Michael’s soul is warm.
Raphael cradles it in his hands as he returns to heaven, wondering distantly if he could hold him forever so that Michael would stay with him in some form. The soft energy radiating from it is soothing, a bit like Michael’s presence always had been when they were together, but it still isn’t the same. Michael is still gone.
He’s never had trouble delivering souls before, but when it comes time to give Michael away so he can be prepared for reincarnation, Raphael’s reluctant to let go. This is the last time he’ll see this soul as Michael, the last time he’ll truly be holding his friend.
But Raphael is an angel that isn’t supposed to get attached. Just like before, he lets Michael leave him behind, the last vestiges of his warmth barely a comfort.
He busies himself with his normal duties, ferrying other souls from the mundane world to heaven, checking the list from time to time for which humans he should monitor, passing by Michael’s usual spot by the viewing pools and trying not to loiter.
Then, one day, Metatron takes him aside.
“I thought, perhaps, you would like to know that a certain couple is expecting their first child,” he says. “A beautiful baby boy.”
“And why is this something I should know?” Raphael asks, a flutter of his wings belying his impatience.
“Our records indicate that the baby is to be born with a very special soul. He will certainly be virtuous and just—yes, angelic even.” Metatron’s sharp eyes peer over his glasses, looking pointedly at Raphael.
The pieces fall into place in Raphael’s mind. “You don’t mean—!”
“Yes!” Demonstrative as always, the other angel stretches his arms out with a flourish, loosening some of his feathers in the process. “Our dear Michael will be reborn tomorrow! And to the very human he spent his last moments protecting! It is certainly fitting, don’t you agree?”
Raphael’s expression softens as he thinks of how happy Michael would have been to simply exist alongside his beloved. Those upon High had been kind to allow him this happiness in his next life.
“I’d like to watch over him,” Raphael says without thinking, countless days of guilt catching up to him. He hadn’t been able to save Michael, but perhaps at least he can protect his soul in the next life.
Metatron smiles kindly at him. “I already put you down as his guardian angel.”
Raphael can suddenly understand why Michael spent so much time at the viewing pools. In theory, he shouldn’t be treating this soul any differently than he treats the other souls he watches over, but he can tell he keeps his eyes on Michael more often than the others. But he can't help it; he doesn’t want to let this soul slip away, not again.
Michael doesn’t really look like Michael anymore; he has his father's face and his mother's hair, and, of course, no beautiful wings. But the light in his eyes is the exact same as the angel that Raphael knew for years, and he even got to keep his name. According to his mother, it’s a tribute to the mysterious friend that helped give her strength while she was in the hospital, so at least his meddling letters did him some good in the next life.
Michael is the kind of boy that helps turtles cross the road, that gives his neighbors cookies when he makes too many (he always makes too many), and that picks flowers for his mother every day. The longer he watches him from up High, the more Raphael can see his friend in the little boy and the more he wants to ensure Michael has a good life as a human. He uses his powers on little things to make him happy, like writing “WINNER” on Michael’s popsicle sticks so he can have free ice cream and steering his soccer balls into the goal.
The smile he gets to see in return is worth the effort. It’s warm, just like Michael’s soul, and Raphael can’t help but want to see it again and again.
Of course, Raphael isn’t a guardian for the entire family. When Michael isn’t with his parents, the angel barely pays them a thought. Perhaps this was a mistake on his part.
It’s a stormy night when Michael’s parents take the car to a gathering at Philippe’s hospital. They leave Michael at home, the event going too late into the night for the six-year-old. Their son goes to sleep with the promise that his parents will see him in the morning.
He wakes to a broken promise.
Raphael watches as Michael’s smile dies with his parents, as he's ushered off to live with a relative that doesn't love him nearly as much as his parents had, as he tries to disappear at their funeral. The little things the angel usually does to raise the boy’s spirits aren't effective any longer—Michael doesn't want to play soccer or much of anything else any more, and all the free ice cream in the world isn't enough to mend his broken heart.
When he can’t find a way to make Michael happy, Raphael decides to take out his frustrations on Uriel instead.
“I am only a facilitator; I have nothing to do with who goes on the list,” Uriel drawls, unperturbed even after Raphael practically breaks down his office door to complain, “and I certainly do not need to tell you when one of my souls is on it. Honestly, the girl should have passed on a long time ago. I can finally have her out of my hair.”
“How cold,” Raphael mutters.
Uriel looks up from his work, his eyes narrowing through his long fringe. “You and I used to be similar, Raphael. Personal feelings shouldn’t prevent you from doing your job.”
“They won’t. But these are people’s lives.” He remembers the feeling of Michael’s soul in his hands, the warmth that it held and that he could see in the human Michael’s smile. “Perhaps we should have a bit of compassion for them.”
Uriel stares at him a moment longer before going back to filling out papers. “It’s ironic that Michael had to fade away for you to talk of compassion.”
Raphael doesn’t have a response for that.
The conversation does give him an idea for how to help Michael though. With pen and paper, he does as Michael had when he was trying to help his love—he writes a letter.
He isn't the best at words, so he keeps it simple.
I miss your smile. I can’t bring your parents back, but is there a way I can make you happy again?
Your guardian angel
Then he’s faced with another dilemma: delivering it. Metatron finds him scowling at the viewing pools the next day, turning the letter over in his hands like doing so would magically send it to Michael.
After Raphael begrudgingly explains what he’s doing, Metatron grins at him in a way Raphael can’t quite describe.
“Why, Raphael, the answer is quite simple,” the other angel says. “You just need to descend to the mundane world, just like Michael did.”
Raphael scowls, both at the notion of leaving the heavens and at how utterly gleeful Metatron seems to be at the prospect. “Why do you look so happy about this?”
“It must be fate for you to follow in Michael's footsteps. It's rather romantic if you ask me."
"It's work ," Raphael insists.
Metatron shrugs. "Everything that you're doing, Michael did for love."
Not willing to argue any longer, Raphael jumps through the viewing pool with a huff and begins his descent to the mundane world. When he takes one last look at heaven through the viewing pool, all he sees is Metatron's knowing smile.
Angels can't stay in the mundane world for long or they begin losing their symbol of angelhood, their wings. Being seen by humans makes them disappear even faster. Unlike Michael, Raphael doesn't have someone to deliver his messages, not to mention he doesn't trust someone else to do this for him. So he leaves his letter in the flower box of Michael's window and waits for the boy to be alone in his room before tapping on the glass and flying to the roof, out of sight.
He hears the window open and a quiet "Hello?" as Michael looks for the source of the noise. The paper crinkles as he finds the letter and opens it.
Raphael doesn’t expect a quick reply, and he doesn’t get one for the next few days. He returns to the heavens to watch over his other souls, finish paperwork, and ignore Metatron’s pestering about Michael. He checks Michael’s window every night through the viewing pools, and it isn’t until almost a week later that he finds a letter waiting for him.
Once Michael goes to sleep, Raphael slips into the mundane world and picks up the letter, bringing it back to the heavens before opening it.
Thank you for your letter. It made me feel better. I’m glad I have you as my guardian angel. If you can’t bring Mama and Papa back, can I keep talking to you?
He quickly scribbles another note and flies down to deliver it before Michael wakes up.
In between Michael’s school work and Raphael’s normal duties, the two of them continue writing to each other. It starts with easy questions from Michael, mostly wondering what angels do with themselves all the time. Do angels sleep? Do they dream? Do they eat?
Raphael responds as honestly as he can and asks questions of his own, like how Michael’s day has been, whether he’s getting along with his relatives, and how his schoolwork is going.
Before either of them notice, a year passes, then two, then more, and their regular correspondence becomes lengthier and more detailed as Michael’s writing skills improve.
Michael tells him about the flowers he puts in his window, that his aunt is a florist and she gave him seeds to plant and take care of. He’s gotten better at remembering their names and they remind him of the flowers he would take from the garden to give to his mother. He wants them to grow big and strong so he can give them to his aunt.
He writes about how he dreams about his parents sometimes, but mostly he has dreams about the superheroes he sees on television. Does that mean he’s forgetting them? Since Raphael’s an angel, does he know if that makes his parents sad?
His aunt called him her son yesterday, but he doesn’t want to call her Mama—does that make him a bad person?
Oddly enough, these questions aren’t as difficult to answer as whether Michael can meet him face to face.
Though Raphael wouldn’t admit it to any of the other angels, Michael is easily his favorite soul to care for. But there are still rules; his superiors would quickly separate the two of them if Raphael met with Michael, and that’s besides the fact that doing so could make him disappear.
But that isn’t to say he doesn’t want to.
He can hear his old friend in the human Michael’s writing, and at this point the boy is as much his friend as the angel had been before him. He finds himself lingering in the mundane world to watch Michael play with his school friends and take care of the flowers in his aunt’s shop. He doesn’t quite mean to leave feathers on the windowsill next to his letters—his wings have been shedding since he spends so much time here—but he doesn’t go out of his way to clean them up either. Even though they can’t meet, Michael can have that much of him at least.
“While I am certainly an avid supporter of your friendship with Michael,” Metatron comments as he watches Raphael stuff a ten-page letter into an envelope, “your wings have been shrinking. Didn’t they use to touch the floor?”
Raphael stands up from his desk and looks over his shoulder, noting how the tips of his feathers brush the backs of his knees. Then he tucks his letter under his arm and shrugs, saying, “I’m already aware.”
The other angel looks him up and down, the usual pompous cheer absent from his face for once. “At this rate you’ll disappear before you can ferry his soul to the next life.”
“I’ll be sure to stay with him until the end,” Raphael assures him before leaving for the viewing pools to deliver his letter.
Metatron’s words nag at him though, to the point that he ends up bringing up his concerns to Michael in his next letter.
What would you do if we couldn’t talk as often as we do now?
I suppose I’d be sad, but if it was for a good reason, it would be okay. I just want you to be happy.
Talking with you makes me happy. But being in your world makes my wings smaller.
So the feathers on my windowsill weren’t there just for fun?
I thought that since they were coming off anyway you might like them.
If it’s bad for you to send me letters so much, then I don’t want you to keep losing feathers just to make sure I’m okay. We don’t need to talk for me to be happy. I know that you’ll still watch over me, and it’s enough to know we’ll still be friends. So please, don’t hurt yourself for my sake. I’m already in high school, so it’s okay for you to take a break.
What if I don’t want to take a break?
I’ll just stop replying to your letters.
Does this mean goodbye?
Perhaps “see you later” would be better.
Raphael leaves a few more letters for Michael, but, as the boy had promised, there’s no reply. It’s for the best; Michael can live without him meddling, and his wings can take the time to regenerate in the meantime.
Still, it makes his chest hurt.
He writes letters for special occasions, like Michael’s birthday and the anniversary of his parents’ deaths, but otherwise he stays in heaven and takes time for himself and his other souls. It could almost be considered nice, if it didn’t feel like he was missing something every day.
“Your wings are drooping,” Uriel says as he visits Raphael at the viewing pools a few years later. “I’ve been seeing you around here more often lately. Have you finally stopped fraternizing with the humans?”
“We haven’t been talking, no,” Raphael replies dully, his eyes trained on Michael leaving his apartment, backpack slung over his shoulder as he heads off to his morning classes at university.
Uriel crosses his arms and watches Michael take the train to campus and meet up with friends for coffee before he speaks again. “I came to find you as a courtesy.”
Raphael tears his gaze away from the viewing pools. “Since when have you extended courtesy to anyone?”
“Perhaps you and Michael have me thinking about compassion,” Uriel says dryly. “I thought that since all of the souls under your care are young and you're so busy moping, you may not be paying attention to the list. You may want to take a look at it.”
Raphael’s brow furrows and he wastes no time in taking out his copy of the list. He doesn’t notice Uriel leave, too busy looking through the names and dates for one particular person, one that he finds a few years down the line.
Raphael isn't like Michael; he doesn't believe in changing fate. He's always been a strict follower of the higher powers and this time will be no different, no matter how he feels about the soul in question. Even so, it'd be a lie to say he isn't bothered by the prospect of losing his friend again, especially when they're not on speaking terms.
If nothing else, he just wants to talk with Michael again.
He flies to Michael's apartment while the boy—a young man now—is still on campus and puts a letter in his mailbox.
I've missed you. You're smiling a lot so I hope you're having fun in college. My wings are longer now. I'd like it if we could talk again like we used to.
To his surprise, Michael responds that same night, leaving his letter on the balcony of his apartment under a flowerpot.
I've missed you too. It's a little lonely here since I have the apartment all to myself. I keep wanting to get on the train back home to Auntie's house. Getting your letter made me feel less alone. I guess you really are my guardian angel, since you seem to know exactly when I need you most.
They fall back into writing to each other like they'd never stopped, sometimes exchanging several letters a day. Raphael's wings shrink back to above the knee, then to the hip, but he doesn't care, knowing that Michael's time is limited as the date on the list grows closer. He doesn't know what will bring about the end, but he isn't willing to wait for it to catch up to them. He'll cherish these idyllic days as long as he has them.
They celebrate Michael's graduation and his first job, and as Michael's adult life stabilizes, Raphael almost forgets about the list.
Then Michael gets sick.
He collapses at work while Raphael is off taking care of another soul, and by the time Raphael makes it to the hospital, Michael is already asleep, a letter waiting next to his bed.
I fainted at work. You know how I've been feeling tired lately? Apparently that isn't just because I've been working a lot. The doctor says my mother had the same thing. She recovered thanks to my father, but I'm worse off than she was when she got treatment. They think I probably have a month or two left.
Did you know? Is that why you wanted to talk again? You don't have to answer. I know it's an unfair question. For the record, I'm glad that we started sending letters again because I don't think I'd be able to face this without you. And it's reassuring to know that you'll take care of my soul when I die.
I know I still have a bit of time, but I want to say now that I've always been thankful that you cared about me. It's been almost twenty years, but I don't think I'll ever forget how it felt to get that first letter from you and know I wasn't alone. I hope you'll take care of me in the next life too. Thank you, Raphael. Will you stay with me until the end?
The moon peeks through the blinds as Raphael considers the letter and his future with Michael. He's never felt this attached to any of his souls before, and he isn't sure he'll recover from having to ferry this soul to yet another life. Even if Michael can just be reborn, it won't be the same. Raphael doesn't want him to forget.
Michael shifts in his sleep, and Raphael remembers that he has to leave. Something solidifies in his mind as he returns to the heavens, and he sets out to write a response.
I'll be with you until the end.
As their letters become longer and more frequent, Michael gets weaker. He gets his things in order and leaves his job, moving back to his aunt's home for a week or two, but it isn't long before he's back in the hospital. Raphael skirts around the rules by going in and out of Michael's room when he's asleep, since he doesn't always have the energy to get out of bed anymore. As long as he doesn't see him, neither of them can get into trouble.
Did you know I was named after an angel? My father always told my mother that an angel sent her letters, like you do to me. Do you know an angel named Michael? Do you think he'd be mad that my parents named me after him?
I knew a Michael. He was my best friend, and he would've been delighted to hear you were named after him. He loved your mother, and he gave everything he had to make sure she was happy.
Did something happen to him?
I'll tell you some other time.
Before either of them know it, the date on the list comes. Raphael's wings don't even cover his back entirely, and he's given most of his other souls to other angels to care for.
When Michael opens his eyes for the last time, Raphael is waiting for him at his bedside.
Michael blinks. "Have I died already?"
Raphael chuckles humorlessly. "Not yet. I said I would be with you until the end. This is me keeping my promise."
Michael pushes himself up with some difficulty and reaches out, pausing over the angel's wings. "May I?" At Raphael's nod, he runs his hands through the feathers. "They're so soft," he comments, "but they're so small...I thought your wings had grown back?"
"With how much I've been in this world talking to you, I've been losing feathers pretty often." As if on cue, a few feathers come off in Michael's hand.
As he stares at the feathers between his fingers, Michael seems to understand. "You're really going to be with me until the end?"
Raphael takes Michael's hand in his. "I've been an angel for a long time. I've taken countless souls to the heavens, and watched over just as many, but I've never wanted to give up my wings for someone until now."
Michael lies down on his side, too tired to keep himself upright. "Why would you do that for me?" he asks quietly.
"At first, it was because you have my best friend's soul." Raphael squeezes their hands together at Michael's wide-eyed expression. "Michael the angel lost his wings by saving your mother's life. And I wanted to take care of him, but then your parents passed away and we started to talk. Now, though I miss my friend, I don't see him when I look at you anymore. It's your smile that makes me want to move mountains and your writing that has me racing down here to reply even if it costs me a few feathers. Being your friend has been a gift I've treasured all these years."
Michael giggles. "Funny how despite how strongly you felt, it took twenty years for me to see your face."
"It would have been bad if I disappeared before I could guide you to adulthood."
"Too bad I didn't get to be an adult for long." As if to remind them of their limited time, Michael falls into a coughing fit, his body convulsing as he struggles to get his lungs under control.
Raphael pours him a glass of water from the pitcher by his bed and helps him sit up to drink it.
"You're always saving me," Michael says once his breathing is back to normal. "I really don't know how I would have gotten through everything without you. My life has only been happy thanks to you. I just hope I can keep that happiness for my next life as well."
Michael coughs again, this time with much less force, as if even the disease is getting tired. "Raphael?" he calls out softly.
Raphael leans closer, his fingers still intertwined with Michael's. "What is it?"
"I'm getting tired; can you lie with me while I sleep? I want us to be closer now that you're here."
Raphael smiles as he obliges, and with some maneuvering the two of them curl up together in the hospital bed still holding hands, the remnants of Raphael's wings wrapped around the two of them like a blanket.
Michael returns Raphael's smile with one of his own. "I'm glad the last thing I'll see before I sleep is your smile."
"I'll still be here when you wake up," Raphael assures him, and, contented with that answer, Michael closes his eyes.
Metatron comes to get them as Michael's breathing stops.
"Goodness, there's no way you can fly anymore with those," the angel sighs, gesturing at Raphael's wings which have practically fallen apart around him and Michael. "Why, it's a miracle you haven't completely lost them already."
"I want to stay with him, Metatron," Raphael mutters, feeling sluggish himself. "I can't be an angel anymore."
"Which you certainly knew when you concocted this terrible plan." Metatron chides as he adjusts his glasses to look at his papers. "I knew as soon as you started acting like Michael that you would end up with the same fate as he."
"Why do you sound so upset? I thought this was romantic for you."
"Yes, but it's still rather sad to see my friend disappear," the angel admits. He looks away for a moment before continuing in a lighter tone, "I also don't appreciate that you gave most of your paperwork to me."
Raphael laughs as his eyes close unbidden. "Sorry about that. I thought you could handle it and wouldn't mind."
"Just make sure you and Michael have a happy next life. That'll make it worth the effort."
The response is almost inaudible. "Thanks. We will."
"It's unusual for you to be by the viewing pools, Uriel," Metatron comments, strolling up to the other angel.
Uriel hums in acknowledgement, sounding almost bored. "I heard that Raphael and Michael were going to be meeting each other soon, so I decided to check on them."
"They're no longer going by Raphael and Michael," Metatron chastises him.
A shrug. "They aren't my souls, so I can call them what I wish."
Before Metatron can give a retort, Uriel points at the viewing pool. "Look, the moving van's pulled in."
Down in the mundane world, a little boy watches through the window as a new family moves into his neighborhood. His older brother ruffles his hair, telling him they're getting ready to greet the new neighbors, and he quickly gets ready to go out.
After his brother helps him tie his shoes, they and their parents make the quick walk across the street to where a couple directs the movers where to put their things.
As his father calls out to them, the little boy spots another boy his age hiding behind the woman's legs.
"Hey, go introduce yourself," his brother says, nudging him forward.
The woman gently coaxes the other boy forward as well, and they stare at each other a moment, sizing each other up.
"My name's Tasuku," the little boy says.
The other boy seems to like what he sees, a small but bright smile breaking across his face.
"I'm Tsumugi," he says. "I hope we can be friends."