by Tenno Ai (天之 愛)
Theirs is a holy war, or so it’s said.
In truth, Raphael has never associated holiness or warfare with his life, right from the moment he walked into the monastery to begin his training to now, in Rome on an assignment that could have him promoted to Bishop, if it succeeds. Belonging to the Church has always seemed just an excuse for younger sons and daughters to have a comfortable existence and a regular income. It’s hardly a Spartan lifestyle or a meagre existence anymore, and Raphael can’t help but feel resentful about that. It’s nothing like the tales he grew up with, and sometimes he has to wonder why his family never tried to warn him about that.
Rome in autumn is still warmer than Raphael is accustomed to, and it takes him longer than he likes to settle in. He finds himself awake until the early hours of the morning, the air warm and oppressive as he struggles to sleep. He dreads what the weather will be like in summer, and it’s an uncomfortable reminder that this appointment has an undetermined length attached to it – he could be here for months, or years, with no say in the matter.
He can still hear the ill-disguised relish in the Superior and First Brother’s voices when they informed him he had been recommended for this assignment. The meeting had been poorly executed from start to finish, and Raphael hadn’t even bothered to point out that he had neither the experience nor credentials to be assigned to Rome. When the Superior had gushed about his old bloodline and respected relations, Raphael had bit his tongue until he tasted blood.
“Your interest in the Last Angels has been known by all since you first started your training in the Church, and your research and theories are popular and considered by the most important researchers,” the Superior had told him with a wild smile. “You should not be so surprised that you were brought to the attention of his Holiness.”
Raphael had known that his uncles’ research was far more prestigious and more wildly accepted, but he had smiled and sipped his tea instead.
Bastard, Raphael thinks bitterly as he opens his window and watches the sun creep over the horizon, making the city sparkle and shine. You would have done anything to get me away from your monastery and from the youth I wrongly influence towards independent thinking and critical analysis of the world. And since blackmail was most likely involved on all sides, everyone had to go along with you.
But one of the Last Angels has finally woken up. Raphael knows he never could have given up the chance to actually study a real, live angel, and he has always wanted to visit Rome. He might never approve of the way in which he was transferred, but he knows that the opportunity would never have been offered to him again should he have refused – not to mention the shame brought upon his family if he hadn’t gone.
Raphael goes to make breakfast, and his morning tea tastes weak in his mouth.
– – –
He is not immediately called for an audience, but he had expected this and spends his first few weeks wandering the city. Rome is one of the few cities which still clings to its history, and he is reminded of his mortal state as he views the landmarks and ancient architecture. The realisation that he will one day die while the world will continue on without him is unpleasant, as is the reminder of his own insignificance in the grand scheme of life.
Rome is different from the northern cities Raphael has grown up in, and the people are also different. Raphael’s habit is the only symbol he need wear for people to greet him cheerfully in the morning. His accent and appearance make them crowd around him, curious and delighted to ask him questions about himself and where he comes from. Back home, the lay people had treated the priests and brothers with a fearful respect; here in Rome, the people are so used to dealing with the higher and lower ranks of the faith that they treat him as a new friend, a stranger to these parts who needs help with finding his feet. It is both strange and wonderful, and as time goes on Raphael relaxes, beginning to view Rome as a second home.
But the summons comes soon enough. On a mild morning in late October, Raphael is in one of the gardens of the small monastery he is staying at, sitting and watching the lay gardener and one of the monks examining the fledgling seeds and produce, fretting over the early, unusual frost that has begun to creep in. He is smiling, hands gripping the warm cup, before he stiffens as he feels someone watching him.
He turns on the bench to find a tall figure watching him, stepping from the shadows at the doorway to reveal a blood-red robe with a cream stole edged in gold thread. The hat is large and red, also edged in gold. Raphael can’t help taking a sharp breath, his gaze staying on the cardinal as he walks forward.
“Greetings, Brother Raphael,” the cardinal says, and Raphael barely manages to stop his surprise from blossoming across his face at the low but unmistakably female voice that lilts in the air.
“Greetings, Cardinal,” he replies, at an utter loss as to who he is speaking to – the number of women gaining higher positions has grown dramatically in the last few hundred years, but he has never met anyone above the position of a female priest. He hadn’t even realised a woman had been appointed cardinal recently.
“Cardinal Anasa,” she replies, a faint smile curling her lips. “I have been sent as your escort. The Pope has commanded an audience with you in three days’ time – I am to bring you to the Vatican by this evening, to have you settled.”
Raphael stares at her, before bowing his head. “Ah, my thanks,” he says sincerely; the Vatican has expanded so much in the past fifty years that an escort and guide is a necessary asset.
She inclines her head and turns, saying, “I will be back for you in four hours. Please be ready.” He watches her go. Her walk is slow and graceful, her posture ramrod straight: this is not a woman easily swayed by others’ opinions.
– – –
He is packed and ready well before she arrives, now more knowledgeable about Anasa and the goings-on of the Vatican. She comes from a family which has occupied the higher positions of the faith for many years – some whisper that the bloodline is so old that her ancestors were cardinals even before the four Armageddon wars and the near destruction of the world. Raphael holds his tongue and offers no opinion of what he’s been told; he’s learned that those who come from families with high expectations are especially ruthless.
Raphael is even less pleased when he is informed of the current religious climate, or the religious political climate as it has become known. Climbing the Vatican ladder has become easier due to who one knows and who one can use as an influence to better their position, and far, far less about one’s faith and urge to do good in the world. It’s even worse than the monasteries that Raphael has served in, but part of him isn’t very surprised. He has known, deep down, that this has been happening for some time, but knowing does not mean that he is willing to accept it.
The world can always be changed, even in little ways.
Anasa is still cool and distant during their journey to the sprawling buildings that surrounded the Vatican, and he is silent until they arrive, uncomfortable with her attitude. He has been housed in a building at the very outskirts, but it is just as opulent and well-kept as the others; he cannot help but stare. Anasa smiles at him faintly before walking inside, and he rushes to keep up with her.
“I will be back for you tomorrow and begin familiarising you with the Vatican grounds,” she says, her voice quiet and polite. “I will also be taking you to your audience with His Holiness. Tonight, I advise you to settle in.”
Raphael is vividly reminded of a girl who has grown up far too fast, surrounded by rigidity and tradition on all sides, and has had her happiness and well-being suffer as a result. Nevertheless, he bows and thanks her for her kindness.
It is exceptionally warm that night and he is unable to sleep until the early hours of the morning. He sits by his open window, breathing in warm air and staring out at the lights over the city. Rome seems to be a city that never sleeps; with sleep comes darkness, and demons lurk in the darkness.
No one is ever safe in the dark.
His dreams, when he finally sleeps, are dark and chaotic. He dreams of blood, destruction, and torture, feathers matted with dirt and redness dried to dark brown.
– – –
Raphael is instructed not to look His Holiness in the eye until he is directly spoken to. Even then, his expression must be distant and respectful, and his replies must always be polite. The instructions are delivered in brisk, clipped tones that brook no disagreement, and Raphael isn’t fool enough to disregard the subtle threat that he will regret it if he does not follow the expected format. He is only a lowly monk; His Holiness is the mortal instrument of God.
The audience chamber reeks of archaic faith; Raphael recognises symbols and mass artefacts that are thousands of years old when he walks through the doors. Cardinal Asana’s eyes flicker towards him, her cold gaze and the hard line of her mouth telling him to keep his own gaze down, and Raphael reluctantly obeys.
He does not know what to expect, but it includes an intensely dry and insufferably dull lecture about their long history and the astonishing honour he has received in being chosen to observe and guide a reawakened angel of God, a lecture that doesn’t come to pass, much to his surprise. Instead, he finds himself ordered to raise his head by a cool and deliberate voice. Raphael does so, and looks into a pair of the most bored eyes he has ever seen in his life.
“Your Holiness,” he finally says, resisting the urge to bow his head. Raphael is well versed in his history and can name most, if not all, the Popes since the beginning of the Church. He remembers the time in the early Middle Ages, when corruption and nepotism had run rampant in the church, and how many of the Popes had been as bad as the normal members of the clergy, both in terms of lust and the desire for war. Since the last apocalypse, the requirements for becoming Pope, at least, have tightened; the Church had realised they needed to set a good example in the highest rank of Church hierarchy. It’s a pity that the lower levels had been allowed to fall into ruin and disgrace again.
Looking up at the Pope, Raphael thinks, just for a moment, that this is a man he could learn to love and serve.
He remembers very little of the conversation begun by His Holiness, for keeping his posture ramrod straight and his expression under control requires all of his concentration, but the Pope is truly a man deserving of his rank. He is cool and distant, his eyes alternating from boredom to sharp interest. His words are cutting, his questions intelligent, and Raphael knows that this is a man possessing a will of steel, and an iron-strong determination, a leader who will back down for nothing and no one.
When the Pope rises and descends from the dais, the cardinals around him stir and begin to scurry after him, Cardinal Asana falls into step beside Raphael, subtly telling him to stay with her and follow her lead. Raphael does so gratefully, not having the faintest clue as to what is going on until he realises from the surrounding conversation that he is being immediately led to the angel by the Pope himself.
“The introductions might as well be made now,” the Pope tells him with a chilling smile, and Raphael is simultaneously hit by the desires to prove himself and run far, far away as fast as possible.
After a long and bewildering walk through numerous corridors and halls, the cardinals break away when they reach a dark and nondescript door, leaving the Pope and Raphael standing before the door. The Pope pauses, before he unlocks the door and steps inside. Raphael walks in after him, and jumps when the door slams shut behind them.
The corridor is long and irregularly lit, and Raphael guesses that they are in an older part of the Vatican, possibly one of the rebuilt pre-war buildings. The Pope’s steps are slow and deliberate as he walks; Raphael keeps his eyes on the pale fabric of the Pope’s robes as he tries to ignore the looming shadows around them in the corners that the light can’t reach.
They climb a steep, winding staircase at the end of the corridor and step into a room bright from the sunlight streaming in through the stained glass windows. Raphael looks up at them, recognising St. Paul and the Archangel Michael standing with his spear held aloft and demons lying broken underfoot, so captivated by the colours that it takes him several moments to realise that they are not alone in the room.
Raphael has read much on the angels and has seen many depictions of what they might look like, but the reality surpasses all of his dreams and expectations. The angel sits with an old book in his slender hands; dark eyes watch him with a mixture of curiosity and calmness. His hair is long and straight, the shade unnaturally pale. He is dressed in white robes embroidered in blue. He has no wings, but this does not surprise Raphael; all of the angels were stripped of their wings when they were put to sleep, but the reason for this has never been discovered.
The angel is neither incredibly striking nor handsome, barring the fact that he is an angel, but the overwhelming feeling that radiates from him is one of peace. The tension in Raphael’s shoulders abruptly drains as he gazes at him; he is more relaxed now than he has been in years, and all from a single compassionate look.
The angel’s gaze moves from him to the Pope and he smiles, murmuring, “Your Holiness. How are you today?”
The Pope smiles at him, a sincere burst of emotion. “Very well. This is one of the people I was telling you about; we feel that having… advisors of a sort would be beneficial to you in learning about the workings of the modern world. And Brother Raphael is very well-versed in the workings of the world.” Raphael frowns – was that sarcasm he had heard in the Pope’s voice?
The angel’s smile widens. “That is most thoughtful: you have my thanks.” His eyes turn to Raphael, his expression thoughtful. “Brother Raphael, you are named for the painter?”
“Ah, yes,” Raphael replies, blinking. “My mother adores his works.” It has been so long since anyone has enquired of his namesake that Raphael almost feels embarrassed at the mildly sardonic slant of the Pope’s eyebrows, but pride in his mother makes Raphael’s back remain firmly straight.
The angel laughs, his eyes brightening. “Your mother has exquisite taste. I knew the painter well… he was very passionate about his work.”
The floor tilts for a moment, and Raphael swallows repeatedly as he realises that the angel sitting before him, reading a book about worldwide cultural changes in the last century, is at least several thousand years old.
“I… thank you for telling me,” Raphael finally answers. “I will be sure to tell her the next time we meet.” Whenever that will actually be, since Raphael hasn’t returned to visit his family in quite a while.
The angel nods, closing his book carefully and placing it on the small table beside him, aligning it perfectly with the chipped, weathered edge. He looks up at him again, strands of white hair falling into his dark eyes, and Raphael later wonders if he had imagined the brief flicker of pity in the angel’s eyes.
– – –
Time begins to pass quicker than Raphael expects, and soon the hard bite of winter descends over Rome. It’s a harsh season, one of the coldest in living memory, and Raphael finds himself digging out the old robes which he had never expected to wear but had brought with him out of a sense of lingering homesickness for the monastery.
He receives frequent letters from Brother Lucian, updating him on his old students and how they are faring under Lucian’s teachings and those of Brother Thomas. Raphael misses the teenagers, and often wishes that it wasn’t against the rules of the monastery to give them an address to contact him by. He drafts many letters to them, telling them about Rome and the Vatican, carefully omitting any mention of the angel as this news has not yet been made public, but always hesitates about sending them. There is no use keeping the link of the past tight for them, not when they will most likely have left the monastery by the time he returns, and he soon manages to convince himself that this is the right choice when he burns each letter, one by one.
The angel does not feel the biting cold like mere mortals do, wearing the same robes every day apart from variations in design. When the temperature drops to beyond freezing, low enough that snow begins to fall, he is wearing a white robe with black hems. He makes a striking figure as he leans out the window to watch the snowflakes drift down with a faint smile on his face.
“It has been so long since I have seen snow fall,” the angel tells him, his eyes warm. “I have missed it.” He holds out a hand and his smile widens as some of the snowflakes kiss his skin.
Raphael raises an eyebrow. “You frequented colder climates, then?” he asks, opening his book to the current page and settling into a battered, but well-loved armchair close to the crackling fire.
The angel shuts the window carefully and walks back to his own chair. He sits, and the flames wash his skin in shades of orange, yellow and red; he does not need the heat or the warmth, but he has told Raphael that the fire is comforting, regardless. “Yes,” he says. “Most of my early missions – the first seven hundred years or so – were in the country you come from, and I grew to love it so much that I was eventually stationed as one of its protectors.”
Raphael frowns. “You are one of the Protectors of the North?”
“Was,” the angel says gently. “I was. The world no longer needs any protectors.”
Yes, we do, Raphael thinks. We need them now more than ever. But he does not say anything, instead returning to his book, and the angel picks up his own. They say nothing for a long while, the silence broken by the sounds from the fire and those of page-turning.
The one element to being a religious historian is the distressing lack of primary sources; researchers can debate on the personalities and appearances of angels, prophets, and demons until the sun explodes and dies, but it is essentially meaningless until an angel finally awakes to serve as undeniable fact. And now, at last, an angel has awoken and sits beside him, but Raphael isn’t exactly sure how to correctly react towards him.
His older memories are proof that he is one of the oldest angels, and most likely a high ranking one – he even remembers the Son’s torture and death. But no researcher, save for the most obscure whose opinions are never taken seriously, ever wonders what angels do on a day-to-day basis, and this is the education that Raphael is receiving.
The angel does not remember his name: all elements of his identity had been stripped along with his wings, and he cannot remember the reason for being robbed of either. Calling him ‘the angel’ seems ridiculously foolish, but coining a name for him is also out of the question.
The angel has a fascination with books and reads them faster than Raphael can supply, even with the help of the Vatican’s immense collection. He asks more questions about the world’s current political climate than Raphael expects, all of them betraying a healthy knowledge of human nature and the mortal penchant for violence. When Raphael tells him there hasn’t been a war of bloodshed in over a thousand years, the angel openly stares at him, eyebrows raised and an unnerving expression in his dark eyes.
At last he says, “That is not human nature.”
Raphael is unable to reply, for he believes the same thing.
It’s strange debating with an angel who has larger and more omniscient-seeming leaps of logic than he does, and it’s even stranger to interact with an angel who has a fondness for human comforts. When he rises and tells Raphael that he is making tea, Raphael absently nods and accepts the offer while turning a page in his book. He no longer attempts to discern why a being who feels neither extreme heat nor extreme cold still appreciates having tea on a winter’s day. Probably due to memory-associated comfort or habit, and Raphael supposes that even angels must become influenced by the length of time they spend interacting with humans.
The angel tells him with a wry smile, when Raphael mentions this later in the evening, “I am over twenty thousand years old. If I had not picked up something from mortals, then I would not have been fulfilling my duties as their protector very well.”
Raphael cannot argue with his logic, so instead he merely smiles, and changes the subject.
Outside, the snow grows heavier until there is a thick layer against the glass, and Raphael builds the fire up until it is raging. He falls asleep without realising it, and wakes up on one of the larger couches in the early hours of the morning with a blanket tucked around him, pale long hair pressed against his cheek as the angel sleeps beside him.
– – –
“Humans fear what they do not understand,” the angel tells him one day, when the harsh winter is beginning to finally thaw and there is the hint of spring in the air, “but so too do the angels.”
Raphael raises his eyebrows. “Hardly.”
The angel smiles wistfully. “Eventually, you will learn that not even God is perfect. And if he is not, then how can angels be?”
“No one is perfect,” Raphael says, not even bothering to hide the disbelief in his voice.
“No one is perfect,” the angel repeats, and there is definitely sadness and regret in his voice before it is carefully hidden again.
They sink into silence, and Raphael is unable to focus on his book, so he closes it and stares instead at the lingering, dying ashes of the fire, watching the weak sparks trail up through the chimney flue. He tries to think, to rationalise what the angel has told him, but his thoughts are scattered and refuse to be pinned down, and he soon gives up with a heavy sigh.
The angel pauses in turning a page and glances at him. “Brother Raphael?” he enquires, his eyes opaque. “Do you require proof?”
Raphael blinks and then turns to look at him. “It would be interesting, purely from a research point of view.”
“Ah, yes,” the angel murmurs. “Your research.”
There is nothing wrong with his research, as Raphael has told the angel several times. Still, this doesn’t stop the angel from politely groaning and changing the subject whenever Raphael brings it up.
“Have you read the Third Testament?” the angel asks.
Raphael shakes his head. “No, never, save for the few scraps that the Vatican has put on public display. Everything else has been lost.” A curious coincidence that complete versions of the Old and New Testament are fully intact, while the Third Testament is gone forever.
The angel’s eyes narrow. “Lost. I see.” The expression in his eyes makes Raphael swallow.
– – –
“I do not understand,” the angel says, his eyes wide. His hands are trembling as he folds them together. “You told me that this world was now at peace.”
“It is,” Raphael replies as he passes the angel a cup of tea, the only thing he could think to give him. “But there have been no recorded sightings of demons in over a hundred years. The guards could not be blamed for killing him on sight – the nun was in danger.”
The angel shakes his head. “I do not dispute that,” he snaps. “I recognised that demon: low-ranking, but still dangerous. It was right to kill it. But I do not agree with their methods. When we killed, our orders were to carry out swift final blows.”
Raphael sighs, staring down at his cup. He isn’t sure if there’s any argument he can give in response. “It’s been a long time since anyone has killed,” he says at last. “And the demon frightened the men.” But that does not make sense, either, and he knows it – when frightened, the normal reaction is to kill as quickly as possible. That slow, torture-killing was anything but swift.
The angel gazes at him, his eyes narrowing. “You’re lying to me,” he says quietly. “I can see it on your face.”
Raphael fidgets in his seat, forced to avoid his gaze. He swallows and remains silent for several minutes, trying to put his thoughts together coherently. “When I say that this world is at peace,” he says at last, slowly, “I mean that there has been no public war between nations for a very long time. There have been no public murders, or executions. But…”
“What happens in the shadows?” the angel asks, his eyes still narrowed. “What goes on where the public cannot see?”
“The Vatican… hasn’t changed. The past has only made the Church stronger in its convictions,” Raphael continues, grimacing. “It’s only been a thousand years, but much remains as you would remember it. Anyone voicing opinions or spreading beliefs outside the norm is dealt with swiftly, and with no mercy. I am one of them – the Superior of my monastery sent me here, no doubt on the orders of the Vatican so they can keep a close on me.” He takes a swallow of lukewarm tea, and coughs as he swallows too fast. “I know that I am watched, possibly even when you and I speak like this.”
“No,” the angel says, shaking his head again. “We are not watched; I would have sensed it. But when we go on the grounds or through the gardens… it is a possibility.”
“Ah,” Raphael says, blinking. “I did not realise you had such abilities.”
The angel smiles at him. “There is still much that you do not know about me,” he tells him gently.
“Last year,” Raphael murmurs after another brief pause, “two priests in the monastery were discovered in… a compromising position. It was kept as quiet as possible – only those of us in the upper ranks were informed. They were sent to Rome for punishment, and one of the brothers, a close friend of mine, travelled with the Superior and the First Brother. He told me later that it was – terrible, inhumane, what they did.” His voice cracks towards the end of his sentence, and he has to take another gulp of tea, shuddering.
“Take your time,” the angel tells him, patting him on the arm before lacing his fingers together. “There is no rush; none of these events can be changed.”
Raphael takes several deep breaths before continuing. “They were tortured… left in solitude for several weeks. They were tried before the Pope and the College of Cardinals, and found guilty of indecency and breaking the bonds of celibacy, as well as breaking the taboo of love between those of the same gender.” He closes his eyes and then whispers, “It took five days before they were finally allowed to die. There was nothing of their former selves left when death finally took them.”
The angel keens softly, and the light seems to waver as the shadows deepen in the room. Raphael shudders; Lucian had crept into his room when he had returned, insisting that he spend the night with Raphael. He had cried for hours, clinging to Raphael as he wept.
Raphael hadn’t been able to sleep properly for over a week; whenever he had closed his eyes he had conjured images from what Lucian had described of the trial, and they had swiftly turned to brutal nightmares.
The angel keens a little higher. Raphael finds that he cannot stop shaking and, before he realises, he falls into a warm embrace that makes the shaking stop and the tension seep from his back and shoulders. He lets out a long sigh as calmness overwhelms him.
He is staring at his hands when he finally pulls back, but gasps when the angel lays his palm against Raphael’s cheek, his eyes flying up to meet the sad, sorrowful gaze.
“I am sorry,” the angel whispers as he strokes Raphael’s cheek, his touch cool and light. “Forgive me, for I am so sorry.”
Raphael has absolutely no idea why the angel is apologising, or why he should ever feel the need to apologise, but his stomach cannot stop churning as he stares up at the angel. It occurs to him, then, that he could never complain if he had to remain like this, with the angel, forever.
– – –
The snows change to frost and wet sleet mixed with rain. Now that the cold no longer tries to numb his fingers as an icy wind attempts to cut right through him, Raphael agrees to accompany the angel upon walks through the Vatican’s many gardens, strolls that become longer as the weather continues to improve.
It is upon one such walk, the morning after a hard frost that still crunches underfoot and makes their breath cloud before them, that the angel broaches a subject he has been hinting around for the past few weeks.
“When you first told me that the world had not improved during my slumber,” the angel says slowly, stopping to observe the frost patterns on the ivy climbing up the garden wall, “I thought that you were merely exaggerating. Perhaps you were one of those monks obsessed with your duties, claiming that those above you could never match your… enthusiasm for your cause, your devotion to your Faith.”
Raphael’s shoulders stiffen, but he continues walking alongside the angel, tucking his gloved hands into his robe sleeves for warmth. “Ah,” he says. Truthfully, this is not the first time that he has been accused of being absorbed in his duties, but no one has ever been so blunt or straightforward about it before. He doesn’t know whether to feel indignant or embarrassed, so he settles for ducking his head as his cheeks flush.
“I must apologise to you,” the angel goes on, brushing the bench with a hand, “for my observations were wrong.” He sits when satisfied that it is not damp, and motions for Raphael to sit beside him.
“Wrong?” Raphael asks, his brow furrowing. He knows very few people who are willing to admit their mistakes, and a twenty-thousand year old angel was one of the last he had ever expected to lack such a sense of pride.
The angel sighs, closing his eyes for several moments. “The world has changed since I slept. I expected that; it is the nature of mortals to enforce change. I had expected the changes to be more for the better, however, than they actually are. So much has not changed, enough for it to worry me.” His expression is troubled, his eyes worried, and then he glances at Raphael, the worry in his gaze turning to concern.
“You are cold,” he says, reaching towards Raphael’s cheek. His hands are soft and warm, and Raphael’s face tingles as the angel touches both cheeks and heat spreads across his face and down his neck. He shudders, and the angel’s concern grows. “You are still cold? Why did you not tell me earlier?”
“No,” Raphael murmurs, “I am no longer cold. Thank you.” He knows there are many things better left unsaid, and this situation is one that definitely warrants silence.
“Did you know either of the priests who were tortured and killed?” the angel asks after a lengthy silence. He is staring up at the pale sky where a washed-out sun is attempting its very best to shine. The question is not as random as it seems; the angel has been carefully edging towards a proper discussion of this since Raphael had first told him about it.
Raphael can feel his eyes narrow as his back stiffens to the point of pain, and he draws a sharp intake of breath. He licks his lips, once, twice, three times, and then says at last in a hoarse voice, “I did.”
The angel’s expression is open and sympathetic; he does not urge him to hurry or speak up, merely folds his hands neatly in his lap and waits.
“One of them was my cousin,” Raphael admits, and this was one of the reasons, of many, why Lucian had been sent with the Superior and First Brother to the trial instead of him. It had also possibly been why Raphael had been sent to Rome: disgrace and rumours draw attention and gossip quicker than influential research and good teaching methods.
He had been given personal leave to return home, where a dark cloud of shame and fear had lingered over his family. His aunt and uncle had been inconsolable; his parents trying to support them as best they could. Raphael had gone to the family crypt, sitting beside his cousin’s coffin and praying that he would never bring shame upon the family.
Please, God, help me to keep these… urges secret. Keep them dormant. Let me never act upon them. Amen. Amen, amen, amen.
As the angel smiles at him, making Raphael’s chest hurt, Raphael knows that God has already failed him.
– – –
Raphael wants to believe that he is faithful. He wants to believe that what he does and what he feels are both right and true, but he knows that they are not. Those in the Church are celibate; they love only God. It is the one law that has never changed in the Faith’s long history, and no one even contemplates for a moment to try and change it.
One of the other laws is that no one ever loves another of the same gender in a way that is beyond platonic, and the punishment for a man gaining corporal pleasure with another man is death. That, too, will never change.
Raphael has feared for his life – and his soul – for too long to fall victim to his own desires now.
“You are worried,” the angel remarks one day, putting down his book, his eyes dark and intent as he watches him.
Raphael returns his gaze, though not without effort, but finds that he cannot hold it for long. He stares out the window instead, the glass blurred from heavy rain. He walks up to it, opening it and sticking his head outside; he can only gasp as his face and hair is splattered, until water drips down his neck.
“Raphael!” the angel snaps, yanking him back inside and latching the window securely one more. He glares at him. “Getting accidentally caught in the rain twice, and now this? What is wrong?”
Sometimes, Raphael thinks it’s really not fair that angels have never been bound by the same moral constraints as mortals, but then that is why they are angels and humans are not. There is no use telling the angel what is wrong, for he will not understand, and Raphael knows only too well how perceptive the angel is. Knowing his luck, Raphael’s secret would soon no longer be a secret, and then what would he do?
So, instead, he shakes his head and murmurs, “Nothing is wrong.” The angel huffs and goes in search for something to help Raphael dry off.
Raphael sits beside the fire, gripping his hands together so tightly that his knuckles whiten, and tries not to shiver. Too close, too close, and it’s becoming difficult not to act as neutral as possible around the angel.
He knows his history, he knows it far too well, and love between an angel and a mortal is even more taboo than love between two men. Put the two together, and Raphael has safely damned himself to Hell.
He does not know how much longer he can stand this, before he blurts everything out or goes insane from it all.
The angel comes back with several towels and a thick, leather-bound book in the other hand. He hands Raphael the towels and sits, balancing the book carefully on his lap. He watches Raphael dry off, and then gazes down at the book as Raphael neatly folds the towel and sets in aside. The angel trails gentle fingers down the book cover, before holding it out.
“Here,” he says. “I think you will be very interested in this.”
Raphael raises an eyebrow and then peers forward to look at the cover. It takes several moments for his mind to make sense of the elaborate writing and decoration, and he finally lets out a choked gasp.
“What on – how? How did you… this is impossible!” Raphael whispers, struggling not to shout, and grab the angel by the front of his robes and shake, and demand where this had come from, or who he had blackmailed to get them.
The angel patiently waits for him to take the hand-sewn, battered leather-bound book, and Raphael does so with trembling hands, trailing a fingertip down the spine reverently. The Third Testament, the sole record of the Three Apocalyptic wars and their aftermath, is one of the most mysterious pieces of religious literature, purely for the fact that all copies of it had been destroyed before proper analysis and debate on its contents could be asserted and published, and the realisation that he has a perfectly readable copy in his hands almost makes Raphael feel faint from happiness.
“Begin reading, please,” the angel tells him quietly. “We do not have much time.”
Raphael sits and carefully places the bound manuscript on the table before him. He opens the cover slowly, and will later remember the delight he felt coupled with a gut-wrenching sorrow.
– – –
Raphael barely resists the urge to throw the book at the wall so that it can shatter and fall apart, and be easier to set on fire, or rip up further, or somehow ruin and destroy it.
Bile rises in the back of the throat, and he has to swallow again and again to keep it down until his throat begins to feel raw. He takes several deep shuddering breaths, but his heart refuses to stop hammering in his chest. He can hear the blood rushing in his ears.
The angel’s eyes are sad and understanding. “You see… what the two priests felt for each other was never a sin. How could it be?”
Raphael shakes his head, wordless, clutching the book so tightly that he has to close it and hand it back, lest he crumple the pages. “No,” he whispers.
“Yes,” the angel murmurs, setting the book aside and leaning towards him. He touches Raphael’s cheek gently, and then leans their foreheads together, breathing slowly and deeply. Raphael closes his eyes, shuddering as that damnable sense of peace closes over him again, making him sigh as the pressure eases from his neck and back.
When the angel presses soft lips to Raphael’s, Raphael can only whimper, now openly trembling. The kiss lasts a moment, before the angel sits back, smiling as he strokes Raphael’s cheek again.
“Forgive me,” Raphael chokes out, his eyes becoming blinded with tears as something terrible wrenches in his stomach. He stumbles to his feet, walking as steadily as he can to the door, and closes it softly after him.
He leans against the battered wood, his knees shaking, and nearly tumbles down the staircase when he suddenly bolts for it. He courts death on the steep staircase several times, many more than is healthy, but he cannot stop, won’t stop, hasn’t the ability in him to stop.
When he finally, finally returns to his rooms, he bursts into his bathroom and immediately empties the contents of his stomach. He heaves dryly for what seems like hours, sprawled on the cold floor as he retches and weeps. He undresses, cleans up as best he can, and falls into his bed.
His dreams are scattered and dark; there are bolts hammered through his wrists, and his blood is cool and scarlet as it slides down his arms and sides. The sky is dark and smells of sulphur, and an eclipse turns the colour of blood. And then there are lips on his own, soft and insistent, and he can taste blood in his mouth, and he’s not sure if it’s his own or not.
And then he realises that it’s a man’s mouth on his, a man’s body pressed against his own, and they are responding to each other, cocks heavy and hard, and Raphael is spread-eagled, ready and begging, getting fucked until all he can do is scream and writhe and yesyesyesyes.
Raphael wakes up spent and ashamed, swaying in a moment of distortion, torn between dream and reality, and unsure which is which.
Then memory rushes back, and Raphael doesn’t reach the bathroom before he vomits up whatever is left in his stomach.
– – –
If Lucian were here now, he would be hovering in front of Raphael, his fingers fluttering as he peered anxiously up at him through the heavy strands of hair that fell over his forehead. However, considering the expression on his face during their phone call, Raphael is significantly glad that he is not here. By now, Raphael would have been led to a couch and fed copious amounts of herbal wine (and possible some of the spare mass wine stash), and had the whole dreadful tale gently pulled out of him.
“Raphael,” Lucian says slowly, his eyebrow furrowed and his eyes worried, “I think you should come home. This is clearly exhausting you, and there is no appreciation being given! And the students miss you.” And so do the rest of us goes unsaid, but Raphael allows himself to believe that it is a genuine sentiment, regardless.
“No,” Raphael says, shaking his head. “I appreciate your concern, really I do, but I must finish this. Once the angel has a proper knowledge of the modern world, then my task will be finished and I will request to be transferred back to the monastery. I must finish this.” He isn’t even half lying; memories of the guilt the angel is feeling over Raphael’s unexpected reading of the Third Testament still makes Raphael cringe. The angel could hardly have expected Raphael’s delicate sensibilities to overreact so much to something that the angel could not understand the shame of. The angel wasn’t human, after all, and felt nothing like human emotions.
“There is no must in anything, Raphael!” Lucian snaps, clearly upset, but he still manages a cordial goodbye when they finish their phone call. Raphael cannot help but let out a long sigh when he hangs up the receiver, Lucian’s image dissipating from the holographic screen. He rubs the bridge of his nose, sighs again, and turns to walk back to his rooms.
He is not expecting to meet anyone he knows, for the Vatican employs hundreds in staff, and cardinals enter and leave every day for sometimes no reason at all. So he is pleasantly surprised to encounter Cardinal Asana, a lady he hasn’t met in several weeks. And, despite her distant greeting to him, he supposes that it’s a misplaced sense of companionship that causes him to take her aside and explain his current situation.
Her eyes narrow dangerously, and her mouth flattens to a grim line. “Do not speak of this to anyone else,” she warns him. “This is the sort of information that could get you tortured and killed – slowly. The angel should have known better, but then that was your responsibility. He comes from a different time – surely your research has told you that?”
Raphael blushes. “I hadn’t realised –” he begins.
“You did not think,” the cardinal interrupts, glaring at him. “Foolish. Pretend nothing. Act like you have not read anything. That is the course of action I would advise for you.”
Her expression is hard and resolute, and Raphael knows that there is no help he can gain from her, except the useless assurance that his secret will be safe in a place where no secrets are ever kept in such a way.
– – –
“I loathe immortality,” the angel remarks. “Most of us do. Mortals do not realise how wearying it is: to never die, always linger, become as obsessed with emotion, and the heart, and the state of being as you humans are.” He shakes his head, murmuring, “So troublesome.”
Raphael glares at him. “Tell me the truth.”
“What is there to tell, now that you know it all?” the angel asks, shrugging. “You know why the world nearly died, and why it did not. You know the sins of those who should have known better. You have, in effect, what can be used to control the world. You are now more powerful than the Pope.”
“I do not want power,” Raphael says, but he can only grimace at the lack of conviction in his voice.
The angel laughs. “Ah, but did you not tell me that you wished to change the world, to make it a better place? Now you can.”
“Not like this,” Raphael whispers, closing his eyes as he shivers. “Please, tell me the truth.”
There is silence for several minutes while Raphael keeps his eyes closed, and then the angel sighs at last. He closes his book as Raphael opens his eyes, and his expression is sad and sombre as he faces Raphael with his back straight and his palms flattened against his thighs.
Their friendship has changed since the angel showed him the Third Testament and the kiss that followed between them. Neither has brought it up since, Raphael maintaining a firm denial, and the angel’s impatience is starting to become obvious.
“My memories are not as clear as I would like,” he says quietly. “Perhaps they will improve in time, or perhaps it is my mind protecting me from something I lack the capability to correctly deal with. Regardless,” he says after another pause, “you have been good to me, a true friend, and I owe you nothing less than the truth.”
Raphael sits not because he is offered a seat, but because if he doesn’t then his legs will give up on him and he will crumple to the floor. He smoothes his robe as he does so, again and again, the soothing repeated motion managing to calm him slightly.
“I was one of the highest ranking angels,” the angel says, his voice a whisper and distant; his eyes are glazed in memory, and he gazes towards something that Raphael knows he will never be able to see. “I no longer remember my name, or anything particularly personal about who I was, but I remember being trusted, one of His advisors and one of the most important of His Son’s protectors while he lived his mortal life.”
Raphael’s eyes widen even as his head starts to spin. If what he is being told is true, then this angel is the most important figurehead of the Church until more of his kind begin to awaken, higher even than the Pope because this angel is no mortal.
“And I loved His Son, for he was gentle, and kind, and treated all the same despite their ranks in life. Kind or cruel, fortunate or misfortunate… he loved them all, and taught them to love each other.” The angel pauses; his hands tighten into fists with white knuckles before they begin to shake. When he resumes speaking, his tone is notably harder. “How could anyone hate such a person as he, God’s only Son? He succeeded in what so many before him had failed… he brought love and peace back to this world, damned Lucifer back to the bowels of Hell where he belonged. He began to purge sin from this world.”
Raphael nods, trying to think of a way to encourage him to continue, but he cannot; Raphael already knows all of this, and can only hope that the angel will hurry on to things that he does not.
“And God was pleased, so proud. But then…” And here the angel becomes worryingly distressed, shifting uneasily in his seat; if he still had wings, they would be repeatedly snapping open and shut with restlessness.
“But then the Son fell in love.”
Raphael frowns, thinking that, at last, some truth will finally come of this and he will explain how the Third Testament was wrongly rewritten and –
“With another of the same gender.”
And in those few words all of his hopes are dashed, and Raphael swallows as bile rises once more in his throat. He clutches fistfuls of his robe in his lap, trying to contain himself and utterly failing.
“No,” he chokes out, but he knows he is lying to himself, and he has never been a very good liar.
The angel’s eyes turn cold. “His lover was another disciple, one trusted by all. It was discovered, of course, as these things usually are, but was kept discreet. The Son was happy, the happiest he had been in all his time on this land, and none wished to destroy that for him. But then Judas discovered the dalliance…”
Judas. The Traitor. Raphael’s eyes widen as his stomach drops. “No,” he repeats, but this time his voice is small and pitiful, and dangerously near broken.
“They were discovered, captured… and punished.” The angel’s voice turns flat as he continues to speak. “Love of such a kind was strictly forbidden, and for one such as His Son to fall for such base pleasures? He was sentenced to torture for thirty days and thirty nights, followed by a slow crucifixion. And then the Son appealed to his Father for guidance.”
Raphael slowly meets the angel’s eyes, and knows then that he will hear nothing that will alleviate the growing horror in his stomach.
“And He gave none, turning His back on His only Son. And death came to His Son through the Cross, and those of us who had protected the Son for so long openly rebelled against Heaven. And war was waged upon this land – the First Apocalyptic war.”
Raphael can only stare at him, not having realised the extent of the angel’s involvement. “So then…”
“We, the angels who were put into a slumber, were not the last. We lost the three wars, and this was our punishment. Stripped of our wings and our names, we were cast into eternal sleep. But this came with a price for Heaven – God had been severely weakened throughout the three battles, and Lucifer finally managed to storm the gates. Neither lived to see the Fall of Heaven.” The angel sighs, his fists clenching and unclenching, and then whispers, “After the three wars, we became the last angels – the traitors, those caught between God and His Son, those who turned their backs from Heaven and weakened the ranks enough that Hell broke through.”
Raphael slumps in his seat, covering his face with his hands. “Oh Lord, what have I done?”
“You are not to blame,” the angel tells him wearily. “You were not to know: the Church keeps its secrets well. When you informed me what the Third Testament was, oblivious to what it actually meant to me, finding the Vatican’s last remaining copy proved more difficult than I had first realised. The female cardinal that you know has been of immense help. She has become very disillusioned with the Pope and her peers.”
Raphael is certain for several long moments that he is going to begin vomiting again; he swallows, with great effort, takes several deep breaths and says, “We must stop talking about this. For our own safety, we must.”
“No,” the angel says, shaking his head. “We cannot. I did not awaken naturally – I was forcibly brought back to consciousness by the Vatican. They do not realise that God is dead; they wish to control me, using me as a link to Heaven. Even if Heaven had not fallen, I would not allow that.”
Raphael gapes at him. “Forcibly awakened? By the Pope?”
“Yes,” the angel says, his expression turning sympathetic as Raphael shakes his head sharply.
“No,” Raphael says, but his voice is weak and there is no confidence in it, and he knows that this particular battle between them has already been lost.
The angel walks over to him, placing his hands gently on Raphael’s shoulders. “I am no longer alone,” he says softly, delight blossoming upon his face. “My kin are beginning to awaken naturally, with the aid of no one. The angels are returning.”
Raphael stares up at him, the angel he has taught and obsessed over for months. “For what?” he asks in a trembling whisper.
“To unleash war once more upon this land,” the angel whispers to him in reply, and he leans down to kiss him.
It is the last thing that Raphael expects again, even with the dreams he’s had, and he clutches the angel’s arms as their mouths press together. He freezes, unsure of what to do, and the angel nudges his mouth open and nips his lip as the kiss deepens. Raphael shudders, gripping the angel’s arms tighter, and as desire begins to pool in his stomach he does not protest when the angel leads him to the bed.
This cannot be wrong, he tells himself, as their robes fall away. It cannot, not if the Son felt like this as well. It cannot be a sin. Raphael shivers as the air caresses his skin. The angel sighs and settles on top of him, cupping Raphael’s face as they kiss again, his arousal beginning to press against Raphael’s thigh.
The ache strengthens between his legs and Raphael lets his head fall back, his erection darkening and swelling. He whimpers when the angel grinds their hips together, wrapping his legs around the angel’s waist and gasping.
“We were also put to sleep for sharing His Son’s affection for those of our own sex,” the angel murmurs as he presses kisses to Raphael’s neck and makes his breath catch in his throat. “This land had corrupted us as much as His Son. There was nothing left for us.”
His touch is gentle as he prepares Raphael, who can’t help but arch as he is brought precariously to the edge. He is not inexperienced by any means, due to his wilder days from before he joined the Church, even though he has not been with one of his own sex before. He moves his hands with increasing confidence and laughs as the angel gasps and moans.
“Us humans are good for something, then,” Raphael murmurs, their lips meeting in a slow, leisurely kiss. He presses their foreheads together as he strokes the angel’s hair, light and silky.
Raphael stares at him, his eyes widening. “You’re beautiful,” he whispers, sounding like he can hardly believe it.
The angel laughs and catches Raphael’s hand, intertwining their fingers together. “Well, I am an angel,” he murmurs, kissing him again.
They move together slowly, Raphael tangling his fingers into the angel’s hair as he whimpers, squeezing his eyes shut.
“You told me before that you wished to change the world,” the angel tells him, cupping his cheek and sounding painfully earnest. “We can help you. Imagine a better world, a world without fear, persecution, denial and lies.”
Raphael tries to imagine a world not ruled by the Church or out-dated ideals; a world where the church does not wallow in tarnished wealth, or the truth is not kept from those who deserve to know it. He tries to imagine a world where Lucian would be able to kiss the male scribe he has loved for the past five years without fear of torture or death.
And then he is coming, arching against the angel and crying out. Something blossoms in his chest, making him light-headed and almost delirious. He pants, boneless and trembling, as the angel shudders against him, thrusting erratically. Then the angel comes, crying out, as a pair of large wings burst from his shoulder-blades, stretching out to shield both the angel and Raphael, smooth and perfect. Light shines from the pale feathers, soft and iridescent, and Raphael lets out a long, slow breath as stillness radiates throughout the room.
The angel slumps against Raphael, shuddering and gasping for breath, and Raphael reaches up with trembling fingers to touch the left wing. The feathers are smooth and warm, silky to the touch. The angel lifts his head long enough to laugh, before burrowing his face into Raphael’s neck.
Raphael closes his eyes, threading his fingers through the angel’s hair. “Yes,” he whispers, tightening his other arm around the angel’s ribs. “Yes, I believe in you.” The angel makes a rumbling sound of assent, before silence falls.
At last Raphael says, “If you were able to remember all that happened so long ago… then you must also remember you name by now.”
The angel rises, supporting himself on his arms, and lets out a burst of laughter. “Yes,” he says, “I remember. I was named for one of the old pagan gods, given his name before he faded from memory.” He pauses, and then stretches out on his side from behind Raphael, wrapping his arms around his waist. Raphael’s breath begins to quicken.
“I was named for Eros,” the angel whispers as one of his hands slips between Raphael’s legs and strokes him.
Raphael moans and half-laughs, the sound breathless. Named for Eros, the god of male love. Ridiculous, and yet…
The sun starts to rise over the horizon, light beginning to filter through the stained glass windows above them. The room is bathed in multi-coloured light, like several rainbows blurring into one. The angel moves closer, and Raphael sighs, holding him tightly.
It almost feels like Pandora’s Box has been opened; nothing is the same, but the outside world is still moving as normal. But this is only the beginning, Raphael thinks, smiling as he kisses Eros’ hair. Everything has changed: a new world has just dawned.