Title: Lux et Vanitas (Light and Emptiness)
Summary: In the bedroom after the war.
Disclaimer: This work of fiction belongs to Kouga Yun, who seriously needs to stop doing this to me. Contains some (sacrilegious) religious references, but you should already know that if you're familiar with the manga. No, I do not care that this series was published twenty years ago and no one will want to read this. This was never the story I wanted to write anyway, but the story I wanted to read. Except fandom didn't oblige. So thanks, fandom, for forcing me to write my own shitty fic :(
Lux et Vanitas
In the bedroom after the war.
It rained so rarely in Eden that the inhabitants sometimes felt at a loss when the Kingdom did deign to mourn for its own. Even the sky seemed unable to make up its mind, in turns pouring and slackening, uncertain whether or not the two lost children recently cast adrift were truly worth the ceremony of tears.
Raphael knew, deep in his heart, that he didn't know how to let things go. Some integral part of him would always go on believing that, if he stuck around long enough, all that he wanted would eventually circle back to him, in one form or another. It didn't help that, most of the time, it was true.
That was why he had come.
Beyond the high gates, the garden blurred into unrelieved grey smudges behind the rising mist. The twin rows of lamps leading up the gravel path were unlit—indeed, no light shone out from behind the many ornate windows. On their stems, the roses were beginning to wilt, bowed with the weight of rainwater. Winter would soon come.
He let himself in with the key he still possessed, and was somewhat surprised to find his arrival unreceived. The marble hallways echoed as he strode through them. The manor was empty of light, and the day was so grey it was almost pitch black inside. He knew his way well enough not to miss the assistance of illumination, but in the back of his mind lived memories of this place when it was filled with light and laughter. Now stillness reigned, and irrevocable darkness. Rather apropos.
The door to the master bedroom was left ajar. Inside, it was as dark as the rest of the house, but through the thick shadow Raphael could still make out the lines and curves of the large bed, the silk-and-velvet sheets rumpled and tossed, bunched up around the man he had come to seek. Propped up against the headboard, face delicately angled in profile, thin pajamas in spite of the late afternoon chill, narrow shoulders drawn into an expression of misery—that was the portrait he had stepped into.
Raphael stopped just short of entering the room, choosing instead to lean against the door frame, arms folded. In a way, he was glad for the veiling darkness, because he knew for certain that Michael's angry eyes were now riveted on him, doing their best to flay him bone from flesh.
"So you've been pardoned," Raphael began quietly, regarding his former commander. "Somehow, I always knew you would be. You are too valuable to be wasted on such a frivolous offense."
There was a long, stifling silence, and when Michael finally spoke, his voice was steeped in bitterness, a foreign flavor. "Not valuable enough. If not for Sayaka's petitioning and rallying up support from the plus-checkers' faction, I would still be rotting away in that cell you placed me in."
"I never intended for things to turn out that way."
Michael gave a short, biting snort of laughter. "Somehow, I find that difficult to believe."
"I wonder if that isn't somewhat mean of you, sir," Raphael said lightly. "For twenty years of loyal service, don't I deserve some clemency for one little betrayal?"
"There is no need to address me as your superior anymore," Michael replied, but now there was a tremulous edge to his tone, sharp, but tinged with sadness. "As you said yourself, you no longer take orders from me—if anything, it should be the other way around. Really makes me wonder if all those years, you were just bidding your time until you could usurp me."
Raphael shook his head, smiling faintly. "Now that's not fair. Never in my wildest dreams could I have predicted that you would assist Chihaya in his escape." He pulled himself away from the door and stepped fully into the room. "And you should know that ranks matter little when it comes to you and me."
"Could you really say that you never saw it coming?"
"You've asked me that before." That day, during Chihaya's trial: his last chance to prevent everything from falling apart, which he had casually let slip. "My answer is the same."
"I can't rightly say that you were in the wrong," Michael said, and this time his voice came out a little hoarse, as though it hurt him to sound out the words. "After all, you were appointed commanding officer because I had knowingly committed a crime, and you probably chose what you felt to be the best course of action. Still…"
"If anyone should feel betrayed, it would be Chihaya. He always looked up to you, perhaps as much as a second father."
"I don't disagree," Raphael said, and walked toward the window, feeling Michael's eyes follow his every step. He pulled open the heavy curtains, looked out into the pale rain. "You mustn't think that I made my decision with any malice toward Chihaya. Perhaps I only wished to see what he would do."
This concession stirred up the curl of guilt he knew to lurk in the pit of his stomach. That was exactly what made his so-called betrayal that much more exquisite.
"As always, Chihaya passed his tests with flying colors. I can't say I'm not proud."
"How kind of you," Michael said snappishly. "I'm sure he would treasure your compliments, if he knew. But this isn't quite the same as a quarter exam, is it? You were prepared to take his life if necessary."
"You and I are different," Raphael said, and turned to meet Michael's eyes, china-blue and incensed in the soft dishwater light. "Whereas you never wanted to see Chihaya hurt, I never wanted to see him fail."
Michael's lips threaded into a thin line. "You were always saying you wanted that child to toughen up. Did he live up to your expectations?"
"He is not a child any longer," Raphael replied. "He had strength enough to oppose me. What more could a parent ask for?"
He stopped, and waited. Perhaps this was not how things were meant to be, but it was the way things were, and nothing to could be done to change that. So he stood on this side of the empty space between them, watched silently as the resentment seeped out of Michael's expression, as he breathed out tiredly, relenting the grip on his righteous anger at last.
"Gabriel's been to see me," Michael said, after a moment. He clutched the bed cover up to his chest, as though registering the cold for the first time. "Yesterday. She told me you were still on Valhalla."
"I was. Yesterday."
"Why did you come? Surely you must have more urgent matters to attend to, given the circumstance." The very first hint of a smile. "As I recall, you've always been passionate about your work."
"Recall also that I've always made time for you, my lord."
It had never ceased to amuse him how easily flustered the dignified and honorable Lord Michael could be in the sway of his teasing words. Generously, Raphael turned from him, and took his time removing his coat, wet through from the rain and speckled with mud. He laid it across a chair next to the window.
"You're soaked," Michael exclaimed. He sounded surprised, like he was just now seeing Raphael for the first time.
"So it appears," he said, dragging a distracted hand through his damp hair. "How careless of me. In my haste, I neglected to take an umbrella."
"You should," Michael started, and seemed to catch himself abruptly. Nevertheless, he swallowed, and went on, "dry yourself off. You'll catch a cold."
"It won't be necessary. I've always kept myself in good shape. A healer's habit."
The smile came at him in full now, the press of the mouth a little brittle, filled with weariness, but beautiful and familiar nonetheless, a ray of sunlight piercing sullen clouds. If Raphael felt his heart give a soft leap at the sight, he didn't show it, covering his emotions with questions: "Where are your household staff? There was no one to greet me when I came in."
"I've dismissed them for the week. I… I wished to be alone."
That much was apparent. "And how have you been getting along?" Terribly, if appearances were anything to go by. "You've never been much good at taking care of yourself."
"There was never any need," Michael said, a little too honestly. "I always had you to take care of me."
Raphael held in a sigh. "It's late in the day. You should have something to eat."
Michael smiled at him, the same hollow, tired smile from before. His eyes were sunken with shadows, puffy and slightly bloodshot; he looked like someone who hadn't slept in an eternity. Who could blame him?
"I do not feel like getting out of bed."
There were traces still of the old playfulness in that statement, ghosts of a spoilt insouciance, and Raphael felt them cut into him, guilelessly but mercilessly. He would have expected no less.
"Then let me serve you," he said resignedly. "For old times' sake."
When he returned, bearing a tray laden with some of Michael's favorite fares—noting with chagrin that he couldn't seem to stop spoiling the man—Michael had risen from bed and pulled a silk robe over his pajamas. He had taken up Raphael's vacated spot by the window, body cutting a clear outline against the brightness.
While Raphael busied himself arranging the plates and tea things across the small table a little way from the window, Michael folded himself into one of the chairs. He propped his elbow on the armrest, chin on the heel of his hand, still gazing out at the rain-washed world beyond the glass. The warm scent of just-steeped tea filled the air as Raphael took a seat in the opposite chair. For the duration of this meal, at least, they could both tarry in the fragile illusion that nothing of value had changed.
Rain pattered softly out on the windowsill. Michael sipped his tea quietly, and refused to touch the food. Raphael had to give him a pointed look before he yielded and grudgingly picked up a scone, nibbling at it lethargically.
"You really have to restock your pantries," Raphael said, determinedly piling buttered toasts onto Michael's plate. "I had to scrounge through the entire kitchen to scrape up enough for this meal."
"Gabriel told me the same thing," Michael replied with a dramatic sigh. Something like a wicked glint kindled in his eyes. "If you care so much, why did you seem so calm when I was incarcerated? Prison food is simply appalling."
"You have to understand, sir," Raphael explained, slicing up an apple with a vengeance, "that it makes no difference to me whether you're in a jail cell or in your government office."
Michael pursed his lips into a suspiciously pouty curve. "I see. So I mean nothing to you after all."
He couldn't help but smile at that. No matter how many years had passed, Michael would never shake that tendency to fish for his reassurance. "Quite the opposite. I simply meant that, as long as I knew where you were in the universe, I would have willingly stayed by your side."
I would have done it until the day I died.
Michael seemed unconvinced. "What if I had been placed in a high-security prison and you were not allowed to visit?"
"Then I would simply have to commit a crime grave enough to warrant being locked up alongside you."
Something shifted suddenly in Michael's expression. His eyes slanted quickly at Raphael, startled and tellingly dark, before his demeanor smoothed back into equanimity, ironed of tension. He laid down his teacup, sent Raphael a solemn gaze across the table.
"Why did you choose to do it?" he asked, in a voice scraped raw, like there were nails lodged in his throat. "Why did you attack Earth? I know that you never liked the Earthian to begin with, but I never knew that your hatred of them ran so deep."
"There is no such hatred," Raphael answered simply, taking a slow sip of tea. "In truth, the welfare of that blue planet concerns me not at all."
"I always thought as much. It really puzzled me when you chose to enter the Earth Surveillance Division."
"That's no mystery. I did it because you wanted to."
A definite rosy tinge darkened Michael's cheeks at his statement, and the conversation would have quite easily teetered off-track right then and there if Raphael hadn't taken pity on him, and continued, "To me, the Earthian are nothing more than cockroaches. They thrive on filth, live destructively, and breed at an unsustainable rate. And yet, because of that, they as a species will outlive us." He gave a light, disdainful shrug. "Still, would a man hate creatures he could easily crush underfoot?"
"So then… why?"
It was his turn to divert his gaze. He could feel his mind drifting.
"I wanted to break a promise."
"Long ago, someone made me make a promise," he said distantly. His head was an endless vista, completely barren of thoughts. "A promise to pledge myself to a cause greater than my own life."
From somewhere faraway, he heard Michael's sharp intake of breath, signaling a painful realization.
"Yes," he answered, in the same vacant voice, "It was Lucifel." Felt the weight of that terrible name forming and pressing heavily against his teeth, as it always had. As it always would.
Michael looked like someone who had suddenly been tossed, unfettered, into a howling ocean. "Raphael," he said plaintively. "Were you in love with her?"
Raphael stared at him. "What makes you think that?"
"I spoke to Gabriel once, and she said—well, she seemed to allude to... She gave me the impression that you might have been in love with someone else. And all I could think…"
He trailed off awkwardly, but Raphael had long learned to read Michael's silences. Multitude could be spoken in that secret tongue: guilt, uncertainty, and perhaps, yes, even now, hope.
"Ah," Raphael mused. "That would explain a lot, wouldn't it? My dispassionate treatment of Gabriel, my unwillingness to speak of the person dearest to my heart." He lowered his voice. "My devotion to you."
Michael seemed at a loss for words. The expression he wore was splintered with a sense of dismay that he could not understand. If only he knew what endless layers of irony he had unknowingly peeled open. But Michael would not know. He never did, and never would, unless expressly told.
Raphael silently got up from his chair, and walked over to the window. Outside, the sky wept. Not quite a rainstorm, but the kind of downpour that had settled slowly over night and lingered intermittently in soft drizzles. Nevertheless, the streaks of water clawing their way across the windowpane called up within him the memory of a dark, clamoring night, the hatred—and fear—he loathed to name. The rain that day had been heavy and unforgiving, as if God had wanted to drown out the world.
"What about you, Lord Michael?" he asked coolly, determinedly not looking at Michael. "Do you think I could have been in love with your sister?"
"I keep thinking about the way you two used to compete in school. You always seem strange on the anniversary of her death. And… you were just different then. More alive." For a moment, Michael's voice tapered away into wistfulness, before quickly snapping back to the present. "Gabriel agrees with me," he added defensively.
Raphael smiled to himself. "Sweet Gabriel. Her only fault is her tendency to see too much of herself in others. It blinds her to the fact that some of us are not nearly as pure and virtuous as she."
And the one part of her that isn't is a secret I will take to my grave.
For some reason, a dark desire flared within him then. He turned around, canted himself against the window, and regarded Michael with a bladed half-smile, eyes narrowed under semi-shuttered lashes.
"You suffer from this blindness yourself, my lord. Though in your case, the condition is likely more intentional than you'd like to think."
"What are you trying to say?"
The smile never left Raphael's lips as he slowly advanced, bridging the immaterial space separating the window and Michael's paling face in deliberately measured steps. "What would you say," he asked, in a voice weightless as the sound of a bird's wings, "if I told you that I hated your beloved Lucifel?"
Your dark half. The thorn in my side that I could never extract, even as it poisoned my heart. The Devil in fair form.
Before the shock had properly materialized in Michael's eyes, Raphael had cleared the distance. He placed one hand on the armrest and leaned down, tilting his head so his long hair fell over one shoulder and swept across the top of Michael's knees. Their gazes were leveled, and he could feel the hot brush of Michael's breath on his face, quick and shallow.
"I hated her, because she was able to possess something I never had the courage to take."
In that instance, he knew with a bone-carved certainty that he would always remember the expression pinned on Michael's face then, blunt and gutted, utterly shell-shocked, plaster-cast into immortality by revelation. He took a moment to run the taste of it over his tongue, continued in a near-whisper, "Would you like to hear something amusing?"
His arm was beginning to ache from the pressure he was exerting on it, almost unconsciously throwing his entire weight upon the chair's armrest. His gaze never strayed from Michael's face.
"Coming to Earth, I always knew that not only Chihaya, but Kagetsuya, too, would oppose me. Yes, especially Kagetsuya. Even as he stood by my side on the Metatron, I knew. I had only to look at his face—look into those blue eyes. How could it be otherwise? After all, defiance runs in his blood."
"Did you think I would never figure it out? How insulting, Lord Michael."
It was difficult to keep up the mask of composure then. Unbidden, the old jealousy sparked in his heart, awakening the dark, rasping voice that had haunted his nights for so many years.
Was she good?
Did you love her?
Did you want to risk everything for her, the way you never would for me?
"Even Heaven could not have produced such a perfect coincidence," Raphael said ruthlessly. Ruthlessness came so easily in moments like this. "A replica in body and spirit. Little wonder you didn't want him for an heir--"
His back slammed into the table behind him, knocking over the tea cups. One rolled over the edge and shattered with a tinkling crash. A line of pain cut into Raphael's flesh, but it was insignificant compared to the weight of Michael's hands fisted into the front of his shirt, filled with a raw fury that turned his flashing eyes into fiery brands, searing and cruel. His anger smashed against Raphael like a storm.
"I forbid you—I forbid you to speak of that!"
Their bodies were lined up evenly, almost chest to chest, knees knocking into one another, and it had been years since such closeness had been allowed. Time passed—a second or an infinity—and then Raphael was pulling himself up, recovering his center of gravity as he continued to gaze down at Michael impassively. Even in the relative chill of the room, the body heat rolling off of Michael made the fine hair on Raphael's arms curl, like they'd been singed. He could almost hear his heartbeat.
Slowly, as though he had all the time in the world, Raphael reached up and closed his fingers around one of Michael's wrists, pulling it away from his chest, gently but firmly, and held it aloft. There it lay in his grasp, smooth and fine-boned and pale, the pulse of the artery throbbing beneath his thumb. The universe crashed to a halting stop, and there was nothing but that skipping rhythm against his skin.
"Did you know, Michael," he said quietly, "that a heart can only betray most cruelly that which it loves most ardently?"
And even as the red anger in Michael's eyes faltered and faded into an expression of shock, he had dipped his head and pressed a firm kiss to center of Michael's palm. At first, it seemed no different from the various healing rituals he had performed on Michael's (clumsy, highly improbable) injuries over the years, but then he opened his mouth and flicked his tongue against the soft skin. Swirled it in one long stroke, drawing from Michael's lips a hiss of breath.
This was no blessing, but the expression of a dark, untold want.
"And now my secret is out," he said. He released Michael's wrist, but did not step away from him. "Just as well. It was never much of one to begin with."
"Raphael," Michael tried again, voice threatening to crack in his throat. "Why? Why now?"
He shrugged. "Why not? You had the courage to defy the laws—perhaps your boldness has inspired me."
There was no sound but the faint obbligato of rain, unbearably remote. The room itself seemed to be holding its breath. Raphael was tempted to start rearranging the disarrayed remnants of the meal on the table, just to have something to do with his hands, but that would mean moving away from where he stood, and in this moment, the very idea seemed like absolute agony.
Michael was staring at his palm, the patch of skin where Raphael's lips had just been. Slowly, he ran a finger over it, as though unable to process what had occurred. Irrationally, Raphael felt a stab of anger pierce the sides of his temple.
"Think about it," he said, leaning in close, close enough for their bangs to touch. "This is your chance to have your revenge. The death sentence is still in place. Renounce me, and you will have the satisfaction of condemning to death the one who betrayed you, hated your sister, and tried to kill your son."
Michael's eyes snapped up at him, such an icy glare in their depth Raphael's breath caught. "Revenge is not what I want."
"It's alright." He felt exhausted suddenly. Unfitting, this weariness. "I know that to you, I will always be the villain in this story. You will only be doing the right thing."
"I have never thought of you as the villain."
"How many times have I asked you not to lie to me?" Raphael smiled, exasperated. "You are stubborn to the very end."
He did not know how to let go—but no, that wasn't true. Rather, it was this sharp ache that refused to leave him, refused to set him free. For as long as he lived, he would be a prisoner to it.
"You need not worry." Closer still, till the tips of their nose grazed, their breaths mingled. "This, too, will remain a secret. It is something the world will never need to know."
A secret: the fold of Michael's long fingers around a pen, scribbling furiously.
A secret: the way sunlight fell on the side of his face, the bold line of his cheek profiled against the glare.
A secret: the whetted iron of Michael's blood on his tongue.
A secret: his bright laughter, the sound perfectly captured, preserved in a silent room.
A secret: the devastating beauty of his tears.
No, there was no reason to tell anyone about these things, no reason to divulge these secrets, these major minor details that had substantiated his existence for the last two decades.
His heart overflowed, emptied out. Enough. Enough now.
But it was never enough, and suddenly, unthinkably, Michael's trembling hands were on his chest, fingers pressing against the thin cloth, still shivering. Michael would have to push him away, or kill him, Raphael decided, because this absolute standstill was more than he could bear. He could have died a thousand deaths in the time it took for a breath to be drawn.
Then, without a word, Michael closed his eyes and tipped his face up, pressing his lips gently to Raphael's.
Time slowed to stillness, dissolved into the resigned air.
Tentatively, Michael's tongue flickered against his mouth, tracing the entrance softly before gliding in, exerting a firm pressure against the cool bones of his teeth. Raphael felt his spine turn to water.
Michael tasted sweet, sweet and perfect and golden, and Raphael just. Wanted.
He could recite the timeline of his desire with perfect clarity, the chronology of every secret glance and every stolen touch, every milestone reached and every opportunity missed by the slimmest of margins. He had been thrashed, again and again, by the want for this body, and now, to be offered what he wanted, clearly, agonizingly within grasp, it was just… it was almost…
With a movement like the sweep of a tidal wave, Raphael smoothed his body against Michael's and tipped his head backward. Michael gave a breathy gasp of surprise; his hands slid up around his neck, still shaking (shaking), coming to rest just above the dorsal knob at the top of his spine. Raphael allowed (allowed, this was allowed) his hands to drop to the small of Michael's back, reeling him in, crushing their bodies together to deepen the kiss, feeling the rise and fall of Michael's ribs heaving under him.
He squeezed his eyes shut and just felt... losing himself in the sensation… So hot. So close. Burning, like liquid fire, like swallowing the sun, and he was devouring it hungrily, dwarfed by the immense wave of heat crashing over him, suffocating in its intensity. It was all too much… too much… every hot breath… every slick brush of tongues… the pooling heat below his waist… more exquisite than the feel of his wings bursting from his back for the first time… and when Michael shifted, moaned into his mouth, shuddered and arched against him, Raphael was ignited.
This was dangerous territory, he knew, watching Michael settle back down on the bed, sucking greedily on one finger, his eyes never leaving Raphael's face even as the blue irises misted over with the traces of desire. He lost a precious number of seconds tugging off his boots before crawling in after, positioning himself above Michael as his long hair spilled around them like water. His mind was straining desperately—was this safe? Would anyone walk in on them? He had locked the gate and the front entrance after himself, and the door to the master suite was closed, but there was just no way to be sure.
With a keening sigh, Michael reached up and pulled lightly at his collars, and then Raphael was covering his body with his own, dragging skin against hot skin as he pressed his parched lips to Michael's neck. He smelled warmth, the rose-scented soap that Michael had always favored, striking a stark contrast against the sharp, musky edge of the rain water on his own clothes and skin.
They parted from another long kiss, panting for breath. Raphael braced himself on his elbows, and suddenly felt Michael's fingers on his face, skimming their way up the contour of his cheeks in light, feathery touches. His lips quirked up into an unreadable smile. Behind Raphael sternum, his heart was pounding out a painful tattoo, but he couldn't tear his eyes away.
"Would you like to hear about the things that I love?" Michael half-whispered, cupping Raphael's face with his hands. He craned his neck, placing a tiny kiss to the corner of Raphael's eye.
"I love these eyes. I love this shade of green, precise one moment and mercurial the next. I couldn't stop staring at them that first day when we passed each other in the entrance hall, and because I didn't watch where I was going, I tripped. Right into infatuation."
Long fingers slid up Raphael's temples and into his hair, combing it back from his face. "And I love your hair. I love the way it turns silver when moonlight hits it, how it swings and ripples at your back, loosened or tied up. It reminds me of the pain I feel every time you walk away from me, knowing I cannot follow."
"But most of all." Michael's lips traveled to his throat, little breaths hot on the sensitive skin. "Most of all, I love this neck. So long." A kiss to the underside of his chin. "So white." Strong teeth nipping teasingly at the bump of protruding bone. "All those times you scolded me for not listening to you, it was really all your fault. How could I follow what you were saying, when I was busy staring at your neck?"
And that was all he managed to get out, because Raphael had once more covered Michael's lips with his own, like a traveler in the desert lapping up cool, sparkling oasis water. Michael's tongue teased him inside, and he tasted—tasted everything he could get at, dragging his tongue across the roof of Michael's mouth, forcing a sweet, shuddering moan out of him.
Michael's hands were at Raphael's waist, pulling his shirt free from his belt and scrabbling against the front of his pants, skittering across the gathering hardness underneath. They were both hungry for each other's skin. His hands were already working on Michael's shirt, loosening the buttons and parting the yielding fabric, exposing skin, an endless expanse of smooth, snowy skin, burning under his touch. Leaning in, he pressed his lips to the curve of one clavicle and followed it downward to the swell of flesh. He took one rosy nipple into his mouth, and swirled his tongue roughly over the erect tip.
Above him, there was a hiss of pleasure, and then Michael was pulling Raphael up, hauling his face in for another hungry kiss. He rocked upward, nudging their hips together, and this time it was Raphael's breath that hitched, his eyes that rolled into the back of his head, his world that went blank and white-hot. Desperately, he tugged at the waistband of Michael's pajama bottom. The body under him eagerly cooperated, lifting itself and allowing the garment to slide off. Struggling, they somehow managed to divest the rest of their clothing, and then they were there, naked, pressed darkly into each other.
The first touch of Michael's erection against his lower belly, hot and smooth, was like nothing Raphael had ever dared imagine, not even in the lurid fantasies he had buried in the twisted knots of his dark heart. He himself was so hard, so painfully aroused that he nearly exploded when an experimental thrust sent him sliding into the sweet, burning crease where Michael's thigh met his body. He angled himself and moved again, and the friction generated between them seared, sending Michael's head thumping against the pillow with a strangled groan, while Raphael buried his face into the crook of his neck.
No, this was like nothing he had experienced, far from the guilty pleasure of touching himself in solitude, light years away from the pleasant, companionable lovemaking he and Gabriel had perfected over the years. A sin. It had to be a sin, this blinding pleasure, the intense pressure building and aching for relief. This painful need for release—a profane sacrament, the dark triumph of flesh over spirit.
He was crossing the last boundary he had set for himself, the last sacred law he had vowed never to breach, and just like that, he knew the Devil had won. From beyond the border of death, her husky laughter heralded her final victory. It occurred to him that he too should laugh, let out the broken, faded sound that resonated with the one truth that he had always steadfastly refused to acknowledge.
Lucifel never was Michael's dark half.
She was his.
And it was as though all the long years and suppressed memories were being peeled away, and Lucifel was rising out of the loamy dirt, her dead, skeletal hands reaching for his neck. Her ghost lay next to him on the bed, superimposing itself into the sliver of space separating Raphael from his darkest desire, as it always had. This was Lucifel's body grinding down upon her brother, just the same as the image branded into Raphael's mind that he had never been able to erase, the pleasure—pure connection—that she and Michael had shared as they'd rutted against each other, crying each other's secret names in climax.
And suddenly, all the tenderness of the moment melted from his heart, allowing the poison to seep back in. He recognized his intention for what it was: an invasion. The need to reclaim lost territories filled him with the strength to tear himself from the cradling juncture of Michael's neck, clawing his way down Michael's body, long fingernails leaving telling marks, little dark signatures. He drank in each movement, relished the choked whimper Michael made when Raphael parted his thighs roughly.
Did you touch him here, Lucifel?
A greedy, relentless stroke of tongue up the length of Michael's inner thigh.
Is this where you placed your lips?
A dark scrape of teeth, sending Michael's hips arching upward against his bruising fingers.
Did your hands slide across his silken skin like this, just like this, you wretched bitch?
But the dead gave no answers, and Michael was here, present and real and exquisite, spread out beautifully beneath him, glassy-eyed and touch-drunk, loose curls in disarray over the white pillow. His prince. His prince of Heaven, his prince made of light. The sun lived within him; it ran in the blood of his veins, shone out from behind his brilliant eyes, and to touch him was like holding a living star in the palm of your hand: painful but unbearably exquisite.
He felt empty, so vastly, echoingly hollow inside that the dark, ravenous thunder of his heart seemed to resound within his chest. The aching want simmered to the surface, clawing at him insistently, begging to be released. Slowly, he climbed his way back up, allowed Michael to draw his face in for another kiss, hot and thoughtless, tasting himself on Raphael's lips. Thoughts and memories ran together in his mind, love and anger and revenge and silent yearning, until there was nothing but the present, the stillness of a world without past, without future, in which nothing existed outside of this room.
Michael was shaking beneath him, flush and needy and given to complete abandon. "Raphael," he begged, mouth slick and insistent at the corner of Raphael's lips, the tang of desire thick on his breath. "Please…"
And because, when it came down to it, Raphael had never been able to deny Michael anything, he crushed one last open-mouthed kiss to the column of Michael's throat, just to feel the vibration there, before lifting his quivering hips and socketing their bodies together. He rolled his hips once, just to test out the feel of their hard lengths thrusting together, and the pleasure of it made his vision go white, everything fuzzy at the edges. Michael gasped and hooked his legs around Raphael's waist, drawing back a little before grinding forward frantically, chasing the friction. The sensation ate him to the bones.
They were straining against each other now, rocking to a helpless, hopeless rhythm as the mounting pressure between their legs pushed to a white-hot blaze. Michael hissed and cried Raphael's name every time he was pinned into the bed, fingers raking up and down his arms, carding into his hair, skating and slipping on his sweat-slick back. Raphael knew he wouldn't be able to hold out much longer. Sucking a bruise into the side of Michael's neck, he drew his body taut and gave one last, minute thrust.
He had just enough time to decide that it was a secret, too, how quietly Michael came, before the muscles in his stomach clenched and every bone in his body shuddered and shook with the impact of his orgasm.
As they collapsed into each other, sated and exhausted and still tangled up, the world swam back into focus. Slowly, Michael shifted his head and pressed a solemn kiss into the hollow of Raphael's neck.
A divine pardon.
In just one night, the rain had cleared. The sunlight that streamed in through the window was bold and clean, piercing enough to chase away stray thoughts, pouring luxuriously across the bed. In the softness of the morning, that fresh, golden brilliance perfectly distilled the essence of what it felt like to be profoundly, inescapably alone.
Raphael supposed he should get used to it.
The previous night, he had waited until Michael had finally stopped murmuring nonsense and fallen asleep—giving in, no doubt, to the urgings of his long-overtaxed body—before slipping out to clean up. This task accomplished, he had dressed himself, fought and lost a fruitless internal battle, and finally crawled back into bed. He had sat against the headboard, listening to the soft staccato of the rain. On the far end of the bed, Michael had draped himself haphazardly across most of the pillows, his right hand practically dangling over the edge. Occasionally, Raphael had reached across the gulf of cold air between them to brush a breath-displaced lock of hair out of his face.
He must have evidently drifted off to sleep at some point, however, because when he woke the sun had already risen, and he was alone.
Not for long. The door chose that moment to bang open, and Michael came barging in. His pajama top was splayed open to mid-torso, his hair loose and messy, a halo of curls around his head. Michael's face was paler than ever, completely drained of colors, and for a moment, Raphael felt an irrational lurch of fear in his chest. Had they been discovered?
"That was Gabriel on the communicator," Michael said, an edge of wildness in his voice that set Raphael's guard up. He narrowed his eyes.
"She told me that you have left your post in Valhalla, and that—that you're planning to leave Eden. She begged me to find you and persuade you not to go."
An unexpected turn of event. Nevertheless, he took it in stride. "It looks like I've unknowingly helped you fulfill my wife's first request, then."
Michael looked bewildered. "What is the meaning of this?" he questioned. "Why did you resign?"
"I had no choice in the matter," Raphael replied with a shrug. "It seems I have been relieved of my military duties."
He had truly wanted to avoid going into details, but, upon seeing the utterly pole-axed expression on Michael's face, had no choice but to continue, "In his effort to lobby for your release, Sayaka started up an investigation into the records of the Earthian mission in order to determine whether the ten-thousand minuses mark had indeed been reached. As it turned out, the numbers came up a few short."
"But what does that have to do with you leaving Eden?"
Raphael found himself retreating into the empty politeness he had perfected to deal with Michael's obstinacy. "Don't be intentionally obtuse, Lord Michael." He held up his fingers, listing off the charges. "Falsifying evidence, declaring war on unjustified grounds, recklessly endangering all military personnel aboard the national flagship. These are no minor transgressions, and unlike you, I do not have the crest of nobility to fall back on. I'm due to return to Valhalla in three days for the court-martial."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Michael pressed, circling around the bed to stand before Raphael.
He raised an eyebrow. "What difference would it have made?"
"Does Gabriel know?"
"About the trial? Not yet, though it can only be a matter of time. Of course, I intend to be long gone before that happens." He pulled his knee up to his chest, turned from Michael's angry gaze to stare out the bright window, through which the future was about to come crashing in. "It's a shame that Gabriel found my letter so quickly. I had not intended for her to learn of my plan for another couple of days."
"But she's your wife! How could you treat her so callously?"
If this was the approach Michael wanted to take, he would have to try much harder than that.
"You are in no position to chastise me," Raphael said, staring pointedly at Michael's bared throat, still wearing the telltale imprints of Raphael's teeth, the bruises of his sucking kisses. "After all, are you not my accomplice in my betrayal of Gabriel?"
"I don't…" Michael sputtered, and dropped into uncomfortable silence. No good deed went unpunished.
"It's alright. Along with my parting letter, I also left Gabriel all the documents necessary for the annulment of our marriage. She will understand. My estate and all my worldly possessions will go to her upon my departure. I am a free man now."
He was still avoiding Michael's eyes, focusing instead on the fascinating way sunlight was turning the edge of his hair into flossy, filamented silk.
"If you're still concerned about discovery, don't be," he heard himself say, in what was hopefully a reassuring tone. "If our… dalliance should somehow be found out, you can place the blame on me. Tell them that I took advantage of your kindness—that I forced myself upon you." In a way, perhaps he had. "I'm already a war criminal, soon to be a fugitive from justice. What's one more crime to add to the list?"
"Forgive me. That was out of line."
The silence that fell between them was heavy and stifling, an immense gravity.
With some effort, Michael shook himself out of the stupor, and barreled on furiously, "Where would you even go? Earth?"
Raphael gave a faint laugh. "I don't think that would be right. And there is, of course, the issue of the Black Cancer. Haven't I told you that I have no intention of joining the ranks of the Fallen?"
"I haven't decided," he shrugged noncommittally. "Maybe I'll go to the end of the universe." Some dark, silent corner of space, filled with a deep, thorough nothingness: a place where a man could forget, could learn to fall out of love with the sun.
It took an eternity to live. It took only a moment to die. It was difficult to say with accuracy which was the more painful of the two.
"That's absurd!" Michael retorted. He took a few more steps forward and sat on the edge of the bed, hands flexing and clenching painfully at his sides. Perhaps he meant to choke the sense out of Raphael.
"I speak in jest," Raphael said. That blue gaze was on him still, slicing into his flesh. "I don't plan to hijack the HFS, and I have no particular destination in mind. I only intend to go as far as my power can take me." He paused contemplatively. "Mars, perhaps. I hear it is quite a sight to see this time of year."
"Endless deserts," Michael said hollowly, lapsing for a brief moment into the single-minded scholar Raphael had first fallen in love with, many years ago. "Swept by colossal dust storms, thousands of miles in diameter. Wind velocity up to 125 mph. Frozen nights."
"A red world," Raphael nodded. "Steeped in solitude. Did you know that the Earthian named it after a pagan god? Mars, the god of war. Doesn't that seem terribly appropriate?"
"No!" Michael snapped, and the fire rushed back into his eyes. "I won't allow it! Take it back! You are of noble class by marriage, and if I—when I regain office—you will be by my side. That's the way it's always been, and that's the way it always will be."
It was not an implausible suggestion. Michael's first ascension had come to him like a natural gift; he had soared like a rising star—and he would again and again, no matter how many times he was struck down. He could pull Raphael up on the wings of his success, and he would do it, do it all without a thought.
"That's right," Raphael thought aloud. "Everything could go back to the way it was. You would be the presiding lord, and I would be your aide. Serve you tea, arrange your schedule, organize your paperwork, and try to forget, each day, every day, that this night I spent in your chamber ever happened."
A chaste marriage—a chaste charade. And it would all be so easy, because he had become so used to it.
"But I refuse," he said, shaking his head. "You cannot give a starving man a taste of the sweet fruit he had long coveted, only to dangle it just out reach immediately after. It would be kinder to take away the source of temptation. Cruelness does not suit you, anymore than denial suits me."
It's over, Lucifel. I've broken all ties to the past. I am not bound to you anymore.
Freedom. Freedom was the punishment for his sin, but also the exoneration. That darkest voice had been silenced, at long last.
Michael's expression broke into a million white shards, a mirror of his heart. "I order you—I order you not to leave!" he yelled, but his voice came out ragged, without conviction, much less persuasive power.
He made a move to rise to his feet, but Raphael reached out quickly, grabbed him by the collars of his pajamas and reeled him in. He fought the token protest, wrapped his arms around Michael and ran his hands up and down his back, chasing away the wracking sobs fighting to get out, shushing into his hair. After a moment, Michael went still, and nestled in closer, face buried into Raphael's chest.
"Have you already forgotten?" Raphael murmured softly. "You can no longer command me to obey you—nor can I you. Both of us have returned to where we started: as equals. Isn't that funny?"
"No," said Michael sullenly. "You're a liar. You lied to me. Only yesterday, you told me you would always be by my side."
"So I would have. But things have changed. We lived in an age that has already ended. The future of Eden has no place for me in it, but you will transcend. You are still needed here."
"What does that even mean?"
"A change is coming," Raphael whispered into Michael's hair. "Can't you sense it? It's coming from above, and it will reach down into the very bones of our society. A new order is rising: not military aggression, but scientific research and social upheaval. You would be perfect in that world. It was made for you."
The front of his shirt was suddenly damp with hot tears. He didn't want to forget anything: all this and a thousand achingly beautiful details more. Michael in the school library, sprawled asleep across his open book, glasses slipping off the bridge of his nose. Michael, older now, but still petulant and obstinate, holding out his bleeding hand for Raphael's healing kiss. Michael in the control room, blue eyes blazing with anger, barking crisp, thunderous orders as the floor beneath them shook faintly under the Black Angels' attack. Every memory, every concise image would always be there, burnt into his fingertips.
"Must you all leave me?" Michael pleaded. "Lue… Chihaya… and now you. Must I always be the one left behind?"
"It can't be helped," Raphael said, smiling ruefully. "You are the best of us—naturally, it falls upon you to endure our shortcomings."
"How much more will you have me endure? You leave all your possessions to Gabriel, but you would leave me with nothing. There will be nothing else that can be taken from me once you're gone." A shudder of breath, hushed and blurred out. "I need you."
"No, you do not," Raphael said. "I will only hinder you. Without me here, you will have nothing left to lose—and you will be stronger for it. The strength to lead our people: that is my last gift to you, my lord."
Something to forget me by.
"I don't want it," Michael insisted, voice muffled in wrinkled silk. "I'm tired of it all—I can't do it anymore. I've given up so much for the good of Eden. Why can't I ever have anything for myself?"
"All these years, I've dreamed about this day," Raphael admitted, and now his voice too was breaking. "You don't know how much I've longed for the day when I could put my arms around you, when you would tell me you want me—need me, above all else. Now that it is here, it's already too late to matter."
"How can you say that?" Michael muttered drowsily. "What good is telling me any of that now?"
"Forgive me then. Would it please you instead to hear me admit, for once, that I was wrong?"
"Wrong about what?"
"Everything. The Earthian are not the threat. They are the cure. The solution to our problem lies on Earth. The far shore is in sight, it is up to you now to guide the angels to it. The night is darkest before dawn."
What had Kagetsuya told him before leaving the Metatron to go to Chihaya's aid? To love someone meant to protect the thing they treasured the most. The ache took its time, but his bones finally opened up, and hugged it home. The art of losing was all too easy to master.
"I know you've already lost so much," he said, hands clasped tight at the small of Michael's back. "But it is not hopeless. Someday, you may see them again. Chihaya will come back to you—and Kagetsuya, too. Kagetsuya will be your link to Lucifel, and on that day, you will no longer be alone. They will all return to Eden, return to you."
"But you will not?"
Raphael knew his reply should have been, "That is how it should be," but he couldn't quite bring himself to be that cruel. At some indeterminate point, the venom had been sucked from his marrow, bleached away by the white flood of light. Instead, he leaned down, brushing his nose across the top of Michael's head and inhaling deep the sun-steeped, intoxicating warmth of his golden hair.
"Who knows?" he found himself whispering. Only God, but God would not speak.
"Don't go. Stay. Stay with me, just for a moment longer."
Something was happening to him. He didn't understand. He had existed before this, and would continue to exist after, but already the velocity of the blood circulating in his veins was slowing into stillness. A part of him would always live in this excruciatingly bright memory, always waiting for the future to arrive.
"Alright. Just for a moment longer."
Perhaps it would be alright to stay awhile. Perhaps he wouldn't leave today. Perhaps.