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“What?” I ask, but they ignore me as Gage continues reading.

“Apocalypse found the most damaged men she could. The ones who needed this relief with desperation. The only way to save them was to give them the power that could tear apart the world and shatter the balance completely if anything went wrong.”

“That doesn’t sound smart,” Ezekiel says with a grin, looking over at me. “We were mad.”

“Well, apparently I was too. The point is, did I make you slaves as my payment?” I ask, seriously worried just how horrible I truly was.

“No,” Jude says like he knows the answer. “It was a truly free gift. Besides, that would have been too easy and you secretly hate easy.”

“He’s right,” Gage says, drawing my attention back to him. “You healed their bodily wounds. You released them from the chains. And you pushed the power into their bodies one at a time. Then you hovered over them, caring for them for almost a century, as their minds and bodies continued to grow stronger. They slept under your watchful eye for the first time since the madness crept in. And they made up for the many centuries that sleep had evaded them. That version of you was enchanted by the effect you—and only you—seemed to have on them—on us.”

Ezekiel’s hands slide around my waist, almost as though he’s drawing some of that peace out of me. Rather ironic that I provide peace, given the obvious.

“The end of the world offers the four of you peaceful dreams. I’m starting to wonder just how mad you must have been,” I state dryly.

Jude’s lips twitch as he leans over to my ear. “That means we were really fucking terrible before you.”

Suppressing a shiver, I stare at Gage as he grins enigmatically.

“After a century of peaceful rest in her chambers, the four awoke ready to destroy the entire world so it would only be the five of them,” he says conversationally.

“Geez, you psychos,” I say on a breath. “You even scared the Devil’s daughter.”

Gage chuckles, handing the book off to Kai as though he’s amused. Kai grins broadly.

“Apocalypse, being ever so vain, refused to admit failure. Besides, she’d gotten so attached to the four after watching over them for a solid century that she couldn’t bear to hand them over to Lucifer to drain the power from and toss back into hell’s black heart.”

Kai pauses his reading, meeting my eyes.

“So she gave all four of them a piece of her sacred balance, disrupting her own stability in an effort to save them from themselves,” he adds, holding my gaze. “She tied herself to them, leaving her less than whole. When their bond suffered, she suffered twice as much.”

I swallow thickly.

I enjoyed killing an insignificant mortal man. I also left a fiery trail behind, burning the world around me uncontrollably. All because their bond to each other was hurting so much in the wake of my death.

“Simply put, you gave up bits of your much more powerful balance and infused it with ours in an effort to restore our stability by stealing from your own,” Jude says, brushing a piece of my hair away from my shoulder as he stares at me differently.

“The power did bond the four of us, uniting us in a way that helped stave off some of the madness, but it didn’t restore the balance like you’d assumed,” Gage goes on, also staring at me a little differently. “You had no idea just how unsalvageable we truly were when you came to care about us.”

“And you refused to send us back to our place in the black heart, and instead gave away something you didn’t even know if you could afford to give away. And to four men who were still unpredictable and could hurt you at their leisure by simply abandoning you and sending you on to live the fate we’d just managed to escape after the madness took you,” Kai continues.

I need a drink.

“Which is really freaking dangerous, considering I’m The Apocalypse,” I say on a breath. “Not to mention, the four of you are notably ungrateful, so it’s doubtful you felt immense gratitude for such an incredible self-sacrifice of my own.”

Jude chokes back a laugh of surprise, shaking his head. Clearly they must have been grateful if the world isn’t in ashes all these years later.

“The Apocalypse, as she often referred to herself, took the most selfishly selfless risk in doing so. Instead of betraying her, as she’d feared, they proved to be the most loyal harem she’d ever invited into her bed. And she was their first taste of pleasure in centuries,” Kai reads on.

His eyes flick back over me, raking down my face and to my body.

“It’s a wonder we settled for less even without our memories,” he murmurs to himself.

I sit a little taller, if I do say so myself.

Ezekiel moves and takes the book away, reading it for us now.

“Lucifer trusted her when she said they were ready, and he granted them protection, power, prestige, and various other things Apocalypse asked for, in an effort to help keep them safe, since she broke the law and gave them bits of her. Lucifer would never kill them now. He simply couldn’t. His daughter would suffer a fate he couldn’t spare her from if he did, for she’d shared too much, and only she could take it back.”

“Guess that means I’m too stubborn to do so, since you all clearly still have a piece of me wedged in you. That’s why I can’t be away from you for too long. Even in whole form, I have limits it seems. But how were you reborn with the same piece if we were all killed?” I ask, looking at Ezekiel. “Does it say?”

He shakes his head. “This is just the origins. The rest is a series of equations that make no sense to me to explain proper balance, execution of power, and various other things. If I could understand the equations, I might could understand our powers better.”

“Well, what can kill us? Clearly the Devil’s poison couldn’t truly kill me. What about you?” I ask.

“We’ve been out of hell this entire time, not getting our power boosts and such,” Jude says on a breath. “It makes us more vulnerable than we apparently were in that life. In that life, it would have been impossible to kill us.”

“Evidently that’s not true,” I point out.

“According to some of the notations in the margins, only the Devil himself could have killed us in hell,” Ezekiel says absently, still studying those equations.

Daintily, I dab the corners of my mouth with my napkin, then go phantom and put on clothes. No need to be naked right now. We’ll not be going for round two just yet.

They’re all just in jogging pants that they put on while I was cooking. It’s actually a very domestic image of us. Or at least it was.

“Why are you wearing your badass clothes?” Gage asks warily.

“So you finally admit this outfit is badass,” I state, becoming whole to see how the weapons fare.

“They’re plastic,” Jude says as he picks up a knife from my hip, rumbles of laughter following that with more carefree abandon than I’ve ever heard from them.

I’m almost distracted by the way all of them are laughing, and I don’t even mind that they’re laughing at me and the fact I apparently suck at making my weapons as real as I am.

“Glad we didn’t have to rely on these in the trials,” Ezekiel says through his guffaws as he throws a plastic ninja star.

It bounces off the wall.

This renews their laughter.

A smile creeps across my face as I take it in, all of them snickering around the brunch table like I’ve never once—during all my years stalking them like their unseen guardian—seen them do before.

It’s not dark laughter. It’s not amused laughter. It’s surprised, real, hardy laughter that goes on and on, everyone keeping it rolling by lifting another weapon and making a joke.

“Could you imagine if we’d stabbed one of the blind tribesmen with this?” Gage asks, barely choking the words out through his chuckles as he stabs Ezekiel.

It breaks on impact, and it sets them all off again.

I take it all in, unwilling to break up this rare, never witnessed moment between the four of them.

They look…human. For just this brief glimpse in time.

No wonder the old me wanted as many mortal lives as possible with them. It let me see them like this. I can only imagine how’d they’d be now if they hadn’t died and come back with cleansed souls that expelled the madness altogether.

“You expect diamonds and lush gifts, when these were the gifts you offered in a land of every form of death?” Gage asks through his own hysteria.

“I gave you a course of monsters and blind cannibals filled with death riddles in hell’s belly for your birthday. The fact I’m a terrible gift-giver is quite apparent. Side note, none of you should be encouraged to ever tell me your birthdays.”

Because the laughter momentum is already fierce, they finally laugh at one of my jokes the way my joke deserves to be laughed at. I quite literally pat myself on the back.

“So, seriously, why are you dressed like that right now?” Kai asks as their laughter tapers off.

“Because now I realize who killed us, so I’m going to nip the problem in the bud before history repeats itself.”

The lingering laughter dissipates with that.

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