Rapture remains elusive, and Natalia shakes off the disappointment; she is still earthbound in the aftermath. Warm in body and cold in heart. Natalia waits till he falls asleep, then quietly departs, before the sun rises and his body is too tempting to leave in the dark. She pockets the cash from the side, and ignores the doorman as she exits the polished foyer. Her heels rat tat tat on the cobbles of the private cul de sac and she squeezes her coat tighter about her, fat snow flakes starting to fall. Somewhere a siren wails, and her eyes scan the skies. It smells like burning rubber and snow. London is glowing softly by firelight in the distance and it makes her heart ache. London has been dark for such a long time now. She misses the lights, and wonders if she will ever heal enough that she would see them from above one day. The lights will return. London is a survivor like her.
London is gift wrapped in the aftermath of Christmas, glamorous even at this mauve hour. Discreet bells and ribbons adorn the brass knockers of the hotels in this corner of the city, and she tilts her own silver antlers at the ARP Warden as he passes by. She is blonde and dressed in a beaded black dress beneath the fur. She looks like a ghost from a lost era in the snowfall, and that matches her mood. She will walk tonight, money tucked into her corset, arms wrapped in fake fur. The night is quiet but for the War and the stars are out; she looks up and wonders if they see her watching. She has been hunting Rapture for so long now. She has forgotten what it tastes like, feels like, smells like -perhaps it is lost to her for good. A hollowness resides within her, and she aches to fill it, to silence it. How can you replace heaven with anything but heaven? Once you have flown, how can you be satisfied with anything else? She misses something so long departed she can barely describe the shape of it on her tongue.
There is a bridge up ahead, and she can hear the gentle whoosh of the Thames from here, the steady vein that pulses through the city. She glances at her watch, eyes used to the dark now, and then at the sky. The future and the past are all written there for those who can read it. Natalia has been reading it since her eyes learned the language of constellations and her human heart learned to translate what they saw. There is still time, she thinks, ignoring the warning tug in her chest. She has time. The tug is addictive, that thud thud thudding warning that she should turn away. Yet she has business on the bridge, it pulls her on and she is her father’s daughter after all. How can she refuse? The smell of smoke lingers in the air, and she wonders how many have been lost tonight. When the first bomb fell she locked herself inside her room for almost a week, haunted by memories of another time that death had rained from the heavens. Now she walks home through the pitch black city as the bombs fall. She is quick to adapt, she knows, it is one of her strengths. It is why she is still here, when so many are not.
She crosses the street, and sidesteps a young couple as they pass. They vibrate with joy, and passion, it is shining in their eyes and threaded through their whispered giggles and playful touches. She used to feel happy for them, lovers such as these, and now her heart is wistful and she wonders, is that why Rapture eludes me? Because I ache for it so badly? The idea sobers her and she ducks her head when they glance over, hurrying on to the bridge.
Wind whistles through her coat as the snow flurries thicken, and she sticks out her tongue, letting ice melt softly into her throat. It is a dual foot bridge only, wide enough for her to glance over either side without much effort. There is a lock between the bridges. It used to cost a penny to cross but now the toll booth stands empty, and ghostlike in the gloom. The dark swirl of the Thames beckons, but she resists. Her brother calls and she ignores it, knowing what he wants. She doesn’t care, she tells herself.
“Don’t come any closer.” The voice startles her, and Natalia searches for the owner of the southern drawl. She knows that voice immediately though she’s never heard it before. Longing sparks within her. A man is standing on the wrong side of the bridge, feet precariously balanced on the metal railings, just a short way up and she reaches out instinctively in horror causing him to shout, “Get back!”
“Or what, you’ll jump?” She demands, marching over and grabbing his arm. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Get the hell offa me.” He attempts to shake her hand from his arm, but she clings on, stronger than she looks in her fur coat and heels and she lets him continue until all fight has fled his heavy limbs. He sags eventually, elbows on the main railing and she hooks an arm with his, leaning on the rail and staring out into the water alongside him. She feels like a jigsaw piece that has found it’s match for a brief moment and soaks in the sensation. Is he an echo, she wonders, or a ghost?
“Did you mean that metaphorically or do you need an exorcist because I know a man in Lambeth,” she smiles at him, and he stares back; she can see his eyes taking her in, adding up what he thinks is the sum of her. Her heart is heavy after his brief calculation, but she doesn’t flinch. Soldiers don’t flinch, and she is still a soldier, even if her war was lost before time was counted by trees or man. He is an American GI. He is pulsing with a cocktail of heady emotions that stir her blood and she is taken by how familiar he feels, how her body seems to know his as they stand side by side. His calculations are no matter. He knows her. She knows him.
“It may have escaped your notice,” he says, “but I’m not feeling particularly hot to trot right now. So your services won’t be required.”
Natalia doesn’t dwell on the insult. There have been far worse over the years. Besides she is still feeling tender, she thinks, from the memory stirred within her, a rush of warmth bursting beneath her skin all over. She wants to cling to him, yet he does not share the memories she is reliving. The fear that is building in her blood is a powerful stutter and it is hypnotic as she gives in to it. She has waited she realises, for this; an encounter with as close to Rapture as a disgraced angel can find.
“My services are varied and complex. I doubt you could afford any of them.” She smiles, a whiplash smile that is gone in an instant and replaced by a calmer, patient expression. Her brethren always teased that she was impatient for one with all of time on her hands. Natalia never understood what time had to do with patience at all. Understands it even less now she is counting the ticks and the tocks at the mortal pace. Patience is about desire, she knows it better than perhaps anyone. Patience is about need, and want and longing. It is about self denial, and lies, and fear. Patience is no virtue and those that think otherwise are wrong.
“What makes you think I’m in need of anything you have to offer?” He sidles a glance at her and she feels a wave of curiosity wash over her, tinged with teeth. She has felt that bite before. The whites of his eyes gleam against his dark skin and she breathes in the Thames and his interest. She looks into the water, seeing a blurred reflection of their outlines in the glassy ripple. Snow melts into the river which hasn’t frozen yet. It will though, she knows. He is tall, and wearing his dress uniform. He smells good. Sometimes, Natalia thinks, it is the scent of men that she adores, not the men at all. They are skin and bone and strangely confused creatures mostly in her experience; though perhaps, she concedes, that is a reflection of her own desires. The lost seek out the lost, and isn’t she more lost than any?
“Because here we are,” she says. “Did you pray Christopher, before you climbed the railing?”
“How…who told you my name? Did he send you?” Christopher’s foot slips and he clutches at the rail to regain his balance with a cry. He is panicking now. That is good she thinks. She hears the hollow ringing when his leg hits the rail. She nods thoughtfully in answer to his question.
“Do you wish he had?” Natalia is not averse to using her grace when required. What little she has left. The sky in the distance is on fire and another siren sounds. The snow slows to a gentle drift. Christopher appears unmoved by the siren, and she wonders why. When the planes fly above your bones shiver with it, and even if you know you are safe, the city is not. Christopher fears for no one, but then this is not his city after all. Natalia wonders when it became hers.
“He thinks I can fuck away my GI Blues?” Christopher snorts, and Natalia realises he is talking about his Sergeant. A wide set man with haunted eyes, who is currently drinking scotch alone in his room. The man on Christopher’s mind is his father however, and Natalia can see him now, a spry silver haired man, sat on a porch, staring out onto a small farmstead in Ohio. He rocks in the dark, barely visible in the moonlight. Natalia feels a stab of jealousy. Does her father wait still? The water whispers and she ignores it. He hasn’t told his father of his injuries yet, the telegram is in his pocket and has been for four days.
“Why do you want to die?” She keeps her eyes wide as she asks and his anger ripples at her in short bursts. His knuckles pale where he clings to the railing, his skin is ashy and tired. She waits.
“What I do with my life is of no concern to a street walker, no matter who sent you.” Christopher stares into the water and she wonders what he sees. London is wailing now, aflame in the distance, and it feels as though the magic of christmas has faded and with it, the promise of a new year and peace has too. The city has took a beating she thinks, bones aching as the temperature drops; her own beatings still echoing within her vessel. Even the snow falls slowly now, and will become sludge by tomorrow. No fresh blanket of snow will kiss the city tonight. She listens to the whoosh of the water and to the sound of far off engines in the skies, then replies.
“I wish that were true Christopher, I honestly do.” Natalia uses her left hand to locate the cigarette case buried in the pocket of her fur coat. She mildly regrets not bringing gloves out this evening, but her hands have become immune now, the cold burning through them so as to make them numb. She is used to being numb. “Would you like one?”
He refuses, and she shrugs, leaning into his arm as she strikes a match and lights a Lucky Strike, taking a deep drag and sending smoke rings pluming into the starry air above them. Once lit, she doesn’t move away, burrowing against his arm and letting the warmth from his body add to her own. Her lungs scorch with a burn that feels good in the cold, and she enjoys the scent of the sulphur from the discarded match. She shouldn’t, but she does. She wants to tell him, that it’s okay, she has found him, and that she has missed him. That even when he was alone and suffering and thought life nothing but inevitable cruelty, she was yearning for him.
“I have to say Christopher, I’m not quite convinced your heart is really in this whole killing yourself business,” she muses conversationally, and watches him from the corner of her eye. They both start when the siren wails once more and Natalia wonders if they should head to the underground station, Richmond is close by. The idea makes her nervous, she hates the feeling of being buried. It makes her chest flutter, wings beating her rib cage from within. She taps ash into the river, and addresses him again. “Is death really your best option?”
“I don’t want to live,” he answers quietly. “Isn’t that the same thing?”
She shakes her head violently, sucking on the cigarette before flicking it, sparks flying, into the Thames.
“It’s not the same thing at all Christopher,” she tuts at him, having encountered this notion repeatedly and finding it just as baffling. “The opposite of living isn’t dying. Dying isn’t the opposite of anything. It’s just the end.”
“Who are you?” He asks, and she looks at him, his open handsome face, and brown eyes, and thinks; yours, always and forever. She can feel his heart aching and when his eyes meet her own, she feels recognition there, or perhaps she is simply tired of being misunderstood.
“I used to be an angel,” she tells him. She spreads her left arm wide and lets her palm catch the fat snow flakes still lazily floating to the wet ground. Nothing will settle, it is too warm and wet for that, yet her bones disagree, feeling ice splinter through them. He doesn’t laugh and she knows that her antlers are glowing in the remnant light of her tattered halo. She dims it, mindful of the blackout. All she needs is an ARP Warden clocking her.
“And what are you now?” Christopher asks, his grip softening on the rails. He is a kind man; she knows it, can feel it, despite the current fury of emotions all battling within him. He is strong and beautiful and reminds her of the Prince in Nairobi that made her cry with his kisses. Her heart murmurs, this is not him, yet she prefers the comfort of the lie.
“Trapped,” she replies honestly. “My father clipped my wings so I can’t fly home.” The memory still burns and she feels her fear mingle with anger she never can quite let go of. To err is human, but to forgive is Divine eh father? She focuses on Christopher, conscious of the time.
“Sweetheart trust me, you don’t need wings to reach a whole new world.” Christopher says, voice soft and she burrows into his shoulder, feeling him stiffen then relax. “Besides, you seem pretty free to me.”
“I guess I do.” She smiles at him sadly. “Let me help you.”
“Ain’t nuthin’ to be helped here no more. I’m broken.” The last word breaks and she is crushed beneath a torrent of sunshine and smiles and guarded looks and shy touches; she is buried beneath an avalanche of wants and hopes he feels he has lost and the raw scrape of his pain strikes her numb. She trembles from the unadulterated pleasure and nauseating pain that ebb from him. She wants to squeeze him tight enough to knit him back together but she has no grace left for such things. Parlour tricks she has left and nothing more.
“You can still love. Still live.” Natalia understands love, well, the mortal concept labelled love. She understands lust, and greed, and trust and hope. These are all too much to bear and too little to cling to and she is tired of being lonely in this place. She wants to go home, to the place where peace is a quiet river of warm acceptance running endlessly through her spirit and she is amongst kin that know her and breathe her in. Mortal love is fleeting and brutal. She has watched it maim the living and taint the dead. Natalia is exhausted of chasing Rapture and being thwarted. Her brother calls to her and she can hear him clearer now, and she knows that she is treading dangerously close to the edge tonight. A thrill bubbles in her veins at the knowledge and she gasps from the rush it charges through her frozen veins.
“Not like this.” Christopher hisses, and then heaves a jagged breath out into the world, a broken wretched sound that hurts to hear. “I’m not interested in living like this.”
Yet he aches for affection, for touch, she can feel it, feel the looks he casts her way, feel the rub between their skin becoming charged this close. It is exhilarating.
He turns and their faces are inches apart, breath misting into the others mouths and she sees his eyes flicker over her lips, and hears that gasp as she leans in and kisses him, quick and soft.
“How did it happen.” Natalia hears her brother murmuring to her, and she resists the urge to answer. She wants to check the time, as the sky blushes pink. She understands now.
“A landmine.” He doesn’t need to expand upon that. She shivers. He won’t die tonight. Christopher will survive. She knows this, as she always knows things, in the instant they become true, or in the moment the universe tilts its axis and all chances are shuffled and thrown up to greedy grasping hands once more. Sometimes she knows for years, for days, for centuries. Other times, she fears, she knows nothing at all.
She slips off her shoes and Christopher demands to know what she is doing. She smiles at him, dimples on display, and he looks horrified. She wants to tell him it’s okay.
“You won’t die tonight.” She climbs over the railing, holding on with both hands and leaning forward to look into the water, the snow in her hair and eyes as she swings.
“Is that straight from his mouth or yours?” He sounds weary, and she smiles, as a sense of peacefulness descends upon her.
“Mine is the only one moving right now isn’t it?”
His eyes narrow, and he dips his head, catching her mouth with his. His lips cling to hers and her stockinged toes are frozen as she strains up on them to meet him halfway. He blinks when they part, snowflakes frosting his eye lashes.
“We have met before you and I.” She can feel it now, the spin and tilt, as the world rearranges, the sun, the moon, the planets all shifting and colliding and offering a new day to those brave enough to take it. He will take it, she thinks. It makes her happy, and the memories rush back through her like liquor, making her giddy. His mouth on hers, his hands on her skin. His whispers, his laughter, his fierce command.
He is buzzing now, at her proximity, and she swings herself to cover his body, gripping the rail either side of him, her back to the water. A rush of excitement bubbles up inside her. He is breathing hard.
“Trust me , I would have remembered.” He tells her. She grins and presses up against him, and he swears, loosening one hand to slip it around her and hold her close. “Jesus lady, which one of us has the deathwish here?”
“My name is Natalia.” She whispers into his throat and his skin is warm and supple against her mouth. A muscle tightens in his jaw. “You do remember. You just don’t know it yet.”
She leans back a fraction, and looks up at him, their bodies slotting into place and his eyes bright and clear as the sky above lightens and the water below flows by. Natalia feels as if time is looking away, giving them a moment of privacy. Something dark crosses his face, something hopeless and she leans in and kisses him like she has been imagining it for a thousand years. His lips part and they are greedy with it now, and she sighs as he sucks her bottom lip like a lover would. Like he used to.
“I’m a cripple,” he says, as they catch a breath, foreheads touching.
“So am I, and you still loved me.”
He had seen her mangled wings and bathed her cosmic wounds with kindness. She had been raised by his legs to the ceiling of their tent, her arms flung out, and she had closed her eyes and laughed. He had been playful and tender and looked at her like she truly was a creature of God. Her heart batters at her ribs now. She misses him again already.
Time has run out, she can see it all unfurl; unfolding and unravelling. Slowly, she slides her legs to his waist and perches herself there, wrapped about him, feeling his hips adjust and legs tremble to take the weight. He is solid now, she can feel his frame steady and true and she wonders if anyone will ever feel as she does about him. Perhaps not, she thinks, but they will love him as much as they can and he will know that and that’s what will matter in the end.
“You feel like a memory I haven’t made yet.” His sincere wonder feels like a blessing and Natalia savours it.
“If there’s a better way to tell a woman you don’t remember her I don’t want to hear it,” she laughs. “You always were a charmer.”
“We should get off this bridge now angel.” His voice is gruff and her heart bursts with it. She nods and wishes she had gotten here sooner. It is nearly time and she is not ready.
“Where will we go?” She stretches them tentatively, her shattered wings, and everything roars in protest, each muscle and sinew and nerve. She forges on. The drone of an airplane is closer now, and Christopher scans the stars. She can feel his concern.
“Somewhere safer for a start.” He sounds hesitant, and she squeezes him, wanting to let him know that some things can be fleeting but eternal and that this is all there is or ever needs to be.
“My father used to say, that the safest place in the universe is the human heart.” The memory stings and she blinks back tears. The siren is being cranked. She doesn’t want to let him go, his warmth and hope are setting her alight and she recalls what it is to feel seen.
“No disrespect to your old man sweet heart but I’d opt for a bunker right about now.” They both turn when the ARP Warden calls out. Natalia hears the whistling and can wait no more. She spreads them wide, feels the cool air kiss her lightning wings and beats them strong and swift. Christopher curses as his feet leave the railings, and his hand at her waist clutches tightly.
They soar away from the bridge, and she gains an updraft quickly, muscle memory and nature taking over. She wonders, if she can do what is required, and knows she must. She surges upwards, and spreads her lightning flared wings to shelter them, as the bomb falls.
It strikes with a blast that shakes her core, beyond the bones of this mortal life, chasing her all the way through time and creation to her true self, exploding there like fireworks in a locked room. Christopher lets her go and uses his arms to shield her head as it hits, and they are suspended in the skyline, arms and legs wrapped about each other.
“Are we dead?” Christopher stares down at the bridge and the river far below. Natalia shakes her head, and he cups her face in his hands. “Am I dead?”
“No my love, you are alive,” she kisses him. He crushes her in his arms and his uniform is scratchy against her skin. She feels the ice forming in her veins and knows.
“Your wings…you stopped a bomb with your goddamn wings are you crazy?” He is in shock, heady with it, and she can hear his heart pounding in his chest.
“We are soldiers you and I.” He had given her a sword once, and she had given him faith.
“I’m not a soldier no more. I don’t know what I’ll be when I make it home.” She doesn’t know how to answer.
“You survived the war, won’t you return a hero?”
“No medals for me sweetheart, not in this lifetime.” He doesn’t sound bitter, and that makes her sad. He should she thinks, but she doesn’t get to choose that and he is in pain at the world and confused enough. She wants to tell him of his other life, but what good would it do now? There are no records of that time and place. Not all history is open to the future, a million places and faces have been forgotten by the world, and millions more will be before this rock spins its last.
“Medals aren’t what make heroes.” She wants to rage on his behalf but she will be gone soon and she wants to give him what’s left of her heart not her anger. “You survived a War far from home and will return which is more than most will. Be sad if you must, but be proud too.”
“Heroes don’t jump off bridges.”
“Yes they do. Heroes jump off bridges all the time.”
They stare at eachother, suspended there above the Thames, her tattered wings faded spread out above them, and they laugh. Truly, deeply, warmly, at the absurdity of it all. He gives in her arms and she in his. She presses her face into the crease of his neck, at his collar and breathes him in.
“Your father waits for news you know. He knows you are missing in action. He doesn’t know that you are found.” Her strength wilts, and the sky is dimming as her wings do. Dawn is on it’s way. They are falling, slowly, like snowflakes, and she is no longer sure who is holding who up. She can smell the charred electric rush of what is left of her wings.
“Tonight is the first time I’ve felt found in a long time,” Christopher admits, and she smiles. She feels the same.
They drift toward the water, and his leg hits the railing, hollow yet loud. She sets them there and he blinks up at the snow that is thick and fast now, blurring the river and the bank from view.
“Where do homeless angel’s go?” he asks, and she knows the answer when the universe decides to share it.
“I’m not an angel anymore.” She laughs, and feels as though she has shed a skin. She feels at peace.
“So what are you?” Christopher sounds fearful, and she knows he can feel it. The end looming. “We can go back to my place, we could-”
“When we lost the war, do you know what they did to us to stop us going home?” The memory is vivid now. “They hacked off our wings and left us to perish. My brother, he was so furious, that he ripped out what was left of his grace and opened up the earth and stepped inside.”
“I have a warm bed, Natalia. I have whisky. I want us to go back. We just survived a bomb and I think we should celebrate sweetheart.” Christopher is talking to her urgently and his hands are clinging to her as she unravels herself from him, unknotting her heart and his. She wonders if he will miss the space she leaves there, the jigsaw piece that existed before he knew what shape it made.
“I have a brother who loves me,” she admits, and the river seems to nod, a rippling wave of affirmation sweeping the inky surface. “I have a home to go to, I always have.”
“With me, now you’ve found me-” Christopher is aghast and Natalia chuckles then swings one hand free letting snow hit her skin once more.
“You are my forever but I’m not yours, much as it pains me to admit.”
“I’ll talk to him, your father. I’ll keep you here with me.”
“Who do you think sent me to you Christopher?” She nods to the stars. “He sent me to you, and it was gift to me.”
Another bomb falls in the distance and London quakes. She rattles against the rails. Her heart is pounding and her skin is flushed. She is aching and terrified and spellbound as she laughs at him with large shining eyes and flashing teeth in the now peachy gloom. Smoke trails the sky. Pockets of fire meet the amber toned sky and blend over London to devastating effect. Her veins buzz with adrenalin. She has not heard the all clear siren yet.
“I can’t believe I ever forgot.” She is stunned by it, when it hits her.
“Why we fell in the first place.”
She leans in and kisses him, with the full weight of her devotion and desire. She wishes she could stay. She wishes so many things but her heart is utterly consumed with the sweetest joy that she found him again, and that he will survive. He will be loved, and she got to touch him one last time. She stretches up on her toes, and falls, arching beautifully away from the bridge and Christopher’s imploring cries. Her brother is screaming her name now, and she recognises it, her true name, and it is everything she ever imagined Rapture would be as she knifes through the water.
Christopher jumps without hesitation, and as he does, the river freezes, ice spreading instantly across the river and he lands on his false leg, feeling the shock rebound through him like the ringing of a bell. Below in the frozen river, he can see the smashed and twisted shape of a set of wings, fanning out below the ice.
Later, they say the defective bomb landed in the water and didn’t detonate until the river froze, causing the distinctive pattern of ice cracking to contain it. They call it angels crossing after, since it bears such an uncanny resemblance to angel wings trapped within the ice.
He makes it home two months later, and his papa clutches him tight on the porch, and Christopher lets home sink into his bones slow. They don’t talk about the War. His injuries speak to his experience all on their own and he completes his exercises in the yard with a quiet determination that his papa doesn’t comment on, other than to fetch him a cool drink on occasion when the sun starts warming up in Spring.
He misses her, and he thinks, sometimes, that he can feel her missing him too. It makes him smile crookedly and gets his pa asking questions, but he likes the hot rush in his chest when he remembers. He savours the dreams they trigger, lush vivid dreams that look like paintings and taste like old summers. He is a Prince in those dreams, and proud. He misses her, and he thinks, that is okay. She is worth missing, as was he.