And Then We Say Goodbye
He screamed and he screamed. He felt like he would never run out of scream, and how could he? There wasn't even any way he could be screaming in the first place. There was a big ragged hole in his chest, and he wasn't breathing, but boy, was Ben screaming.
"No." Ben barely heard the words, and didn't even look up at Nathan. "Not again."
The screams finally abated, and Ben stared wide-eyed down at his wound. He was afraid to touch it, but the urge was pretty overpowering. He could see all the way down into his guts from this angle, slimy gray coils of gray and white under a thick web of collapsed and perforated diaphragm. They were heaving and wiggling, like they were trying to get out of him, but they didn't get very far. Ben's chest still rose and fell like he was panting, but the web of diaphragm flopped around like a wet rag.
"What's--" He was amazed he could speak, and the voice even sounded like his. He could feel the air vibrating in his throat, but he couldn't tell what was pushing it. He tried again. "What's going on, what's happening to me?"
He didn't even really know who he was talking to. He was so amazed by what was going on inside that wound, a bomb could have dropped on the whole place and he wouldn't have looked up. He didn't even notice when Nathan grabbed White by the sweater, and shoved the tracker back against the wall.
"IDIOT!" Nathan snarled, thumping White's shoulders hard against the plaster. "This is everything I DESPISE about humanity!"
"I won't do it!" White protested. His dark eyes glittered back, filled with defiant faith. "God's plan is bigger than that creature's!" White insisted, "It's bigger than yours!"
Ben was fixated, fascinated by the spiky rib-ends sticking out of the wound. Little threads of red, like tiny worms, had begun to crawl out of the marrow. They licked blindly at the space around them, seizing on what they found. Where they lapped, Ben's flesh began to rebuild itself, right before his unbelieving eyes. His skin began to twitch, papery films sprouting out of the deepest cells. The little papery bits floated until they stuck together, then they clung to one another, thickening layer by layer.
Through the film he could still see those little worms from his marrow. Where they found each other, they drew Ben's mending bones together, rebuilding their shape. He could see them filling up the space in his little heart, drawing the tattered flesh closed. Hearts were so much larger than Ben ever imagined, but when it was torn, his had looked so very small. Ben couldn't resist any longer-- he poked at the wound. It was starting to close now. The films shrank, pulling mended skin back into its rightful place. Ben felt the little marrow-worms wiggle under his touch, squirming like they were trying to get away. He let the pressure up, and they resumed their work.
"Wow!" Ben looked up gratefuly, and his eyes found the angel. "Nathan, did you do that?" Ben scrambled to a sitting position, a big smile lighting up his expression. "I'm so glad you're here," Ben said gratefully, "I was so--"
Nathan's head whipped aside, and his eyes fixed on Ben. His lips were pulled back from his teeth, a pained and furious grimace that stopped Ben cold. His eyes were empty of anything but the spirit's light, and it was darker and deeper blue than Ben had ever seen it before.
"--scared..." Ben finished the sentence, and he suddenly was.
Nathan's wings pulled out. Ben could hardly see any of the soft creamy-white down. Mostly he saw the long, raptor-like flight feathers, the outer edges of Nathan's wings curled defensively around him. Ragged cuts opened afresh under their weight, dripping angelic blood down matted feathers. They stirred up the air, tossing Nathan's hair and those blue tassels back against his cheeks. Nathan bowed his head, his eyes closing.
"It's over, Ben." Nathan's wings stirred restlessly, almost nervously. "This was never your decision. It was wrong of me to ask you to make it easier for me." Blue light poured out from between his lashes, and blazed from the sigil on his forehead. Ben could feel its pressure, even now. Panic rose up in his throat, and Ben fought back tears.
"You can't stop this," Nathan was saying grimly, determination driving the words home. "But if you fight, the soul you have left may not survive."
"FINE!" Ben yelled. There was no fighting the tears. His face felt hot and he couldn't stop sobbing. "Go ahead and kill me!" Ben wailed, "You... you flying bully!"
Disappointment sucked all the remaining fight out of him, and Ben gave over to the sobs. "I came here to save Charlie!" he wailed, "Lamayel's Thorn would have killed me anyway!" And he just wanted to crawl inside that hole in his chest, just fold inside himself and die, because neither the Thorn nor Charlie were anywhere. So why should he even care if Nathan killed him now? "I lost it, and I lost her! So it just doesn't matter anymore!"
Nathan's eyes opened gracefully. When he finally spoke, his voice was so gentle, so calm, the words wrapped around Ben like a warm blanket. "So that's what you believed..." Ben's sobbing slowed, little hiccups punctuating the last few of his wails. "The Thorn can never kill its wielder, Ben."
So he was wrong about that too. Ben swiped at the tears still bubbling out of his eyes. He was angry at himself, angry at Nathan, and above all angry that Nathan was angry at him. There was just too much anger inside him and nowhere for it to go.
"Do you also know who Lamayel is?" He was even angry at how calming Nathan's voice was. He was angry that he felt so grateful for the sound. Using those angel tricks was cheating, Ben thought. It wasn't fair. If he wanted to be mad, Nathan should let him stay mad.
"How could you wield his agony, the piercing pain of romantic love?" Nathan asked gently. "How did you think you could make it respond?"
"So," Ben whispered, humiliation stealing nearly all the sound out of his voice, "It was a lie."
"Lies." Nathan's wings sagged behind him, and the angel turned away. His shoulders dropped, as though the weight of his spirit was too much for them to hold up anymore. His wings folded back, and Ben could see more of that soft cream down. It smelled so warm, and the scent of fresh-cut violets came back to haunt Ben's mind.
"They're so easy to believe," Nathan said softly. The sigil on his forehead faded, the light went low in his eyes. "When they make us feel important."
"I just wanted to do some good," Ben sniffed, wiping the last few tears out of his eyes. "Can't you understand? Just some good, before I die!"
"Good?" Nathan's eyes met Ben's again, and then the world began to go faint and faraway around them. "Is that what you think you were doing?"
Even Nathan's form faded away, until all there was, was a murky sky and a stretch of wasteland. He saw armies marching, following their religious sigils. It was kind of like Ben had seen in the illustrations in his grandfather's book, the one about Crusades, but the details were different. Peoples' coats were plainer, and their armor was all beat up. They were so dirty, even the guy in shinier armor on a big white horse. Ben could see the pain on their faces, how tired they were, how hungry and far from home. People were watching, huddled in the ramparts of a citadel, and he could see the fear in their eyes, too. He could see children huddling against their mothers, wailing as their fathers marched away.
Suddenly Ben knew he was seeing through the angel's eyes.
"No thought, you say, for how noble it made YOU?" And they just kept looking to their symbols, their tired eyes following the flutter of glory held before them. They marched and they sang while they went to raid peoples' homes. How righteous, to burn down a city full of broken families and pillaged shanties. "Will your kind never learn the price of that fantasy?"
And then the images starting moving faster, flashing by Ben's eyes. Fields full of the sick, laid out on rotting blankets. Their faces were twisted in agony, and peppered with little sores. Nuns tried to tend to them, but they only sickened further.
"The greatest sorrows, the most ironic of failures driven by mercy and good intent..."
And then they were in a jungle, and there were kids, barely older than Ben, struggling through the tall grass. One was begging the other to hang on, but his guts were squiggling around like Ben's, only they were spilling into the water, too...
"The bloodiest moments, which strip the world of innocence and make us wonder if goodness can exist.."
Women and children scattered, driven from their picket lines by a ball of fire. The sign on the storefront was burning, but Ben could still read, "Family Planning, Prenatal Care" on the plaque. There was a pregnant lady, the blast had knocked her down. She had glass in her back, but she was trying to help a doctor. He was face down, and he wasn't moving. Most of the people inside didn't get out at all, he could see bits and pieces strewn from the doorway that he didn't want to identify. There were people outside cheering. They were waving signs, and they were cheering. One of them had a tiny little baby in a jar. Ben felt sick. He didn't want to see anymore.
"The truest obscenity, the darkest ugliness, all spring from the same poisoned, self-deluding dream. All traced to a lie, built of three gravid and fateful words."
Ben saw a man, not much older than Mr. White, being dragged into a circle of white-hooded cowards. They couldn't even face the man, couldn't look him in the eye as they beat him.
There were people stoning a man, he looked starved. He was still clutching a pig's ear with bloodied fingers. Ben hadn't ever thought about what a stoning really looked like. There were bruises all over him, places where the skin had split. It was all taking such a very long time to happen.
There was a boy tied to a fence. There was blood running down his face. He was sobbing brokenly. Somebody just left him there, left him strung up like he was nothing. They beat him up and just left him, in ripped-up clothing, to bleed out on the ground. And then he stopped moving, and he wasn't crying anymore.
The vision let go of Ben, and he gasped. He stared blankly at Nathan, slowly taking in everything he'd seen. No wonder Nathan was so angry, when that's how he saw the world. No wonder he looked so tired, when Ben asked him to explain. Because he saw these things, and he saw into the people who made them happen. And they all looked the same. They all looked filled to the brim with how right they were, and how proud they were of it.
"All of you die," Nathan said wearily, letting his eyes drift closed again. "But not all of you have to get sucked into this mess." He shook his head, sadly. "That's all you changed. That's all you could ever change." He opened his eyes slowly. "Do you see it yet?"
"The thing inside me didn't trick me," Ben said softly. He felt sleepy, like his eyelids were dragging him down. That flower-scent got stronger, and Ben's anger started draining away. "I tricked myself." He rubbed his eyes, as if he could wipe the drowsiness out of them. "Trying to pretend I didn't want to feel like a big hero. When all I did was run from reality as if I could get away with it."
Nathan nodded. His wings pulled out again, and their warmth was so inviting. Ben wished he could reach out, just for a moment, and touch them to see what it felt like. They looked so soft on the inside.
"That's what you were doing," it dawned on Ben, as he looked at those brilliant wings. "When you spared me." Ben swallowed, hard. The next words were harder to say. "It was wrong."
"Yeah, Ben." Nathan stepped up to him, "It was." Ben realized he'd crawled forward onto his knees. He didn't care. Those wings were folding around him, and he could hear them brushing the floor. They were drawing him in, and for the first time in his life, he truly felt safe.
Nathan bowed his head. Ben did too. His life was over.
It was time to let go.
"And just like that, I was ready to go."
Nathan's wings closed around them, and Ben finally felt the brush of those long, silky feathers. They were smooth, and soft, and so very warm. Far away somewhere, he thought he could hear singing. He felt hope rise in his throat, like it was trying to join that song. He turned his shining eyes up to Nathan, but Nathan's eyes were closed.
"He laid his hand on my head, and it felt so comforting."
Nathan's hand settled on Ben's hair, and everything in Ben just wanted to fold into that contact at once. It was a touch that accepted him, that beckoned him to rest. Ben's eyes wouldn't stay open. He kept trying. He didn't want to miss this, it was the last thing that would ever happen to him. He wanted to see and feel it all.
"All I remember is feeling grateful. Like it was the first kind thing I ever felt. It wasn't overwhelming, the way it had been when I first saw his wings."
Ben's eyelids were just too heavy. He let them drop, and he couldn't open them again.
"I floated into a warm, red haze."
Ben saw himself, looking down from above like he was a soap bubble that had broken free of that lost, lonely little boy. His shirt was all torn, his skin all sunken and slack. He'd never seen himself that way. He wondered if that's how he looked to everybody-- so very helpless, so very small. It seemed strange to Ben that he'd ever felt the way that body looked. He felt so peaceful, now.
"I drifted away from my body, and it looked so frail from there. Tired and empty, but still struggling."
His body twitched. He saw it stir. It didn't pull him back, though, like people said it did in shows about near-death experiences. It moved on its own. He could feel something flowing deep within it, a black current that ran beneath the blood. Ben watched it with detached curiousity, like it belonged to someone else. He guessed it did, now.
"Then, I could hear the voice coming. It was so twisted, beautiful, and vicious. I heard it speak, for the first time."
Ben's eyes rolled back in his head. His little lips peeled back from the teeth, a grimace that showed Ben his own molars. The sound came from everywhere, it rippled through him where he hung in the air. It spoke in words Ben didn't understand, but they were words he'd never forget.
"Teiqeh, alqa wuias huiaqeh."
Nathan's wings dropped. They folded back, and lowered behind him.
"Nathan looked at me. Not at the body. Right at me, where I hung there, halfway free."
Ben could see so much sadness in that face. For a second, Nathan's face looked as frail and small as his had. But there was more to it. Nathan's angel was in pain, too. Ben wanted to reach across the air, to comfort that aching spirit. Nathan looked at him helplessly. He stepped back from Ben's body, and dropped his hands to his sides.
"He looked at me like he was sorry, like there was nothing he could do. He looked at me, then he turned and walked away!"
Ben couldn't think about it, couldn't relive it anymore. He slapped the pretty blue bedspread, then looked up at May with instant guilt all over his face.
"He just left me there, and then I woke up here again." Ben's eyes pleaded with May, searching her expression for clues. "It just doesn't make any sense, you know?"
"I don't know," May said carefully. She wrung her pale hands, pulling a little on the blue silk that made up her dress. Little shimmers, shiny turquoise flowers, shivered across the embroidered surface. For a moment, they made Ben think of Nathan's eyes.
"Then explain it to me!" Ben didn't mean to yell at her, but he couldn't hold it in anymore. "Why did he do it, May? Tell me! Is this some kind of cruel joke?" Ben clutched at the bedspread, his fists clenching and unclenching because they just didn't know what else to hang on to. "He spent all that time convincing me I wanted to die-- then he just abandoned me!"
"It's not that simple!" May looked like she was about to cry. Ben hung his head, ashamed of himself. "Not everybody defines kindness the same way," May tried to explain. "You say you were halfway free. So you know."
May fell silent for a moment, composing herself. When she spoke again, her voice was careful and quiet. "Living death is hard and bitter to anyone who knows what's beyond it." May seemed to consider her next words for a long moment, before saying them. "Some people would rather push you away than keep you where you shouldn't be." She tilted her head, and wrung her hands again. "Some people see attachments as dangerous, and try not to threaten anyone." Her voice quivered, and Ben felt horrible for making her so sad. "Maybe you don't understand that, but you shouldn't call it cruel."
Ben nodded. Better he shouldn't open his mouth, he told himself. It would only make things worse. But as May turned to go, his inner idiot got hold of him again. There was a foot, and it would have to be stuck somewhere.
"It was what I said, wasn't it?" There. The question was out there. Might as well commit. "I mean, what the creature said through me. I saw your face when I repeated it. Tell me what it means."
May stopped, and bowed her head. She didn't look back at Ben.
"'As it is done, she is abandoned,'" May whispered. "A sort of trade." Ben could see her wipe her eyes. "It told Nathan it has Esa-- and if he frees you--" She pulled a breath in, and straightened her shoulders. She forced calm back into her voice.
"Well. He can't push you away anymore," May said gently. "Try to take comfort in that."