to be safe. Of course, Zeke was a cop and probably had a gun too, but he seemed like a nice guy, and she'd hate to have him have to shoot a nun for her. That was, it would be really sweet, in an odd sort of way, but probably not the most auspicious opening to her child's life.
Finally, after a few more contractions and a lot more muttering nun, Bethany snapped and demanded, "Would someone please tell me what the hell is going on?"
Zeke, who had been slowly leaning forward to peer into the aisle between Housewares and Pets, jerked back and gave her a somewhat guilty glance. Bethany decided to ignore that for now, in favor of the vastly more important physical situation she found herself in.
The nuns exchanged glances. As she'd waited, Bethany had found herself thinking of them as the midwife nun and the auxiliary nuns, since the midwife was in charge and doing most of the work, whereas the auxiliary nuns got sent to fetch and fend off passer-by and other errands. After a moment of wordless communication, all three nuns shrugged in a mildly eerie unison, and the midwife nun came back over to Bethany.
"Everything does look mostly fine, really, dear," she began, in what was probably supposed to be a soothing tone. Bethany gave the nun her most flat, skeptical stare, and the woman stopped and then sighed. "You're just progressing a little faster than is sometimes usual."
"That's... lovely," Bethany said, then collapsed back against the pillows as another contraction hit.
When this one passed, the nuns were back in conference, and Zeke was once again giving his hand a vaguely amused glance. When she eased up a bit on him--really, it was his fault if he was getting mangled, he could have admitted it hurt--he gave her a cautious smile. "You okay?"
"That's a stupid question," she muttered.
"All right. We could discuss something else. Politics, religion, the weather...."
"I hate politics, right now I hate God, and the weather got me into this stupid mess."
"Well, that exhausts that. So... boy or a girl?"
Bethany blinked, then got it. "Girl."
"Thought of a name yet?"
She gave a little laugh, blowing loose hair off her forehead, then mangled his hand through another contraction. "I've been trying," she gasped out, on the tail end of it, "but nothing seems quite..."
"Nothing in the family?"
Bethany laughed, because that was so much more important a question than he realized, but only shook her head when he gave her an inquiring look. "Nothing that would be appropriate. My mother wanted me to name it after her mother, but.... No. That woman was evil."
Zeke laughed. "So, you were just gonna... try and come up with something afterwards?"
"Yeah, unless you had a better suggestion?" Zeke shook his head, but he hesitated a moment first. "What?"
"Nothing, it just...." She gave him a look, and he shifted a little and continued on. "My wife was thinking about names before she even got pregnant. I mean... we were trying, before...."
"Tell me you didn't leave her because she couldn't."
"No! No. Really, the reason I left her was mostly out of both our control. Things just... a bunch of bad things happened, all at once. She got.... She was raped," he said, in a voice that told her saying that still hadn't gotten any easier, then sighed and went on, "and then I ran into some really bad problems at work, and.... The next thing I know, we're parted." He sighed again, and looked so genuinely miserable Bethany wanted to hug him, though that might have been the hormones.
Really, probably was the hormones, because when the next contraction hit she settled for gritting her teeth and crushing his hand again. "So," she asked, when she could talk again, "what were they?"
"What were what?"
Really, she was the one giving birth here. What was his excuse for not following the conversation? "What were the names?"
"Oh." Zeke paused, and his eyes got a misty, distant look, and then he smiled. Yep--really, truly taken, and it was a damn shame. "Max if it was a boy, and Sarah for a girl."
"Huh." Sarah. Actually, Sarah was kind of--
Another contraction hit, and when Bethany surfaced from this one, wondering who she had to kill to stop these, the midwife nun was in front of her, clucking faintly.
"Oh dear," she said. "I was hoping that you'd be able to hold on until the weather cleared up enough to get you to a hospital, but I think we're about to have a baby." She paused and regarded them with a steely-eyed gaze. "Are you okay with the father not being present?" she asked, and for a moment Bethany thought there was going to be a shotgun wedding after all.
Then the obvious out occurred to her, and just before another contraction hit, she gasped out, "He's in Heaven!"
When she surfaced from that one, Zeke looked incredibly relieved--and the nun was beaming.
"I never like this part," the Metatron said. He was facing firmly away from Gardening, towards the cashiers.
Lucifer, on the other hand, wasn't merely watching the show; he had conjured up a tub of popcorn and was cheerfully munching it. "Really? I wouldn't have expected that of you. After all, this is the miracle of life! Sounds right up your alley."
The Metatron gave him a disgusted look. "You only like it because there's blood and screaming and agony," he said.
Lucifer smiled brightly. "Well, that's true. Quite a mouth that Scion of yours has on her. And the way she's chewing God out, that's really very impressive. I feel like I should be taking notes." He paused a moment and chewed some popcorn reflectively. "Though I don't think the nuns are wild about it."
"Well, that's their prerogative. They're not the ones in there giving birth." The Metatron risked a glance over his shoulder, then wished he hadn't. Bethany appeared to be trying to squeeze Stone's hand off, and it was really a good thing the man was dead, or else he'd have probably needed medical treatment himself after all this. Nuns were clustered around Bethany so that that hand was all of her he could see, though, which was a bit of a relief, or would have been if angelic vision couldn't fill in some of the blanks anyway. He hastily looked back towards the store front just as Bethany screamed out a particularly vile curse. "And I imagine right now they're grateful."
"Who wouldn't be? You sure you don't want to grab some popcorn and watch? We've got wonderful seats."
"No thank you, I prefer not to gawk at births like an uncultured lout," the Metatron said, giving Lucifer a sidelong glare.
"Suit yourself," Lucifer said, with a shrug. Then his smile brightened and he learned forward. "Oh, we're getting to the good bit, now," he observed.
The Metatron rolled his eyes again. "As though the nun going, 'Push now, Bethany, push!' weren't a clue."
Lucifer gave him a sidelong smirk and crunched a bit of popcorn. "Well, she might've been talking about...."
He broke off as the sound of a thin, wailing cry broke through the air.
"And ladies and gentlemen, it's Christ! Back again by popular demand!" Lucifer crowed, then turned back to the Metatron and asked, "Got a trumpet? I admit I'm out of practice, but I could probably do a passable fanfare if you asked nicely."
"Oh, shove it," the Metatron said, turning around. Bethany was collapsed on her pillows, looking exhausted. The nuns were swaddling. Stone looked impressively green for a dead man, though that might have had something to do with the whole afterbirth thing--giving birth was a disgusting process, really, and the Metatron was glad he would never have to go through anything like it. And the Daughter of God looked small, red, and ticked.
"Babies look so remarkably angry when they're born, don't you think? Think it's some sort of commentary on the general state of affairs?"
The Metatron ignored him and focused on Bethany, on her expression as she took her daughter into her arms for the first time. She looked sweaty, exhausted, and utterly thrilled, and remembering the bitter woman he'd first encountered when trying to deal with Bartleby and Loki, he couldn't help but feel warm.
And then he paid attention to what she was actually saying.
"Sarah? What kind of a name for the Savior is Sarah?"
She had a daughter. Bethany had a daughter. It had been exhausting and miserable and agonizing and disgusting, and she'd had to do it all in the gardening section of Wal-Mart, but Bethany had a daughter. And that was wonderful. She beamed down at the tiny, red-faced, dark-haired girl in her arms and felt sure that all was right in the world. She looked up for someone to share her joy with....
...and found Zeke staring into the store with a narrow-eyed expression on his face.
"What, now?" she thought she heard him mutter.
A couple shoppers had been by and peeked in since she'd given birth. Bethany hadn't paid them much attention, and the nuns had made some sort of decision to let them have one good gawk before they moved on. Another one, an older woman, with far too much makeup, was coming over now, looking curious and oddly happy.
One of the auxiliary nuns appeared and tugged on her sleeve. "I know you're feeling exhausted, dear," she said, and Bethany was surprised that to find she had a British accent, "but it would probably be easier just to move you a bit than clean all this up. We got you a wheelchair, so if you could just get up...."
"Out of Gardening? I'm there," she said, reluctantly handing over her daughter to auxiliary nun number two and getting, shakily, to her feet. What she'd been wearing when she came in was mostly ruined, but the nuns had gotten her a new nightgown from Clothing, and after she sat--collapsed, really--in the wheelchair, the first auxiliary nun wrapped a fresh blanket around her, and then the other nun handed her daughter back.
The first nun started pushing Bethany toward the rest of the store, with the other nun on either side, and then paused when the customer who had been making her way over hit the edge of the Gardening section and smiled.
"Oh, did everything come out all right then?" she asked, in a cooing, pleased voice that made Bethany's skin twitch. She gave the woman a doubtful look. "Oh, I don't suppose.... Oh, I know this is terribly forward, but could I hold her, just for a minute?"
She started to say no, instinctively, but didn't even get the words out of her mouth before Zeke was suddenly pushing her out of the way, pointing his gun at the woman in a distinctly, alarmingly businesslike fashion.
Bethany had learned from that mess with Bartleby. She grabbed the one nun, and said, over her shoulder, "End of the aisle, now," in a voice so flat and authoritative the nun complied without a question, sending all three of them to the end of the wreaths aisle faster than was probably safe. As they went, Bethany thought she heard the woman's voice change, going weirdly... vibratory, for just a moment.
"Yep," Zeke said, sounding cheerful. Bethany hit the end of the aisle, found herself confronted by two confused nuns and no good way out, and tried to decide what to do.
"What gave it away?"
"We never said it was a girl."
Bethany froze, blinked, and inched the wheelchair forward to peer down the next aisle in confusion, daughter pressed to her chest, just in time to see Zeke fire twice. And in plenty of time to see the woman dissolve into a screaming swirl of blinding white light, and then vanish entirely.
"Well, I have to admit, I didn't expect that."
"I did," Lucifer told him, smugly.
It was the second auxiliary nun that went back first, with Bethany and auxiliary nun one trailing after her, Bethany clutching her daughter in her arms and wanting nothing so much as to lay down for the next five years, or at least get some answers.
Midwife nun had turned up from wherever she'd gotten to, and was studying Zeke, standing there with his gun still out, with a vaguely reproving expression. The other two nuns exchanged a wordless glance and moved to flank her.
"You didn't see that," Zeke told them.
Bethany expected some sort of objection. God knows she would have voiced one if he'd been so dumb as to say that to her, and he might be. Instead the nuns just nodded.
The slightly shorter of the two nuns who weren't midwives said, "Of course. You would be the hunter, then?"
Zeke blinked, started to turn his head toward Pets, and then stopped himself with visible effort. "I--.... Wait. Were you expecting me?"
The taller of the auxiliary nuns nodded. "It came to the three of us in a dream, that we should go to the Wal-Mart on this day, for there would come a Demon, and a Hunter, and the Mother of God." The nuns all nodded, solemnly, and then the taller nun broke into a sudden nervous smile. "It's really been terribly exciting."
Zeke stared at them for a really long moment, then turned her attention back to Bethany, who gave him her best, 'Who, me?' smile.
"Mother of God?" he asked.
"Well, I did mention it was a miracle...." Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the nuns exchange smiles, and then depart.
"Mother of God?"
"You said that already. What just happened?"
He gestured at the blanket-wrapped bundle in her arms with his gun, then seemed to realize how inappropriate that was and hastily holstered it. "That's really...."
"Well, it's not like I know for sure, but given the circumstances of conception...."
He sighed and rubbed his hands across his face. "Life was so much easier when I was actually alive."
Bethany's eyebrows raised. "Are you going to tell me what the fuck is going on here any time soon?"
He lowered his hands and gave her a kind of apologetic look. "Um. You want the short version or the.... No. The long version isn't worth it. Okay, in short, a hundred and thirteen Damned souls escaped from Hell, and I got sent to send them back into Hell."
It kind of figured, really. "Sent."
Actually, it wasn't that surprising. "Really condescending angel with an English accent?"
"Not... exactly...." Zeke looked really uncomfortable, and she stopped relaxing without even realizing she'd started.
"Really condescending fallen angel who looks a lot like a kid I used to beat up and...." He paused, then seemed to realize something. "Wait, who's the angel with the-"
Fallen angel? But that meant.... "The Devil? You work for-"
"I should have gone with the long story," Zeke said, and sighed, raising his hands. "Okay, I was technically Damned, and I did deserve it, but it was for killing my wife's rapist and I'd like to think as sins go, that's fairly understandable." She just looked at him, because what did you say to that? "Anyway, I'm doing this for a second chance at life."
"Oh." Bethany blinked, and readjusted her daughter. "Well... I guess I'll stick with the name Sarah, then."
"Really? Because, I mean, Sarah Christ sounds a little...."
"She's my daughter first. Sarah Sloane."
"All right, all right." He shook his head, and laughed. "We should probably...."
"Right, go out and join the rest of the store." She inched the chair a little closer to him and then stopped a few feet short, brow furrowing. "Hey, wait. You said.... A hundred and thirteen souls escaped from Hell?"
"Uh... yeah." Zeke's expression went wary again. "Why?"
"Jesus," she said, with a short laugh. "Can't the Devil keep control of anything down there?"
Zeke gaped at her for a moment. "You... He.... Wait, do you hear that?"
Bethany closed her eyes, and.... "Yeah. It sounds like...."
She opened her eyes. Her gaze met his. And very slowly, they both leaned over to peer out into the aisle between Housewares and Pets.
An angular man with a thin face, wearing both a tailored looking suit and an affronted look, was staring at her from atop a bale of kitty litter. And beside him, Bethany recognized the Metatron, doubled over in laughter.
Slowly, Zeke straightened back up, and closed his eyes. He tugged on his coat, resettling it. Then he opened his eyes and made an offering gesture at her wheelchair.
She raised an eyebrow back at him, and then nodded. "Where are we going?" she asked, as he headed towards her.
"Well, I'd suggest someplace near the snack bar, but you know what? Right now I'd settle for anywhere away from him," Zeke said, jerking a thumb over at his shoulder at the direction of the now lightly seething Devil.
"Sounds like a plan," Bethany said, smiling up at Zeke as he settled in at the wheelchair handles. Then the Sometime Hound of Lucifer pushed the Mother of God and the Light of the Morning past the Angel of the Abyss and the Voice of God, towards the cashiers, where the Three Wise Nuns waited with gifts, mostly charged on their gold card, for the newborn Queen.
And somewhere that was both way up above and right beside them, God smiled.