Disclaimers: No one here is mine, I just like the theology games.
Spoilers: Slayer, Repentance.
Summary: It's just a job.
Ratings Note: R.
Author's Note: One of many Brimstone stories I've wanted to tell.
Acknowledgments: Love to my Webrain for audiencing, and to Sarah T. for some quick show-related theology.
Feedback: Yes, please. firstname.lastname@example.org
Zeke doesn't keep count.
He used to wonder about that, and the implication of complacency -- as if he could ever achieve anything like that -- but that wonder didn't last long. After all, his body is the most accurate calculator he could ever own.
His skin forgets nothing.
Sometimes, when it's dark and some redundant part of his mind is telling him to sleep, he traces bare flesh in the patterns of the devil's language. He pretends he doesn't remember the circumstances, but he thinks that's allowable.
For Zeke, it's easier to remember the pain of each mark's disappearance, and to try to remember what it had been like to take each of the strange tattoos in the first place. He suspects his mind is protecting him from that. After all, it's not as though the devil would've stinted on the sadism while using Zeke as his own personal parchment. That just isn't his... style.
Zeke grins to himself and shifts the muscles of his back. Right now, he's attempting to blend into the sliver of shadow between him and the rest of a distressingly well-lit alley. He's not entirely sure he's comfortable with the idea of sunlit alleys, but it's just one of the many things he's had to get used to.
It's hard to explore feelings like that, to dig into them and figure out what his problem really is. First, because he's never been that kind of guy when there wasn't (Rosalyn) a woman around to impress with his sensitivity. Second, because he's not sure whether his discomfort has more to do with the state of existence than with anything reasonable, sane, and human.
He's not human. He is, in fact, inhuman enough to think horribly unpleasant thoughts whenever he comes across fictional representations of demons. Because, really... what if?
It's not that he expects the devil to confirm or deny that individuals have escaped him in the past to wreak havoc on the lives and imaginations of the innocent. It's more that he knows the devil will do his -- heh -- damnedest to stay just ambiguous enough to make him even more uncomfortable. What would make you squirm the most, Ezekiel -- that's what his eyes would say.
Zeke squeezes his own eyes shut and takes a deep breath to combat the usual feeling of breathless relief and equally breathless horror. He doesn't keep count, but he's raw all over.
Except for the conspicuously numb place over his heart where the last tattoo waits to be erased.
Zeke's almost entirely sure he knows what he's doing with this. That is to say: he has the same level of surety that he's had for the past two years or so; the same sense that he's on the right track of one of the devil's own, even though there isn't the easiest trail to follow. It used to amaze him how many of the escapees were just trying to live normal lives, if not actively trying to repent for the lives they led before being sent to hell.
Now... there's a part of him that's completely inured to the devil's veiled threats and insinuations, and it's the part of him he remembers being terrified by when he was a living cop who (mostly) worked by the living's rules. Apathy creeps, and he can still feel the way his lip curled when he would look at some old bull of a cop, counting the days until retirement and looking at everyone the same way: another problem to be handled, or perhaps just dumped on the next sorry son of a bitch.
There was a time when he honestly believed he'd never become one of those people, but that time had been over long before he took a bullet to the face. When he's honest with himself, he can admit that it was over long before Jax, even. And that makes him wonder if it all would've happened the same way if he'd been a better man.
It's not that he has all that many regrets -- not about his actions, in any case -- it's that...
He lives in a universe where God really is just as merciless and unforgiving as the meanest, most ignorant religious assholes always believed. A world where even people who have learned all the lessons that could be taught about repentance and salvation must still be punished. What good was Hell if the lessons learned could never be applied to the real world?
Zeke spends as little time as possible thinking about that one. No man could remain sane knowing what he knows about God. Faith is a pale, ridiculous shadow compared to certainty. He's tried it anyway, though. He's read enough bibles to make himself sick with contradictions and he's tried to imagine a universe where all the penitents killed at his hands are somehow redeemed in a place beyond his ken.
A mangy, skinny dog slinks into his alley and pauses, sniffing. When it growls at him -- they all do, now -- Zeke just looks at it until it slinks away again. He distinctly remembers being a dog person, once upon a time. He was going to buy a puppy for Rosalyn's birthday. Something small, fuzzy and uncomplicated. Something that would make her laugh again.
It's not outside the realm of possibility that the universe actually encourages redemption. The devil has no reason not to fuck with Zeke's head on this, and every reason to enjoy playing God to Zeke's Abraham. Reading the book of Job just made Zeke wonder how many other things the devil had put God up to over the years.
"You're getting cynical in your dotage, Ezekiel."
He doesn't look around. He's gotten used to the devil's entrances. "Not too many optimists in Hell."
"On the contrary! Hell wouldn't be half so hellish for some of my guests if they didn't hope for release."
"I never hoped."
"Mmm. The sweet smell of nihilism in the morning. Really, Ezekiel, I'd think you'd be a bit more cheerful today." The devil slipped around in front of him and traced a rune Zeke wished he didn't understand as well as he did. "Soon you'll be alive again! Free to go back to your wife -- oh, wait, she's dead, isn't she?"
He can't stop a flinch. He wishes he could stop trying. "At least she's not yours."
"Sure of that, are you?"
"Don't bother. Rosalyn never did anything that would put her in your hands."
"Would love be so sweet were it not so blind?"
The devil's smile has a curious quality. It doesn't matter where you're looking, or if, say, you're tall enough that the devil's chosen form lurks below your line of sight. His smile curves in a way to draw the eye, glints as bright and cruel as a knife. It hurts to look at -- nothing like this should be allowed in daylight -- and it's impossible to avoid. Zeke squints a little and forces himself not to move, not to speak, not to engage.
The devil sighs, his face twisting into an exaggerated pout. "You're no fun anymore, Zeke. You used to be my favorite toy, and now you're all... broken."
There's a scent in the air like dead flowers left to decay someplace dry and full of dust. It's something he's noticed with a few of the escapees, and not just the women. Hasrubal had smelled like it.
Back then, he'd thought it was just a conceit. The man had certainly dropped enough hints to suggest... and even then, Zeke was willing to look at it as a cultural thing. Maybe all homicidal and sociopathic Carthaginians wanted to smell like grandma's underwear drawer.
He knows better now, and his gun is in his hand before he has to think about it. Nine shots, fully loaded and ready to go. Just like yesterday, the day before, and the night he never got to pull it at all.
There's a special sort of shame in dying ignobly, with your own gun holstered and secured.
He wonders what, if anything, he smells like to his fellow damned. Machine oil, probably. The devil.
The devil, who is currently resting his chin on Zeke's shoulder, making himself an adult-sized parody of a curious child.
"I'm surprised you tracked her down so easily, Ezekiel."
"She wasn't hiding." She, of course, being his... target for the day. Eleanor Bixby, husband murderer. Abuse survivor. Current head of her own, personal, walk-in shelter for living abused spouses.
"Mm. Still. She's led a practically saintly existence since getting out of hell. Hardly a crime committed, really. Certainly nothing to grab your attention. But... well. You've stopped looking for the criminals, haven't you?" The devil gives Zeke a little squeeze. His smile does its best to drag Zeke's attention from the slowly emptying street.
Zeke considers replying, but rejects the idea. It's not an argument he wants to have.
"You know, you're going to fulfill Ms. Bixby's worst nightmares in a few minutes."
Zeke swallows, and imagines himself with a throat full of crumbling rose petals. Considers vomiting on the devil's shoes, but then he remembers that he hasn't eaten in a few days.
"I mean, there you are, a large man lurking in the shadows, just waiting for her to step outside before you... pounce. It's a shame you're only going to kill her."
Rosalyn, curled in on herself and weeping, livid skin on white tile. The image still comes, regular as clockwork, but... it has become overexposed. She bleeds into the white of the rest of the bathroom. The boundaries fade and become meaningless. The wince is more reflexive than he wants it to be.
"Oh, Ezekiel. You're really not doing well at all, are you?"
He doesn't have time to think of a decent answer before the lights go off in the shelter. The sudden darkness is enough to make him blink, but he'd planned for that. He's close enough to the mouth of the alley to be waiting when Eleanor finally gets outside. He's tuned into her enough that sight isn't as much of a problem as it could be.
Her scent, her after-work sighs, the click, click, click of her feet on the floor, the steps, and finally the pavement.
His first good look at her is enough to give him pause, even with the devil jabbing him in the kidney hard enough to draw a thin, ticklish trickle of blood. She's tall, built broad, and walks like a man. He's gotten his ass kicked more than enough to take an extra amount of care when faced with things like that.
But... God. To have this done with.
He chokes down another half-imaginary throat-full of dead flowers. "Eleanor," he calls, and the first shot is off even as she turns. The next takes barely another blink, and the woman flares and crumbles before she can say a word.
The last tattoo doesn't burn any more or less than the others did. Zeke's not sure if he's disappointed by this or not. He's not sure of much these days.
The devil slips in front of him, looks him up and down like meat for long moments before clapping him on the shoulder. Gives him a faux-paternal shake that makes his teeth rattle. "Well, Zeke, I'm proud of you."
"Just get on with it."
"Oh, on the contrary. You have to let me have my moment."
Zeke squeezes his eyes shut for a count of five. "I want. My second. Chance."
"You know, that's interesting. Because, well, I can think of any number of people who'd consider the opportunity to roam the earth as a superhuman being to be -- you'll pardon me -- a hell of a second chance."
He can't look away from the devil's mouth, from spit-shiny teeth that look like they want to be fangs, or maybe something else entirely. "That wasn't the deal," he manages, even though he can't look above the devil's nose.
"Hmmm... wasn't it?" The devil prods Zeke's chin with his fingers, forcing him to look up into eyes that twinkle with the blackest good humor imaginable. "Kidding. I kid because I love, Ezekiel. You're right, of course. That wasn't the deal."
Zeke breathes through his nose and waits for the other shoe to drop.
"But then, neither was you becoming such a marvelously cold-blooded killer." The devil beams exactly like a child performing his first magic trick.
"What... that isn't --" Zeke cuts himself off and tries to back away, but the devil has him by the hair. "No..."
"Oh, Ezekiel. That righteous passion that led you into my arms with Jax was one thing. This... this guiltless -- dare I say it? -- execution of your plans and schemes is quite another entirely. Honestly, I never thought you had it in you."
And it's hard to hear the devil over his own useless breaths, hard to understand anything beyond tricked! And cheated! And oh, how could he have believed anything else would happen?
"... not true. I always knew. You have to know there's a reason why I chose you in the first place, yes, Ezekiel? You, above all others?" The devil rubs his thumb over Zeke's cheekbone.
Does it again when Zeke shudders. Pushes still closer, until they're body to body and Zeke can smell the flowers on the devil's breath, the flowers and the smoke and the blood. "No. No, this isn't... I won't --"
"Oh, Ezekiel. What would you even do with your freedom? At least, with me, you'll always have job security, health benefits, and a nice little place down south for when you finally do retire..."
Zeke shakes his head mutely, or tries to. The devil is holding on tight.
"Which may be a lot sooner than you think."
And there are a million things he could say, most of them variants on 'you can't do this,' all of them equally ridiculous. As to the question of what's fair... He's surprised when he hears himself start to laugh, but it feels good. Like taking a breath. Because, really, it's not as though he had anything planned for his freedom beyond dying in a state of grace. Now... well, now there are a few more options, aren't there?
The devil looks puzzled for a moment, but it doesn't last. The smile is back, even broader and slicker than before. "That's the spirit, my boy. I think we're going to do great things together. Big things. Things that'll make killing one hundred and thirteen men, women, and children seem downright petty in the grand scheme of things."
And the devil leaves him there with one last caress.
Eventually, Zeke slips deeper into the alley, watching from the shadows and sinking into a crouch he knows will be comfortable for hours. Maybe by then he'll have stopped laughing.
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