One Night Every Year
Ari flew as fast as his wings could carry him. The bells had ceased to chime, and he thought it was too quiet. All he could hear was the speed wind and his own rapid heartbeats. The Citadel grew near, and he forced himself to slow down. It was nothing, it had to be. False alarm. Anyplace else, and he would have hoped for a prank, but not here. Not in Heaven.
His stomach clenched when he saw what was going on. There were angels everywhere, carrying spears and swords. All were focused on one place. His room. On the roof stood a lone figure, the ire of angelic wrath.
Ari's heart seemed to make a little drumroll when he spied his friend, but then it froze as he realised the danger. Up here, Danny was up here! He had come to see Ari. No mental projection this time, this was really him. A million thoughts crowded Ari's mind. What could he possibly do to save him?
One angel shone brighter than the others. Michael was right there, of course, front and centre. Highest of the Seraphim. He pointed a sword at Danny, a burning sword. Ari had never seen it before, but he had heard the whispered tales. On the roof, looking so small in front of all the might of Heaven, Danny still glared back defiantly.
Bad idea. This was not a time to get sassy. He should be down on his knees, or better yet on his belly. If Danny begged for mercy, the angels would have to give it. Wouldn't they? But that was not his Danny. The devil boy would not, could not stand down.
Ari was too far away to hear what Danny said, but the reaction of the angels was fury. A golden spear flew towards the devil boy, but before it could hit, Danny stepped off the roof.
* * * * * *
Wind rushed past him as he tumbled, head-over-heels towards a ground that still lay far below. It was rapidly coming closer, though. Danny gritted his teeth and flailed his arms, trying to stop his spin. He needed all the control he could get for this. He sent a brief apology to the salamander squirming inside his pocket. If he failed, he had just killed both of them.
Once he was falling belly first, arms and legs stretched out and his barbed tail streaming uselessly in the wind behind him, Danny began flapping his wings.
They were little more than two small patches of skin, held together by brittle bones and thread-thin sinews, but they were his only hope. He had to fly. He had long ago lost count of how many times he had seen his siblings, or his father, take to the sky, and envied them. But the wings were the last thing to mature for a grown-up devil, and he was far from grown up.
The ground kept coming closer at an alarming rate.
He tried to stretch his wings out, to at least glide down. To his surprise, it did some good. The wings filled with what little wind they could catch, but maybe it would be enough. Maybe he could execute a soft crash, which would be worse than a landing but better than a splat.
The last of his fall went by too quickly to process. Danny curled up into a ball, twisting so that he wouldn't land on the salamander. Then the ground slammed into him, sending so many jolts of pain through his body that he couldn't tell what hurt worst. He rolled and tumbled down a gentle slope, until he came to a stop with a groan.
He was still alive. And he hadn't heard any bones snap. There was a flurry of white beside him, and through the pain he felt small hands shake his shoulders gently. Danny grunted. They still hurt.
"Danny! Danny? Danny, please don't be dead."
"I'm not," he moaned as he turned around to face his friend. "Hi Ari. You sure are a sight for a sore... everything."
"Can you get up?"
"Give me a decade or two."
"I can give you a second. Michael's coming."
"My thought, your word."
"He gonna kill me?"
"No." Danny watched as Ari stood up and moved between him and the descending horde of angels, feathered wings stretched out to shield him. He had never been so proud to have the angel boy for a friend. "I will not let them hurt you."
* * * * * *
"Stand aside, Ariel."
Every muscle in his body wanted to give in, to yield before the white fire that burned in his guardian's eyes. But Ari stood his ground, willing himself to not shiver. This was the first time he had disobeyed Michael to his face, and he had to steel his voice to keep it from breaking.
"He is the enemy."
"No, he's not! He's just a boy. He can't help who his dad is."
"Ariel, you damn yourself."
"I'll be damned if I let you hurt him." Ari almost flinched when Michael leaned closer. "You were wrong. I'm not tainted, I never was. He's my friend, and that's a blessing."
"Your mind is so far gone," Michael growled. "Have you truly given yourself to darkness?"
"No." Ari shook his head, frustrated that he couldn't get through to his High One. "I know I've been bad, but he's been good. We met in the middle, where we're neither one nor the other."
"There is light and dark. Nothing else."
"You are wrong, Michael. Look at him!" Ari lowered one wing so his guardian could see the trembling Danny. "He's a boy, just like me."
"Stand aside. I will not tell you again."
Ari felt a tug on his robe, and he looked back to see Danny struggle to his feet. The devil boy groaned with pain, but his face remained calm as he moved to stand next to Ari. Their hands found each other without conscious thought, and they gripped one another so hard it almost hurt. Danny raised his eyes, and stared into Michael's.
"I left Hell. They've..." He swalloed, and tried again. "I'm not going back. I can't. It's not my home anymore."
"You can never change what you are." The glare in Michael's eyes dimmed a little, and his voice sounded almost kind. Almost. "You are a spawn of the Adversary, and you should never have gone near Ariel."
"That your full name?" Danny turned to Ari and grinned. "Mine's Danial. Dad's sick joke, I don't like it much."
"This isn't the time to chat," Ari hissed back. "We need to kneel, to beg forgiveness..."
"Fuck that!" Danny said loudly, and even though Ari's heart nearly stopped with fright, he had never adored his friend more. "Dad is dad an' you all know who he is. But I had a mom, too. She was a human, and I'm her son as well. I wanna be like her, not him."
"The taint is..."
"Enough with this taint bullshit!" This time it was Ari who called out, and he almost bit his tongue off when he realised it. "We are what we do, not what we came from. Michael, can't you see? Danny has rejected Hell."
"And you?" Michael's voice deepened, and Ari felt the end draw near. His end and Danny's. That was the only possible outcome. "Are you rejecting Heaven? Rejecting the Light?"
"I am." A roar went through the amassed angels, yet they withheld their swords and their spears. Waited for their leader to act first. "Heaven without Danny can't be Heaven for me. I want out."
"Hush, Danny. You can't change my mind."
Ari turned towards Danny and took both of his hands. Their eyes met. In those large, deep brown eyes he saw fear, and sadness. But also determination and steely resolve. Danny would not back down. And behind all of that he saw the truth of Danny. Of the boy who had captured him beyond release. Ari had spoken the truth to Michael, he really had. Danny was no devil, he was a boy. That was all. And so was he, Ari. They were boys. Boys who had found... love.
For the first time, he dared to think the word, and he saw it reflected from deep within Danny's core. They hugged, and both of them let out sobs. This wasn't enough, they needed more time. More together.
"Let us go." His voice was steady and calm, and Danny squeezed him tighter, standing by his decision. "Let us go or kill us now."
"So be it."
* * * * * *
There was no anger in the boss angel's voice, just a brutal finality. Danny was still reeling from the tenderness he had seen there, deep inside Ari's sky blue eyes. The... no, he still couldn't form the word. But it was true, he knew it. He sighed, ready to accept his fate, so long as he got to share it with Ari.
Then something moved inside his pocket, and his first thought was to let the salamander out. No need for it to die, too. But he had tried that before, and the little creature had refused to let go. A thought formed inside his head, and he quickly leaned back to face Ari.
"Your wingelf," he whispered, "is she here?"
In response, a tiny face appeared from under Ari's long, blonde hair. Her light was dimmed, and Danny could see that she was shivering. As fast as he could, he let go of Ari with one hand, fished out the salamander, and held it up to her. In the corner of his eye, he saw the flaming sword rise up. They were almost out of time.
"Help us. Get us out of here, anywhere." His whisper turned to a yell. "Ari, the elementals! That's how I got here, but we gotta help. Focus!"
"Anything. Anywhere." The sword swung towards them "Now! Let's go!"
Smoke rose from burning grass, where the flaming sword had cut a deep gash in the ground of Heaven itself. The boys were gone. Michael let out a scream of righteous fury as he yanked it back. One look from his blazing eyes sent all the other angels scurrying back towards the Citadel.
This atrocity had gone too far, forgiveness was no longer an option. It was a hunt now, his hunt. They would not get far.
* * * * * *
Ari was falling. Down through planes and dimension he fell, still clutching Danny's hand. It was very different from travelling with his mind. He felt as if he were being torn apart. His skin burned and his bones felt as if they were being broken and mended, over and over again.
He would have screamed, if his mind hadn't been so filled with the enormity of what had just happened.
His once-home grew ever more distant, and the grief of losing it tore through his heart and soul. It hurt even worse than the physical pain. He would never see Heaven again, he knew that beyond a doubt. Where he would go, he didn't know, but as long as he had Danny with him it would be okay. Ari squeezed his friend's hand, and felt his squeezed in return.
Then they landed.
The grey plain looked different now that he saw it with his own eyes. More real. And the sounds! He could hear the trickle of a brook from somewhere out of sight, and the gentle rustle of a breeze in the grass. This place was alive, maybe because they were really there to experience it. Could it become their new home?
The pain of travelling left him, and now he wanted to explore. But when he tugged on Danny's hand, the devil boy tugged back. Ari turned to face him.
"Are... are you okay?"
"I will be," Danny said through gritted teeth, but when he tried to walk he sank to the ground. "I might need a band-aid or two."
"You fell really hard."
"That was nothin'. The landing was worse."
"It's not funny! You could have died."
"I almost flew." Danny smiled, that lopsided grin that Ari had come to enjoy seeing. "Flew downwards, at least."
"Danny, I don't think we can stay here."
"Yeah, I guess you're right. Is he gonna come after us? That Michael guy?"
"I don't know." Ari sat down next to Danny. "I've never, ever seen him like that. So angry. It's like, he's gone crazy. He was gonna kill us!"
"Me, for sure."
"What about, you know, your dad and them?"
"To be honest, I don't think they really care if I'm there or somewhere else. Or dead. If anyone comes after me it'll be Damien."
"'Cause he hates my guts. And he's a prick." Danny huffed. "The thought that I might live happily ever after's gonna eat at him."
"And your dad?"
"Dunno. You never know with him. He could have stopped us whenever he wanted to, but he didn't." They were holding hands yet again, and Ari rubbed his thumb over Danny's fingers, to try and comfort him. "I really don't know. Far as I know, nobody's ever left Hell before. I mean really left, as in never going back."
"So are we gonna stay here? Wait for them?"
"Might as well." Danny flipped their hands over, and this time it was he who gently caressed Ari's fingers. "I like this place. I had fun here with you."
"Me, too." Ari looked down at the ground, feeling his cheeks burn, but then he took a deep breath and met Danny's eyes again. "I still owe you that kiss. Might as well collect before it's too late."
"Ugh." Danny made a sour face. "You still on about that?"
"Can you honestly say you don't want to kiss me?"
"Not honestly, no." The words came out in a whisper, and they made Ari's heart flutter. "So, who does what?"
The two boys, the fallen angel and the risen devil, gazed shyly at one another. Then, as if on cue, they moved closer. But before their lips could meet, there was a rumble as if from distant thunder. The ground trembled underneath them, before it opened up and swallowed them both. Neither had time to cry out.
* * * * * *
It was another hard landing, and this time Ari landed on top of him. Danny's body was not happy with the way it had been treated lately, and he groaned as fresh jabs of pain shot through him. The ground was stone this time, very uncomfortable stone. Ari rolled off him, and a worried face appeared in front of Danny.
"Sorry. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to..."
"S'all right, not your fault. Where are we?"
"I don't know. We're on some kind of bridge. In a cave. There's stone pillars with sconces in them, that's where the light's coming from."
"Bridge..." Glimpses of a memory flashed by. Danny's father had taken him on a tour through the underworlds when he was little, and there had been one place... "Ari, we gotta go. Now!"
"No time to explain, but this is bad. Really bad." Ignoring his aching body, Danny got to his feet and looked around. Yes, he did know this place. He grabbed the sleeve of Ari's robe and pulled. "Come on, we gotta run. This is the bridge over Tartaros."
Ari's eyes widened, but instead of saying anything, the angel boy fell in beside him as they ran towards the near end of the bridge, which Danny knew led out. It looked just the same as he remembered it; a sturdy stone bridge no more than two metres wide at any point, arcing over a dark chasm. There were no railings, and Danny steered well clear of the edge. The stone pillars Ari had mentioned were stalactites hanging from the ceiling of the cave, adorned with torches and candles that barely lit up the bridge and cast no light whatsoever into the abyss below.
"Tartaros," Danny panted between breaths as they neared the end of the bridge. "It's like... like an extra bad Hell. A hell for... for people like us. Whoever brought us here... they wanna..."
Just then, a clap of thunder shook the cave. The boys lost their footing and fell, but they managed to stay on the bridge. Danny cried out as his battered body smacked into stone again, and he dropped the salamander. The little creature rolled to a stop a couple of paces farther ahead. It got to its feet and hurried back towards him, when a wide, heavy hoof slammed down on top of it. Danny gasped, as his eyes travelled up, up the massive body in front of him.
Leathery skin strained against bulging muscles, and huge black wings spread out behind a wide torso. Red burning eyes glared down at him from a bestial face under sharp, curved horns. This was the crown prince of Hell, all glamours cast aside, in his true form.
* * * * * *
Ari's heart nearly stopped inside his chest. Where had that monster come from? He let go of the wingelf, and she fluttered up to the ceiling where she disappeared with a faint pop. Good luck, he thought to her as he got ready to run. It took him a couple of steps back towards the place where they had first landed on the bridge, before he realised that Danny wasn't following.
"Come on," Ari hissed. "Run!"
But Danny just shook his head, as if frozen on the spot. He is, Ari realised. Damien, that was Danny's oldest brother. The worst of them all. Ari wanted to yell at him to go back to Hell and leave them be, but he knew it would be futile. Damien was snarling, talking to Danny in a guttural language that Ari couldn't understand.
"I can't," Danny said meekly. "I won't go back. And you can't touch him, you can't."
Before he could really decide what to do, Ari dashed back and scooped Danny up, one arm behind the devil boy's back and one under his knees. Then he ran, out onto the bridge. He didn't know what lay on the other side, but anything was better than here. Behind them, Damien growled. Heavy hoofsteps followed, and Ari pumped his legs as fast as he could. He didn't dare fly, since he couldn't see if there were any non-lit stalactites out there. His lungs burned. He was still sore after crossing realms, but he would not give up. Not if it meant giving up Danny to that thing chasing them.
Ari didn't know much about this place, but Danny had seemed afraid of it, which must mean it was bad. Really bad. They had reached the mid-point of the bridge when there was more thunder. Ari almost tripped, but managed to stay on his feet. Ahead of him, a bright light lit up the far end. Flaming sword in hand, Michael moved towards them, his feet not touching the stone.
With a sigh, Ari sank to his knees, Danny still in his arms. The fight went out of him, and he found that he didn't really care who got to them first.
* * * * * *
All Danny could see was Damien, coming up behind them. He wanted to run, but a lifetime of fear and abuse had caught up with him, and the sight of his brother sapped him of strength. And there was nowhere to go, even if he could run. Underneath lay Tartaros, and up ahead... what? He could feel something coming closer, but he dared not break stares with Damien.
His brother had stopped now, as well. Why didn't he attack? It wasn't like Damien to hesitate this close to a kill. Then Damien's eyes left his, and he found that he could move again. He turned around, and saw the angel. Michael, Ari's guardian. The one who had tried to kill them both just moments ago.
"You," Danny heard Damien growl. "Archangel."
"Stay back, fiend," Michael said. His calm voice belied the scowl on his face and the white fire in his eyes. He looked insane with rage, just as Ari had said. "These two are not for you."
"It's true, then? That little shit... and my brother." Damien flapped his wings hard enough to make the lights flicker all along the bridge. "They can't be that stupid! It's got to be a trick of some sort, to get at the family."
"It's your kind that corrupted my ward." The burning sword glowed brighter. "Cost Heaven an angel, yet again!"
It was no use, trying to argue with either of them. Ari must have sensed it as well, because he gently laid Danny down on the ground, and hugged him. Danny smiled. That would be a good way to die, in his friend's arms. He squeezed back as hard as his aching arms could manage.
What happened next was something Danny should have been able to guess, but it still surprised him. Instead of attacking him and Ari, Damien stepped over them. His eyes were set on Michael now. A heavy battle axe appeared in Danny's brother's hand, and he swung it at Ari's guardian, who defended with his fiery sword then struck a blow of his own. The crash of their weapons made Ari whimper in his arms, but to Danny it was the sound of hope. A hope he thought had been lost.
"Come on," he whispered, his lips brushing against Ari's ear. "Hurry, while they're fighting each other."
"Whoever wins will get us next if we're not out of here five minutes ago."
"But I have to... I have to help him."
"You can't, Ari." Danny met his friend's eyes, and the despair in them made him wince. "Damien's stronger that sixty of us."
Ari sighed, and tears started to fall down his cheeks as Danny helped him up. He wanted to wipe them away, to tell his angel that everything would be all right. But he didn't know if that were true or not. All he knew was that they had one last chance.
Running was out of the question. They barely had strength enough left to walk. Yet they made progress. The end of the bridge was close now. They might not be able to cross the borders without their elementals, but at least outside the cave there would be places to hide. Places where...
"Damn you!" Damien roared behind them. "You're not getting away!"
The bridge shook as Danny's brother ran towards them. Danny bit back a curse, which would only sound feeble now. They had been so close.
* * * * * *
Ari made a half-hearted attempt to get Danny to keep running, but when he saw Michael fly alongside Damien, he almost laughed. Had Heaven and Hell set aside their eternal war just to get at two kids? It was beyond ridiculous!
The archangel and the hellprince both reached out with one hand, and red and white fire shot towards Danny and Ari. The boys only had time to clasp hands, before the flames engulfed them.
White heat shot through Danny, burned away his clothes and pierced his skin. He screamed, and Ari screamed with him as blood red flames singed his beautiful white wings and lit him afire. Reaching out blindly, they fell into each other's arms while hellfire and heavenly flames danced around them, spinning and weaving into one another. Devouring the two boys. But in amidst it all, a third light began to shine. Brighter, gentler, it soothed their pain, cradled them both and comforted them through their last moments.
Then, there was nothing left. What had been Danny and Ari fell through one another. Devil and angel, ashes together.
With their quarry gone, Damien and Michael turned on each other. With a snarl, the archangel ran his foe through, at the same time as Damien's axe bit deep into his own chest. Neither withdrew, both pushed forth until they sank down on the bridge together, locked in a loveless mockery of the boys' heartfelt embrace.
From the entrance to the cave, Danny's and Damien's father strolled out onto the bridge, until he stood before the two stalemated combatants. He still wore his human guise, a handsome middleaged man wearing discreetly fashionable clothes, and looked nothing like a ruler of Hell. He crouched down next to Damien's face, and shook his head.
"I'm very disappointed in you, son." The voice was calm, but had a slight edge to it. "You've handled this poorly."
"Was there really no other way you could have dealt with Danial? You had to resort to killing your own brother?"
"He disgraced... the family."
"That he did." He shook his head again. "Falling in love with an angel, that's... that's really shameful. But hardly worse than a lot of things we've done, you and I."
"You didn't realise that until now?" Damien's father slapped him hard in the face, splattering blood and spit onto the stone bridge. "And you think you're good enough to be the heir? Danial was useless, but he still had a brain."
"Fiend..." Michael croaked through gritted teeth. "Adversary."
"Yes, old friend, I know who I am. And I remember you, for sure." He walked over to the edge of the bridge and stared down into the dark. "Good old Tartaros. Hasn't been in use for quite a while. I wonder if there's anything left down there."
"Maybe a few aeons of thought and contemplation will do you good." He smiled, the kind of grin that revealed a bit of his true nature. "Both of you."
With that, he kicked his eldest son in the back, right next to where the tip of the flaming sword protruded. Damien fell over the edge, and dragged Michel with him. Their screams echoed around the cave.
"Give my regards to the Hundred Hands, if any of them are still down there!"
Once silence had fallen, Danny's father scoffed, and turned to leave. At the end of the bridge, he paused to look at the pile of ashes on the ground. Only two things were recognisable; one singed feather that had once been white, and a small piece of sooty red cloth. Danial's favourite shirt. He pondered the sad little remains for a minute or two, then he shoved them off the bridge with the sole of his shoe. The darkness swallowed them immediately.
Before he could leave, another thing else caught his attention. A tiny, four-legged something came crawling across the bridge, looking slightly squashed. Danial's pet. Danny's father's eyes gleamed, and his hand clenched, but before he could do anything there was a pop, and a bright light scooped up the little creature before vanishing with another pop.
Shrugging his shoulders, the ruler of Hell left the cave.
* * * * * *
Fire. Pain. It seemed to go on and on, forever. Ari tried to scream, but he didn't have lungs anymore, did he? No hands either, to hold Danny, but he could stil feel that his friend was near. Suffering the same.
He must have eyes, though, because images flickered through the agony, images of a night sky. Grass. A hut... no, a house. He lay on a lawn, right next to a sidewalk. The world shifted, and the pain began to fade. He was really there. On Earth, at the same place where he and Danny had wrestled on Halloween, getting grass all over their clothes.
He was still himself. But not quite.
Ari had been so proud of his wings. He wanted to weep, but the second loss was so great it took his tears away. He could no longer feel Heaven. His connection to the Light had been severed. He was chained to the mortal world now, tied down by gravity. As sure as he knew anything, he knew that he would never fly again.
"Heavy... so heavy..."
A whimper reached his ears, and he looked to the side. Danny lay there. Bruises from his fall still covered his face and arms, and he shivered. Of course. He must be cold. If he, too, had lost his home and his realm. To go from Hell to Earth, he'd be freezing. Ari lay down and moved closer, and hugged him.
Danny's wings were gone, too. So were his tail, and his tiny horns. They were boys, just normal human boys. The realisation should have had a greater impact, but somehow it felt right. It was what he had wanted, wasn't it? Danny finally stopped shivering, and turned around to face him. Ari smiled.
"Hello, Ari. Where are we?"
"Cedar Road, I think. How do you feel?"
"Hurtin'. Cold, too. What happened?"
"I don't know. Maybe... maybe in the end Michael decided to spare us. Send us here instead."
"Get real! He burned us. Every bit as much as Damien did. So why aren't we dead?"
"Well, if it wasn't Michael," Ari said harshly, "then you figure it out."
"My mom." It was a whisper so faint Ari could barely hear it. "I know she's dead, that's she's just a statue now, but maybe... maybe she saved us."
"All the way from Hell?"
"Well, you figure it out, then!"
"Heaven and Hell."
"Michael's fire, and your brother's fire. Maybe they cancelled each other out. Became something neutral, both good and bad."
"Michael wasn't very good right then, though."
"Maybe we'll never know for sure." Ari reached out with one hand and touched Danny's cheek, and Danny leaned against his hand. "I like the thought that it was your mother who saved us."
"I bet Damien's smashed her to bits by now." Danny started crying, and Ari hugged him tightly. "I bet they... I bet they all... that they're happy to be rid of me."
"That's their loss. Their loss." Ari felt tears run down his own cheeks. "Their loss. You're my brave Danny. You came to Heaven for me. I'm ever so proud of you."
"Maybe it was we who did it."
"We did what?"
"Saved us. Do you have angel powers? I mean, did you, before we ended up here?"
"Don't think so. I could fly, and I could turn into a boy when I went out. I couldn't, like, call down lightning or nothing like that."
"Me neither." The lay in silence for a few minutes. The night was cold, and when they both shivered, they sat up. "What are we gonna do now, Ari?"
"We'll figure it out. On Earth, if you need something, you use money instead of barter."
"I know what money is," Danny snorted. "I've watched a lot of TV."
"There's TV in Hell?"
"Of course. Dad owns a lot of networks. Though he's not my dad anymore, is he?"
"Do you want him to be?"
"Not really. I just wanna be a regular old me for a change." He grinned, lopsidedly. "Wickedly charming and charmingly wicked."
"Except you're a good boy, not wicked."
"Fuck you. I'm so bad I make children cry."
"That's true, you made me cry a couple of times."
"I did, didn't I?" Danny's smile faded. "Sorry..."
"Don't be. I made you cry, too." Ari took Danny's hand in his. It felt so right to hold it. "I even punched you."
The sudden voice made them both jump. Ari turned around and found an old lady watching them. She was standing on the porch of the nearest house, and he realised that they were on her lawn.
"Sorry, ma'am. We'll go."
"What are you doing out on your own at this hour?" She came down off the porch and walked over to them. Her tone wasn't really stern, but still called for straight answers. "Do your parents know where you are?"
"I don't have any," Ari answered meekly. It was true, and now it was more true than ever. "Neither does Danny."
"I have a dad. Technically speaking. But he doesn't care where I am."
"Oh, you poor dears. Runaways?" They nodded. Her eyes wandered down to their clasped hands. "Oh, I see. They didn't approve of you?"
"That's putting it mildly," Danny huffed. "Try hissy fit married slugfest and had a fuck-off-and-die baby."
"It's all right, dear. I was a teacher for forty-five years, I've heard every cuss word there is and then some." She stepped closer, and Ari felt Danny tense up. "Oh, you. You've got bruises all over!"
"Nothing's broken. Nothing's bleedin', neither."
"It's not something to joke about." She turned to Ari. "And you, in just your night shirt. Please tell me you're wearing something underneath it."
Ari's only reply was to turn pink, which made Danny giggle. The old lady shook her head.
"That's no good. Come on inside. I'll get you something warm to eat, and a soft bed to sleep in. Tomorrow, I'll call an old friend of mine. She can help you find a new place to live."
"We don't need that." Danny took a step back, and Ari could feel him pull at his hand. "We can take care of ourselves!"
"Where are you going to sleep, love? It'll be October soon. The first ground frost can come in any day now."
"I'm done with families." Danny tried to sound defiant, but Ari could hear the slight tremor in his voice. There was another tug on his hand. "Ari?"
"I am pretty cold," Ari confessed. "And a bed sounds really nice."
"Fine!" He yanked his hand back. "You stay, then."
Danny spun around and started walking briskly down the street. Mouth gaping and eyes watering, Ari watched him go.
* * * * * *
Stupid! Everything was so stupid. He had just left his family behind, and now they wanted to stick him with another one? True, warm food and a bed sounded good to Danny, too, but not at the cost of his new-won freedom. He never wanted to be dependent, ever again.
But what if it cost him Ari?
He had expected the angel... former angel... to come with him, yet Ari had stayed with the old lady. It was different for him, he didn't know how much a family could hurt.
Danny's feet brought him into a small park while his head was busy. He slumped down on a bench and cried a little, while he stared at the full moon. It seemed so much brighter now that he had human eyes. As he traced the darker spots, trying to find patterns, a small hand touched his shoulder.
"I'm here." Ari plopped down on the bench next to him. "And you are very stubborn, and rude."
"Fuckin' sue me..."
"I'll fucking punch you. Again."
"What do you want?" He turned away from the moon, his cheeks not quite dry yet. "You're... you're still in your robe?"
"Yeah. Ms Atherton wanted to give me something warmer before I went out to look for you, but I said no." He chuckled. "I'm still bare-bottomed underneath. Her words."
"Yeah? Prove it."
"I'm not going back there. I don't want a family, I just want me. And you."
"I get it. But she said there's people who want to look after kids, stray kids like us. And they're really nice."
"I'll believe that when I see it!"
"You won't see it if we run away again."
"Of course." Ari threw his arms around Danny's neck. "I'm not letting you go alone."
"But... but you can have a family. If you want."
"Yeah, but I also want you. In my life. If I have to choose, I choose you."
"You're so stubborn, you know."
"Uh-huh. Like a bog demon."
"I think humans say, like a mule."
"Shows how much they know."
"Please, Danny? For me? I promise we'll run away again if things don't work out. Pretty please?"
"My butt is cold."
"All right," Danny sighed, and stood up. "I'll give you one chance to prove me wrong."
* * * * * *
* * * * * *
"We'd better go home soon."
"Get real! It's barely even dark."
"Mama's gonna take us shopping tomorrow morning."
"Don't make that face!" Ari poked Danny's rib, making him jump. "You love shopping."
"I don't like shopping with mama an' Angie an' you, you always try on everything."
"What's wrong with that?"
"What's wrong with go in, pick one thing you like, check the size, pay and go?"
"You're completely missing the point of shopping!"
"It's so boring, watching you try on sixty pairs of jeans that all look the same. And every time I have to tell you your butt looks fine in them." Danny opened his bag and peered inside. "Let's do one more street."
"One more house and your bag will burst."
"Let's egg someone, then."
"We can go sit on the swings for a while if you want."
"You don't have to keep up your bad boy spiel, you know." Ari winked, and Danny stuck his tongue out at him. "Nobody believes it."
"I'm still staying out after our curfew."
They rounded a corner, waved at a couple of other trick-or-treaters, then took a shortcut through the park. It was mostly empty, and when they reached the playground there was nobody in sight. Danny's robot costume creaked and protested when he sat down and started up a slow swing, while Ari hopped up on his tyre swing with ease.
"Comes with the territory."
Ari stretched the legs of his bright green frog suit, swinging higher than Danny. They sat there in silence for a while, but it wasn't one of the usual easy, carefree silences they were so good at. There was tension in the air, brought on by being all alone, on Halloween. Both of them remembered the promise Ari had made, a year ago to the day, but neither was willing to voice it. Ari kept staring ahead, actively ignoring his friend while trying not to grind his teeth with impatience. The silence broke when Danny dug through his candy bag, and unwrapped a chocolate bar.
"I thought we were gonna save it for when we got home."
"That's a stupid idea, I never agreed to it."
"It was your idea!"
"Which I didn't agree to. You did." Danny stuffed his mouth full of chocolate until he could barely chew. "'S good."
"You're so disgusting."
"Say that again and I'll say your butt's big when you try on pants tomorrow."
"You wouldn't dare!"
"I'm gonna try something else."
"Like, kissing you."
With that, the tension was back. Danny finished his mouthful, but ate no more candy. The two of them kept sneaking glances at one another, blushing and looking away whenever their eyes met. Ari's hands were shaking when he finally grabbed the rope of Danny's swing and pulled them closer.
It was ridiculous! Ever since they had moved in with their new mother and step-sister, they had been more or less a couple. Everyone in school treated them as such, and they held hands wherever they went. So why was it so hard to bring about that first kiss? Maybe because it had been such a long time coming. Ari shook his head and leaned in closer. Danny did not pull away.
"I'm gonna do it."
"Mhm. It's kinda our anniversary, you know. One year ago."
"Halloween," Danny whispered. "Sure was a different life."
"I like this one better."
"All talk and no shop."
"You want me to kiss you, devil boy?"
"I'm a robot this year."
"Fine. Robot boy, same question."
"You can kiss me if you want."
So Ari did. Before any more sass could seep out from between Danny's lips, he sealed them with his own. Danny closed his eyes, and so did Ari. They stayed that way for a few seconds, occasionally moving their lips a little. It was a chaste kiss, but to Ari it still felt as if a milestone had been passed. When they broke apart, their cheeks were flushed. Ari smiled timidly, while Danny fired off his lopsided grin.
"That was pretty good. I might let you do it again, if you really want."
"What?" Danny's eyes widened. "But...?"
"Next time, you have to kiss me."
"Suit yourself." Ari opened his bag and dug around until he found a jelly bean, which he popped into his mouth. "I guess I could find someone else who wants to kiss me. Angie says Sarah in eighth grade thinks I'm cute."
"No fucking way!"
"So what'll it be?"
"I'll show you what it'll be." Ari gasped when Danny grabbed the front of his costume and pulled him close. This kiss was more heated, and Ari almost fell off his swing when Danny finally let go. "Nice jelly bean."
"You stole it?" Ari's voice broke into a squeak. "Give it back!"
"Too late. Gone."
"Thank you." Danny opened his bag and took out a chocolate bar. "You can have this instead of your ol' your bean."
"Have I told you that I love you?"
"Not since lunch."
Ari took off the wrapper, and offered half the bar to Danny, who accepted it. Then he looked around for a waste basket. Shaking his head, Danny scrunched up his own wrapper and tossed it into the sandbox. Ari frowned, but repeated the gesture.
Despite what Danny had said about staying out late, they got up and started heading for home, well within their curfew.
Hand in hand.
* * * * * *
If they had looked back they might have seen an empty playground, swings still moving slightly, two candy wrappers littering the sandbox. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Or, they might have seen a tiny creature scurry out of its hiding place in the grass, eager to examine the wrappers for crumbs. And they might have seen one of the street lights leave its lamp post and slowly sink towards the sandbox, its colour shifting to a soft green.