Mel walks into the living room and there’s a woman in a sharp white suit standing there smoking a cigarette.
“what the fuck? who are you? how did you get in my living room? are you one of Taylor’s friends?”
“I’m Claire. I don’t know Taylor, but I know who you are, and I’m definitely not your friend either. As for the how…”
There’s a rip in the ether, not dissimilar to how Mel’s horns manifest, but much much louder. the living room is suddenly full of light and Mel covers her eyes with her hands but she can see right thru them — there’s a nimbus of light and glimpses of sharp-edged wings like unrolled turbines and her eyes can’t take it and it hurts — and then it’s all gone again.
“…take a guess.”
“uh. hi. Claire, i don’t think angels are supposed to smoke.”
Claire takes a long drag. “Whatever. The Boss isn’t supposed to have bad ideas, either. You know I’m a relatively new kind of angel? The Muse class. The alleged counterpart to you horny jerks. We’re supposed to inspire mortals to greatness so they don’t slip up and end up soulsucked by succubi in a moment of sexy temptation. Have you seen a lot of inspired greatness around here? Guess how well that’s working.“
“i have literally no idea. i’ve never even seen an angel before. look, you can’t smoke in here. if you’re not here to smite me, my roommate is going to do it when she gets home.”
Mel finally puts a name to the horrible scent.
“and are you smoking fucking menthols?”
“Shut up! What do you smoke, anyway?”
“i don’t! it’s super bad for you!”
“Neither of us can die! You know that! Why… how… what on earth is your game? Ugh. One sec. Got an ashtray?”
“i told you, i don’t smoke!” Mel protests.
“Fine, a bowl or something?” The angel looks directly at Mel. “Please?”
There’s an edge of distress to that voice. Not despair, but deep, deep frustration. Mel sighs. The woman in front of her is, she supposes, a dangerous enemy. She can feel a hell of a lot of power, and Mel’s no combat monster, not off her computer or outside of her weekly D&D sessions. She wishes Claire would just go away and leave her be, but this doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen.
She’s going to have to do… something. Something Mel is acutely aware she has no idea how to do correctly. She’s seen it on TV, if that’s even really how it works; she’s seen a few of her sisters do it; but seeing isn’t understanding, and understanding isn’t doing. It could go wrong real fast. Still, the way she’s supposed to start was easy enough to memorize.
Mel puts a dirty cereal bowl from the counter on the end table, sits down on the couch, and pats the cushion next to her.
“sounds like you’ve been having a shitty day. do you… want to talk about it?”
The angel glares at her through narrowed eyes.
“Are you trying to seduce me, fiend?”
“i’m actually not? but you sound mad? did something happen?”
Claire sits, still clutching the cigarette. her voice tight, she says, “Performance review. They called me in. Congratulated me on the average level of sin on my beat dropping. Slightly, but a real feat in a city this messed up. Said I was doing great, keep going, the Boss is already talking about a Muse-2 design study, maybe They’ll want a few of your traits.”
She hits the cig again, taps it against the rim of the cereal bowl.
“Problem was. I knew I wasn’t doing great. I keep good records. Case files. Nobody else seems to, think I might be wound a little tight for my class.”
And again. Mel’s nose wrinkles.
“So I went and looked at them again. Too many cases closed, unrelated reasons. Started looking for a pattern. Had to do it the hard way at first; I can almost see why your people invented data science.”
“wait, we did what now?”
“Or tempted the mortals to do it! Whatever. I can promise it wasn’t us. We had to license Palantir’s government thing. The UI… it’s… a lot. Anyway. You know we test people all the time? Boss is famous for it. Didn’t want to take credit for someone else’s work. I didn’t want to get flagged for pride. That’s one of the big ones. The Boss is definitely not a fan of pride… that was the first Fall, back in the day…”
She sighs, staring at the powered-off TV, not really looking at Mel, which is just fine with Mel, who’s been pretty much staring at her the entire time. This is all new info to Mel, and there’s something both threatening and entrancing about the other woman, which Mel seems to be experiencing mostly with the pit of her stomach.
“This is pretty much just filter.” The angel drops the butt of her cig in the cereal bowl, extracts another one from a pack in her blazer. “Got a light?”
“again, i don’t smoke…”, Mel says, quietly.
Claire’s voice is weary. “How’d you set fire to that douche’s car, then?”
“uh… ” Mel smirks a bit with the memory, despite the tension in her stomach. “waste heat. from… never mind. how do you know about that?”
“Didn’t want to catch a pride rap. Pride goeth before the Fall!” the angel practically shouts. “So I kept running my files again and again. Trying to figure out why I was ‘doing great’ when my cases were just… closing themselves! Ofanim overflight imagery and aura indices, coincidentally related because no way would they task an ofanim for me, showed a faint but distinct fiendish signature at a house party, slightly overlapped with a dip in overall area sin, and once I knew what to look for, the system saw it everywhere!”
“Sorry. It’s just.” She turns to Mel, gestures vaguely with the unlit cigarette. Mel twitches involuntarily. “Nerves. Can I maybe use your stove or something?”
“maybe there’s something in the kitchen drawers,” Mel says in a voice even smaller than usual. “help me look?”
“You’re a weird one,” the angel says, not responding to her question, but rising and stepping into the kitchen. Mel follows. As they open drawers at random, Claire asks, “Are you like this with everybody?”
“i get that a lot, uh… i dunno? like how?” Mel finds a lighter buried in a junk drawer, behind an egg carton full of loose change and a pile of delivery soy sauce packets. “oh. here. got a lighter.” She flicks it, holds it out uncertainly to the angel, eyes downcast.
“Like, if someone told me I was going to be in the same room as a succubus who wasn’t trying to tempt me or fight me six months ago, I would have said that doesn’t happen. If they’d told me she was going to be lighting my smoke, I’d have said to get out of my office. You’re so… I don’t know. Not the briefings. Not the ones I’ve seen. You sure you’re a succubus?”
Claire bends over the lighter.
“i mean, i was born into a family of succubi, and i’ve got the horns, and Mom swears i’m not adopted so i’ve been kind of assuming i was? but mostly i work on kernel drivers and userspace config tools.”
“Really? Mortal engineering. You? Anyway…”
Claire exhales a cloud of foul minty smoke, closing her eyes. Her lashes are long, her eyeliner subtle, two things Mel has never been able to manage.
“I wasn’t gonna Fall, so I found the pattern. You wanna know what it is? It definitely wasn’t the mortals bettering themselves, hah; that doesn’t happen. It wasn’t another angel who was on my turf, which is what I was worried about. It was something I almost couldn’t believe at the time and I’m having an even harder time believing it now. Cases kept ending with you somehow. Scenarios we kept expecting far worse out of. A hackathon here, a conference there, depravity estimates that far overshot. One girl whose soul somehow didn’t fall into despair like it was fated to, even if nobody’s sure where it is now. It’s you. You’re the pattern.”
Mel bristles. This is not her problem. This is super not her problem.
“like i said,” she says, her tone measured, “mostly i work on kernel drivers and userspace config tools. that’s my job. the other stuff just kinda happens. it’s not like i’m any good at it. i never was. that’s why i have my job.”
“You’re a fiend and you somehow manage to do more good in a month than I do in a year. How? Why?”
“look, i don’t know, okay? maybe it’s all part of my evil plan that i totally have! you know what,” she says, “gimme that fucking cigarette. it smells like ass.”
She stares the other woman in the face as she crushes it out in the sink. She wonders if she could take the intruder after all, somehow, if she had to.
“you wanna know the why? there’s not a why. i don’t even have a plan for next month except i’m pretty sure i’m gonna be doing a lot of staring at the L510 specs. you want to fight me? you want me to hit on you so you have an excuse to fight me? i’ll figure something out,” Mel hisses, and it’s like a dam breaking inside her.
She’s still holding the lighter, and she flicks it again. The flame flares and doesn’t stop until it’s a meter of flaming sword with a dinky orange Bic-brand handle.
“like, i didn’t know i could do this til just now. nobody tells me anything. so maybe, if you wanna keep your sin stats trending where you say they’re trending, just eff off and leave me alone! i’m already gonna be late for work!”
For an infinite instant, she’s sure the angel is going to come at her.
But then Claire doesn’t, and the sword is just a tiny lighter flame again.
“You really don’t know,” the angel mutters. “Fascinating. I’m going to be watching you, Amelia. For now. Don’t call me. I’ll call you.”
The kitchen begins to fill with light.
“it’s Mel,” Mel says. “just Mel. and for fuck’s sake don’t call me!”
But the angel is already gone.
“just text or something,” Mel says, to empty air.
“Hey, you missed the sprint planning meeting…”
“Gordon just give me the errata and go away, i can’t even this morning. i swear i will rip your soul out and eat it.”
“I was just going to say, we saved you a donut.”
Mmm. Powdery white goodness. Lemon custard filling. Things get a little better.
“Gordon. we have a plan. right? like. there is a plan?”
“Yeah, we knew what you were gonna be doing anyway. The plan’s all in JIRA.”
…and all’s right with the world. Her part of it, anyway. She can work with that.