There is a hand over his eyes.
“Don’t look,” Charles whispers, and Erik feels the thin straw-stuffed mattress shift under Charles’ knees as he balances over Erik’s prone body. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I’m already hurt,” Erik says, but he does not try to lift his lids from where the gentle pressure of Charles’ palm is pressing them down, eyelashes flickering against the skin.
He must have rolled onto his side during the night; his shoulderblades feel raw and crusted over with old and new blood where the scabs have broken open, a deep-rooted ache that fills his chest, as though something has been pulled out of him.
“How are you?” Charles shifts again, and he must be looking at the wounds because he hisses, sharp and birdlike, and there is a loud flap of feathers in the air that makes Erik want to weep, because Charles is still an angel and Erik is… not.
“Human,” he says, and turns his face away into the rough fabric of the cloak he’s been using as a pillow.
Except he’s not, not really, not in the only way that would make this bearable.
Later, Charles kneels behind Erik on the bed and wipes down his back with a soft, dampened cloth, moving slow and steady as he works. There is the shadow of a wing between Erik and the candle, guarding his eyes from the sharp candlelight when they are used to darkness; the angel hums as he works, and the weight of his body is familiar, straddling Erik’s hips and keeping him pinned even when he flinches away, when the places where his own wings used to be throb and lance him with intense agony, the muscles of his shoulders trying to flex appendages that are no longer there.
They speak aloud, now, Charles’ mental voice too much for Erik’s newly acquired humanity.
“Hold still,” Charles says, and bends to one side to re-wet the cloth, a sound of dripping water as he wrings it out in the bowl he has scavenged from somewhere. Father alone knows where he has drawn the water from. “I need to get this clean.”
Erik keeps his face buried in the cloak, only the corner of his eye lifted enough to watch the silhouette of Charles on the wall, curved over and tending to his newfound frailty. “Why bother? I’ll only die anyway. It makes little difference if it’s now or eighty years from now. You and I both know that’s little more than an eyeblink.”
“Humans seem to think it matters.”
“Humans also kill each other by the hundredweight. It can’t matter that much.”
“I understand dying of an infection is unpleasant, and I would like to spare you what pain I can,” Charles says, and then there are lips on the nape of Erik’s neck where the tight curls of his hair are drenched in sweat, and a hand strokes the side of his face, the line of his brow, the soft bow of his temple and the angle of his jaw, stubbled now where it has never been before. “Just let me, Erik. Think of it as less than an eyeblink of my time, if you prefer, but let me.”
And Erik submits, lies as still as he can while Charles finishes up and spreads some thick ointment over the wounds - this, too, from elsewhere, and if it smells of Heaven then he does his best not to ask.
The room is small, warms quickly now that the angel has lit the fire in the grate and shut the wide-open window to keep the snow from blowing in. It’s almost cosy, despite being little more than a stablehand’s room, apart from the main farmhouse and used mostly for foaling season, not at all intended for the depths of midwinter. As it heats up the scent of old summer hay gets stronger, stale though it is; in the barn the animals shift and snore, the occasional sound of a hoof clipping wood or a low call. The blanket the humans gave him is old but thick, the roof above his head more than sufficient to his needs. He is - resentfully grateful, for the kindness of strangers.
Charles finally leaves off, wiping his hands clean on the wet rag. “You shouldn’t have tried to work this afternoon.”
“Have you been spying on me?”
“Watching out for you, perhaps.”
“Watching over me,” Erik says, and a bitter laugh curdles in his chest, somewhere between a chuckle and choking. “How apt.”
“Don’t, Serikel.” Charles - Carophon, Charillon, Charles - curls around him, knees tucked in tight against Erik’s sides and arms twining around his shoulders, belly bowed upward to keep from brushing against his back. “That’s not what I meant. Speaking is so imprecise - I just love you.”
“I love you.” Erik, no longer Serikel, wraps his long fingers around Charles’, grips the supernaturally warm hands tight in his own and shudders out a long, low breath. “I love you.”
“Don’t die,” Charles begs him, then, and does not let go.
“You have to go north,” Charles says after Erik has slept, when the sun is just slipping over the horizon, creeping along the ground like an outpouring of honey across the land and turning the snow outside soft pink for an instant before day arrives. He’s spooned against him in the bed, as close as he can get without hurting Erik, arm draped over his waist, holding him carefully. “When you’re better. Promise me, Erik.”
“Why north?” he asks, stays facing the wall as outside the birds start their dawn chorus, though in winter they are more cacophonous than musical, all the beautiful singers long since flown south for the season. Every cell in his body is begging him to roll over to look, the muscles in his limbs twitching and straining to turn, something he only wills down by fixing the consequences firmly in his mind. His jaw clenches so hard he starts to worry about his teeth cracking, grinding one against the other.
“Why not?” Charles asks, and covers Erik’s eyes with his hand again before pulling his head around to kiss him, breath sweet with clouds and ambrosia, a passionate wet press of mouths before he leaves.
Erik goes north.
The kindly humans who took him in after finding him lying in the snow, clothing and flesh torn as though he had been set upon by eagles, seem genuinely sorry to see him go - Jacob shakes his hand firmly, with a strong grip, while Sarah packs the old sackcloth bag she has given him with food, wrinkled apples from the stores and a wedge of sharp cheese, a loaf of tough bread and a very little jam to go with it, which is so kind he almost but not quite manages to persuade her to keep it.
He will not eat meat. Erik knows this puzzled them, at first, but they seem to have accepted it as an eccentricity, the same as they did not ask him any more questions about his injuries after the violent reaction it shook from him whenever they were mentioned, first self-loathing and then barely contained fury that had only been worked off by giving him an axe and letting him loose on the woodpile.
It’s been a month since they found him, one he has spent trying not to think, at first so focused on his pain that there was little left of him to do anything else; then, once Charles’ mysterious ointment had done its work, in losing himself in chores, in milking and chopping firewood and feeding animals that shy away from his touch, confused and afraid. Sarah had coaxed him in like a startled beast himself, leaving food for him to take and tending him with good grace when all he could do was pant, exhausted and unable to lash out any longer on the mattress Jacob and their son Josef had dragged him onto, alternately weeping and screaming until Charles had finally found him, fleshbound and helpless as a babe, and soothed him from rage into misery.
He cannot stay. Any longer spent here and he might become one of them in truth, forget the songs of distant suns and the face of God in favour of tilling fields and herding cattle morning noon and night.
“There’s nowt up north but bandits and more bandits, and mountain goats,” Jacob says gruffly as Sarah folds one of Josef’s shirts into the pack after the food, smooths the worn fabric fondly before adding a blanket to the pile. “Y’could stay here, lad. There’s space for you in the house - not in the stables, not now we know you better - and we can always do with ‘nother strong shoulder ‘round the farm. January’s a poor time to be travelling.”
“You’ve given me more than enough.” Erik takes the pack from Sarah with a nod of thanks, tries to find the right words to say. “Thank you,” he settles on eventually, and that seems sufficient; she leans up towards his face and he jerks back before he can stop himself, away from the kiss she was trying to settle on his cheek. When the human woman’s eyes well up with tears, however, he bites back the feel of his skin crawling and bends his head a little to let her leave her mark on him. “I - ”
She smiles wetly, clutching at her shawl and leaving go of him, finally. “You have to go, we know. You’re not much of one for words, Erik. Say farewell and that’ll be enough for us.”
He loosens his stiff-mantled stance enough to embrace her, carefully, as though she is something he might break, and then finally - finally - he walks out into the open air with the long walking stick he carved for himself during the long, claustrophobic month of his recuperation and heads into the hills, along the well-worn lane towards the road.
It’s strange to walk upon the land and see it from this perspective instead of from above, to turn his feet to the lumps and hollows of the earth beneath the thin leather soles of his boots - not intended to be walked in, more covering than container, made for flight instead of footfall. Even the sound of the frosted grass crunching with each step is new and unnerving, a crisp crackle of frozen leaves underfoot snapping and brittle with cold.
He looks back, once, before he passes into the valley between hills that will finally obscure the farmhouse, watches the smoke drift upward from the chimney and the small figure of Josef going toward the barn to feed the cattle, and for a moment when the man raises a hand to his distant figure he thinks about going back. It will be warmer there than travelling, and they would be happy for him to stay, it seems.
He turns his face to the north, and the wind smells of snow. It’s as good a direction as any.
Walking is so slow.
It’s harder to set a schedule without other humans to measure himself against; when to wake, when sleep, when eat and drink and when to start walking again. Erik learns these things by trial and error, spends a few nights out under the trees shivering before he works out the best way to stay warm, near exhausts his food before he remembers he will need more once that is gone and starts looking for places to acquire it.
It’s bewildering, this matter of being mortal, and mammalian, and human.
He had spent the first few days on Earth confused and awkward as a newborn, this strange new fleshy body making demands of him he did not know how to interpret - that he feed it, water it, empty it of waste (or, as he found to his disgust, it would empty itself, as it chose.) His spirit self had slammed into the ground - into meathood - with the force of Jupiter’s gravity behind it, like being sucked into a black hole, slowly becoming heavier and thicker and more solid as he fell, comet-like, from the heavens. Burnt by the rushing wind and stung by the contemptuous stars as he passed them.
His human body is disgusting.
It sweats and shits and pisses, and in order not to get it on himself he is required to hold himself while he evacuates; it grows hair he is required to shave or cut to keep from tangling and it aches and stings and twinges constantly, a never-ending cascade of unpleasant sensations that he does not have the ability to ignore. Each new feeling is a torment, something new to catalogue about his human condition. Jacob and Sarah laughed at him, at first, when he was unable to coordinate these new limbs and fumbling like a newborn thing still wet behind the ears - only falling silent when he screamed wordlessly at them to leave him be, incapable at first of language.
Erik wept, then, to be a being of fire forced into an earthen shell, into literal feet of clay. To be able to become exhausted.
Now, he walks, and walks, and walks, in the chill December air, through fogs and rain and wind, huddles in the lea of trees at night wrapped up like a caterpillar in a cocoon with a rough-made fire made hastily and without skill, and if he is used to aching limbs and piercing cold then he resents this, too, with the singleminded focus that had got him into trouble in the first place.
Erik walks across the countryside without truly looking, for it is all the same - grey and brown and white and dead, at this time of year, leafless hedgerows and twisted branches black against the cloud-marbled sky. The roads are either frozen into adamantium sheets or dissolved into thick, cloying mud that threatens to suck the boots from his feet and leave him barefoot and shaking in the barren landscape.
It’s getting easier to move without compensating for wings, without checking the direction of the wind and sheltering his eyes from the glare of the low-risen sun and flicking away branches. Still, when he hears footsteps behind him on the road where nobody could be he obeys his first instinct and drops the pack, lashes out with his left wing to strike with the heavy elbowed joint where the bone is thickest. Erik remembers too late that he no longer has wings. He staggers on the verge of falling, curses aloud as the automatic shift of his weight for the impossible blow leaves him unbalanced and ungainly and open to attack.
Charles catches his shoulder and steadies him without a word, keeps carefully to Erik’s back where he cannot see anything more than a flicker of tunic, the hint of chestnut-brown hair under a diaphanous silk hood. An arm wraps around Erik’s waist and Charles pulls in close, solid against his back. It would be familiar, caring, if not for the way he keeps the bulk of Erik deliberately between them, rests his temple against the top of Erik’s spine and holds him there easily, shorter but infinitely stronger. Against the chill air Charles’ touch is like a brand, the long line of his body a welcome touch Erik has sorely missed, had not realised felt like another amputated limb until it is returned.
“Don’t turn around,” Charles says, and when Erik shivers from the dichotomy of cold chest and warm back Charles merely curls his wings around and forward to encircle them both, sweeping in the long grey feathers to overlap over Erik’s heart in a double embrace. “Hello, love.”
“Hello,” Erik says, and reaches behind himself to put his hands on Charles’ hips, curled around the delicate-seeming bones of him. His head tips forward and he lets his eyes slide closed, since there is nothing here to look at but Charles, and yet he can look at anything but Charles.
Charles’ breath is warm on the back of his neck, through the scarf. “How have you been?”
“Human.” There are feathers brushing against his cheeks, against the backs of his fingers, soft and shifting. “You?”
“Lonely.” The angel turns his face, rubs his cheek against the bared skin where he has pushed the fabric aside. He clutches at Erik’s body with a quiet urgency that echoes Erik’s own. It’s been days, weeks, since the last time. “Let me walk with you a while?”
“Of course.” A hand tangles with his and Erik pulls it forward so he can kiss Charles’ knuckles, presses it for a moment above his heart before stepping forward out of the curve of those great wings. “I don’t have a lyre to play for you, Eurydice.”
He can hear the smile in Charles’ voice when he bends to pick up his dropped pack. “You’re a terrible musician. I don’t think you can cast yourself as Orpheus.”
Erik slings the pack back over his shoulder, and when he steps forward they walk together, along the empty winter road, hand in hand. The air is crisp and parts around his face as though cut with a knife, but where they touch he is warm; heat spreads up his arm from Charles’ grasp, radiant and following just behind, out of sight but near. Carefully, so carefully, he unhooks their fingers and links his arm around Charles’, elbow jutting out behind him to get an angle where they can cleave close to one another without his being able to see more than the very edges of Charles. Underfoot, old wheel ruts ripple the road surface, long since frozen rigid and threatening to turn an unwary ankle, along with the usual pits and potholes. He picks his way through them carefully, focuses his eyes on the ground so that he does not turn to look.
In his mind’s eye he traces the lines of Charles’ beloved face, goes over them again and again to make sure he does not forget the broad forehead, bright, inquisitive eyes, the warm invitation of Charles’ mouth when he smiles at Erik, delighted and private and perfect, always. Even already he can feel the precise angle of Charles’ jaw slipping away from him, memory imperfectly recalling the seashell curl inside Charles’ ear, the soft flush of his cheek.
“Icarus, then,” he says eventually, once they crest the next hill and the land is laid out before them like a patchwork quilt, all brambled black hedgerows and sleeping beasts lying in burrows underground, waiting for Spring.
It is white and brown and black and cream, stitched together with long lines of frozen streams and naked trees, and somehow instead of being rotten and dying it is beautiful in all its stark glory, now that Charles is here. “You lived,” Charles says after a long moment of silence, though his free hand comes up to trace very gently along the ridged line of Erik’s shoulderblade, just as scarred as the earth below their feet. “Thank Heaven.”
Erik snorts, and tugs the heavy wool of his scarf up around his chin, hiding the sour curl of his lip. “Something like that.”
They make their way down the hill, Erik slow and steady and Charles hopping from time to time with a quick flutter, unbound by gravity; at the bottom the road divides, the left veering off to the north and into the woods, the right headed east towards the plains country. Erik looks at both with equal disinterest; there is no particular reason to take either, other than to keep moving, to keep from settling anywhere long enough to have to reconcile himself to his situation.
“Go north.” Charles gives him a little nudge towards the distant treeline, away from the wide open spaces and towards the far-off mountains, at present only the smallest of triangles against the sky. “North, Erik.”
“Should I start wearing a bridle, so you can direct me more easily?” Erik closes his eyes so he can turn towards Charles, ignoring the way the other gasps and claps a hand over the tight-shut lids, protective and urgent. “What does it matter where I go? I’m a human now, Charles. Before you know it I’ll be gone and you can get on with whatever it is you’re going to do for the rest of eternity without me. Don’t pretend this is going to be anything more than a final sorry instant to you. One day you’ll be too busy to come and find me and when you come back I’ll be ninety years old and rheumatic, without any memory of who I was and who you are. Or I’ll be dead and buried somewhere. You should forget about me.”
Charles makes an angry noise, and then he is kissing Erik on the lips, fiercely, hand falling away from Erik’s eyes to twine into his hair and force him to hold there. He pulls so hard that it forces tears, rubbing his whole body up against Erik’s, one long line of heat. “Never,” the angel hisses, and kisses Erik again, a hard push of mouths that ends in his teeth catching on Erik’s lower lip and making it sore and swollen. “You’re mine. How can you think I could - I won’t forget about you, I won’t just wander off for years and leave you alone - you’re mine, Erik, you’re mine,” and this time when his wings curl around their bodies it is possessive, cuts off escape, not that Erik is trying very hard.
“Had the price of looking been blindness, I would have looked,” he says when their mouths part, his hands clutching at Charles’ shoulders, cupping the strong spread of his wing joints where they erupt from the smooth line of his back, where the tunic and surplice have been cut open to accommodate them. Their bodies are leant up against one another, feet occupying the same ground, and he loves Charles so much it aches. The sensation is so like what he felt as an angel that he feels for a moment as though it might all have been nothing but a bad dream.
He learnt to dream only after he had learnt to sleep.
Charles stays long enough for Erik to stop for the night, and they lie side by side for hours, hands tracing one another’s faces, the scarf tied around Erik’s eyes so he cannot forget himself and let his lashes lift, a long slowly widening sliver of love before the end of all things.
He runs his fingers along the soft skin of Charles’ lips, the indentation of his philtrum, the curling shape of his nose and the thick, strong lines of his eyebrows, feels the face he knows so well and sees it in a new way, through the minute shift of expression and texture and the peach-fuzz fur of it, and if none of it is Charles’ real self - if it is a simulacrum, a form he wears so that they can be together for a few stolen hours - then Erik cannot mind that, since he has not yet accepted that the body Charles touches in return belongs to him as anything more than a carnival costume, to be easily shrugged off if only he can find the laces.
“It’s so hard not to talk to you, really talk,” Charles murmurs, kisses Erik’s palm. “I can hear you but not speak - your thoughts sound different now, too.”
Erik touches the thin skin at Charles’ temples and tries to remember what it felt like to talk to Charles mind-to-mind, can only summon up memories of closer and of intimacy, pulls him closer in a sudden fit of loneliness that Charles rolls into with a moan, easily acquiescing. They curl into each other, pant into each others’ mouths with as much urgency as ever they had before, and while even this is different, transfigured from spirit to flesh, Erik moans just as loudly, breathless and aching for touch. Charles’ wings mantle over the pair of them as he buries his face in Erik’s chest and kisses whatever skin he can find, leaves Erik gasping at the touch of the cold air, too cold for anything more. He is already dangerously chilled.
The warmth of Charles is necessary, and even when Erik dozes through kisses he is held close, blankets around them both keeping everything in between them.
“I have to go,” Charles whispers eventually, when the birds start calling out for dawn, working his mouth up to the lobe of Erik’s ear, lipping at the soft skin there. “Before they miss me.”
“I know,” Erik says, and turns his blindfolded head to meet him, once more. “North, you said?”
“North,” Charles replies, and when he gets up he wraps the warmth he is leaving behind in with Erik in the blankets, tight around his hunched shoulders. “I’ll see you soon.”
“Leave me a feather?”
“Of course.” There is a quiet sound of pain, then Charles leaves the feather resting by Erik’s cheek, and kisses him once more, once again, before leaving with a flap of wings that recedes into the sky faster than Erik can untie the scarf.
He leaves it where it is for a while, strokes the feather with his fingers, smooth and long as his forearm, softer than anything else he has. The tip of it is a little wet before the blood dries, flaking off and falling to the earth, where it vanishes into the leaf litter.
Erik walks into the next town he comes across, once he has worked himself up to the point at which the need to follow through is greater than his need to avoid humans.
There are plenty of villages along the road, full of bustling humans and their busy little lives, markets and inns and craftsmen, hives of conversation and community that Erik has been shying away from, uncertain and wrongfooted. Jacob and Sarah had become used to his - eccentricities, but he does not know how to relate to these people, who do not know how to relate to him. At first he’d skirted around the towns when he came to them, slogging cross-country to circle far from having to speak to anybody and hoping to re-find Charles, but he’s running desperately short on food - and his body tells him that he very definitely needs to acquire more, that it is a necessity he cannot ignore - and Erik’s been forced to accept that he’s going to have to walk through, into, these settlements as he comes to them, and buy or barter for sustenance.
His stomach rumbles as he passes the first of the buildings, as though passing comment on his decision.
The people he passes look at him warily, and Erik hunches his shoulders, tries to make himself look smaller, unthreatening - which is essentially true. Without his sword he is reduced to a thug, not a fighter, and without his old abilities he cannot compete with the town’s blacksmith, who is stood under the shelter of his forge teaching an apprentice how to make nails.
Erik’s feet slow for the ringing sound of the hammer, the hiss of the forge and the rough gusts of the bellows pumping, and he watches with numb longing the hot metal, cherry red, striking against the nail header on the anvil before dropping sizzling into a waiting bucket of snow melt. Once it would have sung out to him, a harsh voice of iron’s history, of rocks and mining, of being refined from ore to impure metal; now he can hear it only as a far-away murmur, as though his ears have been stuffed with cotton.
“Can I help you?”
Erik jerks before he can stop himself, his eyes torn away from the metal to the curious face of the smith, looking back at him as he wipes the soot from his hands. The man is built like a mountain, arms as thick as Erik’s thighs rippling with hard-won muscle under the protection of his leather apron. “Just watching,” Erik says with a voice disused to speaking, gravelly and dried by silence.
The smith nods, stepping out from behind the anvil and waving at his apprentice to keep working. “You a smith?” he asks, with a quick glance up and down Erik’s strong frame, assessing. “You’re wiry, but you’ve the look to you.”
“Something like.” Erik allows himself a wry twist of the mouth as the lad takes the rod he’s holding back to the forge in the shadowed back of the smithy to reheat, swapping it out for another one that has been resting in the coals. “Far away from here.”
“Travelling?” At Erik’s affirmation the smith harrumphs, looks him up and down again, takes more time over it on the repeat, frowning thoughtfully. “Got a place to stay? Inn’s not much to look at, but it’s pricey.”
Erik winces, his vague ideas of a warm corner to sleep in dissipating like smoke. The bedroll has served him well enough so far, no doubt it will keep doing so for another night.
“Hmph. Thought as much,” the man says, running his fingers back through his grey-streaked hair before gesturing at the smithy. “Well, if you’re any kind of smith, if you can help Thomas here fill some buckets of nails, you’re welcome to a spot in here tonight. One blacksmith to another. It’ll be warm enough, and I dare say wife’ll scare you up some dinner, if you don’t mind apprentice work.”
And even Erik isn’t proud enough to ignore so generous an offer. “Not at all. Thank you.”
“S’nothing. Come put your pack in the back corner, should have a spare apron and gloves around here somewhere.”
The lad makes space for him at the front, and then there is just the ringing monotony of hammer on metal, their hammers starting out of sync with one another but falling into a rhythm almost of their own accord, until the reverberating song of striking iron is doubled. Erik is clumsy at first with the gloves on - he had never used them before, never needed to, as well burn the sun as burn his hands - but he gets the hang of it soon enough. The smith - Lucas - just nods and smiles and goes back to his own work, plough blades and awls, plain well-made tools that he heats and shapes, heats and shapes into usefulness with long-earned skill.
“I hate making nails,” Thomas confides while they’re restoking the forge, both of them at the enormous bellows forcing air into the flames, feeding them until they roar. “It’s so boring.”
“For want of a nail,” Erik says, not unkindly, and goes back to his hammer.
The smith - Lucas - is as good as his word, and Erik eats with the three of them, the man, his wife and his apprentice, that evening, in the little kitchen in the back of the house attached to the smithy, everything about it neat as a pin despite the smell of burning coal and hot metal that has seeped into the very bones of the house, making it seem homely and familiar to Erik, sat on a wooden chair beside the fire. Dinner is rabbit stewed with root vegetables, hot and rich and filling. Erik picks around the meat, tries not to think about the juices that must have soaked into the parsnip and potato, knows little fragments of the softened flesh must have mixed in with what he has eaten.
“Is everything alright?” Anna asks, frowning when she sees the rabbit left in his bowl, though Thomas is more than happy to take it off his hands when Erik hands it over, stabbing at the meat as though he’s had nothing to eat all winter.
“I - ” Erik hesitates, uncertain, then decides on a lie as the better course of action, though it pains him. “I took a vow to abstain from meat. It’s nothing to do with the food.”
“That’s no way to keep breathing in winter,” Lucas says harshly, and takes the bowl back from Thomas before the lad’s had half of it, pushing it back over to Erik. “Vow or no vow, you need some meat on your bones if you mean to keep hefting a hammer and not freezing to death. Far be it from me to tell a man what to do, but I’m telling you now, eat your damn rabbit.”
Erik looks at the browned flesh in his bowl, in its own juices, swallows down bile. “No. Thank you for your kind intentions, but no, I can’t.”
“Not eating the damn thing won’t unkill it, but it might kill you. Vows! What do they get a man but a hunger and the angels laughing at him for thinking God wants him to starve to death?” Lucas scowls, leaning his elbows on the old wooden table, which creaks under his weight. “God didn’t make a wolf to chew grass like a cow, and nor did he you. Man eats meat. Are you a man or a cow?”
“I’ll have it if you don’t want it,” Thomas says, still hopeful, but after another minute of wrestling with himself Erik picks up his spoon and takes his first bite of meat. It’s rich and thick and heavy, and he wants to be sick at the same time as he scoops up the next mouthful, forces it down and tells himself it doesn’t taste good.
It earns him the smith’s approval, a nod and a pat on the back from Lucas that nearly sends Erik sprawling across the table. “Good. When you’re done I’ll show you where you can sleep.”
That evening Charles sneaks into the hayloft where Lucas keeps the feed for Anna’s goats, his feet near-silent on the boards as he pads over to where Erik lays cocooned in the thick hay in the deep dark, blankets insufficient to keep the sharp ends from prodding and poking at him but enough to keep him warm. When he rolls over at the sound the scent of old summer rises from the rustling pile, and Charles lies down beside him without prompting, making a divot for himself in the hay. It’s too dark to see anything of the angel, and below on the ground floor of the barn the goats bleat sleepily, shuffling about before calming again.
“Hello,” Charles says, his breath a warm gust against the side of Erik’s face.
“Mmm,” Erik says, still half-asleep, and presses forward to kiss him, misses his mouth and catches the corner of his smile first, corrects himself and does it properly the second time. Charles’ lips are soft and unchapped, unlike Erik’s, which catch roughly on them like callused fingers, though Charles doesn’t complain, shifts closer instead, until they’re aligned all along their bodies, the unnatural heat of him delicious in the slight chill of the barn.
They kiss for the longest time, lazy and unhurried, Erik fighting against drowsiness to stay awake, but his eyes keep closing, and though there’s nothing to see in the pitch black he wants them open, doesn’t want to miss anything. Charles’ fingers are clenched in Erik’s shirt over his heart, palm pressing firmly against the flesh there as though he is keeping time with it, the beat pressing solidly against the heel of his hand.
“What have you been eating?” Charles asks eventually, when Erik has to breathe, stroking the hair back from Erik’s forehead, inspecting the rough growth of his stubble with curious attention, brushing back and forth against it. “You taste strange.”
“Human food.” Erik concentrates on Charles’ touch, presses down his own mixed feelings out of Charles’ easy reach so that he can examine them in private later. “I missed you.”
Charles kisses him again, brief and hard. “I missed you, too. It’s hard to get away right now, but I promise I am trying.”
“Why? What’s happening?” The hand on his face stills, and Erik feels his whole body pause, apprehensive, waiting for Charles’ answer. “Charles?”
“There’s a war coming,” Charles says, and sighs. “What with Schmidt… well, you may have stopped him, but we both know stories don’t end when the curtain falls. The humans don’t know what happened, and… oh, Erik, let’s not talk about that right now, alright?” And he kisses Erik again, forcefully, pushes on the meat of Erik’s shoulder and rolls him onto his back in the hay, releasing that warm, dry, summer smell in clouds around them as the floorboards creak and Charles climbs forward to straddle Erik’s hips, bear him down into the rough bed and scatter hay around them everywhere where it’s been caught in his feathers. “I love you,” Charles says with unusual fervour, and Erik forgets all about the pause when Charles rolls his hips against Erik’s, tugging away the blanket from where it’s tangled between them.
The weight of Charles on top of him presses Erik’s shoulders down into the boards, a sharp sting of pain from the rough and painful wounds that haven’t healed. He ignores it in favour of reaching for Charles, wraps his fingers around Charles’ hips and pushes up and against him, halfway to sitting so that he can press his mouth blindly to the line of that arched neck, tendons straining as Charles tosses his head back, rolls his hips again. The line of his cock is straining hard against his breeches, rubbing alongside Erik’s own and sending sparks shooting through his body. It feels - having a nervous system is so confusing, and he’s simultaneously floored and disconcerted by the sensation, trying to parse it into feelings he can understand. Charles’ thighs are spread to straddle Erik’s, his calves clamped down around him to hold him there while the angel pants and sighs, fingers tangling in Erik’s hair and holding his lips to the sweet spot just under and behind Charles’ ear where he’s always loved to be kissed.
It’s easier to focus on doing than on feeling, his body reacting in ways he has no control over. Erik clamps his teeth down around the skin he’s been lipping at and Charles cries out, drags himself away only to come back to kiss him on the mouth. Erik’s breathing is ragged, though Charles doesn’t seem winded at all as he reaches for the laces of Erik’s breeches, pulls them free and reaches in to take out Erik’s erection, dragging against the fabric to get at the stretched and straining length of it, stroke it with his hand until Erik can only shudder and moan with strange pleasure, simultaneously greater and much smaller than it used to be. He moves against Charles without conscious thought, reaches for him and fumbles at Charles’ own laces.
“Sssh,” Charles says, presses his free hand to Erik’s chest and pushes him down firmly onto his back with as little effort as it might take to move a feather, no sign of strain. He pins Erik there, and when Erik tries to push up against him Charles holds him there easily, his smile hidden in the dark along with everything else but the touch of his body. “Just let me.”
He lets go, and Erik stays put. There’s a motion felt in the air between them as he crawls down Erik’s body, a rocking feel of the hay shifting. When a warm wet mouth closes around his cock Erik has to bite down on his own hand to keep from shouting, cannot move his hips, pinned down again by Charles’ hands on his thighs keeping him where Charles wants him. The suction around his cock feels - it - he doesn’t know what to do, moans around his hand at the tight heat of it, Charles’ tongue stroking along the underside where the vein makes it sensitive, his throat dragging around the thick head of it, until Erik feels his whole alien body light up with it, his nervous system jangling with overstimulation until he comes, cock jerking in Charles’ mouth as the angel swallows, and swallows around him, prolonging the feeling until Erik is limp and lax with the aftermath.
Charles crawls up his body to kiss him, then, his mouth still wet with Erik’s come, curling over and around his body protectively, feathers falling around them to either side as Erik kisses him back, desperate and overcome.
There’s a feeling like a stutter inside of him, something coiling and uncoiling, and he cannot decide if it feels good or just frightening.
When he goes to roll Charles over onto his back the angel squawks, wings getting in the way, and they have to pause to adjust, the motion stuttering as they work out how to manage it. They eventually settle on their sides, Charles wriggling against Erik until he kisses that spot on his neck again, and then he is pliant and moaning, clutching at Erik as he moves down that familiar body until he can get to Charles’ laces and do a better job.
He doesn’t think about what Charles stopped himself from saying until long after Charles has left again, leaving the shape of himself behind where he lay, hollow in the hay.
Erik stays with Lucas and Anna for a month, working for his keep in nails and roasting spits, toasting forks and belt knives, working his way up from basic to more complex work as Lucas grows more confident in his skills. The longer he does the work, the louder the metal sings out, until he can feel it pull towards him as he passes, not enough to move but enough for him to sense, something he thought he had lost.
Nonetheless, there is not enough room for three smiths there, and Charles said to go north. Before long Erik’s feet are itchy with the need to move, to walk or run through empty spaces in lieu of flying, the next best thing to freedom.
“If you’re looking for a place to set up on your own, I wouldna go north,” Lucas says, scratching at his beard with an odd expression on his face that Erik can’t interpret. “Not to say there ain’t plenty of work up that way, I know for a fact they need smiths, assuming you don’t mind getting conscripted. With all these rumours… well. If the army don’t get you, they’re very strange up there in the mountains. Border folk always are. You’d be better served going East, away from all the trouble. Head for the cities. Always somewhere you can set up in a city, man as good as you are.”
“What trouble?” Erik asks, straightening up under the weight of his pack. He’s two new hammers lashed to either side of it now, a gift from Lucas for the work he’d done. There’s a good heft to them, useful for all manner of things.
“Been hearing odd stories from up that way. Not much meat to them yet, though, and I’m not one to repeat gossip,” is all Lucas will say, though, and eventually he lets Erik go his own way, shaking his shaggy head at the pigheadedness of young men. “Come back down here if you find it doesn’t suit, I’ll point you in a better direction,” he says, and he slaps Erik on the shoulder to push him out the door. “Now go before I shut you in here for your own good.”
He’s surprised at how lonely it is to be out on the road by himself again after so long in company, nobody to talk to and nothing to do but push onward, keep heading toward the horizon and scan the sky for wings.
And walks and walks.
Charles doesn’t come.
He spends one glorious night drunk off his head from the bottle of homebrew Lucas had stuffed in his pack, in the middle of a field shouting at the stars to give Charles back to him, for Charles to come, but he’s - strangely happy, at the same time, a curious kind of feeling bubbling up inside of him from the warm pit of his stomach where the alcohol has lined it, spreading through his veins.
Charles doesn’t come. Erik wakes up the next morning and wishes he was dead, throws up most of what he’d eaten the day before and tries not to move. It eases off by sundown, but there’s not much point in moving any further than he has to by then, so he moves along to the next field to sleep the last of it off and try to reclaim any dignity he has left to him, which isn’t much.
As he walks the mountains slowly, imperceptibly, grow bigger on the horizon, take up more of the sky and leave less blue behind.
And then one day, he turns a corner and there she is, sat on a rock at the crossroads with her legs crossed and half-exposed from between the skirts of her velvet gown, leant forward with her elbow on one knee, chin on the heel of her hand and breasts near falling out of her bodice, and his sword laid across her lap like a pet.
“Hello, sugar,” Emardis says, blinking her long lashes slow and seductive, mouth a rosebud pout.
“What are you doing here,” Erik snaps, feet stuttering to a halt in the middle of the road and kicking up dust that settles on her bare feet only for an instant before burning up into nothingness and leaving her pristine once again, crisp and white. His eyes move from hers to his sword, back up again without lingering on her impressive cleavage; the metal is far more enticing to him, familiar and out of place. How on Earth has Emardis got hold of it?
Out in the open air it feels surreal to be confronted with her sharp perfection, the courtier’s clothing and the comfort with which she reclines out of place in the cold winter, where anybody human would be shivering; her eyes are the same colour as the cloudless sky above, and when she breathes no warm mist escapes her lips, unlike Erik’s. All around them is farmland, wilderness, and here, in the centre, a spider.
Emma smirks and tilts her head coquettishly to one side, hair spilling over her shoulder in a glorious fall of fool’s gold. “Why, whatever can you mean, dearest Erik? Can’t a girl come to see her favourite angel as and when she pleases without being treated like an unwanted guest?”
Without his input Erik’s hands clench into fists at his sides, much good as it would do him. “If you were a girl, maybe.”
“Oh, tish. We were on the same side once you know,” she says, but the unholy aura that drips and clings like poison to her curvaceous body could not be more different from the bright joy that springs from Charles. The very fact he can look at her tells its own story, the thing that makes Charles blinding, luminous, utterly missing from Emma. Her wings are black as night, the feathers sleek and shiny looking until you look from the corner of your eye and see how greasy the slick sheen of them is, at contrast with her general healthy dishabille. “Why am I here, why am I here,” she mocks, pouting. “No ‘hello’ or ‘nice to see you.’ Or ‘that’s a lovely blade you have there, Emma, may I see it?’ The very image of discourtesy, Erik. No wonder they kicked you out.”
“Give me my sword and I’ll show you discourtesy,” Erik snarls, but both of them know there is absolutely nothing he could do against her, now.
It’s every powerless, useless feeling he has had since he woke up human rolled into one, rooting his feet to the ground and trembling in his chest like a frightened bird huddling close to his heart, quaking. Fear is a horrendous emotion, one he would gladly do without.
“No finder’s fee? Say please.”
Across her lap the metal gleams, catching the light of the sky above them and reflecting it back blue, one long blade made of cloudless heaven, simple in its elegance. Erik’s hands twitch as though to reach for the grip of his sword, and he wants nothing more than to hold it again. It sings to him louder than any metal he has come across down here, recognises its maker. But instead Erik holds himself still and grits out, “I don’t deal with demons.”
A delicately feminine snort and another toss of that hair, streaming over her wings. “Who said anything about a deal? It’s yours, Erik. Elder Brother knows I can’t do anything with it.” And she curls her hands around the naked blade, lifting it from her lap and offering it to him with easy grace.
He only hesitates for a moment before reaching for it, four and a half feet of steel, as wide as his palm and etched with a long, deep fuller down the centre, a broad, heavy crossguard and two-handed grip. Erik takes it from her with his heart in his mouth, waiting for the trick, but it never comes - the sword lifts easily away from her hands, does not turn into a venomous beast or turn on him. Instead the touch of it zings through his body like an electric shock, something he had thought lost slotted into place, like a missing limb. He wants to croon to it, the gleam of it, beautiful beyond any of his other works. “Where did you find it?”
“Buried deep in the heart of a tree, split crown to root in half, with the blade itself standing proud from the ruin of it,” Emma says, already inspecting her nails as though they are far more interesting than Erik. “No wonder it chopped Schmidt’s head off so easily. I wonder that you didn’t just drop the thing on him and claim an accident.”
Erik sees red, breath harsh and gusting in and out, and before he knows it the hilt is in his hands, the point of it resting on the soft swell of her breast above her heart. “Don’t.”
“It’s a shame, really, if you’d only been smarter you wouldn’t be playing these silly games with that Charles of yours,” she continues blithely, not even bothering to move the blade away from her skin. A thin trickle of red blood oozes from where the point of it has pricked her open. “It’s all terribly tragic, never being able to look at him again. It amuses me, still, that God is so cruel as to leave you your Sight and your feelings - a kind God would have made you human, but Charles can’t hide what he is from you, can he? Not like he can the real humans. Tell me, would you rather die immediately you see his true form or just go mad? Personally I would prefer you took the second route, far more amusing, especially when dearest Charles weeps over you.”
His teeth grind together in a horrible percussion inside his head, and Erik tenses to shove the blade home - a blade like this, there’s a chance it might hurt even Emma - but something in him tells him to pause, and he holds, eyes narrowing as he takes in the relaxed smirk on her face, and when he looks longer he can see the eagerness behind it, the shivering anticipation. “You’re trying to tempt me,” he says on a flash of insight, and swings the blade up and away from her flesh, scoring a light scratch along the smooth flesh that wells up with opalescent beads of blood.
Emma sighs, slumping elegantly back from what he can see now was the posture of a hunter, ready to leap; her finger comes up to run along the scratch, collecting the blood, which she sticks into her mouth, lips closing around the knuckle and sucking it off sulkily. “Oh, honey, if you only just worked that out you must have become more human than I thought. Their brain cells die off, you know. How many do you think you’ve lost so far?”
“Why would you - ” He stops himself mid sentence, feels his fists clenching, and he stabs the blade into the ground to stand on its own, out of hand and out of immediate temptation. “You’re trying to make me Fall further. You want me to be like you.”
“You must admit it would be a kindness,” she answers. “Your power would come back, of course, if not your Grace, and you would be able to look at your darling again. You wouldn’t have to grub along the earth like a worm, searching hither and yon for a hollow tree to curl up in for the night. You could stop all of this - ” she waves a hand up and down his body, as though she finds something distasteful, at last letting her sneer of disgust show through. “ - this filth. Elder Brother was very impressed with Schmidt, by the way. He’s a nasty one, and you sent him to the right place. He’ll fit right in, we have a corner reserved for nephilim. Believe me, he’ll get his just desserts.”
“I don’t care what Lucifer has to say,” Erik hisses, and takes up his sword again, holds out his free hand. “My scabbard, if you have it, Emardis.”
She rolls her eyes, rises to her feet in one long impossible slink of her body. “You can carry the damn thing. Next time, maybe, if you’re polite.” And as quick as that she is gone, between one blink and the next, a sweep of white and black and blue and a great wash of unclean space where she had been, leaving Erik alone on the road with a sword he cannot put down without dirtying.
He spends a lot of time over the next few days thinking about what she’d said despite himself, which of course was her intention. For all her harsh words about nephilim, he is, in essence, one of their number now, not quite human but not angel, either, half and half - though he started as one and became the other, instead of being born of both. Erik’s curse is that unlike the nephilim - spurned by Heaven and left to wander the Earth in ignorance, one foot in either world and unable to stand still in either - he has known what it was to belong.
He spends a lot of time thinking about the fact that she said there will be a next time, as well, and wonders whether or not he should tell Charles. Then again, he hasn’t seen Charles in weeks. The point may be moot.
If so far Erik has been lucky in his human encounters, the village he walks through the next day disabuses him of any ideas he might have had about their general good nature.
The place has been razed, doors splintered and blood-spattered, the thatch on several of the houses still burning slowly, dripping from the sagging fire-gutted roofs like molasses to spark and spit upon the sodden ground. The corpses of animals are still strewn around like so much rubbish, mindlessly slain and left to rot. The dead humans, at least, have been dragged away - there must be somebody still alive around here, though probably hiding from him if they have any sense. He’s rigged up a way to suspend the sword along the line of his back, behind the pack, so he doesn’t have to carry it in his hand all the while, but the blade bangs against his spine nonetheless, awkward and unstable.
He wanders between the houses, taking in the destruction with tight lips and clenched teeth, stepping over and around things he does not care to identify, notes the marks where somebody has made a half-hearted attempt at sweeping, the smell of burning flesh in the air - somewhere someone is burning the bodies. Nothing else to do with them when there’s this many and the ground is this hard. They’d never get them buried. Hopefully they took some of the attackers with them.
It’s a carnival of ludicrous destruction, most of it done for nothing more than enjoyment. There could be no benefit in this.
In the village square at the centre of the destruction the well has been spoiled, the carcass of a cow forced halfway down the shaft and, by the smell, running blood into the water. The stench is terrible - Erik has to pause finally to retch, only just avoiding throwing up by a force of will. His stomach, thankfully fairly empty, still tries to turn itself inside out across the stones, a taste of foul bile on the back of his tongue. His hands, braced against his thighs to keep him upright, are white-knuckled.
Eventually he forces himself to straighten, and the feeling of eyes on him only intensifies the longer he stands still, a sense of breath being held. “Is there anybody here?” he shouts, holding his hands out and open to show he is - mostly - unarmed.
Nobody answers, though he shouts a few times more, and eventually he goes into the nearest house to look for any clean water that might have survived whatever happened here. Though he goes from house to house - those which aren’t on fire - the most he finds is a dead dog and some mouldering food left out to spoil, but no jugs or bowls or anything containing water, and no people.
Erik looks at the food and considers, briefly, the morality of taking some of what will almost certainly not be missed, but he cannot bring himself to steal, even from the dead. It’s hard to know what to do, because there is nothing he can do to help these people - he has a sword, but there is nobody here to fight, and such a mess that he could never even begin to tidy it up, assuming there is even any point with nobody to live here. He wanders the battlefield the village has become and takes it in from the ground level in a way he never has before, as another vulnerable animal that can be killed, can be hurt like this, and feels painfully alive in a way that is terrifying, his body labouring at staying that way loud in the deathly silence.
The last house he goes into had been on fire but has burned out, leaving it open to the sky, empty of all but charcoal. The beams and walls of it are black and smoke-scented, crumbling at the brush of his sleeve, and everything inside is ash - the thick outer walls had kept the fire inside, turned it into a forge of its own, incinerating the house and its occupants. Erik feels an inexplicable sorrow at the few scraps that have escaped burning, one that bubbles up from his gut and clutches at his throat. If he didn’t know better he’d think there were ghosts in this empty shell of a house.
He turns, stepping around the remains of a table and chairs, and he’s about to go back out to the street when he hears an ominous creak from below his feet.
“Shit - ”
He tries to jump away from the weak spot he’s put his weight onto, but it’s too late - he feels the charred floor below him give way, and there’s a terrible sense of panic that makes him shout out as he falls -
Arms lock around his midriff and pull, hard, and Erik is lifted into the air and off his feet as the entire floor collapses into the cellar below, the ground receding as whoever has him flies straight up and away, through the gap-toothed roof. Erik yells as his ribs and arms creak from the tight grip but does not struggle, all too aware that if he is dropped he will splatter just as easily as anybody else. He is set down on the street with a jolt, staggering on knees that are still locked with strain, too surprised to relax into standing.
“Don’t turn around,” a voice says, but it isn’t Charles.
“Ororo,” he replies, his spine snapping to attention as she lets go of him, all too aware of who is behind him.
He knows the expression she will be wearing, can feel the electricity of her against his skin where she can’t hide her nature from him. She has always been a stormcloud, Ororo - one to play among the lightning and seed more where she can. It’s distinctive, now he’s not too surprised to notice. “I wasn’t supposed to help you, you know.” Her voice is wry, twisted with her usual dry humour. “I couldn’t just let you die, though. A ridiculous end. I couldn’t allow my teacher to be killed by falling into a pile of turnips.”
Erik looks at the collapsing house as the remaining walls tremble on the brink of following the floor, and it looks somehow smaller now, imploded and sad, with nothing left in it of life. “And yet you did nothing to help these people.”
“Not all of us are so righteous we think that we get to make the plans,” she says simply, and leans on his back with her arms over his shoulders for a minute, the way she had when she had been nothing but a fledgling, put into his care as a last attempt at finding someone stubborn enough to deal with her. “We are not privy to the bigger picture, even if we do see more than mortals do. To Him we’re much the same. That I learned from you, Teacher. A shame it seems to have been something you had to give away to give to me.”
Erik thinks of her as a child, of her playful good spirits and deep oceanic dignity, of her sprouting into this serious adult, trying to teach him something when it’s already too late. He reaches up and pats her hands, the rich cocoa of her skin a sharp contrast to his wintry pale. “When you’re my age, and have stood over the births and deaths of stars whose grandparents were yet to be born when you awoke to existence, then you can come back to me and tell me you can still stand back and watch.”
She snorts and lets go, steps back. “If you think I was happy to watch bandits slaughter this village without stepping in then perhaps you don’t know me as well as you thought. And yet, it was Father’s will, and I obeyed. Be more careful next time,” and she is gone, as quickly as that.
He looks around at the destroyed village all around him and feels as though he is standing at ground zero, the epicentre of this destruction, and a premonition rolls down his spine, a terrible, cold shiver he cannot suppress.
“Good luck,” he mutters for any humans that are still here, and walks on.
There are more patches of violence and the aftermath of violence after that, the closer he gets to the borderlands, where the towns are smaller or less well defended. Even in those so far untouched he earns more than a few sidelong looks and mutterings if he has the temerity to stop to buy food or a place to stop for the night; he earns a few coins doing some basic smithing wherever they’ll have him, more than one village happy to let him at an abandoned forge to shoe their horses and sharpen their ploughs in return for bed and board. He learns slowly that most of the smiths have gone or been conscripted by the army as they passed through towards the gathering war, only those canny enough to hide or lucky enough to be out of town at the time escaping the draft.
The border is to the north, where he is headed. He can’t help but wonder as he sleeps in another room emptied of its sons if that is where Charles means him to go, and if so what possible reason Charles - pacifistic, violence-abhorring Charles - could have for dropping Erik into a war zone.
He thinks of Charles sometimes while he’s trying to fall asleep, lies on his back and counts the stars above his head or, if he’s lucky, out the window, and wonders if Charles is thinking of him, if somebody found out he had been coming to see Erik, if he is in trouble. If he has already forgotten how quickly time moves for Erik now, and has become distracted by the growth of a sprout into an oak tree, perhaps, sitting enraptured watching as it gets taller and broader and branches out to the sky far above, if he will remember Erik has less time to live than that tree will take to reach the clouds.
It’s distressingly human how much his flesh-and-bone body yearns for Charles, though it has had only those two nights with him, those too-brief tastes of honey. It grows hard of its own accord if he thinks on it too much, and this too he learns to take care of, along with all of his other new functions and requirements. This, too, is messy, and leaves him having to clean up after himself. It seems to be the way of things, down here.
The way is mostly uphill finally after he has been walking for two months, noticeably steeper as he winds up into the hill country that fringes the mountains like lace on a gown. The trees grow hardier, broad leaves giving way to fine needles, the air a little colder still, though the season is edging into Spring. There is still ice at the edges of puddles in the mornings, the grass still crisp and crunching underfoot with frost. It melts by mid-morning, wisping away in the weak sunshine.
Where he had been toughened by long travel, he toughens further with the climbing, makes himself a man of string and sinew. He carves himself a tall walking stick from a fallen branch and smooths it out over long quiet evenings with the sharp edge of his knife, peeling away the rough parts to get to the softer wood inside. The end of it he caps with metal he scrounges from one of the towns he passes through, and if he has to sweat and grit his teeth and focus so hard his nose starts to bleed to bend the metal around the staff without tools - with only the power of his mind - it is worth it, to know that his gift is returning.
It clicks and clangs against the exposed rocks of the hillsides, and when he uses it to beat off a bear that thinks he might make a good meal it is sturdy enough that he does not have to draw his sword at all. He is starting to feel competent as a human being now, Erik thinks as he bends over and braces his arms on his thighs, panting from the exertion and laughing his defiance at the world, at the wildlife and at the sky that failed to kill him. His chest is heaving, blood pumping through him with a rush and a thrill that makes him feel energised and alive, all of his muscles trembling and ready for movement. It’s all hormones and chemicals, oxygen and adrenaline and thick-flowing victory that make him feel amazing, that make him almost want to throw himself down the rocky hillside to his death, flush with self-loathing and despair because he is beginning to forget what it felt like to be an angel, and going native instead.
“I am not human,” he yells to the empty firmament, hands curling into fists. Nobody answers, but then he didn’t expect them to.
The road gets busier the further north Erik gets, though it seems like it should be the opposite; even as he gets further into the countryside ravaged by opportunists and burned to the ground, there are people in their wagons, walking or driving oxen or riding horses and donkeys along the hard-frozen highway and only occasionally lifting hats to one another, closed-mouthed and drawn-looking. Some of them are refugees, by the look of them, their earthly belongings piled into carts for them to drag along on wheels that catch in the ruts and wallows of the road.
Erik speaks to none of them any more than he has to, moves aside for those who are faster and goes around those travelling more slowly than he does on foot, gets wary glances for his broad shoulders and lean muscle, even hidden under layers of wool and leather - more for the unsheathed sword at his back. He gathers from overheard conversations that they are headed towards a big city at the top of the road. Charles never said when to stop, and Erik has been wandering on the assumption that Charles will let him know when he has reached his destination. Nonetheless, he avoids the humans as best he can, does not ask to join their fires and sets up his own a little ways off the road each night, curls up alone in a hollow of the hills and hopes for a visit that never comes, even with nobody there to see.
He smells the city before he sees it, smoke in the air like a thousand burning houses, but when he crests a rise and sees it swelling atop a craggy hill against the foothills of the nearing mountains it looks to Erik like a canker, a great cloud of ash above it from all the fireplaces and chimneys casting a pall on the surroundings.
“Ugly, isn’t it?” an old man asks as he passes, spits on the ground. “Too many people too close together for my mind, makes a body sick.” He lets out a loud, hacking cough, and keeps walking towards the city anyway, scratching at his balding head and bending under the weight of the pack over his skinny shoulders.
Erik watches him until he has to make way for a wagon to roll past, then starts forward again, downhill towards the belching maw of the city.
Walking through the shantytown outside of the city is like moving through one of the outermost circles of Hell, full of cacophonous noise and stench and people and animals all vying for too little space and staring at the travellers as they move through it, hungry-eyed and sizing them up. Erik catches a few of them staring at him, but they quickly look away when they see his blade, ducking their heads to the side as though in submission. If they were dogs they would be baring their bellies for his teeth. Everything smells like the aftermath of fire here, like refuse and shit.
Surely Charles could not mean for Erik to stop here, for this to be his resting place, his punishment for his crime. He passes a group of soldiers stood clustered on a street corner and they turn to look at him too, appraising, but the sword seems to interest them, not scare them away.
He does not reach for it, though he longs for the reassurance of its steel. Instead he keeps moving past, only allows himself to feel for its resonance against his back, thrumming quietly through his skin.
The city walls loom high over the buildings, cutting off the slopes of the hill the city is built on like a crown, high pale stone patrolled by yet more soldiers. On the far side the houses are in much better repair, their whitewash fresh and unpeeling, the woodwork free of the green wet lichen that clung to the shantytown outside the wall. The streets are cobbled and swept, and there are more soldiers still, everywhere he looks - striding about in their leather or metal armour, helms on their heads and short swords at their hips, one or two on horseback.
He wanders for hours, down cobbled streets and earthen alleys, but all the smithys are closed, and no matter how many doors he knocks on in the hopes that the smith might be home, none of them are. In the end he is forced to pay for a room in an inn, and Erik manages with the last of his coin to pay for a bowl of stew and a mug of ale, which the barmaid is generous in refilling, winking at him as she tops it up and fails to charge him. He takes it to the corner by the smoking fireplace and nurses it, back braced against the warm brickwork and watching the humans come and go, a morass of different people - workmen and tradesmen and, later on, soldiers still in uniform, who gather around the bar at the far end of the room and laugh amongst themselves, shoving and smacking at one another with gauntleted hands and grabbing at the barmaid as she passes, her pretty mouth no longer smiling so genuinely.
A man slips into the seat across from Erik’s and gestures for another two mugs, two red fingers raised that the girl scurries over to serve and get away from the soldiers. Once she is done Erik feels his mouth purse into a scowl as he says, “Azazel.”
The red demon grins back at him with canines overlong for a human mouth, sharply pointed, and slurps at his ale just to be irritating. “Serikel.”
He must be working some sort of veil, because nobody in the inn reacts to Azazel’s scarlet skin or the rattling black claws that clatter against the rough pottery of the mug as he drinks. Instead their eyes pass over him as though he is just another patron, one that is not picking the pocket of the man sat behind him with the dextrous length of his tail. With his fingers he plucks a long sliver of wizened mutton from Erik’s bowl and drops it into his mouth with every sign of smacking enjoyment and not a moment’s guilt. “You look different today,” Azazel says eventually, raising one eyebrow, the one Erik had once bisected with the very tip of his sword and, at the same time, had nearly relieved the demon of his eye. “Did you change meatsuits?”
Erik tugs his bowl closer towards himself, picks up his spoon and glares at the hand that tries to creep in closer to his food, raps the back of it hard with the round of the spoon before taking a viciously overambitious mouthful.
“Hmm,” says Azazel, and he drops the purse he has been holding coiled in his tail into the pocket of the man beside the one he stole it from, deliberately tweaks the coat of the first and startles the man into clapping a hand to his side only to find his coin missing. “Emardis said you are grumpier now you are mortal, but I did not believe this possible. Now I see is true.”
The gesture Erik makes is not one an angel should know, and the demon laughs uproariously instead of being offended, rocking back and forth on the bench with eyes creased with mirth. The man behind him is bent under the table looking for his purse, swearing a blue streak as his friend helps him look. “I hear I have you to thank for this.” Azazel gestures vaguely at the room around them, at the soldiers at the bar who are once more harassing the staff. “For coming war. We downstairs are grateful, Erik, to have you for the heavy lifting. Makes my job fun and games.”
“What do you mean?” Erik snaps once he has swallowed the underchewed, overcooked meat. “This has nothing to do with me.”
“Everything to do with you.” A jagged-toothed grin splits Azazel’s craggy face, “Aha, you do not know. They are going to war because they think their neighbour country - whichever one it is, I do not much care - killed everyone in that city. You just killed Schmidt and thought that made an end to it, and now they will kill more people than Schmidt ever could! It is very funny,” and Azazel laughs so hard when he sees the look on Erik’s face that he nearly falls off the bench when the men behind him break into a fight, the second man swearing that he has nothing to do with the purse, the first one not listening in the least.
It’s as though someone has reached into Erik’s chest and scooped out everything inside of him, left his torso collapsing in on itself, deflated and withering inwards into a black hole, sucking away everything of him into despair. “That’s not true,” he says, but even as the words leave his mouth he hears the falsehood in them, sees in his mind the soldiers everywhere, the broken, barren countryside, the displaced people coming to the city for safety instead of staying in the homes their parents built, their parents’ parents, handed down to them, their family land.
“Good work, comrade,” Azazel says as the first man knifes the second, and grins slyly. “Let me know if you want to have some more fun, you know I will save some for you.” He vanishes in a puff of sulfurous black smoke that leaves the occupants of the inn choking and coughing, and swearing at the men fighting by the fireplace for knocking ash down the chimney and smothering everyone in a thick patina of conflagration.
Erik spends a restless evening in the tiny room he has rented a pallet in - it is to be shared with four other guests, but one by one they all escape Erik’s pacing and wordless snarls when they ask him to stop, none of them foolish enough to challenge him with anything stronger than words. The floor is wooden and cracked, splintered, and he ignores the way it catches and tears at his bare feet, leaving the boards blood-spotted and freed of some of their sharper edges, snapping off instead under his skin where they niggle and burn, fretting at the edges of his furious despair.
Though he wishes it as hard as he can, Charles does not come, neither to comfort nor to condemn - Charles knew, almost told him and didn’t, that last time they were together in the hayloft, had kissed Erik instead of telling him the damage he had wrought by doing what he had not been told to do - what was clearly the wrong thing to do.
It had felt so righteous, ending Schmidt’s murderous reign and, surely, saving so many from his evil! Erik clenches his fists at his sides and slams his head against the window, shuddering the bubbled glass in its frame and making the dark night outside quiver and waver like a mirage, ready to be blown away at any moment by Erik’s well-intentioned foolishness.
He stands there for a long time, watches the last few patrons wend their breath-misted way home, down along the heavily-patrolled streets.
When Erik finally does go to sleep, he wakes in the middle of the night sure that he heard Charles calling for him, lies staring at the ceiling trying to make his mind a beacon to call the angel to him through the pall that hangs over this city, obscuring him from sight, but the silence of the inn is never disrupted, and he falls back into uneasy slumber, twitching awake at each creak and groan of the building around him.
In the dark moments before dawn Erik stares at the ceiling and accepts that he has made a terrible mistake, and that there is nothing he can do about it but live with it. It feels simultaneously like giving up and like giving up a weight, something dragging him down and something lifting him up.
When he goes downstairs he finds his room has been paid for by a Mr. Azazel, who left his compliments, but Erik cannot bring himself to care what Azazel might have meant by that. Better to leave the madman alone to play with his armies - there’s nothing Erik can do about it now.
He leaves the city by the north gate, and ignores the guard who warns him about the shrieking beasts that live out in the wild country that way, can only think about getting out from under the terrible cloud of war waiting to fall. The road is paved only for the first few miles, and then, as it starts to wind up towards the foot of the first true mountain, becomes dirt and rock, untended but not unlovely. The very first buds of spring leaves are starting to open on the ends of winter-blackened branches, a fresh bright green among the grey.
Surely, he thinks, Charles can find him here.
He doesn’t, but Erik keeps climbing anyway.
The mountain is steep and rocky, the path itself grassed over in places. Erik climbs with a strange sort of joy in the exertion, following the track of the land, and sleeps in the hollows of the earth, staring up at the stars.
One night he awakes at the sound of a far-off screech, like the sound of some enormous owl; but it doesn’t happen again, and Erik eventually settles back down, slowly settling back to sleep.
He climbs for days, following the path, but finds nobody but birds. By the time he realises the long, narrow gully isn’t going to open up into a wider plateau - does not, in fact, seem to lead anywhere but up - he is desperately short on supplies, and he has very little choice but to keep going, climbing forward and trusting that Charles would not have sent him into a wilderness to die of starvation. Even with the walking staff the going is hard, the rock walls climbing high and smooth above his head and offering no chance of clambering out. When eventually he reaches a broader area it is an intense relief to spot one of the many thin mountain streams that snake across the land up here, crystal-clear and trickling down the far wall where it runs across the dipped ground toward the low point in the centre and pools.
The flow itself is icy cold and fresh from the source. Erik bends to his knees beside it to scoop some up in his palms and drinks handful after handful with parched relief, half-drenching the thick growth of his beard, which has come in gingery and curling. It’s an insulation against the elements that he has chosen to keep even though it’s a nuisance, since there’s nobody else’s face to be concerned about kissing. He tries to keep it trimmed at least to keep from turning entirely into a mortal savage, so that humans can look at him without thinking he’s been living wild for months, barely civilised and ready to kill them at the drop of the hat. The colour of it when he sees his reflection is more alike to the far-northern vikings than to the short, dark-haired people who live in these parts.
Prompted by the water, his belly rumbles, loudly enough that it echoes from the rocky walls, and Erik settles down beside the stream to check his bag in case there’s anything in there he’s missed, but it’s the same sad tally as the last time he looked - a few pieces of dried meat, a couple of withered apples. Walking back down the mountain to the city would take more days than he has food for, but going ahead is walking into a mystery.
The path ahead and the path behind look much the same, two identical pieces of string coming from either side of a bead. It’s a defensible spot, wide enough to house a couple dozen men and with approaches narrow enough to withstand even the most determined siege, flanked by steep sharp cliffs that give no room for attack from above. But he can’t stay here - it’s not dark enough yet to make it worth stopping, and Erik has long grown accustomed to walking when the sun is up and sleeping when it’s dark, to conserve as much heat as he can for the chill night hours.
And so instead he forces himself to his feet, taking up his staff again and shouldering his backpack to start uphill again, labouring against the burn in his muscles and the voice in his head telling him to turn back that he would only have heeded if it had sounded more like Charles and less like himself.
He climbs and climbs, and eventually, ahead of him there is only sky.
When he finally steps out from between the two rocky walls - which have grown taller and taller still since the passing place, slowly narrowing closer together until the blue above is almost blocked out by stone and bare trees, the passageway dark and foreboding enough that he almost turned back - the brightness of the sun is blinding, and Erik has to cover his eyes with his hand for a long minute, the red light through his lids too much, even, until his vision starts to adjust. When he lowers the hand he finds himself looking down upon a small village, a collection of unexpected houses curled in a hollow in the land that might once have been a mountain lakebed, like the curve of a palm, the way he had come perhaps an old stream or riverbed that had fed or drained the now dry bowl between hills.
Strangely, despite all the bleakness of the world outside, in here the trees are all fully-fledged and green, leaves rustling in the breeze like a field, a swaying mass of fresh growth. Where he stands is higher ground, and it lets him see across the village to the reason the place is no longer underwater - at the far end where the ground rises again a ravine has opened up, and on the other side a wide river thunders down into the open crack, pouring suicidally over the edge and kicking up vast mists of rainbow-tinted spray that clouds the air all around, the roaring of it all echoing in the natural auditorium into a steady background hum like the sound of his own blood pumping. There are a couple of people moving around down in the village, and as he tries to decide whether to walk down there - there is little real choice, he is in dire need of food and if possible replacement boots, but he is stalling - one of them glances up and spies him there, and then both of them are turning and staring at him, their heads and bodies swivelling to face him like a pair of startled birds.
He raises a hand in awkward acknowledgement - too late to turn back now, they’d only pursue if they thought him a scout - and starts to make his way down the worn hill path into the hollow, leaning back against the slope to keep from tripping and rolling down it all unwilling. He can hear their voices getting closer as they get up to come and meet him, buzzing and anxious, hitting a higher pitch when they notice the gleam of the unsheathed sword tucked between his spine and his pack.
“Hello,” the shorter of them calls, as the other one tries to hush him, shrugging off the taller one’s restraining hand and forging on ahead, brash and bold, hands propped aggressively on his hips. “Who are you?”
“Alex!” the other snaps, dragging him back by his shoulder and glaring at the lad, wordless communication in the looks they exchange that speak of long familiarity. That one is surprisingly dark-skinned, clearly not local, especially compared to the milk-pale colour of the first. “We don’t get many strangers around these parts,” he continues, to Erik this time, though Erik notes he does not apologise.
“No offence taken,” Erik says dryly - this is too normal this close to the border for him to take offence any longer. “I’m just a traveller, looking for a place to resupply and spend a night, perhaps two, then I’ll be moving on. I don’t mean any trouble.”
The pair of them eye him carefully, exchanging glances between themselves before turning a united front against the stranger. Erik hasn’t failed to notice that neither of them is unarmed - two daggers and one short sword - and both are muscled like they know hard work, like they know how to handle themselves. “That we can provide,” the taller one says, at which Alex squawks.
The second man holds out a hand for Erik to shake. “I’m Armando. This is Alex.”
Alex scowls. “Armando is underexaggerating. Nobody passes through Cain’s Hollow. We’re pretty out of the way. Where are you headed?”
Erik shrugs, resettling his pack across his shoulders. “North.”
“What kind of destination is that? Just ‘north’?” Alex asks sharply, stepping forward again and puffing out his chest aggressively. “You following a star or something? You don’t look like one of the Magi.”
Erik shrugs again. “I can cut off some heads if it would make you more comfortable, but really I’d rather get something to eat and a fire to sit next to. Cleaning up the blood after is more work than I’m looking for today.”
Their eyes immediately flicker to the longsword lying against his back, and he can practically hear them trying to decide if he’s safe, wheels turning over whether it would be better to turn him away or if that would risk insulting him, if that would be worse. Eventually Armando jerks his head back in the direction of the houses, shrugging off whatever tension he was carrying and half-turning to lead on. “Come on. We’ll find you that fire and you can tell us some stories. I’m sure you have more than a few.”
“I’m not much of a storyteller,” Erik says dryly, but there’s a swell of relief, too, that he doesn’t let show on his face. He falls into step beside Armando as they judder back into motion. The two men whisper loudly to one another as they walk, not quite loudly enough for Erik to overhear; instead he looks ahead at the well-made wooden houses, carved shutters and windows flung open to the let the sunlight and fresh air in despite the chill, half of them scrubbed of the winter’s growth of moss and left raw and naked to the elements, some part-done and others yet to be touched.
Pigs and chickens roam freely between the houses, grubbing at the dirt, scruffy, loud and squawking - probably communal then. There are abandoned tasks here and there - a bucket beside the well, clothes hung out to dry - but no people.
There aren’t many people here at all, actually, he realises when he looks closer - a lot of the houses are obviously disused, showing clear signs of neglect despite the attempts someone has made to keep them looking occupied. The animals look so untended as to be running wild, even, not so much domesticated as simply… here. He can’t hear anyone else, the place all but silent. Erik frowns, fingers tightening around his staff as he flicks his gaze from one to the next, growing increasingly uneasy. Something here is very wrong.
“We don’t have an inn, but you’re welcome to - ” Armando is saying as the door of the next house opens and a thing steps out, man-shaped and absorbed in a book but nonetheless covered from head to foot in blue fur with the twin points of sharp white fangs caught on its lower lip.
Erik swears viciously in Enochian and reaches for his sword, already brandishing his staff at the nephilim even as his three escorts clap their hands over their ears to block out the crashing syllables - Enochian is not a language to listen to if it’s spoken by someone who knows its secrets - and the beastlike halfling drops its book to the ground, a flutter of pages crumpling on the dirt. “Oh dear,” it says, its voice a deep basso rumble like a lion. “Goodness gracious - I didn’t realise - I don’t mean to harm you - ”
“Back off Hank,” Alex snarls, and when Erik snatches a glance to his side the young man - little more than a boy - is glowing red-hot, loose rings of energy looping his body. Another one -
It’s a nest of them, Erik realises as Armando steps between Erik and - Hank? - with skin hardening to rock, not that it’ll help much against the kind of steel Erik’s sword is made of, and Erik snaps his swordhand sideways, the blade cutting through the cloth of his pack instead of wasting time on drawing it and tangling his weapon in the sackcloth. Muscle memory brings it swinging it around and into a guard position. A nest of them, and him here, mostly human and surrounded by nephilim with Father alone knows what powers -
“Please put the sword away,” the blue one says, pawlike hands extended open towards Erik, though the thick claws on the end of each finger are hardly reassuring. “We can all talk about this - we don’t want to hurt you - ”
“You might not want to, but nephilim always do, sooner or later,” Erik replies, turning so he can keep Armando in his sights as well, the older one standing in a loose but ready posture, more worrying than Alex’s amateurish posturing.
“What did you call us?” the blue one says, astonished, as Alex steps forward and says, “Enough of this, let’s just get this over with,” and Erik adjusts his stance accordingly, ready to swing and intercept before the boy can let fly with his energy -
“STOP,” and the voice is loud enough that it echoes from every side of the hollow in the land, reverberating like a struck bell, even the sound of great wings slicing the air and rolling like thunder above the sound of the waterfall, “ALL OF YOU STOP!” Erik only barely has time to clamp his eyes shut before Charles lands with a slam that makes the earth beneath their feet tremble and shake, striking the sword from Erik’s grip and grabbing his wrists to hold them still. His hands are still soft but utterly implacable, the caress of his thumb across Erik’s pulse devastating.
There is a pause, like the world is taking a breath.
Far off he can hear the nephilim swearing and panicking, but for this moment there is only Charles. He smells like the high air, like ozone and clouds. Erik’s head bows, sagging with the weight of relief, even as he has to lock his knees to keep from sinking to the ground and pressing his face to Charles’ belly in grateful supplication. “I thought - ”
“Never,” Charles says, his voice so full of feeling Erik feels like it must spill out of his eyes in floods, he must be sparking with it the way Erik feels, the way they once had done together. His body is close enough that Erik can feel the heat of him, inhuman and sun-warm, like the heart of a star. “Never, love.” Then Charles is turning to face the rest of them, grip loosening but not letting go. “I will make you stop if I have to, children, though I would prefer not.”
“You’re - ”
“Oh my God,” the blue one, Hank, says, and then makes a sound Erik thinks might be a terrified giggle, muffled as though he’s clapped a paw to his mouth.
“I see you there, Alex Summers. Put that back where you got it from, if you please.” There’s a shift of feathers as Erik starts thinking about his fallen sword, just within the reach of his power, not quite too heavy to drag towards him. “Erik.”
“You know what they are, Charles,” he says, twisting his hands in Charles’ grip so he can take hold of Charles’ wrists in turn, gripping them tight even as his eyelids burn from the effort of clamping them so tightly shut. “You know - ”
“What are we?” Hank asks before Charles can answer, and his voice is sudden and desperate, closer, and it takes all Erik has not to look, then, and damn the risk, because the bigger risk is having that animal so close to them. “Please, what are we? Nobody has ever been able to tell us - ”
“Abominations,” Erik says at the same time as Charles says, “You’re our children.”