For I Have Sinned

Raphael wiped the blood from his hands with a clean towel which the nurse offered him. He looked at the angel's unconscious body, shrugged, and left the room.

His private study smelt of roses, and sweat, and the flesh of women, but that wasn't what he wanted. He knew that he had brought the young angel back from the edge of death. They are so young these days. The thought was there and gone in a moment; all the youth of Heaven, lining up behind the brightly coloured banners and shouting in unison, calling out for wars without even realising what the word really meant.

His preparations had the air of ritual; a bowl set beside his chair, a scalpel in his hand, a towel folded over the left arm of the chair to catch any spare drips. His servants were well trained by now, and none of them -- not even the newest, the prettiest of his mistresses -- would try to enter when he had told them not to disturb him. The only person who might do so was Mika-kun, but little Mikael was safely out of Heaven on one of his endless hunts, and Raphael was free to indulge himself in privacy.

He cut along the length of his arm, between the tendons, and watched the blood follow with shocking suddenness along the line left by the scalpel. It ran over his wrist, down between his fingers, and fell into the bowl set to catch it. It stroked his palm like fingers, warm as flesh, hot as passion.

Raphael's heartbeat began to slow.

The world went away, degree by degree, fading into mists to the sound of his heartbeat. Dark trees rose around him, replacing the walls of his study. He was sprawled in a natural throne of tree-roots, left arm still extended, but unmarked now, the cut gone.

Just as always. He would be expected to walk to his judgement. It -- gave time, he'd admit it, time for the tension to build. Time for the pulse to quicken in his body, for that combined tang of threat and danger and fear to build in him.

Raphael smiled, and brushed pale hair back from his face languidly. The winds responded to their master, and whispered around him, blowing the mists into long fading ribbons. It wouldn't take long to find Uriel. They both knew that time was short. Neither of them would put it off for longer than necessary.

And what if you come here one day and he doesn't answer you? Wouldn't that be the cruellest punishment of all? Who else would . . .

Raphael's lips drew together in a thin line, and the winds stilled. He walked between the trees, down a long natural colonnade of shadowy trunks and hanging moss, and smelt the wet odour of decay and rotting leaves. This place never changed in the fundamentals, only in the little details such as where each tree stood or how thickly the fog hung in the air.

His shirt clung to his back and arms, damp with sweat and mist.

Uriel stood at the end of the colonnade between one second and the next, dark hair pulled severely back from his face, long dark coat drawn starkly around his body. A high cravat nearly hid the jagged scars that crawled whitely over his throat. His whip hung at his belt, a smooth coil of leather that seemed merely a part of his clothing. He looked at Raphael, dark-eyed, cold-eyed, and his face was like a mask.

Raphael shrugged, a twitch of one shoulder. "I'm here."

Uriel nodded.

"The usual charge?"

"You saved someone from my kingdom." Uriel moved one gloved hand, flexing his fingers. "You stole from Death."

Raphael gave the same tiny shrug again. His lips peeled back in a smile; casual, flaunting, vain. I am the wind, I am the air; you cannot touch me, you cannot make me feel. "I came. Do whatever you think is necessary." His tone was a provocation, and he knew it.

Hurt me. Hold me. Make me feel.

"Come to me, then," said Uriel. His voice was like dark iron, cold against Raphael's skin.

And Raphael went to him.

Uriel twisted leather around Raphael's wrists, pressing them together till bone ground against bone, then spun the slighter Archangel round and thrust him against the trunk of the tree. There was a spike driven into the wood, a couple of feet above Raphael's head. He gasped as Uriel forced his arms over his head, pulled him up by his forearms so that he had to balance on his toes, dragged a loop of the leather over the spike so that Raphael pressed against the tree, the rough bark rasping against his cheek, grating on his nipples through the thin silk of his shirt.

It was always the same. The ritual of it was calming and exciting at the same time.

It was punishment. Both of them knew who was being punished, and why, and though Uriel had torn his voice out in grief, he still remembered the sound of Alexiel's name, and though Raphael had saved a thousand lives since then, and had walked into danger with only a careless smile, he still remembered the taste of fear and disgust and horror.

Bitterness had a name. And since they would not speak that name, they called it by each other's name instead.

Raphael shifted, rubbing himself against the tree. He felt Uriel's fingers close around his collar, felt the shirt rip open, felt the cold wet air against his back. He closed his eyes, breath coming harder.

Uriel ran gloved fingers down his back. For a moment he hesitated. "Why do you do this to us?" he whispered, voice an echo among the trees. His face would still be masklike, Raphael knew, as though it had frozen then and never thawed since. Cold earth that could not change. And he himself? Loose air that could never be still, never be serious, never give an honest answer, never give an unchanging love.

"You punished Alexiel," Raphael answered, and imagined the slow drip of blood from his living body. He would heal. He always did. And then he would be caught back from the borderlands of Death, back to Heaven where the light clear air smelt of secret bloodshed and torture. "You punished Alexiel," he repeated, and heard Uriel's breath catch. "Do you love me enough to spare me?"

Uriel's hand clamped on the space where Raphael's neck curved down to the left shoulder, and Raphael gasped as the Archangel of Death's gloved fingers dug into his flesh, probing for nerves.

"Love doesn't come into it." Uriel's voice made the sentence a curse, a condemnation.

The grip relaxed, was gone.

Fire painted itself across Raphael's back as the whip struck his flesh, and he panted like an animal, teeth digging into his lower lip with the effort not to scream. Then another blow and -- no, this was worse than usual, surely it wasn't always this bad, feeling each line across his flesh, feeling the blood go trickling down the small of his back, stretched up against the trunk of the tree without any give in the leather that held him, so he couldn't squirm, couldn't even try to shudder away from the blows, as if that would help at all -- and he didn't regret the healing, he never regretted the healing, it was his, it was his alone, he was Raphael, Archangel of Healing, he was not unworthy, he was not disgraceful, he was not just an empty husk that wandered around Heaven and smiled and tilted his head and laughed and was utterly, irretrievably lost . . .

Tears ran hot down his face, as hot as the blood on his back. It heals. It all heals. Nothing's left. No scars. All gone. Unmarked. False innocent. He pushed against the tree, feeling his own hardness, rubbing against the wood like an animal in heat. Creature of flesh, worthless flesh, like Worthlessness hirself, when se sat there looking at me with the butterfly on hir thigh. "Uriel," he gasped.

The whip struck again.

"Uriel, please . . ."

All damp softness now, the mist in the air around him, the tears running from his eyes, the blood that slicked his back, his body hanging there on the tree, helpless by choice to stop the other Archangel. The sound of the whip falling to the leaf-strewn ground; the thud of the butt, the softer purr of the bloodstained coil of leather. Uriel's gloved hands at his waistband, undoing his trousers, slipping them down his legs to puddle on the ground, then his briefs after them. His hardness rubbing against the rough bark of the tree, untouched by Uriel -- for neither of them was doing this for pleasure, or for kindness, or for anything like love, love didn't come into it. A soft shifting noise as Uriel drew off one glove. Uriel's hand on his back, making him whimper as the Archangel touched the open wounds. Uriel's fingers moving down between his buttocks, then inside him, slick with blood, long clever fingers that had been using the whip a moment ago, all done with cool unconcern.

and I never look at his face, at that empty mask, that cold disdain, because if I ever saw anyone whom I recognised looking out at me through those dark eyes, I could never bear to come here again

Uriel inside him now, stretching, hurting, Uriel's body hard and hot against him, Uriel's hands on his shoulders and digging into the marks that the whip had left.

And Death took Healing up against the Tree of Life, and used him till he bled.

Release was the knowledge of life in his body again, the warmth and light of Heaven, the wound on his wrist closing itself as it always did to leave him unscarred. He never brought away anything of his time in the borderlands of Death. His clothing was still whole, and his skin pale and perfect. The room smelt of fresh blood. He looked up to catch his own gaze in the mirror which hung opposite him, and nothing had changed; he was still smiling as he always did, mouth twisted mockingly, seduction in his eyes, and he could not change that, whatever he did, however deep the wounds, he could not alter what he was.

There was so deep an emptiness in him that he could not even weep.


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