Blue-black wings opened, their feathers strangely tattered. Something settled on the rim of a city litter bin. At first glance, it was a bird like any other bird. But it was bigger than it should have been, and there were things wrong with it, details that didn't belong. Like the way its feathers ended in spiny fringes, putting a strange hum on every flap of its wings. Like the way its wings folded, with extra joints where no joints should be. Like the way its legs went up too high, and its feet articulated too far, letting it pick casually through the litter.
Its head was a little too long, its eyes oddly bright and reflective. It was at home in the dark. It got impatient, and leaned forward, sifting through pieces of paper with its hooked beak. Two other creatures, nearly identical to the first, settled on either side of it. The one on the right stretched its neck out, its beak snatching at a piece of paper the lead bird seemed to have rejected. Its intrusion was met by a sharp, quick clack of the leader's beak. The newcomer lowered its wings in submission, and settled into its proper place.
Their breathing was the only movement on this deserted street. There was a terrible pressure here. The trio clearly felt it, and their heads darted warily, eyes peering into the shadows.
"You all right?" A human voice drew their attention. They drew themselves up, pulled in their wings, and tried to look as bird-like as they knew how.
White led the way, rounding the corner with Ben in tow. "You're lookin' kinda-- droopy, man."
"Cost of doing business." That voice got the attention of all three. Their bright eyes lit, and the lead bird tapped the tips of its beak together rapidly. Tat-tat-t-t-t-t-tat-tat-titch! The others bent low, their wings shifting, listening intently.
"Just keep walking." Nathan continued. "I'll deal with it when we're done." He was walking slowly, his hand still pressed to the wound in his chest. His skin was ashen-- covered in a fine, cold sweat.
"Weird." Ben's voice seemed to disturb the bird-creatures, and the lead bird pulled out its wings. "There aren't any cars on the streets here." When Ben looked their way, all three birds froze in place. "Not even dogs," Ben continued, his eyes skipping past them. "It looks so-- empty."
"Yeah," Nathan muttered. "Familiar, too."
Familiar? They hadn't gone to the suburbs, the way Ben expected. White had looped back along the West Side highway, and GPS'ed an address off a slip of paper. Esa lived in midtown, amongst a bunch of run-down townhouses that looked like all the others. They'd parked way too far away, in Ben's opinion, and walked a route that took so many twists and turns that for all Ben knew this could have been any street in the city at all. As far as Ben knew, he was genuinely and thoroughly lost.
Only, he wasn't, not entirely, because a couple of doorways were starting to look familiar. That didn't make any sense to Ben, not really. There wasn't even anything around here, nowhere he would have hung out. It was just brownstones and bodegas, townhouses and storefronts. Nothing would have brought Ben down here, so why did it feel like he'd been here before?
They crossed an alley, like any other alley, but the big green dumpster drew Ben's eye. There were piles of garbage bags, because one dumpster just wasn't enough for the way people consumed here. So far nothing special. So why did Ben stop, what was with the deja vu? He'd only ever been in one alley before.
"Umm... Nathan..." Ben swallowed, hard. "... is this..."
"Yeah." Nathan stalked past him. "Keep walking."
Ben's lip started to quiver. He bit it a little, his teeth scraping over dried-up skin. "Are we close to Esa's now?" he ventured. "I mean, were we close by that whole night and we never even knew it?"
Ben looked down at his sneakers. Right next to his toe, a little piece of concrete had fetched up against the sidewalk. He waited, but there was no answer from Nathan. Mr. White and Nathan just kept walking away.
"All right," Ben said, trying to prod himself into motion with the words. "I'm walking." And then he was.
When he saw the lamp-post up ahead, Ben started to tremble. There was a big dark stain in the street, blotting out the lane-line, and Ben really didn't want to see what it was. Ben could still feel that jagged cut on his cheek, and all the fear rising up to swallow him. He didn't ever want to feel fear like that again. Just thinking about that feeling was making it hard for him to breathe.
Mercifully, White turned before they got any closer. He climbed the front steps of a sweet little split-level, and Nathan followed him. Ben quickened his pace, grateful to catch up to them.
Ben didn't even reach the fence. A terrible pain hit him, like a wall of heat that shoved him back. His hands were warm-- then unbearably hot. Blisters rose all over Ben's hands, blossoming up like some kind of horrible rash. They burst, and the paper-like skin seemed to be carried up, like the heat from his hands was lifting bits of it away.
Dimly, Ben realized he was shrieking. He tried to form that awful sound into words. The air was hot in his throat, and his chest felt like it was burning. "NATHAN!" he choked. "What's happening, make it stop!" He caught little glimpses, little licks of something spurting out of the blisters. It looked like his hands were on fire, but the fire had no color. The little tongues of light he was seeing were purely white.
"It's white fire," Ben choked on a sob, "it's all over me!"
Nathan was on the steps, holding White back with one outstretched arm. Ben's last cry set him into motion. "Shit!" he hissed. He slipped to his knees in front of Ben, his coat already half-off before he hit the pavement. "Get in the house, White!" he barked.
"Don't argue," Nathan snapped, "Get in, NOW!"
Ben heard the door slam, but he couldn't look away from his hands. They were melting away, and no matter how frantically he patted at them, he couldn't make it stop! He could see bits of bone showing through! His skin hurt everywhere, and Ben was afraid to look anywhere but his hands. What if this was happening all over his body? What could do this to him, why wouldn't it stop?
Nathan's coat closed around him, and he couldn't see his hands anymore. Ben closed his eyes. His throat felt so hot, he was afraid to make a sound. What if it blistered and melted off? The heat from his hands just kept getting more intense. He could feel heat like that starting in his chest, and it was poking around his belly. He could smell his own skin cooking, a sick smell like when his neighbours fried bacon.
"...Ben! Ben, listen to me!" Nathan's voice was urgent, but Ben could barely follow the sound. Nathan's pale, skinny hands kept his caramel-coloured coat wrapped tight around the boy. He shook Ben, and his voice dropped a little lower. "I know what this is," He tried to seek out Ben's eyes with his own, but Ben's eyes wouldn't focus, and they couldn't stay open for long. Nathan tried to put what comfort he could into his voice. "I've seen it before."
Ben was unresponsive. Nathan wrapped the coat around Ben tighter, and the boy sagged backwards against its support. "Just calm down," Nathan soothed, "and listen to the sound of my voice."
Ben tried, he really tried. As he did, the smell of burning bacon gave way to the rich, murky scent of Nathan's blood. It didn't smell like salt and pennies, like other blood-- Ben was getting way too used to the smell of blood! There was something in it that was almost sweet. It was all around him, soaked into the soft lining of Nathan's coat. That lining was a creamy cloud of fuzz around Ben's face, he could see it through his lashes and even after, when he closed his eyes.
"Those wounds aren't real, do you hear me?" Ben wanted to believe him. But the pain was so bad, and Ben was getting so dizzy! "They're not there. You mustn't convince yourself they are."
Ben's knees started to buckle, but Nathan twisted his grip tighter on the coat, and the caramel-coloured fabric held the boy up. In the haze settling over him, Ben thought it was Nathan's voice holding him, and not the coat at all.
"Either fear or faith is going to win here, tonight, Ben," Nathan said. That voice was so soft, so gentle, it made Ben feel like he could curl up in it and fall asleep. If only the pain would go away. "It's up to you."
Ben wanted to believe him. He wanted to reach out, and touch the feathers on those soft brown wings. The same longing welled up in him that he'd felt that night in the parking lot, like he could be safe forever, if he could just get into the shadow of Nathan's wings. He couldn't see them, but he could feel them, he could smell warm downy feathers and those little puffs of flowers too. Nathan put his forehead against Ben's.
Nathan's skin was cool and smooth, and Ben could feel the stir of Nathan's breath on his cheeks. It was slow, and even. Ben's frantic gasps slowed. Eventually his chest rose and fell into the same rhythm, and the tightness in his throat started easing. Nathan let out a slow, controlled sigh, and it was like he was breathing straight into Ben-- Ben felt himself relax, and he stopped fighting the pain.
"So what do you say--" Nathan's voice was rich and warm, golden like those little feathers beneath the down. "-- think you're ready to open this coat now?"
Ben was. He didn't say anything, but Nathan seemed to know. Nathan dropped his grip on the coat, and Ben opened it slowly. Nathan remained on one knee, his head dropping wearily as though in prayer. Ben felt like praying too. He slipped his fingers out of Nathan's coat, and forced himself to look at them.
"I don't get it. It felt so real." He turned his hands over and over, but the blisters were gone. There wasn't even a mark on him. He still felt hot little streaks of that terrifying pain, but the more he looked at his hands, the weaker those pangs became.
"I saw it," Bed insisted, "My hands were blistered. The skin was all split, and--"
Nathan's cough cut him off, a loud hacking rattle. It ended in a lingering wheeze. Nathan was practically doubled over, and another cough wracked him while he was still trying to answer.
"That's how the white fire--" Nathan's next cough whipped his head forward, and he coughed a spray of blood into his hands. Ben noticed Nathan's ponytail was hanging lower than it had been-- and his bangs had fallen into his eyes. The angel was healing, but something wasn't working right. His cheeks looked sunken, and even that flash in his eyes had grown dim.
"Are you OK?"
"Yeah." Nathan coughed again, a wet rumble underpinning the racket. "Had to heal it sometime." He leaned away from Ben again, and spat more blood onto the sidewalk. "Feel like a cat with a hairball." He heaved, once, twice, then a coughing fit started that looked like it was wrenching his guts out. Something hot and wet hit the sidewalk with a squish, followed by a 'plink', and then Ben's guts wrenched too. He couldn't look at it until the nausea let go of him. Then he couldn't resist a peek.
There were bits of gray and what looked like long black clots, and a lot of pink foam. And rolling in the middle of the foam, a little piece of metal. That had to be the bullet, Ben thought. There were little fragments around it. It didn't look like Ben expected, it wasn't even remotely bullet-shaped at all. It looked more like a little silvery muffin, in a fancy copper cup that spread out shiny spokes underneath it like a flower. It was actually kind of pretty, all the blood and gore aside.
Nathan shook some of the blood off his hand, then stopped, looking wryly at his nails. They were jet-black as always, and now they were getting pretty long. "Gah," Nathan grunted, disgust crossing his features, "Not again."
Ben couldn't help a little smile. Nathan saw it, but he didn't acknowledge anything. Ben slipped Nathan's coat off, and sat cross-legged on the sidewalk, sidling over to get some distance from the mess Nathan was making at their feet. Nathan dropped into that odd perch, and began picking at his nails. Seeing that made the last bits of tension drain out of the boy. Curiousity supplanted anxiety, but Ben kept his mouth shut. For now.
"Anyway, like I was saying," Nathan continued, rocking forward on his toes, "The white fire ignites your fear. But it's a weapon of spirit, not flesh." He paused to bite down on one of his nails, picking at it impatiently with his teeth. "Your problem," he said out of the side of his mouth, "is that your flesh is driven by some very powerful shards of spirit."
Nathan gave his nails a temporary reprieve, folding his hands and laying his elbows across his knees. He ticked his head back a bit, indicating Esa's front door behind them. "Anything supernatural comes near that doorway without permission, it burns up from inside." His eyes got serious, thoughtful, and Ben leaned in to listen.
"Now we know why we were met at the mall," Nathan said, spooling the thoughts out aloud, "What we don't know is what the hell managed to get past that, to get to Esa." He shook his head. "That shouldn't happen," his voice turned hard and grim. "Not with that weapon."
Ben gave it some thought, too. "So they had to know the secret, like you did?"
"Wouldn't help," Nathan said, and resumed his attack on that half-chewed nail. "Ignites hostility--" He dislodged a piece, and spat it onto the cement, "pttt!-- even worse than fear." He moved to the pinky nail, his teeth clamping down with a vengeance, "Spares only the merciful," he said between bites. "Or in this case, the trusting."
"But why spare anybody at all?" Ben wondered aloud. Not that he was complaining. "What if I had a bomb strapped to me or something?" He shook his head, mystified. "There are so many ways that could go wrong."
"It's very hard to explain in such terms." Nathan's eyes were half-lidded now, his blonde hair falling across them. He looked like he could hardly pull his head up, and his voice fell even lower. "You'd have to understand the ones who wield it," he murmured. "There are only two spirits in the universe I know who can wield the white fire." Nathan rubbed his eyes, and let out a long sigh.
"The one who created it, and the one who carries his standard." Ben leaned closer, trying to hear. For some reason, his mind kept going back to the dream he'd had at Juno's. The pointy shield, the one that had been jammed into a monster's teeth. He could almost see the angel holding it, blue-black wings spread against a field of white. Only it wasn't just white, and it was moving. The lower Ben looked, the more red he saw, until he caught the edges of feathers that looked as though they'd been dipped in blood.
"The elder is the most protective of us," Nathan breathed, his voice reverent. Ben saw them clearly now. Wings. White wings, with shimmers of gold shot through the down. They stretched over the angel from Ben's dream. He could see little glints of blue on the massive struts that hoisted them, or maybe that was just a reflection off the elder angel's armor. He wore a whole suit of armor. It was mostly deep, vibrant blue, with swirly writing across the front that met over his breastbone and dove down the center of his broad chest.
"Everything he wields is riddled with precautions against unintended harm." The angel's head tilted down, and turned past a shock of unruly gold mane. His skin was so much ruddier than the younger angel's, and there were thick scars making lines around his cheeks and eyes. He seemed to be looking right at Ben with one of those brilliant green eyes. His face was stern, but the corner of his mouth twitched up, as if hinting at the barest of smiles.
"The younger is a strange one," Nathan said, and Ben's vision of the elder angel dissolved. Only the younger angel remained. His eyes were silvery, almost white, with just a hint of blue running through most of their surface. Their bright discs were rimmed with a dark ring of midnight blue. His skin was pale and pink, made even more striking by the darkness of his wings. They looked black when they were still, but reflected cobalt shimmers when they moved.
"A black-winged scion who sees into the heart of a battle," Nathan said softly, "and can strike each blow where it matters most." Nathan spat another nail, and paused to bite at his thumb. "At the precise moment it is the most devastating," he added.
The vision faded. Ben wasn't ready to let it go. Something felt important about that angel, something from Ben's dream. Something that had happened, but it was slipping away. For some reason Ben kept seeing that shield stuck between massive teeth. But he couldn't remember. The whole thing had turned into a blur.
"Such different reasons," Nathan was saying distantly, talking to himself as though he'd forgotten Ben was there. "But both can manage to convince themselves of one vital thing-- that they can create something so wild and ravenous as fire, yet create it controlled, contained, and safe." Nathan shook his head, a slight 'tsk' getting out under his breath. Then he glanced back at Ben, and straightened up self-consciously. "It is the only fire of the spirit which has ever burned pure white."
"So..." Ben said carefully, "I guess one of them had to have put it here. Which one do you think it was?"
"I know who it was," Nathan brushed off the question, and spat another piece of nail. "What I don't know is how fucking long this is going to take."
So Ben took the hint, and tried to be quiet. Maybe he even managed. It felt like he held his tongue long enough for an ice age to overstay its welcome. The sky was overcast, the streetlights had been on since sunset, and there was really no way to tell if time was even passing anymore. He rocked in place a little, but that just made him feel like fidgeting even more. Nathan's hair kept getting longer, so he had an infinite supply of nail to keep on biting. Ben lost count of the 'ptttts!'
Ben lost patience. He sighed. He looked over at Nathan. Nathan was still chewing on his nails. Ben sighed louder. Nathan didn't even look up.
"It's taking for-EVER!" Ben leaned back on his hands, "I'm so bored!"
"ptttt!" Nathan spitting another nail was the only reply Ben got.
"Don't you ever just talk?" Ben demanded.
"ptttt!" Another black curl of fingernail hit the cement.
"Hey, I'm surprised your nails grew out that color. That's cool."
"Hmmmph." Nathan chewed on another nail, cocking his eyebrow up gracefully. "What'd you think, I went off somewhere and painted them?" Nathan was having trouble with that nail, and paused to give it another try. "I told you I was an angel, not a fairy."
"I dunno." Ben sighed again, this time louder and with greater emphasis. Another era of history passed, with not a monument to mark it. "What is he doing in there, anyway?" Ben complained. "What does a tracker do?"
"If I knew well enough to explain it, I'd be able to do it myself," Nathan grumbled. That middle finger nail was really stubborn, and Nathan had his work cut out for him biting it off. "All I know is that it has to do with empathy, and thus, holds almost zero interest for me." Ben could certainly believe that.
"I imagine it's predominantly an Ishim talent, most of the trackers I've worked with were Ishim." Ben thought back. Ishim, Ishim. The angels who most resembled mankind. The care-bears of the angelic world, full of love and emotion just aching for someone to give it to. Ben kinda wished he'd met one of those instead.
"You have to be able to take a residual 'stain' of energy and identify with it so closely that you become connected with the source of it, from what I understand," Nathan went on. "That's the important part, really-- connecting with the source."
Nathan gave up on the stubborn nail, and reached back to yank the rubber band out of his hair. It was so low by now it was practically useless anyway. "By now she'll have been moved so many times and so carefully that any kind of residual trail I could follow will be polluted." He pulled his hair back, trying to smooth it out. The hair that grew out quickly like that was always curly, fine like a baby's. Both times Ben had seen Nathan's hair grow out from healing, it took on a bit of curl, but today it looked especially uncooperative.
"That, or designed to consume too much of my time," Nathan shrugged, "Tracker's a living compass that always points due to the target where it is at that moment." He finally tamed his ponytail, and pulled it tight against the back of his neck. "In this case the source is an ancient Aspect. The emotion is likely blood-curdling horror." Nathan let his hands drop heavily to his sides. "I'm sure he'll detect it. I'm not sure he'll withstand it. But it's his choice what to do with his life."
"Hey--" Something occurred to Ben, and his eyebrows rose. "Speaking of that. Why'd you save me, anyway? This whole time you've been telling me to die. Why not just let the white fire do its job?"
Nathan shot him a sharp look. "Ha." There was no humour in the sound. Nathan's eyes narrowed, and his voice got cold. "Look, don't read too much into that, got me?" Ben got him. "For one thing, you're forgetting that it was designed to destroy spirit." Ben gulped hard, blinking fast. His cheeks felt hot. "You still think you're alive because pieces of spirit are keeping you moving," Nathan insisted, "Pieces I need."
Ben looked down. He didn't want to see at those soulless eyes anymore. All the cheer drained out of him. He imagined his heart landing wetly on the pavement like the crap from Nathan's lungs. Stupid. Of course. Of course that's all it was.
"At any rate," Nathan drove the point home, "I wanted you freed, not destroyed." He reached past Ben, and snatched his coat up off the sidewalk. "Sooner or later you'll realize there's nothing good you can do as a walking corpse."
Nathan looked at Ben, but Ben just kept staring at the ground. "If you wise up a little," Nathan told him, "You'll realize that creatures without a time-clock existence are willing to wait a VERY long time to do things the way we please."
"Ughh...." a soft moan from the doorway behind them finally made Ben look up. White was holding the door for support. He looked weak, and sad.
"I've found her." His voice was low and urgent. "We have to hurry. She's in pain."
"You're sure it's not memory?" Nathan asked sharply, "You can tell?"
"No memory," White gasped. His voice dropped to a whisper. "She's..." Ben could barely hear him at all. "She's screaming."
What followed was the longest walk of Ben's life. He couldn't look at Nathan, and Mr. White couldn't even talk. Mr. White just kept staggering forward, and Nathan didn't even help him. Nathan didn't even touch him. He just let Mr. White lean on the buildings, sway on unsteady feet. The whole time, Mr. White looked like he was fighting not to cry. With everything Mr. White had been through, the whole thing just seemed desperately unfair. And Mr. White was going through all this just to help the angels! If that wasn't worth Nathan's sympathy, well then what the hell was?
At last, Nathan stepped in front of Mr. White. He put a hand back, barring Mr. White's way as he had at Esa's. Mr. White didn't seem to mind. He sank gratefully against the nearest brick wall, and crumpled in on himself like he was going to be sick.
"She's in there," he whispered, barely making any sound at all.
"I know," Nathan said tightly. "So close she's screaming through my blood." His eyes lifted, scanning the windows across the street. He fixed on a gray door a few feet away. There were lights on the second floor, but there were boards across most of the first-floor windows. All the plants were dead. The green stretching from the house to the sidewalk looked like it had been spray-painted right on the dirt. Usually people only used that stuff to cover the bald spots. This patch of "lawn" was all bald spot.
The door was opening. Nathan stepped back, sidling closer against the wall. Ben didn't bother moving-- nobody ever noticed him, anyway. The light made those dead bushes even spookier-- the shadows they threw looked like long crooked fingers reaching out to snatch passing children.
There was even a child in that doorway. She wore a soft, comfy sweater, a light and pretty gray. It had something on it, like a sideways 8... Ben knew it from math class. It was a symbol. It meant infinity. Her hair was long, and looked really shiny. She looked happy.
Another girl joined her, peeking out into the dark. Maybe they were sisters. They were wearing the same top. Then two more girls came up the sidewalk, chatting softly to each other. One of them carried an empty basket, the other carried a collection jar. They were wearing the same sweater, too.
"Dzastz!" Ben knew swearing when he heard it, even if Nathan did it in angel-language. "There's a moat of monkey-cult around her." There was another girl a little ways past the ones at the door, but Ben couldn't quite see her. He squinted, as if that would help.
White leaned out, peering past Nathan. He blinked, clearing a few stray tears from his eyes. "Underfed teenagers," he mumbled. "No match for us."
"It's not about fighting them," Nathan started to explain, "they're here to--"
"HEYYY!" Ben's eyes went wide, his face lit up with pure joy. What were the odds? "All right!" He waved. "Charlie!" he yelled. He bolted past Nathan, running for the house.
Nathan caught him by the elbow, and his fingers dug in, hard. Ben struggled, trying to tear his way free. "That's my best friend!" Ben chirped, "She'll help us!" He looked up at Nathan plaintively. "Come on, let's go talk to her!"
Nathan spun Ben to face him, fingers digging even harder into Ben's arm. The angel dropped to one knee. Eye to eye with Ben, he clamped a thin, cold hand across Ben's mouth, muffling the boy's protests. "She isn't," Nathan told him firmly, "And she won't. Settle down." He waited for Ben to quit squirming, keeping his eyes locked on the boy's.
"I'm exhausted," he said sternly, "I'm starved." He looked it, too. His cheeks were really sunken in now, and the skin looked like it was getting a little loose around his neck. "And in case you haven't gathered it from the gradual Rapunzel-esque makeover I'm getting here, I'm slowly bleeding into my lungs." Ben tried to nod, but Nathan's fingers just gripped him tighter across his mouth. Ben's eyes pleaded with Nathan to let go.
"I cannot afford to start something like this right now, got me?" Nathan said each word carefully and deliberately, watching to see each one land in Ben's eyes. "Be still. If you make another mistake like that, you are going to get every human here killed." This time when Ben nodded, Nathan let him go. Ben rubbed his cheeks, turning away so nobody could see the tears in his eyes. His ears felt hot, and the pressure of Nathan's fingertips lingered-- a feeling that just wouldn't go away.
"Break the connection, White," Nathan ordered.
"But the Aspect--" Mr. White protested.
"If they move her from this position, we'll all know it." Nathan bowed his head, and his voice got sad, too. "This tactic is designed to damage trackers of my kind," he said, gently. "Who knows what it would do to you." It wasn't even really a question. Even Ben knew.
"I want to help you rescue her." White struggled, trying to stand straight, to look stronger than he was feeling. "I need to. She's--"
"Part of you now," Nathan finished the sentence for him. "I know." He put a hand on Mr. White's shoulder, and relief soaked into the tracker's expression. "I'll send for you."
Ben just kept looking at the doorway. His only friend in the world was right there, just a few feet away. The front door of that beat-up townhouse was closing, but Ben could still see her talking to one of the other girls. She looked even prettier than he remembered. He almost hadn't recognized her. She wasn't wearing all that makeup and jewelry anymore. She looked so much healthier.
She looked so much more alive.
"Charlie..." Ben whispered, mostly to himself.
And then the door closed.