The tile was old - faded and worn, with more than a few cracks. Florian traced the edge of his shoe along one of those cracks, his thoughts hundreds of miles away from this tiny courtyard in a villa in Rome.
He'd considered taking a walk, but it was after midnight, and all cities looked the same in the dark. Rome looked like Milan, or Florence, or any of the other places they'd stayed since leaving Morocco.
He made a point not to think about those days - after Morocco when he'd nearly lost Ray more than once. Some of his memories were unclear anyway - hazy and incomplete, like a puzzle without all the pieces.
Other memories were too clear, every detail preserved in sharp-edged crystal. They came back to him at awkward times - not just in dreams, but cutting into conversations and stopping him mid-motion without warning.
Ray hated those moments, and regarded him warily, keeping his distance even when they were in the same room. He made efforts at conversations and took Florian to museums and concerts without complaint, but nothing crossed the invisible line that had been drawn between them.
It was a warm, humid night, but Florian shivered from the cold that remained deep in his body. He was never really warm now but he couldn t bring himself to care. It was less of a burden than the weight of Ray's gaze; always on him, even when they weren t in the same place. It made him weary.
Florian clutched the blue diamond he had found in the treasure room that nearly became his and Ray s tomb. Precious, beautiful stones have been symbols of life and death all his life, so perhaps it made sense that he would finally claim one for himself and in such circumstance.
He tilted his head back to look at the full moon. He knew it was beautiful, but he didn t feel it. He lifted his diamond up until he was viewing the moon through it, the image captured, and remade a dozen times.
He closed his eyes and made a foolish wish, aching to be warm and light and free from the memories of Morocco. From the weight of Ray s concern. From the echoes of pain that never seemed to fade.
When he opened his eyes again, tears distorted his vision. He dropped the diamond into his lap and bowed over it.
Sleep had never been a friend. As a child Florian had driven his mother and a series of nursemaids to despair over his inability to sleep through the night. Eventually he d found ways to cope with these periods of wakefulness wandering idly through the rarely used rooms of the du Rochefort mansion.
His childish imagination made treasures out of faded bric-a-brac and staged high adventures starring imagined ancestors in long out-dated clothing. When reality arrived, in the form of bright squares on empty walls, and furniture impressions left on barren carpets, Florian s nighttime wanderings ceased.
He whiled away the night with books or his journal, and occasionally a instrument composing melodies sweet or melancholy according to his mood. The last nursemaid was long gone, and Mother rarely ventured into his private rooms, so he allowed himself to dream, even though he had to do so while he was awake.
It had been a long time since he d had that kind of late-night sanctuary. Too often Ray or one of the others was close by, the heaviness of their concern pressing down on him.
Florian wanted his silly fantasies and imaginary tunes. He wanted the freedom of late nights when everyone else was sleeping. He wanted to be free even if it was within the confines of a beautiful villa that felt like a cage.
Florian got none of that as he placed his blue diamond on the nightstand and settled into bed, bone weary and hoping he would sleep without dreaming.
The pain in his nightmares always felt real.
When he was a child, his mother would soothe him with a spoonful of honey and a lullaby. It rarely lulled him to sleep, but it usually calmed him enough for the household to settle.
Ray offered brandy instead of honey, and never sang, but Florian found comfort in his presence. Ray would read passages from books, or describe his plans for Noir s next acquisition. Sometimes he d drift off to sleep in a chair and Florian would cover him with a blanket and pretend he could see Ray s dreams.
He wondered if Ray s dreams ever tried to kill him. Surely that was what was happening now bloody knives deep inside, stabbing, tearing, while cruel hands held Florian down and cold eyes watched it all.
It hurt too much to scream. The only sound he could make was a high, keening wail as he pressed his face into the tear-stained pillow.
The heavy scent of opium filled his nose and mouth and lungs. He tried to lift his hands, to clutch at his own throat, but his wrists were pinned.
Twin lines of searing pain raced up his back and he keened again, writhing as his shirt was torn away.
Please, he begged, knowing there was no one there to save him. He d stopped believing in salvation long before he d been torn apart by unforgiving hands and a cold blue eye.
No matter what he believed, he d always found peace in sacred places. As he fell towards darkness, he wondered if oblivion was just a different kind of sanctuary.
Finally. Ray greeted him with an exaggerated sigh. I thought you were going to sleep all day.
Florian, stared blankly at him wondering why everything was at a funny angle. He didn t feel well perhaps he had been drinking?
Want some help? Ray didn t wait for an answer before he was at Florian s side, lifting and turning him so he could sit up. Florian hurt all over and he felt as if he might fall over. Actually, that seemed like a good idea
No you don t, Ray gripped Florian s shoulder and held him up. Sit up.
Florian frowned at him in confusion. He was too tired to play any of Ray s games. He wished that whoever was standing so close behind him would move.
Annoyed, Florian glanced over his shoulder.
Stop! Ray grabbed Florian as he bolted up off the bed. He tried to hold Florian still as the man twisted and turned frantically, eyes wide with fear. He stopped suddenly and stared at the bed. The sheets were stained with blood. A dozen cream colored feathers were scattered across the surface.
Florian tore himself out of Ray s grip and lunged for the mirror. He was shocked into silence by his own reflection.
I thought you were having a nightmare, Ray told him, approaching as if Florian were a skittish animal. I found you like this.
Florian reached back over his shoulder to touch the wing that couldn t possibly be attached to his back. The contact sent a shiver up his back, but he wasn t sure if it was pleasure or terror that caused it.
In those late night childish fantasies, he d often wanted to be a bird. He d never even thought of being an angel.
The laughter caught him by surprise but the tears didn t. He braced himself on the dresser and ignored Ray as he concentrated on these ridiculous, improbable wings.
They unfurled with a thought, extending outward farther than he could reach. There was pain in his back, and the pull of dried blood, but it was tolerable, and he wasn t going to dwell on the ordinary at a time like this.
Ray was watching him with a look of barely contained excitement.
Do you think you could fly? he finally asked.
"I don't know," Florian replied, barely noticing how calm and even his voice was despite the chaos in his head. If he'd been asked that question a few months ago - even in these ridiculous circumstances, he would have had an answer. His home and family were gone, but he'd clung fiercely to his pride and sense of self. What had happened in Morocco had left him with nothing - not even an understanding or control of his own body.
He studied his reflection in the mirror, frowning in concentration as he tried moving the wings. It was awkward and stiff, like walking after sitting for too long. He could feel Ray watching him intently, but he ignored him for now. He had no idea what this could mean, or even how he was supposed to feel. It was just one more unthinkable event.
The wings were extended fully and moving gently forward and back sending a cool breeze through the room. Ray had taken a step closer and was studying the movement intently.
"How did it happen?" he asked long after the silence had grown thick.
"I don't know." Florian turned to gesture at the diamond on the nightstand and knocked several items off the dresser. He flinched away from the noise and the mess, eyes wide. He pulled his wings in tightly like a shield around his body.
Ray moved closer but didn't touch, despite the intense desire in his expression. He waited, silent, while Florian struggled to regain control of his emotions. Slowly he emerged from the wings and folded them against his back.
"I was in the courtyard. The stone on the nightstand - I had it with me and used it to look at the moon. I don't know why; it was a foolish gesture." His voice dropped along with his head, and he looked down. "I made a wish. And then I came inside and had nightmares. You know the rest."
Ray's hand was warm and dry where it touched Florian's chin. He lifted Florian's head gently, urging him to look up and meet his gaze.
"This is unexpected, but you have nothing to be ashamed of."
"Of course not," Florian couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice. "We're fleeing the ghost of a madman, and I've grown wings. The only thing that I don't understand is why the wings aren't black."
"You're not a fallen angel, Florian. There's a logical explanation for this."
"We're in the Holy City, and I'm not fit to wear white wings." Florian's tone changed as he brushed past Ray to stare out the window. "I heard them talking. When the opium had me and I was bound and helpless in Isaac's house. They said I deserved what had happened to me."
"They didn't know, Florian. They thought you were a rich nobleman seeking a thrill."
"What if I had been? Would the things that happened be acceptable? Would it matter? It didn't hurt less because I think I didn't deserve it. Perhaps someone thinks it was justice served."
"Is that what you think?"
"Does it matter?" Florian finally turned away from the window, wings opening partway as he moved. "No amount of wishing can change what happened or alter what I've become."
"What have you become, Florian?" Ray broke his paralysis at least and reached out to Florian, capturing his arm. His hand was hot against Florian's cool flesh. "How did this change you?"
"How didn't it change me?" Florian snapped, pulling away. "Everything I was taught. Everything I believed in has changed. Even my body betrayed me." The wings snapped out to their full span, knocking over a book and sending a table lamp teetering. Ray caught it before it fell. He set it down deliberately and stared at it for a moment before speaking.
"What you call betrayal, I'd call a gift." He shook his head ruefully and turned to face Florian again. "Not so many years ago, I would have sold my soul for a set of wings. Even now... even now I would..."
"Don't say it!" Florian snapped. "Don't try to guilt me into being grateful." He lowered his voice and looked down at the floor. "Not everyone wants to fly, Ray. Some of us are content to be earthbound. All I ever wanted was a home and someone to love. It didn't have to be a palace, just somewhere warm and safe."
"You're safe with me, Florian. Don't you know that by now?"
"I..." Florian's voice faltered and tears clouded his eyes. He looked away before speaking again. "I wish I could believe that."
Ray's expression remained the same, but his eyes darkened and his posture became more rigid and formal. When he spoke again, his voice was soft and urgent but he didn't reach out.
"What can you believe in, Florian?"
"I don't know." The words were spoken quickly, as if Florian were trying to be rid of them.
"If you have nothing else," Ray said at last, moving close enough to finally touch those magnificent, damnable wings. "If you can believe in nothing else, then believe in these."
Florian shivered at both the touch, and the intensity of Ray's gaze. Standing so close he could almost feel the warmth of the other man's body. It made him ache, and he took a half step back.
"What would you have me do?" Florian finally asked, trying to cover his discomfort with words. "Climb out a window and hope these things will keep me from falling?"
"Why not? That's what flying is, isn't it? Being above the ground and not falling?"
Florian gave a high, startled laugh at that, shaking his head at the absurdity of this conversation and the wings that had caused it.
"Not falling it is," he agreed. He turned without hesitation and strode to the window, fumbling with the catch before flinging the two full-length panels open and stepping out onto the tiny balcony. The air was crisp and cool, and he reveled in the feel of it against his wings. He spared a moment of regret for the lack of a shirt, then tossed a look at Ray before stepping forward and up onto the balcony's rail.
"Florian?" Ray was behind him, and Florian could feel the other man's uncertainty as if it were a tangible thing. Instead of making him hesitate, it spurred Florian forward.
The wings flapped frantically as he plummeted, catching him only after his bare feet touched the grass. They pulled against his back not quite painfully, and he lifted and dropped four times before finally gaining enough control to pull upwards and remain hovering a mere hand's breadth above the ground.
Florian frowned in annoyance at the sound of Ray's laughter.
"What's so funny?" he called up to the balcony where Ray stood, watching.
"Everything," Ray replied, his eyes bright. They watched Florian with that familiar mixture of exasperation and desire. "Come back here and get some sleep. It's late and you're going to catch a cold."
Florian flapped his wings harder in annoyance, but it did lift him higher. It took several tries before he was high enough to reach the balcony. A last, stubborn burst of effort and he lifted himself over the rail. Without hesitation, Ray reached out and caught Florian around the waist, guiding him down and nearly getting knocked over in the process.
"The landing needs work," Ray told Florian once they were back inside and the window closed.
"The flying needs work," Florian countered. He was slightly out of breath, and his back ached. He shook out his wings and folded them neatly behind him before taking a seat sideways on an armless chair.
"What will we tell the others?" he asked at last, when Ray seemed content just to stare at him.
"What do you want to tell them?" Ray countered easily. He smirked at Florian's huff of irritation. "Alright then, tell them it's a miracle."
"I don't believe in miracles," Florian snapped back. "Weren't you listening?"
"I was listening," Ray assured him, his expression saying more than his words. Florian relaxed a little, his wings shifting. He stood up and walked to the nightstand, picking up the diamond. He held it up, capturing and reflecting Ray's image.
Florian opened his mouth to speak, to make another wish, but before the words formed, he stopped them. Returning the stone to its place he turned back towards Ray and stretched out his arms, and then his wings.
"Are you listening now?" he asked, watching carefully as Ray considered the question before replying.
"I believe you," Florian said, knowing it was the truth.