He was itchy.
Ben resented it so much. He was so focused on what he was reading, it seemed unreasonable to him that his back should be so itchy, so demanding of attention RIGHT THIS SECOND. He gritted his teeth, and ignored it, scrolling through the next section of Nathan's document, the part about Heaven and the War. But the skin just under his left shoulderblade kept on prickling him, and he was starting to read the same sentences over and over.
In a fit of temper, Ben cut loose. He shoved his back against the computer chair, and thrashed from side to side. There! Scratched! Stop it already!
"So you're absolutely sure that's what she said--" he heard Juno in the other room. May said not to eavesdrop but, come on! They sounded like they were standing right in front of his door!
"Luwni maast--" Juno spat the words as though they tasted bad. "The call to submission? Master to thrall?" Ben couldn't help but listen, now could he? "There's no chance you misheard it, or anything like that?"
"Look," he heard Nathan snap, "Maybe you've been addressed that way before, but I certainly haven't. Believe me, it makes an impression. There's no mistake."
"I didn't mean to offend," Juno soothed. "The phrasing is ancient, though. High-handed archaism. Even by our standards, that kind of attitude should be extinct by now."
"Yeah," Nathan brushed the comment off, his voice a little muffled. The shower just stopped running a minute ago, so Ben guessed that was Nathan talking through a towel. "So somebody's getting his rocks off playing drama domination with his monkeys." A little pause, some rustling-- then Nathan's voice was clear again. "It's likely she overheard it from her master, and learned from somebody's fatal mistake not to repeat it to us."
"You said yourself she'd been coached, though," Juno's concern was plain, even through the door. "Sent out with a personal touch on the message."
"Well, see--" Nathan hesitated, a rare thing for him. Ben leaned towards the door a little, wishing he could stretch his ears or something to hear it all better. "I only said it to her to provoke her, at first. But... the sun."
There was some kind of weight behind that phrase, and Ben suddenly felt guilty for listening. He tried to turn his attention back to the computer.
"It was a threat," Nathan said softly. "'See the sun in your eyes'. That's the thing I can't make fit." It got real quiet in the apartment after that. Ben didn't even want to hit a key on the keyboard. Nathan took a long breath, and let it out slow, and Ben felt like he could've heard it clear out in the hallway. "Humans associate the sun with life, not death. She'd never pick that up from context."
"But, how do you know--"
"I know." Nathan's voice was grim, and it cut off the forced hope of Juno's reply. "That had to come from the source. Someone wanted to make sure I heard them say they saw our kind of death in my eyes." The last word fell with such finality, it made Ben skip a breath-- "Permanent."
"Worthless trash-talk." Juno brushed it off, almost too quickly. "Your injuries were numerous-- and weird-- but you were nowhere near that badly hurt."
Ben heard a chair scrape, and he imagined Nathan sitting backwards on one of the dining chairs. It was one of those habits Ben had gotten used to over the last few weeks. Nathan didn't really like having anything but his coat against his back. He'd always sit backwards in a chair if he had half a chance, especially a high-backed chair. He'd cross his arms over the back and rest his chin on them, his back hunched, his eyes following the other person like some hungry bird of prey. He only made an exception for meals, and Ben could tell it was grudgingly so.
"I wouldn't know," Nathan muttered, and yep, it sounded like he was talking through his crossed arms. Ben smirked. "It all went down in a flash, and the damned kid distracted me at the worst possible moment."
"Come off it, Nathan," Juno muttered. "The kid saved your hide. I know who I'm talking to-- no reason to waste breath arguing when your virtue's already telling you."
"Did I miss the meeting where everyone decided how my virtue works for me?" That was an irritation Ben had always assumed was reserved only for him. "You don't know what you're talking about. So how 'bout you go ahead and humour me, junior."
Junior? Was there someone else in the room? Ben blinked. The urge to get up and go to the door was overpowering, but Ben kept his hands on the desk. No. He was going to do this right. The screensaver turned the monitor black-- Ben shook the mouse, and refocused his attention. None of his business, he told himself. Not like he could understand it anyhow.
"You seriously don't know?" Juno sounded genuinely baffled. "Remember, I told you all the energy at that place was yours. No trace of what you were fighting." Juno's voice dropped, and something about it sounded odd. Despite himself, Ben strained to listen.
"Well, all the wounds are yours, too." Something knocked the wind out of Ben, forced all the air from him at once. His eyes went wide. He couldn't see the computer anymore, couldn't see the room around him. He saw Nathan, but it wasn't Nathan anymore. It was someone with finer features, lighter hair, and horrible, gaping wounds.
"You're covered in strikes, most of them superficial--" They didn't look superficial to Ben. "-- but they all bear your signature. As if they'd been dealt from your scythe, in places." There were slashes down and across the angel's chest, weeping a strange, vibrant blood that didn't clot and wouldn't dry. There were tattered pieces of armor still clinging to his body, but much of that protection had shattered or been sliced away.
And his wings! Those beautiful brown wings didn't look so scary anymore. They were folded back, soft creamy-white down sticking out because of their lowered posture. Ruined feathers clung, stuck to blood that seeped through ragged gashes. The wings looked too heavy for the angel to lift, and they shivered weakly every time he tried to move. Everywhere Ben looked, he saw spatters of red.
"It's unmistakeable. The way you shatter armor, the way you cut flesh like tissue paper. Even without all that to go by, every strike still echoes your presence. The only time I've seen anything like it was when Yusom fought--"
"Sathariel." Nathan's reply broke the spell. Ben gasped for air, gulping each breath down gratefully. He swallowed, hard, and blinked to clear his eyes. They were still welling up with hot tears. Ben wiped them away, embarrassed and confused. He hadn't imagined that, had he? No. He'd SEEN it, felt it even. He'd been shown that, through Juno's eyes. Ben fumbled with the mouse, and scrolled the document back up again. What did Nathan say they called angels like Juno, angels like him? He found it. Images, he thought. Maybe that's what that means.
"But this can't be a reflected attack," Nathan seemed to mull the words over even as he spoke them. "I hadn't finished forming an attack to reflect."
"Right," Juno said sharply, "So now imagine if you had." His voice turned tense, "You tell me I don't know how your virtue works, but I do know this--" Ben couldn't really understand how much emotion swelled into the words, but it moved him down deep all the same. "--you're known for your follow-through. Your single-minded deadliness is legendary."
Juno's voice got tired, and the passion went out of it. "If you'd started that attack you would have finished it before you even noticed the danger." Then a bitter edge cut into the words. "That's the price of being 'in the moment', isn't it? The same strength that lets you fight without hesitation disables any natural response to--"
"Do you have any idea how ridiculous you sound, explaining my nature to me?" Nathan's voice was so cold, but Ben could tell he was frustrated too.
"Hey, I told you it was a waste of breath." Juno sounded worn out, now. "All I'm saying is, the kid pulled your focus off when no danger to yourself possibly could. If you were hurt like this with no attack, you'd be a shredded shell without the interruption."
A chair scraped, and a few sharp footsteps pulled away from the table. Ben could just bet that was Nathan getting up and starting to walk away. Juno kept on talking.
"I'd say it was dumb luck, but I know MY virtue well enough-- and I say it wasn't. The kid saw danger, and acted to stop you."
The footsteps stopped. Ben smiled. His grin spread slowly, growing more and more impish the longer silence stretched on.
"I'm going to Esa's," Nathan said, dismissively. "I'll need a tracker. I trust you can arrange that."
"Of all the--" Juno's fist slammed into the dining table. "Why have all the major players on my side of the world incarnated as IDIOTS!" His tone turned pleading, "Stay here and recover-- it's too late to do anything there but get ambushed!"
"Calm down. I'm hardly the type to worry about surprise," Nathan brushed the subject aside. "You said yourself I'm not seriously hurt."
"How long have you really been aware of yourself, Nathan, huh?" The challenge sounded like a desperation move to Ben. "Ten years? Five? Do you think you would have rushed into this a lifetime ago?" Nathan didn't answer. "Besides, it's impossible," Juno said flatly. "The only tracker I have access to is human."
"A MONKEY tracker?" Nathan demanded. "Since when are we breaking the rules?" His yell made Ben tremble, and the monitor started flickering madly. Ben closed his eyes. "What the hell, Juno? Explain to me how that happens!"
"We were blind," Juno began. Oh no. Ben felt sick, dizzy. He saw a rooftop. There was Juno. He was standing, looking out over the city from the roof's edge. "We made assumptions. He suffered."
There was a short redheaded guy on his left, and an even shorter foreign girl on his right. Ben was pretty sure she was some kind of Asian. Wherever she was from, she was pretty cool. He dug the lace armband she wore, and the choker around her neck. Juno and the redhead were wearing sunglasses, even though it was practically pitch black that night. Angels were such dweebs.
"We thought we'd lured our opponents into the open, and we were waiting for their attack."
Something startled them. They turned, looking out across the other rooftops. The redhead looked furious. The girl looked terrified.
"Who could have expected that the human beings below would be targets, that twenty thousand years of protocol would disappear in an evening's time?"
The three of them set out at a run, barely pausing when they reached the roof's edge. Roof to roof, they ran, with Juno in the lead. The last building was too tall. Juno leapt to the fire escape, and held out his hands. The redhead tossed the girl across the divide, and Juno caught her just in time to keep her from glancing off the rails. She scrambled up onto the fire escape, and the redhead followed after.
"We reacted too slowly."
Two floors up. Then the redhead put his elbow through a window. They clambered through into a long hallway. Ben could tell something horrible had happened here. There were apartments with their doors open, people had left so fast. There were shoes people lost on the ground, and they didn't even stop to pick them up. Something scared these people, bad.
"By the time we tracked the screaming...."
The redhead pointed at a door. Juno nodded. The redhead put a boot squarely next to the door handle, a mule-kick that knocked the door off its hinges and into the room. It landed on a knocked-over lamp, and slid until it fetched up against the body of a teenaged boy.
"... his entire family was dead."
Ben couldn't take in the entire room at once. At first all he could really bring himself to look at was the man sitting on the coffee table in the middle of the room. He was holding a little girl, not much older than Ben was. He was crying, but it was a ragged, wrenching kind of cry. His lips were pulled back from his teeth in an awful grimace, the kind of thing that only happens with real grief. Ben knew that kind of cry, that was what his Dad did at Grampa Joe's funeral. It was the kind of cry you probably only ever saw once in a person's life, and you spent the rest of the time praying you'd never see it again.
This man's teeth were so white. Ben found them hard to look away from, set against the rich dark brown of his skin. The man was shaking so hard that for a moment Ben thought the girl might have been moving, like maybe she was still alive. Then he saw the big gashes in her shirt, the way things had been pulled out of her. The man was trying so hard to hold them in, but they were slippery and they wouldn't go back where they'd been. Nothing would ever go back where it had been.
"They made him watch, to taste his suffering." Juno's voice only made the scene more vivid, until Ben had to look, as though looking might satisfy the visions-- might make them go away. "They harvested not only the souls, but bits and pieces of his family's flesh." There were swipes of cast-off blood all over the walls. They almost looked playful, like someone was using the blood to make pretty swirls and blotches on an eggshell canvas. There were bits pulled out of everything, even the furniture. There were strange tracks, and drag-marks painted in deep red pools. The bookshelf had been pulled down on an older woman. Stubby remnants of her arm and leg still poked out from under it. Ben didn't see the rest, and he didn't want to.
"The war involved him, Nathan. We couldn't refuse his asking for a way to strike back."
A woman, about the same age as the grieving man, lay in two separate pieces on the floor, right in front of the guy, like she'd been discarded there. It was like someone had twisted her apart, like she was a piece of taffy at the county fair. There were even strings still hanging between the two parts, and... and... Ben thought he was going to hurl. When was it going to stop? He wanted to beg Juno to quit talking, but he couldn't make a sound.
"The rules that failed to protect him couldn't be allowed to keep him helpless." The picture began to dissolve away. Ben tore his eyes open gratefully, and rubbed them, hard.
The last few words landed gently. "It would be... ignoble."
"Fine." Nathan's voice reached Ben at last. "I'll get the boy. Write down where I meet this..." His tone turned disgusted, "monkey ally." He was right at the door now, so Ben leapt up to grab the clothes off the chair. He'd been so wrapped up in his reading, he hadn't even changed!
"Right now all that matters is that an Aspect is missing," Nathan said flatly, paused outside the door. "From now on we make no assumptions. We are not fighting the war we know."