Heaven was at war.
It was a long time ago. I know that, somehow. So long ago, the angels barely looked like us, then. But then there's Nathan. I still see him more or less the way he is now. His face is strange, his hair is longer and it spills out of a very simple helmet. He's wearing armor. Not much of it. Just plates over the most vulnerable places, and not even all of those. The neckpiece of his armor reminds me of that stupid shirt he wears. This is a really weird dream.
No. It's not a dream. This really happened. Or it's happening? I don't know. I got lost somewhere, somehow.
He's fighting. He's cutting people down, and he's so focused on it he can't see anything else. He can't see that there's a terrible monster coming at him. It has so many wings! They're like a bat's, with thick ribs and rubbery flesh stretched between them. They're really shiny, and they look so heavy. I can't believe something that huge can actually fly. It has enormous jaws. I can't see its eyes. I don't even know if it has eyes. If it does, they're not showing.
Every flap of those gigantic wings thumps so deep and loud. Nathan doesn't even seem to hear it. It has huge talons, dripping with blood. It's stretching its neck out, and there are so many teeth! Those teeth are bigger than his whole head! It's got shreds of armor hanging off its claws! How fast it is moving? How big IS that thing?
But Nathan just keeps swinging that scythe, ripping armor off his enemies like it was paper. They're falling so far, falling into nothing, but they're tatters and smoke before they fall out of sight. There's so much sadness! And the singing! I can't tell where it's coming from, sounds like it's everywhere. It's so haunting!
This isn't like the stories at all! They're so beautiful, the creatures Nathan's cutting down. They don't turn into demons. They're not ugly and twisted at all. Their armor is so much bulkier than his, and so much more decorated, but they're pretty much the same as he is. Their wings are so bright, and their eyes burn with so much faith, so much love! Then they're cut to ribbons, and their light sputters to nothing. They're just gone, and there's a wound in the world where they should be.
This is what it's like when angels die?
The thumping from those massive wings has turned into a deep thunder. The monster's bearing down on him. I should warn him. Even the monster is beautiful, somehow. There's a shimmer on the fringes around its head. There are glints on its scales that ripple every time it moves. I could watch it forever.
It's too late. There's no way he's going to get away from it now. It's stretched its neck out, and its giant jaws could fit him in without even spreading all the way.
A flash of blue-black crosses behind that enormous head. An armored shoulder smacks hard into one of the thin ribs that hold up one of its foremost wings. The rib snaps, and the wing starts to tear away from the break. At first I can barely see what's happening, the monster's so big. The monster's head jerks back, and it roars. Its jaws snap-- but they don't shut. Its massive teeth look stuck on the pointy ends of a huge shield. Or maybe it's just wedged between them. I can't tell.
There's an angel holding that shield. His wings are black, but there's a blue shine running across them. They look like raven's wings. I can't see the face behind that helmet. Just the thin line of a determined mouth, and a few locks of hair that match his wings. Like Nathan, he barely wears any armor at all. He's got a sword, not a scythe. But he keeps it across his chest. He shoves his shield hard, and bends the monster's head away from him.
Nathan's seen it by now. Its talons snatch at Nathan, but he's ready. He holds his scythe across his body, and brings it up to block those wicked claws.
And then it's all gone. Just like that. I guess dreams are weird that way. But I'm so sure this isn't a dream. I'm in a kitchen, and it's right now, right this second. It's just a normal kitchen, with a normal woman doing the dishes. Except... hanging from the light fixture. I can just make it out, it almost blends into the wallpaper, but I can see the outline. It looks like an umbrella. No. No, umbrellas don't have ears. It's got little ears, like a fox, but longer and pointier. They flick back and forth, like they're listening to something. It's hanging from the fixture by a thick scaly tail. I think what looked like an umbrella might actually be its wings.
Why did I think it blended into the wallpaper? It's dark, it's almost black. Wow. I used to make fun of the big black spiders on the bathroom wall, when they held still rather than hide-- like I was going to miss them on our bright white tile. Maybe there's something to that after all.
And there's something sleeping at her feet, that I didn't see before. It's soft, and furry, with a delicate snout. It kind of reminds me of a fawn, or maybe a llama. Not that I've seen either one anywhere but on TV. It's got a thick fluffy tail, like a collie's. It looks so sweet all curled up on her floor. This lady has some weird pets.
And she keeps them in some weird places. I think I see eyes peeking out from the oven. One pair of eyes. And another... wait. No. Only three eyes. Not four. And they're all clustered up together. A tiny little paw-- wait. Is that a hand? A tiny little hand is smudging up the soot on the glass part of the oven door. It's attached to a spindly little arm, and that's sticking out of a puff of gray-black fur! It's like a little ball of fuzz, but it's got arms! Or... maybe just the one?
And then something crawls out from under the oven, and I'm done trying to figure out what these things are. The first thing I see are two pincers, but the further they stick out, the more I realize they're not attached to anything I can name. They're on the end of long squiggly... what do I call those? Not tentacles... not arms... whatever. Long squiggly... squiggles. At last a pair of eyes peek out, swivelling on these little stalks. They're stubby, and when one bumps the oven, they retract inside, hiding its eyes. That happens a few times, until I guess it's satisfied that it's safe to come out. It slithers out, pulling leg after leg out from under it. Is it a bug? Some kind of sea thing? It's got a slimy tail like a slug. Yuck! How can anybody keep that in the kitchen?
She turns, and her mouth drops open. Oh, maybe that one's not a pet, because she looks really scared. But no, now she's looking up. I look up too. There's some kind of black smoke pouring in from the ceiling. There are shapes moving inside it, but I can't tell what they are. They move so fast! The little creatures leap up, and for just a second I can see them close in around her. But there are withered, nasty limbs thrashing around in that black smoke. There are all these mouths, and claws, and milky-dead eyes!
Her pets are getting hurt! The sounds they make are so desperate, such awful wails! I can see bits of those bat wings spread out now, the skin torn away so the ribs are showing. One of those fox ears hits the floor. It barely bleeds.
I can't see the woman. I can't see where she went. The violence is so thick and fast, and I'm so scared! I can hear something, like a quiet chattering. I crawl into the kitchen cabinet, but there's nothing here. But I can hear that little sound, that little rattling. Something in me is drawn to it, so I keep looking, keep feeling around me. Everything in the kitchen starts to go foggy, and I can't see so well anymore.
Somehow I know I'm slipping past the world I know. I learned in science class how matter was really mostly nothing, molecules with lots of space in between. This is the space between. There's a shape in the darkness. The cloudier everything gets, the clearer that shape becomes. Bottles of cleaner and the scrub-brush beside them turn into swimmy clouds of nothing, and where they were, I can see something pink and shiny huddled into a ball.
This is where the chattering is coming from. This little creature is pink and shiny, and there are all these little bony plates on its back. They're kind of white in places, yellow and even a little greenish-black in others. God, they reek. The closer my perspective gets, the worse that reek becomes. It smells like my uncle's breath, only a hundred times more sickening. Those little plates are clacking against each other. Funny thing, I could swear they look familiar. Almost like... almost like teeth.
The little creature whimpers. It's curled up, but it's got two fuzzy legs pulling its head down into the ball. They're funny-shaped, like bug legs, but they're covered with a fine brown fur. There are eight of them, I think, six tucked into its body and two around its head.
It lifts its head, and I could swear it's looking right at me. Its big black eyes are so plaintive. Its narrow little snout looks so sad. I wish I knew what to do. I want to reach out and touch it, but I don't know where my body is. I just know I'm not with it right now. I want more than anything to comfort this poor little thing. I want more than anything to help.
Ben's eyes whipped open. He sat bolt upright, breathing hard. His eyes slowly adjusted, pupils opening to the dim light around him.
He was in bed. He hadn't even seen a bed since Nathan's crappy apartment burned up. This bed was nothing like the bed Nathan let him use. This bed was really fancy, and the sheets were softer than anything Ben had ever felt before. They weren't anything like new-- they had little frayed bits that looked mended, and places where they were worn thin from washing. But they smelled like one of those fabric fresheners Ben's mom always bought when she didn't feel like cleaning. Which had been pretty much all the time.
Ben had seen beds with canopies in catalogues. This bed had kind of a roof on it. There were carved posts holding it up, and fancy woodwork at the sides where they met the bed-frame. As Ben's eyes adjusted, he saw a coffee table near the bed. It had fancy woodwork all around it, too. The designs looked kind of Asian. Or Indian, Ben thought. Or... he rolled his eyes at himself. Not that again.
There was a sliding door, and it was just a tiny bit open. That's where the little bit of light in here was coming from. There were voices coming through it too. Ben didn't recognize the voice. It had an accent. It was kind of like the smooth, odd accent Nathan picked up when he used words Ben didn't understand. But it had something else in it too, something Ben couldn't place. Whatever kind of voice it was, it belonged to a guy who was really old. And there was only one old guy Nathan had ever told him about.
This guy sounded stiff, like his voice was tight. Like he was really uncomfortable talking to Nathan. Ben had listened to enough conversations between his parents to recognize when there was a load of bad tension sitting between them. So Ben guessed the guy talking had to be Juno.
"I knew you'd seen some serious action the moment I laid eyes on you." Juno cleared his throat. "You had those graveyard nails when I found you." Ben slid out of the covers. He was a little cold. Somebody had taken off his shirt and shoes, but he was still wearing his baggy jeans and his socks. He felt bad about that-- his jeans were pretty filthy. He'd left mud and sand in those nice sheets.
"The whole place resonated with energy," Juno continued awkwardly. "But-- it was all yours."
Silence fell. Ben strained to listen, hoping they hadn't just dropped their volume.
"So stop playing stoic," Juno's voice prodded, "Level with me."
Nothing. If he was talking to Nathan, Nathan wasn't responding. Ben figured he had to be talking to Nathan. Ben slid the rest of the way out of bed, grabbing hold of one of the posts. As hard as he tried to keep from dragging his jeans against the sheets, it was kind of a lost cause. Ben sighed.
"What makes you think you can protect me from something that could do that to you?" Juno's voice wobbled with an emotion too complicated for Ben to really understand. It made the guy harder to hear. Ben padded across the room, carefully ducking around the fancy coffee table.
"Kid looked bad, too." Ben hesitated. There was a dresser right by the door, and he took care not to bump it. He edged closer to the door, listening intently. "But that kid--" Juno hesitated. "Nathan, he heals like we do. 'Cept, I get no sense of him at all." He could hear Juno sigh, and then one more prodding question. "What the heck have you got there?"
Ben started to reach for the door. Then he caught sight of Nathan, just as Nathan finally spoke. "A problem," he said flatly. Ben pulled his hand back, retreating back against the wall. Nathan bowed his head, and looked away from Juno. "One I'm itching to solve."
A lump formed in Ben's throat. He couldn't swallow past it. At first he took a step back, and looked longingly back at the bed. Sometimes it just didn't pay to wake up.
"The truth is that I'm not playing stoic, Juno." Ben pressed up closer to the crack in the door, and slid it a little wider so he could see more of what was going on. Nathan was on a raised platform at the other end of a wide living room. He was on a futon by the big plate glass window. Outside, everything was gray and rain.
"I'm still not sure what to say, is all." Nathan rubbed his eyes, trying to push his bangs out of them. Nathan's bangs and even his ponytail hung a lot lower than when Ben had last seen them. Ben still wasn't used to that. Nathan could heal crazy fast, but his hair grew just as quickly when that happened. Come to think of it, he always bit his nails afterwards, too. Maybe that's what Juno meant by 'graveyard nails'. Dead guys had long fingernails, Ben knew that from somewhere. He couldn't quite place where. It felt vaguely important to remember, but Nathan was talking again.
"I get the distinct feeling I should have known better. The boy's part of it. Hell, maybe the root of it. So keep your distance."
Nathan was wearing comfy gray sweats. They weren't the kind of clothes Ben had ever seen him wear before. Nathan was not comfy-sweats people. Ben slid the door a little wider, tried to angle his viewpoint a little better, hoping he might see more of the room.
The sweats made a bit more sense once Ben saw Juno. Juno was tall like Nathan, and just as skinny. But he had dark, dark reddish-brown skin whereas Nathan looked like he'd been born with a grudge against pigment. Juno wore a loose pair of slacks and a dark green T-shirt. Juno looked like the kind of guy who might wear comfy sweats. At least from the back. Right now, anybody looked more comforting to Ben than Nathan did.
Nathan turned around on the futon, and Ben drew back, reflexively. Nathan didn't look his way. Nathan looked down at the carpet, avoiding even looking at Juno.
"I promise I'll explain it all once I can sort out my thoughts," he said heavily. "In the meantime I'd like to borrow some shears and nail clippers. I'd like my clothes back, too." He pushed the hair out of his eyes again. "Being unkempt is unsettling." He looked up, a fleeting expression just barely tugging at his features. Ben couldn't catch it. "Say," Nathan asked, "How DID you find me, anyway?"
"Maka found you, and came running to get me." Juno took a sip of his coffee-- Ben could smell it from here. It was dark and sweet, like Grampa Joe's coffee used to be. A quick stab of loneliness shot through Ben's heart, and he had to hold his breath to keep a sigh from giving him away. He let the air out slow, and leaned in close to hear more.
"That was lucky," Nathan shrugged. "And here I thought ophanim didn't like me."
"Lucky?" Juno turned away from the window, and busied himself with his coffee cup. He looked into it, the way Grampa Joe used to when it was getting close to empty. "Well... no, I wouldn't say that exactly. Luck was not involved."
The silence that fell was so uncomfortable, even Ben felt squirmy under its pressure. Juno cleared his throat, then shifted a little. Still looking at the bottom of his cup, he said, "I don't know quite how to say this." He lowered the cup. "Maka was out looking for help. Help on your scale, not mine."
"Help?" That snapped Nathan's attention straight to Juno's face. His blue eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Why would he need help from someone in a body?" Juno turned his face down, clearly struggling for something to say. "Screw formalities," Nathan pressed, "tell me what's going on."
Juno's features drew tight, the lines in his skin turning to deep furrows. He looked so sad. God, Nathan just made everybody sad, didn't he?
"It's just hard to talk about, OK?" Juno's voice wavered a little. "I think someone's been taken by the other side." He rubbed his face, loose skin dragging along his forehead when his hand came to rest there. "More accurately, that's what I'm hoping against hope is what happened." Juno's hand dropped, and the floodgates seemed to open-- the next words tumbled out quickly. "There are several dead, or worse-- and an Aspect's missing."
"You shouldn't eavesdrop like that, you know."
The voice sounded like it was practically over his shoulder. Ben jerked back from the door, his eyes wide as saucers. Someone was in the room with him!
"That kind of thing just never ends well between men." The voice was so soft, so gentle, but it still froze Ben in place. Who was she? Where had she come from? Was there another door, or had she been watching him this whole time?
"Besides--" she continued, "I'm beginning to suspect Nathan already knows you're awake."