Hands down, Matteo Matinucci has to be the sorriest-looking angel I've ever seen. And if there's one thing I've seen my fair share of during my stay here in limbo, it's disenchanted newbie angels in training. More than my fair share, if you really want to know, 'cause ever since I screwed the pooch with the special angel in charge of assignments, helping the new recruits settle in is the only work I ever seem to get.
The rookie du jour is standing on a pier at sunset, looking out over a lake, when I arrive for our meet and greet, and since it's nowhere I've ever been before, I have to assume this is someplace he's remembering. Of course, everything here is basically an illusion anyway. This isn't really a pier, just like that's not really the sun out there, disappearing behind the pine trees, but that's not what's important right now. Real or imagined, the echo of my footfalls, loud against the old wooden planks, drifts out over the still water as I amble along the boardwalk. He turns at the sound. The minute our eyes lock I know I'm in trouble.
Are those tears I'm seeing? Yep, I'm pretty sure they are, and the thought of playing damp shoulder to one of the newly departed does not improve my mood by one iota.
He shakes his hair back from his face and blinks once or twice like a man waking up from a very deep dream. A faint flush mounts his cheeks. Those glistening eyes narrow slightly. Other than that, his puppy-dog gaze never wavers as I shorten the distance between us. My steps finally falter under the weight of that unsmiling amber stare. The smile I'd plastered on my own face falls away. I clear my throat but still have trouble getting the words out with anything like my usual cool nonchalance. "Hey there. You must be Matteo."
I'm used to my new charges looking lost and alone, used to them looking scared or confused, but this one... Damned if it doesn't look like he's discovered a whole new subbasement level to gut-wrenchingly distraught. The pain and longing in his expression hit me like a fist. A big part of me wants nothing more than to fold my arms around him and promise things'll get better. Never mind that the saner parts think popping him one instead--demanding he man up and stop sniveling--would be a far better way to play this. I mean, what call's he got to look so damned depressed? Sure, he's dead, and I know that disappoints a lot of people, but it's still no cause for the abject despair he's radiating.
He's not in hell, all right? Things could be worse.
Determined to try again. I paste my smile back in place, extend my hand. "So, Matteo, right? Or do you prefer Matt?"
"Call me Mattie," he says, relief painting his features as he finally comes unstuck. His hair swings forward again as he lunges enthusiastically for my hand. I feel a shock of recognition when strong fingers wrap mine. He folds my hand up with both of his and hangs on for dear life. Once again our gazes collide, and I find myself staring, unable to look away.
Mostly I'm hung up on the name thing. Call him Mattie? Like hell. That's a kid's name. The kind of name any self-respecting guy should have outgrown by the time he turned eight. There's a tense sensation in the pit of my belly, a spreading tightness in my chest, a sudden snugness in my jeans, and I can't account for any of it--until the press of his fingers on mine finally registers in my brain.
Oh, holy shit. We're holding hands? Still? Not cool.
I pry myself free and take a step back, feeling instantly a whole lot better now that I've put some distance between us. I shove my hands in my pockets--just to keep them out of harm's way--take a deep breath, and try again. "Good to meet you, Matt. I'm Edge. I'm the angel assigned to help you settle in."
Matteo looks me up and down with altogether too much warmth, igniting an interest I do not want to feel.
"You're an angel?" There's a fair amount of skepticism in his tone, but at least he appears to be perking up a bit. I figure that's a good thing. "And your name is Edge? Seriously? What kind of name is that? Is it short for something?"
Can you believe this shit? I'm getting crap about my name from a guy with a handle I wouldn't give my pet Pekingese. Not that I'd ever be caught dead with a Pekingese. No pun intended. "It's not short for anything, all right, pal? It's just my name." And speaking of names, he is damned well going to have to get used to being called something other than Mattie. At least while he's under my wing.
His eyes glimmer. A smile starts licking at the corners of his mouth. The look he's giving me creeps me out. It's a little too knowledgeable, a little too understanding, and far too wise for his years, which I'd put at around mid to late twenties or roughly the same age I was when I'd kicked it. The big difference between us being I've been stuck here on the astral for far too long. I've earned all of my wisdom and understanding. The hard way.
But never mind that. What I really want to know is what's with the smile? What the hell does he have to smile about all of a sudden? And why like that?
"There's gotta be more to it, right?" Matteo says teasingly. "So is Edge your first name? Your last name? What's the rest of it? Come on, you can tell me. It's not a secret, is it?"
He powers up the wattage on that damn smile until he's wearing a look that's 100 percent pure wickedness. It puts an unholy twinkle in his eyes. It brings his dimples out of hiding and makes it that much harder to look away.
Oh, fuck me. Is he flirting with me? Not cool at all. My chest is so constricted I can hardly get my next words out. "The name's Edge." I want to cringe at the sound of my own voice: husky, rasping, gravelly, thick. "Just Edge."
The dimples deepen; so does his voice. "Edge. Just Edge," he repeats in an uncanny imitation of my own gruff tones. "Oh, man, how double-oh adorable is that? Okay, handsome, I'll bite. What do I have to do to get you to tell me the rest of it?"
"There is no rest of it." Edge had been my surname in life--you can blame my great-grandfather and the good folks at Ellis Island for that one. In death... Let's just say it's the only name I care to use. "Let's change the subject, shall we? You've probably already figured out I'm here to teach you the ropes, right?"
"Ooh, ropes." Matteo's eyes light up. He smiles eagerly. "Sounds kinky. Are we talking Shibari or straight-up bondage?"
"What did you say?"
"Sorry, Master Edge. Yes, please, sir, teach me about ropes."
"All right, that's enough." I know it's my own fault. I just had to go and mention ropes, didn't I? But all the same... Shit, I cannot believe he went there. For a moment, I'm lost in the imagery his words have conjured. My face starts to flame. My guts get so twisted up with shame I think I'm gonna puke. "You cut the crap right now. You hear me, kid? Just shut the fuck up."
Matteo's head snaps back, and I don't think he'd look any more surprised if I slapped him in the face with a dead fish. His smile dissolves. The tears reappear. "Sorry," he mutters, glancing away, gazing out over the water again.
He's looking and sounding just as miserably unhappy as he was when I first showed up, and I'm ready to put my fist through a wall. Crap. I rake my fingers through my hair, stare at him in frustrated silence. I'm unable to think of a single thing to say. Which is more than I can say for Mr. Sunshine here. Figures the guy would be a talker.
"Oh, hey, look, man, I'm sorry, all right? I-I didn't mean anything by it, I swear. I just thought maybe... Oh, shit. This is real. Isn't it? I mean, it's really happening? It's not a dream? I was hoping--"
"Yeah, it's real, all right." As his words register, my fists unclench. He thought he was dreaming? Well, that explains a few things, doesn't it? It's an understandable mistake. Apparently, it feels like that for a lot of us at first. It seems no one's ever happy to get the news their lives have ended, but their issues remain.
So okay. No reason to freak out. Guy was simply in denial for a minute there. I guess I'm cool with that. That's something I can deal with, something I can understand. Something I have a much more than passing acquaintance with myself, if you really want to know. And now that we've gotten that straightened out, maybe we can get ourselves back on track and get down to business.
It's kind of a compliment, you know? I should probably be feeling all sorts of flattered that he'd accepted me so readily as part of his horny fantasy, his own personal dream angel. I smile to show him there's no hard feelings. "Baby, this here is about as real as it gets."
Baby? The word hangs in the ether between us. Now who needs a punch in the mouth, huh? Just where in the hell did that come from?
Matteo seems not to have noticed the endearment. "I just... I can't believe I'm dead," he says, his voice a sad little whisper. "I didn't really get a chance to do...anything. And now it's over. It's really, truly over?"
There's a question mark at the end of his last sentence--I can hear it--and I know we're not quite out of the denial woods yet. Reaching over, I pat his shoulder consolingly, ignoring the urge to really, truly pull him in for a quick hug instead. "Sucks, don't it? But don't you worry. It's gonna be okay, you know? We'll put you straight in no time."
"Straight?" Matteo gives me a watery smile. "Never really thought of that as an option."
"That's not... Shit. I didn't mean..."
"I know. I was just kidding." But there's no amusement in his gaze. I feel my throat begin to close up again. "Thank you...Edge."
"Not necessary," I answer quickly--while I can still speak. "I'm just doing my job."