He struggled, but he couldn’t move, pinned in place by an inescapable weight. No matter how hard he screamed, his voice never made it passed his lips. Trapped, thrashing, inside of his own body as they descended on him.
The pain started on his back, scorching through him like fire, and he screamed. It burnt inward, deeper and deeper, until it seared against his soul and he was torn in two. Then four. Then into a million infinitesimal pieces until he was sure there was no putting them together again.
A single, bloodstained feather drifted through his vision and then the world dissolved into chaos and fire.
Raphael bolted upright and his scream was cut off as he bent over the edge of the bed and dry-heaved, his empty stomach seizing even though there was nothing to expel. When his muscles finally stilled he wiped at his mouth and collapsed back onto the mattress, hissing through his teeth when the knotted scars along his spine, still tender and inflamed from the dream, struck the old coiled springs.
They said that time healed all wounds, but a millennia had done fuck-all for the nightmares.
Rubbing the last of sleep from his eyes, Raphael climbed off the bed and stretched. A heavy, cold ache had settled below his sternum over the past week and could no longer be ignored. He knelt at the foot of the mattress and crossed himself in a flippant, half-hearted gesture. “Forgive me, Father, for the sins that I must commit this night,” he recited in perfect Latin and then, dryly, “So for once try not to be an ass about it, yeah?”
A ripple of pain shot from the base of his skull to the small of his back, and Raphael grit his teeth. “Just trying to be upfront about it,” he muttered dismissively, his thoughts already moving on to the next step. He stood, dressed, and let himself out of the shabby hotel room.
The sky outside was the deepest indigo, the night heavy as it hung in those hours too late to be considered night but too early for morning. It was quiet, the streets deserted and all of the lights dimmed. He was alone, free to move without being watched and able to breathe without being tempted, and it was something akin to happiness. Or it would be, were it not for the clawing in his gut.
Shadows draped heavily over the crippled remains of the city, and Raphael stared around with a sense of mourning. He still remembered the way this once glorious place had looked the last time he had been there, almost two centuries prior, and then even further back during its grandest days. The towering rows of buildings and jutting balconies had framed the grid work of canals; little wooden docks with their clusters of narrow gondolas bobbing against their ropes; clotheslines draped between buildings hung with colorful dresses that fluttered in the breeze like pennants. It had once been a center for festivals and masquerades, the height of art and culture and life.
Now, it was nothing more than a ruined shell. The stench coming up from the canals was sickening, refuse and debris and rot staining the water an oily brown. Half of the buildings were crumbling in on themselves, boarded up windows and rubble not enough to warn off the squatters. The blackened skeletal remains of a church stood on a rise, a ghostly reminder of what had caused all of the destruction.
It had been over twenty years since the first skirmishes of what would become the Great Holy War had begun. The damage seemed to have struck the large cities the worst, where higher populations meant more fighting, and it left once thriving places in shambles. Part of Raphael felt sad for the people who would never know the beauty that had once been their world, but the larger part of him reminded him that it was the humans and their bickering and politics, the fighting and rage that had torn this world apart.
Raphael plunged deeper into the city, shrugging his jacket tighter around his body and cutting off his body’s instinct to breathe. It wasn’t necessary, but a thousand years of attempting to blend in had ingrained the habit. He could hear people hidden away in the buildings, scuffling and moaning as they made a living in their little hovels, but he left them be. The ones this far outside of the city center knew to never go anywhere alone and he didn’t want to deal with the effort of a witness.
A few miles into the city, the signs of destruction had lessened and the buildings were mostly intact. Raphael skirted around the rows of houses and shops, inhaling deeply in search of a scent. Most of the people were inside their homes, fast asleep so late after curfew, so it took a while before - there!
The scent of warmth led him to a narrow alley between a bookstore and a bakery. A mound of clothing heaped against the wall shifted at the sound of his footsteps, grumbled, and then stood. Raphael found himself facing a young woman, gaunt and pale, with her long blonde hair flowing wild and tangled around her shoulders. She frowned up at him defiantly, giving him a suspicious once-over, and planted her hands on her hips.
“You better have a lot of money for bothering me so late,” she said in broken Italian.
“I did not seek you out for that,” Raphael said, closing the distance between them in three long strides.
The woman leaned back against the wall of the bakery, arms folding beneath her copious bustline. Even in the dim light of the half-moon, Raphael could see the thin, blue veins that webbed beneath her nearly translucent skin. Deeper still was the blue-white spark at her core that only he could see, humming softly at him. Something in his chest lurched and he swallowed hard against the building itch in his gums.
“Yeah, sure you didn’t,” the woman said sarcastically. Raphael locked his jaw and forced his gaze up to her face again. Her expression softened ever so slightly and she reached up to trace a fingertip across his cheekbone. “Don’t be ashamed, Pretty Eyes, everyone has needs. So, what do you need from me?”
“Repentance,” Raphael answered, taking another step closer so the woman was pinned between his body and the wall. He felt her quiver and could smell the sudden rush of pheromones as her quickening breathing ghosted over his jaw. The scent was intoxicating. “Ask God for forgiveness.”
“God?” the woman echoed with an amused huff. “Hmm, look who’s a brave boy, talking about that sort of thing in public. Don’t get a lot of visits from you Faith-Keepers, least not open ones. How adventurous of you.”
Raphael pressed his forehead to the side of her neck, breathing in the flush of skin above her carotid artery. Her body reacted instinctively, curving up against him, and Raphael couldn’t bite back the small noise he made when her pulse fluttered under his lips. “Repent,” he repeated, stumbling around the word as he finally gave in to the itch in his mouth. “Now. Please.”
The woman giggled. “Well, since you asked so nice.” She trailed hot, lazy kisses along his jaw until she reached his ear and then whispered, voice husky, “Forgive me, Father, ’cause I’ve sinned.”
Bracing himself, Raphael drew back a fraction. He took one of her tiny, scarred hands in his and twisted her arm up behind her back, drawing her more securely against his body. With his other hand he traced a quick cross over her. “Grazie, signorina,” he said, meeting her gaze. The words pulled back his lips, revealing the second set of long, curved canines that had descended over his teeth. The woman’s eyes widened in horror and Raphael clamped his free hand over her mouth before she could scream. “May God had mercy on your soul.” Closing his eyes, Raphael jerked her head to the side and bit into her throat.
The rush of warmth in his mouth was so sudden that he almost choked, each frantic heartbeat pushing more liquid into his mouth as quickly as he could swallow it. The woman struggled, her free hand clawing his face and neck in a desperate bid for freedom, but it didn’t take long for her strength to weaken. Raphael drank greedily as she went limp in his arms, the heat of her blood chasing away the cold that had settled so firmly inside of him.
Like the crackle of electricity that precedes a storm, Raphael felt the anticipation of the moment coming and he braced himself. There was a long, drawn out pause and then the blue-white glow in her chest splintered into a thousand pieces as her soul broke free. Waves of pure energy flooded into Raphael and it felt like every nerve in his body had suddenly caught fire.
He slumped one shoulder against the wall, legs trembling, as his other arm struggled to keep the woman’s limp body upright. It was the best kind of high, his whole body vibrating with the stolen life force as his stagnant heart surged into life to filter the new blood into his system. His skin was flushed and warm, almost hot to the touch, and a half-manic laugh bubbled through his lips.
He felt alive.
Immediately on the heels of the ecstasy came a crush of pain. Tendrils of sharp, cutting electricity shot from his spine through his limbs and up into his brain, racing along his nerves like lightning. The world went white around him as he succumbed to the agony, screams caught in his throat and muscles seizing against the attack.
When he became aware of his body again, he was lying in a heap on the damp cobblestones with the woman’s body beneath him. Every inch of him ached and there was a persistent throbbing at the base of his skull. A heavy weight of nausea roiled in his stomach and he breathed slowly to fight the instinct, knowing it would only mean he had to feed again that much sooner.
He would’ve been content to lie there for several more minutes, letting the ache and tremors fade, were it not for the sudden tingle that spread across the back of his neck. It was light, a pleasant buzz like the warmth of a solitary sunbeam dancing across his skin, and a sensation he hadn’t felt in centuries. When he pried his eyes open, there was a hand extended down into his line of sight.
Squinting against the percussive drumming in his skull, Raphael’s eyes tracked the hand up its arm to the owner of the limb even though he already knew. There could be no mistaking that force of presence, or that voice, even after all this time. When their gazes met, the man crouched by Raphael’s head offered a brief smile.
“Gabriel?” Raphael asked in surprise, voice ragged.
“Hello, little brother,” Gabriel replied gently. “Come on, let’s get you up.” His hand closed around Raphael’s arm, offering support as Raphael attempted to get his shaking limbs to cooperate. He untangled his legs from the dead woman’s and, with a few pauses to get his writhing stomach under control again, he finally made it to his feet.
“Will you be all right?” Gabriel asked uncertainly, still holding onto Raphael’s upper arms.
“I’ll be fine,” Raphael muttered distractedly. He retracted his second set of canines and dragged his tongue along his teeth to clear away the last of the blood, not willing to waste it. “Just give me a minute.”
Gabriel helped him limp to the wall and Raphael propped his back against the rough brick. When the world stopped tilting he stared across at the man in front of him, drinking in the unfamiliar features. Where Raphael was dark and his features angular, Gabriel had a certain softness to his cheeks and his hair was a halo of golden-blonde curls. He was taller than Raphael remembered, and his face was unlined and unblemished. Time had changed them both, and they no longer looked like the brothers they had once been.
Gabriel glanced to the woman’s crumpled form and back, frowning softly. “Is it always so bad?”
A humorless laugh caught in Raphael’s throat. “You’d think after a thousand years I’d build up an immunity,” he said dryly. “Apparently there is no protection from Judgement when you take a life, even when He is the one who made me this way.” An aftershock of pain rolled up his spine and Raphael winced, leaning his head back against the cold wall. “Suppose it was too much to hope that He’d get bored after a few centuries.”
Something flashed dark in Gabriel’s eyes, but it was gone before Raphael could make sense of it. Gabriel set his hand against Raphael’s brow and the press of cold skin was a comfort against his fevered flesh. Some of the pain in his skull retreated and Raphael sighed in relief.
“Recover your strength, brother,” Gabriel said, and then he stepped away. Raphael tipped his head down to watch as Gabriel approached the dead woman. Gabriel knelt and rolled the woman onto her back, folding her arms over her chest and closing her eyes so she was at rest. Then Gabriel recited the final rights in flawless Latin, his lyrical voice adding a gravitas to the words that Raphael had never been able to manage himself. When Gabriel ended with a solemn “Amen,” Raphael echoed him out of instinct, despite the fact it caused another small ripple of pain at the base of his skull.
“Rest in peace, redeemed one,” Gabriel said, straightening up and dusting off his knees. When he turned back to see that Raphael was standing on his own, his expression softened. He traced a finger along Raphael’s cheekbone, where the woman’s fingernails had carved his skin but now there was only a faint pink mark of new flesh. “You still heal quickly.”
“Only right after,” Raphael said, and he didn’t need to specify what he meant as Gabriel’s gaze instinctively dropped to his mouth and the retracted fangs. “The longer it’s been, the slower I recover.”
There was a long, tense moment as they both stood there, watching the other uncertainly. Then Gabriel’s expression crumbled and he threw his arms around Raphael. After a beat of surprise, Raphael sank into his brother’s embrace. The knot of emotion that had formed in his chest since he’d first heard Gabriel’s voice moved up to block his throat. “I have missed you,” Gabriel said, his normally perfect voice rough.
Raphael swallowed passed the lump in his throat. “Gabe, what are you doing here?”
His brother straightened and pulled back, his smile tightening. He glanced furtively back at the body on the ground and then nodded toward the head of the alley. “We should move on,” he said. “You can walk?” When Raphael nodded, Gabriel slid an arm around his shoulders and steered him back toward the road.
They walked in silence back into the slums, easily avoiding anyone else, until they reached a collapsed dock beside a wider section of canal. Raphael stopped and shrugged off his brother’s arm, facing him with narrowed eyes. “Gabe?”
“A man can’t visit his brother?” Gabriel asked with a forced lightness.
Raphael snorted. “We both know He wouldn’t allow it,” he replied. “If He did, I’d be offended it took you so long. So the truth, then?”
Gabriel let out a heavy sigh and shifted uncomfortably. A patrol chopper passed nearby and as the bleached white light danced off the water Raphael saw the flicker of a widespread shadow across the rubble behind Gabriel; his unseen wings flexing the way he always had when he was anxious. The knotted skin and muscle around Raphael’s spine twinged in a combination of loss and jealousy. “He sent me,” Gabriel admitted finally.
“I had guessed as much,” Raphael said. “You wouldn’t sneak off on your own, you never were one to disobey.” A self-deprecating smirk molded his lips into a harsh, diagonal slash as he added, “That was always more my style.” When Gabriel didn’t even pretend to return the smile, something heavy settled over Raphael’s racing heart. Was it finally the end? Had He grown tired of his science experiment and He was ready to move on to something new? The thought filled Raphael with equal parts terror and relief.
Raphael’s gaze flicked over his brother’s tired scowl as Gabriel determinedly looked anywhere else, and sympathy welled up in him. “It wasn’t fair of Him to ask this of you,” he said, reaching out to squeeze his brother’s shoulder. Gabriel finally met his eyes, surprised. “He should’ve sent Michael. But for my own selfishness, I am glad yours will be the hand to free me.”
Comprehension lit in Gabriel’s eyes and he clasped the hand on his shoulder. “I am not here to kill you, little brother,” he said. Now it was Raphael’s turn to be confused. “He has a task for you.”
Scoffing, Raphael pulled his hand free and turned his back. “After all He has forced me through, He thinks He can still give me orders?” he snarled.
“The one relief of this life He has cursed me to is that I am no longer His puppet. You can tell Him that-”
“Raphael, listen to me.” Gabriel’s voice thundered with a power that vibrated the very air, reaching into Raphael’s chest and crushing his heart and soul with a beatific agony that silenced him immediately. A baby began wailing from a nearby building and several blocks away a pack of dogs howled into the darkness.
When Raphael looked back at him, Gabriel cringed and swallowed hard; his voice was normal when he spoke again. “This is important,” he said quietly. “If you complete this task for Him, He... Raph, He’s going to bring you home.”
“Home?” The single word sent a rush through his body and Raphael staggered at a sudden light-headedness. It took him a moment for his eyes to refocus and realize that Gabriel had stepped up to him again, grasping his shoulders to keep him upright. Raphael surveyed his brother’s face for any hint of a lie and found none. He knew he wouldn’t; Gabriel never had been able to lie and especially not to him. However he also couldn’t see much of the surging hope that flared in his own chest.
Gabriel must have read his expression because he softened his grip on Raphael’s shoulders. “This task He asks, it will not be easy,” he explained. “I have looked ahead and I cannot see how it will end. There are so many chances and possibilities, so much danger and pain and uncertainty. I am afraid for you.”
“But if I do it, I can come home?” Raphael pressed.
“He will restore your being and you will resume your place, yes,” Gabriel said and a faint smile played across his lips. “You’ll be back home where you belong. With your family.”
Raphael’s mind was buzzing and there was only one possible response. “Okay. What do I have to do?”
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