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Slow and Steady

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So, they'd actually done it.

Michael still couldn't believe it. He and Janet and the four humans had legitimately found a solution to the issue of how to create a viable, just and fair afterlife. He still couldn't believe that it had been Jason who'd come up with the perfect idea in the end, but who was he to argue with hundreds of years of ethics education and the laws of infinite probabilities. All that mattered, ultimately, was that the deed was done. And Michael was thrilled about it. Really, truly and deeply thrilled.

Almost.

There was one final detail that nagged at him, even through his victory. It was a small thing, a tiny little fly in a veritable sea of ointment, but Michael had specialised in torture for thousands of years and he fully understood that itty-bitty annoyances could be just as grating as penis-flatteners under the right circumstances. At any rate, his conscience was insistent that he had to come clean.

So he pulled Eleanor aside and made himself meet her gaze. "I haven't been completely honest with you."

He loathed himself a bit for the fear that flickered into her eyes. Eleanor was his closest friend, the one human that he knew he had to confess to first just in case he lost his nerve down the line. But he'd lied to her so many times that having her trust now was a hard-won prize, and he hated that he had betrayed it yet again.

To her credit, Eleanor managed to draw a deep breath before reacting. "Okay. What is it this time? And on a scale from minor to Tahani breaking a nail, how big a catastrophe is this going to be?"

Michael needed to explain properly. "Look... in the Bad Place, the fire squids are like... they're the coolest, Eleanor. By far. I tried to make it sound bad - I had to - but you've got to understand. They're always picked first for teams and they start dating before anyone else and they get first pick of all the best humans to torture. They're amazing."

Her brow furrowed. "So what are you saying? You want to go hang out with your old friends sometimes? Smoke weed behind the gym and thrash your tentacles around? Is that what this is all about?"

"No." Michael shook his head sadly. "You see, Eleanor... I'm not really a fire squid." He hung his head in shame. "We'd have to go into the eighth dimension for me to properly explain demon hierarchy, and with a whole afterlife to plan I know we don't have time for that. But you've got to take it from me, my real true form is pretty low on the list. It's why I applied for a job with a human suit in the first place; even other demons can't see what's underneath. Everyone knows the fire squids so I couldn't get away with pretending to be one in the Bad Place, but I told people I was a giant acid slug and I managed to away with that. For the most part."

Michael dared a glance up at Eleanor's face. To his immense relief and surprise, she looked somewhat sympathetic. "Okay, I get it. Cliques suck and you make up whatever stories you need to in order to survive. In high school I used to tell people my aunt was married to Brittany Spears's pool cleaner. Not proud, but it helped."

Not for the first time, Michael wondered what would happen if a bunch of Bad Place demons suddenly found themselves stranded in Arizona. Would they even notice? Would anyone notice?

Eleanor went on. "But why did you tell us you were a fire squid? It was a pretty tense situation, dude. And lying really wasn't going to make it better."

Michael sighed. "I know. And I'm not proud of it. But I felt... I felt like our whole arrangement required you all to have some respect for me. And if you knew about my true form, you couldn't anymore."

She snorted. "And fire squids automatically command respect?"

Michael nodded vigorously. " If you only knew. I tried so hard to be like them, Eleanor. When I was younger, I even tried to build a fire squid suit. I got close, I think, but it's the juices." He rubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand. "You just can't fake the juices."

A long silence stretched out between them.

"Let me see it."

Michael gaped at her. "You must be joking."

Eleanor shook her head. "Listen, you've seen me at my absolute worst. You've seen me selfish, scared, drunk off my ass. You've seen all of it. And you still respect me; that's one of the reasons I love you. So I want to show you that I can do the same, and you can trust me to keep respecting you." She smiled softly. "Whatever it is, Michael, we'll deal with it."

"You don't know what you're asking for." Michael could hear the weak pleading tone in his own voice, and he hated it.

"Look, how bad can it be?" Eleanor demanded. "Are you, like, a tarantula? A stinkbug? A gooey sack of organs? A woman who makes everyone celebrate her whole birthday month?"

Any of those would have been preferable to the truth, but Michael knew that look on her face. When Eleanor Shellstrop was this determined, nothing was going to stop her from getting what she wanted. He gave a last moan of despair, and then removed the suit.

The effect was instantaneous. Without his human legs to support him, he plummeted toward the floor. The breeze ruffled his soft fur.

He heard Eleanor gasp above him. Frightened to see her expression, yet knowing he had to, Michael tried to lift his head to meet her eyes. It took an agonizingly long time.

Everything took an agonizingly long time for a three-toed demon sloth.

Eleanor's hands were clasped over her mouth and her eyes were bright with unshed tears. Michael could only interpret her reaction as one of disgusted horror. Fending off the sting of her rejection, he tried to lift one stupid, three-toed paw at her in a helpless gesture of supplication.

In an instant, he found himself scooped up from the ground. But instead of being flung as far away as Eleanor's human muscles could manage, Michael found himself clutched against her chest. He couldn't really understand all the words she was saying - they sounded like cutesy-wootsy and little-ickle-slothy-boo, mixed in with even more nonsensical babbling. But Michael would have sworn, somehow, that she really didn't seem disgusted at all

In fact, he would have sworn the exact opposite was true.

As Eleanor cooed over his nauseatingly cute little paws and laughed gently at his horrifically adorable stubby nose, Michael found himself glad that he lacked the power of human speech in his true form. Because he would have had absolutely no idea what to say.

Hundreds of years spent in the company of humans, and they still made no sense at all.