The first conscious breath is always the worst. Air pushes painfully against his dry throat. Sandalphon doesn't know how much time passed since he last was outside, the haziness of his mind doesn't allow any complex thoughts of that kind. The laboratory is cold and dark, no other presence to be sensed.
His legs feel numb from resting in the same position, unmoved for what could have been days. Gathering the strength to get up from the table he takes a moment to look at his body. There is no blood or wounds visible, Lucilius prefers to keep his subjects clean and avoid them making a mess on the way out, or raising any suspicions after leaving traces in the hallways. His beasts disappear until they can function properly again.
Lucifer has been gone for a long time too. They haven't had many chances to see each other lately, as the Supreme Primarch's title comes with demanding responsibilities and missions he has to carry out in order to keep the sky safe. There has been voices, terrible ones, humans and lesser astrals alike mentioning primals bending against the will of their creators, posing a threat to everyone, something they were never meant to even phantom.
But Lucifer surely will stop the threat, even at the cost of leaving his own creation to the hands of the researcher. Sandalphon silently hopes the time away from each other makes their scarce afternoons together even sweeter. He allows that thought to occupy his mind for a little longer.
His feet hit the ground, Sandalphon lets himself break a safety rule and accumulate a few particles of light at the palm of his hand to see his closest surroundings. The desk ahead is crammed with new glass containers. Some are empty, some filled almost to the brim with various fluids. He wonders if these were taken from him. His body doesn't feel anything other than residue fatigue - aftereffect of his comatose state. Lucilius said he needs to examine the progress Lucifer has made on his own, at some point he must have also disabled his senses, for the first time after many tests left him shivering and paralyzed with pain.
He scans the room making his way to the exit when his foot catches on what seems to be fabric dragging on the floor. The reaction is instinctual.
Glimmering light at his palm abruptly goes out.
"Apologies," says the intruder, "it seems I must have fallen asleep here. Please do not concern yourself with my presence. I will now leave."
Despite irresponsible curiosity, Sandalphon's legs take him to the door, as if against his own will.
He never tells Lucilius.
The rebellion rages on.
The moment the gates of Pandemonium close behind Sandalphon, he realizes there are only two ways things must end - he will live, leave the cage and avenge himself; or die alone, exhausted and surrounded by bloodthirsty creations preying on his misfortune.
The place of his imprisonment is filled with all kinds of abominations. Their wrongdoings range from disobedience to simply being a byproduct of the research astrals conduct, but all are equally vicious and hellbent on their own survival. Pandemonium was created for that purpose alone, after all, to keep the skies safe from what endangers them.
Sandalphon's misbehaviour is considered a danger now. He does not deserve to breathe his last breath held in a warm embrace of a stranger.
The ground around him and the kneeling figure is battered and soaked with blood, a mess of torn bodies, courtesy of yet another desperate fight. He has been fighting for so long. He is so tired. The fingers stroking his cheek trace his lashes wetly and Sandalphon realizes he is crying.
"To be caught up in someone else's mistakes like this, truly is a miserable fate," comes a distant but so, so familiar voice. It reminds Sandalphon of everything he has ever longed for. He tries to open his eyelids, look up, but his eyes are unable to make out any shapes of the face above him. He does not understand the words. Revolting was his conscious choice, he does not know who someone else could be, but it's soothing to give into the stranger's attempts to take a bit of the burden off his shoulders.
"It would be my fault as well if I allowed your existence to come to an end in this place as a result of my own terrible miscalculation," the voice continues and Sandalphon is drowning, drowning in the welcoming light and omnipresent feeling of calmness, safety, his mind drifts back in time to that shade and the garden and the sparks going through his body every time his fingers reaching for the cup knock against the other's hand. The voice is fading now, but Sandalphon is surrounded in tenderness, sinking deeper into unconsciousness his body barely registers being pulled closer, the hand moving to his hair, petting it softly in a comforting manner.
Even outside of the cage Sandalphon has never felt this alive.
When the quake comes, Sandalphon acknowledges he has underestimated what Rackam meant saying the airship needs a few repairs. Another ones follow in a quick succession, now the table is shaking and Sandalphon hurries to collect his writing before coffee is spilled all over the papers.
Then, carelessly he knocks into the coffee.
Sandalphon swears the world stops spinning around its axis as he watches the liquid splash and the cup comes tumbling and clinking towards the edge and—
It ends up scooped up midair by a hand.
Lucio turns the cup in his hand, then extends it to Sandalphon, smiling, "I believe this belongs to you."
He snatches it quickly from the man, last droplets of coffee jumping in the air and landing on his sleeve. The smile doesn't fade, "Should we look for a more stable place to pour out words in your notebooks, at least for now?"
Sandalphon can feel his cheeks turning violently crimson. To be caught red-handed, in the midst of writing self indulgent lines. Lucifer would never end up this way. But then again, he might have never had such a trivial need in the first place.
"Why were you creeping up on me," he hurriedly gathers the open notebooks and ink away from prying eyes, but Lucio does not seem to show the interest in prodding with any further questions.
"You have been very absorbed in your activities recently," he says instead, "maybe you could use some fresh inspiration."
How disrespectful. As if the shared memory with Lucifer isn't enough. But Lucio doesn't have and never will have any way of knowing what dwells deep inside Sandalphon's notes, what his poems are about, Sandalphon reminds himself and exhales slowly to subdue the sudden surge of anger. He will leave the airship as soon as he makes Lucio lose the interest in his whereabouts.
"I'm fine and I must ask you to leave at once," he responds and watches Lucio react the way he always does, slightly looking away but never letting the smile waver.
Lucio doesn't let the awkward silence continue for long, turning to the door without asking more questions, "then I will let you be."
Sandalphon wonders if he forgot to lock the door earlier that day.
By default, primals don't have the same needs humans do. Even the ones made by Lucilius, despite being imperfect, they lacked in resistance to emotions rather than tiredness. Lucifer's creation followed the very same principle. Sandalphon doesn't need to sleep, he prefers to avoid it as it reminds him much of the days he spent in the lab, but it happens. Healing from injuries is faster when unconscious. The duty of overseeing the peace of the skies doesn't look favourably upon any shortcomings. Unhealed injury should not weigh on the safety of what Lucifer wanted to protect.
When the nightmares come, all of reality and memories blend together. Waking up is not enough, not after his mind rapidly jumps from one place to another. He is at the lab, unable to move or scream, then he is alone and petrified in the deepest pits of Pandemonium, then in the shrine, walls and floors crumbling under his feet and Lucifer's voice is faint, even weaker than his aura and he's reaching out to touch him, grab him, save him, anything.
Sometimes, it's scary when he sees Lucio the next day. Sandalphon is not a child, not that he has ever been one, he was born into this unchanging, entirely artificial form, but the sight of these familiar eyes pointed at him, voice lightheartedly joking about the smallest things, the same face he has just once again watched dying in his arms as he's unable to do anything about it - it's terrifying. It makes him retreat and hide and wait until it's all over and he is strong enough to push back the resurfacing thoughts or at least mask them with stronger emotions.
The first time he wakes up not alone is ever worse. Gasping for oxygen, eyes blurry with tears, he grabs on the arm shaking him awake and when his vision clears and becomes used to the darkness surrounding him, he stares at the man kneeling over him and honest to god wails.
The helpless look of worry on Lucio's face deepens as he tries to pull Sandalphon up and in his arms. Breathe with me, I'm here, he hears the words being said to him but with no effect, his grip on the arm tightens and his nails bite into the skin, but the arm doesn't jerk or withdraw. He can feel himself being pressed tighter into the embrace.
Sandalphon doesn't count time until his heartbeat slows down and he can hear another, the static sound in his head gone quiet again. Then he feels his senses coming back. The soft hum of the airship moving through the skies, the hand on his spine moving up and down in slow motions despite how much it is trembling, or maybe Sandalphon is trembling, the body he's pressed to smells sweetly of ether, yet not entirely in the way he's used to it. He breathes in and tentatively lets go of the arm, looking up to meet the eyes waiting for him.
"Sandalphon," Lucio immediately reaches to his face. He lets himself be touched, tears catching on the fingertips that brush his cheeks.
Sandalphon waits for words to come back. "Why did you come," his voice betrays him halfway through the question.
"Sandalphon," the man repeats himself, "your screams were so loud it's a miracle nobody else woke up."
You did, he thinks, but doesn't move an inch away. He bows his head back down to rest it against the warm chest.
The smell of ether lingers. It betrays how Lucio has rushed to his side from skies much higher that ones the airship was sailing through that night.
The blood from the bite was meant to lure in vicious sharks. Soon it brings Lucio instead.
"Stop circling me like a hungry mosquito," Sandalphon hisses, peeling the ripped shirt away from the wound. It is mostly healed by now, but dried blood on the fabric makes it stick unpleasantly to his chest pulling on his skin uncomfortably.
Lucio is in dangerously close proximity again, hands almost up to the wound, "Sandy, let me heal it for you."
"It's not life threatening," Sandalphon scoffs, "you haven't ever seen an injury that would pose a threat to the Supreme Primarch anyway."
"I've seen more than you could imagine," Lucio doesn't miss a beat. "Please allow me. It will be faster that way."
Sandalphon sighs. He wouldn't give up penstering anytime soon. The sharks could be back quickly too, nobody could predict whatever terrifying form they would take next. Sandalphon's powers and wings will be needed again to protect Auguste and its people, extra speed in recovery doesn't sound like the worst idea. He grabs Lucio's hands and presses them to his chest.
"Make it fast," he says looking away from what he feels is a grin of pure satisfaction of winning against him once again.
Lucio doesn't comment any further, he focuses on the gentle flow of healing magic pulsing through his palms and pushing under the reddened skin. Soon the only remaining trace of the previous injury is pink flush on his chest and torn fabric hanging from Sandalphon's shoulder.
"Wait," before Sandalphon reacts, one of the hands pulls the remains of the shirt off his shoulder. Then Lucio is taking his own off too. "Wear mine."
He must be grimacing, seeing the other's face breaks with a giggle, as it always does when he manages to tease Sandalphon just enough. Then he's being wrapped in the material and it looks suggestive, to be this disheveled from a battle, flushed, wearing another man's clothes. He must have complained out loud because Lucio is laughing now. It's ridiculous how thin his face is. Sandalphon covers his eyes in shame.
"It's suggestive only if you want it to be," Lucio pats his shoulder and it does not help at all, "I think it's adorable."
Sandalphon prays silently for the sea to swallow him whole.
"Sandalphon," capitan stands at the entrance of his food stall, "I know you must be busy now but can I ask you for a small favor?"
The light dancing on the water outside is dimming, fading from fiery red to rich dark shade of blue, soon to be replaced by complete darkness. Thick clouds won't let the moon shine through tonight. Sandalphon can tell the seabreeze is becoming colder for mortals when the summer is on the home stretch and days are getting gradually shorter. He doesn't feel it much himself but he has seen girls gather their belongings from the beach and wrap themselves in the blankets they've been sitting on, hurrying back towards the huts.
"I've been meaning to ask Lucio to help us put together pieces of this sky map, but he seems to have vanished," capitan continues without waiting for the answer. He knows Sandalphon will help anyway. "We are departing from Auguste soon. I think we should let him know."
Of course they don't need to let him know. Lucio would find them no matter what's the location, he always did even when unprompted. Nonetheless, Sandalphon puts aside the cloth he's been wiping the tables with and lifts his arms to untie the apron on his neck.
"Of course. I'll find him right away," he folds it neatly and stores on a shelf under the counter.
Finding Lucio proves to be harder than he anticipated. The sands of the beach stretch far along the coast. Sandalphon soon has to help himself producing an orb of light to brighten his way. The sound of his footsteps is drowned out only by the soft crashing of waves, he can't sense anyone's presence.
It occurs to him that maybe Lucio doesn't want to be found and that idea brings out tiniest sting of worry in the most unpleasant way. Throughout the whole summer it was impossible to detach Lucio from his shoulder, he orbited like a satellite around him, always found a way to be somewhere close. Sandalphon would not admit it in anyone's face how terribly much he has gotten used to it.
He wanders far from the common area. The greenery ends here, sands turn into stones and the way down the coast narrows, growing into cliffs on his left. For a tourist it would be impossible to pass through.
"Up here," calls a voice from above and Sandalphon's wings spread immediately to take him higher, air pushed down with force crashing with saltwater and making it foam violently. He doesn't recognize the figure sitting on the edge before him immediately, but he knows that this must without a fault be the one he's been searching for.
Lucio's face isn't changed at all, but the soft cascades of hair descending to the ground, falling in between the folds of white and on bare skin make his presence feel different. Sandalphon lowers himself to stand on his own and lets the wings remain as he observes the silhouette contrasting against the horizon. The sun is soon to rise.
"Quite impressive of you to find me here," Lucio turns to him and pats the ground next to himself, inviting, "not that I would expect any less of the Supreme Primarch."
"Was it a trial, then?" he answers and comes closer to sit down, "and what's with this form?"
Lucio shakes his head, "you don't need a trial. It isn't for me to question Lucifer's will." He doesn't continue.
Sandalphon figures out it's better to leave the question hanging. Even after over two millennias in the sky, further mysteries keep unfolding before his eyes. He has long since learned to let things reveal themselves on their own, not everything could be comprehended when pried away greedily from it's secrecy. Lucio has always been hard to figure out. He knew how to conceal himself but at the same time he wouldn't go unnoticed, it felt like he always stood behind the scenes to secure the chain of events. Nobody has ever questioned his doings, but the intentions never felt malicious. Truly an enigma.
"To tell the truth, you weren't mean to see me like this," he continues after a long break. First rays of light graze the waters on the horizon.
"But I couldn't watch you walk that rocky path below." On any other occasions Sandalphon would be quick to retort that it's not an issue to be concerned with. But the silence around them feels so sacred that even a breath deeper than necessary would be sinful.
The water colors different this time, orange and yellow and a line of gold gathers on the dark surface like a crack between boundaries heading towards them and dissolving somewhere halfway through, met with the night's face still reflecting where daylight hasn't reached yet.
"You must be breaking my resolve, Sandalphon."
Lucio is breathtaking. In this form, in any form, Sandalphon knows this isn't Lucifer and never has been, he never came to replace anyone, or maybe he didn't come at all, just always has been near, very close, he feels familiar in so many ways.
"For this once, I really desire to interfere," he lets Sandalphon touch the hair falling over his face and tuck it gently behind his ear. The fingers travel down the line of his jaw and to his chin, but neither of them dares to look the other in the eye.
"You're allowed to," Lucio doesn't look up, but Sandalphon still drinks in what he can see of the faint pink on the cheeks, never before having a chance to indulge in such a sight, "if you wish, of course."
He doesn't need to say it twice.
The sunrise is blinding.