Music, Metal, Feathers, Blood
He could hear two voices speaking.
One was harsh and angular, iron and implacable. This was Metal.
The other was beauteous and golden, warm and melodious. This was Music.
Angel lay face down in the dirt, unseeing, as the two voices spoke from somewhere at once far away and very close. They seemed to be speaking about him.
"Is there no other way?" Metal rasped.
"None," Music replied, in soft chimes of regret. "They must be removed."
"Very well," Metal said grudgingly.
More sounds: the stoking of a fire, the hiss of steam, and the sound of a blade being sharpened. Suddenly afraid, Angel tried to struggle, fearing what fate he did not know. But he was pinned down, a moth under glass, and the shadow leant over him with a red-hot sword in its hand...
* * *
Angel woke from the dream, gasping and sweating, the image of the sword burnt into his eyelids. There was wetness on his cheeks and he touched his fingers to it in with a numb surprise - he had been weeping.
Metal and Music. He had put the names to the voices instinctively, and in the light of consciousness they still seemed fitting. Remembering their cryptic words, he shivered against his will. The dream had seemed so real that even now, awake and unhurt, he still feared the touch of the blade.
But for all its terrifying realism, it was still only a dream. So Angel set it aside, reluctantly rising from the comfort of bed to prepare for another empty day.
* * *
Later that morning, Cordelia stopped by and shook him out of his reverie.
"Angel?" she called tentatively from the next room. "Are you there?"
"Yes," he said, closing the book he had not been reading, struggling to gather his thoughts. "I'll be with you in a minute."
She was sitting perched on the arm of the couch, watching television. She looked up at his entrance, greeting him with a smile. "Hey," she said.
"Morning, Cordelia. Coffee?"
She nodded and he went to the kitchen, busying himself in an attempt to shake off the remnants of the dream. "So what's up?" he asked, setting out the mugs. "It's a weekend - shouldn't you have somewhere better to be?"
"Of course I do. I just dropped by to pick up some stuff, and I thought I'd see if you were in," she said with a wave of her hand. Her voice was studiously casual, her expression suitably nonchalant. He nodded, handing her the coffee without question.
She accepted it with a smile even as her thoughts sank into despondency. He will never know, she thought. He will never notice. Perhaps it isn't meant to happen.
So she tidied away her feelings and spoke about shopping instead.
* * *
A limitless and featureless desert, lit by a cluster of orange fires that licked up at the blackness of the empty sky and cast deep shadows all around them. He lay on the ground, unable to move, unable to speak.
"It seems a pity," Metal said without a discernable trace of sympathy, in a voice that was graveled and coarse.
"Indeed," Music agreed, sweetly and gently as honey. "But surely you agree that it is the only fitting solution?"
Slowly Metal answered, as the sound of flames crackling grew louder. "Solution is an odd word for what seems to me is a punishment."
"There can be no redemption without a fall," Music replied. "As you are well aware."
"That is correct," Metal conceded reluctantly.
Music seemed to smile. "Then let it be done."
Angel heard the blade being drawn out from the fire. With his cheek pressed in the sand, he could see the silhouette of a tall man-shaped thing looming before him, with the sword burning red-hot in its hands.
The shadows gathered and spilled together, and with horror and wonder Angel watched enormous wings spread from the man-shape's shoulders - the coal-dark feathers drank in the light, swallowing up the flames and shadows alike, until there was nothing but the void and the bright blade coming towards him.
The sword swept down upon him and he screamed...
* * *
The next morning, Angel found a single droplet of blood on the white sheets of his bed. But not a single mark, cut or wound on his person could he find.
He sat on the edge of his bed, with his head in his hands, and shivered convulsively. He could feel an odd sensation on his shoulder blade, almost an itch, where he had dreamt the sword had bit into his flesh. Over and over, he recalled the two voices that seemed to discuss his fate - the implacable Metal and the determined Music, arguing as the flames leapt up around them.
"What does it mean?" he asked out loud. "I don't understand..."
Naturally, there was no reply. He had never expected one.
* * *
From beneath her eyelids, Cordelia watched as he paced about the office, clearly preoccupied with some unknown matter. Automatically her hands shuffled and filed papers, but furtively she noted the distracted look in his eyes, the tension in the line of his shoulders.
Talk to me, Angel, she pleaded silently. Look at me.
"Angel. Is there anything bothering you I should know about?" she finally asked.
He looked up with surprise, as if remembering that she existed. "Oh. Cordelia. No. Thanks." Still wearing an air of unease, he slipped into his office and closed the door behind him.
It's always like this, she reflected with a trace of anger and sadness. He would shut her out and push her away, when all she wanted was to... When she could...
Cordelia's thoughts trailed away incoherently. All the paths led back to the same conclusion: she wanted to be with him. To do what exactly, she admitted that even she did not know. But she knew she wanted to stand by him, to face the darkness together, to share her strength and weakness with him.
She recognised deep within him a purity that she longed for, which drew her ever nearer with every passing day. With only a little effort, Cordelia could imagine a future in which all her other cares and needs had been subsumed by Angel, when she bent her life to a different shape for his sake alone.
The vision frightened her, as much as she longed for it. If only he would let her.
* * *
Angel saw the two figures standing by a blazing fire, from which a sword's hilt protruded. One figure was tall and dark, its face obscured by shadow, with wings of night furled neatly at its back. The other was wingless and robed all in white; its hands and face glowed as brightly as the fire, blinding and featureless in intensity.
Music sighed, echoing the sound of a hand run across a harp's strings. "He was a most loyal servant, until the betrayal."
"As were we all," Metal said curtly, the scraping of chains against cold stone. "Are we to be done with this deed or not?"
"We are. Take up the sword from the flame, then."
The dark winged one drew out the burning blade from the smoldering coals. "I shall take the first wing," Metal rasped, "and you shall take the second."
The sword came down and Angel screamed. Feathers flew all about them and into the fire, as the sword bit into him again and again. Warm red rivulets of blood ran down his sides as he screamed and kept screaming...
* * *
"Angel, wake up!" Cordelia shook him frantically, frightened at the sight of his rolled-back eyes and the screams she had heard from upstairs. "Please, Angel, snap out of it, don't scare me like this..."
Slowly he opened his eyes, tears spilling from beneath their lids. "Cordelia," he choked, clutching at her hands. "I don't understand, I don't understand..." He shook his head in confusion, weeping, and she heard him say an odd phrase - "music and metal, feathers and blood..."
Confused, she patted his shoulder and tried to soothe him. "It's okay, Angel, you're awake now. It's okay." But when he sat up, throwing back the covers, she realised that it was not. Cordelia went utterly still.
"What is it?" he asked; but she only pointed mutely at the bedsheets.
On the white cloth, the dark patch of blood was stark, larger than his torso and still spreading across the material. Scattered around it and smudged with pinkish red, were soft, downy white feathers. Dazedly, Angel reached out and scooped up a handful. He turned his hand to let them drift down again, but some stuck to his hand and would not fall. She heard him repeat the phrase again - "music, metal, feathers, blood." The words sent a chill through her, though she did not understand them.
"Turn around," Cordelia said suddenly.
"Turn around," she repeated more urgently. "Show me your back."
He turned. His skin was stained with blood, but she could see no open wounds or cuts. Yet there was this: she ran her fingers down his back lightly, over masses of white scars. She was certain that he had never possessed these before, yet they seemed to be years old and half-faded with time. She traced them again, ignoring the beating of the blood in her ears, noting with puzzlement that the scars were in only in two places - over and around his shoulder blades. But why?
It was then that Cordelia suddenly realised, with something between fear and wonder, that the wounds were exactly as though someone had pulled out a pair of wings.
* * *
His senses tuned finer than any human's, he could hear Cordelia speaking on the phone even through the closed door.
"... I'm really worried, Wesley, there was all this blood and I don't know what to do..."
Angel turned on the shower to drown out the sound of the conversation and stepped gratefully into its warmth. He stood beneath the water, completely still and eyes shut, for long minutes, and imagined he could actually feel the blood sliding off his skin.
Finally he opened his eyes, blinking away droplets of water. Peering through the steam, he dazedly noted the swirls of bright red on the tiles, laced together with clear water as it spiraled into the drain. Some alarm rang within in him at the sight - surely there was too much red...
He touched his back with shaking fingers and they came away with fresh blood.
Then he screamed.
* * *
Angel screamed and Cordelia dropped the phone. She ran into the bathroom and found him crouched on the tiles as the water ran over him, rocking back and forth as he wept. She looked on, aghast, for the tiles were slick with blood, even with the shower turned on at full strength. It ran down across his pale skin, smearing it with great streaks of crimson.
She was so transfixed by the terrible scene that she did not notice the most significant aspect for several minutes, and only after she had turned off the shower and coaxed Angel into a towel. He winced with obvious pain at every move, though he did not scream again.
But as she began to help him dry off, what she saw was that the blood was coming from the scars in his back: they had broken open, and were now sprouting delicate white feathers.
* * *
Cordelia helped him dress and bandaged the wounds on his back as best she could, though the scars bled unceasingly as the feathers continued to push their way to the surface. Throughout her ministrations, Angel remained passive and unresponsive to both her careful questions and light hands, except to shiver in response to the pain.
She tried to concentrate on the task at hand, keeping her mind busy with practical thoughts of bandages and clothing. Yet even so, Cordelia could not un-see the wrenching bleakness in his eyes, or forget the pale beauty of his naked form. She could not stop herself from wanting to put her arms around him and hold him against the pain until it ended, to put her lips to his cold skin and warm him with the heat of her own body.
But she did not, for he was forbidden to her in ways that lay deeper than the gypsy curse or any lingering loyalty she may have felt towards Buffy. Cordelia thought of the feathers sprouting from his shoulder blades and knew he was not meant for her, or any of her kind.
As he lay down on the bed and closed his eyes in some semblance of sleep, she allowed her hand to linger on his for a moment longer than necessary, biting back the words that threatened to spill from her tongue. But soon enough she had snatched her hand away and left the room abruptly, fleeing to the living room where her legs buckled without warning. She found herself clutching to the couch for support, her hands digging into the fabric and her face buried in the arm as she wept.
Deliver me, she pleaded silently through her tears, deliver me from this wanting. Release me from this hope that has no hope, this desire that I did not desire. Erase these thoughts of white hands, dark eyes, soft lips - all these things that can never be mine. Take away this pain, or deliver me of this love. Only make it *stop*.
She did not truly expect it to stop, and nor did it. She knew it never would.
* * *
The two figures spoke, one in a voice that echoed of terrible grinding duty, the other in tones of inhuman and immovable resolve. Metal and Music spoke, and Angel perceived that though they were utterly unlike in form, they were similar in the absolute essence.
Metal spoke in a low growl. "And after the wings are gone? What then?"
"I give him into your care," Music answered, almost singing the words. "He shall serve you, until such time as we see fit to release him from his bonds."
"Release him? Return his wings?"
"Yes," Music replied, and continued, "but to be returned, they must first be taken."
Delicately, Music gestured to the sword. In reply Metal stalked to the fire and wrenched the blade from the heart of the coals, sparks flying into the frosty air. Angel watched in helpless terror, his wings and limbs pinioned to the ground by some invisible force, as Metal came closer and raised the sword for the first blow.
The pain was incandescent, burning its way from the point of impact into each and every vein and sinew. He screamed and wept, as Metal cut out his right wing with methodical precision. Every feather, bone, and muscle was stripped away, the warm redness slicked down his sides and back.
Finally it was gone, and there was a brief respite as Metal looked down upon him with either pity or indifference - he could not tell which - while the sword in its hand dripped blood from its razored edge. Then Metal turned and silently offered the hilt to Music. Knowing what was to come, Angel closed his eyes as tears ran down his cheeks and to the ground, mixing with his blood and soaking into the sand.
Music lifted the sword and the pain began again - Angel roiled in fires of agony, as the left wing was destroyed in the same manner as the right had been. Once-pristine feathers fell to the ground in great snow-like drifts, and were dyed deep crimson as quickly as they touched the sand. The blood pouring from his veins filled the air with a coppery tang, but the shining figure of Music remained white and untouched.
When the wing was utterly gone, Music laid the sword down on the vermillion sand and seemed satisfied. Through the haze of utter pain, Angel dimly realised that Metal too had come to stand over him, so that at his right shoulder was the dark figure and at his left was the light one.
"It is done," Metal said, with the cold ring of finality.
"Then let it begin," Music softly replied...
* * *
Angel woke and stumbled from the bed with clumsy limbs, encumbered by the long unaccustomed weight at his back. He knelt on the wooden floor, his hands clasped and head bowed as if in prayer, whispering hoarsely. The tears ran down his face even as the blood streamed from his back, from wounds inflicted upon him in a place outside of time.
He whispered of remembrance, forgiveness, redemption, pain. Rocking back and forth, Angel was oblivious to everything but the terrible and long-forgotten truths woven deep into his blood and memory, now freshly re-awakened and unstoppable in force. A storm ran through him and he was powerless against it.
Angel closed his eyes and was lost in visions of Music and Metal, feathers and blood.
* * *
Thus Cordelia and Wesley found him, kneeling and filling the room with his tortured whispers. The newly grown wings, wider than Angel was tall, were spread wide as though in supplication, the white and shining feathers still stained with the red of blood.
All this they saw in a moment, for in the next they were forced to shut their eyes against the blinding brightness of a light that rose to engulf them all, blocking all other sight and sound. Through the roar of the silent storm Cordelia was aware that Wesley had taken her hand, and in gratitude and desperation she clutched it tightly. She could taste metal in the air and feel music chiming in her bones, but her thoughts were of but one thing.
"Angel, Angel..." she wept, shaping the word over and over again, repeating it with the fragile certainty of her hopeless love, which once formed would now never let her rest. "Don't leave me, my Angel..."
When the light faded, he was gone.
* * *
Afterwards, the scent of his blood still hung heavy in the air, and there was a scattering of white downy feathers about the varnished floor. They watched as the feathers swirled in some phantom breeze, skittered briefly in the air, and then lay still again. Wesley turned away soon enough, stunned with sorrow and awe, but Cordelia lingered a moment longer.
Tears on her cheeks, she picked up one of the feathers and held it between her trembling fingers. She held it to her lips and breathed in his scent. And then she, too, turned away, to begin the rest of her life without him.
Music, metal, feathers, blood. Angel.