Mad Hatter has a few difficulties coping with how people have changed, post-canon. Drama With UST, I-3

Character(s): Arariel, Lucifer, Mad Hatter

“Where do we go now?” Belial asked hir lord, as they watched Lucifer’s final contract partner return to his proper plane.

“Back,” Lucifer said, laconically.

Belial had to stifle a bit of surprise at the thin quirk to Lucifer’s lips. It was a more sardonic and less bitter expression than se had been used to seeing on the Lord of Hell’s face. Perhaps his time sharing Alexiel’s cycle of reincarnation really had changed him.

“Back… to Hell?” se speculated. “Or to Heaven?”

Lucifer arched a brow and didn’t answer. Belial took back hir thought about having changed. Se knelt with studied and only faintly mocking grace at hir lord’s feet, holding hir hat over hir heart.

“Your wishes command one, lord.” That, at least, was entirely sincere.

Lucifer’s eyes rested on hir for a heartbeat longer than Belial expected. “Come, then.”

Belial rose and followed, pleased that familiarity had returned.

Belial understood Lucifer’s refusal to name their destination within a very short while. The heavens and the hells were assimilating each other. The results were interesting. On the one hand, it sent the most powerful denizens of every plane into what could only be described as a tizzy, insisting that it couldn’t be happening, or shouldn’t be happening, and trying to find some way to stop it. On the other hand, a good many of the lowlier residents didn’t seem to notice much difference.

The contrast amused Belial.

“Well, really, what did you think was going to happen when we jammed the planes together?” se interjected, when Astaroth paused for breath.

“We were expecting to take over Heaven,” he snapped. “And might have succeeded if everyone had actually been attending to business.”

Belial brushed aside his searing glare with a deprecating smile. “Indeed. Very few were attending to the real business at hand. One sympathizes with your frustration; such disloyalty is distressing.”

Astaroth opened his mouth, and closed it again as Belial’s glance sharpened. Se lowered hir lashes, satisfied, and moved away across the hall currently serving as the court of the Lord of Hell. It was not precisely crowded; too many of the ranking demons had died in the most recent round of war for that. Barbelo, Asmodeus, Mammon, all gone, and most of their people with them. Even so, Belial didn’t really think demons were meant to congregate in anything as cooperative as a court. Which was, come to think of it, probably why Lucifer had never much bothered with the trappings of one, and still wasn’t now. Belial didn’t think he was even present today.

Everyone would probably calm down a bit when they managed to sort out separate domains again. Having all the higher demons brushing shoulders with each other like this made them… tetchy. Belial no less than any of the others, se admitted privately. Normally, se wouldn’t make an issue of disloyalty to their lord. It was pointless, considering that they were all demons and demons were, one and all, selfish and opportunistic creatures.

Speaking of opportunity, Belial felt eyes on hir as se moved out onto one of the balconies. Delightful. Se could use a diversion. Se lounged against the stone rail, letting hir head fall back as se stretched. Apparent vulnerability was titillating to so many fools. Hir lips curved, harshly.

“This eternal guilt of yours is getting boring, little butterfly,” a low, familiar voice said from the shadows by the wall.

Belial recoiled upright with a gasp. “My lord,” se murmured, and then blinked as the actual words registered. “Guilt? One is a demon,” se reiterated hir recent train of thought. “We do what will benefit or amuse us; we use the innocent and the tarnished alike; where is the place of guilt in that?”

A few quick strides brought Lucifer close enough to hold Belial with a hand against hir back and another curved around hir jaw. Belial bit back another gasp wondering, on a surge of sharpened senses, whether Lucifer had finally decided to kill hir. He had been volatile since his return, and Belial had been expecting, for centuries, that he would eventually cease to tolerate hir devotion and attention. Would it be now? Belial tensed but did not move.

“It has no place,” Lucifer agreed, coolly, “which hasn’t stopped you from heaping contempt on yourself. Haven’t you seen past the lies of our Creator yet?”

Now Belial was confused, and the confusion was only making hir more tense. “My lord?” se asked, a bit tightly.

Belial thought se heard a sigh as Lucifer gathered hir close, but was far too shocked to be sure. He couldn’t… not now

“Why am I always surrounded by idiots?” he asked, rather caustically.

“What…?” Belial choked, now completely disoriented.

“Hush, foolish butterfly,” Lucifer told hir.

The hand stroking hir hair, as much as the command, silenced Belial. Se didn’t understand what was happening at all.

“You are not fit to carry the weight of Pride,” hir lord said, evenly. “You have none. Not really.”

Belial veered back to thoughts of imminent death, and searched the gray eyes that held hir own; not that se really thought the moment of decision would show there. It never had before. Lucifer shook his head and placed a light kiss on hir brow.

“Consider it,” he directed, and left Belial staring after him in unaccustomed bewilderment.

Belial spent a few days wandering the nearest angelic cities, and incited a few fights just to settle hir nerves. Se returned to court in a better mood, reappearing in a swirl of extravagance, scattering barbed illusions around hir like drops of water splashed from a fountain, ready for the unwary to slip on. Se was in a mood to remind the court of hir power and danger.

The reminder seemed effective, as even Beelzebub kept a prudent distance after taking in Belial’s tiny smile and chill eyes. Astaroth was not so fortunate, and stalked out in a high temper after he embraced an illusion of his sister-self only to see it turn to one of Belial. He dismembered the wisp quite thoroughly, and would likely have attempted the same on the actual Belial he discovered standing in front of him, smirking, as the illusion dissipated, if they hadn’t both known exactly who would win.

Belial had retired to the window with the best view, feeling satisfied, when black feathered wings swept around hir, blocking any view at all.

Four black wings.

Belial turned, trying not to shiver at the whispering touch of feathers and magic, and looked up at hir lord, barely a breath away. His wings surrounded hir in his power, a feather’s edge from destruction or… what? Lucifer’s face was unreadable.

“I would say to entertain yourself as you like, if pain and humiliation truly amuse you,” he said. “But your deception has gotten thin.”

Belial raised hir brows. “You are the only one who was never deceived, lord,” se pointed out. “One cannot see that this has changed.”

Lucifer’s eyes narrowed, and Belial stiffened a little. Had one of the other demons turned their lord’s opinion against hir? Well, se had to amend, turned him against hir in more than the usual way. Was that the reason for the cage of his wings?

“A pose of self-honesty makes a brittle mask.” His voice was cold, colder than it had been since he returned to them, as cold as it had been the very first time they spoke. The tone made Belial relax, even as se puzzled at the words. Hir effort wasn’t much use, as Lucifer’s fingers, brushing back hir disheveled hair, brushed away all hir thoughts. Belial was starting to wonder whether Lucifer was simply amusing himself by toying with hir. He hadn’t used to indulge much in that sort of thing, but…

Grasping for the thread of this strange conversation, Belial murmured, “At the risk of repeating the obvious, one is a demon. Whether we delight in the pain and humiliation of others or are merely indifferent to it, we all bring it.”

“I didn’t speak of others’ pain,” Lucifer told hir, and cupped Belial’s cheek, brushing his thumb over the teardrop under hir eye.

A thin sound of denial forced its way out of Belial’s throat, even as se leaned into the touch, parting hir lips. He couldn’t. He couldn’t. Please, no, not this one. Belial believed in the efficacy of prayer even less than se had before the third war, but se was desperate enough to entreat the memory of their progenitor, dead as Adam Kadmon was, not to let Lucifer desire hir. It would be glorious. It would be the end of Belial’s existence, the end of the only truth se had ever found.

Lucifer sighed, looking faintly exasperated. “A complete and utter fool,” he stated. “I seem to be cursed with them.”

The hold of his wings tightened for a moment before unfolding from around hir. Belial tried to decide, as se watched Lucifer walk away, and felt the many eyes on hir, whether se was comforted or terrified by hir lord’s parting words.

Need drove, and Belial didn’t think se could face much more of trying to keep the rest of the court guessing whether Lucifer was favoring or punishing hir. Especially when se hadn’t the faintest idea which it might be. Thus, se was the first of the Satans to risk imposing hir will on the borderlands to establish a domain of hir own. Belial was actually rather proud of the effort. If the definition held, then the domain should expand as the assimilation of planes continued.

Unfortunately, unless se wished to deny hir allegiance to Lucifer, se could not avoid an explicit summons into his presence. Since such a denial was unthinkable, Belial crushed the messenger’s heart to relieve hir stress a bit, and prepared to attend on hir lord. Drawing on the jester’s mask helped calm hir, at least.

Lucifer had called hir to the gardens, which were inexplicably developing just inside the border. No one Belial knew of, including Lucifer, had had anything to do with creating them. That was happening more and more frequently, of late, on both sides of the border, and Belial occupied hir mind with speculation on whether the angels had any more idea of what was going on than the demons did. It worked up until se found Lucifer.

He was sitting on the grass, propped up against a set of steps that didn’t seem to lead anywhere, reading. Belial blinked, trying to remember if se had ever seen the Lord of Hell looking so… relaxed. Se was fairly sure not.

“There you are,” Lucifer said, closing the book. “Come here.” He held out a hand.

Belial approached, stopping beside him the usual foot or so away—as close as se could come without being forced back. Or so it used to be. The hand remained outstretched, and Lucifer’s eyes glinted. Rather worn out from trying to guess what he meant to do, Belial placed hir hand in his with only a brief hesitation. Se was not entirely surprised when Lucifer pulled hir down to his side, but this time he made no move to draw hir closer.

Nor did he let hir go.

“My patience has not grown that much,” he informed hir, softly. “It’s time to choose, now.”

The entire thing would be a great deal easier, Belial reflected, if se had any idea what the choices involved were. Several likely possibilities did present themselves, though. One was that Lucifer had, in fact, come to desire Belial, and wished to know whether Belial would give hirself willingly or not. Another was that he had finally become sufficiently annoyed or disgusted with Belial that he wished to destroy hir, or, possibly, merely torment hir, and was asking whether se would submit or resist.

The complete lack of clues as to which might be true only added to the inherent stress of either option. When Belial considered the fact that these possibilities were not even mutually exclusive, and that both might be true, the tension rose enough to leave hir shaking.

None of that, however, affected hir decision in the least.

Belial lowered hir head and leaned against Lucifer’s chest, waiting.

Lucifer’s free hand came to rest on Belial’s back, touching off new tremors. “Is it that difficult, butterfly?” he asked.

“Your wishes command one,” Belial whispered. “If your intent is to destroy, though, may one beg the favor of a swifter end?”

The hand moved to Belial’s shoulder and shook hir slightly. “I never thought I would actually meet anyone who was more of an idiot than Setsuna,” Lucifer remarked against Belial’s hair. “You have a better mind than that; you know the difference between ruthlessness and cruelty.”

Belial stopped breathing. If it was not destruction, then…

A silent chuckle rolling through Lucifer’s chest startled hir into looking up. Lucifer’s expression was ironic.

“And did you really think I had fallen victim to your rather overdramatic wiles?” he added.

Belial’s admittedly excellent mind went entirely blank. “Then what…?”

“One of the things my idiot managed,” Lucifer noted, calmly, “was to point out to me a more interesting and effective method of rebellion.”

Connections cascaded through Belial’s thoughts. Se had understood, long ago, what drove Lucifer’s frozen rage. He hated the Creator’s plans, and yet had been mouse-trapped into playing a part in them. How to rebel, when one’s assigned role was to do so? Taking part in the slaying of God surely qualified, but Belial knew better than to think that alone would appease hir lord’s long, long fury. A better method? The Messiah’s method? The Messiah stood outside the balance of Heaven and Hell, refused to give any credence to the rules of those realms: the rule of God’s order versus the chaos of solely individual desires. Except for Belial, of course, whose desire was not purely for hirself, who cared also for the wishes of another…

Cared also for another…

The single greatest sin, for any angel…

A better rebellion…


Belial stared up for a long moment, finally recognizing the strangeness in Lucifer’s eyes as cool affection. And then se started to laugh. Laughed until se had to lean against Lucifer or fall. Laughed until se cried, wracking sobs that tore the air from hir lungs. Lucifer merely held hir until se quieted. It took a while.

“I was right the first time,” Belial murmured against his shoulder. “It did change you.” Se had known Lucifer loved Alexiel; even the blind couldn’t help seeing that. Se had long suspected that it was the transgressive nature of his desire for the Organic Angel that had been the entering wedge for genuine care whether he recognized it or not. Se had never, for the tiniest instant, suspected he might come to expand that care to anyone else, no matter what the rationale or advantage. Why?

Lucifer lifted Belial’s face with two fingers under hir chin. “You’re a mess,” he told hir, smiling faintly. He mopped Belial’s face with a corner of his cloak, scrubbing away the remains of hir mask. “There. A little closer to truth.”

Belial tried to look away. Lucifer didn’t let go.

“I can’t… I’m not…” Belial broke off. The mirror that had shown hir worthlessness and degradation with such merciless, enchanting clarity was warping, turning, angling in another direction. Wasn’t it Belial who was supposed to play tricks like that? Se bit hir lip sharply.

“Stop that,” Lucifer ordered, sounding a bit exasperated, and leaned forward.

His lips brushed over Belial’s, softly.

The shock of it drove an unvoiced cry from hir, and Lucifer answered with a quiet laugh, tumbling hir down to the grass. Belial gazed up as he leaned over hir, shaking harder than before, frightened by the very possibility that he might touch hir. Se couldn’t accept this, couldn’t be worth the frosted shadow of gentleness in hir lord’s eyes. He combed hir hair back with his fingers, smoothing it.

“Not yet, foolish butterfly,” he said, and pressed a kiss to Belial’s brow. “Choose your new truth, Belial. Then we’ll talk.”

Belial answered with the only surety left to hir.

“Your wishes command one.”

Belial retreated to hir domain again, and spent a rather long time trying to stave off panic. The effort was only intermittently successful. This did not, when Belial was calm, particularly surprise hir. Lucifer had done precisely what would most unsettle, discomfit, and generally unbalance hir. He had changed, while he was away, but he showed no more mercy than he ever had.

Which was to say, none.

From the first, it had thrilled Belial, that exacting ruthlessness, the edged truth that Lucifer used to draw blood. Se found it beautiful, like perfectly clear ice, frozen from perfectly still water. And he had completely confirmed Belial’s own view of what the world was. This was the first time se had not been able to see what hir lord did.

Belial drew hir knees up and rested hir chin on them, tucked into a corner of hir bed. A better rebellion. Se understood that. And love itself was insane—se knew that, too. But care for another was not natural to demons. Or any other living creature, as far as Belial had ever been able to tell. As soon as anyone, angel or human, cast off the rules they bound themselves with, they consumed each other in perfectly selfish savagery. Angels had long managed to do so without breaking any rules as such. It was that hypocrisy, masking utterly solipsistic cruelties as holiness, that had most disgusted Belial with Heaven. The fact that, even when se wrote it out in blood and sex and rot for them, no one saw the truth.

No one but Lucifer.

Belial loved the honesty of the fallen. Surely the Lord of Hell, of all people, wouldn’t try to deny that? Could he truly believe that living nature held something else? Hadn’t Belial proven it otherwise, in Heaven and on Earth both? Se remembered his expression, the one time he had come to the cities by the sea—chill and ironic and unsurprised. Had that not been the ultimate example of the truth that lay behind God’s rules? The truth of the Creator’s work, the Creator’s reflection, the Creator’s corruption?

Outside the rules…

Belial paused, unfolding as se remembered the thought that had come to hir earlier.

The Messiah had gone outside those rules. Rather well outside; it was one of the things Belial had actually somewhat respected in that strange individual. And yet, Mudou Setsuna had not acted with pure selfishness. He didn’t care for abstracts, that Belial had been able to see. But he did care for his people. His friends. His sister.

Belial nibbled on a nail for a long moment before rising, decisively, locking hir domain and heading for Machonon. For once, se didn’t look for centers of unrest, or levers to pull, or bother with the houses of the powerful. Se came, instead, to an enclave of those who had fled from Raquia when it crumbled. A fairly small enclave, but one se had noted before was more cohesive than any faction of the angelic armies managed to be. More cohesive than any powerful angelic faction, period, except for young Raziel’s. They reminded her a bit of Kurai’s people.

Hir intent to remain unnoticed met with a check almost as soon as se arrived, which actually confirmed hir opinion that this little group might offer the insights se needed. It was obvious that the Forbidden Children among them were taught to use their powers rather than simply suppress them, and Belial suspected their leader had once been an angel of high rank. A strange combination. If anyone could demonstrate living outside the rules, it would be them.

“…if we’re lucky, Rehel will be too busy to get around to us for a while…” their leader was saying as Belial slipped in.

One of the others raised his head, sharply. “Arariel. Someone’s here.”

All three who were present looked around, and Arariel frowned. “You’re sure?” she asked.

“Very,” the one who had alerted them said, definitely, looking in Belial’s direction.

Interesting. “One is impressed,” Belial lilted, stepping out of the shadows.

The third angel, younger than the other two if Belial was any judge, tensed, but Arariel held up a hand. “Who are you?” she asked.

Belial fanned out a handful of cards. “Merely a jester. You might call one Mad Hatter.”

The alert one’s expression said that he didn’t think much of this. “Whoever that is, he isn’t merely anyone,” he said to his leader, tense and wary. “He’s strong. And a demon.”

Arariel nodded. “I’m Arariel. What do you want here?” she asked, still calm.

“Merely to observe,” Belial answered with a charming smile.

“Observe,” Arariel repeated dryly. “Is this a synonym for scout? As in, the advance of an invasion?”

Belial laughed. “One very much doubts it. One’s compatriots are far too taken up with the assimilation of planes to have much taste for other amusements yet.”

“Yet,” the tense one muttered, glaring.

“So you just want to hang around and watch us for no particular reason,” Arariel summarized.

“Quite.” Belial smiled.

“Is there anything we could do to stop you?” Arariel asked, in a tone of academic curiosity.

“Unlikely.” Belial taped a finger against hir lips, judiciously. “It might be somewhat more of a chore under the gaze of your eagle eyed one, there,” nodding at the alert one, “but not much.”

Arariel thought for a moment, and then nodded. “Try to stay out of the way, then.”

“One will endeavor to do so,” Belial murmured, amused.

“Good. This is Nisroc, and that’s Tabris,” she nodded to the alert one and the tense one, respectively. “I’m sure you’ll meet everyone else as you go. Make yourself at home.” She turned back to the little conclave Belial had interrupted, and, after a few distrustful glances, so did the other two.

Belial withdrew, quietly, musing on Arariel’s invitation.

“I still don’t get why Arariel let you in so fast,” Tabris complained, flicking the red wings that had gotten him thrown into the slums in the first place.

He and Belial were perched on the ruined roof of the group’s home, watching a small but rather nasty fight between two splinters of the angelic host through Tabris’ spell.

“Practicality, most likely,” Belial speculated, admiring a particularly sharp explosion. “And, perhaps, an instinct for truth. She knows one is no threat to you, at this time. If it’s any comfort to you, she does not seem to trust one too much.”

Tabris growled. It entertained Belial that he, who made a considerably greater show of hostility, tolerated hir presence far better than Arariel’s other second, Maion. Belial could drive Maion out of a room just by producing flowers from nowhere; the frivolity seemed to offend him.

Actually, they all entertained hir. Perhaps even fascinated hir.

Se still had some difficulty understanding how they managed to hold together, for one thing. Arariel was a large part of the answer, se had no doubt, but not the whole of it. Belial didn’t see how Arariel could have anything to do with Isda’s tolerance for the double-handful of obstreperous brats the enclave boasted. Nor the way even Tabris and Maion, who constantly sought in small ways to show each other up, would guard each other’s backs without an instant’s hesitation. Belial had seen it, shadowing them while they hunted information on their neighbors. More than that, each of them accepted the other’s guard without a qualm.

Even Charoum and Harahel, who, by standing rule, were not permitted to be alone in the same room lest only one of them walk out, even between them lay… something. Belial couldn’t exactly call it warmth; any warmth between those two could only be the beginning of spontaneous combustion. Acceptance, perhaps. Se had been waiting, in vain, ever since se met them for Harahel and Charoum to kill each other. Instead they seemed to accept that they detested each other passionately and worked around it.

All the time jealousy and spite and greed pulled every one of this little band in one direction, and that something else pulled them back. They weren’t a perfect or model anything, to Belial’s great delight; se didn’t think se could have stomached it if they had been. Perfection was only ever a cover for corruption in hir extensive experience. What they were, illegal children, imperfect angels, political refugees and all, was a living whole in absolute defiance of the uncaring chaos around them.

Definitely fascinating. If Belial could understand them, se might have the key to hir lord’s changed vision.

“Hey, Tabris!” Isda poked her flour-powdered face over the edge of the stairs. “Harahel and Nisroc found something. Arariel wants you to hear about it.”

Tabris, without a word of farewell, abandoned his observation and dove down the stairs, eyes bright. Belial chuckled, and slid into the shadows to emerge, well ahead of him, in Arariel’s makeshift office.

“Hatter,” Nisroc said, less a greeting and more a warning to everyone else that se was present.

Maion, leaning over Zachriel as his fingers danced on a keyboard, twitched just slightly. His shoulders tensed even more as Tabris burst into the room, and glared at Belial.

“Will you cut that out?!” he exclaimed, irate at having been beaten to the office once again.

Belial considered for a moment. “No, one doesn’t think so.”

“Indulge your silliness more quietly,” Maion directed, firmly.

“Certainly.” Belial produced hir brightest, laciest parasol and twirled it gently over hir shoulder. Se gave Maion a brilliant smile as he twitched again. Arariel raised a brow at hir, and Belial obligingly let the gaudy thing fade away again.

“Zachriel, anything yet?” Arariel asked.

“Nope. There doesn’t seem to be a thing in the records about this place.” Belial was a bit surprised that he sounded so pleased. Normally, Zachriel took any failure of information as a personal affront. And se had to admit, while he was physically frail, Zachriel’s relationship with the various databases and archives of Heaven was something close to symbiotic. Or, perhaps, romantic.

“Even I wouldn’t have found it if we hadn’t more or less tripped over the doorway,” Nisroc observed.

“And it’s only half a mile through the southbound tunnels,” Harahel enthused.

A memory stirred in Belial’s mind. Hidden, through the tunnels, just south of their present location…

“I wonder if it’s proof against the scanners Rehel’s people have,” Arariel said, half to herself.

“Yes,” Belial answered. Se smiled, urbanely, as the entire room turned to face hir. “Scanners, signature seekers, any and all messengers, even the voice of Bath Kol. At least once the door’s shut.”

“It was ajar when we found it,” Nisroc confirmed. “You know the place?”

“Oh, yes,” Belial murmured. “It was very useful on any number of occasions.”

Everyone visibly decided not to ask.

“All right, it’s confirmed,” Arariel said, briskly, “Maion see what you can do about an evacuation plan.”

Belial blinked. “Confirmed?” se echoed in mild disbelief. “You do realize that one might be leading you straight into a trap?”

“Yes, you might,” Arariel agreed, serenely. “But the expression on your face just now, when you mentioned how useful the place was, was far too vicious to be a put on. When you’re lying, you smile. You meant that.”

Belial took in Arariel’s matter-of-fact expression for a long moment before se burst out laughing. “One knew there was a good reason to like you. How marvelously realistic.”

An edge of discomfort followed Belial when se left, though. Reviewing the way they had behaved around hir just now, se could only come to the conclusion that this little group had accepted hir as… well, if not one of them, an ally. Following Arariel’s lead, they growled and teased and ignored hir much as they did any of their own.

It was far from the first time perfect strangers, and even acquaintances who should have known better, had come to trust Belial. But se thought it might be the first time it had happened when se hadn’t been trying. What were they thinking?

What were they expecting, assuming such trustworthiness on the part of a demon? Just as Kurai had trusted hir “wedding proposal”. Just as Lucifer…

Belial bit hir lip and frowned.

That comparison rooted at the bottom of Belial’s mind, and it wasn’t long at all before it bore a fruit se would never have expected.

It started with Isda rounding up the children with the kind of sharp haste Belial had seen on battlefields, and herding them toward the tunnels. That was enough to tell Belial that someone was coming, and the explosion shortly after confirmed the suspicion quite conclusively. Se emerged, discreetly, to find Arariel, Nisroc, Tabris and Maion standing on the remains of a wall, facing a sizable group of intruders in uniform. The best shots among Arariel’s people had managed to find spots for a fairly good cross-fire pattern, if their leaders would just get out of the way.

“It’s simple enough,” a tall man was telling them, in a voice which was, in Belial’s professional opinion, far too smooth. “If your leader surrenders herself to us, no one else will be harmed and we’ll leave you in peace.”

Tabris was inhaling, presumably to tell the man where to put his suggestion, when Arariel spoke. “Will your word bind Rehel?”

The angel standing on the launcher which had, presumably, demolished the wall, barked a laugh and jumped down to saunter forward. “Yes, it will bind me. After all, without a leader, these others will fall apart into pointless rabble again.”

“Very well,” Arariel said, after a cold pause.

“Arariel!” Tabris burst out. “You can’t…!”

Arariel spun and laid a hand on his shoulder, and another on Maion’s. Belial saw her lips shape the words But you can. She turned again and stepped toward the intruders. Buying time with her death, Belial decided, tallying the defenders against the intruders. Time to make just a few more preparations that might give her people enough of an edge.

Maion’s hand clamped on Tabris’ arm and held him back when he would have gone after her.

Rehel grinned, and gestured to his tall lieutenant, who drew his sidearm.

And Belial was, abruptly, consumed with fury—the kind of blazing, acid rage se hadn’t felt since the first war, having been far too busy since then trying to keep Gehenna in one piece. It didn’t matter that se knew Rehel had made a severe miscalculation, that executing Arariel in front of her people would ensure they hunted him down to destruction with the last shred of life and breath in them. The expression on Arariel’s face, as she stepped forward, was too like and too unlike the shadow of a smirk Lucifer had worn when he unravelled his body to blanket Hell with the smallest breath of life for his fallen followers. Rehel’s smirk was too very like the twist on the lips of the angels who had touched hir. Se remembered too well. Se didn’t step back to watch the show, as se normally would have. Instead, Belial stepped forward, and was beside the intruders in a slide of shadow.

The tall man’s hands hit the ground with a slight thump, followed a moment later by his body.

“Hatter!” Arariel shouted, cut off as Belial threw her back into the arms of her seconds.

Belial turned on Rehel, a snarl twisting at hir usual sardonic calm. He had threatened these people who had accepted hir, whose beautiful, precarious, living balance had lured hir into taking part in their lives. Just as Lucifer had, when he returned.

Rehel clearly saw his destruction in Belial’s face, and sprang back, shouting to his soldiers. They fired with the speed of fear, but Belial was gone. Se slid among them, and they fell, cut down one after another, until only Rehel stood. Belial stepped in front of him long enough for him to get a good look, and then was gone again, flickering through the shadows that surrounded them, reappearing always long enough to be seen but never long enough to be struck. Dancing with this creature who dared think himself righteous, as se had danced with so many before. Slashing through his illusions until they were all gone and he died of truth.

Belial stood, at last, looking down at the bodies, absently shaking blood off hir hand.

“Ha… Hatter?”

Belial turned to see blank disbelief in Tabris’ eyes as they tracked from hir to the bodies and back. Se tipped hir head to one side and waited to see what would happen next.

What happened next was that Arariel picked up a scrap of towel and came to offer it to Belial, silently. Hir mouth curled in appreciation of this sang-froid, and se accepted it, wiping off hir hands. Something, though, perhaps the expression on Maion’s face, wouldn’t let Belial leave it at that. Arariel’s orders to her people about disposing of the bodies, while it did shake everyone out of their apparent paralysis, also offered an opportunity just too good to pass up.

“There’s a much easier way,” Belial noted, blandly.

“Is there?” Arariel eyed hir. “Do tell.”

Belial waved a hand, opening a gate to the borderlands under the entire lot of erstwhile intruders. “There are gardens taking hold,” se said, into the resulting quiet. “One is sure they could use the fertilizer.”

After another long, frozen moment, Nisroc turned and called up to one of the others, “You owe me two weeks of late patrol. I told you he was a Demon Lord.”

Amid the ensuing expostulation that the bet had only been for one week, and Nisroc wouldn’t cheat a friend like that, would he? Belial had to wonder how se had known that they wouldn’t react with fear. Because se had been sure of it.

And for the life of hir, se couldn’t have said how. Perhaps it was this trust thing, again; it was really extremely counterintuitive. Se sighed.

“I don’t know about you, but I need a drink,” Arariel said, under the hubbub. “Care to join me?”

“One would be delighted,” Belial agreed.

They wound up in Arariel’s office, where people occasionally looked in to tell their leader that the children had returned, or that the hole in the building was boarded up, or, curiously enough, to grin at Belial.

“May I ask your rank?” Arariel said, at last.

“One is first among the seven Great Satans,” Belial answered, and then amended, “well, four now. Curious how that matches the reduction in numbers of the Great Angels.”

“What are you really doing here?” Arariel asked, softly, examining her glass.

“One spoke the truth. You were not mistaken in that.” At Arariel’s exasperated glance, Belial smiled and continued. “One has long held certain opinions about people’s basic natures. Opinions which, one’s lord has recently suggested, may be… incomplete.” Belial leaned back and looked at the light of sunset, painted across the ceiling. “One felt that you might be complete.”

“We like to think so,” Arariel agreed, dryly. After a moment she spoke again. “Are you complete, now, too, Mad Hatter?”

Belial’s breath caught. “You do remind one of the young Princess,” se murmured. How did they both strike the things hidden even from Belial, like that? Because it was true; alone, Belial had never felt completion, even when se destroyed those whose corruption seemed the source of diminishment. Se adjusted the brim of hir hat lower. “Yes.”

Arariel tossed back the last of her drink. “Good.”

Belial waited long enough for everyone to stop tip-toeing around hir before announcing hir departure over dinner one night.

Tabris claimed hir timing just proved hir perversity.

“Thank you for your help, while you were with us,” Arariel said, coming forward.

“It was entirely one’s pleasure,” Belial said.

Arariel looked hir in the eye. “And will you be coming back some time with a suggestion that we join Lucifer’s people?”

Belial arched hir brows. “What would you say if one did?” se asked, intrigued.

“I don’t know.”

“Fair enough,” Belial murmured, amused. “One does not know either.”

“Would you destroy us if we refused?” Arariel asked, with that detached curiosity she showed over particularly vital questions.

“Only if the service of one’s lord demanded it,” Belial told her.

Arariel nodded. “Understood.”

“Wise angel,” Belial smiled at her. “One does like you.” Se touched two fingers to hir lips, and then to Arariel’s cheek.

Arariel’s mouth quirked with appreciation of this delicacy. “Come visit us some time, then,” she invited.

Belial paused in the act of turning to go. “One just might.”

When Belial returned to the borderlands, se chose to fly. It was not a common choice for hir, and hopefully that would prevent anyone connecting the person on top of a very tall and barren crag with Belial and pestering hir. Se wasn’t in the mood to deal with demon politics just at the moment.

“Was your vacation nice?”

Belial had not sensed any presence behind hir, and, in the moment before logic noted that only one individual now alive and mobile had the power to conceal himself from hir, Belial spun around violently, teetering on the edge of the cliff. Hir wings flared out, preparing to turn a fall into a swoop which would, without a doubt, be very painful.

Lucifer caught hir back from the edge with an arm around hir waist. Belial spent a moment making sure se did not dig fingers into his shoulders hard enough to bruise, nor pant for breath, nor answer hir lord in unbecomingly blunt language.

“I do hope your usual aplomb will be returning at some point soon,” Lucifer observed.

There was, as they said, no time like the present, and Belial decided se might as well put hir new resolves into practice starting now. If Lucifer really wished for reciprocality, for hir to consider him a companion as well as leader, to answer his familiarity in kind, well, he would get his wish.

“Ah, but one’s upset was a gift from you,” se answered, sweetly. “One has no wish to seem ungrateful by getting over it too quickly.”

Lucifer’s mouth curled. “You chose well when you called yourself a jester.”

“Does one amuse you, then? One is most gratified.” Belial’s tone was sharper than se usually took with hir lord.

“It is somewhat endearing when someone so controlled has to work so hard to keep from calling me names,” he admitted, eyes gleaming. “Ruffling such legendary composure does carry a certain satisfaction with it.”

Belial had to agree; it had entertained hir for centuries on end, especially when it came to Lucifer…

Oh… dear.

This information and its possible implications, were driven home when hir lord ran his fingers, lightly, through hir feathers, stroking one wing into place behind hir. Se shivered at the touch and looked up to see his smile.

“You never used to like to tease this way,” Belial said, glancing aside, still rather taken aback by it.

“You were the one who noted that I’ve changed, somewhat,” he returned, still smoothing hir wings.

Belial sighed, ending on a small laugh, and leaned against him. “Indeed.”

“And you?” Lucifer asked, quietly.

Belial thought of Kurai, who liked hir despite knowing personally the depths of deceit and betrayal Belial was willing to descend to for hir lord’s sake. Of Arariel, and her clear-eyed caution and grave acceptance. Belial had never accepted care, especially on those rare occasions when se discovered what might have been true feeling directed at hir. But those two had somehow slipped past hir guard. Could se really expect to keep Lucifer out?

“I… have already begun, I think,” se answered, softly.

“It’s about time, idiot butterfly,” Lucifer said, tone gentler than his words.

Belial looked up at him, and smiled, wryly. “I will always follow you.”

“Why?” Lucifer asked, face still.

“Because truth is merciless, and reality makes no apology,” Belial said. “And I love that.”

The hard gray eyes softened just a bit. “Keep a little mercy for yourself, Belial,” he told hir. “You’ve cut yourself on your own edge for a long time. If you want to die that way, I won’t stop you; but think a little about what target you really want to strike.”

The words slid through Belial like a sword, the same visceral thrill se had felt at their first meeting. “Yes,” se breathed.

Lucifer and Belial shared a long smile, nearly a grin—of celebration, of bloodthirst, of comfort, of freedom. He leaned down and kissed hir once, a fierce kiss of companionship.

Belial sighed as they parted. “And that, my lord, is enough, I think. Unless, of course, you truly desire me. You’ve made your point.”

A low laugh answered hir. “We’ll have to start thinking of you by the older reading of your name,” Lucifer said.

Belial gave him an inquiring look.

“Unyielding,” he prompted. “Worthless only if the greatest measure of worth is yielding to God.”

Belial was glad hir mask was on; se thought se might be blushing. “Really?” se murmured.

Lucifer’s eyes gleamed at hir tone, but he let it go. Only for the time being, Belial was sure. The future promised to be… interesting.

“Are you ready to return?” he asked instead, twisting a gate open in the air.

Belial pulled hirself back together. “One is ready,” se confirmed.

As they crossed through, se couldn’t help laughing to hirself. Lucifer, Lord of Hell, was, unless Belial was very much mistaken, planning to take Adam Kadmon at that being’s word. He intended to rule a realm neither holy nor fallen.

Belial smiled wickedly, looking forward to the expressions on the faces of the angels and demons, both.