Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by Kaori Yuki, Hakusensha, VIZ Media, et al. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author's Note: 1. My slavery to backstory and world-building is probably evident to anyone who's read more than one of my stories. 2. My continuing interest in ethics, politics, and (sometimes) gender theory is, I hope, less blatant, but no less present. 3. There are gaps in Angel Sanctuary canon that you could drive a truck through. 4. Belial is fascinating, and Belial is old.
So. What was heaven like generations before the first holy war? How does an angel go about renouncing gender? And why does any angel fall? "Ephemera" is an attempt to answer those questions. I had to do a lot of world-building and use a lot of original characters, since no notable canon characters beyond God, Adam Kadamon, and the Zodiac guardians are alive during the era this chapter covers, but I think my extrapolations work with canon rather than contradicting it. This story will have three chapters.
Summary: Belial in heaven, before the Fall.
Chapter 1: Theory of Gender
First there was warmth, and floating, and an intangible wave of love, tinged with sorrow but nearly solid enough to touch. Then there was cold, and darkness, and blinding light, and something thin and harsh forced into damp lungs.
A voice spoke from above. "Belial. Your name is Belial."
The voice was other, not-self, like the source of the warmth and love. The child reached, yearning... and found nothing.
A hand came down from the light to silence the heartbroken wail. "Stop that. You serve God now; there's no place for crying."
Then there was nothing.
The children lived together in dormitories, separated by age group. The younger ones played with toys and ran screaming through the gardens, while the older ones sat in classrooms and learned from books, or practiced weapon-work and the manipulation of astral energies. They would all join heaven's army someday.
"But who will we fight?" Belial asked. "The humans?"
"Maybe. They must be evil or they would still live in Eden," Phanuel responded. "Why do you care? You can't fight. You're worthless."
Belial tossed a glass marble from hand to hand; it sparkled in the sunlight. "Am not. It's just a name, not a prophecy. Come on, play with me."
"No," Phanuel said, and went back to watching sword practice over a garden hedge.
Belial kicked the granite bench in frustration and ran off to the other children, pulling a whole handful of marbles from elsewhere: little pieces of space and time twisted into solid form. That was easy, so easy Belial never thought to mention or show the trick to anyone.
Juggling, on the other hand, was hard enough to be interesting, and the smiles and awe of the other children were an extra repayment for the effort of learning. Belial liked making people laugh, liked being the center of attention. Lately, though, it was almost too easy to catch everyone's eyes and hearts -- so easy it was pointless.
The only one Belial couldn't impress was Phanuel. Phanuel didn't care about tricks and games. Phanuel didn't have any best friends. Phanuel never smiled. Getting close to Phanuel would mean something.
It was a new game and Belial was determined to win.
Phanuel proved even more stubborn than Belial expected. Several years after they left the gardens, the other child still insisted they weren't friends and never would be. That was all right; it made the game more interesting. Besides, actions spoke louder than all the pretty words in heaven.
Phanuel reached across the aisle and prodded Belial's shoulder. "Pay attention, idiot. Instructor Zeffar has an announcement."
Belial sat upright and faked rapt attention.
At the front of the classroom, Zeffar clapped his hands and waited for the susurrus of whispers and fidgets to die away. "You've reached the fifth level," he said after a minute, "so it's time for you to start becoming male or female. Your genders have been assigned by lot -- they're listed on the sheets outside the meal hall. Tonight you'll start the first course of drugs and you'll have two months without lessons while you adjust to the initial changes. Your clothes and personal items have been moved to the segregated dormitories already; you'll find them waiting for you after dinner. Class dismissed."
The children looked warily at each other as they gathered their books and papers. They had always been the same, separated only by interests and skills, height and hair color. Now they would have a deeper, more permanent divide running through the heart of their group.
"Do you think you'll be male or female?" Belial asked Phanuel, slipping over to the shorter child's side as they left the classroom. "Which would you rather be?"
Phanuel shrugged, slowing to let the others pass them. "I don't know and I don't care. As long as I can still hold a sword and cast magic, it makes no difference."
"Which do you think I'll be? Would you like me better if we end up opposite genders?"
"No. But I hope we do end up opposite genders, because then I'll have places where you can't follow me. Now go away."
Belial covered the hurt with a smile -- always a smile, always hopeful -- and leaned over to hug Phanuel, twisting a knife out of empty space and pressing it against Phanuel's side. "I could kill you right now," Belial whispered into the sudden silence. "Nobody's here. No one would know."
Phanuel pressed a point on Belial's wrist. Pain flared; the knife faded back into nothingness before it hit the tiled floor. "You're still not a fighter, no matter how many tricks you learn," Phanuel said. "I wish you'd leave me alone. You could be friends with anyone else -- they like you -- so there's no point in bothering me all the time. Now hurry up so we can read the lists and drop our books in the new dormitories before dinner."
Belial followed, pain forgotten. It might take years, but eventually Phanuel would give in. Already Phanuel kept their conversations secret from the rest of the class, acted as a lookout, and assumed they would go places together.
Someday Phanuel would smile just for Belial.
Male. Phanuel was becoming male. He would become male.
"He. Him. His." Belial rolled the pronouns around like a handful of crystals, testing their feel on the tongue.
She rolled the pronouns around her tongue. She. Belial. Female.
The concept refused to fit. Belial was Belial, that was all, like Phanuel was Phanuel. They simply were. They didn't need gender to confuse things. They already had enough differences to make life interesting. Phanuel was short and solid while Belial was tall and skinny; Phanuel was careful while Belial was reckless; Phanuel was swarthy while Belial had red hair; Phanuel liked people in the abstract and disliked them in particular, while Belial disdained everyone except a chosen few... a chosen one, really.
Then again, perhaps another opposition would fit perfectly.
Belial sat in on a narrow windowsill down a rarely used corridor and examined the drugs in Mathey's green and yellow moonlight. The pills lay in a slender, long-fingered hand -- a hand perfect for magic tricks and concealing astral manipulation as stage illusions. Her hand. It had been easy to fake swallowing them at dinner and palm them aside into a pocket. Even if gender were a good thing, such a change seemed too important to start in a public dining hall.
Belial stared at the drugs. Was gender necessary? Would this hurt? A memory flashed: Phanuel had taken the pills immediately, without even a flinch like most of their age group. "It tingles, but only like my body fell asleep for a second," he'd said when Belial asked.
Phanuel thought Belial was weak. Hiding from change was probably weak. Belial rolled the sugar-coated pills between long fingers, feeling the outer layer dissolve into a sticky smear.
She swallowed the drugs.
The first course of drugs lasted one month. The changes were barely noticeable when Belial looked around the classroom -- the new boys got a little more angular around the jaws, a little broader across the shoulders, while the girls flared out slightly at the hips and sometimes had slightly fuller lips. You couldn't tell for sure who was male or female just by looking, not unless everyone was naked. The big changes were hidden down where their legs joined.
The boys had penises now, tubes of dangling flesh, and they could piss standing up. The girls had vaginas -- funny dents that deepened into mysterious holes between where they pissed and where they shat, and soft lips of skin to shield the entrances.
The instructors made the girls wear skirts. The boys got to keep wearing trousers. Maybe that was so everyone remembered who was becoming what, to make sure that nobody forgot that things were different now. Belial couldn't see why the instructors cared -- they were all still angels, weren't they? -- but it seemed too small an issue to protest. Besides, she rather liked her new skirts.
"I don't understand the point of this. We're forbidden to have children, so there's no biological reason for us to have gender," Belial said to Phanuel after they slipped away to a corner of the gardens and compared their bodies. The other children seemed to feel, obscurely, that it was shameful for people of the other gender to see their altered bodies, so this was the first chance they'd had to verify the changes against the anatomy charts they'd studied.
"If God wants some angels in skirts and some in trousers, it would be easier to just assign dress codes instead of changing our whole bodies," Belial continued. She dropped her skirt and twirled, enjoying the swish of fabric through the air and against her legs. "I think it's all stupid. But maybe I'm missing something. What do you think the point is?"
"Opposites," Phanuel said, pulling up his trousers and buckling the belt. "The world works by opposites. If there's good, there must be evil. Life and death, up and down, hot and cold, dark and light. So we're split as well; we'd be unnatural otherwise."
Belial considered that. Well, yes, but... "Why do things need opposites? Why not just create one thing? Why not make sets of three, four, or five instead? That would be more interesting. Besides, what about the Adam Kadamon -- isn't Seraphita both genders at once?"
"God didn't make the world so you could second-guess him, Belial," Phanuel said wearily. He buckled his practice sword to the belt. "Thanks for letting me see -- you're a pain, but you're not stupid the way most of the others are."
Belial almost glowed.
"I still don't like you," Phanuel added hastily.
"For now," Belial said, twisting a bouquet of flowers into being and fanning them under her chin. "Wait a while. I bet you I can change your mind." A flutter of eyelashes seemed appropriate -- that was what women did to attract men, right? Belial tried it.
Phanuel blinked. "You're being stupid. Stop it, and let me out of here. I'm going to be late for practice."
"As you wish," Belial said, stepping aside with an extravagant bow and flourish of flowers.
She stuck petals onto the back of Phanuel's shirt as he walked away, and wondered how long it would take him to notice.
Belial didn't catch the shift at first, too used to sliding under the instructors' expectations, but she was being called on less in lessons. So were the other girls. And they were being gently nudged away from sword practice or research in favor of logistics, farming, and other support positions -- less glamorous and less prestigious.
That didn't make sense. Yes, the girls were growing up more slender than the boys, with a bit less brute strength, but speed, agility, and intelligence were just as important as big muscles. Different bodies didn't make their minds any different, didn't change their interests or their astral powers.
Belial let her wings out, warped space, and stepped through shadows from the back of the classroom to the gardens, just to make sure gender wasn't draining her magic. The transition was as smooth as always.
So why did becoming female seem to mean becoming less of a person?
Belial didn't bother going back to the lesson -- she'd taught herself the basics of summoning ages ago. Instead, she pulled her wings back in and headed to the practice grounds where Phanuel was training. Belial slipped through the gates to the dry, hard-packed yard and leaned against the wall, watching Phanuel spar with an older student. Their bare chests gleamed with sweat under Mathey's bright afternoon sun, their wings beat and curved for balance, and their feet scuffed and stamped on the dusty ground as they circled and lunged.
To Belial's eye, Phanuel was far more skilled than his opponent. She wondered why he didn't lay out the other boy as quickly as he always disarmed her. What made this interloper different? Was it that he was older? Was it that he fought with a sword instead of words and tricks and knives? Was it simply that he wasn't Belial?
"Break!" called a burly instructor, and Phanuel stepped back and raised his sword in salute.
His opponent flopped down into the dirt, arms outstretched, and panted for breath. "That's me done for the day. Good fight. You'll be a menace someday, Phan."
"Only if I keep working," Phanuel said, bending down to pull the other boy back upright. Belial glared at their clasped hands, but at least Phanuel didn't prolong the contact. And he didn't smile; that was good.
"So serious! You really need to make some friends, Phan," the older boy said. He clapped Phanuel on the shoulder, earning a mostly concealed frown, and sauntered off to the showers. Phanuel walked over to a bench and unbuckled his sword belt, alone now. Good.
Belial wove an illusion of silence and shadow around herself so the sword instructors wouldn't interrupt. Then she slid behind Phanuel as he grabbed a towel and wiped sweat from his face. Her hands wound around his waist, long fingernails digging into his suddenly tense stomach.
"Do you care that I'm female?"
At her voice, Phanuel breathed out and relaxed. "Don't surprise me like that." Then he dropped the towel and pried her hands apart. "And no, I don't care. You're Belial -- gender has nothing to do with that. Aren't you supposed to be in astral theory lessons?"
Belial shrugged, leaning against Phanuel's back and enjoying the feel of his hands on her wrists. "It's pointless. The instructors never notice when I leave, and even if they did, I pass all the tests so they have nothing to complain about. Besides, if I stayed I'd have to do tricks to keep from being bored. I'm sure Instructor Galizur would rather have me absent than disruptive."
"You can't concentrate on anything -- that's why you'll never get anywhere," Phanuel said. His hands tightened, his thumb sliding over the back of her left hand.
"I concentrate on you," Belial said, snapping her wrists down, out of Phanuel's grip. She twirled on one foot, moving away, giving them both a space to breathe. "Phanuel, what's it like to be male? Have you changed inside?"
Phanuel sat on the bench, picked up his sword, and started checking the edge for nicks. "Of course I've changed -- I'm older and I've learned new things. But I'm still me. I'll always be me. Why do you care?"
Belial shrugged artlessly. "No reason. Just odd thoughts." She drew a silk scarf from a sleeve and set the fabric dancing, weaving along her arms and through her fingers like a snake. Only tricks, only sleight of hand, nothing to worry about. The instructors didn't even notice anymore, didn't wonder where she stored the paraphernalia. Nobody saw that the knives were sharp and strong enough to kill, that the silk could be a garrote as easily as a scarf.
Phanuel set the sword aside and braced his hands on his knees. "You always have reasons, even if they almost never make sense. What's going on?"
Belial caught the fabric between her hands, twisted it, pulled it taut. "Girls and boys learn different things. Girls and boys aren't treated the same. Nobody says anything, but it's there if you open your eyes: boys are stronger, boys are smarter, boys are better. Girls are weak and silly and our only power is in our bodies, in making men love us and do what we want."
She dropped the silk over Phanuel's neck, crossed her hands, drew it tight enough to make his breath catch. "I'm not stupid. I'm not weak. I want to be loved for me, not for my body."
Phanuel met Belial's eyes steadily. After a minute, Belial let the garrote wisp into smoke.
"Being male doesn't make angels better than being female," Phanuel said. He picked the sword up again and looked around for a whetstone; Belial shaped one and handed it to him without comment. "If the instructors treat girls like you're not real people, that's not right. But they won't change unless someone points the problem out to them." Phanuel ran the stone along the edge of the sword with a grating ring. "Heaven isn't heaven because evil is impossible here. It's heaven because we make it good. If people overlook you because you're female, show them why they're wrong. Be better."
Well, yes, but... "I shouldn't need to prove that I'm not worthless. That's backwards. Besides, I bet you they'd just say I was an exception to the rule."
Phanuel sighed. "Belial, you're always an exception. Make use of that for once." He sheathed the sword, slung the towel over his shoulder, and headed for the showers attached to the practice grounds. He didn't look back.
Belial shadow-stepped into the gardens and spent the afternoon watching little children, angels too young to have gender or even think about the future. They were all the same, despite their differences. Nobody could dismiss half of them as worthless, not without getting to know their interests, talents, and personalities in detail.
Belial wanted to go back to that. She didn't want to be female. She didn't want to be male, either -- didn't want people handing her things she hadn't earned. Belial was Belial, not the random result of a lottery.
If this was God's will, Belial didn't think much of God's intelligence.
A few years later their age group started the next course of drugs. These were for cosmetic changes: breasts and hips for girls, broad shoulders and deeper voices for boys. They would still be mostly the same inside, but their outsides would grow less and less alike. Gender discrimination would become easier and easier.
Belial threw away the first set of pills.
On the second night she stole pills from a boy sitting next to her and swallowed them before she could change her mind. Belial considered giving the boy her own drugs -- an even trade -- but gave him sugar pills instead.
On the third night she palmed the drugs again, eating hard candy in their place. Finally, on the fourth night, Belial took her pills like a good little girl.
She kept up the pattern all month, stealing from a different boy each time. Once or twice Belial felt Phanuel watching with a considering air, but he said nothing. Either he hadn't really caught her or he was keeping her secret.
At the end of the month the school nurse looked Belial over, frowned, and sent her to the Virtues for "some precautionary tests." Several doctors examined her, wondering aloud why Belial had only a hint of breasts and wider hips after the changes should have settled in.
Belial faked a tremble in her newly husky voice and asked, "Is there something wrong with me? Am I going to get sick? Am I ugly?" She clutched the hospital blanket to her chest and blinked rapidly, calling attention to the incipient sheen of tears in her eyes.
"No, no," the presiding doctor, Abdiel, said hastily. "Your reaction to this course of gender drugs is a bit idiosyncratic, my dear, but everyone's body is unique, so some differences are perfectly normal. You're quite healthy at least." He patted her bare shoulder gingerly and flushed when the blanket slipped down to reveal her left breast.
"Then I am ugly," Belial concluded, letting a single tear slide down a pale cheek. "I'm too tall and I don't look properly female, but I can't be male either. I'm worthless!"
Abdiel looked panicked, his pale skin flushing nearly as scarlet as Belial's hair. "Surely not, my dear! Why, I think you're lovely. Such brilliant hair, and you have very nice bone structure in your face. And your hands -- your fingers are quite elegant." He spread her fingers to demonstrate, and then paused, looking more closely. "Very good hands, actually. Quite deft, I should think. Have you considered studying healing, my dear? You might make a marvelous nurse, perhaps even a doctor."
Belial allowed Abdiel to comfort her and left with mixed feelings. On the one hand, nobody had noticed her small rebellion. On the other, they still treated her like half a person, just for her outward gender. On the third hand, she could play interesting tricks using those gender assumptions as a tool -- if she didn't mind the slimy feel that sort of false admiration left on the soul. And on the fourth hand...
"I'm going to study healing," Belial told Phanuel that evening, as they leaned against a balcony rail, watching the encircling mountains spear the setting sun. "That way I can make sure you don't die until I'm ready to let you go."
Phanuel shrugged. "Go ahead. It'll be the first useful thing you've ever done, if you manage to stick with it long enough to get anywhere." He turned to face Belial, frowning. "You don't look like the other girls this time. How did you cheat?"
"Cheat? Me?" Belial feigned innocence.
"Don't lie. I know more about you than anyone, and I know you did something. I don't like it when you keep secrets."
So Phanuel did care. Belial smiled, glad of the twilight and loose hair that hid her face. "Sleight of hand, that's all. Sometimes I took my pills, sometimes I didn't, and sometimes I took other people's drugs instead. Consider it my first medical experiment."
Phanuel sighed. Then he reached over and tugged on Belial's scarf. "You're an idiot. I don't know why God wants us to have gender, but there must be a reason. You shouldn't go against his will. You're no Adam Kadamon."
"If God has a reason, he should explain it to us. I don't like the results anyway," Belial said, winding the scarf around Phanuel's hand like a multi-colored bandage. "Most dualities are unequal, like good and evil. Angels seem to think gender works that way too; there's no other reason for us to copy humans and look down on women. God should make it clear that gender is more like heat and cold, where both poles are equal. Instead, he reminds us that the human woman tempted the human man to eat the fruit of knowledge, and he only lets male angels sing in his choir. And he is male... or at least says he is."
Belial snapped her fingers; the scarf burst into feathers, dancing in a halo around Phanuel. "I'm going to prove that there isn't any difference between male and female. You said I'm always an exception. So I'm going to be the biggest exception around."
Phanuel brought his hands together, a slow wave of power calming the feathers and bringing them together into a sphere. "Like I said, you're an idiot. But I can't make you be good. We have to choose the right path ourselves or our actions are meaningless. I'll keep your secret for now... but if you hurt people, I'll report you as a fallen angel."
"That's fair," Belial said. "As long as you don't ignore me, I'm happy."
"I take it back. You're not an idiot -- you're insane." But Phanuel didn't leave the balcony. He and Belial stood beside each other in silence and watched the green and yellow moons rise over the plains of Mathey.
By now all the angels in their age group had shifted into specialized apprenticeships or been consigned to general support. They hadn't officially joined any of the orders, but everyone knew who the archangel candidates would be. Phanuel would go to the Powers, the army's elite strike troops, which surprised nobody. Belial, after two years of desultory medical studies, had dazzled the instructors in her exams and won a trial place with the Virtues.
"You could do equally well in research or practical work, my dear," Abdiel told her at the end of her first apprenticeship tour in his hospital. "You're good with people, which is useful when dealing with the politics of the research division -- the damned Seraphim always think they know what's best, even when their medical knowledge wouldn't fill a syringe -- but you also have a knack for diagnosis and a deft touch with operations and bedside care." He smiled at her as if all Belial's successes were due to his influence.
"I want to be an emergency medic," Belial told him. "Ever since the fallen angels started allying with the demons in hell, the army has been taking more casualties. I'd like to go with them and help keep our soldiers alive."
Abdiel sighed. "You'd be wasted down in that muck, my dear, though I suppose it's a noble cause. God's glory and law must be extended even into those unfortunate realms, and idealism is the province of the young. Or do you have more personal motives for this choice of career path?" He offered her a wry, knowing smile.
Belial shrugged and did her best to look puzzled.
"Well, I'll put in a word for you," Abdiel said, touching her hip to guide her past a gurney, "though none of those brutes in Powers or Thrones will appreciate you properly. In any case, it's all moot until your graduation ceremony and the last round of drugs -- which I don't want you to worry about, my dear. I'm sure you'll come through beautifully despite your odd reaction to the second round."
"Thank you," Belial said, ducking her head as if overcome by shyness or gratitude.
For all his medical skills and high rank, her self-proclaimed mentor was an idiot, Belial thought as she spread her wings and flew back to the dormitories. Why couldn't angels open their eyes and see that something was rotten in heaven? Instead, they complained about politics, talked euphemistically about sex and love and sin, contemplated murder, and never wondered why, if heaven were truly the wonderful place they claimed, a steadily increasing trickle of angels chose to turn from God and 'fall' to earth or hell.
"I already told you," Phanuel said when he and Belial walked in the gardens that evening. "Heaven is only as good as we make it. You can't expect things to be perfect just because you say they are."
"Then why do the other angels act as if names create reality?"
"Because they're scared," Phanuel said. "Being responsible is hard. It's much easier to let somebody else make the decisions and not think for yourself."
"Since when do you think for yourself?" Belial asked, stung. "You always say we shouldn't question God, that God has reasons and things must be designed for the best."
Phanuel sat down on a marble bench, absently shifting his sword out of the way. "I still think that. I think love is dangerous and order is necessary. I think none of us can understand a being who can create a whole universe. But I'm not agreeing blindly. I looked around, I listened to your questions, and I made up my own mind. That's why we have minds -- so we can chose for ourselves."
Belial tried to wrap her mind around that. "Well, yes, it makes sense that God wouldn't give us minds if he didn't expect us to use them... but I still don't understand why God would make rules if he didn't want us to follow them. If he makes rules, that means he created us such that we could choose to oppose and disobey him -- why would he want servants like that? Why create us with the ability to love and hate and go insane if he doesn't want us to do those things?"
Phanuel shrugged again. "I don't know -- I told you I don't understand God. But I think he must have reasons, and that's good enough for me. You know I don't obey blindly. If I did, I would have told people years ago about the times you threatened to kill me, the way you screwed up the gender drugs, and all the ways you lie to people."
"I don't lie," Belial said, "or at least not much. I just let people come to their own wrong conclusions."
"That's still lying," Phanuel said, but his tone was mild. "As long as you don't cause trouble and don't lie to me, I don't care what you do. Just... don't be stupid. And don't get caught."
Belial sat down and leaned against Phanuel's side. "I won't leave you. In fact, I bet you I can get assigned as the field medic for your unit when we graduate."
"Did I say I wanted you around?" Phanuel grumbled.
"No. But I know you better than anyone and I know what you meant."
Phanuel sighed. "You're insane. You're insane, you're halfway to being a criminal, and I'm never going to escape you, am I?" Belial smiled into Phanuel's shoulder as he wrapped his arm around her and pulled her close in the darkness.
The third course of gender drugs made no sense. Angels were forbidden to procreate; their children were so rarely normal, so often deformed. Why, then, was it necessary to have the ability to procreate?
"Partly for a craftsman's attention to detail," Phanuel said, "and partly as a test of our obedience and strength of will."
"It's still upside-down and inside-out," Belial said, and threw away every one of her pills. She didn't feel like a woman, not like any of the stereotypes the world flung at her. She didn't want children. Why would she ever need a womb?
Belial only realized the flaw in her plan when Abdiel summoned her for a physical examination to make sure she hadn't suffered any adverse reactions. She couldn't think of a single trick or spell to get her out of this situation, not in a room surrounded by other Virtues who would feel the surge of astral power necessary to wipe her mentor's mind.
Abdiel was humming an absent-minded hymn as he entered the room and closed the door, giving them an illusion of privacy. "Hello, my dear," he said, smoothing back his white-blond hair and straightening his lab coat. He smiled at Belial, proprietarily.
Suddenly Belial saw a way out.
"Hello," she said, meeting his eyes boldly and letting the hospital blanket slip off her left shoulder. "I'm glad you're my doctor again, Abdiel. I wouldn't want a stranger to put his hands on me in such... intimate places." She shifted sideways on the examination table, parting her legs. Her hand trailed down to play with the blanket's edge.
Abdiel flushed, stammered, and couldn't keep his eyes from straying toward her crotch.
It was awkward -- Belial had no experience at seduction, and Abdiel had equally little experience at being seduced -- but they managed. Afterward, as Belial cleaned them with sterile tissues and assured Abdiel that she would never tell anyone of their sin, she wondered why sex was such a temptation. True, the physical sensations were pleasant, but it was messy, embarrassing, and really nothing to sing hymns about. Had she made a mistake by skipping the last course of drugs or was Abdiel simply not talented in this area?
There was an obvious way to answer that.
"I will not have sex with you," Phanuel said, shutting the door behind himself.
"Coward," Belial said, lounging naked on his bed. Her clothes lay neatly folded over Phanuel's sword stand by the window and the crisp autumn breeze made her nipples crinkle.
Phanuel scowled. "I'm not afraid. I've simply decided to obey God." He tossed Belial's skirt and blouse to the floor before settling his sword onto its lacquered stand. "Get dressed and get out."
"No. I know you want me -- your penis is pressing against your trousers like Abdiel's did. You don't love me and I can't get pregnant, so what's the harm in trying a different sort of sparring?" Belial ran a suggestive hand down her side.
Phanuel looked out the window. "Don't twist words. Sin is sin, no matter how you try to justify your desires. I've compromised myself enough for you already."
Belial stood and pressed herself against his back, running sharp nails down the side of his throat, the way that always made him shiver and push her away. She'd thought it made him uncomfortable to know how easily she could kill him if she forewent a fair fight. Now she wondered if his discomfort came from liking her touch more than he wanted to.
Phanuel went still as stone in her embrace.
"Please?" Belial whispered, taking advantage of her greater height to breathe against the top of Phanuel's ear. "Just once?"
Phanuel grabbed her hands and turned them so they faced each other, her arms prisoned against her chest. "Belial, why?" His voice was ragged.
Belial didn't understand what he was asking. Why sex? To satisfy curiosity, to use what God had given them. But Phanuel knew her; he could follow her reasoning. Why him? That wasn't even a question. Because she was Belial and he was Phanuel. Phanuel was the one Belial always turned to. Phanuel was the one Belial listened to. Phanuel was the one Belial wanted to protect. Phanuel was the one Belial... the one Belial...
"Because it's you," Belial said. "It's always you. You're the one who matters."
She tried to step back. If Phanuel truly objected, Belial wouldn't -- couldn't -- force him. "I'm sorry. I'll go."
Behind Phanuel's eyes, something shifted and settled into a new configuration, and his hand loosened on her wrists. He pulled the curtains shut one-handed, leaving the room in blood-colored twilight. "Stay," Phanuel said. Then he began to unbutton his shirt.
"Always," Belial promised.
Slowly, Phanuel smiled.
Afterward, Belial had two answers.
Abdiel wasn't very good at sex.
Phanuel was the one Belial loved.
Belial ran her hand over Phanuel's chest, feeling his heartbeat against her fingertips, and knew she could never tell him. He would never love her back. He wouldn't let himself. She loved him too much to trap him between her desires and his honor and duty to God.
But just this once she lay beside him, skin to skin, dreaming of might-have-beens.
And in the empty silence of her heart, Belial hated God.
There weren't any graduation ceremonies, just a long line of angels snaking their way through the administrative offices, picking up their official assignments. "Congratulations, archangel candidate Belial, probationary Virtues field medic attached to Powers Brigade Thirteen," Instructor Zeffar said. "You never showed much follow-through, but I hope you finally start living up to your potential. Other angels are depending on you now. Dismissed."
Belial packed all her belongings in fifteen minutes -- she'd never bothered acquiring much -- and settled outside Phanuel's door, leaning against the rough concrete wall. Phanuel strode down the corridor an hour later, holding his orders in one hand. "What brigade?" he asked as he drew close to Belial.
"Thirteen. Do I win the bet?"
Phanuel smiled, the tiny quirk of lips and eyes that only Belial ever saw. "I'm in Brigade Fourteen, but Thirteen is support personnel for Twelve, Fourteen, and Fifteen, so... yes and no." He shrugged. "Give me ten minutes and we'll catch the transport together."
"Sir, yes, sir!" Belial sang, snapping a deliberately off-kilter salute and pushing Phanuel's door open with her foot.
"That's supposed to be locked," Phanuel said. "You have to stop breaking rules like that. The army won't stand for your chaos."
Belial just smiled.
Ten minutes later, they boarded a merkaba to hell.
AN: Thanks for reading, and please review! I'm particularly interested in knowing what parts of the story worked for you, what parts didn't, and why.