Title: The Angel of Midnight
Warning(s): implied off-screen things
Pairing(s): Master Chief x Cortana friendship, off-screen Cortana x unnamed male
Summary: AU one-shot. Legends say that on the darkest of nights, an angel with black wings will appear and grant a single wish to the person who finds him.
A/N: In memory of Cathleen Robinson (March 28, 1990 – June 9, 2011), the elder sister of my younger brother's best friend Marques Robinson, who passed away due to complications with pneumonia and leukemia. No parent should have to bury their child.
You could say that it was a curse.
Of course, you could say that it was a lot of things, but a curse would probably top the list. After all, who in their right mind would enjoy planting themselves at a random spot on the globe and having to sit there for four straight hours? His brothers and sisters certainly thought he was off his rocker for doing so every year while they were off gallivanting around the human world, but it was a directive handed down from the Queen Mum, and so he had no choice but to obey.
However, as years went by, people sought him out less and less, their skill with magic improving to the point where they were able to acquire whatever they desired within reason and so had no use for him. As the years turned into decades, he hoped to eventually be released from the duty assigned to him, but the Queen Mum showed no sign of granting a reprieve. He took to sleeping or bringing a book or puzzle with him to pass the four lonely hours – two on either side of midnight – wherein he was anchored to one place.
It was during one of these times that she found him.
The sound of soft crying drew him from his contemplation of the stars high overhead, the noise barely audible over the distant thundering of the nearby Plitvice Waterfall, and he sat up, wings twitching and feathers rippling. The crying one was clearly female, probably very young, and he turned his head this way and that, trying to locate her, finally spreading his wings and descending to the forest floor to search for her on foot, the branches too thick overhead to make seeing the ground easy.
She was sitting on the ground under an oak tree, curled up in the fetal position and trying so hard to muffle her tears, a child barely out of babyhood and still very much dependent on her parents. She was undeniably a princess, her dress made of fine silks and laces, a small but elegant silver tiara perched atop her head, but now her clothes were tattered and torn, dirt and mud smeared over her form from her flight through the forest. Something like compassion stirred in his stony heart, and he silently moved over to kneel next to her, resting a callused hand on her back.
She jerked under his touch, not realizing that she was no longer alone, and her brilliant blue eyes locked with his deep brown ones, her cropped black hair falling in her face. A moment later, she was hugging him tightly about the middle, fingers curled in his tunic as she sniffled quietly, and he warily hugged her back, gently petting her hair, and wrapped his wings around her to warm her up. She felt the brush of his feathers and blinked curiously up at him, reaching out to touch the black-coated appendages and marveling when she realized that yes, they were real. "An… gel…?" she asked hesitantly, still stroking his feathers, tears forgotten.
"Yes," he replied, stretching one of his wings out so that she could see it better, despite the fact that his black feathers blended in with the darkness of the surrounding forest.
The girl looked up at him. "You sent to take me home, angel?"
"If that is your wish." When she wiped her eyes and nodded shakily, he gathered her up in his arms and made sure that she was warm and comfortable before leaping into the night sky, her cry of surprise swiftly turning into one of delight as he carried her higher and higher on a fading thermal. He glided with her for over an hour, his internal compass guiding him to the palace where she lived, before he dropped into one of the main courtyards, a few backbeats of his wings slowing their descent. He folded his wings against his back, but she showed no sign of letting go of him any time soon; instead, she snuggled deeper into his arms, tracing the scars criss-crossing his almost pure white skin. "It hurt?" she asked, though it was more of a statement than a question.
"Only a little." A lie, but she did not need to know that; only powerful demonic blades left marks – scars – like these, and the pain was always excruciating. He stroked her hair soothingly, padding slowly over perfectly manicured grass and through the royal orchards; he remembered a time when this land had been nothing but forest and wild lands, no humans for scores of leagues. It was strange to see how much things had changed.
The tiny princess pointed to a balcony on the third floor, a large trellis covered in roses below it, and he came to a stop at the foot of it. "That one's mine," she said, looking up at him, and with that, he spread his wings again, a jump and a single beat sufficient to carry them up to the stone balcony. He alighted on the intricate mural set into the cut rock and moved though the open bay windows, lightly batting aside the filmy curtains to set her down on her plush and overlarge bed, her arms reluctantly releasing their death grip around his neck. "Come back someday, angel?" she asked, already half asleep as he pulled back the blankets and shifted her onto the sheets.
"Maybe someday," he promised, brushing her hair out of her face, "Sleep now." He waited until she was well and truly out of it to tuck her completely in, and hesitated for a second, thinking. A soft sigh escaped him, and he unfolded one of his large wings to gently yank out one of his midnight-colored feathers and curl her tiny fist around it. The feather regrew immediately, already back in place by the time he leaped skyward from the balcony.
"You know," said an older, more cultured, more feminine voice, startling him out of his reverie, "I used to think you were a dream, a fantastic adventure thought up by the mind of a child. The feather you left – in the right light, it could have been a crow's or a raven's; I could convince myself that it wouldn't ripple iridescently in sunlight and throw rainbows over the walls."
"But…?" he said finally in the silence that followed, eyes still on the stars. It had been fifteen years, almost to the day, since that night in the Black Forest, and now he contemplated the mysteries of the universe from the lower branches of a large apple tree in the palace orchards.
"But nothing could explain away the flight. The sensations, the sights, the smells; it was too different – and too real – to pass off as my imagination."
Finally, he sat up and beheld her standing on the ground below his perch. She had grown up; that was the most obvious change. She was of average height for a teenaged female and wearing an elegant, gem-studded red dress that flattered her pale skin and dark hair, the matching strappy shoes in her hand so that she could feel the grass between her toes. Her silvery tiara had a sky-blue sapphire set into it that perfectly matched her eyes.
She smiled up at him, and his lips quirked in reply as he dropped from the branch that he had been lying on, landing in a crouch in front of her before he straightened; even now, he towered over her by at least a head. "I had also wondered," she continued, "if you were my guardian angel, sent to rescue me in my hour of need."
He raised his eyebrows. "Am I?"
"Well, you most certainly have impeccable timing, if nothing else." She grinned, and he chuckled.
"My mother says that, too," he told her, "Of course, she's also called me tactless, insensitive, stoic, and stubborn, among other things." As she lifted a hand to cover her giggle, he caught sight of a beautiful bracelet, concealed beneath the long sleeves of her dress, and he reached out, brushed it with the tips of his fingers to call attention to it, silently asking.
Her face fell when she saw it, and she quickly looked away from it, concealing it once again beneath her sleeve before murmuring unhappily, "A gift from my fiancé."
That made her snort softly, a smile once again tugging at her lips, and he folded his wings tighter against his back as they moved deeper into the orchard, away from the palace, and finally out on a stone terrace overlooking the brightly lit city below. She sighed, dropping her happy mask, shoulders bowing under the weight of the future being forced on her. She leaned against the ivy-covered stone railing, looking up into the clear starry sky.
The moon was almost completely dark overhead, its silver light barely more than a sliver amongst the blackness. His sharp eyes easily picked out the remaining curve of the orb, dark without the sun's rays to light its face, before his gaze again dropped to the human girl by his side. She had lifted a hand and held it up towards the thin crescent of silver light high above, reaching out as if to hold it in her hand. "I've always wanted to go see what the moon is made of," she said absently, "Everyone says it's cheese, but no spells have been able to cover the distance to find out."
He considered internally; the Queen Mum had not placed any restrictions on his wish granting other than a "Don't go overboard – well, too overboard," so he supposed it would be okay… He just needed to bring about three hundred cubic meters of atmosphere with them and maintain a constant pressure and temperature with his magic, and she would be fine; as an angel, he did not have to worry about such things, though Earth-like conditions did make it easier for his kind to function.
Mind made up, he stated, calmly as you please, "I could take you there, if that is your wish. And bring you back home, of course."
She turned to blink at him. "'If that is my wish?'" she repeated, furrowing her brow, "You said that last time, too… right?"
"Correct. I'm the Angel of Midnight." He expected that he would have to explain his history to her, given that most angel legends had almost completely disappeared from the world, but her eyes widened in realization and awe.
"Angel of Midnight? The Angel of Midnight?"
"You've heard of me?" Precious few people had, mostly mages and other magic-practitioners.
"Only in fairy tales I heard as a child. Did you really build the Keroggan Castle in one night?"
"Probably. I don't really keep track of the wishes that I grant unless there's something significant about it." That made her smile again. "So is that your wish? To travel to the moon?"
"Why not?" She grinned, and he scooped her up bridal-style, making her squeak in surprise and throw her arms around his neck, her crimson shoes hitting the stone terrace with dual clacks. He spread his massive wings, and with a single beat, the palace fell away below them, soaring upward, higher and higher with every powerful sweep of his black-feathered appendages, her delighted laughter torn away by the wind.
Internally, he gathered his power and sectioned off the atmosphere he would bring with them – and :jumped: through space-time, the world :twisting: around them as massive palatial complex and the greenery and towns around it changed into an off white, grayish dusty plain, pock-marked here and there with craters and rocks of all sizes. He brought them down for a gentle landing on the Lacus Somniorum, the Lake of Dreams, on the near side of the moon, right at the edge of the lit side, about thirty feet from where the umbra began.
Her feet sank about an inch into the powdery soil as he set her down on the surface of the moon, careful to regulate the temperature, pressure, and atmospheric content of the air she breathed as she took as few steps away from him and watched the powder stir up about her feet. "Dusty," she commented.
"And, unfortunately, not made of cheese. Not edible in any way."
"What a shame." She knelt and cupped some of the dust between her palms, watching as it slowly trickled through the gaps in her fingers back to the surface of the moon. "Light, too. Almost… bouncy."
"Do your magicians know about gravity?"
"That's the force that keeps us attached to the earth, right?"
"Yes. Gravity here is about a sixth that of Earth, but don't go jumping, or you might fly away."
"Also a shame." She straightened and rolled back and forth on the balls of her feet, watching her dress float slightly around her, gems sparkling in the sunlight. She giggled slightly, then all out laughed, twirling around and around on the dusty plain, arms outstretched, before she let herself fall back, dust ballooning out around her as she waved her arms and legs and made an angel in the loose layers of soil over the more tightly packed layers below.
He was unable to smother a smile as he watched her roll in the dust and thoroughly ruin her dress in a slightly childish display of delight – or perhaps it was the fabled "lunacy." Her giggles died down bit by bit, and she heaved an exhausted and satisfied sigh before rolling over and sitting up, turning her head towards a glimpse of color she spotted out of the corner of her eye.
It was Earth, hanging just above the horizon line, all swaths of green forest and brown desert and blue sea, the umbra throwing a curve of the planet into shadow with pinpricks of light – tiny cities dotted here and there – the only lights in the blackness. Unbidden, tears gathered in her eyes, but only a single one escaped to roll down her cheek as she realized, 'Oh gods, I'm really here. I'm really on the moon.' She stared for what felt like hours but was only a few minutes in reality, just enough time for her to detect the slow turning of the blue-and-green planet in the distance, and she blinked back her tears, wiping away the trail of the one that had escaped and made a muted "plick" as it connected with the dusty plain. "May… may I take some home with me?"
She brushed off her dress to the best of her ability and wandered about for a few more minutes, picking two or three fist-sized rocks to bring home with her, along with some dust that he put into a magically-created vial for her and made into a simple necklace. She cradled the rocks in her arms as he picked her up, then jumped into the air, the world again :twisting: around them and bringing them back to her home above her balcony, the draft from his wings stirring the curtains as he again alighted on the mural. He turned his back while she changed into her night clothes and, just as he had fifteen years ago, tucked her into her bed. A smile twitched her lips, weariness finally showing through. "Come back someday, angel?"
He smiled, chuckled softly. "Maybe someday. Sleep now." And again, he wrapped her fingers around a plucked feather before taking flight.
One month later, on her birthday, a mysterious gift arrived for the princess: a thin, flat package wrapped in simple brown paper, a black feather tucked between the paper and the strings holding it closed from prying eyes, but what was contained within was anything but as simple as the wrapping. It was a magically created image of an immediately recognizable girl in a glittering red dress sitting on the gray lunar surface, legs curled off to one side, face turned toward the Earthrise in the background, and it was emblazoned onto a expertly cut, inch thick, rectangular slab of lunar rock with a bracket for hanging already mounted on the back.
As gossip exploded around her, the princess depicted in the image held the slab close to her chest and inhaled, catching the faintest scent of chilly night air, wild forests, and uninhabited mountains.
Years later, she woke and knew that he was here, or soon would be. Weary and heavy with the time that had passed since his last visit, the old queen shuffled her body out of the bed without disturbing her husband and pulled on a comfortable and warm woolen robe over her nightdress, sliding her slippers onto her feet and padding slowly out of the room and down the many halls leading to the main courtyard. The few servants who saw her out and about tried to convince her to return to bed, but she waved them off, saying softly, "I have something to do tonight."
They let her be but followed at a distance in case she needed help. And they were not the only witnesses to what happened next; her eldest son and his wife had also woken, as had her husband, and they had emerged onto their balconies to watch her hobble weakly across the courtyard to a fountain that had not been there a scant forty years ago. It depicted her younger self with a tall, strong angel, his wings wrapped loosely around her; it had been a gift from her parents after she told them about the angel that took her to the moon, but they had never managed to get the face quite right. She sank down onto the edge of the basin, dropping her hand and letting the water play over her fingers as she waited for him to appear.
She did not have to wait long. There was a rush of wings, a shadow racing across the courtyard, and then he was there, touching down lightly ten feet away from her, clothes magically straightened from his flight. She tilted her head up at him and smiled as he slowly walked towards her, finally kneeling at her side to pull her into a gentle hug. He whispered something into her ear, something they could not hear, and then said something that they could: "If that is your wish." When she smiled and nodded, he oh-so-carefully picked her up bridal-style, the way he had so many years ago, and took a few steps away from the fountain before spreading his wings and leaping skyward, vanishing into the night.
Legends say that on the darkest of nights, an angel with black wings will appear and grant a single wish to the person who finds him. But legends also say that after a timeless time, a woman with black hair and blue eyes began appearing with him, cradled in his arms or carried on his back between his wings, and that he never once let her feet touch the ground, so that she is still and forever in flight, borne high on the wings of the Angel of Midnight.