"Do you ever watch insects, Brice?"
Michael had set down the piece of coal and was rubbing the soot on his hands in deeper, into the loops and whorls of his fingertips. He contemplated the mess with infuriating serenity. Brice twiddled his fingers meaningfully, without quite daring to crack his knuckles. Michael smiled.
"I remember your science classes," he said. "They had you examining butterfly collections at one point."
Brice remembered them, too. He'd had nightmares for weeks after, dreaming about his mother, or perhaps his uncle, dripping poison onto the nape of his neck, then being skewered to a memo board. He'd been alive for months, years afterwards, struggling weakly against the pin which held him fast, staring down at the faces of his laughing, jeering family. And Dom. Dom, who was just like them.
"So, what about them?"
"A larva becomes a pupa becomes a butterfly," Michael mused, as if he hadn't heard.
"No, seriously, where are you going with this?" Brice threw him a suspicious look, the likes of which would have confused and embarrassed cute little Mel and her cronies. Michael didn't even blink. Guess that was why he was an archangel and Mel was a screw-up kid.
Look who was talking.
"A lot of people," Michael said, opening his smeared hand to reveal a caterpillar tracking along his palm, "would think that this creature was ugly."
"It's butt ugly," Brice told him. It was so fucking hideous he thought he might vomit. Mel would've screamed her stupid head off at how gross it was. Dom would've loved it. He stayed where he was.
"It's not, you know." Michael was still fucking smiling. Brice was totally going to punch him any minute now. "Just not what you're used to."
"Yeah, I'm kind of used to stuff that has two legs."
"It's exquisite when you look closely," Michael said. "The way it's made - it's perfect for what it is, for its place in the cosmos."
Brice gave him the fish-eye.
"I love it," and suddenly Michael's smile was gone. Brice tried not to look him in the face, because those eyes had gone all beautiful and intense and it made him swallow when his throat was too dry to speak. "I love it for what it is, the way it lives now, and I love it for what it was yesterday, an egg on the underside of a green leaf. I love it for what it will be tomorrow, too, whatever that is."
Slowly, his smile returned. He closed his hand gently, then spread his fingers again. A butterfly fluttered into the air between them, then faded away.
"I think it could be even more amazing tomorrow."
"What the hell," Brice said when his mouth started working again. He kind of wished Michael would flinch when he swore, but Michael was watching him with really fucking cringeworthy patience and general cosmic holiness. Brice was going to hit him. For definite. Some time. "You're comparing me to a butterfly?"
Michael lifted his shoulders, his smile broadening into something more human. "My coals-into-diamonds speech didn't seem to be getting anywhere."
"Yeah, no shit," Brice said.
Michael stood up, dusting off his shiny suit with sooty hands. He passed Brice as he walked across towards the vortex he'd just created, and stopped. Brice felt a warm hand on his shoulder.
"You can come home any time you like, Brice," he said. The corners of his mouth were turned up, but this time there was no way Brice could see it as mocking. It reminded him of his nursery school teacher, a young woman too nice to get involved with his family. She'd let him play with the blocks whenever he liked; unlike the other kids, he could read at age three. For months he'd dreamt of her coming to him one day and whispering a secret: he'd been left on his family's doorstep the day he was born; he was really her son, her baby, she'd been forced to give him up and she'd been looking for him ever since. He'd moved out of her class the next year and then she'd been fired for not sleeping with his uncle, and he'd cried himself to sleep both times.
Brice said, "Yeah, I'll think about it." And if his voice was a little hoarse, then what the fuck ever. Michael wouldn't tell if he knew what was good for him.
"That's all I ask," Michael said, and vanished. Brice took a deep breath and faced the horizon. He had stuff to do.