A breeze drifted by, carrying a multitude of scents with it. The sun shone warmly down. Moisture in the air was heated by the sun and evaporated into humidity. The grass underfoot was green and yellow and brown Ė all stages of life contained within just a few feet. The worms under the grass traveled nearly silently as they ate through the dirt looking for nutrients. A bird flew by, wings outstretched to catch the breeze. The earth lived.
Ios stood at the top of the hill, taking it all in. The marvels of this world. It had been so long, so very long since heíd been on Earth, that heíd forgotten. In Heaven, things were perfect but stale. There were no animals; no birds, no worms. The grass was always green and never died. There was no sun, just the light that came from Above. They had breezes... but they never carried the scents of cities or forests or humans. Hell... had some of these things, but they were perversions and mockeries; danger in every innocent thing, and poison in the most harmless looking locations. Earth was not perfect, far from it, yet it simply *was* and let itself be. Natural and existing. What a wonderful world this place was.
And some people just didnít appreciate it. Ios could feel the human sharing his body, the cynicism and the dismissal of all that Ios found amazing. The angel had promised to show the human things that were interesting and worth living for, but so far, not much had stirred the human. Ios worried that they might be too far apart to make that necessary connection. He had known of the problem when he joined with Kanna, but until he lived in the human, and saw how the others reacted to the body, heard Nanamiís tales, and tried unsuccessfully to communicate, he hadnít realized how difficult it would be.
"Where the fuck are you, Ios?!"
And then there was Swordís human. Ios had asked, and found that Sword couldnít communicate directly with his human. But he suspected that the human, Souma, was closer to the surface in Sword, than Kanna was in Ios. Particularly when that human girl was around. She had such a profound effect on the human that it was bleeding through to Sword Ė which irritated the devil to no end. Ios grinned to himself; he worried less about the devil since knowing that. Souma wasnít able to do much, but just by having the feelings and the reflexes, he was a check on the murderous impulses of a devil raised in Hell.
With a sigh, Ios finally caved. /Over here, Sword./
"Where the fuck is Ďhereí!?"
/Up on top of the hill./ He sent a little finding along with the message so Sword wouldnít yell any more. Idly, he wondered why the humanís throat wasnít hoarse from all the harsh ways Sword used it.
/There you are, Fucker./
Ios didnít turn around. "Here I am," he agreed.
"I challenge you!"
This time, he did turn around. "What?"
"For the 102nd time, I challenge you!"
With a roll of his eyes, Ios figured out what was happening. "Iím not a play-thing to relieve your boredom, Sword."
The brash devil hefted his newly-acquired sword, and growled, "If I win, youíll be my play-thing whether you want to be or not!"
/Oh for pityís sake, Sword, not now./
Sword checked the swing heíd started towards the angel and stared at him. Ios turned back to look across the countryside again.
"Shit." Sword dismissed the Devil-Blade. "Youíre in a Ďmood.í I fucking hate it when youíre in one of your stupid depressive moods. You canít fight worth shit, and youíre no fun at all."
The devil turned away, "Guess Iíll go find some of those rivals of Kannaís to fight. Better than nothing at all."
That sort of manipulation, though patently obvious, unfortunately was also the sort that worked well with Ios. He sighed. "All right, Sword. Iíll fight. For the 103rd time."
"Forget it. You were like this the last time we fought, and look where that got us Ė both dead and stuck here without our bodies." Sword continued to trudge down the hill.
Ios raised his eyebrows. Sword was walking away from a fight? And didnít even comment about the numbers? "I wasnít like this before. I was enjoying the fight."
A grin bubbled up Ė for all his rude, destructive ways, troublesome and annoying, Swordís bluntness never failed to lift Iosí spirits; the devil was such a refreshing change. "Really," he insisted. "Iíd just had to sit through five different strategy meetings, take a bunch of new angels through orientation, and then when I left to meet you, two of the younger angels tried to stop me because it was too dangerous, you were too low-ranking, and it wasnít worth the risk to my precious self.
"I was quite overjoyed to fight with you, after all that."
Sword had stopped partway down and was looking up at him in disbelief. "Low-ranking??? Little pieces of shit! You should have told them to go fuck themselves!"
The devilís mouth dropped open. Ios could almost see a hint of his devil markings around his wide, surprised, eyes.
"I came to fight you, didnít I?"
The astonishment vanished, and one of his rare, penetrating looks replaced it. "Okay. Weíll fight now. If you lose, you switch rooms with me at the stupid human house. If you win, Iíll let you talk at me."
It was the angelís turn to be astonished. "What?"
"Fuck it, Ios. You havenít been in a good fight since we got here. Get whatever the hell it is off your chest, and maybe than we can have a *real* fight!" Sword glowered at him, and then added for good measure, "Damn it."
Ios threw back his head and laughed. There is no other devil I would rather be stuck with. Very few other devils would have been able to resist the temptation to kill when they had the chance, and of those, most would be looking for the larger opportunity. Sword... was just being Sword. A lone devil, with his name stricken from their books and who took life on his own terms only. As Ios was one of the rare lone angels... The dark mood settled on him again, and he stopped laughing. But as he turned to fight, and his gaze rested upon the black-haired devil... things were a bit lighter, at that.
... ... ...
They fought with fists. Sword didnít summon the devil-sword again, and Ios didnít try anything else. They were in these human bodies, with the human limitations, and had to learn to deal with them. Kannaís body was much more trained than Soumaís Ė reflexes were sharper, the strikes forming naturally, and, of course, it was stronger. But Soumaís wasnít as bad as it had seemed initially. Though the two brothers werenít identical twins, they had sprung from the same stock, and Soumaís body, though largely untrained, had good material to work with. Ios suspected that much of the housework and chores around both their house and Nanamiís was done by Souma, and he wasnít as much of a Ďweaklingí as he was named.
Still, though, their Ďfightí seemed to happen in slow-motion. They were used to exchanging twenty times the number of blows in the space of one human strike. Both of them kept trying to make maneuvers that would only work if one had wings and could fly. Fighting purely ground-based... it made things much harder.
The next time Ios tried to fly back from a hit and got solidly whacked by it instead, Sword grinned. "Remember our 65th?"
Ios blinked. That one had been in towards the devil-lands, and it was over rocky terrain and... oh. "You mean the 63rd?"
"Fucker." Swordís glare this time was for real and so were his next set of blows.
Ios tried again, this time without the correction, "The one where we wandered out to the grey-borders?"
"Yeah," Swordís grin returned and Ios matched it.
That had been a good fight. They had started off in the mid-lands, where the armies of Hell and Heaven usually met for large clashes, but they quickly spun themselves off to the side of the main action, fighting in the air, far from the floating islands, giving each other such massive strikes that they would go tumbling for miles with nothing to stop their momentum but themselves. They had gotten so absorbed that neither one had noticed when the light had dimmed around them and there were no land masses to be seen anywhere, even any of the small rock pieces floating randomly about. When they finally did notice, they were smack in the middle of pretty nearly nowhere. The grey borders. Where armies could get lost and never find their way back. No landmarks, no guides, no sound, no smells, no light, no wind... nothing. Just unrelenting grey in all directions.
It had taken them nearly a week to make their way back, and the only way they knew it was a week was by what others told them when they returned. They had had no clue, out there. It could have been a day, it could have been a year.
"Maybe ground-based is a good thing," Ios suggested.
"I donít think so." Sword glanced up at the sky where clouds were floating by, and Ios saw yearning and almost desperation in that gaze.
His belligerence here is such, that I forget sometimes, what it must be like, for such a free soul to be caged and trapped. By his choice. But still... And that was too close to what Ios himself felt like, but that he would never reveal to the human whose body he wore.
Ios looked up from blocking strikes automatically to see a different type of frustration on Swordís face, and he realized heíd drifted from the fight again. Fighting still, with two thousand years of reflexes built in, but not really there.
"Thatís why I was able to kill you, wasnít it?!" Swordís fangs gleamed as he swore loudly. "Fuck, Ios."
"I killed you too," Ios pointed out a little stuffily Ė it wasnít like *Sword* had won that battle!
Sword growled low in his throat, not voicing the truths of their fights that they were very near to right now. Ios looked into a devilís eyes, and found himself thinking of nearly six years back. The way they fought right now... was very similar to their early fights. And Sword knew it, and Ios knew it, and part of how they managed to get along was by never saying it. After all, it was an Angelís job to kill devils, and it was a Devilís pride to kill angels.
They backed off. Mentally from the thoughts swirling around, and physically they moved away and circled each other instead. Though Soumaís body was good base material, the Ďno trainingí was taking its toll, and Swordís physical exertion was coming harder than Iosí. He was near the limits of what that human body could do. Ios could tell it was frustrating the heck out of the devil. Especially when Iosí human body was still fresh and bright, barely breathing hard and looking like a stroll in the park.
Sword dove back into the fight with a vengeance. And startled Ios by including in his attack a fair measure of Devil Power.
How... But Ios instinctively was responding to it, sparking out with his own power... and feeling it lance through the human body he wore, tearing at the strings of the human soul he shared, pulling the fabric of their common existence into question and destroying them...
Dimly, he heard Swordís shout and felt hands on his back as he knelt in the dust and vomited blood. I have to heal that... Kanna canít live with his body torn out like this... He turned his focus inwards and tried to repair the damage heíd caused. Healing wasnít Might, and he could turn it on Kanna, but he also lived in Kanna and he couldnít heal himself... He did what he could, taking as much of the damage upon his soul-self as he could, keeping it from Kanna as much as was possible, and then returned his focus to the world.
Sword was kneeling beside him, eyes dark with worry and concern... something the devil would never forgive himself for, if he knew it showed so well on that human face. Ios coughed out the last of the blood, and rolled over, lying back on the solid ground. "I guess that wasnít a good idea."
"Or maybe it was."
"I feel like I took on a Berserker Devil in single combat," Ios groaned, "How is that good?"
Sword made a fist and regarded it thoughtfully. "You responded to my use of power with an equal use of power... but I *used* power and wasnít hurt!" He jumped to his feet and started pacing excitedly, "These human bodies can be trained!! Since Iíve been here, Iíve used power several times, and the body has broken down each time, but now...
"Yes!!!" the devil punched his fist jubilantly into the air. "If we just train more each day, push the bodies some, we can turn these weak stupid things into something that we can fight in. Not as good as ours, but usable until we get ours back."
Oh, great. Ios sighed and closed his eyes. Thatís all we need. Sword able to use demonic power, loose on Earth.
"And you have to change rooms with me!"
"What?" Ios opened his eyes.
"You lost, fucker! Your forfeit!"
The only thing worse than a belligerent Sword was a jubilant one. Ios couldnít resist his own word on it. "Like hell, I lost!"
"Youíre down there, Iím standing here. That counts as losing."
Ios opened his mouth to protest again and then thought better of it. He could have beat Sword at any point during that Ďfightí and Sword knew it. But Ios wasnít going to say it... and considering that the stakes Sword had created for them was for Ios to tell the devil what was worrying him... maybe it was, all things considered, better if he lost. He closed his eyes, squeezing shut the pride that galled him to say it. But he didnít say it, he couldnít. The pause stretched out.
The devil wasnít known for letting silences continue for long. Though that thought was unfair. Ios could actually recall several times... "All right. Weíll switch when we get back."
This time, the silence was on the other end, and it was oppressive to the angel. Ios opened his eyes and sat up.
Sword was regarding him with the intensity the devil normally reserved for prey. In all honesty, it made Ios a bit nervous. He had seen Sword like this before, but not often, and it was always... it wasnít that it was bad, it was just that... things went differently, in times like that.
The devil sat down near him and looked up at the clouds, watching them, waiting, silent.
Ios regarded the devil in human form. Slim, dark, pale... To Iosí eyes, the image was a combination of Swordís real self and that of the humanís. To put the ferocious devil, keep his eyes, his fangs, his fire and his will, into something... mortal. It made Sword seem... well, not that Ios would ever admit it to the devil, but he was actually rather cute and endearing. Ios hid a grin at the thought. The lone devil tried so hard... and even though he raged, he still let Nanami and Ios talk him into going to the human school, and even trying a bit of Ďstudyingí. This Ďhumaní Sword... separated from his powerful and devilishly handsome body in Hell, and the devils around him... Ios lost his smile. He was confused by this Sword. It was the same Sword, but things had changed between them. Had changed, and had remained the same.
The countryside was beautiful, with the twilight falling and clouds reflecting colors. Ios regarded it carefully, not looking again at the devil, recapturing his earlier thoughts and sending out his senses. "Where are the angels?" he asked softly.
He wasnít looking at the devil, but he could feel his confusion.
"In Heaven, of course!"
Iosí heart was breaking within him. "Battle angels guard Heavenís Gates. There are..." He stopped, and started again. "I was on Earth, before." He stopped again.
Sword didnít let the silence stretch too long this time before breaking it. "Yeah, yeah. You were on Earth, were in the great battle, yadda, yadda, went up to Heaven with the other angels when the great barrier was created, separating Heaven and Hell from Earth. And so on."
"With the other battle angels," Ios corrected softly.
Though Sword reacted mostly on impulse and instinct, nobody ever said he was dumb. Or at least, those who knew him didnít. He answered Iosí thought with a speculation, "There were other types of angels that stayed on Earth."
"Yes." Ios gathered his thoughts, his memories, his knowledge that came from God... "There are angels made for other purposes than fighting devils. Some are specifically devoted to helping humans. All the angels of the Son were made for Earth, and stayed on Earth, and have been created here on Earth ever since the barrier was raised.
"They are here. I can feel them." Ios strained his senses out over the distance, feeling the many souls of humans... and that of angels as well. Not the powerful, beacon-calls of battle angels, but the gentler, softer harp tones of the healers and the guardians, the guides and the caretakers. They were there. They were. And... and here he was, alone. There were hundreds of other angels near. And not a one... not even Gabriel... none had revealed themselves to him.
"Am I no longer an angel? Has God turned his face from me? Is what I did so wrong...?" His secret fear was secret no longer for he had whispered it out loud. Spoken it. Revealed his weakness and his wounds. To a powerful Devil of Hell. He, Ios, an angel. Looking to a devil for... for what? Comfort, reassurance? It was, perhaps, the reason that the other angels avoided him. And yet, what could he do? Who else could he tell? He had, in the last few weeks, sent his prayers and thoughts to God so often that they had almost become routine. But the pain, the anguish was still there. He was alone.
"THAT is what youíre so shit-faced moody about?" Sword stood up, his fangs showing in rage. "Fucker. I thought you might have a *real* problem! But no. Youíre just being a whiny pathetic brat whoís crying because his Ďfriendsí havenít stopped by to say hi! What a stupid idiot!"
So much for thinking the devil might be sympathetic. Ios couldnít say he was surprised.
"If youíre not an angel, then what the hell just knocked you flat?"
Logic. Ios smiled sadly. "The power of a fallen angel is just as great as one still graced by God." A fallen angel would be cut off from God, unable to hear Him, unable to convey His Blessing or His Might. But for what Sword meant, for the power heíd just used in their fight, that would not affect it.
"Then what the fuck was that shield you used earlier?"
Ios nodded; Sword had hit on the one thing that still gave him hope. Not the shield itself Ė that was just power... but that it had held for that long, that strongly... Ios *knew* that he himself didnít have that much power. Not in this body. Not without destroying this body. "I didnít mean those questions. Not seriously. Itís just..."
"Your God Damned friends havenít come to see you!"
Normally, Ios ignored Swordís cursing Ė the words meant nothing, sprinkled so liberally through the devilís talk, but in this case... He turned his head to look straight at Sword. "I only have one Damned friend; my other friends are God-Blessed, thank you very much."
Swordís eyes widened until they were nearly round and then he started sputtering indignantly. "Weíre enemies, damn you! Rivals. I will defeat you on my own terms, fucking angel!"
With a blink, Ios reviewed his words to see what heíd said. Oh. I hadnít... I didnít... Badly shaken, Ios simply replied, "Of course," deciding the best thing to do was to pretend to Sword that he hadnít said it. Though... did I just call him a friend? A devil? *Sword*??? He looked away, his gaze on nothing. I truly have fallen, havenít I? Can I even go back to Heaven, with these thoughts and confusion in my soul? No wonder God does not talk to me. I cannot hear Him. And at the same time, other thoughts were whispering in him, Why canít a devil be a friend? If you count the things that you donít count, the little things weíve done and never mention because weíre enemies... all those things, all those years... what is a friend, after all? And would God really be offended, if a devil is my friend? Ios didnít know what to think. His thoughts were against everything Michael taught, scandalously so, and dangerous. He had always been different, a battle angel who didnít report to Michael. Guided by the Spirit alone, and naught else. As an angel in Heaven, there was no problem. Here on Earth, in this body... It was all swirling around, and, for perhaps the first time in his very long life, he had no guidance. There was nothing pointing him in one direction or the other. No surety that was from God as to what road he should take and where he should go. There was only himself, trying to figure out which of his thoughts might be right, and which might be wrong. Ios had never been so confused, so lost...
"Fuck it, Ios..."
Ios barely heard the devil walking away, so lost was he.
"Come out here, you FUCKERS!"
Though he certainly heard *that*. Ios twisted around to look. Sword was standing on the top of the hill, arms out in challenge and his eyes blazing. The presence of the devil leaked out around the human edges, making the image flicker in and out of Iosí sight. Sword...
"I donít fucking *care* about you or what the hell you think youíre doing, but this stupid angel canít even *fight* and itís all because youíre being assholes of the nth degree! So wide I could shove a pillar in there and youíd never notice! Get the fuck out here, and explain yourselves so we can fight again! Do you *want* him to be a useless piece of shit out here?"
Ios put his hand over his eyes, caught somewhere between amusement and embarrassment. I may not be sure of my angelic self, but Sword is truly a devil, no doubt about that. If Ios had thought that anybody was actually listening, he would die of mortification.
"Itís not that we *want* to stay away..."
From behind him; a rich velvet baritone with undertones of light, beautifully modulated and well-remembered... "Rafael!" Ios was up in a second and flinging himself into the other angelís arms. Held securely, tightly. Scent of wood and oils, eucalyptus and rosemary, healing and music tied together. Two thousand years missed. Ios clung, burying his head into the otherís chest; never wanting to let go again.
"Fucker. If you didnít want to, then why did you?"
"We have our orders. While Ios is working on his assignment, we cannot help."
They were still talking, the devil and the angel. Literally over his head. But Ios just didnít feel like doing anything but letting himself be held. Swordís voice was tense, angry, indignant. Rafeís voice was soft and sorrowful, but firm.
"What fucking assignment? And why the hell doesnít *Ios* know about those damned orders?!"
"I donít know what assignment Ė I just know that we canít respond." The angelís voice turned slightly angry as well, "Do you think we *like* staying away? Hearing Ios call to us and not able to respond? Our brother we havenít seen in over two thousand years? I was *created* with Ios! For him to be back on Earth and still alive after all that time in the Battlegrounds, is a miracle."
"I donít know what you like, and I donít fucking care. All I know is that if I wanted to see somebody like you say you do, thereís NOTHING that could keep me away, and particularly not something so vaguely nebulous as fucking Ďordersí from a fucking God that nobody ever sees! And not even knowing why? What the hell is your reasoning on that? I swear, you are the most piss-poor excuse for a---"
Enough was enough. Ios lifted his head and turned slightly to interrupt the tirade, "Sword!"
"Itís all true!" Reptilian devil eyes glowed yellow in the human face and saliva dripped down one of the fangs.
Ios realized that if he hadnít been plastered so closely in Rafeís arms, that his friend would right this moment be fighting a very enraged devil. Who had probably been as startled as Ios at the sudden appearance and wouldnít be in a very good mood because of it. It was probably a good thing Sword was in the human body and less able to act on the murderous reflexive impulses. As it was, the devil was on a very thin edge. Ios made sure he didnít move away from the other angel.
"As you say." Rafael kept his arms around Ios, but continued to address the devil. "I donít know what it is, but I can assure you, our orders are not Ďnebulousí Ė weíve tried and we *canít* get to Ios. Even by sending messages. It simply wonít happen."
Swordís eyes narrowed in speculation and perhaps a bit of greed for the power that implied, but his question was directly to the point, "Than what the fuck are you doing here now?"
Rafael grinned lightly, "It wasnít Ios who asked for our presence."
Even Ios blinked at that one and instinctively disentangled himself with a backwards step. "You answered *Swordís* call...?"
"It may not have been the most elegant prayer Iíve ever heard, but..." Rafael shrugged, "Whatever works."
Sword growled deep in his throat, devil-power growing around his body as he tensed to attack.
Oops... I moved away. Ios inserted himself between the two, holding a hand out to Sword. /Easy.../
/He fucking said I *prayed*!!!!!!!!!/
I am not going to touch that one... Iím not... It was hard for Ios not to laugh and he could tell that his reaction wasnít making Sword any happier. But at least it was directing Swordís anger more towards him Ė a familiar target. With a cough, Ios tried to move things to a bit more of a level ground, "By the way, Sword, this is my good friend and creation-mate, Rafael." He gestured to the red-haired angel, "The angels of Earth look to Rafe for their guidance."
"I thought you stupid angels looked to your shit-faced god for guidance."
"Angels of the Son, not of Earth," Rafael corrected in the same moment as Swordís insightful insult.
Ios sighed in annoyance. "I was generalizing. In both cases." Shrugging, he showed his lack of concern for their edification.
Rafe laughed at his friend, "Your trial, to be placed with perfectionists." Ios stuck his tongue out at the other angel.
The devil growled; a deep, angry, sound that shook the ground around them. Ios hurriedly turned back to Sword, not sure why the devil was upset now, but his eyes were still yellow and demon-power almost crackled from around him. Before the devil could do anything, Ios elaborated on his introduction, "Rafe coordinates and mentors angels created for the Son, just as Michael does for the ones created for the Lord, and Gabriel for the Spirit. And that would have been quite an introduction if Iíd used it first."
He continued quickly, before either of them had a chance to comment on the elongated statement. "Rafael, this is Sword, a powerful devil of Hell, killer of thousands, wielder of battle-magics, superb fighter, and my..." Ios hesitated, remembering his thoughts of just a bit earlier and still unsure... The angel and the devil were both looking at him now. Ios raised his chin defiantly at both of them and finished, "my rival, and my friend."
Rafael simply nodded. "It is my pleasure to meet you, Devil Sword." He grinned easily, "It has been a long time, but I hear that Ios only picks the very best to fight with."
"To challenge," Sword corrected the red-haired angel, his gaze never leaving the golden-haired one. "He fights any damned devil that crosses his path Ė but those, he kills without effort." His fangs gleamed in a very different grin than Rafaelís as he finished, "It was our 101st fight where I killed him, and he killed me." /Rival./
Ios met Swordís gaze firmly. /Just because Iím your friend doesnít mean you have to be mine. Donít worry. We are still rivals, most definitely./
"I wasnít fucking worrying."
Ios just grinned at the devil, then turned back to Rafael, letting himself get a good long look at his friend. Two thousand years... Where Michael had kept to the garb and styles of the time and place they had left, Rafe had adapted with the earthlings, changing and updating. He was dressed in blue jeans and a loose collared shirt, unbuttoned at the top, with a silver chain showing through. The instrument strapped to his back was a guitar rather than the much older lute, and there was a spiral tattoo going up his right arm and under his sleeve rolled up on his forearm. The only things unchanged were his red russet hair, waving to frame his face down just past his shoulders, and the light blue eyes, bordered with long lashes and topped with strong dark red eyebrows. "You look good."
"You look like a human," Rafe laughed easily, "though I can see a fair amount of you through that form. Itís an interesting effect. You just canít be other than what you are, can you?"
Ios blinked in confusion. What else...
"Never mind, my golden firebrand." Rafe placed a hand on Iosí shoulder, shining with his love and delight in their reunion.
Sword growled again. Rafael didnít take his hand away from Ios, but he did turn to face the devil. "Itís a little hard to tell in those bodies, but I think you also must have been rather human-seeming in your form. With black hair. Stronger. Thereís an overlay, but not as sharp as Iosí."
Ios projected a mental picture of Sword in his normal form. Handsome, powerful devil. In form perhaps human-seeming, but no one seeing him would possibly mistake his aura and his power for anything but a devil. And the cute pointed ears...
"You two must have made quite a sight, fighting in the Battlegrounds. Dark and Light, representatives and rivals, clashing in the skies." The musical angel hummed a brief line, his thoughts obviously going towards a song. Ios eyed him askance, not sure if he liked this new direction. Two thousand years ago, there had been little time for songs. That hadnít stopped Rafael. What would he be like now, without the world falling apart around them? The embarrassment possibilities were legion.
Unexpectedly, Sword laughed, the yellow light and power disappearing from around him. "Hell yeah! We were the most gorgeous thing out there! Those stupid demon lords were so bloody jealous whenever weíd pass their lines. Thereís nothing in Hell to compare to me, and while all angels are pretty, Ios rates something a bit more out there."
Trust a devil not to be modest. And trust Rafe to know how to defuse the tension, though it was a direction Ios would have never thought of.
Once started, Sword kept going, "Our challenges would range the battlegrounds, and spark lightning from the skies. Devils and angels both would scatter when they saw us coming; woe to the one who would interrupt us." The devil summoned his sword and brandished it in a pose, grinning at Ios, his eyes in reptilian slits and his fangs gleaming.
Ios responded in kind, the stir of battle challenge running through him, and a wild joy in his heart. "When Sword fights, lesser devils turn away, blinded by his power."
"Heh..." Swordís grin grew, "Iosí golden hair is a beacon on the fields, and devils flock to fight him. He is the most powerful wielder of Heavenís Might, yet he fights on level fields."
"Sword flies his own path; following no dictates of demon, calling none master; choosing his own battles and fighting his own way, yet he will accept no trickery or cheats in any who would stand with him."
"Ios guides heavenís battles with his tactics and knowledge of demons Ė no BattleLord has ever won a skirmish with Ios standing on the other side."
For some time, they continued in that vein, each one pulling out both generalities and specific incidents. The more powerful the rival, the more points you have in fighting them Ė by devil standards. A devilís game, but it was a game Ios enjoyed playing with them. Not only was it a good way to get more information about what was happening in Hell, but it also showed what individual demons valued or didnít value Ė and what they would cheat on, even on something as simple as a game. Not all were as honorable as Sword. Playing the game with Sword... was fun. It was truly was, and though different than fighting, there were some of the same elements... and Sword enjoyed it as much as he did. The game changed every time they did it, as they fought more and had more to be creative with.
Eventually they ran down... and remembered their audience. They turned to Rafael, Sword fully restored to a good mood and extending that to the other angel, and Ios slightly embarrassed Ė other angels tended to look down on devil games, even with the reasoning Ios provided for it. Most angels would prefer not to think of the devils in such individual terms, and it was one of the reasons Ios often flew alone.
Rafael was sitting on the ground, his guitar over one leg, strumming a tune. He looked up when they were quiet. "Itís only a rough draft, but what do you think?" and he launched into song while Ios covered his eyes again.
After six verses of "Battlefield Duet," Ios was as red as a ripe apple, while having to admit that Rafe was a gifted musician. Sword, completely unashamed, had even been singing along to the chorus. And Ios knew he would never ever live this down. /Rafael, Iím going to kill you./
The angel grinned at him, totally unrepentant. "Many have tried. None have succeeded."
Ios had a sudden sharp suspicion that Rafe would enjoy devil games as well Ė the boldness of approach with formulation of creative statements would appeal to him. And that thought made him realize how lonely heíd been for so very long. Much longer than just the time theyíd been on earth...
Putting aside the humor as Iosí mood tainted them, Rafael turned to Sword, "What is it that you wanted from me?"
Sword gestured to the blonde angel, "Tell this fucker heís an angel!"
"What?" The russet angel glanced between the two of them, "Thatís silly, but..." he turned to Ios, "Ios, youíre an angel."
"Sword..." Ios rolled his eyes, "Of course I am."
"Thatís not what you were just moaning about." Sword growled, his frustration showing clear, as he swung to face Rafael. "The fucker thinks because none of you will come to see him, that heís done something wrong and heís cut off from his precious God-Master."
"I told you, we canít come while--- "
"Tell *him* that! God Damn It!" Sword plunged the DevilSword deep into the ground at his feet. "What the fuck is he supposed to do, if you wonít talk to him? He certainly as hell canít fight. Hellmouthís tits, this is so stupid."
Rafeís mouth twitched up involuntarily. Probably at Swordís creative cursing. Instead of commenting on that, though, he turned to the angel, "Ios, youíre being silly. Spread out your wings."
"Spread out your wings."
Ios instead spread his hands for the angel to see him, "Iím in a human body, I donít *have* wings in this body!"
"Your wings are a part of you and while they might not manifest as strongly through a human, theyíre still there as much as you are." Rafael paused, then continued reassuringly, "Donít worry Ė pulling out your wings wonít hurt the human. Though I wouldnít try flying on them just yet."
"Hah! The bodies *can* be trained!"
Ios shot Rafe an irritated look for confirming the devilís thoughts. Rafe shrugged, totally unconcerned. With a mental sigh, Ios tried to ignore the fact that he was in a humanís body and not his own and he tried to feel his wings. It was like trying to feel an amputated limb. He could imagine his wings, he could almost feel them in his thoughts, but they werenít really there. They were a part of him, but at the same time, it was an instinct in how he used them, and how was he supposed to use them when they werenít there...?
A shower of golden light accompanied by a lilting melody... Ios opened his eyes to see Rafael lowering a flute he hadnít seen before, and the feel of... he turned his head, curving a wing around to look. He had done it. Ios stared at his wing in amazement, holding the one where he could see it, wafting the other gently to feel its movement through the air. It wasnít a fully substantial wing Ė he could feel air molecules passing through the feathers and there was no movement of air in response to the movement of the wing. But he had his wings...
"What color are they?"
"What?" Ios turned his gaze from his wings to his friend.
"What color are your wings?"
The devil interceded while Ios was still bemused, "What sort of a stupid question is that?"
Rafe turned his gaze from the angel to the devil, "Angel wings are naturally black."
Sword blinked, "Like hell they are."
"Exactly." Rafael grinned at the devil, explaining to him what Ios had just realized. "Our wings are a part of our bodies... but they are black. For them to appear white is purely by the blessing of Heaven. If we ever turn from God... an angel that turns away from our Creator, choosing another path and deliberately not answering Godís call.. that angel is cut off. We keep our power, our bodies, our selves... for we are still Godís Creation, but once cut off, we can no longer hear Godís voice, we can no longer rise up to God, we cannot filter Godís Blessing nor his Might, and our wings revert to our natural color and we lose the glamour of Godís light on us."
"Angels can leave God voluntarily?" Sword sounded speculative.
"Weíre not slaves. Everybody has a choice. We were created for a purpose, true, but it is a choice to follow. Surely youíve heard of Lucifer? He is but one that followed Satan long ago."
Sword turned his speculative gaze to Ios.
"No!" Ios involuntarily shouted it out, shuddering in revulsion. To be cut off... to lose that connection with love and delight... to never again be able to channel Godís will and his Blessing, but to always remember what it was like... Ios was filled with horror at the idea. He couldnít imagine anything that would make an angel turn away, ever.
Sword shrugged, not all that regretfully. "So youíre saying," he returned to his conversation with Rafe, "That as long as Iosí wings are white, heís still an angel."
"Heíll always be an angel Ė thatís what he is. While his wings are still white, he has not cut himself off from God, which was more to the point."
"Fair enough." Swordís gaze drifted over white feathers. "Satisfied, stupid angel?"
Iosí mouth twitched. He looked closely at the feathers on his wings and could not see any stain upon them. But still... "Why cannot I hear God? If there is an assignment, why do I not know what it is?"
"Oh by the great demons of Hadeís Balls!" Sword stomped away from them, not stopping until he was a good ways down the hill--his exasperation driving him off at last.
Rafael laughed. "Ios, I like your devil."
"Heís not mine."
"Even so, I like him."
"Which makes you different than all other angels."
"Which makes me not a battle angel." Rafeís blue gaze regarded him steadily, "I think youíve been too long with Michael in the Battlegrounds, my friend. We are not all about destruction and killing."
Ios turned his head, looking out over the valley filled with its life... and its death, all the stages of being. "I am a battle angel, and our worlds were divided. I chose the right path." Of that, he was certain. Godís call had been very clear, back then.
"I know you did. I just..." Rafael walked up to Ios and enveloped him in a hug, as tight as the one heíd greeted his friend with, and as comforting. Ios returned it, feeling the years disappear between them.
"Ios, I canít come back," Rafael whispered into his hair. "Iím here for this moment only, and then I must go to other duties." Iosí heart contracted, skipping a beat. "But I love you. Never doubt for a moment that I love you. And so does Gabe, and Tim, and Cordelia, and..." The list stopped as Ios silently wept, hearing the names of those heíd thought heíd been separated forever from... that he chose to separate from, and even now, he couldnít be with.
"Ios, our firebrand..." The rich baritone voice wrapped through his soul, reassuring him. "Ios, remember what it is like, here on Earth. There are many voices, and many tasks. So many things clamoring for our attention. And our jobs, not so straight-forward as battle. Itís not a sign of anything at all, that you donít have specific orders. It just means that your current job isnít so direct. Probably. Sometimes, getting orders means following the letter rather than the intent, and you have always been more for the intent rather than the letter."
With a shaky laugh, Ios remembered some of his early jobs where the other angels had been taken aback by the way he carried them out...
"Thatís better." Strong calloused hands stroked his hair. "Youíre in a unique situation. I donít think there has ever been an angel so strongly merged with a human."
"Nor a devil?" Ios smiled at the remembrance of the outraged devil heíd been fighting earlier.
For a long time, Rafe didnít reply, and Ios remembered that there were other devils besides Sword. When Rafe did reply, his voice was troubled, "We do fight devils here on Earth. In different ways than on a battleground, but they want human souls, and we protect those souls. Devils... I like your Sword, but that doesnít mean I will trust him or any other devil without knowing them. You should be careful, Ios, that your knowledge of devils in Hell doesnít trip you up for dealing with the devils of Earth. Things have changed in two thousand years. And I wish I could tell you about them all... or that Gabriel could. But whatever it is youíre to do, itís obviously something we could influence wrongly. If you depend on what we tell you, you may not make your own observations. You know this, Ios. Itís what Spirit Angels do best. I shouldnít have to be telling you any of this."
"I know." Ios stepped back, disentangling himself regretfully and slowly. He ran a hand through Rafeís red locks, then gently touched his friendís cheek, looking into the blue eyes he knew so well. "I do know. I just..." he glanced away, his hand still touching Rafe, but his gaze going out across the hills.
Rafael reached his hand up to cup Iosí hand, leaning into the touch. "Golden Firebrand. Donít forget again. Especially that we love you."
Ios smiled at his friend. And the skin beneath his fingers faded out, solidness turning to light and then to air. And his friend was gone, leaving him alone again.
And yet... not alone. Ios could hear the birds, the rustle of the leaves. He could feel the souls surrounding him, both human and angel. He could feel the sun, shining down. The air, wrapped moistly around him. He could see a thousand signs of life. And he could see a devil, standing down the hill. Not looking at him. Very carefully not looking at him. But waiting all the same. A devil who was not like other devils. As he was not like other angels.
Ios smiled. "I challenge you, Devil Sword, to our 104th fight!"
And as they fought, the world was right again.