Part 1: Angel
Lian could tell the difference in the way the other angels treated her now. She’d never been a social angel, but now whispers followed whenever she went out. She was only glad that she’d managed to avoid Healm since she’d returned from her last disastrous encounter with Detta. She wasn’t sure if he would spurn her outright, or get that judgemental look on his face. And she didn’t honestly know which one would be worse.
But despite her patchwork wings, Lian found that life settled back into a strange normality. She trained with her new weapons, her units drilled formations in preparation for their next battle, and she went home every day and locked the door. In some ways, she was always waiting for consequences to sneak up on her, but they never did. She felt hollow, just going through the motions. Even her new volatile emotions were quiet, numbing her to the gentle animosity of the other angels. It almost felt like she was looking through a sheer curtain at someone pretending to live her life.
Then, one day as Lian was making her way back to her living quarters, head tucked down in a crowd of flying angels, she suddenly heard a voice that chilled her blood.
“Lian! Is that you? Where have you been?”
It was Healm. Part of her wanted to run to him, as she always had, but the rest of her froze. The new emotions that she’d hidden behind the curtain broke into a frenzy; fears she’d never considered before caused her heart to race. What if he cast her aside? What if he laughed? What if he reported her?
Lian purposefully avoided his searching gaze. She shivered as she forced her frozen wings into motion, trying to blend in with the crowd. Maybe if she didn’t answer, Healm would think he’d spotted the wrong angel.
Unfortunately, she had no such luck. Healm started to wade into the crowd of feathers, pushing others aside in his quest to get to her. There were only a few sets of wingbeats between his gaze and her wings, so Lian knew she needed to act quickly.
Locking her wings around her body, Lian dove down into an alcove. For a moment, she thought that she’d lost Healm, but then she heard the sound of wings flaring open behind her, aborting a dive just as she had. Afraid to look back, she raced through narrow airpaths with limited visibility as she tried to lose her pursuer. But Healm, though his wings were larger than hers, was a dexterous flier and he managed to keep pace with her just a corner behind, always in danger of catching sight of her patchwork wings.
“I know you’ve been avoiding me, Lian! I just- I want to talk to you!”
Other angels saw them coming and dove out of the way of Lian’s headlong dash and Healm’s difficult maneuvering after her. Flaring her wings out, Lian caught a draft and sailed far upwards, making it impossible for anyone to discern anything but her silhouette, backlit against the golden sky. Healm climbed after her, but this was one instance where his mass worked against him, and he quickly fell behind.
“Lian! Please, just wait for me!”
Lian gave one final push as she dove down to the door of her living quarters, slamming the door shut and locking it behind her. Healm skidded to a stop outside her door and tried to open it, then pounded on the door when he found that it was locked.
“Let me in, Lian! I need to talk to you!”
“Go away!” Lian yelled through the closed door, embarrassed when her voice cracked as she started to cry.
“Lian?” The pounding on the door stopped. “What’s wrong? Are you- are you crying right now?”
“No!” Lian shouted through her tears, sinking to the ground on the inside of her door. “I d-don’t want to talk t-to you, so just go away!”
After a moment of silence, there was the sound of powerful wingbeats on the other side of the door. Lian tucked her head against her knees, letting the tears flow. She had wanted Healm to leave; she didn’t want him to see her like this. Why then, now that he had gone, did she feel betrayed? Is this what human desires did when she didn’t hide them behind her curtain of numbness? Was she to always suffer this internal pain no matter the outcome?
Closing her eyes, she swiped the tears from her cheeks as best she could before she forced her exhausted wings into motion. She made her way from the hallway into the more spacious living area.
Only to bump directly into Healm’s broad chest as he stood in the middle of her living quarters. His wide wingspan took up nearly all of the space in the tiny room, making it impossible for her to skirt around him.
“Healm?” She gasped, furiously backpedaling, but he grabbed her arm before she could make a second escape. “How- how did you get in here?”
“You left the window open,” he replied tersely, to which Lian gasped.
“The door was locked. You can’t just- come in through the window!”
“You were upset,” he said simply, and Lian’s eyes filled with tears all over again. “Lian, I know you’re avoiding me. This is unacceptable. Just tell me what’s… wrong…” His eyes suddenly widened as he noticed the state of her feathers. “Lian… your wings…”
He took in the state of her wings and her room, which she hadn’t bothered to clean since the night she’d eaten the apple, and she saw it in his face when he realized what had happened. Feathers littered every available surface, and the box lay open on the ground. The pistol and the hilt were obviously untouched but the apple, ruby red on the outside, brown and disgusting on the inside, was sitting in the middle of the floor as if proclaiming her guilt. Squeezing her eyes shut, she waited for the lecture that she knew must be coming. Whatever he said, she knew that she deserved it, but it would hurt worse coming from her closest friend.
To her surprise, she found herself wrapped in a warm embrace, first from Healm's arms as he pulled her into a tight hug, then from his wings as he maneuvered them both to the floor.
Pressing his face into her hair, he whispered, “Oh, Lian…”
Everything she knew he wanted to say was contained in those two words: his understanding, his anger, his helplessness, and most importantly, his grief. His arms tightened around her shoulders and Lian found herself crying again, big sobs that wracked her whole body. Her face was pressed into the front of his robe and she tried to pull away so she wouldn’t make it wet, but he just pulled her closer and rocked with her until her sobs faded.
When she had finally cried herself out of tears, Lian felt drained. Healm gently deposited her on her hammock and set about cleaning her room. Lian wanted to tell him to stop, that he shouldn’t be responsible for cleaning up her mess, but she was too exhausted to make the words come. Instead, she just watched his strong arms gather up the feathers littering the room and throw them out the window. Floating in the air, they looked almost beautiful, like snowflakes, or stars.
When he was done, he carefully gathered up the box and put it back together as well as he could, but the hinges were broken. For a moment, he looked like he was going to ask her what she wanted to do with it, but a single glance at her face had him tucking it away in the unused hammock where it had been before. Gently, he sat down on the hammock next to her and pulled her head into his lap. His fingers wove through her hair, clumsy but sincere.
“Do you…” he said, then paused. “Will telling me what happened help?”
Lian pressed her face into his thigh. “Won’t change it. I still made a mistake.”
“You regret it?”
“I regret everything,” she said quietly, then suddenly shook her head. “No. That’s not true. I don’t regret meeting Detta, even if our story ended in ruin.”
Healm was silent for a long moment. “She rejected you.”
It wasn’t a question, but Lian still felt the compulsion to answer. “Yes. And no. But mostly yes.”
“So what happened- she tempted you, and then turned you away?”
The scathing distaste was obvious in Healm’s tone, and Lian still cringed away from him even though she knew it wasn’t aimed at her.
“She didn’t tempt me,” Lian muttered. “I was tempted.”
“And the difference is…?”
“The difference is that it was my fault, Healm.” Lian sat up and pulled away from him. “I inserted myself into a place where I didn’t belong. I misread the situation. I made a mistake. And Detta doesn’t want to see me again.”
“It’s not your fault-”
“It is.” Lian wrapped her wings around her knees. “I should never have become an Archangel. I should have died a Principality.”
Because that, at least, was true. Lian had lied to get her promotion. She had fled the battlefield like a coward, when she should have died with honor. She’d been living the lie for so long that she’d almost started to believe it herself.
But suddenly, Healm was in front of her, his large hands on her neck. He forced her head up so she had to look in his eyes.
“You will not die,” he said through gritted teeth. “I will not let you. I do not care how many loopholes I exploit. I will keep you with me.”
Lian’s eyes widened, then filled with fresh tears. “But- you deserve the truth, Healm. I never-”
“Hush.” He clasped a hand over her mouth. “We cannot speak of it aloud. Not what either of us have done. The only thing that matters is that both of us are here right now, alive. Do you understand what I am telling you?”
It only took a moment for Lian to make the connection. The expression on Healm’s face was identical to the one he had worn when he had found her in the human world, bereft of a wing. Did he really have the authority to promote her like he had? Had he promoted her because it was the only way to get her home?
Because, even back then, he’d cared enough about her to take that risk?
Slowly, Lian nodded, and Healm drew his hand back. He settled back down next to her quietly, his big hand covering hers. Lian squeezed her eyes shut as she let the silence stretch. She didn’t want to think anymore. Even memories cut like shards of glass.
Finally, Healm broke the stillness. “What does it feel like?”
Lian leaned against his shoulder, letting out a deep breath. “At first, it felt wonderful,” she admitted, avoiding his gaze. “Any emotion you think you feel now is pale in comparison. Joy, love, warmth- the feelings are a hundred times stronger. But the bad feelings are so much stronger, too.” She drew her wings in closer. “Everything hurts, Healm. I didn’t know it could hurt this much.”
“Because you were rejected. Your emotions have nowhere to go.”
Lian hunched her shoulders. “Maybe,” she said. But in her head, she wasn’t so sure. If he was right, her old memories wouldn’t hurt as much as her new ones.
The light through the window dimmed. It wouldn’t ever go out completely, but the dimming signaled that most angels would be asleep soon. Lian shifted against Healm; he would have to leave soon if he wanted to return to the barracks to sleep.
He must have had the same though, because Healm pressed his cheek into her hair. “Do you want me to leave?”
“Do you want to stay?”
“Will that make it easier?”
No, Lian thought, but she couldn’t make herself say it out loud. “Maybe.”
“Then I’ll stay.” He pulled her against his chest, then curled around her in the hammock. “Rest, Lian. You need it.”
Lian didn’t answer. Instead, she pushed her face against Healm’s chest so she wouldn’t have to look at his expression.
It wasn’t the first time they’d slept in the same space, but it was the first time they’d done so in Lian’s residence. Her hammock could barely fit her small body, let alone his huge frame. They shuffled awkwardly for several minutes, trying to find a position that was comfortable for them both. Eventually, Healm pressed his back up against the wall, his large wings folded as best he could, and he pulled Lian’s back to his chest.
Like always when they slept together, he fell asleep far earlier than she did, leaving her mind and her heart to ache with new pain. While the sound of his heavy sleeping breaths was comforting, it also spun that wrongness in Lian’s chest. With her newfound emotions, Lian found that she could diagnose it better.
Healm was too large, too clumsy, and he dwarfed Lian when they pressed together. The size difference stifled her when they slept. She was sure that she wanted to be the one doing the embracing, not being embraced, but Healm was simply too large for that to happen. What she needed was to sleep with someone smaller than her own delicate frame.
Someone the size of Detta.
Lian’s mind shied away from the thought before it could bring back memories of Detta’s rejection again. Closing her eyes, she resolutely tried to sleep, but she remained awake for some time.