The first time they meet, Bruno is only a boy, with blood and ash smeared on his hands and the haunted, desperate look they always have.
“You… you’re really a demon.”
“Yes,” he answers, letting his shape spread, testing the wards delicately with his claws and the tips of his wings.
The boy nods. “I need a favour.”
It's a forthrightness that will never stop amusing him. “A favour?” He chuckles drily. They are already long past that, the scribbles and pictograms of their bargain crawling over and under his skin.
“Some… some people are coming to hurt my father. I need you to protect him for me, please.”
He laughs again at the boy’s incongruous politeness. “If you don’t mind my asking,” he says, matching the tone, “where did a little thing like you learn to call something like me?”
The boy raises the book he’d been clutching like a life raft. “This came up in the nets, once. I thought… I always thought it was make-believe stuff.”
But there was always a part of him that hadn’t, wasn’t there? There always was. Humans were so adept at keeping their faith in a safe and rational world until right when they needed it most.
“Will you do it?”
He turns his many eyes to the boy, the scent of blood clotting his senses.
His little shoulders sag with relief. When he looks up, his eyes are clear.
“There will not be one.”
The boy steps back, suddenly uncertain.
He smiles. “Call it… a favour.”
He hesitates, but not for long. The desperation is still nipping his heels, after all. If he suspects a trick, he judges it worth the risk.
The wards fall away and for the first time he can see the world, a cramped little room with a sleeping man lying on the bed that would dominate the space if not for the messy remains of the ritual. He looks at the man, then back to the boy, who nods. His name comes to him, settling under his breath: Bruno Bucciarati.
He settles beneath the bed like the prototypical monster he is and is surprised when the boy crawls in next to him. Usually his partners do not like to stay and watch.
When the time comes, he fulfils his end of the deal. The boy asks about his payment again, but he waves it away each time.
He knows a repeat customer when he sees one.
It doesn’t take long.
“You want to join… some sort of gang?”
Bruno nods. “I need to protect my father. They can help me.”
“Oh? What about me?” he asks, all mock offence.
“I don’t want to rely on you.” The boy looks away from him, toying with his hands. “I don’t want to rely on anyone. I need to be able do stuff alone, but I can’t get stronger just by wishing for it, can I?”
He settles down on his forelegs, the better to look at him on his level. “Don’t you think you’re asking the wrong person?”
The boy looks up at him, frowning, then realisation dawns and he smiles. “I suppose I am.”
He meets that smile with one of his own, legions of teeth glinting.
They sit in a not quite companionable silence. He winds a tail around the nearest leg of the hospital bed. In all the times he has been here, he has never seen the man stir. He wonders if the father knows what his son has bound himself up in. One look at Bruno’s face dispels the notion immediately; of course he hasn’t said a word.
“This time, there will be a price,” he murmurs.
The boy nods. “I don’t know what kind of trial they have, but everyone says it’s hard, and people die all the time-”
“You will not die,” he whispers.
Bruno blinks up at him, then places a hand on the shifting, flickering surface over his heart. “Then it’s a deal.”
He is so taken aback by the contact that he almost forgets to mark his consent. They normally never touch him, the ones that do usually recoil at the feel of him. Demons do not have skin to keep their thoughts and souls inside.
He keeps Bruno safe. He passes his trial. The price is paid, and the boy’s hands only shake a little.
He waits for the next summoning.
“The capo of this area is in the prison, in a cell kept apart from all the others. Kill him.”
He tilts his head. Bruno is no longer so small that he has to look down at him, but the look in his eyes is the same.
“The man has some protection and not a little power. His death may draw attentions you could do without.”
“I don’t care.” Bruno is trembling, he realises. “I’ll pay any price. My life, if you want it.”
His shivering, smouldering energy tastes wrong. “Bruno...” he pauses, looking at his own outstretched talon. He eventually brushes it awkwardly against his shoulder. “What has happened?”
“Do you need to know that to do what I ask?” His tone is jagged edges. He sends out feelers, tasting his soul, and finds it whole but buried under a mountain of grief and anger.
But it is still there.
“I will do it.”
He leaves quickly, letting the man hurt in peace. It is not difficult to put the pieces together, really. But the presence of beings like him around humans who are feeling… delicate, can eat at their minds, do lasting damage.
Bruno will be better for his absence.
He returns to report the completion of his task, and finds his price waiting, pulled to bits with Bruno’s own magic, but still breathing through lungs in four different places.
Before he leaves him to it, Bruno briefly presses a hand to his raw form, again.
He is called less frequently after that night. Bruno rises to take the place of the man they killed together and finds more mortal associates to help him.
But he never leaves him for long. That is standard. Humans can never resist the pull of something beyond their allotted sphere for very long, and the contract is made for life. They always call again. It only ever ends one way.
He is never sure why he feels the need to remind himself of such a fundamental truth quite so often.
“Why did you choose me?”
“Hm?” Bruno is sitting on the floor, laying out a number of pictures, photographs of his latest target.
He lays out next to him, one long forked tongue flickering over the pixelated face. “There were other creatures in your damp little book.”
“Oh, yes, a few of them. I’m not sure, it was so long ago.”
He straightens out one of the pictures. He can feel lies forming and unforming on the surface of his mind. He’s not offended by that. People are often cagey about the moments that first lead them to surrender their humanity.
“I considered your father,” he says, picking up another folder.
He snorts. “You are lucky that you thought better of it. You would not have lived to understand the depths of your mistake.”
Bruno pauses, a hand hovering over his folded talons. “Are you and your father… not close?”
He shrugs with several sets of shoulders. “We disagree on some things. Fundamental things.”
Bruno does brush his claws then, gently. “That’s a shame.”
He turns a few dozen eyes to his carefully composed profile. “It is no great loss,” he says.
When Bruno remains still and silent he gently, softly, holding as much of himself back as possible, brushes his snout against his cheek.
Bruno doesn’t flinch or gasp or bristle with needles of anxious thought as he had been prepared to endure. He only looks at him with quizzical eyes.
“We have work to do.”
“Oh, yes. We do.” Bruno goes back to his pictures and papers, back to being steadfast and solid.
He is glad, even as something inside the tumult of charms and power that are the core of his being shifts dangerously.
“It was because of your name,” Bruno says, in the middle of relaying more dry data. “I thought your name sounded trustworthy. Like you were a good... person.”
“It’s alright, don’t panic. He won’t hurt you.”
The girl barely glances at Bruno before turning her wide green eyes onto him, hands still up as if they could protect her.
He sits back on his haunches and sighs. Bruno had told him to try and look as non-menacing as possible, but he was not spoken into existence to be easy on human eyes and hearts.
The girl, to her credit, had not screamed, and when Bruno moves to guide her forward she complies, if hesitantly.
“He’s going to help us. He can keep you safe.”
She does not appear convinced, but she finds a voice from somewhere. “You’re serving Bucciarati?”
“We’re partners,” Bruno gently corrects her.
“I’ll do what he asks, if it is in my power.”
The girl pulls away from Bruno and picks a pair of his eyes to stare into.
“A lot of people are after me. They’re gonna be strong.”
He smiles, teeth refracting colours that have not existed on this world for eons. “I do not make promises I cannot keep.” He is, in fact, not physically nor psychically capable of doing so, but that is semantics.
For a long time she stares at him, caution keeping the fear and uncertainty that were infesting her in check. Finally she asks, “Does this mean I have to… do something for you?”
“The pact is with me,” Bruno says with a firm finality.
“As he says.” He flicks a few tails. “You owe me nothing.”
The girl pauses, her psyche torn between the sharp orange urge to keep asking and the coiling violet fear that she may find an answer she does not like.
The fear wins out in the end. A smart girl, she leaves with a nod and does not look back.
Bruno makes sure she is gone, then reaches up and pulls him down by a horn, pressing their foreheads together for a breath.
He is caught off guard, their ethereal selves so close that at first he isn’t sure if Bruno spoke or thought the words to him.
“It’s… I’m just abiding by our contract,” he manages to murmur.
Bruno smiles. “Is this in our contract, too?”
The girl was right. Her enemies are numerous and they are powerful and they are relentless.
They are not enough.
He chews through them, sometimes literally, skirting around their charmed defences and alchemic assaults. They do not fall easily, but they fall.
They come fast. He is wounded often, and he does not always have the time to speak himself whole again. Bruno says nothing, leaning against him when he takes his due, but he urges his followers to turn their own powers to the fight with increasing intensity.
They are like him, in a way. Bound to the man, though with something more ephemeral, less concrete. There are so many places they will never be able to follow him.
For him, there is only one.
And then, all at once, it comes.
The man’s eyelids flutter and he sits up with a groan.
“Get out… of here. Take Trish… the others.”
“Get up, Bruno.” For once, all of his eyes are wide open, searching.
“Leave. Too dangerous…”
“I know. I should have felt them, I don’t know how I didn’t…” But Bruno is finally getting to his feet, and that’s all that matters. He helps him carry Trish as they stumble out of the church, his soul flaking like old paint under the consecrated glow.
He can still taste the smoke and old blood of the... other demon, somewhere below and angry.
“I’m going after the Boss,” he says.
“I won’t order you to follow me,” he says.
As if he would ever have to.
They fight. They’re all pretty battle-hardened by now but that might be a hindrance. Too much time to think, to worry, to notice little things wrong and getting wronger.
The enemies are getting stronger and stranger, with powers no occult dabbler should be able to stumble upon. He worries that they have unearthed something very dangerous indeed.
Long after the burns of the church’s defences heal over he still remembers the feeling, standing over Bruno, of being watched with a loathing so strong it seared. He had not been expected, he knew that, knew that it was probably the only reason they were both still… here.
He tries to broach the subject with Bruno, but he can tell he is not getting through. He has never known an enemy that could stand against them.
He could try harder, but he is selfish. He does not want to puncture his steadfast faith.
One night Bruno calls him and, laying both hands over his hearts, asks, “What did you do to me, back there?”
He had known it was coming, had rehearsed hundreds of possible lies and evasions, but they were all only lilting dreams for his own self-delusion more than anything. Very soon keeping secrets between them will no longer be possible, anyway.
“I took your final payment a little early.”
Bruno frowns into his chest for a moment, then nods, meeting his eyes. “How long do I have?”
He shakes his head, the words binding his form shuddering and twisting until the firm press of Bruno’s hands calls him back.
“That body won’t last very long. It can’t survive without… without you.”
Bruno closes his eyes and nods again.
They are both quiet for some time.
“And after this body?”
He leans over him, wrapping two tails loosely around him.
“I don’t know. This shouldn’t have happened. This isn’t what we’re meant to do.”
“You saved my life,” he whispers.
“I stole your life,” he whispers back.
It happens so rapidly.
Since that first night all those years ago when they formed their pact they had never truly been separated. They were linked by a tightening thread of owing that held them inextricably whether or not they had ever wanted it otherwise.
But now he can feel Bruno clearly even from the other side, a constant warmth and worry. He feels every spike of nerves and every wound that permanently tears into his decaying body. The body itself is losing cohesion even faster as his poisonous influence seeps back the other way.
His own form is little better, engaged in what might be termed an immune response. His kind were meant to devour souls, not keep them. The words that had spoken him into existence had not prepared him for this, and every second was a struggle to keep one or both of them from falling apart.
It’s a struggle they can only lose. All of this is.
In spite of it all he tries to carry them the rest of the way, he really does.
In the end its Bruno’s body, his soft, delicate shell, that undoes them. It expires quietly with neither of them to even witness it. It's such a gentle, soft thing, the way humans come apart. A lifetime ago he found it quite beautiful.
Their contract is dissolving under his teeth but for a second, for an instant, it is still enough to pull him up, rising along the ties binding them, and as he snatches and clutches Bruno's to his heart he lashes out at the material world with everything he has, sealing their bargain as it began: with violence and desperation.
He makes contact with the adversary in the instants before he loses his litigious grip on reality, he’s sure of it, but he has no way of knowing how effective it was.
“No. You got him, I know you did.”
He can’t live in his home dimension as he once did.
His fellow demons can smell the human on him, in him. Bruno burns like a star, like a pure high note entangled in the dusty scripture of his form.
Summoning is less common than it once was. Many have not eaten in eons. They are unravelling and desperate. He can tear them apart, lay their words bare and disparate, but they cannot die here and once they have seen his prize they never give up. He cannot say he does not sympathise.
“Will you starve too? One day?”
“I was starving the day you called me. That book had been lost for many decades.”
“You weren’t like them.”
“It’s different, on this side.”
“If you ever feel it coming, if you start… coming apart, like them-”
“I will not eat you.”
“You have given enough. Be selfish, Bruno, for once in your life.”
“I am. I would rather you... have me, than see you like them.”
He hides in the farthest reaches, the strange places where even what physical laws there are here are shaky easily willed into compliance. It’s not a popular place. Demons like rules and stability more than humans tend to assume. It’s all they have, after all.
The two of them wander the outer boundaries of being and knowing, talking quietly.
It’s difficult to judge the passage of time, particularly when they so often cross through patches where it has not yet established itself.
All he can say for certain it that at some point the calls started.
“Is this what it was like when I did it?”
“It’s different for every human, but the underlying ritual is the same.”
“The same song, different voices.”
“Do you have to answer?”
“Not here. But once we cross over…”
“Could they trap you?”
“You should go.”
“I’m not starving, yet.”
“I know. It’s not about that.”
“You want to go home.”
“I want us to go home. Together.”
“You have no idea who is calling. What we could be bound to. The things that people do to each other.”
“When I was twelve I summoned a demon to kill people for me.”
“Because you thought my name sounded nice.”
“I still do. It’s the sound that set me free. Now, let’s go, before they give up and call your father instead.”
“Hm. When I have a new partner you won’t be able to order me about like this, you know.”
The summoner closes the book in her hands with a snap and looks up at them across the dissipating charms and sigils, smiling with a warmth and ease that makes many things all at once worth it.
Trish is a little older and her skin has developed a distinct tan, but her eyes are bright and the fear and dread that had been hemming in her spirit has evaporated. What has emerged is formidable indeed.
“It’s good to see you both again.”