I didn’t see Fia for a long time after that. Michael had noticed that she wasn’t making house calls and I wasn’t troubled by it, naturally, but was too perceptive and knew better than to ask me what happened. I assumed he was still hanging out with her because he wasn’t with me all of the time. I never asked what else he did without me, but I had thought of asking about Fia many times, going as far as opening my mouth, but I always changed my mind. What had happened between us was confusing and I didn’t want to think about it.
Michael had been stopping by for only quick visits and occasionally taking me out to dinner or other more relaxing things than partying. Sometimes he would just want to sit in my living room and close his eyes. He said my apartment was so high above everything else, so removed from it, that it was peaceful and he could breathe here. I let him. Other times I would show him some of my music in an attempt to integrate him into newer music. I would always smile when I realized a new album from a favorite artist had been added to my collection. It was cool the Hell kept itself updated on music from the living world. All of this was probably more attempts to make sure I didn’t go crazy by isolating myself.
I was going crazy, though, but only slightly. I had been in a terrible mood, possibly another reason why Michael hadn’t been around so much, ever since the last welcoming party. Whether it was because of what happened with Fia, or whatever the fuck that was with Luca, I didn’t know. Whichever it was, I was saddened immensely by it and hated myself for feeling that way.
Though I knew my place was the safest and basically the only place I could go to, I often found myself staring out the window and nursing bottles of hard liquor, looking at the vast expanse of Hell and watching all of the ant-like people flood the streets, wishing I could be as courageous as them. I wish I could venture outside without fearing for my safety, and I wished I could feel confident enough with myself to even go outside alone.
As I poured myself another glass of alcohol, I briefly wondered if I was really immune to the disease of Hell like Michael thought. It doesn’t seem like it, as I started developing drinking habits. He put too much faith in me.
I continued watching the city, mesmerized by the flashing neon lights and spinning spotlights illuminating the turbulent red clouds, and slowly realized that I actually wanted to go out. I debated it for several minutes in my head, before setting my glass down and leaving my apartment. In the elevator, I pressed the button that would bring me to Michael’s floor. I put my ear to his door before knocking, trying to determine if he had company over, but I heard nothing so I knocked and waited. He didn’t come to answer, so I listened again and heard nothing. Discouraged, I walked back down the hallway and waited for the elevator to come back, but when it opened, I was surprised to see Michael walking out.
“Fancy meeting you here. Come here often?” Michael asked, amused, and moved past me to get into his apartment.
“I live here.” I stuck my tongue out at him.
“If I’m seeing correctly, this is my floor, not yours. That brings me to ask the question, what brings you here? You never leave your apartment of your free will.” He unlocked his apartment and ushered me inside.
I turned to him and smiled. “I want to go out tonight.”
“You mean like… dinner?” He was clearly suspicious of my meaning.
“No, there’s a welcoming party tonight, right? I know I’ve missed a few, but I’ve been keeping track.” I said, blushing when Michael stared at me in shock.
“Seph, I think I might die of shock. Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I mean, you’ll be with me, right, boyfriend?” I teased and kissed his cheek. I was sure he could probably smell the booze on my breath, but he never cared when I was drinking or not, which was refreshing. “I’ll go get ready.”
“You seem to be in a good mood!” Michael called as I opened his door, not seeing my frown.
I made quick work of getting ready, having already showered today. It was a short emerald green dress today, with short, sequined sleeves and a square neckline. The dress appeared to be a kind of cocktail dress, seeming to look elegant despite its short length. When I glanced into the mirror, I was surprised at how shockingly green my eyes appeared, their color enhanced by my dress. I didn’t apply very much makeup, only a simple winged eyeliner and red lipstick after contouring my cheeks. So when there was a knock on the door, I was already ready.
I opened it to find Michael dressed in a nice suit with his blond hair slicked back, and I loved the way it fitted him perfectly. “Nice tie,” I commented after noticing it was also green. “Are we one of those couples that match now?”
He held out his arm as he laughed. “You look great, Seph, and I guess so. We must have read each other’s minds.”
“Because we’re so in love.” I winked, shutting off most of the lights. “Thank God I don’t get an electricity bill.” I frowned, thinking. “Honestly, where does it even come from? Like where does most of this shit even come from? There can’t be factories here and the food…”
“There aren’t. As for the electricity, I would guess they harness it from all the lightning. Not sure about the other stuff, though, maybe it’s the power of prayer.” He widened his brown eyes and gave me a serious look.
I burst out laughing and he joined me as we got into the elevator and zoomed down to the first floor. Michael looked down at my attire again and pulled his arm away from me, taking off his jacket and offering it to me.
“Here, just in case, you know.” He gave a half smile. “I’m sorry that it’s like this, Seph, but you know there’s nothing I can do about the way things are here. Besides, you’re so beautiful no one can resist.”
I rolled my eyes at his exaggerated compliment but took the jacket and slipped it over my shoulders as we exited the building lobby. “Sorry for making you come along.”
“Persephone,” Michael groaned, “stop apologizing.”
“Fine!” I frowned and then grinned, “Sorry.”
Michael gave me a pointed look. “I was planning on going anyways. I go basically every week.”
“No, but I like your suit.” I beamed up at him.
“I thought you would.” Michael was quiet after that when we walked, but he noticed the lack of people on the streets, just like I did. “Maybe we’re late?”
“I guess so.”
Hell was never this empty, with a populace in the billions, at least. It was eerie. we made it a quick walk to Center Sector, through Pride’s Housing, Business, and Border Districts. It was helpful that our building was closer to the Business District and therefore closer to the center of Hell. When we passed into the royals’ building, the doors didn’t slam behind us like last time and I exhaled a breath. I was sure Lady Lucielle would make good on the promise she made at the last welcoming party I went to. She was a terrifying woman. The party had already started and I glanced to the stage on impulse but was disappointed when I didn’t see Luca or the rest of them. The other leaders were on the balcony, laughing and drinking. Luca was absent from there as well.
I wasn’t sure why I was disappointed. I hated him.
“Maybe he’s off fucking some unwitting girl,” I murmured under my breath.
“What was that?” Michael asked distractedly, looking at the crowd of people, his eyes scanning for someone.
“Nothing. Would you like to go to the bar?” I said quickly, eyeing a few open seats at the bar. Open seats at the bar during a welcoming party didn’t happen very often.
“Very much so.”
So I quickly dragged him over there and got the attention of the bartender when I took off Michael’s jacket and displayed my cleavage for all to see as I rested against the bar top.
The bartender, a fit man who was quite busy prior to my arrival, looked interested in me. “What can I do for you?”
“A lot of things,” I pretended to flirt. “Let’s start with a drink,” I ordered for Michael and me, getting myself some fruity, girly drink because I wasn’t in the mood for hard alcohol anymore. Just watching Michael drink his made me shudder. I knew my limits very well and didn’t want to push myself. My pattern of having bouts of hard drinking and light drinking was something that I had brought with me down here. I continued to idly flirt with the bartender, but when he was finally pulled away by the amassing number of customers, I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Well, that was interesting.” Michael raised his eyebrows at me. “You’d never get away with that if I was actually your boyfriend.”
“Oh? At least I got us our drinks faster than you ever could have, unless the bartender is gay, though he clearly doesn’t seem to be.”
“Fine, you got me there!” He caved.
“Besides, it was all in the name of getting us drinks faster.” I watched him take a sip. “You should thank me, ungrateful boyfriend.” I looked out over the people grinding on each other on the dancefloor and grimaced. It made me think of Fia. “You know, I’ve always wanted to actually dance, not whatever that is. Ballroom dancing always seemed so romantic and classy, but I never had the chance and I’ve never learned.”
“I could teach you if you wanted. Took a few classes, back in my day, since I’m so old and all.” Michael grinned, mocking what I usually said about him, and made the motions with his arms.
“Not here!” I objected, too quickly, and glanced at the balcony. Luca was still absent, but somehow, I swear I could feel those gray eyes of his on me, watching my every move. I shivered. He did have to be here somewhere.
Michael went quiet as a result of my adverse reaction. “Well, obviously not here. This music isn’t ballroom dancing kind of music.”
When the silence got awkward, I suddenly yelled, “I’m thinking about getting a job!”
“That was random,” Michael muttered. “What kind of job?”
“Uh, bartender, maybe? I like mixing drinks more than I like drinking them, I’ve decided.” I quickly swirled my drink around in its glass.
“Do you know where at?”
“Oh, no, I have no idea. Nowhere too bad, you know.”
“I heard this high-end casino in Sector Greed has been looking for a pretty bartender. They’d like you.”
“But I’ve never been to Sector Greed before…” I frowned. “What is it like there?”
“Not too bad, as far as Hell goes, but the people there are assholes. Straight up assholes. Lots of people there used to be political leaders, like senators and stuff, and basically anyone in power. So, most of the stuff there is pretty ritzy and whatnot.”
“I don’t know.” I grimaced, scared of what could happen to me there.
Michael leaned in closer to me, his shoulder resting against mine. “Tell you what, I heard about this party over in Sector Greed that you might be interested in. It’s high class, ballroom dancing, been on the hush hush to keep the worse people from hearing about it. It’s a masquerade ball, actually.”
“When is it?”
“No date yet, but it’s supposed to be in a few weeks.”
“Then you have time to teach me how to dance?” The clockwork of my brain started spinning. “We could move stuff around in my living room to make room for a dance floor.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
We stayed for awhile longer, Michael taking off his jacket to give to me for safekeeping and slipping away to go dance with other women. I kept myself seated at the bar, occasionally talking to the people who came and went, making small talk. I asked them what sector they were from and what was fun to do there. The answers were basically the same; the parties, the clubs, and the prostitutes. They addressed me with my name, which was strange, but apparently I was well-known. Some asked where I’ve been and why I haven’t gone to any welcoming parties lately.
Michael came back, sweat dripping down his temples. He rested against the bar but didn’t take the time to sit on the stool. He didn’t plan on staying here for long. “Hey, what are you still doing here?”
“I don’t feel like dancing, at least like that, anyways.” I jerked my chin to the dancefloor. “I wasn’t planning on going crazy tonight.”
“Do you ever?” Michael joked.
I went on the defensive. “Uh, did you see me at the other welcoming parties?”
“Not enough as I’d have liked to,” Michael smiled a boyish grin at me.
“Michael Knight, are you trying to flirt with me?”
“I’ll only say yes if it’s working.”
“You see how well it went over with that bartender.” I nodded in his direction. “So no, it’s not working. I’m set up differently than everyone else, I think.”
“Ah, well,” Michael frowned. “Dance with me then.”
“I just said I didn’t want to…” I handed him his jacket as a slight distraction.
“Nah, not like that. I know the music is terrible for this, but we might as well. You’re looking very unhappy tonight and I’m trying to help, so give in for, like, two minutes.” Michael pulled me from the stool and onto the edge of the dance floor, glancing around to make sure we had enough room. He placed his hand on the small of my back and then other held my hand in the air.
I started blushing and hissed, “Michael, are you serious? Around all these people?”
“Yeah, why not?” He started to sway back and forth slowly, so out of place with the music pounding harder and faster, all electronic, hollow sounds. “Try not to step on my feet, please. Women’s shoes are wicked.” Slowly, we started to dance, just swaying back and forth in small circles, but as I got more used to the motions he was teaching me, we sped up. He spun me around and I twirled under his arm.
When he started pulling me closer until I was pressed against his firm body, I grinned, “Leave enough room for Jesus, Michael.”
He laughed at that.
The people around us, the ones glancing in our direction and judging, faded away into the background and I became less aware of the feeling of eyes glaring into my back. “This is nice.” I murmured in Michael’s ear softly.
“Nice?” I heard him pause. “Yes, I suppose it is.”
Before I could wonder what he meant by that, he brought me into a very low dip and my leg stretched out, just like in the movies, and I hoped I didn’t just flash anyone my panties. The suddenness of it had startled me at first, but after realizing I was secure in Michael’s arms, I laughed. “Real dancing is fun. I wish I knew more.”
As he righted me, I caught a view of piercing gray eyes in the crowd. Luca’s face filled my vision for a second, along with his expression of hatred. With the arm that was wrapped around Michael’s back, I raised my middle finger in Luca’s direction. I was having fun and he was not, so how dare he try to ruin it for me. His signature scowl turned into a smirk and then he faded back into the crowd.
“Later this week then.” Michael took a step away to bow in front of me and kiss my hand. “It has been an honor, Lady Persephone.”
I rolled my eyes but blushed regardless. “Michael, I hate you.”
“I’m irresistible, I know, I know.”
We heard some yelling and several unsavory words. Then some redhead in a hot pink sequined dress was launched onto the bar, slurring curse words back at the people who were shoving her. Her legs looked too thin in that too short dress.
“Some people just can’t handle their alcohol.” An elderly looking man said to my right. “Kids these days.”
When the girl stood up, giving everyone a good view of her transparent lingerie, and turned, I saw that it was Fia, though not the Fia I remembered. Her eyes were vacant and impossibly red, makeup smeared, and her arms and legs were covered in ugly purple-yellow bruises. She didn’t see us.
“That’s what happens, Michael?” I whispered urgently, afraid. She was my friend, after all.
“Not that bad. She’s gotten into the drugs, Seph. I can tell.” Michael shakes his head slowly. “Some people can’t handle Hell.”
“But I thought you were seeing her!” I hissed.
“A couple times, but then it just stopped. She’s fallen in with the wrong people.”
“And you say I help people? Michael, look at her.”
She seemed to reiterate my point as she angrily ordered more alcohol, but fell backward into the crowd, which erupted into a fight.
Michael threw his arm around me to protect me from getting shoved around and we took several steps back as the fight spread like a wave through the dance floor. Emotions change quickly here, always negative. At first, they were a bunch of damned souls trying to make the most of their afterlife and then it was like their past came up to hit them the a fist to the gut. Rage spread like a wildfire, and I could feel its flame. The last time, I couldn’t feel it through the haze of alcohol, but it was palpable here.
As soon as it began, it stopped, and the sea of people parted like it supposedly did in the Bible. Lady Callista made her way up to the bar and roughly jerked Fia up by her arm, Callista’s long painted nails drawing blood. “What did I tell you last time? That was your last chance.”
I looked incredulously at Michael. “What happened last time, Michael?”
He gulped. “Uh, something along these lines but worse.”
“What’s going to happen this time?”
“She’s going to get punished.”
Lady Callista began dragging Fia across the floor like she weighed nothing, but paused when she saw us hidden amongst the crowd and she smirked. We were well-known associates, I guess. “Well, well, well, if it isn’t the delicious duo, Michael Knight and Persephone Flemming. Come to save your friend?”
“You can’t punish her!” I yelled, taking a brave and foolish step forward.
Callista looked stunned but regained her sensual smile. She dropped Fia and gave her a haphazard kick to the ribs before slowly walking towards me. “Oh? I can do whatever the hell I want with her. I warned her, didn’t I? I told her this would happen, yet she continues her antics and sullies my sector’s view in public? It’s simply not tolerated. Image is everything. She’s going to be punished.”
“People do this shit all the time, don’t they? Why are we getting targeted, like Fia said?”
“You think you’re getting targeted?” Callista rolled her eyes as she walked closer to me. “Both of you have been a thorn in my side the minute you arrived, especially you, Persephone, with your entitlement and ridiculous ideals. No, people do not do this shit all the time because they know better. I’m tired of my associates giving you special treatment because of their damn hypotheses. I don’t give a fuck, you’re not special, and you need to learn it, now.” She was almost upon me when a tall redhead took a step between us.
“Absolutely not.” Lady Lucielle said with her back to me, crossing her arms.
“Are you fucking kidding me? You’re going to let these three souls get away with whatever the hell they want?”
“Three?” Lucielle shook her head. “No. I don’t give a damn what you do with your soul, but these two are mine.”
Callista grinned a slow, cat-like smile. “Are you sure about that, Lucielle, are you really sure?”
“Positive,” Lucielle replied immediately. “Both of these souls are located in my sector, and I hope you have some understanding of the concept of geography…” She paused. “When I think they need to be punished, they will be, but not a second sooner, and not by you.”
Callista glared at Lucielle, who I’m sure kept a cool head, and several moments passed before she retreated. “But if she interferes one more time and you don’t punish her, so help me God, I will and there won’t be anything you can do to save your precious pet.” She grabbed the wounded Fia by her hair and shook her but never took her eyes off of me. “Want to stick up for your friend now, Persephone? I know Michael knows better.”
I gave a pitiful glance to Fia but shook my head softly. I whispered, “No.”
“That’s what I thought,” Callista grinned and leaned down to speak to Fia. “You’re alone now, Fia. Your so-called friends aren’t going to help you. You’re mine now.” Then, her hips swaying back and forth, she dragged Fia away.
I glanced to the balcony where Lennox and Vincent were watching the exchange. Vincent shook his head after Lennox said something to him. Lucielle stood in front of me for several more moments.
“Thank you,” I said softly, afraid she was going to turn around and lash out at me like a snake.
She turned, and I braced myself for her anger, but her expressions remained calm, and even relaxed slightly when she saw mine. “You’re welcome.” She sighed, her gaze flicking over my shoulder. “Michael, keep your friend in check. You should know better than to allow this.”
I felt his sweaty palm encircle my wrist. “My apologies, Lady Lucielle.”
As I turned around, I saw a pair of concerned gray eyes retreating into the crowd once again. Luca, watching from the shadows. I craned my neck to look back at him, even as Michael put his arm around me and pulled me towards the door.
It was clear we weren’t welcome here now.
On the way back to our building, Michael finally spoke. “I had a few people ask me about you. I am assuming you don’t know them. I told them we were in an open relationship.”
“Correct, but that’s funny, the few people at the bar I talked to addressed me by name. I don’t really I think I made that big of an impression.”
“A hot girl always makes an impression, but usually, that fades in a few days. A beautiful woman makes an impression that lasts in the minds of those who see her for eternity.”
“You sound like a fortune cookie.”
“I try,” He laughed. “Honestly, I think it’s more like you made a huge impression as the girl who constantly pisses off the sector leaders and lives to tell the tale.”
“I think that’s better to be known for that than just simply being beautiful.”
“But a hell of a lot more dangerous.” He laughed again, probably thinking I was brave. I certainly wasn’t. “Beauty is power. History proves that, time and time again.”
We arrived at the apartment building and went up to my apartment. I poured Michael another drink. The man had an amazing tolerance. “Michael,” I began to ask while munching on grapes. “What did Lucielle mean when she said you knew better than to allow me to do that?”
He paused mid drink, as still as a statue. “I have no idea.”
I liked to think I knew his poker face well by now. “Are you lying to me, Michael?”
He set down his drink. “Yes, but you know I would tell you if I could. I don’t like keeping secrets from you. You deserve better than that.” He sighed heavily. “Soon, Seph, just not yet.”