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All Things Bright and Beautiful

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All Things Bright and Beautiful - A Gesaffelstein/Brodinski Fanfiction

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0. Intro

"Once that cathedral was haven for many of us."

Years from when it happened, Louis Brodinski would remember this evening as clearly ever, always starting with this gentlest of speeches.

"Tonight it will resume its former glory, Louis, and harbor us for our union."

His lover's voice, so soft one might have feared his anxiety if not for the smile on his lips.
The late-afternoon sunlight weaving itself silken in the clouds above. Two circlets, one gold and one wrought with iron, set upon their respective cushions.
And in the distance, as his lover had said – the cathedral, gleaming marble, its towers standing proud and full of promise.

The cushions rested on his lap. Their fingers linked over them. A handful of syllables left his mouth, always only ever approximate to who his lover was.
He was not initially answered. Gesaffelstein, he called again, and only then did he look at him.

"Among ourselves this wouldn't be very complicated, but this hasn't happened between us and the human race for a very long time." Gesaffelstein paused, fidgeting with his hands. "I'll explain as we go, but this is what we need to do: when the sun begins to set we must follow this path to the cathedral, through three turns and all the way up the steps. We will not be accompanied by others during the procession and we must not lose our way. This is why. I accept you as my protector, my arc, my mate; you must know the things we know so that you may accept me. And to prove ourselves worthy of that trust, I'm permitted to tell you what is to come, but only you will be able to see the path. I must teach you without your voice to guide me, and you must lead me there while I am deprived of sight."

Ah, resplendent soul, such loving concern in that voice! In the years that followed, Brodinski would usually think of this speech as a fluid one, only to reflect later that it had been the exact opposite: Gesaffelstein had been very slow-spoken, tripping on his syllables as he tried to search for the correct words, his pauses lingering up to a full minute while he laid out the conditions for their journey. But when he asked what would happen once they were in the cathedral, Gesaffelstein spoke of wine-sharing and the exchange of their respective crowns, which was about what Brodinski had expected. Naturally, seeing no harm in the journey whatsoever, he assented without unease – which seemed to make the other more nervous.

"You must understand this, Louis, and take it at face value," he said, cupping Brodinski's cheek ever so gently with a hand, before following suit with the other. "what you will experience there tonight will change you. This shape will remain, of course (here he caressed his face), but other things about you will change, far more than I have wit to describe. By being mine, you already have become different to what you were before; tell me, will it please you to be transformed one last time?"

Pleasing isn't the right word, Brodinski thought, if only because he perceived it as a pure and perfect necessity. Opinions didn't enter into it. Gesaffelstein could have said that anything would happen to him and he wouldn't have blinked an eye, no matter how bizarre or painful, just as long as they were married at the end. He had given up much to come this far and it'd been worth it so far; why hesitate now?
So Brodinski nodded in reply. He intended to offer words alongside it, too, only to be met with the warmth of Gesaffelstein's lips upon his – downy and dreamlike one second, and searing hot the other. The promise was sealed, and though it was not yet sundown, the trial was begun.

"... We still need some time for us to prepare... there's my attire to tend to as well, of course..." Gesaffelstein looked away, blushing slightly, before he resumed. "… and once we’re done, we will proceed by sunset. Do you accept this, Louis? Do you understand what is to come?"

-----

Yes, I understand.

-----

I. Kyrie

{ + kyrie, eleison /+/ christe, eleison /+/ kyrie, eleison + }

"You could still leave now, if you wanted."

Out of several challenges that lay ahead of them, this was the first to test Brodinski's resolve, not ten minutes into their procession. Long after those other challenges had faded into the pages of time, he would still remember this one clear. He had been determined not to falter, but this was the first time Gesaffelstein had spoken since they'd begun their journey towards the cathedral; he'd said it so casually, too, as if he were merely talking about the weather, and Brodinski stopped to look at Gesaffelstein with an ice-cold dread spreading in the pit of his stomach that he could neither voice nor show.
Only the blank surface of the golden mask greeted him. Gesaffelstein turned his head to look towards him, sensing his discomfort, but deprived of vision he appeared to be looking over Brodinski's head and into the distance instead. His noble mouth was set in a firm line and his voice remained steady, albeit sorrowful, as he reached out with his hand.

"I ask a great commitment of you, Louis," he said, still gazing straight ahead. His hand brushed air where he thought Brodinski ought to have been; his fingers stalled, and actually quivered for a second, though they steadied again as he sensed the other's breaths and moved towards it. "it is easy for me to describe what awaits you in that hall, and easier still to call it an honour. But I am what I am, whereas you-" his fingertips brushed Brodinski's cheek and cupped it gently. "- are human, and what I ask of you will make it so that you will not come out the same. And what kind of husband would I make, if I force you to walk a path that you cannot return from?"

Brodinski shook his head, so distraught at the implications that he opened his mouth to protest; Gesaffelstein registered the movement and gently pressed a warm finger against his lips. "Hush, loved one. There is not much of it, but there is still time. Now that it has come to this, to us it is merely a grave insult to break faith on the night of a wedding; to you, it may be your only chance at freedom. I want you to know what if you change your mind, at any point..."

No... No, Gesa, I would never...

"... I will not begrudge you, Louis, whatever you decide," he said, and stroked his thumb over Brodinski's lips, unable to hide the tremor in his own voice by this point. "If you turn us back the way we came, I will follow you; if you should depart without me, I ask of you but a kiss before you go." Then a great change came over him, as if the weight of his words had only just sunk in by this point: he took a step back, nervously clasping his hands together and turning his head away as the oddest expression drifted to his lips, the kind Brodinski could only describe as smiling sadness. "... And of course... if you would truly have me, if I've worried for nothing after all... why, for all that awaits us in the cathedral, I could think of no greater honour than being by your side for always."

"..."

Brodinski looked at him for a long time, then gazed at what lay ahead.
It was three winding turns to the long staircase that led up to the hall; to the exit, however, it was just the one, which was probably why Gesaffelstein had stopped them here. They hadn't come so far that they couldn't return the way they had come, and if Brodinski wanted to make his escape, now would be the best time: he only had to walk a few more steps and turn right down a smaller path, which would direct him out of the rose-strewn gardens and out of Gesaffelstein's life forever. Gesaffelstein's honour would ensure that he would not force Brodinski to stay. Yes, if he left now, he would keep his humanity.

But at what cost?

What exactly will I become? He wanted to ask, though he bit his tongue before he could voice it. Will I become one of you, Gesa? Or one with you? Is that such a bad thing?

"'Tis all right," Gesaffelstein broke the silence, and laughed – so softly, so sadly, that Brodinski's heart ached. "I was with you whenever it mattered, was I not? I can live with that. I can live with that happily, beloved one."

Whenever it mattered. The clouds parted above them. The burning sun shone down upon their bodies, still midway between high sky and the horizon, illuminating Gesaffelstein in his full splendour. Brodinski held his breath, overwhelmed by his beauty, but his awe was replaced with a sense of gentle comfort just as quickly.
Once that self-same beauty would have inspired fear and loathing, not comfort. Whenever it mattered, Brodinski mouthed to himself again, and looked at Gesaffelstein with renewed joy in his eyes, for it was true. Brodinski had gone through a great change in the past several months, discarding his old hostile views and adjusting to a new mode of life – and Gesaffelstein had always been there, guiding him every single step of the way, pushing his own fears back so that his beloved would see the light.

Nothing before Gesaffelstein had come into his life, therefore, mattered at all.

"... Louis?"

Making him live only with the memories of him and Brodinski together was nothing less than an insult to his sacrifice. And even now he was offering to let him go, nervous that the only irrevocable thing he had ever asked of Brodinski during their time together would breed resentment and drive him away – despite the fact that if not now, Gesaffelstein would never find another to share his life with, and in time would eventually fade away frozen and alone. His prospects among other angels had never been good, even if through no fault of his own.

"... Are you all right?"

So shy, so cherubic; for changing Brodinski for the better Gesaffelstein wanted nothing but to be loved in return. Had he the use of his tongue he'd have scolded his lover gently for even suggesting that he could be let go, but Brodinski made do with the next best thing and simply stepped forwards to hold him tight, hushing him with repeated kisses to the throat. Gesaffelstein seemed surprised at first. Brodinski couldn't really see it, but he felt the other's breath hitch the moment he held him, and that was proof enough. Then slowly, and with tangible relief, he raised his arms and returned the embrace, sighing happily when Brodinski turned his head to nuzzle the soft perfumed down of his hair.

No final kiss, no last goodbyes, no parting footsteps to sink him into despair. There was only adoration between them, plain and simple. Gesaffelstein was loved, and though in some fashion he was being chastised for ever questioning it, he was more than happy to accept that with good humour. "I will never doubt you again," Gesaffelstein murmured, and lifted his face for a kiss, knowing it was far from the last.

Brodinski granted it with pleasure.

-----

II. Offertory

{ + fac eas, Domine /+/ de morte transire /+/ ad vitam + }

They had been enemies, once upon a time.

Although no one was there to comment on it, it was undeniable that they appeared mismatched alongside one another. Louis Brodinski cut a fine figure that night, lavished with pearl buttons and silver thread, but he would not have otherwise looked out of place among other aspiring grooms – not in the world of human beings.
Compared to him, Gesaffelstein wore little, but the attire of pure gold encircling his body set him far beyond Brodinski nonetheless. And that was if the rich feathered wings sprouting from his back weren't doing a good job of that already. When Gesaffelstein was happy his feathers were fully fluffed, his wingtips flickering to indicate his pleasure; when enraged they were pointed sharp and swift, ready to aid his flight or pursuit, more often the former than the latter. In this mid-earth Gesaffelstein was an angel embodied, his race few in number and ever more in conflict with mankind. Certainly not, in other words, a candidate anyone would have nominated as the lover of a man such as Louis Brodinski. They'd thought that about themselves at the start, too, and had spent a great many days debating their differences.

At some point, however, they'd stopped listening to complaints about their nature, or their irresponsibility in defying it. As long as they could walk together this very night, all protests were irrelevant to them. But at the same time, it had to be acknowledged that their beginnings had not been so smooth – why, they’d had bad blood between them before they'd even known each other. They'd met by pure chance during a night wrought with thunderstorms: Gesaffelstein had only been downstairs for a cup of tea, Brodinski had only been a traveler lost in the storm, and he'd only happened to knock upon Gesaffelstein's door to plead his hospitality for the night.

“Who are you?” Had been the words he first greeted Brodinski with, and understandably so. The ones that followed it, not so much. “Whatever it is you seek, you will not find it here.”
“My lord, I will die before I see you harmed by my presence," he'd pleaded. "and out here in this weather, death would be inevitable – one night of your kindness will suffice, just one."

Looking back, it was surprising that he'd granted it. Gesaffelstein had been isolated for such a long time that when Brodinski first met him, he had not been what one would call tempered. His hospitality that first night had consisted of nothing but letting Brodinski in, leaving him to figure everything out on his own; had Brodinski been anyone else, he would have simply left after the storm and never laid eyes upon Gesaffelstein again. But at least the lord had not harmed him, and much to his eventual good fortune, he stayed. The night stretched into several more, but Gesaffelstein did not cast him out. Brodinski had places to go, but he wasn't so urgently needed that he couldn't stay and earn his keep for a while. Soon days turned to weeks, and puzzlement developed into a sly fondness as he realized that this lord had left an awful lot of chores undone – on top of possessing an awfully strong desire for company.

All bets were off after that.

The season changed. Brodinski's curiosity grew as he helped around the house and brought the garden to life. Of course it wasn't an easy start.
"Presumptuous, ignorant wretch!" Gesaffelstein had snarled, more than once, in response to changes that Brodinski made about the place. Brodinski had shrugged, otherwise undeterred. For a long time he carried on as he did, fixing up the manor and enduring the lord's complaints, though he himself did not call that period one of endurance; that would have implied a struggle against the man, and Brodinski truly hadn't felt as if his patience had been tested. Gesaffelstein appeared to Brodinski only in short bursts at the beginning, in the guise of a noble yet decrepit lord, young and palefaced and adorned with a splendid feather cape; the rest of the time, he would lock himself away, providing for his guest without truly partaking in his own actions. It was the most awkward co-existence, but at least it was only that, not active hostility.

Brodinski had endured far worse before.
What could he say? It came with the job description.

Springtime fell through their fingers like a dream. He ran errands for the lord in the nearest town, and bemusedly took note of the rich goods the merchants put out in his presence.
A small rainy season passed over them. The roof began to leak. He fixed it, and caught Gesaffelstein staring at him from the attic space once or twice, ignoring it as best as he could.
Summer began. The garden blossomed modestly and birds began to visit again. Brodinski talked to some and napped upon the grass, reveling in the gentleness that had been so lacking in his life. Ever since he had been a child he had been in training, and he'd had little room in his life for non-violent comforts. This was also when Gesaffelstein became markedly proactive with their interactions, actually greeting him in the mornings or asking to take meals with him, and even though Brodinski was surprised he took up those offers with a glad heart. So what if he'd needed half the year to figure out that Brodinski could be trusted? It was that long before he himself had realized just how charming Gesaffelstein could be, once he’d voluntarily cast off his haughty demeanor and approached Brodinski with all the goodwill he had to give.

"Milord, did you...?"

"How else do you think I managed when I alone lived here? I do cook, yes, I promise you it will be delicious. Let us hope sweetness becomes you."

(They started to share glances at the dinner table.)

"Louis Brodinski, I cannot let you go without something lighter in this heat. I shall have something tailored for you and I insist that you accept."

(Gesaffelstein had a fine taste for aesthetics, even if he hadn't shown it off within his manor. He'd neglected it so before.)

"Well, what shall I call you, if 'Louis Brodinski' is insufficient?"

"On the contrary, it has become excessive; 'Louis' alone would do fine, if that would please you."

(They switched to single names.)

The cooler months passed by them ever faster in their shared nervous-but-excited mood. Having been delayed nearly a year, Brodinski's business was really urging him on, but he stalled and hesitated and lingered as long as he could. He had been hours away from making a formal request to Gesaffelstein, pleading his permission to stay at the manor on a permanent basis and travel only in brief spurts for his work, when the great accident occurred.
As mentioned previously, much of Gesaffelstein's abode had been neglected before Brodinski’s arrival. He'd fixed it up nicely since, but there were still some things he hadn't been able to access, or hadn't dared to touch either because of their worth or fragility. The massive ancient mirror hanging in the hall had been both of those things. Gesaffelstein had left it to gather dust, and Brodinski hadn't wanted to do anything to it until he saw it safely resting on the ground. That night the weight of their combined disregard finally bore down upon them both, and as Gesaffelstein passed by, the entire silver-clad surface came loose from its frame and crashed against his body. Brodinski was not there to see it happen, but he heard it loud and clear.

"Gesaffelstein!" He cried out before he knew what he was doing; the horror of that moment dizzied him even now, even in present memory. "Gesaffelstein, please answer me!"
Silence. He hurtled downstairs, nearly tripped, and kept on going. His breath was hot in his throat as he made it down and caught uncanny glimpses of light in the hall; reflections, he realized, from the mirror barely holding its cracks back against Gesaffelstein's prone body. "Hold on, please – don't move-"

But he did move. That rich feather cape around his back, the one he never took off even in high heat, had shielded him from much of the impact. In numb silence Gesaffelstein crawled an inch forwards, then a little more, letting the mirror crumble slowly beside him until he'd almost made it out; then perhaps out of sudden panic he rolled out of the way, and the bare top of his hand glanced against a sharp fragment lying right next to it, and he let out a cry as he clutched his hand and bent forwards.

"No, no, please... Gesaffelstein – let me..."

"... It's fine! It's fine!"

He had never heard Gesaffelstein sound so harsh before. But again, as mentioned before – he had endured far worse in his life, from people who'd called him a butcher and a heartless creature and no better than the monsters he and his family hunted to make a living. He pushed Gesaffelstein's uninjured hand aside, tearing off a bit of his own shirt to serve as a bandage; Gesaffelstein shoved him off and rose blindly to his feet, intending to flee, but it was too late.

Brodinski had already seen. He was injured, but it was not blood that dripped from him, no.

It was pure gold.

Brodinski's knees gave way then. Gesaffelstein stared down at him.
His cape split in two before Brodinski's eyes and stretched out in savage directions. With long-forgotten rage and a freshly-gilded wrist he beheld in Gesaffelstein his nemesis, the other's lean winged body poising itself to flee or kill just in time for Brodinski to reach for his knife.

-----

III. Sanctus

{ + Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus /+/ pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua /+/ Hosanna in excelsis + }

"There's a stream ahead. We'll hear it before we come to it."

This garden was soon left behind and the path ahead of them wound sharply to the right. This was the first of three turns; Brodinski glanced back as they followed it, but only long enough to confirm that the way they'd come was now out of sight. Tall bushes stood out along the sides of the path, which narrowed as they walked – Brodinski took the lead, grasping his partner's hand, and Gesaffelstein tucked his wings tighter to his body to accommodate the width – and eventually, they were led to a gold-tipped gate that swung open without a sound when Brodinski pushed on it.

Beautiful, he mouthed as he saw what was ahead. If he’d thought the first garden was splendorous, this one overtook it easily. It was larger than the one they’d passed, lined with fountains and bushes bearing strange flowers (at this hour!), and from this point Gesaffelstein had marked out their path in marble. Doubtless he had always believed that first turn to be their greatest hurdle, the point where Brodinski might have changed his mind and left him forever; once they were past it, he could relax and remind himself that yes, he was getting married. It was such an adorable expression of self-assurance that Brodinski couldn't hold himself back from embracing him, kissing his cheek quite golden.

"Why, thank you, beloved one," Gesaffelstein laughed, shrugging free several downfeathers that were out of place. This was combined with a full stretch of his wings, breathtakingly magnificent in their opulence. Brodinski merely regretted that he could not be more eloquent about them, or the raw sweet beauty of Gesaffelstein's body in general. He would have admired it, and the entire race of angels with it, even if he'd never known Gesaffelstein personally.

And yes, that was even if he had remained a hunter. Brodinski had never been an ordinary hunter among other hunters, largely because the man who'd taught him hadn't been, either. He came from a long line of hunters, each generation bolder and stranger than the one before it, and by the time of his father their blood was considered disgraced and crazed in every direction. They were the working class, and the least respectable of that already-persecuted class, up to their elbows in death and guts and the brightest shimmering gold – ah yes, the most precious, and yet the deepest, the filthiest of mires!

It was irreconcilable from the very beginning. In the end Brodinski chose to live in beauty, though they called him immoral and incorrect and far too dirtied for it. All the better for him.

But then, it hadn't always been so complicated. His father lessoned him young, and Brodinski still remembered how he'd spared no expenses for this earlier part of his education. Because Brodinski could not yet hunt angels, his father insisted that he at least look at them: one evening he brought home a most wondrously illuminated book, filled with detailed illustrations of angels, both of their insides and the out. That book was to be Brodinski's guide until he encountered real specimens, and even after he was more learned, in case there was a drought.
"How beautiful!" His sister had cried when she saw the book, saving Brodinski the words. He reached out – turned the cover – the sunlight unsealed itself from the gilded pages, and he fell in love, just like that, for the first time.

Ah, how he'd loved that book. He never lost his affection for it, even after he'd learnt to read the horrors in it. There were many things strange, terrible, and ever wondrous in the world, the book said, but surely none were as strange and terrible and wondrous as the ones humans called angelkind. Pale and sweet they all were, in subtly different but necessary ways like milk and honey: the former existed in great quantities, blended often among humans, and though they were not often injured they would gush forth blood like frothed cream from blanched wounds when they were. The latter were rarer – if anything, they were more beautiful than their already-fair brethren, and it was those angels Brodinski had to pay attention to. Hunters and collectors and artists alike looked to them for their beauty, and more often for the other glory they possessed: for the love of what ran in their veins, molten gold instead of pale cream, honeys had come to symbolize the absolute best a hunter could capture in their lifetime.

"But real gold, father?"

"Yes, real gold." Then, with worshipful delicacy: a nugget of gold upon his palm, a round, sunbathed grain of pure goodness. "This, my son – a thousandfold!"

Such was his father's attitude to the world. He was brutal, he was passionate; to this day Brodinski had never known such a man for questions, and in the past, his father had seemed to him the wisest of men. Already Brodinski was picking up what other hunters said about him – the elder Brodinski, they said with discomforting laughter, he invites strange and reckless things – but in a way, it was good that his father was an outsider, for he cared none for what they had to say about him. For his son's sake, he went above and beyond the ordinary scope of a hunter's education, and voiced opinions that might have been outlawed in the company of others freely without fear. Sometimes he talked about the angels with great awe, near reverence shining in his eyes as he spoke of their splendor and the ancient knowledge they had in their possession. Sometimes that same splendor and the depth of their knowledge disgusted him, because it was simply unfair that those creatures would try to mingle among humans, and yet refuse their hosts their glory.

"Blasphemers!" He would cry out. "Frauds! Vile trickery is all they know, son, and that's what they'll subject you to if you're not careful. And you must be careful. Now that fools have started to make clothing out of their feathers, they'll make degenerates out of all of us eventually." Then, with a sudden softness: "And those clothes aren't even that good. I wouldn't be so offended if they did any justice to what the wings are like. You wouldn't know it unless you've seen – you've touched – ah, my boy, they might be demons but what a disguise they have!"

And that was the other thing. On top of instilling in Brodinski a legitimate respect for the enemy, he heaped on a great deal of skepticism about other human beings, so that Brodinski was never quite sure who to trust. His father found the fact that honeyed angels passed as humans at first glance terribly infuriating, as well as fascinating, and loved to puzzle it out with his son for hours. "You’d think those wings are difficult to hide, but they aren't. Some wear cloaks over it. Some bear a load on their back. They're not beyond that, which makes them a good sight more honest than most lords out there," his father paused to sip his wine, a wry smirk on his face. "what I mean, son, is that you can't tell. You wouldn't charge into every church you see looking for a hive, letting a thousand angels go is better than that kind of blasphemy; you wouldn't grab at the backs of every nobleman, looking for wings, if you want to survive in this business. A hunter's no good to anybody if he's in stocks, he'd only be a target for monsters to rip apart."

"What would be the best way to tell?"

"Talk to them. Their tongue sounds different to ours, hymn and nightmare mixed all at once." (Brodinski did not hear a demonstration of this until later.) "They struggle with some of the firmer consonants. But only bother if you have the time, and if they're particularly canny, they'll make sure none of that will show anyway."

Brodinski frowned as he locked his fingers together. "... That'd be most of the angels."

"Oh yes, son, they are educated folk; high-minded, too, not a single thing about them looks as base as they truly are. Even when they're taken into homes they will not miss a chance to learn. They're creatures to outsmart, not shoot and pelt like some sort of deer or rabbit in the woods."

His father nodded to the opposite wall. A jeweled knife hung there, soon to be Brodinski's own.

"Never forget it."

So Brodinski never forgot it. Angels were to be looked at but not touched, to be taken but not given, to be stabbed and never caressed; onto those basics he appended that they were never, ever, ever to be underestimated, and stuck to it. And thinking back on it now, walking this blissful road with this angel – his angel – Brodinski realized that this teaching had ultimately stayed his hand when he finally encountered Gesaffelstein. A brute he had been, and a fairly complete one, but not one so foolish that he could not kneel down and grind his forehead into the dirt for forgiveness. That was his saving grace, having been brought up cautious enough to stop and think before he acted.

That part of his education, he had liked. The practical aspects, less so.

Much to his family's chagrin, getting Brodinski to actually take up that knife proved a fight, for his father had never accounted for the fact that the world had assailed his boy with opinions from an early age. The first time Brodinski came home, limbs and honour bruised with the label of low-life butcher hanging over his head, his mother had been the one to comfort him. She dressed his wounds and approved of his defending himself, but warned him to be careful; she confessed she hated the stigma too, and that all hunters felt that way at some point or another, but that they were expected to discipline themselves against those feelings in mixed company. "It's unbecoming to reveal too much," she'd sighed, stroking his hair. "that'll always be true, human or monster. They will call you provincial."

Brodinski had asked what that meant, and she'd explained that it meant one who had come from the provinces. He'd then asked whether they were from the provinces, and she'd said no, they were beneath the provinces. He did not forget this for a very long time, and no one let him. Everyone knew him as the hunter's son, with nary a goldblood or a trophy to show for it. According to them, his father did every other hunter a disservice during stretches of nothing, was covered with filth during times of plenty – and Brodinski was too young, too weak, and too pathetic to do anything about it. No wonder, then, that he tired of his childhood exceptionally quickly, and rebelled for a time away from home.

Had he stayed away, his life might actually have taken a clearer course. But then he’d never have met Gesaffelstein, and besides, it was cruel and ruthless out there and it was not meant to be.
For three months he endured. Then he returned, wiser and graver, to a welcoming hearth. He had learnt that he had to hit back at life before it could hit him.

His father was very pleased about that.

Later, he would confess that he'd deliberately done little to retrieve his son, despite the rest of the family's efforts. He'd taught him all of the theory, taught him to revere and fear in good measure, shown him what angels looked like on the outside and inside. But he could never have taught him the character suited to killing, and he'd sorely hoped that Brodinski would learn it during his trials in the outside world. He confessed all of this over wine and an empty stomach; Brodinski (freshly breaking free of his boyhood) had simply nodded, not knowing what else his father could have done, and for a time this seemed to him an understanding which bound them together. Yes, Brodinski had made his father so proud upon his return, prodigal son turned prestigious, and the old man had been most eager to maintain this state of affairs; a year into his new training, he proposed that Brodinski accompany him to a hunt, so that he truly knew what he would be in for. "It won't be just a hunt, either, but a rescue mission."

"But father, rescuing who from whom?"

His father pulled out a map and pointed to a village some five miles away. "This forest here," he circled the broader patch of dark green which radiated around the village. "we located a hive there, full of goldbloods. But would you believe it, son, if I said that we'd never have guessed they were there – if not for the fact that they've been dragging those villagers to their hive?"

Brodinski gasped. "I thought they wanted to stay far away from us!"

"So did we," his father's lips stretched into a tight humorless smile. He patted Brodinski's back reassuringly. "I have no answer for you, son. Only theories. Come with us. Find out for yourself."

So he went to the hunt. Many times, he reeled back from the stench of blood, thick in the air before they even reached the hive. Many times, Brodinski stopped on the path, thinking to go back. But each time, men urged him on with kindly-stern voices, and the reassuring grip of his father's hand set him back on his course. "When you see what's ahead, my boy," he whispered as they drew near. "your courage will find you well enough. We are here to save, not spoil."

Yes, he went to the hunt. Oh, what a hunt it was. The first thing Brodinski saw was the sight of several humans, all huddled up and crouched beneath blankets and coats; he watched on in horror, realizing that they were the villagers whom the angels had kidnapped. Though they were now safe with the hunters standing guard, they wept piteously as they presented to each new hunter their wounds, all crusted with blood. Some were old and some were fresh. Behind them metallic screams rang out, torn goldstained feathers fluttering in all directions, the beginnings of grey smoke wafting from the high curved roof – and red, oh the red, far more red than they'd expected splattered across the walls of the hive. Then his own tears were hot on the back of his hand and he draped blanket after blanket to the villagers who were being led out, shielding them from the frozen gold-streaked bodies splayed on the grass, his own rage revolving inside him like a cannonball about to burst. His father was the only one who took note of his distress amidst the chaos; when he met his son's eyes, he smiled so calmly and darkly that Brodinski understood what made men daredevils in that instant.

"Do what you must," he said, and pressed the knife into his hand.

Brodinski obtained no kills that day, but he came damned well close to it. He had seen enough goldbloods in real life and in death by then to recognize them by the speed in which they fell, loud and heavy like slabs of marble raining down. He darted through the hive and frightened several into hurling themselves out of the windows, leaving them to be picked up by the hunters waiting outside. Before he knew it the knife was coated in blood, and though the angel he stabbed fled with a shriek and flutter of his powerful wings, he treasured the heat of that first blood as the sign that he was doing the right thing. When the hive was emptied out, other hunters entered with lit torches in hand, gazing greedily upon the gems and spoils that cemented it together. Brodinski took that cue to leave, hitching his knife back onto his belt so that he could help the rest of the villagers. There were more than he'd initially counted, several families who clutched at each other, unable to speak of what they'd experienced there; their cries only increased when Brodinski's father laid down the body of a child on the ground, already cold and soaked in red, covering him with a sheet. "Boy," he said quietly, and Brodinski took heed. "now you see why for a dram of our blood, we demand a hundred of theirs. Look for the others who might still be out there, alive or not, and bring them back or take them to us."

What could he say to quell his grief, other than a yes?
He did so and took off running into the woods. Bodies lay all around him, but most were stained golden. Thick smoke wafted from the hive and clouded the skies overhead. The screams were less now, the hunters' vengeance nearly complete. There was little for him to do, but he scouted the entire area nevertheless, and it was just his luck that he kept to his task: as he was returning, he heard something like a hastily muffled sob coming from the bushes next to him, and crouched down, wondering if an enemy was near. "Hello?"

No response. Brodinski clutched the handle of his knife and parted the foliage with his other hand. Much to his surprise, he found a boy sitting there, staring up at him with fearful eyes. He wasn't too younger than himself upon closer examination, but he was curled up so small and tight that Brodinski thought for a moment that he was looking at a child. "Oh, God," he murmured and loosened his grip on the knife, throwing off his own coat to fasten it around the shivering body. "I'm so sorry. We need to get you back to the others. It's nearly over, don't worry, I'll look after you."

Nothing. The boy was unhurt, but had an unfocused look about him, like he wasn't really registering any of this. "We had no choice," Brodinski explained kindly, bending his knees to address him at face level. The boy just stared back, dumbstruck, his pale cheeks dirty and streaked with tears. "we had to save as many as we could. But you're safe now. I'm just sorry you had to see such a horrible thing – you must have been so scared in there..."

At that word, scared, he received a reaction at last. "... W-Who are you?" The boy stammered; it would turn out that this was the last reply Brodinski would get out of him, as well as the first, but he smiled at it all the same. His voice was laced with sobs and half muffled against the knees, and hearing that, pity welled so rapidly in Brodinski's heart that the black rage inside him died out within seconds; he said nothing, but moved in to give the boy a hug, rubbing the top of his head gently. "Who... who are... who is..."

"Shh. It's okay. I'll get you back to your parents in no time. Can you stand?"

He could not. Brodinski thought fast and stepped back, concealing the boy in foliage again. "Wait for me here. I'll come back, I promise!"

Alas! - Alas for that boy, for the stench of death, for his horrific, juvenile mistake!
In present time Brodinski shut his eyes briefly, squeezing Gesaffelstein's hand and glad that he could not see the old regret painted upon his face. He received an affectionate squeeze back and hastened them on. All the hatred he had felt for the angels back then was long since gone, but the memory was still heavy upon him. He was guilty of so grossly misinterpreting the angels, and he also felt guilt for dooming that innocent child to the woods; they were not mutually exclusive. For he had come back, but he had not saved the boy. Brodinski had not been gone ten minutes when he alerted the adults that he'd found a survivor, and promptly rushed back to the place with his father and a friend in tow.

It was no use. The boy was already gone. Later on, they found Brodinski's coat shredded in the woods, with no one left in sight.

Afterwards, because he’d seen that lives were at stake, he took up the hunter's mantle at last.

-----

IV. Pie Jesu

{+ Pie Iesu Domine /+/ dona eis requiem /+/ dona eis requiem sempiternam +}

One time, his father had brought home a golden goblet. "What would you make of this, boy?" He'd asked, beckoning Brodinski to sit before setting the goblet firmly upon the kitchen table. "When was it made, where, and who by?"

It had been a truly beautiful goblet, blood-warm and smooth to the touch, save for the comb-patterned rim and the etching of a vine rich with grapes and broad leaves upon the surface. What it wasn't was distinctive, certainly not enough to bring to mind a name or place. Brodinski had puzzled over it for several minutes, anxious to reassure his father that his education had not come to waste; in that time his father had packed his pipe and smoked half a bowl, the smoke drifting carelessly about their heads, not to mention those of the women hard at work around the stove. "Maybe some twenty years ago," he finally offered, and his father had nodded impassively. "and there’s a fleur-de-lis underneath the base, which probably means it's from here. As for who made it, I – I don't know. Maybe it was for a lord... a banquet of some sort?"

"You would think so," had been the reply. "damned fine artistry, my boy, I'd give it that much. Would you believe it if I'd said this was the angels' own doing?"

Brodinski had spluttered at the implications. "But – but why?"

"That's the mystery," was the only thing his father had said. And so a mystery it had remained, until he came across Gesaffelstein years later and managed to reach the point where he could inquire about such things. He'd asked with that same goblet, too, by then having developed enough of a conscience to return it to the angels.
"Libations," Gesaffelstein had answered straight away, holding the vessel two-handed with reverence. "but this chalice is to commemorate one of us, first and foremost. It is not all gold, Louis, but you see that the inside is untarnished. I doubt anyone has actually offered a libation from it. It's not unusual among us that we ask our blood be put to good use when we are gone." He'd looked at Brodinski then, the goblet clasped to his chest as he inclined his head. "You did the right thing to return this to us. Now if only I could find the hive this belongs to."

Well, he'd been answered. Louis had nodded, but questions still lingered at the tip of his tongue – just not polite ones, though he was dying to hear them answered more than ever. Procuring that goblet had appeared to settle some kind of turmoil in his father, for he became more efficient and ruthless than ever: he was hawk-eyed over every possible goldblood sighting in the area, left home for days on end to look for similar artifacts, and even visited ruins of angelic hives to find out what they’d been made of. Some were humble inside as well as the outside, as he had warned his son a long time ago, and had possessed little worth taking once the creatures within had been removed. But some hives had been carved out of marble, bound with gold, and studded with the most prized of gems – all good for looting, and it was seldom anything remained of such hives once the hunters had taken their fill. Yet even though those hives were well-documented, and finding one was the universal dream of all hunters, none of them had ever been able to answer why angels took and slathered the blood of their own over their homes, their wares, their decorations. Most didn't care, and among others who did think about it occasionally, the general opinion was nothing other than that angels were simply barbaric creatures. They clearly had a desire for gold; they clearly were willing to get it from other angels; why, then, should humans be vilified for doing the same?

"They devour their own," had been his father's conclusion. "we just get there first."

But Gesaffelstein had read the confusion on his face. "You want to know why we'd ask such a thing of our brethren," he spoke, startling Brodinski from his musings, and offered him a gracious smile. "why we so prize between ourselves what would be degrading from a human. Isn't that right?"

"It is difficult to understand."

"We cannot take it with us any more than you can," Gesaffelstein answered, and stroked over his own arm. "we can seal the gold within us, true, we freeze upon death to crumble through the decades. But it will not stop humans from harvesting it from our bodies when we are gone, and besides, we will not have it in us to appreciate that gold after we die. Not being alive to feel it does not remove the dishonour when we'd still be chiseled apart, with our wings torn from our bodies and our veins drawn out from us." He looked out of the window. "Some ask to be buried deep in the earth, so deep that they will not be found again, sacrificing future reverence for their dignity. Some hurl themselves into the ocean. The seas are deep and heavy with the lost bodies of our own, untouched, inch after inch crumbling with time. I must say, when I was all alone, that seemed to be the best way to go for me as well. And some give their bodies to us as they die; it is the usual grace of an arc to do so, for example. That gold may seal our homes, encase an urn of their dust, or cover an artifact such as this. During times of marriage, a birth, a funeral – there is no higher honour than to pay our respects to what remains of our loved ones, asking their blessing long after they have come and gone."

He'd stood then, gazing down at his lover, the sunlight haloed against the fine down of his hair.

"Gold is no mere material to us, Louis. We revere it, celebrate it, hold it to the highest honour; it is no less lifeblood than the one in your veins."

"..."

"Please remember that."

"... Louis?"

Gesaffelstein's soft call shook him out of the reverie, far nearer than his memories would've had him believe. Brodinski looked up to see what ailed him and saw him two steps ahead, pausing uncertainly at the edge of a shallow brook. "I think the stones are near here," he murmured; he was correct in that the stepping stones were right in front of him, but he either couldn't see them or was unwilling to carry on without help. "but I couldn't possibly chance it without knowing where we're going-"

Brodinski had to hide a smile. Of course Gesaffelstein knew where they were going. He had set up the route himself, each fountain polished and lovingly filled with scented water, not a single blade of grass out of place and the flowers planted to bloom together perfectly on this one night. That went for all that adorned those gardens, too: there was not a single direction in which gold did not glitter, no matter where Brodinski looked and how deep he went. The cathedral stood ahead, magnificent like jeweled snow, the fences and gates all gold-tipped and polished; even the paving-stones were veined delicately with it, resembling (Brodinski imagined) what lay under the smooth surface of his lover's skin, rendering him quite breathless with every step. Gesaffelstein had been trying to show him, all along, that he had gathered every possible avenue of blessing for their union. How could he not be delighted, then, nor not oblige him when he asked?

He went up to Gesaffelstein and held him from behind. As he began to relax into the embrace, Brodinski kissed his throat to caution him before lifting him up. Despite his golden attire Gesaffelstein was light, and save for the small cry of surprise he gave he was more than manageable as Brodinski strode forwards and onto the first stepping stone. Five more followed, with Gesaffelstein pressed against him as if he were a very soft bird. Once past this stream he made the second turn out of three, and only then returned his lover to the winding path to resume their procession, his old life of ignorance slipping further away as he headed towards what was wholly, unashamedly, divine.

-----

V. Agnus Dei

{+ Agnus Dei /+/ qui tollis peccata mundi /+/ dona eis requiem sempiternam +}

But speaking of his old life.

They did not expect much in the way of guests. Few angels approved of Gesaffelstein's conduct and Brodinski's family had given him up; it wasn't easy to move on, no, but it wasn't their problem that neither the world of humans nor angels were ready to accept them. No amount of heartache over this matter was worth throwing away their happiness for. On that front, they were united alike, but the way this sadness came to them had been different.

Brodinski had been the first to ask about the other’s. He did so before they’d even discussed marriage, having long since thought it odd that no other angel had spoken to Gesaffelstein throughout the years of his solitude. On the outside, Gesaffelstein had a similar story to all other escaped angels out there: his hive had been raided, he had grown up tasting the salt of other people's bread, and once old enough he'd broken away to hide in a place of his own.
A cruel fate, no better than living death; angels needed the company of others to thrive even more than human beings did. Cruel, yes, but not uncommon. Brodinski had known of such angels before and none of them had lasted very long on their own. Because of this, he'd always been under the impression that once an outcast was forever an outcast among the angels – but once Gesaffelstein had dispeled him of this notion, he couldn't fathom why no one else had accepted him. "But Gesa, you were young, you needed a place to belong to – for heaven's sake, you were a victim! Why didn't anyone take you in?"

Gesaffelstein had looked perturbed at the question. "It is one thing to be exiled from a hive," he'd finally said. "quite another to have been hunted down..."

Another layer of Brodinski’s profession, laid bare in its indefensible cruelty. The hunters who had felled his hive had nigh killed Gesaffelstein twice: once by purging all that made his life worth living, and once by forcing him to live, unwittingly rendering him an unfortunate cherub who'd had a target painted upon him from day one. For all Brodinski knew, the angels saw their relationship as a symptom of Gesaffelstein's desperation, seeking refuge in the least dangerous of all hunters in exchange for his beauty and soul.
He had no idea whether to feel relieved or insulted by that label. He supposed more the former, otherwise they'd never have left him alive, let alone permit Gesaffelstein to consort with one as deadly as him. But although he had never brought down an angel before, he had still dealt with their wares – he knew what each part of an angel was worth, had admired many a winged pelt in his time, and he had sharpened his knives once a week preparing for the day his training would be put to use. They could smell it upon him, Brodinski could swear it, the sins of his ancestors: they ran in his blood, seeped out of the hard tension in his shoulders, showed their innocent glare in his facial features, ensuring no angel would ever feel at peace near him.

And most of them didn't. Most were of the opinion that Gesaffelstein was mad to be his. Not even those who were supportive, or at least curious, had spoken of attending the marriage ceremony. They treated Gesaffelstein in silence ranging from confused to contemptuous, and he had to make what he could out of it. But Gesaffelstein was still an angel, and a proud one. There were struggles, but he was able to come to terms with them quickly, certainly faster than Brodinski had done with his own; he'd been apart from the others for so long that the relief of their union had been greater than his previous lonely despair. Gesaffelstein was content, as long as his lover was.

As for Brodinski, he broke his knives. Broke them in half, shattered the halves against his grinding stone, then buried the former and hurled the latter into a stream where no one would find them ever again. His other tools were similarly disposed of – broken or buried or abandoned, never sold, never to perpetuate another cycle with some other unfortunate hunter – and only then did he return to visit his family, feeling that he could not face Gesaffelstein in good faith until he had been honest to those of his own blood.
He told them everything. It did not go well, but he had expected that. His mother sat down and wept; his sisters left the house, unable to face him; his father was understanding at first, which was not what Brodinski had expected, but it soon emerged that he understood far less than he was attempting to get across. "Who hasn't fallen for an angel at some point, my boy?" He said, embracing his son with open arms, his smile pained but unsurprised. "Everyone struggles with it at some point, it's just part of the job. The fault is mine for not warning you better. Take a break, Louis. Time is the remedy. Tell us where the angel lives and we'll take care of it for you while you rest – when you see that creature for what it is, I guarantee it'll clear your head."

"If that's your goal, I shouldn't want my head cleared." Brodinski then set down the jeweled handle of his old knife (the blade snapped off entirely) upon the table, stepping back unhappily. "Father, as much as it saddens me to say it, this is not a request for your help nor for your blessing. I have not given you any options because I only came here to say goodbye. All I can ask is for all of you to be well, no matter what becomes of me."

Then his father became angry. He was easier to deal with after that, even though it hurt Brodinski to do so. By the time he left the house it was agreed that he was a disgrace to their family, their greatest failure, set on such a profoundly incorrect path that there was no setting him right again; best to expel him, black out his name in the family register, and live life as if he had never existed at all. And that was still the gentlest separation he could have hoped for, considering that Brodinski had expected to be beaten within an inch of his life, even having prepared to to maim his own father to prevent any revenge against Gesaffelstein. This wouldn't have hurt so badly if his family had fought him harder with teeth and claws bared.

And the tears. Oh, the tears.

Halfway through the argument, Brodinski was actually ordered to leave the house because he was upsetting all of them so. With his own cheeks wet and his vision blurred he stumbled out without a word. Until late evening he wandered the town, taking in the sights he would never be able to enjoy again: there was the blacksmith who had forged him most of his knives, around the corner lay the stream he had spent long summer boyhood afternoons in, and passing him with cheerful smiles was one of his father's friends, the same one who would be glad to turn his knife against Brodinski when the sun rose again. All of this he mourned, yet in a curious sense he rejoiced in the loss, because it was the only way he could have understood Gesaffelstein's pain and solitude. Outcasts now, he and his lover, this was the burden that would paradoxically liberate them both.

He just needed to finish this, that was all.

It was late night when Brodinski returned. His mother and sisters had retired to bed, likely under the impression that Brodinski would still be there in the morning. Even in their anger and consternation they would never have assumed the worst of him, not until he forced their hand. His father was still awake, sitting at the kitchen table with a glass of wine, clearly far from his first drink of the evening. Three open bottles rolled on the floor, amidst the remnants of a broken mug hastily swept to the side; on the table Brodinski's childhood book lay open (oh, how sudden and sharp, this pain in his heart), its illustrations still vivid despite the years gone by.

Brodinski’s gaze remained fixed to the book, but he said nothing. His father didn't, either.

It was a long time before he spoke. "It's no use. I know what you are."

"I don't think you do, father."

"Touching him. Kissing him. Taking that creature to your bed." His words came in harsh staccatos, spat out as disgustedly as he felt. "And you don't even fancy yourself some kind of lord with a pet by his side; no, you say you're in love with him, Louis, the shame you will bring to this family! - Do you think I can't tell what you're doing?"

Brodinski took a deep breath. He had not hid when he first came here; no reason to hide now. "Father, I love him, and I would do anything for him. Even if it means stopping you."

"You're all over him, then. You're rotten with it. You bring your sickness to this hearth."

"Think of it what you will. I love him."

His father straightened unsteadily on his chair. "I gave you so many chances, Louis. When you hesitated to learn I was patient with you. I covered for you while you delayed not just your business, but our friends' alongside it. All this time you remained silent and we waited for God knows how long it's been. And now you show up without warning, and you... you tell us we have no say in the matter, that there's no room to negotiate, that you are lost to us forever. Well, son, I can tell you this: I will give you a choice, even if you deny us any. Either you step aside and let us handle the angel, or you will leave and never come within thirty miles of this place again." He shook his head viciously, the wine spilling over the rim of his glass. "I will ask nothing more of you if you stay, but if it's the latter, I... I will... I will make your life difficult. Others will take you and your monster down, even if my hand should fail me. Alone and unwept you'll lie once we have taken from him what we have earned. No one will mourn you, no one will remember you, no one will utter a cry."

Brodinski closed his eyes. Once he was out of range he would weep. But not before then, not before he was released, not before his own father.

"Is that the price you're willing to pay? What exactly about that monstrosity makes you value us so little? Louis!"

"He is good to me," pause. "as you were, when I was but a boy. When you wanted me to think you decent and when I believed you were."

That silenced his father like nothing else could. He closed his eyes and covered his face with his hands, silver hair thinning between his fingers. Brodinski waited with building anxiety and was not rewarded. "What you lie with isn't a part of this world," he whispered, and then the floodgates broke open at last, his voice thin and reedy as a child's all over again as he sobbed. "Louis, it's a sin. You'll go to hell. Soft wings, golden bodies, all the way to hell."

Brodinski turned and went upstairs to pack his things. There wasn't much to take. Most of his prized belongings he had either rejected, or left back with Gesaffelstein where he'd hidden him prior to journeying home. He had no idea what to feel, but he would figure that out when he and Gesaffelstein were both safe; all that mattered was that he was finished here. Once he determined that he had food enough to last him the thirty miles' radius, he shouldered the pack and came back downstairs again.

"Goodbye, father," he said. The old man sat stonestill, staring into space. Brodinski did not wait for replies as he made his way to the front door. But as soon as his hand rested on the handle, he heard footsteps behind him, and he turned around.

"Louis, will you please tell me why?"

"There is no why, father, I don't know what-"

"You know what why..."

Yes, he knew what why. What he didn't know was whether it would matter to discuss it.
He knew who he was. He knew who he loved. He knew the sacrifices he had made for Gesaffelstein's sake had been rightful, and he was prepared to give up a thousand things more. And because of that, he knew that he would never make his father happy, not now that he had broken him and ground him down to dust. It was too late to anguish over the why of it, but this was the only thing he could offer: "You brought me up to look for the light but it was he who taught me to see it. And he did this, not for anyone else's good, but for our own. When I am with him he makes me happy – just – happy."

His father nodded. He wiped his eyes and seemed to understand. And Brodinski really thought for that one second that perhaps all was not lost; that his father could change his mind, that they would talk, and that they would come to some kind of truce even if blessings were out of the question. For all of his pride and his insistence on his art, who really knew better than his father the indignity of this profession? He had equipped Brodinski with the tools of his trade; he had never signed him up for happiness, because that was not the hunters' way, and now that he refused to be a hunter there was nothing his father could do to affect him. If only he could understand that, and set his rage aside – Brodinski waited –

– and his father simply said: "Why be happy when you could have belonged?"

-----

VI. Libera me

{+ Libera me, Domine /+/ requiem æternam dona eis, Domine /+/ et lux perpetua luceat eis +}

"Let us rest a while."

Brodinski touched his shoulder gently, questioning whether they were going too fast or if he was doing anything wrong. Gesaffelstein leaned against his arm with a contented sound. "This is the right pace, Louis. I'm not tired. It's too beautiful to just let pass, that's all."

Of that they were in agreement. Brodinski pressed a small kiss to the other's shoulder to affirm his words, and promptly led them to a stone-carved bench nearby. Because it was twilight the air was cold, and so he cast off his cloak and draped it over the bench, an act that was rewarded by a quiet little smile when Gesaffelstein took his seat. "You're a darling," he said, carefully twitching his wings out of the way as he leaned against his lover once more. "I chose well."

Brodinski sat back and looked around. One of his hands remained tightly held in Gesaffelstein's. The sky the colour of rose gold spread out above them, the occasional breeze carrying the sweet rich scent of the perfumed fountains from the garden they had just left, the soft merry sounds of trickling water quietening behind them. The third turn of the road was made, and now all that remained ahead of them were the steps of the cathedral.
Seeing it from a distance was one thing, and paying it a visit was another – Gesaffelstein had already come and gone repeatedly from the cathedral for his preparations. But to arrive together in order to be wed in it, that was something neither of them had experienced. The faint tremor along the edges of Gesaffelstein's wings betrayed his excitement, though he remained as calm-faced and serene as before.

By this time Brodinski was fondly anxious as well, though also strangely lethargic, only the soft carplike flashes from Gesaffelstein's attire reminding him to stay alert. The last of the sunset gleamed upon his hair, the mask, and that pale noble face; sitting next to him, breathless and delighted, the dying sun hardly registered to Brodinski at all. Why would he, when he had this magnificent creature beside him, and would continue to do so after he had changed forevermore?

He raised his hand and stroked Gesaffelstein's shoulder. He received a boyish laugh in response, followed by a sudden rustle and a pillowing of feathers as Gesaffelstein wrapped one wing around him and pulled him closer. The resulting warmth was such that he became quite light-headed, instinctively curling close to the source of this wonderful heat as if he would never feel it again in his life. Gesaffelstein liked to be close and for many sweet days Brodinski had enjoyed the other's warmth in his bed, but he had not yet tired of the wonder and probably never would.

It also helped, he supposed, that until this point it had been only that as well. Warmth, not so much in the carnal sense. This gave him an idea. He stroked Gesaffelstein's head softly and held his hand, kissing it, before pausing his breath over the fingertips to indicate he wished to speak. "Yes?" His lover whispered, leaning in and linking their fingers together, trying to read Brodinski's intentions in every breath and gesture. "What is it, Louis?"

Are we quite alone here?

"No one but us," Gesaffelstein murmured, leaning into the other's shoulder. "I think it will be a quiet hall tonight."

Brodinski smiled and touched his cheek.

I could make you my husband here, on the ground, with no one any the wiser?

This, he took far longer to grasp, but Brodinski's insistence clued him in. Either that, or the hand wandering down his thigh. "... Darling..." Gesaffelstein began, a golden flush rapidly rising to his cheeks. Yet it was evident from the vestigial grin on his lips that the idea of yielding here was not at all unpleasant to him. Love would not be denied them, tradition or not, when they were to be wed within the hour – but Gesaffelstein, affectionate creature that he was, seemed to find it delightful that he was wanted so desperately.

Ah, Gesa, Brodinski thought, passionately kissing him in response. You must think me so crude. I'm sorry. This waiting is just agony to me.

"I won't lie, I feel the same as you do." Gesaffelstein patted his shoulder soothingly, then bid that they both sit up, though he kept a wing curved around the other's body to retain their warmth. "But another hour will barely make a difference. Once it's done, Louis, and the wine passes your lips – I'm all yours then, for ever and as long as you want me."

Then his smile turned quite mischievous, gleaming even beneath falling night. "I guarantee that married life will suit you now," he said, and leaned in, pressing both hands coyly against Brodinski's chest while looking up where he thought his face must be. "I have been impatient and I have been a stripling and I've asked a great deal of you before and since we were together. Now I've one more request, Louis, just the one: the next time we are alone together, I must be made yours without delay."

What could he possibly say to that other than a yes?
Brodinski had not felt the lack of speech to be a major inconvenience before this point. He almost spoke out loud before the momentary tension of Gesaffelstein's shoulders reminded him; even then he couldn't quite let go, tracing his thumb against the curve of Gesaffelstein's lips before planting kiss after sweet kiss upon them. Gesaffelstein sighed happily and seemed to meld quite happily into the moment – but then, he straightened his back, and gazed ahead into the distance.

"... It's time."

Brodinski looked with him. The sun was completely down and its glory would not linger long upon the cathedral to mark their way. Gesaffelstein was right, they had to get going.

"... Take me there, Louis."

He stood and kissed Gesaffelstein again before helping him up. With his angel and his cloak back in place, Brodinski began the last leg of their journey, hand-in-hand with his lover. Their pace was quicker this time, neither of them pausing to look around or take in any more of the sights. The time for that was past, and the only thing they looked towards was ahead. Within minutes they reached the staircase, where some thirty marble-hewn steps separated themselves and their goal. And for a moment, Brodinski wanted nothing more than to run up it and plunge headfirst into what awaited them; with Gesaffelstein's blindness to consider, however, that was out of the question. (He heard his angel laugh quietly next to him, doubtless having read this desire in the tension of his shoulders.) Taking a deep breath, Brodinski took the lead again instead, taking two steps up before he nodded to Gesaffelstein to do the same.

He had good fortune on his side. The wind was still and Gesaffelstein could hear his every step, saving him from any precarious or hasty movements.
Even so, around the halfway mark, Brodinski came up with a better idea. He squeezed Gesaffelstein's shoulders to get him to stop, then held briefly onto a railing to steady himself as he lifted his lover into his arms proper. Gesaffelstein's wings were not so large that Brodinski couldn't see ahead, nor was he so heavy that carrying him posed a larger risk than making him take small leaps of faith with each step. His lover let out a small noise of pleasure and buried his face against his neck; as Brodinski walked, he became increasingly conscious of the pace of his breathing, the swish of his own cloak behind him, and the picture he and his beloved would paint upon reaching their destination. Not only that, there were memories – both good and bad, yes, like slow fruited drops of honey, each entering his mind like a flash of lightning before seeping in slow:

[He had Gesaffelstein cornered. The knife shone against his throat, crooked shed feathers gleaming all around them both. "Kill me, then," the angel cried, his cheeks wet with tears – of anger, humiliation, betrayal, Brodinski didn't know, only that he shouldn't care. Shouldn't, but did. "for a year I opened my home and heart to you and this is my reward! Your kind drove me out, your kind made me, and now you unmake me; go on, do what you've come to do!"

Brodinski was too overwhelmed to answer. The knife shook in his hand, the ragged blade trembling away from the mark.

Gesaffelstein found this most irritating.

"Why do you hesitate? What more can you take from me? Just get it over with, Louis Brodinski. Kill me as you feel that I deserve!"]

Ten more.

("Do you love me, Gesaffelstein?")

Nine.

[The knife eased from his grip and clattered to the floor.

"No."

Gesaffelstein stared up at him as if he were mad.
Brodinski wasn't convinced that it was the right decision, himself. He stared down at Gesaffelstein, feeling very lost all of a sudden. But even as all sorts of voices screamed in his head – you fool, what're you doing, why do you give up, you know you'll suffer – he did not relent.

"... No."]

Eight.

(Startled silence, understandable hesitation - then, a soft golden blush.)

Seven.

[Perhaps the best decision he had made as a hunter, and it was one that went against all that he knew.

And what was more: his would-be prey knew it too. Gesaffelstein stood shakily and backed away, his wings still spread in warning. But although he appeared to find this situation just as wretched as Brodinski did, he couldn't take his eyes off the other, his face no longer twisted with fear and loathing. "... Why?"

Brodinski closed his eyes. "Because." An agonized silence. "Because I don't know what I could possibly do with all of that gold."

Gesaffelstein stared. "What? But that's ridiculous."

"Yes, it is. But what other explanation could satisfy you? Because I've never done this before, because I'm weak, because I don't want to? - I... I don't know."]

Six. His breath hitched a little. Gesaffelstein stroked his shoulder softly, his breath misting against his skin.

(Later attempts were marked by increasing confidence.
It helped that by that point, they had asked so many things about one another that nothing was a secret between them any more.
Oh, the knowledge Gesaffelstein could delight him with!)

Five.

[He fell to his knees.

"I just don't know."

Then nothing, for a very long time. The broken mirror glittered around their feet, reduced to powder in their struggle, and Brodinski stared down at the pieces uncomprehendingly.
Nothing made any sense anymore. What was this lunacy? Who was this man who was not a man, and why did this strange in-between creature continue to inflame something in him, even after the facts had come to light? "... This... has been a terrible misunderstanding," he eventually stammered, more to break the maddening silence than anything else.

"Yes," Gesaffelstein replied tersely. "I think we agree on that."

Brodinski stared at him for a good long while. Then he rose from the ground and trudged back upstairs, his knife still abandoned on the ground.]

Four.

("I heard that long ago, humans and angels lived in harmony; do you think such a thing could happen again?"

"If more people changed their minds? Perhaps. I can promise you, Louis,that those of us in hives are inclined to at least try."

"Even when we have done nothing to deserve it? - Though some among my people have said that you are prophets, able to see what we cannot."

"Goodness, no!" Gesaffelstein had laughed. "Not prophets, merely optimistic. We were born to share in love, Louis, not hatred.")

Only the last three were left. Gesaffelstein chose that moment to reach out and trace the outline of his mouth, smiling reassuringly as the other's lips curved the same.

[An hour later his bags were packed. His hand had stilled for too long; he could no longer stay with the angel, but neither could he kill him, which meant his fortune lay elsewhere.
He did not think he would see Gesaffelstein again. Once Brodinski left, he would probably flee somewhere else, afraid of revenge. And who could blame him?
He had not even planned on saying goodbye. Gesaffelstein, standing guard by the front door, put a stop to that plan straight away.

"I should have you hung from the rafters," he said quietly, and Brodinski buried his face into his hands. "and I would have done, if this were a hive and many were behind me. But you yielded first, and for that alone, I am willing to talk. Leave that aside as you have your knife; come, let us reason together."

By all his rights, Gesaffelstein should not even have deigned to give him that chance, but Brodinski did not appreciate this fully at the time. He understood this only as his failure, his dishonour, the greatest shame his family would have had to endure in generations; even then he could not bear to lash out at Gesaffelstein, and turned away without response, wanting nothing more than to sink into the earth.

"Louis."

Surely that was a better want than anything he wished to do to Gesaffelstein, violent or not.
Or so he thought. A hand came to rest on his shoulder. Something softened inside him like a strand of wax before a chill ran through his spine, shattering an old hatred like the mirror that had started all of this in the first place.

"Stay."]

And there it was, the doors of the cathedral, laid out before them. Brodinski kissed the other's fingers, indicating that he was to be set down again.

("But it will mean nothing unless more humans can change their minds as you have."

"..."

"You humans are so unlike humanity as you speak of it.")

"I am all right, Louis."

[This he obeyed, and he never looked back.]

"I am with you."

-----

VII. In Paradisum

{ + In paradisum deducant te Angeli /+/ chorus angelorum te suscipiat /+/ et æternam habeas requiem +}

This wasn't what Brodinski had expected.

The cathedral was exactly as vast and beautiful as he had imagined, of course. But from the moment they set foot within, he could tell that they weren't alone.
The inside was only dimly lit, the walls encased in gold, and the floor was moated slightly so that water shimmered in the trenches along each wall. But as Brodinski gazed around he noticed that the candles were new, at most lit only minutes before they had come – out of all of Gesaffelstein's preparations, this was not his doing. A glance at his lover only confirmed that he was no less confused than Brodinski was; together they stood still for one long moment, before something in the air caught Gesaffelstein's attention, seemingly opening his eyes to what was going on.

"I'll be," he murmured, and tightened his grip on Brodinski's hand. "we do have guests."

Angelic guests, to say the least. They were seated along the cathedral pews, none too near the front or back but filling the space in between generously. Brodinski was astonished at how many had come. None from Gesaffelstein's original hive could have come, and the forty-odd angels were seated with such irregular spaces in between them; it was clear that these were individuals curious to see how their union would turn out. And although they looked grave and did not meet Brodinski's eyes, they were not here to gloat or jeer in the way he might have feared.

Brodinski was grateful. He regretted only that there couldn't have been more in attendance for Gesaffelstein's sake. He had no illusions that the angels wished him well – no, it was one of their own they had come to see, and given the circumstances, letting Gesaffelstein know that he was not alone was the greatest blessing the angels could have granted him. Contrary to their expectations, they even had a circlet-bearer: as they walked down the center aisle, a figure shrouded entirely in black rose from the end of one row and came to meet them in reverent silence, handing over to Gesaffelstein the cushion with both crowns set upon it. He could not see who it was that stood before them, and Brodinski caught only a glimpse of a snow-white face and a mouth red as holly – but the recognition, and the subsequent joy, that soon dawned upon Gesaffelstein's face was unmistakable.

"I had wondered if you might come," he whispered, feeling for and grasping the other's hand tight. "my good friend, philos brother, early guardian of mine; ah, the years must have been kind to you. I am happy you could be with me tonight."

Then Brodinski remembered. Although Gesaffelstein did not like to speak of his lonesome years, he had once mentioned that an ally of his hive had taken him in once he was left alone - a phantasm of sorts, if he remembered rightly. He was sure that this was the guardian in question. Gesaffelstein had cited their aloofness as the reason he had left to find a place of his own, but they were clearly still on good terms: his touch was reciprocated by the same from the figure before he drew back into the shadows.
Gesaffelstein smiled and took up the cushion. Brodinski hurried to support the other side of it, preventing it from tilting to the ground. He was thanked with a gracious smile as they proceeded the final few steps to the altar, which was already prepared for the ritual. The wine-filled chalice sat in the middle; two small cakes, both emitting a sweet ambrosic scent like Brodinski had never known before, were placed where he and Gesaffelstein were to stand respectively; it was in front of all this that they set down their crowns before they moved to begin the ceremony.

This is it, Louis. Now you leave all that you have known behind.

"I thank you all for your coming, dear ones, may you be blessed evermore."

See that your strength does not fail you.

"Regard this man, who was once an enemy," Gesaffelstein gestured towards him. "but tonight he stands before you and I, having cast off all that was hateful to our kind. From my near death this man has raised me back among the living; all that he abandoned to attain this end, he considers a worthy sacrifice. Yes, we began from out of the dark, but we now hope to emerge into light – with our blood we wrought our crowns, and with mutual trust we led each other to this place. You have borne witness to all of this, dear ones. Our trials are complete, all but one of them. Let it commence now."

Then he reached up and unfastened the mask from his face.
No one said a word. Gesaffelstein's eyes remained closed, his golden attire casting speckled flashes of ethereal light against his eyelashes, as he set down the mask and pushed it aside. Brodinski watched him, spellbound, as he slowly opened his eyes – his gaze settled first on his groom with calm pleasure, then moved to take in the expanse of the cathedral, including all those who were in attendance. (Angels were apparently untroubled by changes between darkness and light, if the lack of a dazzled or pained reaction meant anything.) The angels did not smile at him, but some leaned forwards, intrigued.

If Gesaffelstein's part of the trial was over, his must be as well. Vows were not the way of angelic weddings, but Brodinski had no lack of loving words, nor that of affirmation. So what was this slow unease hanging over him like a cloud, spiraling slow like an old dream lost and left behind?

"Look at me."

Brodinski obeyed. In front of him was the face he so loved: Gesaffelstein had a blessed countenance, dark-eyed and pale-cheeked with grave but not careworn features. His mouth was pink and catlike curved, his hair was as dark as the Plutonian shore, although in the dim light of the cathedral Brodinski could not distinguish where the soft waves of his hair ended or began. Even among the honeyed angels, Gesaffelstein was an especially integrated case; nothing about him was so distinctive or uncanny that Brodinski, with his human sensibilities, could not recognize it as beauty. The hypnotic familiarity of his face fixed him in half a trance as Gesaffelstein leaned in, and asked, very softly:

"Who are you?"

What?

Confusion, first, then slow panic. Brodinski's tongue felt altogether too heavy in his mouth.

"Look."

More angels were leaning forwards now. Brodinski glanced towards them, but found their faces blurred by candlelight; no help was to be found there. Gesaffelstein took a step forwards, and Brodinski stared at him again, something beginning to stir from the abyssal depths of his mind.

Somehow he didn't think Gesaffelstein wanted the obvious answer.

"Understand."

Who was he? Louis Brodinski, once a loathed hunter, now a man entering the second stage of his life.
But suppose Gesaffelstein wasn't looking for an answer. Brodinski had heard that question before, many times from many others. His mother had cried it out loud at their final meeting, unable to recognize what her son had become; it was the first thing Gesaffelstein had ever asked him, his words steeped in skepticism as he added whatever it is you seek, you will not find it here; countless hunters and merchants had asked him to identify himself, responding with approval or scorn as they felt appropriate. Then, of course, there had been that time --

"..."

- No. No, no, it couldn't be.
That was dead. That was buried. This, too, must be a terrible misunderstanding.
Brodinski shook his head wildly, old voices long regretted ringing in his ears. As the horror dawned upon him, Gesaffelstein gave him a kind, yet infinitely sad smile.

"Over the years, you must have wondered why those villagers were so near to our hive."

He understood those words separately, but together they could not be accepted. There had been so many hives and so many angels, after all. But even so, one particular hive had always impressed more deeply in his heart than the others. Not your hive, Gesa, he wanted to cry out, though his voice failed him: never your hive, you'd have torn me apart the moment you saw me if that were true!

"I know this, because you asked me whether humans and angels could live in harmony again."

But would he really have torn him apart? He would have wanted to, yes, but was it actually in his character to do such a thing? Gesaffelstein, the one who had given him out of all people the chance to right all that had gone wrong?

If he needed to question this, did he know Gesaffelstein at all?

"I answered that it was in our nature to at least try." Gesaffelstein's words, although quiet, stabbed so powerfully at the fabric of his memory that Brodinski clutched his head in pain. "And we'd tried, Louis. Both parties tried. The village provided for us and granted us our safety, and in return we shared with them all the love we'd had to give. I was very young and do not remember much, I grant you that – but I never knew to fear humans until that fateful day, because those villagers had always been so kind, and I had never known anything else."

A low moan escaped his lips. Yes, he could remember it all over again. He felt so sick that the world seemed to swim about in front of his eyes.
The fires, the acrid tang of smoke, the screams and falling bodies and the glint of many knives. Gold streaked against walls and burning through grass.
The huddled villagers, senselessly abused and weeping – because of the angels, the men of the hunt had said, and he'd never questioned it. But the deeper Brodinski delved, the more he remembered the small details that he hadn't thought important at the time: that boy who had been killed, no one had dared to uncover him even for the sake of checking his injuries. The villagers had accepted being led back to their homes after the raid, but they'd kept a fearful silence throughout, and Brodinski had never heard from them again. And for the captured angels themselves... he remembered their bodies laid out on the ground, some frozen yet unblemished, yet many bearing the same jagged marks through their limbs and veins that he had seen upon the dead boy...

("They devour their own. We just get there first.")

Brodinski forced himself to look down at his hands. Pale and clean, but roughened with work since that day, work that that smeared hot red blood over them before he had even touched angels. But he'd had occasions to be kind, too, hadn't he? And his hands had never let him down in that regard, either – they had faltered for Gesaffelstein, they had helped to sustain him through good food and handiwork where Gesaffelstein had previously enjoyed none, even during that first raid his hands had cast the knife aside so that he could

(get you back to the others)

his coat his hands had unfastened his own coat for the sake of that boy and he'd held him and he'd said

(sorry you had to see such a horrible thing)

and oh the sensation of that small body in his arms, the soft down of that boy's hair under his fingers, how could he ever forget?
Gesaffelstein's eyes met his again. The candlelight cast a faint halo behind his hair.

Of course Brodinski could never forget. He'd had plenty of reminders.

"But a hunter lodged in that village one night... he thought we'd bewitched the villagers..."

Agony ripped through every fiber of his being. Brodinski clenched his eyes shut and let out a silent scream, holding onto the side of the altar for dear life; he no longer cared how he looked, nor for the fact that the angels regarded his pain with as much satisfaction as they did concern. Of course they would. Of course they were entitled to his suffering, when he suffered for his own terrible choices. He had grown into Gesaffelstein's young heart as pain, long before he had even taken the time to reflect or understand what he had done. Recollections scattered across his splintering mind, and he remembered with renewed intensity all of his father's warnings, as well as how his father's friends had laughed uneasily at his expense: the elder Brodinski, he invites strange and reckless things. Things that are too vast and terrible for him. Things that could bewitch him as easily as it could you, young Louis, as it could any of us; ah, no one could say he wasn't warned, that father of yours, if he were ever to be spirited away.

What's that, Louis? Why, it is our foremost creed, didn't you know?

"... and he'd had every weapon at his disposal to make it seem so."

Nothing so vast and terrible can enter a hunter's life without ruin.

And so, it ended up that Brodinski's first words at the incipit of his new life were not that of love and affirmation after all. "Kill me at once," tore from his throat in a harsh, despairing scream; he flung himself onto his hands and knees, grinding his forehead onto the cold, cold stone floor as he had done once before. Gesaffelstein's gaze followed him in passive silence. "oh, my God - I never meant – I never even thought-"

But that was the point, wasn't it? He had thought on it, many times. He'd had all the time in the world to think about it.

"Gesaffelstein, please... if you must kill me to forgive, then kill me – I do not deserve even a second of this life-"

He'd never truly understood, that was all.

He pounded a fist upon the ground and his tears dripped upon the cold stone tile beneath him. But this Louis Brodinski had only to suffer; Gesaffelstein had had to live on. And if Brodinski had ever stopped to think of that moment beyond the effect it'd had on himself, he would have seen that young boy clear – head down, crawling out of harm's way, dragging himself past the ruins of everything he had ever known. That boy would have known nothing but love until the hunters came and tore down his world, Brodinski himself included. He would have shuddered as he blindly fled, the careless, unknowing touch of Brodinski's hands hot against his shoulders. His fine angelic silk reduced to rags, his hot tears would have soaked into the earth as Brodinski's coat slid off his back -

- and his small, still-immature wings trembled with fear.

"What have I done? What I have done..."

Then his bewailing overtook him and nothing more could be said. He doubled over in agony. Gesaffelstein gazed upon him in silence and no one said a word.

Eternity seemed to pass overhead.

"Lesser shame than yours has washed away greater faults." Gesaffelstein spoke at last, and turned his head to face the angels in attendance. "... I myself did not know for the longest time. It hasn't been a year since I realized the truth, and by that time I had already shamed you and reduced you to tears," Brodinski let out a quiet sob. "I take a man already undone and I split him again and again. As long as you are with me this is the life you will lead, and even if you walk away, this is the change in you that can never be annulled." He paused. Brodinski could feel the others' eyes upon him, waiting to see if he would turn on his heels and run – but he had no such urge, he wished for nothing more than death. "That is, if you walk away. Come, Louis, raise yourself and stand beside me."

He obeyed clumsily and stood, though his limbs trembled and he was cold. From beneath the cushion Gesaffelstein withdrew a small knife, gold-tipped and gleaming. Brodinski knew what was to come; his trial was over, and as not one of the angels said a word, it was evident that all were satisfied with the result. He held out his hand, palm down and fingers outstretched, and accepted the knife as Gesaffelstein handed it to him. (He faintly expected the other to run him through with it – he would not have resisted – but Gesaffelstein did no such thing.) With it, he pricked the fourth fingertip of his left hand as he had been told to do, seeping open a near invisible cut that let forth a drop of red, red blood.

"Now..."

Brodinski held his hand over the chalice. The single drop of blood lingered for a moment, then dripped down, mixing easily with the wine.
The shrouded figure was back, handing over a lit candle to Gesaffelstein in silence. For a full minute he warmed his hands against its small heat before he too reached for the knife, pricking the same fingertip that Brodinski had. Soon gold beaded upon his skin; he lowered his hand above the chalice; a single drop of blood sank within.

"Raise your head. Look at me."

Brodinski raised his head, but could not bring himself to look. "But my dear Louis, you must look at me," Gesaffelstein said again, and smiled. "I have not yet given you your wedding gift. You know I chose to walk this path by your side so that I may grant you the forgiveness you seek."

That word sang quietly in his heart, forgiveness, and he took to its presence as if it were a soft fledgling bird, so sweet and delicate he was unsure what to do with it. Indeed, he wasn't sure if such a thing was possible, but he clung to hope as he looked into Gesaffelstein's eyes. His lover was smiling again, his gaze endless, dark and deep; where fear might have resided previously in his eyes, or pity, or playful scorn, those were filled with adoration. He was lovelier than he had been mere minutes before, and yet with all this, perhaps even because of all this, he was the same Gesaffelstein – yes, a hundred, a thousand times more Gesaffelstein than he had been before the trial, their courting, either of their first meetings.

An angel! - Why, he had never seen a real angel before.

"You have asked me many times if I loved you, Louis, as often as I have asked you the same," Gesaffelstein spoke. "but I confess I did the poorer job explaining it. There is no word in your tongue to describe my love adequately, but I am told in the olden days, there was. I love you as I do my blood-brother, whom you see before you (he gestured to the shrouded figure), as I did my hive, as I did those kind villagers who held us and taught us to look to the outside world. Philia, your ancestors called this love, among several other sorts." He raised the chalice with both hands. "So I come philos to my brethren and philos to all of you who have blessed us, and philos to you, my dearly beloved; all those things, as well as what came before and what is still to come, are philoi to you as long as you are mine."

Then he handed the chalice to Brodinski, head bowed and smiling. With tears still streaming down his cheeks, he raised the cup to his lips and drank of it.
His own blood lent it a salt tang that he registered only for a second, before the sheer potency of that wine hit him. Only a single drink was needed, and a single drink was almost more than he could bear; he breathed out hard as he lowered the chalice, dizzied by the taste, so strong he felt that he was drinking of the night itself. Dimly he registered Gesaffelstein doing the same, though he emerged unaffected; for it was his blood in that chalice, too, warming the wine to his bodily heat, anticipation for what would come later.
The cakes were next, of which (again) only a single bite was needed. Brodinski had been warned about this one, but risked two bites, while Gesaffelstein finished all of his. It was impossible to describe the taste except that it was intensely sweet and intensely strong, somewhat similar to dense spiced gingerbread, and that it inflamed. He could almost not breathe. His eyes brightened anew as he stared up at the ceiling, tracing each edge and pillar; his faithful heart beat strong in his chest; joy silenced him though he wished to talk of love, and each breath he drew let into him a new terror, ecstasy, overwhelming sweetness that pierced him like the archer's triumph.

He was being unmade. He was no one. The last of the ambrosia lingered on his tongue as his mind succumbed to the great shift, a breaking up, an enlightenment which bid he lay eyes upon all who had come to bless their union. In that instant, Brodinski ceased to think of them only as angels separate from his lover, but loved them all as he once had thought them unwise to love, and for their sake he would have died a thousand deaths. And yet, at the same time, he saw – clearer than ever – that it was not them who truly mattered.

"Gesaffelstein," he whispered, and closed his eyes in reverent pleasure, the name sweet as honey upon his mouth. "I am yours."

It was for his sake. All that was in Brodinski's world, all that had come before and all that was to come, was for Gesaffelstein's sake only.
Gesaffelstein looked around and saw many hands, all clasped alike in gladness. Brodinski did the same, separately inspired, unable to look upon anyone else. He looked at all of this and smiled, for it was good, and held out the golden circlet at last for his lover's grace.

"It is done," Gesaffelstein said quietly.

And it was done.