"There you go," said Carter. "Start there. Focus on what you can control."
"I'd like to help Seth's family too," I added, kind of on a roll now. "I'm already trying to do something for his mom, but before I leave them, I want to do whatever I can. Even if Hell leaves Andrea alone, we don't know how things will turn out. Even if Seth decides he never wants to see me again, I still care about them. And there are still things they need."
"Indeed. That pony collection isn't nearly complete," Carter mused. When I dared a look back at him, I saw that the angel was smiling at me. "You see? You aren't lost. No matter what happens to you, you have a plan. There's still hope."
"You told me that once . . . that no matter what happens, there's always hope. Do you really still believe that?" I asked.
Carter topped off all of our wineglasses. "I'm an angel, Georgina. I wouldn't have said it if I didn't."
"And even though you're counseling contingency plans, you still think I can pull it all off, don't you?" I pushed. "What do you know that I don't?"
"At this point?" he admitted. "Nothing more than you do. The only difference is that I think I have more faith in you than you do."
"You're an angel," I pointed out, throwing his words back at him. "Don't you have to have faith in everyone?"
"You'd be surprised." He chuckled. "I have faith in some more than others. And you? I've always been one of your biggest fans. If you believe nothing else, believe that."
"Here, here," said Roman, raising his glass. "To faith and a new year."
I clinked glasses with them and caught Carter's eye. He winked. Was it enough? His faith? I'd noted before that having him pull for the Mortensens was a powerful thing. Having an angel say he believed in you was equally monumental. But I wasn't fighting an ordinary adversary. I was fighting Hell, the only force that could stand against Heaven.
I've always been one of your biggest fans.
I would find out soon if it was enough. For now, I drank up and tried to have hope.
In spite of my sorrow over Seth, I was still ready for a storm. It hadn't really registered at the time, but when I woke up on New Year's Day with a wine-induced headache, I accepted the startling truth: I was challenging Hell.
Who did that? No one, that's who. My friends had hinted as much, and I certainly had plenty of myths and pop culture to enlighten me about the futile human dream of thwarting Hell's will. I had my own experience to go on too. I'd signed away my soul for all eternity. There wasn't much wiggle room with that. And yet, in spite of all the things I'd seen and all the people Hell had crushed, here I was, daring to say Hell had no claim on either my soul or Seth's.
I expected to hear about it immediately. I expected a huge uproar, perhaps in the form of Jerome showing up in my condo in all his brimstone glory, threatening me for my impertinence. At the very least, I expected a letter of acknowledgment from Hell, something along the lines of, Thank you very much for your inquiry. We will respond to you within 4-6 weeks.
Nothing. New Year's Day passed quietly. So did the next. I continued my pattern of packing and making Las Vegas preparations, all the while holding my breath for The Next Big Thing.
I thought something would surely happen a week later, when the long-awaited bowling tournament came around. Jerome and Nanette had flipped for it, and he'd won, meaning we got to hold the match here in Seattle. It saved us from making a trip to Portland, but for the sake of fairness, Nanette got to pick the bowling alley. Rather than our dive at Burt's, she chose a more upscale place, not far from the mall I'd worked at.
I hadn't seen Jerome since I'd filed the petition and was ready now to face his wrath. I didn't know if Nanette's lesser immortals would know about the request, but I felt certain she would by now. She and Jerome might be rivals of sorts, but at the end of the day, they were both committed to Hell winning. I was trying to thwart that and wouldn't have been surprised to find her sharing in Jerome's outrage.
"Good luck," Roman told me, as I prepared to leave the condo. "Remember to watch your footing."
I sighed. "I wish you were coming with me."
He offered me a small smile. "Me too. All that work, and I won't even get to see my students' final exam."
Roman could hide his nephilim signature from greater immortals, but considering the way his kind were hunted, we'd decided it would be best if he steered clear of Nanette while she was in town. Jerome's agreement to let Roman stay was both highly unusual and dangerous. If another archdemon discovered the truth, both Roman and Jerome would be in a lot of trouble.
"I'm afraid of what I'll face from Jerome," I said.
"Don't be." Roman came forward and rested his hand on my shoulder. "You're not doing anything wrong. They did. You're strong, Georgina. Stronger than them, stronger than Hell."
I leaned my head against him. "Why are you so nice to me?"
"Because Carter's not your only fan." When I looked back up, I saw Roman's green eyes were deadly serious. "You're a remarkable woman, just by your own nature. Smart. Funny. Compassionate. But what's really great is that you're so easy to underestimate. I did when we first met, you know. And Hell is now. No matter what their reaction to your appeal is, I guarantee most of them doubt you have a chance. You're going to prove them wrong. You're going to break the unbreakable. And I'll be there helping you, as much as I can."
"You've done enough," I told him. "More than enough. More than I could have ever asked. Now you get to sit back and let me do . . . well, whatever I have to do now."
"Georgina, there's something you need to know. . . ." His face grew troubled.
"What?" I asked. "Oh God. You haven't heard something from Jerome that I haven't, have you?"
"I - " He bit his lip as he paused, then shook his head. His features smoothed out. "Forget it. I'm just going to worry you over nothing. You focus on bowling tonight, okay? Show those Portlandians that . . . f**k, I don't know. That you're a force to be reckoned with in the bowling alley."
I laughed and gave him a quick hug. "I'll see what I can do. How about we talk when I get back, okay? We'll grab a drink." I knew there was something big here he wasn't telling me, no matter how easily he'd tried to brush it off.
"I'd like that. Good luck."
When I arrived at the bowling alley, Peter nearly sank in relief when he saw me. I think he'd been afraid I'd show up without my Unholy Rollers shirt. Through whatever means Hell possessed, all the other patrons in the alley were playing on one side. The other half was empty, save for two lanes occupied by my colleagues. I was the last to arrive and approached with trepidation, unsure of my welcome.
Jerome was sprawled comfortably in a chair, and while it was in better shape than the ones at Burt's, I'm not really sure it deserved the thronelike airs he was putting on. Nanette sat across from him, looking equally regal. Her pale blond hair was rolled into an elegant coif, giving her kind of a Grace Kelly look. Her dress was a pale blue shift with a fuzzy gray cardigan over it, the innocence of the look clashing with the unnecessary vampish sunglasses she was wearing.
"Ah, Georgie," said Jerome. "Right on time and in team colors." He favored Nanette with a lazy smile. "Ready for some humility?"
"Yours?" she asked him. "Always."
Neither gave me much more attention than was due for the last person to fill a team spot. No mention of the contract, no mention of my petition. Glancing around and taking in the full roster here, I saw that Mei had also come to watch the spectacle. The demoness was dressed in corporate black, matching her bluntly cut black hair and heavy eyeliner. Only her red lips provided color to the palette. She most certainly knew about my situation, but like her superiors, she barely glanced my way.
Carter was there, which I had not expected. Nanette and her cronies were clearly uneasy about this. Although all greater immortals, be they angels or demons, shared a certain world weariness with immortality and the Great Game, few were able to bond over it so well as Carter and Jerome. Their relationship was unique, and Nanette clearly felt no camaraderie with the angel. Whereas I received little of her attention simply because I was an underling, Carter she ignored as though he didn't even exist.
He gave me a small smile as I sat down, his gray eyes full of amusement. He was sitting with my friends, perfectly at ease, while Nanette's bowling team regarded him warily. I hoped maybe his presence would throw off their game. There were four of them, just like us, though they'd actually drafted Nanette's lieutenant demon, Malachi, to play for them. Rounding them out were a succubus named Tiara, an imp named Roger, and a vampire named V.