by Shiroi Yomena (白井嫁菜)
illustrated by jpegasus
Once upon a time, in a very large city in a very rich country, there lived an assassin.
He was a good assassin: competent, discreet, efficient, and highly respected by his peers. A man skilled in the art as well as the science of death, he enjoyed the chase, the hunt, and the satisfaction of the kill. He was a ghost, a man who did not exist, a man who changed addresses and names nearly as often as he changed his socks. To his neighbors and those he passed on the street, he was unremarkable: average of height, build, and face. Nonetheless, he was a happy man, and that showed in his eyes. Many–some to their detriment–thought mistakenly that that meant he was a kind person. He was not, particularly, though he often played at it. He chatted amiably with the old folks that sat on the stoops of the old apartment buildings and could usually be counted on to watch over a neighbor’s plants or cats while they were away.
The assassin was content, if a bit bored, with his life when the angel crashed onto his balcony.
The sound of something hitting his balcony door startled the assassin up out of his chair, his book falling to the floor as his weapon leapt to hand. The curtains obscured his view, and he waited for a count of a hundred before going to investigate further.
He was not expecting a naked, unconscious teenaged boy with a five-foot feathered wingspan to have been the cause of the racket. The boy was bedraggled, dirty, obviously abused. The assassin stared down at him for a long moment, then looked out at the city, then up to the sky, then down the ten-story drop to the street below. Nothing offered any explanation for why a putative angel had crash landed on the assassin’s balcony.
The assassin was not a religious man. Nor was he, as mentioned before, a particularly kind man. He was, however, quite a curious man, and since no celestial brethren appeared to aid their fallen comrade, the assassin picked the unconscious boy up and carried him inside. He was light in the assassin’s arms, weighing less than a human of his apparent age should.
The assassin carried him into the bathroom, drawing a warm bath and lowering his guest into it. He produced a fresh washcloth and gently cleaned the boy up. There was a long scrape down one thigh that was so fresh that it had to be from his altercation with the balcony, but there was more that spoke of past ill treatment. Dark, bruised fingermarks in various states of healing stood out on pale hips and shoulders, and blood and other things had dried, dripping, down the back of his thighs. His hair, as the dirt and filth was washed away, was a silver not merely in color, but in the soft shine of it, even under the unremarkable bathroom lighting. Soft as silk, it fell in lazy waves to just above his shoulders.
The wings gave the most difficulty. They were grubby and unkempt, a dingy grey that seemed impervious to soap and water, and, given the damage to them, the assassin did not want to bother them too much. Some of the feathers were gone, as if they’d been torn out, leaving bald, bloody patches. One wing looked twisted out of shape, perhaps broken, though if that had happened before or after his crash landing the assassin could not tell. He kept the angel’s weight forward, against his own shoulder, rather than letting the boy lean back on his wings. They folded neatly against his back but obviously weren’t meant to be compressed.
The assassin was not sure when the angel awoke, as one moment his eyes were closed and the next they were open, luminously blue but vague and listless. He blinked occasionally but made no other sign of life, not responding to the assassin’s voice or to the hands on his body. The assassin left him to his silence, raising the boy to his feet and wrapping him in a towel around his middle, under his wings. The angel made no move to hold the towel closed, so the assassin tucked it securely and retrieved another towel to dry his hair. Careful as he was, the thick towel thumped down on to the angel’s misshapen wing at one point, and the boy’s soft, distracted cry of pain was lost, hopeless.
The assassin put the angel in his own bed that night. He was not sure if the angel needed to sleep or not, but it seemed the thing to do. The assassin went back to the living room and retrieved his fallen book.
He sat thinking, rather than reading. The boy was either the angel he so obviously looked, some kind of mutant or experiment, or a product of the assassin’s own imagination. The assassin discarded the latter choice, and until the boy started talking, it was impossible to determine between the other two possibilities. If a freak, then the boy likely had been kept or caught as some kind of curiosity. If an angel, then he must have fallen far from heaven. From the state the boy was in, the assassin figured that it didn’t really matter. Even if he was an angel, he was obviously on his own, if he had been left to be so obviously abused. Given the mistreatment that had been plainly written on his skin, it was not surprising that he was traumatized and half catatonic, even if he were not so young as he appeared.
Idly, the assassin wondered what an angel might do that would sentence him to be abandoned on earth to be beaten and raped. And how an angel might escape such a fate to crash land on a tenth-story balcony.
Later, before the sun rose, the assassin slid into the other side of the bed next to the angel. He did not draw close, and the angel did not respond, his eyes closed, his breathing silent and steady beneath the rise and fall of his wings. The lamplight painted him in gold, his skin palest ivory and his hair shining platinum as it fell into his face, over one bruised cheek.
The assassin turned off the light and half expected for the angel to be gone in the morning. For one reason or another. However, when the early afternoon light woke him, the boy was still there, his cheek on the pillow, his eyes open. The assassin thought he might be watched, until he moved and the boy’s eyes did not follow him. A bit at a loss as to what to do with his guest, the assassin rose as he would any other day to shower and make breakfast. He was not a wonderful cook, but passable. He made coffee and pancakes and wondered if angels ate. He’d seen firsthand that the boy was anatomically correct, but that didn’t have to mean anything, necessarily.
After he’d eaten, he went to stand in the bedroom doorway. The angel hadn’t moved, except perhaps to curl in upon himself a bit more, and he didn’t respond when the assassin drew close and laid a hand on his forehead. The skin was cool and soft.
The assassin spent that day as he usually did. He had much free time, when not plying his trade, and he usually spent most of the day reading or online in various pursuits. He found himself distracted, though, and after about an hour, he frowned. He returned to the bedroom and wrapped the angel in the blanket, carrying him to the living room and making him comfortable in a stray sunbeam that slanted across the couch. He did all this for no reason that he could define. When the assassin sat back down at his desk with the angel firmly in view, the restlessness went away.
The assassin was not the kind of man to let his own strange behavior go unnoticed, yet it seemed innocent enough. Surely it was merely the effect of having someone in his space after so long living alone.
The first day passed into the second, then the third, and the angel slept on. The assassin carried the angel from couch to bed and back again, as he would an invalid. He apparently needed no sustenance, as he didn’t appear unhealthy after several days without food, and the bruises and scrapes healed nicely. Even his broken wing started to look like it was straightening, as if the bones strove for perfection. No amount of bathing, though, took the dingy grey tinge from his feathers.
Every now and then the assassin would find those blue eyes open in his direction, though he couldn’t be sure if he was seen or not.
It was the fourth or fifth day before he noticed the angel’s eyes following him. He made no sign that he’d noticed until it was time to sleep. He knelt by the couch and pointed out that if the angel so wished, the assassin could sleep on the couch that night, rather than share the bed.
The angel met his gaze, seemingly unafraid. His eyes were not quite like human eyes: too deep, too blue, and–now that he was awake–too knowing. It took effort to meet their solemn scrutiny.
Eventually, though, the angel shook his head tentatively, as if trying to remember how the movement went. Slowly, he stood and walked into the bedroom, and they slept that night as they had the nights before, on opposite sides of the bed.
Surprisingly little changed after that. The assassin had few clothes that would fit the angel, being a much taller man (and one without wings), but the angel would occasionally wear a pair of pajama pants or a carefully modified and invariably unbuttoned dress shirt. He was not a demanding guest, seemingly content to curl up in the sunny windowseat in the living room and watch the assassin or the activity on the streets below. Though he seemed to understand the assassin’s words, the angel’s own were incomprehensible. It was as if he spoke in music, or perhaps straight to the heart: there was emotion there, and a feel of something communicated, but nothing more concrete. The assassin did not pry, merely asked now and then if there was anything that the angel needed. His reply was always a shaken head, a murmured trill of polite refusal.
They shared the bed at night, and if the angel gradually allowed himself to sleep within arm’s reach rather than perched on the edge, the assassin was not so crass as to mention it. He was a man used to actions rather than words, after all.
One morning, the assassin’s usual patrol of his inbox found a message from “Aunt Lisa”. Aunt Lisa chatted with him about her week, her job, her spectacularly failing love life. She also, in separate parts of her ramble, gave a date, a place, a time. Later that day, a letter arrived from her, again quite chatty, including a clipping of an article about a fire near her house. On the back, from the opposite page, was a photograph of a local businessman from another article.
The assassin sat back in his chair, cupping his coffee between his hands. It was, evidently, time to go to work. He frowned, unsure what seemed to be off, but then realized that he wasn’t as excited at the prospect as he usually was. The businessman was wealthy, well-respected, and well-guarded. A challenge. Still, the assassin felt little anticipation.
The next morning, he sat down next to the angel on his favorite windowseat perch. He explained that he would have to go to work and would thus be away for a few days. He didn’t see any reason to lie about what that work would entail. The angel listened to him gravely, apparently unsurprised, or perhaps just unmoved. The assassin explained a few precautions the angel should take while he was away, a few routes of escape and caches of money, and the angel nodded. The assassin reached out, cupping the angel’s cheek in his palm, and the angel leaned into it, minutely, eyes on his face and more awake at the touch than at the talk of premeditated murder.
Perhaps, the assassin thought, something else had broken inside the angel, along with bones and skin.
The assassin left later that day. He paused as he was about to go, turned and looked at the angel sitting on the windowseat. The angel’s eyes held his as the door closed between them. One hand on the wood, the assassin paused until he heard the click of the deadbolt sliding into place from the other side. Then he paused some more. He realized with a bit of surprise that he didn’t want to leave, for no good reason that he could determine.
He shook himself and turned down the hall.
The job was as difficult as he had expected. “Aunt Lisa” had intimated that the businessman’s death should be made to look like random crime, rather than the hit it was, so sniper fire was out. The man paid well for his bodyguards’ protection, but he left them at the door to his secured building, preferring to keep to himself in his home hours. An assualt on his security became an assault on the building’s security, which was not nearly so clever as the assassin. He played the part of the high-end burglar-turned-murderer surprised by the businessman’s early return home and left the man sprawled dead in his front hall.
It was not nearly as satisfying as it should have been.
Back at his apartment, the angel was waiting for him when he arrived, standing silent in the middle of the living room. The assassin took off his coat, and the angel was there, taking his hand, leading him to the bathroom. The assassin followed, curious, and allowed himself to be undressed, drawn into the tub and bathed. It was a strange reversal of the angel’s own first night there. There was no blood to be washed away, all the evidence already disposed of long before he returned home, but the angel’s hands were still careful, thorough, as if washing away something else. The assassin did not feel particularly absolved afterwards, but he did feel cleaner.
The angel led him to bed, crawling up into it and pulling the assassin after him, wrapping them both carefully, securely in the blankets. The angel finished these arrangements by curling at the assassin’s side, so close the assassin could feel the warm puff of breath against his skin. The assassin smiled and wondered if this meant that he had been missed.
That night, the assassin awoke long after midnight from misty, heated dreams of feathers and soft skin, to find the angel’s naked flank pressed to his hip.
This, the assassin thought, was more temptation than any mortal man should have to suffer.
The assassin took a deep breath and slid out of bed. In the bathroom, he did not allow himself to think of blue eyes and silvered hair as he stroked himself and came almost immediately.
When he returned to the bed, he was somewhat thankful that he could not tell in the darkness whether the angel was awake or asleep.
The next day passed, then a week, then a month, then two, shaded with contentment, gilded in the soft glow of early spring maturing into summer. The assassin and the angel grew easy with each other, and the days passed quickly in quiet pursuits. The assassin read voraciously, and he was obscurely pleased when he realized that the angel would sometimes read over his shoulder. He got into the habit of offering first pick of the week’s new batch of books to his guest, who almost smiled at the gesture. Had the assassin been hoping to learn something by the angel’s choices, he would have been disappointed, as the boy often ignored the weighty or philosophical for the oddest book in the pile: a collection of ribald Indian folktales, a comedy involving two lovers and their dog, a book tracing the lineage of the domesticated cat. The assassin found himself picking out the occasional off-the-wall bargain at the bookstore, just to see if the angel would be amused by it.
Aunt Lisa contacted the assassin three more times in that two months. Each time, the assassin did his job, but without much enthusiasm. Each time, the angel would be waiting for him when he returned, would lead him to the bath, would bathe him, the washcloth moving in slow, careful circles over his skin. The last time, after what had been a particularly bloody job, the assassin roused himself in the tub from a light, warm-bath-induced haze to realize that the angel had been washing his hands for a full five minutes.
The assassin stilled the angel’s hands between his own, gently. The angel’s fingers curled around his, lifting the assassin’s hand to his cheek, his voice soft, mournful. The assassin doubted that the dirge was for that night’s murdering drug runner, whose blood was long since washed away.
That night, with the angel curled next to him, the assassin entertained, for the first time, the thought of changing professions. Not for the angel’s sake, of course. The assassin was merely a man who disliked doing work that he didn’t enjoy. If killing no longer amused him…perhaps it was time to move on. Disappear. Harder to do, the assassin mused, with two people instead of one…–the assassin glanced down at the silver head nestled against his shoulder–…especially when one of them had wings, but…well…there was just no helping that, now was there? The assassin drifted off, idly thinking of logistics, of where there might be a nice, safe place to hide….
He woke to unearthly light that did not so much penetrate his eyelids as it did his mind, ushering away sleep. He opened his eyes.
The assassin would never be sure, later, if he had been meant to see the angels’ argument or not. It surely had the look of something mortals were not meant to see, with the misty veil of light that surrounded them, confusing his vision. The assassin’s angel stood by the bed, facing away from him, naked and unashamed. The rest of the bedroom fell away into darkness before the white light that streamed off the assassin’s angel and the other that stood…or perhaps floated…in front of him. Against that glory, the angel’s wings seemed merely earthly, no longer bedraggled, but still streaked with a grey that seemed darker now than the assassin remembered it being that first night.
The assassin could not understand what was said, the arguments made. He could not see his angel’s face, and he could barely see the other angel, a gloriously full-winged seraph to his angel’s cherub. Their conversation was in the same eloquently nonverbal language that the angel had always spoken: a wordless, emotional exchange. The seraph’s argument was clarion clear as a rung bell, his deep voice and sharp eyes filled with righteous certainty. The assassin’s angel retorted with dissent, anger, hurt. The seraph reiterated, surprised, chin lifting, his tone insistent, and the assassin’s angel shook his head, hands balling into fists, his reply one of loss and pain, division and sorrow.
The seraph’s eyes narrowed, looking over at the assassin, who, wisely, had his eyes only slitted open. He wasn’t sure whether the seraph knew he was awake or not. Though the assassin was a strong man, it took all his pride to not shrink from the sheer knowing weight of the seraph’s gaze–so much more piercing and cold than the angel’s mournful acceptance. But then, given his profession, the seraph’s righteous condemnation was no less than the assassin would have expected.
The seraph looked back at the angel, one hand sweeping towards the assassin, his voice dripping contempt, tempered by irritation, dismissal, an aura of anger. The angel shook his head, his reply sharp, defiant, holding anger and righteousness of its own.
The seraph pulled himself up to his full height, the bright crack of lightning in his face, his voice, his wings. The air was suddenly heavy, thick with power.
The angel, jaw set, eyes hot, stood his ground and did not reply.
A final pause, a final sharp shake of the head, and with a snap of wings, a soundless crash of thunder, the seraph was gone.
The unearthly light faded, until the bedroom was dark and familiar again. The angel’s stance loosened, shoulders stooping, and the assassin sat up. The angel looked at him, shadowed face turned over his shoulder and unreadable. The assassin opened his mouth, wanting to ask what had happened, if anything was wrong, but in the end figured that it would be pointless. He held out a hand to the angel, and the boy paused only for a moment before rushing to him, clambering gracelessly onto the bed and clinging, arms tight around his chest. The angel’s soft noise was of loss and fear, and the assassin found himself holding him close, hands stroking over the soft hair, down the naked back, soothing more than anything. The angel’s feathers were sleek and of indeterminate color in the dark. They trembled but eventually stilled, and the assassin thought that the angel slept.
He dozed himself and was, in fact, in that hazy realm between sleep and waking when he realized that the warm pleasure he was feeling was the angel’s mouth moving over his chest. His hand, clumsy with half-sleep, found the angel’s hair by touch.
Slowly, the assassin reached over to the side table to turn on the lamp, then tilted up the angel’s face. There were tears there, but his eyes were clear, oh so knowing like they always were, and swirling with something that the assassin suspected was responsible for the traitorous twisting sensation in his chest. It certainly was responsible for the want pulsing low in his belly.
One thumb stroked over the angel’s cheekbone hesitantly, a question without words. The angel nodded, solemnly, and leaned in to kiss him. He tasted like light and tears, salty and pure and certain. He held on to the assassin as if he were the last solid thing in the universe, pulling them close…then closer.
There was, the assassin decided, only so much temptation that a man could take. Especially when that temptation was so very earnest and needy.
Making love was steeped in deja-vu, after so many dreams about it. The angel’s skin was just as soft as the assassin had dreamed, his kiss just as warm, his body fitting to the assassin’s just as sweetly. The assassin was gentler than he’d ever thought he could be with someone he wanted so badly, lying back so that the angel could kneel astride him, controlling the pace. When the angel finally took him in, it was an ache soothed, a held breath released. The sensation was gloriously human, though, the slide of skin on skin, and the angel, despite any bad memories he might have had, surrendered to it with every evidence of joy, his face beatific. The sounds he made were of encouragement and need, and when they came his cry was of pleasure and victory, his wings unfurled about him in the yellow lamplight. If that cry might have had the beginnings of words in it, the assassin was too distracted to properly notice.
Later, in the gray morning light, the assassin watched from the bed as the angel went to the window and lifted his arms to the rising sun. It might have been a trick of the light, but the rays seemed to touch him, caress him, every feather outlined in fire. And then, between one breath and the next, his wings vanished, falling from his shoulders as if made from ash and disappearing before they hit the floor.
When he turned back to the assassin, his face looked much the same, young and achingly beautiful. That, evidently, had not been angelic. Or, at least, it was not something that could be taken away.
The assassin, by now used to inexplicable things from his…ex?…angel, nonetheless had to wonder whether this was a good thing or a bad thing that had just happened.
His angel moved closer, a tremblingly tentative smile on his lips. He stopped at the edge of the bed, and the assassin realized that he was not the only one unsure of how the other would react to this new development.
The assassin reached out his hand, and the angel took it, pulling himself back into bed.
“Thank you,” the ex-angel said, softly, into the assassin’s neck. His voice had not the otherworldly timbre of his first language when used to form actual words, but it was a lovely voice nonetheless, perfectly serviceable for plain English.
Where there was a voice, there could be the telling of stories. The assassin was a curious man, and he wanted, of course, to hear his angel’s story, of a crash onto a tenth-story balcony and what came before and after. But it could wait, he decided, tucking his lover’s head under his chin. It could wait.