Tragedy is always cruel, often needless. And sometimes, utterly senseless.
Verlaine had held its peace for decades, shared freely what it had with other countries, and harbored all those with a love of magic or knowledge and some who had neither. The Branthèse and Esmeralda families may have had brittle relations, but both clans took care not to let their rivalry affect their people adversely in any way. They cherished the lessons of the past, and celebrated everything life offered them.
That existence, that ideal was shattered when a festering sickness spread like flame through the deserts and oases of Lombardia and Nyllard, then Fantasinia.
As Bronquia sealed its gates to keep the epidemic out, Verlaine sent all the aid it could, and in doing so welcomed the plague through its borders.
Peasants, the middle class, and merchants’ bodies soon numbered in the hundreds. Healers struggled as best they could with a disease that seemed always to dance just out of their reach. Districts of towns, then entire towns were quarantined. It did little to help, and when the people realized this, they forgot the quarantines and ventured freely offering what relief they could.
Whereas Lord Tyrren and Lady Rosabel of Esmeralda locked their daughter into her towers before leaving their manor for the last time to give their people what aid they could, Lord Cíaran and Lady Rosemary of Branthèse could not keep their son away from the front lines. Despite his lack of training, he had substantial power and always seemed able to help those he treated. But as it did all those who continually visited the ill, the fever’s blade reached him when his magic ran dry.
That fever held him in its grip for three months on end, and when it finally broke, his life seemed a hollow shade of the one he’d known. He walked the empty halls of his manor like a dreamer, expecting at any moment to wake and see his parents’ smiles again.
Expectation became desperation, then despair. The mass graves were filled and marked with lists of names, and those who could not fit were cremated. Lord Cíaran and Lady Rosemary were laid to rest in their gardens, all that they owned magically purified not just of plague but of all traces of their presence, and all that could not be purified consigned to the fire.
The nightmare bled into reality, until the two were so closely intertwined that the orphaned heir of Branthèse could not distinguish one from the other. In his heart, he recoiled from it, and ran.
And his despair began its evolution into madness.
At the shout and the gloved hand that waggled invasively close to his face, Roswell startled and pulled back from the table, disoriented. “What?”
The hand pulled away, allowing Roswell to notice that it was Milanor’s and that the thief was glaring at him from across the banquet table. “Well, cripes, it looks like there’s somebody alive in there after all. For the fiftieth time, are you gonna eat that piece of steak or just stare at it ‘til it turns into a friggin’ block of ice? Some of us could use more to eat, y’know!”
Roswell blinked, then looked down at his plate. It was covered almost entirely in a slab of cooling meat covered in red sauce, with a clump of brown rice and barley grains along the rim. There was a dent in the rice about three or four forkfuls in size, but the meat had not been touched and the surface of the sauce was beginning to congeal.
Milanor, and several other people at the table, were staring at him expectantly. All of them had completely empty plates.
Roswell knew he ought to be embarrassed, but all he felt was exhaustion as he realized he’d gotten too caught up in thoughts of spell logistics to keep his utensils moving. He’d been studying and then dissecting a fresh corpse up into the small hours of the morning, and had only gotten a few moments to doze before he’d had to dispose of the thing and try implementing what knowledge he’d gleaned. Which he’d worked at until someone had come to remind him of this banquet. He’d wanted to get through it quickly so that he could return to his experimentation, but apparently he’d fallen too deeply into a fugue again. That was beginning to happen to him with frustrating regularity, but he didn’t know what he was supposed to do about that.
“Well?” Milanor snapped, folding his arms.
Roswell looked back down at his plate. The drying sauce looked a little too much like freshly spilled blood, and the rice grains were thick and the flicker of the chandeliers’ candles up above made them seem to wriggle like a tangle of maggots. As soon as the thought crossed his mind, his stomach clutched with sickness at the thought that he’d managed to eat anything on that plate.
Delicately touching the very edge of the plate with his fingertips, Roswell pushed it towards Milanor with a sigh, not looking at it and pulling his hand away quickly when it was done. “…You can have it.”
“Gee, thanks.” Still, Milanor stacked it on top of his own plate and attacked its contents with enthusiasm.
The thief’s attitude combined with Roswell’s mental image only made the necromancer’s insides twist more, and knowing he could no longer stay here, he stood abruptly. “…I’m sorry. Please excuse me, everyone. I’ve work to do that’s not going to wait forever, and… I don’t seem to have much of an appetite.”
Before anyone could even respond, he fled. It was next to impossible to keep from breaking into a run before he got into the manor halls, but somehow he managed it. It was no good; there was no way he could force anything down tonight either.
It was better that he continue working, anyway. He couldn’t help but feel as though time was running short, somehow.
“…do you think he’s really alright?” Yggdra murmured worriedly, about half a minute after Roswell’s fairly undignified retreat. “He barely touched a thing, and he looked a little green… I wonder if he’s getting sick?”
“Working himself to death, more like,” Durant remarked. “I have heard from his attendants and the manor staff that he’s been keeping long hours and not getting enough sleep. If this continues, it’s possible that he could seriously jeopardize his health.”
“…Eh. Roswell’s always been a space case,” Milanor said irritably around bites of the necromancer’s steak. “Still, his head seems to be gettin’ emptier by the day. Or maybe… there’s just too much other crap in there, and he can’t think about anythin’ else?” He shrugged. “I dunno. He better get more appreciative of his food, though. I know plenty of folks who’d sell their own kids to eat like this.” And with that, he tucked back in with gusto.
“I wonder… maybe I should go after him…” Yggdra glanced over at the door Roswell had retreated through, and began to rise.
Yggdra blinked and turned. “Nessiah…?”
“I’ve been meaning to speak to Roswell about this for a while, now… why don’t you let me handle this tonight, after things have concluded?” Nessiah suggested. “If you chase after him now, you’re likely to start people talking, and that’s rarely a good thing. I’ll take care of it discreetly, and in a way that won’t cause trouble for him or for any of you. How does that sound?”
Yggdra hesitated for a moment, taken aback, then nodded. “Alright… I leave this in your hands, then. Please tell me if you or he need anything at all.”
Nessiah inclined his head, then rested his elbows on the edge of the table and propped his face on the heels of his hands.
“I wonder if you can hear it, inside the privacy of your own mind…?” he murmured with a strange half-smile. “That unearthly sound, like an out-of-tune bell breaking glass… can you hear it, Roswell? The sound of your sanity fraying at the edges…”
I’ve made it in time…, was all Roswell could think before he bent hard over the privy and heaved, rejecting those few bites of dinner he’d managed to force down. There was nothing else in his system, but it took him several more minutes of his throat and stomach’s painful contractions before he could stop and collapse weakly back against the wall.
His joints felt like liquid, but he still managed to make it to the water basin, where he pulled up a glass’s worth and took it in slow sips to rinse his mouth out, spitting several times before he could swallow. He drank the rest of his water, reached for the packet of fresh mint he’d taken to keeping here, and chewed a few leaves to try to get rid of the bitter acid taste of vomit. As he did so, he reached out and pulled the privy’s chain, allowing the bowl to fill with water and the mess to drain away.
Again, he thought, exhausted, as he sat against the wall. This makes it nearly a week since I’ve been able to keep anything down… why do I even bother trying? For appearance’s sake? It’s getting so tiresome; what does any of it matter anymore?
It wasn’t even as though he didn’t want to eat. He knew that without some form of sustenance other than drink his body would start to shut down and he would waste away, but the scent and texture of the food his attendants brought always seemed to disgust him lately. His throat would close, his stomach would clutch, and he would be unable to force anything down—and whatever he’d managed wouldn’t stay down for very long.
Still, that didn’t matter now. Nothing so trivial mattered much to him anymore. He was getting close now, closer by the day, even if he continually ran into setbacks. Soon—soon, he’d be able to force the gate, and everything would be all right again. He could rest then, do nothing but take his time and recover then.
His hands shook a little as he pulled himself up on the towel bar, walked out of the privy feeling as though his legs might give out beneath him at any time.
Though he was tired, he didn’t stop as he passed the door to his bedroom, just walked the halls that connected his personal rooms until he reached his study.
Candles still burned on the desk in their wide holders, though some of them were barely more than dribbles and puddles of wax holding a floppy wick by now. The oil lamps were fine, though; he’d remembered to refill them for once last night, and so even if the candles failed him he would still have light, wouldn’t have to venture downstairs. That suited his mood. Being so close, he didn’t want to have to deal with social trivialities now.
There were papers—scribbled notes, memos, copied glyphs and translated passages from old tomes—all over the floor. Roswell ignored them, picked his way through them where they were thin and just walked over them where they weren’t. It didn’t matter. His most important notes were all on his desk, anyway. There were scattered books everywhere too, from the musty and ancient to the recently printed but battered. He’d grown tired of heading down to the libraries to fish each of them out, preferred having them here where he could leaf through them whenever they were necessary. And had carelessly tossed them all over his shoulder enough times that they all sported bent pages in places.
Didn’t matter, didn’t matter. Didn’t need those anymore. The important ones, like the important papers, were all on his desk. Were cluttering and choking his desk, but he knew where to find them, where to find what he needed in them. The heavy black book stained in blood, the thinner volume bound with human skin, the ring-bound collection of leaflets scribbled by a mad but powerful priest.
He’d been painting the glyph for a while now. The can of black paint sat closed behind the leg of his desk; back when he’d started he’d taken his bolline and used it to slice a deep wound in his arm, let the blood mix with the paint to increase its energy. It hadn’t even hurt—too much endorphins, too little care. He’d been sick afterwards, he remembered. But it had been worth it.
Beneath the papers, the complicated glyph had taken shape. A pentacle within a hexacle, within a septacle. Complicated runes along the lines of each star, with spaces for thirteen master glyphs along the edge. He’d filled in twelve of them. Only the last remained.
That was his problem, that was what had stymied him over and over. This last had to be the strongest, had to be the one with the power to force open both gates of death—the one through which the life-hungry bodies were sent, the one every necromancer could break at will, and the one the soul disappeared into. The one that had seemed completely impregnable… at least so far.
But he was getting close. Damn it all, he was getting close. He could feel it in his heart, in his bones. Hadn’t he searched for so long now? Hadn’t he risked so much, given so much to see it done? And he was getting there. With the new books he’d gotten his hands on, he was learning more and more about the second of the split gates with each passing day. To where he finally had something he thought would work.
Had to test it, though; had to test it first. Couldn’t risk painting it on the floor where it wouldn’t easily come undone without giving it a try.
So Roswell dug for a quill and a spare sheet of vellum, and took a few breaths to steady himself before he began meticulously scribing it down, as it would be if he completed the glyph as his theories dictated he ought. He wished he could take something to make him steadier, but knew it was useless—with alcohol or absinthe he would lose his focus almost as soon as he’d swallowed the first sip and steady hands mattered little if he couldn’t trust his eyes. And with those other drugs, the ones the chemists sold with furtive glances out of the backs of their stores—he couldn’t trust those either. He’d hallucinated on the first he’d tried, nearly gone into cardiac arrest on the next, finally gotten that sense of hyperawareness on the third but paid for it after a few hours with a raging headache and a stomach firmly on strike and a terrifying case of apnea that had lasted for two weeks. And with that he’d decided better of trying anything else, though his hands had trembled and his heart had beat unevenly for a long time afterwards.
But he was fine without the drugs. Didn’t need them, couldn’t trust them, and look—here he’d completed the glyph without even a wobble in a single line.
He spoke the words of the magic in a hollow voice. Once, twice, three times; then he waited. If it was a success, there’d be—something—some kind of sign to show him.
Nothing. He waited one minute, then five, then ten, and nothing happened.
His throat closed, his eyes burned, and he was seized with the need to weep and rage and find something to throw. He resisted, closed his eyes and laid his forehead to his desktop, and breathed deeply until the quivers of rage ceased.
There had to be another way; there had to be another way. Somehow. Somewhere. He’d never stop looking, would never ever ever stop looking.
Clenching his jaw, he stood and marched back over his cast-off papers and books out of the room, out of his rooms, grabbed a candle and headed down the stairs towards the library.
It had gotten dark very suddenly. It must be late, very late. The banquet hadn’t started until after sundown, but through the windows he could see that the moon had risen high above the land. He’d been in his study for hours already.
But what did he care? This was all that mattered, all that had ever mattered since that day and all that ever would matter until he succeeded.
On that thought, Roswell walked into the darkened library, holding his candle high to illuminate the long corridors formed by the bookshelves. He walked down one row of books, tracing titles with a fingertip and cursing to himself in the half-forgotten language of his ancestors as he didn’t find anything helpful, then a second and a third. He wasn’t even sure what he was looking for—just something, anything, that would help him do what he needed to do.
He jumped back and nearly dropped his candle when he heard the voice, swinging around wildly to see a vague figure standing at the end of the bookshelves.
The figure began to walk forward, and the faint sounds of metal clinking told Roswell it was Nessiah before the fallen angel stepped into the light.
The flash of inspiration he’d been needing so badly hit him hard in that moment. Of course. Of course. Perhaps his power alone just wasn’t sufficient—and if he couldn’t, then Nessiah, then an angel must be able to provide it. The only problem was how to ask…
“Roswell,” Nessiah said again, and slowly raised one arm to reach out and wrap pale fingers around the necromancer’s hand. “Come with me for a while—there’s something we need to discuss, something I feel I should have approached you about long ago.”
The room was a bit smaller than Roswell’s, but furnished about as well. Ornate rugs lined the floor; there were chairs in two of the corners and a dresser lined up in one of the others. The furniture was antique, dark rich cherry in color and covered in plain white cloths of fine linen. The bed was fairly large, and rich plum violet drapes hung from the canopy, tied back along the side that faced the door. The bedclothes were white and haphazardly tucked, with three white pillows and one red.
And aside from a few books, articles of jewelry, and loose leaves of paper strewn along the tables, it looked completely unlived-in. Nessiah had been here for about a week, and Roswell supposed he likely spent his time down at the forges or somewhere similar instead of in this room. He vaguely remembered someone—Yggdra? Gulcasa?—remarking that Nessiah thrived in chaos and inflicted it on his rooms wherever he went.
There was a pitcher sitting on one of the dressers—it was in a shallow dish of bubbling water, on a brass tray that also held two porcelain mugs printed with delicate roses around the rims. Nessiah walked over to it and briefly lifted the lid as if giving it a cursory glance, and steam rose from it when he did.
“Forgive me—I would have found you earlier, but I wanted to make certain this was ready first. Sit—please, sit. You won’t be able to just stand there.”
A bit confused—he wasn’t sure what Nessiah meant or what the fallen angel was doing—Roswell chose the nearest chair and sat. He watched as Nessiah delicately poured a deep brown liquid into one of the cups, thinking to himself how strange it was to watch this ancient mage in his ragged robes and heavy chains doing something so everyday, so domestic.
And blinked when Nessiah walked up to him with the mug, holding it out.
“This is for you—you had best drink it.”
Roswell accepted it hesitantly—the porcelain was warm against his cold hands, even through his gloves—and raised it a bit to take a cautious sniff. He smelled cloves and nutmeg and cinnamon, cocoa and—was that coffee?—he frowned and sniffed again, unsure as to what this was.
“It’s not laced with anything but herbs,” Nessiah told him. “This is something I make for myself when I’m too busy working to have regular meals. It doesn’t quite have the substance of food, but it will keep you from falling on your face while we speak—besides, it should be gentle on your stomach, and you need something you can keep down.”
A little disconcerted—it was an unwelcome jolt to realize that Nessiah knew about how much trouble he’d been having with eating lately—Roswell blinked but tried to lift the mug all the way. His hands began to tremble again, and he almost spilled it.
“Here.” Nessiah took a few steps closer, and covered Roswell’s hand with his own to steady it. “Careful—sip slowly; it’s hot.”
Roswell did, and discovered to his surprise that the taste was soothing. He drained the cup slowly, and as the warmth flowed into him, he felt his insides untwist just the slightest bit.
“There, now. That’s better, isn’t it?” Nessiah took the mug back and replaced it. “Now…”
“You… I don’t understand, but… you seem to know what it is I am attempting… is that right?”
Roswell’s hands wanted to tremble again, so he interlaced his fingers to hold them still. “Then—then I beg of you—if you are able, or willing—will you help me?”
“If it was within my power… if only for your sake, I would,” Nessiah told him simply. “But I cannot, and neither can you.”
Roswell just sat there silently, struck completely dumb.
He had to struggle for his voice for several moments, and when he found it, he could only manage a weak protest. “But—you’re an angel, and your powers—what we’ve seen you do…”
“The significant difference you’re overlooking is that all the souls I have chosen to manipulate or otherwise use were all souls that had not yet crossed through the riven gates of death,” Nessiah explained, not unkindly. “I have seen them, I have studied them, and nowhere have I even heard tell of a theory that allows the soul’s gate to be opened by a mortal. It’s… an accepted fact in Asgard that death and the afterlife are beyond even angels.
“The underworld, as we understand it, is a dimension of its own, quite as separate from this one as Asgard is. Only a god would have the power to open a gate to that world; none of us are allowed to know what lies on the other side of that gate until we cross it ourselves. And, before you ask—I never have. That is true death, and true death has long been lost to me.” He said it sadly, and a little bitterly. “So, Roswell, I cannot help you in this thing, and you cannot do this by yourself either. No necromancer has ever been able to truly resurrect the dead, and unless one achieves godhood in the future, none ever will.”
Roswell just shook his head, overwhelmed.
“You have been searching for a way desperately, but you fear what you might find as much as you want it,” Nessiah went on, relentless. There was no spite, no condescension in his tone, but his words bored into Roswell’s skull and made him want to cover his ears, shut them out. “It’s tearing you apart, body and mind and spirit. Perhaps you bury it at times for the sake of your image and your pride, but you have a good heart, and a sensitive one. You love magic too much, love the good it can bring others too much to keep doing this. If you continue down this road it will ruin you, make no mistake—and eventually lead to your own death. Tell me—why is this so important to you, and why are you so conflicted about it even as you push yourself towards the forbidden?”
“I—this is the reason I became a necromancer in the first place,” Roswell said at last, stung. “I’d wanted—I wanted it so much even then, but…” He drew a deep breath, released it sharply. “We can open one of the two gates; you’re aware of that, I’m sure. It’s how we are able—how you too are able, I suppose—to take the dead as our servants in battle. But those bodies, those corpses and skeletons are only bodies. There’s no soul, no life, no hint at their humanity at all. They clamor for life, and we grant a fallacy of it to them in exchange for their absolute servitude. They don’t have any more intelligence than beasts, and far less emotional capacity.” Roswell stared at his hands, watched them shake. “There’s no proof, absolutely none, that their souls even existed in the first place. The body means nothing, nothing at all without a soul. They’re not human, not people without souls. This isn’t what I became a necromancer for at all. So—so I started looking for a way. But…”
“I see… without any proof, without a way through the soul’s gate, you’ve started to fear that souls suffer a similar degradation or completely fade after they pass through it, haven’t you?” Was that sympathy in Nessiah’s voice? Roswell could see so little of the fallen angel’s expression that it was nearly impossible to tell, but he was almost sure it was. “And what point is there in bringing someone back to life, in creating a body for them or restoring their corpses if there’s no soul? Seeing them as lifeless, as empty as dolls or as your skeleton servants would be the death of you. You… truly loved them more than anything, didn’t you…”
“Them…?” Roswell repeated, seized with a kind of fear mingled with mortification, a sensation similar to the abject vulnerability of nakedness.
Nessiah hesitated, then cocked his head lightly to the side. “Your parents, of course.”
“How—how can you—I’ve spoken of this to no one before—how can you know this?” Roswell demanded, surging to his feet. His cheeks felt hot, and everything from fury to shame was racing through his heart. Was nothing private, nothing secret, nothing sacred to this man? And a tiny voice in the back of his mind whispered, If he can see this, what else does he know about me?
“I know this because when I look at you, I see it,” Nessiah said simply. “It’s roiling in your soul so much that there’s room for almost nothing else, and even when I block myself off I can still feel the turmoil in your heart from half the manor away.” When Roswell just stared, he shook his head. “Empathic magic. It’s been strong in me ever since I was a child, and it seems that empathy with the soul is how I am able to manipulate the soul in the first place. If I so choose, I can see into almost anyone’s heart, but usually I have dampers on my abilities. It’s a tremendous violation, and watching people’s emotions and memories all the time is incredibly overwhelming. I wouldn’t have bothered with you—this is yours, and it’s private—except for the fact that your grasp on sanity has started to slip. If I just leave you be, you’re going to lose your mind, and whether you’re aware of this or not, that would cause a great many people to come to grief.”
Roswell just kept staring. “…What?”
Nessiah let out a long-suffering sigh and folded his arms. “People can tell that there’s something wrong, and they’re growing concerned. You’re starting to let yourself go, don’t you realize?” When Roswell just looked at him blankly, he shifted his weight to one side, placed a hand on his hip and frowned slightly. “When did you last look at yourself in the mirror?”
Roswell was silent, suddenly realizing that he didn’t have any idea. Nessiah must have presumed as much, because he produced a sheet of silvered glass from the folds of his robes and held it up so that the necromancer would be able to see his reflection.
He was honestly shocked at what he saw. His skin was paler than usual, and clammy; his hair was disheveled, and strands stuck to his slightly hollowed cheeks. His lips were chapped and cracked from how often he’d been biting them, and the shadows under his eyes were as dark as bruises. He must have lost weight, too—his robes seemed a little loose.
“You see?” Nessiah set the mirror down on the dresser. “You have to stop this—if you don’t, you’re going to either kill yourself or go mad, whichever comes first.”
“But—I can’t stop this, I can never stop, I have to know that—that they aren’t—” That they aren’t really and truly gone forever. That I have the chance to see them again… somehow, somewhere, if only when I myself am dead.
“The eternal soul exists,” Nessiah said, and his words were blunt. “I cannot offer you proof of that that but for my own existence, but it’s something I am certain of. Being what I am, how could I believe anything else?”
“Why?” Roswell pressed. “If you want me to stop this, then you’re going to have to give me something I can believe in. Explain it to me. Please. Tell me why you feel this way.”
Nessiah hesitated, then shook his head. “I don’t know how to put it into words.”
“But—” But I have to know. I have to know—or, or… maybe you’re right and I will go crazy. Or I’ll just die, die of despair and of always being so alone…
“It’s not something I can just tell you. No manner of demagogy would satisfy you anyway,” Nessiah began, then waved a hand at Roswell’s desperate expression. “But I’m sure you know that there are ways to share memories magically.” He hesitated again. “There’s only one way I can think of that might work for this, and I don’t know if you’ll be comfortable with the method. I can use my power to show you my experiences, but…”
“But?” Roswell repeated as Nessiah fell silent with a slight grimace.
“But… the only way I know of doing that is—with my body.”
Roswell frowned. Did Nessiah really mean to imply that—
“Oh, come now. We are adults. If somehow you do not take my meaning—” Nessiah took a deep breath, as though forcing the words. “Penetrative sexual contact. By opening their body, the receptive partner can open their spirit, and share thought and memory as naturally as their magic.”
Apparently he did.
“But I am not in the position to guess at your sexual orientation, and considering our history, this may not be the best way of… Still, it’s all that comes to mind.”
Roswell considered the answers he could give, and the awkwardness this would probably create. And knew that if this really was the only way, then he didn’t care. “It’s alright. I suppose it proves that you really don’t know everything there is to know about me if you haven’t heard that I’ve shared the beds of both men and women over the past few years.” Maybe it was strange to feel a little relieved by Nessiah’s ignorance to his personal life, but given the circumstances, Roswell wasn’t going to complain. “I need answers—and if you’re willing…”
Nessiah was silent for a moment, then he crossed the room to slide the bolt in on the door.
“I can’t in good conscience leave you like this,” he all but whispered. “So—so I suppose I’ve been prepared since I first decided to speak to you about this. You see, my motivations in helping you are selfish as well as moral. This is a thing that I have needed to get past for longer than you are able to appreciate. It may as well happen in the service of some good beyond my own.” And he walked back to the side of his bed in delicate steps that put Roswell in mind of a cautious cat—or a shy virgin.
Something about it caught at Roswell’s heart, and stirred in his belly.
“One thing,” he said slowly. “If we’re… going to do this, then… please. Rosary can never know about this, about what we’re doing tonight.”
“I wouldn’t—I couldn’t.” Color danced across Nessiah’s pale cheeks in a faint blush. “The only person who will know is Kylier—I can’t keep anything from her. A result of my botched attempt at controlling her. We are linked, similar to what the two of us will attempt, if more intense and total. It will be some time before that connection fades.
“But I would trust her with anything, so you needn’t worry. No one else will ever, or can ever, know. I owe you at least that much…”
Roswell wanted to say that Nessiah didn’t owe him anything—and was surprised by the intensity of that thought. So he kept silent, undoing the brooch that pinned his mantle at his shoulder and folding the long black satin over in his arms.
“This is actually fairly simple magic, but it’s powerful,” Nessiah said softly. He’d turned slightly away from Roswell, and as the necromancer looked on as though in a dream, there was a series of metallic snaps and faint jangles, then the fallen angel’s heavy robes slid from his body to pool at his feet. He wore nothing beneath them, and seeing that—realizing that—put a slight twist in Roswell’s belly. All that expanse of paper-white skin; the delicate slope of Nessiah’s spine, the thick scarring all along his upper back. “Once I incant the spell, you’ll see into my heart the way I’ve seen into yours. This really is the only way I can think to give you what I know.”
“A—all right,” Roswell managed hesitantly, disjointedly. Setting aside his mantle and undoing the fastenings of his own clothing, he turned his back shyly to finish disrobing. As he did, he heard the soft whisper of Nessiah’s power behind him, and felt that sensual little clutch again. And wondered for a moment what he was getting himself into.
When he faced Nessiah again, the fallen angel was standing at the center of a shimmering magical glyph on the floor. Its pale light played against his skin as he waited there, completely devoid of expression but for the slight flush of his cheeks.
It’s a ritual like any other, Roswell told himself, trying to quell the jitters that were half apprehension and half anticipation. Intimate magic, but magic nonetheless. And he stepped onto the glyph as well, waiting, unsure of what to expect.
Lightly, so lightly, Nessiah touched Roswell’s chest, his forehead, his eyes, speaking all the while gentle words in a language Roswell didn’t understand. Magic sparked between them, heat prickling through Roswell’s skin wherever Nessiah’s fingers brushed.
At last, he switched to Common as the light of the glyph began to flare brighter. “Freely now I offer myself so that you may see what I have seen, so that you may know what I know. To put your soul at rest, I open my soul to you. Roswell, child of the black rose, heir of Valois… Roswell of Branthèse… look into my heart, and know me.”
Roswell could no more than blink in surprise before Nessiah touched his face, drawing them gently together. The images began to form almost before their lips met.
A small child, small but knowing as intelligent children are—a child who heard voices nobody heard, who saw things others overlooked. A child who could look at you and know you, a child possessed of strange powers indeed. A child who could tell as unease, suspicion, even fear bloomed in the souls of those around him as he saw into the depths of those souls. A child who was avoided but by those with power until that child began to learn, began to pull the magic back inside himself and choose not to see. It was too painful to be feared; even when he saw, he tried not to speak of what it was he learned.
More than an image—a memory, faded but true. Nessiah’s memory, one of his earliest, half experienced and half told like a story that had been told many times to him.
A deep ache similar to pity fell fast on the heels of Roswell’s surprise, an ache for the innocent in Nessiah that had been lost so many centuries ago.
With a soft sound, Nessiah drew him in deeper, let his lips part in invitation and surrender. His hands slid down to Roswell’s shoulders, and so slightly that at first Roswell barely noticed it, those hands were shaking.
For the body to betray how overwhelmed one felt was so quintessentially human that Roswell felt warm. It was the sudden reality and immediacy to Nessiah standing before him that pulled at his lust, made him hard, rather than how long it had been since he had shared his bed with another.
Roswell had been neglecting his physical appetites for a long time, it was true—but Nessiah’s almost-polite grip on him was more sensual than sexual, and that made it feel more real. It surprised Roswell, how much he wanted that realness, awkward though the situation might be. He framed Nessiah’s thin hips with both hands, pulling them closer to his own as he deepened their kiss. The head of his cock rubbed against warm smooth skin, and his heart lurched even as Nessiah flinched with—surprise, shyness, Roswell didn’t know.
Even as the contact grounded Roswell, the images, Nessiah’s memories, cascaded now—Roswell closed his eyes and let them take shape in his mind, watching Nessiah consciously study the properties of the soul, watching his uncanny sense of knowing become one of understanding. Saw fragments of the angel’s many encounters with and manipulations of the souls of the dead and dying.
The soul endures even when the mind does not. The thought echoed through Roswell’s mind in Nessiah’s voice, coasting on curiosity and compassion and a little bit of admiration. Who is to say that the soul is not the strongest aspect of any mortal life?
Caught up now, dizzy and disoriented between the rush of memory and the rush of sensation, Roswell nearly startled as he felt his legs brush the side of the bed. Nessiah shivered again, and Roswell felt his loss of control and his compulsion to see this through for the sake of Roswell’s sanity and the raw edge of his arousal—but he also felt the flicker of what he thought was fear.
Something was strange. Even as Roswell noticed that, there came another image, one that felt uneasy and a little sick, overlaid across the jumble of Nessiah’s experiences with the soul. It was stronger, and it pulled at Roswell so that for a moment it was all he could see.
it is night in the desert and nessiah and the girl are sitting on the sand, fire burning, the two of them no one else; she stinks of rotten old mead, her intoxication is enough to make him dizzy, turn his disjointed thoughts/compulsions into a kaleidoscope and his head hurts it hurts.
(Something felt—wrong about Nessiah, fragile, nervous like a young bird, and Roswell realized that the odd brittleness about him was all in Nessiah’s mind. Whatever point this had been in Nessiah’s life, he had not been quite sane at the time.)
the girl is talking talking nessiah isn’t listening isn’t thinking it’s all background noise to the stars. she is touching him but he is a million miles away and then she is looming huge in his vision and her mouth is on his
he freezes submits she is not Like That she will stop if he does not respond but the alcohol is a deafening clang in her brain & he covers his ears turns his head away her hand is running up under his skirts she has his balls in her hand strokes ‘til he stands stiff but he is shaking. his head hurts nothing makes sense. the bits & pieces that are lucid do not want to be lucid. there is despair as infinite as the sky: in the end he is nothing but a thing for the Real people to use;
Roswell watched numbly as the memory splintered. He was reminded powerfully of the drugs that made his eyes and skull burn and made him see his own writing squirm off his papers, becoming maggots and coffin nails and flying out the window, leaving blazing trails behind.
& she puts him into her & she is not really there, only her body is there like an animal in heat. she is wet and he wants to throw up. his brain is a fractured mirror and he runs away into the cracks. he feels it when his hips slam up/something shoots out, she makes a guttural noise & there will be bruises from her pelvis along the base of his pubes for days
she is drunk & sleeping & he is crying quiet as a nothing and it will be years before anyone could touch him even innocently without him flinching away from the memory.
And then Roswell was back to himself. The thread of magic connecting him to Nessiah had come undone, and only the warmth remained—their hands gripping each other’s forearms, Nessiah sitting on the mattress and Roswell leaning against it, apart and breathless.
“Nessiah—” Roswell shook his head wordlessly. “That memory was—”
“It was a long time ago,” Nessiah said quietly, but the shudder in his hands and shoulders betrayed him. “I didn’t mean for you to see that. Leave it in the past where it belongs.”
He very clearly didn’t want to speak of it—and who could blame him? Still, Roswell couldn’t in good conscience keep going with his mind still full of Nessiah’s memory of the rape. He shook his head again. “Nessiah… are you really sure you want to do this?”
“I told you yes,” Nessiah said, breathing deep.
“But—” Roswell struggled for the right words. “Are you saying yes out of some sense of obligation to me, or to standards you’ve set too high for yourself? It matters to me that this is what you really want to do. I don’t want to hurt you or pressure you into anything.”
Nessiah chewed on his lip. His expressions were still hard for Roswell to read, even after all this time, but Roswell thought that Nessiah was probably searching for the right words too.
“It is important for me,” he said at last, “to be able to say yes to sexual intercourse for whatever reason. I—am not—an object to be acted upon. A thing to be used. No, I—I told you that my motivations for this are selfish. I believe that it is high time I take my body back.”
Roswell swallowed. Nessiah’s courage, his determination, made anything else Roswell might say feel cheap.
“You can always change your mind,” he offered at last. “If—if you tell me to stop, if you say no, I will respect that. I want you to know that, at least. Deciding what happens to your body includes that, too.”
Nessiah was silent for a moment. Then he took Roswell’s right hand in both of his own and laid it to his chest. There was a kind of profound warmth beneath the necromancer’s fingers, and more than that, a sense of Nessiah’s deep gratitude that he cared enough to say so.
“But for now, I am telling you yes,” Nessiah said, and forced a smile. “And I would like to get this over and done with while I still have the nerve.”
And so saying, he coaxed Roswell up onto the mattress with him with hands that did not shake. The thread, shining between them again, all but bowled Roswell over with a wave of reassurance; Nessiah must have been trying to pass some sense of how his own mind and soul had endured, despite the trauma of that night and his obvious mental instability at the time. The way he would surely continue to endure, if he was never unbound, for eternity.
The link of memory was still there between them, but Roswell paid it little mind: There were more important things he had to see to, just now. He laid his lips to the side of Nessiah’s throat, kept his hands gentle along Nessiah’s ribs, made encouraging noises as Nessiah’s hands ventured up and down Roswell’s sides. When pale fingertips inched down along his chest and stomach, he relaxed, then tensed up again—it had been a mistake to let his guard down with Nessiah touching his cock, even so lightly.
Nessiah made a faint sound that Roswell judged to be surprise, though he lifted himself up on his hands just in case.
“I didn’t think—I know I have no technique, so I, ah.” Nessiah turned away, red-faced. “It took me off-guard a little, having you react like this.”
When Roswell looked down, Nessiah had pulled his hand back a bit, worrying his fingertips against each other. They were wet with precome.
Roswell smiled—encouragingly, he hoped. “It has been a while. And you have nice hands. Try to relax your legs? The less tense you are, the easier this will go.”
“Relax,” Nessiah said quietly, and exhaled. “Right.”
“Would you like me to distract you?” Roswell asked. He waited for the answering nod before leaning back down and covering Nessiah’s mouth with his own, working at the lower lip with light nibbles and strokes of tongue until he made Nessiah gasp beneath him.
With a low-grade sense of pride that even as rusty as he was he could still make Nessiah react so dramatically, Roswell moved his right hand slowly and gently down. He rested it in the bend of Nessiah’s hip for a while, thumb right along the seam where the contour of Nessiah’s thigh began; only after a few more moments had passed did he softly slip that hand between Nessiah’s legs.
Nessiah didn’t react as he rested it there, but his shoulders tensed as Roswell traced him, slipped in one fingertip, then another to prepare him.
“Should I stop?” he asked.
“No,” said Nessiah.
Roswell was as slow and careful as he knew how to be, but he couldn’t stop that line of tension from building. He hadn’t been paying attention to the thread of feeling and memory, but it was buzzing with something like panic. It was different from the vague sickness that came from the memory of the night Nessiah had been assaulted in the desert, and that made Roswell nervous.
“Relax,” Roswell whispered again. “I will do everything I can to make sure that I don’t hurt you.” Briefly, he slid his free hand between his own legs, spoke a few words in an undertone. He would run the risk of harming Nessiah if he didn’t do anything to make the penetration easier; luckily he’d learned this simple lover’s magic to slick his skin in lieu of mundane lubricant, to avoid most of the discomfort.
“I will not hurt you,” he repeated, and took Nessiah’s right hand in his left. Slowly, he drew his fingers back, and took himself in hand to line the head of his cock up with Nessiah’s entrance.
Nessiah’s breath caught, and he squeezed Roswell’s hand tightly, nails digging in painfully. Roswell closed his eyes, took one deep breath.
The memory ripped between them, unbidden.
Nessiah held fast with manacles, crying, pleading, trying to twist around to shield himself, his wings twitching and his vision—his real vision, not the magical sight he used now—distorted with the fear and the pain. That man—the man with cruel colorless eyes—listened to him beg and laughed, dismissive; traced pain across Nessiah’s body in spiteful magic across his pressure points until he was limp, too spent from fighting it to do more than lie still. And forced into him—again—again—until Nessiah had given up, waiting for the end that never seemed to come—
“—Stop,” Nessiah blurted, urgent, recoiling away from Roswell still crouched over him. “Just—give me—give me a moment. Just wait.”
Roswell let go of him, shaking his head, dizzy, vision swimming with sparks. That memory had been worse than the first. It had been clear. Nessiah had been younger then, he thought, and not already in pieces from trauma. It had happened when he was still in Asgard. Probably—that violent assault had something to do with why he was in Asgard no longer.
He couldn’t think about that now. Nessiah was curled up, arms around himself, breathing fast and shallow.
Roswell lifted a corner of the comforter and draped it over Nessiah’s shoulders, not knowing what else he ought to do.
His gaze fell on the pitcher still on the table, and he scooted off the edge of the bed to retrieve it and a mug. He was overly aware of his nakedness, now, his cock at half-mast still. But self-consciousness could wait. Had to wait.
“Please, drink something,” Roswell said, holding the mug out towards Nessiah and the bed. Nessiah was still curled up with the comforter draped over his shoulders, shaking.
“You don’t have to apologize for anything,” Roswell said. “This isn’t your fault.”
He didn’t know what to do with the mug, but after a few moments Nessiah reached out and took it, drank from the thing and pulled a face.
Nessiah was very quiet for a while, hiding under the comforter and steadily drinking from the mug. Eventually he handed it back to Roswell empty, and Roswell set it on the table again. At least Nessiah had stopped shaking, he thought, and sat on the mattress tentatively.
“Just let me—compose myself,” Nessiah said at length. “We are going to do this thing. I’m just—unsteady. I’m sorry.”
“You’re a stubborn little thing,” was what popped out of Roswell’s mouth almost immediately.
Nessiah reddened. “I hardly think you are allowed to call me little, given that you are not that much taller than I am.”
“No. I know. It’s just—it amazes me that you still want to keep trying, despite… things.”
“I have decided that tonight I will finally be having sex of my own volition,” Nessiah said, “because my body is mine and not an object to be acted upon. I prefer to follow through on my decisions, you see.”
“Mm. I would not have noticed had not you said so,” Roswell replied soberly.
Nessiah laughed. His voice was still hoarse, but it was a laugh, and Roswell relaxed as the tense atmosphere softened.
“I think we should cut the spell or at least dampen it until you’re more relaxed. It may be a factor in causing those flashbacks.”
“No. I appreciate the gesture, but no. There’s too much chance of getting caught up and forgetting to fix it partway into things, and most of the point of this is to share my memories with you. The right memories. I honestly just want to get things over with.”
“You’re not just stubborn, you’re very brave,” Roswell said. “I don’t think I could recover from—” he couldn’t say the word rape aloud, and faltered for a moment before settling on “what you have enough to want to try anything like this.”
“In my defense—if you could call it that—it has been a very long time since then,” Nessiah demurred. “This is why I say that it is high time I do something about it. I am old and stuck in my ways, but—even I can try to find ways to change.”
He lifted his chin as he said it, blind eyes under his mask staring off into some distant horizon. Roswell watched him, admiring the clean lines of his throat. The comforter was coming down off his shoulders in crumpled folds, leaving the tops of his scars bare.
Roswell reached out thoughtlessly, then pulled his hand back. “May I?”
Nessiah considered him, must have discerned the object of Roswell’s curiosity by some alchemy of his expression, because he made a difficult sort of face and turned his back in an uncharacteristically graceless movement. “Suit yourself.”
The scars were a deep splash of color all across Nessiah’s thin back, knotted and pulled tight across his little bird bones. Roswell touched them lightly, reverently albeit without admiration. These were not the wounds left by a clean amputation. It was not a surprise that Nessiah had been insane for a long time after his exile—what he called his sundering, a word that fit the more Roswell thought about it. Here Roswell was more than half crazy because he had lost his parents years ago.
But the existence of these wounds on what Roswell understood to be a copied body, transmigrated, was fascinating. Like some sort of stigmata. He admitted as much aloud after a few moments. “Why does this happen? Your back—your eyes, even—theoretically you ought to be able to regenerate them when you create a new form.”
Nessiah rolled his shoulders. The scars stretched and warped under Roswell’s fingers, pulling and crinkling the papery pigmentless skin between in ways that looked painful. “I can’t. It isn’t as though I have never tried. I am just unable to do so. The soul informs the body. There is only so much influence that I am able to exert.”
He turned, looked over his shoulder at Roswell, and his face was impassive again. “I could show you the principles, rather than debating them with you.”
Roswell took a deep breath. “As long as you feel that you’re ready.”
Nessiah squared his thin shoulders. “Yes.”
Roswell patted the covers beside him. Nessiah emerged from under the comforter and sat, carefully folding his legs in a clean peak over Roswell’s knees.
He didn’t startle or flinch away when Roswell touched him. Roswell took this as a hopeful sign, but resolved to still go as slow as it took.
The red marks along the side of Nessiah’s throat had faded to blush pink, but his mouth was still flushed and swollen from Roswell’s attentions. When Roswell kissed him there, he did it gently; he avoided worrying the same spots, knowing that no matter how covered Nessiah preferred to go about, it would only cause trouble to leave hickeys there.
He moved slowly. Nessiah’s heartbeat under his hands was rapid, like something about to turn tail and flee, but his body wasn’t braced as though to follow suit. Nessiah made fists on Roswell’s shoulders and breathed deep and rhythmic through Roswell’s kisses and caresses. It was only when Roswell made it to chest level, softly ran his lips and tongue over a nipple, that Nessiah squeaked and jumped a little in place.
Roswell stopped, waited for some indication one way or the other, and getting none tried the same thing again. This time one of Nessiah’s hands found its way to his hair, and Nessiah’s whole body drew a beautiful arc as he made a low needy sound. Roswell’s skin filled with the floating sensation of relief, and there was a great rushing of blood to his groin.
And this time—finally—when he reached a hand down around the curve of Nessiah’s ass to finger him, there was no thrash and panic. Not daring to hope, Roswell brought Nessiah around to straddle his hips and gently—gently—coaxed Nessiah into lowering his body until they connected.
Nessiah flinched at the first press of Roswell’s cock against his ring muscle; he cried out and dug his nails into Roswell’s back as he took the rim; but only said “oh” when the rest of Roswell’s length slid inside him, and sank down to the root with shivery legs and no further resistance.
Roswell had to grit his teeth against the warmth and the impossible tightness—Nessiah’s sense of well-being meant more than his desire to race right to the finish—but he got one arm around Nessiah’s waist and the other hand at the nape of his neck, holding him lightly. “Are you all right?”
“—Yes,” said Nessiah, as if from very far away.
“Are you in any pain?”
“No. Or—not much. It feels—I feel very strange.”
All his barbed eloquence was gone, and a new, oddly maudlin tone had come into his voice. Roswell stroked his fingertips through the ends of Nessiah’s hair.
“I can’t move like this,” he said, “so I am going to lie you down. Let me know if the position makes you feel uncomfortable in any way.”
“All right,” Nessiah said. Roswell lifted him up—it was amazing how little Nessiah weighed, even carrying all that metal—and pressed him back against the pillows along the headboard. He sat up and back, got his arms underneath Nessiah’s thighs, and gripped Nessiah’s waist in his right hand, Nessiah’s right hand in his left.
“I’m starting now,” Roswell said, and looking down at the oddly docile Nessiah he felt a great tenderness well up in him.
Nessiah made a faint sound of acquiescence, and so Roswell adjusted the angle of his hips and began—finally—to move.
He didn’t attempt to control his voice, but Nessiah clamped his free hand over his mouth and gripped Roswell’s fingers with power that Roswell had not expected of him. Nessiah had been calling himself old not fifteen minutes ago, but he looked young and astonished now, color coming through blotchily in his cheeks, neat little cock flush and wet and swollen against his stomach.
And Roswell knew why. It wasn’t a matter of reading his face, but of the thread—of the great magical weaving—between the two: Pleasure had been more than Nessiah had dared to hope for.
He came quickly, and it was the only time he let himself raise his voice—a high stuttering wordless cry—reaching back so that his fingers scrabbled for a handhold on the headboard, the cords standing out in his neck. And his whole body relaxed in the next moment, thin chest shuddering up and down.
Roswell might have been proud—he had just been able to give the survivor of at least two horrible acts of violence his first moment of real, mutual sexual joy—but if he felt anything distinct right then, it was probably closer to humility: That Nessiah had pushed himself so hard to share such a moment with Roswell of all people, was even now opening mind and heart to him, so that the back of Roswell’s mind was a rush of color and sound.
So he leaned in at the last instant and rested his cheek to the side of Nessiah’s head, wanting to be close as he finished, wanting to show at least somehow just how much it all meant to him.
How long had it been? Minutes, or hours? Roswell didn’t know; he didn’t have much concept of time in his half-awake state. All he knew was that when he’d laid his head exhaustedly on Nessiah’s chest, the fallen angel’s heart had been racing, and that now the pulses came at a much easier rate.
Nessiah was still awake, too. He hadn’t said anything, but the rhythm of his breathing was still erratic, and for a long time he’d been playing with a tuft of Roswell’s hair, curling and looping it around his forefinger, then unwinding it. The movements were artful, but so small that they didn’t disturb his chains.
Knowing something had to be said, Roswell closed his eyes and sighed a little. “Nessiah… thank you.”
Nessiah stopped playing with his hair and stroked one hand along it, soothing. “You don’t need to thank me,” he replied, actually sounding embarrassed. “You needed it, I needed it, and I managed to make a mess of things anyway. When things are—like this… I have so little control; you shouldn’t have had to see what you saw. Besides.” A light cough. “I’m… not very good at this… as I’m sure you could tell.”
Roswell smiled, and would’ve laughed if he hadn’t known how callous it would seem. “Nessiah, for me this has nothing to do with how long you can hold, I assure you. What matters to me is…” With a light groan, he eased up onto his elbows, wincing as their skin pulled apart—sweat had adhered them together. “What matters to me is what it cost you to let me inside you, body and soul. I saw for myself just how difficult that was, but it didn’t stop you… all I can do is be grateful that you were willing to go such lengths for someone like me.”
“Please…” Nessiah shook his head just slightly, his pale cheeks stained red. “I wasn’t even able to give you what you need to know.”
“You did,” Roswell assured him. “Just not the way you expected to.” And because it felt right, he leaned down and slid his lips over Nessiah’s.
Nessiah reached up and brushed his fingertips through Roswell’s hair, opening for him placidly. They kissed deeply, sweetly, with long tastes and gentle brushes of their lips. When Roswell would have felt that low stir in his belly again, he eased back slowly, pressing one more light kiss to Nessiah’s cheek before he reached for the bedclothes, drew them up and over their entangled bodies, and rested against the pillow.
If Nessiah had been one of the many lovers Roswell had had in the past, he would’ve followed the kiss up, begun a languorous and playful exploration of the fallen angel’s body. He would’ve discovered more little sensitive places, let Nessiah uncover a few of his own, and shown his bedmate a few of the many other ways two people could pleasure each other. But having known—and seen firsthand—those parts of Nessiah’s history…
However long ago it might have been, the carelessness and brutality of those two instances of assault had left their mark on Nessiah’s psyche. He was still healing, and he’d pushed himself far enough for one night. Roswell didn’t want to risk frightening him, or worse, scar him again. He could not in fairness ask any more of Nessiah now. This was enough.
With that thought, Roswell closed his eyes and let himself sink deeper, abandoning every attempt to keep himself awake.
And dreamed of an angel whose original name he was surprised to recognize, and of a certain war—
It was still dark when Roswell woke with a start.
The blankets had slipped a little, leaving his face, arms, and shoulders cold. The rest of him wasn’t. He’d shifted onto his back, and Nessiah was curled up like an unborn child on top of him. The angel’s legs were folded close against Roswell’s sides, and his arms were tucked between them, the fingertips of one hand just brushing his lips. He wasn’t at all heavy, despite the weight of his chains; even if he had been, Roswell wouldn’t have had the heart to move him. In sleep, Nessiah’s pretenses had dropped away; he seemed delicate and lonely and helpless. In the starlight that spilled from the top of the window, Roswell was mesmerized by the angles and curves of his body, by the tiny shift of his chest and belly as he breathed, by the way his hair fell in scattered strands of gold. There was a kind of perfection here, he realized. And Nessiah was so warm.
Maybe—gently, carefully, Roswell reached out and pulled the blankets up to Nessiah’s shoulders as he thought it—maybe this was what he’d been missing. Maybe he’d been spending too much time with his nose in unhelpful old books, elbow-deep in cold corpses, to really see it. Everything seemed so obvious, now—his answers were here, all the answers were right here. With the warmth and light of the living, in the life-affirming act of lovemaking—in the centuries spanned by Nessiah’s memories.
Nessiah had been more right than Roswell had initially realized when he’d said he’d had no control—Roswell had just been too lost in need, pleasure, and worry to pay much attention at the time. His dreams had been full of memories that weren’t his own; Nessiah had opened up and given everything he had in those few moments of complete connection between them. While he’d slept, Roswell’s mind had placed those memories in cohesive order, and they’d risen up to the surface like some kind of half-buried truth in a riverbed.
It had been so long. Roswell had had no idea. Nessiah was even older than he’d imagined, and the things that had happened to him—even knowing the memories weren’t his, Roswell shied away from them. If Nessiah hadn’t been right here with him, he wouldn’t have believed that any living thing could go through such horrors and come out whole. The betrayals and the near destruction that was exile, the decades of complete insanity, the centuries of recovery, the isolation—if the soul was in any way flawed and exhaustible, something that faded and ceased to exist, then Nessiah would surely have emptied out, given up, returned to nothingness. But here he was, alive. Sane. Battered, perhaps, but still strong. The aftermath of the damage was still there, but—even those traces of vulnerability were proof that Nessiah had survived much more than Roswell had believed anyone could take.
Nessiah—it was clear he believed that simply dying would’ve been much easier than going on. And having seen it for himself, Roswell couldn’t really disagree.
If Nessiah’s soul could survive so many things worse than death, then—
Roswell closed his eyes as his heart clenched, closed his eyes and remembered. He remembered warmth, and love, and the praise and pride that had come as if to applaud his every achievement, the joy of making magic together, the one safe place he could always run to. He remembered the single argument there had been, and the acceptance that had come after it, and the way he’d been meticulously cared for when Rosary hadn’t wanted him, and he hadn’t been sure he wanted to live in a world where he couldn’t be at her side. He remembered his father’s delight when he’d been able to light a candle with just a glance and a gesture, remembered his mother’s nimble fingers stroking through his hair and telling him how beautiful it looked long.
He remembered those days of chaos and panic, of being forced to stretch his power thin to try to help all those he could, until it came in fits and spurts and then not at all. He remembered the delirium, and the certainty that he’d been dying… and how it had felt to wake lucid in a cold and silent home.
Not home. Just the manor. Just a place, when the ones who’d made it his sanctuary hadn’t been there anymore. Hadn’t been anywhere anymore.
The years since had been empty, a timeless expanse of grieving and searching and trying to find some way to reverse the fact that his parents and so many others he’d known and loved were gone. He’d sworn, over and over, that he wasn’t going to give up until he could open that gate and turn back death itself, but—
I’m twenty-one years old. I’m an adult now. Even if I could… I doubt it would be the way it was; I doubt I could just run back to my parents and let them make it all better. Too many things have happened since, and I know this is beyond me. If I keep reaching, it’s going to leech away what life and sanity I have left.
As tears burned at his eyes and began to spill, Roswell slid his arm around Nessiah’s shoulders as the fallen angel sighed and nestled closer.
And… and he needs me more.
The morning was pale and clouded still, and Roswell spent it in his study tidying papers and sliding books back into their proper places on his shelves. The bones and little bits and pieces of magical amplifiers he’d unearthed went into boxes and drawers; Roswell readily got down on his hands and knees and scrubbed at the glyphs he’d so carelessly painted across the floorboards until they were faded and his knuckles were red and sore. He accepted the pain. He was setting a part of his life aside, preparing to begin something new; he should be humbled by it.
Finally, he stood in the room with a kind of hollow ache in his chest. He barely recognized it, with the mess cleared away—he could see the floor and the surface of the tables. He hadn’t been able to for so long it was a little bit sad.
A little bit sad, he decided, and sighed.
When he walked to his desk and reached out for the picture frame, however, his fingers trembled. He had to use both hands to lift it, and the sudden tears blurring his eyes made it impossible to look at it. Maybe it needed to be this way—maybe it would feel even worse than something been torn out of his body if he could see it clearly. Biting his lip, Roswell began to close the doubled frame.
“Wait a moment.”
Roswell didn’t start at the sound of Nessiah’s voice, or try to keep his hold as pale fingers lifted the pair of portraits from his hands. He just stood still and wiped at the tears before turning to glance down as Nessiah examined the images with a small smile.
“So this is them, then?” Nessiah didn’t seem to expect an answer as he held the frame up, apparently in comparison. As he lowered it, his smile widened and warmed subtly. “You’re almost the perfect image of your mother—and you have your father’s eyes. The lady Branthèse must have thought herself the luckiest woman in the world when they married… your father, I’m sure, thought himself the luckiest man. They’re beautiful people, your Lord Cíaran and Lady Rosemary… there’s a kind of warmth, or light, about them, even in a portrait. It’s easy to see where you get it.”
“This is you, here?” Nessiah asked, pointing. “How old were you? Ten or eleven? I’m impressed; usually at that age children have a certain… oh, I’m not sure how to put it. I know how I was at that age. I have seen more than enough humans at that state of development, too. Like puppies in a basket, all paws and tails and elbows.” He was still smiling, fondly now. “But look at you. You must’ve put little hearts in the eyes of all the town children who saw you. There’s not much difference, is there? The only thing I can think of…” Nessiah reached up and brushed his fingers across Roswell’s cheek “…is that you don’t seem nearly as happy as you once were. I’ve never really seen it, but just looking at this makes me miss your charming smile.”
He held the portraits out; Roswell accepted them and slowly began to fold them closed.
“No—wait. Roswell, what are you doing?”
“I’m finished with this,” Roswell said, sighing. “I just… I’ve been cleaning up.”
“That’s fine, but you shouldn’t put this away. The rest of it, definitely—it’ll call to you if it’s out, try to draw you back in. But this? No, Roswell… these are memories too dear to you to lock away. You loved them, and they loved you. You need to be able to keep this where you can see it, where you can glance over and they’ll be there smiling at you.”
Roswell’s hands trembled a little, and he hung his head. “I… don’t know if I can take that, after I’ve given up like this. All the promises I made… I worry that this will only haunt me, if I don’t.”
Nessiah was silent for a moment, and then he slid an arm around Roswell’s waist, leaned in to rest his head on the necromancer’s shoulder. “You’re not letting them down by doing this,” he remarked more sympathetically than reproachfully. “You’re letting them be at rest; you’re letting them go. But just because you’re moving on, that doesn’t mean you have to turn your back on them. They’ll always be there, in your heart and your memories. Life has been hard for you since they passed away, hasn’t it, Roswell? It may yet be difficult for some time, and if that’s so, you’re going to need the memories and the knowledge that there was a time when you were loved so fully. If your mother and your father could love you this way, then you’ll be loved like that again.”
Roswell didn’t reply, but he leaned to the side, resting his cheek to Nessiah’s hair.
“I know it’s not the same, but…” Nessiah hesitated for a moment before he continued speaking. “If I had a picture of my parents like this… I don’t love them the way you love yours. I never knew them. I never knew what they were like, or if they loved me, or even how they died. But if I could see what they looked like, if I could see them smiling, if I had ‘proof’ that they did care… I would want to have that with me, always. You’re luckier than you know, Roswell. Please don’t throw this away. Besides…
“Besides, I think you’ll need to remember that you could smile like this, too…”
Roswell glanced down at Nessiah, at the wistful, almost vulnerable smile on the angel’s face, and felt something in his heart move.
“…Alright,” he said at last, and set the portrait back in its place on his desk. He gave it one long and soulful stare—his parents together on one side, his parents and himself on the other—before turning his gaze down to Nessiah.
Wordlessly, Nessiah took Roswell by the arm and led him over to the window, looking down at the thickly blooming gardens where he and his parents had worked. There seemed to be a kind of promise in the upturned faces of the roses, in the glitter of dew on their petals.
“The sun’s come out,” Nessiah remarked. Roswell glanced up at the sky and realized that it had—there were breaks in the clouds through which he could see slices and slivers of brilliant blue. “It’s time to go down and face the day.”