Chapter Thirty-Two
Amor Forem

Recommended Listening: "Gabriel" by Lamb and "Those Who Wait" by Fireflight


Coming back to a find a girl curled up in his bed was not something Azrael was accustomed to. For all his years, something so simple as the soft spread of dark hair across pillows that had never before known the weight of another could touch a place so deep inside him that it was difficult to breathe.

The room itself had for so many years been a combination of sanctuary and prison, yet the sight of her there seemed to wash it all away. In the place of those memories there was something new.

Something beautiful and warm, who soon would wake to smile at him with such trust and love in her eyes.

Pity that the shock of impossible joy was woven with an awful fear.

It was foolhardy to deny that he was still shaken. He could feel the sharp barbs of worry prick the space around his heart, razor wire, the pressure of an incalculable weight to his chest. That weight which was all so familiar to a guardian so invested in his charge, and found such terror in the danger she might face.

He braced one forearm against the frame of the open door, pressing his face into the curve of his own arm as if he could find some distraction there, some escape from the place his mind refused to let him forget.

Azrael knew enough about Lucifer to get along with. He had never spent much time in the presence of the demon that had once been a brother to him, a pleasant avoidance upheld by mutual lack of interest.

For the sins of pride and wrath, Michael had cast Lucifer into the Darkness along with his followers, the instigators of the Rebellion, and on that day the Morningstar had lost all his angelic compassion, moral, and feeling. Out of nothing but spite and rage, Lucifer had constructed his kingdom of fire and ice and cold, unfeeling stone. He was king of a realm that was home to the outcasts of Heaven and earth, and had assigned those who had followed him into damnation the positions they now held: nobility among the hellspawn.

Azrael had long since viewed Lucifer as a simple certainty – something that existed, but wasn't to be actively feared. Yet Pandora's words had infused a lingering chill of dread within his bones. A reminder that for all his distance, the fallen Morningstar was dangerous.

That danger may have been easily overlooked when he had little to draw its attention, but now...now it was very real.

Mortal kind held a certain allure to those of the immortal realms. For many angels it manifested as care and concern, a desire to protect and safeguard. For demons, however, it was more complicated, ranging from a drug-like call to the basest of instincts – to feed, to own, and to desecrate – to a gnawing hunger for the freedom and purity a human soul could represent.

Azrael had firsthand experience with this, and knew what exposure to the warmth and fragile delicacy of mortality did to an immortal soul. The tendency it had to spiral into things uncontrollable. Things like love in all its forms, including those not so pure.

Since his falling, Lucifer had a gone through demon women like a flame, burning all he touched, using and discarding in a way that had been nearly crazed, as if trying to quash some unbearable sense of lacking. None lasted long, mere moments of distraction to be quickly replaced.

Then, when inspecting the incoming stock of human souls intended for judgment, he had come upon Ophelia.

Though it had been thousands of years ago, Azrael still remembered Ophelia: a soft-spoken and uncommonly kind woman, pale and pretty and damned. Sold into an unhappy marriage, she had committed adultery as a means to find some happiness for herself and was killed as a result of her husband's rage.

He and Minos had assigned her to Purgatory, as was customary for a penitent soul. But Lucifer had found her before they could make the placement permanent. The obsession had been instantaneous, an inferno, blinding, the consuming rage of mortal compulsion: Lucifer had taken her from the reaches of Purgatory, and his hellfire razed her to the ground.

Lucifer had kept her far longer than any of the others, for long, awful years. He had used her like a doll, played with her, tormented her, bled her within an inch of nothingness, and got her with child. Then, some human years after the birth of Beelzebub, the very first progeny garnered from such relations, she had vanished without a trace.

No one knew quite what had happened to cause her disappearance, which rumors whispered had been due to banishment for disobedience, or for simple sport. Some said Lucifer had merely lost interest and devoured what was left of her. Yet while the reason remained a mystery, she had never been seen again.

She had been destroyed for no reason other than she had been mortal, beautiful, and weak.

It had been Ophelia's fate – a fate which no one deserved – which had brought Azrael to understand the true malice that had taken over the fallen angel who had once been a brother to him. It had been Ophelia's fate which had borne the hatred Beelzebub held for his father – hatred for the fate of his mother – and the reason the demon prince had dedicated himself so fully to the care of the Kingdom and his people.

It was Ophelia's fate, and the fate of so many other damned and demon women who had suffered by Lucifer's hand that fed the fury of both rage and terror.

Even as Nephilim – as half-mortal – Lilith was still human by birth. She still held that captivating allure, the trilling pulse of life beneath her skin, the delicacy. She still had that delectable flavor to her scent, a wicked taunt to any who happened to catch a taste of it in the air. She was still an impossible attraction. The immortality he had granted her only intensified the beauty she held.

The muscles in Azrael's arms tightened, his hands clenching into deadly fists and jaw hard with determination. Ruler be damned. If Lucifer laid a single hand on her, Azrael would have a few things to say to His Infernal Majesty and none of them would be "God bless."

But for now, she was safe with him. He had spread his protection over every inch of her bare flesh, his own personal mark, a very tangible warning to any other immortal she happened upon. By the laws instated and agreed upon by both immortal realms, she literally belonged to him, his property – even if he didn't think of it in that manner. Touching her would have serious consequences even for the Devil.

It was true that as a seraph he had powerful enemies, but he also had powerful allies.

Forcing the tension to flow from his shoulders, Azrael crossed the bedroom floor to the wardrobe upon silent feet, exchanging the confines of a shirt for the soft comfort of a robe. The black silk was heavy as it draped across his frame, embroidered traceries of feathers at sleeves, collar and hem picked out in threads that seemed to shine even blacker than the base.

A soft whisper accompanied the slide of the fabric across the floor when he turned back toward the door, the tie at his waist sliding through his fingers, forgotten. Once again he was effortlessly and hopelessly distracted by the sight of the girl in his bed.

She had shifted in her sleep, no longer curled up on her side but sprawled upon her back in a manner that should not have seemed simultaneously sensual and childlike. And yet, she was: arm thrown back above her head, lips parted, a woman-child, beautiful and young. The covers had fallen down by her feet, the robe he had wrapped around her hiked up about her knees, parted at the neck to reveal the red marks adorning her breastbone like a runic necklace.

They still shone as if wet, as though he had just now made them with fresh blood. She was still adjusting then, to the new environment, the lack of weight in the sphere of a strange realm.

Knowing that, despite her apparent warm, she still needed to be kept warmer still, he gently drew the blankets back up to her chin, tucking the ends around her slack shoulders. Such tenderness she inspired in him, just in this simple act he might have performed a hundred times before.

Except that he hadn't. No one had ever needed him to. Not like this, so vulnerable and yet so trusting. And that alone was enough to tie a knot at the base of his ribs, tight and clenching and wonderful.

He could have sat there forever, at the edge of the bed, gazing down at a treasure so precious that it pained him. And while he might have been tempted to try, he could sense the interruption before it came, and rose from his seat with a noiseless sigh. Fingertips skimming her cheek as he went, he passed quietly though the door and into the short hallway which branched into several other rooms, choosing the threshold which lead back into the study and entryway, warm with soft light and rich color.

He could feel the approach like a faint tingle against the skin at the nape of his neck, cool and keen, an awareness he found as natural as sight or hearing, just outside his front door.

He knew his space was being encroached upon, not just by instinctual knowing, but because of the tiny spelled charms for defense and alerting he had placed around the perimeter of his suite. Valuable documents were kept in his library. He had learned early how best to protect them.

Just as the presence outside his door gave a short knock, he was there, tracing one finger down the edge of the barrier to activate the locks and ease them open.

The visitor was a message runner, one of the many lesser-demon servants in the service of the Gentry – the nobility of Hell, though not one Azrael knew by name. The messenger was a small male who walked on the hind legs of what looked to be a hyena, and held out a plain white envelope with a hand that ended in tidily-trimmed dog claws. He was garbed in livery, as was custom, a sash of thick black and crimson brocade which marked him as in the service of the Royal house.

"Please excuse the interruption, Your Grace," the boy said with a bow.

While he didn't much care for it, Azrael was accustomed to the formal address. He was considered upper-class in Hell's hierarchy, somewhere just slightly below the Royalty, being an angel and an Ambassador to Heaven. It garnered him with an immense amount of respect by the demon populous, in spite of the formality being stiff and slightly suffocating.

Still, he tolerated it for the sake of their...culture. If it could be called that.

"Not at all," Azrael assured kindly, taking the envelope with a tired smile. It had been some time since he had performed the transmutation magic to bring Lilith here, yet he was just now starting to feel the drain of his energy. "What can I do for you?"

The boy bowed again, bending just slightly at the waist, and then straightened to give his message. "His Infernal Majesty wishes to express his most humble invitations to the annual Winter Gala," a gesture of charcoal claws, "date, time, and details within the invitation itself."

Azrael's lips thinned into a firm line. The Gala...he had forgotten entirely, distracted as he was with the small matter of the illegal half-human girl hidden in his rooms. Although, in his own defense, the announcement had come earlier than usual: the Gala didn't usually take place until after Midwinter. "Ah," he sighed, "certainly. I'll make sure to clear my schedule. Thank you."

The messenger bowed once more, clasping both hands - now empty - before his chest. "Of course, My Lord," he murmured, and took the protocol-dictated three steps back before turning and walking away on his spotted hind legs.

Azrael closed the heavy door closed. He traced the locking spells back into the wood of the frame, with a lick of fire that sank into the grain. The tiny clicks of the mechanisms went unheard, for his attention had fixed upon the invitation in his hand, envelope addressed to him by name in blood red ink.

The outer paper was thin, delicate, and tore easily upon the seal. The card that fell out, however, was vellum, thick, and expensive, embossed with fine gold leaf, penned in more red ink. It gave the date of the annual Gala, promised dancing and refreshment, and that to attend would honor the royal family. His eyes lingered on the date, so unusually early.

What possible reason could Lucifer have for breaking so many centuries of tradition?

It couldn't be...he couldn't have discovered Lilith's presence already, surely. It hadn't yet been a full day. Still, the faint flicker of an idea occurred to him, making Azrael's spine stiffen and his blood go cold. If he was Lucifer, had heard of or felt the hint of an illegal hybrid in his realm, would he not utilize such an event in order to ferret out the source? Perhaps use it to mask a full-scale search of the common areas and dwelling quarters?

He would. It was a ploy he himself had used in the past, give or take a few crucial details.

But he had no reason to suspect such a thing, and without good reason there was little to justify the fear he felt curdling in his veins. It was probably unfounded. Besides, the danger to Lilith would pass before the date of the Gala, as he planned on having escorted her back home long before that time. If his suspicions proved correct, the search would garner no results.

Although, once he considered it, he supposed the real danger would never truly be gone. Even after the Gala, Lucifer was not the type to let go a hunt so quickly or easily, if such a hunt was begun. He knew Lucifer well enough to know that she would not be safe unless he kept vigilant. He would have to ensure he kept the wards around her secure; protect her better than he had from the last hunter.

Which he would, God help him.

He sank into the plush embrace of the armchair, studying the invitation as though he could force it to reveal its secrets though the power of his eyes alone. Yet if he was honest with himself, the concern was only part of what had brought on this pensive mood.

The threat to Lilith's safety was only a hint of a thought in his mind - a mind which had been honed by warfare to suspect and assume nastiness lurked in even the most harmless-seeming shadows. Something else weighed on him, the press of it firm and unyielding. Something that would not wait for him to analyze later.

His talk of Caterina had awoken long since buried memories, forced to remember a time when he had harbored such joy, such hope and faith, only to be felled by such utter devastation that it had turned him into something he no longer wanted to remember. Something more beast than man, consumed by his own grief, choked by the darkest parts of himself.

For someone like him, having been betrayed so completely by someone he had held dear - to realize he had been used and thrown aside - had shaken the foundations of what he believed in. He had concealed himself away behind a shield of the one thing Death should never hold: indifference. And slowly, unwittingly, he succumbed to the sinking blackness of his own despair. He did terrible things, as a soundless witness if not by deed. He lost sight of the goodness of humanity. He forgot who he was.

All for the loss of a woman's love. A woman who had never loved him at all.

It seemed so foolish now, everything from the way he had chased after the girl – after the freedom she had represented – so like a blundering human youth for his willful adoration, to his reaction to losing her. Now things that had once been agonizing seemed only trivial hurts, bruises rather than the scarring wounds they had been.

While he had once vowed never to think of it again, to keep himself from sinking back into that awful place of pain and anger, he found now that that particular piece of his past no longer seemed to have the power to hurt him.

Looking back, he realized that he had learned from the experience. It was because of Caterina that he could tell it was Lilith that was meant for him, that he listened to the whispers of his soul and obeyed the hints of circumstance and decision. It was because of Caterina that he had approached his courtship of Lilith with such care, knowing how easy it was to overwhelm, and thereby manipulate, a human mind regardless of intent. An unexpected gift, to be certain.

The memories filtered across his mind, flickering across his eyes like reflections through candlelight, specters upon the fog.

If one thing was certain, it was that even when he had been so utterly certain of his love for Caterina, he never would have made her Nephilim. However deeply he had thought himself tied to her, he had never needed her the way he needed Lilith, enough that the thought of being without her felt as though the heart had been ripped from his chest. And Caterina had never needed him in the ways Lilith did, for comfort, for solace, or for happiness.

Such a small difference, but a crucial one.

He dropped the invitation, letting it flutter to the top of his desk on his way back to the bedroom, marveling as he went, how drawn to the sleeping girl he seemed, as if to be too far from her was to starve himself of sustenance. As if there was anywhere else he would rather be.

He sank into the side of his bed, into the space left bare as she had gradually edged her way toward the wall. It was the spot she had gravitated habitually toward since childhood, where she unconsciously associated with safety. Moving carefully so as not to disturb her sleep, he stretched out to rest beside her, curving into the warmth of her, still slightly feverish, but real and his.

As completely as he was hers.

...

The thick haze of sleep encompassed her, a blanket of fog following the contours of her mind and body, weighing her with a heaviness that seemed impossible to lift. Her eyelids didn't want to rise. Her brain didn't want to emerge from the cloying remnants of slumber. Her very bones seemed to protest waking.

Strangely enough, she couldn't remember going to bed. She remembered Azrael, remembered that he had been upset about something…something important. So important that she could feel herself strain to recollect it. She remembered him smiling a false, marble smile to hide his pain from her, before he left her in the dark. But after that there was nothing but scattered pieces blurred by tears and a fierce, aching surge of emotion she could neither explain nor clarify.

The very last thing she could recall was the darkness and the silence. A crushing force that had pushed her down into the depths of material pain, a flooding in her lungs which choked her breath as she tried to scream…then everything around her had gone awash with black.

Choking. Choking on water.

The water!

The defensive reflex snapped her out of the binding lethargy, jolting her into motion with the sheer force of the instinct to survive. Her body moved before her mind caught up, lurching upright in a flurry of downy-soft blankets, her eyes snapping open, disoriented with alarm.

White hot pain slammed into her temples, arcing up her spine and through her skull. With a groan, she fell back upon the unknown bed, squeezing her eyes tightly shut again in an attempt to block it out.

As she sank back into the pillows – unfamiliarly soft and supportive pillows – she realized that her limbs were trembling. Her hands alone were shaking so badly that she wondered vaguely whether she was suffering from a chill. But she didn't feel cold. No...if anything, she was overheated, because she was perspiring beneath the blankets and fine robe she was wearing, a heat which seemed to echo the pounding in her head.

Where was she? She didn't recognize this bed, far larger and finer than her own. She didn't recognize the silky sheets or the faint, musky scent of incense and calla lily. How had she gotten there?

She risked moving, raising a hand that shook as though with some sort of palsy to her face, the whimper coming unbidden as the pain lanced into her skull a second time.

"Careful now." A cool hand touched her fevered forehead and then her cheek, gently sweeping the hair back from her face. "Don't hurt yourself."

She didn't know if it was instinct or something else which made her entire being relax at the night wind sound of Azrael's voice, the marble touch of his skin. The scent of him enclosed her, familiar and spicy and clean. And she suddenly realized the muted smell of lily was something he had always carried with him, in the place where he kept his magic, masked beneath the complexity of his skin. The smell of funerary flowers. The smell of death.

She supposed that should frighten her, at least a little bit. But it didn't.

She turned her face into his palm, reveling in the soothing coolness of his immortal skin. It felt so good against her fever-flush, as though it might banish the pain from her bones if she let it: and as she felt the soft tingling seep into her head, she knew he had done just that.

Slowly she opened her eyes again, allowing her vision time to adjust to the light, and let her gaze rise to his face, her lips curving into an automatic smile. "Hi."

Some of the tension eased from the shoulders angled so that he bent over her, the concern that had lain beneath the structure of his jaw and cheekbones sliding smoothly away. "Hello," he answered, his eyes softening with the same fondness she had known at his fingertips.

Cautiously she peered around, taking in the room around her. A room she could vaguely remember from her drained stupor before she must have fallen asleep. She recalled the cool gray of the stone walls, the ancient maps, diagrams and paintings hung from them, the wood and glass shelves lined with an unending number of books and curiosities. The elegant mirror and old leather steamer trunk, the carved ebony chair upholstered in actual brocade.

The beautiful room full of beautiful things. So very fitting for the man to whom it belonged.

She glanced upward, at the silk and gauze drapes which formed a canopy above her head. The rich burgundy and violet hues had been put together in an artful kind of patchwork, old-fashioned, almost gypsy-like in wild variation. At first she was surprised by it, by such apparent disorder. Azrael had always seemed so militaristically put together, too much so to warrant something like this. But after a moment, she began to see the echoes of him inside the complexity of pattern and texture, the warmth of the colors.

Yet as she filled her eyes with those colors, she understood that this room – with all its lush beauty – was part of Hell

"This is your room," she said, slightly breathy with the phenomenal weight of the reality that had struck her. That she was actually there, in a place she had once been adamant did not – could not – exist.

"The one here, yes," he said softly, the words thick with some emotion she could not identify, something that was both mournful and somehow amazed. "It's not as nice as the one I have in Heaven, but…this space that has attuned to me knows you and welcomes you."

She had known from the beginning he had never wanted to take her there, and knew that some part of him mourned that she was no longer human just as a part of him would rejoice in that she would no longer die. Yet the immensity of it concealed itself, locked inside the weariness that still ate at her, the wonder of what was real and right before her eyes

"It worked..." she murmured, unable to keep the slightest tinge of awe from her voice.

"Yes, it worked," he said, though the words were slightly subdued. One of his hands still fussed with her hair, combing it through gentle fingers. "And without complication, since you still seem to remember me."

Her brow furrowed, puzzled by this unexpected comment. She might have laughed, but he looked so serious that she hesitated, the humor knotting in her throat. "Why wouldn't I remember you?"

He smiled then, and while it was slightly crooked, it was accompanied by a flush of blue to his irises, which meant his apparent severity wasn't all that ominous. "Because of the risk I might leave you in death too long. I feared I had pulled you out too quickly, which might have caused your memory to warp." He let out a nearly silent sigh, the relief clear upon his breath. "Fortunately I seem capable of exerting more control than I thought."

She could feel the tiny skip of fear in her pulse even as she processed that the horrible thing he spoke of had not, in fact, happened. "That would have been...unfortunate."

His chuckle melted the tinge of panic as easily as flame to candle wax. "Indeed," he said, "at the very least. I might have had to win you all over again!"

She winced, dismayed by how true the statement was though she knew perfectly well he hadn't meant it as a chastisement. She didn't like to think about how difficult she had made things for him, or how poorly she had behaved. So instead she chose to focus on something else...something like the not-so-small miracle of her being there.

Part of her hadn't quite believed it was possible, that she could be made into an immortal. But here she was, in a place that was not the world she had been born into, which she knew to be true for one fundamental reason: the very air around her had changed. It wasn't that the temperature was different, or that the oxygen level was altered as it might be for humidity or elevation. It wasn't that simple. There was something else in the empty space which seemed to hum as though with a subtle electrical current. Something that seemed almost...aware.

She inhaled, taking in a breath and feeling it fill her lungs, the delicate tissues inside. Strange that it seemed no different to her body, while still being so very different, almost as though it had a weight to it, as though she were breathing in more than simple substance.

The thought reminded her of how it had felt to have her chest fill with water, and she knew an instant before the question left her mouth that she had to ask it.

"Why did I have to drown?"

The instant she said it she prepared to see his shields go up, hide his face and his feeling from her sight. But to her surprise, he didn't close himself off. Instead he merely looked pensive, a little drawn, as though the inquiry had reminded him of a weariness he had been carrying. He didn't offer an answer right away, but even as he rose from the bed and turned away, she knew he would be back with one. He merely needed a moment to formulate it.

Normally she would have been wriggling with curiosity, tugging at his sleeve like a little girl, eager to learn about the power that had granted her wish. But now she merely waited patiently. She studied the drape of the silky black robe between his shoulder blades as he moved, fine and firm, the feathered embroidery which spread across those shoulders and down his back, watched him walk to the bedside where he sat and folded the blankets back from her body.

In spite of his obvious discomfort, she could see the effort he made not to conceal the displeasure which tinged the outermost rings of his irises with gray.

"We discovered," he began, "that human transmutation—the process of turning mortal into immortal—can only be implemented at the very brink of death."

He unfolded the clean white cloth he had fetched from the wardrobe – a huge, beautiful thing of solid ebony – and reached for her leg. His hand was sure and steady as he took her gently by the ankle and began wiping away the marks scrawled across the back of her foot, which parted from her skin as smoothly as if the lines had been drawn in mere flour, not blood.

The spellmarks no longer tingled with power. They had lost the bright sheen of fresh paint as well, now dull and dry. But as he meticulously cleared away the scrawling marks trailing up her shin and moved on to the other foot, she felt a small pang of sorrow for the destruction of the beautiful design.

"A massive amount of power has to be forced into the soul core before it's pulled back into life. Water serves as something of a lubricant to ease the transition as well as an enhancer of power, and it serves as the conduit between realms."

He finished with the second foot, smoothing away the stains spiraling up toward her knee. Before he could reach for it, she lifted her hand, the henna-like whorls stark in the soft light, holding it out for him to take. His eyes lifted to hers, his fingers curling delicately about her wrist. She saw in his face that the gesture had been the right one.

He had been expecting anger, hurt, but offering her hand to him was a sign of everything opposite. It told him that she was receptive to what he told her, that she would not rage at him for doing what she had coerced him to do.

Sure enough, as he started on the marks crawling from knuckles to wrist, the gray in his eyes darkened back to violet.

"It's the only way to do it," he went on. "But I thought it best not to tell you beforehand, to spare you what fear I could, though I know you suffered regardless." The pad of his thumb brushed the tender inside of her wrist, a touch that conveyed as much apology as fondness.

Suddenly she understood. It wasn't recollection of the drowning itself that had struck him with this mood of repentance. Not the actuality of it. No, what had inspired this hollow form of grief was that it had been his own hand that had held her under, that he – her guardian – had stood by and not acted when she had been frightened and in pain. That he hadn't prepared her. That he hadn't comforted her.

Perhaps he even feared that she resented him for it. Which, of course, she didn't. Regardless of the more than likely enormous amount of pain it had caused him to do so knowing it risked her safety, he had obeyed her request. And he had used the only thing he could to endure the process: elemental detachment.

It didn't matter now. She was immortal. She would never have to leave him to suffocate in the despair that came with loneliness.

When he had wiped away the last of the marks, she raised her hand to his face. "I'm not angry," she told him quietly, "how could I be when you did what I asked you to? And I'm glad you didn't tell me. I'm such a coward I probably wouldn't have done it...and I'm glad I did."

He took her hand, cradled it between both of his, and he looked at her then with something that was more than mere affection, more than devotion, more than love. It was something so profound that it almost hurt her to see it, speared her with a pain that was adoring and not a little bashful. It brought tears to her eyes, tears that echoed the last of her words, this time without the need for sound.

I'm so glad I did.

"You," he told her softly, "you are no coward." He pressed his lips to her palm. "My little lionheart."

She felt her cheeks grow warm, both touched and flustered by the pride she heard in his words. "Whatever you say," she said, her eyelids fluttering under a sudden wave of overwhelming weariness.

The cloth was gentle upon the skin of her chest as he smoothed away the blood-lines decorating her breastbone, as gentle as his mouth when it brushed her lips. His kiss lingered for a long moment, tender and sweet, as if he found some evasive sense of comfort there. Some sense of surety that she was there, real, and whole.

He leaned back to toss the cloth onto the coffee table, and she blinked when the light hit her eyes. It burned in a way that she realized had been there since she'd first opened them as a new half-immortal being. Why hadn't she noticed before? Distraction? Or some other reason, such as her body doing its best to acclimate?

"Mmm," she squinted and tilted her head to one side, trying to find the source of the pain. To her surprise, the candlelight emitted by the candelabra above them was actually rather dim. "Why do my eyes hurt?"

Azrael smiled gently. "The same reason I've been speaking softly."

It startled her to realize he was right, his volume had been pitched low; not quite a whisper, but close enough. It was disorienting to know that she hadn't noticed. He had sounded so normal...

"Your body is still processing the transition. Your cells are realigning and this means for a time your senses are a good deal sharper than they were. Much closer to a born immortal's. But as you're nephilim, they will settle back again." He touched the back of one hand to her forehead, a mild, measuring moment of contact. "You're no longer chilled. That's good. You'll be back to normal soon."

"So...I'm not going to have your super hearing?" There was a trace of disappointment in her tone, which brought him another small smile.

"No, dearest. Though I think it's safe to assume you'll see and hear a little better from now on." He softly tapped the tip of her nose with a finger. "Smell, too."

She couldn't help the giggle that escaped her, girlish and silly as it was.

"You should go back to sleep," Azrael suggested quietly, visibly pleased with her happy, if tired, smile. "Get plenty of rest and regain your strength so I can see you home."

"Home?" she repeated, brow furrowing slightly, breath bright with surprise. "What do you mean? I thought this was my home now."

His smile slipped. "Oh, no, sweetling. I didn't realize I'd forgotten—no. Nephilim are sentenced to Hell, but not as the dead are sentenced. You haven't died, so you're not bound here the same way a dead soul is. You can go home to the mortal world…" The smile vanished completely, his jaw tight with displeasure. "But you must return periodically, otherwise you'll lose strength and wither like a flower. You might not die that way, but you won't be living either. You are still bound to Hell in this one way."

"Oh," she mused, not knowing what else to say. She had been expecting to stay here with him, had prepared for it, only to be told she would be going back to earth. Back home. When she had been positive she wouldn't see it again.

"So I can go home once I'm done adapting?"

His eyes were suddenly sharp upon her face. "Of course. Is that so surprising? I'm not keeping you locked up, away from your life. I would not cage you here."

Whether it was because she was still so weary from the exertion or some other reason, she couldn't muster up any shock at his sudden vehemence. She just reached for his hand, curving her fingers around his until they twined and she was marveling at how she was compared to him, and beneath the touch of her hand she felt him calm.

"It's just that...when I was thinking about it before, I assumed my whole life would change. And I was ready for that. It's weird to think it hasn't actually changed as much as I expected. And I didn't mind at all. That's weird too." She frowned, closing her eyes as she felt a small pang of weariness thrum inside her head: a throb of not-quite-pain that seemed to reverberate in the space between skull and brain. "And I'm rambling. I'm sorry—"

His fingers ghosted across her cheek. "I like your rambling." And surely she was shining with pleasure, because for some absurd reason the words were close to the sweetest she had ever heard.

With her eyes closed, she no longer hurt quite so forcefully. But even the brief moment of conversation had taken its toll, enough that her bones seemed to have been filled with lead. She needed more rest, but she was reluctant to let him go.

"If you stay with me," she answered, her fingers unconsciously curling into his collar. "Please?"

His eyes glowed so brightly, violet stars blazing in down at her, drawing her irrevocably into an orbit she had no inclination to escape. "As you wish," he whispered, neatly folding the cloth and setting it to one side.

Carefully he lay beside her, tucking one arm across her waist. Her body curved automatically, needing no coaxing to fit to his figure as neatly as the pieces of a puzzle. He closed his brilliant eyes, nuzzling his face into the crook of her neck, cradling her, soothing her.

"Thou art fed with perpetual breath," he murmured against her throat, "And alive after infinite changes, and fresh from the kisses of death."

She smiled sleepily, undeniably charmed by the lines of poetry that seemed so perfect.

...

She is young, helpless in ways that do little to keep her safe.

She remembers being alone more often than not, mornings, afternoons, evenings: and she prefers it that way. There are no questions when there's no one there to ask them, unintentional in their cruelty. Why are her clothes so old, so worn? Why are her arms dotted with bruises that mirror the distorted shape of a man's fingers? Why is she always so quiet? So tentative? So masterful at blending into the background? She prefers to linger in places where she won't be bothered, simply because it's easier.

She remembers gravitating toward the library even when she was small, a building full of books which in turn are filled with worlds in which she can escape her own reality. Where she doesn't have to think about what awaits her at home. Where she can't hear her mother's sobs, can't smell the fear and alcohol and sweat of anger. There is peace there, so she lingers long into the evening each day, wishing she never had to go.

It is outside this library that she eats her meager lunch one autumn afternoon, slowly sipping juice saved from school and a small package of crackers, her eyes absorbing the urban landscape around her. A trio of crows pick at the leavings of someone's trash, the bare paper and aluminum stained with grease and not much else. Their calls are harsh and loud, and somehow echo the disappointment she herself feels like wire wrapped around her bones, as though she can feel the hunger in their sleek blue-black bodies.

She feels sorry for them, for reasons she cannot quite pinpoint. And so she takes out a handful of crackers, crumbles them in her hand, and tosses them a safe distance away, smiling when the birds fall upon them with an audible gusto.

One fixes a round black eye on her, and for a moment she wonders whether it knows: her fear, her sadness, or the inexplicable companionship she feels with it and its fellows. She realizes how beautiful they are, clever and shining. They are survivors. She wishes she could spread wings of her own and join them, fly away when they do. Does the bird know? Briefly, she is sure it must.

Then the moment is gone and she is heading home in her too-small shoes, knowing her new friends can't help her escape the inevitable.

She is older now, but not old enough to keep from cowering when the fist comes flying out of the rage she had tried to avoid with silence and obedience. She does her best to keep from crying out when it hits her, sending her head snapping to one side before she slams into the banister, her teeth sinking into her lip to impress upon herself that she must be quiet. He will hurt her worse if she doesn't. Her head throbs, the flame in her cheek searing upward toward her temple as the man who has never been a father turns back to her mother.

She can do nothing. She never could. So she sinks to the floor, huddling into the corner of the stairwell and presses her face into her arms – folded to become as small as she possibly can – allowing the gale of fury to break upon her like a wave. Blood seeps into her sleeve, but it is not joined by the salt of tears until the day's war subsides into stillness.

How she wishes she can un-see what she has seen; un-know what she knows. But she can't. It's too late for that, and she feels the pain in her face, her head, and her back sink into the hollow place where she keeps her other hurts. She knows she can withstand if she tries.

Tentatively she lifts her head and a brush of warmth skims across her swelling cheek. She knows it is her imagination, yet the soft comfort in the dream-touch lends her strength enough to stand and make her way to the safety of her bedroom. It is a familiar presence she feels: gentleness, a glint of gold, the faint hint of something heavy and sweet upon the air, floral and touched with the spice of incense, yet so real that she can almost pretend that it actually is. It stays with her as she falls asleep, the tears drying upon her face nearly forgotten.

Another year passes and nothing has changed. Every morning wakes with a mixture of disappointment and a constant tremor of fear. Fear that makes her sick and keeps her weak. She hardly ever sees her mother anymore yet doesn't blame her for seeking ways to stay away, merely wishes she could do the same.

She clings to the happiness she can find. The library serves more as a home to her than the place where she sleeps, providing distraction and the invaluable treasure of knowledge. She sits outside on nice days, and whenever she's able she feeds the crows, delighting in their outrageous personality and rich bird culture, watching them fly and scold and chase the odd pigeon.

And there is the Presence, her imagination doing what it can to make her believe she is not as alone as she feels. It comes to her at odd moments, serving as a companionship she should forget, but doesn't want to. She wants to have something strong and capable to protect her. So she decides to pretend it is something like a guardian angel, sent to help her, because to believe this is far easier than to believe the truth: that she is the only help she has. It makes her feel strong enough to enjoy what she can.

She brings home books and remembered smiles to help her endure the time she is forced to spend in the house, doing whatever she can to keep her father's temper from her flesh. Sometimes she's successful. Sometimes she's not.

One evening is particularly bad. She slips on the floor wet from spilled beer and drops a stack of plates. The shatter of the ceramic seems to stop her heart, and time moves slowly as she lifts eyes that are wide with terror to the man who stares, his face flushing red. The pain in her back and legs is nothing compared to the pain of his hand. It falls into her jaw like a brick, and she could swear she can feel the teeth knock loose.

She goes to bed with a wad of bloody tissues clutched in her hand, sure she will wake to find she's lost a molar – new to her twelve-year-old mouth. Yet she is only able to sleep because of the faithful Presence like the stroke of a tender hand against her hair, carefully inspecting the edge of her bruised face, and whispering soothing words to ease her dreams. When she wakes the bleeding has stopped and her teeth are miraculously whole.

Her mother has not come home for two days, and her father has turned his anger on her, his only other available outlet. He takes the flat of his belt to her, the sting of the leather adding welts to her collection of fading marks, blows she takes with stifled whimpers.

She might have lasted, but for some reason the Presence has abandoned her yet again, as it has the last few times this has happened, leaving her to endure the rage alone. She breaks down into sobs that she cannot control, feeding the force of her father's endless anger, because she is afraid and has no way to feel strong without it. It ends when he loses the energy to hit, and she drags herself to bed to curl up and cry some more. She allows herself to be angry, but the feeling has no value and quickly fades to hopelessness.

It is the morning of her fourteenth birthday. She takes a shower like she does on any other day, but this time she pays special attention to the places that are raw with fresh bruising. When she gets out she stands in front of the mirror, wrapped in a thin towel, and studies herself: the healing welt spread across one cheekbone, the necklace of bruises lining her collar and draping over one shoulder. She draws a breath, wondering if she can mimic the makeup her mother uses to cover up her marks, knowing how stupid it would be to go to school with them uncovered. As if she needs to invite any more sour attention.

She has just finished with the first layer of concealer when she feels the slightest whisper of contact to her shoulder where she knows the bruise has consumed her skin. A thing reverent, apologetic, a hiss of sympathetic breath in the form of an unreal touch.

It doesn't hurt her, it never does. But she knows her Presence when she feels it, and has to work to keep herself from pleading out loud for it never to leave her again. She nearly bites through her lip to keep from dissolving into grateful tears, and reminds herself that it isn't real. She doesn't notice the hint of shock, of alarm, that shades this visit. She doesn't realize something has changed. She is just glad that whatever part of herself that produces this feeling of security is not gone after all, that she feels a bit of strength again.

She is walking home from a hard day at school, her feet heavy upon the pavement, bag heavy with work to be done. She is recollecting her Family Health class that afternoon, the lesson focused on human reproduction, and the barrage of nasty remarks traded between the boys in the seats behind her. Her ears still ring with foul words and bold statements that inject her with unease, and she wilts at the thought of having to go back tomorrow.

She passes by a group of boys, high schoolers, older, hardened more by life in the city than by the short years that separate her from their age. Her pace quickens, and she flinches when the eyes of several move to her. She feels the glances slide down her body and feels her chest ache with the panic that turns her heartbeat into a drum.

She doesn't really know what this is, or what she fears. She only knows that she is positive that these boys have the ability to devour her in ways that strike her with an unspeakable terror. But then she feels the awareness at her back, the barrier which inserts itself in front of her, which seems to sever their attention from her and cast it aside like an old bandage. Her panic slows, and she drinks in the sensation of safety, the understanding that nothing bad will happen.

When she is sixteen she manages to emancipate herself, with help from an uncle that finds horror in the revelation of what he has unknowingly left his niece to suffer. He wants to fly over from Europe, but she won't let him, repeatedly assures him that she is fine. The government ensures she has the capacity to handle both school and a job, and allow her the escape she has coveted for so long, her most dear of dreams.

The first night she spends in a place that isn't the hell she grew up in, she cries because she is finally free. She folds herself in the spare, empty room and lets herself be, the tears streaming down her cheeks and a fragile smile trembling at her lips. She laughs because she never thought she could do both at once.

Freedom grants her things she hadn't been able to keep before, a life that involves friendship, purpose, a change to make herself into whatever she chooses to be. She chooses to follow a dream she had never dared hope to pursue: one which turns the ugly parts of herself into something beautiful. When she dances in her first show she feels as though she is being carried, lifted in the arms of her Presence, given approval in the form of acceptance and affection that she knows comes only from herself, but treats as the love of any of her girls. Beloved because of what it has allowed her to give herself.

She limps home on the shoulders of Alice and Janelle, painfully explaining that the barre couldn't possibly have broken her leg. It's just strained, she insists, and just barely tolerates their threats to take her to the hospital in the morning, shooing them home while she settles with a wince into the couch, leg elevated on a stack of pillows and an icepack.

She is tired, but can't seem to sleep any more than fitfully. Yet somewhere in the space between sleep and drowsiness she thinks she feels a hand upon her calf, following the slope of her knee and the length of her shin, where the pain crackles like hot coals. She doesn't like the prodding, however gentle, but does little more than murmur in her daze. The pads of nonexistent fingertips trace three tiny lines across the place where the metal barre fell heavily against her leg, and she shifts with discomfort when the lines tingle with an insistent heat.

When the doctor examines her the next day, he remarks on how strangely healed it looks for a recent injury and for the amount of pain she reports having felt. Pain which, she notes with some bemusement, has lessened significantly.

She is twenty-one. She has just finished her first and only drink of the evening, amusedly waiting for Sarah to return from the bar where she's gone to order another despite her protests, when she realizes she is being observed from across the room. The man is anything but discreet about eyeing her, his gaze heavy and insistent upon her, and she looks away, pretending she didn't see.

She knows of lechery now, as she didn't when she was younger, understands what it is and what it means. She also knows that she wants nothing to do with it. She ignores him and the sweep of his gaze, willing him not to get up and walk over as she can tell he's gearing up to do, because she has no idea how to handle a boy, let alone a grown man. The prospect chills her with terror that seems irrational, but one she can't shake off.

Suddenly the irritating sensation of being watched is gone, and when she risks a glance upward she sees the man has turned away, a vague, confused look on his face. Her ears ring with a silent snarl. The brush of warmth to the base of her neck becomes the center of relief which radiates outward, the secret hint of knowing that reminds her that she is strong.

When Sarah returns, she refuses the second drink, but finds she is able to enjoy the rest of the evening. She is certain in the force which protects her. The ghost which brushes insubstantial lips against her cheek. The man she has not yet met, but whom she knows all too well.

The guardian whom she had never imagined at all. The one who watches her even now, adoration in insubstantial touch and breathless whispers: attentive, adoring, and brimming with an always enduring hope.


Oh my god. I updated.

Jesus Christ it has been a long time. Far too long in my own opinion. I wish I had excuses that were worth anything, but in truth there's nothing I can give other than that 2013 was, in a word, Hellish. It's been a very hard year for me and for my art, and I've lost valuable time and energy for it.

Part of why I've updated is to prove to myself that, even while I've suffered some bad times recently, I still have it in me to do this thing: this beautiful monstrous creature still living and breathing inside me still deserves the chance to be free. My plans for finishing this story and for someday getting published have not changed. I'm still in the game. I'm just moving slowly. Posting not only helps me feel more productive and accomplished, it also helps me feel a little less mentally handicapped. Anyone out there who suffers from manic depression probably knows what I mean. This is not an excuse: it's simply a fact.

I am doing much better than I was, thankfully. And I hope to make up for lost time by getting back into my artsy stride and doing some justice to the beautiful things in my head.

The other reason for updating is because, while I realize many of my readers have likely abandoned me for the lack of production (and I blame no one for this), those who still have interest and still check Fictionpress deserve something. Even if that something is possibly temporary pieces of in-the-works chapters of a story that still has a lot of growing and improvement to do before it gets anywhere else. The gratitude I have for anyone who reads and reviews and thereby adds to the process of getting it to that final else-place is immeasurable and burning-star bright.

There's a lot of moving around and re-naming and reformatting going on in this story right now, and I understand if I'm confusing the unholy hell out of people. I apologize for it: it's an unfortunate side-effect of the way my brain works in all its semi-organized glory. Be assured, I will make effort to try to be as clear as possible and will try to answer questions, if any.

As I am currently trying to prime for future publication, any confusions or weird disconnects or general strangeness you see: please, please don't hesitate to let me know. I'm unendingly grateful for any help, comment, or words anyone has for me.

And so, back to work. :) All my love.

Until next time.