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Anguish of the Marrow

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When one existed simultaneously as man, monster, and anthropomorphized abstract concept, the tendency to dissociate was really more of a feature than a bug. A well-honed skill, even. It provided psychic flexibility, tolerance for the intolerable, a refuge on the precipice of the mountains of madness.

All this to say that Alastor wasn't entirely certain of his own existence just now, and the rest of reality he doubted further still.

He thought Niffty was there for a while, and he had tried his hand at some lively small talk, but she didn't seem to take his meaning and her own came through as a sort of muffled word salad. When he stopped seeing her, he dismissed the whole episode as a minor psychotic hiccup, and then he wasn't on the second floor anymore.

Husker had made his den in the old servants' quarters recessed between the lounge and the kitchen, well within stumbling distance of the barback. His bed consisted of an ancient fold-out sofa laid out with a vast tangle of linens for nesting material, most of which Alastor recognized as having been pilfered from around the hotel.

The fellow could simply have asked for that throw blanket and those drapes, but it would have taken the satisfaction from the thing, he was sure. As a bartender, the man made sacrifices every day simply by resisting the feline compulsion to push glasses off of countertops.

"Hang on, it's here somewhere," Husk muttered, and began pawing through the disaster zone which comprised the contents of a squat three-drawer dresser. He shoved aside old cassette tapes, loose playing cards, several pornographic magazines and a vast collection of stolen, unmatched socks until he produced a battered aluminum cigar tin.

"Alright, sit down," the old tom growled as he popped the lid, revealing a sewing kit as haphazardly organized as the drawer it had come from. "I'm gonna put your face back on 'til Niff can do detail work, but I gotta touch you. Don't rip my fuckin' arm off."

Alastor found he had already been left standing before the only stool in the room, next to a washbasin where Husk presumably trimmed his whiskers and whatnot, when he could be bothered to do even that. His brain felt sluggish, however, and it took him until the chimera grunted behind him to finally blink and sit, ungainly as a ball-jointed doll.

The loose flap of scalp was starting to get a little irritating, now that the best part of the self-mutilation process was dovetailing back down into the constant low-grade throb of a fresh wound. The consistent, live-wire spark of it was lovely on its own, but his tail wiggled a little at the thought of having the seams stitched back together. Getting to draw out the acute thrill a little longer.

He shed his blood-drenched blazer, but left the tacky collar of his shirt in place. Unlike Maybe-Niffty in the stairwell, Husk seemed to take his meaning just fine when he murmured, "Don't be gentle, Husker."

"Yeah, yeah, buy me dinner first."

The chimera's claws were so long and fine that many a one had wondered how he could handle glasses and playing cards at all, let alone as deftly as he did. He mastered catgut thread and a field medic's curved needle with the same supernatural delicacy, not bothering to run vodka or a flame over his tool as he had so quaintly done the first time Alastor had called upon him for something of the kind.

The first clean, uncompromising gouge of steel into the flesh of his scalp made Alastor suck in a quivering breath, then sigh as the thick thread slid through the puncture, terminating in two sharp tugs when the lips of the wound met. He shut his eyes and turned them inward on himself, on the flesh-eating fireflies that sparkled under his skin as Husk began the second suture.

This clearly wasn't going to take long, a patch-job to keep him vaguely presentable until Niffty arrived to work neurotic witchcraft with needle and thread. He tried to relish the pleasurable distraction while it lasted, letting the crackle and buzz blur out both the cacophony of the Frequencies and what worse tormentors now lurked within.

He was unspeakably grateful when he realized that Husker was taking his time. It didn't quite hit him until the second time he found himself starting to spiral back into that wretched well of shame, only to be ripped back out by a merciless tug at the termination of another stitch. Husk did it a third time, and the breath-taking agony of being not only known but understood, even by a man he owned, was not a kind he knew how to revel in.

Husk had reached the far side of the ragged arc of scalp, standing in front of him now as he worked around Alastor's limp left ear. He lacked the knack for taxidermy that Niffty possessed, and so would have to leave that fix for her, but his efficiency and confidence were almost thoughtless. What he had done in the jungles of Da Nang and the back alleys of Saigon he could no doubt do here with both eyes closed.

Alastor inhaled, drawing in all the familiar scents, the whiskey and dander and cigarettes, the cortisol and the...well, now. The cologne. That was new.

As was the chemical tang of phosphates and accelerant he had noticed in the lobby. And his own distress was finally far enough away to focus on the discrepancy and realize what it meant.

"Why, Husker," he murmured, smile stretching from ear to ear as he settled back against a sort of loopy calm he hoped to preserve as long as possible. Teasing his favorite contractee would be just the thing.

"What?" Husk grunted, posture tightening. Alastor was never particularly subtle when he had sussed an amusing personal detail.

"Do I detect ammonium nitrate under all that sulfur?" He asked, right ear swiveling to face his field surgeon. The lovely twinge of discomfort when the movement pulled on his loosened scalp wasn't half as pleasurable as the resentful growl he got for his pains. "You always did like the smell of napalm in the morning! And so? Did she kill you, or bring you back to life?"

Husk rolled his eyes most extravagantly, curling his lip, but the very fact that he had to turn his back to stow the cigar tin revealed he had hit his mark.

"Little of both," the chimera replied, gruff but surprisingly indulgent. Alastor, when offered an inch, was always liable to take a mile.

"At last!" He cried - no, he managed to crow, and it felt marvelous to know he still could. "A woman you'd like to step on you who isn't helplessly devoted to the charms of the fairer sex! Though you stand no less a risk of being eaten alive by this one, I wager."

Husk still wasn't looking at him directly. "Don't know about that first part. Spent a solid five talkin' about Verosika Mayday's tits over fireball shooters."

"About whom?"

"Popstar with great tits."

"Ah." Alastor cocked his head around nearly 180 degrees, grinning to the gums. "And you did this while valiantly trying not to gawk at hers, I presume."

Husker nearly spit back into the flask he had fished out of the dresser. Wiping his mouth and lapping spilled whiskey off his paw, he said, "Guess they gotta be good if you noticed."

"As Angel recently commented regarding myself and Asmodeus, I'm certain you were not contemplating what wine to pair with the spitroast." This time the chimera outright choked on his nightcap - really more of a ten-gallon hat - and his immunity to the burn didn't seem to hold when spraying it out his nose. "Although if he were here he might remark that she seems more the type to swa-"

Husker grabbed a hunk of hair at the base of his neck and pulled hard, straining the fresh seam holding his scalp together in a frantic sunburst of throbbing, crystalline pain. Alastor shouted, a high trilling note that bordered almost on song. It was hardly the punishment Husk might wish it were, but a fine diversion it most certainly made.

"Boss, I'm gonna be real fuckin' honest, if you start gettin' into sex jokes there ain't a contract in Hell that'll stop me from jumping off a goddamn bridge."

"It would be far faster to settle for a noose, don't you think? Though I suppose the last thing you want is me commentating on whether you're well-hung!"

This time his old friend's long, slender claws hooked into the line of his torn scalp and slid under the flap of skin, through his frontalis muscle and into the bone. Wild hyena laughter rattled up from the base of Alastor's spine and ripped out of his mouth with a whooping Doppler effect, as though he were there and everywhere all at once.

Alastor squirmed and wheezed as if he were enduring a vicious tickling while fresh blood ran in rivulets down the back of his neck. When the claws withdrew Husker roughly shoved him between the shoulderblades, and Alastor doubled over the hand pressed flat to his abdomen. He welcomed the hysterics as he let the laughter take him, and the deep, begrudging chuckle that broke behind him was magnificently rewarding, also.

A hard-earned laugh was the finest ego-boost a comedian could ever acquire.

He had even managed a snicker or two from Angel in the midst of their...their-

Oh, he hated the word "break-up," and he hated more that he didn't even know if that was what they had had. He...

Oh. Well, now he had made himself sad. That, too, was such a long-estranged emotion that it felt nearly new, and it occurred to him that perhaps this came only once one had processed the fact that they were helpless. It was fatiguing, but lacked the desperate exhaustion of fear. New hues, new melodies, new things to feel. It hadn't all been for naught.

"Well," he sighed. "At least some benefit has come of all this, then."

Husk was silent for a long moment.

"Yeah? The hell do you get out of me catching some tail?" The tom preemptively rolled his eyes, rotating one wrist in the universal sign to get on with it. "Yeah, yeah, she's the one who got tail, ha-ha, I get it - seriously. You're fuckin' miserable, what's it do for you if I got somethin' good goin' for me for once?"

"Oh, come now. Your life has needed a shakeup for some time, and I, of course, shall have the pleasure of watching the show. There's simply nothing left for you in the poker circuit, old boy."

Husk looked at him for a long, unblinking moment, then glanced aside and grunted, "Yeah? Whose fault is that?"

Alastor grinned, and quite genuinely. "In some part mine, as so many things are - but you sell yourself as short as ever. I gave you luck. The bankroll to buy in and try yourself on stakes worthy of your prowess. It would have come to ruin long ago had I not placed that mantle on the shoulders of skill."

It was convenient that Husker was more hesitant than even Angel to accept praise. It gave him a moment to breathe.

"Too much of it, perhaps." He said, feeling oddly wistful. "Not that I personally object to possessing a man with such understanding of boredom's catastrophic power."

The silence stretched. Alastor heard the fluid sound of a vessel being tipped.

"You told him the truth?"

Alastor shut his eyes. He inhaled.

"Yes," he murmured. "All of it. Every last obfuscation and deceit." He sighed, and some small knot at the core of his agony came loose with a single starburst of what he thought might be peace. "Every last one..."

That anxiety was over, at least. The sword of Damocles hung over him no more, and it was he who had cut the cord. Him. He would suffer, but he would know that fear had not converted him to cowardice. That he had not allowed it to make him lesser than he was. He had succeeded where great narcissists across the ages had failed, because he was more evolved than Vox and Valentino would ever be.

The pain would be the proof. He would be made greater every moment his feet failed to flinch from the fire. That was something.

If necessary, that could be everything.

"So that's it," Husk grunted. Alastor politely stowed the flask of indulgent self-pity just as his employee picked his more literal one back up.

"If he wishes it to be." He had never worn a more dead-eyed smile. "The show must go on, at any rate! Valentino will die. Vox will die. If she cannot be reasoned with, Velvet will die. The Hotel will be safe, Angel shall be free. No, my old friend, that isn't nearly it. We've still very much to do."

"So we're doin' this even if you got dumped."

"Of course. I made a promise."

"...Yeah." Husker's perpetual poker face was as grumpily unreadable as ever, but the tip of his tail was twitching and his owlish pupils had expanded like the scrutinizing aperture of a gunsight. "Alright. What's the plan?"

"Divide and conquer," Alastor rumbled, and the life that rekindled in those bright eyes was an ugly, frolicsome thing. "I have set Vox a deadline to renounce Valentino in a most definitive way, but he cannot be depended on to act. Valentino must be isolated and killed in secret, and when Angel's contract is safely dissolved, we may turn our attention to the rest of the shattered triumvirate. Velvet is a wild card who shall have to be dealt with first of all."

"We're thinkin' Vox loses his shit if he knows Mothballs got gibbed."

"Oh, without a doubt. And I honestly haven't the faintest idea what that would look like!" Alastor chirped. "No, he mustn't know until he, too, can be isolated. If his reaction isn't contained, I truly cannot predict the scale of the destruction he and I could unleash."

Husk raised a feathery eyebrow and crossed his arms. "What, you're thinking about collateral damage?"

Laughing merrily, Alastor replied, "When I risk provoking the ire of the Morning Star himself? Oh, yes."

"You really think he'd get involved in a turf war? He pretty much hasn't done shit since the fuckin' Crusades. Been lettin' you run riot with your eldritch bullshit for a hundred years."

"I think it likely enough. Given Vox's unique position at the core of the Pentagram's media ecosystem, the consequences of his death are likely to jar the digital infrastructure it has become so dependent on for some time." Alastor shrugged. "If Old Nick is the truest sort of laissez-faire and can't be bothered to regulate even the most violent folly of the noveau riche, he may object to my bringing a turf battle to his daughter's door."

"I've only been here three damn months and I know he can't be fucked. Sounds like he barely remembers she exists," Husk replied with uncharacteristic ferocity.

He did, as a true artist of self-loathing, have reason to abhor an absent father. But there was no ocean between Lucifer and Charlie, no poverty, no racial enmity or trauma or war - only, it seemed, a smiling and implacable disinterest.

It was curious, realizing he was actually becoming rather incensed by that. Lucifer had sired a wonder, and it seemed as if he didn't even know.

"One never knows," Alastor demurred. "And there is, of course, the fact that if Vox were to kill me, he risks losing another district to the warp of dim Carcosa. I can't imagine he appreciates having bits of his kingdom stolen from him piecemeal when he underwent so very much to colonize it in the first place!"

Husker rubbed roughly at his temple. "Aw hell," he groaned, "that's where you went."

"A proof of concept," Alastor replied. "In truth, I wasn't certain if Vox could enter the Old Town at all!"

"But you tried it, and he can."

"His physical avatar certainly can. It follows that his overmind could, also - with the proper encouragement."

"Chasing yours in there when he figures out you played him and plugged his boyfriend." Alastor inclined his head. "You're gonna contain the fight so Lucifer doesn't smite your ass for fucking with space-time on his turf."

"As you mentioned, he has been quite tolerant of me up to this point! A shame to hide such a grand spectacle, but alas, I suppose it's the least I can do."

Husk snorted. "And you say I got a thing for people outta my league."

"Oh, Husker, I'm sure the last thing dear Charlotte wants to hear just now is that I am aesthetically attracted to her father."

"Fuckin' please," the chimera grunted, rolling his great amber eyes. "All anybody's gotta do to figure out you're a little hot for Satan is look at how you dress."

"When one's hair is quite literally firetruck red, a viable color palette becomes remarkably limited. I'm rather obliged to look edgy, I think."

"And you like it."

"And I like it." Alastor reached up, prodding with curious claws at the temporary patch-job his employee had made of his scalp. Mugging like a starlet, he asked, "How do I look?"

"Like Frankenstein's undergrad term project."

"Smashing."

Husk began putting his messy sewing kit away, no doubt knowing Niffty would bring her own and hoping to avoid an organizational rant. With his back to Alastor, he broke the brief silence.

"D'you really think he could kill you? Him?"

Alastor shrugged. "I don't believe so. My pride certainly won't consent to believe it. But it is never wise to underestimate an almighty idiot, and the matter is just enough in doubt to stoke greater excitement in me than I've felt in years!"

There was a short, ominous pause.

"I don't wanna get into it anymore than you do, but level with me. How bad was it with the Boob Tube?"

Alastor's smile became very grim, and the thing howling behind it seemed perilously close to crawling out of his mouth on lashing, numberless limbs. "Imagine what could be bad enough to drive me to the extremes you've witnessed today," he said, "and you may be at least halfway to the mark."

Husker said no more. His tail lashed once - even this a tell he actively permitted Alastor to see - then the dumbwaiter activated and they both turned, awaiting the completion of their little triumvirate.

Niffty began talking before the little door had even opened.

"-triple-checked the baseboards and those little grooves in the molding so I think I got it all off but I need to go back and super-detail the carpets just in case then Mister Angel tried to come down that way but I just told him there'd been a giant spill and he needed to use the south stairwell while I was cleaning so that went okay but he was definitely crying is this about-"

By the time Niffty was zipping around the room picking up discarded bottles and cans Alastor's smile had become so massive and so brittle it felt like sugar-spun glass. Husk was grimacing openly.

He had his mouth halfway open with the probable intention of skirting disaster when Niffty's eye finally fixed on Alastor, zipping up and down in a manic, compulsive scan. Then, loudly:

"Husk! Good golly what did you do is this square stitch it should totally be a blind hem it's going to look so obvious and his ear's all wrong!" A pink blur snapped back into recognizable shape on the shelf containing Husk's limited toiletries, the nearest surface available to view Alastor at eye level, and somehow failed to disturb so much as a bar of soap.

"Mellow out, Niff," Husk was saying. "Just tryin' to get the flap outta his eye 'til you could do better. Have at 'im."

She did so, and Alastor felt a curious breed of calm settle down on him in the eye of her twittering storm, like a hummingbird zipping busily about his head.

"Okay I got all my stuff hold on a sec shoot where's my oh darn it Mister Alastor do you mind if I use you as a pincushion real quick I forgot mine!"

Alastor chuckled, shutting his eyes. "A bit of acupuncture surely couldn't hurt - by all means, darling."

"Okayokay great can I touch you now is that okay?"

"You may."

The first needle punched through the skin on the back of his neck, embedding in lean, whipcord muscle with an invigorating little tingle, followed by half a dozen other bits and bobbins as Niffty ran out thick black thread between her tiny fingers and stabbed it through the cyclopean eye of a steel tapestry needle.

"You're so dirty too Husky can you fill that washbasin while I set up my notions I'm going to need to go wild on your poor suit but I guess it's been a lot worse Miss Rosie really knows what she's doing I can't wait for the new poodle skirt she wants to make me it's going to have a little Bunnicula on it!"

Alastor shut his eyes, letting her chatter out-compete the noise of the City where it pummeled relentlessly against the membrane of his personhood. It kept him anchored, to hear her speak of everything and nothing at all with untiring enthusiasm.

Husk, he knew, found her even more exhausting than his employer, but with her he had always been far more indulgent. He readily took advantage of the chance to let her carry the conversation and drop back into sullen silence while he obliged her in filling the washbasin, then retreated to his nest of linens.

"That sounds perfectly charming. Wool felt in fluorescent tones, perhaps?" Alastor responded as Niffty began to realign the seams of his scalp with a series of pins.

"Of course what kind of girl do you take me for she talked me into trying a kind of goldish orange she showed me the swatch and I think it goes great with my hair like the little streak here you know?"

"You shall certainly have to model it for me posthaste! A little jitterbug session in the ballroom, what do you say?"

The excitement hit Niffty so hard that she uttered a little meep! "That would be so great Miss Charlie loves to dance with me but nobody ever keeps up like you do they always get tired after like an hour I swear kids these days have no stamina we used to dance until we dropped at the sock hops in SoCal!"

And she was off again, scampering down memory lane as her hands worked like diminutive lightning, needle flashing under the dim bulb overhead in a series of swift, flawless loops. Her work was faster and more efficient than Husker's, and thus less enjoyable, but both very thorough and very skilled. He felt her yank on a tendon in his ear, using the thickest thread and tapestry needle to reattach it to his scalp, then start to carefully shape the auricle back into its natural curve before attending to the more superficial damage.

"-and I know Husk didn't want me to gossip about Miss Cherri but you totally know already don't you I've gotta tell somebody or I'll explode!"

"Here we go..."

"Come now, Husker - this is an admirable display of discretion on her part! Do let her have some fun at your expense, won't you?"

Husk blinked at them slowly. Then his whiskers twitched and he got up, turning away. "Whatever. I need a fuckin' nap."

"Already are you crazy you just woke up!"

"Yeah, and I had to deal with this shit first thing. I'm clocking out." Husker crouched, ruffled his wings, then sprang atop the standing pantry with a slinking feline gait and settled in out of sight, sprawled atop the broad shelving unit with only the tip of his tail and the corner of another stolen sheet dangling within view.

Alastor turned his attention back to Niffty and shrugged. "I daresay we were overdue for a little one-on-one time, at any rate!"

"Yeah! Here let me get the mirror so you can start cleaning your face you look like you let your eyeliner run and you're all sticky you should change that shirt too I need to dry clean that like yesterday ANYWAY I came in here the day after you had that first fight with Mister Angel to freshen things up and I didn't know Miss Cherri was still in the hotel but there she was! And you know Husky he tried to get rid of me but that just meant he couldn't argue with me when I said I wanted to wash all his bedding so ha!"

Husk snorted loudly from atop the pantry, the tip of his tail lashing. Niffty ignored him, merrily tucking the ragged edges of Alastor's scalp together and performing some black magic with her thread, folding the stitches inward until the seam was nearly imperceptible. He couldn't yet move his ear, but the sheer amount of meat he had recently consumed all but assured he would be whole again by morning.

"Well, it would seem she's just gained a very titillating incentive to take us up on an offer of residency," Alastor replied, grinning like a fox as he began wiping blood off of his face with a damp cloth, trying to work out the matted tears in his eyelashes. Niffty produced a comb and started in on his hair, and the water in the basin quickly turned oily and gray.

"Oh I've already got the room next to Mister Angel's all set up for her! I know she hasn't said yes yet but you always know how to make people say yes I know she'll come around and it'll be great I bet Nuggies will love it too maybe you could even magic a pet door between the rooms or something he's a really good pig but I think he could definitely use some more exercise I guess it'll be better when Mister Angel isn't working for Valentino anymore-"

Niffty stopped. This in itself was alarming, and Alastor, who had already been fighting a growing surge of nausea, physically jerked when the question he was dreading was finally asked.

"Are you and Mister Angel going to be okay?"

Alastor's brain felt frighteningly hypoxic, and no amount of panting breath seemed to take the edge off that distinct, despair-inducing breed of starvation.

"I shall be okay," he answered her, as though saying it alone were enough to make it so. "And I shall ensure that he is, as well."

"But what about together?"

"That is entirely up to him, now," Alastor replied, and he refused to dirty himself again with fresh tears. "The odds do not look particularly promising, I'm afraid."

"Oh piffle there's no way you guys are ruining my new OTP like that he's crazy about you I know you can work it out communication is the key to a healthy relationship and fighting is part of communicating if you don't ever fight it's not actually a healthy relationship if you ask me! And you communicate for a living but like in a really one-sided way so I think where you really messed up was just not listening that well and that's totally something we can work on I know all about that I'm terrible at listening because I talk too much but at least I know it you can't do anything about something if you don't know about it you know!"

"Yes, I think I do know, in fact." Alastor laughed. He couldn't help it, and he adored her for that. "The only way for an all-seeing eye to overlook something is through deliberate blindness, and alas..."

"So you're absitively-posolutely not giving up just because you got yelled at and your feelings got hurt right?"

Alastor flinched, stomach twisting back into a sickly knot. "I believe I've already pushed him just as far as I rightfully can, and quite a bit further besides. I was given my chance, and I squandered it. It would seem the best thing I can do is 'give up'. I certainly will not impose myself where I am not wanted."

"You are totally wanted don't even kid me about it you guys just fought like not even two hours ago it's never good to go to bed angry but it's always easier to think about something that made you mad after you've slept on it and I know you can't sleep but he can so I think what you should do is definitely give him a lot of space right now but maybe get him a really thoughtful little gift or gesture or something and try to talk again in a day or two because I know he wants to make this work too and absence makes the heart grow fonder!"

"Niffty, you pushed your husband down three flights of stairs and closed the oven door on his head for good measure."

"He was a bad communicator!"

Alastor let out one sharp, concussive bark of laughter. Niffty hopped down to stand on his knees and look him directly in the eye.

"Just don't give up hope okay?" She asked, enunciating clearly. "Please?"

He could feel every inch of her little body vibrating through the soles of her kitten heels, but she was so still and spoke so slowly that Alastor was immediately unsettled, unable to mount a defense.

"I make no promises," he murmured, taken aback. "But I suppose it couldn't hurt any more than it already does to try."

Niffty maintained eye contact for an excruciatingly long time, then she nodded sharply and hopped back up onto the shelf to collect her sewing supplies.

"Niffty, dear?" Alastor asked as she plucked her spare needles out of the back of his neck.

"Yeah what's up?"

"Who is Amy Winehouse?"

For a fraction of a second Niffty froze, then burst back into motion as though unleashed from a cannon.

"Oooooooooh my god okay how long do you have because I am absolutely about to lose my mind I had such a phase in the 00's and I could seriously-"

Alastor held up his hand like a schoolboy. She pointed at him, and he spoke.

"Regale me at length, darling. I could use a little artistic passion to lighten the mood. Perhaps a lot. You're aware just how gluttonous I can be!"

"Okay okay whoo! deep breaths she was English right and she was born September 13th no wait 14th 1983 so she grew up with a lot of gospel and soul but like everybody in her family were jazz musicians so her work ended up being this really unique mix of all that plus R&B and it's just the neatest I really really think you'd like it if you gave it a chance she's a really great contralto you've got to hear Back to Black it's her best album-"

The little dear proceeded to unload roughly three decades of pop culture on him over the course of several hours, and Alastor smiled, nodded, dropped an encouraging insight or posed questions - relaxing into a feeling of peace, however momentary.

He had been wrong again. He wasn't alone.

 

********

 

Eventually, Niffty could set aside spot-checking the stairwell no longer and begged off to attend to it, Alastor's soiled suit folded up in her arms as she scurried away. Alastor had exchanged it for a number in deep plum, the aesthetics of which he greatly enjoyed but which he seldom wore regardless, to Rosie's periodic chagrin.

Husker had roused from his catnap nearly two hours ago and had yet to make an effort to kick him out, and so Alastor had stayed, staring vacantly at the wall and twitching occasionally until Husk produced a pack of playing cards, demanding that he stop being creepy and play a few rounds of Gin Rummy.

He was admittedly distracted, too much so to play well, and for all that Husker normally complained about Alastor's unsporting advantages, he clearly wasn't reaping any joy from the handicap. He maintained in every way the attitude of a man aggravated, put-upon, and bored - but he kept dealing another round, and Alastor was unsettlingly humbled by the revelation that Husk did not need to do all of this.

It was such a little thing. Such a little thing, yet how meaningful! Husker was bound to do as he bid, but Alastor had not told him to do this - to distract him, to take care of him this way. Certainly, the fellow's life was much easier when Alastor was in something resembling his right mind, and investing in a less-disordered employer had its practical incentives, but what Husk was doing now was being kind. It was a shade of nuance he hadn't been able to appreciate before, but Angel had taught him how to spot the difference, and it screamed at him now.

He wanted to ask why. He wanted to know what he could possibly have done to justify compassion from a man whose life he had spent the last half-century merrily jerking about on a string. Husker had the power to lock himself down entirely if he chose, a poker face so iron-clad it defied even psychic intrusion, and he had successfully used it to ignore Alastor for years at a time in the past. He was not wearing it now.

He wanted to ask wh

The limpness of Alastor's torn ear suddenly became an unsettling contrapposto as every other atom in his body SNAPPED to attention, his head shooting up like a deer tracking the echo of a gunshot. When his back slammed up straight it sounded as if someone had run a segway over a strip of bubble wrap, then shifted into reverse as his neck jerked in the direction of the door, ear swiveling like a radar dish.

"The fuck-"

His eyes had grown so wide, his teeth so deranged that they smeared together into an abstract of red and gold splashed across a vague, gray suggestion of a face. He had shot to his feet so violently that he had upended the fold-out table and scattered the deck all over the floor, spilling Husker's flask into his lap, who was hissing most atrociously but but and but and

It had only been nine hours! Ten at most! Too soon! Not ready! No, no, no!

"Christ Almighty, what just crawled up your ass? Cut that shit out!"

"He's coming."

"Who, fuckin' Nyarlathotep? He's not the-what the hell are you doing?"

"Leaving, my good fellow! Leaving!"

"Oh, for cryin' out- No, fuck no, get outta there, you're a grown-ass man and you're gonna-"

"Please, do not mistake Angel's ability to tell me what I'm gonna do for a privilege you now share!"

"YO, HUSKY! Where the fuck are ya?"

"Let GO of me, damn you!"

"Fuckin' ridiculous, goddamn-"

Niffty had, in retrospect, made very certain to extract a promise that one of them would take care of dispensing with the dirty washwater before leaving, and by all rights what occurred next could have been avoided entirely had they taken heed. But Alastor sharply jerked his foot in a bid to escape the old cat's claws, upsetting the stand and dumping the lukewarm soup of blood, snot, and oily tears down Husker's front.

Husk snarled and dug his claws in deep even as Alastor began to dislocate his limbs and rearrange himself to effect his retreat. When Angel finally slammed open the door he said, "Hey, old man, get up! I got somethin' I gotta talk...to...," then stopped.

What he was looking at was a yowling chimera, drenched in dirty washwater with his claws embedded in a spindly gray forearm and a fine deerskin shoe shoved in his hissing face, both sticking out like bent stalks of corn where Alastor had succeeded in stuffing himself most of the way into the dumbwaiter.

After a brief pause, Angel reacted in the only way one reasonably could.

"What the ever-lovin', titty-fucking Christ is goin' on in here?"

"Uh," Husk replied intelligently, not releasing his hold on Alastor's arm, where blood was beginning to run through the sleeve of his fresh suit. "He started it."

"I resemble that remark! Let go, you cad!" Alastor barked, reverberating in the shaft as though from inside a small tin can. He simply couldn't help himself - the remark or the way he ground the sole of his shoe a little harder into the infernal hellcat's cheek.

"I don't give a rat's ass who started it, I'll finish it!" Angel shot back, audibly stomping his foot. "Al, get the hell outta the dumbwaiter, this ain't fuckin' Looney Tunes."

Alastor was silent, and for a moment he seriously contemplated simply dislocating his shoulder and pulling until his arm ripped off in Husker's iron grip.

"And it ain't Cool World, either, ya freak. Don't even think about it."

And Alastor, as a last resort: "Are you-are you quite certain you want me to? That is, I was only-...I had meant to give you considerably more 'space' than-"

"Yeah yeah yeah sure, whatevah, just do what I say, wouldja? Wasn't planning on gettin' to this part yet but fuck it, we're doin' it live - get outta the chute an' sit yer ass down." Angel's voice migrated from the doorway to the dresser. "You too, Puss. If you guys're doin' back-room collusion in here you sure as hell better be cuttin' me in."

Something jolted in Alastor's stomach, and he unfolded out of the dumbwaiter like a broken doll, bent backward into a sickle-crook that momentarily gave him the silhouette of a compressed scorpion. He wedged his other leg out first, then corrected the 270 degree angle of his spine with an almighty CRACK! He relocated his hips and elbows - crack pop pop - then twisted his neck back on its axis and settled into a pose so attentive it bordered on the deranged.

Even after so many years of his skeletal symphonies, Husker still thought it necessary to shudder and curl his tongue. Angel, however, immediately fixated on a different detail entirely.

"Are you wearin' purple? The fuck happened to yer suit?"

Alastor had been starting to bounce frantically on his heels, and he stopped with a blink. A beat later, he was hit by a wash of embarrassment so potent he wanted to sink into the floor, never to be seen again.

"Nothing! It, ah- that is, there was a slight..." He floundered. "You see, Niffty was quite..."

"Y'know what, I don't care, listen up," Angel cut him off - then had the temerity to surge forward and seize him by the lapels. Wide-eyed, wild-eyed, dominating his attention with a snap as forceful as it was effortless. Alastor opened his mouth, failed to speak. Angel did not.

"We're gonna fuckin' use this."

Merely being talked to so soon was befuddling enough - the actual semantic content of the words was almost beyond him. He gawped for a moment before saying, "I beg your pardon?"

Husker, who was still soaked and snarling, stormed between them with middle digits upraised to grab a towel out of his nest and vigorously dry his belly and crotch. After a moment Angel righted the card table and plopped down on the fold-out, spindly and cross-legged.

"Stick it out, kitty-cat - if I don't get this the hell outta me now I'm gonna go nuclear. You, c'mere."

Alastor delicately reclaimed the stool, every hair from neck to tail standing on end. He sat stiff and unblinking, as eerily still as a deer frozen in the advancing headlights of a car which somehow had yet to strike him dead.

Husk punctured the tension by dropping irritably into his nest and shamelessly lifting a leg to drag his tongue through the beslimed fur on his abdomen and thighs. He grimaced at the taste and glared at Alastor darkly, totally unrepentant in his immodesty. It was a testament to the dire situation that Angel didn't find it necessary to crack a lewd joke, and Alastor's stomach clenched viciously.

It occurred to Alastor after a moment that their positions around the cheap plastic card table made a fine parody of the clandestine conferences of organized crime. In a moment of inspiration, he snapped his fingers, and Husker's equally cheap stereo began quietly playing a somber Italian waltz on solo trumpet, evoking that same smoky, conspiratorial atmosphere.

The comical juxtaposition evidently wasn't lost on his audience. Husker rolled his enormous eyes, and Alastor's mood immediately skyrocketed into the stratosphere when Angel cracked a brief, incredulous smile. It was followed by a quiet laugh, and Alastor wiggled his tail like a lovestruck puppy. He hadn't blinked once since Angel entered the room.

Angel shook his head, and that alarming intensity reclaimed his body language like a possessing devil.

"Right, so you gotta tell me everything about how this shadow shit works," he began. "You said ya possessed mine, what's that mean?"

That unidentified intensity finally categorized itself. It dawned on Alastor that Angel had an idea, and against every impulse Alastor decided not to question him. This had just become Angel's show, himself only existing within the scene as a receptacle for exposition. He was called upon to play among the supporting cast, and it was exactly where he wanted to be.

Alastor was immediately business-like, leaning forward with more manic attentiveness than he had ever managed on cocaine. The neuralgic twitching, however, remained much the same. "Put simply, all personal shadows are doppelgangers. They are points of contact with your entity in two-dimensional space."

"Put simply, he says," Husker grunted, continuing to shamelessly flash his behind at them as cats the world over were wont to do.

A little louder, Alastor went on: "A person who is psi-null is as unaware of it as they are of their subconscious, but as in lucid dreaming, one can learn to become aware of oneself in that state and move independently of the three-dimensional form."

Angel, too, leaned forward over his crossed legs. "Okay, that's rad as fuck, but I'm talkin' you hitchin' a ride on my shadow. Like, you made it move when I didn't, and I ain't had my third eye open since that one time I tried adrenochrome. How's that part work?"

"Quantum entanglement," Alastor replied, and at Angel's expectant look he elaborated. "The atoms of this body are entangled with my doppelganger, always in contact regardless of distance. If my doppelganger then entangles with yours, I can sense where you are and what you are doing."

Angel seemed to consider for a long moment, then said, "'kay, I got no fuckin' clue what half'a that actually means, but I kinda get the picture. Is it just you makin' my shadow move, or can you do some puppeteer shit with me?"

Alastor swallowed guiltily, vividly swarmed by a century of memories superimposed, spines snapping like birch branches in a deadfall as their shadows were forcibly folded in two.

"If...well, under certain circumstances-"

"Yes or no?"

"-Yes, but I assure you that I would nev-" "Yes!"

Alastor balked. Husker's head shot up from between his thighs, the tip of his tongue still visible.

"I-I-" Alastor fumbled. Then, synchronous with Husk, "Yes?"

"Looklooklook okay, okay," Angel said, all but vibrating with some frantic emotion trapped between excitement and nearly fatal anxiety. He pointed aggressively at Alastor's shadow on the floor, which jumped at the sudden attention, then seemed to shrink in size. "So if he was inside a-a magic...forcefield or fire alarm or somethin' and you were on the outside, would that still work?"

"What, ah- what do you mean, darling?"

"Like, would your shadow movin' me around count as you...you - fuck, I need a glossary for all this crap - but would that count as you 'touching the three-dimensional plane' or whatevah you said? Would that ping the psychedelic radar?"

Alastor began to realize where this was going. His eyes slowly widened, darting frantically from side to side as the implications fell into place.

When the lightbulb popped aglow, he felt it like the resonation of an almighty gong.

"Oh." He scarcely dared to breathe, lest the geyser of raw, exhilarating inspiration come gouting out of him in one cataclysmic blast. "Oh, Angel, you-"

Angel locked his upper elbows with his hands clutching the edge of the bed, a dark blue vein visibly throbbing in his neck. Burning, he said, "Val's penthouse."

"Yes."

"And I'm on contract, so I can't hurt him if he says stop, but-"

"Yes-"

"So I'm gonna smuggle you in, Velvet or no Velvet. And then I'm gonna be your gun, and he won't be able to do shit to stop me, right?"

"Yes!" Alastor cried, bounding to his feet as though on springs. "Incredible, darling! Positively splendiferous, you beautiful madman!"

Angel had startled up as well, and utterly unable to help himself Alastor swept him up into his arms, dancing them around the cramped room in swift, sweeping arcs. His laughter might have been boyish were it not so fundamentally unhinged.

It was only when he noticed Angel was not laughing along that he remembered he had lost this privilege. He stopped, tense from tip to toe but for his drooping ear, and while Angel looked more surprised than reproachful, nothing was worth the risk. He let go, took two large steps back with arms still upraised, then stopped and twitched awkwardly where he stood.

"I...am sorry. Got a bit carried away, that's all! But truly! A-a truly - well, we've certainly no guarantee in practice but the mere possibility- I...Would-"

"That's it," Husker grunted, finally sitting up like a proper member of society. "Boss - and I'm tellin' you this as yer honest-to-God friend - get back on the stool and sit this one out. You're fuckin' embarrassing yourself."

Breaking again into the horrendously cluttered dresser drawer, Husk retrieved a half-empty bottle of something that frankly smelled like paint thinner to replace his flask. Evidently he judged the flavor he was attempting to burn out of his mouth to be the greater evil, as he took the first pull without a flinch.

"Alright, kid, you wanna talk tactical? Let's talk. Tell me you got an angle."

"Bet your furry ass, I do. An' Vox handed it right fuckin' to me." Angel pointed both a look and one manicured claw at Alastor. "I'm gonna call Val. Real scared-like. And yer gonna cut me off 'fore I can tell him what's got me spooked."

"Why hasn't he already tried to come get your ass?" Husk interjected before Alastor could process the demand. "Is he out there sittin' with a thumb up his while everything gets FUBAR around him, or what?"

"I ain't had my phone on in days," Angel replied, pulling the offending device and its still-separate battery out of his fluff and dropping them on the card table like radioactive artifacts. He winced when he looked down at them. "I'm fuckin' scared t'put it back in, but I bet you that whole goddamn bottle my voicemail's full when I do."

Husker looked at his drink, then at Angel's dismembered phone. Then he offered up the bottle wholesale with the utmost solemnity. "I don't bet on losing dogs. Just take it."

"Well, ain't I always glad t'meet a gentleman." Angel smirked, and it was a credit either to his fortitude or his distress that he, too, barely grimaced after taking a sharp pull. "He's gonna be beat-my-head-on-the-wall pissed when I finally call back, but it ain't like I could keep touch when the big, bad Radio Demon told me I couldn't use my phone, right?"

The sketch-lines of the scheme had already been coming together, but it was as if Angel had added a keystroke of color that made the image pop. He noticed when Alastor's ear shot forward, and the sparkle of his gold tooth was positively savage.

"I caught feelings 'cause you talked real sweet an' got me thinkin' that you loved me, that I was special and I deserved better 'n all that shit, but turns out you were a crazy fuckin' stalker, and when I started tryin' t'get away you took my phone and told me I couldn't leave the hotel. Now I'm scared and I finally figured out I'm better off with Daddy, so I want him t'come get his Babycakes 'n take care'a me just like he always does. You pickin' up what I'm puttin' down?"

Alastor inhaled.

"Manipulating the truth rather than telling a lie."

B R I L L I A N T !

"How do we know he'll buy it?" Husker asked, wings shading the slouch of his back like a cynical gargoyle. "Like it or not, he didn't get where he got by bein' stupid."

"He'll buy it 'cause he thinks I'm a fuckin' bimbo who couldn't scheme his way out of a paper bag." Angel's own shoulders hunched as he crossed his arms tightly over his chest, lip drawn back in a resentful sneer. "And he'll friggin' love hearin' that Vox broke up with him fer a guy who's about ta fuck him over big time. Gonna put him in a real good mood, then I get him all tied up pullin' on my chain so he'll put off callin' Voxy up to gloat." Angel's primary eyes flashed, catching Alastor's like the spinner on a fly-fisherman's hook. "Y'know, until he's had me alone, first."

"After which he will be in no condition to flaunt what he thinks he knows."

The hook sunk under the rim of his orbit and riveted Alastor by the pulp of his retina. He couldn't have blinked if he tried. Angel alone had the power to break eye contact, and when he finally did his face had turned to stone, cool and cynical as white marble in a ruin - worn by eons of neglect, but still, somehow, stubbornly beautiful.

"Val's already been tryin' to grind me down so I come running - he likes t'do that every now 'n then." Angel shrugged, but a vein of such total disgust ran under the surface of the gesture that its dismissiveness curdled the blood. "Why d'you think he was lettin' me live outside the studio? When I stay there I can have everything I want, big deal if I gotta be his toy all day, every day. But out here I gotta look aftah myself while he's takin' all my pay - all flophouses 'n shitty slumlords 'n shittier drugs. That motherfucker's been waitin' for me to come crawling back beggin' him t'take me home. Lets me get the rebellion outta my system every decade or so, y'know?"

You were already at your breaking point before all this began, Rosie had said of him. And Charlotte, teary and kind, offering to understand should Angel's resolve not hold the first time he tried to break free. It was normal to crack several, perhaps many times before mounting from the pit - but Angel had already done so.

The cycle had repeated itself many times before, and Angel had always given in - but not this time. This time Angel felt the cruel hand tugging him back by his chain, and he was ready to turn and bite.

The Radio Demon illuminated far above, a brief, brilliant dome of infrared distortion, and citizens of the Pentagram puzzled in unison over the way the cottonmouths and copperheads were screaming. What it was that the rest of them hadn't seen.

"Anyway, he'll buy it 'cause we've done this dance b'fore, and he thinks he knows how it goes," Angel said, contemptuously checking his nails. "He'll play nice at first, get his lovebomb on - 'least until he gets me in private. And it'll be too late by then." He looked up at them both, and the intensity of inspiration had begun to mount into a cruel joy Alastor recognized with thrilling intimacy. "Fer him."

Angel was looking forward to it. Alastor had never been more in love.

"Boss, the hocus-pocus on this gonna hold water?"

Alastor jerked like an animatronic coming back to life. "Well! As I was attempting to say, while the matter in practice remains to be seen, the metaphysical principles are certainly there!"

"Alright, now say it so us highschool drop-outs can understand."

"You realize, of course, that I only avoided that label myself because I never attended in the first place," Alastor replied, then brightened like the sunrise and clapped his hands together. "Now! To be transparent - and you are very privileged to know this - I snap my fingers to deliberately cultivate the impression that sorcery is effortless for me, but in truth the peril and complexity of the practice cannot be overstated. You've cracked the conundrum wide open, dear, but I will not use you as the focus until I better understand what I'm to be dealing with, and whether it will work at all."

Angel shrugged, then rotated his wrist in a get on with it gesture.

"It is entirely possible that we could conceal our activities from Velvet this way, regardless of any surveillance she may maintain at Porn Studios. However, I would not be able to physically manifest if there were a risk of detection. Ideally, you would only need me to manipulate the finger necessary to pull the trigger, but if you were to consent to full possession - with your safeword, perhaps - I would not be able to push your body past its natural limits without hurting you. Valentino is volatile enough that we need a contingency, don't you think?"

"Yeah. I ain't a pushover, but the prick is ten feet tall - shit could get dicey," Angel conceded. "Guess you couldn't manifest me a tommy-gun or nothin', either."

"How well do you free-climb?" Alastor asked, quivering eagerly. "And how far can you bound, vertically and horizontally?"

"Uh..." Angel blinked. "-Pretty damn good, 'bout two stories, an' like half that lengthwise."

"I've smelled venom on your breath before. How long and how potent are the effects?"

Excitement sparked in Angel's eyes, his back straightening as the fur on his shoulders puffed.

For a moment he even seemed to preen. "I can get a guy squealin' like a pig fer two hours easy if I hit him with enough of it."

Alastor could feel himself grinning like a punchdrunk fool. He murmured, "Heavens, but I'm daffy for a dangerous man..."

Husk groaned, then took up the onus of keeping matters on track, by now a most familiar role. "So this cockamamie scheme is probably doable, but we're still dealin' with way too many unknowns, and that's an issue."

"Precisely," Alastor said, inclining his head with a creak. "Velvet isn't half as powerful as Vox, but she is magnitudes more competent, and equally unpredictable. Her interference will be discounted only at our peril."

"Rosie's already on it," Angel replied, and Alastor's ear and eyes swiveled sharply in his direction. Angel went on: "Well, it'd be all kinds'a suspicious if you tried gettin' her t'come to you in the middle of all this, right? So we gotta make it her idea."

The sheer delight of knowing these two lovely, dastardly creatures would have killed a lesser man. "Men must be taught as if you taught them not..."

Angel sucked in a breath, leaning forward with the air of a lively conspirator. "So listen, I got some inside dirt. We wanna know whose side Velvet's on in all this, right?"

Husk grunted. Alastor inclined his head the other way.

"I'm tellin' you right now, it's Vox. But see, I been watchin' the shit fly with him 'n Val since way before she came along, and she's...she's weird, so fuckin' weird. Like-" Angel's eyes darted briefly aside as he gestured vaguely with his hands. "I mean, you've seen her. She puts on like three different personalities per conversation, and I ain't seen the real one yet. Hell, I dunno if it's even there, but I bet it looks like a friggin' babadook if it is."

Angel took a deep breath, then seemed to finally catch his point in hand.

"So that's the thing. She calls 'em her dads on all her socials 'n shit, and she plays it real cool, but honest to God, I don't think she actually gives a shit. Matter'a fact, I think she's kinda ticked that a jerkass, WASP-ass Boomer motherfucker like Vox gets t'be the Media Demon when TV lost out t'social media ages ago."

"Ah-ha..." Alastor breathed, something cheerfully nasty bleeding across his face like the black tendrils of an oil spill. "Ambition. You think that she keeps the two of them close because she aspires to take Vox's role once he vacates it?"

"I got pretty much no evidence," Angel said, then shivered. "Just that creepy Stepford-Wives feelin'. She's so fuckin' good at the manic pixie dream-girl schtick, but ain't nothin' going on in those eyes, ya feel me? Stone cold."

"A trait we know can be leveraged." Alastor cut his gaze between Angel and Husk, a grinning jack-o-lantern undivested of its guts. "And, as Rosie pointed out, I have no desire to fill the power vacuum we are about to create."

"Fuckin'-A, like that little freak'd be much better," Husker growled.

"Oh, no doubt she would be quite the tyrant, but by far a more pragmatic one! She always was the most tolerable of the three, though admittedly her company sets the bar quite low."

"So she gets a promotion if she stays outta the way here?"

"Oh, I can sweeten the deal far more than that to tempt her compliance. I could so easily hamper her ascendance, you see, and Rosie could be more obstructive by far even should I somehow perish. I certainly will not help her claim the title if she covets it, but if she chooses not to interfere in my business, why, staying out of hers would be the least I could do!"

"Be way better t'just kill her," Angel remarked, his tone chilly. "I get why we wanna give this a shot, but fuck, that kid's an abomination dolled up in Gothic Lolita."

Alastor raised an eyebrow at him. "And you aren't eager to see what results when a Devil makes a deal with a Devil."

"I'm really fuckin' not," Angel muttered back.

Alastor considered.

"Fortunately, Velvet must still be felt out before we can make plans of any of this in either case. We've ample time for doubt and debate, yet - and a clear heading to pursue in the meantime." He looked back up at Angel expectantly. "Rosie already has that step well in hand?"

The spider nodded, looking more sure. "Doin' a little confab with Stolas in a few hours, I bet she's got it on lock by noon."

"Fabulous." Alastor purred. Then, with feeling, "My word, gentlemen, but this is starting to get exciting!"

Husk, seeming to take his cue, pushed himself to his feet and said, "I'm too old for this shit."

"Hate to break it to ya, cupcake," Angel replied, bouncing his eyebrows, "but I could be yer gay granddaddy fer all you know."

"Like I said," Husker grunted. "I'm leavin'. Don't steal my cigarettes or fuck on the bed."

Angel blew him a sardonic kiss as he left. Alastor noticed he had not reclaimed his bottle of moonshine. He also noticed that Angel hadn't taken a second drink. He still did not do so.

He set the bottle down on the card table. The short thunk was obscenely loud in the sudden blanket of mute tension. Alastor couldn't bear it for long.

"Haha, forgive me, I- ah, I have never been broken-up with before and I've absolutely no idea how to behave!"

Angel jumped, eyes blown wide, and all of a sudden he looked panicked. "Wait, are we broken up? Like, for-real?"

"I-I, well-" Alastor fumbled, utterly losing his read on the conversation. "The phrase 'done with you' seemed quite definitive!"

Angel took a sharp breath, held it in for a very long time, then let it out in a rush and dropped his head into his waiting palm.

Pinching the bridge between his eyes, the spider groaned, "I didn't mean forever, you goddamn drama queen! I just don't want you up in my face tryin' to feed me a narrative before I can have my own fucking thoughts, alright? So...so bug off fer awhile, but stop pullin' yer hair out over it!"

Alastor actually, visibly winced, and the pull on his stitches when he did failed entirely to balm his ongoing embarrassment, so strong that he nearly missed the starshot of frantic hope that streaked across his mind and faded uncertainly into the firmament. He immediately doubted if it had ever been there to begin with.

"I ain't the one you oughta be suckin' up to right now, anyway, you get me?"

That gave him pause. Angel was right, of course: he had made a grave error, and he had yet to correct it, something that must be undertaken at once lest the window for recovery close upon him.

An obeisance. A humbling. A sacrifice, to prove his dedication and test the mettle of his resolve.

This he could do. He raised his chin and said, "Yes, I get you."

"Good." Angel gathered the pieces of his phone back off the table and stowed them. His eye contact was fleeting and unsure, but not absent. Alastor's hands were trembling. "I'm gonna get Cherri on my burner. She's checkin' in whether she likes it or not."

"A fine idea!" He attempted to chirp, managing more of a yelp. "I will be...around! Best of luck to you!"

Angel looked at him again, and this time, just for a second, his face cracked into a wicked smirk. "Yer gonna need it more than me, big guy."

And he was gone. All of them were gone. He was alone, and exhausted, and pitifully in love. And he knew what must be done.

Words were where he most excelled, rousing speeches his specialty. He was made to solve problems such as this. It was merely a matter of reapplying principles he had long held to be inflexible.

Reverse-engineering the meaning of conscience. It had worked before. There was no reason it couldn't do so again.

He left Husker's quarters with a flourish, and the shadows conspired as he passed, for he had promised them a show. He gave himself an hour to study the playbook, and no more. There was no time for second-guessing.

Surprisingly, Charlotte had not thought to remove the portable radio she used to listen to The Lone Ranger and Sam Spade when the whim hit him for a re-run or a reenactment. It followed that his first thought was to drop a line to announce his intent to make amends, then leave she and Vagatha be with his olive branch neatly laid out on the doorstep, awaiting consideration.

He was six words into his first sentence by the time the picture window was wrenched open and the radio hucked into the void, the sound of his voice trailing away before the first exclamation point. The device hit the pavement below with a sad little crunch.

Alastor rolled his great, glowing eyes, pleading for patience, then heaved a drawn-out sigh. He took his microphone in hand, and when he thumped the base on the hardwood floor of the observatory the general PA crackled to life.

What needs must.

"Yes, yes, I'm well aware that this is invasive, but this 'self-improvement' business has me quite at my wits' end without the bother of having my efforts rejected out of hand. I shall, however, endeavor to be brief:"

"Charlotte, let me dispense with platitudes and make a simple statement of the facts. My behavior yesterday was repulsive. Moreover, it was both petty and childish, driven not by rage, but by the cowardice I used it to conceal." Alastor swallowed, feeling ego roll back down his throat like a dry stone, scraping him raw all the way. Better that this be semi-public. Perhaps it would have more meaning, this way. "You were absolutely correct when you said that I was lashing out. I wished to hurt you because I could not stand to be helped by you, and in allowing my pride to dominate me, I spoiled entirely what had in fact been a remarkably productive collaboration up to that point. I have kneecapped our relationship at the precise moment the friction of our differences had begun to bear such intriguing fruit."

"Whether or not I am capable of remorse is a matter for debate, but I do regret. You warned me only recently that valid points avail me nothing if I choose to express them in a hurtful way. I'm afraid I didn't listen, and I am sorry - for that only first of all. You of course do not owe me the opportunity to apologize to you properly, but I offer it to you regardless."

It was as much as he could say under the dire challenge of a word limit - but, inspired, he decided not to let the matter lie just yet. He felt himself about to go on a roll, and he let it happen.

"Well! And I suppose, while we're being candid, I owe a word or two to you, Vagatha." He paused, admittedly not without interest in dramatic effect. He could imagine her holding her breath, about to pop like a hypertonic vein. "I am not sorry for any aspect of our interactions to date. I have allowed you to be far ruder to me than most, as your criticisms are often valid enough and you are of value to my business partner. I owe you an apology only for causing pain to one whom you love, and for this, as I've said, I am regretful. Unpleasant as you are, I am moreso, and I understand quite well what it is to wish to shield something precious from a world which seeks to exploit and destroy it. I understand your hatred, and so I shall not take offense to it. I promise that, and no more."

"Husker, old man, you are as rare as you are pickled, and may you take great pleasure in saying 'I told you so'! And Niffty, dear, you shall always be my Employee of the Month! That rather does it, I think."

He paused. When he recommenced it was with a solemnity that congealed oddly with the audible smile always lingering in his tone.

"Angel," he began. "To you I owe far more than I could convey here with any brevity. I shall dispense with further apologies and settle instead for offering you my thanks. You are an incisive and deeply sensitive man - moreover, you are incisive because of that acute sensitivity. I have indeed treated empathy as a handicap, and you have demonstrated exactly how dire an underestimation I had fallen prey to. I'm fortunate to have been checked now, by you - for heaven knows a foe might have made that blind spot my undoing."

"So I thank you. I thank each of you, for providing something uncomfortable and new in a long life grown stale for lack of real challenge. Why, the world has been forced to adapt to me for so long I rather think I'd forgotten how to do it the other way around! What an adventure this could be!" Quiet again. One moment, one beat which read not as showmanship but hesitation, uncertain and true. "If only you, Charlotte, can permit. I am, as you said, willing to try. To try and try again. Perseverance is one virtue we seem to share, and I offer you mine. Take it, or leave it where it lies. This I leave entirely up to you."

He tapped the base of his microphone once, twice, and signed off.