It was late and the spectres were back. They gathered at the end of the bar, vaguely corporeal with the wallpaper peeking through them, all whispering and talking to him. The kid with the chemical burns who kept trying to climb onto the counter. The teenager with half his skull blown to pieces so his jawbone peeked through the skin. The old man smoking and flicking his eyes around the hotel. And the woman at the front with the hair pinned out of her face, cradling a baby to her chest, smiling at him serenely even as she wasted away.
"Mi sol," she said in a voice that croaked and ached with the weight of a thousand tonnes of souls. "You haven't forgotten us, have you?"
Husk ignored them. He grabbed a bottle and necked it, not bothering to taste the alcohol and just letting it flow down his throat into his stomach. These fuckers always turned up. Always asked him if he'd forgotten them, as if he could ever forget them with the way they followed him around. And they always left by the time he was halfway down the first bottle. He slammed the bottle down, wiping his mouth with the back of a paw. The woman at the end of the bar smiled at him serenely as she flickered and faded. Husk was alone again.
He slumped over the bar and swigged his drink sullenly. Above him, the hotel creaked as it settled for the night. In the distance, he heard the vague explosions of territorial war after the cleanse. Husk had forgotten how many damn cleanses he'd been through. He wasn't that interested in politics or who was in power so these things tended to blur together. Plus, he usually passed out in some casino somewhere to wait out the night. He'd be doing that now if Alastor hadn't magicked him to this hovel. The Hippy Hotel, or whatever it was. With the overly enthusiastic girl running it and the damn flirtatious porn star. The only one whose style he liked was the Salvador girl who looked about ready to kill Alastor every time he spoke. That was relatable.
But hey, Husk was adaptable. And so long as they kept him supplied with alcohol, he was good here.
There was the sound of footsteps, making Husk look up. Great, who the fuck was awake and coming to disturb him? He'd thought they'd all passed out in a food coma after Alastor's probably-poisoned jambalaya. No such luck. Husk bit back a growl of annoyance when the spider porn star rounded a corner into the hallway.
Luckily, the room was dark and Angel Dust didn't notice Husk slumped over at the bar. He didn't seem to notice much of anything. Just stood there in the hallway a moment, looking about him. One hand ran through his hair and the other fiddled with his shirt lapel. He actually looked nervous if that was possible. So different from his normal cocky over-the-top bravado. His mouth was turned down at the corners and his eyes flicked about as if wondering what he should do. For a moment he hovered near the front door, one finger resting on the door handle. Husk wanted him to get a move on and get out of there so he could be left alone.
No such luck. With a small sigh, Angel's hand dropped away from the door and he turned to walk back into the hotel proper. Husk slumped over his bottle, hoping Angel would walk past him to the kitchen or something. But fate had to vomit on him yet again. Angel's hand flipped on a switch lighting up the entire room, including a massive light on Husk slumped over the bar with his wings curled up behind him and his mouth clamped on the lip of his booze. The sight was enough to make Angel yelp in surprise.
"Jesus dick, don't scare a girl like that," he said, jumping so hard his third pair of arms shot out of his body in defence. "What are you doing up?"
Husk swallowed his mouthful of alcohol, before leaning down and popping open another bottle of moderately-priced swill. When Angel realised that Husk wasn't about to flirt with him or give him any more attention than just being in the same room as him, he traipsed across the room and threw himself down on the chair. "Well, whose dick do I have to suck to get a martini around here?"
"Someone who knows how to make a cocktail," Husk said. He leaned down and grabbed a glass filling it half full of murky red wine, before shoving it across the bar to Angel. That was the extend of his bartending skills.
"Aw, and I didn't get you anything." Angel winked five of his seven eyes, sipping the drink daintily. It wasn't great, nothing here was great, but it was alcoholic and it Husk's books that meant it was perfect. Apparently it was the same in Angel's books, because he slurped it down and sighed contentedly. Then he ruined the moment by leaning back across the bar with his chest prominently on display to smile at Husk. "So what does a drink cost here?"
"Cut the crap, kid," Husk muttered. "I'm not going to fuck you, I don't want to fuck you, so you can either tire yourself out trying to flirt with me which'll get you nowhere or you can shut up and drink your damn alcohol."
Angel recoiled back. Then he scowled. "Who're you calling 'kid'? I've been down here decades, I'm probably older than you."
"Yeah, sure. Down here decades, but we being in Hell doesn't count shit for how old you are." All being in Hell meant was that you'd spend day after day doing the same bullshit thing over and over. Like drinking and gambling and trying to ignore the the teenager with the bulletwound in his head that stared at you from hallway.
Husk squinted at Angel to distract himself from the spectre. It was hard to gauge the age of demons, especially this one. He was a fucking arachnid with pink and white fuzz all over his body, how could you tell age from that? But Husk was pretty sure he was a kid. Died in his twenties, perhaps? Yeah, maybe twenties. He was annoying and verbose and talked about sex like a teenager who'd just found his dick for the first time, but that was definitely more the influence of being a porn star for however many years. He didn't look quite so fresh-faced as other kids Husk had seen down here. But again, he had no idea how much of that was to do with just being in Hell for decades. It did a number on a guy.
Like turning them into a fucking spider, or a shitty cat monster with wings.
But Angel was still scowling over the top of his cup. "I get up to enough down here," he said. Then he grinned again, "I made my time count. I can show you all the things I've learned down here."
"I told you to cut that out." Husk swigged his drink. "If you're going to be coming to my bar, you'll stop acting like a fucking slut."
"Urgh, fine," Angel groaned, throwing three hands up in the air in defeat. "Geez, you just try and have some innocent flirting with a bartender and suddenly you get called unimaginative names. And I thought you'd be grateful for some attention, considering you look like an old shag carpet someone's pissed on."
Husk snorted into his drink. Insults were fine, he was good with insults. It was just the cloying fake affection that made his fur crawl. He knew they were all down there because they were scum, he didn't need the bullshit cutesy flirting. And thank fuck Angel actually shut his trap and sipped his drink some more. He wasn't terrible company when he shut up. Husk leaned on the counter, staring off at nothing, chugging the alcohol so that it burned his throat and the effects started to wash over him. One of the worst things about being in hell Hell was that after a while the alcohol stopped working as well. You eventually had to drink several bottles to even feel a slight buzz. Husk finished his second bottle and thumped it on the table, burping loudly.
"Charming," Angel muttered.
"Not without a camera."
Husk curled his lip and leant down, grabbing another bottle from below the bar. When he pulled out the cork, he noticed Angel watching him with one raised eyebrow.
"I'm not one to tell a guy how to drink, but you're really knocking that shit back," he said. "I know it's not the best stuff, but you can slow down."
"Hey, do I tell you how to drink your cheap booze? No." Husk took a mouthful of alcohol.
Angel sighed and shrugged. "You're gonna get whiskey dick."
"Not my main concern."
"And here I am throwing myself at you all night. Two guys in this hotel, and none of them will fuck me. It's really your loss, you know."
"Urgh, do you ever shut up?" Husk ran his claws through his hair with a groan. He hadn't want company or whatever this was, he'd just wanted to drink until he passed out.
The old man with the cigarette clamped in his teeth was shuffling cards behind Angel's back.
Angel slurped his drink loudly. "What crawled up your ass and died?"
"I just don't like company," Husk growled.
"So you agreed to come work at this shitty hotel?"
"I owe Alastor some favours," Husk muttered. "Not that it's any of your business."
But it seemed to have Angel intrigued. He leaned across the table so his chest was even more on display and grinned. "Oh? What kind of favours does a guy like you do for a guy like that?"
Husk leaned away and chugged more of his booze. It was starting to his hit brain and make things fuzzy at the edges, but it still wasn't enough. The spectres were still there, and Angel was still grinning at him, obviously going to push things further. Husk growled and looked away, clearly not giving him anything.
Angel took the hint and leant back up. "Urgh, fine, don't talk to me. We can just sit here in silence and have no fun at all."
"Great," Husk muttered. It's all he wanted: to be fucking left alone. But of course Alastor had to make his death a misery all the fucking time. Just swooped in when Husk was actually in a decent mood for once, then fucked him over by dumping him in a Hotel with a bunch of over-enthusiastic assholes who wanted him to work and not drink. He really regretted going to Alastor when he was in his lowest place and still had hopes that he could get help from the creep.
Angel Dust tapped his fingers on the bar. "So," he said after a while. "You play cards?"
"Fuck, do you have to keep talking?"
"It's called being sociable, you little prick," Angel said. "I'm not flirting, I'm just asking a question."
Husk groaned. "Yes, I play cards," he muttered. Another cosmic joke on him played by hell: making him a weird cat demon with massive wings that were exhausting to fly with, then pattern the wings with suits of cards. Like hey look at this freak who was raised in an illegal card house down in Nevada, learning to cut cards before he was even ten, dealing blackjack hands for a crowd of shadowy faces with nicotine-stained fingers. Until his father got on the wrong side of a customer and was beaten to death, so he and his mother skipped town, up to New York, where he still gambled other people out of their savings in the back alleys. Cards and booze, all he was fucking good for. Plaster it all over him to remind him that no matter what he'd tried to believe on Earth, it was all he'd ever be.
Angel watched him with an unintelligible look on his face. He reached his hand into the inside pocket of a jacket, and pulled out a set of cards. "You wanna play, big boy?"
Husk glared at him. "Why do you have cards?"
"They're my own merchandise," Angel said with a grin. He pulled out a card labelled 'king of dick' that had him being jizzed on by thirteen other cards. Husk slapped the cards out of his hand with a growl so they scattered on the floor.
"Hey, those're expensive!" Angel got off his stool to gather them back up. "You've no appreciation for my work.
Husk growled and got his own, nondescript cards from under the counter. "Okay, fine, lets play. And if I fucking win, you don't get to show me those cards again."
Angel's head poked up from the other side of the bar, pouting. But then he grinned so his gold tooth flashed. "Fine. But if I win, then next round we play with these cards."
"Whatever." As if Husk would lose to this guy.
He quickly shuffled the cards, not really thinking about it. He remembered sitting on the floor across from his mother who showed him how to shuffle, her dark fingers moving nimbly over the cards, and how to carefully switch in and out the cards you needed as you dealt. He remembered fumbling with them initially, before learning how to play properly. And he dealt the cards easily, sorting his own hand with practiced ease.
The spectre of the man watched him. "You're fumbling," his father said. Husk ignored him.
"So, which casino do you normally go to?" Angel asked, sipping his drink.
"Whichever one lets me in." Husk glared at Angel's multiple hands with their opposable thumbs, so much better at holding cards than his clawed paws. Some people were given all the luck with their demon bodies. "You betting?"
"Just my own deck of cards," Angel grinned, placing the lewd cards down on the bar.
Husk ignored them and dealt three community cards down. He surveyed his hand. They weren't great, but they were usable. And he looked up at Angel, taking in his expression. Angel was smiling happily to himself as he sipped his drink and swung his legs beneath him on the stool. An easy read. The smile was fake, twitching at the corner of his lip. And his eyes kept flicking form the cards in his hands to the ones on the table.
Husk was good at reading people. Being a kid and cutting cards for all the locals and tourists coming through that card house, learning how to read all the different customers, picking up on the muttering under their breath in foreign languages. He learnt how to swear in Italian before he learnt to swear in English. Turned out that his two talents were language and cheating at cards. When he got to New York, he'd made a point to hang out in a different area of the neighbourhood every day so he could learn all the different mannerisms and colloquialisms and accents.
Somewhere along the way he picked up a half dozen languages. Most of the more colourful phrases were him repeating what was yelled at him when he cheated at cards or stole shit out of peoples' gardens.
Arschloch! Blyad! Wángbā dàn!
"You're definitely going to lose," Husk muttered as he took another swig of his drink.
"Oh, really? What, do you think I have a tell?" Angel grinned widely and wiggled the fingers of one hand. "I think you shouldn't get too cocky, sweetheart. I've been playing games like this for a long time."
Husk gave a dismissive nod and threw down a final card. "You gonna raise me or shall we just show that I've won?"
Angel leant forward. "I like a man who's confident in his skills," he said happily. And he held out his cards. "Two pairs."
"Weak." Husk threw down his own straight and started shuffling the cards again, glad that he wouldn't have to play with Angel's weird porno cards. But he dealt out another game, just enjoying the cards now. Didn't even care that the spectre of his father was coughing blood into his hand.
Angel laughed. "So, are you as good at other things as you are with cards?"
"I told you to knock that shit off," Husk growled.
"Ouch, what've you got against a little harmless flirting?"
Husk swallowed down another few gulps of his drink. He was not going to think of her. Not again.
But of course, she swam into his brain again the way she always did. Every night since he'd gotten down here, and every night for the last ten years of his time on earth. The one good thing in his life, who'd seen him as something more than a crook and a fuck-up, who'd kissed his fingertips and taught him how to whistle and made him actually smile. Isidra, the girl who'd arm wrestled him and won when they were sixteen, whose brothers terrified him, whose mother called him a bastard. And against all odds she'd loved him as much as he'd loved her.
He hated thinking of her. So of course she was always hovering in the periphery of his vision, holding their baby and singing gently to it.
Husk tilted his head back and poured more wine down his throat. It was getting late. Hell was starting to push more memories into his head. New York and Isidra and agent orange. He growled and glared at his cards.
He could almost feel Isidra laughing in his ear as she told him he looked cute when he was angry.
"I'm going to raise you," Angel said. "My hand wins, you need to smile at me." He reached out a hand and tapped Husk's nose, making him pull back with a growl.
"Fine, but if I win then you don't get to fucking touch me." He dealt another card onto the table. His hand was looking good, and judging by the look in Angel's face the fucker was bluffing again.
He had another drink. His brain was starting to really blur and fray at the edges, the hotel shifting and dropping away. Was he in New York, holding Isidra's hand at the doctor as they told her that she'd miscarried again and they were never going to have kids? In the jungle with a rifle in his hand, waiting to shoot some unsuspecting kid in the head? Hỏa Lò Prison with a cloth over his face and water being poured over him so he couldn't breath, couldn't think, couldn't scream that he'd give them any information they wanted? In Hell, with Alastor holding out a hand to him, his eyes glowing bright red and asking if they had a deal? Shit. He didn't know any more.
Where did babies go when they died? They couldn't be down here, could they? They just couldn't. Isidra had sobbed and held her baby to her chest. The only one they'd managed to have and he'd died at two weeks old. He'd had his mother's dark eyes, and his father's curly hair, and he'd died in his cot one night. Nothing they could do, doctors had said. It was something that happened sometimes. Maybe they'd have another baby, even though this had been the one baby they'd had after years of miscarriages. And Isidra blamed herself but Husk knew it was his fault. He was a crook and he was scum and he had never deserved her and he didn't deserve children he didn't deserve happiness. That was why he was in Hell, and she wasn't.
"Ha!" Angel threw down his hand with a grin, reaching out one hand to pinch Husk's cheek. "That's a flush, baby. Show me a smile."
"Not so fast," Husk growled as he subtly swapped his cards for ones he kept tucked into the fur beneath his bowtie. "Full house beats your flush. So get your hands off me."
He batted Angel away, who scowled down at the cards. "Man, are you cheating or something? Let me shuffle the cards this time."
"Knock yourself out," Husk said. He didn't need to shuffle the deck this time around anyway, he'd already worked out enough of Angel's tells just from those two hands. He'd just bluff him out and maybe take one of the cards hidden in his bowtie.
The only distraction were the spectres flickering in and out of sight behind Angel's shoulders. Maybe the booze here wasn't as good at keeping them away. Trust Alastor to give him weak stuff that wouldn't help him.
The teenager with the blown-off face was sitting at the stool by Angel's left. "You never did tell me how to play, Sir. You said you were going to."
Well we got kind of preoccupied with the enemy blasting all of us, and putting me in a torture camp for three fucking years.
His father was leaning against the back wall, his cigarette glowing at his mouth. "You're not good at this when you drink, kid."
Thanks Dad, this is why me and Mum left your sorry ass.
Isidra smiling again. "Don't forget us, mi sol."
Of course he didn't forget her. He'd never forgotten her. Everything in New York reminded him of her which was why he'd fucking left. Years in a goddamn war zone, and still he always thought of her and nothing but her. Then coming to this crap hole, and being told that even in death he'd have to live without her. Because he'd been so fucking lucky to have someone to love him and of course he'd never see her again.
And Alastor, that son of a bitch, finding Husk when he was at his lowest, making a fucking deal with him. Husk had just wanted to know where Isidra was. If she was down here. If their son was here. Alastor had powers Husk didn't. He'd do anything if Alastor would just look for her. He'd shaken the bastard's hand eagerly. And been told immediately that his wife was nowhere in the pentagram.
She was either cleansed, or she'd gone upstairs. But of course she wouldn't come to this place. She was the only good thing in his life, she'd never set foot down here. It was just him.
Angel dealt the cards easily and flipped a few onto the table. He held his own hand up to his eyes and surveyed them, humming to himself. Then he smiled.
"Okay, lets make this one fun. I've got a good hand here, so I'm going to raise you... I win, I get to flirt with you at this bar whenever I want." He grinned, his eight eyes all fluttering their lashes at him.
Husk huffed and ignored the spectre of the burnt hands crawling across the bar. He swallowed down as much alcohol as he could to make them go away. Then looked at Angel closely. The guy was a real open book. He was smiling widely, too widely, clearly trying to make up for something. The same smile he'd been wearing all day. Shit, the only genuine moment Husk had seen from him was when he'd been standing around in the entry hall apparently wondering if he should run out the door. Husk hated him. He wondered what sort of life he'd had back on earth. Some spoilt little rich kid who got everything handed to him on a place and then died from a drug overdose on his twenty-first birthday? Then came down here to live the highlife, getting money from sex work and being praised by everyone he met for being so handsome and so perfect. Plastering on a big fake smile because god fucking forbid he have a conversation with anyone. The kind of guy who knew how good looking he was and coasted through life and death. Prick.
Husk finished the rest of his drink. Isidra vanished along with their baby. The teenager in his army gear turned his head, blood running down his neck, and he vanished from view as well.
"Fine," Husk muttered. "But you lose this hand and that means you never talk to me again. Ever."
"What if I want a drink?"
"Go to a barman who gives a shit."
"Ah, that's a hard bargain," Angel said. "But I'll take it. I've got a real good hand this time."
Husk severely doubted that. He saw the twitch in Angel's mouth, and the edge of his smile. Every demon down here was the same: easy to cheat. When they were down here they didn't have to hide who they actually were. Just wore it on their sleeve for Husk to read. It was how he'd managed to survive. This was just one more card game with a pretty boy ready to lose all his cash.
Husk huffed and held out his cards. "Full house," he said with a wide grin. "So now you get your ass out of here and never talk to me ag-"
"Ah ah, not so fast babe." And Angel leaned forward, placing his cards down on the bar.
Husk's eyes bugged out of his skull. The bastard had a fucking straight flush! How? Husk was reading him like a book, he knew he was just bluffing. It should've been an easy win. And he spluttered, staring at the cards, until Angel's hands grabbed him by the face and tilted his face up.
"Ah, don't feel bad. I've been playing strip poker since I first got down here. You're good, but nobody in the pentagram can beat me." He laughed and kissed Husk on the cheek before getting up from the chair, taking his drink with him. "Well I look forward to getting more drinks later, sugar! And if you need company tonight, you know which room's mine."
Husk growled and wiped his face angrily, trying to get rid of the touch of Angel Dust's hands. His hands were too delicate and he smelt of perfume. He hated it. Hated everything about this place! And how had that bastard beaten him? Was he losing his touch? Was it the booze? He didn't know!
And Husk didn't want to know. It was getting darker, the spectres were getting louder, and he needed to drink. Grabbing a random bottle, Husk tilted his head back and swallowed down as much alcohol as he could until his brain finally quietened out and the hotel faded. He didn't think about the card games or New York or the soldiers or his wife or Angel Dust. Didn't think about anything. Just slipped away into the darkness, and hoped that maybe the next time he woke up he'd be somewhere else.