"You're not like He said you'd be."
"What did He say?"
"That you were disrespectful. Impulsive. Even violent."
Alex's scars burn. "I have been all of those things."
For a moment, she braces for rejection. She braces for another Fall.
But Maggie's fingers slide over the smoldering stumps on Alex's shoulders, cool and gentle, and for a moment Alex remembers what it used to feel like to live without their constant pulsing ache.
"Did you defy His order for the universe?" Maggie asks.
Alex has not told Maggie this story. She has been afraid to lose this: the shelter of her wings around them both. The way her skin is both cool and warm, her touch the only thing to ease Alex's suffering in the centuries since her Fall.
But: "I did," Alex says.
"I had a human charge. She was fierce, a fighter for truth and justice with her words and, at times, her fists. I stayed with her. I protected her as best I could. But when her time came, all He could see was that she had been violent. And so He sent her Below."
Alex swears she can feel something, a surge of cold, rushing through Maggie. She can't help it: she clings, desperate not to be forsaken again-
But Maggie's wings fold tighter around them both.
"He's sometimes not so different from many human men," Maggie says. "No patience for nuance."
"That's how I felt!" Alex sputters, and Maggie laughs, but her laughter isn't a sound: it's a feeling, a wave of ecstasy she lets Alex share.
"I went after her," Alex says.
"I fought my way Down to her, and then I fought my way back Up. When we got here, He was furious. But I told Him that if he sent her back, I would do it again."
Maggie's quiet fingers slide up Alex's neck, up through her hair to the horns. They trace the ridges, follow the curves, and the feeling it gives Alex is one she shouldn't be able to feel. Not anymore.
"We made a deal. She went back to earth, to live another life and be Judged again..."
"And you Fell to take her place, to fill the debt Below," Maggie whispers.
Alex doesn’t answer. She hopes her silence speaks.
As Maggie's fingers slide into her hair, Alex knows she understood
"Where is she now?"
"Living, still. She has no Angel this time. She has to do it on her own."
"I could check on her. If you want."
Alex turns her head, sets her chin on Maggie's chest. "I could never ask that of you."
Maggie smiles. "I might do it anyway."
Maggie's fingers touch Alex's horns again. "I think He made a mistake, when it comes to you."
And Alex is nearly purring, her body folding into Maggie's touch, safe in the shelter of her wings. "Please don't say that where He can hear it. I would hate for Him to--"
"Let Him try," Maggie murmurs. She tips her head down, seeks Alex's lips with her own. Maggie's kiss feels like breathing, it feels like sunlight. When she pulls back, she smiles. "I'm more yours than I was ever His, anyway."
The sight of the creature startles her.
It is a strange feeling, to be startled. This place is predictable by design.
But there, under the willow tree, a creature huddles.
It must be part of His plan, Margarita thinks, as are all things. She pays it no mind.
But time and time again, she passes the great willow and sees the creature huddling there.
More strange: nobody seems to see it but her.
She passes the creature time and time again until she cannot simply pass it anymore.
She is an agent of Good, after all, and the creature is quivering, like it is cold, perhaps, or afraid.
So she goes to it.
When she gets closer, she recognizes its parts: its arms wrapped around its knees; its head tipped forward. Its body is not unlike her own, in some ways, but for the horns coming from its head and the points to its ears.
"Excuse me," she says.
The creature startles and lifts its head. Its face is a woman's face, and a beautiful one: beautiful enough for an Angel, she thinks, though this creature is clearly not an Angel.
The creature's eyes dart around, seeking some hidden danger. "You can--you can see me?" she asks.
Margarita furrows her brow "Of course I can see you."
The creature surprises her.
She begins to cry.
It starts quietly, but soon her whole body shakes with sobs. Margarita sees the glint of a fang before the creature covers her mouth with one hand, then both hands.
This is not supposed to happen here, Margarita thinks. It is not possible to suffer here. And yet, somehow, the creature is clearly suffering. Her skin looks filthy, her hair stringy, the skin of her feet callused and rough.
And the sounds she's making: they're worse than even the most petrified of human sounds.
Something is clearly wrong.
"Hush," Margarita soothes. She crouches a safe distance away and seeks out the creature's eyes. "What are you called?"
The creature calms at her words, the cries subsiding, but her eyes dart around again at the question, as though looking for some answer in the sky.
"I... I don't remember," she says. "I had a name, once, I think. But I don't remember it."
"That's okay," Margarita says. She extends a hand slowly, carefully: an offering. "Will you come with me?"
The creature looks nervous, her eyes still wet; something inside her seems at war with itself. Finally, though, she nods, and begins to unfold herself on shaking legs.
It is only then that Margarita notices that the creature's body wears nothing but its dirt and scrapes. She averts her eyes, cautious of the creature's modesty, and reaches in the folds of her own robe for its hidden loose end.
It is simple enough to tear off a length long enough for the creature to wrap around her body, and then to tuck the torn end back underneath so it can't be seen. Margarita glances up just enough to see the creature stare at the offered fabric for a moment, squinting in confusion before something switches in her mind and she snatches it and turns away, remembering that some vulnerabilities are best hidden.
It is when she turns that Margarita sees them: the wounds that burn forever and never heal.
"You're Fallen," Margarita says softly. The creature--the Fallen--has wrapped herself in the fabric, so Margarita looks at her. And the Fallen nods, her horns somehow both black and red at once, glinting in the light.
"How are you here?" Margarita asks. "You're not supposed to be here."
The creature smiles sadly.
"There are many Fallen here," she says. "There have always been, but you can't see us, or talk to us, or touch us. We see the Perfection, we smell the ambrosia. We hear everything but the music. After all, what greater way to punish the Fallen than to force us to live confronted with the perfection that we've lost and can never have again?"
Margarita feels something swell inside her--a foreign emotion.
"Do any of the Angels know about this?" she asks.
"Probably not," the Fallen answers. "If you knew your Paradise was also a torture chamber, would it still be your Paradise?"
Margarita swallows. The feeling inside her grows.
"Does He know about this?" she asks.
The Fallen looks down. Her silence, her stillness, are an answer.
She wraps arms around herself, keeping her eyes downcast, her body subdued.
"Why can I see you now?" Margarita asks.
The Fallen stands still for a long moment. With one hand, she wipes at the smudges of dirt under her eyes. "I don't know," she says.
Margarita can tell that this is not the full answer: this Fallen knows more than she says. But she is clearly frightened, still, and Maggie knows little of fear.
But she knows comfort, and she knows kindness, and so she falls back on what she knows.
"Come with me," she says. "Let me take you somewhere to get cleaned up."
The Fallen looks up at her, and Margarita does not look away. Her eyes are beautiful in their darkness; a black that holds all the colours instead of none of them. She nods.
But her feet are cracked and scabbed, and Margarita knows that she can't walk. And of course she can't fly.
So Margarita unfolds her great wings, their spread twice as wide as she is tall, and steps forward, her arms open. "Will you let me take you?"
Those deep eyes caress Margarita's wings, a gaze full of unabashed longing.
The Fallen nods.
But when Margarita touches the skin of the Fallen -- innocuously, a palm to the shoulder -- a strange and frightening and wondrous thing happens. A sensation overcomes Margarita's own shoulder. She knows not what it is, but that she wishes desperately for it to stop.
But the face of the Fallen is overtaken by a look of relief. Her features go slack, her mouth falling open, and a tear slips from the corner of her eye.
Just as suddenly, they pull away from each other. The Fallen stumbles back, clutching herself, her face looking stricken.
"I'm--I'm sorry," she says. "I'm sorry. Please forgive me, Angel, I'm sorry, I should have guessed that would happen."
Margarita stares at her hand like it belongs on a different body.
"What--what was that?" she gasps.
"It was pain," the Fallen says. "My pain. You took it when you touched me. Please forgive me, Angel, I did not mean to cause you suffering."
"Of course I forgive you," Margarita says. Then she remembers the look on the Fallen's face: that awe, that near-ecstasy.
"You say I took your pain," she says. "Does that mean I relieved you of your agony?"
The Fallen nods. "In my shoulder. Where you touched, the pain faded." She swallows. "I had forgotten what it felt like to have relief from pain."
Margarita flexes her hand. Her palm still feels hot. "You feel that all the time?"
"All the time. Every part of me." The Fallen inhales a shaking breath. "I'm sorry, Angel," she says. "I understand if you must leave me. But please, not yet? I haven't spoken in such a long time. I've had no one to speak to. Just a few more minutes? Please. Please." Her voice rises, becomes more desperate, and Margarita doesn't know what unsettles her more: the poor wretch's begging, or her assumption that this momentary mistake would be enough to have her cast immediately back into solitude.
"I'm not going anywhere," Margarita says.
The Fallen smiles so broadly, Margarita could forget that she's a demon. Her fangs and her horns glint in the light, and she is beautiful, Margarita thinks. Strangely, perfectly beautiful.
"That moment of relief, it--I remembered something," she says.
"What did you remember?" Margarita asks.
The Fallen smiles wider still. She looks excited, perhaps proud, but not in a sinful way. She looks like a child, almost, excited by some minor achievement. "Alexandra," she says. "That was my name, before. Alexandra."
Margarita thinks she has, perhaps, heard that name before, but she can't remember when or where.
Her hand doesn't hurt anymore.
If this gentle demon could live with that pain for an eternity, she thinks, she can handle it for the duration of a quick flight.
"Well, Alexandra," she says, and the Fallen preens at the sound of the name. "Shall we try the flight again?"
Alexandra steps back, her hands up, palms out. "Oh, no, Angel, I could never ask--"
"It's a short flight," Margarita says. "I can handle it."
"No, Angel, no. I can't let you suffer for--"
"Would you, one of the Fallen, dare to tell an Angel what to do?" Maggie interrupts.
Alexandra looks suddenly crestfallen, her hands clenching into nervous fists. "Is this a test?" she asks, voice shaking.
Margarita realizes her mistake.
Of course, the poor creature thinks she's being tortured again.
"Please," she says, gently. "Let me take your pain, if only for a moment of flight."
Alexandra looks dubious, frightened, but she drops her arms to her sides just the same. "As you wish, Angel," she says.
So Margarita steps forward and takes the demon in her arms.
The sensation is unlike any she has ever felt. Every inch of her screams, her body rebels. But in her arms, the demon clings to her, body sagging in relief.
So Margarita takes a deep breath, and with a beat of her wings, brings her body and the demon's up to meet the sky.
Margarita takes Alexandra to a place where a brook bubbles through an idyllic wood, alighting on a patch of grass. Her body sings its relief when she steps away, but Alexandra tenses as she reabsorbs all of her own pain.
"Here," Margarita says. "You can wash here."
But the demon only offers a sad smile. "I've tried," she says. Gingerly, on her painful feet, she makes her way to the stream and crouches down to pass a hand through it.
The water is not disturbed. Her hand comes up dry.
"Holy water," she says. "All the water here is. We are always thirsty, but cannot to drink. Always dirty, but cannot wash."
Margarita marvels, for a moment, at the perfect sophistication of the demons' torment in this, her Perfect place.
She bends to the water herself and touches. It is cool, but not cold, swirling around her fingers.
It is surely blasphemy to help this demon.
And yet she could not bring herself to stop.
She reaches a hand back, to her own wing, and plucks one of its soft covert feathers.
Dipped in the stream, its barbs hold water. Held cupped in the palm, it fills like a bowl.
"Here," she says, and offers it.
Alexandra eyes it warily, like it might bite her, but Margarita presses it forward. "Take it."
She crouches by the creek and soaks the feather in the water, and then presses it to the back of her hand.
Then she lets out a little cry, because it works. She does it again, and again, and again, on the same spot, over and over
Something inside Margarita feels warm as the demon bounces on her blistered heels in glee.
"I'll just..." Margarita gestures vaguely away. "Let me know when you're finished."
But Alexandra is too giddy with the water to acknowledge her, and somehow, that makes Margarita smile.
She waits for a time. It's hard to gauge: a demon cannot touch the water, so there is no sound of splashing or troubled water. All she hears is the babble of the brook itself.
Eventually, she wonders if the demon might have left. If she might have crept away. So Margarita turns to look.
The Fallen is still there. She crouches in the water with her back to Margarita, the cloth from Maggie’s robe cast to the side and waiting for her on the grass. As Margarita watches, she wipes the last of the dirt from between her shoulder blades and then unfolds her long body, rising to its full height.
Margarita can see, then, why the Fallen must live filthy. Alexandra's skin seems to draw and absorb the light, the opposite of an Angel who reflects it. She stretches her arms, and Margarita can see a flash of who Alexandra used to be: she can imagine the strong spread of wings from the festering wounds on her shoulders; she can imagine her proud and beautiful, living among the Perfect.
But in this moment, strong and tall, Margarita sees how a creature like Alexandra could inspire terror. She stands defiant, her being an impossibility in this Perfect light.
And yet, Margarita realizes, she is beautiful. Impossibly beautiful, and all the more frightening for it.
Margarita wonders if she has blasphemed for seeing beauty in a demon.
She wonders if, perhaps, she has made a dreadful mistake in befriending a Fallen Angel.
The beautiful demon reaches for the torn off piece of Margarita's robe and wraps it carefully around herself, avoiding the stumps of her wings and tucking the ends into each other under her arm, and she becomes again less fearsome, hiding herself away.
Still, she holds the feather, cradled like something precious.
She turns toward Margarita and her mouth opens, perhaps to call to her--
And then she sees Margarita already looking back at her.
Margarita wrings her hands and wonders whether it is appropriate for an Angel to apologize to one of the Fallen, even in a case like this where the Angel has intruded upon the privacy of the demon.
But Alexandra just ducks her head and blushes, wrapping her arms around herself, and walks closer, gingerly, on her wounded feet.
"I don't know how to thank you," she says. "Nothing before now has relieved any of my suffering. I would serve you forever, if you allowed it."
"Angels don't take servants," Margarita replies.
"Then I would worship you."
"Only He receives worship."
"Please, I must give you something." Alexandra looks distraught. And then, like a revelation, she looks at the feather in her hand. "I could wash your feet."
The feet of an Angel do not gather dirt. But the wretch looks so eager to offer this, the only thing she can imagine to give, that Margarita agrees. She steps to the edge of the creek and lifts the hem of her robe. Alexandra crouches in the water, its ripples moving through her.
And, with great attention, she uses the feather to pour water over Margarita's feet, careful to avoid touching with her hands so that Margarita feels not even a glance of her pain.
How could a creature full of such tenderness truly be Evil?
It is as Alexandra rises, Margarita slipping her feet back into her sandals, that she feels the call of the Host.
"I must go, Alexandra," she says. "I'm being Summoned."
A flash of anguish crosses the face of the Fallen, but she pushes it under a smile.
"Of course," she says. "I am forever grateful to have encountered you, Angel Margarita."
Margarita tips her head. "I never told you my name."
Alexandra blushes and looks away.
"I am new to you, Angel, but you are not new to me. For an age or more, I have lived among you in this place, unseen. But I have seen you, and heard you. I have long known your name."
It is a reasonable explanation.
"I will always be grateful for this time we've spent," Alexandra says. She holds out the feather to return it to its mistress.
Margarita understands the hidden assumption: that when they part, Alexandra will return to the world unseen.
Margarita reaches for Alexandra's hand, ignoring the pain when they touch, and folds it tighter around the feather.
"Keep it," she says.
The eyes of the Fallen well with tears. She raises the feather, pressing it to the skin above her heart.
"I hope to see you again," Margarita says.
Alexandra, lost for words, can only nod.
The last Margarita sees before she answers the Summons is the sight of Alexandra settling herself beneath an olive tree near the brook.
The Host gathers and attends to its business and upon its conclusion, Margarita dares to approach Him.
"May I ask about a Fallen Angel?" she inquires.
He arches an eyebrow at her. "You may," He says.
"Alexandra," she says. "I... heard her name, recently."
(She wonders if she, too, will Fall, for lying by omission to Him.)
He laughs a little. "Oh, Alexandra. I was fond of her, you know. It's a shame things had to turn out like they did. She's hardly the worst of them, but she became... disrespectful. Impulsive. Even, at times, violent. And you know how I feel about violence."
After, she returns immediately to that olive tree. The emotion that overcomes her at the sight of the Fallen is one she has never before felt.
She is there. She is not unseen.
Alexandra sits as she sat before, under the willow, her knees to her chest and her face tipped forward. But this time, she still wears the end of Margarita's robe wrapped around her body, and resting on the tops of her bent knees, just in front of Alexandra's eyes, is the gift of Margarita's wing-feather.
Margarita descends toward her, and as she approaches, Alexandra lifts her head like a flower turning its face to the sun. Their eyes meet, and Alexandra smiles so brightly she shows both her fangs, their edges gleaming, and even with that, Margarita cannot imagine undue violence coming from this quiet demon.
Margarita finds that the sight of the fangs bothers her not at all.
Alexandra rises to her feet as Margarita alights before her.
"Angel business attended to?" Alexandra asks wryly, with an arch of the eyebrow.
"Indeed," Margarita replies. She finds herself suddenly nervous, her heart racing. It's a strange feeling. It feels unnatural in her body.
She longs for it never to stop.
"Will you let me take you flying again?" Margarita asks, impulsively.
Alexandra's eyes go wide. "Angel, I--"
"Think not of the pain. I offer to take it, so that we can fly together."
Something wars with itself in Alexandra's eyes.
Trust, apparently, wins out.
She steps closer, but lets Margarita close the distance. Margarita tenses in that first onslaught of pain that comes with contact, and Alexandra sags, dropping her head to Margarita's shoulder.
After a few breaths, Margarita finds the pain doesn't bother her so much anymore.
She inhales, and spreads her wings, and soars.
As they fly, Alexandra lifts her face to the wind and grins with the happiness of a child.
The thought comes to Margarita that the smiling face of this demon may be more beautiful than anything else in Paradise.
This thought terrifies her.
Time passes, and Alexandra weaves herself tight into Margarita's life. Nobody else can see her: she knows this, because they pass other Angels sometimes, and they clearly don't see the demon at Margarita's side.
It frightens Margarita: she begins to wonder if she is Falling. If this, the fact that she can see this demon, the fact that she can care for this demon, may be a sign that she has somehow done something worthy of being Forsaken.
But when the Host gathers, He treats her like any other Angel. She is sent to Earth to welcome the newborn and comfort the dying and to calibrate forces of evil or injustice.
She follows her Call and, she prays, does it well. And whenever she comes back, Alexandra is there under the olive tree, waiting for her.
Every time, Alexandra greets her with a smile and a sigh of relief: she wonders, Margarita knows, if she could disappear when not before Margarita's eyes.
A strange thing happens to them both: they begin to notice the passage of time.
Endless, unbroken suffering folds into itself, after all. Endless, unbroken Perfection is the same: the heart of a scream, or of a kiss, forever.
But they notice the time when they are together.
And they notice the time when they are apart.
They notice other things, too, that come with the passage of time.
Margarita notices one day that Alexandra no longer hobbles when she walks.
"Your feet," she says.
Alexandra grins. "I know! Isn't it wonderful?"
It is, Margarita thinks. She doesn't know how it happened, but it is.
Alexandra keeps Margarita's feather close to herself, tucked into the folds of her makeshift dress.
They spend time like this, together. Talking. Walking. Sometimes, Alexandra bathes in the creek.
After awhile, Margarita begins to help her, bringing the water to the places Alexandra can't reach, like between her own shoulderblades. Between the still-burning, still-smouldering stumps where her wings used to be.
They sit together, sometimes, in a small cave near the mouth of the brook, where Margarita doesn't need to worry that other Angels will see her conversing with empty space.
They are sitting there, one day. Margarita holds Alexandra's hands in hers.
She has grown accustomed to Alexandra's pain. She thinks, in fact, that she has absorbed some of it permanently; she feels aware of it in her skin, her bones, even when Alexandra is away from her. But when they touch, like this, it is stronger, and Alexandra feels relief.
Margarita finds she doesn't mind the pain at all when she can see that relief in Alexandra's eyes.
"Angel," Alexandra says, quietly.
Margarita looks up, surprised. Alexandra rarely calls her by that title anymore. She only does it when she is afraid.
"Yes," Margarita answers.
"We're... friends. Right?" Alexandra asks.
Margarita doesn't know why "friends" doesn't feel right for what they are. But she has no better words. So: "Yes," she says. "Of course. Why?"
Alexandra pulls her hands away and settles them in her lap.
"I remembered something," she says. "I remembered it... some time ago, to be honest. And I wanted to tell you."
Margarita leans forward, makes her eyes as soft as she can. "All right."
"You have nothing to fear from me."
Alexandra swallows. Her fingers pinch each other. "I remembered, a time ago, that I gave up the name Alexandra."
Is this, she wonders, why Alexandra Fell? Because she chose to forsake the name He gave her?
"Why?" Margarita asks.
"He gave me the name, but after I Fell, I no longer answered to Him," Alexandra explained.
"The Lord Below uses it too, but I choose not to answer to him, either."
Margarita has wondered this. She has never seen Alexandra answer a Summons from Below.
"How do you choose not to answer to him?” she asks.
Alexandra shrugs. "He Summons me, but I do not go. What can he do? I'm already being--" her voice breaks; Margarita sees something she does not understand in her eyes. "I'm already being tortured," she says.
Suddenly, everything snaps into place in Margarita's mind.
The look of relief, of wonder, on Alexandra's face, every time they see each other after spending time apart. The constant offers of servitude and gratitude that Margarita has only recently convinced Alexandra to stop offering.
"You think I'm part of your torture," Margarita says.
Alexandra flinches, but does not disagree.
"I wouldn't do that, Alexandra. Surely you know I would never do that to you."
"I know," Alexandra says, "but it's not up to you, is it? It's up to Him."
Margarita has no reply for that.
"It's just that..." Alexandra sighs. "It was you, of all Angels."
"What of me?" Margarita squeezes Alexandra's hands; Alexandra squeezes back.
"There are things that Angels cannot feel," Alexandra says.
Margarita knows this. This is why Angels have no impulse to sin.
Alexandra looks down, away. "I had noticed you, before," she says.
"You were so beautiful. Even among Angels, you were the most beautiful. The moments I'd see your face were moments of light in my endless darkness. I would seek it out. There were..."
Alexandra cranes her neck, she shifts her hands as though to pull them back, but Margarita holds on.
"There were times when I would sit before you. I am ashamed, now, but I did it then. You couldn't see me, but you were the most perfect of all the perfect beings in Paradise. I longed for..." She swallows, and Margarita sees one fang come out and prick at a darkened lip. "I longed for things you cannot understand, as an Angel. But even without those things, I longed to be near you."
Margarita feels she should be unsettled by this: by the knowledge that she had demon company at times when she thought she was alone.
But she finds she can't be. If anything, she finds she is relieved to hear that even before they were friends, she brought light to Alexandra's life.
"When you live like I lived for so long--with the pain, and the solitude, and the longing for what you cannot have--you grow accustomed to it. You find ways to bring yourself moments of peace, and between those moments, the suffering becomes normal. It's just there.
So when you, of all Angels, could see me--when you, of all Angels, spoke to me, and treated me with kindness, and when your hands took my pain from me--I assumed it was because you would eventually be taken away. I assumed your purpose in my life was to give me something new to grieve when I lost you."
Something inside Margarita feels... she can't explain it, even to herself. It feels the way her flesh feels when she lays her hands on Alexandra and takes on her suffering. But it's not like that, at all: it's not pain, exactly.
But it's excruciating nonetheless.
"Oh, Alexandra," she says. She pulls her hand from Alexandra's hand and reaches to touch her cheek instead. Alexandra turns her face into Margarita's palm, the heat of her breath dusting across the inside of Margarita's wrist.
Her palm is wet.
The demon--her demon--is crying.
Margarita has an overwhelming, visceral desire to draw Alexandra to her, to fold them both up in her wings and stay there, with her, for the rest of eternity. To disregard her Call, her Summons, the Host, even Him, and stay here, forever, in the arms of this Fallen Angel.
"What name do you use?" Margarita asks.
Ale--the Fallen looks up at her with wet eyes, confusion in her brow.
"You said you gave up the name Alexandra,” Margarita says. “So what name do you use?"
"Oh." The Fallen laughs a little, ruefully: she had forgotten where the conversation started.
"I shortened it, like the humans do. Alex. I like the name Alex."
"All right, then, Alex. Tell me: how do you think the humans would shorten the name Margarita?"
Alex lifts her head and looks up, thinking. "Rita?"
That--no. That won't do.
Alex must see it in her face, because she laughs a little; the light catches on her horns as she tips her head, and not for the first time, Margarita thinks her beautiful.
She is no longer afraid of how beautiful she finds Alex to be.
"How about... Maggie?" Alex asks.
She likes the feel of it.
And again, Alex must see it in her face, because: "There it is," she says.
"You will be Alex to me," Marga--Maggie says. "And I'll be Maggie to you."
Maggie finds Alex's cheek with her palm again. Then she pushes her hand back, sliding her fingers into Alex's hair, her thumb brushing the ridges of one of her horns.
"Listen to me, Alex," she says. "If my purpose is to torture you, then I, too, must be Falling. I, too, must be joining the Forsaken. Because just as you would grieve the loss of me, my Fallen Angel, I would be devastated by the loss of you."
By the look on Alex's face, Maggie isn't sure whether this eases her fears or worsens them. She burrows into Maggie's touch like a small creature seeking safety in the earth, and Maggie gives in, at least a little, to her own impulses.
She unfurls her great wings, broad in the small cave where they sit, and Alex jolts a bit at their sudden appearance, the sudden presence of their power.
Without a word, Maggie drops her hands to Alex's hands again and uses them to draw her closer. They draw together until their knees touch. They lean into each other until their foreheads touch.
Maggie doesn't know if she feels any pain. She doesn't care. She folds her great wings forward, their feathers laying across Alex's shoulders, over the wounds there, and down her back.
Inside this space, this shelter she has created, Maggie doesn't care that she has cast off the name He gave her. She doesn't care that she might be Falling.
She tucks her head forward, down to the curve of Alex's neck, and rests against her shoulder. Alex leans down and does the same.
The fangs of a demon are a breath from her skin, and no part of her is afraid.
"I could never hurt you," Maggie whispers.
Between them, their hands grasp at each other, tangled at the heart of this, their private universe encased by Maggie's wings.
"I would sooner cast myself Below than to cause you a moment of harm or sadness,” Maggie breathes. “Do you understand, my Fallen?"
Alex leans in tighter. Maggie feels something--her lips, so gentle, touching the side of Maggie's neck.
"Do you understand that I love you?" Maggie whispers.
Maggie would have thought, before, that the Fallen had no capacity to love.
She understands, now, that love is the cause of the greatest suffering--so of course, the Fallen must love, so they can suffer.
Alex's lips brush her skin again.
"This can't be right," Alex whispers, her voice trembling.
Maggie draws her wings tighter, warmer on Alex's back.
"I have always loved you," Alex says. "How could I not? You were the most perfect among the Perfect. But you--you can't love me. It's not possible." She pauses. "Is it?"
Maggie lifts her head. Alex lifts hers, too.
Maggie touches the beautiful demon's cheek. Down to trace her chin with her thumb, then up to caress the perfect curve of her horns.
Perfect, Maggie thinks.
She felt that was the word for a demon's horns.
"It must be possible," she says. "For here I am."
Protected by Maggie's wings, they lose the time.
It's not the endless suffering that Alex knows, even though her heart is heavy with the fear that this could all be taken away. It's not the endless perfection that Maggie knows, either, because Alex's touch still burns, and at the back of her mind, now, she too experiences the unfamiliar emotion of fear, the potential for loss.
But they lose time in simple presence. In the feeling of breath.
They stay like that until Maggie receives her next Summons.
The calm sense of control, the sense of strength and duty, that the Summons usually brings her feels tainted, now. But her trouble will be greater if she refuses to go, and there is value to the work that she does.
Alex must sense something changing in her.
"You have to go," she says quietly, into the small space between them.
"I have to go," Maggie confirms.
They lift their heads from each other's shoulders, and Maggie sees something fierce and determined in Alex's eyes. It's as though she's being memorized, her every feature noted.
"You're afraid," Maggie says.
Alex traces a long finger down the side of Maggie's face.
"My heart would have shattered if I'd lost you before this," she says. "But now… A shiver runs through Alex, and her skin flares hotter than usual. "I couldn't bear it. I couldn't bear it, Maggie. I would take anything else. I would cease to exist entirely, my soul doomed to nothingness, rather than be invisible to you again."
"Oh, my love," Maggie murmurs. "If my eyes can't find you, my heart will."
"I'll stay right here," Alex says. "I won't move from this spot until you come back. And..." She looks down, away from Maggie's eyes for the first time in this conversation.
"And?" Maggie asks.
"I wonder if... if you'd allow something of me. Something you might find strange."
The request itself is strange, Maggie thinks, but she can't imagine a thing she would deny this demon so long as it does not harm anyone else.
"Of course," Maggie says.
"For so long now, I want... I've wanted...If this is our last moment together..." Alex's voice breaks, it trips over itself, as though the word is too hard to shape.
Maggie waits, as patient as she can. When Alex looks up at her again, she offers a smile of encouragement.
Alex leans closer. "I've wanted..."
Alex leans closer still.
And Maggie knows what Alex wants.
She shouldn't allow it. She knows she shouldn't.
She can't bring herself to care.
The demon's lips on hers are light as a butterfly's wing, and burn more fiercely than any touch they've had so far, but Maggie doesn't feel pain. Her body feels present, and heavy, but in a pleasant way, a satisfying way. It's just a simple touch, but she feels moved, and steady, and by all the Heavens, she hadn't known she could feel like this. She never, ever wants it to end.
Alex's mouth stays still, gentle and reverent, just barely touching. Her thumb touches the curve of Maggie's jaw. And then, after a long moment, Alex's mouth moves, just slightly. One fang comes out and nips, almost playfully, at the full curve of Maggie's lower lip.
And then, with a sigh, she pulls back.
"Thank you," she breathes. "The memory of that could carry me through an eon."
But Maggie knows that it is not the burden of an Angel to suffer, and if she can never have Alex's kiss again, every pat of her will ache with the longing for it.
"I won't be gone an eon, sweet one," she says. "Stay here, my love. I'll be home to you soon."
Together, they stand, and with a final squeeze of hands, Maggie steps away from Alex.
She doesn't feel the relief, the easing of pain, she usually feels when her skin parts contact with Alex's: her body feels weightless, but more adrift than light; she feels like a ship without an anchor, a soul without bearing.
When she isn't touching Alex, she realizes, she isn't feeling anything at all.
If this is a test, she has failed. But her heart can't find fault with her. She smiles at Alex. Alex looks sad, but at peace, when she smiles back.
Maggie goes to answer her Summons.
When Maggie returns, she goes immediately to the cave where Alex had promised she'd stay.
She pauses a moment before its entrance, breathing, and hoping, and bracing herself for the possibility she might not be there.
But there, inside, she is, sitting as she does with her knees tucked up to her chest.
Maggie's feather - the same one from all that time ago - sits on the top of Alex's knee, and with one long finger Alex is caressing it following the grain of its spines.
"Alex," Maggie says, as she walks closer.
(When had she begun to prefer to walk rather than to fly or float?)
Alex's head jolts up, and she smiles so brightly, Maggie feels herself drawn like a sunflower.
"I told you I'd be back," Maggie says.
Alex slips the feather back where she keeps it, over her heart and between her skin and the fabric of her makeshift dress, and unfolds her lean body to stand.
"You did," she says. Her smile is small and coy. "And here you are."
"Here I am," Maggie says. They step closer to each other, and closer still until they are close enough to touch. Until they are closer than they need to be to touch.
Maggie slowly, carefully, lifts one hand. She trails the backs of her fingers up Alex's cheek, to the sharp point of her ear.
She is no stranger to the idea of a kiss. She kisses the foreheads of grieving widows to soothe their pain. She kisses the heads of newborns to wish them a good life, and the brows of the dying to calm their souls through their transition.
But kisses are things she bestows, and here, she longs to receive.
Alex's face pinches in gleeful mischief, one fang scraping over her own lip, and then, without warning, she dives forward, pressing her mouth to Maggie's. Maggie gasps, her lips parting to Alex's.
Ambrosia is not better than this , she thinks. The clear water from the brook is not better than this.
Her wings unfurl as if of their own accord, but Alex doesn't seem to notice until they fold forward around them both, drawing their bodies tighter together.
This is Paradise, Maggie thinks. Truly, there is nowhere more perfect than the space inside her wings, safe with her demon.
She wraps her arms around Alex and, without warning, rises from the ground, out and up, deep into the infinite sky.
Alex lifts her face to the wind and smiles, smiles, smiles.
Time passes in a way Maggie can't remember ever having experienced before. She measures it in time with Alex and time away from her, in time spent kissing and talking and flying together. They learn that if Maggie drinks water and then kisses Alex, Alex can taste it on her tongue. So Alex, who has been fiercely thirsty for as long as she's been damned, makes a game of it, insisting on a drink and a kiss every time they're near water.
It's Maggie who thinks to push it further.
"Will you trust me," she asks one day after Alex has bathed in the brook.
"Forever," Alex replies.
Maggie smiles. "Kneel there," she says, and points to a spot on the grass at the bank of the creek.
Maggie cups her hands in the rushing water and raises them to her mouth, drawing the water in without swallowing.
Then carefully, she stands over Alex and brings her mouth down to her.
Alex closes her eyes for every kiss but they fly open for this one, a cry escaping her, her hands flying forward to grip the backs of Maggie's thighs.
The water passes into her mouth, and she swallows.
"Again," she begs, as soon as she's taken it all.
Maggie smiles and indulges her. And again, and again, and again, until Alex grabs her by the robes and pulls her down to the grass, craving the kisses more than the water.
Theirs becomes an existence of simple pleasures rendered extraordinary. Alex receives every sip of water as though it were finer than ambrosia, she receives Maggie's every touch as though it were benediction, she treasures Maggie's feather as though it were finer than gold.
And Maggie treasures every smile, every gasp of delight, with a pride that is surely not appropriate. These small tokens, these simple kindnesses, received every time with a gratefulness that exceeds the gift.
When Maggie folds them both up in her wings, when they lie with their bodies together, she feels like she is drawing something of Alex inside herself; that she is, perhaps, making herself less Perfect, taking in some part of what makes Alex evil.
Yet she's never felt so complete as she does in these moments. She feels that bringing Alex closer, deepening the connection between them, makes her fuller, deeper, more complex; it satisfies some deep-seated craving she'd never before identified. They lie like this, in her wings, Alex’s body over Maggie’s, and Maggie's fingertips press into Alex's back, careful to avoid those never-healing wounds. Alex kisses her — her lips, her face, and Maggie digs in, clawing at the edge of Alex's dress, as she feels Alex's lips so gentle on her neck.
"I want--" she gasps. "I--I need--"
"I know," Alex murmurs near her ear. "But you're an Angel."
Maggie is an Angel, and not supposed to want this.
"Has that stopped any of the rest of this?" Maggie asks.
"It will hurt you," Alex whispers hoarsely. "That much of my skin against yours -- you will take so much of my pain."
"All the more reason to do it, sweet one," Maggie murmurs back. She presses her lips to the side of Alex's neck and it scalds, it burns, but she doesn't care. She pushes Alex back until their eyes can meet. "Alex," she says, "Do you want what I want?"
Alex can only nod, her eyes wide.
"Then I'm asking you to give us what we both want. If this is my corruption, it will lie on my soul, not yours. I'll see to it."
Alex stills for a long moment, longing and worry warring on her face.
Finally, she rises to her knees and lifts a hand to the knot of her robe. She catches the feather as it comes free of the folds and wraps it carefully in the cloth to put aside.
Maggie watches, rapt.
And then Alex puts her hand on the flowing folds of Maggie's robe, finding the end where it falls over Maggie's shoulder, and pulls it free. Maggie lifts her arms to help Alex unwind it, and then sits up until it can fall to the ground below them, below her wings.
Alex's gaze feels like a touch.
"You are truly the most perfect among the Perfect," she breathes.
"I think none of the Angels are more beautiful than you," Maggie answers.
Slowly, Alex lays herself down over Maggie's body, and with each inch of contact, Maggie feels fire, a burning, but not pain; it's like an ache that can only be relieved by leaning into it.
"Are you all right?" Alex asks.
So Alex leans down, and caresses her face, and kisses her.
Then she kisses her jaw. Her neck. Her shoulder, her chest.
Maggie is Perfect, but has never before this felt precious.
It is not Maggie's place to receive prayer, but as Alex's lips and hands burn her with such tenderness, she thinks she might understand what it feels like to be worshipped.
Afterward, as they lie together, Maggie feels every single point where her body touches Alex's, from the tips of her toes to the tips of her wings. Alex's head rests on her chest, and Maggie runs her fingers over the sensitive arches of her horns.
Alex hums happily. Maggie lets her fingers trail down the back of Alex's neck, and Alex arches, offering more of it for Maggie to touch.
Maggie's fingers touch the bone at the base of Alex's spine, and then fan out to her shoulders, and that's when she sees it:
The wounds on Alex's back have always smoldered, blackened and glowing like the embers of a fire that will never burn out.
The wounds on Alex's back are not burning now.
Over time, the wounds heal further, the ash giving way to pink, raw, healthy-looking skin. Maggie spends time with Alex's body regularly, now, in private spaces and hidden corners, and she watches the progress with fascination and trepidation.
Maggie learns to live with a dizzying combination of emotions: adoration, elation, ecstasy; fear, worry, discomfort. Alex feels so right to her, but the secrecy of their life together, the easing of Alex's suffering as a demon in Paradise, feels, somehow, cosmically out of order.
The fear keeps her from asking too many questions. She loses herself in Alex, she lets Alex lose herself in her. But with a new mind, she remembers the first time her skin touched Alex's; she remembers the pain too ferocious to bear.
She had thought that she had simply grown accustomed to it. But she realizes, now, that no: the pain is less. So Alex's pain is less. She wishes she could celebrate this realization, but her confusion suppresses what might otherwise elate her.
Through all of this, she feels Alex's eyes on her, the adoration in her eyes only deepening as time passes. And Maggie finds that her greatest peace, in all of this, remains the feeling of being held tightly in Alex's arms.
Maggie's existence has become more complicated, but one of the few areas in which it becomes easier is that she no longer fears that if she leaves for a Summons, Alex may disappear while she's gone. If that were going to happen, she thinks, it would have happened by now, surely. So when she is Summoned, Alex smiles at her, and kisses her, and promises to wait in some chosen location. Every time, Maggie comes back to find her clutching Maggie's feather like a talisman, but every time, she finds her.
When Maggie is Summoned, one day, she alights on the ground, and sets Alex on the ground, her face still glowing from the flight they’ve just shared.
"Under the olive tree?" Maggie asks.
"Under the olive tree," Alex confirms.
They kiss. Maggie's fingers trail down Alex's back, over the thick, scarred skin where the smoldering wounds used to be, and then Maggie answers her Call.
Her task is to visit a woman in her final moments.
She is an old woman in a hospital bed, surrounded by people who love her. Maggie understands this better now than she used to: she feels the love between herself and Alex, and understands how these people feel about each other.
The decedent is beautiful; Maggie imagines that in her youth, she must have been stunning. As Maggie alights beside her, the woman's physical eyes stay closed, but her Seeing eyes turn toward Maggie. Her mouth stays closed, but her Voice asks:
Is it my time?
Maggie smiles. Yes, child, she says.
The woman nods without nodding. Where will I go? she asks.
Maggie tips her head. That is not my decision or my knowledge, she says, but this part will be peaceful. I am here to make this part peaceful.
The woman closes her eyes and nods, though her body does not nod. Around them, one of her loved ones says something, another responds, another still begins to cry. But this moment is between the woman and Maggie.
Are you ready? Maggie asks.
The woman smiles. I have done my best, she says.
That is all you can do, Maggie answers.
Maggie spreads her wings, their power a shield and a shelter over the dying woman's body, and she bends to press a kiss to her forehead.
In this moment, Maggie often feels memories; the things the person treasures and fears, the forces that ease and challenge this final transition, so that she can help the passing happen in peace. But this time, with this kiss, she feels a rush of far too many memories, too many images, too many hopes and regrets for a single lifetime.
And through many of them she feels a force, an energy, that feels familiar.
Suddenly, it strikes her: this woman was Alex's charge.
This is the end of the second life of the person Alex Fell to protect.
Her passing is peaceful, and it's easy, and Maggie lays a hand on the heart of each person grieving, helping to ease their pain. And then, with the soul offered up and her duties complete, she rushes back to Alex, who waits under the olive tree.
Alex smiles at her, but she must read something pained in Maggie's face, because the smile fades into a frown of worry.
"What is it, love?" Alex asks.
Maggie doesn't answer: she just draws Alex into her arms and flies them off to the seclusion of their little cave. There, on the cool, smooth rocks, Maggie claws at Alex's clothes and then her own, pushing them off and then tugging Alex's body into her with a desperation she doesn't know how to process.
She presses a deep kiss to Alex's mouth, and then moves to her neck and shoulders, using her teeth as though she were the one with fangs. Alex gasps in pleasure, at first, before she recognizes the panic for what it is. She grasps Maggie by the shoulders, then, and pushes her away until their eyes can find each other.
"What's wrong, Maggie, my love?" she whispers, pushing Maggie's hair back from her face. "What is it?"
And Maggie doesn't know what to say; all she can feel is this terrifying, overwhelming knowledge that something is going to change, and soon.
Her mouth works, but no sound comes out, her emotions too cluttered for words.
But Alex, whether or not she understands Maggie's confusion, seems to know what to do. She draws Maggie close to her, tucks Maggie's head under her chin and her body into her arms as though her slender arms could provide all the shelter of Maggie's mighty wings.
And Maggie, feeling more treasured than she can understand, lets one more new feeling slip through, and lets herself cry, while Alex holds her with the strength of wood and water and rock.
They sit like this, with Alex holding Maggie with every ounce of her strength, until Maggie calms, and then they lie down across the stone. Maggie lets herself feel small, lets herself feel protected. It's an illusion she grants herself.
"Do you want to tell me about it?" Alex asks, her long fingers combing through Maggie's hair, caressing her scalp.
Maggie lies quiet for a long moment, thinking. She longs to tell Alex about the transition she witnessed, but she worries that it will only cause Alex fear.
"I feel that something is going to change soon," Maggie murmurs. "I feel that this," she runs a finger down the soft skin of Alex's sternum, "isn't going to last much longer."
Alex hums. She draws Maggie tighter against her, and Maggie folds her wing over both of them, creating a small space that holds their breath and their words close, keeps them from escaping.
"I've been thinking," Alex says eventually. Her voice shakes. "I've been thinking we are both being tortured. I've been thinking I am torturing us both. We want to know what will come of us, and for as long as we live like this, we won't know."
Maggie begins to shake her head near the beginning of Alex's speech, and keeps shaking her head throughout.
"No, Alex. No. Being near you, even with the fear of losing you, gives me greater happiness than I ever had before I saw you."
"And maybe this was meant to happen," Alex says. "Maybe we're doing this to ourselves, and if we came forward about it, we'd discover we didn't need to hide anymore."
Maggie trails her fingertips over the ridges of one of Alex's horns.
Whens she lifts them, flakes of red-black cling to her skin, like flakes of dead cells.
She feels like Alex might be dissolving. Right here, right before her eyes, right in her arms.
This must be related to the passing of the human charge at the end of her second life. It can't be a coincidence.
Or perhaps it can: time does not exist here, not really, even if Maggie feels it, sometimes, when she's with Alex. Everything always Is, and Is Not. Any moment now could be any moment on Earth, among the humans.
But still, it feels too close to be coincidental. She can't let them gamble what they have when she feels so strongly that some kind of solution, for better or worse, is imminent. It feels wrong, it feels sour, to keep this knowledge from Alex. But when an Angel has had a Charge, their souls become linked forever. They become infinitely One. Were Alex not Fallen, her soul would know what had come of her charge.
But Alex is no ordinary Fallen. She may not have felt the old woman's Transition, but Maggie knows that the moment she finds out, she will insist on going to Him, on doing what she can to protect the person whom she'd sent back to Earth for another chance at Paradise. The person whose second chance at Paradise was worth damning herself for.
And Maggie can't help but feel that Alex has given enough to this charge of hers.
(Perhaps this -- this innate selfishness -- is why she, herself, has never had a human charge to protect.)
(Perhaps this innate selfishness is why Maggie is being tortured now.)
"Can we just have a little more time, dear one?" Maggie begs.
"I feel like my love is hurting you," Alex whispers. "At times, this feels like greater torture than anything I've ever suffered."
"Let me take that suffering," Maggie whispers. She folds herself closer.
She realizes, in this moment, that there is no pain at all transferring between Alex's skin and hers.
They are touching fully, and all Maggie feels is gentle warmth.
"Just for awhile longer," Maggie whispers. "I'll carry the burden if you'll let me. But please. Stay, for just awhile longer."
Her head is tucked into Alex's chest, but she lifts it now, lifts her eyes to Alex's, who looks back as though Maggie's eyes contain all of Paradise.
"All right," she says. "I will."
The time they share next is devoted to every intimacy, every small kindness, that Maggie can give to Alex. And Alex seems to understand that this is what Maggie needs. They give themselves over to the soft, base desires that are not supposed to have a place here.
Alex takes water from Maggie's lips; she lets Maggie help her bathe in the creek. And then Alex shares the kinds of purer intimacies that Maggie likes: she washes her feet, runs her fingers through Maggie's hair, uses her palms to smooth the feathers of Maggie's wings.
They stay like this, passing the time like this, until Maggie is Summoned again.
"I'll be back soon," Maggie says, with a confidence she struggles to feel.
Alex smiles at her, understanding the fears she can't speak, and then kisses her softly, chastely. "I'll wait for you here.”
For the first time, Maggie watches her get settled. Watches her sit on their rock in the corner of their cave. Watches her pull her knees up to her chest, and then pull the feather from under the fabric of her dress. This time, though, instead of laying it on her knees like she usually does, Alex presses the feather to her lips, and then clutches it to her chest with both hands, near her heart.
"Go," she says, with the best smile she can muster.
No matter how much Maggie may long to go to her, to ignore everything else and fold herself around Alex forever, she can't ignore the Summons.
So, with a breath, she goes.
Among the gathering of the Host, Maggie sees her.
She is younger-looking than she was the last time they met. She is tall, and exceptionally beautiful, even for an Angel.
She tests her wings, fluttering them and lifting herself just a bit off the ground, grinning with the glee of a child with a new toy.
"This is so COOL!" she exclaims, louder than is usual here. There is a gravitas expected among Angels that she has not yet had time to learn.
Something, some force, draws her eyes to Maggie, then, and immediately they go wide with recognition.
This new Angel rushes over.
"You," she says. "I recognize you. You were with me at my death."
"I was," Maggie says, smiling as best she can.
"You were so kind to me," the Angel says. "You made it so easy."
"Thank you," Maggie replies. "Everyone deserves peace at their end."
"May I ask your name?"
Maggie falters, and then she says, "I am Margarita. And you are?"
"Kara," she says. "I mean, I had a different name before. But I feel like that's the name I have now."
Maggie nods, as sagely as she can. "The soul can have a different name from the body."
And the heart can have a different name from the soul, she thinks, but it would be inappropriate to say this. Not here, not now, to this new Angel.
"I like this name. I like these wings!" Kara says, excited, and her excitement feels contagious. Maggie can't help but grin back.
Suddenly, she knows what she needs to do.
"Will you let me take you around?" Maggie asks. "Help you find your way."
Kara's eyes light up. "Oh, I'd love that!" she exclaims. "I guess I could just explore, but it's always better to do things with a friend, don't you think?"
Maggie can understand why Alex would damn herself before letting this girl fall Below. "I do," Maggie says.
She says nothing to her about where they'll go. She'll take her to different places, and among those places will be the small, beautiful cave where Alex sits in wait.
She will see, there, if Kara's soul will recognize Alex's; if their deep entanglement will make Alex visible to her just as she's visible to Maggie.
And then, she thinks, answers will come.
Maggie takes Kara to many beautiful places. They go to the creek, the forest, the willow and olive trees. Kara thrills at the weightlessness of flying, giddy as she dips and soars. She remembers little of her life--of either life, but it must have been great, for her to become an Angel after death.
Maggie doesn't know if she, herself, was ever human. She thinks she wasn't, but it's hard to be sure. In this place without time, everything feels distant. She is fairly certain that Alex never was. There's something... exceptional about her; something too great to imagine growing from a mortal soul, if it's great enough to survive damnation and still have the capacity for love.
Maggie gives no context when she brings Kara to the cave.
"It's quiet here," she says, as they enter. "I like to be with the strength of the rock."
"It's nice," Kara exclaims, like she has about everything so far. She has stars in her eyes; a sense of deep wonder.
They round a bend, and Alex comes into view, exactly as Maggie left her.
She sees Maggie and smiles, but then frowns when Maggie doesn't acknowledge her. Maggie sees it, the rising panic in Alex's eyes, and so she tries, as surreptitiously as she can, to gesture at her.
It's a little wave, a flick of the fingers where they hang by her side, but it works. Alex's panic gives way to confusion, which changes to something else entirely when she hears the voice.
"How far back does it go?" Kara asks.
Alex scrambles to her feet. She tugs at the hem of the cloth she wears as a dress. She pushes her hair back past her horns and over her ears.
"About this far," Maggie says, and steps to the side so Kara can see past her.
Alex's mouth drops open, her body shakes. For the first time ever, Maggie's feather slips from her fingers.
She scrambles to grab it again, snatching it from the air before it can reach the ground.
"Are you all right?" Kara asks, brow furrowed.
"I'm fi-" Maggie begins to answer, but then realizes Kara wasn't talking to her. That Kara is looking past her.
Alex, dumbstruck, straightens fully and looks around, as though there could be some other invisible demon for Kara to talk to.
"M-me?" she asks, finally, pointing to herself as though to make doubly sure.
"Yes," Kara says. "You looked like you were going to fall, just now."
Maggie's heart races. Alex tucks the feather between her robe and her skin, again, and then runs her hands down her front as though to smooth out the wrinkles. As though afraid Kara will judge her for her second-hand clothing, for her imPerfect appearance.
Maggie wants to run to her, to hold her hand, to remind her she's beautiful.
But Maggie is but a witness to this moment.
"I'm fine," Alex manages to say.
Kara nods, but she frowns. "You're... different," she says. She glances to Maggie, just for a moment, but quickly draws that Maggie can't provide explanations. Not for this.
Then Kara cocks her head. "Have we met before? You're familiar, somehow."
Alex shifts her weight from one foot to the other, uncomfortable, and Maggie remembers how she used to stand on blistered, wounded feet, long healed now.
"You could say that," Alex says.
Kara steps closer, her brow furrowed a little.
Alex stands still, holding herself, until Kara is facing her, close enough to touch.
Kara wouldn't know Alex's face. Even in her first life, she would never have seen her. Never known she was there, her guardian.
But their souls are entangled. They're One, in many ways.
Maggie stands back, watching them, these connected halves rediscovering one another.
With careful curiosity, as though Alex were a beautiful marble statue, Kara lifts her hand and trails a finger along one red-black horn.
"You're not like us," she says.
"No," Alex says.
Kara touches the tip of a pointed ear. "But not... unlike us, either."
Alex is silent at that.
Kara's hand touches Alex's cheek, and it's terribly forward for two beings who just met.
Some part of her knows. Maggie can tell: some part of her knows.
And Maggie sees the precise moment when Kara remembers.
Kara’s eyes go wide, her mouth opens.
"You... you were my Angel," she says.
Alex bites her lip.
"You were my protector," Kara says.
Alex flinches. She has to look away at that.
"I tried to be," she says.
Kara turns those wide eyes to Maggie. "Is that why you brought me here? Did you know?"
Maggie can only nod.
Kara turns back to Alex, now, her eye turning more critical. She takes in the horns, the makeshift clothing, the dark eyes, the pointed ears. Maggie can see the precise moment Kara registers the absence of wings.
"But you... this wasn't you, before," Kara says. "You were..."
Alex looks down, her eyes welling, and Maggie can't stay back anymore. She runs forward, runs to Alex, folds an arm and a wing around her, as though her own wings could make up for the loss of Alex's in this moment.
"Things change," Maggie says. "We make decisions. Sacrifices. Even here."
Alex leans into her and Maggie holds her, holds her up, shares her warmth.
Kara's eyes flit between them, recognition coming to them.
She was human. She remembers love.
And then suddenly, a new kind of recognition.
An understanding of why neither Alex nor Maggie will explain how Alex lost her wings.
Kara's hand flies to her mouth. She stumbles back.
"No," she says. "You didn't. Please tell me you didn't."
"You were my charge," Alex says. "I'd have done anything to protect you."
"But you- but this-" Kara shakes her head, as though she could deny its very possibility. "No." Her face crumples, and Alex steps forward, out of Maggie's arms, her instinct, still, to protect this soul.
"It was my choice," Alex says. "It was my wish. And it worked, because now - just look at you!"
Everything about Alex is proud, like a parent of a successful child. But Kara is devastated, and this devastates Alex.
"We shouldn't have done this," Alex says quietly to Maggie. "We've ruined her Paradise."
And this, in turn, devastates Maggie, because it was she who did this. It was she who brought Kara to Alex. Alex didn't even know Kara was here.
But Kara straightens. "Don't you dare say that," she says. "Don't you dare. I would have wanted to know. I deserved to know. And I'd have found out eventually, I'm sure, and then I'd have been angry that you hid from me."
Kara wipes the stray tears from her cheeks and straightens her shoulders, settling her wings down her back as though she's had them forever.
"Thank you, Margarita, for bringing me here," she says. Then she turns to Alex, and Maggie reaches for Alex again as she wilts under Kara's gaze.
Maggie lays a hand between Alex's shoulder blades, between her scars, soothing.
"And you," Kara says to Alex. "My Angel. Alex."
Maggie has not introduced her, but Kara knows Alex's name anyway. Her chosen one.
Kara swallows, and then she nods, determined. "Let's fix this."
The moment Kara speaks, Maggie begins to feel it. The draw, the pull in her wings and her heart. She can see from the look on Kara's face that she feels it, too.
But Alex suddenly grips her arm with both hands, looking up at Maggie with wide eyes.
"What is this," she asks, but it isn't really a question.
Even if she'd never been an Angel, even if she'd never felt it before, she'd know that it was a Summons. It's an unlearnable sensation, woven into the fabric of all celestial beings.
"Maggie," she says, her voice frightened, but full of awe, both wonderful and terrible.
Maggie clutches her by the elbows. "Alex," she says. "Alex, my love, I won't let anything happen to you."
She wishes she knew with certainty that she has spoken truth. But Alex looks at her with a sad smile, and Maggie realizes that Alex trusts her more than Maggie trusts herself.
"That's what I'm afraid of," Alex says. "Please, my love, please don't torture me further."
The 'Please don't sacrifice yourself' remains unspoken.
But then Maggie feels a hand on her shoulder. It's calm, and steady, and far more confident than the touch of a newly-formed Angel should be.
"It's going to be okay," Kara says, and there's a ferocity to her that Maggie can't help but respect.
Alex fists her hands in Maggie's robes, and Maggie draws Alex into her arms. And then Kara folds her arms around both of them, and as one, they answer the Summons.
To be welcomed into His presence is usually a feeling of great light, of euphoria; it is the sensation of laughter without the sound or the breathlessness, an embodied knowledge of Perfection.
In this moment, with a frightened-feeling Alex huddled in her arms, Maggie does not feel that.
The Host has gathered, but Maggie, Alex, and Kara are not among them. They stand before them.
They stand before Him.
Kara straightens, and then Maggie straightens.
But Maggie clings with one hand to Alex's arm and feels her hesitate, as though cramping, for a moment, before she stands, too.
For a moment, their eyes meet. Maggie finds Alex's eyes inscrutable: deep, tense, ferocious, but undirected in that ferocity.
This is not the moment to speak, so Maggie squeezes her hand and spreads her wings such that they stand between Maggie and the assembled Angels.
I stand behind you, her body says. I stand between you and Judgment, between you and those who would condemn you.
But even she cannot place herself between Alex and Him.
Alex squeezes her hand, and Maggie knows that she has been understood. Then Maggie glances up and sees that Kara has been watching them, with kindness in her eyes.
Kara has been standing before Him, as they all have, but has not given Him her eyes.
It is a dangerous act of defiance, but one Maggie is grateful not to undertake alone.
With a breath, they nod, and they turn and they gaze upon Him. It makes Maggie feel as they know she should feel: full of awe, and wonder, and marvel. But for the first time, she feels trepidation, too.
But His presence greets them with warmth, with welcome, and Maggie wonders for a strange, frantic moment whether He can even see Alex. Whether He knows she is there, and that He has summoned her with the gathered Angels.
"My dearest Margarita," He says, "surely you know better than that."
Because of course He knows.
Under Maggie's hand, Alex stands straighter, and dares to turn her gaze upon Him.
"My dearest Alexandra," He says. "Come forward. Stand before Me."
Alex does an unthinkable thing.
She does not obey.
At least, not right away. She turns and looks at Kara, such that Maggie can't see her face but she can see Kara's reaction, proud and admiring and frightened. Then she turns and looks at Maggie, and her eyes are unlike anything Maggie has ever seen. They bear a profound devotion: the kind of deep, intrinsic, encompassing love that should be reserved for Him. And they are also terrifying: Maggie feels, to the depth of her bones, what Alex will do to protect that love--
And Maggie fears what Alex would sacrifice in its name.
"Go," Maggie says, as quietly as she can, though she knows He hears even the things she does not speak.
Alex turns forward, and as she does, her shoulders pull taller, her spine straightening. The scars on Alex's shoulders face her, the skin marked only by its healing, now.
Even from behind, like this, Maggie can see Alex's defiance. All she can do is hope He knew to expect it, and that He has his reasons for calling them all there, now.
"Oh, Alexandra," He says. "I have missed you, you know."
"You know where I've been," Alex says. "You could have seen me anytime."
Maggie's heart clenches. She remembers the meek, frightened Fallen of their first encounter, all that time ago, and wishes Alex could be that again, just for this moment. Just for right now, before Him. But Alex if anything, stands even taller.
"Perhaps," He says, "but I have heard you've not been in the habit of answering your Summons."
Alex scoffs. "You gave up the right to have expectations of me when you damned me. I never wanted to serve Below."
Maggie's fists clench, and she wishes she could wrap them around Alex's hands, to will her to stop this.
He smiles, bemused. "You were never evil, my Alexandra."
"No. Just imPerfect," Alexandra says. "And unless I'm mistaken, I'm not Yours anymore. You gave me up."
He chuckles. "You made your choice."
"To save me!" Kara interjected forcefully, and Maggie flinches, suddenly certain she's about to have two Fallen Angels on her hands.
"Indeed," He says. "She took your fate to save you. And look at how well that went." He moves, and suddenly Kara glows her Perfection elevated for just a moment. A wave of awe sweeps over Maggie, confronted by the awareness of something newly above her, beyond her. The assembled Host gasps in tandem, and Maggie knows they feel what she feels.
But Alex's chin just lifts higher, and the glow from Kara reflects off of Alex's red-black horns, and she is suck a striking figure that Maggie can't take her eyes from her, even in the presence of a glowing more-than-Perfect Angel. Even in the presence of Him.
And then, right before Maggie's eyes, Alex's horns crumble into smoke.
Alex must feel it when they disappear. She must; Maggie knows how sensitive those horns were, how it made Alex purr when Maggie trailed her fingers over them. But she doesn't flinch when they vanish.
He laughs, and His laughter is more feeling than sound, but it does not bring Maggie its usual sense of euphoria, of glee.
"Margarita," He says, like a gently disappointed parent. "The things you dare to think in My presence."
"Don't talk to her," Alex snarls, putting her body between them, as though its pitiful, wingless form could protect Maggie from His power.
His demeanor changes. "Don't push your luck, Alexandra, or I might change my mind."
Another gasp from the assembled Host.
Maggie reaches forward to grasp Alex by the arm. What will happen to them will happen: His decision will stand. She need not make it worse, for Heaven's sake.
But Kara moves faster, her arm reaching across Alex's body as though to hold her back from something.
"If I may speak before You?" Kara asks, with the proper deference, and He softens under the deference.
"What is Your plan for us?"
He laughs, and again Maggie does not feel the mirth it should bring.
"I think My plan for you is clear, my Angel," He says. "And Margarita is... well, it’s always redeemable to love too much, in My eyes. This is about Alexandra. Excuse me-" He chuckles - " Alex , now, isn't it."
"It is," Alex says, and Maggie continues to both thrill and shudder at her pride.
"Forgive me," Kara says, in a tone that suggests she does not, in fact, seek forgiveness. "But if it's about Alex, it's about me, too."
"And me," Maggie says suddenly, stepping forward, drawing on a courage she didn't know she had.
He laughs yet again, mirthful as usual, and Maggie feels it with terror.
She wonders how far she's Fallen already. But Alex, strong before her, is prize or punishment worthwhile.
"I don't think you'll be upset with what I have in mind," He says.
The glow from Kara's body grows. It grows and grows until Maggie can no longer look at her, not in pain but in awe and wonder. Maggie stumbles back, she falls to her knees within it. The light suffuses Kara, it suffuses all, warm and golden and beyond Perfect; it tingles and shines and draws all the breath from Maggie's lungs, a gasp of ecstasy. And then, a flash, as though the light exceeds even itself, and then darkness.
But Maggie is not afraid.
She reaches forward, fumbling for Alex's hand, for her touch.
What she finds is not a hand.
What Maggie touches is not something she has ever touched before, but she recognizes it as something visceral to herself, the way the left hand knows the right in the dark. She feels the barbs, she feels the vane and the shaft.
She feels how the shaft binds to skin; how the skin stretches tight over flesh and muscle shaped around bone.
Then the darkness recedes, driven away by a new glow. But this glow comes not from Kara, but from Alex.
But not Alex: where before, she wore little more than a rag, she now wears billowing robes. Where her skin was tarnished, dirt on her feet, she shines with the air of those who cannot be touched.
Her hair, which used to clump and part around her horns until it submitted to Maggie's gentle fingers, falls now with the clear flow of water.
And from her back, where those burning stumps used to fester, stand tall, proud, Perfect wings.
Kara's eyes go wide in wonder, her mouth opening, her hands clutching each other over her heart.
This seems like the appropriate reaction. But Maggie, for some incomprehensible, overwhelming reason, is devastated.
Alex opens her arms, stretches her chest and her lungs and her neck as though she has just broken out of a shell, and the assembled Host gasps in awe of her recovered might and beauty.
"Welcome home, My child," He says.
Maggie looks at this striking Angel and longs for the quiet demon who loved her so gently in the skies and on the rocks.
But then, suddenly, Alex startles, her body seizing.
"Where is it?" she cries. She runs her hands down her own body, she reaches them back to her wings.
In this moment of blind panic, Maggie sees something of the Alex she knows. Then she berates herself for feeling relief when Alex is clearly frightened.
"What did you do with it?" Alex demands, turning a circle and examining the ground beneath her.
Maggie tries to help. "What do you-"
But Alex has turned back to Him, and He smiles with benevolence at her anger.
"Where is my feather? Where did it go?" she demands.
She has hundreds of feathers now, two wings full of them. But she seeks a different one. A specific one. One that Maggie gifted her.
Maggie reaches a hand to her wing, prepared to pull another feather if only it will calm Alex. She'll pull a different feather, a better one. Last time, she'd gifted Alex a small covert feather from the hollow near her shoulder. This time, she'd pull her a great primary feather from her wing tip. She'd cleave that small gap in her wingspan to give Alex another piece of herself.
"There's no need for that, Margarita," He says.
Then, to Alex:
"Gifts freely given, without coercion or expectation of return favours, become a part of us. Of all of us, including you. Even I couldn't take it if I wanted to. And I don't want to."
With sudden understanding, Alex reaches back toward her own wing.
With sudden understanding, Maggie steps forward to see more closely.
Maggie cannot explain how she can see it, one perfect feather nestled among hundreds of other perfect feathers on an Angel's wing. They are all white, they are all soft, they lie without disruption. But she sees, nestled in the crook of Alex's wing, bound as deeply to Alex's flesh as any other, the feather that used to be hers.
Alex grasps it, then turns to Maggie, her eyes wide, as though afraid she has somehow transgressed.
"Your robe, too," He says, and Alex reaches into the folds to find the end of the cloth. Again, it is pure white cloth woven to pure whit cloth, but Maggie can see, and Alex can see, the length of it that used to be part of Maggie's robes.
Maggie fumbles into her own robes and finds the still-jagged end where, all that time ago, she tore off a length of fabric to clothe a naked, fearful Fallen Angel.
She feels Him pull on her heart, and looks up.
"It was your gift, freely given," He says. "I couldn't have taken it even if I'd wanted to. And I didn't want to."
He turns to Alex again, and His warmth washes over her, over Maggie and Kara and all the gathered Host.
"Welcome home, my Alexandra," He says.
Alex stands, breathing, for a long minute. In her hands, she still clutches the end of her robe - the fabric that was Maggie's. Wordlessly, she brings it to her lips, and then clutches it to her chest.
Beyond her, Kara looks ecstatic. She claps her hands in excitement, a newly-formed Angel again, and exclaims, "I knew it! I knew it couldn't be right for you to be... like that!"
But Maggie, in this moment, looking at a redeemed Angel looking adrift and clutching at gifted fabric, can feel only an all-encompassing sense that something is very, very wrong. Alex turns and looks at her. Her eyes are bright now, not the bottomless darkness that they were before, but they are still familiar. They still gaze at Maggie with a depth of love that makes Maggie feel small and strong and important and more-than-Perfect.
Alex lays a hand on Maggie's cheek, and Maggie tilts her head into it. She feels Alex's silent question, and nods, just once, in answer.
Alex, she sees, feels this wrongness too.
So Alex turns back to Him, both hands clutching the tail of the robe again, and asks: "Why?"
For the first time in all of this, He seems surprised.
"Why?" He echoes. "Do you not have faith in My intentions?"
It should come as a shock to Maggie to realize that she does not. But after everything, it feels the only plausible thing.
Alex, in her wisest decision in all of this, remains silent. Kara's eyes dart between Alex and Him, wringing her hands, and Maggie wills her to stay silent; to let Alex manage this for herself.
Kara says nothing.
"I suppose it's understandable," He says. Then He sighs. "Kara is here, now. She earned her place, which means her soul is no longer due Below."
Alex stands taller, as though He is speaking of her and not the fellow Angel beside her.
He sighs, and Maggie could swear He sounds exasperated. "There is no more debt Below, Alexandra. You no longer need to take her place there, because she no longer belongs there."
"She achieved that despite me, not because of me," Alex replies. "My guidance got her damned. She was Saved on her own."
"It's not that simple, My Alexandra."
Maggie finds she bristles at the name. No voice but hers should call Alex "mine."
He continues. "Not you, not even I, can dictate the lives and behaviours of humans. All I can do is set up the conditions, and all you Angels can do is protect them from bad outcomes. Kara's fate was never your fault.Your sacrifice was about protecting her, not about serving penance. You never failed me, Alexandra."
Kara nods, and steps closer to her." I remember things, Alex, as time goes by. I remember that life and the mistakes I made. You did all you could have done."
"You made no mistakes!" Alex erupts, wheeling to face Kara, wings wide enough to encompass her sound, her feeling. "You were good! You tried hard. At times, things went badly, or I wish you'd chosen differently. So you punched some people! They weren't good people!"
"Worse things happened to them when they were Judged," He agrees, sagely.
"Exactly!" Alex cries, wheeling to face Him again. "She judged them like You did. Perhaps it was not her place, but can You truly say it is damnable for a human to protect her fellows?"
He sighs, clearly frustrated now. "I have set up certain conditions to which even I must adhere," He explains. "All of this is quite precarious, you see."
"All of this?"
"You know." His hand moves to encompass all around them, and all beyond that. "Everything."
The moment holds in a tense stand-off, and with each increment of passing time, Maggie feels a rift growing. She imagines it between her feet, the space growing and growing until she has no choice but to step to one side or the other or else to fall into the chasm.
It is Alex who finally speaks.
"You know why I can't accept this," she says quietly. She drops the end of her robe, finally, and gestures toward herself, her body her, wings.
"Alex," Kara says--but Alex extends a hand to stop her.
"You know why I can't believe you when you say you missed me," Alex continues. She glances back over her shoulder, at the assembled Host behind her, and the meaning is clear: I could tell them, she implies. Everyone could know the secret hidden beneath this Paradise.
"You know where I've been, all this time," she says, her words leaden and sharp.
"Alexandra," He says, "Most who Fall are not like you."
The feathers of Alex's wings rustle, perhaps indignant. "That may be true, though that's not really the point, is it? Would this be Paradise for anyone at all if they knew the secret of this place?"
"No," Maggie says. She hears her own words at the same time as everyone else, uttered as though from a foreign body. But she knows this is the moment for which her voice was created. She knows she can do nothing but speak. The truth is that Maggie has not been able to enjoy manna or ambrosia, to enjoy the Perfect gardens, the shade of the willow or the cool of the water, since she has come to know that the damned live here, too:
that they watch her with desperate eyes and parched mouths; naked, filthy bodies shuddering in scalding pain; spectres she could more easily walk through than offer a moment of relief.
There are many reasons she has found greater happiness stowed away in the arms of a Fallen than she could find in the designs of Paradise. It is blasphemy, but she cannot feel sorry that her greatest ecstasy has, for so long now, come from the touch of a demon.
He hears her thoughts, as He hears all, but His eyes are not angry.
He emanates, instead, a weary sadness.
"I might remind you, Margarita, that I created her too. In all her forms, I created her."
"You created her," Maggie agrees, "But she is not what You made. And I think--" she swallows, clenches her fists in the fabric of her robes at her hips. "I think I am not what You made anymore, either."
He reaches out, then, and touches her on the top of her head, and she feels in her body a sudden calm, a sudden peace.
"You have a question, My Margarita," He says. "I think you should ask it."
His desire for her to give it voice feels strange, unnecessary. He knows her question, of course, as He knows all.
But perhaps the question is for the benefit of Alex, or Kara, or those around them now, watching.
"Why me?" she asks. "It was excruciating, for so long, to love so much and to live with such fear that my love would be taken from me. Why was I, of all Angels, the one to whom Alex appeared? Have I been Falling all the while? Has it been my damnation to love her?"
He looks at her with incredulity. “My dearest Margarita,” He says mournfully. “I have failed you, indeed, if you have thought I would be so cruel as to conflate torture with love.”
“Then why—” Maggie falters. She looks at Alex, who, perhaps sensing Maggie’s eyes, turns and looks back at her. She reaches a hand back, through the feathers of her wing, and Maggie takes it in both of hers. She feels how it doesn’t burn; how Alex’s skin is smooth and cool, and it disrupts her sense of Alex’s touch, of Alex’s presence.
Alex squeezes, then, so tight that it hurts Maggie’s fingers, and Maggie feels grounded by it.
“Why me?” Maggie asks.
“I don’t know,” He says.
A gasp, a shudder of incredulity, moves through the Host like a wave. He knows all: every atom of every fiber of every being that exists.
To hear Him say that he doesn’t know something is… revelatory.
“Look,” He says, defensive, “I have a whole system in place for Angels to Fall, but I haven’t really needed a system to bring them back up again. Kara was making decisions in her new life that set her on the path to redemption, and each of those decisions pushed Alexandra closer and closer to her return. I didn’t know, exactly, how that was going to happen. We were all learning it together. But she was--” He pauses then, glancing around at the assembled Angels, and catches himself. “She had to… materialize… here somehow, from where she was before. And to materialize, somebody had to see her. I thought it would happen all at once, but I guess started with you and went from there.”
“So it could have been anyone,” Maggie says. Alex grips her hand even tighter, and Maggie grips it back: the only thing, in this moment, that makes sense to her. “I was a coincidence. Happenstance.”
“Perhaps,” He says, “though I do have a different theory.”
Maggie inhales. Waits.
“Alexandra’s soul was returning to Paradise, and as it emerged here, it would have been due growing bits of happiness over time,” He says. “I think it was you at first, Margarita, because Alexandra loved you. And then it remained you because you gave her those gifts, unbidden, from the goodness of your soul, and those gifts became a part of her.”
Alex lets out a soft sound: a muted cry of agony. Her body folds; she tries to pull her hand from Maggie’s, but Maggie holds tight. Maggie holds tight, and tighter, and steps forward, closer, her free hand reaching for Alex’s Perfect face, contorted with grief.
“I’m sorry,” Alex gasps. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry—”
“Alex, what?” Maggie bends down, now, heedless of the audience (and the Audience) and presses her lips to Alex’s forehead.
“You suffered because of me,” Alex says, words squeezed out through harsh breaths. “I couldn’t help but love you, and my love drew you into all this suffering, all this worry—”
“Don’t you dare,” Maggie whispers. “It has been my greatest happiness, my greatest ecstasy, to love you. Despite everything, I’d choose it a thousand times.”
Alex tries to pull away, tugging on Maggie’s grip, but her wings are unfamiliar, her body foreign without its embedded pain, and it takes little for Maggie to tug her forward, into her arms; to fold them both into her wings like she’s done so many times before. Alex clings to her, to the fabric of her robe, and shakes, and Maggie stands as strong as she can, an oak in a storm, holding her.
From beyond her wings, she hears His voice: “Oh, dear. This isn’t how this was supposed to go.”
Then, after so long in silence, Kara’s voice: “With respect… I think You need to fix this.”
He sighs. “Yes, Kara, I think you’re right.”
Maggie whispers words of adoration, of perfection, of deepest love into Alex’s ear until Alex softens in her arms, her body stilling. Then, slowly, she folds her wings back, and slowly, Alex stands. But, in her final defiance, she keeps an arm around Maggie, holding her close.
The gathered Host is still, the Angels waiting the unfolding of this drama. “Here we stand,” Alex whispers, but her words resonate across the silence. “What is Your judgment?”
“You refuse Paradise, Alexandra,” He says, His voice tired and unimpressed. “And you, Maggie: this could never be your Paradise without her.”
Maggie knows He doesn’t need the affirmation, but she shakes her head anyway.
“You do not merit the Below,” He continues. “So I’m just… I’m at a loss, really.”
“If I may--I have an idea,” Kara says.
He turns to look at her expectantly, and Maggie looks at her, too. She is too new at this: she knows not the rules of engagement. She does not respect how to be around Him, and it will get her hurt.
“Earth,” Kara says.
Earth. To be human.
Before Alex, the thought would have been repulsive.
But now: the idea of life as an imPerfect brings with it a degree of calm. Humans, Maggie knows, are only ever expected to do their best.
He tilts His head from one side to the other, considering. “A possibility,” He says. “But I’d have to make them human for that. And humans are… tricky.” He ponders for a moment, and then turns His presence to Maggie and Alex.
“Look upon Me,” He declares.
In the force of such a command, there is no option but to obey. They stand, they turn to face Him.
“All I can do, with humans, is to set up the initial conditions. They are free beings; they make their own decisions. I can point you to each other, but it would be up to you to take the right steps.”
“They’ll know each other,” Kara says.
But He shakes his head. “Humans only have memories of their immediate lives. That’s the way I designed them. Alex and Maggie will not remember this history. Although—” He smiles, and in the moment, almost looks fond. “Their souls will remember, if their human forms are quiet enough to listen. They have given each other parts of themselves.”
Maggie lifts her eyes from Him and turns them to the Angel in her arms. She reaches up; touches a Perfect cheek, and remembers when it lived in filth and fire.
“I would find you, my Alex,” she promises.
Alex smiles. It’s a subtle thing, more in the eyes than the lips, and she tilts her head down to rest on Maggie’s. “I will find you,” she says.
“Very well,” He says.
And that is almost that. Except:
“I want to be her Guardian,” Kara says, and Alex wheels around as though she’s been hit.
“Absolutely not!” Alex exclaims. “You just got here! You are not putting yourself on the line for me!”
“You literally went to Hell for me, Alex!” Kara says.
“Exactly--because I’m your Guardian! It’s my job to protect you, not the other way around. Stay here and enjoy your life for a little while!”
“I can’t do that, Alex,” Kara says, and she sounds almost resigned. “After all you did for me, I can’t watch you go to Earth and not commit to protecting you however I can.”
Alex’s jaw tenses. She grasps Maggie’s hand again, but this time, it feels like an apology. “Then I’m not going,” Alex says.
“Oh, for goodness sake,” He says. “Well, you can’t stay here, Alexandra. This is Paradise. You can’t live in Paradise when Paradise is not Perfect for you. It defeats the entire purpose.”
Alex and Kara’s voices rise in cacophony over each other. “You can’t let her do this!” “Doesn’t she deserve protection?” “Doesn’t she deserve Perfection?” “Are You really letting her hold Your idea hostage like this?”
“Silence!” He booms, and the words are stolen from Alex’s lungs mid-breath. It is a command, not a request.
He turns to Kara. “The solution would be for you to go with them. You could protect each other that way.”
Alex inhales, and says. “Kara has already lived two lives.
“I can live a third,” Kara says. “I couldn’t enjoy Paradise anyway, knowing you were down there on your own.”
For a long moment, Alex and Kara stare at each other. Their souls are halves of a coin, and it’s impossible to toss only one side of a coin into a fountain. Alex and Maggie are different, but their connection just as deep: they have gifted one another with the inherent power of their choice. Maggie was not forced to love Alex, but she does: every imperfection, every angle of shadow and light, every sliver of her distressed being. And Alex chose Maggie of every Angel in Paradise: she sees in Maggie a uniqueness, a specific perfection, that Angels are meant to lose within the Host.
“Are you sure about this, Kara?” He asks.
Kara smiles, and shrugs. “I mean, I’ll miss the flying thing, I guess. But yes. I’m sure.”
He chuckles a little bit. “The flying, eh? Well, let Me see what I can do.”
Maggie doesn’t have the energy, anymore, to wonder what that could possibly mean.
He draws Himself up and spreads His vast presence around them all. “So it will be,” He declares.
At his words, a light begins to grow. It feels thick, like a cloud, and separates them from Him, from the assembled Host, from the ground beneath their feet.
Alex draws Maggie into her; she draws their bodies together, her shape familiar even through the new Angel’s robes, and Maggie clings to her.
Then Alex stretches a hand out toward Kara, and Kara grasps it.
“I’ll find you,” Maggie promises.
Alex smiles. “I’ll find both of you.”
Kara stands tall: confidence exceeding her stature. “We’re going to be okay.”
The light thickens, and thickens, and grows brighter and brighter until it breaks into all the colours and then merges into darkness, and—
When Maggie Sawyer turns eighteen, she gets a pair of angel’s wings tattooed onto her back. It’s a vision she’s had for years, since she was fourteen and got thrown out of her parents’ home. Because, yeah, she was thrown out on her ass but she’s thrived anyway, with scholarships to college and a plan for her future. She wasn’t supposed to succeed, but here she is, flying.
The wings are small, geometric things made of dots and lines like diagrams of a constellation. They lie on either side of her spine, between her shoulderblades. The vision she’s nursed since she was sixteen was a hell of a lot more involved than that: huge, detailed eagle wings that follow the curve of her traps, out to the point of her delts. But the simple design of dots and lines is all she can afford.
By the time she’s twenty five, she’s glad her eighteen-year-old self didn’t manage to stick her with some Ed Hardy monstrosity that she’d always have to cover with long sleeves on duty and that she’d have to justify with awkward backstory to every girlfriend for the rest of forever.
And girlfriends like the geometry. With every new woman, the first night is the same: they lie together afterward, Maggie on her stomach and the sheets around their hips, and the girl traces the pattern of the tattoo like one of those connect-the-dots pictures.
She falls down, over the years, like everyone does, but she picks herself up every time, she moves forward every time, and she likes to think that maybe the wings have something to do with it—
Until she meets Alex Danvers and falls flat on her proverbial face.
Alex Danvers, who tries to take bullets for Supergirl, who is literally bulletproof, for crying out loud .
Supergirl, who scrutinizes Maggie with way more care than any of the other cops on every crime scene they share, after the day Maggie meets Alex on the tarmac.
Maggie tries to be responsible. She tries so hard. But she fell so hard, so fast, and her wings must be broken because she can’t seem to pick herself back up again--not this time.
Their second kiss is the first one that counts: not a haphazard liplock against a pool table, but an intentional moment where their eyes have met and they’ve had that moment of silent agreement. And when they share that first real kiss, Maggie feels like her entire soul is pulled out of her body and replaced with something light and glowing. She feels like she’s floating, or like she’s flying, and she realizes that this has to be the reason her wings stopped working after that day on the airport tarmac.
They’ve been waiting for this lift.
Maggie has shared a lot of first kisses, but when she pulls back, she can see that Alex felt it, too: this strange connection, the one that feels larger than they are.
Over the next weeks, there are a lot of kisses, until, one night in Alex’s apartment, the kisses are no longer enough. Alex slips off Maggie’s clothes like she’s unveiling something sacred, and then offers herself with a hint of nervous apology, like she thinks her own body inferior to Maggie’s, bare before her. Alex has scars, markings; an unusual, oblong birth mark above her left breast, shaped like a quill from Harry Potter, but the sum of the parts is breathtaking. Maggie has never loved being a woman’s first woman--it tends to be a lot of work for a mediocre outcome--but with Alex, there’s a rightness to it. As though Maggie has the power to gift Alex the truths of her own body, and then Alex takes it upon herself to bestow the same gifts back to Maggie, with wondrous eyes and worshipful hands.
That night, it’s Alex who lies on her stomach, and Maggie who traces fingers over her shoulders. She has jagged scars over each scapula, and Maggie follows their ridges with her touch.
“It’s okay,” Alex says. “You can ask.”
Maggie hums, then leans down to press a kiss to the curve of Alex’s shoulders. “What are they?"
“Left one is from a To’ovrin claw. Trafficking ring had enslaved one to sell for the venom. The To’ovrin was just a kid, they didn’t mean to do it, they didn’t realize I was there to help. They panicked, and got me good. I spent three days in the DEO on an anti-venom drip.”
Maggie hums. In a moment of tenderness far too intimate for such a new relationship, she bends down and presses a kiss to the thickest knot of the scar.
“And the other one?” she asks, moving her touch to that one, now. It’s smaller, straighter. It looks like it was sutured.
Alex laughs a little. “Less exciting. I crashed when I was learning to surf. Fractured my scapula on a rock and had to have surgery.”
Maggie can’t help herself: she kisses that scar too.
It’s strange, and not the kind of thing Maggie tends to fetishize, but she loves the marks on Alex’s shoulders. She loves the feel of them in her hands, reminding her that the woman in her arms is Alex, always Alex, even when Maggie’s eyes are closed too tight to see her, even when Maggie is beyond clear thought.
Alex is the first girlfriend who doesn’t play connect-the-dots with Maggie’s tattoo. Instead, she runs her fingers over the fine lines of scarring--it was a really cheap tattoo--and then works her fingers into the muscles there, like she understands that the picture is just a metaphor for the flesh underneath.
Two years after the first real kiss, Alex and Maggie are married on a beach. Kara flies overhead to dust them with freeze-breath ice sprinkles on the hot September day. And when they dance at the reception, Maggie lays her fingers along the ridge of the To’ovrin scar, and Alex lays her palm over the spread of Maggie’s wings, and Maggie thinks: this is what she got the tattoo for.
There is no greater Perfection than this.